Friday 27 September – South Woodford (Square A8 on the Tube map), Stamford Brook (D2), Stanmore (A3), Star Lane (C8), Stepney Green (C7)
I think I may have got it wrong last post when I said that travel broadens the mind. That was a wild over-generalisation. Sometimes travel bores. Sometimes it’s dreary. Sometimes it is merely a particularly wearisome version of trainspotting. Epiphanies, as at South Wimbledon, are like plums in a Tesco Value Plum Pudding – infrequent and, as you crunch on a shard of unremoved plum-stone, likely to break your teeth. But, apart from extra dental fees, there isn’t even any real danger, any derring-do, any chest-thumping Tarzan stuff to enliven the TubeforLOLs itinerary. Still … I’m pretty sure I haven’t been to any of today’s stations before. That would be something: a TubeforLOLs day visiting chunks of terra incognita scattered wildly across London! Perhaps, even, slaying dragons!
You’re fooling yourself Craig, sneers The Inner Curmudgeon. You? A slayer of dragons! Pooff! The gust of his laughter almost knocks me sideways.
They will all be variations on well-worn themes, he continues. The no-shop station, the in-between station, the sorry-little-shopping-parade neighbourhood station, the larger-but-sorrier-shopping-parade neighbourhood station, the tired and down-at-heel town-centre station, the chi-chi village-disappearing-up-its-own-fundament station. The Inner Curmudgeon may have a point but I’m not going to admit it. He’s been getting far too uppity since he’s started reading The Seven Habits Of Highly Successful Curmudgeons. I can’t fathom out why. I’ve managed to sneak a look at Habit Two: ‘End with the Beginning in Mind’. I mean, what sort of clap-trap is that!
Talking of clap-trap, the headline in The Metro is: Most wanted This is about Samantha Lewthwaite, ‘the white widow’, who is accused of being the world’s number one suspect – except that I can’t find any evidence to back up the claim. But then I’m reading Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote and, who knows, I may have caught some of the Knight of the Sorrowful Face’s tilting at windmills lunacy.
I glance over at The Wee Professor. At least he’s finished reading Proust though I’m not certain how statistically-correct Mallory-Tennyson’s Postulations Towards a Theory of Tragic Numbers is. How did you find A La Reserche du Temps Perdu? I ask him.
He looks up, sniffs. A lot of trouble to go to for a bun, he says. He pops a Barrel-Aged Feta Cheese and Red Onion crisp in his mouth and sticks his head back in his book.
At this point the tannoy on the Central line train announces that the next stop is Wanstead. I’m on the wrong train! I’ve taken the Roding Valley loop rather than the Epping branch. I bundle out and backtrack to Leytonstone.
It takes a little over an hour, via Overground, Jubilee and Central lines, eventually to reach South Woodford (Square A8). It’s sunny but still on the coolish side.
The station itself is situated at the end of a street and, like Norwood Junction (see A Three Pipe Problem), benefits from the lack of snarl-up. And, again like Norwood Junction, there’s a subway through to the other side of the tracks. But it’s not so, well, kooky, it’s definitely less multi-cultural and the pace is suburban. As I tramp up-hill – past coffee-shops and milk bars, a ‘meze’ restaurants and a med-type fruit-and-veg supermarket with wares displayed on the pavement – it gets more up-market.
When I get to a cake shop called Pat-a-Cake, I realise I’ve got the comparison with Norwood Junction wrong: Pat-a-Cake is advertising classes in cake-making including a ‘Chanel Handbag Cake Course’. This is more like Hatch End (see, A Harrowing Tale etc.) except this is a full-blown town centre. I pass an M&S and a Sainsbury’s. The road, bordered by a long green island with a parallel side road beyond and a fine red-brick Edwardian terrace (now mainly inhabited by solicitors’ offices), curves towards the top of the rise.
On the main road, there’s a roadhouse pub and a Jaguar showroom to one side and a Pizza Express and Waitrose to the other. We’re in Pinner territory (see Bewitched in Plaistow, etc.) but without the stab at picturesqueness and less of the ‘…zzz…’ Beyond Waitrose is a deep cutting where the North Circular funnels through on its destiny to snarl with the M11.
I am returning to the station when I encounter a woman called Talatu. She’s from the Exodus Power and Glory International Ministries. We have a long pleasant chat about God, Abraham, why God gave his message first to the Jewish people. Unconsciously, she mimics the rhetoric and stratagems of the preacher. Blessedly, there is no superiority about her which there often is with people who have found God while I haven’t – sometimes I haven’t even found matching socks. There is no ‘us and them’. She has me marked down as a writer (compliments: part of all rhetoricians’ armoury). God is inside you, she tells me. You don’t need to do anything for him. Just say, ‘Thank you, God.’ She talks in parables and homilies. When we part she reminds me, God is in your heart. I can see you are a man of God. You will find him soon.
I ponder the mysteries of standing on street corners trying to convert the unconvertable. But, of course, even if they do not succeed in converting anyone, there are many psychological benefits to the person trying to convert people. First they are warmed by their certainty: the Dragon of Doubt lies slain. Second, their mission gives them a meaning to their lives. Third, it is better to give than to receive. And fourth, they may convert – as witness Joan of Arc.
Stamford Brook (D2) an hour away by Central, Jubilee and District lines westwards is an in-between station and a no-shop station unless you count the tiny joinery under the railway bridge as a shop. It’s five minutes north of the Hammersmith / Chiswick High Road and at the far end of Goldhawk Road from Shepherd’s Bush. But there’s a good stock of housing around here – Victorian, Edwardian and mansion blocks, and the road itself is wide, tree-lined and with free-flowing traffic.
There’s a pub a little beyond the railway bridge called The Raven though there’s little Edgar Allen Poe about it. The pub shares the premises with a Thai restaurant and I try a Pad Pak Dra Gwan (mixed vegetables in a sweet and sour sauce) to accompany my half-pint of the Wandle Brewery’s best bitter. As usual the sweet and sour is much more sweet than sour.
The next journey takes another hour (District, then Jubilee northwards). I reach Stanmore (A3) at three o’clock. This will be my third new station – except, walking up the steps to the street I realise I have been here before, earlier this year when walking the London Loop with Fi and Andrew. It was bitterly cold, freezing. We took a bus and by the time we got off it was snowing heavily. Stanmore itself looked looked bleak and pinched.
I decide to give Stanmore a second chance. And, this time in the half-sun, it turns out it’s a proper little town centre with a Sainsbury’s, a Wetherspoon’s, a Costa and its very own furniture shop – sorry, Italian Home Design shop. It’s got a proper grown-up three-way snarl-up and it improvises floral displays on baskets perched on railings twixt pavement and traffic. It wriggles up a hill and divides into subsidiary snarl-ups. There’s a row of terraced cottages trying hard to look quaint and some formidably ugly municipal architecture from the seventies that Stanmore people will have to live with for another twenty years before they can tear it all down and start again.
My next stop is very nearly at the other end of the Jubilee line – Star Lane (C8): I change to the DLR at Canning Town. This is one of the newest DLR stations – it was only opened two years ago. Five years ago I visited the deprived community on the east side of the tracks and, looking eastwards from the station, the road, houses, school and neighbourhood park are all familiar. I decide to treck into the peninsula of industrial wastelands that lie to the west of the tracks between Star Lane and Bow Creek.
This is a dirty, foul-smelling area with rutted roads and broken pavements. In the hour I investigate I pass only a couple of young women in jogging pants bearing vacuum cleaners, a school-girl on her mobile phone and an elderly black woman struggling with her wheelie shopping basket. White vans, articulated lorries, cement mixers, 147 double-deckers with the epithet ‘Not in Service’ on their indicator boards and beaten-up cars bucket past.
I walk down a road called Bidder Street past the shuttered-up Dartmouth Arms to the gated Electra Business Park but can’t get through. I turn back and walk down a different road also called Bidder Street past recycling yards, scrap metal dealers, industrial warehouse units from the 60s, a print-house, skip-hire firms, a boxing gym and an outfit called lmb fabrication whose purpose is ‘building better banks’ – except they mean recycling banks for clothes and shoes not the trousering banks we’d all like to build better. Every unit is defended with stockade fencing topped with rusting barbed wire except where the latter has been updated with razor wire. A line of electricity pylons strides across the landscape from the nearby National Grid substation. Swifts have gathered in large numbers. Some scream and wheel around the late afternoon skies. Many cluster on the horizontal bracings and struts of the pylons. There’s not a single bird on a wire.
Walking back I pass another dingy pub called the Durham Arms. It’s like something out of an urban-grime horror movie. There’s a huge paper recycling warehouse here. Shreds of paper, envelopes, wrappers, all kinds of paper-flotsam spill out through its front yard on to Bidder Street. Outside a young Council street-cleaner – without any expression, avoiding all eye-contact – pushes a brush in front of him, collecting the escaped paper and piling it into his bin. Behind him more shreds billow out. This must be the most supremely useless, most soul-sapping job in London.
There are other more modern business parks further west – the Cody Road Business Centre, the Europa Trade Park, the Twelvetrees Business Park where the stench isn’t overwhelming (and, around one corner, is basted with coffee – emanating from Union Hand-Roasted Coffee) and where corrugated tin sheds sit behind squares of grass. DHL, Kone Elevators, Hilti Power Tools, London Ambulance and London Underground have large warehouse units here.
It’s almost six o’clock when I head out of Star Lane for my last stop: Stepney Green (C7) is five stops away (DLR, then District line westwards). It lies on the north side of the Mile End Road. Eastwards a quarter of a mile away is the gathering mass of Queen Mary University with Mile End beyond. Westwards half a mile away is Whitechapel. Stepney Green is, at best, a local centre with three shopping parades filled with the usual suspects – convenience stores, fast food joints, betting shops, plus a Co-op and a large Asian supermarket, Rahim’s. Further on there’s a sweetie shop that doubles as a candy-floss shop and then does a sideline in shisha pipes. The pavements are bustling with people returning home from work. The fast food joints are doing a roaring trade.
I wander off the main road and into Stepney Green. One can still – just – sense the presence of the old East End (i.e. 1970s) but it’s curiously deserted. A cold wind is picking up and, at half-past six, the night is already beginning to draw in. Any dragons will be indoors now, toasting their toes before a roaring log-fire.
I turn back and take the District and Overground home to Forest Hill. I’m back within the half-hour. Perhaps, I think, my mere presence scared the dragons off? Perhaps the dragon-telegraph alerted them to my visits?
Oh! Knock it on the head, Craig! The Inner Curmudgeon shouts. The only dragons you could slay would be dragon-flies. If you could catch them, that is! Har, Har!