Post 71 of 80. Friday 1 November – Walthamstow Central (Square B8 on the Tube map), Walthamstow Queen’s Road (B8), Wandsworth Road (E4), Wanstead (B8), Wanstead Park (B8)
Some titles for posts come as flashes of inspiration during visits or suggest themselves shortly afterwards, but for other … I get no further: The Inner Curmudgeon is up and at me. Others, Craig, he says, are acts of desperation or plain muddle-headedness! … I acknowledge the truth of this and continue. But for other posts, a number of titles fit. Today’s, for instance, could equally well be called Fellowship is Life or Scenes of Dickensian Life or The Most Beautiful Waitress in London or Doppelgangers!
The day begins suitably autumnal – grey and mild, leaves dropping gently from the trees. I’m at Forest Hill by nine o’clock and take the Overground to Highbury & Islington. The Metro announces: Love is in the hair It’s the revelation that News of the Screws editors Rebekah Brooks (flame-haired) and Andy Coulson (non-flame retardant) had a six year secret affair.
I change to the bucketing Victoria which streaks towards Walthamstow Central (Square B8) arriving at ten o’clock. The station has two exits – one indicates the direction to Walthamstow Queen’s Road. Since that’s my next stop, I heave off in the other direction marked Hoe Street. I surface to a fine and orderly bus station ahead and a fine and open town-park to my left. Hoe Street lies beyond.
It has to be twenty-five years since I was last here and the place is only vaguely recognisable. However, the street market, on my left, is still here and it’s still flourishing. Ahead whole new complexes are in mid-construction. They will include flats, shops and a cinema complex. To the right, there’s a scrabble of shops at the cross-roads vying with each other about which is the smallest, shoutiest and dingiest. Across the way, the fine council building – with flats on the upper stories – is still there, with its heraldic shield proclaiming, Fellowship is Life. That’s a slogan from another era, a slogan expressing solidarity, commonality and shoulder-to-shoulderness. There’s none of today’s vapid Success is All! Verily, I say unto thee, we have passed into a different era, an era of the individual against the world, an era …
Cut the hyper-ventilation, Craig! snarls The Inner Curmudgeon. Get on with the visit!
I walk through the street-market which, although it is still early, is bursting with so much life and good cheer that if you could bottle it you would make your fortune. Here you will find all sorts of vegetable and fruit stalls, clothes stalls, shoe stalls, stalls selling olives, nuts, work-boots, cuddly toys, ugly toys, ugly cuddly toys, knick-knacks, bed-covers and cushion-covers, mops, hoover bags, wheelie-luggage, mobile-phone covers, batteries, cheap electrical goods, cheap anything goods, pots and pans and pink polystyrene teapots. Behind the stalls clamour minimarkets, more clothes shops, chemists, mobile-phone shops, nail parlours, Polish delicatessans, Islamic bookshops, cheap cafés (mid-way in their transformation from Working Men’s Caffs and Greasy Spoons to Fast-Food Joints or Coffee Shops), florists, fishmongers and butchers by the score (all perfectably acceptable as long as you boil the fish for at least an hour and aren’t worried about standards of animal husbandry since, after all, a priest, rabbi or iman has overseen the blood-letting), pound shops (desperately over-priced compared to the stalls), a Wilkinson and a Sainsbury (looking rather prim) and a shopping mall (inventively called ‘The Mall’ and completely empty) presenting its backside to the market.
Rubicund stall-holders pat banter from stall to stall in between ecstatic howls of Yeefrez-ootihooluchez-ezzinachhyee-apunndapunnd! (Translation: Three fresh beautiful bunches of spinach, three a pound!) Toddlers in pushchairs clutch cuddly toys, ugly toys and ugly cuddly toys while other tiny sprites protest about the lack of same in their arms. Women in shawls and head-scarves interrogate lengths of patterned cotton, linen, poly-cotton, wool and all the various textile admixtures in-between said cotton, linen, poly-cotton and wool. A couple of nonagenarians in electric wheel-chairs – shiny in their metallic paint – dink from side to side with occasional dangerous reversing procedures. A young groover in a bow tie and a pink shirt – who thinks that all the world is admiring him though no-one actually is – sashays tube-wards.
I wander back to the tube through the fine and open town-park, hop on a Victoria line one stop south, change to an Overground one stop north and arrive, ten minutes later, at Walthamstow Queen’s Road (B7). The time is 10.55. The local map shows WC station within five minutes walk. Well, it isn’t. The sole exit from WQR is on the far side of the tracks, the rows of Victorian-cottaged streets are arranged at odd angles and a potential cut-through has been barricaded off – though perhaps only temporarily because of more building works, something called ‘Metro-Pad’. It takes me twelve minutes to walk station-to-station, via WC’s mainline station (trains to Liverpool Street – next door to Shoreditch High Street for the hipsters queueing to move into ‘Metro-Pad’, and Chingford – for Epping Forest and days in the country).
Enough for the moment of the far north-east. My next stop is in the far south-east (as the Tube map goes). I take an Overground to Barking, an H&C train to West Ham, a Jubilee to Canada Water and a Clapham Junction-bound Overground to Wandsworth Road (E4). It takes an hour and a quarter; I arrive at 12.40 pm. Wandsworth Road is a long, undistinguished road which snarls from Vauxhall westwards searching (for some unknown reason) for Wandsworth.
‘Fortunate are those souls who have no need of the Wandsworth Road; fortunate indeed those bodies which survive it,’ wrote Charles Dickens in, I think, The Old Curiosity Shop. Truly, all of the WR is on the gritty and non-salubrious side of boring, the station being located on the grittiest and least salubrious stretch, the grit and salubrity not aided by a fine drizzle a-falling and a broken water-main a-scooshing outside the station.
I have various adventures trying to find a suitable lunchtime watering-hole: an empty pub called The Pensbury Arms draped out in ghastly Halloween gear (‘Don’t serve food,’ the Publican); the Portuguese café in Larkhall Park (Portuguese men arguing outside; angry Portuguese protesters in the Portuguese parliament shouting from the TV inside and a listless ‘chef’ pouring McCain’s chips into a deep-fat fryer); the wonderful Young’s pub The Surprise at the corner of Larkhall Park still there after all these years (but closed today for internal decorations). By now, the fine rain has become far too persistent.
I fetch up at the Andalucia Patisserie. As I eat a welcoming vegetarian tagine (okra, aubergine and peppers), I find myself in one of London’s most convivial and gregarious of bubbles. Mid-way through a woman in a transatlantic accent enters demanding whether they have wi-fi and departs in a huff when the waitress – surely in the running for Most Beautiful Waitress in London 2013 – shakes her head, apologising most courteously in the most dulcet of tones.
But who would want, far less need, wi-fi here where everyone is far too busy talking, gossiping, trading confidences and sympathy, putting the world to rights, joshing and chatting about girls? The meal is good – not outstanding, but I’d be happy to have a place like this in Forest Hill. I eat, half-read my book – The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers, listen into the conversations around me and look across the Wandsworth Road at Larkhall Park slowly disappearing in the rain. I’d be happy to stay here for the rest of the afternoon but, buying two date and semolina-flour pastries (an Algerian speciality) for later, I make my way past the new blocks of flats being erected and some curious street-furniture back to the station.
My last two stations are located amusingly in the far north-east. The first of these – via Overground, Jubilee and Central lines – is Wanstead (B8 – the same square in the Tube map as Walthamstow Central, though nowhere near it in reality). I’m lucky with the trains and get there in forty-five minutes.
Wanstead is more middle-class than I’d imagined and feels a little like a village. There are grey clouds scudding across a grey sky and, though London stretches east for miles through Gants Hill, Chadwell Heath and Romford, there is a sense of open flatness and distance, a faint tang of the Essex marshes in the wind. Perhaps it’s this which gives Wanstead it’s villagey-feel? Or perhaps it’s the homely single-decker buses – the W13, the 308 and the 66? Or the footpath, Number 122 to Woodbine Place – though that turns out to be the merest snicketette barely fifty paces long while there is little of either the honeysuckle or the cigarette about Woodbine Place. Mind you, the park across the road is suitably dank and autumnal. I spot the Co-op I visited when at Snaresbrook [see post, Ambiguous Neighbourhoods etc (61/80)] and turn back.
There’s a distinct Italianate feel here – the shops and cafés have names like Gioberti, Azzurra, Bambini, Mario’s Shake Shack (with a very small and incongruous display of pottery in its window), Barnardo’s, Coco – no, she was French wasn’t she? Perhaps that helps the village-theme? You certainly wouldn’t find an eaterie called Nice Croissant anywhere but in a village – so perhaps that’s it? Or perhaps it’s the lack of coloured folk – they still don’t get out much in the country, do they?
My last stop, 45 minutes away by Central, Jubilee, H&C and Overground trains, is Wanstead Park (B8 – the same square on the Tube map but again some distance away). Once more the Overground chuffs over the muddy Barking Creek – I spot a single coot nosing amongst the reeds. The light is beginning to go from the day.
I walk northwards from the station to Wanstead Flats. Despite occasional dog-walkers, the smell of an industrial bakery and the sounds of distant traffic and tree-surgeons at work, there’s a frisson of desolation about Wanstead Flats. Tracks criss-cross the scrubland. It’s part moor, part marsh – the water is only inches under the surface – and the wind is whipping up nicely. I’m enjoying myself: this is what autumn should be about – enough of your mellow fruitfulness, bring on a spot of barren wretchedness!
Then I turn onto another path and spy, through a clump of trees, the inevitable football pitches with their changing block. I turn back.
Walking to the station, I realise I am only steps away from that mythical East London neighbourhood, the Forest Hill doppelganger known as Forest Gate. I’m off the Tube map now, this is unreconstructed London, London before the Flood, before psycho-geography was invented, but my dormant yet ever-present questing spirit is upon me. I find Forest Gate to be very like Forest Hill in demographics, shops, street furniture, creative driving & parking manoeuvres and general clutter – as alike as two pods in a pea. Except, of course, FG is flat and FH is perched on a hill.
Time to go home. It’s five o’clock and almost dark. I take the Overground, District, Jubilee and Overground lines back to Forest Hill. The Overground at Canada Water is packed but a Mum sweeps her two year-old daughter off a seat so that I – crotchedy stumpy old I – may sit down. I thank her, the Mum. But it’s the little girl’s loss and it is to her I should have directed my thanks. She is upset. She doesn’t want to sit on Mummy’s lap, she doesn’t want to sit on Daddy’s lap. I want to sit on my seat, she says casting a savage look at me on the words ‘my seat‘. She breaks free from Mummy’s arms, storms up and down the gangway, ecstatically trumpets through an agonising four-scale-range of howls. For a second I consider giving my/her seat back …
Don’t be ridiculous, Sandy, snarls The IC. She has to learn. About courtesy and discipline and that life is filled with conflict. How many times have I told you that you’re too sensitive, eh? That you’ve never been able to deal with conflict?
I put my head in my book. The IC is right. Pretty soon, the little girl’s Daddy finds something on his mobile phone which amuses her and the storm is over.
I get back to Forest Hill a little before six o’clock. A surprising and pleasing day, despite the upsets and, though tired, there will be no tears before bedtime for me. I have my memories of the day to savour. Fran and I have those Algerian pastries to look forward to!