Every year at about this time I do a long ramble across London. Usually I head out from home, stick my nose generally in one direction or another and see what I stumble across. Today's was a touch more organised - a trip to Limehouse and Blackwall on the north side of the Thames flanking the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf. Come with me!
From Mile End tube, a short cut down the wonderfully named Eric Street through a very Bengali corner of the East End. Travel shops advertise flights on Bangladesh's Biman Airways - London-Sylhet return for £525.
I resisted the temptation to call at Rocky's for a quick trim - or indeed at the neighbouring corner shop, Amin's Hamlet Express. This area is not always quite as soothing as I found it this afternoon. A web search reveals a news story about a clash here last year between rival machete- and knife-wielding Asian gangs.
Burdett Road takes you across the Limehouse Cut, a canal of eighteenth century origin that links the Lee navigation to the Thames. Its main contemporary claim to fame - it was along the Limehouse Cut that David Beckham travelled by motor boat with the Olympic flame as part of the 2012 opening jamboree.
At the end, turn right on to Commercial Road and there are two of Limehouse's most impressive public buildings - the Town Hall built in the 1880s, long superfluous as a seat of local government, and now distincly forlorn. In 1909, the Liberal Chancellor David Lloyd George made a fiery speech here in defence of the People's Budget and denouncing the House of Lords for trying to block it. 'Limehousing' was a term subsequently used for particularly strongly worded or polemical political oratory - one of two Limehouse usages in the political lexicon (keep on reading for the other).
Next to the Town Hall, the elegant Hawksmoor-designed St Anne's, consecrated in 1730 - and, sadly, chained and locked even on a Sunday afternoon.
From there, down Newell Street and Three Colts Street to the magic of Narrow Street which backs on to the Thames - the best known street in this part of London and deservedly so.
The wharf frontages are splendid - a relic of the area's industrial past, and almost too well conserved to be entirely convincing. The other side of these one-time wharves front a Thames creek - which at low tide, as it was when I walked by this afternoon, is an unappetising amalgam of mud, shingle and washed-up rubbish.
On the western end of the street is a row of stunning Georgian residential buildings alongside The Grapes, which claims even greater antiquity. The pub's hugely atmospheric interior, first floor dining room and terrace make it one of the most unmissable of riverside drinking spots.
And that other political coinage of Limehouse? The Limehouse Declaration of January 1981 - issued from David Owen's home in Narrow Street in the name of the 'Gang of Four' (the others were Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and William Rodgers) and signalling their intention to split from the Labour Party. The Social Democratic Party was established two months later and was for a while a power in the land, but by the end of the 1980s most Social Democrats had merged with the Liberals and those that held out as a separate SDP were a marginalised rump.
From Narrow Street, along the Thames Path, Canary Wharf is only a few minutes away. It has a certain architectural majesty - that may not be a fashionable view, but there you go.
My mission, though, was to navigate through the high rise maze to the other side of the Isle of Dogs. To reach Blackwall, a district now condemned to being known for the Tunnel and little else. This was once a centre of shipbuilding on the Thames - and ship repairs were conducted right down to the 1980s. I remember visiting many years ago a street called Coldharbour, parallel to the Thames, a last vestige of Victorian and earlier riverside housing. Was it still there?
As I headed east from Canary Wharf, scouring for a way out, a security guard asked if he could help. 'Coldharbour? It's years since anyone's asked for that.' Although I was within quarter-of-a-mile as the crow flies, he had to radio to ask for directions. This little enclave of riverine London is spitting distance from Canary Wharf but sealed off from it by dock basins, new developments, and sturdy boundary walls.
So Coldharbour is not easy to get to on foot from the financial district but, yes, it has survived - with modest late Victorian terraced housing and a handful of grander, earlier, buildings. The Gun, which claims a history stretching back 250 years, has been through a terrible fire since last I visited and was closed for three years. But it's reborn, now up-market, and still with a natty riverside terrace at a bend in the Thames opposite The Dome. It offers spectacular views ... as you can see.
Delighted to be reacquainted with Coldharbour, I had no great desire to walk any further. So I jumped on a bus which decanted me at a place I have never been before, never knew existed - All Saints in Poplar.
The church was built in the 1820s, so it's later than St Anne's and doesn't have a resonant name such as Hawksmoor attached to it. But it is an imposing structure with a delicate needle-style steeple - though, as with St Anne's, it was padlocked shut. What a pity!
From there, I jumped on a bus heading to town. Along East India Dock Road I noticed a street sign, Canton Street - half-a-dozen street names are about the only indication that Limehouse was London's first Chinatown. I remember going for a Chinese meal more than thirty years ago at a restaurant opposite St Anne's - a self-proclaimed survival from the initial Chinese settlement. It's gone now.
But from the top deck of the bus , I spotted a sign on a side street: 'Chun Yee Society: Chinese School on Sundays'. An internet search suggests this is indeed a remnant of the earlier Chinatown. I love such unexpected reminders of London's past - I didn't have time to whip out my camera, but I've taken this photo from the 'net.
Thanks for accompanying me on my tour of this stretch of the Thames and the old East End. Do come again!
On a rural back road, just north of the small village of Brandsby in North Yorkshire, you come across The City of Troy. On the verge. Fenced off, and no more than 20 feet square. It's a delicate, ancient turf maze - the smallest of the handful surviving. I came across it over Christmas - I was staying at a farm cottage a mile or two away and heard tell of this old maze, Roman it was said though I suspect this is much more recent (not that there's any certainty about the date).
These mazes were often named after Troy, says the Wikipedia entry, because of the legend that the ancient city's walls were so complex and confusing that no-one finding their way in would be able to get out again.
The distinctly dated plaque states that the maze, or at least its naming, suggests an early association between Yorkshire and Scandinavia. But hang on a moment, I thought Troy was ...
In the post today, I received this rather wonderful book - published in 1885 by the noted, and distinctly quarrelsome, radical Martin Boon.
Yes, it's an odd volume - both volumes together would have been well beyond my pocket.
Boon is a hugely interesting figure in the annals of radicalism. He was born in 1840 in Clerkenwell, greatly influenced by the Chartist Bronterre O'Brien, active alongside Karl Marx in the First International and a lively and quixotic campaigner above all for land and currency reform. There was also a distinct puritan streak to his views - he disapproved both of lasciviousness and of contraception.
In 1874, Martin Boon - who had campaigned actively against emigration - emigrated. To South Africa. There he made himself hugely unpopular by tilting at just about every windmill he could find - Boers, Jews, and black South Africans all came under his withering gaze. He wrote prolifically about the place, and didn't find all that much positive to relate. This book concludes: 'I HAVE NOT WRITTEN TO PLEASE, BUT TO REFORM.' He certainly didn't please, getting himself involved in a succession of court cases and public rows.
Boon played a part in the development of the goldfields in the Transvaal. He died there - apparently taking his own life by jumping into a mine shaft - on December 27th 1888. I realised with a start that today is the 125th anniversary of his death. For all his idiosyncracies and often intemperate views, he deserves remembrance.
Martin James Boon, 1840-1888: land nationaliser, currency reformer, radical propagandist and pamphleteer, settler in and chronicler of South Africa.
Persistence has paid off! I've discovered a really neat fish and chips place - doesn't do takeaways, alas, but it's roomy, moderately priced for the area, and the service is quick - within a seven minute stroll of work.
Let me introduce you to the excellent Golden Hind on Marylebone Lane.
Judging by the number of tourists in there - 'what is this had-dog?!!' - it's well featured in the guide books, But it also very obviously has a loyal clientele as well, and by 12:30 it was filling up.
The haddock was fresh and firm (I reckon that fried fish has a half-life of fifteen minutes, meaning cooked fish that's been left hanging around for that time delivers only half the pleasure of the 'straight to plate') and the chips slightly modest in number but highly palatable. And yes, it does mushy peas ... and a decent cuppa.
So that's my New Year's resolution blown before the old year is out.
Shop renovations bring with them moments of magic. Fleeting moments when remnants of another era resurface, and then just as quickly are again submerged, often forever.
That's what's happened at a disused corner shop along Dartmouth Park Hill in north London (on the junction with Bickerton Road to be precise). I posted about 'Crick's Corner' earlier in the year when the corner shop business run by the Patels - they used to deliver my newspapers - was about to close. The shop is now being refurbished. And driving past the other afternoon, I could see that old signage on clouded glass long since lost to view had come to light - 'Confectionery', 'Library', 'Periodicals', there was a fourth but the glass is broken. The shop used to be, between the wars, a library - lending out novels for a few pence a week.
Within days, these evocative signs - they look as if they date from the 1920s or 30s - were replaced by clear window glass. We will never see them again.
But it was wonderful to get a last glance of a shop front from perhaps seventy or more years ago.
The old 'Crick's Corner' signage still survives - for the moment.
I think it only got into the new century because it was hidden behind an advertising board which, some years back, was removed.
The developer is clearly hoping to find a commercial use for the property - though that may not be too easy. It's got a good corner site, but there's not much passing trade - as the Patels discovered.
When I wrote about Crick's Corner before, an old friend Bob Trevor - who grew up along this stretch of Dartmouth Park Hill - got in touch to say he remembered when it was still a commercial library and old-style mags and sweets shop. He recalled: "Another landmark of my life gone. Mr Crick used to cash cheques for my father, deliver newspapers and the 'Boy's Own Paper' for me. His son and daughter-in-law lived next door to us in No 79. My mother and Mrs Crick jnr were great pals. In those days there was a parade of shops stretching from Chester Road to Raydon St. Happy memories."
UPDATED January 2014 with the discovery of another 'HOPE' - details and photo at the foot of this post
Across my part of north London, which is awash with rail lines from the mainline stations heading north as well as the more homely North London Line, someone, some time, for some reason, has taken to painting 'HOPE' on bridges and track-side buildings. In white paint ... in large capital letters ... without any obvious purpose. It's a bit of a mystery.
What follows is not the full story - but we're getting there. And if you have anything to share about these HOPE inscriptions please do get in touch. Whatever the story is behind them, I am keen to find out.
I've mapped and snapped the various renditions of 'HOPE' which have appeared on and adjacent to railway bridges or overlooking railway lines across Kentish Town, Gospel Oak and around. And below are pictures of them all - the three (the orange dots on the map) most imposing renditions complete with serifs, those little embellishments which make capital letters stand out; six plainer versions (red dots), one of which is almost entirely scrubbed out but still just visible; and two (yellow above) other 'HOPES' - one in a very different style, and the other what you might call the only legitimate 'Hope' in Kentish Town.
I'm still trying to work out why this fly painting, by whom, and when - asking around, the consensus is that these are intended to inspire and uplift rather than simply a tag. And all being close to railways lines? Well as I say, there's a lot of them around this manor - so perhaps that's not too significant.
If you know more, do tell me: <firstname.lastname@example.org>
HOPE - the big three ...
HOPE - the other six ...
... and while we're on about HOPE ...
And if you wondered what the now barely legible HOPE overlooking 'Kentish Town Square' (no. 9 above) looked like in its heyday, here's an old photo courtesy of the excellent KentishTowner:
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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