Stratford: their set is amazing, but doesn’t smell like a street

The Money is rapidly running out of bits of London to which it can lay siege. Crossrail will draw more outlying areas into the orbit of the £500,000 rabbit hutch bonanza, but in London proper there are very few areas yet to receive a going-over from investment. Newham remains a bit of a banlieue; a borough dogged by news stories labelling it the heartland of ‘sheds-with-beds’, and tales of criminal landlords who place 50 immigrants in a three-bed house. Yet Stratford was the site of the glorious Games; that supernova which felt like a miraculous rebirth at the time and two years on -days away from the likely dissolution of Britain- looks as much of a last hurrah as the celebrations for Franz Josef’s 80th birthday. On this walk I (perhaps perversely) eschewed the hubristic monuments of 2012 and tried to look at the Stratford normal people have to live in, if any of them are left.

The previous summer had been all about rioting, and the build-up to the Games about the rape and plunder of the Lea Valley. It flew in the face of all expectation, then, that even the most malcontent curmudgeons in London succumbed to the feel-good factor of Mo & co. stacking up all those medals. I was not immune myself, but I’ve never visited to the Queen Elizabeth Park and didn’t get around to trying for Olympics tickets. Football occupies so much of my brain that other sports don’t stand a chance. On the few occasions I had visited, Stratford seemed a place scarred by poverty, but I supposed its high-profile new residents must have rubbed off on the rest. It has done so less than I imagined, and not in wonderful ways. Compared to the Isle of Dogs regeneration, of which I wasn’t the biggest fan, much of New Stratford seemed knocked up in a rush and more akin to a Chinese boom city than London.

The visitor will find themselves deposited in the bowels of Stratford station; a meeting point for Overground, DLR, HS1, two tube lines and countless commuter trains/buses. It’s as bustling a place as anywhere in London. With 18 platforms under its vast curving hangars, it feels more like an international airport. As I pass the ticket barriers, a member of staff remarks to a colleague that “of course, they don’t realise that we’re more like social workers” (a phrase much beloved of librarians).

Hundreds of Westfield shoppers are sitting on the steps outside but the precinct is not an inviting place to spend time. There’s a busy road, a bus interchange and an evil oval-shaped high-rise looming over them. All is concrete, ugly railings and CCTV. The Salvador Dali-ish art feature in front of the Stratford Centre (alien trees? eyes on stalks?) attempts to render the place easier on the eye, but their parody of nature merely emphasises its harshness. One’s instinct is to go somewhere else, anywhere else, and quickly.

I dimly recall the Stratford Centre leading to something like a town centre, and pop inside. If Westfield is a beacon for people with money to spend, this is a mall for the segregated poor. The centre of the corridor is taken up by stalls, offering bowls of past-it vegetables, flimsy tiger-print suitcases and £99 desktop PCs. It does perk up a bit towards the end and the last stall is an artisan baker called Brown Bread, a very apt epitaph for Cockney culture. One Delboy is holding a crowd captive with his quickfire patter about cheap designer perfumes, and seems to be performing the same heritage role as those native American bands who play gentle soft rock in shopping streets throughout the land.

The mall has exits for the theatre or the Broadway; opting for the latter I am met by the Old Town Hall. The Broadway is less disconcerting simply because it has a fair few old buildings. Whether they are fine or not, they make one feel anchored. In 1966, Nairn was able to call this “the real centre of the East End, now that Stepney has been broken on the planner’s wheel”. If what Nairn recognised as the East End even has a centre anymore, today it would probably be the Bluewater Centre in Dartford.

The excitement in Stratford is obviously elsewhere. This high street and the people on it look impoverished- a shame, because as Nairn notes it has “a lovely shape”. The island of St John’s Church and its gardens sit at the top, splitting the road in two parts which reunite behind, “a long funnel widening and curling around one of the hungriest-looking churches in London.”

Although the churchyard is largely used as a car park, a place to drink tins or by the Africans attending services, the hand of history will weigh heavily on anyone who stops to ponder the terracotta memorial to Dissenter martyrs, detailing their grisly deaths and the theological sticking points for which they went to the stake- all after the break with Rome at that. One was “tortured for preaching against auricular transubstantiation, purgatory and images.” Very different times.

Behind the church, an apparently new library is architecturally timid, apologetic and neither one thing nor the other, as well it might be in the current climate. Nairn is really looking at a different place when he describes stores “fussy, florid and full of goods”, and declares that if the street were handled with care “the people who use it would keep it swinging”. The stand-out unit for him is the Co-op, whose “monolithic arrogance… is as vivacious as a Belgian grand place“. I have a notion which building he might be talking about and Bruxelles it ain’t. The only living remnants of this Broadway seem to be a selection of good East End pubs.

Walking away from the church facade, the high street becomes less compact and more of a rum do, as we encounter gigantic and hasty new-build overspilling from the Olympics. It is a wide and empty desert.

The Broadway isn’t perfect but it has a sense of place, that the growth around it has been organic. Not so down here where a return-on-investment citadel has seemingly landed overnight on edgeland. The amenities are regen-funded business centres that hope to conjure entrepreneurs out of thin air, Budgens-and-Londis ground floor units for residents, casinos and bingo halls, dreary chain hotels for anyone that doesn’t mind a 30 minute tube ride at the end of their day’s sightseeing. A couple of the hotels do look flash and boutique and you could almost pity anyone who has that much money and still ends up here.

Beyond a few scrapyards and seas of shipping containers, in the distance I spy an unlikely Russian Orthodox apparition. Although it will take me off my route I am drawn towards it. The further I walk, the more distant it seems and eventually the road curves away from it. I look back and wonder if I’m not in some industrial city beyond the Ural Mountains.

The air is arid, the day is hot without sunshine and it’s all too bleak. Nairn reports “effects of stricken beauty where the urbanisation has been particularly harsh”, which are doubtless great to look at in a coffee table book but less so when one is hot, bothered and a long walk from civilisation. Finally I turn off the high street, and plain residential streets feel like a soothing balm to my eyes. They look largely poor but there is evidence of human life, and the randomness that accompanies it.

Finally I reach the spot where the Lea River meets Bow Creek and Limehouse Cut. Plenty of houseboats have moored themselves and there are at least some scraps of a past. It’s not paradise but it is at least demonstrably connected to someplace else.

The patch of land in the middle is Three Mills Island. It starts off with a park -well-hidden, but well-used by the locals- which has been tarted up with a bit of philanthropic pocket change diverted from the Olympic slush fund. There are hammocks in long grass, indestructible steel-&-concrete ping pong tables, and a piece of memorial sculpture for the victims of industrial accidents.

Then unexpectedly, an intact patch of history jumps out from the whitewash, in the form of the Three Mills themselves, of which two survive (“dated 1776 and 1817, one with a sweet cupola attached”). It’s startling because of what’s around it, now as in Nairn’s time when “they form a focus in the otherwise too-spread valley, a place like a village green… tying a knot in the Lea Valley”.

The cluster of buildings seems to be a popular stopping point for the many towpath cyclists. There is a cafe; much of it appears to be vacant.

Entering via the pathway between the buildings feels so like walking into a film set, it is apt that 3 Mills Studios should be next door. One can peep through the railings but the place is kitted out like a maximum-security prison.

By this point I’ve clocked that the Russian-style edifice from earlier is Nairn’s other local tip, Bazalgette’s Abbey Mills Pumping Station. For all their flaws, good on the Victorians for putting some beauty and fantasy and fun into these things that fulfilled unexotic functions. In Stoke Newington there’s an old pumping station, now used for recreational wall-climbing, which is a replica of a Crusader fortess from Acre or Antioch. This one handles sewage and yet looks for all the world like a Byzantine cathedral. Nairn nails it: “they were pumping sewage from a great city- not an occupation to be disguised with terms such as ‘rodent operative’, but a noble function.”

Ironically, because this peacock palace still operates as a pumping station I can’t get near enough to look at it, and have to make do with that tantalising dome surrounded by four “vaguely Moorish” towers. In a way it’s fair enough; as illustrated in Christie Malry, you don’t want to take any chances with the places Thames Water do their work, and nowadays there is no limit to the remit of the terrorist, which in the C19th could be sated by the odd assassinated monarch. But how exasperating that this building exists and we can’t see it.

Having trooped back to Stratford, I’m running out of time and can choose between the Olympic site and a Nairn pub in Plaistow, a mile or two in the other direction. I opt for the latter and head down West Ham Lane. I recognise the type of high street from the poorer edges of Hackney; corner shops, bookies, Ghanian money transfer services, abundant and busy Internet cafes (already a throwback), and the odd tentative, coffee-and-cake bringer of gentrification. There’s also a typically startled-looking post-war Methodist church, which transports me back to my Belfast childhood with one glance.

Stratford Park probably is to the Olympic Park what the Stratford Centre is to Westfield, but is still getting lots of use. There’s a  queer modern gothic Baptist Tabernacle painted a deep pink, and the medieval West Ham Parish church, its venerable old facade hidden by foliage.

All in all, this road is quite untouched by gentrification, to the point where the churchyard and the square in front are a popular gathering point for White Lightning drinkers, unhinged-looking folks with trolleys and sinister groups of young men in gilets. I’m reminded of The Wire. The local Costcutter’s signage is entirely in what I’m guessing might be Lithuanian. Block of flats after block of flats all feature grubby sheets in orange plastic.

After an awfully long walk, I reach The Black Lion. There’s a whelk stall in the car park (that a pub should provide a car park seems admirably derring-do). Nairn loves it for the decor (“glasses stuck on the ceiling, coloured lights everywhere, exotic coloured photos behind a wrought-iron framework… the landlord must be a remarkable person, there are plenty of places in London where the same impulse has gone horribly wrong”), which seems unlikely to have survived fifty years. Not expecting much, I nip inside for a pint and a sit down.

What I find is an Irish bar; an actual one, not an “Irish-themed bar”. There’s a crowd of 20-something expats, mostly female, excitedly watching one of those weird sports the Irish play that looks a bit like Aussie Rules. One solitary bloke, in a replica shirt, is following Georgia v Ireland on the screen at the other end of the pub.

The low timber-beam ceiling and narrow shape make it feel cosy, it’s not the conventional layout but it has a happy, friendly ambiance that again and again eludes other pubs. The narrowboat vibe of the Shillelagh in Stoke Newington, but more so. My Shankill upbringing causes me to instinctively recoil from expressions of Irishness but even I get it. “Think of everything un-pub-like, put it together with flair and there you are… it’s marvellous because it has gone back to the fountainhead of human pubbiness, instead of sticking at some formula of detail.” I’m relieved Nairn didn’t send me to the cockney pub across the road, bedecked with pool tables and West Ham Utd plaques; I’m relieved I don’t live in Plaistow, but they do have a great local.

Back to Stratford and before I leave, I take a look at the Westfield centre (sorry, “city”). I’m not a keen shopper. On those occasions when I have £100 sitting idle I’d much rather put it towards a trip to Europe and the money itself seems far more valuable than the crap you can spend it on in shops. Shopping malls make me think of Belfast, where the leisure options in town are drinking and shopping. I’m grateful that in this terribly crowded city, Westfield acts as a leech to draw out the kind of people who think Dubai is a nice place to visit.

It tries to steal the clothes of authenticity while offering something self-evidently inauthentic. Eateries are called “The Real Greek” and “Mexican Food Market”, the main outdoor stretch is called “The Street”. Instead of a fountain there’s a tower of LED panels. It’s a theme park, reality rendered cartoon, which is exactly what people want. All tastes are catered for, even old-world snobs like me are given one of those parodies of Vienesse coffee-houses that cover Piccadilly like a rash.

Inside, I feel like The Man Who Fell To Earth. The piano player is bashing out what I think might be a Snow Patrol song. There’s so much and it’s so bright and so loud and so shiny that it’s paralysing. I end up about as able to interpret the things before me as a citizen of C6th Byzantium would be. My eyes latch onto the colonial porch facade of Hollister as the only thing speaking a recognisable language. No wonder the people want to leave the E.U. if the diet they’re used to is Las Vegas.

I guess Westfield sits between the station and the Olympic area in the hope that some of the billions spent on the latter will be recouped, but I come away thinking that if you like shit, Westfield has it in such concentration that it must be your mecca; it is the Florence of Shit. The world is very welcome to it, but I’m not going to be anyone’s Virgil.

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