Sunday, July 12th 2015
Having spent the morning breakfasting and shopping, we decided to make another trip to East London. We had a specific goal in mind which will become apparent later on.
Our destination was the district of Poplar within the Borough of Tower Hamlets. The map shows you where it is and I have used Chrisp Street Market as a convenient reference point. To see the area in relation to the rest of London, clicking on the map will take you to Google Maps.
Poplar is said to take its name from the poplar trees that grew in the marshes that were once here but there are conflicting versions of the story, indicating that there is great uncertainty about this. Poplar’s population swelled with the development of the docks and the need to find homes for those employed in them. People of all classes and many different races came to Poplar, giving it a diverse character which it still possesses.
We changed buses at Bromley and, while waiting for our connection, took a few photos. There are two Bromleys in London and their names, though now the same, have different origins. There is the Borough of Bromley in the south-east quadrant of Greater London, and there is this one, often known as Bromley-by-Bow to distinguish it from its namesake. Bromley, the borough, is thought to derive its name from the broom trees that once flourished there, whereas Bromley-by-Bow is found in old records as Brambele and Brambelegh, which scholars think derives from the Anglo-Saxon words brembel (‘bramble’) and lege (‘field’).
In the 12th century, a Benedictine convent was founded here, dedicated to St Leonard. It is possible that Chaucer had this convent in mind when he described the pilgrim Prioress, Madame Eglantine, as speaking French ‘after the scole of Stratford atte Bowe’.
Building of the pretty ‘public hall’ shown above began in 1879, according to the foundation stone in the porch. It was the administrative centre for the Vestry of St Leonard’s (vestries were the forerunners of modern boroughs) and still provides certain of the services of the local council. It is a Grade II listed building.
Next to the public Hall is a pub. The name seems reasonable enough: Bow Church is nearby and has bells, like most churches. I think it’s a bit of a cheat, though, because when you say ‘Bow Bells’, people immediately think of the famous Bow Bells, those of St Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside, within whose sound you have to be born in order to be considered a true Cockney. That’s far, far away from here. But let’s call it a sleight of hand and move on.
On the side of the pub is a mural. It shows an archaic view of Bow Road and figures dressed in garments bearing patterns made with pearl buttons. These are the famous Pearly Kings and Queens. That’s fair enough, because there are groups of Pearlies all over London, including a group associated with Bow Church.
The bus deposited us at the southern end of Morris Road, Poplar. We rambled onwards into the unpronounceable Chrisp Street. (Actually, I think you pronounce it as though it were spelt ‘Crisp’.) I took the above photo by poking the camera through the fence. This is not a criticism of Poplar, such parcels of apparently abandoned land in a more or less foul condition exist all over London. Worse still, they act as a temptation to the zombie-brains whose only thought is to built high-rise high-rent apartment and office blocks and push out the ordinary citizens by depriving them of anywhere to live.
We passed in front of Langdon Park Station on the Docklands Light Railway network. On another day we could have used to DLR to come here but for years tube and railway services have been disrupted every weekend by ‘planned engineering works’, that is, by repairs made necessary by years of neglect. The station canopy seems to be sticking its tongue out at passers-by, a perfectly appropriate gesture in the circumstances.
Thus we came in sight of the market clock. I would like to be able to say that Chrisp Street Market dates from ancient times and received its charter from Henry II or some such but it wouldn’t be true. The market was designed by Frederick Gibberd as what was allegedly Britain’s first purpose-built pedestrian shopping area. It forms one end of the Lansbury Estate, a housing area badly damaged in the Second World War.
The estate was rebuilt by Gibberd, together with the new market, as part of the 1951 Festival of Britain. New and exciting in its day, it’s looking, 64 years on, a little tatty round the edges but no worse than many other parts of London and better than some.
I would have liked to see the market in action but it is closed on Sundays, though some of the permanent shops around the periphery were open.
Not everything is 1950s vintage in Poplar. There is evidence of previous projects to provide housing for ordinary people. One such is Heckford House, built in the 1920s. I am not sure of its current status. I have seen it mentioned online by estate agents so assume it is now privatized.
Old pubs always interest me. Like an old church, an old pub often embodies the history of the district in which it resides. This one was built in 1868 but ceased to operate as a pub in 2002. It’s now residential though I don’t quite know how that works. (Do those who inhabit the lounge bar cock a snook at those living in the public bar?) It possibly started out as the South African Tavern but was certainly known for a while as the African Tavern. Then it rebranded itself in more modern times as The African Queen. (In honour of the eponymous Bogart film?) Today, with its sign missing and its boards anonymised with dull paint, it looks like the pub equivalent of a mothballed ship, awaiting the day when it will need to go into action again.
Opposite the end of Grundy Street in Upper North Street stands this impressive pile of a church. I think its style gives away its age and it is no surprise to learn that it too was made as part of the Festival of Britain project. But who was the architect?
Often in these pages you will see churches ascribed to that great builder of Gothic Revival churches in the 19h century, Sir George Gilbert Scott. This church too was built by a Scott, to be precise, Adrian Gilbert Scott (1882-1963), grandson of an illustrious forebear.
Across the street from the church is what appears to be a pleasant garden, called Church Green. This was the site of the previous Church of St Mary and St Joseph which was destroyed in the Second World War. At one end stand this relief though I cannot tell you who it represents. Was it once part of the old church?
A little more interesting, perhaps, is this modern sculpture. It is by Nicholas Moreton and is called Door of Hope. To my mind, it is more of a fissure than a door but perhaps that is artistic licence.
Nearby is Bygrove Primary School. Apparently its values include Ambition, Compassion, Determination and Collaboration, because these are worked into the rather splendid school gate (though the Web site replaces Determination with Respect). This, I think, is a remarkable piece of work and I liked it a lot. Apart from the school’s name and values, there are a number of figures which, if I am not mistaken, were designed by pupils. There is also a mural but the gate takes the prize, as far as I am concerned.
We returned the way we had come, which meant passing through the market once more. It also provided the opportunity to photograph the Festival Inn. Street scenes almost inevitably contain people. I’d rather they didn’t but if they are there then, too bad, they are fair game. Just occasionally, though, someone will object. This happened here. As I was lining up the shot I heard the shout “Don’t photograph me!” You will see the person concerned, blurred out, to the right of the pub. If he didn’t want to be photographed, why did he stand there shouting (and thus getting himself photographed) instead of retreating from view (as he eventually did)? Either way, I have met his objections to the extent that I have blurred his image to make him unrecognizable.
On the way back through the market, I took this stitched close-up view of the Chrisp Street Clock Tower. I was intrigued by its open structure and the staircases which were wider than the usual staircase provided for winding and maintenance. It was only later that I learned that the original intention was to make this structure both a clock tower and an observation post. The idea was for the public to be able to climb the stairs and take in the view through the diamond shaped windows. Alas, it was not to be. Fears that the tower might be used by people to commit suicide led to its being closed off.
This brings us to the goal of our visit that I mentioned at the beginning. So, without more ado, here it is:
We had come to see this huge painting on the side of a building. It is by a cooperating pair of street artists called Irony and Boe. I don’t know whether the artists specified a title for the work, but the consensus seems to be that the dog is a Chihuahua and thus I have labelled the photo. I must say it doesn’t look like a Chihuahua to me though it is a very lively representation of a dog of some kind. More important than my opinion, however, is the quality of the work.
I don’t think the quality is in doubt. You need to see it for yourself but perhaps the above closer view will give you some idea. Note how the dog’s eyes reflect the scene. If this were a normal-sized canvas, it would be commendable enough but it in fact reaches right up the side of a building. How you execute a painting that size so accurately is beyond my comprehension. It made a fitting end and climax to our trip. (Update 06/10/16: For interesting information on the genesis of the work, see Garry Hunter’s comment below.)