A Sunday in May, on the towpath by the River Lea, just south of Lea Bridge Road:
Ding! … Ding! … Ding! … Ding! Ding! Ding!
The cyclist (mid-20s, jutting beard, sickly smile, deeply hittable face) steered his vintage eBay treasure inches between myself and my young son. Fifteen minutes into what was supposed to be a leisurely Sunday outing on the first really sunny weekend of the year and I was reduced to hissing violent epithets at various types of cyclist. Hipster cyclists, as above; Spandexed cyclists, often in entire family groups; unnervingly swift and purposeful cyclists with business on their minds; kids on mountain bikes; even a brace of fancy-dress cyclists, decked out in Edwardian gear – bowlers, waistcoats, plus-fours, spats – on authentically recalcitrant machines. Whatever their costume, they were all united by their fondness for those little silver bells, their peremptory tinkle an indication of assumed moral right. As a pedestrian on the towpath, on the Lea or a London canal, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that cyclists see you as merely a car-driver deprived of your vehicle. (Suggested collective noun: an entitlement of cyclists.)
Not that long ago, this stretch of the Lea was a backwater; and the landscape still offers those with a taste for brownfield-rural the opportunity to participate in an Ian Sinclair-ish topographical narrative in a lush setting. There are overgrown meadows, deserted municipal sports facilities, mysterious structures to negotiate, structures often covered in an abundance of picturesque graffiti (whilst photographing the uncharacteristically polite cyclists walking their bikes under the East Cross Route, I noticed a young man posing his girlfriend for snaps on the other side of the decorated pillars). Of course, this riverside has been ravaged in recent years by the Alphaville of the Olympic Park, and the new residential developments that line the western bank south of Lea Bridge are testament to the burgeoning popularity of East London-lite: Hipster London, Foxtons London, Fatuous London.
Yet somehow, the houseboats remain aloof from it all; and the beauty of the Lea leads to daydreams of buying one, the idyll of having your very own piece of river within (distant) earshot of the churning city. A friend of mine has his own boat, a proper sea-going job, which he occasionally sails from Lowestoft to Limehouse Basin, where he moors it as his London base. This always struck me as simultaneously butch and civilised, an impression only slightly marred by a desperate call I once received from him en route, somewhere near Sheerness, asking if I’d heard the Shipping Forecast because his radio was broken. Several of the vessels moored on the Lea have all the appurtenances of the riverside ‘luxury apartments’ touted by Foxtons and their ilk, and it is not too exotic to imagine some of them actually sailing somewhere. A London houseboat might be the nearest thing to bucolic living anywhere within the M25; but a cursory inspection of some of the more ramshackle examples give one pause. More than a couple appear to be actually sinking, invoking thoughts of Viv Stanshall’s houseboat foundering on the Thames near Chertsey. A houseboat is not a very safe place to store a life’s work, and much of Viv’s life sank with The Searchlight. Even if your boat is watertight, there are other dangers: Malcolm Hardee drowned in Greenland Dock during a drunken attempt to access his houseboat after a night out. (Eddie Mirzoeff has just pointed out to me that Penelope Fitzgerald’s Chelsea Reach-moored houseboat sank not once but twice in the early 1960s, inspiring her Booker Prize-winning novel Offshore.)
Still the temptations persist … walking south, we encountered a riverine barbecue-cum-jam session, two barges lassooed together, a party of expert folk musicians playing together in an atmosphere of easy familiarity and home-brewed ale. I’m generally allergic to the claims of folk music but even I was charmed and wondered whether the water offered a better way of life for those in the know … but only a few yards further south, jungle was being played at industrial-noise level from a flat in a new block, obliterating the reels from upstream and putting paid to idyllic wonderings. Any remaining notions of hippie-ish promise were soon trashed as we reached the East Cross Route, where the aggressive post-Olympic new builds proved demoralising enough for us to turn back. Perhaps there is no such thing as a backwater in London any more; a sage with a tin of spray paint helped articulate this thought by stating the obvious on a bridge …
Back at Lea Bridge, the Prince of Wales was doing brisk business as football played on the TV. A massive new development is under construction on the north of the Lea Bridge Road. For real peace, you have to go further upstream, way beyond Springfield Park and up into Tottenham Marshes; if you moored there, maybe you would have a shot at a life of tranquility. If you saw a naked cyclist, it would be someone who did it every day. And that would be fine. Just an unpretentious houseboat, not too big, easy to manage through the locks, kitted out with obsolete technology – VHS tapes, audio cassettes – and overflowing with old paperbacks you could read by paraffin lamp. You know where to find me …
… for The London Column.
See also: Before the Blue Wall.
Back Hill and Ray Street, Clerkenwell. © David Secombe 2010
From The Fascination of London: Holborn and Bloomsbury, ed. Sir Walter Besant 1903:
Just here, where Back Hill and Ray Street meet, was Hockley Hole, a famous place of entertainment for bull and bear baiting, and other cruel sports that delighted the brutal taste of the eighteenth century. One of the proprietors, named Christopher Preston, fell into his own bear-pit, and was devoured, a form of sport that doubtless did not appeal to him. Hockley in the Hole is referred to by Ben Jonson, Steele, Fielding, and others. It was abolished soon after 1728.
The Coach and Horses pub – reflected in the mirror in the picture above – now occupies the site of Hockley Hole, one of the least salubrious entertainment venues in London’s history. The pub rests at the bottom of a curious depression in the heart of Clerkenwell, behind the old Guardian building on Farringdon Road – which itself marks the course of the river Fleet, which Victorian engineers – eventually – paved and tamed into a churning sewer. (Supposedly, the original Coach and Horses afforded access to the Fleet from its cellars, providing Georgian fugitives with an escape route to the Thames.) This dingy, hidden locale is a beacon for anyone of a Psychogeographical persuasion, as three centuries of real and imagined associations intersect here. We have touched upon Hockley Hole before, but a passage in Lucy Inglis’s fine new book Georgian London: Into the Streets prompted us to revisit the immediate environs. In her book, Lucy provides further details of the delights afforded by Hockley Hole (or Hockley-in-the-Hole) :
By the turn of the eighteenth century, baiting had moved north of the river – to Hockley-in-the-Hole, in Clerkenwell. In 1710, there was ‘… a match to be fought by two dogs, one from Newgate-market, against one from Honey-lane market, at a bull … which goes fairest and fastest in, wins all. Likewise, a green bull to be baited, which was never baited before; and a bull to be turned loose with fireworks all over him. Also a mad ass to be baited. With a variety of bull-baiting and bear-baiting, and a dog to be drawn up with fireworks. To begin exactly at three of the clock.’ Hockley was the centre of bull terrier breeding in London, and so perhaps it was natural that the sport would move there. In 1756, Hockley disappeared with the continuing Fleet development, and bull-baiting moved to Spitalfields. Increasingly unpopular, it was soon confined almost exclusively to market towns.
The mirror in the picture above is located on the wall of a huge industrial building (now home to one of Central St Martins design campuses) which straddles Back Hill and lower Saffron Hill. In The Fascination of London, Walter Besant quotes an earlier writer’s description of Saffron Hill as “narrow and mean, full of Butchers and Tripe Dressers, because the Ditch runs at the back of their Slaughter houses, and carries away the filth.” Besant takes the opportunity to add that ‘in later times Italian organ-grinders and ice-cream vendors had a special predilection for the place, and did not add to its reputation’ – but he also acknowledges that ‘all this district is strongly associated with the stories of Dickens’. In Oliver Twist, set in 1838, the year it was written, Dickens describes the Artful Dodger leading Oliver to Fagin’s lair:
‘They crossed from the Angel into St. John’s Road; struck down the small street which terminates at Sadler’s Wells Theatre; through Exmouth Street and Coppice Row; down the little court by the side of the workhouse; across the classic ground which once bore the name of Hockley-in-the-Hole; thence into Little Saffron Hill; and so into Saffron Hill the Great: along which the Dodger scudded at a rapid pace, directing Oliver to follow close at his heels.’
College window, Back Hill. © David Secombe, 2010.
On the same turf 150 years later, a real-life match for Dickens’s characters is described by the late John Londei, a much-missed photographer, writer and contributor to this site. As John wrote in 2011:
Some people might think little Jimmy Cleary eccentric, but to me he was a walking landmark: someone whose presence brings a touch of magic to an area. Whenever I saw Jimmy I knew I was in Clerkenwell. Jimmy’s speciality was annoying motorists. He would not tolerate errant parking; his life seemed devoted to chasing drivers on from yellow lines. And woe betide anymore who ignored his orders! Bringing out a tattered notebook he took their number, and created such a commotion that the poor motorist found himself the centre of attention.
Jimmy Cleary, ‘King of Clerkenwell’, Back Hill. © John Londei 1983.
Returning to the photo at the top of this page, the modern white building in the reflection lies on Warner Street, formerly Great Warner Street. In the 18th Century, this street was the home of Henry Carey, author of Sally in our Alley: ‘one of the very prettiest of old London love songs.’ Walter Thornbury, writing in 1878 (Old and New London Vol.2; Clerkenwell) provides this biographical snippet:
Henry Carey … lived and died at his house in Great Warner Street. Carey, by profession a music-master and song-writer for Sadler’s Wells, was an illegitimate son of the Marquis of Halifax, who presented the crown to William III. The origin of Carey’s great hit, Sally in our Alley, was a ‘prentice day’s holiday, witnessed by Carey himself. A shoemaker’s apprentice making holiday with his sweetheart, treated her with a sight of Bedlam, the puppet-shows, the flying chairs the elegancies of Moorfields, and from thence proceeding to the Farthing Pye House, he gave her a collation of buns, cheesecakes, stuffed beef, and bottled ale; through all of which scenes the author dodged them. Charmed with the simplicity of their courtship, he wrote his song of Sally in our Alley, which has been well described as one of the most perfect little pictures of humble life in the language. Reduced to poverty or despair by some unknown cause, Carey hung himself in 1743. Only a halfpenny was found in his pocket.
In the 19th century, Great Warner Street was bisected by Rosebery Avenue,a Victorian creation forming part of the general ‘ventilation’ of Holborn, clearing away many of the old houses in the area.
Staircase to Rosebery Avenue from Warner Street. © David Secombe 2010.
… for The London Column. Georgian London is published by Penguin.
Blackwall Tunnel southern approach, SE10, 1997. Photo © David Secombe.
David Secombe writes:
The mock-Tudor building in front of the gas holder in the picture above is the former home of the 1980s comedy club The Tunnel Palladium, so called because the building sits only a few yards way from the mouth of the southern entrance to the Blackwall Tunnel. The club was run by the legendary local comic and promoter Malcolm Hardee, and it played host to many key figures in the alternative comedy circuit at the start of their careers.
Amongst the legions of anecdotes concerning Malcolm Hardee, three are worth retelling here . . .
1) At the 1983 Edinburgh Fringe, he became annoyed by excessive noise from an adjacent comedy tent where Eric Bogosian was performing, and retaliated by stealing a tractor and driving it, naked, across Bogosian’s stage during his performance.
2) He stole Freddie Mercury’s 40th birthday cake and gave it to an old people’s home.
3) He pioneered a stage routine (later taken up by Chris Lynam) in which the performer sings There’s No Business like Show Business whilst holding a lit firework between his buttocks.
Malcolm Hardee died in January 2005, drowning in Greenland Dock, where his houseboat was moored; the Coroner’s verdict was that he had fallen into the dock whilst drunk. According to the police constable who retrieved Malcolm’s body from the water, he was found still clutching a bottle of beer in his right hand.
… for The London Column.
Isle of Dogs, 1988. Photo © David Secombe.
From Without the City Wall, Hector Bolitho and Derek Peel, 1952:
No part of London endured more bombing during the Second World War than the Isle of Dogs. Anyone who has flown over the Thames at night will recall how the river makes a splendid curve here, and how the moonlight shining on the slow oily waters turns the peninsula into a perfect target. The German bombers came to know it well, and the dock and warehouses suffered night after night. The rebuilding has covered many of the scars, but also many of the old romantic streets …”
David Secombe writes:
The photo above – taken for a magazine assignment to illustrate the growth of London’s Docklands – gives a small indication of the speculative building frenzy which characterised the mid-1980s. The building on the right in the photo above, newly constructed when this picture was taken, is Cascades, designed by Piers Gough for CZWG architects. Cascades was the first private apartment block to be built on the Isle of Dogs – a trailblazer for all the other developments of ‘executive homes’ (marginalising the ‘indigenous’ population, naturally) which – despite the occasional market wobble – have followed in its wake. Elsewhere on the Isle of Dogs at the time of this image, the massive foundations of Olympia and York’s Canary Wharf were being laid; gradually, the ethereal, silver profile of 1 Canada Square (the “tallest habitable building in Britain” according to Wikipedia) rose into the sky, elegantly dominating the landscape for miles around – until it was crowded by a cluster of far more vulgar towers belonging to big, bad corporations like Barclays and HSBC. If anyone wants to look for physical manifestations of the arrogance of capitalism, the Isle of Dogs has to be London’s most conspicuous example.
… for The London Column.