Walthamstow – A brief return visit

Hoe Street

Compliements of Google Maps

Each December my wife and I make the journey from Somerset to North-East London where I used to live. Our destination is Chingford Mount Cemetery to tend my mothers grave but often on our return journey we travel to an excellent Chinese supermarket called See Woo just south of the Blackwall Tunnel to top up on necessary supplies. Our journey is a distance of some 360 miles for the round trip travelling around both the northern and southern stretches of the M25 motorway. Although this distance is more than enough for anyone to drive in one day, fortunately the majority of the journey is via motorways or good standard dual-carriageway which helps make the journey more tolerable.

For a change we decided to vary our route a little from Chingford Mount to Woolwich to allow a brief visit down memory lane. Our little diversion was a straight line to the Crooked Billet, Chingford Road, Hoe Street and Leyton High Road to Leyton Town Hall before re-joining the East Cross route to Blackwall Tunnel.

Being a considerable number of years since we travelled this route, we fully anticipated seeing changes from what we used to know.

Apart from the road layout at the Crooked Billet, what was more noticeable was the standard of drivers or more accurately the lack of it. Now living in an area unused to traffic problems, it does seem that drivers in London seem to adopt a far more aggressive driving style performing the most discourteous of manoeuvres simply to gain a meaningless extra inch of advantage in a queue. I sometimes wonder if what some of these people undertaking what they might consider a “good days” driving would ever realise that a short time earlier and also later that day, I would be driving for some hours on end at a speed off at least 70mph and not crawling they way they are used to? I suppose it’s all a matter of perception. I also cannot help but wonder if some rude drivers ever realised I used to drive emergency vehicles and did, ( and still could), perform some driving manoeuvres they could only dream about.

In the main, the part of our journey from the Crooked Billet to the Bell junction at Forest Road did look more or less as I recall it. The old bus garage which was originally a tram depot had however undergone some transformation. The large garage with it’s rows of London Transport red buses were now replaced with housing and the former offices also appeared to have been converted to housing. It did however all appear to have been tastefully done.

Familiar shops in Hoe Street have certainly changed but given the nature of the retail industry, shop types and facades will always be in a constant state of flux. One of my favourite shops which was double fronted and sold items of electronic equipment had also unfortunately gone. I did note a complete new range of buildings from Browns Road to that well known haunt of the Rose and Crown public house. It was good to see this place was at least still flourishing.

Rounding the bend in Hoe Street by the old Granada cinema did however take me completely by surprise. As the vista towards Hoe Street Station came into view, staring me in the face was the uncompleted concrete profile of what appears to be a high rise block of flats or offices in creation, thrusting upwards above the rooftops. My once so familiar skyline  now completely dominated by what I consider a hideous blot on the landscape. When driving it is not possible to completely absorb everything one sees as concentration on the road and traffic clearly take first priority. It did seem as we drove past this building site that this construction was actually sitting atop of the railway bridge but I could be mistaken about that. When one no longer lives in an area it’s always wise to avoid disparaging remarks out of respects for those that still live there. I cannot help however but think that this construction however high it may finally be will visually do little for the future of Walthamstow.

Although it was sad to see the Granada still boarded up, at least the horrible fly posters that always seem to adorn empty buildings have been removed, for now anyway. I was also surprised to see the large open piazza area at the top of the High Street. The last time I saw Google maps this area was all behind hoardings which I fully expected to see. I know there has been much local controversy about this site but it certainly looks much improved at the moment. However as the site is so large and so empty  save for a few seats and flower tubs around the perimeter, I have the feeling this might only be a temporary arrangement. All of this does however is beg the question of why was the prosperous and modern arcade that once stood on this site demolished in the first place? It was an arcade well used by thousands and which enhanced both visually and commercially this great shopping area.

Most of the remainder of Hoe Street to the Bakers Arms appeared unchanged but again it was sad to see the public house which gave this area it’s name was now a betting shop. As I was waiting at the traffic lights at the Bakers arms I could not help but notice a wide concrete column with a white globe on top standing on the small island where the public toilets had once been. I cannot help but think if there was one public amenity so much used by everybody as well as sometimes being desperately required, why so many public conveniences have been removed across London. Their removal served no practical purposes and literally have inconvenienced many. I sometimes wonder if the toilets are still there underground with some sort of lid being placed over the entrances?

Leyton Baths which I knew so well have now disappeared and again by Leyton Green, growing overnight like a concrete mushroom appears to be another high rise block being built in Capworth Street. How nice it would have been for planners to have learned high rise building and suburban areas simply do not mix.

It was nice to see the old area again even if briefly, but such visits are always tinged with mixed emotions. Change is always an on-going process, most of what I saw was well done. Why on earth do planners have to spoil what is good with a few developments that quite frankly, appear so damn awful?

Walthamstow Memories 2

Granada Cinema, Walthamstow, in 1989

Granada Cinema, Walthamstow, in 1989 - © Copyright John Leeming and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

For a young growing lad, it would be difficult to describe Walthamstow in the 1950/60’s as the cultural or entertainment centre of the world. Apart from a large number of cinemas either located in Walthamstow or the surrounding areas, something of an entertainment vacuum pervaded this large area of outer north-east London. A number of local public houses did sponsor some decent folk music clubs which I was to discover in later life, but until I was legally old enough to go to these venues, a ghostly dearth of silence descended over the area during the evenings. A large neo-gothic building called the Assembly Hall adjacent to the Town Hall frequently hosted dances at weekends but to a schoolboy this cost money which my 3d (three old pence) a week pocket-money did not permit access to.

Travelling to the west-end of London was also a difficult option. Apart from the question of non-existent money for the fare, transport links into London were very poor of an evening. The only two realistic choices were by bus or train. The bus journey would take one via Tottenham, Holloway and so on and would take an eternity to arrive. This journey would also face one with the daunting prospect of returning the same way. After a night on the town, the lengthy return bus journey home could only be described as something of a passion killer.

At this era of time, the Victoria Line did not exist leaving only two other options for travel into central London. Either a long wait at Hoe Street Station for a steam train to arrive belching steam, smoke and fumes all over ones clothes, followed by a journey in a normally unheated carriage into Liverpool Street Station or, another bus ride to Leyton Station to catch the Central Line into London. Whatever the choice, all were a wee bit impracticable one way or another for travel into London during the evening.

It was almost as if unknown strategic planners had decided that the population did not need to travel far in the evening and it was their sacred duty to stop such a mass exodus by all means possible. These same mythological planners also managed to work out ingenious methods of ensuring that all public transport back to Walthamstow ceased before the end of  any of the West End shows. I take my hat off to these unknown planners as the exceeded in their task well.

A few church based youth clubs existed which were useful if one wanted to play a game of badminton, however some of these suffered from the drawback of also requiring church membership to use the facilities. Even the High Street, busy and bustling during the daytime, became something of a ghost town during the evening. The most exciting thing I can remember occurring in the High Street was the opening of a Wimpy Bar in the parade of shops that replaced the old Palace Theatre when it was demolished. It was hardly the sort of place one could hang out with friends all night and I recall the price of a Wimpy hamburger was always exactly 5 shillings, (25 pence in today’s money). These were not the double or triple hamburgers of today with lots of fillings or relishes, these were simple small hamburgers in a bun with a few fried onions and a dash of tomato ketchup if required.

All in all, the youth of Walthamstow were poorly catered for if at all during the 50/60’s. I suppose it was obtaining by first motorcycle in 1961 that enabled me to escape the dreary humdrum and non-existent mundane nightlife of Walthamstow.

Numbers of motorcyclist cafes sprung up on the outskirts of north-east London, the Bee-Hive in Woodford I recall the most, where tales of doing the fabled ton, (100 mph), down the Epping New Road used to abound. Outside conversation in the car park or more precisely, the bike park would often be interrupted by the noise of a fellow motorcyclist screaming past the establishment. This would soon be followed with the smell of Castrol R wafting across the area followed by nods of approval from the motorbike gurus of the day. Castrol R was a more expensive than usual vegetable based engine oil that was supposedly better suited to high revving engines. It certainly had a distinctive smell and to use it in your motorbike was something of a status symbol. Other motorcycle cafes were located at Charlie Brown’s round-a-bout and on the North Circular Road. Charlie Browns was buried years ago under the concrete of the M11 when it was built. This was a brief era which signalled the transition from the age of the Teddy Boy and prior to the advent of scooters and the Mods and Rockers age.

The cinemas in Walthamstow briefly mentioned earlier ranged from what could be best described as the local flea-pit type through to the middling with the Creme de la creme being the Granada in Hoe Street. I always got the impression that I was entering a mid eastern potentates palace when I entered the Granada. Ornate columns and furnishings abounded everywhere and the seating was plush and comfortable. With some other cinemas one could feel the springs in the seat digging into ones behind  after a short time.

My first experiences of the Granada were the Saturday morning pictures for kids. I think the cost was then 3d and it tended to be more of a social service than a profit-making exercise. The programs always had the same format starting with a few cartoons. Cartoons were a rare luxury then and not the voluminous computer animated material which is churned out today. There was always a cowboy film with the likes of Roy Rogers, Tom Mix or Lash Larue. Whatever the story line of the film, the characters were always stereo-cast. The “Baddies” always dressed in mandatory black clothing, had moustaches and hung around in the local saloon which was normally owned by the Chief Baddie. The Goodies on the other hand were always clean-cut, shaven, did not drink and wore light immaculately ironed clothes. The penultimate finale to all the films always ended up with a horseback chase with the Goodies in the form of a posse chasing the Baddies. The chase always started with immortal lines that went something like “Ok Boys, After them.”. As the film shots switched between both the Goodies and Baddies all the children in the audience would either boo or cheer. The hero always seemed to ride off into the sunset which struck me as being rather peculiar. How many of us would wait until morning before embarking on such a journey?

I recall once at the Granada they were screening a film called “Smiley” as their main feature film for the week. It was the story of a young freckle-faced Australian lad who was always getting into mischief and trouble. As I left the cinema one Saturday morning with my younger brother, we were approached by the manager. It turned out the my brother was the splitting image of the main character in the film and they wanted him to assist in a promotion for them. In all fairness the manager did come to our home to seek my mothers approval and at the end of the week, my brother, (Smiley), was presented with a brand new bike on stage. I also recall I never got a ride on it though.

The cinemas that were on the lower end of the scale appeared to suffer similar fates when VHS tapes and video shops led to the decline of this form of entertainment. First they would suffer from falling audiences and become rapidly dilapidated. Introducing adult sex films often followed before their eventual closure.

One such cinema I recall  was located on the corner of Hoe Street and Forest Road opposite the Bell Public House, I believe it may have originally gone under the name of The Empire. Due to the natural sweep of the road at this point, the pavement immediately outside this cinema was wide. Unfortunately this additional pavement area proved to be a bit of a set back to patrons visiting the cinema on a Sunday evening. This was also the spot the local Salvation Army chose to hold their open air service. I can recall on many occasions watching a film only for the soundtrack to be drowned out by what sounded like the massed bands of the Salvation Army playing outside. The noise from tambourines, tubas, trumpets, the big bass drum let alone the vocal accompaniment flooded through the cinema much to the annoyance of the patrons. While I do support the Salvation Army, I do think they could have been a little more circumspect in both their timing and location.

The Empire also had a reputation for introducing something novel during film performances to liven up the atmosphere. Although the intentions were well meant, they were ideas that had a habit of going disastrously wrong. One such occasion  I recall was during the showing of a horror film. The cinema staff had rigged a wire line around the outside aisles and during the showing of the film, a skeleton with a few internal lights  and dangling from the wire suddenly came out of a side door of the stage. I think the intention was for the skeleton to raise a few screams of terror as it made a circuit of the cinema before disappearing back though another door on the opposite side of the stage. Unfortunately the staff had not seen the possibility of local lads in the audience sticking a foot out into the aisle and bringing the entire contraption to a halt. I recall this rather stupid looking skeleton just hanging in the side aisle for the remainder of the performance. More people in the audience died from laughing that from a fit of terror.

The Carlton cinema that was located on the corner of the High Street and the former Colebrook Road also suffered terminal decline before it was transformed into a local supermarket store and then eventually demolished to make way for the new shopping arcade. I always remember the Carlton as a functional cinema rather that one in the luxury bracket. It was clear this cinema was struggling financially when the already meagre staff were further reduced. Towards the end, the manager would sit in the ticket box and sell you your ticket and then run out a side door as you approached the doors of the cinema, tear your ticket in half before directing you to your seat.

Although I have not lived in Walthamstow for over 20 years now, its nice to be able to use advances in technology  like Google Street maps to take a virtual walk around the place. This however can be both a positive and negative experience. Many of the original cinema buildings still exist but unless you have either personal knowledge or are fortunate enough to see old photographs, frequently few external clues remain as to their former existence or glory. I find it sad and hard to believe that the Creme de la creme that was the admirable Granada complex has become little more than a dilapidated billboard for posters.

For some reason whenever I see sad sights like this a verse from a long forgotten song or poem always crosses my mind. “I have walked this way before, I may never walk this way again.”

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