A Golden Afternoon
“It was autumn in London, that blessed season between the harshness of winter and the insincerities of summer, a trustful season when one buys bulbs…believing perpetually in spring and a change of Government” Saki 1870-1916
In the early months of 2015, the wind opened its mouth and blew. It blew over the head of Spring, through the underskirts of Summer, and now, as Autumn lurks around the corner, it’s still blowing. That’s the East Coast for you; a chunk of land littered with oddities and eccentricities; a land of huge open skies, crumbling coastlines and capricious winds. This is East Anglia. It can be found…up the A12.
But for a short while, let’s turn our backs on that North Sea blast, put the foot down on the accelerator and head south west, down the sweeping bends and curves of the A12. The miles zip by much faster than the history that flanks the sides of this road. As Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft disappear from the rear view mirror (along with their fishing industry), Ipswich beckons from below and the road sweeps over the River Orwell. Colchester stands sentry ahead. The Romans liked it here. Boudica didn’t, so she burned it to the ground, along with its inhabitants. Hah! Don’t mess with women!
The miles are consumed quickly as we enter the A12 ‘corridor’ – a green and pleasant landscape for now but also the brick and concrete dreamland of developers. For at the far end of the A12 sits LONDON. Now that’s an oxymoron for London does not sit; it sprawls, straggles and stretches and seems to have no consideration for boundaries. As the A12 slows and snarls and waves a greeting to its larger, congested relative the M25, our senses are assaulted by Post War Utility architecture that makes your heart plummet. Greater London welcomes us portentously. This is Gallows Corner. A quick inhalation of carbon monoxide and we are off again into the eastern reaches of the metropolis. Place names variously explain, describe, relate to or just hint at an interesting past now buried deep under concrete, brick, flyovers, foot bridges and TRAFFIC. Harold Wood, Gants Hill, Romford (beer) Ilford (film) Stratford, Poplar, Bow, (Cockneys), Blackwall. And it’s here that the A12 relinquishes its existence and bows to the overwhelming nature that makes London so very…Londonish!
But this journey is not yet over for our destination is the edge of Soho – an area that has recently had some deep, meaningful and I guess somewhat heated conversations with Developers with Grand Ideas! So, before the makeover alters everything beyond recognition, it is worth a quick meander around before the past crumbles and the future visions rise.
Denmark Street, the Tin Pan Alley of London, is about to be primped and preened. For those Developers have their hearts set on change, and change they will get. But this was once the centre of the UK music industry. Its earlier history may have a very dark side but this was also where the music publishers and the studios were to be found. This was where the likes of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, the Kinks and Elton John did their recording; where hopeful musicians drank coffee in The Giaconda Cafe (David Bowie being one of them) and the Sex Pistols rehearsed and daubed a few slogans on the walls.
But before going off onto too much of a nostalgic rant, it is best to remember that change is no stranger to this part of London. This area may be facing partial demolition but it has always been steeped in stories of despair, dreams, disease, darkness and death. Walk to the end of Denmark Street, turn the corner and take in the Gothic pile that is St Giles Church. This was once the last stop for those taking their final journey to the Tyburn Tree gallows (now the site of Marble Arch). Here, the condemned would be given a final drink from the St Giles Bowl, a concoction that numbed their senses before they faced the noose. The Great Plague of 1665, which killed great swathes of the population probably started around here. For this was an overcrowded warren of squalid, miserable dwellings with rat infested cellars and stinking, rubbish strewn streets. The Rookery, as it became known was, until the 19th century, a maze of alleys, gennels and courtyards, an area of poverty, squalor and overcrowding inhabited by the mad, the bad, the drunk and the destitute. This was a place best avoided if possible and when it was finally cleared away, it was difficult to see what future it could look forward to.
And so the circle turns. That was then and this is now. Change is happening again. The buildings will be ripped down, new ones (probably quite glitzy ones) will rise. But this is an area with a very powerful dark past. Can a place really change just because the buildings are ripped down and replaced? Who knows. We shall watch the latest development of this area with great interest.