It might seem odd to revel in a scene of industrial pollution but the sight of it at the point where the Channelsea River meets Abbey Road filled me with a wave of nostalgia for a time before the Olympic Juggernaut appeared over the horizon and began its relentless program of prettifying and gentrifying the wilder areas of Stratford and West Ham. Areas around the waterways where industry and nature engaged in a longstanding arm-wrestle for control of the scenery. Then it was an abandoned, almost secret space to escape to.
The walk from Three Mills Studios along the Channelsea with the district line tubes rattling past the huge rusting gas holders in the background and overgrown nature everywhere might just survive the manicure that has taken place elsewhere. It is here that theatre director Joan Littlewood wanted her Fun Palace but that’s another story.
Right at the beginning of Barney Platts-Mills 1968 film, Bronco Bullfrog, set predominantly in Stratford, main character Del Quant and his mates break into a cafe, a raid that only results in some cakes by way of plunder. Remarkably the cafe still exists on the High Street in pretty much the same grubby condition, only now it is called the Pie Crust Cafe and serves Thai food among other hot things.
This cafe sits on the corner of Aldworth Road and West Ham Lane. It was still a hairdressers when I left Stratford in 2006 but it isn't the cafe that merits inclusion so much as its signage, or most of it at least.
Originally called Cafe Olympic, the owners fell foul of the IOC (International Olympic Committee) who threatened legal action unless they changed their name. Not wishing to be three grand out of pocket by changing the name and thus the signage the owners, in a moment of genius, decided instead to simply paint over the letter O, neatly sidestepping the legal issues and striking a blow for the little guy.
If the local council had gotten their way the theatre would have been demolished along with the rest of the surrounding area in making way for Stratford Shopping Centre. Only the efforts of Joan Littlewood and even more so Gerry Raffles prevented the bulldozers from flattening the Victorian playhouse back in the early 70s. It remains the sole survivor of what was once the heart of Stratford.
Dwarfed by the rising tower blocks and encased in scaffolding last time I saw it, the old Yardley building, where boxes and packaging for the cosmetics company were once made still stands, as does the painted image of the Yardley flower girls on its tiled exterior. As the long neglected High Street gets a face-lift this mural is a reminder of its industrial past.
Neil Fraser has lived in East London for 21 years, in West Ham, Barking, Stratford, and now in Leytonstone with his family. He has worked in a betting shop, a mail-order book club and is currently a teacher. Over the Border: The Other East End is his first book and is available on amazon now.
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