Monday 18 January 2010

In praise of Stratford (on-Lea!)

Our new London house is in Stratford in East London. It is not quite like Stratford-on-Avon, in that it is on the river Lea, not the river Avon. And a few other minor details. Virtually all the housing there is distinctly working class, of various periods, but mostly a lot of it is easier on the eye and perhaps more comfortable to live in than working class housing in other parts of the city. Our particular house was built expressly for railway workers in the mid-nineteenth century, and we think it's one of the cutest, as well as one of the oldest.

I doubt if Stratford is used to being given the 'tourist treatment', but I'm not about to let that put me off! For one thing, it will be very much in the public eye soon, due to being the site of the 2012 Olympics. For another, I like the place!

The first thing you notice about Stratford centre, compared to other London centres, is that it has large, open spaces and wide roads. There is a very large and impressive church right in the middle of these. My parents and I went inside and discovered an apparently complete and very nice Victorian Gothic style interior. I liked the stained glass sunset in the crucifixion scene over the altar, the pseudo-early Renaissance gilded paintings and the carved rood screen.

Opposite the church is a pub called the King Edward VII, or King Eddie, which I am pretty convinced is currently the best place to eat in town. I would go back there just for the devilled whitebait, but their risotto was also fabulous (and risotto is a dish I'm usually indifferent to). This pub is also worth visiting just for the architecture and interior. In fact a lot of pubs in this area are gorgeous to look at, though some of them are a bit on the rough side. One estate agent told me that a pub we passed was the inspiration for the pub in the Eastenders soap opera, but I forget which one.

My parents and I looked at one other little phenomenon in Stratford centre: the old town hall with adjoining fire station. I think both of these are now used for social functions. If you slip through the fire station gate, you find yourself in a courtyard with picnic tables, a disused fire drill tower and a couple of really lovely sculptures. I do not know why the best sculptures in town are hidden away back here, but so it goes. The town hall is a bit like the church, it's Victorian 'something', though perhaps not Gothic. It's nice inside, though I doubt the staff are used to people walking in just to look at it! It contains a prominently displayed bust of Keir Hardie, a Scottish socialist and founder of the Labour party in the late 19th to early 20th century. This, incidentally, is not something I would have known, myself, but I had my Dad with me. I not sure that Keir Hardie has any connection with Stratford beyond the fact that, as my Dad says, the local government is assuredly left wing. Apart from this, Stratford centre has the run-of-the-mill British high street shops. You can tell my parents live somewhere pretty provincial because my Dad got all excited when he saw Maplins (an electronic gadget store).

A final cool thing about Stratford is the Greenway, an incredibly long walking/cycling track that runs over the top of a Victorian sewer pipe line all the way to the Thames. This Greenway connects with a series of walking tracks that form a circle all around Greater London. The pipe is mostly raised and is so enormous that when I first encountered it, in a place where it crosses a road, I assumed it was a railway bridge. We walked along the top for several miles, even though the weather was foul. It's a bit over-graffitied in places, but still a nice thing to have. I'm looking forward to doing the whole London Circular walk some day.

Apart from that, Stratford is one of the friendliest places in London I've ever lived. Within a couple of weeks, we knew a fair proportion of the neighbours, and every single person we met was really nice. I'm just hoping any changes will be for the better, because right now, I'm really looking forward to living there when we get back from our travels.

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