On The Map

Whether or not people mean it literally when they say the groundswell of community events I’ve written a lot about are ‘really putting Highams Park on the map’, Highams park is indeed about to appear on the map – the transport for London map that is. Although our train service won’t change, at least in the immediate term, when TFL take over the Liverpool Street to Chingford line in a few days, people across London will see our station (and indeed Wood Street and Chingford) on the same map as the more familiar underground lines. The area’s proximity to Walthamstow and the City will perhaps become more apparent to people who have previously given the E4 postcode very little thought. 

  

Whether this will have an impact on the area only time will tell. When TFL took other suburban services into the overground network  reports abounded of rising property prices and the sudden emergence of new hipster hotspots. This could be a double edged sword – already some attempts to create new focus for highams park have been stalled by unmanageable commercial rents for small local businesses. 

One thing which will not change is the continued growth in the community led initiatives which make the area a very special and exciting place to live. One opportunity arising directly from the change in management of the railway station takes place this week when the trackside retail unit becomes a temporary pop up shop ‘ (not quite) the end of the line ‘ run by the Highams Park Society and providing local groups and craftspeople with an opportunity to showcase what they do. This is just a prelude to another summer of events, which will include the first Highams Park Festival of Culture, the launch of two further Little Free Libraries, and the annual Highams Park Day. Anyone venturing for the first time to the newest area on the map should find more than enough to make them want to stay. 

The Unofficial Countryside

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The small wooden box has the image of a pylon burnt by hand into the top. Inside the lid a photograph of birds roosting on a telegraph pole which rises from a meadow’s unmown grass. The seven 3 inch CDs are housed inside paper sleeves featuring images so close up that it is hard to identify them. Some are plants, others man made structures – some could by either. These images immediately bring to mind Epping Forest, and the Lee Valley marshes which I know so well. But at the bottom of the box six map fragments, when pieced together turn out to be the less familiar Western edge of London- Ealing, Wembley, Twickenham, and at the top Hertfordshire – tantalisingly close to, although not quite reaching Essex. The landscape of the maps is familiar though – built up urban areas, reservoirs, and on the fringe of the city those inbetween places, where there is clearly green – but not wild – space. London has already subsumed some of it, and, on the map, is a constant threat to these delicate edge lands.

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This is ‘The Unofficial Countryside’ – a new release from Wist Rec. In this era of downloading and streaming a physical music release can become a sought after artefact – most obvious in the resurgence of vinyl, but releases like this go way beyond the LP. Packaging, artwork, and concept go hand in hand with the music – and when it works are inseparable from one another.

This release, each 20 minute disc the work of a different artist, has much of interest musically. Electronic and acoustic sounds crossing the same inbetween space as the rural/ urban artwork. It is often impossible to tell where the boundaries lie between a found sound or field recording and a synth or acoustic line, or between composed or improvised, natural or processed sound. It is the sort of release that is best to immerse yourself in, without trying to unpick the artist’s processes – and it certainly wouldn’t be the same as an iTunes download or on Spotify.

The Unofficial Countryside is inspired by Richard Mabey’s book of the same name – and the routes marked on the enclosed maps illustrate the walks he took when writing this study of the space between city and countryside as long ago as 1973. The book was pioneering in this field – an area which continues to be explored by writers, musicians and artists today, and this small box and its contents both continue that journey, encourage a reading of the text which inspired it , and bring a new perspective to past and future Urban Wandering in the edgelands of London.

Beyond TOWIE

Christmas brought a trip beyond the edge of London into Essex proper. An hours journey from Walthamstow along the A 12 took us past Chelmsford, to my in laws in Colchester for the festive season.

Despite having been visiting there for 15 years or so, I don’t know Colchester itself well – but I do know that this is a very different Essex to the land of TOWIE which borders our beloved Waltham Forest. It is also, I think a very different Essex from the places we generally do visit on these family weekends and holiday occasions.

We spent boxing day morning on the beach at Frinton on sea – a frequent haunt at all times of the year. Boasting a long, wide and sandy beach this town is a popular summer destination – it’s rows of beach huts exchange hands for prices which scare even Waltham Forest residents. It however has few of the normal trappings of tourist focuses seaside resorts – no beachside cafés or ‘fancy goods’ shops, no hot donuts or candy floss, and you even have to leave the sea front and head into the main shopping street to source an ice cream in midsummer. The town’s first pub, Shepherds Neame’s Lock and Barrel opened in the year 2000. Planning decisions for the town are clearly very protective of it’s character and this makes it feel somewhat unique, and, on balance, it is all the better for it. On a summer day on the beach, or indeed this Boxing Day, the simple pleasures of sandcastles, footballs and frisbees were enough for the most serious ipad addicts, and curiously there was no clamour for candy floss or 2p arcade machines. It is however undeniably a slightly odd place which seems to exist outside of the rest of Essex with an atmosphere captured in recent documentary ‘The curious world of Frinton on Sea’

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Appropriately I had downloaded for Christmas reading a recently published pair of essays on various aspects of Essex – ‘trying to fit a number to a name’. This short e-book is from Influx Press – an east London based independent publisher who specialise in writing about place. These pieces from Lee Rourke and Tim Burrows, especially after my journey from Walthamstow, and the morning on Frinton beach reflected and developed many of my thoughts about Essex, and contain a combination of history and cultural commentary that, rather than try to capture here I will simply heartily recommend to anyone with an interest in the area or more generally in this sort of phychogeographical writing.

Essex is many things – a retreat from london, an isolated and overlooked rural area, commuter suburbs or aspirational retirement destination. It has been reviled and revered, developed, or, like Frinton, stubbornly refused to change. It is the immediate neighbour of my part of London- both reliant on and essential to the big city, but in either Chigwell, Colchester , Clacton or Frinton can feel as foreign to London as another country.

Art, books, community (and just a little mulled wine )

The community spirit I wrote about in my recent post on the Highams Park Plan was much in evidence last weekend, as the community came together for a day of festive events which highlighted how much has been achieved in just a few short months.

First up was the launch of our three little free libraries, a project I’ve been involved in as part is the arts and culture group (ARC). Since the launch of the little free libraries project UK, with 12 installations in Walthamstow this simple but powerful idea has captured the imaginations of communities across the country, and the network of little free libraries seems to be expanding every week. These small wooden houses are each decorated by a local artist and hosted in residential, )or sometimes business locations and are available to all to leave, take, or swap a book. The combination of public art, literacy and community engagement embraced by this very simple idea shows the potential of grassroots activity. Small interventions can enhance an environment and positively impact people on a day to day basis.

Our three Highams Park little free libraries are situated across the area covered by the Highams park plan, and each artist’s design reflects a different aspect of our unique part of London.

On Abbotts crescent, the Magic Forest by Hiding Fox incorporates clay pressings of leaves collected from epping forest, with tree branches created from ceramic coated clay.

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Yvette Sargent’s Bee House on Handsworth avenue depicts book reading bees surrounded by the flowers that attract them, both reflecting the beautiful garden in which the library is situated and drawing attention to the declining Bee population and the potential impact of this.

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Sam Johnson’s Design on Selwyn Avenue reproduces the Highams park signal box – itself recently saved by community action, and now undergoing a restoration and occasionally open to the public.

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These three pieces of public art are, as local legend William Morris would have said, both useful and beautiful, and are already being used and enjoyed by people every day. We celebrated the launch of each of them with especially written poetry from local poets, and by swapping gift wrapped books as well as enjoying mince pies generously supplied by our hosts.

We followed this up with some late Christmas shopping at the Christmas craft market – where the majority of stalls were run by local artists, as well as a representation from a number of local businesses including xylonite arts, grace and albert cook shop and the recently relaunched royal oak. We finished the day with a mulled wine singing carols with people from across the area. That all of these events were organised by local residents, working entirely voluntarily made the event feel very special and a true celebration of the talent and entrepreneurial spirit in our area. As we look forward to 2015, which will amongst other things see the formal creation of our local area plan it is really exciting to think ahead and imagine how all these initiatives will develop over the coming year.

A Song of Open Space

‘ there is no square mile of earth’s inhabitable surface that is not beautiful in its own way, if we men will only abstain from wilfully destroying that beauty’ William Morris. 1884

We tell ourselves, when out in Epping Forest, or on Walthamstow or Hackney Marshes, that we are walking in wild, ancient places. That these woods and meadows have resisted the inevitable push of London to expand its boundaries. That somehow this wilderness has survived where numerous hamlets and villages have not – they after all are only remembered in the names of underground stations or the handy estate agent speak which gives us ‘urban villages’.

It’s nonsense of course. Epping Forest and the Lee Valley Park are as closely managed and curated as the parks of central London and other urban areas. And that’s nothing new. My fantasies of intrepid hunting expeditions in Epping Forest were somewhat shattered by the discovery that the Queen Elizabeth hunting lodge began life as a platform where the hunting party could stand in the dry and shoot at the carefully managed herd as they were driven into easy reach. Every meadow of course has to be mown and pollarding and coppicing are forestry techniques used for many centuries to tame the forest, to make it work for us, to make it yield the maximum possible for the least amount of human effort.

So these have not been untamed landscapes for centuries, and their relationship with the city and its inhabitants is complex. Perhaps these green spaces only survive at all because past generations of Londoners realised that left unchecked London would inevitably swallow up every copse and clearing.

Three pillars of legislation theoretically protect the fragile balance that keeps our part of London so special. The Epping Forest act of 1878 placed the Forest under the stewardship of the City of London Corporation who “shall at all times keep Epping Forest unenclosed and unbuilt on as an open space for the recreation and enjoyment of the people’; The Lee Valley regional parks authority was formed in 1967 to manage the Lee Valley, including parts of Hackney and Walthamstow marshes, and other parts of the marshes are designated as Metropolitan Open Land – a designation intended to protect areas of landscape, recreation, nature conservation and scientific interest’.

So that’s alright then. Previous generations have realised the value of these special places on the edge of London and ensured that they are preserved for the foreseeable future. They should not be susceptible to the short term vagaries of economic crises, or to the commercialism of multinational companies. London can be held back and we will always be able to escape into our green spaces.

But when a 15m high and 46m wide advertising hoarding appears on the Hackney Marshes centre, or when ‘the bikers tea hut’ is put out to tender and the prospect of Starbucks Epping Forest becomes a real one, or when a new changing facility and accompanying car park is proposed for the marshes we are reminded that this balance is a very fine one.

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We remember that after radio one’s big weekend on hackney marshes many of the football pitches were unusable for the whole season. That following the removal of a temporary Olympic basketball facility on Walthamstow marshes flooding became an issue due to failure to reinstate the land properly and the installation of a rubber sheet under the top soil. We remember those who fought for the common land which is now the Olympic park and perhaps invoke the spirit of William Morris in making our voices known , in scrutinising and challenging proposals which go beyond the spirit of that legislation and exceed the powers invested in the land’s temporary custodians.

Save Lee Marshes

Xylonite Arts – An arts space for Highams Park

This evening sees the launch of Xylonite Arts. Surely the first public arts space to appear in Highams Park for a while, and perhaps another sign that this area has reached the critical mass needed to sustain small, creative and quirky businesses.

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Xylonite arts at 12 Winchester Road will host small scale exhibitions, a permanent selection of carefully curated vintage pieces and works from local artists, and a variety of workshops and participatory sessions. It’s the brainchild of Lili Spain, a local curator and performance artist who brings a wealth of arts and business experience to this new venture. If the crowd at this evening’s opening is anything to go it will provide something unique to the area which fills the demand for a creative space on our doorstep.

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There’s certainly a wealth of local talent to draw on. xylonite arts opens with a secret sale of one off postcards designed mostly by local artists, although Lili has drawn on her wide network to persuade one or international names to contribute too. Choosing a piece to buy was quite a decision, but I’m delighted to have added an original work to my walls this evening- get down to 12 Winchester Road this week while the show’s still on!

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When a plan comes together

Something interesting is happening in Highams Park. This corner of Waltham Forest – the bit between Walthamstow and Chingford-  suddenly seems to be punching above its weight. When, last summer,  the local authority introduced a ‘place brand’, drawing attention to Waltham Forest’s four ‘most recognisable’ areas (Chingford, Walthamstow, Leyton, and Leytonstone), social media were soon alive with aggrieved comments from people who felt their area was equally deserving of being highlighted. Last July’s Highams Park Day – a fixture in the area for several years, seemed to take this community festival to another level, with stalls from local artists and craftspeople joining the line up for the first time. A few weeks ago, with memories of summer holidays rapidly fading, several hundred people spent a beautiful Indian Summer’s Sunday afternoon in the Highams Park for the first Picnic in the Park, and were entertained by a Jazz trio, welly wanging competition, a treasure hunt, and other family friendly entertainments.

 
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Art from the park – Highams Park Day 2014

I’m not suggesting that this sort of community spirit wasn’t present before, but it certainly feels as though it has stepped up a gear this year. And there is a reason. Several times a week – in venues across the area – upstairs in the county arms, in the newly refurbished Royal Oak, or in one of the many independent cafes – groups of local residents can be found deep in conversation, poring over lists of ideas and actions. These ‘topic working groups’ are working on ideas submitted for the first Highams Park Local Area Plan. ‘The Plan’ will be the formal outcome of the Highams Park Planning Group, which has now been recognised by the Local Authority, and is putting into practice the principles of 2012s Localism Act to give local communities the opportunity to influence the decision making which affects the future of their areas. This process is well underway, and the final plan should see local people’s views on planning decisions having much more weight in the future.

The content of the formal plan, and the impact it has on local authority decisions remains to be seen, but we are already beginning to see what may prove to be the most positive impacts of this project. Through wide and inclusive consultation, and the opportunity for anybody to be involved in the working groups, people are talking to each other. When people talk to each other, things start to happen, people make connections, and start to work together to make positive changes for their area. There are Topic Working Groups looking at everything from Heritage, Sports and Leisure, Shops and Retail and Transport, and I am sure they will all be making major contributions to the formal plan as well as implementing things that can be achieved in the more immediate term. I’ve been sitting on the Arts and Culture Group – there’s exciting things on the horizon, some of which will need major investment or strategic input, but already group members have started the monthly Highams Park Live nights, put together the ‘Art from the Park Stall’ at Highams Park Day, initiated the Little free Libraries for Highams Park project and much more besides. I’ll try to kickstart this blog at this exciting time to keep a record of all these projects, as well as the more general developments that the Local Area Plan brings to our special community on the edge of London.

To find out more about the Highams Park Planning Group and its topic working groups see: http://highamsparkplan.org/

 

ARC – Highams Park Plan Arts and Culture Topic Working Group – Facebook Page

A brief summary of the Localism Act: 
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