Last month I spent an interesting Sunday on a walking tour of London’s East End organised by my local camera club.
For fans of Eastenders (the TV programme) – and people (like me!!) that think Albert Square and its inhabitants are real, it was an exciting prospect to visit the East End and find out what it’s really like. The closest I got to finding anything remotely Albert Square ‘ish’ or ‘The Queen Vic’ though was Albert Walk and The derelict Royal Oak.
The tour was booked with Author Paul Talling who was brought up and still lives in the East End. Originally a music promoter, Paul started photographing derelict areas of the East End whilst walking through the area and many of the derelict buildings / areas featuring in his book he has stumbled upon and discovered by chance. Paul now makes a living by rambling the streets of London and giving guided walking tours. His knowledge of the area, the history and plans for future regeneration is second to none.
His website: http://www.derelictlondon.com/ and published books make fascinating reading / viewing.
We met Paul at Gallions Reach Tube Station all but one stop from the end of the DLR line. Having caught the Tube from Osterley (about as far west as you can go) and spending 1 and half hours on the Underground, I was slightly dismayed when he said there was nothing around the area where we could get refreshments! In fact, we hardly saw any signs of life all day! I know it was a “Derelict Tour” but even in residential areas, there was no sign of life except for an enthusiastic bunch of photographers – What do East Ender’s do on a Sunday? Where do they go? It felt quite eerie actually, wandering around, even the traffic was minimal.
My first glimpse of the East End was on the DLR journey. I was fascinated to see tiny rows of Victorian Houses that had survived the blitz, sandwiched between ghastly modern giant eye sores with tiny patches of green which constituted communal squares, allotments and tiny back gardens. This first observation continued on foot for most of the tour and the juxtaposition of old and new was quite stark in some areas.
We spent the morning on the edge of the River Thames on a derelict pier with the view of the old Beckton Gas Works, then after a ramble through some overgrowth and climbing a wall to the bank of the River Thames, Paul took us to the wreck of a sunken barge (circa 1900’s) which is only visible and accessible at low tide.
We wandered on through some residential areas – Albert Walk as shown above until we came to North Woolwich Pier. This area was really derelict, cold, empty it didn’t even have a spooky presence – just a sad feeling of being long forgotten.
I’m not sure if it was the atmosphere of the area or the imminent rain that had been forecast, but we were all starting to flag so we headed to the one and only functioning pub that we saw during the day. It looked neither welcoming or friendly and I was rather dubious about how the presence of 20 cold photographers and all their gear would be received behind the net curtains.
Food wasn’t on the menu so we all made do with a pint and packet of crisps (minus the pickled eggs and jellied eels). I was quite pleased that we were allowed to stay and not to told to “Get Outta My Pub”. However, the news of our arrival didn’t take two minutes to reach the invisible Landlord who told the barmaid to let us know he would do some bar snacks “On the ‘Ouse”.
We had the most amazing Sunday Lunch – East End style and were made to feel very welcome. Bar snack of the day was sliced bread and butter with sausage and chips – delicious! Although it was “On the ‘Ouse” and I’m sure the motivation was to get repeat business from Paul and his walking tours, we all dug deep and left a very generous tip!
There were only a few locals in the pub – all men, propped at the bar and watching football. I would liked to have taken their pictures, to document some real Eastenders but felt that would be pushing my luck when they were being hospitable in their own territory. I asked Paul why there were so few pubs left in the East End. Although part of the reason is now culture and beliefs, historically, many of the reasons are economical with the decline of many local industries over the past 60 years.
So there we are – although Albert Square is fake, the East End is real enough – or is it? The derelict buildings and their areas are only shadows of their former self – built to last, standing tall and proud, vacant. But look hard enough and they provide evidence of history and act as guardians to a life that existed long ago.
The word “Regeneration” means to “undergo spiritual, moral or physical renewal; to reproduce or re-create”. To demolish these old buildings and make way for physical renewal in terms of modern and profitable office blocks and accommodation would be a crime. Erasing these structures and replacing them with modern buildings not only erases history and the character of the area, but would seem completely fake The graffiti in the picture above seemed quite poignant whilst these derelict buildings await their fate:
“Let it rot for 30 years then rebuild it for 30 Million”
Change however is inevitable and after the tour I realised how import it is to make more of an effort to document our existence and habitat not just for ourselves but for future generations to look back on. Photography is the perfect medium to record these changes and it is something I would quite like to do in the historic market town where I live. I recently came across a selection of photographs taken in the 60’s / 70’s and some as recently as 15 years ago when I first moved to the area. I couldn’t believe how much had changed in such a short space of time and how my children won’t remember “Woolworths” in the Market Square or the family owned DIY shop that used to do the most amazing Christmas window displays with an electric train set driven by Santa! I have been completely enthused by Paul and his derelict buildings and hope to start an ongoing personal project, recording change to the landscape of my town. Watch this space!!