E15: Robert and the Railway Tree

E15 is Stratford, a place which grew because of the railway and more recently became the location of the 2012 Olympics – though the Olympic Park is now a separate new postcode (E20) which we shall come to in due course. But Stratford was here long before the railway, when there was an Abbey.

We start our walk at Stratford’s main Post Office which is at 26 – 28 The Broadway. Outside is one of those postboxes painted gold following the 2012 Olympics. This one is slightly different from most of the others in that it does not celebrate a particular athlete but rather the Games themselves. (The paint job hasn’t weathered too well though)

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Walk as if you have turned right out of the Post Office and soon you will come upon the Langthorne pub.

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I am sure the drinkers in here have no idea about where the name of this pub came from. It comes from the name of the medieval Abbey that stood nearby until the 1530s. Sadly there is nothing of the Abbey left to see, so far as I am aware.

Continue walking and ahead you will see a traffic island. Go onto that.

Stop 1: The Railway Tree

Here in the middle of the road is our first stop. It is an artwork made out of rail shaped metal and it is called “The Railway Tree”. This celebrates Stratford’s railway history as a major railway centre for both passengers and freight and also as the locomotive works of the Great Eastern Railway.

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There is a plaque below which explains this is by Malcolm Robertson and dates from 1996. It was commissioned by Stratford City Challenge – City Challenge was a now largely forgotten scheme of the 1990s to encourage regeneration.

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Keep heading away from your start point and cross the carriageway to your right.

As we head over the bridge, look out for this Meridian marker in the pavement on the bridge. We saw some different style markers when in E11. We also saw a building called Meridian House in E14 which turned out not to be on the Meridian at all!

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Now look over the road.

Stop 2: Sync (former Rex Cinema and Borough Theatre)

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The first theatre here was opened in 1896 as the Borough Theatre and Opera House. It seated 3,000 and was designed by Frank Matcham. Look up and you will see the name of the original theatre.

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And now look down and you will see a little head.

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This is apparently Beethoven, though quite why I have no idea. He did write a couple of Operas –  Fidelio being the best known. But I wouldn’t have thought he would be first choice on a building that called itself (however briefly) an Opera House.

The first incarnation of this building closed in 1933 and then well known cinema designer George Coles created a modern cinema here with a new corner entrance and a 1,889 seat Art Deco auditorium. It reopened as the Rex Cinema in 1934. In 1935 it was taken over by Associated British Cinemas who operated it until closure in 1969.

According to the wonderful Cinema Treasures site, it was converted into a bingo club which remained until 1974 when it briefly became a cinema again for a few months, screening Asian movies. The building then lay empty and decaying for 21 years.

In 1996, the original stage house and dressing room block were demolished and a new high-tech unit was built. The rest of the building was restored to its 1934 condition and became a multi-use venue for concerts, live performances and a nightclub with a capacity of 2,500 patrons.

Since then it has had a somewhat chequered history having closed in 2007 and again in 2009. In late October 2012, it reopened as Sync, but it seems to be closed again now.

Now cross the main road. There is no actual crossing nearby but there seem to be big gaps in the traffic so it is quite easy.

Stop 3: Stratford High Street Station

This looks like a railway station and indeed it was. It also now appears to be the entrance a Docklands Light Railway (DLR) station but all is not quite what it seems – as we shall see.

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The first station here was built by the Eastern Counties and Thames Junction Railway in 1847 on the line from Stratford to Canning Town. The line was leased to the Eastern Counties Railway which itself became part of the Great Eastern Railway in 1862. Initially it was called Stratford Bridge station but it was renamed Stratford Market station in 1880 after the nearby fruit and vegetable market.

In 1892 it was rebuilt for the Great Eastern Railway, so that is the date of this building. The station closed in 1957 although the line however continue to function until 2006. It was rebuilt as part of the Stratford International extension of the DLR and a station was put back here which opened in 2011. But interestingly the station building did not get reused for the new station, as can be seen when one actually walks round.

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The DLR station is completely separate from the old building.

Return to the High Street and turn right. Out next stop is a little way along on the right.

Stop 4: Stratford Town Hall

First you will see the old Fire Brigade building. Architectural expert Pevsner suggests that all that remains of the original 1860s building is the small section with the carved inscription. the rest of the building to the right is slightly later dating from the 1870s.

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Note these old telephone boxes which I believe are of the K6 variety. They are available to let as very small shops!

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But the main attraction here is the Old Town Hall itself. The first section was completed in 1868 and then it was enlarged in the 1880s. Pevsner describes this as a “confidently Victorian version of arched cinquecento”, in other words in the style of the Italian Renaissance of the 16th century,

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By the way look over the road. In the middle you will see a plain obelisk.

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This dates from 1861, and is dedicated to Sir Samuel Gurney who lived at Ham House. The grounds of that house are now West Ham Park as we saw when we were in E7. He was one of the many Quakers to contribute to the area’s civic and charitable life in the 19th century.

Keep walking along the main road.

Stop 5: King Edward VII pub

Just along here on the right there is an older interloper which is the two storey King Edward VII pub. Pevsner describes this as an 18th establishment remodelled in the 19th century with “ornate and bumptious doorcases”.

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This is quite an unusual name for a pub and it turns out that this pub was called “The King of Prussia” until the beginning of the First World War. Obviously not a great name to have then so it got changed. But it did not get the name of the then current monarch but the previous one. Presumably it was felt it was not quite proper to name the pub after a living British King.

This is quite an interesting survivor of an old style pub and feels like it should be in some small country town and not in East London.

Continue walking along the main road. Our next stop is on the right.

Stop 6: Number 55 – 57 Broadway (site of Empire theatre)

This modern building was the site of the Stratford Empire theatre.

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The Empire Palace of Varieties was opened on 3rd April 1899. Initially part of the London and District Empire Palaces it soon became part of the Moss Empire chain.

The building was designed by noted theatre architect W.G.R. Sprague, From 1906, the Empire Theatre was equipped to screen films as part of the variety programme and this continued for many years.

The building received a direct hit from German bombs in October 1940. The wreck of the building stood until it was demolished in 1958. At one point the office building here was named Empire House but that does not seem t be the case anymore.

Continue along The Broadway and cross over at the junction with the lights. This is the start of Romford road. Our next stop is ahead on the right.

Stop 7: Stratford Library

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This modern building, dating from 2000, need not detain us. The focus here is immediately outside the Library where there are a couple of memorials.

First is to the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 – 1889)

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The reason for this stone is that he was born in a house near here and it was his childhood home until 1852. He was brought up in the High Anglican tradition but converted to Catholicism and became a Jesuit priest.

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I do not know much about poetry but apparently much of Hopkins’s historical importance is about how he challenged what had hitherto been the conventional rhythyms of poetry.

The second memorial seems to have two dedications. The upper panel relates to a woman called Edith Kerrison (1850 – 1934) and below there is the inscription: “Erected by many friends in memory of a life of service to others”

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She was the first woman councillor to be elected to West Ham Borough Council and was an advocate for women and children. Today there is a nursery school named after her in E16.

But below this is a reminder that there was at one time gardens here. According to this plaque they were damaged in the Second world War and were restored for the 1951 Festival of Britain.

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No sign of these gardens now!

Cross the main road and head for the big church you can see ahead of you. Go past the church and into the driveway on the left to find our next stop.

Stop 8: The Martyrs Monument

Here in front of St John the Evangelist Church is a rather large Victorian memorial.

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This commemorates the burning at the stake of 11 men and 2 women in the 1550s under Queen Mary. They were protestants who refused to recant their beliefs. . There seem to be a few more people who were killed for their protestant beliefs who get a mention on this memorial.

It is not exactly clear whether this was the site of the actual burning. It might have been at the Fairfield in Bow – we stopped by there when in E3. Even St John’s own website suggests that this bit of Stratford may not have been the actual location: http://www.stjohnse15.co.uk/fabric/martyrs.html

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Although it says erected in 1878, it was actually inaugurated in a ceremony on 2 August 1879, presided over by the Earl of Shaftesbury.

Now return to the street and our next stop is just over the road.

Stop 9: Broadway shops

Long before the arrival of the Westfield Shopping Centre, Stratford was once an important suburban shopping centre. It had a couple of department stores. One was called Boardmans which was at numbers 64 – 76 The Broadway and seemed to go round the corner into a side street built over by the Stratford Shopping Centre in the early 1970s.

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There is a photograph on the Newham Council website which shows the store in 1971 when it was celebrating its centenary.

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It was taken over by a Southend Department Store called Keddies later in the 1970s but closed down in 1984. The building was demolished and an office block was built on the site, called Boardman House, with a few shops on the ground floor.

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Then just a little further east at Numbers 78 – 102 was another large store, the Co-Op. This is a 1950s building which has survived.

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Today it is mostly taken up by Wilkos but there is also a Poundstretcher and a pub called The Goose.

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Return towards the Library and before you get there, take a turn down Salway Place (Maplins is on the corner). It looks like just an alley but keep walking and you find yourself in Stratford’s “cultural quarter”. We pass an arts centre called Stratford Circus on our left, which opened in 2001. And on our right is the Picturehouse cinema dating from 1997.

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Keep on and you get to a little piazza called Gerry Raffles Square. Gerry Raffles (1928–1975) worked with director Joan Littlewood on such productions as A Taste of Honey and Oh! What a Lovely War. But he was also her partner for many years. But we are jumping ahead.

Stop 10: Theatre Royal

We cannot come to E15 and not visit this veritable institution.

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This theatre dates from 1884. It had a make over by renown theatre architect Frank Matcham in 1902. For most of its life it has been known as the Theatre Royal Stratford East, presumably to distinguish it from other Theatre Royals, notably Drury Lane and Haymarket.

It seems to have been a rather struggling enterprise, opening and then closing though the 1920s and 1930s. But its survival today is down to what happened after the Second World War when Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop company took a lease on the theatre in 1953.

Theatre Workshop had been formed in 1945 as a touring company.  They presented a mixed programme of classics and modern plays with contemporary themes. But the theatre they took on in Stratford was virtually derelict and no funds were available for renovation. The actors cleaned and painted the auditorium between rehearsals – and to save money the cast and crew slept in the dressing rooms, although Joan Littlewood had a home to go to – which she apparently did.

Many well known actors began their professional careers at Theatre Workshop under Littlewood. They included Harry H. Corbett, Richard Harris, Nigel Hawthorne and Barbara Windsor.

“Fings ain’t wot they used t’be” also started off here. Originally it was as a play about East End low life written by a man called Frank Norman but after Joan Littlewood read it, she asked Lionel Bart to write the music and lyrics. It was first performed by Theatre Workshop, produced and directed by Littlewood in February 1959. And the next year Bart produced his most famous work, the musical Oliver! based on the Dickens’ story of Oliver Twist.

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This sculpture of Joan Littlewood outside the theatre is by Philip Jackson (1944 – ) and dates from 2015. We saw another of his works in our E13 walk – he was responsible for the World Cup statue near the old West Ham Football Ground.

I have to say though it reminds me of those real life “statues” you see in tourist places usually painted gold or else as a character from Star Wars or Tolkien. There is something decidedly odd about sticking the figure on a little pole like this.

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Now head onto the main road and turn left, following the main road round until you get to the crossing. Go over that and ahead is our next stop.

Stop 11: Stratford Station

Stratford was an early railway centre and today it is one of the major transport hubs in London, with not only a major rail interchange but also a large bus station.

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Outside there is an old steam engine called Robert.

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But all is not what it seems. This engine has nothing whatsoever to do with Stratford’s railway history, so why is it here?

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As the sign explains, it was built in Bristol for an industrial railway in Northamptonshire. It ended up in London because it was bought by the London Docklands Development Corporation as an example of a 20th century industrial steam engine. It was put on display in Beckton initially but was moved here in 2011 “to commemorate the area’s association with railways which began when the first station opened here by the Eastern Counties Railway in 1839.”

The railway has been an important part of the development of Stratford. But the story of the building of the various lines though Stratford is as tangled as the railway lines themselves and I cannot do justice to the story so here is a link to Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stratford_station

However I will just mention the eccentric platform numbering.

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Platforms 1 and 2 were added in 2009 and are on the north side of the station, next to platform 12. They were built for the London Overground North London line which now runs from here to Richmond and Clapham Junction.

At one time the North London line ran between North Woolwich and Richmond via a pair of low level platforms which were numbered 1 and 2. But the DLR took over the most of route south from Stratford and these platforms after being rebuilt for DLR became numbered 16 and 17.

That is because they are next to the Jubilee line platforms opened in 1999 which were numbered 13 to 15. That meant all the low level platforms could be numbered in a single group. I guess the alternative would have been to keep platforms 1 and 2 next to platforms 13 – 15, but then the new London Overground platforms would have to be numbered 16 and 17 but next to platform 12.

But it does not stop there. If you then go on to the high level platforms you discoverpPlatforms 4a and b are not between platforms 3 and 5 as you might expect. As you enter from the main ticket hall, they are off to the left before you get to platform 3. This is because there used to be a little bay platform numbered 4 between platforms 3 and 5. This was taken over when the DLR first got to Stratford from Poplar. However the end of this line was all single track and when capacity had to be increased some of the single track was doubled and a two platform station created at Stratford.

The original platform 4 was abandoned and the new DLR platforms (which were no longer between platforms 3 and 5) were numbered 4a and 4b.

So hopefully should you be wandering round Stratford station and wondering why the platforms numbers are not in a logical order, that is the reason.

So that brings us to the end of our E15 walk – a bit of theatrical history, a bit of railway history, a bit of shopping history plus some monuments including one which is probably not in the right place. As we are at Stratford station, I hardly need to tell you about onward travel!

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2 thoughts on “E15: Robert and the Railway Tree

  1. I walked through the front door to Stratford Fire Station (No.1 West Ham), which used to be to the right in early 1964. It was another 42 years before I retired from the fire brigade

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