Saturday, September 06, 2014

Poplar, Shoreditch and a Metaphor (or Two)

Friday, I set out on my over-planned, long-awaited walk through Poplar, looking for references to people and places of Poplar past -- Chinatown, the docks and sailors, the nuns and midwives. I'd done scads of research, and mapped the whole thing out on Google maps. You can see the map here -- it's really worth a look, as the notes contain tons of info gleaned from my research with some good links. The plan was to walk from Limehouse station to Trinity Buoy Wharf, with a stop at the Museum of London in Docklands to see an exhibition on bridges that coincides with the 120th anniversary of Tower Bridge. Just before I left for London, I read about a video exhibition at Balfron Tower that was to open the very day I was there, so I ambitiously booked myself for the first timed-entry slot at 12:15 pm. When I arrived in London, I made plans to meet up with three of my mates right after the video -- they would join me for the Trinity Buoy Wharf bit. 

I reached Limehouse about 10 minutes behind my schedule. But I knew where I was going and I set out with map in hand. About 15 minutes into the walk, things started to go all pear shaped when my camera began to act up. It had done something funny a couple times the day before -- the display went black, but for a message saying "Change camera settings." I had been able to turn it on and off a couple times and get it working on Thursday, but this day it just went from bad to worse. So I sat on a bench on the Commercial Road for about 15 minutes, as the traffic whizzed by, while I fiddled with every button and knob that I could to no avail. Realising that I was getting way behind in my schedule -- and deciding I needed to find a loo -- I pushed on, skipping several things on my map but still working many of them in. I nipped into the Museum of London to use the loo, crossed the multiple lanes of traffic on an overhead walkway at Poplar Station, and walked up Hale Street to reach East India Dock Road. Just before the corner, I passed a disused public toilet and took out my camera to see if I could get a snap of the ladies' loo sign. My camera came alive and worked for the one shot before going back to black. 

At this point I was really worried that I wouldn't be on time for Home on High, the video installation at Balfron Tower. I could see the steeple of All Saints Church up ahead, and Balfron Tower a bit beyond that. Between the church and the tower was the most important destination on this trek -- the real "Nonnatus House" (actually called St Frideswide's Mission House) where the Anglican nuns and the lay midwives ("Call the Midwife") lived. I'd found it on StreetView, but I really, really wanted to see it with my own eyes. Sweaty and out of breath, I arrived in Lodore Street a bit before noon. So, there I was and desperately wanting a photo. I took out my camera again, punched a few buttons and managed to resurrect it one last time for a few shots of the mission and Balfron Tower around the corner. Was it divine intervention? Or the spirit of the nuns and midwives who did so much good for the women of Poplar in those difficult years just after the war? I think it was just down to stupid luck. 

I actually reached the assembly point at Balfron Tower about ten minutes early and had a nice chat with Gordon (aka Loopzilla), a Flickr mate who was serving as an invigilator (guide) for the video. Up we went to the 24th floor and watched the video in which a man and his son, former residents of the flat we were in, talked about what it was like living there from 1959 to 1970-something. The rest of the time was spent looking around the now-vacant flat and the views. Balfron Tower is currently occupied by many artists whose flats are also their studio space. Soon, all the residents will be moved out and the entire tower will undergo refurbishment. When the first residents moved in, it was such a time of hope -- clean new flats in a state-of-the art building, as part of a vibrant community. So much has changed as the building became more and more shabby and the original residents moved away. But it seems poised for a new beginning and a renewal of that optimism and community spirit. 

My next stop was East India station to meet Malcolm, Jenny and Jane for our ramble to Trinity Buoy Wharf, a place you can't really get to from anywhere, where interesting and creative things are happening. Thankfully, Jenny had been there before and knew a riverside route that I hadn't been able to work out on StreetView. Once a place of working docks and squalid housing, TBW is  now home to a container city of artists' studios, a warehouse for ENO's stage sets and flats, a school, a parkour academy, a lighthouse, an American diner (the last one made by the Worcester Lunch Car Company), and various quirky arty things scattered about. We first had a good, cheap lunch at the Bow Creek Cafe (I had a tuna & sweet corn sandwich, which is a requisite of any of my trips to London) and then poked around the buildings and sculpture and had a telling-off from a teller-offer security guard about taking photos (not me!) and generally being too close to a wedding party. The views of the river were great, and we saw several tall ships sailing up toward Greenwich or back down (there's a tall ships festival on this weekend). After this leisurely ramble, Malcolm and I took in the bridges exhibition back at the MoL in Docklands. 

From there, I headed to the Angel to meet Roger for dinner and theatre. We had a fantastic dinner at a Turkish restaurant called Gem in Upper Street and then saw Little Revolution at the Almeida. It was a lot better than the last thing we saw there. 

Saturday started with Pilates mat class up in Queen's Park, and then Roger and I set out to do some errands and see a new artists fair at the Old Truman Brewery. This was the first time I had gone out on the streets of London without a camera, and I found it liberating. I'd been remarking on how, when I didn't have use of my camera on Friday, I paid more attention to the bigger picture and to the company of my friends. Not doing that OCD thing of snapping every little bit that caught my attention seemed to put me more in tune with the flow of the streets and the people. Today, I really felt like a Londoner rather than a tourist. We had a great lunch of Ethiopian street food in Brick Lane, stopped in at the Howard Griffin Gallery to check on a print Roger had ordered, popped into a bookshop so Roger could get wrapping paper, and stopped at a (not very good) sale of upcycled crafts in Meanwhile Gardens on the way home. 

Now I'm back at the flat while Roger is at a wedding. I'm going to take a long soak in the tub, heat up the soup I just bought at the Coop, drink wine and relax. If you've made it to this point in the post, I thank you for hanging in. Only one more day and one more post to go. My back is holding up remarkably well, but I'm slowing down.

Friday Expenses:
£3 tuna and sweet corn sandwich
£10 dinner at Gem
25,934 steps, 10.23 miles

Saturday Expenses:
£15 for Pilates mat class
£5 street food in Brick Lane
£15 for two bottles of wine (one for me and one for a house present)
£2.40 for a pint of soup for my supper
14,903 steps, 5.88 miles


  1. Understand the liberated feeling, but, concerned for the future of your camera (or: excuse to get a new one?!?!). Glad you completed pilgimage to "Nonnatus." TBW sounds cool.

  2. Glad to be of service!!!