Caught by the River

Essex Appeal: Part Three

Tim Burrows | 18th June 2018

In his third Essex-centric column, Tim Burrows talks displaced people and displaced birds

Swifts at dusk, Walthamstow, May 2017

I am alive among birdsong at dawn. Greta has a bug and I haven’t been able to get back to sleep after being up scrubbing puke from her bedroom carpet. So I’m out here immersed in this bath bomb of sound, avian gabba tearing into the pre-5am ambience.

It’s swift season, and some of the tiny, darting birds are going about their early morning affairs above the treetops that fringe the park opposite our flat like gigantic broccoli. Last May we watched as our patch of Walthamstow sky filled with hundreds of swifts gliding, swooping and diving in the rain of a hot spring evening. They make the arduous 14,000 mile journey from Equatorial and Southern Africa each year, one of the longest and least known migrations in the world. They spent the first few nights hanging out above chimney pots and among trees, before assimilating into the general London hubbub or moving further afield.

I grew up in Essex Proper but now live in ex-Essex, Walthamstow, with my wife Hayley and our daughter Greta. The London borough of Waltham Forest was formed in 1965 from the three municipal Essex county boroughs of Leyton, Walthamstow and Chingford. Essex played cricket up the road in the 19th century, and the county’s three swords once adorned municipal buildings and literature here. From our balcony I sometimes try to locate the direction of where Essex once met the now non-existent county of Middlesex, somewhere beyond the trees over by the river Lea, beyond the collection of once-private reservoirs that have been rebranded Walthamstow Wetlands at the edge of Tottenham. It’s where the sun sets, day disappearing where Essex once did.

Walthamstow Wetlands

Walthamstow’s status has morphed from the faintly aspirational working-class suburb that was largely built after the new train line to Liverpool Street turned the town – like much of Essex – into a commuter concern, to a place for youngish people to move to after they were priced out of Hackney (it me).

We moved to the area in 2011 and now live in the less fashionable end of town, miles from the expensive delis and posh Spar in what locals call “the village”, which is situated at the centre of what some developers and estate agents have christened “Awesomestow”. Such jargon is common in places deemed unfashionable and unkempt, as Walthamstow once was; a softener of those harsh and awkward signifiers of areas considered too rough to venture – see also: “Coolwich”. These terms divorce their target audience from the place they signify, replacing a meaningful relationship with a surface shorthand, a hashtag that represents an attempt to justify splashing out the best part of a million quid on a terraced house built for workmen’s families a century or so ago.

Though you couldn’t exactly describe it as a bucolic arcadia, we live at the sleepy end of town. This morning the flashing light at the zebra crossing sends out code in the lifting gloom; a man glowing in high-vis hurries to his place of work. During the day the local bus, the W19, glides in dozy majesty up and down the road past our flat, delighting Greta. “Oooh! Bus! Weee weee!”

Next door is the Pumphouse Museum, an incongruous site housed in an old pumping station, filled with all kinds of decommissioned London transport: old tube carriages utilised as sets by TV production companies and as a quirky restaurant by a local supper club; a rotating cast of buses, and a fire engine “that featured in London’s Burning”, says one of the museum’s extremely enthusiastic gentleman (always gentlemen) volunteers. One man spends his weekends chain-smoking rollies while improving his intricate and extensive mockup of the train line that runs from Liverpool Street to Chingford via Walthamstow, carefully crafted miniatures depicting how the stations were in the age of steam with the liberal licence of the romantic.

Beyond the park is an industrial area that includes the dump, a chinese cash and carry with a cafe that does a mean dim sum, and the Kingsmill factory, which wafts smells into our neighbourhood like clockwork: farts in the morning, bread in the evening. A short walk through this industrial zone from our flat is the former site of Bungalow Town, a settlement of about 70 shacks built on abandoned land next to Lea Bridge Station in the 1880s, a time of pressing need for housing.

Writer and historian of Essex plotlands Gillian Darley speculates that the people who moved here were quite possibly displaced, the Victorian era being one of scarring change in London. It was estimated by the Rector of the Parish of St Botolph that 3,000 of his parishioners made homeless when Liverpool Street was built. Thousands more poor and unskilled labourers were turfed out all the way along the line up to Hackney Downs and beyond. Some of them may have found their way to one of the increasing number of such makeshift settlements in Essex and the south-east.

It was self-sufficiency from the ground up. The Bungalow people used a well for their water, grew vegetables and kept animals. There are still traces of self-sufficiency in the immediate vicinity, such as the two sizeable allotments with equally large waiting lists, while the industrial lots beyond the football pitches that fill up with amateur teams on Sundays are used by artists, designers and self-made manufacturers. But the obvious difference between then and now is expensive luxury flats, not cheap bungalows, are being built next to Lea Bridge station. People are moving further out to Essex again to find an affordable alternative to London, in turn driving up prices and making their desired locations less affordable. Instead of Bungalow Towns there are tent hamlets on Essex hillsides and occupied sleeping bags in every urban crevice.

Bungalow Town was cleared in the 1920s. At one point Hayley and I thought we might have to leave Walthamstow, until we were accepted on to a low-deposit scheme to buy part of a flat, and so have started a family here. It isn’t often we don’t feel lucky looking out towards the marshes at that bird-filled and ever-changing sky. And it isn’t unsurprising that anxiety is a defining characteristic of our generation, which is partly down to the difficulty of making a home.

A day I can’t yet face is threatening to break so I go back to bed. Greta sleeps off her sickness until 10am and we all wake up next to each other after a rare lie-in. Another baby is due in a few weeks. Soon we might have to follow the swifts out.

Pumphouse museum (left) and our our flat