Saturday, February 19, 2005

the real EastEnders - Bromley-by-Bow

20 years of E20

The London borough of Walford, E20, first appeared on our TV screens 20 years ago today. The now-familiar EastEnders signature tune and swirly map were first broadcast on BBC1 at 7pm on Tuesday 19th February 1985 (although some of you may have been busy watching Whistle Test on BBC2 instead). Within months the show had become the BBC's most successful programme ever, and Albert Square, the Queen Vic, Ali's caff and Arthur's allotment were famous across the country. But where exactly is Walford? The show's creator Tony Holland provided the following clues in the launch week's edition of Radio Times.
Ask any EastEnder for directions to Albert Square, London Borough of Walford, E20, and they'll tell you "Straight down Turpin Road Market, turn right into Bridge Street, and there it is, with the Queen Vic pub on the corner.
Which isn't particularly helpful. There are no Turpin Roads listed anywhere in the London A-Z, whereas there are four Bridge Streets (all to the west of London). And there are no East End postcodes any higher than E17. Anybody would think that Walford was purely fictional.

The biggest clue to the soap's true location came when the local tube station first appeared on the show in 1996. You won't find Walford East on any published tube map, but a close look at the map outside the on-screen station reveals that Walford East is located on the District line between West Ham and Bow Road, taking the place of Bromley-by-Bow. Which is where I live, near enough. I am an EastEnder.

Bromley-by-Bow is one of the poorest council wards in the country. It has the highest unemployment rate in London. Nearly half of local residents are of Bangladeshi origin. Most of Bromley-by-Bow is covered by postwar apartment blocks. Nearly half of the housing is council owned. The area is hemmed in by a screaming dual carriageway, several railway viaducts and a polluted canal. Bromley-by-Bow does have its own shops, caffs, launderettes, pubs and allotments, but not in the way you've become accustomed to seeing on TV. There are no cosy Victorian squares surrounded by gentrified terraces. There are no nail bars where idle wives waste away their empty lives. There are no bigshot gangsters in trenchcoats on every street corner. In particular, nobody around here ever disappears off on a Caribbean holiday and returns six weeks later with an orange suntan.

So I thought I'd take a look at the real EastEnders in the real East End, in and around Bromley-by-Bow. My East End. Walford it ain't.

EastEnders links
Official site, and some unofficial sites
Fassett Square (Hackney), the inspiration for Albert Square
Interactive map of Albert Square
Missed an episode? Read a synopsis here (1985-2005)
EastEnders spoilers - read the plot three weeks ahead

The real EastEnders
the tube station

Kat: I'm going shopping up west. Gimme a ticket.
Tube operative: Which zone do you want?
Kat: I'm gonna buy me a little red dress and some tottery shoes.
Tube operative: Single or return?
Kat: And then I'm gonna get blind drunk.
Tube operative: Do you have an Oystercard?
Kat: I'm a Slater I am, and don't you forget it.
Tube operative: Excuse me, but you need a ticket to pass through that gate.
Kat: <squeezing through> You want a slap in the face, mate?
Tube operative: You'll never make it down the stairs in those heels.
Kat: Ooo-err <smash>
Tannoy: "Due to passenger action at Bromley-by-Bow, all services on the District Line are suspended."

Bromley-by-Bow station was opened by the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway in 1858, although the Underground only reached here in 1902. There are four platforms, but the two alongside the Southend line are now derelict and overgrown. The ticket hall is rather more modern, but not modern enough to be attractive. Just inside the entrance is a newsagent's kiosk which is only open during the morning rush hour (and stocks rather more tabloids than broadsheets). At least, unlike the special effects used at Walford East, the trains running through this station are real and appear more often than once a year.

The real EastEnders
the Queen Vic

Angie: 'Ello me old mucker, what can I get you?
Ismet: Can of Red Bull, please.
Angie: Sorry luv, we don't sell anything with a recognisable brand name.
Ismet: OK, a tall blue and silver metal tube of generic energy drink containing taurine, glucuronolactone and caffeine, please.
Angie: We ain't got that. We got lager.
Ismet: I'm Muslim, I don't do alcohol.
Angie: We got pork scratchings.
Ismet: You're having a laugh, ain't ya?
Angie: We got roast beef crisps.
Ismet: Are they halal?
Angie: How the heck would I know, I'm completely Brahms and Liszt.
Ismet: I'll just go and sit in the corner with a glass of water and wait for the next slanging match to break out, then.

There really is a Queen Victoria pub opposite Bromley-by-Bow station. It stands completely isolated from any other building, cut off on the wrong side of the A102 Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road. From the outside it's a traditional looking East End pub - with brightly painted frontage, chalkboard adverts for live music and a compact landlord's flat upstairs. A faded sign stuck behind a barred window announces that the pub is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Unfortunately it's also closed for the rest of the week, and has been since May 2003. This is a ghost pub, and the former regulars are probably now to be found across the dual carriageway at the downmarket Duke of Wellington (beneath the England bunting in "Frankys Bar" doing "Kareoke").

In common with much of the rest of the capital, if not the country, more than half of the pubs round here have been closed down during the last 20 years.
RIP to the following Bromley-by-Bow locals: Bird In Hand (demolished), Bombay Grab (once the local Smith Garrett Brewery, now the Bow Muslim Cultural Centre - there's irony), Bromley Arms (converted to flats last year), Caledonian Arms (still being converted to flats), Imperial Crown (nearly finished being turned into flats), Moulders Arms (recently closed and boarded up), Pearly King (a pub existed on this site for more than 650 years - until the 1990s), Priory Tavern (converted to flats in 1997), Queen Victoria (see above), Rising Sun (demolished 1997), Ye Olde Three Tuns (would have been my local, turned into flats 1999)

The real EastEnders
the allotments

Rupert: Excuse me old man, what are you doing on my land?
Arthur: This is my allotment. I've come to be with the vegetables.
Rupert: Sorry, I'm the new chairman of the Walford Allotment Society and I don't believe you've paid your £100 annual subscription.
Arthur: A hundred quid? But that's four ponies!
Rupert: Keeping animals on your allotment is forbidden under subsection 3a of the new membership rules that our lawyers ratified at last week's extraordinary general meeting.
Arthur: You're just a load of bankers.
Rupert: We accept direct debit, you know.
Arthur: I'm not allowed credit, not after the Christmas Club embezzlement fiasco.
Rupert: Look you oik, either you pay up or we'll turn over your plot to a local yuppie who really deserves it.
Arthur: I suppose you posh newcomers want to hijack our ancestral lands to grow your own organic fruit and veg.
Rupert: Heavens no. My Jocasta gets all our groceries delivered by Waitrose, online. This is for my hemp farm.
Arthur: Fair enough. Got a light?

The Reeves Road Allotment Society owns a narrow strip of land beside the railway just to the west of Bromley-by-Bow station. February may be the fallow season but there's still plenty of evidence of horticultural endeavour along this 200 yard vegetable patch. Some carefully-tended plots boast freshly-tilled soil, cane-supported netting and ruler-straight edging. Other less-loved plots appear more successful at growing crops of straggly weeds and blue plastic bags. A few ramshackle wooden structures stand (for the time being) along the far side of the allotments beneath the embankment, but alas I saw nothing to compare to Arthur's beloved shed.

The real EastEnders
the launderette

Dot: Hello gentlemen, what can I do for you?
Dizzee: The Bow Massive is in the house, innit.
Dot: Ooh I say! (lights up another fag)
Can me put me Mercury Music award up here on the shelf next to the detergent?
Dot: You'll all be wanting those baggy hooded tops machine-washed, ironed and folded, I bet.
Dizzee: Nah grandma, grime is where it's at.
Dot: Don't you dare stand on that spin drier young man. Mr Papadopolous will be furious!
Dizzee: I'm just a rascal. Fix up, look sharp.
Dot: You don't scare me with your clever words, you young rap scallion.
Dizzee: We is taking over your launderette. We is gonna hang out in here all day and play well banging tunes.
Dot: "Thou shalt not hang out all day and play well banging tunes in the house of the washerwomen" - Proverbs chapter 14 verse 11
Dizzee: Oh alright then. Just a service wash please.

As you might expect in a poverty-stricken neighbourhood, we're well blessed for launderettes round here. The one you can see in the photo is my local, a welcoming place despite the smell of detergent and the harsh strip lighting. It's run by Lil, a hassled lady in a pinny, not quite Dot's age but just as helpful. She gossips, she mops the floor and she'll iron your shirts if you fork out a little extra. Her launderette is a little palace. The tops of the washing machines are covered by a jungle of well-watered pot plants. Paintings of sheep (and other rural idylls) hang from a fake marble wall. And a row of old brown leather chairs by the door makes a cosy place to sit while you wait for the spin cycle to finish. As I remember.

All this is in sharp contrast to
The Powder Room, the other launderette across the road on Bromley High Street. This is a much more utilitarian facility, just a white shell housing two rows of machines separated by an empty gangway. The building is open 24 hours a day, which probably explains why it's become the chosen hangout for gangs of hooded local youths. Not that they frighten me or anything, but I've noted the two security cameras pointing at the door and I've read the police warning notice stuck to the window, so I keep away.

The real EastEnders
the market

Ethel: I'm after a treat for my Willie.
Hussain: I hope he likes onions. We have a lot of onions.
Ethel: Ooh no, I couldn't possibly forcefeed my Willie like that.
Hussain: Sorry, we only sell a limited range of fruit and vegetables, especially onions.
Ethel: I remember when Lou's Pete ran this stall. He had cauliflowers, melons and pineapples.
Hussain: We do have a few small boxes of other fruit and veg down here on these palletts.
Ethel: I can't bend over that far. Pete had a lovely barrow, everything at chest height.
Hussain: We also have some bananas hanging up on this washing line. They're part of our accessible fruit range.
Ethel: Hmm, are there really no other stalls in this market?
Hussain: Sorry, we're the only one left now. The bric a brac man vanished, the cheap tea towel bloke disappeared and the fake wristwatch geezer scarpered.
Ethel: Your mate doesn't say much, does he?
Big Ron:

There are some great street markets in the East End. Petticoat Lane is world famous, Columbia Road should be world famous, and even Roman Road has its advocates. Unfortunately Bromley-by-Bow market isn't great at all. You'll find it in Stroudley Walk, once a thriving Victorian high street but now just a bleak parade of retail spaces battened down behind thick metal shutters. Post-war planners earmarked this area for economic regeneration, and a huge paved expanse was set aside with space for at least 100 market stalls. But today just one single stall remains, the ill-stocked fruit and veg stall you can see in my photograph. Here a couple of Bangladeshi gentlemen eke out a living selling limited produce to those who can't quite walk as far as the nearby Tesco superstore. Alas, it can't be long before a local market tradition vanishes for good.

The real EastEnders
Pauline's house

IOC inspector: Hello madam. I wonder if I might come in and ask you a few questions about London's 2012 Olympic bid.
Pauline: Yeah come in, but mind the piss-stained tramp lying comatose in the stairwell.
IOC inspector: How long have you been living here on the 23rd floor?
Pauline: Ever since the BBC axed my home due to falling ratings and redeveloped the area as these three bleak tower blocks.
IOC inspector: Is that football pitch down there part of the council's new sporting facilities?
Pauline: No, it's just a slab of concrete where the local kids ride supermarket trolleys, shoot drugs and shoot one another.
IOC inspector: And is that an athlete in training for 2012?
Pauline: No, that's my Martin running away from a mugger wielding a large knife.
IOC inspector: And is that an Olympic flame bringing hope to a downtrodden neighbourhood?
Pauline: No, that's just two bored teenagers setting fire to a stolen car.
IOC inspector: And do you back the Olympic bid?
Pauline: Oh yes. From up here I'll have a perfect view of the new stadium and all the other facilities? It'll be great.
IOC inspector: Ah, sorry madam, but we're going to have to demolish your home for security reasons.

These tower blocks are the crumbling centrepiece of the Crossways Estate, a 1970s sink development with absolutely no redeeming features whatsoever. It's not somewhere you'd want to find yourself after dark (and maybe you'd feel safer giving it a miss during the day too). Not that I've found Bromley-by-Bow to be a particularly dangerous place. Maybe I've been lucky, but I've yet to see a murder, a shooting or a stabbing, or to be on the receiving end of violence, crime or prejudice. It's certainly not as bad as this newspaper article makes out (note to my parents: please don't read that link, please read this one instead). OK, so I did get home last Friday to find the pavement in front of my house sealed off by police tape, and I did have to be escorted to my front door by a very cautious policeman who told me there had just been a "serious incident", but that's a rarity round here. I hope.

The real EastEnders
the arches

Bianca: 'Ere mate, is my Vauxhall Nova ready yet?
Lee: Still working on it luv. Just trying to make it roadworthy for round here.
Bianca: Did you fit the blue neon lights to the windscreen washer jets?
Lee: No, but I scraped my keys all along the paintwork on the passenger side.
Bianca: Did you attach that huge wing-like spoiler to the back of the car?
Lee: No, but I bent the wing mirror and smashed the headlamps.
Bianca: Did you install the turbo woofer sound system?
Lee: No, but I took your car for a joyride and wrecked the gearbox.
Bianca: And did you attach those shiny alloy wheels?
Lee: No, but I removed all four tyres and left the car standing on bricks.
Bianca: Sounds perfect.
Lee: Any time darlin'.

I don't think the local grease monkeys appreciated me taking photographs of their nefarious under-arch activities. I got some very pointed looks as I aimed my lens down this car-strewn backstreet, which made me wonder exactly what might be going on inside each of the nine brick caverns beneath the railway line. A radio blared out from the central arch as blokes in overalls busied themselves spraying paint and peering under bonnets. It looked legal enough, but I could only guess how all these semi-repaired cars had been acquired. As I rounded the bottom of the road I realised that I was being followed, so I made a hasty exit before someone fed my camera to the crusher and tinkered with my bodywork.

The real EastEnders
the caff

Lofty: I'd like a Full English please.
Mam: One Full English kebab coming up. Hang on while I stand in the window and scrape some reconstituted meat off the big swirling stick.
Lofty: No, a Full English breakfast, please.
Mam: Two pieces of unrecognisable chicken coated in artificial breadcrumbs and deep fried in greasy fat coming up.
Lofty: No, I want bacon and egg with tomatoes and mushrooms please.
Mam: The only vegetables I serve are chips. I can do you a salty burger though, or a rather dodgy looking saveloy.
Lofty: Maybe not. Can you brew me a cuppa instead?
Mam: I've got the complete range of Panda Pops. Will cherryade do?
Lofty: You're not a real caff at all, are you? You're just a glorified falafel shop.
Mam: Sorry, but nobody eats traditional English food any more. The ethnic takeaway is king around here now.
Lofty: I suppose I'd better have a Pukka curry pie then.
Mam: Would you like your heart attack wrapped, or open?

Mam cuts a strange figure standing beside her deep fat fryer. It's not her height you notice first, although she's certainly on the tall side. It's not her smile either, although that's always warm and genuine. No, the first thing you spot when you pop in for a takeaway is Mam's unfeasible shock of red wiry hair, swept back and piled high on top of her head. But it was Mam's siren smile that first drew me inside the door of her deep fat emporium. I used to buy all my fish and chips here, grunting my assent as she ran through all the possible condiment options. And then one afternoon I came home with a piece of undercooked cod and spent most of the following night rushing to the toilet with diarrhoea. The two events may not have been linked, but I've never been back to visit Mam since. She still remembers me though, and usually smiles through her window whenever I walk past. I got a particularly wistful stare as I stood in the middle of Bow Road taking today's photograph. I just haven't the heart to tell her that I've defected to the fish shop in Bromley High Street instead. Mam's had her chips.

The real EastEnders
the community centre (also the surgery, the playground & the war memorial)

Den: Doctor Doctor, I only have six hours to live.
Dr Legg: I'll get the bodybag ready.

Before we leave Bromley-by-Bow there's just time to drop in on a local success story (I thought we ought to, before you all got the wrong idea about the place). The Bromley-by-Bow Centre is a pioneering community regeneration project, its chosen aim to bring about social change through 'collective enterprise'. Twenty years ago this was a new project housed in a couple of rooms in the local church hall, but now there's a health centre, youth club, nursery, cafe, 'skills hub' and 'ideas exchange' on the site, employing more than 100 people. It all sounds desperately worthy but it works, and this building has been the model for more than 150 other Healthy Living Centres across the country. However, I wish I'd been warned before I signed up here that the GPs like to prescribe "gardening, exercise in a gym, homoeopathy, counselling, aromatherapy, acupuncture or employment training" in addition to traditional medication. I'm now making an extra special effort to stay healthy in order to avoid all of the above - which shows just how well the place works.

The real EastEnders
Albert Square

Estate agent: As you can see madam, this is a very desirable terraced property close to all local amenities.
Sonia: Oooh very nice. It's perfect for me and my Martin.
Estate agent: There are two bedrooms, a small garden and a knocked-through lounge.
Sonia: Great, we can spend all our weekends down at B&Q and IKEA.
Estate agent: And there's a fitted kitchen complete with washing machine.
Sonia: Excellent, I won't need to use that bloody launderette ever again.
Estate agent: And the whole house is fully double glazed.
Sonia: Brilliant, that means the neighbours won't hear me practising the trumpet.
Estate agent: And it's perfect for the first time buyer, just so long as they're a big City hotshot earning at least 60K.
Sonia: I'm training to be a nurse, and my Martin sells vegetables.
Estate agent: Sorry dear, East London is way outside your price range.
Sonia: Bugger. Looks like we'll have to commute from Weatherfield.

There really is an Albert Square in East London, and it's in Stratford. Sorry, you're probably pig sick of hearing about Stratford this week, but rest assured that this particular street is located on the non-Olympic side of town. Albert Square E15 isn't so much a square as two sides of a rectangle. It's a dead ordinary street landlocked into the residential jigsaw to the east of Maryland station. The Victorian terraces are owned and rented by a cross section of London's multicultural population. Their not-quite-identical houses have tiny front gardens full of wheelie bins, bushes and pieces of old carpet. Some of the front windows have well-scrubbed leaded lights, while others are covered by faded sheets of old newspaper. A big red skip halfway up the road is filling up with broken masonry as the street slowly evolves. And, down on the corner where the Albert House once served beer, a new 'exclusive selection of luxury 1 & 2 bedroom apartments' is being erected. This new development is playing heavily on the Albert Square name, pretending to potential buyers that the pub here has always been called the Queen Victoria. Somehow I doubt that Alfie, Frank or Peggy would ever want to live in something quite so characterless.

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