I’m walking through the park with my eight year old son. He’s asking lots of questions at the moment. The main thrust of all this is that he can’t believe how old how I am.
“Dad – in your days did you ride those funny bikes?”
“What do you mean by funny bikes?”
“Those ones with the big wheel at the front and the little wheel at the back.”
“Ah, Penny Farthings.”
“Those are from the Victorian era.”
“When things were black and white.”
“Well, the photos were black and white. But I wasn’t brought up in the Victorian era. That was over 100 years ago. I was a kid in the 1960s and 1970s.”
“Oh. But it was black and white then, wasn’t it?”
“Not really, no.”
“So did you have a colour TV?”
“Er, no. It was black and white.”
He goes quiet and looks at me. He’s thinking… “My poor dad is so very very old.”
Had a great walk out in the rain yesterday morning in Clissold Park, during which I outlined my four point plan (or is it seven?) for fully appreciating your local area. Brought along one of my sketch books and a few copies of my latest dodgy hand-drawn map. Various people did readings from my book A London Country Diary and we discussed important topics such as how to decode discarded beer cans, when to break into parks and why magic trees talk in Yorkshire accents.
Yesterday I went out onto Blackstock Road with the specific task of buying a replacement blade for my hacksaw. A nice, simple, job – there are three hardware shops within half a mile or so so it shouldn't have been too difficult. Yet when I returned to the house all I had managed to buy were some really pretty little plants with delicate purple flowers. Somehow I got waylaid. Somewhere along the way my face – set in a hard frown that said "hacksaw blades" – changed to a smile of wonderment at the pretty flowers I saw and I forgot all about my important DIY task.
I need to cut a metal curtain rail. But the flowers really are very lovely.
I’m woken from a dream by the sound of birds. It’s a multi-levelled effect, with blackbirds and starlings in the background, the odd heron (or is a goose?) flying around aimlessly but by far the most dominant noise is seagulls. It could be thousands of seagulls. Or maybe just four or five – they’re extrovert birds, after all. I’m being kind – they’re fucking annoying and very loud. I drift in and out of sleep for a while, washing back to holidays on the pebbled beaches of South Devon in the early 1970s, the sea pulling against the stones and the seagulls overhead. I try to imagine the sound of traffic is like the sea. Then I remember that film with Rock Hudson or was it Cary Grant where he’s blindfold and thinks he’s at a party but it’s just the sounds of birds at a lake.
Not too far away from here there were filter beds for Thames Water which were developed into a housing estate in the late 1990s. No-one has told the birds that. As far as they are concerned is is still an unofficial nature reserve.
For years we looked at the crazy modernist building at the end of our street and said "What a fucking dump!" (It's not exactly Nikolaus Pevsner, I know.) It was either sheltered accomodation or an athletes village for a joint East German/British Olympic bid in 1972. A few people lived in the crazy modernist building – walking past at night you'd hear crackly garage radio blaring out from an open window, or shouting coming from another window. But nobody ever went in or out.
A few weeks ago the crazy modernist building
began gushing water like an incontinent cow. Then a wooden wall was put up around it, which usually means demolition time. I asked a hard-hat bloke what was going up in its place.
"Dunno mate. I only started today."
So, looks like there will soon be a crazy free improvised building at the end of our street.
My late neighbour, Edna Crome, seemed to know more about Highbury then anyone I know. She was always telling me stories about some aspect of local history, often relating to architecture, football and schools. One afternoon, as we chatted over the garden fence, she started to tell me about St John's Church. I didn't know anything about this and she explained that it was demolished int he early 80s and a block of flats was put up, on the western side of Highbury Park. (Like many old talkative people Edna had never had her stories put down on tape future generations. All I have the memories of the countless conversations, usually conducted over the garden fence or out in the street when we bumped into one another.)
This spot is is one of my favourite parts of Highbury. When my daughter stared school at the top of the hill I'd sit on the bench at the junction of Highbury Park and Northolme Road and look down into the vale and beyond, marveling at the semi-rural template that lay beneath the concreted scene.
I haven't managed to find any photos or illustrations of the old church. In some ways it doesn't matter so much that the church is no longer there. If I concentrate I can see it just as plainly as it was there in front of me. It's the same with other parts of the village. I sit on the viewing bench and imagine the scene without the buildings, imagine looking down over pastures and meadows with the new river winding its way through the landscape from Hornsey over towards Stoke Newington. And there, to the left of the scene, snaking down from the Crouch Hill heights to the west, is the Hackney Brook.
There is still a C of E primary School named after St John's. Going back further there had been at college of St John's around Aubert Park (it was demolished in the mid 40s and a block of flats put in its place) in this area (there still exist some old illustrations of this http://www.antiquemapsandprints.com/p-3679.jpg). Arsenal FC bought part of the college grounds to build their original stadium before the First World War. Going back to the mediaeval era Highbury had been given to the Priory of St John of Jerusalem, also known as the Knights Hospitallers in England. by the landowner Alica de Barrow in 1271. They controlled the area until disbanded by Henry VIII in the 16th century. The thread still survives in the name of the school.
I have a more recent example of this feeling for "ghost buildings" for it is not that long ago that the old tin box factory on Blackstock Road was demolished to make way for a new block of flats. On the other side of the road, where now Il Baccio restaurant and further new flats exist, was an old-fashioned garage.
Unlike some London churches, such as old St Mary's in Stoke Newington, , the Church of St John in Highbury Park was relatively new. It was only consecrated in 1881 so according to the information available didn't even last 100 years as a working church. Perhaps the people of Highbury built simply too many churches in that late 19th-century is their rush to development of the area. As wel as St John's there was also Christchurch a few hundred yards up the road, Saint Augustine's in the smart backstreets of Highbury New Park and St Thomases in St Thomas's Road down in the Vale.
Almost 20 years ago, when my wife lived above a launderette at the other end of Blackstock Road, I'd sometimes walk southwards until I got to Highbury Vale. And for some reason I never walked up the hill towards Highbury village proper, the Barn and Highbury Fields, as if I wanted to keep some kind of mystery for a later date. So we moved in here together in the late 90s it was with great excitement that I began to map out the territory to the south Blackstock Road and was pleasantly surprised to find old-fashioned little shops and a tree-lined boulevard.
There's a smart new bench now at the junction of Northholme Road and Highbury Park. It's more comfortable than the old one but for some reason I'm less inclined to sit on it for very long. I tell myself that I should spend half a day sitting down at this spot watching life unfold around me and see the changing light over Stroud Green and FInsbury Park as the afternoon unfurls. These days I tell myself I'm too busy to do this. Perhaps one day, soon.