A few weeks ago I was commissioned to write a poem, for London Lines, inspired by people’s memories of Havering. Before the project all I knew about Havering was that it was the most eastern London borough, starting with towns and gradually filtering out into greenbelt. So I decided to take a journey, from Havering’s centre – the former Essex market town of Romford – to its furthest edge, beyond the M25 to where London ends at a dotted line on a remarkably white square of the OS map. I could then retrace this journey in my poem, weaving in the memories of the people I’d met.
Most of the people I spoke to from outside Havering associated Romford with the Underworld’s lyrics, and on first exploring the town I was a little taken back by the enthusiastic patriotism of its market buildings…
However, I discovered Romford has also been the ultimate playpen of suburban fantasists: Gidea Park was built in 1910-11 by competition, with 100 different architects winning a plot of land to build “exhibition houses” setting out their visions of the future.
I spent a fabulous afternoon wondering through this project built on a tipping point between movements, with impossibly slick modernist houses straight from a Poirot novel jammed next to turreted Victoriana. There’s a house built by Edward Burne-Jones the man who had designed Red House for William Morris fifty year’s earlier, there is even a house by Clough Williams-Ellis who built Portmierion.
Onward, I travelled to Upminster by train, where the first tube train starts each morning. The towns favourite picture is its windmill which has interwar housing built right up to its skirts. From one camera angle it looks idyllically rural, and from another the windows look dead-eyed under the plastic protecting them from vandals.
From there I walked to the edge of London, through fields, passing over the M25, navigating between locked up country churches and only getting lost once. I shamefully wondered into a farmyard whose owner was more concerned by the potential for road accidents than my directional mishap: “They drive like they’re still in London, be careful on the bridge.” He told me there was once a lorry came so fast he had to slam himself into the wall, “It was so tight if I’d stuck my tongue out it would have touched.”
London ends in a wheat-field: one side is London the other is Thurrock. The first building outside of London is a burnt out hotel, as if to sarcastically declare: Here Ends Civilisation.
I’m editing my poem before it goes live on the London Lines website later this month. However in the meantime, in the words of those Born Slippy lyrics, I’m “Blonde Going Back to Romford / Mega mega mega going back to Romford.” I’ll be sharing my poems at the NICHE Bizarre on Thursday, there will also be stalls from 5.30 where anyone can come down and find out about creative projects in the area. I’ll be on the poetry stall with Gemma Saltzer, come join us at the Romford Quadrant Arcade on Thursday 8th August.
By the way, if you clicked on the link to try and listen along to the Underworlds lyrics and found them quite hard to pick out, imagine how the people using this Born Slippy comprehension exercise on the BBC World Service must feel.