It was a midweek night and I was waiting at a Green Lanes bus stop for a 341 or 141 to take me up to the Salisbury for a few beers. The fog around Clissold Park had been collecting all afternoon and now lay in a thick band over the little river valley that was the former course of the Hackney Brook. All of a sudden there was no traffic. No cars, buses or cyclists. Had everyone decided to watch Arsenal v Steaua Bucharest on the telly? After what seemed about half an hour but was probably 20 seconds, a white van steamed past seemingly anxious to get into more normal territory.
I’d seen some of the Steaua players earlier in the day, sauntering around Oxford Street in their smart tracksuits and pointing out their favourite Christmas window displays. "Good luck tonight," I said.
"Ah, you must be a Tottenham fan!" smiled one (he looked like the midfield general).
"No, I’m not. I said ‘good luck’ from the perspective of a neutral who wishes you to enjoy the atmosphere of the Greater Blackstock Road area. I hope you have a good experience and possibly go for chips afterwards. I don’t care about the result."
But they’d already stopped listening. I have that effect on professional footballers. Like the time I got Bob Wilson’s autograph when he came to my home town in the mid 70s and I wanted to know why he didn’t play against Leeds in the 1972 Cup Final but he was looking away, off into the mid-distance at Arthur’s Tuck Shop at the edge of the market place (though it was actually owned at that stage by Derek Marwood who possibly had kept the ‘Arthur’ sign up for a bit in the hope of getting some ‘goodwill passing trade’).
It was about 20 minutes later that a 341 appeared. The driver looked nervous. Clissold Park had almost disappeared. Green Lanes no longer seemed part of a city. The bus sped up the slope towards Manor House – then after the crossroads we slowed down as if the driver knew he was in familiar territory. At the Salisbury the London Pride was off and the gents toilets weren’t open. The silent TV on the wall played a tape loop of Vladimir Putin sitting down at a table before at last the football results came in. In the end I hoped that the Steaua players had gone back to their hotel for Bells whisky miniatures, rather than searching for chips in the Highbury Vale fog.
Today I’m trying to picture London. It’s now almost 6 months since we left and images are obviously in the process of being moved from short to long-term memory tanks, because I can’t see them. To compensate I’ve been flicking through Wonderful London (Ed. St. John Adcock), a three volume set from 1926. This is the bowling green before it stopped being a bowling green and became an teen alcopops awareness centre. If this picture was taken now there’d be a mad-looking bloke with a bull terrier striding towards the camera shouting obscenities.
The text with the photo says:
“STOKE NEWINGTON IN SUMMER-TIME: THE BOWLING GREEN AT CLISSOLD PARK
A long journey through the dreary Kingsland Road and on through Stoke Newington brings one to Church Street, a curious survival in the surrounding villadom. There are old houses and a small sixteenth-century church, mellow with years, and farther on the fifty-two green acres of Clissold Park, through whose ordered lawns runs the New River. Beyond the bowling green is the spire of the modern parish church, built by Sir Gilbert Scott to replace the old one which was put up when the congregation was that of a country village.”
Don’t know about the copyright situation with pics like this. The photo was credited to someone called McLeish.
This afternoon I spotted a can of Kestrel Super K on the route of the lost Hackney Brook. I’ve noticed over the last few months that Super K has been making inroads into the Clissold Park scene (formerly a Tennants Super hotspot). I would have done some compass readings from where the can lay, but I was in character – I was King of the Dragon Pirates and we were escaping to Narnia via the track on the north side of Clissold Park, being chased by Giant Pirates. Giant Pirates are bad and Dragon Pirates are, generally, thought to be good – at least in the world of 6 and 3 year olds.)
You had to be there.
Coinciding with a massive hangover, the Hackney Brook appears to have resurfaced on Blackstock Road, just south of the Arsenal Tavern. Not caused by heavy rains this time but a large yellow JCB, which has dug a huge hole in the side of the road. Water shoots out of a pipe and into what’s becoming a quite decent sized pond. My little boy Seánie is well impressed. “Digger!” “River!” He dances up and down on the pavement. We go to the Gunners Fish Bar for lunch, where we meet a group of Bayern Munich fans in town for tonight’s Champions League game. They have come for some hot Pukka Pies. Blackstock Road is certainly at its most beautfiul for these visitors – shit weather, grey skies, soggy chips. and huge puddles in the road.
I suspect an Arsenal plot, some kind of pitch waterlogging thing must be going on here. I notice that one of the Germans looks like Nigel Winterburn and mention it to Seánie. He is not impressed.
Which reminds me of that poem, ‘Arsenal fullbacks try to change the world in a night’:
Lee Dixon came to our local pub
And tried to convert us all
To the cause of International socialism
“You’re too late mate,” said the landlord
“We had that Nigel Winterburn in here last night.
We’re all Buddhists now.”
The New River has returned. I feel a bit confused. Part of me wants to leap up and down with unrestrained joy, splashing about in the clear waters shouting “Look kids, let’s catch fish!”. My more sensible side is eager to phone Thames Water to come and sort out the problem.
Our street as two burst water pipes, a little spring at each side of the road sending the water cascading down the hill. Actually, that would make it the New River for about 30 yards then a tributary of the Hackney Brook the rest of the way.
God, I need to get out more.
As I was flicking through the Stoke Newington OS map from 1868 (it’s a gripping read) I noticed that, north of the avenue and embankment that was once the New River, was a stone. No other explanation. Just “stone”. Was it a milestone, like the one on the bend of the New River near St Mary’s church? Maybe this is the same stone and it was moved into an enclosed area for safe keeping. Or was the “stone” something else, something older still? Like a neolithic marker which, though long gone, still gives off a strange magnetic pull that attracts summertime frisbee throwers and the Turkish football team (it’s near the spot where they do their windsprints).
There must be a historian around who knows these things, some Professor of Invisible Ancient Stones of North London at University College.
A Hackney Brook walk around to the new Arsenal stadium to gawp at some concrete and cranes then a quick sketching session (still can’t draw blackberries) in Gillespie Park with my dad. Actually, I didn’t know blackberries lasted so long into the Autumn.
The wetlands are dry, due to a leak caused no doubt by scuba diving vandals with harpoon guns, and part of the parkland is closed up for renovations. If only London could have more strange wild areas like this. Perhaps the mayor could pull down a couple of glass and concrete monsters in the city and create a new London International Centre for Blackberry Studies.
“Algernon, coming to the champers bar for lunch?”
“No ta, chum, I’m off blackberry picking so auntie can make some jam for tea!”
Another of the ancient horse chestnuts in the south western sector of Clissold Park, probable remnants of the old Newington Common, has been cut down. I asked one of the rangers why so many of the trees in this area were dying – was it something to do with the fair, which visits two or three times a year and always in the same spot. Perhaps some of the chemicals used in the candy floss making process have been leeching into the soil? Or is it connected to the groundwater problems in this bit of the park? The ranger said that he had wondered about the fair (though not the candy floss connection).
The little Hawthorne bush that nestles into an eastern corner of Old St Mary’s Church is covered in bright red berries. Beneath it is a sign of local druid activity – a can of Kestrel Superbrew.
Amazing news. I’ve recently learned about an underground river that flows from Highbury down into the Hackney Brook Valley. Usually I spot these streams when I see cans of extra strong lager scattered about on the surface, but in this case there was a whole off-licence.
I was buying a few bottles of beer at Highbury Vintners and commented on the strange slope of the floor in the shop, which seemed to counter the slope of Highbury Hill.
“That’s because there’s a river that flows under the shop,” said the owner. “It goes through here and underneath the church.”
I expressed an interest in starting to go to mass, then fiddled about with the real ales before announcing to the whole shop: “I’ve written a book about underground rivers.”
The shopkeeper was not phased. “Bloody Highbury. Everytime I bring up some topic of conversation, one of our customers will go ‘I’ve written a book about that’.”