When we were house hunting, we were looking in roads that were within ¾ mile of Forest Gate train station; we thought that we’d be getting around via the speedy train from Liverpool Street. The place that we found is a mile walk to Stratford and since the station has five lines, as well as national rail, it seems beneficial to use it instead and I find myself there most days.
Thing is, Stratford is weird. I don’t mean Westfield or the Olympic Park. Since the clocks went back, I have enjoyed turning off of the darkened canal path, past the welcoming Here East, and through the park with its neon cranes and blood moon Orbit and multi-coloured floodlights around the stadium as the twilight settles. But the other bit. The other bit is weird. First of all there’s a cereal café. In E15. There are no hipsters in E15. More bizarre, it is friendly, cheap and has comfy armchairs and little side tables, like a Victorian drawing room (it is in a Victorian house). What is it doing here amongst Wilkos, Wetherspoons, Bright House, Maplins, grimy-windowed lettings agents and 0 star hygiene rating take-aways? It should be on the other side.
Then you walk down a side road and find a wonderful, imposing dilapidated old building, once the court and the cells of the Old Town Hall, and a pub that used to be a tramshed: you can still see where the rails would have been. Just behind that is a games (both electronic and board) pub, but neither this Shoreditchy venue nor By 37 cereal café has ever been in Time Out or Londonist. In the summer, there was crazy golf on the roof of the Stratford Centre (not to be, never to be, confused with Westfield).
On Romford road, an undistinguished parade of shops is housed inside a red brick Edwardian Working Mens’ Institute. The UEL was the ornate Passmore Edwards museum that once housed the natural history collection of the Essex Field Club. There’s a 1700s timber-framed and weatherboarded building just stood there on Romford Road amongst the chicken shops and newsagents. None of it makes any sense. If you go down Stratford high street there’s a string of coloured baubles that change colour when you go under them. But there’s always one that’s the wrong colour, like: We may have these fancy things, but we still rebel against them. If you walk through the Straford Centre at night, it turns into the Thunderdome, with kids BMX-ing up and down, someone setting up a route for rollerblading, boom boxes and body poppers, and homeless people stretched out on the floor. It’s unthreatening but weird.
There’s a meridian lazer that points over the bus station to Greenwich. There’s also a bronze meridian line on the ground. But it points in a different direction. There’s a stationary train in front of the station for no reason that I can fathom. Ther's a tiny picturesque Catholic Church on the Grove next door to a sauna-cum-brothel. There's a cafe called The Pie Crust that doesn't serve any pies.
What makes the least sense is the transport. Many many many more people travel to Stratford than they used to - to go shopping, to the Velodrome, Aquatics centre, West Ham stadium, or to the events in the park. But the transport doesn’t take this into account. More people live here now with the opening of East Village and lots more blocks of flats opening or almost finished. People moving from Hackney and Tower Hamlets into Newham’s Victorian housing stock are less likely to have cars and thus more likely to use transport. But the PT doesn’t take this into account. The Goblin line is shut for a year, but apart from the rail replacement, there are no extra buses to Leytonstone or Walthamstow. The line out of Liverpool street is shut until May next year at weekends due to Crossrail. But there are no extra buses going east. Given that West Ham fans tend to live out in Essex, this is pretty disastrous. In the near future, a new university will open. Where do students like to go out at night? Dalston. But the overground is run like a train service, even though people treat it as tube service. When I get on the central line to go west at Stratford, it’s half empty, but on the Overgound, the first stop, you can’t get a seat. I waited 18 minutes for a train in rush hour – no-one would accept that as good service on a tube line. A new skyscraper hotel is due to open, new museums in the park by 2020, meaning more footfall. Yet TfL’s solution to this is just to tell people not to travel through Stratford at rush hour, or to close down the central corridor so that you’re walking up and down stairs for about ¾ mile to get out.
No doubt in ten years time, it will be homogenised, dullsville (there's already a Starbucks). But for now, it's just odd.