A Walk Round Baron's Manor in the footsteps of the novelist Alexander Baron
This walk was devised - with the support of the Barry Amiel and Norman Melburn Trust - for inclusion in So We Live: the novels of Alexander Baron, a book edited by Susie Thomas, Andrew Whitehead and Ken Worpole and published in June 2019 by Five Leaves. Do please give it a try!
Alexander Baron was brought up in the streets where Stoke Newington shades into Dalston - and he returned to the family home after his wartime years in the army. It forms the backdrop to the most successful of his London novels, The Lowlife, published in 1963, in which the central character, an inveterate gambler and chancer called Harryboy Boas, explains to the reader why he lives in Hackney:
Me? I want to live where I grew up. ... Also, I like it. ... Here, all sorts live. The Cockneys are of the old breed, sharp-faced , with the stamp of the markets on them. The young Jews either look like pop singers or pop singers' managers. The old ones - it's funny, the pious old men with yellow beards I remember from my childhood seem to have died off, all of them, but the old women survive. Among the crowds, you can see the old women, women you might have seen in the East End fifty years ago ... schlapping [swinging] their big shopping bags.
But this is not the East End, Harryboy insists: 'that's the mark of the outsider, when you hear someone call Hackney the East End. The East End starts two miles down the road, across the border with Bethnal Green'.
This short walk - it should take you no more than an hour - guides you round the places where Baron grew up and that feature in his writing: a synagogue, a church, a factory, a market, a school, a housing estate, a bomb site ... and starting at his old home.
Map designed by Nancy Edwards - https://www.nancyedwards.co.uk/
START AT THE CORNER OF STOKE NEWINGTON ROAD AND FOULDEN ROAD AND HEAD ALONG FOULDEN ROAD
Before 1965, in the days when Stoke Newington was a borough in its own right, Stoke Newington Road was the eastern boundary. Alexander Baron was brought up a few yards into Hackney and his street, Foulden Road - he recalled - always 'aspired to Stoke Newington gentility'. The street dates from about 1880 and has survived wars and clearance drives almost unscathed. Alexander Baron (his real name was Alec Bernstein) grew up at 6 Foulden Road (1) - and this was the model for the boarding house where Harryboy lives in The Lowlife on a street given the name of Ingram's Terrace:
mostly two-storied houses, with basements; some bigger like old-fashioned vicarages; and the end houses with passages at the sides from street to back garden. ... When I was a boy, these houses were occupied by superior working-class families, who kept them in beautiful condition. Every year, when the fresh gravel and tar was laid on the road (I can still smell the tar) the houses were bright with fresh paint. Now most of them are tenements.
The street's residents - as Baron recounts in the novel - were Cockneys and Jewish families along with newcomers from Cyprus and the Caribbean:
The people in Ingram's Terrace don't mix, but they all say "good morning" to each other. I never smelt any hatred between one kind and another, not even an ember that might flare up in the future. Of course, they all have good jobs. The children mix. The children all play in the street together. I love to watch them. The children are the only real common ground of the grown-ups. The Yiddisher mumma who comes out with a cake for her boy will bring cakes for the kid's he's playing with, black, Cypriot, gentile, the lot.
FROM FOULDEN ROAD TURN RIGHT ONTO AMHURST ROAD THEN RIGHT ON SHACKLEWELL LANE AND RIGHT AGAIN ONTO SHACKLEWELL ROAD
You are now among Hackney's post-war council housing estates - the Shacklewell Road estate and just beyond it the Somerford Grove estate (2). Hackney decided in the 1940s that it would build only low-rise estates and stuck to that until the mid-1950s. The Somerford Grove estate in particular consists largely of two-and three-storey buildings, with hidden away closes and courtyards giving it a very different feel from the later high-rise developments. It was designed by the architect and town planner Frederick Gibberd and completed in 1949. A gable wall still has a plaque recording that the development won an award for merit in the 1951 Festival of Britain.
In Baron's novel Rosie Hogarth, published in 1951 and set mainly in the crowded Chapel Market area of Islington, Joyce and her fiance Jack come to take a look around a 'modern housing estate in Hackney', hoping that one day they may be able to live in a place as green and spacious as this:
"It doesn't seem like London, does it" Joyce said. She looked around her. "It's all so clean and - oh, all that grass and flowers. ... All sunlit. If I lived here I'd be afraid it was a dream and that I might wake up any minute and see dirty black walls again." "Ah," said Jack, "it's like the bloody pictures or something." ... They walked hand in hand , like a pair of wondering children ... On their left rose blocks of buildings overlooking plots where lawns and gardens were being laid out. The flats had big sun windows and private balconies, each with a built-in flower bed projecting. On their right were rows of cottages, their frontages consisting mainly of glass and harmoniously-coloured tiles, each house with its private garden and many with neat porches.
It's a good fit for the Somerford Grove estate.
LOOP ROUND SOMERFORD GROVE, WALKING ALONG THE IMPOSING SIDE ELEVATION OF OLYMPIC HOUSE HEADING AWAY FROM STOKE NEWINGTON ROAD, AND THEN HEAD DOWN AN ALLEY WITH A 'SCHOOL' SIGN ON TO SHACKLEWELL ROW
The school at the end of the alley is Shacklewell Primary School (3) which Baron attended - now entirely rebuilt. Baron liked it here and recalled that on his last day he wept - he said it was the last time he ever cried. He went on in 1929 to Hackney Downs School (still then known to many by its old name of the Grocers' School), which the playwright Harold Pinter also attended and which closed in 1995.
To your left is Seal Street, a particularly attractive terraced street from the 1880s now pedestrianised and part of a conservation area. Take a glance, but head down Shacklewell Row past the Merchant Taylors' School Mission - founded by the public school of that name - and hidden behind it, the church of St Barnabas, Dalston. Both date from about 1890, and as the church website comments: 'It was very much the done thing at this time for public schools and Oxbridge colleges to establish frontier outposts in the London slums, partly to do good works spiritually and socially, and partly to give their privileged students a glimpse of how the other half lived.'
CARRY ON ALONG SHACKLEWELL ROW AND FOLLOW SHACKLEWELL LANE AS IT CURVES ROUND TO THE MAIN ROAD - TURN LEFT ON TO STOKE NEWINGTON ROAD / KINGSLAND HIGH STREET AND CONTINUE TO THE JUNCTION WITH RIDLEY ROAD
As you join Shacklewell Lane, opposite is the public wash house with the inscription 'PUBLIC WASHING BATHS' which opened in the early 1930s and helped keep Shacklewell clean for half-a-century. On the right just before Kingsland High Street is a commanding brick building - this is Shacklewell Lane Mosque, the first mosque to serve the local Turkish Cypriot community, which was built in 1903 as Stoke Newington Synagogue and remained in its original use until 1976. As you pass Nando's on the corner of Kingsland High Street take a peep through the window and admire the decorative tiling - a remnant of when this was a pub, 'The Castle'
On to Ridley Road (4) - one of London's liveliest food markets, dating back to the 1880s. It reflects the diversity of the area, with many stalls specialising in produce from Africa and Asia. In the years immediately after the Second World War, Oswald Mosley - founder of the British Union of Fascists - held open-air meetings here, leading to clashes with anti-fascist demonstrators including the '43 Group' of Jewish ex-servicemen.
In Baron's 1952 novel With Hope, Farewell - a bleak account of post-war anti-semitism - the young couple at the heart of the story, Ruth and Mark Strong, are trapped in a bus on Kingsland Road, surrounded by rivals groups of protestors and ranks of mounted police:
'In the street missiles were flying. From the rear of the compartment came the sound of breaking glass and the hysterical screaming of a woman. Two men crushed together in the gangway were cursing each other and exchanging blows'
Amid the tumult, Ruth has a miscarriage - providing a tragic ending to a sombre novel.
CROSS THE ROAD AND RETRACE YOUR STEPS UP KINGSLAND ROAD WHICH BECOMES STOKE NEWINGTON ROAD, UP TO OPPOSITE THE JUNCTION WITH SOMERFORD GROVE
Olympic House - once Simpson's garment factory
The marvellous art deco-influenced building across the road on your right (5), now a kind of Retro superstore, was built in 1929 as Simpsons men's clothing factory. It was one of the biggest in London and was particularly well-known for making trousers with a self-supporting waistband, so making braces redundant. It's now called Olympic House - you walked along the side of it a little earlier, so you can get some idea of its immense size. It's entirely feasible that its workforce once numbered in the thousands.
In The Lowlife, Harryboy - when down on his luck at the dog tracks - turns to his trade as a Hoffman Presser, a specialist role in the clothing trade, working at factories much like Simpsons:
'I like the machine roar from the big shops and the bray of music while you work. The factory was also very convenient for women. ... It's a kind of sex war all the time. There's this tribe of girls at their machines. Each time you go past, to the lav or the foreman's cubicle, you can feel them all sizing you up as if you are a bull in the auction ring, and sometimes they give you a razzing.'
CARRY ON ALONG STOKE NEWINGTON ROAD PAST THE JUNCTION WITH BRIGHTON ROAD
You can't miss the Aziziye mosque with its beautiful Turkish tiling, which was built in 1913 as a cinema and at one time screened Yiddish language films. Just next to it is Stoke Newington Baptist Church (6), which features in The Lowlife as a focus of the area's Caribbean migrants, a community of 'marvellous respectability' who made a point of looking their smartest for Sunday morning service. 'They are the Victorian residents of this street,' - Baron wrote -'come back a century later, with black skins.'
If you look across Stoke Newington Road at the far side of the petrol station, you can see some old workshops and light industrial buildings which would once have given work to Harryboy's neighbours.
TURN LEFT ALONG WALFORD ROAD
At the far end is Walford Road Synagogue (7), an independent orthodox synagogue with a history stretching back to 1912 though the building dates from the 1930s. In With Hope, Farewell, the central character Mark Strong stands guard, a gun in his pocket, over a back-street synagogue to stop it being defaced or burnt down by anti-semites. One evening, he is alarmed when two gruff, well-built men, one carrying a jack handle, loom menacingly out of the dark:
'"This is the Jews' church?" asked the burly man. His voice matched his face; it was like a growl gathering in the chest of a bulldog.'
They are not fascists, however, but rail workers and trade unionists come to take their turn ensuring that the synagogue is protected - an act of solidarity rather than desecration.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS, HEAD ALONG BEATTY ROAD THEN TURN LEFT ON TO STOKE NEWINGTON ROAD AND LEFT AGAIN ON TO VICTORIAN ROAD
As you walk along on Stoke Newington Road you are passing the frontage of Coronation Avenue. On your left as you turn into Victorian Road are the entrance arches to the buildings, with striking iron gates and ornate signage. (8) Coronation Avenue - along with adjoining Imperial Avenue - opened in 1903 to provide housing for those moving out of the East End. This was the site of one of the worst civilian tragedies of the Second World War. Baron makes allusion to it in With Hope, Farewell:
'along the Stoke Newington Road, a parachute-mine had caused an entire block of flats to collapse into the communal shelter underneath, killing hundreds of people.'
Local residents had taken refuge during an evening bombing raid in a three-room shelter underneath ground-floor shops. At about 9 on a Sunday evening six weeks after the start of the all-out German air offensive know as the Blitz, it took a direct hit.
A plaque records: 'In memory of over 160 people who died when a high explosive bomb fell on this building during the Blitz on 13th October 1940'. It was put up in 2011, and the following year that same initiative to honour and remember those who perished led to the publication of a marvellous book, Just Like the End of the World: stories of the Coronation Avenue disaster, which offers a personal and human dimension to the tragedy.
The shelter was used not simply by residents of the blocks above but by many of those who lived in nearby streets. Five people from Baron's street, Foulden Road, were among the dead. Many of those killed, some unidentifiable, were buried in a mass grave at Abney Park cemetery. After the war, Stoke Newington borough council erected a memorial there to all those who died in wartime bombing raids. The explosion left a gaping hole in the Coronation Avenue buildings. The flats were eventually renovated and residents moved back in from 1949.
This is the end of the walk - if you want to visit Abney Park, one of London's 'magnificent seven' garden cemeteries dating from the first-half of the nineteenth century, it's a ten minutes' stroll away ... if the bookshops, cafes and bars of Stoke Newington's High Street and Church Street don't claim you first, that is!