London is far more than just the West End. If you’re visiting and you have more than a couple of days, or if it’s not your first visit and so you’ve already been to Madame Tussaud’s and the Tower of London, then it’s well worth exploring a bit further than the usual Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, Covent Garden circuit.
Hop on a tube or bus and get out into the surrounding towns and suburbs. They are all so different and have their own characters and sub-cultures, and as there’re always plenty of interesting things to do and places to eat, not only will you have a great day, but you can go home and say you’ve seen a bit of the ‘real London’ too.
Over New Year I stayed with friends in Kent and managed to squeeze in a couple of day trips to London. As I visit London fairly regularly and have lived there at various times (about 10 years in total) I know it pretty well. But there are still parts of it I’ve never been too. This trip I decided to take my own advice and get out to a suburb new to me – Wathamstow.
Walthamstow is in north east London at the end of the Victoria Line. Its postcode is E17 which stands for East 17. If you’re of a certain age and that’s sounding familiar, yep there was a nineties’ boy-band with that name. And in case you didn’t know they were called that because that’s where they came from.
Walthamstow had its famous residents long before East 17 however. Probably the most famous person to live there has to be William Morris.
William Morris was a 19th century designer associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement. He had his own company and designed textiles, wallpaper, furniture and stained-glass windows. His designs were predominantly floral and were heavily influenced by his interest in medieval fantasy.
As well as being one of the main influences on design during the Victorian era, he also wrote poetry and novels, visited Iceland and arranged for the translation into English of the sagas and was a committed socialist who felt uncomfortable because he was aware that the proletariat were unable to afford his products.
From 1848 to 1856 Morris lived in a large Georgian house set in what is now Lloyd Park about 10 minutes walk from Walthamstow Underground Station. It is this house that is now the William Morris Gallery.
I managed to spend a couple of hours in the museum as not only was there a lot to see, but also lots to read about his life and his many interests. At the back in a modern conservatory overlooking the park is a very nice cafe and I spent some time in there with a coffee and scone too.
Before going to the museum however, I’d spent some time wandering round the park. Originally it was the private garden belonging to the house, which after the Morrises had left had been bought and lived in by publisher Edward LLoyd before being left empty for a while. In 1898 Edward Lloyd’s son, Frank Lloyd, gave the land, along with the house, to the people of Walthamstow with instructions for it to be used as a public pleasure ground.
Fast forward 120 years later and it is still fulfilling this function. The park has an island with a moat around it, play areas and a cafe that seemed very popular with its indoor and outdoor seating.
Once I’d finished with Lloyd Park and the William Morris museum I headed to Walthamstow High Street in the town centre. As well as all the usual shops and cafes the high street is the site of Walthamstow Market, which at about a kilometre, is the longest street market in Europe.
So many markets now are trendy artisanal places with budget-bashing prices, but Walthamstow Market is still the traditional sort of market I grew up with. Cheap clothes, green grocery, random bits of hardware, marked-down toiletries and household cleaning agents. Not the stuff of treats, but the stuff you need in your everyday life.
I didn’t spend much time at the market as I wanted to get to the old village part of Walthamstow whilst it was still daylight.
Heading away from the town centre and the tube station I found myself on a narrow walkway with high fencing on one side and a row of almshouses on the other.
The almshouses led to the village where the first things I saw were the Ancient House which looks suitably old with its timber framework and the church with a crumbling and overgrown graveyard.
Originally called the White House, the Ancient House dates from the 15th century and was restored in 1934. During the restoration the wattle and daub was removed and the gaps between the timber frame were filled with small red bricks. Although the building started out as a single hall it now encompasses several modern residences.
St Mary’s Church stands opposite and gives the area the name ‘Church End’. There has been a church on this site since the 12th century, though not much remains of the original building. I couldn’t get in, but did walk all around it. I was surprised by just how extensive the graveyards were. Everywhere I turned there seemed to be another one. When I later googled the graveyards I found out that there are thought to have been about 26,000 burials here and at least 1,300 gravestones and tombs are still visible.
It was getting quite dark by the time I left Church End and headed to my last stop of the day. Orford Road is the village high street and is about five minutes walk from Church End. It was very different to Walthamstow’s modern high street and was lined with independent cafes, pubs and restaurants. It’s the sort of street I’d like to come back and explore properly one day (and do a bit of taste-testing).
I didn’t get to see and do half of what Walthamstow has to offer so I’m sure my first visit won’t be my last.
What about you? Have you been to Walthamstow? Would you like to? And can you recommend any other ‘off the tourist track’ areas of London? Share your thoughts and recommendations in the comments below.
Another great London market is Borough Market. It’s the complete antithesis to Walthamstow Market as it’s 100% trendy and artisanal, but it’s well-worth visiting.
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