A decade in the ‘Stow

walthanstow stadiumI’m a bit late with this post, as we actually moved to Walthamstow in December 2007, but never mind. I still feel in the mood for a bit of reflection on my life over the last ten years in this amazing corner of North-East London.

This is by far the longest I’ve lived anywhere in my adult life, and the changes which have taken place, in my own life and the place I’m living it, are absolutely staggering. When my boyfriend (now husband) and I moved to Walthamstow we were classic DINKYs (double-income, no kids yet), and although we were very proud of owning our first home, a little two-up, two-down Victorian terrace, our professional and social lives were very much centred around central London. I left Walthamstow at 7.30am every week day to go for a swim at my Fitzrovia gym before work. I ate breakfast and lunch at my desk. After work, more often than not, I’d meet friends and/or boyfriend for a drink or meal in town, and get home in time to go to bed and repeat the whole cycle again. Evenings I did come home earlier were usually because I was tired, and didn’t want to go out, and so were spent slumped on the sofa with an M&S ready meal rather than out and about in my neighbourhood.

The last ten years have seen me have two babies, quit my job in town in favour of life as a stay-at-home-mum and writer, start a blog, publish two novels and a novella, get married, buy a slightly bigger terraced house in the adjacent street to our first, make some brilliant local friends, and then most recently my husband has quit his job in town to found a start-up business based in, of course, Walthamstow. Our lives are now inextricably entwined with this community. It used to be the place we returned to from our lives elsewhere to lay our heads, now, to a large extent, Walthamstow is our lives.

Walthamstow has changed along with us. We live in the area known as the village. Unlike many so-called urban villages, this is rooted in more than estate-agent speak. The parish church of St Mary’s was listed in the Doomsday Book, and it is surrounded by a collection of old almshouses. If you squint and ignore the traffic, you can imagine a little rural community here in the middle ages. Grand houses, like the Morris family home (now the William Morris gallery) were built around Walthamstow and Leytonstone by upper-class families as rural retreats, still within easy travelling distance of London. Then came the railway, and the streets upon streets of Victorian terraces with the pubs and shops to serve the rapidly expanding community of City workers, attracted by the relative affordability of the area and the easy commute. La plus ça change…

We moved here ten years ago because it was the nicest place, with good transport links, that we could afford to buy a whole, albeit small, house to ourselves. We paid £300,000 for our little house. Extortionate, really, even then, for what was essentially built as a worker’s cottage. But we were lucky, we had good salaries, we had saved hard, and we had a legacy which went towards our deposit. Looking at Rightmove today, a two-bedroomed house on the same street or a neighbouring one seems to sell for around £625,000-650,000. An unbelievable increase, and this is after the political and economic uncertainty around Brexit has reversed house-price growth in London. The three-bedroomed house we upgraded too, after much soul-searching and back-of-envelope budgeting as to its affordability, cost £420,000. A three-bedroomed house on our road is for sale today for £900,000. There is absolutely no way we could now afford to buy our own house, or even the house we moved out of five years ago to acquire more space for our growing family.

This has a massive impact on the character of the area. Perhaps nothing illustrates it better than the picture at the top of this blog – Walthamstow Stadium has been converted from being that bastion of traditional working class culture, a dog racing stadium, to a block of stylish modern, rather expensive,  apartments. Some of it, from my point of view at least, is a very positive impact. I am writing this blog post sat in the cafe of our local organic sourdough bakery, Today Bread. I know, could I be more of an East London cliche? The bread is delicious, healthy and ethical, but at £4 a loaf (and selling out like hot cakes every day) it certainly reflects a more affluent neighbourhood.

There are several different layers now, in Walthamstow society. The authentic East-End community of people born and bred here and first-generation immigrant communities from Asia or the Caribbean who I can only imagine must view the influx of hipsters with MacBooks and interesting facial hair, and young mums dashing off to baby yoga with a significant degree of resentment that their children and grandchildren have been totally priced out of their own community. My husband and I are part of the first wave of that influx – public sector workers, people in the arts – who moved to Walthamstow a decade or so ago because we liked the pretty streets, diverse community and amazing transport links. Are we a problem, creating spiralling house prices, or a positive force for economic regeneration? Probably both. Now in our thirties and forties, we know we could no longer afford to buy here ourselves, but we benefit from the fabulous array of new cafes, restaurants, bars, gastro pubs, arts venues and pop-up shops enabled by the new wave of incomers – people priced out of ultra-trendy Hackney and Shoreditch and creating a demand for organic juices and almond-milk flat whites here in Walthamstow.

I adore where I live. The combination of old and new, the melding and merging of immigrant communities from around the world, a modern foodie culture but great sense of history in fantastic local museums William Morris Gallery and Vestry House, and the sense of belonging I get from living, shopping, educating my children, working and socialising in one fantastically warm and supportive community. As a Scouser by birth and upbringing, when I first moved to London I really didn’t get the almost tribal passion with which Londoners identified with ‘their’ area. The horror of a North Londoner being expected to go South of the river, or a West-End girl accepting a party invite East of Aldwych seemed deeply puzzling. Now I get it. I have given birth to two East Londoners (one born in Leytonstone, one in Hackney), and my life, community and roots now run very deep here. A decade in Walthamstow has made me an East Londoner through and through.

 

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Ten things I love about parenting

My last post was a grumpy but fairly therapeutic rant on the things I hate about parenting. Yesterday someone posted on my author Facebook page to say that it sounded like I shouldn’t have had children. I’m sure it was a joke. I hope it was a joke. Nonetheless it got to me. Mainly because of the constant guilt which was point 10 on my most hated list. I love my children more than anything in the world, and can’t imagine life without them, however irksome the day-to-day practicalities can sometimes be. To think that I have written something which makes it seem as though I might regret having them feels like an utter betrayal. I’d planned to write this post at some point anyway, but in view of the Facebook comment I felt an urgent need to redress the balance. So here is a list, not an exhaustive one, of some of my favourite things about parenting.

1) Their faces when they’re asleep

Obviously I love their faces awake as well. But the exquisite vulnerability of a sleeping child is one of the most beautiful things in the world.

2) Holding hands

The feeling of your child slipping their little hand into yours is a perfect summary of the trust they place in you to protect them and guide them and get it right for them. Sometimes it is a responsibility which feels overwhelming, but undoubtedly the most important thing I will ever do.

3) Sharing things you loved as a child

From favourite books, to classic childhood experiences like paddling in the sea or feeding the ducks, to treats like fish finger sandwiches and fairy cakes, re-living elements of your own childhood and watching your children’s pleasure in their turn is one of the most enjoyable parts of parenting.

4) How efficient I have become

Free time might now be in short supply, but my goodness when I get it I can make the most of it. An hour’s nap time gives me the opportunity to hang out a load of washing, put another load away, clean the bathroom, hoover downstairs, wash up and prepare our evening meal. A couple of hours when my husband takes the children out on a Saturday afternoon and I can have a restorative nap, bake a cake, write a blog post and catch up on my emails. My first novel was written in a year’s worth of Thursday afternoons when my MIL took care of my eldest daughter.

5) The sense of perspective

I might have lost my sense of perspective in once sense. A missed nap can sometimes seem like a catastrophe and adverts on the Tube can leave me in floods of tears. In other ways, though, I have gained one. Things which would once have really upset me – my jeans being too tight, a nasty book review, a snide comment – can now generally be put out of my mind just by looking at my children and reflecting that while I have them and they are ok, nothing else can really be that bad.

6) The cut-the-crap world insights

My seven year old is getting better and better at these. My longwinded explanation of something I consider to be a complex adult issue she will summarise in one pithy sentence. This has the effect of making me wonder exactly why we complicate our lives so unnecessarily.

7) Nurturing

I might moan about the relentlessness of it, but I also love the feeling of nurturing my children. Whether it is watching my youngest sleepily suckling as I give her her bedtime feed, or seeing two empty plates and happy faces after they’ve enjoyed the meal I made, or bestowing the  consolatory kisses and cuddles after a bumped knee, baking cakes for a weekend (or weekday) treat, or even folding and putting away a pile of freshly washed brightly coloured little clothes all ready to be worn again, I find the physical act of caring for my children deeply satisfying. I was browsing Mumsnet this week, and came across this lovely quote on a thread:

I think we should coddle them all while we can, life is short and I want mine to think of home as a place of unconditional love, safety, chats and belly laughs, dry towels and a full fridge

This is my new motto, because it is exactly how I want my girls to think of their home as they grow up.

8) The parenting community

I have made some fantastic friends since, and because of, becoming a mum. Whether it’s my NCT buddies who helped me adjust to the brave new world of motherhood and were always happy to conduct an in-depth analysis of sleep cycles, feeding patterns or nappy contents whilst eating a lot of cake, or the school-gate friends who’ve been there as our children have started to find their independence, allowing us to rediscover ours a little bit too, to the nameless mum in the park who lets me use her suncream when I’ve forgotten ours, or the one on the train who smiles sympathetically rather than sighing huffily when my baby kicks off on the train. I have also discovered new levels in friendships I had BC (Before Children) as we exchange panicked texts about the symptoms of croup or dehydration, or Facebook messages throughout a sleepless night.

9) Enhanced relationships

I love seeing my husband as a father, and my parents as grandparents, and my brother and sister-in-law as uncle and auntie and it makes me love and appreciate them in whole new ways.

10) Watching them learn

I find it inspiring how both my children are on a constant quest to learn, and as soon as they have mastered one skill there is no resting on their laurels, it is straight on to another. At eighteen months, my youngest is working on walking up and downstairs unaided, jumping with both feet off the ground, and her first words. The seven year old is concentrating on her three times table, handwriting and spelling that other people can actually read and an in-depth understanding of the issues underpinning the EU referendum debate. Watching them is a reminder that learning and self-development shouldn’t be a chore but a way of life. It’s a huge privilege to be able to help teach them at the moment, but also to learn from their determination, optimism and courage.

A & S Merton

 

Sixteenth Day of Advent: The school Christmas Show

You can probably guess what I was doing this morning! I’m perhaps being a bit sneaky posting about the Christmas Show, as I guess it couldn’t really be said to be something that makes me happy all year round. However, it does make me very happy indeed to watch it, and it ties in with Anna and her school and our community, which are all ongoing sources of happiness.

We’d been a bit puzzled about the theme of the Christmas show, as all we knew was that Anna’s class were performing ‘Rock Around the Clock’, and I couldn’t quite see how it would all tie in. It turned out to be very cleverly done – some selfish, squabbling children who couldn’t share their toys one Christmas Eve were sent back in a time machine to visit various decades of the 20th century, and learn the true meaning of Christmas. Their final stop was to a certain famous stable in Bethlehem, where the traditional Nativity was performed and we got the full tear-jerking power of young children singing ‘Little Donkey’ and ‘Away in a Manger’. It was hugely enjoyable. Anna sung and danced her little heart out, and I also loved seeing the other children, her friends and classmates, the children of my friends and neighbours, who I am watching grow up and gain in confidence alongside her.

The children and their audience learnt that the true meaning of Christmas is Peace on Earth – be happy, try to make other people happy, share and don’t quarrel. Seems to sum up 2,000 years of theology, philosophy and ethics pretty effectively to me. images-6

I can’t believe it is possible to watch a show like this and not feel hope for the future. The school Anna goes to reflects the area we live in, and is very multi-cultural. These five, six and seven year olds are from all sorts of different backgrounds and religions. They speak many different languages at home, and celebrate different festivals with their families, but in school they play together, learn together, perform together, and discover the universal truth that they are all the same. When they argue it is not on racial, cultural or religious grounds, it is over which football team they support or whether Elsa or Anna is the best princess, or who took the last red Starburst.

I always find the teachers at Anna’s school incredibly inspirational as, day in, day out, they demonstrate such patience, creativity, determination and caring. They really excel themselves at this time of year though – I can’t imagine how much time and effort has gone into writing, choreographing, producing and rehearsing today’s show. And they still have the class parties tomorrow and Christmas Jumper Day on Friday to get through before their well-earned Christmas break. The children did them, and us their parents, proud today though.

And if only the little children of today, all over the world, can grow up disregarding superficial differences and responding only to each other’s fundamental humanity, while remembering to be happy, to try to make others happy, to share and to not quarrel, then the future is far, far brighter than it sometimes seems.

Fifteenth Day of Advent: Walthamstow

Eight years ago this week husband and I became homeowners and Walthamstowers. To say we’re lucky with where we live would be the understatement of the year. I assumed that I would have a choice – live outside London in a small town/village/suburb and enjoy a sense of community and neighbourliness, or live in London and do without. How wrong could I be. Walthamstow is in Zone 3, 22 minutes to the West End and 17 minutes to the City, but it is the strongest community I could have hoped for.

The day we moved in was as busy and stressful as moving days usually are. Finally at about half seven we realised we were starving hungry and had no food in the house. We popped out to buy a pizza. As we rounded the corner, we heard the sound of distant singing. We walked along, and it got louder and louder, until we came across a group of people, lanterns aloft, standing round the Christmas tree in a small square singing Christmas carols. There was free mince pies and mulled wine, which gave us enough energy to join in the singing before we went to grab a pizza in the friendly little neighbourhood Italian. There and then we knew we had made the right decision in moving to Walthamstow. The carol singing round the tree is an annual tradition, and in fact Anna and husband are there this evening as I type this, glass of wine next to me and sleeping baby upstairs.

Some of the community spirit is online – I have blogged before about the wonder that is Walthamstow Sell or Swap, but equally amazing is Walthamstow Parents where people share parenting highs and lows, get advice about schools admissions, sleep routines or breastfeeding, or seek support on coping with a fussy eater, parenting a child with special needs or managing toddler tantrums. Walthamstow Food and Drink Society is the go-to place for restuarant, or more likely these days, takeaway reviews, advice on recipes, or sharing allotment gluts!

From William Morris Gallery and Vestry House Museum, to the Wild Card Brewery and Mother’s Ruin Gin Palace, Epping Forest to Walthamstow Marshes, a fortnight long Art Trail to some original and unique neon, there’s always something to suit your mood here.walthamstow

But it is the people who live in this amazing place which really make it so special. Back in September, Anna and I held a cake sale to raise money for Syrian refugees. Saturday was spent in the kitchen baking as much as we could, on Sunday she set up shop in the front garden and our neighbours flocked to support the fundraising effort. I ended up frenetically baking muffins which were selling as fast as I could make them. In two hours we raised over two hundred pounds thanks to the amazing generosity of our community. When someone posts on a Facebook group that they know of a mother-to-be who doesn’t have any money to buy things for her baby, or an elderly neighbour who doesn’t have warm clothes for the winter, or someone’s parent who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness and needs a wheelchair the response is always instant and overwhelming.

Walthamstow made the national news a week or two ago because our local MP, Stella Creasy, voted in favour of the military action in Syria, and many of her constituents were very unhappy with that decision. There was a bit of nastiness on social media, but the main protest took the form of a peaceful candlelit vigil to which many people took their children, and with which local religious leaders from a number of faith backgrounds were involved. Walthamstowers were motivated by deep concern at what the air strikes might mean for innocent civilian Syrians. Stella Creasy took the time to write a long and detailed letter, hold several public meetings and engage extensively on social media to explain why she felt compelled to vote as she did. On balance I am not convinced that the military action is a good idea, but I do respect the thought Stella clearly put into her decision and then the effort she made to explain it. I also respect the many people who protested peacefully and entered into intelligent and informed debate on the subject, online and in person. Although it was an issue which divided Walthamstow, I felt it is more evidence that this is a community where people care, and engage, think and debate, which is one I am proud and happy to be part of.

Plus, there are a lot of cafes which serve really excellent cake!

 

Ninth Day of Advent: Social Media

“Only connect” said E.M.Forster, and the connections which are made possible by social media are something that make me very happy. This is not a fashionable point of view. There are several prevalent attitudes to social media. One is that it actually makes people unhappy, because they are constantly comparing themselves to others, and Facebook, Instagram et al put an unrealistic gloss on the mundanities of life. Another is that the ‘traditional’ social media, like Facebook which I love, are now totally over, and the world has moved on to heaven knows what. I don’t know, and probably won’t until my daughters are teenagers and can patronisingly explain it all to me. Others worry that social media stops us connecting in real life, and that we are having relationships with our laptops and smart phones rather than our family and friends.

There is probably some truth in all of these, but I don’t let it worry me. As a stay-at-home mum and writer – both fairly solitary jobs – social media is a total godsend to me. This blog lets me get things off my chest with a good old rant, and records day-to-day moments for me to look back on. A paper diary could also do this, of course, but I love the sense of connection which I get from sending my thoughts out into the blogosphere, the lovely comments and feedback I get in response to my posts, and the ways in which my life is enhanced by other people’s blogs. Chiswick Mum has become a blogger friend, and I look forward to her beautifully written and photographed posts about her West London life and adventures with her young son just as much as I might look forward to coffee with a Real Life friend. Mostly Yummy Mummy  is a full-time mum-of-four in Yorkshire, and she’s like my online life coach for beauty tips and fashion inspiration. Local (to me) mum and blogger Katie is a fantastic source of brilliant recipes to tempt my occasionally fussy big girl, and, hopefully, to instil a love of good food in my little one. Holly Bell’s blog is also fab for this, and I love her chatty and breezy writing style. Through blog posts I’ve been privileged to gain a small insight into how it feels to parent a child with special needs, live with cancer, move your family onto a narrowboat, emigrate to Australia or cope with infertility. I feel that access to the blogosphere widens my world and horizons just as much as traditional media, and I am certainly no more likely to be distracted from my real life and long-suffering children than I would be reading the newspaper, and less likely than when I’m in the middle of a good book!

On days when, as this Monday just gone, things are feeling a bit of an uphill struggle, Facebook gives me a chance to moan and offload, and get some realtime feedback which makes me feel I’m not totally alone with my grumpy teething baby, attention-span-challenged 6 year old and the sticky bits of 500 paper chains, which are not on the paper chains or in the packet, but stuck to me, the children, the cat and every surface as far as the eye can see. I also like the little uplift I get when I see someone I was at school with has had a baby, or announced their pregnancy, or got a new job or met a new bloke. Yes, I know people put a positive spin on things, and I can see why if, for example, you had just had a miscarriage someone announcing their pregnancy would hurt you. But then it probably would in real life too. Even on bad days, I generally feel that someone else’s good news will cheer me up as I can be happy for them even while feeling sorry for myself.

Social media has practical benefits too. What do a set of Miffy books, some doll’s house furniture, a vintage sideboard, an apple slicer and a wicker Ikea children’s chair and some Joules wells have in common? They’re all things which I have got either for free, a couple of quid or a packet of biscuits on Walthamstow Sell or Swap Facebook group in the past few months. I’ve also made a couple of hundred pounds myself, selling baby gear Sophia has outgrown, or clothes I have (sob) outgrown. Brilliant bargains, less stuff going to landfill and the chance to make real, live connections with neighbours I wouldn’t have met otherwise. What’s not to love?Anna astronaut

A panicked Facebook plea when Anna announced she needed an astronaut’s costume for school led to my next-door neighbour coming round with the loan of the (amazingly creative) jet-pack he had made for his son’s space party a few months ago. Silvery grey leggings and tshirt, a pudding bowl, a roll of insulating tape, some foil and a bit of swearing and some pink moon boots I picked up on Sell or Swap, and Astronaut Anna was ready for take-off!