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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Six Months of Nothing New

We’re half way through 2017, and as I am also half way through my buying nothing new challenge, I thought it was probably time for another update.

So, how has it been going?

First of all, I should ‘fess up to my tumble off the wagon. I bought a new tablecloth. I am weak. A local friend runs a wonderful textile business, Etoile Home, and sadly she is closing it down. That meant piles upon piles of delicious bargains popping up in my Facebook and Instagram feeds, and in the end it turns out that, like Oscar Wilde, I can resist everything except temptation. Oscar-leaf-Tablecloth__yellow_WThe tablecloth I bought is yellow, which always gets a massive tick from me, and stain-resistant (another tick), and was reduced to £10. And I’m not even remotely sorry, because I love it so much!

In other new purchases, both children have had (yet more) new shoes, and I also acquired a bright red Ariel wig as Anna was jointly playing the lead role (not-so-stealth boast) in her school’s production of The Little Mermaid. And then last week, when the thermometer in Sophia’s bedroom was reading 28 degrees, but she was still refusing to go to bed without her sleeping bag, there was an emergency purchase of a JoJo Maman Bebe muslin sleeping bag. I even forked out for next day delivery. I’m pretty sure anyone parenting a toddler during a heatwave would agree that your night’s sleep being (further) compromised is an emergency, and anything which mitigates this is totally justified.

Luckily, it was the Walthamstow Village Jumble Trail – one of the highlights of my calendar – the weekend the heatwave descended, and I managed to get a really good quality John Lewis fan for Anna’s bedroom there. Along with a barely worn Joules skirt for me for 50p, a beach ball for the paddling pool for 50p, a pop-up fairy castle tent for £2, a Zara dress for Anna for 50p and 4 pairs of pyjamas for the children (3 of them brand-new with tags) for £5.

This was the same weekend that husband and I had managed a sneaky night away together in Amersham, and I hit charity shop gold.
Amersham is a very well-heeled, well-to-do little town on the edge of the Chilterns, and I bagged a duck-egg blue Hobbs cashmere sweater for £7, some ultra-comfy animal print trousers for £7, and the star of the show, a brand-new-with-tags Toast dress, for just £25. I know this adds up to nearly £40 of spend, but the items would come to almost £300 new. vintage alphabetAnd whereas I’m not averse to the odd Primark bargain, I do think that one thing this year has taught me is that it is better value to scour charity shops or jumble sales, or stalk eBay, for really amazing clothes from more expensive brands you love, rather than spend the equivalent money on cheap treats.

We’ve had a few Sell or Swap delights as well – a lovely framed vintage-style alphabet poster for Sophia’s room, and a pile of gorgeous age 3-4 Mini Boden clothing for me to stash away for next year. mini boden clothes

Seeing everyone’s sales bargains on Instagram is tough at the moment, not to mention the emails continually popping up offering discounts of 40%/50%/60%. We won’t even get started on the fact that I’m missing out on the Boden sale! However, I can’t really complain. Thanks to charity shopping and jumble trailing we have all enjoyed plenty of treats recently, spent a lot less money, and had the satisfaction of supporting good causes or making a little extra money for friends and neighbours with the purchases we have made.

Baby Broadway

Life with small children is all about the routine. You get up at the same time (early), provide three meals and two snacks to a fairly rigid timetable, and woe betide you if you’re late for nap time or bedtime. It’s book bag on Tuesday and Friday, running kit on Tuesday, choir practice on Wednesday, Toy Library on Thursday. Any breaks to the routine generally involve impromptu wake-up calls at 1am (3am, 5 am etc) because someone is teething or has a bad dream, or an unscheduled trip to A&E for a bumped head.

Which is why it was a bit surprising this Tuesday at 11.30am to find me in a local church, along with a lot of other parents and under-fives, singing along to hits from the shows performed out by bona fide West End artistes. I only found out about Baby Broadway last week when a friend shared a link on Facebook. To me it is quite simply an idea of genius. Parents/carers take their small children along to a concert of greatest hits from shows like Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat  and Grease. It is totally informal, with children able to crawl/run around to their heart’s content, and audience participation actively encouraged.

baby broadwayI was far more excited than I should have been to discover not only that this concept existed, but that there was actually a concert happening in Walthamstow this week. It cost £9 for me, and was free for Sophia – not the cheapest morning’s entertainment, but so worth it. I didn’t get to sit down for a single minute of the hour-long concert because Sophia was so excited to be in a new environment with lots of other babies that she certainly wasn’t going to waste a second sitting on mummy’s knee. She loved the music though, and I loved the chance to have a proper sing-song. My only regret was that it was in school time and so I couldn’t take Anna, because she would have absolutely adored it. It is fair to say that my husband does not share my passion for old-fashioned musicals, but I am gradually trying to indoctrinate Anna, with remarkable success. The programme for Tuesday has given me some ideas for new films to try as well – perfect for the still-long winter evenings.

The singers were amazingly talented, both at singing and relating to their pint-sized audience. There were tantrums and rice-cakes galore, none of which detracted from the fabulous singing. I went home on a total endorphin-high, belting out Somewhere Over the Rainbow somewhat louder than I probably should have been. I can’t wait for the next Walthamstow performance.

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!

 

Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner…

This is a month of anniversaries for me. Today is my 5th wedding anniversary, and 16th anniversary of getting together with my husband. As always when I think about my relationship I thank my lucky stars that I have the enormous good fortune to be married to my best friend and favourite person.

This month also marks another very significant event; my 10th anniversary as a Londoner.pearly king and queen Annoyingly, as I am very much someone who remembers and marks special dates, I can’t recall the exact date I moved to London, but I do know it was October 2005. My love affair with London is of nearly as long standing as my love affair with my husband. Six days after getting together, at the beginning of our first term at university, we took the Oxford Tube to London for a day trip. Husband is a Londoner born and bred, and is passionate and hugely knowledgable about his city, so he was thrilled to have the opportunity to show me round the tourist sites, and I think my excitement and enthusiasm for them probably cemented our fledgling relationship.

We were poor students, so I don’t think we actually went in anywhere, or nowhere you had to pay, but we walked our legs off through Westminster and Soho, Piccadilly and St James, the City and the West End. We took a Routemaster bus, and got the Tube to Angel (just because I liked the name), and had a Pizza Hut all-you-can-eat buffet for lunch, before arriving back in Oxford exhausted and exhilarated in the early hours of the morning. During that day I fell irrevocably in love twice, with the boy and with the city. And clearly constance and fidelity are virtues of mine, because sixteen years later I still feel the same for them both.

I squatted a fair bit with my eternally patient in-laws, but it took another six years before we had our own London address – a tiny two-bedroom flat in a converted Victorian terrace in Clapham. One of the most vivid memories of my life is the night we moved in. A friend of ours had taken pity on our pathetic non-driving selves and hired a van to help us move our stuff down from Birmingham. We were renting furnished flats in those days, so ‘stuff’ mainly consisted of very many boxes of books. Inevitably the loading and the drive down took longer than we’d anticipated, and it was already dark when we arrived in Clapham. We parked the van illegally, and I was left with it to charm any passing traffic wardens while the boys carried the boxes in. Slightly stereotypical  division of roles, but there you go. I sat in the front of this van, gazing at the tall, thin Victorian houses with their brightly lit windows and unknown lives within, and thrilled head to foot at the sense of excitement and anticipation and possibility that London always conveys, and which I was finally a part of.

We were only in Clapham two years before putting down our abiding Walthamstow roots, but I know the memory of that October evening will be with me my whole life.

One of the things I love most about London is that I feel confident describing myself as a Londoner, even though I wasn’t born here. The concept of the world in one city has become something of a cliche, but it is that way for a reason. This city of 270 nationalities and more than 300 languages can celebrate diversity whilst achieving coherence. I can be a Scouser, and a Northerner and a Londoner without a flicker of contradiction.

The last ten years has seen me with three different London addresses, two different London-based jobs and a complete career change, a London wedding and two London babies. I have learnt never to stand on an escalator when I could walk, or walk when I could run. I have learnt that 4 minutes is an utterly unacceptable time to wait for a Tube train. I have learnt the spot to stand in to guarantee a seat on stations I use frequently, and that you don’t make eye contact with people on public transport. I have learnt that Londoners aren’t as unfriendly as Northerners think they are, unless you break any of the rules I just mentioned. And I know that, although Liverpool is my home town, and Oxford will always have a special place in my heart, that although I might bemoan London’s pollution and over-crowding and expense, this city and I were made for each other and I can’t see that ever changing.