On the bottom of Queens Road at its junction with Markhouse stands the Common Gate Hotel, a former pub that closed its doors in 2002. The building has had several names over the years including JD’s, Couples and the Sportsman, but since opening as a hotel it has reclaimed its original name. Not much remains from the buildings days as an inn but the hotel did preserve the old Charringtons sign on the Queens road side, a nice reminder of the buildings intended purpose.
The name of the building sounds like a pub in a small Suffolk village, and not something to be found nestled on the streets of Walthamstow with the 158 whizzing past. So how did it come by its name? the place that inspired it has long since disappeared, well almost disappeared but I’ll come back to that later.
The name refers to Markhouse Common which was a large section of common ground in the heart of rural Walthamstow. Looking at the uninspiring brick and metal walls of Kelmscott leisure centre it’s hard to believe that on the land it now occupies cattle once grazed, crops were grown and firewood was gathered. It’s thanks to the cattle that lived here that the old inn gets its name. Access to the common was restricted by the Marsh Gates which were intended to stop cattle straying on to the roads, hence the name Common Gate.
It’s difficult to imagine Markhouse Road with horses instead of cars and coaches instead of busses. The clatter of hooves and creek of cart wheels replacing the sound of engines, hay for the horses replacing the petrol pumps. During the time the common was in use locals would have depended on it for income and food. Most of Walthamstow was controlled by wealthy land owners and manorial law, for the average person access to common land with its grazing rights was an important and vital part of everyday life. The old public house and it’s slightly out of place name stand as a reminder to a different age.
So what happened to it? The enclosure of Markhouse common began in the 1850’s, grazing rights were abolished and Queens Road and Boundary Road were built across it to link Hoe Street with Markhouse Road. Gravel was extracted from beneath the pastures and bit by bit the common was sold off to developers, slowly it vanished, replaced with roads and buildings. If this was to happen today there would be outrage but nothing was going to stop the developers moving in back then. The last bit of the common to be developed was the section between Queens and Boundary Road, there was still some land left in 1874 when St Saviours was built, but it didn’t last long, the railway and its cheap fares brought more and more people to Walthamstow and the last of the land was eaten up by developers and changed forever. The Common Gate its self was built during the decline of the common, I wonder if the locals who faced a changing world drank away their sorrows at the bar?
What would Markhouse Road be like if the common had survived? would we have park side cafe’s with outside dinning instead of kebab shops? Perhaps the pub would still be open serving roasts on Sundays to people who had spent the morning strolling around the park. A glance at a map of the area today reveals that a small section of the common did survive albeit in a different form. Tucked away behind the houses on Queens Road are the Markhouse Common allotments, one of the oldest working allotments in London and the last remaining piece of the common land. You can get a glimpse of it through the black metal gates that give its users access, these new common gates are to keep people out though not keep cattle in. Even though it’s closed to the general public for most of the time it’s good to know that a small part of Markhouse Common survived and is still providing the people of Walthamstow with food.
Every time I see the Common Gate hotel it reminds me of the people who lived on and around the lost lands of Markhouse Road, their history beneath my feet hidden by tarmac and bricks. They were here when the Walthamstow we know started to take shape, their world slowly turning in to ours. The inn is a monument to their time, a reminder of what was lost and a witness to the changing streets of Walthamstow.