Walthamstow High Street, the home of the longest daily street market in Europe, a mile long melting pot of endless stalls that rattle in the wind. The air is often thick with the cries of pound a bowl, have a look mum, and promises of high street quality with a money back guarantee. The calls of market traders echo along the street, and bounce off the sometimes crumbling walls of the buildings that line it. The push and shove of market day requires skill to navigate, elbows out, head down and shopping bags at the ready. A dozen languages and twice as many cultures. A glorious mix of people, the world on one street. The market is a vital part of the High Street, but it isn’t the be all and end all of it. The urban fabric of the High Street is just as important as the market, because the urban fabric tells the story of Walthamstow. The market tells us what Walthamstow is like here and now, the buildings tell us how it used to be. Tales are etched on bricks, reflected in glass, remembered in mortar. Stories are hidden everywhere, all you have to do is look for them.
Words carved in to stone before many of us were born, reach out to us from beneath layers of grime. Half forgotten letters written on brick or granite, clues to the past life of building and builder. This Stone Laid By Stanley Howard Burton 1931. A simple statement, short and to the point, the text now covered in cigarette ash and dirt thrown up by the rain. These words are carved on the doorway of the snooker club above Oxfam, they commemorate the laying of a foundation stone. They tell us that Oxfam used to a Burtons store, they tells us why there is a snooker club upstairs (all Burtons stores had snooker/billiard rooms upstairs). These six words and one date also tells us about a teenage boy. Stanley Howard Burton was the son of the founder of the Burtons Empire, he was 17 in 1931. Did he stand and watch as the stone baring his name was planted in the ground, was he here for the grand opening ceremony? I expect there were brass bands and bunting and celebrations, local dignitaries and a hundred handshakes. Did he enjoy the attention, or just feel utterly crushed by the unbearable knowledge that one day, all this would be his? Stanley Howard Burton, beloved son, born in 1914, died on December 7th 1991, one day of his seventeenth year remembered in stone on Walthamstow High Street.
Further up the High Street an argument rages, an argument that has lasted more than 200 years. The Chequers, the oldest building on the High Street, is a monument to revenge. In 1791 the original building burnt down, the fire was lit by a single candle, it turned the Chequers and several nearby buildings in to nothing but ash and rubble. The pub was soon rebuilt, but all was not well. There was, so local legend has it, an argument between owner and stonemason, an argument about money and unpaid bills. The story goes that the owner of the pub was late paying the stonemason for his work, so the stonemason took his revenge, he left a little reminder that debts should always be settled. His reminder is still visible today. Stand on the High Street and look up at the top of the chequers, the Q in the stone sign is carved backwards. I can only imagine the rage the owner felt, when it was pointed out to him that the letter was the wrong way around. Red faced and flustered, he probably yelled at his staff “bring me the stonemason”, but it was too late, the damage was done. The stonemason was no doubt sat in a nearby ale house, pint in hand, regaling his friends with the story of the backward Q. Who knows how long this row went on, but one things for sure, it didn’t die with the inn keeper and stonemason. Their conflict lives on, behind the flaked blue paint on the stone sign, a joke that lasted longer than any other building on the High Street.
One of my favourite stories of the forgotten High Street is told just behind the Cock Tavern. The old Dominion Cinema has long since been closed and boarded up. This grand old building is slowly rotting away, it is under threat of being demolished and the site re-developed. Whilst it’s still there though, go and have a look at it, walk down the side of the building and run your hand along the wall. Your fingers will find dozens of little pock marks in the brick, a line of round holes that stretch along the building. These craters were carved by pennies, or at least people pushing pennies in to the bricks. As people waited to get in to the cinema, they would grind at the brick with their coins, digging out the small round holes. Each one is a memory of a night out, or of an afternoon in front of the silver screen. You can almost still hear them, the excited voices talking about their screen idles, waiting with anticipation to go in and take their seat. Countless stories carved by countless hands, social history carved like Braille in to the wall of a building.
There are so many stories on the High Street, so many voices talking to us. From the old fire station that stands opposite the Chequers, to the former Salvation Army Citadel that still offers salvation to those passing by. Stories of grand houses, social change, music hall and Marsh Street. It’s a bit like a scratched record, some stories are lost, some words you can’t make out, but if you ignore the scratches and the places where the needle jumps, the record can still sing. Look up, look down, and look beyond the new shop signs and flaking paint. The High Street has a story to tell you, all you need to do is listen.