When I was at school, I learned two things about France. The first was that the French word for cauliflower made me laugh, which got me in to no end of trouble in class. The second, people in Paris spent pretty much the entire time sitting in front of cafes, quaffing coffee and looking cool. This, my teacher would tell me, was cafe culture. I’d like to meet that teacher again, and tell her that Paris isn’t the only place in the world to have a cafe culture, Walthamstow Market has one to. Yes I know, comparing the market to the streets of Paris might seem like something Del Boy would say. This time next year Rodney, we’ll be world-wide, New York, Paris, Walthamstow, lovely jubbly. As unlikely as it may sound, a cafe economy has developed towards the bottom end of the High Street, and it seems to be thriving. On a relatively small stretch of road, a number of cafes are clustered together. They spill out on to the High Street, filling market pitches with tables and chairs, and filling the air with voices. On sunny days there is a real buzz about the place. The likes of Deja Vu, Rios and Ricco’s, are usually packed with customers. For me, sitting outside these cafes, especially Ricco’s which has long been a favourite, is one of the best ways to spend an afternoon. An afternoon that always ends up being about far more than just a cuppa.
There is a unique atmosphere on this part of the High Street when the cafes are busy. The air fills with a low rumble of voices. The sound can’t escape from the enclosed street you see, so the chat and laughter of cafe customers mingles together. A glorious cacophony of voices bouncing back and forward between the buildings that line the street. Snippets of conversations drift past on the breeze, giving the slightest glimpse in to someone else’s life. In amongst this gently rolling thunder of voices, the market is still going about its business. People hurry by as they go about their day, the occasional soapy bubble drifts past from the toy stall just up the road. Children with brightly coloured windmills, just purchased from the same stall, trot after their parents, gleefully happy with their new toy. Sitting there, sipping tea in the sunshine, surrounded by noise and life, makes me fall in love with Walthamstow all over again.
This collection of cafes reminds me of one the reasons I first liked Walthamstow, the mix of people. We are a collective mix of backgrounds, cultures, races and religions, a town of a million stories, a true melting pot. A thousand different reasons have led to us all being thrown together here, in this little corner of East London. Some are Stow born and bred, and some, like me, have settled here. But whatever bought us here, and from wherever we came, we all seem to rub along together pretty well. There is no better place than these cafes to see the rich cultural tapestry of Walthamstow in action. The world passes by on the market, and different languages blend together to create the real voice of Walthamstow. If that voice only knew one word, I like to think it would be welcome. Welcome to Walthamstow, welcome home.
I know, I know, I’m verging on the rose-tinted glasses again, that happens sometimes when I’ve had too much tea. But sitting outside these cafes, sharing in the briefest moment of someone else’s life, is for me a vital part of what makes Walthamstow, Walthamstow. It is the people who make the place, and there is no better place to see the mix of people, than sitting outside of Ricco’s, sharing a collective cuppa with the rest of E17. Paris may have a cafe culture, but Walthamstow has something different, we have cafes where cultures come to meet, and that, for me, is glorious.