Day Fourteen: Exploring Mile End
Sunday Meanderings and Alfalfa Daydreams
When: Sunday, May 21
Where: Mile End, London
Best Eats: PB&J Picnic
Song of the Day: Mile End by Pulp
Mile End, London -- The busy street is lined with decrepit businesses nestled into spastic gusts of architectural exploration. A crumbly grey barber shop is propped up against a boxy brick building faced with a full crescent of windows — reminiscent of an open tissue box propped up on one side. A bridge dripping with greenery spills into a small park with wry shrubs.
I have a three-hour window in my morning to explore, so I’ve planned to walk from Mile End, one of London’s oldest suburban districts, to Victoria Park, one of London's better-known parks. I walk along the bustling street, taking in the cluttered convenience shops, pubs, and abandoned government buildings.
Nearly 74 years ago, to the day, over 200 people were made homeless by a blitzing that destroyed much of the area’s architecture.
Today, the neighborhood has been immortalized by the pop band, Pulp’s, song, Mile End, that describes a group of squatters taking up residence in an abandoned flat in a run-down apartment tower.
It was on the 15th floor // It had a board across the door // It took an hour // To pry it off and get inside // It smelt as if someone had died //The living room was full of flies // The kitchen sink was blocked // The bathroom sink not there at all // Oh, it's a mess alright // Yes, it's Mile End
The song seems to have set the stage quite well.
I wait to for the cross walk light to turn green when I notice a woman holding a bouquet of wildflowers. She looks like a local.
“If you had three hours to spend in Mile End, what would you do? I ask, “I was thinking of wandering down to Victoria Park?”
The light turns green and we cross the street, coming upon a break in the buildings that reveal a set of cement steps.
“You could walk along the canal there and come out at Victoria Park, that’s where I’ve gotten my flowers from. There’s nothing very special in this area”
I thank her and scurry down the cigarette-littered steps toward the canal.
A narrow boat drifts along through the water, and I reach for my camera.
“There’s nothing pretty for you to photograph down here, Love,” a convenience store worker out for a smoke break snorts in my direction. The words “Stupid American,” are practically floating in thought bubble above his head.
I look down at the sticky wrappers and broken bottles at my feet, and take in the graffiti that covers the cement walls. It smells of urine and pot.
At second glance, however, it is impossible to miss the vivid blues, greens, and pinks that bounce off the water, reflecting the spray painted letters that pool around the small boat’s belly. Water-beetles spin cartwheels over the colorful waves like tiny circus performers under a blue-sky-big-top, and an untidy vine of wild roses spills over the bank. It it smells of honey and sings of bees.
“It’s pretty to me,” I say, taking ownership of the secret world I have only just discovered. I snap my photo.
The man exerts a plume of grey laughter and takes another puff on his cigarette. “Suit yourself.”
Up ahead a village of blue houses with black trimmed windows rests upon the canal, with a happening swingset and a dozen crowded benches. More and more tiny house boats line the canal, with names like “Ruby Tuesday” and “Little Gypsy,” tattooed across their bows in bold letters.
On down the path I find an old man propped up between the deck of his boat and the shore, soaking up the sun with a newspaper in one hand and a cuppa jo in the other.
“What’s your boat’s name?” I ask.
A sideways smile produces “The Eleanor Kay,” in a thick Scottish brogue. He goes back to his paper and I settle in a nearby bench with a book, close enough to make out a woman’s soft ranting from inside his boat. I peek over the pages of my book to take in their movie-set-scene.
“Yes, Darlin,’” He takes a sip of coffee. “I know Eleanor, Darlin.’”
His Eleanor pokes her silvery white head out the window of the boat. “Are you list’nin’ to me, ya ole’ fool?”
He sets his mug down beside a potted plant on the deck and shoots her a mischievous look. “Yes, Darlin,’” He reaches around to give her a kiss.
She smiles before swatting him away and disappears back into the boat for more rambling, trying to hold back her girlish laughs. “Ole’ fool.”
He grins, shoots me a satisfied shrug, and gets back to his morning news.
I continue to take in the setting over the pages of the book in my hands, but pay no mind to the words on the pages. To my right, another story unfolds.
A little girl stands on tiptoes on a bridge that overlooks a small pond. “There it is!” She turns back over her shoulder toward a dapper gentleman in a tweed vest and matching cap. “Grandpa, come look!”
“Has it hatched yet?”
He comes up to the railing and sets the little girl on his shoulders. I crane my neck around to see the object of her excitement. A black goose sits on a nest toward the bank of the pond. A mango-sized speckled egg sits at the goose’s webbed feet.
“Ah, we’ll check again tomorrow,” He says, setting her back down onto the bridge. Her disappointment shows, but the thought of coming back tomorrow with new results lifts her spirits.
“Promise?” She batts her tiny lashes, and his British steel frame melts into a sappy puddle that most grandfathers are accustomed to. He nods and offers up his littles finger for a pinky-swear.
Victoria Park can wait for another day, I think to myself. The sun is shining and there are far too many other important things to be done right where I'm at.
Like a nap, for instance.
A breeze sends a familiar perfume my way. As suspected, a patch of alfalfa peeks up from the grass along the hillside behind me.
From there it is easy to doze in and out of insect-circus daydreams and other people’s stories. A woman of 22 planning her wedding with the help of her sister, a little boy asking a frog if it would “please let me catch you, so we mightn’t be friends.”
My phone starts to beep and I realize that it’s time for me to get back to reality. I gather up my assortment of pens, snacks, and bundle of small daisies and head back for the train.
I didn’t make it to Victoria Park, where architects planned beautiful sweeping scenes and fine fountains, but I did find a beautiful patch of humanity and quite possibly the "prettiest" memories of London to photograph and to cherish.