Blackheath to Brick Lane

The bed, with its thin European-style spring mattress, felt super cozy under the surprisingly warm blanket that I hadn’t bothered to turn on the gas wall heater. Being up before the sun means that I get to see the sky in its multi-colored glory before it turns a shade of gray or white for the remainder of the day — typical England weather, where you’re lucky when you can differentiate the clouds as it adds depth to such an unfathomable distance… except for hot air balloons, planes, and space shuttles that give us context to measure the layers of atmosphere.

The sun rises lazily before 8am, when little shops on the way to the train aren’t open yet to sell me a morning beverage. I’m not sure of the logic used to create the trains’ schedules as last night I had planned to go to the corner of Greenwich Park, close to Queens Bath, with a train and bus ride that would total 40 minutes versus the 31 it will take me to get to Blackheath via two trains and then walking the difference, which is my main agenda of the trip, so I’m not complaining at all and am grateful for all the help available to maintain such an efficient system.

I wait for the train to arrive and appreciate having a moment to ensure I’m getting on the right train, as when there’s one about to leave the station and I seem to have a minute till the next one that I’m supposed to be on I get so anxious to climb aboard and wave adieu to my family as I’ve seen and read about many times, so I should remember that most of those people met with tragic ends, unless they’re a bunny in an animated story going to prove themselves in the big city to the Zootopia police chief. But unlike the movies and biographies of pre-1950s, when fares were pennies, I’ll top-up my card with 20 quid to avoid the $1,300 fine.

On today’s trains are three women in tights with their waterproof hiking bags, a man with his Brompton folding bike (which sells for $1,500 and is handmade in London with $300+ brands online), and a beggar. My first encounter was the other day with a white woman selling tissues, to everyone. Today, this black man walks through the cabin and only asks for change from people with the same skin color. I heard growing up that, “beggars can’t be choosers” but this world is full of options and ways of seeing and doing things that go beyond my limited childhood and cultural views.

I get that no one likes to be left out — games on the playground, voting in politics, using the same bathroom, getting room temp water like the other patrons, and having laws passed so people can’t sell each other across state lines (this one amended in 1986 for gender neutrality). This is like the broke asking the poor for money in the US — ask someone who might’ve shared a similar situation in hopes for more empathy than a person getting out of a car with monthly payments that would take you five months to make without eating or paying bills.

I get on the wrong train at London Bridge where there is an ad: Tired of being tired, try Floradix (like a floor of dicks… wouldn’t that wear out anyone?) Had I grown up in a country with such liberal use of language, I might’ve gotten into advertising. My five minutes that I didn’t wait turns into a ten-minute ride near Eltham Palace, which is on my list, but not on today’s agenda. I pride myself at being able to stand where the doors will open on the platform, which changes with train length. I had planned on coming to London for the buses and parks and am definitely getting my fill of trains and walking. Two hours on the trains will cost me 2.6 quid.

I had looked up food near the station so I’d know what my options were when I arrived hungry. I wandered down a random street to let the crowd disperse from Gail’s Bakery so that I may get an egg slider and sour cherry scone to escort me to their bathroom (a limited amenity in the public of covid). It’s then that I realize my camera’s clock is set three hours ahead, to Bahrain time, and that I better take note lest I think I was able to wait until the afternoon to eat breakfast.

Blackheath Park is the open space south of Charlton Way that separates it from the famous Greenwich Park with the Royal Observatory and the Prime Meridian that divides the Earth’s eastern and western hemispheres. Blackheath Park was the private property of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester in the 1400s, and son, brother, and uncle of kings: Henry IV, Henry V, and Henry VI respectively. Standing out, and looking upon the fields of soccer practice and sword play is the All Saints’ Church that was opened in the autumn of 1858. A small house was built nearby in 1883 for a Heath Keeper to help keep the order should there be any trouble.

I enter the famous park via the Chesterfield Gate and make my way to un-crowned (barred by the king from coronation) Queen Caroline’s Bath to take a peek at the steps that led to good health and an entertainment space in the Georgian era (1714-1830, so named for the Hanoverian kings George I-IV who ruled Great Britain and Ireland until their union in 1801 under King George III, who ruled from 1760-1820). Caroline married George IV in 1795 and was barred from seeing her daughter from 10 to 21, when she died in childbirth. Caroline was the Princess of Wales until George was crowned and she was queen for less than two years before her death, never giving the king the divorce he so badly tried to initiate.

Up next is the tenderly maintained rose garden that asks guests to avoid balls, fires, and radios in the area, and to keep dogs away from the rose beds. Some of the bushes seem to be hibernating, but those that aren’t allow you to see their gentle reds, pinks, and yellows amongst a soft blue sky with billowy clouds changing shape as they move across the tree tops. There is tennis practice on the courts, dog walkers and runners on the path, a group stretching nearby and some beautiful buildings hidden in the trees that have started to drop their dry yellow leaves en masse.

I pass a statue of William IV, the third son of George III, who would rule after his older brother George IV, from 1830 until his death in 1837. The view between the Maritime Museum and Greenwich Park is great (giant ship in a bottle), but I had planned on seeing it after a trip to the Fan Museum, temporarily closed to avoid getting flu all over their absorbent history, that was opened in 1991 to showcase hand fans from around the world. In their place, I get to compare styles of varying anchor types to their enormous ships that are shown to scale with the double-decker London bus on the description signs.

The admiralty-pattern anchor at it’s shortest measurement is more than three meters, weighs over 2,000 kg, and was made in about 1750 before improvements in iron strength for forging in 1800 and the steam hammer for welding around 1830. The original oak stock lasted until 1990 and was studded with nails to protect it from shipworm (a wood boring saltwater clam that can live without air for up to six weeks on its glycogen stores). The modern wood is protected by a request: Please do not climb on these anchors.

Next to this is another impressive piece of historical technology, an eleven-tonne steel cutterhead that is used to remove materials from seabeds for land reclamation and construction projects in the Far East. This model became obsolete in 1995 when the dredger switched to a left-hand rotation, though both revolve between 20-35 times per minute. The teeth in sand may last days, while digging in rocks may need to be renewed every half hour. This is why the teeth were made to be quick and easy to change. I’m not sure I’d agree with whatever destruction they caused, but we humans have a way of choosing naïveté when it comes to the consequences of our decisions.

To finish my visit to the mini outdoor display is recognition of the balance and fitness of sailors who had to climb aloft to fix rigging. Today, even people in wheelchairs can ‘climb’ via harnesses and winches. That’s why in the Anchor Challenge (a side-plank position) where you’re asked to line up to mirror the anchors on display, wheelchairs and buggies can use a helper to balance on two wheels, which I think is more of a challenge and a trust exercise. I appreciate the consideration for those that get around differently to not feel left out.

I will zig-zag my way to the Thames, passing in front of the Maritime Museum, then east on College Way, before walking west along the river towards the Cutty Sark. Caleb and I visited inside in 2015, so I’m more interested in the little Halloween market taking place between ship and gardens. I talk with Susan about her business, her family, and the city she calls home. She sells me a hot gingerbread drink and then I spend most of my time there talking with the two women at Pasta Boss about food, travel, and marriage, while holding my Mac-n-cheese scotch egg, until they get a customer.

Also in the market is a candy bin section, with candied eggs that remind me of candied cigarettes (neither of which taste like their inspiration). There’s Illegally Delicious with a table full of cheesecakes, gateaux (layered cakes), other cakes, tarts, and various sweets; The Sausage selling pork, beef, and seitan options; and Don Jamón serving seafood, chicken, and veggie paella. All the owners are so happy to be there and I’m not sure if this is their regular demeanor or what can be expected after months of shutdown and others going out of business. They’re grateful to be here and I’m glad they are too.

Through the Greenwich Foot Tunnel and easily distanced from the other ten people using this quarter-mile walkway under the river as only one of them is coming my direction. The tunnel narrows by a couple feet and the dirty white bricks are covered by a 1940 patch job from WWII to repair leaking from bomb damage on the first night of the Blitz. A few months later the fix was finished and the housing in the south was again connected to the industries and docks of the north; an essential part of the war effort that remains a popular mode of transportation today, so much so that it has been regularly shutdown during the pandemic to limit crowds.

I walk along Millwall Park, where the narrow strip of land forming the northern border was the former site of the Globe Rope Works from 1881 until 1971 when they moved to Sussex and became Marlow Ropes, still in operation today. A traveller machine was used to twist ropes of all strengths and sizes made from hemp and manilla fibers for hauling, packaging, binding, etc., until WWII when these products became scarce and they developed the nylon rope and the Hercules, two braided ropes combined.

In the 1880s and 90s, the Island boys were crazy for soccer and every club, pub, church, and factory had its own team. The Millwall “Football” Club would clear the cows from the field and steam roll the water-logged grass to create a decent playing pitch. Games were held here until 1910 when the team moved south to New Cross. I skip the Mudchute Park & Farm and get on the train instead to Shadwell station, not the least violent district in London — according to crime stats from 2018 that also claim Croydon is in the top five most dangerous boroughs (where I’m staying now) and that Kingston upon Thames (where I will be staying) to be the safest.

Some of these neighborhoods make me wonder which came first — the religious buildings and restaurants or the people bringing a piece of home with them to new lands. Here, in Shadwell, it’s the mosques, halal butchers, and women in burqas that give this community a very Muslim presence. A 17 x 18 meter mural detracts from that scene and depicts the Battle of Cable Street that took place in 1936 when 250,000 East Londoners took to the street so that the thousands of Mosley’s Blackshirts, the British Union of Fascists, “Shall Not Pass.” They didn’t, but The Public Order Act of 1936, banning the wearing of political uniforms in public, did.

The mural was started in 1976 by Dave who struggled through multiple acts of vandalism and left the project unfinished until three more artists came and finished it in 1983. Paul Butler, one of the three, was appointed for necessary repairs in 2011 so that the reminder of what communities of varied political parties, workers’ unions, and religious groups can do when they come together against those trying to divide them. If this is what it took for more peace in the world, I’d hire street painters and muralists to cover every manmade structure as a reminder that species get more done working together than they do tearing each other apart.

I found a Street Art Tour online and am attempting to follow it even though some of the art must be eluding me or the map is available to throw people off from the actual course the tour guide takes. Either way, I’m having fun and as I finish taking a picture of a building, I smile at another passing stranger and Michael, a 60ish year old Irish man, invites me inside the Pret A Manger for a coffee. He makes sure I’m situated at the table before going to the counter and getting nothing for himself because he’d just finished lunch. He writes down his address on a betting slip and offers his sister’s bed in Ireland for a night in exchange for a postcard.

I sip on the coffee while we talk and Michael is glad that I’m enjoying my vacation, even with its limits. He doesn’t realize it’s also because of people like him taking the time to make my trip more pleasant and memorable and that it stands out from just another gray day in the city because I’m not commuting or struggling to make ends meet. The kindness of strangers encourages my superfluous burdens to melt away when I am in the spoils of nature and newness.

I continue to follow the art as it weaves back and forth across Brick Lane and come across a group of people fly posting. The lookout asks that I don’t capture their faces in my pictures as what they’re doing is illegal. The city has laws on where leaflets may be distributed and fees assessed by volume. The Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act of 2005 was introduced to reduce the litter this form of advertising creates and to hold those responsible accountable — whether they’re the ones pasting or the person or product being shown. It’s ridiculous how much tax money is spent annually to remove these guerrilla marketing tactics to present a clean and safe place, so some cities are working with legit fly posters to keep the dirty rogues away.

Perhaps if instead of just rental cars and SIM card stations at the airport there was a booth where you could download a traveler app that contains the top ten apps that are of most use to your destination — local maps, restaurant reviews, trail finders, recycling centers, public transportation, and reporting crimes etc. I suppose people prefer to post their witnessed atrocities to Facebook Live instead of via an app where you could send picture proof and other supporting details via text without worrying about phone minutes, reception, language barrier, or the offender overhearing you.

Since this isn’t a thing, I take a picture of Stacy, in the You Are Enough series (portraits of women friends bettering society) by Dreph, a London-based visual artist and continue my walk in the patter of rain. I approach another large portrait, this one on Hanbury St by Ant Carver, who uses oil and spray paint as his mediums for expression. This piece was just finished ten weeks ago as a tribute to a friend with the idea of living in harmony with grief. Another artist to sign his name legibly is SubDude, who speaks out about politics, cell phone culture, and equality via satirical slogans.

Adrian Boswell, the Broccoli Man, turned a 2017 vegetable shortage into an art idea that started out with the cruciferous plant becoming a collage on local walls. Soon, the member of the Brassica oleracea species was turning up red and gold and can now be found in a rainbow variety or imprisoned in a clear cage. You can find this artist in his studio, The Broccoli Factory, next to a painted scroll with the message, “In a room full of art I’d still stare at you.”

The cool thing about the color of the sky, besides the temperature it maintains, is the loss of time available to me as I wander with the only purpose of looking at my surroundings; following the art and not the street names and wanting to meet the people displayed so grandly, such as the musician Natasha Awuku, painted in David Speed’s neon style at Powerleague Shoreditch, just a month ago, where I watched a guy lacing up his cleats for a late afternoon practice with his team already on the field.

If my afternoon had been a homemade film (before editing software became a household item) than my ‘goldfish lost in a fishtank’ meandering would have foretold how my evening on the trains would go. Walking into Liverpool Street Station did feel like a holiday romance flick when the happy ending verges on the two main characters coming together before the credits to let the audience know how it ends. Well, my story wasn’t over yet. The transportation app suggested I walk to Moorgate Station for a more efficient trip or perhaps it felt I could use some more color against the grey wetness falling innocently enough for a half mile.

I missed the train because my phone told me mine was in five minutes (arriving or leaving) I’m still not sure. I need to read the platform signs instead since they give a more detailed answer as to when the next three trains are arriving and where they’re stopping at. I ride to London Bridge for something to eat and a direct ride home only to have my train canceled so that I can listen to a guy laugh hysterically and look like a gnome running in place while talking about a girl he knows somewhere and his roundtrip to Brighton.

I could’ve moved amongst the crowd while I waited but I wasn’t the only one watching this man tell his story so I figured I would take in this moment for what it was and let him feel heard, even if not fully understood. I get to East Croydon and meet a German woman who just finished a marathon, and though tired and hungry, is more willing to hoof it to Norwood Junction than I am. We decide to wait the 20 minutes together until the delayed train arrives.

I’m on the lookout for snacks and settle for a cheese onion sandwich (not as good as egg and cress) and get charged twice at Sainsbury’s because the receipt asks for a signature. Luckily, the cashier had canceled the first transaction before asking someone else to help ring me up. I climb in bed with pen and snacks in hand and rain skittering faintly at the window. After my notes are finished, I’ll read about transitions (not sure if referring to green energy in The Wisest One in the Room or something online) before listening to a podcast (keyword: brain) for half an hour.

As I lay down, there was pure silence for a moment and I didn’t want to move for fear of disrupting the peace, which was fleeting.

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