Posted by: Hackney Tours | January 1, 2010

New Year’s Day in Clapton: history on your doorstep

Deepest Essex lurks in the distance...

Walthamstow Marshes: tranquility is a relative concept in London.

New Year’s Day is a good opportunity to take stock with a cobweb clearing constitutional. Leaving my Clapton base and heading away from town rather than towards it, I found myself on the Walthamstow Marshes with crowds of well wrapped-up couples and families who had the same idea.

The scene by the River Lea was typical of a London park. Despite the open fields and stillness of the water, there was movement all around. Groups tramped by on land, while planes made a gentle curve in the icily-clear air as they turned to the west to make their final approach to Heathrow. National Express trains for Chingford and Stansted Airport shuttled over the embankment that partially hid a giant gas storage tank, mixed liveries at once exemplifying transience while  also suggesting reincarnation.

Long grass poked through the unbroken ice of the marsh ponds, but on the river a couple of swans surveyed the towpath as they patrolled in ‘line astern’ like warships on the Suez. Any territorial pretensions were soon abandoned though, as they made a wide berth for a narrow boat. Easing to one side to let it through, their brilliant white plumage – officer dress for fowl – contrasted sharply with its drab coat of battleship grey primer.

Lea Navigation narrow boat: life on the edge of Zone 2.

A hundred years ago here, on July 13th 1909, walkers, boaters and even swans would not only have enjoyed better weather, they would have been privy to a small piece of aviation history. The skies which are so busy now would have been empty then; but hopping along in the fields would have been an aeroplane that – while resembling something that Dick Dastardly would fly in the cartoon series known to many as Catch the Pigeon – was nevertheless the first British-built machine to make a powered flight.

Alliot Verdon Roe was the dogged designer from Salford who planned and built the triplane (more info here) in question. Six years earlier in 1903, the Wright Brothers had made the very first powered flight at Kittyhawk, whileB in 1906 it was a Romanian who made European history.

But perhaps Roe’s biggest contribution to British aviation was indirect. He went on to found the Avro aircraft company the following year, ahead of the Great War and the start of  aerial warfare as we know it. Less than a week ago I had found myself at the Mohne Dam in Germany’s industrial Ruhr, made famous in the Second World War by the exploits of 617 Squadron, AKA the ‘Dam Busters’. It was the advent of the Avro Lancaster heavy bomber that made possible the delivery of Barnes Wallis’ famous – and very weighty – bouncing bomb in May 1943.


Seagulls on the River Lea: the wonder of flight.

It was also Lancasters that dropped the incendiary bombs on Hamburg that same summer.  It’s said that this busy port, with its concrete U-Boat pens and vast bunkers suffered more than Dresden. But somehow it didn’t achieve the notoriety of the city that features in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.

Immediately prior to my walk, I had read Marione Ingram’s horrific memoire of the Hamburg raids while flicking through issue 96 of Granta. Siphoning off more than their fair share from a reservoir of good luck that so many others had been unable to tap into, her part-Jewish family not only survived the raids but avoided impending deportation, presumed dead by the authorities.

Had my own grandfather, a rear gunner in Bomber Command, taken part? It seemed unlikely, I knew he flew Wellingtons, a type designed by Barnes Wallis. But one never knows. Bar a remark about hosing out the remains of colleagues, he had chosen not to speak about it. Not for nothing was his favourite film The Quiet Man.

At the dying of the day, we will remember them...

New Year's Day: a space for reflection.

Families, aeroplanes, fire, water, Hamburg, the RAF and the Dambusters’ March – this bizarre soup sloshed around in behatted head as I (over)thought associatively in the open space of reflection that is New Year’s Day. I pondered the interconnectedness of modern history and the weight of the knowledge it brings. That gas tank would have been a Luftwaffe target here too. Why them, not us? Why then, not now? Is survivor guilt possible at so many steps removed?

The incomprehensibility of that generation’s experience, which – fuelled by reading and scrutinised by a vivid imagination –  only become more impossible with every new story heard or new fact discovered, overwhelmed my brain. That, thoughts of the unforeseen consequences of inventions, and the results of accidents of birth.

Is there such a thing as a collective psychic memory store that, when the atmospherics are right, we can tune into and hear the cries of souls gone before? Certainly I have heard deceased loved ones in the wind; and visiting Poland’s Krakow the mournful wail of Klezmer spoke of an anguish that was than more than sentimentality and transcended mere time.

Glibly giving thanks for being a child of the 70s, I gave a mental nod to my grandparents. Loss is infinite, but we can only move in one direction: forward. I watched the logical conclusion of this momentum: children by the river who will remember not air raids but Olympics. Turning my bike, I turned my back on deeds done and dusted, and relatives who cannot be willed into re-existence.  Cycling home I imagined a man on the grass, on a summer’s day in 1909, who just wanted to fly.

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