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Walthamstow Carnivalesque

Hugh Pearman

I last visited Walthamstow, north-east London, in 1980, and only went there then because the now-defunct Walthamstow Building Society (slogan: “Don’t Blow it, WalthamStow It”) was the only lender who’d give me a mortgage on my first flat, in Hackney. The interest rate was something like 17 per cent. You think first-time buyers have trouble getting loans these days? Tell me about it.

I had a good non-financial reason this time to take the Victoria Line to its terminus: my mission was to view the refurbished and extended William Morris Gallery designed by architects Pringle Richards Sharratt. Please go to see it, it’s a nice if unexceptional little project done in the English Heritage-approved manner on the Georgian house where Morris spent his teenage years. But I’m not going to tell you about that, nor about its famous stripped-classical 1930s town hall. I’m going to tell you about a splendidly eccentric little grouping of buildings I found near the town-centre market.

It’s a brick postwar group, L-shaped on a prominent junction, mixed-use, shops below, flats and some civic offices above, with a modestly heroic stone-clad clocktower marking the corner. What caught my eye was the style: pure Festival of Britain. It has the lot: wavy thin-shell concrete canopy, shallow copper pitched roofs with prominent chimneys, busy angled window bays, jaunty balconies with spindly ironwork railings, colourful mosaic decoration, patterned-ceramic tiling to the flank of the clocktower and – best of all – a huge open loggia on top of it, purpose if any unclear, the grandest of pigeon roosts.

It’s a bit run down and it is festooned with satellite dishes but it is in use and intact. It’s rare for me to find a bit of postwar civic architecture that doesn’t slightly depress me but here is a shining exception. I’m sure it made a marvellous watercolour perspective at planning. Pevsner in the Buildings of England credits it to borough architect F.G. Southgate, in 1958. “A cheery piece of post-Festival townscape,” he says, noting the obvious debt to Lubetkin/Tecton in the wavy canopy. Would that borough architects of his calibre existed today.

Walthamstow is great, I decided, a vigorous outer centre with character and pizzazz. I really mustn’t leave it quite so long this time before I return.