4 September 2015

Walthamstow's unloved clock tower

The clock tower at the top of the High Street marks the spot where a German V1 rocket dropped into a crowded market day morning, demolishing the old drapers, the fish and chip shop and many other established businesses, damaging but not destroying the Granada cinema and causing many casualties. The destruction wasn't cleaned up immediately, and it was twenty years before the new parade of shops was built at the crossroads of the High Street and Hoe Street, the new civic building rising above everything else at the corner. The flats are still occupied but the rest of the place is disused now, apart from the occasional Hoe Street Central pop-up and three or four other shops. Most of the shop windows are empty, the public hall isn't used and the clock came to rest at twenty-five to four one day and hasn't moved since*. The tower is pure Festival of Britain, an uncompromisingly modernist and thoroughly brutal slab shape with a shallow barrel-vault roof, typical of the fifties and already a little dated by the time it was finished in 1964 - the year the Beatles released 'Can't Buy Me Love'. It's decorated with heraldic designs on one side, geometric tiles on the other, and clad in a grey stone that manages to look like raw concrete. Tastes change in architecture as elsewhere, so the design doesn't really fit in with notions of fifties chic, and the finishes look somehow mean by modern standards, all except for the shields with their mysterious symbolism fired onto clay tiles. What makes it special, though, is the open loggia inviting you to climb maybe a hundred steps to enjoy the view over the rooftops of Walthamstow, open to the elements but sheltered from rain or sun. Perhaps just a symbolic invitation, since the doors are decidedly locked and even if the building was open, it would probably be deemed a health and safety risk, but an invitation none the less. It's ugly but also a reminder of the past and how things change, a landmark we recognise without really noticing, and perhaps worth appreciating a little more.

*Post-release note: several people have pointed out that the clocks do in fact keep perfect time, and apparently the hall is rented out to a private company. But I'm hearing hints that the place may come back into public use again.