Wednesday 27 October 2010

Welcome to Harlow

Saturday 7th August

After experiencing a couple of lengthy train delays at Roydon station, I decided it might be almost as quick to walk to Harlow, to get to the library today. Hunsdon Mead, Hunsdon Mill Lock and Eastwick Mead are the beautiful rural scenery accompanying me on while commuting on foot. Forlorn poppies left over from June have fallen by the wayside as I walk past the grassy expanse of Eastwick Mead. At Parndon Mill a concrete wavy watery sculpture is inscribed with these words,

“1769 The River Stort open to navigation flowing into the Lea and onwards to the Thames, Then out to the sea and so to all the ports of the world.”

A tempting sculpture exhibition is advertised at Parndon Mill, water cascades from leaking top gates of the lock and willows frame grasses and cowslips in the meadows. A wrought iron footbridge by the lock is a pretty sculpture in itself. It twists and turns around chunky flat nuggets of glass imprisoning the frozen imprints of local meadow flowers, wheat, grasses and a piece of chunky chain. This curly work of art was probably forged by fairies. Then, as I leave the Stort towpath ‘Town Centre’ signposts suck me in through a concrete labyrinth of car parks, housing estates and graffitied underpasses. The ultimate destination of my quest is a plethora of grey pedestrianised angular boxes. Who would have thought that heaven and hell could have the same postcode? Harlow New Town was established in 1947 And unlike Roydon it is not in the Domesday book.

“In 1898, Ebenezer Howard outlined his vision of the ‘garden city’ in Tomorrow: a Peaceful Path to Real Reform.... Howard’s prescription for the garden city, as adopted by the Association in 1919, broadly sums up the kind of community that was to be built under the New Towns Act, 1946: ‘...a town designed for healthy living and industry; of a size that makes possible a full measure of social life but not larger; surrounded by a rural belt.’ “ (Harlow: The Story of a New Town, Frederick Gibbertd, Ben Hyde Harvey, Len White and other contributors.)

In Birdcage Walk there is a fish and chip shop and a betting shop. A cafe makes a hopeful attempt at Mediterranean dining by sending a squadron of tables and chairs out to bravely assemble themselves on the pink and grey geometric patterned pavement. The market square before the stall holders arrive is bleak and grey. Pale rectangle windows, placed above pale green panels are surveying a square starved of activity and spirit. The locals trickle through it like the lesser Stort, winding their ways to the employment agency, the ‘casino’ gaming shop, the half price jewellers, and the cheap chain clothes stores. A dismal modern concrete sculpture, titled ‘Vertex’ is the centre piece of the precinct, proudly penned in by a red-brick knee-high wall. It looks desolate, but maybe Harlow Art Trust had a meagre budget when tasked with acquiring a piece for the town centre. The shoe shop’s signs declare that it is ‘here to help you spend less’. I walk past the pound shop, the fast food restaurant and the pawnbrokers. At the top of the high street an eerie carousel slowly spins in a faint hearted attempt to cheer up the two children that sit on it. They circle blankly around and around to the tune of Rolf’s ‘Two Little Boys’. One lost soul stands and stares blankly at the pavement on the approach to the shopping mall – no wait, he’s just waiting for the cash machine. He is a queue. In the mall I notice the surplus of peroxide in the town. There is an unusually high percentage of fake blond hair in this town, scraped back into Essex ponytails. A sultry Wella Woman advert in a hairdressers window is pleading me to join them, “Make the First Move, Go Blonde” she invites me. Do it boat wife. Be one of us.

At lunch time I hid from Harlow in the Harvey centre, which looks like any other indoor shopping mall. On the plus side, while I am depressed by Harlow, I am not afraid of it, the way that I am afraid of suburbia: launderette country.

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