This is the second instalment in a series entitled Uncover London in which I ditch travelling with a passport and backpack, and delve into the city’s hidden gems. The first place I explored, Island Gardens, was chosen at random from the underground map, and was selected based on its exotic and enticing name. This post is about my trip to Boston Manor, an area a dear friend and I passed through en route from Heathrow Airport. We were returning from an extremely colourful non-conventional wedding in Poland. My friend had been sat next to a ridiculously handsome man on the plane, with whom we continued our journey back into London on the tube. As we trundled through Boston Manor, I decided aloud that this would be the next location that I’d rove. The handsome man exclaimed that Boston Manor was “really boring,” and “apart from a dull high street, there was absolutely nothing to see.” That consolidated my choice, motivating me to counter his subjective observations by seeking to find beauty in banality.
Emerging from the station, on a non-descript day at the end of August, the sky didn’t look promising. Grey clouds pervaded, making it next to impossible for the sun to shine. Having no idea of my whereabouts, I turned left and walked towards somewhere. After crossing the road, a cluster of shops became apparent. I entered a brightly coloured convenience store called JK to get some water for my walk. A friendly Indian man who stood behind the counter sung Boston Manor’s praises. He told me it was “really safe,” there was next to no crime and life wasn’t expensive like it was in other parts of the city. My journey had commenced with positive laudations. Buoyed by our interaction, I continued down the high street. Past newsagents, a post office and an aptly named electronic shop called Tronic Computers, outside a Harvester pub, an Eastern European man leant out of his parked van, shouting some sweet obscenity or another. I beamed from ear to ear, not at his attempts to woo me from afar, but at the music coming from his van. Teardrop by Massive Attack is one of my all-time favourite tracks. It inspires thoughts of love, romance, intimacy and passion. None of these beauteous concepts include a stranger leaning out of his white van outside a mundane family pub.
Spotting a potential green expanse, the country girl in me decided to steer away from the sparse high street, towards where I believed there would be beauty to explore. On entering the park, the shop-owner’s claims that Boston Manor was safe and crime free clashed with the police line tape that had once cordoned off an area of trees and bushes. Forgive my scepticism, but a police cordon in a wooded area in a park in which torn tape read “don’t cross this line” prompted thoughts of violation and criminality. I immersed myself temporarily in the vulnerability of the victim, and then pushed it aside. Wallowing in other people’s pain has proven to do me no good in the past, and so I continued on my journey, with my head held high.
In the distance, beyond dogs catching balls, and kids playing, I spotted a large statue of a deer, outlined in black metal. Whilst capturing a photo of said structure, I met a non-native man and his English wife. I ask them what is in the woods, and he replies, candidly, “If you want to meet Lucifer then turn left.” Baffled by his tone, and uninterested in ascertaining where his views stemmed from, I brushed the comment aside. Later, as I walked along the canal, I saw a man hurriedly organising himself and scuttling away from me. I realise that Lucifer hung out to the left because it was a gay pick-up area. His wife, also ignoring his exclamation, told me that in order to find beauty and colour, to turn right and walk along the Grand Union Canal towards The Seven Locks. “Do you not know where you are,” she asks. I reply that I am purposefully oblivious to my surroundings, as I am travelling in my own back yard. Her husband then interrupts to say, “if you want to see real colour, then head to Southall,” at which I laugh uncomfortably, as they walk into the woods. I am learning how judgment does nothing but harm myself so I don’t indulge in wishing the man’s intolerance were less pronounced. He is on his own journey, and in my heart, I wish him well.
I walked and walked along the canal, observing a plethora of birds and ducks. I ate berries, both edible and some sour and some so poisonous that I swiftly spat them out. I tried to entice cats to be stroked, and failed. I peered into barges and their windows. I found the water homes intriguing. Some had gardens, with potted herbs and flowers and smoking gnomes adorning their roofs. Some were called September Morn, some looked tidy, some cluttered. Pets cruised along the canal, later to return to the lap of someone who’d chosen to escape the normalcy of bricks and mortar. With a mind filled with possible stories, I turned right down a little path, away from the canal and towards a river. The smell of the water is like nature’s perfume, alluring and filled with life and promise. It takes me back to growing up in Dorset, where my mum would take us to swim in rivers near our home. As a single parent, there wasn’t a great deal of money to spend on activities, so when the weather permitted, we’d meet with friends and have picnics in fallen castles, old pagan sites destroyed in the name of Christ, on the beach, in the woods and along various riverbeds. The countryside, combined with wild innocent imaginations provided us with all we needed for entertainment. As I progressed down the narrow muddy path, I meet a beautiful young woman who waits for me to jump the puddles before her. I ask her what’s ahead, and she tells me of another park by a viaduct, beyond which is a farm. I am reminded of Island Gardens and Mudchute, and I smile as we say goodbye.
Eventually, after passing a hive of building activity to the left of the pathway, symbolising destruction and reconstruction, a burnt tree with a spectacle of persistent roots and a discarded can of Warka, I emerge onto a busy road. Immediately I’m reminded that I’m actually in England’s capital, as cars and buses scuttle along, busily transporting hundreds to more unknown places. A sign tells me that the riverside path has taken me from Brent Meadow to the junction of the River Brent with the Grand Union Canal and is named FitzHerbert Walk after a local environmental campaigner. I started to feel a little tired, after not enough food and a tumultuous night’s sleep, and so decide to leave visiting the farm beyond the viaduct for another day, and to walk slowly back towards Boston Manor train station.
As I walked along the road, I feel like the London I know is many miles away. I’ve always thought of this vast city as lots of towns joined together, unified under one name, but with varying histories and peoples. The houses aren’t architecturally stunning, but there is a lot of development going on, and piles of rubble fill skips, whilst old bathrooms are scattered across driveways. It’s quiet, not polluted, and wherever you look, there are signs to parks, canals and rivers. I pass The William Hobbayne Centre, a community centre, offering Zumba, Pilates, yoga, and a chance to learn about Hanwell’s heritage and local history. It’s then that I realise that Boston Manor has blended into Hanwell, home to outstanding natural beauty and tranquillity.
I turn down a road, to explore the more square, grey side of the area. I then turn left and right. I have no idea where I am or where I’m going, but feel that I’ll eventually end up back at the station. I spot an intriguing house, with pictures of cats on the window. I am a cat lover, so I start taking pictures. Maureen, who had been ahead of me on the road until I had speedily overtaken her, stopped to tell me that I was photographing her friend Joan’s house. Joan is 85, and has one male cat at present. Joan, Maureen informs me, had created a sanctuary for cats, and at its height, had housed sixteen of them at one time. She would keep them separate from each other, so as to minimise their stress levels. Two of the toms would sleep in her room.
Maureen, who listens little and talks fascinatingly and at length, then begins to tell me about her cat, and then her daughter, who is breaking up from a 12-year-relationship with a violent man. She has been living on Osterley Park View Road for 38 years now, and bought her house with the money she earned as a cleaner. All her jobs were obtained through word of mouth, and she is very proud of that. I struggle to imagine how anyone could buy a house in London now with a cleaner’s wage, and I feel a deep respect for the effort she expended in order to become a homeowner. She remembers the days when Hanwell was a village, and the horses used to pull the barges along the canal. She tells me that sometimes cows and horses would fall into the water, and had to be rescued by a what-you-me-call-it-thingy. “A crane,” I add. She shows me her home, which is just down from Joan’s and her incredible red and orange rose bushes in her front garden that have been there longer than she has. Maureen points to a large house at the end of the road that was once a pub during the Second World War. “In there,” she says, “we used to buy black market.” Confused, she informs me that it meant they could buy things like sugar and butter during the times of rationing. The pub then became a dance school, which has since closed down.
Maureen has had cancer for 7 years, has a litany of other health issues, and yet is glowing. As she leans on her garden gate, with the roses behind her, she tells me that the secret to her being alive, despite the odds, is she hasn’t given up. She sometimes feels a bit down, but she feels blessed. She is beautiful, a warrior, a loquacious cat-loving widow, who loves Hanwell. Although she doesn’t really listen to me, which is fine as I am eager to be her silent audience, she starts to tell me she’s a Virgo, as is her friend, and that they are both psychic and very ordered and organised in their lives. I try to add to the conversation, to tell her that I too am a Virgo, and psychic and ordered and that we were meant to meet, but she sweeps my comments aside as she ploughs into another story about Hanwell. I love her even more.
She told me the king used to come and visit Boston Manor, and that’s how it ended up with its grand name. And, even though it’s safe, not long ago, “some Somalis” or “some people like that with their religions,” were found to be making bombs out of manure in a storage place at the end of the road. “That’s about as dangerous as it gets here,” she says. I wish I could have heard some of the conversations over garden fences during this time, as the road buzzed with journalists and cameramen, to glean how it affected the community and their perception of security and their understanding of the interconnectedness with issues overseas and our own back yards.
Eventually, I leave Maureen, who giggles saying that she hopes she hasn’t broken my camera after I take a picture of her. I thank her deeply for her love and enthusiasm for her London. After a long walk, down Boston Manor high street, where I smell curries being prepared in Bangladeshi restaurants, see independent shops selling tools and what appear to be some rather basic looking hotels, I return to where I began my foray into the unknown. The ridiculously handsome Polish man’s comments, that Boston Manor was boring, make sense to me now, as beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. I had succeeded in my quest and found beauty in the seemingly mundane.