Article previously appeared on Londonist website, used with permission
“Was it that night I got to hold an Oscar?”
It is piddling cats and dogs on our heads, and Max is trying to work out if he’s been to Romford before. “Or it might’ve been Stratford.”
This is Max, so it may well have been Stoke-on-Trent. There was possibly no Oscar.
Anyway, neither of us has any recollection of being in Romford — and that’s why we’re here in the sober light of day. Mention Romford to most people, and they wrinkle up their nose at you as if you’ve just made an inappropriate joke. Ask them if they’ve actually been, and their answer’s usually no.
That’s just not good enough — all we’ve got to do now is prove the masses wrong.
But first things first. We’ve purposefully overshot Romford to the tune of one station, arriving in Gidea Park — an even less-celebrated locale, that will also soon be skewered with Crossrail.
“So what’s Crossrail?” asks Max. He is from Norfolk.
“Oh,” says Max, “I thought we were going to see a crossing.”
In an effort to duck out of the rain — and the rest of this conversation — I look around for inspiration. “Let’s pop into the sandwich shop,” I suggest, realising as I say it, that it’s actually called Pop-In Sandwich Bar, blowing our collective minds for at least three seconds.
Jackie and Pat are two very lovely sandwich shop people, who warm us with their personal warmth, and the actual warmth of their shop. Jackie’s had this business, which she shares with her niece, for 12 years.
“Commuters get coffee and toast in the morning, schoolchildren come in for their bacon or sausage rolls, we get the people from the car garages, hairdressers…” she says.
And how does Jackie like Gidea Park as a place? She pulls a bit of a face. “I live in Wickford,” she says.
Is Crossrail going to bring lots of new custom to the sandwich shop? “I would hope so, but I don’t think so,” says Jackie. We hope that she’s pleasantly surprised, when, by 2022, Gidea Park is almost certainly the new Stokey.
By this point, Max has acquired a mushroom and tomato bap, and is eating his third breakfast of the morning.
Time to romp towards Romford, via Raphael Park — a thin, boot-shaped park that, on Google Maps, reminds us of a knock-off Italy. Dominated by Black’s Lake, this would be a pleasant distraction on a pleasanter day. As it is, we reckon the various carp, roach, bream and perch found in the lake, could happily swim up the path right now.
It’s not fair on Romford. The gods of rain clearly knew we were coming. We must remind ourselves that Romford’s history is a vibrant one. The town (as we’re later to be told by someone who we’ve not yet introduced into this article) was built around the Roman road from London to Colchester. Boudicca would have torn through here on her chariot, on her way to show maximum disrespect to London.
Romford was particularly known for its collieries (hence Colliers Row) — and thanks to all the charcoal, it became the ‘life drawing capital of the UK’. We did, of course, totally make the second half of that up.
If you look beyond the dripping wet Wimpy though, bits of history are still poking out of the woodwork. Like the Coffee House — a splendidly crooked beamed building, its swinging sign telling us it dates back to circa 1480. The building probably wasn’t serving cream teas back then — it has found its forte with age.
Max’s stomach is taking a short break, so we venture into the adjoining church, oddly called St Edward the Confessor. Not so odd when you learn that Ed had a hunting lodge — later a palace — built in nearby Havering-atte-Bower. That’s also why there are so many Harolds around here (Harold Wood, Harold Hill, Harold Park) — King Harold was Edward’s son. (That fact’s from the same source we still haven’t yet introduced).
Bathed in the ethereal light of a stained glass window, we’re met by a delightful lady, who bids us to explore. The only thing that reminds you you’re in Romford in here, is the muffled sound of a market seller outside peddling his pears. As we learn of the Tudor Anthony Cooke— who owned Gidea House, from which (we presume) Gidea Park gets its name — we’re submerged in deep thought and tranquility.
“Must remember to sort my fantasy football team,” says Max.
On our way out, we catch sight of this monument to a woman called Anne Carew:
Now there’s a woman who took death in her stride.
Havering Museum doesn’t have the grandeur of the Natural History Museum, but it is ensconced in the handsome building that was, for a long time, the Romford Brewery. In 1640, Romford had no fewer than 22 pubs — one of many great facts we learn from museum chairman, Peter Stewart
“I felt I couldn’t stay at home watching the History Channel,” says Peter — a man on a mission to tell people that Romford is steeped in history.
As many East Enders did before him, Peter fled from Limehouse to the relatively agrarian pastures of Upminster.
“Lots of people living here still regard the area as being in Essex,” says Peter, “Even when we get letters from the council, it’s always ‘Romford, Essex’.”
Maybe THAT’S why so many Londoners have never been to Romford — because Romford doesn’t consider itself in London.
That said, Peter also suggests that the latest influx inhabitants, including Asians and eastern Europeans, have helped make Romford feel more like London then ever. So we’re stumped.
Anyway, what’s the most interesting thing Peter can tell us about Romford?
More pub stuff.
“The Golden Lion pub is haunted by about seven spirits,” he says, “The original woodwork goes back to 1420, and it was once owned by Shakespeare’s mate Francis Bacon. Shakespeare pissed off Elizabeth I, and he had to get out of London, and the rumours are that he would have escaped to the Golden Lion with his mate Francis Bacon.”
We make a note of visiting the pub before we leave. But we must now focus our attention on something more important than drink. It is time for lunch.
(By the way, Peter Stewart was indeed our source for all that history stuff earlier on. Thanks Peter.)
Romford Shopping Hall is London’s promised land of pie, mash and steaming cups of tea. It’s dotted with what are essentially food courts for English comfort food. Max sits down for his fourth meal of the day, and empties half a bottle of vinegar onto his chips.
“Glad you came to Romford?”
To confirm we’ve eaten our own weight in pie and mash, we use these…
… and check our blood pressure on this:
And then have a gander around the shops.
We’re both disappointed to find out Worldwide Signings is closed today. We do, however, stumble across what must be one of London’s finest fancy dress emporiums — a wonderland with rubber breasts and dismembered unicorn heads dangling from the ceiling. For entertainment value, it’s on a par with Ripley’s Believe It or Not. It’s almost as educational, too — 15 minutes in here teaches much about copyright loopholes (can you guess what the costumes for ‘Rehab Babe’, ‘Mrs Mop’ and ‘Chocolate Factory Worker’ are?).
This place is so good, we feel the need to insert multiple images of it:
But we must venture back out into the rain. Because aside from its dog track, Romford is possibly best-known for its market. Today is a market day, and putting the rain to one side, we can only doff our caps to the mix of cheap nighties, fresh cut flowers, Thai food and jewellery.
Captain Thomas Blood — of nicking the Crown Jewels fame — once had an apothecary on Romford Market — so it’s fitting we run into a jeweller, Ben — whose family has been working on the market for decades. He’s come in from Southend where he lives now, and gives us a bit of “not what it used to be” spiel, although he delivers it all in such a perky way, we can hardly believe he hates Romford all that much.
“You have to go to the pub,” Ben adds.
Ah yes, we really must visit that pub.
It is a shame the beer world’s equivalent to Ed Sheeran — Greene King — have their claws in the Golden Lion. With more beams than Carol Smillie — and, of course, the Shakespeare connection — all it’s really lacking is decent tipple. We console ourselves with the thought that the beer probably tasted like mud in Shakespeare’s day too.
Time to drink up.
As we get to the station, Max inexplicably jumps onto the train to Brentwood, the doors shutting behind him. As he heads 6.2 miles in the wrong direction, I count the high-speed trains that rattle through Romford station — it’s like they’re shunning the place. When I am Mayor of London, I decide, every train will HAVE to stop at Romford. If people don’t want to discover how great it is, then they’ll be forced to.
Now, be nice and wave goodbye Romford.
Article used with permission from Londonist