In east London battle lines have been drawn between two groups – one motivated by rapacious profit the other by public interest – over the future of a historic building on the banks of the River Lea. PETER FROST knows whose side he’s on
In Hackney, east London, where the Lea Bridge Road crosses the river there is a place called Paradise Park. Here today a dedicated group of local people are fighting to preserve a tiny but wonderful building.
The Clapton Arts Trust wants to convert the pretty Victorian schoolhouse into a valuable cultural facility for the local community. It is proving to be a hard struggle but it’s one they are determined to win.
Today the schoolhouse is cocooned in bright canary-yellow plywood shuttering but you can just catch tantalising glimpses of its Kentish ragstone walls, mullioned windows and spectacular chimneys through the gaps in the shuttering.
On occasions the building has been used for cultural and community events but at present it is occupied by squatters.
That proved to be a blessing as not only are they keeping it safe and secure but they also allowed us inside to view the spectacular single large interior space.
The old schoolhouse is owned by Vision Homes, the developer of several blocks of flats in the area, but an on-going project involving Clapton Arts Trust is seeking to establish the old schoolhouse as a River Lea heritage and arts centre.
The Trust has already received an early “pump-priming” grant from the Heritage lottery fund for the production of a feasibility study and business plan.
Back in 2013 Vision Homes seemed totally supportive of the plan. Indeed, Parma Sulh, managing director of the Vision Group, said in his own corporate brochure: “The project will not only preserve a heritage building, but will provide a fun learning environment for the Hackney community.”
Sadly Sulh seems to have now reneged on the written agreement for 10 years’ rent-free lease and another 15 years at a negotiated rent that he promised if the group got the major heritage lottery money they hoped for.
Perhaps those rocketing London apartment price tags — funded as we now know by money-laundering foreign criminals — were too much temptation. Now he and Vision Homes have applied for planning permission to convert the schoolhouse into two heritage apartments that will probably sell for £750,000 each.
Neither Vision Homes or Sulh is saying anything about this change of plan. He won’t speak to journalists or to any of the various groups involved in the original project.
A petition organised by Clapton Arts Trust project supporting the original plan soon collected over 1,000 local signatures.
It asks Hackney Council to ensure that the developer honours their commitment to provide the former schoolhouse building for community use.
The conversion of this handsome building into two luxury flats would destroy its historical integrity and would lose the charm of the early one-room Victorian schoolhouse.
However, the significance of the building goes far beyond the value of its architectural fabric — it was an important part of the everyday lives of the boaters and their families who settled and worked along the river.
It provided free schooling for their children and also served as an evangelical and temperance outpost of the Anglican church in an isolated riverside community well served by well frequented ale-houses.
It was designed by the celebrated local Victorian architect Arthur Ashpitel, son of the man who had built the original Paradise Dock.
It would be the perfect building in which to tell the story of the River Lea in east London and the men, women and children who lived their lives on and beside London’s second river. And there are plenty of stories to tell.
The Lea has a vivid history of pleasure boating — Jerome K Jerome described how he started his own pleasure boating on the Lea in his famous book Three Men in a Boat. Most of the lower Lea was lined with boatyards and rowing clubs. The area was known as Henley on the Lea and ladies, rowing seemed particularly popular in this corner of east London.
It was was a river of exotic cargoes — malt for London’s many breweries, long-extinct hardwood mahoganies from Africa and teaks from Burma destined for the furniture factories of Edmonton and Tottenham came up the river.
Metals for the many specialised engineering works along the river arrived in London docks and were towed up the Lea in lighters. Riverside works made everything from transatlantic telephone cables to Matchbox model cars.
Chemicals too came up to riverside works and the most dangerous cargo on the river was the gunpowder made in the Royal Gunpowder Mills in Waltham Abbey.
All that dirty industry polluted the Lea’s waters but somehow fish survived and it has always been popular with cockney anglers since Izaak Walton wrote his The Compleat Angler here in the 1600s. Commercial eel fishing flourished and thousands of tons of eels ended up on Cockney dinner plates.
A relatively recent trend on the Lea is the large number of live-aboard boats. The proximity to easy commuter routes into the capital make this a desirable place for a floating home.
However, the Canals and River Trust (CaRT) — an invention of the Tory government to privatise the waterways by the backdoor — is not too keen on people using their boats as housing that doesn’t move far or often.
Many of these boats have what is called a continuous cruising licence, which obliges them to move moorings every two weeks or so. As more and more live-aboards take to the water so CaRT introduce more and more draconian interpretations of their rules and regulations.
CaRT has to raise its own income — £1.7 million of that income comes from its own marinas and moorings — so no wonder they are keen that everybody has one of their expensive moorings. At this very moment they are investigating more sophisticated GPS big brother tracking systems to record exactly how far and how often boats without an official mooring are actually moving.
London’s second river certainly has a fascinating history and the little Victorian boatman’s school would be the perfect place to make that history come alive.
- Frosty has more to say about the River Lea at frostysramblings.wordpress.com
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 9 Oct 2015