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Down The Old Roman Rd

March 11, 2019
by the gentle author

The recent sunshine encouraged me to enjoy a Sunday stroll down the Roman Rd and experience the manifold wonders of this celebrated thoroughfare, tracing a path eastward from Bethnal Green across two millennia.

Have you ever noticed that the Roman Rd is not aligned with the Bethnal Green Rd that precedes it to the west? This clue reveals that the Roman Rd was there long before the Bethnal Green Rd was laid out. Old Ford Rd to the north was the former route eastward to Norwich from London, continuing the path of Old St and Old Bethnal Green Rd towards the ford over the River Lea. Yet Old Ford Rd became frequently waterlogged in winter which caused the Romans to lay out a new road – a little to the south – which they called ‘Pye Rd’. This was the road we know as the ‘Roman Rd’ and the Bethnal Green Rd was cut through relatively recently to connect it with Bishopsgate.

The prevailing character of the Roman Rd declares itself in the higgledy-piggledy terrace that you encounter upon the north side beyond Museum Gardens and the fire station. In the nineteenth century and for much of the last century, these terraces of small shops lined the entirety of the Roman Rd with the small trades and family businesses that were lifeblood of the East End for generations and define its architectural landscape even to this day.

Beyond Globe Town, you encounter postwar redevelopment in the form of the three checkered towers of Cranbrook Estate designed by Francis Skinner, Douglas Bailey & Berthold Lubetkin in 1963, with the sculpture of the Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green and his dog by Elisabeth Frink in the foreground.

Crossing Regent’s Canal, you enter Mile End Park, carved out from the bombsites of former streets in an ambitious yet not entirely realised plan to connect Victoria Park with the Thames by a green corridor. Grove Rd bounds its eastern extremity, lined with some fine Victorian villas.

William Wigginton’s curious St Barnabas of Bethnal Green, with its spire knocked off in the blitz and its shrine outside adorned by biblical texts, stands sentinel at the beginning of the longest remaining stretch of  small shops in Roman Rd. As I passed that Sunday, the congregation of the devout were saying their prayers.

On each side of Roman Rd, long elegant nineteenth terraces of houses extend to north and south. Many of the most attractive of these have already been renovated, and skips and scaffolding attest to those currently in progress. Yet equally, you do not have to look far to discover evidence of a crude imperative to maximise redevelopment at the expense of the neighbourhood, manifest in cheap new buildings that show little respect for their gracious predecessors.

To my mind, the heartland of the Roman Rd is the stretch between W F Arber’s Printworks at 459 and George’s Plaice at 484.  Yet since Gary Arber and Tom Disson have both slung their hooks in recent years, and George’s Plaice is now demolished, perhaps I will have to rethink? Reassuringly, there are still some long established shops that remain in this section – Sew Amazing, Thompsons Ironmongers and Denningtons Florists to name only a couple of favourites. Yet the thought of the fabled Roman Rd on the penumbra of living memory, when it was lined with an infinite variety of small shops, remains intoxicating.

Once you pass under the arch with its fanciful inscription in Latin and enter the pedestrianised Roman Rd Market, you enter a more domestic territory where street life takes precedence over traffic and residents walk slowly, exchanging greetings. There is a tangible sense of community here and the Passmore Edwards Library is an inspiring example of the philanthropy of the past. I often wonder if the proprietors of G Kelly, my favourite eel & pie shop (currently closed for rebuilding), have ever considered their position on the highway once known as Pye Rd? This final section of the Roman Rd is distinguished by some fine greengrocers before it all peters out at Parnell Rd, where the route once descended to the ford over the River Lea.

Gary Arber used to regale me with tales of the phenomenal number of pubs that lined the Roman Rd in his youth and the possibilities of multiple refreshment continuously on offer between here and Bethnal Green. I dreamed of undertaking a pub crawl to visit all these establishments. Yet such is the depletion of pubs in the Roman Rd that I fear if I were to do so today, I should return home sober.

St John on Bethnal Green by Sir John Soane marks the beginning of the Roman Rd

This nineteenth century brick fire station has been replaced by a brutalist concrete fire station to the east and is now a Buddhist centre

Terraces of small shops once lined the entirety of the Roman Rd with the small trades and family businesses that were lifeblood of the East End for generations and define the architectural landscape even to this day

Cranbrook Estate designed by Francis Skinner, Douglas Bailey & Berthold Lubetkin in 1963, with the sculpture of the Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green and his dog by Elizabeth Frink

Regent’s Canal

Mile End Park, carved out from the bombsites of former streets in a ambitious yet not entirely realised plan to connect Victoria Park with the Thames by a green corridor

Grove Rd, lined with some fine Victorian villas

A shrine with biblical texts at St Barnabas Bethnal Green

Elegant nineteenth terraces of houses extend to north and south

The meeting of the old and new in Roman Rd

The meeting of the old and new in Roman Rd

Passmore Edwards Library is an inspiring example of the philanthropy of the past

You may also like to read about

Favourite Shops in the Roman Rd

At W F Arber’s Printworks

At George’s Plaice

In Old Globetown

12 Responses leave one →
  1. gavroche permalink
    March 11, 2019

    It would be great if you (or someone else) were to make the same walk in 30-40 years time, and take pictures of the exact same spots. Can you put that in your will, just to make sure?

  2. March 11, 2019

    So many of your photographs make me homesick for London!

  3. Jill Wilson permalink
    March 11, 2019

    Great photos that will be even more interesting in years to come.

    I love the library door and must find out more about Passmore Edwards. I’ve been told there is evidence of his philanthropy in Cornwall too.

  4. Ian permalink
    March 11, 2019

    Re Passmore Edwards in Cornwall (he was Cornish by birth):
    http://www.passmoreedwards.org.uk/pages/Cornwall/Contents%20Cornwall.htm

  5. March 11, 2019

    Thank you for taking me on an early morning stroll down memory lane although much has changed since my childhood and subsequent visits there. I do hope that G. Kelly reopens as it’s my favourite pie and mash shop too!

  6. March 11, 2019

    The City View hotel is the best. Great road, great pictures.

  7. Sue Hare (Radley) permalink
    March 11, 2019

    I used to go there every Saturday to the market with my mum. Auntie Sylvie lived there & we gathered in her house with all of my aunts (my mum being one of 12). The market was full of bargains fantastic stalls selling all the latest fashions. Happy days.

  8. March 11, 2019

    Why do I bother reading and commenting on the Gentle Author? I have a lot to do with my time . Today’s blog explains it all. A stroll down the Roman Road can be a just be a stroll . However the Gentle Author transforms it into a trip trough time . We enter into another dimension, the past links to the present and the whole picture appears in our minds of the road as it was from the begining. So that is why I bother . My time is shared with the millions who have walked down the Roman Road before me.

  9. March 11, 2019

    …..and those that will walk down it in the future

  10. Dave Verguson permalink
    March 11, 2019

    My dad grew up on Ellesmere Rd, one of the ‘elegant terraces’ that ran north from Roman Rd, though they only occupied the first floor and the toilet was down stairs and through the basement kitchen and out the back. My mum grew up off Grove Rd. (Granddad working on the railway as carriage painter and in the ARP )

    We had moved out from Dalston to Romford ion the mid 1950s. We visited by bus and walked up from Mile End along Grove Rd. Does anyone else remember the toy shop on Roman Rd, not far from the junction with Grove Rd? I would run ahead just to look in the window!

  11. Gary Arber permalink
    March 11, 2019

    Until the 1950′s the stretch of road from Bethnal Green to the Regents Canal was called Green Street, Roman Road started at the canal. My shop was number 159. Green Street was renamed Roman road and 300 was added to the original Roman Road shops, my shop became number became 459. St Barnabas Church was built for the Baptists but they rejected it as being (too grand) The Church of England took it over. A less ornate Church was erected for the Baptists a few doors down Grove Road where it remains to this day as Victoria Park Baptist Church. When the Gentle Author fancied a beer on his journey TGA should have called into the Young Prince, Barry the landlord owns it and does his “own thing” He stocks a fantastic range of drinks, you only get the best from Barry.
    Gary

  12. March 11, 2019

    As Gary mentions it, I also remember the stretch of Roman Road being called Green Street which is now called ‘Globe Town’. Members of my family still refer to it as Green Street….which I think sounds much nicer.
    My great Grandma was bombed out of Worley Street during the War and always used the shops and stalls around there.
    There used to be another branch of G. Kelly in Green Street, now sadly gone forever.

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