It’s March 2018, getting on for the middle of the month. Two weeks have passed since the Mayor of London announced the inaugural “Borough of Culture” winners, having bestowed the title on Waltham Forest for 2019 and Brent for 2020. But those boroughs will have to wait a while yet before my girlfriend and I cast our judgemental gaze. We’re visiting all 32 London boroughs throughout the year as a New Year’s Resolution we’ve called The Boroughers, and have just had a day out in our 7th: Ealing.
Out West, that’s where. Well, sort of. Ealing has always felt to me like the place where London ends, what with the central Line and all them W postcodes and that. North of the river, I was a little surprised to discover that it wasn’t actually on the river; if you’d asked me a month or so ago I’d have bundled Brentford into the borough. As with each of the year’s adventure I’m having my ignorance exposed. But that’s part of the point, innit? 44 years with so much on my doorstep that I’ve never seen.
In fact, there’s an excellent 1982 documentary from BBC2 about Ealing called from a series called “History on your doorstep”, hosted by cab-driving Mastermind winner Fred Housego. Despite watching it in the week prior we actually struggled to find many interesting facts about the Borough, until a flurry of them entered our consciousness with minutes to spare.
- Hồ Chí Minh of revolutionary communism fame once worked washing dishes (or maybe as a chef) in a pub in West Ealing
- In the early 20th Century, Ealing council employed a pianist at the municipal baths
- London’s oldest allotments are in Northfields
Many of our days out are on Sundays, for one or both of two primary reasons, each of which are my fault. Saturdays are out of the question if I’m going to a football match, or if we would need to start early enough that I’d have to skip parkrun. While this means we can’t always have as good (i.e. boozy) a time as we might like, it does give Helen ample opportunity to prepare our breakfast picnic, hence my being greeted with this sign on the closed kitchen door upon my return from the game on Saturday evening.
Secrecy, damn it. The rest of Saturday evening was spent watching TV while Helen occasionally let out an impromptu laugh like an Amazon Echo, unable to stop giggling with pride at her creation.
Early to bed, early to rise. In fact, early enough that Buster was hysterically groggy when I first scanned the room for him.
Well you might be tired, you daft cat, but we’re pumped because it’s 2 weeks since we’ve been Boroughering and there’s a lot to see. But mostly Helen is hyper because it’s no longer Ealing Eve, but Ealing Day, and she can reveal the food to me. Behold:
A “Ham-well” (we’re going to Hanwell) by the Ealing Breadway company. It really is a Ham-well: a hollowed out cheese boule layered with ham and complete with an actual well bucket and surrounded by puns. Magnificent. Into the bag it goes and off we head to the train, in the opposite direction to our previous 6 journeys. Ealing is directly due north of where we live, and an annoyingly awkward place to get to.
At Hampton Court we pop into a newsagent I’m a regular customer of. “Not running today?” he asks—usually I’m there buying a drink after putting 5-10km through my legs, and I apparently look like someone he went to school with—and I explain no, instead today we’re out and about and on our way to Ealing. His eyes immediately widen and he asks if we’ve got our stab vests on. “No, I’m serious, it’s not a nice place!” But he relaxes a little when we say it’s the borough and we’re getting a couple of buses to Southall, ending the conversation by recommending somewhere to buy Indian kebabs “but stay safe”.
Across the river and round the corner, the bus stop tells us the 111 is due in 2 minutes, then 1 minute, then it’s due. The bus arrives a further 2 minutes after that, making me wonder how clever these countdown things really are. Onboard the seats up top and at the front are taken so we perch further back and I make a start on the food. It is not elegant.
It is however delicious, and vast. But what’s this, there’s also dessert? Oh my god there’s biscuits with meerkats on. BISCUITS WITH MEERKATS.
Behind us, water and a playground and a big chunk of Ealing.
It’s a bit of a shame the clouds have come in, the sun earlier was actually quite warm. But whatever. Across the way, people have ascended the fourth mound.
On our way down, we have to make way for a solo cyclist heading up. They have an enormous grin on their face and are dressed head to toe in hi-vis, looking like they’re having the time of their life. Perhaps they think it’s a yellow jersey and they’re on a mountain stage of the Tour de Ealing? Whatever, it brings out Helen’s first smile in this park. See? Mounds are great.
I say I want to ascend mound number 4, but half way up I decide it’s too muddy and steep for my shoes and balance so give up. This gives us an opportunity to each take a photo of the other one taking a photo of ourselves on a mound.
After a very noisy wait on a very busy road at a fairly busy bus stop, we get back on the 120 and I attempt to be contrite for dragging her around something she was so not enamoured with.
Up from here is a lock with a nice old short white bridge. The water looks pretty grotty but other than that it’s quite pretty, including the old lock keeper’s cottage. No sign of David Essex anywhere.
It’s a peaceful and pretty walk. There aren’t many others around - the odd walker, a couple of cyclists, some joggers. No-one seems to be stirring in the houseboats, and the council puts unnecessary quotes around a thank you. Signs point in all directions towards loads of stuff.
Brunel was an extraordinary man, but I think I’ve found a flaw in his talents and that flaw is an inability count properly. Here we have a road way which was built first; underneath, the canal; and on the bottom level, the railway. It’s an excellent convergence of multiple forms of transport, but there are only two fucking bridges.
Seriously. It’s called Three Bridges and there are only two bridges. There can only be two bridges, really. The railway isn’t on a bridge. It’s on the ground.
It’s quite a hairy place to loiter. The road is very busy and the pavement very very narrow. Helen is feeling a little jittery as it is, and finds traversing the bridge somewhat problematic. Thankfully for her sake there’s fuck all else to see at Three Bridges but the two bridges, so we don’t hang around.
Back down to the canal and we continue eastwards. There are locks. Lots more locks. This is, after all, the Hanwell lock flights. None of them are yer fancy modern things, they’re all the big chunky manual sorts that look like it would take a bloody age to navigate.
They keep coming and coming, but after about, I dunno, 8 or 10 locks we change course, doubling back and then heading north alongside the unnavigable Brent River.
The trees have brightly coloured parakeets in though, and the council have put up feed on a lot of them. Trains go across, somewhat less steamy than they would have in the 1800s. We stop under an arch when entering Brent Lodge Park because it seems like a good place to take a photo in the style of a flyer for a forthcoming moody spoken word gig or summat.
5 more minutes along the path and there’s loos and a cafe. We’re both a bit thirsty and in need of calories so have an ice cream, and then pay our £2.50 a head to enter the zoo. This does nothing to rid me of the earworm that I was given about 6 hours previously and is still tormenting me, and in turn Helen (because I won’t stop singing it).
Before we even see any animals, we’re struck by the paint job around the place. Apparently knowledge is power or something?
As the paths open out there’s signs pointing to WAIT A GODDAMN SECOND THERE ARE ALPACAS! Just like that Helen is off and away from me, the tail end of the word “ALPACAAAAaaaaaaaaa” fading into the distance. We didn’t know if there were any in advance, and are obviously delighted to discover them.
Unfortunately, they are miles away. Right in the middle of a big double-fenced enclosure, two of them with a face full of feed. We stare at them for a bit and they only take their noses out for a second or so at a time, giving us a “what?” look and then going back in. As they are in the dead centre of the whole place, we end up walking past them a number of times. They are both still eating, every time, even if their legs seem to have given out, until finally on about our 5th attempt the neatly two-tone one is near the fence - because that’s where the water is.
Also, we learnt stuff about lemurs. What they do, right, is they piss on their own tails and then flick it at one another in “stink fights”. That is hilarious and grim all at once.
I mean, that’s all the best animals done, frankly. There are some peacocks ‘n that, in the same cage as a couple of cranes who are obviously plotting something the whole time we watch them, having a conversation and walking next to each other as if they think they can sneak up.
Goats. There are goats. We’d heard them bleating as we walked up, and now they’re here talking to us. They are all small. Are they pygmies? Dunno. One of them looks very pregnant. And, as we’re enjoying our time staring at goats, there is one single drop of rain and they all scurry indoors, like “thank fuck we’re in a zoo and not the wild, we’ve got shelter!”
Soft. As. Fuck.
The same cannot be said of their pond-mates, a ton of pink flamingoes all standing on their brittle-as-fuck hollow legs and looking very daft.
In the little stream, a couple of them are banging their heads constantly against pebbles. No idea what’s going on.
There are no butterflies, but there is a box with a ton of chrysalises in. Must be pretty amazing to be there when they all come out.
On our first lap one of the cages had said there were emperor tamarin, but there was no sign. On our second lap there’s three of them and they are awesome. They are so called due to their resemblance to an old emperor of Germany, based on facial hair.
One of them looks like he’s using his long tail for balance while he somewhat precariously attempts to grab hold of some bamboo. Then he lets go, and hangs over a branch with body on one side and tail on another - and in a fantastic show of gymnastic ability spins entirely around to stand up straight again... about 6 times in a row. Thanks for putting on a show!
On the way out we get the only photo of the capybara possible. Bah.
Outside and across the way there are some more enclosures. What’s that we can hear? Oh, it’s a shitload of chickens. Excellent! Few of them come near enough to get a decent photo, the one who ventures closest looking like a sterotypical cartoon. All of them are shouting their head off, cock-a-doodle-doo all the time. The one with the craziest hair seems to have a sore throat.
We reach the centre fairly soon in all honesty. The fact the hedgerows are a little smaller than us helps, as does the big hole in a hedge that enables us to cheat like bastards. But even without that it’s a lot easier than in Bromley.
From the viewing platform in the centre, we take a few “try not to capture any accidental swastikas” snaps while kids shout their head of, being given direction from another viewing platform near the entrance.
Turns out it also caters to those who want to sit and refill their e-cigarette with vape juice, and idiots whose brain never once suggests to them that the bizarre “moccoco? Moccicio?” word at the bottom of an stone inscription is actually some roman numerals.
Anyway, enough greenery. Time to get back on the streets, yo.
The guy sitting opposite asks for the same one after me. I’ve just bought the last bottle. Oops. It’s a lovely quiet single room and we’re enjoying it. Helen opts for a berry sour, after I point out she’s had it before and loved it.
One of the house rules is “no F and C words (Foster’s and Carling)”. Cute.
As we debate the options of staying for another if they are doing pies, or heading off to find somewhere else to eat, the decision is basically made for us. It’s got really loud, as a big group of people have convened on the tables by the door. It’s the staff and their mates so I shouldn’t be too annoyed, but I am, because the loudest of them is a bona fide Viz “Real Ale Twat” character. You can tell this because he feels the need to describe the rrrrrrrrrrationale behind his choice of opening tipple. Good lord.
Outside, we see that Hanwell has decorated some of its pavements. Not sure why.
It’s time to get back on a bus. We’re only going 5 stops, as I explain patiently while the E8 turns up.