Cambridge Heath: Beating the Bounds

The Beautiful South

But where, exactly, is Cambridge Heath? To my mind it’s southern boundary is the junction of Cambridge Heath Road and Old Ford Road. Here the redbrick Victorian hanger of the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood reposes majestically, facing the art deco thrust of the old York Hall Baths.

The baths were built in the late 20s and are still vibrantly popular today. They have boxing, swimming, gyming, vintage clothes fairs, boisterous nocturnal queues for obscure gigs, outpourings at certain times of night that seem simply to be merry rucks — and much else besides.

At this junction the civic architecture stands grandly. Tall plains hang in green ease above the museum gardens. Nothing is going to rush them. A eucalyptus rises above the iron gaslights; the lamps flickering with rounded nostalgia, the eucalyptus leaves shimmering like a memory of Victorian fancy. The black park railings gleam in accord.


The northern end of the district — not much farther north — is different. It lies, perhaps, where Cambridge Heath Road and King Edward’s Road meet. There is no greenery. The traffic hums heavily.

Here there are small businesses and some achingly cool hangouts. An obscure entrance labeled with a name I forget, but which is probably a single abstract noun, seems to lead to a first-floor hair salon.

The nearby ‘Trampery’ had coffee, niche spirits and bicycles. It closed earlier in the winter, or finally sublimated into a realm of inaccessible knowingness. Unaffected by its demise (or ascension), the traffic still grinds past.

East to Water

To the east Cambridge Heath meets the Regent’s Canal. The canal is two hundred years old but a recent imposter nonetheless. It’s purposive curves now circumscribe the district. Here small streets run close to the water. There is a jauntily ramshackle Bethnal Green Wharf where colourful narrowboats and widebeams huddle damply.

Certain gardens have long lawns tilted towards the canal. In one a series of plastic heads stare through the summer amongst wild honeysuckle and bindweed. Elsewhere blocks of flats look over the canal. The lights come on and go off, come on and go off, whilst life accrues in the exposure.

At the Oval

In contrast, to head west from Cambridge Heath Road is to enter a domain of Victorian brick arches, small alleys darting between chain-link fences, raw cobbles, mature litter, abandoned taxi chasses. At the Oval an arts space exists, along with the handsome brick-built Lithuanian Church.

The ‘Oval Space’ has eclectic club-nights that must often seem surreal to the small business owners of the area: office furniture sales, printing, milk distribution, web-design, building yards.

Closer to the canal is a travel company whose coaches park patiently behind amnesiac Victorian buildings. The coaches manoeuvre cagily whilst the dormer windows flake plaster onto the towpath like memories.

Gastower Grace

These, then, are the rough boundaries of Cambridge Heath. Through it run lines of incredible transition and force — so that it feels the place is a world with a world passing through it.

The railway viaduct from Liverpool Street dominates above all. It forces its way violently south-north through the district. It’s bricks are monumental and dank. Yet it’s catenary is skittish and charged; aflicker with transience.

The world of the trains is one of resistance and haste. But over everything the old gas towers stand — now gothic, now gracious, their airy girders curving through an agnostic sky.

The Lost Heath

But where is the heath of Cambridge Heath? According to British History Online it was originally an area of gravel spanning the Hackney boundary, with marshland to the east and west. Perhaps the gravel was valuable in the medieval period? In 1275 one ‘ancient’ house stood on it. By 1720 there were still no buildings on or near the heath on the Bethnal Green side.

There is something elegiac about that ‘ancient’ house: solitary, almost transgressively placed and never joined for centuries. Was it built on the fly, a half-collapsing hovel? What kind of minds did its inhabitants have?

I imagine a medieval peasant with gravel on his boots. In spring the light catches on the standing waters of the heath. There is a smell of mineral, mud, scrub-grass. Perhaps some nights he hears duck flying overhead.

The heath is now entirely built over. The structures of ‘Cambridge Heath’ cover it, and the old marsh to its east and west.

Into the Sky

Has the heath then disappeared forever?

Not quite. There is still something of lowlying marshland about the western and eastern parts of the district. It is as if the recent arrival of streets cannot quite dislodge the place’s long memory of open space. Something of expansiveness, of wide similitude, of air and water.

You might doubt these assertions for a district that is so loud and dense. Where is the arresting quality of openness to be found?

I would answer — above you.

If you look up on a bright morning, espeically where the buildings are still mainly low-rise, you will see a sky that is of a piece with the wide East Anglian skies. Above the gastower the air is pale grey with regions of lemon. The clouds are tweaked into thin streaks by the breeze.

It is the sky of a heathland, where the light is proximate and immense.

So the ancient heath has survived by migrating into the air. Walking to work early on the second day of the year, I looked up from the packed pavement to see it amplified by the soft light.