What to see
As Orient joined the EFL since Towns of Two Halves was published, you’ll find the chapter on Leyton’s tourist potential below. London is not treated separately in the book (order it now for £8 from firstname.lastname@example.org) – it is served well enough elsewhere, for example at Time Out. Worth a look for Leyton and district are Leytonstoner or Skiddle.
Towns of Two Halves
Travelling supporters of League 2 clubs can plan a visit to Leyton Orient in one of two ways: to follow the core principle of Towns of Two Halves and find out what this corner of East London has to offer; or to look at the League 2 table, discover that Orient is the only London club on the schedule, and take the entire capital as their canvas for the day or the weekend.
There’s a substantial industry devoted to telling people where to go and what to do in London. It needs no help from Towns of Two Halves. Leyton, on the other hand…
On the face of it the pickings are slim. Coronation Gardens and Sidmouth Park are close to the Orient ground. Slightly further away is the urban Brooks Farm. On the other side of the A106, however, is the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park so you might like to get the tube to Stratford and rekindle memories of 2012 on your way to the match.
First, though, you will have to negotiate Westfield Stratford City – the tube station decants passengers into it. The contrast between Westfield and Leyton High Road is more than usually stark. It’s not only the difference between worlds: bogus prosperity as opposed to honest toil. It also offers a glimpse of alternative futures: in Westfield a world built on pointless consumption, funded by ceaseless borrowing; and in Leyton an organic, untidy, utilitarian evolution.
Westfield has the biggest of big-name stores, between which an ersatz high street threads its way, bordered here and there by ersatz pavement cafés. Brightly lit and sparkling with reflective surfaces, it repeatedly presents you with your own image. If you stop to look at a window display, you may notice your ill-defined reflection positioned among the goods. A colleague of mine once defined ‘lifestyle’ as “Pre-packaged homogeneity for the terminally unimaginative” and here it is, with you drawn into it. Is that a look of yearning on your reflection’s face? It’s Pepper’s Ghost, wanting more salt.
To offset the corporate slickness, Westfield lays claim to community spirit at various levels. With astonishing chutzpah it calls itself “the first piece of the London 2012 legacy”. It promotes regeneration, provides employment and presents itself as a concerned corporate citizen by appointing a charity partner. At the other end of the scale, rainwater from the roof is collected and used to flush the customer toilets. Within the centre, planters and plaques remind you of its commitment to biodiversity.
But first and foremost it “is a metropolitan capital for East London, a city within a city, an innovative and dynamic place for a new generation of consumer to shop, to eat, to meet, to be entertained and to stay”. There’s an intersection in Westfield, as you approach Stratford International station, where the signs to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park turn you back on yourself; where in theory you might never exit the shopping centre. Which is entirely the purpose of the place.
High Road Leyton, it hardly needs mentioning, is a different kind of shopping experience. It has shops that are on the endangered list in most parts of the land: off-licences, newsagents, butchers. There are supermarkets four metres wide and deeper than the eye can see. A store called Carnival is so elaborately cladded that you won’t immediately notice what it’s selling; ‘Cards’ it says over the entrance, which can only be a rare short-hand for ‘Just about anything’. The Coach & Horses is so welcoming a pub that its facilities are mentioned on a sign pointing to Public Conveniences (during opening hours). The usual suspects – estate agents, betting shops, pawn shops, vaperies – are present in numbers, but concessions to encroaching hipsterdom exist in the shape of coffee shops and unisex hair studios. There is no café society colonising the pavement, however.
Finding itself adjacent to the Greatest Show on Earth during the Olympics, Leyton was anxious to make the most of its day close to the spotlight. On the west-facing side of the High Road, two stretches of pastel-painted shops are resplendent in the afternoon sun. Their purpose is said to be to make visitors believe they are in Notting Hill.
Orient’s ground presents a similar contrast. From some angles it might be mistaken for a riverside development in the Chelsea area. But skulking behind a whitewashed brick wall at the end of streets named after royal palaces, it looks every inch the Victorian home of a fourth division football club. (Although Orient date back to 1888, they didn’t move to this ground until 1937; previously it was occupied by the unrelated Leyton FC.)
The High Road is an ancient pilgrim’s route, for people visiting the tomb at Waltham Abbey of King Harold, the last Saxon king of England. Now it’s more of a route to the development known as Temple Mills, where Asda, TK Maxx, Subway and other familiar names congregate.
Temple Mills recalls the Knights Templar, who owned the land beside the River Lea in the 11th century. They established a watermill there, and by the early 14th century two adjoining mills worked on the site. Among subsequent enterprises was one set up in 1695 to manufacture brass products; since Prince Rupert of the Rhine is believed to have had a watermill there, the conjecture is that Prince Rupert’s Metal may have its origins at Temple Mills. Prince Rupert’s Metal is a brass composed of 75% copper and 25% zinc and was sufficiently yellow to stand in for gold. It is not to be confused with Prince Rupert’s Drop, a glass product central to the plot of Peter Carey’s Booker Prize winning novel Oscar and Lucinda.
Coronation Gardens is the more interesting of the two parks. It has a maze. The waist-high shrubbery won’t puzzle an adult for long but children and dogs should find it more entertaining. The Gardens’ centrepiece is a band-stand, almost hidden from view by a circle of trees – a concert must be an intimate experience for an inner circle. Just outside the ring, a statue of Laurie Cunningham commands the exit to Brisbane Road.
For me, one particular evening at Leyton Orient revealed football to be a torment specific to one of the circles of Hell. Oldham were ahead, coasting, should have won but inexplicably caved in to a team two divisions below them. I drove home in a sombre mood, switched the television on and there it was, happening all over again in a midweek highlights programme. Somewhere, in a digital black-hole to which all media fragments are drawn, it is still happening.
Leyton Orient 4 Oldham 2
Brisbane Road, 15 January 1992
This is the Leyton chapter, written in 2019, of Towns of Two Halves, published in 2018. To buy a copy, email email@example.com.