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September 17, 2012

A Day out in Walthamstow

Detail from Morris design We went to visit the newly re-opened and refurbished William Morris Gallery on Saturday. Like most commentators, I thought that the redesign is a great improvement. The house is lighter and airier now, and more of its lovely features are visible. About 50% more of the collection is on display, and the displays both show off the collection to greater effect, and interpret it well. For the first time, a visitor who knows nothing of Morris's life and works will, I think, be informed and entertained by the museum.

The rooms are themed, illuminating different aspects of his life and work; his home life, designs, workshop, shop and his socialism. My favourite room was probably the one for Kelmscott Press; I am a bit soft for lengthy explanations of font design and typographic disagreements.

In modern style, there are interactives scattered about the rooms. I liked the two computer-based ones very much; one allows you to scroll round Waltham Forest learning about how it was in Morris's time, and the other lets you play a game running a version of Morris and Co., and try to make beautiful things and not go bankrupt. There are also entertainments for younger children, such as model-making, dressing up, and brass rubbings, in most of the rooms. This sort of arrangement, which I first saw at the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood, actually allows families to visit galleries and for the adults to have a sporting chance of seeing the exhibits.

My children, for whom the dark, poky, undernourished version of the Gallery was a key childhood memory, do not like the refurbishment. I think this is more a 'why do things have to change' wail, but there were one or two adult visitors on Saturday who had the same view.

Detail from the Walthamstow TapestryAlterations to the back of the building have carved out a new gallery for temporary exhibitions, and an airy tea room (of which more later). The launch exhibition for the gallery is Grayson Perry's Walthamstow Tapestry. It would be hard to think of a better choice for the launch. Obviously there is the Walthamstow connection; Perry's studio is here, and the tapestry is named for this 'ordinary place'. But it also has great resonances with Morris's work. As well as its overt themes of lifelines, consumerism and shopping, Perry includes hundreds, perhaps thousands, of classic textile motifs from all over the world. The tapestry is a small edition, using the sort of mechanical production process that Morris disdained in his time. I wonder if he would embrace it now, when a jacquard loom can generate a perfectly stitched tapestry the size of a wall in a few hours? Perry explains part of his reason for using machine embroidery is that he did not want to create a sweatshop. And I am not persuaded that this tapestry is either useful or beautiful. It's thought-provoking though, and I think well worth seeing. It's very large and there is a lot to look at; far more than the attention span of most visitors. I may have to go back, but luckily it stays in Walthamstow till 30 September.

We chose Saturday to go to the gallery because Lloyd Park, in which the gallery sits, was celebrating its own refurbishment. These two linked projects are one of the many things in East London that you can point to and say 'were it not for the Olympics this probably wouldn't have happened'. They only just managed to open in time, and they are still not quite finished. I do have some memories of Lloyd Park that have now gone away. We no longer have old-fashioned but beautiful municipal flower beds; the little menagerie, much reduced even by 1998, has gone, as has the scented garden for the visually impaired (and everyone else). There is a new 'William Morris Garden', full of examples of plants he incorporated into his work and designed for year-round interest. The central area is now marvellous; with play areas for toddlers through to teens, including the skate park, basketball, and sand and water play, all together and snaking round a new café, lots of outdoor seating, and central hub area that will eventually (soon I hope) include toilets. The one slight criticism I would make is that the child-powered, splashy, water fountain is just a tad close to the café benches.

That means, of course, that there are two café's in the park now. Previously, it didn't really sustain one. The gallery tea room is a lovely spot to lunch, perhaps with a salad and a glass of white wine; the hub café, run by the catering students of Waltham Forest College, is more in the 'Coke and kitkat' mould. But the Friends of Lloyd Park have had influence here; the opening hours are much longer than they used to be, and there's good coffee, cheap paninis and a wide range of child-friendly snacks. So if you're in Walthamstow, use them both! The hub café, in particular, is opening from 8:30am to an hour before park closing; this means that it's straightforward to go for a run or to walk a dog, and then grab breakfast, or go down after school in the warmer months and have a light supper.

One change is that Aveling Fields, the larger area behind the original park, is now more clearly part of the park. On Saturday it was hosting a variety of have-a-go activities, all enhanced by the fantastic weather. One was the Green Gym, which I'd slightly anticipated by trying the previous day. This is a slight rebranding for the Conservation Volunteers, suggesting that if you like the environment and outdoors and are trying to get fit anyway, gardening's a good way of doing this, and you'll learn new skills. So they include a warm up and cool down, and a bit of advice, though the task I was doing on Friday (clearing away overgrown grass from around young trees) was not so very complicated. They run twice a week in Waltham Forest, and in many other places.

The second thing I tried was riding a Segway. Yes, I know everyone has done this years ago, but it was free. I wasn't very good; it involves steering which is always a problem for me. "You look like a middle-aged woman on a Segway" said Marianne, helpfully, in between generally scowling at being required to spend a Saturday afternoon outside in a park in lovely late summer sunshine.

The third thing was the Bushcraft area, operated by Groundwork. They taught Jonathan, and by association me, how to light a fire using a fire steel. That's actually quite a useful thing to know, and also a lot of fun. We did have to drag Jonathan away before he created a massive bonfire.

We passed over many other free activities including bungee trampolining (which I've done before). There was also a little cluster of interesting food stalls. We really liked SolSnack, a combination of popcorn, amaranth and sorghum flavoured with salt and honey. A quick trip to Istanbul for ices finished our day.

Posted by Alison Scott at September 17, 2012 11:39 AM


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