A festival not quite on my doorstep (part one)

By - Sunday 25th November, 2012

In this first in a four-part series, the Croydon Citizen’s very own foreign correspondent in Watford gives us an outsider’s perspective on October’s Cherry Orchard’s Arts Festival, and why Croydon is more than a car park

Bear with me. This is my first piece of investigative journalism – I’m not a Croydon native, have never lived here, and in fact hail from Croydon’s mirror image in the Northwest of London – Watford. My only connection to Croydon is one of my university friends, who, in an early act of self-deprecatory bonding, I issued a challenge to prove whether his hometown’s bad press was any more deserved than mine. After a brief cultural exchange a few years ago it seems pretty well established that Watford’s reputation as a car park with delusions of civilisation is much more deserved – I’ve become accustomed to visiting Croydon to see the ambassador and a number of now shared friends, while he has never returned to Watford since.

Which is not to say that Croydon has been the victim of some kind of national character-assassination conspiracy – it is a concrete jungle that oscillates wildly in terms of salubriousness. While exiting East Croydon (by far the most palatable point of ingress to Croydon central) I have encountered an old bearded man who yelled ‘F*CK*NG B*ST*RDS’ to no-one/everyone, and a woman who resembled Kathy Burke as Waynetta Slob who asked me for some small change and assured me that she ‘didn’t mind getting her hands dirty’. On a Saturday night, the generally-placid-if-architecturally-brutalist highstreet can resemble a Boschian nightmare.

All of which is to say – Croydon is a place, like any other. What makes it a town rather than simply a place is not the car parks but the people, and even people who live in Croydon aren’t always keen to argue against the stereotype. (Probably the vast majority of those people genuinely believe that Croydon is a soulless car park for London commuters, just as strongly as I believe that this description more truly applies to Watford.) Which makes the Cherry Orchard Arts Festival, a celebration of art and culture a stone’s throw away from East Croydon station, a fairly intriguing proposition.

Especially in the cold and rain

My festival experience begins at East Croydon station, a six-platformer that’s obscenely overstretched for no immediately discernible reason – only half of the length of each platform houses chain coffee shops and stationers, and the London-directed end of each platform is blank, tapering, and desolate. Fortunately for East Croydon’s arrivals, the business end is more civilised and covered, with wide ramps that lead up to the comedically atrophied station proper. Once through the Oyster card gates it’s only a few paces to the main exit where pedantic grammarians can enjoy an advert for a local law firm that promises ‘the largest solicitors in the south west’. Beyond the linguistically suspect poster, East Croydon station opens out onto a quasi-urban view – there’s no doubt that it is urban, with the red London buses and the NLA tower on the left, but the tram stops are always festooned with flower boxes that actually do a fair bit to dull the metropolitan edge. (The NLA tower is one of Croydon’s many architectural quirks, resembling as it does a stack of 20 pence pieces. At night, the different levels are illuminated with alternating primary colours in a way that’s much more tasteful than is feasible for a 1970s tower. NLA presumably does not stand for ‘No Longer Available’)

NLA, or No.1 Croydon as it is apparently officially known, is at the head of Cherry Orchard Road – if you follow the tramlines east (or rather, left) out of East Croydon station, NLA appears to have been planted in some kind of concrete well on your right, while Cherry Orchard Road runs left, parallel to East Croydon’s ludicrous platforms. Here is a map:

Arriving at the head of Cherry Orchard Road at 10am on this cold and lightly damp morning, it seems hard to believe that this road has any connection to a cherry orchard – it looks more like the entrance to an industrial estate. Although I start my journey at Knolly’s House, attraction no. 1 on the map, I don’t realise it until later – it’s a fairly generic commercial office, and although I noticed a number of Salvation Army brass players, they didn’t appear to be converging there. Past the similarly nondescript Royal Mail building opposite Knolly’s House the left hand side of the road gives way to a green chipboard wall that obscures the razed land that Menta (note their presence on the map as sponsors of the event) intends to develop.

A brief note – there is apparently a vocal group of people strongly opposed to Menta’s proposed developments on Cherry Orchard Road, which includes a 54 storey tower. Some of these people apparently volunteered for COAF before being told of the sponsorship, and, although I don’t believe anyone resigned their volunteer-status as a result, the atmosphere at that meeting may have been somewhat tense. Through some initial probing of my unwitting interviewees early in the day I’m unable to find anyone particularly anti-Menta: maybe they’ve all seen this promotional image from the Menta site, which seems to have been designed by the same person that draws the utopian metropolises on Sci Fi covers, and depicts East Croydon station as having been recently astro-turfed.

At the moment, though, this vision is pretty far from the reality – it’s cold, wet, and the largest building is an unassuming twelve stories. On the chipboard protecting passers-by’s eyes from Menta’s construction site I encounter my first installation – a street mural by ‘positive arts’, which appears to be one graffiti artist who must surely have been working overnight to reach the level of completion and pulchritude that the mural is at this morning. That said, there’s not much to see here at this stage – I’m averse to disturbing the artist both because of his fantastic work and because of an ingrained feeling that this fantastic work is somehow illegal.

In part two – Death wishes, icelandic sweaters, and more than one attraction
Rob Mayo

Rob Mayo

The Managing Editor of the Croydon Citizen, and the only co-founder not to have ever lived in Croydon. Rob previously studied at University of Oxford and University of London, and regrets only one of them. Since co-founding the Citizen in 2012 Rob has completed a PhD in English Literature at the University of Bristol, for whatever that's worth... Rob's stereotypically left-leaning views are personal, and not representative of editorial policy.

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  • http://www.earth.li/~kake/ Kake

    I’ve been to Watford a couple of times, for beer-related reasons (a beer festival and three Good Beer Guide pubs: the Southern Cross, the Estcourt Arms/Lynch’s, and the One Crown). My main impression was that there were lots of hotels and main roads.

    I have previously pondered a number of similiarities between Croydon and Oxford. They’re roughly the same size geographically; they were both in existence before the Norman conquest; they both have pedestrianised areas in the centre; they’re both surrounded by other settled areas that feed people in for shopping etc; they both have communities of passionate and vociferous cyclists; and I guess you could even map London Road onto Cowley Road in a way. Also, speaking personally, of all the places I’ve ever lived, these are the two where I’ve really felt part of a local community.

    (OK, now I really want to bring a long-term Oxford resident here and get them to write about Croydon, as you’ve done.)

    • Rob

      I studied there for three years! (Absolutely hated it, although that’s probably more to do with the university that Oxford per se) Whereabouts did you live there?

      • http://www.earth.li/~kake/ Kake

        Chilswell Road, Hugh Allen Crescent, Iffley Road, Keble Road, Magpie Lane, and Walton Street. I was there for eight years altogether and still go back to visit friends.