Both the Hammersmith & City and District lines are closed for maintenance on an overcast Good Friday. London shrugs. It doesn’t seem to care that getting to Upton Park to explore the state of play since West Ham United upped sticks and relocated to the Olympic Stadium will not be as easy as initially presumed.
It was a year ago that the fat lady cleared her throat and belted out a tune to the sound of smashing glass as the Manchester United coach took a pounding on the corner of Barking Road and Green Street before a humdinger of a send-off, aided by a late Winston Reid winner.
Now though, only the West Stand remains of the old Boleyn Ground, and even that is a temporary reprieve – its flimsy turret towers will soon be dust and rubble. But is this narrative – one of sadness at the relentless march of football into the modern age, taking a wrecking ball to history and tradition – one the locals agree with?
The friendly chap behind the counter at the Dr Who shop on Barking Road is mostly unaffected by the absence of the hustle and bustle of football fans outside his store. “On a match day we would have a few West Ham fans who are Dr Who fans who come in,” he says. “But no, it hasn’t impacted us in any way. Most of our customers are tourists and they all make a point of coming to see us. We’re still generally busy.”
Toby at nearby Carpet Matters not only echoes this sentiment, but goes one step further: “People can come in on a Saturday without getting trampled by the football crowds.” The same goes for the man working in the iconic building on Green Street that houses Focus Furnishings: “It’s a shame but there’s less traffic.”
There is a sense that those with businesses to run can now get on with running their business. Football fans are good for pennies and pounds but only to a certain degree; other punters do exist. The lady perched behind the counter of GJ’s Food and Wine doesn’t care who buys her wares: “It’s quieter but we do still get business with the builders now so it’s not that bad.”
But what of those who relied on the hordes of football fans for trade? Surely they are suffering.
Although the famous Nathan’s Pies and Eels outlet was closed for Easter, the owner of the nearby Ercan Fish bar admitted that times were tough. Trade has, “gone down a lot. Very quiet now, especially Saturdays” but he is hopeful that when the new residents move into the swanky housing to be built on the site of the Boleyn Ground, business will pick up again. “But it takes time.”
A bloke walks into a pub that has a similarly uninviting appearance to the one in Trainspotting in which the American tourist is relieved of his possessions. Two men perch at the bar. On match days gone by, this place would have been heaving, mostly with sweaty men supping pints, singing and slagging off the team selection. But not today.
One of the punters pontificates long and loudly about the number of people he knows who left at half time during the opening Europa League game at the Olympic Stadium. It’s not easy to get back to Upton Park from Stratford on a pissing wet Tuesday evening. The bar is empty. The debate widens as to whether West Ham won the World Cup.
Outside, a man walks by with a parrot on his shoulder – casual as can be. Behind him would have been The Chicken Run stand. The Bobby Moore Stand no longer exists either; The Sir Trevor Brooking Stand is a pile of rubble. Football used to happen here: the sweet smell of grass, mud and hope is now replaced by the stench of dust and bricks.
The 104 bus takes you from The Queens pub and in ten minutes delivers you to Stratford where dreams of materialism and wealth are played out. You can enjoy pre-match grub at Cafe Football, just opposite Omega, Armani and Hugo Boss stores. There’s a steak on the menu appropriately named ‘The Irons’, along with ‘Scholesy’s steak suet pudding’, and ‘The Nicky Butty classic club panini’. If you don’t fancy any of that, there’s a Jamie’s Italian.
The Queens feels a long way from here, both in place and time. West Ham United’s new home is a spaceship on the horizon. A playground ride intermittently pops up and obscures the view. Kids run in and out of water fountains magically bursting upwards from the ground. It’s like one of those utopian town planning models from the 60s come to life: wide walkways, carefully painted trees, swan-shaped pedalos.
It’s stunning, safe and welcoming. But it is also clinical and dull. West Ham have traded community for commercialism, and those left behind at Upton Park may not be the only ones to have lost something.