Ascension Eagles soar to new heights

They have been UK National Champions ten years running. They are the best in Europe and among the top one per cent in the world. And they are based in one of the least fashionable parts of London. Who are they? They’re the Ascension Eagles, Britain’s top cheerleading team.

Ascension Eagles began in 1996, started by Shara Brice and her husband, Jonathan, as a grassroots outreach of the Church of England parish church of the Ascension, Canning Town, in the London borough of Newham. The aim was to keep young people off the streets and out of trouble.

In the beginning, the Eagles were known as the squad of rough kids from the East End. When they were ranked bottom at their first National Championships in 1997, it hurt. They didn’t like being at the wrong end of every table – whether for failing schools, poor health, or high rates of crime, unemployment or poverty. They decided that coming bottom at the Nationals was not something that they would accept; instead, they combined efforts with the aspiration of achieving a different result.

Remarkably, the following year, in 1998, they won their first National trophy. With sheer determination and hard work, this group of individuals from unpromising backgrounds had committed themselves to being the best they could be. And then, as if to prove to the world that they could, they went on winning National Championships, year after year.

A decade later, Ascension Eagles have firmly established themselves as the best of British cheerleading, consistently coming top in a sport that currently has 20,000 participants in the UK. In 2008, they represented England at the World Championships, to which only the world’s top one per cent are invited to compete. Remarkably, Ascension Eagles came away as the best Coed team outside the USA.

From an outreach project in London’s East End to being the best in the world outside the USA is quite a journey. They are the only team in the world to have retained a national championship title for over a decade. And yet the statistics that define the Eagles’ demographics have not changed. Today, Ascension Eagles coaches make a real impact on the lives of  over 2,000 children and young people each year through their work in schools and youth clubs. They are an East End success story. Their story is a story of true champions – champions in title and in the way they lives their lives.

East London’s Green Spaces, Forest and Lakes

© Copyright Danny Robinson and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

It is a secret often kept from the rest of the world that East London is full of green spaces and lakes, and even has its own forest.
There are typical urban parks all over the place (Victoria Park, West Ham Park Lloyds Park etc) but also great swathes of green space with all sorts of activities going on.

Of course, the best known is Epping Forest, most of which is not actually anywhere near the Essex town of Epping. it is run by the Corporation of the City of London and starts less than two miles from the Olympic Park, at Forest Gate, appropriately. It covers 6,000 acres from Wanstead Flats and Manor Park to the south, via the Hollow Ponds on the edge of Walthamstow and Leytonstone, and the wide open spaces of Chingford Plain, all the way up and out to Loughton and Epping.
Here, you can watch football on Wanstead Flats, or walk around Alexandra Lake opposite my house, or go boating on the Hollow Ponds. You can visit Queen Elizabeth I’s hunting lodge, or fly a kite on Chingford Plain, get lost in Gilbert’s Slade, or admire the parkland around what was once one of the finest homes in England, Wanstead House (At its zenith it rivalled Chatsworth and Blenheim Palace, but was demolished in 1824!).

Not to be forgotten is that the forest is served by some excellent churches. St Mark’s, Forest Gate, and St Gabriel’s, Aldersbrook, sit either side of Wanstead Flats, while to the north of Wanstead Park there is the majestic St Mary’s, Wanstead, as fine a building as many a City of London church. North-east of Whipps Cross is the aptly-named St Peter’s-in-the-Forest, close to Forest School, with its excellent grounds surrounded by woodland.

Should you be tempted to explore these sights, whether on foot or by bike, or even on horseback, you might be glad to know of somewhere to eat and drink. Lamb’s Cafe, at the Whipps Cross end of Lea Bridge Road, was a favourite haunt of mine when I was at Forest School, and does a great all-day breakfast.  More recently, St Andrew’s Church, by the woods in Forest Glade, Leytonstone, has opened Cafe Refresh, which is a wonderful place with great food, a warm welcome and a real community feel.

Whatever you do, though, don’t tell anyone else!  Epping Forest is our secret.  Let the rest of the world watch EastEnders and think it’s all like that.

A trip to the theatre

Theatre Royal

The Theatre Royal, in Stratford, East London, is the West Ham United of the theatre world. That’s not because of any comparison with the Theatre of Dreams, as another club’s stadium is known, but for reasons that I shall come to in a moment.

As someone who loves the drama of worship, I have always been interested in the theatre. In that business, London’s West End is where people pay big prices to watch the big names and the big, glitzy productions, in audiences packed with tourists and suburban coach parties. West London is also the home of Chelsea FC, where people pay big prices to watch Roman Abramovich’s team, expensively assembled and much-loved by a new generation of fans, if by no-one else. Older, wiser locals remember when Fulham were the local glamour club, back in the 50s.

East London might not have the glamour of Chelsea, but it has a more-than –respectable footballing tradition of its own. Before Hackney Marshes became the past of the Olympic site, it used to host hundreds of matches every weekend. Going up the scale, teams like Dagenham & Redbridge and Leyton FC are the descendants of countless clubs that have graced the game at various levels, while West Ham United and Leyton Orient are more widely-known.

Both the Hammers and the ‘O’s enjoyed something of a golden era in the 1960s, when Orient were promoted to the top flight, and West Ham were winning friends and trophies alike with their flowing football. But, to be honest, both clubs could do with a bit of that success now. Not every performance in recent years has been full of the flair and the excitement that the 1960s fans enjoyed. Sometimes, being a football fan is about disappointment.

The East End has its theatre traditions, too, and a few good theatres, too. There’s the Arcola, and the Hackney Empire, Stepney’s Half Moon theatre, and the historic Wilton’s Music Hall. Further out, Ilford has its Kenneth Moore and Hornchurch its Queen’s theatre.

For me, though, the pick of the bunch has long been the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. The West Ham United of the theatre world. It was here that, from the mid-50s to the mid-70s, Joan Littlewood, with her Theatre Workshop, was at the cutting edge of British drama. With shows like A taste of honey and Oh! what a lovely war, Littlewood tutored a generation of remarkable actors, including Yootha Joyce, Brian Murphy, Murray Melvin, Barbara Windsor and Harry H Corbett, among others.

I must have seen at least half the plays staged at Stratford since I first started going there the mid-70s. Five Guys names Moe started here, and recent highlights have included The harder they come, The Big Life, Marilyn and Ella, and Come Dancing, with Ray Davies and an excellent cast.  I love the place, and love the people who have challenged and entertained me there over the years.

And so it was that last Friday I went along to see the latest production, Cosh Omar’s The Great Extension. Apparently, The Stage used the words ‘…entertaining multi-cultural hotchpotch’. Well, I agree with the word ‘hotchpotch’, at least, but -and maybe I have a low boredom threshold – I certainly wasn’t entertained. I found it simply offensive and boring. I left the theatre feeling as flat as a football fan who has just seen his favourite team lose without trying.

I should have noticed the signs, of course; that the theatre appeared half-empty on what should have been a busy night; that the management were giving tickets away on Facebook. Maybe others had read reviews that I missed?   But at the time I was hugely disappointed about the theatre for which I have such affection.

In time, I shall probably return to the Theatre Royal, of course, just like the fans who follow their favourite football club, whatever the results. Everyone has their off days, I realise, and no theatre can guarantee non-stop hits. The point is that no-one died. It was just a bad night at the theatre. Nothing worse than that. I live in hope.

For me, being a follower of Jesus Christ is about hope. Hope that, even when things are bad, they can always get better. Hope that, even when people disappoint us, or when we disappoint others, there is always tomorrow, always something to be hopeful about. That where there is failure there is always the possibility of redemption.

When you understand that, you realise that neither football nor theatre is a matter of life and death in the great scheme of things, whatever Bill Shankly said. There are more important things in life.

In truth, not every one of my sermons is a cracker. So, if you have ever heard me speak and been disappointed, remember this. Nothing is as important as the love of God for you. God so loved the world that he sent his one-and-only son… You will find the rest of the story in John’s Gospel. It’s worth reading. You won’t be disappointed. I guarantee it.

On two wheels

photo
East London used to have its fair share of bespoke bicycle builders. There was EG Bates in Barking Road, and Rory O’Brien in Romford, and an old chap by the name of Morris, I think, in Walthamstow village.

I still have the EG Bates tourer that was made-to-measure for me in 1983 at the vast cost of £454. I also have the spare racing frame that I bought from Alan Bates just as the shop was closing down a few years ago.

Cycling has changed, of course. Now, in addition to my Bates, I have a collection of Bromptons. And my wife even has an electric bike, which is a great thing when you have Arthritis. We like cycling.

And so, today we went to the Cycle Show at Earl’s Court. There were dozens of stands and acres of lycra, but one of the best things there was a track with lots of different bikes to try out.

This was my un-doing. I rode one of Boris’s new Transport-for-London hire machines and was pleasantly surprised. And then my eyes fell on an object of great beauty – a Moulton.
TSR27_Med

I should explain that the Moulton is a British machine designed by Alex Moulton, the engineering genius who did the rubber suspension on the 1959 Mini.   The original Moulton was famous in the 1960s, but has been surpassed by the modern version, which is a masterpiece of spaceframe technology, among other things.

Like a moth drawn to a flame, I made for the Moulton and climbed aboard. It was a revelation. A joy. The most comfortable bike I have ever ridden, yet quick and nimble.

And so it was that I headed for the Moulton stand. Now, these wonderful bikes are not cheap. In fact, the top-of-the-range machine is £14,500. But they start at under £1,000, and I was hooked. I didn’t order one straight away, and I’m not even sure that I know which one would be right for me, but I wouldn’t want to bet that there won’t be a Moulton in our house on Christmas Day.

What has all this got to do with the Archdeaconry of West Ham? Well, East London is actually a great place to ride a bike. It’s relatively flat, there are lots of tracks across and around parks and beside rivers and canals, and – on local trips at least – cycling is nearly always quicker than using a car. Add to that a belief that cycling represents good stewardship of the world that God gave us to care for, as well being good for one’s level of fitness, and you can see why I think it is a Good Thing. Of course, there is that commandment about not coveting thy neighbour’s Moulton, but then my neighbour hasn’t got a Moulton, and if he gets one in years to come because I have one, it will be to his benefit.  So, watch this space.

Green Street Grub – or further afield

kitchen01

Last week’s blog was about the great food that’s on offer within walking distance of Upton Park. But what about those places that are worth going just a bit further afield for?
One restaurant recommended by the Scandinavian Hammers’ club and their friends is Thai-Thai (www.thai-thai.co.uk), in the Barking Road, near Newham Town Hall. Apparently, the young chap who runs it is a Spurs fan but claims to have a soft spot for West Ham, and the food is great.
But if you’re in that area during the day, you might opt for a £3 all-day breakfast at the Kitchen Table Café, at 292b Barking Road. Here, within St Bart’s church centre, Anne Cross serves up all kinds of goodies at bargain prices. The Monday Lunch Club is popular with locals, who get a three-course meal for a fiver! But you can drop in for a coffee and a bun, if that’s what you want (mention the secret password ‘Half Barking’ to her, and you might get a nice surprise). Alongside that, Anne also organises all sorts of things to do, from baking bread and story-telling to evening events with guest speakers (I’m there on 26 November, for what it’s worth). To find out more, email Anne on anne@thekitchentable.eu

 

Bill and Eve Perry at the Garden Cafe
Bill and Eve Perry at the Garden Cafe

Heading south from Upton Park, the Garden Café, in Cundy Street, Canning Town, a stone’s throw from the Excel Centre. Run by the remarkable Bill and Eve Perry and their team, the Garden Café is a-buzz with conversation and local life all day long. It makes for a varied menu, whether they’re doing breakfasts for Excel staff, making lunches for school kids, or dishing up Pie-and-Mash for old folks.
This kind of community meeting-place doesn’t just appear by accident. Bill and Eve see the café as an expression of their radical and creative Christian faith, which is influenced by the Anabaptist, Mennonite and Quaker traditions. It is seen as much in the social justice represented by posters about the arms trade protests at Excel, and in the artwork covering every available space, as in the welcome that everyone who comes through the door experiences. You could call this a ‘fresh expression’, or ‘liquid church’, if you’re familiar with those terms. Or you could just call it a great place to go and hang out over a coffee and a bite. Either way, the Garden Café is worth a visit.
Of course, if local cafes are not your thing, you might opt for one of the burgeoning gastro-pubs . The Gun in Docklands is very good, as is the Narrow, Gordon Ramsay’s first pub: See www.thegundocklands.com  and www.tipped.co.uk/listings/78024/the-narrow

Beigel_twoFinally, when it is late at night and you’re still hungry after a night on the town, where better is there to go than to the top end of Brick Lane where Beigel Bake serve the best East-End-Jewish beigels 24-hours-a-day.

You can have a proper salt-beef-and-mustard beigel at three in the morning, and take home a bag of fresh beigels for breakfast as well, although I happen to think that their doughnuts (30p each!) are out-of-this-world.

Green Street Grub

boleyn

If you think that ‘Green Street’ is (a) just the walk between Upton Park tube and a football ground, or (b) a trashy film that you once wasted 90 minutes of your life on, think again. It is also happens to be a great place for food and drink on a budget.
The Boleyn pub, which stands at the south end of Green Street, takes its name from the home of Anne Boleyn, which stood nearby. On match days it is full of Hammers fans, but can be a quiet place for a pint during the week, before you head for Cassetari’s, a few doors away, which has a key place in West Ham United’s history. It was here that Malcolm Allison and other players talked tactics and laid the foundations for the club’s successes in the 1960s (and we all know that West Ham won the World Cup in 66).  If you’re after traditional pie-and-mash or even eels, Nathan’s is recommended by those who know about such things.

kens

Going north up Green Street, and passing the football ground on the right, you soon come to Ken’s Café which is the place to lunch on matchdays for the West Ham cognoscenti. As you sit down with your egg-and-chips you might just be rubbing shoulders with the likes of Phil Jupitus, the radio presenter, and Steve Rapport, the legendary editor of ‘Fortune’s Always Hiding’, one of the original and best fanzines, sadly no longer in print.

Dont kill your wife

Heading north again, don’t miss the sign above Blossom and Browne’s Laundry (“Don’t kill your wife. Let us do it.”) or, indeed, Queen’s Market, which is a great place for fruit and veg, including the sort of Asian and African favourites that can be hard to find in the suburbs.
Green Street restaurant

It is to the other side of the tube station and beyond the busy shopping area, that you will need to go for the ‘Indian’ restaurants in Green Street. Names like Kebabish Original, Himalaya, Mobeen, and Amita’s serve up delicious food that’s very different to – and much better than – the fare of the average local tandoori. And if you’re prepared to venture east along Plashet Grove to High Street North, there is a further selection of Tamil, Keralan and South Indian restaurants, including my favourite, Chennai Dosa which is ‘probably the best Dosa maker in Europe’. Fill up on Masala Dosa washed down with delicious Mango Lassi and you will still have change from a fiver.

Dosa

Finally, if you have made it this far, look out for the Kitchen Table Café at St Bart’s in Barking Road. This is a genuine community meeting place, serving good food at great prices. You can dine during the day, or look out for their special events, like the evening in November when the guest speaker is the Archdeacon of West Ham.

An uplifting experience in Stratford

David and Carol Richards
David and Carol Richards

For me, one of the best things about being in East London in 2009 is the sheer life of the place. It has always been a place where people from all round the world come and settle, just as it was when some of my forebears arrived as Huguenot immigrants from France in the 1750s.  Certainly, the variety of cultures brings its challenges, but for me the benefits far outweigh the problems – and not only in the range of options that we have for eating out.  

As much as anyone else, the people in our Anglican churches reflect this diversity, and are doing so increasingly well.  Many churches that were dying in the 60s and 70s have been revitalised by the arrival of confident, lively Christians from around the world.  They might not be Church of England, but they certainly represent the worldwide Anglican Communion at its best.  

One such church is St John’s, Stratford, at the heart of the busy Broadway. It is a far cry from the church I visited one Sunday in the 70s. Maybe I chose the wrong Sunday back then, but it seemed to me at the time that St John’s had no future.  Now, under the leadership of Rev Dave Richards, the congregation is several hundred strong and full of life and confidence, as I saw when I returned there last Sunday.

Why is this? It seems to be because St John’s is representative of the local community, which has itself seen a renaissance in recent years. The long-established white residents have been joined by Christians who learned their faith – or whose parents or grandparents learned their faith – in Africa, the West Indies or any of a dozen places around the world where the Anglican church is alive and well.  The result is a church family of enormous richness and strength.

The same growth can be seen at a growing number of churches across East London, many of them led by black and Asian clergy.  The old image of struggling inner-city churches no longer applies in such places.

Last Sunday morning’s service at St John’s reflected the congregation’s richness, with contributions from young and old, black and white. It was a joy to be part of it.  As East London prepares to welcome the world to the 2012 Olympics, it might be that the local churches have something to teach us all.

East London and the 2010 World Cup

'A goal learnt at Chadwell Heath'
'A goal learnt at Chadwell Heath'

 

On the wall of the dining area at West Ham United’s training ground at Chadwell Heath there is a large photo of Geoff Hurst scoring the fourth of England’s goals in the 1966 World Cup final.  When he signed it, the great man added the caption ‘A goal learnt at Chadwell Heath’.

The implication is clear, of course. Hurst, like Moore and Peters, owed his success to having learned his trade on that unlikely-looking field in an unfashionable part of East London.  

The fascinating question is how many of England’s squad at the 2010 World Cup finals will also have honed their skills, at some point, in East London?

No-one knows who the manager will pick, of course, but possible candidates include the following players, all of whom could be said to be products of this corner of England:

Rob Green (Current West Ham United player), David James (West Ham United 2001-2004), Glen Johnson (West Ham United 2000-2003), John Terry (born in Barking, trained at Chadwell Heath, played for Senrab FC on Wanstead Flats), Matthew Upson (Current West Ham United player), Ledley King (born in Bow, played for Senrab FC on Wanstead Flats), David Beckham (born in Leytonstone), Frank Lampard (West Ham United 1994-2001), Michael Carrick (West Ham United 1998-2004), Rio Ferdinand (West Ham United 1992-2000), Jermain Defoe (born in Becton, played for Senrab FC, West Ham United 1999-2004), Carlton Cole (Current West Ham United player), Joe Cole (West Ham United 1998-2003), Scott Parker (Current West Ham United player), Jimmy Bullard (born in Newham, West Ham United 1999-2001), and Curtis Davies (born in Leytonstone).   

That’s sixteen players, all of whom have featured in the England Squad at some time in the recent past, and all of whom owe something to East London’s strong footballing heritage.

The England side of 1966, containing three West Ham players and managed by Barking-born Alf Ramsey, went on to win the World Cup.   Could it be that East London – or the Archdeaconry of West Ham, to be precise, will have an equally big part to play in England’s destiny at next year’s finals in South Africa?

 

Art in East London

SheltonStation

‘Commission For Mission’ is an exciting development in the world of sacred art in East London. As Jonathan Evens’ site at http://commissionformission.blogspot.com/ shows, ‘Commission For Mission’ is already showcasing some first-rate work.

If you can get to St Barnabas’ Church, Walthamstow, this weekend, you have a chance to see Henry Shelton’s Stations of the Cross. Well worth seeing – as is the interior of this fascinating church.

It starts here…

Elwin & Sue on Grabbist small

For reasons going back to the Vikings and King Arthur, the River Lea has long been the boundary between London’s East End and what is now the greater part of East London but used to be in Essex – the area that Dickens labelled ‘London Over the Border’.

In Ecclesiastical terms, this area, East of the Lea and largely inside the M25, is the Archdeaconry of West Ham. It contains over 1.25 million people spread across five London boroughs, and it is the place to be right now. It’s the home of the 2012 Olympics, West Ham United, Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Royal Stratford, the bottom half of Epping Forest, street markets galore, and the most culturally-diverse population in the UK.

There are over 120 Anglican churches in the West Ham Archdeaconry – churches of all traditions, many of them thriving and growing amidst the opportunities and challenges of urban life in the 21st century. With the Archdeaconry of Harlow, we are served and led by the Bishop of Barking (thus ‘half Barking’) as well as forming part of the Diocese of Chelmsford.

This blog is my attempt to reflect the life of the people of this area. Who knows how it will develop? We’ll see.

Elwin Cockett
Archdeacon of West Ham