Places, much like people, have the risk of being tainted with a bad image. It’s not until you actively seek to explore and understand the truth, that you can position your own opinion on it or them. It can be an enlightening process.
This is why I’m starting a new blog series called “A Whisper In…” where I travel to somewhere within a day and write up my encounters and thoughts. The most intriguing thing I find about travel writing is that it doesn’t just have to be about sunny places and exotic getaways. It can be about finding the extraordinary in the ordinary and for that matter, finding the ordinary in the supposedly extraordinary.
Harlow, I have always found, has previously accompanied an image of negativity and of being unsafe. Seeing as I was already visiting my sister and niece, it seemed only right that Harlow was the first place I visited for this series.
It’s February and so it goes without saying that the first thing I noticed leaving my flat was that it was bitingly cold. The bus, heading into Chelmsford and packed to the brim, was not much warmer. I drifted between reading my new book ‘The Shadow of the Sun: My African Life” by Ryszard Kapuscinski and looking out the window at a journey I’d taken countless time since growing up. I noticed the pattern on the buses, a stark purple continuing across a lavender style detail that drummed up memories of long and dull commutes of the past but also of enjoyable journeys with friends.
It was not long before I was in Chelmsford waiting to take the second bus, and where a rather distressing episode occurred which I will call ‘The Desperate Search for a Toilet and the Case of the Broken Hand Dryer’. But we will forget that and move on to the change in bus operator and with it a change of purple, into turquoise, busy into quiet and surprisingly cold into toasty and warm. Looking out the window I was met with a journey I had not noticed before, but that which really was quite a beautiful one. The views were of long open fields, and images of quiet, rural living. Inside the bus each person had their own business to attend to. One group of kids had no idea where they were going, one couple was overly attentive with each other’s lips and a woman was ripping into a hot cross bun packet, the latter of which I related to the most, naturally.
I got off in Harlow and somehow felt even colder, and as anyone who has ever waited for someone who has a child will know, waiting means waiting longer than you expected. In this case, my niece had decided to cover her diaper and clothes in her own excrement and laugh maniacally about it and so had to be cleaned first. I can only guess that she was merely just SO excited to see me again.
The first time I visited, I arrived oblivious to my surroundings and intent solely on seeing my sister and niece, Today, however, I set out to open my eyes and look around me. What I found was a town quite different from what I had imagined before. There are buildings a little run down and eerie, and a dull concrete forms much of the bus station but in general this is where the stereotype ends. There are large green fields, and in the preceding towns of Roding and Roxwell, images of quaint lifestyles and thatched rooves. Back in Harlow town centre, there is urban and there is rural intermixed and above all else an undeniable sense of character and personality.
There is a Dominoes, a business that almost epitomes modern living that is placed inside an old, presumably listed building, that used to be Harlow’s Post Office. Faded lettering adorns the top of the door that let’s go the secret of its past, and the only identifying factor of Dominos is a sign. The rest is still the building as it would have been in the days of letters and Christmas cards to relatives. There is a church with a large round window with a cross stretching from its bottom to top, and a large point taking up much of the churches height. A church that is no doubt just a normal Christian or catholic one, but that I couldn’t help but wonder if it belonged to a cult or to a group of Scientologists. There are two sheds that are actually not sheds but a fire station and an ambulance station, only identifiable by the wooden “Ambulance Station” sign and the singular fire engine fit snuggly into its also wooden garage. A selection of buildings surely novel worthy.
The image above reading “we are all in the same boat” I was told by my sister also used to stretch all the way across the adorning wall, before it was removed due to disapproval from the church it crossed into. I had to admit that I didn’t understand what it was for and so when I got home I searched it and noticed the signature “YOLA” to the side, and with this discovered something rather endearing. This mural, which was even more wonderful when stretched across the wall next to it, was created in response to a racially-charged attack on a polish man back in 2016 who died from a single punch to the head*. It sends a message out of peace, that fights against a negative image which has summed up the entirety of Britain rather than a select hateful group of people. It included (when in its entirety) 40 real-life Harlow residents holding on this yellow rope that forms the word Boat. Each person was different in their own right, but each person was helping to pull this heavy load, each person was in the same situation, and that is the message they were attempting to spread*.
Nothing I encountered today could perfectly sum up how I feel about Harlow more than this mural. A place with perfectly well-mannered, social and kind people but with also the opposite, the hateful and antisocial. The latter has managed to bring a distaste for the name of Harlow which we have become accustomed to, but once given a chance there are some lovely people and interesting sights. Seeing my niece, almost three months now, and seeing my sister who is almost 19 continued to remind me of how it is so important to make your own mind up about people and places. My niece is happy, she is adorable, she is everything a baby should be, and she makes me want to protect her to the ends of the earth. My sister is young, and thus herself tainted by the stereotype of young mothers as incompetent and lazy, but she demolishes that completely by showing herself as an incredible and natural mother.
In short, I am more than glad that my journey into this new blog series started in Harlow, and I am excited to come back in the summer and look at more sights such as the Museum and Walled Gardens. For now, I will look out for my next location, enthusiastic to continue.