'Walthamstow Village' - the poem and the print
Updated: Oct 23
I’d been learning the craft of printmaking for a couple of years, and was looking for ways to
incorporate my poems into my prints. I’d already produced around ten prints of my London poems which feature photos of the locations for each poem, but wanted to go a step further and make the poem part of the image.
I also wanted to make more of the poems. My Walthamstow and To London books (illustrated by Kirsten Schmidt and published by the Walthamstow based Paekakariki Press) have each sold around 800 copies, so I knew there was an audience for the poems (though I’d no idea who they were) and I wanted to find other ways to share them.
I was reading Peter Ackroyd’s brilliant biography of William Blake at the time, and loved the way that Blake had invented his own techniques for creating prints which combined his poems and images for Songs of Innocence and of Experience. I didn’t have Blake’s etching skills though, and knew that it would be incredibly difficult to use linocut techniques to cut each individual letter in even a short poem.
So when I started to develop ideas for the Walthamstow Village image, I didn’t really know how I was going to print it. I’d found very few examples online of poems incorporated into prints, but I was influenced by Andrew Anderson’s linocuts of fragments of medieval poems which he’d combined with his own images. I liked the way Andrew had the lines of poetry going around the edge of some of his images and it occurred to me that, as all of my Walthamstow and London poems (influenced by English translations of the Tang Dynasty Chinese poet Wang Wei) consist of eight lines in four couplets, I could have each of the couplets running around a square which would contain the image. The simple maths of this thrilled me more than it probably should have.
So I produced a small, rough sketch in my notebook (my printmaking notebook, not my poetry notebook) of the Walthamstow Village poem running around a simple map of the village. I’ve lived in Walthamstow for 16 years and have got to know its streets and buildings and layers of history well. Or at least I thought I had. When I produced a larger sketch for the print, the map was a simple thing with Ordnance Survey type symbols for St Mary’s Church, the (old) Town Hall and the Vestry House Museum. I showed this to a couple of local poets and printmakers, who liked the concept and encouraged me to take it further.
I decided to ditch the symbols and draw the buildings instead, starting with the church and the Ancient House. I was pleased with these, but asked myself why I was including some old buildings and not others. So I added the Squires Almshouses and St Mary’s National School (now a community center) on Orford Road. At the time I was still walking our younger daughter down to Walthamstow School for Girls each morning. I’d usually kiss her goodbye on Church Lane or at the top of Vinegar Alley (well away from the school, so that it looked as if she’d walked in by herself!), and I’d then loop through the village to take photos of the old buildings to sketch later. Drawing a building helps you to know it, and I loved these morning rambles when I’d take in the symmetry of weathered facades and the proportions of windows and doors planned many generations ago by unknown architects.
I also noticed other buildings that I’d walked past hundreds of times without any curiosity as to what they used to be. The lovely old sorting office on Vestry Road was one of these, and what used to be St Mary’s National School on Orford Road with its huge round window and twin entrances (for girls and boys). I took photos of them and then tried to reproduce them in miniature in my notebook after work, reducing each building to its key features.
I decided to add the old-style lamp posts to each corner in lieu of a line space between each couplet. They also seemed to me, flanking Orford Road with their low-wattage bulbs at dusk on a winter’s evening, to offer a glimpse of how the old gas-lit village would have looked before the train line was extended out to Walthamstow and beyond in the late 1800s. I remember going for one walk at dusk especially to observe the lamp posts, and there it was again, the excitement of creation, of taking something seemingly mundane and turning it into art.
When it came to the printing method, my decision was influenced by a tutorial with Anna Alcock, a highly accomplished printmaker who runs the Inky Cuttlefish studio at Blackhorse Road on the eastern edge of Walthamstow. I spent an enjoyable couple of hours asking her questions, listening to her tips and printing some of my older linocuts (the first time I’d used a proper printing press, rather than the wooden spoon method). I then showed her my ‘Walthamstow Village’ illustration. Going into the tutorial I had planned to have a metal plate made of the image which I could then run through a press, but after talking through the pros and cons of various methods I was slightly surprised when Anna suggested that I get it printed digitally. You need to think about the kind of journey you want to take people on, she said, and pointed out that we live in different times to William Blake and can take advantage of modern printing methods.
And finally a word on the poem. I wrote ‘Sunday morning, Walthamstow Village’ in 2014, several years before ‘Mini-Holland’ led to Orford Road becoming pedestrianised but soon after the Eat 17 cafe/restaurant opened and the first of the pavement tables gave it a touch of Lyon or Bordeaux, or perhaps Utrecht. I can’t remember if the poem was based on one walk or a few walks, though at some point I must have felt the need to capture the particular feeling of passing through the village on my own and being lifted by a sense of everyone else’s elation.
Sadly, if you now make the walk on a Sunday morning, it will no longer be “under a shower of St Mary’s bells”. From our garden on Greenway Avenue, which connects Wood Street with Epping Forest, I used to love hearing the prolonged pealing of the bells (“the poor man’s only music”*) on a Sunday morning. They had the same effect on me as they must have had on tens of thousands of other people over the last five hundred years and more, drawing me down to the village, though rather than pulling me into the church, I walked on down Vestry Road, along East Avenue, up Orford Road (where people were sipping their coffees and buying their olive bloomers), then onto Beulah Road before turning for home.
I’m not sure when the bells stopped ringing. I just remember the first time I noticed their absence, and missed them, as I still miss them, and hope that one day their Sunday morning music will return.
Sunday morning, The Village
As if we walked in the sunshine of all
our Sunday mornings, and all the people
we saw on Beulah Road and Orford Road
were quietly celebrating what it means
to buy the olive bloomer, the paper,
to sip the coffee’s lovely bitterness
and breath the secular September air
under a shower of St Mary’s bells.
Walthamstow, July 2022
To buy a copy of the 'Walthamstow Village’ print please visit the Prints page on this website or contact me directly at michaelshann1[at]gmail.com
‘Sunday morning, the Village’ was published in Walthamstow (2015, Paekakariki
Press) and can be bought from Paekakariki Press or by contacting me directly.
*From ‘Frost at midnight’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge