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Off the beaten (dog)track

TRAILS OF THE UNEXEPECTED Far from going to the dogs, the last stop on the Victoria line is a repository of architectural gems.
October 1996 marks the centenary of the death of Walthamstow's most famous son, poet, artist, designer, socialist and much else besides, William Morris. No doubt the merited fanfares, publications and bumper exhibition to be held at the Victoria & Albert Museum will increase the number of visitors to Water House, Walthamstow, London E17, the delightful double-bow-fronted Georgian house where he lived for eight boyhood years.

Doubtless, too, visitors cursing the trek out to the end of the Victoria line will miss all the other charms that Walthamstow can lay claim to. In fact, if one were kind its profile would be described as "non existent". In one episode of Yes, Minister, an obstinate civil servant is threatened with exile to Walthamstow - clearly the departmental equivalent of Siberia. Devotees of the dogs know the excellent 'Stow racing track, but that is about it.

And yet Walthamstow Village remains one of London's most attractive spots, rewarding the visitor with more gems per square foot than anything Hampstead or Chelsea can offer.

Travel to the northern end of the Victoria line. Step out opposite the bus station and turn right towards Hoe Street. Cross at the lights and keep going up St Mary Road admiring the neat little streets of Victorian terraced houses, particularly the patterns above the doors and windows.

You soon reach a handful of delightful little cottages fringing Church Path. Walk through into Vestry Road, stop, look around, and admire this magically preserved village whose narrow one-way system discourages the motor car but encourages the walker.

On your right is Vestry House, built as a workhouse in 1730 before becoming a police station and then the town hall. A tablet over the main door firmly reminds readers of its original purpose: "If any would not work neither should he eat." Since 1931 Vestry House has been an imaginative local history museum and contains a police cell of the 1840s and the Bremer car - one of four claimants to being the first petrol-driven car.

Opposite is the old National School of 1819 that once accommodated 100 boys and 100 girls but is now occupied by the Spiritualist Church. Over to the left are the Squire's Almshouses, which were paid for by widow Squires and opened in 1795 for "Six Decayed Tradesmen's Widows of this Parish and no other".

Further on is one of London's best-kept secrets - a 15th-century "hall" house named the Ancient House. A timber-framed structure originally filled in with wattle and daub, this unique building was erected only a few years after Chaucer died and more than a century before Shakespeare was born. The Ancient House is now a private residence after a long and chequered career as business premises.

At this point, the visitor should snatch a moment or two of repose by wandering a few yards down Orford Road and popping into the excellent mid-Victorian Nag's Head pub. Village Antiques is opposite.

Return to the Ancient House and admire its Georgian neighbour at No 10 Church Lane and also the hexagonal Penfold postbox on the other side of the road. Only a few of these structures remain. Postmen complained that letters got wedged in the corners, so they were replaced at the end of the 1870s by our round postboxes.

Walk towards the church of St Mary's, the centre of the parish. Rebuilt many times because of an expanding population and then war damage, St Mary's exterior is a little undistinguished. The infant William Morris was christened inside.

Over to your left, across the churchyard, whose grand monuments show that this was once an affluent locality, is St Mary's Infants' School of 1828, which displays all the restraint of late-Georgian taste. On the other side of the church are the 16th-century Monoux Almshouses, founded by an Alderman of that name in 1527. Also the victim of German bombing in 1941, the almshouses have been discreetly repaired.

At this point the visitor probably thinks that Walthamstow cannot possibly have anything further to offer. Not so. Walk down Church Hill past the girls' school and Church of the Nazarene back towards Hoe Street. There, directly in front of you, is Europe's longest street market, stretching more than a mile down the High Street. On Fridays and Saturdays in particular the market is a heaving mass of humanity arguing, haggling, laughing and shouting - in fact displaying all the human animation that is conspicuously absent from our anodyne supermarkets.

Turn right down Hoe Street and walk through to the major traffic junction on Forest Road. In one corner is the famous Bell pub, rebuilt in 1900 to cater for Walthamstow's rapidly expanding population. If you turn right you will go past the inter-war Town Hall, praised by Pevsner, and eventually end up in Epping Forest, another of Britain's neglected delights.

Turn left, however, and Water House soon appears. Home of the William Morris Gallery, even non-Morrisonians will enjoy a visit because of the man's extraordinarily diverse interests. From carpets to fabrics, from textiles to furniture, from book design to painting - was there nothing Morris did not do well?

The Gallery was opened in 1950 by the local Labour MP and Prime Minister, Clement Attlee. Tony Blair also claims to be a Morris fan. Don't miss the private garden at the back of the Gallery which today is the public and well-kept Lloyd Park complete with lake, wildfowl and aviary.

Morris was actually born in March 1834 a few hundred yards further along Forest Road, the thoroughfare that his father (who was "something in the City") rode down on horseback on his way to work. Elm House was demolished nearly a century ago but a plaque on the fire station commemorates its existence.

Cross Forest Road and walk past the castle-like Salvation Army building and then up Jewel Road. This leads you back into Hoe Street. Turn right and stroll along to Walthamstow Central tube station.

Towards the end of his life Morris was pretty scathing about late-Victorian Walthamstow: "Once a pleasant place enough, but now terribly cockneyfied and choked up by the jerry-builder."

But, after all, this was the lofty opinion of a man sufficiently endowed with private means to live in Kelmscott House overlooking the Thames at Hammersmith, and his country retreat of Kelmscott Manor in Gloucestershire. More than that, I feel certain that Morris himself, like many of his enthusiasts, had not bothered to walk around Walthamstow Village. Do so, and help put Walthamstow on the map.

William Morris Gallery, Lloyd Park, Forest Road, London E17 4PP (0181- 527 3782). Open Tuesday-Saturday, and the first Sunday in each month, 10am to 1pm, 2-5pm. Admission free. Vestry House Museum, Vestry Road, London E17 9NH (0181-509 1917). Open Monday-Friday 10am to 1pm, 2-5.30pm; Saturday 10am-1pm, 2-5pm. Admission free.