People occasionally claim that the ski slope in Haggerston Park (see excerpt from the London A-Z below) never actually existed, but is simply one of those “deliberate mistakes” mapmakers often include to deter illegal copying. Whenever they do, I’m inclined to point them at this piece written during the run-up to the 2012 Olympics, telling the full – but seemingly little-known – story of the Haggerston Alp.
East London, they say, is being torched by the Olympic flame. Across Stratford Marsh, where stylish young couples once nudged Maclaren double-buggies through promenading crowds of smiling pearlies, the Bow Back Rivers are being dredged for trolleys and bloated dogs. And that’s not all. In a massive infringement of the rights of London’s toddlers to play with bulldozers – and of blokes in unwashed Transits to nick power tools – the whole Olympic site is out-of-bounds, ringed by a fence as blue as Seb Coe’s rosette.
And, once we’ve stopped shedding tears for all the sad-eyed voles whose voley homes have been buried beneath the velodrome, we’ll no doubt start jeering our athletes for not winning us lots of medals – despite the fact that a British athlete’s presence on the starting blocks, rather than on the turnstiles, will often mark a major triumph of willpower over adversity. Or, in the case of the Winter Olympics, willpower over geography: after all, careering down Primrose Hill on a bin-bag luge is surely rather less help in preparing you for the four-man bob than going to the sort of English public school which still makes boys share baths, and where four-at-a-time only works if you all face the taps. I reckon Eddie the Eagle deserved a slap on the back – or, to play safe, a round of applause – for actually staying mostly upright. He did, after all, come from Gloucestershire, where the locals’ natural inclination, upon seeing a hill, isn’t to nip off to Snow & Rock to stock up on ski wax in anticipation of some good deep powder, but to roll a cheese down it. If only Cheltenham had boasted anything as magnificent as the Haggerston Dry-Ski Slope, fearless young Eddie’s begoggled mug might now be up there in the ski-jump pantheon alongside… oh, you know, that Austrian bloke… and the Swiss guy…
It’s odd how few people remember the Haggerston Dry-Ski Slope. As a sporting facility, it was an abject failure – that’s true enough. But it was that very lack of success which led to its unlikely heyday when, in 1979, Hackney Council decided to cut their losses and market their slippery mound not on the snow-like qualities of its tilted dendix mesh, but on the excellence of its après-ski experience. A small Alpine-themed café-cum-bar was built at the top of the slope – named, by some ironic wag, The Freeze – and here hot chocolate and strudel were served till six p.m. After nightfall, though, a transformation took place; the lights were turned down, the music turned up, and The Freeze became a nightclub which took the whole idea of “the place to be seen” to its logical conclusion; with uncurtained windows on all sides, the strobe-illumined revellers could be spotted flashing as far away as Walthamstow.
Not surprisingly, The Freeze became popular almost immediately with the New Romantic crowd – theirs was a scene, after all, which existed in order to be seen. Spandau Ballet performed most of their early shows there, and to see their kilted entourage ascending in stately fashion via the ski lift from Hackney Road was truly one of the sights of the early Eighties. Hedonism, of course, was the name of the game, and pretty much anything went. One night, Boy George nearly brought Duran Duran’s career to a premature end when, clutching a garish mojito, he hurtled down the slope using Simon le Bon as a toboggan; luckily for the course of popular music, the chubby Brummie took it in his pantalooned stride.
Unsurprisingly, some cross-fertilisation occurred between the daytime and evening clientele; holidaying Eastenders took the Blitz Kid fashions with them to Val-d’Isère, where there were soon reports of eye patches, veils and military jackets above the snowline, while ski goggles and bobble hats quickly became de rigueur amongst all self-respecting members of London’s nocturnal beau monde.
Mostly, though, the sexually ambiguous young peacocks parading up Cambridge Heath Road were treated with traditional East End wariness by the local community, who stuck to the pubs they’d always known – shabby boozers where the men were men, the barmaids were topless, and your nuts were nobody’s business but your own. Which left The Freeze totally reliant on a fickle crowd of fops who lived only for the moment and regarded a one-night stand as the apotheosis of romance as long as your mascara remained unsmudged. And there was nothing Hackney Council could do about it. One weekend the New Romantics decamped en masse to Soho, where Rusty Egan from Visage had had the idea of opening a nightclub inside the cloakroom of an actual nightclub, and that was the end of that. The Freeze closed for good a fortnight later.
As for the ski slope – that gloomy ochre pile which had once loomed over Bethnal Green as Vesuvius looms over Naples – well, natural weathering and memento-grabbing put paid to that. Today, just a stub remains – a sad little heap of slag sprouting rough grass like nasal hair and barely looming over the nearby picnic table. I wonder how many of those who sit at that table on a warm summer evening, with a couple of mates and a six-pack of cheap Polish lager, realise that they’re sitting directly below the very spot where Tony Hadley first found it hard to write the next line (partly because he was coked-up to the eyeballs, and partly because Midge Ure had stolen his biro)? A few years ago, Steve Strange, on his way back from Homebase, was briefly convinced to resurrect past glories in the O2 shopping centre on Finchley Road, where the glass-fibre rock face in the atrium reminded him of his old Haggerston eyrie, and the ejaculatory fountains alongside the escalators reminded him of Boy George. Sadly, although they were amenable to a late bar and cocktails, Nando’s couldn’t be persuaded to introduce a guest-list-only entry policy, and the idea fizzled out.
So, yes, that shapeless heap of earth in Haggerston Park is all that remains. But, for those of a certain age, a chance hearing of Spandau Ballet’s second single, The Freeze – a tribute, of course, to their old haunt – will always bring the memories flooding back: of giddy nights spent raving on the piste, just off the Hackney Road.