For a few years after I left Stoke Newington I still maintained a PO Box at the sorting office on East Bank in Stamford Hill. Every few weeks I’d cycle there to pick up my mail – mail for a journal I used to edit. I’d cycle through the Park, entering at Whitehouse Gate then along the path that cuts through the lawns, past the old bowling green, the deer enclosure, the tennis courts, leading up to Queen Elizabeth Gate.
I’d usually set out earlier than I tend to leave the house. I hardly ever leave the house in the mornings, but the sorting office closes just after noon. When I think back now, there was always a sense of liberation when I cycled through the park, this feeling of going from my new life on this side of the park to my old manor, my old stomping ground, the place where I used to live, the arena of my first years in London. Like Hackney was where my life in London began.
And I liked going to Stamford Hill. Especially to that part of the neighbourhood. Dunsmure Road. Benny’s Kosher Food Store. Grodzinski’s Bakery. The trip to the PO Box was an opportunity to stock up on rogalech and chopped herring and soup almonds. Grodzinski’s was great for the pitta bread they made – round and chewy and easy to fill – and there were the freshly baked rogalech and other pastries on the huge trays, fresh from the oven, sold by weight. But I liked going to Benny’s more.
I like being amongst Orthodox men. It’s that weird feeling of me knowing I’m one of them, but them not being sure, or not caring. I liked asking the shopkeepers for things – have you got any chreyn? any of that gehakte herring you usually have? – letting them know I could speak their language, that I ate their food. A while ago, I wrote a short piece about being amongst those men.
Queen Elizabeth Gate was the portal into that world. Even now, that gate feels like the Hasidic Gate; it’s the gate through which they enter and leave the park. Very rarely (probably never) have I seen Orthodox men or women, with their prams and their kids, make their way into or out of the Park through any other gate. No other gate feels so specific to any part of the community. For me, Queen Elizabeth Gate is the Jewish gate. My gate. I hardly use it now. Probably once or twice a year, although sometimes when I want to run a different route, I’ll exit through that gate and run up towards Manor House and then round Finsbury Park, then home.
Some years when I have the Passover seder at my house, I’ll cycle through the Park to Stamford Hill, to Dunsmure Road, to get last-minute gefilte fish (when I don’t make my own), a box of matzoh, some horseradish, chopped herring. But mostly I stick to my side of the Park, and now that it’s Ramadan, I’m grateful for the North African shops at the top of my street, and if I’m cycling past – or I’ll make the trip specially – I’ll get a box of fried sweets seeped in sugar, and basbousa, and knafeh, and those crunchy date biscuits that are worth waiting all year for.