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The roundel is a ubiquitous symbol of London transport. Unveiled in the early 20th century, it's simultaneously a genius piece of art and advertising, guiding weary travellers to their nearest TfL service.
While it's easy to find plenty of roundel knockoffs, it's tougher to see official roundels that deviate from the norm. Sure, TfL sometimes drapes its symbol in a Pride flag, or covers it with poppies at the relevant times of year, but these are always short-lived installations. There are a few unusual permanent pieces, but these tend to be minor variations, rather than anything bold.
But one day I came across this beauty outside South Tottenham Station.
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A stunning mosaic made from glazed tiles that emanates with love — and I'm not just saying that because of the multiple hearts baked into the roundel. Not long after posting that image, Maud Milton — the artist behind it — got in touch. She wanted to talk about her mosaics and came bearing the excellent news that the South Tottenham beauty is merely the first of many mosaic roundels to come. And best of all, I could see the next batch being created.
That might lead you to think I spent a day in a studio at Artyface — the company Maud founded that makes public mosaics. Instead, I'm squeezed inside a cosy waiting room in Highams Park Station. See, that's the thing about these mosaics. They're not made by an artist and then gifted to the station. They're made by the community, for the community.
When I arrive, Maud is talking to Faiza Shaheen, who's running to be MP for Labour in the Chingford and Woodford Greed constituency — which includes Highams Park. They're standing over precariously placed roundels for Chingford and Leyton Midland Road, surrounded by ceramic pieces and pots of glue. Like so many others I meet throughout the day, Shaheen just happened upon the set-up and wants to get involved. Then she checks the time, grabs a quick snap with the mosaics, thanks Maud and dashes out onto a train. It's a sequence of events that I see plenty others repeat throughout the day.
This project is the culmination of over two years hard work for Maud. After a series of discussions with Arriva trains (who operate the Overground), she finally got the go ahead in February 2019. It came about as part of Waltham Forest's tenure as Borough of Culture — the borough accepted proposals from artists and let local people pick their favourites. The community, like myself, fell in love with the mosaics.
I'm here for one of the last days in the process. Previously Maud and her team of artists helped the public create individual mosaic pieces. People made tiles with words and symbols that held resonance to them and their locale. INTEGRATION, ROUTE, LOVE, LAKE, HOPE, CRAZY and ADVENTURE, are but a few of the phrases that jump out. I notice two tiles next to each other bearing the name HARRY BECK on the Leyton Midland Road. The mind behind the tube map was born in Leyton, hence his inclusion.
Throughout the day people pop in who'd partaken in the earlier sessions, and search for the pieces they'd created. Often they're already on the roundel, which leads to a genuine smile — people are delighted to find out that their imprint will permanently be left on their neighbourhood.
Words and shapes cover three roundels in the waiting room (although there's only space to work on two at any one time). But just a five-minute walk away there are more in progress.
Joseph Clarke School is a specialist institution that caters to visually impaired students and those with autism or other communication difficulties. Maud's going over because they've run low on tiles, and she also wants to check up on the rest of her team. Plus she wants to show me that this is a project in which every single member of the community is able to take part.
Her team are in good spirits when we pop in. They're in between batches of students when we arrive, and take the time to show us the progress that's been made. There's another Highams Park roundel here that's been finished, but then on the table there are three others, far less complete than anything back at the station.
I ask how the schoolchildren have responded to the project. "Wow", one of the artists tells me. "That's the word we keep hearing". And as if on cue, the next set of kids charge in, and one lets out that 'w' word immediately.
While I was initially drawn to this project because of its visual vividness, some of the students can't connect to the mosaics on that level. But they have their own way to experience that same wondrous feeling I did, by exploring the tactile nature of the pieces.
Maud — and the other artists helping her — are incredible with these kids, helping them glue down the glazed ceramics and leave their own imprint on London. But unlike the roundels back in the waiting room, it's currently not known where these ones are going. The orange tiles makes clear that they're still reserved for the Overground, but talks are currently ongoing with Arriva as to where these last two will be placed.
After about 40 minutes we head back to the station, and on the way in, Maud points out the spot where one of the Highams Park roundels is set to go. It's a glum exterior wall in a car park, one that will be undoubtedly improved by this colourful creation.
Then the artists get me involved with some gluing, although not before repeatedly reminding me to make sure I don't get any of the adhesive on my clothes. They hand me a piece that says FAREWELL, which seems poignant enough considering I'm about to catch my train home.
But, before I do, I notice something amiss. One of the pieces features a photo of the inside of a Class 710 train, one that's recently been introduced on the Gospel Oak to Barking Line. It's upside down. I point this out to Maud, who thanks me for catching it before it was stuck to the exterior of the station forever. She snatches it off the roundel, and gives me the chance to re-glue it. So now I have two (mosaic) reasons to visit Leyton Midland Road, and admire my own handiwork.
At the end of this project there will be seven roundels up across north-east London. But that number doesn't convey the amount of work that's gone into making these roundels happen. There have been eight paid artists, 55 volunteer days, 27 full days of workshops and a whopping 1,500 participants. Maud's been trying to keep a track of everyone who's taken part in a book by asking them to sign and leave comments about the projects.
Earlier in the day Maud picked up one of the glazed pieces, and was immediately reminded of the session when it was made. Holding in her hand a Star of David, she tells me: "This was made by a member of the local Hasidic community, in Brooks Farm. And at that same session there had been local Muslims working on the project too. They were working alongside each other and in London that's quite a sight to behold."
That's the key to this project. People across society "aged one to 91" have contributed. And she's clearly delighted to have facilitated that.