Walking through the doorway, I don’t know where to look first. Everywhere I turn I’m greeted with glittering, glowing neon – a twinkling wonderland of lights.
This is the famous God’s Own Junkyard – the final resting place for thousands of signs salvaged from film sets, theatres and less-than-salubrious Soho businesses.
Founder Chris Bracey was an artist and designer dubbed The Neon Man for his fluorescent artistry. He first honed his skills at his father’s business, Electro Signs, which made delightfully gaudy signage for fairgrounds and amusement arcades.
When that industry began to decline, he turned his hand to Soho’s sex shops and clubs, creating the lurid designs that quickly became synonymous with London’s infamous red-light district.
A chance meeting with an art director ricocheted Bracey’s career into the mainstream, and he began designing neon props for movie sets. From the same east London workshop where his father had worked since the 1950s – nicknamed God’s Own Junkyard – Bracey indulged in his gorgeously garish art, collecting a following of celebrity fans that included Kate Moss and Lady Gaga.
He continued to work, even after being diagnosed with prostate cancer which eventually took his life in November 2014. Today GOD’S OWN JUNKYARD continues to open to the public as a homage to The Neon Man and his light art legacy.
I’d read about it about it a couple of years ago and was instantly enchanted by the photos I saw – a glorious jumble of colours and lights. I knew I had to visit there one day.
My chance came late last year; I was heading into London to catch up with friends and decided to go in early and make the pilgrimage. I travelled to the very end of the Victoria line (so far east, in fact, it actually used to be part of Essex) emerging from Walthamstow Central station just as the brisk winter’s evening was closing in.
I walked along grey city roads and a street of terraced houses until I reached the far end, where it narrowed to a pedestrian pathway. A few steps in, I was surprised to find a row of charming Victorian cottages with pastel exteriors and delightfully unkempt front gardens. I later discovered later this was Walthamstow Village, the historic heart of the district.
A little further up I discover the 12th-century St. Mary’s Church to my left, and a 15th-century timber-framed house dubbed ‘The Ancient House’ by locals. Despite overlooking the village centre for centuries – and bearing witness to the bubonic plague that ravaged locals in 1665 – I struggled to find out much about this fascinating building, which is now apparently four private dwellings.
I continued on until I reached the Ravenswood Industrial Estate. The workshop itself is in an unassuming brick building, it’s location given away by the bright-red neon ‘Blitz’ sign glowing outside and the steady stream of East London hipsters wandering in and out, camera phones held aloft.
I didn’t really know what to expect as I stepped through the doorway, but the light show began immediately. In front of me stood a statue of Jesus, neon halo circling his head and a neon gun in each hand. The cheeky subversiveness of the entrance foyer set the tone for the larger hall, which opened out to reveal a rainbow-coloured neon wonderland.
Lights twinkled from every direction, as the signs fought for my attention. ‘Sail Away With Me Honey’, one pleaded; ‘Find Love Upstairs’ another one promised. There were love hearts and dollar signs and skulls and mirror balls, and it was fabulous.
The Rolling Scones café was full of visitors soaking in the sights, and necking beer straight from the bottle. A steady flow of people wandered around, necks swivelling and camera phones recording, while a kitschy country song provided the perfect soundtrack to this delightfully surreal day out.
I’m not sure if anything could have truly prepared me for the amazingness of God’s Own Junkyard – it’s everything I expected to see but bigger, brighter, blingier.
The cheery glow of the lights and that childlike sense of wonder stayed with me long after I travelled back into central London. On what was a really dark and dull winter’s day, I couldn’t help feeling uplifted by my illuminating visit to God’s Own Junkyard.
• read about the contemporary art prints we ordered from Desenio
God’s Own Junkyard, Ravenswood Industrial Estate, Shernhall Street, Walthamstow, E17 9HQ, is a 15-minute walk from Walthamstow Central underground station. The workshop and the Rolling Scones café are open to the public from 11 am to 9 pm on Fridays and Saturdays, and from 11 am to 6 pm on Sundays.