Think of Walthamstow and you’ll conjure up a juxtaposition of images. The slightly rundown aesthetic of Hoe Street, set alongside the fanciful, tree-lined streets of the village. A village complete with overpriced Spar and antique furniture shop (because nothing says gentrified East London like an overpriced Spar and antique furniture shop). Take a little walk down a side street next to that village and that little blue dot on your iPhone map should take you down an alleyway overlooked by rows of Victorian houses. You’ll eventually come to a yard. The yard houses both a brewery and a gin distillery. Delicious. Also housed in this yard is something quite remarkable.
Directly across from the brewery you’ll spot an unassuming blue, wooden door. Above the door sits a neon sign announcing “The Rolling Scones Café”. An excellent play on words. But it’s behind this unremarkable façade that a hidden gem lies. Walk through that blue door and you enter into an otherworldly place. A palace of neon dreams. That place is God’s Own Junkyard.
We’re hit with a warm glow and a steady buzz of electricity as we enter God’s Own Junkyard. Established over 30 years ago by the late, great Chris Bracey and his wife Linda, this sprawling heap of neon is a true treasure of East London. It was born of an obsession of salvaging signs from across London. Iconic signs destined for the scrapheap. Having amassed a vast quantity of neon signs, some iconic, the duo decided the world, or London at least, needed to see their procurement.
As Linda makes us a cup of tea behind the bar- yes this magical place also has a bar, open to the public- she recalls the start of their neon adventure. “About 10 years ago our collection was starting to become a bit of a problem,” she chuckles. “We started to think more seriously [about] having a display area, somewhere accessible to people.” They eventually found a vacant old yard situated opposite their workshop on Valentin Road in Walthamstow. “We called it ‘The Red Shed’…it was just fantastic.” It became a bit of a prime hotspot for visitors with the Bracey’s becoming “inundated with people. Some weekends we’d have 700 people coming in on a Saturday”. Unsurprisingly, that property was eventually sold to developers and became flats.
We sit down at a wooden table amongst the buzz of the neon with Linda and their eldest son Marcus. We ask Linda how Chris got into, not only collecting these fabulous signs, but also making them. Chris’ father, a miner from Wales, had moved to London to try to start a better life for himself. It was in the capital that his father began working with a company that produced neon signage, and started his own company off the back of this in 1952. Chris began working with his father not long after he left art school and he’d met Linda and Marcus arrived and needed to support his young family. “In the early 70’s it was a lot of Perspex work,” Linda explains. “Chris always played with everything he did; the perspex, the neon, the bulbs.” Eventually Chris came to work in Soho in Central London, an area known for it’s seedy side and sex shops. Considering the area to be “dull” Chris slowly began to re-sign Soho “with the most amazing, gaudy, fluorescent signs….Fluorescent pink and lime green” were his favourite colours to use.
The owners of these clubs saw something in Chris. They could see he had a vision for what Soho should look like, letting him loose on signage and even renaming some of these risqué rendezvous spots. Marcus, Chris and Linda’s eldest son, recalls some of the names of these joints. “Oh my gosh. He came up with Dreaming Lips….[and] Harmony Time was another. We turned the Boulevard Club- a cinema strip joint-….into the French Pussycat.”
We’re curious to know what it was like for the Bracey brood growing up surrounded by the dazzle of neon. “I’d be coming home from school [around 7 or 8-years-old] and be really overwhelmed by it all, “ the eldest Bracey recalls as he sips on his mug of tea. “I had an old bar sign in my room….from an old joint. It was illuminated pink…it really was a thrill….that was the start of my labour of love with what we’ve got going on here.”
Marcus was drawn in like a moth to a, well, an extremely bright light. From a young age he was addicted. “It was fun, it’s a thrill” he tells us. “It was like a playground my garden. Full of carnival, funfair signs, and retro displays.”
One day Chris was up a ladder in Soho, when he was approached by a film producer who was desperate to film inside the club, but was only met with suspicion from the club owner. Asking Chris for help, he struck a deal. Linda recalls that Chris responded to the producer’s plea with “alright then mate. I’ll have a deal with ya. I’ll get you into the club if you give me any sign work that you have on your film”. The film was Mona Lisa starring Bob Hoskins. Thus began the Bracey’s foray into the world of film.
Looking around the pile of glowing neon that surrounds us we spot a familiar green ‘hotel’ sign the letters of which read vertically and bear some semblance to one we’ve seen before. It is indeed what we think- the sign from the scene in one of the Batman films where Bruce Wayne witnesses his parent’s shooting. That’s not the only sign that’s got Hollywood credits. Suspended from the wooden beams above our head in amongst the candelabras fashioned from antlers, there’s a large sign- we’d hazard a guess it’s around 5ft wide- adorned with curved, neon strands that construct a rainbow and the words ‘tuxedos’ and ‘fancy dress’- the very one that appeared in the Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman film Eyes Wide Shut. “We got a call one night,” recalls Marcus, “and me and my Dad had to go up to Pinewood studios and meet Stanley Kubrick…He ordered up a curry…and me, my Dad and Stanley Kubrick….[were] sitting having a takeaway on set off paper plates.” You can also add a Superman film, a Bond Film, Tombraiders, Mission Impossible, and Judge Dredd to the film roll-call.
Chris’ connection to the bright lights of Hollywood has led to some interesting doors opening for his eldest, Marcus. “I [played] a chef in [Mission Impossible] in the background when the restaurant gets blown up.” In another film, he played Tom Cruises’ taxi driver. It also got Linda and Chris’ youngest son, Max, a starring role. “Chris came home one night,” Linda tells us “and said “They need a baby, can I take Max in with me?”. He was only 8-months-old…..The part was for Superman 4, the scene where they recreate the parents placing baby Superman into the crystal spaceship, if you like, and they have to shoot him out [into space] to save him.”
Films haven’t been the only requests the Bracey’s have had. There’s been a Queen video, a Blur video, a neon sword for a talent show, and an odd request from the queen of the 90s- Meg Matthews. Matthews, ever understated, requested the word ‘bollocks’ in hot, pink, neon. “Not small, [we’re talking] big bollocks, like two metres by a metre high all the way down her staircase,” Marcus tells us still sounding slightly in shock. “The nannies would come in, the neighbours…she had kids running up and down touching it. I was forever wondering when it was going to get broken or when someone was going to get an electric shock.”
Sitting here amongst the neon lights with the gentle buzz of electricity swarming about our head, we wonder how they’ve managed to continue working here now that Chris is no longer with them. How have they coped? “Well,” Marcus explains, “Being in here just reminds me of him…..his presence is with me. That’s the great feeling he’s left with me.” Linda agrees: “A lot of people said to me “it must upset you being around Chris’ creations”, but that’s absolutely the furthest thing from the truth. The truth is the light….it radiates….It feels like a cuddle because it’s him, you see.”
After an exhibition down at the Southbank Centre, the aptly named Love and Liquid Fire- for which Linda made the sign (“it reminds me of Dad when I look at it”), opening their museum and a bar to the public and for private events, do they plan to keep ongoing? The answer is a resounding ‘yes!’ from both parties. “It’s always a sunny day in here. It’s never raining…it’s our mini museum, a tribute to Chris,” Marcus beams, “and we’re going to keep this going and continue to get out what he’s made and we’ve got so much more….as you can see, we’re running out of room.”
You can find God’s Own Junkyard down at:
Unit 12, Ravenswood Industrial Estate, Walthamstow, E17 9HQ
Written by Jennifer Wallis
Photography by Jennifer Wallis