God's Own Junkyard: A Technicolor Dream in Walthamstow
Tucked away in the district of Walthamstow, there exists a kaleidoscopic wonderland that beckons to those in search of a sensory overload and a dash of retro charm. God's Own Junkyard is a brightly-lit, gallery-museum with the largest collection of neon signs in Europe. The signs span a wide range of themes, from classic cinema and pop culture references to thought-provoking messages.
If you’re not a neon-sign enthusiast you’d be forgiven for thinking ‘so what?’ But let me remind you of your stale social media account. ‘Does it need a touch of colour?’ you ask yourself… Yes, yes it does. And what better way than by taking a side-step to North East London, to photograph this dazzling labour of love that has been 40 years in the making?
Although it's famed as an 'Instagrammable' hotspot, that’s not all this place has to offer. Filled with the sounds of boppy tunes, God’s Own Junkyard is a perusal ground for potential buyers (yep 80% of the signs are available for purchase) and coffee lovers, for whom nipping into the cafe is a daily ritual. There is also a gift shop selling postcards and other neon trinkets, and great conversations to be had with the family who run the establishment.
The Neon Legacy of the Bracey’s
Neon lights and the late Chris Bracey were destined for a lifelong love affair before the ‘neon man’, as he is known, was even born. This is because Chris’ father, Richard Bracey, who moved from the coal mines of Wales to the city of London after WWII, trained as an electrician and began working for Power Neon. Power Neon produced neon signs that were installed all across London.
After working on the signs for many years Richard Bracey set up his own company called Electro Signs, in 1952. The new Bracey enterprise sold signs to all forms of entertainment venues, from circuses to arcades, in and around London. By the 1960s and 70s, the signs were even directing patrons to the seedy underbelly of the capital – Soho’s strip clubs and brothels.
By 1972, Richard stepped back from the company as Chris slipped into the driving seat. With a knowledge of all things graphic design, Chris took Electro Signs to the dazzling heights they are renowned for today. However, it wasn’t until 1986 when Bracey got his big break; a life-changing dealership with Hollywood. From here on out Chris’ legendary talents were sought after by directors such as Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan for movie blockbusters that have made household names. Think Eyes Wide Shut, Tomb Raider, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Mission Impossible. To this day, Hollywood depends on the company for neon film props and signage. Since Chris’ death in 2014, it is now managed by his wife and sons, among whom Matthew is an established neon light artist. Matthew has also written a book, Steel Dogs, which documents his father’s legacy and for the sake of an entertaining read, Matthew’s own personal strife in the industry.
Over the years, Chris’ artwork grew – some he created for the hell of it, some he rescued from the wayside – until he required an exhibition space to house albeit only 10% of his collection. In 1978, that space, known today as God’s Own Junkyard, became transformed by the signage like lights on a Christmas Tree. And yes, all those signs, old movie props, and retro displays still only count for 10% of Chris’ collection!
God’s Own Junkyard: A Feast for the Senses
Walking through the doors of God's Own Junkyard is like stepping into an alternate reality. Thousands of neon signs in every conceivable shape and size adorn the walls, while vintage signage from theatres, bars, and businesses evoke the nostalgia of a bygone era. The hum of electricity and the vivid glow of neon create an ambience that is both surreal and enchanting. It's truly no wonder that the Braceys have enticed the strings to relax on the purses of stars like Kate Moss, Vivienne Westwood, and Lady Gaga. That’s right, if you see one you like, you might be able to take it home with you – they’re well worth the price tag (well what do you expect with an electricity bill coming in at around £3,000 per month?)!
“You stand back and look at it, and that’s what really gives you the kick.”
The seemingly haphazard manner in which items are displayed at God’s Own Junkyard is reminiscent of the Cathedral of Junk – another treasure trove of recovered or rescued trinkets in Austin, Texas. Lights are stacked upwards from the floor whilst disco balls tumble downwards from the ceiling. Religious statues are crammed into certain nooks and crannies — Jesus can be found in one – and jukebox lights whirl away in other areas. Every inch of the walls are occupied by one neon-lit form or another. And yet one thing can be said for both junkyards; there is a method to the madness.
The Rolling Scones Café
No visit to God's Own Junkyard is complete without a stop at the adjacent Rolling Scones Café and Bar. Here, you can savour a cup of coffee or tea (and a scone… obviously) amidst the colourful artwork. Or why not make an evening of it? The beer garden is open till late and the bar serves traditional alcoholic beverages. It's the perfect place to retreat to after spending hours on your feet, visually unpacking the creative homeland of neon.
An Instagrammer's Paradise
As we said before, God's Own Junkyard has gained immense popularity on social media, and for good reason. Every corner of the venue is a well-lit backdrop for your photos, making it an influencer’s dream. The play of light and colour against the vintage signs creates a visual feast that's hard to resist capturing.
However, we would not recommend dipping in to take your Instagram pictures and then disappearing. Why not show a little support for the museum instead – a simple coffee or postcard purchase in exchange for that neon tile on your Instagram profile is a nice gesture that means a lot to the small family business.
If you're planning a visit to God's Own Junkyard to get a snapshot of your own, be sure to check the opening hours, as they can vary and sometimes close for special occasions. This includes photoshoots for companies such as Vogue and Urban Outfitters.
God's Own Junkyard is a unique and unmissable destination for anyone looking for something a little (or a lot) different! As a place that transcends the boundaries of a traditional art gallery it invites its visitors to engage with creativity in a dynamic and immersive way.
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