Posted in London on Saturday 11th June 2016 at 11:06pm
As the Central Line train howled and screeched along the interminably long section between Stratford and Leytonstone, I mused on my hasty plans for today. Again I'd be drawn to the north-eastern fringe of London - to the area where pale green and white expanses fill those pages of the A-Z with no continuity markers at their edges. My musing on the comfortable hamlets on the edge of Essex a month or so back had brought me back to the map to consider their alignment. This in turn drew my eye along the next sliver of green to the east - the Roding Valley. Of course I'd encountered the Roding before almost exactly a year ago, at its estuary where Barking Creek tumbles into the Thames. The reek of sewage and industry seemed very far indeed from this twisting green ribbon, opportunistically squatted by the sinuous M11 and its feeders, which invited a visit. A year ago at the edge of the Creek I'd resolved to add the river to my list of walks - but it's passage seemed distant and less important then. Today though, still spinning from the confusion of a testing week at work, it felt like a perfect target. It seemed a simple walk on the map too...
The Central Line in West Essex is a curious, twisting railway formed from a mixture of extensions to the original Central London Railway and the annexing of former Great Eastern Railway branches. Far from the centre of anything, a strange, post-war feel lingers around the stations on the line's extremities: enamel roundels resolutely remain on platforms and white painted canopies still run the length of the tidy, red brick stations. Only the presence of ticket gates and Oyster readers shoehorned unforgivingly into ticket halls reminds me that I'm in the 21st century here. Debden is no exception. A tiny station on the very fringe of the capital conurbation, the last stop before the Central Line flings out east to Theydon Bois and Epping. To the west of the station the commuter village straggles along the road out of town, but to the east there's nothing but countryside and motorway. This is where I'll start walking - here on the edge of things. The road is marked for Epping and Ongar - five and ten miles away respectively. Ahead of me the carriageway dips to pass under the M11 and then onwards into the rolling hills of Essex. The view couldn't be more English - a concrete slash through a green undulation. A little before the motorway crossing I turn south, a farm gate beside a battered sign for the Roding Valley Way leads onto a track which soon disappears into tall grass. The narrowest of ways worn in previous seasons, slowly growing over. I plunge in, realising I'm really not prepared for this walk in some ways. The noise of the motorway is still present, but muffled by the greenery. A distinctive chimney-sweeper moth flits across the path. Despite the line of tiled rooftops in the near distance indicating Loughton, I'm alone. It's been difficult to relax this week - sometimes painfully so - and the quiet hum of grassland swishes and chitters is remarkably soothing. The regular thrash as I beat through the grass, following the indistinct trail is satisfying too. My walks have taken me to the very edge of the city on plenty of occasions - but this is by far the most rural location yet. Glimpsing the shallow but broad stream of the Roding for the first time, I'm struck how clear the water is - and how the riverbed is mostly free of human detritus. The river bucks and curves in a wide, flat valley here - perfect for railway and motorway building - and they both flank its course along the north-eastern edge of London, hemming in the valley, but oddly protecting it too - making the narrow, irregular belt of green difficult to develop. Instead it is a ribbon of municipal playing fields, sports clubs, public parks and allotments - and sometimes just a rough scramble of grass and earth, tall reads and water-meadows. This is really somewhere rather special.
It soon becomes pretty clear that this walk will follow the course of the valley floor rather than hugging the bank of the river. The path casts me westward, out of the grassland and into a neat playing field. The ubiquitous joggers pad by and dog walkers watch their animals capering in the water. Near a cricket club I spot a tiny bridge arcing over the river, dedicated to a local politician - I take a picture but continue to walk the western bank. Oddly, this bridge could have saved me from a diversion and kept me near the water - but instead I follow the path, hoping that the gap in the line on the map is an omission. It seems to be at first - plunging me along a well-worn track between the river and a lake. I'm confronted suddenly by a fisherman barking into his mobile as he strides back and forth: "I had to drop the boy off at Heathrow.... Nah, three hours before departure now..... Can you facking be-lieve that?". I emerge into another playing field and skirt the edge, following a clearly beaten path to its south-eastern corner. I trust the faintly worn desire-line here, leaping a little ditch and ending up on a rough track where the Roding passes under a lane bearing its name. There's no way through, and no way onto the lane. I follow the track to another frustratingly locked gateway before retracing my steps over the ditch. I finally resort to thrashing out of a tiny but well-trodden gap in a hedgerow onto a beautifully manicured cricket pitch. Interception seems likely - so while I edge around the boundary rope I rehearse arguments about the inadequacy of the map. Checking later I noted that there was another bridge which would have taken me into the environs of a nearby health club - but ultimately further away from the water. My wish to walk as close to the river as possible was, it seemed, drawing me away from it.
After establishing that there was no immediate continuation of the path, I struck out west, into Buckhurst Hill. I broke into a sweat on the gradual rise, realising that it was in fact getting warm despite the grey skies. I decided to pause and apply sun-cream at some point to avoid the strange stealth-tans I seem adept at picking up. Before I reached the main London-bound road I turned aside into suburbia, following Alfred Road and the wonderfully riverine Cascade Road until a tiny public footpath took me back towards the river. Hemmed in between overgrown allotment gardens and the river, it was cool and pleasant - and I hoped I could at least follow the course for a while. The trees soon opened to reveal the great brick archways carrying the quiet Hainault Loop of the Central Line over the valley. The red arc above me felt solid and surprisingly broad for a two-track railway serving the quiet settlements of the valley. I passed under the arch and immediately faced a choice - turning east and crossing the river, scrambling up a slope beside the bridge, or pushing on through an overgrown track between waist-high nettle beds. I was determined to stick to the west bank - more by instinct than judgement - and because the eastern route appeared on paper at least to meander out of the footprint of the river and motorway which had drawn me this way. A few metres and a sharp turn into my daring jungle mission I admitted defeat and turned back. The nettles were waving around my ears now, and the path becomes less distinct the further I go. There was no clear view of how far ahead I might find a way out of this, so it was back to the viaduct. I emerged, covered in seeds and pollen, sneezing and frustrated. The only sensible way - it seemed to me - was up the bank. I scrambled up, my boots doing fine work in keeping me vertical until the very last few steps when I felt like I was about to slither back to the foot of the bank on my belly. My hands grasped pointlessly at strands of reedy grass in some sort of strange faith that just grabbing a hold would stop my tumble. Instead, instinct kicked in and I pitched my not inconsiderable bulk forward with an unseemly grunt. Using momentum to carry me over the brim of the slope, I stumbled ungracefully into yet another private sports ground. The rugby pitches of Bancroft RFC were being manicured and primped, posts re-cemented. A tractor puttered along the southern fringe trimming tall grass. Unsure if I should be here I took courage from a lone dog walker circuiting the pitch and press on along the northern edge, heading diagonally across an unkempt patch of ground to reach the driveway and to escape without being apprehended. Once back out on the street I started to feel frustrated - could I have pushed on and found a way through? Should I just have accepted the eastern bank was more walkable despite the diversions and meanders away from the river? After all - here I was, once again in a pleasantly dull, suburban street with the river already some way behind me. I turned south and trudged on. The mix of interwar council housing and the larger detached properties were comfortingly monotonous. The occasional "Vote LEAVE" posted reminded me of the demographic of this edge of Essex territory. Streets were closed for a Queen's Birthday street party, bunting dangling from the 'temporary closure' notices. At the end of Oxford Road there appeared to be a pathway which led to a bridge which would get me to what appeared to be a much better kept path on the eastern bank, and which seemed to continue much further without interruption. I was back on course...
For a while, at least - the pathway was clearly marked Roding Valley Way and after an unpromising dog-leg around a sports ground, gave way onto a pleasant public park. I could see my route ahead disappearing into the trees fringing the river, so I decided to rest a while and apply sunblock. The dull, warm ache of the clouds was breaking and I sensed a warm afternoon ahead. It felt portentous and stormy. I watched a huge, muscled black guy conducting what appeared to be an endearingly tender conversation via mobile while his slavering Bull Terrier worried him to throw a ball despite its apparent inability to stumble along at more than a few inches per second. Finally I decided it was time to press on, and headed for the bridge - only to find it gated and locked. There seemed to be no reason - it was in good repair, and the path on the opposite bank of the river was in use. I turned back again, passed the drooling dog waiting for its next low-speed chase and headed into the park. As I followed the long driveway from the strangely serrated roof of the visitors centre to the street, a police car edged along ahead of me before spotting a suspicious rough-sleeper in the hedge and peeling off across the grass to investigate. A little crowd assembled - but I headed for the exit. This stretch of the walk had been frustrating and I wanted to escape the suburbs. I turned onto the wonderfully named Snakes Lane East just as the Police car left the park and passed me, having left the rough-sleeper to his own devices. As I waited to cross the street, a car reversed out of a driveway at ludicrous speed, sending a cyclist lurching across the street almost into the Police car's path. The driver seemed oblivious to the near-miss and stopped, signalling the Police car to pass by. The officer shook his head and motioned him back into his drive, turning to follow him. By the time I passed the scene the driver was already yelling about it being "racist" to stop him - at which point a surprisingly imposing Asian Metropolitan Police officer began to unfold himself from the tiny car, much to the surprise of the driver. I left them discussing his motoring skills as I turned onto the busy dual carriageway of Chigwell Road - noting that among a row of tiny suburban shopfronts, next to a self-declared Washing Machine Repair Specialist, was a firearm dealer. The incongruity of the trade in ammunition and weapons with the mock-tudor frontage and the suburban location immediately played into the Essex tradition of low grade gangsters and tooled-up small-time criminals. I struck out for the Esso station - expecting at least to get an expensive refill of my water bottle and an ill-advised snack. As I approached, I noted that nestled between the filling station and the motel-like Broadmead Baptist Church was a narrow pathway with a carved Roding Valley Way arch. So, once equipped with terrifyingly expensive provisions, I edged rather carefully into the dogshit strewn channel between high razor-topped fences, which swiftly opened up into a narrow bridge over the still clear-running Roding waters. It was good to be back with the river, even if my path was going to run a little way from it for a while longer. Ahead of me were the dividing lanes of the M11 with the tiny stubs of the never-built M12 between them. The first carriageway was burrowed-under by way of a pitch dark underpass with the second soaring above me on high posts, leaving a dusty concrete plain beneath. This was as close as I'd get to a picnic spot, so I took the opportunity to eat and review my options under the shrill trauma of traffic desperately slowing for the end of the motorway, or accelerating out of the city's gravity.
I was in the midst of the turmoil here - in a widening apron of negative space on the map left by an incomplete road scheme. The Abercrombie plan for London came to a halt above me in concrete reality. This spreading triangle of land should have seen the carriageways of the M11 continue south - heading for the Inner Motorway Box at Hackney Wick. Instead, the flyovers describe a series of graceful but unnecessarily complex arcs, piling through-traffic onto the North Circular while city-bound travellers are deposited onto Charlie Brown's Roundabout. Named for a pub which was demolished in 1972 to accommodate the enlarged roundabout and tangle of sliproads, this provided a neat historical arc linking me back to my other walks. Charlie Brown's original pub was in West India Dock Road during the heyday of Limehouse as a churning confusion of day-paid dockers, furloughed sailors and ungoverned immigration which would curl the toes of Farage and company. A few years after the original Charlie Brown - the 'Uncrowned King of Limehouse' - died in 1932 his son upped sticks and headed for Essex like all east-enders made good, relocating to the pub in South Woodford but retaining the historical name. In a cruel twist of fate, the original building survived this new venue, but was finally claimed by another road scheme being demolished for the building of the Limehouse Link tunnel. Opened in 1993, until recent times this was the most expensive stretch of road ever built in Britain. In the same period, improvements were being hawked which included the much compromised M11 Link Road - which, when finally built, settled the sorry tale of the south end of the motorway with massive demolition and destruction of long-standing communities in Leyton. It also signalled the start of a series of organised anti-road protests which have dogged road schemes ever since. These strange sequences of events - the cycle of blight and destruction, of inheritance and self-improvement - seem to sum up this part of the world for me.
My own engagement with Charlie Brown's roundabout was to carefully pick a safe route around its edge, finally finding myself above the Roding again as I turned south briefly onto the continuation of Chigwell Road. Somehow, beneath the stacked layers of flyover and roundabout, the winding river kept flowing - only a little battle-scarred by rainbows of fuel and run-off in the process. Finding a tiny gateway, I turned aside and once again found myself on the western bank, the path edging around the sliproad carrying eastbound traffic onto the North Circular. The little cliff caused by the curve of the stream encountering a sloping panel of supporting concrete made a strangely attractive prospect under the brutal weight of road above. A line of pylons marched into the valley here - and would accompany me on this stretch of the walk like a guard of honour. From here I was walking west of the river but east of the road, in a narrow channel of green which gave occasional glimpses either down into the deep, lushly weed filled valley where the river ran, or up onto the nearby carriageway of the A406. The path tracked the road, used only by me and a small band of squirrels which blithely zig-zagged in front of me. It was cool and, despite the drone of road noise, curiously peaceful here. On the opposite bank a disused pumping station stood on the otherwise surprisingly undeveloped bank, gleaming yellow London brick in Spring sunshine.
I finally passed under the A406 a little north of Redbridge Roundabout, by way of a strange concrete bridge carrying both the sluggish river, its towpath, and a broad roadway which was presumably above the flood level. Here I made some grave navigational errors - emerging from the underpass at the roundabout and confidently trudging along the edge of Royston Gardens, I lost my nerve at the entrance to allotments with a "no unauthorised visitors" sign. I think I was mostly just convinced that a way through just wasn't possible. Instead I backtracked, at first to try to access the park via Royston Gardens - which seemed impossible, and then to review my map: only two routes sprang out as potentially possible I elected to pass back under Redbridge Roundabout and exit via Wanstead Park Road which runs parallel to the North Circular - not quite so long, but seemingly offering a link back to the river. Sure enough, after trudging the long, quiet street and navigating the chain of off-duty cabs and the dumped remains of beds and freezers, I found a curving bridge over the main road which deposited me on a network of paths in the green space running along the rivers' edge. I was soon back in the cool, mossy tunnel between bushes and riverbank. A little way along, beside a sign announcing the entrance to Epping Forest, I met a Polish family and had a good-natured but strange chat about whether any large dogs were up ahead. Their tiny mutt capered around, clearly not up for much of a scrap this time. Underway again, I found myself sandwiched between allotments packed with glittering makeshift bird-scarers and the edge of the City of London Cemetery. A strange fluttering noise above alerted me to the beginnings of a rain-storm, the canopy of mature trees providing shelter and preventing the drops from reaching me. The river was parting company now, heading south-eastward into Ilford while the Aldersbrook accompanied me south. Rather unexpectedly, the brick viaduct carrying the railway to Liverpool Street loomed ahead, with a long underpass allowing access south of the tracks. As I left the tunnel I felt great spots of rain begin to fall. By the time I reached Romford Road, the sky was black and the rain was stinging my face. I put up an umbrella which fended off the worst of the tumult, but soon seemed to be letting water in too. The rain continued. The gutters filled and motorists took turns to accidentally - or in some cases not so - spray waiting pedestrians. Busses slowing for the stop kicked up a huge wave in the roadside gullies. I thought about moving on - heading for Ilford - but it was horribly wet still, and worse once out of the lee of the buildings. I waited it out under a brolly. Others had been luckier, finding telephone kiosks or spots under shop awnings. By the time I considered the torrent had abated enough to move on, my lower legs were drenched, as was my back and rucksack. I slurped away through a tide of water running on the pavement - there was no way I could walk on to Barking now with the weather still uncertain and the way not fully clear. I cursed both the weather and my ill-preparedness for it. As I slogged the final few yards up Ilford Hill I noticed people wearing sunglasses, dripping shorts and skin-like wet t-shirts heading my way. We'd all been caught unawares it seemed.
I failed to dry out on the bus to Barking, or on the diverted C2C service into Liverpool Street which I'd caught just to cover an uncommon bit of railway line. I even stayed damp after an extended coffee-layover at the station, my trouser-legs flapping moistly around my ankles in a strange and uncomfortable fashion. By the time I walked up to the ticket gate at Paddington some three hours later, there was still a tide-mark of damp on my shins, my shirt still clung to me. I passed a badly mangled ticket, rescued from my soaked bag, apologetically offering "I'm sorry....the rain, you see....". The gateline operative glanced oddly at me and muttered as he passed me through the gate "RAIN? But we ain't had any here!". I wearily settled into my seat, feeling a tingle of the strange and pervasive British guilt that such interactions often carry - where I'm not at all to fault but feel a need to fix things. I'd last seen the Roding as I walked to the bus stop in Ilford - passing under the roadway, its sluggish meander now a surprising torrent of water. But for today, it had thrown me off the scent once again. The Roding is assuredly not one of London's mythologised 'lost rivers' - although it's often hidden, sometimes in plain sight under a pile of stacked motorways, or behind a screen of suburban villas. Today it refused to give up its secrets easily.
You can find a gallery of images from the walk here.
Posted in London on Saturday 7th May 2016 at 11:05pm
It had been widely touted as the hottest weekend of the year so far - and inevitably the comparisons with the usual holiday destinations were being dusted off. Why wasn't I heading off to the coast? Or somewhere nice? As I rattled north from Liverpool Street under blue skies, I pondered just how much these represented genuine comparators? I was heading for Chingford on a largely unplanned walk which would, I'd absent-mindedly guessed, take me down the eastern side of the Lea Valley. A parallel to last months' walk - but in very different territory indeed. Testing my foot on the concourse as I wandered over to the platform was a relief - I could probably make a decent distance today. But to where? A walk without an end point and without a clear idea of how long it would take felt surprisingly refreshing. I wouldn't trade a week of lounging in the sun for a day like this. It was time to get lost...
Chingford took me by surprise. It perhaps shouldn't have - we'd visited some of the neighbouring areas before and seen the surprisingly fashionable High Streets of Woodford and Loughton. These enclaves of the well-to-do and entitled clinging to the ridge on the fringe of the city have evolved to provide what they think they should want: good quality speciality foods, artisanal products, upcycled furniture and exclusive but overpriced clothing. I bought socks I could barely afford and left swiftly as I recall. It was in pondering the similarities between Chingford's busy High Street of restaurants and boutiques and those other locales that I realised I was roughly in the same part of the world: that uneasy transition from the suburban fringe of London to the Essex 'bling belt'. I tend to see London in terms of the radial spurs of its transport network, and generally I've flung myself out to these extremities only to perform a flag-in-the-territory claim on the track. I remember a feverish, sickened visit to the quiet outpost of Epping, even further beyond the fringe - but it still looked and felt like London - the same trains, the same roundels and lettering on the station's running-in boards. But over the fence the community couldn't be further from the city either in composition or attitude. Years of walking the city have begun to challenge this radial prejudice - I've skittered back and forth, from high ground to valley, from borough to borough, west to east and back. I've chased canals, rivers or just unlikely myths of place. I've begun to learn how things fit together - indeed, how they sometimes don't - and how the tone and tension subtly changes when imperceptible borders are crossed. In this I consider myself luckier than some of the natives - those who stake their claim on a territory early on and don't ever stray. This is, after all, a city where gangs organise their bloody rucks on the relative administrivia of the outward postcode zone. So Chingford, E4 felt just like those other monied hamlets that peppered the ridge between the Lea and the Roding as it petered out into Epping Forest. But it was different too - it was linked back to the city much more directly by it's long stewardship of the forest.
I left the station and turned with some reluctance away from the restaurants and shops towards the wide span of rising green space which marked the edge of Chingford. Resisting the urge to delve into the forest and explore the ancient hunting lodge, I struck out along a row of impressive Victorian villas which oddly fronted onto an unmettled, unadopted track which had seen better days. I satisfied myself that it probably played havoc with the suspension of the low-slung Mercedes and BMWs which lined it. Occasional dog walkers passed me by, wrapping the leather around their hands to prevent the bored animals from chasing errant golf balls. The ground began to rise as I passed the last green of the golf course and the path disappeared between trees, delving into a thick wood on the crest of the hill. This was the edge of Epping Forest, once part of the vast Forest of Essex which spanned great swathes of the county. Under the trees it was cool and damp, strangely and refreshingly quiet. The road noise was gone, birds twittered and other creatures skittered around in the brush. There were no more walkers now, and out of the sun there was a pleasant chill to be felt. The path opened into a clearing, with a well-worn track leading north into the forest - but I knew I wanted to head south and east, so I took a less clearly trodden way finding myself skirting a huge bowl surrounded by mature trees and requiring a bit of a breathless scramble. I thought about a retreat, but decided to press on, and was rewarded with the most wonderful experience. As I climbed the edge of the bowl, the trees framed an opening to the east. A wide expanse of grass stretched ahead, falling away in a long sward between the trees. Ahead of me sat two granite obelisks, one huge and imposing and one squat and discreet. They marked the Meridian line - one accurately, the other as an approximation with a dedication to T E Lawrence affixed. The view along the meridian was obscured by trees, but as I turned the hazy sky opened between the ranks of trees and the view west across the shimmering Lea Valley was revealed. The Chingford Reservoirs close at hand, vast expanses of glittering blue-grey water, and beyond them the shaded towers of Tottenham and Edmonton. Further afield the sprawl of the northern suburbs rising on their high ground turned into a dark smudge on the horizon. Looking a little south, the familiar brooding outline of the Isle of Dogs was a sketched-in detail on the horizon. Here, above all this and removed from its pulse and drag, I could appreciate the absence of London in a way I'd not achieved slogging the long, flat marsh paths out of Essex on the trail of the A13 which never quite seemed to shake off the city. Here I was aware of London as an entity, a thing with boundaries and a definite extent. I'd answered the question I'd posed myself so often: is this London? Pole Hill wasn't London. It was near the city, but not in any sense of the city. I spent a long time looking at the horizon, walking carefully down the grassy bank to another open space where views across the Lea Valley were even better. I could have stayed here for a long time. I felt a sense of calm and content I'd missed these past weeks. I felt a strange swelling of pride for a city that wasn't mine.
But I wasn't quite done with Chingford - or with climbing. Leaving Pole Hill via a gap in the hedge I tumbled out onto a narrow lane of bungalows. Cars were being washed, double-glazing renewed. Any mystique accrued on the hill was lost as I turned south passing a grimy concrete office block as I headed back up the hill towards Chingford Mount. I thought about tackling the climb in one, lung-busting push - but settled for paying feigned interest in some railings half way while sucking air heavily. Not that I was particularly conspicuous here just now, the only pedestrian not using motorised transport to climb the rise. That changed as I delved into the side-streets. There were walkers here - but they fell into very specific groups. There were those heading for their cars, toting a key-fob ahead of them as a form of proof they didn't need to walk, and giving apologetic raised eyebrows as some sort of fraternal shared complaint about the parking. The others marshalled dogs. Glazed eyed trophy animals which they apologetically harnessed using two hands where necessary, preventing the animals from lunging guilelessly at a human which wasn't enveloped in a cloud of scent or aftershave. Here, as I plodded past the villas with electronic gates and multiple garages with my rucksack and water bottle, I looked like trouble. I wasn't sorry to get into the environs of the cemetery - a much more down-to-earth zone filled with smells of Indian cookery and the dust of continuous home-improvement work which likely lacked the formalities of planning permission. I slipped through the gates and into the eastern part of the graveyard, a crowded and tumble-down cluster of tombstones around an austere but peaceful war memorial where I passed a moment and surveyed the surroundings. I wandered a little here before braving a walk into the newer, western plot. This was wholly different - shiny black stones etched with photographs of the missed, a festoon of celebratory flags from the just passed Orthodox Pascha, elaborate and frequently refreshed floral tributes. There was something of a carnival atmosphere, people putting serious work into tending graves which were investments in themselves. There are of course celebrities here too - and I'd be lying if I pretended not to be curious about the presence of the Krays, reunited by prosaic and unremarkable deaths despite their mythology. However, I didn't get near them - there was a queue of young Spanish tourists lining up to gingerly touch the gravestones, awkwardly positioning for selfies with both brothers' memorials in the background and their lurid raincoats and multihued backpacks reflected in the marble. I felt a brewing over-reaction towards this most un-British of responses to death, which made me feel surprising disgust at my own curiosity too. It was time to move on, leaving the humid greenery of the cemetery and heading for the street, abandoning the crowd around the grave.
From here, my route was mercifully down hill following the fall of the Lea Valley towards the Thames. I took the long straight route of Waltham Way, a traffic-clogged approach for the North Circular lined with mid-century homes giving tantalising glimpses of the reservoir beyond. During the gentle descent I became increasingly familiar with a stretch of seven or eight vehicles which would pass me, grind to a halt and then be overtaken at a much slower pace as I caught up with them. Towards the junction of Waltham Way and the North Circular the pleasant suburban feel falls away as it becomes an access road for a number of industrial estates, with a stretch of tired Victorian shopfronts where I topped up on water but failed to find food. The lack of planning I'd done began to trouble me here - the A406 was a huge, six lane barrier curving across my path. I knew of a footbridge a little east towards Crooked Billet and decided to head that way, calling in at an expensive and grubby petrol station along the way for sustenance. I finally found the slender crossing and slogged up the ramps to survey the land from above. A huge Costco dominated the view west, taunting me with comparatively low prices. To the south I could see the scrubby edgelands which fell between the boundary of Chingford and Higham's Hill, blighted by the presence of the road beneath. From the train this had seemed intriguing - one of the odd and unremarked corners of undeveloped land in this part of London. Now I just needed to find a way to get there, following the signs for Folly Lane and the Islamic Cemetery and passing a much superior and more reasonable service station too. Once out of sight of the main road, Folly Lane quickly dissolved into a dusty chasm of fly-tipping and builders rubble hemmed in by uncontrolled hedgerows and an inexplicably prolific crop of security cameras. I felt instantly more comfortable - this was more like my usual territory, and I sensed water close by. The eastern edge of the road gave way to a scrubby and damp meadow where stoic ponies grazed and eyed me with disinterest. I passed the Islamic Cemetery, a basic but impeccably tidy facility where silence and respect were encouraged. Coming towards me - and reassuring me that the unmarked path did indeed continue beyond this point - a dog walker kicked at the sign for the cemetery and rolled his eyes. I pretended not to understand the casual non-verbal racism and hoped not to hear the click of a slavering terrier being released. Happily he was much too busy being disgruntled to care, and I made it between the bollards and onto the path which edges around Highams' Hill - a seemingly pleasant but dense cluster of streets hemmed in on two sides by the threads of the Lea and the Banbury Reservoir. It feels almost as remotely disconnected from London as Chingford did. A community which looks east and north, rather than inwards towards the core it can't easily reach. The path officially turned south here to access the housing, but I could continue by passing under the splayed legs of an electricity pylon which towered over me. I stood at its centre while I chose my route - in the curious belief that perhaps it could impart some wisdom: I would continue to walk beside the reservoir, soon coming alongside the concrete edged channel in which the Lea flows here, tantalisingly close beyond a railing. The road swung back east here, but a path and an unlocked gateway ahead appeared to continue my route. It's in this sort of circumstance I'd usually take the safe option and regret needing to create some new route to reclaim my territory. Today though, I was aware I had no plan and didn't really know where I wanted to end my walk. Reasoning that I was in the midst of a dense, well-networked city and couldn't reasonably stray far from a route back to the familiar, I pressed on. The path ran along the edge of allotments and the backs of houses which faced away from the river and the marshes. A municipal railing kept me away from the river's various flows: the Navigation running in a deep concrete rut and crossing the flood relief channel at a complex skewed bridge. The by this point somewhat misnamed Navigation curved purposefully to feed the High and Low Maynard reservoirs while the broader, sluggish and half-dry Relief Channel meandered around them. Eventually my impromptu new route came to an end at a locked gate which provided maintenance access to the reservoirs. I turned east along the track which led back to Blackhorse Lane.
Pausing on the low wall outside a school and unenthusiastically consuming my expensive service station lunch, I pondered the walk so far. I'd never set out to walk this way, only having the vaguest plans around Chingford and perhaps walking the eastern edge of the Lea Valley. Instead, I found the views from my train ride out of the city colouring my plans, persuading me to fill in the gaps between lines and stations, to understand the territory better. I set off south through the industrial zone of Blackhorse Lane, an area apparently curiously proud of its name which was repeated at the top of clock-totems and in retro font lettering on factory walls. With the first aches and pains of my trek beginning to set in, I realised I still had no idea where I was going - where would be a fitting end to this? At Blackhorse Road station I faced a crossroads - I could head west here and cross the valley to Tottenham Hale where I'd finished my last walk, or I could head east on the long slog into Walthamstow. Both would have marked a return to the safety of the city. Instead I headed south along the line of the river, dodging into the suburban backstreets to stay as close to its course as possible. The long avenue of Edward Road, lined with viciously pollarded, alien-looking trees fronted the Douglas Eyre playing fields - apparently being subsumed into the grounds of a new-build academy and firmly off limits. I had to take on faith the presence of the Dagenham Brook and the Lea just beyond the tall Victorian villas which lined the street. As I reached yet another school at a crossroads ahead, I faced another choice - I could plough on south into the industrial fringe which marked the edge of the Olympic project, or I could turn west towards the marshes. The curious magnetism of the marshes won yet again.
A westbound perambulation along Coppermill Lane felt like a reversed time-line of the East End: a gradual winding back from hipster shops with graffiti wall-art and modest boozers, through industrial scale water-treatment to the prehistoric panorama of the marshes. As I headed west, leaving the terraces of Leytonstone behind me, the vast sheets of water which filled the dip of the valley dominated the view. To the north, the island-dotted wedge of Walthamstow Reservoir No.5 and to the south the regular pattern of shimmering rectangles around the vast waterworks complex. This lower reach of the valley has a history of treating human effluent, of turning ordure into water - and its industry has often done much to reverse the process. From the crumbling concrete graveyard of the Middlesex Filter Beds to the vast sewage metropolis at Beckton, the eastern reaches of the Thames and the Lea have always been the axis of waste and regeneration. In the midst of it, this waypoint. Ian Bourn's "urethra of London" fully realised. Passing the mid-century offices which front the waterworks, I dodged cyclists as the lane took on a rural aspect. It was busy with walkers enjoying the sun - the obligatory eastern European couples ambling together along with families braving the midges and striding out towards the marshes. Suddenly I find myself at a familiar spot but viewing it from an utterly different angle. Above me is the railway line from Liverpool Street to Cambridge crossing a low underpass dug out of the marsh. To my left is a gate giving access to the marshes east of the line - a carpark and picnic area fronting a vast swathe of tall grasses and a long straight path which seems to follow the route of one of the long culverted channels of the river. My head aches from the brightness, so I stop and watch trains pass while cyclists try to navigate the low passage without dismounting. People aren't moving now. The afternoon sun has turned suddenly and surprisingly warmer, and they're lying down where they stood, struck and scattered like horror movie victims. Shirts are off, trousers rolled. London is relaxing into an opportunistic summer. I walk on, the oddball in the sweater, tossing sweat-flattened hair back from my face and sucking at the last of my water to wash down painkillers. The end of the walk has suggested itself - Lea Bridge is looming. The skeletal new railway station waiting to reopen just across the marsh, the buses ducking and weaving from the stop. It feels like getting back to civilisation after a walk in the wilderness despite the tide of sunbathers.
Weaving through the Equestrian Centre and out onto the road, I'm glad of the trees fringing the road and providing shade. The painkillers start to kick in, dulling the heat-induced ache and letting my feet throb reassuringly instead. It strikes me that this walk couldn't have happened a year ago - even a few months back. I've grown more comfortable walking these fringes, less given to range anxiety and keener to find the boundaries, the interstitial zones, rather than immersing myself in a received version of the eastern reaches of London. It strikes me too that being lost is a welcome distraction - a little dose of unreality that challenges me to navigate using my wits and my instincts rather than a map. But its straight back to the map I'll go - to plot, to measure and to retrospectively research my walk. Each new turn chosen suggesting an untaken alternative. Another way to get lost.
You can find a gallery of images from the walk here.
Posted in London on Saturday 2nd April 2016 at 10:04pm
It had been a challenging few weeks - the seasonal sickness that descends on all those condemned to office life had struck and left us tired and exasperated. To cap this, of all the body parts which could choose to exact sympathetic rebellion, my right foot was painful. I'd spent the last week of spasmodic coughing and sneezing poring over maps of Essex and I just couldn't find an easy way of advancing along the A13 - the walk was either too short to be interesting, or far too long for my current condition. Meanwhile, the day crept up on me strangely quickly. Rather unexpectedly though, a reserve plan sprang into being. I'm not sure how, or why I found myself idly looking over the OS Map of the Lee Valley - but it struck me it was time to return to the river I'd spent so much time mythologising over the last few years. I planned hastily: I'd walk into London rather than out, taking advantage of the parallel railways which flank the Lea Valley to make my escape if my range was limited by fatigue or foot-rot, and I'd start outside the M25. It made for a good long walk which symbolically cut another axis into that great circuit. The day dawned surprisingly fortuitously for a walk. The weather was perfect for walking, with blue skies flecked with cloud and a cool breeze. My foot too, appeared to have relented and healed somewhat. I tested my boots and found that they were far more comfortable than regular footwear had been. The journey to London was a relaxing, quiet pause - the first in a few busy weeks and I stalked off for the tube at Paddington in good spirits. A quick spin around the Circle to Liverpool Street, and then armed with coffee, onto a suburban service out into Hertfordshire. Rebranded as TfL Rail, the Overground Orange motif spattered across the decor, with a freight of spaced out kids nodding and sputtering home from a Friday night in the clubs. Over the rooftops of Bethnal Green and Hackney, then into the strange suburban hinterland which breaks like a spent wave on the western side of the Lea Valley. The Turkey Brook, passing under the line deep below signalled that it was almost time to alight, and to begin walking.
I was briefly disoriented on exiting the station - blinking at my map in the sunshine, I soon spied Trinity Lane heading off between ranks of suburban houses. The lure of possible supplies on the High Street was strong, but I had the urge to start walking. The surprisingly warm morning was wearing on, and I was still a little concerned about my walking speed and endurance despite having a pretty solid escape plan. In truth I didn't want to have to abandon a walk - it just wouldn't feel right. Immediately on entering the lane I realised I was walking a watercourse already. Sandwiched between the houses on my right and the road was a deep ditch, bridged by driveways into the pleasant looking suburban dwellings. Theobald's Brook, having emerged from under the road junction at the station, was leading me to the river. Being hazy on an exact route, I decided to follow Trinity Lane into the Lee Valley Country Park with the brook as my guide. Eventually the road dwindled to a lane leading to a level crossing over the railway from Cheshunt, and after a careful crossing I found myself in the park at last. The brook swerved away to join the Small River Lea, while the path opened into a vast greensward dwarfed by pylons. I recalled being taught as a small boy that electricity and water don't mix well - but here in the Lea Valley they are constant companions. Pressing on into the park I crossed the Lee Navigation near the Lee Valley White Water Centre, complete with its plaques bearing witness to Olympic renewal. The path rose here, with a good view along the quiet, emerald waters of the Navigation. There was a distant hum of traffic and a buzzing of insects. I was back in the valley, and glad to be here.
For a brief spell, I was walking beside the Old River Lee - the slow, stymied and meandering sibling of the Navigation which winds along the western edge of the valley. Shaded by trees, the emerald surface of the water rippled lazily as I approached the road near Waltham Town Lock. I had a choice as I surfaced - to continue on the banks of the river, or take the path beside the Navigation. I chose the western path - essentially because it appeared to involve less diversions around incomplete pathways, less complication - and perhaps less chance of temptation to deviate from my goal. Also, if I made it all the way, I'd be leaving the path at the same point where I parted from the valley over three years ago. It was a symbolic relinking, if nothing else. Immediately on crossing the A121 and descending to the bank, the character of the water changes. Hemmed in by a vacant industrial wharf in the midst of a dusty clearance process, the water is slick and dark. Stretching south, butting against the straight line of the Navigation are a range of warehouses with 'excellent motorway links' and claiming journey times of an hour to Heathrow. For the first time today I feel almost uncomfortably hemmed in by water - I sense the Small Lea lurking to the west, and only a narrow spit divides the Lea and the navigable channel here. Trees hang listlessly between them, and the surface shimmers with chemical rainbows and a faint heat haze. I'm suddenly reminded of The Waste Land:
The river sweats oil and tarBut the walk is pleasant. I'm not really hitting my usual pace - I'm just enjoying the cool of the river breeze and the sun on my face. It feels like a long time since I walked in sunshine. The rivers stay close here, as the shudder of motorway traffic begins to make itself heard. There is no great ceremony here, no arcing bridge. Instead a low, concrete bridge spans the collected rivers, the traffic just feet from my face as it shrills by. The road is flowing faster than the water, a lane of large lorries obscuring the sun before I reach the bridge. It's cool in the shade, and the slope under the pillars opens into a muddy lake of litter. A recently dumped, not yet torched Peugeot 206 awaits its fate beside a pile of clothes and soft-furnishings. It is surprisingly intact, and appears to have been driven here. The thought of off-roading across the marshes is absurd. Beyond the plain of waste, I spot a gateway leading up a rise and away from the river. I'm reluctant to leave the path - but I'm drawn to the light after being under the bridge. It's a slick, grassy scramble up the muddy slope on the edge of Rammey Marsh with just occasional tufts of coarse grass to aim a boot at - but I'm rewarded with a chance to be at close quarters with the M25 in a way I'd never quite expected. A huge Variable Message Sign curves over the carriageway nearby, and a bold blue board marks the border in capital fashion: HERTFORDSHIRE. As traffic shudders by, little more than pale streaks of colour and rushes of air, the infrastructure broods silently. The scale of the bridge, the towering pylons forming a lattice of wires across the road, the massive hulk of the signs - it is strangely awe-inspiring up close, out of the mediated frame of a windscreen. I paused here for quite a while, just watching the road while contrails crossed the sky. Here - for perhaps the only time on my walk - water wasn't the dominant force.
Scrambling back down the bank was more complicated and less dignified than the ascent, but I was soon back on the path and heading south. The river runs in three channels here - the Navigation and Diversion parting to envelop Enfield Island Village, with the Cattlegate Flood Relief Channel skirting the eastern fringes of the valley. I confess to being lost in the terminology here - ill-prepared for the complexities of the waterways I'm trying my best just to stay on course. But the lure of refreshment is too strong, and I climb the steps onto the bridge which leads into the former Royal Small Arms Factory. Inside the water-bounded compound it's a mix of old and new - long, low brick buildings which date from the island's former occupation rub gables with new housing stock, built in similar but slightly off-key styles. The overall affect is jarring and oddly creepy. There are few people around until I get to the tiny and ill-organised Tesco Express store - the only amenity here which is in business. I head back to the river with my purchases in hand. It's dusty and dry here, work still going on to build more housing on the southern edge of the site. I recall the tales of toxic dust when the main area was upturned and built on, and I try not to breathe until I'm safely in the shade of Swan and Pike Pool. I rest beside the water while across the cluttered, dirty pond someone does yoga silently. It feels calm and restful enough here - but that seems such an unlikely pursuit so close to the heavily polluted motorway air.
The valley changes character as I set off again. Turning south where the huge Enfield Energy plant dominates the view, the Navigation is a broad, straight canal. Right away we're joined from the west by a confluence of the Small Lea and the Turkey Brook, running in at a reedy, inauspicious junction. The Navigation's other sister streams have parted from us, running along the eastern edge of the valley and now separated by the vast hourglass-shaped expanse of the Chingford Reservoirs. The most northerly is the King George's Reservoir, with steeply raked grass banks separating countless millions of gallons of water from the rivers. This was, until 1951 an aerodrome. This flat, empty situation on the valley floor proved perfect for these experiments in watering a vast urban metropolis. A similar undertaking would almost never succeed now, risking strangulation by the twin hands of planning regulation and protest movement. The challenge of holding back such vast volumes without slippage and disaster resulted in a long-standing British dominance of the soil dynamics field. The towpath continues, skirting the minor kinks in the southerly course of the Navigation. An overflow channel leaves the canal, a concrete culvert full of mud and silt, hugging the perimeter of the artificial lake as a causeway carrying the A110 separates it from the William Girling Reservoir. The causeway is a passage from pub to pub - from Nags Head Road to Kings Head Hill, taverns celebrated along a route marking one of the few horizontal crossings of the odd, somewhat beleaguered valley. This lake - named for the chairman of the Metropolitan Water Board at the time of inauguration - is more elegantly tapered than its northern counterpart, the southern reaches pinched by the rising flanks of land which support Chingford and Tottenham. Looking west, a rank of four tower blocks at Ponders End dominate the horizon, rudely emphasised by the empty industrial lots between the river and the housing estates of Brimsdown and Edmonton. South of here, the western bank is dominated by the Lee Valley Athletics Centre - a pale shadow of what was meant to be the pre-Olympic dream: a revitalisation of the valley through sport has always been the officially preferred mechanism. At Pickett's Lock a crumbling boathouse is sheltering three preening swans, the plans for the 2005 World Athletic Championships long forgotten and eclipsed by the great events of 2012. The embarrassment of earmarking a site which was too difficult to reach and too expensive to develop is almost erased by later profligacy, by a project just too big to fail. There is a golf course now, man-made lakes, a sports centre to replace the original Pickett's Lock centre. But thankfully the river still runs undisturbed. The sun is riding high now and my forehead is starting to sting where I'm sweating. I fear I may be turning pink. I see virtually no-one on the path now except for the river-dwellers working on their boats and the occasional jogger. Most sane Englishmen are safely indoors, even though the April sun lacks the power of summer. I walk on.
Almost hypnotised by the long, yellow stone path stretching ahead, I'm surprised to hear the sound of traffic returning. The path opens into a vast stone chamber under the junction where the North Circular meets the Ravenside Retail Park. The complex web of slip-roads spans the entire valley, with a roundabout dominating the dormant space between the Lea and its navigable stream. As I pass under I instinctively turn to photograph daylight above me, penned in between the carriageways. I press the shutter as two huge birds spread their wings and head for the sky between the slip roads. Meanwhile a rowing boat filled with laughing Sea Cadets lurches and splashes under the A406. I'm inside the City's inner road necklace now - and any sense of rurality disappears. The walkway is narrow, a metal crash-barrier separating it from the dusty, unadopted mess of Towpath Road - existing only to serve a complicated jumble of businesses and the Arriva Edmonton Bus Depot, forced into the dwindling neck of land between the rivers. Dust rises from the passing buses, obscuring what appears to be an illicit trade in waste white goods. I'm pressed against the barrier for fear of cyclists who don't ring bells here. Thankfully, the River Lea soon rejoins and I'm on a thin spit of land between two wide, slow streams of water. The rank of pylons which have shadowed my route here from Waltham Cross have split, flanking the channel on both sides, placing me in an eerie procession. A genuinely electric avenue. A glance at the map shows an explosion of water here - the bulging circle of Banbury Reservoir is the last of the Chingford Chain, with the Walthamstow waters taking over the valley. I'll see less of these - they favour the eastern side of the Lea Valley, with only the Lockwood Reservoir sidling up against the River before I leave the valley.
This last stretch is hard going. It's been a hotter, slower walk than I'd expected and despite being mesmerised by the strange vistas of the valley, I'm tiring. A curving footbridge gives access to Tottenham Marshes and a series of well-used green links along the edge of Pymmes Brook. The afternoon is cooling a little, but the sun remains high - and couples push strollers and wander the path. The eastern bank is quieter until Stonebridge Lock where the only option is to cross the gates and join civilisation. The former café and toilet block is a focus for walkers - a place to reevaluate their limited post-prandial stamina and turn back before it's too late. Before they are walking the valley like me. I spot an entire family on a bench near the lock gates, the elder gazing down at the end of his walking stick. When I resurface from using the facilities they have crossed the lock and assumed an identical position on the western bank. My ceremonial guides as I embark on the last leg of my walk for today. The Navigation is busy between here and Tottenham Lock - the waterway filled with boats in various states of repair, from semi-sunken to beautifully decorated, and the footpath busy with walkers and cyclists. An alarmingly drunk man mis-steps toward the water, a passing family oscillating between concern and distaste. When I pass him he's facing inland and fumbling with his flies, smiling blissfully to himself. Saved again by instincts which defy his inebriation.
Despite knowing how close I was to my goal, Tottenham Lock came upon me unexpectedly. The gentle curve of Ferry Lane bridge and the strange oblique sculpture which sits beside it appeared in negative due to the glare of the sun - which now also bounced back at me from a range of tall apartments built since my visit in 2012. Pymmes Brook was now alongside me too - a stinking ditch in a divided concrete chasm, chasing its final few metres before being subsumed into the broader waters of the Lea. At Ferry Lane I resurfaced and crossed the road to survey the spot I'd left the river three summers ago. Aside from the near-completion of the vast development behind me, little enough had changed. But for me - everything had. I'd always anticipated picking up this walk in a northerly direction, heading away from the City and the repellent enforced buoyancy of the Olympic summer. Life took a different turn, and it seemed fitting to be coming back to civilisation, part of something bigger and more human from an entirely different angle. The last few steps to the platform at Tottenham Hale were as painful and frustrating as last time. There is no access to the station from the east, no one walking in from the lakes. It felt strange to be coasting across the wide expanse of green marshland near Clapton, after spending a day surrounded almost entirely by the waters of the Lea Valley and I realised I was catching probably my first glimpse of the familiar city skyline today as I headed back towards Liverpool Street. The wide swathe of water continues, paralleling the railway line - and I know that I'll need to return to walk the eastern reaches if I'm to fully understand this remarkable and confusing place.
You can find a gallery of images from the walk here.
Posted in London on Saturday 7th November 2015 at 11:11pm
As the end of the year approaches, I find myself seeking some sort of summary. It has been a testing year - full of anxiety and uncertainty - and these walks have been beacons of a sort. Marking time against interminable bureaucracies, counting backwards away from grief and disappointment. Things are changing - there are, it's fair to say, many things which are cautiously approaching resolution. But I find these walks take me out of the churn of more pressing things, into a parallel channel which flows at a different pace. Sometimes challengingly faster, sometimes surprisingly ponderous - but always a change. Today wasn't promising in many respects - it started between storms at a windy railway platform, and by the time my train crept into Paddington a little behind schedule a grey drizzle had settled in for the day. This was punctuated by sudden squalls of rain, whirling and eddying whenever I strayed into an even moderately open area. It wasn't great walking weather - but I was determined to walk. Grim determination or foolhardy stubbornness? Hard to say at this early stage. It was though, pleasant not to have to rely on onward transport to get me to the beginning of the trek. As I was setting out from Paddington on foot, I tarried long enough to get coffee before leaving the station and doubling back along London Street. Beside the hulk of the trainshed I encountered a curious item of street furniture: a three-troughed, circular urinal which rose from the ground - presumably for those weekend evenings when inconvenienced men are more than willing to decorate any vertical surface without much concern about bystanders. I didn't tarry here - though I wondered whether its use in the busy daytime would catch on? I think we'd need to become far more shruggingly European for this to become a fixture. Instead I pressed on, skirting the edge of St. Mary's Hospital and diverting around workmen who appeared not to have decided if they were dismantling or erecting a building beside the station. Via an unexpected zig-zag I crossed Paddington Basin - my first sight of water - and used the backstreets to regain the canal near the complex mess of junctions on Harrow Road. As I plunged beneath the flyover, I delighted in the sudden muting of the traffic. The scour of tyre on wet tar was turned into a dull rumble. If nothing else, today promised to be a peaceful excursion.
Shortly after joining the canal I found myself at Brownings' Pool - or Little Venice as it's quaintly known. The canal broadened into a trapezoid pool with a small islet anchored midstream. Around the towpath, expensively decorated narrowboats were moored, presumably laid up for the winter now. Here I had a final choice - head west along the Grand Union to Birmingham and beyond, or to maintain my planned course east for the Thames. I resolved to stick to my plan and turned east, soon realising that the towpath on the eastern bank gave no access to the Regents Canal. The tidy but windswept Rembrandt Gardens fronted against the street here, and I slalomed their gates to gain Warwick Avenue and cross the bridge. Looking north I spied the sleek, modern tower of St. Saviour among the plaster-fronted villas of the western suburbs. It was time to take to the water. I'd walked the bulk of the Regents Canal before - years ago, I'd tackled the stretch around Regents Park to Camden, and in the dizzy Olympic summer of 2012 I'd walked from the eastern portal of Islington Tunnel to the canal's conclusion at Limehouse over the course of a couple of walks. But it had been a long time, and there were loose ends to join here in the west. It felt right to be tackling an uncomplicated circuit today - the familiar seen from a different angle is always comfortingly unnerving. This early part of the walk was though, especially disconcerting. After just a few steps on the canal I was driven onto the footpath of Blomfield Road, a sedate avenue of heavily pollarded trees which runs east along a private section of the canal which is designated as a permanent mooring. In the chilly grey morning, the little puffs of steam from the boats was strangely inviting - and someone, somewhere was cooking breakfast. Up ahead the canal disappeared under a glass-fronted restaurant and into Maida Vale tunnel. Excluded from the water again, I headed over the broad but oddly quiet Edgware Road and plunged back into the suburbs. The houses hereabouts were large and impressive, but as I pushed on into the hinterlands there was a sudden change, and I found myself walking beside a pleasant but obviously down-at-heel municipal development, with the canal in a deep chasm beside me. Looking down I could see curious concrete bunkers embedded into the steep wall of the opposite bank. The canal must be a strange neighbour in some respects.
Another towpath diversion sent me overland again, emerging on the southern bank and walking along a raised walkway beside another housing estate. Hemmed in by railways, this area has been turned over to the National Grid, with the vast Lisson Grove complex of transformers and pylons filling a huge triangle of land. The wires hissed and shivered in the drizzle, a metallic tang in the air. You could smell electricity here - the slightly fried, plastic smell coming back to me from days in the Air Cadet hut deliberately overloading capacitors until they exploded. Passing under the Metropolitan and Chiltern Lines, and again crossing the canal, the area became much more sedate. A wooded channel taking a broad sweep around the margin of Regents Park, with the canal providing a view for a line of clumsy but impressive stucco mansions. Columns and domes proliferate - and while it's all done in the spirit of Nash, it has little of the style and grace his park villas provide to the area. The rain holds off a little and I can slush through leaves with the umbrella holstered for a while here, finally surfacing at the edge of the park where it meets Primrose Hill. My destination here was canal related - heading along the eastern fringe of the park via Prince Albert Road, following a long-deleted branch of the waterway which dived in towards the city. Now, the Feng Shang Princess dominates the junction - a bright red oriental-style boat turned restaurant which is anchored in the tiny inlet which was once the Cumberland Arm. By the mid-19th century, this branch built to serve Cumberland Market and the New Road was described as "no better than a stagnant putrid ditch", a haven of cholera-riddled boat dwellers. Later in the century it picked up the moniker of Jew's Harp Basin after a local public house. By 1941 though, it was filled in - used to absorb the rubble of the bombed city, its waters drained to feed fire-pumps. However the bridge remains, crossing nothing at all, but still adorned with elegant lamps and showing a distinct uplift in the carriageway of Gloucester Gate. I scouted the four pillars, looking down into the void below the road. North of the ghost bridge, the green edges of nearby London Zoo's overflow parking slipped away into foliage. To the south, trees and temporary buildings filled the view. The land beyond had been repeatedly and comprehensively redeveloped. There was nothing of the canal to be seen. I'd planned to retrace my steps here, but a glance around the junction had suggested that there might be somewhere to find food and conveniences here, so I wandered away from the canal. A mile or so later, I found myself in the midst of Camden Town and still no nearer finding what I was seeking. Camden was rammed with tourists ambling pointlessly, pointing cameras at everything, crowding on pavements and preventing walking in a straight line. A drizzle fell, but no-one walked faster. No toilets were open. Stores which usually had bathrooms had opted out - trying to squeeze every bit of retail space out of the tiny Camden shopfronts. After reaching Camden Lock, prematurely finding myself back at the canal having cut a huge corner, I turned and headed back. It felt like a long, wet and miserable slog back to Cumberland Basin, and I began to doubt the sanity of doing this walk today.
Back on the canal, things improved a little - even when it rained, the cutting shielded me from the worst, and I fantasized that maybe if there was a convenient bush I could just go native. There was never the right alignment of foliage and passers-by however, so I trudged on miserably towards the very place I'd just visited. Soon the familiar outline of The Pirate Castle came into view, and beyond it, the canal opened out to accommodate Camden Lock. I crossed the bridge here on the basis that the southern bank looked like a more likely source of sustenance and relief - and paid the price. I was soon left with no option but to climb back up onto the street, just feet from where I'd been standing a little while ago. In my momentary confusion I made another error - not realising that access to the north bank was via the archway leading into the market. Instead, I re-routed north, between the arms of the North London Railway and along Castlehaven Road. The land between the canal and the road was a muddy building site, the egg-cups of the former TV-AM building just visible marking the line of the canal. The towpath was, unknown to me, between the two and perfectly accessible. However, perhaps this diversion was meant to be, because as I prepared to pick my way back down to the canal at Kentish Town Road I noted the entrance to a vast Sainsbury's store just metres away. I practically ran the last few yards into the cathedral of retail...
Back on the tow path, somewhere in the midst of the long straight section leading to St. Pancras Lock, I sheltered under an overhanging walkway and reflected on my day. I was wet, a little tired of the wind and rain, but finally felt comfortable to press on. Walking the canal had felt like a safe November option, never quite leaving the comfort of Central London - but I should have known from previous walks that the water is sometimes a world away from the streets around it. Certainly in Camden I'd felt the jarring discord - quiet green water versus busy streets above. I also felt like I'd been set back by well over an hour by the various diversions, and I began to feel pressed for time. Moving on resolutely, I entered the redevelopment zone of Kings Cross Railway Lands. At St. Pancras Lock, the railways edge in to mark out a blighted zone which has always been industrial land. But slowly, and not without some confusion, it appears to be changing. A huge gasometer beside the towpath will house a new residential building, and the space around it is landscaped and stepped up to a public square. Quaint boats act as book stalls and coffee shops, and the canal benefits from a long stretch of floating towpath whilst the work continues on shore. Clanking around the curve, assuring myself that this was solid enough to carry a now steady traffic of people, I thought of St. Pancras Old Church, not far away here - and the fact that this was probably the closest I'd get to the centre of the city all day. There was still so far to go, and this had seemed like an easy option? Soon enough though, I was forced back to street level by Islington Tunnel - the long, dark void stretched away under Muriel Street, a tiny speck of distant light the only hint of what lay beyond. For me the route meant taking to the alleyways of Islington, diving between the radiating northbound streets and finally emerging at The Angel on familiar ground. A quick crossing of Upper Street, and I'm again in the backstreets and paying respects to the line of the New River at Colebrooke Row. Thinking back to a walk here long ago, and the more recent Olympic jaunt, I found myself reminiscing - so much had changed, but the canal was a constant.
Back on track at the tunnel's eastern portal and with the rain mostly holding off, I widened my stride for the more familiar section of the route through Hoxton and Shoreditch. I'd walked this way before, and knew the risks: cyclists and joggers, in surprising numbers, frequent this part of the path. I tucked myself into the wall and put my head down, slithering carefully over the stones when the path dropped at locks. My feet were sore, and I was soaked through - not ideal walking conditions - but the silvery skies didn't signify immediate rain and the going was more pleasant here. I ticked off progress by basins - City Road, Wenlock, Kingsland - paying little attention to anything beyond my immediate path. Little businesses had cropped up here and their exploiting the busy path, but mostly it was me, walking steadily, with a successing of dinging bicycle bells the only punctuation. This was much, much better. Soon - and rather surprisingly the gasholders of Andrew's Road were dominating the view south, and I felt relief. Whilst there was still a fair way to go, this was the part of the city I felt I knew better. The canal-based businesses here weren't trading much today, closed up with little wisps of smoke coming from their chimneys despite the passing walkers and cyclists. Passing under Mare Street marked a boundary for me - I was back in territory I could navigate easily. Victoria Park beckoned, and a welcome rest on a drying bench near the boating lake. I recalibrated myself, drank the last of my supply of water and wondered if my feet were really up to this last push? It was later than I'd planned - and I still had one little side-trip to complete. Reluctantly I eased my knees straight and started walking towards the Old Ford gate.
My ambitious plan to include a side trip into Meath Gardens seemed ludicrous as I slogged along the path through Mile End Park. The former cemetery had figured in my recent reading, and I realised I'd never really been into the park. Access now was via an elegant, curving footbridge which lead into a development of new apartments around the edges of the park. Soon, I was level with the railway line from Liverpool Street, crossing the canal nearby. The view was surprisingly good - north along the green line of the park, to Wennington Green where Rachel Whiteread's 'House' so briefly stood, and south towards the Thames, the glowering silver towers of the Isle of Dogs dominant. As I scuffled into the park I was startled by a weird dummy posed oddly on a balcony of the new flats. I stopped sharp and my foot twanged. Any hope of an exploration of the park was scuppered. This was now an endurance test. I headed back over the bridge and descended to the towpath for a last, desperate push towards the river. This stretch of the canal is interesting but somehow unrelenting - the north/south geography of the City is exchanged for an east/west axis and the canal cuts, serene and still, across this. For much of the route, work to repair the waterway meant it had been drained to a trickle, and it was both disturbing and interesting to see the detritus of the canal bed exposed to the world again. When I thought of some of the horrors which this stretch of water had endured, I wondered about the apprehension of the workers as the levels started to fall. Just what they'd find a total mystery.
In a sudden burst of sunshine, reflected back at me by the nearby pyramid of One Canada Square, I burst out from under the narrow bridge walk-way into Limehouse Basin. The ending was fittingly quiet, and I sat on a nearby stone bollard trying to lift one foot at a time off the cobbles. I thought about circling the basin and heading for the river, but my feet just weren't up for that kind of additional, ambitious jaunt. Instead I rested, then headed for Commercial Road where I knew a bus would take me to dry seats, coffee and rest. This walk had seem innocuous, a re-linking of past trips and a fairly sensible distance when I set out. What I hadn't perhaps appreciated was the need to deviate from the solipsism of water just to get the job done. The dispiriting walk into Camden and the unnecessary diversions were of my making, but the canal imposes these fractures on the walk too. Perhaps the real folly was trying to walk from West End to East End like this, so brazenly challenging the city's own rhythms. In any case, I felt like I'd achieved something in just staying the course. This was likely to be my last walk in the city for a while, and once again London had challenged me.
You can find a gallery of images from the walk here.
I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.
I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.