Posted in Travel on Thursday 21st July 2016 at 12:07pm
It felt like a long time since I'd faced the challenge of getting a seat on a CrossCountry Voyager. Oddly, I was feeling really tense about the process. I'd taken all the usual precautions - booked the seats I wanted, located the point the train would stop at, everything short of booking a ridiculously early train which would be empty as per my usual tactics but somewhat unpopular in other quarters! As the unit rolled in, I noted someone in our seats and felt my anger rise. Boy did I need this break. It had been a long, complicated summer so far at work, and I'd been struggling to maintain a balanced view as things had whirled around me. In the event, whether it was my respectful pointing out that the seats were reserved or the fact that my knitted brows betrayed my anger, they moved. A few minutes later we were scudding north with the aircon working hard and I was feeling very happy to be back on the rails. It's moments like this that I realise that travel is essential to keeping me on track - in every sense. This trip, hastily planned but much looked-forward to, would take in Liverpool and Manchester - somewhere we'd liked on a previous visit along with a brief glimpse of a new city. For me it was a chance to revisit old haunts, ring the changes on the rails and to relax.
The first remarkable change I had to deal with was Birmingham New Street. A quick scan of posts on this site over the years will see that I visited often. Often enough to confidently plan ludicrously swift changes of train with time to collect coffee and breakfast on route. On trips where I needed to break a homeward journey I'd schedule in a break to drink coffee and watch the world go by while I waited for the always mysteriously quiet 18:42 home. I knew New Street well - and while it was drab, over-complicated and unfriendly in so many ways, I rather liked it. The redevelopment of the station and the retail complex above it began just as I drifted away from the rails and was completed last year, and I'd heard a lot about how different it was now. On arrival it didn't look too different at all - the stairs and escalators up to the concourse had received some attention and there were now helpful lifts at both ends of the platform - but otherwise it was still the gloomy dungeon it had always been. Then we stepped out of the lift into another world! I calculated, after getting my bearings, that we were on the site of the concourse which bridged the platforms in the old station. Passing through what would have been the site of the ticket gates we wandered into a lofty, bright atrium surrounded by retail units and restaurants. Sunlight streamed in from above, drawing the eye up two floors to the flagship John Lewis store. At ground level, a huge range of food options circled the atrium, with more stairs, lifts and escalators to access the other end of the platforms ahead of us. Everything was bright, clean and efficient. I was bewildered. Waiting in perhaps the rudest Starbucks I've ever visited while a quick John Lewis visit took place, I reflected on the change. I needed to come back and explore - to just walk the place, understand it. Replace old routes with new. Right now it was novel and strange, but unsettling. I couldn't navigate with the confidence which I'd always had here.
Back down on the much more familiar territory of platform 4C we boarded the Class 350 unit bound for Liverpool and enjoyed an M&S picnic as we set off for Wolverhampton. The train filled and emptied as we stopped at the smaller stations on the route, before navigating the recently opened junctions at Norton Bridge. The course of the new railway passed gracefully overhead, slightly disorienting me. But soon the terrain was more familiar - we were passing Basford Hall Yard, then calling at Crewe, and finally heading west at Weaver Junction and into the stretch of urban and industrial sprawl which runs along the north bank of the Mersey as it broadens into its estuary. Making good time, the scenery was a delight. Seeing the changing shape of Britain was such an everyday experience once - but now it genuinely feels like a privilege again. To do this on a warm summer afternoon in good company was even better. For the first time in a while I was feeling relaxed about this trip and it's potential for complications.
Arrival in Liverpool was, as ever, an impressive experience. Plunging into the deeply carved cuttings at Edge Hill we snaked into the lofty terminus at Lime Street and wandered onto the concourse. First stop was the taxi rank, then a swift spin around the city to our hotel which was near the waterfront and Moorfields station. The gentle slope down to the Mersey made for a fantastic view, with the ever-watchful Liver Birds visible over the rooftops. We spent a little time in the evening sitting outside the hotel, watching the sun slip low over the Wirral as the last few ferries plied their trade on the broad river. It was good to be back here, and good to be staying for a few days. On our first morning we took a tour bus to orient ourselves - my early walk across the city to find coffee had taken a similar route up to St. George's Hall and the station, but then the bus swung east to make the link between the two superb cathedrals - the beautiful modernist pinnacle of the Metropolitan Cathedral designed by Frederick Gibberd, and then Gilbert Scott's massive red stone hulk on St. James' Mount. We made a mental note to return here, but the lure of the river was strong and when the heat became almost too much we decided to take the ferry on its lazy looping route - north to the docks, west to Seacombe, south to Birkenhead and then back to the Port of Liverpool's angular but attractive new terminus. The deceptive breeze lured us into feeling pleasantly cool, and neither of us noticed the pink tint to our faces as we watched the water slip by from the deck.
We combined the trip out to the cathedrals with a visit to Moose and Moonshine - a restaurant based on Moose the local brunch and coffee shop in town, which was unfortunately closed for refurbishment for much of our trip. It was probably too hot for breakfast foods - but as I contemplated a morning in the presence of two holy places, I needed earthly sustenance. Breakfast shouldn't be hard to come by, but in the cities of England it somehow seems to be now. It's a meal best found on the classless edgelands and suburbs - in grease-caffs and at roadside vans - but not in the self-conscious city. This then, was a real treat. Good, hearty, beautifully cooked breakfast! Afterwards, feeling sluggish but happy, we braved the roasting heat of the middle of the hottest day of the year to ascend the steps to the Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral. The awe-inspiring effect of the disconnected belltower and the circle of irregular blocks which seem to form a whole circle from a distance was remarkable. The lighting inside was equally impressive, with natural sunlight through subtle blocks of stained glass lighting the building like tubes of bright neon. We sat for a while, then circled the building. It was cool and calm inside, far preferable to the Graduation Day tumult of people sweating outside in gowns and ermine. Eventually we decided to leave and headed for the Philharmonic - a Liverpool institution - for a pint before heading back to the air-conditioned hotel room. The Anglicans could wait until next visit - a whole new cathedral for us to explore, perhaps after another breakfast?
Our plan was to leave Liverpool and spend a night in Manchester - it would be a first visit for one of us, a chance to orient to the city, and something that's worked well before. After a brief stopover in York for instance we knew we needed to revisit soon. The train was rather warm but pleasantly quiet and as we trundled over the canals and viaducts of Manchester, we were looking forward to getting to the hotel. I'd chosen one I'd frequented a number of previous times, which I hoped would provide for some good views. However, on arrival we realised that the promised refurbished rooms didn't have air-conditioning. The room had been baking in 32º heat all day, and even the provided fans weren't cooling us down. It was incredibly hot outside too, but thankfully we managed to get a seat outside a fine restaurant for dinner. Then it was back to the greenhouse of a hotel room for an uncomfortable night. When we checked out I invoked the 'good night guarantee' for the first time ever. The receptionist didn't seem surprised. I later discovered that some floors of the hotel do have air-conditioning as I'd thought - but the upper floors do not due to a dispute with the landlord of the building. I'm sure there were several refunds made that morning, indeed the gent who left before us seemed to have the same issues.
Our train home was a treat for me - a chance to travel again on the direct service from Manchester to Bristol which had once been a staple of my repertoire. I'd noticed some perturbation on the lines south to Birmingham all morning and I felt the return of the queasy uncertainty I'd had at the outset. Crosscountry haven't ever been the most reliable operator for me, but fending for two of us now felt different. As it happened, our train ran perfectly, and we soon slipped into our chosen seats and relaxed our way south towards home. Taking the new link at Norton Bridge confused me at first - the layout a mystery despite having read endless articles about it prior to its building. Not changing at New Street meant missing a chance to explore the station again - but given the heat and what seemed to be an even larger load of luggage, I wasn't sorry to be able to sit comfortably in our seats while the hordes battled over reservations in the time-honoured fashion. A departure via Proof House Junction and the Camp Hill line was a bonus reminder of the reasons I used to pick these trains home on a fairly regular basis - and I was a little nostalgic for my old evening ritual. A vacation on the rails had been a welcome change to our recent road trips - and Liverpool was just about the perfect city to visit by train. Already our next visit was shaping up - for starters we'd done virtually none of the Beatles-related sightseeing. In hindsight, the heat had probably meant we'd done far less of everything - except perhaps relaxing. For me, it was good to be back on the rails too, and exploring some of the changes to the network I once knew perhaps better than the back of my own hand. I've been away for far too long.
You can see more pictures from the trip here.
Posted in Film on Sunday 3rd July 2016 at 11:07pm
Arriving at the Rio Cinema yesterday, after an overheated morning walking to Barking Creek seemed odd. It was a fairly long leap from the stink of the River Roding's outfall to this rather special old building towering above Kingsland Road and proudly defying the sweep of new towers up from Dalston Junction. I was here for a film première - I can confidently say the first I have ever attended in fact. Schlepping in with my rucksack and my barely concealed aroma of the road and river, I was just a little concerned that I would be straying into a foreign world where I didn't fit. However, I was greeted at the door by the equally road-weary John Rogers - filmmaker responsible for today's feature, and long-time correspondent who I'd never actually chanced to meet in person. This is perhaps even more unlikely since we've trodden a fair amount of the same paths over the years of his filmmaking and my writing about a hard-to-pin down part of London which we both seem to instinctively know is our territory.
That said, I'd never flatter myself by comparison with John as, today's film being fine testament, he has managed to work with some of the most interesting and accomplished fellow walkers of this curious and liminal path in recent times. Firstly with his London Perambulator documentary following the idiosyncratic autodidact Nick Papadimitriou around his beloved Middlesex, and now with London Overground in which Iain Sinclair and Andrew Kötting retrace and disentangle their remarkable single-day walk around the now circular Overground railway line. The book is a curious journey - starting with shared stories and walking reveries between the duo, and drifting into a dreamlike middle-section as night falls and the city darkens. The tales drift away to other people and other times, the line somehow linking them back to a shared memory of the city. Where John has succeeded is in not simply trying to reproduce this walk - instead, the territory has been retrodden in sections, sometimes with both Sinclair and Kötting - occasionally, memorably reprising his 'straw bear' act from By Our Selves - but often with other fellow travellers like Chris Petit on hand. Indeed watching Petit and Sinclair strolling through Kensal Green cemetery is like eavesdropping on the private reminiscence between two old soldiers who have trodden and retrodden the material London offers, still finding new morsels and oddities all these years later. Kötting's much more down-to-earth antics are anchors, reminding us not to take this all to seriously. A walk is still a walk, despite the shifts and subtleties we might attribute to it. Despite how seriously it affected its particpants.
Because, in fact, John's film exposes the alarming conclusion of the book as one of it's central themes. Kötting's near-fatal motorcycle accident on his former home turf as he leaves London after the walk is as much the start as the end - the walk is a journey through his opiated memory, troubled by the recalled insertions of Sinclair's own history. As the damaged motorcyclist sleeps through his trauma, he rewalks and relives the circle of the Overground. The film moves fluidly through these dreamlike shifts between scenes and conversations and thus avoids being a mere documentary of a walk around a changing, disappearing London. Sinclair is candid and thoughtful throughout - able to talk with authority but little certainty about the last London - the city's end-stage as it moves into a post-post-Thatcherite era of offshore ownership and privatisation of land, air and water. His gentle tones and careful prose are pitched perfectly alongside John's camera work which is happy to linger on a curious railing or brick while the author speaks - a touch of Patrick Keiller in uncharacteristic close-up perhaps? Memorable too, are the scenes where Sinclair reads from the book to the accompaniment of local activist/solicitor Bill Parry-Davies' saxophone. These moments link Sinclair back to the beat poets he writes so effectively of in American Smoke - and to their own perhaps unexpected connections to the Overground railway too.
This cut of the film was edited specifically for this launch at the East End Film Festival, and there is every chance that by the time it sees another viewing it will include different scenes from the vast archive of footage which John built up on the walks and interviews he conducted. This is a good reason to seek out London Overground if you see it playing - it will be, a little like the railway which anchors it's existence - a changing and ever-surprising circuit.
Posted in London on Saturday 2nd July 2016 at 11:07pm
I'm back where I ended my last walk, in Ilford. This morning feels a little different - arriving by rail into the Town Centre I have only the vaguest memory of how to get to the River Roding. Those first few moments of the bus journey a few weeks back were spent recovering from the deluge I'd been caught in, and the subtleties of the topography were a little lost on me. I sensed I was close though, navigating by the two tall glass towers of Pioneer Point which dominated the view from Redbridge on my last walk. Sure enough, there was the river sliding inauspiciously between British Telecom's Mill House offices and the North Circular. Marked only by a flourish of green between the buildings and a tiny blue sign, the river has calmed to its usual sluggish, benign flow. But as I've already discovered, following the Roding isn't easy or without challenge. The first was to get to the river: passing under the A406 I'm tempted by the concrete slopes beneath the overpass which imply they could provide a walkway at least part of the way to the water. Realistically though, there doesn't appear to be a way beyond the sliproads, so I negotiate some steps down to Grantham Road. Fronted by a series of tall, slightly ominous point blocks shielding it from Romford Road, this Little Ilford estate feels somewhat tense. A couple of older guys chat animatedly on the corner. I overhear a fragment: "feckin' Europe". It becomes apparent as I navigate the estate that Little Ilford is home to immigrants from the world over. It's the very kind of place where BREXIT feels illogical and it's attendant racism cruel - like a double body-blow. I lower my head and press on, passing a couple of young Indian guys systematically walking the streets and checking the wheelie-bins. For what? Between the stubby blocks to the east I spy a dog walker - always a good sign - and at the end of the short street a gateway to the park. I can feel the A406 reverberating nearby, so I delve into the greenery and find a grassy track which runs directly beside the road, undulating with its embankment and following the line of pylons which began to march alongside me back at Charlie Brown's Roundabout. Just like last time, the river is present but hidden. I'm walking its valley, but not its course.
The largely untamed edge of the park is surprisingly bright and warm, and the walking is pleasant. Having a carpet of grass underfoot is a welcome change. It doesn't last though, and I'm eventually deposited onto the gravel track which circuits the much more primped sports field fronting a disused pavilion. A lone gymnast flips and tumbles across the grass as I edge around the park, trying to find a way through to the green space beyond. It turns out there is no way - so, turning back at the tennis courts I'm out onto the backstreets, deposited onto suburban roads named after painters: Reynolds, Dore, Leader and eventually Millais. The promise of a route under the A406 isn't delivered - if there is a footpath leading off the uninviting entrance to builders yards and reclamation specialists, it's well hidden indeed. Instead I turn west, heading towards the broad underpass which takes me under the London to Southend railway line. The bridge is wide enough for a road to pass beneath, but is hemmed in by barriers to prevent all but cyclists and ill-advised pedestrians from transiting into Barking. Unexpectedly, between two arms of railway I find the entrance to East Ham depot - a location I'd passed numerous times on the rails above, craning my neck for unusual stock. Once south of the delicate swan-neck of rails, Stevenage Road turned abruptly west to skirt the apparently disused Leigh Road Sports Ground. Rusting goalposts quivered in the wind, almost crossbar deep in reedy grasses. Across the vast swathe of grass the North Circular hovered on its tall concrete legs, with the lush foliage of the river beneath. A footbridge was again promised by the OS map, but there was no access to the sports ground - a notice offering 'multiple hazards' to any who dared. A deflated gasholder and its outbuildings sat defiantly in the midst of the overgrown space and reflected a strong morning sun back at me. There was definitely no way in, or out onto the river.
Instead I turned east again along the dusty run of Watson Avenue. One side a high fence, regularly dotted with signs declaring the unimaginable and manifold horrors that would befall anyone trying to access the sports ground, on the other a run of pleasant but tired suburban houses. There's no-one to be seen at all. At the end of the street, a steep footbridge climbed directly over the North Circular. No messing around with tiers of stairs or carefully graded accessibility ramps, just a stepped ascent to the height of a gantry sign. Traffic rushed under a threatening sky, broken with flashes of bright light. From the north, the glassy faces of Pioneer Point winked pale sunlight back at me. This crossing of the road was exhilarating - and it marked a return to the river at last. That return was via the menacing and littered Hertford Road, and a dank, debris-strewn passage beside a Big Yellow Storage Centre which lead to another bridge - this time over the Roding. Here the river was broad and slow-moving, approaching its final meanders towards the Thames. On the west bank, a broad well-made path edged the water. North of here it terminated in a blank wall, but south it appeared to continue by way of the curves of the river towards a gigantic Tesco store. I followed the river path gratefully, not even noticing the faint faecal tang on the air. Surfacing to briefly visit Tesco, I hugged the river wall and edged out of their extensive Car Park beside the Ibis Hotel. I had been here before - and with some confidence I strode along Fresh Wharf Road, passing the inert security checkpoint which had concerned me last time. In the interim I'd discovered it shouldn't be this way. There is, theoretically a route along the west bank of the river - but a dispute between the Fresh Wharf Estate and the owners of houseboats moored at Barking appears to have resulted in it being blocked. While court action has secured them access to their homes, the through-route remains blocked. Instead I turn east again beside the institutional grey block of the Police Custody Centre, heading along a well made path which runs along Hand Trough Creek. Behind the building, hatless but fully body-armoured Policemen smoke committedly between shifts. I emerge at the gated entrance to the moorings and cross the weir by way of the lock gates. I'm finally east of the Roding and with a fairly good path to walk which appears to have been constructed when the modern blocks of flats which front the river were built. I wonder at these places - innocuous, tiny properties packed into serrated blocks which tower above the sluggish channel. The location is promising enough: looking out over the vast sewage complex at Beckton and its neighbouring leisure park offering of American diner and multiplex cinema. Ahead, the A13 crosses on a low concrete bridge, and my pathway is soon pressed up against the wall of the overpass, vegetation hanging above. I emerge at the bottom of a footbridge I'd crossed on my A13 walk, the road seething beside me. I felt like I'd come home.
It was oddly comforting to cross the footbridge over the familiar surge of traffic, watching my hand blacken with heavy particulate as I ran it along the guardrail. I'd been away from my A13 walk for a while now - trying to determine the logistics of the long rural sections ahead - but seeing the road churning along beneath me and remembering a successful walk here made me want to return this part specifically. As I head east briefly towards my turning, a host of wild poppies colonise the mesh of a fence. There is life here, on the edge of things. As built-up Barking gives way to the flat, empty riverside plains of Dagenham, River Road turns south to edge along the Creek. As I trudged out to the junction where I'd turn, I noted a little knot of housing trapped between the road and the industrial area. It must feel strangely embattled here in what remains of Creekmouth - once a tiny village at the confluence of Thames and Roding, now more of a conceptual sales pitch for industrial sites which might one day be served by the Overground. These houses are an outpost - neither here, nor especially there. Creekmouth is gone, buried by refused and scrap metal. Once into River Road, the landscape quickly flattens out into low-rise brick units of industry; The junction crosses the Mayes Brook at an oblique angle which makes its last dive between the back gardens of houses to reach the Creek. The river isn't present at first - after passing under the A13 it makes a brisk eastward turn to run parallel to the Thames briefly, almost resisting its final destination. Eventually though, road and river are running alongside each other and the broad swathe of industry on the western side of the street is all that separates me from the muddy channel. River Road seems to run on forever, a long straight canyon of dust and debris. Piles of fly-tipped house clearances regularly interrupt the path - and one of them partially hides a globe: its dusty continents and battered reliefs peeking out from under the rubble. I finally reach the Waste Transfer Facility which by my calculation borders the Creekmouth Green Space - and it is an utterly horrible last barrier. An evil-smelling swirl of black liquid runs down the sloped entrance road and pools across the footpath, eddying rainbows of oils and fats twinkling up at me. The smell is incredible. Acrid, decaying refuse, sweet hydrocarbon, musty ancient river silt and the human tang of sewage. It fills my nostrils as I push at the creaking gate and walk up the rise towards the bank. I thought I'd built up a resistance in my years working on the edges of the care industry, but it overwhelms me sufficiently by the time I reach the river that it is beyond a mere smell anymore - now it's inside my head. I wonder with some horror whether I'll be stuck with this reek in my nostrils forever? It's an unfortunate time to be awestruck too as I turn, slack-jawed into the open at last- but the sharp-intake of tainted air is worth it: the Barking Flood Relief Barrier towers overhead. Up close, it is notable that the slender concrete pillars are studded with portholes. The idiotic capering figure on the Environment Agency logo shimmers in the haze of heat and pollutants atop each tower. Between the towers, the Isle of Dogs is framed perfectly in the distance. Beside me, the sweep of the Thames takes up the Roding's waters - now a broad estuary in its own right, but dwarfed by the might of the greater flow. I've seen wider vistas further east - bleaker, emptier frames of sky and river - but the end of Barking Creek has an end-of-things quality. I feel like I've walked a long, often fruitless trail from Debden, spending more time navigating the twists and turns of suburban East Ham and Ilford than I've spent on the bank of the river. But hemmed in by the infrastructure of the twentieth century I've honoured the course of this persistent watercourse. It's time to head back.
I'm waiting for a bus on River Road when the rain starts. A small group of Central European factory workers dash over to shelter under the awning of an industrial unit where they converse languidly about BREXIT with regular shrugs and shakes of the head. I stay out in the refreshing storm. It won't last, and the cool clean rainfall is welcome. I see rivulets of black trickling from my hands where I'd picked up the road grime, and I smell the curious but never unwelcome aroma of dry dusty pavements getting wet. The bus finally arrives and we all board - heading back to civilisation and away from this spot which most of us would only ever visit under duress. Almost everyone except me.
You can find a gallery of images from the walk here.
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.
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.