Posted in Travel on Wednesday 25th May 2016 at 7:05pm
I try desperately hard not to let stereotypes govern my travels. It would be too easy to let an accent, a nationality or an attitude define the subtle shifts across locales as I walk around London for instance. It would be even easier to do the same on mainland Europe. I'm finally back here in Brussels - fourteen years after my last visit when I strolled without care around a city which I barely connected with. This time things feel very different indeed. Firstly, we are on the brink of a potentially momentous referendum which would see the link between the UK and this city changed irretrievably. Right now Brussels feels like a world city - people speak to me in perfect, polite English, they bustle around the city with just a hint of the gallic laissez faire. This truly is a crossroads - where latin and germanic Europe meets, and sometimes as history has shown - clashes with terrifying consequences. Brussels is a strange and potent place which is not nearly as inconsequential as it felt on my first visit.
Secondly, Brussels is now a fortress. The terrible attacks on democracy and western reason which brought terrorists to the rather beautiful heart of this curious place still echo in the streets. Soldiers patrol railway stations with their perky Jean-Claude Van Damme style berets and automatic weapons. The police skitter about from place to place, checking an impossibly endless number of key spots for signs of concern. This is either the safest or the most dangerous place in the world to be just now. Mostly though, seen through the eyes of someone who hasn't ever set foot in mainland Europe, Brussels is an exciting collision of the familiar and the alien. The impact of the gilded halls in Grand Place, the vast verdigreed dome of the Palace of Justice or the warm modernity of Gare Centrale are so very un-British. So different to the anglo-centric world which we left only two hours ago after stepping onto a train at St.Pancras.
I quickly found my morning routine here - a constitutional around the cobbled streets and alleys which surround our hotel, then into the station for coffee and a chance to watch people. The smell of warm waffles curled up from the concessions on the station concourse, and the friendly baristas learned my order. I felt welcome - at home even. I was beginning to fall for this complex, strange but oddly welcoming city. But it wasn't to be without its challenge. After a normal morning wandering and enjoying watching busy crowds commuting, we strolled a little before heading onto the Metro to get to Heysel. There appeared to be disruption - routes missing from screens, and the information system didn't seem to be coping well with translating it. We made our way to Brussels Midi and found the system in disarray. A strike had been called by MIVB workers this very morning, and very little was working. We decided to head back for the centre. As we entered the platform, crowds of demonstrating strikers appeared - with the Metro out of action they took full advantage of SNCB's services - travelling in packs, smoking and holding doors open to delay trains for their colleagues. There were three distinct teams: the Socialists, wearing red of course and by far the most tetchy of the bunch, the Christians who wore green and seemed to make a beeline for the bars and sex clubs in the seedier areas around Midi. Finally, the Liberals - blue jacketed and far fewer in number - we wondered in fact if it wasn't the same little pack of four or five we saw repeatedly touring the city.
Back at Central Station, we found more chaos. The unions had closed down most of the exits, with only the tunnel leading to Cantersteen open. We joined a long line of angry, bewildered commuters, pushing against a tide of union folks who didn't mind who they nudged aside in their rush into the station. Then the firecrackers began and people began to panic. It struck me as utterly insensitive that Metro workers, still reeling from the terrible attacks on the city and their stations just months ago, would think it fitting to contain folk inside a small area and then to set off firecrackers. I deployed my elbows and forced my way up the staircase and into the street. For the first time in a long time, I felt a surge of violent temper of my own. As we forced our way past the protests, the only reasonable route back to our hotel, a red-coated socialist threw a firecracker under a policecar. The dull thud sent us reeling. He laughed. I pursued him, fists clench and insults flying - but he had earplugs to defend his ears from his own explosions. We weren't sorry to get back to the quiet of the hotel. I felt my admiration for the city peeling away, the lustre tarnished by the tinge of the old European horror of strikes and obstructions. It was the strangest but perhaps most memorable wedding anniversary we've had yet.
In a little under a month, the UK will vote on its future in the political and economic union which centres on this city - this most functional and straightforward, but sometimes ridiculously quirky place. A city where an utterly rational European government co-exists with some of the most agitated workers, where the beer is wonderful and the food utterly confusing. As we set off in the early Brussels evening, the light glinting from the passing commuter trains starting to make their way through the bruised but not broken city, it's hard not to feel just as oddly optimistic for the place as I did when we first arrived. Whatever happens next month - and I fear it rests on a knife edge just now - I want us to remain connected to the continent, with Brussels as the point where we plug into it's confusing, bureaucratic but utterly logical heart.Movebook Link
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 A13 on Saturday 5th March 2016 at 10:03pm
It feels important to start where I left off. A month ago I looked out over Rainham Marshes with some trepidation. I'd almost resolved to carry on walking that day - to push on the few more miles to Purfleet. As I stood in much the same spot, I knew I'd never have made it if I'd tried. It was a hazily warm morning, sky like silver and slate, the marsh grass reflecting back none of its colour. I made a guess at the spot where I'd discarded my parents' key and paid a silent tribute. I realised with some dismay that I was now linked to this spot forever. My usual memory raid, in and out of a place before it could properly get under my skin, wouldn't work here. In fairness it hadn't worked much as I'd progressed into the east - and from the dirty chasm of Aldgate to the empty flood plains of Dagenham, I'd connected curiously easily with the terrain despite it being so far from my own experience. It was good to be back out here, contemplating a trudge across the gloomy marshes to the river. As I'd made the journey out from Fenchurch Street I'd doubted my ability to get quite as far as I planned today - I felt distinctly post-viral, a sweaty brow and a chest which fluttered oddly, causing fleeting thoughts of mortality and frequent checks of my heart rate. I brushed them aside with a likely unwise bacon roll washed down with more caffeine and focused on the walk ahead.
The first section of my walk felt true to the spirit and purpose of this unhinged enterprise as I strode out along a narrow strip of paved path between deep marsh grasses towards the A13, marching on elegant but strangely ominous stilts across the wetlands. The wind carried the sound away, and the traffic both looked and felt impossibly far-off, like a Patrick Keiller long shot of the viaduct. The road was just about the only thing providing some sort of form in this unsettling landscape, beyond that the land rose into an entirely artificial hill of accumulated landfill. The detritus of London brought to the fringe of the city to decay - safely distant from rate-paying habitation. I realise that I'm alone. I left the last of the dog walkers loitering suspiciously where the path which leads out to the viaduct parted from the local circuit of pale pink shit-sacks and suspiciously steaming tufts of grass. They stood around, fingers flicking over illuminated 'phone screens without clear purpose. Now there is just me out here. Me and cows. By far my least favourite animal - admirable from afar for their sheer improbability, their huge frames suspended from near-exposed spines while they lumber around a field of sub-standard marsh grass, nosing for the long depleted good stuff. The path headed directly towards the river, running parallel to a range of industrial buildings of uncertain purpose - only the last of them giving away its identity as a manufacturer of pre-cooked rice. The hill of waste was between me and the river, and it wasn't immediately obvious how I'd cross it. I soon found myself on Coldharbour Lane, a branch of the Ferry Lane Industrial Area - the wind-blasted, dusty thoroughfare I'd left at the end of last months' walk. The lane wound its way under the A13 and out to the fringe of the waste facility, before becoming this disconcertingly straight service road. Signs barked prohibition. The footpath was sequestered on the southern edge, a concession to the signposted walking routes which inconveniently bisect the trashlands, making them public when they are built to conceal. There was no traffic to beware of. A gatehouse up ahead seemed inactive, the barrier waving lazily in the wind. Just before the public/private boundary, a turning to my right took me along a rising, curved road which followed the outlet of the watercourse, the rice factory on its other bank. As the road rose, there was something about the flat, white sky which gave away the river's presence. A few more steps and the sweep of the Thames was revealed to me. To my right, the towers of the Isle of Dogs shimmered in the distance, while across the water minor industry struggled on on the fringes of Erith. But I was drawn to the east: the high towers of the elegant Dartford Crossing blinking back as it lurched over the river, the towers of the Proctor and Gamble works - it all looked so impossibly far away just now.
The car park was surprisingly busy: cab sleepers, dog walkers and bird watchers with flasks of steaming tea. Those who were awake looked resolutely out across the river. There was a faint sense of loss about the place. With the impressive expanse of the marshes hidden behind the vast mound of refuse, the path was the only escape. I felt almost guilty for feeling so surprisingly energised by the place. The ribbon of silver river called - this project so far had kept me away from water, my encounters with rivers were fleeting crossings at best. Immediately after I'd slipped through the gate onto the path I encountered a warning about straying into the waste lands. Beyond this, the path curved to navigate an inlet, and scattered within it were the hulks of concrete barges, abandoned unceremoniously after wartime service. The mossy, weed-draped hulls emerged from the inlet at crazy angles: some tipped their prows to the sky, others turned their shell-crusted flanks to the path. The forlorn scene was completed by a sculpture - John Kaufman's "The Diver: Regeneration". A strange wireframe figure, emerging from the mudflats, draped in weed and litter. A tribute to those who have worked the hostile estuarial environments out here, covered in the flotsam which keeps this an officially sanctioned danger zone.
The path hugged the river bank as I turned east again, and faced the estuary. The path was, predictably deserted here. Sandwiched between the silted fringe of the river and the fence of the waste facility, my walk was almost a textbook edgeland excursion. On one had I had the silver sheet of the Thames and the curious riparian foliage, on the other a dusty extension of Coldharbour Lane which thundered with heavy tractor units. WIthout their trailing loads, the cabs leered oddly forwards, imbalanced and purposeful, as they hammered around the corner and onto the edge of the plant. One thing both river and land had in common was rubbish. The wind-tossed overtoppings from the plant strung itself through the dried weedstems. Tucked between two tufts of grey-yellow grass I spied a fading nautical chart of the Thames, just out of my reach. An experimental energy generation plant belched out dark, organic sludge beside the road and generated the most curious smell: a sort of sweet, greasy earth, tinged with decay. After crossing a jetty serving the refuse station, I rounded Coldharbour Point and got a view of the territory ahead. Traffic on the bridge flickered in the middle distance, while across the river the waterfront of Erith dominated the view - a collection of modern apartments mimicking the traditional cliff of stucco-covered seafront buildings. Here I turned briefly inland, navigating the path as it climbed around the eastern edge of the waste mound. Rainham Marshes stretched before me - the A13 and High Speed 1 grazing the edge of the vision on low viaducts, which alternately rose and fell to cross each other just out of shot. Beyond the road, the village of Wennington and a smudge of red which signified the brick buildings of Purfleet. Between me and the distance? Nothing. An expanse of wet scrubland, marsh grass, ditches cut deep into the soil. Occasional human trappings were becoming integrated - rifle targets slowly discolouring to match the earth, bird-watching hides gradually becoming hidden themselves. The view from the slight elevation of the bund which protects the marsh was oddly spectacular and affecting. Looking back across the river, the flat and open foreshore was equally evident, emphasising the height of Dartford Creek Barrier which towered over the mouth of the River Darrent where it emptied into the Thames.
I spent quite a while chatting and lingering in the RSPB centre on the edge of the marsh, a curious half-glass camouflage block which couples a tea room and public facilities with a relatively luxurious hide for the discerning twitcher. The coffee was passable and the locals were interesting, if not terribly well informed about the river path. After being passed among a number of them, they proved knowledgeable enough about the route back towards London but they remained remarkably hazy on the eastward path. They knew I could get into Purfleet, but after that? Who knows. And to Southend! Why? It occurred to me here that they had me down as a more traditional kind of walker than perhaps I really am, and that they'd have seen landfill or a reeking soapworks as a barrier to passage. Not so far me of course, so I'd have to trust my nose. I left the impressive centre and set off over the bridge into Purfleet, passing the historic village green and the Powder Magazine - a survival from 1759. The river path dwindled to an access-only route to the inevitable stacks of river-front apartments, so I turned inland and found myself walking a surprisingly busy road through the bleak remains of the town. My first call was St. Stephen's Church - a long, low and fairly modern building which served as a chapel and church hall for the long-demolished Purfleet House. The assumed history here though is entirely myth - this was likely the model for Carfax, the house scouted by Jonathan Harker for Count Dracula. It seems a forlorn enough spot - but that has more to do with Purfleet's down-at-heel aspect than any supernatural force. Near the level crossing a single corner shop was open, its bored owner reading the classified ads at the back of a local paper with impressive focus. Anything to make time pass just a little faster out here. I bought water and chocolate and set off again. The station was oddly inviting - a near immediate escape from this odd little place which seemed to be almost entirely asleep on a Saturday afternoon. A bus sputtered by, picking up speed after a stop on route to Lakeside, the windows misted. Full of eager shoppers being drawn into the retail epicentre. I crossed the street, hedging my bets on which pavement would fail me first, and headed out of town. The road leading away from Purfleet is nestled at the foot of a chalky cliff, with new housing developments stacked against it and rising to meet it. Between the road and the river is a widening band of industrial land - including the vast oil terminal I was passing, realising I had a family link of sorts with the area. I didn't stop to investigate - navigating the cars parked on pavements, and choosing the right moment to slalom around them, avoiding the oncoming stream of tankers was something of a preoccupation. As I left the built-up area behind, I spotted the unlikely bulk of the Royal Opera House production facility in a large hangar behind a development of neat, new housing. It was incongruous and strange, but perhaps no more so than the continued existence of places like Purfleet at all. These edgeland towns which have been reduced to near hamlet status by virtue of the gravitational pull of nearby out-of-town developments seem improbable at best, and likely unsustainable. I wouldn't be surprised if I came back to find I'd dreamed Purfleet, written it forward from fiction and believed my own overcooked prose.
The official exit to Purfleet appears to be the strange dog-leg junction with the A1090. Suddenly, the environment is full of stimuli which have been absent in the village. The sky opens. The slender towers of the QEII bridge loom suddenly large, the oversized pylons carrying power cables across the estuary nestled behind them. HS1 crosses the road too, plotting its course to head under the river not far from here. Trains don't so much rattle as blast by, leaving a dusty gust of air in their wake. I take the exit for Thurrock here, feeling suddenly a long way from where I set out in the cool green calm of the marshes, but equally far from my goal. I'm almost disheartened here as I walk through rough scrubland, with a curtain of trees between the road and the plain of warehouses and refineries. But the bridge is upon me now: towering ominously above my route, a lattice of road and railway rising and plunging across the road. Passing underneath is unremarkable, and pushes me unpleasantly close to the thundering fuel tankers. I can feel the motorway above more than I can hear it. I feel my jawbone vibrating, my teeth touching in rhythm with the traffic above. The air is gritty with dust thrown up from the road, and cast down from the bridge - I feel it crunching between my teeth. The red ensign of the Ibis Hotel forms through the haze. I realise I've crossed another margin here: I'm outside the M25 now. London is definitely behind me, a punctured balloon which I'm escaping from in slow motion. This is a parody of the greenbelt - a rustbelt, industry not economically tolerated within the ring of concrete slowly decays here. Even the Waste Transfer Station had more purpose, more cachet than some of the cut-price tyre merchants here. Passing the Ibis is payment of homage to an unlikely literary landmark: much of the action of Iain Sinclair's "Dining On Stones" focuses on the hotel. It is a watchtower above the road, a proxy for the sublime tracking shot Chris Petit pulled off in Bristol for "Radio On". Sinclair's characters - often simulacra of himself - look up at the blank, reflective windows, or down at the equally impossible to read motorway junction. I try to look beyond the hotel to the sign gantries and wonder if it was here that Jack Whomes, brother of convicted Rettenden Murder John staged his traffic-stopping protest? This spot, where roads meet and join to form the last crossing of the Thames, is marked. It's a here-or-nowhere moment. A final opportunity to cross the water or remain on the north bank all the way to the coast. A crossroads of last chances. As a pedestrian though, I'm condemned to remain.
West Thurrock is a marginally energised take on Purfleet. A long string of communities, differentiated only by custom and local knowledge. Essentially the road is a long terrace, punctuated by views through to the riverside industry, which looms large over the Victorian homes. My feet are starting to drag, and a detour into the industrial zone to find the tiny church of St. Clement, eclipsed by the soap factory, just isn't practical today. As I cross the unmarked boundary of South Stifford, the unmistakable waft of skunk permeates the air. A front door bursts open, and the lazy Saturday afternoon drone of traffic is suddenly interrupted by a volley of barks. A squat, balding character weighed down by heavy links of plated chain swaggers into the path with a fistful of dog leads. Ahead of him, a pack of short-legged, bull-nosed terriers slaver and skitter, blinking in the light and scuffling for freedom. He presses a phone to his ear and yells into it. I wonder how I'm going to write this into my journey without pressing all the stereotype alarms? A group of Burberry clad young guys head out from a side-street and knock a nearby door which pulses with low-frequency reggae. No-one answers so they slink off, laughing and kicking each other from behind. I feel like I'm in a cartoon of Essex. All the mis-spelled sign boards of Dagenham, the mock-country pubs of Barking, all the things I could edit out of the Essex I'd experienced - and all of the liminal spaces and curious corners I could highlight in their places! But now this blew my cover. In the gravity of Lakeside, the gusting litter reflects its franchised restaurant chains rather than the line of local chicken take-aways. I'm an imposter here. I'm not spending any money.
I realise that I'm arriving in Grays. There's no sign or specific moment of transition - this road feels endless, though I've begun to wonder if I'm inexplicably looping by the same few terraces, the same tired little newsagents? The only real signifier is the change in the roadsigns - Southend is now a destination. Out of the gravity of London, beyond the skin of the Orbital Motorway, it is again acceptable to refer to regional destinations. I'm fooled into thinking the end of the line is nearer than it has seemed for most of today, and I'm spurred into a final push. I don't really get into the Town Centre, skirting the edge towards the station and seeing the square, modernist tower of the State Cinema glowering over the bus station. I'm tired - so tired I misread the station completely - heading for the bay platform with an infrequent service via the route I've travelled today. I realise there is a train soon via South Ockendon, but it's on the other platform. I stumble idiotically around looking for a way to cross, before finding the dank subway just as I'm about to give up and wait for the next train from the bay. I'm not sorry to escape Grays, even with the Lakeside-bound hordes sharing my train. It's been a long, tiring and dusty day which has already left me feeling confused and curious to research these odd surroundings. I'll need to come back here to pick up this route at some point, but I'm a little afraid of straying out into the open country of Essex. The rural gothic of the mysterious east beckons, with its freight of folk tales ancient and modern.
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.