Posted in The Fragments on Sunday 23rd October 2022 at 11:48am
I ventured out into the wider world in August 2020 for the first time in four months. It felt daring, a little foolish and somewhat risky - but after months of watching the numbers, managing expectations and trying to bolster my flagging mental well-being, the balance felt right. This fragment begins with my surprise at how the world had changed: the hiatus pre-vaccine and before 'the new normal' will be little remembered in future I'm sure, but it had a strange feeling of waking and blinking in the light which perhaps only brave souls and keyworkers every really experienced.
My walk took me out to Epping Forest - somewhere I'd pined for more than any other part of London in my absence. It has no analogue elsewhere, and though I don't visit often - it feels recharging and essential when I do step under the trees. I can't remember what complexities of pandemic timetabling led me to feel I lacked time on this walk, but I seem to have pushed the worry aside and walked for some time and finally turned away from the forest to track Lea Bridge Road into Hackney, then to venture into Islington and along Essex Road back to the Angel.
The fragment is surprisingly long - and shows my frustration at having little to write about for a long while. It does however sound the alarm for it's own abandonment. If I'd persisted with this level of detail I'd have spent weeks writing up a relatively short, uneventful day.
A gallery of pictures from the whole walk can be found here.
1st August 2020
Eventually, curiosity overcame apprehension...
These walks often start with nagging anxiety. Will they take place? Will the trains manage to scupper my plans? Will the turbulence of everyday life intrude? These excursions which have such a beneficial impact on my well-being have their roots in the deep well of anxiety that they perversely relieve. Today though, things were a little different. With government messaging around non-essential travel beginning to shift, but with a collective reluctance on the part of most to return to the rails, I felt surprisingly safe. With my travelling kit of anti-viral wipes, hand sanitiser and spare face coverings, I entered the station expecting to find a new, profoundly altered experience - but the reality was a little different from my usual visits. Perhaps travelling out early meant I was used to deserted platforms and distanced staff? In any case, the train rolled in on time, I boarded - one of two people in my carriage, both of us fully compliant with the rules - and we set off. The train scudded into the bright August dawn, and I experienced another click back towards that most distant, now increasingly conceptual idea of normality which I'd left at my office on a chilly March afternoon. It would be absurd to declare this situation over, and foolish to pretend that great caution wasn't needed. But for a couple of hours of quiet, contented rumbling into the rising sun, it felt like hostilities had been suspended.
Paddington Station was my first shock - empty, quiet and somehow lifeless. I popped into one of the few open stores, observed the instructions and made my purchase. Breakfast was out of the question and coffee options were limited. Instead, I headed for the Underground - it was here, back in early March where I'd seen the first real sense of fear: someone coughing in a carriage being given a wide berth - but now public transport was being shunned it felt oddly serene. The carriage was clean and smelled of an early-morning bath of antiseptic spray. The few of us on board rumbled under London, the light loading meaning waits at stations felt abnormally long as few alighted or boarded. At Liverpool Street, I ascended to the main concourse. Again it was quiet, most outlets closed outside weekday commuter hours. I headed directly for the next train to Stratford. Keeping on the move felt like the right tactic today. A frantic grasp for the sense of motion which had been missing these past months.
Despite the lack of prior regard to my route today, I'd decided on a few guiding principles: and foremost among them, I knew I wanted to start in the forest. My walks in the winter hadn't often taken me east or touched on the wooded fringes of the city. That was partly a practical concern: the paths are muddy and sometimes impassable in the winter months, and the lure of the suburbs is stronger when the days are short and dark. I missed Epping Forest like an old friend - not seen often but fondly recalled with little stabs of longing to know how they had changed. As I'd tramped along estate footpaths and recreation ground fringes in a futile attempt to regain my walking feet before this excursion, I'd found myself wanting to be under the canopy of trees more than anything. It was, I decided, an experience somehow impossible to replicate elsewhere. When people suggested I just enjoy walking locally, I'd smile bleakly and nod that I should. But it hadn't worked. The forest and its genus loci were an anchor for me. So, where to begin? At Stratford station I let a train pass, waiting until one destined for Epping drew alongside the platform. I knew that I had neither the time nor the stamina to walk the entire length of the extant forest, so I hedged my bets on earlier disembarkation, deciding rather unexpectedly on Buckhurst Hill. This offered several conveniences: a supermarket near the station, a walk within my range and capability, and close at hand a smudge of green on the map which wasn't troubled by any of my previous forays into the woods. It felt like the perfect way to get back on my feet.
While the station at Buckhurst Hill was quiet, the suburban centre I plunged into on passing the barrier felt much busier and livelier than anywhere I'd been for months. The frustrating slog around an unfamiliar Waitrose for water and breakfast was challenging, and I wondered if perhaps I wasn't ready to function in this new London. I pressed on, however, across the foot of the steep hill where we'd once paused for coffee on a trip out to Kent, and into the quiet streets beyond. The suburbs soon enveloped me, the comparative bustle of Buckhurst Hill suddenly distant. Gates squeaked as the postman shuffled along the row of cottages. A pub sign flapped noisily on its hinges. The distant hum of traffic on the High Road felt like it was drifting in from miles away. I turned into a short street of terraced houses, abruptly ending at a scrubby path into the woods. Beyond the children's playground, the gate plastered with now familiar limitations on occupancy and assurances on cleaning regimes, the rough lane trailed into the deep green darkness under the trees. I plunged gratefully in, and it felt like the gap closed behind me. I was in the cool, quiet forest on an unfamiliar path. I was more lost and isolated than at any point during the last few strange and surreal months and it felt remarkably comforting.
Lord's Bushes is an unlikely survivor: a diamond of forest nestled between Woodford New Road and the suburban fringe of Buckhurst Hill. Underneath the canopy of Oak and Hornbeam, there was little light. The humid late-summer air hummed with insect life and the ground was the spongy, never-quite-dry mat of detritus that carpets much of the forest. The taller, older trees showed signs of pollarding which indicated their great age: they belonged to the untamed forest - before it was saved for the people. The architect of the salvation lived nearby in Knighton House, situated in the southwestern corner of this patch of woodland and now entirely erased. Edward North Buxton, heir to the brewery empire and son of anti-slavery campaigner Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton moved to Knighton House after a spell in Leytonstone, living among the trees he had campaigned to preserve. The land was sold to the Corporation of London by the Buxton Estate in 1930, thus returning this patch of Epping Forest to the people and joining the broad swathe of greenspace to which Buxton had assured access. Now all that remained of Knighton were the ponds that dotted Buxton's ornamental gardens and which appear wild and authentic until their history unravels in tales of imported exotic species and Pulhamite rock banks. The seamless shift from wild forest to planned gardens does perhaps show how well Buxton knew this landscape. One truly venerable feature remains though: the eroded banks of the ponds reveal a layer of gravel which explains the unusual situation of this spot. These gravels were likely deposited by a northward-flowing tributary of the Thames before it made its great shift south into the lazy meander it now occupies. The nearby River Roding is a newcomer in geological terms. The woodland remains divided by the ancient Anglo-Saxon trackway of Monkham's Lane. Stumbling along one of the rutted earth paths around the ponds, stubbing my toes on buried roots and cursing how easily I'd forgotten the discipline of woodland walking, I burst into the lane sweating and grumbling. The long, straight path was once surfaced for motorists and its rutted old tarmac was burst through with roots and gullied with water damage. Along the middle of the path, an impromptu seasonal stream clearly flowed at times - but not today. I headed uphill, towards the High Road, skirting Buxton's estate boundary. To my left was Greater London, and to my right was the County of Essex. This track had been a boundary between the manors of Chigwell and Woodford and remained a significant division even now. I felt the pressure of memory, and the disconcerting thinness of time while tramping towards civilisation. I passed dog walkers and joggers who may as well have been phantoms for all their interaction with me. Any fear I'd had about managing to distance myself from others quickly paled. On this venerable boundary, I felt more remote from my fellow humans than I had for a good while. This was a curious spot and I was glad to have stumbled into the woods today.
Getting out of the woods was less simple. Having taken a detour to inspect the pond I made broadly for what should have been an exit and found instead a locked garden gate. Edging around the fence line, crashing through undergrowth and generally getting more entangled in the trees finally paid off, and I was ejected into the quiet and affluent suburban streets of Woodford. All was silent. Impressive cars ticked in the heat and CCTV cameras swivelled noiselessly as I tried to gather myself and stride confidently towards the High Road. I was surprised how out-of-practice I felt - how the years of learning to walk with authority and remain unchallenged had slipped away in the months of absence. I was at least on territory I knew fairly well - but now I had decisions to make. My aim was to stay as far as possible in the forest, at least until later in the day, but where I could to break new ground. I felt that this mix of old and new - of paying tribute and turning stones - would satisfy both the ritual which the occasion demanded and the desperate want for novelty that months of lockdown had fostered. I headed for the road and was momentarily startled. Traffic surged away from the lights in volumes I'd not seen for some time. I picked my way across to the western side of the road and walked onward, knowing I'd find myself back in the woods soon enough. In the event, I decided to double back a little way along Whitehall Road, turning onto an unmarked and narrow path a little after crossing Forest Road. The path felt old and unused - hemmed in by tall, ancient oaks and overgrown with weeds and brambles. The path led directly onto Woodford Golf Course, opening onto the broad sunbaked plain which curved away to the valley of the Ching in the west. A marker beside the public footpath warned of stray balls, with a more recent and provisional message reminding passing pedestrians that Black Lives Mattered. The parade of golfers who trudged between holes, staring scornfully and suspiciously at me huffing across the rough towards the next clump of trees, couldn't have been whiter or more middle class this morning. When the club was founded in 1890, far stricter class divisions applied - with 'tradesmen' restricted to specific playing times, and barred from mixing with 'professionals' in the clubhouse. The path returned briefly to the suburbs along Oak Lane. The incursion of development into the course here was part of a bolder plan to colonise the forest, with development along Mornington Lane (then called Australia Road) into an enclosed section of woodland. This was deemed illegal by Forest Commissioners in 1878, and the strange straggling bite into the side of the forest ended at the edge of the golf course. Once back into the woods the path turned east again to follow the line of Sunset Drive, named for its unparalleled views. The path was busy with impatient cyclists and somewhat politer joggers. The benefits of living alongside the forest during the recent restrictions were evident, and I wondered how many of these locals had just discovered the natural wonder on their doorstep in the absence of gyms and health clubs.
I rested for a while at the junction of Chingford Lane and Woodford Green, a low and somewhat battered-looking bench nestling in the apex of the roads. Traffic paused and surged at the lights while more joggers trotted by. As I ate a very late breakfast and gathered my thoughts about the way ahead, a jogger took a tumble a few metres away from me and sat nursing her knee. I wasn't entirely sure how to react now - my instinct was to offer help, but I was equally aware of how unwelcome an interaction could be in these times. She looked around, attempting to see if her tumble had been witnessed and noted me looking over with some dismay. I moved to get up and offer assistance but a dark glower indicate that I wasn't required. Standing gingerly she limped off along Woodford Green, crossing at the lights and testing her battered knee with a slow trot. It was in some senses good to see that Londoner's spirit hadn't dimmed these past months: still stalwart, proud and resisting interference. Perhaps I read too much into this brief wordless interaction, but so often on these quiet solitary walks, such events take on significance. I set off again, heading back into the forest as soon as I could and sticking to the broadening strip of green that shadowed the course of Woodford New Road, far enough away from the traffic to be pleasantly quiet under the trees. This was a well-walked territory and it felt good to be back. My drive for novelty in my walks, for visiting new corners of London, means that rewalking is a rare event - but today, after a time when even the thought of a walk in Epping Forest felt impossibly distant, it felt right and proper. Passing close to the Gypsy Stone, I set my course for the footbridge over the North Circular Road. This remains one of my sacred spots - and approaching it under clear skies with the noise of the traffic reverberating through the trees was unexpectedly exhilarating. The scene opened before me and I stepped onto the bridge. Cars and lorries teemed beneath in volumes I hadn't experienced for months, while the chimneys and towers of London shimmered over the Lea Valley in the middle distance. I stood for some time trying to take in the wide sweep of the scene, the enclosing forest ahead and behind and the relentless tarmac spreading east and west. This spot summed up my suburban excursions perfectly: a strange node where the commonplace met the ancient, where thousands of preoccupied motorists passed every hour, unaware of a solitary figure on a bridge that linked nothing but trees.
However, crossing the bridge would have been too easy - and would have led almost inevitably to a slog along the dull grey New Road road at some point. Instead, I retraced my steps a little to the overgrown crossroads where an almost indiscernible path ran parallel to the North Circular. I plunged west, into the undergrowth, the green tunnel enveloping me entirely. I'd crashed along this unlikely desire line once before, on my circuit of the A406. It plunged into the valley of the road, eventually skirting close to the crash barrier. In the brief clearing, a huge roadsign towered - designed to be seen from the vantage of high-speed passage, it seemed almost monstrously large in person. Here I took an untravelled fork, sticking close to the road and scrambling into the gully which took a footpath underneath by way of a dank underpass, reeking of diesel fumes and decaying foliage. Emerging on the south of the road, I was in unknown climes. The suburban edge of Walthamstow was gabled and pebble-dashed, semi-detached and baking in the sunshine which seemed much stronger now I was free of the tree cover. I eschewed the steps down to Beacontree Avenue, preferring the strangely flat strip of parched yellow grass which ran along an embankment above the street, providing an artificial edge to the forest beyond. This was the site of a long-abandoned curve of the North Circular. I've written a fair bit elsewhere about the North CIrcular - not least about how the road developed from a defacto ring road based on the already present tangle of suburban streets, via various plans for a bespoke demi-ring around the outer suburbs into the mixed bag of purpose-built high capacity roads and clogged urban carriageways of today. While much of the road has seen changes to bolster the volume and speed of traffic it can manage, the eastern end of the road had to wait. Grand plans existed for the part of the road for many years - a bold sweep out east towards Ilford or a curve south towards the Woolwich Ferry. In the end, it got both and neither - a broad link to Eastern Avenue and the Barking Bypass as a consolation prize following the cancellation of the GLC motorway plans.
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.