Posted in London on Saturday 14th January 2017 at 11:01pm
Recommencing my explorations in a new year always feels uncertain and unplanned. Heading north to Scotland immediately after the festive season certainly helped me to relax a little, but after a week of catching-up with work and trying to recapture a sense of the normal following a long break, it felt exceptionally good to be putting boots on the ground once again. For a while, the weather had seemed likely to intervene so I hadn't made firm plans, content to watch the forecasts and warnings with a critical eye and with some undercover alternatives in mind. However, the snow shower that swept across the country had largely departed by yesterday and today had dawned dry and frosty. An eerie early mist drifted across Wiltshire as I sped eastwards into the promise of a glorious sunrise, and I finally dared to make some hasty plans for the day ahead. I was a little surprised at my own eagerness to get moving too - I found myself tumbling almost immediately onto a convenient Underground train and skipping my customary coffee at Liverpool Street in favour of finding refreshment along my route. So, much sooner than expected I found myself walking north along Chingford High Street towards a dark line on the northern horizon. While I tramped past the seemingly endless line of tanning salons and estate agents of Chingford I focused on the growing smudge of green in the distance. I was heading out of the city and into the forest...
The edge of Epping Forest was familiar from a previous walk last summer: I remembered how a sea of trees fronted by broad, open space broke against a resolute line of victorian villas, built for their views over this remarkable surviving swathe of ancient woodland - the people's forest as gifted by Queen Victoria. I turned east here, passing a mutton-dressed-as-lamb Tudorbethan hostelry which was in fact an over-gabled Brewer's Fayre and Premier Inn combination. This location on the edge of the forest, in what must have been an earlier twentieth century pub building, was fantastic. However its brassy, false provenance left the genuinely much older Queen Elizabeth's Hunting Lodge looking pale and ghostly beside it. The caricature of history was more photogenic and somehow more three dimensional than the real deal - this squat and haphazard limewashed block which had seen several hundred winters in this exposed spot before it's neighbour appeared and stole the limelight. The inevitable Interpretation Centre nearby was open, but the lodge was locked. A family shuffled out towards the venerable structure with a slightly disgruntled member of staff following to open up the building. They'd clearly hoped for a quiet January Saturday where the punters would be content with coddling themselves in the bar next door, leaving history for warmer opportunities. I crossed the street here to Warren Pond to assess the state of the footpaths through the southern reaches of the forest. A little ice topped the puddled ruts in the track and a remnant of snow lay on a pile of cut branches. I tested a boot on the surface and only slithered a little before the lugs of my soles chewed into a layer of sandy gravel. It felt viable - so my planned excursion could probably work as I'd hastily mapped it out. I turned east again and headed a little further along Ranger's Road. None of the passing vehicles obeyed the speed limit as they hurtled into Essex, a constant trail of taillights winking past me in the ominously dark skies which had settled on the rather bleak vista to the east, displacing the hope of winter sunshine. The road rose and turned a little to the north with the view opening out around me - a few feet ahead a tiny brick parapet was a tell-tale signifier of the presence of water - the inconspicuous River Ching. Beside it a battered and faded blue sign announced simply 'Essex'. I could start walking in earnest now...
The River Ching is a strangely unremarked watercourse which barely registers on the inventory of obscure London tributaries. It doesn't go anywhere of consequence, describes no occult arcs and bubbles fairly unimportantly through boroughs which don't regard it as a feature to be cherished or advertised. It rises to the north of the bridge on which I first caught sight of it, just beyond Connaught Water, and joins the Cuckoo Brook before passing below the bridge on which I stood and heading south into a wooded valley which skirts the high ground of Chingford. Here at Ranger's Road, the rather lively, narrow stream linked the great expanse of woodland to the north with the tail of the forest which still curls southwards and encroaches on the city. I crossed the street and passed a vehicle barrier before disappearing among the ancient trees of Essex. Initially there was a well made track with a screed of sand and stone underfoot, but as the path edged around the fence of a large property, the trail became a muddy bridleway. I passed a pair of horses being ridden back towards the road, their haughty riders not returning my acknowledgement, and then I was rather suddenly alone. The ground in the forest was thick with golden oak leaves, some slowly mulching into the sodden, black earth. This wasn't a result of the melting ice or a recent downpour - this woodland floor had absorbed the rainfall over long, wet centuries. It was probably never fully dry. The aroma of decaying wood surrounded me and twists of holly and ivy curled from around the bare trunks of the oaks. Slowly, as I pressed onwards, carefully keeping my feet out of the worst of the mud, the sounds of the suburbs receded completely. Rather suddenly I burst into a wide open space where the cloud cover had broken enough to let shafts of sunlight reach the frost, clearing it in broad patches. Whitehall Plain appeared to be a pleasantly grassy field, but on closer inspection was in fact a marshy trudge. The earth sucked at my boots as I tried to walk the edges of the path, using the deep tufts of grass for extra traction. It was hard to resist breaking the ice on the horseshoe prints, but I was already conscious that my boots and trousers had a thick covering of pale, Essex earth and couldn't risk an ankle-deep mud puddle. I made for the southwestern corner of the field, where a gap in the trees indicated the makeshift trail continuing south. The map was only partially useful here - this trail didn't officially exist, and I confess to some anxiety that I'd come a long way on fairly tricky terrain. Retracing my steps didn't feel like an edifying option at this point. At the corner of the field I was faced with a choice - and with a close encounter with The Ching which babbled invitingly close to the path. A small bridge crossed it here, but it was beyond a huge slimy pool of mud. I wasn't really sure that this was the correct way ahead - but the lure of the water was strong. I edged closer, finding the undisturbed ground at the river's edge more walkable. Suddenly, and rather surprisingly, I found my toes dipping into the watercourse. As the mud from my boots clouded the little stream and washed them clean, it occurred to me that this was the first time on my many riparian walks that I'd physically made contact with a river which I was walking. It was an odd experience, but satisfying too to see the patch of muddy water billowing away from me. My shoes didn't stay clean for long - after the bridge, the path disappeared into the undergrowth in a way which suggested it was far less substantial than the one I'd left before crossing the river. This couldn't be the best option - so I edged back over and through the tricky swamp to regain the path I'd left at Whitehall Plain. I was soon in a second wide field and making much better progress, occasionally the sun flickered through the trees and my footing felt steadier. A jogger appeared, huffing along the path towards me. I could feel civilisation returning.
My brush with the suburbs didn't last long - I crossed Whitehall Road close to the point where the Ching passed beneath a decorative but otherwise inconspicuous concrete parapet. At the other side of the street there were paths on both sides of the river - but the western path, running close to the back gardens of a crescent of houses, was just a little less muddy and overgrown in appearance. I was soon trudging along close to the meandering river once again as it ambled between the trees. It was cool and quiet beneath the canopy of branches, and now that I'd found my feet a little I felt able to wander confidently along the trail. Occasionally I'd dare to stray a little off the path to the bank of the river as it curled between the venerable trunks of the forest. The water was clear and free of litter here - and I found myself wondering how it would look further along it's route. As I shuffled through fallen leaves back towards the path I spotted a sleek, red fox standing watching me ahead. I slowed my pace and locked eyes with the remarkable animal, which didn't budge at all. It stood calmly regarding me with interest and perhaps some suspicion as I crunched along the stony track which had replaced the mud. Eventually, with only a few feet between us, the fox flattened itself to the ground and launched swiftly into the ferny undergrowth. I halted and stayed quiet in the hope of perhaps catching another glimpse - but all was silent. I checked my map - this track formed the access to a nearby house, and even had a name - Newgate Street. Suddenly, and unexpectedly, I found myself at a busy roundabout with the Ching passing underneath. A miserable drizzle was falling, and the cars were kicking up a dirty spray as they shuddered by. I spied a range of shops leading towards Chingford Hatch and headed that way to get a drink. As it happened, a small filling station with a general store was the nearest option and I slipped inside to avoid straying too far from my plan. As the door opened I was immediately hit by the acrid reek of over-cooking cheese - the powerful fumes from the Subway concession almost drove me out before I could grab a bottle of water, and certainly put paid to any hunger which might have been rising. As I tried to hold my breath through the achingly slow transaction, the sales assistant appeared utterly unconcerned by what I was now convinced was some sort of emergency in the back of the garage. I was glad to be back outdoors in the clear air of the cold, grey morning again.
To continue walking the Ching I had to leave it briefly, taking the southeastern fork of the roundabout and heading back into the forest. As I set off, I spotted the path I could have taken on the eastern bank of the river trailing in from Woodford Golf Club. The road began to climb a little, passing pleasant streets and delving back into a thick knot of trees. Soon I found the trail leading south, and after a brief slither down a bank between the trees in sight of a dog walker who politely pretended not to see my unsteady progress, I closed in on the river again, now running to the west at the foot of a steep bank. The path rose, leaving the river again and soon came up against the fence of Higham's Park. This particularly treacherous stretch of mud was hard going, and the temptation to flit into the more manicured environs of the park via one of the stiles which separated it from the forest was strong indeed. I persisted, and was soon rewarded with a wonderful view of a lake emerging from between the trees. The rain had stopped and the waters were still, broken only by the wakes of stately swans gliding across towards the furthest bank. I rested awhile, rather taken with the quiet spot nestled between the comparatively bustling suburbs of Woodford and Chingford Hatch. It was soon time to press on - and to leave the forest completely. At The Charter Road, near another neat concrete bridge, I left the river and plunged into a built-up avenue. At the end of the street, a footpath beside Highams Park School reunited me with the Ching in a scrubby triangle of waste ground where the various developments had left a void between their boundaries. A substantial part was given over to allotments, but this narrow and hemmed-in corner was useless and unloved. The river had changed - litter tangled around the railings, and the banks were strewn with discarded household items. It seemed barely possible that this was the same babbling stream which had first appeared in open country and which had accompanied me through the silence of Epping Forest. It was time to confront the urban face of the River Ching...
Many of the rivers I've walked disappear entirely at this point, submerged into culverts which sneak under the city, leaving me seeking telltale signs of their presence beneath. But the Ching remains almost entirely above ground, even when it cuts across the lower reaches of Chingford towards the Lea Valley. That's not to say the river is always accessible, and I realised that my route here was at best speculative. The Ching flows between the back gardens of long terraced avenues, and marks the boundaries of inaccessible school fields for much of this part of its course. But first I had to pass under the railway, with the river in a narrow channel beside me as I turned into the accurately named River Walk. The yellow brick viaduct arched over both the path and the Ching - but the Network Rail information panel identified the watercourse only as 'Stream'. At the end of River Walk, an end-of-terrace house was decorated with a mural depicting a white owl in flight, and urging me to respect nature. Here the river once again disappeared between streets of pleasant victorian terraced houses, and I had to detour around these to get to yet another school where a shared cycle and footpath joined the waterway again for a brief stretch. On the other side of my path tall blocks of modern homes were being built - the first of them already occupied, bored children staring down at the footpath - on the site of Walthamstow Stadium. The map showed the distinctive oval of the dog track preserved in the footprint of the new homes, it's iconic fascia memorialised to front the development. The white wall with its distinctive lettering looked like a bright and stark headstone against the grey glass behind it. It was the spectre of a place - a lost memory that meant little to the families which now lived behind it in Parade Gardens. The river disappeared briefly underground here to pass under Chingford Road - a busy tide of traffic prioritised over a few of us hapless pedestrians navigating a complex of crossings. When I finally arrived at the other side of the road, the river re-emerged, sluggish and clotted with junk, beside the access road to a vast Sainsbury's Superstore. The temple of retail was so huge that a Holiday Inn had been enveloped by its car park - or perhaps shoppers needed to break their visit and rest overnight after trudging the endless aisles? I braved the store, needing food and facilities. It felt a little odd to be surrounded by impatient, jostling humanity after my solitary forest walk.
Emerging from Sainsbury's refreshed, I noted that the early promise of sunshine was finally being delivered. The wet car park shone back at me, and I tried to appear as unassuming as possible as I slunk off to the edge of the site near the delivery bays where vast juggernauts of produce were disgorging into the store even now. On the map at least, a footpath appeared to edge around the site, shadowing the Ching as it wound around the regenerated footprint of the infamous Chingford Hall estate. I found the path, and followed it until it finally petered out at the edge of a further huge supermarket. While the bank of the river looked walkable for some distance ahead it was fenced off and marked as private land, with dire warnings for trespassers. I negotiated the edge of the supermarket car park and took a footpath leading into the quiet streets of the estate. Chingford Hall was one of the large-scale housing developments which promised so much in the 1960s, but became synonymous with urban decay and fear in later decades. Its towers were felled, one by one, and by the early part of the 21st century it had risen again in its new form - low-rise blocks in defensible cul-de-sacs, utility blocks with local shops and pubs, public space and playgrounds. But despite following the 'Secured by Design' playbook, Chingford Hall is still troubled by tensions between gangs, poverty and isolation. The local pub was derelict and open to the elements and the chip shop owner was nervously eyeing a gaggle of youngsters staging a half-hearted food-fight across a table. The quiet Saturday afternoon was palpably tense in a way I rarely sense in inner London nowadays. The roads mocked the river's hidden passage: Burnside Avenue, Ching Way. My escape from the estate was to be via more familiar territory - and since I'd left the supermarket I'd been able to detect the drone of the ubiquitous North Circular. At the end of Ching Way, a curved brick entrance opened onto the A406 near the point I'd crossed it months ago. On the estate-facing side of the wall an ancient VCR had been hurled at the ground, splaying it's archaic electronics across the path. I stepped over it and into the maelstrom of fumes and noise beyond. It was like stepping into a wholly different world. And perhaps this mad screed of traffic marking its border is why Chingford Hall feels so inescapable? The road marks a division between territories. Crossing the footbridge seems ill-advised, and the boundary must be defended. Despite standing above six lanes of pulsing hydrocarbon fumes, I felt able to breathe without the tight knot of tension which I'd experienced in the estate.
Descending from the footbridge, I felt oddly at ease. I was in familiar territory. The vast white slab of Costco rose above the trees, and signs at the litter strewn junction of Folly Lane and Harbet Road promised more industrial estates nearby. The land here is flat and open - part of the wide plain at the bottom of the Lea Valley which is filled with a tangle of watercourses and crossed by only infrequent arterial routes. As the North Circular bucked and swerved north towards Edmonton and my recent encounters with other tributaries, I turned west. The Ching was canalised here, running in a deep concrete channel with powerlines strung overhead. The lowering sun glinted from the water, and the clouds rolled dramatically over the valley. The conditions were perfect for this liminal zone, and I found a new eagerness to walk. There was only a little more of the tiny but persistent river left as it delved, arrow-straight towards the Lea. The road weaved around a pumping station complete with attractive workers' cottages, before crossing an aqueduct carrying a man-made drainage channel parallel with the Lea. Then suddenly, I found myself above the Lea, looking at the opening of the Ching's culvert. After passing under the aqueduct the river ended inauspiciously, joining the Lea as it curled around the banks of Banbury Reservoir. The sun was low over the water, and the march of pylons was a line of brooding shadow-walkers. I paused and tried to connect the tiny brook in the forest with this green, oily ending. It had been a brief journey in terms of distance - but it occurred to me I'd probably been able to stay closer to the route of the little River Ching than I had when walking other streams. I navigated the tongue of land which housed a rapidly disappearing industrial estate. I'd walked here only a few months ago and all had seemed intact, but now buildings were hollow shells with last year's calendars flapping on their exposed interior walls. I learned later that this woudl be part of Meridian Water - a new suburb rising from the dust of Edmonton, mercifully upwind of the Waste Incinerator - at least most of the time. This eastern part of the site will be reserved for employment, and linked to new housing by means of The Causeway - presumably an upgrade of the deeply pedestrian-unfriendly bridge carrying the A406 towards Angel Road station and the west. Looking back, I didn't consider these vistas threatened or this land desirable - but now the bright frontage of the tiny, closed greasy spoon caff on Towpath Road seemed oddly poignant. As I walked south the wind carried the weird, disembodied cheers and songs from White Hart Lane over the valley, away from the bright halogen of the floodlights.
At Stonebridge Lock I rested outside the fine little cafÃ© which seemed a world away from it's near neighbour just along the river. While the informal and friendly owners shambled around preparing drinks and snacks for the surprisingly steady flow of visitors, cyclists relaxed in the sun and thirsty dogs ambled around their owner's feet. I bought a coffee and sat outside, resting my legs and contemplating pushing on further than Tottenham. I felt better than I had for a long while, and I thought I could manage it. But I also wanted to rest and mull over the strange contrasts I'd experienced today. The bright winter light was lowering to the south west, and the Lea Navigation was a reflective river of black water. The edges of London are constantly torn and remade but somehow its waterways persist - in the margins of developments, delineating parcels of land, and rising in protest at being curtailed or culverted. Choosing to walk these ancient routes has linked the disjointed fringes of the city in a way I'd never have expected. I sipped my coffee and contemplated my next move.
You can see a gallery of images from the walk here.
Posted in London on Saturday 3rd December 2016 at 11:12pm
I'd worried all week about whether my new winter coat would arrive in time for this walk. Commuting to work in sub-zero temperatures during the past week had alerted me to the simple fact that I was ill-equipped for a December jaunt, reminding me of the cruel winds which whipped around me as I strode out into Essex at the end of last year. I'd half-heartedly planned several potential walks - and I was prepared to change my plans and have a day of train-related travels if the weather turned ugly. However, the coat arrived and as I rather snugly skittered out of Liverpool Street on a local train, I realised that a decent pair of sunglasses might have been a more pressing purchase for today. As we snaked across onto the fast lines and sped out towards the east, the low winter sun glared into the windows, glinting from the cranes which surrounded the edges of the Olympic Park at Stratford and throwing long shadows from the half-built towers of East Village. It was a relief to be moving - the last few weeks had been challenging and felt like a hard slog at work for both of us, and the chance to get pavement under my boots again was welcome. The half-formed plan which I'd settled on was to return to a place I'd formed a perhaps unfairly poor impression of to start my walk: Chadwell Heath. I was on the trail of the Mayes Brook: a tiny waterway which rose hereabouts and meandered south and west towards the River Roding at Barking, forming along its course the perimeter of one of the most significant public housing schemes ever built and providing a boundary between boroughs for a good deal of its length. I'd crossed the tiny but significant brook on my A13 walks, found it interesting and wanted to explore further. That walk though had a clear purpose, so I had to content myself with laying down a marker for future travels. It was curious how these furthest eastern expanses of London, which had seemed both a formless suburban sprawl and an almost troublingly dark place at first, were now filled with these streams and byways which I felt an urge to understand. I felt like I was slowly coming to know the territory, pieces slipping into place as streets were crossed and re-crossed, the edge of my ever present range anxiety slowly pushed back towards the coast of Essex.
My return to Chadwell Heath did a little to soften my previous opinion. On a bright winter morning, the walk down from the station to the long straight High Road to Ilford was pleasant, and while the street was still a collection of enterprises barely hanging on in their crumbling mid-century parades, it was a least a little more cheery. On the corner where I joined the main road, the imposing 1934-built Embassy Cinema building had become the unspecific 'Mayfair Venue' - apparently a banqueting suite in a somewhat unlikely spot. Across the street, the urban centre petered out into a long run of domestic appliance repair centres, used car lots and the apparently ill-starred 'Tranquility Centre' - formerly a tropical fish emporium. My target was an unpromising alley beside a petrol station which led to a bridge over the rails I'd just travelled. As I reached the top of the bridge the sun crested the low roofline of the houses and the scene was surprisingly illuminated from the south. Shielding my eyes I picked my way along the path leading to Green Lane and the entrance to Goodmayes Park. The park opened out into a broad sweep of green with a glassy black lake stretching along its eastern side. Through a broad refuse trap, and behind a boom restricting pollution from entering the carefully cleaned up lakes, the Mayes Brook trickled in from its source. The park was quiet, with a few distant joggers and dog walkers crossing the bridge which separated the upper and lower parts of the long lake. Straying from the path I took the well-worn gravel track which edged along the water, and from the southern tip of the lake I looked back at where the brook entered the lake. So little of the short waterway is above ground, making these occasional glimpses precious. Turning south again I headed out of the park by crossing Mayesbrook Road - one of the few nods to the presence of the stream here. Looking east, the uniform houses marching into the distance marked the western edge of Becontree - when completed in 1935 the biggest municipal housing development in the world. Straddling the Boroughs of Ilford, Barking and then remarkably rural Dagenham, the estate was extended twice before finally being fully absorbed into the new borough of Barking and Dagenham. From the air, the streets fall into regular patterns of straight crosses and fans of stacked crescents. The rails that once ran along Vallance Avenue to carry building supplies the estate are long gone, and the vast estate now relies on the spreading arms of the Great Eastern Railway and the District Line which it sits squarely between. Crossing another street I enter the unimaginiatively named Goodmayes Park Extension - a broad sweep of close-cropped grass divided into football pitches, with an allotment on the western flank. The path edges around the pitches, skirting around a range of pavillions and changing rooms painted a drab municipal green with windows fully boarded up. Somewhere under here, the brook runs south and west, towards Goodmayes Lane. Above the tree line a formal facade and clocktower indicate the site of South East Essex Technical College - latterly the University of East London. Built to provide education for the new population of Becontree who were inconveniently split across three Local Education Authorities, the campus survived until 2006 when UEL rationalised its estates and these imposing buildings were redeveloped as housing. The main block is named Mayesbrook Manor - the water, it seems, is never very far from the surface.
It's only a brief escape from parkland - long enough to navigate the junction of the busy and broad A124. I find a small corner store here and buy water. In my urge to get moving today I've neglected the usual preparations, and the walk so far has been surprisingly warm. Across the street I see a tell-tale patch of reeds behind green railings. Looking down from the street Mayes Brook trickles slowly between carefully reinstated habitat, a wild thatch of grasses beside it waving in the breeze. Beside the nature reserve a grand gateway opens onto a broad pavement leading into Mayesbrook Park. The line of green space which runs along the course of the brook - whether present above ground or not - is almost unbroken, and I'm soon walking a broad grassy trail close beside the stream which flanks Barking Football Club's home ground. A vast modern sports facility fills almost the entire width of the northern part of the park and through the trees and fences I spy a lurid purple splash with a familiar angular font - this is another London 2012 legacy artefact. That said, the sports centre appears well-used this morning, and the ranks of football pitches which spread south into the park are equally busy with games formal and otherwise. I stick to the western fringe of the park where the brook curves through new drainage swales and wetlands, created to cope with the ever-troublesome waters of the brook in flood, an event anticipated to be more frequent and dramatic as the earth warms. An arm of the brook passes under a squat bridge with a low brick parapet, draining into the broad lake which fills a former gravel pit. These pits were originally separated by a long narrow causeway leading to a broad circle for turning the plant which dug and carried gravel - this is reputed to have given the park its local name: Matchstick Island. The park was planned on a grand scale - its sporting facilities matched by sunken lotus gardens and stepped verandas. The newly transplanted inhabitants of the Becontree and Leftley Estates would enjoy the fruits of inter-war municipalism until the 1980s when a lack of repair and vandalism led the Borough to remove the sunken gardens. The lakes remain, with the carefully planned wetland course of the brook curving around them to exit the park under the District Line. I lingered in the park for a while watching Canada Geese massing on the wide concrete slipway into the lake. I could have hung around longer too - It was a perfect morning to be out here, and there was an uncertain distance to go - so reluctantly I pressed on out of the park into a place which doesn't exist...
Railway station names are not nearly as fixed and unchanging as they might sometimes seem. In London most especially, the plethora of competing companies operating independent lines prior to nationalisation made for a confusion of names - often similar though relatively distant - in order to attract the lucrative commuters who sought a haven away from the city. Sometimes multiple stations co-existed confusingly with the same moniker - the multiple West Hampsteads which straddle the road north from Kilburn even today for example. As the fortunes of suburbs fall and rise and fall again, their stations names are extended or curtailed according to popularity and reputation. Equally, as the railways struck out into undeveloped territory during the Victorian and Edwardian building booms, the stations took on the names of wayside inns, manor houses and hamlets which have long since been swallowed by the ever-encroaching edges of the city. In this way there are many suburbs and districts of London which have grown around and subsequently adopted the name of their nearest railway station. But I realised as I stood outside Upney Station that there really isn't an Upney at all. The station is an unremarkble low-rise brick building straddling a road bridge in the style of many at this end of the District Line. Atop the building a spike pierces a large Underground roundel, the bridge extending beyond the building to cross the mainlines to Southend. I was now walking along Upney Lane - in traditional British nomenclature the road to Upney - and on the tiny parade of shops at the edge of the estate was an Upney Fish Bar - but that was the only hint of the name on the ground. On my OS map, and even on Google's map which is often tainted with unofficial user contributions, the area had no specific identity. It was a hinterland of Barking - or perhaps a premonition of Dagenham depending on your viewpoint. But it wasn't Upney anywhere. My stay in this ghost suburb was brief - but for good reason. Across the bridge, and just a few steps to the west was Eastbury Manor House. The house can't easily be seen from the north or east due to a rise in the land - and it seemed unlikely that I was approaching a survivor of Elizabeth I's reign as I tramped around the carefully laid out quadrant of an inter-war housing estate. The quiet streets were full of the smells of lunchtime cooking and still-ticking off-duty cabs. But suddenly the square opened out and beyond the wintery frame of empty branches, a tall brick manor house stood in contrast to the municipal housing around it. Now managed by the National Trust, Eastbury was built on high land which provided fine views across open country to London and the Thames by Clement Sysely probably around 1570. Its situation now is changed - but the sense of being at a high point remained as I walked the boundaries of the square of land in which the house sits. The tall ranks of chimneys and the surviving octagonal turret towered over the pleasant little council houses ranged around it - and it seemed an unlikely survivor. When housing was scarce and the modernising spirit strong, so many places of interest were bulldozed in the name of progress. But somehow, at Eastbury, the wonderful hall has survived as a museum and venue, open to the public at times. The name survives too in the Council Ward of Eastbury - and perhaps in truth that's why Upney never caught hold here? The ancient manor has prevailed in more ways than one.
I emerged from the deleted suburb of Upney at Ripple Road, where the old course of the A13 turns south east to head for Dagenham. The Mayes Brook surfaces again from beneath the gloomy slab block of Sebastian Court, passing under the road and emerging beside a wide strip of well-walked grass. An Environment Agency gate prevents vehicle access, but appears to allow pedestrians to walk alongside the brook here. The sun was bright and low now, and it was difficult to see far ahead - and near impossible to take photographs. I spied someone standing near a bush up ahead and trod carefully - the edges of the grassy path were strewn with the usual edgeland litter - the ubiquitous Polish lager cans, blue convenience store carrier bags, blackened fire-circles. As it turned out, two dog walkers were conversing on opposite sides of a mound of brambles. One of them moved on passing me by, while the other, a while haired older man with a muscular and enthusiastic Staffordshire Bull Terrier, hailed me: "I'm letting him off the lead. OK?". I replied that I wasn't with a dog, but I suspect my unease was still evident from my voice. He told me not to worry - he was a good lad, and just happy to get a run. There weren't many places in easy range for a good run, not which an 82 year old could get to anyway. I strolled along the edge of the brook chatting with this unlikely companion, the water trickling quietly beside us and almost eclipsed by the growing screech of the unseen but nearby A13. He had lived here on Ripple Road for over 40 years, and in Barking for almost his whole life. He'd leave if he could - but he felt he was too old for the stress of upheaval. Certainly, he envied me living in Somerset: "By the sea, eh? Lovely". Much had changed here, he thought - but lots stayed the same. It had always been tough - always a challenge to get on. The Asians earned his grudging respect - buying their properties and extending them, letting out rooms, moving out into Essex on the back of their investments. He didn't dislike them but he didn't trust them or the changes their now overlarge houses made to the area. The new wave of immigration from Eastern Europe troubled him more - the litter, the ruined green spaces, the lack of any sense of integration all worried him. He'd clashed with the young men throwing needles and leaving torn cans in the grass and they'd been rude and abusive - he thought the muscular, moderately wild-eyed but basically docile creature he led along the brook had saved him from trouble more than once. His quiet intolerance was fiercely practical - not motivated by politics at all. While it felt odd and discordant to be speaking in these terms so alien to my own view, he was clear that no political party had it right. The working class parties couldn't talk immigration without tangling themselves in guilt, and UKIP felt like Mosley's bully boys who were still an East End folk memory for his generation. We found ourselves at a steel palisade fence which fully blocked access into a broad green field bordered by the brook, the railway and the concrete viaduct carrying the A13 above them both. I didn't expect to get beyond the railway - but I'd hoped to get closer to the bridge. My companion told me that this had been installed after a group of travellers had parked on the field. The Environment Agency had sequestered the land after an expensive clean up, and dug a deep depression into the field to act as additional drainage when the Mayes Brook flooded. We turned and walked back - another access, through the rear of some former garages was also gated, the structure of the missing buildings clear in the concrete divisions on the wall. He told me the local residents had taken action, clearing the wreckage of the old garages and painting out graffiti. He felt that the locals did care about their area, but they were fighting a losing battle. We parted at Ripple Road - he headed homeward to watch an afternoon of snooker, and I turned east to get to the A13. I wondered about this man and his experience of change - a force which he couldn't control and had to simply accept - and marvelled at his oddly serene attitude to being overwhelmed. He was clear - the market hadn't failed him, it had simply not touched him or his fellow residents here. It's easy to condemn this generation with their almost casually inherent bigotry and their foolhardy referendum votes, but perhaps sometimes it's prudent to engage - to see this strange and complicated landscape through eyes which have seen its rise, fall and abandonment. I felt privileged to have walked a little of the brook with someone who'd known its journey.
I stood rather distractedly at the apex of the junction, finding myself reminiscing about my previous visit. Trucks clattered onto the lower spans of the Lodge Avenue flyover ahead of me, and behind me a complex transaction was going down at the car wash, unfamiliar accents prattling angrily at each other, hands sliced down onto palms to seal the deal, ancient flip-phones clicked open. I felt comfortable here on the A13 - I knew this stretch of road well and oddly, held it in an almost fond regard. The downtrodden exterior of the Thatched House sat behind the familiar high metal fence in defiance of the latest Police application to curtail its opening hours. I turned west, climbing over the bridge and looking back over the brook. Below me, the path I'd walked with my elderly companion stretched away northwards, the chimney stacks of Eastbury Manor House red and tall against the pale blue of the sky. Now I knew the house sat there in the midst of the sweep of the estate, it was hard to miss its incongruous intrusion on the skyline. The sun was low on the western horizon, and I felt oddly close to the City despite it being a smudge in the red distance. I felt connected to the road, and wanted to walk it back to the towers of London. Instead I followed a staircase down from the parapet and followed a tunnel which burrowed under the A13. It wasn't clear if the tunnel had been bored through the concrete, or if the iron rings which lined it were an engineer's affectation. I emerged on the edge of the Thames View Estate, Mayes Brook slipping into view from my left and crossing under the path. From here I could ascend to the road again and walk the London-bound carriageway which slowly returned to earth alongside the brook up ahead. I knew what to expect at the junction with River Road - the brook slices under the street at an oblique angle, the bridge acting as a tidal sluice before the junction with the River Roding on it's final contortion towards the Thames. I crossed the street and reacquainted myself with the final accessible stretch of the brook - a deep concrete channel shored up by crossbeams. I navigated through the knot of streets of suburban housing which filled the space between here and the river, but couldn't get close to the outfall, which sits behind a private wharf. A fruitless excursion to the gates of the plant hire company which now occupies the space soon showed there was nothing doing. High security fencing, a locked gate and a guard post with no personnel. I headed rather forlornly back to the road and began to climb the slope which carries six lanes of traffic soaring over Barking Creek. Looking across the narrow stretch of land which separated me from the Thames the sun glinted off the silvery water and the metallic warehouses, ahead the Barking Barrier towered shadowy and black against the bright afternoon. I set off at a fair pace despite my tired feet - I'd set my sights on Canning Town as a perfect ending point, but it seems oddly distant. As my walk unravelled the sights of a prior journey I felt I'd begun to know the road better - a brief pause at the massive Beckton Sainsbury's then off again, passing the almost hallowed site of the Alp and into the golden sunset which was descending over the City, picking out the disconcertingly slender lines of Balfron Tower and the distant, silly tangle of the Orbit at Stratford. My walk had felt unplanned and insubstantial at the outset, and seemed unlikely to be a satisfying route. But somehow it had turned into an epic and oddly ritualistic unravelling of my year - of walking the eastern fringe and pushing out of the city, using the streams and waterways as a means of reading the terrain. There are still rivers to walk, old paths to resolve - but for now, at least, it was time to turn for home.
You can see a gallery of images from the walk here.
Posted in London on Saturday 5th November 2016 at 10:11pm
I stood, shivering at the bus stop in the middle of a group of mildly disgruntled passengers. We'd been here for a while, despite being told that the replacement bus service was 'just around the corner' several times. A Transport for London employee conversed urgently with a representative of Ensign Buses who was nervously checking his smartphone screen frequently. A light drizzle started to fall. I hadn't begun my walk yet - but I was already close to turning on my heel and heading back to the city. It hadn't been a great start - the slow slog along the alternative route from Bath to Paddington had been a minor irritation - arriving a half-hour later than usual in London was tolerable in itself. I also knew that the line from Liverpool Street to Shenfield was closed for platform lengthening work - and I'd factored that into my plans. I'd be putting boots on the ground much later than I'd usually plan to be, but if I pushed through the range anxiety which a late start causes, I could still manage the planned route. I'd even managed to commit an annoying cold to the back of my mind - I was still coughing furiously at times, but considering I'd only been nursing the symptoms for a few days, I felt surprisingly ready to tackle a walk. But now I was stranded in Chadwell Heath, an unprepossessing corner of Greater London which has Essex aspirations but none of the means to back it up. A bus finally lurched up to the stop - but another train had arrived now and a stream of passengers ambling along the footpath broke into a trot at the sight. Those of us already at the stop crammed desperately onto the double-decker the moment the last straggler had cleared the decks. The bus was warm and reeked of wet coats and over-deployed aftershave, its windows dripping condensation already from the fresh crush of humanity on board. We set off through the long sprawl of takeaways and suburban pubs towards Romford where the bus mercifully decanted most of the passengers. A few of us soldiered on east - along the curiously named Squirrels Heath Lane towards Harold Hill. This is where I would start - at Harold Wood station on the very fringe of built-up London, an area which until 1965 was resolutely part of southern Essex and has continued some of the less savoury traditions - not least the curiously violent history of the area, with numerous unrelated murders and attacks over the years. Now, it's on the up again - the large swathe of post-war residential areas is improving and the little parade of shops outside the station was busy and varied. A local initiative known as Harold Hill Ambitions oversees the regeneration. For now though, my own somewhat humbler Harold Hill ambition was simply to start walking. Later than I'd like and still with some concern I'd struggle to complete the route today, I headed up the slope by the closed station where a long bus queue was developing for the next heaving double-decker to Chadwell Heath. It was time to set off in earnest.
Once I'd set off and settled into the welcome rhythm of walking, my mood improved. I'd almost forgotten the purpose of today's walk - to chart the course of the tiny Ingrebourne River, one of the easternmost tributaries of the Thames to run through Greater London. It begins its surprisingly long journey out in Essex, on the fringes of Brentwood where it meets the Weald Brook before turning east, passing under the M25 and skirting Harold Wood. I'd looked at the possibility of starting my walk further out near the Motorway - but transport beyond the railway was sparse and time was now a limiting factor. Instead, I turned east after crossing the railway into the quiet backstreets of Harold Wood. A corner store selling car paint was decked out with England flags and UKIP stickers and I fought hard to push the preconceptions away. Here on the fringes of London lies this outer band of economically challenged but just-managing communities which edge a vast city of diversity and change. It's unfair to characterise this as an Essex phenomena - the halo of intolerance circles the city. But here on the eastern edges it sometimes feels more concentrated and close to explosion. I turned onto an unadopted gravel road which ran between lines of suburban semis and allotments. A bonfire crackled beyond the fence, while a group of dedicated diggers prepared their plots for winter. At the end of the track I was deposited onto a surprisingly busy minor road - the continuation of Squirrels Heath Road as it headed over the edge of London. A little to the east a low brick parapet gave away the location of the Ingrebourne at Cockabourne Bridge. The brook was bright and clear here, running over a stony bed and between green, wooded banks. To the east, Shepherd's Hill rose into Essex with a string of car headlamps shining in the gloomy morning. I zig-zagged across the lane and into a narrow driveway leading to Harold Wood Park, before turning east and finding the line of the Ingrebourne beyond the changing rooms and tennis courts. A path crossed the river and turned south - I took it and suddenly found myself out of London entirely. The city felt impossibly and completely distant. The air was clear and quiet, and the sky was a band of grey with a promising flash of blue beyond. As I walked, following the twisting course of the river in its green trench, I realised I was entirely alone out here. The dog walkers had evaporated away towards the car parks, and the only sound was the satisfying crunch of my boots hitting the path on the edge of the woods. I let my pace slacken a little, enjoying the sense of isolation and savouring the pangs of uncertainty which always hit when I feel I've left the gravity of London involuntarily. The morning was surprisingly mild and was staying dry. I wasn't sure what I'd expected of the tiny Ingrebourne but this was a surprise.
As the Forestry Commission's well-maintained path divided I was faced with a choice: head west, and leave the course of the river to detour into more urban territory before regaining its route, or to head east and stick a little closer to the water. I turned east and soon found myself on the busy rat-run of Hall Lane. Despite being a relatively minor and almost rural route, this lane provides a back route between the suburbs of Harold Wood and the larger urban centre at Upminster, crossing the busy A127 Southend Arterial Road at a sprawling junction. The brief section I walked was busy with vehicles but thankfully supplied with a decent footpath. The lane rose gently as I walked south with farmland to the east, and a view over the surprisingly deeply carved valley of the Ingrebourne to the west. Across the valley I could see the distant spire at Hornchurch and stubby towers of housing dotting the hills towards Romford. It felt odd to be looking in on London like this, seeing it as the next village over the hill. A growing hum proved to be traffic on the A127, carving in from the east in a deep gully with sweeping slip roads joining my route here. I climbed the curving path beside the litter-strew bank to find myself above the main carriageway. The rush of traffic was oddly exhilarating after the silent countryside, and the views towards the west suddenly revealed the distant misty shades of London's city skyline which felt alarmingly remote. After descending from the overbridge my path left Hall Lane briefly to skirt the access drive to a row of large, very expensive looking villas with a range of luxury cars in their drives. The link between the wealth of the distant city towers and the assets arrayed along this quiet lane was suddenly very clear and very direct.
The footpath along Hall Lane was officially part of the London Loop path, which I'd find myself following fairly faithfully from here onwards. I was a little ambivalent about this - my walks were supposed to follow the topographical and historical pathways I was curious about and I met all too many people who were set on covering the various mapped and signposted footways around Britain as something of a ticking-off exercise remote from any local interest. I'd been asked "are you doing the London Loop?" often enough to somewhat shudder at the rather glib, middle-class 'in group' of walkers who hefted their poles and wore designer ski-wear to navigate paths within the M25. I also imagined that the London Loop was, like much of the Thames Path, a greatly improved and well-appointed route which would be busy with walkers at all times. This wasn't always what I wanted, and I'd grown used to solitude on these rambles. My experiences over the next hour were to challenge all of those assumptions - and to diminish some of the snobbery I'd somehow found myself deeply mired in, exchanging it for honest English mud. I left Hall Lane to gingerly totter down the steep hill of River Drive. This was a street of fine mid-century houses which climbed down the steep edge of the Ingrebourne Valley between vintage lampposts to meet woodland at the end of the cul-de-sac. When I reached the bottom I squeezed through a narrow gate with a London Loop marker on it, and plunged deep into woodlands. The trees closed over me, and the floor was a sea of autumn leaf-fall. It was eerily quiet and pleasantly cool as I pressed on, thankful for my good boots and treading very carefully over the buckling roots of trees which crossed the path. For a good distance, the path was only a footstep wide, my left boot splashing into a shallow stream which had carved deeply into the muddy ridge on which my right foot was determinedly plodding. I realised that this was some unmarked tributary of the Ingrebourne, which I was soon to cross on its own narrow wooden bridge. The river was still flowing fast and clear here - a reassuring presence after a rather sudden venture into wilder lands. My path continued, sweeping to the south and into a field of horses which I assiduously avoided. Looking back, the rising woodland sloped away into the distance, back to my starting point at Harold Wood and beyond. Ahead, the still remote church tower slipped across the horizon as I edged around recently harvested stubble-fields on a rough and narrow pathway. This was more challenging than I'd imagined my walk, and much less 'improved' than I'd suspected the London Loop would be. Oddly though, I found myself entirely enjoying this surprisingly rural edgeland ramble. I could see the built-up fringes of Upminster beyond a distant school field and the rough walking was exhilarating. I left the path to stalk through some longer grass to the river's edge, speculating that this would have been tougher going in the Summer as I trudged over decaying nettles which would have been a waving field of potential stings just a month or two back. Eventually, the footpath ended beside an allotment and turned a corner into a litter-strewn gravel drive between some concrete garages. While I was sorry to leave the open fields behind, I was hungry and flagging a little, so civilisation was almost welcome as I navigated the backstreets to Upminster Bridge with its little cluster of shops around the penultimate station on the District Line. I grabbed a snack and headed over the river once again at a noticeable depression in the road which marked its valley.
I was eager to find the Ingrebourne again, so I swiftly turned south into the quiet of Bridge Avenue which skirted the edge of Hornchurch Stadium, home to the local football club. The footpath I needed to pick up ran through the club's almost deserted gravel car park, entering a public park via a low gate and becoming Gaynes Parkway - a long, green route through the edges of Upminster which followed the river tightly. After a pause for lunch in the park on a convenient bench, it was good to be walking at some pace again. While the scramble through the woods had been surprisingly good fun, it was slow going and I'd begun to feel the pressure of time again. I recalculated the spots I could practically turn aside if time was short - but there were rather few from here onwards, and striking out for Rainham was by far the best option possible. The path was deserted in the grey afternoon, and I was able to stay close to the meandering Ingrebourne for a unusually long distance as it tumbled over weirs and through concrete channels designed to calm its flow when in spate. As the view broadened into a wide sweep of grassland to the east, the river divided into a number of channels and unnamed tributaries. The Ingrebourne's final stretch is a lazy wander through the flat bottom of a broad valley, where it spreads to feed wetlands and marshes hemmed in by higher ground. Much of the area has become Hornchurch Country Park, largely centred on the former RAF Hornchurch. This was the home of the squadrons of Spitfires which valiantly defended London's skies during World War II, but has a longer link to aviation. A giant iron RAF roundel set into the ground outside the Ingrebourne Valley Visitor Centre is inscribed with the dates of Sutton's Farm - a First World War airfield which requisitioned a large part of a local farm, but closed in 1920 and returned to peaceful pasture. The site was requisitioned once again in 1928 for the larger fighter base which survived until 1962, well into the jet age. Passing up a chance to explore the Visitor Centre and its inviting cafÃ© due to my tight schedule, I pressed on into the park. A little weak sunshine was beginning to filter through the clouds in broad shafts, striking the wooded hills to the east with patches of bright autumnal gold. The path was busy with walkers, families on cycles and lots of dogs, and it was pleasant to be making a good pace despite tired feet. The former military role of the land was marked by the ominous concrete pill boxes and gun emplacements which were half-buried in grass. Their stark, empty faces now inert but a reminder that this was to a great extent the last line of defence for London. It was sobering to think how London had become a city under siege again back in 2012 and how normal it felt now to see armed police around the city. Strange times sometimes hark back to even stranger eras it seems. Deeper into the park, the stream of walkers thinned and only a few more dedicated souls passed me by. The path took an abrupt westerly turn to skirt the lake at Albyns Farm, dotted with tiny islands which waterfowl flitted between. The path soon turned into a narrow road which led to the farm houses. The impressive houses sat behind high electric gates, an array of expensive vehicles ranged along a rank of large garages, and low-roofed windowless sheds kept locked and bolted. This felt like the kind of spot where you should just walk on and not ask questions - just remote enough to be unobserved, but handy for the M25 when necessary.
I recalled my imagination from its wandering, and focused on my own journey. Here I faced a final choice about how my walk would end - I could press ahead, return to civilisation and walk on pavement to my destination, or I could turn south again via a gateway in the drive, back into the grassland. I opted for the path to the south, which began as a beaten down edge of a broad field which rose slowly to the south. At the western edge of the field it turned through a gate and became a more formal, rough path which continued to climb towards the southern horizon and, remarkably enough today, a sudden break in the clouds. This was Ingrebourne Hill - not really much of a climb, but by far the highest point around for some distance. The tangle of channels and ponds which the river had become slunk around base of the hill, fanning out to supply the wetlands which carpeted the valley. I soon reached the summit and turned a full circle to take in the view. The clouds had parted to let a golden, autumn sunset begin its gradual progress and the farmhouses and fields which I'd walked from the north were bathed in sudden glamour. The trees, climbed away from the valley towards my starting point - a string of distinct but connected green spaces with the river at their heart. If the plans which the London Borough of Havering have tabled ever come to fruition, this chain of spaces would be broken into parcels, some destined for new development. The green belt unbuckled in the east, the city allowed to leak out towards the skies of Essex. To the south of my hilltop lookout the faint line of the Thames shimmered on the horizon while the factory buildings which lined Rainham Creek towered above the range of pylons and mid-rise housing blocks. To the west, a haze blocked the city from view entirely - but to the east the vast plain of low-lying marshland which stretched along the estuary seemed to run on forever, broken only by the slender grey line of the A13 slinking across its vast, green breadth with a trail of red taillights disappearing into Essex. I trudged downhill, towards the road to Rainham.
Despite having another mile or so cover to reach the station, I was confident I had plenty of time. I was moving more slowly now, heading for the Red Bridge at the roundabout where I knew I'd cross the Ingrebourne for one last time. After paying my respects to the river as it began the final twists towards the Thames, I took a different route to the station from my previous treks, walking along Broadway, Rainham's surprisingly interesting village High Street. The squat, businesslike Norman church of St. Helen and St. Giles stood in simple counterpoint to the formal Georgian brickwork of Rainham Hall sitting upright beside the road. Both faced up against a charming street of homes, shops and inns which seemed to tumble together, some of them in the white painted weatherboard typical of Essex. As I approached the station I pondered if I had time to make good on a foolish promise I'd made to myself before today's late start had interfered with my plans. During a tidy of an old piece of furniture we'd retrieved from my parents' home, we'd found a spare set of keys belonging to my mother. I'd turned the wooden 'Scorpio' imprinted fob in my hand as I'd travelled to London and I'd resolved that the keys should find their final home where I'd tossed Dad's set at the beginning of the year. So, I found myself once again striding out along the path across Rainham Marsh, the bright afternoon sky having turned to a purple-grey churn of cloud with a wild wind thrashing at the stems of reed which lined the Common Watercourse - one of the many channels running into the Thames where it met the estuarial Ingrebourne. I stopped at the spot where I'd gazed across the marshes months ago, and summoned the resolve to slip the pair of keys off their ring. Without daring to hesitate I tossed them into the dark waters, breaking the bright green algae-covered surface. Slowly, the ring of clear water opened up by the keys began to diminish, the green carpet almost covering the surface again. I laughed a little at myself - this strange, sentimental ceremony at a spot which meant nothing to my family as such, but which had come to mean a great deal to me. A place where for centuries people have left the secrets they don't want rediscovered - but for me a place of remembrance. I looked out across the darkening marshes following the line of electricity pylons until it merged into the elevated route of the A13. There was an incomplete walk out there somewhere, but my business here was done. I turned and headed back towards the station, the wooden key fob held tight in my pocket. Back in February leaving the marshes had felt like an ending - when in fact it had been the start of a long year of goodbyes. It had taken me a long time to feel ready to even start saying them.
You can see a gallery of images from the walk here.
Posted in London on Saturday 15th October 2016 at 11:10pm
Once again it was a privilege to be out early. A privilege too to descend from the former Great Eastern Hotel to the platforms at Liverpool Street for an early train - an experience I've long coveted and was glad to finally manage. The vast building edges Liverpool Street, wrapping a modern, sleek hotel inside a Victorian marvel and losing none of its charm in the process. Somewhere in the core of this network of restaurants, ballrooms and corridors was a hidden Masonic Temple which doubled as a venue. It felt like a strangely magical place, with signs which were projected onto period walls and ceilings which disappeared into the tall core of the building. Outside was a dark but thankfully dry street with only a short stretch of moderately grease-slicked pavement to navigate past McDonalds and into the station entrance. Largely free of Crossrail works at last, the hotel has regained its splendour and a little of its mystery. Many of my adventurous excursions had started and ended here at Liverpool Street - but perhaps never quite so early or in such style. After finding food and coffee I boarded the train to Enfield Town. There was a dull flicker of light in the sky, and a surprising crowd developed on the train as we sped north along the Lea Valley. My plan for today had only formed in the last few hours before sleep - there was unfinished business in the north, indeed not far from the origins of my most recent river walk...
Enfield was just waking up as I headed out of the station and into town. I slipped into a coffee shop which had opened minutes before and chugged one last hit of caffeine before setting off in earnest. The suburban High Street which I'd walked between Enfield Town and Enfield Chase stations once before was little changed, and felt less like London than ever. I began, counterintuitively by heading west. As I climbed towards the crossing of the New River, that ever present waterway which has slunk mistily through my recent wanders, I recalled my reaction at repeatedly crossing and re-crossing it on my prior visit - never realising quite what a central feature it would become in my wanderings years later. After the lines to Kings Cross passed overhead at Enfield Chase station, the road began to rise more steeply. I was climbing out of the broad Lea Valley, onto the heights that supply the tributaries on its western side, and which my recent perambulations have repeatedly haunted. The houses became larger and less cluttered together and looking back I could see Enfield sprawling east towards a green middle-distance on the other side of the valley. Ahead, the road dipped again into the gully driven by my target - the Salmons Brook. I'd rather foolishly decided that I needed to head for this crossing - somewhere between Enfield and Oakwood on the road to Cockfosters - for two reasons: firstly, because beyond here the brook meandered into open country and beyond to the M25 - this really was its first contact with London. Secondly, because I couldn't quite resist beginning a walk at a place called World's End. At the foot of the hill I found the brook passing under the surprisingly busy road via a brick bridge. Traffic hurled passed as I crossed to look into the misty middle distance beyond London. The brook curved away, hidden in a line of trees. South of the road it formed the boundary of an expensive and very private golf course. This was going to mean a long detour to pick up the route. In the event, World's End wasn't entirely as apocalyptic as it sounded - consisting mostly of a sprawlingly large chain pub and a rank of suburban shops. I plunged between them, into suburbia. My walk was beginning where the world ended...
The extent of my diversion became apparent as I trudged by a large complex of schools which flanked the golf course. Once again I was heading uphill, having been led astray by what looked like a way into the park beyond the school but which was in fact a large patch of waste ground. It was still quiet and aside from a fairly gregarious population of squirrels, I was alone. Except of course for the occasional car of early shoppers heading for the vast Sainsbury's which appeared to be tucked discreetly out of sight behind a range of imposing brick frontages. This was Highlands Village - an 'executive estate' which had grown within the solid, institutional confines of the former Northern Hospital - locally known as The Pesthouse likely due to it sharing a site with Enfield Isolation Hospital. It seems the very edifices which were built to keep inmates safely within were now being used to keep undesirables out, with the carefully managed estate a sea of CCTV cameras. I decided against an early shopping trip and pressed on along World's End Lane to its junction with a familiar thoroughfare - Green Dragon Lane - starting its journey eastwards to meet Green Lanes at Mason's Corner. Once again, I marvelled at the unintentional linking of my various walks.
As I turned east I noticed I was playing a game of informal tag with a TfL van cruising the local bus stops to paste up diversion notices. I've always been weirdly embarrassed at repeated encounters like this, wondering what the likely unassuming other party will think about the fat, balding pedestrian stomping along and repeatedly catching them up. I noted with some dismay that the van turned ahead of me into Vera Avenue. I was heading this way too - because it finally got me back on track. Beyond the estate of early 20th century houses and bungalows Salmons Brook headed south east, leaving the golf course and crossing my path up ahead. I finally shook off the TfL worker as he sped away under the railway bridge at Grange Park station, where I'd alighted just a few weeks back to walk Green Lanes. From here, for a while at least, the territory was familiar so I settled into enjoying the walk. When I reached the busy crossing of Old Park Ridings I took a short detour north to the parapet over Salmons Brook. I'd been ridiculously close to this on my previous visit, but hadn't spotted the tell-tale low brick walls. The brook was a slow but steady trickle, largely clear and free of obstruction here. I headed back to my route, pottering along the same suburban streets I'd walked so recently until I came to Bush Hill. It was here that I'd looked north along the long, straight track realising it was a natural continuation of Green Lanes. Today though I turned that way with a vague intention of seeing if I could access the New River, the familiar green bank of which skirted the eastern edge of the street. Moments into the walk I discovered a curious stairway leading down from the street towards the back gardens of houses below. Figuring that Salmons Brook must pass below nearby I chanced a walk down its litter-strew steps and found myself above the brook, looking into a surprisingly ornamental stone arch. I had stumbled across the Clarendon Arch - the oldest surviving structure on the New River and something of an engineering marvel. Erected in 1682, the arch carried the brook under the New River, replacing a lead lined wooden aqueduct which had previously and precariously transported Myddleton's waterway overhead. Extended to carry a sizeable extension the embankment and Bush Hill, the portals had been re-erected and with some restoration work early this century, the structure still allowed the tiny brook to flow unobstructed. On the tiny damp viewing platform, looking into the dark tunnel I wondered how many people bothered to step down from the street to see this. I'd wager few, with most visits apparently confined to littering or illicit urination given the odour of the place. Almost opposite the stairs was a kissing gate leading onto the bank of the New River. I climbed up, and surveyed the misty view. A little weak sunshine was breaking through over the city, and the hazy morning view of ducks and green-tinged ripples was accompanied by absolute silence. It was hard not to linger here for longer.
I followed the river around the corner, returning to the streets at Bush Hill Road. I then turned immediately south into a quiet housing estate to get as close to the line of Salmons Brook as possible. The estate opened into a pleasant surburban street called Berkeley Gardens which deposited me at the end of Ridge Avenue, close to where the brook crossed under the street. I detoured south, planning to make my crossing above the water, and found the brook now in culvert. To the west, a concrete access ramp ran along the line clearly distinguishable line of the waterway and, after a fraught crossing of the road, the eastern course was marked by a rough, litter-strewn grassy void between houses. I felt further from the water than ever and began to question how much I'd actually see of Salmons Brook today. Whatever I did now, I'd have to circle the route which the brook took across the suburbs here. I opted to head south along Church Street, and then onto Little Bury Street which would allow me to cross the brook again. This time, tucked into the narrow street which was little more than an access for Edmonton County School, I found the brook trickling in the open air under a tiny bridge and evidently subject to ongoing works to shore up its broad banks. Encouraged, I turned east again with the intention of exploring Bury Lodge Gardens. This urban park is divided into two distinct parts - a formal garden, carefully laid in colourful and seasonal beds with arches and structures for climbing plants around tidy pavements and benches, and a rough grassed area leading down to the brook. I crossed both and found myself separated from the dark water by a palisade fence. I wandered the edge of the park before finding myself back on Bury Street West and pounding the footpaths once again. I was beginning to feel the effects of the walk, and with the brook now running some way to the south, I found myself beside the rush of the A10 at a tiny parade of shops. The main road curved away to the south, cutting across allotments which entirely enclosed Salmons Brook, while ahead of me lay the edge of Edmonton.
I've managed to avoid walking in Edmonton to any great degree. That's not by design, more because my routes tend to radiate in or out of the city along the valleys carved by rivers or roads, and Edmonton sits squarely between these. From the river towpath the only great landmarks are the tower blocks at Edmonton Green which glower over the suburban streets, along with the audible and olfactory footprints of the vast waste incinerator. However, Salmons Brook cuts directly across the area on its journey to the Lea once I'd crossed the Great Cambridge Road I was very clearly in new territory. I plunged into suburbia almost eagerly - there were points here where the brook ought to be visible before disappearing underground, and now the clouds were closing in overhead the streets offered a relatively sheltered walk for a while. As I zig-zagged into Rugby Road I was halted by the sudden presence of one of the Edmonton Green towers directly ahead of me. Even at a distance it seemed vast - Pennine, Mendip and Grampian House are each twenty-five storeys high and almost exactly the same age as me, their survival stemmed from Enfield's policy of renewal and refurbishment. Among the tiny red-tiled roofs of the side streets with every possible space crammed with homes, the towers seemed cold and glassy, dark sky visible through their open-cornered balconies. I set off again, and note by a trick of perspective that the towers soon disappear. I wonder if I've been witness to some sort of suburban mirage? For the first time here I find myself doubling back too - a public footpath covering the route of Salmons Brook crosses west to east here, but I don't take it imagining my walk will be better served by taking the long way around. Instead I return and take the path, a concrete phantom of the brook beneath, which deposits me at the foot of an almost worryingly decayed footbridge over the railway. I pick my way through the fly-tipped detritus which lines the path and gingerly ascend the rotting wooden steps. The high, narrow bridge deposits me in a similarly filth-strewn alley which opens onto a similar suburban street - but a notch down the ladder of gentrification. I'm being trailed by a black BMW which shudders with the low-end of an unidentifiable post-musical emission. For the first time in a long time I feel paranoia creep over me and I taste the metallic tang of adrenalin. The car slowly passes, the driver disdainfully regarding me as it slowly bucks over the speed bumps before screeching the few yards to the next set of traffic-calming measures. I turn gratefully south, following the railway towards the now ominously overbearing towers. The street becomes semi-industrial, and amid the car repair units and storage spaces I spy a small bridge over the brook. The view opens, into a wide, unused and likely unusable space between new and old developments and suddenly, in the midst of it Salmons Brook emerges in a concrete trough. I can walk its bank for a few yards, ignoring the hi-vis clad lurker smoking away his work-break where an Environment Agency access ramp leads down to the culvert. The stream is greenish and clogged with branches which snag on the concrete beam dividing the channel in two, but this doesn't dissuade a small cluster of birds from resting on the driftwood. Up ahead the stream disappears into a black tunnel opening above which is the partially refurbished Edmonton Green shopping centre. The tower blocks lean over me at close quarters, and the strange paranoia isn't diminished by proximity. Crossing the busy street and navigating the bus station leads me to the entrance to the shopping centre. The outer layers of the centre are tidy, shinily clad walls of reflective colour, but once under the bulk of the towers, the inner concrete shell is revealed. The walkways open into a vast covered market with a glass roof through which a jagged, staggered vision of the towering blocks fractures. I turn aside and walk a slightly crestfallen precinct towards a huge ASDA which appears to have landed beside the centre.
After stocking up on provisions I turn east again, figuring that the walkway beside ASDA is in fact the line of the Brook. At the end of the pedestrianised zone at the crossing of Plevna Road, I'm rewarded with a view ahead of a long, open stretch of waterway with a surprisingly tidy, recently built path beside it. The sky is a dark, purple churn of clouds now and I'm amazed I've not been caught in a shower yet. The low autumn sun has almost completed an arc overhead during my walk, and now I find myself walking towards an inky sky in the east. The path is long, straight and largely free of other pedestrians once I'm out of the gravity of Edmonton Green, while the channel containing the Brook is carved surprisingly deep and already cluttered with debris in places. The path runs tightly along the northern edge of a cluster of cemeteries, the largest being the privately owned Tottenham Park which opened in 1912 as a pauper's graveyard. This cemetery now appears to be mostly populated by Middle Eastern family graves, while a rotting and forlorn chapel crumbles among them. I snap a picture - white marble and crescent carvings set against the brick and verdigris of the chapel - but realise that in the wrong hands, it would provide the perfect out-of-context symbol for the far right. Tucked in a corner of the site is Edmonton Federation Cemetery, a somewhat earlier patch reserved for Jewish burials opened in 1889 on land donated by Lord Montagu. His name lives on in the busy road passing the site, and in the recreation ground across the street which doubles as a flood control area for the brook. Opposite the understated cemetery gates and sandwiched between Montagu Road and the Lea Valley railway lines, the green space is overshadowed by the reek from the Incinerator nearby. I walk the line of the brook until it disappears under the railway, turning south to circumnavigate the pools and hollows designed to manage the brook's surging waters when storms hit. Looking back west across the largely flat suburban landscape, the towers of Edmonton Green still loom large. It feels like there is no escape from their gravity. A little rain begins to fall, and I find myself trudging along a street of industrial units, the pavement slick with a coating of old dust and fresh rainwater. Back on Montagu Road I turn south, noting the long straight path leading back to the shopping centre, occupying the route of the former railway to the remarkably named Lower Edmonton Low Level. The crossing gates here are long gone, but the ghost of the railway is preserved in the arrow-straight footpath. The rain is falling a little harder now, and I seriously consider calling it quits at the next bus stop. It feels like the Lea's tributaries might defeat me again - so, of course I don't, and as a single-decker bus splashes past me without stopping I resolve to push on. A low drone up ahead signals the arrival of my old friend, the North Circular. Sweeping in on a viaduct, it stoops only for long enough for sliproads to join its main carriageway before arcing east over the Lea Valley. At the end of Montagu Road some sorry-looking but clearly once grand buildings are boarded up and marked for sale, but I can't imagine who would buy them with the concrete road mere feet from the upper storeys. Across the street is an entrance to the rather forlorn looking Kenninghall Open Space which occupies an oddly shaped island of space between the roads which loop up to the North Circular. I cautiously wander in, finding myself in a surprisingly quiet tunnel of green which appears to be abandoned. Broken benches harbour litter and the path cracks as roots strive for air in the polluted ground. The path curves south and delivers me to the base of the bridge. I cross the street and make a speculative but ultimately pointless detour into Albany Road which rather than leading to what appeared to be a patch of promising wasteland, now ends at the muddy security checkpoint outside a new development site. I retrace my route to the flyover, tired but at least drying out now, and climb the slip road. The view from the bridge is remarkable - a retail jungle to the north with a Premier Inn besieged by the tangle of roads, shuddering with the traffic. Looking south, a broad open marsh runs along the course of the railway. In the hazy distance, swathed in low cloud and ominously back-lit, the shapes of city towers can just be made out. A family who I've passed on the ascent re-cross my path once or twice as I stop to take pictures. A curious young boy, hangs back to watch me pointing my camera at the horizon. When his mother notices the tug of his arm on the pram as he dawdles, she turns and spits "Don't look at the weird man, he's takin' pictures of nuffink!". Half way across the bridge, I spot the curve of concrete emerging from under the road. This is another old friend: Pymmes Brook, and this is part of a walk I should have completed a month or two back. The Brook makes a tight left turn in the channel and passes under the staircase which descends from the bridge to the carpark of Tesco Extra. I descend, the smell of the slow moving brook beneath rising to meet me. Anyone who sees me here now, smiling like an idiot as he links up the geography of this retail park landscape, would likely worry - either for themselves or for me. My flagging energy returning, I make a brisk beeline for the store.
The last leg of the walk is tough going physically, but is surprisingly rewarding nonetheless. Thinking how far away the heights of Enfield seem now, I navigate the access roads from Tesco and head for the vast blue cube of IKEA. Their entrance road is flanked by broad, well-surfaced pavements but oddly the fence encloses these, leaving a gap only wide enough to accommodate the carriageway. I slip around the gate and walk close to the hedge and fence which divides me from the brook. At a point somewhere behind this fence the Salmons Brook and Pymmes Brook converge and form a single channel heading for the Lea. I can't formally honour the confluence - but I find a clear gap in the hedge where an access gate opens onto the brook and poke my camera through. I see the familiar concrete two-channel trench leading off into the middle distance. As I pick my way back to the road through the patchy and poorly-established grass of the verge, two adolescent IKEA workers approach me. They're dry-mouthed and clumsy with acne and apprehension as they ask what I'm doing here? I try to calmly explain that I'm taking pictures of the brook - one begins uncertainly "What brook?" but the other quickly and more confidently splutters out "You can't, it's our property". Amused more than annoyed, I carefully point out the Environment Agency signs, and they counter with "But you're on our land". I explain that I can't imagine what I'm doing wrong, but that I'm leaving anyway. As I wander across the car park they insist on escorting me to the edge of the site, walking solemnly a few steps behind me, looking at the pavement and resolutely not conversing with me. I don't rush - but as I pass the bus stop I see them back at the gateway, waiting for me to leave. They look mortally embarrassed and out-of-place in their gaudy blue uniforms which belong inside among the colourful plastic salad tossers, rather than out here against the grey skies. It's a short walk to Leeside Road where I turn aside and head for the Pymmes Brook Trail. Walking through Tottenham Marshes between the canal boats on the River Lea Navigation and the channel which contains the collective waters of two of my incomplete walks now, I'm on familiar ground. I've walked this valley before, and I know the terrain. My feet feel heavy and tired, and while I'm eager to fall onto a train, I'm equally reluctant to stop walking today. I think about continuing to Lea Bridge, or even further - but common sense prevails. I'm tired and I need to make sense of the walk before I head back to reality. The path twists its way into the narrow strip of land between the brook and the River for a final stretch and I decide to walk on, under the road bridge at Tottenham Lock, to the point where four summers ago I'd first spied Pymmes Brook leaving the Lea. A boom trapped the water leaving the brook, gathering little islands of twigs with halos of coruscating pollutants. Waterfowl leapt from island to boom and back while the brooks churned against the plastic barrier, unable to complete their journey until the floods came again. My journey though was done. I regrouped my aching limbs and climbed slowly up the towpath steps back to the road to head for Tottenham Hale station. Once again my walk had brought discrete topographies into alignment. I felt like I understood the valley just a little better. It was time to head homeward.
You can see 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.