Posted in London on Saturday 4th August 2018 at 10:08pm
The last few moments of my long tube journey to the furthest reaches of the Central Line were occupied by slathering sunblock onto my exposed temples, musing that when I was last here there was probably more natural coverage. The last time I'd arrived at Epping was in a post-viral haze, stumbling about the station and feeling sorry for myself, doubting the wisdom of travelling after a week of confinement with a case of H1N1. I recalled sitting on a bench on the silent platform, lacking the energy to head into town and wondering at how unusually rural and quiet it felt, and pondering the range anxiety I'd experienced as the train sped past large tracts of green, rural, definitely not metropolitan-looking scenery. Given that I was the only passenger in the carriage I expected much the same from my arrival today - albeit in far better fettle this time. I couldn't have been more wrong - once I passed through the ticket barrier I was caught up in a tide of people. The bright summer day had bought competing crowds to the station: some waited impatiently for the bus into town to manouvre around the busy car park while others jostled to get onto the train into London. The next wave of passengers trotted down the hill or scrambled out of taxis and parents' cars to make the long ride back into the city. It was a Saturday morning full of promise and possibility: over made-up teenagers gossipped in an awkward spot on the pavement, their cheeks burnished to an alien chrome. A taxi set off before its occupant had retrieved their bag, the casually suited former occupant rapping on the roof and swearing generously at the top of his voice to stop the driver in his tracks. The bus lumbered around in an attempt to reverse, lurching to a stop behind the taxi. All was good-naturedly, loudly chaotic in Essex today. I made swift work of the hill out of the station and found the road to town a little less hectic. It was good to be back, despite the fury of the welcome!
My memories of Epping beyond the platform were vague at best, but I soon found the supermarket and filled my bag with water and drinks. The temperature was already touching thirty degrees and was forecast to get warmer. There was coffee to be had here too, but my instinct was to head straight out of town. Epping is a long, drawn-out kind of place sprawling along a ridge of high ground which threads lazily into Essex, dividing the valleys of Cobbins Brook and the River Roding. My route - the aptly-named High Road - headed south, passing the Victorian mock-gothic water tower, now marooned in the middle of a used car lot. As the busy shops of the High Street begin to peter out, the houses became larger and were set a little further back from the busy road. Stocky Georgian brick piles sat beyond tall hedges which shade convertible BMWs. This was all undeniably a little less gauche than the Essex of popular perception. It was more conservative, very new-monied, a little brash. A broad stripe of grass, once green and now burned amber by the weeks of sunshine, broke away from the road and I gladly plunged between the trees noting an impressive and moss-covered concrete fingerpost indicating the public footpath across Bell Common. The sun beat relentlessly down on the sleepy village-end while a taxi waited outside one of the cottages beside the path, a heat haze shimmering over its roof. The string of houses ended abruptly where the road forked - the branch I now needed to cross headed south to Theydon Bois, while the main road to London turned further west. A high concrete wall and a shuddering equipment room were screened by a scrubby line of bushes. From beneath this parapet, traffic pulses along the M25 and began to slow for the whirl of sliproads onto the M11. Under my feet here is Bell Common Tunnel, an unusually environmentally aware attempt to hide the churn of the Orbital road from view at a pinch point where the important forest habitat and the peaceful community squeeze the road into a tight bend. Built between 1982 and 1984, and some considerable time before the high-profile road protests of the 1990s, the cut and cover tunnel is an unexpectedly sensitive response to the problem of completing the ring of tarmac around London. I've written elsewhere about the various Ringway plans which spun out over the post-war decades following Patrick Abercrombie's vision of a city encircled by roads which took the strain away from the mediaeval street pattern. Little of this materialised as the inner segments of the plan, which would have destroyed many homes and businesses, became entangled in long planning disputes. However, out here on the margins there was less heat in the argument. Perhaps, even by the early 1980s we had not quite grasped the impact of the loss of green and pleasant land in the same way we do now? The final shape of the M25 is a compromise: a lopsided and off-centre mash-up of Ringways 3 and 4. The motorway which was finally built and which squeezes through this future bottle-neck under Bell Common is never quite wide enough, never quite fast enough - and as a result, it creeps quietly out of its original footprint. Elsewhere lanes are added to patch up the broken circle with depressing regularity. But here, the landscape corrals the traffic and Bell Common with its cricket pitch and a dusty forest-edge car park is troubled only by the hiss and shudder behind the high brown wall.
As I turned aside from the motorway, unable to get a panoramic view due to the height of the barricade erected to protect Epping from the noise of traffic, I found myself facing the forest for the first time. The small car park was busy with dog walkers loading and unloading their charges. A couple of early cyclists paused to check maps and adjust equipment. I made my own preparations, realising that I'll be leaving civilisation behind for a little while, and strode out between the trees onto a well-made path with a dry and cracked surface. The recent heat had penetrated even the deepest corners of the forest it seemed: the perma-mulch of the floor is littered with brown, sun-crisped fronds of foliage. The earth was splitting and opening, deep crevasses revealing loam which hasn't been exposed for what might be centuries. It felt like the forest was protesting against the indignity of the heatwave, and blaming us for our negligence in letting the climate interfere with its finely balanced ecosystem. But the woodland is resilient too, and only a few yards into the woods I'm covered by a cool canopy of leaves which keeps out even the most penetrating rays of sunlight. Occasional clearings fill the forest with light, like a zirconium flashbulb detonating overhead, and I took to wearing sunglasses to reduce the weirdly hypnotic effect as the sunlight strobes between limbs of the trees. It was good to be back, and once I'd passed sufficiently far into the woodland for the casual visitors' range anxiety to have them backtracking to the carpark, I was entirely alone in the ancient forest. The crunch of dry, friable earth underfoot echoed, occasionally startling creatures which skittered and crashed into the undergrowth. Aside from a few gentle dips and ascents into the valleys of currently dry streambeds, the walking was pleasantly gentle. Striking out to the south-west, I felt entirely enclosed by the woodlands, despite in fact walking a fairly narrow strip of the forest at this northern tip. Epping Forest once covered much of Essex and during the reign of King John still covered much of the ground between London and the coast. Curiously, it was John's signature of the Forest Charter, a lesser known counterpart of the more influential Magna Carta, which led to the preservation of the forest for future generations. This charter addressed deepening disquiet and economic strife arising from the designation of 'Royal Forests' - a status originally given to Epping Forest by Henry II. The Norman ideal of a forest was an enclosed area of woodland, grassland and marsh reserved for the monarch's use and inaccessible to commoners. For many, not least those living in Western Essex, the forest meant survival: in the form of fuel, grazing the land and foraged food. Increasing designation of Royal Forests, especially by King Richard, had resulted in around a third of Southern England being restricted, with rural populations struggling as a result. The Carta Foresta of 1217 restored the right of free men to gather wood and forage in the woodland, while allowing only the King and his appointees to hunt. Despite being somewhat less celebrated than the Magna Carta, the Carta Foresta enjoyed a greater longevity, with large parts remaining in force until the Wild Creatures and Forest Laws Act 1971 repealed and replaced its provisions. I was reminded that the forest is a strange place, and things seem to move far more slowly under the trees - including it seems the machinery of government.
I realised as I tramped along the path, that I knew very little of the interior geography of the forest. This was brought rather surprisingly home to me as I spied through the trees a smooth bank of earth, curving out of sight to the west. I had stumbled across Ambresbury Banks - now a haven for tall, slender beech trees but once a securely fenced Iron Age stronghold surrounded by forest. Much archaeological investigation has taken place here since the site was first systematically excavated by Augustus Pitt Rivers in 1881, but nothing has been discovered to corroborate perhaps the most enticing myth about the place: that Boudicca fought her last here in 61CE, before finally being slain by the Romans. Several other places, from Kings Cross station to Mancetter in Warwickshire claim the same honour - but there is a stately calm about Ambresbury Banks which makes it feel a fitting monument to a warrior queen. I stepped away from the path and scaled the bank, descending into the broad bowl. The floor of the forest was a tangle of sun-scorched bracken and surprisingly tenacious holly, and it was hard to imagine this place a hive of activity. It's likely that Ambresbury was a defensive position rather than a fortress - a secure place to gather the people and to remain safe from attack. The camp lies along a line of forts which roughly delineated the boundaries of the Trinovantes and Catuvellauni peoples who skirmished and bickered over territory in Essex until the Roman invasion. Even now it feels remote from the surrounding paths and roads, and as I crashed back out onto the trail, I startled a young couple and their dog who were distinctly displeased to see me. The forest retains its sense of risk and danger - but I suspect that a middle-aged man emerging from the bushes is regarded more likely as a moral than physical threat nowadays. Back on the path, I noted a few other walkers and occasional mountain-bikers, including a group of Spanish students who walked six-abreast and yelled up into the trees as they wandered. I wasn't sorry to get past them, leaving them checking their 'phones and gabbling with excited relief as they congregated in a small car park beside the B172 which meandered through the forest nearby. While they were clearly pleased to be back in some sort of civilisation, to me the road felt like a strange imposition - and a sudden need to be aware of my surroundings in a more acute way than I had been for the last hour or so of walking in the woods felt alien and uncomfortable. I wasn't sorry to disappear into the woods again on the other side of the busy route, wondering why my walks on the fringes of London were so often dogged by small bands of loud European tourists?
Walking again, I tried to identify my location more accurately but largely failed. There are few very good maps of Epping Forest and certainly, none which exceed the detail and care of that produced by Edward North Buxton for his 1884 guide. Buxton was a partner in the family brewing firm of Truman, Hanbury & Buxton of Brick Lane, and was also MP for Walthamstow. A lifelong conservationist, Buxton purchased Hatfield Forest and gifted it to the National Trust from his deathbed, thus saving it from a timber merchant who had already begun to fell ancient trees until scuppered by Buxton's purchase. His book on Epping Forest remains perhaps the most useful guide to the hidden corners of the woodland and is a testament to how largely unspoiled the forest has remained since it was protected by Act of Parliament in 1878. It could so easily have been different here. In 1851 much of nearby Hainault Forest was destroyed having been 'disafforested' by the Crown and offered for sale. Steam tractors dragged anchors through the soil, uprooting ancient trees and clearing around 3000 acres within six weeks. While Epping Forest had largely been unenclosed by that point in part due use as a deer park, it was clear that the Commissioners of Woods and Forests were keen to turn their attention to the plains and woodland which stretched tantalisingly close to the growing suburbs of East London. However, it was this very proximity which had apparently increased the use of the forest by commoners, with William Cowper-Temple MP noting during debate in the commons in 1871 that "It was most gratifying to witness multitudes of the working classes, who had escaped for a day from the smoky atmosphere and the dreary expanse of bricks and dust and dirt called the eastend of London with parties of children, imbibing health and enjoying themselves intensely in innocent and health-giving pastimes." Visitor numbers grew during the 1860s and consequently, the Lords of the various Manors which included forest land began to enclose the woodland, protecting their asset and preparing for a profitable sell-off. This enclosure was not without resistance, with Thomas Willingale of Loughton persisting in the practice of the common right to 'lop' trees. Willingale was prosecuted at Waltham Abbey, and members of his family imprisoned as a result - a cruel punishment which sounds oddly antediluvian to modern ears. It was his action though, which brought the situation to the attention of Edward North Buxton, his brother Sir Thomas, and to John T Bedford of the Corporation of London. Thus, the political movement to conserve the forest began with the Corporation buying parcels of land throughout the 1870s prior to becoming custodians of the forest on the passage of the act. So, Epping too was disafforested - but with the Corporation as both landlord and conservator, its future was largely assured:
Epping Forest is hereby disafforested; and Her Majesty’s rights of vert and venison within the same, and the several forest courts, and all letters patent, grants, appointments, and warrants of any offices, bailiwicks, walks, and lodges, and all salaries, allowances, gratuities, and fees payable or allowed in respect of the same, and all burdens and restrictions arising out of the forest laws or customs, shall, as regards Epping Forest, on and by virtue of the disafforestation thereof by this Act, cease; and the deer therein are hereby transferred to and shall belong to the Conservators, to be preserved as objects of ornament in the Forest.
Epping Forest Act 1878
The path continued south, skirting the broad, open scrublands of Furze Ground and Copley Plain. These spaces, often appearing suddenly between the trees, are a striking feature of the forest and a reminder that this is wild and ancient land. Some of these areas have been cleared for centuries, not least those nearer to Chingford which were denuded of trees as early as 1543 when Henry VIII built his hunting lodge 'The Great Standing' nearby. But there have always been swathes of rough scrub, marsh and grassland at the heart of the forest, and it's perhaps a little surprising that they make for some of the most dramatic views during the long walk under the trees. The path also descended here, delving deep into the valley of one of the streams which combine nearby to form the Debden Brook. Today though it was a ghost waterway, and at the floor of the valley the path crosses only the dry streambed. The largely redundant bridge and only a damp layer of rotting foliage indicating the presently absent waters. For a relatively minor waterway which is largely unnamed on maps, the Debden Brook has a marked effect on the area. As it curves east towards the River Roding the arc of the stream describes the extent of human habitation - the edge of the suburbs. This currently moribund little rivulet is the last defence of rural Essex against burgeoning London. My descent into the valley was followed by a steep, lung-busting ascent towards Goldings Hill where the busy A121 crossed the forest, providing a link between the eastern suburbs and the main road into London. Crossing the road was a challenge, necessitating a swift and careful totter along its narrow margin to reach the staggered continuation of the path. This fast-flowing rat-run beneath the trees is a sobering reminder that nowhere in Epping Forest is ever really far from arguably the world's busiest and most complex metropolis. But as I disappeared under the trees again, I felt like I could be a continent away from London.
Beyond the road, the path dipped and bucked into a series of further, even steeper valleys which formed the various tributaries of the Loughton Brook, emanating mostly from sources on Broom Hill to the West, and again mostly running dry due to the recent weather. The ponds which form along the brooks were not yet dry, but they were green-tinged and algae-covered, insects flitting over their surfaces while fishermen fruitlessly dangled lines into the dead, still water. The walking was challenging but pleasant here, the tree cover making for humid but thankfully shady conditions. My boots were doing the job they were designed for at last and appeared to be responding to a rare reprieve from pounding asphalt and pavement by protecting my feet well from the trips and twists of the forest floor. For a while here, time became soft and pliable. I couldn't say how long I'd been in the forest or how far I'd travelled. The path ahead was my only focus, and studying the form and foliage of the woodland ahead is all the thinking that was required of me. It felt both liberating and terrifying to be released from caring about much beyond the immediate landscape and I felt my brain rebelling. My ever-active and somewhat disordered mind sought to fill my synapses with anxieties about work problems, my bank balance, politics - but they wouldn't stick. The huge, unknowable and ancient forest demanded all of my attention, and if I dared to let my mind wander into human concerns it reminded me with a misplaced branch or a knotty crag of earth that it had the power to trip me up in every sense. I've never been someone who talks about 'oneness with nature' - that always strikes me as an artificial state, sought by those who seek a sort of environmental superiority over the rest of us with our petty worries about everyday things. For a little while though, and I'm not entirely clear how long, in fact, it made an odd sort of sense. It wasn't a spiritual or even a particularly esoteric experience: it was simply the strangeness for an urbanite of being entirely consumed by a living thing bigger than oneself.
I was returned to my normal, sceptical self by taking a wrong turning. Consulting the map I noted I was still east of the A104 which forms a spine through the forest. My aim was to cross the road and stay for as long as possible in the broader and denser areas of the forest, in the angle between the encroaching suburbs of Chingford and Loughton. As the forest continues to the south it becomes more sporadic and disconnected, though no less dense and remote in places. I retraced my steps to a crossroads where a group of older tourists, distinctly unprepared for the terrain ahead, appeared to be wandering aimlessly too, and I headed west towards the road. Like the other road crossings in the forest it felt like a traumatic imposition on the peace and calm, but perhaps in the case of this main route out to the M25, even louder, faster and much harder to cross. When I finally made the dash, I found myself on a somewhat indistinct trail which runs parallel to the road through a broad plain of dry, yellowing grassland. A warning on the gate indicated that cattle may be nearby, and they have left their own special evidence too, necessitating careful walking. My route converged on a more established path at Palmers Bridge, though it was currently an unnecessary structure, with the long straight ditch beneath the wooden footbridge entirely dry. I followed the ditch towards Connaught Water, an ornamental lake built around 1882 by flooding a formerly swampy area of the forest where many streams converged. The lake was named for Prince Arthur, The Duke of Connaught who had accompanied his mother Queen Victoria on her visit to Chingford when she dedicated the forest to the people. Arthur went on to become the first Forest Ranger alongside other honours, including becoming the tenth Governor General of Canada. The lake was extended in the 1890s with large, wooded islands established to create impressive views from the lakeside path. More recent innovations included a wooden boardwalk which snaked around the western edge of the lake, allowing a generous throng of visitors to get closer to the waterfowl which strut and wade in the lake, occasionally flapping away from more enthusiastic children as they approach. Connaught Water is also the source of the Ching - fed by the dried-up brooks and streams which arrive from further north in the forest, a twin-bored concrete culvert at the southern end of the lake allows water to run down a cascade into the muddy beginnings of the river. When I walked the Ching, I started to the south of this point - so a pilgrimage to the source was long overdue. However, there really was no source to speak of: the pipes were dry and the bed of the river had clearly not been damp for some time. I crashed along through the bracken which was, prior to the long spell of dry weather, a deep reedbed beside the water. Eventually, I was forced to surface at the crossing of Rangers Road. Beside me was the 'Essex' sign which had signified the start of my previous walk and to the west was Chingford Plain. Queen Elizabeth renovated Henry VIIIs original 'Great Standing' here as her hunting lodge and it still stands today, an isolated and rather plain timber-framed building next door to the much more elaborately mock-Tudor former Royal Forest Hotel. The hotel is now a Premier Inn - a singularly ostentatious one too, with many rather unusual features to accommodate the old building which houses it. The two buildings sit in curious harmony - the genuine heritage piece and the plausible Victorian fake - while a modern visitor centre commands a view over the plain towards the forest. My business didn't take me this far west today though, and after crossing Rangers Road, busy with school holiday traffic, I plunged back into the woods to repeat a section of the walk beside the Ching which I'd last done in freezing temperatures. I'd slipped and slithered over the muddy ruts back then, but today I was more at risk of tripping over the cracks in the parched ground.
The route south soon became much more familiar via a reunion with the Ching at the edge of Whitehall Plain where a tiny bridge crossed a rather pathetic trickle of muddy water. But it was at least now a stream of sorts, showing that even an unprecedented dry spell couldn't quite quash this little waterway's aspirations. The walk across the plain, entirely alone and largely free from any hint of the surrounding city was a rather special moment, which I perhaps hadn't fully appreciated on my last visit because staying vertical was more of a concern in the icy horseshoe ruts. Today, the baked earth and dry grass crackled underfoot and the sun beat down on me relentlessly. I ambled along slowly, pacing myself - there was some way to go, and the weather was exhaustingly hot now. As the river and the path converged again at the crossing of Whitehall Road, I had three choices. On my winter visit, I'd taken the path to the west of the little concrete bridge parapet which seemed a fairly sensible option in those conditions. There was also a seemingly more official path further to the east which would likely have been a lot safer too, but in my concern to find a route that day, I'd entirely missed it. That didn't seem appropriate for today either - instead I wanted to disappear into the tiny gap to the immediate east of the bridge, where a less well-used but clearly evident pathway descended steeply to the bank of the river. I reasoned that I knew this area well enough to find a way out of any scrapes I got into, and plunged into the tangle of woods. This part of the walk was actually ridiculously good fun - tiny paths, little more than faint desire lines cut by dog walkers, criss-crossed the land along the edge of the river. Despite being in a narrow flank of the forest between two densely-populated areas, I was absorbed into the woodland entirely. I tramped around, relying mostly on my sense of direction and carefully dodging the gnarled roots and banks of tall holly. Occasionally the detritus of late-night couplings was evident in wet-wipes and condom wrappers, and I marvelled at the resilience of these folks who would be exposing bare flesh around some seriously robust holly bushes and nettles! Realising I was drifting to the east I took a very minor path which wound back towards the river and found myself on the edge of a very clearly marked PRIVATE field with no obvious exit beyond the swaying, reedy grass which had grown to near shoulder height over the course of the summer. Above the sea of yellowing stalks I could see suburbia encroaching on the forest, closer than seemed possible just moments ago while I was plodding along the barely-evident forest tracks. I retraced my steps and set off into the dense knot of trees again, more aware than ever of how quickly this familiar landscape of streets and houses could return to nature given the opportunity.
The ornamental boating lake in The Highams Park was busy with visitors on this hot afternoon - a far cry from the ice-bound edges of the water which I'd found on my previous visit. I took a path which hugged the lake rather than the route I'd taken on my last visit, surprising a group of youngsters daring each other to skinny-dip from the opposite shore. They continued egging each other into diving into the water, little bothered as I passed by. Dogs and birds both enjoyed the water too, splashing and flapping their way into the deeper parts of the lake while their owners lazily ambled, too hot to walk faster around the perimeter. The whole concept of 'Highams Park' appeared to be a contested one: the park itself, created in the 1930s was named very specifically with the definite article which differentiated it from the name commonly applied to the neighbouring district. This drift west into newly laid suburbs largely followed the rechristening of the railway station as 'Highams Park and Hale End' in 1894, two decades after opening to serve the latter of that pair of then distinct settlements. Some it seems, believe that there is, in fact, no differentiation to be made between the two former villages - while others resolutely disagree. Confounding local historians further, the manor of Highams - sometimes known as Higham House or Hall - lies further east, beyond the forest's edge facing Woodford Green. Built for Anthony Bacon MP in 1764 on his purchase of the ancient manor of Higham Bensted, the hall briefly served as a military hospital and is now a private school for girls. The Ching snakes around the western shore of the lake, deceptively appearing to feed it but remaining in fact an entirely separate waterway aside from an overflow at the southern end. The parkland here were formerly part of the extensive grounds belonging to the Highams Hall, landscaped by Humphry Repton and eventually purchased by the Corporation of London when it moved to preserve the forest.
I was now entering a part of the forest which I knew well and also one where a previous walk had faltered - and I'd found myself anticipating this part of the walk perhaps most of all. After negotiating around the striking modernist blocks of the Best Western hotel which now looked tired and somewhat dated, I headed back into the forest along a familiar track. The A104 was still close by on my left, revealed as I passed an open grassy space between houses. Traffic was already braking, slowing for the congestion of Waterworks Corner up ahead. The trees closed in above me again as I passed the clearing where the memorial to preacher Rodney 'Gypsy' Smith stood, before taking the path that led onto the North Circular footbridge and crossed the route I'd taken along the edge of the forest when I walked the length of that road. Suddenly, I was beyond the edge of the trees, above the carriageways and surrounded by a clamour of traffic noise. To the west, the Lea Valley shimmered under the bright sun, and the towers and chimneys of Tottenham and Edmonton swam in a distorting heat haze. To the east, the traffic banked and peeled away to the south, the brief knot of Saturday traffic around the slip roads to Waterworks Corner slowly negotiating the exit. There was something about this spot - distinctly of the forest, but out of the trees - which somehow amplified the experience of walking in the woods: a green, moist silence becomes an immediate sensory overload of white noise, bright light and unforgiving heat. The road remained impressive and daunting, despite being part of a well-walked circle now. I fought an overwhelming urge to retrace my steps along its forlorn, ragged edge. Instead, though I continued southwards, navigating the narrow strip of raised ground between the A406 and Forest Road which is crossed by another, quieter footbridge. Beyond this was the raised field of tall grass where my last attempt to cross the forest had come to grief: at the end of the path was a steep downward slope which had become a wintry, wet mudslide. Today though, it was a sheer but navigable scramble of smooth, dusty earth. I half walked and half slid to the bottom, a sense of almost ridiculous personal pride achieved in this simple task. Perhaps I'd become more adventurous since my last visit, or perhaps I just felt more at ease in these woodland perambulations now? In any case I was safely down and could once again emerge briefly to cross the road and enter the last, straggling edges of the remaining forest.
Pride is never advisable on these excursions, it's fair to say, and immediately on re-entering the forest on the eastern side of the road, I lost my bearings. The paths were not easy to follow in this area, and I found myself circling the same spots while looking for what should have been a well-worn route to the east of the Forest School. I'd walked a dog near here before with a former pupil of the school who had shown me around the impressive facilities after hours, and I foolishly thought I could follow my instincts to get out of the bind. Instead, I found myself retracing my steps more than once and feeling none the wiser. I finally found the right route, taking me close to the perimeter of the school buildings and across Snaresbrook Road near the point that a tangle of drainage ditches split away to feed the Hollow Pond and the Eagle Pond. Hollow Pond started life as a series of pits left after gravel was extracted for road building. Quarrying ceased in 1878 and the pits filled with water and were abandoned to gradually return to nature, until 1905 when unemployed labourers were drafted into the forest by Leyton District Council and the Forest Conservators to landscape and extend the pits into a large lake. Soon becoming a popular resort close to the growing suburban districts of East London, a well-used but muddy bathing lake was converted into Whipps Cross Lido during the 1930s with costs shared by Leyton and Walthamstow's councils. The Hollow Pond, on a blistering summer afternoon, was still busy with locals lazing around its banks and it was easy to imagine that if the Lido had survived the 1980s it would have been much used today. Meanwhile the quieter Eagle Pond teemed with waterfowl which skidded onto its surface and lurked in the shade of its wooded edges. For some years now, the Surrey-based Swan Sanctuary has used the pond as a point for releasing birds back into the wild after recovery from sickness or injury, and with fishing now banned the pond was an oasis of calm in the busy afternoon. The incongruous bulk of Snaresbrook Crown Court reflected in the water - a huge and imposing but slightly gloomy building by George Gilbert Scott and William Bonython Moffatt which was originally built as Wanstead Infant Orphan Asylum and became a court only in 1974. My path took me between the ponds, well away from the crowds and onto a long, dry pathway of dead grass and baked earth which cut across the flats towards The Green Man roundabout. To the south, I could see the impressive villas which fronted Whipps Cross Road closing in, marooned between the busy road and the open ground. My path climbed to cross the Central Line before delving into the centre of the vast road junction. Somewhere on the fringe of this junction the mood switched - all day I'd felt connected to the forest, even when it had been little more than a narrow strip of land between busy suburbs. This terriroty was now of the city. A constant, low-level drone hummed in the air: traffic, conversation, aircraft. In the forest I had been insulated. I felt disorientated, and uncharacteristically, weirdly unnerved. The temperature was well into the mid-thirties now and I'd begun to feel tired and thirsty as the last of my supplies from Epping were used up. In some ways, it felt like entirely the right conditions in which to approach London: activated, edgy and a little distracted - the natural traits of the city. Beneath me, the A12 contorted under the junction in a tunnel: the road was yet another planning compromise, a testament to further abandoned grand plans and a legacy of road-building policy which just wouldn't cut in it these days of environmental impact assessments and consultation.
One last patch of woodland took me further south, along the aptly named Bushwood, a curving street of solid Victorian homes which faced the last vestige of the forest as it dwindled into the edge of Wanstead Flats. As soon as I could break away from the road, I took a path along the edge of the woods, eager to spend the last mile of my walk as close to the forest as I could. The path crossed the head of an avenue of trees, partly replanted and under restoration, before heading across the northern edge of the Flats. My view to the south was striking: Fred Wigg and John Walsh, two tower blocks dating from 1966 backlit by the strong afternoon sunlight. On 12th December 2011, a flat on the 13th floor of Fred Wigg caught fire. It took the London Fire Brigade five hours to control the blaze following a full evacuation of the block. A few residents were treated for smoke inhalation or hypothermia, many having left their houses quickly on a cold evening in their nightclothes. However, there were no casualties and the fire was contained in the flat where it broke out. It stands as a striking contrast to events years later in West London: here, the original construction of the tower - while considered ugly and tired - held fast and the evacuation ran smoothly. This unremarkable block should have returned to obscurity after attaining a briefly newsworthy status, but in 2012 it hit the front pages again when residents sought permission to begin a Judicial Review of the decision to site air defence missiles on the roof of the building during the Olympic Games. Permission for the review was denied - legally correctly given the government's prerogative powers in defending the realm, but this was just another instance where the Games, unstoppable and somehow beyond criticism, rode roughshod over the lives of ordinary people in East London. Thinking back to that year as I passed the towers, a landmark one in my life in many ways, I remembered well the mood of tension and frustration: no less-than-positive comment on the Games could be passed without summoning the wrath of the part-time patriots who couldn't see past the TV coverage. It was going to be good for London - good for people who lived in places like Fred Wigg. We ought to shut up and stop moaning. The jury is still out on the economic benefits of the London Olympics, particularly in these areas outside the immediate environs of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and its hinterland of newbuild residential towers. Today the blocks named for esteemed local councillors Fred Wigg and John Walsh await refurbishment, the work delayed awaiting the outcome of the Grenfell Enquiry and a ruling on whether the borough should pay for any resulting cost implications. The sun beamed momentarily through the open ground floor spaces of the two blocks, lighting up my path ahead. Beyond, the towers of the Isle of Dogs shimmered in the middle distance while out on the flats people sunbathed and picnicked. On afternoons like this, being in London felt like a privilege - and even the noisome aroma of the overheating, overtaxed sewers and the thrum of traffic nearby didn't make it seem any less attractive.
Stumbling wearily onto the pavement, I turned south onto Woodford Road and passed the sign which welcomed me to Forest Gate. I thought back to the start of my walk, and the faded sign hanging in the trees outside the Forest Gate Inn near Bell Common. As I headed south, the last tapering tail of Wanstead Flats became the final edge of the forest. Beyond this point, all was London. The city takes over in earnest here, and any sense of the ancient, loamy depths of the woods very swiftly fades. A tall housing block, Capel Point, stands sentinel over the edges of the Forest. The pulse of the city returns, and I'm swept along into the rhythm of other walkers again - a strange feeling after being largely alone since leaving Epping. I pass the quiet station at Wanstead Park, trains shuttling overhead under new electric wires, and press on south to Forest Gate station. The area is vibrant and diverse, the businesses reflecting this. There is noise and colour, endless diversion - a strange experience after a day dominated by the green of the forest and the sun-bleached yellow of the heath. As I collapse onto a bench to await the new, sleek purple train which will in time, become a Crossrail service, I contemplate the walk I've undertaken. Since I first stumbled into the forest, almost by accident, I've been captivated by its history and its strange otherness. I always considered myself capable only of urban walking, but some of my first forays into more adventurous exploits on less established paths began walking the trails and tracks in the forest. It may seem like a tame, unwilded place to many - and may seem like a dull and commonplace spot to those who live locally, but Epping Forest is a magical and strange place. A place where people live uncommonly close to genuinely ancient woodland, and where reservoirs and road junctions are hidden under the boughs of truly venerable Oaks, Planes and Hornbeams. I'm more convinced than ever after walking its length that there is really nowhere quite like the forest. I'm also very aware that I've only explore a tiny fraction of its vastness, and as the train pulls away from Forest Gate for Liverpool Street, I know I'll need to return.
You can find a gallery of images from the walk here.
Posted in London on Saturday 7th July 2018 at 10:07pm
It was a faintly ridiculous proposition, but I am it must be said, a creature of habit... I'd long ago booked the journey to London for this walk - speculatively scooping up cheap rail tickets in advance knowing that I'd probably end up planning the walk hastily at the last moment. I hadn't figured on a holiday to Germany nestling into the previous week, our return less than 24 hours beforehand necessitating a quick journey west from Heathrow, a little sleep and then an early return eastwards. I arrived at Paddington a little dazed by the whirl of travel and disarmed by the sheet of hot, dry air which hit me on leaving the air-conditioned railway carriage. True to form, I'd planned my itinerary for the day entirely on the fly, largely between naps on the train: I would head for the northern heights and walk the course of the Turkey Brook to the Lea. Beyond there? The valley had never really let me down, so it felt safe to see where I ended up without further planning. Plunging into the Underground for the journey to Kings Cross was strangely reassuring: after a week of being half-understood and perpetually a little disoriented, I was on more solid ground, back in the conversation-free zone of London. Trains at Kings Cross were reassuringly disrupted, the queue at the coffee shop frostily polite. I don't travel internationally often and I was struck by how doing so refocuses me on how English I am. Not, or at least I hope not, in that mildly racist and stereotypical football-supporting way. Not even today when a display of national pride was mandated by the World Cup. More in a sense that I'm culturally built for uncomfortable silences, frequent apologies and a background level of mild irritation. Already, before I'd really set off on the day's excursion I'd seen all of this. As I slalomed between disgruntled commuters trailing suitcases with little care and even less attention, I spotted that my cancelled train had been reinstated to run later than planned. I navigated to the platform and settled into the cool, quiet carriage. All too soon I was decanted at Finsbury Park to await the next connection to Gordon Hill. Cranes shadowed the parched platforms, swinging eerily and silently with payloads of ironwork for the two curved towers which were climbing into the air between the station and the city. Workmen ambled around the site - no need for undue haste at Saturday rates. Finsbury Park shimmered under the haze, the distant Emirates Stadium like a hovering red mirage. I slapped on suncream, guzzled coffee, jammed water bottles into the pouches of my rucksack. It felt good to be heading out of the city...
I'd been to Gordon Hill before - or at least the station, on a quest for the elusive third platform a decade ago - and I lazily remembered it as a sleepy, dormitory suburb of little note. The area was laid out in the 1860s on the land which formerly accommodated Gordon House - named for a colourful early occupant Lord George Gordon. Gordon was by most accounts, a skittish and inconsistent character who often took up causes for the sake of opposing the common view, but who also constantly railed against oppression and injustice. A staunch supporter of American independence and religious freedom, he paradoxically opposed more lenient treatment of Catholics - leading a march of 50,000 to Parliament in 1780. Following this, the so-called Gordon Riots resulted in the burning of Newgate Prison, damage to much property belonging to 'papists' and the death or injury of many hundreds of Londoners after the Army was summoned to put down the insurrection. Gordon was sent to the Tower of London for treason but was released after a trial where his Cousin, Lord Erskine, defended him by claiming the charge was a grievous over-stretching of the Treason Act 1351 and painting Gordon as seeking only to defend rather than injure his country. Gordon converted to Judaism and lived somewhat secretively in the home of a Jewish woman in The Froggery - a notorious slum in a dank and marshy area of Birmingham now buried under the equally benighted New Street Station. Required but unable - or perhaps unwilling - to provide securities and sureties for fourteen years of good behaviour, Gordon was finally imprisoned in Newgate where he became a popular figure providing wise counsel among fellow inmates, who greatly mourned his death in 1793 from typhoid contracted while imprisoned. Throughout his imprisonment, Gordon refused the support of his influential family in extracting him from the predicament which cost him his life. Dickens immortalised Gordon's demise in Barnaby Rudge, which takes the riots and subsequent events as its setting:
He had his mourners. The prisoners bemoaned his loss, and missed him; for though his means were not large, his charity was great, and in bestowing alms among them he considered the necessities of all alike, and knew no distinction of sect or creed. There are wise men in the highways of the world who may learn something, even from this poor crazy lord who died in Newgate.
Charles Dickens - Barnaby Rudge, 1841
Any trace of Gordon's home on Enfield Chase was gone - the land now the sleepy repose of the dead in Lavender Hill Cemetery and the equally silent surrounding streets of quiet, decent homes. The suburbs here grew swiftly after the arrival of the railway in 1910 and many of the streets are rather modern in appearance. Stymied by the cemetery having only one entrance, I retraced my steps alongside the chapel and back onto Cedar Road. Here, four rather dour looking blocks of flats glowered over the Chase, delighting in incongruously rustic French names: Lombardy, Picardy, Burgundy and Normandy. This truly felt like the hard edge of London. To the south of me, more suburbs like this one stretched for miles, to the north little more than parkland and trees. At the next opportunity, the narrow and tree-shaded Cook's Hole Road, I turned north-west and headed a little back towards the west. A gap in the hedge led into Hilly Fields Park - a pleasantly wild stretch of public parkland which ranged along the Turkey Brook. As a gang of workmen sunbathed through a tea-break on the fringe of the park, I stepped up the pace eager to get my first sighting of water.
My entrance to Hilly Fields Park was via a path leading through unmown grasslands and tall, mature trees which creaked pleasantly in the near silence. Enfield Chase - a royal deer park - had occupied much of the land hereabouts until 1777 when the 8300 acres were divided among local bodies and landowners, adding to the already complex web of stewardship in the area. Part of the vast forest which stretched north and east of London, the Chase had likely already been emparked by 1154. It was not recorded as a Chase until the 14th century, spending many years in the ownership of the Mandeville family with the Manors of Edmonton and Enfield claiming common rights. After the arrival of the railway and the ensuing building boom, Enfield Urban District Council became concerned at the loss of recreational spaces and purchased 62 acres of land from Archdeacon Potter which became Hilly Fields Park in 1911. By 1921 a bandstand had been erected in the western, more open part of the park and brass bands provided popular local entertainment. My path intercepted the Turkey Brook as it entered the park in a thick strip of truly old woodland which wound along its banks at the foot of the park. An official path followed the edge of the trees, but I noted a less formal route along the banks of the brook under the canopy of venerable trees. Despite the dry weather and the mere trickle I'd seen forming one of its tributaries, the brook was flowing busily here, having carved a deep twisting fissure into the soft earth of the woodland. A few other walkers, and particularly their overheated, tongue-lolling dogs had made a preference for walking beside - or even within - the stream as it meandered along the valley floor. The walk was pleasantly challenging - crashing through the burgeoning undergrowth and hopping over mischievous limbs of trees fallen during the winter. It felt a world away from the industrial zones of Western Germany or the densely built southern suburbs of my recent walks. I'd had this stream on my list of walks for some time, but I'd often rejected it as not presenting a long enough diversion for a day of walking unless I somehow found a way out to the awkward-to-access source near Potter's Bar. Somehow though, the Turkey Brook had found its time and I felt ridiculously content schlepping along beside the water and navigating around the tight bends with their exposed root systems and tiny, eroded cliff-faces. Eventually though, the path crossed the brook and forced me into the exposed and sun-bleached park. I skirted the now restored bandstand and followed the path which reflected heat back at me relentlessly, already wishing I could walk closer to the water.
The path left the brook to bisect Clay Hill, a surprisingly busy and fast-flowing rat-run which proved a challenge to cross. Nearby, the former Rose and Crown was slowly reverting to a private dwelling: the fine, cottage-like buildings of the former public house were stacked with disused furnishings and shuttered, but its sagging gables and low windows still looked curiously inviting in the morning heat. The inn has a long association with local hauntings and intrigue and is much mentioned in connection with Dick Turpin, but this is likely due to its ownership by a Mr. Nott who is reckoned to be the Highwayman's grandfather. The Rose and Crown was once the focus of the tiny hamlet of Bridge Street, and sure enough, the brook passed under an old brick bridge a little north of the Inn. Eschewing the official path to the south of the brook, I crossed the bridge and turned east along Beggar's Hollow - a very old byway which is now primarily the entrance to Whitewebbs Park Golf Course. The name, while evocative in itself, is likely a contraction of Bullbeggar's Hollow, referring to a bugbear or bogeyman rather than a mendicant: "Something used or suggested to produce terror, as in children or persons of weak mind". Perhaps our modern fascination with the frisson of unexplored edgelands isn't entirely novel? The land on the eastern side of Clay Hill delights in a long history of ownership, patronage and the rise and fall of aristocrats - but was finally purchased by the Borough of Enfield in 1931 and Whitewebbs is now a mix of municipal golf course and public park. It began life as one of the historic manorial estates which fringe Hertfordshire, and was by 1570 in the ownership of Robert Huicke, physician to Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The manor is often linked to the hatching of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 - but this is disputed by historians of Eastbury Manor House in Barking who seek that honour. On the enclosure of Enfield Chase much of the northern part of Whitewebbs became part of Theobalds Park, while the remainder was turned over to agriculture. The manor house is now doing lowlier duty as a Toby Carvery nearby. Nothing it seems, was ever simple in the shifting band of rus in urbe around London. The brook, and with it my path curved along the boundary of Forty Hall, an estate first recorded around 1620 with a manor built during the following decades and occupied by Sir Nicholas Raynton, Haberdasher and Lord Mayor of London. Forty Hall was purchased by Enfield Council from the Bowles family in 1951, becoming in due course a museum and successful event venue. Much of the land around, designated as part of the Metropolitan Green Belt, is carefully protected with large areas left wild and not accessible to the public. The path provided along the edge of the estate was a fine one though, and well used by locals it seemed as I reached the confluence of the Turkey Brook with the Cuffley Brook, trickling in from the golf course to the west. The junction was hidden deep in the undergrowth, and it was easier to discern the dry gully nearby which was once the original course of the New River. The river originally took a dizzying meander around Enfield exploiting the natural contour of the land to reach London, but in 1859 the construction of the Docwra Aqueduct at Bulls Cross made this hard-to-maintain rural loop redundant. Having walked alongside the modern diversion of the river recently, I was struck by how narrow and rudimentary the waterless old channel seemed - but also how ambitious the aim of moving fresh water over a considerable distance had been given 17th century engineering techniques. The broad loop in the river had once provided the boundary to Forty Hall's extensive estate, a role now assumed by the Turkey Brook as it struck out east. I crossed a narrow lane near Bulls Cross where another well-maintained brick bridge spanned the brook, complete with a County of Middlesex warning notice about its unsuitability for heavy carriages or locomotives. The path continued beyond the road, a little way south of the water now, and climbed slightly to run along the edge of what had now become a surprisingly deep, wooded valley. I soon arrived at the intersection with the New River Path with the strange thrill of recognition which comes with stumbling across a familiar spot while walking a new route. The river crossed the brook in the simple metal aqueduct before heading underground to pass through the banks of the valley. Also buried near here was the 'Artificial Recharge Scheme' where around two-thirds of the New River's flow is diverted in tunnel to the reservoirs at Walthamstow. I paused to try to unravel the complex lie of the land here, while dragonflies flitted around the path, coming to rest on the deep green undergrowth. Even though the tangle of natural and man-made watercourses was almost entirely hidden from view here, there were tell-tale signs of water in the wildlife. This meeting of ways was a decision point - and the lure of the New River remained strong despite my relatively recent visit. Some ways into the city never lose their mystery it seems.
The strip of scrubby, litter-strewn land marooned between the New River and the Great Cambridge Road felt forlorn and derelict, pedestrians permitted only by the sufferance of the British Province of the Society of Jesus - although the notice on the permissive footway had been defaced to remove the final word, in effect creating a mysterious secret society in this most unlikely of places. The land here adjoins the well-tended grounds of a Jesuit school, St. Ignatius' College, but the course of the Brook remains largely wild and untouched - presumably on land stockpiled for future expansion of a school deemed 'good' by OfSTED. From the crossing of the New River, I'd been able to hear the swish and drone of the road ahead - and the long walk through quiet suburban parks made the sound seem alien and unwelcome. Between the overgrown edges of the path up ahead I could see the silver flash of hubcaps against the grimy standard-issue anti-pedestrian fencing of the road's median. The path sputtered out suddenly onto flagstones at the foot of a steep staircase to the footbridge. Cyclists were syphoned off to the south in pursuit of an underpass which apparently lay some distance away. As I clambered to the peak of the rather slender bridge which swayed gently with the effort of holding me above the traffic, I considered the impressively broad dual-carriageway beneath: this was ancient Ermine Street, the Roman road to Lincoln and York. It had begun its journey in the heart of the City of London, sluggishly pressing through the traffic of Dalston and Tottenham, edging along the wide, flat bottom of the Lea Valley and patiently awaiting its moment of escape. Suddenly, at Bruce Grove the road wheels into the suburbs and emerges from the one-way system as a classic 1920s arterial route - one of the 'Great' roads which radiated from London, strewn with modernist factory buildings and fringed by large brick villas. But the 'Great Cambridge Road' doesn't go to Cambridge anymore - at least if the sanctioned destination signs are to be believed. Only Enfield and Hertford are name-checked now, and after that? Nothing. Some signs clearly have the old destination plated over, traffic directed east to the M11 which snakes out to the northeast. The old road remains busy - still the easiest way to escape from the east of London to the north, and those in the know prefer its long, straight lines to the gently deceptive curves of the motorway. The Romans knew best it seems, and neither time nor transport policy has succeeded in downgrading Ermine Street from its primary route status. I carefully descended from the alarmingly vibrating frame of the bridge, taking the continuation of the path as it burrowed behind Enfield Crematorium, passing a sizeable fringe of the grounds which wasn't yet used for burials. A curiously unmarked series of masts, pipes and generator buildings nestled sinisterly in the undergrowth to the north of the path but probably I reasoned, had an utterly mundane purpose in a state heavy with surveillance of the least consequential things. The humid air closed in under the overgrown foliage, and the heat and stillness gave the path a malign feeling. This was part of the London Loop footpath, and while I've stumbled across - and along - many sections which were less than salubrious, this was one of the least inviting I'd found for a while. I was glad to pass under a very low railway bridge and to escape into the open once again near Turkey Street station. A corner of parkland had been recently refurbished to include a circular bench, currently in use to support the flowers and photographs of an impromptu memorial, while the brook emerged from under the rails by way of a solid brick bridge, now flowing along the street with which it shared a name.
It's hard to know exactly which came first - Turkey Street, the hamlet into which I was now walking has a long etymological history, moving from Tokestreete via Tuckhey Street to its current name in the space of around 400 years. The brook seems to have been named from the hamlet rather than in the more traditional practice, and locally remains the Maiden's Brook for some. The name appears to be derived from a family name rather than any reference to bird or country, and yet it has persisted in this form since around 1800 while the hamlet it describes has changed considerably. After a walk along the attractive banks of the brook where a terrace of houses tumble along the slope to reach the water, I emerged onto the main drag of Turkey Street. It was a seething, channel of kebab houses, bus stops and slow-grinding traffic queues. I made a crossing, mostly to avoid two bored looking Jehovas' Witnesses who were sunbathing listlessly in their button-up white shirts on the corner near the bridge. It was here that the brook begins to be tamed by mankind, squeezed into a culvert and straightened to plough its easterly path. I gingerly glanced over the bridge, sandwiched between hairdressers and takeaways, rather dreading what horrid pollution I'd discover. In fact it was what I perhaps couldn't see which alarmed me more, as a beautiful silvery adult fish gazed sightlessly up from its resting place on the riverbed appearing to have been felled by some invisible pollutant. I made a mental note to look out for any others and to report them. The suburban centre of Turkey Street sat astride the old route of the Cambridge Road - still long and straight, but now the sluggish distant cousin of the grand and aspirational arterial route nearby. I realised that I'd be in the company of the London Loop for much of the rest of my walk now, so I let the familiar signs guide me through the tense locus of overheated people and shuddering cars. I remembered once picking trains specifically to cover this suburban route, and feeling this same unease while passing through the area even then. This felt like somewhere I wasn't welcome and just shouldn't be, and so I turned east at the first opportunity, tramping more contentedly along the bank of the brook as it formed the boundary of Albany Park. The water bloomed with algae and moved slowly between reedy edges, but despite its deep and straight channel, it felt unusually natural and timeless amid surroundings which shimmered with opportunism and immediacy. The brush-dry parkland looked like a recently mown hay meadow and was speckled with families lounging on the stubble in the intense sunshine which had settled over London for the day it seemed.
At the edge of the park, the path rose to cross Mollison Avenue - the industrial spinal route between outer London and the warehouses and distribution parks which scatter along the eastern edge of Edmonton. This crescent of modern, swiftly-built plastic sheds shows as a bright white mass on aerial photography, like a concerning presence on a body scan. The road was a little over-enthusiastically named for Captain Jim Mollison, early aviator and sometime husband of Amy Johnson - ostensibly due to the presence of the long-serving Weston Aerospace works nearby in Enfield. Below the bridge, hidden deep within a clump of well-established trees, the Small River Lea joined the Turkey Brook. The little river trailed away north, towards Waltham Cross where I'd first crossed this waterway some time back. This boundary crossing also confirmed my passage into the Lea Valley, and with a line of pylons walking south towards the Thames and the bulky chimney of Enfield Power Station towering over the view, it felt strangely comfortable to return to this familiar, semi-urban landscape. Ahead of me the hills of Essex reared up, woodland spreading down from their crests. From here it felt like utter folly to attempt to climb them in the heat of the afternoon. The terrain wasn't helping - offering teasing names like Enfield Wash and Freezy Water to remind me how hot it was trudging through the parched landscape. But this was a place dominated by water and the floor of the valley was noticeably cooler. I parted company with the Turkey Brook here, letting it slip away to the south, through the Prince of Wales Open Space towards the River Lea. It was possible to walk a little further along it, but I'd decided to press on eastwards towards Enfield Lock on the Lee Navigation. A lock has existed here since 1725, with the buildings scattered around it dating from various periods of reconstruction. The Lee Conservancy Toll Office, an attractive cruciform cottage near the lock, is one of the oldest remnants, dating from 1889. Lock 13 sits on a quiet, straight stretch of the Navigation which forms something of a boundary between the redeveloped industrial zones of the western valley and the more rural eastern banks. In the midst of this, clustered around the lock are the much-gentrified remains of the Royal Small Arms Factory. Established in 1816, the site provided greater capacity for delivering ordnance than the previous site at Lewisham in a mill originally used to make armour in the 14th century. The modern buildings at Enfield were not a swift success, fighting closure at several points until the Crimean War brought an arms-making boom in 1853. The site modernised rapidly, adopting mass-production techniques from the USA, and installing steam power to replace the waterwheels which had previously driven the machines. Nevertheless, the tiny pattern of streets which had developed around the factory did not extend far outside the island site bounded by the various channels of the Lea, and generations of families tended to remain within both the village and the employment of the factory. The works continued to thrive through the early part of the 20th century, but entered a decline after the Second World War, partially closing in 1966 and finally shutting its gates in 1988 after a series of privatisations and sales. In some ways little has changed: the mid-century terraces of Ordnance Road face the older factory worker's housing on Government Row across the Navigation - but beyond this, the island is a modern development on private land. There are few ways in or out, and the area has the air of a gated community. I crossed the head of the lock and turned south onto the scrubby path which ran alongside the canal, soon turning aside to circuit Swan and Pike Pool. I picked my way through the depressing mass of litter to a bench I'd rested at on a previous walk and took the opportunity to re-apply sunscreen and greedily drink water before continuing. The pond was quiet and still with a vague waft of refuse drifting in from the incinerator nearby. It was oddly reassuring to be back in the Lea Valley once again, despite its evident drawbacks.
I crossed one of the tangled branches of the Lea which splay around the island, and then the river's main channel by way of impressive concrete footbridges which stood incongruously in otherwise empty fields. Since I'd passed the entrance road to the King George V reservoir, civilisation had made a point of retreating suddenly in the way it often does in these parts. I picked my way along a rough but pleasantly crunching towpath with tall grass waving beside me and only the occasional furiously cycling local skittering by. The path turned north and then east, fringed by impressively tall thistles and extensive crops of nettles. This was Sewardstone Marsh and new territory for me. I'd walked on the western side of the vast reservoir on previous treks, sticking with the line of the Lea Navigation. The eastern bank was wilder and stranger - unmistakably Essex now. My path turned into a rough, broken driveway serving various dilapidated industrial yards which appeared to specialise in disposing of the evidence of motor accidents. If in doubt, it was burned - as too was the large yellow County of Essex signpost nearby advising against fly-tipping. There was a phantom-smell of fire and smoke in the air, a little disconcerting given the furious heat and the dry land. I reached a junction with Sewardstone Road - a thoroughfare I'd considered walking before but which had seemed oddly remote despite being sandwiched between suburban Waltham Cross and Chingford. The road had the feel of a country lane, with a huge farm building converted to a gastropub and many of the old market garden premises now large, rather ostentatious luxury dwellings with gateways capped with stone eagles and drives haphazardly populated by BMWs and Range Rovers. The shimmer of heat and the lack of any other pedestrians made the road feel lawless and dangerous. Cars flashed past at illegal speeds on the long, straight flat valley floor heading for disreputable Car Boot Sales and perhaps a Carvery afterwards? I battled the stereotypes but couldn't quite push them aside, so I decided to follow the London Loop markers once again, striking out over a stile and across a field of tall grass, leaving the road behind me. A well-walked lighter strip of grass indicated the route of the path, though I didn't feel entirely comfortable until I'd passed the first hedge and found myself on a more established track. This land felt contested and defended, though by who I couldn't imagine. It felt like there was no-one outside the confines of a car's cockpit for miles. The path climbed, slowly at first, then more steeply as it zig-zagged towards the summit of Barn Hill and the promise of welcoming tree cover at last. Near the summit, the path dived off into a thicket of trees and over more stiles, emerging at the top of a field where it seemed to duck into the beginnings of Epping Forest. A pair of donkeys sputtered and brayed in the next field. As I crossed the field I was startled by a young, female voice: "Someone's coming! Help. Do you know where we are?". As I approached the trees a small ground of Girl Scouts emerged, maps in hand and compasses dangling around their necks. One of them took the lead in talking to this strange man who'd emerged from the woods: "Are we here?" she enquired politely, pointing to the laminated offcut of Ordnance Survey map they were carrying. "No", I replied, "You're here" - indicating a point on the red dashed arrow they'd clearly been trying and largely succeeding, to follow. They seemed bewildered that the path wasn't marked on the ground - especially where it crashed into the rough, confusing wooded edge of this field - but reassured that they hadn't strayed as far as they feared from the route. I showed them my GPS marker on my 'phone screen and described how the route ahead led to a proper path. After asking about the Ordnance Survey app and a final nervous query about whether the donkeys were loose, they happily trotted off across the grass while I ungracefully flipped myself over the stile and into the confusing wooded patch where they'd come to grief. At this point, I remembered a friend's remark that if I passed nearby today he'd wave from Gilwell Hill where thousands of international Scouts were amassing for a 24-hour event. I figured these weren't the last Scouts I'd see today.
I emerged on Daws Hill with a decision to make - the narrow road ahead lead downhill to Chingford, but meant walking the margin of a busy, fast-running and poorly-sighted lane. I decided instead that the physical effort of tramping across two further hills was preferable to a tense roadside walk, and set off into the driveway of Gillwell Park, the headquarters of Scouting in the UK. As I approached the site, the noise grew from a dull rumble to a full-throated roar. Thousands of teenagers were here - cycling, trekking, camping, singing - it was like a massive theme park based around the wholesome fun I'd read about in Enid Blyton books but never quite found a way to enjoy myself. Happy groups of tanned, healthy young people drifted by speaking a variety of languages and were always faultlessly polite. I spied a veteran scout ahead occupying a deckchair guardpost and made directly for him to check I could pass through to use the footpath. Given that I was a large, sweating, red-faced older man attempting to pass the gates of a campground full of teenagers, he was surprisingly accommodating. He eyed me as I walked towards him and clearly recognised I'd walked quite a way to get here. After a quick chat he indicated where I needed to head to take the path which skirted the site and ascended to the top of Yardley Hill. A little before the summit an unofficial path struck out into an open field. Instinctively, I passed through and headed across the grass, admiring some impressive kite flying which was taking place nearby. As I turned west to find my path onwards, the view of the valley below took my breath away. The silver mirrors of the chain of reservoirs snaked southwards, leading towards a distant city of towers and shadows. Beyond the water the land rose, a green bluff indicating the higher ground where I'd set out this morning. London spread across the edge of valley, not seeming quite so impossibly large or endless here: the tower blocks of Edmonton were tiny upended bricks, and the mass of warehouses and retail shacks along the valley floor looked like an unpainted architect's model. It was impossible not to be moved by the sight of the vast metropolis - and I thought back to circling above the same area yesterday as my flight from Düsseldorf waiting for its appointed slot at Heathrow. The same territory viewed from a different perspective. Then, like now it all felt like it made sense and fitted together. I realised that, despite years of protesting otherwise as I plodded pavements and shadowed streams, I'd begun to know parts of this messy tangle better than I imagined possible. But there was still so much to discover... I made my way down from the hill and immediately climbed again, heading towards the top of Pole Hill. The view wouldn't be great with the trees fully in leaf, and with my knee protesting at being forced into another painful ascent and the air somehow denser and hotter than ever here in the forest, it felt ill-advised - but this seemed like a time to honour tradition. When I finally found my way to the top of the hill, confused by approaching from a new angle, I paused to admire the hazy view over London once again. When I'd first come here it felt like a frontier passed - the edge of a vast forest which must surely remain out of bounds to the likes of me? Since then I'd tramped the woodland paths, returning here again and again on route elsewhere. I touched the obelisk, observing the Meridian, and headed back downhill via the same path beside the golf course which had brought me to Pole Hill on my first visit. At the end of the path, Chingford suddenly began, the forest breaking against it like a wave on the shore. The streets were oddly quiet around the station, a pensive and strange feeling in the air. I felt like I'd descended into a deserted city, and wondered how long I'd been up there in the woods? Then, as I crossed the street to enter the station a loud roar erupted from the bars on the High Street nearby. England had scored. Football, however unlikely it seemed, might just be coming home. I collapsed onto the waiting train and dozed my way back to Liverpool Street. It was probably not wise to attempt this kind of walk on the hottest day of the year so far, and I was feeling the effects. Somehow in the heat the strangeness of Essex was more marked, the stillness of the forest curiously quieter. I was almost relieved when a reveller crossed the concourse of the station sporting a crudely painted Cross of St. George across his red, sunburned cheeks to bark just inches from my face: "IT'S COMING HOME!". Having not spoken for hours and still feeling weirdly disconnected from civilisation I blinked quizzically at him and stayed silent, not sure whether I was expected to agree with him, fight him or run away in terror? He looked at me for long moments, expecting some kind of reaction and getting nothing. Then, meekly and almost thoughtfully he looked down and quietly said to himself "It is. It's coming home..." before scurrying away to yell at his friends some more.
It had been a very unusual day...
You can find a gallery of images from the walk here.
Posted in London on Saturday 2nd June 2018 at 10:06pm
A sweaty clamber up from Honor Oak Park brought me to the top of One Tree Hill, and as the curtain of summer foliage parted Central London unravelled before me. Since the beginning of the ascent from the roadside near St. Augustine's Church I'd been mostly alone - with just glimpses of dog walkers through the trees - and I was glad. Already drenched and with eyes streaming with allergen-sponsored tears, I felt like a mess - and certainly not suitable for public viewing. The tree-framed window through which London was visible swayed hazily at its edges - perhaps the view would have been more expansive in Autumn, but for now I was content to look on a shimmering city of cranes and towers which rose in the middle distance. London abstracted - no visible sign of the chimerism of inequality or the growing concern about violent crime amongst young people which seemed to be the dominant narrative now. This was an unreal city which, from these southern slopes at least, appeared to be a painted backdrop. I'd meant to come to One Tree Hill for a long time - intrigued by the name, and directed here again by a recent episode of the excellent London's Peaks podcast, I'd finally found the route to fit the urge. My recent walks had occupied me in the south-eastern corner of London, which while something of a diversion, was not unprecedented. This fringe territory where endless suburbs blur into the edges of provincial, unreconstructed Kent had interested me for a long time and the views east from the Thames foreshore were always a draw. So, I'd scored a hasty and uneven line roughly north-easterly along the map - connecting One Tree Hill with my recent travels and roughly approximating the tangled and somewhat unloved Green Chain through South London. The day stretched ahead of me, sweaty and pollen-flecked. It was time to set off...
Before I left One Tree Hill I wandered the top of this significant peak, circling the concrete base of a First World War gun emplacement which sat at the summit to counter zeppelin raids. Sometimes more prosaically known as Honor Oak Hill, the hilltop has been strategically significant for some time, with an East India Company semaphore station established here in the eighteenth century, and the provision of a warning beacon during the Napoleonic Wars. The single tree after which it is named is known as the Honor Oak - where legend has it that Queen Elizabeth rested on her journey to Lewisham, and for centuries a marker of the southern extent of the Honour of Gloucester. This vast feudal estate comprised 279 manors by 1166 when the tree would have been situated in the midst of the still impressive extent of the Great North Wood. The hill later passed to the ownership of the Abbots of Bermondsey before the Dissolution of the Monasteries put paid to their tenure too. The slopes then took on a largely unremarkable existence, with little attention paid to their frequent but informal recreational use until 1896 when the local golf club attempted to enclose the land with a six-foot high fence to deter the locals. The formation of the Honor Hill Protest Committee - including numerous local dignitaries - soon followed, with the aim of protecting the public right of way to walk on the hill. The interminable administrative process of dealing with numerous landowners and vestries threatened to drag on for far too long for a number of local folk who on 10th October 1897 broke down the fence and stormed the hill. A reported crowd of 15,000 dispersed peacefully after singing 'Rule Britannia' at the summit. A week later with ranks swelled to over 50,000 the mob was more unruly, with stone-throwing and fire-setting taking place. Ten were arrested for trespass and fined or imprisoned which appeared to successfully quell these guerilla tactics. However, the protest continued through more ponderous legal channels, not finally being resolved until 1905 when the recently formed Borough of Camberwell purchased the land. The view - once claimed by Sir John Betjeman to be "As a prospect [...] better than that from Parliament Hill on Hampstead Heath" remains impressive - and with this last outcrop of the range of hills which climb steadily from Croydon being visible from some distance, it is no suprise that it has attracted a mythology - from Boudicca's last defeat to Dick Turpin's look-out.
I skirted the foot of the hill via the woodland path which wound between the trees, shadowing Brenchley Gardens. This broad, curving road sat on the embankment of the former railway branchline to Crystal Palace which I'd encountered previously on the South Circular. Beyond the railway alignment in in an unlikely symbiosis, the vast underground Honor Oak reservoir was covered by the well-kept greens of the Aquarius Golf Club. Glimpses of the view across the Thames filtered between the buildings as I followed the road to the gates of Camberwell New Cemetery. I passed the through imposing white-painted gateway and walked the ceremonial route towards the Mortuary Chapel - a rather traditional ecclesiastical-looking building by Sir Aston Webb and his son, Maurice which opened with the cemetery in 1927. A path took me towards the more impressive Crematorium by Maurice Webb working alone which was built in 1939 in a modern style with a fine square tower and stained glass window. While the bereaved rolled up to refresh flowers and tend graves, it felt strange and perhaps wrong to photograph this building, but there was a curious life and buzz about the place which prevented it becoming entirely macabre, assisted by the fact that the paths of the cemetery were surprisingly well used by those heading for the nearby recreation ground in football colours for a junior match of some apparent importance. This corner of London - not quite Forest Hill, not quite Peckham - is a strange city of the dead with the former boroughs of Camberwell and Lewisham both locating their respective Necropolis on the line dividing their turf. The tracks of the railway lines to Brighton parallel the old administrative boundary, occupying the former route of the ill-fated Croydon Canal, and I crossed their deep cutting via a slightly forbidding footbridge and entered the often overlooked village centre of Crofton Park. This suburb on the site of the original hamlet of Brockley largely exists only because of its own small and somewhat unloved station on the lines into Blackfriars. Near the station, the Rivoli Ballroom stands resolute - the last extant example of the opulent and somewhat kitsch dancehalls which would have graced almost every suburban High Road in the mid 20th century. My route continued east via the long curving route of Brockley Grove, a pleasant street of decent houses which faced the tall, swaying uncut grass of Brockley and Ladywell Cemetery. Formerly separated by a wall, these two burial grounds opened within a month of each other in 1858 as Deptford and Lewisham Cemeteries respectively, and didn't finally become a single cemetery until 1948. Given their proximity to the Naval Yards of Depford, both feature a number of nautical burials, not least that of William Rivers who was killed by 'falling from the maintop of HMS Sapphire at Hobart Town on November 5th 1877 aged 19'. Now the wall separating the two sites had fallen, and both had returned to nature to a great extent - but at the Ladywell end a rather grand iron gate still worked hard to outshine its neighbour.
Stately Brockley Grove dissolved into Ladywell Road and once again I crossed one of the imperceptible lines which divide South London communities. The road began a gradual descent into the valley of the Ravensbourne via a ladder of terraced streets leading south, all given clumsy-sounding compound names to honour the Victorian builder's sizeable flock of children: Elsiemaud, Amyruth, Arthurdon and so on passed by as I trudged towards the much-gentrified centre of Ladywell. I quickly recognised the pleasant little village around the railway station from a previous walk, but I hadn't noted during that riparian approach just how jarring the transition was from a proud but struggling mainly black neighbourhood into the resolutely white hipster-magnets of the bakeries and taverns which clustered around the bridge. Beneath the road, the River Ravensbourne gurgled in its concrete prison while the heat which was now beating down on the tarmac made the cool flow of even this beleaguered watercourse seem oddly attractive. I moved onward, descending from the bridge and soon leaving Ladywell to enter the hinterlands of Lewisham. I hadn't originally intended to head this way - my plans suggested a route further to the south, even perhaps rewinding part of my perambulation around the South Circular - which felt less than edifying today. But the need to find a drink had driven me towards civilisation which was perhaps no bad thing. The route also led me past the remarkable Ladywell Bathhouse. More lately known as the 'Playtower' this remarkable survival of a 19th century swimming pool and bathing facility is part of a cluster of former civic buildings beside the Police Station and Mortuary buidlings. Erected in 1884, and designed in part by the local architect Thomas Aldwinkle, the building was remarked on by the Kentish Mercury as 'quite an ornament to the neighbourhood, standing in striking contrast to the ancient church behind it. The building has a remarkable local history - having hosted record-breaking swimming champions, political meetings, Olympic standard gymnasts and finally a play centre until final closure in 2004. Since then the building has decayed and suffered arson attacks - to the extent that it was named one of the ten most at risk buildings by the Victorian Society in 2015. Boarded up and abandoned, the building awaits its fate - which more optimistically appears to be conversion to a Curzon cinema sometime soon.
After the rather quiet civic island on the outskirts of town, the sudden rush of Lewisham High Street was something of a shock. Traffic pulsed through the lights, and I tried to plan my next move while navigating the busy pavement. People stood around outside shops as if stunned by the sudden heat, and I slalomed around them in an attempt to find somewhere to stock up on liquids before taking on the steeper hills later in the walk. My initial plan of dashing across the street and back into the suburbs was soon abandoned - this stretch of High Street had little to offer and I was forced to head for the centre of town. The skyline was a broad frieze of blue sky and tall cranes - the same knot of new buildings I'd seen from the river on an earlier visit. Close up the new developments were uninspiring and formulaic: stacked geometries of primary colours and too-clever angles. Names were to be assumed by interpretation from some ancient use of the ground on which these new buildings sprouted, resulting in a proliferation of granaries, mills, stables and the like. A little way to the north, the High Street divided around the gloomy brick stacks of the former Riverdale Centre. Dating from 1977 this surprisingly large shopping centre is due for an upgrade soon, and in some ways is remarkable in retaining considerable footfall despite new developments nearby which have effectively killed-off similar centres around the capital. That said, the offer here was in the mid-to-lower sector of the market which was echoed in the drab facades of the clearly struggling High Street which glowered across at the centre. Between the run of bus stands and the stores, a steel band belted out music to a heat-subdued crowd which nodded and shuddered lazily to the irrepressible clamour. I swerved onward, finding myself at the unprepossessing corner of Lee High Street. A wall of buses waited to turn the corner, and I wondered if I'd made the right choice of walk today. The sun had dipped behind low cloud and the air had become a sticky, fume-laden soup which coated the inside of my dry mouth unpleasantly. I withdrew cash but couldn't find anywhere to spend it - Lewisham had almost defeated me. It remained an overheated and frustrating mystery - and just as confusing and unwelcoming as it had felt on my previous brief passes through the territory. Perversely, I wanted to understand the place even more as a result. The road ahead - the A20 - which was still somewhat anachronistically signposed 'Channel Tunnel' swiftly became a typical London escape-route which could be at any corner of the compass with the ubiquitous ranks of hair salons and kebab shops tumbling along both sides. Preparing for a dull stretch of walking, I glanced along the oblique junction with Clarendon Rise and was stunned out of my mental grumbling. Firstly, a beautiful Hindu temple stood rather surprising among the garages and back-entrances, set a little back from the road and in a tight, corner site. The decorative plaster front dripped with carvings and reliefs, the gable divided by an impressive stacked tower which glinted above its drab surroundings. At ground level beside the temple a faded blue railing signified water. I've come to know these tell-tale gaps in the streetscape well and always investigate them for potential brooks and streams. Sure enough, trickling grimily below the road the Quaggy River snaked out from under Lewisham and headed east. This gave my walk something of a new energy - and I struck out with a little more effort than I'd managed on the last stretch.
The Quaggy soon slipped out of site. Forming the boundary of back gardens and mediated by flood relief schemes, it is an anonymous river for much of its course. My own first encounter was years ago at Lewisham Station where it passed below the platform in an unremarkable concrete culvert helpfully accompanied by an Olympic-funded information board. Here though it was still cocooned, but it felt wilder and intruded somewhat more on its surroundings. The land dipped towards its shallow valley, and the street patterns followed its torturous curves. The Quaggy was still making its mark it seemed. I pressed on via road, following the straighter route while the river looped lazily to the south. I could have deviated away from the road and headed for Manor Park, but I was confident I had the river in my sights again. Sure enough, as I poked around the outskirts of the Sainsbury's at Lee, the river again appeared passing under a nondescript bridge nearby. Its neighbours had built a platform to sit above the waters beside their business, and it was hard to tell if this was a slight on the apparent unimportance of the river or a genuine attempt to make the most of otherwise urban surroundings. Once I finally found my way into the store, I shopped swiftly and considered my options - I could try to approximate the route of the Quaggy, ending up at the South Circular a little further away than I'd hoped - or I could use it as a loose guide and strike out into the uncharted private avenues of the Cator Estate? I opted for the latter, disappearing into the leafy and primped Manor Way and soon feeling unpleasantly oppressed by the experience. Once past the gates and the rather disapproving glare of the red-brick gatehouses the road was straight and dull, lined on one side by ranks of pleasant and expensive looking homes while to the south the land fell away to become Blackheath Park on the banks of the Quaggy. Much of my walk through the estate of John Cator (who's other lands I'd encountered before) was spent worrying about finding an exit or being turned back to the start by an overeager security guard. In the event, the exit showed up first - after passing a little extension to the estate posed around an ornamental lake formed from what appeared to be the sometimes elusive Mid Kid Brook stream, a grim access path led away behind a block of untidy garages next to the less salubrious homes of Casterbridge Road. Here I noticed a phenomenon which had seemed at first unlikely but for which evidence was now harder to ignore: the endless parade of 'Saturday dads' walking or wheeling their children along the quiet afternoon roads. Across Lewisham and Ladywell I'd seen the same parade - a faintly depressing sense of resignation on the faces of the pushchair driving men while their offspring chattered excitedly or dozed in the heat. I sensed the frustration and defeat of many of them, among sometimes more hopeful scenes. Aware of my perhaps unfair assumptions, I took my spot in this parade and slalomed along a much-diverted path through a development zone bounded by view-defying temporary wooden fences covered in computer-generated scenes of urban paradise. I need not have worried about finding a way out - the proprietors of Kidbrooke Village really seemed to want me to head this way and to see all of their promotional material...
And so I found myself in one of the most uncanny zones of London I've experienced since those heady pre-2012 days in Stratford. Put simply, Kidbrooke Village didn't exist, despite the best efforts of Berkeley Homes to convince me it was here. This was the site of the Ferrier Estate. Constructed between 1967 and 1972 by the Greater London Council, when completed the estate consisted of nearly 2000 homes in eleven 12-storey prefabricated blocks and associated low-rise units linked by walkways. Perched on the edge of resolutely White British Greenwich the estate didn't fare well and became a convenient spot to manage demand for social accommodation by the flawed strategy of housing many families who were on the margins of the Borough's population on the same estates. A combination of sharply increased numbers of refugee families, a dizzying mix of languages and ethnicities and a policy of generally abandoning maintenance and improvements meant the fate of the estate was sealed. It was often mentioned in the same breath as the other two inconveniently troublesome South London 'hell holes': Heygate, Aylesbury, Ferrier. Only total erasure would exorcise these failures of policy - at least in the minds of those who had, in some cases presided over their construction. And so they fell, and thus by 2012 much of the old estate had gone and Kidbrooke Village had moved from a hazy, watercolour sketch on a drawing board to a concrete plan. Meanwhile the Ferrier residents were being scattered around the capital and beyond. Berkeley were going to do this differently, however - they'd build a community, not just houses. And so in the midst of the landscaped wetlands which may or may not be fed by the vestigial waters of the Kyd Brook, the 'Village Centre' squatted the corner of a modern block. Looking worryingly temporary in nature, the doors were closed today. Few people were around, and while I unenthusiastically downed an unripe banana, only a few more dads and a powered-wheelchair passed by. I located a waste bin - pristine and empty of course - and headed east towards the station. The parcel of vacant land between the railway and the village was being slowly filled in - a new academy and more housing were promised on the glossy hoardings surrounding the plot - and the road onward was lined with scaffolded blocks awaiting their final fit-out. It struck me here that Kidbrooke was no more - the station served the new village, but any sense of a historical Kidbrooke had been erased. The suburban hinterlands stretched away north - but the place had been bypassed twice already, and the focus had shifted south. I navigated the pedestrian subways under the confusing junction where the improved route of the A2 bucked and reared northwards towards London noting there was no indication of how far away Kidbrooke was on foot among the direction signs. In fact, this spot in the underpass may as well have been the real village centre - and indeed perhaps once was?
The footpath emerged from its cool, green tunnel at Kidbrooke Green Park. This parched lozenge of parkland bounded by the old and new routes of the A2 was scattered with sunbathers and dog walkers who didn't appear to regard their local bit of respite from the suburbs as a historically important scrap of ancient wetland at all. This remaining corner of the former village green is evidence of a set of historical compromises which could have led to a very different landscape hereabouts. Kidbrooke as a suburb is a recent development, having largely grown up along the route of Rochester Way - a bypass for Shooter's Hill which offered traffic a flatter, less taxing route out of London from the 1930s, slicing into the green in the process. The remains of the village green were then later proposed as the location of a vast interchange between the southern and eastern flanks of The C Ringway - the urban motorway which was to have connected the North Circular to a replacement for the South Circular. This road would then have turned east and scythed an utterly destructive course through South London's suburbs on a viaduct. Little of this road was built, but evidence of the extent of its impact can be seen in the strips of new development which fill in the once reserved motorway corridors which languished while the plan was debated by the GLC and the Boroughs. The complex twist in the A2 here also gives a clue as to how much would have been entirely obliterated by the South Cross Route as it ploughed west towards Brixton and Camberwell. The plans were not popular with the London Boroughs, and in particular were fought bitterly by Eltham and Greenwich, and despite a number of proposed concessions they were finally buried with the remains of the inner Ringway plans by 1973. The people of Kidbrooke likely have the residents of Blackheath to thank for this, as the organised opposition to the devastating destruction of shops and homes in their village forced consideration of a cut-and-cover tunnel which delayed construction and escalated costs to unsustainable levels. There may not be much of Kidbrooke's Village Green to see now - but there could have been far, far less. It was becoming extremely hot walking weather now - and I clocked the temperature at approaching thirty degrees as I crossed the yellowing grass of the park and emerged on Rochester Way. The long straight carriageway shimmered in the heat between its generous pavements and wide verges. This was classic London arterial: a textbook example of how roads into and out of town were envisaged in the earliest days of the motor age. I set off, fixing my eyes on the wooded slopes rising in the near distance. I was keen to get back under the trees and to shelter from the overbearing sunlight as soon as I could. The ribbon of tarmac unravelled endlessly ahead - a modern-day Watling Street on which surprisingly little traffic bothered my ears. A bypass that had been bypassed already, its lifespan as a major route ended by the wider and louder A2 which was still within earshot to the south, offering a thrum of white noise to the still and hazy afternoon heat.
A diversion into the quiet side streets had given me an initial hint of how steep the ascent would be from this direction, but I wasn't fully prepared for the slope which rose between houses to climb a meadow and disappear into the trees. Shooters' Hill had been a challenge last time, but approaching from the south the ascent was steeper and less forgiving. I fixed on a bench halfway up the rise towards the crest and leant into the climb. As I approached I noticed that a family had set up their picnic under the trees opposite the bench, and my British reserve wouldn't allow me to collapse sweating and panting just feet from their chosen spot. So I pushed on, suppressing my heavy breathing enough to pant a hopefully nonchalant and breezily casual 'Afternoon!' as I trudged by. At the top of the hill I found a fallen tree I'd been aiming for had just been alighted on by a cackling and capering gang of exchange students with lurid backpacks and packed lunches, so I leaned against the cool trunk of a venerable tree and rested, surveying the panorama of South London which was revealed from this height. The view southwards often feels less impressively sweeping - perhaps because the hillier terrain of the south doesn't permit the same vast panoramas seen toward the north. It struck me however, under the canopy of ancient woodland here, that there would once have been a sea of treetops as far as I could see - the Great North Wood stretching south into a hazy green distance. I turned back to the climb, wanting to find my way deeper into Oxleas Woods. The footpaths were busy with families, a distinct aroma of sunblock and ice cream preventing me from feeling like I was truly treading ancient byways here. Nevertheless, the woodland paths felt surprisingly wild in places and I was able to head deeper and lose myself in the greenery. The mossy trunks and ceiling of foliage tinted the view green, and kept me pleasantly cool while the path crunched with fallen twigs and seed pods. I slowed my pace to enjoy the cool respite offered by this venerable swathe of woodland. In the process I managed to regain both composure and a reasonable core temperature, at least until I emerged in the remnants of formal gardens which had belonged to one of the large properties which once flanked the woodland where the sun beat down on me once again. The water tower at the top of Shooter's Hill dominated the view - and I soon found myself near The Bell once again, waiting to cross the busy flow of traffic and looking back over the scene of my recent walk in from Kent. My aim now was to further retrace that route, at least as far as the Shrewsbury Tumulus. I wanted to take the mysterious route of Mayplace Lane down the hill towards the Thames. Sure enough, the curious little track was waiting beside the swaying grass on the burial mound, just as it had apparently waited for time immemorial. My oldest maps of the area show the lane bending to the north and slightly east, resolutely retaining its route as generations of new development slowly surrounded it. The street signs suggested the route was not suitable for vehicles - and in fact it appeared it was also not ideal for my aching left knee which clicked and popped ominously as I began the descent on the winding lane which provided a rutted and uneven service road at the rear of properties on Eglinton Hill. I marvelled at the driving skills of residents who apparently managed to get their cars along this track and into the various garages and gardens which backed onto the route. The lane headed steeper down hill, crossing several roads of Victorian terraces which had remarkably allowed this old route to cross unhindered. I was amazed that the unsentimental and economically-minded builders of that era would have willingly left a house unbuilt on each road to accommodate Mayplace Lane. Eventually the route gave up at the foot of the hill near the shops on Herbert Road. The tall, brick blocks of the somewhat infamous Barnfield Estate loomed over the end of the lane as I made my way between buildings and back to more modern carriageways, glad to have followed Mayplace Lane - but still intrigued to know if it had ever reached all the way to the Thames?
I was now heading east again along Plumstead Common Road, which was surprisingly congested and difficult to cross. My aim was to walk a short distance along the road before getting swiftly off the pavement and onto the Common. As I approached I noticed the grass was busy with sunbathers haphazardly scattered across the generous green area which had, like One Tree Hill been hard-won. The Common has a long history of public use, being mentioned in the Domesday Book as Plumstede - a place where plums grow - even then known as common land used for grazing. As the Royal Arsenal expanded operations at Woolwich, large swathes of the Common were secured from Queens College, Oxford who owned the land, to provide space for workers' homes. The coming of the railways rapidly accelerated this process of building new suburbs, and In June 1876 the local populace began to take action to defend their ancient rights. These protests caught the attention of the Commons Protection League and charismatic and radical Irishman John De Morgan in particular - and on 1st July, under his leadership a crowd of 1000 people stormed the common, tearing up illegal fences and marching on the home of Sir Edwin Hughes, local Member of Parliament and at the time, also leader of the Conservative Party. De Morgan was arrested and jailed for seventeen days, but the increasing pressure on local politicans resulted in the passage of the Plumstead Common Act in 1878 and the purchase by the Metropolitan Board of Works which has resulted in the area remaining protected to this day. Near a rank of well-used tennis courts I paused to rest, watching a mysterious black-clad young woman undertaking some sort of outdoor art-project involving a huge carpet of taped-together paper and spray-cans on the footpath nearby. A little way across the common was the football pitch where Arsenal FC had played their first games, originally as the 'football division' of Dial Square Cricket Club, founded by the workers of Woolwich Arsenal. Much had changed on the common since then, and the tiny café next to the Old Mill public house was now 'The Plumstead Pantry' with a nice line in artisan coffee and exclusive baked goods. As I trudged by, glancing up at the brick tower of the windmill which remained in the grounds of the nearby pub, a young customer pushed by, busily devouring a croissant in a cloud of pastry dust and swaggering across the width of the pavement. He paused to glug greedily at a thimble-sized cup of coffee, so I made my escape- scooting by and getting on my way as swiftly as I could. The Common stretched to the east - an impressive swathe of land had been secured by those protests including a spot intriguingly marked on my map as The Slade Ravine. I followed the path rather skeptically, thinking that something as impressive as a ravine would surely have made it into the mythology of London which I'd been reading for years? The path dipped into a tunnel of trees and became a flight of steep stone steps, and two things became apparent: firstly that there was genuinely a ravine in Plumstead Common, and secondly that I'd likely to have to clamber up the other side of this rather deep impression in the landscape! At the bottom of the ravine a series of ponds separated by weirs and filter beds provided a cool, green-shaded haven for wildlife. This strange, venerable place deep in the earth felt safe and hidden, even from the now overbearing heat and the drone of traffic on Kings Highway nearby. Formed by a glacier melting into a fast-flowing river during the last ice age, The Slade was now a dry gully carved deep into the land, dividing Plumstead Common from Winns Common where a Bronze Age burial mound is all that remains of an established dwelling which endured through Roman times. Winns Common was reinhabited briefly after the Second World War when a village of prefabricated homes housed the Blitzed and displaced folk of London. Generations of settlers would have known this spot, and unlike its surroundings, it would have looked remarkably similar to them too.
I struggled up the steps out of the ravine slowly, noting another walker following me and picking up my cue to take things equally steady despite likely being a good deal fitter than I. I collapsed onto a nearby bench and tried to look nonchalant as I consumed the last of my water and decided what to do next. I think my fellow sweaty and exhausted walker was jealous of my bench, but there were others to be had not far away! My plan had been to tackle Bostall Hill and descend on Abbey Wood via the site of Lesnes Abbey - but that would have to wait. Another ascent in the blazing sunshine was a little too much to contemplate just now. Instead I decided to strike out for the same spot by staying on the flat as far as I could. After crossing Winn's Common I began the descent towards the Thames, my knee now making genuinely ominous noises as I shuffled downhill passing by a series of geologically-themed squat tower blocks: Crystal, Galena and Marble House. All of them were prematurely decked with the St. George Cross in anticipation of a World Cup to come. From this vantage point the floodplain of the Thames opened out impressively below, with the near distance occupied by the Crossrail depot and the curious industrial estate-like anonymity of HMP Belmarsh, home to Britain's most violent and prolific offenders. Flanked by its sister prisons, HMP Isis and HMP Thameside, all three looked like innocuously vast branches of B&Q from this safe distance. At the foot of the hill, Plumstead High Street pulsed with heat and shuddered with car stereo basslines while we all waited time at the junction with Basildon Road. Fumes and dust hovered in the air, and I was glad to reach an opportunity to turn into the side-streets and zig-zag towards Abbey Wood station. My spirits and my feet had rallied now that the end of the walk was in sight, but swiftly fell again when I spied a bus heading my way marked 'Rail Replacement Service'... I may not have needed to plan this walk extensively, but I had - embarrassingly - left some of the key details unchecked it seemed. I swiftly replanned - and noted a regular bus service from outside the currently closed station which made a circuit of Thamesmead before depositing passengers at Plumstead station, the current extent of operations on the line. This local service seemed infinitely preferably to a slog through the same clogged streets I'd just walked on a hot bus full of disgruntled would-be rail passengers. A short wait followed, before a small group of us were whisked away by a single-decker which navigated the intricate web of roads through this vast and relatively late-come suburb of London. As we passed over the Southern Outfall Sewer at Eastern Way I was able to orient myself by way of an earlier walk in similarly hot weather. After observing the other-worldly architecture of the original concrete blocks and walkways of Thamesmead passing by, I settled into my seat for the remainder of the ride, before joining most of the other passengers on a dash around the corner for a waiting train at Plumstead station.
On the run back over the South London rooftops I pondered today's walk. Everything felt strange and temporary just now, uncomfortably close to the brink. My thoughts and indeed dreams were plagued by decisions I had little power over. This was the perfect antidote - a walk to connect points which had become increasingly familiar, but one which didn't have a definite purpose. With no river or road to follow and no fixed itinerary, I'd failed no-one by turning aside here or there: being seduced into tracking parts of the Quaggy River in Lewisham, but abandoning it to explore the lost suburb of Kidbrooke or even my final diversion away from the route in Abbey Wood. Instead, I'd walked off a little of my anxiety, letting it evaporate into the heat as I let the byways of London take me largely where they chose. I thought back to the moment on the top of One Tree Hill, gazing out over London as an unreal, painted city. I thought too about the protestors who had gathered at One Tree Hill and on Plumstead Common to protect my future right to walk on unspoiled greenspaces within London. The backstreets of Lewisham felt more solid and dependable than any panorama just now, and a bit of steadfast reality was just what I'd needed today.
You can find a gallery of images from the walk here.
Posted in London on Saturday 28th April 2018 at 11:04pm
Today's walk had crept upon me unexpectedly. The weeks had tumbled by unusually swiftly and a confused calendar thanks to rail works and changing plans meant I'd not prepared myself. In reality, the process of planning a walk isn't as onerous or complex as I often make it sound: usually, it's a germ of an idea followed by a cursory study of a map to ensure there is actually a path to follow. The research comes afterwards, reconstruction undertaken with feet smarting and imagination fired. There are numerous half-formed plans circling at any given time - and sometimes one leaps forward as an essential next step or perhaps just won't quite stop cropping up, coincidentally or otherwise. It was just one of these nagging presences which drew me south of the river again today... I felt like I'd been haunted by Watling Street for years now. I had a map of Roman Roads as a boy on which I'd been shown how close my home was to the confluence of Icknield Street and Fosse Way - but it was the improbably perfect diagonal trajectory of Watling Street which most intrigued me. After lying dormant in my imagination for years the road had resurfaced - first in print with Jon Higgs state-of-the-nation travelogue and Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore tramping Steve Moore's 'psychic circuit', then it began to assert a presence on the ground seemingly wherever I've walked in recent months. When I've looked at maps to plan future excursions the arrow-straight incision across the north of Kent has been impossible to ignore. The red slash of an A-road scythed across the map like a fresh, clean paper cut. Walking roads - ancient and often less so - has some precedent here, so it didn't feel strange to plot a course along the route as a potential future trip. Yet I still filed this one away, for an especially rainy day perhaps - because surely a straight line couldn't make for the kind of convoluted itinerary I'd prefer? But as I prepared hastily for this trip, I couldn't quite shift the idea that I needed to connect up previous walks via this old track.
And so I made my way to Charing Cross to take my pick of the carriages on an empty train to Dartford. The rumble and shudder through the southern suburbs was becoming very familiar now but felt somewhat eerie as I appeared to be almost entirely alone onboard. The train snaked through the refurbished London Bridge station - grey plastic panelling and swooping escalators descending into the re-imagined undercroft - and left the gravity of the city. I let the greenery of the suburbs drift by the window while I pondered my changing relationship with Kent over the years. On my first excursion here I was entirely unimpressed: the ponderous amble through the middle of the county by train was dull and charmless, ultimately leading to desolate, unremarkable Ashford. I revised my view over subsequent visits - especially those involving the northern coast which had grown to fascinate me. Now, after a sequence of walks which had dallied along the border of the county, I was curious to exit by this most ancient of trackways. It felt like a fitting way to mark a re-evaluation. The train slowed after passing familiar ground at Crayford, and high above the marshes I could see the towers of the Dartford Crossing and the distant glower of Essex on the horizon. Lurching across the junctions where the splayed branches of the North Kent Lines finally reconstituted themselves into a single railway, the train slowly came to a halt at Dartford. Below the raised platforms of the station, I spotted the former millpond fed by the River Darrent which was busily being redeveloped as a waterfront living opportunity. The narrow platforms and dated, gloomy exit stairs led out to a modern but down-at-heel ticket hall tacked onto the rear of the Borough's grim civic centre. A bridge took me over the busy inner ring road, descending near the red brick flank of the Orchard Theatre. Dartford was a town which had willingly conceded its soul - and just a few miles along Watling Street the vast hole-in-the-chalk of Bluewater sucked the income out of the locals with alarming efficiency. Dartford mopped up the rest via a network of pound shops, chain pubs and gambling opportunities. I headed for the centre of town where Spital Street followed the ancient geometry of the Roman road, heading in from the settlement of Vagniacae at nearby Springhead. The site there had been a centre of worship before the coming of the Romans, with evidence of Iron Age rites near the pools where the River Ebbsfleet rises. The tradition of worship and offering continued, with the Romans turning the site into a major complex of temples - and now Bluewater stands close by, drawing its own pilgrims. Perhaps grim, inward-looking Dartford has always been the poor relation hereabouts? I turned west on Spital Street, suspecting that any hint of interesting shopping opportunity lay along the pedestrian zone to the east. The narrow road was lined with abandoned shops, proper old-fashioned independent cafés emitting tempting breakfast aromas and a brace of repurposed theatres deputising as evangelical churches. I felt uncomfortable, though there was nothing especially menacing about the place. Perhaps in fact a little edge would have helped. Dartford just felt tense and contracted: out of the gravity of London despite being (just) within the grand circle of the M25. I began to climb West Hill, finally falling into step with the historical route of Watling Street as it passed the Royal Mail sorting office and the crumbling remains of The Lock-up: Dartford's first police station and latter-day dosshouse for itinerants. It was good to be walking, and a relief to be leaving this oppressive town.
The last stretch of Watling Street within the boundaries of modern Kent was a drab channel through suburbia, with occasional bursts of local shops which were invariably closed for business. The land rose gently ahead of me as I crested the narrow tongue of high ground which separated the Cray and the Darrent. It struck me that only a few weeks ago I'd been further north on the bleak marshland which sat between this road and the Thames. Up ahead was a junction with the B2174 - an inauspicious number for what was an early incarnation of that most British of institutions, the bypass. The road arcing south around Dartford and avoiding the narrow progress of Watling Street through the town was opened by the Prince of Wales in 1924 - or perhaps by an overzealous worker who severed the ribbon in advance of the royal scissors. The press of the time dubbed this the 'New Watling Street'. The road meets its much older counterpart at this rather inconsequential roundabout which, since 1965 at least, has formed the border between London and Kent. Looking west there a proud sign advised motorists that they were about to enter the London Borough of Bexley, while to the east Kent offered no such welcome. There was however a marker here - squarely between the poles of the sign advertising the roundabout an 1861 Coal Duty post remained in place and in good shape. As my excursions have taken me further out into the suburbs of London, these administrative obelisks have become welcome markers of my progress back towards the City. Finding one here today felt like a first indication that this might be a more interesting walk than perhaps I'd expected. There were few other signs that I'd passed into London - the line of former council houses didn't break step, even when the insignia on the wheelie bins changed. Beyond the junction, the road led downhill once again, into the valley of the Cray. There was a brief thrill of familiarity as I noted the retail parks which had greeted me when I'd entered Crayford from the south. I braved a pair of scornful, braying locals concealing cans of Special Brew to snap a picture of the clock tower before heading across the river. Crayford was much as I'd left it a few short weeks ago - a busy churn of suburban life shot through with traffic heading for Bluewater or Lakeside. It was only after a few minutes of brisk uphill walking that I realised my plan to attempt this walk largely without a map had failed me. The road had turned slightly north to cross the river and I'd blithely headed straight on. The High Street began to dwindle as I climbed, the local shops being replaced by a string of takeaways and abandoned vape shops. I knew this wasn't where I should be and instinctively stopped to consult the map. I had indeed gone straight ahead - but the kink in the route over the river had thrown me off course by about 45 degrees. I trudged back downhill, acutely aware I was passing people I'd just moments ago huffed past on my ascent. I adopted a facial expression which I hope conveyed that of course I'd meant to walk up the hill and back again so soon. Back at the bridge I turned southwest, immediately recognising the route I'd taken in reverse along London Road while walking along the Cray. I was back on track.
Watling Street was dominated for a few miles now by suburban encroachment. The green spaces of Shenstone Park and Bigs Hill Wood gave some relief from the parade of recycling boxes and wheelie bins as the road made a steady climb away from the Cray valley. I'd been intrigued by the near life-size silhouette bronze sculptures of cows in Shenstone Park on my last passing, and getting closer enabled me to read more of the story: David Evans & Co. made silks nearby, using the Rubia Tinctorum or Common Madder plant to create a vivid red dye and maintaining a herd of cattle on the site to provide manure to fix the colour in the cloth. Beyond the park, the road returned to suburbia, still climbing as I faced down a cold, persistent drizzle of rain. The rise reached a plateau at Pinnacle Hill - a rather overstated name perhaps - and the view ahead opened before me. This was Bexleyheath, as announced by the strange tumble of gables and brick of the new Civic Centre. For many years the busy corner of Watling Street and Erith Road was occupied by the computer centre of The Woolwich Equitable Benefit Building and Investment Association which those of a certain age will recall being advertised in a chummy inclusive fashion: "I'm with The Woolwich". In the heady days of 1989 they made a bold move to relocate their HQ into a purpose-built block on this corner. The heady days of demutualization and acquisiton that followed were a small part of the build up to the crashes of 2007, and by 2006 the Woolwich was part of Barclays PLC and the HQ was closed. The Borough stepped in, selling the site of their civic offices to Tesco and snapping up the Woolwich site as a bargain. The redeveloped area was disarmingly quiet at the weekend - built in part as a plaza to cap the busy High Street, there's little need for people to press on this far beyond the shopping centre. The Civic Centre towers and tumbles above the crossroads, facing London defiantly, the exterior only hinting at the impressively refurbished, modern facilities within. I waited at the crossing for what seemed like long minutes, sharing my wait with a couple off to a wedding who were impatient to get out of the rain - there was a concern that suede would matt and hair would frizz. I considered my own appearance, bedraggled and damp, red-faced from stomping the hill from Crayford, and figured that the well-turned-out pair had little to worry about yet.
After crossing Erith Road, Watling Street becomes Broadway, the main drag of Bexleyheath - and a relative newcomer to the area. In the early 19th century the wild heathland pressed directly against Watling Street and there were few houses in the area save for the hamlet of Upton where William Morris decided to locate his 'palace of art' - The Red House in 1859. The construction of the house, which was swiftly absorbed into the suburbs as the commercial centre of Bexley shifted onto the heath and Upton was swallowed, largely bankrupted Morris. He was forced to sell up in 1865 vowing never to return to the house or to Upton. Now, two broad bypasses sweep traffic north and south of the centre, leaving Broadway to continue as a pedestrianised walkway on the line of Watling Street. This largely featureless, pavement, part-covered by an inaqequate awning, delved between a carpark and an extension to the 1984 shopping centre including a huge Sainsbury's and a multi-screen cinema. As ever I was walking against a tide of shoppers heading for their cars or buses home. Across the expanse of parked vehicles, the white chequerboard flank of the utilitarian Magistrates Court gleamed, all the better for a soaking of rain to slough away the traffic grime which still streaked the less exposed rear of the building. This wasn't, I'm sure, how Bexleyheath wanted to be introduced to newcomers - and it seems that the ceremonial march along Watling Street didn't do the place justice at all. As the enclosed alleyway which I'd been walking burst out into surprising sunshine, the street opened out into a much redeveloped and bustling market square. At the centre was the Clock Tower erected in 1912 to commemorate the coronation of King George V. The architect, Walter Epps, designed the tower with niches which he hoped would in time be filled by busts of the Royal Family which has largely been the case - though in 1996 a bust of William Morris was allowed into the hallowed company to celebrate the centenary of his passing. The tower was a focal point in a pleasing pedestrianised area which stretched along Broadway, taking full advantage of the straight-line of the Roman Road to create a promenade between the modern shopping centre and the more traditional street scene to the north. In 2000, to celebrate the millennium, the bells in the Clock Tower rang for the first time since they were silenced by the Defence of the Realm Act in 1914. I was surprised how much I liked Bexleyheath - in essence just another fringe centre which ought to feel as oppressive as the hugely redeveloped Wood Green. But here, just enough of the town had survived, and just enough of the character of a place which was not ancient but remained proud seemed to linger. I decided to stop for refreshments and watch Bexleyheath pass by for a while.
A consequence of the long, straight course of Watling Street is the tendency of settlements to become drawn-out, straggling places - and Bexleyheath appeared reluctant to give up just yet. The twin bypasses rejoined Broadway to the west of town, and traffic was once more permitted to flow along the ancient road - though it was relatively sparse given the swifter route of the A2 carving through Kent a little way to the south. I crossed the junction of Upton Road, practically all that remains of the now subsumed hamlet, and where I'd turn south if I wanted to visit Morris' home - today though I pushed onward as Watling Street became the curiously named Crook Log. Opposite the apparently well-used leisure centre of the same name, the Morris Wheeler Gates of Danson Park proudly bore the insignia of Kent and its motto Invicta. This impressive green space was gifted to the Borough in 1925 having previously been part of the lands surrounding Danson House which remains at the heart of the park, with views over the ornamental boating lake. The house was built in the 1760s for Sir John Boyd, a prominent figure in the British East India Company, and there is debate about whether it was Capability Brown himself or his assistant and scholar a 'Mr. Richmond' who laid out the lake and parkland surrounding it. Little appears to be known of this mysteriously acolyte save for the plans for Danson Park which survive in Bexley's archives. By the time of Boyd's death, the area was already in use as pleasure gardens, and the association with recreation continued despite being threatened by its acquisition by Alfred Bean, a railway engineer and prime mover behind the Bexleyheath Railway Company who envisioned the area becoming a vast residential estate. On Bean's death in 1890 some areas were indeed auctioned for building plots, but by 1921 on his widow's demise, the Urban District Council acquired the land at auction. In 1937, Lord Cornwallis presented the council with the status of a municipal borough under an ancient oak tree in the park - and the Charter Oak remains enclosed within the park, and indeed in the arms of the Borough of Bexley. The park and house have benefited from much restoration in recent times, and it seemed busy with locals despite the rather gloomy beginning to the morning.
Danson Park marks a passing which would otherwise be hard to detect - from Bexleyheath into Welling, another long and drawn-out settlement which hugs the line of Watling Street. Welling, while perhaps not as significant in the borough's recent past, has a longer history. Evidence of neolithic occupation has been unearthed at East Wichkam, now wholly absorbed into modern Welling, but once a distinct village which once housed a temporary village of workers huts serving the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich. This link is celebrated with the loan of a 36lb Russian cannon which sits at Welling Corner, now largely ignored by passing shoppers but favoured by clambering children. The railway reached Welling in 1895, crossing the western end of the long High Street via a high brick bridge, and opening up lands north of the area for development by way of a station a short walk from the main street. The long stretch of shops leading to the bridge still maintained a prosperous and pleasant air, with a surprising diversity of stores - the usual suburban mix of chicken shops and cafés supplemented by craft stores and the like. Welling also benefitted from several major supermarkets setting-up shop in premises along the line of the main street rather than at some spot on the outskirts, thus ensuring a constant stream of pedestrians along the pavements. I was acutely aware that London was just over the next hill - at least the London which most would recognise as such - but this place felt full of provincial bustle. Perhaps Welling really was the last outpost of Kent - and the insignia on the gates of Danson Park referred to its triumph over the creeping suburbanisation of the borough? It might seem that London was close by, its inevitable gravity already pulling in road and rail, but ahead of me was a mighty barrier, and rising above the line of the railway bridge a distant green smudge against the grey skies signified Shooters' Hill. Rearing above the road, this formidable barrier had been easy to ignore until now. I tightened the straps of my rucksack and marched onwards, under the railway bridge with its rather impressive murals of Bexley life, including an image of the ill-fated and short-lived double deck trains of the Southern Railway. It was time to head back into the city...
Despite the grey skies and general gloom, the day was becoming warm and humid, and as I passed the last possible place I could rest before my ascent at the appropriately named 'We Anchor in Hope' public house, I decided that my best chance for an assault on the hill was to tackle it in one lung-busting push. Detours into the temptingly dark and cool Oxleas Wood to the south could await another walk, and the opportunity to stray into Woodlands Farm to see gambolling baby lambs needed to wait too. Instead I looked ahead at the straight, steep road disappearing into the tunnel of overhanging trees. At the foot of the hill a burned out car had collapsed onto the driveway of Thompson's Plant and Garden Centre, notices explaining that there was currently no parking or vehicle access. The air nearby had a taint of melted electronics and charred fabric. I edged uneasily around the stricken vehicle and began my climb. At first it felt surprisingly easy - the hill, though 433ft high was not steep on its eastern flank, and the walking was challenging but manageable. After a steeper and sharper rise near the summit which was more taxing, the road levelled a little near Eaglesfield Road. I turned north, puffing into the quiet park which sat on the brow of the hill here, and found a seat to survey the view back east. The description of the prospect from the top of Shooter's Hill written by Celia Fiennes has perhaps never been bettered - and remains remarkably accurate today. Fiennes was born in 1662 and never married, instead embarking on a series of tours of England which she undertook "to regain my health by variety and change of aire and exercise". Her memoir, largely intended for friends and family, was never published in her lifetime but has since seen the light of day, providing a remarkable contemporary account of the country as it thundered haplessly towards industrial revolution.
Shuttershill, on top of which hill you see a vast prospect ...some lands clothed with trees, others with grass and flowers, gardens, orchards, with all sorts of herbage and tillage, with severall little towns all by the river, Erith, Leigh, Woolwich etc., quite up to London, Greenwich, Deptford, Black Wall, the Thames twisting and turning it self up and down bearing severall vessells and men of warre on itIn the distant haze I could see the Dartford Crossing, close to where I'd set out earlier this morning. The suburban settlements along the railway and on Watling Street formed a continuous chain of red-brick smudges stretching from the horizon and ending near my feet. There was a surprising presence of green spaces too - not always evident from the ground, but nestled between developments and in the useless triangles abandoned where estates adjoined each other there were clumps of trees, patches of suburban parkland and expanses of municipal playing field. Kent shimmered in the distance, the Thames visible mostly as an absence from this vantage point. I pondered the walk to this point, and planned my next move. Since I was here on the slopes of this hill with its neolithic history it felt only right to seek out the Shrewsbury Tumulus where Steve Moore had anchored his esoteric visions of this neighbourhood. I would be treading in the recent steps of better writers and deeper thinkers once again, but it felt wrong not to make the short walk over the ridge to the mound. A meander through the quiet streets brought me to the mound, tall grasses and a bright swathe of wild flowers almost concealing its form. The corner site, fenced in and protected, was a quiet place in an already sleepy residential suburb. A curious peace lay across the Shrewsbury Park Estate with its fine 1930s homes glowing in the afternoon sunshine which had finally made an appearance. The parkland here was associated with Shrewsbury House which stood nearby and was rebuilt as recently in 1923, and was later purchased by the London County Council for new housing. The archaeological significance of the area was already reasonably well-known - but only one of the Iron Age tumuli survived even then. Watling Street likely long pre-dated the Roman road, an ancient track to a place of burial and reverence atop the highest point for miles around. I paused a while, intrigued by the apparently ancient route of Mayplace Lane which wound downhill towards the Thames. This narrow track had been paralleled by more modern routes, but still found its own meandering course down towards the shore. I noted its route for further investigation - intrigued by the suggestion of a route to causeways over the marshes. I'd been a little sceptical about the lure of this place which appeared to completely ensnare Steve Moore, working its way into his writing - even indirectly influencing the work of (the unrelated) Alan Moore with whom he frequently collaborated. In the work of both Moores there was a deep historical significance to place, and Steve had anchored his visions deeply here on Shooter's Hill. Considered alongside distant Shepperton in the west, the houses provided a fitting counterbalance of mid-century modernity. In these geographically distinct suburbs Moore and Ballard worked to redefine their environs in dark fantasies. Somehow their visions grounded London, pinning down its sometimes hazy character under a near-perpetual dome of cloud and drizzle, and providing a dream life for its suburbs.
Diary of Celia Fiennes - 1697
I returned to Shooter's Hill near The Bull, a long established refreshment stop those who had tackled the ascent of the hill by coach and presumably wished to celebrate doing so unmolested. Now it promised suburban taproom character at London prices. The famous water tower leered above the hostelry, now a private home with unparalleled views across Eltham Common towards Severdroog Castle, or over the Thames to the aspirational environs of Galleon's Reach.
The western side of Shooter's Hill had seen work to flatten the climb during the 1950s when lower powered motor vehicles didn't always make the crest, and now the road dipped into a man-made chasm between the pavements. Walkers were consigned to the original gradient, steep enough to give me the uneasy sense of tumbling forwards and to conjure a dull ache in my shins. Much of the southern side of the road was occupied with the Memorial Hospital, now largely providing mental day health services, the grand gateway advised those with more pressing issues or injuries to head for the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Lewisham. Opposite the hospital and set back from the road, the Red Lion was preferred over The Bull for staging Mail Coaches on the route to Dover and remained an inn of a fairly unreconstructed nature - offering a special on pies and pints, and a full range of Sky Sports channels. Beside the pub, a terrace of five cottages stepped down the hill and it struck me how isolated a spot this must once have been. Shooter's Hill was, for centuries, synonymous with utter lawlessness. The slow climb and the wooded areas around the hill made the work of highwaymen all too easy - more visceral and far less romantic than stories suggest. During the reign of Henry IV the crown ordered clearance of trees along the edge of the road to prevent 'violent practices' yet these persisted - and indeed increased in frequency - for centuries to come. Even the practice of hanging the corpses of executed thieves over the road as a warning seems not to have deterred attacks, with Samuel Pepys describing in his diary for 1661 passing by "the man that hangs upon Shooters Hill". By the 19th century a substantial village had begun to grow on the slopes north of the road, while Eltham Common had been partly cleared to the south. The presence of a range of larger houses and follies such as Severdroog Castle had also altered the character of the area considerably. It was no longer necessary for Eltham to maintain two Police stations to manage the disorder in the area, as was the legend. My own nod to this history of malfeasance was to disobey signs ordering pedestrians to cross the busy street to avoid some apparently abandoned roadworks, and feeling justly proud for maintaining tradition, I came upon the crossing of the South Circular. I recalled standing at this spot while stormclouds massed over the city, pondering the walk ahead of me. Today I continued westwards into Blackheath, passing the former Royal Herbert Hospital which had, for over a century, housed veterans of British military expeditions overseas. Built initially to house those returning from the Crimean War, the facility opened in 1865 and many of the then-innovative design features arise from the input of Florence Nightingale who had been sent to the Crimea by Sidney Herbert, Minister of War and had formed very clear views on how casualties should be managed both on the field and back at home. Royal Patronage came in 1900 when Queen Victoria visited veterans of the Boer War at the hospital, then noted for its fine buildings and health-giving proximity to the open spaces of Oxleas Wood. The hospital remained in use as an Army teaching hospital, admitting civillians injured in the wartime bombing of the Royal Arsenal and caring for injured prisoners of war during the World Wars. The site finally closed in 1977 and the fine buildings appeared doomed until the designation of the Woolwich Common Conservation Area and a Grade II listing. Now, predictably, the buildings have been converted to luxury accommodation with pools, bars and tennis courts on site. A little further west, near Hornfair Park was another location dedicated to the relief of wartime suffering - this time for the animals innocently caught up in human conflict. The Old Blue Cross Cemetery was founded by the curiously anachronistically named Our Dumb Friends League in 1897. The site once also housed a bustling kennel and quarantine point for animals returning from war overseas, but this was closed by 1958 - surviving longer than the cemetery which was flattened in 1947 due to the cost of repairs. The site has recently been restored, a walled garden of surprising quiet in the midst of a busy housing estate, and work continues to uncover and interpret the memorials. The long tongue of green space leading north from here towards the Thames was once Hanging Wood, reputed to be the favoured hiding place of the highwaymen and brigands of Shooter's Hill. Today, the quiet park stretched away from my route inviting a future walk but offering no challenge as I continued on my way.
The road divided in Blackheath, the route of Watling Street contested from here on. Certainly, the southern fork, towards the Sun in the Sands then continuing as the A2 into London was a straight, direct route which resembled the traditional course of a Roman road - but the northern fork towards Greenwich seemed a more likely candidate for my walk. Driving directly ahead onto the scrubby and attractive fringes of Blackheath, the road passed over the seething concrete gully containing the Blackwall Tunnel Southern Approach Road and abruptly entered the charming village centre of Blackheath. Pleasant local shops lined the walk up to the busy junction beside the Royal Standard pub, and it was easy to see why this had become such a desirable address in recent times. I continued heading west into Vanbrugh Park, named for architect and bawdy playwright Sir John Vanbrugh who built his home, Vanbrugh Castle, nearby on Maze Hill. Initially, the streets were lined with imposing townhouses as I'd expected from an area bearing this distinguished name, but as I approached the Heath I noticed a block of low-rise, modern dwellings presenting their rather stark rear aspect to the road. Vanbrugh Park Estate was designed by Chamberlain, Powell and Bon - perhaps better known for their work at The Barbican and Golden Lane Estate in the City of London - and it was possible to see the germ of these later developments in this mix of housing types and dedication to vigorous modernism. The two-story houses which abut the Heath formed a square, looking inwards to narrow streets and walkways along the blocks. Behind these, a taller block of four distinct towers interlinked with decks and stairways rose over the houses, with distinctive corner windows giving the building the appearance of hanging from an external skeleton of concrete. Everything was separated by well-cared-for green space, and the area felt quiet and serene. Most of the homes were now privately owned - and given their heritage, much sought-after nowadays. It seemed surprising and brave to locate something so modern and incongruous on the edge of ancient Greenwich and so close to the open, and in parts still rather wild Blackheath. It seemed stranger still to cross the street and delve into an opening in the wall of Greenwich Park...
There have been recent reconsiderations of how Watling Street entered London, and the route around Greenwich in particular has been disputed. A Romano-celtic temple was discovered in Greenwich Park in 1902 and has been re-excavated in recent times to suggest it was of considerable importance. In use from around CE100 the site was very close indeed to the straight line I was attempting to strike through the park, roughly continuing the course of Watling Street which I'd walked in from Dartford. Distracted by the beautiful rose gardens and the impressive old trees, I continued uphill towards the Observatory with a growing admiration for the area. I felt like a fool in fact - I'd assiduously avoided Greenwich Park for years, once staying close to its gates but refusing to walk uphill for fear of the throng of tourists I'd seen pouring out of the gates. I'd fallen victim to an inverted snobbery which I now realised was foolish. The park was busy, the queue to visit the Observatory certainly long and tedious, but the view to the south was utterly spectacular - and entirely free of charge. Up here, gazing across the hazy and sombre shadows of the Isle of Dogs and regarding the silvery curve of the Thames I was reminded of Joseph Conrad and 'The Secret Agent' and the tale of a 'dynamiter anarchist' attempting to stop time which inspired it. The park had always been busy, always a focus of London life - of world attention no less. It made sense that Watling Street - or at least a significant branch from the road - would have passed into the park and towards the river at this near-perfect strategic viewpoint over the Thames Valley. Below me, the buildings of the Royal Naval College spread out in formal squares and courts, the sun gleaming from the Portland Stone and shimmering over the lead domes. My walk had begun in inauspicious Dartford, a place seemingly devoid of promise, and had ended here in a picture-book view of London spread out before me. I carefully picked my way down the steep path and out of the gateway into Greenwich. The sudden burst of activity felt disorienting and strange. People swirled around the tiny pattern of streets, dodging between beer gardens and street food vendors. Traffic nudged impatiently through the crowds, attempting to assert its right to dominate the old thoroughfares. Tourists ambled without apparent targets, gazing at guidebooks rather than the road at their feet. In the midst of this, the cool, dark churchyard of St. Alfege called me - Hawksmoor's most understated design perhaps, but still austere and impressive despite the lack of the octagonal west tower he planned which would have made it a southern cousin of St. George in the East. The garden felt damp, ancient and distinctly riverine under the tree canopy. It was also oddly silent despite the nearby thrum of traffic and people. This felt like the right place to end my walk.
From the platforms of Greenwich station I looked back east, the curve of tracks framing the church and the tumble of buildings which fell towards the bank of the Thames. I'd found myself here twice in recent times, and realised that during my one brief stay here I'd barely done the place justice. Despite a liking for the place, I'd often skirted around Greenwich like it was an inconvenience, ignoring the history which seeped from the ground and preferring to look north, away from the park on the hill. It had taken an ancient road to bring me here, a road walked long before the Romans and one which was almost ingrained into the land by continuous use. Somewhere between the ascent of Shooter's Hill and the descent from Greenwich Park I'd made sense of the walk and found a way to begin to read the southern geography at last. I boarded a train bound for Cannon Street where London Stone should be, but currently wasn't. I was still following the most ancient of ways...
You can find a gallery of images from the walk here.
I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.
I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.