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 cafÃ© 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 cafÃ©s 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 cafÃ©s 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.
Posted in London on Sunday 11th March 2018 at 7:03pm
As my train lumbered across the junction and into the terminus platforms at Orpington station, I pondered the journey here. I should have been here a week ago, a long-planned and much anticipated weekend trip which combined a range of events and - for me at least - culminated in a long day of walking. Then it snowed - quite a bit in fact. Perhaps the most significant period of snow for eight years - and it was hard not to reflect back on that last period: a long, dark week of slithering to the station along ice-slick pavements and worrying about how I'd escape at the weekend. This time around, the weather reports and growing panic in the media had sparked my remembered anxieties again and I'd suffered through a week of doubt and concern - by turns feeling stupidly angry and utterly and childishly selfish. When the day came, we made a supreme effort to get to London - which it seems was by then recovering from its deluge - but the mixture of rather poorer local conditions and a train operator which is always keen to find an excuse to reduce or remove services left us stranded. We returned home for an extended weekend of staying indoors and watching the locals descend into feral, panic-buying lunacy. I filled my time with persistent bickering with customer service teams in a - mostly successful - attempt to gain refunds on our lost trip. We regrouped and replanned - there was no reason we couldn't try for next week... And so I found myself once again at the edge of London - this time in the far, largely uncharted south-eastern quadrant. The city felt distant and remote - this corner of London was almost squeezed out of the boundary, a hazy margin where bus routes terminate and Oyster zones evaporate.
Outside the station, all was quiet. I had to remind myself that it was Sunday morning and also somewhat earlier than I'd normally be setting out. A cab driver quietly smoked beside his car, eyeing me expectantly as I left the station and turning away in disgust as I shouldered my bag and set off down the hill to the main road below. Despite the long genesis of this walk, my planning had been minimal - and had mostly focused on the later part of the route as the River Cray navigated broad open spaces on the edge of London. This, though, was just how I'd expected these commuter-fringes of the city to feel - sleepy, safe and strangely calming. As I turned north at a roundabout which encircled a war memorial obelisk, I began a long trudge up the broad and surprisingly substantial High Street. Most of the stores were still behind their protective shutters, but the tiny branch of Starbucks was preparing to open. I half contemplated lingering until I'd had more coffee - but I decided against it. It was a rare pleasure to have an entire day free for walking like this, and there would be time later for refreshments. So I passed by the inexplicably named 'Walnuts Shopping Centre' and progressed along the long, low stretch of mostly twentieth-century shops towards the northern edge of town. Orpington is easily imagined as a creation of the heady days of the last century - and indeed for a while in the 1960s 'Orpington Man' was the yardstick for the normal, suburban lower-middle classes who elected Liberal MP Eric Lubbock in a shock revival for the ailing party. However the town has a much longer and deeper history, first entering the record in 1038 when Eadsy, chaplain to King Cnut, gifted his estate here as a priory attached to Canterbury. Turning into a side-street which unexpectedly became a rural lane between weatherboarded cottages, I entered Priory Gardens via a side-gate. This unlikely mix of public park and formal gardens was added to the grounds of the largely still extant priory buildings by their last owners, Cecil and Lilian Hughes, before the site transferred to the ownership of Orpington Urban District Council in 1947. I took a slow circuit around the greenery, finally finding myself beside a broad and shallow pond with a stony bed visible beneath its clear waters. Here, where the clay of the Thames basin meets the wide swathe of chalk which stretches south-east to Dover, rainwater reaches the surface and the River Cray rises...
Once I'd located the source of the river I was keen to begin walking its route - however the London Borough of Bromley had other ideas. I'd noted a gang of workmen idly waiting for the clock to tick past 9am when presumably it becomes decent to raise a racket on the sabbath, but hadn't reckoned on their barriers blocking a small wooden bridge crossing the pond. I doubled back and circled the eastern bank while tame wildfowl clucked and fluttered around the edge, expecting food from any passing human. I finally regained my route at the end of the High Street where with traffic avoiding the notoriously sluggish section of the M25 scurried by on the A224. I crossed at the lights, cars screeching unwillingly to a halt at the signal, and headed north along the optimistically well-named Cray Avenue. I hadn't reckoned on much road walking today, and I wasn't sorry when at the end of a blue fence adorned with 'Jewson' signs, a gap in the hedge gave way onto a muddy path between three wooden stakes. I squelched between them, slithering along rather carefully, ready to retreat if needed until an emerging dog walker proved beyond doubt that there was a means of passing through. A muddy but reasonably firm path emerged and I plunged into the trees, emerging near a low brick wall around the head of a culvert. The Cray tumbled over a sluice and curved through the grassy strip beside the road. Faced with a choice between a more formal path and the continuation of the muddy riverside route, I took the later and splashed happily along beside the narrow but busy stream before emerging at a gate on Kent Road. Across the street the better surfaced path continued beside a low railing over the Cray, and I headed back under the trees towards the hard-to-pin-down village of St. Mary Cray. Until the coming of the railway, this village had been the heart a collection of small communities - The Crays - providing their market and mother church among other things. When it arrived, the railway crossed the valley via a nine-arched brick viaduct which swept it over the High Street of St. Mary Cray on its route out into Kent. This structure meant the station was constructed to the west of the village, to solid ground nearer to the curiously named environs of Poverest - a corrupted attempt to honour Margaret de Pouery, a landowner here in 14th century. Thus the modern village struggles to settle on a single centre. Near the viaduct a pleasant village green with a quaint wooden sign is surrounded by ancient shops largely now converted into dwellings, while the broad valley floor between the river and the A224 is filled with commercial and industrial premises including the carbon-copy units of the Nugent Retail Park. Even the vast Allied Bakeries site emitted no aromatic evidence of its craft this sleepy morning, while disgruntled punters struggled to leave the Mary Rose - a 16th century coaching inn turned motel which has frankly terrifying reviews online. The river emerged in a narrow channel beside the High Street as it passed under the high brick arches of the viaduct. A brace of guests wrestled their wheeled suitcases along the narrow walkway between the river and the rather gloomy looking extension of the hotel. Their faces betrayed a mixture of relief and disappointment. This is where London washes up against Kent - not far beyond the edge of St. Mary Cray there are open fields which stretch out to the nearby M25. Drained of life by the motorway, the commuter railway, the irresistible draw of Bluewater and the local retail sheds, this place feels dogged and depressing and quite different from the way I imagined it when scudding overhead on the rails. I decide to treat the viaduct as a point of transition and head north into what I hope will be less unnerving territory.
After passing the squat but solid church of St. Mary which was has been variously extended since the 13th century, I set off along Main Road - a long stretch of small millworkers' cottages mixed with more recent social housing, which led to a green space where the river broadened into a former millpond. The main course of the river and a sizeable part of the pond was tucked behind the back gardens of Main Road, but a bridge led over the river and ran alongside a busily burbling flood relief channel cut through the gardens on the course of a former millrace, to a tumbling sluice. The Cray disappeared under the road here, and into the former site of Nash's Paper Mill. Much of this site is now the rather anonymous Crayfields Business Park, but on a whitewashed wall a war memorial records those employees of the company who fought in the First World War, six of whom did not return. Poignantly enough, a much younger W.Nash is featured in the list. The mill survived to see a unique diary kept and published in a short history of the site, recording the efforts papermakers went to in order to ensure a supply during the bombardment of South East England in the Second World War. On the night of 2nd August 1944, the author casually records:
Papermaking under shell fire, but we kept going. Complaints about quality are receiving scant courtesy. People outside the south-east area have no conception of what we are undergoing.
Extract from 'William Nash of St. Paulâ€™s Cray, Papermakers' - W.S Shears, 1950
The mill appears to have struggled on until around 1980, as Nash focused its operations on other equally venerable sites in Hertfordshire and Kent which subsequently closed too. Now the family business continues largely as a property company, the land around the river which drove the mills now their stock in trade. It was hard to conceive of vast quantities of fine paper, some destined for banknote manufacture leaving this quiet corner near the weatherboarded Bull Inn for well over two centuries.
At Pauls Cross, near The Bull I crossed Sandy Lane and began to head north and out into the countryside. The Cray ran below in inaccessible privately-owned meadows, the map showing tantalisingly broad lakes and grassy scrub which would have made for muddy but interesting walking. Instead I began a long, slow climb alongside a country lane which thundered with surprisingly fast traffic. Eventually, the narrow footpath rose away from the roadside and disappeared into a long, damp tunnel beneath the trees. The road could occasionally be glimpsed below, cars flashing by - slowing for the infrequent speed humps before accelerating crazily away again. The path was silent and empty, and I began to doubt this was a sensible way forward - a fear confirmed when I reached the Bannatyne Health Club driveway and the path disappeared entirely. Looking ahead, the road curved to pass under the A20 with little hint of a pathway reappearing. The traffic swished by my elbow, freed of speed controls and taking full advantage of this rural rat-run between the communities on the edge of London. A public footpath struck out towards Ruxley Wood, but that would take me much further east than I wanted to head. Reluctantly and rather dejectedly I retraced my steps to The Bull and crossed the river once again near the site of Nash Mill. I soon found myself back on the busy A224 at Sevenoaks Way - a broad arterial route built in the mid 1920s to bypass Orpington and the Crays. At Crittall's Corner it met the A20 at a bleak and busy roundabout. A damp underpass curled under the road, tiled with childlike images of the traffic above, emerging in the centre of the roundabout with the major road passing unnervingly close by overhead - apparently on a budget-saving flyover that wasn't built an inch higher than it needed to be. In the north-west nook of this junction, now occupied by a sizeable branch of B&Q, was the former Crittall Window factory. This southern outpost of a company more associated with Essex than Kent produced the simple but enduringly appreciated steel windows which graced many inter-war housing schemes and Art Deco masterpieces alike. The company enjoyed remarkable success in the USA too, and it felt cruelly ironic that this factory had disappeared as Coca Cola's European centre of operations arose across the street. It was here that the ill-fated Dasani mineral water was produced - essentially Sidcup tap-water treated with minerals to add 'healthy' properties. A little over a month after its February 2004 launch, the water was withdrawn when it was discovered that the mineralisation process produced harmful levels of Bromates in the otherwise completely safe-to-drink tap water.
The sprawling site which opened in 1961 was decked out in the company's distinctive red and white livery and stretched east to the Cray, preventing access to the riverbank. Instead I walked the road towards the crossroads at the heart of Foots Cray, now an outpost of Sidcup - effectively a suburb of a suburb. Named for the local Saxon landowner Godwin Fot rather than any bodily appendage, until the early years of the twentieth century roles here were reversed with Foots Cray the dominant settlement in the area and the seat of the Urban District Council. A mix of industrial decline and improved transport into London propelled the comparatively lowly Sidcup into the spotlight, taking the municipal honours formally from 1921. Despite this, Sidcup suffers a troubled time in the spotlight - the butt of jibes at suburbia and the inevitable origin of the mythical '08:40 train' which every hapless middle-class stereotype needs to catch. By 2015, the ever-dull James Corden was discussing this 'armpit of England' on his US chat show. In truth, the sliver of Sidcup through which I passed was surprising busy and interesting, and as I crossed into Rectory Lane and passed the tiny War Memorial, things became near-idyllic. The lane narrowed towards overhanging trees, only the imposing tower of a Victorian school building standing above them. Established originally by Benjamin Harenc Esq. in 1816, these remaining and much improved buildings date from 1883 with the pyramid-topped tower proclaiming in an inscription 'While ye have light believe in the light that ye may be the children of light'. Harenc was the son of a recently-arrived Huguenot who swiftly made good being appointed High Sheriff of Kent in 1777. Dwelling at nearby Foots Cray Place, a fine house built by Bouchier Cleve, the Harenc family appear to have remained connected to the area until the house was sold in 1822 by Benjamin who sought a permanent home near Sevenoaks. Sadly, he soon became unwell and died as a result of the great excitement and anxiety he experienced in personally overseeing a new endeavour linking Kent to Ireland and the USA via steamship according to his obituary in The Gentlemans' Magazine. Foots Cray Place burned down during restoration work in October 1949, but the vast grounds of the house now form part of Foots Cray Meadow, which I soon encountered via a gap in the low wooden fence and a damp, muddy path trodden into the grass which led around the back of the Church. I slithered and slipped along, wondering if this was a wise choice of route - but then, after a particular muddy trough in the path, a low bridge appeared crossing the River Cray. I was back on track at last.
It seems that on a dry, cold morning when people have been a little stir-crazy indoors because of a week of poor weather, Foots Cray Meadow is a popular excursion. Especially so it seems for dog walkers, who stalked the muddy paths in clumps with their excitable hounds capering around them. As I slithered around one group, blocking the entire serviceable width of the pathway, I noted their dogs tussling and fighting in the river as they looked on, mute and apparently disinterested. It was a bizarre scene - a total abdication of responsibility for their pets which almost felt like an organised dogfight. I trudged on beside the reedy banks of the river as it swelled into a sinuous pond dividing the huge expanse of green space, an area that was once a mix of open land and formal garden belonging to Foots Cray Place and the neighbouring estate at North Cray. At the midst of the lake, the almost too picture-perfect Five Arch Bridge arced gracefully across the water - the centrepiece of the work which Thomas Coventry commissioned from Capability Brown. The works, completed around 1780, included taming the Cray into the serpentine lake and weir seen today along with strategic planting to create attractive walks and carriage drives around the estate. While this reshaping of the meadows seems a fairly unimpressive task today, the effort and ingenuity required to undertake this in the late 18th century - and indeed purely for cosmetic rather than commercial purposes - remains somewhat remarkable. It is perhaps even more remarkable still that this spacious sweep of green space remains on the edge of Bexley within the desirable commuter nexus of the M25 and just a short walk from a railway station. The suburbs had gradually enclosed Foots Cray Meadow, but not yet encroached upon it. After passing the Five Arch Bridge with its cargo of dog-walkers and visitors the paths multiplied, and following a frustrating altercation with yet another dog and its owner, I elected to take the less-trodden and largely canine-free walk along the water's edge. The river was wider and faster here, still flowing clear over the chalk and stone bed which had first surfaced back in Orpington. Near Water Lane, my path edged along a fenced sports grounds behind the impressive Loring Hall. This fine house was originally known as Woollet Hall, and was built in 1760 to replace a Tudor house known as 'Wallets'. Woollet Hall was for over a decade home to Robert Stewart, Lord Castlereagh who as Foreign Secretary, masterminded the diplomatic and financial alliances which led to the defeat of NapolÃ©on Bonaparte at Waterloo. In later years, as Leader of the House of Commons his frequent need to defend the actions of Lord Liverpool's unpopular cabinet weighed heavily on him - particularly after the Peterloo Massacre and the passing of the Six Acts designed to repress future disturbances and ultimately to prevent a British revolution of the type which had occurred in France and the USA. The mood of the public was echoed, perhaps cruelly, in poetry:
I met Murder on the way â€“
He had a mask like Castlereagh â€“
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven bloodhounds followed him
All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.
The Masque of Anarchy - Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1819
Torn between the need to remain in the Cabinet to advance his diplomatic causes and his growing distaste for parliamentary business, Castlereagh confined himself to Loring House in a state of increasing paranoia and mental disturbance. By August 1822 when visiting King George IV he was clearly disturbed and in turmoil, utterly convinced he was to be blackmailed as a homosexual. Finally, on 12th August while left alone for just a few minutes, Castlereagh cut his throat with a small knife he had concealed from concerned servants. Even in death he proved a controversial figure - with speculation by William Cobbett's Radicals that the elitist government had arranged a cover-up to ensure a grand public funeral and burial at Westminster Abbey despite Castlereagh's ignominious end at his own hand. The Radical press too, whipped up sentiment against him in scenes which would not seem out of place today, advocating attendance at his funeral to cheer and exalt his passing. The final insult was committed again in poetry which rather eerily echoes the Twitter threads of our own time:
Posterity will ne'er survey
A nobler grave than this:
Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:
Stop, traveller, and piss.
Epigram - Lord Byron, 1822
It was difficult not to think of the desperate and paranoid Castlereagh as I trudged across the windswept plain which separated North Cray from Old Bexley, his home now settled as a private school for children with a learning disability after several similar uses in recent years. The riverbank was again off-limits and I was diverted across a bridge and into a forlorn spot where the tidy inter-war housing estate ran aground in a scrappy concrete hardstanding used primarily for fly-tipping. An unlikely looking footpath was signposted along the edge of a tilled field which seemed to be growing only a crop of large, fizzing electricity pylons. I trudged on, figuring that as this still formed part of the 'London LOOP' it must, surely, go somewhere... At the end of the field, a brief scramble onto a wide, grassy plateau revealed a view west across to Bexley and east to the high ground of Joyden's Wood on the other side of the Cray Valley. The sun had struggled briefly above the clouds and it was surprisingly warm despite the strong winds. I stomped onward, through the swaying yellow grass and down a somewhat slippery approach to a private road serving Bexley cricket ground. The gateposts fulminated with prohibitions and cautions, clearly barely tolerating walkers descending from the muddy path. Suddenly, and with something of a shock, civilisation surrounded me again. The footpath ran alongside the railway embankment, turned to pass under the station platforms via a narrow brick arch and arrived suddenly in the midst of Old Bexley. Announcements of trains to London echoed overhead as I tried to adjust to entering this rather self-consciously gentrified village. This corner of Bexley gained the 'Old' part of its name in the 19th century as the new town of Bexleyheath was developed to eventually somewhat overshadow this little Kentish stronghold. The draw of the latter settlement's improved town centre also rendered much of Old Bexley's High Street rather cramped, old fashioned and unwanted, but it appears that a revitalisation has occurred with the street now lined with bars, cafes and boutiques which gave it the air of a theme park or shopping village. At the junction of the roads to London and Dartford, still a busy roundabout today, fingerpost signs high on a building pointed back up the valley to 'The Crays'. I followed the road to Dartford instead, passing an impressive run of former almshouses and the old National School on route to the intriguingly named 'Black Prince' junction where the six wide lanes of the formidably improved A2 crossed my path. Named for a local legend that Edward, The Black Prince haunted the area, the name developed from the presence of a nearby hotel and inn on the route to London. This mock Tudor building, a famous music venue in the 1960s, was now a rather tired looking Holiday Inn occupying a wing of the swirling road junction which now shared its name.
The Cray passed to the east here, running through the grounds of the improbably located Hall Place, a Tudor house nestled into a nook of the poorly designed road junction which send a bridge curving over the road between two tight, complicated roundabouts. Built in 1972 when the A2 was widened, this scheme dated from a time when concerns about the surrounding of a treasured historical site would have been less than paramount. Still less important was the tiny River Shuttle, a tributary of the Cray which had tumbled merrily from the higher ground of Bexleyheath before being unceremoniously dumped into a concrete channel under the road to finally reach its confluence with the Cray nearby. A junior football tournament was just finishing and I trailed over the bridge in the company of fathers counselling their young protÃ©gÃ©s on their performance while the mud was still wet on their boots. The striking contrast of Hall Place when it came into view was spellbinding - this house, built in 1537 by Sir John Champneys, Lord Mayor of the City of London seems an almost impossible survival. Much extended in the 16th and 19th centuries, the great hall looks west across the road while the later additions stand guard over impeccable formal gardens and celebrated topiary first planted in 1953 to celebrate the Coronation. Champneys was a son of Chew Magna in Somerset who lost his sight in later life, an event reported by London's chronicler John Stow as divine retribution for building a high brick tower onto his city home in Mincing Lane - as Stow's immortal quill put it "the first that I ever heard of in any private man's house, to overlook his neighbours in this city." During the Second World War, Hall Place became 'Santa Fe', a US Signal Corps station which intercepted coded Luftwaffe morse messages for decoding by the Enigma project. Following a spell as the headquarters of Bexley's library and museums service, Hall Place is now a thriving visitor attraction complete with shop and riverside cafÃ©. The gardens certainly appeared busy, but it was hard to tell if the traffic into the site was heading here or for the carvery on offer at the Miller & Carter pub next door. I snapped a photograph of the front of the Great Hall, looking out onto what must once have been a far less urban aspect, noting the place for a possible future visit. For now though, I left the Sunday crowds to their roast lunches and football tournaments and struck out along the road to Crayford. The road followed the course of the river, which ran just out of sight beyond the carparks and sports fields - but I knew I'd soon be back alongside it.
Like many suburban satellites of London, Crayford was announced by the shining roofline of a retail park. A vast Sainsbury's store - once the largest in the UK - was the anchor for a sprawling development which dwarfed the Greyhound Stadium nearby. Once the dogs would have been the biggest draw in town, but now the supermarket pulled in the punters. Similar locations remain scattered across London - the sites of former stadia now given over to retail or housing developments. At Harringay, at Brent Cross and Clapton little remains except token nods to the long history of working class entertainment: speedway and greyhounds. Hives of night-time activity now reserved for late-night shopping or quiet suburban dwelling behind drawn curtains. Crayford's story at least, has a different outcome: when the site was redeveloped in the 1980s, the track remained central to Ladbroke's plans. Now hidden behind the fading red and grey facade it shares with the neighbouring Leisure Centre and which keeps it clearly anchored in its period, it still features regular races with restaurants and hospitality suites for the spectators. Crossing the reedy course of the river in a deep culvert, I entered the supermarket cafÃ© in the hope that I'd find somewhere to recharge my 'phone and to get refreshments - I realised that I'd been steadily walking for hours now with no real break, and it was time to rest. I drew a blank in the massive store and headed instead for a coffee concession inside a branch of Next on the nearby Tower Retail Park. It's clear that Crayford has lost much of its centre to these vast ranks of stores and their associated car parks. As I sipped a cup in an ear-splittingly noisy branch of Costa Coffee tucked into the corner of the store I tried to imagine this as an industrial zone - the home of Hiram Maxim's factory which produced self-loading machine guns, supported by capital from Edward Vickers. Later, a complex merger which still sets legal precedent saw Maxim's operation take ownership of Nordenfeldt at nearby Erith, before itself being bought out wholly by Vickers, creating an enterprise which thrived during the Boer War supplying armaments to the British forces. The company endured lean times during peace, but a surge of War Ministry orders in 1914 ensured the factory's survival and the building of the nearby housing estate of Barnes Cray to cater for an expanding workforce. While the factory found many peacetime uses including manufacturing bottle-making plant, accounting machines and cars, its fortunes boomed during wartime, seeing considerable expansion in both 1939 and 1950 during the Korean War. By the early 1970s, with Ministry of Defence contracts largely drying up in the squeeze on public spending, the factory entered a terminal decline. By 1985, the small remaining plant was closed though some buildings lingered until 1998 when the site was cleared to become Next, KFC and Hobbycraft in due course. Crayford struggles on without this major employer, a town without a centre.
Leaving the coffee shop I realised that London Road was the route of Watling Street , the long straight road from Dover to London, and thence to Wales. The venerable route crossed the Cray near a little green between rows of local shops, empty benches lining its winding route. At the edge of the green a drinking fountain was inscribed 'Whosoever will let him take the water of life freely' and rather poignantly its now defunct-basin had been filled with empty Coca Cola and Stella Artois cans. I set off alongside the river, glad to be close by its banks again. The footpath here was better marked, and as I ventured onto a tree-lined pathway which left the road a large iron obelisk announced the Cray Riverway which shared the route of the London LOOP once again. Under the trees I was sheltered from the surprisingly strong wind which scoured the flat marshlands stretching toward the Thames, and I had a peaceful and pleasant walk between the backs of suburban homes and the water which still ran clear despite being heavily fly-tipped. I was briefly forced to detour into the streets of Barnes Cray, filled with sleepy Sunday afternoon dinner smells, before returning to the river as it ran through the scrubby marshlands hemmed in by the nearby Stanham River which formed the border of Kent. The river was suddenly a brackish, tidal brown - flowing sluggishly in a wider channel through the flat, empty landscape. A tell-tale waft of decay indicated the presence of the West Kent Main Sewer, taking a direct route towards Longreach Sewage Works on the Thames. The air was tainted with industry, a tang of metal and saltwater on the tongue as I navigated my way across the A206 where the Cray flowed beneath a low modern bridge. The brown water almost touched the parapet as it churned under the road, and I made a slight detour north to reach the west bank of the river's estuary. I soon found myself on a narrow, dusty and litter strewn lane which ran between a desolate, recently cleared site and a huge transport yard. The lane was quiet today, but I could imagine just how tight clearances would be on weekdays when the trucks thundered towards the waste disposal site up ahead. The railway from Dartford passed over a low brick bridge where a narrow carriageway had been lowered to allow taller vehicles to pass. In the recent rain and snow this had become a dirty sump of water which an unexpected passing car splashed into, almost grounding the low underside of the vehicle as it accelerated out of the filthy soup and sped back towards Crayford. I edged under the bridge on the elevated pavements, thankful that I didn't need to wade through the muck below. On the other side of the bridge, seagulls wheeled and cried as they flocked to the rich pickings of the waste disposal site. The sweet and cloying smell of rotting waste mixed with a strange reek of burning, and I noticed a somewhat professional looking camera operator framing the clouds of birds as they dispersed and reformed on the buildings and fences of the site. He politely let me pass, perhaps used to walkers interrupting his vigil - this was after all, somewhat surprisingly, still part of the sanctioned footpath circling London. The path turned a sudden corner between high concrete fences, twisting north again and climbing. The wind hit me at the top of the rise. Unexpectedly I found the view opened before me - smudges of clouds in a grey-brown sky echoing the wind-blasted grass and mud of Crayford Creek. The river was a sickly trickle at the foot of a deep, scoured channel. In the middle-distance, the Dartford Crossing arced over the Thames, beside it the towers of Littlebrook Power Station. On the opposite bank, a teenager throttled the engine of a scrambling bike to impress his bored girlfriend who stood by, idling flicking at a 'phone screen. The noise of the engine carried across the marshes, flat and empty - and seemingly endless. I drew the zip of my coat up to my chin to beat the cold wind, and set off along the final stretches of the River Cray. A little way ahead it flowed into the Darent at Dartford Creek, the two muddy channels combining in the midst of the marshes. The path was narrow but well-walked and had been scoured dry by the salt-laden winds. I fixed my eyes on the Dartford Creek Flood Barrier, and started walking.
This lonely, windswept stretch of the Thames foreshore appeared entirely deserted now, but it had a long history of human use. The crack of gunshots marked the Dartford Clay Shooting club on the Kent bank of the creek, mocking the absence of the former Wells Fireworks factory which inhabited this spot from 1837 until driven out by cheap imported fireworks in the 1970s. The site had returned to nature, a scattering of decaying huts barely visible now indicating a works which had once created displays for Coronations, Jubilees and the Olympic Games. Beyond the factory was another absence - the site of a sprawling complex of hospitals which had been built out here, away from civilisation - and away from the opposition of local people who feared smallpox patients being treated near their homes. Land at Gore Farm in Dartford had been used for a camp for infectious patients since the 1890s, but the association with this site beside the Thames began with The Long Reach Hospital in 1901, hastily erected in temporary buildings by the Metropolitan Board of Asylums to deal with an especially virulent smallpox epidemic which was overwhelming the three hospital ships moored alongside the site, Atlas, Castalia and Endymion. A tramway was built out to the river, with patients arriving by river ambulance and being conveyed to the hospital by second-hand tramcars. Nearby, the much larger permanent Joyce Green Isolation Hospital was under construction in an effort to replace the ageing ships, but was not yet ready for use by patients. The Long Reach was soon struggling for space, and a further temporary site, The Orchard, opened in 1902. Finally in 1903, Joyce Green opened just as the epidemic of smallpox declined. The Orchard saw further use as a military hospital and convalescent home for Australian troops between 1914 and 1919 before being destroyed by incendiary bombs during the Second World War. The Long Reach meanwhile was rebuilt with more permanent facilities and maintained ready for future epidemics of smallpox, seeing a flurry of activity in the early 1930s and treating its final patients as late as 1973. Joyce Green Hospital survived much longer, admitting patients with a range of infectious diseases requiring isolation and housing over a thousand Russian refugees who arrived in 1918 having been exposed to smallpox on their journey. The hospital transferred to the London County Council before joining the newly-formed NHS as a general hospital in 1948 and remarkably remaining in use until 2000 when the newly built Darent Valley Hospital took over from a piecemeal range of facilities scattered around Dartford. Looking across the marshes towards the green smudge of Essex on the horizon it was easy to see the attraction of this wide, empty expanse of land to provide effective isolation. I thought about the staff, stationed here and subjected to daily rituals to remove and prevent infection - I tried to imagine the smell of carbolic scrubbed skin and burned uniforms. Even now as I trudged along the bank of the creek, the landscape challenged me to face its emptiness. Humanity seemed uncomfortably far away here, even to someone comfortable with solitude. The wind was loud in my ears, just the crack of gunfire and the buzz of the distant motorcycle engine joining the roar. Looking towards Kent, the reedy green land was empty now - but it had known suffering. Even the scars that the hospital wards had made on the land now fading under the reeds and scrub.
The creek curved and bucked, seeming to resist its final journey to the Thames, while the path struck directly for the tall concrete towers of the flood barrier. A warning light, erected on a spidery metal gantry explained that when it was lit the barrier was closed and there was no escape from the creek. It was hard to imagine boats navigating the deep muddy crevasse below, but Dartford Creek had once been used by Thames Lighters to access wharves in Crayford and Dartford, and there appears to be some effort afoot to restore the river to use by pleasure boats. As I headed for the barrier, the sun broke through the low clouds that had dogged my walk, and the marshes were suddenly illuminated. The distant bridge at Dartford shimmered in the spring sunlight, while the river rippled with bronze below, reflecting the yellow marsh grass. I was entirely alone now, the last dog walker miles away and the waste disposal plants which sheltered in the lee of the high bank deserted for the weekend. At the foot of the gigantic flood barrier I paused and looked back west: the broad thames turned south, Erith Reach twisting back towards Greenwich and the City. On the western bank of the Darent on the spit of land which protruded into the river the Thames Ammunition Works opened in 1879 in a seemingly ideal spot away from any great mass of population and with easy river access from the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich. During the Great War the site was taken into government control and briefly connected to the railway network, but by the early 1920s it was under the ownership of Messrs W.B Gilbert Ltd. On February 19th 1924, while the predominantly female workforce were disassembling shells to recover powder, a fire broke out on the site causing a number of large explosions. The remote and inaccessible site meant that help was slow to arrive, and eventually eleven women and a foreman lost their lives. The site is buried by new industry, its sad history largely unremarked now. Across the water, the mounds of detritus which had accumulated over a century at Rainham loomed large, the sun winking off passing trains speeding out to Europe as they emerged from behind the rubbish heaps. To the east, the little town of Purfleet was reassuringly familiar - the riverfront flats and hotel dwarfed by the arched hanger of the Royal Opera House Production Centre, while the low viaduct carrying the A13 strode across Wennington Marsh. I spent a while watching the scenery shift, the river changing from a deep olive to a surprising blue as the sky cleared. It was hard to imagine The Long Reach Tavern surviving near this spot - until damaged so severely in the infamous tidal surge of 1953 that it had to be demolished. In the 19th century the tavern had been infamous for cock-fighting and bare-knuckle boxing contests, and it had thrived on the presence of both the nearby hospitals and the aerodrome used by Vickers and Maxim for testing early aircraft prototypes, and later by Britain's nascent Air Force as RFC Joyce Green. There was no clear trace of the inn now, the flood defences built in response to the disaster which spelled its end having obliterated the ground on which it stood.
The temperature fell as the sun began to slide towards the western horizon, and it was time to head for civilisation again. As I turned to face west and begin my journey back to London, the sky was beginning to turn an ominous purple-grey. I joined the Thames Path and began walking towards Erith along a raised bank between the water and the ancient salt marshes. Decaying wooden structures strode out into the water - long forgotten piers and jetties which had been replaced by the modern yacht club I could see up ahead, a forest of masts clustering around the building. The path descended from the bank to skirt the yacht club, turning inland and onto the industrial roads leading towards Erith. I was tiring now, and the slog up a dusty hill while dodging puddles of suspiciously rainbow-tinted water outside waste management facilities felt like hard going. Erith was a genuinely strange place - once a resort described as a 'pretty little place' by Walter Bell in 1907, it had been relentlessly colonised by industry. The proximity to a calm stretch of river drew factories and railways towards the shore here, but they abandoned the town just as quickly as they'd arrived as industry on the river declined. At the end of Manor Road I spotted the disused parapet of a bridge which had once carried a branch of the railway to a riverside pier, now filled in and occupied by a flank of the huge Morrisons store which had, in turn, changed the face of the town's commercial zone. The centre of Erith was a down-at-heel shopping centre which used its ancient High Street as a service road. It was hard to know if the shuttered stores were closed because it was Sunday or if the centre was in more permanent decline. A few groups of young people hung around, and the last straggling shoppers shuffled home from the early Sunday closure of the supermarket. In some ways Erith's town centre felt less human and more helpless than the abandoned marshland of Crayford Ness. I pressed onward, under a slippery subway and towards the railway station. I wasn't sorry to be leaving Erith behind, though I had a nagging sense that this part of the world wouldn't let my imagination go now I'd walked the river. I'd expected little more than a decent, long walk today, but had found a surprisingly contested territory, continuously walking a knife-edge between being suburban London and semi-rural Kent. The Cray was a physical and emotional boundary, even if it didn't quite match the ceremonial boundaries, redrawn to enclose many of its once remote settlements within the growing sprawl of modern London. From the mannered and carefully primped park where it surfaced to the wild, sprawling, wind-blasted marsh where it gave up its waters to wider river, the River Cray inhabited a zone which was neither city nor country, neither town nor village. Watermills may have been replaced by retail parks and waste plants, but the river still seemed to drive a quiet and relentless industry. As I boarded a train back to the Sunday silence of a near-abandoned Cannon Street, I surprised myself by looking forward to being out here on the edge of Kent again.
You can find a gallery of pictures from the walk here.
Posted in London on Saturday 3rd February 2018 at 11:02pm
A steady rain was falling on the shining pavements of Upminster. Not heavy enough to make me pause in my plans for the day, but equally showing no sign of relenting any time soon. The trip out here from the city had been convoluted, but had passed surprisingly quickly and without any major disruption, and I was setting out a little sooner than I'd expected into the damp town centre. I'd never been to Upminster before. I'd certainly passed through: on trains scudding out to the coast, or on long meandering walks along the nearby Ingrebourne River - but I had little preconception of what I'd find at the top of the station steps. Somewhat unexpectedly, Upminster had the air of a prosperous small town. A smattering of the right kind of stores peppered the parades of interwar red-brick suburban shop-fronts flanking the street, breaking up the usual aromatic mix of takeaways and hair salons which are never far from a station. I was heading for the crossroads at the centre of Upminster where the A124 begins its journey into London from this almost-Essex town turned dormitory suburb. The ancient centre of a village with a long, distinguished history of being on the edge of a relentlessly growing London, Upminster was dragged - administratively at least - into its gravity in 1965. But the place still feels, and to some extent looks, like a market town in rural southern Essex. Squeezed by the statutory girdle of the Metropolitan Green Belt to the north and south, it edges out towards the M25 and even breaks the membrane to stray a little beyond. The District Line quits at Upminster having reached here in 1902, while the parallel tracks of the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway are left to continue the journey east. In fact, the District Line tracks struggle on for a further mile or so beyond the station into the vast depot at Cranham, near where the majority of the TfL-commissioned red buses also give up and turn back west. Upminster grew dramatically after the coming of the railways, blossoming again between the wars to become the de-facto district centre for the sprawl of new residential suburbs here at the edge of Greater London. As such it has perhaps never been well to do in the strictest sense, but today at least it certainly felt like it was doing well enough among the liminal uncertainties of 2018. I passed numerous well-dressed young folk heading for the station, drawn in by the train into 'town', though there were perhaps surprisingly few non-white faces peering down at the screens of 'phones and tablets. This is another boundary - a distinct zone where London's legendary diversity peters out entirely. Upminster didn't appear to suffer the bitterly proud, BREXIT-stoked racism of Dagenham or the knife-edge tolerance of Barking's complex population mix. Here it was just olde-England's shire-county conservatism accidentally straying into the edges of the city. I surveyed the corner up ahead with some trepidation. To the east was Essex - and Waitrose of course - but to the west was the massive, brooding imposition of London. A huge gravitational drag along the busy A124, an old road which has wound in from Essex for hundreds of years. Today I was using it as the pretext for a walk in from the edges. A return to the east which felt long overdue. If I started walking, I knew I'd feel the sense of another project underway. I recalled Jonathan Meades closing remarks in The Joy of Essex about the county's ability to consume and reclaim, not least referring to the absorption of whatever London cast out, and wondered quite where this walk would take me?
To the south of the crossroads, the squat tower of St. Laurence's Church loomed over the highway looking every inch the rural parish church despite the presence of a busy branch of Lidl nearby. From the tower of St. Laurence in 1709 the Reverend William Derham made remarkably accurate measurements of the speed of sound by way of a telescope and the flash of a distant gunshot, timing the report with a half-second metronome. These scientific pursuits seem a strange kind of work for a country parson, but it seems he was perhaps no ordinary cleric. Derham's written work fuses his theological and philosophical arguments with a surprisingly open and naturalistic mind, describing nebulae, natural variation in species and distant star clusters in his effort to forge a tangible Physico-theology. Resting near Derham in the churchyard, and like him with no memorial is Alice Perrers, mistress of King Edward III - a popular monarch in his time who seemed to fall out of favour with modern historians for not foreseeing the part his legacies would play in dividing York and Lancaster after his passing. The fact that he took no mistress until his consort, Philippa of Hainault, was terminally ill displays rare royal restraint for the period. The quiet of Derham and Perrers' repose was challenged by the steady westward stream of traffic which fussed and boiled to navigate around the regular procession of buses starting their journey back towards Romford. As I passed by, an older lady tripped and fell at the bus stop outside the church with the sickeningly specific sound of a crumpling body hitting concrete. A car screeched to a halt and someone was soon helping her back to the seat. She patted the helper away, protesting that she was fine and had just slipped. It was hard to tell if the dusty but otherwise seemingly unharmed woman or her good samaritan was more embarrassed by this un-British display of kindness - but it made clear that I was not in London. Somewhere between here and the city the tone changed and any unusual happening or public mishap was a non-interactive spectacle, a situation worthy of recording but not of intervention. Uncomfortably, I realised I'd just done the same - and so I moved on.
While the sprawl of suburbia along the A124 meant that little of the substantial swathe of greenbelt surrounding Upminster reached the margins of the road, there were still distinct divisions between the former towns and hamlets which straggled along the road. As I left Upminster, passing the windmill which has remarkably survived since 1803 but is currently shrouded in white for repairs, I began to descend into the valley of the Ingrebourne. I had briefly passed this way before, emerging from the farmland to the north to pass under the railway and head south towards the Thames. This time I was crossing the territory from east to west, and thus I was far more aware of the deep groove carved over the millennia by this apparently modest little river. The bridge here was first recorded in 1375, and the current brick bridge is at least the fourth on the site, dating from 1892 and once complete with cast iron sidings from the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. At times a ford supplemented the bridge, such was the importance of the route. But now the crossing was easily missed, with most assuming that the nearby Upminster Bridge station on its high brick viaduct was the origin of the area's name. Remembering the short strip of shops here I popped in to stock up for my walk, and emerged to find the rain slowing somewhat. Encouraged, I struck off westwards again, crossing Hacton Lane - which formerly led to the now almost entirely absent hamlet of the same name. At the crest of the hill the tall verdigris-covered spire of St. Andrew Hornchurch announced my crossing into a new parish. At the eastern end of the building, a stone bull's head pointed its horns back east - an 18th century addition, with the name of the area long-predating this somewhat literal interpretation. Despite the presence of the usual range of High Street ubiquity, there was a sense of something ancient about Hornchurch. The mock Tudor villas which had stretched along the road behind their well-kept but traffic-battered gardens petered out a little outside of town. Their faux-historical take on the old vernacular was overshadowed somewhat by the presence of the genuinely venerable, haphazard tumble of the Kings Head - now occupied by Prezzo who have shown remarkable restraint in preserving the building's dignity. But Hornchurch offers a rather more distant link to pre-history, being the most southerly point in Britain which sheet ice reached during the last ice age some 450000 years ago. The ancient geology is reportedly best seen in the railway cutting which carries the rather quiet Overground shuttle service from Upminster to Romford, where layers of geological detritus carried from the Midlands by the advancing ice can be found above the native Essex clay. The town centre of Hornchurch bustled and rushed, apparently unaware of its historical importance, centred on a knot of roads linking the suburbs to the north and south. I paused for coffee here, watching the comings and goings of the locals. Perhaps more than Upminster, this felt like a place distinct from the surrounding city and suburbs - a busy town which could perhaps be anywhere in England. That said, it was clear that the area owed much of its prosperity to the gravitational pull of London, with a steady stream of pedestrians headed briskly south towards the station as I looked out over town. If Hornchurch had been plucked up and deposited in the Midlands by some trick of the retreating ice, it would no doubt have struggled to survive.
Underway again, the road took me briefly into green space at last, dipping to cross the tiny Ravensbourne near Abbs Cross Lane. This brook hadn't featured in my previous walks - largely because much of it runs through the back gardens of suburban homes and other inaccessible places, meaning little of its relatively short length is walkable until it reaches the lake in Harrow Lodge Park near its confluence with The Beam. The road here was busy with speeding traffic navigating the curve and rising away from me in a cloud of spray and fumes. I paused in the steady drizzle to snap a picture of the tiny watercourse hemmed into a weed-choked concrete channel under the road, and incurred the interest and apparent displeasure of a passing local laden with Sainsbury's bags. He passed me, tutting and muttering although I posed no obstacle to him, then frequently looked back, suspicious of my motives in photographing the stream. As I made the steady climb away from the Ravensbourne, the rain began to fall more steadily. I was already soaked through and decided not to let it bother me. The road plunged into dreary and damp suburbia again - a long stretch of housing filling the spaces between the old towns of Essex which had once been prime farmland. I trudged on, wondering if this walk was just too contrived and obscure to really have a focus? How could I connect these disconnected blips of population which huddled along the District Line for safety? It was easy to feel discouraged in the gloom and damp, the only diversion arising from the need to move deftly to avoid being splashed by passing vehicles. Few people were around, and faces gazed at me from warm, comfortable cars in disbelief. Why would he walk out here? No-one walked out here.
And so I found myself back in Romford. My route skirted the southern edge of the town, passing the site of the former Roneo works, now a vast retail development which nestled into the corner where the main roads met the Beam River where it emerges from its largely unremarked passage under the Town Centre. The area around the former works site is a confusion of closed cafÃ©s and repurposed shops now doubling as offices and builders' merchants. It's clear that the departure of the factory, a huge employer locally, had left this outlying corner of Romford beleaguered and purposelses. The river plunged underground again to negotiate the busy junction with the A125, though its disappointing trickle could be seen in a deep concrete trough curving north alongside the road through the grounds of the vast new Queen's Hospital. South of the junction, the stocky and purposeful tower of YMCA's Thames Gateway building loomed over the otherwise flat landscape of the Beam Valley. My last passage through this area, when walking along the river, had been on a brighter spring day when a swift crossing of the road had soon seen me back in the relatively rural edgelands of Grenfell Park. Today though, my route lay to the west. As I headed away from Roneo Corner I spotted an old boundary marker driven into the ground dividing the former Urban Districts of Hornchurch and Romford. Much had changed on the ground since these divisions were laid down along the routes of ancient roads and rivers, and it was strangely cheering to see this vestige of the past persisting among the churn and change which surrounded it. With much of the traffic barrelling away towards the centre of Romford and onto faster routes into London, the road became something of a suburban backwater here: a long avenue stretching west through Rush Green, with ranks of dustbins and bare trees stretching into the middle-distance. The rain was falling steadily now from a swirl of grey cloud which showed little sign of moving on. This felt, perhaps unfairly, like a grim spot - a route which connects nothing with nothing. Persisting despite the gloom which seemed to descend as I walked further, I soon found myself passing the gates of West Ham United's training ground and beyond it the park where the Wantz Stream had been dammed to form a boating lake. There is little above-ground evidence of this once surprisingly long stream aside from its much truncated ramble through scrubby parkland to meet the Beam, so this hint of its former presence was welcome. The former crossing beneath the road was also evident from a low railing on the southern side, which once featured a coloured plaque bearing the arms of Essex. Beyond the fence a tangle of wild grasses and bushes described a narrow backfilled channel between the houses of Rush Green Road and the low-rise flats of Widsons Close. The culverted stream had been co-opted as additional garden space, and was cluttered with tumbling sheds and tarpaulin covered cars. Approximately at the point where the river would have passed beneath the road stood large signs welcoming me to Barking and Dagenham, with the squat remains of another Coal Duty Post nearby. The Wantz Stream still performed a civic duty in providing this boundary, long after its more prosaic work was consigned to the underworld. I crossed the hidden river, wondering what life would be like on this side of the intangible divide?
My first impressions of entering the Barking and Dagenham from this new angle were not positive. Wood Lane was a litter strewn and windy chasm leading west, away from Central Park. The development of this area had been carefully planned, but the expected approach was very much from the west. Therefore I first encountered the imposing modernist hulk of Barking and Dagenham's Civic Centre via the less impressive northern shoulder - a rank of white-painted stone window mullions dividing the slab of brick and Portland stone, relieved by a curved glass stairwell on the flank. It was a solid, clean-lined and functional building which looked surprisingly elegant from an advantageous angle, set in a wide and open area which placed it in odd isolation. A chill wind whipped in from the Thames, swirling litter and builder's dust around the grass and flowerbeds which narrowed into a roundabout up ahead. The building was conceived by architect E. Berry Webber as a statement entrance to the nearby Becontree Estate and was ready for use by 1937, roughly contemporary with the completion of the main phases of housing. Webber went on to propose similar plans for Hammersmith's Town Hall very soon after work here was done - but his plans there have been greatly modified by unsympathetic extensions and curtailed by the building of the Great West Road. By contrast, Dagenham's Civic Centre stands now looking largely as it had since opening, despite some less elegant but not overly intrusive 1960s additions. It also appears from the strength of feeling when austerity threatened its continued use, to be a much loved local landmark. On that basis, I was curious what the locals thought of its recent reincarnation as an outpost of Coventry University? Provincial educational establishments gaining a foothold in the capital appears to be very much the done thing now, but taking over a popular local landmark is a bold and ostentatious move. Pondering this land-grab, my route now led away from the Civic Centre, giving unexpected views back across the building and its approaches, which from this vantage bore an unlikely resemblance to a North American High School. The views ahead were decidedly British however as I trudged by the bulky, drab tower of Laburnum House and into the edges of Becontree. This vast estate was developed between 1921 and 1926 on compulsorily purchased former market gardening land, in order to rehouse families from cleared slums as part of a post-war drive to provide homes fit for heroes. Wood Lane, an ancient route which turned south at Becontree Heath, still describes an arc around the bounds of the original development of nearly 24,000 homes which was extended twice before finally reaching nearly 27,000 dwellings by its final completion in 1951. The estate has, at various times, vied for the prize of being the biggest development of housing in Western Europe. Despite the sheer size of Becontree, there is much to recommend about the homes here - solid, mid-century municipal designs which have lasted well, and which are arranged around a reasonable quota of green space. The first tenants of Becontree moved into an isolated, muddy morass with no extant services and a temporary railway running along the future route of Valence Avenue to bring materials to the building sites. Later though, the estate prospered in part due to its proximity to the Ford Works and the belt of industry along the Thames. Initial tenants were carefully screened for suitability by the London County Council, with their standards of hygiene and continued employment a key factor in securing one of these modern dwellings. While the Housing Act of 1919 permitted the LCC to develop these areas and act as landlord despite it being outside their turf, the administrative position around the estate and its cleansing and services remained complex until Local Government Reorganisation unified responsibilities for the site in 1965. Prior to that, various parts of the land fell into the districts of Ilford, Barking and Dagenham with the attendant confusion around schools and services requiring a range of exceptions and easements. While many homes here had long since been purchased under the right to buy rules, there was still a sense of being on a vast estate, and as I deviated from Wood Lane into the midst of Becontree, I was struck by the uneasy feeling of being somewhere which felt very familiar from my own upbringing in the Midlands. The long, straight boulevards of Valence Avenue and Becontree Avenue crossed at the midst of a cluster of local shops which were a little tired and typical, but which were still pleasantly busy. Becontree appeared to be soldiering on through these difficult first months of the year - a little tired, a little wet - but still here.
In the midst of Becontree though is a remarkable survival of all this civic and social change. Valence House was first recorded on this site in 1269 as one of the five ancient manors of Dagenham, with the current building noted as standing from around 1400. In 1921 the house, complete with a moat, was still serving as a family home - before being used by the LCC as its local headquarters during the building of Becontree Estate. Between 1928 and 1937 the house served as Dagenham's town hall until the Civic Centre was ready for business at which point the Libraries Department took on the building. The house is now a local history museum, sitting at the north-western corner of the busy park with a small remnant of its moat still separating it from the car park. I skirted the impressive new visitor centre, complete with a sculpture of a rusting Ford Capri marking Dagenham's link with this ubiquitous example of 1970s style, and headed directly for the house. I'd finally come to see something which I'd read about and had been curious to find for some time - The Dagenham Idol. Pulled from the marshes when sewers were being laid along Ripple Road in 1922, the idol is an eighteen inch tall human figure carved from Scots Pine. It was found by workers near the site which was to become Ford's sprawling riverside works, buried next to the skeleton of a deer which was possibly part of the same offering. Carbon-dated to around 2250BCE, the statue pre-dates the construction of Stonehenge and lay undisturbed in a preservative layer of peat awaiting its twentieth-century rebirth. While the rest of the displays at Valence House appeared interesting, especially those about the development and domestic arrangements of the building over the years, I was desperate to see the Idol for myself. After a show of the correct hands-behind-the-back-and-looking-up museum protocol on entering the quiet parlour I turned to the east and found myself looking history directly into its oddly oversized eye-socket. The idol is housed in a glass case in the centre of a panelled area which would once have been one of the fine reception rooms of the house. It gazes perpetually across to the west, eyeing the development of the great city of which its owner may possibly have been a founder. I circled the statue, enchanted by its great age but strange familiarity. It felt curiously appropriate that it had been brought here from its long, solitary home in the marshes into the midst of what had become this vast estate with its apparently unparalleled press of humanity. Would Becontree survive as long as the Idol? It was difficult not to superstitiously link their fates. The idol had reversed Meade's premise and made it out of the "voracious sump" after all.
It was hard to leave the quiet precincts of Valence House and the warm and inviting cafe at the visitors centre, but I needed to make progress and I was aware that the rain seemed to be slowing me down. I left the park and crossed the centre of the estate, aiming for Bennett's Castle Lane - mostly because it described an organic, twisting path on the map through the more regular geometries of Becontree, betraying its pre-estate origins. The lane is marked on early maps of the area, curving roughly southwards towards Longbridge Road - the continuation of the A124 from Wood Lane. The origins of the name are obscure - though on the 1894 revision of the Ordnance Survey map there is both a Bennett's Castle House east of the road near Valence House, and a separate Bennett's Castle nestled into the junction with Longbridge Road. There are no specific records of any sort of fortification - though if the name weren't clearly much older it would be tempting to link it to local industry via Henry Ford's notorious security chief who built a fortified 'castle' in Ypsilanti, Michigan. The lane also marked the boundary between Ilford and Dagenham, a fact blurred by the development of Becontree and erased by the redrawing of Borough boundaries in 1965. Now, Bennett's Castle Lane winds its way towards the edge of the estate in unremarkable style, arriving at the corner which appeared once to have provided its name with little ceremony. I was back on the A124 as it once again became a surprisingly quiet avenue.
Longbridge Road takes its name from a crossing of the little Mayes Brook which, if old maps are to be believed, was well-named. The road appears to run directly above a long, broadened stretch of the water before they part, with the brook heading south towards the Thames. I'd been here before - on a bright winter morning tracing the now largely hidden path of the brook through the urban developments which have filled the once open countryside. The busy curve of road where Longbridge would have crossed the brook is now a difficult to navigate junction beside the Parkside Community Centre. My progress across the street was watched with interest by a small group of locals sheltering and smoking in the lee of the centre like ceremonial guardians for the long-deleted bridge. The brook rose again south of the road in Mayesbrook Park, but my route continued to take me west, passing long, rather fine looking blocks of municipal housing set back from the road. This area appeared to have been developed in the 1930s, with Faircross - where the road south to Upney intersected my route - developing from a tiny hamlet into a busy local shopping area. The walk here was tough going - I was thoroughly soaked now, and the route into Barking seemed endless and unrelenting. I finally arrived at the huge roundabout marking the fringe of the town centre where a modern bypass takes much of the traffic which once passed through the centre of Barking in a northern arc. At the midst of the roundabout was one of the few notable pieces of public art in the district - The Catch - two delicate, silvery metal fishes leaping from the ground in celebration of the historic local fishing fleet, long since decamped to the North Sea. As I crossed the complicated pedestrian route to reach the town centre, I was accosted by perhaps the least successful beggar I've ever encountered. "Gimme one pound cash brother!" he exclaimed, and I turned to see a gentle-featured but huge black man towering over me, his palm extended hopefully. I genuinely had no cash and told him so, but he trailed silently along behind me his shoes flapping at the pavements. From a little way behind me as I paused at a crossing I heard "Gimme one pound cash sister!" - and suddenly the woman whose loud cackling into her mobile 'phone I'd been studiously ignoring turned on him: "Get a fuckin' job, I don't earn money to give it to you, how fuckin' dare you ask me for money. Go to the job centre! Fool!". He didn't seem to find the outburst surprising and padded off along a side-street, lured in by a promising looking crowd hovering outside a takeaway. She strutted away towards town, loudly complaining into her 'phone that anyone would have had the audacity to ask her for money. She held the device away from her face, yelling her disdain into the void between her and the microphone. I slowed my pace, wanting to let her disappear into the busy crowds of Station Parade so I could forget how her twisted, angry mouth had looked as she'd spat her words at the clearly vulnerable and compromised man.
There was a time that Barking was just another stop on the railway for me - a point where routes converged and carefully planned changes between lines were possible. In recent years though, it has become a repeatedly visited nexus on my walks: a crossing point on my journey around the North Circular and a staging post on my walks along the A13 and the River Roding. The Town Centre in particular is all too familiar - a busy, edgy churn of buses and people. Today I passed directly through the centre, finding dodging through a crowd rather challenging after a day of almost solitary walking along damp, suburban avenues. Barking feels like a frontier town - where the attitude and frustration of London crashes onto the calmer shores of Essex. Beyond here, as I'd seen, there were distinct towns and communities, but Barking has been almost completely absorbed by the city - and thus shares in its benefits but shoulders a perhaps unjust burden of its misfortunes. The town is a vestige of a mid-century redevelopment, the busy open-air market wedged into a broad pedestrianised zone between budget chainstores and mobile 'phone shops where it can take forever to make a simple enquiry. The service is low-energy, relaxed to the point of glaciation. Try to hurry things along and they'll move even slower, suspicious of your eagerness to get out into town. The shops are artificially heated sweatboxes which reek of desperation for credit and status. By contrast, business at the outdoor market clips along at a furious pace - bags are spun deftly between fingers to close them, change is drawn swiftly from oily cloth pouches. The discourse is abbreviated: newly arrived accents slipping into the oldest forms of patter without effort. I struck out across the centre of town and wasn't sorry to reach the western edge, where the ancient remains of the abbey stretch along the banks of the river. I paused under the Curfew Tower, the gateway to the Abbey precincts from which a bell would call citizens to douse their fires or suffer penalty as directed by William of Normandy. A 12th century stone representation of the crucifixion is kept in the tower, an object of pilgrimage and a remarkable survival of the destruction of the abbey in 1540. Beyond the tower, St. Margaret's Church remains a place of worship amid its mossy graves and damp churchyard beside the river. I crossed the Abbey grounds, heading for the bridge over the Roding which flowed sluggishly beneath, waters swollen from the rain and tide. The ever-present aroma of mud and sewage drifted along the river as I looked south over paths I'd walked before. Beside the river, the ramps up to the North Circular shuddered and clanked under the weight of traffic leaving Barking under the gaze of another artistic sentinal - Joost van Santen's 'Lighted Lady'. This asymmetrically twisted column of acrylic and light which changes and shifts in colour marks the entrance and exit point of the town, and for me the beginning of the final part of my trek - out of the east and into the 'East End' of legend and tradition.
I zig-zagged under the concrete of the flyover and out of Barking, having passed the twin barriers of river and road which separated it from London. From here on, the streets conformed to a victorian pattern of long terraces leading away from the straight road into town. In some ways, this section of my route belonged to my A13 project as the former route of the road had taken this path through East Ham and Canning Town. I realised with some surprise that I was on familiar territory - if from an unusual angle. To the south, Langdon's Academy sprawled along the North Circular - and I recalled striking out along a path edging around it on a previous walk. Meanwhile to the north, the inaccessible scrubland which had barred my way when tracking the Roding south ended in a tangle of unkempt trees and rampant flytipping. I was also crossing into the London Borough of Newham here - one of the proud host boroughs of the 2012 Olympics which seems to be none the richer for its tolerance and hospitality. The road soon gave way to the rows of terraced side streets, named in the Victorian style and with considerable imperial glee for generals, battles and saints. Barking Road was a long-established thoroughfare, no less busy for the building of the new A13 to the south, as it provided access to this vast hinterland of residential streets which marched into the city. I passed the impressive red-brick clock tower of East Ham Town Hall, currently swathed in cloth for repairs but still a landmark on the route into town. Newham Council decamped in 2009 to an anonymous glass hangar on the edge of the Royal Docks in a move which showed a good deal of disdain for the local population which has historically clustered around this area. However, there was a more significant hollow at the heart of this community - a gaping absence where the Boleyn Ground had once stood proudly among the homes and shops. My last interest in football, save for a few notable World Cup tournaments which piqued my curiosity, was on 8th March 1980 when Aston Villa's FA Cup run was cruelly ended in the quarter final by West Ham United. Having listened on the radio in growing disbelief, I remember my hot, perhaps rather spoilt, childish tears of frustration and rage, and a vow not to let this game get me so upset again. I was always an oversensitive soul it seems, but passing a mural of Billy Bonds and Trevor Brooking, I began to understand how this pursuit and the ground which provided a focal point for it had defined this street. With the stands sitting proudly in the midst of this teeming neighbourhood, everything hinged on West Ham - and while it was no doubt the livelihood of many of the local shopkeepers of Barking Road, it was likely the scourge of plenty of locals who wanted a quiet life. The team's ill-fated departure to the Olympic Stadium a year or so back hadn't solved any of these issues and had created plenty more. I vividly remember being evacuated from Stratford on the afternoon of the first match at the rechristened London Stadium - we had strayed in from the industrial hinterlands on a wander around the east, and were swiftly and unceremoniously guided out of the emergency doors and into the Carpenters Estate as a helicopter circled above. The crowds of shoppers dawdling around Westfield were apparently not compatible with a single-minded surge of football fans heading for the hostelries pre-game. On Barking Road, the long parade of shops - the pristinely clean Nathan's Pies and Eels and the Ercan Fish Bar complete with mock West Ham crests - masked the site of the ground, a forest of cranes marking the regeneration efforts. The shops were quiet, pedestrian traffic almost absent. I sloshed along the forlorn street wondering what would become of the businesses here, their ambivalent blessing and curse now gone for good. Would the heritage fetish bring fans back here to their true home, or was it all too late? At the next corner, a statue proudly depicted a cross-section of the 1966 World Cup winning squad, a group of West Ham players who had provided an ongoing engine of national pride which was still recalled in keycodes and passwords generations later - 1066 and 1966 - our defining moments, almost a millennium apart.
I passed into more familiar territory as I crossed The Greenway, that elusive and strange footpath running along the Northern Outfall Sewer which became something of an unattainable prize during the post-Olympic years when re-opening was often promised but never delivered. At its crossing of Barking Road it is running at ground level, usually with long views both east towards the Barking Flood Barrier and west towards the new towers of Stratford City. Today though, there was a flat grey wall of cloud blocking both views. People emerged from the gloom, trudging along the wet path with their heads down. It was good to see the path busy and used though - this stretch in particular had always seemed like a much missed amenity at times when it was off-limits. It was tempting to swing north and west, to head for familiar old landmarks - but I'd decided to press on into Canning Town to complete the sense of entering the city proper, so I pushed on despite my feet aching from walking on slippery pavements all day. Beyond the Greenway, the ribbon of retail units begins which run for the remainder of the length of Barking Road to an abrupt ending where East India Dock Road leaps over Bow Creek. In the distance I could see the cluster of shadowy towers emerging from the gloom on the Isle of Dogs. The road into Canning Town was in transition - and probably had been for years, likely since the closure of the docks. The resolutely homogenous crowds back in Upminster seemed a world away here where old Indian men shuffled along beside swaggering young men with low-slung trousers and Eastern European women pushing prams slowly along the pavements. A shard of red and black glass pierced the gloom - one of the towers which had emerged from the redevelopment of Rathbone Market. Anyone you asked would tell you it was no good - that the old Ratty had been destroyed by the new buildings and the character and charm was all gone - but the community here had been shifting and changing for much longer. The market they missed was in truth the ghost of the one that had been buried long ago, and the spirit of place which is now much closer to the surface in the satellite towns I'd walked in from. As I joined a bus queue which silently shuffled towards a parade of double-deckers emerging from the darkened eastern skies, I considered the area where I'd finally stopped. This spot united many of my excursions and felt almost homelike in its familiarity. I could navigate from here to almost anywhere in the complex network of rivers and roads which I'd memorised accidentally by a seemingly random pattern of walking and re-walking over the years. This spot marked the end of an unremarkable dark ribbon of asphalt snaking in from the edge of things which had wound a steady course through former towns with roots in prehistory, precious unburied idols and the keen absence of more recently diminished heritage. In the growing gloom of the afternoon I boarded a bus to Aldgate, reversing my incomplete walk out of London to the coast which had begun a long time ago, and crossing the boundary of old Essex as I crossed the River Lea. It had been good to be back out east at last.
You can see more pictures 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.