Posted in Travel on Wednesday 25th May 2016 at 7:05pm
I try desperately hard not to let stereotypes govern my travels. It would be too easy to let an accent, a nationality or an attitude define the subtle shifts across locales as I walk around London for instance. It would be even easier to do the same on mainland Europe. I'm finally back here in Brussels - fourteen years after my last visit when I strolled without care around a city which I barely connected with. This time things feel very different indeed. Firstly, we are on the brink of a potentially momentous referendum which would see the link between the UK and this city changed irretrievably. Right now Brussels feels like a world city - people speak to me in perfect, polite English, they bustle around the city with just a hint of the gallic laissez faire. This truly is a crossroads - where latin and germanic Europe meets, and sometimes as history has shown - clashes with terrifying consequences. Brussels is a strange and potent place which is not nearly as inconsequential as it felt on my first visit.
Secondly, Brussels is now a fortress. The terrible attacks on democracy and western reason which brought terrorists to the rather beautiful heart of this curious place still echo in the streets. Soldiers patrol railway stations with their perky Jean-Claude Van Damme style berets and automatic weapons. The police skitter about from place to place, checking an impossibly endless number of key spots for signs of concern. This is either the safest or the most dangerous place in the world to be just now. Mostly though, seen through the eyes of someone who hasn't ever set foot in mainland Europe, Brussels is an exciting collision of the familiar and the alien. The impact of the gilded halls in Grand Place, the vast verdigreed dome of the Palace of Justice or the warm modernity of Gare Centrale are so very un-British. So different to the anglo-centric world which we left only two hours ago after stepping onto a train at St.Pancras.
I quickly found my morning routine here - a constitutional around the cobbled streets and alleys which surround our hotel, then into the station for coffee and a chance to watch people. The smell of warm waffles curled up from the concessions on the station concourse, and the friendly baristas learned my order. I felt welcome - at home even. I was beginning to fall for this complex, strange but oddly welcoming city. But it wasn't to be without its challenge. After a normal morning wandering and enjoying watching busy crowds commuting, we strolled a little before heading onto the Metro to get to Heysel. There appeared to be disruption - routes missing from screens, and the information system didn't seem to be coping well with translating it. We made our way to Brussels Midi and found the system in disarray. A strike had been called by MIVB workers this very morning, and very little was working. We decided to head back for the centre. As we entered the platform, crowds of demonstrating strikers appeared - with the Metro out of action they took full advantage of SNCB's services - travelling in packs, smoking and holding doors open to delay trains for their colleagues. There were three distinct teams: the Socialists, wearing red of course and by far the most tetchy of the bunch, the Christians who wore green and seemed to make a beeline for the bars and sex clubs in the seedier areas around Midi. Finally, the Liberals - blue jacketed and far fewer in number - we wondered in fact if it wasn't the same little pack of four or five we saw repeatedly touring the city.
Back at Central Station, we found more chaos. The unions had closed down most of the exits, with only the tunnel leading to Cantersteen open. We joined a long line of angry, bewildered commuters, pushing against a tide of union folks who didn't mind who they nudged aside in their rush into the station. Then the firecrackers began and people began to panic. It struck me as utterly insensitive that Metro workers, still reeling from the terrible attacks on the city and their stations just months ago, would think it fitting to contain folk inside a small area and then to set off firecrackers. I deployed my elbows and forced my way up the staircase and into the street. For the first time in a long time, I felt a surge of violent temper of my own. As we forced our way past the protests, the only reasonable route back to our hotel, a red-coated socialist threw a firecracker under a policecar. The dull thud sent us reeling. He laughed. I pursued him, fists clench and insults flying - but he had earplugs to defend his ears from his own explosions. We weren't sorry to get back to the quiet of the hotel. I felt my admiration for the city peeling away, the lustre tarnished by the tinge of the old European horror of strikes and obstructions. It was the strangest but perhaps most memorable wedding anniversary we've had yet.
In a little under a month, the UK will vote on its future in the political and economic union which centres on this city - this most functional and straightforward, but sometimes ridiculously quirky place. A city where an utterly rational European government co-exists with some of the most agitated workers, where the beer is wonderful and the food utterly confusing. As we set off in the early Brussels evening, the light glinting from the passing commuter trains starting to make their way through the bruised but not broken city, it's hard not to feel just as oddly optimistic for the place as I did when we first arrived. Whatever happens next month - and I fear it rests on a knife edge just now - I want us to remain connected to the continent, with Brussels as the point where we plug into it's confusing, bureaucratic but utterly logical heart.
Posted in London on Saturday 7th May 2016 at 11:05pm
It had been widely touted as the hottest weekend of the year so far - and inevitably the comparisons with the usual holiday destinations were being dusted off. Why wasn't I heading off to the coast? Or somewhere nice? As I rattled north from Liverpool Street under blue skies, I pondered just how much these represented genuine comparators? I was heading for Chingford on a largely unplanned walk which would, I'd absent-mindedly guessed, take me down the eastern side of the Lea Valley. A parallel to last months' walk - but in very different territory indeed. Testing my foot on the concourse as I wandered over to the platform was a relief - I could probably make a decent distance today. But to where? A walk without an end point and without a clear idea of how long it would take felt surprisingly refreshing. I wouldn't trade a week of lounging in the sun for a day like this. It was time to get lost...
Chingford took me by surprise. It perhaps shouldn't have - we'd visited some of the neighbouring areas before and seen the surprisingly fashionable High Streets of Woodford and Loughton. These enclaves of the well-to-do and entitled clinging to the ridge on the fringe of the city have evolved to provide what they think they should want: good quality speciality foods, artisanal products, upcycled furniture and exclusive but overpriced clothing. I bought socks I could barely afford and left swiftly as I recall. It was in pondering the similarities between Chingford's busy High Street of restaurants and boutiques and those other locales that I realised I was roughly in the same part of the world: that uneasy transition from the suburban fringe of London to the Essex 'bling belt'. I tend to see London in terms of the radial spurs of its transport network, and generally I've flung myself out to these extremities only to perform a flag-in-the-territory claim on the track. I remember a feverish, sickened visit to the quiet outpost of Epping, even further beyond the fringe - but it still looked and felt like London - the same trains, the same roundels and lettering on the station's running-in boards. But over the fence the community couldn't be further from the city either in composition or attitude. Years of walking the city have begun to challenge this radial prejudice - I've skittered back and forth, from high ground to valley, from borough to borough, west to east and back. I've chased canals, rivers or just unlikely myths of place. I've begun to learn how things fit together - indeed, how they sometimes don't - and how the tone and tension subtly changes when imperceptible borders are crossed. In this I consider myself luckier than some of the natives - those who stake their claim on a territory early on and don't ever stray. This is, after all, a city where gangs organise their bloody rucks on the relative administrivia of the outward postcode zone. So Chingford, E4 felt just like those other monied hamlets that peppered the ridge between the Lea and the Roding as it petered out into Epping Forest. But it was different too - it was linked back to the city much more directly by it's long stewardship of the forest.
I left the station and turned with some reluctance away from the restaurants and shops towards the wide span of rising green space which marked the edge of Chingford. Resisting the urge to delve into the forest and explore the ancient hunting lodge, I struck out along a row of impressive Victorian villas which oddly fronted onto an unmettled, unadopted track which had seen better days. I satisfied myself that it probably played havoc with the suspension of the low-slung Mercedes and BMWs which lined it. Occasional dog walkers passed me by, wrapping the leather around their hands to prevent the bored animals from chasing errant golf balls. The ground began to rise as I passed the last green of the golf course and the path disappeared between trees, delving into a thick wood on the crest of the hill. This was the edge of Epping Forest, once part of the vast Forest of Essex which spanned great swathes of the county. Under the trees it was cool and damp, strangely and refreshingly quiet. The road noise was gone, birds twittered and other creatures skittered around in the brush. There were no more walkers now, and out of the sun there was a pleasant chill to be felt. The path opened into a clearing, with a well-worn track leading north into the forest - but I knew I wanted to head south and east, so I took a less clearly trodden way finding myself skirting a huge bowl surrounded by mature trees and requiring a bit of a breathless scramble. I thought about a retreat, but decided to press on, and was rewarded with the most wonderful experience. As I climbed the edge of the bowl, the trees framed an opening to the east. A wide expanse of grass stretched ahead, falling away in a long sward between the trees. Ahead of me sat two granite obelisks, one huge and imposing and one squat and discreet. They marked the Meridian line - one accurately, the other as an approximation with a dedication to T E Lawrence affixed. The view along the meridian was obscured by trees, but as I turned the hazy sky opened between the ranks of trees and the view west across the shimmering Lea Valley was revealed. The Chingford Reservoirs close at hand, vast expanses of glittering blue-grey water, and beyond them the shaded towers of Tottenham and Edmonton. Further afield the sprawl of the northern suburbs rising on their high ground turned into a dark smudge on the horizon. Looking a little south, the familiar brooding outline of the Isle of Dogs was a sketched-in detail on the horizon. Here, above all this and removed from its pulse and drag, I could appreciate the absence of London in a way I'd not achieved slogging the long, flat marsh paths out of Essex on the trail of the A13 which never quite seemed to shake off the city. Here I was aware of London as an entity, a thing with boundaries and a definite extent. I'd answered the question I'd posed myself so often: is this London? Pole Hill wasn't London. It was near the city, but not in any sense of the city. I spent a long time looking at the horizon, walking carefully down the grassy bank to another open space where views across the Lea Valley were even better. I could have stayed here for a long time. I felt a sense of calm and content I'd missed these past weeks. I felt a strange swelling of pride for a city that wasn't mine.
But I wasn't quite done with Chingford - or with climbing. Leaving Pole Hill via a gap in the hedge I tumbled out onto a narrow lane of bungalows. Cars were being washed, double-glazing renewed. Any mystique accrued on the hill was lost as I turned south passing a grimy concrete office block as I headed back up the hill towards Chingford Mount. I thought about tackling the climb in one, lung-busting push - but settled for paying feigned interest in some railings half way while sucking air heavily. Not that I was particularly conspicuous here just now, the only pedestrian not using motorised transport to climb the rise. That changed as I delved into the side-streets. There were walkers here - but they fell into very specific groups. There were those heading for their cars, toting a key-fob ahead of them as a form of proof they didn't need to walk, and giving apologetic raised eyebrows as some sort of fraternal shared complaint about the parking. The others marshalled dogs. Glazed eyed trophy animals which they inelegantly harnessed using two hands where necessary, preventing the animals from lunging guilelessly at a human which wasn't enveloped in a cloud of scent or aftershave. Here, as I plodded past the villas with electronic gates and multiple garages with my rucksack and water bottle, I looked like trouble. I wasn't sorry to get into the environs of the cemetery - a much more down-to-earth zone filled with smells of Indian cookery and the dust of continuous home-improvement work which likely lacked the formalities of planning permission. I slipped through the gates and into the eastern part of the graveyard, a crowded and tumble-down cluster of tombstones around an austere but peaceful war memorial where I passed a moment and surveyed the surroundings. I wandered a little here before braving a walk into the newer, western plot. This was wholly different - shiny black stones etched with photographs of the missed, a festoon of celebratory flags from the just passed Orthodox Pascha, elaborate and frequently refreshed floral tributes. There was something of a carnival atmosphere, people putting serious work into tending graves which were investments in themselves. There are of course celebrities here too - and I'd be lying if I pretended not to be curious about the presence of the Krays, reunited by prosaic and unremarkable deaths despite their mythology. However, I didn't get near them - there was a queue of young Spanish tourists lining up to gingerly touch the gravestones, awkwardly positioning for selfies with both brothers' memorials in the background and their lurid raincoats and multihued backpacks reflected in the marble. I felt a brewing over-reaction towards this most un-British of responses to death, which made me feel surprising disgust at my own curiosity too. It was time to move on, leaving the humid greenery of the cemetery and heading for the street, abandoning the crowd around the grave.
From here, my route was mercifully down hill following the fall of the Lea Valley towards the Thames. I took the long straight route of Waltham Way, a traffic-clogged approach for the North Circular lined with mid-century homes giving tantalising glimpses of the reservoir beyond. During the gentle descent I became increasingly familiar with a stretch of seven or eight vehicles which would pass me, grind to a halt and then be overtaken at a much slower pace as I caught up with them. Towards the junction of Waltham Way and the North Circular the pleasant suburban feel falls away as it becomes an access road for a number of industrial estates, with a stretch of tired Victorian shopfronts where I topped up on water but failed to find food. The lack of planning I'd done began to trouble me here - the A406 was a huge, six lane barrier curving across my path. I knew of a footbridge a little east towards Crooked Billet and decided to head that way, calling in at an expensive and grubby petrol station along the way for sustenance. I finally found the slender crossing and slogged up the ramps to survey the land from above. A huge Costco dominated the view west, taunting me with comparatively low prices. To the south I could see the scrubby edgelands which fell between the boundary of Chingford and Higham's Hill, blighted by the presence of the road beneath. From the train this had seemed intriguing - one of the odd and unremarked corners of undeveloped land in this part of London. Now I just needed to find a way to get there, following the signs for Folly Lane and the Islamic Cemetery and passing a much superior and more reasonable service station too. Once out of sight of the main road, Folly Lane quickly dissolved into a dusty chasm of fly-tipping and builders rubble hemmed in by uncontrolled hedgerows and an inexplicably prolific crop of security cameras. I felt instantly more comfortable - this was more like my usual territory, and I sensed water close by. The eastern edge of the road gave way to a scrubby and damp meadow where stoic ponies grazed and eyed me with disinterest. I passed the Islamic Cemetery, a basic but impeccably tidy facility where silence and respect were encouraged. Coming towards me - and reassuring me that the unmarked path did indeed continue beyond this point - a dog walker kicked at the sign for the cemetery and rolled his eyes. I pretended not to understand the casual non-verbal racism and hoped not to hear the click of a slavering terrier being released. Happily he was much too busy being disgruntled to care, and I made it between the bollards and onto the path which edges around Highams' Hill - a seemingly pleasant but dense cluster of streets hemmed in on two sides by the threads of the Lea and the Banbury Reservoir. It feels almost as remotely disconnected from London as Chingford did. A community which looks east and north, rather than inwards towards the core it can't easily reach. The path officially turned south here to access the housing, but I could continue by passing under the splayed legs of an electricity pylon which towered over me. I stood at its centre while I chose my route - in the curious belief that perhaps it could impart some wisdom: I would continue to walk beside the reservoir, soon coming alongside the concrete edged channel in which the Lea flows here, tantalisingly close beyond a railing. The road swung back east here, but a path and an unlocked gateway ahead appeared to continue my route. It's in this sort of circumstance I'd usually take the safe option and regret needing to create some new route to reclaim my territory. Today though, I was aware I had no plan and didn't really know where I wanted to end my walk. Reasoning that I was in the midst of a dense, well-networked city and couldn't reasonably stray far from a route back to the familiar, I pressed on. The path ran along the edge of allotments and the backs of houses which faced away from the river and the marshes. A municipal railing kept me away from the river's various flows: the Navigation running in a deep concrete rut and crossing the flood relief channel at a complex skewed bridge. The by this point somewhat misnamed Navigation curved purposefully to feed the High and Low Maynard reservoirs while the broader, sluggish and half-dry Relief Channel meandered around them. Eventually my impromptu new route came to an end at a locked gate which provided maintenance access to the reservoirs. I turned east along the track which led back to Blackhorse Lane.
Pausing on the low wall outside a school and unenthusiastically consuming my expensive service station lunch, I pondered the walk so far. I'd never set out to walk this way, only having the vaguest plans around Chingford and perhaps walking the eastern edge of the Lea Valley. Instead, I found the views from my train ride out of the city colouring my plans, persuading me to fill in the gaps between lines and stations, to understand the territory better. I set off south through the industrial zone of Blackhorse Lane, an area apparently curiously proud of its name which was repeated at the top of clock-totems and in retro font lettering on factory walls. With the first aches and pains of my trek beginning to set in, I realised I still had no idea where I was going - where would be a fitting end to this? At Blackhorse Road station I faced a crossroads - I could head west here and cross the valley to Tottenham Hale where I'd finished my last walk, or I could head east on the long slog into Walthamstow. Both would have marked a return to the safety of the city. Instead I headed south along the line of the river, dodging into the suburban backstreets to stay as close to its course as possible. The long avenue of Edward Road, lined with viciously pollarded, alien-looking trees fronted the Douglas Eyre playing fields - apparently being subsumed into the grounds of a new-build academy and firmly off limits. I had to take on faith the presence of the Dagenham Brook and the Lea just beyond the tall Victorian villas which lined the street. As I reached yet another school at a crossroads ahead, I faced another choice - I could plough on south into the industrial fringe which marked the edge of the Olympic project, or I could turn west towards the marshes. The curious magnetism of the marshes won yet again.
A westbound perambulation along Coppermill Lane felt like a reversed time-line of the East End: a gradual winding back from hipster shops with graffiti wall-art and modest boozers, through industrial scale water-treatment to the prehistoric panorama of the marshes. As I headed west, leaving the terraces of Leytonstone behind me, the vast sheets of water which filled the dip of the valley dominated the view. To the north, the island-dotted wedge of Walthamstow Reservoir No.5 and to the south the regular pattern of shimmering rectangles around the vast waterworks complex. This lower reach of the valley has a history of treating human effluent, of turning ordure into water - and its industry has often done much to reverse the process. From the crumbling concrete graveyard of the Middlesex Filter Beds to the vast sewage metropolis at Beckton, the eastern reaches of the Thames and the Lea have always been the axis of waste and regeneration. In the midst of it, this waypoint. Ian Bourn's "urethra of London" fully realised. Passing the mid-century offices which front the waterworks, I dodged cyclists as the lane took on a rural aspect. It was busy with walkers enjoying the sun - the obligatory eastern European couples ambling together along with families braving the midges and striding out towards the marshes. Suddenly I find myself at a familiar spot but viewing it from an utterly different angle. Above me is the railway line from Liverpool Street to Cambridge crossing a low underpass dug out of the marsh. To my left is a gate giving access to the marshes east of the line - a carpark and picnic area fronting a vast swathe of tall grasses and a long straight path which seems to follow the route of one of the long culverted channels of the river. My head aches from the brightness, so I stop and watch trains pass while cyclists try to navigate the low passage without dismounting. People aren't moving now. The afternoon sun has turned suddenly and surprisingly warmer, and they're lying down where they stood, struck and scattered like horror movie victims. Shirts are off, trousers rolled. London is relaxing into an opportunistic summer. I walk on, the oddball in the sweater, tossing sweat-flattened hair back from my face and sucking at the last of my water to wash down painkillers. The end of the walk has suggested itself - Lea Bridge is looming. The skeletal new railway station waiting to reopen just across the marsh, the buses ducking and weaving from the stop. It feels like getting back to civilisation after a walk in the wilderness despite the tide of sunbathers.
Weaving through the Equestrian Centre and out onto the road, I'm glad of the trees fringing the road and providing shade. The painkillers start to kick in, dulling the heat-induced ache and letting my feet throb reassuringly instead. It strikes me that this walk couldn't have happened a year ago - even a few months back. I've grown more comfortable walking these fringes, less given to range anxiety and keener to find the boundaries, the interstitial zones, rather than immersing myself in a received version of the eastern reaches of London. It strikes me too that being lost is a welcome distraction - a little dose of unreality that challenges me to navigate using my wits and my instincts rather than a map. But its straight back to the map I'll go - to plot, to measure and to retrospectively research my walk. Each new turn chosen suggesting an untaken alternative. Another way to get lost.
You can find a gallery of images from the walk here.
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.