Posted in London on Saturday 11th March 2017 at 10:03pm
I've written before about my early interest in roads - one that has never really gone away, and has often reawakened at times I've felt challenged or frustrated. That I now have a willing partner in crime who is happy to take sometimes quite lengthy excursions has meant that I've finally had the experience of driving on some of the roads I've mythologised over the decades. However, some roads are meant to be walked - roads which have existed in some form for hundreds if not thousands of years, which despite the layers of surface dressing, hide the oldest of byways beneath. Occasionally my explorations coincide with these roads and I find myself needing to walk out the obsession all over again. Today was a bonus - we were in London on route elsewhere, and I had an entirely free day in hand. While I'd immensely enjoyed the guided walk I'd taken last weekend, I wanted freedom to cover ground at my own pace. I was also disinclined to head back into the wilds for this - an excursion without mud felt like a good idea. I wanted feet tired from walking, not aching from slurping through the liquid surface of the Essex edgelands for a change. This all coalesced via a chance reading about the A503. I'd crossed Forest Road near Waterworks Corner back in February and had been mildly curious about its route. While useful and strategically important, this east-west cross route in the north of London is fairly insignificant in the scheme of things. In the west Seven Sisters Road is a product of the eighteenth century expansion of London and a former turnpike. To the east, Ferry Lane and Forest Road describe the route of the more ancient Clay Lane from Walthamstow to Epping Forest. Along this route, the humble A503 crosses the routes of many of my previous walks - the Regents Canal, Green Lanes, the festival of gentrification at Woodberry Down near the New River, the Lea Valley. It ends just shy of the North Circular - the ever present connection that writhes through this terrain. In short, the A503 was the perfect long slog for an unexpected walk - a chance to make new connections and revisit old ones.
The bus deposited me on Camden High Street, a little north of Mornington Crescent. This isn't my favourite part of the world for a host of reasons, but mostly because in its slightly battered drag of chain outlets and copycat markets, Camden feels like what happens after gentrification. When I was a youngster, Camden was aspirational. The stars of British indie-pop propped up its bars, the record stores and vintage clothing outlets were legendary, the market was a wonder of new and old things which seemed exotic and impossible to us. It had developed this reputation slowly and surely through the 1970s, as the railway retreated and left large areas of land and old buildings free for exploitation. The real estate felt shaky and ill-kept, but that didn't matter to a post-squatter generation who liked their urban landscape to be edging into decrepitude. By the late 1990s, Camden was a different place. The huge footfall around the market and the High Street made the area attractive for the larger chains - and even though some of them were careful to invest their usually identikit outlets with a little uncharacteristic local personality, they were pricing out the smaller traders. Aside from the official market, every bit of clear land was taken up with semi-permanent stalls selling mobile phone cases, Bob Marley decorated stash tins, the usual stuff which could be found on the fringes of any shopping area. Each Saturday saw an influx of tourists eager to walk the High Street in order to pick up some of the perceived kudos of being seen around here, and the streets were full of expectant young faces from the provinces who - despite being in Camden - wanted the reassuring taste of McDonalds or KFC. First of all my route took a wide loop around this zone to find what might be the beginning of the A503 - heading counterintuitively west along Delancey Street and turning east again when I reached the bridge over the lines leading out of Euston Station. I'd strayed along this way in search of the bridge over a deleted arm of the canal, and knew the area a little. At Britannia Junction, the complex meeting of ways at the heart of Camden, I paused for coffee. I'd started earlier than usual today and needed the sustenance if I was going to make the distance. Looking out on what may or may not already be the road I was going to walk, I noted a gradual change. As the locals had headed for work or dissipated back into their homes, the steady stream of passers by appeared to gradually be shifting towards tourism. It was time to leave Camden.
I was briefly disorientated on crossing the street - Britannia Junction was a complex and many-armed beast. But the route I was taking almost immediately passed a familiar location - the same Sainsbury's I'd ended up detouring to find on my canal walk. I'd taken such a long circuit to get there last time that I'd lost the sense of just how close to the Canal I was for much of my Camden tribulations. This time I passed by, beginning to fit the area into shape in my mind - at least I'd have an escape route should I find myself here in future. As I slowly slipped out of the gravity of Camden the route began to change. Passing under the railway bridge at Camden Road station, beside its rusting and disused twin, I found myself climbing steadily on a broad suburban route. The stores thinned out into local hardware shops, convenience stores and petrol stations. The morning had started out grey but was clearing, and I was suddenly aware that the novelty of wearing a coat - something I've always studiously avoided until this winter when I finally found a comfortable and sensible garment for walking - was wearing off. I was far too warm. Getting an earlier than usual start on the walk and knowing I had accommodation in London overnight meant I could take a slightly slower pace than usual. No bad thing - this was quite a long route on pavement, with none of the diversion into the wilds I'd encountered recently on these walks. Despite having the time to divert and investigate things off route, I decided that wherever possible I'd stay true to the mission and indeed I largely stuck to the route I'd hastily planned. Above me the road was clearly marked: A503 Holloway, striking out north and east. Looking south when gaps in the row of tidy houses and small businesses permitted there were glimpses of the distant city as the road rose gently. Crossing the railway from St. Pancras on its broad westward curve towards Kentish Town, I sensed the change. I'd left the orbit of Camden, broken free and entered the uncertain northern hinterland which I'd spent so much time exploring in recent months. This part of North London doesn't quite cohere for me - districts blur and shift, and aside from the definite points marked by road junctions, the estate agents are drawing the maps here. The road stretched long and straight, reaching a peak from where I could see ahead to a fork. Where the road divided around a former garage with a gloriously modernist swooping roof, I took the left-hand path heading along Seven Sisters Road. Here, the A503 is a long one-way system enveloping Holloway completely in its two arms. Blank red-brick walls defined the perimeter of the former Holloway Prison. Empty and slowly returning to nature, the entrance was beginning to show signs of decay. It's just a matter of time before the sizeable site is snapped up and renamed to disguise its heritage. The area has a pedigree for residential land-grabs too - beyond the prison was a pleasant run of public housing owned by the City of London Corporation, one of the ten estates situated outside the square mile which it runs. Clean and tidy, the homes appear apparently well cared for and popular. I was prepared to find this part of the walk dull and mildly threatening but nothing could have been further from the truth. It is fair to say that Holloway is somewhere in the middle of a gentrification journey. Significant parts of the fringes of the area seem to be doing well, housing locals and providing decent services, while others seem to be undergoing that last, sorry stage of deliberate decay while their owners wait on the market and the right kind of investment into the area. At Nag's Head - where Seven Sisters Road meets Holloway Road - the scene is more disputed. As I lingered waiting for the confusing temporary lights on the crossing of the A1, I surveyed the area - it could be the centre of any London suburb, maybe even any small town perhaps. But among the well-known names and high street staples were a good number of tiny, local traders soldiering on behind long outmoded shopfronts. Beyond the stores to the north of the street was the muscular back elevation of the Beaux Arts Building on Manor Gardens. The front is a swirl of detail in brick, a grand Edwardian entrance to newly refurbished apartments - but the rear is stark, white and impressive. A single red brick chimney rises among the wings, which from above describe a trident pointing directly at the heart of London.
At Finsbury Park Station, the two arms of the road swing back together where the dome of the North London Central Mosque gleams over the three bridges carrying the railway north from Kings Cross. This mosque is something of a symbol of the triumph of peaceful Islam over extremism, with the Muslim Council of Great Britain seizing and reopening the site after a raid in 2003 which finally ousted the remains of the regime of Abu Hamza al-Masri. This splinter sect had been operating a programme of radicalisation from the building, some straggling tentacles of which reach forward into present-day terrorist activity. Emerging from the bridges, the transport interchange is a confusion of activity, with buses lurching around the tight curves outside the station. An unbroken stream of people are leaving the station with some Arsenal shirts already in evidence in advance of their FA Cup tie later in the afternoon. The sun had climbed above the buildings and I was starting to feel much too hot, but the road was curiously mesmerising - taking an almost straight course from district to district, through changing scenes which are both unfamiliar but entirely expected in their nature. North London is slowly starting to fit together in my mind, and the passing junctions connect me back to earlier excursons: the end of Stroud Green Road links me back to walking the Northern Heights. Everything finds its place here. Soon after passing the station the road quietened, and for a while it was just me and a constant stream of buses edging along the green fringe of the park. I'd walked this stretch before - between the treelined slopes and the long range of stucco-fronted hotels and large Victorian villas. It was pleasant to be out of the urban area for a while and to reorient myself by way of local landmarks: the towers of the Castle Climbing Centre and the forest of cranes at Woodberry Down. At Manor Park, I crossed Green Lanes and entered Hackney, completing my navigation of all arms of this important crossroads where the ancient road to the north crossed the relatively new turnpike. The organic cafe on the corner was busy - a signifier of how this area is changing, and indeed how quickly. The buses which have been shadowing me peel away north towards Wood Green and my route, now a broad dual-carriageway arterial, slips between the tall municipal blocks of Woodberry Down. On my left, some of the original blocks remain with their curved red-brick balconies - but as residents leave for the last time their doors and windows are securely plated over, the buildings slowly giving way to their regeneration. There's no rush to move them out - all the activity is to the south where the range of residential towers extends further eastward along the banks of the New River and the pair of broad, glassy reservoirs every time I visit. The desirable waterfront properties are for sale, not for rent, and definitely outprice the locals who are being slowly decanted from the ageing low-rise brick blocks. I popped into the local store and improvised lunch on the banks of the reservoir watching young couples leading curious children along the river path while ducks and gulls pecked around for crumbs. It was good to sit and cool off near the water and interesting to see how this area had changed since my earlier visits. The older population who had pottered the previous sandy incarnation of this pathway wasn't in evidence at all now, and there was a surprisingly homogenous feel. While the new buildings are undeniably a better environment in many ways, they don't appear to be fostering the sense of community which originally drove the aspirations of this early attempt at changing conditions for working people on a massive scale. Aware I still had some way to go, I set off to regain my route as it began a turn to the north at a crossing of the broad loop of the New River. Looking back along the inviting but still rather muddy river path, I had a view across the serrated rooftops of the somewhat directly named Harringey Warehouse District which sits at a distinctly lower elevation than the bank carrying the waterway. The A503 provides a boundary to Stamford Hill here, climbing respectably away from the factories and warehouses to the east with pleasant avenues leading away into Hackney. The walking was pleasant - perhaps a little cooler here, thankfully - and I relaxed into the rhythm of the traffic which was less intense along this stretch. The calm ended abruptly at the junction with St. Ann's Road which sat directly under the Gospel Oak to Barking railway line, the overbridge hemming the traffic into a complex junction and bottlenecking pedestrians into crossings which took an age to activate. Under the bridge it feels gloomy, damp and a little unsettling - perhaps reflecting the next part of the route? Looking ahead the road stretched onward between dilapidated and tired low rise housing and ranks of surprisingly attractive but mainly abandoned brick warehouses. Seven Sisters Road ghosts the missing edge of an incomplete diamond of railways here, the broad green areas of wasteland at its centre tantalisingly crossed by unofficial paths - but they're for a day when the ground is drier perhaps. A further railway bridge completes the diamond, and I'm in Tottenham - the change is imperceptible at first, but as I approach the A10 at Seven Sisters, the switch is suddenly closed. The tide of people waiting to cross the High Road couldn't be more multiculturally representative if an over-eager HR Officer had lined it up for a photograph. The junction throbs with life, a fog of traffic fumes undercut by the smell of barbecued meat and strong aftershave. Cars stopped at the light shudder with low-end from their speakers. Once, a ring of seven elm trees graced Pages Green - the original Seven Sisters - now a small linear park leads away east between the superstore and the terraced streets. The High Road is a stream of buses stretching north towards White Hart Lane and the tower blocks of Edmonton Green in the middle distance. For a little stretch I need to walk this route which absorbs the A503 briefly, marking a boundary between its distinct sections: the venerable turnpike and the ancient road across the Lea Valley.
Tottenham High Cross is an ancient marker on the route of Roman Ermine Street, often confused for an Eleanor Cross but somewhat plainer despite some added ornamentation in the early 19th century. Here I turn aside and head down into the valley, taking the appropriately named Monument Way. After a brief detour into a retail park at Tottenham Hale which feels oddly makeshift and provisional, I cross the vertical obstacles which separate North and East London - the Eastern Counties Railway, Pymmes Brook, Lea Navigation and the River Lea pass under the road in rapid succession. The valley bottoms out into a broad plain which has been flooded to form the chain of vast reservoirs which shadow the river here. After the Ferry Boat Inn, marooned on a spit of land between the Lea and the Coppermill Stream, the road joins a narrow causeway between these manmade lakes, with the railway curving in alongside. The gates of High Maynard Reservoir are locked to all except licensed fishermen - a regiment of heavy padlocks securing the gates, while wading birds strut the banks like guardsmen. Along the causeway unfinished electrification gantries from the recent railway works become a row of ominous monuments. In the distance I can see the land rising away from the valley floor, and I realise just how far I've got to go to reach my self-imposed destination. I'm distracted by designs etched into the pavement showing the transition: from industry and water to entertainment and nightlife. The progress from borough to borough is marked carefully - Waltham Forest wants us to forget the lines of pylons marching behind us and the broad swathe of churning green water. Ahead is art, culture, food and wellbeing. This once downtrodden borough is getting a very public makeover, its various urban centres being remodelled to promote promenading and restrict the motor car. Walthamstow is changing. I've seen the 'Awesomestow' banners - that clumsy appropriation fails on so many disturbing levels. I've also seen the row of achingly retro stores on the corner of Blackhorse Lane - the 'home of people who make and create' and I've seen the rebranding attempts as I've skirted the district, but today I'll be facing it squarely as I make a transit across Waltham Forest towards the east. I don't object to this area - in fact I rather like it - but I don't need to have this unsubtle exercise explained to me. Let us all discover - or rediscover - the borough. Don't force it, Walthamstow.
This is now Forest Road, and as it makes eastern progress away from the Lea Valley the stores return to type: small newsagents sponsored by Lebara and occasional hair salons. The pedestrian schemes are still incomplete out here, and the traffic remains dominant. Long ranks of tidy suburban avenues lead north and south and the road is fairly unremarkable aside from a fine modern Fire Station building. Rather suddenly, the carriageway kinks to the south to skirt the grounds of Lloyd Park House - now the William Morris Gallery. This sizeable but modest building sits at the corner of a broad green space beyond a walled garden, which is apparently well-used on decent afternoons like this. Formerly Water House this was the Morris family home from 1848 to 1856, while the adjoining Lloyd Park includes a moat which long predates the Georgian building. The space in front of the gallery offers a moment to rest and reconsider the walk - not least how I'll escape from the end of the road when I reach Waterworks Corner. I hadn't really planned for this - the road had seemed impossibly long, and the chance to walk without worrying too much about time had lulled me into not considering how I'd mark the completion of the walk. There was a way to go yet though, and as the road climbed towards The Bell and a house-sized mural of Morris glared across at me, I had a view of the distant green horizon where I was heading. My route skirted north of the central area of Walthamstow which clusters around busy Hoe Street, and remained resolutely suburban until I crested the rise and looked down on the pale verdigris of the clock tower topping Walthamstow Town Hall. As I approached, the full extent of this impressive civic complex unveiled itself: first a broad, low magistrates court building now closed and sold to the Borough Council as part of the Ministry of Justice estates rationalisation. This patently 1970s creation of the GLC Special Works Department can't truly be considered a brutalist structure, as it relies on Portland Stone to offer its simple but muscular face to the world. Beside it sits the more classical but no less imposing Town Hall by Philip Dalton Hepworth - a broad, mausoleum-like sweep of stone completed against all the odds in 1941. Its geometry aligned with a central fountain and a processional route to the doors, and I found myself precariously perched between the gates while trying to snap a picture. A citizenship ceremony was being completed as I approached, with impeccably dressed celebrants leaving the campus to the disgust of a couple of locals who leaned on railings, spitting and moaning about them "not being really British". As they'd inadvertently roped me into their conversation I pointed out that that was now exactly what they were. More spitting, more moaning about this 'fuckin' lefty'. Finally, the broad colonnade of the Assembly Hall completed the site and Forest Road began to climb again, passing the extensive Waltham Forest College buildings. This area is rigorously zoned, these public buildings dominating the east-west road as it cuts across the ridge between the Lea and the Roding. Nearby, a grandmother passed me, stooping to encourage a young girl and reassuring her in a surprisingly breaking voice that they'll do something "when mummy gets out". Initially I'm confused by the significance - but I soon spot Thorpe Coombe Hospital, a Georgian house turned into a Health Trust building with a residential psychiatric unit on site. I find myself sharing the young girl's pain and confusion, the sense of separation and the power of places to divide and distance. I'm surprised how this part of Walthamstow has passed me by before - the odd gravity of this administrative complex which powers the district like a civic engine room, dealing with its difficulties and tidying away the awkward and ill-fitting. I felt strangely ill at ease as the road turned uphill again, the horizon lost behind the ridge and the rising streets of Walthamstow behind me, if I'd dared to look back.
As I climbed, somewhat unexpectedly the deck of a footbridge appeared above the road - and as I slogged further up the rising path, the steep grassy banks supporting it emerge and I realised with some surprise that I was almost at my goal. The flat grassy deck above the sunken reservoirs opens out, and I can see the spot where I scrambled thankfully down from the forest path on my last walk here. Ahead of me the A503 ends at an unusual urban cattle grid and a junction with Woodford New Road, just shy of Waterworks Corner roundabout. I have mixed feelings at the end of my walk - firstly, that I could press on further east, following the North Circular. Also, the transition I've made from the fading glamour of distant Camden to the leafy suburban spaces of Woodford is jarring and odd - and feels unresolved. As I circuit the roundabout to find a path across to the northern side of the shuddering and screaming A406, I note the forest paths are still awash with thick mud and deep ruts. The subways under the roundabout are little more than continuations of the forest trail with strict instructions for horseriders to dismount. Beneath me, huge eastern European juggernauts pause in the lay-bys, the soles of their drivers' feet propped at the windows as they sleep until they're able to drive on. The traffic noises reverberate through the tunnels as I negotiate a route out onto Grove Road which edges along the deep concrete gouge which channels the road. The sun is beating down now, and there is a remarkably long view into the eastern distance. As the land falls away into the Roding Valley I have a clear vista of rooftops and distant woodland, and rather shockingly protruding from within the woods I see the tower of Claybury Hospital winking into the spring sunshine. For a while I sat in the strange little makeshift seating area on the edge of Woodford where the North Circular cannons underneath the urban centre. A steady procession of happy young faces trotted into town, buses shuttled back and forth. It felt strangely peaceful - like the road echoing below my seat wasn't really there. I shuffled into South Woodford to find a bus stop, it could be any town centre in the home counties. Over my shoulder the tower signalled from my previous walks, shimmering over the ranks of heavily mortgaged Essex real estate. I was back in comfortable territory on the edge of things, but not everyone here was comfortable or secure. I thought of the girl and her grandma shuffling west from the civic centre of Walthamstow and of the sorrowful history of Claybury and its sister asylums, and I felt very grateful I was heading back to my own tiny family.
A gallery of pictures from the walk can be found here.
Posted in London on Saturday 4th March 2017 at 11:03pm
I've always been a little nervous about guided walks. From the awkward, rather typically British issue of trying to identify your fellow walkers at the outset - ideally without actually asking anyone - to the tricky etiquette of dispersing at the walk's end, they're a minefield. I once thought I'd like to lead walks - the idea of ambling around places I love with a respectful and engaged bunch of people both asking questions and adding their knowledge was attractive, if unlikely. Of course the reality is often different: bored tourists "doing" the sights, loudmouthed know-alls trying to upstage the guide, people with no spatial awareness causing minor traffic incidents. Guiding walks wasn't for me. In my attempts I also realised a simple truth: firstly most people just aren't as interested in the minutiae as I am. I've often thought I was boring or lacked the capacity to engage people - but as I've grown older I realise I'm just engaged differently. I've learned to live with this, and find myself surrounded by people who are at best encouraging, but at the very least tolerant of this. So today I approached a group of unlikely looking people assembling near Tower Hill station with some trepidation. We were going on a walk together - which for someone who jealously guards his excursion time, was a remarkably intimate association with strangers.
Today's trip focused on locations from The Long Good Friday - the 1980 movie which launched Bob Hoskins on his path towards being the nation's 'loveable villain' figure in Harold Shand, and which almost didn't see the light of day due to the inclusion of the then horribly ever-present IRA as the bad guys. Or perhaps more accurately as the worst of the bad guys - there are no good guys in the film. In some ways, despite the brash edge-of-the-eighties optimism, the glamorous yachts and the presence of some weirdly prescient tropes which would haunt London for decades to come, the movie has no redemptive ending. My first viewing of the movie years back left a couple of impressions - that London was unrecognisable for the most part, and that it kickstarted a good number of British acting careers. John Mackenzie's clear vision that this should not be the London of red buses and black cabs had wrong-footed me. But as I've walked the hinterlands of the city over the years, I've come to recognise Harold Shand's London - sometimes it is buried, sometimes it lurks in the most unedifying areas, often it requires a mixture of research and imagination to conjure it from the anodyne glass and steel of the modern city. But it lurks not far from the surface, buried under the very Thatcherite dream which Hoskins invokes as his yacht passes under Tower Bridge at the beginning of the movie. The regeneration of the docks, the opportunities for investment, London positioned as a European capital - calling the shots, not taking the bullets. Those predictions which must have seemed so outlandish to anyone who knew the dereliction of the Isle of Dogs and Royal Docks in the 1970s, now elicit a gasp of recognition followed by an ironic guffaw: the European dream is close to being over, the '1988 Olympics' which Shand proposes happened - if a little later than scheduled.
Our guide was the placid, knowledgeable and powerfully-voiced Rob, who called the group to order and set out the plan. We'd walk for a couple of hours, visit a number of locations used in the film and chart the progress of Harold's dream towards the Docklands of today. He'd play us contextual clips of the movie on his iPad - so we could gauge just how much had changed and how much remained of Harold's manor. I surveyed my companions - there were of course stereotypes: the older guy who sticks to the guide like a minder and engages all of his time between stops in discussion, the gent with the expensive camera who wanders all over the place taking endless shots of everything but the subject at hand, the middle-class intellectual couple who roll their watery eyes at each other when the discussion has to be simplified or edited for the sake of time or sustaining group interest. We shuffled off, over the messy tangle of crossings outside the Tower of London, over the neck of Tower Bridge where Police were zooming to some sort of incident involving a group of yelling tourists, and towards the Thames near the huge concrete hotel. This was the first point at which imagination would be challenged: we were asked to picture warehouses - full of spice and indigo, a river teeming with ships waiting to unload. Some had waited weeks, some even longer. The Pool of London was jammed and dangerous - haunted by river pirates who took advantage of the vessels stuck here waiting to be unloaded - some in the most violent of ways. London needed new docks and new suburbs to support them - and so St. Katharine's Dock was constructed. By the time Harold Shand was mooring his luxury yacht here, the dock was deserted and in disrepair. Several of the large, impressive warehouses had already fallen to new development and only the Ivory House remained fully intact. Today the view was surprisingly similar if the skyline beyond the warehouses was discounted, along with the modern housing which had sprung into being on three sides of the basin. In the corner the Dickens Inn tumbled towards the docks, its provenance not entirely honest - being some form of reconstruction from recovered materials on a new site. The marina was busy with boats which would have rivalled Harold's for style and opulence. It was clear from the outset that this walk was going to deal in contrasts.
We progressed towards Wapping via the river front, recalling the shot where Hoskins was framed by Tower Bridge as he gave his rousing, patriotic call to 'the right people'. It quickly became apparent that this walk was unwinding two narratives - the fictional world in which the movie played out, and the uncannily similar events which followed just a few years later via the London Docklands Development Corporation. Shand's own 'corporation' fell prey to retaliatory attacks by the IRA and we saw the corner opposite Scandrett Street where, by virtue of a limited budget, a plywood East End boozer had been constructed to be blown up. We stood below, picturing the sight from the ground, where Shand's car had been seen arriving from the narrow street beside the then abandoned school buildings. Just a short walk around the corner we found the squat, yellow brick St. Patrick's Catholic Church. Apologetic and a little featureless outside, the interior was elegant and lofty, with brightly decorated iconography and dramatic columns climbing to a surprisingly lofty ceiling. Outside we strained to see St. George in the East over the rooftops, as the scene where Shand's mother narrowly escapes a car bomb was a composite with Hawksmoor's striking edifice playing the exterior while St. Patrick provides a fittingly non-Anglican interior. We didn't head for St. George this time - but I'd spent enough time stalking the environs to be able to picture the switch perfectly. Around the next corner we found Dundee Street, with warehouses now converted into flats and offices. Above the street, bridges crossed between windows completing the image of gentrified dockland living. It was here however that a young Gillian Taylforth played the young women who discovers a dying security guard nailed to the beams of the floor in a perverse play on the film's title. The religious imagery is deftly done - temptation, betrayal and sacrifice played out in the slightly distended timeline of a single day.
Approaching the Limehouse Link Tunnel, the story shifted from the plans which Harold Shand had for a new city, to the events which took place here in the 1970s - Michael Heseltine's helicopter flying low over the abandoned wasteland on a return from an abortive excursion to Maplin Sands. His development of the LDDC with the plan to free the area from the shackles of council inertia and the too-and-fro of the same old guard in Parliament. He gives them comprehensive planning powers and just enough money to buy land and sell it cheap. At the same time, London Transport scoff at serving the area with any sort of serious service, and instead the Docklands Light Railway springs up - a budget train-set to fit the low-rise developments which are springing up. Heseltine wants to see people living and working here again, but it's slow - painfully so - and far too glacial for Nicholas Ridley who follows him into the Environment brief. He has a new vision: leveraging private capital to spark life into the Isle of Dogs. The Canadians arrive but want the infrastructure before they commit. Soon the DLR is expanded, the Limehouse Link digging begins - possibly the most expensive road project ever in the UK at that point. Slowly the towers climb from the water. But - abruptly - the market crashes and everything stops. The abundance of empty office space across the major cities of the UK and Europe makes a folly out of One Canada Square, the tower which glowers over the island with a baleful pyramid and an ever present smear of smoke at its apex. It may as well have been burning money.
Then the IRA make their own leap from fiction to fact - this time in a genuine and devastating way. On 9th February 1996 the two-year long ceasefire ended with a huge explosion under the DLR on Marsh Wall. Two men, local newsagents, were killed in the blast which left a huge crater in the ground and destroyed one building, and damaged two others seriously. I remember a DLR trip through the area some weeks after the bombing - the shell of the Midland Bank building with its empty windows and flapping blinds standing eerily beside the track as we swerved and dodged around the tight curves between docks and offices. This and a range of other IRA actions in the City of London and Manchester achieved what no amount of government money had managed - it created a market for decent office space. The development of Docklands was perversely rejuvenated and soon Canary Wharf was at the very heart of the plan. Soaring from the mirror-like surface of the former docks, new office towers grew swiftly with the emblems of international banks blinking into life above them. As we arrived at Canary Wharf it was nearly impossible to imagine this was the site of Harold's betrayal in the movie. His blood-soaked stagger from the yacht with a Lear-like howl towards a focused, cool Helen Mirren took place at a point before any of this could be imagined. The deserted dockside with its rank of low sheds along their edge didn't promise this kind of future, and at this point in the movie with his betrayal complete his scheme to bring prosperity seems unlikely to succeed. Now, the impressive brick sheds are the only surviving reference point - housing the Museum of London in Docklands, they are busy with visitors. Across the dock, the glassy torpedo of the new Crossrail Place appears to be moored alongside the office towers, the uncommissioned platforms sitting far beneath the water. The walk ends here, the story complete and Harold Shand's dream delivered despite his almost certain fate at the hands of a young Pierce Brosnan. Using the movie as a lens through which to view the change wrought on this part of the Isle of Dogs was a surprisingly clever ruse, and I can't help but feel that our rather oddly matched group of walkers would never have been assembled for a straightforward 'Docklands history walk'. They might have sniggered and sighed at the names of Conservative politicians of the 90s, but in doing so they missed a point - the plan in its original form was to remake part of London very much in its own, older image. What happened here, what has grown as a strange, disembodied and distinctly transatlantic city beside the city, is as much the result of subsequent governments of both parties' losing grip on the financial sector.
Suddenly, I was alone in the midst of the new city. The group dispersed, even the guide's most ardent hangers on finally leaving him to head for the station. The small square, tucked in beside the replica of the West India Dock Gateway with its elaborate model ship, was windswept and empty. Construction on both sides of the square meant no-one much was heading this way. I tried to decide what to do for the best. The guided walk had taken a little longer than I expected and I'd not thought through my options for the afternoon. I decided to grab a bite to eat before trying to complete a stretch of walking I'd meant to cover for some time - the perimeter of the Isle of Dogs. First I had to negotiate the mall which sits under One Canada Square. I'd been here before, many years ago, and I knew there was a small supermarket near the DLR station. Getting there was a challenge - I'd never arrived at ground level before, and even the concept of 'ground' was less than fixed here. I found a lift and ascended from the sub-zero floors towards the surface, which was in fact the level of the bridge carrying people across to the soon-to-be Crossrail station, finally finding myself at the store near the DLR which was, today at least, closed for engineering works. Purchases made, I retraced my steps out into the broad square and perched beside a cool fountain to eat and plan a little. It didn't take long for a uniformed 'Canary Wharf Estates' employee to take an interest. After wandering around the general area for a little while he plucked up the courage to come nearer. "Going to be long?" he enquired? I took a silent slug of water and said "Not much longer, just having a breather before I walk a bit more". He looked like he wanted to ask more questions - but he was young, inexperienced and a little unsure. I suspect he'd have found it easier if I was a rolling drunk or an itinerant begger - someone he could legitimately move on using the powers he had on the private estate. Instead I was a reasonably polite, reasonably tidy chap who had happily answered his question. "Well, take care then - and no hanging about" he managed before he scuttled back towards the building. I dusted myself down a little, took some defiant shots of the building towering above me, and headed along the edge of Crossrail Place. At the end of the walkway where the building petered out and the dock resumed, things were a little ragged. There are still rough edges to the Canary Wharf estate, and if one walks to the perimeter they soon become apparent. Turning alongside Bellmouth Passage I climbed stairs and crossed a street near empty offices, finally escaping the estate via Trafalgar Way. The staffed sentry post was active, the private police force beckoning cars forward to have credentials checked while flagging buses into the site. I looked across the broad empty area surrounding Billingsgate Fish Market, and across to Balfron Tower and the towers of Stratford beyond. It was a surprisingly sunny afternoon, though you'd never know it inside the estate, where the buildings reflect only each other.
I found myself not far from an area I'd walked some while ago, near Poplar Dock Marina. Ahead was the route to Blackwall and Leamouth, but I turned south cutting through a carpark to regain the A1206 as it started a long curve around the island. It soon became apparent that trying to use the river path was going to be a fruitless and time-consuming endeavour. The path was frequently broken by developments, sending me scurrying back and forth to find a route south. Instead, once over the impressive Blue Bridge I stuck largely to the main roads, with a brief excursion into the Samuda Estate. This rather forlorn range of London County Council blocks from 1965 looked tired and careworn, and at their centre stood the stark and impressive Kelson House. This twenty-five storey tower, made up of neatly interlocking three-level maisonettes, was modelled on Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation, with access via a separate slender tower on its western side. It wasn't as graceful or bold as Goldfinger's similar efforts, and was altogether more workmanlike and British in appearance - a building which could grace any city centre perhaps? That it survives is testament to a tenacious island population who have, on the whole accepted incomers and immigrants rather like any dockside community. However, in the 1990s the area had a period of more chequered history, electing the first ever British National Party councillor in Derek Beackon. Beackon appeared to be as surprised as anyone to find himself on Tower Hamlets Council, and struggled to manage the complexity or scale of work expected of him. Perhaps not surprising as his prior role in the party had been as 'Chief Steward' - effectively the organiser of the team of Skinhead bodyguards who circled the leadership in public. Beackon's 'rights for whites' agenda was perhaps surprisingly aided by the local Liberal Democrats who published their own literature complaining that the predominantly Bangladeshi group rehoused from Limehouse when the Link Tunnel was built were given priority in 'luxury' accommodation. With Labour and the Lib Dems locked in an idealogical struggle during the 1993 election, Beackon crept in by a margin of only seven votes and immediately failed to comprehend what was possible at the local level. His colleague councillors walked out in protest at sharing the chamber with an immoderate and loud-mouthed fascist. When the seat was again contested in 1994, Beackon was ousted by a concerted campaign by Labour, and while the white working class roots of the island persist, there is at least a sense of a shared community in this oddly isolated zone again.
Pressed for time, I began to consider my options. The plan to circuit the island back to Limehouse was possible, but I found myself rushing ahead and not taking in my surroudings. A steady procession of buses beside me on Manchester Road had been reassuring at first - a potential quick way out if time got tight - but now they felt like a nagging pressure. At Island Gardens I decided to rethink my plan. With the DLR out of action the square outside the realigned route was busy with people teeming from the Rail Replacement Services. Beside the shiny, winged modern station the brick viaduct which had originally carried the rails here was still standing. I recalled previous visits, long before the railway burrowed under the river, bailing out here at the end of the line and regarding Greenwich across the river from a bench in the small park. Seized by a sudden desire to relive this experience, I headed into the gardens and found my way to the river wall. The Thames buzzed with life - river buses and motor launches scudding over the brown waters. The Greenwich foot tunnel's domed entrances flanked the park, emerging beside the impressive bulk of the Royal Naval College across the river. Beyond, green space stretched away up towards the observatory. I lingered for a moment, before heading back to complete my loop around the island by bus. There was unfinished business on the island - and much to be explored within the deep loop of river - but for now at least, it was time to head back to the mainland.
Posted in London on Saturday 4th February 2017 at 11:02pm
Newbury Park station had become something of an unsuspecting transport hub today - with services from Liverpool Street terminating short a surprising mass of passengers were being directed to this usually rather sleepy loop of the Central Line which swings east to the edge of Greater London. Getting out to Stratford had already been a slow and steady process, but now I found myself joining an unexpectedly busy Hainault-bound service for the final few miles to my destination. Plunging back into the earth after Leytonstone, we emerged at the tight curve where the Underground lines divide and ascend to assume the alignment of the former Great Eastern Railway line to Ilford. Almost everyone got off the train at Newbury Park to scramble for the buses departing from its curious modernist half-pipe shelter to destinations east, and suddenly we were rumbling along almost empty, high above scrubby grassland and distant lines of houses. Despite not being as far east or north as many of my walks in this quadrant, this zone had an unsettling sense of being at the very edge of things. East of the line, paddocks and yards gave way to rising ground and a promise of distant woodland. Meanwhile, west of the railway, the gothic upper section of Claybury Hospital's water tower glowered over a broad smudge of bare wintry treetops. Alone in my carriage I stood, crossing to look from each window in turn. The border between Redbridge and Essex ran a little north of here but I was unlikely to cross it on this walk. Instead I intended to head west and south, joining together some remaining fragments of the ancient Forest of Essex and crossing the route of other walks. While a let-up in the weather had been promised, the sky remained a featureless slab of purple-grey just now. Snow threatened on the sharp wintry air, and I wondered about the wisdom of attempting this in February, but these walks are precious escapes and I was determined to press ahead.
I decided to stick with the train to its final destination, descending from the island platform at Hainault to an inconspicuous exit onto a quiet suburban street. I set off into the chilly wind, noting virtually no sign of humanity aside from a local slopping along in low-slung jeans, hood up, screen glued to face. He zig-zagged from pavement to pavement, bored and purposelessly playing chicken with the infrequent traffic as the long road stretched west between ranks of fading but solid villas. As I approached the interestingly named Fencepiece Road I spotted the distant tower at Claybury hovering ominously above the treeline. New North Road soon deposited me onto this busy arterial, lined by needlessly numerous hair salons and a few other businesses which huddled alongside the huge Old Maypole pub - a mid-century behemoth of a hostelry which tried to pass as an overscale thatched cottage but was betrayed by the curiously modern square towers which punctuated its curved faced. I set off northwards, intending to navigate the streets of a housing estate to cross towards Claybury Park. I noted the subtle climb becoming a steeper gradient as I meandered around a set of streets named for monarchs both real and imagined. As I turned briefly south to find an alleyway I caught a glimpse of the flat plains of land fringing the Thames between the houses. The sudden, sublime view spurred me onwards - and trudging through yet more streets getting increasingly tenuous in their royal links, I found my way onto Tomswood Hill. From here the views were perhaps even more impressive, and I eagerly crossed into the rough grassland fringing Hospital Hill Wood. The tower had dipped behind the trees, but to the south I had a clear view of a broad sweep of estuary from the distant blur of the Dartford Crossing to the glinting towers on the Isle of Dogs and the cluster of familiar silhouette-towers in the City. Turning west again I edged around the woods. The paths between the trees seemed inconclusive and very muddy indeed, and I knew that they would all eventually lead to the security fences of Repton Park, the sanitised name for the exclusive developments which now clustered around the former Hospital tower. There was no public access here, no way in without business and certainly no welcome for a lone walker with no legitimate purpose. Instead I decided to walk the wooded fringe of the park - part of the vast grounds in which the Asylum had been built. Repton's design. The architect's name was an acceptable substitute when evading the site's true purpose for the Estate Agents literature, and building to his design was finally completed in 1893 after municipal delay and industrial action. It is of course always easy to dismiss the ring of County Asylums which surrounded London as places of horror and misery - but Claybury was built to surprisingly high standards, and hosted the first ever laboratory to investigate the pathology of mental illness and numerous groundbreaking rehabilitative projects. Aside from that, the hospital housed the typical mix of the seriously mental ill, the elderly, the poor and unlucky and those judged too morally compromised to retain their liberty - almost 4000 patients at the peak of its activity. Passing into the NHS in 1948, and enduring despite the Acts of Parliament in 1959 and 1983 which saw care shift from institutions towards the community, the hospital - slowly deteriorating in fabric - finally closed in 1997. Then began a long public enquiry into the planning of the residential development on the site, and how many of the original buildings would be retained in the privatised and enclosed scheme which now placed an obstacle across the ridge of land. That said, I recognised too that it's unlikely I'd be walking this impressive green swathe of parkland had the site not changed in purpose. The surprisingly large park swung around the south-western edges of the woods, with Claybury Hall - an impressive manor turned exclusive apartments following a stint as a Health Authority HQ - peeking above the trees a safe distance from the Hospital. As I reached the western edge of the park I met a steady stream of dog-walkers heading in from Woodford Bridge, a rather quiet island of habitation which seemed to be cut-off from its surroundings. Everyone said 'good morning' here. It felt odd to be among people after such a quiet start to the day.
I was heading downhill again - into the Roding Valley, and towards previous haunts. The weather had closed in, and the dark sky seemed to be pressing down on the valley floor. I had a few choices here - heading north or south on solid ground to cross the valley by road - or I could brave a footpath which appeared to skirt a playing field near Redbridge Lakes, a private fishing establishment. Naturally I chose the latter, and after an abortive attempt to use the boggy football pitch to make my crossing, I gave in and returned to the muddy trail beside the lakes. At the gates to the fishing club, I turned aside, following the trail into a tunnel of trees while my feet slurped through deep mud. I slithered my way along the path, noting a tiny, unnamed stream trickling in bedside me, and heading for the river. It was raining in earnest now, and I was thankful for my coat as I trudged onwards wondering about the wisdom of taking this route after all. Suddenly, the path opened onto a broad stony trail under the splayed flyovers of the incomplete M11 interchange. I'd been here before and I felt my spirits rise at the sight of the motorway, greeting it like an old friend. I sheltered under the southbound carriageway while I studied the map and planned the next leg of my walk. Realising it was going to be wet however I proceeded, I decided to press on under the motorway and over the swollen, fast-flowing Roding, emerging on Chigwell Road at a filling station I'd visited on a previous Roding Valley walk. I turned south here, crossing the street and heading into the Orchard Estate. This clump of sullen grey towers clustered with low-rise blocks, felt down-at-heel - the rain did them no favours at all, and nor did the barricaded front of the beleaguered general store and community centre. There were few people around, and certainly none who were heading along Broadmead Road where the street rose gently to pass over the Central Line a little south of Woodford Station. The road had the feel of an early twentieth-century arterial route: generous villas set back from the street, with a broad, straight carriageway heading over the bridge. This alignment of the road replaced the former route along the wonderfully named Snakes Lane which was now severed at Woodford Station, the level crossing incompatible with the frequent electric train service introduced in 1947. This has turned the urban centre of Woodford into something of a cul-de-sac, stunted and off the main route to anywhere in particular, but popular with the locals nonetheless. Perhaps that's why these edgeland hamlets have gained the favour of quiet-seeking city types? The new road curved gracefully between the lanes and crescents of pleasant suburban homes, before coming to rest on the High Road from Epping on the fringe of Woodford Green. Traffic churned the gullies of rainwater onto the pavement, but up ahead the sun was high and the tarmac glared brightly back at me. I walked south, looking for an opportunity to leave the road and enter the forest again. I was close to The Charter Road, where I'd turned aside from the forest trail on my River Ching perambulation, and I was eager to rejoin the path close to where I'd left it.
After a march along the road through the forest, passing numerous private schools and nurseries which seemed to be a key industry in Woodford, I found a chance to regain the forest trail at Oak Hill. The path divided two cul-de-sacs, immediately turning into a muddy gully surrounded by trees. I slopped along, wondering how wise this was but still eager to walk the forest rather than along the surprisingly busy A104. There was some semblance of a surface in places - yellow stones lurking a little under the surface which provided some stability - but mostly it was a thick carpet of decaying leaves and a slick of watery soil. I tried to hug the margins of the path as I'd learned on my previous walk, but in places this just wasn't possible and I was reduced to a ginger skitter across deep puddles. My trusty boots did me proud again, keeping my feet dry and generally sinking deep enough to ensure I retained a vertical position. The path broadened briefly into a meadow between the road and the forest and I had a final chance to escape onto solid ground - but no way was I going to compromise, not now I had a layer of red clay on my boots and trousers. I was determined to press on. Shortly after plunging back between the trees, and after one of the wettest and muddiest areas I'd crossed so far, the path solidified. Up ahead the railings of the bridge over the North CIrcular could be seen. I'd rather looked forward to this crossing - this symbolic boundary which I've crossed and re-crossed during so many of my walks. It didn't disappoint. The footbridge cut across a section of the road enclosed by the forest. Looking east, traffic slowed for the junction at Waterworks Corner - where I'd have emerged too if I'd taken the road instead of this path. But to the west the view was majestic - the dual carriageway lurched north between the trees, opening a view over the Lea Valley. I could see the distant towers of Edmonton Green, and a shimmering surface of reservoir on the horizon. I spent a while watching the road before moving on. The next patch of woodland looked fairly small on the map, skirting the vast covered reservoir to the east, and crossing another footbridge into a larger area of forest. It was a slog through some exceptionally muddy terrain though, and I wasn't sorry to reach the solid surface of the second footbridge. The road beneath was surprisingly quiet despite trailing in from Tottenham and Walthamstow. Beyond the bridge I found a broad grassy area with a well-worn track leading across it. A small family group of dog walkers sporting muddied wellington boots passed by. More confident on this terrain I struck out ahead through the tall grass, my boots getting cleaned by the deep foliage as I walked. My confidence was soon proven to be misplaced: the track reached the tree line and dipped down a steep slope to gain the forest floor below. The slope was a mudslide. A near vertical slither at the least muddy spot, and a treacherous slope of sloppy clay elsewhere. The family with the dog had looped back and passed me, and the sight of them toppling, sliding and slithering down the hill put me off any attempt. I had to get a train back home tonight and a generous coating of mud beyond that I'd collected already was unlikely to sit well with with the guard I suspected. Instead I edged around the plot of land seeking a different exit. A small field of allotments was below, and there was a potential access onto the entrance road serving them. However, looking at a disgruntled gardener wheel-spinning his aging Volvo to gain traction suggested this wasn't going to work either. I felt a little thrill of concern - a kind of range anxiety perhaps - which was mostly unfounded: I could retrace my steps over the footbridges and back to the road of course. But it would be a long detour and would take some time. I realised I'd not eaten and I was feeling the effects of the walk so far on my feet and my stomach. It was a dispiriting moment. I walked the edge of the road, trying several possible routes down the steep slope to no avail, until I came back to the footbridge. It seemed I was retracing my steps.
Crossing the footbridge, I noted some seemingly well trodden paths down the clumpy grass of the embankment on the northern side. On investigation it was a fairly straightforward scramble down a grassy bank, and I soon found myself directly below where I'd been moments before. I was relieved - I'd had to track back a short way, but at least hadn't needed to recross the North Circular. Instead I set off east, over the cattle grid to the junction with Woodford New Road. This long, straight and busy thoroughfare cuts directly south through the forest, and I was inevitably going to find my way back to it somewhere on this walk. Setting off I passed a couple planning a walk in the forest, who clearly had second thoughts on seeing my dishevelled and grimy appearance. The road was wearingly straight and busy, and the sun had made for a warmer walk than I'd expected after the wet, chilly morning. I soon passed the point I suspected I'd have emerged from the woodland if I'd been able to make the scramble: I was back on track. On the opposite side of the road there were further tempting paths leading into the trees but I couldn't chance another detour and stuck to the road, soon passing the entrance to Forest School where I'd walked once before with a former pupil. A route along Snaresbrook Road and through the scrubby forest edge suggested itself, but I continued to stick with the footpath I'd chosen, navigating the roundabout and heading east again onto Whipps Cross Road. This stretch of road along the edge of the Hollow Ponds and near the hospital was familiar from a disturbing and disorienting night-time bus journey from Bakers Arms a few years back. That bus journey was haunting and strangely mesmerising - the unfamiliar scenery and the stern Victorian architecture of the hospital looming out of the dark as I passed into unfamiliar suburbs had created a strange impression on my memory. It was made worse by facing a potentially difficult social negotiation at its end. Whipps Cross road in pleasant winter sunlight was wholly different. The ponds glinted, busy with wildfowl and well used by locals, while the towers of the hospital peeked benignly from behind their tree-curtain. I wondered if this would erase the odd phantasmagoria of the earlier trip? I trudged along, tired and hungry, my goal being to find food before deciding how to end this rather poorly planned excursion. I realised there was a more interesting route to be found on the forested side of the road, but I already knew I needed to revisit this area to reconnect it with Wanstead Flats, so staying dry and surefooted was no loss today. I slogged on, watching the traffic tearing by to reach the A12 as its controversial course weaved around the terraces of Leytonstone.
Relaxing in the lowering sunshine outside a ludicrously busy Tesco store, I ruminated on how strangely the walk had turned out. The dismay at needing to turn back, the slow hard slogging through mud, and the unsettling reconnection with an old memory had been challenging. But the last stretch leading to this spot had involved crossing a footbridge over the A12 in its concrete channel offering views south and west towards the city. The panorama had been striking, with the terraces of Leytonstone framing the distant towers and columns and setting them in a strange context. Things felt like they were swimming into focus. Nothing seemed far from anywhere else just here. I still had time and a little refreshed energy - so perhaps I could connect this walk to something after all? I recrossed the main road by way of the modern addendum to Grove Green Road which snakes across to reach the older victorian byway to Leyton. It was comforting to be making good progress on a quiet pavement, and the area was interesting - previously seen only from passing trains or cars, but surprisingly close to where I'd walked many times before. Passing under the low railway bridge with dire warnings to diverted buses, I emerged alongside the linear park which filled the tiny sliver of land between the road and the concrete gully containing its shudderingly busy modern counterpart. As it dawned on me where I was, I came upon Claremont Road. Or at least I came upon the stub-ended brick wall at the end of a tiny inlet where it had once been. There were no houses in the street, just about room to park an off-duty white van or two. Claremont Road had gone, torn apart by the deep cut of the A12 as it progressed northwards to join the M11. This was the site of the last stand - the occupation of this street by a group of protesters with considerable local support had delayed the road scheme. A tiny republic formed within the monarchy. A lawless but self-regulating community with a single purpose built watchtowers in the beleaguered street and strung nets between the homes to keep the bulldozers at bay. Meanwhile a single elderly resident made tea and gave advice to the young protesters. I imagined her navigating all of the strained emotions and romances that being caught up in that heady moment of resistance must have invoked in the young and idealistic minds. Calming, soothing and reassuring, she'd seen worse - a war, austerity, the rapidity of the modern world encroaching. Their petty dramas, even the bigger drama being played out via the siege at her doorstep must have seemed part of the flow of things. But now the street was gone, the A12 had prevailed and its traffic echoed by the end of what was left of Claremont Road. Progress had overtaken all of the events, large and small, and the towers and gates and allegiances had all been swept away. Coming upon the street by accident was a unexpected experience - when it crossed my mind this would be along my route I'd been convinced I'd missed it, or got entirely the wrong location - but here it was. The brick wall was a stark reminder of the fate that befell the residents of this quiet dead-end street which became a symbol of a wider environmental struggle in those fervent days.
I was beginning to slow down, my feet sore and sluggish after their trawl through the muddy forest. Grove Green Road stretched, straight and long, towards a crossroads where everything seemed to fall into place. If I continued ahead I'd end up reversing my recent walk around the Olympic Park, if I turned north I'd be heading for Bakers Arms and the site of a restless and strange night. Instead I turned south, crossing the bridge outside a busy Leyton station, people pouring from the entrance. I took the bus instead - making sense of this somewhat impromptu wander needed a slower pace of travel. My route cut across everything - from the valleys and ridges I normally use to guide me to my perceptions of some of the areas I'd covered. I'd demystified the horror of Whipps Cross and re-examined the view from the North Circular from a new vista. Sleepy, down-at-heel Hainault and the tower at Claybury seemed distant indeed - but the new links I'd forged brought them into my London mythology. The tongue of forest curling into the city needed further exploration for sure, but today this most ancient topography had given form to my wander. Thankfully, I slipped into the bus seat as we sped towards Stratford.
You can see a gallery of images from the walk here.
Posted in London on Saturday 14th January 2017 at 11:01pm
Recommencing my explorations in a new year always feels uncertain and unplanned. Heading north to Scotland immediately after the festive season certainly helped me to relax a little, but after a week of catching-up with work and trying to recapture a sense of the normal following a long break, it felt exceptionally good to be putting boots on the ground once again. For a while, the weather had seemed likely to intervene so I hadn't made firm plans, content to watch the forecasts and warnings with a critical eye and with some undercover alternatives in mind. However, the snow shower that swept across the country had largely departed by yesterday and today had dawned dry and frosty. An eerie early mist drifted across Wiltshire as I sped eastwards into the promise of a glorious sunrise, and I finally dared to make some hasty plans for the day ahead. I was a little surprised at my own eagerness to get moving too - I found myself tumbling almost immediately onto a convenient Underground train and skipping my customary coffee at Liverpool Street in favour of finding refreshment along my route. So, much sooner than expected I found myself walking north along Chingford High Street towards a dark line on the northern horizon. While I tramped past the seemingly endless line of tanning salons and estate agents of Chingford I focused on the growing smudge of green in the distance. I was heading out of the city and into the forest...
The edge of Epping Forest was familiar from a previous walk last summer: I remembered how a sea of trees fronted by broad, open space broke against a resolute line of victorian villas, built for their views over this remarkable surviving swathe of ancient woodland - the people's forest as gifted by Queen Victoria. I turned east here, passing a mutton-dressed-as-lamb Tudorbethan hostelry which was in fact an over-gabled Brewer's Fayre and Premier Inn combination. This location on the edge of the forest, in what must have been an earlier twentieth century pub building, was fantastic. However its brassy, false provenance left the genuinely much older Queen Elizabeth's Hunting Lodge looking pale and ghostly beside it. The caricature of history was more photogenic and somehow more three dimensional than the real deal - this squat and haphazard limewashed block which had seen several hundred winters in this exposed spot before it's neighbour appeared and stole the limelight. The inevitable Interpretation Centre nearby was open, but the lodge was locked. A family shuffled out towards the venerable structure with a slightly disgruntled member of staff following to open up the building. They'd clearly hoped for a quiet January Saturday where the punters would be content with coddling themselves in the bar next door, leaving history for warmer opportunities. I crossed the street here to Warren Pond to assess the state of the footpaths through the southern reaches of the forest. A little ice topped the puddled ruts in the track and a remnant of snow lay on a pile of cut branches. I tested a boot on the surface and only slithered a little before the lugs of my soles chewed into a layer of sandy gravel. It felt viable - so my planned excursion could probably work as I'd hastily mapped it out. I turned east again and headed a little further along Ranger's Road. None of the passing vehicles obeyed the speed limit as they hurtled into Essex, a constant trail of taillights winking past me in the ominously dark skies which had settled on the rather bleak vista to the east, displacing the hope of winter sunshine. The road rose and turned a little to the north with the view opening out around me - a few feet ahead a tiny brick parapet was a tell-tale signifier of the presence of water - the inconspicuous River Ching. Beside it a battered and faded blue sign announced simply 'Essex'. I could start walking in earnest now...
The River Ching is a strangely unremarked watercourse which barely registers on the inventory of obscure London tributaries. It doesn't go anywhere of consequence, describes no occult arcs and bubbles fairly unimportantly through boroughs which don't regard it as a feature to be cherished or advertised. It rises to the north of the bridge on which I first caught sight of it, just beyond Connaught Water, and joins the Cuckoo Brook before passing below the bridge on which I stood and heading south into a wooded valley which skirts the high ground of Chingford. Here at Ranger's Road, the rather lively, narrow stream linked the great expanse of woodland to the north with the tail of the forest which still curls southwards and encroaches on the city. I crossed the street and passed a vehicle barrier before disappearing among the ancient trees of Essex. Initially there was a well made track with a screed of sand and stone underfoot, but as the path edged around the fence of a large property, the trail became a muddy bridleway. I passed a pair of horses being ridden back towards the road, their haughty riders not returning my acknowledgement, and then I was rather suddenly alone. The ground in the forest was thick with golden oak leaves, some slowly mulching into the sodden, black earth. This wasn't a result of the melting ice or a recent downpour - this woodland floor had absorbed the rainfall over long, wet centuries. It was probably never fully dry. The aroma of decaying wood surrounded me and twists of holly and ivy curled from around the bare trunks of the oaks. Slowly, as I pressed onwards, carefully keeping my feet out of the worst of the mud, the sounds of the suburbs receded completely. Rather suddenly I burst into a wide open space where the cloud cover had broken enough to let shafts of sunlight reach the frost, clearing it in broad patches. Whitehall Plain appeared to be a pleasantly grassy field, but on closer inspection was in fact a marshy trudge. The earth sucked at my boots as I tried to walk the edges of the path, using the deep tufts of grass for extra traction. It was hard to resist breaking the ice on the horseshoe prints, but I was already conscious that my boots and trousers had a thick covering of pale, Essex earth and couldn't risk an ankle-deep mud puddle. I made for the southwestern corner of the field, where a gap in the trees indicated the makeshift trail continuing south. The map was only partially useful here - this trail didn't officially exist, and I confess to some anxiety that I'd come a long way on fairly tricky terrain. Retracing my steps didn't feel like an edifying option at this point. At the corner of the field I was faced with a choice - and with a close encounter with The Ching which babbled invitingly close to the path. A small bridge crossed it here, but it was beyond a huge slimy pool of mud. I wasn't really sure that this was the correct way ahead - but the lure of the water was strong. I edged closer, finding the undisturbed ground at the river's edge more walkable. Suddenly, and rather surprisingly, I found my toes dipping into the watercourse. As the mud from my boots clouded the little stream and washed them clean, it occurred to me that this was the first time on my many riparian walks that I'd physically made contact with a river which I was walking. It was an odd experience, but satisfying too to see the patch of muddy water billowing away from me. My shoes didn't stay clean for long - after the bridge, the path disappeared into the undergrowth in a way which suggested it was far less substantial than the one I'd left before crossing the river. This couldn't be the best option - so I edged back over and through the tricky swamp to regain the path I'd left at Whitehall Plain. I was soon in a second wide field and making much better progress, occasionally the sun flickered through the trees and my footing felt steadier. A jogger appeared, huffing along the path towards me. I could feel civilisation returning.
My brush with the suburbs didn't last long - I crossed Whitehall Road close to the point where the Ching passed beneath a decorative but otherwise inconspicuous concrete parapet. At the other side of the street there were paths on both sides of the river - but the western path, running close to the back gardens of a crescent of houses, was just a little less muddy and overgrown in appearance. I was soon trudging along close to the meandering river once again as it ambled between the trees. It was cool and quiet beneath the canopy of branches, and now that I'd found my feet a little I felt able to wander confidently along the trail. Occasionally I'd dare to stray a little off the path to the bank of the river as it curled between the venerable trunks of the forest. The water was clear and free of litter here - and I found myself wondering how it would look further along it's route. As I shuffled through fallen leaves back towards the path I spotted a sleek, red fox standing watching me ahead. I slowed my pace and locked eyes with the remarkable animal, which didn't budge at all. It stood calmly regarding me with interest and perhaps some suspicion as I crunched along the stony track which had replaced the mud. Eventually, with only a few feet between us, the fox flattened itself to the ground and launched swiftly into the ferny undergrowth. I halted and stayed quiet in the hope of perhaps catching another glimpse - but all was silent. I checked my map - this track formed the access to a nearby house, and even had a name - Newgate Street. Suddenly, and unexpectedly, I found myself at a busy roundabout with the Ching passing underneath. A miserable drizzle was falling, and the cars were kicking up a dirty spray as they shuddered by. I spied a range of shops leading towards Chingford Hatch and headed that way to get a drink. As it happened, a small filling station with a general store was the nearest option and I slipped inside to avoid straying too far from my plan. As the door opened I was immediately hit by the acrid reek of over-cooking cheese - the powerful fumes from the Subway concession almost drove me out before I could grab a bottle of water, and certainly put paid to any hunger which might have been rising. As I tried to hold my breath through the achingly slow transaction, the sales assistant appeared utterly unconcerned by what I was now convinced was some sort of emergency in the back of the garage. I was glad to be back outdoors in the clear air of the cold, grey morning again.
To continue walking the Ching I had to leave it briefly, taking the southeastern fork of the roundabout and heading back into the forest. As I set off, I spotted the path I could have taken on the eastern bank of the river trailing in from Woodford Golf Club. The road began to climb a little, passing pleasant streets and delving back into a thick knot of trees. Soon I found the trail leading south, and after a brief slither down a bank between the trees in sight of a dog walker who politely pretended not to see my unsteady progress, I closed in on the river again, now running to the west at the foot of a steep bank. The path rose, leaving the river again and soon came up against the fence of Higham's Park. This particularly treacherous stretch of mud was hard going, and the temptation to flit into the more manicured environs of the park via one of the stiles which separated it from the forest was strong indeed. I persisted, and was soon rewarded with a wonderful view of a lake emerging from between the trees. The rain had stopped and the waters were still, broken only by the wakes of stately swans gliding across towards the furthest bank. I rested awhile, rather taken with the quiet spot nestled between the comparatively bustling suburbs of Woodford and Chingford Hatch. It was soon time to press on - and to leave the forest completely. At The Charter Road, near another neat concrete bridge, I left the river and plunged into a built-up avenue. At the end of the street, a footpath beside Highams Park School reunited me with the Ching in a scrubby triangle of waste ground where the various developments had left a void between their boundaries. A substantial part was given over to allotments, but this narrow and hemmed-in corner was useless and unloved. The river had changed - litter tangled around the railings, and the banks were strewn with discarded household items. It seemed barely possible that this was the same babbling stream which had first appeared in open country and which had accompanied me through the silence of Epping Forest. It was time to confront the urban face of the River Ching...
Many of the rivers I've walked disappear entirely at this point, submerged into culverts which sneak under the city, leaving me seeking telltale signs of their presence beneath. But the Ching remains almost entirely above ground, even when it cuts across the lower reaches of Chingford towards the Lea Valley. That's not to say the river is always accessible, and I realised that my route here was at best speculative. The Ching flows between the back gardens of long terraced avenues, and marks the boundaries of inaccessible school fields for much of this part of its course. But first I had to pass under the railway, with the river in a narrow channel beside me as I turned into the accurately named River Walk. The yellow brick viaduct arched over both the path and the Ching - but the Network Rail information panel identified the watercourse only as 'Stream'. At the end of River Walk, an end-of-terrace house was decorated with a mural depicting a white owl in flight, and urging me to respect nature. Here the river once again disappeared between streets of pleasant victorian terraced houses, and I had to detour around these to get to yet another school where a shared cycle and footpath joined the waterway again for a brief stretch. On the other side of my path tall blocks of modern homes were being built - the first of them already occupied, bored children staring down at the footpath - on the site of Walthamstow Stadium. The map showed the distinctive oval of the dog track preserved in the footprint of the new homes, it's iconic fascia memorialised to front the development. The white wall with its distinctive lettering looked like a bright and stark headstone against the grey glass behind it. It was the spectre of a place - a lost memory that meant little to the families which now lived behind it in Parade Gardens. The river disappeared briefly underground here to pass under Chingford Road - a busy tide of traffic prioritised over a few of us hapless pedestrians navigating a complex of crossings. When I finally arrived at the other side of the road, the river re-emerged, sluggish and clotted with junk, beside the access road to a vast Sainsbury's Superstore. The temple of retail was so huge that a Holiday Inn had been enveloped by its car park - or perhaps shoppers needed to break their visit and rest overnight after trudging the endless aisles? I braved the store, needing food and facilities. It felt a little odd to be surrounded by impatient, jostling humanity after my solitary forest walk.
Emerging from Sainsbury's refreshed, I noted that the early promise of sunshine was finally being delivered. The wet car park shone back at me, and I tried to appear as unassuming as possible as I slunk off to the edge of the site near the delivery bays where vast juggernauts of produce were disgorging into the store even now. On the map at least, a footpath appeared to edge around the site, shadowing the Ching as it wound around the regenerated footprint of the infamous Chingford Hall estate. I found the path, and followed it until it finally petered out at the edge of a further huge supermarket. While the bank of the river looked walkable for some distance ahead it was fenced off and marked as private land, with dire warnings for trespassers. I negotiated the edge of the supermarket car park and took a footpath leading into the quiet streets of the estate. Chingford Hall was one of the large-scale housing developments which promised so much in the 1960s, but became synonymous with urban decay and fear in later decades. Its towers were felled, one by one, and by the early part of the 21st century it had risen again in its new form - low-rise blocks in defensible cul-de-sacs, utility blocks with local shops and pubs, public space and playgrounds. But despite following the 'Secured by Design' playbook, Chingford Hall is still troubled by tensions between gangs, poverty and isolation. The local pub was derelict and open to the elements and the chip shop owner was nervously eyeing a gaggle of youngsters staging a half-hearted food-fight across a table. The quiet Saturday afternoon was palpably tense in a way I rarely sense in inner London nowadays. The roads mocked the river's hidden passage: Burnside Avenue, Ching Way. My escape from the estate was to be via more familiar territory - and since I'd left the supermarket I'd been able to detect the drone of the ubiquitous North Circular. At the end of Ching Way, a curved brick entrance opened onto the A406 near the point I'd crossed it months ago. On the estate-facing side of the wall an ancient VCR had been hurled at the ground, splaying it's archaic electronics across the path. I stepped over it and into the maelstrom of fumes and noise beyond. It was like stepping into a wholly different world. And perhaps this mad screed of traffic marking its border is why Chingford Hall feels so inescapable? The road marks a division between territories. Crossing the footbridge seems ill-advised, and the boundary must be defended. Despite standing above six lanes of pulsing hydrocarbon fumes, I felt able to breathe without the tight knot of tension which I'd experienced in the estate.
Descending from the footbridge, I felt oddly at ease. I was in familiar territory. The vast white slab of Costco rose above the trees, and signs at the litter strewn junction of Folly Lane and Harbet Road promised more industrial estates nearby. The land here is flat and open - part of the wide plain at the bottom of the Lea Valley which is filled with a tangle of watercourses and crossed by only infrequent arterial routes. As the North Circular bucked and swerved north towards Edmonton and my recent encounters with other tributaries, I turned west. The Ching was canalised here, running in a deep concrete channel with powerlines strung overhead. The lowering sun glinted from the water, and the clouds rolled dramatically over the valley. The conditions were perfect for this liminal zone, and I found a new eagerness to walk. There was only a little more of the tiny but persistent river left as it delved, arrow-straight towards the Lea. The road weaved around a pumping station complete with attractive workers' cottages, before crossing an aqueduct carrying a man-made drainage channel parallel with the Lea. Then suddenly, I found myself above the Lea, looking at the opening of the Ching's culvert. After passing under the aqueduct the river ended inauspiciously, joining the Lea as it curled around the banks of Banbury Reservoir. The sun was low over the water, and the march of pylons was a line of brooding shadow-walkers. I paused and tried to connect the tiny brook in the forest with this green, oily ending. It had been a brief journey in terms of distance - but it occurred to me I'd probably been able to stay closer to the route of the little River Ching than I had when walking other streams. I navigated the tongue of land which housed a rapidly disappearing industrial estate. I'd walked here only a few months ago and all had seemed intact, but now buildings were hollow shells with last year's calendars flapping on their exposed interior walls. I learned later that this woudl be part of Meridian Water - a new suburb rising from the dust of Edmonton, mercifully upwind of the Waste Incinerator - at least most of the time. This eastern part of the site will be reserved for employment, and linked to new housing by means of The Causeway - presumably an upgrade of the deeply pedestrian-unfriendly bridge carrying the A406 towards Angel Road station and the west. Looking back, I didn't consider these vistas threatened or this land desirable - but now the bright frontage of the tiny, closed greasy spoon caff on Towpath Road seemed oddly poignant. As I walked south the wind carried the weird, disembodied cheers and songs from White Hart Lane over the valley, away from the bright halogen of the floodlights.
At Stonebridge Lock I rested outside the fine little café which seemed a world away from it's near neighbour just along the river. While the informal and friendly owners shambled around preparing drinks and snacks for the surprisingly steady flow of visitors, cyclists relaxed in the sun and thirsty dogs ambled around their owner's feet. I bought a coffee and sat outside, resting my legs and contemplating pushing on further than Tottenham. I felt better than I had for a long while, and I thought I could manage it. But I also wanted to rest and mull over the strange contrasts I'd experienced today. The bright winter light was lowering to the south west, and the Lea Navigation was a reflective river of black water. The edges of London are constantly torn and remade but somehow its waterways persist - in the margins of developments, delineating parcels of land, and rising in protest at being curtailed or culverted. Choosing to walk these ancient routes has linked the disjointed fringes of the city in a way I'd never have expected. I sipped my coffee and contemplated my next move.
You can see a gallery of images from the walk here.
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.