Posted in London on Saturday 3rd September 2016 at 11:09pm
It had been a troublesome morning... I sometimes wonder if Network Rail can tell when I really need to walk. It had been a difficult week, by turns sad and frustrating, and the opportunity to dispel some cobwebs and get out into London was welcome. As we came to rest in Swindon roughly on time, I somehow knew something wasn't right. I suppose that the ability to sniff out railway trouble is still somehow strong despite my long absence from the rails? In any case, as we finally left an hour later, even this hackneyed old rail traveller was surprised at the delay. I've never before had the entire service into London stop because a signaller couldn't be found. While there is no accounting for times when safety critical staff get taken ill, of course, the idea that no relief could be found thus stopping the job for well over 90 minutes aside from any residual delays, is startling. Somewhere in the midst of this I complained bitterly to a member of GWR staff that while I'm used to all kinds of delays and even relatively sympathetic when the railway suffers an incident way outside its control, this was pretty bad going. A nearby passenger decided to take me to task - I wasn't helping, it wasn't the staff's fault, did it matter if I was late getting to my destination? Well, despite noting that he probably wouldn't agree with my view - yes! Yes it did matter. I needed this walk. So when I finally arrived in London I wasted no time in getting over to Kings Cross where I knew there had also been early morning signalling issues. I quickly hopped onto a fast service to Finsbury Park which departed from the main trainshed - something I've not done for a good while. In just a few minutes I was disembarking and dashing downstairs, around a corner and up again despite what could have been a cross-platform change if the correct side doors were open. I decided as I collapsed into the all-too-hard seat of a tired looking Class 313 that things had been sent to cause maximum irritation today. I had to look at the positives - I was probably only an hour later than planned, and there was some slack in today's only moderately planned walk. Out of the window I could see some of the territory I'd be walking. Suburban rooftops and patches of parkland glinting green in the morning sunshine. Somewhere down there were hidden rivers, ancient tracks and unexpected corners. Things could have turned out far worse I suppose!
My walk started in earnest at Grange Park Station. A curious little place with the feel of a country halt at platform level. The silent, elevated station seemed to be nestled in an endless sea of trees and distant rooftops, with the land rising to distant heights to the east and west. Two little shelters and a closed coffee concession at platform level didn't signal much activity, but the ticket office and Oyster readers at the foot of the slope to the street gave away the commuter-belt role of the station at busier times. In the distance, I spied the raised ground which I'd walked just a short while back. I pondered my recent excursions into this landscape which had once been an inert, suburban gap in my atlas - realising how curious it was that so many of my walks over the past months touched on my target today: Green Lanes. This is possibly the longest 'street' in London, at least in terms of a continuously named stretch of road. Its length is testament to its history - an ancient drover's road, worn wide and flat by cattle being walked to Smithfield to be slaughtered and sold, or to the great livestock market at Caledonian Road. The road strikes an ancient path, hugging the same contour line as the New River as it makes a final approach to Islington. Along its length villages and towns have sprung up as proto-service stations, before being swallowed by the conurbation. Some of them persist only in name or memory, others have mutated into distinct settlements within the city often frequented by the Turkish and Greek families which have gravitated towards Green Lanes. Walking this route might have started as a gimmick or conceit - but it had taken on a significance which surprised even me. This approach from the north would tether Highgate to Hackney, link the heights of Alexandra Palace to the lowlands of the Lea Valley, and guide the tiny Moselle towards the mighty Thames. These northern ridges, so long just stops on an Underground map, had suddenly become vital in their ability to explain the topography of North London - and running like a single main vein through the system was Green Lanes.
From Grange Park, I needed to make a short detour to find the start of Green Lanes. In reality it's far from the start of the track, and as I approached Bush Hill by walking a route parallel to the tiny but unseen Salmons Brook, I noted the perfectly straight course of the narrow lane from North to South. If I turned away from London now I'd soon pass through Enfield, and on to Forty Hill, this venerable road slowly aligning with the main road to Cambridge. There was a clear route here which was evidently the northern continuation of Green Lanes - but for me the course lay to the south. A raised grassy bank behind municipal railings masked the course of the New River. I would be crossing and re-crossing this old friend repeatedly on my trek, and it was tough to resist the temptation to walk its grassy bank rather than pounding the pavements today. But that could wait - and after paying my respects briefly to the river as it curved sedately under Ridge Avenue, I turned back to face the beginning of my walk. The origins of Mason's Corner appear lost - whether some local is honoured by this spot, or whether it's a play on the tools of the trade is unrecorded - and now it is marked only by a fading sign on the parade of shops facing the twisting crossroads where Green Dragon Lane meets Green Lanes. There is a dry cleaner, a Chinese takeaway, and the somewhat tired but intriguingly named 'Eagle Letting Bureau' among the premises ranged along this beginning of the road. Somewhere among these businesses is No. 949 Green Lanes - the highest numbered property I could find on the map. I set off at a fair pace - I was aware of being later than I planned, and I hadn't thought through a fitting ending for this walk at all. As I passed an almost unbroken string of small shops, I quickly realised that all of my fraught missions to find breakfast in Central London had been badly misdirected. Here, almost every second store was a café serving a genuinely all-day offering of slick, fried finery. It was hours since my on-train breakfast and the temptation to stop and take the rare opportunity to eat a morning meal was strong. In the centre of the city, breakfast is a concept only - a brief phase which establishments pass through and abandon before most people are ready to eat - especially at weekends. Brunch is no substitute at all, merely a hint at establishing a reasonable drinking hour. But in the suburbs, honest stocky men were returning to their white vans while mopping sauce and grease from stubbled chins even at this late hour. Solid tea mugs left their stains on formica tabletops in an appealingly straightforward fashion, next to mobile phones abandoned for the duration of the breakfast ritual. Nothing was artisanal or locally-produced. Everything was available in larger portions. Green Lanes is typified by these eateries - often run by generations of the very same Greek or Turkish families who have clustered around this byway, performing as local caffs by day alongside their role as busy restaurants and community meeting places. Even when the breakfast aromas ceased as the day drew on during my walk, the smell of charcoal grills replaced it and the establishments filled with young men, talking excitedly in foreign tongues while their elders watched sagely over tiny cups of impossibly strong coffee. This was a challenging walk for an unhealthily caffeine addicted carnivore.
After an initial swing westwards, the road soon found its straight, southern course with the New River meandering back into line after skirting a sizeable sports ground. I was now approaching Winchmore Hill and despite its suburban character, there was a pleasing sense of this village being planned rather than evolving wholly by accident. The main shopping area was arranged around two large triangular junctions, and running between them on each side of Green Lanes were matching ranks of impressive, gabled shops with bright white stone trim. The careful curves of the shopfronts were matched by a newer, 1930s block of offices which echoed their grand facade but in freshly painted white plaster. It was hard not to feel that this was a prosperous corner on first appearances, and I reluctantly pressed on without entering any of the restaurants or stores. I was, it's fair to say, hungry and thirsty. As I progressed south, the road now converging closely with the river, I soon realised that my regular diversions into side roads to peer over the parapet of the frequent river bridges were delaying both the walk and my access to sustenance! I finally found a deceptively large Sainsbury's tucked inconspicuously behind a tall brick wall and headed inside. My frustration with the rest of humanity today quickly resurfaced as the locals of WInchmore Hill did their best to obstruct and irritate me. Once provisioned, I finally escaped back to the road and set off again with fresh determination not to converse with another soul today if I could possibly avoid it. Soon, the river parted company with the road and I turned slightly to the west towards Palmers Green. My previous, brief visit here had been in similarly hungry and challenged circumstances only a month back - but this time at least I saw a little more of the area. By far the most impressive building remains the stylishly municipal Southgate Library with its neat modern extension, which sits beside the crossroads which I'd passed on my last walk. Nearby, the road crosses the broad curve of the New River once again - but I was on the lookout for a different prize. Further south, I triumphantly spied the rather overgrown trickle of Pymmes Brook passing largely unnoticed under Green Lanes. I'd roughly approximated the route of the Brook when I walked it to avoid crossing and re-crossing major roads, but I'd missed some opportunities to see this elusive waterway winding through the suburbs here, and it was good to fill in a little more of the story. Otherwise, Palmers Green felt like a lower-rent Winchmore Hill - less symmetrical, more confused, a little more downbeat and tired.
It was also a long, strung-out sort of place, hugging Green Lanes for a little longer than was necessary or decent. In fact, the thing which finally put paid to the elongated sprawl of Palmers Green was the intrusion of the North Circular. That ever-present thundering gyratory which has slunk it's noisy, reeking way through most of my travels this year crosses Green Lanes at one of the few remaining suburban crossroads on its route. Six lanes of high-speed, through traffic career to a halt at traffic lights where the comparatively ancient but less travelled old arterial crosses on the way to London. Pedestrian provision here was scant and provisional. A small group of us, perfect strangers, seemed to be huddled together for safety on the crossing to the central island. I almost hung back here for a picture of the broad sweep of the road west to east. I didn't quite dare though and I found myself scuttling after my new companions only to part company as soon as we found the kerbstones. Perhaps I'd been too hard on humanity today after all? I pondered if a walk of the North Circular was possible, or indeed in any sense advisable, as I trudged a long, straight stretch of pleasantly suburban road hoping to find a spot to stop and eat. It felt like a future target - if a somewhat masochistic one perhaps? Finally, with the clouds beginning to shuffle overhead to form a solid, grey dome, I found Woodside Park - a deep curved bowl with a playground at the bottom surrounded by a wide sweep of grass which filled the remainder of the large square plot. I found a bench and rested before I headed, temporarily at least, along a road which wasn't strictly Green Lanes at all...
I had been prepared to accept that High Road was a historical blip - a little inconsistency in my conceit to walk the length of Green Lanes which was likely down to some municipal twist or other. I consoled myself by thinking it was still Green Lanes really and that as Wood Green had grown from wayside stop, to sprawling village and eventually to a small town in its own right, the civic fathers had needed to mark this change. What surprised me was how different the character of High Road was: how swiftly it switched gears from suburban shopping strip to edgy, urban menace. This was the fringe of Noel Park - purpose built around 1880 as an early garden suburb in the treacherously damp Moselle Valley then extended out to reach the High Road in the form of decently built brick shopfronts. As I passed the deceptively small frontage of the long, snaking bus garage and the well-established drinking school inhabiting the War Memorial Gardens, the road fell away steeply to reveal a chasm of retail ahead of me. The long terraces of red brick dissolved into a vast glassy cinema complex, then a towering mall development which stacked storey after storey on top of the road. It was fittingly if unimaginatively named The Mall Wood Green. A writhing line of buses ducked in and out of their stops, and people seethed towards me. Turning to look back, a risky move in the pressing human tide, the baleful bronzed glass front of River Park House reared up at me. This blank edifice of not immediately clear purpose is in fact the address of numerous departments of the London Borough of Harringey and its partner organisations. Housing the overspill from the inadequate civic hall just a short walk away, the building is disarmingly anonymous - you'd never know it was occupied, let alone so extensively used ostensibly for the public good. As I passed between the ranks of storefronts I realised this was actually rather odd - most malls don't have an outdoor street front like this. High Road - the proxy for Green Lanes - was hemmed in by this development, dissolved into a glorified underpass. A little delve into the history of the area dates the development to the 1970s, built as Wood Green Shopping City in part on the site of Noel Park and Wood Green Station on the ill-starred Palace Gates line. Opened by HM Queen Elizabeth II in 1981, the centre has undergone several externally evident strata of change - adding housing and parking above a second deck of stores. When a downturn in retail saw it seemingly condemned to house only poundshops, phone accessory booths and charity stores it was saved and invigorated with £30m of investment in 2002. Debenhams were going to anchor the site - but they didn't follow through, and in 2007 Primark arrived with its ironic burden of post-chav chic. The Mall had found its niche. Its stores outnumbered the mighty Brent Cross now, but catered primarily to its local audience. Why go up west or take a bus to an out-of-town retail park when you could strut and leer through Wood Green, gurning at passers by and howling across the street. Drinking was banned, but a little tot might have calmed these feral tribes which yammered and yelped - men bare-chested, women in jeggings, everyone carefully aligning with a stereotype and defiantly, belligerently proud of it.
High Road peters out slowly - first it returns to red brick terraced shops, provided in the late 19th century by the Artizans' Company and filled by slightly off-High Street businesses majoring on serving the diverse ethnic mix of the area. Then it opens out into Duckett's Common, a wide swathe of green stretching along the western edge of the road. As I surveyed the spot for a good picture of Turnpike Lane station, I realised I'd passed this way before while on the trail of the Moselle. A carpet of prematurely fallen autumn leaves filled the common land which I'd crossed on that excursion, and I figured I'd not made a bad job of tracking the hidden river. In fact it flowed not far from here at all, giving rise to misgivings in the planners' department about the potential for flooding in the foundations of the vast shopping development. Beyond the green which retained the outdoor gym installed in the heady summer of 2012 when we all wanted to improve our athleticism, lay the Harringey Ladder. This long, regular grid of terraced streets leading up the slope towards the railway lines was bisected in its southern reaches by the New River, sidling in from the west. The main road was happily once again officially called Green Lanes here, and had returned to the mix of small family restaurants and local businesses which typified the street scene further north. The smell of breakfast now completely replaced by charcoal smoke and the tantalising tang of caramelising meat drippings. Meanwhile, the road ahead dipped slightly to pass under a bridge decked out in bright orange Overground lettering: Harringey Green Lanes. I'd never thought hard about this station name before, always assuming it was some quaint play of the regular pattern of avenues along the Harringey Ladder. But now Green Lanes had taken on a far more significant part in my London mythologising, and it all began to make sense. I snapped edgily at the bridge with my camera, trying not to catch an unsuspecting shopper in my shot, then headed onwards under the bridge where stairs led up to the platforms. Again, I'd been here before on a railway-related ramble - and it struck me how over the last couple of months I've inadvertently connected up the parts of my London interest by apparently random and disparate bouts of walking the northern suburbs.
Beyond the bridge, a low curved wall signified the former boundary of Harringay Arena. Originally built in 1936 for greyhound racing, ice hockey and boxing, this huge eight-sided sports facility faced post-war decline despite hosting wrestling and basketball during the 1948 Olympic Games, popular concerts and circuses . It even bore witness to an early appearances by a youthful and fresh-faced Billy Graham. But by the mid-1950s despite even this divine intervention, the glamour was fading and after a short life of only 22 years, the site was handed over to a food storage concern. Briefly in the early 1980s an open air market functioned on the near-derelict land, but somewhere in the early years of the 21st century the sorry-looking site was cleared and the Arena Retail Park arrived. An identikit rank of white warehouse blocks range around a curve towards a flagship Sainsbury's. Only a tiny plaque and the insignia at the tip of the totem of store names gives any hint of what was once here and how important it was to the businesses around Green Lanes. However, to the west of the road was an altogether more enduring symbol of leisure. Facing off against the blank wall of the vast Homebase store, the north-eastern corner of Finsbury Park slipped unobtrusively into view, giving no clue to just how huge this green space was. Filling the space between the fan of railway lines leading to Moorgate or Kings Cross and the course of Green Lanes, the roughly diamond-shaped park defines the southern boundary of Haringey. Following the road, the ground rose again towards Manor House station, with the cranes and dead grey cladding of new towers signifying the enforced regeneration of Woodberry Down to the east. The New River, my near but standoffish companion on this predominantly road-based ramble swerved east here to circle the reservoirs which had formed yet another earlier walk in this area and I found myself on a suddenly quiet, mainly residential stretch of Green Lanes. It felt a world away from the noise and bustle of its beginnings, or the dreary retail chasm of High Road. A long hoarding, masking the development spelled out the dominant message in capital letters which revealed a glimpse of an evening skyline behind the text: ENJOY PARK AND WATERSIDE LIVING AT WOODBERRY DOWN it twinkled, invitingly. There was little to suggest this was an area which once encapsulated the equitable vision of municipal housing provision in which the Borough of Hackney was something of a pioneering force. Little too to remind the prospective tenant of just how low this estate had sunk before Hackney Council were forced to address its future. This was all about shifting units - preferably off-plan and before demolition was done or a brick had been laid if possible. Unexpectedly, between two incomplete and fairly inauspicious looking new low-rise brick blocks fronting the street a new vista had opened giving a sudden and startling view across the reservoirs. It was an unexpected and tantalising glimpse of a huge sky and a grey shimmer of reflected tower blocks - but it was cordoned-off and would, presumably be gated when complete. Even the view was to be sequestered for those paying the premium it seemed. I toyed with a diversion around the great pumping-station turned climbing venue of The Castle to see the waters, but decided that given my late start and the threatening weather I should press on towards London.
South of Woodberry Down, Green Lanes forms a hazy, meandering boundary between Islington and Hackney as both head for their appointments with the City. Local allegiances are clear here, with 'matchday parking' notices for football at Emirates Stadium, nestling in the nook of a railway junction away to the west. The traffic is sparser and the road is lined by mid-century apartment blocks which glower over the sunbleached grass of Clissold Park. The park extends west, almost reaching the curious urban arbor of Abney Park Cemetary - and I realise again that my history of walks is converging here on this ancient way. The road forks here, and the New River has one last impression to make: underground since it skirted the reservoirs, Petherton Road is divided by a grassy median which marks the former path of the now buried watercourse. If I followed this fork, I could find its last above-ground stretch in Canonbury - but that's another walk for another visit. Instead I turned south east, where Green Lanes finds the energy for one last run of shops and cafés before it gives up. Among them is a curious, closed shop filled with what appears to be family memorabilia. Inside is chaos, unopened post and a tumble of furniture. The last building on Green Lanes - or indeed the first should one take the road northwards - was a fitting gateway: a bold, conical brick spire atop a row of Victorian shops. The symmetry is broken though, as the western side of the road has been redeveloped into an anodyne stretch of modern blocks. This timid terminus seemed an inauspicious end to this once vital route from the north. Well established trees screen Newington Green from sight, while buses circle the railings to terminate here. There is an air of faded gentility which is slowly being driven out by hipster eateries and new money. It felt like anywhere on the northern fringe of the city. In transition. My choice is to turn south towards Essex Road, completing the ancient route to town or east towards Dalston and more famiiiar territory. I head east, along the railway and through the backstreets where Islington finally submits to becoming Hackney. The sun is suddenly beating down again, and the clamour and reek of Ridley Road market is across the street. It feels like a long way from that rural scene at Grange Park station. Like a different city, and certainly a very different time.
You can see a gallery of photographs from the walk here.
Posted in London on Saturday 6th August 2016 at 11:08pm
It's a long time since I visited Cockfosters...
My solitary previous excursion even predates the records I've kept on this venerable website. Back then I have a hazy memory of emerging from Charles Holden's low-slung, futurist station building to find a solitary row of tall redbrick shopfronts across a busy road. In my recollection, there were newsagents, laundrettes, a Chinese takeaway - the familiar constituents of countless similar ranges of small, local stores across the suburbs of London. I'm not sure if that was the exact mix of premises or whether I've projected the many hundreds of similar ranges of district shops I've seen since onto unlucky Cockfosters? I recall on that visit sensing something I'd later learn to call 'range anxiety' - the sense of being at the end of London was new and strange. There was too much to left to discover in the centre of the city back then, and with the line inked carefully into my Baker Rail Atlas I was soon off again, plunging back under the earth and into the city I was slowly growing to understand. I already had my secret haunts, my customs, my comfortable corners, and the chilly heights of the ridge shared by Middlesex and Hertfordshire could wait. In the event they waited about twenty years and a lot had changed at Cockfosters in the interim. The station was still the sleek, concrete-ribbed structure I remembered, nestling in a hollow beside the road like the skeleton of a prehistoric beast. It echoed the similar construction seen in the line's western terminus at Uxbridge - but it was grounded, purposeful - somehow less lofty and less deliberately architectural. Cockfosters station nestled neatly into its site, leaving a clear view across the heights. Following the rather charming 1950s vintage signage, I took the subway under the road and emerged in the pleasingly curved shelter which echoes the profile of the main station building . The red brick wall of shops loomed above me as expected - but oddly it had changed! The metal shutters of off-duty off licenses had been replaced by a capacious double-fronted café where people enjoyed equally impressive breakfast platters. A greek restaurant owner started his day by hosing down the footpath and watering hanging baskets dividing his inviting looking premises from a local whole-food market. The summery weather had brought people onto the pavement tables - expensive sportswear and jewellery hung from their tanned frames while their Porsches ticked in the heat. Cockfosters was looking east - aspiring to be the Essex suburbs over the ridge, rather than the more serious and genteel hamlets of North London. I felt out-of-place, but entirely unseen - because I didn't fit, they couldn't detect me. I ambled towards the Co-op and purchased plenty of water. It was already well over 25 degrees and getting warmer. My walk felt suddenly ambitious and the charms of this curious knot of civilisation seemed more attractive. The spattering skillets of sausage and vine-ripened tomatoes thudded satisfyingly on the table, the jug of inky black coffee was whisked away for replenishment. Summoning resolve I turned west - again, against every instinct - and approached the attractive honey coloured parish church. Chalk Lane wound around a knot of impressively large homes, and I realised I'd not understood just how suburban this area was before. I'd always written it off as some sort of aborted Metroland outpost, empty fields and aborted ambitions beyond the fringes of polite society. The provinces, perhaps. In fact it owed more to the Essex suburbs with their conspicuous evidence of wealth and consumption - the gated drives and electric doors were identical, the 'protected by...' security signs read the same way. But things were more restrained and sober here. The houses gave nothing away. They looked inwards, protecting rather than advertising their inhabitants' affluence. Soon the lane became decidedly rural as it passed the conjoined bowling, football and cricket clubs, and I turned west again onto the appropriately named Games Lane. This led me onto the fringe of Monkton Hadley Common - a swathe of impressively dense and ancient woodland which soon enveloped me in its cool, green canopy. I never felt totally isolated of course - the gables of nearby villas often intruded on my vision - but it was pleasant to walk under the trees. Lost in the woods, it was a surprise to spot a small brick bridge at the top of a rise ahead - there was Pymmes Brook, trickling earnestly south. I'd encountered my target early - and I first had to follow the rise of the land beside it to the sluice at Jack's Lake where it unceremoniously dribbled over a concrete beam into the channel below. Here was the source of that sluggish, reeking ditch I'd come upon in the Lea Valley many times. Clear and cool, energetically determined to reach its destination, mercifully unaware of the fate that awaited it.
I recorded the source in a picture for posterity, and set off south alongside the brook. The smooth, root-bound woodland floor sloped down into the water, making it possible to walk close beside the merry flow - a rare pleasure for a London waterway. Soon though I was directed down a suburban footpath and the woods gave way to housing: two long streets of decent sized homes marching down the valley with Pymmes Brook dribbling between them in the middle of a green central reservation. The brook's course was unmistakably marked by trees and tall grasses. At the mid-point of the avenue a small concrete bridge crossed the brook. I continued south, taking the western side as it offered a route closest to the brook once I got to the foot of the hill. Here the brook disappeared under a solid brick bridge, and I was forced to detour even further to the west, climbing a hill and turning south again knowing the brook was behind a line of semi-detached houses which arced across the hilltop. As I walked the curve of the aptly named Crescent Road and dodged the rubbish truck which was lazily but aromatically plying the street, I caught occasional glimpses into back gardens framed by tall trees and deep reed beds - tell-tale signs of the waterway. At the crossing of Margaret Road I saw a woman in a livid pink dress sorting through a bag of books left out on a low wall by the householder. As I approached she tapped me on the shoulder and said "let's find you something blokey - what about this?" as she thrust a novel at me. The cover was all rusted ironwork with the text securely riveted onto the front and the authors' name dwarfing the title. It didn't appeal and I guess my face gave away my lack of interest as she began to vigorously sort through the pile again. By now the householder was out with handy carrier bags if we wanted to take the books off her hands. "James Bond!" - a slim volume was jabbed at me and I instinctively accepted it. Satisfied that she'd found me something, she returned to combing through the books for more nuggets of interest. Unsure how to end this transaction I commented on the weather and what a good idea the passing on of unwanted books was, before uncomfortably shuffling on my way. I paused at the next junction to look over the parapet of a bridge discreetly nestled between garden sheds and garages. The brook lay deep beneath, wider and swifter now it had been joined by the Shirebourne whilst it wound behind the houses.
Turning east onto the appropriately named Brookhill Road, I noted the ground rising again to the ridge on which Cockfosters sits - and if I continued this way, I'd find my way back to my starting point. I crossed the brook again here at an acute angle where it passed behind a small range of shuttered local shops. Beyond an untidy triangle of fly-tipped builder's rubble it disappeared once again under East Barnet - a settlement I confess to having never considered before. I turned onto the curiously named Cat Hill and noted the steady downhill progress - I was heading into the valley which the brook had carved over the millennia, still on the trail. From what I could see on reaching the bottom of the valley, East Barnet was a busy urban centre: a war memorial, a branch of Costa, a range of takeaways, and an automatic public convenience which was frustratingly out of service. I felt a little guilty for my initial impression based on a stretch of tired, closed computer repair shops. My route turned south here shortly before I reached the well-tended rose garden which fronted the stubby Celtic memorial cross, taking me onto Brookside. The waters of the brook reappeared, meandering along the bottom of a broad valley with green slopes rising on both sides. I walked on the grass, grateful for softer going underfoot, and tried to discern the curve of the brook at the foot of the valley in its green tangle. On the adjacent slope where the official path ran, a busy road rumbled along the ridge and the sun glinted from passing car windows. I was content with my off-road progress along this fine green swathe which finally opened out into Oak Hill Park - a broad and open plain in the midst of the suburban sprawl which had attracted the locals on this sunny morning. I found a vacant bench and sat beside the still clear and lively brook while I refreshed my water-bottle and rested my feet. I'd worried this walk might be just too suburban and uneventful, but the mix of geographical detective work and pleasant surroundings was just the tonic I needed today. Before leaving the park I detoured onto the west bank of the brook and walked along the rear veranda of a sizeable and dilapidated block of changing rooms in an attempt to use another of the London Borough of Barnet's public conveniences - but again, it was closed. Austerity bites in the oddest ways, I suppose. I trudged on, out of the park and into another well-tended grassy division between avenues of houses. East and West Walk flanked the brook as it made a slow southerly turn towards Brunswick Park - the next in a chain of green spaces which shadow the route of Pymmes Brook through Barnet. Here the trail is additionally dubbed Waterfall Walk, reflecting the regular man-made concrete dams which cross the brook, slowing its progress and restraining it from overwhelming its banks in times of flood - something the brook has regularly attempted over the centuries. The barriers made for a pleasant plashing sound as the water trickled lazily over each one. I clocked the temperature at 27 degrees, and despite my public convenience predicament, the sound of running water was a welcome psychosomatic coolant. A long stretch of old woodland soon enveloped the path again, the tree line to the west discreetly masking the transition from Brunswick Park into the austere circles of New Southgate Cemetery. Embedded deep in this woodland channel it was easy to imagine the trees forming an ancient forest - but they in fact run tightly along the path, with the back gardens of Barnet never more than a few feet away. The only tell-tale sign of humanity on this apparently lightly-used stretch was the reek of a sewer which is laid under the path and which seemed on the strength of it's detectable protests, to be tested to its limits just now. Strangely, the brook and its shadow path remained quietly and entirely disconnected from the suburbs which surround them. I savoured the cool after the strong sun in the open park.
Rather unexpectedly at a sharp turn in the path a steel bridge deck appeared between the trees, with solid brick abutments swinging across the brook. Crossing a busy road under the bridge I found myself deposited at the foot of the great arches of Arnos Park Viaduct - one of the highlights of this walked I'd looked forward to, but hadn't expected to come across so suddenly. The northern extension of the Piccadilly Line in the 1930s posed challenges here - the Pymmes Brook carves a deep valley between the high ground of Finchley to the west and Southgate to the east - meaning that trains head north from the city in a deep tunnel before bursting into the open almost directly onto the ridge over the valley. The result are the elegant thirty-four arches of the viaduct which swings over the edge of the park. Underneath all this engineering effort, the still tiny brook which has miraculously worn this deep valley is canalised to dog-leg under the arches and continue its course to the south-east. It was a rare pleasure to get this close to such a magnificent structure and to be able to wander alone under the arches with the trains rattling overhead. Between trains, the silence along with the coruscating brindle pattern of red and blue brick made for a strange ambience beneath the arches. In the middle of each span, a central channel of tall and narrow arches runs the length of the viaduct giving a truly dizzying receding perspective. It was tempting to stride ahead, passing all the way along this secret inner path, until I realised that the deep concrete culvert abruptly divides the way, turning Pymmes Brook through two right-angles to continue a path through Arnos Park. I noticed that people didn't linger in the shadow of the viaduct and I had this stretch of path largely to myself. It was a shock then to move into the brighter part of the park and to find it teeming with families enjoying the sunshine and older folk contentedly occupying benches. I found my own bench and rested again, thinking about my lack of planning, and wondering quite how I could finish this walk?
Reluctantly leaving the park I was aware I was closing in on an old foe - the North Circular. This road has haunted my recent walks: blocking my way across otherwise open land and twisting into complex geometries which make pedestrian navigation impossible. Today though I was encountering the A406 in a formative state. Despite being improved to a grade-separated motorway from Finchley to Palmers Green, as it turns an abrupt right-angle here it degrades into a classic 1930s arterial with side streets and traffic lights. Semi-detached houses line the route on both sides, as traffic howls along avoiding the very suburbs they carve through. As is often the case, the road didn't travel alone, its course following the shallow valley of the Bounds Green Brook which joined Pymmes Brook near the park exit, masked by trees. Delaying my time on the road for as long as I could, I slipped across Wilmer Way to inspect the low concrete parapet of the bridge taking the Brook under the road, emblazoned with a proud but long obsolete Southgate District Council monogram. By following the quiet suburbia of Ashridge Gardens I could echo the course of the waterway until the road turned sharply north along Broomfield Avenue. In the tight elbow of this junction, a gap in the fence let me see the brook trickling along. I slipped my camera between the palings of the fence before realising that nearby a family were playing in their back garden and were regarding my presence with some horror. I quickly slipped my camera away and smiled - in the hope that this would belie the idea that the wild-haired, red faced man at the fence was some sort of prowler. Not daring to look back just yet, I scurried off up the hill and over the railway bridge. Pausing to look along the tracks to the south the sky-scraping antenna of Alexandra Palace recalled an earlier walk and suddenly things slipped into context - this walk was the missing link between the Northern Heights, the regeneration zone of Woodberry Down and my obsession with the Lea Valley. North London, turning on a hinge in the A406 felt connected and legible. At last that vast sweep of suburbs - each with its village centre and run of local shops, each with a hinterland of semis and hidden waterways - was locked into place. Maybe it was the sun, or the heat playing with perception - but I realised that the web of streams which had oddly attracted me to these environs linked into a wider system which described the topography of the north and east, drawing me into further explorations. I'd often stumbled over an answer to the question "why walk those areas?" because I really didn't know. It was an exhilarating discovery that there really was a pattern - and that this walk did, after all, fit into it. I celebrated my moment of discovery in the only fitting way - by detouring into a nearby Morrisons to finally use the conveniences and to grab refreshments. It was an odd place for an epiphany - but a supermarket in Palmers Green is as good as anywhere.
Once refreshed and underway again, I realised that I might have to adjust the scope of this walk - it was well over thirty degrees now and the sun showed no sign of moving from directly overhead. The next part of the trip would be challenging - but the walk was to yield a further special moment here, just beyond the impressive modernist hulk of Palmers Green Library. As I briefly turned into Green Lanes, the long stretch of road which runs deep into London's heart, I crossed the New River. Having stumbled on this quiet, stately presence in Barnet many years ago, found it circling the reservoirs at Woodberry Down and getting to explore its outfall in Islington it was rather special to look along the greenish, silent way and to imagine the long course to its source in Hertfordshire. Never meant to be navigable, the surface of the water shimmered tantalisingly close - just inches from the deck of the bridge. Resisting a strong temptation to turn aside and walk the river back to London, I returned to the crossroads, crossing the New River again as it continued north and east fringed by an inviting green towpath. Instead, I finally had to succumb to the North Circular, meeting it at a confusing confluence of suburban side-road and filling station, with traffic crazily queuing in zig-zags to leave and rejoin the carriageway. The heat radiated from the road and the metallic skins of passing cars rhythmically flashed the sun directly at me. I ducked my head and pressed on along the shared use path, the only pedestrian in sight. I wasn't sorry to reach a subway which permitted me to duck under the shuddering, overheated road to reach Chequers Way home to the vast Arla Foods dairy production site. The brook fringed the edge of the factory, and I was once again able to walk close beside it on Tile Kiln Lane. Considering the proximity of the orbital road and the factory, the walk here felt like a silent stroll along a narrow country lane. Beyond the low rise new-build flats at the end of the road I could head into a football field or pass the faded interpretation panels into the Tile Kiln Lane Open Space. I took the latter route - disappearing deep between high grasses and elderly trees, skirting the sports field and leading back to the main road at Great Cambridge Junction. The footpath was littered and cracked by roots - evidence of a slow return to nature. Bursting out of the greenery into a complex network of subways slung under the roundabout but above the road, I left the brook as it disappeared into a broad, concrete culvert to take a turn around the southern quadrants of the roundabout as I surfaced at the north eastern extremity on Kendal Parade. A fairly down-at-heel run of shops edged around the corner block. This was once an important stop on the highway, but was now passed at speed by all but a few - and they seemed to be lingering outside without purpose, soaking up heat and radiating boredom. North and south, the arrow-straight A10 headed from Cambridge into the city, a road usurped by new Motorways and better retail opportunities, while these local denizens watched and waited. The circus felt strangely trapped in time - a ringway-era relic which even the North Circular now bypassed by diving underneath. It wasn't a pleasant spot and I soon shuffled on swiftly in search of the course of the Pymmes Brook once again. It was here that I made my only real misjudgement in terms of today's route. Confused by what appeared to be access through the Millfield Arts Centre, I struck off along Silver Street at some pace. Soon after passing the gates of the sizeable property operated by Enfield Council I realised I was on the wrong track - and a desperate diversion into a small close of flats and houses gained nothing but curious and suspicious looks from the locals. As luck would have it, an elegantly dressed woman clip-clopped out of a nearby house in a businesslike fashion towards a very expensive car which diverted their attention briefly. They mentally checked her - plain clothes police? Insurance? Doctor? Meanwhile, the brook sat behind a locked gate opened only by a residents key. I had to retrace my steps to the North Circular.
Almost as soon as I started walking the treacherously cracked path at the edge of the road the warning that no pedestrians could proceed beyond the next quarter-mile was signalled by a huge green sign. I approached a lay-by where a Polish registered truck was parked, its owner sitting out on the grass in the sunshine. Suddenly a grinding and gasping sound announced the passing of a Jaguar saloon with smoke gushing from under the bonnet. He scuttered to a halt in the lay-by just a little shy of the truck and immediately began punching buttons on his 'phone. The trucker dashed around waving his arms and warning him not to open the bonnet. I passed by watching the strange scene and wondering just how I was going to escape from the road myself? Across the six lanes of traffic, the North Middlesex Hospital glowered over Edmonton - a grim and formless building. Unexpectedly, I found Tanners End Lane - a stopped up road severed from the A406 by solid bollards, and which would take me back to the Brook. In the event, I found myself almost where I'd have been had I pursued my original course on Silver Street, finding a paved slope leading down to a walkway deep between jagged, modern brick housing blocks. It was cool and shaded down here, the brook in its wide concrete channel. Up ahead, the channel divided into two, separated by a central beam which I recalled seeing at the outflow into the River Lea - though I've never established why this was done? There was some way to go for Pymmes Brook but much of it would be underground from here. The culvert loomed, broken tree-limbs trapped across the entrance. I climbed the ramp to Silver Street and into Pymmes Park - named from the brook which barely skirted its edge. I rested a while here, the sun still bearing down on the parched park. I could press on into Tottenham and try to delve for the brook under industrial sites and Ikea carparks, or I could call it quits at Fore Street - knowing the brook was bubbling under the junction on route to the Lea. Eventually I opted for the latter. It left a section of the route unwalked - but it was a troublesome and contested section which needed my wits and enough energy to manage the frustration of blocked routes and wasted turns. I had neither about me. The closest I could get to the route without walking was a bus along Fore Street and into the city, so I passed by Silver Street station and emerged at the crossroads where the North Circular emerged from the brief tunnel to make its arc over the Lea Valley. Edmonton was clinging to life via pound shops and small branches of national multiples. But it was alive still, and pushing my way to the bus stop wasn't easy in the Saturday afternoon crowds.
In some ways, Pymmes Brook defeated me today - I almost made the full length of the surprisingly resilient little stream, only to be thwarted by the heat on what I almost considered home turf. As the 149 bus trundled slowly towards Liverpool Street, I thought of the confluence with the Lea spied on other walks, a reeking culvert swinging alongside the river and finally joining it at Tottenham Hale. I thought of the tributaries I'd happened on - the Salmon and the Bounds Green Brook - and how they too deserved the honour of a walk. What had seemed to be somewhat inert amble across North London had ended up being the key that unlocked the territory I'd been unwittingly marking out for almost a year. Pymmes Brook itself is an unsettled stream - variously known throughout the last millennium as Medeseye, Millicents Brook and Bell Brook, its changing name and sometimes shifting path to the Lea appear to have confounded plenty before I arrived. London still has so many secrets to give up.
You can find a gallery of images from the walk here.
In an odd coincidence, John Rogers walked the brook in the reverse direction for his series of excellent Youtube videos. You can see his progress at The River of No Return.
Posted in London on Saturday 2nd July 2016 at 11:07pm
I'm back where I ended my last walk, in Ilford. This morning feels a little different - arriving by rail into the Town Centre I have only the vaguest memory of how to get to the River Roding. Those first few moments of the bus journey a few weeks back were spent recovering from the deluge I'd been caught in, and the subtleties of the topography were a little lost on me. I sensed I was close though, navigating by the two tall glass towers of Pioneer Point which dominated the view from Redbridge on my last walk. Sure enough, there was the river sliding inauspiciously between British Telecom's Mill House offices and the North Circular. Marked only by a flourish of green between the buildings and a tiny blue sign, the river has calmed to its usual sluggish, benign flow. But as I've already discovered, following the Roding isn't easy or without challenge. The first was to get to the river: passing under the A406 I'm tempted by the concrete slopes beneath the overpass which imply they could provide a walkway at least part of the way to the water. Realistically though, there doesn't appear to be a way beyond the sliproads, so I negotiate some steps down to Grantham Road. Fronted by a series of tall, slightly ominous point blocks shielding it from Romford Road, this Little Ilford estate feels somewhat tense. A couple of older guys chat animatedly on the corner. I overhear a fragment: "feckin' Europe". It becomes apparent as I navigate the estate that Little Ilford is home to immigrants from the world over. It's the very kind of place where BREXIT feels illogical and it's attendant racism cruel - like a double body-blow. I lower my head and press on, passing a couple of young Indian guys systematically walking the streets and checking the wheelie-bins. For what? Between the stubby blocks to the east I spy a dog walker - always a good sign - and at the end of the short street a gateway to the park. I can feel the A406 reverberating nearby, so I delve into the greenery and find a grassy track which runs directly beside the road, undulating with its embankment and following the line of pylons which began to march alongside me back at Charlie Brown's Roundabout. Just like last time, the river is present but hidden. I'm walking its valley, but not its course.
The largely untamed edge of the park is surprisingly bright and warm, and the walking is pleasant. Having a carpet of grass underfoot is a welcome change. It doesn't last though, and I'm eventually deposited onto the gravel track which circuits the much more primped sports field fronting a disused pavilion. A lone gymnast flips and tumbles across the grass as I edge around the park, trying to find a way through to the green space beyond. It turns out there is no way - so, turning back at the tennis courts I'm out onto the backstreets, deposited onto suburban roads named after painters: Reynolds, Dore, Leader and eventually Millais. The promise of a route under the A406 isn't delivered - if there is a footpath leading off the uninviting entrance to builders yards and reclamation specialists, it's well hidden indeed. Instead I turn west, heading towards the broad underpass which takes me under the London to Southend railway line. The bridge is wide enough for a road to pass beneath, but is hemmed in by barriers to prevent all but cyclists and ill-advised pedestrians from transiting into Barking. Unexpectedly, between two arms of railway I find the entrance to East Ham depot - a location I'd passed numerous times on the rails above, craning my neck for unusual stock. Once south of the delicate swan-neck of rails, Stevenage Road turned abruptly west to skirt the apparently disused Leigh Road Sports Ground. Rusting goalposts quivered in the wind, almost crossbar deep in reedy grasses. Across the vast swathe of grass the North Circular hovered on its tall concrete legs, with the lush foliage of the river beneath. A footbridge was again promised by the OS map, but there was no access to the sports ground - a notice offering 'multiple hazards' to any who dared. A deflated gasholder and its outbuildings sat defiantly in the midst of the overgrown space and reflected a strong morning sun back at me. There was definitely no way in, or out onto the river.
Instead I turned east again along the dusty run of Watson Avenue. One side a high fence, regularly dotted with signs declaring the unimaginable and manifold horrors that would befall anyone trying to access the sports ground, on the other a run of pleasant but tired suburban houses. There's no-one to be seen at all. At the end of the street, a steep footbridge climbed directly over the North Circular. No messing around with tiers of stairs or carefully graded accessibility ramps, just a stepped ascent to the height of a gantry sign. Traffic rushed under a threatening sky, broken with flashes of bright light. From the north, the glassy faces of Pioneer Point winked pale sunlight back at me. This crossing of the road was exhilarating - and it marked a return to the river at last. That return was via the menacing and littered Hertford Road, and a dank, debris-strewn passage beside a Big Yellow Storage Centre which lead to another bridge - this time over the Roding. Here the river was broad and slow-moving, approaching its final meanders towards the Thames. On the west bank, a broad well-made path edged the water. North of here it terminated in a blank wall, but south it appeared to continue by way of the curves of the river towards a gigantic Tesco store. I followed the river path gratefully, not even noticing the faint faecal tang on the air. Surfacing to briefly visit Tesco, I hugged the river wall and edged out of their extensive Car Park beside the Ibis Hotel. I had been here before - and with some confidence I strode along Fresh Wharf Road, passing the inert security checkpoint which had concerned me last time. In the interim I'd discovered it shouldn't be this way. There is, theoretically a route along the west bank of the river - but a dispute between the Fresh Wharf Estate and the owners of houseboats moored at Barking appears to have resulted in it being blocked. While court action has secured them access to their homes, the through-route remains blocked. Instead I turn east again beside the institutional grey block of the Police Custody Centre, heading along a well made path which runs along Hand Trough Creek. Behind the building, hatless but fully body-armoured Policemen smoke committedly between shifts. I emerge at the gated entrance to the moorings and cross the weir by way of the lock gates. I'm finally east of the Roding and with a fairly good path to walk which appears to have been constructed when the modern blocks of flats which front the river were built. I wonder at these places - innocuous, tiny properties packed into serrated blocks which tower above the sluggish channel. The location is promising enough: looking out over the vast sewage complex at Beckton and its neighbouring leisure park offering of American diner and multiplex cinema. Ahead, the A13 crosses on a low concrete bridge, and my pathway is soon pressed up against the wall of the overpass, vegetation hanging above. I emerge at the bottom of a footbridge I'd crossed on my A13 walk, the road seething beside me. I felt like I'd come home.
It was oddly comforting to cross the footbridge over the familiar surge of traffic, watching my hand blacken with heavy particulate as I ran it along the guardrail. I'd been away from my A13 walk for a while now - trying to determine the logistics of the long rural sections ahead - but seeing the road churning along beneath me and remembering a successful walk here made me want to return this part specifically. As I head east briefly towards my turning, a host of wild poppies colonise the mesh of a fence. There is life here, on the edge of things. As built-up Barking gives way to the flat, empty riverside plains of Dagenham, River Road turns south to edge along the Creek. As I trudged out to the junction where I'd turn, I noted a little knot of housing trapped between the road and the industrial area. It must feel strangely embattled here in what remains of Creekmouth - once a tiny village at the confluence of Thames and Roding, now more of a conceptual sales pitch for industrial sites which might one day be served by the Overground. These houses are an outpost - neither here, nor especially there. Creekmouth is gone, buried by refused and scrap metal. Once into River Road, the landscape quickly flattens out into low-rise brick units of industry; The junction crosses the Mayes Brook at an oblique angle which makes its last dive between the back gardens of houses to reach the Creek. The river isn't present at first - after passing under the A13 it makes a brisk eastward turn to run parallel to the Thames briefly, almost resisting its final destination. Eventually though, road and river are running alongside each other and the broad swathe of industry on the western side of the street is all that separates me from the muddy channel. River Road seems to run on forever, a long straight canyon of dust and debris. Piles of fly-tipped house clearances regularly interrupt the path - and one of them partially hides a globe: its dusty continents and battered reliefs peeking out from under the rubble. I finally reach the Waste Transfer Facility which by my calculation borders the Creekmouth Green Space - and it is an utterly horrible last barrier. An evil-smelling swirl of black liquid runs down the sloped entrance road and pools across the footpath, eddying rainbows of oils and fats twinkling up at me. The smell is incredible. Acrid, decaying refuse, sweet hydrocarbon, musty ancient river silt and the human tang of sewage. It fills my nostrils as I push at the creaking gate and walk up the rise towards the bank. I thought I'd built up a resistance in my years working on the edges of the care industry, but it overwhelms me sufficiently by the time I reach the river that it is beyond a mere smell anymore - now it's inside my head. I wonder with some horror whether I'll be stuck with this reek in my nostrils forever? It's an unfortunate time to be awestruck too as I turn, slack-jawed into the open at last- but the sharp-intake of tainted air is worth it: the Barking Flood Relief Barrier towers overhead. Up close, it is notable that the slender concrete pillars are studded with portholes. The idiotic capering figure on the Environment Agency logo shimmers in the haze of heat and pollutants atop each tower. Between the towers, the Isle of Dogs is framed perfectly in the distance. Beside me, the sweep of the Thames takes up the Roding's waters - now a broad estuary in its own right, but dwarfed by the might of the greater flow. I've seen wider vistas further east - bleaker, emptier frames of sky and river - but the end of Barking Creek has an end-of-things quality. I feel like I've walked a long, often fruitless trail from Debden, spending more time navigating the twists and turns of suburban East Ham and Ilford than I've spent on the bank of the river. But hemmed in by the infrastructure of the twentieth century I've honoured the course of this persistent watercourse. It's time to head back.
I'm waiting for a bus on River Road when the rain starts. A small group of Central European factory workers dash over to shelter under the awning of an industrial unit where they converse languidly about BREXIT with regular shrugs and shakes of the head. I stay out in the refreshing storm. It won't last, and the cool clean rainfall is welcome. I see rivulets of black trickling from my hands where I'd picked up the road grime, and I smell the curious but never unwelcome aroma of dry dusty pavements getting wet. The bus finally arrives and we all board - heading back to civilisation and away from this spot which most of us would only ever visit under duress. Almost everyone except me.
You can find a gallery of images from the walk here.
Posted in London on Saturday 11th June 2016 at 11:06pm
As the Central Line train howled and screeched along the interminably long section between Stratford and Leytonstone, I mused on my hasty plans for today. Again I'd be drawn to the north-eastern fringe of London - to the area where pale green and white expanses fill those pages of the A-Z with no continuity markers at their edges. My musing on the comfortable hamlets on the edge of Essex a month or so back had brought me back to the map to consider their alignment. This in turn drew my eye along the next sliver of green to the east - the Roding Valley. Of course I'd encountered the Roding before almost exactly a year ago, at its estuary where Barking Creek tumbles into the Thames. The reek of sewage and industry seemed very far indeed from this twisting green ribbon, opportunistically squatted by the sinuous M11 and its feeders, which invited a visit. A year ago at the edge of the Creek I'd resolved to add the river to my list of walks - but it's passage seemed distant and less important then. Today though, still spinning from the confusion of a testing week at work, it felt like a perfect target. It seemed a simple walk on the map too...
The Central Line in West Essex is a curious, twisting railway formed from a mixture of extensions to the original Central London Railway and the annexing of former Great Eastern Railway branches. Far from the centre of anything, a strange, post-war feel lingers around the stations on the line's extremities: enamel roundels resolutely remain on platforms and white painted canopies still run the length of the tidy, red brick stations. Only the presence of ticket gates and Oyster readers shoehorned unforgivingly into ticket halls reminds me that I'm in the 21st century here. Debden is no exception. A tiny station on the very fringe of the capital conurbation, the last stop before the Central Line flings out east to Theydon Bois and Epping. To the west of the station the commuter village straggles along the road out of town, but to the east there's nothing but countryside and motorway. This is where I'll start walking - here on the edge of things. The road is marked for Epping and Ongar - five and ten miles away respectively. Ahead of me the carriageway dips to pass under the M11 and then onwards into the rolling hills of Essex. The view couldn't be more English - a concrete slash through a green undulation. A little before the motorway crossing I turn south, a farm gate beside a battered sign for the Roding Valley Way leads onto a track which soon disappears into tall grass. The narrowest of ways worn in previous seasons, slowly growing over. I plunge in, realising I'm really not prepared for this walk in some ways. The noise of the motorway is still present, but muffled by the greenery. A distinctive chimney-sweeper moth flits across the path. Despite the line of tiled rooftops in the near distance indicating Loughton, I'm alone. It's been difficult to relax this week - sometimes painfully so - and the quiet hum of grassland swishes and chitters is remarkably soothing. The regular thrash as I beat through the grass, following the indistinct trail is satisfying too. My walks have taken me to the very edge of the city on plenty of occasions - but this is by far the most rural location yet. Glimpsing the shallow but broad stream of the Roding for the first time, I'm struck how clear the water is - and how the riverbed is mostly free of human detritus. The river bucks and curves in a wide, flat valley here - perfect for railway and motorway building - and they both flank its course along the north-eastern edge of London, hemming in the valley, but oddly protecting it too - making the narrow, irregular belt of green difficult to develop. Instead it is a ribbon of municipal playing fields, sports clubs, public parks and allotments - and sometimes just a rough scramble of grass and earth, tall reads and water-meadows. This is really somewhere rather special.
It soon becomes pretty clear that this walk will follow the course of the valley floor rather than hugging the bank of the river. The path casts me westward, out of the grassland and into a neat playing field. The ubiquitous joggers pad by and dog walkers watch their animals capering in the water. Near a cricket club I spot a tiny bridge arcing over the river, dedicated to a local politician - I take a picture but continue to walk the western bank. Oddly, this bridge could have saved me from a diversion and kept me near the water - but instead I follow the path, hoping that the gap in the line on the map is an omission. It seems to be at first - plunging me along a well-worn track between the river and a lake. I'm confronted suddenly by a fisherman barking into his mobile as he strides back and forth: "I had to drop the boy off at Heathrow.... Nah, three hours before departure now..... Can you facking be-lieve that?". I emerge into another playing field and skirt the edge, following a clearly beaten path to its south-eastern corner. I trust the faintly worn desire-line here, leaping a little ditch and ending up on a rough track where the Roding passes under a lane bearing its name. There's no way through, and no way onto the lane. I follow the track to another frustratingly locked gateway before retracing my steps over the ditch. I finally resort to thrashing out of a tiny but well-trodden gap in a hedgerow onto a beautifully manicured cricket pitch. Interception seems likely - so while I edge around the boundary rope I rehearse arguments about the inadequacy of the map. Checking later I noted that there was another bridge which would have taken me into the environs of a nearby health club - but ultimately further away from the water. My wish to walk as close to the river as possible was, it seemed, drawing me away from it.
After establishing that there was no immediate continuation of the path, I struck out west, into Buckhurst Hill. I broke into a sweat on the gradual rise, realising that it was in fact getting warm despite the grey skies. I decided to pause and apply sun-cream at some point to avoid the strange stealth-tans I seem adept at picking up. Before I reached the main London-bound road I turned aside into suburbia, following Alfred Road and the wonderfully riverine Cascade Road until a tiny public footpath took me back towards the river. Hemmed in between overgrown allotment gardens and the river, it was cool and pleasant - and I hoped I could at least follow the course for a while. The trees soon opened to reveal the great brick archways carrying the quiet Hainault Loop of the Central Line over the valley. The red arc above me felt solid and surprisingly broad for a two-track railway serving the quiet settlements of the valley. I passed under the arch and immediately faced a choice - turning east and crossing the river, scrambling up a slope beside the bridge, or pushing on through an overgrown track between waist-high nettle beds. I was determined to stick to the west bank - more by instinct than judgement - and because the eastern route appeared on paper at least to meander out of the footprint of the river and motorway which had drawn me this way. A few metres and a sharp turn into my daring jungle mission I admitted defeat and turned back. The nettles were waving around my ears now, and the path becomes less distinct the further I go. There was no clear view of how far ahead I might find a way out of this, so it was back to the viaduct. I emerged, covered in seeds and pollen, sneezing and frustrated. The only sensible way - it seemed to me - was up the bank. I scrambled up, my boots doing fine work in keeping me vertical until the very last few steps when I felt like I was about to slither back to the foot of the bank on my belly. My hands grasped pointlessly at strands of reedy grass in some sort of strange faith that just grabbing a hold would stop my tumble. Instead, instinct kicked in and I pitched my not inconsiderable bulk forward with an unseemly grunt. Using momentum to carry me over the brim of the slope, I stumbled ungracefully into yet another private sports ground. The rugby pitches of Bancroft RFC were being manicured and primped, posts re-cemented. A tractor puttered along the southern fringe trimming tall grass. Unsure if I should be here I took courage from a lone dog walker circuiting the pitch and press on along the northern edge, heading diagonally across an unkempt patch of ground to reach the driveway and to escape without being apprehended. Once back out on the street I started to feel frustrated - could I have pushed on and found a way through? Should I just have accepted the eastern bank was more walkable despite the diversions and meanders away from the river? After all - here I was, once again in a pleasantly dull, suburban street with the river already some way behind me. I turned south and trudged on. The mix of interwar council housing and the larger detached properties were comfortingly monotonous. The occasional "Vote LEAVE" posted reminded me of the demographic of this edge of Essex territory. Streets were closed for a Queen's Birthday street party, bunting dangling from the 'temporary closure' notices. At the end of Oxford Road there appeared to be a pathway which led to a bridge which would get me to what appeared to be a much better kept path on the eastern bank, and which seemed to continue much further without interruption. I was back on course...
For a while, at least - the pathway was clearly marked Roding Valley Way and after an unpromising dog-leg around a sports ground, gave way onto a pleasant public park. I could see my route ahead disappearing into the trees fringing the river, so I decided to rest a while and apply sunblock. The dull, warm ache of the clouds was breaking and I sensed a warm afternoon ahead. It felt portentous and stormy. I watched a huge, muscled black guy conducting what appeared to be an endearingly tender conversation via mobile while his slavering Bull Terrier worried him to throw a ball despite its apparent inability to stumble along at more than a few inches per second. Finally I decided it was time to press on, and headed for the bridge - only to find it gated and locked. There seemed to be no reason - it was in good repair, and the path on the opposite bank of the river was in use. I turned back again, passed the drooling dog waiting for its next low-speed chase and headed into the park. As I followed the long driveway from the strangely serrated roof of the visitors centre to the street, a police car edged along ahead of me before spotting a suspicious rough-sleeper in the hedge and peeling off across the grass to investigate. A little crowd assembled - but I headed for the exit. This stretch of the walk had been frustrating and I wanted to escape the suburbs. I turned onto the wonderfully named Snakes Lane East just as the Police car left the park and passed me, having left the rough-sleeper to his own devices. As I waited to cross the street, a car reversed out of a driveway at ludicrous speed, sending a cyclist lurching across the street almost into the Police car's path. The driver seemed oblivious to the near-miss and stopped, signalling the Police car to pass by. The officer shook his head and motioned him back into his drive, turning to follow him. By the time I passed the scene the driver was already yelling about it being "racist" to stop him - at which point a surprisingly imposing Asian Metropolitan Police officer began to unfold himself from the tiny car, much to the surprise of the driver. I left them discussing his motoring skills as I turned onto the busy dual carriageway of Chigwell Road - noting that among a row of tiny suburban shopfronts, next to a self-declared Washing Machine Repair Specialist, was a firearm dealer. The incongruity of the trade in ammunition and weapons with the mock-tudor frontage and the suburban location immediately played into the Essex tradition of low grade gangsters and tooled-up small-time criminals. I struck out for the Esso station - expecting at least to get an expensive refill of my water bottle and an ill-advised snack. As I approached, I noted that nestled between the filling station and the motel-like Broadmead Baptist Church was a narrow pathway with a carved Roding Valley Way arch. So, once equipped with terrifyingly expensive provisions, I edged rather carefully into the dogshit strewn channel between high razor-topped fences, which swiftly opened up into a narrow bridge over the still clear-running Roding waters. It was good to be back with the river, even if my path was going to run a little way from it for a while longer. Ahead of me were the dividing lanes of the M11 with the tiny stubs of the never-built M12 between them. The first carriageway was burrowed-under by way of a pitch dark underpass with the second soaring above me on high posts, leaving a dusty concrete plain beneath. This was as close as I'd get to a picnic spot, so I took the opportunity to eat and review my options under the shrill trauma of traffic desperately slowing for the end of the motorway, or accelerating out of the city's gravity.
I was in the midst of the turmoil here - in a widening apron of negative space on the map left by an incomplete road scheme. The Abercrombie plan for London came to a halt above me in concrete reality. This spreading triangle of land should have seen the carriageways of the M11 continue south - heading for the Inner Motorway Box at Hackney Wick. Instead, the flyovers describe a series of graceful but unnecessarily complex arcs, piling through-traffic onto the North Circular while city-bound travellers are deposited onto Charlie Brown's Roundabout. Named for a pub which was demolished in 1972 to accommodate the enlarged roundabout and tangle of sliproads, this provided a neat historical arc linking me back to my other walks. Charlie Brown's original pub was in West India Dock Road during the heyday of Limehouse as a churning confusion of day-paid dockers, furloughed sailors and ungoverned immigration which would curl the toes of Farage and company. A few years after the original Charlie Brown - the 'Uncrowned King of Limehouse' - died in 1932 his son upped sticks and headed for Essex like all east-enders made good, relocating to the pub in South Woodford but retaining the historical name. In a cruel twist of fate, the original building survived this new venue, but was finally claimed by another road scheme being demolished for the building of the Limehouse Link tunnel. Opened in 1993, until recent times this was the most expensive stretch of road ever built in Britain. In the same period, improvements were being hawked which included the much compromised M11 Link Road - which, when finally built, settled the sorry tale of the south end of the motorway with massive demolition and destruction of long-standing communities in Leyton. It also signalled the start of a series of organised anti-road protests which have dogged road schemes ever since. These strange sequences of events - the cycle of blight and destruction, of inheritance and self-improvement - seem to sum up this part of the world for me.
My own engagement with Charlie Brown's roundabout was to carefully pick a safe route around its edge, finally finding myself above the Roding again as I turned south briefly onto the continuation of Chigwell Road. Somehow, beneath the stacked layers of flyover and roundabout, the winding river kept flowing - only a little battle-scarred by rainbows of fuel and run-off in the process. Finding a tiny gateway, I turned aside and once again found myself on the western bank, the path edging around the sliproad carrying eastbound traffic onto the North Circular. The little cliff caused by the curve of the stream encountering a sloping panel of supporting concrete made a strangely attractive prospect under the brutal weight of road above. A line of pylons marched into the valley here - and would accompany me on this stretch of the walk like a guard of honour. From here I was walking west of the river but east of the road, in a narrow channel of green which gave occasional glimpses either down into the deep, lushly weed filled valley where the river ran, or up onto the nearby carriageway of the A406. The path tracked the road, used only by me and a small band of squirrels which blithely zig-zagged in front of me. It was cool and, despite the drone of road noise, curiously peaceful here. On the opposite bank a disused pumping station stood on the otherwise surprisingly undeveloped bank, gleaming yellow London brick in Spring sunshine.
I finally passed under the A406 a little north of Redbridge Roundabout, by way of a strange concrete bridge carrying both the sluggish river, its towpath, and a broad roadway which was presumably above the flood level. Here I made some grave navigational errors - emerging from the underpass at the roundabout and confidently trudging along the edge of Royston Gardens, I lost my nerve at the entrance to allotments with a "no unauthorised visitors" sign. I think I was mostly just convinced that a way through just wasn't possible. Instead I backtracked, at first to try to access the park via Royston Gardens - which seemed impossible, and then to review my map: only two routes sprang out as potentially possible I elected to pass back under Redbridge Roundabout and exit via Wanstead Park Road which runs parallel to the North Circular - not quite so long, but seemingly offering a link back to the river. Sure enough, after trudging the long, quiet street and navigating the chain of off-duty cabs and the dumped remains of beds and freezers, I found a curving bridge over the main road which deposited me on a network of paths in the green space running along the rivers' edge. I was soon back in the cool, mossy tunnel between bushes and riverbank. A little way along, beside a sign announcing the entrance to Epping Forest, I met a Polish family and had a good-natured but strange chat about whether any large dogs were up ahead. Their tiny mutt capered around, clearly not up for much of a scrap this time. Underway again, I found myself sandwiched between allotments packed with glittering makeshift bird-scarers and the edge of the City of London Cemetery. A strange fluttering noise above alerted me to the beginnings of a rain-storm, the canopy of mature trees providing shelter and preventing the drops from reaching me. The river was parting company now, heading south-eastward into Ilford while the Aldersbrook accompanied me south. Rather unexpectedly, the brick viaduct carrying the railway to Liverpool Street loomed ahead, with a long underpass allowing access south of the tracks. As I left the tunnel I felt great spots of rain begin to fall. By the time I reached Romford Road, the sky was black and the rain was stinging my face. I put up an umbrella which fended off the worst of the tumult, but soon seemed to be letting water in too. The rain continued. The gutters filled and motorists took turns to accidentally - or in some cases not so - spray waiting pedestrians. Busses slowing for the stop kicked up a huge wave in the roadside gullies. I thought about moving on - heading for Ilford - but it was horribly wet still, and worse once out of the lee of the buildings. I waited it out under a brolly. Others had been luckier, finding telephone kiosks or spots under shop awnings. By the time I considered the torrent had abated enough to move on, my lower legs were drenched, as was my back and rucksack. I slurped away through a tide of water running on the pavement - there was no way I could walk on to Barking now with the weather still uncertain and the way not fully clear. I cursed both the weather and my ill-preparedness for it. As I slogged the final few yards up Ilford Hill I noticed people wearing sunglasses, dripping shorts and skin-like wet t-shirts heading my way. We'd all been caught unawares it seemed.
I failed to dry out on the bus to Barking, or on the diverted C2C service into Liverpool Street which I'd caught just to cover an uncommon bit of railway line. I even stayed damp after an extended coffee-layover at the station, my trouser-legs flapping moistly around my ankles in a strange and uncomfortable fashion. By the time I walked up to the ticket gate at Paddington some three hours later, there was still a tide-mark of damp on my shins, my shirt still clung to me. I passed a badly mangled ticket, rescued from my soaked bag, apologetically offering "I'm sorry....the rain, you see....". The gateline operative glanced oddly at me and muttered as he passed me through the gate "RAIN? But we ain't had any here!". I wearily settled into my seat, feeling a tingle of the strange and pervasive British guilt that such interactions often carry - where I'm not at all to fault but feel a need to fix things. I'd last seen the Roding as I walked to the bus stop in Ilford - passing under the roadway, its sluggish meander now a surprising torrent of water. But for today, it had thrown me off the scent once again. The Roding is assuredly not one of London's mythologised 'lost rivers' - although it's often hidden, sometimes in plain sight under a pile of stacked motorways, or behind a screen of suburban villas. Today it refused to give up its secrets easily.
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.