Posted in Reading on Sunday 18th August 2019 at 2:08pm
It's fair to say that I've never coped well with nature. As a child of a New Town, my forays into nature weren't manifold. A tentative attempt to help my grandad in his steeply sloped Worcestershire garden usually ended up with him frustrated and me distraught, and school trips to local beauty spots were fraught with hazards both real and imagined. Wasp stings, insect bites, nettle rash - I dreaded them all and avoided them at all costs. It has been a real surprise then to find myself, in recent times at least, getting a little braver when faced with wild patches of woodland or sudden bursts of edgeland greenery. I used to avoid it, the shudder of range anxiety stopping me at the stile. Now, I'm far more likely to plunge into waist-high grasses and ankle-bothering nettle beds. I've grown up a little and realised that the countryside is no more conspiring to maim me than the often provisional and ungoverned urban zones which I quite happily wander around. During this shift, I've also become curious about what I'm walking through, or even sometimes upon. Thrashing sounds in the undergrowth still startle me, but I'm more alert now - eyes quickly darting over to see what made them. I can name some of the invasive species I inevitably walk among, and I'm no longer terrified that every tall plant is some new hybrid of Giant Hogweed which will stoop to burn and blister my fragile, town-boy skin.
Amid this shift in my appreciation of things natural, a few fortuitous books have landed to assist - and chief among them is Bob Gilbert's account of his growing knowledge and appreciation of the flora in the East London parish of Poplar. Taking a single parish, indeed one which is not primarily known for its green spaces - just 26.6% of Tower Hamlets is 'open space' compared to Havering's mighty 59% - provides a hyperlocal focus which could potentially be restrictive and cloying - but Gilbert's melding of local history, botany and autobiography is equal parts illuminating and life-affirming. In short, it is everything good local history writing could be, but very often isn't. Gilbert's account begins with his removal to the Vicarage of All Saints, his wife's first posting as a freshly ordained Anglican minister. The undercurrent suggests that the move isn't wholly what Gilbert would have wanted - but he weathers the change and begins to explore the area, determined to become a good "vicar's wife". As he begins to unravel the sometimes turbulent history of this tiny but significant patch of London, he also documents the relationship of people, trees and place on the basis that there is a shared history. After walking every street in the parish, he sets out to find a Poplar in Poplar - uncovering a history of migration and transplantation in the natural world which echoes the human experience of the East End. A quest for Mulberries is equally enlightening: unravelling stories of class and folklore which take Gilbert on a surprising journey from the beginnings of his quest to know Poplar.
While Gilbert refers to the long English tradition of parson-naturalists throughout the book, he is decidedly not given to bouts of proselytism. During the course of the book he examines the pagan beliefs about trees and other plants which still oddly govern our attitudes to nature today, and even has a stab at dousing the course of the long since disappeared Black Ditch from the trendy city fringes to the forlorn inlet at Limehouse where it now sputters fitfully from a diversionary sewer at times of high water flow. His writing is engaging and human throughout - and even when he tosses a few of those impenetrable Linnaean binomials into the text, it's usually both necessary and enlightening. Bob knows his trees - and he knows his adopted parish too. What's harder to discern for me is how the book reads to someone less well-versed in Poplar geography. Is it necessary to be able to picture the canal ramp up to the A12 or a particular scrap of land beside Bromley Tesco from my tramping of the borough? I suspect not - but it is engaging to follow along with a map, understanding that all of this surprising diversity, fecundity and remarkable social history is crammed into such a tiny patch or urbanity.
The book ends with Gilbert resurrecting the Rogation - the beating of the Parish bounds in order to bestow a blessing on the people and their endeavours. He examines the pre-Christian origins of this ancient custom, the significance of the type of wood used for beating and the unhappy fate of those who were inverted and beaten along the way. He also persuades a good number of the flock to restage the walk with him, along the way opening a debate about public and private space within a parish which endures despite truly dramatic levels of inequality. Gilbert's gentle prose, his patient and humourous approach to complexity and his love for the topic at hand elevate what could be just another local treatise into something rather special and engaging. As I conquer my prejudices about the greenery around me when I walk in the city or its edgelands, it's just this kind of thing I find myself wanting - and perhaps needing - to read.
Posted in London on Saturday 3rd August 2019 at 11:08pm
Returning to the scene is never wise, but if I was to fulfil my debt to the River Crane, it had to happen. Over a hectic summer with numerous missteps and changed plans, I'd always found somewhere else I needed to be. There was a strange hiatus too: a reaction to finally completing the London Ordinal walks. While I usually benefit from a plan, I so easily become a slave to the method I've determined. So, cast free of any real or imagined obligation I'd struggled to find the right walk, confused by options and dismayed by unchecked difficulties. During my last walk I'd had a fractious, disconnected response to the city which troubled me. Today though, I knew I was in the right place. Since I'd walked the A4, this unfinished business on the western edges of London had been gently edging into my thoughts again. So after a timely arrival in Paddington and a swift dash around the concourse, I was heading back west into the suburbs. I alighted at Hayes and Harlington: often passed through at speed, but never before visited, it felt oddly familiar and entirely alien at the same time. Outside the station, a brand new development of homes and ground-floor shops housed a small supermarket. I ducked in for water supplies, then headed for the Grand Union Canal. This too was a sliver of unwalked waterway which I knew I would need to revisit - but the brief section I found on descending to the towpath wasn't entirely unrecognisable: I'd gazed west from a previous walk, overlooking the derelict remains of the NestlÃ© works. Now the plant was a skeletal ruin, its white plaster walls remaining as jagged fragments of facade in a landscape of rubble. The towpath was litter-strewn and overtopped by energetic fronds of buddleia waving in the breeze. Amidst a cluster of old clothing, discarded cider bottle and the tell-tale silver pellets of N2O canisters, I turned aside and headed up the ramp.
The familiar path took me to the litter-strewn, wooded embankment of the M4, turning west and following the road briefly to an underpass. Noise is so much part of the fabric of this part of London that it almost disappears, and the constant drone of traffic above was almost a comforting vibration. The tunnel under the motorway emerged in Cranford Park, passing through the gatehouse of its stable block which had both enchanted and unsettled me on arriving unexpectedly here before. The rather forlorn, abandoned building still had the power of surprise, and emerging into the open, green spaces of the park was equally jarring after the straggling urban clutter of the first miles of my walk. I lingered a little longer around both the remains of the once-great house and the tiny church of St. Dunstan and the Holy Angels with its Templar and Hospitaller associations. The road to the church was busy with volunteers and visitors, a strange young man - well-dressed and agitated - pacing around the headstones in the churchyard, crossing and recrossing my path as I ambled among the memorials. Here in this little-visited but hardly quiet spot near the M4 lies Tony Hancock, the embodiment of the tragic comedian. A little before my time, his work overshadowed my own early discoveries and seemed tame and compromised as I delved into Monty Python. But as I've grown older I've found myself appreciating the pathos in his despairing looks to camera as the situation unravels around his character. In truth, Hancock's frequent sidelong glances are often his resort to a teleprompter having suffered memory problems after a car accident, but there seems a haunted look about him. As he wrote in the note left on his suicide in Sydney: "things just seemed to go wrong too many times". It's a simple, pathetic observation we could probably all make - but here in Cranford, he was at peace at last. Nearby was a character who sounded no less tragic, but was far more mysterious: John Finall Cook, described in his own epitaph as "the worst used High Constable in England". Despite leaving quite a trail, there is little to tell quite what ill-use cook suffered. Aside from a case of 'burglariously breaking and entering' heard at the Old Bailey - the defendants found not guilty - his career as the High Constable of Isleworth does not seem to have been worthy of much remark. He lived to the respectable age of 85, and in his 70th year prepared a book of bible selections - Sacred extracts, or, The Beauties of the Psalms and the Apocrypha. In 1845, Cook petitioned the House of Lords to pass a bill rewarding High Constables for 'meritorious services'. Given the reputation of Hounslow Heath as a dangerous and forbidding wilderness, it's perhaps possible to imagine Cook run ragged by a rural crimewave during his career. If that was the case, little evidence of it survives and the curious wording of his gravestone remains a mystery.
The path followed the bank of the river southwards, shadowing The Parkway for some distance, and I felt somewhat foolish for having abandoned this more pleasant passage for the tarmac on my last visit. Crossing the river into Avenue Park, I met a clutch of friendly dog-walkers tramping across the unmown tinder-dry grass rather than edging around the field. I followed suit, abandoning the river for a stretch, as I needed to head for an exit onto the Great West Road. The distant line of hotels and offices strewn along the Heathrow fringe shuddered in a heat haze while planes wheeled overhead after their steep ascent, insignia clearly readable in the glint of sunlight. It felt like a good morning to be walking, even the glowering owner of a trophy-dog greeting me with a smile and a nod as I passed out of the park and into the urban hinterland of Cranford. I needed to walk the pavement a little here to regain the river, crossing the A4 at a point I remembered well from my recent linear walk. The road shimmered in the heat, still unexpectedly quiet considering its importance, and I was swiftly across and diving into a cul-de-sac of semi-detached homes which had been slotted into the irregularly shaped parcel of land next to the river. The sun-baked concrete roads were dusty and reflected the heat back at me. A huge black four-wheel-drive car with dark glazed windows snaked into a space at the roadside, the rear door opening to admit two elegantly dressed young Indian women heading for a function, before speeding off around the loop and back towards the main road. Between the houses, at the end of the close, I found the unmarked pathway into the park and allotments which petered out into rough heathland on the edge of the river. Once into the park, I struck out to the west getting as close to the water as I could. The river flowed quick and clear through the narrow wooded strip which shadowed its passage between the eastern perimeter of Heathrow and the Cranebank complex, home of British Airways' training centre amongst a sprawl of disused and apparently abandoned buildings from an earlier phase in the development of the Airport. Heathrow dominated the zone: tall lights towered over the treeline, and a vast hangar was visible between the trunks of ancient riparian oaks. Every few seconds, the air was rent by the searing jet engine sound of take-off or the reverberating howl of resistance as a descending airliner fought its purpose to stay aloft. At such close quarters, the noise was like nothing I'd experienced before: for a few seconds, my hearing was overwhelmed to the point of shutting down. It was not, as commonly thought, a roar: it was a tearing apart, a sundering of air. The view of the underside of the passing jets allowed me to pick out tiny details, like turning over a model plane for inspection. Living here must, of course, afford one some sort of immunity to the constant sound - and it's possible that, like passing trains, it could become an almost soothing clue to the normality of life continuing outside. But here, under the flight path, I wondered how human beings could adapt to such hostile audiological conditions?
The path emerged from the trees, depositing me unexpectedly onto Earhart Way. This was part of the Heathrow estate and I was immediately aware of the scrutiny of CCTV around me. The road layout had altered here, access now being from the eastern end of the industrial park, meaning that traffic avoided entering via the airport's well-guarded gates. An abandoned checkpoint to the west was blocked with concrete barriers and signs signifying there was no passage for pedestrians. Interestingly, waymarks for the London Loop path also pointed west, defying the otherwise omnipresent authority of the airport. Despite the neverending pulse of aircraft movements, my walk had felt largely separate from humanity and its machinations since leaving The Parkway behind, but now I was faced with multiple layers of human activity presenting barriers to my onward passage: ahead of me, the Piccadilly Line extension sloped out of its tunnel to pass over the Crane - the cost and complexity of remaining in tunnel beneath the water table too great. Beyond the concrete retaining walls of the railway, the Great South West Road blocked my path, cars flashing by as they accelerated towards London. This corner was not always a nexus of busy routes: Dockwell Lane had once cut a lonely path across the northern reaches of Hounslow Heath, fording the River Crane at this spot. It was in fact the perfect place for Heston and Isleworth Urban District Council to site Dockwell Isloaton Hospital which opened in the early 1890s. In 1895 a scandal arose regarding the poor conditions at the hospital and it was resolved to build a new, modern facility at Mogden which opened in 1898. From this time onwards, the Dockwell site was vacated, opening only infrequently when epidemics overwhelmed the new hospital. Staff would be seconded to reopen the somewhat outdated and increasingly dismal wards for tiny groups of Smallpox and Diptheria patients during the 1920s and 30s, with the site finally closing entirely in 1935. No trace remains of the hospital, with much of the site being absorbed by Cranebank. It seemed odd to imagine the next generation of pilots using complex simulators to learn their craft on the site of this gloomy and forsaken institution. I turned west, navigating the barriers and heading along the airport perimeter road for a short stretch before joining the footpath along the A30 and immediately feeling more secure. The vast hangar building which had appeared fitfully along the river path was now in full view - impossibly proportioned but still dwarfed by the huge areas given over to staff parking on the eastern edge of Heathrow. Empty shuttle-buses rattled by, heading for hotels and terminals, while Underground trains clattered along beside me in their concrete gully. This part of the route had seemed unnececssarily complicated when I was planning to walk along the Crane - there would surely be some other means of crossing the road without the long doubling-back to Hatton Cross, but sure enough, the unbroken streams of traffic were unrelenting. I finally made my crossing at the site of the almost entirely deleted hamlet of Hatton, the sleek blue glass lozenge of the new Atrium Hotel now taking up almost the entire footprint of the former village, the established pattern of roads which had once encircled it relegated to the status of a gyratory. Nestled into the corner of the junction, near a farmhouse decked-out in 'Help for Heroes' banners and repurposed as an X-ray freight scanning business, horses grazed lazily in the sunshine. I was now directly under the path of departing planes on the southern runway, feeling their tumult rather than hearing it now. The horses munched on, unconcerned by the cacophony above. I set out to retrace my steps towards the river, and the opportunity to disappear into the woods once again.
The section of the river south of the Great South West Road wound along a damp and boggy plain, dominated by the huge balancing reservoirs which managed the water running off the airport site and preventing the escape of kerosene and de-icing agent into the Crane. The path clung close to the river, raised on a walkway above the marshy ground. Aside from the regular interruption by aircraft, the path was quiet with only the babble of water and the scrabbling of unseen creatures surprised by my passing. Relaxing into my surroundings, I realised how tense the passing of Heathrow had left me feeling. The river occupied a narrow strip of scrub and woodland between large industrial and distribution parks which clung to the edges of the airport. This industrial encroachment wasn't new however, and the banks of the Crane here had always served a purpose: despite the relatively poor flow of water there had been a succession of mills along the river. As early as 1630, Benjamin Stone's sword manufactuory had finished weaponry imported from Germany, stamping it 'MI FECT HVNSLOE'. Contracted initially to supply the army of Charles I at the nearby barracks, the King's flight from London left him near bankrupt. But the business was momentarily secured by the raising of a public subscription to purchase swords for Cromwell's parliamentary army. Thus Hounslow-made blades may have been the downfall of combatants of both sides of the conflict in the English Civil War. The water meadows here, while naturally marshy, were made more so by a complex of mill leets dug between the Crane and the man-made cut of the Duke of Northumberland's river, a canal constructed possibly as early as 1530 to augment the waters of the Crane with flow from the Colne abstracted at Longford. This waterway, much re-routed and reconstructed at various points by the expansion of Heathrow finally found its outflow amongst the boggy copse of Donkey Wood, where I crossed the head of a broad green pool before finding the spot where the water tumbled down a weir into the river. This confluence of man-made and natural rivers lay a little north of ancient Baber Bridge where I once again crashed out of the woods and into civilisation, however briefly. There had been a crossing of the Staines Road here for time immemorial, and certainly, since a wooden structure was first recorded in the 13th century, then known as Beaver Bridge. The current crossing, distinctly broad considering its great age and built of a purplish-grey brick, dates from 1798 and is the work of the County of Middlesex. This route was part of the Devil's Highway - an impressively durable and direct route from London to Silchester and eventually to AquÃ¦ Sulis which survived as an important highway long after the Roman occupation of Britain. The origin of the name was regarded as 'fanciful' by Lt. Col P L Macdougall who gave an inaugural address to the Surrey Historical Society on the matter of the route in 1854. While parts of the route into London are still debated, the celebrated antiquarian William Stukeley rode out of London to Staines with some confidence he was tracing the correct path. General William Roy also uncovered part of the route himself when undertaking his pioneering measurement across Hounslow Heath in advance of a triangulation of the whole of the isles of Great Britain which he wouldn't live to see completed. Today, Baber Bridge was busy with traffic battling roadworks and congestion, drivers barely noticing their passage over the Crane as they navigated what seemed to them I'm sure to be nothing more than a clump of unusally dense woodland. I chose my moment and crossed the venerable road to the west, finding the continuation of my path a little hidden in the entrance to a busy Jet filling station which added all the usual conveniences to its offer. I resisted the promise of Costa Express and passed through a cluster of seemingly disused vehicles and over a gate into Brazil Mill Wood. Within easy reach of Hounslow Barracks, use of the various mills along the Crane often turned to martial duties, with numerous former grain and dye mills turning to the manufacture of gunpowder. With the vast Hounslow and Bedfont mills already engaged in this hazardous task, this made the banks of the Crane a somewhat risky place, prone to frequent fire and explosion. In 1752 the mill situated in the woods here shifted to the more pacific pursuit of creating a distinctive red dye from paubrasilia, and leaving this narrow strip of surviving woodland its current name.
Below Baber Bridge, the Crane splits into two streams and skirts the western edge of the remnants of Hounslow Heath. This wide plain of both wooded and coarsely grassed wild land was once much larger, and not a place to linger on the roads west of London. It was the isolation which provided an opportunity for military assembly on the heath and the lawless reputation of the place which likely required the army retain a presence here in the longer term. Cromwell stationed his troops here in 1647 as the Civil War came to a close, with James II subsequently exercising troops here to intimidate Londoners into accepting his position. A permanent barracks at Hounslow was founded in 1793 in fear of an impending French invasion, with troops regularly performing cavalry exercises on the Heath until the First World War. Urbanisation gradually encroached on the Heath from the 18th century, in part due to the presence of the barracks and then the coming of the railway which crossed the Heath on route to Waterloo. Though much smaller as a result of this gradual erosion by the city, the Heath today still has a desolate and lonely aspect, and I felt surrounded by the sense of loss and excision which appears to haunt the valley of the Crane throughout its length. The path meandered with the westernmost stream of the crane, buried in unruly trees and largely separated from the broader expanse of open land which was briefly London Terminal Aerodrome until Croydon took its place in 1920. South of the tracks, a large part of the Heath was purchased by the London & South Western Railway in 1914 to form its huge Feltham Marshalling Yard. With the outdated facilities at Nine Elms overwhelmed by new traffic and losing profitability as early as the turn of the century, the LSWR had decided to construct a new yard to aid in combining joint traffic with other railway companies more efficiently. Impressed by the 'hump yard' principle in use in the massive stockyards opening in the United States, Sir Herbert Walker, General Manager of the company persuaded directors to purchase additional land to the east in order put these innovations into practice. The shaping of the yard involved diverting the Crane and the Millstream and excavating huge amounts of earth. Around 200 German prisoners of war assisted in the effort, and the first sidings were opened in 1917. The yard was a technological marvel in its time: using the hump shunting system, track circuits for signalling and electronic control from a central 'tower' which allowed gravity and switching gear to sort an incoming train in as little as twelve minutes.
Approaching the much-reduced railway lines today, the path meandered into an open field before stopping abruptly at a graffiti-daubed wall with trains clattering by just feet above me. The river plunged into a dark tunnel with a ripe, sewer-tainted atmosphere, and a cursory inspection indicated two issues: firstly, the tunnel was much longer than I expected, and secondly, there was no walking route beside the waterway. Near the tunnel-mouth was a metal gate across a second portal, drawn back just far enough to give access to a broad brick arch. It didn't look welcoming, but it offered the only hope of a route onwards. I entered, encouraged by a faint glow of light which seemed not far ahead, but was plunged almost immediately into deceptive darkness. The curved brick soffit stretched into the distance, soon disappearing from view. A prick of light seemed impossibly tiny and far away, the debris-littered floor visible for only a few feet ahead. This couldn't really be the path onward could it? I tried not to lose my cool: I was in the environs of a city which hadn't managed to daunt me yet - but this might finally be enough. Latent claustrophobia which I could usually suppress crept over me as I edged forward towards the slim patch of light I'd seen. Somehow I found my nerve and pushed on towards it, moving as fast as the treacherous ground would allow. Cut into the tunnel's western wall, an equally narrow doorway allowed enough light to identify it as the source of the glow. A tiny, rutted path rose out of the gloom. I gladly took it, following the confusing route as it doubled back onto the top of the tunnel I'd just escaped from. I was disoriented by my brief time underground and felt disinclined to wait here. The whole zone seemed deserted, even the people looking out of the frequently passing commuter trains seemed to look right through me into the distance. Who would expect to see anyone out here after all? I stumbled south along one of the barely discernable paths, much relieved to be outdoors. A mixture of haste, relief and I'm ashamed to say a little post-adventure bravado led to some poor route choices here. The paths over the tunnel were unofficial and somewhat provisional in nature. Little more than desire lines in places, sometimes giving out altogether at an overgrown tree or deep copse of tall bushes. I faced some confounding choices but aimed roughly south, using the noise of the railway behind me as a guide. At what would turn out to be a crucial juncture, I took the wrong fork, crashing through shoulder-high nettles and brambles to descend onto an initially welcome, if filth-strewn tarmac path which skirted the edge of the Jubilee Mail Centre. The path was littered with fly-tipped obstacles and overhung by thick branches which whipped at my face. It reeked of human filth from the lorry drivers which parked up outside the warehouses ranged around the mail hub and apparently regarded it as a public convenience. At the end of the path, I found myself in a cul-de-sac - the only way out was a circuitous navigation of the industrial park which would deliver me some way off my route. There had to be another way. Recalling the point where I'd decided that the unofficial path looked more likely than the gap in a high palisade fence, I decided to retrace my steps. I almost never do this - it feels so unintuitive in most cases, but I needed to find the Crane again to reorient myself and not feel like I'd been defeated by my foolish phobias. I crashed back into the bushes, finding the route much harder going when I was fighting gravity to get back onto the crest of the tunnel. I was rewarded with a surprising sight I'd missed on my descent: in the rough gorse beside my path was a stretch of long-abandoned railway track.
Beyond the fence and with my unplanned and falteringly fearful Cavalry Tunnel experience behind me, the deep green gloom of Pevensey Nature Reserve was almost welcome despite the humid and still air under the trees. I followed the main path, noting that I should be able to take a fork to the east which led back to the riverbank, passing a range of apple trees planted by the community. The ground was littered with early windfalls and the air buzzing with bees and insects as I followed an indirect route back to the bank of the river, still flowing swift and clear despite its long journey under the old Marshalling Yards. This wild and long-abandoned patch of former farmland formed a narrow municipal dividing zone between the sprawling edges of Hounslow and Feltham. Hidden in the scrubby trees was a series of circular concrete bases which once contained the collected effluvia of the district, and nearby the South Middlesex Crematorium still performed its ever-necessary function among the woods. The paths closest to the river in the most recently annexed part of the reserve were informal - officially still "subject to consultation" - which made for a quiet and pleasant section of the walk somewhat insulated from the surprisingly nearby suburbia, and screened from activity in the better-used Leitrim Park. It was a rude shock to be deposited onto the Hounslow Road via a narrow gap in an old railing. The road bridges over the twin streams of the Crane presented a dividing line here: to the west was the Borough of Hounslow, and to the east Richmond. The river had been a dividing line for time immemorial, and it now split these relatively modern jurisdictions neatly along a largely undeveloped strand of formerly industrial riverine parkland. Crane Park is shared by the boroughs, a mile-long oasis of green in the otherwise uniform suburbs which nestle in the arms of the Hounslow Road and the Great Chertsey Road. Once across the street and inside the park I found a seat in the neat outdoor classroom area and rested for a while. Having failed to plan this walk, I'd been guilty of a little complacency too - I'd walked rivers before, and thought I knew what to expect, but this had thrown me some very unexpected experiences which I needed to consider before pressing on. I watched a community of dog-walkers assemble, exchange news and disperse while I snacked on oranges and gulped water.
The day was getting warmer and stickier, the riparian air still and humid. It was time to press on into the busy park, cyclists buzzing my elbow and joggers huffing by. The river split into multiple streams, pools and reservoirs here which had served to control the flow of water through the Hounslow Gunpowder Mills which once straddled the banks here. The site was ideal for a mill, with a ready supply of willow and alder for charcoal, navigable access for barges and sufficient water to drive the wheels. Initially a corn mill, consent for the manufacture of gunpowder was given in 1768 though it seems likely that this hazardous production had begun unlicensed on the site prior to the Earl of Northumberland's permission. Explosions at the mills were frequent, with loss-of-life almost mundanely common. A particularly devastating event in January 1798 claimed four lives, with further accidents in July of the same year claiming three more. This pattern continued into the next century, and in 1859 Abraham Slade, Somerset-born builder and diarist recorded that: 'On the 29 of March the Powder Mills blew up, sending seven poor souls into eternity in a moment. It has broken a great deal of glass in Twickenham & neighbourhood.' Gunpowder was produced at the mills until 1927, and following closure the site was almost entirely cleared of structures given the hazardous nature of its business. Among the remaining blast mounds and sluices in the mill streams, the only remaining building is the much restored Shot Tower, believed for many years to have been used for the manufacture of lead ammunition, but more recently considered likely to be a windmill. Upon closure, the former Gunpowder Mill site was purchased by a local councillor with a view to selling it as a going concern but with this proving an unlikely outcome, he sold the land to the Borough of Twickenham which opened the area as Crane Park in 1935, with the Shot Tower becoming a small museum and visitor centre in more recent times. The island in the divided stream of the river has, since 1990 been a local nature reserve and was busy today with families looking out for wildlife in the ponds and surrounding woodland. As I continued through the busy park I reflected how the nature of my route had changed in such a short time. The fearful, lonely crossing of the Heath seemed far away now.
The river passed under Meadway by way of a handome concrete ballustraded bridge, providing something of an ornamental entrance to Kneller Gardens. Named for Sir Godfrey Kneller, the remarkably prolific court painter to monarchs from Charles I to George I who produced society portraits on a near-industrial basis. Kneller is reported to often have worked with other painters in form of production line, each undertaking the part of the portrait in which they were specifically skilled: faces, fabrics, animal companions and suchlike. Kneller set up home in nearby Whitton in 1709 in a mansion reputedly designed by Sir Christopher Wren. His home was in turn largely demolished and replaced in 1850 by Kneller Hall. Lately the building has been occupied by the Royal Military School of Music, and served for a time during the Second World War as the HQ of the Commander-in-chief of the Home Forces, The MOD has longstanding plans to close the site in 2020, when it seems likely to fall into use as high-end residences in common with many of the fine old houses of South Middlesex. The more modest park named for the portraitist was home today to well-attended summer holiday events, the cafÃ© busy with relaxing cyclists, and the shady riverside paths thronged with strollers. I presented a pretty fearsome sight I'm sure now, thudding along in heavy boots, sweaty and ruddy from a long slog along the river. All around me I was concious of the conspicuous health and affluence. The first leg of this walk had begun in the comfortable suburbia of Harrow, and I was now, many miles of intangible no-mans-land later, finally entering a similar zone. At the eastern corner of the pleasant little park I faced a decision: here the Crane split again from the Duke of Northumberland's River which turned north passing Twickenham's brace of Rugby stadiums and heading through the midst of Mogden Sewage Works, much beloved of Nick Papadimitriou, Seer of Middlesex and veteran urban perambulator. The junction was marked by a tumbling weir and a sluice. The 16th century artificial channel turning north and passing under the railway was walkable, and my earlier researches told me that the final stretches of the River Crane - now in an albeit in a more modern man-made channel of its own - were most assuredly not. But whether from loyalty to this persistent little river, or because I found myself once again enslaved to my methodology, I took the path along the Crane. The Kingfisher Bridge was a recent development, linking Kneller Gardens to the Mereway Nature Park since 2010. This scrap of green space bounded by the railway line and the river was originally marshland, but once drained provided a site suitably far from civilisation to build a sewage works and a small isolation hospital. A few surviving hospital buildings were marooned in the midst of sparkling new wheelie-bins and redundant roadsigns in Richmond's Central Depot. The idea of this tiny island in the midst of dense surburbia being considered remote felt unlikely now, and as I paced along the fence of the Depot, dodging prams and cyclists who were skirting the edge of Craneford Way Playing Fields, I noticed the butts of Twickenham Rifle Club across the concrete channel of the Crane - another facility which would have originally benefited from the isolation of the site. This last truly walkable stretch of the Crane was bounded by a tiny sliver of recently re-opened land known as Twickenham Junction Rough. A decent surface had been laid alongside the river as it skirted the broad loop of railway which swooped across the mainline bringing the line from Strawberry Hill to Twickenham Station. The isolated land had been acquired by the developer of the former Royal Mail site beside the river and opened to create an apparently already well-used local link. The river was sluggish in its channel now, somewhat narrower than its natural flow further upstream, but surprisingly still free from litter and running clear despite the built-up surroundings. The land here had once been known as Marsh Farm and was in the ownership of the Pouparts family. This line of notable market gardeners were of Hugenot descent with Samuel Poupart first setting up gardens in Battersea, where the family name remains in Pouparts Junction on the West London Line. His nephew WIlliam began growing apples, cherries, lettuce and cauliflower at Marsh Farm from around 1882 and his son began trading at Covent Garden market around 1892. The company continued to trade in the New Covent Garden site into the 1990s, close to Samuel's original Battersea lands, and the company remains extant as the marque of a specialist fruit importer.
The railway swooped in to land beside the mainline while the path hugged the bank of the river. The land in between was now known as Brewery Wharf - a textbook mixed-use development. At the front, near the station it was a modern range of commuter-friendly studio flats with cafÃ© opportunities and retail units, while the island of land between river and rail was given to ranks of faux-victorian blocks in yellow London brick, like some sort of simulacrum of a Peabody Estate. Despite the outward appearance of period industrial dwellings, this was of course a luxury development which featured a range of four-bedroom townhouses marketed at somewhere around the Â£2m mark. It represented a pretty good return on a narrow and unpromising plot which had once been part of the grounds of Heatham House. This tidy but extensive house still stands near the bridge over the Crane, having been built at some point in the 18th century on what were previously recorded as apple and pear orchards. The origins of the house aren't noted, but it was likely built for Stephen Cole, who lived here until his death in 1790. The house remained on the increasingly busy junction at the edge of Twickenham's centre, passing through the hands of the statesman Roger Wilbraham, the actor-manager Sir Charles Hawtrey and to its final public owner William Thomas Lane who sold his independent fisheries business to Unilever owned MacFisheries. The house was purchased by Middlesex County Council in 1944 and after local lobbying was sold again to the Borough who began providing youth services in the house from 1950 which continue today. The Cole family brewery was extant on maps of the area in 1635 and expanded into the management of local public houses throughout the following centuries. By the 1890s though, the company's debt was mounting, and George Cole sold the brewery to Brandons of Putney. Looking for wise investments to further clear the family debt and noting the growth of the commuter suburbs along the railway, he ploughed the proceeds from the sale into developing a new estate on the familiy's land near Heatham House. The first homes were occupied in 1898, and by 1902 a bridge over the Crane had been erected to link with newly provided recreation grounds. After a hazardous crossing of London Road I ventured into this legacy via Cole Park Road, still a leafy, quiet street of victorian villas today. The afternoon was close and humid, a churn of gloomy clouds progressing across the otherwise blue skies. Under the suburban trees, life seemed easy and remote from the uncanny tensions of the airport zone where I'd begun walking. I slipped into an alleyway between driveways which housed fine, expensive motor cars, and crossed Moor Mead Bridge into the recreation grounds which Cole had thoughtfully provided his residents. Despite being somewhat marooned by the railway line, the green spaces were busy with families - the children's play area particularly so, making sticking close to the edge of the river a risky business. A lone walker appearing from the treeline is never a welcome sight to risk-averse parents raised in the era of stranger danger and steeped in recent lurid exposÃ©. I skirted the playground carefully, heading for the exit into the quaint, flower-bedecked cottages of Brook Road which were an unlikely introduction to the chaos and fumes of the Chertsey Road. I took a last glimpse of the River Crane as it disappeared under the road to resurface in an inaccessible strip of allotments. Turning east towards the Thames, I headed for St. Margarets Roundabout avoiding a rusting and inhospitable looking footbridge over the busy route which was, nonetheless subject of a campaign to retain and restore it by concerned parents.
I knew little of this part of London - St. Margaret's had been little more than a wake-up call on the rail journey into Waterloo: you're almost there, gather your wits and your belongings. The surrounding environs, seemingly inert and rather tamely dull, had also found infamy as the unlikely stalking ground of the Bus Stop Murderer, finally unmasked as the repellant Levi Bellfield who has still yet to admit to the extent of his actions. The walk along what was ostensibly its main thoroughfare did little initially to budge the sense of banality and inconsequence. But this area was once a zone of exclusive and fashionable riverfront properties, and some survived - not least Gordon House. Originally known as Thistleworth House, it was purchased by General Humphrey Bland, author of A Treatise of Military Discipline, who demolished the older property in favour of a newly built mansion, one of the earliest designs by Robert Adam. In 1868 it passed to Francis Jack Needham, 2nd Earl of Kilmorey who modernised the house and incorporated his capital-K family insignia throughout the buildings. He also moved an elaborate egyptian-style mausoleum to his mistress and ward, Priscilla Anne Hoste into the grounds. Kilmorey had outraged Victorian society in 1844 by eloping with his ward, and fathering a son to whom he gave his name. Despite this scandal, and in a surprising nod to propriety, he housed his family in a property separate to his own home but constructed a tunnel between his home and theirs. Hoste died of heart disease in 1854 and the distraught Earl spent a remarkable Â£30,000 on the mausoleum by Henry Edward Kendall Jr. in pink and grey granite, bronze and marble. Devastated by Priscilla's early demise and unwilling to be separated from her, The Earl moved the mausoleum several times at considerable cost before settling on a location in the grounds of his much-rebuilt Gordon House. Here too he constructed a tunnel, linking the mausoleum to the house. He is said to have then initiated the mawkish practice of often dressing himself in a shroud and lying on a trolley to have his household practice his last journey to accompany Priscilla in her final resting place. The tunnel fell into local legend after the passing of the Earl and the site became a Teacher Training college, latterly part of Brunel University, but excavations in the 1960s during the construction of modern college buildings in the grounds revealed the tunnel, tiled and decorated with slopes at each end. Somewhere in my walk along these final stretches of the Crane I had passed over the Earl's subterranean via dolorosa. A little north of the end of the snaking brick wall which once enclosed the grounds of Gordon House but now screened a range of luxuriously appointed infill developments from the road, I crossed the river for the last time. Through a chainlink fence, I could see its last narrow stretch emptying into the turgid muddy Thames near the southern tip of Isleworth Ait. A modern apartment block hemmed in the river, the confluence hidden behind lazily repetitive red brick stacks and a private waterfront. This reduced and constrained channel felt an inauspicious and anonymous ending to a river which had flowed swift and broad further upstream, and which had endured the interference and industry of mankind largely without injury over the centuries. I turned aside to complete the last stretch of my walk, feeling uncharacteristically deflated.
As soon as I could, I found my way onto the bank of the Thames. At times like this, it felt like a surefooted way to regain a sense of the walk I'd just completed. Instead, I found myself navigating the primped and managed edge of Berkeley Homes' Fitzroy Gate development. The White House, built in 1832 by Pugin & Pugin, gleamed across the private lawn enclosed by crescents of new-build townhouses apparently - but somewhat inexplicably - constructed on the principles of ancient Chinese geomancy. I glanced back along the river, but the inconspicuous mouth of the Crane couldn't be seen. I headed north, along the riverfront terrace of the Town Wharf public house, which felt like an unwanted intrusion on the afternoon of the patrons, and towards a large metal crane which stood inert on the riverbank. This totem marked a second confluence - with the Duke of Northumberland's river. This shadow of the Crane had crossed my path at Colnbrook when I walked the A4, joined the Crane in the clammy midst of Donkey Wood and left it again to detour through Mogden's massive sewage works. Now it too met an unremarked end not far from the Crane. I walked it back to the main road, though the pretty, rural edges of Syon Park. This apparently idyllic reach of the Thames concealed a deceptively brutal history: the embarkation point of both Catherine Howard and Lady Jane Grey on their last journey to the Tower of London. My last view of the river as it curved to the east was of the medieval ragstone tower of All Saints Church amid the trees and watermeadows. The Crane had revealed an older Middlesex: the market garden which supplied the growing city, but which was finally swallowed entirely by London. I circled the turgid millpond and followed the ancient line of Mill Plat along the edge of almshouses built in 1664. All seemed quiet as it likely had for centuries beside this stream.
As I made my way back to Syon Lane station, remarkably close to the factories and progress of the Golden Mile where I'd found myself just a few months ago, I reflected on the journey I'd finally completed. The initial walk which began alongside the Yeading Brook had seemed unlikely to yield any great revelations - but the prim net curtains from Ruislip to Isleworth had twitched to reveal surprising histories: unsolved murders in the upper reaches and the stalking ground of a serial killer nearer the Thames. The unsettling isolation I'd felt in the wilder stretches of the nascent Crane in Ickenham and Northolt was repeated in the heightened tensions of Heathrow and the oppressive crossing of the wetlands around Cranford. The Crane was not a lost river - spending perhaps more time above ground than any of the Thames' western tributaries rising in London - but it was unremarked and often uncared for. In some ways, this left it free of some of the indignity wrought on its sister streams. With its heydey as an industrial power long faded, and its situation in the hinterlands of the airport making it largely unattractive for waterfront development, it still flowed swift and true though woodland, heath and park. Following the dissolution of Middlesex, the river's function and status as an administrative boundary often ensured that no single authority could decide to divert, pollute or enclose it. The Crane was a truly suburban entity: going about its mundane business largely without fuss or recognition, its roaring days behind it and only a quiet and undistinguished ending to look forward to. While Betjeman lauded his 'gentle Brent' it was hard to imagine him eulogizing the Crane - this story of the banal suburban propiety, suppressed dark histories, and compromised futures would be more suited to Philip Larkin's darker territory if anyone's. Perhaps J.G Ballard had encapsulated the surprising persistence of the river best:
Prosperous suburbia was one of the end-states of history. Once achieved, only plague, flood, or nuclear war could threaten its grip.The Crane lacked a patron poet of any great stature, but as I clambered onto the eastbound train and headed back towards the City I felt like I'd done it some sort of service in finally completing my walk of its route as I'd set out to.
J. G. Ballard - Millennium People, 2003
You can find more pictures from the walk here.
Posted in Film on Thursday 18th July 2019 at 6:07am
Walking anywhere in suburban England at this time of year will lead to an encounter with convolvulus arvensis - Field Bindweed. It has become the signature plant of my walks around London's periphery, and especially of the North Circular Road which during the summer months is like a white garland around the shoulders of the wheezing pollen and pollutant hazed city. I knew that this pervasive, irrepressible plant would wind its way into my writing at some point - but I was surprised to find it becoming something of an inspiration for a video project. This is marking time: a diversion where I planned to write, but messing around with shaky walker's-eye-view footage felt more productive.
So here is twelve minutes of me schlepping around the edges of the Capital, underscored by a soothing and unlicensed soundtrack and punctuated by howls of traffic, snatches of poetry and lots of strangely soporific footfalls. It's had one review of sorts from the ever precise Wizard Ho Ho himself: Iain Blair Witch Sinclair. I'll take that one, with thanks...
I still plan somehow to pull together some writing around this theme, but for now this captures the source: a series of simulated Super 8 prototypes for something far more ponderous and overheated to come.
Posted in London on Saturday 6th July 2019 at 11:07pm
The train doors clattered open, and I stepped onto the platform of what felt like an old, rural station which long predated the electric Underground train I'd arrived on. I was the only passenger to alight, all interest apparently being focused on city-bound trains on this pleasant summer morning. It had been a long, hot ride out from the stuccoed villas of Lancaster Gate where I'd descended into the earth.
Less than twenty miles away from Bethnal Green, the automatic doors of the tube train open onto the land of Greenleigh. On one side of the railway are cows at pasture, on the other the new housing estate.
Family and Kinship in East London, Michael Young & Peter Wilmott, 1957
Alighting at Debden felt like a return to more innocent age of these walks: when I'd first ventured along the valley of the River Roding, it felt like something of a revelation. I'd been straying further afield for some time, worrying the greener edges of London - but that walk truly took me out of my comfort zone, and reminded me what my walking boots were really for. At the end of that summer day, drenched by an unexpected downpour in Ilford, I knew my horizons had expanded. Yet again I'd strayed outside the self-imposed cordon, pressed against the membrane of anxiety which the edge of the map always offered. Today, the valley was dry and hazy, the intermittent summer having returned in the week or so before my walk, frazzling the grasses and drying the earth underfoot. I started out with a quick trip for provisions which involved a detour into Debden's Broadway - a wide boulevard between terraces of shops and maisonettes opened in 1958. Debden was Young and Wilmott's 'Greenleigh', and when the shops of the Broadway finally opened for business, the earliest parts of the London County Council estate in Debden had already been in existence for a decade. This suburban extension which almost joined Loughton to Theydon Bois was largely unwanted when first mooted between the wars, not least by locals who feared overdevelopment of their relatively rural surroundings. Housing between the two villages was initially proposed under the powers granted to the LCC by the Housing Act 1919, but work did not commence until after the Second World War in 1945 by which time the need was greater than ever: the densely populated East End had been pulverised by enemy bombing, and the population had already begun to scatter into the edges of Essex. The acquisition of land near the Roding at Oakwood Hill for prefabricated homes was the beginning of a much larger development which would see the estate spread north and east, crossing Chigwell Lane and finally stretching along the western side of the railway. Expediency and cost meant that a number of prefabrication and building systems were employed, and for all the talk of a warren of identical houses, the estate remains in fact a mixture of interesting and novel styles of home from the Laing Easi-form to the Cornish Unit. For the locals though this was no succour: the trade between necessity and the destruction of the Essex countryside was hard to balance. Donald Gillingham, the hyper-local naturalist who rarely roamed more than a few miles from his home in the Roding Valley wrote of these times:
The war was not over. A new invasion had begun â€“ all the more tragic because, perhaps, necessary. It had begun insidiously when surveyors went out like a fifth column and drove in red and yellow stakes.
Unto The Fields - Donald Gillingham, 1955
Tensions rose further when it became clear that the LCC estate would primarily house displaced Londoners: either those bombed out of their homes, or others decanted to allow clearance of urban slums. There would be few homes in Debden for the local families in Loughton, which too was growing into a sizeable town. Instead, those locals seeking properties would likely be offered tenancies in Essex County Council's own Harlow New Town some ten miles to the north. With the identity of this growing suburb contested and the links to Loughton and Essex now tenuous at best, the question of a name for the area was equally fraught with local politics. The issue was settled in 1949 when the Great Eastern Railway's Chigwell Lane station became London Underground's Debden Station on the newly electrified extension of the Central Line. The name, drawn from the nearby hamlet of Debden Green, paid ancient homage to the valley of the Roding which the estate bordered. But there is no escaping, even today, the sense that this is a little bit of London outside its boundaries. The bright red buses turning at the end of the Broadway, the clatter of the Central Line trains heading for the distant city and the hum of the M11 all draw the ear and the eye south and west. I was going to follow the same line today, for a little while at least.
I retraced my steps, heading under the railway bridge towards the Motorway and knowing that I'd soon be leaving the urban fringe behind for a while. The familiar gateway to the green path along the river was a welcome sight, and once again I experienced the sense of plunging into the countryside despite walking a narrow margin between road and railway. The cracked asphalt of the path had deteriorated over the previous two years, grass and weed pressing up through the untended surface. Tall thistles and an impressive crop of nettles swayed beside the path, almost hiding the busy trickle of the river from view. Insects flitted across my path, the drone of the M11 almost hidden by the constant buzz of life in the grasses. When I'd been here before I'd hesitated: this felt too far off the beaten track, too unlike my preconceptions of the urban rivers of London. But I'd persisted in walking the meanders, sticking to the paths which were vague then and even harder to discern today as the grass had converted alternate weeks of rain and sun into spurts of furious growth. The reward was the surprising peace of the Roding Valley and it was good to be back. I was determined though, to walk the eastern bank as far as I could today: last time, this had eluded me. The one crossing point I'd planned to take was blocked by a locked entrance gate, and I'd found myself confined to the western side of the river and a number of circuitous diversions from the bank. So at the first opportunity, the Charlie Moules Bridge, I made my crossing. The bridge, built in the 1950s following a campaign by Councillor Moules to link the recently acquired meadows in Chigwell with the band of development along the western side of the river, delivered me into silent grassland. The barely visible path was a worn groove leading into the treeline ahead while clouds brooded over Essex to the east. I wondered if I would once again find my progress halted by a storm? Reflecting on my first visit, I suspected the sight of these remote, quiet meadow paths would have sent me scurrying back to the relatively civilised western bank - but today it was perfect. Barely more than a trail through the ribbon of woodland on this side of the river, the tree cover occasionally left sheltered patches of the path surprisingly muddy underfoot. I saw and heard no-one until the path came alongside the fishing lakes and the distant, low voices of anglers comparing catches could be heard over the river. A little way ahead, I was faced with a decision - both forks of which led to a diversion. I could head west and retrace my route from last time, or turn east and edge around the David Lloyd leisure centre and the extensive grounds of the Guru Gobind Singh Khalsa College complex. The river was off-limits, for a brief stretch at least - so I struck out east, seeking novelty. The diversion was no shorter than the western option, taking in a snaking access road around the school and the gym, finally coming alongside the sliproads for the unbuilt Chigwell Motorway Services. Provision had been made for this site when it was intended to continue the M11 deeper into London. In the event, with the motorway griding to a suburban halt at the North Circular, a service area here had never attracted the interest of operators and the two wide loops of road encircled rarely visited oases of green space, linked by a disused subway. For a brief spell prior to the 2012 Olympics, the southbound island had served as a temporary logistics base for DHL, but they had not taken the option of a permanent lease and the site had returned swiftly to nature. Finally, the long access road decanted me onto Roding Lane, the buzz of traffic unfamiliar after the quiet of the wooded riverbank. I knew the way here: west along the edge of the cricket ground where I'd struggled to escape before, the road briefly rising towards Buckhurst Hill. I turned aside as soon as I could, heading back to the river along the path beside the allotments near The Cascades. Feeling like a seasoned veteran of the Roding Valley, I was soon beside the water again.
My aim now was to return to the eastern bank as soon as possible. I knew that the path along the western side of the river was tricky to follow, and given my greater confidence and experience now, I figured it was worth trying to stay the eastern course. I found my opportunity immediately after passing under the impressive brick viaduct carrying the Hainault Loop of the Central line, near the lesser used Roding Valley station. This cool, quiet spot remained a favourite for taggers and more creative street artists alike and I admired their work briefly before crossing the river onto a largely uncharted path. I was soon plunged into deep grass and tall swaying heads of cow parsley. There was really no path here at all - perhaps just the merest suggestion of a depression in the sea of green ahead of me. I pressed on, kicking up a cloud of pollen which I knew would cause me issues later. To my left, the boundary of a new development on the site of the former Tottenham Hotspur training ground snaked along the ridge of the valley. The housing here was part of the planning gain supporting the impressive Anderson Foundation school for children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder which occupied the site of the former training centre after the team's move to a purpose-built facility in Enfield in 2014. Pushing on further south, my makeshift path bordered a scrubby, wooded wasteland which had for almost a century provided the well-heeled Epping Forest District Council with a site for disposing of its detritus. Since the 1920s, parts of the site had provided a landfill dump, and a sizeable sewage works left strange concrete hardstandings amidst the trees and scrub. This was, strictly speaking, Metropolitan Green Belt land - but the presence of the final stretches of the motorway, and the permitted encroachment for school and housing gave it a distinct edgeland feel. I was walking the transition line here: wading through armpit deep grass and foliage, guessing at the path onwards and feeling incredibly remote from the playing fields and parkland on the western side of the river. Beneath me, the Roding snaked onwards towards the Thames, the path occasionally coming precariously close the edge of the gully which the river had worn over thousands of years of frequent flooding. I ignored the catch of hayfever in my throat and the irritation developing around my eyes: I'd walked plenty of trails in the past named for ephemeral flowers and natural features along their route, but as the only person foolish enough to tread this path today, I claimed the naming rights - this was The Antihistamine Trail.
Rather unexpectedly the path widened and developed a stony surface, the mark of adoption by the local authority. The Roding Valley Way had reached this far along the east bank at least, and I soon found myself contemplating the other end of a bridge which had been securely locked out-of-bounds on my last visit despite being signposted towards the sometimes poorly marked footpath along the riverbank. I recalled sitting in the park on the other bank, applying sunscreen and recalculating a route which would take me the entire length of Ray Park before getting back to the river at Snakes Lane. This time I was able to follow the path I'd originally planned which from here to Chigwell Road was surfaced well enough that I passed someone pushing a pram in the humid air of the early afternoon. To the east, the baleful water tower of the former Claybury Asylum glowered over the treetops. Yet again, my walks began to entwine themselves into a network of knowledge: always selective, and sometimes false. The territory slowly gave up secrets and allowed me to link things together, my own travels dissolving into others' mythologies. The thin tongue of land between the river and the motorway dwindled to a narrow point, hemmed in by the built-up edges of Woodford encroaching from the west, and I was unceremoniously decanted onto the edge of the busy A113 as traffic hurtled under the motorway. I made the crossing with care, noting how alien traffic felt after the quiet isolation of the riverbank. I wasn't sorry to plunge back into the long grass for one last relatively wild stretch along the edge of the M11 as its carriageways began to divide to accommodate a ghost interchange. Here, the road would have ploughed on towards Islington, soaring over the North Circular and carving into the suburbs - but of course things didn't go quite to plan, leaving the motorway beached on the edge of the city. I soon found myself at my own junction: I could cross a narrow bridge to the west and find myself at a very familiar filling station, or turn east and walk an even better-trodden path between the motorway viaducts. I headed under the shadows of the concrete stilts - this was a special place, familiar from several walks which all seemed to converge on this dusty underpass. Walking among the huge, grey piers of the bridge felt like meeting old friends unexpectedly, and despite a pang of regret at leaving the river and the rough, challenging walk which had tested my resolve to get here, I was glad to be back on well-worn routes.
I've written several times before about the stretch of footpath which curves alongside the North Circular as it turns south towards the river. It was the closest I could walk when I was shadowing the broad, elevated road, upgraded to cope with the traffic spilling off the incomplete M11. It was also the path I'd taken when I'd walked along the Roding, and I realised now how deceptive it was. The gully of green-shaded water and the ranks of pylons which stalked the banks were corralled into a remarkably narrow strip of wasteland which was barely wide enough for the river and road, Indeed, it only accommodates them due to artificial straightening of the meanders in the course. I stepped up my pace, glad to have a good surface and childishly content to be kicking up clouds of Essex dust over my boots as I trudged onwards. I spied a familiar sight - a three-cornered pylon which shivered with multiple high-tension lines. It was strange and monolithic, standing in the deserted river valley largely unregarded by humankind despite their dependency on its steely purpose. The pylons here, like those which marched along the Lea Valley, felt like fellow travellers. They were ever-present, always more numerous than other walkers, and often felt far less threatening. I passed under the North Circular via the broad concrete subway which led to Redbridge Roundabout. I needed to detour here, passing under the angles of the junction to resurface on the south side of the A12 and double back. Rather sentimentally, I checked the short entrance road to Wanstead Pumping Station to see if the cat I'd met here a while back was still resident. If he was, he was sensibly sleeping in the cool shade somewhere in the overgrown garden of the lodge. I pressed on, turning aside in the backstreets of suburban Wanstead. Instead of my usual route to Ilford via the filthy litter-strewn backstreets beside the A406, today my aim was to head into Wanstead Park. The history of this substantial green space, now administered as part of Epping Forest by the City of London Corporation, is not entirely a happy one. A manor at Wanstead is recorded in the Domesday Book, and at the time of its acquisition by Sir Richard Child in 1703 a sizable house already stood on the site. Not imposing enough it seems for Child, who then set about building one of the first great mansions in the Palladian style to be seen in Britain which was completed by 1722. With Child created Viscount Castlemaine and married to Dorothy Glynne, heir to the Tylney family lands and fortunes, the impressive colonnade of Wanstead House provided a fitting seat for the now influential family. The inheritance of the Tylney properties was conditional on Child changing his family name, for which he obtained an act of Parliament in 1734. This set in chain a series of events which left, via generations without issue and the torturous laws of inheritance and title, the entire fortune in the hands of Catherine Tylney-Long. As the richest unmarried woman in the land, it is perhaps unsurprising that she was courted by the dissolute and caddish William Wellesley-Pole, nephew of the Duke of Wellington and already a notorious character.
Catherine accepted his proposal, and to suit the conditions of inheritance Pole sought a royal license to change his name again, becoming the faintly ridiculous William Pole-Tylney-Long-Wellesley. He was thus elected to Parliament for St. Ives, and then for Wiltshire where the Tylney name remained influential. As an MP he was noted primarily for his extravagance rather than any great political acumen, and in 1814, Pole hosted an impossibly flamboyant fÃªte at Wanstead House to celebrate Wellington's victory over Napoleon. The event was attended by numerous royals, including the Prince Regent and marked a high point in the houses' fortunes. The property and lands were held in a complex trust to protect the inheritance of Catherine's heirs, against which Pole raised an unwise mortgage to pay his spiralling debts. In 1822, the trustees stepped in to secure the situation - and with the land protected from sale for 1000 years, they liquidated every possible asset instead, auctioning the couple's personal property, demolishing Wanstead House and selling-off the building materials for a fraction of the cost of raising the great house. Catherine died from an intestinal complaint in 1825 having been abandoned by her husband, though letters to her sisters imply that her illness may have arisen from a venereal disease he had passed to her. Meanwhile, Pole remarried and returned to Parliament, though his second marriage was little more successful than his first. He continued to do his utmost to avoid accounting to his creditors, particularly seeking the custody of his son William with whom Catherine's remaining estate would rest. His uncle, the Duke of Wellington mounted a furious defence to prevent this, and Pole's petition was denied by the Court of Chancery. In contempt of court, Pole found himself committed briefly to the Fleet Prison. Retaining an interest in the estate until 1840, Pole oversaw the removal of many trees and destruction of original features of the gardens in an attempt to raise further funds, but he was finally prevented from further interference via a court injunction. The grounds of the house thus passed through the Wellesley line, with a portion sold to the Corporation of London in 1880. Wanstead Park subsequently opened in 1882, and has remained largely unaltered with the retention of remnants of the formal gardens designed by George London and improved by Humphrey Repton. In particular, I wanted to find the Grotto. Completed around 1760, this structure beside the ornamental waters in the grounds was not entirely a folly, providing a boathouse and repair facilities with a small lodge for the keeper. The building was decorated with shells, crystal, and mirrors under a domed ceiling which allowed in light from above. When the park opened to the public in 1882, tours could be arranged with the keeper - a Mr Puffem - and these were popular enough that the man received the honour of a humourous portrait in Punch magazine. In 1884 a fire, caused by overheating tar being used to repair a boat largely destroyed the grotto leaving only the facade standing. The structure was made safe and retained as a ruin, the bridge which formerly linked it to the eastern side of the water long since gone. Now the grotto sits safely behind a palisade fence, designed to prevent the inevitable insurance claim from someone clambering inexpertly over its ageing stonework. The lower area where boats could dock was uncovered by MoLAS archaeologists in 1998 but the structure was then left undisturbed behind its protective fence for some years, with vegetation soon taking hold and obscuring the remains from view. In 2011, a clearance operation revealed the grotto once again.
I explored the area around the Grotto for a while, enjoying being the only person around as the cloud finally passed over and illuminated the dried-up reed beds of the ornamental waterway. My route out of the park took me across the swaying grasses, aiming for a crossing between the Heronry Pond and the Perch Pond near a busy cafÃ©. The earlier pollen exposure had begun to take its toll, and an oppressive headache was descending. I decided to tough it out for a while in the hope that I wouldn't have to cut short my plans. The next stretch would take me back onto the streets, among far more people than I'd seen all day and the thought wasn't welcome just now. I resisted the urge to remain in the park and to seek out the other hidden treasures which remained from Wanstead's spell as the centre of London society. Eventually, though I had to leave, taking the long, hot slog along sleepy Wanstead Park Avenue which led me to the eastern edge of Wanstead Flats. It was good to see the Flats recovering from the fire last summer, and from the brief walk alongside them, I could see foliage and insect life aplenty. Nature finds its way, it seems. I passed the impressive gatehouse of the City of London Cemetery where I took the southern fork in the road towards Manor Park, the route lined by mature trees and feeling rather cut-off from its urban surroundings. The remained of my walk would be a continuation of this route, often crossing my previous paths as I headed directly towards the Thames. Epping Forest finally gave way to London near Manor Park Station, sleepy in the afternoon heat as it faced the last tree-lined edge of the ancient woodland. A little further on I crossed Romford Road, a route I'd walked at the end of last year in a surprisingly memorable east-west perambulation. It was a shock to suddenly be surrounded by people again as I waited for the lights at the busy crossing. On the south-western corner of the crossroads, the grand brick and stone Earl of Essex with its imposing corner-turret remained empty and awaiting its conversion into the inevitable luxury dwellings, following a battle to retain it as an asset of community value. Beyond the crossroads, my route continued as High Street North, forming the spine along which the drawn-out town of East Ham spread its busy centre.
East Ham can claim origins in the Saxon settlement of Hamme which roughly constituted the dry land between Bow Creek and Barking Creek. Recorded as early as 958, the area was neither populous nor prosperous for the following nine centuries or so, presenting a marshy and inaccessible face to London. Transport thus defined modern East Ham - Victoria Dock opened in 1855 and the railway arrived in 1859. While in 1863 the area was still described as a 'scattered village' the following decades saw rapid urbanisation. As with other districts in the East End, the area was never affluent and the population largely worked in the docks or industry nearby. The pattern of terraced streets fanning out across the marshes remains familiar today, though the demographics have shifted dramatically. A County Borough since 1915 despite the protestations of Essex County Council, East Ham was absorbed into the London Borough of Newham in 1965, but by then was already a busy town centre in its own right. The area had weathered tremendous upheaval in its short tenure as a unit of government - relentless wartime bombing, rising poverty following deindustrialisation and the closure of the docks, and the tensions arising from successive waves of immigration. My walk along the High Street - on the face of it, not unlike any small British town centre - surprisingly reflected all of this history. Firstly, the mix of shops was a clear marker of the demographics: Halal butchers and fried chicken shops rubbed shoulders with Polish supermarkets and traditional Kosher stores. The street was still busy with traffic here, and the narrow pavements were a challenge to navigate, as I weaved dizzily between family groups stretched across the path, children lagging at the end of the line and teenagers texting furiously a few steps behind. The bright afternoon was charged with an urban energy and enriched with the smells of competing cuisines. I couldn't pass through quickly, even if I'd wanted to - the sheer press of people prevented it. South of East Ham Station, opened by the London Tilbury & Southend Railway in 1868, and served by the District Railway since 1905, the street is partly-pedestrianised and the local stores jostled for attention with branches of national outlets. Later in-fill development is evident here, corresponding chillingly with the sites on which high-explosive bombs fell. Proximity to the docks clearly drew the enemy closer here, and the curious mix of Victorian and modern was jarring when I cast my eyes above the shopfronts. Avoiding this part of town, the traffic took a spin to the west along Ron Leighton Way, named for the Labour MP for North East Newham who served from 1979 until his death in 1994, and who was a notable Eurosceptic .
But these former marshy flatlands are home to others too: the dead cluster around East Ham. The old Jewish burial ground at Plashet was opened by the United Synagogue in 1896, and despite being closed for burials now sits just a narrow terrace of buildings away from the busy High Street. Further south, the vast East Ham Jewish Cemetery of 1919 was still operational, tucked away between the High Street and the line of the Northern Outfall Sewer. As London crept out across the marshes to the east, so new plots were needed for living and dead alike, and the alien east with its air and reputation already regarded as unwholesome had to carry the burden. Much of East Ham's heydey coincided with a golden age of municipalism, and the pride in the new Borough was reflected in the vast and ornate Town Hall completed in 1903 and still standing proudly at the crossing of High Street and Barking Road. The buildings ceased to be Council offices when the borough decamped to the Royal Docks, exchanging Edwardian brick for a huge glass-sided hangar overlooking London City Airport. While the Town Hall was being built and subsequently extended, the Borough was taking an enlightened approach to further new duties: appointing a permanent Fire Brigade, building new schools and dabbling in public housing. I paused to rest my aching feet and weary head at the corner of Central Park, a result of the early policy of the newly independent District to provide green spaces in each of its four wards. The grounds of Rancliffe House were acquired in 1896 for the laying out of a public park. Opened in 1898, the house was demolished a decade later and the park expanded to include an open-air swimming pool. The garden and art-deco Fist World War memorial at the corner entrance where I was seated followed in 1920, with the pool closing for good in 1923. Today, the circle of benches around the memorial was home to an extensive and expressive school of drinkers. As I stopped for refreshments and antihistamines I realised I'd strayed into someone else's drama: insults had been traded between benches, and tensions were rising. No-one seemed inclined or perhaps sober enough to make the first move, but catching the eye of an apparently uninvolved older drinker with a ruby-red nose and sad, drooping eyes, we tacitly agreed it was time to leave. He shambled off into the park, defying fences erected to safeguard the setting-up of an event, while I returned to the High Street. As I passed through the entrance gate, a proud survival from the earliest days of the park I heard the crash of glass and the yelp of pain which suggested that someone had finally managed to get their act together behind me. I didn't look back.
I was nearing the end of my walk now, but I didn't appreciate quite how suddenly it would come upon me. A consequence of the walking the arterial routes in this part of London is that while I appreciate how far things lie from the City, I often fail to appreciate their relative proximity to each other. Looking up I was surprised to see a sign advertising the junction with the A13 at Beckton Alp. I'd passed this way several times, and knew this junction well from other angles, usually arriving at the end of a long walk from elsewhere. I was nearing a spot I considered almost sacred on my walks, but I hadn't realised that this spot had a much longer history of worship. Tucked into a wooded corner where East Ham dissolved into the scrappy retail-park edges of Beckton stood St. Mary Magdalene Church, extant since around 1130 and built from stone including fragments of far older Roman remains. The low tower, a 13th century addition, was masked by ancient trees which clambered around the stones of a mossy, dark graveyard. It felt out-of-place here at the careening junction of major roads. Annexed to the church was East Ham Nature Reserve, an extension to the churchyard which made it one of the largest in London, and now a wilderness-like environment. Under the tangle of trees and through the bramble bushes, all appeared calm, green and humid. The fringes of the site had seen some speculative fly-tipping or drifting roadside rubbish but deeper into the plot the litter petered out. I stared deeper into the woodland, surprised by the sight of an old memorial at a queer angle. As I looked longer, more appeared: moss-covered and weather-worn, these old stones bucked from the ground in unsettling ways which suggested recent upheaval. I turned to check I was still on the busy road, with traffic queuing to swing out to coastal Essex or into London. It was, reassuringly or not given the strangeness of the times, still 2019 out here on the edge of Beckton. Somewhere ahead of me though, in an unmarked grave, lay William Stukeley, an antiquary and archaeologist who had made surveys of sites such as Stonehenge, Avebury and Rollright during the eighteenth century, largely founding the modern archaeological method. Stukeley's career was long and varied, taking in medicine and service as a clergyman, and his tendency to seek theories which placed ancient monuments and fossils in a Christian tradition as he grew older assured a devaluing of his work in later centuries. However, it's likely that Stukeley's annual expeditions on horseback to record these sites, and his evident zeal in discussing their history in eminent company has resulted in many of them surviving until now. His earlier research drew greatly on speculative ideas about Druidism and Egyptology, giving his work an almost mystical quality. Indeed it was hard not recall his description of Rollright Stones as I gazed across the gnarled trees of his resting place:
...a very noble, rustic, sight which could strike an odd terror upon the spectators
William Stukeley, an eighteenth-century antiquary - Stuart Piggott, 1950
I crossed the slip-road of the A13 and passed under its thundering concrete carriageways, emerging on the relatively quiet road into Beckton. Above me, the green flanks of Beckton Alp glowered over the flat marshland which was slowly disappearing under new development. It was impossible not to be drawn through the gateway, and to start the zig-zag climb to the peak. I wasn't alone today - it was a glorious afternoon with clear views across the estuary, and a group of young women had ascended just before me. I found the old gap in the fence mended, but a new opening had been twisted into the palisade nearby. It was a tighter squeeze, but I managed it without losing too much dignity and soon found my way to the peak. The group of youngsters lounged, laughing and chattered in the artificial bowl at the top of the hill, entirely ignoring me as I wandered the edge of the peak taking in the views. London unfolded: the city hazy and indistinct in the near distance. The dark ribbon of the A13 snaked back towards the city - walked, written and re-written but still somehow holding my attention. It was easy to understand Stukeley's instinct to romanticize and mythologise his findings from this vantage: while I'd made no novel discoveries on my climbs up here, I'd certainly found solace and sometimes unexpected resolution in the sweep of views and churn of winds. The view changed subtly as the sun shifted and clouds formed and drifted. Time seemed to slow. The regular pattern of terraces and patches of green parkland stretching away the foot of the hill signified the territory I'd just walked. I looked north, the tower at Claybury was just visible and beyond it a smudge of dark green signalled the distant forest and the valley which I'd navigated to reach this spot. Only the giggling and excited chatter behind me reminded me that I was still anchored to the vast sprawl of a city between me and the towers in the west. That the city could still surprise, delight and inspire me wasn't in doubt at all. Being back here, arriving from a different direction and viewing it in fresh context felt like a reward for the miles I'd covered. I started my descent to the DLR station, eager to make sense of today in writing.
You can find more pictures from the walk here.
I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.
I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.