Posted in London on Saturday 4th August 2018 at 10:08pm
The last few moments of my long tube journey to the furthest reaches of the Central Line were occupied by slathering sunblock onto my exposed temples, musing that when I was last here there was probably more natural coverage. The last time I'd arrived at Epping was in a post-viral haze, stumbling about the station and feeling sorry for myself, doubting the wisdom of travelling after a week of confinement with a case of H1N1. I recalled sitting on a bench on the silent platform, lacking the energy to head into town and wondering at how unusually rural and quiet it felt, and pondering the range anxiety I'd experienced as the train sped past large tracts of green, rural, definitely not metropolitan-looking scenery. Given that I was the only passenger in the carriage I expected much the same from my arrival today - albeit in far better fettle this time. I couldn't have been more wrong - once I passed through the ticket barrier I was caught up in a tide of people. The bright summer day had bought competing crowds to the station: some waited impatiently for the bus into town to manouvre around the busy car park while others jostled to get onto the train into London. The next wave of passengers trotted down the hill or scrambled out of taxis and parents' cars to make the long ride back into the city. It was a Saturday morning full of promise and possibility: over made-up teenagers gossipped in an awkward spot on the pavement, their cheeks burnished to an alien chrome. A taxi set off before its occupant had retrieved their bag, the casually suited former occupant rapping on the roof and swearing generously at the top of his voice to stop the driver in his tracks. The bus lumbered around in an attempt to reverse, lurching to a stop behind the taxi. All was good-naturedly, loudly chaotic in Essex today. I made swift work of the hill out of the station and found the road to town a little less hectic. It was good to be back, despite the fury of the welcome!
My memories of Epping beyond the platform were vague at best, but I soon found the supermarket and filled my bag with water and drinks. The temperature was already touching thirty degrees and was forecast to get warmer. There was coffee to be had here too, but my instinct was to head straight out of town. Epping is a long, drawn-out kind of place sprawling along a ridge of high ground which threads lazily into Essex, dividing the valleys of Cobbins Brook and the River Roding. My route - the aptly-named High Road - headed south, passing the Victorian mock-gothic water tower, now marooned in the middle of a used car lot. As the busy shops of the High Street begin to peter out, the houses became larger and were set a little further back from the busy road. Stocky Georgian brick piles sat beyond tall hedges which shade convertible BMWs. This was all undeniably a little less gauche than the Essex of popular perception. It was more conservative, very new-monied, a little brash. A broad stripe of grass, once green and now burned amber by the weeks of sunshine, broke away from the road and I gladly plunged between the trees noting an impressive and moss-covered concrete fingerpost indicating the public footpath across Bell Common. The sun beat relentlessly down on the sleepy village-end while a taxi waited outside one of the cottages beside the path, a heat haze shimmering over its roof. The string of houses ended abruptly where the road forked - the branch I now needed to cross headed south to Theydon Bois, while the main road to London turned further west. A high concrete wall and a shuddering equipment room were screened by a scrubby line of bushes. From beneath this parapet, traffic pulses along the M25 and began to slow for the whirl of sliproads onto the M11. Under my feet here is Bell Common Tunnel, an unusually environmentally aware attempt to hide the churn of the Orbital road from view at a pinch point where the important forest habitat and the peaceful community squeeze the road into a tight bend. Built between 1982 and 1984, and some considerable time before the high-profile road protests of the 1990s, the cut and cover tunnel is an unexpectedly sensitive response to the problem of completing the ring of tarmac around London. I've written elsewhere about the various Ringway plans which spun out over the post-war decades following Patrick Abercrombie's vision of a city encircled by roads which took the strain away from the mediaeval street pattern. Little of this materialised as the inner segments of the plan, which would have destroyed many homes and businesses, became entangled in long planning disputes. However, out here on the margins there was less heat in the argument. Perhaps, even by the early 1980s we had not quite grasped the impact of the loss of green and pleasant land in the same way we do now? The final shape of the M25 is a compromise: a lopsided and off-centre mash-up of Ringways 3 and 4. The motorway which was finally built and which squeezes through this future bottle-neck under Bell Common is never quite wide enough, never quite fast enough - and as a result, it creeps quietly out of its original footprint. Elsewhere lanes are added to patch up the broken circle with depressing regularity. But here, the landscape corrals the traffic and Bell Common with its cricket pitch and a dusty forest-edge car park is troubled only by the hiss and shudder behind the high brown wall.
As I turned aside from the motorway, unable to get a panoramic view due to the height of the barricade erected to protect Epping from the noise of traffic, I found myself facing the forest for the first time. The small car park was busy with dog walkers loading and unloading their charges. A couple of early cyclists paused to check maps and adjust equipment. I made my own preparations, realising that I'll be leaving civilisation behind for a little while, and strode out between the trees onto a well-made path with a dry and cracked surface. The recent heat had penetrated even the deepest corners of the forest it seemed: the perma-mulch of the floor is littered with brown, sun-crisped fronds of foliage. The earth was splitting and opening, deep crevasses revealing loam which hasn't been exposed for what might be centuries. It felt like the forest was protesting against the indignity of the heatwave, and blaming us for our negligence in letting the climate interfere with its finely balanced ecosystem. But the woodland is resilient too, and only a few yards into the woods I'm covered by a cool canopy of leaves which keeps out even the most penetrating rays of sunlight. Occasional clearings fill the forest with light, like a zirconium flashbulb detonating overhead, and I took to wearing sunglasses to reduce the weirdly hypnotic effect as the sunlight strobes between limbs of the trees. It was good to be back, and once I'd passed sufficiently far into the woodland for the casual visitors' range anxiety to have them backtracking to the carpark, I was entirely alone in the ancient forest. The crunch of dry, friable earth underfoot echoed, occasionally startling creatures which skittered and crashed into the undergrowth. Aside from a few gentle dips and ascents into the valleys of currently dry streambeds, the walking was pleasantly gentle. Striking out to the south-west, I felt entirely enclosed by the woodlands, despite in fact walking a fairly narrow strip of the forest at this northern tip. Epping Forest once covered much of Essex and during the reign of King John still covered much of the ground between London and the coast. Curiously, it was John's signature of the Forest Charter, a lesser known counterpart of the more influential Magna Carta, which led to the preservation of the forest for future generations. This charter addressed deepening disquiet and economic strife arising from the designation of 'Royal Forests' - a status originally given to Epping Forest by Henry II. The Norman ideal of a forest was an enclosed area of woodland, grassland and marsh reserved for the monarch's use and inaccessible to commoners. For many, not least those living in Western Essex, the forest meant survival: in the form of fuel, grazing the land and foraged food. Increasing designation of Royal Forests, especially by King Richard, had resulted in around a third of Southern England being restricted, with rural populations struggling as a result. The Carta Foresta of 1217 restored the right of free men to gather wood and forage in the woodland, while allowing only the King and his appointees to hunt. Despite being somewhat less celebrated than the Magna Carta, the Carta Foresta enjoyed a greater longevity, with large parts remaining in force until the Wild Creatures and Forest Laws Act 1971 repealed and replaced its provisions. I was reminded that the forest is a strange place, and things seem to move far more slowly under the trees - including it seems the machinery of government.
I realised as I tramped along the path, that I knew very little of the interior geography of the forest. This was brought rather surprisingly home to me as I spied through the trees a smooth bank of earth, curving out of sight to the west. I had stumbled across Ambresbury Banks - now a haven for tall, slender beech trees but once a securely fenced Iron Age stronghold surrounded by forest. Much archaeological investigation has taken place here since the site was first systematically excavated by Augustus Pitt Rivers in 1881, but nothing has been discovered to corroborate perhaps the most enticing myth about the place: that Boudicca fought her last here in 61CE, before finally being slain by the Romans. Several other places, from Kings Cross station to Mancetter in Warwickshire claim the same honour - but there is a stately calm about Ambresbury Banks which makes it feel a fitting monument to a warrior queen. I stepped away from the path and scaled the bank, descending into the broad bowl. The floor of the forest was a tangle of sun-scorched bracken and surprisingly tenacious holly, and it was hard to imagine this place a hive of activity. It's likely that Ambresbury was a defensive position rather than a fortress - a secure place to gather the people and to remain safe from attack. The camp lies along a line of forts which roughly delineated the boundaries of the Trinovantes and Catuvellauni peoples who skirmished and bickered over territory in Essex until the Roman invasion. Even now it feels remote from the surrounding paths and roads, and as I crashed back out onto the trail, I startled a young couple and their dog who were distinctly displeased to see me. The forest retains its sense of risk and danger - but I suspect that a middle-aged man emerging from the bushes is regarded more likely as a moral than physical threat nowadays. Back on the path, I noted a few other walkers and occasional mountain-bikers, including a group of Spanish students who walked six-abreast and yelled up into the trees as they wandered. I wasn't sorry to get past them, leaving them checking their 'phones and gabbling with excited relief as they congregated in a small car park beside the B172 which meandered through the forest nearby. While they were clearly pleased to be back in some sort of civilisation, to me the road felt like a strange imposition - and a sudden need to be aware of my surroundings in a more acute way than I had been for the last hour or so of walking in the woods felt alien and uncomfortable. I wasn't sorry to disappear into the woods again on the other side of the busy route, wondering why my walks on the fringes of London were so often dogged by small bands of loud European tourists?
Walking again, I tried to identify my location more accurately but largely failed. There are few very good maps of Epping Forest and certainly, none which exceed the detail and care of that produced by Edward North Buxton for his 1884 guide. Buxton was a partner in the family brewing firm of Truman, Hanbury & Buxton of Brick Lane, and was also MP for Walthamstow. A lifelong conservationist, Buxton purchased Hatfield Forest and gifted it to the National Trust from his deathbed, thus saving it from a timber merchant who had already begun to fell ancient trees until scuppered by Buxton's purchase. His book on Epping Forest remains perhaps the most useful guide to the hidden corners of the woodland and is a testament to how largely unspoiled the forest has remained since it was protected by Act of Parliament in 1878. It could so easily have been different here. In 1851 much of nearby Hainault Forest was destroyed having been 'disafforested' by the Crown and offered for sale. Steam tractors dragged anchors through the soil, uprooting ancient trees and clearing around 3000 acres within six weeks. While Epping Forest had largely been unenclosed by that point in part due use as a deer park, it was clear that the Commissioners of Woods and Forests were keen to turn their attention to the plains and woodland which stretched tantalisingly close to the growing suburbs of East London. However, it was this very proximity which had apparently increased the use of the forest by commoners, with William Cowper-Temple MP noting during debate in the commons in 1871 that "It was most gratifying to witness multitudes of the working classes, who had escaped for a day from the smoky atmosphere and the dreary expanse of bricks and dust and dirt called the eastend of London with parties of children, imbibing health and enjoying themselves intensely in innocent and health-giving pastimes." Visitor numbers grew during the 1860s and consequently, the Lords of the various Manors which included forest land began to enclose the woodland, protecting their asset and preparing for a profitable sell-off. This enclosure was not without resistance, with Thomas Willingale of Loughton persisting in the practice of the common right to 'lop' trees. Willingale was prosecuted at Waltham Abbey, and members of his family imprisoned as a result - a cruel punishment which sounds oddly antediluvian to modern ears. It was his action though, which brought the situation to the attention of Edward North Buxton, his brother Sir Thomas, and to John T Bedford of the Corporation of London. Thus, the political movement to conserve the forest began with the Corporation buying parcels of land throughout the 1870s prior to becoming custodians of the forest on the passage of the act. So, Epping too was disafforested - but with the Corporation as both landlord and conservator, its future was largely assured:
Epping Forest is hereby disafforested; and Her Majesty’s rights of vert and venison within the same, and the several forest courts, and all letters patent, grants, appointments, and warrants of any offices, bailiwicks, walks, and lodges, and all salaries, allowances, gratuities, and fees payable or allowed in respect of the same, and all burdens and restrictions arising out of the forest laws or customs, shall, as regards Epping Forest, on and by virtue of the disafforestation thereof by this Act, cease; and the deer therein are hereby transferred to and shall belong to the Conservators, to be preserved as objects of ornament in the Forest.
Epping Forest Act 1878
The path continued south, skirting the broad, open scrublands of Furze Ground and Copley Plain. These spaces, often appearing suddenly between the trees, are a striking feature of the forest and a reminder that this is wild and ancient land. Some of these areas have been cleared for centuries, not least those nearer to Chingford which were denuded of trees as early as 1543 when Henry VIII built his hunting lodge 'The Great Standing' nearby. But there have always been swathes of rough scrub, marsh and grassland at the heart of the forest, and it's perhaps a little surprising that they make for some of the most dramatic views during the long walk under the trees. The path also descended here, delving deep into the valley of one of the streams which combine nearby to form the Debden Brook. Today though it was a ghost waterway, and at the floor of the valley the path crosses only the dry streambed. The largely redundant bridge and only a damp layer of rotting foliage indicating the presently absent waters. For a relatively minor waterway which is largely unnamed on maps, the Debden Brook has a marked effect on the area. As it curves east towards the River Roding the arc of the stream describes the extent of human habitation - the edge of the suburbs. This currently moribund little rivulet is the last defence of rural Essex against burgeoning London. My descent into the valley was followed by a steep, lung-busting ascent towards Goldings Hill where the busy A121 crossed the forest, providing a link between the eastern suburbs and the main road into London. Crossing the road was a challenge, necessitating a swift and careful totter along its narrow margin to reach the staggered continuation of the path. This fast-flowing rat-run beneath the trees is a sobering reminder that nowhere in Epping Forest is ever really far from arguably the world's busiest and most complex metropolis. But as I disappeared under the trees again, I felt like I could be a continent away from London.
Beyond the road, the path dipped and bucked into a series of further, even steeper valleys which formed the various tributaries of the Loughton Brook, emanating mostly from sources on Broom Hill to the West, and again mostly running dry due to the recent weather. The ponds which form along the brooks were not yet dry, but they were green-tinged and algae-covered, insects flitting over their surfaces while fishermen fruitlessly dangled lines into the dead, still water. The walking was challenging but pleasant here, the tree cover making for humid but thankfully shady conditions. My boots were doing the job they were designed for at last and appeared to be responding to a rare reprieve from pounding asphalt and pavement by protecting my feet well from the trips and twists of the forest floor. For a while here, time became soft and pliable. I couldn't say how long I'd been in the forest or how far I'd travelled. The path ahead was my only focus, and studying the form and foliage of the woodland ahead is all the thinking that was required of me. It felt both liberating and terrifying to be released from caring about much beyond the immediate landscape and I felt my brain rebelling. My ever-active and somewhat disordered mind sought to fill my synapses with anxieties about work problems, my bank balance, politics - but they wouldn't stick. The huge, unknowable and ancient forest demanded all of my attention, and if I dared to let my mind wander into human concerns it reminded me with a misplaced branch or a knotty crag of earth that it had the power to trip me up in every sense. I've never been someone who talks about 'oneness with nature' - that always strikes me as an artificial state, sought by those who seek a sort of environmental superiority over the rest of us with our petty worries about everyday things. For a little while though, and I'm not entirely clear how long, in fact, it made an odd sort of sense. It wasn't a spiritual or even a particularly esoteric experience: it was simply the strangeness for an urbanite of being entirely consumed by a living thing bigger than oneself.
I was returned to my normal, sceptical self by taking a wrong turning. Consulting the map I noted I was still east of the A104 which forms a spine through the forest. My aim was to cross the road and stay for as long as possible in the broader and denser areas of the forest, in the angle between the encroaching suburbs of Chingford and Loughton. As the forest continues to the south it becomes more sporadic and disconnected, though no less dense and remote in places. I retraced my steps to a crossroads where a group of older tourists, distinctly unprepared for the terrain ahead, appeared to be wandering aimlessly too, and I headed west towards the road. Like the other road crossings in the forest it felt like a traumatic imposition on the peace and calm, but perhaps in the case of this main route out to the M25, even louder, faster and much harder to cross. When I finally made the dash, I found myself on a somewhat indistinct trail which runs parallel to the road through a broad plain of dry, yellowing grassland. A warning on the gate indicated that cattle may be nearby, and they have left their own special evidence too, necessitating careful walking. My route converged on a more established path at Palmers Bridge, though it was currently an unnecessary structure, with the long straight ditch beneath the wooden footbridge entirely dry. I followed the ditch towards Connaught Water, an ornamental lake built around 1882 by flooding a formerly swampy area of the forest where many streams converged. The lake was named for Prince Arthur, The Duke of Connaught who had accompanied his mother Queen Victoria on her visit to Chingford when she dedicated the forest to the people. Arthur went on to become the first Forest Ranger alongside other honours, including becoming the tenth Governor General of Canada. The lake was extended in the 1890s with large, wooded islands established to create impressive views from the lakeside path. More recent innovations included a wooden boardwalk which snaked around the western edge of the lake, allowing a generous throng of visitors to get closer to the waterfowl which strut and wade in the lake, occasionally flapping away from more enthusiastic children as they approach. Connaught Water is also the source of the Ching - fed by the dried-up brooks and streams which arrive from further north in the forest, a twin-bored concrete culvert at the southern end of the lake allows water to run down a cascade into the muddy beginnings of the river. When I walked the Ching, I started to the south of this point - so a pilgrimage to the source was long overdue. However, there really was no source to speak of: the pipes were dry and the bed of the river had clearly not been damp for some time. I crashed along through the bracken which was, prior to the long spell of dry weather, a deep reedbed beside the water. Eventually, I was forced to surface at the crossing of Rangers Road. Beside me was the 'Essex' sign which had signified the start of my previous walk and to the west was Chingford Plain. Queen Elizabeth renovated Henry VIIIs original 'Great Standing' here as her hunting lodge and it still stands today, an isolated and rather plain timber-framed building next door to the much more elaborately mock-Tudor former Royal Forest Hotel. The hotel is now a Premier Inn - a singularly ostentatious one too, with many rather unusual features to accommodate the old building which houses it. The two buildings sit in curious harmony - the genuine heritage piece and the plausible Victorian fake - while a modern visitor centre commands a view over the plain towards the forest. My business didn't take me this far west today though, and after crossing Rangers Road, busy with school holiday traffic, I plunged back into the woods to repeat a section of the walk beside the Ching which I'd last done in freezing temperatures. I'd slipped and slithered over the muddy ruts back then, but today I was more at risk of tripping over the cracks in the parched ground.
The route south soon became much more familiar via a reunion with the Ching at the edge of Whitehall Plain where a tiny bridge crossed a rather pathetic trickle of muddy water. But it was at least now a stream of sorts, showing that even an unprecedented dry spell couldn't quite quash this little waterway's aspirations. The walk across the plain, entirely alone and largely free from any hint of the surrounding city was a rather special moment, which I perhaps hadn't fully appreciated on my last visit because staying vertical was more of a concern in the icy horseshoe ruts. Today, the baked earth and dry grass crackled underfoot and the sun beat down on me relentlessly. I ambled along slowly, pacing myself - there was some way to go, and the weather was exhaustingly hot now. As the river and the path converged again at the crossing of Whitehall Road, I had three choices. On my winter visit, I'd taken the path to the west of the little concrete bridge parapet which seemed a fairly sensible option in those conditions. There was also a seemingly more official path further to the east which would likely have been a lot safer too, but in my concern to find a route that day, I'd entirely missed it. That didn't seem appropriate for today either - instead I wanted to disappear into the tiny gap to the immediate east of the bridge, where a less well-used but clearly evident pathway descended steeply to the bank of the river. I reasoned that I knew this area well enough to find a way out of any scrapes I got into, and plunged into the tangle of woods. This part of the walk was actually ridiculously good fun - tiny paths, little more than faint desire lines cut by dog walkers, criss-crossed the land along the edge of the river. Despite being in a narrow flank of the forest between two densely-populated areas, I was absorbed into the woodland entirely. I tramped around, relying mostly on my sense of direction and carefully dodging the gnarled roots and banks of tall holly. Occasionally the detritus of late-night couplings was evident in wet-wipes and condom wrappers, and I marvelled at the resilience of these folks who would be exposing bare flesh around some seriously robust holly bushes and nettles! Realising I was drifting to the east I took a very minor path which wound back towards the river and found myself on the edge of a very clearly marked PRIVATE field with no obvious exit beyond the swaying, reedy grass which had grown to near shoulder height over the course of the summer. Above the sea of yellowing stalks I could see suburbia encroaching on the forest, closer than seemed possible just moments ago while I was plodding along the barely-evident forest tracks. I retraced my steps and set off into the dense knot of trees again, more aware than ever of how quickly this familiar landscape of streets and houses could return to nature given the opportunity.
The ornamental boating lake in The Highams Park was busy with visitors on this hot afternoon - a far cry from the ice-bound edges of the water which I'd found on my previous visit. I took a path which hugged the lake rather than the route I'd taken on my last visit, surprising a group of youngsters daring each other to skinny-dip from the opposite shore. They continued egging each other into diving into the water, little bothered as I passed by. Dogs and birds both enjoyed the water too, splashing and flapping their way into the deeper parts of the lake while their owners lazily ambled, too hot to walk faster around the perimeter. The whole concept of 'Highams Park' appeared to be a contested one: the park itself, created in the 1930s was named very specifically with the definite article which differentiated it from the name commonly applied to the neighbouring district. This drift west into newly laid suburbs largely followed the rechristening of the railway station as 'Highams Park and Hale End' in 1894, two decades after opening to serve the latter of that pair of then distinct settlements. Some it seems, believe that there is, in fact, no differentiation to be made between the two former villages - while others resolutely disagree. Confounding local historians further, the manor of Highams - sometimes known as Higham House or Hall - lies further east, beyond the forest's edge facing Woodford Green. Built for Anthony Bacon MP in 1764 on his purchase of the ancient manor of Higham Bensted, the hall briefly served as a military hospital and is now a private school for girls. The Ching snakes around the western shore of the lake, deceptively appearing to feed it but remaining in fact an entirely separate waterway aside from an overflow at the southern end. The parkland here were formerly part of the extensive grounds belonging to the Highams Hall, landscaped by Humphry Repton and eventually purchased by the Corporation of London when it moved to preserve the forest.
I was now entering a part of the forest which I knew well and also one where a previous walk had faltered - and I'd found myself anticipating this part of the walk perhaps most of all. After negotiating around the striking modernist blocks of the Best Western hotel which now looked tired and somewhat dated, I headed back into the forest along a familiar track. The A104 was still close by on my left, revealed as I passed an open grassy space between houses. Traffic was already braking, slowing for the congestion of Waterworks Corner up ahead. The trees closed in above me again as I passed the clearing where the memorial to preacher Rodney 'Gypsy' Smith stood, before taking the path that led onto the North Circular footbridge and crossed the route I'd taken along the edge of the forest when I walked the length of that road. Suddenly, I was beyond the edge of the trees, above the carriageways and surrounded by a clamour of traffic noise. To the west, the Lea Valley shimmered under the bright sun, and the towers and chimneys of Tottenham and Edmonton swam in a distorting heat haze. To the east, the traffic banked and peeled away to the south, the brief knot of Saturday traffic around the slip roads to Waterworks Corner slowly negotiating the exit. There was something about this spot - distinctly of the forest, but out of the trees - which somehow amplified the experience of walking in the woods: a green, moist silence becomes an immediate sensory overload of white noise, bright light and unforgiving heat. The road remained impressive and daunting, despite being part of a well-walked circle now. I fought an overwhelming urge to retrace my steps along its forlorn, ragged edge. Instead, though I continued southwards, navigating the narrow strip of raised ground between the A406 and Forest Road which is crossed by another, quieter footbridge. Beyond this was the raised field of tall grass where my last attempt to cross the forest had come to grief: at the end of the path was a steep downward slope which had become a wintry, wet mudslide. Today though, it was a sheer but navigable scramble of smooth, dusty earth. I half walked and half slid to the bottom, a sense of almost ridiculous personal pride achieved in this simple task. Perhaps I'd become more adventurous since my last visit, or perhaps I just felt more at ease in these woodland perambulations now? In any case I was safely down and could once again emerge briefly to cross the road and enter the last, straggling edges of the remaining forest.
Pride is never advisable on these excursions, it's fair to say, and immediately on re-entering the forest on the eastern side of the road, I lost my bearings. The paths were not easy to follow in this area, and I found myself circling the same spots while looking for what should have been a well-worn route to the east of the Forest School. I'd walked a dog near here before with a former pupil of the school who had shown me around the impressive facilities after hours, and I foolishly thought I could follow my instincts to get out of the bind. Instead, I found myself retracing my steps more than once and feeling none the wiser. I finally found the right route, taking me close to the perimeter of the school buildings and across Snaresbrook Road near the point that a tangle of drainage ditches split away to feed the Hollow Pond and the Eagle Pond. Hollow Pond started life as a series of pits left after gravel was extracted for road building. Quarrying ceased in 1878 and the pits filled with water and were abandoned to gradually return to nature, until 1905 when unemployed labourers were drafted into the forest by Leyton District Council and the Forest Conservators to landscape and extend the pits into a large lake. Soon becoming a popular resort close to the growing suburban districts of East London, a well-used but muddy bathing lake was converted into Whipps Cross Lido during the 1930s with costs shared by Leyton and Walthamstow's councils. The Hollow Pond, on a blistering summer afternoon, was still busy with locals lazing around its banks and it was easy to imagine that if the Lido had survived the 1980s it would have been much used today. Meanwhile the quieter Eagle Pond teemed with waterfowl which skidded onto its surface and lurked in the shade of its wooded edges. For some years now, the Surrey-based Swan Sanctuary has used the pond as a point for releasing birds back into the wild after recovery from sickness or injury, and with fishing now banned the pond was an oasis of calm in the busy afternoon. The incongruous bulk of Snaresbrook Crown Court reflected in the water - a huge and imposing but slightly gloomy building by George Gilbert Scott and William Bonython Moffatt which was originally built as Wanstead Infant Orphan Asylum and became a court only in 1974. My path took me between the ponds, well away from the crowds and onto a long, dry pathway of dead grass and baked earth which cut across the flats towards The Green Man roundabout. To the south, I could see the impressive villas which fronted Whipps Cross Road closing in, marooned between the busy road and the open ground. My path climbed to cross the Central Line before delving into the centre of the vast road junction. Somewhere on the fringe of this junction the mood switched - all day I'd felt connected to the forest, even when it had been little more than a narrow strip of land between busy suburbs. This terriroty was now of the city. A constant, low-level drone hummed in the air: traffic, conversation, aircraft. In the forest I had been insulated. I felt disorientated, and uncharacteristically, weirdly unnerved. The temperature was well into the mid-thirties now and I'd begun to feel tired and thirsty as the last of my supplies from Epping were used up. In some ways, it felt like entirely the right conditions in which to approach London: activated, edgy and a little distracted - the natural traits of the city. Beneath me, the A12 contorted under the junction in a tunnel: the road was yet another planning compromise, a testament to further abandoned grand plans and a legacy of road-building policy which just wouldn't cut in it these days of environmental impact assessments and consultation.
One last patch of woodland took me further south, along the aptly named Bushwood, a curving street of solid Victorian homes which faced the last vestige of the forest as it dwindled into the edge of Wanstead Flats. As soon as I could break away from the road, I took a path along the edge of the woods, eager to spend the last mile of my walk as close to the forest as I could. The path crossed the head of an avenue of trees, partly replanted and under restoration, before heading across the northern edge of the Flats. My view to the south was striking: Fred Wigg and John Walsh, two tower blocks dating from 1966 backlit by the strong afternoon sunlight. On 12th December 2011, a flat on the 13th floor of Fred Wigg caught fire. It took the London Fire Brigade five hours to control the blaze following a full evacuation of the block. A few residents were treated for smoke inhalation or hypothermia, many having left their houses quickly on a cold evening in their nightclothes. However, there were no casualties and the fire was contained in the flat where it broke out. It stands as a striking contrast to events years later in West London: here, the original construction of the tower - while considered ugly and tired - held fast and the evacuation ran smoothly. This unremarkable block should have returned to obscurity after attaining a briefly newsworthy status, but in 2012 it hit the front pages again when residents sought permission to begin a Judicial Review of the decision to site air defence missiles on the roof of the building during the Olympic Games. Permission for the review was denied - legally correctly given the government's prerogative powers in defending the realm, but this was just another instance where the Games, unstoppable and somehow beyond criticism, rode roughshod over the lives of ordinary people in East London. Thinking back to that year as I passed the towers, a landmark one in my life in many ways, I remembered well the mood of tension and frustration: no less-than-positive comment on the Games could be passed without summoning the wrath of the part-time patriots who couldn't see past the TV coverage. It was going to be good for London - good for people who lived in places like Fred Wigg. We ought to shut up and stop moaning. The jury is still out on the economic benefits of the London Olympics, particularly in these areas outside the immediate environs of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and its hinterland of newbuild residential towers. Today the blocks named for esteemed local councillors Fred Wigg and John Walsh await refurbishment, the work delayed awaiting the outcome of the Grenfell Enquiry and a ruling on whether the borough should pay for any resulting cost implications. The sun beamed momentarily through the open ground floor spaces of the two blocks, lighting up my path ahead. Beyond, the towers of the Isle of Dogs shimmered in the middle distance while out on the flats people sunbathed and picnicked. On afternoons like this, being in London felt like a privilege - and even the noisome aroma of the overheating, overtaxed sewers and the thrum of traffic nearby didn't make it seem any less attractive.
Stumbling wearily onto the pavement, I turned south onto Woodford Road and passed the sign which welcomed me to Forest Gate. I thought back to the start of my walk, and the faded sign hanging in the trees outside the Forest Gate Inn near Bell Common. As I headed south, the last tapering tail of Wanstead Flats became the final edge of the forest. Beyond this point, all was London. The city takes over in earnest here, and any sense of the ancient, loamy depths of the woods very swiftly fades. A tall housing block, Capel Point, stands sentinel over the edges of the Forest. The pulse of the city returns, and I'm swept along into the rhythm of other walkers again - a strange feeling after being largely alone since leaving Epping. I pass the quiet station at Wanstead Park, trains shuttling overhead under new electric wires, and press on south to Forest Gate station. The area is vibrant and diverse, the businesses reflecting this. There is noise and colour, endless diversion - a strange experience after a day dominated by the green of the forest and the sun-bleached yellow of the heath. As I collapse onto a bench to await the new, sleek purple train which will in time, become a Crossrail service, I contemplate the walk I've undertaken. Since I first stumbled into the forest, almost by accident, I've been captivated by its history and its strange otherness. I always considered myself capable only of urban walking, but some of my first forays into more adventurous exploits on less established paths began walking the trails and tracks in the forest. It may seem like a tame, unwilded place to many - and may seem like a dull and commonplace spot to those who live locally, but Epping Forest is a magical and strange place. A place where people live uncommonly close to genuinely ancient woodland, and where reservoirs and road junctions are hidden under the boughs of truly venerable Oaks, Planes and Hornbeams. I'm more convinced than ever after walking its length that there is really nowhere quite like the forest. I'm also very aware that I've only explore a tiny fraction of its vastness, and as the train pulls away from Forest Gate for Liverpool Street, I know I'll need to return.
You can find a gallery of images from the walk here.
Posted in Film on Thursday 2nd August 2018 at 9:08pm
It's easy to be cynical about the history of planning in Britain, and especially easy to be scornful of those well-meaning but usually flawed efforts to build new communities which skirt neatly around the errors and problems of the past. When these developments arise - the garden city movement, the planned worker's villages of Bournville or Port Sunlight, or the Prince of Wales' village at Poundbury - they nearly always lack any kind of genus loci. In the same way, you'll often hear the New Towns which arrived in post-war Britain via a long-winded commission and various acts of parliament, lazily described as 'soul-less'. These towns were an attempt to finally eradicate the Victorian slums and to encourage people to move out of the bursting city centres where housing which hadn't been bombed out-of-use was in short supply. Like a great deal of post-war planning and architecture, they divide opinion sharply. They mixed a peculiarly British take on a socialist utopia with utilitarian simplicity and often appealed to a higher nature in their residents through the provision of arts centres, theatres and the like from the outset. But, these were consciously designed places which were still rare in a country which was struggling slowly out of the previous century with its progress hampered by two destructive wars. Provided with an unprecedented tabula rasa in greenfield sites and bomb-ravaged urban wastelands, they also deployed some of the newest styles of architecture and means of building - architecture which would have never squeezed past a fussy old planning committee in normal circumstances. This, along with the social changes which the 1970s and 80s brought to the country renders a particular image of a New Town today: concrete, streaked with rust, shuttered stores and abandoned civic pride. Is that unfair or inaccurate, or is it lazy to take this surface-dressing as a proxy for the lives of people living in these places? This film delves right into these perceptions and tests them over the course of a surprisingly human, affecting documentary.
I grew up in Redditch - a second-wave New Town, built when the cash was running out and faith in the project was waning. The Development Corporation was less ambitious than those who'd forged ahead earlier and satisfied itself with a sweep of new housing estates on the town's eastern green flank with some impressive American-style expressways to link them to the town's core. In the centre, Redditch saw the building of a new shopping centre/bus terminus combination which not only destroyed the original town centre street-pattern but mocked the locals' affections by parroting the old streets in the named 'walks' of the Kingfisher Centre. Basildon however, came earlier in the project - and was built with a greater sense of purpose and utopia it seems. It's position on open Essex land attracted industry, and numerous firms moved their plants to the new town. The future looked bright for this curious newcomer to the flat open spaces of estuarial Essex. They didn't build a railway station - people would live and work in the town, so who needed to get away? Over the course of New Town Utopia, Christopher Ian Smith meets the people who moved here, were born here and have in some cases tried to get away over the course of their lives. Many have been driven away by unemployment as local industry declined in the 80s, or have tried to follow their fortunes elsewhere - but a surprising number return. The film is built around the voices of these generations of Basildonians, their aspirations, dreams and impressions of life in the town. These are most often set against images of Basildon today: Patrick Keiller style unpeopled shots of long dual-carriageways, crumbling estates, litter-strewn footpaths. Basildon feels like a time-capsule of British idealism, a sort of mid-century sampler of design flourishes and municipal vernacular that wasn't to quite take to the mainstream. It is photogenic for the wrong reasons, impressive in its bleakness.
Throughout the film though, there is a surprising sense of something lost - something which perhaps these citizens only recently discovered they even had: a sense of being from Basildon. This unexpected attachment to the much-disliked newcomer features most strongly in two sequences: the first where locals discuss the arts scene, and the facilities which they have lost, regained and reused to continue a strong emphasis on creativity in a town which is all-too-often the uncultured and unreconstructed butt of jokes. The second occurs when the talking heads on screen consider the reputation of Basildon as a tough, violent place. There is an uncomfortable mix of dismay and pride in the reactions when they tell people they're from Basildon. But there is a concern in all of them, young or old, that the sense of being from the town is ebbing away: London draws everything in, people work in the city and sleep in Basildon. Things are changing again here, and they now have a railway station.
The film explores a further uncomfortable divide: the impact of Thatcherism on Basildon. Older residents bemoan the loss of the industries which moved with them to Basildon, which they relate specifically to the government's policies. In fairness though, the local factories (tobacco and camera film) were not publicly owned and were ill-starred already by future obsolescence perhaps? The locals also celebrate the ability to purchase their own homes and the chance to create roots in the new town. A retired trade union organiser and councillor is upset that his children don't want to vote Labour and thinks that weak unions mean weak businesses, while a middle-aged Basildonian admits with some embarrassment that the changed economy of the 1980s gave him the chances he needed to get ahead. There is a shame in seeing the positive changes in society - it just doesn't fit the idea of a worker's town which they were encouraged to support. Throughout the film, Jim Broadbent intones the words of Lewis Silkin MP, Atlee's housing minister who believed that newly created places could instil a Matthew Arnold like 'sweetness and light' in population which was not divided by class or profession, by age or race. Arts, culture and green space would be the engine of this change - and it's fair to say that from the moment the Basildon Development Corporation handed over the town to the Local Authority, it's these very things which have suffered: gradually chipped away in the interests of reduced costs and increased density.
The film concludes that while the placemaking and aspirational building of Basildon hasn't entirely worked, that Silkin was almost right: Basildon today, despite being in the overwhelmingly 'White British' band of population which stretches east of the Capital, is a placed of mixed experiences, backgrounds and outlooks. It's impossible to imagine the infectiously optimistic Hippy Joe - 'Essex' patch stitched into the groin of his dungarees - wanting to move away from the community of musicians and fans he runs a club for, but it's equally difficult to expect the current generation of young Basildonians - whether future poets and musicians, lawyers or bankers from wanting to be limited by the boundaries of this curious place. This film treats all of these voices with dignity, decency - and most importantly, it allows them the space to expand on their views without descending to soundbite and snapshot.
Posted in London on Saturday 7th July 2018 at 10:07pm
It was a faintly ridiculous proposition, but I am it must be said, a creature of habit... I'd long ago booked the journey to London for this walk - speculatively scooping up cheap rail tickets in advance knowing that I'd probably end up planning the walk hastily at the last moment. I hadn't figured on a holiday to Germany nestling into the previous week, our return less than 24 hours beforehand necessitating a quick journey west from Heathrow, a little sleep and then an early return eastwards. I arrived at Paddington a little dazed by the whirl of travel and disarmed by the sheet of hot, dry air which hit me on leaving the air-conditioned railway carriage. True to form, I'd planned my itinerary for the day entirely on the fly, largely between naps on the train: I would head for the northern heights and walk the course of the Turkey Brook to the Lea. Beyond there? The valley had never really let me down, so it felt safe to see where I ended up without further planning. Plunging into the Underground for the journey to Kings Cross was strangely reassuring: after a week of being half-understood and perpetually a little disoriented, I was on more solid ground, back in the conversation-free zone of London. Trains at Kings Cross were reassuringly disrupted, the queue at the coffee shop frostily polite. I don't travel internationally often and I was struck by how doing so refocuses me on how English I am. Not, or at least I hope not, in that mildly racist and stereotypical football-supporting way. Not even today when a display of national pride was mandated by the World Cup. More in a sense that I'm culturally built for uncomfortable silences, frequent apologies and a background level of mild irritation. Already, before I'd really set off on the day's excursion I'd seen all of this. As I slalomed between disgruntled commuters trailing suitcases with little care and even less attention, I spotted that my cancelled train had been reinstated to run later than planned. I navigated to the platform and settled into the cool, quiet carriage. All too soon I was decanted at Finsbury Park to await the next connection to Gordon Hill. Cranes shadowed the parched platforms, swinging eerily and silently with payloads of ironwork for the two curved towers which were climbing into the air between the station and the city. Workmen ambled around the site - no need for undue haste at Saturday rates. Finsbury Park shimmered under the haze, the distant Emirates Stadium like a hovering red mirage. I slapped on suncream, guzzled coffee, jammed water bottles into the pouches of my rucksack. It felt good to be heading out of the city...
I'd been to Gordon Hill before - or at least the station, on a quest for the elusive third platform a decade ago - and I lazily remembered it as a sleepy, dormitory suburb of little note. The area was laid out in the 1860s on the land which formerly accommodated Gordon House - named for a colourful early occupant Lord George Gordon. Gordon was by most accounts, a skittish and inconsistent character who often took up causes for the sake of opposing the common view, but who also constantly railed against oppression and injustice. A staunch supporter of American independence and religious freedom, he paradoxically opposed more lenient treatment of Catholics - leading a march of 50,000 to Parliament in 1780. Following this, the so-called Gordon Riots resulted in the burning of Newgate Prison, damage to much property belonging to 'papists' and the death or injury of many hundreds of Londoners after the Army was summoned to put down the insurrection. Gordon was sent to the Tower of London for treason but was released after a trial where his Cousin, Lord Erskine, defended him by claiming the charge was a grievous over-stretching of the Treason Act 1351 and painting Gordon as seeking only to defend rather than injure his country. Gordon converted to Judaism and lived somewhat secretively in the home of a Jewish woman in The Froggery - a notorious slum in a dank and marshy area of Birmingham now buried under the equally benighted New Street Station. Required but unable - or perhaps unwilling - to provide securities and sureties for fourteen years of good behaviour, Gordon was finally imprisoned in Newgate where he became a popular figure providing wise counsel among fellow inmates, who greatly mourned his death in 1793 from typhoid contracted while imprisoned. Throughout his imprisonment, Gordon refused the support of his influential family in extracting him from the predicament which cost him his life. Dickens immortalised Gordon's demise in Barnaby Rudge, which takes the riots and subsequent events as its setting:
He had his mourners. The prisoners bemoaned his loss, and missed him; for though his means were not large, his charity was great, and in bestowing alms among them he considered the necessities of all alike, and knew no distinction of sect or creed. There are wise men in the highways of the world who may learn something, even from this poor crazy lord who died in Newgate.
Charles Dickens - Barnaby Rudge, 1841
Any trace of Gordon's home on Enfield Chase was gone - the land now the sleepy repose of the dead in Lavender Hill Cemetery and the equally silent surrounding streets of quiet, decent homes. The suburbs here grew swiftly after the arrival of the railway in 1910 and many of the streets are rather modern in appearance. Stymied by the cemetery having only one entrance, I retraced my steps alongside the chapel and back onto Cedar Road. Here, four rather dour looking blocks of flats glowered over the Chase, delighting in incongruously rustic French names: Lombardy, Picardy, Burgundy and Normandy. This truly felt like the hard edge of London. To the south of me, more suburbs like this one stretched for miles, to the north little more than parkland and trees. At the next opportunity, the narrow and tree-shaded Cook's Hole Road, I turned north-west and headed a little back towards the west. A gap in the hedge led into Hilly Fields Park - a pleasantly wild stretch of public parkland which ranged along the Turkey Brook. As a gang of workmen sunbathed through a tea-break on the fringe of the park, I stepped up the pace eager to get my first sighting of water.
My entrance to Hilly Fields Park was via a path leading through unmown grasslands and tall, mature trees which creaked pleasantly in the near silence. Enfield Chase - a royal deer park - had occupied much of the land hereabouts until 1777 when the 8300 acres were divided among local bodies and landowners, adding to the already complex web of stewardship in the area. Part of the vast forest which stretched north and east of London, the Chase had likely already been emparked by 1154. It was not recorded as a Chase until the 14th century, spending many years in the ownership of the Mandeville family with the Manors of Edmonton and Enfield claiming common rights. After the arrival of the railway and the ensuing building boom, Enfield Urban District Council became concerned at the loss of recreational spaces and purchased 62 acres of land from Archdeacon Potter which became Hilly Fields Park in 1911. By 1921 a bandstand had been erected in the western, more open part of the park and brass bands provided popular local entertainment. My path intercepted the Turkey Brook as it entered the park in a thick strip of truly old woodland which wound along its banks at the foot of the park. An official path followed the edge of the trees, but I noted a less formal route along the banks of the brook under the canopy of venerable trees. Despite the dry weather and the mere trickle I'd seen forming one of its tributaries, the brook was flowing busily here, having carved a deep twisting fissure into the soft earth of the woodland. A few other walkers, and particularly their overheated, tongue-lolling dogs had made a preference for walking beside - or even within - the stream as it meandered along the valley floor. The walk was pleasantly challenging - crashing through the burgeoning undergrowth and hopping over mischievous limbs of trees fallen during the winter. It felt a world away from the industrial zones of Western Germany or the densely built southern suburbs of my recent walks. I'd had this stream on my list of walks for some time, but I'd often rejected it as not presenting a long enough diversion for a day of walking unless I somehow found a way out to the awkward-to-access source near Potter's Bar. Somehow though, the Turkey Brook had found its time and I felt ridiculously content schlepping along beside the water and navigating around the tight bends with their exposed root systems and tiny, eroded cliff-faces. Eventually though, the path crossed the brook and forced me into the exposed and sun-bleached park. I skirted the now restored bandstand and followed the path which reflected heat back at me relentlessly, already wishing I could walk closer to the water.
The path left the brook to bisect Clay Hill, a surprisingly busy and fast-flowing rat-run which proved a challenge to cross. Nearby, the former Rose and Crown was slowly reverting to a private dwelling: the fine, cottage-like buildings of the former public house were stacked with disused furnishings and shuttered, but its sagging gables and low windows still looked curiously inviting in the morning heat. The inn has a long association with local hauntings and intrigue and is much mentioned in connection with Dick Turpin, but this is likely due to its ownership by a Mr. Nott who is reckoned to be the Highwayman's grandfather. The Rose and Crown was once the focus of the tiny hamlet of Bridge Street, and sure enough, the brook passed under an old brick bridge a little north of the Inn. Eschewing the official path to the south of the brook, I crossed the bridge and turned east along Beggar's Hollow - a very old byway which is now primarily the entrance to Whitewebbs Park Golf Course. The name, while evocative in itself, is likely a contraction of Bullbeggar's Hollow, referring to a bugbear or bogeyman rather than a mendicant: "Something used or suggested to produce terror, as in children or persons of weak mind". Perhaps our modern fascination with the frisson of unexplored edgelands isn't entirely novel? The land on the eastern side of Clay Hill delights in a long history of ownership, patronage and the rise and fall of aristocrats - but was finally purchased by the Borough of Enfield in 1931 and Whitewebbs is now a mix of municipal golf course and public park. It began life as one of the historic manorial estates which fringe Hertfordshire, and was by 1570 in the ownership of Robert Huicke, physician to Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The manor is often linked to the hatching of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 - but this is disputed by historians of Eastbury Manor House in Barking who seek that honour. On the enclosure of Enfield Chase much of the northern part of Whitewebbs became part of Theobalds Park, while the remainder was turned over to agriculture. The manor house is now doing lowlier duty as a Toby Carvery nearby. Nothing it seems, was ever simple in the shifting band of rus in urbe around London. The brook, and with it my path curved along the boundary of Forty Hall, an estate first recorded around 1620 with a manor built during the following decades and occupied by Sir Nicholas Raynton, Haberdasher and Lord Mayor of London. Forty Hall was purchased by Enfield Council from the Bowles family in 1951, becoming in due course a museum and successful event venue. Much of the land around, designated as part of the Metropolitan Green Belt, is carefully protected with large areas left wild and not accessible to the public. The path provided along the edge of the estate was a fine one though, and well used by locals it seemed as I reached the confluence of the Turkey Brook with the Cuffley Brook, trickling in from the golf course to the west. The junction was hidden deep in the undergrowth, and it was easier to discern the dry gully nearby which was once the original course of the New River. The river originally took a dizzying meander around Enfield exploiting the natural contour of the land to reach London, but in 1859 the construction of the Docwra Aqueduct at Bulls Cross made this hard-to-maintain rural loop redundant. Having walked alongside the modern diversion of the river recently, I was struck by how narrow and rudimentary the waterless old channel seemed - but also how ambitious the aim of moving fresh water over a considerable distance had been given 17th century engineering techniques. The broad loop in the river had once provided the boundary to Forty Hall's extensive estate, a role now assumed by the Turkey Brook as it struck out east. I crossed a narrow lane near Bulls Cross where another well-maintained brick bridge spanned the brook, complete with a County of Middlesex warning notice about its unsuitability for heavy carriages or locomotives. The path continued beyond the road, a little way south of the water now, and climbed slightly to run along the edge of what had now become a surprisingly deep, wooded valley. I soon arrived at the intersection with the New River Path with the strange thrill of recognition which comes with stumbling across a familiar spot while walking a new route. The river crossed the brook in the simple metal aqueduct before heading underground to pass through the banks of the valley. Also buried near here was the 'Artificial Recharge Scheme' where around two-thirds of the New River's flow is diverted in tunnel to the reservoirs at Walthamstow. I paused to try to unravel the complex lie of the land here, while dragonflies flitted around the path, coming to rest on the deep green undergrowth. Even though the tangle of natural and man-made watercourses was almost entirely hidden from view here, there were tell-tale signs of water in the wildlife. This meeting of ways was a decision point - and the lure of the New River remained strong despite my relatively recent visit. Some ways into the city never lose their mystery it seems.
The strip of scrubby, litter-strewn land marooned between the New River and the Great Cambridge Road felt forlorn and derelict, pedestrians permitted only by the sufferance of the British Province of the Society of Jesus - although the notice on the permissive footway had been defaced to remove the final word, in effect creating a mysterious secret society in this most unlikely of places. The land here adjoins the well-tended grounds of a Jesuit school, St. Ignatius' College, but the course of the Brook remains largely wild and untouched - presumably on land stockpiled for future expansion of a school deemed 'good' by OfSTED. From the crossing of the New River, I'd been able to hear the swish and drone of the road ahead - and the long walk through quiet suburban parks made the sound seem alien and unwelcome. Between the overgrown edges of the path up ahead I could see the silver flash of hubcaps against the grimy standard-issue anti-pedestrian fencing of the road's median. The path sputtered out suddenly onto flagstones at the foot of a steep staircase to the footbridge. Cyclists were syphoned off to the south in pursuit of an underpass which apparently lay some distance away. As I clambered to the peak of the rather slender bridge which swayed gently with the effort of holding me above the traffic, I considered the impressively broad dual-carriageway beneath: this was ancient Ermine Street, the Roman road to Lincoln and York. It had begun its journey in the heart of the City of London, sluggishly pressing through the traffic of Dalston and Tottenham, edging along the wide, flat bottom of the Lea Valley and patiently awaiting its moment of escape. Suddenly, at Bruce Grove the road wheels into the suburbs and emerges from the one-way system as a classic 1920s arterial route - one of the 'Great' roads which radiated from London, strewn with modernist factory buildings and fringed by large brick villas. But the 'Great Cambridge Road' doesn't go to Cambridge anymore - at least if the sanctioned destination signs are to be believed. Only Enfield and Hertford are name-checked now, and after that? Nothing. Some signs clearly have the old destination plated over, traffic directed east to the M11 which snakes out to the northeast. The old road remains busy - still the easiest way to escape from the east of London to the north, and those in the know prefer its long, straight lines to the gently deceptive curves of the motorway. The Romans knew best it seems, and neither time nor transport policy has succeeded in downgrading Ermine Street from its primary route status. I carefully descended from the alarmingly vibrating frame of the bridge, taking the continuation of the path as it burrowed behind Enfield Crematorium, passing a sizeable fringe of the grounds which wasn't yet used for burials. A curiously unmarked series of masts, pipes and generator buildings nestled sinisterly in the undergrowth to the north of the path but probably I reasoned, had an utterly mundane purpose in a state heavy with surveillance of the least consequential things. The humid air closed in under the overgrown foliage, and the heat and stillness gave the path a malign feeling. This was part of the London Loop footpath, and while I've stumbled across - and along - many sections which were less than salubrious, this was one of the least inviting I'd found for a while. I was glad to pass under a very low railway bridge and to escape into the open once again near Turkey Street station. A corner of parkland had been recently refurbished to include a circular bench, currently in use to support the flowers and photographs of an impromptu memorial, while the brook emerged from under the rails by way of a solid brick bridge, now flowing along the street with which it shared a name.
It's hard to know exactly which came first - Turkey Street, the hamlet into which I was now walking has a long etymological history, moving from Tokestreete via Tuckhey Street to its current name in the space of around 400 years. The brook seems to have been named from the hamlet rather than in the more traditional practice, and locally remains the Maiden's Brook for some. The name appears to be derived from a family name rather than any reference to bird or country, and yet it has persisted in this form since around 1800 while the hamlet it describes has changed considerably. After a walk along the attractive banks of the brook where a terrace of houses tumble along the slope to reach the water, I emerged onto the main drag of Turkey Street. It was a seething, channel of kebab houses, bus stops and slow-grinding traffic queues. I made a crossing, mostly to avoid two bored looking Jehovas' Witnesses who were sunbathing listlessly in their button-up white shirts on the corner near the bridge. It was here that the brook begins to be tamed by mankind, squeezed into a culvert and straightened to plough its easterly path. I gingerly glanced over the bridge, sandwiched between hairdressers and takeaways, rather dreading what horrid pollution I'd discover. In fact it was what I perhaps couldn't see which alarmed me more, as a beautiful silvery adult fish gazed sightlessly up from its resting place on the riverbed appearing to have been felled by some invisible pollutant. I made a mental note to look out for any others and to report them. The suburban centre of Turkey Street sat astride the old route of the Cambridge Road - still long and straight, but now the sluggish distant cousin of the grand and aspirational arterial route nearby. I realised that I'd be in the company of the London Loop for much of the rest of my walk now, so I let the familiar signs guide me through the tense locus of overheated people and shuddering cars. I remembered once picking trains specifically to cover this suburban route, and feeling this same unease while passing through the area even then. This felt like somewhere I wasn't welcome and just shouldn't be, and so I turned east at the first opportunity, tramping more contentedly along the bank of the brook as it formed the boundary of Albany Park. The water bloomed with algae and moved slowly between reedy edges, but despite its deep and straight channel, it felt unusually natural and timeless amid surroundings which shimmered with opportunism and immediacy. The brush-dry parkland looked like a recently mown hay meadow and was speckled with families lounging on the stubble in the intense sunshine which had settled over London for the day it seemed.
At the edge of the park, the path rose to cross Mollison Avenue - the industrial spinal route between outer London and the warehouses and distribution parks which scatter along the eastern edge of Edmonton. This crescent of modern, swiftly-built plastic sheds shows as a bright white mass on aerial photography, like a concerning presence on a body scan. The road was a little over-enthusiastically named for Captain Jim Mollison, early aviator and sometime husband of Amy Johnson - ostensibly due to the presence of the long-serving Weston Aerospace works nearby in Enfield. Below the bridge, hidden deep within a clump of well-established trees, the Small River Lea joined the Turkey Brook. The little river trailed away north, towards Waltham Cross where I'd first crossed this waterway some time back. This boundary crossing also confirmed my passage into the Lea Valley, and with a line of pylons walking south towards the Thames and the bulky chimney of Enfield Power Station towering over the view, it felt strangely comfortable to return to this familiar, semi-urban landscape. Ahead of me the hills of Essex reared up, woodland spreading down from their crests. From here it felt like utter folly to attempt to climb them in the heat of the afternoon. The terrain wasn't helping - offering teasing names like Enfield Wash and Freezy Water to remind me how hot it was trudging through the parched landscape. But this was a place dominated by water and the floor of the valley was noticeably cooler. I parted company with the Turkey Brook here, letting it slip away to the south, through the Prince of Wales Open Space towards the River Lea. It was possible to walk a little further along it, but I'd decided to press on eastwards towards Enfield Lock on the Lee Navigation. A lock has existed here since 1725, with the buildings scattered around it dating from various periods of reconstruction. The Lee Conservancy Toll Office, an attractive cruciform cottage near the lock, is one of the oldest remnants, dating from 1889. Lock 13 sits on a quiet, straight stretch of the Navigation which forms something of a boundary between the redeveloped industrial zones of the western valley and the more rural eastern banks. In the midst of this, clustered around the lock are the much-gentrified remains of the Royal Small Arms Factory. Established in 1816, the site provided greater capacity for delivering ordnance than the previous site at Lewisham in a mill originally used to make armour in the 14th century. The modern buildings at Enfield were not a swift success, fighting closure at several points until the Crimean War brought an arms-making boom in 1853. The site modernised rapidly, adopting mass-production techniques from the USA, and installing steam power to replace the waterwheels which had previously driven the machines. Nevertheless, the tiny pattern of streets which had developed around the factory did not extend far outside the island site bounded by the various channels of the Lea, and generations of families tended to remain within both the village and the employment of the factory. The works continued to thrive through the early part of the 20th century, but entered a decline after the Second World War, partially closing in 1966 and finally shutting its gates in 1988 after a series of privatisations and sales. In some ways little has changed: the mid-century terraces of Ordnance Road face the older factory worker's housing on Government Row across the Navigation - but beyond this, the island is a modern development on private land. There are few ways in or out, and the area has the air of a gated community. I crossed the head of the lock and turned south onto the scrubby path which ran alongside the canal, soon turning aside to circuit Swan and Pike Pool. I picked my way through the depressing mass of litter to a bench I'd rested at on a previous walk and took the opportunity to re-apply sunscreen and greedily drink water before continuing. The pond was quiet and still with a vague waft of refuse drifting in from the incinerator nearby. It was oddly reassuring to be back in the Lea Valley once again, despite its evident drawbacks.
I crossed one of the tangled branches of the Lea which splay around the island, and then the river's main channel by way of impressive concrete footbridges which stood incongruously in otherwise empty fields. Since I'd passed the entrance road to the King George V reservoir, civilisation had made a point of retreating suddenly in the way it often does in these parts. I picked my way along a rough but pleasantly crunching towpath with tall grass waving beside me and only the occasional furiously cycling local skittering by. The path turned north and then east, fringed by impressively tall thistles and extensive crops of nettles. This was Sewardstone Marsh and new territory for me. I'd walked on the western side of the vast reservoir on previous treks, sticking with the line of the Lea Navigation. The eastern bank was wilder and stranger - unmistakably Essex now. My path turned into a rough, broken driveway serving various dilapidated industrial yards which appeared to specialise in disposing of the evidence of motor accidents. If in doubt, it was burned - as too was the large yellow County of Essex signpost nearby advising against fly-tipping. There was a phantom-smell of fire and smoke in the air, a little disconcerting given the furious heat and the dry land. I reached a junction with Sewardstone Road - a thoroughfare I'd considered walking before but which had seemed oddly remote despite being sandwiched between suburban Waltham Cross and Chingford. The road had the feel of a country lane, with a huge farm building converted to a gastropub and many of the old market garden premises now large, rather ostentatious luxury dwellings with gateways capped with stone eagles and drives haphazardly populated by BMWs and Range Rovers. The shimmer of heat and the lack of any other pedestrians made the road feel lawless and dangerous. Cars flashed past at illegal speeds on the long, straight flat valley floor heading for disreputable Car Boot Sales and perhaps a Carvery afterwards? I battled the stereotypes but couldn't quite push them aside, so I decided to follow the London Loop markers once again, striking out over a stile and across a field of tall grass, leaving the road behind me. A well-walked lighter strip of grass indicated the route of the path, though I didn't feel entirely comfortable until I'd passed the first hedge and found myself on a more established track. This land felt contested and defended, though by who I couldn't imagine. It felt like there was no-one outside the confines of a car's cockpit for miles. The path climbed, slowly at first, then more steeply as it zig-zagged towards the summit of Barn Hill and the promise of welcoming tree cover at last. Near the summit, the path dived off into a thicket of trees and over more stiles, emerging at the top of a field where it seemed to duck into the beginnings of Epping Forest. A pair of donkeys sputtered and brayed in the next field. As I crossed the field I was startled by a young, female voice: "Someone's coming! Help. Do you know where we are?". As I approached the trees a small ground of Girl Scouts emerged, maps in hand and compasses dangling around their necks. One of them took the lead in talking to this strange man who'd emerged from the woods: "Are we here?" she enquired politely, pointing to the laminated offcut of Ordnance Survey map they were carrying. "No", I replied, "You're here" - indicating a point on the red dashed arrow they'd clearly been trying and largely succeeding, to follow. They seemed bewildered that the path wasn't marked on the ground - especially where it crashed into the rough, confusing wooded edge of this field - but reassured that they hadn't strayed as far as they feared from the route. I showed them my GPS marker on my 'phone screen and described how the route ahead led to a proper path. After asking about the Ordnance Survey app and a final nervous query about whether the donkeys were loose, they happily trotted off across the grass while I ungracefully flipped myself over the stile and into the confusing wooded patch where they'd come to grief. At this point, I remembered a friend's remark that if I passed nearby today he'd wave from Gilwell Hill where thousands of international Scouts were amassing for a 24-hour event. I figured these weren't the last Scouts I'd see today.
I emerged on Daws Hill with a decision to make - the narrow road ahead lead downhill to Chingford, but meant walking the margin of a busy, fast-running and poorly-sighted lane. I decided instead that the physical effort of tramping across two further hills was preferable to a tense roadside walk, and set off into the driveway of Gillwell Park, the headquarters of Scouting in the UK. As I approached the site, the noise grew from a dull rumble to a full-throated roar. Thousands of teenagers were here - cycling, trekking, camping, singing - it was like a massive theme park based around the wholesome fun I'd read about in Enid Blyton books but never quite found a way to enjoy myself. Happy groups of tanned, healthy young people drifted by speaking a variety of languages and were always faultlessly polite. I spied a veteran scout ahead occupying a deckchair guardpost and made directly for him to check I could pass through to use the footpath. Given that I was a large, sweating, red-faced older man attempting to pass the gates of a campground full of teenagers, he was surprisingly accommodating. He eyed me as I walked towards him and clearly recognised I'd walked quite a way to get here. After a quick chat he indicated where I needed to head to take the path which skirted the site and ascended to the top of Yardley Hill. A little before the summit an unofficial path struck out into an open field. Instinctively, I passed through and headed across the grass, admiring some impressive kite flying which was taking place nearby. As I turned west to find my path onwards, the view of the valley below took my breath away. The silver mirrors of the chain of reservoirs snaked southwards, leading towards a distant city of towers and shadows. Beyond the water the land rose, a green bluff indicating the higher ground where I'd set out this morning. London spread across the edge of valley, not seeming quite so impossibly large or endless here: the tower blocks of Edmonton were tiny upended bricks, and the mass of warehouses and retail shacks along the valley floor looked like an unpainted architect's model. It was impossible not to be moved by the sight of the vast metropolis - and I thought back to circling above the same area yesterday as my flight from Düsseldorf waiting for its appointed slot at Heathrow. The same territory viewed from a different perspective. Then, like now it all felt like it made sense and fitted together. I realised that, despite years of protesting otherwise as I plodded pavements and shadowed streams, I'd begun to know parts of this messy tangle better than I imagined possible. But there was still so much to discover... I made my way down from the hill and immediately climbed again, heading towards the top of Pole Hill. The view wouldn't be great with the trees fully in leaf, and with my knee protesting at being forced into another painful ascent and the air somehow denser and hotter than ever here in the forest, it felt ill-advised - but this seemed like a time to honour tradition. When I finally found my way to the top of the hill, confused by approaching from a new angle, I paused to admire the hazy view over London once again. When I'd first come here it felt like a frontier passed - the edge of a vast forest which must surely remain out of bounds to the likes of me? Since then I'd tramped the woodland paths, returning here again and again on route elsewhere. I touched the obelisk, observing the Meridian, and headed back downhill via the same path beside the golf course which had brought me to Pole Hill on my first visit. At the end of the path, Chingford suddenly began, the forest breaking against it like a wave on the shore. The streets were oddly quiet around the station, a pensive and strange feeling in the air. I felt like I'd descended into a deserted city, and wondered how long I'd been up there in the woods? Then, as I crossed the street to enter the station a loud roar erupted from the bars on the High Street nearby. England had scored. Football, however unlikely it seemed, might just be coming home. I collapsed onto the waiting train and dozed my way back to Liverpool Street. It was probably not wise to attempt this kind of walk on the hottest day of the year so far, and I was feeling the effects. Somehow in the heat the strangeness of Essex was more marked, the stillness of the forest curiously quieter. I was almost relieved when a reveller crossed the concourse of the station sporting a crudely painted Cross of St. George across his red, sunburned cheeks to bark just inches from my face: "IT'S COMING HOME!". Having not spoken for hours and still feeling weirdly disconnected from civilisation I blinked quizzically at him and stayed silent, not sure whether I was expected to agree with him, fight him or run away in terror? He looked at me for long moments, expecting some kind of reaction and getting nothing. Then, meekly and almost thoughtfully he looked down and quietly said to himself "It is. It's coming home..." before scurrying away to yell at his friends some more.
It had been a very unusual day...
You can find a gallery of images from the walk here.
Posted in Travel on Monday 2nd July 2018 at 9:07pm
We are heading out to Germany for a few days to meet friends and see a little of Europe before it gets more complicated to do so. On some of the hottest days of an already warm World Cup summer, travel would present a number of challenges - but today, as ever it seems, French Air Traffic Controllers had decided to strike. The knock-on effects of this were minimal in many ways - a bit of a wait for take-off and a slightly irritated Captain - but there were benefits too... With slots over France in short supply, we took off on the eastern runway, heading directly over Central London and out along the estuary. Even at around 20,000 feet, the view was clear enough to see the city unfolding before me along the glimmering ribbon of the Thames. Seeing the territory I've walked and rewalked mapped out below was a rare and privileged sight for me.
As the contorted city river gave way to the broadening maw of the estuary I thought of the connection between the Thames and the Rhine, once a great river through a united continent which was soon to be artificially separated once again. Beneath me the Dartford Crossing signalled a passing into Kent, and soon the tiny towers of Reculver could be seen below. Beyond this, a sweep of blue showed the channels which boats eager sought between the off-shore wind farms and the ominous heads of the forts at Shivering Sands. Soon there was nothing but water, and then almost imperceptibly the countryside below was Belgium. It didn't look so hugely different from up here, but culturally and politically it could be a world away just now.
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.