Posted in Reading on Sunday 4th November 2018 at 2:11pm
I first encountered Tom Bolton's writing through two small but rather wonderful books, both about aspects of London which fascinated me. The first of these surveyed the familiar territory of the 'lost rivers' - a subject which I've happily wittered about for years to anyone who'd willingly listen, and to many who wouldn't too. Tom's book was well-written, often surprising and perhaps best of all, packed with detail - three things which haven't been true of many of the numerous books on this subject aside perhaps from Nicholas Barton's early and definitive work. Tom's focus on loss continued as he moved on to write about the entire districts which London has managed to carelessly unmap over the centuries of its fractious, ever-reforming existence. Whole locales which were one notable or notorious, but are now preserved perhaps only in a street-name or a pub sign left behind by the pace of social or economic change. Bolton's work delights in sharing this secret knowledge, it is entirely generous, and never glib or pompous. This is expansive, accessible and democratic writing about place. These qualities are, in my experience - and indeed in my own attempts to write on some of these topics - remarkably rare.
In this new and somewhat more personal effort, Bolton writes about a journey around the ragged and marginal coastline of Essex. That alone would have attracted me to this book, but doing so at this intemperate and disrupted time makes it all the more compelling - his subtitle is an additional hook. He and his partner divided the epic coastal walk into weekend-sized adventures, gradually progressing around the shifting and often ill-defined landfall of the eastern edge of Britain while the country disintegrated from within. Carefully edging around the curiously unpeopled but ever industrious dumping grounds of the Thames Estuary, or navigating the starkly empty reaches of mud and shifting sands on the North Sea coast, they plot a course rarely walked. Indeed its a course which may not remain possible for long as the scouring waters of the sea reclaim inches of coastline, feet of cliff-face and wide expanses of low-lying saltmarsh with each new stormy season. The path on their map is sometimes a memory before they even reach it, and almost certainly both the country and its fabric will be changed forever by the time one reads this book. As Tom and Jo work their way around the coast, they are drawn into the history and literature of the place - often unexpectedly and sometimes unwillingly encountering an Essex narrative which appears utterly different from the one sold on reality TV and accepted lazy into the zeitgeist.
But what of Brexit? Is it simply the case that getting any journey-related book published nowadays is significantly more likely if it somehow promises to take the pulse of a divided nation as the perambulation takes place? In this case, not so. The underpinning ideas of Brexit: unbridled freedom, set-in-stone (small C) conservatism and the cosy protectionism of Empire, are woven into the fabric of Essex in a much deeper sense than some other areas. Even others where the Leave vote loomed largest as it did here. Some of the places which Bolton visits have little connection to London, let alone Brussels. Railways severed, wharves decommissioned and roads often impassable due to flooding, these zones are self-contained and shun external influence. As the path along the sea defences edges further out and eventually disappears into shifting salt marshes, it seems more and more natural that these areas wanted out of the EU. They are connected with nothing, let alone something which seems, even conceptually, utterly distant from the experience of life on the very edge of the Kingdom. At one point, as Bolton shuffles through drowsy, hungover Jaywick - somewhere which ought to be kicking and screaming for any source of funding - the lack of shacks festooned in Vote Leave publicity is a surprise. But of course, it shouldn't be. It's simply assumed that you don't need to be persuaded here. Leave is a natural, unchallenged response. The landmass, drowned and murky though its borders are, has been repelling all-comers for generations. Let's just make that official.
Throughout Low Country, Bolton's topographical writing is beautiful and evocative but carries an architects' precision in its expression. The monotony and alien same-ness of the sands and mudflats ought to lie beyond easy description, but he has new observations and new intonations for each of the subtle shifts he finds as land gives way to estuary and imperceptibly becomes ocean. There are few people to be found out here, but those who appear are written as the kind of brief, flickering ghost-presences which I too have met on lonely paths through the marshes. In that sense alone, the book is an essential read - this journey which few of us will take deserves to be recorded. It has a heritage in the tradition of landscape authors who once regarded Essex as worthy of note and recognised its surprising difference to England at large. But Bolton's book goes beyond a description of the terrain, and somehow gets under the skin of Essex while it does the same to him in return. In the closing section, where he walks the treacherous Broomway over Maplin Sands and the expansive, reflected mud flats become inseparable from the sky, he captures something essential of the Essex coast and its liminality. Later, he experiences for the first time a newly developed allergy to pollen - the marshes have returned his attention with interest.
There are commonly thought to be two distinct tribes in the UK just now, and we are all required to identify vigorously and loudly as Leaver or Remainer. This does us all a disservice - we're more complicated than that and deserve to be listened to fully and fairly. We're all a product not just of the culture which has nurtured our midset but also of the topography which we inhabit. Tom Bolton has delivered in Low Country, the rarest of things - a book packed with both poetic topographical description and pointedly observed social detail. A work which ultimately concludes that perhaps isolation breeds greater isolation, and which sounds a cautionary note about the relationship between disconnection, dislocation and discontent. He treats both the land he walks and the people he meets with evident respect and an open mind, even when he very clearly finds them challenging his own reality.
Posted in London on Saturday 3rd November 2018 at 9:11pm
I was still smarting a little from last month's abortive walk, but things had started tolerably well. Despite some engineering works which saw me arriving in London around half-an-hour later than usual, the journey had been relaxing and I'd read and dozed my way east. This was the first walk of winter and I'd embarked on the journey in the dark, but by the time of my arrival, there were clear skies and surprising sunshine. My coat was stashed in my bag, dreading the small chance that I'd experience a soaking like last time, but for now, it stayed rolled up and squashed into the bottom of the rucksack. I had several options on arrival - all of which would be complicated by a large number of Tube closures, but the instinct was to head out east - back into the same geography which had drenched and defeated me. I boarded a 205 bus and tried not to let its slow progress frustrate me as we lurched and weaved through the traffic on the Euston Road. Finally, we arrived at Liverpool Street and I quickly scuttled down the stairs to find the platforms closed. Somehow in my haste to get out here I'd overlooked the Overground being out of action too. I almost faltered - almost decided that this was fate and my walks in London would come to grief here: rained off and stymied by travel complications. I rallied enough to quickly head back upstairs and onto another 205. If I could get to Mile End, I could get somewhere near where I'd planned to be. It was worth a try, surely? I felt hemmed in by time and geography. This wasn't how the day was meant to begin at all...
I'd never planned to find myself alighting at the incongruously provincial Barkingside station. The pleasant little brick and stone building with its verdigris tinted cupola and hammerbeam roof didn't belong in a modern London suburb at all. The stations on this loop of the Great Eastern Railway have never been well used, being built largely as an attempt to fuel speculative developments in the Roding Valley. For a time during the First World War they closed entirely, before being handed to the emerging London Passenger Transport Board for modernisation and electrification. The programme was much delayed by wartime activity and post-war austerity, but by 1948 electric trains were running on the extended Central Line at last, including a new tunnelled section which led out east to meet the old GER line north of Ilford. Outside the station, I was in textbook Redbridge: streets of low post- and inter-war semi-detached homes stretched away from the station in grids dropped onto the topography of the valley. I headed first a little west, and then along the broad avenue of Craven Gardens, largely avoiding the surprisingly busy High Street. Since I was out here I'd decided I needed to make a pilgrimage to a notable modernist building nearby.
Fulwell Cross Library and Leisure Centre originated in the era of post-war reconstruction and civic recovery which produced much of the finest modern architecture in Britain. The scheme was proposed in 1958, with Frederick Gibberd - responsible for the sublime Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral - commissioned to deliver the scheme in collaboration with the Borough Engineer, H.J Mulder. It took a decade for the plans to be realised, with the complex finally opening to the public in March 1968. Wedged into an awkward triangle of land where the busy High Street decanted traffic onto a churning traffic island, the circular library sat at the head of the peninsula. Beyond, the larger blocks of the leisure centre brooded over the construction, an empty civic square uneasily located between the two. The building was an arresting sight: like a landed spacecraft. The ramped entrance seemed forbidding at first. The ranks of tall, narrow arrow-slit like windows oscillated around the perimeter before stopping abruptly and entering a more uniform pattern which evoked either a bank vault or prison cells. Atop the whole structure, a copper-roofed lantern allowed light into the building below. I looked around: the people of Redbridge were going about their saturday morning, apparently oblivious to this strange imposition on their suburban landscape. They seemed utterly untroubled by its oddness and otherness, and clearly didn't want to borrow books today. I circled, making a complete trip around the library before retreating to attempt a picture which I knew the road would ruin. It was an exhilarating start to a trip which had seemed unlikely to deliver. Determined now to get walking, I set out eastwards along Forest Road.
The suburban edges of London soon dwindled and the footpath strayed away from the busy road and into the trees. I passed under a wooden frame which acted as a ceremonial gateway to Fairlop Waters Country Park, and soon found myself surveying a broad, rippling lake busy with boaters. The view to the east was a rising plain of green with the dark smudge of Hainault Forest on the horizon. The suburban estates on this north-eastern edge of London were an irregular patchwork with the countryside of Essex intruding into them in sometimes unexpected ways. I plotted a course to the south of the lake, passing the impressive sailing club. A couple of members were enjoying an early beer outside in the winter sunshine, marking how late I was starting out on this walk. I had no real final objective in mind now - but I was determined to make the best of the fine weather. The path plunged into a thicket of woodland via a green avenue which disappeared downhill towards the valley of the Seven Kings Water. The autumnal foliage cast a golden filter on the sunlight and I found myself relaxing into the excursion. I'd realised over the last few weeks how much these walks mattered - and when one didn't go entirely to plan, how long it seemed until the next. The path curved a little west, then passed through a gate into the yard of the Aldborough Hall Equestrian Centre. A tiny dog yammered at me from a distance and then ran indoors. I began to doubt my right to be here, but it did appear to be marked on the map as a public right of way. I pressed on and escaped via the gate at the southern end of the site, unmolested by the little but loud mutt who's yelping continued somewhere on site. My plan here had been to turn east and head for the Seven Kings Water, but it appeared that Painters Road had no footpath and was regularly used by huge quarry trucks which filled its entire width. This wasn't a pleasant prospect, so I headed south along Aldborough Road instead. This country lane passed through pleasant farmland, the hedges being tended by hand-wielded sickle as I passed by. Beside the road, a Miller and Carter Steakhouse had occupied the former Dick Turpin pub, the name restored by popular demand despite the legend having little evidence to support a local connection with this most prolific of suburbanites. The village of Aldborough Hatch provided a gentle, drawn-out introduction to civilisation. Straggling along a straight road which gradually widened into a modern thoroughfare, it centred on the fine old parish church of St. Peter which glowered over the street from behind a haphazard graveyard of tumbling memorials. This was truly one of London's villages, tracing its name back to a hæcc or 'hatch gate' to Hainault Forest which stood nearby. The lands beyond the village were subject to dramatic and destructive deforestation in 1851 which saw trees uprooted overnight and the area cleared for farmland. This led, in part to campaigns which saved Epping Forest from a similar fate, but the farming here had never been easy or productive, and these long straight lanes laid out to access the land now provided a convenient high-speed rat-run for the stone trucks and BMW drivers. The backyards of the properties along Oaks Lane were littered with hints of the rural past: unserviceable farm equipment, listed outbuildings and remains of stables and farmyards - facilities which once served the now-demolished Victorian manor of Aldborough Hall. I was thoroughly enjoying the discovery of this curious village-within-a-city when the telltale hiss and drone of a major road began to overshadow the quiet of a suburban Saturday morning. I was approaching Eastern Avenue, where I'd planned to be a whole month ago. The spell of rural Essex was broken and I was back on my more usual turf. But this charmed zone is under a more permanent threat: as I headed towards the edge of Aldborough I spotted a sign on a lamppost - Brett Tarmac, the operators of the quarry intend to drive an access road through the nature reserve through which I'd just walked. The gravel quarry had won permission to extend even closer to the village, and the new road will carry the frequent, huge trucks to and from the site. It is remarkably hard to think that this quiet little nook on the edge of London being altered for generations. I noted down the link for the petition, determined to do my little bit though doubting it would change what seemed a done deal.
The flash of cars passing a high barrier designed to prevent pedestrians from dashing across the A12 heralded the end of Aldborough Road which decanted traffic abruptly onto the eastbound carriageway of the broad arterial route. Beside the junction, the fine jagged brick lines of the William Torbitt Primary School presented a proud face to the road. Named for the Borough of Ilford's then Director of Education, the school opened in 1937 and was designed in the art deco style by L.E.J Reynolds, the architect to the Education Committee. As my gateway to the road west, it was impressive and aspirational - modernised sympathetically so as not to alter its balanced and symmetrical face, the school echoed the municipal zeal of the interwar years. New roads and new schools to serve expanding suburbs. The optimism of the times was cemented into these good, solid buildings which ranged along this equally ambitious road. Eastern Avenue was planned in the great post-war road-building spree which saw Britain's network of ancient byways modernised and expanded to deal with the burgeoning ownership of motorcars. By 1924, the planners had settled on a sweeping modern arterial route to extend from Wanstead to Gallows Corner before taking the growing tide of holiday traffic east to Southend. The road was built to a remarkably high standard: a spacious dual-carriageway flanked by broad, separate cycleways which are now parts of the unusually generous pavement for much of the route's length. The modern A12 is a classic London arterial - running between suburban villas and parades of local shops and crossed via frequent pedestrian subways. For much of its length, Eastern Avenue is also remarkably fast-flowing, and in some stretches even falls occasionally quiet. The once pressing need to use this route out of the city has been superseded: the M11 takes traffic north into Essex and beyond, and the upgraded A13 provides a much swifter route along the Thames estuary. The mighty but groaningly overloaded M25 ferries a sluggish tide of traffic between these arms of the network while the A12 bisects the quadrant, now largely ignored except by local traffic to the suburbs. This also means it is largely unchanged from its original form, and as I began to plod west towards London, it was easy to ignore the modern developments along the route and to imagine the road as it would have been when new. I rather regretted I hadn't opted to cover the section from Gallows Corner to Aldborough when I'd last walked here, but perhaps it wouldn't have been quite so inspiring a prospect in the rain? My walk so far today had unfurled a spiral, winding out from Barkingside and now heading towards the Central Line again at Newbury Park station where I encountered another fine modern building. The bus station, built for the 1951 Festival of Britain still feels shockingly modern: a half-pipe of smooth, grey concrete with one of its elegant sides opened partially to the elements. Today, the rail closures at Liverpool Street made for lots of additional traffic as replacement bus services jostled for entrance with regular services. People milled around, unsettled by the changes to their expected journey and shaken from their usual sleepwalking journey into a weekend retail raid on town. I decided not to explore further: time was pressing, and the crush of slightly miserable, fractious travellers seemed like an unwelcome distraction. I admired the building from afar instead, trying and largely failing, to get a sensible angle for a picture. I was struck by the view through the bus station - the concrete tunnel amplified the bright blue sky beyond and the clatter and clamour of the boarding crowds. It was a fascinating and strange place which deserved another visit. Nearby, the Central Line passed under the road in a deep cutting. Once this line continued south to join the Great Eastern mainline at Seven Kings, but when the long-planned improvement works finally awoke from wartime slumbers in 1946, the tracks were slewed dramatically to the west to head into tunnels under Eastern Avenue. I peered over the bridge, briefly watching trains arrive and depart, before pressing on westwards to unravel the progress of the railway.
The horizon rose slightly as the road crested the shallow eastern lip of the Roding Valley. My route passed the austere and deserted Ilford War Memorial gardens which seemed to be curiously mislocated out here on the edge of the road. In fact, this was a matter of significant debate at the time of the gardens' creation in 1922, with locals seeing the site as "little more than a cabbage ground" but dignitaries assuring them that the coming of Eastern Avenue would create a great civic route into Ilford. At the extreme northeastern corner of the park, a tiny but imposing drumlike building housed the names of the dead. This Memorial Hall had followed the gardens creation in 1927, and was planned to form an entrance to the newly commissioned Emergency Wing of the Children's Hospital, though it was never used as such routinely. The symbolism was carefully balanced: from great sacrifice, new life. The hospital closed in 1993 when the modern King George Hospital opened nearby, and was finally demolished in 2001 with this tiny fragment saved for its ceremonial purpose. I stopped into a store attached to a nearby filling station and was admonished by the clerk for presenting the wrong loyalty card. I accepted his disgust as a blessing on my journey and set off again passing a ludicrously large McDonalds which I was certain must have a history. A little searching led me to The Green Gate, a pub with a long history on the site which still lends its name to this junction. Records of a beer shop here date back to 1861, but the sprawling brick building which has been appropriated by the golden arches of progress dates from a 1922 rebuild as a classic interwar roadhouse on the then-new arterial route. The internet was full of recollections of The Green Gate in its incarnation as a rock venue: the New Wave of British Heavy Metal had left a memory crater here on the fringe of Ilford which still drew a virtual crowd who had long since swapped their low-powered motorcycles for sensible family cars. Some pushed further back - Bill Haley & The Comets had played the Green Gate. Now, sticky fingers clamoured at the windows and when the door opened, the whoops and screams of over-stimulated and hyperglycaemic children pierced the drone of the road. In 2016, national newspapers had picked up the story of a late-night drive-through diner who had inexplicably Whatsapp'ed her transaction at the window, broadcasting an angry cursing employee to the world. The crossroads on these ancient routes are always sites of contention it seems. I thought of other old wayside inns I'd encountered which had suffered the same conversion: those around the North Circular in particular. It was hard to imagine Louis Macneice's autumnal progress along these routes in quite the same way when punctuated by regular calorie loading rather than flat halves of bitter, but I was glad the buildings still stood and had a modern use.
At Gants Hill, the road divided at a busy circus of local shops which concealed the Underground station. I descended into the complex of tiled subways, negotiating the junction largely by instinct as the signage was sparse and incomplete. Beyond the anonymous passageways and ticket barriers, the station is rather unique at platform level: modelled on the Moscow Metro with modern uplighters and fine tiling along the concourse between the platforms. Above ground, the A1400 struck out to the north - a spur of Eastern Avenue which carries traffic towards Woodford, and which was until the opening of the Barking Relief Road in the 1980s, part of the North Circular. It seemed fitting after my circumnavigation of those routes, to come to this historic terminal point. Today though my business lay on the A12, which lost even more traffic here, with the Woodford Spur offering easy access to the M11. I resurface on the southern side of the road, still a broad, high specification dual carriageway with pedestrian-proof barriers dividing the road - but now quieter. The view ahead opened out into the valleys of the Roding and the Lea. Pylons marched along the horizon, heading south towards the Thames. There was an autumnal haze over the landscape as I surveyed the territory I'd be walking. Eastern Avenue stretched ahead, descending gently with the terrain and reverting to type: red-brick mid-century semi-detached homes marched along the road, side roads into the suburbs largely unchanged except for a forest of satellite receivers and the imposition of 20mph speed limits. In the warm but weakening sunshine, it was possible to imagine the road as it had looked when build - wide, hopeful and expectantly stretching into a post-war future. A modern highway which extended the possibilities of a rapidly growing, modernising suburbia. It was still the age of municipal endeavour, and perhaps of paternalism in government. As the new road unrolled, so did the parks, schools and hospitals: buildings which seem so solid and inextinguishable, but which sometimes feel like they exist in only a flickering, tenuous way now. Eastern Avenue was a living, drivable museum piece. A walk into the period when war was over, perhaps forever. Where modernism was clean, sleek and decent. It was like gazing into the tubular station at Newbury Park and seeing the future.
Redbridge was a jolt to the senses - a jarring sense of familiarity coupled with a sensory hit of noise and fumes. I'd arrived at this vast circle of traffic from every direction except this one and while the location checked out, things felt inverted and confused. I took the wrong turning early on, heading under the road into a tidy subway tiled in the 1970s style and surfacing near the utilitarian brick tower of the Underground station. I retraced my steps under the road and finally found a familiar spot: a parting of ways where twice before I'd ascended steps to ghost the North Circular on its approach to Ilford. Today I continued under the next arm of the road, finally finding the centre of the circus beneath the two slender viaducts carrying the divided carriageways of the A406 overhead. The road was still descending from a crossing of the Roding nearby, and still reconstituting into a single route after dividing to admit access to the M11 back at Charlie Brown's. I finally surfaced near a small development of homes which I immediately recognised from inadvertently exploring this corner when attempting to track the river. I recalled being conspicuous and out-of-place here, and the sense-memory prickle of horror at being spotted as an alien swiftly returned. I'd not seen many walkers along my route today, but this next stretch promised to be the most forbidding and least well-trodden. Turning west again along the A12 I crossed the River near Wanstead Pumping Station. The forlorn edifice, approximately gothic in appearance, glowered behind well-secured gates while the tiny brick lodge nearby lay apparently derelict. It remained home to a collection of collapsing vehicles and a fat, grey cat which greeted me gratefully at the gates and tracked me until I crossed the water. Orienting myself by the flow of the Roding I spotted my previous route along the valley floor snaking away north and now, with experience and the boldness of familiarity, I could see the way I perhaps should have taken southwards between the golf course and the river meadows and cemeteries of Aldersbrook. The terrain here had become less alien with rewalking, and seemed to offer me an easier passage. I'd earned the right to walk here perhaps?
The road snaked into Wanstead, signs warning of my impending prohibition. The tunnels into which the A12 disappeared - perhaps a little less well-engineered than was optimal - were a concession to popular opinion. The route of the A12 from Redbridge to Leyton is an official compromise, an undoing of grand plans which would have seen a very different pattern of streets here had it succeeded. The original conception dates back to the post-war plans for swift but destructive Ringways: oft-mentioned here and now largely forgotten except by enthusiastic researchers of a London which might have been. This urban motorway scheme would have seen the M11 ploughing directly into London, crossing from the Roding Valley to the Lea and channelling into a complex junction at Hackney Wick. At the same time, the A12 would have been rendered largely pointless, likely downgraded from trunk route status and with its freight of traffic funnelled away by the new urban motorways. By the late 1980s ambitious road-building was back on the agenda with the publication of Roads for Prosperity, but the Ringway scheme was dead, a victim of a long struggle to convince the public that it would represent the optimistic progress of the times during which it was conceived. Instead, the M11 would terminate at Charlie Browns', and the North Circular would ferry traffic east and south onto the newly commissioned Barking Relief Road towards Essex and the Dartford Crossing. This left a problem - getting volumes of traffic from Charlie Brown's to Central London would have been the task of the extended M11 and the short stretch of the East Cross Route which had already been built from Hackney to the Blackwall Tunnel. An improved A12 would now bear this weight instead, built to Motorway standard and scything through the tired suburbs of Wanstead and Leytonstone, widening the unnatural valley already carved by the Central Line tracks. The protests had begun in the mid-1970s when the Ringways were still an aspiration. initially, the resistance was well-mannered and institutional, following - and exhausting - all of the usual official channels over a ten-year administrative process designed likely consciously to frustrate through attrition. By 1993 direct action had been successfully deployed by protestets to prevent road projects progressing elsewhere in the UK, and now voices from outside begun to be heard around Wanstead. Initially, their ecological and largely ideological causes seemed distinct from those of the locals who were now dog-tired and resigned to change. Eventually however, the actions of a local lollipop lady named Jean Gosling, would unite them and form a resistance which was both fierce and long-lasting. The protests centred on two specific sites, one of which was nearby: the footpath became narrower and less welcoming, with cars now uncomfortably close to my shoulder, while the noise and dust compromised any hope of sensing danger. Eventually I was forced to leave via a slip-road, while the road ploughed underground ahead of me. At the top of the rise I crossed the street onto George Green. It was here where the protestors had thought an early battle was won - the new road would tunnel under the green, leaving the wide expanse of quiet, green space at the head of Wanstead High Street. It had been here for centuries, a corner of Epping Forest which had survived as part of the grounds of Wanstead House. It seemed right it should lay undisturbed. However it soon emerged that the tunnel would be built by the cut-and-cover method, necessitating the destruction and replacement of the green, and removing many well-established trees. It was one of these, a sprawling and ancient Spanish Chestnut around which the protest coalesced. When Jean Gosling learned that the tree was threatened, she drummed up support among local children and parents. Ultimately, doing so in her official uniform saw her dismissed from her job. However, the views of the incoming protestors and the locals were aligning, and when campaigners arrived for a tree-dressing ceremony and found security fences blocking their path, both camps united to tear them down in act of resistance which harked back to the earlier days of Epping Forest. The campaign was ultimately defeated by a continued heavy police presence and many allegations of intimidation and violence against the contractors and the authorities. The cost of policing the protests to save the tree spiralled to around £500,000 and a national focus on the destructive path of the M11 Link Road was assured. The Green now was quiet, backlit by the sinking winter sun with the trees casting long shadows over the path of the buried road. A distinct and bleak strip of bleached grass described the path of the tunnel. Without the shade of trees, the long, hot summer had all but burned the grass away. The ghost of the road haunted the line of proud Victorian mansions and storefronts across the street. Wanstead is a prosperous, gentrified suburb now - and the years have been kinder to it than many other inner London zones. But the sense of a sleepy suburb comes to grief at the edge of George Green where the rumble of traffic still seeps from the ground, and no amount of pretence hides the imposition on the landscape which fumes and shudders below.
The road emerged from tunnel only briefly after passing under the Green before turning sharply and heading underground again, and there was no prospect of walking beside it. I crossed to the eastern side and followed a path which offered to take me to The Green Man. Through a metal gate, I caught a glimpse of the road below - traffic flashed by, dust churned and horns screamed as cars jostled for the correct lane at the upcoming junction. This wasn't the road I set out to walk, and any sense of loyalty to a plan or purposed had largely disappeared with the oddly dispiriting crossing of George Green. This section of the improved A12 is a 'special road' and pedestrians, horses, motorcycles and the like are consigned to other routes. I couldn't walk the route of the A12 even if I wanted to, and I'd need to take a diversion along other streets. I initially considered taking a route I'd walked before along Grove Green Road - but that didn't appeal. It would take me close to the other site of protest at Claremont Road but I had little stomach for more of the bitterness of lost campaigns today. I spotted the paths which I walked on my recent forest crossing which bisected the route of the road here and I was briefly tempted to return to Wanstead Flats. Instead I turned aside at The Green Man and headed into Leytonstone. This was, perhaps surprisingly, new territory for me. I've crossed Leytonstone's long, busy and diverse High Road many times - but this was my first opportunity to walk almost its entire length. Immediately after leaving the roundabout, a change registered. The smell of multiple cusines blended on the air: meat turned on charcoal grills while late fried breakfasts were served in traditional cafés to molify hungover stomachs, bitter coffee aromas rose over the curls of diesel smoke from delivery vehicles cocked with one wheel on the curb while fabric and 'phone cases were swiftly decanted into the long row of shops. Little had changed here in a century, but everything had changed too. The fabric of the street was the constant: shops below flats, railway bridges spanning the terraces. Meanwhile, whole populations had churned through Leytonstone, leaving their mark - and the traces of their culture - on the district. There was an air of quiet positivity here which didn't depend on any gentrifying action. While there were improvements in the pedestrian areas and much-needed places to sit and watch the world go by, there were no attempts to stage-manage the businesses. The mix of modern services, neat boutiques and older trades was dizzying and compelling. Walking the High Road was a surprising highlight of my day, and had a re-energising effect. I wanted to continue walking now - I had found my stride and beaten down the doubts and demons of my aborted mission last time.
The sun was beginning to sink towards the horizon, throwing long shadows over the still busy streets of Leytonstone, and I realised I'd soon have to decide how to end my walk. It was tempting to just keep walking south, into Stratford and beyond - but practicality dictated that I start to head west at some point given the lack of transport options. At Crownfield Road I finally turned aside, heading back into the suburbs briefly. As I strode onward I found myself standing astride a small concrete marker on the footpath denoting the line of the Greenwich Meridian. Having one foot in each hemisphere felt appropriate - I was approaching the Olympic Park, a zone which felt distinctly different from the terrain I'd been crossing, and utterly alien to the East End of old. While the suburbs which splayed from Eastern Avenue were modern, aspirational and neatly zoned in their own way, they had little in common with the clumsily stage-managed new neighbourhoods which were now springing up in what was being dubbed Stratford City. I passed the entrace gates to Drapers' Fields and headed along Temple Mills Lane, crossing the complex of railway lines where Chobham Farm Junction would once have been located: the point that the Central Line had formerly joined the routes into Stratford. Despite the high security fencing and the forest of cranes sprouting from the ominously growing cores of future buildings ahead, this zone remained heavily anchored in its own history. Temple Mills was named for the large watermills owned by the Knights Templar and used, initially at least, to grind the corn grown on their extensive lands in Hackney Marsh and Leyton. This boggy, low-lying patch of the Lower Lea Valley has never been much inhabited, but has always served an ancilliary role: farming, grazing, milling. Later, the Great Eastern Railway located a carriage works on the site and the railways clung to a presence here until the very last moments before the Olympic storm settled on the East in 2012. Vast freight sidings being trimmed into a more modest wagon works and a locomotive repair depot, before finally becoming the home of off-duty Eurostar trains after their efforts on the continent each day. The other role of the vast, largely unused spaces of Hackney Marsh was storage: much could be kept out of sight here, things were easily lost on the marshes. During 1972, a strike at the Chobham Farm Container Depot saw five flying pickets jailed for contempt of court. The ensuing mishandled political fall-out contributed to the further decline of the already ailing Heath government. Tiny Temple Mills held the balance of the uneasy truce between labour and capital for just a short while. The government shouldn't have messed with Templar land: it suffered its own downfall, limping on into 1974 but dogged by industrial unrest and spiralling unemployment. Now the territory was quiet - a strip of brownfield land hugged the railway lines, waiting to be redeveloped into the new community of Chobham Manor. Beyond, the former Soviet-like blocks of the Olympic Village had been retrofitted to become homes, their lower floor retail opportunities mostly still vacant all these years later. The broad boulevards between the post-Olympic towers were in shadow in the late afternoon sun, young families arriving back from shopping or decked out in white robes, heading out to martial arts lessons. Large sections of the area still appeared unpeopled and vacant, dark windows peppering the upper floors. Ahead, the lights of the London Stadium glowed a pale blue over the tarmac. West Ham were playing at home, and as I headed deeper into the park and crossed the bridge onto the plaza surrounding the Stadium I began to feel like I was being carried along by a crowd of scarf-wearing fans. They were good-natured, perhaps friendly even - but I sensed they had me marked out as an interloper from the beginning. I peeled away towards the Lea Navigation as sirens howled and the Air Ambulance descended nearby in a swirl of dust from the compound beside of the stadium. The path around the Stadium running beside the Old River Lea was inaccessible today, so I made do with a walk along its sister canal - a veteran of so many of my walks here. It felt good to be back, crossing the bridge at White Post Lane and zig-zagging lazily onto Fish Island, dodging the oncoming tide of football fans as I fought my way south along broken pavements. Instinctively, I took a turn onto the Greenway. This meant doubling back on my route which had zig-zagged across the former marshes from Leytonstone - but that was no great hardship. I was on well-walked turf here. I knew my way.
I headed back down to the towpath of the navigation where the Greenway passed overhead, its unsavoury cargo carried in huge iron pipes slung under the bridge. The taint of sewage hung cloyingly in the air, but it was good to be back on this path. This was sort of where it had begun: certainly where I'd begun to systematically edge further and further out of London. Where I'd realised that the vast, pale spread of the city on the map was a living, walkable thing. I'd resolved to walk it then - and at this natural point of reassessment I thought I'd made a pretty good job of covering the ground so far. There was, of course, ever a route untaken, always a turning unexplored. London was overwhelmed with stories, a complex mess of intersecting places which meant everything to somebody, but nothing to people just a street or two away. I picked up the pace - walking parallel to a golden sunset with the water beside me slowly darkening in the gloom. I passed under Bow Interchange on the cleverly designed floating towpath which bobbed slightly as I passed over. The path was quiet, the cold bright afternoon passing gradually towards twilight. I walked the familiar path feeling content and blessed by the opportunity. It was good to be back: passing Three Mills, crossing over the steep bridge at Bow Locks, ascending the slope beside the A12 to surface beside the Limehouse Cut. I was back on the road I'd set out alongside hours back in the comparative quiet of Aldborough. Here it was a grey gully of soot and dust. Gantry signs already vociferously diverted non-tunnel compliant traffic away from the final stretch of the A12. Or was it the A102 now? For a while this was urban motorway - one of the few segments of the Inner Ringway which ever clambered from the ambitious plans into reality. The Blackwall Tunnel Approach road clamoured and roared in a way which the A12 hadn't managed further east. It was the only way left to cross the river until the Woolwich Ferry. Drivers desperate not to be consigned to a long trip east or a diversion to Dartford bore down hard on the iron gauging rings which persuaded drivers of overlarge vehicles to think again before descending. Walking beside the road was a surprising education: the broad six-lane highway was flanked with dead businesses, defunct pubs, an abandoned Fire Station. The effect of the road out in Ilford had been cleansing and ambitious: new neighbourhoods springing from the uneasy interwar peace. Here though it was catastrophic. Blackwall and Bromley divided. Streets discontinued, and therefore ripe for future destruction. The soot-dusted trough in which the road sat was overshadowed by ill-conceived development. But then, among the glassy towers rose the concrete totem of Balfron Tower - wrapped in temporary cladding during works, only the lower rise neighbours at Carradale House reflecting the golden sunlight today. To the east, I passed the industrial edges of Aberfeldy Village. Grim and unreconstructed dead-end roads-to-knowehere disappeared among factory units, unlike the nearby development of solid and decent homes. It was almost a relief to see from the fly-tipping and junk tossed out of cab doors that some aspects of life here hadn't changed at all. The abandoned security cabins and tractor-units parked up for the weekend weren't giving away any secrets. I climbed towards the familiar intechange with the A13 behind a woman showing a newly arrived friend around the area: "There are shops up here, and a market. You can't want for much more here." The final few yards of my walk took me alongside the deep-channelled lanes of traffic which led to the Blackwall Tunnel. My attention was focused downwards, keen to glimpse the moment of transition: when cars were wholly underground. A magical disappearing act. So studious was my subterranean focus that I was shocked to look up at a still extant section of Robin Hood Gardens. The tattered edge of the stately but still curiously elegant concrete block, with some end-flats cruelly exposed to the elements, flapping in the breeze from the Thames. Just one flank remained of the vast horseshoe shaped development which had once seemed so futuristic - even perhaps hopeful? The fight for its salvation and restoration was largely orchestrated by architects and urban planning enthusiasts, and was set against a keen voice for demolition from the final residents of the complex. They had witnessed it's ultimate downfall - and heralded the loss of the one realised opportunity for Alison & Peter Smithson's 'streets in the sky' to change urban life. Robin Hood Gardens wasn't a faulty building in every sense, but it had been left to decay under the broken municipal contract. Overall though, the ambivalent voices of the debate had been tamer than the fury in Leytonstone, and both had merit. The only reprieve would be a section saved for display at the V&A - perhaps the ultimate gentrification project?
I slowly wandered over to the familiar bus circle at Blackwall, tired feed beginning to glow with the memory of a road well walked. So this was progress? I wondered as I left Robin Hood Gardens, the concrete tinted a warm pink and windows winking in the sunset, if the guardians of civic pride in little Aldborough would have thought the same?
You can find lots of pictures from the walk here. The M11 Link Road protests are extensively covered in sections of Will Ashon's 'Strange Labyrinth' (Granta, 2017) and in poetry and photography in Paul Hawkins' 'Place, Waste, Dissent' (Influx Press, 2015)
Posted in London on Saturday 6th October 2018 at 11:10pm
I calculated I had until about midday...
The forecast wasn't good, and as I sped eastwards under steely, unrelentingly grey skies, I doubted my calculations. I was eager to get walking too and I felt anxious to cross London swiftly, emerging on its eastern edge in a silvery gloom. The street lamps of the eastern suburbs glowed a sickly yellow, and the halos around the headlamps in the carparks sparkled in the damp air. The train out of Liverpool Street, a life-expired substitute for the new Crossrail units which were prematurely operating most services now, rattled and shuddered into the suburban stations. I was heading almost to the end of the route, and as the seats emptied I realised that the gaps between the stations were opening out, the view from the window becoming a long span of greenery beyond the rooftops. It had been a long time since I'd suffered a genuine pang of real range anxiety, and it landed unexpectedly a little after leaving Harold Wood - the edge of my walked universe in this direction, at least until now. The long stretched suburb dissolved into scrubby, green wasteland. We crossed the M25, and the emptiness continued. I felt like I'd missed the stop and been overcarried into the countryside of West Essex, but eventually the train squealed and protested into the platform at Brentwood. A few others got off beside me, but when I emerged from the gents - unlocked and free, distinctly un-London - the platform was eerily empty. A member of staff pottered along, picking litter and checking doors. I made my exit and began the climb towards the ridge on which the town rested. There was a knot of commercial activity around the station, but it soon gave way into a residential street which climbed surprisingly steeply away from the curve of the railway below. It felt good to be striding up towards the start of what promised to be a long walk towards London...
At the top of the hill I found the High Street, preserving a truly ancient alignment which pre-dated even the Roman road to Colchester. I arrived at the end of town, most of the excitement and business happening east of the junction where I joined the road. Even here though, Brentwood felt busy and provincial - not like London at all, despite the regular pulse of red buses arriving from the west. The ancient market town had always been a crossroads - the pilgrim's road to the Thames and on to Canterbury crossed the great road to the east at a point marked by a chapel dedicated to St. Thomas Becket. The town was a staging post - approximately twenty miles from London, and thus a second chance for stagecoaches leaving the city to rest at one of its many inns. It still felt like a busy place of crossing, though on a gloomy Saturday morning there was little urgency to its business. It was hard to imagine this street being the site of the very first Poll Tax Riot in 1381. I turned west and headed along London Road - the long, straight route which overlaid the old track, and which was now lined with impressive town houses and occasional business premises. The road fell away surprisingly steeply, and a sudden glimpse of the horizon stopped me abruptly. Beyond the treetops, in the far distance, I could see a blur of clustered dark towers wavering in the cloudy gloom. Above them, still darker clouds churned and rolled towards me. It was raining on London, and the city glowered under the unquiet skies. I was walking to meet the storm as it moved eastwards. I had seen London from a distance before, and experienced similar shocks at its sudden imposition on a flat landscape - but this was different. An oddly apocalyptic vision of the city from this considerable distance was both welcome in quelling my anxiety and disconcerting in its offer of inclement walking weather. I pressed on and crossed a tiny brook, only perceptible by a rusty iron balustrade beside the street. The brook, shrouded in trees, meandered west towards the Weald Brook and the Ingrebourne. I felt a little more connected to things and relaxed into my surroundings as I passed the timbered gables of Marygreen Manor - a hotel which was once indirectly connected with Henry VIII via Henry Roper, Gentleman Pursuivant to Catherine of Aragon who lived here in 1514. The road levelled as Brentwood dwindled to edgeland businesses. The pavement gave out and I stomped along a grassy verge opposite the Holiday Inn. I could feel the nexus of main roads closing on my route, the traffic slowing and a string of red taillamps providing my approach lights for the junction ahead.
The brutality of the traffic was initially shocking - the A12 cannoned in from East Anglia, urging drivers who were glad to finally be travelling on decent, fast routes towards the more uncertain progress of the M25. The A12 continued, but it was a largely obsolete arterial which made an approach on London which few would choose willingly. Thus, once over the first rather tricky to cross southbound slip-road and under the wide concrete carriageways, I found my own exit a good deal less busy. The road ramped down towards the A12 which passed below, the footpath separated by a screen of hedges. I was walking a tightrope here: the open fields to my left were in Essex and the road to my right was in London. The situation was resolved when I finally crossed the tiny, busily trickling River Ingrebourne just where the slip-road joined the main carriageway. It turned west into the thick greenery which bordered the road, and with it, I entered the London Borough of Havering near a tired and uninviting welcome sign. It was unceremonious and undetectable unless you were looking out for it. Perhaps unsurprisingly - the gravity here was weak. A few feet further ahead, the absurd vastness of London became clearer: I was still twenty miles from Central London. The clouds rolled towards me faster than the traffic on the opposite carriageway. The cars heading out of the city had their wipers working at full-speed and dripped a trail of rainwater. I felt the first, heavy drops of late summer rain begin to plop onto the coat I'd contemplated not wearing. My charmed period of dry, sunny summer walks was ending it seemed. There was a further watery omen too: I entered the edge-suburb of Harold Wood, walking beside the road on a run of tired, mostly shuttered shops called The Parade. As I crossed Harold Court Road, a busy link heading south with a distinct slope into the Ingrebourne Valley workmen were discharging filthy waste water from a manhole, pumping it out into the road where it formed a torrent of brown effluent rushing across my path. As I gingerly stepped out, unable to entirely avoid the sheet of water cascading along the tarmac, a workman cranked the pump up a notch and the pipe sputtered a fresh gulp of dun fluid towards me. I skipped the final few steps to safety, supposing I'd at least provided them with a giggle. I wasn't staying dry though, and as I pressed onwards the final gap in the clouds sealed shut ahead of me.
I soldiered on as best I could. The road was a headache-inducing swish and screech, and navigating across the frequent minor streets joining the main route was tricky with the oversized hood of my coat occluding the view. Harold Wood gave way to the edges of Gidea Park and I encountered another walker at last: a middle-aged man skipped out of a nearby front-garden, casually unleashing an umbrella above him. Aside from this confident moment though, he appeared out of his element. He was unnerved by the road, recoiling from the passing cars and curiously checking along every possible side-street or footpath. When a crossing was necessary or a turning opened up, it appeared to be a difficult decision for him. So erratic and confused were his actions that I worried for a while that perhaps he had dementia and shouldn't be out here alone. I stayed close enough behind to maybe help if needed, but far enough away not to spook him. Eventually, he stopped in utter confusion near a side-street and pulled out his 'phone. As I passed him, overhearing his part of an exasperated conversation, things became clearer: his car was in for repairs, and he didn't know the way to his local garage on foot. Walking had defeated him. It felt likely to defeat me too though as I got progressively more and more sodden. I paused in a bus shelter near a retail park at Gallows Corner. I contemplated bunkering in the ubiquitous chain coffee outlet nearby until the storm had passed but reasoned that this wouldn't be anytime soon. The weather had set in for the day so I could choose to walk or give up. Of course I'd walk, and as I passed the modern boundary marker denoting the course of the Roman road into London, I realised I had to make a decision: did I want to pursue the graceful but isolated and exposed arc of Eastern Avenue, or should I perhaps take a leaf from the Roman playbook here and take the shorter, straighter route to civilisation? Whichever route I took would mean navigating a segment of this unforgiving junction where the A12 and the A127 met in an unholy tangle of testy Essex-bound traffic. This spot has never been entirely quiet - even centuries back when the junction was a simple, lonely crossroads on the road to Colchester it had overlooked the gallows of the Liberty of Havering. The crossroads is the recorded burial place of numerous felons in the 16th and 17th centuries, and a jail for the condemned stood nearby on a site now occupied by a school. Nowadays, Gallows Corner was home to a chaotic circus of traffic, and since 1970 it had been spanned by a rickety and angular steel viaduct which carried through-traffic from the A12 to the A127 without the need to edge around the gyratory below. This temporary structure was notorious: driving it was far from a smooth affair, more akin to climbing steps as the bolted-together sections clanked and clambered over the roundabout below. From beneath, the much-refurbished structure looked stable enough but sounded entirely terrifying. The clatter and shudder of passing vehicles and the hissing of tyres on wet roadway sounded like the unquiet souls of the hanged protesting their fate. It was a grim spot, sandwiched between suburb and retail park, somewhere to pass through quickly and no longer designed to be visited on foot at all. I hurried onwards, my decision made - I'd take the old road from here. This was not a day to be far from civilisation.
Free from the orbit of Gallows Corner, the suburb of Gidea Park stretched along the margins of the reassuringly named Main Road. The houses were spaciously spread with generous gardens and only where modern in-fill development had taken place did this feel like a traditionally cramped London suburb. Much of the development here was part of the Romford Garden Suburb, constructed around 1910 by a company formed by three Liberal members of Parliament: Herbert Raphael, Sir John Tudor Walters and Charles McCurdy. The cottages and houses were designed by competition, with many fine designs surviving as locally and Grade II listed properties which now fetch eyewatering prices at market. Later, in the 1930s the area gained a fine modern church - St. Michael and All Angels - and further modernist style homes including examples by Berthold Lubetkin's Tecton Group. My route through the suburb largely avoided these architectural gems, instead taking me along the main drag beside a parade of the normal takeaways and hairdressers but with a few more national names thrown in to convey its relative affluence. This was formerly Hare Street, a name shared by the hamlet which had once straddled the road to Romford but which had been absorbed wholesale into Gidea Park. The Great Eastern Railway arrived in 1910 at 'Squirrels Heath & Gidea Park' station - by 1913 the order of names had been swapped, and soon the current name was adopted. Hare Street and Squirrels Heath, harking back to a rural Essex past, were retired hamlets: no longer descriptive of these modern, outer suburbs on the ascent. A little further along Main Road, I encountered a notable depression with the parapets of a fine old brick bridge on each side. To the north of the road, an expanse of silvery water with a fountain spouting at its centre marked the former grounds of Gidea Hall, now known as Raphael Park. Gidea Hall enters the record around 1450 as a moated manor house in extensive grounds, but almost certainly replaced an earlier house on the same site. Rebuilt as a fine three-storey brick house by Sir John Eyles of the South Sea Company in 1720, the manor was sold to Richard Beynon who did much to improve the area, damming the brook which sprung from the grounds to create a broad pond and a watercourse later known as Black's Canal after the next owner, Alexander Black. The estate was briefly in the hands of the Land Allotment Company but was finally purchased by Herbert Raphael and gifted to Romford Urban District Council in 1904. The park remains part of a vast green stripe through the Borough of Havering, a vision which Councillor Thomas England finally realised with his own donation of land at Rise Park, making it possible to take a country walk from Romford town centre to Havering-atte-Bower in the north. Today, Havering remains the London Borough with the most green space - partly due to its enviable borderland location, but also because of the enlightened thinking of benefactors like Raphael and England during its early urbanisation.
Main Road continued as an attractive, tree-lined avenue as I approached Romford. I've arrived in Romford by numerous means and in diverse directions, but it was my first arrival on foot from the northeast. Once the pleasant avenue ended, it didn't present an edifying countenance from this particular angle. The old road splayed out into the arms of a ring road at a busy, churning roundabout flanked by towers of drab housing which sprouted from the roof of a large Asda store. Ahead, a modern take on a Market Hall with a neat clocktower presented a grander gateway than I'd expected. The building was primarily a fake: offices built to mimic civic space, and access was via a gloomy sequence of subways which decanted me under the pillared entrance to the market. I sheltered awhile wondering quite what to do: I could stop here, escape the rain and find hot coffee and shelter perhaps - or just head for the station. It felt wrong to abandon this walk so early and to forfeit the precious possibilities of these trips has always been a great fear of mine. I decided to press on - my route would stick close to the railway here, so I could abort the mission at various sensible points en route if needed. Besides, crossing Romford was a diversion - the market was colourful and surprisingly buoyant despite the weather conditions. People milled around, crossing to the stalls from the decidedly 1970s vintage storefronts along the margin of the broad market street which lay on the path of the old Roman road. I compared this to my recent crossing of Bexleyheath - where old Watling Street broadened into a market square too. There were manifold differences between the zones, not least the demographic and economic contrasts, but there was a defiant quality to the market. Still here after all these years, still busy, still a place where you could get a bargain - or of course be utterly fleeced. Some traditions of old Essex haven't changed at all. I crossed the busy shopping zone of South Street, the north-south thoroughfare which I'd used to approximate the course of the River Rom when I last walked through Romford. Beyond that, my route took a turn for the drab with closed businesses and dingy, condensation-shrouded cafés lining the pavement. The whitewashed brick chimney of The Brewery towered over the decaying High Street: once the site of Ind Coope's Star Brewery - home of John Bull Bitter. The shopping and leisure centre opened on the site in 2001 and rode out the recession remarkably effectively, while the neighbouring business had fared less well it seems.
I escaped from Romford via another complex of subways which resurfaced on London Road, beside a long and rather depressing run of used car dealerships and expired pubs. I trudged on through the suburban hinterlands west of Romford, doubting my resolve to carry on and rather wishing I'd taken the easier option back at the Market Square. However, rather unexpectedly up ahead there was a change in the sky: the rolling black clouds brightened to a bruised yellow and the rain seemed to slow a little. To the north, the buildings petered out and there was open farmland to be seen. I hadn't expected this - one of the uncanny gaps in the fringe of London where it appears a bite has been taken out of the boundary. The land to the north, while peppered with quarries and golf courses, represented another unbroken run of open land which reached out beyond the final suburban edges of Collier Row into Essex. I could see traffic zipping along the A12 at the furthest extent of the field, and reasoned that had I stuck to my route I'd be slopping miserably along beside it too. I took some solace from the brightening sky and tucked my chin into my coat to walk on. A little way further ahead I passed a Coal Duty Post - the harbingers of the city which I've found repeatedly along these eastern edges. Usually they are encouraging pointers that I'm on the right track - but this one seemed to mock me. I was barely over the threshold of London. At the treacherous crossroads where Whalebone Lane crossed the road, I waited uncertainly for the lights to change. Traffic nudged and harried, drivers impatiently sounding horns and veering into others space. I crossed in a peloton of pedestrians, huddled for safety. I'd passed through Chadwell Heath before and didn't look up - there was nothing new to see, and the rain had returned with a vengeance. It was time to look for an ending which wasn't entirely a defeat. I slogged on through the retail park borderlands of Goodmayes, none the better for the drab grey sky and thorough drenching it was receiving. Every crossing of a side-road became a chore as I needed to remove my hood and get drenched again, or to crane my neck awkwardly and suffer much reduced peripheral vision. I didn't trust the impatient drivers in these conditions and it made for nervous, unpleasant progress. I noted with some surprise that I was approaching ten miles of walking since I set off from Brentwood. It didn't seem possible - I felt like I had barely begun. Then again, I was exhausted from the effort of slithering along the drenched pavements and navigating the difficult crossings. As the mile ticked over, I saw the road ahead dividing to fork around the frontage of Seven Kings station. The little red-brick building dating from 1899 was like an oasis in the desert. I accepted this opportunity as a sign: it was time to admit the road, or at least the rain, had beaten me. I trudged down to the platforms, still building sites in preparation for Crossrail's now belated coming, and fell onto a new Class 345 train which soon entered the station bound for Liverpool Street.
As I steamed and dripped my way into the city, I pondered how far my walk could have reasonably continued. Could I have made it to Stratford? Maybe even as far as the City? It was unlikely. Today had been stacked against me from the moment I saw the storm rolling west from the ridge of Brentwood, the brooding towers of the city glowering beneath it. My camera had barely left my pocket in the last hour - my progress was unrecorded. I hadn't managed to walk the broad, utopian arterial route of Eastern Avenue, nor had I quite conquered the scrappy but direct route the Roman's created toward Old Ford. I plodded from the train towards a welcome coffee when my train arrived at its terminus and figured that this walk had provided some perspective if nothing else: these trips were vitally important to me, and when they didn't work as planned I felt compromised but resolved to continue. I had unfinished business in the East once again, it seemed!
You can find a few more pictures from this wet walk here.
Posted in London on Saturday 1st September 2018 at 11:09pm
Arrival in Erith did little to dispel the strange gloom I'd sensed about the place on my last, fleeting, Sunday afternoon visit. Back then I'd been content to assume it was shuttered and drab because of the malaise which descends on all British towns on the afternoon of the Sabbath, thanks in part to antediluvian trading laws. While there were more people milling around the town centre today, the place still felt rather hopeless and grim. I headed under the main road and into town, soon being accosted by a group of Christian proselytisers who were hawking glossy cards urging passers-by to join them at an event. A loud choir was lending support by belting out hymns in the pedestrianised walkway. I slalomed around this, passing a string of little cafés with steamed windows and plastic-draped tabletops. The locals sat outside, smoking prodigiously and gazing into the middle distance. The morning was heating up already and I decided that I was going to need supplies from the nearby supermarket before beginning today's walk. I already felt like I was behind schedule after the long train journey out here, so I tried to make this a swift visit. Even in the huge Morrison's store, I was struck by the utter gloom of Erith. As I passed the in-store restaurant a minor scuffle broke out over ownership of a winning lottery scratchcard. I felt this very paragraph forming as I headed out of the store, knowing I'd need to compound my earlier remarks on this beleaguered spot and already feeling uneasy about it. It felt uncharitable to knock a place which was so clearly out-of-luck and on the edge of things. Once out of the store I made a dash across the fractious carpark where drivers wrangled into tiny spaces, and on to the waterfront. Soon, thankfully, I was beside the Thames. There was an unexpected relief in seeing the undulating rubbish-mounds of Rainham across the quiet waters and the strong sunlight reflecting back at me from the slick silver-grey mudbanks exposed a low tide. I turned west and began to walk with little expectation and only the loosest plan for today.
The Thames Path is broken at Erith, diverted inland to skirt industry around the Darent estuary, then occasionally reappearing as a plaza at the front of the tall blocks of modern apartments which have gradually filed into place along the waterfront. The Thames takes a turn to the north at Erith Reach and the foreshore returns to industrial use, meaning the path makes a zig-zagging course around the heads of various abandoned docks and inlets. I set off, pleased to be on the river for a brief spell at the start of the walk, and only mildly inconvenienced by the cyclists who attempted to negotiate the 90˚ turns at the blind corners of these twists in the path at full speed, skittering to a halt as they misjudged their angle and encountered a pedestrian. The path opened out to run along the well-kept but rather sunburned edges of Riverside Gardens, a park laid out on the site of a former flour mill which is itself now threatened as the land is a prime riverside residential site. The walkway along the wharfside which formed part of Henry VIII's royal dockyard has a rather ill-chosen name in some senses. William Cory Promenade is named for a local collier who realised that he could avoid wharfage fees by unloading coal onto barges and lighters in mid-stream along the relative calm of Erith Reach, thus denying the town of employment and income, despite maintaining his base in Erith. As I turned a particularly grim looking corner where the path passed around a rusting crane and disappeared behind a forbidding looking fence, I met a dog walker who seemed distressed. She appeared to walk by before thinking twice and calling agitatedly after me to ask if "I knew anything about the horse?" I must have looked entirely confused so she gestured urgently to a gap in the corrugated iron beside us, through which a large, sad brown eye was gazing back at me. In a grubby scrapyard, marooned between the fence and the dock wall was a young pony, tethered and a little grubby looking but otherwise apparently healthy. I took some pictures and suggested I could send them to the local RSPCA. She seemed a little happier at this prospect and declared her intention to find the horse some grass to eat. We headed off in opposite directions to complete our missions. A swift email sent, I reluctantly turned aside from the Thames where the path ducked inland again. While I still felt I had business in Thamesmead which occupied the broad headland between Crossness and Erith, today wasn't the day. Instead, I intended to cut across the territory I'd begun to walk some months back but abandoned in the heat. It was likely to be no less hot today, but tackling the wooded hills of North Kent would surely be easier when I was less exhausted at the beginning of the day. The path led me beside the old church of St. John the Baptist, which has likely existed in some form on this site since Anglo Saxon invaders moved into the territory abandoned by the Romans and founded towns and farmsteads along the Thames. The church was squat and solid, situated in a cool and shady churchyard which, now disused, was returning to nature. This quiet spot, now largely marooned in the shadow of the passing dual-carriageway, was once at the heart of Erith - but the town crept slowly south along the river towards the wharves and docks leaving St. John's here on the edge of things.
My path out of Erith involved the ascent of a rickety and somewhat litter-choked footbridge over the A2016 Bronze Age Way, which didn't appear to be used a great deal despite the challenge of passing this man-made barrier across the marshes. The busy spinal route takes traffic from the M25 into Thamesmead and seemed to flow remarkably busily beneath my feet. From the top of the bridge, I could see rising woodland to the west, and I confess to some trepidation: the day was getting hotter and my resolve for hill-climbing was weakening. I focused on how cool the air would be under the trees and descended from the bridge, beginning the climb of Valley Road towards the entrance of Franks' Park. This wedge of rather untamed woodland has been a fixture of these growing suburbs since the 1920s and remains generally little-changed. When Frank Beadle, local industrialist made-good, sold his business to Cory & Son in 1896 he played a part in kickstarting the massive Cory Environmental enterprise which transports, recycles and incinerates waste to this day, and not without controversy locally. Beadle's family later donated a substantial parcel of land to Erith Urban District Council - an area of woodland climbing the ridge of Lessness Heath which offered an impressive vista over the Thames. This lofty and isolated site had provided the ideal site for Belvedere House, built in the 1770s and later the home of philanthropist and campaigner for religious freedom Sir Culling Eardley. Much of the growth of Erith and Belvedere is due to Eardley's willingness to sell parts of his estate to develop decent housing for the rising middle classes in Kent, and to this day there is a distinct separation between the 'village' of Upper Belvedere on Eardley's lands and the former wharfside settlement of 'Picardy' - now known as Lower Belvedere. The grand house was sold to the Royal Alfred Seafarer's Society in 1865, finally providing them with a rest home for 'worn-out Merchant Seamen' which had been their goal for some years. It was demolished following a lengthy public enquiry in 1959 to make way for a modern facility for the charity which offered better accommodation, an 'Infirm Wing' for less able residents and staff quarters on site. This rather fine modernist building was soon found unsuitable: with declining numbers of residents and a cohort of users who were often now less able or ambulant, the Society acquired a more traditional convalescent home in Surrey. The modern Belvedere House was, in turn, demolished too and the site is now covered by a housing estate - a spaciously arranged redbrick crescent of 1980s vintage which climbs the valley of the now barely-extant Bedonwell Stream, looking resolutely provincial and unlike the usual homes in this part of London. Frank's Park, however, has changed little over the decades and much of it remains ancient, gloriously ungoverned woodland. I thrashed along for a while on the path which was pleasantly busy with Dads teaching children to cycle and 'phone-checking dog-walkers ambling behind their charges. Faced with a choice of climbing higher into the woods or edging along the inhabited fringe of the park, I chose the latter. I was curious about Erith and Belvedere and disappearing into the trees too soon wouldn't help me get a sense of the place. Instead, I walked a narrow path overhung by trees until I reached a cleared field in the middle of the park where I was decanted onto Parkside Road, the unadopted, rough track which caps the long terraces leading towards the heath from Lower Belvedere.
The intriguingly named Halt Robin Road felt like a country lane, disappearing into the dense western edge of Franks' Park before emerging to cross Picardy Road. This ancient thoroughfare snaked down the hill towards the marshes at the edge of the Thames, linking Upper and Lower Belvedere and likely becoming a much more significant route following the coming of the railway station to the flat land at the foot of the hill in 1859. I headed west again onto Upper Abbey Road, a rather odd little lane which dipped into a shallow sided gully before climbing steadily towards Heron Hill, a spur striking south from the ridge of land on which Lessness Heath sits. The heath was once a much wider expanse of open land, but even by the time of the Domesday Book, a settlement here recorded the largest population for some distance around. The origins of the name are debated - but it seems likely that it incorporates the Old English term for a headland with hlēosne - burial mound. Certainly, this stretch of high ground which is now largely carpeted with suburban homes has been a site of both ritual and more prosaic activity for thousands of years. At Heron Hill, I noted that I was again following one of the spurs of the Green Chain - and that other, more dedicated walkers were following the route too. I trailed a well-equipped, back-pack wielding fellow down the hill and into the inconspicuous entrance to Abbey Wood, one of the largest remaining tracts of the once vast expanse of heathland. There was a choice of paths here - to strike directly into the woodland and follow the undulating and circuitous paths under the trees, or to take the quiet country-lane like track which ran along the edge of the forest of tall, venerable trees. I took the later while my fellow walker headed into the woods - I knew I'd be heading uphill at some point soon, and putting off the clamber for a little longer couldn't hurt. The lane wound quietly along, mostly deserted but for a brief spell, I did follow an incongruously well-dressed man who ambled along the muddy, rutted path ahead in a fine suit, casually tossing away peanut shells as he snacked and walked. At one of the irregularly spaced opportunities to pass through the fence into the woodland, I decided it was time to plunge into the trees. I found myself on a well-made track which there was no hope of straying from, as well-hidden but sturdy wire barriers ensured that only the official routes were walked in Abbey Wood. The path bucked and weaved through the cool woodland, occasionally arriving at confusing junctions where either too few or a confusing profusion of waymarkers made my route ahead unclear. My aim was to head for the remains of Lesnes Abbey - an ending I'd trimmed from an earlier walk, but a place I was keen to finally visit. The path rather unexpectedly opened out into a broad, green area fringed by dense, rising woods to the south. In the midst of a natural bowl in the ground, the impressive ruined stone walls of a sizeable estate of buildings cast shadows on the grass. Lesnes Abbey was founded in 1178 by Richard De Luci, then Chief Justiciar of England - and the act may have been part of his penance for involvement in the murder of Thomas Becket. More certain is that this was neither a populous nor a prosperous Abbey, largely due to the costs of draining the surrounding marshes for farmland and shoring up defences against the Thames. Lesnes was one of the first ecclesiastical sites to fall after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1534 and soon returned to farmland. The site passed through various owner's hands over the following centuries and was often robbed for building materials - not least for Hall Place in Bexley. The site has been a public park since 1931, when it was purchased by the London County Council, and the well-kept grassland and striking profile of the ruined abbey walls against the trees provide a sense of the age of the site. The park was busy with walkers and sunbathers, the flags of the site's café flapping in the breeze. I contemplating resting awhile here - but it felt too early in the walk and I was intrigued to head instead for the impressive concrete footbridge and walkway which led north from the site, over the busy Abbey Road and the railway, and into the fringes of Thamesmead. A steady stream of locals made the long walk over the elevated walkway into the heart of the park, arriving near the protected Mulberry Tree, the aged trunk of which contorted over the ground. Said to be a survivor of the initiative by King James I to create a native British silk industry, the tree is delicate and carefully managed now. I was impressed by Lesnes Abbey - the park was well-managed and clearly popular, and there was a carefully maintained balance between history and amenity in evidence. I headed out via the west gate, passing a carved statue of an Abbot in a grove of trees, rather sad to be leaving.
The time had come for my ascent onto the top of Bostall Heath. I'd been avoiding this climb throughout the walk so far, likely put off by a memory of approaching the hill from the west at the end of a prior excursion and seeing buses creeping slowly up into the heat haze. As it happened, the climb was challenging for less expected reasons: eschewing what could have been an easier route via New Road or even the designated walk along the Green Chain, I decided instead to head along an intriguing public footpath which disappeared between the houses under an arch of trees. The walk was challenging - a steady but steep climb through a rutted, humid midge-infested tunnel between the trees, worn down by walkers over the years but almost abandoned today. It was suggested that this was some sort of route of pilgrimage to the Abbey, but it was hard to assess the provenance given the preponderance of religious links in the area. At the top of the rise the path rather abruptly ended against a railing beside Knee Hill. This much busier route between the low-lying settlements near the river and the top of Bostall Hill had no footpath to speak of, and I soon found myself climbing the road in short bursts of frantic walking, stepping into the heavily-littered undergrowth to allow a stream of vehicles to pass, before skittering forwards for a few more yards. The short walk up Knee Hill felt like a long, taxing drag, but my concern to remain safely out of traffic meant that I barely noticed the ascent of the hill which had been my chief concern. Near the summit I was able to divert briefly into Bostall Woods, noting with some concern the signs indicating a grid system for alerting the emergency services to ones' location should they be required to find you among the trees. I finally emerged on Bostall Hill, a plateau of level ground at the top of the long, steep rise from the west. The road snaked downhill, surrounded by trees on both sides, but with a tantalising glimpse of London on the horizon between the greenery. Walking downhill has always been a trial for me - my innate clumsiness and heavy-footed trudge turn into a momentum-fuelled stagger and I'm excessively conscious of my efforts to remain upright. As I've grown older and heavier, I've also noted that the forces at work on my knees feel far more disagreeable when stumbling down a hill. I steeled myself for the usual vague feeling of lost control and set off, passing the fine Victorian Heath Keeper's cottage which was built in 1880 after the Metropolitan Board of Works purchased the land to save it from the creeping tide of housing engulfing the area. Beside it, a fine granite vessel inscribed by the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association stood, filled with flowers which fared remarkably well despite the busy road nearby. The trough was not original - while the Association indeed placed a much-needed trough here for horses which had hauled coaches up the long, arduous climb, their records indicate a 9'6" long trough. This truncated replacement is of uncertain origin - but marks the brow of the climb well enough. The common land was extended in 1894 by the addition of Clam Field, and as the suburbs slowly engulfed the woodland, the mythology of the place grew with them. These ancient and mysterious islands of woodland in the expanding city always attract superstition and curiosity - and for some reason, almost all of them have apparently attracted the notorious Dick Turpin. The presence of chalk workings on Bostall Heath have provided a rich backstory of the dashing highwayman hiding-out in caverns between raids on rich folk climbing Shooters Hill. The reality of Turpin is, as I've discovered elsewhere, that he was neither quite so dashing nor so elegant in his practice. It seems in fact that he was a thug first and foremost, and while it's possible he did know these woods well enough to disappear into them when needed, the purpose of the caves is more prosaic. Chalk has been worked in North Kent for many hundreds of years, and the outcrop of land on which the heath sits is home to numerous abandoned pits where it has been dug. In 1899 the Royal Arsenal Cooperative Society began work on the Bostall Estate - a development of homes on the site of their former market gardens - excavating an eventually very extensive network of passages under the heath to extract chalk for the building works. The mine was abandoned in 1906 before briefly becoming a First World War air-raid shelter. Despite improvements to access, it was not reused in the Second World War due to frequent roof-falls and despite protests that it should be opened to locals. The tunnels were later sealed and the gardens are long disappeared under suburban streets, but the Cooperative Society continued to own land and property in the vicinity, eventually selling their large property Shornalls to the Greenwich & Bexley Cottage Hospice in 1988 for the princely sum of £1. A much-expanded community hospice still operates today, surrounded by the peace and quiet of Bostall Heath.
At the foot of Bostall Hill, Wickham Lane snaked away to the south - a venerable way across the heath towards Kent, and a boundary of sorts. Beyond here the quiet of the woodland gave way to a continuous strip of suburbia heading directly for London. Plumstead High Street stretched away into the distance between two long terraces of local shops, small businesses and housing. I began the long march west by falling foul of an angry van driver: as a few pedestrians including myself waited to cross at a light we noted that the driver at the front of the queue was busily composing a text message and paying no attention to the light which began to change back from red to green. We made it across the street safely before she realised and sped off at the last possible moment. The van driver recklessly sped after her, assuming that she'd waited because we were crossing in front of her. I responded to his volley of foul-mouthed abuse with a raised middle finger, which seemed to enrage him even further - but he was now gunning his van at alarming speed along the High Street and couldn't have stopped if he tried. I exchanged smirks with a fellow insulted pedestrian after one of the road's little victories for the day - and set off again. But this wasn't to be my last encounter on Plumstead High Street. As I trudged along a stretch of busy pavement beside a run of well-kept retirement flats and small shops a young, confident woman in a pristine London 2012 t-shirt flagged me down. I was momentarily bewildered by this - partly because I rarely expect to be stopped in the street here, but mostly because I thought it impossible that anyone would have kept a t-shirt in such impeccably good order for six years. Indeed, she would likely have been a small child back then based on my estimate of her current age. The sight of that logo here in London, beneath an open and hopeful, smiling face took me back to the summer of Gamesmakers and their jolly oversized pointing-hands. The bonhomie of that fateful summer was real even if the park and the event were a facade - those volunteers who jigged and capered their way through two long weeks of irritable queues and misdirected tourists meant every bit of their happy smiles. And so did this young woman who was, it seemed, about to ask me about my relationship with Jesus... I was wrong-footed enough to drop my guard and to answer the first question honestly: yes, I had been christened. I didn't get the chance to tell her about my long quest to get the Bishop of Worcester to reverse my baptism or my long association with atheism. Before I could trot out the familiar defences she was telling me how my soul could be saved with a swift prayer she was happy to say with me right now. Jerked back to reality with the realisation I was meant to respond to this suggestion, I counselled caution - shouldn't I be reflecting on such a weighty issue rather than committing foolishly to this course of action in the street? She bit her lip and pondered before agreeing that forming a personal relationship with the Saviour was serious stuff. Instead, she thrust a number of booklets into my hand, circled the prayer I needed to ponder and asked for my 'phone number because she wanted to invite me to one of the events in the leaflet - the same one that I'd been hustled to attend by way of a glossy flyer in Erith earlier in fact. I trotted out a string of random digits approximating a valid 'phone number and prepared to make an escape. "I'll just call you to make sure I've got it right" she said, raising her 'phone and waiting for the dialing tone. My heart sank. There was no escape - she was good at this, and I'd been exposed as both a heathen and a charlatan. I made an excuse about getting confused with my work number and gave her the real number. She called and checked it, letting it ring once before hanging up and letting me pass, satisfied she'd been able to persuade me into an appearance at this forthcoming festival of evangelism. As I wandered off, a little dazed by this experience and rapidly blocking the number which had just called, I almost felt guilty. It felt a little like being rude to one of those intrepid, cheerful, resolutely un-British Gamesmakers would have surely have seemed back in 2012? Kicking a puppy instead of Lord Coe was a poor substitute. I felt grubby and cruel, but also ill-used - a little like Plumstead High Street felt in fact as I hit my stride again, passing a parade of slightly down-at-heel stores which stretched along the seemingly endless road.
The road rose to divide at Plumstead Station where I crossed the tracks of my previous walks. Navigating the junction involved dodging more religious leafleteers, but I was in better form now and able to evade the extended hands and tune-out the requests to stop and chat just for a sec... Nearby, the Southern Outfall Sewer struck out on its elevated course towards Crossness, and beneath the road the rails curved out of the tunnels which had brought them from London. I'd found myself here numerous times, often unexpectedly when the trains had failed me. Plumstead had that sense of accidental patronage - the newsagents' shops which slumbered between customers might not even exist were it not for the people who ended up here instead of their intended destination. Beyond the station, the dual-carriageway to Woolwich skirted the main drag and described the edge of the former Dockyard. The broad, busy road edged closer to the river here, which was indicated by the distinct absence between buildings. The modern wall of the once fortified dockyard was a long strip of laminated lifestyle prompts - a parade of serving suggestions for modern living in the new apartments rising behind the hoardings, punctuated only by reminders that Crossrail would have been here in December if the project hadn't slipped alarmingly behind schedule. The buildings on the landward edge of the dockyard were modern, low-rise blocks with retail opportunities on the ground floor which sparkled across the street at the decidedly low-rent, tattered edges of Woolwich town centre. I could smell the saline water on the air as the breeze whirled along the dusty pavement whipping up a litter of takeaway cups and discarded religious literature. This road in from Kent seemed to remain a pilgrim's way of sorts, and was still a channel of worship - either fuelled by sincere belief or desperate hope. I recalled the twin modern churches which stood like dvarapalas at the entrance to the South Circular not far ahead which might well be the modern-day sacred site the road was aiming for. But I was turning aside before I reached that junction, crossing the street near the abandoned concrete and smoked-glass municipal offices of Riverside House to head for the river and to speculatively check for a ferry over to the north bank. The terminal was silent, the boats laid up further along the river. In preparation for the switch to modern vessels, the ferry service had been stood-down while work continued on the loading piers. I realised that if I was to continue as I planned I'd have to make a long-promised and often avoided journey under the river. I headed for the rotunda where the descent into the foot tunnel began.
It was hard to classify my unease at passing under the Thames. The evidence told me that it was entirely safe, that generations had made the excursion on foot or bicycle since opening in 1912, and still did in their thousands. I also knew that I'd passed through tunnels in trains and cars without incident, even this very morning. But an anxiety which I've never truly conquered and which seems to retreat to some hidden cells like an inactive virus can be awakened by the most mundane of things. As I descended in the stinking lift-capsule to the subterranean level I was aware of dry-mouthed concern settling on me. A young woman ignored me carefully and deliberately, probably far more anxious than I but hiding it impeccably - and I was momentarily distracted by the sad thought that she had to do this every day perhaps: to pretend that it wasn't menacing to be the only other passenger in a lift with a nervous, shuffling and sweaty man. Experienced in tunnel-navigation she set off at a swift trot as soon as the doors opened. I paced myself carefully, the white tiles stretching ahead endlessly, descending to a mid-river nadir beyond which I couldn't see. I surprised myself by being less concerned with the weight of water above and more with the peloton of reckless cyclists who zapped by in both directions, in contravention of the signs but anticipating TfL's review of the no cycling rule which was imminently to deliver a verdict. My fellow lift passenger had stomped ahead, heels clacking loudly along the floor, staying resolutely to the left of the white line while others walked by in the opposite direction, equally unconcerned and apparently mostly bored by the need to walk rather than chug over in the ferry. The tunnel turned upwards and in the distance, a dark smudge, growing by the step, indicated the dark wood panels of the headwall and staircase on the northern side. I picked up the pace, carefully managing my steps to miss a rather full lift going up and to wait for its next trip. If possible, the northern liftshaft was more nauseatingly smelly than the southern and accompanied by a couple of cyclists, I made the ascent without breathing any more than was necessary. The doors opened and I whirled out of the rotunda into reliably grubby and desolate North Woolwich. I looked around at the few people lingering near the entrance waiting for the lift and realised that none of them would congratulate me for making this utterly unremarkable, everyday passage. I headed up the dusty road towards Pier Road, feeling somewhat energised by my passage under the river after finding excuses to avoid it for so long. I was now in environs I knew fairly well and it felt reassuring to be back on the long road which stretched west along this sometimes ill-starred and isolated peninsula.
I often write of territory which is shifting, contested or liminal - but North Woolwich is perhaps a defining example of this kind of place. Its ownership and fate have been eternally unsettled - an early hamlet here was destroyed by medieval flooding, and a long mess of administrative change resulted in the parish becoming an outpost of Kent in Essex. This confusion was largely fuelled by Hamo de Crevequer, appointed Sheriff of Kent after the Norman Conquest and also gifted lands in Essex and Surrey. To facilitate more efficient taxation and control of the ferry across the Thames, he established an extenstion of his manor to the north bank. When the parish boundary was drawn based on the old manorial lands the anomaly persisted. The creation of the London County Council did little to resolve things - the Metropolitan Borough of Woolwich was absorbed by the new County, while the Boroughs of West and East Ham which surrounded North Woolwich remained in Essex. The ancient anomaly was finally tidied up by the creation of the London Borough of Newham in 1965, around nine centuries after it had originally arisen. With the old settlement long washed away, for many of these hundreds of years the territory north of the river had been a wild and mostly uninhabited waste, unimportant and easily ignored - not until the 19th century did the population here start to increase, as industry and dock construction processed east along the river. Cable-making and shipbuilding brought a new working-class population to the area, and North Woolwich became briefly prosperous. The presence of Harland and Wolff's works at Gallions Point and the proximity to the docks made the area a prime target for bombing in the second world war, and the population declined rapidly due to the destruction of homes and the displacement of industry. The factories didn't return, and the wharves became scrapyards, refuse transfer sites and waste lots. Only the mighty Tate and Lyle works at Silvertown remained, engulfing the area in sweet, earthy and rather sickly clouds of fume. The road through what remained of North Woolwich was drab, quiet and mildly threatening in its weekend desertion. The southern edge of the road was marked by a long, concrete wall erected to screen homes from the noise of Crossrail trains should they one-day start to emerge from the earth nearby. It was a depressing structure, blank and oppressive with only occasional pavements to accommodate bus stops. The narrow tongue of land tapered between river and dock, the DLR forming a spine from which the low-rise housing and closed pubs dangled precariously towards the riverfront. The sugar works were silent today, a massive banner depicting a Golden Syrup can flapping unsettlingly above. It sounds odd perhaps, but I rather like the feel of this place and decided to settle on a bench to eat a late lunch and think about the route ahead of me a little.
North Woolwich slipped into Silvertown without any sense of change in status, the concrete wall finally turning aside in the Travelodge carpark where the railway tracks dip into the revitalised Connaught Tunnel under the Royal Docks. The hotel itself is a unusual building: a squat, rectangular block with gently curved corners apparently modelled on a vintage transistor radio. The service entrance to London City Airport former a third spur from the junction was silent, the staff idly but suspiciously watching me walk by as I turned towards Nasser Azam's 12-metre tall bronze statue of Athena which graces the entrance to Connaught Bridge. The elegant figure throws her hands back and pushes her body forwards, apparently caught before an elaborate act of bowing down towards the east. This isn't insignificant - the artist wanted to honour the community which had raised and supported him. Athena acknowledges that the city towards which I was slowly trudging had built much of its prosperity on the foundations and the sweated labour of these communities. The statue changes in aspect as I make my way around the roundabout on which it stands: from the front a striking statement of intent, from the side the beginning of a supplication, from the rear a muscular statement of feminine strength. From the bridge, I had a fine view across familiar terrain: the wasteland stretching west towards Millenium Mills, the wind-rippled expanse of the Royal Victoria Dock and the distant towers of the Emirates Airline climbing to cross the river. I turned south and then west, towards Pontoon Dock. In contrast to North Woolwich, much had changed here. The numerous building projects which I've spotted languishing over the years have slowly cranked back into action, the financial crisis finally unpaused for these apartments as far-eastern buyers speculate on the crazy zig-zagging pre-Brexit pound. They still jostled with scrapyards and warehouses, some in use and some abandoned, but people were returning to the penninsula it seemed. The ghost of George's Diner and the Graving Dock Tavern still haunted the northern side of the road, surrounded by a forest of buddleia, but they were overshadowed now by the mighty, ship-like lines of Barrier Point and the sturdy piers of the DLR viaduct. At the entrance to this new development, apparently providing accommodation for students and their visiting family, a gleaming new Starbucks store traded remarkably busily. I slipped in for a much-needed coffee and to plan how far to walk today. The airconditioning was welcome - a chance to reapply sunblock to my sweaty forehead to the apparent disgust of an elegant Spanish family who accompanied their student daughter as she showed them around her temporary home. They looked unimpressed, and a little concerned perhaps? This place felt incongruous - I could see the desolation of undeveloped, struggling Silvertown across the street beyond a coffee shop diorama of MacBook screens and complicated looking iced drinks. Inequality is a strange concept to convey: easy to intellectualise but hard to illustrate without invoking a patronising pathos. But it was here at Barrier Point, and it felt deeply uncomfortable. Aware I was lucky to regard passing through this place as leisure rather than necessity, I swallowed my coffee and moved on to find some good old-fashioned public-spirited philanthropy to ease the middle-class guilt a little. I found it very close by at Lyle Park. This place was an unexpected gem - accessed by a long, leafy path beside public tennis courts, the almost hidden entrance opening into a lush, green square of open space big enough to house a football pitch. A line of trees divided the park, with an impressive brick and stone stair leading up to a terrace on the riverbank. On this terrace, the gates of the Harland and Wolff works which employed locals until 1972 were placed ceremonially between rose beds exploding with colour and scent. The park appeared utterly deserted. Sir Leonard Lyle donated this sliver of land to the local public of West Ham in 1924. It would have been a very significant open space in the crowded, factory-choked confusion of Silvertown in the early 20th century, and a welcome escape for families who lived in relatively cramped conditions. Few lived nearby now, except for those who occupied the new developments and likely hadn't dared explore this far from their front doors yet and the park was unused but beautifully kept. The grass was green despite the long, hot summer and the foliage was carefully tended. Finally, on the range of benches beside the Thames, I spotted another human being - a young mother rocking a pram with her foot while she carried on one-half of an impassioned, frustrated 'phonecall. I quietly took photographs of the river before slipping away and leaving her to her call - Lyle Park was still a haven for the locals of Silvertown it seemed, and it felt right to leave it that way today. Tate might have sponsored the temples of art which graced the banks of the river further west, but Lyle's more modest bequest was still an oasis of calm in a conflicted spot.
I turned west again, and almost immediately began to climb as the road rose onto the Silvertown Viaduct. Below, a mess of industry - some dead, some clinging barely to life - filled the narrowing isthmus between the river and the dock. By the early years of the 20th century, the approach to the Royal Docks from London was beset by delays and queues which were beginning to hamper trade. The narrow, tight elbow in the road after the Barking Road bridge over the River Lea fed a slow line of traffic onto the long approach road to the docks with an often-opened swing-bridge over the Tidal Basin entrance. Finally in 1929 the Dock Approaches (Improvement) Act passed through parliament authorising historically massive sums of money to resolve the issue. The solutions were elegant and surprisingly long-standing, with the original spans of the replacement Lea Bridge still doing duty among a tangle of new carriageways and slip-roads, and this three-quarter mile long Viaduct over the dock entrance still reflecting the sun back at me from impressive and graceful concrete flanks. At the time of its completion in 1934, there was no other similar road scheme in Britain, and the starkly modern design signified an optimism in the future of the docks which was to be largely misplaced. The Tidal Basin entrance was dry now, one of the towers holding the cables for the Airline occupying space on the former waterway. The cablecars moved slowly overhead in the startling blue sky, new towers of dockland housing rising to meet them as the area to the north of the crossing was gradually gentrified. The view was surprisingly open from the top of the viaduct - over the Thames to the white nodule of the O2 with its own forest of new towers growing around it, and north to the sprouting patch of similarly gleaming new buildings in Stratford. Setting aside any concern over how London could survive these transformations, the effect was exhilarating. It felt like surveying a city-building computer game from inside the screen. Buildings grew almost as I watched, the vista changing with every rotation of the lens. I descended from the viaduct to take the Lower Lea Crossing. It was a walk across this bridge which had, in some ways, rekindled my series of London walks some years back, and reversing the direction felt fitting. I was re-entering a different city now: an unplanned, opportunistic mix of new buildings and new communities, lost history and missed chances. I navigated around the mess of fly-tipping and broken glass which stood as a gateway to the bridge, passing the site where I'd spied people camping in the bushes beside the road on my prior visit. The carriageway leapt forward, over the sluggish, muddy estuary of Bow Creek which curled and writhed below, resisting its confluence with the Thames. On the little headland of Goodluck Hope where the lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf kept a now lightless guard, the warehouses and workshops had been painted with historic mock-ghost signs for businesses long since closed. I spotted one for Samuda Brothers - painted in bold black letters on white, suitably distressed for purposes of false provenance. The connection of Bow Creek with Samuda Brothers - a relatively shortlived shipbuilding firm which was opened in 1843 by Jacob and Joseph d'Aguilar Samuda - was a little obscure. They are much better known for their larger premises on the Isle of Dogs, now the site of the Samuda Estate - but their origins lie here at Leamouth where they leased a yard until 1852 when it proved too small for their ambitions. The company's time here wasn't entirely happy or successful: their first ship, the Gypsy Queen exploded during testing, killing Jacob and nine other employees. A further explosion in 1845 claimed three more lives. By the 1860s, established in new premises, Joseph rode out the financial crisis by securing orders for iron and steel warships from Russia and Japan who were then escalating towards an inevitable war. He died in 1885 and the company failed to sell as a going concern. Shipbuilding would continue here at Creekmouth until 1912 when the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company closed its gates.
The Lower Lea Crossing touched down at the dusty, windswept roundabout nestled in the corner created by a contortion of Bow Creek and the remains of the East India Dock Basin. I eyed the clock with concern here, trying to decide how far I should press on. I decided to head for Blackwall where I knew I could get a bus back along Commercial Road into the City. This felt like a particularly fitting ending to a largely unplanned walk: to unravel the route I'd just spent weeks reliving as I tried to turn some entries on this blog into a small book. The windshield concrete blocks of Robin Hood Gardens had gone and dust and litter whipped across the path, while the hot afternoon sun beat down on a modern, glass and metal Blackwall. The past was now all but erased here - reminders revealed only to those who knew their locations in privatised walkways and residents-only gardens. I edged through the hinterland of the Virginia Quay development and crossed the broad dual-carriageways of Aspen Way via the footbridge extending from the platforms of East India DLR station. The view from the perspex tunnel was uncanny and arresting - a Ballardian sweep of new, sparkling buildings to the east and west, the road rising from a tunnel and sweeping in a curve towards the city. It felt quiet and abandoned today, waiting time for the next week of business when the road and rails would twang with the tension of a new week, commuters debating market conditions, speculating about a post-European future. A sticker on the plastic window interrupted my photograph: "A Peoples' Vote". Somehow, despite the sense of desperation and disconnection I'd found in Erith, it felt more equipped to weather the storms which were coming - less divided and surprisingly not reliant on the fortunes of London. The city was bleached by light, decontaminated and refreshed for another week of business to come. I headed for the bus station, nursing a headache from the glare of the shimmering towers of Blackwall.
You can find a gallery of 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.