Posted in London on Saturday 4th March 2017 at 11:03pm


I've always been a little nervous about guided walks. From the awkward, rather typically British issue of trying to identify your fellow walkers at the outset - ideally without actually asking anyone - to the tricky etiquette of dispersing at the walk's end, they're a minefield. I once thought I'd like to lead walks - the idea of ambling around places I love with a respectful and engaged bunch of people both asking questions and adding their knowledge was attractive, if unlikely. Of course the reality is often different: bored tourists "doing" the sights, loudmouthed know-alls trying to upstage the guide, people with no spatial awareness causing minor traffic incidents. Guiding walks wasn't for me. In my attempts I also realised a simple truth: firstly most people just aren't as interested in the minutiae as I am. I've often thought I was boring or lacked the capacity to engage people - but as I've grown older I realise I'm just engaged differently. I've learned to live with this, and find myself surrounded by people who are at best encouraging, but at the very least tolerant of this. So today I approached a group of unlikely looking people assembling near Tower Hill station with some trepidation. We were going on a walk together - which for someone who jealously guards his excursion time, was a remarkably intimate association with strangers.

Today's trip focused on locations from The Long Good Friday - the 1980 movie which launched Bob Hoskins on his path towards being the nation's 'loveable villain' figure in Harold Shand, and which almost didn't see the light of day due to the inclusion of the then horribly ever-present IRA as the bad guys. Or perhaps more accurately as the worst of the bad guys - there are no good guys in the film. In some ways, despite the brash edge-of-the-eighties optimism, the glamorous yachts and the presence of some weirdly prescient tropes which would haunt London for decades to come, the movie has no redemptive ending. My first viewing of the movie years back left a couple of impressions - that London was unrecognisable for the most part, and that it kickstarted a good number of British acting careers. John Mackenzie's clear vision that this should not be the London of red buses and black cabs had wrong-footed me. But as I've walked the hinterlands of the city over the years, I've come to recognise Harold Shand's London - sometimes it is buried, sometimes it lurks in the most unedifying areas, often it requires a mixture of research and imagination to conjure it from the anodyne glass and steel of the modern city. But it lurks not far from the surface, buried under the very Thatcherite dream which Hoskins invokes as his yacht passes under Tower Bridge at the beginning of the movie. The regeneration of the docks, the opportunities for investment, London positioned as a European capital - calling the shots, not taking the bullets. Those predictions which must have seemed so outlandish to anyone who knew the dereliction of the Isle of Dogs and Royal Docks in the 1970s, now elicit a gasp of recognition followed by an ironic guffaw: the European dream is close to being over, the '1988 Olympics' which Shand proposes happened - if a little later than scheduled.

Crossrail Place, Canary Wharf
Crossrail Place, Canary Wharf

Our guide was the placid, knowledgeable and powerfully-voiced Rob, who called the group to order and set out the plan. We'd walk for a couple of hours, visit a number of locations used in the film and chart the progress of Harold's dream towards the Docklands of today. He'd play us contextual clips of the movie on his iPad - so we could gauge just how much had changed and how much remained of Harold's manor. I surveyed my companions - there were of course stereotypes: the older guy who sticks to the guide like a minder and engages all of his time between stops in discussion, the gent with the expensive camera who wanders all over the place taking endless shots of everything but the subject at hand, the middle-class intellectual couple who roll their watery eyes at each other when the discussion has to be simplified or edited for the sake of time or sustaining group interest. We shuffled off, over the messy tangle of crossings outside the Tower of London, over the neck of Tower Bridge where Police were zooming to some sort of incident involving a group of yelling tourists, and towards the Thames near the huge concrete hotel. This was the first point at which imagination would be challenged: we were asked to picture warehouses - full of spice and indigo, a river teeming with ships waiting to unload. Some had waited weeks, some even longer. The Pool of London was jammed and dangerous - haunted by river pirates who took advantage of the vessels stuck here waiting to be unloaded - some in the most violent of ways. London needed new docks and new suburbs to support them - and so St. Katharine's Dock was constructed. By the time Harold Shand was mooring his luxury yacht here, the dock was deserted and in disrepair. Several of the large, impressive warehouses had already fallen to new development and only the Ivory House remained fully intact. Today the view was surprisingly similar if the skyline beyond the warehouses was discounted, along with the modern housing which had sprung into being on three sides of the basin. In the corner the Dickens Inn tumbled towards the docks, its provenance not entirely honest - being some form of reconstruction from recovered materials on a new site. The marina was busy with boats which would have rivalled Harold's for style and opulence. It was clear from the outset that this walk was going to deal in contrasts.

We progressed towards Wapping via the river front, recalling the shot where Hoskins was framed by Tower Bridge as he gave his rousing, patriotic call to 'the right people'. It quickly became apparent that this walk was unwinding two narratives - the fictional world in which the movie played out, and the uncannily similar events which followed just a few years later via the London Docklands Development Corporation. Shand's own 'corporation' fell prey to retaliatory attacks by the IRA and we saw the corner opposite Scandrett Street where, by virtue of a limited budget, a plywood East End boozer had been constructed to be blown up. We stood below, picturing the sight from the ground, where Shand's car had been seen arriving from the narrow street beside the then abandoned school buildings. Just a short walk around the corner we found the squat, yellow brick St. Patrick's Catholic Church. Apologetic and a little featureless outside, the interior was elegant and lofty, with brightly decorated iconography and dramatic columns climbing to a surprisingly lofty ceiling. Outside we strained to see St. George in the East over the rooftops, as the scene where Shand's mother narrowly escapes a car bomb was a composite with Hawksmoor's striking edifice playing the exterior while St. Patrick provides a fittingly non-Anglican interior. We didn't head for St. George this time - but I'd spent enough time stalking the environs to be able to picture the switch perfectly. Around the next corner we found Dundee Street, with warehouses now converted into flats and offices. Above the street, bridges crossed between windows completing the image of gentrified dockland living. It was here however that a young Gillian Taylforth played the young women who discovers a dying security guard nailed to the beams of the floor in a perverse play on the film's title. The religious imagery is deftly done - temptation, betrayal and sacrifice played out in the slightly distended timeline of a single day.

Approaching the Limehouse Link Tunnel, the story shifted from the plans which Harold Shand had for a new city, to the events which took place here in the 1970s - Michael Heseltine's helicopter flying low over the abandoned wasteland on a return from an abortive excursion to Maplin Sands. His development of the LDDC with the plan to free the area from the shackles of council inertia and the too-and-fro of the same old guard in Parliament. He gives them comprehensive planning powers and just enough money to buy land and sell it cheap. At the same time, London Transport scoff at serving the area with any sort of serious service, and instead the Docklands Light Railway springs up - a budget train-set to fit the low-rise developments which are springing up. Heseltine wants to see people living and working here again, but it's slow - painfully so - and far too glacial for Nicholas Ridley who follows him into the Environment brief. He has a new vision: leveraging private capital to spark life into the Isle of Dogs. The Canadians arrive but want the infrastructure before they commit. Soon the DLR is expanded, the Limehouse Link digging begins - possibly the most expensive road project ever in the UK at that point. Slowly the towers climb from the water. But - abruptly - the market crashes and everything stops. The abundance of empty office space across the major cities of the UK and Europe makes a folly out of One Canada Square, the tower which glowers over the island with a baleful pyramid and an ever present smear of smoke at its apex. It may as well have been burning money.

Old cranes, new docklands
Old cranes, new docklands

Then the IRA make their own leap from fiction to fact - this time in a genuine and devastating way. On 9th February 1996 the two-year long ceasefire ended with a huge explosion under the DLR on Marsh Wall. Two men, local newsagents, were killed in the blast which left a huge crater in the ground and destroyed one building, and damaged two others seriously. I remember a DLR trip through the area some weeks after the bombing - the shell of the Midland Bank building with its empty windows and flapping blinds standing eerily beside the track as we swerved and dodged around the tight curves between docks and offices. This and a range of other IRA actions in the City of London and Manchester achieved what no amount of government money had managed - it created a market for decent office space. The development of Docklands was perversely rejuvenated and soon Canary Wharf was at the very heart of the plan. Soaring from the mirror-like surface of the former docks, new office towers grew swiftly with the emblems of international banks blinking into life above them. As we arrived at Canary Wharf it was nearly impossible to imagine this was the site of Harold's betrayal in the movie. His blood-soaked stagger from the yacht with a Lear-like howl towards a focused, cool Helen Mirren took place at a point before any of this could be imagined. The deserted dockside with its rank of low sheds along their edge didn't promise this kind of future, and at this point in the movie with his betrayal complete his scheme to bring prosperity seems unlikely to succeed. Now, the impressive brick sheds are the only surviving reference point - housing the Museum of London in Docklands, they are busy with visitors. Across the dock, the glassy torpedo of the new Crossrail Place appears to be moored alongside the office towers, the uncommissioned platforms sitting far beneath the water. The walk ends here, the story complete and Harold Shand's dream delivered despite his almost certain fate at the hands of a young Pierce Brosnan. Using the movie as a lens through which to view the change wrought on this part of the Isle of Dogs was a surprisingly clever ruse, and I can't help but feel that our rather oddly matched group of walkers would never have been assembled for a straightforward 'Docklands history walk'. They might have sniggered and sighed at the names of Conservative politicians of the 90s, but in doing so they missed a point - the plan in its original form was to remake part of London very much in its own, older image. What happened here, what has grown as a strange, disembodied and distinctly transatlantic city beside the city, is as much the result of subsequent governments of both parties' losing grip on the financial sector.

Suddenly, I was alone in the midst of the new city. The group dispersed, even the guide's most ardent hangers on finally leaving him to head for the station. The small square, tucked in beside the replica of the West India Dock Gateway with its elaborate model ship, was windswept and empty. Construction on both sides of the square meant no-one much was heading this way. I tried to decide what to do for the best. The guided walk had taken a little longer than I expected and I'd not thought through my options for the afternoon. I decided to grab a bite to eat before trying to complete a stretch of walking I'd meant to cover for some time - the perimeter of the Isle of Dogs. First I had to negotiate the mall which sits under One Canada Square. I'd been here before, many years ago, and I knew there was a small supermarket near the DLR station. Getting there was a challenge - I'd never arrived at ground level before, and even the concept of 'ground' was less than fixed here. I found a lift and ascended from the sub-zero floors towards the surface, which was in fact the level of the bridge carrying people across to the soon-to-be Crossrail station, finally finding myself at the store near the DLR which was, today at least, closed for engineering works. Purchases made, I retraced my steps out into the broad square and perched beside a cool fountain to eat and plan a little. It didn't take long for a uniformed 'Canary Wharf Estates' employee to take an interest. After wandering around the general area for a little while he plucked up the courage to come nearer. "Going to be long?" he enquired? I took a silent slug of water and said "Not much longer, just having a breather before I walk a bit more". He looked like he wanted to ask more questions - but he was young, inexperienced and a little unsure. I suspect he'd have found it easier if I was a rolling drunk or an itinerant begger - someone he could legitimately move on using the powers he had on the private estate. Instead I was a reasonably polite, reasonably tidy chap who had happily answered his question. "Well, take care then - and no hanging about" he managed before he scuttled back towards the building. I dusted myself down a little, took some defiant shots of the building towering above me, and headed along the edge of Crossrail Place. At the end of the walkway where the building petered out and the dock resumed, things were a little ragged. There are still rough edges to the Canary Wharf estate, and if one walks to the perimeter they soon become apparent. Turning alongside Bellmouth Passage I climbed stairs and crossed a street near empty offices, finally escaping the estate via Trafalgar Way. The staffed sentry post was active, the private police force beckoning cars forward to have credentials checked while flagging buses into the site. I looked across the broad empty area surrounding Billingsgate Fish Market, and across to Balfron Tower and the towers of Stratford beyond. It was a surprisingly sunny afternoon, though you'd never know it inside the estate, where the buildings reflect only each other.

Royal Naval College, from Island Gardens
Royal Naval College, from Island Gardens

I found myself not far from an area I'd walked some while ago, near Poplar Dock Marina. Ahead was the route to Blackwall and Leamouth, but I turned south cutting through a carpark to regain the A1206 as it started a long curve around the island. It soon became apparent that trying to use the river path was going to be a fruitless and time-consuming endeavour. The path was frequently broken by developments, sending me scurrying back and forth to find a route south. Instead, once over the impressive Blue Bridge I stuck largely to the main roads, with a brief excursion into the Samuda Estate. This rather forlorn range of London County Council blocks from 1965 looked tired and careworn, and at their centre stood the stark and impressive Kelson House. This twenty-five storey tower, made up of neatly interlocking three-level maisonettes, was modelled on Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation, with access via a separate slender tower on its western side. It wasn't as graceful or bold as Goldfinger's similar efforts, and was altogether more workmanlike and British in appearance - a building which could grace any city centre perhaps? That it survives is testament to a tenacious island population who have, on the whole accepted incomers and immigrants rather like any dockside community. However, in the 1990s the area had a period of more chequered history, electing the first ever British National Party councillor in Derek Beackon. Beackon appeared to be as surprised as anyone to find himself on Tower Hamlets Council, and struggled to manage the complexity or scale of work expected of him. Perhaps not surprising as his prior role in the party had been as 'Chief Steward' - effectively the organiser of the team of Skinhead bodyguards who circled the leadership in public. Beackon's 'rights for whites' agenda was perhaps surprisingly aided by the local Liberal Democrats who published their own literature complaining that the predominantly Bangladeshi group rehoused from Limehouse when the Link Tunnel was built were given priority in 'luxury' accommodation. With Labour and the Lib Dems locked in an idealogical struggle during the 1993 election, Beackon crept in by a margin of only seven votes and immediately failed to comprehend what was possible at the local level. His colleague councillors walked out in protest at sharing the chamber with an immoderate and loud-mouthed fascist. When the seat was again contested in 1994, Beackon was ousted by a concerted campaign by Labour, and while the white working class roots of the island persist, there is at least a sense of a shared community in this oddly isolated zone again.

Pressed for time, I began to consider my options. The plan to circuit the island back to Limehouse was possible, but I found myself rushing ahead and not taking in my surroudings. A steady procession of buses beside me on Manchester Road had been reassuring at first - a potential quick way out if time got tight - but now they felt like a nagging pressure. At Island Gardens I decided to rethink my plan. With the DLR out of action the square outside the realigned route was busy with people teeming from the Rail Replacement Services. Beside the shiny, winged modern station the brick viaduct which had originally carried the rails here was still standing. I recalled previous visits, long before the railway burrowed under the river, bailing out here at the end of the line and regarding Greenwich across the river from a bench in the small park. Seized by a sudden desire to relive this experience, I headed into the gardens and found my way to the river wall. The Thames buzzed with life - river buses and motor launches scudding over the brown waters. The Greenwich foot tunnel's domed entrances flanked the park, emerging beside the impressive bulk of the Royal Naval College across the river. Beyond, green space stretched away up towards the observatory. I lingered for a moment, before heading back to complete my loop around the island by bus. There was unfinished business on the island - and much to be explored within the deep loop of river - but for now at least, it was time to head back to the mainland.

Tower Hill to Island Gardens Walk

Movebook Link
 


Posted in Travel on Tuesday 21st February 2017 at 11:02pm


It felt good to be on the move again. Despite my committed trainspotter status, I've begun to relax into our road trips and to appreciate the opportunity to see familiar places from a new angle. This time was a little special, and I was childishly excited to be setting off having spent a night in the curious hotel I'd walked by just last month. Our night on the fringe of Essex was surprisingly quiet and relaxing - waking to a misty view over Epping Forest and taking an early train journey into the yawning and stretching city, the fog slowly lifting to reveal a weak, wintery sunshine. We'd set off early and grabbed a coffee in the rather quaint surroundings of Buckhurst Hill - a little village centre in the midst of the suburbs. People came and went, their Sunday morning ritual observed. We lingered before setting off along the High Road and intersecting with another of my recent walking routes. It felt strange to be driving the route I'd walked, joining the North Circular at Waterworks Corner near the spot where my route had come to a slithering, muddy halt just short weeks ago. On a Sunday morning the A406 was still a river of traffic, but it flowed steadily and easily. I'd crossed and recrossed the route so often in this quadrant that unlikely landmarks suggested themselves: footbridges, sliproads and underpasses that had figured in my wanderings were oddly familiar - but striking seen from another angle. The road curved south, dropping into the Roding Valley and stalking the line of electricity pylons which had shadowed my walk through Ilford into an unexpected monsoon. The flyover buckled over the road into town, striding ahead on stilts to meet the A13 at Barking Creek while Tate and Lyle's works at Silvertown glinted in a patch of distant sunlight. As we cruised down the ramp onto this road of which I'd made a particular study and had walked beside for miles, the dust and accumulated detritus whipped against the railings: "there's so much trash!". The A13 was a rollercoaster to the sea - bridges leaping and twisting between the edges of industry and the broad marshes. Over the Roding, over the strangely makeshift construction at Lodge Avenue, turning south and east to amble over Rainham Marsh. Still so much drifting plastic rubbish, so much dust and burned earth. The aroma of the waste reclamation site hung heavy over the brooding marshland.

Queen Elizabeth II Bridge, Thurrock
Queen Elizabeth II Bridge, Thurrock

From some miles away we'd seen the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge arcing over the estuary, with speck-like vehicles hurrying over it's bowstrung deck. As we closed in, sliding effortlessly over the marshes which I'd walked with sore feet counting each step, the bridge felt unreal and fragile. Joining the lines of traffic climbing to its apex, all I could see ahead were the towers set against the pale estuarine skies. Beside us, the brown churn of the Thames was still and waveless. Lights winked from the tops of towering cranes at London Gateway, and to the west there was a smudge of silver-grey where the towers of Docklands stood. The nose of the car was down now, pointing at the green earth of Kent. We turned east again, the river visible here and there as Dartford slipped into Gravesend, before we disappeared into a chalk gorge with the High Speed railway line beside us. Suddenly we burst into an open vista of rolling, green woodland. The road marched ahead on a broad viaduct, with the sprawling Medway valley beneath us. There was surprisingly little trash to be found lining this route. South of the river is a different world, even out here it seems.

Canterbury Cathedral at night, from the Lodge
Canterbury Cathedral at night, from the Lodge

At Medway Services, a relic from the early 1960s which bridges the road offering a view back west as traffic crests the hill and zooms underneath M&S and Costa, we paused for coffee. We were nearing our destination for the remainder of our weekend, and needed to review the complex instructions for accessing the Canterbury Cathedral Lodge. The experience was pitched somewhere between a red carpet celebrity arrival and an East Berlin checkpoint: after navigating the ring road around the city walls, we entered an otherwise restricted road and turned a sharp right to a gated entrance. Our name was enough to lift the barrier. Permitted to enter only long enough to deposit our bags and collect a parking permit, we were soon to learn that rules and regulations were the engine of this place. Waking on our first morning I took my customary stroll. The sky was a dull pink-grey, the sun just beginning it's ascent. I gazed up at the butter-yellow stone of the Cathedral as I walked towards the gate, so impressively close to our lodgings. I was brought up sharply by a voice asking me to stop. The uniformed Catherdral Constables protected the precinct outside public hours with a grim determination: "How did you get in here?". I showed the pass card the hotel had issued - but that wasn't enough. ID was required - but I had none. Not being a driver, and not customarily carrying a passport in my home country, I wasn't able to support my pass with the correct credentials. "What are we going to do now?" the Constable asked sarcastically. My suggestion didn't help at all - "Find a real policeman?". Eventually they decided that a fistful of bank cards and suchlike bearing the same name would do, and let me out into the streets of the city. It felt oddly liberating to be among the tumbling old buildings and hidden alleyways of this ancient place. I headed for the River Stour and sat for a while in the quiet of Abbot's Mill Garden, the water cascading through a tangle of channels which once fed the wheels.

Reculver Towers
Reculver Towers

Despite the regime at the hotel which felt equally oppressive and challenging inside the building as out, we managed to relax and enjoy the city. Because of the atmosphere of a religious retreat inside, escaping the gates felt like an exhalation - and elsewhere in Canterbury we found friendly service, excellent food and very little of the bleak Protestant disapproval which the Lodge seemed to be founded on. Oddly, inside the Cathedral building too, the atmosphere was immediately different - charged with significance and history, the sheer burden of time crushed the fusty rules and deferred all to a higher authority. The vast nave stretched into the distance, rising to form Trinity Chapel where St. Thomas Becket's bones lay until disturbed by Henry VIII. He didn't prevail entirely here - this by far the most colourful, most Catholic of Anglican churches - right here at the heart of the diluted, English faith. Much of British history wound back to this place but it was far from an inert shrine for display purposes only: as we shuffled along the wall of remarkable monuments a funeral was beginning in the Quire. All too soon it was time to begin the trip home, but there was a further stop to make first. After a winding journey along country roads, tailgated by white vans and nearly side-swiped by throbbing BMWs, we turned a corner to witness the stark towers of the ruins at Reculver. I'd seen this uncanny, sublime view from the train window many times but close at hand, on it's clifftop roost, the scale of the proud, surviving towers was impressive. We walked the path to the towers, the flat field beside them covering the remains of a roman fortress. This spot had defended the coast for centuries - and the towers had served as a waymark for boats using the long disappeared Wantsum Channel and a navigation aid for the treacherous Thames estuary. Looking out across the water I could see distant ranks of wind turbines, and between them the eerily animate shadows of the Maunsell Forts at Shivering Sands. Beyond lay distant Essex, where this journey had started - and where I had further ground to cover, more business with this estuary. Lately, I'd been reading and thinking much about Charles Olson, and his words suddenly fell perfectly into step with the view across the water:

It is undone business
I speak of, this morning,
with the sea
stretching out
from my feet

Charles Olson, Maximus To Himself, 1960

We headed back to the car to make the long drive west. Once again, Kent had surprised me with it's ability to ensnare me in it's history and to make me want to return. The haunting views at Reculver needed to be considered further, their stories unravelled in detail. We followed the taillights back towards London, and home.

There is a small gallery of pictures from the trip here.

 


Posted in London on Saturday 4th February 2017 at 11:02pm


Newbury Park station had become something of an unsuspecting transport hub today - with services from Liverpool Street terminating short a surprising mass of passengers were being directed to this usually rather sleepy loop of the Central Line which swings east to the edge of Greater London. Getting out to Stratford had already been a slow and steady process, but now I found myself joining an unexpectedly busy Hainault-bound service for the final few miles to my destination. Plunging back into the earth after Leytonstone, we emerged at the tight curve where the Underground lines divide and ascend to assume the alignment of the former Great Eastern Railway line to Ilford. Almost everyone got off the train at Newbury Park to scramble for the buses departing from its curious modernist half-pipe shelter to destinations east, and suddenly we were rumbling along almost empty, high above scrubby grassland and distant lines of houses. Despite not being as far east or north as many of my walks in this quadrant, this zone had an unsettling sense of being at the very edge of things. East of the line, paddocks and yards gave way to rising ground and a promise of distant woodland. Meanwhile, west of the railway, the gothic upper section of Claybury Hospital's water tower glowered over a broad smudge of bare wintry treetops. Alone in my carriage I stood, crossing to look from each window in turn. The border between Redbridge and Essex ran a little north of here but I was unlikely to cross it on this walk. Instead I intended to head west and south, joining together some remaining fragments of the ancient Forest of Essex and crossing the route of other walks. While a let-up in the weather had been promised, the sky remained a featureless slab of purple-grey just now. Snow threatened on the sharp wintry air, and I wondered about the wisdom of attempting this in February, but these walks are precious escapes and I was determined to press ahead.

Ilford, from Hospital Hill
Ilford, from Hospital Hill

I decided to stick with the train to its final destination, descending from the island platform at Hainault to an inconspicuous exit onto a quiet suburban street. I set off into the chilly wind, noting virtually no sign of humanity aside from a local slopping along in low-slung jeans, hood up, screen glued to face. He zig-zagged from pavement to pavement, bored and purposelessly playing chicken with the infrequent traffic as the long road stretched west between ranks of fading but solid villas. As I approached the interestingly named Fencepiece Road I spotted the distant tower at Claybury hovering ominously above the treeline. New North Road soon deposited me onto this busy arterial, lined by needlessly numerous hair salons and a few other businesses which huddled alongside the huge Old Maypole pub - a mid-century behemoth of a hostelry which tried to pass as an overscale thatched cottage but was betrayed by the curiously modern square towers which punctuated its curved faced. I set off northwards, intending to navigate the streets of a housing estate to cross towards Claybury Park. I noted the subtle climb becoming a steeper gradient as I meandered around a set of streets named for monarchs both real and imagined. As I turned briefly south to find an alleyway I caught a glimpse of the flat plains of land fringing the Thames between the houses. The sudden, sublime view spurred me onwards - and trudging through yet more streets getting increasingly tenuous in their royal links, I found my way onto Tomswood Hill. From here the views were perhaps even more impressive, and I eagerly crossed into the rough grassland fringing Hospital Hill Wood. The tower had dipped behind the trees, but to the south I had a clear view of a broad sweep of estuary from the distant blur of the Dartford Crossing to the glinting towers on the Isle of Dogs and the cluster of familiar silhouette-towers in the City. Turning west again I edged around the woods. The paths between the trees seemed inconclusive and very muddy indeed, and I knew that they would all eventually lead to the security fences of Repton Park, the sanitised name for the exclusive developments which now clustered around the former Hospital tower. There was no public access here, no way in without business and certainly no welcome for a lone walker with no legitimate purpose. Instead I decided to walk the wooded fringe of the park - part of the vast grounds in which the Asylum had been built. Repton's design. The architect's name was an acceptable substitute when evading the site's true purpose for the Estate Agents literature, and building to his design was finally completed in 1893 after municipal delay and industrial action. It is of course always easy to dismiss the ring of County Asylums which surrounded London as places of horror and misery - but Claybury was built to surprisingly high standards, and hosted the first ever laboratory to investigate the pathology of mental illness and numerous groundbreaking rehabilitative projects. Aside from that, the hospital housed the typical mix of the seriously mental ill, the elderly, the poor and unlucky and those judged too morally compromised to retain their liberty - almost 4000 patients at the peak of its activity. Passing into the NHS in 1948, and enduring despite the Acts of Parliament in 1959 and 1983 which saw care shift from institutions towards the community, the hospital - slowly deteriorating in fabric - finally closed in 1997. Then began a long public enquiry into the planning of the residential development on the site, and how many of the original buildings would be retained in the privatised and enclosed scheme which now placed an obstacle across the ridge of land. That said, I recognised too that it's unlikely I'd be walking this impressive green swathe of parkland had the site not changed in purpose. The surprisingly large park swung around the south-western edges of the woods, with Claybury Hall - an impressive manor turned exclusive apartments following a stint as a Health Authority HQ - peeking above the trees a safe distance from the Hospital. As I reached the western edge of the park I met a steady stream of dog-walkers heading in from Woodford Bridge, a rather quiet island of habitation which seemed to be cut-off from its surroundings. Everyone said 'good morning' here. It felt odd to be among people after such a quiet start to the day.

I was heading downhill again - into the Roding Valley, and towards previous haunts. The weather had closed in, and the dark sky seemed to be pressing down on the valley floor. I had a few choices here - heading north or south on solid ground to cross the valley by road - or I could brave a footpath which appeared to skirt a playing field near Redbridge Lakes, a private fishing establishment. Naturally I chose the latter, and after an abortive attempt to use the boggy football pitch to make my crossing, I gave in and returned to the muddy trail beside the lakes. At the gates to the fishing club, I turned aside, following the trail into a tunnel of trees while my feet slurped through deep mud. I slithered my way along the path, noting a tiny, unnamed stream trickling in bedside me, and heading for the river. It was raining in earnest now, and I was thankful for my coat as I trudged onwards wondering about the wisdom of taking this route after all. Suddenly, the path opened onto a broad stony trail under the splayed flyovers of the incomplete M11 interchange. I'd been here before and I felt my spirits rise at the sight of the motorway, greeting it like an old friend. I sheltered under the southbound carriageway while I studied the map and planned the next leg of my walk. Realising it was going to be wet however I proceeded, I decided to press on under the motorway and over the swollen, fast-flowing Roding, emerging on Chigwell Road at a filling station I'd visited on a previous Roding Valley walk. I turned south here, crossing the street and heading into the Orchard Estate. This clump of sullen grey towers clustered with low-rise blocks, felt down-at-heel - the rain did them no favours at all, and nor did the barricaded front of the beleaguered general store and community centre. There were few people around, and certainly none who were heading along Broadmead Road where the street rose gently to pass over the Central Line a little south of Woodford Station. The road had the feel of an early twentieth-century arterial route: generous villas set back from the street, with a broad, straight carriageway heading over the bridge. This alignment of the road replaced the former route along the wonderfully named Snakes Lane which was now severed at Woodford Station, the level crossing incompatible with the frequent electric train service introduced in 1947. This has turned the urban centre of Woodford into something of a cul-de-sac, stunted and off the main route to anywhere in particular, but popular with the locals nonetheless. Perhaps that's why these edgeland hamlets have gained the favour of quiet-seeking city types? The new road curved gracefully between the lanes and crescents of pleasant suburban homes, before coming to rest on the High Road from Epping on the fringe of Woodford Green. Traffic churned the gullies of rainwater onto the pavement, but up ahead the sun was high and the tarmac glared brightly back at me. I walked south, looking for an opportunity to leave the road and enter the forest again. I was close to The Charter Road, where I'd turned aside from the forest trail on my River Ching perambulation, and I was eager to rejoin the path close to where I'd left it.

North Circular Footbridge, Epping Forest
North Circular Footbridge, Epping Forest

After a march along the road through the forest, passing numerous private schools and nurseries which seemed to be a key industry in Woodford, I found a chance to regain the forest trail at Oak Hill. The path divided two cul-de-sacs, immediately turning into a muddy gully surrounded by trees. I slopped along, wondering how wise this was but still eager to walk the forest rather than along the surprisingly busy A104. There was some semblance of a surface in places - yellow stones lurking a little under the surface which provided some stability - but mostly it was a thick carpet of decaying leaves and a slick of watery soil. I tried to hug the margins of the path as I'd learned on my previous walk, but in places this just wasn't possible and I was reduced to a ginger skitter across deep puddles. My trusty boots did me proud again, keeping my feet dry and generally sinking deep enough to ensure I retained a vertical position. The path broadened briefly into a meadow between the road and the forest and I had a final chance to escape onto solid ground - but no way was I going to compromise, not now I had a layer of red clay on my boots and trousers. I was determined to press on. Shortly after plunging back between the trees, and after one of the wettest and muddiest areas I'd crossed so far, the path solidified. Up ahead the railings of the bridge over the North CIrcular could be seen. I'd rather looked forward to this crossing - this symbolic boundary which I've crossed and re-crossed during so many of my walks. It didn't disappoint. The footbridge cut across a section of the road enclosed by the forest. Looking east, traffic slowed for the junction at Waterworks Corner - where I'd have emerged too if I'd taken the road instead of this path. But to the west the view was majestic - the dual carriageway lurched north between the trees, opening a view over the Lea Valley. I could see the distant towers of Edmonton Green, and a shimmering surface of reservoir on the horizon. I spent a while watching the road before moving on. The next patch of woodland looked fairly small on the map, skirting the vast covered reservoir to the east, and crossing another footbridge into a larger area of forest. It was a slog through some exceptionally muddy terrain though, and I wasn't sorry to reach the solid surface of the second footbridge. The road beneath was surprisingly quiet despite trailing in from Tottenham and Walthamstow. Beyond the bridge I found a broad grassy area with a well-worn track leading across it. A small family group of dog walkers sporting muddied wellington boots passed by. More confident on this terrain I struck out ahead through the tall grass, my boots getting cleaned by the deep foliage as I walked. My confidence was soon proven to be misplaced: the track reached the tree line and dipped down a steep slope to gain the forest floor below. The slope was a mudslide. A near vertical slither at the least muddy spot, and a treacherous slope of sloppy clay elsewhere. The family with the dog had looped back and passed me, and the sight of them toppling, sliding and slithering down the hill put me off any attempt. I had to get a train back home tonight and a generous coating of mud beyond that I'd collected already was unlikely to sit well with with the guard I suspected. Instead I edged around the plot of land seeking a different exit. A small field of allotments was below, and there was a potential access onto the entrance road serving them. However, looking at a disgruntled gardener wheel-spinning his aging Volvo to gain traction suggested this wasn't going to work either. I felt a little thrill of concern - a kind of range anxiety perhaps - which was mostly unfounded: I could retrace my steps over the footbridges and back to the road of course. But it would be a long detour and would take some time. I realised I'd not eaten and I was feeling the effects of the walk so far on my feet and my stomach. It was a dispiriting moment. I walked the edge of the road, trying several possible routes down the steep slope to no avail, until I came back to the footbridge. It seemed I was retracing my steps.

Crossing the footbridge, I noted some seemingly well trodden paths down the clumpy grass of the embankment on the northern side. On investigation it was a fairly straightforward scramble down a grassy bank, and I soon found myself directly below where I'd been moments before. I was relieved - I'd had to track back a short way, but at least hadn't needed to recross the North Circular. Instead I set off east, over the cattle grid to the junction with Woodford New Road. This long, straight and busy thoroughfare cuts directly south through the forest, and I was inevitably going to find my way back to it somewhere on this walk. Setting off I passed a couple planning a walk in the forest, who clearly had second thoughts on seeing my dishevelled and grimy appearance. The road was wearingly straight and busy, and the sun had made for a warmer walk than I'd expected after the wet, chilly morning. I soon passed the point I suspected I'd have emerged from the woodland if I'd been able to make the scramble: I was back on track. On the opposite side of the road there were further tempting paths leading into the trees but I couldn't chance another detour and stuck to the road, soon passing the entrance to Forest School where I'd walked once before with a former pupil. A route along Snaresbrook Road and through the scrubby forest edge suggested itself, but I continued to stick with the footpath I'd chosen, navigating the roundabout and heading east again onto Whipps Cross Road. This stretch of road along the edge of the Hollow Ponds and near the hospital was familiar from a disturbing and disorienting night-time bus journey from Bakers Arms a few years back. That bus journey was haunting and strangely mesmerising - the unfamiliar scenery and the stern Victorian architecture of the hospital looming out of the dark as I passed into unfamiliar suburbs had created a strange impression on my memory. It was made worse by facing a potentially difficult social negotiation at its end. Whipps Cross road in pleasant winter sunlight was wholly different. The ponds glinted, busy with wildfowl and well used by locals, while the towers of the hospital peeked benignly from behind their tree-curtain. I wondered if this would erase the odd phantasmagoria of the earlier trip? I trudged along, tired and hungry, my goal being to find food before deciding how to end this rather poorly planned excursion. I realised there was a more interesting route to be found on the forested side of the road, but I already knew I needed to revisit this area to reconnect it with Wanstead Flats, so staying dry and surefooted was no loss today. I slogged on, watching the traffic tearing by to reach the A12 as its controversial course weaved around the terraces of Leytonstone.

City view, from Leytonstone
City view, from Leytonstone

Relaxing in the lowering sunshine outside a ludicrously busy Tesco store, I ruminated on how strangely the walk had turned out. The dismay at needing to turn back, the slow hard slogging through mud, and the unsettling reconnection with an old memory had been challenging. But the last stretch leading to this spot had involved crossing a footbridge over the A12 in its concrete channel offering views south and west towards the city. The panorama had been striking, with the terraces of Leytonstone framing the distant towers and columns and setting them in a strange context. Things felt like they were swimming into focus. Nothing seemed far from anywhere else just here. I still had time and a little refreshed energy - so perhaps I could connect this walk to something after all? I recrossed the main road by way of the modern addendum to Grove Green Road which snakes across to reach the older victorian byway to Leyton. It was comforting to be making good progress on a quiet pavement, and the area was interesting - previously seen only from passing trains or cars, but surprisingly close to where I'd walked many times before. Passing under the low railway bridge with dire warnings to diverted buses, I emerged alongside the linear park which filled the tiny sliver of land between the road and the concrete gully containing its shudderingly busy modern counterpart. As it dawned on me where I was, I came upon Claremont Road. Or at least I came upon the stub-ended brick wall at the end of a tiny inlet where it had once been. There were no houses in the street, just about room to park an off-duty white van or two. Claremont Road had gone, torn apart by the deep cut of the A12 as it progressed northwards to join the M11. This was the site of the last stand - the occupation of this street by a group of protesters with considerable local support had delayed the road scheme. A tiny republic formed within the monarchy. A lawless but self-regulating community with a single purpose built watchtowers in the beleaguered street and strung nets between the homes to keep the bulldozers at bay. Meanwhile a single elderly resident made tea and gave advice to the young protesters. I imagined her navigating all of the strained emotions and romances that being caught up in that heady moment of resistance must have invoked in the young and idealistic minds. Calming, soothing and reassuring, she'd seen worse - a war, austerity, the rapidity of the modern world encroaching. Their petty dramas, even the bigger drama being played out via the siege at her doorstep must have seemed part of the flow of things. But now the street was gone, the A12 had prevailed and its traffic echoed by the end of what was left of Claremont Road. Progress had overtaken all of the events, large and small, and the towers and gates and allegiances had all been swept away. Coming upon the street by accident was a unexpected experience - when it crossed my mind this would be along my route I'd been convinced I'd missed it, or got entirely the wrong location - but here it was. The brick wall was a stark reminder of the fate that befell the residents of this quiet dead-end street which became a symbol of a wider environmental struggle in those fervent days.

I was beginning to slow down, my feet sore and sluggish after their trawl through the muddy forest. Grove Green Road stretched, straight and long, towards a crossroads where everything seemed to fall into place. If I continued ahead I'd end up reversing my recent walk around the Olympic Park, if I turned north I'd be heading for Bakers Arms and the site of a restless and strange night. Instead I turned south, crossing the bridge outside a busy Leyton station, people pouring from the entrance. I took the bus instead - making sense of this somewhat impromptu wander needed a slower pace of travel. My route cut across everything - from the valleys and ridges I normally use to guide me to my perceptions of some of the areas I'd covered. I'd demystified the horror of Whipps Cross and re-examined the view from the North Circular from a new vista. Sleepy, down-at-heel Hainault and the tower at Claybury seemed distant indeed - but the new links I'd forged brought them into my London mythology. The tongue of forest curling into the city needed further exploration for sure, but today this most ancient topography had given form to my wander. Thankfully, I slipped into the bus seat as we sped towards Stratford.

You can see a gallery of images from the walk here.

Hainault to Leyton Walk

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Posted in SHOFT on Monday 23rd January 2017 at 11:25pm


It had been a while since we'd managed to get out to see a band. It had certainly been a while since I'd seen King Creosote too - an entire year by my reckoning. It had been a quiet year by Kenny Anderson's standards too - with just two eponymous releases under his belt. However, his return was a triumphant one. While he played the intimate atmosphere of Lantern on his last visit to the Colston Hall, Simply Red were busily creating blandness in the main hall. This time, King Creosote - with his proper tour bus outside - we're playing the main stage. It promised to be an interesting evening...

First up though, were Modern Studies - something of a supergroup, featuring Rob St. John, Pete Harvey of various Scottish bands and Emily Scott along with Joe Smillie of Call to Mind. Thus assembled from individually remarkable pieces of Perthshire, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Lancashire's musical finery, this collectively rather wonderful band have recently produced a debut album - Swell to Great on Song, By Toad. Live, as on the record, Modern Studies take their cues from some of the best quietly powerful acts - I'm hearing a little Low and a little Yo La Tengo. Coupled with Emily and Rob's own explorations of their national folk traditions, and filled out with harmonium, electric piano and cello, this made for a spellbinding set. For once, a Bristol audience was definitely listening to the support band - and the reaction was warm and appreciative rather than the usual cool disdain. The pin-drop quiet in the softer passages was filled with the clanking of harmonium pedals and scraping of bow on cello. This was chamber music for the 21st century, with hints of Scottish ballads and the bleak folk music of the Pennines. It's fair to say that everyone was sad to see them depart, with a collective groan from the audience at the announcement of their last song.

Sometimes, being a King Creosote fan is a bit like being a DIY expert. If you want results, you have to work at it. New songs are best heard by travelling to a remote Fife village and piling into a sweaty room above a rubgy club. Then they'll be reinterpreted on record - likely on a vinyl-only release which is available at shows, or - if the stars align and you're in the right place at the right time - from the resolutely low-tech website of the Alter Ego Trading Company, where things drift in and out of stock regularly, and the whole place shuts down for months at a time. Eventually though, some of the songs make it to one of the more commercially available releases. Kenny's most recent Astronaut Meets Appleman is rare in that most of the tracks here haven't been through this genesis, and have sprung onto record in their fully-formed band version. To do this justice requires quite an ensemble, and tonight he is joined by cellist, organist, synth player and piper among his usual band. All of them arrive on stage in sort of low-fi sci-fi Bowie-esque costume. Stick on stars and hastily cut-out KC lettering, silvery eye make-up and lurid pink and white wigs adorn band members. Amidst this, Kenny appears. And he seems to be remarkably happy!

I'm not suggesting that KC is anything less than entertaining usually, but when he's touring with a band he always seems just a little more chipper. This time, with his entourage in tow and their rather grand bus (apparently great for everything except perhaps the more involved toilet visit!) he's positively beaming. The band are slick and know the material well - working through the whole album in a slightly amended order. The poppier moments - like Love Life sitting neatly alongside the more reflective, drawn out tracks such as You Just Want and the closing The Long Fade. A significant highlight is Melin Wynt where the drone of pipes fills the hall while an insistent bassline drives the song on. As the set draws to a close Kenny notes that encores are silly, and explains that the band will just hide on stage - and they do exactly that, barely concealed behind the various bits of equipment, before heading back to play a request. Each night, they've take a request from the audience, learned it after the show, and played it at the next date on the tour. Thus we get a spectacularly fulsome sounding take on Admiral from 2007's would-be-breakthrough Bombshell album.

Leaving the Colston Hall and reflecting on some of the great (and not so fantastic) acts I've seen here since my teens, I find myself reckoning that this is among the best nights. The company, the music, the atmosphere and the receptive audience all adding up to a pretty special occasion. May there be many more opportunities to see the King at court.

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Lost::MikeGTN

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.

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