Posted in London on Saturday 4th November 2017 at 11:11pm
Heading west out of Paddington, minutes after arriving, felt very strange indeed. A few minutes later, as I waited in a steady downpour outside Ealing Broadway station for the bus to Hanger Lane, I tried to rationalise my persistence with today's endeavour. I needed to walk... It had felt like a tough few weeks, and I knew I had an equally challenging month ahead. I also felt like I had unfinished business out here - and despite feeling like a trudge along some damp eastern pavements might have been a far more sensible idea given the promised poor weather, I'd been drawn back to the River Brent which had proved so elusive and wayward on my last walk here. When I'd left the river last time, it had been a reluctant parting - I'd figured that Brentford and the Thames were mere miles away, and ought to have been easily reached had I stepped up the pace and not been confounded by diversions. Thus today's walk felt like it might be worryingly short and on the way into London I'd been concocting possible additions and extensions to fill the day. As it was, the Brent more than occupied my time today, and the walk was not as short as I'd feared...
Sheltering in a shop doorway, just out of reach of the spray from cars hurtling around the Hanger Lane Gyratory, I deployed the hood of my coat and tried to secure it in a spot which didn't wholly deprive me of my senses. Prepared, and steeled for the rain, I set off - much to the amusement of some of the passengers on my bus who had watched me preparing to get going. I realised from my reflection that the look of grim determination I was wearing must have seemed oddly out of place as I strode off along the slip-road down to the A40. I was starting my walk on another typical arterial road. The slick river of tar stretched ahead, red tail lamps winking into the dark distance and neon signs on the nearby buildings appearing weirdly over-bright in the gloom. I woudn't be spending long walking this road, thankfully, but the more pressing issue was that I didn't fully know how far to go. My research for this walk had focused on what seemed like tricky pathless sections further ahead, and I was striking out into the unknown a little here. As I walked, the hulk of the Vanguard warehouse near which I'd abandoned my last Brent excursion dominated the view west. Ahead of it, the river passed under the A40 via an unremarked bridge. I'd been so close to the water before, but tantalisingly it lay just out of sight, between the road and the railway. Near the bridge a wooden kissing gate led into a grassy space beyond and I'd have probably ignored this save for the 'Brent River Park' direction indicator on the post. Beneath, the river was a grey rush - swollen with rainwater from the heights of Middlesex, its course was more urgent and turbulent than when I'd last been beside it. I was reluctant to head into the field given how wet things were, but it couldn't hurt could it? I swung through the gate and left the road behind. The river curved to meet the flattened path, a carpet of fallen leaves providing me with traction underfoot. This was already beginning to feel like the right direction to head in...
The river wound around the edge of a golf course, providing a boundary between the primped greens and fairways and the much more democratic municipality of Pitshanger Park. I followed its course as closely as I could here, remembering how tricky it had been to walk alongside the river further upstream. The scrubby fields between the road and the park were deserted except for a lone dog walker who patrolled the perimeter, eyeing me with a little suspicion as I trudged carefully around some of the wetter spots on the path. The river turned west, and I needed to retreat to the roads to find it again, doing so via an inelegant clamber over a stile and into the attractive and quiet streets of Brentham Garden Suburb. This rather sleepy and at first unremarkable estate is in fact an early example of a cooperative housing development built to incorporate Ebeneezer Howard's principles as outlined in 'To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform'. Published in 1898, this work kickstarted the Garden City movement which suggested the possibility of enjoying the conveniences of city life in almost rural settings. With construction beginning in 1901, Brentham pre-dates its better known and now rather exclusive cousin at Hampstead by some years but being a little further out of the city, isn't perhaps well positioned to become the haunt of the well-to-do and famous. Walking west, towards an entrance to Pitshanger Park, I watched the estate waking up - supermarket delivery vans puttered between streets, families wandered outdoors, wrapped in winter clothes. The rain had almost stopped as I turned into the park entrance which was guarded by a gang of gossiping dog walkers, their bored hounds grunting and sniffing at the floor in anticipation of their excursion recommencing. I set off across the park to its northern boundary where the river was hidden behind a line of trees. There were few others in this part of the park away from the sports club and café, and while still a little damp my walk was quiet and pleasant. At the edge of the park I turned north along a narrow hedge-lined alleyway cutting through the golf course. The river, after being joined by what appeared to be the stub of a forgotten tributary or former diversion, also turned north, and through the hedge I could see it winding between greens and fairways, providing a genuine challenge to errant golfers.
The path divided near a wooden bridge over the Brent, marking the point where I'd expected to enter the park had my excursion through the fields not proved viable. I turned west again, rejoining the river as it took a broad loop to the south and then north along Argyle Road. A detour here took me close to the riverbank as far as Perivale Lane where I feared I was trespassing on the grounds of St. Benedict's School. I tramped back to Argyle Lane, retracing my steps rather than following an arc around the playing fields of a leisure centre which, while closer to the river were clearly muddy and very wet and offered no clue about how I'd escape at the other end. I began to fear that perhaps the Brent was to be as elusive today as it had been on the first part of my walk in from Finchley. I headed west along Ruislip Road East, a long straight route running directly from Ealing to Greenford which the borough had recently improved to favour walkers and cyclists. Frequent banners hung from the fence behind which the river ran, informing me how this five-mile long route was safe, well provided with frequent crossings and speed controls and could enhance my health and wellbeing. Indeed there did seem to be a fair number of people wandering back and forth as I passed under the railway line from Greenford with the Brent churning darkly under the adjacent arch of the bridge. The road began to rise towards a junction with Greenford Broadway, crossing the river by way of an ornate bridge. Beside the bridge a gap in the fence provided a surprisingly anonymous entrance to the continuation of the Capital Ring walking route. I'm still asked fairly often if I'm 'doing' this walk - and equally often I'm told how unattractive and borderline dangerous my questioners found the walk. At this point I'm forced to grit my teeth and suggest that I'm not walking the route but inevitably I'm encountering parts of it on my travels. I'd love to add that circling a vast, complex city like London is bound to take a walker through a variety of landscapes which make up the edgelands, but I suspect they're already busily ticking off their next sanctioned and sanitised walk somewhere. After a brief pause to buy lunch I returned to the inconsequential gap in the fence and plunged into the cool, quiet tunnel between the trees which lined the river here. Near the road there was the usual evidence of temporary occupation: blue carrier bags, Polish lager cans, the marks of extinguished fires and discarded clothing - but soon these petered out too, and it was just me and the river. The Brent was wide and fast-flowing here, swirling with rainwater from the numerous streams and gullies which joined it on its suburban journey. This wedge of parkland, hemmed in by a recycling centre and a large development of inter-war housing was almost entirely deserted. The sky churned overhead, but promised brighter conditions might be coming later, and I happily trudged south, the river tumbling and twisting beside me. The way was marked by infrequent wayfinding posts, and one of these sent me down a flight of wooden steps cut into the steep valley side and onto a rarely walked diversion on the bank of the river. Unsure if this path would safely return me to my route without a muddy scramble, I was a little uneasy about heading onwards - but the lure of the water was strong and I'm glad I continued. This was the closest I'd managed to get to the Brent so far, and it felt good to be walking beside it more directly for a short spell as it cascaded over a weir and swirled around hanging boughs of trees which leaned down into its surface. Returning safely to the path further ahead, I crossed a bridge and found myself on a comparatively well-made stony path passing directly through another golf course, marked by signs warning me that by passing them I accepted the risk of encountering low-flying balls. There were few golfers braving the unpredictable November weather today, so I gladly took the chance and continued. The river was to the east now, denoted by a snaking line of trees beyond the flags and bunkers, and I once again wondered how much more of it I'd manage to see? Above the trees, the steeple of St. Mary's Church in Hanwell was a black silhouette on a turbulent and dramatic sky which seemed to shift to dominate the view from every direction as the path turned with the river. There has been a place of worship here for well over a thousand years, and it struck me that the development of parks and golf courses around it meant that it still provided a landmark from some distance away with little encroachment by other tall buildings. The path rejoined the Brent, crossing it by way of a solid but scruffy metal bridge, and then divided again - the more formal sandy track leading up to the church while a series of wooden flets sunk into the muddy bank took the path into a broad meadow and towards the curve of the river again. I chose the muddier path and stayed with the Brent.
At the top of the steps I found an expansive park, surrounding the fences of Hanwell Zoo and allowing me to take a wet but relatively mud-free excursion along the riverbank as it wandered east around the edge of the Millennium Maze and into Churchfields Recreation Ground. The thunder of trains could be heard over the chatter of children and braying of goats, apparently the only animals braving the wet weekend morning in a compound at the back of the zoo. It occurred to me that I'd soon be passing under the Great Western Railway which had brought me into Paddington a few hours ago, the twists and recursions of today's journey echoing the contortions of the Brent. Now though, the river slunk quietly in a low gully at the foot of the park, screened by high trees and hedges which hid the graceful arches of Wharncliffe Viaduct from view until at the foot of the sloping parkland one of the great arches leapt into view, gracefully crossing the path and the river. This awe-inspiring structure was one of the earliest projects attributed to Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and also one of the first completed along the route west from Paddington to Bristol with trains running above from 1838. The viaduct also has the honour of being one of the first buildings 'listed' for preservation in 1949, and such forms a key part of the bid to have the whole original GWR route named a World Heritage Site. While it remains unclear if Queen Victoria really did insist the Royal Train pause on the viaduct to let her enjoy the view along the Brent Valley, there are now others who linger here - namely a vast colony of bats which live within the hollow archways. The river turns south again here, initially in a brick culvert which neatly brings it alongside the path and under one of the easternmost arches of the viaduct. Looking along the structure, its grace and scale are overwhelming, and perhaps not fully appreciated until viewed from the hay meadow to the south of the line where Lord Wharncliffe's family arms are visible on the central span - recognition of his support for the parliamentary bill authorising the Great Western Railway. I paused here, trying to get a picture which would truly show the sweep of the arches over the valley, an amused dog walker letting his charge scamper in the long grass while he watched me struggling to frame the shot against a dull grey sky. Behind me as I faced the wonder of Victorian engineering, another impressive bulk of a different era loomed: the huge Ealing Hospital - a solid grey block raised above a wide pediment, with ramps leaping and curving from the ground to deliver ambulances direct to the entrances. I'd passed this way countless times, spotting the rather grim building from trains speeding west from Paddington, but up close the building felt impressive, dour and overbearing. Before reaching the Hospital, the river needed to pass under the Uxbridge Road via a low stone bridge. There was a choice of routes here - the path ascended to cross the busy road at grade, or I could stay beside the river and pass under an arch in the bridge built to accommodate the footpath. This passage dipped low, close to the river's edge and appeared worryingly waterlogged. I weighed up the alternative route up to the road, but decided that I was brave enough to attempt the slither down the stone slope and under the bridge. In the edge of the river beside me, a forlorn and slowly moulding office chair was marooned in a shallow pool of greenish water. The roof was close to my head, stippled with drips of calcification and dangling here and there with more ambitious stalactites, but the passage was uneventful save for paddling through an inch or so of water - either rainfall or overspill from the Brent which felt perilously close. The path climbed again, rising to pass close to the eastern perimeter of the Hospital, revealing the inner workings and complexities of the building, rather spoiling the illusion of the futuristic swooping concrete ramps and the rather inhuman face of the tall concrete blocks. Built in 1979, the site fills the nook between the River Brent and the mainline of the Grand Junction - latterly the Grand Union - Canal. To the west of the current hospital the former Middlesex County Asylum, opened in 1831 remains in use as a modern psychiatric unit, still sequestered behind a solid red-brick wall. Known for some time as St. Bernard's Hospital, the facility pioneered early forms of occupational therapy under Dr William Ellis its first superintendent, and was later instrumental in the removal of restraints in favour of less invasive means of protecting patients, including the padded room. The relative humanity of the regime at Hanwell under Ellis is evident in his principled resignation upon learning that the Commissioners and Justices wished to cram more patients than he felt could be properly be cared for.
This corner of Hanwell also holds a significant place in the nation's industrial history. Beyond the hospital the path divided, with a spur leading up to the towpath of the canal at the bottom of the Hanwell Flight - a series of six locks with associated balancing ponds built in 1794 to bring the Grand Junction to the level of the Brent, with which it merges nearby. As I emerged beside the bottom of the flight, two young couples were beginning the ascent of the flight, enjoying the sunshine which had finally escaped weakly from the cover of low cloud and not yet tired from, or perhaps fully cognisant of, the effort required in operating the six locks to raise their boat through fifty-three feet. I was tempted to follow the canal but I stuck with the river path as long as I could, taking the path which shadowed its last sluggish twists between the cottages on Green Lane and the canal, before finally reaching the junction under a brick bridge. From here I would be walking the southern part of a route which was navigable to Birmingham and beyond, and which had revolutionised transport in the 18th century. The River Brent, for a time at least, was subsumed into the wide, businesslike line of the canal - but it wasn't entirely absent. The river's meanders and twists as it approached the Thames largely dictated the course of the canal. Where the meanders were too tight and wide the river branched from the canal into foliage-choked and litter strewn loops which tumbled busily over weirs while the canal took a more sedate route through the wide green spaces of Osterley Park. The grand house here has its origins in an Elizabethan Manor which, at a respectable distance from London attracted the Child's, a well-connected banking family who in 1761 engaged Robert Adam to rebuild the house which was by then in considerable disrepair. Osterley House was once set in open countryside, and while its immediate grounds remain a park in National Trust management, a surprisingly large area of apparently unmanaged open land which would once have been part of its substantial grounds shadows the Brent here. To the east of the river this has become a managed wildlife area, part of the chain of spaces which make up Brent River Park. To the west the former Great Western Railway branch to Brentford runs broadly in parallel, passing the curiously named Trumpers' Crossing nearby. On the towpath, a large sign notes the location of the prize-winning length of pile in the 1959 Kerr Cup Pile Driving Competition. This contest, apparently organised by British Waterways, appears lost to history - even Google largely drawing a blank except for references to the sign itself. Both canal and railway pass under a more modern transport innovation here too, with the M4 sweeping above on a curving route into West London via a practical and unadorned concrete and iron overbridge. The traffic shuddered and screeched above, the notoriously bottlenecked road seemingly flowing freely for a welcome change.
For a while, the motorway, railway and canal ran in parallel along the broad lower Brent valley. The river meandered to the east here, passing around large wooded islands under the road, traffic above seeing a carpet of treetops below and largely unaware of the presence of the waterways. The towpath climbed over the river by way of an elegant iron bridge spanning solid, brick piers. Beyond the fence the silent machinery of a waste transfer station waited restlessly for the next load of detritus from the suburbs. This was once Brentford Town station on the somewhat unloved Brentford Dock branch, Brunel's final railway project before his death. The aim was to secure a GWR connection to the tidal Thames at Brentford - but the line struggled from the start with objections to its construction raised by the Grand Junction Canal Company and the Duke of Northumberland, owner of nearby Syon House. When eventually opened to goods in 1859, and then to passengers in 1860, the initially single track, broad gauge line failed to deliver on its promise in attracting commuters. The anticipated passenger flows to the Dock for ferries to Kew Gardens didn't ever begin operation, but freight traffic grew steadily with cargoes transferred to barges at the busy docks beside the Thames. By the time services were suspended as an economy measure during the First World War the branch was operating as a more conventional double track spur from Southall - but passenger traffic was never strong, in part because the connection to the mainline faced west making through-trains from Paddington unworkable. The London & South Western Railway had arrived in Brentford in 1849 with swift services direct to Waterloo - and the GWR simply couldn't compete. Despite restoration after hostilities ceased, the service was reduced to a peak time shuttle in 1929 and ceased entirely in 1942. Perhaps surprisingly, freight traffic continued to the goods depot at the Town Station site until 1970, with private sidings serving Firestone and other factories along the 'Golden Mile' of the Great West Road - the great mid-century sprawl of industry out to the west of London. Now the line stops short of its former crossing of the A4 while the collected waste of Hounslow, Ealing and Richmond is sifted and containerised at the railhead. Soon after passing under the road near the vast mirror of the Glaxo Smithkline global HQ, the river is bridged by the L&SWR's 'Hounslow Loop' - and with electric trains passing frequently above it's perhaps easy to see why the Great Western's branch never quite made its mark as a passenger railway. I emerged from beneath the Great West Road to find the hulking remains of an overhanging warehouse leering out into the waterway. It appeared that boats awaiting repair were now stored here, somewhat sheltered by the structure which seemed to be in the midst of a long process of overhaul. The path edged around the skeletal building, feeling oddly unofficial - this area was in the throes of redevelopment with the walkway temporarily transferred onto an unnerving floating pontoon in the canal. I trudged carefully along the queasily oscillating plastic walkway, noting the modern apartments which had encroached on the broad canal as it approached Brentford Gauging Lock. Walking here felt like trespass, and I wasn't sorry to emerge on Brentford High Street which felt down-to-earth in comparison to the eerily quiet developments along the canal.
Brentford High Street was surprisingly quiet too, with the Great West Road now taking the strain of much of the through traffic. At this, western end of town things were starting to feel the effort of gentrification - pubs were smartening up and a few specialist stores opening opposite a modern hotel building on the edge of the Canal basin. The towpath continued, descending via a slick, steep flight of stairs onto a narrow ledge which turned east along the Brent's final meander towards the Thames. This part of the walk had looked straightforward from the maps - a last trudge along the path to the confluence - but it was a surprisingly complicated endeavour. Firstly, the path was confusingly discontinuous and was often thrown aside from the water by private stretches of mooring. At one point following the path necessitated clambering up onto a concrete ledge to cross the river frontage of a timber merchant's warehouse which would formerly have received deliveries by barge. There were few people around and sparse signage to indicate I wasn't way off track - making the narrow and unclear right-of-way feel strangely menacing. The afternoon was becoming warm too, with the morning's mist and rain now a memory as the sun beat down on the water, reflecting dizzily back at me. I crossed the river again near a muddy inlet which reminded me that the River had now taken precedence again, and that this was Brentford Creek rather than the managed route of the canal. Immediately after crossing the bridge the route descended a steep staircase down to the grassy riverbank, as the more solid walkway through the Brentford Dock Estate remained private. Design of this development of homes by GLC architect Sir Roger Walters began on the closure of the docks in 1964, and building was finally complete by 1978 - the year of his retirement. Originally proposed for social letting, only around one fifth of the units were rented with leases for the rest sold by the GLC, resulting in the privately managed estate of today. In 1980 the associated Marina development was opened by the flamboyant GLC leader Sir Horace Cutler arriving by boat from County Hall. Cutler was by all accounts very keen on such showmanship, and although his administration is regarded as largely unsuccessful, he raised ideas which later found more general acceptance - not least the extension of the Jubilee Line into Docklands to spark regeneration, the promotion of the London Marathon and an audacious scheme to bid for the 1988 Olympic Games - which failed to find Government support. Cutler also correctly predicted that if elected, the Labour leader Andrew McIntosh would be ousted by the left of the party and that Ken Livingstone would become GLC leader. However, fighting the election on this negative basis seems to have assured Labour of the very victory which Cutler feared. Six years after Cutler's triumphant arrival stunt at Brentford Marina, the GLC which he had himself described as "too big, remote and shadowy" was finally abolished by the Thatcher government, nominally for those same reasons.
I crossed the Brent for the final time at Thames Lock - the tidal gates which controlled entry to the docks until their closure, and which still allow experienced boaters to access the Thames at designated times. The area around the lock was a pleasantly haphazard zone of chandler's yards and crumbling warehouses which transported me with a jolt to the unreconstructed reaches of the Lower Lea Valley more than a decade ago. Boats of all kinds were visible, some floating queasily askance, others hoisted from the water and in various states of repair or decay, but no-one seemed in a hurry to do much this sunny, Saturday afternoon. Here too, regeneration was slowly encroaching - and the people who I met crossing the bridge over the last loop of the river were upwardly mobile, young and optimistic looking types. Dock Road led down towards Brentford High Street which was a confusing and somewhat downbeat mix of buildings awaiting demolition, new developments and tired looking blocks from the late 20th century. A little further east I found the signposts marking the route to the Thames Path. Here, like some of the places I'd encountered the path in the east of the city, there were discontinuities and complex diversions where the riverfront rights of way hadn't yet been resolved. A short way ahead I found an alleyway which returned me to the final few metres of the River Brent at Point Wharf Lane beside some tidy and well-used residential moorings and some shiny newly built apartments stacked atop a trio of Turkish, Indian and Italian restaurants. The last mile of the Brent had been quiet and residential, and felt curiously private in nature. The river belonged to those who lived beside it and I felt like an intruder walking the path beside their homes. As the path turned east, I realised that I'd unexpectedly reached the point of confluence - and I tried to snap a picture inconspicuously over the heads a family working on their boat. I also calculated that the walk from Perivale to this spot had in fact been around ten miles in length - there was certainly no way I'd have finished this walk on my last outing, and perhaps I'd been too tough on myself for not pressing on to Brentford. after all? My estimate, minus the winding and curving of the river, had been dramatically off beam. Now I needed to head briefly back inland near the giant stainless steel swoop of Simon Packard's 'Liquidity' sculpture - a commission which had almost broken the spirit of the artist - standing resolutely on the quayside at Ferry Lane despite local homeowner's protests at its size.
The Thames Path meandered confusingly again, through a forbidding iron gateway and up a strange flight of outdoor stairs at the rear of Waterman's Park - an apparently abandoned 1970s office complex which felt like a set from a TV show. I expected to be chased along the raised brick gangway by Denis Waterman at any moment. Eventually though, I found my way through to the park proper - a sliver of green which runs along the Thames, the site of the former Brentford Gasworks which closed in 1963. A busy arts centre now occupies part of the cleansed and remediated land, and the river moorings are contested territory - longstanding residents forced out to accommodate luxury boats. Beside me the brown waters of London's river parted to sluggishly churn around Lot's Ait and Brentford Ait - a pair of wooded islets in the river. Up ahead, the tall tower of the former Grand Junction Waterworks Company loomed at Kew Bridge, marking the point where my South Circular walk had returned me to the north bank of the river. This dogged but doomed company had tried in vain to extract clean water from the Brent and the Colne, but resorted in the end to syphoning off the murk of the Thames and using the lofty standpipe tower as a means of filtering out the worst of the filth and detritus. Somehow, even when I least expected it, my walks formed connections and strengthened my sense of the city. My earlier walk along the northern reaches of the river had almost convinced me that these western tributaries would be frustrating to follow and wouldn't form substantial walks, but today had persuaded me otherwise. I waited for one of the trains which had passed over my head earlier to arrive at Kew Bridge and take me swiftly back to Waterloo while I pondered my eastern prejudices. It's true that having been engaged in other parts of the city had made me pine for points east, but if these western walks continued to produce these new and surprising insights into the fringes of the city, then I'd be back to walk more of them. At times during the previous month, the River Brent had felt like a millstone - unfinished work, an incomplete walk sitting on the ledger - but it had in fact been deceptive - a river much longer, swifter and deeper than I'd imagined, and a route surprisingly capable of capturing my imagination. I wasn't the first to be persuaded it seems, and it was interesting to ponder quite what our former Poet Laureate would have made of modern Brentford?
Gentle Brent, I used to know you
Wandering Wembley-wards at will,
Now what change your waters show you
In the meadowlands you fill!
Sir John Betjeman - Middlesex - 1954
You can find a gallery of pictures from the walk here.
Posted in London on Sunday 15th October 2017 at 5:10pm
London has an enviable reputation as a resilient city. It has been burned and flooded, bombed and relentlessly attacked from within - yet it stands. Its people, in particular, are regarded as stoic and resolute - defiant against all the odds. Even during the recent terrorist attack at London Bridge they were to be found hurling chairs and pint glasses at the assailants, rather than turning tail and running. Some of this is, of course, hyperbole - and some is wishful whimsy - but there's no denying the endurance the city has shown over a couple of thousand years. But London has two key weaknesses which have resurfaced over the millennia to threaten the city's hard-bitten citizens - the very air and water which sustain them. Both have rebelled against being used to support the sheer concentration of humanity that the city presents and both have proved real threats to the health of generations of Londoners. During a weekend where Sadiq Khan stepped up his efforts in a campaign to detoxify the air in central London using some slightly confused but well-intended statistics to prove his points, I found myself approaching a solution from an earlier age. A time when the importance of clean drinking water wasn't an established scientific fact, but the evidence of Londoners' senses told them things weren't good and that something needed to be done to sustain the supply without the torrent of filth which had begun to choke the natural rivers which tumbled towards the Thames.
It was good to set out early, stumbling from our Shoreditch hotel towards Liverpool Street for early coffee - wondering quite how the NatWest International Markets employee had the early-morning energy to grope and manhandle a female colleague as they waited for a huge order of drinks for their team back at the office. The barista made my drink swiftly and with a raised eyebrow and shake of the head, passed it through the front of the stall rather than the serving window, which was fully occupied by the amorous pair. Downstairs the station was eerily quiet, the first few trains of a Sunday morning beginning to shudder into life. I was familiar with the run out to Theobalds Grove from an earlier walk, but the chance to set out early and watch a misty dawn rising over the east of the city was a rare opportunity. I saw the territory I'd walked, some of it drab and downbeat in its day-to-day life, glowing and burnished in the dawn. I had a long walk ahead but mercifully, due to a lack of real planning, I had only the vaguest idea of the total distance I'd cover if all went as I hoped. The scheme was simple enough - to strike out west from Theobalds Grove and to find the New River. Then to follow this artificial waterway, venerable despite its name, to its terminus on the fringe of the City. The New River has wound through other walks in the north of London - tantalisingly paralleling my travels along Green Lanes, criss-crossing my excursions from west to east through Woodberry Down, and complicating my search for lost rivers and roads. I'd also visited its usually forbidden terminus around a decade ago during an Open House weekend, when an eccentric Islington local decided to give impromptu historical lectures and appeared to actively loathe the New River for some unknown slight. Today though, I'd stick with the River as far as I could, navigating reasonably close to its path where its course disappears or dives inaccessibly between back gardens. As my few fellow passengers trudged off towards their homes or jobs in Waltham Cross, I turned west towards the Hertfordshire countryside. This was an ambitious undertaking, which had been a long time coming...
After a brief suburban trudge alongside the almost-hidden Theobalds Brook which was screened from the adjacent and properties by a low brick wall and a line of trees, I found myself taking an unexpected turning beside Cheshunt FC's home ground. Here, the Paul Cully Bridge climbed over the A10 as the road beneath took a dead-straight course towards the M25 and Central London. The bridge was opened in 2010 and named for a late councillor who had long campaigned for an improved link between the communities in this part of the Borough of Broxbourne. The opportunity finally came from a fortuitous mix of Sustrans funding and the decision to host Olympic events at the nearby Lee Valley White Water facility within the borough. A strange video exists of the gleaming white bridge, lined with schoolchildren who are slowly passing a flag bearing the ill-starred London 2012 logo over the bridge, inch by endless inch. Councillor Cully's case for the bridge proved well-founded, as it appeared to provide a useful link to a local school, and between the communities which cluster along the railway line and the valley floor here. Despite its perhaps ill-advised white paintwork looking mossy and traffic-stained, it was clearly well used at times - though quiet this early Sunday morning. Between the distant shapes of factories and housing looming in the mist a vast flat area of former green belt land, part of the estate of King James I's Theobalds House, had recently been parcelled up as 'Park Plaza' - though only sporadic development appeared to have taken place west of the Great Cambridge Road so far. The great house which King James acquired in exchange for Hatfield Palace in 1607, and where he died in 1625 was swiftly and surely destroyed during the interregnum, with the estate passing between the crown and various nobles after the restoration. By 1888, the estate was in the hands of the Meux family whose fortune had been made in brewing. Lady Meux had been a City barmaid herself, and on hearing of the impending destruction of Temple Bar, the now inconvenient gateway which bottlenecked traffic passing along Ludgate Hill, paid the sizeable sum of £10,000 to have the structure dismantled and re-sited on the Theobalds Estate. It remained, slowly decaying after Lady Meux's passing, until 2003 when the campaign to return it to the City finally succeeded. Having made a more expensive and equally painstaking return journey, it now sits in a somewhat anodyne new development at Paternoster Square - but is at least preserved in good condition. As the bridge descended into the fields beyond the road, pockets of persistent mist floated in the dew damp grass. The sun picked out the droplets of water on a low gate leading down to the New River path which curved gently in from the north. Here my walk was to begin in earnest, with just the distant murmur of the M25 as company.
The New River path is largely a permissive right-of-way which runs, with some breaks and diversions where necessary, between the point where the waters part from the Lea at New Gauge in Amwell roughly to the river's current and former endpoints in Central London. For much of its route it is a simple, flat grassy space beside the river provided under the sufferance of Thames Water, with a few more formal surfaced sections where it intersects with other's land and developments. For that reason, it felt sensible to tackle the path now rather than during the comparatively muddy winter months when parts may well become impassable. I could perhaps have travelled further north to start walking closer to the source, but my intention was to reach the city in a single day of walking on the basis that I had more time than usual, and didn't need to maintain a furious pace. That said, it was hard not to be lured out into the flat, open Hertfordshire countryside which flanked the settlements chained along the valley. I consoled myself with several additions to the list of walks I might take, and set off down to the river, immediately passing under the busy B198 via a modern, graffiti emblazoned underpass. The river curved gently into view around an unharvested field, its surface a still mirror of the morning sky. The channel ran between wooden boards, broadening slightly to encompass an island where Lady Meux is said to have kept a menagerie, though the only animal life here now was a squadron of ducks which patrolled the pool around the island. To the south east, the low anonymous hulk of News International's print works rose from the mist ominously. The clamour of the road was growing, and I knew I'd soon be crossing into London. These last few yards of countryside felt precious and worth savouring as the path turned south and crossed a byway which led towards Tottenham Hotspur's training Bullsmoor ground. Soon though, the river was swallowed by the twin concrete tunnels of the aqueduct which carried it over the six lanes of the M25 careering towards the sliproads of Junction 25 and the tunnel under Bell Common. The footpath ran across the roof of the channel, providing a broad dry crossing point which emerged having crossed to the western bank of the river. This habit of changing banks at crossing points would persist for much of the walk, and soon became part of the routine of walking this surprising and sometimes confoundingly elusive waterway.
Given how long the sound of the motorway had prefigured my crossing from the north, it lapsed surprisingly quickly into silence once I was within its circle. The river soon reverted to its sedate, grassy state for the journey south. A kink in the otherwise remarkably direct course took the river around the grounds of Capel Manor, which can be traced back to 1547 when 'Capels' inscribed on a contemporary map denoted the seat of Sir George Capel and his line - the Earls of Essex. Now the simple but elegant 19th century replacement building is occupied by Capel Manor College - specialising in horticultural and agricultural pursuits. The college is set in extensive gardens, which in turn hide the ruins of the 15th century manor house. It's clear that this spot on the fringes of London, perhaps a day's leisurely ride out, was the chosen home for the influential and well-connected until relatively recent times, and still harboured a number of expansive if more modern well-heeled dwellings even now. As I meandered with the river I spotted a curious thing - a crablike claw, stripped of flesh up to the solid, razor-like hooks but still pink and fresh, was discarded on the grass. There were in fact several here, all seemingly recently deposited. I pondered the distance from the De Vere Hotel, now occupying Theobalds House, wondering if a fox had raided their waste bins? However these weren't the last similarly intact claws I'd see on my travels - and some research indicated that the River Lea and its associated system had been invaded some years ago by aggressive American Signal Crayfish. Their aggression, along with a plague transmitted by these non-native incomers had all but exterminated the native species - but perhaps now something was preying very effectively in turn on these new denizens of the river? There were certainly stories of bucketloads being hauled out by restaurateurs, but this looked a little smaller-scale - maybe an ambitious fox or a bird?
I passed through a kissing gate of a type which was to become very familiar over the course of the walk, which took me across Turkey Street leading west from the station of the same name which I'd passed through earlier on my journey out to Hertfordshire. There is nothing to connect the street or the brook from which it takes its name with the seasonal fowl, and it appears far more likely to be a corruption of a local family name. However the brook presented a genuine challenge for Myddleton when plotting the course of the New River. The channel uses gravity to convey water towards the city, carefully hugging the contours of the landscape to gradually descend from the northern heights. The valleys of the various tributaries of the Lea which carved into the higher land thus proved problematic, and the only sensible solution at the time of building was to take the otherwise straight river in broad loops around the heads of these streams. Thus, as the footpath descended into the surprisingly steep gully in which the Turkey Brook runs, the original course of the New River swung west into open land. A path followed it, and the temptation to take it was strong - but the wish to see my route through, along with the desire to get a look at the placid and shallow Turkey Brook at the foot of its valley kept me on track. The New River was straightened by the building of the Docwra Aqueduct in 1859 which takes it above the brook, and then directly south via a long straight section which emerges from culvert where the path ascends from the valley. The old course of the river is patchily extant, a ghost waterway in places and a weed-choked reedbed in others, but can be walked - providing potential for another future expedition perhaps?
It was here, contemplating the huge detour which the river had taken to follow the 100ft contour line around the valley, that I began to really appreciate the undertaking that the New River represented. Edmund Colthurst had begun the work on receipt of a Royal Charter in 1604, but soon ran into financial difficulties. Myddleton took on the task of completing the works in 1609, with Sir John Backhouse providing considerable support, not least in the form of expensive land in Islington for a reservoir at the river's head. Even then, the project threatened to collapse as landowners refused to grant leave to pass over their fields, fearing inundation of crops and drowning of their stock should the channel burst its wooden retainers. Even then, the value of these lands on the edge of the city was a vexed question, and the great tradition of British reluctance to get behind new developments is not a new one it seems. Only the intervention of King James I as a guarantor and shareholder saved the project, and finally by 1613 the river was bringing fresh water from the springs of Amwell to the fringe of the City at Sadler's Wells. I realised with some reluctance as I approached the crossing of Carterhatch Lane that the section which I was walking now, passing through Forty Hill with its 17th century hall and estate, was probably the last truly rural stretch of the river which I'd see today. Beyond here the river was hemmed in by development on both sides, the path discontinuous and sometimes elusive. It was remarkable though that the New River had survived above ground quite as far into London as it has while other more venerable rivers were fouled and spoiled, and finally cast into hidden culverts. The influence of the King with his edict that casting filth or carrion into the river or planting trees close to its banks would incur his 'displeasure' seems to have been oddly effective. The New River Company, founded in 1619 to manage the river and its associated supplies of water to the City survived too, managing the waters until the formation of the Metropolitan Water Board in 1904, proving the perhaps surprising point that publicly owned utilities are a surprisingly modern phenomenon.
Forced to step away from the river here for a spell, I crossed to the western side via a pedestrian bridge and ventured into the hinterlands of Enfield. The river once made another loop here, passing along Southbury Road and into the town centre in a channel which has been preserved as a civic amenity. The businesslike waters now flow underground by a more direct course, but the vivid green of the algae bloom in the channel makes for an interesting walk into the town, which was just beginning to awaken. Sunday morning in Enfield was slow to start - the sizeable supermarket on the edge of town not open yet, and the smaller businesses only now beginning to spring into life. Here in Enfield even the disconnected loop of the river disappears under the buildings on the north side of the main street, and I decided to pause for coffee at a spot which might well have been over the course of the old channel. I didn't spy the river again until I reached the bridge at the edge of Town Park, where I recalled seeing the river for perhaps the first time many years ago. This green space is the last remnant of the great Enfield Old Park - a hunting ground for royalty and a reserve for game - and the loop of the river is overhung by weeds and plants here in a way which would be unthinkable along the well-tended length of the working channel. The once sprawling park has endured numerous indignities over the years: being enclosed by act of parliament in 1777 and then suffering the fate of much of the modern green belt in the borough by being parcelled between several golf courses in the late 19th century. With both the Great Eastern and Great Northern Railways well established by the turn of the 20th century the growing desire to move out of the city and to commute from the suburbs made development of the land irresistible and much of the remaining park disappeared under various well-to-do estates south of Enfield. I crossed over the river loop, leaving it to turn back east towards its original course while I started the steady climb up Carrs Lane, a sudden delve into a rural and tree-shadowed thoroughfare which bisects Bush Hill Park Golf Club. It was strange to be walking through a tunnel of greenery with the swishing and thwacking of club and ball just beyond the hedge, cries of delight or dismay echoing through the trees near gates sternly marked as PRIVATE which allowed members to pass from the green to the next tee by crossing the lane. Named for a prominent Victorian landowner, William Carr, the lane was once part of the drive into the Old Park and up to Windmill Hill on the western edges of Enfield. Now it holds its nerve as the last sliver of public land in a privatised and primped landscape of flags and bunkers.
After a few minutes of pleasant country walking, Carrs Lane deposited me on a busy corner near to familiar ground at the top of Bush Hill. Several of my walks had brought me close to this point where the New River flowed back into the open and along a raised bank of earth which was erected in 1786 to replace a timber and lead aqueduct known as the Bush Hill Frame. The structure carried the river over the steep and narrow valley of Salmons Brook, the little stream still trickling below the raised channel. I was curious to revisit the Clarendon Arch which I'd stumbled across on a previous visit, but sadly the narrow staircase down to the viewing platform was fenced off and the whole site was looking a little decrepit and unloved. Under the road here the stone arch has allowed the passage of the river over the brook since 1682, and it was truly a saddening sight to see this small but significant piece of history hidden from view. I returned to the road and pressed on south to Mason's Corner where I met Green Lanes, and where I could once again access the river bank. Now, for quite a distance, the course of the ancient drover's road and the river were inseparable - both taking advantage of the flat land and slightly descending contours to advance on the north of the City. The road and the river swayed closer and further apart as they progressed south, with the river regularly passing under shallow bridges carrying suburban side-streets, heralded by the now familiar green kissing gates, often necessitating a switch to the opposite bank. For the first time here I began to encounter others on the path - since I left Theobalds Lane I'd seen only a handful of dog-walkers on the path, all of whom had been keen to bid me 'good morning' but now mute joggers and self-absorbed walkers were more often sharing my route. Thankfully, given the grassy and often uneven surface, cyclists were less commonly spotted here unlike on the towpaths of Central London where they cannoned uncontrollably along the narrow ledges beside the water. Despite the river's relatively broad and uncluttered banks through Winchmore Hill, the path became surprisingly fractured here, often deviating into roads and alleys. I found myself trudging along the tantalisingly named River Avenue which mocked me by following every minor kink in the route of the river which ran beyond its back gardens. Under a suddenly gloomy and oppressive sky I finally regained the path properly near Palmers Green Mosque via an uninviting alleyway and a clamber up steps set into the bank beside another gate sitting in the midst of the grassy bank, strangely isolated from any fence. Soon after setting off I was confronted by a persistent and immovable gang of geese blocking my way. I tucked my hands well into my pockets, my chin into my chest, and pressed on, swerving around the biggest of the birds as he strutted along the path looking for food, apparently unconcerned with the foolish human murmuring for him to 'stay calm'.
The river turned west and I was again forced to detour by road, briefly walking north along Green Lanes to find a footpath back to the bank via steep steps down beside the fine municipal architecture of Southgate Library. This curve of the river felt familiar, with the railway high on an embankment to the west, screened by mature trees which parted to reveal the brick culvert of a bridge. Here Pymmes Brook passed under the river on route to Edmonton. I had missed this secluded part of its route when I walked this way, being pushed out to the North Circular to cross the valley and regain the brook. The road was close, a tell-tale sigh of passing traffic rising above the swish of the trees and the distinctive fumes beginning to sting my nostrils. I recalled my brief visit during my circumnavigational walk and particularly remembered the narrow, litter strewn and nettle-lined passageway which led from the road to the river near one of the automated gantries which sieved and scraped rubbish from the water. Today it was in action, its metal claws lazily grabbing dripping boluses of mud, twig and leaf from the New River and piling them on the concrete hardstanding beside the road. The path onwards was complicated by a road crossing, but I soon found the continuation of the route in a small park near Russell Road. I rested a while here and ate lunch while contemplating my progress and the seemingly impossible distance still to travel. For the duration of my stay in the rather windswept trap for road-litter, fumes and dust, an older man had sat nearly still, his only movement a finger scrolling at the screen of a 'phone. He work a thick, padded anorak, zipped to the neck despite the warm autumn afternoon and the heat radiated from the road. When I moved on he stayed, still scrolling, still looking intently at the small screen. The well-tended banks of the New River were once patrolled by 'walksmen' and their assistants, travelling together on adjacent banks, clearing the river of obstruction and preventing access by bathers or others who might make mischief. I wondered if any of them had rested too in this spot, before turning back towards the City - and whether this mysterious character was descended from them?
Heading south along the river, the sound of the road soon slipped into the distance. Now I was inside the North Circular, the landscape was relentlessly suburban on both banks, with the river running directly south. The sky-scraping antenna at Alexandra Palace became a fixed point for orienting my walk, and after another crossing at Whittington Road a switch to the west bank saw the ground rising steadily alongside the river as it edged alongside slopes which led towards the peak of Muswell Hill. Ahead, the river disappeared into an uncharacteristically ornate tunnel mouth, its arch barely higher than the surface of the water. As late at 1993, the kilometre long brick roof of Wood Green tunnel was inspected once each decade by engineers crouching on shallow, flat-bottomed boats. By 2012, with changed attitudes to workplace safety now entrenched, the river was dammed at each end of the tunnel and the opportunity taken to undertake a more comprehensive cleaning, involving removal of over 1700 tons of sludge and debris which had accrued over the 150 years since the tunnel opened. The route of the tunnel was easily discerned above ground, with a near-continuous string of linear green spaces running for much of its length with meaningful hints to the river's presence in their names: Myddleton Gardens, Hidden River Path. These spaces were far better used by joggers and families than the river path, which had remained almost eerily quiet since I left the North Circular. With the grim totem atop the The Mall peering over the terraces, I became aware that I was closing on Wood Green which was never an edifying prospect on a Saturday. I passed from park to park, crossing streets which effortlessly bridged the subterranean river, before ending up in the more sprawling, tree-filled green of Nightingale Gardens. After scuffling through the leaves to the edge of this park, I found the river again emerging beside a curious cluster of streets wedged firmly between Bounds Green Railway Depot and Alexandra Palace station. The southern mouth of the tunnel was less elaborate than its northern counterpart, perhaps because the river was above ground for only a few short metres before it was plunged under the railway embankment, once again out of sight and largely out of mind in the tangle of industrial backroads, rails and gantries.
I emerged from a white-tiled underpass which carried the footpath under the railway lines, and suddenly found myself beside the river and walking just inches from the placid waters as they emerged from their own culvert. The path here was busier - not least because it formed a useful link to Hornsey High Street, passing a modern new development of homes which edged confidently up to the water and the squat brick built pumping station, one of a number on this stretch carrying the dates of 1993 or 1994. I'd seen this development on my walk along the A504 and despite my natural objections to this form of encroachment on rivers, it still seemed like a reasonably well thought-out development in a good location. The busy path ended at a typical New River Path kissing gate, and I just managed to skip through before the gent who had been bravely off-roading a pushchair along the bumpy ground ahead of me started trying to manhandle his contraption back onto the footpath. From my previous visit I knew that the way was largely blocked here - the river passed under the railway via a modern concrete culvert, which carried it beneath the East Coast Mainline and along the edge of Hornsey Carriage Sidings. I needed to head along Turnpike Lane a little way, reprising a short stretch of my previous walk, before turning aside into Wightman Road. Confronted by a gentle but steady rise, I set out at a decent pace to conquer it painlessly and in the event managed to miss a turning which would have returned me to the river - if only briefly. In fact, Hampden Road was the scene of another of the encounters where I'd considered walking the New River in the past, while stalking across Harringey to find the remains of the Moselle during the heady Olympic summer while dodging discarded mattresses. Instead I slogged on uphill through the suburban backstreets, with the river shadowing the fan of railway tracks below, until it entered a culvert carrying it under the road and into the back gardens of the Harringey Ladder. This section was also off-limits, the privacy of the locals being maintained by gates at each crossing. This stretch of the walk was a little dispiriting, with a sustained uphill slog to contend with and no easy sign of the waterway I was purportedly walking. Then, at the peak of Wightman Road, London opened before me. The tips of the towers of the City rose over the horizon, and the Shard speared the now clearing sky. Many times before I've written about walking towards London, but somehow this walk, from decidedly rural beginnings, felt genuinely like a walk into London. My feet were sore - but no more so than if I'd tried to rush one of the shorter walks I usually take - and so I pressed on, downhill towards a nasty snarl of a mini-roundabout where I needed to cross the street to get to Finsbury Park. The traffic was relentless, every opportunity to zip across scuppered by a thoughtless manoeuvre by a motorist. I almost despaired of the crossing and began rethinking routes - but persistence and a sudden window of opportunity caused by a white van driver stopping to shout at a driver he considered in error allowed me to cross and enter the park. The river resurfaced, pleasant paths and railings on each side. Here the noble purpose of supplying drinking water to the City was relegated and the visual amenity of a broad, clean waterway in a parkland setting was being vigorously promoted by the maps and signs around this corner of the huge park. I followed the river on its shaded side, crashing through piles of fallen leaves to walk close to the railing. The only hint of the true reason this fine waterway flowed through the park was a small, seemingly hand-lettered plaque affixed to the palisade near where an access road crossed. Finsbury Park rolled pleasantly off to the south and west, the near-endless green expanse busy with families enjoying the surprising autumn sunshine. I headed for the gate - there was still a way to go.
I crossed Green Lanes again and made swiftly for the adjacent gate to get back to the river path. Again this stretch wasn't unknown to me, cutting across several recent walks and curving sinuously east then west to enclose the pair of Stoke Newington Reservoirs near Woodberry Down. That said, I'd not walked directly alongside this stretch before, and I was keen to be alone on the path again after the long stretch of walking on pavements and busy roads. I was almost alone aside from some dedicated joggers who thudded by on the grassy path. Beside the path a screen of trees separated the northern section of the Woodberry Down estate from the river, this area having been largely untouched by the regeneration of the area so far. To the north of the water, the land fell away steeply to Eade Road and the Haringey Warehouse District, with the tall chimney of the Maynard's sweet factory now proudly advertising the Oriental Carpet Company to the surrounding area. On the road below a police cordon was slung between lampposts and the river fence, a long stretch of the thoroughfare now off-limits. At the end of the cordon a Police car blocked the street, its occupant leaning out of his door and enjoying the afternoon sunshine. The tenants of the nearby New River Studio complex seemed concerned enough to be bringing their outdoor seating indoors, looking worriedly back at the scene. The Police officer didn't share their urgency - he was clearly in this for the long haul, enjoying the chance to rest in a quiet industrial zone. My own quiet was disrupted by coming upon the Seven Sisters Road at a strange tangle of a crossing. Beyond the road, the river passed under an overhang of trees, before emerging at the eastern end of Woodberry Wetlands. Now fully open, this impressive conservation project which had returned wildlife to the fringes of the eastern reservoir and the riverbank seemed to be proving the critics of regeneration right. in the garden of the cafe - inevitably perhaps built from reclaimed shipping containers - a wine-laced reception was underway with lots of chortling and snorting, and lots of eager chatter about primary school places and OfSTED reports from the newly arrived and predominantly white inhabitants of the newly rising towers of Woodberry Down. Meanwhile the path beside the river was pleasantly democratic - I weaved around a happily dawdling family of Orthodox Jews out for a stroll involving tricycles and scooters, and negotiated a couple of animated West Indian men backslapping and mock-arguing their way along the river. The footpath changed from a rough riverside track to a carefully surfaced and sculpted 'river walk' winding needlessly to and fro along the bank, and the clientele changed too - cyclists with all the right gear but no warning bells, birdwatchers dressed like Bill Oddie when he really means business. The Wetlands had attracted crowds and were being enjoyed - but there was just the sense from the strolling new locals of Woodberry Down that they didn't really want the visitors here. This was their bit of London - bought and paid for, and we had no right to be enjoying the view across the reservoirs. The tall reed beds which had been allowed to encroach on the river signalled another shift - beyond this point, the New River has no official purpose. With roughly a third of the river's volume already decanted to the Coppermill Waterworks at Walthamstow, here the reservoirs are fed by the remaining flow and the last stretch is kept in water for entirely cosmetic purposes. Algae bloomed on the sluggish surface as walkers tramped by, harrumphing with dismay when I stopped to snap a picture back across the silvery sheets of water which stretched out towards Hackney. It was almost two years since I first stumbled into Woodberry Down unintentionally, and a great deal had changed. There was still a chance of course that this would settle down - that the new inhabitants would mesh with this longstanding community as London's incoming populations tend to over time. But as I crossed Lordship Road, there was a commotion of screaming and thudding. An angry and persistent voice raised in protest. A bunch of youngsters, clearly not perturbed by recent events in London ran towards the commotion. I slowed my pace - tried to decide how to proceed, carefully surveying the reactions of others up ahead. No-one stopped walking, no-one seemed bothered except to get a good look at what was going on. As I reached the roadside the boys who'd run to get a good view were coming back along the path. "It's OK" they reassured us all walking towards them, "It was just a bloke from one of the tower blocks up there going bonkers and shouting. The ambulance has come now." His crisis seems to stand for the strange tension in Woodberry Down on a hot October afternoon, when no-one quite knows if they belong or not anymore.
I was back on Green Lanes, on the section where it suddenly seems quiet and insignificant after its long run in from the northern heights. The wide sweep of flat, green Clissold Park stretched out to the east, and a little too late I remembered that there was in fact a tiny isolated loop of the river's old course inside the park, stopped up and preserved for the sake of history. Instead I pressed on south, to the junction with Petherton Road. This street bears perhaps some of the last significant above-ground evidence of the original course of the New River before reaching the city, with the impressive run of well-to-do homes and former shops divided by a central green space humped over the culvert which carried the river through respectably Canonbury. This area had long been a blank to me - a strange hinterland between the busy confusion of Highbury and the ancient mysteries of Hackney. It felt, on the surface, like a continuation of leafy Islington terraces, a pleasant walk between dog waste bins and creaky old benches, trying to stick to the narrow path which snaked along the centre of the park where the river used to run. At Canonbury Station the Overground railway passed below, out-of-commission for the day for more works. Beyond the station, the Borough of Islington has tried hard to celebrate the New River, by way of a linear park with a winding approximation of the river at its heart. The park was surprisingly well-established, having been laid-out first in the 1950s and improved and maintained over the intervening years. This 'New River Walk' was busy with strollers too, all of us meandering along the banks of the shallow proxy of the river. A few students with visiting parents were evident, showing them how pleasant the area was and delivering a confusing version of the history of the river. I didn't mind too much - it seemed like a generally good thing that the river was remembered here, and it was strange how it seems so much more remarkable to those of us who didn't grow up with it at the foot of our gardens perhaps? The park was a cool, green haven from the surprisingly fierce sunshine of the late afternoon, with surprising fountains and hidden artworks providing unexpected interest along the way. Just when I was beginning to feel like perhaps this was just a bit too cleverly managed and inauthentic, and had little to do with the river which had once flowed here, the water took a broad meander around a circular brick watch house - the last remaining segment of the original course above ground in Islington. The scale of the achievement struck me again here - fresh water, conveyed entirely by gravity across the undulations of Middlesex and into the heart of London using Tudor technology and created by sheer effort of manpower. This tiny river, sometimes seemingly insignificant or forgotten on the journey, often flowing across other walks and routes which had always seemed so much more urgent or important for me to take, was a genuine wonder of London. I finally felt like I'd paid it some of the tribute it deserved by walking this far.
After crossing the upper reaches of drab but swiftly gentrifying Essex Road, I delved into the hinterlands again to find Colebrook Row. While no water flows here now, the route of the river which Charles and Mary Lamb's home overlooked is maintained as a stretch of green space running along the middle of the fine, Georgian terraces. Lamb wrote of his friend 'G.D' - possibly the radical poet George Dyer - walking apparently deliberately into the river to nearly meet his end by drowning. Lamb's horror and frustration at this 'self-destruction' is directed at the river - an unreal, unnatural channel which he regards as having none of the desirable qualities of a genuine watercourse:
Waters of Sir Hugh Middleton—what a spark you were like to have extinguished for ever! Your salubrious streams to this City, for now near two centuries, would hardly have atoned for what you were in a moment washing away. Mockery of a river—liquid artifice—wretched conduit! henceforth rank with canals, and sluggish aqueducts. Was it for this, that, smit in boyhood with the explorations of that Abyssinian traveller, I paced the vales of Amwell to explore your tributary springs, to trace your salutary waters sparkling through green Hertfordshire, and cultured Enfield parks?—Ye have no swans—no Naiads—no river God—or did the benevolent hoary aspect of my friend tempt ye to suck him in, that ye also might have the tutelary genius of your waters?
I was distracted myself here - either pondering Lamb, living here in horror at the river while fretfully protecting his matricidal sister from her own demons, or perhaps trying to figure out which of the rather fine townhouses belonged to former mayor and BREXIT agitator Boris Johnson? In any case, I found myself suddenly and unceremoniously deposited on City Road in strikingly familiar surroundings near The Angel. My walk had almost ended, but I needed to push on just a little further to truly finish things. My feet felt heavy and inflexible, but didn't hurt - I had perhaps passed that point some miles back - so I pressed onward, crossing the road and passing through Owen's Field and onto Roseberry Avenue. This small, private park bears a memorial to perhaps the last, and most destructive act of the New River. On 15th October 1940 the blast from a bomb making a direct hit on the Dame Alice Owen School above, fractured the pipeline carrying the river through Islington to its Clerkenwell terminus. The resulting flood engulfed the school's basement where 150 folk were sheltering from the air raid as they had many times before. With access to the surface blocked by the collapsed building, all of them perished in the deluge. This sombre ending to the walk was a reminder that conditions in London have always been hard, and that sometimes the very developments which are intended to improve and sustain the population can be unintentionally destructive in their own right. The best efforts to respond to the needs of a growing city can just as easily exclude, embitter and destroy. Planning for the future, for the unexpected developments of a city forever in flux, is an always essential task - though it seems at present to play second-fiddle for a sort of desperate opportunism. This is evident both in the endless towers of speculative 'luxury' developments creeping out of the ground along my route today, and in the well-intended but poorly thought through schemes of the current Mayor.
Finally at New River Head, the fringes of the city deserted as ever on a Sunday, I looked up at the grand former headquarters of the Metropolitan Water Board and the sleek modernist lines of the Laboratory Building beside it and figured that if unlikely schemes can be achieved anywhere in the world, London is probably the place. To bring fresh, clean water to this spot from distant Hertfordshire in a time when William Shakespeare - or the man who wrote the works attributed to him at least - was a living memory, was truly a remarkable feat. London changes, often not for the better, but is always remarkable. I shuffled off to find a way back to our hotel, wondering how my feet would feel in the cold light of tomorrow morning. I'd finally walked the New River as I'd long promised - and the river had raised questions and new routes to walk along its entire length.
You can find a gallery with more images from the walk here.
Posted in London on Saturday 30th September 2017 at 11:09pm
The curious hidden exit of West Finchley station opens onto the long suburban wind of Nether Street. By the 14th century this route, sometimes known as Lower Street, was already regarded as an ancient way. Now it trickled with Saturday morning traffic and occasional joggers, a string of quiet local stores leading away from the station. A quick survey of my surroundings indicated the distinct declivity to the west of the road, and a short trek between ranks of pleasant homes led me towards the bottom of the valley. From the top of Fursby Avenue a pair of glowering youths, hooded and hands wedged into pockets watched me from a bench, occasionally spitting on the ground. I felt their frustration - it must be hard to rebel in Finchley, where there's almost no-one around to pass judgement. I glanced back, hoping that they'd recognise my effort, before I plunged into the trees and began my walk along the Dollis Brook. I could have struck out further north, given how eminently walkable this tiny but proud waterway is - but in truth even coming this far had been a last minute decision. This walk had a difficult genesis - one option among three, in a month where I knew I'd be in London more than once. I'd originally intended to disembark further south to pick up the River Brent at Hendon, or the Dollis Brook at Finchley Central - but here I was just close enough to the edge of things to feel like I was walking into London. If the fairly exclusive golf course would permit it and I could strike out directly north west, I'd find myself crossing open countryside as far as the M25 at London Colney. These strange frontiers with their unsettling sense of being the last-street in London exist all around the perimeter, but perhaps feel strangest here on the northern flank of the city. Whatever the circumstance which got me here, it felt good to be walking beside water. Easing a sore left foot into action, I set off along the course of the brook which edged around allotments busy with gardeners hauling in their late crops.
Having tramped the edges of a good number of waterways in London, I'm used to being largely alone on these walks. The occasional cyclist or jogger sometimes appears, but largely the footpaths which flank streams and rivers seem to be off-limits on weekend mornings. The officially sanctioned activities take precedence: shopping, DIY and so on. The Dollis Brook however, appeared much beloved by the locals. My walk through the edges of Finchley was busy with dog walkers who shadowed me: when I paused to take a photograph they seemed to stop to watch their animal grubbing in the generous carpet of leaf-fall. When I set off again, I'd hear the panting and pattering behind me. It was clear that being out here without a lead dangling from my wrist marked me out as an odd-ball. The owner of a particularly nervous little terrier asked me urgently "Is your dog behind you?" presumably worried it would go for her trembling charge. When I replied that I didn't have a dog with me, her relief quickly turned to concern. If I wasn't walking a dog here, what on earth was I doing? The brook babbled pleasantly, but it seemed to be nothing more than a backdrop - for the young religious pamphleteer who was regretting starting a conversation about Jesus with a park drinker, or for the pair of designer-clad women trying to navigate their way through a conversation about a Muslim friend who wore a veil at a wedding with their liberal credentials intact. "Well of course if she chooses to...." "Yes, but I'm not sure if it's sexist, or racist. Y'know?" "Maybe it's a personal thing really. Not our business?" "No. We can't judge" "But she did look stunning!". Their dogs, ignored and bored by the chatter, plashed into the nearby brook.
The path crossed and recrossed the Brook to negotiate a minor tributary joining from the east at Lovers Walk, then skirted a pond almost entirely buried within the trees which lined the valley. Suddenly, I was deposited on Dollis Road - a furious B-road which lurched around a blind bend from Finchley to Mill Hill, traffic barely slowing for the curve. Forced to cross the road, I carefully waited time before heading under the slender legs of Dollis Brook Viaduct. This tall copper and honey-coloured brick structure carries the rather forlorn stub of the Northern Line over the Dollis Valley towards Mill Hill East station, providing the so-called Underground with its paradoxical highest point above sea level. The line which passed overhead had suffered a chequered history: opened in 1867, the Great Northern Railway's line to Edgware was reduced to a branch line as early as 1872 when the line from Finchley to High Barnet came into use. Transfer to London Transport in the 1930s offered a new lease of life to the line, and double-tracked and electrified it would form part of the ambitious Northern Heights plans, with a new link to Edgware and beyond to the speculative new horizons of Bushey Heath approved. The war intervened - but unlike many of the schemes slated for delivery, a little work was actually completed with a single track over the viaduct electrified and opened to Mill Hill East station in 1941. However, that is largely what has remained since, and now outside the peaks a shuttle train operates high above the valley, with the course of the railway beyond now largely developed but still discernable by the broad curving sweep of new-build homes on its tell-tale footprint. I lingered under the viaduct long enough for the shuttle to clatter overhead, road traffic drowning out the noise of the train. Rather like the Piccadilly Line's crossing in Arnos Park, the row of voids in the brickwork stretched ahead creating a strange optical illusion of infinite arches, and under the nearest arch the brook trickled, unheard and unremarked by the passing drivers.
Beyond the railway viaduct, the path beside the brook was hemmed into a narrow green tunnel between suburban streets, and again it was the preserve of dog walkers with their evident suspicion of those without canine accompaniment. At Windsor Open Space the path opened into a wider linear park, spreading to the east of the Dollis Brook. I had passed close by before and soon found familiar territory where the footpath sloped down into a narrow subway to pass under the A504. Soon afterwards a bridge carrying the arms of Middlesex lifted the traffic of the Great North Road over the valley towards its confluence with the North Circular. I made slow progress through these bottlenecks, pausing to let dogs pass by, with their panting owners trotting after them in pursuit. This area was familiar from walking around the North Circular, and I noted the pleasant little playpark where the Mutton Brook trickled in from the east, a family of children clambering over the equipment while a tired mother lay back in the surprisingly bright morning sun. Nearby the Dollis and Mutton Brooks finally met with their joined waters becoming the River Brent, which started its sluggish swing to the west by skirting Decoy Pond and forming the western extent of Brent Park. The North Circular was asserting its presence here, and I was reluctant to encounter it. I've no objection to the road - and even have something of an affection for its strange loop around the northern suburbs of London - but I felt like in some ways I was still processing the complete circle I'd recently completed. There was however, no escape from Brent Park without briefly joining the haze of dust and fumes, as I encountered the first of many surprising and frustrating diversions here with a footbridge and park exit onto Brent Street closed for repairs. I stepped reluctantly onto the pavement beside the six lanes of traffic, knowing that the twinge of protest I felt in my foot as I misplaced it on a flagstone was the price I'd pay for walking beside this road today. As soon as possible I retreated into Brent Street and took to the side streets of Shirehall Park. The rumble of the road was never far away as I ambled between decent villas and pleasant gardens tucked into a curious corner between the North Circular and the A41. A family wandered towards their car, either unconcerned or resigned to the road and its environs being a guilty, dark orange stain on the Mayor's recently released pollution map. I crossed briefly into the scrappy edge of Hendon Park to climb the footbridge over the Edgware branch of the Northern Line, soon finding myself beside the impassable shudder of the A41. To the south the road was soon entangled in the complex junction with the North Circular - I'd negotiated that before and I didn't have the energy or patience today. Instead I struck out north along the rather typical arterial route flanked by rows of fine houses which never expected to sit on such a major route. I soon found a grubby subway beneath the carriageways which delivered me to the road's western side immediately beside a pedestrian entrance to Brent Cross Shopping Centre. It wasn't what I'd planned, but it was time to brave a crossing of the retail jungle.
Getting into the Shopping Centre was the first challenge. The sloping footpath led me along the edge of an orbital route, peppered with roundabouts and zebra crossings which appeared to be entirely ignored by the drivers racing for parking spaces near to the doors. Once within the loop of access road the signs 'To The Shops' led me between two huge concrete car parks, towards the functional grey rear of the structure. The path divided and I could 'Use both doors for shops'. I muttered 'surely either?' to myself but realised that Brent Cross isn't interested in the individual shopper - it speaks to the collective mass. Some of them had already arrived. Less than an hour into the centre's day, there was a dedicated band of customers sluggishly navigating the complex, scoping out their next move. They moved slowly, filling the broad aisles and failing to acknowledge my sweaty bustling around. I wanted out of here as soon as possible - malls unsettle me. Never comfortable with large empty spaces, the weird light and muted echoes of sound disturb my balance and awareness just enough to make me queasily nervous. I shuffled behind the touring bands of shoppers to the toilets, then down into the lower levels to find a cold drink. I settled for a nearby WH Smith rather than detouring back towards other options. The crowds had grown steadily since I arrived, and they were even less inclined to give way than the cyclists and dog walkers on the river path. I struggled out through John Lewis into the car park, and didn't pause until I'd skirted the car park and found another footpath out of the site. I didn't particularly care if I looked suspicious on the plentiful forests of CCTV cameras now - it felt like an age since I'd felt the less-than-fresh air outside. I slowed my pace, walking gratefully along Brent Park Road, and considering my options. The river ran parallel to my route, but to take a closer walk along it would involve navigating the complexities of Staples Corner once again. While the return to the North Circular hadn't felt as jarring as I'd expected, thoughts of navigating the highwalks and crossings at that junction once again weren't edifying. Instead I passed under the concrete embankment carrying the nascent M1 and then negotiated a series of ever-lower bridges carrying slip roads and the tracks of the Midland Main Line. Finally I emerged on the A5 - following the straight track of Roman Watling Street. Crossing the tide of traffic divided by a high metal fence was impossible - instead I needed to walk north here, towards West Hendon and the start of a recent walk. The growing decay of the businesses along the main road was starkly contrasted with the tall, modern apartment blocks growing behind the Victorian terraces and tired 1980s car sales forecourts, offering views across the reservoir. The decorative frontage of Philex House was a welcome surprise, derelict but still remarkably detailed and impressive. The still extant electronics company had followed the pre-Olympic exodus of industry up the Lea Valley ending up in Bedfordshire, but its fine old headquarters still stood - for now at least. I finally crossed the street at the curiously named Cool Oak Lane - a brand new Range Rover occupying the central lane with his bumper distorted from a recent skirmish at the lights. He gestured angrily at his 'phone behind the toughened glass windscreen - a mute rage at the injustice of the A5. Meanwhile Cool Oak Lane was remarkably close to where I'd crossed the street previously, and I kicked myself for not having spotted this way to Brent Reservoir. The lane narrowed to a tiny bridge over the neck of the lake, cars signalled over in turn. I spotted a crossing button and pressed, claiming my own pedestrian-timed gap in the sequence. No time to snap a shot of the vast body of water stretching to the south west and shimmering with bird life. I had to reach the west bank before the tones ended.
The northern banks of Brent Reservoir felt pleasantly wild and unloved. The rough path littered with cracked horse chestnut shells and a growing mulch of fallen leaves, climbed to shadow the water but remained within the tangle of autumnal woodland. The footway wound around the lake, dipping inland to avoid denser clumps of trees, with occasional cleared areas leading towards the lake to allow access for fishing points or views across the silvery water. Waterfowl clucked and skittered from the undergrowth into the deep, cold water. Autumn had certainly come to Brent, and I sensed darker skies closing in after the sunny morning. I realised I could have scrubbed around to find an obscure path beside the river had I stuck to the south bank, but I'd have effectively been delivered to the same problem: Neasden. The widening fan of sidings around Neasden Depot present a huge barrier here, and a fairly inconvenient situation for locals - thought the railway is of course the very reason the suburb exists too. The streets near the depot give away the lofty and distant pretensions of the Metropolitan railway perfectly with Verney, Quainton, Aylesbury and Chesham Streets butting up against the sweep of rails, describing the distant green termini of inter-war Metroland. But for well over a mile, the district is divided - the options are to head south for the complex junction of the North Circular or to head north to Wembley Park. It's a long walk, and a traffic choked drive whichever way you head - and during events at Wembley Stadium, it must be near impossible. The river continues, resolute and undiverted, under the lines in culvert. Aware of the cost of these diversions, both in time and in distance, I turned north into a residential area leading to Chalkhill Park. Parents creaked their way through exercises on the outdoor gym equipment while children played. I paused, listening to the trains rattling by mere feet away while I rested and regrouped. Missing the route to the south, along the riverbank in a deep, unloved urban gulley felt like an omission. Perhaps it would be easier to manage in the winter with less overgrowth? In any case, this wouldn't be my last diversion of the day.
One unexpected bonus of having to head north via Wembley Park was a sighting of the Wealdstone Brook. With the stadium's signature arch looming giddily overhead and the wrap of neon advertising screens around its perimeter casting an unreal blue light over a growing district of towers and retail outlets, it was comforting to find this little river occupying a gully in the floor of a deep, wide culvert. The brook is seemingly a somewhat ephemeral stream in drier seasons, but it flowed nonetheless. Wembley felt like a western reimagining Stratford in a way that the Westfield outpost at Shepherd's Bush never quite has. Perhaps it's the availability of open, former industrial land to pepper with student accommodation and luxury flats, or the relatively poor finances of the host borough allowing them to be persuaded to part with extensive permissions to allow rapid, high-rise development? In any case, like Stratford, the job is unfinished here too. A few steps along the edge of the Wealdstone Brook and I was deep into a unwelcoming and litter-strewn industrial estate which skirted the railway land. The brook meandeed back and forth, and I was intrigued by following its progress - so much so that I strayed past a gate and into a contested street which appeared to be privately owned. Trucks thundered between warehouses and cars were haphazardly abandoned without any thought for access. I was the only human here who didn't glow in hi-vis, and I was conspicuously not hard-hatted or safety-booted. A group of young Polish men watched me from a perch on a convenient concrete block, scanning me as I walked by and murmuring. They were more likely to wonder why I'd want to come here than if I was permitted to be here, I reasoned as I tried to exude confidence and purpose despite a growing limp and a sheen of sweat from walking in a coat on what has turned into a warm day. Finally back on semi-public land, I crossed Atlas Road and passed into Brent River Park. The name promises much, but the reality is a narrow strip of woodland between warehouses and aggregate depots - in its own way though, it is an oasis. Deep below the path, the Wealdstone Brook met the Brent, and the invigorated river turned southwards again. The walk here was surprisingly pleasant given the somewhat down-at-heel feel to the area, and I was largely alone until the underpasses which carry Great Central Way and the railway which it is named for overhead. A cyclist caught up with me, politely dinging his bell as he passed. The path broadened into the edge of Tokyngton Recreation Ground - and again I've been here before, having briefly entered the park to walk parallel to the North Circular. Today I walked the full length of this rather fine green space, noting that the Brent was considerably less noisome and more animated than the still, green waters I found back in the summer. The path was uneven and surprisingly tough going as my feet tired and ached, but I pressed on for the crossing of Harrow Road. A huge crop of Shaggy Ink Caps, a surprisingly large mushroom sometimes known as Judges' Wig, peppered the grass between the river and the path. Above the trees the arc of Wembley Stadium fills the middle-distance, a reminder of the diversion I've taken to get here. The river disappeared into culvert alongside the concrete staircases and tower footings of Wembley Point, and once again I was marooned beside the North Circular briefly, and reminded of how the road and the river are intricately related here. I pressed on into the industrial hinterlands of Stonebridge Park, passing under the railway from Euston and near the Ace Café. The sky was greying distinctly and the day feels ominously short now.
I wasn't sorry to pass under the odd combination of aqueduct and bridge carrying the Grand Union Canal over the A406 and to turn aside from the road again. The Brent surfaced behind the grimly utilitarian Travelodge and I was able to walk close beside it once again on Queensbury Road which marked the edge of the Abbey Estate and the southern edge of Alperton. An unofficial but well-worn path ran along an embankment beside the river, with a broad strip of grassland separating it from the road. On the other bank, a wall of industrial premises filled the space between the North Circular and the river. My hasty planning indicated that this makeshift footpath joined an official route which passes under the Piccadilly Line beside the river, but it soon became clear that the way was blocked by building works. Faced with another diversion, my spirit was almost broken. The only escape was to cross a tiny footbridge over the Brent, edge my way between industrial units on a permissive path and return again to the North Circular. I found myself approaching the Hanger Lane Gyratory once again, this time from the east. Little changes here - the traffic is still solidly blocked - moving almost imperceptibly around the junction, and the fumes hang as heavily as ever above Hanger Lane station on its isolated island site. This time I turned north onto Ealing Road to regain my route. The river took a more direct journey, and reaching it as it passed under Vicar's Bridge seemed to take a long hike. Here at least though, the Borough has had a short-lived outburst of pride in the waterway which provides its name, with a battered but sizeable sign marking its crossing. Beside the bridge, an ill-maintained but wide and street-lit path with an associated cycleway disappeared around a corner. This felt initially promising, and I headed into the cool green tunnel formed by the overhanging trees, skirting a bunch of off-duty supermarket workers necking Fanta laced with vodka and kicking off their weekends in a somewhat down-to-earth style beside the Brent. The river was hemmed in by buildings and ran swiftly in a channel here, but I was pleased to be beside it again. The direct footpath offered some hope of making a little more progress than I'd expected given the day's frustrations and an unexpectedly shorter route might keep me moving for a little longer. But then, suddenly, the path disappeared. The flagstones ceased, and the cycle path stuttered into a muddy emptiness with just a single streetlamp as an ellipsis. This was at least an indication that there was some intent to go further, but presumably the cash ran out. Instead I'm forced to turn aside into the nearby Industrial Park. The threatening clouds choose this moment to burst above me. The dry, dusty pavements reeked in the rain. There was obvious way forward and I found myself involuntarily back at Vicar's Bridge, drenched and having gone nowhere at all. It's the final straw for my tired feet. I have enough energy left for a push onwards to find transport home, but not more. The Brent - assisted by my foolhardy lack of planning - has beaten me today.
I trudged along Alperton Lane, the rain coming down heavily now, knowing that the river was weaving its way along the edge of the golf course some way to the south. A dated brown sign welcomed me to the London Borough of Ealing, while the tail-fin of the Hawker Hunter jet stationed atop the headquarters of Vanguard Storage was camouflaged perfectly against a grey sky. The strange collection of objects here are the personal collection of Mac McCullagh, the firm's owner, and from other angles field guns and buses can be seen topping the fine brick buildings of Vanguard's headquarters. My aim now was Perivale Station, a mile or so away along Western Avenue, which I joined at a noisy junction near a drive-through coffee shop. I resisted the urge to enter and rest - if I didn't press on to Perivale right now I'd probably never get my legs moving again. I calculated the time and distance wasted on diversions, skirting around obstacles and badly-planned turns, and compared it with the three miles or so left of the river to Brentford. Giving in felt like a defeat, but it had been a noble effort. Walking west always feels tougher going, and today had been a fine challenge. My one last treat was to be a pedestrian passing of the splendid Hoover Building, completed in 1933 and designed by Wallis, Gilbert and Partners in textbook art deco style. However, as I approached I realised that the main block had disappeared behind scaffolding and screens to protect the Grade II listed building during refurbishment. The smaller buildings at each end of the long, low sweep of the block were all that could be seen - but this allowed me at least to get a glimpse of the splendid canteen building, a modernist gem in its own right. Beaten yet again I turned north and headed for the curiously stubby curve of Perivale Station, with an additional wing and tower extension cancelled as a post-war economy. It remains a fine building though, and the curved glass clerestory was a welcome sight today in particular. Once inside the sinuous canopied stairs led me up to the island platform with views back over Wembley - and tantalisingly, south towards Brentford. I let an eastbound train pass, enjoying the calm of the empty station. The rain had stopped and a golden sunset was promised by the western skies. I reflected on my hubris - imagining I could set out with almost no planning and manage to deal with the twists and turns of an urban river. I was walking well off my territory, straying into the unknown in a way which felt liberating and challenging - but which had rather strangely sapped my energy. The remaining walk along the Brent to the Thames promised further revelations, and it could wait. I hobbled towards the arriving train, plotting my next excursion in the west...
You can find a gallery of photographs from the walk here.
Posted in Reading on Thursday 28th September 2017 at 9:09pm
The destruction of London is an unsettlingly familiar trope. There is something which seems to deeply satisfy authors and readers alike in the toppling of seemingly infallible towers or a surging tide along the sinuous Thames. While it's title is similarly apocalyptic The Last London doesn't describe a literal ending - but suggests a city which has reached its final condition. It is an ending though in another sense - the final work in a cycle of of semi-fictional novels and essays which have tumbled out of Hackney since 1975. Taken together these books form a remarkable cultural catalogue which documents the sometimes jarring changes which have wracked the city as it shudders into the 21st Century. London often feels briskly futuristic on its face, but in truth it always lags behind. Things change disarmingly slowly in a city of this impossible size and complexity, and it takes a sharp jolt to propel London forward. Sinclair posits the 2012 Olympiad as the moment things change. The moment which London enters its final phase. The moment at which he starts to step away from the city, their paths forking in distinctly different directions. The Last London draws the themes which have emerged in his work since 2012 to a spectacularly written conclusion.
It also marks a distinct shift in Sinclair's writing style which brings his exasperation to the fore, electrifying and spiking his prose and rendering it curiously similar to some of his earliest poetic works on London. I've seen commentators bridle at this frustration and irascibility - but I think in a literary career which has spanned well over forty years and countless revolutions in the experience of navigating London, Sinclair has earned a hearing. The irritations which he catalogues as he moves around the rapidly evolving city are individually innocuous but collectively deafening. The flow of digital information along unmediated channels challenges the well-walked paths and mysterious connections which Sinclair has meticulously mapped and remapped. These old ways are clogged with cyclists who have no time to avoid pedestrians now. The sense that devices demand maintenance and drain agency from the people moving around the city's boroughs seems a minor inconvenience to the rest of us until we're facing down a crowd coming the wrong way, heads down, minds elsewhere. It's easy to dismiss the exasperated tone which some passages in the book take as the snarls of a man aging at a different rate to the city - but almost all of them have rung true at some point, even to a relative technophile like me.
The Last London begins in Hackney with a sage-like silent man on a bench in Haggerston Park, and slowly expands to the limits of the London which Sinclair has written himself into, and now out of. The journeys this time though are partially an act of erasure - undoing his London Oveground circuit by reversing its direction, revisiting the docks and dereliction of Downriver after the passing of 'The Witch' and finally venturing into the stage-managed artificiality of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park left behind by the Grand Project. By the time the circuit is completed, the mysterious presence has gone from the park. Things are changing again, London is being remade in the image of Beijing or Bahrain. Legacy and Inclusivity - once the bywords of the Olympic city - are now virtual concepts which rarely make the leap into reality from the computer generated vistas which wrap new developments.
As the book approaches its conclusion, Sinclair is on the hoof again in pursuit of the next London, if indeed it exists. His walk from Gospel Oak to Barking in the company of (literally) ghostwritten friends who have gone, charts the path of the partially-electrified railway which will eventually spark life into the provisional community rising from the sedge and mud at Barking Riverside. There is a point on the journey where his narrative splinters - the narrator is no longer the walker as he pushes over boundaries and into sectors of the suburbs which are outside his experience. It's strange, and liberating as a long-time reader of Sinclair, to feel the author's raw response to the strangeness of this hinterland. He crosses the North Circular into Barking and recognises the kind of territory he used to occupy pushed out here to the margins, and soon to be pushed back further. He is spun back to Hackney in relief - that he has left Barking, or that places like Barking still exist?
The series of walks which are described in the final chapters of The Last London have another function - they detail those who will continue to walk and record. John Rogers, Andrew Kötting, Effie Paleologou - in words, film and images they have already long since taken up Sinclair's mantle. They walk beside him, and they'll carry on walking into their own Londons and beyond. Their work is generously referenced, openly admired. Their activism and vigour a match for the demands of the last London - their variations on Sinclair's themes spinning off into new territory, new media, new technology, but always anchored into a shared past. Thinking of the influence of Sinclair's now extensive body of London writing, I wince a little on reading my own over-egged thoughts here and see an homage to Sinclair in every description of a decommissioned facility or deleted franchise. The companions on these final walks are commended to us by Sinclair, not least for his appreciation of their ability to navigate the city in its current situation. They are doing what he can't now, receiving messages which are incompatible with his self-confessed duncephone. The book closes with a final pilgrimage - an account of the march from Waltham Abbey to St Leonards on Sea which morphed into Kötting's Edith Walks film - once again piercing the skin of the M25, out into the fractious hinterlands where 'Vote Leave' signs line the lanes. Out of the city, out of the UK, out of Europe. The uncertainty of the future weighs heavily on Sinclair, and he almost pines for the easier times under Thatcher when the needle on the national moral compass was inverted rather than spinning erratically. A time when satire didn't turn eagerly into newsprint with each dumb tweet from Donald Trump. It's down to these new walkers to make sense of the next London in a post-factual, digitally altered world. It would be a gloomy way to pass out of the city if it wasn't written with such vigour and precision - Sinclair is playfully pithy to the bitter end of his walk, enjoying the freedom perhaps of looking back on London?
The Last London is as ever an erudite, complex work which will have readers reaching for references and chasing down works by Sinclair's kindred spirits. It's not an easy read, but it rewards time and effort to untangle the threads of myth and modernism which wind around his map of the city, reaching out to his coastal redoubt. While it refers deeply into Sinclair's history of writing on London, it stands alone as a guidebook to future cities which exist everywhere and nowhere. Perhaps it also sounds a call to the next generation of pavement botherers, mythmakers and diviners of this ancient, ever-changing city. If they turn in an account half as vital and detailed as this, there is an interesting future in the written city.
You can read, and hear, a discussion between Iain Sinclair and John Rogers about The Last London at The Lost Byway.
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.