Walthamstow’s Sinking Cemetery and the Cinema Pioneer

A morning walk isn’t the ideal time to find yourself outside one of the finest pubs in London. The William the Fourth at Bakers Arms, Leyton looks resplendent in the glaring morning light. The hanging baskets puke out great rainbows of petunias.

William the Fourth Leyton

The William the Fourth is home to Brodie’s Fabulous Beers and you could drink your way round East London in this majestic mirrored boozer  – from Dalston Black through Hackney Red IPA, Stepney Green Steam, Bethnal Green Bitter, London Fields Pale Ale, Hoxton and Old Street IPA. But it’s 10am, the pub is closed and I’m heading for Walthamstow Cemetery on the scent of a tip off I was given by a nice couple after a talk I gave on Lea Bridge Road earlier in the year. They mentioned that one of the early cinema pioneers was buried there and it might be of interest.

Walthamstow Cemetery Queens Road
I checked in again on the beguiling Hoe Street Telephone Exchange before turning into Queens Road and on to Walthamstow Cemetery. It’s a boiling hot morning – possibly one of the last of the year – and I’m the only living person in this expansive Victorian necropolis. It soon becomes apparent that a number of the headstones are listing drastically – in some cases leaning across to meet their neighbouring grave. Some plots are sinking into the barren gravely soil. It has a strong air of abandonment.

Walthamstow Cemetery Queens Road Walthamstow Cemetery Queens Road
I now realise I don’t have the name of the grave I am looking for and am relying on chance – I Google to find the name of Birt Acres but looking out across the tombstone rubble don’t fancy my chances of locating the grave. Acres is credited with inventing the first 35mm moving image camera in Britain and a system for developing and projecting the films. Among his first productions were Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, The Boxing Kangaroo, and Performing Bears. He is also said to be “the first travelling newsreel reporter in international film history” (Wikipedia).

Walthamstow Cemetery Queens Road
It isn’t clear how Acres came to be buried in Walthamstow cemetery. The area had been a centre of film production in the early 20th Century with the British and Colonial Kinematograph Company having a large studio in Hoe Street not far from the cemetery so that could perhaps explain Birt Acres’ connection to Walthamstow.

Walthamstow Cemetery Queens Road
A headstone sitting in the shade of a tree and wreathed in ivy reads ‘Eliza The Beloved Wife of Thomas William Aldridge Who Was Drowned In The “Princess Alice” September 3rd 1878 Aged 33 Years.

After a while I start to feel as if I’m intruding although such is the age of the majority of the graves you imagine mourners are few and far between. Birds natter in the trees. Cats stalk the pathways. I move on through the gates back into Queens Road.

On the trail of the Dagenham Brook

Leyton Sign Ruckolt Road

Something magical happens when you pack your bag for a walk, even on a day like today when my enthusiasm is thin. In goes the notebook and 2 pens, a copy of Rachel Lichtenstein’s new book Estuary, OS map of the Lea Valley & Epping Forest, camera + mini magnetic tripod, a light jacket, and finally a cap I stuff down the side. All of this crammed into a messenger bag that was given away by the thousand at the London Film Festival 12 or 13 years ago.

I contemplate the journey ahead over coffee at Costa in Leyton Mills – the vast carpark here with its expansive Lea Valley skies is one of my favourite open spaces in London – it’s like the American Midwest of my imagination. The prospect of the relatively short walk along the Dagenham Brook increases in appeal as the caffeine kicks in. These minor urban excursions can easily snowball into epic quests. It’s the anticipation of the unknown buried within the familiar. Of becoming lost in a suburban swamp.

Dagenham Brook
I navigate my way across the grid system of the Asda car park and over to Orient Way, under the Leyton sign to find the point where the Dagenham Brook disappears underground before making its confluence with the River Lea. This is so close to where the Fillebrook momentarily appears above ground (in a reversal of fortunes) that I wonder if these two brooks merge before running into the Lea as a single watercourse.

A broken hole in the thick undergrowth gives me my first glimpse of the Dagenham Brook. I slide down the bank getting snagged in the brambles in the process and struggle to extract myself once I’ve logged my encounter with the river. Urban river hunting is not as easy as it seems.

Dagenham Brook
Fifty yards or so further along a recently surfaced new path hugs the river as it meanders through Marsh Lane Fields. I remember the Beating of the Bounds here on a wet May Sunday afternoon 10 years ago just after we’d moved to Leytonstone. It had been organized by the brilliant New Lammas Lands Defence Committee and was my real introduction into the culture of this section of the Lea Valley with the deep passionate attachment to the landscape. Marsh Lane has had a powerful hold on me ever since.

Dagenham Brook Leyton FC
The brook curves round behind the goal of the abandoned ground of Leyton F.C. – the weeds thick, nearly enclosing the watercourse. I call artist Lucy Harrison to see if she’ll give me a quick 5-minute interview about the Warner Homes that straddle Lea Bridge Road and have the Dagenham Brook running through the gardens. Lucy did an interesting project with the residents of the Warner Estate and I wish I knew more about them – now would be my chance.

Warner Estate Leyton
Lucy obligingly popped out into Blythe Road and told me about how the houses had been built around the beginning of the last century to provide quality affordable rentable homes and had gradually been sold off since the 1960’s. Although they have lost the tidy uniformity of their early years when Warner staff trimmed the hedges and painted the doors and window frames green and cream – they retain a distinctive architectural style with the arched double front doors and elaborate gables. You know when you’ve strolled into a Warner Estate.

Dagenham Brook p1010216
The Brook gently flows on into territory where I can’t follow it closely – behind cul-de-sacs, round the back of industrial estates and allotments. There are allotments all along the course of the river – even more so than along the Filly Brook. The occasionally waterlogged, spring-fed land unsuitable for building or industrial use, I guess good for growing crops fond of wet soil.

Pumphouse Museum Walthamstow
I eventually rendezvous with the Brook again near the end the W19 bus route where it winds around the edge of Low Hall Sports Ground. I pay homage with a nod, a photo and a few seconds of video before moving on back along the road unable again to walk along the riverbank. In truth physical encounters are a bonus with urban river walking for me, it’s more of a simple device to open up what might appear an unpromising landscape unenthusiastic about yielding its secrets. The brook sets the route and tells you its story, guides the way.

St James Park Walthamstow

The Dagenham Brook suggests I take a look at St James Park, one of those backstreet open spaces known mostly to the locals but a beautiful spot. There are only a handful of people in the park – a lady sitting on the ground appears to have positioned herself dead centre of a large empty section. An access road leads down the middle of a wonderful grand avenue of lime trees. The park occupies part of the site of the 14th Century Low Hall Manor which was purchased by Walthamstow Council in the late 19th Century.

Dagenham Brook Walthamstow p1010264

The brook slides behind park and under the railway bridge now running parallel with the broader River Lea Flood Relief Channel. I’ve seen discussion online suggesting that the Dagenham Brook is also a man-made watercourse, a drainage ditch. Old OS maps of the area show an elaborate tapestry and ditches and ponds adorning the landscape – nearly all now buried or filled in occasionally rising again to flood a basement or waterlog a garden.

Seb Lester mural walthamstow
Moving beneath the railway you are greeted by a sequence of murals on the end of terrace walls. On the corner of Chester Road a verse from Ewan MacColl’s timeless song written for Peggy Seeger is painted in elaborate filigree font
                           The first time ever I saw your face
                          I thought the sun rose in your eyes

Louis Masai walthamstow

On the other end of the block is a work by Louis Masai of a Fox, Badger and Bees – the bees carry a placard appealing to ‘Save Us!’, the badger sits behind a sign saying ‘No to the Cull’. Around the corner is a colourful abstract work by Italian street artist Renato Hunto.

Mural Walthamstow
Moving in to Coppermill Lane I can’t see any further trace of the Dagenham Brook as it appears to have merged with Flood Relief Channel. I stand on a concrete block and look north along the course of the Lea and bid my farewell to this understated, wonderful watercourse.

sunflower walthamstow

The Forgotten Forest of London

Hainault Forest

It was deep into the heart of Hainault Forest that I realized why I am drawn into the woodlands during summertime – I mean the urge is particularly strong in the summer months. I went walking with my Dad over the corner of the South Chilterns near our home throughout my childhood but it was in the cool shade of the beech and oak, and I can’t recognize any other trees sadly but let’s take a punt on hornbeam, that I reflected that we only ever walked in the autumn and winter as my Dad was a dedicated cricketer and so weekends from April through till the end of September were spent playing cricket and I went along to watch until I was old enough to play for the men’s 3rd XI. So summertime woodlands are an exotic treat for me. Or at least that was the idea that occurred to me this Sunday afternoon.

Like Epping Forest, Hainault Forest is a remnant of the once mighty Forest of Essex. The 336 surviving acres representing just 10% of the forest of Hainault that was recorded at the time of Henry VIII. If Edward North Buxton hadn’t led a campaign that resulted in the purchase of the forest in 1901 then even this tiny portion would have been swallowed by the tidal wave of bricks that cascaded out of London.

Hainault Forest
I had walked across a corner of the parkland before – on a random excursion one morning when I strolled around the boating lake and over Dog Kennel Hill. Today I wanted to make my way towards Lambourne End in the District of Epping.

Hainault Forest
Sitting in the Two Brewers Pub in Chigwell Row at 8.15pm I spread out my OS map on a table in the car park and tried to work out where I’d actually been. Even by sticking to the well-marked forest trails I’d somehow significantly over-shot the boundaries of the forest. I’d assumed the beautiful meadow at the edge of the woodland was Three-Cornered Plain and took the scenic path that ran down one side past an abandoned mobility scooter. Eventually I reached a fenced in enclosure and realized my mistake. Still the views eastwards were majestic from the high ground and I made my way along the field edge path assuming I’d emerge in Lambourne End.

p1000998 p1010003 p1010017

You can imagine my surprise when I encountered the abandoned mobility scooter in the path – I still can’t work out how that was possible – the path even looked completely different. Was this the forest sprites at play? A lady walking her dog pointed me back in the right direction and I found my way to the beguiling named Camelot Car Park.
Hainault Forest
I wonder if one day I’ll fathom how to properly read an OS Map or will they always remain a pretty fold up picture to make my walks more interesting.

Through the Angel Tunnel on the Floating Cinema

The other week I did a talk and screening aboard The Floating Cinema on the Regent’s Canal. I spoke about some of the myths, legends and hidden histories of the Canal hinterland around Kings Cross, Islington and Pentonville – where we passed on the boat and allowed the talk to stray up into the Northern Heights and even down to Balham. Some swans drifting past the barge led to a discussion of Iain Sinclair and Andrew Kotting’s film Swandown and we played clips from the film I’ve just made with them – London Overground.

Finally passing through the Angel Tunnel (or Islington Tunnel) was a great experience – I lived for 4 years on an estate up above (see the early archives of this blog) and always planned to take the subterranean boat trip but never did. The lack of a towpath means you have to walk above ground through Barnsbury Estate, down Chapel Market, across Upper Street and Duncan Terrace before rejoining the towpath in Canonbury. The boat journey can take up to 20 mins sliding through deep underground, depending on traffic.

I’d read the story of the opening of this section of the Regent’s Canal on 1st August 1820 when an orchestra spread across several barges played as they passed through the tunnel. Huge crowds gathered around each end to listen to what must have been a glorious racket. I played some music by British composer Henry Bishop that may possibly have been played on that momentous occasion as Bishop was one of the most popular composers of the time.

 

Old & New Hackney and the triumph of Lyle Zimmerman

Riding the W15 west over the marshes to Hackney is like traveling on an old time stage coach. This was the forest road in and out of London. It still feels that way to me. Tonight I’m on my way to a screening of London Overground at The Institute of Light – a new cinema + restaurant in a railway arch just off London Fields. I’ll be introducing the film with Iain Sinclair and revisiting the year we spent walking the Overground circuit.

Wandering through New Hackney to the venue it surprises me how much of Old Hackney survives given all the hype. I lived on an estate here in the early 90’s. The BBC shot a documentary on the nearby Kingshold Estate during my first summer in Hackney – Summer on the Estate – I recognised many of the residents in the film from my rounds canvassing alone for the local Labour Party. There were only 7 of us who attended ward meetings and 2 of them were barely mobile so door-knocking was a solitary task.

Institute of Light Hackney

I only seem to pass through Hackney these days – or travel directly to a meeting or an event – I never really hang around there or dwell for long so my sense of the New Hackney comes mostly through popular chatter and reports from the flood of middle-class property seeking Hackney refugees who have poured into Leytonstone and Walthamstow.

The vibe around Morning Lane isn’t so different to what it was 20-odd years ago. The end of Well Street also strikes a familiar tone. Pemberton Place is timeless. The Hobson’s Choice is still a pub but under a different name. The main difference I can see is that now there appear to be some people around who have money, whereas back then everybody was skint. I consider going for a pint and stopping for a while to sample the ambience some more, but no, I don’t particularly want to go searching for that Hackney of the early 90’s and hop back on the W15 to Leytonstone instead.

I drop into the brilliant Whats Cookin ‘rockin country-fried music’ night in the Ex-Servicemen’s Club and catch the end of The Verklempt Family’s set. The lead singer is playing what looks like a curious bass mandolin, and it’s difficult not to become transfixed by it. Their set ends and is met with loud applause and a couple of people give them a standing ovation.

As I’m leaving a friend calls out from one of the outside tables to tell me that the lead singer, the fella playing the curious bass mandolin, was the person who was attacked with a knife in Leytonstone Tube Station last December in what was reported at the time as a ‘terrorist incident’. Lyle Zimmerman had his throat cut with a knife in the attack, his life being saved by a GP who happened to be passing through the station. I’d been outside the station underpass with my family stopped from walking into the scene by a police officer.

I remembered the description of the, at that time unnamed, victim as carrying an instrument – the curious bass mandolin. I don’t know if Lyle Zimmerman was on his way to play at What’s Cookin’ that evening, but on Wednesday night his performance was a real triumph of courage – and he really country rocks that bass mandolin.

Waiting for the burning thing on the Thames

David Best Fire London

As someone who documents London I half feel I should have had more of an awareness of the burning thing they were doing on the Thames yesterday. You see, it’s the next day, I’m sat at a computer and I still don’t know what the event was called (if it had a name) but I’ll go to the trouble of looking up the artist’s name before I post this to my blog (David Best). It was only when we were lined up on the terrace of the National Theatre waiting for whatever it was to happen that a lady who pushed in next to us decided to explain how poignant it was that they would be marking the anniversary of the Great Fire of London with some actual fire – her Dad had been a fireman, it was very poignant she kept saying. I had to agree in the end although I wasn’t exactly sure why it was poignant, London had been burnt to the ground loads of times in the past, what made this one special. However, lined up on the terrace of the National Theatre we were waiting for something we weren’t quite sure what.

The real reason we went to the South Bank wasn’t for the burning thing at all – my youngest son was desperate to go on the Bumper Cars at NAMCO in County Hall the night before he went back to school – as an end of summer holiday blow-out. It was loads of fun. I actually won a race on the motorcycle game as well, which was a massive surprise to us both. My wife had chipped in that afternoon with a comment that were setting fire to something on the river at 8.30 outside Tate Modern and it looked good – so we tagged it on to the NAMCO jaunt.

Sometimes it’s interesting to be at a large event like this just to be part of a large crowd. Sometimes that makes it hell. Being there with your 10-year old son sometimes helps tell the difference. He looked at the dark river in the gap between the trees and wondered whether we’d see much and whether we’d be better off going to get something to eat instead. ‘Come on’, I said, ‘this is a special event’. ‘Yes’, he agree, ‘if we went to the cinema we’d just be watching a film, here we’ll be witnessing history’. Well a recreation of history I thought but I was too moved by his poetic sentiment I to be pedantic.

Nothing happened. 8.25pm. People started to leave.

‘Come on let’s get something to eat’, he said.
So much for witnessing history, I thought, trumped by hunger.

But then an orange glow lit the sky. ‘It’s started’, I announced to my son.
‘Really, I can’t see anything’, he replied unimpressed.

We moved through the crowds lining the South Bank as far as we could go and reached London Studios where my son was able to bag a spot beside a lamp-post on the railing – a prime position just 10 minutes earlier when the crowds were 6 deep, now oddly threadbare.

We waited for it to arrive. Was it a barge alight? We still couldn’t tell.

We waited some more. We saw more flames shooting up in the air from the Thames. It still didn’t seem to be getting any closer. Whatever it was seemed to grind to a halt off the shore of Bernie Spain Gardens. Craning our necks around the lamp-post we could now catch a proper glimpse of the burning thing we’d been waiting for.
‘There it is’, I said to my son.
‘Ah, yes’, he said, ‘what is it?’, he asked
‘It’s a, a bonfire I think’, I said, ‘a bonfire that has mostly burnt out by the looks of it’.

What had clearly been a raging inferno just 10 minutes previously was now a politely burning pile of wood. If only the real Great Fire of London had exhausted its flames so quickly we wouldn’t have had to wait on the river bank for an hour 350 years later.

‘Ah’, he said, ‘shall we go and get a Burger King at the station’, he said. So off we went to Burger King in Waterloo Station before the burning thing on the river ever reached us.

Over the border to North Berwick

I sometimes think I don’t get out of London enough. Reflecting on the summer holiday on the train back into the Big Smoke I thought ‘I’ve been abroad 3 times – twice to England and once to Scotland’. Because leaving London is like traveling to a foreign country – the capital is a City State – an island. In Broadstairs I witnessed quaint folk traditions and swam in the sea. In Devon they almost speak a different language and everyone is old – the lady in the Nepalese restaurant spotted us as foreigners straight away although she thought we were Australian which I suppose is half right as my wife hails from Sydney.

North Berwick

But at least Scotland is a foreign country to all intents and purposes – with a proper border and a dramatically contrasting landscape to the chalk hills us southerners are accustomed to. North Berwick took us by surprise with its rugged beauty and crystal clear waters. A crab got hold of my toe and rendered me one-legged in agony for a few hours.

Tantallon Castle

We set off one day for Tantallon Castle. I’d warned the family they’d be unlikely to see the sun in Scotland (I hadn’t on 4 previous visits) but it belted down all week, especially on the day we set off along the coast with temperatures pushing 30. Bass Rock shimmered white out in the Firth of Forth – we assumed it was chalk catching the sun in the sea haze. Looking through a telescope in the castle grounds we saw that the whiteness came from a thick coating of roosting sea birds flapping their wings.

Gazing out across fields of shimmering wheat heading back into North Berwick I thought of the fields around the edge of Epping Forest – paths I’d yet to walk. I had physically left London but a part of me was still there. I picked up a copy of C.E.M Joad’s ‘A Charter for Ramblers’ and started planning future expeditions.