Across Rainham Marshes along the Thames to Purfleet

A Friday morning and the need to hit open space, to sniff the edge of the city. A hasty perusal of the maps pointed the way to Rainham Marshes and Purfleet with an easy route via the Overground changing at Barking.

Rainham Marshes

A long ramp leads directly down from Rainham Station onto the edge of the marshland. Birds rattle around in the tall stems of grasses. It feels as if I’m encroaching on wildspace, an intruder. Phalanxes of dried out cowparsley (?) and teasles look resplendent in an unseasonal burst of sunshine. I rest on a bench and peel off layers all the way back to my t-shirt and soak up the last natural heat for months to come.

concrete barges rainham marshes

Arriving on the Thames shore at Rainham, the concrete barges lie marooned by the riverbank. Constructed from reinforced concrete they were towed out into the Thames as part of the Mulberry Harbour that played a vital role in the Normandy D-Day Landings of 1944. Then in 1953 they came to aid of the nation once again when they contributed to the Thames estuary flood defences. Now they’ve been claimed by flocks of birds which perch along the decks and strutt the prow. There’s something noble and proud about the concrete barges even as they slowly sink into the estuarine mud.

Routemaster buses rainham

Past the shipping beacon at Coldharbour Point and a fleet of Routemaster buses I arrive at the old MOD firing range on the edge of the marshes near Purfleet, the broken chainlink fence a reminder of that this was a restricted area until around 2000. Now it has found new life as an RSPB Nature Reserve. The past briefly returned in 2013 when an unexploded bomb was discovered during maintenance work requiring a controlled demolition. Makes you wonder what else is lurking buried in the mud.

RSPB Rainham Marshes visitor centre

The visitor centre at RSPB Rainham Marshes is a stiking building poking above the marsh grasses designed by van Heyningen and Hayward architects. It strikes me as something you might find on Tatooine in a ‘galaxy far, far away’. Aside from a great view across the nature reserve the centre has a decent cafe where I process the walk sat amongst cappucino sipping Twitchers before getting the train home from Purfleet.

 

 

 

 

Wanstead to Barking along the River Roding

A Friday morning at the end of September and the chance to walk along the River Roding from Wanstead to Barking. Finally I hunted down the elusive Alders Brook near the City of London Cemetery. A dog walker who has been strolling this way for 30 years told me he’d never heard of it and I had to show it marked on my old A-Z. But there it was, overgrown and clogged up but still running free through the undergrowth.

Uphall Camp Barking

source: An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Essex, Volume 2, Central and South west. Originally published by His Majesty’s Stationery Office, London, 1921.

The other side of the construction carnage around Ilford town centre I stood on the streets where the Iron Age settlement of Uphall Camp stood, near the banks of the Roding. Today lines of terraced houses named after periods of British History cover the site.

overgrown football pitch at Wanstead

football pitch at Wanstead

Ilford new buildings

Ilford

The River Roding at Barking

The River Roding at Barking

I passed the Quaker burial grounds at Barking before picking up the riverbank path down to the wharfside developments that have temporarily created tumbleweed wild west outposts. After breaching the A13 sadly it was time to head back to Leytonstone before I had reached Beckton which was the aim for the day. But I had surveyed more of the land the lies along one of our sacred Eastern rivers, and seen parts of the London of the distant past and got a glimpse of one of the new Londons taking shape.

Across the fields from Epping to Roydon

pylon in field near Epping

11am at the tube station bound for the end of the Central line at Epping where fieldpaths branch off from the transport network. Epping is like a frontier post on the border between London and the ancient tribal territories of Essex. The fields appear above rooftops. It’s a release, a necessary abandonment of the day-to-day, of the troubled city, its beehive activity.

It’s a sultry Saturday, I’m running a slight temperature. Fat sagging clouds hang oppressively low over the skyline.


Along beside a deepditch by the field edge with a trickling brook. The sound of rushing water beneath the iron Thames Water manhole cover , a slight whiff of sewage, a mechanical intrusion pulling you back to the toilets of West Essex, the sewage farm out here somewhere tucked away behind a thick barrier of weeds. Stems of borage sway in the autumn zephyr. An electricity substation hums beside a double hedge where muddy planks ferry you over the brook. Not a soul around. Solitude. ‘Solitary, slow and wayward’ will be my credo for the day.

Epping Long Green

Crossing Cobbins Brook I try to remember the story of Boudicca in these hills and the link to this modest watercourse. Did she wash the blood from her hands in its waters, or was it here that the warrior queen bled out?

I rest on a hilltop overlooking Orange Wood. The south-westerly gathers pace shunting the clouds reluctantly across the sky. You have to stop and admire the spectacle taking place above your head. Then the wind drops and the clouds slow to a resting stop.

Stort Valley Way
Approaching Epping Green a deer skips across a patch of rough ground ahead of me. A posse of ramblers appear too close behind on Epping Long Green, and I feel as if I’m being pursued by a hungry pack. I skip over the deep muddy track that skirts copy wood sensing they will get bogged down on the ankle-deep ruts and it seems to work. I don’t see them again. In fact the only other person I see on the way down to Roydon is a fellow walker eating a sandwich on a bench in Nazeing Churchyard.

Netherhall Common
Birds flying in alignment with the pylons in a field looking down across the Lea Valley. I hear the distant rumble of the Rye House Speedway track, as I walk along the ridge above Netherhall Common.

The light is dimming as I drop down the field edge to the beginnings of the River Stort Navigation and the point where I first considered this walk back in April when I was walking the towpath to Bishops Stortford.

Nazeing, Essex

The rain progresses from drizzle to pitter-patter as I move along the Lea to Rye House station and the journey’s end.

 

The Grubby Mitts at Cecil Sharp House

Grubby Mitts Cecil Sharp House

There was something so perfect about The Grubby Mitts playing Cecil Sharp House. Bedford’s art rockers at the home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society nestled in the well-heeled streets of Primrose Hill. London’s village hall. In my mind they belong in large spaces, I’d first seen them at Bob and Roberta Smith’s Art Party Conference at the Spa in Scarborough, an even more cavernous venue.

When I arrived Andy Holden was on the stage holding up ceramic cats to a camera under a table lamp as the band played and the close-up cat images were projected on the big screen while Holden narrated. This wasn’t the main gig, but a performance piece called Catharsis. The cats had belonged to Holden’s Grandmother who left them to him in a series of large cardboard boxes after her death – his performance taking the form of a peculiar ‘unboxing video’.

The Grubby Mitts at Cecil Sharp House

The main hall at Cecil Sharp House is huge, with echoes of folk heroes and grand dances. The Grubby Mitts crowd stuck mostly to the bank of seating around the wall leaving the ballroom floor clear aside from a handfull of die-hards forming a line across the middle of the space. It worked – seemed to fit the mood, the awkward school disco kids, let the sounds fill the void. The show was apparently linked to Andy Holden’s current Art angel show with his father Peter Holden, Natural Selection.

The Grubby Mitts at Cecil Sharp House

I only lasted half a song before taking the floor and joining the ranks of the standing, barely dancing line. The band worked through most (if not all) of their album What The World Needs Now Is along with what I presume were newer tunes. A three-piece brass section joined some numbers swelling the sound into the high vaulted ceiling euphorically. Holden twisted knobs hunched over at a table of electronics, played the guitar, and gesticulated at the drummer. It was a majestic performance from the whole band.

It ended with a stunning rendition of To A Friend’s House the Way is Never Long. The band departed the stage and then stood in the hall with the rest of us as the lights came back on and the audience dribbled out into the Primrose Hill night. I rarely go to gigs these days aside from local nights in Leytonstone, this was perfect. Wandering down into Camden Town, freezing cold, I fancied a pint but turns out Camden Council have rigid licencing laws with no booze sold after 10.30pm on a Sunday. Rather than pissing me off it just added to the quirky vibe of a magical event.

Heathcote Arms Leytonstone triumphant rebirth as the Heathcote and Star

Heathcote and Star Leytonstone

fantastic food, great local beer … and neon – the Heathcote is back!

I used to love the old Heathcote Arms like a trusted, loyal friend. It was who I could turn to when things were bad and celebrate with in the good times. But mostly it was a place I could slump in a corner with a pint, packet of crisps and a pile of books. Often I was so relaxed I’d be nearly horizontal with a belly elaborately embroidered with a mosaic of crisp fragments. It was where I did most of the research for my book, This Other London, in the corner room which was empty most nights by 10.30 when I’d arrive. You could spread out books and maps across two tables and let the creative juices be lubricated by cheap ale.

Heathcote and Star Leytonstone

Selection of canned & bottled Beer at the Heathcote and Star

But then it closed 3 years ago, bought by property developers to be turned into flats and its fate looked sealed. A valiant and spirited campaign followed, it was listed as an Asset of Community Value, and now finally it is fully back in business (I’m skipping over the bit when the developers put in a manager for a limited time).

Heathcote and Star Leytonstone

Heathcote and Star Leytonstone

This isn’t merely a re-boot but a full-scale resurrection with Electric Star Pubs taking out a 20 year lease on the Heathcote and pumping buckets of cash into a total refurb. Last week’s packed and thumping launch party wasn’t the time to make a proper judgement, my first reaction being that it was a bit Nathan Barley, and thinking I’d title this post ‘The New Heathcote – it’s ‘Totally Mexico’. And it is ‘Totally Mexico’ but not in the sense of a Hoxditch boozer selling Dutch wine.

Heathcote and Star Leytonstone

The Electric Star team are pulling out all the stops to make this a pub for everyone, no easy feat, a true community hub – a place where I could slouch in a corner planning suburban explorations and muttering to myself beside a table full of toddlers chucking mash potato around, while wannabe Instagrammers struggle to get the perfect food-porn shot. Or if you’re really square, a nice place to meet friends and neighbours for a drink.

Heathcote and Star We Serve Humans burgers

Mini sample burgers

Heathcote and Star Leytonstone food

Buffalo Chicken with strong kick of English Mustard

Heathcote and Star Leytonstone food

Heathcote and Star We Serve Humans burgers

The function room where we were presented with samples of the well-measured menu will be free of charge to community groups – which is a fantastic resource. There’s a games room out the back with pool and table-tennis. Live footy on the telly with big screen events planned. There’s a huge garden. The ale selection is spot on with beers from Leyton breweries Signature Brew and East London Brewery with Camden Hells Pale on keg. And bloody hell the food is great. The burgers by Paul Human are incredible, the Buttermilk Chicken is crispy and well seasoned, in fact the tucker is so tasty that the vegan option of Cowboy Beans even had me scraping the plate clean. And the staff are really friendly and helpful too, they look happy to be there.

Heathcote and Star Leytonstone food

Cowboy Beans (vegan)

Signature Brew at Heathcote and Star Leytonstone

I even found myself back in there Saturday night with the place packed again, punters arriving in taxis, bumping into neighbours at the bar, burgers flying out of the kitchen, post-mortem of the Arsenal match on the TV. It might even inspire me to crack on and finish my next book.