Spring on Wanstead Flats

Tested out an old Olympus Zuiko OM 50mm lens on my Panasonic GH3 camera at the weekend over on Wanstead Flats. After a long hibernation you can see Spring starting to visit the Flats.

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I wish I was better at identifying wildflowers – I’ve sat here with 3 wildflower books on my desk, looked at 4 websites and I still can’t identify this beautiful little plant that was growing along the avenue that once led from Leytonstone High Road to the gates of the grand Wanstead House.

I show this picture to my 80-year father who instantly identifies it as Blackthorn. A Druid website says that in plant lore, “The Blackthorn tree is esoterically known as both the Mother of the Woods and the Dark Crone of the Woods.” And is also said to have, “the most sinister reputation in Celtic tree lore” associated with “ill omens” and to witches represents “the dark side of the Craft”.

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I’m going to stick my neck out here and say this is a gorse bush but with the caveat that I could be wrong and they merely look like a gorse to the untrained eye.

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Forest to the Lea Valley – walking video diary and ‘psychogeographical sound sandwich’

Here’s a video of the walk I did last weekend from Leytonstone to Ponders End. I’ve collaged a soundtrack from some old records, field recordings I made on my phone and some music I quickly knocked up on my laptop using Garageband – it more accurately reflects what’s going on in my head as I walk. Bob and Roberta Smith talked of creating a ‘sound sandwich’ when I interviewed him at the Barbican during the Cultural Olympiad where he was performing with his Apathy Band, and he related the idea, using lots of overlapping records playing, to the psychogeographical walks I was undertaking – but in audio form – a ‘psychogeographical sound sandwich’.

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The first ‘found sound’ on the video is from a gem of a record in the BBC Wildlife Series featuring recordings of birdsong made by Eric Simms originally broadcast on the Radio 4 Countryside programme. It’s a selection of Spring choruses – ‘a busy rookery’ recorded in Sussex, 1960. In the sleeve notes Simms writes, “For me perhaps the quickest way to evoke memories of places is to listen to recordings that I have made of their background sounds”. For me when I walk the sounds of the present are mingled with sounds, voices and memories of other places.

There was a serendipitous moment when I grabbed a bit of a recording of ‘If It Wasn’t for the ‘Ouses-In-Between’ performed by John Foreman when I just happened to skip to the lines:

Oh! it really is a wery pretty garden
And Chingford to the Eastward could be seen
Wiv a ladder and some glasses
You could see to ‘Ackney Marshes
If it wasn’t for the ‘ouses in between

Which is a fairly accurate description of the view from the footbridge over the North Circular between Walthamstow and Woodford, except the song was talking about the overcrowded East End of the 1890s, harking back to some rural idyll just beyond the rooftops. Is this what draws me out into the forest?

 

Read the blog post about this walk here

Walk from Leytonstone to Ponders End

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The urge was to walk without any particular destination and let my feet decide which way to go. They pulled me in a familiar direction – up Wallwood Road and past the Hindu temple to the Hollow Ponds. The merest drop of rain turns Leyton Flats into a bog and a crow paddled in a large pool of rainwater.

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Rooks decorated the bare boughs making rook sounds (is it a Corr or a Raww) gathering for their late afternoon parliament. I can only distinguish the rooks from the crows by remembering my Dad saying ‘A rook on its own is a crow’.

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A rust coloured rivulet trickled near the overflowing Birch Well leading to/from the Eagle Pond, this area is cross-stitched with a tapestry of nameless seasonal ditches and brooks.

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RS Lounge is looking rather sorry for itself these days – I black bin-liner was wrapped around its once glowing neon sign fluttering in the wind like a harbinger of doom. RS was built on the site of the Rising Sun pub which dated back to at least the 1850’s before the £2million refurb that transformed it into an Ibiza style luxury bar and dining thing.

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The thwack of tyres over the cattle grid scares the wildfowl from the pond. The footbridge crossing the North Circular offers one of my favourite views of London a north-western slice across the Lea Valley, tall chimneys spewing out fumes, the tower blocks in the distance set at angles I suppose to maximise sunlight. It’s an expansive, varied vista, industrial London, broad freeways, a carpet of housing, the river, reservoirs, the forest, green plains, hills on the horizon.

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I pick up a stick to help steady my progress through the ankle deep mud. I skit between the path and the undergrowth not so much walking to Woodford as sliding and skating, with my stick and greying beard I feel like Gandalf on Ice.


The Ching gurgles blissfully between steep river banks as it slips round the edge of the lake at Highams Park. Now I have my sights set on Chingford Green – a place that seems incongruous in modern London, like one of those out-of-place artifacts that defy the conventional understanding of human history. I leave the forest sludge and rest my trusty staff against a bench by the pavement and ascend Friday Hill once I’ve acquired a Double Decker from the petrol station to fuel my climb.

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Friday Hill House has the forlorn look of a place that was once loved but now abandoned and unwanted. Built in 1839 by Lewis Vulliamy for the Boothby-Heathcote family, they eventually sold it to the London County Council who constructed the Friday Hill Estate in the grounds and the house became a Community Centre and later an adult education college. Its fate now remains unclear.

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The Chingford United Services Club though appears to be thriving and the Seafood stall in the carpark had a short line of customers eager for cockles, winkles and crab. After admiring the ‘Second Empire’ architecture of The Bull and Crown coaching inn (now a branch of Prezzo) I retire to Sams ‘quality fish and chips restaurant’ – notice the ‘chips’ in plural.

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It’s not been the brightest of days and now 30mins before sunset it’s positively gloomy. I’m drawn along the path beside the parish church to the crest of Kings Head Hill and a close-up of the view I’d taken in earlier from the bridge across the North Circ. I keep plodding on, my destination reached but my feet aren’t ready to quit just yet.

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Halfway down the hill past Sunnyside Lodge and opposite a fine cottage-style electricity substation there is a brass plaque set in the pavement commemorating the 1986 Year of Peace. An odd place to celebrate an international event unless of course Chingford has a hidden link to the Baha’i Faith that seems to have instigated the event. Is the substation a temple pumping out peace around the world? Nothing would surprise me about Chingford.

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Looking across the Lea Valley at sunset this corner of North East London always makes me think of America – open spaces, wide roads, car lots, Wim Wenders directing Paris Texas, David Lynch weirdness, possibility. The sodium lights of the industrial Lea Delta after a muted sunset. Pylons, sheep grazing on the grassy banks of the reservoir. A Harvester pub and restaurant which I would love to enter but my boots are caked in London Clay which has also splattered up my legs to my knees.

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Now I am bound for Ponders End in the dark. The tower blocks of the Alma Estate (Kestrel, Cormorant, Merlin and Curlew House) guide me in by the few lights still shining, with the estate slated for a £150 million regeneration scheme I guess they must have started to move tenants out.

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A Roundabout of Death tricks me to walking along the hard shoulder before doubling back to find my way to the Station – cars zipping past at speed heading for the desert, for Vegas, or more likely Waltham Abbey and Cheshunt. My feet led me well on this walk – I should trust them more often.

 

A Birmingham peculiar

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Last Sunday took me back to Birmingham, for a screening in the Flatpack Festival of a short film I’d made of the walk I did to Twyford Abbey with Nick Papadimitriou and Peter Knapp. Nick joined me for the jaunt to the Midlands and I managed to persuade him to take a detour with me through the splendour of the Piccadilly Arcade.

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The beautifully painted ceiling of the arcade is by Paul Maxfield and with the glimmering lights and tiled floor recalls the dream palaces that inspired Parisian poets and German social theorist Walter Benjamin who, when he described the Paris arcades as ‘a land full of inconspicuous places from which dreams arise’, and that the arcades were ‘galleries leading into the city’s past’ could as easily have been writing about Birmingham’s Piccadilly Arcade as the Passage des Panoramas.

Ben Waddington later told me that the Arcade had been built as a silent cinema but had declined in the 1920’s and converted to a shopping arcade. Nick seemed unimpressed by the arcade, the video I attempted to shoot on my pocket camera (a Canon Powershot sx230 Hs) has a soundtrack of him impatiently drumming a rolled up copy of the TLS against his hip climaxing in an instruction to, “Hurry Up John”.

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Nick seemed to enjoy Victoria Square much more than the arcade. We’d detoured around some of the side-streets leading away from New Street and remarked on how hilly this part of Birmingham City Centre feels. It’s a city that cries out to be explored.

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After using the toilets in the Symphony Hall our explorations led us into the Museum and Art Gallery where there was a display of the recently discovered Staffordshire Hoard, “The largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found”.  The delicate filigree pattern on the jewelry and sword mounts was hypnotic – at odds with the idea of a brutal and barbaric ‘Dark Ages’.

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I was equally seduced by the work of the Birmingham Group of artists, particularly ‘Sigismonda drinking poison’ by Joseph Southall. The above painting of ‘tower block with old lady’ by Arthur Lockwood found in a room displaying architectural models of the city stayed with me throughout the day. Lockwood has documented the changing urban landscape of West Midlands with watercolour paintings, leading him to be described as “Birmingham’s very own Lowry”.

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The screening in Digbeth was looming so there was little time to absorb the ambiences of the City Arcade of which Nick was even less forgiving. Curzon Street Station (opened in 1838) was another matter – dominating the landscape on the approach to New Street on the train from Euston and soon to be the Birmingham terminus of HS2. Perhaps the reopening of the station will breathe new life into the Eagle and Tun.

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Fazeley Street Birmingham

The sun broke through as we reached the Digbeth Branch Canal at the junction of the Typhoo Basin. We had half-an-hour before the screening in an old industrial building beside the towpath and Nick told me more about his interest in the Birmingham poet Roy Fisher whilst I talked of walking the River Rea and doing the Tolkien Trail.

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We had been invigorated by our short stroll around Birmingham, it seems to offer so many possibilities for the urban rambler. We are already plotting a return.

Epping Forest: Warren Hill to Strawberry Hill Ponds

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Two hours before sunset on a Sunday – perfect time to head out on a walk. But I was soon cursing getting lost in the suburban swamp around Buckhurst Hill station (as delightful as it is I was keen to get into the forest) until I came across this majestic house. From my idiot’s knowledge, to me, it symbolises the dream of interwar suburbia – a Hobbit shire in the London commuter belt.

I found the Forest path in what my OS map labelled Powell’s Forest. The birds were warming up for the evening roosting burst of song. These paths led down smoothly undulating slopes then up and over Warren Hill.

The trees hail the luminous sunset as it breaks across the Lea Valley. I’ve been glancing at the Transactions of the Epping Forest Field Club, published in Buckhurst Hill in 1881 and imagine them walking this way in stout boots and thick wooly socks full of the zealous cheer of their mission to, “the study and investigation of the Natural History, Geology, and Archaeology” of the Forest.

I‘m always lost in Epping Forest even with an OS map and sticking close to the paths. It’s one of the reasons I love walking there some much and find it so restorative. There on our doorstep a wilderness, where the ancient order prevails …. until you hit one of the forest roads and nearly get mown down by an aggressively driven 4×4. But even then once you’ve breached the road, a few yards back into the woods and the spirit of Pan reclaims your soul. I wonder if the forest spirits have the same effect on the drivers of those beasts when they pull up and head out for a stroll. Maybe it explains why there is so much ‘dogging’ in the car parks of a night time.

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I turned back from the road that runs past Connaught Water with the sun descending behind the still bare trees. The path took me up to Strawberry Hill Ponds, a place so still and calm that I waited to see if the Lady of The Lake would emerge hoisting Excalibur aloft, although at this stage I would have asked her if she could procure me a pint and a packet of cheese and onion crisps instead.

Socially conscious coffee at the Trew Era Cafe

Thursday morning Russell Brand launched the Trew Era Cafe in an empty shop on the New Era Estate, Hoxton. The cafe is a social enterprise aiming to provide support for people recovering from addiction whilst also serving up fresh locally sourced food and drink at reasonable prices (£1.80 for a cappuccino in Hoxton is a rarity). As Russell explains in the video above, the long term aspiration is for the Trew Era to grow its own food locally and Hackney Council have donated land to that end. And the coffee is bloody good as well.

Amongst the opening day throng I spotted Chunky Mark The Artist Taxi Driver who’d driven Russell to the opening that morning and shot a video for his essential viewing YouTube channel. Although I’d only taken my camera along to take a few snaps I couldn’t resist the opportunity to grab a quick chat with Mark in what is now one of my favourite episodes of Drift Report with Mark’s section pretty much unedited.