An Accidental Pilgrimage

The intention was to cover a small area I’d missed out on previous walks from Leytonstone to Chingford – the zone along Blackhorse Lane up to the Banbury Reservoir, and then to just keep going till I broke out of London – somewhere.

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I skipped well worn tracks and jumped the Overground two stops to Blackhorse Road, a point where I usually make an instinctual turn west and head for the uplands of north London. Across the road legendary pub rock venue The Standard looks like a Motorhead roadie who did one tour too many. It was one of the first London venues I ever attended – travelling up from Wycombe one Thursday on a school night with my mate Johnny Lee to watch one of his many bands. It was a big gig for a provincial band on the up, rumoured to be a place where A&R men hung around looking for the next quite big thing. Now it awaits a new life as a Turkish supermarket.

It doesn’t take long for the walk to take over and the plans tossed up into the easterly blowing breeze. I am seduced by a green path leading to Tottenham Marshes which runs alongside the flood relief channel around the reservoir and onto the marshes. I surrender to the towpath and the northward pull. The sun comes out. Someone shouts ‘Hello’ from a slowly chuntering barge heading in the opposite direction. It’s talented film-maker Max Brill, ‘Off on a walk?’
‘Yes, but I have no idea where, until my knee gives up’, and they chug on out of earshot.

I’m developing a sixth sense which tells me when to step aside to allow the cyclists to buzz past, sometimes two abreast. The recreational mountain bikers, often couples, are replaced by knackered-looking slowly commuting factory workers as I pass through the North Eastern Rust Belt. A former HSBC office block has been pulverised into a mound of white concrete that is whipped up into dust clouds by gusts coming down off the Essex hills.

The northern city wall is breached when passing along the towpath under the North Circular at Edmonton. There’s a release of pressure that not even the tower blocks at Ponders End can cloud. Breaking free of the metropolis, the path ahead clears. A silver sign shows how to spot Otters.

I am tempted by the second of two enticing tributaries leading westwards  away from the Lea Navigation – the meandering waters of the Turkey Brook and the Pymmes Brook seem to hold more mystery than this canalised well-trodden waterway, but it’ll need to be another day, or perhaps when I can splash up here in a kayak.

I find the short passage through Enfield uncanny with the Lea navigation passing along one side of an ordinary suburban street where 70’s and 80’s semis look across the high water at a row of old cottages.

My boots are coated in a film of white trail dust. I pass under a subdued M25, a road that for me forever belongs to Iain Sinclair.
I carry a memory of Sinclair’s schlep to Waltham Abbey but can’t recall a word of what he wrote. But it’s enough to signal this as an appropriate point to depart from the waterways to head inland.

I arrive at the Abbey doors just before 8, to me, unexpectedly open so I enquire of the two people stood in the porch why. ‘It’s the Easter Vigil’ they say slightly surprised as if I must have come from some foreign, non-Christian culture. I take a look inside then stroll in the last light round the peaceful Abbey gardens, half looking for King Harold’s tomb. I start to give up and head for the nearest pub, believing that the tomb of the last Saxon king would be hard to miss when I stop to look at a graveslab with a wreath of conifer and some flowers placed on top. Running my fingers over the stone beside it I trace out the letters HAROLD. It’s appropriately English that such a symbolic spot in English history is so modestly commemorated.

I decide to eschew the pub and slip in at the back of the Abbey for the beginning of the Easter Vigil. A scattering of around 30 worshippers in the gloom, the only illumination coming from two candles behind the altar beneath the stain-glass windows that cast star-shaped patterns of light. The readings from Genesis are done in deep, slow, sombre voices. It’s certainly the first time I’ve ended a walk at a church service but it seems to fit. As the reading from Exodus starts I reckon I’ve paid my homage and creep back out into the streets to get a pork pie from the Co-op and plod over the Hertfordshire border in the dark to get the train from Waltham Cross back into the heart of the city.

Walk along the Paddington Arm from Kensal Green to Northolt

Click  photos to enlarge

I haven’t been keen on canal walks recently – finding the towpath restricting my desire to drift and wander, the negation of a chance find at the end of a random sequence of turns. But yesterday I found the removal of choice liberating, locking myself onto the path at Kensal Green then chuntering along like a rickety barge till sunset and my need for beer and food got the better of me – which was around 4 hours later at Northolt, where I stumbled upon the beauties of Belvue Park and found a table at the back of the village pub across the green from St. Mary’s Church.

This branch of the Grand Union Canal offers a scenic slideshow of what remains of the ‘West London Industrial Belt’ – a zone that once employed around a quarter of million workers.
Delicious chocolate odors drift over the water from the United Biscuits factory at Harlesdon. Joggers, cyclists, and fisherman populated the canalside till I passed through Perivale then the people melted away and it was just the swans, ducks and cormorants.

London Perambulator panel with Iain Sinclair, Will Self and myself

It’s 5 years ago nearly to the day that The London Perambulator premiered at The Whitechapel Gallery in the East End Film Festival. This is the ‘Edgelands’ panel discussion that followed with Will Self, Iain Sinclair and me – hosted by Andrea Phillips from Goldsmiths.

The London Perambulator is screening at the Holloway Arts Festival on 6th June followed by Q&A with Nick Papadimitriou and me – details here

 

A field in England

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As bucolic as anything you would find in the ‘traditional’ countryside – our precious Leyton Marshes, a step away from Lea Bridge Road. Once part of the ancient Lammas Lands (open access grazing pasture for the people of the parish between August and March).

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Through the trees and down across a ditch and you are across the Parish boundary on the Walthamstow Marshes – again former Lammas Land. I couldn’t help noticing that there was more signage than on the Leyton side and which also looked in generally better nick – or am I succumbing to local rivalries and insecurities.

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What they don’t have in Walthamstow is this seductive pumping house near the Essex Filter Beds. You have to love the use of glass bricks and its overall symmetry. You expect it to house more than a pump, which is merely a front for what is actually an imaginarium.

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You suspect that whoever attempted to break through the wooden door wasn’t attempting to gain access to this glorious pump. They may have thought it would open a Stargate … or perhaps provide a place to kip for the night. I hope they weren’t too disappointed – I certainly appreciated being able to have a sneaky peak inside.

(There’s more on the marshes in This Other London)

Snaresbrook

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‘Hope Lodge’

Hope is a place in Snaresbrook (with echoes of West Hollywood)

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I came to admire the gothic revival architecture of the orphanage designed by Sir Gilbert Scott (he of the Albert Memorial and St Pancras Midland Hotel) and William Moffatt (1841). The other people in the grounds were beating a hasty path to the Snaresbrook Crown Court as witnesses, barristers, friends sucking anxious fags outside, “Yeah I know a bloke who got banged up for turning over the same place”

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The Eagle Pond – formerly Snares Pond. This is a high ground of gravels – there’s water everywhere – you need good boots when walking through the forest here.

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Is this a remnant of the Saye’s Brook / Sayers Brook that gives Snaresbrook its name, now reduced to a muddy ditch at parts and elsewhere running along a concrete culvert.

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Apparently there were two streams running through Snaresbrook, across Wanstead and into the Roding – the Saye’s or Sayers Brook and the Holt. All around London these tiny tributaries have been buried, lost, ignored but they’ve stamped their names all over the A-Z – the Saye’s Brook has its named called out regularly on the 6 o’clock news, “Today at Snaresbrook Crown Court”.

East Village (Olympic Village) diary video

I’m becoming slightly obsessed with East Village, the name given to the London 2012 Athlete’s Village. It’s fascinating to watch a new neighbourhood slowly creak into life. And it’s right on my doorstep – a small provincial settlement dropped onto the marshes. There are few things as mundane as waiting at a bus stop on a wet Wednesday evening – but these are the experiences that form the bedrock of the narrative of a place, a world away from the glitz and hype of the multi-billion pound Olympic Games when celebrated gold medalists strutted these same streets. They’ve moved on to become a face on the front of a box of cereals and now people with less accessible histories and mythologies and moving onto the same ground, stubbing their toes on a loose paving slab, munching on fried chicken, dropping their dummies out of a pram.

Shadwell – Limehouse walkabout

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St George in the East – the psychogeographers’ church (‘a nodule of energy’ in Iain Sinclair’s city). You have to risk death crossing the Highway with shipping containers and cement mixers competing to turn you into road marmalade.

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‘Ornamental Canal’ should be an oxymoron shouldn’t it – I can’t separate canals from their industrial heritage, and yes I’ve been to Venice but not before I’d lived in Hackney.

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Shadwell Basin – the oasis of the east, London’s blue lagoon. Joggers pound down the avenue of early hawthorn blossom along one side.

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For some reason this converted wharf made me think of the early 90′s – the pre-Black Wednesday chutzpah that would turn into a 1980′s hangover.

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“I wonder whether the citizens of London E14, know where they are living?” wrote Tom Pocock in his London Walks. Published in 1973, Pocock walks from Wapping to Limehouse at the point of transition from docklands to riverside resort of City bankers.  He observed, “The danger is of polarisation: the rich by the river, the poor inland. But what a place this could be!”