A couple of weeks ago I was interviewed by comedian Dave Green for his Street View Interview YouTube series. It’s a great idea and was a lot of fun to do – an interesting way to revisit places that have played a part in my life while sitting on Dave’s bed in Leytonstone.
My OS Explorer 174 map of Epping Forest and Lee Valley is battered from extensive use. However there are still large sections of unexplored territory, so at lunchtime on Remembrance Sunday I set out to tramp across one of these unknown zones.
The idea was to head roughly northwest from Epping in the general direction of Galleyhill Wood or perhaps Monkhams Hall to the north of Waltham Abbey. I’d walked the valley floor as far as Hertford but had never ventured onto the high ground except from a field trip last December to Easneye and Widbury Hill.
The first fields out of Epping towards Upshire saw me pursued by a hungry pack of hikers who thankfully I seemed to lose at Copped Hall. Which was lucky because I’d been beguiled by one of the the Outer London Defence Ring Anti-Tank pillboxes. I’d encountered other features of this Second World War system along the River Lea north of Waltham Abbey but it seemed so innocuous here beside the lane.
My plan for the walk was as vague as my map reading skills, my guiding principle being to stick to the high ground, I only had a couple of hours till sunset so that should ensure a decent view for late afternoon.
A high hedged lane took me across the Cobbins Brook, a small stream that runs off the highlands of the Lea Valley down across the edge of the forest toward Waltham Abbey. According to Wikipedia this innocent seeming watercourse leant a hand to one of Britain’s most enduring stories, “A local legend claims Boudica’s rebellion against the Romans ended in the Waltham Abbey neighbourhood when she poisoned herself with hemlock gathered from the banks of Cobbins Brook.”
As sunset approaches I enter the steep muddy climb into Galleyhill Wood catching the last rays of daylight around the edge of the hill. By the time I stumble into Bumble’s Green it is nearly dark, the walk in essence over aside from the need to find my way through the dark to the nearest station 3 miles away at Broxbourne. I risk my life along a pavement-less road for no more than 500 yards before ducking down the first footpath that presents itself and walking across fields guided by the spotlight of the Super Moon.
The Pymmes Brook has been on my itinerary for a while – usually noted down as I walk north up the Lea Valley striking for territory beyond the M25. A fine day in August following a torrential downpour the day before that scuppered an expedition along the River Pinn, provided the perfect opportunity.
Although the Pymmes Brook makes it confluence with the Lea at Tottenham Hale, the official Pymmes Brook Trail starts slightly further north at Pickett’s Lock and then follows the Salmon Brook part of the way. I decided to stick to what I saw as the full course of the river starting early afternoon near where the Pymmes Brook makes its confluence with the River Lea at Ferry Lane.
Tottenham Marshes are a great oasis with views across to pylons and the highlands of Epping Forest. A smattering of cyclists and joggers. The Pymmes Brook slides along a deep-sided concrete culvert passing by Stonebridge Lock. Men emerge from the undergrowth onto the footpath that curves through Wild Marsh West. The information boards include a mention of the Tottenham Outrage that reached its bloody conclusion not far away on 23rd January 1909.
The river splits in the middle of an industrial estate containing an Electricity Substation and the Tottenham Gas Holder just before Angel Road and the North Circular with the Salmon Brook snaking northwards. It’s a heavily gated area and I’m forced down Leeside Road past a burnt out car. This is classic North Circular industrial edgeland – large warehouse units down dusty roads, blackberry fronds reaching out through the spiked metal fencing, warnings of the danger of death and “multiple hazards”, reminders that every step is being recorded by CCTV cameras. And yet nobody is around. The angry buzz of a remote controlled car scooting round the vast empty IKEA car park fills the air. Looking at my mid-1950’s Georgraphia Atlas IKEA occupies the site of a ‘Gothic Works’ which appears to have been a type of elaborate metalwork rather than anything to do with the Sisters of Mercy.
The Pymmes Brook briefly re-emerges snug within its culvert where the North Circular passes high overhead before disappearing beneath the ground. The walk now hugs the North Circular till the old Roman Fore Street where the Pymmes Brook is released from the underworld in Angel Place and moves on around the edge of Pymmes Park. The Park formed part of the grounds of Pymmes House originally built by William Pymme in 1327. The Elizabethan manor house, once the home of William Cecil, was destroyed by fire in 1940. The old walled garden remains.
It flows through an 1980’s-looking council estate before finally escaping the concrete prison of the culvert near Silver Street and running free through a small grove along smooth muddy banks with trees drooping boughs into the water. A cat hunts in the undergrowth along the riverbank. Here my walk meets the official Pymmes Brook trail in the grounds of Millfield Arts Centre before crossing back under the North Circular and leading me round the edge of Tile Kiln Lane Open Space and a network of picture-postcard north London suburban streets in Bounds Green.
Now late afternoon, the weather warm, I start to hanker after a cup of tea. I’d had doubts about this walk but so far it’d been a revelation – opening up a previously unexplored corner of north London. I still wondered whether I would make it to the source before dark though.
5.45pm and I find myself tucking into a bacon and cheese roll at the Grand Café on Clock House Parade, Palmers Green. Despite the quality of the crusty roll and comfortable seating the café is a tad generously named but does occupy a good spot on the curve of the roundabout at the intersection of the A10 and North Circular. It’s been a hot and humid day and I’m tired with a few miles to go to the source at Hadley Common and only a couple of hours daylight.
With the bacon and tea working into my system it’s time to find the energy for the final push uphill. The Pymmes Brook is back encased in a deep open concrete sleeve for this passage through classic north London bow-fronted suburbia. The New River crosses paths on its journey between Amwell Street, Islington and Amwell Springs Hertfordshire, one of the many journeys I keep promising to do.
At Arnos Park the Brook is once again liberated, the waters within touching distance for the first time today as they meander beneath a series of quaint wooden bridges around the perimeter of the park. This is the part of the walk I’ve been most looking forward – deep Nick Papadimitriou territory, my old walking comrade who I haven’t stepped out with for over 18 months. The Brook flows alongside a spectacular viaduct that carries the Piccadilly Line across the park. We filmed here in February 2008 doing the first walk and shoot for what became The London Perambulator. I send Nick a text to tell him where I am – he never replied.
As the brook works its way through a wooded gully I catch a whiff of sewage and hope it’s merely my imagination. Sadly London’s waterways are prone to becoming polluted from industrial waste and drainage overflow. Just the other day the London Waterkeeper posted a photo on Twitter of chemicals pouring into the Pymmes Brook.
Moving now into a summer sunset across Oak Hill Park full of evening football training, joggers, group workout sessions, tennis matches. A man sits sucking down a can of strong lager behind the concrete pavilion and hurriedly moves on as I approach. A large tree lays prone across the Brook.
By the time I’m through East Barnet Village the light has almost entirely ebbed away. A fox and cub mooch around some undergrowth on the verge of a housing estate as the Brook nears its source. The final climb from Barnet the first real sense of gaining altitude through foothills of peak suburbia.
I reach the lake on Hadley Common where the Pymmes Brook gurgles up beneath the still surface at 9pm – stumbling through pitch-black woods guided by the chatter of fishermen. I linger for a while and shoot a time-lapse before heading off back into the housing estate for a bag of chips and the road to Cockfosters Station.
It says on the monkey’s chest.
After showing a clip from London Overground where Iain Sinclair and Chris Petit walk past a row of Victorian Railway workers’ cottages near Old Oak Common I mention to the audience that they are under threat. A lady raises her hand and tells us that they were demolished 3 days ago.
So I ended up talking about my London Overground film with Iain Sinclair on London Live 1 0’clock news the other Sunday. The screening at Leytonstone Pop-Up Cinema the following Wednesday saw the biggest turn-out we’ve ever had at the film club in the 8 years we’ve been doing it. It was a nice homecoming for the film and there was an interesting Q&A afterwards.
Tonight I’ll be showing some clips from the film at the Earl’s Court Fringe Film Night with an extended cut of the footage shot in Brompton Cemetery with Andrew Kotting dressed as the Straw Bear and Iain Sinclair talking about some peculiar associations mostly notably Williams Boroughs sitting atop the tombstones making strange recordings of the dead.
The next screening of the full-length film will be at the Swedenborg Film Festival in Bloomsbury on Saturday 26th November alongside Andrew Kotting’s new film Edith Walks.
“There was an almost universal and abiding belief of great antiquity that spirits cannot cross flowing water, and that rivers were boundaries between the realms of the living and the dead.”
I find two pages of notes inside my copy of Spirit Roads by Paul Devereux. The yellow American size paper dates the notes to sometime around 2010-11 when I was occasionally making work trips the U.S. It’s a fascinating and compelling book, Devereux a key earth mysteries researcher for many years.
He writes about the ‘cognised landscape’ – the mapping of mindscapes that were projected onto the physical landscape in past times.
“Any worldview is dependent on the context to which it belongs”. Belief systems projected into the landscape as “invisible mental structures”.
Countryfolk, Devereux tells us, believed they shared the land with spirits – the Church preached that the spirit left this plane altogether for another, non-physical realm. There was a clear link between ghosts and locality that the Church denied.
Stiles were said to be the favourite perches of ghosts – if you sat there through ‘stile divination you could interrogate passing ghosts’.
“the virtual spirit paths traversing the folk mindscapes of old Europe”.
The other week London Overground screened to a great audience at the Genesis Cinema in Stepney Green, close to where Iain and I passed on one of the walks in the film.
I really enjoy doing the Q&A’s with Iain Sinclair at these events – we did a number while making the film, screening short extracts and talking about the process as it was emerging. It was a wide-ranging discussion covering Iain’s most recent project with Andrew Kotting, Edith which features briefly in London Overground. Iain also mentioned his 90’s collaborations with Chris Petit, how these overlapped into our Overground film and my willingness to just go out and film at a moment’s notice – what Iain described as a “cinema, literary, performance nexus as a kind of community”.
The issue of what is happening with the development of London of course was raised and I mentioned my work filming various campaigns around London. Iain talked of the “corruption of language” being used by developers and local authorities which he sees as a “defilement” triggering his desire to “go back to the language of poets who have taken on the city”.
The next screening of London Overground is 2nd November at Leytonstone Pop-Up Cinema