Aimlessly wandering the Bloomsbury grid with Gandhi and Lenin

I wanted to go OUT and shoot SOMETHING happening. I followed my instincts – the Central Line to Holborn then sucked north into the grid vortex of the Bloomsbury Squares. I’m sure there’s some sort of occult geometry underlying the lay-out of the garden squares of Bloomsbury (distinct from those arranged on the slopes of Pentonville and following the curve of the high ground across Barnsbury).

Tea Hut

The ‘Cab Man’s Tea Huts’ fascinate me – but you know what, I’ve never actually been in one, how is that possible? The one at Russell Square was presented by Sir Squire Bancroft in 1901. Bancroft was a significant figure in Victorian theatre, instigating a new form of realist theatre “drawing-room comedy” or “cup and saucer drama”. He produced a play by the bizarre figure of Edward Bulwer-Lytton who I wrote about in This Other London – the man who had has wife locked up in an asylum for disagreeing with him, coined a number of cliches still used today and most bizarre of all, wrote a novel that was later the source of Nazi cult that believed in a subterranean secret source of energy and insisted the Luftwaffe develop a Flying Saucer in the last months of the war.

Those tea huts are strange places and who knows what other odd powers have been unleashed by the Bloomsbury grid – just look at the art deco detail on the gate posts of SOAS in the video and the brutalist brilliance of the Institute of Education.

Great shop front signage on Leyton High Road

Leyton Barbers

Why have I not really taken notice of the great signage on Al-Hambra Barbershop on Leyton High Road before? Is because I’m usually too busy counting the growing rash of Estate Agents colonising this end of Leyton’s ancient thoroughfare. I was on my way to Deeney’s for the first time this morning in my never-ending quest for a Cronut when it stopped me dead in my tracks. It’s a real work of art.

Leyton High Road Barber

This end of Leyton High Road didn’t get the Notting Hill make-over in the run-up to the Olympics that washed over the section around the Ruckholt Road approach to the Olympic Park but frankly it doesn’t need it, blessed as it is with great ghost signs and this peach on Al-Hambra.

Leyton High Road shop front

I like the fact it’s a Gent’s Hair Dressers – two words – and not a Barbers. Makes me feel like I could go in and get my long locks trimmed whereas in a Barbershop it’s simply a matter of what number buzz cut you want.

Deeney’s didn’t have any Cronuts after all that.

Along the River Deben to Sutton Hoo

The day before I headed into Rendlesham Forest on the UFO trail we took a family walk along the River Deben at Woodbridge aiming for the site of the famous Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo.

The wind was so intense half the family bailed before we reached Wilford Bridge, but nothing was going to stop my youngest son completing a journey we’d been planning for years.

 

Over the marshes to the Signature Brew Backstage Bar

Leyton Marshes

Freezing cold crisp blue sky Saturday – perfect day for a walk over the marshes.

Ducking round the back of the ice rink on Lea Bridge Road I first cross Leyton Marsh remembering the January day 3 years ago when I joined the Hackney Tree Musketeers for their wassailing of the fruit trees at Millfields and Springfield Park.

 

Walthamstow Marshes

I walked along the riverbank past Walthamstow Marshes and under the AV Roe bridge where we had sung the Wassailing song that day as trains clattered overhead.

 

Walthamstow Rervoirs

The view across the reservoirs from Coppermill Lane is one of the finest in London – you look across a sequence of bodies of water that stretch for around 7 miles along the Lea Valley.

Signature Brew brewery Leyton

I’ve been wanting to pay a visit to the Signature Brew Backstage bar since it opened last year and I can think of fewer better ways to end a walk than to stroll through a brewery to the tap room.

Signature Brew backstage bar

Tucked away in an industrial unit on the Leyton Business Park the Signature Brew Backstage Bar is an absolute gem serving up their delicious ales in snug surrounded by music memorabilia.

 

The Backstage Bar opens Saturdays 12 – 8 – check the Signature Brew twitter feed first. Address: Unit 25, Leyton Business Centre, Etloe Road, E10 7BT

Iain Sinclair at Wapping

Iain Sinclair Wapping John Rogers

Another great day filming with Iain Sinclair yesterday for the London Overground film. We wandered from Shadwell down to the Thames at Wapping taking the Old Stairs onto the Thames foreshore where Iain read an extract from his book Downriver.

You can see Iain talk about London Overground at the Transport Museum on Wednesday 20th Jan where we’ll also screen a short selection of footage from the film.

Rendlesham Forest UFO Trail

We wanted to get out of London for a couple of nights after Christmas but had no idea where to go. Then watching UFO documentaries on Boxing Day I got a flash of inspiration – Rendlesham Forest, otherwise known in UFO circles as Britain’s Roswell, due it being the location of one of the most mysterious and compelling UFO cases ever. I sold it to the kids on the basis that it would be like the Simon Pegg and Nick Frost movie Paul where two hapless geeks make a pilgrimage to Area 51. Luckily they bit, we all love that film. There was also the added bonus that Sutton Hoo was nearby (more of that in another post).


I don’t mind admitting that I hadn’t felt this excited about a trip for ages – not since my excursion to a burial mound in Hertfordshire in mid-December – but this was more intense – I had a whole popular cultural history of UFO tourism to transplant from New Mexico to Suffolk and hours and hours of documentaries to watch in preparation. We wondered between us how much the picturesque town of Woodbridge on the edge of the forest had cashed in on its association with the UFO site, would it be like those towns along the Extraterrestrial Highway into Roswell with alien themed cafes and souvenir shops fully of bug-eyed aliens and flying saucer plushies?

It turns out that there was not so much a secondhand DVD of the X-Files in one of the numerous charity shops in Woodbridge. The two independent bookshops didn’t stock a single book on UFOs at all – anywhere. The local cinema had a solitary screening of Star Wars. Woodbridge was a town in denial of its true heritage as Britain’s No.1 UFO location.

River Deben
So on the final day of our stay, New Year’s Eve, the family caught the lunchtime train back to London and I headed for Rendlesham Forest. They’d seen the place was nothing like the movies, the weather had been bleak and I’d made them walk along the banks of the River Deben in a gale that threatened to blow our Pug into the water.

Due to the lack of daylight I planned to catch a bus to the forest, but I’d missed the one bus per day running in that direction. The only taxi company in town didn’t have any cars available till mid-afternoon, so I decided to walk the 6 miles to the forest edge. I dropped by the independent bookshop and bought an OS map even though I can’t actually read maps, I like looking at the pictures, it would give me something to read along the way. I filled my pockets with fruit bars from Holland and Barrett and headed along the road out of Woodbridge.

Woodbridge Golf Course byway
After crossing the Deben and taking the turning for Rendlesham Forest I headed up a Restricted Byway across Woodbridge Golf Course. The sky was clear blue, I was bound for the Forestry Commission’s UFO Trail – I felt like a kid.

The first sighting of mysterious lights to appear moving through the trees in Rendlesham Forest happened at Christmas 1980. Two US Airforce guards stationed at RAF Woodbridge Airfield spotted the lights from the East Gate of the base. They were given permission to investigate and followed the lights deep into the forest where they encountered a strange object hovering in a clearing. One of the patrolmen, Sergeant Jim Penniston approached the craft and reported touching it.

Two nights later the lights reappeared but this time a larger, better equipped team went to investigate. Remember this was the height of the Cold War, nuclear bombers were stationed at neighbouring RAF Bentwaters, and RAF Woodbridge was also a strategically important base with a large weapons stockpile and it has been claimed the storage site for nuclear warheads. This was a potentially serious incursion of the terrestrial variety.

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The party on this night was led by the deputy commander of the base Lt. Col. Charles Halt. They took geiger counters, floodlights and more significantly a small tape recorder on which Lt. Col. Halt narrated what he was seeing. On return to the base he filed a report to the US Airforce – released a few years later under FOI entering Rendlesham Forest into the annals of UFO lore and still one of the most compelling UFO encounters ever. Here I was following their footsteps on New Years Eve 2015, almost 35 years to the day since the event.

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But I had some ground to cover before I reached the UFO Trail on the far side of the forest and with my highly dubious map reading skills it was 50/50 whether I would ever get there. Luckily there is an enormous Airfield in the middle of the forest so if I could just find that I could follow the perimeter fence to the East Gate.

After ducking shanked drives on the Golf Course and nervously skirting an archery range I came to the edge of the forest. I ignored the orange tape barring a muddy path – the alternative was to flail amongst the featureless pine swamp. A short concrete post stamped with the letters MOD indicated I had hit the northwestern corner of the airfield. Looking through the chainlink fence at the disused runways – a relic of the Second War World and then Cold War, now an army facility, it was eery to think that there may have been enough nuclear warheads stored here to have triggered a nuclear apocalypse. The idea of little grey aliens from Zeta Reticuli paying a Christmas visit is quaint in comparison.

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I bumped into two men and a woman looking at the base through binoculars and making notes – we struck up conversation. They told me about the airfield’s original use as a WW2 landing strip for stricken bombers returning from mainland Europe. They were looking for remnants of the RAF’s FIDO system where petroleum was burnt in great plumes along the runway to disperse fog. I mentioned the UFO Trail as we walked together to the East Gate.

The light was fading now, the last hour before sunset, a good time to follow the UFO Trail into the forest, imagining how those young American airmen might have felt on that cold night 35 years ago following strange lights into the trees, it must have surely crossed their minds that it perhaps had something to do with the Russians? Maybe it did?

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There was no one around. The Forestry Commission have brilliantly marked a series of posts topped with metal ‘UFO Trail’ plaques, and bearing the popular image of an alien on the reverse. It really sets the scene. I looked down the straight lines of pines imaging the light slaloming through the trees, till I arrived at the clearing where Sergeant Jim Penniston encountered the craft. Fully entering the spirit of the tale the Forestry Commission have placed a full scale replica of the object as sketched by the airmen – including the strange markings on the side that Penniston claims to have reached out and touched. It is a fantastic location. I lingered in the clearing for a while with the craft as the sun descended to just above the horizon creating a halo effect through the pine trunks – an amber spotlight shining from the west.

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I would regard myself as a suggestible UFO skeptic, although I am beguiled by stories of mysterious phenomena – it’s just that beings traveling in space craft from a distant star system is probably the least likely explanation for the strange lights frequently spotted around the world. We live in a technological age so we look for a technological explanation and see spaceships and probes, in religious age they saw angels and gods, in a mystical age they saw spirits. Where explanations have been found for mysterious objects and glowing lights they are no less remarkable in my eyes – ball lightning, methane bubbles ignited by electrostatic charges in the atmosphere, millions of years old comets hurtling through our solar system, 1960’s Soviet space debris disintegrating on re-entry, test flights of top secret military aircraft that won’t be acknowledged for decades if at all. Who needs ET.

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I moved on to the open field where lights beamed down from the sky at the feet of the investigating party of airmen. Hardly evidence of extraterrestrial visitation but a very peculiar event nonetheless. They returned to the base in the early hours of the morning wondering how the hell this was going to look in an official report and whether they would still have a career in the military afterwards. I continued on to the final clearing where a craft had been spotted then down the muddy path through the trees enjoying the clear twilight sky.

Lt. Col Halt submitted his report and both the US Government and the UK Ministry of Defence investigated the events. In numerous UFO documentaries the witnesses have recounted stories of being interrogated by moody Men in Black, of being drugged and warned to keep quiet. All consistent with a sensitive Cold War situation as much as an episode of the X-Files.

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I found my way back to the carpark and used the last faint charge in my phone to call for an lift out of the forest, if it died on me or all the taxis were fully booked by New Year’s Eve revellers a space craft might be my best option for getting to the station. Luckily a Silver Ford Galaxy was dispatched to collect me. A Galaxy, how apt, and it was silver.

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To my knowledge there has yet to be a sufficient explanation for what numerous highly trained airforce personnel spotted on two occasions in Rendlesham Forest at Christmas 1980 – the woods are retaining their secrets just for now. It’s a shame though that Woodbridge can’t embrace it’s role as Britain’s Roswell and open up some tacky souvenir shops with inflatable grey aliens and a UFO themed cafe would be nice as well.