Walking ancient trackways – over Pitstone Hill to Ivinghoe Beacon

Ridgeway Path sign

This is a bit bonkers I know, but I’m sat here watching a Jason Segel movie on Netflix called Jeff, Who Lives at Home about a guy who keeps looking for signs telling him what he should do with his life. He goes out to the hardware store and helps an old lady onto the bus and for a brief moment you see the street sign behind him – Ridgeway. I instantly see it as a sign, a reminder that I need to write this blog about the walk I did in late September last year along the Ridgeway from Tring, over Pitstone Hill to Ivinghoe Beacon. I was going to do this before I started watching the movie but got stuck on how to start – I must have know a film about a guy who lives in his Mum’s basement would give me inspiration.

The walk was inspired by seeing a photo of the footpath running over Pitstone Hill – a white way carved out of the grass covered chalk ridge with the lowlands far below. It called out to me sat in my box room in East London, summer in final decline, the last chance for a venturing out in the long days before winter drew in.

Ridgeway sign post
One late September Friday after dropping the kids at school I boarded the train at Euston bound for Tring, soon sliding through Wembley, then Harrow and Bushey under a clear blue sky – perfect walking weather.

I’m carrying too much stuff in my battered old backpack, which is a bit too heavy. I’m packing 3 cameras and 2 jackets somehow. The 3 cameras I can just about justify, the extra jacket has me flummoxed.  But by the time I’ve turned up the track onto the Ridgeway my mind is clear for the way ahead.

I first planned to walk the Ridgeway while I was backpacking in the mid-90’s, catching the bug after jungle trekking in South East Asia. My Dad had talked about it throughout my childhood in South Bucks with the Ridgeway passing no more than a few miles from our home. But somehow we never got round to it, children arrived, and as the old man advances into his 80’s the talk has diminished. But just seeing the first sign for the Ridgeway sparks something inside.

Aldbury Nowers
The Ridgeway forms part of an ancient long distance path thousands of years old, the oldest prehistoric track in the country running between Overton Hill near Avebury in Wiltshire and Ivinghoe Beacon in the Buckinghamshire Chilterns. I walked a mere fragment of its 87 miles, but sitting here now 7 months later every footstep lingers in the mind.

I passed over Grim’s Ditch, a 20-mile long Iron Age earthwork, at the bottom of a steep wood where I also searched for the tumuli marked on the Ordnance Survey map – spotting two mounds in the undergrowth that reminded me of a tumulus I’d seen in the Upper Lea Valley.

As the path continues through Aldbury Nowers you get that sense of the travelers that have passed this way over millennia. Today most of my fellow walkers appear to be retirees out with their dogs for a morning stroll, vigorously healthy pensioners wearing performance sportswear. It’s a beautiful hot day, the burning out of summer; the two jackets seem even more of a folly than they did on the train.

Pitstone Hill Ridgeway

The path breaks out through the trees presenting the vista I’d seen in the photo that had brought me out here – the curving white track running along the edge of Pitstone Hill – it was every bit as glorious as I’d hoped it’d be. Earthworks had been identified on Pitstone Hill within what is believed to be a prehistoric “Citadel” cris-crossed with trackways, boundary ditches with some features identified as possibly being Neolithic. Other finds indicate the site was in use through the Bronze and Iron Age into the Roman period

Pitstone Hill Ridgeway
I rummage around in a deep hollow formed by a pre-Roman flint mine, where chalk and flint still litter the grass. It is a majestic spot looking out over the valley floor towards Aylesbury. I probably linger too long gazing at flints and admiring the view, checking archaeological notes and attempting to walk around the perimeter of the ‘Citadel’.

Incombe Hole the Ridgeway

Ivinghoe Beacon rises majestically in the near distance – the Ridgeway snaking along a green spine.  It leads me around the edge of Incombe Hole – a deep sided hollow way, possibly a prehistoric boundary marker or ‘linear earthwork’. Breathtaking views stretch out in all directions. I rest on the side of Steps Hill and shoot a timelapse of Beacon Hill and the southeast facing tumulus before my final ascent.

Ivinghoe Beacon summit
It’s an odd sensation to summit Ivinghoe Beacon at the midpoint of a relatively short walk rather than the conclusion of an 86-mile yomp from Wiltshire. As people arrive at the stone plaque at the top of the hill I try to ascertain whether they’re completing a Ridgeway thru-hike but don’t observe any obvious signs of celebration. I vow to come back here to start a walk along the entire Ridgeway, fulfill the plan I made those 20-odd years ago.

Ivinghoe Beacon view

It was difficult to wrench myself away from the stunning views spreading out in all directions from Ivinghoe Beacon. A tangible sense of ancient history is present – it’s said to contain remains of one of the oldest Iron Age Hillforts in Britain with burial mounds dotted around the summit, the surrounding landscape is ridiculously rich in prehistoric sites. I munched on a Marks and Spencer sandwich I’d bought in Euston Station trying to process it all.

I’d made no clear plan for the route back to Tring and as was only mid-afternoon, plot a mazy loop through surrounding woodland. The evenings will soon draw in dragging wind and rain with them and memories of these glorious last rays of summer will be rekindled to keep me warm.
Ivinghoe Beacon and Gallows Hill

The Icknield Way crosses the Ridgeway just below Ivinghoe Beacon and continues the ancient trackway all the way to the coast – the simple wooden signposts an open invitation to adventure. I follow a path along a ridge over the tumulus on Gallows Hill then loop back across farmland to the Coombe.
Mid-afternoon I rest beside the footpath on the side of a steep hill reflecting on what has been a classic walk that although the original purpose has been fulfilled I’m keen not to end just yet. Checking the OS map I spot another tumulus in woodland on Moneybury Hill so decide to push on.

IMG_0870

Entering the wood after crossing a field of stubble I clamber up a high bank which sharply falls away into a deep-sided ditch. Rising on the far side appears a mound in the trees. The ditch has the clear look of a human intervention, like the outer-rim of a defensive earthwork, boundary marker, or holloway. I continue along a narrow path that runs along the high outer ridge of the ditch and find a shard of flint shaped like an axe-head or hand-axe. A tall tree has fallen across the ditch. It’s a dramatic prehistoric landscape hidden away on the edge of this large tract of woodland. It is a majestic find in the last light of summer.

Moneybury Hill Ashridge
At the far end of the path there is a small plaque confirming the ditch’s prehistoric origins, explaining that it was carved out over time by herded animals led this way to feed on grasses and acorns.

There is another, smaller burial mound near the carpark of the Bridgewater Monument – a towering granite column standing on a York Stone base raised in 1832 in memory of the Duke of Bridgewater who had lived at Ashridge.

flint axe moneybury hill

After taking refreshment in the café I make my way down wooded paths to the Valiant Trooper in the village of Aldbury. Supping a pint of Chiltern Brewery Bitter in the beer garden I reflect that I have been royally rewarded by the walking gods for pushing those last 2 hours. I check the flint axe is still in the front pocket of my bag before drinking up and making my way over a damp stubble field back to Tring Station.

 

Lippitt’s Hill, Fernhills, Hangman’s Hill and Jacob Epstein at Loughton

The Friday after the Westminster Terrorist attack and flags are flying at half-mast over the public buildings at Woodford. I head down over the golf course to Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge and pop into The View Visitor Centre where I buy a postcard of a painting by Jacob Epstein. The lady at the counter tells me that she thinks that it shows ‘The Lost Pond’ (the painting is untitled) – Epstein lived at Baldwin’s Hill, Loughton and often painted the forest. She has matched the image on her morning dog walks along the Loughton Brook. She shows me roughly where the Lost Pond is on the map covering the floor although it isn’t marked. ‘I’ll try and head back that way later’, I tell her, although I’m bound in the opposite direction – out through Bury Wood towards Fernhills.

Before I’d found myself lost in the forest in the dark the previous weekend I’d been tempted to follow the Cuckoo Brook north. Checking the map in the pub afterwards I saw how it would have led me to an area just outside the forest I’d never visited so today that was where I headed.

Epping Forest view

The views from Fernhills were as fine as I’d hoped for – stretching out over Waltham Abbey and to the Epping Uplands. The footpaths of the Greenwich Meridian Trail towards Mott Street also offered majestic views of the Lea Valley and led me to witness the curious anomaly of Hangman’s Hill. A mini reversed towards me from Pynest Green Lane and the young driver wound down the window, ‘Do you the story about this area?’, she asked. ‘No, but I bet you do’, I replied. ‘Apparently if you release your breaks your car is pulled uphill’, she told me, ‘this was a place where people were hung and they were dragged up here to the gallows’. She then released the handbrake and the car appeared to slowly roll back up the hill. As we stood there a couple of lads pulled alongside in their car and the same thing happened.

As I walked off I saw them both repeatedly returning to the same spot and surrender their vehicles to paranormal forces not wanting to mention that on foot you could see that there was a slight camber in the road that actually sloped away downhill.

Turning back across High Beach I decided to find the location of Jacob Epstein’s painting but had forgotten the directions the lady had given me to the ‘Lost Pond’. Arriving at Baldwin’s Hill Pond I matched it to the postcard and found a good enough likeness to declare in the video above that this was spot Epstein had painted. Subsequently it has been pointed out that the ‘Lost Pond’ is elsewhere, near the Loughton Brook. The hunt for the location of Epstein’s painting goes on.

Woodbury Hollow Loughton

Emerging from the forest I was greeted by the expansive views right across London from Woodbury Hollow, apparently reaching as far as Crystal Palace and Croydon.

 

On 2nd May I’ll be in conversation with Will Ashon at the Wanstead Tap about his new book Strange Labyrinth – Outlaws, Poets, Mystics, Murderers and a Coward in London’s Great Forest

Fun Fair in the Olympic Park

Olympic Park Fun Fair

Photo 06-04-2017, 20 09 23

Photo 06-04-2017, 20 09 50

‘Roll Up Roll Up for all the fun of the fair in the Olympic Park’, nobody said. A pound each just to enter. Barely a soul around, like one of those ghost theme parks somewhere out in the American midwest, or a scene in a zombie movie. Loitering too long at one of the amusements meant being descended upon by eager, underemployed staff. My son didn’t really fancy much apart from the mini-Zorbs bobbing in a paddling pool in the corner that I managed to persuade him away from. Three arrows for £3.50 to win a wan-looking soft toy. £3 for a bag of pink candyfloss that was mostly air, my son wanted a fresh one on a stick, ‘the lady who does that ent ere’, the girl behind the counter said eyes glued to her phone. The burgers were solid black like discs of coal, the sausages resembled greasy truncheons. The dodgems sat idling remembering better times. The Ghost Ride was in good company this evening. The deserted Fun Fair should become a permanent fixture in the Olympic Park, an Olympic Legacy.

We left with the bag of pink sugar vapour and made our way to East Village in search of food that wouldn’t kill us. The illuminated apartments seemed to be far outnumbered by those in darkness, whether this indicates a large number of vacant flats or the late working hours of the inhabitants I wouldn’t want to say.

There was some sign of life at street level along Victory Parade, even a posse of teenage boys ambling along and a smattering of people in the bars and restaurants. I’m told militant vegans were out in force protesting at the cheese and wine fayre at the weekend, noisily picketing the Gelateria until the police were called. That’s an event that needs adding to the social history of the site.

It’s nearly 4 years since I was given a tour of East Village before the first residents moved in, a tour that focused almost entirely on the impressive environmental sensitivity of the landscaping missing out any mention of the 51% stake owned by the Qatari government purchased at a £275 million loss to the British taxpayer – an interesting idea when looking at skyrocketing property prices in London and an ever-worsening housing crisis.

I tried to point out to my son some of the things I remembered from the tour, but he was distracted by his hunger with his heart set on pizza. I was about to tell him we might have to settle for fish and chips when he spotted what turned out to be really good pizzeria that allowed us to park my son’s bike inside and served a favourite pizza from my Modena years.

I’m determined not to give up on East Village and the Olympic Park, to not let the cynicism ringing in my ears even louder than my tinnitus completely cloud my view. Nor do I want to be seduced into a SOMA daze of compliance by good pizza and swan pedalos. The deserted fun fair and the good pizza seemed to provide a decent balance on this occasion.

The Sailors’ Church Ramsgate

Sailors' Church Ramsgate

Near the foot of the vertigo inducing Jacob’s Ladder at Ramsgate Harbrour sits The Sailors’ Church and Harbour Mission. It was built in 1878 to provide spiritual guidance to the crews of the sailing smacks operating out of Ramsgate, particularly the young apprentices known as ‘Smack Boys’. There were rooms above the chapel where the boys could stay in relative comfort when ashore. The church also provided refuge for the survivors of shipwrecks.

Sailors' Church Ramsgate

There was not a soul around when I popped in yesterday. The peacefulness of the space put me in mind of the Sailors’ Reading Room in Southwold.

Sailors' Church Ramsgate

London Overground goes to the Flatpack Film Festival

London Overground departs from the Capital for the first time with a screening at the brilliant Flatpack Film Festival in Birmingham on Sunday 9th April. The event has been organised by fellow travellers Video Strolls who I’ve previously had the great pleasure of screening with at Flatpack in 2015, and also at the MK Gallery in Milton Keynes. I’ll be going up to Birmingham to do a Q&A and also hope to explore more of the city that beguiles me more with every visit – on each occasion for a Video Strolls event.

Book tickets to see London Overground at Flatpack Film Festival Here

Iain Sinclair John Rogers London Overground

Back in October 2016 London Overground screened at the Genesis Cinema in Stepney Green and the Q&A I did with Iain Sinclair is now available as a podcast from the Luxury Book Club – it was a good one if I remember correctly. You can have a listen below:

Discovering the London of Sherlock Holmes

 

sherlock holmes

 

Sherlock Holmes is fiction’s most famous detective and has been immortalised through literature, stage, and screen. The characters Sherlock Holmes, Doctor John Watson, and Moriarty are known worldwide. Yet there is one character in Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories that is often overlooked while also playing an important part in many of Sherlock’s adventures: London.

Joshua Hammer writing for Smithsonia Magazine states that “Conan Doyle’s other alluring creation was London… [which] takes on almost the presence of a character in the novels and stories. As fully realised – in all its fogs, back alleys and shadowy quarters – as Holmes himself.”

Many of the locations Conan Doyle used in his stories can be found today. Unfortunately, 221-B Baker Street is a fictional address on a real street. The street has significantly changed since the time period that the Sherlock Holmes stories are set in. Sherlock Holmes.co.uk informs “[that] No. 109 is one of the few three-story red brick flats on the street dating from 1900, looking also as No. 221-B might have in Conan Doyle’s day.” A bronze statue to the famous sleuth sits outside the Marylebone exit of Baker Street.

 

sherlock holmes baker street

 

The Langham Hotel on Regent Street holds an important place in Sherlock Holmes law and is one of the few buildings that still stands as it was in Conan Doyle’s time. It was here that the author was commissioned to write the second Sherlock Holmes novel The Sign of Four. At the same meeting was Oscar Wilde who was also commissioned to write the Portrait of Dorian Gray. It is believed that after meeting Wilde, Conan Doyle decided to make the character of Sherlock Holmes the darker and more complicated character we know today.

London seen through the eyes of Sherlock Holmes has been presented on the screen many times. The Guinness World Records details that the character has been depicted 254 times on screen. In recent years Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jr. have played Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch shows a modern London while the recent films of Sherlock Holmes have been set in the London that Conan Doyle wrote about. One scene in Sherlock Holmes (2009) has Holmes pointing out the construction of the Tower Bridge. Such is the standing of the character as a British icon that he has appeared across a multitude of entertainment platforms including trendy gaming site BGT Games which has its own dedicated Sherlock Holmes title. The feel of the Sherlock games are very much influenced by the feel of Conan Doyle’s London.

 

westminster bridge view

The city plays a significant part in many of Conan Doyle’s stories and his descriptions allow readers today to get the feel of Victorian London. Interestingly Arthur Conan Doyle didn’t spend much time in the city and wrote the stories from Edinburgh. Yet he knew London well and Sherlock fans can eat at the famous London haunt Simpson’s in the Strand that both the author and his characters ate at and it is still open today. For Sherlock fans willing to look for the London that Conan Doyle wrote about, it is still there to be found they just have to take their imagination with them on their travels.