Over to Wanstead Flats for a walk in the last hour or two of daylight as I have been doing semi-regularly since late Spring, but have neglected of late. There were large pools of water, yet to soak down through the gravel and tertiary clays, gathering round the rushes, marsh grasses and varieties of vetch. Rooks peck the ground looking for grubs. My father recently quoted me something he’d read in his youth, “a rook on its own is a crow”. The parliament of rooks was in full session out on the Flats today.
Through the bare trees where in summer we sheltered from the blistering sun. The moon is high over Aldersbrook whilst the setting sun drops into the Lea. Spring-fed Alexandra Lake is splattered black and white with Geese and Gulls; in the frozen shade Coots slide across the ice. I plod back through the rising mist towards the High Road and home.
Did the last walk and the last broadcast in the first series of Ventures and Adventures in Topography on Resonance 104.4fm – and thoroughly enjoyed it. The walks with Nick have been priceless, and for the two of us it has been the bringing together and public sharing of a long held passion for old topographical books.
The whole series is being repeated daily at 4.30pm on Resonance 104.4fm from today (you can also listen online at www.resonancefm.com/listen)
And now all the podcasts are available for download from our blog
Here’s a video I hastily shot and edited from that last walk, back to my home territory in the Chilterns with some audio excerpts from the radio show
Footage from a walk from Slough to Beaconsfield using the 1931 walking guide It Isn’t Far From London by SPB Mais. Audio recordings from the radio show Ventures and Adventures in Topography on Resonance 104.4fm. The reading is by Heidi Lapaine with music from The Three Chronology. Other music is by Electric Monk.
First thing I’ve shot on my sanyo xacti cg10 – very much doing it on the hoof concentrating more on the sound for the radio show
It was my co-host Nick Papadimitriou who introduced me to the expression ‘to do a Clunn’ in an email back in 2006. Nick did a no-show that night as I and three friends (including the redoubtable Peter Knapp) used Harol P. Clunn’s The Face of London (1932) to guide us from the Black Friar pub at one end of the bridge it lent its name to, along Queen Victoria Street finishing in the East End.
Clunn’s weighty tome is an exhaustive survey of London and its environs – probably the most comprehensive compendium of the city covered in this series exploring the world of early C20th topographical walking books. Clunn was a strident spokesman for the pedestrian – chronicling the gradual alienation of the walker from the streets to the designated walkways.
But unlike say SPB Mais or Gordon S Maxwell, Clunn is no poetic quasi-mystic, he is very much a scribe of the capital’s institutions and its worthies; as Nick observed looking down on the shimmering street-lit city, Clunn would have been the ideal guide for visiting dignitaries to London, proudly extolling the greatness of the colonial metropolis.
The walks in this book are epic – particularly for city perambulations which seem to peek at around six miles. Clunn’s measure more in the 10-15 bracket taking unlikely detours to extend what would be an otherwise moderate stroll. We baulked at this and decided to truncated his walk from City Road to Hampstead and back to St.Pancras to take in Highbury to Highgate – justifying it on the grounds that it had better rhythmic qualities for the radio.
I got lost in the graffiti of personal memory that decorates Highbury Fields and Barn for me. I lived here for a couple of years in the late 90’s in a tiny basement flat. Nick kindly indulged this and in return I offered up a few bits of local history that I’d gleaned from a pamphlet about the Highbury Barn pleasure gardens, which up till the mid-C19th had been a choice attraction for city day-trippers to sample operettas, eat cakes dipped in cream, custards, and syllabubs.
reading by Heidi Lapaine from The Northern Heights of London – Hampstead, Highgate, Muswell Hill, Hornsey and Islington by William Howitt, published in 1869
We pushed on and drunk in the view of the geological infrastructure of the northern heights laid bare as we stood on the corner of Aubert Park. For the first time I saw how Holloway sat deep in a river gully between what I think Nick would call the Hampstead masif and hills of Islington.
We achieved Stroud Green Road by dusk and supped tea in a cafe where Nick bemused a music teacher writing his journals with what must have seemed like an impossible knowledge of C20th English classical music. As we got sucked into the psychic vortex of Crouch End the powerful mythology of that place was debated. There are a perculiar amount of references to the undead round this nut-loaf of a separatist suburb – Will Self’s North London Book of the Dead has Crouch End as a place where you go to live after you die, Shaun of the Dead the great British zombie movie was filmed around here, Stephen King was inspired to write a short story called Crouch End after a walk along the old Northern Heights railway line, in the legend of the Highgate Vampire there is the fantastical story that the vampire moved out of Highgate Cemetery when it got too rowdy and shacked up in a large pile on the corner of Crescent and Avenue Roads, and in the real-world, serial killer Denis Nilsen committed some of his murders in a house on Cranley Gardens and allegedly kept the corpses for company.
field recording: Stroud Green Road
By the time we’d got bored mulling this over arguing about whether “murder and the occult was a short-cut to psychogeography”, we had ascended Shepherd’s Hill and were in Highgate. It was deep dark night and cold as a vampire’s kiss so we repaired to the Ye Olde Gatehouse pub, a place that legendary local author David Farrant claims is haunted. Sadly looks as if all the ghosts have re-located to Crouch End.
James Bone’s The London Perambulator published in 1925 gave me the title for the documentary that I made about my co-host Nick Papadimitrou (before we did this radio show together). I hadn’t thought about it that deeply at the time beyond the appropriateness of stealing a title from one of the topographical books we share a love of.
This opportunity to review the qualities of the book, that Nick confessed hadn’t read prior to the series, confirmed it was an apt association. Bone’s view of the city was idiosyncratic and hard to pin down, he was drawn to the overlooked and maligned corners of the metropolis. He dreamed of having the keys to the spirit of London and preached the virtues of night-time perambulations in all weathers.
For our urban ‘field trip’ we chose the chapter on North O’Euston, the only real geographically defined part of the book. Nick is lost outside the edgelands. Whenever I draw him to the more traditionally imagined London he looks slightly at odds with it and I start to wonder whether it is solely his psychic projections that hold places like Edgwarebury together and with him in NW1 they will slip through some kind of vortex into oblivion.
On the other hand this is turf with which I am more familiar. I lived in a tiny flat atop Penton Mound for a number of years, lack of funds and the nature of life with young’uns meant that perambulating these streets (oft pushing a pram, and late night anxious-parent dashes to the out-of-hours GP at St.Pancras Hospital) was an essential part of my life.
Bone’s North O’Euston might now be called Somers Town. As self-proclaimed topographers we should know whether that name was in use in the early twenties when Bone was writing – but we don’t. It joins Notting Hill and Piccadilly in producing eponymous films when Shane Meadows set his Eurostar-funded film here.
The rendezvous for the walk was set by Nick as being by Paolozzi’s sculpture outside Euston Station. But such was the resident gloom that he and Pete merged into its gloopy form to such an extent that it took a phone call to locate each other yards apart. We gave in to the somewhat banal temptation to locate the position of the much-mourned doric arch of Euston Station and spooked a loitering commuter heading home to Nuneaton in the process. We then headed out into the streets around that still retained the “furtive, sinister spirit” described in The London Perambulator.
Bone saw this area, and that around the Euston Road’s sister stations of Kings Cross and St.Pancras, as being a “kind of debatable land”. This was a sentiment that we could only agree with as we ambled up Eversholt Street finding massage parlours, betting shops, a lap-dancing club and a shop supplying the needs of transvestites where Bone logged “pawnbrokers, bawdy houses, shabby hotels, and second-hand dealers”.
We were partially aided (or arguably handicapped) by a map in William Kent’s London For Everyman published at the same time as the Perambulator. I love this book and it was also auditioning for an episode in the second series of Ventures & Adventures should we be blessed with one. Using this beautiful colour plan we identified the “dingy crescent” where a notorious murder had taken place as Drummond Crescent, although Nick’s reveries here were abruptly interrupted by two young Spanish women trying to find the Place Theatre who wrongly assumed we might know where it was. We hadn’t the faintest idea and sent them off in the opposite direction, later to run into them, fuming and unappeased by my thoughts on how getting lost was the only way to truly experience a new city, “the production starts in five minutes” they countered.
Bone talked about how the population of this region moved about at night. Well that’s certainly changed, we barely saw a soul between Euston and Kings Cross as we drifted the backstreets often bickering about route, process and how I should indicate whether I was recording on the minidisc or not. I’d missed one of Nick’s quite wonderful riffs on how he first “moved to London from Finchley” as a callow youth – and he was none too pleased about it. I was just enjoying listening to him and momentarily forgot we were supposed to be recording for a radio show. I recorded virtually every foot-step and burp from then on.
field recording: st.pancras old church
We stopped in on St.Pancras Old Church surprised that it hadn’t got round to banning psychogeographers for their/ our appropriation of one of Christianity’s oldest sites as one of their/our most revered ‘nodules of energy’.
In Goods Way we saw how the scorched earth Kings Cross redevelopment had claimed the location of the flat in Mike Leigh’s brilliant film High Hopes, but has had the side effect of opening up one of the finest vistas of central London’s neon confetti.
It was around here that we lost Peter Knapp – consumed by the darkness around Kings Cross that has gobbled up so many wide-eyed adventurers. We now know that he emerged from this moloch unscathed, as his wonderful photos testify.
Through the new underpasses of ‘the Cross’, as the terminus in Sydney of the same name is known – also a place of prostitutes and bad drugs. We emerge in a shopping mall – no, it’s St Pancras Station, which seems to have borrowed its new ambience from Wood Green Shopping City as an ‘eff-off’ to Brunel’s Cathedral of the steam age.
field recording: kings cross – st.pancras
The walk would not have been complete without Nick correctly identifying a sewage system buried beneath an old covered alleyway leading off Phoenix Street. Our first obviously London and a night-walk chalked off in one.
Next, we’re off out to the fringes again in search of an ancient area seemingly populated by rooks. I’m taking extra minidiscs for this one, don’t want to end up tossed into the Roxbourne by a disgruntled deep topographer.
photos by Peter Knapp
Ventures and Adventures in Topography on Resonance 104.4fm Wednesday 5-5.30pm and repeated Monday 10-10.30pm