Something magical happens when you pack your bag for a walk, even on a day like today when my enthusiasm is thin. In goes the notebook and 2 pens, a copy of Rachel Lichtenstein’s new book Estuary, OS map of the Lea Valley & Epping Forest, camera + mini magnetic tripod, a light jacket, and finally a cap I stuff down the side. All of this crammed into a messenger bag that was given away by the thousand at the London Film Festival 12 or 13 years ago.
I contemplate the journey ahead over coffee at Costa in Leyton Mills – the vast carpark here with its expansive Lea Valley skies is one of my favourite open spaces in London – it’s like the American Midwest of my imagination. The prospect of the relatively short walk along the Dagenham Brook increases in appeal as the caffeine kicks in. These minor urban excursions can easily snowball into epic quests. It’s the anticipation of the unknown buried within the familiar. Of becoming lost in a suburban swamp.
I navigate my way across the grid system of the Asda car park and over to Orient Way, under the Leyton sign to find the point where the Dagenham Brook disappears underground before making its confluence with the River Lea. This is so close to where the Fillebrook momentarily appears above ground (in a reversal of fortunes) that I wonder if these two brooks merge before running into the Lea as a single watercourse.
A broken hole in the thick undergrowth gives me my first glimpse of the Dagenham Brook. I slide down the bank getting snagged in the brambles in the process and struggle to extract myself once I’ve logged my encounter with the river. Urban river hunting is not as easy as it seems.
Fifty yards or so further along a recently surfaced new path hugs the river as it meanders through Marsh Lane Fields. I remember the Beating of the Bounds here on a wet May Sunday afternoon 10 years ago just after we’d moved to Leytonstone. It had been organized by the brilliant New Lammas Lands Defence Committee and was my real introduction into the culture of this section of the Lea Valley with the deep passionate attachment to the landscape. Marsh Lane has had a powerful hold on me ever since.
The brook curves round behind the goal of the abandoned ground of Leyton F.C. – the weeds thick, nearly enclosing the watercourse. I call artist Lucy Harrison to see if she’ll give me a quick 5-minute interview about the Warner Homes that straddle Lea Bridge Road and have the Dagenham Brook running through the gardens. Lucy did an interesting project with the residents of the Warner Estate and I wish I knew more about them – now would be my chance.
Lucy obligingly popped out into Blythe Road and told me about how the houses had been built around the beginning of the last century to provide quality affordable rentable homes and had gradually been sold off since the 1960’s. Although they have lost the tidy uniformity of their early years when Warner staff trimmed the hedges and painted the doors and window frames green and cream – they retain a distinctive architectural style with the arched double front doors and elaborate gables. You know when you’ve strolled into a Warner Estate.
The Brook gently flows on into territory where I can’t follow it closely – behind cul-de-sacs, round the back of industrial estates and allotments. There are allotments all along the course of the river – even more so than along the Filly Brook. The occasionally waterlogged, spring-fed land unsuitable for building or industrial use, I guess good for growing crops fond of wet soil.
I eventually rendezvous with the Brook again near the end the W19 bus route where it winds around the edge of Low Hall Sports Ground. I pay homage with a nod, a photo and a few seconds of video before moving on back along the road unable again to walk along the riverbank. In truth physical encounters are a bonus with urban river walking for me, it’s more of a simple device to open up what might appear an unpromising landscape unenthusiastic about yielding its secrets. The brook sets the route and tells you its story, guides the way.
The Dagenham Brook suggests I take a look at St James Park, one of those backstreet open spaces known mostly to the locals but a beautiful spot. There are only a handful of people in the park – a lady sitting on the ground appears to have positioned herself dead centre of a large empty section. An access road leads down the middle of a wonderful grand avenue of lime trees. The park occupies part of the site of the 14th Century Low Hall Manor which was purchased by Walthamstow Council in the late 19th Century.
The brook slides behind park and under the railway bridge now running parallel with the broader River Lea Flood Relief Channel. I’ve seen discussion online suggesting that the Dagenham Brook is also a man-made watercourse, a drainage ditch. Old OS maps of the area show an elaborate tapestry and ditches and ponds adorning the landscape – nearly all now buried or filled in occasionally rising again to flood a basement or waterlog a garden.
Moving beneath the railway you are greeted by a sequence of murals on the end of terrace walls. On the corner of Chester Road a verse from Ewan MacColl’s timeless song written for Peggy Seeger is painted in elaborate filigree font
The first time ever I saw your face
I thought the sun rose in your eyes
On the other end of the block is a work by Louis Masai of a Fox, Badger and Bees – the bees carry a placard appealing to ‘Save Us!’, the badger sits behind a sign saying ‘No to the Cull’. Around the corner is a colourful abstract work by Italian street artist Renato Hunto.
Moving in to Coppermill Lane I can’t see any further trace of the Dagenham Brook as it appears to have merged with Flood Relief Channel. I stand on a concrete block and look north along the course of the Lea and bid my farewell to this understated, wonderful watercourse.