Severe delays on the Central means there’s a 10-minute wait for the tube to Epping. It’s 2.55pm and with the evenings starting to shorten from their glorious midsummer peak – end of August and it gets dark just after 8 so every minute is precious when trying to push on out of London. Today’s walk is inspired by a 1940’s ramble book – More Walks with Fieldfare of the London Evening News – Through the Fields to Harlow. “Here is a short, but very lovely walk in open countryside beyond Epping”, Fieldfare writes. Cross-referencing Fieldfare’s route with the Ordnance Survey Map, the M11 and North Basset Aerodrome blight his “paths (that) are seldom trodden”. The choice is to attempt to follow his 1940’s directions contrasting the scene then and now – or work out an alternative route across the fields to Harlow that captures the spirit of the original walk.
I’m distracted by the fact that I’ve just realised I have toothpaste in my hair, and then by the discovery that I’ve left my notebook at home and start tapping thoughts into my phone; “Men are like dogs – we need to piss against a tree”, which I think was a justification for abandoning the family for the large part of the day to head off across fields and through woods alone.
Sat by the war memorial in Epping I plot a path to Harlow that crosses fields, skirts farms and passes through woods, satisfied that if Fieldfare were writing his book today this is the route he would take (perhaps).
Once I’ve located the first footpath opposite Wintry Wood Smallholding, jumping the stile you land in open countryside with a Richard Long line lighting the way across fields. A hawk circles a recently combined plot. Oak trees shade the field edge. Bees dance around the borage. On a late summer’s day there’s no finer place to be than in a field somewhere on the edge of London.
There are various options for the way forward at Thornwood Common and while gazing into the OS map a man walking his dog offers to show me the path. Along a gravel drive we come to a milestone on the grass verge under a tree. He tells me that this track was the old London Road that wound through fields from Essex. The milestone, he says, may not be in its original place as the forest signposts and milestones were moved during the war and not all of them were returned to the correct locations. He points to where the footpath continues over a small bridge through the hedge and heads off back on his walk.
The next path leads across fields of swaying golden crops and past a mountain of hay bales. I rest on the edge of a wood and look out at the vast eastern skies towards greater Essex. This would be the perfect setting for an English Western movie – an 18th Century tale of outlaws and farm-steaders.
The wind gathers and shakes the trees – dark clouds lumber across the sky – rain is on the way. The unharvested corn stalks rattle against each other. Andrew Kötting as the Straw Bear shimmers in the minds eye. He walked garbed as this folkloric character from Whittlesea – from High Beach to Northamptonshire for his film, By Our Selves, based on Iain Sinclair’s book, Edge of the Orison. He reprised the role for my film London Overground stalking the Old Kent Road and Brompton Cemetery.
A water tower I’d spotted in the distance at the start of the walk is now in range and I fix on that was my waymarker. A strong stink of death comes from a deep ditch around a small wood on the perimeter of Rye Hill Common; there are scattered feathers of a recent fox kill in the stubble on the field edge. It’s marked on the OS map as a moat – although details are scant, only that there were once two houses within the moat. Most of Rye Hill Common was enclosed after the Second World War, and now developers hover producing plans for an extension of the Harlow suburbs further across fields.
With the light fading it’s that time to look for a pub or the station in no particular order. This is the walk after the walk – the plod, hopefully short. It’s been an idyllic fieldpath ramble that I’m sure would not have given Fieldfare future shock if he had somehow slipped through time to 2016. The next part would have killed him. I cannot think of a greater contrast of landscapes.
It started to rain and quickly got dark. My phone plotted out the 3.5-mile route across Harlow to the station. Every bus stop was vandalised. Mini-roundabouts were laid out in intricate patterns like an asphalt crop circle. Wikipedia says that Harlow has an impressive collection of public art and civic sculpture. The only built object of note I saw on my sodden schlep was a gigantic strip-lit multi-storey carpark. An interstellar star cruiser landed in the town centre. An hour and twenty minutes after exiting the fields in late summer euphoria Harlow Station appears through the sideways rain. The £13 train fare back to London the final kick in the shins.