Exploring London on Foot talk at Leyton & Leytonstone Historical Society

exploring london on foot john rogers

It was an enormous honour to be invited to give a public talk by the Leyton & Leytonstone Historical Society last week. I joined the Society shortly after moving to Leytonstone and still have a binder containing editions of their brilliant ‘Understone’ newsletter. It was however pointed out to me on the night that I allowed my membership to lapse some years ago.

John Rogers film screening Leytonstone

We had a full house in St. John’s Church Hall for my talk on ‘Exploring London on Foot’, which I’d deliberately left vague enough to allow me to talk about pretty much anything. So I ranged from The Situationists to Alfred Watkins as an introduction to my walks with Iain Sinclair. And I managed to stray along the A40 to talk about the Remapping High Wycombe project I did with my sister Cathy between 2004-05, where I first applied some of the ideas about walking that I’d been thinking about for a number of years.

Fringe of London Gordon S. Maxwell

It also gave me an opportunity to emphasise the influence of the inter-war topographical writers on my work, Gordon S. Maxwell’s The Fringe of London being one of the most significant in spelling out a credo to which I still adhere:

“The border-line between folk-lore and fairy-tales is not more nebulous than that between topographical research and “nosing about.”
The former, in either case, is but a grander name for practically the same thing. I mean the outdoor part of topography, not the many hunts in the land of books that usually follows later.”

“The way of the topographical rambler is sometimes hard, often muddy, usually interesting; but never dull.”

 – Gordon S. Maxwell – The Fringe of London, 1925

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It was great to be able to enthuse to an audience about the everyday wonders that await on our doorsteps – whole other worlds just around the street corner. As Pathfinder wrote in 1911, ‘Adventure begins at home’.

Midwinter on Walthamstow and Leyton Marshes

With clear midwinter morning sky, rooftops and hedgrows swaddled in frost, I headed down Lea Bridge Road bound for Leyton and Walthamstow Marshes. I’d been meaning to make a video of this magical zone for a while, but somethings are too precious to capture on camera it seems – perhaps that’s why the resultant video was shot on 3 of them.

Walthamstow Marshes

The best entrance to the marshes isn’t via Lea Bridge Road, or the path across from the Filter Beds, but over the old iron footbridge from the Argall Avenue Trading Estate that carries you across the railway tracks and the River Lea Flood Relief Channel. Muddy puddles were frozen solid revealing nature’s pattern in the whorls and curls embedded in the ice. The jacketted horses in the Riding Centre blew out big plumes of breath. Dogs scarpered across Leyton Marsh to the river bank. Vapour trails embroidered the sky. It was glorious.

The A.V. Roe railway arch, Walthamstow Marshes

The A.V. Roe railway arch

I marked the line of trees demarcating the parish boundary between Leyton and Walthamstow that I’d been shown on a Beating of the Bounds organised by the New Lammas Lands Defence Committee when I’d first moved to the area. Then on to another memory stored in A.V Roe’s railway arch, not of that first triplane flight in 1909, but of singing the wassail song here with the Hackney Tree Muskateers.

Walthamstow Marshes

Walthamstow Marshes is decorated with the droppings left behind by the Belted Galloway cattle reintroduced to the marshland to help restore the ‘natural’ order created by thousands of years of human interaction with this landscape. The cattle themselves were curiously elusive.

Mural Underpass Walthamstow Marshes

The circuit was completed by turning across Coppermill Fields and through the Mural Underpass to the Lammas Meadow. A horse trotted around the field edge. The horizon on all sides was marked by cranes and other signs of construction as the Lea Valley undergoes another period of change. This stip of marshland, preserved through previous struggles, has never felt so precious.

Leyton marshes pylons

Aimless Wander from Leyton to Tottenham IKEA via Walthamstow

How did I find myself in the cafe of the Tottenham IKEA at 6pm on a Wednesday?  The large window is an almost perfect Lea Valley picture frame – the best thing in the store. The magnetic attraction of an IKEA cafe on an edgeland wander dates back for me to November 2009 recording an episode of our radio show Ventures and Adventures in Topography in Monks Park with Nick Papadimitriou and Peter Knapp. It was cold Sunday afternoon, we were damp and tired and found ourselves in the Wembley Trading Estate. We knew the only source of food and warmth in the area at that time on a Sunday was the IKEA Cafe. We dreamt of meat balls and made our way to the flatpack Valhalla. They’d sold out of meat balls of course.

#Cafe at #IKEA Tottenham

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Eight years later and on the other side of the North Circular the Tottenham IKEA Cafe had a good stock of meat balls but I had a ham and cheese toastie instead. This was a less structured excursion. I’d left home with no real aim other than just to walk – Tottenham IKEA had emerged in my mind as a waypoint – something to aim at. I took in the buildings of Lea Bridge Road, Leyton both old and those taking shape then marvelled at the architecture of Argall Avenue Industrial Estate. The football pitches at Low Hall were freshly marked out ready for the weekend fixtures.

I thought of Arthur Machen’s ghost hunting expedition to Tottenham in the early mystical years of the 20th Century. He also recorded journeys out to Edmonton and Ponders End as if they were the darkest reaches of the Amazon. And wandering the backstreets of Tottenham for the first time I felt as if I were in a remote part of London. I teenage girl approached me with a pair of size 4 trainers and tried to convince me to buy them for my children (how did she know I had kids?).

Leaving IKEA I jumped on the first bus that came along assuming they all went to Tottenham Hale and soon found myself heading towards Edmonton. I jumped off straight away thinking I could catch a 34 bus to Walthamstow Central and started walking along Montagu Road looking for a bus stop. I kept walking with no bus stop in sight. The light started to dim and I got that feeling of uncertainty when in unknown backstreets in the gloom – the desire to get clear, back to familarity or at least to main streets. I turned into Town Road after checking that it looked ok, there was something in the air that made me feel uneasy. I considered continuing along Montagu Road and taking a later turning but decided this was the quickest (safest) option. A bus came along, you have to flag them down round these parts, there are no bus stops. Off I went to Tottenham Hale thinking about Machen’s Tottenham story.

Montagu Road Edmonton

Later that night, around midnight, I checked the news online and saw a headline in the Guardian, ‘Man killed in north London shooting’ – I instantly knew where the crime had taken place. Of course I would be wrong, north London is a huge area. I scanned the article of the location of the killing of the ‘man in his 40’s or 50’s’ and there it was Bounces Road, one of the roads leading off Montagu Road just past Town Road, one of the alternative routes I’d considered when feeling the urge to get clear of the area, yards away from where I’d flagged down the bus.

Blowing out the cobwebs – Leyton Loop via Hackney Marsh and Whipps Cross

Coronation Gardens Leyton

Needed to stretch the legs for the first time post-Yuletide sloth and gluttony. A Yule Yomp if you like. Even so I didn’t emerge from the Christmas-lit tinsel-draped cave till 3pm, freezing cold and directionless. With visiting family still encamped I should resist the urge to keep walking West till the will left me, but could I?

Coronation Gardens is always a good place to wander and muse. The Lea Valley sunset starting to break through the bare trees. Looking at the lonely bandstand I remembered the first Leyton Food Market back in May that wraps itself around the bandstand on Saturdays. I could almost feel the Fille Brook (Philly Brook) gurgling beneath the footpath that runs down the northern edge.

Quadrant Leyton
The development imposed upon the old car lot that occupied the corner of Oliver Road and Ruckholt looks near to completion staring blankly at the row of cottages on the other side of Dunedin Road. Waltham Forest Council recently unveiled the Lea Valley Eastside Vision which identifies Leyton as “a key growth area” centred on three ‘Key Areas’ of: Leyton (Leyton Mills, Coronation Gardens, and New Spitalfields Market), Lea Bridge which includes a potentially troubling waterside development that could encroach upon Leyton Marshes, and Church Road which seems to mostly build on the work they have already done on Marsh Lane Fields. This ‘Vision’ needs proper scrutiny before a response can be given – but looking at this first phase on Ruckholt Road I do not feel overwhelmed with optimism. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

Hackney Marsh
They were few people out walking as I made my way over the patchwork of football pitches on Hackney Marshes. A dog teased me with its ball – running up with the ball held aloft and veering away as I reached down to play. Eventually it got bored of the game and scarpered off after its owner.

It was dark as I made my way along the Lea Navigation Towpath past Millfields and the small orchard we wassailed a few years ago with the Hackney Tree Musketeers. I stood on the Lea Bridge swivelling East and West trying to decide which way to go before being swayed by obligation and turning East the length of Lea Bridge Road up to Whipps Cross Roundabout.

Lea Bridge Road Leyton graffiti
There was little illumination along Whipps Cross Road aside from the trundling boxes of white light in the form of the frequent buses and flickering bicycle lights in the undergrowth around the Hollow Ponds. The Hitchcock Hotel presented itself at the right time – I rarely go there for a drink, although it was one of the first London pubs I ever visited, back in 1989. I exit, one pint down and half-time in the football I live in hope that I will see the Hitchcock fulfil its true potential as a really good pub.

Hitchcock Hotel Leytonstone
I reach home just after 6, the family have moved to the table engaged in a furious game of Monopoly that would make the Wolf of Wall Street retire to the sofa. I watch the rest of the footie and start to plan expeditions for the coming year.

Leyton F.C ground becomes Asset of Community Value

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Fantastic to hear that the abandoned ground of Leyton Football Club on Lea Bridge Road, one of London’s oldest clubs, has been granted Asset of Community Value status by Waltham Forest Council.

Earlier this year I interviewed ardent Leyton F.C supporter Stephen Madge about his memories of the club.

Let’s hope that football one day returns to the Hare and Hounds Ground.

On the trail of the Dagenham Brook

Leyton Sign Ruckolt Road

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.

Dagenham Brook
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.

Dagenham Brook
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.

Dagenham Brook Leyton FC
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.

Warner Estate Leyton
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.

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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.

Pumphouse Museum Walthamstow
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.

St James Park Walthamstow

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.

Dagenham Brook Walthamstow p1010264

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.

Seb Lester mural walthamstow
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

Louis Masai walthamstow

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.

Mural Walthamstow
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.

sunflower walthamstow

Edgeland stumble – Leytonstone to Picketts Lock

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There’s a light patter of rain on the tree canopy along the edge of Leyton Flats as I head out on a Sunday morning walk – a rarity for me as I usually start in the afternoon and walk into the sunset. But today I have to introduce a secret film at Close Up in the evening.

The rain makes gentle circles in the Birch Well – a Victorian drinking spot for the grazing cattle who wandered this way until the BSE outbreak in the 90’s. This first narrow section of forest offers little opportunity for aimless wandering nor allows you to surrender to the woodland spirits because you encounter a road crossing about every 300 yards.

A giant fallen tree lies across the path leading out of Gilberts Slade. I’m feeling the effects of a viral cold, heavy legged, sore feet, wondering how far I’ll make it.

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The long wet grass by the gypsy stone at Woodford soaks my trousers to the knee. I pause for a moment under a tree at Highams Park Lake. The broad shade on the far side and the meander of the River Ching is a favourite spot in the Forest, it has a middle earth like magic even though BBQ smoke and the sound of playing children waft over from the back gardens of surrounding houses.

I stop at the Royal Café in Chingford Hatch for sausage, egg, and chips with tea so strong you could stand a spoon upright in it. Hunger must be dealt with first before assessing whether I have the desire to push on with the walk. I’ve been waiting for this walk to claim a narrative. I can pinpoint almost every other forest schlep with some event or association – even minor excursions like the one that ended here one wet day and I left my walking stick propped against a bench over the road and felt like I was abandoning an old friend. Maybe this stop in the Royal Café will provide that narrative hook.

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The Café sits on the ground floor of a block of flats – there’s a decorative tiled relief set into the wall showing a vase brimming full of flowers in bloom above the letters of the London County Council 1949.

The profusion of peddle-dash along the side of New Road Chingford, the nearby Harvester, these are some of the great signifiers of the London fringe – you find the same motifs heading west through Greenford and Northolt.

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At Chingford Mount I buy a two-pack of socks from Poundland and put both pairs on sat on a bench near the clock tower. With food in my belly and dry socks on my feet I feel like a new person ready to pursue the quest.

Lower Hall Lane offers up a classic slice of Lea Valley edgeland. Men sitting in parked cars in this deadend road – cabbies waiting for the next call. Suburban husbands escaping bungalow wives. Newbuild housing abuts the Grade II-listed Victorian pumping station. A grand brick pile built in 1895 by the East London Water Works, the local paper reports arrests made in recent years for planning violations. Permission to convert to site to residential use was granted by Waltham Forest Council in 2007 but now appears to be under review.

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19th Century excavations in Lower Hall Lane unearthed a series of Bronze Age Cremations – one of many such sites that line the Lea Valley. Further archaeological investigations in Lower Hall Lane revealed a medieval brew house, barns, moats, walls, and ditches. It’s a site of continuous human usage stretching back thousands of years. Today it’s just me and the dog barking at the gate of the deserted pumping station. A shiny new thick chain and padlock adorn the adjoining cottage gate. Perhaps someone is inside watching me from behind the curtains.

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I sauntered past London Waste up the cycle track on the opposite side to the towpath. From the bridge I spot the polythene of a temporary home flapping in the thick undergrowth – makeshift settlements scatter the fringes of London, like Harvester restaurants. A shrine suspended on a pylon pays tribute to ‘RIP Hasan 1987 – 2011’.

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I loiter in the foyer of the Odeon of Picketts Lock  before getting the train back to Stratford from Ponders End.