Across Rainham Marshes along the Thames to Purfleet

A Friday morning and the need to hit open space, to sniff the edge of the city. A hasty perusal of the maps pointed the way to Rainham Marshes and Purfleet with an easy route via the Overground changing at Barking.

Rainham Marshes

A long ramp leads directly down from Rainham Station onto the edge of the marshland. Birds rattle around in the tall stems of grasses. It feels as if I’m encroaching on wildspace, an intruder. Phalanxes of dried out cowparsley (?) and teasles look resplendent in an unseasonal burst of sunshine. I rest on a bench and peel off layers all the way back to my t-shirt and soak up the last natural heat for months to come.

concrete barges rainham marshes

Arriving on the Thames shore at Rainham, the concrete barges lie marooned by the riverbank. Constructed from reinforced concrete they were towed out into the Thames as part of the Mulberry Harbour that played a vital role in the Normandy D-Day Landings of 1944. Then in 1953 they came to aid of the nation once again when they contributed to the Thames estuary flood defences. Now they’ve been claimed by flocks of birds which perch along the decks and strutt the prow. There’s something noble and proud about the concrete barges even as they slowly sink into the estuarine mud.

Routemaster buses rainham

Past the shipping beacon at Coldharbour Point and a fleet of Routemaster buses I arrive at the old MOD firing range on the edge of the marshes near Purfleet, the broken chainlink fence a reminder of that this was a restricted area until around 2000. Now it has found new life as an RSPB Nature Reserve. The past briefly returned in 2013 when an unexploded bomb was discovered during maintenance work requiring a controlled demolition. Makes you wonder what else is lurking buried in the mud.

RSPB Rainham Marshes visitor centre

The visitor centre at RSPB Rainham Marshes is a stiking building poking above the marsh grasses designed by van Heyningen and Hayward architects. It strikes me as something you might find on Tatooine in a ‘galaxy far, far away’. Aside from a great view across the nature reserve the centre has a decent cafe where I process the walk sat amongst cappucino sipping Twitchers before getting the train home from Purfleet.

 

 

 

 

The Grubby Mitts at Cecil Sharp House

Grubby Mitts Cecil Sharp House

There was something so perfect about The Grubby Mitts playing Cecil Sharp House. Bedford’s art rockers at the home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society nestled in the well-heeled streets of Primrose Hill. London’s village hall. In my mind they belong in large spaces, I’d first seen them at Bob and Roberta Smith’s Art Party Conference at the Spa in Scarborough, an even more cavernous venue.

When I arrived Andy Holden was on the stage holding up ceramic cats to a camera under a table lamp as the band played and the close-up cat images were projected on the big screen while Holden narrated. This wasn’t the main gig, but a performance piece called Catharsis. The cats had belonged to Holden’s Grandmother who left them to him in a series of large cardboard boxes after her death – his performance taking the form of a peculiar ‘unboxing video’.

The Grubby Mitts at Cecil Sharp House

The main hall at Cecil Sharp House is huge, with echoes of folk heroes and grand dances. The Grubby Mitts crowd stuck mostly to the bank of seating around the wall leaving the ballroom floor clear aside from a handfull of die-hards forming a line across the middle of the space. It worked – seemed to fit the mood, the awkward school disco kids, let the sounds fill the void. The show was apparently linked to Andy Holden’s current Art angel show with his father Peter Holden, Natural Selection.

The Grubby Mitts at Cecil Sharp House

I only lasted half a song before taking the floor and joining the ranks of the standing, barely dancing line. The band worked through most (if not all) of their album What The World Needs Now Is along with what I presume were newer tunes. A three-piece brass section joined some numbers swelling the sound into the high vaulted ceiling euphorically. Holden twisted knobs hunched over at a table of electronics, played the guitar, and gesticulated at the drummer. It was a majestic performance from the whole band.

It ended with a stunning rendition of To A Friend’s House the Way is Never Long. The band departed the stage and then stood in the hall with the rest of us as the lights came back on and the audience dribbled out into the Primrose Hill night. I rarely go to gigs these days aside from local nights in Leytonstone, this was perfect. Wandering down into Camden Town, freezing cold, I fancied a pint but turns out Camden Council have rigid licencing laws with no booze sold after 10.30pm on a Sunday. Rather than pissing me off it just added to the quirky vibe of a magical event.

Did you know this about London?

County Hall London L.C.C 1939

“Did you know that you can get one of the best-cooked meals in London at the Hotel and Restaurant Technical School at the Westminster Technical Institute?

Did you know that in Victoria Park in east London the L.C.C. runs the finest “Lido” in the country?

Did you know that at Avery Hill, Eltham, the L.C.C. has provided the largest Palm Houses and Greenhouses outside Kew?

Do you know that no one, however poor, need ever sleep out in London, that a bed is ready for any destitute man who applies at the L.C.C. Welfare Office?

The L.C.C. is not at all the sort of body to rest on it’s laurels.”

From – Fifty Years of the L.C.C. by S.P.B. Mais published in 1939

Why I Blog

London Loop Uxbridge

This is something I’ve composed in my head I number of times in the past but never actually written, mainly because of the feeling that it somehow has to be definitive – that once placed here on my blog will be cast in stone. Which of course is nonsense, and ironically the freedom to evolve ideas as they occur in a public forum is one of the reasons I started blogging in the first place 14 years ago. So I’m just going to freewheel it a bit here. Please bear with me. I’m not even writing this on a document first, just typing it straight into the blog.

I published my first blog on 7th July 2003. I was coming to the end of 4 weeks paternity leave and had read an article in the Guardian about a new platform called Blogger. The blog post was a variation on an article I’d pitched to The Guardian’s G2 section and they’d rejected on the basis that it was a few days too late to be newsworthy enough. So the new self-publishing platform seemed like the ideal alternative to the commissioning process. I stuck a version of the piece there and I don’t think I’ve pitched an article to anyone ever since.

The birth of my first child also meant re-evaluating my priorities. I’d been half-heartedly doing some occasional stand-up comedy, more as a means to develop and showcase my writing rather than try and build a career as a comic (in fact when approached by a representative from mega-agency Avalon after my third gig I turned them down – which in retrospect was a stupid decision). Doing stand-up had come out of the satirical comedy revue show I’d written and directed (and later performed in) which then gave its name to the blog – The Soapbox Cabaret. As a new Dad, working full-time in a low-paid job, blogging would allow me to continue my work without spending evenings in half-empty rooms above pubs. There was a strong political dimension to my work back then, which seemed to fit with the nature of blogging at that time so it seemed like a good match.

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This articlation of my blogging started a year later on 7th June 2004. I think it came from the desire to write more about the world around me, vignettes from the streets. I’d kept a regular journal since I’d gone backpacking 10 years before, my backpacking journal became a walking journal when back schlepping around London – so I wanted my blog to become more reflective of that, rather than the polemicising and satirical asides of my first blog. This very quickly became my more natural home.

I got some local press almost immediately. Funny to think now but blogging was still a bit of a novelty in 2004. Social media was still in its infancy really – there was no Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. New platforms would launch then fold in a couple of months. It was quite a volatile but exciting digital landscape. I also started getting comments on those early posts – something that seems to have dried up in recent years whereas most of my interaction now comes on Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, reflecting wider online trends. (Anyone remember internet forums ?- they seemed to have died a death along with Friends Reunited and MySpace).

In some ways I feel like I’m at a pivotal point at the moment – it’s 4 years since my book was published, I’m freelance now so constantly on the look-out for work, the baby who I had sleeping on my shoulder as I wrote those first blog posts is now a strapping teenager. I’m in my mid-40’s not my early 30’s. But the blog has been a constant through all of this. When I try to unpack the course of my – I hate to use the word ‘career’ but I can’t think of an adequate alternative – over the last 10 years or so, many wonderful things have happened.

The graft in those half-empty pubs paid some dividends when I went to work for my old comedy pal Russell Brand’s production company. One of my briefs was to look after his online platforms. Turns out TV professionals didn’t have much experience of blogs, social media and online video back then (I’d started a YouTube channel in 2006 just after it launched) and so it came in very useful – particularly when we went to America where they’d embraced the digital realm much earlier than in the UK which was still focused on ‘legacy’ media. I made my own documentaries that were shown at festivals and in cinemas. I produced and presented a radio show. Then I got a book deal with Harper Collins – an incredible moment. The shape and tone of that book, the basic idea, came directly out of this blog.

It’s only now, in this moment of reflection trying to untangle it all, that I realise all those wonderful things, and many more, grew out of this blog.

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So in some ways I find myself at a similar point to where I was on paternity leave in 2003. I’m a stay-at-home Dad, the kids still come first. I don’t have a publisher for my next book as yet. My primary creative output is this blog and my YouTube channel. I still get knock-backs for proposals and applications – getting institutional support hasn’t gotten any easier. Blogging has been an ever-present, the activity that has carried me through, and keeps me going. I feel incredibly fortunate to have had your support as readers, sympathetic ears.

This blog post has gone on a bit, thanks if you’ve made it through this far. It’s come out a bit drier and more earnest than I would have liked but that’s the nature of the beast. I could save it and review later but that would just be an excuse to consign it to the digital bottom drawer.

Thanks for your support through all of this – it’s hugely, colosally, appreciated.

Right, I’m off out on a walk then I have to finish off another proposal before the kids get home from school and we sit round watching Meme compilations on YouTube.

Walking The Thames from Waterloo to Putney

This was a walk of many wonders, starting on Lower Marsh behind Waterloo Station and linking William Blake at Lambeth with Blake at St. Mary’s Battersea where he married Catherine Boucher in 1782. I saw the same view from the church that Turner studied and believed I saw his chair until someone in the know told me otherwise after watching the video. I walked on the Thames foreshore coating my boots in riverine mud and marvelled at the Buddhas in Battersea Park. The horrors of Nine Elms had a duty to be logged for posterity, added to the early impressions I noted in This Other London. Crossing the Wandle where it makes its sacred confluence with The Thames I vowed to return and walk the Wandle Trail as I had planned to do for This Other London but went to Tooting Common instead (taking in Nine Elms and Battersea). And the ending where I accidentally found myself attending Evensong at The Leveller Church of St. Mary’s Putney.

Nine Elms London

Nine Elms

St. Mary's Battersea

St. Mary’s Battersea

On a personal level though one of the most rewarding echoes came after  I’d packed the camera away and headed for the train home. Stopping for a mooch in the second-hand bookshop near Putney Bridge Tube I find a copy of Bruce Chatwin’s What Am I Doing Here that I instantly buy. I was delighted. Back at St. Mary’s Battersea I recalled walking here with Iain Sinclair during the shooting of London Overground, we schlepped on through Clapham Junction to Lavender Hill where Iain told the story (also in the book) of Andrew Kötting buying a copy of Chatwin’s collection of essays which Iain later annotated and deposited further along the route. I told my son the story and he said that perhaps this was Iain’s copy. It hadn’t occured to me, I checked, but alas no.

River Wandle at Wandsworth

River Wandle at Wandsworth

Alan Moore and Iain Sinclair on London mythologies and the power of place

“Everything that we are is reflected in place and we reflect everything that is in the locations that are around us”

– Alan Moore

“All this is about place and about intersections of place, people, collisions, collaborations, the whole thing”, adds Iain Sinclair referencing The House of the Last London where this fascinating conversation took place.

A sketch map by Brian Catling hanging amongst various images from a 1974 exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, Albion Island Vortex, featuring Catling, Iain Sinclair, and Renchi Bicknell, provides the original link between Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore. They talk about how fellow writer Neil Gaiman had sent Alan Moore a copy of Sinclair’s early self-published book Lud Heat which Alan found hugely inspiring. Lud Heat drew Alan Moore into the world of London mythologies at the point when he was starting work on From Hell.

Lud Heat map - Iain Sinclair and Brian Catling

Lud Heat map – Iain Sinclair and Brian Catling

“You could unpack an awful lot of From Hell from these lines on this drawing” – he says gesturing to the map.

Iain Sinclair explains how he’d sketched out the map on a napkin in a pub and handed it to the artist Brian Catling to turn it into a proper drawing – the one that hangs on the wall in Whitechapel. It’s a map that not only inspired Alan Moore but a whole generation of psychogeographers.

The conversation takes so many twists and turns through various stages of their careers, delving into their practices and inspirations, recalling previous expeditions and excursions, happenings and events. Iain talks about the recent walk we did from Shooters Hill to Woolwich that will form part of a film we’re making about Watling Street. They also preview the poetry event they would perform that evening in Lambeth alongside Catling and Allen Fisher. It was a real joy to behold and capture in this video.

 

Chilterns Walk from Princes Risborough to West Wycombe

Rarely have I gone to track down a view glimpsed from a train, but in July I headed back out from Marylebone to Princes Risborough bound for a wooded ridge that fizzed past the train window on a journey to Birmingham in April. I’d quickly screenshot the map on my phone showing that the hill was rising above Hempton Wainhill near Chinnor and vowed to return.

Lodge Hill Princes Risborough

Lodge Hill

It was a walk that delivered with almost every step, picking up the Ridgeway just south of Princes Risborough and following it past the tumuli on Lodge Hill. There I met a young man walking the length of the Ridgeway and I plugged him for tips for when I eventually set out on my 25 year old plan to walk this ancient path. The Ridgeway is ridiculously rich with prehistoric sites – I passed five Bronze Age tumuli in the space of a couple of miles around Bledlow Wood. The sense of walking into the past is profound on the Ridgeway and here it intersects with the equally (if not more) ancient Icknield Way.

The Ridgeway near Chinnor

The westward views from Chinnor Hill were stunning and here I walked off my OS Map 181 onto a much smaller scale older map I bought on ebay years ago. The previous owner evidently shared my interest in prehistoric sites and had circled all of them on the map.

The Ridgeway

Walking along a chalk ridge path through Radnage flicking tall wallflowers childhood Chilterns memories flooded back in a rush of images and feelings, a mashup of out-of-sync recollections – driving round lanes with my Dad listening to John Peel, coming home from backpacking wondering what to do next, racing our Jack Russell to the pigeon Dad had shot from the sky, sunsets over the M40 towards these hills from further down the valley at Wooburn Moor.

St. Mary's Church Radnage

A chance encounter with a lady in a lane led me across her field to St. Mary Radnage with its restored 13th Century wall paintings. A beautiful, mystical spot to stop and reflect.

West Wycombe

I’d run out of food and water by the time I ascended West Wycombe Hill and the famous Golden Ball and Hell Fire Caves. I was shown around Dashwood’s Church as they closed up after a cake sale and told how it was a collage of architectures Sir Frances Dashwood had seen on his Grand Tour in 1763 including the now destroyed temples of Palmyra.

West Wycombe Church

I took refuge in the haunted George and Dragon on West Wycombe High Street dining on beer and crisps before slogging along the A40 into Wycombe. Before hitting the town centre, I stopped off to pay homage to the sacred River Wye as it flows gently through Mill End Rec near where my Mum went to school all those many years ago.