Old map of London’s Lost Rivers

map of London rivers

This hand-drawn map from Wonderful London Volume 2 (published circa 1926) shows the Central London tributaries of the Thames – the Effra, the Neckinger, the Falcon Brook, the Wandle. North of the Thames we have the Counters Creek (here marked Bridge Creek), the Westbourne, the Tyebourne, the Holebourne (River Fleet), and the Walbrook. The contours show the high ground where the springs bubble up to the surface and then helped shaped the city we live in today even though all but one of them has been buried beneath the ground (the Wandle being the exception).

In the essay accompanying these illustrations, Alan Ivimey describes the fate of these Thames tributaries:

“They are right in the very heart, or, more accurately, in the bowels of London. For the fairest of these streams have been obliterated from the face of the earth to become dirty drains beneath its skin, or at least emaciated trickles writhing feebly in what remains of their old beds towards the everlasting Thames.”

Thames basin diagram

This simple sketch simply shows the shape of the Thames basin as a cross-section where many further London rivers and tributaries rise and flow. We see the high grounds of Addington Hills near Croydon to the south and Totteridge, Hendon and Hampstead to the North. Herne Hill and Crystal Palace form the highlands of the inner South of London with Primrose Hill marking the highground of North London just beyond the congested centre.

Ivimey describes how London might have looked when the rivers ran freely through the fields:

“In the lush meadows of Westbourne, near the highway to Harrow, the citizen of London could once see dragonflies and loosestrife, or, lying face down in the buttercups, tickle a brace of trout against the coming Friday.”

We rarely think of London in terms of its topography, flattened out in our minds by tube journeys and bus routes. Cross city cyclists tell a different story, feeling the river valleys in their tightening calves. For the walker the shape of London is unavoidable – ascend one of the peaks in this drawing and you’ll see the city revealed.

Walking the London Loop – Enfield Lock to Cockfosters section 17

I must have crossed paths with the London Loop hundreds of times and coincidentally followed its paths for short sections before branching off on my own route. But one grey unpromising January Saturday I decided to walk one whole section of the London Loop – section 17, from Enfield Lock to Cockfosters (this is in the reverse direction as the Loop is organised clockwise).

London Loop Enfield

The Lea Valley line was running for once at the weekend, and leaving Enfield Lock Station I turned into Albany Park. Here I met the Turkey Brook which would be my companion for much of the day – till it was replaced by the Salmon Brook near the walk’s end.

Forty Hall Park London Loop

The London Loop takes you across the thumping traffic of the A10, roughly following the route of the old Roman Ermine Street, and into Forty Hall Park. There’s a natural temptation to be drawn off path for a gander at Forty Hall, the grand 17th Century residence of former Lord Mayor of London, Nicholas Rainton and now Enfield Borough’s Museum. But I decide to stick true to my course and plough on round Forty Hill. A white egret paddles in the Turkey Brook before elegantly flying up into a tree as I pass. At first I think it’s a young heron before more knowledgeable people correct me in the comments on the YouTube video.

The Turkey Brooks Hilly Fields Park

The bandstand in Hilly Fields Park is locked so I eat my lunch perched on a fallen tree instead. A Cockapoo, yaps and strains at its lead desperate to get a bite of my chicken baguette, before its owner drags it away. It’s a wet grey afternoon, January for me is almost the classic winter month, the last before you get a glimmer of Spring around the middle of February. This is the perfect landscape in which to revel in winter’s damp bare nakedness.

London Loop Clay Hill

A lane across the top of Clay Hill gives me a view of the distant smudge of Nick Papadimitriou’s ‘Scarp’ – the North Middlesex/South Hertfordshire Tertiary Escarpment. It makes me think of my old walking buddy, most likely now sat in his Child’s Hill tower block, possibly even gazing at the same view.

London Loop section 17 P1000523

Passing over Cuckold’s Hill I approach Botany Bay. My wife had seen it on the map, and being an Aussie had told me a song I must sing on the way, but it escapes me in the moment (back at home she sang ‘Botany Bay’ to be included in the video).

Cuckold's Hill Enfield

The muddy fields of Enfield Chase take their toll on my legs and as I top the hill facing the Trent Park Obelisk I’m ready for the walk to end. The light is dimming, it’s the last 20 minutes or so of daylight as I take a short-cut and find myself at Camlet Moat. I’d seen a book in Watkins Esoteric Bookshop that had placed King Arthur’s Camelot in Enfield and dismissed at the time as an amusing fantasy. But looking into the wide green waters of the moat it doesn’t seem so crazy. Excavations turned up remains of stone foundations and Roman artefacts pointing at a heritage older than that of the Norman baron Geoffrey de Mandeville with whom it has been previously associated with. Now sat here with Christopher Street’s ‘London’s Camelot and the Secrets of The Grail’ beside me I read his theory with a different attitude.

Camlet Moat Camelot P1000596

Trent Park is closing. Families and couples holding hands emerge from the woodland and make their way down the long driveway towards Cockfosters. It’s been an interesting experiment, sticking doggedly to a section of the London Loop, not one I’m sure to repeat, but an enlightening wander all the same. Now to read more about Camelot in North London.

Robin Hood Gardens and along Poplar High Street

I’d been meaning to go for a proper look around Robin Hood Gardens for a while (a journal entry from July 2008 notes the idea of making a documentary about the estate’s proposed demolition), the eventual visit made more urgent by news that its demolition had begun. An iconic council estate designed by lauded architects Alison + Peter Smithson and completed in 1972, Robin Hood Gardens was being demolished to make way for a new development called Blackwall Reach consisting of 1575 new homes of which 550 are said to be available for social rent. The Evening Standard, a paper not noted for its support of social housing campaigns in the past, reported in 2017 that flats in the new development were already being marketed to investors in the Far East.

Robin Hood Gardens Poplar

Robin Hood Gardens demolition

Climbing the central mound in the open space designed by the Smithson’s as a ‘stress free zone, a calm pool’, you could see into the shattered shell of the western block, some of which is being preserved by the V&A. It’s odd to think of people visiting a museum to look at how people used to live in a brutalist council estate of the 1970’s in the way that we visit a reconstructed Iron Age Village. Is that where social housing is heading – a curiosity in a museum? I sincerely hope not.

Robin Hood Gardens demolition

Blackwall Reach development Poplar January 2018

Blackwall Reach development Poplar

Robin Hood Gardens

A kit of pigeons fly synchronised circuits of the interior space returning to their roosts on the upper ledges of the eastern block that still houses the last of the remaining inhabitants, although fewer in number than their feathered neighbours. What will the pigeons make of Blackwall Reach, I wonder?

Poplar Town Hall / Lansbury Hotel

Poplar Town Hall / Lansbury Hotel

Moving along Poplar High Street we see how the old Poplar Town Hall has been converted into a boutique hotel named after Poplar’s Labour MP George Lansbury, although ironic, at least the conversion saved the town hall from a mooted demolition and joining Robin Hood Gardens in the annals of the disappeared.

St. Matthias Church Poplar

St. Matthias Church

Beside the East India Company’s Meridian House, built in 1806, lies a semi-hidden East End gem. St Matthias Old Church was built in 1642 by the East India Company, both as a company chapel and to serve the riverside parish of Poplar and Blackwall. Apparently churches built in the civil war period are a real rarity, a booklet published by the LDDC and English Heritage lists two others (in Berwick-upon-Tweed and Leicestershire). There appears to be a children’s playgroup inside, so I decide not to intrude with my camera and instead make a loop of the quiet churchyard.

The wind blowing down Poplar High Street is starting to bite, my circuit has returned to Poplar DLR station and a glide along the rails back to Stratford.

Exploring Somers Town (and Drummond Street) around Euston and St. Pancras

Comments on my YouTube channel had pointed out that sections of the area around Euston Station were endangered by the coming of HS2 – so back at the end of October I decided to take a stroll with my camera. Euston Street looks to be worst hit with the magnificient Bree Louise, said to be one of London’s finest pubs, a victim. I feel a duty to log the buildings due to be cleared away, aware of how changes to the built environment erase memory.

Euston Street HS2 demolition

Euston Street

Round into Drummond Street, previously hit by renovations to Euston Station in the 1960’s – it once led to the Euston Arch – smashed up and tossed into River Lea/Prescott Channel. Drummond Street will again be chopped up. I stop for lunch at one of the Indian restaurants that give the street its fame, unwittingly choosing the establishment, Diwani, that claims to be the first South Indian restaurant in Britain – opening in 1970.

Diwani Indian buffet

Through Somers Town, with its Georgian Coffee House and on to The Brill behind the British Library where the great antiquarian William Stukeley interpretted a series of mounds and undulations in the fields beside the River Fleet as the remains of Caesar’s Camp. This has been revised more recently as the possible location of an abandoned medieval settlement.

Ossulston Estate

Just around the corner is the beautifully designed modernist Ossulston Estate, built between 1927-31 by the London County Council and inspired by Vienna’s Karl Marx-Hoff. The rain now is starting to harden and cameras don’t usually enjoy getting wet, so I quickly wrap up my filming before taking refuge in the British Library.

Northbound – walk from St.Pauls through Islington to Highgate

It was an odd walk in a way, but one that has stayed with me over the Christmas period since. There was just the desire to walk – to be out. I knew where I didn’t fancy and with only around 3 hours of daylight I wanted options for walking in the dark. The pivotal moment was at the ticket barriers – east or west.

Roman Wall City of London

I alighted at St.Pauls and let old instincts guide me. A look at the Roman London Wall in Noble Street, the on to Golden Lane Estate where there was a recent protest against the redevelopment of former Police accommodation into a block of luxury flats.

Golden Lane development

Up Goswell Road and across Northampton Square, one variation on my daily walk home from work at the South Bank when I lived up at the Angel, and also our route to Ironmonger Row Baths. Andrew Kötting’s expression ‘the noise of memory’ came to mind, when there is so much memory attached to an area that it almost becomes overwhelming. This territory on the slopes of Islington and Finsbury is like that for me, the sound intensifying as I made my way up Chapel Market, the Christmas tree seller having a furious argument down the phone kicking empty boxes. There’s a For Let sign above the iconic Manze’s pie and mash shop, the one featured in The London Nobody Knows, let’s hope I don’t add to the ‘Dead Pie Shop Trail’*.

Manze's Pie and Mash Chapel Market

On through Barnsbury to Holloway Road as the sun starts hitting the glorious Holloway Odeon. I sorely tempted to give up the ghost and while away an hour or two in the Coronet – a beautiful old cinema converted into a Wetherspoons. Something keeps me plodding on towards the Northern Heights, an image I’d conjured in my head at the beginning of the walk of ending up in Highgate.

Coronet Holloway Road

Faced with the Archway Tavern I think of Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity that I first read some 20 years ago when music played a far bigger part in my life than it does today and I would routinely pass a happy hour thumbing through racks of vinyl on dusty old record shops. At the time I felt the Archway Tavern must have been the pub/venue in the book where the record shop staff watch bands. The shop, Championship Vinyl, is located in on Seven Sisters Road (so is the Harry Lauder actually the World’s End instead?). There’s a secondhand book stall in front of the old Archway Tavern and sure enough they have a slightly battered copy of High Fidelity that I pick up for £2.50 and have been reading over Christmas. It’s funny how the book has aged in that time.

Gatehouse Highgate

Highgate Village was every bit as festive as hoped with chains of Christmas lights looped across the High Street. I make for the Gatehouse, an old coaching inn with a resident ghost. I tell the young barman about the spectral guest that haunts the pub and he fixes me with a look of disbelief. ‘It’s true’, I say, ‘look out for it when you’re locking up later.’

 

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* this was an essay I wrote for Jake Green’s photobook documenting the surviving Pie and Mash shops in London. My essay was a walk linking sites of several former Pie and Mash shops. There are copies of the book in each of the remaining Pie and Mash Shops in London. Get yourself a double pie and mash and settle down with a copy.

M25 Hinterland walk from Theydon Bois to Epping

Such is my desire to tramp every square of my Ordnance Survey map 174 ‘Epping Forest & Lea Valley ‘ that I try to avoid repeating walks too often. Of course that goes out of the window when my youngest son joins me on our favourite routes through the Forest to arrive at the Royal Forest Brewers Fayre at the Hunting Lodge, Chingford. But, for my series of Walking Vlogs I try to break new ground where possible. The justification for following this route (in the video above) was that, although I’d walked it before with my son 3 years ago, it had largely been undocumented.

Theydon Bois Walk

This was not intended as a long walk, as I set out across the rough field the other side of the tracks from Theydon Bois tube station. I was merely intending to follow the tracks of that previous walk, picking up the trail across that curious teasle infested field the other side of a babbling brook where someone had pitched a tent among the tall spikey stems. I had to navigate through great pools of recent November rain discovering along the way that my boots were no longer waterproof.

Theydon Bois Walk

I had some difficulty locating the spot on the high ground by the field edge where we’d had our picnic that September afternoon but after some tooing and froing was glad to find the place – although there’d be no sitting to take in the view on a wet and windy November day.

Theydon Bois Walk

The track on the other side of the M25 was a glorious tunnel of autumnal colours and it encouraged me to push on in a different direction rather than cutting across the farmland to the outskirts of Epping by the Station. The path led around the perimeter of Epping Golf Course where the Sunday golfers were glad to give directions, curious to have a rambler in their midst. Then I walked along a field edge down to the brilliant named Fiddlers Hamlet.

Epping Fiddlers Hamlet sign

The light was starting to fade but with the half-hour or so remaining I followed a section of the Essex Way out from Epping to Coopersale and Gernon Bushes. The way back in the last of the day led me over the disused section of the Central Line between Epping and Ongar, now operated some weekends and during holidays by the brilliant Epping to Ongar Railway.

Fiddlers Hamlet

It was dark by the time I sloped up Epping High Street and bagged a pork pie from the butchers. Early Christmas lights twinkled and late shoppers huddled in the cafes. I found a table near the back of Cafe Nero and plotted future walks.

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.