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

geographia london atlas 1955

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’.

New Council Homes for Waltham Forest

Great to see new Council Homes being built in Waltham Forest. The Council recently posted an update on a scheme in Wood Street, Walthamstow where a semi-derelict Victorian building is being replaced with 17 Council flats due for completion by the end of the year. It’s part of a plan to build a 1000 new council homes in the borough by 2022. The scheme is a partnership with Engie and and NPS architects, who are also working on the regeneraton of the Marlowe Road Estate.

Marlowe Road Estate regeneration

The Marlowe Road Estate scheme will deliver 430 new homes for social rent and private sale, although the BBC reported that it will see an overall reduction of Council homes on the site where only 30% of the total new units will be for social rent. Waltham Forest Council has set itself a target of 50% ‘affordable’ housing on new schemes, which at up to 80% of market rates, ‘afforable’ homes are far more expensive than socially rented homes and not to be confused.

We’ve seen ‘estate regeneration’ used across London as a means to privatise public land and forcibly move residents out of the city. Waltham Forest Council state that all Marlow Road Estate Council tenants “affected by the regeneration have been given right to return. They will be given ‘decant status’ meaning they’ll get priority bidding if they want to move out of the estate. Leaseholders can now negotiate with the council to sell their properties back at the current market value.”

The Architects’ Journal has recently written about the move away from the developer-led model of estate regeneration previously favoured by some London boroughs which has seen enormous community backlash. The move by Kensington and Chelsea and Hammersmith and Fulham Councils to call for a community-led approach to the hugely controversial Earls Court scheme, along with the pressure on Haringey Council to review its HDV project, and the Mayor’s initiatives to give residents a ballot on regeneration schemes, they say, “have the potential to fundamentally change how London’s housing estates are redeveloped.” It’s worth noting though that Green Party London Assembly Member Sian Berry, reported that Sadiq Khan quietly signed off 34 new estate regeneration schemes to avoid them being caught by the new rules. “At Mayor’s Question Time this week, the Mayor gave me a firm promise not to sign off any new funding for estate demolition while his new policy to require a ballot of residents was out for consultation. But he was concealing the fact he has recently rushed through funding for dozens of controversial schemes, allowing councils and housing associations to dodge his new policy.”

walthamstow town square development

So there are some positive moves in London on the housing front, but also many many challenges still to face. Waltham Forest’s plan to build more council houses is welcome news, while their inability to enforce the 50% ‘affordable’ housing target on new developments is lamentable – as evidenced recently with the council’s support for the Walthamstow Town Square development which contains a mere 20% ‘affordable’ housing and no socially rented homes.

Lea Valley Walk from Blackhorse Road to Cheshunt

As the Beast from the East part 2 bends the bushes in my garden in half and dusts it all in snow I look back to the walk I took up the Lea Valley last weekend. Then it seemed certain that the cold was behind us and spring appeared to be breaking over Gillwell Hill. I was feeling sluggish and dark and sought out old/new paths. I took the Overground to Blackhorse Road, then proceeded up Blackhorse Lane turning off into Sinott Road looking for the path that runs alongside the reservoirs.

Lea Valley

Down a narrow road (Folly Lane) past the Muslim Cemetery, fly-tipping in the clumpy scrub, a Traveller site, pylons, mini-roundabout, Costco – an almost textbook example of ‘Edgelands’ – you could bus academics out here to scratch their chins and make notes. I’m incredibly tired and heavy legged but really need to push through.

Edgelands

Walthamstow fly-tip

Past the pumping station on Harbet Road, on the other side of the road the fly-tip at the end of the world. A field littered with trash spread between the Lea, the roadside, and the North Circular viaduct. Tall chimneys puke up fumes in the near distance. An open wound in the city’s armpit.

Harbet Road London IMG_5402

On I plod on past the North London Vehicle Pound and follow the road down to the riverside path beneath the flyover. A couple of guys with a huge dog mooch around beside the undergrowth. Cyclists buzz past, head down racing against the Monday-Friday stress (it always catches up in the end).

Camden Hells brewery

At Pickett’s Lock my spirits lift and mood improves. Is it because I’m approaching the edge of London and can I leave my cares behind under a bush?

Harvester Ponders End

The sun starts to dissolve the milky clouds. The birds sing the sky yellow. Ponders End. Spring.

Rammey Marsh

Rammey Marsh wide and clear before the summer growth obscures its view from the river path. I love this stretch into Waltham Abbey, it’s where my mind often wanders when I’m trapped indoors.

Lea Valley

The last leg into Cheshunt proceeds at a slow plod, I’d burnt off the last of my energy covering the 4 miles from Pickett’s Lock to Waltham Abbey in under an hour fuelled but the burst of sunshine. Now the sky fades slowly back to a deep charcoal grey and the cold seeps up off the riverbank. I sit on a bench to see out the last of the light as a barge chugs northbound towards Ware and Hertford.

 

 

Along the Parkland Walk from Finsbury Park to Highgate

There was some discussion with my wife about the last time I’d been along Haringey’s Parkland Walk but in any case we’re sure a pram was involved meaning it must have been at least 10 years ago. It has become one of the most requested walks on my YouTube channel and with the snow starting to melt after the ‘Beast from the East’ had smothered London in Siberian snow, it seemed like the perfect timing.

Parkland Walk Haringey

The Parkland Walk follows the railway line that ran from Finsbury Park to Alexandra Palace that opened in 1867, closing to passengers in 1954 and carrying freight till 1964. The Parkland Walk opened in 1984 – the intervening 20 years would have been a fascinating period of its existence, left to be reclaimed by nature and intrepid urban ramblers.

Parkland Walk Haringey

For some reason I’ve always thought the Parkland Walk Nature Reserve could be accessed from Harringay Green Lanes, maybe it once connected with the small nature reserve there, but in reality it starts at Oxford Road on the far side of Finsbury Park. There the snow had already started to turn to slush but as the path moved into the foothills of the Northern Heights it transitioned into an icy track flanked by deep-sided banks of snow capped pines. It was along here that Stephen King got spooked by a mystical presence, recorded in the short story Crouch End. The synopsis on Wikipedia reads, “After encountering something unseen beyond a hedge, Lonnie becomes unhinged, and eventually disappears while the couple is walking through a tunnel”. Published in 1980, it means that King had been one of those intrepid urban ramblers walking the disused railway line when he encountered that eerie presence.

Parkland Walk Haringey

Parkland Walk Haringey

I encountered no superficial forces along the walk mostly just joggers, dog-walkers and Dads hand-in-hand with toddlers. I did meet a lovely bloke called Matt from Melbourne though who recognised me from my YouTube videos and said he’d watched most of them. That’s always nice.

Parkland Walk Haringey tunnel

Highgate Woods snow

At Highgate I entered Highgate Woods, a remnant of the old forest of Middlesex, now managed by the Corporation of London. The snow lay thick and heavy here, kids dragged sledges looking for a place to sled, stomping over the earthwork that carves a diagonal line across one corner of the woods. I wonder how much more of this ancient landscape is buried beneath the suburbanized hills and valleys of Highgate, Muswell, Hornsey and Crouch End.

ancient earthwork Highgate Woods

possible site of the ancient earthwork Highgate Woods

 

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.