Epping Lower Forest & out through North Weald to Greensted

On a map, Epping Lower Forest has never seemed too appealing – separated from the main body of Epping Forest by the town of Epping, I’ve bypassed it on the way out to Harlow but never walked its glades. In that quiet week between Christmas and New Year I set out from Epping towards Ongar and stepped off Epping Road into the Lower Forest for the first time.

Epping Lower Forest
E.N Buxton, writing in 1884, describes it as a “pretty wood”, where, “a summer’s afternoon may be well devoted to its exploration; I say summer advisedly, as parts of it lie low and swampy”. It was fortunate for me that despite approaching midday the ground was still mostly frozen, the deep muddy trenches of footpaths solid glistening white, so walking was more like clambering across rocky ground. A man walking his dog told me of a herd of 40 or 50 deer his mournful looking hound had just scattered, ‘if you keep your eye out on the far side you may see them re-gathering’. And sure enough, as I munched my M&S Turkey sandwich on the Stump Road I became aware of being watched silently by a small cluster of grey deer. It was magical.

Norwegian Memorial North Weald

The planes from North Weald Airfield had regularly passed loudly above the treetops and that was where I was heading next. An important fighter station during WW2, and still a busy civilian airfield with small planes buzzing off all over the country, there is a campaign to save the site as the threat of development looms. An iconic Hurricane fighter plane stands guard at the front gate. The security guards let me come in for a wander round to soak up the atmosphere and feel the wind whipping in across the runway. Pilots for 7 countries flew from RAF North Weald during the Second World War, the memorial near main road has a carved stone tablet dedicated to the Norwegian airmen who lost their lives.

North Weald Airfield
Following a tarmac path into a thicket across the road there’s a pillbox peeking out from the dense undergrowth. The narrow tunnelled entrance is littered with the usual detritus of the suburban fringe. Lords knows what you’d find inside. Moving across the fields on the far side of North Weald Bassett I now kick myself for virtually walking straight past North Weald Redoubt Fort, part of the late Victorian defences of London and now beloved of urbexers and ghosthunters.

North Weald WW2 defences
I cross the disused section of the Central Line near Ongar Park Lodge heading into the last light and dash back down the farm track to see the last steam train of the day chugging along the line back to Epping. A sign on the gate warns that a bull with a pregnant cow is in the field although I’m reassured by the couple in the Lodge that they’re elsewhere.

Toot Hill Water Tower

Entering a narrow strip of woodland by the field edge I see movement on the other side of the tree line – a man holding a bird, a shooter with his kill I assume. But as I move towards him for a chat I see that the bird is very much alive and standing proudly upon his arm. He tells me it’s a Harris Hawk, a hunting bird, that he’s been exercising out above the fields. The rabbit leg it methodically tears apart with its yellow hooked beak was acquired from a butchers rather than a burrow. It’s a majestic beast. We walk together down through the wood, the three of us, to the water tower at Toot Hill where we part company.

Greensted Green sunset

The walk isn’t to last much longer, cut short by a deep irrigation ditch carved across a field cutting me off from the continuation of the footpath. Climbing up through deep mud to the high ground at Greensted, boots caked in mud, I catch the most resplendent sunset breaking over the facing hill and know that 2018 will bring a year of great walks.

Neolithic Trackway through Epping Forest – walk to Cheshunt

The cold biting down on the winter dark towpath out of Waltham Abbey to Cheshunt, turned out to be the perfect ending to this walk back at the end of November. It seemed a folly to eschew the cafe warmth of Sun Street to head out along the road to Waltham Cross as the sun was setting at 4.15pm. A mile-and-a-half up the Lea Navigation to Cheshunt seemed reasonable, and I needed a little more to tag onto the schlepp from Theydon Bois. A fella slugged beer from a green bottle on the deck of his barge. A single white bike headlamp zig-zagged in the distance til it fizzed past me. An illuminated barge looked impossibly cosy, like a floating Hobbit Hole. The red lights flashed at the Cheshunt level crossing where I started my Ermine Street walk in the snow in February. I like this stretch of the towpath and was a little sad to give it up – but it was time to go home.

Epping Forest

The aim had been to cover a small pocket of Epping Forest I’d somehow bypassed on previous Forest wanders – north-west of Theydon Bois, beyond Amesbury Banks – around Crown Hill and Warren Wood. Crossing Epping Road I discovered that the asphalt path I was walking along followed the course of a raised Neolithic trackway that ran across boggy ground that had recently been carbon dated.

Potkiln wood path

Potkiln Wood path

I picked up a narrow overgrown path beside Crown Hill Farm, crossed the M25 and waded through deep muddy ruts along the edge of Potkiln Wood towards the outskirts of Waltham Abbey. Open countryside gave way to scrubby fields abutting 80’s housing estates navigated via reluctant footpaths. Mangy horses chewed grass down to the roots. The sun set perfectly over the Abbey, casting it ablaze in a heavenly endorsement of the 11th Century vision that led to the establishment of the Abbey by Tovi the Proud. Popping inside the Abbey just before closing, a CD of choral music and a 2018 Diary were pressed into my hands by a member of staff for the exchange of a few pence. And then it was out to that dark winter towpath.

Cobbins Brook

Cobbins Brook, Waltham Abbey

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.

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

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.

Walking in the Snow on Wanstead Flats

The overnight arrival of snow was announced early on Sunday morning by the excited screeching of my youngest son. I was initially less enthusiastic as I’d hope to head out on a long walk – perhaps even venture across the river, but a quick glance at the TfL website confirmed that a mere layer of snow had taken out several tube and train lines.

Snowman on Wanstead Flats

Just after midday, with my GoPro fully charged and the kids thawing out in front of the telly after a vicious backgarden snowball fight, I set out over Wanstead Flats. This has been my default location when it snows – the open expanses shielded by perimeter trees conducive to trapping in the snowfall – unlike the surrounding streets where it quickly turns into a grey sludge.

Fred Wigg and John Walsh Towers Leytonstone

The football pitches on the Leytonstone side had the goal posts set out in anticipation of Sunday morning matches but the field was dominated by a squad of snowmen.

Louds squeals and hollers went up from a mound of the Alexandra Lake near Aldersbrook where families sledged down to the waters edge. Flocks of birds swooped in for whole slices of bread. Others took advantage of frozen pontoons to rest on the body of the lake.

Snow on Wanstead Flats

As the light faded towards the 3.50pm sunset the temperature dropped another degree or two so that the cold sought out those gaps around the edge of your clothing. I trudged over more snow cloaked football pitches and eventually to the path leading through Bush Wood from where I watched the twinkling lights of the distant city skyline foregrounded by Leytonstone’s iconic Fred Wigg and John Walsh Towers.

Barrage balloon posts Wanstead Flats

WW2 Barrage balloon posts

Last night brought rain instead of snow. The kids didn’t get the hoped for day off school and as we made our way along the road this morning, we looked out for forlorn patches of the icy crystals that were the only remnants of winter wonderland of yesterday.

Alexandra Lake Wanstead Flats snow