Ancient England: Journey to the Neolithic at Maiden Bower

This expedition out to Maiden Bower marked the final installment in a trilogy of film collaborations with Dave Binns and Gary Lammin – and what an incredible journey it’s been. We started in Spring 2015 with a visit to an Iron Age burial mound near Ware in Hertfordshire overlooking the Lea Valley. This was followed the next Spring by an incursion into the Bartlow Hills on the Essex/Cambridgeshire border to the enormous burial mounds Dave dubbed the ‘pyramids of Essex’. Maiden Bower marked something slightly different, not a burial site although with a surface layer of Iron Age occupation overlaying a much earlier Neolithic causedway enclosure.

Maiden Bower Houghton Regis photo

Southern England: An Archaeological Guide (1973), James Dyer

“A number of disconnected ditch sections containing broken human and animal bones were found during chalk quarrying in the last century, and both neolithic and Iron Age ditch sections are still visible in the quarry face. Neolithic pottery and an antler comb have been obtained from the site.”

Southern England: An Archaeological Guide (1973), James Dyer

As we made our way across the field of waist-high wheat Gary lugged his heavy stainless steel guitar. He stopped on the gravel track plonked the case down and cracked out his axe. This was a place to play slide blues guitar he said, and proceeded to knock out a glorious riff to the hedgerow seed pods flickering in the breeze.

Gary Lammin guitar

Dave soon started to prepare the ground. The recurring theme of site re-use across the ages spanning thousands of years – and how this site, like the other 2 in the series represented the emergence of new hierarchies that slowly eased out the old primitive communism of hunter-gather societies. Except here with the causewayed enclosure we were delving much deeper into the past than on previous field trips.

Maiden Bower Houghton Regis

Maiden Bower

“This roughly circular earthwork encloses about 11 acres. There is an original entrance on the SE, the gap on the N not yet having proved to be original…. Occupation probably began in the 5th-4th centuries BC and lasted until the arrival of the Romans.”

– Guide to Prehistoric ENGLAND (1976), Nicholas Thomas

Maiden Bower occupies an imposing position on a plateau at the top of Dunstable Downs with expansive views stretching out from the sheer drop down into the chalk quarry. The circular enclosure is maintained by trees and shrubs, the camp interior populated by grasses, wild flowers and butterflies. Gary played again, Dave held forth on how modern society arose from sites such as this. We sat in the grass, Gary slept, and we somehow lost time at Maiden Bower, a magical place.

View from Maiden Bower Dunstable Downs

Sat amongst the tall grass with the sun bronzing our heads, Dave started talking about how recent discoveries at Gobekli Tepe have changed our view of the neolithic transition and how this could lead to a further video. Maybe we could link it with nearby Waulud’s Bank, the ‘henge monument’ embracing the source of the River Lea, he suggested.

‘I’m up for it’, I said drowsily, keen to further explore this area rich in prehistoric sites. ‘But it messes up the trilogy’, I add.

‘Maybe it’s the start of a new series’, Dave posits.

Pole Hill, Yardley Hill, Gilwell Park, Barn Hill to Enfield

With London wrapped in tragedy I needed to get to high ground, it’s a primal urge, safety, perspective. I remembered the walk of 3 years ago, I now realise on the same date – 18th June – an accidental derive over hills and down to Sewardstone for sunset. This time it was deliberate.

The walk down from Woodford was the pre-amble, a loosening that threw in an unexplored corner of the forest near the Warren Pond. Then along Chingford High Street, clocks forever set 30 years behind the rest of London it seems. No chips from Sam’s this time – straight up the side of the Kings Head to the top of Pole Hill – a marker of time, the centre of the world.

Path to Pole Hill Chingford

Path to Pole Hill Chingford

The fields sloping down the spine of Pole Hill were as beautiful in the evening light as I remembered them. A couple had pitched a tent beneath the trees and were sat ate eating dinner. The views from the top of Yardley Hill were stunning and difficult to wrench away from. The City skyline dwarfed by foregroud trees of Hawk Wood, the enclosure in the forest of pre-Roman times. I could imagine the great Forest of Kent stretching from the south shore of the Thames down to the sea.

Along Sewardstone Green, somehow deep with mud then up and over the final hill with fingers of god breaking out through sagging clouds onto Brimsdown.

footpath to Barn Hill Sewardstone

footpath to Barn Hill Sewardstone

Crossing the Lea Valley at Sewardstone I bisect the walk just before the winter solstice, setting out in pre-dawn from Leytonstone to Hertford, at this point stalked by horses. I give a nod to my winter self and push on along the sunset river banks for Enfield.

 

Knighton Wood Buckhurst Hill

You never know where your feet will carry you – in this case aided by a W13 bus and riding it to the end at Woodford Wells. Passing The Horse and Well, an 18th Century coaching inn established 1730, I dipped down into Knighton Wood, once part of the grounds of the grand house belonging to Edward North Buxton (1860-1924), author the classic Epping Forest guide book that I take on all my forest walks. Buxton had lived for a period of time at Leytonstone House (along with various other members of the Buxton family). He spent much of his life campaigning to preserve Epping Forest at a time when it was threatened with development using his considerable influence through his family (who were also part of the Truman, Hanley, Buxton Brewing empire and Barclays Bank) and as MP for Walthamstow.

Lord's Bushes Knighton Wood

I can find no mention of Knighton Wood in Buxton’s Epping Forest, published in 1885, but he does mention Lord’s Bushes which forms part of this glorious area of woodland, “conspicuous for its picturesque oaks and beeches, and dense undergrowth of hollies …. an hour may be well spent in exploring its beautiful glades.”

I spent more than an hour exploring its ‘beautiful glades’, now enhanced by some of the surviving landscaping of Buxton’s home at Knighton House with resplendent rhododendrons in full bloom. There are also the ornamental lakes, wilder, more untamed than the ponds in Wanstead Park. I had pleasant chats with the dog walkers and at one point stood inside a hollowed out tree staring up at the sky the ambient sound being processed through mould, bark, and insect colonies to create an organic mix. I would love to mic that tree up, a giant arboreal ear. For a moment I had stepped out of the day-to-day urban life and was backpacking once more, the musty woody aroma, the embrace of the forest transporting me back to jungle trekking in Thailand, Sumatra, Sarawak. Such is the magic and enchantment of trees.

Grenfell Tower fire protest and march

Two men stood with their backs to the police cordon across Lancaster Road, the burnt out shell of Grenfell Tower behind them. They both held large laminated photos – one with three small girls, the other their parents and grandmother. “I am the Uncle to these three girls”, he told me, Mierna Choukair, Fatima Choukair, Zainab Choukair, “here’s my sister Nadia, that’s her husband Bassem, and at the end is my Mum”. He had received no information from the authorities about them, he still doesn’t know if they survived the horrific fire that as of 4pm on Saturday 17th June the police are saying has claimed 58 lives. The crowd that had gathered earlier on Friday evening at Kensinton and Chelsea Town Hall put the death toll much higher. The BBC’s legendary reporter John Sweeney told me that 100 people had died, when I approached him with my camera on the march between the Town Hall and Grenfell Tower, described by some local residents as “the scene of the crime”.

Justice for Grenfell Tower protest
The man’s brother holding the photos of Nadia, Bassem, and Sirria read out the text messages Bassem had sent from his flat while the fire consumed Grenfell Tower. “At 1.15am Bassem sent a message to his workplace saying ‘Morning guys there is a fire in my building on the 4th Floor and I’m living on the 22nd Floor we are not able to leave the building and don’t know what is going to happen. Sorry guys for letting you down.”
“At 2.41 my sister sent a message to me, a voice message saying ‘Hello Nabil there is a fire in our building we are sitting in our flat, ok bye’, and that was it”. He hasn’t heard from them since and the authorities and hospitals aren’t telling them anything.
Grenfell Tower missing persons
The sense among the crowd that had gathered at Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall was one being abandoned, not just in the face of this horrific tragedy, but over years. Of being ignored and maligned. But although there was a sense of anguished grief and anger there was an overwhelming message of unity and togetherness. We stand together in our call for answers and justice, was the popular refrain.

Making our way along Kensington Church Street, Holland Park Ave and Ladbroke Grove, cars and buses trapped in traffic brought to a standstill beeped their horns in support, bus drivers reached out to shake the hands of passing protestors calmly walking up the street. One person directed my camera towards the stalled 328 bus bound for ‘Chelsea World’s End’.

Flowers and candles at Notting Hill Church

As the crowds gathered at the end of Lancaster Road with Grenfell Tower looming behind a lady handed me a bottle of water. She returned a couple of minutes later with a Tuna and Cucumber sandwich. A teenage boy worked through the throng handing out cartons of Capri Sun. Looking at the photocopied pictures of the missing persons taped to the walls and doors of Notting Hill Methodist Church I had to choke back the tears. What has happened here is too terrible to comprehend.

 

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On Monday 19th June I joined people gathered for a vigil in Parliament Square, Westminster  to remember the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire.

Exploring Old & New Barking – Abbey Ruins to Barking Riverside

There’s yet another new London taking shape on the edge of Barking at Barking Riverside:

“A brand new neighbourhood is being created alongside two km of Thames river frontage at Barking Riverside, one of the most ambitious and important new developments in the UK. Outline planning permission was granted in 2007 for 10,800 homes on the former power station site.”Barking Riverside website

The excursion out to Barking Riverside began wandering through the footprint of the ruins of Barking Abbey, that great powerhouse of early medieval London. I then followed the banks of the River Roding down to Barking Creek and Creekmouth Open Space, before continuing along River Road to the huge Barking Riverside site, finishing at Dagenham Dock Station.

Wetlands Trail – Woodberry Wetlands to Walthamstow Wetlands

The approach to Woodberry Wetlands from Harringay Green Lanes was dominated by the, to put it mildly, ‘controversial’ redevelopment of Woodberry Down Estate. The blocks, old and new dominate one side of the horizon around this urban oasis created by the London Wildlife Trust out of an active reservoir. It was only when talking to London Wildlife Trust staff, here to celebrate the first anniversary of Woodberry Wetlands, that I learnt of how this reservoir drew water from the New River and fed it down to the Walthamstow Reservoirs via an underground culvert. It seems incredible that the New River, opened in 1613 to supply London with drinking water still fulfills an important function in the city’s infrastructure.

 

Woodberry Down Estate Woodberry Wetlands

Once the Klezmer Band started to wind down I exited the Wetlands onto the New River Path and slowly followed it down to the edge of Stamford Hill carving a trail along the path of the culvert down to Walthamstow Wetlands at the other end of the pipe.

The New River Harringay

There were plenty of people passing over Clapton Common and I exchanged a few words with some Hasidic Jewish gentlemen about the fate of Tower Court Estate. One landmark that remains is the Church of the Good Shepherd, now a Georgian Orthodox Church, built by the curious Agapemonite Victorian sex cult.

Tower Court Hackney

New signage indicates the intention to create a trail linking the two wetlands. When I next follow this path, after the formal opening of Walthamstow Wetlands, I fully expect to see clumps of backpacked urban hikers schlepping the couple of miles between the two waterscapes.

Woodberry Wetlands Walthamstow Wetlands

Springfield Park is the perfect place to sit on a bench at sunset and watch the world drift by looking across at the dark wooded hills on the eastern flank of the Lea Valley. Revived, I passed Walthamstow Marshes in the fading light to the closed gates of Walthamstow Wetlands due to open this autumn. It took me back to standing at the spot just after sunset in January 2013 when I walked a wide loop from Leytonstone across Leyton Lammas Lands to Wassail the fruit trees in Clapton and Springfield Park before walking back through Walthamstow. With that in mind I made my way along the deserted market for a couple of pints in The Chequers to toast north east London’s new Wetlands.

 

Old West Ham to Stanley Kubrick’s Beckton

Here’s some footage from the walk I did for Chapter 2 of my book This Other London in the summer of 2012, just before the London Olympics – starting in Leytonstone then going past West Ham Church and the site of Stratford Langthorne Abbey onwards to the site of Beckton Gas Works where Stanley Kubrick shot much of his Vietnam War movie Full Metal Jacket.

Beckton Gas Works

I’ve been sitting on over 4 hours of footage shot on the 10 This Other London walks slowly filtering out a few short videos but much of it remains unseen. The video footage, photos and notes took on an almost entirely different form once processed into a book, they’ve served their purpose and can stay in the bottom drawer. But every now and again I’ll dip back into that archive and release some of those raw video notes back out into the world.

You can download the audiobook of This Other London here