Lost in Epping Forest in the Dark

“The spirit of devotion for the woods, which breathes through the simple expression of the poet [John Clare], is akin to “that hereditary spell of forests”, which Robert Louis Stevenson describes as acting “on the mind of man who still remembers and salutes the ancient refuge of his race.”

From the opening pages of London’s Forest by P.J.S Perceval published in 1909 which follows on from a quote by John Clare. He continues:

“Such a refuge once was London. Indeed she makes her first claim on history as a mere stockade in the woods – the Llyndin of the ancient Britons. Her wood and fen and heath, with the sweet country which once surrounded her, have disappeared, while a part only of the Essex Forest remains to recall the once great forest of the East Saxon Kingdom, which once had Lundentune for its port and ecclesiastical centre.”

To me Epping Forest is still a place of refuge, a haven from the pressures of urban life, a step through time. I headed out on Saturday, departing the tube at Woodford, then turning down Whitehall Lane by Bancroft’s School. Perceval writes how Bancroft’s was once the site of a poor-house. Its annual fees of £16,323 are more in the tradition of the mansion belonging to the Earl of Essex that had previously occupied the same land. The Earl wanting to be close to his supposed love Queen Elizabeth I when she used the hunting lodge on Chingford Plain.

Warren Pond Epping Forest

My wander took me past the Warren Pond and Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge. I reflected that this is often where my forest walks end, in the bar of the Premier Inn next door but today I wanted to walk on into sunset. I crossed Chingford Plain and took a path beside the road for a short distance before turning into the rump of the trees past bushcraft shelters dotted amongst the undergrowth.

bushcraft shelter epping forest

The light started to give out as I crossed the Cuckoo Brook so I consulted my map to pick a route towards an exit and a way home. I decided to walk East towards Loughton, a simple case of staying on the path I was on till I hit the road by The Warren.

I got caught up in the reverie of being alone in the woods while people bustled around going home from the shops, pubs filled up, and streets were abuzz with activity. Then I came upon a narrow lane in the darkness and looked for the way across to head down towards Loughton but the far side was blocked by hedgerows and fences. I followed the lane what I thought was south till finally becoming slightly concerned that I was going in the wrong direction. My map reading isn’t the best but surely I couldn’t have gone wrong on a straight path. I checked my compass then the map on my phone – both indicated that I was heading north towards High Beach, placing me between Springfield Farm and the Field Study Centre. Impossible I thought, how could that be?

Epping Forest Chingford Map

I decided to follow my nose and turned away from the road back into the now pitch black forest and walked for 15 minutes or so using instinct, enjoying the quiet of the night trees. Something splashed in a pool beside the path then was gone into the undergrowth. A pair of green eyes looked out at me from a clump of holly. I started to feel like an intruder – the animals that avoid human contact during daylight could reasonably expect to have the forest to themselves at night but here I was clomping along the gravel path disturbing their nocturnal activities. I stood still for a moment hoping to sense some wildlife moving around in the trees – but there was just silence. Beautiful silence.

I checked my phone once more and it indicated that I was heading North East. I put this down to lack of GPS coverage in the forest and returned to my cheap old-school compass. It too told me that I was walking in a northeastern direction. I decided to head South for Chingford, and hopefully pick up paths familiar enough to be recognised in the dark. My concern now wasn’t spending a few hours walking in circles in the forest at night (actually very pleasant) but finding myself having to make my way along dark country roads to a station at the mercy of speeding cars not anticipating a stray walker.

I still couldn’t make out any familiar features in the gloom but simply kept following the compass needle south enjoying the quiet of the evening. It made me think it would be nice to spend an entire night wandering the forest if you could manage to avoid the doggers, cottagers, and deep ditches (if people stuck to having woodland sex in the ditches that would help to avoid all hazards in one go).

Soon I recognised the section of path leading down from the Long Hills towards Magpie Hill and Connaught Water. The sign for the Cuckoo Trail marked the route that I assumed I’d taken an hour previously, highlighting just how far off trail I’d been. The trees parted and the sky opened up over Chingford Plain.

Settled with a pint of IPA and packet of Prawn Cocktail crisps in the Premier Inn next to the Hunting Lodge I studied my OS Map trying to work out how I’d managed to get my location so wrong. It boiled down to one simple error – that when I’d crossed the Cuckoo Brook and checked my map in the poor light I’d assumed I was on a different path – one that ran east – west, when in fact I was beyond Woodman’s Glade heading north through Bury Wood across Ludgate Plain towards Lippitts Hill. The loudness of the helicopters from the Police heliport should have been a clue.

But it proved once again, that even what starts out as a simple walk in the woods can turn into a minor adventure as long as you manage to get lost.

 

Ramble on the edge of Essex and London

It is my ambition to explore every inch of the Ordnance Survey Explorer 174 Map of Epping Forest & Lee Valley – Hertford & Harlow. That may not sound particularly ambitious but as I often end up following familiar tracks through Epping Forest or along the valley floor it seems to become ever more elusive.

So at the weekend I set off to fill in one small section – from Debden Station, over the M11 and around Theydon Mead to the village of Abridge, and from there over fields, across Gravel Lane and on to Grange Hill Station on the Central Line Loop. It was a walk that also linked the two eastern branches of the Central Line.

A large part of the walk is covered in Pathfinder’s Rambles in Essex published by British Railways in 1950, something I only discovered when I recognised a field near Chigwell and remembered I’d been there when recording an episode of Ventures and Adventures in Topography for Resonance fm. The route we followed was described in Pathfinder’s earlier publication Afoot Round London.

It was uplifting to finally welcome Spring, arms t-shirt bare for the first time outside in months and months. I’d set out this way with my son just a few weeks ago under heavy skies and plodding through mud ankle-deep. Instead of crossing the M11, we worked our way around the Debden Estate and up the hill to Theydon Bois, filling in a few more grids of the map.

Heading down over sunset fields into Grange Hill with woodsmoke tightly hugging the ground it almost felt as if I’d ventured far out of London rather than simply traversed farmland spanning the space between tube stations. A phalanx of oak trees crest a ridge guiding the way to the cemetery path and out onto road as the daylight receded. I can tell already that it’s going to be a great summer of walking.

 

Railway Walk Odyssey with World War 2 Bomb Gospel Oak to Perivale

To celebrate the re-opening of the Barking to Gospel Oak line (albeit with the original two carriage trains that were running on the line before its temporary closure last year for conversion to 4 carriage trains) I decided to hop on a train at Leyton Midland Road Station to Gospel Oak. The plan from there was to walk a section of the railway from Hampstead Heath to Willesden Junction that we somehow missed from the London Overground film I made with Iain Sinclair.

The nightwalk I filmed with Iain and Andrew Kotting ended for me at Hampstead Heath, having walked up from Haggerston. Iain and Andrew continued round the 33-mile circuit through the night finishing at 10 the next morning. The station is closed today. A 500lb World War Two German bomb had been discovered on a building site near the tracks and had closed the line from Camden Road to Willesden Junction.

Billy Fury Way Finchley

Between Hampstead Heath and Finchley Road and Frognal Stations the Overground runs through a tunnel bored through the heart of the hill. I pass the site of the great composer Edward Elgar’s house and at Finchley Road progress along Billy Fury Way – although unlike Elgar, the 1950’s Rock’n’Roller seems to have a tenuous connection to the area, from what I can find it amounts to occasionally recording at the nearby Decca Studios.

WW2 Bomb Brondesbury Willesden Lane

People mill around at West Hampstead and Brondesbury Stations, trying to plot alternative transport routes with the line still closed. Then at Willesden Lane and Winchester Avenue I come to the police tape closing off the road. The bomb is about 100 yards away beneath a crane of a building site. Everybody has been evacuated from a large area spanning from Brondesbury to Queens Park. Several schools have been closed. There are a group of around 5 or 6 people speaking to the solitary policeman asking when they might be able to go back to their homes. One old man stands stock still on the wrong side of the tape telling the police officer that he doesn’t have anywhere else to go and no family or friends to call. A lady from the Council arrives shortly and takes him off to a refuge Brent Council have set up for residents from the evacuated area. Cars pull up to the road block then turn round and head back down Willesden Lane. It is a surreal scene.

Willesden Junction

I move on through Paddington Old Cemetery and Queens Park, past Kensal Rise Station and arrive tired at Willesden Junction where the London Overground filming resumed with a walk around the area in the company of Iain Sinclair and Chris Petit.

P1040823

I could end the walk here, neatly filling in a gap of my Overground circuit a year too late but can feel an extra couple of miles in my feet. I head up Harlesden High Street and then turn west into the Park Royal Industrial Estate – the largest in London. Picking up the A40, a pang of childhood nostalgia that is associated with this road wells up. I grew up within its acoustic footprint some 20+ miles away in Buckinghamshire and this western edge of London was our idea of the big city.

Hoover Building Perivale

The Hoover Building is getting another make-over, from a Tesco megastore to luxury flats. The light fades to black. Tail lights on the incessant thrum of passing cars sparkle like Christmas lights. Time to head up to Perivale station and head home.

Northern Heights – Highbury to Hornsey

Highbury Fields – one of my favourite places in London, yeah I know, I have a lot of favourite places in London. It was here that Londoners sought refuge during the Great Fire of 1666 and watched the city below burn down. It still feels like a place of retreat from the madness of Highbury Corner and Holloway Road.

Passing the Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee Clocktower I stop to admire Aubert Court, a fine modernist block of flats designed by E C P Monson, who also built Islington Town Hall and numerous other public buildings and social housing across London from around 1895 – 1940. The flats occupy land that was once home to Highbury College of Dissenters, opened in 1825. Alexander Aubert, who gives his name to Aubert Court and Aubert Road was a wealthy stockbroker who owned a mansion and grounds in Highbury and most notably built an enormous observatory on one wing of Highbury House.

Highbury Clocktower

It is odd now to be able to wander around the perimeter of the old Arsenal pitch at Highbury – now Highbury Stadium Square, diminished by conversion to flats built into the stands, hard to recall being in here with 40,000 chanting fans.

I move on through Gillespie Road Nature Reserve and across Finsbury Park, feeling fatigued and wondering where to head next. The high ground of the Northern Heights draws me on towards Hornsey and to the corner shop made famous by the great ZomCom Shaun of the Dead. When I came here for one of the chapters in my book This Other London, I studied the scene in the film where Shaun wakes up on the day of the Zombie outbreak and, heavily hungover, walks across to the shop for a can of Diet Coke and a Cornetto. I then attempted to recreate single tracking shot with my point and shoot camera.

I stopped shooting my weekly YouTube video at this point and wander onto Crouch End Broadway where I pick up a History of Highbury pamphlet I first bought 20 years ago and lost, a book on Prehistoric England, and a copy of the Tales of King Arthur that I used to read in my Primary School Library.

 

Epic Lea Valley Hike from Leytonstone to Hertford

7.30am and the dog has pissed in my boot. I discover this as I slide my foot into my great new walking boots to head out on a slightly crazed quest to walk from Leytonstone to Hertford or at least as far up the Lea Valley as my legs will carry me in a day.

Hoe Street Bakers Arms Walthamstow
It’s a cold and misty pre-Christmas dawn as I slope past Leyton Midland Road Station – the Barking to Gospel Oak line on hiatus while its platforms are lengthened and the line electrified.

An hour later at the end of Chingford Road, Walthamstow my legs are getting sore which doesn’t bode well for the long walk ahead. I need to pace myself, let the natural rhythm of the plod take over. Clear my mind.

Walthamstow Stadium
The road into Sewardstone is cloaked in thick mist. I pass an abandoned row of breeze block sheds apparently used for selling fireworks. I cross the border out of London into Essex – an uncanny quarter of the Borough of Waltham Forest, London in the country.

Sewardstone
Turning off Sewardstone Road down misty Mill Lane I get my second wind. I figure I’ll need to have a third and fourth wind to reach Ware or Hertford. Crossing the rough ground beside the reservoirs I am stalked by horses – three friendly creatures who follow me for around 200 yards before returning to their grazing spot in the bushes.

Reaching Waltham Abbey at midday I can’t face the extra mile round trip into town for lunch so pop into MaccyD’s for a Big Mac Meal and recuperation although I keep my stop to a strict 30 minutes before returning to the Lea footpath.

Sewardstone

Beyond Waltham Abbey and the Outer London Defence Ring the path is clear of people. The mist rises off the Lea reminding me of the dense fog of the Po Valley.

2.15pm and stop for tea and Kit Kat by the river at Broxbourne. 2.30pm back on the move.

St. Margaret's Wood

St. Margaret’s Wood

Onto the New River Path at Broxbourne up to Great Amwell past pumping stations and through St. Margaret’s wood and into the dark of winter evening. The plan the night before had been to walk the entire 28-miles of the New River Path from Islington to Hertford. But answering the alarm call at 6.30am on 5 hours sleep the thought of an hours travel to start a walk I probably wouldn’t finish wasn’t enough to shift me from under the duvet. However starting the walk from home was far more appealing.

Great Eastern Tavern Hertford

Finish at 5.30pm at the Great Eastern Tavern near Hertford East Station – a lovely cosy old pub with friendly staff and a good pint of McMullen’s ale. The feet are humming but that’s to be expected of a walk of around 23-miles. Christmas Carols are playing on the jukebox ‘Simply having a wonderful Christmas time’. A second pint to make sure the ale reaches all ten toes before hopping the train into Stratford.

Shepherd’s Bush and the history of UK Entertainment

A random reply to a tweet found me waiting for the person behind the Twitter account ‘Shepherd’s Bush Calling’ beside the war memorial on Shepherd’s Bush Green. I was then taken on a wonderful tour of a selection of the historical nuggets that place Shepherd’s Bush at the heart of the history of the 20th Century UK Entertainment Industry.

From the offices of Associated London Scripts – home to Spike Milligan, and Galton and Simpson among many other luminaries, then to Lime Grove Studios where Alfred Hitchcock shot some of his masterpieces and Doctor Who was later filmed. We admired the fine old music halls and cinemas on Shepherd’s Bush Green before surveying the wreckage of BBC TV Centre being converted into luxury flats.

Possibly my favourite moment though was not caught on camera, two elderly Syrian ladies picking water cress from the pond in Hammersmith Park which they were going to take home and put in sandwiches.

Massive thanks to Adrian for an enlightening tour of Shepherd’s Bush.

Pudding Mill Lane, Sugar House Lane & IKEA City

Pudding Mill Lane

I hadn’t been back to Pudding Mill Lane on the edge of Stratford for at least a year and the area around Sugar House Lane for around 2, so I was keen to see what was happening there now.

Pudding Mill Lane Station is all slick and new, seemingly fully completed and you can now exit without walking through a tight tunnel of plastic fencing, although construction around the station appears to be still at an early stage of development.

 Marshgate Lane Stratford P1040006

The Lost River

Marshgate Business Centre is still intact – a final reminder of the old industrial Stratford. Digging out copies of ‘Your Park’ from 2007 & 2008, the glossy pamphlets that were dropped through our doors in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics, there is an update in September 2007 about the relocation of newts from the Pudding Mill River before the river can be drained. It was ultimately filled in and I believe the Olympic Stadium was built on the site.

City Mill River

It is also curious to note that on a ‘Walk the Olympic Park’ map published in July 2007 the section of the City Mill River where it crosses Marshgate Lane is marked as the St Thomas Creek. The most detailed description I’ve found of the network of rivers that branch off from the River Lea once it passes through Leyton, is in a 1936 publication celebrating the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Borough of West Ham. ‘Fifty Years a Borough’ published by the County Borough Council West Ham, makes no mention of the St Thomas Creek, so it raises the question of where the Olympic Park cartographers got the name from.

 Danes Yard Stratford

The Ikea City

Crossing Stratford High Street I pass down Sugar House Lane into a vast building site. The former light industrial zone has been flattened to the ground. Diggers move back and forth flattening the muddy earth creating a blank slate from which the property development arm of flatpack furniture retail giant IKEA can build what has been dubbed as ‘IKEA City’. So far the only visible sign of what’s to come is a peculiar wicker-looking sculpture rising into the sky from Danes Yard. The rest of Strand East will consist of 1,200 new homes, workspaces and a designer hotel. Insert your own jokes here about allen keys and flatpack construction nightmares. One of the many security guards on site told me the ground preparation work will continue for another year before a 3 year building period.

Strand East Stratford London P1040102

Three Mills

I cross an iron bridge onto Three Mills Island where the Bow Creek, River Lea and Three Mills Wall River meet – an auspicious spot. Three Mills Studios continues to form a vital function in the London production sector and over recent years has been the location for Tim Burton animations, Big Brother, 28 Days Later, among others. In the week that London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced his intention to make London the most film-friendly city in the world the future of Three Mills must surely look bright.

Three Mills Island London P1040162

The Prescott Channel

The sunset attempts to crack through the hard cloud shell and signals that it’s time to head home. The path along the edge of Three Mills Green gives a final cross-section view of the Strand East site, the only two standing structures a late Victorian brick building and a tall chimney on the West of Sugar House Lane. The Prescott Channel branches off from the Three Mills Wall River at the far end of Three Mills Green and what appear to be geese make a noisy crash landing on the waterway startling a bunch of gently drifting ducks.