London River Walk – from the Ravensbourne to the Beck

The idea was Iain’s, noticing that I rarely ventured south of the river he suggested a walk through his manor, Beckenham, following the River Beck. In the course of deciding where to start we somehow settled on the mouth of the River Ravensbourne at Deptford Creek.

River Ravensbourne

River Ravensbourne

We worked our way South through morning Greenwich and over Deptford Bridge, through Brookmill Park to Lewisham, where we gave a nod to the River Quaggy. The passage through Ladywell took me back to the walk I did for This Other London in autumn 2012 to Herne Hill Velodrome that passed this way over Ladywell Fields. Where I peeled off that day over Blythe Hill, Iain and I carried on beside the waters of the Ravensbourne across Catford Bridge to the Linear Park where the Ravensbourne departs and we followed the Pool River to Bellingham.

confluence of The Beck and the Chaffinch Brook

confluence of The Beck and the Chaffinch Brook

In Cator Park, Beckenham (after a David Bowie detour) we find the confluence of the Pool and the Beck (and also see the Chaffinch Brook) and from this point, entering early evening and pushing on for 15 miles for the day, we are now fixed on the source of The Beck.

Families are out in force perambulating around the broad waters of Kelsey Park, it’s a good time to stop for ice cream. It gives us the legs to push on through outer suburbia bound for Shirley.

source of the River Beck

source of the River Beck

I won’t spoil the end of the video, but the moment of finding the source, not quite where we expected, was a moment of mild euphoria. 21-miles river walking through South London, two middle-aged men gazed with love and amazement at a trickle of water dribbling from a pipe in a narrow strip of woodland in Shirley.

 

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.

Blowing out the cobwebs – Leyton Loop via Hackney Marsh and Whipps Cross

Coronation Gardens Leyton

Needed to stretch the legs for the first time post-Yuletide sloth and gluttony. A Yule Yomp if you like. Even so I didn’t emerge from the Christmas-lit tinsel-draped cave till 3pm, freezing cold and directionless. With visiting family still encamped I should resist the urge to keep walking West till the will left me, but could I?

Coronation Gardens is always a good place to wander and muse. The Lea Valley sunset starting to break through the bare trees. Looking at the lonely bandstand I remembered the first Leyton Food Market back in May that wraps itself around the bandstand on Saturdays. I could almost feel the Fille Brook (Philly Brook) gurgling beneath the footpath that runs down the northern edge.

Quadrant Leyton
The development imposed upon the old car lot that occupied the corner of Oliver Road and Ruckholt looks near to completion staring blankly at the row of cottages on the other side of Dunedin Road. Waltham Forest Council recently unveiled the Lea Valley Eastside Vision which identifies Leyton as “a key growth area” centred on three ‘Key Areas’ of: Leyton (Leyton Mills, Coronation Gardens, and New Spitalfields Market), Lea Bridge which includes a potentially troubling waterside development that could encroach upon Leyton Marshes, and Church Road which seems to mostly build on the work they have already done on Marsh Lane Fields. This ‘Vision’ needs proper scrutiny before a response can be given – but looking at this first phase on Ruckholt Road I do not feel overwhelmed with optimism. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

Hackney Marsh
They were few people out walking as I made my way over the patchwork of football pitches on Hackney Marshes. A dog teased me with its ball – running up with the ball held aloft and veering away as I reached down to play. Eventually it got bored of the game and scarpered off after its owner.

It was dark as I made my way along the Lea Navigation Towpath past Millfields and the small orchard we wassailed a few years ago with the Hackney Tree Musketeers. I stood on the Lea Bridge swivelling East and West trying to decide which way to go before being swayed by obligation and turning East the length of Lea Bridge Road up to Whipps Cross Roundabout.

Lea Bridge Road Leyton graffiti
There was little illumination along Whipps Cross Road aside from the trundling boxes of white light in the form of the frequent buses and flickering bicycle lights in the undergrowth around the Hollow Ponds. The Hitchcock Hotel presented itself at the right time – I rarely go there for a drink, although it was one of the first London pubs I ever visited, back in 1989. I exit, one pint down and half-time in the football I live in hope that I will see the Hitchcock fulfil its true potential as a really good pub.

Hitchcock Hotel Leytonstone
I reach home just after 6, the family have moved to the table engaged in a furious game of Monopoly that would make the Wolf of Wall Street retire to the sofa. I watch the rest of the footie and start to plan expeditions for the coming year.

Save the Heart of London – the destruction of St. Giles

A return to Denmark Street to further survey the radical reshaping of this vital centre of Britain’s musical heritage. The pavements from Holborn through St. Giles are littered with cranes and tipper trucks clustered around new buildings wrapped in plastic.

Holborn New Building

I first came here to film in January 2015 with Save Soho Campaigner Tim Arnold. We stood outside the 12 Bar Club on the day it closed and watched the equipment carried out into removal vans. Carlo, one of the co-owners of the club, was philosophical seeing the closure of the 12 Bar as part of the ‘revamping’ of the area.

I came back later that week when the club was occupied by various musicians and bohemians in a brief last burst of musical life before the venue closed for good waiting to be transformed into a chic hotel and restaurant.

Earlier this year I surveyed the street once again with Save Tin Pan Alley’s Henry Scott-Irvine, who valiantly campaigns for the street to be given the same heritage protection as nearby Hatton Garden’s jewellery trade.

The other week it was good to see the guitar shops still trading while the cement mixers trundle past. The Save Denmark Street Campaign/Save TPA fight on and have managed to get Grade II Listed building status for 6 and 7 Denmark Street where the Sex Pistols rehearsed and their graffiti still adorns the walls.

Denmark Place development

The development closes in all around – the back of Denmark Place is now a blank slate for the developers to fill with some kind of new concept shopping mall. Crossrail is smashing its way through and has already claimed the iconic Astoria Theatre and is threatening to swallow up Curzon Soho. The core of London is being rebuilt before our eyes, go and see it while you can.

Through the fields from Epping to Harlow

Epping Footpath

Severe delays on the Central means there’s a 10-minute wait for the tube to Epping. It’s 2.55pm and with the evenings starting to shorten from their glorious midsummer peak – end of August and it gets dark just after 8 so every minute is precious when trying to push on out of London. Today’s walk is inspired by a 1940’s ramble book – More Walks with Fieldfare of the London Evening News – Through the Fields to Harlow. “Here is a short, but very lovely walk in open countryside beyond Epping”, Fieldfare writes. Cross-referencing Fieldfare’s route with the Ordnance Survey Map, the M11 and North Basset Aerodrome blight his “paths (that) are seldom trodden”. The choice is to attempt to follow his 1940’s directions contrasting the scene then and now – or work out an alternative route across the fields to Harlow that captures the spirit of the original walk.

I’m distracted by the fact that I’ve just realised I have toothpaste in my hair, and then by the discovery that I’ve left my notebook at home and start tapping thoughts into my phone; “Men are like dogs – we need to piss against a tree”, which I think was a justification for abandoning the family for the large part of the day to head off across fields and through woods alone.

Sat by the war memorial in Epping I plot a path to Harlow that crosses fields, skirts farms and passes through woods, satisfied that if Fieldfare were writing his book today this is the route he would take (perhaps).

Epping Footpath
Once I’ve located the first footpath opposite Wintry Wood Smallholding, jumping the stile you land in open countryside with a Richard Long line lighting the way across fields. A hawk circles a recently combined plot. Oak trees shade the field edge. Bees dance around the borage. On a late summer’s day there’s no finer place to be than in a field somewhere on the edge of London.

Epping Footpath
There are various options for the way forward at Thornwood Common and while gazing into the OS map a man walking his dog offers to show me the path. Along a gravel drive we come to a milestone on the grass verge under a tree. He tells me that this track was the old London Road that wound through fields from Essex. The milestone, he says, may not be in its original place as the forest signposts and milestones were moved during the war and not all of them were returned to the correct locations. He points to where the footpath continues over a small bridge through the hedge and heads off back on his walk.

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The next path leads across fields of swaying golden crops and past a mountain of hay bales. I rest on the edge of a wood and look out at the vast eastern skies towards greater Essex. This would be the perfect setting for an English Western movie – an 18th Century tale of outlaws and farm-steaders.

The wind gathers and shakes the trees – dark clouds lumber across the sky – rain is on the way. The unharvested corn stalks rattle against each other. Andrew Kötting as the Straw Bear shimmers in the minds eye. He walked garbed as this folkloric character from Whittlesea – from High Beach to Northamptonshire for his film, By Our Selves, based on Iain Sinclair’s book, Edge of the Orison. He reprised the role for my film London Overground stalking the Old Kent Road and Brompton Cemetery.

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A water tower I’d spotted in the distance at the start of the walk is now in range and I fix on that was my waymarker. A strong stink of death comes from a deep ditch around a small wood on the perimeter of Rye Hill Common; there are scattered feathers of a recent fox kill in the stubble on the field edge. It’s marked on the OS map as a moat – although details are scant, only that there were once two houses within the moat. Most of Rye Hill Common was enclosed after the Second World War, and now developers hover producing plans for an extension of the Harlow suburbs further across fields.

With the light fading it’s that time to look for a pub or the station in no particular order. This is the walk after the walk – the plod, hopefully short. It’s been an idyllic fieldpath ramble that I’m sure would not have given Fieldfare future shock if he had somehow slipped through time to 2016. The next part would have killed him. I cannot think of a greater contrast of landscapes.

Harlow Bus Shelter
It started to rain and quickly got dark. My phone plotted out the 3.5-mile route across Harlow to the station. Every bus stop was vandalised. Mini-roundabouts were laid out in intricate patterns like an asphalt crop circle. Wikipedia says that Harlow has an impressive collection of public art and civic sculpture. The only built object of note I saw on my sodden schlep was a gigantic strip-lit multi-storey carpark. An interstellar star cruiser landed in the town centre. An hour and twenty minutes after exiting the fields in late summer euphoria Harlow Station appears through the sideways rain. The £13 train fare back to London the final kick in the shins.

East of Upminster – to London Gateway

10am – a whole day’s walk ahead, but no idea where to go – none. I start heading west on the Central Line but with the possibility of branching back east at Stratford Overground or at Mile End on the District Line. Where will I end up at sunset? The Estuary appeals but not Essex nor the train journey out there. I need a river to follow to make my mind up for me.

I find myself at 10.30 on the C2C – a spontaneous decision at Stratford – my departure point decided at the moment I boarded without a ticket to take me beyond the Oyster Card zone which ends at Upminster. I relax with the most difficult part of the day over. I’ll be walking east from Upminster towards the Thames Estuary somewhere. Off the map now for me.

Upminster Wimpy
Leaving the Station it’s hard not to admire the Wimpy Bar – I need to return some day for a Knickerbocker Glory to relive childhood birthday treats. 11am and Upminster is starting to move. I stop for provisions at Waitrose – pork pie reduced to 55p, water, Cornish pasty and muesli bar. That should set me up for the day.

Passing beneath the M25 is the real point of departure – breaking free of the gravitational field of London into lands beyond. The drivers in Essex seem to want to kill you – there is a noticeable upping of the aggression when you walk out of London and emerge in an Essex country road. So the half-a-mile I walk along St. Mary’s Lane is pure terror. I’ve never been so happy to see a footpath as the one that branched off around the edge of a cornfield from a bend in the road – who cared where it was headed. Today would be a case study in the pros and cons of walking outside the city without an OS map – Apple maps lack public footpaths and contours – they merely give you enough of a hint as to where you are and which way you’re headed.

Upminster Level Crossing
The footpath led to a level crossing and then continued up a steep climb chest-high with weeds and thistles.  The going was tough over rock hard plough in the searing heat. I drank most of my water. The footpath dumped me near an intersection of busy A-Roads – 2 miles in and I was nearly done. I decided to follow the A127 for a few miles – cover some ground with my head down beside the throbbing traffic. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

A127 Road to Southend
Twice I failed to find my way off the road – tightrope walking the slip road curbstone and rabbit running the roundabouts just to find myself back on the A127 on the other side. 19 miles to Southend – should I submit to an asphalt yomp and collapse into an amusement arcade at night in the ‘End?

Past a van abandoned on the pavement – all doors wide open, interior stripped bare. Past Brentwood Valeting Centre with the high performance cars queued up for some spit and polish. I had to escape the road.

The B-Road into Laindon went on-and-on, featureless, giving nothing away. I’d been walking 4 hours and was close to despair – write it off as a failed venture and get the train home from Basildon.

I was saved by a bridleway – innocuously enough heading away off the road encased in hawthorn. Two young kids chased Pokemon on their phones. I rested on a tree trunk on the high side of Langdon Recreation Ground munching on sweaty pork products and found the will the push on. I wanted to reach water at some point today – a sunset over the estuary would be a bonus.

Langdon Hills Park
The paths wending through trees crossed the road and take me into Langdon Hills Country Park. I get a rush of memories – school trip to Swanage during the Falklands War, Scout Camp in Hampshire when Liverpool beat Roma on penalties to win the European Cup, the walk in Rendlesham Forest on New Year’s Eve, hill villages in Thailand (from the smell of hay). I was so happy wandering through Coombe Wood, Great Sutton Wood and Northlands Wood that I was mildly amused when it transpired I’d walked in a giant loop back to where I’d begun. At that point I would have gladly seen out the rest of the day walking in circles in the Langdon Hills.

stanford-le-hope footpath
I did though eventually find my way into a field of tall swaying wheat with a footpath carved across the centre which ran into a wood on the far side but then ended beside the A13 near Stanford-le-Hope. I could bare no more roads so stuck to the edge of the field hoping to find an exit.

At the bottom of the field the perfect babbling brook ran in a deep gulley under the cool shade of the trees. I scooped soothing cold water over my head and neck before jumping across and scrambling up the far bank and across the road into Stanford-le-Hope. I’d been out of water for a while in the hot sun and rehydrated at the first available corner shop – sculling a can of 7-Up by the bins outside like I’d just emerged from a trek across the Sahara.
Stanford-le-Hope
There was a clear route open now across the marshes to the Estuary – 6pm and heading towards that sunset over the water.
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That first view of the Thames lapping over the mud flats at Stanford Wharf was priceless. I drank it in thinking now I’d be able to walk eastwards along the river. A family were putting away a picnic they’d had on a single square of sand on the shore surrounded by heavy clumps of salt marsh grasses. The path to Pitsea headed back inland – the sight of a level crossing induced flashbacks to the dark origins of this quest so I turned away. Another path ran alongside a high concrete wall beside the marshland – reminiscent of a similar path back near Tilbury Power Station I’d walked along a few times in the past, so I carried on assuming it would likewise hug the outside wall of the container port on the riverside.

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Ascending a tall set of metal steps at the end I found myself caught in a peculiar pen – on a concrete platform jutting out into the river – the railway line behind me, and ahead the boulders lining the river bank. Refusing to turn back after all I’d been through the only available option was to clamber on over the rocks.
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It soon became clear that this wasn’t exactly a legitimate pathway and could land me straight in the river at the end. There was no apparent exit so I clambered through a clump of thick brambles to a high concrete wall and found a point where, with my arms above my head and a bit of leap, I could attempt to pull myself over the wall.

Puffed out and adrenalized I paused lying face down atop the wall, I couldn’t fall down the other side until I’d worked out the extent of the drop and what was down there. Once satisfied it was safe I allowed myself to fall down into the tall weeds. Blood was streaming down my arms where I’d scraped them pulling myself over the wall. I tried to work out where I was. A building site beside the entrance to London’s new container terminal London Gateway owned by the Dubai government corporation DP World.
London Gateway
I waited assuming that security would be on their way and looked forward to being escorted out, it would be the first time today that I’d be sure where I was going – if I was lucky I might even get a lift, somewhere along the way I’d twisted my ankle and with the adrenalin ebbing away it was starting to hurt.

London Gateway IMG_0072
But nobody came – in fact there didn’t seem to be a soul around. And so I wandered the deserted new roads of this unnerving preview of the future. This vast terrain of blank box distribution units – the enormous robot cranes that automatically unload shipping containers once the work of tens of thousands of people. Compare this empty wasteland of sleeping robots with those images of the old crowded London docks. It sends a chill down the spine.

London Gateway
I wandered for an hour around the empty logistics park and didn’t see a single human being. Eventually I ran out of road and found myself at a high locked gate. The barbed wire ran into the horizon in one direction. My only escape was to jump a stream and awkwardly and carefully limbo my way between the barbed wire into a farmer’s field ripping my shirt in the process as the final injury of the day.

London Gateway
I did get my sunset. It wasn’t looking over the Estuary though – it was sitting on a mound in the centre of a roundabout at the main entrance to London Gateway – near where I’d clambered over the wall. I sat there with a supper of Co-Op Sandwich and another can of fizzy drink. I was sunburnt, worn out, scratched arms and ripped shirt. It had been a good walk.

Epping Forest Wanderings (after E.N. Buxton)

I don’t need much of a push into Epping Forest, but on this occasion it was hearing the Epping Forest Rangers give a fascinating talk at the Forest Residents Association AGM. They handed out some magazines that listed great view points in the forest – so accompanied by my son we set off nominally for Fern Hill.

E.N. Buxton Epping Forest

I rarely stick to a set route in the forest – it seems to fly in the face of the idea of abandoning city life amongst the ancient boughs. I’m also a terrible map reader. I always take an OS map and my 1923 copy of E.N. Buxton’s Epping Forest but I rarely use them.

Willow Trail Epping Forest

We let the woodland spirits take over as we ascended the hill out of Loughton – and then let road safety guide us across the chaotic forest roads. Resting on a log somewhere in the vicinity of the Cuckoo Pits and Cuckoo Brook we decided to head for Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge and refreshments in the Travelodge next door.

Fern Hill will be for another day …. or another year.