Walk around the London Olympic Park during Lockdown

On Friday 8th May I decided to take a walk around the London Olympic Park (Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park) to see what it was like during lockdown. The park is just a 15-minute walk from my home, but crossing the junction of Ruckholt Road and Orient Way felt like breaching a major boundary. Temple Mills Lane, a rare survivor of the old pre-Olympic streetplan, was quiet. Two people hit balls against the wall of the Lea Valley Tennis and Hockey Centre.  The Velodrome was closed but a dribble of cyclists were taking advantage of the outdoor track. The ghosts of the Eton Manor Sports Club and Eastway Cycle Track wafted in the air. Groups of people had socially distant kickarounds and some bold souls threw frisbees. A solitary security guard/park ranger went up to speak to clusters of people blatantly flouting the government restrictions which, were relaxed slightly 3 days later.  The walk then continued beside the River Lea and pass back towards Hackney Marsh via East Wick and Here East.

Olympic Park lockdown

You can also watch my most recent lockdown walk here.

Lockdown walk around Leyton using digital maps

I wanted to give my lockdown walks around the local area a bit of added interested and remembered a couple of great digital resources that reveal layers of information about the streets of London.

Firstly I explored Museum of London Archaeology’s Archaeology of Greater London interactive map which allows you to see the locations of archaeological finds from the prehistoric through to the medieaval period. Leyton and Leytonstone are relatively rich in prehistoric artefacts – mostly stone axes and flint shards, but there was also a Lower Paleolithic Floor at Walnut Tree House at the end of Francis Road, and a socketed Bronze Age Axe found on Murchison Road near the junction with Francis Road. I wondered if this had any relation to the Bronze Age settlement excavated at Oliver Close, Leyton not for away from Francis Road on the other side of the High Road.

Leyton archaeology lockdown walk

There was surprisingly little from later eras, however a decorared Saxon Tombstone was found on Leyton High Road near the junction with Lindley Road. This places it in the zone of what W.H Weston believes was the Saxon settlement, or ‘Tun’ that gives Leyton its name ‘Lea-Tun’. This is also close to the site of the Roman settlement found by estate workers in the grounds of Leyton Grange on the opposite side of the High Road.

The other layer to my lockdown walk was provided by the morbidly fascinating Bomb Sight interactive map that translates the London bomb census from October 1940 to June 1941 onto a navigable map, allowing you to identify individual buildings hit by World War Two bombs.

 

Last long walk before the Lockdown

This walk on Saturday 21st March feels like a very long time ago now. The pubs had been ordered to close the night before. Supermarket shelves were emptied in a frenzy of panic buying. Social distancing measures had recently been introduced. People had been urged to only use public transport for essential journeys. We knew the lockdown was imminent and that this was likely to be my last decent walk for a while.

I wanted a route that took me out into nature and kept me clear of the crowds. It also needed to deliver me home without the need for public transport. My feet knew the way and trod a path through Epping Forest from Leytonstone to Highams Park then down through Woodford to the River Roding.

Lockdown walk

On the way out I passed Leytonstone House, which had been home to members of the Buxton Family from the late 18th Century until 1868. It’s where Edward North Buxton lived for a time before he moved to Buckhurst Hill and authored his definitive guide to Epping Forest in 1884. There’s a mulberry tree in the grounds of Leytonstone House that’d been adorned with brightly coloured tree dressings, I imagine to mark the Spring Equinox the day before.

There were an alarming number of people on Leyton Flats heading towards the Hollow Ponds drawn  by the arrival of Spring. The Gorse bushes and Blackthorn trees were in full blossom. I paid homage to the Birch Well and headed for Gilbert’s Slade, giving the crowds the slip in the process.

Crossing the North Circular I picked up a footpath I hadn’t used before running parallel to the road and followed it to new sections of the forest for me. The white noise of the road was oddly cleansing. Turning back through the thick trees of the forest, all was calm. The trees seemed to be murmuring that everything would be ok.

lockdown walk

After skirting Humphrey Repton’s Highams Park Lake it was time to make the turn over the ridge occupied by Woodford Green and cross into the Roding Valley. The streets slumbered like a deep Sunday afternoon in the 1950’s. Views over rooftops stretched to the far side of the river valley. The water tower at Claybury Hospital stood proud on its hill. Passing through the streets of Buckhurst Hill I found myself on Forest Edge, crossing tracks once more with E.N Buxton. Knighton Wood contains the remnants of the landscaped garden of his house.

lockdown walk

I eventually picked up the River Roding on the other side of Ray Park. Of all the many times I’ve walked the Roding between Wanstead and Buckhurst Hill I’ve only once walked it in a southerly direction, and that was 13 years ago. Today it was blissfully free of people. I stopped to pause just after passing Charlie Brown’s Roundabout. An Egret swooped low to the water and elegantly landed in the shade of an overhanging tree. For a moment it was as if everything was how it should be. All the troubles of the world were far away from that riverbank.

The Return to Modena

It’s strange to think of Modena in Coronavirus lockdown, even though we approach a similar situation here in London. My visit there in early December 2019 was a poignant return to the city where I’d lived with my wife from 2000-01. I hadn’t considered the symmetry of being there at the beginning of the new millennium and returning as its second decade ended. I was absconding into the past, stalking memories.

Coming out of Modena Station was like stepping back through time. I looked straightaway for the cycle shed where we would park our bikes before jumping on the train for Saturday day-trips to the other towns and cities of Emilia-Romagna – Bologna, Ferrara, Parma, Carpi, Vignola. That first view of Modena was almost overwhelming.

Modena

I let my feet guide me around the streets after I’d found my apartment in Via Masone. They led me to Piazza Grande and into the Duomo, then eventually out to the edge of the city along Via Emilia. It was close to sunset, I was being drawn away from the Historic Centre towards the busy arterial road. The memories I’d annotated onto the streets those twenty years ago guided me back to the door of the building that’d housed the English School where we’d come to work. Now it was a firm of accountants.

I continued to follow these invisible tracks over the next two days from morning into the night. Enjoying the simple pleasures of a morning cappuccino and brioche in a bar, my Italian slowly, falteringly returning. Frosty nightwalks round those medieval streets dripping in Christmas lights, gazing up at shuttered windows wondering about the lives of the people who dwelt there. It was quiet enough then in the early December build-up to Christmas, quarantined it must be deadly silent.

Modena

Although keen to get back to my family, I was reluctant to leave Modena. The election result that broke during the night confirmed Britain would be leaving the EU. I was glad I’d sat out the horror show in this city that still wore the mantle of old Europe.

I gave myself enough time for a drift around the centre of Bologna before heading out to the airport. The first snowflakes floated in beneath the high porticos that line Via Independenza. By the time I reached Piazza Maggiore kids were scooping up giant snowballs and a blizzard blew viciously along the portico. At this point I realised I’d left my hat on the train. At least I’d be leaving something behind in Italy.

 

The end of winter in Epping Forest

Trees Epping Forest

Loughton Camp

Walk from Loughton Camp to Honey Lane Plain and back via Baldwin’s Hill

3.30pm on Sunday afternoon and a walk up from the station to the sentinel trees of Loughton Camp – the watchers in the woods. Why have I been drawn along this route throughout the winter? There is great comfort in the kind embrace of Loughton Camp, it feels safe here, as it would have done back through time.

Trees Epping Forest

I pushed through bronzed bracken and birchbark scattered the ground on the edge of Great Monk Wood. I wanted to seek out new corners of Epping Forest and identified patches on the map to the north of High Beach.

Trees Epping Forest

Through the trees down the hill from High Beach, following unnamed streams skipping over fallen branches. Have I walked here before? A summer five years ago heading for Hoddesdon where I think I gave up at Waltham Abbey and headed home.

Honey Lane

The thatched water trough at the foot of Honey Lane Plain was the point I was heading for, sparked by a photo in J.A. Brimble’s London’s Epping Forest – perhaps the last point in the forest to mark off my map (there must surely be others?). The forest appears to have spread down the hill, encroaching on the open plain that Brimble described in 1950. The ground sodden, like a water meadow, it has been known as Honey Lane Plain for at least 500 years. The Woodbine pub looks like an inviting stop on a summer walk.

Honey Lane Plain
I climb back up through the trees for a beautiful sunset view from the top of the hill. Towns and towers on distant ridges, places that I can only think it must be St Albans and Hatfield and Welwyn Garden City.

Deershelter Plain
The sun had set by the time I reached Deershelter Plain. The thick tufts of grass acted as islands among a sheet of ankle deep water. The deer skipped through the Birch trees in clusters as I sploshed onwards into the gloom.

full moon
Thankfully I found the Green Ride just as the last light gave way and could be guided by the full moon. There was not a soul around, even the deer were still. Perfectly peaceful. I’d decided to head back to Loughton via Baldwin’s Hill, foolishly hoping to get there for sunset.

The darkness obscured the true nature of the deep muddy ruts that the Clay Road had become. The last climb was painful slog up a mountain of mud. I slid out of the forest onto the street and straight into a large puddle.

Secrets of the City with Iain Sinclair

Iain Sinclair walk – Austin Friars to Mile End Road

This was a mystery walk, and a walk of secrets revealed. It seemed to come out of the blue. I thanked the great writer Iain Sinclair for the directions he’d provided for the Austerlitz walk I did with Bob and Roberta Smith and sent him a link to the video. He replied saying that he’d show me the house in Alderney Road where he believed the fictional character in Sebald’s book had lived. In addition, he said, we could add to the Van Gogh walk we’d done at the back end of 2018, and loop in two of Iain’s recent projects – his journey to Peru following the footsteps of his great-grandfather, and a piece he’d written for the Swedenborg Review.

Iain Sinclair John Rogers

John Rogers and Iain Sinclair at Austin Friars

I met Iain outside WH Smith at Liverpool Street Station, once part of the opulent Great Eastern Hotel. Among Iain’s many casual jobs in the past, he’d worked night shifts at the Station (from memory as a baggage handler?) in the days when it was a dark and dingy terminus, as described in Austerlitz. We moved on quickly through the City, heading south down Old Broad Street, breeching London Wall, then diving into Austin Friars Passage off Great Winchester Street. Iain touches the ‘pregnant’ wall in the alleyway, “you actually can put your hand on it, avoiding the chewing gum, and you take the temperature of another era of London,” Iain says. ‘Taking the temperature’ of London is a good description of Iain Sinclair’s work. He’s had an amazing knack of finding the territory that contains the story of London at that particular time, the Thatcher era in Downriver, the mid-90′ end of Tory rule in Lights Out for the Territory, the early bravado Blair years at the turn of the millenium with London Orbital, through to the new city being spun out of the Overground railway with London Overground. Today we’d be slicing across these timelines ending back with one of Iain’s earliest works, Lud Heat, where he accidentally gave birth to a particular Anglo-Celtic variation of psychogeography while working as a gardener in the churchyards of the East End.

 

Iain Sinclair John Rogers

Plantation Lane

The church at Austin Friars was home to London’s Dutch community in the 19th Century and was visited by Vincent Van Gogh. His sketch of Austin Friars Church is one of the few artworks he produced during his time in England. We follow this leg of the Van Gogh trail into Gracechurch Street, where the commercial gallery he worked for had a branch.

A coffee shop triggers the next chain of assocations on our walk, which now diverts its theme to Iain’s recent travels to Peru tracing the journey of his great grandfather, who had been sent there in the late 1800’s by the Peruvian Corporation of London. His mission had been to travel deep into the upper Amazon to see what crops could be grown there. The conclusion that the land would be suitable for the cultivation of coffee has its legacy in coffee shops and supermarket shelves the world over. You pick up references to this notable ancestor in various Sinclair works, particularly in Dining on Stones. This Peru expedition will be the subject of Iain’s next book, and you can read his blog posts of the trip here. There’s  a podcast in post-production and a film, The Gold Machine directed by Grant Gee, is due in the autumn.

Thames Wapping

 

We inevitably find ourside by the Thames, passing through the tourists laying seige to the Tower of London, talking of the legend of Bran the Blessed and the alignments linked by myth laid out in E.O. Gordon’s book, Prehistoric London, its mounds and circles (1904). From the start of this walk I’ve had no idea of the route, just following Iain through the City, knowing only that we will at some point arrive at Alderney Road in Stepney. We retrace some of our steps through Wapping from one of the walks for our London Overground film, passing the Thomas Rainsborough memorial and Turner’s Old Star.

Iain Sinclair walk

Chigwell Hill

We cross The Highway, the spire of St. George in the East lancing the East End sky. Designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and tagged as a nodal point in the psychogeography of London, largely thanks to Iain Sinclair’s early writings, you’d assume that St. George was where we were heading. But it turns out to be a site with possibly more tangible esoteric resonances.

Dodging into a small park beside the throbbing road, I find Iain stood looking at a London plane tree on a raised oblong of graveled ground. Swedenborg Gardens marks the spot where the Swedish philosopher and mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg was buried, in a churchyard since destroyed. It links to the Sebald story via Rabbi Chayim Samuel Jacob Falk, who was also said to be a kabbalist and alchemist. Falk, a friend and neighbour of Swedenborg’s in nearby Wellclose Square was buried in the Alderney Road Jewish Cemetery where Jacques Austerlitz lived in an a house overlooking the burial ground. “Both of these celebrated aliens, seekers and scholars, were buried in the ground of the territory: Falk at Alderney Road and Swedenborg beside the Highway,” wrote Iain Sinclair in the Swedenborg Review.

Iain Sinclair walk

Iain Sinclair in Swedenborg Gardens

From Swedenborg Gardens we pass along storied Cable Street and up through Watney Market as the traders are packing away for the day. The dangling lights from the metal stall frames sway like lanterns in the late afternoon darkness. Sidney Street is yet another location on this schlepp with a tale to tell, Seige House feels like an odd tribute to the events of 1911 that took place down here.

Across Mile End Road and we home in on the end of the walk at Alderney Road, still calm and peaceful as described by W.G Sebald in Austerlitz. Iain guides me to the house where he believes the fictional Jacques Austerlitz would have lived given what can be extracted from the book. By now it’s pitch black and I ask Iain to stand under a street light for the camera. He willingly poses in the shower of lamplight, the occasional passing car casting additional illumination – the perfect end to an incredible walk.

Iain Sinclair walk

Following W.G Sebald’s Austerlitz through the East End

Austerlitz walk – Liverpool Street to Mile End

A walk following the route taken by W.G Sebald through the East End of London when writing his acclaimed novel Austerlitz, in the company of artist Bob and Roberta Smith. The central character of the book, Jacques Austerlitz arrived in England at Liverpool Street Station as a young child on the Kindertransport from Czechoslovakia just before the outbreak of the Second World War. The station plays an important role in the book and was where our walk started. The route was provided to Bob and I by writer Iain Sinclair who had re-traced Sebald’s footsteps guided by poet Stephen Watts who had led Sebald on his East End drifts. An evocative account of these walks can be found in Iain’s wonderful book The Last London.

Our walk ended in the gloom of Tower Hamlets Cemetery, unable to find the stone angel pictured in Sebald’s book.

The key locations are: – The Great Eastern Hotel, Liverpool Street Station, Toynbee Hall, Greatorex Street (home of Yiddish poet Abraham Stencl), Brady Street Jewish Cemetery, Alderney Road, Tower Hamlets Cemetery, St. Clement’s Hospital (site of).