A walk from the Central Line Loop at Newbury Park with its stunning bus station, along the Eastern Avenue, through Seven Kings Park, Goodmayes Hospital, St. Chad’s Park, Whalebone Lane to the site of a World War 2 anti-aircraft gun battery at Chadwell Heath.
A Friday morning at the end of September and the chance to walk along the River Roding from Wanstead to Barking. Finally I hunted down the elusive Alders Brook near the City of London Cemetery. A dog walker who has been strolling this way for 30 years told me he’d never heard of it and I had to show it marked on my old A-Z. But there it was, overgrown and clogged up but still running free through the undergrowth.
The other side of the construction carnage around Ilford town centre I stood on the streets where the Iron Age settlement of Uphall Camp stood, near the banks of the Roding. Today lines of terraced houses named after periods of British History cover the site.
I passed the Quaker burial grounds at Barking before picking up the riverbank path down to the wharfside developments that have temporarily created tumbleweed wild west outposts. After breaching the A13 sadly it was time to head back to Leytonstone before I had reached Beckton which was the aim for the day. But I had surveyed more of the land the lies along one of our sacred Eastern rivers, and seen parts of the London of the distant past and got a glimpse of one of the new Londons taking shape.
11am at the tube station bound for the end of the Central line at Epping where fieldpaths branch off from the transport network. Epping is like a frontier post on the border between London and the ancient tribal territories of Essex. The fields appear above rooftops. It’s a release, a necessary abandonment of the day-to-day, of the troubled city, its beehive activity.
It’s a sultry Saturday, I’m running a slight temperature. Fat sagging clouds hang oppressively low over the skyline.
Along beside a deepditch by the field edge with a trickling brook. The sound of rushing water beneath the iron Thames Water manhole cover , a slight whiff of sewage, a mechanical intrusion pulling you back to the toilets of West Essex, the sewage farm out here somewhere tucked away behind a thick barrier of weeds. Stems of borage sway in the autumn zephyr. An electricity substation hums beside a double hedge where muddy planks ferry you over the brook. Not a soul around. Solitude. ‘Solitary, slow and wayward’ will be my credo for the day.
Crossing Cobbins Brook I try to remember the story of Boudicca in these hills and the link to this modest watercourse. Did she wash the blood from her hands in its waters, or was it here that the warrior queen bled out?
I rest on a hilltop overlooking Orange Wood. The south-westerly gathers pace shunting the clouds reluctantly across the sky. You have to stop and admire the spectacle taking place above your head. Then the wind drops and the clouds slow to a resting stop.
Approaching Epping Green a deer skips across a patch of rough ground ahead of me. A posse of ramblers appear too close behind on Epping Long Green, and I feel as if I’m being pursued by a hungry pack. I skip over the deep muddy track that skirts copy wood sensing they will get bogged down on the ankle-deep ruts and it seems to work. I don’t see them again. In fact the only other person I see on the way down to Roydon is a fellow walker eating a sandwich on a bench in Nazeing Churchyard.
The light is dimming as I drop down the field edge to the beginnings of the River Stort Navigation and the point where I first considered this walk back in April when I was walking the towpath to Bishops Stortford.
The rain progresses from drizzle to pitter-patter as I move along the Lea to Rye House station and the journey’s end.
Leaving the Robert Elms Show at Broadcasting House I follow my nose through the streets of Fitzrovia. I notice the name change of Union Street to Riding House Street and the home of Olaudah Equiano whose autobiography describing his experiences of Slavery helped bring about its abolition.
I take in the new development of Pearson Square, which appears left-over from the Kings Cross redevelopment and designed to funnel the wind through its walkways.
The old apartment blocks remind me of the world of Patrick Hamilton in his novel The Midnight Bell, lonely boarding rooms for clerks and shop-girls, typists, and workers in the rag trade.
Soon my feet carry me into Charlotte Street and to the door of what in my experience is the most authentic Italian Cafe in London – people chatting in Italian, well-read copy of Gazetta Dello Sport folded up on the counter, bank of TVs with the latest Italian football news.
A quick look at the Persian and Bronze Age Britain galleries in the British Museum before strolling down Woburn Walk to Judd Books and the unavoidable purchases. At this point I’m on autopilot, well-worn tracks from my days living at the Angel, an afternoon amble, baby in the pram on the way to Coram’s Fields. The Bruswick Centre a glorious hunk of sculpted utopia rendered in concrete.
Sometimes in my desire to push the boundaries of London, to venture out beyond the city fringe into the provinces, it’s easy to overlook the multiple wonders of a mazy wander round the streets of Fitzrovia and Bloomsbury.
This was a walk of many wonders, starting on Lower Marsh behind Waterloo Station and linking William Blake at Lambeth with Blake at St. Mary’s Battersea where he married Catherine Boucher in 1782. I saw the same view from the church that Turner studied and believed I saw his chair until someone in the know told me otherwise after watching the video. I walked on the Thames foreshore coating my boots in riverine mud and marvelled at the Buddhas in Battersea Park. The horrors of Nine Elms had a duty to be logged for posterity, added to the early impressions I noted in This Other London. Crossing the Wandle where it makes its sacred confluence with The Thames I vowed to return and walk the Wandle Trail as I had planned to do for This Other London but went to Tooting Common instead (taking in Nine Elms and Battersea). And the ending where I accidentally found myself attending Evensong at The Leveller Church of St. Mary’s Putney.
On a personal level though one of the most rewarding echoes came after I’d packed the camera away and headed for the train home. Stopping for a mooch in the second-hand bookshop near Putney Bridge Tube I find a copy of Bruce Chatwin’s What Am I Doing Here that I instantly buy. I was delighted. Back at St. Mary’s Battersea I recalled walking here with Iain Sinclair during the shooting of London Overground, we schlepped on through Clapham Junction to Lavender Hill where Iain told the story (also in the book) of Andrew Kötting buying a copy of Chatwin’s collection of essays which Iain later annotated and deposited further along the route. I told my son the story and he said that perhaps this was Iain’s copy. It hadn’t occured to me, I checked, but alas no.
Rarely have I gone to track down a view glimpsed from a train, but in July I headed back out from Marylebone to Princes Risborough bound for a wooded ridge that fizzed past the train window on a journey to Birmingham in April. I’d quickly screenshot the map on my phone showing that the hill was rising above Hempton Wainhill near Chinnor and vowed to return.
It was a walk that delivered with almost every step, picking up the Ridgeway just south of Princes Risborough and following it past the tumuli on Lodge Hill. There I met a young man walking the length of the Ridgeway and I plugged him for tips for when I eventually set out on my 25 year old plan to walk this ancient path. The Ridgeway is ridiculously rich with prehistoric sites – I passed five Bronze Age tumuli in the space of a couple of miles around Bledlow Wood. The sense of walking into the past is profound on the Ridgeway and here it intersects with the equally (if not more) ancient Icknield Way.
The westward views from Chinnor Hill were stunning and here I walked off my OS Map 181 onto a much smaller scale older map I bought on ebay years ago. The previous owner evidently shared my interest in prehistoric sites and had circled all of them on the map.
Walking along a chalk ridge path through Radnage flicking tall wallflowers childhood Chilterns memories flooded back in a rush of images and feelings, a mashup of out-of-sync recollections – driving round lanes with my Dad listening to John Peel, coming home from backpacking wondering what to do next, racing our Jack Russell to the pigeon Dad had shot from the sky, sunsets over the M40 towards these hills from further down the valley at Wooburn Moor.
A chance encounter with a lady in a lane led me across her field to St. Mary Radnage with its restored 13th Century wall paintings. A beautiful, mystical spot to stop and reflect.
I’d run out of food and water by the time I ascended West Wycombe Hill and the famous Golden Ball and Hell Fire Caves. I was shown around Dashwood’s Church as they closed up after a cake sale and told how it was a collage of architectures Sir Frances Dashwood had seen on his Grand Tour in 1763 including the now destroyed temples of Palmyra.
I took refuge in the haunted George and Dragon on West Wycombe High Street dining on beer and crisps before slogging along the A40 into Wycombe. Before hitting the town centre, I stopped off to pay homage to the sacred River Wye as it flows gently through Mill End Rec near where my Mum went to school all those many years ago.
I needed to cover some mileage after an August of relatively shorter walks. To that end some sort of constrained walk was required where I could just follow a pre-ordained route or path – a road, river, trackway, railway, or something more esoteric or abstract that avoided an undue amount of map reading. The Metropolitan Line appealed as it would take me out to the edge of London being one of only two lines on the Underground that ventures outside Greater London (the Central Line is the other and that wasn’t running east from Bethnal Green due to new track being laid at Leytonstone).
I caught the Overground to Finchley Road and Frognal and made my way the short distance to Finchley Road Tube Station on the Metropolitan Line. Examining the map in the Station I figured that anywhere past Pinner would be a bonus – it was 1pm, I was leaving late as ever.
This first section to Wembley Park is one of the longest gaps between stations on the Underground – the longest being further along the Metropolitan Line between Chalfont & Latimer and Chesham at 3.9 miles – although Finchley Road to Wembley Park can’t be far behind. My walking route stuck fairly close to the track as far as Neasden where I then had to take a series of loops around Neasden Rail Depot, then along the North Circular, before crossing and heading up Blackbird Hill and reconnecting with the Metropolitan Line at Wembley Park Station. This two station leg of the walk clocked in at 9 miles somehow, which I’m still struggling to understand.
Slicing through West Hampstead, Kilburn, Willesden Green and Dollis Hill to Neasden was a slideshow of late Victorian and Edwardian railway suburbs bisected by traffic-clogged High Roads blackened by pollution. The tube trains rattled by behind the tall houses at the end of the gardens, heard but rarely seen from the street. It was a drizzly Sunday, a premature end to the summer, few people about. There were early signs of Metroland suburban villas in Brondesbury and Kilburn, redbrick medievalism, rookeries of accountants that spawned a generation of soap opera actors and rock stars. I wonder who lives there now.
Nascent high-rise blocks are going up around Wembley Stadium, I still miss the old towers, that new arch just doesn’t have the same grandeur. Soon the once historic home of football will just be a feature in another ‘area of opportunity’ dwarfed by the ‘safety-deposit boxes in the sky’.
After checking in at Preston Road Station, which looks oddly like it was plonked down on someone’s house when they relocated the station from across the road in 1932 and shortened the name from Preston Road Halt for Uxendon and Kenton, I cross John Billam Sports Ground to Woodcock Hill. The leaves on the trees that flank the Tube tracks are along turning bronze and amber, autumn seems to have arrived early this year, the price for that early burst of hot summer that feels long ago.
Harrow-on-the-Hill town centre was not flattered by the grey spittle celebrating the closing of the shops. I needed a cup of tea and a rest so headed to the shopping centre food court where long queues formed at Subway and Burger King so I crossed back to the Costa Coffee by the Tube Station and watched the shoppers evacuating the Town Centre like the fall of Saigon.
Leaving North Harrow I spotted an opportunity to make a long-delayed visit to Pinner Court – an art deco development of apartment buildings described in SPB Mais’ 1937 book England’s Character. Mais describes an expedition ‘suburb hunting’ in north-west London and writes of a “surprising moment of courage in building a series of dazzling white flats with green tiles, recessed balconies, multitudinous glass, and terraces fronting a communal public unfenced garden.” When I first read this 6 years ago I used the internet to track down the location of the flats at Pinner Court and planned a trip that I never made – it was slated as an episode of Ventures of Adventures in Topography, then a chapter of This Other London but remained elusive. Finally standing there on the unfenced public garden out front as described by Mais it didn’t disappoint. The building, designed by architect HJ Mark and completed in 1936 would have been gleaming new when Mais visited, it still sparkles even in the rain.
I wished I had more time to loiter in Pinner, but the light was fading along with my stamina and to stop now would have been fatal. Carluccio’s was bustling and there wasn’t a table to spare in Cafe Rouge. There were a couple of inviting old pubs beneath the church on the hill. I pushed on along the road to Northwood Hills and was rewarded by another modernist wonder at Elm Park Court designed by HF Webb also in 1936.
The rain hardened as I approached Northwood Hill station. I dug my poundshop groundsheet from my rucksack and spread it on a wet bench and munched an dinner of bread and banana. I was tired now but determined to chalk off one more station so forced myself onwards to Northwood with its proud high street and war memorial. Luckily there was a comfortable friendly pub not far from the station where the locals watched the Belgium v Greece match. A singer with a guitar started playing cover versions to a digital backing track and people instantly got up and danced. The perfect end to a walk into Metroland.