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).

The London Loop – Ewell to Coulsdon

It’d been too long since my last walk on the London Loop back in August 2019, when I’d walked section 8 from Kingston to Ewell. Summer felt like a distant memory when I alighted at Ewell West Station to pick up London’s 150-mile orbital walking trail.

London Loop Section 7 (walking in the reverse direction)

This section starts with a magnificent piece of modernist architecture at Bourne Hall, a giant flying saucer shaped 1970 building that landed on the grounds of the former Garbrand Hall. The route takes you through a fine park with a lake and fountains close to the headsprings of the Hogsmill River that was the principal feature of Section 8 of the London Loop.

Through the village of Ewell we cross into Nonsuch Park, once one of Henry VIII’s hunting grounds that boasted a palace unlike ‘nonsuch elsewhere in the world’, so it’s said. This is a park that invites digression from the main route of the Loop across it’s wide lawns and along avenues.

Ewell

There’s a mile or so of road walking on the other side of Nonsuch traversing streets of postcard suburbia before coming to the end of Section 7 (or the start if walking in the clockwise direction) on Banstead Downs Golf Course. This was the site of one of the more intriguing features of the walk, and one not mentioned on the Tfl guide. Marked on the Ordnance Survey map are a series of tumuli that at the time I found difficult to identify. Checking online after the walk it seems if the Gally Hills Tumuli are in fact Saxon ‘hlaews’, a relatively rare type of burial mound in England with only around 50 or so being identified. The Historic England listing states that these would have been for ‘high ranking’ individuals. An excavation revealed “an extended inhumation with a bronze hanging bowl, a shield- boss, a split socketed iron spear-head and an iron knife.” Two of the mounds still stand in the rough beside the fairway watching the golfers and the ‘loopers’ pass by.

There is a detailed archaeological report here: THE SAXON BARROW AT GALLY HILLS, BANSTEAD DOWN, SURREY by JAMES F.BARFOOT and DAVID PRICE WILLIAMS

Banstead Downs

London Loop Section 6

Section 6 continues across Banstead Downs with some glorious views back across the London basin, towers poking up on the horizon. We then follow Freedown Lane – a long track that runs behind High Down Prison. The prison wall that we walk past is one of the remains of the Victorian asylum that previously occupied the site. Just beyond the prison, there were the remnants of what must have been a signficant building half buried along the top of the bank. Being that the prison was built on the land of the former asylum and hospital, I’m not sure what was here, my best guess is that they were ancillary buildings connected to the hospital, perhaps relating to its wartime use.

The Loop takes us through Oaks Park, landscaped for the Earl of Derby in the 18th Century (the fella who gave his name to the famous race at Epsom). Many of the old trees remain as does the stone grotto. I would liked to have dwelt here awhile but was up against the light, although I was still able to enjoy more fine views back across London.

Banstead Downs

The path progressed across a lavender farm with an old red phonebox in the middle of the field – glorious I imagine in summer. Then across Carshalton Road Pastures, a ridge of chalk downland at the northern extremity of the North Downs. We pick up a sunken path topped by what the Tfl leaflet calls an “ancient hedgerow”, bringing us out onto a housing estate initially developed for returning soldiers from WW1. It’s streetwalking from here down the hill to Coulsdon, with its appealing High Street blighted by angry rush hour traffic and the end (or start) of Section 6 of the London Loop.

Can’t wait to get back out there – the London Loop never disappoints.

A walk along the Clitterhouse Brook with Nick Papadimitriou

 

A41 bridge

Cricklewood Lane

The other day I found myself crossing over the A41 where it intersects with Cricklewood Lane. This bridge instantly triggered memories of walks with Nick Papadimitriou, starting in the summer of 2005, that often took us over this metal bridge with the Hendon Way pulsing below and views of the distant high ground that would later become the subject of Nick’s celebrated book, Scarp.

Clitterhouse Brook

The Clitterhouse Brook

It’s been a few years since I last walked with Nick, following a period of time when we made The London Perambulator, then our radio show on Resonance fm, Ventures and Adventures in Topography. So I was delighted to find him there stood beside the Clitterhouse Brook on Child’s Hill (ok, I rang on his door). Nick spontaneously suggested we walk the length of the Clitterhouse Brook to the point where it makes its confluence with the River Brent at Brent Cross.

Clitterhouse Brook

The Hendon Way

We crossed Basing Hill Park where the water laid heavy on the path, and then walked along the Hendon Way, taking the subway beneath the road to Clitterhouse Recreation Ground.

Clitterhouse

Clitterhouse Recreation Ground

The Clitterhouse Brook

The Clitterhouse Brook

“Clitterhouse Farm means ‘clay house’ farm. Earliest known origin of this farm dates from c.1321 when it was owned by John de Langton. Up until around the 1770s it was a manor and was owned by St Bartholomew’s Hospital from the 15 th to 20th centuries. ” The survey by Cranfield University mentions that some of the farm buildings still exist in one corner of the playing field.

(Geophysical Survey of Land at Clitterhouse Playing Field, Brent London, 2015)

IMG_2927

Tin Town

We followed the brook into a postwar housing estate that Nick said was know locally as ‘Tin Town’, due to the metal cladding on the houses.

Clitterhouse

Clitterhouse

Brentfarm Cottage, Nick told me was the site of a sewage farm now occupied by a school. The Hendon Fever Hospital was also located hereabouts on former farmland sold off in the 1880’s.

Clitterhouse Brook

The Clitterhouse Brook gushed from a concrete pipe and flowed beneath the North Circular to make its confluence with the River Brent on the far side of the road near Brent Cross Shopping Centre. It was a majestic sight to see this suburban stream rushing to meet its mother river before working its way to the Thames at Brentford.

It was also great to be back out walking with Nick again.