Walk along (and off) Watling Street from Cricklewood to Oxford Circus

Cricklewood

After visiting a friend I decided to go for stroll in a sudden outbreak of September sun. Considering the options – my friend’s suggestion of walking to Horsenden Hill, or my vague pang to retrace old routes to Stonebridge Park in the name of nostalgia – I didn’t fancy the long tube ride home at the end. Eventually, my feet decided for me, as they often do, and drew me south along the A5, the old Watling Street, one of the most ancient roads in Britain.

Shoot-Up Hill

There’s an air of chaos on parts of this oldest of thoroughfares, things going down left-right-and-centre. ‘It’s crazy’, says the Scottish guy in the queue at Co-op check-out as I wait to pay for my discounted falafel wrap. One bloke seems to object to me admiring the architecture – or was he offering further information? It was hard to tell in that vibe.

Hillman CricklewoodAt various times I considered deviating from the route as I passed Brondesbury and Kilburn High Road stations but something kept me plodding on, like a well-drilled Roman Centurion returning to Londinium from a stint in the provinces.

Folkies Kilburn

State Cinema Kilburn

The glorious George Coles (of Leyton) designed Gaumont State Cinema played a big part in calling me along the road. It’s tower rising like a beacon above the Victorian/Edwardian shopping parade, apparently inspired by the Empire State Building.

Abbey Road tourists IMG_3022

My discipline waned when I realised that the famous Abbey Road ran parallel to Watling Street. Surely the Beatles were tapping into the psychogeographical resonances of the area when they went all mad and mystical. Abbey Road originally linked the 12th Century Kilburn Priory, sat on the banks of the Westbourne, with an area of woodland owned by the Priory of St. John in Clerkenwell, now simply called St. John’s Wood. The tourists queuing up to have their photograph taken on the zebra crossing were oblivious to all of this and were merely imitating the iconic Beatles Abbey Road album cover.

Chiltern Street

I avoid Lord’s Cricket Ground and pass down Baker Street with a nod to Chiltern Court before turning into Chiltern Street. Paul Weller poses for a photo with a couple of builders. The beginnings of sunset dance on the russet brickwork.

The seductive contours of Marylebone Lane encourage me to follow the flow of the submerged River Tyburn, a meander through smart-set hang-outs and catwalk pavements till I arrive within the gravitational vortex of Oxford Circus where I am sucked beneath the ground into the tube and projected back blissfully East.

 

Some of my favourite footpaths

Parkland Walk Haringey

Parkland Walk, Harringay

Benfleet, Essex

Benfleet, Essex

Kensington Church Walk

Kensington Church Walk

Holyfield Marsh

Lea Valley Walk, Cheshunt

John Rogers Gants Hill station

Gants Hill Station

Epping Long Green

Epping Long Green

The Ridgeway near Chinnor

The Ridgeway near Chinnor, Bucks

River Stort Navigation

River Stort Navigation

footpath to Barn Hill Sewardstone

footpath to Barn Hill Sewardstone

Barn Hill, Sewardstone

Woolwich Foot Tunnel

Woolwich Foot Tunnel

Woolwich Foot Tunnel

Pitstone Hill Ridgeway

Ridgeway at Pitstone Hill, Bucks

Wanstead Flats Leytonstone winter frost

Wanstead Flats, Leytonstone

Epping Walk

Epping Forest

Argyle Walk

Argyle Walk

Argyle Walk, WC1

Epping Footpath

Epping in the direction of Harlow

Hainault Forest

Hainault Forest

Stepney Green

Stepney Green

P1030026

Rendlesham Forest UFO Trail, Suffolk

Harringay Passage

Harringay Passage

Greenway Hackney

The Greenway, Hackney

IMG_4388

River Lea Navigation

IMG_7667

Southwold, Suffolk – footpath on the disused railway line

wooburn field 1-lores

Wooburn Green, Bucks

Havering-atte-Bower

Havering-atte-Bower

Shooters Hill

Shooter’s Hill

Theydon Bois

Theydon Bois

Aldeburgh Beach

Aldeburgh, Suffolk

Hughenden

Hughenden, Bucks

South London Adventure – Woolwich to Eltham Palace

I’d never been to Eltham despite it being on my itinerary for a number of years. It was a possible chapter for This Other London when I plotted out the walk from Woolwich to the Dartford Salt Marshes. But somehow I’d never made the journey – until the other week that is.

Severndroog Castle

Severndroog Castle

Starting at Woolwich I worked my way up the hill past the barracks and then across Woolwich Common to Eltham Common and Castle Wood. I paid the £3 admission to ascend to the viewing platform of Severndroog Castle, a folly in the woods on Shooter’s Hill built in honour of the naval commander whose victories paved the way for British rule in India.

View from Severndroog Castle

View from Severndroog Castle

A beautiful path through the peaceful Shepherdleas Wood brought me to the slumbering Sunday streets of Eltham. It was too late to justify paying the £16.50 admission price to the Tudor Eltham Palace, so I admired it from across the wide green moat before heading back to Eltham High Street for a bag of chips and a can of Rio on a bench watching the buses head off to Catford.

Walk along the River Lea from Rye House to Hertford

There are few finer things in life than a walk along the River Lea, the mantra of gravel under foot, gazing into the reflections in the water letting your mind drift. I hadn’t previously walked this section of the River,  taking various other routes to cover the Lea Valley from Rye House into Hertford – usually the New River Path, or through Wormley Woods and along Ermine Street, or even over the hills from Roydon and Stanstead Abbotts dropping down into Ware (and there must have been others too).

It was glorious the entire way – especially that last stretch between Ware and Hertford, where the geese gather in a field and the Bronze Age burial mound at Pinehurst looks over the bend in the river. More walks suggest themselves in the marshes that run nearby and over the hills heading deeper into Hertfordshire. We’re blessed in East London to be part of the Lea Valley ecosystem, such a rich and storied landscape.

 

From the Forest to the Lea – Loughton to Broxbourne

A tragedy on the tracks near Brimsdown meant abandoning my plan to catch the train to Broxbourne and walk along the Lea to Hertford. I’d lost 2 hours at Stratford Station and decided to walk off my frustration in the Forest. Picking up my favoured trail at the top of Ollard’s Grove I headed over Fairmead Bottom and plunged into the Round Thicket which consumed me for a while. Somehow the forest delivered me to where I’d set my mark – Ludgate Plain and the paths leading out towards Lippitts Hill. I could still find my way down to the Lea Valley and regain something of the original plan for the day.

Safely navigating a passage across West Essex Golf Course I picked up Green Path, a track I’d been meaning to walk for a few years now. It brought me to a gorgeous meadow of tall grasses with a view of the eastern aspect of Barn Hill, from where up on the northern ridge, there were expansive views of the hills rising around Waltham Abbey.

Barn Hill

It always feels special crossing the north-eastern boundary of London and I stopped to savour the moment before picking up the Lea Valley path at Sewardstone heading towards Waltham Abbey. Passing beneath the M25 I remembered standing beneath the same flyover discussing London Orbital with the author himself, that book as much a marker in the Capital’s time as the opening of the road. Hungry and tired I stopped in McDonalds, munching a burger and fries on the Essex-Hertfordshire border.

From Waltham Abbey I followed the River Lea Flood Relief Channel. Great views open up across the waters of Hooks Marsh and Seventy Acres Lakes where otters hunker down in their holts and I imagine Viking boats sliding through the reed beds. The setting sun throws luminous rays across Holyfield Marsh, sometimes it feels as if the day’s walk is all about arriving at this moment, a swell of euphoria basking in the last light of the day.

Holyfield Marsh

From here I submitted to the Lea Navigation, the mantra of gravel under foot, steps releasing the spores of memories deposited on previous walks, the intoxication of reminiscence. I arrive at Broxbourne as a light drizzle greys the pavement. There’s a satisfaction that the walk ends where it had intended to start. The beginning becomes the end.

The Tropic of Ruislip

UXBRIDGE fishing lake

This was a walk that I think will be with me for a while. The flood of memory that washed over me on the Grand Union towpath the other side of Ickenham/Ruislip heading up towards Denham. I let go of something. Walks have their own logic free of external reality. Out there nothing else matters. It’s on hold, paused, the world stops. The canal water shimmering like scales on the underside of the railway bridge. The deer plunging into the water then swimming elegantly in search of the right spot, in no hurry, despite the people watching from the towpath. The barges brought to mind The Tropic of Ruislip. I stopped for a pint by the canal. The heat was getting to me. The long road onwards felt like the exit from London and indeed it was as I saw South Bucks District Council on the road signs at Denham. Is this the most westerly point in London (vying with Uxbridge for that honour)? It certainly feels like it.

Denham
There’s a warmth to the Denham housing estates perched right there on the edge of London, looking in more than out. Woods benignly crest the hilltop. The threat posed by HS2 rears its head in Tilehouse Lane as it did on the closed section of road near the River Pinn where work has already begun. A light aircraft swoops down over the treetops to land at the aerodrome, but otherwise all is quiet.

P1040660 Ruislip-Seer Green.00_09_59_12.Still017

The turning onto the South Bucks Way appears beside a wide open vista stretching north towards Chorleywood, undulating umber earth, ridges of the Chilterns in the distance. It’s only at the bottom of the field where the South Bucks Way branches away from Old Shire Lane that it becomes apparent that the rolling fields I’ve been swooning over will soon be consumed by HS2. Progress comes at a price it seems.

Through a well-engineered tunnel beneath the M25 and I’m moving towards settlements once again. Through the trees the sounds and movement of the Scout Camp at meal-time, cooks shouting out to each other, children being formed into orderly lines. I traverse that final field of tall furry thistles that brings me to the top of a private housing estate.

I’m truly drained by the heat when I flop on a bench with a box of chips and bottle of Fanta at the bottom of Chalfont St. Peter High Street at quarter past six. I study the map for the onward route. I’m too tired to tackle the next section of the South Bucks Way to Amersham. But to head for the nearest station just over a mile away at Gerrards Cross would feel like a defeat. I split the difference and make for Seer Green.

Over Goldhill Common where I passed around 5 years ago on a similar excursion at the same time of day. I buy a Fab ice lolly in the newsagent as a tribute to this memory.

GREAT LEGS WOOD
A long straight path runs behind the back gardens at the edge of the village and into woods where the light barely breaks through. Pylon strung power lines buzz and crackle loudly over tall fronds of fern in a clearing before Great Legs Woods. This is now that recognisable uplifting sense of the walk’s end, not quite knowing how far there is to go but understanding the destination. The pain in the knees and hips adds to a sense of euphoria as I stop in the middle of a broad field of golden swaying grasses. There is never anyone around, the world is elsewhere – unloading the shopping from Waitrose, scrubbed up for a night out, sitting down in front of the telly. Anywhere but in a field somewhere beyond the town and the city.


A bridge crosses the Chiltern Line and now I seek the path of least resistance opting for the avenue that tops that railway cutting. I have 20 minutes before the hourly train departs and find that extra burst of speed to transport me through the last corner of woodland and along the lane to Seer Green Station – essentially an unstaffed shed beside the tracks. The platform is as peaceful as the woodland I’ve just left, the clicking of the dot matrix display board echoing down the line. There’s a moment to reflect on the journey, to feel it in my legs and coating my skin, before the turbo train eases to a stop and carries me back into London.

Epping Forest in the heatwave

It was probably unwise to head out into the Forest in the peak heat of the day at 3pm. The temperature rose to 30 degrees and stayed there well into evening. I needed shade, but first I required food so stopped for a Full English at Lamb’s Cafe at the top of Lea Bridge Road.

Heading over Whipps Cross, and along Forest Rise, I took the path beside St. Peter’s-in-the-Forest seeking the dark cool patches beneath the trees. I attempted to Livestream direct to YouTube from my phone as I’d done on a recent wander across Wanstead Flats, enjoying the dialogue with viewers as their comments popped up on the screen. But the forest wanted me all to itself and the signal dropped out after a minute.

St Peters in the Forest Walthamstow

Looking at the maps in E.N Buxton’s definitive Epping Forest guide first published in 1884, the raised area of grassland approaching the waterworks is marked as the ‘Poor Allotment’. When looking for the names of various areas in the forest, Buxton is the most comprehensive source. The proposed route of the ‘New North Road’ is sketched out cutting across the allotments (my edition is dated from 1923) – presumably the North Circular which left a much deeper scar upon the landscape.

The footbridge over Forest Road offers one of my favourite views in the area (the other not far away), down along Forest Road to the high ground rising on the far side of the Lea Valley. This stretch of the Forest Road is marked as Haggar Lane on Buxton’s map.

Epping Forest Walthamstow
I continued chuntering a monologue into my camera to be uploaded ‘Uncut’ to YouTube when I got home, to the point where the bridleway over the North Circular offers one of the most spectacular views in the whole of London, laying bare the Lea Valley rust belt. This vista makes me dream of lost highways and diners and drifters propping up lonely bars near closing time. It reveals the true endless expanse of the city. A London that stretches forever.

Traversing Rushy Plain into Upper Mill Plain you become aware of this as being part of a spine of high ground separating the two valleys of the Roding and the Lea falling away from either side. It’s a special spot.

I soon found myself at Woodford Green cricket pitch just as the final balls were bowled before a much needed drinks break. Then I followed Monkhams Lane down alongside Knighton Wood, once Buxton’s backyard, before following Forest Edge to Buckhurst Hill.