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.

London Overground with Iain Sinclair – watch the full documentary online

London Overground retraces legendary London writer Iain Sinclair’s journey with film-maker Andrew Kötting around the Overground railway for the book of the same name. Directed Shot and edited by John Rogers.

The film follows Sinclair reprising the walk over the course of a year rather than the day’s walk of the book. Iain is once again joined by Kötting in parts, along with Chris Petit (director of Radio On) and Bill Parry-Davies on the 35-mile circular yomp.

London Overground charts Sinclair walking through this changing landscape from his home in Hackney, through Shoreditch down to Wapping where he revisits his earlier book Downriver. In the company of Andrew Kötting once more they ramble in both senses from the Thames foreshore at Rotherhithe through Canada Water, Surrey Quays to Queens Road Peckham. At Willesden Junction he is joined by film-maker and author Chris Petit as they survey the developments around Old Oak Common. Sinclair and Kötting walk through the night to reprise their original yomp in reverse. Dalston is surveyed with local campaigner Bill Parry-Davies logging what has been lost in the rampant redevelopment and checking in on cherished corners of the area. We meet noir novelist Cathi Unsworth at Shepherds Bush/Westfield and artist Marcia Farquhar in Kentish Town.

What emerges from the film is a snapshot of the city in transition and also a unique insight into the most important chronicler of contemporary Londoner. ‘The city’ Sinclair says at one point, ‘is a series of psychic mappings that reinforce our own identity’.

Featuring original music by Standard Planets, Bill and Adam Parry-Davis, and Free Seed Music.

London Overground premiered at the East End Film Festival with a screening at the Rio Cinema, Dalston – 2nd July 2016

Walking the London Loop – Elstree to Moor Park

I’ll be honest, in the past when I crossed paths with the London Loop signs on a walk I was slightly disdainful. ‘What’s the point’, I thought, of following this orbital trail around the edge of London when the capital is so rich with places to walk and explore. You didn’t need a pre-ordained, officially endorsed path to point the way. You could wander randomly anywhere in London and it would throw up a route as rich as any promoted by Transport for London, and I still believe that to be true. But now having walked 5 sections (well 4.5 really) of the London Loop I’ve been forced to revise my opinion of this 150-mile path.

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I did my first section – from Enfield to Cockfosters (Section 17) back in January when I needed to hit the road but lacked the energy or imagination to work out my own walk. The London Loop guided me through a territory largely unkown to me. A couple of weeks later I found myself heading back to Cockfosters to pick up the trail through to Elstree & Borehamwood (Section 16), although on this occasion I branched off on my own path for a large portion of the way to take in areas I wanted to explore that were off the London Loop.

At that point I thought I was done with the London Loop and it wasn’t until the beginning of July that I returned to Elstree to continue the path through to Hatch End (Section 15) carrying on to Moor Park (Section 14). It was a glorious walk across meadows and woodland, the inevitable golf courses, past lakes, and over hilltops offering incredible expansive views. It opens your eyes to the extent and beauty of London’s open spaces and farmland encircling the city – spaces that were often fought over to be saved for the people of the London and the surrounding suburbs, precious resources not to be taken for granted.

London Loop Section 14

Will, I return to continue my counter-clockwise walk on the London Loop? I’m still not sure. I did leave home to walk Section 13 to Uxbridge two weeks ago but instead meandered from Ruislip to Denham and beyond into Bucks. But this time when I passed the London Loop signs on the towpath of the Grand Union Canal, instead of a dismissive glance I gave them a nod and a smile and a thanks for the magnificient walks.

Retreat to Epping Forest

Nearing the end of a boiling Sunday afternoon I had the urge to be under the shade of Forest trees, so headed on the tube to Loughton. My preferred route into the forest from the station for the last few years has been via Ollard’s Grove – a vertiginous street of large Edwardian houses leading off the High Road. The name, Ollard’s Grove, apparently is of medieval origin referencing a tenant who occupied this parcel of land, which before the area was heavily developed, would have commanded fine views over the Roding Valley.

Epping Forest

The path leading past the Nursery is lined with tall stems of scorched thistles. A cluster of rabbits broke and headed for cover as I approached, with one particularly confident bunny sat munching grass beside the path as I passed. I stopped in the wide shade of an oak tree to check the score in the World Cup Final and watched Ivan Perisic fire in Croatia’s equaliser.

Crossing Epping New Road I walk through what must have been the grounds of Fairmead Lodge, which had already been cleared by the time that E.N Buxton was writing his definitive Epping Forest guide in the late 19th Century. The cool shade of the glades on Long Hills is like taking a dip in stream, welcome relief from the relentless heat, that at the far end of the forest, has set Wanstead Flats ablaze.

Eucalyptus Epping Forest

A lone eucalyptus tree stands in a clearing in Hill Wood. A bush ranger in Sydney once explained to me the folly of importing eucalyptus trees as they need bush fires to spread their seeds, dripping oil into the flames to intensify the heat to the temperature required to eject their spores into the surrounding scorched earth.

Epping Forest

The bikers’ tea hut at Cross Roads is doing a brisk trade but I resist the temptation to stop for a drink, bound as I am for Shelleys Hill. I descend through Kate’s Cellar into the part of the forest that I’m probably most familiar with, although more often than not I’m blissfully directionless. Soon I’m on the banks on the Loughton Brook leading me to Staples Pond and the route back out of the forest to the High Road and the news that France had lifted the World Cup.

Unto the Fields (of Chigwell and Loughton)

Chigwell

Sometimes unplanned excursions are the most rewarding. After running an errand to Woodford Bridge I decided to take a short stroll along the road to Chigwell, when I spotted these signs on the metal fencing around a patch of woodland. Permissive access to a former landfill site was too good an invitation to turn down, so through the half-open gate I went …. into another world.

Chigwell walk

The woodland soon opened out into a network of footpaths weaving through tall wild grasses and meadows resplendent with flowers that I sadly can’t confidently name, but will speculate that these are wild foxglove.

Chigwell walk

A high point in the meadow opened out into a glorious view across the Roding Valley to the upper ground of Buckhurst Hill.

Chigwell walk

Footpaths branched off in all directions heading through thickets or up onto hillocks with not a soul around.

Chigwell walk

Through a bramble tunnel I came face to face with a young fox, who froze for a moment before darting off into the undergrowth with a high jump in the air.

I could hear the traffic whumping down the M11 as the path ran parallel for a while before bringing me to a garden gate in a wooden fence and out onto Luxborough Lane.

River Roding tube viaduct

The clear waters of the River Roding were incredibly enticing on such a hot day – I fantasized about floating away in the small abandoned boat beneath the Central Line viaduct.

Roding Valley Recreation Ground

My Australian wife says this looks like a Eucalyptus tree – stood on the parched earth of Roding Valley Recreation Ground it looked quite at home.

Roding Valley Recreation Ground

By this point I was feeling the heat and had nearly drank all of my water, so I sat down by the lake to absorb the coolness coming off the wide expanse of water.

Unto the Fields Gillingham

Making my way to Loughton Station along Roding Road, I spied a blue plaque on the far side on a semi-detached house. I dashed across the road to see who had been honoured in these Loughton backstreets and saw it was for D.W. Gillingham author of Unto the Fields. I immediately looked the book up on my phone, my eyes falling on the sentence, “a meticulous and exquisite record of the woodlands, streams and rivers of the Roding Valley”. I quickly found a 1953 edition on ebay and bought it stood in front of the house where Gillingham lived.