Blowing out the cobwebs – Leyton Loop via Hackney Marsh and Whipps Cross

Coronation Gardens Leyton

Needed to stretch the legs for the first time post-Yuletide sloth and gluttony. A Yule Yomp if you like. Even so I didn’t emerge from the Christmas-lit tinsel-draped cave till 3pm, freezing cold and directionless. With visiting family still encamped I should resist the urge to keep walking West till the will left me, but could I?

Coronation Gardens is always a good place to wander and muse. The Lea Valley sunset starting to break through the bare trees. Looking at the lonely bandstand I remembered the first Leyton Food Market back in May that wraps itself around the bandstand on Saturdays. I could almost feel the Fille Brook (Philly Brook) gurgling beneath the footpath that runs down the northern edge.

Quadrant Leyton
The development imposed upon the old car lot that occupied the corner of Oliver Road and Ruckholt looks near to completion staring blankly at the row of cottages on the other side of Dunedin Road. Waltham Forest Council recently unveiled the Lea Valley Eastside Vision which identifies Leyton as “a key growth area” centred on three ‘Key Areas’ of: Leyton (Leyton Mills, Coronation Gardens, and New Spitalfields Market), Lea Bridge which includes a potentially troubling waterside development that could encroach upon Leyton Marshes, and Church Road which seems to mostly build on the work they have already done on Marsh Lane Fields. This ‘Vision’ needs proper scrutiny before a response can be given – but looking at this first phase on Ruckholt Road I do not feel overwhelmed with optimism. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

Hackney Marsh
They were few people out walking as I made my way over the patchwork of football pitches on Hackney Marshes. A dog teased me with its ball – running up with the ball held aloft and veering away as I reached down to play. Eventually it got bored of the game and scarpered off after its owner.

It was dark as I made my way along the Lea Navigation Towpath past Millfields and the small orchard we wassailed a few years ago with the Hackney Tree Musketeers. I stood on the Lea Bridge swivelling East and West trying to decide which way to go before being swayed by obligation and turning East the length of Lea Bridge Road up to Whipps Cross Roundabout.

Lea Bridge Road Leyton graffiti
There was little illumination along Whipps Cross Road aside from the trundling boxes of white light in the form of the frequent buses and flickering bicycle lights in the undergrowth around the Hollow Ponds. The Hitchcock Hotel presented itself at the right time – I rarely go there for a drink, although it was one of the first London pubs I ever visited, back in 1989. I exit, one pint down and half-time in the football I live in hope that I will see the Hitchcock fulfil its true potential as a really good pub.

Hitchcock Hotel Leytonstone
I reach home just after 6, the family have moved to the table engaged in a furious game of Monopoly that would make the Wolf of Wall Street retire to the sofa. I watch the rest of the footie and start to plan expeditions for the coming year.

East to West Ham – through Forest Gate to Upton Park

It was a tweet I saw at breakfast showing the beginnings of the demolition of Upton Park, the Boleyn Ground, that set me off across Wanstead Flats to take a final look at the iconic home of West Ham United before it was gone forever. I’m not a Hammers fan but have been to West Ham a few times, first when I lived just up the road as a student and they would let you in at half-time for a couple of quid, which was more or less the time I got out of bed on a Saturday so it worked out quite nicely. I remember one game – Frank Mcavennie up front for West Ham, Tottenham legend Graham Roberts playing Centre Half for West Brom.

Old Spotted Dog Forest Gate

On the way I wanted to check the state of the great Old Spotted Dog Pub in Forest Gate where the London Stock Exchange moved during the Great Fire of London and we drank regularly in those student days 1990-91. It’s boarded up now – future in the balance, over 400 years of history in the hands of the Newham Council Planning Committee and some property developers – a desperately sad sight.

Queens Market Green Street

Queens Market on Green Street seems to have survived the grip of the developer and was a hub of activity – everything you can imagine is on sale beneath is murky roof – a cornucopia of wonders. A fella selling fruit and veg spotted my camera and auditioned for the role as the new “£1 Fish” star – he did a pretty decent job – have a look at the video above. His performance inspired me to buy two huge mangoes and four pomegranate.

Upton Park West Ham demolition

Outwardly West Ham seemed intact with only the carpark dug up, but peering through a crack the huge security doors at the side of the ground I could see the diggers at work tearing up the turf, the seats piled up around the pitch, the Trevor Brooking Stand starting to be dismantled. Can the Hammers import all this history over to the Olympic Park at Stratford (in actual West Ham rather than East Ham where the old ground is) – or will the club’s heritage be buried beneath the blocks of luxury flats built on the once hallowed ground.

Trail Magic – dreaming of the Appalachian Trail and the PCT

Wild Cheryl Strayed

In these dark winter days thoughts return to long summer walks. At night I watch videos made by hikers on America’s Appalachian Trail  – with the hiking season kicking off in April it’s at this time of year that people reflect on their thru-hikes and others start to plan their epic trek along the 2000 mile trail.

I’ve just started watching videos from the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2659-mile long path that stretches along the western spine of the US from California to Oregon and Washington – skirting the Mojave Desert, crossing the Sierra Nevada, and scaling the Cascade Mountains, through desert, snow and forest. The nearest I get to Sierra Nevada is through a bottle of the delicious Pale Ale bearing its name that I buy from the corner shop.

The longest trail we have in Britain is the South West Coast Path at 630 miles. We’ll have to wait for the completion of the England Coast Path in 2020 before we have a challenge on the scale of the AT. Locked into the domestic routine of a stay-at-home Dad the idea of life on the trail is amplified by how distant the possibility of spending 6 months walking actually is – a distance I can measure in years rather than miles. In the meantime I satisfy my wanderlust with my excursions around London, in themselves a hangover from my twenties backpacking years, and nightly binges on YouTube hiking videos.

I have also just opened Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, an account of her PCT trek (my discovery of the AT came after reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods bought at the end of a walk to Ilford in the howling wind). A guide to the Ridgeway sits on my desk as well that sings to me at night. There are a few more winter months to while away, day-walking, watching, reading, plotting, and then … who knows what the summer will bring.


 

Here are 5 of my favourite YouTube Hiking Channels – in no particular order

Hiker Trash VideoSeven out chasing Hikers and ‘safety material’ on the AT

John Zahorian – beautifully produced videos with stunning vistas and practical advice on ultra-light long-distance hiking

Homemade Wanderlust – Jessica (Dixie) is a great guide to life on and off the trail and a good source of practical information. Also love that she hiked the AT with her dog

Will Wood – hiking everywhere across the US, always on the trail. Zpacks team member

Neemor’s World – there’s a gentleness to Neemor’s videos out on the PCT and the AT and also some good gear reviews and tips.

 

 

Across Lea Valley Uplands – Epping to Broxbourne

My OS Explorer 174 map of Epping Forest and Lee Valley is battered from extensive use. However there are still large sections of unexplored territory, so at lunchtime on Remembrance Sunday I set out to tramp across one of these unknown zones.

Epping Walk

The idea was to head roughly northwest from Epping in the general direction of Galleyhill Wood or perhaps Monkhams Hall to the north of Waltham Abbey. I’d walked the valley floor as far as Hertford but had never ventured onto the high ground except from a field trip last December to Easneye and Widbury Hill.

Pillbox Copped Hall Outer London Defence Ring

The first fields out of Epping towards Upshire saw me pursued by a hungry pack of hikers who thankfully I seemed to lose at Copped Hall. Which was lucky because I’d been beguiled by one of the the Outer London Defence Ring Anti-Tank pillboxes. I’d encountered other features of this Second World War system along the River Lea north of Waltham Abbey but it seemed so innocuous here beside the lane.

Epping Walk
My plan for the walk was as vague as my map reading skills, my guiding principle being to stick to the high ground, I only had a couple of hours till sunset so that should ensure a decent view for late afternoon.

Cobbins Brook
A high hedged lane took me across the Cobbins Brook, a small stream that runs off the highlands of the Lea Valley down across the edge of the forest toward Waltham Abbey. According to Wikipedia this innocent seeming watercourse leant a hand to one of Britain’s most enduring stories, “A local legend claims Boudica’s rebellion against the Romans ended in the Waltham Abbey neighbourhood when she poisoned herself with hemlock gathered from the banks of Cobbins Brook.”

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Galleyhill Wood

As sunset approaches I enter the steep muddy climb into Galleyhill Wood catching the last rays of daylight around the edge of the hill. By the time I stumble into Bumble’s Green it is nearly dark, the walk in essence over aside from the need to find my way through the dark to the nearest station 3 miles away at Broxbourne. I risk my life along a pavement-less road for no more than 500 yards before ducking down the first footpath that presents itself and walking across fields guided by the spotlight of the Super Moon.

Galleyhill Wood Waltham Abbey

Trailing the Pymmes Brook

The Pymmes Brook has been on my itinerary for a while – usually noted down as I walk north up the Lea Valley striking for territory beyond the M25. A fine day in August following a torrential downpour the day before that scuppered an expedition along the River Pinn, provided the perfect opportunity.

Tottenham Marsh
Although the Pymmes Brook makes it confluence with the Lea at Tottenham Hale, the official Pymmes Brook Trail starts slightly further north at Pickett’s Lock and then follows the Salmon Brook part of the way. I decided to stick to what I saw as the full course of the river starting early afternoon near where the Pymmes Brook makes its confluence with the River Lea at Ferry Lane.

Tottenham Marshes are a great oasis with views across to pylons and the highlands of Epping Forest. A smattering of cyclists and joggers. The Pymmes Brook slides along a deep-sided concrete culvert passing by Stonebridge Lock. Men emerge from the undergrowth onto the footpath that curves through Wild Marsh West. The information boards include a mention of the Tottenham Outrage that reached its bloody conclusion not far away on 23rd January 1909.

Pymmes Brook
The river splits in the middle of an industrial estate containing an Electricity Substation and the Tottenham Gas Holder just before Angel Road and the North Circular with the Salmon Brook snaking northwards. It’s a heavily gated area and I’m forced down Leeside Road past a burnt out car. This is classic North Circular industrial edgeland – large warehouse units down dusty roads, blackberry fronds reaching out through the spiked metal fencing, warnings of the danger of death and “multiple hazards”, reminders that every step is being recorded by CCTV cameras. And yet nobody is around. The angry buzz of a remote controlled car scooting round the vast empty IKEA car park fills the air.  Looking at my mid-1950’s Georgraphia Atlas IKEA occupies the site of a ‘Gothic Works’ which appears to have been a type of elaborate metalwork rather than anything to do with the Sisters of Mercy.

Leeside Road

The Pymmes Brook briefly re-emerges snug within its culvert where the North Circular passes high overhead before disappearing beneath the ground. The walk now hugs the North Circular till the old Roman Fore Street where the Pymmes Brook is released from the underworld in Angel Place and moves on around the edge of Pymmes Park. The Park formed part of the grounds of Pymmes House originally built by William Pymme in 1327. The Elizabethan manor house, once the home of William Cecil, was destroyed by fire in 1940. The old walled garden remains.

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It flows through an 1980’s-looking council estate before finally escaping the concrete prison of the culvert near Silver Street and running free through a small grove along smooth muddy banks with trees drooping boughs into the water. A cat hunts in the undergrowth along the riverbank. Here my walk meets the official Pymmes Brook trail in the grounds of Millfield Arts Centre before crossing back under the North Circular and leading me round the edge of Tile Kiln Lane Open Space and a network of picture-postcard north London suburban streets in Bounds Green.
Pymmes Brook Trail
Now late afternoon, the weather warm, I start to hanker after a cup of tea. I’d had doubts about this walk but so far it’d been a revelation – opening up a previously unexplored corner of north London. I still wondered whether I would make it to the source before dark though.

Pymmes Brook Trail
5.45pm and I find myself tucking into a bacon and cheese roll at the Grand Café on Clock House Parade, Palmers Green. Despite the quality of the crusty roll and comfortable seating the café is a tad generously named but does occupy a good spot on the curve of the roundabout at the intersection of the A10 and North Circular. It’s been a hot and humid day and I’m tired with a few miles to go to the source at Hadley Common and only a couple of hours daylight.

With the bacon and tea working into my system it’s time to find the energy for the final push uphill. The Pymmes Brook is back encased in a deep open concrete sleeve for this passage through classic north London bow-fronted suburbia. The New River crosses paths on its journey between Amwell Street, Islington and Amwell Springs Hertfordshire, one of the many journeys I keep promising to do.

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At Arnos Park the Brook is once again liberated, the waters within touching distance for the first time today as they meander beneath a series of quaint wooden bridges around the perimeter of the park. This is the part of the walk I’ve been most looking forward – deep Nick Papadimitriou territory, my old walking comrade who I haven’t stepped out with for over 18 months. The Brook flows alongside a spectacular viaduct that carries the Piccadilly Line across the park. We filmed here in February 2008 doing the first walk and shoot for what became The London Perambulator. I send Nick a text to tell him where I am – he never replied.

Pymmes Brook
As the brook works its way through a wooded gully I catch a whiff of sewage and hope it’s merely my imagination. Sadly London’s waterways are prone to becoming polluted from industrial waste and drainage overflow. Just the other day the London Waterkeeper posted a photo on Twitter of chemicals pouring into the Pymmes Brook.

Oakhill Park
Moving now into a summer sunset across Oak Hill Park full of evening football training, joggers, group workout sessions, tennis matches. A man sits sucking down a can of strong lager behind the concrete pavilion and hurriedly moves on as I approach. A large tree lays prone across the Brook.
Pymmes Brook

By the time I’m through East Barnet Village the light has almost entirely ebbed away. A fox and cub mooch around some undergrowth on the verge of a housing estate as the Brook nears its source. The final climb from Barnet the first real sense of gaining altitude through foothills of peak suburbia.

Hadley Common Lake

I reach the lake on Hadley Common where the Pymmes Brook gurgles up beneath the still surface at 9pm – stumbling through pitch-black woods guided by the chatter of fishermen. I linger for a while and shoot a time-lapse before heading off back into the housing estate for a bag of chips and the road to Cockfosters Station.

Through the fields from Epping to Harlow

Epping Footpath

Severe delays on the Central means there’s a 10-minute wait for the tube to Epping. It’s 2.55pm and with the evenings starting to shorten from their glorious midsummer peak – end of August and it gets dark just after 8 so every minute is precious when trying to push on out of London. Today’s walk is inspired by a 1940’s ramble book – More Walks with Fieldfare of the London Evening News – Through the Fields to Harlow. “Here is a short, but very lovely walk in open countryside beyond Epping”, Fieldfare writes. Cross-referencing Fieldfare’s route with the Ordnance Survey Map, the M11 and North Basset Aerodrome blight his “paths (that) are seldom trodden”. The choice is to attempt to follow his 1940’s directions contrasting the scene then and now – or work out an alternative route across the fields to Harlow that captures the spirit of the original walk.

I’m distracted by the fact that I’ve just realised I have toothpaste in my hair, and then by the discovery that I’ve left my notebook at home and start tapping thoughts into my phone; “Men are like dogs – we need to piss against a tree”, which I think was a justification for abandoning the family for the large part of the day to head off across fields and through woods alone.

Sat by the war memorial in Epping I plot a path to Harlow that crosses fields, skirts farms and passes through woods, satisfied that if Fieldfare were writing his book today this is the route he would take (perhaps).

Epping Footpath
Once I’ve located the first footpath opposite Wintry Wood Smallholding, jumping the stile you land in open countryside with a Richard Long line lighting the way across fields. A hawk circles a recently combined plot. Oak trees shade the field edge. Bees dance around the borage. On a late summer’s day there’s no finer place to be than in a field somewhere on the edge of London.

Epping Footpath
There are various options for the way forward at Thornwood Common and while gazing into the OS map a man walking his dog offers to show me the path. Along a gravel drive we come to a milestone on the grass verge under a tree. He tells me that this track was the old London Road that wound through fields from Essex. The milestone, he says, may not be in its original place as the forest signposts and milestones were moved during the war and not all of them were returned to the correct locations. He points to where the footpath continues over a small bridge through the hedge and heads off back on his walk.

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The next path leads across fields of swaying golden crops and past a mountain of hay bales. I rest on the edge of a wood and look out at the vast eastern skies towards greater Essex. This would be the perfect setting for an English Western movie – an 18th Century tale of outlaws and farm-steaders.

The wind gathers and shakes the trees – dark clouds lumber across the sky – rain is on the way. The unharvested corn stalks rattle against each other. Andrew Kötting as the Straw Bear shimmers in the minds eye. He walked garbed as this folkloric character from Whittlesea – from High Beach to Northamptonshire for his film, By Our Selves, based on Iain Sinclair’s book, Edge of the Orison. He reprised the role for my film London Overground stalking the Old Kent Road and Brompton Cemetery.

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A water tower I’d spotted in the distance at the start of the walk is now in range and I fix on that was my waymarker. A strong stink of death comes from a deep ditch around a small wood on the perimeter of Rye Hill Common; there are scattered feathers of a recent fox kill in the stubble on the field edge. It’s marked on the OS map as a moat – although details are scant, only that there were once two houses within the moat. Most of Rye Hill Common was enclosed after the Second World War, and now developers hover producing plans for an extension of the Harlow suburbs further across fields.

With the light fading it’s that time to look for a pub or the station in no particular order. This is the walk after the walk – the plod, hopefully short. It’s been an idyllic fieldpath ramble that I’m sure would not have given Fieldfare future shock if he had somehow slipped through time to 2016. The next part would have killed him. I cannot think of a greater contrast of landscapes.

Harlow Bus Shelter
It started to rain and quickly got dark. My phone plotted out the 3.5-mile route across Harlow to the station. Every bus stop was vandalised. Mini-roundabouts were laid out in intricate patterns like an asphalt crop circle. Wikipedia says that Harlow has an impressive collection of public art and civic sculpture. The only built object of note I saw on my sodden schlep was a gigantic strip-lit multi-storey carpark. An interstellar star cruiser landed in the town centre. An hour and twenty minutes after exiting the fields in late summer euphoria Harlow Station appears through the sideways rain. The £13 train fare back to London the final kick in the shins.