Walking the River Stort Navigation

I’d previously noticed the River Stort Navigation on the OS map snaking around the northern fringe of Harlow. Comments on my YouTube videos had suggested sections that I would enjoy walking. So one day in the Easter holiday I set off on the Lea Bridge Line (celebrating its first anniversary since re-opening) to Broxbourne to see whether I could make it all the way to Bishop’s Stortford.

Rivers Stort Navigation

The Stort Navigation runs from Feildes Weir, just to the south of Rye House, 14 miles to the Hertfordshire town of Bishops Stortford. It was completed in 1769, with the intention of linking Bishops Stortford with the lucrative malt trade working its way along the Lea from Ware. The 15 Locks that break up its course became waypoints for my walk that day, when we were blessed with early sunshine that only just now seems to have returned at the end of May.

Lower Lock

The appeal of river and canal walks is not only the proximity of water but the removal of decision making and navigation – the canal engineers have done the job for you. The downside is maintaining the discipline to stick to the path resisting temptations to wander off along beguiling side routes.

River Stort Navigation

I was drawn into Parndon Mill on the edge of Harlow by a poster for an exhibition by Graham BoydThe New Hampshire Grids – from the early 1970’s. I saw potential parallels with my own walking practice in that title, especially when on a contrained hike following a pre-ordained route carved out of the landscape by 18th Century navvies.

The gallery space occupied a small white cube on the ground floor of the old Mill (this version built in 1900 following a devastating fire but mills have occupied the site since at least the Norman Conquest). The framed pictures and 3-dimension works sat on a plinth seemed to be presenting an intrincate code. I bought an exhibition catalogue and went to sit on a bench by the towpath. The last sentence in Maxine E. King’s intrductory essay reads;

“This is the character of Boyd’s work, a restless searching, stretching out through an immense space, sometimes taking up the grid to orientate himself, like a sextant for navigating the stars.”

I contemplated this over a late lunch of Chicken Club Sub washed down with a pint of San Miguel in the garden of the Moorhen pub near Harlow. They had Minnions toys behind the bar and a kids softplay inside the pub – I’ve never seen that before.

River Stort Navigation

Pushing on into the sunset leaving behind Harlow’s riverside sculptures I finally allowed myself a detour, through Sawbridgeworth, an ancient village once owned by an Anglo-Saxon brilliantly named Angmar the Staller. I think we should restore the Anglo-Saxon naming system. The village is like a period film set – a collection of Tudor to Georgian buildings spanning out from a 13th Century Church. After a look around I refueled at the newsagents for the final push into Bishops Stortford.

Tednambury Lock 4

Tednambury Lock 4

A wise man, Tim Bradford, once told me the pub trade is run on people forever trying to recreate that glorious first sip of beer, with each successive pint becoming increasingly less satisfying until you’re pissed. I sometimes think a similar dynamic applies to walking – I’m forever in search of that euphoric final stage of a schlepp, bathed in sunset crossing a field or rounding the bend of a river, cresting a hill, traipsing through an industrial estate, the rump of the city behind you, awash in the experience of the fugue. Counting down those last few Locks in the last burst of Spring sunshine on the approach to Bishops Stortford were one of the finest walk’s ends I’ve ever known – one I’ll be chasing for the rest of the summer.

 

Walking Roman Watling Street with Iain Sinclair, Andrew Kotting and Anne Caron-Delion

Iain Sinclair Andrew Kotting Old Kent Road

Out along Roman Watling Street yesterday with Iain Sinclair, Andrew Kotting, and Anne Caron-Delion – walking from Shooter’s Hill to Westminster. The image above was taken in front of the fantastic ‘History of the Old Kent Road’ Mural on the old North Peckham Civic Centre. The mural, by Adam Kossowski (1966), tells the story of all the epic journeys that have taken in the road over its long history.

Iain asked me to pose in front of the figure of Jack Cade, who led a revolt against the King in 1450, as he saw a resemblance – must have been my beard and nose. Earlier we had passed over Blackheath where both Cade, and earlier Wat Tyler in the Peasants Revolt of 1381, had rallied their forces for an assault on the City.

Anne Caron-Delion Iain Sinclair John Rogers

Anne Caron-Delion, Iain Sinclair, John Rogers – photo by Andrew Kotting

Anne, an academic from UCA, lives near Watling Street and was a great source of local lore – leading us across Blackheath, pointing out relevant and interesting heritage. She was also channeling info garnered from spending time living intermittently with a Watling Street obsessive; David Aylward and as well as drumming for Ted Milton’s BLURT, some refer to as the King of Deptford. David was one of Andrew’s troupe of Mummers who passed across Blackheath for the film Edith Walks, and was memorably acousted by the Police for drumming on the site of ancient (some say neolithic) tumuli. Either Anne or Andrew mentioned being on the spot with Julian Cope during the writing of his epic book The Modern Antiquarian but my memory is muddled on this point.

I captured some footage along the way that will form a silent backdrop to the event Iain’s doing in Brighton with Alan Moore and John Higgs on 24th May, The Ghosts of Watling Street

“Three visionary authors – Alan Moore, Iain Sinclair and John Higgs – gather under one roof to take an epic journey through Britain’s hidden history, geography, myth and culture, as they travel west along one of Britain’s oldest roads – Watling Street – from Dover to Wales, via London and Northampton. Along the way Moore, Higgs and Sinclair reveal a country haunted by John Crow, St Alban, William Blake, Rod Hull and Emu, James Bond and stranger ghosts of its past – as they unearth an identity of Britain that transcends our current Brexit divisions.”

John Rogers Iain Sinclair Andrew Kotting

I also shot some great footage with Iain and Andrew that will form a video on my YouTube channel in the coming weeks. Filming them yomping along the busy road, stopping to attempt to gather cutaways then jogging along to catch them up, took me back to the filming of London Overground which Iain recounts in his forthcoming book The Last London. It’s always a real joy to go out on the road with these two great gentlemen.

***

Andrew Kotting’s latest film, Edith Walks (for which I shot some footage), is screening across the UK in the summer. There are two special events coming up in London that are not to be missed:

23rd June 2017 – ICA with Readings and Q&A

2nd July 2017 – Curzon Aldgate with musical performance and Q&A

Also screening at:

07/07/17 Showroom, Sheffield

09/07/17 Watershed, Bristol

20/7/17 Filmhouse, Edinburgh

19/7/17 Glasgow Film Theatre, Glasgow

23/6/17 Tyneside, Newcastle

Parsloes Park to Valence House – utopia out east

Parsloes Park is a glorious tract of open space covering 58 hectares built on former market gardens in Dagenham created by the London County Council. Its opening in 1935 completed the great housing project of the Becontree Estate. It stared out at me from the map over morning coffee calling me East.

The first thing that strikes you about Parsloes Park is sheer size and the maturity of the trees that I figured must was have formed part of the original landscaping – although my knowledge of trees is so poor that this is pure speculation. The geese were making a racket on the lake. The bowls green was knee high with weeds. The pavilion was quite beautifully grafittied.

After posting the video above on YouTube one of the first comments pointed out that the park also features Second World War bomb craters by the children’s playground. The building of Becontree Station across the road revealed a stash of Neolithic flint tools. Police divers were spotted plunging into the last a couple of years ago searching for “items of interest”. This is an area of multiple layers.

Parsloes Park Becontree Parsloes Park Becontree

A short distance and a box of chips away is Valence House sat on the edge of Valence Park. I was impressed with the way that Valence F.C had added a shipping container to the roof of the changing rooms to create a grandstand effect. A shopping trolley lay partially submerged wheels up in the medieval moat. I can’t resist a museum and Valence House turned out to be a particularly good one.

Valence House Dagenham

The first thing you encounter in this ancient building is the Dagenham Idol – one of the most important archaeological discoveries in Greater London. Excavated on Rainham Marsh this human figure carved from Scots Pine stares back down the years from 2250BC. It was a great payoff for this speculative jaunt.

Dagenham Idol

Walking Roman Roads Near London

Three months ago today I set out under a murky sky with the temperature hovering around zero, bound for a section of the old Roman Ermine Street that passes through the woods between Broxbourne and Hertford. There was light snow as I departed from Cheshunt Station over the level crossing at 10am and make my way to the Lea Navigation towpath.

Slipe Lane Level Crossing Wormley
Turning inland at the Turnford/Wormley border there is a curious collection of rare features side-by-side. At the Slipe Lane Level Crossing stands a 19th Century Coal Tax Post (a large stone obelisk) next to a Second World War Pillbox. The two structures are indicators of being on the outer limits of ‘London’ despite being clearly in Hertfordshire. The Coal Tax Post a notification of entry into the tax jurisdiction of the Corporation of London, and the Pillbox forming part of the Outer London Defence Ring.

St Laurence Wormley
11.30am I shelter from the snow in the lychgate of St. Laurence Wormley while trying to find the Twix that’s hiding somewhere in the bottom of my bag. It would’ve been nice to have a look at the early 12th Century nave in the church but of course it’s locked so I have to satisfy myself with trying to identify the window in the south wall that dates from the same period.

Roman Ermine Street Hertfordshire

Onwards through Wormleybury, across a field and up a lane and there I pick up the marked section of Ermine Street on the edge of Paradise Wildlife Park. Into afternoon now and the February snow continues to drift down as I tread the ancient track perhaps taken by the Syrian divisions of the Roman Army that spent time garrisoned in the Upper Lea Valley before moving North.

The ‘road’ continues its straight course through Danemead Wood and over the Spital Brook – this muddy woodland path leading you through the phases of English history. Ermine Street becomes Elbow Lane and takes you past Hobbyhorse Wood.

Ermine Street Elbow Lane

At Hertford Heath I turn away from the Roman Road and schlepp through Balls Wood Nature Reserve where the Vegan Vandals have been at work. From here I pass over the last winter fields guided into Hertford by the sound of playing fields on the edge of town.

Following the screening of London Overground at the Genesis Cinema last October I was approached by a couple who told me about a section of Roman Road running through Hobbs Cross near Theydon Bois. So one Sunday I set off on the Central Line then over fields in search of this preserved section of the Roman Road that once ran through Leytonstone after crossing the Lea at Leyton  running out to Great Dunmow joining a junction that linked in roads to Braughing, Braintree and Chelmsford.

Along the Loughton Brook through Kate’s Cellar – Epping Forest

Loughton Brook

Out on Sunday for one of those late afternoon/early evening wanders in Epping Forest – that time of the day and the weekend when ventures further afield have been ruled out by domestic dithering. My son is feeling lethargic but still up for a stroll and we’re keen to find a new route that doesn’t take us back to the unlimited soft drink refills in the Royal Forest at Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge. Following the Loughton Brook seems like a good place to start.

Loughton Brook Epping Forest

The Loughton Brook meanders through this lower portion of Epping Forest before making its way through the suburban streets of Loughton to its confluence with the River Roding. The steep sandy banks and gentle curves of the brook are beguiling and we criss-cross our way over the wooden bridges and hopping across narrower sections. According to the Essex Field Club, “the sinuous curves may be the result of the balance between energy and friction when a low energy river moves fine sediments down a shallow gradient.”

From looking at the paper Ordnance Survey map the source of the Loughton Brook appears unclear – it could either emerge in Wake Valley or perhaps percolates through pebbles, gravels, and bagshot beds in Great Monk Wood. From there it flows down through the Forest feeding Baldwin’s Pond to the spot where we stand south west of Loughton Camp.

 

a prospect of loughton brook

Searching online for a definitive answer to the source of the Loughton Brook takes me to a series of GCSE teaching resources where the Loughton Brook apparently features in the GCSE Geography paper. My inquiries also lead me to Spaceship’s hypnotic and richly evocative new album ‘a prospect of loughton brook’.

The album traces the course of the brook “from source to mouth” and in the sleeve notes Mark Williamson of Spaceship gives a precise description of the location of the source, “rising just over the Epping New Road from Wake Valley Pond. On the opposite side of the highly embanked road Lower Wake Pond is drained by a clay culvert from which springs a trickle of water.” Added serendipity to this glorious discovery is given by the fact that the binaural and hydrophone recordings of the forest and the watercourse that blend beautifully with the instruments on the album, were recorded over a January weekend when I too was walking in the forest around Loughton Camp.

 

Debden Slade Epping Forest

Spotting a narrow footpath leading alongside another rivulet running downhill to the Loughton Brook, we change course heading uphill through Debden Slade, said to be a corruption of ‘Deadman’s Slade’, and Kate’s Cellar. This area of the forest was apparently named after a hermit named Kate and Google Maps seems to attribute Kate’s Cellar as the name of the stream that we walk beside. Oddly neither Debden Slade nor Kate’s Cellar are marked on the Ordnance Survey Explorer 174 Map.

Debden's Slade Epping Forest

We rest on a tree root just the other side of Epping New Road and I reflect back on the event I hosted last Tuesday evening with Will Ashon at the Wanstead Tap discussing Will’s new book Strange Labyrinth – Outlaws, Poets, Mystics, Murderers and a Coward in London’s Great Forest. Will Ashon was a great person to chat about Epping Forest with in front of a packed room, and now I imagined him walking with us in the forest. I kept seeing him clambering up trees and answering my stream of questions about pollarding, the enclosures, and a whole host of things we didn’t get to on that great evening at The Wanstead Tap.

Strange Labyrinth takes you on a ramble through Forest lore not unlike a good schlepp in Epping Forest. It presents many facets of our beloved woodland – as a place of solace and reflection, a place of fear, and a landscape of magic. The persistent theme for me was of the forest as a last resort of the Outsider – from the Elizabethan playwright Mary Wroth through Dick Turpin, TE Lawrence, actor Ken Campbell, and anarcho punk guru Penny Rimbaud.

I visited Penny at the legendary Dial House near Ongar, as it happened a few days after one of Will Ashon’s visits there, in 2015. I asked Penny why he thought there was an increased interest in Epping Forest. He said he thought it marked “a form of return, a return to enchantment”. And Strange Labyrinth captures that “enchantment” perfectly.

Kate's Cellar Epping Forest

Aware that it was approaching the last hour of daylight we started to make our way back down Broom Hill and through Loughton Camp. The wonderful Dave Binns had mentioned in the Q&A at the Strange Labyrinth event how he had stumbled upon a set of low mounds and trenches outside the main boundary of Loughton Camp. Now with my son I thought that we had accidentally ambled into the same location – perhaps a secondary enclosure beyond the wooden palisade that would have topped the exterior of the Iron Age earthwork. We looked at it from various angles and checked our positioning on the Ordnance Survery app but it was inconclusive. Epping Forest, this ‘Strange Labyrinth’, still retains its mysteries. Perhaps that is part of the enchantment that keeps drawing us back.

Walking ancient trackways – over Pitstone Hill to Ivinghoe Beacon

Ridgeway Path sign

This is a bit bonkers I know, but I’m sat here watching a Jason Segel movie on Netflix called Jeff, Who Lives at Home about a guy who keeps looking for signs telling him what he should do with his life. He goes out to the hardware store and helps an old lady onto the bus and for a brief moment you see the street sign behind him – Ridgeway. I instantly see it as a sign, a reminder that I need to write this blog about the walk I did in late September last year along the Ridgeway from Tring, over Pitstone Hill to Ivinghoe Beacon. I was going to do this before I started watching the movie but got stuck on how to start – I must have know a film about a guy who lives in his Mum’s basement would give me inspiration.

The walk was inspired by seeing a photo of the footpath running over Pitstone Hill – a white way carved out of the grass covered chalk ridge with the lowlands far below. It called out to me sat in my box room in East London, summer in final decline, the last chance for a venturing out in the long days before winter drew in.

Ridgeway sign post
One late September Friday after dropping the kids at school I boarded the train at Euston bound for Tring, soon sliding through Wembley, then Harrow and Bushey under a clear blue sky – perfect walking weather.

I’m carrying too much stuff in my battered old backpack, which is a bit too heavy. I’m packing 3 cameras and 2 jackets somehow. The 3 cameras I can just about justify, the extra jacket has me flummoxed.  But by the time I’ve turned up the track onto the Ridgeway my mind is clear for the way ahead.

I first planned to walk the Ridgeway while I was backpacking in the mid-90’s, catching the bug after jungle trekking in South East Asia. My Dad had talked about it throughout my childhood in South Bucks with the Ridgeway passing no more than a few miles from our home. But somehow we never got round to it, children arrived, and as the old man advances into his 80’s the talk has diminished. But just seeing the first sign for the Ridgeway sparks something inside.

Aldbury Nowers
The Ridgeway forms part of an ancient long distance path thousands of years old, the oldest prehistoric track in the country running between Overton Hill near Avebury in Wiltshire and Ivinghoe Beacon in the Buckinghamshire Chilterns. I walked a mere fragment of its 87 miles, but sitting here now 7 months later every footstep lingers in the mind.

I passed over Grim’s Ditch, a 20-mile long Iron Age earthwork, at the bottom of a steep wood where I also searched for the tumuli marked on the Ordnance Survey map – spotting two mounds in the undergrowth that reminded me of a tumulus I’d seen in the Upper Lea Valley.

As the path continues through Aldbury Nowers you get that sense of the travelers that have passed this way over millennia. Today most of my fellow walkers appear to be retirees out with their dogs for a morning stroll, vigorously healthy pensioners wearing performance sportswear. It’s a beautiful hot day, the burning out of summer; the two jackets seem even more of a folly than they did on the train.

Pitstone Hill Ridgeway

The path breaks out through the trees presenting the vista I’d seen in the photo that had brought me out here – the curving white track running along the edge of Pitstone Hill – it was every bit as glorious as I’d hoped it’d be. Earthworks had been identified on Pitstone Hill within what is believed to be a prehistoric “Citadel” cris-crossed with trackways, boundary ditches with some features identified as possibly being Neolithic. Other finds indicate the site was in use through the Bronze and Iron Age into the Roman period

Pitstone Hill Ridgeway
I rummage around in a deep hollow formed by a pre-Roman flint mine, where chalk and flint still litter the grass. It is a majestic spot looking out over the valley floor towards Aylesbury. I probably linger too long gazing at flints and admiring the view, checking archaeological notes and attempting to walk around the perimeter of the ‘Citadel’.

Incombe Hole the Ridgeway

Ivinghoe Beacon rises majestically in the near distance – the Ridgeway snaking along a green spine.  It leads me around the edge of Incombe Hole – a deep sided hollow way, possibly a prehistoric boundary marker or ‘linear earthwork’. Breathtaking views stretch out in all directions. I rest on the side of Steps Hill and shoot a timelapse of Beacon Hill and the southeast facing tumulus before my final ascent.

Ivinghoe Beacon summit
It’s an odd sensation to summit Ivinghoe Beacon at the midpoint of a relatively short walk rather than the conclusion of an 86-mile yomp from Wiltshire. As people arrive at the stone plaque at the top of the hill I try to ascertain whether they’re completing a Ridgeway thru-hike but don’t observe any obvious signs of celebration. I vow to come back here to start a walk along the entire Ridgeway, fulfill the plan I made those 20-odd years ago.

Ivinghoe Beacon view

It was difficult to wrench myself away from the stunning views spreading out in all directions from Ivinghoe Beacon. A tangible sense of ancient history is present – it’s said to contain remains of one of the oldest Iron Age Hillforts in Britain with burial mounds dotted around the summit, the surrounding landscape is ridiculously rich in prehistoric sites. I munched on a Marks and Spencer sandwich I’d bought in Euston Station trying to process it all.

I’d made no clear plan for the route back to Tring and as was only mid-afternoon, plot a mazy loop through surrounding woodland. The evenings will soon draw in dragging wind and rain with them and memories of these glorious last rays of summer will be rekindled to keep me warm.
Ivinghoe Beacon and Gallows Hill

The Icknield Way crosses the Ridgeway just below Ivinghoe Beacon and continues the ancient trackway all the way to the coast – the simple wooden signposts an open invitation to adventure. I follow a path along a ridge over the tumulus on Gallows Hill then loop back across farmland to the Coombe.
Mid-afternoon I rest beside the footpath on the side of a steep hill reflecting on what has been a classic walk that although the original purpose has been fulfilled I’m keen not to end just yet. Checking the OS map I spot another tumulus in woodland on Moneybury Hill so decide to push on.

IMG_0870

Entering the wood after crossing a field of stubble I clamber up a high bank which sharply falls away into a deep-sided ditch. Rising on the far side appears a mound in the trees. The ditch has the clear look of a human intervention, like the outer-rim of a defensive earthwork, boundary marker, or holloway. I continue along a narrow path that runs along the high outer ridge of the ditch and find a shard of flint shaped like an axe-head or hand-axe. A tall tree has fallen across the ditch. It’s a dramatic prehistoric landscape hidden away on the edge of this large tract of woodland. It is a majestic find in the last light of summer.

Moneybury Hill Ashridge
At the far end of the path there is a small plaque confirming the ditch’s prehistoric origins, explaining that it was carved out over time by herded animals led this way to feed on grasses and acorns.

There is another, smaller burial mound near the carpark of the Bridgewater Monument – a towering granite column standing on a York Stone base raised in 1832 in memory of the Duke of Bridgewater who had lived at Ashridge.

flint axe moneybury hill

After taking refreshment in the café I make my way down wooded paths to the Valiant Trooper in the village of Aldbury. Supping a pint of Chiltern Brewery Bitter in the beer garden I reflect that I have been royally rewarded by the walking gods for pushing those last 2 hours. I check the flint axe is still in the front pocket of my bag before drinking up and making my way over a damp stubble field back to Tring Station.

 

Lippitt’s Hill, Fernhills, Hangman’s Hill and Jacob Epstein at Loughton

The Friday after the Westminster Terrorist attack and flags are flying at half-mast over the public buildings at Woodford. I head down over the golf course to Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge and pop into The View Visitor Centre where I buy a postcard of a painting by Jacob Epstein. The lady at the counter tells me that she thinks that it shows ‘The Lost Pond’ (the painting is untitled) – Epstein lived at Baldwin’s Hill, Loughton and often painted the forest. She has matched the image on her morning dog walks along the Loughton Brook. She shows me roughly where the Lost Pond is on the map covering the floor although it isn’t marked. ‘I’ll try and head back that way later’, I tell her, although I’m bound in the opposite direction – out through Bury Wood towards Fernhills.

Before I’d found myself lost in the forest in the dark the previous weekend I’d been tempted to follow the Cuckoo Brook north. Checking the map in the pub afterwards I saw how it would have led me to an area just outside the forest I’d never visited so today that was where I headed.

Epping Forest view

The views from Fernhills were as fine as I’d hoped for – stretching out over Waltham Abbey and to the Epping Uplands. The footpaths of the Greenwich Meridian Trail towards Mott Street also offered majestic views of the Lea Valley and led me to witness the curious anomaly of Hangman’s Hill. A mini reversed towards me from Pynest Green Lane and the young driver wound down the window, ‘Do you the story about this area?’, she asked. ‘No, but I bet you do’, I replied. ‘Apparently if you release your breaks your car is pulled uphill’, she told me, ‘this was a place where people were hung and they were dragged up here to the gallows’. She then released the handbrake and the car appeared to slowly roll back up the hill. As we stood there a couple of lads pulled alongside in their car and the same thing happened.

As I walked off I saw them both repeatedly returning to the same spot and surrender their vehicles to paranormal forces not wanting to mention that on foot you could see that there was a slight camber in the road that actually sloped away downhill.

Turning back across High Beach I decided to find the location of Jacob Epstein’s painting but had forgotten the directions the lady had given me to the ‘Lost Pond’. Arriving at Baldwin’s Hill Pond I matched it to the postcard and found a good enough likeness to declare in the video above that this was spot Epstein had painted. Subsequently it has been pointed out that the ‘Lost Pond’ is elsewhere, near the Loughton Brook. The hunt for the location of Epstein’s painting goes on.

Woodbury Hollow Loughton

Emerging from the forest I was greeted by the expansive views right across London from Woodbury Hollow, apparently reaching as far as Crystal Palace and Croydon.

 

On 2nd May I’ll be in conversation with Will Ashon at the Wanstead Tap about his new book Strange Labyrinth – Outlaws, Poets, Mystics, Murderers and a Coward in London’s Great Forest