Walthamstow’s Sinking Cemetery and the Cinema Pioneer

A morning walk isn’t the ideal time to find yourself outside one of the finest pubs in London. The William the Fourth at Bakers Arms, Leyton looks resplendent in the glaring morning light. The hanging baskets puke out great rainbows of petunias.

William the Fourth Leyton

The William the Fourth is home to Brodie’s Fabulous Beers and you could drink your way round East London in this majestic mirrored boozer  – from Dalston Black through Hackney Red IPA, Stepney Green Steam, Bethnal Green Bitter, London Fields Pale Ale, Hoxton and Old Street IPA. But it’s 10am, the pub is closed and I’m heading for Walthamstow Cemetery on the scent of a tip off I was given by a nice couple after a talk I gave on Lea Bridge Road earlier in the year. They mentioned that one of the early cinema pioneers was buried there and it might be of interest.

Walthamstow Cemetery Queens Road
I checked in again on the beguiling Hoe Street Telephone Exchange before turning into Queens Road and on to Walthamstow Cemetery. It’s a boiling hot morning – possibly one of the last of the year – and I’m the only living person in this expansive Victorian necropolis. It soon becomes apparent that a number of the headstones are listing drastically – in some cases leaning across to meet their neighbouring grave. Some plots are sinking into the barren gravely soil. It has a strong air of abandonment.

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I now realise I don’t have the name of the grave I am looking for and am relying on chance – I Google to find the name of Birt Acres but looking out across the tombstone rubble don’t fancy my chances of locating the grave. Acres is credited with inventing the first 35mm moving image camera in Britain and a system for developing and projecting the films. Among his first productions were Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, The Boxing Kangaroo, and Performing Bears. He is also said to be “the first travelling newsreel reporter in international film history” (Wikipedia).

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It isn’t clear how Acres came to be buried in Walthamstow cemetery. The area had been a centre of film production in the early 20th Century with the British and Colonial Kinematograph Company having a large studio in Hoe Street not far from the cemetery so that could perhaps explain Birt Acres’ connection to Walthamstow.

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A headstone sitting in the shade of a tree and wreathed in ivy reads ‘Eliza The Beloved Wife of Thomas William Aldridge Who Was Drowned In The “Princess Alice” September 3rd 1878 Aged 33 Years.

After a while I start to feel as if I’m intruding although such is the age of the majority of the graves you imagine mourners are few and far between. Birds natter in the trees. Cats stalk the pathways. I move on through the gates back into Queens Road.

On the trail of the Dagenham Brook

Leyton Sign Ruckolt Road

Something magical happens when you pack your bag for a walk, even on a day like today when my enthusiasm is thin. In goes the notebook and 2 pens, a copy of Rachel Lichtenstein’s new book Estuary, OS map of the Lea Valley & Epping Forest, camera + mini magnetic tripod, a light jacket, and finally a cap I stuff down the side. All of this crammed into a messenger bag that was given away by the thousand at the London Film Festival 12 or 13 years ago.

I contemplate the journey ahead over coffee at Costa in Leyton Mills – the vast carpark here with its expansive Lea Valley skies is one of my favourite open spaces in London – it’s like the American Midwest of my imagination. The prospect of the relatively short walk along the Dagenham Brook increases in appeal as the caffeine kicks in. These minor urban excursions can easily snowball into epic quests. It’s the anticipation of the unknown buried within the familiar. Of becoming lost in a suburban swamp.

Dagenham Brook
I navigate my way across the grid system of the Asda car park and over to Orient Way, under the Leyton sign to find the point where the Dagenham Brook disappears underground before making its confluence with the River Lea. This is so close to where the Fillebrook momentarily appears above ground (in a reversal of fortunes) that I wonder if these two brooks merge before running into the Lea as a single watercourse.

A broken hole in the thick undergrowth gives me my first glimpse of the Dagenham Brook. I slide down the bank getting snagged in the brambles in the process and struggle to extract myself once I’ve logged my encounter with the river. Urban river hunting is not as easy as it seems.

Dagenham Brook
Fifty yards or so further along a recently surfaced new path hugs the river as it meanders through Marsh Lane Fields. I remember the Beating of the Bounds here on a wet May Sunday afternoon 10 years ago just after we’d moved to Leytonstone. It had been organized by the brilliant New Lammas Lands Defence Committee and was my real introduction into the culture of this section of the Lea Valley with the deep passionate attachment to the landscape. Marsh Lane has had a powerful hold on me ever since.

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The brook curves round behind the goal of the abandoned ground of Leyton F.C. – the weeds thick, nearly enclosing the watercourse. I call artist Lucy Harrison to see if she’ll give me a quick 5-minute interview about the Warner Homes that straddle Lea Bridge Road and have the Dagenham Brook running through the gardens. Lucy did an interesting project with the residents of the Warner Estate and I wish I knew more about them – now would be my chance.

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Lucy obligingly popped out into Blythe Road and told me about how the houses had been built around the beginning of the last century to provide quality affordable rentable homes and had gradually been sold off since the 1960’s. Although they have lost the tidy uniformity of their early years when Warner staff trimmed the hedges and painted the doors and window frames green and cream – they retain a distinctive architectural style with the arched double front doors and elaborate gables. You know when you’ve strolled into a Warner Estate.

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The Brook gently flows on into territory where I can’t follow it closely – behind cul-de-sacs, round the back of industrial estates and allotments. There are allotments all along the course of the river – even more so than along the Filly Brook. The occasionally waterlogged, spring-fed land unsuitable for building or industrial use, I guess good for growing crops fond of wet soil.

Pumphouse Museum Walthamstow
I eventually rendezvous with the Brook again near the end the W19 bus route where it winds around the edge of Low Hall Sports Ground. I pay homage with a nod, a photo and a few seconds of video before moving on back along the road unable again to walk along the riverbank. In truth physical encounters are a bonus with urban river walking for me, it’s more of a simple device to open up what might appear an unpromising landscape unenthusiastic about yielding its secrets. The brook sets the route and tells you its story, guides the way.

St James Park Walthamstow

The Dagenham Brook suggests I take a look at St James Park, one of those backstreet open spaces known mostly to the locals but a beautiful spot. There are only a handful of people in the park – a lady sitting on the ground appears to have positioned herself dead centre of a large empty section. An access road leads down the middle of a wonderful grand avenue of lime trees. The park occupies part of the site of the 14th Century Low Hall Manor which was purchased by Walthamstow Council in the late 19th Century.

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The brook slides behind park and under the railway bridge now running parallel with the broader River Lea Flood Relief Channel. I’ve seen discussion online suggesting that the Dagenham Brook is also a man-made watercourse, a drainage ditch. Old OS maps of the area show an elaborate tapestry and ditches and ponds adorning the landscape – nearly all now buried or filled in occasionally rising again to flood a basement or waterlog a garden.

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Moving beneath the railway you are greeted by a sequence of murals on the end of terrace walls. On the corner of Chester Road a verse from Ewan MacColl’s timeless song written for Peggy Seeger is painted in elaborate filigree font
                           The first time ever I saw your face
                          I thought the sun rose in your eyes

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On the other end of the block is a work by Louis Masai of a Fox, Badger and Bees – the bees carry a placard appealing to ‘Save Us!’, the badger sits behind a sign saying ‘No to the Cull’. Around the corner is a colourful abstract work by Italian street artist Renato Hunto.

Mural Walthamstow
Moving in to Coppermill Lane I can’t see any further trace of the Dagenham Brook as it appears to have merged with Flood Relief Channel. I stand on a concrete block and look north along the course of the Lea and bid my farewell to this understated, wonderful watercourse.

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The Forgotten Forest of London

Hainault Forest

It was deep into the heart of Hainault Forest that I realized why I am drawn into the woodlands during summertime – I mean the urge is particularly strong in the summer months. I went walking with my Dad over the corner of the South Chilterns near our home throughout my childhood but it was in the cool shade of the beech and oak, and I can’t recognize any other trees sadly but let’s take a punt on hornbeam, that I reflected that we only ever walked in the autumn and winter as my Dad was a dedicated cricketer and so weekends from April through till the end of September were spent playing cricket and I went along to watch until I was old enough to play for the men’s 3rd XI. So summertime woodlands are an exotic treat for me. Or at least that was the idea that occurred to me this Sunday afternoon.

Like Epping Forest, Hainault Forest is a remnant of the once mighty Forest of Essex. The 336 surviving acres representing just 10% of the forest of Hainault that was recorded at the time of Henry VIII. If Edward North Buxton hadn’t led a campaign that resulted in the purchase of the forest in 1901 then even this tiny portion would have been swallowed by the tidal wave of bricks that cascaded out of London.

Hainault Forest
I had walked across a corner of the parkland before – on a random excursion one morning when I strolled around the boating lake and over Dog Kennel Hill. Today I wanted to make my way towards Lambourne End in the District of Epping.

Hainault Forest
Sitting in the Two Brewers Pub in Chigwell Row at 8.15pm I spread out my OS map on a table in the car park and tried to work out where I’d actually been. Even by sticking to the well-marked forest trails I’d somehow significantly over-shot the boundaries of the forest. I’d assumed the beautiful meadow at the edge of the woodland was Three-Cornered Plain and took the scenic path that ran down one side past an abandoned mobility scooter. Eventually I reached a fenced in enclosure and realized my mistake. Still the views eastwards were majestic from the high ground and I made my way along the field edge path assuming I’d emerge in Lambourne End.

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You can imagine my surprise when I encountered the abandoned mobility scooter in the path – I still can’t work out how that was possible – the path even looked completely different. Was this the forest sprites at play? A lady walking her dog pointed me back in the right direction and I found my way to the beguiling named Camelot Car Park.
Hainault Forest
I wonder if one day I’ll fathom how to properly read an OS Map or will they always remain a pretty fold up picture to make my walks more interesting.

East of Upminster – to London Gateway

10am – a whole day’s walk ahead, but no idea where to go – none. I start heading west on the Central Line but with the possibility of branching back east at Stratford Overground or at Mile End on the District Line. Where will I end up at sunset? The Estuary appeals but not Essex nor the train journey out there. I need a river to follow to make my mind up for me.

I find myself at 10.30 on the C2C – a spontaneous decision at Stratford – my departure point decided at the moment I boarded without a ticket to take me beyond the Oyster Card zone which ends at Upminster. I relax with the most difficult part of the day over. I’ll be walking east from Upminster towards the Thames Estuary somewhere. Off the map now for me.

Upminster Wimpy
Leaving the Station it’s hard not to admire the Wimpy Bar – I need to return some day for a Knickerbocker Glory to relive childhood birthday treats. 11am and Upminster is starting to move. I stop for provisions at Waitrose – pork pie reduced to 55p, water, Cornish pasty and muesli bar. That should set me up for the day.

Passing beneath the M25 is the real point of departure – breaking free of the gravitational field of London into lands beyond. The drivers in Essex seem to want to kill you – there is a noticeable upping of the aggression when you walk out of London and emerge in an Essex country road. So the half-a-mile I walk along St. Mary’s Lane is pure terror. I’ve never been so happy to see a footpath as the one that branched off around the edge of a cornfield from a bend in the road – who cared where it was headed. Today would be a case study in the pros and cons of walking outside the city without an OS map – Apple maps lack public footpaths and contours – they merely give you enough of a hint as to where you are and which way you’re headed.

Upminster Level Crossing
The footpath led to a level crossing and then continued up a steep climb chest-high with weeds and thistles.  The going was tough over rock hard plough in the searing heat. I drank most of my water. The footpath dumped me near an intersection of busy A-Roads – 2 miles in and I was nearly done. I decided to follow the A127 for a few miles – cover some ground with my head down beside the throbbing traffic. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

A127 Road to Southend
Twice I failed to find my way off the road – tightrope walking the slip road curbstone and rabbit running the roundabouts just to find myself back on the A127 on the other side. 19 miles to Southend – should I submit to an asphalt yomp and collapse into an amusement arcade at night in the ‘End?

Past a van abandoned on the pavement – all doors wide open, interior stripped bare. Past Brentwood Valeting Centre with the high performance cars queued up for some spit and polish. I had to escape the road.

The B-Road into Laindon went on-and-on, featureless, giving nothing away. I’d been walking 4 hours and was close to despair – write it off as a failed venture and get the train home from Basildon.

I was saved by a bridleway – innocuously enough heading away off the road encased in hawthorn. Two young kids chased Pokemon on their phones. I rested on a tree trunk on the high side of Langdon Recreation Ground munching on sweaty pork products and found the will the push on. I wanted to reach water at some point today – a sunset over the estuary would be a bonus.

Langdon Hills Park
The paths wending through trees crossed the road and take me into Langdon Hills Country Park. I get a rush of memories – school trip to Swanage during the Falklands War, Scout Camp in Hampshire when Liverpool beat Roma on penalties to win the European Cup, the walk in Rendlesham Forest on New Year’s Eve, hill villages in Thailand (from the smell of hay). I was so happy wandering through Coombe Wood, Great Sutton Wood and Northlands Wood that I was mildly amused when it transpired I’d walked in a giant loop back to where I’d begun. At that point I would have gladly seen out the rest of the day walking in circles in the Langdon Hills.

stanford-le-hope footpath
I did though eventually find my way into a field of tall swaying wheat with a footpath carved across the centre which ran into a wood on the far side but then ended beside the A13 near Stanford-le-Hope. I could bare no more roads so stuck to the edge of the field hoping to find an exit.

At the bottom of the field the perfect babbling brook ran in a deep gulley under the cool shade of the trees. I scooped soothing cold water over my head and neck before jumping across and scrambling up the far bank and across the road into Stanford-le-Hope. I’d been out of water for a while in the hot sun and rehydrated at the first available corner shop – sculling a can of 7-Up by the bins outside like I’d just emerged from a trek across the Sahara.
Stanford-le-Hope
There was a clear route open now across the marshes to the Estuary – 6pm and heading towards that sunset over the water.
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That first view of the Thames lapping over the mud flats at Stanford Wharf was priceless. I drank it in thinking now I’d be able to walk eastwards along the river. A family were putting away a picnic they’d had on a single square of sand on the shore surrounded by heavy clumps of salt marsh grasses. The path to Pitsea headed back inland – the sight of a level crossing induced flashbacks to the dark origins of this quest so I turned away. Another path ran alongside a high concrete wall beside the marshland – reminiscent of a similar path back near Tilbury Power Station I’d walked along a few times in the past, so I carried on assuming it would likewise hug the outside wall of the container port on the riverside.

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Ascending a tall set of metal steps at the end I found myself caught in a peculiar pen – on a concrete platform jutting out into the river – the railway line behind me, and ahead the boulders lining the river bank. Refusing to turn back after all I’d been through the only available option was to clamber on over the rocks.
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It soon became clear that this wasn’t exactly a legitimate pathway and could land me straight in the river at the end. There was no apparent exit so I clambered through a clump of thick brambles to a high concrete wall and found a point where, with my arms above my head and a bit of leap, I could attempt to pull myself over the wall.

Puffed out and adrenalized I paused lying face down atop the wall, I couldn’t fall down the other side until I’d worked out the extent of the drop and what was down there. Once satisfied it was safe I allowed myself to fall down into the tall weeds. Blood was streaming down my arms where I’d scraped them pulling myself over the wall. I tried to work out where I was. A building site beside the entrance to London’s new container terminal London Gateway owned by the Dubai government corporation DP World.
London Gateway
I waited assuming that security would be on their way and looked forward to being escorted out, it would be the first time today that I’d be sure where I was going – if I was lucky I might even get a lift, somewhere along the way I’d twisted my ankle and with the adrenalin ebbing away it was starting to hurt.

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But nobody came – in fact there didn’t seem to be a soul around. And so I wandered the deserted new roads of this unnerving preview of the future. This vast terrain of blank box distribution units – the enormous robot cranes that automatically unload shipping containers once the work of tens of thousands of people. Compare this empty wasteland of sleeping robots with those images of the old crowded London docks. It sends a chill down the spine.

London Gateway
I wandered for an hour around the empty logistics park and didn’t see a single human being. Eventually I ran out of road and found myself at a high locked gate. The barbed wire ran into the horizon in one direction. My only escape was to jump a stream and awkwardly and carefully limbo my way between the barbed wire into a farmer’s field ripping my shirt in the process as the final injury of the day.

London Gateway
I did get my sunset. It wasn’t looking over the Estuary though – it was sitting on a mound in the centre of a roundabout at the main entrance to London Gateway – near where I’d clambered over the wall. I sat there with a supper of Co-Op Sandwich and another can of fizzy drink. I was sunburnt, worn out, scratched arms and ripped shirt. It had been a good walk.

Edgeland stumble – Leytonstone to Picketts Lock

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There’s a light patter of rain on the tree canopy along the edge of Leyton Flats as I head out on a Sunday morning walk – a rarity for me as I usually start in the afternoon and walk into the sunset. But today I have to introduce a secret film at Close Up in the evening.

The rain makes gentle circles in the Birch Well – a Victorian drinking spot for the grazing cattle who wandered this way until the BSE outbreak in the 90’s. This first narrow section of forest offers little opportunity for aimless wandering nor allows you to surrender to the woodland spirits because you encounter a road crossing about every 300 yards.

A giant fallen tree lies across the path leading out of Gilberts Slade. I’m feeling the effects of a viral cold, heavy legged, sore feet, wondering how far I’ll make it.

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The long wet grass by the gypsy stone at Woodford soaks my trousers to the knee. I pause for a moment under a tree at Highams Park Lake. The broad shade on the far side and the meander of the River Ching is a favourite spot in the Forest, it has a middle earth like magic even though BBQ smoke and the sound of playing children waft over from the back gardens of surrounding houses.

I stop at the Royal Café in Chingford Hatch for sausage, egg, and chips with tea so strong you could stand a spoon upright in it. Hunger must be dealt with first before assessing whether I have the desire to push on with the walk. I’ve been waiting for this walk to claim a narrative. I can pinpoint almost every other forest schlep with some event or association – even minor excursions like the one that ended here one wet day and I left my walking stick propped against a bench over the road and felt like I was abandoning an old friend. Maybe this stop in the Royal Café will provide that narrative hook.

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The Café sits on the ground floor of a block of flats – there’s a decorative tiled relief set into the wall showing a vase brimming full of flowers in bloom above the letters of the London County Council 1949.

The profusion of peddle-dash along the side of New Road Chingford, the nearby Harvester, these are some of the great signifiers of the London fringe – you find the same motifs heading west through Greenford and Northolt.

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At Chingford Mount I buy a two-pack of socks from Poundland and put both pairs on sat on a bench near the clock tower. With food in my belly and dry socks on my feet I feel like a new person ready to pursue the quest.

Lower Hall Lane offers up a classic slice of Lea Valley edgeland. Men sitting in parked cars in this deadend road – cabbies waiting for the next call. Suburban husbands escaping bungalow wives. Newbuild housing abuts the Grade II-listed Victorian pumping station. A grand brick pile built in 1895 by the East London Water Works, the local paper reports arrests made in recent years for planning violations. Permission to convert to site to residential use was granted by Waltham Forest Council in 2007 but now appears to be under review.

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19th Century excavations in Lower Hall Lane unearthed a series of Bronze Age Cremations – one of many such sites that line the Lea Valley. Further archaeological investigations in Lower Hall Lane revealed a medieval brew house, barns, moats, walls, and ditches. It’s a site of continuous human usage stretching back thousands of years. Today it’s just me and the dog barking at the gate of the deserted pumping station. A shiny new thick chain and padlock adorn the adjoining cottage gate. Perhaps someone is inside watching me from behind the curtains.

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I sauntered past London Waste up the cycle track on the opposite side to the towpath. From the bridge I spot the polythene of a temporary home flapping in the thick undergrowth – makeshift settlements scatter the fringes of London, like Harvester restaurants. A shrine suspended on a pylon pays tribute to ‘RIP Hasan 1987 – 2011’.

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I loiter in the foyer of the Odeon of Picketts Lock  before getting the train back to Stratford from Ponders End.

London Overground world premiere trailer

The world premiere of London Overground is on Sat 2nd July at the Rio Cinema, Dalston screening in the East End Film Festival. I’ve been working on the film for almost exactly a year now following on from the interview I shot with Iain Sinclair about the book. Shortly afterwards we shot the first section of the Overground walk with Andrew Kotting – strolling from Rotherhithe Station to the Thames shore then down to Surrey Quays through Andrew’s old memory grounds. We stopped in the same cafe they did in the book, La Cigale near Greenland Dock.

Iain Sinclair Andrew Kotting Overground film

From there we dropped by the Cafe Gallery in Southwark Park where Andrew deposited a found object from the Thames shore, and passed by the New Den to Queens Road Peckham. The walked ended with possibly one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever filmed … but you’ll have to watch the film to find out.

The next shoot with Bill Parry-Davies of Open Dalston picking through the horrors of regeneration around Dalston Junction and getting to the heart of the Overground loop and it how it gave birth to a new model of property development in London underpinned by overseas investment.

Iain Sinclair Wapping John Rogers

In autumn and early winter Iain and I walked alone in two stages from Haggerston back to the Thames at Wapping. Here we traversed key landscapes in Iain’s life and writing – the East End, Truman Brewery, Anti-University, Hare Marsh, Whitechapel, St. Dunstan’s-in-the-East, Narrow Street, Wapping.

Iain Sinclair Andrew Kotting Overground film

I was back out on the road with Andrew and Iain early this year as they reprised the Overground walk in full but in reverse – starting in the evening and walk counter-clockwise through the night arriving back in Haggerston at 10am the next day. I only stayed the course as far as Hampstead Heath but strapped a GoPro to Andrew’s head to capture highlights of the rest of the circuit.

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We headed to the northwest quarter with legendary Radio On director and noir novelist Chris Petit to explore Willesden Junction – which confirmed Iain’s idea that the Overground was a ghost railway.

The rest – oh, there’s loads more including great contributions from Marcia Farquhar and Cathi Unsworth, a brilliant soundtrack from the likes of Standard Planets, Bill and Adam Parry-Davies, Free Seed Music, and Rosen.

John Rogers Andrew Kotting Iain Sinclair

Hope to see you at the Rio on Saturday.