Out to the sea. As the long Easter weekend fades behind us mentally today I’ll retread my steps of a month ago as I walked along the Thames Estuary from Benfleet, through Leigh-on-Sea (surely that should be ‘Leigh-on-Estuary’), Chalkwell, Westcliff, Southend and finishing at Thorpe Bay.
This time a week ago London was covered in snow – the ‘Beast from the East’ returned and plunged us back into the Ice Age (or so it felt, the hyperbole is justified). Looking out at my snow-drenched garden I had a strong urge to hit the high ground, walk head-long into a blizard, confront this beast face-to-face. So I got the tube to Grange Hill bound for Havering-atte-Bower.
I’d done a portion of this walk with Rick Pearson for his podcast, London’s Peaks, and at the time vowed to return, partly to capture this majestic route on video but also to see how the walk could be extended.
From the top of Grange Hill to Havering-atte-Bower (the highest point in the London Borough of Havering) follows most of Section 20 of the London Loop, which starts at Chigwell. I’d covered the Chigwell end with Rick and also about a decade ago for my radio show, so I cut that part out in favour of extending the walk at the other end.
As you would expect with the temperature below freezing there were very few people about, Hainault Forest virtually deserted. The climb into the foothills of Havering Country Park, wading through deep muddy puddles was tough but the reward more than adequate compensation. There’s an avenue of majestic Californian Redwood trees that runs though the top end of the wooded park that takes the breath away – it was an honour to be in their presence, these huge benign gods of the glade.
The snow started coming in horizontal when away from the cover of the Redwoods, the wind whipping it up off the Havering Hills. Edward the Confessor had his hunting lodge here, some say this is where the pious king died. Havering-atte-Bower feels like an ‘out-of-place artefact’, a hill village in London that would be more at home in the Chilterns.
I push on through the intensifying flurry, to Bedfords Park, losing my bearings in Bower Wood before crossing into Rise Park and out onto the A12 to catch a Route 66 bus home.
As the Beast from the East part 2 bends the bushes in my garden in half and dusts it all in snow I look back to the walk I took up the Lea Valley last weekend. Then it seemed certain that the cold was behind us and spring appeared to be breaking over Gillwell Hill. I was feeling sluggish and dark and sought out old/new paths. I took the Overground to Blackhorse Road, then proceeded up Blackhorse Lane turning off into Sinott Road looking for the path that runs alongside the reservoirs.
Down a narrow road (Folly Lane) past the Muslim Cemetery, fly-tipping in the clumpy scrub, a Traveller site, pylons, mini-roundabout, Costco – an almost textbook example of ‘Edgelands’ – you could bus academics out here to scratch their chins and make notes. I’m incredibly tired and heavy legged but really need to push through.
Past the pumping station on Harbet Road, on the other side of the road the fly-tip at the end of the world. A field littered with trash spread between the Lea, the roadside, and the North Circular viaduct. Tall chimneys puke up fumes in the near distance. An open wound in the city’s armpit.
On I plod on past the North London Vehicle Pound and follow the road down to the riverside path beneath the flyover. A couple of guys with a huge dog mooch around beside the undergrowth. Cyclists buzz past, head down racing against the Monday-Friday stress (it always catches up in the end).
At Pickett’s Lock my spirits lift and mood improves. Is it because I’m approaching the edge of London and can I leave my cares behind under a bush?
The sun starts to dissolve the milky clouds. The birds sing the sky yellow. Ponders End. Spring.
Rammey Marsh wide and clear before the summer growth obscures its view from the river path. I love this stretch into Waltham Abbey, it’s where my mind often wanders when I’m trapped indoors.
The last leg into Cheshunt proceeds at a slow plod, I’d burnt off the last of my energy covering the 4 miles from Pickett’s Lock to Waltham Abbey in under an hour fuelled but the burst of sunshine. Now the sky fades slowly back to a deep charcoal grey and the cold seeps up off the riverbank. I sit on a bench to see out the last of the light as a barge chugs northbound towards Ware and Hertford.
There was some discussion with my wife about the last time I’d been along Haringey’s Parkland Walk but in any case we’re sure a pram was involved meaning it must have been at least 10 years ago. It has become one of the most requested walks on my YouTube channel and with the snow starting to melt after the ‘Beast from the East’ had smothered London in Siberian snow, it seemed like the perfect timing.
The Parkland Walk follows the railway line that ran from Finsbury Park to Alexandra Palace that opened in 1867, closing to passengers in 1954 and carrying freight till 1964. The Parkland Walk opened in 1984 – the intervening 20 years would have been a fascinating period of its existence, left to be reclaimed by nature and intrepid urban ramblers.
For some reason I’ve always thought the Parkland Walk Nature Reserve could be accessed from Harringay Green Lanes, maybe it once connected with the small nature reserve there, but in reality it starts at Oxford Road on the far side of Finsbury Park. There the snow had already started to turn to slush but as the path moved into the foothills of the Northern Heights it transitioned into an icy track flanked by deep-sided banks of snow capped pines. It was along here that Stephen King got spooked by a mystical presence, recorded in the short story Crouch End. The synopsis on Wikipedia reads, “After encountering something unseen beyond a hedge, Lonnie becomes unhinged, and eventually disappears while the couple is walking through a tunnel”. Published in 1980, it means that King had been one of those intrepid urban ramblers walking the disused railway line when he encountered that eerie presence.
I encountered no superficial forces along the walk mostly just joggers, dog-walkers and Dads hand-in-hand with toddlers. I did meet a lovely bloke called Matt from Melbourne though who recognised me from my YouTube videos and said he’d watched most of them. That’s always nice.
At Highgate I entered Highgate Woods, a remnant of the old forest of Middlesex, now managed by the Corporation of London. The snow lay thick and heavy here, kids dragged sledges looking for a place to sled, stomping over the earthwork that carves a diagonal line across one corner of the woods. I wonder how much more of this ancient landscape is buried beneath the suburbanized hills and valleys of Highgate, Muswell, Hornsey and Crouch End.
The other week I had the great pleasure of walking to the highest point in the London Borough of Havering, Havering-atte-Bower, for Rick Pearson’s brilliant podcast, London’s Peaks. Rick’s podcast explores the highest point in each of the London boroughs with someone connected to the area.
In some ways this series of lunchtime strolls round Kennington in South London represent the missing chapter from my book This Other London – adventures in the overlooked city. Chapter 9 was originally built around seeking out the location of the classic, but overlooked sitcom 15 Storeys High, written by and starring Sean Lock. I would write in the evenings after the family had gone to bed, fueled by cheap IPA in the last hour at the pub, and push through till around 2am. As this routine gradually took its toll, I got myself through the night by rewarding every 200 words written with an episode of 15 Storeys High. So it seemed fitting to use it as the basis of one of the final walks in the book.
I can’t quite remember why this never happened, I think it had something to do with wanting to head out in the company of my old City Poly room-mate from his flat in Camberwell, and him continuously delaying. Something like that anyway. But now, serendipitously, these walks around Kennington, that include a visit to Brandon Estate where 15 Storeys High was shot, coincided with the paperback publication of This Other London.
We didn’t get too far with the first walk, simply walking past the ground that was once occupied by the palace of The Black Prince, and taking in the pub named in his honour that was used as a location in The Kingsmen. We had a look at one of Charlie Chaplin’s two Kennington homes before looping through the backstreets and grabbing some lunch.
Walk two took us down to the Imperial War Musuem and then to Elephant and Castle. But Keaton lost the windmuff from the Edirol meaning we had to backtrack to the Imperial War Museum where it lay on a path like a lost Tribble.
The final walk was by far the most productive, taking in the second of Chaplin’s homes, Cleaver Square, The White Bear, Kennington Park, Brandon Estate, the Oval Cricket Ground, and the Oval gasometers. It would have made a great chapter in This Other London, but these things happen for a reason and I’m glad it was still waiting to be explored in the company of Keaton to celebrate the publication of the paperback edition.
I must have crossed paths with the London Loop hundreds of times and coincidentally followed its paths for short sections before branching off on my own route. But one grey unpromising January Saturday I decided to walk one whole section of the London Loop – section 17, from Enfield Lock to Cockfosters (this is in the reverse direction as the Loop is organised clockwise).
The Lea Valley line was running for once at the weekend, and leaving Enfield Lock Station I turned into Albany Park. Here I met the Turkey Brook which would be my companion for much of the day – till it was replaced by the Salmon Brook near the walk’s end.
The London Loop takes you across the thumping traffic of the A10, roughly following the route of the old Roman Ermine Street, and into Forty Hall Park. There’s a natural temptation to be drawn off path for a gander at Forty Hall, the grand 17th Century residence of former Lord Mayor of London, Nicholas Rainton and now Enfield Borough’s Museum. But I decide to stick true to my course and plough on round Forty Hill. A white egret paddles in the Turkey Brook before elegantly flying up into a tree as I pass. At first I think it’s a young heron before more knowledgeable people correct me in the comments on the YouTube video.
The bandstand in Hilly Fields Park is locked so I eat my lunch perched on a fallen tree instead. A Cockapoo, yaps and strains at its lead desperate to get a bite of my chicken baguette, before its owner drags it away. It’s a wet grey afternoon, January for me is almost the classic winter month, the last before you get a glimmer of Spring around the middle of February. This is the perfect landscape in which to revel in winter’s damp bare nakedness.
A lane across the top of Clay Hill gives me a view of the distant smudge of Nick Papadimitriou’s ‘Scarp’ – the North Middlesex/South Hertfordshire Tertiary Escarpment. It makes me think of my old walking buddy, most likely now sat in his Child’s Hill tower block, possibly even gazing at the same view.
Passing over Cuckold’s Hill I approach Botany Bay. My wife had seen it on the map, and being an Aussie had told me a song I must sing on the way, but it escapes me in the moment (back at home she sang ‘Botany Bay’ to be included in the video).
The muddy fields of Enfield Chase take their toll on my legs and as I top the hill facing the Trent Park Obelisk I’m ready for the walk to end. The light is dimming, it’s the last 20 minutes or so of daylight as I take a short-cut and find myself at Camlet Moat. I’d seen a book in Watkins Esoteric Bookshop that had placed King Arthur’s Camelot in Enfield and dismissed at the time as an amusing fantasy. But looking into the wide green waters of the moat it doesn’t seem so crazy. Excavations turned up remains of stone foundations and Roman artefacts pointing at a heritage older than that of the Norman baron Geoffrey de Mandeville with whom it has been previously associated with. Now sat here with Christopher Street’s ‘London’s Camelot and the Secrets of The Grail’ beside me I read his theory with a different attitude.
Trent Park is closing. Families and couples holding hands emerge from the woodland and make their way down the long driveway towards Cockfosters. It’s been an interesting experiment, sticking doggedly to a section of the London Loop, not one I’m sure to repeat, but an enlightening wander all the same. Now to read more about Camelot in North London.