Walk along the Walbrook

I was flicking through the pages of Wonderful London (circa 1921) Sunday afternoon and stopped at a photo of some young men on a set of steps by the river.

The caption reads:
“The Walbrook once ran down the gentle slope of Dowgate Hill and barges used to moor there … the Britons may have traded somewhere near this site with the ships from Gaul.”
This was enough to make me head out into the night to follow its course.  

Wonderful London has a chapter on Some Lost Rivers of London describing the route the river took through the City before it was buried in the mid-15th Century.
“It rose in Moorfields and went through the City wall, and so got its name, near Moorgate. It flowed under the site of the Bank past the Mansion House, along the street called Walbrook and so by Dowgate into the Thames.”

Ackroyd proposes another explaination of the name – that it is “derived from Weala broc, ‘brook of the Welsh’, which suggests there was still a defined quarter for the ‘old Britons’ in their ancient city”. 

It seems that the Walbrook was one of the most signficant rivers in Roman and early medieval London. It ran through the heart of the ancient City dividing it in two. When the Romans arrived they built a temple to Mithras and a port on its east bank. The invading Saxons later used it as the boundary between the east and west of the City – with the invaders on the West bank and the Britons to the East.

I headed to the street named Moorfields to look for where the stream rises, although I have a feeling the whole area once went by that name. When the Walbrook ran freely this was an area of boggy marsh-lands. This may explain the relatively large amount of open space hereabouts, of Finsbury Square (where the Ocuppy protestors camp) and the artillery grounds, in a zone that has some of the most expensive land in the world.

I can’t read a landscape like Nick Papadimitriou, that man can sniff out a buried stream like some kind of urban Navajo, but I’ve done enough river walks with him to pick up a few basics. Moorfields didn’t seem to have a river/stream valley in the area but there was the low lying area just off Finsbury Circus where the Cross Rail works are drilling deep.

When I get home I checked the Cross Rail archaeological reports and indeed they have struck the Walbrook running along the course of Blomfield Street and they are searching for the remains of the Roman bridges that crossed the stream.

I breach London Wall and am drawn into Great Swan Street which curves down to low-lying land – the course of the river? Passing the Chartered Accountants Hall and following the contours of the street I traverse Copthall Avenue and find myself at Angel Court.

The City is eerily deserted on a Sunday night – the only other people I see are the lonely figures sat on sentry duty at the front desks of the office blocks. Although I have the streets to myself, there is the ever-present feeling of my every step being picked up on hundreds if not thousands of CCTV cameras.

I have a note from the London Topographical Record of an excavation of Angel Court in 1974 that uncovered a portion of the river, noting that it “dominated the original topography and habitation of the district north of Lothbury and Throgmorton Street”. Remains of a Roman embankment were also discovered along with Roman relics, coins, shoes and painted wall plaster. Hundreds of styli for writing were also discovered where scribes had tossed them from their windows into the water, perhaps in frustration or disgust. In my imagination it is just one particularly bad-tempered Roman clerk who continuosly made mistakes.

Behind the Bank in Lothbury I note a dip in the road that could well indicate the course of the Walbrook. Lothbury is an ancient enclosure, or haga, of the city, a fortified burgh of Lotha’s folk, an early Kentish king.

An excavation of the stream in the 19th century found a large quantity of human skulls in the river bed. One theory is that they were the remains of a Roman legion that surrendered to British tribes following a siege of a city, they were massacred “in ritual Celtic style” and their heads thrown into the Brook.

Walbrook beside Mansion House

With the City now dominated by huge blocks of concrete, glass and steel and its workaday streets the parade ground of a besuited army of clerks and accountants it’s easy to forget the more earthy history of this place; when blood was spilt on these very streets in battles to control the City, when the trade was hauled up from wharfs rather than sent down a high-speed connection, when the City was the heart of London life rather than a capitalist encampment staffed by suburban commuters.

Past the Tallow Chandler’s Hall and into the darkness of Cousin Lane I find the set of steps that look like the ones from that beguiling collodion photo in Wonderful London at the top of this post. There isn’t a soul around, it’s low tide so I walk a little along the shore looking for where the Walbrook makes its confluence with the Thames but I find nothing.

But there’s no doubt that the Walbrook still lives – coursing beneath the City streets – waiting to spring back to the surface at the first opportunity – which I imagine will be anytime soon thanks to Cross Rail.

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Walk from Leytonstone to the Thames

Been meaning to do this walk for a while – heading south in a straight line from Leytonstone across Stratford and Abbey Marshes bound for the Plaistow Levels beside the river Thames.

 Leyton High Road –

 

“Local history is the cradle of true patriotism, and local patriotism is the best stimulant to efficiency and progress”

Fifty Years A Borough 1886-1936 – The Story of West Ham by Donald McDougall, 1936

 

 “There seems to be no doubt that the name comes from the Saxon, indicating the Street by the ford, or Stratford”.

 Old Stratford looks down upon the arrivistes

“It is quite likely that the area was a centre of communal life of the (pre-Roman) period and that it saw Druid ceremonial at its best”

The Greenway

East Ham and West Ham were simply known as Hamme at the time of Edward the Confessor.

Alfred the Great is said to be responsible for the creation of some of the watercourses around Stratford such as the Channelsea River which he created to drain water from the Danish ships moored in the River Lea.

Channelsea River 2
a home at Bromley-by-Bow – note the jacket hung up left of the bed

Limehouse Cut

“These streams had for many years been deteriorating, silting up, and at times giving off very offensive smells.”

another unofficial home
the marsh monster

“But before there were small clustered villages, and before the unassailable fortress stood sentinel on the bank of the river, what people lived in the forests and marshy lands? What did they do in the struggle to live?
The first great work of these unrecorded hands was to build a wall of earth all along the north bank of the river so tha a great belt of swampy land was made fertile and flourished into meadows and pastures.”
The Story of Tower Hamlets, 1967

West Ham Abbey “stood on the banks of the Channelsea River, one of the waterways created by Alfred the Great, in a very low-lying area now almost entirely covered by factories, warehouse and gasometers.”
Fifty Years a Borough

L.A. Walk

Fairfax Ave – a strip of vintage clothes shops
Fairfax Ave
Silent Movie Theatre – getting ready for Halloween
Corner of Fairfax and Melrose looking towards Hollywood Hills
“In the early 1970s, the Improv was the hippest room in town, possibly in the world”
View across the basin from Sunset Boulevard
First Baptist Church of Beverly Hills
beneath my window I hear the the parking valets chattering in Spanish

 

Through the forest to Loughton

Headed out this afternoon up past the Hollow Ponds through Epping Forest to Loughton.
I didn’t consult my copy of Buxton as much as I should have to glean the names of the specific parts of the forest – such as Gilbert’s Slade that runs beside Forest School and is a muddy bog for most of the year; and also Rushey Plain that I passed at some point.
Here are few images from the walk

Afoot Round London

“Exploration, I hope no-one has said this before, begins at home. Now that the North Pole has been reached and Cook’s tourists penetrate to Patagonia there is very little undiscovered country left outside England for the roving adventurous individual to explore. But in England and especially within an hours ride from London there are vast tracts of terra incognita still left. It would take a long investigation to determine why in the last 40 years these formerly traveled districts have ceased to attract the foot of the wayfarer and explorer”.

Pathfinder – Afoot Round London, 1911

Posted via email from fugueur’s posterous

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In search of the North-East Passage

Headed out from home 7pm on Sunday night on foot in search of the north-east passage. I’m now well familiar with the other two routes across the marshes that separate Leytonstone from the western city, well from London really. But the most northerly was unknown to me. It lies north of Walthamstow in an unpromising corner of the city at the end of Blackstock Road.

I spent the first 100 yards preoccupied with an uncomfortable right shoe. This had the potential to be a fair old yomp so my footwear had better be right. Once fixed I then became overly aware of the sloshing of the water in my aluminium water bottle – and what were the dangers of drinking from an aluminium vessel. I was only two streets away from home.

Soon past Leyton’s archaeology row with Walnut House, and the former home of Essex County Cricket Club. When this area was being developed at the end of the C19t Palaeolithic flint flakes ‘as sharp as knives’ were turned up, forming what was claimed to be a remarkable ‘Palaeolithic floor’.

The cottages in Vicarage Road are in fine bloom – village Leyton lives with the spirit of the antiquarian Revd. Strype. I check-in with the beguiling 1940’s blocks of flats on the corner of Brewster Road with their cross-work brick patterns, they’re aligned to catch the sun like a standing stone monument ready for the veneration of Julian Cope.

I am trying to understand the ‘northern-ness’ of where I live. Leytonstone gains its identity from being on the eastern fringe – we are eastsiders. That is until you look at a map or walk back from central London via the most direct route and find yourself pushing north up through Clerkenwell and Highbury.

Crossing Lea Bridge Road near the fine stone obelisk protecting the library I wonder whether Markhouse Road runs along a watershed. The ground drops away to the west running off into the river Lea. Numerous streams run beneath the tarmac from the higher ground around Whipps Cross and the Dagenham Brook runs just below Markhouse.

The hop fields in Boundary Road have long since gone. The Lea Valley pylons appear between houses. I pass an electricity substation wearing a wig of Russian vine. St. Saviour’s Church looks abandoned. I wander round to the Gothic building behind which turns out to be Barking Lodge, Diocese of Chelmsford, Barking Area Office. There is a CofE school and further church buildings. An ecclesiastical encampment among the heathens of the marshes.

Past the sad scene marking a ‘Fatal Collision’ among the withering yellow flowers are weathered soft toys and three apples.

I move quickly along crumbling Blackhorse Road – reduced to a post-industrial rat-run. Waltham Forest Council has identified this as a spot to ‘re-introduce the country into the city’ – to allow glimpses of the marshes to break through the phalanxes of asbestos-lined buildings. They’ve got their work cut out.

I cross the Valley between Walthamstow Reservoirs and Tottenham Marshes as the sun ducks behind great puffy cloud formations and stop for a swift half in the Ferry Boat Inn.

There’s a certain optimism in the aspiration that drives up the development of Hale Wharf. Great hunks of isolated apartment blocks with birds-eye views of the rusting Lea Delta but little else in the way of infrastructure unless you plan to commute by coracle. A channel of the river around the site has become clogged with weeds – a metaphor perhaps or am I trying to look too hard for signs and meaning. It’s what this landscape does to you.

I land on the western shore of the Lea at Tottenham Hale. My reaction to ‘North’ as I forward more cautiously is to want to head home – to be back in my local by closing time, impossible on foot without tracing my steps and even then unlikely. I’m tempted by the train at South Tottenham but am not ready to leave the ‘fugue’ and so force myself on – but to where? I hadn’t thought this far ahead – I hadn’t thought much at all. I’m simply following instinct now.

The High Road climbs a steep incline of churches that will soon fade into the synagogues of Stamford Hill. I could turn north again here – for Finsbury Park and beyond. It is 9.40pm and as I stand at the crossroads of Amhurst Road I pledge to get back to my local by 11pm closing. Can’t be done I think, but I won’t give up until I know it’s impossible.

Clapton Common has a dream-like midsummer air with Hassidic Jews strolling across the grass and beneath the hanging boughs in the last light. Large groups of men congregate on the pavements intensely conversing in what I assume to be Hebrew.
Downhill past the Krays’ Evering Road and gyro the roundabout onto Lea Bridge Road.
It’s after 10pm.
I up the pace.

Half-way along Lea Bridge Road my right knee goes. Tendons go taunt and menisci grind against bone – it becomes reluctant to perform its primary function as a joint and bend. This is sure to sabotage my mission – I’m swinging lead in the dark as I cross back over the river.
I hobble to a corner shop and seek medicine in the form of a can of Stella Artois hastily necked. I’m moving a bit more freely now. It took me 40 minutes to reach this same point on the way out. It’s 10.30 – no chance of making last orders.

Down Church Road, into Capworth Street which is surreally blocked bumper to bumper rush hour style as two drivers lock horns in argument, “So I can be this ignorant and drive”, one menacingly reasons whilst leaning through the window.

In Francis Road at 10.49. The pain returns. To seek more Stella would surely sink me – have to grit my teeth.
A final burst and I break through the swinging pub doors 1 minute before the bell rings. Marge is behind the bar. I recount my quest as I order my pint.
“You made good time then”, she says.
“Not really, it’s just before 11” I reply.
“I know, but we close at 11.30 on a Sunday.”

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High Wycombe’s ‘Nodules of Energy’ Walk

I dug out a miniDV tape the other day from a walk I did in May 2005 for the Remapping High Wycombe project. I’d never watched it back – the walk (and therefore the tape) had served its purpose – I’d mapped out the final points in what we were calling the ‘nodules of energy’ of the town. I’d borrowed this term from a talk Iain Sinclair had given with Will Self at Hawksmoor’s St. Luke’s Church in Old Street. He’d used it in reference to the church itself, William Blake’s burial site in nearby Bunhill Fields. We transposed this idea onto High Wycombe and came up with our own ‘nodules of energy’ for the town.

The walk in the video documents the final stretch of these – Ivor Gurney’s lodgings, Malmer’s Well ancient British fortification, the old straight Bronze Age track of Coffin Walk, Harrison’s Stamp Factory, Disraeli Monument, Tinker’s Wood (the home of Bodgers and Bandits) and Compair Broome and Wade.
I’m using the camcorder to scribble down video notation – haphazard, rough, the sounds of scuffed feet and birdsong. Watching it back I could almost remember every step of the way.

I sought out this tape and hastily hacked this video because now my mind is turning back to the walks we planned that never embarked upon. Out beyond the Hughenden Valley, breaking free of the Chilterns escarpment and into open country.

There’s more about this walk here

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