Huge crowd protests against development of Walthamstow Town Square

It was a bright, freezing cold Saturday lunchtime. Any doubts that the winds blowing in from Siberia would effect the turn-out of the protest against the proposed development of Walthamstow Town Square were dispelled as soon as I stepped onto the patch of grass that the Council want to bury beneath four mega blocks. A huge crowd were mustered in the square listening to speakers put forward the case against the development. There were even a couple of people swanning around dressed as cardboard tower blocks.

Walthamstow Town Square protest

Waltham Forest Council have got it into their heads that they need to compete with Westfield Stratford just down the road, by giving planning permission to property behemoths Capital and Regional to build a new mall and four monster tower blocks of ‘luxury’ apartments, one the size of Centrepoint. They claim there’s no viable alternative.

Walthamstow Town Square protest

The hundreds of local people in the Town Square heartily disagree. They want to see genuinely affordable homes and social housing. Just 20% of the homes in the new scheme will be classed ‘affordable’  – priced at up to 80% of market rates, in a new luxury development will mean they will be far from ‘affordable’ for the majority of local people in housing need.

The genuine question is, who benefits from this scheme? And why have Waltham Forest’s Labour Councillors enthusiastically endorsed such a plan when both Walthamstow and Leyton & Wanstead Labour Parties have passed motions calling for the plans to be reviewed and alternatives explored?

Walthamstow Town Square protest

The Mall development shouldn’t become Waltham Forest’s HDV, but the dogmatic intransigence of a minority within the Council could see this campaign snowball into something much bigger if the strength of feeling on display Saturday is anything to judge by.

Find out more about the campaign to save Walthamstow Town Square here

And there’s some good background in the Waltham Forest Echo

If you live in Waltham Forest and oppose the scheme please write to your local councillors – they’ll also be knocking on your door in the coming weeks canvassing for the local elections so ask if and why they support the Mall development.

Old map of London’s Lost Rivers

map of London rivers

This hand-drawn map from Wonderful London Volume 2 (published circa 1926) shows the Central London tributaries of the Thames – the Effra, the Neckinger, the Falcon Brook, the Wandle. North of the Thames we have the Counters Creek (here marked Bridge Creek), the Westbourne, the Tyebourne, the Holebourne (River Fleet), and the Walbrook. The contours show the high ground where the springs bubble up to the surface and then helped shaped the city we live in today even though all but one of them has been buried beneath the ground (the Wandle being the exception).

In the essay accompanying these illustrations, Alan Ivimey describes the fate of these Thames tributaries:

“They are right in the very heart, or, more accurately, in the bowels of London. For the fairest of these streams have been obliterated from the face of the earth to become dirty drains beneath its skin, or at least emaciated trickles writhing feebly in what remains of their old beds towards the everlasting Thames.”

Thames basin diagram

This simple sketch simply shows the shape of the Thames basin as a cross-section where many further London rivers and tributaries rise and flow. We see the high grounds of Addington Hills near Croydon to the south and Totteridge, Hendon and Hampstead to the North. Herne Hill and Crystal Palace form the highlands of the inner South of London with Primrose Hill marking the highground of North London just beyond the congested centre.

Ivimey describes how London might have looked when the rivers ran freely through the fields:

“In the lush meadows of Westbourne, near the highway to Harrow, the citizen of London could once see dragonflies and loosestrife, or, lying face down in the buttercups, tickle a brace of trout against the coming Friday.”

We rarely think of London in terms of its topography, flattened out in our minds by tube journeys and bus routes. Cross city cyclists tell a different story, feeling the river valleys in their tightening calves. For the walker the shape of London is unavoidable – ascend one of the peaks in this drawing and you’ll see the city revealed.

The Chronicles of Kennington

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.

Brandon Estate, Kennington

Brandon Estate, Kennington

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.

Oval gasholder

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.

Cleaver Square

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.

Walking the London Loop – Enfield Lock to Cockfosters section 17

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).

London Loop Enfield

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.

Forty Hall Park London Loop

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 Turkey Brooks Hilly Fields Park

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.

London Loop Clay Hill

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.

London Loop section 17 P1000523

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).

Cuckold's Hill Enfield

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.

Camlet Moat Camelot P1000596

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.

Robin Hood Gardens and along Poplar High Street

I’d been meaning to go for a proper look around Robin Hood Gardens for a while (a journal entry from July 2008 notes the idea of making a documentary about the estate’s proposed demolition), the eventual visit made more urgent by news that its demolition had begun. An iconic council estate designed by lauded architects Alison + Peter Smithson and completed in 1972, Robin Hood Gardens was being demolished to make way for a new development called Blackwall Reach consisting of 1575 new homes of which 550 are said to be available for social rent. The Evening Standard, a paper not noted for its support of social housing campaigns in the past, reported in 2017 that flats in the new development were already being marketed to investors in the Far East.

Robin Hood Gardens Poplar

Robin Hood Gardens demolition

Climbing the central mound in the open space designed by the Smithson’s as a ‘stress free zone, a calm pool’, you could see into the shattered shell of the western block, some of which is being preserved by the V&A. It’s odd to think of people visiting a museum to look at how people used to live in a brutalist council estate of the 1970’s in the way that we visit a reconstructed Iron Age Village. Is that where social housing is heading – a curiosity in a museum? I sincerely hope not.

Robin Hood Gardens demolition

Blackwall Reach development Poplar January 2018

Blackwall Reach development Poplar

Robin Hood Gardens

A kit of pigeons fly synchronised circuits of the interior space returning to their roosts on the upper ledges of the eastern block that still houses the last of the remaining inhabitants, although fewer in number than their feathered neighbours. What will the pigeons make of Blackwall Reach, I wonder?

Poplar Town Hall / Lansbury Hotel

Poplar Town Hall / Lansbury Hotel

Moving along Poplar High Street we see how the old Poplar Town Hall has been converted into a boutique hotel named after Poplar’s Labour MP George Lansbury, although ironic, at least the conversion saved the town hall from a mooted demolition and joining Robin Hood Gardens in the annals of the disappeared.

St. Matthias Church Poplar

St. Matthias Church

Beside the East India Company’s Meridian House, built in 1806, lies a semi-hidden East End gem. St Matthias Old Church was built in 1642 by the East India Company, both as a company chapel and to serve the riverside parish of Poplar and Blackwall. Apparently churches built in the civil war period are a real rarity, a booklet published by the LDDC and English Heritage lists two others (in Berwick-upon-Tweed and Leicestershire). There appears to be a children’s playgroup inside, so I decide not to intrude with my camera and instead make a loop of the quiet churchyard.

The wind blowing down Poplar High Street is starting to bite, my circuit has returned to Poplar DLR station and a glide along the rails back to Stratford.

Epping Lower Forest & out through North Weald to Greensted

On a map, Epping Lower Forest has never seemed too appealing – separated from the main body of Epping Forest by the town of Epping, I’ve bypassed it on the way out to Harlow but never walked its glades. In that quiet week between Christmas and New Year I set out from Epping towards Ongar and stepped off Epping Road into the Lower Forest for the first time.

Epping Lower Forest
E.N Buxton, writing in 1884, describes it as a “pretty wood”, where, “a summer’s afternoon may be well devoted to its exploration; I say summer advisedly, as parts of it lie low and swampy”. It was fortunate for me that despite approaching midday the ground was still mostly frozen, the deep muddy trenches of footpaths solid glistening white, so walking was more like clambering across rocky ground. A man walking his dog told me of a herd of 40 or 50 deer his mournful looking hound had just scattered, ‘if you keep your eye out on the far side you may see them re-gathering’. And sure enough, as I munched my M&S Turkey sandwich on the Stump Road I became aware of being watched silently by a small cluster of grey deer. It was magical.

Norwegian Memorial North Weald

The planes from North Weald Airfield had regularly passed loudly above the treetops and that was where I was heading next. An important fighter station during WW2, and still a busy civilian airfield with small planes buzzing off all over the country, there is a campaign to save the site as the threat of development looms. An iconic Hurricane fighter plane stands guard at the front gate. The security guards let me come in for a wander round to soak up the atmosphere and feel the wind whipping in across the runway. Pilots for 7 countries flew from RAF North Weald during the Second World War, the memorial near main road has a carved stone tablet dedicated to the Norwegian airmen who lost their lives.

North Weald Airfield
Following a tarmac path into a thicket across the road there’s a pillbox peeking out from the dense undergrowth. The narrow tunnelled entrance is littered with the usual detritus of the suburban fringe. Lords knows what you’d find inside. Moving across the fields on the far side of North Weald Bassett I now kick myself for virtually walking straight past North Weald Redoubt Fort, part of the late Victorian defences of London and now beloved of urbexers and ghosthunters.

North Weald WW2 defences
I cross the disused section of the Central Line near Ongar Park Lodge heading into the last light and dash back down the farm track to see the last steam train of the day chugging along the line back to Epping. A sign on the gate warns that a bull with a pregnant cow is in the field although I’m reassured by the couple in the Lodge that they’re elsewhere.

Toot Hill Water Tower

Entering a narrow strip of woodland by the field edge I see movement on the other side of the tree line – a man holding a bird, a shooter with his kill I assume. But as I move towards him for a chat I see that the bird is very much alive and standing proudly upon his arm. He tells me it’s a Harris Hawk, a hunting bird, that he’s been exercising out above the fields. The rabbit leg it methodically tears apart with its yellow hooked beak was acquired from a butchers rather than a burrow. It’s a majestic beast. We walk together down through the wood, the three of us, to the water tower at Toot Hill where we part company.

Greensted Green sunset

The walk isn’t to last much longer, cut short by a deep irrigation ditch carved across a field cutting me off from the continuation of the footpath. Climbing up through deep mud to the high ground at Greensted, boots caked in mud, I catch the most resplendent sunset breaking over the facing hill and know that 2018 will bring a year of great walks.

Neolithic Trackway through Epping Forest – walk to Cheshunt

The cold biting down on the winter dark towpath out of Waltham Abbey to Cheshunt, turned out to be the perfect ending to this walk back at the end of November. It seemed a folly to eschew the cafe warmth of Sun Street to head out along the road to Waltham Cross as the sun was setting at 4.15pm. A mile-and-a-half up the Lea Navigation to Cheshunt seemed reasonable, and I needed a little more to tag onto the schlepp from Theydon Bois. A fella slugged beer from a green bottle on the deck of his barge. A single white bike headlamp zig-zagged in the distance til it fizzed past me. An illuminated barge looked impossibly cosy, like a floating Hobbit Hole. The red lights flashed at the Cheshunt level crossing where I started my Ermine Street walk in the snow in February. I like this stretch of the towpath and was a little sad to give it up – but it was time to go home.

Epping Forest

The aim had been to cover a small pocket of Epping Forest I’d somehow bypassed on previous Forest wanders – north-west of Theydon Bois, beyond Amesbury Banks – around Crown Hill and Warren Wood. Crossing Epping Road I discovered that the asphalt path I was walking along followed the course of a raised Neolithic trackway that ran across boggy ground that had recently been carbon dated.

Potkiln wood path

Potkiln Wood path

I picked up a narrow overgrown path beside Crown Hill Farm, crossed the M25 and waded through deep muddy ruts along the edge of Potkiln Wood towards the outskirts of Waltham Abbey. Open countryside gave way to scrubby fields abutting 80’s housing estates navigated via reluctant footpaths. Mangy horses chewed grass down to the roots. The sun set perfectly over the Abbey, casting it ablaze in a heavenly endorsement of the 11th Century vision that led to the establishment of the Abbey by Tovi the Proud. Popping inside the Abbey just before closing, a CD of choral music and a 2018 Diary were pressed into my hands by a member of staff for the exchange of a few pence. And then it was out to that dark winter towpath.

Cobbins Brook

Cobbins Brook, Waltham Abbey