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.

 

A Canterbury Peculiar – London Overground at the Full English Festival

Canterbury High Street

Canterbury High Street was heaving. I arrived on the midday train from Stratford International with about an hour-and-a-half before the screening of London Overground at The Gulbenkian Cinema on the University of Kent campus.

Third Eye Canterbury

A felt this Third Eye watching me as my baseball cap was blown off my head by a strong gust of wind. I went into the Oxfam bookshop a couple of doors down and a Third Eye was embossed in gold on the cover of a 1890’s book about poverty in London. Was this a message that I should be looking for some particular insight on my trip to Canterbury, or just a confluence of easy esoterica?

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The Cathedral spire poked above the rooftops of narrow medieval streets. In my mind I saw footsore pilgrims hobbling through the lanes weary from the road and for a brief period vowed to walk the Pilgrims Way from London.

count louis zborowski garage canterbury

I was quite disappointed that this interesting looking old building turned out to be the garage used by Count Louis Zborowski to build some dodgy early racing cars called ‘Chitty Bang Bang’.

Crab and Winkle Path Canterbury

Crab and Winkle Path Canterbury

The Path out of Canterbury City Centre to the University of Kent follows part of the Crab and Winkle Railway. Opened in 1830, the Whitstable to Canterbury Railway is one of the candidates for being the first railway line in Britain.

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The final stretch was across a field dominated by a large oak and then naviagting my way through the concrete cubes of the University of Kent Central Campus to the Gulbenkian Cinema.

 

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The screening of London Overground was part of the University’s Full English Festival. The festival marquee was deserted although a table covered with empty water bottles hinted at prior activity. One of my favourite films, The Wonder Boys, is set against the backdrop of University Literary Festival, there are parties and debaunchery, affairs, a stolen Marilyn Monroe jacket – Full English seemed a far more sedate affair.

London Overground Gulbenkian

I intended to leave the auditorium after introducing the film but ended up sitting in the front row and watching the first 20 minutes. It’s great to see something you’ve made projected on the big screen, memories of each shoot coming back vividly – standing on the Thames shore at Rotherhithe with Iain Sinclair and Andrew Kotting, leaving Iain’s house on a cold January night for a walk to Hampstead – and at that time not being able to imagine a moment like this sitting in a large cinema in Canterbury on a boiling hot day with people who’d come in from the sunshine to watch my film. It was a really good feeling.

University of Kent CampusWhile the film played I got a surprisingly tasty cheeseburger from the University shop and sat on a grassy bank with great views over Canterbury. Students ambled about, lounged on the grass, it was a very different scene to my student days at City Poly.

There was a good Q&A after the film, the questions almost entirely focusing on the development of London and the bleak picture of where it appears to be heading. I always try and look for some optimism but in the end we discussed the weather (it rained on nearly every walk in the film) and the experience of walking with Iain Sinclair. I mentioned our recent walk along a portion of Watling Street and the footage I’d shot with plans to shoot more, what it’ll become I’ve no idea. The next film, The Zookeeper’s Wife was due to start soon followed by Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire, so we moved out into the foyer.

I ambled back down into Canterbury with a friend for a couple pints before getting the High Speed back to Stratford.

Alan Moore and Iain Sinclair at the Brighton Spiegeltent

Alan Moore Iain Sinclair Brighton May 2017

Down to Brighton to see Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore speaking at an event  in the Brighton Festival Spiegeltent celebrating the amazing history of Watling Street, a road so old, as John Higgs told us, that it may even predate humans, being carved out by migrating animals.
Iain Sinclair Brighton May 2017
Iain Sinclair recounted his walk along the section of Watling Street from Dover to Westminster, with the footage shot by Andrew Kotting and myself projected on the screen behind. He talked of the mysteries of Shooters Hill, Andrew’s constant banter that on one occasion led to missing the last room at a Travelodge and having to sleep on the floor of a disabled toilet. He told the story of walking to Mortlake with Alan Moore to visit the home of John Dee, Moore arriving at his house with a bag laden with esoteric books.

Iain Sinclair Brighton May 2017

After a musical interlude Alan Moore took to the stage and gave a long and beautiful riff on a conversation with a scientist (I think) who’d explained the probability that we are living in a computer simulation. Alan’s own intervention on this theory was both funny, enlightening and poignant linking it back to explaining to some people in Milton Keynes how he could be their God as he had worked on the building of Milton Keynes. He also gave a brilliant explanation on the meaning and importance of psychogeography, how you can create your own epic mythology for where you live and your own place in that world. It was one of those evenings that makes you feel differently about the world around you, mind expanded, horizons widened.

Alan Moore and Iain Sinclair at the Brighton Spiegeltent 24th May 2017

Afterwards I went and ate fish and chips on the beach and pondered Alan Moore’s idea that perhaps we live the same life over and over again instead of merely ceasing to exist after death – this, he posited, was a good reason to fill your life with great moments. With this in mind I bought two cans of Adnams Southwold Bitter to drink on the train back to London.

 

A People’s Manifesto for the Arts

Last Saturday out on the South Bank with artist Bob and Roberta Smith to create ‘A People’s Manifesto for the Arts’ with passing members of the public. Bob had already written his own manifesto that he intended to harangue politicians with but he wanted to gauge what interest there was amongst the public to advocate for the arts during the election campaign.

Bob passionately defends the Arts and Education – seeing Art as central to free expression and a core component of democracy.

“Before we vote in June’s election we must consider what kind of culture we want to live in.”Bob and Roberta Smith, The Guardian

I’ve heard him point out that tyrannical regimes always target Artists and Writers – and this Tory government has aggressively attacked the arts by withdrawing funding and eroding the place of creative subjects in the school curriculum. If your intention is to create a servile nation of worker drones the last thing you want to do is encourage them to think for themselves. Art and Culture requires you to see the world through your own eyes and encourages you to express your own feelings about the world aroud you.

In the 2015 General Election Bob ran for Parliament against Tory Education Secretary, Michael Gove in the ultra safe seat of Surrey Heath. He ran a spirited campaign which provided a great platform to advocate for the Arts and highlight how Gove’s policies had damaged the teaching of Creative subjects in schools.

“Post-Brexit, we face a dissolution of our museums and galleries comparable in its devastation to that visited on England in the 1530s, as philistine politicians slash budgets. Art schools and the arts in schools will be further diminished in a wave of manufactured disdain for so-called elitists.Bob and Roberta Smith, The Guardian

In a post-Brexit Britain the situation for Art, Culture, and Science looks uncertain so Bob’s campaigning is ever more vital.

You can find out more about Vote Art here

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.

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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.