Chess Valley Walk – Rickmansworth to Chesham

Chess Valley Walk- 10 miles through the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty

The excitement of heading out on a trek, the same now as when I was backpacking. Those twenty-five years compressed into the moment of packing my bag and lacing my boots. There was an added buzz in that this hike would take me through the Chiltern Hills, the region of my birth that I often find calling me as I enter middle-age. The journey started on the Metropolitan line to the basecamp at Rickmansworth, light drizzle on the carriage windows.

The River Chess is a gloriously clear Chalk stream that rises near Chesham and carves a course through beautiful Chilterns countryside to flow into the River Colne at Rickmansworth. It was in a field just outside Rickmansworth where I picked up the Chess Valley Walk. It was late February and we had that first early burst of Spring. I was even able to remove my insulation layer.

The levels of mud were epic. The fields folded over the horizon is soft baize curves. The timber framed houses at Latimer made me think of the Directors of Hammer Horror films that my Dad used to garden for and their elaborate weekend parties.

Chess Valley Walk

Latimer House, a grand gothic pile dominates a high ridge overlooking the river, where the Romans built a villa. It was used for the interrogation of German U-boat crews and Luftwaffe pilots during WW2. After the war it became the National Defence College and was targeted by an IRA bomb.

Time knits together out here, and overlaps with the undulating hills. My mind drifts through childhood, Danny Champion of the World (Roald Dahl lived nearby), walks with my Dad, returning from travelling to the Chilterns with my wife. A furious wind rattles the trees on the edge of big wood on the ridge as the path descended into the river valley.

Chess Valley Walk

The river led me to the recreation ground on the edge of Chesham just before sunset. That great last hour of kicking a ball around before the dash home. I love arriving in satelite towns at this time of day. It’s when they’re at their best. The trail winds its way through the town, round the backs of brick and flint cottages and inviting pubs till it disappears beneath the ground.

Lockdown walk around Leyton using digital maps

I wanted to give my lockdown walks around the local area a bit of added interested and remembered a couple of great digital resources that reveal layers of information about the streets of London.

Firstly I explored Museum of London Archaeology’s Archaeology of Greater London interactive map which allows you to see the locations of archaeological finds from the prehistoric through to the medieaval period. Leyton and Leytonstone are relatively rich in prehistoric artefacts – mostly stone axes and flint shards, but there was also a Lower Paleolithic Floor at Walnut Tree House at the end of Francis Road, and a socketed Bronze Age Axe found on Murchison Road near the junction with Francis Road. I wondered if this had any relation to the Bronze Age settlement excavated at Oliver Close, Leyton not for away from Francis Road on the other side of the High Road.

Leyton archaeology lockdown walk

There was surprisingly little from later eras, however a decorared Saxon Tombstone was found on Leyton High Road near the junction with Lindley Road. This places it in the zone of what W.H Weston believes was the Saxon settlement, or ‘Tun’ that gives Leyton its name ‘Lea-Tun’. This is also close to the site of the Roman settlement found by estate workers in the grounds of Leyton Grange on the opposite side of the High Road.

The other layer to my lockdown walk was provided by the morbidly fascinating Bomb Sight interactive map that translates the London bomb census from October 1940 to June 1941 onto a navigable map, allowing you to identify individual buildings hit by World War Two bombs.

 

Last long walk before the Lockdown

This walk on Saturday 21st March feels like a very long time ago now. The pubs had been ordered to close the night before. Supermarket shelves were emptied in a frenzy of panic buying. Social distancing measures had recently been introduced. People had been urged to only use public transport for essential journeys. We knew the lockdown was imminent and that this was likely to be my last decent walk for a while.

I wanted a route that took me out into nature and kept me clear of the crowds. It also needed to deliver me home without the need for public transport. My feet knew the way and trod a path through Epping Forest from Leytonstone to Highams Park then down through Woodford to the River Roding.

Lockdown walk

On the way out I passed Leytonstone House, which had been home to members of the Buxton Family from the late 18th Century until 1868. It’s where Edward North Buxton lived for a time before he moved to Buckhurst Hill and authored his definitive guide to Epping Forest in 1884. There’s a mulberry tree in the grounds of Leytonstone House that’d been adorned with brightly coloured tree dressings, I imagine to mark the Spring Equinox the day before.

There were an alarming number of people on Leyton Flats heading towards the Hollow Ponds drawn  by the arrival of Spring. The Gorse bushes and Blackthorn trees were in full blossom. I paid homage to the Birch Well and headed for Gilbert’s Slade, giving the crowds the slip in the process.

Crossing the North Circular I picked up a footpath I hadn’t used before running parallel to the road and followed it to new sections of the forest for me. The white noise of the road was oddly cleansing. Turning back through the thick trees of the forest, all was calm. The trees seemed to be murmuring that everything would be ok.

lockdown walk

After skirting Humphrey Repton’s Highams Park Lake it was time to make the turn over the ridge occupied by Woodford Green and cross into the Roding Valley. The streets slumbered like a deep Sunday afternoon in the 1950’s. Views over rooftops stretched to the far side of the river valley. The water tower at Claybury Hospital stood proud on its hill. Passing through the streets of Buckhurst Hill I found myself on Forest Edge, crossing tracks once more with E.N Buxton. Knighton Wood contains the remnants of the landscaped garden of his house.

lockdown walk

I eventually picked up the River Roding on the other side of Ray Park. Of all the many times I’ve walked the Roding between Wanstead and Buckhurst Hill I’ve only once walked it in a southerly direction, and that was 13 years ago. Today it was blissfully free of people. I stopped to pause just after passing Charlie Brown’s Roundabout. An Egret swooped low to the water and elegantly landed in the shade of an overhanging tree. For a moment it was as if everything was how it should be. All the troubles of the world were far away from that riverbank.

Eden’s Dreaming – The Whalebone Box

Whalebone Box

The Whalebone Box by Andrew Kötting

The dark cave of the box room where I write and make videos was the perfect lockdown hideaway to watch Andrew Kötting’s hypnotic odyssey The Whalebone Box. It’s a further collaboration with Psychogeographer in Chief Iain Sinclair, a dream ticket that began with Offshore in 2007 and continued through By Our Selves, Swandown, and Edith Walks (and you could add Iain’s book London Overground which I then filmed with Kötting playing a major role).

The star of this film though is the film-maker’s daughter Eden Kötting, now an established artist in her own right, who first beguiled us as a child in her father’s debut feature Gallivant (1996). Eden is the sage, the spirit guide for the journey that lies ahead, to return a whalebone box carved by artist Steve Dilworth on the Isle of Harris thirty years before, lined with lead and filled with calm water and placed in the care of Iain Sinclair. The Whalebone Box spent the intervening years on the London magus’ desk whispering to him as he produced a string of highly influential works predicting the future shape of London. Eden wonders if returning the ‘animal battery’ to its source will stop the flow of words.

The Whalebone Box
The film unfolds as Eden’s dream in a forest, gun on lap, hunting. The box drifts through the pine trees like the Rendlesham Forest UFO. Later whales swim between the twisted trunks of a gnarly copse. Eden casts Sinclair as ‘The Man’ (in black) ‘he wants to tell things … (he has) knowledge about this moment’.
Writer Philip Hoare relates how whales have the heaviest bones as they are full of oil. And the box has been lined with lead, filled with water and sealed with beeswax. The aim of the quest is to return the whalebone box to the beach where the whale washed up, to test whether the calm water sealed inside possesses healing powers and return health to the body of the sick. The box must first traverse the landscape, mountain tops and forests, the Fells, a tower to be charged with ‘insane energy’. The poet MacGillivray enchants a mermaid voice into the whalebone box in a church through haunting song. Kötting trails Sinclair to the ruined Cathar castle at Montségur, ‘the plug of the entire mythological system’. Philip Hoare tells us that whales can breach dimensions. Eden hears witches in the trees. At the Callanish Stones Sinclair says that this is where ‘the person dissolves in the place … we’re in this long dialogue with our ancestors’.

The Whalebone Box

The magic extends to the form of the film with its multi-layered soundtrack of present tense non-synced voice, sounds from the archives, whale-song, music conjured from peculiar instruments. The images merge between archive film, animation, and iPhone movie clips but in Kötting’s hands, ‘This isn’t a phone, it’s a 16mm camera’.
The whalebone box makes its eventual return to the beach where it washed up, accompanied on its final leg by the voices of Jonathan Meades and Peter Whitehead. Eden stands by the sea at night, in silhouette, it’s cold and she wants to go home. Is the journey complete? I’ve a feeling that this is another chapter in an on-going saga that will take us who knows where next.

 

Watch The Whalebone Box on Mubi until the end of April 2020

Wanstead Social Distance Club

I really enjoyed delivering the first Zoom talk to the Wanstead Social Distance Club on Monday lunchtime, via Giles Wilson of the brilliant Wanstead Fringe Festival and Wansteadium blog. I talked through some of the walks I led for Waltham Forest London Borough of Culture 2019 and answered some good questions at the end including the classic, ‘Exactly what is a psychogeographer?’.

 


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The London Perambulator – a possible sequel

London Perambulator

The Lockdown has caused me to excavate the rushes I shot in 2008 for my documentary about Nick Papadimitriou, The London Perambulator. It almost feels like an act of ‘Deep Topography’, diving into what Nick describes as ‘storage vats of regional memory’. Here the storage vats are hard-drives of footage shot on a series of walks through Nick’s territory around West and Northwest London – Finchley, Stonebridge Park, Perivale, Feltham, Wormwood Scrubs.

London Perambulator

walk from Stonebridge Park to Perivale

It’s been a strangely comforting and therapeutic experience. It could be the memories of a simpler time, before ‘the virus’. Also a period when I was very much learning how to make a documentary (a process that never ends). There’s the nostalgic aesthetic of Standard Definition video tape as opposed to Ultra High Definition (4K) video clips recorded on a SD card, the camera running as it roves across the landscape looking for a subject to settle on. There’s some good stuff in those out-takes that didn’t make the final cut that premiered in the East End Film Festival at The Whitechapel Gallery in April 2009.

London Perambulator

 

Even though I have more pressing concerns in these troubled times, I can’t help spooling through another clip when I sit down at my computer, finding gems I’d forgotten about, such as Nick talking about a planned prose sequence called ‘In Praise of Industrial Middlesex’. This was shot while we walked through a Wembley Industrial Estate, a place we’ve returned to at least twice since for subsequent projects.

London Perambulator

And there’s the murky December day we went to the former site of Ashford Remand Centre, now HMP Bronzefield named after the Bronze Age settlement that was discovered during the building of the state of the art prison. Small references that got lost in the construction of a broader narrative.

London Perambulator

I still don’t know what I’m going to make from these clips – I’m enjoying the process of rediscovery too much to impose a framework around it. The initial film was given form by three ‘expert’ interviews with Iain Sinclair, Will Self, and Russell Brand, talking about Nick and his practice. I’m tempted now to  just let the footage speaks for itself without explanation.

 

The Return to Modena

It’s strange to think of Modena in Coronavirus lockdown, even though we approach a similar situation here in London. My visit there in early December 2019 was a poignant return to the city where I’d lived with my wife from 2000-01. I hadn’t considered the symmetry of being there at the beginning of the new millennium and returning as its second decade ended. I was absconding into the past, stalking memories.

Coming out of Modena Station was like stepping back through time. I looked straightaway for the cycle shed where we would park our bikes before jumping on the train for Saturday day-trips to the other towns and cities of Emilia-Romagna – Bologna, Ferrara, Parma, Carpi, Vignola. That first view of Modena was almost overwhelming.

Modena

I let my feet guide me around the streets after I’d found my apartment in Via Masone. They led me to Piazza Grande and into the Duomo, then eventually out to the edge of the city along Via Emilia. It was close to sunset, I was being drawn away from the Historic Centre towards the busy arterial road. The memories I’d annotated onto the streets those twenty years ago guided me back to the door of the building that’d housed the English School where we’d come to work. Now it was a firm of accountants.

I continued to follow these invisible tracks over the next two days from morning into the night. Enjoying the simple pleasures of a morning cappuccino and brioche in a bar, my Italian slowly, falteringly returning. Frosty nightwalks round those medieval streets dripping in Christmas lights, gazing up at shuttered windows wondering about the lives of the people who dwelt there. It was quiet enough then in the early December build-up to Christmas, quarantined it must be deadly silent.

Modena

Although keen to get back to my family, I was reluctant to leave Modena. The election result that broke during the night confirmed Britain would be leaving the EU. I was glad I’d sat out the horror show in this city that still wore the mantle of old Europe.

I gave myself enough time for a drift around the centre of Bologna before heading out to the airport. The first snowflakes floated in beneath the high porticos that line Via Independenza. By the time I reached Piazza Maggiore kids were scooping up giant snowballs and a blizzard blew viciously along the portico. At this point I realised I’d left my hat on the train. At least I’d be leaving something behind in Italy.