By the Mulberry Tree at Charlton House with Iain Sinclair

John Rogers and Iain Sinclair in Charlton Park

The mirror by the Mulberry Tree at Charlton House made this shot impossible to resist. Being with Iain Sinclair by a Mulberry Tree made me think of the detailed description of the silk trade in WG Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, silk worms feed on mulberry leaves. I’ve just read the chapter in Iain’s forthcoming book The Last London where he retraces an East End perambulation from Austerlitz with Sebald’s friend, the poet Stephen Watts.

This black mulberry is believed to be around 400 years old, just marginally younger than Charlton House, built in 1607. But unlike the bricks and mortar of the grand Jacobean mansion the mulberry tree is a living being, arms reaching out into the park and the fine public convenience behind by the road.

We were passing through the park filming a thread coming off the Watling Street project, a tributary running off Shooters Hill, another film now taking shape to be presented in the autumn.

Wetlands Trail – Woodberry Wetlands to Walthamstow Wetlands

The approach to Woodberry Wetlands from Harringay Green Lanes was dominated by the, to put it mildly, ‘controversial’ redevelopment of Woodberry Down Estate. The blocks, old and new dominate one side of the horizon around this urban oasis created by the London Wildlife Trust out of an active reservoir. It was only when talking to London Wildlife Trust staff, here to celebrate the first anniversary of Woodberry Wetlands, that I learnt of how this reservoir drew water from the New River and fed it down to the Walthamstow Reservoirs via an underground culvert. It seems incredible that the New River, opened in 1613 to supply London with drinking water still fulfills an important function in the city’s infrastructure.

 

Woodberry Down Estate Woodberry Wetlands

Once the Klezmer Band started to wind down I exited the Wetlands onto the New River Path and slowly followed it down to the edge of Stamford Hill carving a trail along the path of the culvert down to Walthamstow Wetlands at the other end of the pipe.

The New River Harringay

There were plenty of people passing over Clapton Common and I exchanged a few words with some Hasidic Jewish gentlemen about the fate of Tower Court Estate. One landmark that remains is the Church of the Good Shepherd, now a Georgian Orthodox Church, built by the curious Agapemonite Victorian sex cult.

Tower Court Hackney

New signage indicates the intention to create a trail linking the two wetlands. When I next follow this path, after the formal opening of Walthamstow Wetlands, I fully expect to see clumps of backpacked urban hikers schlepping the couple of miles between the two waterscapes.

Woodberry Wetlands Walthamstow Wetlands

Springfield Park is the perfect place to sit on a bench at sunset and watch the world drift by looking across at the dark wooded hills on the eastern flank of the Lea Valley. Revived, I passed Walthamstow Marshes in the fading light to the closed gates of Walthamstow Wetlands due to open this autumn. It took me back to standing at the spot just after sunset in January 2013 when I walked a wide loop from Leytonstone across Leyton Lammas Lands to Wassail the fruit trees in Clapton and Springfield Park before walking back through Walthamstow. With that in mind I made my way along the deserted market for a couple of pints in The Chequers to toast north east London’s new Wetlands.

 

Old West Ham to Stanley Kubrick’s Beckton

Here’s some footage from the walk I did for Chapter 2 of my book This Other London in the summer of 2012, just before the London Olympics – starting in Leytonstone then going past West Ham Church and the site of Stratford Langthorne Abbey onwards to the site of Beckton Gas Works where Stanley Kubrick shot much of his Vietnam War movie Full Metal Jacket.

Beckton Gas Works

I’ve been sitting on over 4 hours of footage shot on the 10 This Other London walks slowly filtering out a few short videos but much of it remains unseen. The video footage, photos and notes took on an almost entirely different form once processed into a book, they’ve served their purpose and can stay in the bottom drawer. But every now and again I’ll dip back into that archive and release some of those raw video notes back out into the world.

You can download the audiobook of This Other London here

Back to Birmingham – City of Surrealists

Screening with the brilliant Video Strolls has the added bonus of a chance for a wander round Birmingham. I’ve blown through a couple of times before on tour with Russell Brand but those occasions were restricted to backstage views of venues and a quick dash through the Bull Ring searching for gifts for the family.

The occasion this time was a screening of London Overground at the Flatpack Film Festival and despite my best intentions I arrive with only an hour or so to explore. Instead of searching out new sights/sites I want to pay homage to the Birmingham Surrealists and somehow connect them to Birmingham’s Edwardian arcades.

King Edward House Birmingham

The crowds are out enjoying the sunshine pitching into New Street. There’s something about the architecture that reminds me of Downtown LA, the fading grandeur of former times. Could Ridley Scott save himself a few quid and shoot the next Blade Runner movie in the midlands, bounty hunters pursuing Replicants along the corridors of King Edward House.

Trocadero Birmingham

I stand outside the Trocadero pub in Temple Street, one of the haunts of the Birmingham Surrealists. I know the Kardomah Cafe is nearby but can’t locate the exact location until Andy Howlett takes me back there after the screening to point out the ghost sign still visible above the entrance to Hawkes and Curtis menswear shop.

Emmy Bridgwater Night work is about to commence

Emmy Bridgwater Night Work is About to Commence (1943)

I move on to the Birmingham City Gallery and Museum to find the surrealists there. The entrance is dominated by Jacob Epstein’s bronze statue of Lucifer (1944-45). After touring the galleries I find a painting by Emmy Bridgwater  Night Work is about to commence (1940-43). Bridgwater, born in Edgebaston in 1906,  was a key member of the Birmingham Surrealists along with Conroy Maddox and John Melville. It’s Melville’s Aston Villa that I spot next, painted in the year Villa won the cup, 1956.

The Victoria Birmingham

Time is moving on as it has a habit of doing when you have somewhere to be and I advance to the venue of the screening, a beautiful art deco boozer behind the Alexandra Theatre. The screening is packed and the film seems to go down well in its first outing beyond London. But once again I depart Birmingham vowing to return for more thorough exploration.

 

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.