This was a walk I’d long been planning to take, a turning on one of the This Other London schleps that I skipped in order to stay on track to make it to the Autumn Omnium at Herne Hill in 2012. Now free of an itinerary, the route I wanted to follow was along the Norwood Ridge, a dark smudge of high ground on the Landscape of London map, that runs from One Tree Hill to Selhurst, around 5 miles further south. This is a glorious walking trail that takes in The Horniman Museum and Gardens at Forest Hill, Sydenham Woods and Sydenham Wells, and Crystal Palace Park.
I felt an undue amount of pressure when trying to choose where to go for the 100th Episode of my Walking Vlog series. When out walking from Theydon Bois to Chigwell Row for the 98th Episode I’d asked the YouTube viewers for suggestions and they’d really come up with the goods. But one particularly resonated, from talented author Scarlett Parker:
“The hundred dilemma got me thinking about ‘hundreds’, the geo-administrative divisions of yore. Not sure how you could rein in this concept for a manageable walk. There are the famous Chiltern Hundreds, which is your, erm, jurisdiction.”
This was perfect – the Chiltern Hundreds > The Desborough Hundred Psychogeographical Society that I formed with my sister Cathy for our Remapping High Wycombe project > the significant sites walk we devised to bring the project to its conclusion. There was added significance in that I started my YouTube channel for this project to host some of the video documentation.
Walking into town from Wycombe Station I ticked off the first of the significant sites/’nodules of energy’ – the Dial House, home to Charles I’s physician Dr Martin Lluelyn; the ancient lane of Crendon Street; the supposed ‘mark stone’ by the Guildhall, and Robert Adam’s market house which we used as the HQ of the DHPS and installation site for the event on 18th June 2005.
The temperature that day 13 years ago was hitting the high twenties and again the mercury was pushing upwards at 27 degrees. It’d be hard going in the hills. I’d mustered some walking partners back then to make it more of an event – an old friend Jerry White, who’d brought along a mate, my Dad, and Nick Papadimitriou who’d I’d recently met for the first time. Today I’d be reprising the experience alone.
I gathered my thoughts in the churchyard before pushing on up Castle Hill Mount, said by some of the old Wycombe antiquarians to be partly formed of the burial mound of a Saxon warrior. The route onwards into the Hughenden Valley takes me through the grounds of Wycombe Museum, past the house where poet & composer Ivor Gurney stayed, and along the path above Wycombe Cemetery.
Looking back down into the valley there’s a stretch of newbuilds that highlights one of the major changes in the town. Gone is the great engineering factory of Broom & Wade and also Harrison’s Stamp Factory, and a student accommodation colony has taken the place of the industrial heart of Wycombe. When I’d led Nick, Jerry and Mike through this section in 2005, this was what made them see Wycombe as a town with its own distinctive industrial heritage, not just another satellite commuter town. Now that it’s gone – what does this say about Wycombe today?
The heat is taking its toll as I climb up the Hughenden Valley to admire the view from the terrace of Benjamin Disraeli’s grand mansion. I daren’t rest yet as I have to drop back down into the valley then climb again to the (Isaac) Disraeli monument on the edge of Tinker’s Wood. Beneath this monument is where I’d rested on previous variations of this walk and it’s where I take a moment to pause once again and consider the passing of the previous 13 years since I was here last.
The zig-zag streets of Downley offer yet more great views across the valley to the Iron Age Earthwork at Desborough Castle – my next point of interest. The outer banks are high and imposing, but thankfully the dense tree canopy offers respite from the sun. I imagine the Desborough Hundred Moot taking place within the sunken enclosure in the deep past, as envisioned by Annan Dickson in his 1935 book, Chiltern Footpaths.
Back down in town it feels as if another kind of grand gathering is taking place upon the Rye. The grass is dotted with puddles of pink flesh soon to turn lobster red. Boaters splosh their oars in the Dyke. The open air pool where I learnt to swim is sadly closed for the rest of the day.
From the Rye I follow the patron stream of the area – the Wye, or the Wyke – trundling quietly behind the Marsh and the Mead to Loudwater where my Mum grew up. By now I’m tired and just want to sit in a nice pub garden with a cold pint. I could drop down Watery Lane to the Falcon at Wooburn, near the field where I played as a kid. But that would be the end of the walk. No, I stick to my plan to climb one last hill (so I thought) up Whitehouse Lane and along Grassy Bank looking over to Cut Throat Wood – a place that so dominated childhood days walking with my Dad and many a wistful recollection of those happy days. It’s the perfect ending to this revisiting of memory grounds, that further pushes me on under the railway line and up into the quiet roads leading into Beaconsfield Old Town and the train back to Marylebone.
The Stone Tide – adventures at the end of the world is the new book by Gareth E. Rees, author of Marshland: Dreams and Nightmares on the Edge of London, both published by Influx Press. The Stone Tide finds Gareth adrift on the coast at Hastings in a dilapidated dwelling stalking the occult secrets of this uncanny stretch of shoreline. Below is an email exchange where Gareth tells me more about the book.
[JR] Hi Gareth – last I heard you were yomping over Hackney Marshes with your dog. How did you go from Hackney to Hackney-on-Sea?
[GR] Hi John – thanks for this!
Firstly, I’d fervently dispute the ‘Hackney-on-Sea’ tag – it’s not something I recognise or accept as a description of this deeply idiosyncratic town. If ‘Hackney-on-sea’ is synonymous with ‘Shoreditchification’ – eg a term to describe any place in which low property prices have attracted an artistic community, with some attendant regeneration, then as a blanket term for that particularly economic and social phenomenon, it could apply, I suppose. But that would then also apply to Margate, Folkestone, parts of Manchester and other regenerating areas of the UK. However it is a highly reductive description…. Hastings is totally different to Hackney in so many ways – the music, the pubs, the pace, the attitude, the topography, the folklore, the history. You don’t get frenzied surf guitar gigs for free on Sunday afternoons in Hackney, you don’t get mass scooter gatherings in Hackney, there’s no Jack in the Green festival in Hackney, no Mardis Gras parade, no October bonfire night to commemorate the burning of Protestants, no Pirate Day, no Morris Dance-offs at dawn. I see a lot of these “Hackney-on-Sea” Guardian-type articles about Hastings and they all seem copied from each other – they’re clearly not written by people who have spent any time here. They’re lazy snapshot churnalism and they’re quite offensive to the people who’ve spent many years, or their whole lives here.
There are people I know here who used to live in Hackney, of course, but also many other parts of London, and a large part of the Influx is from Brighton, Bexhill and other parts of Kent. When you’re in a pub or at an event here, there’s a mix of locals, tourists and newcomers that you don’t get when you got to gigs and pubs in Hackney. There are no City types here. Very few people live here and commute to London every day, it’s too far and the train is too slow.
The reason I’m here? Extreme financial events forced me and my wife to make a big decision in 2013 and move away from London. This move would allow me to write more books like Marshland (Influx Press), which was just about to be published at the time, and my eldest was just about to start primary school so it seemed the right thing to do. My wife wanted to get into interior design, and it was the existence of a small community of designers and artists in St Leonards that flagged this place up for her. I just went along with it. I was traumatised by having to leave London, which had been my home for 15 years, the longest I’ve lived anywhere in my life, and a place I considered home. My only stipulation was that if I was to leave the open space of the marshes, I wanted to live by another open space, and you can’t get more open than the sea. So yes, with very low house prices at the time, Hastings was where we headed. It took my a while to get over London, but I quickly fell in love with Hastings, and not for any of the reasons I loved London. It’s a very different beast.
[JR] I take note of your objection to the ‘Hackney-on-Sea’ tag, my sister lives in Ramsgate and I think somebody has already dubbed it ‘Dalston-on-Sea’ for similar reasons. Funnily enough it was Iain Sinclair I heard refer to Hastings as ‘Hackney-on-Sea’, I believe he lives and writes some of the time in St. Leonards whilst also still living in Hackney (‘That Rose Red Empire’). Andrew Kötting has lived in St.Leonards for a number of years, and isn’t Michael Smith there too – seems to be a cluster of topographically-inclined writers-filmmakers there. How does the place feed into that sensibility?
Can you also tell me more about Stone Tide and how it differs from Marshland?
[GR] I didn’t realise Iain Sinclair said that. I suspect he was being provocative. Sinclair has an apartment in Marine Court, a huge 1930s seafront building modelled on the The Queen Mary ocean liner. Kotting is here too and Michael Smith, who also runs a wine shop with his girlfriend Jess, the basement of which plays host to regular nights of experimental film, electronic music and storytelling, known as Weird Shit.
I tried out a great deal of The Stone Tide at those gigs, using the small audience as a kind of sounding board. This is partly why the book has such a conversational style, and why there’s so much comedy in there. Performing parts of the first draft live stopped me from getting too indulgent or gloomy, and remembering the reader and their desire to be entertained.
Hastings encourages artistic endeavours because it’s so small, you can quickly connect with other artists, plus there’s a culture of regular free gigs in pubs, basements and indie cinemas that allows us to easily perform, share our work and collaborate with each other.
Whether the topographically-inclined have a particular attraction to Hastings & St Leonards, I don’t know. But for me, the place is a dream for landscape writing – you’ve a multiplicity of topographies, from the shingle shore to the high sandstone cliffs and rolling downs. Within a quick train ride or drive there’s Pevensey Levels, Romney Marshes, the drowned forest of Pett Level and the English desert that is Dungeness. Tucked inside the town of Hastings there are many delights – hermits’ caves, masonic graves, ruined mock roman baths, waterfalls and stone pyramids. A treasure trove really.
The Stone Tide is a sequel, of sorts, to Marshland. I’m still the narrator, Hendrix (the cocker spaniel) remains my sidekick, and the beginning of the book deliberately refers back to my experiences walking the marshes every lunchtime for five years. Upon moving to Hastings, I kept up the habit, taking long digressional walks, soaking up the sights and sounds, seeking out local stories.
Where it differs to Marshland – aside from the location – is that this is not really a psychogeography of Hastings. It was supposed be when I started, but I began to stir up dark forces, both in the locale and in my own past, and the journey went inwards and backwards and to some very dark places, including at one point my own rectum.
The book weaves together the stories of Aliester Crowley, John Logie Baird, Teilhard de Chardin and Charles Dawson (the Piltdown Man hoaxer) – all who lived in Hastings at some point – and also the story of my friend Mike, who died in tragic circumstances in 1996 when we lived in St Andrews in Scotland. At the centre of this narrative whirl is an increasingly unstable and unreliable narrator – me – tormented by guilt and grief, struggling to tell the difference between truth and lies, imagination and history.
Whereas the big threat in Marshland was the city of London itself, its seemingly unstoppable expansion, swallowing up every wild space, the developers moving in at any opportunity… the threat in The Stone Tide is the sea, an agent of climate change, unleashing brutal storm tides, crumbling the fragile cliffs and threatening the nuclear power station at Dungeness. The imminent end of the world haunts the book.
[JR] Gareth this is sensational – I was going to ask more questions but I think we have our ending there.
Readers can go to The Stone Tide to order the book, read the reviews, get the latest news, and find out more about Marshland. It’s also on Amazon or in selected London bookshops. Hastings residents should try Borough Wines, Printed Matter or Hare and Hawthorn.
Theydon Bois is under-rated as a gateway to the London Countryside – it’s the equivalent of a Himalayan Base Camp for the London / West Essex edgeland walker. I fueled up on a great hot salt beef bagel before taking the footbridge over the Central Line tracks and down across fields to where I was confronted by the magnificent Theydon Bois Earthwork. This land sculpture by Richard Harris was commissioned by the Woodland Trust and completed in 2013. One kilometre of chalk and flint paths spiral their way into the side of the hill in a shape inspired by tree seeds. I stood atop one of the inner banks as the traffic throbbed past on the M11 and gave praise to the landscape.
Moving across fields on the far side of the motorway near Hydes Farm, I examine my OS map and discover that the section of footpath I’m looking for aligns with the Roman Road further north at Hobbs Cross, that I walked along in 2016. This modest path that runs up the field edge makes a perfectly straight line to the acknowledged Roman Road that linked London to Great Dunmow, passing through Leyton and Leytonstone along the way. I turn to follow the route imagining the passage of Legions drawn from across the Roman Empire, hot desert lands, and what they must of made of this cold muddy terrain.
To the north of Aridge I encounter my old friend the River Roding, ambling through the fields flanked by tall grasses and rushes. I pay my respects then cross the road and head for Lambourne End.
I lament not having time to have a look at the medieval Lambourne Church, but glad of the beguiling path leading down to Conduit Wood. A gnarly old tree beside a murky green pond looks to be home to a colony of wood sprites. An information board tells us that the path “runs alonsgide and ancient green lane”. The woods have a feel of magick and timelessness, where the path could as easily lead to another plane of existence as Gallman’s End Farm where I actually find myself.
A bridleway so deep in mud that it has made me hate horses, takes me down to the edge of Hainault Forest. Several comments on the YouTube video inform me that this quagmire goes by the name of Featherbed Lane.
A pond in Hainault Forest captures the sunset and holds it fast just beneath the surface of the water. It’s glorious to be in the forest celebrating what feels like one of the first real spring days (it was 15th April) after a long hard winter. I decide to toast the arrival of the new season and head off into Chigwell to purchase a can of San Miguel which I swig heartily as I make my way down off the high ground to Grange Hill Station.
Just under a year after the premiere of our film, London Overground, Iain Sinclair mentioned joining him out on the road again with my camera. This time he was walking a section of Watling Street, the Roman road said to have much older origins, in the company of the great film-maker Andrew Kötting, from Canterbury to London. I joined them one morning along Shooters Hill Road in South London where they were accompanied by artist Anne Caron-Delion. This first walk followed the road to Westminster (another branch goes across London Bridge to the City) – passing over Blackheath, through Deptford (the ‘deep ford’), New Cross, Peckham, Elephant and Castle, along the way.
Enroute Iain had mentioned a second passage that related to Watling Street but branching off from Shooters Hill to take in the Shrewsbury burial mound and follow cult author Steve Moore’s ‘psychic circuit’ down to Woolwich. This brings Alan Moore into the story and led to a second walk. Steve Moore had been Alan Moore’s mentor, teaching him both the arts of magick and comic book writing. Alan had celebrated Steve’s territory of Shooters Hill in an essay published in London, City of Disappearances, entitled Unearthing. This seemed like the perfect title to appropriate as the title for the film.
The film that I made from the two walks ‘on and off’ Watling Street with Iain Sinclair was premiered at an event at Kino-Teatr in St Leonards-on-Sea last October, where Andrew Kötting also premiered his film of the whole walk, A WALK BACK TO THE LAST LONDON BY WAY OF WATLING STREET.
The event was called, Lights Out for the Last London: Down Watling Street with Iain Sinclair, Andrew Kotting and John Rogers.
“To pull away from its gravity, he sets off on a Watling Street pilgrimage with long term collaborators (and filmmakers) Andrew Kötting and John Rogers.
Their adventures, told through differing and contradictory memories, become a live performance, a conversation, a film of record.
The collision at Kino-Teatr in St Leonards is a unique coming together for the three walkers. Anything could happen.”
The video above captures the discussion with Iain Sinclair and Andrew Kötting after the screenings.
West London for me reeks of uncanniness, a sense of something slightly out of the ordinary that you can feel humming in the brickwork, radiating off the too green parkland grass, and nestling behind the net curtains. The garden suburbs at Hanger Hill Garden Estate and the Brentham Estate almost belong to a suburban version of the Hobbit shire, more than railway fueled urban expansion into the Middlesex countryside. The fairy princess said to be slumbering under the bus stop at Ealing (Ealine’s) Haven adds to the mystery, along with the Saxon Warriors excavated still wearing their cloaks in Hanwell, and the glorious legend of Horsenden Hill and Horsa’s mighty ghostly steed roaming the fields of Greenford at night. All of this and more swirled through my mind as I wandered from West Acton Station through Perivale and Greenford to Northolt on Easter Saturday.
I could basically park hop the whole way – Hanger Hill Park, Pitshanger Park, Perivale Park, Northala Fields, and Belvue Park. The Northala Hills should be added to that list of the uncanny – giant mounds of Wembley Stadium and White City rubble, burial mounds of c20th grand spectacle. A magnificient sight – climb to the top and drink in the expansive views.
I could have pushed on, but I’d been led out here by the memory of a walk from Easter 2014 along the Grand Union Canal that ended across Belvue Park and into The Crown pub. So that is where my homing instincts dragged each weary foot.
It was an enormous honour to be invited to give a public talk by the Leyton & Leytonstone Historical Society last week. I joined the Society shortly after moving to Leytonstone and still have a binder containing editions of their brilliant ‘Understone’ newsletter. It was however pointed out to me on the night that I allowed my membership to lapse some years ago.
We had a full house in St. John’s Church Hall for my talk on ‘Exploring London on Foot’, which I’d deliberately left vague enough to allow me to talk about pretty much anything. So I ranged from The Situationists to Alfred Watkins as an introduction to my walks with Iain Sinclair. And I managed to stray along the A40 to talk about the Remapping High Wycombe project I did with my sister Cathy between 2004-05, where I first applied some of the ideas about walking that I’d been thinking about for a number of years.
It also gave me an opportunity to emphasise the influence of the inter-war topographical writers on my work, Gordon S. Maxwell’s The Fringe of London being one of the most significant in spelling out a credo to which I still adhere:
“The border-line between folk-lore and fairy-tales is not more nebulous than that between topographical research and “nosing about.”
The former, in either case, is but a grander name for practically the same thing. I mean the outdoor part of topography, not the many hunts in the land of books that usually follows later.”
“The way of the topographical rambler is sometimes hard, often muddy, usually interesting; but never dull.”
– Gordon S. Maxwell – The Fringe of London, 1925
It was great to be able to enthuse to an audience about the everyday wonders that await on our doorsteps – whole other worlds just around the street corner. As Pathfinder wrote in 1911, ‘Adventure begins at home’.