Dagenham Civic Centre and Coal Tax Post

Dagenham Civic Centre

I found myself in Becontree with time to spare so decided to wander up in the direction of the large open space at Becontree Heath with the intention of taking in the majesty of Dagenham Civic Centre. This art deco beauty was designed by E. Barry Webber who was also the architect of Hammersmith Town Hall. It opened in 1937. Now 80 years later it is about to begin new life as the London campus of Coventry University.

Dagenham Civic Centre

Coal Tax Post Wood Lane

Coal Tax Post

Just around the corner I was surprised to find this Coal Tax Post half-buried beside the road on Wood Lane in front of a block of flats. These posts, erected in the 1860’s around the perimeter of Greater London, marked the point at which the tax on coal was payable to the Corporation of London. They’re positioned roughly 20 miles from the General Post Office in Central London. I’ve previously passed them in Wormley in Hertfordshire.

P1070889

P1070890

What made this find all the more gratifying was its position next to a bridge bearing the Essex County Council coat of arms and dated ‘1921’. It apparently lies over a culverted stream.

Coal Tax Post Wood Lane

Today the spot marks the boundary between the London Boroughs of Barking & Dagenham and Havering. These traces of the past are littered all around us, lying beside the road next to an abandoned shopping trolley, embedded on a bridge across a long-buried stream. Our civic heritage refuses to drift away and be ignored.

London River Walk – from the Ravensbourne to the Beck

The idea was Iain’s, noticing that I rarely ventured south of the river he suggested a walk through his manor, Beckenham, following the River Beck. In the course of deciding where to start we somehow settled on the mouth of the River Ravensbourne at Deptford Creek.

River Ravensbourne

River Ravensbourne

We worked our way South through morning Greenwich and over Deptford Bridge, through Brookmill Park to Lewisham, where we gave a nod to the River Quaggy. The passage through Ladywell took me back to the walk I did for This Other London in autumn 2012 to Herne Hill Velodrome that passed this way over Ladywell Fields. Where I peeled off that day over Blythe Hill, Iain and I carried on beside the waters of the Ravensbourne across Catford Bridge to the Linear Park where the Ravensbourne departs and we followed the Pool River to Bellingham.

confluence of The Beck and the Chaffinch Brook

confluence of The Beck and the Chaffinch Brook

In Cator Park, Beckenham (after a David Bowie detour) we find the confluence of the Pool and the Beck (and also see the Chaffinch Brook) and from this point, entering early evening and pushing on for 15 miles for the day, we are now fixed on the source of The Beck.

Families are out in force perambulating around the broad waters of Kelsey Park, it’s a good time to stop for ice cream. It gives us the legs to push on through outer suburbia bound for Shirley.

source of the River Beck

source of the River Beck

I won’t spoil the end of the video, but the moment of finding the source, not quite where we expected, was a moment of mild euphoria. 21-miles river walking through South London, two middle-aged men gazed with love and amazement at a trickle of water dribbling from a pipe in a narrow strip of woodland in Shirley.

 

Ancient England: Journey to the Neolithic at Maiden Bower

This expedition out to Maiden Bower marked the final installment in a trilogy of film collaborations with Dave Binns and Gary Lammin – and what an incredible journey it’s been. We started in Spring 2015 with a visit to an Iron Age burial mound near Ware in Hertfordshire overlooking the Lea Valley. This was followed the next Spring by an incursion into the Bartlow Hills on the Essex/Cambridgeshire border to the enormous burial mounds Dave dubbed the ‘pyramids of Essex’. Maiden Bower marked something slightly different, not a burial site although with a surface layer of Iron Age occupation overlaying a much earlier Neolithic causedway enclosure.

Maiden Bower Houghton Regis photo

Southern England: An Archaeological Guide (1973), James Dyer

“A number of disconnected ditch sections containing broken human and animal bones were found during chalk quarrying in the last century, and both neolithic and Iron Age ditch sections are still visible in the quarry face. Neolithic pottery and an antler comb have been obtained from the site.”

Southern England: An Archaeological Guide (1973), James Dyer

As we made our way across the field of waist-high wheat Gary lugged his heavy stainless steel guitar. He stopped on the gravel track plonked the case down and cracked out his axe. This was a place to play slide blues guitar he said, and proceeded to knock out a glorious riff to the hedgerow seed pods flickering in the breeze.

Gary Lammin guitar

Dave soon started to prepare the ground. The recurring theme of site re-use across the ages spanning thousands of years – and how this site, like the other 2 in the series represented the emergence of new hierarchies that slowly eased out the old primitive communism of hunter-gather societies. Except here with the causewayed enclosure we were delving much deeper into the past than on previous field trips.

Maiden Bower Houghton Regis

Maiden Bower

“This roughly circular earthwork encloses about 11 acres. There is an original entrance on the SE, the gap on the N not yet having proved to be original…. Occupation probably began in the 5th-4th centuries BC and lasted until the arrival of the Romans.”

– Guide to Prehistoric ENGLAND (1976), Nicholas Thomas

Maiden Bower occupies an imposing position on a plateau at the top of Dunstable Downs with expansive views stretching out from the sheer drop down into the chalk quarry. The circular enclosure is maintained by trees and shrubs, the camp interior populated by grasses, wild flowers and butterflies. Gary played again, Dave held forth on how modern society arose from sites such as this. We sat in the grass, Gary slept, and we somehow lost time at Maiden Bower, a magical place.

View from Maiden Bower Dunstable Downs

Sat amongst the tall grass with the sun bronzing our heads, Dave started talking about how recent discoveries at Gobekli Tepe have changed our view of the neolithic transition and how this could lead to a further video. Maybe we could link it with nearby Waulud’s Bank, the ‘henge monument’ embracing the source of the River Lea, he suggested.

‘I’m up for it’, I said drowsily, keen to further explore this area rich in prehistoric sites. ‘But it messes up the trilogy’, I add.

‘Maybe it’s the start of a new series’, Dave posits.

Pole Hill, Yardley Hill, Gilwell Park, Barn Hill to Enfield

With London wrapped in tragedy I needed to get to high ground, it’s a primal urge, safety, perspective. I remembered the walk of 3 years ago, I now realise on the same date – 18th June – an accidental derive over hills and down to Sewardstone for sunset. This time it was deliberate.

The walk down from Woodford was the pre-amble, a loosening that threw in an unexplored corner of the forest near the Warren Pond. Then along Chingford High Street, clocks forever set 30 years behind the rest of London it seems. No chips from Sam’s this time – straight up the side of the Kings Head to the top of Pole Hill – a marker of time, the centre of the world.

Path to Pole Hill Chingford

Path to Pole Hill Chingford

The fields sloping down the spine of Pole Hill were as beautiful in the evening light as I remembered them. A couple had pitched a tent beneath the trees and were sat eating dinner. The views from the top of Yardley Hill were stunning and difficult to wrench away from. The City skyline dwarfed by foregroud trees of Hawk Wood, the enclosure in the forest of pre-Roman times. I could imagine the great Forest of Kent stretching from the south shore of the Thames down to the sea.

Along Sewardstone Green, somehow deep with mud then up and over the final hill with fingers of god breaking out through sagging clouds onto Brimsdown.

footpath to Barn Hill Sewardstone

footpath to Barn Hill Sewardstone

Crossing the Lea Valley at Sewardstone I bisect the walk just before the winter solstice, setting out in pre-dawn from Leytonstone to Hertford, at this point stalked by horses. I give a nod to my winter self and push on along the sunset river banks for Enfield.

 

Waves of Disappearance: cinematic topographies of the North Eastern frontier

This is an article I wrote at the end of 2006 for University of East London’s Journal of East London Studies – Rising East 6. Tonight’s Ian Bourn programme at Close Up seems a good time to republish.

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“Geographically Leytonstone is just a case of in one end and out the other. It’s not the end of the road like Whitechapel, nor is it the beginning of the end like Southgate. Leytonstone, if it’s like anything it is the urethra of London.”
—Lenny’s Documentary’, Ian Bourn (1978)

Leytonstone Houses

Not long after I moved to Leytonstone I found myself transfixed by the view from the small window in my bathroom. It was a fairly non-descript panorama of the red-tiled rooftops of terraced houses, chimney pots, and in the distance, poking out from behind a tree, a large slab-like tower block. At times I found myself gazing at it for long periods. It felt somehow both exotic and familiar at the same time. Eventually the penny dropped.
John Smith’s film The Black Tower charts a man’s mental collapse as he believes he is being pursued around his neighbourhood by an ominous black tower that seems to appear looming above the roof-line as he goes about his daily business. A detail in the landscape leads to an odyssey, an obsession, and ultimately oblivion. As his tries to escape we traverse the streets of workaday Leytonstone. The humorous, laconic narrative guides us through the man’s psyche whilst we see the seasons change on the street outside, hear ice-cream vans, kids ride tricycles along the pavement, tree surgeons lop a lime tree. Smith establishes a steady rhythm of locked-off shots, lush and perfectly framed. The tower ultimately consumes the narrator, trapped inside its black walls.

The film is a testament to the power that fine details in the landscape can have over the imagination. As a filmic dérive, it achieves the aim identified by Greil Marcus of revealing “the unknown facets of the known, astonishment on the terrain of boredom, innocence in the face of experience”. The Black Tower’ produces a mental topography of Leytonstone that colonises your imagination.

John Smith is one of the most widely screened British artist film-makers, and as one-time drinking buddy, artist Cornelia Parker noted, “Most of John’s films have been shot within a few hundred yards of his front door, or inside his house.” In fact the house itself became the centre of one of Smith’s most poignant films Home Suite, a video love poem to his home of 12 years.

Composed of three thirty minute single take video monologues Home Suite presents us with an intimate anatomy of Smith’s home in Colville Road prior to its demolition to make way for the M11 Link Road. The first two parts of the film examine in detail the toilet, then the bathroom, comically describing the life of each room, unpacking its history, zooming in on a crack in the toilet bowl, panning across an eccentric Artex job on the walls. The house seems to be coming apart from the inside out, slowly giving up the ghost, merging with the landscape as Smith shows us where the Russian Vine has forced its way through the window frame in the kitchen and has snaked its way across to the gas pipes.

In the final third we emerge from the respectful silence of the condemned house and step out into the street where the mass ranks of police move in with bulldozers to evict the die-hards camped out in Claremont Road. Smith passes by with his video camera, shaken by the scenes he has witnessed, before crossing the road to walk around the corner to his new flat in Twickenham Road where all is calm and as Smith notes, where you’d probably never realise what upheaval was happening over the road.

All that remains of the side of the street where Smith lived in Colville Road is a long brick wall half-heartedly buffering the deafening drone of the Link Road. At one end the motorway signboard showing the way out to Chelmsford, casts a shadow over a row of newly built hermetically sealed bungalows of the sort that would make John Prescott beam. Claremont Road exists only as a street sign where a large billboard above advertises the new Ford Ranger 4×4 as if to rub the road protestors’ noses in their defeat.

Colville Road Leytonstone

Colville Road Leytonstone

The dying days of Colville Road are also captured in a more formal piece of work, Blight. Still using the style of lushly composed static shots, Smith collaborated with composer and fellow Leytonstonian Jocelyn Pook to create a soundtrack of residents’ reminiscences. We watch the house next to Smith’s being carefully, almost gently demolished, as bricks are dislodged by hand, wooden beams lifted off, the house is forensically dismembered.

This act of disappearance offers a brief moment of revelation as exterior walls are removed to lay bare a private realm, an Exorcist mural revealed on a bedroom wall. The pile of rubble that is left is reminiscent of images of wartime bomb damage – this peacetime blitz accounts for more houses in Leytonstone than the Doodlebugs that landed here. With the mood music this film becomes an elegy for a dilapidated dwelling, a more meditative form of protest than the barricades and tree camps in Claremont Road round the corner.

John Smith’s films not only capture this uncelebrated landscape in loving detail but are also a product of the spirit that prevailed in Leytonstone at that time. Cornelia Parker met Smith in 1984:
“Leytonstone at that time was a great place to be. A thriving community of artists lived in dilapidated houses that were due to be demolished for the promised M11 Link Road…..The cheap rents and abundance of space created a fertile breeding ground for ideas. Cross-pollinations and collaborations abounded, ground-breaking works given birth to – creativity thrived under the threat of imminent eviction.”

Northcote Arms Leytonstone

The hub of this E11 avant-garde was The Northcote Arms on Grove Green Road. Whilst similar bare-knuckle boozers were the haunt of East End ‘faces’ and Saturday football firms, The Northcote played host to Smith, Parker, Graeme Millar and Ian Bourn.

Like Smith’s, Ian Bourn’s films are rooted in the psychogeography of Leytonstone. His first major work, Lenny’s Documentary, is an acerbic, drink-fuelled monologue on the nature of the area. The film opens with the caption: “11pm, Leytonstone…..” Lenny lines up a row of beer cans on his desk, cracks one open and slurs out: “Gateway to the East”. He abuses imaginary people off-screen. Captions read “5 minutes later…”, “2 minutes…..” Each time he appears progressively more drunk. He talks of taking pot-shots with an air-rifle at old ladies and arseholes from the top of his high-rise block. “This is where my friends and I have tolerated our existence for far too long. Where small changes have devastating effects”. Pre-empting Smith’s tale of E11-induced insanity, Lenny informs us: “…people here are always cracking up, after which they go to Claybury Hospital”

Lenny finally escapes; we share his windscreen view as he drives up the High Road to the strains of Sinatra singing ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’, and fades out at The Green Man Roundabout.

Eaton Park

Eaton Park 2006

The theme of change, decay, and disappearance is always with us. The next wave is on the way with the Olympic redevelopment just over the border in the Lower Lea Valley. The moment of calm before the storm is being captured by a new breed of topographical film-makers.

Following the success of their debut full length film, Finisterre, Paul Kelly and Bob Stanley set their follow-up in the Lower Lea Valley on the day after the announcement that London would host the 2012 Olympics. Kelly has described the film, What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day?’, as being like an obituary to the birthplace of the 20th Century. Stylistically it is similar to many of John Smith’s works, a style that influential born-again flaneur-film-maker Patrick Keiller has identified in the city films of the early years of cinema, “ – the single, long takes; static camera or the phantom ride – “.

What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? uses the fictional device of a paper boy doing his rounds who allows his sense of curiosity lead him on a journey through the ruination of an area that gave the world plastic and petrol. A radio news bulletin establishes the time and place, 7th July 2005, a day of national celebration and disaster. “The Lea Valley. A river runs through it. You can catch a Kingfisher if you’re lucky. Catch it while you can, it’s all gonna go”, narrates Canning Town’s David Essex.

Paul Kelly’s camerawork frames this blighted landscape in all its rusting glory. The wide skies calling to mind more epic landscapes of Russia and Outback Australia. Aerial shots of the Stratford skyline predicting the mini-City that is to come. A Geoffrey Fletcher-esque recording of small features such as letterboxes, drainpipes, and graffiti (Fletcher was fond of gas lighting and the fittings in public lavatories). Quick flashes of street signage – Pudding Mill Lane, Marshgate Lane Industrial Area. Derelict red-brick factories manage to look like the ruins of ancient Rome as Mervyn cycles past on his rounds; paperboys themselves being an anachronism.
Mervyn Day’ neither condemns the Olympic dream in the name of misguided nostalgia, nor does it bury the past.

As Mervyn gazes across the Thames at the Millennium Dome the warning is clear enough, but as the narration reminds us “The Lea Valley has always been about change”. In calling forth the memory of the Bryant and May Matchgirls’ strike that arguably gave birth to the Labour Party, it also reminds us that these brick and corrugated tin behemoths were engines of oppression as much as technological progress. Ultimately it is left to the viewer to decide whether London’s last wilderness would be better off without the Olympic circus.

These films are united in being subjective responses to the changing topography of the city. Sympathetic witnesses to banality and dereliction; almost dutiful in their logging of the endangered landscape and culture of this end of East London.

Another instalment in the cinematic topography of the north-eastern frontier is currently being created as the towers of the Beaumont Estate that I see from my bathroom window, are now the stars of their own film; captured 24 hours a day on webcam – a real-time documentary of decay into regeneration, as they too slowly join the catalogue of disappearance.

Northcote Arms Leytonstone

Northcote Arms Leytonstone

References
1. Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit


2. John Smith: Film and Video Works 1971-2002, Cornelia Parker, A.L. Rees, Nicky Hamlyn

3. In short: a guide to short film-making in the digital age, John Smith p.77-86


4. John Smith at www.luxonline.org.uk


5. Ian Bourn at www.luxonline.org.uk


6. London Calling, Frieze.com, Brian Dillion


7. Hymn to the East End, Daily Telegraph 26.11.05, Sukhdev Sandhu
© John Rogers 2006

Leytonstone A12

Knighton Wood Buckhurst Hill

You never know where your feet will carry you – in this case aided by a W13 bus and riding it to the end at Woodford Wells. Passing The Horse and Well, an 18th Century coaching inn established 1730, I dipped down into Knighton Wood, once part of the grounds of the grand house belonging to Edward North Buxton (1860-1924), author the classic Epping Forest guide book that I take on all my forest walks. Buxton had lived for a period of time at Leytonstone House (along with various other members of the Buxton family). He spent much of his life campaigning to preserve Epping Forest at a time when it was threatened with development using his considerable influence through his family (who were also part of the Truman, Hanley, Buxton Brewing empire and Barclays Bank) and as MP for Walthamstow.

Lord's Bushes Knighton Wood

I can find no mention of Knighton Wood in Buxton’s Epping Forest, published in 1885, but he does mention Lord’s Bushes which forms part of this glorious area of woodland, “conspicuous for its picturesque oaks and beeches, and dense undergrowth of hollies …. an hour may be well spent in exploring its beautiful glades.”

I spent more than an hour exploring its ‘beautiful glades’, now enhanced by some of the surviving landscaping of Buxton’s home at Knighton House with resplendent rhododendrons in full bloom. There are also the ornamental lakes, wilder, more untamed than the ponds in Wanstead Park. I had pleasant chats with the dog walkers and at one point stood inside a hollowed out tree staring up at the sky the ambient sound being processed through mould, bark, and insect colonies to create an organic mix. I would love to mic that tree up, a giant arboreal ear. For a moment I had stepped out of the day-to-day urban life and was backpacking once more, the musty woody aroma, the embrace of the forest transporting me back to jungle trekking in Thailand, Sumatra, Sarawak. Such is the magic and enchantment of trees.

Edith Walks – Andrew Kötting, Iain Sinclair and their band of Mummers

Edith Walks Iain Sinclair Jem Finer

Ahead of EDITH: A Performance at St John’s on Bethnal Green  in the East End Film Festival I recall the day I spent with Andrew Kötting’s merry band of Mummers as they started out on their 100-mile pilgrimage to Hastings from Waltham Abbey

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The bird, a raven a rook a crow?, sits on Iain Sinclair’s arm. Iain tells Andrew Kötting it’s ‘a corpse feeder, an eye pecker’, he’ll find Harold on the battlefield, or in this case Andrew buried up to his neck on Hastings beach. Andrew’s suit is a collaboration with his daughter Eden, decorated and annotated for the Jack in the Green festival in Deptford and Hastings. Iain suggests Andrew should be barefoot, ‘What for 100 miles’, Kötting retorts.

Edith Walks Andrew Kotting Iain Sinclair
I’d met up with David Aylward and Jem Finer just off the train out of Stratford – easily identifying them on the platform at Waltham Cross – Jem with his custom-built shopping trolley mounted recorded device, Dave dressed in camouflage fluro. We stop off on the walk into town to pick up some WD40 to lubricate the squeeking sound coming from Jem’s audio jalopy, now wondering about the reality of dragging this thing 100 miles to Hastings.

Edith Walks Claudia Barton Iain Sinclair
We gather around the modest stone monument behind Waltham Abbey that claims to be the final resting place of at least some of Harold’s remains. Anonymous Bosch takes pin-hole photos whilst we mooch around the graveyard. From afar the group has the look of a bizarre wedding party milling around before the service, excited anticipation, taking photos, catching up small talk. These are the final moments before their epic schlepp to Hastings retracing the footsteps of Edith Swan-neck to sort through the hacked rotting corpses on the battlefield at Hastings looking for the remains of her beloved Harold.

Edith Walks Iain Sinclair and John Rogers

photo by Andrew Kotting

My own journey will end at Enfield Lock, cut short by the necessities of parenthood, but Andrew has invited me to gather some footage for possible inclusion in our London Overground film with him and Iain as a mad side journey, ‘Treat it as some kind of crazed vision’, Andrew advises. It found its home in the film with Andrew dressed as the Straw Bear in Brompton Cemetery talking about the experience of walking with Iain Sinclair, how it alters your idea of time, the images of Andrew’s troupe of Mummers wandering through the fly-tipping beneath the M25 fly-over just south of Waltham Abbey perfectly illustrating this sentiment. Some of the footage also ended up more appropriately housed in the film Kötting made of their expedition, Edith Walks.

Claudia Barton chats idly to Jem Finer about the real historical Edith Swan-neck and her link to the shrine at Walsingham in Norfolk, ‘I like the idea of her being a little bit spiritual and a little bit nut nut. All women in those days knew the power of herbs and a little bit of sorcerey’, she says with a smile. Gliding along the Lea Navigation towpath in flowing white gown she stops to inspect the flowers in the hedgerow channeling Edith’s plant lore.

David Aylward is turning every solid object we pass into a percussive instrument, jumping onto a moored industrial barge knocking out an infectious rhythm. Passing cyclists wonder what madness they have stumbled upon, thinking better of asking and peddling on bemused.

Edith Walks Claudia Barton Andrew Kotting Iain Sinclair
Passing beneath the M25 with Iain Sinclair I have to call along the path, ‘Iain, look, it’s your road’, he smiles and we stop to chat about his millenial yomp around the M25. Iain leads us up the footpath beside the viaduct to a grassy area next to the road barriers battered by London Orbital traffic noise. Anonymous Bosch reclines in the grass taking snaps and shooting video on various devices, I spot at least three.

Anonymous Bosch
I was gutted to wave them off at Enfield Lock. Iain and Andrew suggested I could rendezvous with them further down the route but it isn’t to be. Claudia/Edith picks up the hem of her flowing white wedding gown out of the Lea Valley trail dust, Jem tinkers with his audio device and off they go to Hastings.

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Edith: A performance at the East End Film Festival Sunday 25th June 8.00pm.

For 50% off ‘friends list’ use the code: EDITH

Andrew Kötting and author Iain Sinclair take another epic journey through England’s buried history in EDITH. Following on from Swandown and By Our Selves (both screened by EEFF) Kötting and Sinclair embarked on a 108 mile walk from Waltham Abbey to St Leonards-on-Sea in memory of Edith Swan Neck, the mistress of King Harold.
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Reconnecting and consoling historic lovers after nearly 1,000 years, the experience has inspired a film (Edith Walks), bookwork and this special live film-music-performance event, incorporating spoken word from Iain Sinclair, with music and soundscapes by David Aylward, Claudia Barton, Jem Finer and Andrew Kötting, set to the spectral images of Kötting’s film. A chance to experience an extraordinary project in the atmosphere of St. Johns on Bethnal Green, with EDITH as their hallucination.

The film Edith Walks is on general release across the UK from 23rd June