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.

 

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.

Across Lea Valley Uplands – Epping to Broxbourne

My OS Explorer 174 map of Epping Forest and Lee Valley is battered from extensive use. However there are still large sections of unexplored territory, so at lunchtime on Remembrance Sunday I set out to tramp across one of these unknown zones.

Epping Walk

The idea was to head roughly northwest from Epping in the general direction of Galleyhill Wood or perhaps Monkhams Hall to the north of Waltham Abbey. I’d walked the valley floor as far as Hertford but had never ventured onto the high ground except from a field trip last December to Easneye and Widbury Hill.

Pillbox Copped Hall Outer London Defence Ring

The first fields out of Epping towards Upshire saw me pursued by a hungry pack of hikers who thankfully I seemed to lose at Copped Hall. Which was lucky because I’d been beguiled by one of the the Outer London Defence Ring Anti-Tank pillboxes. I’d encountered other features of this Second World War system along the River Lea north of Waltham Abbey but it seemed so innocuous here beside the lane.

Epping Walk
My plan for the walk was as vague as my map reading skills, my guiding principle being to stick to the high ground, I only had a couple of hours till sunset so that should ensure a decent view for late afternoon.

Cobbins Brook
A high hedged lane took me across the Cobbins Brook, a small stream that runs off the highlands of the Lea Valley down across the edge of the forest toward Waltham Abbey. According to Wikipedia this innocent seeming watercourse leant a hand to one of Britain’s most enduring stories, “A local legend claims Boudica’s rebellion against the Romans ended in the Waltham Abbey neighbourhood when she poisoned herself with hemlock gathered from the banks of Cobbins Brook.”

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Galleyhill Wood

As sunset approaches I enter the steep muddy climb into Galleyhill Wood catching the last rays of daylight around the edge of the hill. By the time I stumble into Bumble’s Green it is nearly dark, the walk in essence over aside from the need to find my way through the dark to the nearest station 3 miles away at Broxbourne. I risk my life along a pavement-less road for no more than 500 yards before ducking down the first footpath that presents itself and walking across fields guided by the spotlight of the Super Moon.

Galleyhill Wood Waltham Abbey

A Lea Valley Odyssey – Leytonstone to Rye House

Here are a few images from a research trip I took on Sunday for my new book (as yet untitled). I wanted to start at Leytonstone House, the home of Edward North Buxton – author of Epping Forest (1884) the book that informs most of my forest walks. There was more to the Buxton link but you’ll have to wait for the book to find out (and also till I’ve untangled the complicated web cast by the fact the Buxtons seemed to use about two names throughout the family and all marry members of the Gurney banking dynasty).

It wasn’t my intention to morbidly gawp at the crime scene at the Hollow Ponds where a body was recently discovered but it was en-route to the W16 bus stop on Shernall Street. I then walked from Sewardstone to Rye House near Hoddesdon.

The trip just happened to fall on the second anniversary of the publication of This Other London. Work on the follow up is slower than I would have liked but you know, there it is, you can’t rush these things unless you’ve got a publisher breathing down your neck which I currently don’t have. As my friend Nick Papadimitriou pointed out, ‘you’re gathering lots of material’, and he’s not wrong, there’s stacks of the stuff, and I intend to gather a lot more.