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.
The other week I had the great pleasure of walking to the highest point in the London Borough of Havering, Havering-atte-Bower, for Rick Pearson’s brilliant podcast, London’s Peaks. Rick’s podcast explores the highest point in each of the London boroughs with someone connected to the area.
So at the weekend I set off to fill in one small section – from Debden Station, over the M11 and around Theydon Mead to the village of Abridge, and from there over fields, across Gravel Lane and on to Grange Hill Station on the Central Line Loop. It was a walk that also linked the two eastern branches of the Central Line.
A large part of the walk is covered in Pathfinder’s Rambles in Essex published by British Railways in 1950, something I only discovered when I recognised a field near Chigwell and remembered I’d been there when recording an episode of Ventures and Adventures in Topography for Resonance fm. The route we followed was described in Pathfinder’s earlier publication Afoot Round London.
It was uplifting to finally welcome Spring, arms t-shirt bare for the first time outside in months and months. I’d set out this way with my son just a few weeks ago under heavy skies and plodding through mud ankle-deep. Instead of crossing the M11, we worked our way around the Debden Estate and up the hill to Theydon Bois, filling in a few more grids of the map.
Heading down over sunset fields into Grange Hill with woodsmoke tightly hugging the ground it almost felt as if I’d ventured far out of London rather than simply traversed farmland spanning the space between tube stations. A phalanx of oak trees crest a ridge guiding the way to the cemetery path and out onto road as the daylight receded. I can tell already that it’s going to be a great summer of walking.
I’d toyed around for a while with the idea of walking the Central Line Loop that cleaves off after Leytonstone and skirts the Roding Valley through Redbridge. Initially I’d spoken to some fellow travelers about some kind of Redbridge modernist architecture walk before we realized that many of the buildings were either the Central Line stations or close by.
So on a cloudy day during the Easter School Holidays when I was looking for an excursion the idea re-presented itself and off I went. From previously taking random journeys to stations on the loop I’d noticed the different character to the areas along the line once you left Wanstead and headed through Redbridge – from there through to Hainault had a post-war feel, more working class than the old West Essex ambiences of Snaresbrook, South Woodford, Buckhurst Hill, Epping. The Central Line Loop feels like a displaced satellite of the East End as opposed to say Loughton or Theydon Bois which clearly have Essex in their DNA. But that’s just my projection, although Hainault was mostly built but the GLC after the war and Barkingside became home to a large section of London’s East End Jewish population – so there is some substance to this ‘vibe’ emanating from the redbrick.
When undertaking a set expedition with a designated beginning and end I nearly always leave home too late to complete the walk in daylight. This gave the walks in This Other London an added jeopardy as there was often a location that I needed light to see properly and document. And so it was again – although it only takes 26 minutes to travel round the Loop by Tube I estimated it was roughly 11 miles and with detours and time for photos etc could take me around 4 hours to walk.
Although I pass them every day the Hitchcock mosaics took on added significance when putting them into the context of this yomp – they are one of Leytonstone’s very few recognizable attractions, its almost solitary tribute to its famous son Alfred Hitchcock, but other than that you’ll find little else. I’ve made the point before that when I’ve told Americans about my home suburb’s claim to fame and how little is made of it they are astonished – were ‘Hitch’ from just about anywhere in the States they tell me, you wouldn’t be able to walk more than 5 yards without ducking under animatronic Birds, every second window would sport Psycho silhouettes and there’d by jowl-faced masks and Hitchcock director’s chairs in just about every shop in the high street. The mosaics are beautiful though as is the mural on the building near the Jet garage that replaced the building on the High Road where he grew up.
At Wanstead I stop to admire not only the design of the station but have a gander at the crudely painted murals that I’ve never taken much notice of before – Make Art Not War one says.
The footbridge over the Eastern Avenue has great views of some of the terrain ahead, offering a vista across the Roding Valley, that river fast becoming my favourite of London’s watercourses (the submerged Fille Brook still has the edge but it’s neck and neck with the Lea).
Walking beside the A12 Eastern Avenue is brutal – a heavy metal assault upon body and soul, a full-frontal confrontation with autogeddon.
Sandwiched between the pollution caked houses at the roadside between Redbridge and Gants Hill I spot a tall red brick monolith radiating mystery. It’s just sat there between bow-windowed semis trying not to attract attention as if it must hide some secret project. I remark as much in the video I record. Just now I received a comment on the video on YouTube with a link to an excellent article on Ian Visits who researched the history of the building and another on Cambridge Avenue in Wanstead. During the Second World War this section of the Central Line was used as a secret munitions factory and the monolith was a goods lift and now functions as a ventilation shaft. Despite shedding its top secret status in 1945 it can’t leave behind the air of wartime secrecy like a spy who never came in from the cold.
By the time I reached Gants Hill the steady rain had hardened into hail stones that bounced off the paving slabs. Charles Holden’s tiled subterranean tunnels leading into and around the station beneath the roundabout provided shelter before I had to plough on in the storm. There is a strong similarity between the parades of shops at Gants Hill and the other Central Line station buried beneath a roundabout at Hanger Lane – its cousin out towards the western end of the Central Line – designed by a former employee of Holden’s studio.
I was wet and miserable by the time I took in the Ilford War Memorial Gardens and took shelter in another of the Loop’s architectural masterpieces – Newbury Park Bus Station which was honoured with a medal at the Festival of Britain in 1951. I pushed on regardless.
The bend of Oaks Lane was matched by a glorious rainbow rising behind Aldborough Hatch Farm, sunlight broke through the clouds. The A12 felt like a bad dream as I walked the country lane past barns and farm machinery – the walking gods rewarded my persistence through the rain and hail.
At Barkingside the Central Line hugs one side of Fairlop Waters Golf Course so I took the opportunity to stick with the green space. Bluebells nodding in the shade of the trees lining the fairway hiding stray golf balls.
The sun was starting to set as I came out on Forest Road near Fairlop Station – it would be dark by the time I reached Chigwell if not before.
I turned off the road past Ilford Wanderers Rugby Club coming out near Hainault Station. It was then into a grid of peddle-dashed streets where it is always Sunday. I rested in a bus shelter opposite open fields in the last of the light near Grange Hill Station.
The footpath running along Chigwell Cemetery looked like a good prospect on the map – a twilit holloway, but after 20 yards I was ankle deep in mud. The path skirted a farm field with a solitary tree on the brow of the hill, the purple sky invoking memories of the ends of childhood walks with my Dad.
I crossed the Central Line over a caged metal footbridge and into the Essex Golden Triangle bound for Chigwell and the last of the loop. That colourful moniker was foisted on the zone between Chigwell, Loughton and Buckhurst Hill in the 1980’s when the dominant cultural association was the popular sitcom Birds of Feather before TOWIE dragged the epicenter of Essex bling further East to Brentwood. The area worked its weirdness frying my navigational sense as I managed to turn back on myself and halfway to Hainault in the pitch black. It was a fortunate accident as I was presented with a spectacular view from a park on the edge of an estate looking Westwards across north London – the twinkling lights of the Lea Valley and beyond like the Los Angeles basin viewed from the Hollywood Hills.
The Chigwell mansions were inscrutable in the darkness save for the odd illuminated sweeping staircase. The station platform glowed sodium yellow from the bridge. It was apparent the walk was up. The route to Roding Valley wasn’t clear on the OS map – a truncated lane that could lead to an unmarked footpath but could equally become a dead end. The alternative was a huge detour by road that seemed to defeat the object of following the train line. One stop short (or two depending on whether you consider Woodford part of the Loop) seemed cruel, but sitting on the platform waiting 15 minutes for the next tube I thought of Bill Bryson quitting his 2000 mile Appalachian Trail thru-hike at the beginning of the last short leg in the 100-mile Wilderness. That blank portion of the OS map between Chigwell and Roding Valley was my 100-mile Wilderness.
The next morning I realized I had to go back and complete the walk – it should only take an hour I figured. Instead of returning to Chigwell by tube I walked from Hainault where the train terminated. The transition from Hainault’s postwar ‘Homes for Heroes’ to Chigwell’s ‘City Boy Bling Villas’ was more noticeable in daylight. Pensioners having a chat with the council workers mowing the grass verge gave way to locked gates and warnings that private security were on patrol. The same company seemed to be protecting all the houses in Chigwell and I noticed one of their vans slide past me as I took a photo of their sign embedded in a hedge.
Luxborough Lane crossed the brutal M11 – the road that broke the heart of Leytonstone. To walk out of London is to cross a series of arterial roads and motorways – the North Circular, the M11, the M25. London is encased in this halo of pollution that we live within. To finally break through this asphalt collar into open country is a liberating experience.
The lane was a classic edgeland landscape – water treatment works, waste disposal, some run-down old cottages forgotten by time and then the river Roding with the Central Line passing overhead on a majestic brick viaduct. This pattern is repeated all around the outskirts of London – motorway/A-Road, scrubland, public utilities, water, train tracks.
This point on the Roding has been the end and beginning of two previous walks along the river – my Huckleberry Finn riverbank. From here it’s across the Rugby pitch and up to Roding Valley Station – the station so slight and discrete it almost isn’t there. The last of the stations solely on the Central Line Loop – but not the end of the walk.
It’s a short distance to Woodford along a straight suburban street that would be nondescript if it weren’t for the fine views it afforded across the Roding Valley at every cross street and break between the houses.
It’s a sultry afternoon and I seemed to have been walking in the rain for the last couple of weeks so I decide to walk on home to Leytonstone turning the loop into a straight-sided ‘O’.
Although the character changes on this branch of the line it’s still marked with some modernist architectural gems – the Odeon Cinema at South Woodford and Hermitage Court near Snaresbrook. The tiling on the underpass beneath the North Circular Road not only matches that at Gants Hill but also out West at the Hanger Lane gyratory, some design features that knit the city together.
The old coaching inn – The Eagle is already filling up and a trickle of commuters are starting to dribble out of Snaresbrook Station. I pay homage to the High Stone marking the return to ‘Leyton-atte-Stone’ and slide back down through the passages beneath the Green Man Roundabout to a table at the Wetherspoons and a pint of pale ale from Leyton.