Edgeland stumble – Leytonstone to Picketts Lock

IMG_9726

There’s a light patter of rain on the tree canopy along the edge of Leyton Flats as I head out on a Sunday morning walk – a rarity for me as I usually start in the afternoon and walk into the sunset. But today I have to introduce a secret film at Close Up in the evening.

The rain makes gentle circles in the Birch Well – a Victorian drinking spot for the grazing cattle who wandered this way until the BSE outbreak in the 90’s. This first narrow section of forest offers little opportunity for aimless wandering nor allows you to surrender to the woodland spirits because you encounter a road crossing about every 300 yards.

A giant fallen tree lies across the path leading out of Gilberts Slade. I’m feeling the effects of a viral cold, heavy legged, sore feet, wondering how far I’ll make it.

IMG_9743

The long wet grass by the gypsy stone at Woodford soaks my trousers to the knee. I pause for a moment under a tree at Highams Park Lake. The broad shade on the far side and the meander of the River Ching is a favourite spot in the Forest, it has a middle earth like magic even though BBQ smoke and the sound of playing children waft over from the back gardens of surrounding houses.

I stop at the Royal Café in Chingford Hatch for sausage, egg, and chips with tea so strong you could stand a spoon upright in it. Hunger must be dealt with first before assessing whether I have the desire to push on with the walk. I’ve been waiting for this walk to claim a narrative. I can pinpoint almost every other forest schlep with some event or association – even minor excursions like the one that ended here one wet day and I left my walking stick propped against a bench over the road and felt like I was abandoning an old friend. Maybe this stop in the Royal Café will provide that narrative hook.

IMG_9749

The Café sits on the ground floor of a block of flats – there’s a decorative tiled relief set into the wall showing a vase brimming full of flowers in bloom above the letters of the London County Council 1949.

The profusion of peddle-dash along the side of New Road Chingford, the nearby Harvester, these are some of the great signifiers of the London fringe – you find the same motifs heading west through Greenford and Northolt.

IMG_9753

At Chingford Mount I buy a two-pack of socks from Poundland and put both pairs on sat on a bench near the clock tower. With food in my belly and dry socks on my feet I feel like a new person ready to pursue the quest.

Lower Hall Lane offers up a classic slice of Lea Valley edgeland. Men sitting in parked cars in this deadend road – cabbies waiting for the next call. Suburban husbands escaping bungalow wives. Newbuild housing abuts the Grade II-listed Victorian pumping station. A grand brick pile built in 1895 by the East London Water Works, the local paper reports arrests made in recent years for planning violations. Permission to convert to site to residential use was granted by Waltham Forest Council in 2007 but now appears to be under review.

IMG_9766
19th Century excavations in Lower Hall Lane unearthed a series of Bronze Age Cremations – one of many such sites that line the Lea Valley. Further archaeological investigations in Lower Hall Lane revealed a medieval brew house, barns, moats, walls, and ditches. It’s a site of continuous human usage stretching back thousands of years. Today it’s just me and the dog barking at the gate of the deserted pumping station. A shiny new thick chain and padlock adorn the adjoining cottage gate. Perhaps someone is inside watching me from behind the curtains.

IMG_9782

I sauntered past London Waste up the cycle track on the opposite side to the towpath. From the bridge I spot the polythene of a temporary home flapping in the thick undergrowth – makeshift settlements scatter the fringes of London, like Harvester restaurants. A shrine suspended on a pylon pays tribute to ‘RIP Hasan 1987 – 2011’.

IMG_9821

I loiter in the foyer of the Odeon of Picketts Lock  before getting the train back to Stratford from Ponders End.

Epping Forest Wanderings (after E.N. Buxton)

I don’t need much of a push into Epping Forest, but on this occasion it was hearing the Epping Forest Rangers give a fascinating talk at the Forest Residents Association AGM. They handed out some magazines that listed great view points in the forest – so accompanied by my son we set off nominally for Fern Hill.

E.N. Buxton Epping Forest

I rarely stick to a set route in the forest – it seems to fly in the face of the idea of abandoning city life amongst the ancient boughs. I’m also a terrible map reader. I always take an OS map and my 1923 copy of E.N. Buxton’s Epping Forest but I rarely use them.

Willow Trail Epping Forest

We let the woodland spirits take over as we ascended the hill out of Loughton – and then let road safety guide us across the chaotic forest roads. Resting on a log somewhere in the vicinity of the Cuckoo Pits and Cuckoo Brook we decided to head for Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge and refreshments in the Travelodge next door.

Fern Hill will be for another day …. or another year.

Wood Street Walthamstow to Larks Wood along the Greenwich Meridian

Larks Wood had eluded me for a couple of years. I would see it as my usual Epping Forest route crossed Oak Hill. It teased me when I was pushing onwards to Loughton and beyond – a detour and distraction – a pull away from the forest – there it was seductively poking above the rooftops of Highams Park.

Larks Wood

On a couple of occasions on winter walks when the light drew in I made towards it but always got bogged down navigating my way around Highams Park Lake and across the Ching, eventually getting lost in the ‘delightful’ suburban swamp that lies on the eastern side of the railway tracks. I would end up finishing my walk in the Tesco superstore in the dark and watching the level crossing.

Wood Street Market

So this time I set out with Larks Wood as my destination, noticing when I referred to my map sat by the standing stones at the end of Wood Street that my path followed the Greenwich Meridian. I couldn’t resist a mooch in Wood Street Market and picked up some copies of Crisis in the second-hand bookshop next door.

Larks Wood Bluebells

Finally arriving at Larks Wood in the early evening I found a tranquil scene of bluebell carpets and only 2 other walkers. To be honest the view across the Lea Valley was not what I’d hoped for – if you push on a little further north there are majestic vistas westwards from Pole Hill, Yardley Hill, and Barn Hill. But it was beautifully peaceful sitting there on the edge of the wood capturing a timelapse on my GoPro. So much so I forgot to have a look at the site of the Larkswood Lido – an excuse for a return journey.

Midsummer in Epping Forest

Walks sometimes lead themselves. I left home around 4.30pm on Saturday with no destination in mind. Stopping to grab a Percy Ingle pasty I felt drawn along Kirkdale Road then pushed past Tesco and beneath the Green Man Roundabout.

Leyton Stone

There are roads that seem to contain a mystery even though you know where they lead. They speak of other times and places and suck hard on your imagination. Hollybush Hill from the Leyton Stone has that quality for me so I followed its lead to South Woodford (passing Hermitage Court which will have its own blog post).

I nearly got sidetracked into a musical performance celebrating Magna Carta at the Church near the cinema at South Woodford but decided to stay true to the walk still not sure where to go. Then the forest called me – and that is where the video above begins.

Forest to the Lea Valley – walking video diary and ‘psychogeographical sound sandwich’

Here’s a video of the walk I did last weekend from Leytonstone to Ponders End. I’ve collaged a soundtrack from some old records, field recordings I made on my phone and some music I quickly knocked up on my laptop using Garageband – it more accurately reflects what’s going on in my head as I walk. Bob and Roberta Smith talked of creating a ‘sound sandwich’ when I interviewed him at the Barbican during the Cultural Olympiad where he was performing with his Apathy Band, and he related the idea, using lots of overlapping records playing, to the psychogeographical walks I was undertaking – but in audio form – a ‘psychogeographical sound sandwich’.

Eric Simms BBC

Eric Simms

The first ‘found sound’ on the video is from a gem of a record in the BBC Wildlife Series featuring recordings of birdsong made by Eric Simms originally broadcast on the Radio 4 Countryside programme. It’s a selection of Spring choruses – ‘a busy rookery’ recorded in Sussex, 1960. In the sleeve notes Simms writes, “For me perhaps the quickest way to evoke memories of places is to listen to recordings that I have made of their background sounds”. For me when I walk the sounds of the present are mingled with sounds, voices and memories of other places.

There was a serendipitous moment when I grabbed a bit of a recording of ‘If It Wasn’t for the ‘Ouses-In-Between’ performed by John Foreman when I just happened to skip to the lines:

Oh! it really is a wery pretty garden
And Chingford to the Eastward could be seen
Wiv a ladder and some glasses
You could see to ‘Ackney Marshes
If it wasn’t for the ‘ouses in between

Which is a fairly accurate description of the view from the footbridge over the North Circular between Walthamstow and Woodford, except the song was talking about the overcrowded East End of the 1890s, harking back to some rural idyll just beyond the rooftops. Is this what draws me out into the forest?

 

Read the blog post about this walk here

Walk from Leytonstone to Ponders End

IMG_5333

The urge was to walk without any particular destination and let my feet decide which way to go. They pulled me in a familiar direction – up Wallwood Road and past the Hindu temple to the Hollow Ponds. The merest drop of rain turns Leyton Flats into a bog and a crow paddled in a large pool of rainwater.

IMG_5337

Rooks decorated the bare boughs making rook sounds (is it a Corr or a Raww) gathering for their late afternoon parliament. I can only distinguish the rooks from the crows by remembering my Dad saying ‘A rook on its own is a crow’.

IMG_5351
A rust coloured rivulet trickled near the overflowing Birch Well leading to/from the Eagle Pond, this area is cross-stitched with a tapestry of nameless seasonal ditches and brooks.

IMG_5359
RS Lounge is looking rather sorry for itself these days – I black bin-liner was wrapped around its once glowing neon sign fluttering in the wind like a harbinger of doom. RS was built on the site of the Rising Sun pub which dated back to at least the 1850’s before the £2million refurb that transformed it into an Ibiza style luxury bar and dining thing.

IMG_5384
The thwack of tyres over the cattle grid scares the wildfowl from the pond. The footbridge crossing the North Circular offers one of my favourite views of London a north-western slice across the Lea Valley, tall chimneys spewing out fumes, the tower blocks in the distance set at angles I suppose to maximise sunlight. It’s an expansive, varied vista, industrial London, broad freeways, a carpet of housing, the river, reservoirs, the forest, green plains, hills on the horizon.

IMG_5395
I pick up a stick to help steady my progress through the ankle deep mud. I skit between the path and the undergrowth not so much walking to Woodford as sliding and skating, with my stick and greying beard I feel like Gandalf on Ice.


The Ching gurgles blissfully between steep river banks as it slips round the edge of the lake at Highams Park. Now I have my sights set on Chingford Green – a place that seems incongruous in modern London, like one of those out-of-place artifacts that defy the conventional understanding of human history. I leave the forest sludge and rest my trusty staff against a bench by the pavement and ascend Friday Hill once I’ve acquired a Double Decker from the petrol station to fuel my climb.

IMG_5416

IMG_5418

Friday Hill House has the forlorn look of a place that was once loved but now abandoned and unwanted. Built in 1839 by Lewis Vulliamy for the Boothby-Heathcote family, they eventually sold it to the London County Council who constructed the Friday Hill Estate in the grounds and the house became a Community Centre and later an adult education college. Its fate now remains unclear.

IMG_5425

The Chingford United Services Club though appears to be thriving and the Seafood stall in the carpark had a short line of customers eager for cockles, winkles and crab. After admiring the ‘Second Empire’ architecture of The Bull and Crown coaching inn (now a branch of Prezzo) I retire to Sams ‘quality fish and chips restaurant’ – notice the ‘chips’ in plural.

IMG_5431

IMG_5429

It’s not been the brightest of days and now 30mins before sunset it’s positively gloomy. I’m drawn along the path beside the parish church to the crest of Kings Head Hill and a close-up of the view I’d taken in earlier from the bridge across the North Circ. I keep plodding on, my destination reached but my feet aren’t ready to quit just yet.

IMG_5444

Halfway down the hill past Sunnyside Lodge and opposite a fine cottage-style electricity substation there is a brass plaque set in the pavement commemorating the 1986 Year of Peace. An odd place to celebrate an international event unless of course Chingford has a hidden link to the Baha’i Faith that seems to have instigated the event. Is the substation a temple pumping out peace around the world? Nothing would surprise me about Chingford.

IMG_5469

IMG_5458

Looking across the Lea Valley at sunset this corner of North East London always makes me think of America – open spaces, wide roads, car lots, Wim Wenders directing Paris Texas, David Lynch weirdness, possibility. The sodium lights of the industrial Lea Delta after a muted sunset. Pylons, sheep grazing on the grassy banks of the reservoir. A Harvester pub and restaurant which I would love to enter but my boots are caked in London Clay which has also splattered up my legs to my knees.

IMG_5479

Now I am bound for Ponders End in the dark. The tower blocks of the Alma Estate (Kestrel, Cormorant, Merlin and Curlew House) guide me in by the few lights still shining, with the estate slated for a £150 million regeneration scheme I guess they must have started to move tenants out.

IMG_5481

A Roundabout of Death tricks me to walking along the hard shoulder before doubling back to find my way to the Station – cars zipping past at speed heading for the desert, for Vegas, or more likely Waltham Abbey and Cheshunt. My feet led me well on this walk – I should trust them more often.

 

Over Pole Hill

I‘d taken a mazy path from Woodford Green, through Knighton Wood, across Whitehall Plain and onto Station Road Chingford for a bag of chips munched on a bench at Chingford Green outside the Assembly Hall which was hosting a performance by the Ex-Servicemen’s Wives Choir. It was like the 1950’s.

Pole Hill Chingford

A path in the car park at the rear of the Kings Head pub led to the summit of Pole Hill. I was breathing heavily as I came upon the clearing and soon realised that the view would be significantly better in winter when the bare boughs wouldn’t obscure the vista.

Pole Hill obelisk

 

 

 

The stone obelisk bears two plaques. The highest records the association with T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia – forever in my mind Peter O’Toole garbed in white and directed by David Lean) who bought 18 acres at the top of Pole Hill where he planned to build a house where he and his friend Vyvyan Richards would print his now famous work The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
The dream remained unfulfilled but they did build a hut with a pool where Richards lived until 1922.

IMG_4718

The second plaque – well you can read it yourself – but I take this as meaning that Chingford Green isn’t the land that time forgot but the place where time began. It wasn’t the 1950’s down there – it was the year 130.

I don’t know why some annoying pedant has scribbled that “This is not the Highest Point in Ldn”, nobody claims that it is to my knowledge, a portion of the population of Chingford deny that it’s even in London – refusing to acknowledge the 1963 London Government Act that brought the area into London from Essex.

Yardley Hill

Moving on through Hawk Wood I then made the steep ascent of Yardley Hill through a field of buttercups to fantastic views down the Lea Valley and westwards over the Northern Heights.

Lea Valley view from Fernhill Wood

Skirting the huge Scout encampment at Gilwell Park and surviving a narrow country road with no footpath that appears to be a where the speed limits of 4×4 vehicles are tested, I was rewarded with this view from the edge of Fernhill Wood – creation smiling upon Brimsdown.

Sewardstone

I came down off the hill into Sewardstone (named after, “Seward, a great Saxon thane” – Village London 1883) just before 9pm.  Just beyond the edge of London, a place where the buses stop running at 6.23pm. Sewardstone is an oddity – the only area outside Greater London with a London postcode – E4. I’d long wondered what was out here, the lack of detail on the OS map is matched by the reality on the ground. A couple of farms, a row of houses and a pub with a nice garden … oh and a Premier Inn.

McDonalds Waltham Abbey

My only desire had been to hit the outer limits of London through the forest, to land on a name on a map like a game of ramblers monopoly. But now the reality of finding some transport back into town hit home. The only thing left was to take the long road schlepp in the dying light towards Waltham Abbey.

The peaceful A21 that bypasses the town centre is as tranquil as the hills and certainly safer than that death track by Gilwell Park. The MaccyD’s on the Middlesex/Herts border, now a familiar waypoint on recent Lea Valley wanders, shows the way to Waltham Cross station and the return to London.