The plan was simple and quite ‘unplanned’ – return to Wanstead to check out the ominous gothic building at the end of Nightingale Lane then make my way across to find the River Roding and follow it up to Claybury Hospital. I’m taking some advice from Ian Bourn’s seminal Leytonstone film ‘Lenny’s Documentary’ (1979): “cause people round here are always cracking up, after which they go to Claybury Hospital”. I’ve been feeling the pressure at work lately, under a bit of strain, so I’m going to reverse the process, I’m going to Claybury to avoid cracking up.
Once back in Wanstead, only a 10-minute walk from Leytonstone but you get the feeling that you are now in Essex. Maybe it’s the small boutiques and Webb’s Gastrodome with its menu of “Moules and Frittes, Chicken Curry and Rice, Sausage and Mash”. Nightingale Lane is a step back in time, the newsagent has a hand-written sign advertising for a “Paper Boy/Girl”. The view up the narrow lane rising to a redbrick gothic building instantly called to mind a mental image of Edinburgh or Glasgow, in the way that you have impressions of places you’ve never been to but just seen on the telly and in pictures. As I reach the top of the lane the pub on the corner goes by the name of The Duke of Edinburgh (as do hundreds of other pubs outside the Scottish capital, I know).
Once I find a way into the grounds of the gothic beast on the hill the inscription above the door tells me that the foundation stone was laid by Albert Prince Consort for this home for the orphans of British Merchant Seaman on 28th June 1861. It’s a grand building, must have cost a bit, maybe the Victorians weren’t as bad as they are sometimes made out to be. Like a lot of places it seems to have mutated into Clock Court ‘luxury apartments’ – one of the most over-used combination of words in London (I’ve been in some and they’re just apartments, no gold taps, marble worktops, no bling, nothing that the residents further up the Roding Valley in Chigwell would recognise as ‘luxury’).
Thomas Archer wrote glowingly of the Orphanage in his 1870 ‘The Terrible Sights of London’. “When that sweet little cherub who is traditionally amid lyrically represented as sitting up aloft to look out for the life of poor Jack, is relieved by the next watch, and makes a short excursion for the purpose of stretching his wings, it may reasonably be inferred that he hovers lovingly over the neighbourhood of Snaresbrook, in Essex, and perches occasionally on the tall spiral tower of that magnificent building, where 136 children, the orphans of merchant seamen, are maintained with loving care.” What he describes is far from a terrible sight: light and airy dormitories, varnished pine, good ventilation, harmonium music drifting through the hallways, the children free from even the smallest ailments, a healthy supply of good food and water. It is as if the children have been compensated for the loss of their fathers at sea by being transported from the squalor of Victorian London dockland slums to Xanadu.
One of the apartments is on the market. The Rightmove website describes the interior of this supposed ‘des-res’ (£524,995) in far less glowing terms than Archer’s asylum:
Split level apartment
Bedroom with en suite
Many period features
We are delighted to offer for sale this two bedroom converted apartment which we believe is part of an old Victorian (1860’s), orphanage for the children of merchant seaman. The property which forms part of a listed building, has a wealth of fine features which have to be seen to be appreciated. Communal Entrance”
From here I wade through a quagmire of suburban banality to get to a footpath that takes me into the Roding Valley Park. It’s about 100 yards wide, has a motorway overhead, pylons, and at this point no sign of the eponymous river.
I move on along through spindly Birch trees buffeted by the wind and the motorway noise – something I won’t escape for the whole four hours walk.
Instead of coming to the river I emerge at the centre of a knot of motorway flyovers with an enormous metal pylon rising in the centre – a Ballardian wet dream. Charlie Brown’s Roundabout. I commit my second climate crime of the day when I buy a pork pie from Tesco (not the pie, the shopping in Tesco. The first crime was buying non-rechargeable batteries from Poundland – 12 for a quid!).
The river at last.
Two hundred yards on from the mayhem I get a clear view of the Claybury Asylum water tower above the scrub. Iain Sinclair came out this way when writing ‘Rodinsky’s Room’, as the disappearing Jewish Hermit had a sister committed to the asylum. I think he posited somewhere that Rodinky’s annotated A-Z used the tower as its central reference point.
There’s a moment in every walk when it takes off and transcends the familiar and banal. The motorway was behind me for the first time. All there was now was a path snaking into bare trees and the top of the tower poking from a wooded hill in the distance. Carrier bags fluttered from branches like an ominous warning sign, adapted spirit catchers.
I cut across sodden marsh and round a muddy cricket pitch where snoozing sightscreens are buffeted by the stiff breeze. My denim loafers had been doing so well (don’t talk to me about walking boots, I’ve been having all manner of problems in that department – do footwear manufacturers sponsor topographical ramblers?). Now they are more like water-skis than anything else as I slip and slide over the mud into Claybury Park.
The view from the top of the hill is one of the finest in London, even surpassing (just) the one Nick showed me from Jack Straw’s Castle in Hampstead. It’s like the vista of Florence from Fiesole. A perfect place for a mental hospital. I’d been pre-warned about the inevitable conversion into luxury apartments when I’d checked ‘London Orbital’ for references last night (I’m figuring – mental hospital near the M25, got to be something in there). On page 167 Sinclair describes how he turns up at the gates the day the diggers moved in. Still, I’m determined to get a closer look. I plunge through the muddy tracks into the woods of hornbeam, oak and beech (natural habitat for a child of Bucks). Water runs in deep rivulets down the bank form small brooks and streams. Chigwell (which is where I am as it transpires) means ‘Kings Well’ and S.P Sunderland reports that there was a medicinal well here in Saxon times (maybe that accounts for the asylum). Now the tower is oddly elusive. I’m right below it but it is out of sight. I stop to ask directions from a lady walking a black Labrador who used to work there when it was a hospital. But for all my exertions I fail to breach the perimeter fences which I bet are far better secured now it is the private domain of Repton Park executive homes than in its asylum days.
When I emerge, mud-splattered on Tomswood Road I’m greeted by a sign that says, “Welcome to Essex”. Not more than 10 yards later I’m engulfed in a mock Tudor nightmare, more security gates, 4x4s at rest waiting for the school run, even a Ferris Bueller red Ferrari. The Prince Regent Hotel proudly advertises its Abba Tribute Night on 3rd March for £28.95. This Georgian hotel, when not hosting corporate ‘away-days’, is the venue for boxing bouts.
There is a W14 bus in the lay-by that would shortly be heading back to Leytonstone and as I’ve achieved my target I consider hopping on, but no, my metronomic stride won’t stop, clearly my mental health has not quite been revived.
A Victorian water pump has been restored and given a plaque by the local Woodford historical society, marking the point of the Saxon bridge that crossed the River Roding. I see the River beneath the beast of the M11 and rejoin the path. In the dip of the embankment you are shielded from arterial roads either side and the motorway above. The noise is migraine inducing and unrelenting. Crossing at Charlie Brown’s is a near death experience, either they run you down or you wait so long on the roadside that the pollution gets you.
The pylons hold hands over the water and the cables elegantly curve to the river’s bends. There’s no mobile phone signal. It’s a world within a world.
As I reach the castellated pumping station at Wanstead I’m pushed into an underpass system that seems to mirror the gyratory above. My legs have gone numb from the knee down. It is only at this point that I realise that I haven’t broken my stride since leaving home four hours ago, not stopped or sat down once, not even for the statutory pint. I allow the underpass to guide me away from the Roding and onto the Central Line instead.