On the trail of the Dagenham Brook

Leyton Sign Ruckolt Road

Something magical happens when you pack your bag for a walk, even on a day like today when my enthusiasm is thin. In goes the notebook and 2 pens, a copy of Rachel Lichtenstein’s new book Estuary, OS map of the Lea Valley & Epping Forest, camera + mini magnetic tripod, a light jacket, and finally a cap I stuff down the side. All of this crammed into a messenger bag that was given away by the thousand at the London Film Festival 12 or 13 years ago.

I contemplate the journey ahead over coffee at Costa in Leyton Mills – the vast carpark here with its expansive Lea Valley skies is one of my favourite open spaces in London – it’s like the American Midwest of my imagination. The prospect of the relatively short walk along the Dagenham Brook increases in appeal as the caffeine kicks in. These minor urban excursions can easily snowball into epic quests. It’s the anticipation of the unknown buried within the familiar. Of becoming lost in a suburban swamp.

Dagenham Brook
I navigate my way across the grid system of the Asda car park and over to Orient Way, under the Leyton sign to find the point where the Dagenham Brook disappears underground before making its confluence with the River Lea. This is so close to where the Fillebrook momentarily appears above ground (in a reversal of fortunes) that I wonder if these two brooks merge before running into the Lea as a single watercourse.

A broken hole in the thick undergrowth gives me my first glimpse of the Dagenham Brook. I slide down the bank getting snagged in the brambles in the process and struggle to extract myself once I’ve logged my encounter with the river. Urban river hunting is not as easy as it seems.

Dagenham Brook
Fifty yards or so further along a recently surfaced new path hugs the river as it meanders through Marsh Lane Fields. I remember the Beating of the Bounds here on a wet May Sunday afternoon 10 years ago just after we’d moved to Leytonstone. It had been organized by the brilliant New Lammas Lands Defence Committee and was my real introduction into the culture of this section of the Lea Valley with the deep passionate attachment to the landscape. Marsh Lane has had a powerful hold on me ever since.

Dagenham Brook Leyton FC
The brook curves round behind the goal of the abandoned ground of Leyton F.C. – the weeds thick, nearly enclosing the watercourse. I call artist Lucy Harrison to see if she’ll give me a quick 5-minute interview about the Warner Homes that straddle Lea Bridge Road and have the Dagenham Brook running through the gardens. Lucy did an interesting project with the residents of the Warner Estate and I wish I knew more about them – now would be my chance.

Warner Estate Leyton
Lucy obligingly popped out into Blythe Road and told me about how the houses had been built around the beginning of the last century to provide quality affordable rentable homes and had gradually been sold off since the 1960’s. Although they have lost the tidy uniformity of their early years when Warner staff trimmed the hedges and painted the doors and window frames green and cream – they retain a distinctive architectural style with the arched double front doors and elaborate gables. You know when you’ve strolled into a Warner Estate.

Dagenham Brook p1010216
The Brook gently flows on into territory where I can’t follow it closely – behind cul-de-sacs, round the back of industrial estates and allotments. There are allotments all along the course of the river – even more so than along the Filly Brook. The occasionally waterlogged, spring-fed land unsuitable for building or industrial use, I guess good for growing crops fond of wet soil.

Pumphouse Museum Walthamstow
I eventually rendezvous with the Brook again near the end the W19 bus route where it winds around the edge of Low Hall Sports Ground. I pay homage with a nod, a photo and a few seconds of video before moving on back along the road unable again to walk along the riverbank. In truth physical encounters are a bonus with urban river walking for me, it’s more of a simple device to open up what might appear an unpromising landscape unenthusiastic about yielding its secrets. The brook sets the route and tells you its story, guides the way.

St James Park Walthamstow

The Dagenham Brook suggests I take a look at St James Park, one of those backstreet open spaces known mostly to the locals but a beautiful spot. There are only a handful of people in the park – a lady sitting on the ground appears to have positioned herself dead centre of a large empty section. An access road leads down the middle of a wonderful grand avenue of lime trees. The park occupies part of the site of the 14th Century Low Hall Manor which was purchased by Walthamstow Council in the late 19th Century.

Dagenham Brook Walthamstow p1010264

The brook slides behind park and under the railway bridge now running parallel with the broader River Lea Flood Relief Channel. I’ve seen discussion online suggesting that the Dagenham Brook is also a man-made watercourse, a drainage ditch. Old OS maps of the area show an elaborate tapestry and ditches and ponds adorning the landscape – nearly all now buried or filled in occasionally rising again to flood a basement or waterlog a garden.

Seb Lester mural walthamstow
Moving beneath the railway you are greeted by a sequence of murals on the end of terrace walls. On the corner of Chester Road a verse from Ewan MacColl’s timeless song written for Peggy Seeger is painted in elaborate filigree font
                           The first time ever I saw your face
                          I thought the sun rose in your eyes

Louis Masai walthamstow

On the other end of the block is a work by Louis Masai of a Fox, Badger and Bees – the bees carry a placard appealing to ‘Save Us!’, the badger sits behind a sign saying ‘No to the Cull’. Around the corner is a colourful abstract work by Italian street artist Renato Hunto.

Mural Walthamstow
Moving in to Coppermill Lane I can’t see any further trace of the Dagenham Brook as it appears to have merged with Flood Relief Channel. I stand on a concrete block and look north along the course of the Lea and bid my farewell to this understated, wonderful watercourse.

sunflower walthamstow

Over the Marshes to Harringay

It started as a mundane amble up to Baker’s Arms with the wife for a mooch about. She headed off to pick the kids up from school so I followed my nose down Boundary Road. I’m going to speculate that it was the Boundary between Walthamstow and Leyton but that’s just a wild stab in the dark.

The Dagenham Brook winds its way behind the houses to the River Lee. Further along its course at Marsh Lane Fields the council are lavishing large sums of money on a new bridge across its narrow banks. It’d better be a good bridge, the one that was there already did the job of getting you from one side to the other without getting your feet wet, so this new expensive bridge better come with its own troll, perhaps a kiosk in the middle, and free foot massages.

I took several photographs of the brook from different angles – transfixed by it, wanting document its existence and pay homage to this slither of wildness passing through our realm of bricks and mortar. Some blokes were testing out new car speakers nearby and I wondered how I could justify to them my fixation with what might look like a muddy ditch.
I fumbled around in my head for a bit past lists of chocolate bars and the Suarez 10-match ban and came to the conclusion that people go to great lengths to seek out historical monuments of the man-made world for their supposed links to the past but here was a tangible relic from a much more distant age, as old at least as a Wooly Mammoth, just sliding past the backs of terraced house gardens minding its own business.

I got drawn into the industrial estate off Lea Bridge Road and wandered around admiring the modernist industrial architecture – it’s like a miniature version of the splendour of the Great West Road.

One of the factories in Staffa Road was possibly where the Panjandrum was built. With the high-tech military research funds long gone the great brains of Leyton have turned their attention to constructing giant wooden shoes.

The bridge that took me over the railway tracks was thick with flies – I had a mouthful by the time I reached the other end. I must remember to keep my mouth shut and not have my tongue hanging out in those situations.
The horses mowing the grass of the Lea Valley Riding Centre on the other side were less than sympathetic and harassed me for sugar cubes and Polo mints – neither of which I had.

The once mighty River Lee tamed and subordinate. I’ve written a few thoughts about it in my forthcoming book so don’t want to blow that now – I can’t think of anything else to say for now – just that I prefer the tributaries, although I’ve only mentioned the Dagenham, Coppermill, and Filly Brook in my book.

After following the path round Porter’s Field I ended up in a section of Walthamstow Marshes navigating my way along tunnels cut through a deep growth of brambles. Around and around I went through this maze of thorns with no evident way out. In a clearing a man was laid in the sun reading a book – he just looked up and smirked. I was too embarrassed to ask directions.
By the time I reached Springfield Park with lacerated hands I was more than ready for afternoon tea on the lawns drinking in the view across the Lea Valley to the dark ridge of Epping Forest.

It’s impossible to pass through the area without noticing the spire of the Georgian Orthodox Church in Upper Clapton. Apparently this was previously home to the  ‪Agapemonite sect – what a great name, up there with the Muggletonians.
I couldn’t get a decent photo of the winged creatures looking out from the belfry – Wikipedia says they are a reference to Blake’s Jerusalem.

The Salisbury on Harringay Green Lanes seemed like a natural place to end up. We used to drink here when I lived in a student house up on the Harringay Ladder. One night the pub was closed so they could film a scene for the Chaplin biopic directed by Dickie Attenborough and starring Robert Downey Jr.
From memory Chaplin is stood at the bar and berated by a couple of locals about not supporting the war effort during WWI. He’d be safe in the Salisbury today – there was only me and a couple of old fellas.

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