Some of my favourite footpaths

Parkland Walk Haringey

Parkland Walk, Harringay

Benfleet, Essex

Benfleet, Essex

Kensington Church Walk

Kensington Church Walk

Holyfield Marsh

Lea Valley Walk, Cheshunt

John Rogers Gants Hill station

Gants Hill Station

Epping Long Green

Epping Long Green

The Ridgeway near Chinnor

The Ridgeway near Chinnor, Bucks

River Stort Navigation

River Stort Navigation

footpath to Barn Hill Sewardstone

footpath to Barn Hill Sewardstone

Barn Hill, Sewardstone

Woolwich Foot Tunnel

Woolwich Foot Tunnel

Woolwich Foot Tunnel

Pitstone Hill Ridgeway

Ridgeway at Pitstone Hill, Bucks

Wanstead Flats Leytonstone winter frost

Wanstead Flats, Leytonstone

Epping Walk

Epping Forest

Argyle Walk

Argyle Walk

Argyle Walk, WC1

Epping Footpath

Epping in the direction of Harlow

Hainault Forest

Hainault Forest

Stepney Green

Stepney Green

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Rendlesham Forest UFO Trail, Suffolk

Harringay Passage

Harringay Passage

Greenway Hackney

The Greenway, Hackney

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River Lea Navigation

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Southwold, Suffolk – footpath on the disused railway line

wooburn field 1-lores

Wooburn Green, Bucks

Havering-atte-Bower

Havering-atte-Bower

Shooters Hill

Shooter’s Hill

Theydon Bois

Theydon Bois

Aldeburgh Beach

Aldeburgh, Suffolk

Hughenden

Hughenden, Bucks

Interview with Gareth E. Rees author of The Stone Tide – adventures at the end of the world

The Stone Tide – adventures at the end of the world is the new book by Gareth E. Rees, author of Marshland: Dreams and Nightmares on the Edge of London, both published by Influx Press. The Stone Tide finds Gareth adrift on the coast at Hastings in a dilapidated dwelling stalking the occult secrets of this uncanny stretch of shoreline. Below is an email exchange where Gareth tells me more about the book.

Stone Tide - Rees

[JR] Hi Gareth – last I heard you were yomping over Hackney Marshes with your dog. How did you go from Hackney to Hackney-on-Sea?

[GR] Hi John – thanks for this!

Firstly, I’d fervently dispute the ‘Hackney-on-Sea’ tag – it’s not something I recognise or accept as a description of this deeply idiosyncratic town. If ‘Hackney-on-sea’ is synonymous with ‘Shoreditchification’ – eg a term to describe any place in which low property prices have attracted an artistic community, with some attendant regeneration, then as a blanket term for that particularly economic and social phenomenon, it could apply, I suppose. But that would then also apply to Margate, Folkestone, parts of Manchester and other regenerating areas of the UK.  However it is a highly reductive description…. Hastings is totally different to Hackney in so many ways – the music, the pubs, the pace, the attitude, the topography, the folklore, the history. You don’t get frenzied surf guitar gigs for free on Sunday afternoons in Hackney, you don’t get mass scooter gatherings in Hackney, there’s no Jack in the Green festival in Hackney, no Mardis Gras parade, no October bonfire night to commemorate the burning of Protestants, no Pirate Day, no Morris Dance-offs at dawn. I see a lot of these “Hackney-on-Sea” Guardian-type articles about Hastings and they all seem copied from each other – they’re clearly not written by people who have spent any time here. They’re lazy snapshot churnalism and they’re quite offensive to the people who’ve spent many years, or their whole lives here.

There are people I know here who used to live in Hackney, of course, but also many other parts of London, and a large part of the Influx is from Brighton, Bexhill and other parts of Kent. When you’re in a pub or at an event here, there’s a mix of locals, tourists and newcomers that you don’t get when you got to gigs and pubs in Hackney. There are no City types here. Very few people live here and commute to London every day, it’s too far and the train is too slow.

The reason I’m here? Extreme financial events forced me and my wife to make a big decision in 2013 and move away from London. This move would allow me to write more books like Marshland (Influx Press), which was just about to be published at the time, and my eldest was just about to start primary school so it seemed the right thing to do. My wife wanted to get into interior design, and it was the existence of a small community of designers and artists in St Leonards that flagged this place up for her. I just went along with it. I was traumatised by having to leave London, which had been my home for 15 years, the longest I’ve lived anywhere in my life, and a place I considered home. My only stipulation was that if I was to leave the open space of the marshes, I wanted to live by another open space, and you can’t get more open than the sea. So yes, with very low house prices at the time, Hastings was where we headed. It took my a while to get over London, but I quickly fell in love with Hastings, and not for any of the reasons I loved London. It’s a very different beast.

Gareth E Rees photo by Kelly Wilkinson

Gareth E. Rees – photo by Kelly Wilkinson

[JR] I take note of your objection to the ‘Hackney-on-Sea’ tag, my sister lives in Ramsgate and I think somebody has already dubbed it ‘Dalston-on-Sea’ for similar reasons. Funnily enough it was Iain Sinclair I heard refer to Hastings as ‘Hackney-on-Sea’, I believe he lives and writes some of the time in St. Leonards whilst also still living in Hackney (‘That Rose Red Empire’). Andrew Kötting has lived in St.Leonards for a number of years, and isn’t Michael Smith there too – seems to be a cluster of topographically-inclined writers-filmmakers there. How does the place feed into that sensibility?

Can you also tell me more about Stone Tide and how it differs from Marshland?

[GR] I didn’t realise Iain Sinclair said that. I suspect he was being provocative. Sinclair has an apartment in Marine Court, a huge 1930s seafront building modelled on the The Queen Mary ocean liner. Kotting is here too and Michael Smith, who also runs a wine shop with his girlfriend Jess, the basement of which plays host to regular nights of experimental film, electronic music and storytelling, known as Weird Shit.
I tried out a great deal of The Stone Tide at those gigs, using the small audience as a kind of sounding board. This is partly why the book has such a conversational style, and why there’s so much comedy in there. Performing parts of the first draft live stopped me from getting too indulgent or gloomy, and remembering the reader and their desire to be entertained.
Hastings encourages artistic endeavours because it’s so small, you can quickly connect with other artists, plus there’s a culture of regular free gigs in pubs, basements and indie cinemas that allows us to easily perform, share our work and collaborate with each other.
Whether the topographically-inclined have a particular attraction to Hastings & St Leonards, I don’t know. But for me, the place is a dream for landscape writing – you’ve a multiplicity of topographies, from the shingle shore to the high sandstone cliffs and rolling downs. Within a quick train ride or drive there’s Pevensey Levels, Romney Marshes, the drowned forest of Pett Level and the English desert that is Dungeness. Tucked inside the town of Hastings there are many delights – hermits’ caves, masonic graves, ruined mock roman baths, waterfalls and stone pyramids. A treasure trove really.
The Stone Tide is a sequel, of sorts, to Marshland. I’m still the narrator, Hendrix (the cocker spaniel) remains my sidekick, and the beginning of the book deliberately refers back to my experiences walking the marshes every lunchtime for five years. Upon moving to Hastings, I kept up the habit, taking long digressional walks, soaking up the sights and sounds, seeking out local stories.
Where it differs to Marshland – aside from the location – is that this is not really a psychogeography of Hastings. It was supposed be when I started, but I began to stir up dark forces, both in the locale and in my own past, and the journey went inwards and backwards and to some very dark places, including at one point my own rectum.
The book weaves together the stories of Aliester Crowley, John Logie Baird, Teilhard de Chardin and Charles Dawson (the Piltdown Man hoaxer) – all who lived in Hastings at some point – and also the story of my friend Mike, who died in tragic circumstances in 1996 when we lived in St Andrews in Scotland. At the centre of this narrative whirl is an increasingly unstable and unreliable narrator – me – tormented by guilt and grief, struggling to tell the difference between truth and lies, imagination and history.
Whereas the big threat in Marshland was the city of London itself, its seemingly unstoppable expansion, swallowing up every wild space, the developers moving in at any opportunity… the threat in The Stone Tide is the sea, an agent of climate change, unleashing brutal storm tides, crumbling the fragile cliffs and threatening the nuclear power station at Dungeness. The imminent end of the world haunts the book.

[JR] Gareth this is sensational – I was going to ask more questions but I think we have our ending there.

Readers can go to The Stone Tide to order the book, read the reviews, get the latest news, and find out more about Marshland. It’s also on Amazon or in selected London bookshops. Hastings residents should try Borough Wines, Printed Matter or Hare and Hawthorn.

Ancient England: Journey to the Neolithic at Maiden Bower

This expedition out to Maiden Bower marked the final installment in a trilogy of film collaborations with Dave Binns and Gary Lammin – and what an incredible journey it’s been. We started in Spring 2015 with a visit to an Iron Age burial mound near Ware in Hertfordshire overlooking the Lea Valley. This was followed the next Spring by an incursion into the Bartlow Hills on the Essex/Cambridgeshire border to the enormous burial mounds Dave dubbed the ‘pyramids of Essex’. Maiden Bower marked something slightly different, not a burial site although with a surface layer of Iron Age occupation overlaying a much earlier Neolithic causedway enclosure.

Maiden Bower Houghton Regis photo

Southern England: An Archaeological Guide (1973), James Dyer

“A number of disconnected ditch sections containing broken human and animal bones were found during chalk quarrying in the last century, and both neolithic and Iron Age ditch sections are still visible in the quarry face. Neolithic pottery and an antler comb have been obtained from the site.”

Southern England: An Archaeological Guide (1973), James Dyer

As we made our way across the field of waist-high wheat Gary lugged his heavy stainless steel guitar. He stopped on the gravel track plonked the case down and cracked out his axe. This was a place to play slide blues guitar he said, and proceeded to knock out a glorious riff to the hedgerow seed pods flickering in the breeze.

Gary Lammin guitar

Dave soon started to prepare the ground. The recurring theme of site re-use across the ages spanning thousands of years – and how this site, like the other 2 in the series represented the emergence of new hierarchies that slowly eased out the old primitive communism of hunter-gather societies. Except here with the causewayed enclosure we were delving much deeper into the past than on previous field trips.

Maiden Bower Houghton Regis

Maiden Bower

“This roughly circular earthwork encloses about 11 acres. There is an original entrance on the SE, the gap on the N not yet having proved to be original…. Occupation probably began in the 5th-4th centuries BC and lasted until the arrival of the Romans.”

– Guide to Prehistoric ENGLAND (1976), Nicholas Thomas

Maiden Bower occupies an imposing position on a plateau at the top of Dunstable Downs with expansive views stretching out from the sheer drop down into the chalk quarry. The circular enclosure is maintained by trees and shrubs, the camp interior populated by grasses, wild flowers and butterflies. Gary played again, Dave held forth on how modern society arose from sites such as this. We sat in the grass, Gary slept, and we somehow lost time at Maiden Bower, a magical place.

View from Maiden Bower Dunstable Downs

Sat amongst the tall grass with the sun bronzing our heads, Dave started talking about how recent discoveries at Gobekli Tepe have changed our view of the neolithic transition and how this could lead to a further video. Maybe we could link it with nearby Waulud’s Bank, the ‘henge monument’ embracing the source of the River Lea, he suggested.

‘I’m up for it’, I said drowsily, keen to further explore this area rich in prehistoric sites. ‘But it messes up the trilogy’, I add.

‘Maybe it’s the start of a new series’, Dave posits.

Morris Dancing by the sea at Broadstairs Folk Week

Morris Dancing Broadstairs

To Broadstairs for its famous Folk Week. The sense of anticipation built as we walked around the headland from Ramsgate – except amongst my kids who just wanted to go home after swimming in the sea.

Morris Dancing Broadstairs

The Morris Dancers turned the cliff top amphitheatre of the bandstand into Strictly Folk Dancing as each side took to the concrete floor led on by an announcer who seemed overly keen on the sound of his voice through the PA – with the introduction to one side lasting longer than their actual dance.

 

The central streets of Broadstairs were closed to traffic and Hooden Horses wandered the cute thoroughfares alongside banjo slingers tucking into Ice Creams from Morelli’s Gelateria.

Morris Dancing Broadstairs 2016

Morris Dancing Broadstairs

I was sucked into a second-hand bookshop and was about to leave empty handed when I discovered the natural history shelf at floor level and bagged a 1907 edition of Richard Jefferies’ Field and Hedgerow for £2.

From the crumbling coastline to the Suffolk death road

southwold footpath

On a whim I decided to make for the headland that juts out from the shoreline north of Southwold pier. A simple 30 minute walk along the beach I thought – and perhaps it would have a been a straightforward 90 min stroll along the beach if the tide were out – but it was high tide and the waves were happy slapping the sea wall.

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The only way to continue the walk was inland along a green tunnel footpath hoping that it would turn across the adjacent farmland. But in fact it mislead me to the busy main road at Roydon. I was loathe to quit despite heading half-a-mile in the wrong direction.

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I found a dusty farm track where the sea shimmered over the swaying ears of golden corn dotted with poppies. The end of the track was barred – Danger No Entry – Cliff Eroding.

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I passed beside the end house into a field then skirted the edge past a digger dumped in the corner and along the top of the crumbling coastline which gently sloped down to the beach at one end. This was now far away from the holiday vibe and the 6-figure brightly painted beach huts. This beach was deserted, otherworldly, apocalyptic. Danger signs abounded. The trees in the wood that gave Southwold its name tip-toed on the precipice of the cliff root toes dangling over the edge waiting to swan dive into the sea in the next storm.

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Finally I sighted people, and a church spire in the distance – that must mean food and drink and perhaps even a pub. A footpath ran from the sand dunes direct to the romantic ruins of St. Andrews Covehithe. The first vicar was appointed here in 1459 but two hundred years later they realized the church was too big for such a small parish and tore sections down to build the smaller church within its precincts where I now sat and considered my options. There was no food or drink in the village and my solitary bottle of water had expired a while ago. I’d have to walk along the road the 5 miles back to Southwold in the hope of finding sustenance on the way.

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It was a mile along the country lane to the Lowestoft Road. Soon the grass verge pavement dissolved into steep hedgerows as the busy road narrowed. What now?

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I clambered through hedge and over ditch into farmland to skirt the fields that hugged the road but was quickly forced away back through trees onto the Death Road. Across the road I found a beguiling lost byway that provided sanctuary for a while along its zigzag route. The map on my iPhone was blank, I was in a land beyond the omnipresent reach of Gods Apple and Google – did the place in fact exist then?

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A field of freshly harvested corn stalks slashed at my shins – the hacked off stems poking from the cracked earth like broken scimitars. Another hedge scramble to escape left nettle stings and bramble thorns the length of my sorry legs – feet and ankles like pin cushions.

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A second church spire brought salvation for a while – saved by the delightful old ladies of the South Cove Flower Show and the cream tea they served up beneath the thatched roof of the church. I feasted on scones and clotted cream followed by a slab of Victoria Sponge (they only served scones and cake – no sandwiches – what could I do?).

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Refueled I headed back for more near death experiences walking along the Lowestoft Road. Deciding I’d rather incur the wrath of a farmer than get splattered on the road I again found a breach in the 10-foot hedge and scuttled through into a rough field of weeds.

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I pursued the field boundary in the direction of the sea and soon spied an actual marked footpath into a nature reserve. Over a small wooden bridge and the path disappeared almost instantly among head-high reeds and grasses. I ploughed on regardless until I felt the water rising up to my ankles from the bed of the marsh. I retreated and fell into a 40-minute vortex of looped and blocked paths. When I eventually came onto the other side of the Nature Reserve I saw the orange barrier declaring the path I’d entered on the far side Closed.

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I was almost a broken man and started to wonder if I would ever make it back to Southwold and see my family again. Another car hooned past my shoulder. All I’d seen were DANGER – KEEP OUT signs and automobiles intent on murder. It felt like Suffolk was telling me to Fuck Off.

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I negotiated one more field boundary that led to a farm house and had a final hedge scramble that filled in any unmarked areas of my shins with cuts and nettle stings. Finally I hit solid, firm pavement at Roydon with blood-streaked shins scarlet and humming with stings. It was a great unplanned walk in inadequate footwear with no map – an excursion which nearly killed me. Can’t wait for the next one.