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.

Punk history of Epping Forest

A relatively simple act of collecting a punk rock record opened up an odyssey into a secret history of Epping Forest.

Gary of the Bermondsey Joyriders had a copy of their Noise and Revolution LP to give me on vinyl. It features the voice of legendary Beat poet and manager of the MC5, John Sinclair, narrating links between songs, giving an additional voice to the album’s theme of the destruction being wrought on the urban realm by rapacious property development.

I arranged to meet Gary at Loughton Station to do the hand-over, exchanging the 12inch vinyl for a dvd copy of the Joyriders gig on the rooftop of the old Foyles building I filmed for Drift Report. The theme of the gig – Save London (from destructive development) perfectly in sync with the Noise and Revolution record.

Ant Farm Studios

Gary Lammin at Ant Farm Studios

Instead of wandering along to a chain coffee shop on Loughton High Street Gary drove me to a café on the banks of the fishing pond at South End Farm in Epping Forest – chosen for more than its great bacon rolls and picturesque location. It was in one of the old farm buildings in the carpark that the legendary Detroit beat poet revolutionary John Sinclair recorded his narration for the album, that deep smokey drawl dropped into the mic in this nondescript corner of the London fringe.

Waltham Abbey Zodiac
From there Gary wanted to show me the curiously pagan Zodiac mosaics on the roof of Waltham Abbey. In the crypt I bought a map of the area as it was when built in the 11th Century.

Driving back through the forest to Buckhurst Hill Station Gary entertained me with more punk history of the area – of Malcolm Maclaren coming out to meet the Joyriders for a drink in Manor Park circa 1975.

The Noise and Revolution album (featuring John Sinclair) has opened up a whole new seam of Forest lore.

Leytonstone’s Lost Lido

In this meditation on the Hollow Ponds there are two mysteries left unresolved. Firstly the sign on the boathouse that reads, “Have You Seen the Hollow Pond Bear”. I assumed at the time that it was a reference to the area’s long heritage as a gay cruising spot but on reflection wonder if it might actually refer to a Grizzly. Over at the Welsh Harp Reservoir between Barnet and Brent an actual bear escaped from a menagerie there in 1871. So there is precedent for this kind of thing.

Whipps Cross Lido

Opening of Whipps Cross Lido in 1932 From the Waltham Forest Guardian – credit Vestry House Museum

Absent from the video is the Whipps Cross Lido created in 1905 and returned to the forest in 1983. Wikipedia mentions that it was known locally as “the Batho”. I had half a mind to find the footprint of the site but had spent so long filming the geese in slow-motion that I’d used up my time – the sojourn was over. But somewhere beneath the grass north of the Hollow Pond between Lea Bridge and Snaresbrook Roads there lurks the lost lagoon of Leytonstone.

 

Here’s an interesting article about the creation of the Hollow Ponds from the local paper

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

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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.

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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’.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Epping Forest: Warren Hill to Strawberry Hill Ponds

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Two hours before sunset on a Sunday – perfect time to head out on a walk. But I was soon cursing getting lost in the suburban swamp around Buckhurst Hill station (as delightful as it is I was keen to get into the forest) until I came across this majestic house. From my idiot’s knowledge, to me, it symbolises the dream of interwar suburbia – a Hobbit shire in the London commuter belt.

I found the Forest path in what my OS map labelled Powell’s Forest. The birds were warming up for the evening roosting burst of song. These paths led down smoothly undulating slopes then up and over Warren Hill.

The trees hail the luminous sunset as it breaks across the Lea Valley. I’ve been glancing at the Transactions of the Epping Forest Field Club, published in Buckhurst Hill in 1881 and imagine them walking this way in stout boots and thick wooly socks full of the zealous cheer of their mission to, “the study and investigation of the Natural History, Geology, and Archaeology” of the Forest.

I‘m always lost in Epping Forest even with an OS map and sticking close to the paths. It’s one of the reasons I love walking there some much and find it so restorative. There on our doorstep a wilderness, where the ancient order prevails …. until you hit one of the forest roads and nearly get mown down by an aggressively driven 4×4. But even then once you’ve breached the road, a few yards back into the woods and the spirit of Pan reclaims your soul. I wonder if the forest spirits have the same effect on the drivers of those beasts when they pull up and head out for a stroll. Maybe it explains why there is so much ‘dogging’ in the car parks of a night time.

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I turned back from the road that runs past Connaught Water with the sun descending behind the still bare trees. The path took me up to Strawberry Hill Ponds, a place so still and calm that I waited to see if the Lady of The Lake would emerge hoisting Excalibur aloft, although at this stage I would have asked her if she could procure me a pint and a packet of cheese and onion crisps instead.

Fieldpath walk from Theydon Bois to Epping

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The other weekend I needed to head into the forest in these glorious last days of summer.

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I’d walked from Theydon Bois to Epping via Amesbury Banks through the forest earlier in the year but the sight of the fields as the tube pulled into Theydon Bois station were too tempting to resist.

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We walked over cracked earth towards the distant uplands.

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We picnicked at the crest of the hill in this field facing the early evening sun – the rustic delights of the countryside so close to the rumbling tarmac of East London

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As much as I love wandering the city streets there is a sense of freedom and abandonment that only comes from walking over open fields.

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Through the long tunnel beneath the M25.

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The path on the other side of the M25 broke off in various directions – this Hollow Way looked as though no-one had passed beneath its boughs for a while

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Epping rises of the far slopes

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A last taste of freedom before heading up the steep hill to Epping tube station