Out to the sea. As the long Easter weekend fades behind us mentally today I’ll retread my steps of a month ago as I walked along the Thames Estuary from Benfleet, through Leigh-on-Sea (surely that should be ‘Leigh-on-Estuary’), Chalkwell, Westcliff, Southend and finishing at Thorpe Bay.
The cold biting down on the winter dark towpath out of Waltham Abbey to Cheshunt, turned out to be the perfect ending to this walk back at the end of November. It seemed a folly to eschew the cafe warmth of Sun Street to head out along the road to Waltham Cross as the sun was setting at 4.15pm. A mile-and-a-half up the Lea Navigation to Cheshunt seemed reasonable, and I needed a little more to tag onto the schlepp from Theydon Bois. A fella slugged beer from a green bottle on the deck of his barge. A single white bike headlamp zig-zagged in the distance til it fizzed past me. An illuminated barge looked impossibly cosy, like a floating Hobbit Hole. The red lights flashed at the Cheshunt level crossing where I started my Ermine Street walk in the snow in February. I like this stretch of the towpath and was a little sad to give it up – but it was time to go home.
The aim had been to cover a small pocket of Epping Forest I’d somehow bypassed on previous Forest wanders – north-west of Theydon Bois, beyond Amesbury Banks – around Crown Hill and Warren Wood. Crossing Epping Road I discovered that the asphalt path I was walking along followed the course of a raised Neolithic trackway that ran across boggy ground that had recently been carbon dated.
I picked up a narrow overgrown path beside Crown Hill Farm, crossed the M25 and waded through deep muddy ruts along the edge of Potkiln Wood towards the outskirts of Waltham Abbey. Open countryside gave way to scrubby fields abutting 80’s housing estates navigated via reluctant footpaths. Mangy horses chewed grass down to the roots. The sun set perfectly over the Abbey, casting it ablaze in a heavenly endorsement of the 11th Century vision that led to the establishment of the Abbey by Tovi the Proud. Popping inside the Abbey just before closing, a CD of choral music and a 2018 Diary were pressed into my hands by a member of staff for the exchange of a few pence. And then it was out to that dark winter towpath.
Such is my desire to tramp every square of my Ordnance Survey map 174 ‘Epping Forest & Lea Valley ‘ that I try to avoid repeating walks too often. Of course that goes out of the window when my youngest son joins me on our favourite routes through the Forest to arrive at the Royal Forest Brewers Fayre at the Hunting Lodge, Chingford. But, for my series of Walking Vlogs I try to break new ground where possible. The justification for following this route (in the video above) was that, although I’d walked it before with my son 3 years ago, it had largely been undocumented.
This was not intended as a long walk, as I set out across the rough field the other side of the tracks from Theydon Bois tube station. I was merely intending to follow the tracks of that previous walk, picking up the trail across that curious teasle infested field the other side of a babbling brook where someone had pitched a tent among the tall spikey stems. I had to navigate through great pools of recent November rain discovering along the way that my boots were no longer waterproof.
I had some difficulty locating the spot on the high ground by the field edge where we’d had our picnic that September afternoon but after some tooing and froing was glad to find the place – although there’d be no sitting to take in the view on a wet and windy November day.
The track on the other side of the M25 was a glorious tunnel of autumnal colours and it encouraged me to push on in a different direction rather than cutting across the farmland to the outskirts of Epping by the Station. The path led around the perimeter of Epping Golf Course where the Sunday golfers were glad to give directions, curious to have a rambler in their midst. Then I walked along a field edge down to the brilliant named Fiddlers Hamlet.
The light was starting to fade but with the half-hour or so remaining I followed a section of the Essex Way out from Epping to Coopersale and Gernon Bushes. The way back in the last of the day led me over the disused section of the Central Line between Epping and Ongar, now operated some weekends and during holidays by the brilliant Epping to Ongar Railway.
It was dark by the time I sloped up Epping High Street and bagged a pork pie from the butchers. Early Christmas lights twinkled and late shoppers huddled in the cafes. I found a table near the back of Cafe Nero and plotted future walks.
11am at the tube station bound for the end of the Central line at Epping where fieldpaths branch off from the transport network. Epping is like a frontier post on the border between London and the ancient tribal territories of Essex. The fields appear above rooftops. It’s a release, a necessary abandonment of the day-to-day, of the troubled city, its beehive activity.
It’s a sultry Saturday, I’m running a slight temperature. Fat sagging clouds hang oppressively low over the skyline.
Along beside a deepditch by the field edge with a trickling brook. The sound of rushing water beneath the iron Thames Water manhole cover , a slight whiff of sewage, a mechanical intrusion pulling you back to the toilets of West Essex, the sewage farm out here somewhere tucked away behind a thick barrier of weeds. Stems of borage sway in the autumn zephyr. An electricity substation hums beside a double hedge where muddy planks ferry you over the brook. Not a soul around. Solitude. ‘Solitary, slow and wayward’ will be my credo for the day.
Crossing Cobbins Brook I try to remember the story of Boudicca in these hills and the link to this modest watercourse. Did she wash the blood from her hands in its waters, or was it here that the warrior queen bled out?
I rest on a hilltop overlooking Orange Wood. The south-westerly gathers pace shunting the clouds reluctantly across the sky. You have to stop and admire the spectacle taking place above your head. Then the wind drops and the clouds slow to a resting stop.
Approaching Epping Green a deer skips across a patch of rough ground ahead of me. A posse of ramblers appear too close behind on Epping Long Green, and I feel as if I’m being pursued by a hungry pack. I skip over the deep muddy track that skirts copy wood sensing they will get bogged down on the ankle-deep ruts and it seems to work. I don’t see them again. In fact the only other person I see on the way down to Roydon is a fellow walker eating a sandwich on a bench in Nazeing Churchyard.
The light is dimming as I drop down the field edge to the beginnings of the River Stort Navigation and the point where I first considered this walk back in April when I was walking the towpath to Bishops Stortford.
The rain progresses from drizzle to pitter-patter as I move along the Lea to Rye House station and the journey’s end.
I found myself in Becontree with time to spare so decided to wander up in the direction of the large open space at Becontree Heath with the intention of taking in the majesty of Dagenham Civic Centre. This art deco beauty was designed by E. Barry Webber who was also the architect of Hammersmith Town Hall. It opened in 1937. Now 80 years later it is about to begin new life as the London campus of Coventry University.
Just around the corner I was surprised to find this Coal Tax Post half-buried beside the road on Wood Lane in front of a block of flats. These posts, erected in the 1860’s around the perimeter of Greater London, marked the point at which the tax on coal was payable to the Corporation of London. They’re positioned roughly 20 miles from the General Post Office in Central London. I’ve previously passed them in Wormley in Hertfordshire.
What made this find all the more gratifying was its position next to a bridge bearing the Essex County Council coat of arms and dated ‘1921’. It apparently lies over a culverted stream.
Today the spot marks the boundary between the London Boroughs of Barking & Dagenham and Havering. These traces of the past are littered all around us, lying beside the road next to an abandoned shopping trolley, embedded on a bridge across a long-buried stream. Our civic heritage refuses to drift away and be ignored.
It is my ambition to explore every inch of the Ordnance Survey Explorer 174 Map of Epping Forest & Lee Valley – Hertford & Harlow. That may not sound particularly ambitious but as I often end up following familiar tracks through Epping Forest or along the valley floor it seems to become ever more elusive.
So at the weekend I set off to fill in one small section – from Debden Station, over the M11 and around Theydon Mead to the village of Abridge, and from there over fields, across Gravel Lane and on to Grange Hill Station on the Central Line Loop. It was a walk that also linked the two eastern branches of the Central Line.
A large part of the walk is covered in Pathfinder’s Rambles in Essex published by British Railways in 1950, something I only discovered when I recognised a field near Chigwell and remembered I’d been there when recording an episode of Ventures and Adventures in Topography for Resonance fm. The route we followed was described in Pathfinder’s earlier publication Afoot Round London.
It was uplifting to finally welcome Spring, arms t-shirt bare for the first time outside in months and months. I’d set out this way with my son just a few weeks ago under heavy skies and plodding through mud ankle-deep. Instead of crossing the M11, we worked our way around the Debden Estate and up the hill to Theydon Bois, filling in a few more grids of the map.
Heading down over sunset fields into Grange Hill with woodsmoke tightly hugging the ground it almost felt as if I’d ventured far out of London rather than simply traversed farmland spanning the space between tube stations. A phalanx of oak trees crest a ridge guiding the way to the cemetery path and out onto road as the daylight receded. I can tell already that it’s going to be a great summer of walking.
Severe delays on the Central means there’s a 10-minute wait for the tube to Epping. It’s 2.55pm and with the evenings starting to shorten from their glorious midsummer peak – end of August and it gets dark just after 8 so every minute is precious when trying to push on out of London. Today’s walk is inspired by a 1940’s ramble book – More Walks with Fieldfare of the London Evening News – Through the Fields to Harlow. “Here is a short, but very lovely walk in open countryside beyond Epping”, Fieldfare writes. Cross-referencing Fieldfare’s route with the Ordnance Survey Map, the M11 and North Basset Aerodrome blight his “paths (that) are seldom trodden”. The choice is to attempt to follow his 1940’s directions contrasting the scene then and now – or work out an alternative route across the fields to Harlow that captures the spirit of the original walk.
I’m distracted by the fact that I’ve just realised I have toothpaste in my hair, and then by the discovery that I’ve left my notebook at home and start tapping thoughts into my phone; “Men are like dogs – we need to piss against a tree”, which I think was a justification for abandoning the family for the large part of the day to head off across fields and through woods alone.
Sat by the war memorial in Epping I plot a path to Harlow that crosses fields, skirts farms and passes through woods, satisfied that if Fieldfare were writing his book today this is the route he would take (perhaps).
Once I’ve located the first footpath opposite Wintry Wood Smallholding, jumping the stile you land in open countryside with a Richard Long line lighting the way across fields. A hawk circles a recently combined plot. Oak trees shade the field edge. Bees dance around the borage. On a late summer’s day there’s no finer place to be than in a field somewhere on the edge of London.
There are various options for the way forward at Thornwood Common and while gazing into the OS map a man walking his dog offers to show me the path. Along a gravel drive we come to a milestone on the grass verge under a tree. He tells me that this track was the old London Road that wound through fields from Essex. The milestone, he says, may not be in its original place as the forest signposts and milestones were moved during the war and not all of them were returned to the correct locations. He points to where the footpath continues over a small bridge through the hedge and heads off back on his walk.
The next path leads across fields of swaying golden crops and past a mountain of hay bales. I rest on the edge of a wood and look out at the vast eastern skies towards greater Essex. This would be the perfect setting for an English Western movie – an 18th Century tale of outlaws and farm-steaders.
The wind gathers and shakes the trees – dark clouds lumber across the sky – rain is on the way. The unharvested corn stalks rattle against each other. Andrew Kötting as the Straw Bear shimmers in the minds eye. He walked garbed as this folkloric character from Whittlesea – from High Beach to Northamptonshire for his film, By Our Selves, based on Iain Sinclair’s book, Edge of the Orison. He reprised the role for my film London Overground stalking the Old Kent Road and Brompton Cemetery.
A water tower I’d spotted in the distance at the start of the walk is now in range and I fix on that was my waymarker. A strong stink of death comes from a deep ditch around a small wood on the perimeter of Rye Hill Common; there are scattered feathers of a recent fox kill in the stubble on the field edge. It’s marked on the OS map as a moat – although details are scant, only that there were once two houses within the moat. Most of Rye Hill Common was enclosed after the Second World War, and now developers hover producing plans for an extension of the Harlow suburbs further across fields.
With the light fading it’s that time to look for a pub or the station in no particular order. This is the walk after the walk – the plod, hopefully short. It’s been an idyllic fieldpath ramble that I’m sure would not have given Fieldfare future shock if he had somehow slipped through time to 2016. The next part would have killed him. I cannot think of a greater contrast of landscapes.
It started to rain and quickly got dark. My phone plotted out the 3.5-mile route across Harlow to the station. Every bus stop was vandalised. Mini-roundabouts were laid out in intricate patterns like an asphalt crop circle. Wikipedia says that Harlow has an impressive collection of public art and civic sculpture. The only built object of note I saw on my sodden schlep was a gigantic strip-lit multi-storey carpark. An interstellar star cruiser landed in the town centre. An hour and twenty minutes after exiting the fields in late summer euphoria Harlow Station appears through the sideways rain. The £13 train fare back to London the final kick in the shins.