Blowing out the cobwebs – Leyton Loop via Hackney Marsh and Whipps Cross

Coronation Gardens Leyton

Needed to stretch the legs for the first time post-Yuletide sloth and gluttony. A Yule Yomp if you like. Even so I didn’t emerge from the Christmas-lit tinsel-draped cave till 3pm, freezing cold and directionless. With visiting family still encamped I should resist the urge to keep walking West till the will left me, but could I?

Coronation Gardens is always a good place to wander and muse. The Lea Valley sunset starting to break through the bare trees. Looking at the lonely bandstand I remembered the first Leyton Food Market back in May that wraps itself around the bandstand on Saturdays. I could almost feel the Fille Brook (Philly Brook) gurgling beneath the footpath that runs down the northern edge.

Quadrant Leyton
The development imposed upon the old car lot that occupied the corner of Oliver Road and Ruckholt looks near to completion staring blankly at the row of cottages on the other side of Dunedin Road. Waltham Forest Council recently unveiled the Lea Valley Eastside Vision which identifies Leyton as “a key growth area” centred on three ‘Key Areas’ of: Leyton (Leyton Mills, Coronation Gardens, and New Spitalfields Market), Lea Bridge which includes a potentially troubling waterside development that could encroach upon Leyton Marshes, and Church Road which seems to mostly build on the work they have already done on Marsh Lane Fields. This ‘Vision’ needs proper scrutiny before a response can be given – but looking at this first phase on Ruckholt Road I do not feel overwhelmed with optimism. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

Hackney Marsh
They were few people out walking as I made my way over the patchwork of football pitches on Hackney Marshes. A dog teased me with its ball – running up with the ball held aloft and veering away as I reached down to play. Eventually it got bored of the game and scarpered off after its owner.

It was dark as I made my way along the Lea Navigation Towpath past Millfields and the small orchard we wassailed a few years ago with the Hackney Tree Musketeers. I stood on the Lea Bridge swivelling East and West trying to decide which way to go before being swayed by obligation and turning East the length of Lea Bridge Road up to Whipps Cross Roundabout.

Lea Bridge Road Leyton graffiti
There was little illumination along Whipps Cross Road aside from the trundling boxes of white light in the form of the frequent buses and flickering bicycle lights in the undergrowth around the Hollow Ponds. The Hitchcock Hotel presented itself at the right time – I rarely go there for a drink, although it was one of the first London pubs I ever visited, back in 1989. I exit, one pint down and half-time in the football I live in hope that I will see the Hitchcock fulfil its true potential as a really good pub.

Hitchcock Hotel Leytonstone
I reach home just after 6, the family have moved to the table engaged in a furious game of Monopoly that would make the Wolf of Wall Street retire to the sofa. I watch the rest of the footie and start to plan expeditions for the coming year.

Old & New Hackney and the triumph of Lyle Zimmerman

Riding the W15 west over the marshes to Hackney is like traveling on an old time stage coach. This was the forest road in and out of London. It still feels that way to me. Tonight I’m on my way to a screening of London Overground at The Institute of Light – a new cinema + restaurant in a railway arch just off London Fields. I’ll be introducing the film with Iain Sinclair and revisiting the year we spent walking the Overground circuit.

Wandering through New Hackney to the venue it surprises me how much of Old Hackney survives given all the hype. I lived on an estate here in the early 90’s. The BBC shot a documentary on the nearby Kingshold Estate during my first summer in Hackney – Summer on the Estate – I recognised many of the residents in the film from my rounds canvassing alone for the local Labour Party. There were only 7 of us who attended ward meetings and 2 of them were barely mobile so door-knocking was a solitary task.

Institute of Light Hackney

I only seem to pass through Hackney these days – or travel directly to a meeting or an event – I never really hang around there or dwell for long so my sense of the New Hackney comes mostly through popular chatter and reports from the flood of middle-class property seeking Hackney refugees who have poured into Leytonstone and Walthamstow.

The vibe around Morning Lane isn’t so different to what it was 20-odd years ago. The end of Well Street also strikes a familiar tone. Pemberton Place is timeless. The Hobson’s Choice is still a pub but under a different name. The main difference I can see is that now there appear to be some people around who have money, whereas back then everybody was skint. I consider going for a pint and stopping for a while to sample the ambience some more, but no, I don’t particularly want to go searching for that Hackney of the early 90’s and hop back on the W15 to Leytonstone instead.

I drop into the brilliant Whats Cookin ‘rockin country-fried music’ night in the Ex-Servicemen’s Club and catch the end of The Verklempt Family’s set. The lead singer is playing what looks like a curious bass mandolin, and it’s difficult not to become transfixed by it. Their set ends and is met with loud applause and a couple of people give them a standing ovation.

As I’m leaving a friend calls out from one of the outside tables to tell me that the lead singer, the fella playing the curious bass mandolin, was the person who was attacked with a knife in Leytonstone Tube Station last December in what was reported at the time as a ‘terrorist incident’. Lyle Zimmerman had his throat cut with a knife in the attack, his life being saved by a GP who happened to be passing through the station. I’d been outside the station underpass with my family stopped from walking into the scene by a police officer.

I remembered the description of the, at that time unnamed, victim as carrying an instrument – the curious bass mandolin. I don’t know if Lyle Zimmerman was on his way to play at What’s Cookin’ that evening, but on Wednesday night his performance was a real triumph of courage – and he really country rocks that bass mandolin.

A Walk in Victoria Park with Travis Elborough

It was the hottest day of the year (so far) when I joined author Travis Elborough for a stroll around the eastern half of Victoria Park in Hackney to talk about his book A Walk in the Park. The heat caused dogs to wallow in the Burdett-Coutts drinking fountain like furry urban hippos.

Travis is a wealth of information and the walk drew not just on the fascinating history of Victoria Park – London’s first purpose-built public park – but on the broader history of what Travis refers to as a “people’s institution”.

a walk in the park elborough

We visited the monkey puzzle tree which links back to Victorian plant hunting expeditions to South America, and the corner of the park once known as Botany Bay – apparently as it was the hideout of criminals. We dropped for a chat at the Bowling Club and baked in the English Garden and had to resist the temptation to jump into the Model Boating Lake.

Listening to Travis explain how modern parks had evolved from the fenced hunting enclosures of Norman barons to the public spaces of today – now under threat from government cuts – it seemed apt that our chat took place in the shadow of the large green fenced area of the park reserved for a series of musical festivals.

I can’t recommend this book strongly enough – a fascinating stroll through the cultural history of these beloved open spaces that we all too often take for granted.

New Era Estate residents give update & reflect on campaign with Russell Brand

25th March (which happened to be Good Friday) marked the first anniversary of the opening of the Trew Era Cafe so it seemed like a good time to meet up with some of the residents on the New Era Estate in Hoxton plus Russell Brand, to get an update on their situation.

There was so much widespread support for the campaign to save the New Era that I’m often asked how things are going now for the residents once the estate was bought by Dolphin Living. By all accounts everything is working out well with the new landlords and the spirit of the New Era Estate is as strong as ever.

There’s a great message for everybody from the residents in the video above – stick together and never give up.

 

Trew Era Cafe on the New Era Estate Hoxton

I hadn’t been back to the Trew Era Cafe since its opening back in March 2015 so I was keen to see how this inspiring project was progressing. The cafe was one of the outcomes of the successful campaign by residents of the New Era Estate in Hoxton to fend off developers. My old mate Russell Brand opened the Trew Era Cafe as a social enterprise with the aim of supporting people in abstinence based recovery. The aim was also to provide a community space for local people and to source as much produce as possible from the surrounding area.

Trew Era Cafe vegan food

The herbs used in the delicious range of vegan and vegetarian dishes are grown in pallet planters in the walled garden at the back. All the produce is organic. They plan to find allotment space to grow their own vegetables which will form part of the training programme.

Trew Era Cafe coffee

The coffee is roasted by Mission Coffee nearby in Clapton, who also provide barista training. The jams and granola are produced locally. Edit Hats beanies are on sale, for each purchase Edit donate a hat to the homeless. For every postcard bought from the selection hanging on the wall a tree is planted in Scotland and you can even go along and help with the planting. There are free Sunday morning meditation drop-ins and regular evening meetings.

Trew Era Cafe Hoxton

There’s a great friendly vibe around the place and the coffee is fantastic. The plan is to hopefully expand into an vacant unit next door to provide a more diverse range of training and support. Hopefully the Trew Era message will spread beyond Hoxton to the wider world. To badly paraphrase Billy Bragg – the revolution is just an organic soy milk cappuccino away.

Cycle dodging along the Lea from Hackney to Ponders End

River Lea at Hackney

River Lea at Hackney

I stood outside Sports Direct at Leyton Mills for too long contemplating buying a cheap bike to help me scoot up the Lea Valley out of London quicker than I’m able to do on foot. In the end the enormity of the move proved too much for me to take in – walking is so fundamental to my being that the idea of taking to  mechanized transport did my head in.

Springfield Park

Springfield Park

I regretted not taking the leap all the way past the Olympic Park and across Hackney Marshes looking enviously at every bike that I saw scooting along – on one of those machines I’d be half-way to Waltham Abbey by now, I thought.

Ten minutes of being continuously buzzed by cyclists on the towpath at Hackney made me realize that’s no way to drink in the world, it’s too fast. My focus would be taken up by trying to balance on the bike whilst slaloming lumbering pedestrians and double prams rather than the multicoloured reflections on the water.

IMG_6255

I decided to stick to the Hackney side rather than my usual path over the marshes. The pylons appeared across the water like an old friend.

Tottenham Marshes

Tottenham Marshes

Tottenham Marshes

Tottenham Marshes

A flying V of geese passed overhead at Tottenham Marshes. The path cleared of people with only a trickle of cyclists. This last burst of daylight along the riverbank as you approach the city limits is priceless.

Ponders End

Ponders End

A fox runs across water at Ponders End – scooting over the top of the thick weeds on a culverted channel like a pond skater. The magic of the River Lea.

In the fading light I thought the Harvester at Ponders End would allude me once more – I’m usually still pushing north but fatigue and hunger made the pub sign shimmer like a desert oasis. Doubling back down a dark dusty lane past horse fields I found it in time to slurp a pint on the river bank as the sun went down.