Walking the River Stort Navigation

I’d previously noticed the River Stort Navigation on the OS map snaking around the northern fringe of Harlow. Comments on my YouTube videos had suggested sections that I would enjoy walking. So one day in the Easter holiday I set off on the Lea Bridge Line (celebrating its first anniversary since re-opening) to Broxbourne to see whether I could make it all the way to Bishop’s Stortford.

Rivers Stort Navigation

The Stort Navigation runs from Feildes Weir, just to the south of Rye House, 14 miles to the Hertfordshire town of Bishops Stortford. It was completed in 1769, with the intention of linking Bishops Stortford with the lucrative malt trade working its way along the Lea from Ware. The 15 Locks that break up its course became waypoints for my walk that day, when we were blessed with early sunshine that only just now seems to have returned at the end of May.

Lower Lock

The appeal of river and canal walks is not only the proximity of water but the removal of decision making and navigation – the canal engineers have done the job for you. The downside is maintaining the discipline to stick to the path resisting temptations to wander off along beguiling side routes.

River Stort Navigation

I was drawn into Parndon Mill on the edge of Harlow by a poster for an exhibition by Graham BoydThe New Hampshire Grids – from the early 1970’s. I saw potential parallels with my own walking practice in that title, especially when on a contrained hike following a pre-ordained route carved out of the landscape by 18th Century navvies.

The gallery space occupied a small white cube on the ground floor of the old Mill (this version built in 1900 following a devastating fire but mills have occupied the site since at least the Norman Conquest). The framed pictures and 3-dimension works sat on a plinth seemed to be presenting an intrincate code. I bought an exhibition catalogue and went to sit on a bench by the towpath. The last sentence in Maxine E. King’s intrductory essay reads;

“This is the character of Boyd’s work, a restless searching, stretching out through an immense space, sometimes taking up the grid to orientate himself, like a sextant for navigating the stars.”

I contemplated this over a late lunch of Chicken Club Sub washed down with a pint of San Miguel in the garden of the Moorhen pub near Harlow. They had Minnions toys behind the bar and a kids softplay inside the pub – I’ve never seen that before.

River Stort Navigation

Pushing on into the sunset leaving behind Harlow’s riverside sculptures I finally allowed myself a detour, through Sawbridgeworth, an ancient village once owned by an Anglo-Saxon brilliantly named Angmar the Staller. I think we should restore the Anglo-Saxon naming system. The village is like a period film set – a collection of Tudor to Georgian buildings spanning out from a 13th Century Church. After a look around I refueled at the newsagents for the final push into Bishops Stortford.

Tednambury Lock 4

Tednambury Lock 4

A wise man, Tim Bradford, once told me the pub trade is run on people forever trying to recreate that glorious first sip of beer, with each successive pint becoming increasingly less satisfying until you’re pissed. I sometimes think a similar dynamic applies to walking – I’m forever in search of that euphoric final stage of a schlepp, bathed in sunset crossing a field or rounding the bend of a river, cresting a hill, traipsing through an industrial estate, the rump of the city behind you, awash in the experience of the fugue. Counting down those last few Locks in the last burst of Spring sunshine on the approach to Bishops Stortford were one of the finest walk’s ends I’ve ever known – one I’ll be chasing for the rest of the summer.

 

Through the fields from Epping to Harlow

Epping Footpath

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).

Epping Footpath
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.

Epping Footpath
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.

p1000719 p1000732
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.

p1000759 p1000834 p1000867
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.

Harlow Bus Shelter
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.