Wanstead to Barking along the River Roding

A Friday morning at the end of September and the chance to walk along the River Roding from Wanstead to Barking. Finally I hunted down the elusive Alders Brook near the City of London Cemetery. A dog walker who has been strolling this way for 30 years told me he’d never heard of it and I had to show it marked on my old A-Z. But there it was, overgrown and clogged up but still running free through the undergrowth.

Uphall Camp Barking

source: An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Essex, Volume 2, Central and South west. Originally published by His Majesty’s Stationery Office, London, 1921.

The other side of the construction carnage around Ilford town centre I stood on the streets where the Iron Age settlement of Uphall Camp stood, near the banks of the Roding. Today lines of terraced houses named after periods of British History cover the site.

overgrown football pitch at Wanstead

football pitch at Wanstead

Ilford new buildings

Ilford

The River Roding at Barking

The River Roding at Barking

I passed the Quaker burial grounds at Barking before picking up the riverbank path down to the wharfside developments that have temporarily created tumbleweed wild west outposts. After breaching the A13 sadly it was time to head back to Leytonstone before I had reached Beckton which was the aim for the day. But I had surveyed more of the land the lies along one of our sacred Eastern rivers, and seen parts of the London of the distant past and got a glimpse of one of the new Londons taking shape.

Lost Pavilion – eastern mysteries of Plashet and Little Ilford

It wasn’t my intention to go for a walk, merely to try a new breakfast spot that opened recently near the Jubilee Pond on Wanstead Flats. But perhaps starting my day by crossing that first section of open ground triggered something in my noggin because as soon as I’d digested my croissant I was off.

Plashet Park

Plashet Park

I dropped by the Wanstead Tap but it was too early and the shutters were down, so I thought I’d take a look at what some gentrifiers are trying to brand Forest ‘Great’ (I kid you not, soon to be as galling as ‘Awesomestow’). Forest Gate was the first place I lived in London as a callow bumpkin of 18 and I loved it straight away, although that was on the other side of Romford Road near West Ham Park. The Woodgrange Road hub was a slightly obscure adjunct, particularly with Stratford equidistant.

I counted 4 posh coffee shops but otherwise the area looks little changed from other recent visits. When recounting this to a friend who lives near the Flats they told me the new bakery with its mortgageable loaves of artisan bread had been the focus of Cereal Killer Cafe style anti-gentrification protests, which on further research (i.e asking facebook friends who live in the area) manifested itself as some graffiti spray painted on the windows at night.

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After crossing Romford Road and discovering that I’d superglued the zoom rocker on my camera I decided to walk in a straight line to Ilford – sort of in protest at my own stupidity and to finally spend a Waterstones voucher I’d had in my wallet for a year.

I soon found myself wandering through the gates of Plashet Park where a strong gale battered the trees and bushes. Undergrowth that a couple of years ago was found to be harbouring a couple of adult boa constrictors.

Passmore Edwards Library East Ham

On the far side of the park is the majestic Passmore Edwards Public Library, today used as the Newham Registry Office. The foundation stone was laid in 1898 and the mosiac flooring at the entrance still radiates civic pride.

Sri Mahalakshmi Temple East Ham

Sri Mahalakshmi Temple

The Sri Mahalakshmi Temple on East Ham High Street North is an unavoidable beacon that lit up my eastward alignment to Ilford. Not far away by Little Ilford School stands an even grander Hindu place of pooja – Sri Murugan Temple.

Sri Murugan Temple

Sri Murugan Temple

Music wafted out onto the street, I loitered by the door for a bit before kicking off my trainers near the steps and tentatively going inside. Various forms of worship were taking place in the huge space, some people just sat cross-legged on the floor praying-meditating, there was a feeling of total peace. Sadly my messed up knees prevent me from sitting on the floor so I sat on one of the scooped plastic school chairs placed by the wall for old people, and soaked up some of the good vibrations.

Little Ilford Church

Little Ilford Church

Continuing along the straight track brought me to the door of the ancient church of St. Mary the Virgin Little Ilford. The stone church dates from the 12 Century but replaced an older timber church that could have been established in the pre-Conquest period. It was at this point I realised I was accidentally following a route I’d planned for This Other London Book 2 – a work still in progress – but had shelved when other avenues appeared. My interest in Little Ilford had been sparked by reading about the 18th Century antiquarian Smart Lethieullier who is buried somewhere in the church.

Lethieullier was descended from wealthy French Huguenot refugees who’d settled in nearby Aldersbrook. Lethieullier carried out some of the first surveys of the Roman villa at Wanstead Park and recorded explorations of the Ambresbury Banks earthwork in Epping Forest.

Little Ilford Park

Little Ilford Park

The gale force winds now brought a smattering of freezing rain along for the ride as I entered Little Ilford Park – an odd pear shaped open space with pylons hugging the border with the North Circular Road. I toyed with finding a crossing to the River Roding and working my way down to Barking, as per the itinerary I now recalled planning 2 years ago, but Little Ilford Park is reluctant to let those who enter leave.

Little Ilford Park pavilion

This squat concrete pavilion seems to have been inspired by Soviet bus stop design – or maybe it was the other way round in the manner that the Moscow Metro was inspired by Charles Holden’s Piccadilly Circus station with Holden returning the favour with his Russian influenced station at Gants Hill.

I watched the rain for a bit from the shelter of the pavilion trying to imagine playing any kind of cricket on whatever pitch lay beneath the thick clumps of grass before walking the length of the park and exiting for Ilford High Street beneath the grand North Circular fly-over.

That original exploration could now be back on the itinerary.

Newbury Park – an unexpected adventure

Newbury Park Bus Station

I can think of fewer fine introductions to a place than the bus station that greets you outside Newbury Park Tube. This vaulted modernist masterpiece designed by Oliver Hill and opened in 1949 illuminates an otherwise unpromising stretch of the Eastern Avenue with its green cooper-covered roof.

Ilford War Memorial Park
Once I’d finished marveling at Hill’s bus temple I wandered into the peaceful haven of Ilford War Memorial Gardens serenaded by lusty choruses of birdsong from the bare boughs of small-leafed Lime trees that flank the pathways around the garden’s edge. Robins, Blackbirds and Blue Tits make their homes in the trees here which also support clumps of Mistletoe (apparently a rarity in London these days) and bats are known to forage among Lime trees.

Ilford War Memorial Hall
The information board says that the gardens form a ‘Connectivity’ with nearby green spaces at Fairlop Plain, Fairlop Waters, and Valentines Park – providing a stop-over for migrating species.

The Memorial Gardens opened in 1922 and the fine hexagonal Grade II Listed Ilford War Memorial Hall followed in 1927 with its slightly Masonic vibe going on in the brickwork and corner carvings.

Bilbo Baggins action figure

I’m not entirely sure what drew me in to the enormous Toys ‘R’ Us behind the McDonalds on the crossroads but I came away with a Bilbo Baggins action figure for 96p – to inspire future ‘Unexpected Journeys’ such as this one.
Fags and Mags

I pass a trophy shop and a newsagent called Fags and Mags on Ley Street and come to an inscrutable Local Government facility ominously named ‘Redbridge Resource Centre’. It sits opposite a grand monolithic electricity generator humming away. With the Ley Street Depot just along the road this is clearly an important part of the civic infrastructure of the London Borough of Redbridge, soon to celebrate its 50th Anniversary since being formed from the amalgamation of the Municipal Boroughs of Ilford, Wanstead, and Woodford, while absorbing Hog Hill from Dagenham and Hainault from Chigwell.

It’s leaden grey and chilly by the time I walk through a side gate of Valentines Park. For some reason I think of Patrick Keiller’s Robinson films  – perhaps it’s the birdsong which is even more sonorous here than in the Memorial Park. I lurk beneath some trees and attempt to make a recording on my phone.

Pavilion Cafe Valentines Park Ilford

The Pavilion Park Café deserves a Grade II listing of its own with its formica tables and plastic bucket seated school chairs. There’s a photo of the café from 1910 which means it might have provided refreshment for Thomas Burke when he visited the Park in 1921 and declared it, “the most beautiful of London’s natural parks”. I’m the only customer as I tuck into my bacon roll and cappuccino, Bilbo Baggins on the table beside me. This is the perfect place to stop and stare out at the world for a bit. To the extent that I don’t notice the café filling up and by the time I leave there’s a decent smattering of parents with young children ordering plates of chips and babycinos.

Gants Hill Tube Station
Every passage through the glory of Charles Holden’s majestic Gants Hill tube station is a treat to savour. Holden designed the station as a tribute to his work on the Moscow Metro. Here beneath the golden Valhalla-like curved ceiling you happily dwell as trains pass through, a place more to pass the time rather than a point of transit. Lingering here you realize Hope resides in the Eastern suburbs.

Redbridge Country Ramble

The North Circular cut short my walk away from the Redbridge Roundabout so the only route left was an overgrown path beside some football pitches. The metal barrier across the entrance and the way the branches held hands across the path indicated it was little if ever used aside by some intrepid fly-tippers, and from the rusted remains of what had been dumped even they hadn’t been this way for a while. The moss speckled Redbridge Council sign poking through the foliage is like something from a future post-apocalyptic London, a still from The Day of the Triffids.

Redbridge Allotments

After running into several solid walls of bramble I end up in a patch of grassland where toppled fence posts enclose waist-high weeds and wildflowers.

The rusted frame of classic old municipal chair, its canvas covers long rotted away, stands guard over these abandoned allotments. They are still marked on Redbridge Council’s map of allotments with the legend, ‘Currently not in use’. No kidding.

Roding walk

Across the football pitches, where the fence has collapsed, another path hugs the River Roding. Mellifluous birdsong fills the warm air. I feel like an intruder – this land has been returned to the wildlife and here I am barging back in.

The River Roding runs clear. Electric blue dragonflies zip amongst the tall stems of grass and wildflowers. Long spikes of purple loosestrife cling to the riverbank. Across the water – Lincoln and Rook Islands in Wanstead Park.

The path leads through what is referred to on Wanstead Wildlife as ‘Whisker’s Island’. I continue as the Roding flows through Ilford Golf Course then take the path through cool wooded shade stalking the Alders Brook with the City of London Cemetery on my right. What was a reel around the Redbridge roundabout has turned into a country ramble along forgotten byways serenaded with birdsong and beguiled by the babbling Alders Brook.

wanstead flats

The bucolic reverie is ended as I am dumped out onto the Romford Road just shy of Ilford, looking startled, rubbing my eyes like I have slipped through time from the 17th Century. It takes me a while to readjust and work out where I am. Once orientated I soon find my way to back country London on Wanstead Flats for the fieldpath ramble to Leytonstone.

Walk from Wanstead Flats to Gants Hill

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The desire was to walk but I had no idea where. In that situation you let yourself be guided by your feet which often tend to often fall into familiar tracks. So I found myself walking up the avenue across Wanstead Flats, round the Heronry then Perch ponds of Wanstead Park and over the North Circular to Cranbrook. Through Valentines Park and into a Harvester on Beehive Lane in Gants Hill. The feet chose well.

(Wanstead Flats and Park are covered in Chapter 10 of This Other London)

‘Bet you didn’t know this about Redbridge – man pounds the streets looking for secrets’

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Here’s a great article about This Other London from the Ilford Recorder.

Even the most avid lover of Redbridge may learn something from a new book exploring the somewhat overlooked delights of London.

For example, did you know that Aldersbrook does not have any pubs as it was built when the anti-drink Temperance Movement was at its height?

Or that a grisly murder was committed in Belgrave Road, Wanstead, when Percy Thompson was killed by his wife’s younger lover in 1922?

Author John Rogers, 42, a keen walker, has travelled far and wide from Australia to India and quite a few places in between but said that London has just as much to offer for the adventurer.

With two reluctant knees, and a can of Stella in hand, the father-of-two trekked far and wide to discover the bits of our capital which deserve another look.

John said: “I’ve travelled but kept getting drawn back to London. I kept that spirit of adventure. London has places as wonderful as anywhere else and it’s all the more amazing because they are outside your doorstep.”

Ilford and Wanstead both feature in his book with the grand finale focusing on a trip to South Park, South Park Drive, Ilford, which started as a bet with his seven-year-old son.

“I was trying to get my kids to come on walks with me. One of them said he would if we went to South Park off the TV show.

“He thought we were going to Colorado but I took him to South Park in Ilford – he saw the funny side of it.”

He said the book gave him an opportunity to find answers to things he had always wondered about such as why there are no pubs in Aldersbrook.

“The estate was built in about ten years from 1899-1910 at the time when the Temperance Movement was very popular, which is why there’s no pub,” he said.

“It was built for city gents who wanted the country lifestyle but still commuted to the city.”

This Other London: Adventures in the Overlooked City will be published in September