Walk along the River Lea from Rye House to Hertford

There are few finer things in life than a walk along the River Lea, the mantra of gravel under foot, gazing into the reflections in the water letting your mind drift. I hadn’t previously walked this section of the River,  taking various other routes to cover the Lea Valley from Rye House into Hertford – usually the New River Path, or through Wormley Woods and along Ermine Street, or even over the hills from Roydon and Stanstead Abbotts dropping down into Ware (and there must have been others too).

It was glorious the entire way – especially that last stretch between Ware and Hertford, where the geese gather in a field and the Bronze Age burial mound at Pinehurst looks over the bend in the river. More walks suggest themselves in the marshes that run nearby and over the hills heading deeper into Hertfordshire. We’re blessed in East London to be part of the Lea Valley ecosystem, such a rich and storied landscape.

 

From the Forest to the Lea – Loughton to Broxbourne

A tragedy on the tracks near Brimsdown meant abandoning my plan to catch the train to Broxbourne and walk along the Lea to Hertford. I’d lost 2 hours at Stratford Station and decided to walk off my frustration in the Forest. Picking up my favoured trail at the top of Ollard’s Grove I headed over Fairmead Bottom and plunged into the Round Thicket which consumed me for a while. Somehow the forest delivered me to where I’d set my mark – Ludgate Plain and the paths leading out towards Lippitts Hill. I could still find my way down to the Lea Valley and regain something of the original plan for the day.

Safely navigating a passage across West Essex Golf Course I picked up Green Path, a track I’d been meaning to walk for a few years now. It brought me to a gorgeous meadow of tall grasses with a view of the eastern aspect of Barn Hill, from where up on the northern ridge, there were expansive views of the hills rising around Waltham Abbey.

Barn Hill

It always feels special crossing the north-eastern boundary of London and I stopped to savour the moment before picking up the Lea Valley path at Sewardstone heading towards Waltham Abbey. Passing beneath the M25 I remembered standing beneath the same flyover discussing London Orbital with the author himself, that book as much a marker in the Capital’s time as the opening of the road. Hungry and tired I stopped in McDonalds, munching a burger and fries on the Essex-Hertfordshire border.

From Waltham Abbey I followed the River Lea Flood Relief Channel. Great views open up across the waters of Hooks Marsh and Seventy Acres Lakes where otters hunker down in their holts and I imagine Viking boats sliding through the reed beds. The setting sun throws luminous rays across Holyfield Marsh, sometimes it feels as if the day’s walk is all about arriving at this moment, a swell of euphoria basking in the last light of the day.

Holyfield Marsh

From here I submitted to the Lea Navigation, the mantra of gravel under foot, steps releasing the spores of memories deposited on previous walks, the intoxication of reminiscence. I arrive at Broxbourne as a light drizzle greys the pavement. There’s a satisfaction that the walk ends where it had intended to start. The beginning becomes the end.

Along the Harcamlow Way from Roydon to Ware

The joy of absconding – escaping from the obligations of everyday life and just wandering the countryside or the city streets. That was how I felt on the train out of Stratford to Roydon on the Essex – Hertfordshire border. What I was absconding from in reality were my own plans to survey the Royal Docks in a wide looping walk (that I eventually did this past weekend). In the end this glorious walk took me far away from the hurly burly of urban living, away from humanity, and into another space and time trapped in the beguiling landscape along this section of the Harcamlow Way.

Roydon Ware Harcamlow Way

After running the gauntlet of a path colonised by truly giantic Giant Hogweed, and passing across fields and fields of beans, light aircraft buzzing overhead, I approached possibly the most magical location on the route. Moat Wood of course has a moat, but some moats appear as muddy ditches, some as a hard to make out dip in the ground, but this moat was full to brim shimmering in the defracted sunlight breaking through the leaves. The scant information about the moat added to its mystery – it most likely protected a medieval farmhouse or minor manor house. I stayed for a while gazing into the waters, before pushing on along the field edge to the call of pheasants unseen amongst the woodland.

Moat Wood Hertfordshire

The views now changed from earlier vistas stretching across the Stort Valley to Harlow, now looking across the Lea Valley, and imaginging a future walk following the River Ash. Crossing the disused railway line that once connected to the mainline at St. Margarets, I’m reminded of a walk that passed over a section of the line further down near Easneye that I took three of four years ago the week before Christmas. It’s a walk that has never left me. I smiled to think back to my sodden trench feet from that day as I kicked up dust in the evening sun on the path that took me over the River Ash and in a wide arc to the sunset backstreets of Ware.

Roydon Ware Harcamlow Way

Lea Valley Walk from Blackhorse Road to Cheshunt

As the Beast from the East part 2 bends the bushes in my garden in half and dusts it all in snow I look back to the walk I took up the Lea Valley last weekend. Then it seemed certain that the cold was behind us and spring appeared to be breaking over Gillwell Hill. I was feeling sluggish and dark and sought out old/new paths. I took the Overground to Blackhorse Road, then proceeded up Blackhorse Lane turning off into Sinott Road looking for the path that runs alongside the reservoirs.

Lea Valley

Down a narrow road (Folly Lane) past the Muslim Cemetery, fly-tipping in the clumpy scrub, a Traveller site, pylons, mini-roundabout, Costco – an almost textbook example of ‘Edgelands’ – you could bus academics out here to scratch their chins and make notes. I’m incredibly tired and heavy legged but really need to push through.

Edgelands

Walthamstow fly-tip

Past the pumping station on Harbet Road, on the other side of the road the fly-tip at the end of the world. A field littered with trash spread between the Lea, the roadside, and the North Circular viaduct. Tall chimneys puke up fumes in the near distance. An open wound in the city’s armpit.

Harbet Road London IMG_5402

On I plod on past the North London Vehicle Pound and follow the road down to the riverside path beneath the flyover. A couple of guys with a huge dog mooch around beside the undergrowth. Cyclists buzz past, head down racing against the Monday-Friday stress (it always catches up in the end).

Camden Hells brewery

At Pickett’s Lock my spirits lift and mood improves. Is it because I’m approaching the edge of London and can I leave my cares behind under a bush?

Harvester Ponders End

The sun starts to dissolve the milky clouds. The birds sing the sky yellow. Ponders End. Spring.

Rammey Marsh

Rammey Marsh wide and clear before the summer growth obscures its view from the river path. I love this stretch into Waltham Abbey, it’s where my mind often wanders when I’m trapped indoors.

Lea Valley

The last leg into Cheshunt proceeds at a slow plod, I’d burnt off the last of my energy covering the 4 miles from Pickett’s Lock to Waltham Abbey in under an hour fuelled but the burst of sunshine. Now the sky fades slowly back to a deep charcoal grey and the cold seeps up off the riverbank. I sit on a bench to see out the last of the light as a barge chugs northbound towards Ware and Hertford.

 

 

Neolithic Trackway through Epping Forest – walk to Cheshunt

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.

Epping Forest

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.

Potkiln wood path

Potkiln Wood path

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.

Cobbins Brook

Cobbins Brook, Waltham Abbey

Midwinter on Walthamstow and Leyton Marshes

With clear midwinter morning sky, rooftops and hedgrows swaddled in frost, I headed down Lea Bridge Road bound for Leyton and Walthamstow Marshes. I’d been meaning to make a video of this magical zone for a while, but somethings are too precious to capture on camera it seems – perhaps that’s why the resultant video was shot on 3 of them.

Walthamstow Marshes

The best entrance to the marshes isn’t via Lea Bridge Road, or the path across from the Filter Beds, but over the old iron footbridge from the Argall Avenue Trading Estate that carries you across the railway tracks and the River Lea Flood Relief Channel. Muddy puddles were frozen solid revealing nature’s pattern in the whorls and curls embedded in the ice. The jacketted horses in the Riding Centre blew out big plumes of breath. Dogs scarpered across Leyton Marsh to the river bank. Vapour trails embroidered the sky. It was glorious.

The A.V. Roe railway arch, Walthamstow Marshes

The A.V. Roe railway arch

I marked the line of trees demarcating the parish boundary between Leyton and Walthamstow that I’d been shown on a Beating of the Bounds organised by the New Lammas Lands Defence Committee when I’d first moved to the area. Then on to another memory stored in A.V Roe’s railway arch, not of that first triplane flight in 1909, but of singing the wassail song here with the Hackney Tree Muskateers.

Walthamstow Marshes

Walthamstow Marshes is decorated with the droppings left behind by the Belted Galloway cattle reintroduced to the marshland to help restore the ‘natural’ order created by thousands of years of human interaction with this landscape. The cattle themselves were curiously elusive.

Mural Underpass Walthamstow Marshes

The circuit was completed by turning across Coppermill Fields and through the Mural Underpass to the Lammas Meadow. A horse trotted around the field edge. The horizon on all sides was marked by cranes and other signs of construction as the Lea Valley undergoes another period of change. This stip of marshland, preserved through previous struggles, has never felt so precious.

Leyton marshes pylons

Across the fields from Epping to Roydon

pylon in field near Epping

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.

Epping Long Green

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.

Stort Valley Way
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.

Netherhall Common
Birds flying in alignment with the pylons in a field looking down across the Lea Valley. I hear the distant rumble of the Rye House Speedway track, as I walk along the ridge above Netherhall Common.

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.

Nazeing, Essex

The rain progresses from drizzle to pitter-patter as I move along the Lea to Rye House station and the journey’s end.