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.

 

Aimless Wander from Leyton to Tottenham IKEA via Walthamstow

How did I find myself in the cafe of the Tottenham IKEA at 6pm on a Wednesday?  The large window is an almost perfect Lea Valley picture frame – the best thing in the store. The magnetic attraction of an IKEA cafe on an edgeland wander dates back for me to November 2009 recording an episode of our radio show Ventures and Adventures in Topography in Monks Park with Nick Papadimitriou and Peter Knapp. It was cold Sunday afternoon, we were damp and tired and found ourselves in the Wembley Trading Estate. We knew the only source of food and warmth in the area at that time on a Sunday was the IKEA Cafe. We dreamt of meat balls and made our way to the flatpack Valhalla. They’d sold out of meat balls of course.

#Cafe at #IKEA Tottenham

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Eight years later and on the other side of the North Circular the Tottenham IKEA Cafe had a good stock of meat balls but I had a ham and cheese toastie instead. This was a less structured excursion. I’d left home with no real aim other than just to walk – Tottenham IKEA had emerged in my mind as a waypoint – something to aim at. I took in the buildings of Lea Bridge Road, Leyton both old and those taking shape then marvelled at the architecture of Argall Avenue Industrial Estate. The football pitches at Low Hall were freshly marked out ready for the weekend fixtures.

I thought of Arthur Machen’s ghost hunting expedition to Tottenham in the early mystical years of the 20th Century. He also recorded journeys out to Edmonton and Ponders End as if they were the darkest reaches of the Amazon. And wandering the backstreets of Tottenham for the first time I felt as if I were in a remote part of London. I teenage girl approached me with a pair of size 4 trainers and tried to convince me to buy them for my children (how did she know I had kids?).

Leaving IKEA I jumped on the first bus that came along assuming they all went to Tottenham Hale and soon found myself heading towards Edmonton. I jumped off straight away thinking I could catch a 34 bus to Walthamstow Central and started walking along Montagu Road looking for a bus stop. I kept walking with no bus stop in sight. The light started to dim and I got that feeling of uncertainty when in unknown backstreets in the gloom – the desire to get clear, back to familarity or at least to main streets. I turned into Town Road after checking that it looked ok, there was something in the air that made me feel uneasy. I considered continuing along Montagu Road and taking a later turning but decided this was the quickest (safest) option. A bus came along, you have to flag them down round these parts, there are no bus stops. Off I went to Tottenham Hale thinking about Machen’s Tottenham story.

Montagu Road Edmonton

Later that night, around midnight, I checked the news online and saw a headline in the Guardian, ‘Man killed in north London shooting’ – I instantly knew where the crime had taken place. Of course I would be wrong, north London is a huge area. I scanned the article of the location of the killing of the ‘man in his 40’s or 50’s’ and there it was Bounces Road, one of the roads leading off Montagu Road just past Town Road, one of the alternative routes I’d considered when feeling the urge to get clear of the area, yards away from where I’d flagged down the bus.

The Secret Suburb – Higham Hill Walthamstow

This was a tip-off from a friend and the realisation that I had actually never been to Higham Hill, it had remained mythologised as the termination point of the W15 bus with the automated robot voice stating its identity as the ‘W15 to Higham Hill Cogan Avenue’. My mate had mentioned in a follow-up text that the area possessed some interesting industrial history, important developments printing and type, the site recently converted into housing with the blocks named after various fonts.

Higham Hill Walthamstow

Higham Hill was not merely a  suburb of Walthamstow, the latest feasting ground of ravenous estate agents. Higham Hill Road offered fantastic eastwards views towards Epping Forest and Claybury. There was indeed fantastic art deco industrial architecture, abundant allotments, and well-kept open space. I spent three hours wandering round as the sun bashed down burning out the last day of May and I found a beautiful Victorian book for sale for a couple of quid in the Post Office before jumping the bus back to Leytonstone.

Epic Lea Valley Hike from Leytonstone to Hertford

7.30am and the dog has pissed in my boot. I discover this as I slide my foot into my great new walking boots to head out on a slightly crazed quest to walk from Leytonstone to Hertford or at least as far up the Lea Valley as my legs will carry me in a day.

Hoe Street Bakers Arms Walthamstow
It’s a cold and misty pre-Christmas dawn as I slope past Leyton Midland Road Station – the Barking to Gospel Oak line on hiatus while its platforms are lengthened and the line electrified.

An hour later at the end of Chingford Road, Walthamstow my legs are getting sore which doesn’t bode well for the long walk ahead. I need to pace myself, let the natural rhythm of the plod take over. Clear my mind.

Walthamstow Stadium
The road into Sewardstone is cloaked in thick mist. I pass an abandoned row of breeze block sheds apparently used for selling fireworks. I cross the border out of London into Essex – an uncanny quarter of the Borough of Waltham Forest, London in the country.

Sewardstone
Turning off Sewardstone Road down misty Mill Lane I get my second wind. I figure I’ll need to have a third and fourth wind to reach Ware or Hertford. Crossing the rough ground beside the reservoirs I am stalked by horses – three friendly creatures who follow me for around 200 yards before returning to their grazing spot in the bushes.

Reaching Waltham Abbey at midday I can’t face the extra mile round trip into town for lunch so pop into MaccyD’s for a Big Mac Meal and recuperation although I keep my stop to a strict 30 minutes before returning to the Lea footpath.

Sewardstone

Beyond Waltham Abbey and the Outer London Defence Ring the path is clear of people. The mist rises off the Lea reminding me of the dense fog of the Po Valley.

2.15pm and stop for tea and Kit Kat by the river at Broxbourne. 2.30pm back on the move.

St. Margaret's Wood

St. Margaret’s Wood

Onto the New River Path at Broxbourne up to Great Amwell past pumping stations and through St. Margaret’s wood and into the dark of winter evening. The plan the night before had been to walk the entire 28-miles of the New River Path from Islington to Hertford. But answering the alarm call at 6.30am on 5 hours sleep the thought of an hours travel to start a walk I probably wouldn’t finish wasn’t enough to shift me from under the duvet. However starting the walk from home was far more appealing.

Great Eastern Tavern Hertford

Finish at 5.30pm at the Great Eastern Tavern near Hertford East Station – a lovely cosy old pub with friendly staff and a good pint of McMullen’s ale. The feet are humming but that’s to be expected of a walk of around 23-miles. Christmas Carols are playing on the jukebox ‘Simply having a wonderful Christmas time’. A second pint to make sure the ale reaches all ten toes before hopping the train into Stratford.

Across Lea Valley Uplands – Epping to Broxbourne

My OS Explorer 174 map of Epping Forest and Lee Valley is battered from extensive use. However there are still large sections of unexplored territory, so at lunchtime on Remembrance Sunday I set out to tramp across one of these unknown zones.

Epping Walk

The idea was to head roughly northwest from Epping in the general direction of Galleyhill Wood or perhaps Monkhams Hall to the north of Waltham Abbey. I’d walked the valley floor as far as Hertford but had never ventured onto the high ground except from a field trip last December to Easneye and Widbury Hill.

Pillbox Copped Hall Outer London Defence Ring

The first fields out of Epping towards Upshire saw me pursued by a hungry pack of hikers who thankfully I seemed to lose at Copped Hall. Which was lucky because I’d been beguiled by one of the the Outer London Defence Ring Anti-Tank pillboxes. I’d encountered other features of this Second World War system along the River Lea north of Waltham Abbey but it seemed so innocuous here beside the lane.

Epping Walk
My plan for the walk was as vague as my map reading skills, my guiding principle being to stick to the high ground, I only had a couple of hours till sunset so that should ensure a decent view for late afternoon.

Cobbins Brook
A high hedged lane took me across the Cobbins Brook, a small stream that runs off the highlands of the Lea Valley down across the edge of the forest toward Waltham Abbey. According to Wikipedia this innocent seeming watercourse leant a hand to one of Britain’s most enduring stories, “A local legend claims Boudica’s rebellion against the Romans ended in the Waltham Abbey neighbourhood when she poisoned herself with hemlock gathered from the banks of Cobbins Brook.”

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Galleyhill Wood

As sunset approaches I enter the steep muddy climb into Galleyhill Wood catching the last rays of daylight around the edge of the hill. By the time I stumble into Bumble’s Green it is nearly dark, the walk in essence over aside from the need to find my way through the dark to the nearest station 3 miles away at Broxbourne. I risk my life along a pavement-less road for no more than 500 yards before ducking down the first footpath that presents itself and walking across fields guided by the spotlight of the Super Moon.

Galleyhill Wood Waltham Abbey

Trailing the Pymmes Brook

The Pymmes Brook has been on my itinerary for a while – usually noted down as I walk north up the Lea Valley striking for territory beyond the M25. A fine day in August following a torrential downpour the day before that scuppered an expedition along the River Pinn, provided the perfect opportunity.

Tottenham Marsh
Although the Pymmes Brook makes it confluence with the Lea at Tottenham Hale, the official Pymmes Brook Trail starts slightly further north at Pickett’s Lock and then follows the Salmon Brook part of the way. I decided to stick to what I saw as the full course of the river starting early afternoon near where the Pymmes Brook makes its confluence with the River Lea at Ferry Lane.

Tottenham Marshes are a great oasis with views across to pylons and the highlands of Epping Forest. A smattering of cyclists and joggers. The Pymmes Brook slides along a deep-sided concrete culvert passing by Stonebridge Lock. Men emerge from the undergrowth onto the footpath that curves through Wild Marsh West. The information boards include a mention of the Tottenham Outrage that reached its bloody conclusion not far away on 23rd January 1909.

Pymmes Brook
The river splits in the middle of an industrial estate containing an Electricity Substation and the Tottenham Gas Holder just before Angel Road and the North Circular with the Salmon Brook snaking northwards. It’s a heavily gated area and I’m forced down Leeside Road past a burnt out car. This is classic North Circular industrial edgeland – large warehouse units down dusty roads, blackberry fronds reaching out through the spiked metal fencing, warnings of the danger of death and “multiple hazards”, reminders that every step is being recorded by CCTV cameras. And yet nobody is around. The angry buzz of a remote controlled car scooting round the vast empty IKEA car park fills the air.  Looking at my mid-1950’s Georgraphia Atlas IKEA occupies the site of a ‘Gothic Works’ which appears to have been a type of elaborate metalwork rather than anything to do with the Sisters of Mercy.

Leeside Road

The Pymmes Brook briefly re-emerges snug within its culvert where the North Circular passes high overhead before disappearing beneath the ground. The walk now hugs the North Circular till the old Roman Fore Street where the Pymmes Brook is released from the underworld in Angel Place and moves on around the edge of Pymmes Park. The Park formed part of the grounds of Pymmes House originally built by William Pymme in 1327. The Elizabethan manor house, once the home of William Cecil, was destroyed by fire in 1940. The old walled garden remains.

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It flows through an 1980’s-looking council estate before finally escaping the concrete prison of the culvert near Silver Street and running free through a small grove along smooth muddy banks with trees drooping boughs into the water. A cat hunts in the undergrowth along the riverbank. Here my walk meets the official Pymmes Brook trail in the grounds of Millfield Arts Centre before crossing back under the North Circular and leading me round the edge of Tile Kiln Lane Open Space and a network of picture-postcard north London suburban streets in Bounds Green.
Pymmes Brook Trail
Now late afternoon, the weather warm, I start to hanker after a cup of tea. I’d had doubts about this walk but so far it’d been a revelation – opening up a previously unexplored corner of north London. I still wondered whether I would make it to the source before dark though.

Pymmes Brook Trail
5.45pm and I find myself tucking into a bacon and cheese roll at the Grand Café on Clock House Parade, Palmers Green. Despite the quality of the crusty roll and comfortable seating the café is a tad generously named but does occupy a good spot on the curve of the roundabout at the intersection of the A10 and North Circular. It’s been a hot and humid day and I’m tired with a few miles to go to the source at Hadley Common and only a couple of hours daylight.

With the bacon and tea working into my system it’s time to find the energy for the final push uphill. The Pymmes Brook is back encased in a deep open concrete sleeve for this passage through classic north London bow-fronted suburbia. The New River crosses paths on its journey between Amwell Street, Islington and Amwell Springs Hertfordshire, one of the many journeys I keep promising to do.

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At Arnos Park the Brook is once again liberated, the waters within touching distance for the first time today as they meander beneath a series of quaint wooden bridges around the perimeter of the park. This is the part of the walk I’ve been most looking forward – deep Nick Papadimitriou territory, my old walking comrade who I haven’t stepped out with for over 18 months. The Brook flows alongside a spectacular viaduct that carries the Piccadilly Line across the park. We filmed here in February 2008 doing the first walk and shoot for what became The London Perambulator. I send Nick a text to tell him where I am – he never replied.

Pymmes Brook
As the brook works its way through a wooded gully I catch a whiff of sewage and hope it’s merely my imagination. Sadly London’s waterways are prone to becoming polluted from industrial waste and drainage overflow. Just the other day the London Waterkeeper posted a photo on Twitter of chemicals pouring into the Pymmes Brook.

Oakhill Park
Moving now into a summer sunset across Oak Hill Park full of evening football training, joggers, group workout sessions, tennis matches. A man sits sucking down a can of strong lager behind the concrete pavilion and hurriedly moves on as I approach. A large tree lays prone across the Brook.
Pymmes Brook

By the time I’m through East Barnet Village the light has almost entirely ebbed away. A fox and cub mooch around some undergrowth on the verge of a housing estate as the Brook nears its source. The final climb from Barnet the first real sense of gaining altitude through foothills of peak suburbia.

Hadley Common Lake

I reach the lake on Hadley Common where the Pymmes Brook gurgles up beneath the still surface at 9pm – stumbling through pitch-black woods guided by the chatter of fishermen. I linger for a while and shoot a time-lapse before heading off back into the housing estate for a bag of chips and the road to Cockfosters Station.