Beside the Lea

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Yesterday took a stroll along the new path that runs up the side of East Marsh, the firm gravel surface seems far too appealing to cyclists, some of whom looked to be taking to a bike for the first time. I waited a while to see if one would wobble off into the cow parsley – but it wasn’t to be.

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The Red Campions were out in force (unless the 30 minutes consulting 3 different wildflower books was a waste of time and these aren’t red campions – I’m not yet confident with my wildflower identification). Apparently the latin name comes from the Greek god Silene (their latin name is Silene Dioica) because like the female red campion he was covered in a sticky goo. Folklore tells us that they guard the place where fairies stash their honey. I didn’t find any.

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Somebody had a BBQ with flames so high it licked the overhanging boughs of a tree, there was an air of May Bank Holiday madness evident all around.

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The other side of the White House Bridge the birds belted out their tunes as though they too had been on the sauce all weekend. Somebody had set up camp in a secluded spot on the river bank hidden by a low-hanging tree. I pushed on for the filter beds then lapped back to Leyton via Marsh Lane Fields.

An Accidental Pilgrimage

The intention was to cover a small area I’d missed out on previous walks from Leytonstone to Chingford – the zone along Blackhorse Lane up to the Banbury Reservoir, and then to just keep going till I broke out of London – somewhere.

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I skipped well worn tracks and jumped the Overground two stops to Blackhorse Road, a point where I usually make an instinctual turn west and head for the uplands of north London. Across the road legendary pub rock venue The Standard looks like a Motorhead roadie who did one tour too many. It was one of the first London venues I ever attended – travelling up from Wycombe one Thursday on a school night with my mate Johnny Lee to watch one of his many bands. It was a big gig for a provincial band on the up, rumoured to be a place where A&R men hung around looking for the next quite big thing. Now it awaits a new life as a Turkish supermarket.

It doesn’t take long for the walk to take over and the plans tossed up into the easterly blowing breeze. I am seduced by a green path leading to Tottenham Marshes which runs alongside the flood relief channel around the reservoir and onto the marshes. I surrender to the towpath and the northward pull. The sun comes out. Someone shouts ‘Hello’ from a slowly chuntering barge heading in the opposite direction. It’s talented film-maker Max Brill, ‘Off on a walk?’
‘Yes, but I have no idea where, until my knee gives up’, and they chug on out of earshot.

I’m developing a sixth sense which tells me when to step aside to allow the cyclists to buzz past, sometimes two abreast. The recreational mountain bikers, often couples, are replaced by knackered-looking slowly commuting factory workers as I pass through the North Eastern Rust Belt. A former HSBC office block has been pulverised into a mound of white concrete that is whipped up into dust clouds by gusts coming down off the Essex hills.

The northern city wall is breached when passing along the towpath under the North Circular at Edmonton. There’s a release of pressure that not even the tower blocks at Ponders End can cloud. Breaking free of the metropolis, the path ahead clears. A silver sign shows how to spot Otters.

I am tempted by the second of two enticing tributaries leading westwards  away from the Lea Navigation – the meandering waters of the Turkey Brook and the Pymmes Brook seem to hold more mystery than this canalised well-trodden waterway, but it’ll need to be another day, or perhaps when I can splash up here in a kayak.

I find the short passage through Enfield uncanny with the Lea navigation passing along one side of an ordinary suburban street where 70’s and 80’s semis look across the high water at a row of old cottages.

My boots are coated in a film of white trail dust. I pass under a subdued M25, a road that for me forever belongs to Iain Sinclair.
I carry a memory of Sinclair’s schlep to Waltham Abbey but can’t recall a word of what he wrote. But it’s enough to signal this as an appropriate point to depart from the waterways to head inland.

I arrive at the Abbey doors just before 8, to me, unexpectedly open so I enquire of the two people stood in the porch why. ‘It’s the Easter Vigil’ they say slightly surprised as if I must have come from some foreign, non-Christian culture. I take a look inside then stroll in the last light round the peaceful Abbey gardens, half looking for King Harold’s tomb. I start to give up and head for the nearest pub, believing that the tomb of the last Saxon king would be hard to miss when I stop to look at a graveslab with a wreath of conifer and some flowers placed on top. Running my fingers over the stone beside it I trace out the letters HAROLD. It’s appropriately English that such a symbolic spot in English history is so modestly commemorated.

I decide to eschew the pub and slip in at the back of the Abbey for the beginning of the Easter Vigil. A scattering of around 30 worshippers in the gloom, the only illumination coming from two candles behind the altar beneath the stain-glass windows that cast star-shaped patterns of light. The readings from Genesis are done in deep, slow, sombre voices. It’s certainly the first time I’ve ended a walk at a church service but it seems to fit. As the reading from Exodus starts I reckon I’ve paid my homage and creep back out into the streets to get a pork pie from the Co-op and plod over the Hertfordshire border in the dark to get the train from Waltham Cross back into the heart of the city.

Over the Marshes to Harringay

It started as a mundane amble up to Baker’s Arms with the wife for a mooch about. She headed off to pick the kids up from school so I followed my nose down Boundary Road. I’m going to speculate that it was the Boundary between Walthamstow and Leyton but that’s just a wild stab in the dark.

The Dagenham Brook winds its way behind the houses to the River Lee. Further along its course at Marsh Lane Fields the council are lavishing large sums of money on a new bridge across its narrow banks. It’d better be a good bridge, the one that was there already did the job of getting you from one side to the other without getting your feet wet, so this new expensive bridge better come with its own troll, perhaps a kiosk in the middle, and free foot massages.

I took several photographs of the brook from different angles – transfixed by it, wanting document its existence and pay homage to this slither of wildness passing through our realm of bricks and mortar. Some blokes were testing out new car speakers nearby and I wondered how I could justify to them my fixation with what might look like a muddy ditch.
I fumbled around in my head for a bit past lists of chocolate bars and the Suarez 10-match ban and came to the conclusion that people go to great lengths to seek out historical monuments of the man-made world for their supposed links to the past but here was a tangible relic from a much more distant age, as old at least as a Wooly Mammoth, just sliding past the backs of terraced house gardens minding its own business.

I got drawn into the industrial estate off Lea Bridge Road and wandered around admiring the modernist industrial architecture – it’s like a miniature version of the splendour of the Great West Road.

One of the factories in Staffa Road was possibly where the Panjandrum was built. With the high-tech military research funds long gone the great brains of Leyton have turned their attention to constructing giant wooden shoes.

The bridge that took me over the railway tracks was thick with flies – I had a mouthful by the time I reached the other end. I must remember to keep my mouth shut and not have my tongue hanging out in those situations.
The horses mowing the grass of the Lea Valley Riding Centre on the other side were less than sympathetic and harassed me for sugar cubes and Polo mints – neither of which I had.

The once mighty River Lee tamed and subordinate. I’ve written a few thoughts about it in my forthcoming book so don’t want to blow that now – I can’t think of anything else to say for now – just that I prefer the tributaries, although I’ve only mentioned the Dagenham, Coppermill, and Filly Brook in my book.

After following the path round Porter’s Field I ended up in a section of Walthamstow Marshes navigating my way along tunnels cut through a deep growth of brambles. Around and around I went through this maze of thorns with no evident way out. In a clearing a man was laid in the sun reading a book – he just looked up and smirked. I was too embarrassed to ask directions.
By the time I reached Springfield Park with lacerated hands I was more than ready for afternoon tea on the lawns drinking in the view across the Lea Valley to the dark ridge of Epping Forest.

It’s impossible to pass through the area without noticing the spire of the Georgian Orthodox Church in Upper Clapton. Apparently this was previously home to the  ‪Agapemonite sect – what a great name, up there with the Muggletonians.
I couldn’t get a decent photo of the winged creatures looking out from the belfry – Wikipedia says they are a reference to Blake’s Jerusalem.

The Salisbury on Harringay Green Lanes seemed like a natural place to end up. We used to drink here when I lived in a student house up on the Harringay Ladder. One night the pub was closed so they could film a scene for the Chaplin biopic directed by Dickie Attenborough and starring Robert Downey Jr.
From memory Chaplin is stood at the bar and berated by a couple of locals about not supporting the war effort during WWI. He’d be safe in the Salisbury today – there was only me and a couple of old fellas.

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Lea Valley in 2005 before the Olympic Blitz

Bob Stanley presents this great look at the urban wilderness of the lower Lea Valley for the Culture Show before work on the Olympic site and the big shopping centre began – includes interviews with Iain Sinclair and Richard Wentworth.

It’s well worth seeking out Stanley and Paul Kelly’s film, What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? set around the locations in this video – it’s a real gem and brilliantly captures the area at a moment of transition.

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In search of the North-East Passage

Headed out from home 7pm on Sunday night on foot in search of the north-east passage. I’m now well familiar with the other two routes across the marshes that separate Leytonstone from the western city, well from London really. But the most northerly was unknown to me. It lies north of Walthamstow in an unpromising corner of the city at the end of Blackstock Road.

I spent the first 100 yards preoccupied with an uncomfortable right shoe. This had the potential to be a fair old yomp so my footwear had better be right. Once fixed I then became overly aware of the sloshing of the water in my aluminium water bottle – and what were the dangers of drinking from an aluminium vessel. I was only two streets away from home.

Soon past Leyton’s archaeology row with Walnut House, and the former home of Essex County Cricket Club. When this area was being developed at the end of the C19t Palaeolithic flint flakes ‘as sharp as knives’ were turned up, forming what was claimed to be a remarkable ‘Palaeolithic floor’.

The cottages in Vicarage Road are in fine bloom – village Leyton lives with the spirit of the antiquarian Revd. Strype. I check-in with the beguiling 1940’s blocks of flats on the corner of Brewster Road with their cross-work brick patterns, they’re aligned to catch the sun like a standing stone monument ready for the veneration of Julian Cope.

I am trying to understand the ‘northern-ness’ of where I live. Leytonstone gains its identity from being on the eastern fringe – we are eastsiders. That is until you look at a map or walk back from central London via the most direct route and find yourself pushing north up through Clerkenwell and Highbury.

Crossing Lea Bridge Road near the fine stone obelisk protecting the library I wonder whether Markhouse Road runs along a watershed. The ground drops away to the west running off into the river Lea. Numerous streams run beneath the tarmac from the higher ground around Whipps Cross and the Dagenham Brook runs just below Markhouse.

The hop fields in Boundary Road have long since gone. The Lea Valley pylons appear between houses. I pass an electricity substation wearing a wig of Russian vine. St. Saviour’s Church looks abandoned. I wander round to the Gothic building behind which turns out to be Barking Lodge, Diocese of Chelmsford, Barking Area Office. There is a CofE school and further church buildings. An ecclesiastical encampment among the heathens of the marshes.

Past the sad scene marking a ‘Fatal Collision’ among the withering yellow flowers are weathered soft toys and three apples.

I move quickly along crumbling Blackhorse Road – reduced to a post-industrial rat-run. Waltham Forest Council has identified this as a spot to ‘re-introduce the country into the city’ – to allow glimpses of the marshes to break through the phalanxes of asbestos-lined buildings. They’ve got their work cut out.

I cross the Valley between Walthamstow Reservoirs and Tottenham Marshes as the sun ducks behind great puffy cloud formations and stop for a swift half in the Ferry Boat Inn.

There’s a certain optimism in the aspiration that drives up the development of Hale Wharf. Great hunks of isolated apartment blocks with birds-eye views of the rusting Lea Delta but little else in the way of infrastructure unless you plan to commute by coracle. A channel of the river around the site has become clogged with weeds – a metaphor perhaps or am I trying to look too hard for signs and meaning. It’s what this landscape does to you.

I land on the western shore of the Lea at Tottenham Hale. My reaction to ‘North’ as I forward more cautiously is to want to head home – to be back in my local by closing time, impossible on foot without tracing my steps and even then unlikely. I’m tempted by the train at South Tottenham but am not ready to leave the ‘fugue’ and so force myself on – but to where? I hadn’t thought this far ahead – I hadn’t thought much at all. I’m simply following instinct now.

The High Road climbs a steep incline of churches that will soon fade into the synagogues of Stamford Hill. I could turn north again here – for Finsbury Park and beyond. It is 9.40pm and as I stand at the crossroads of Amhurst Road I pledge to get back to my local by 11pm closing. Can’t be done I think, but I won’t give up until I know it’s impossible.

Clapton Common has a dream-like midsummer air with Hassidic Jews strolling across the grass and beneath the hanging boughs in the last light. Large groups of men congregate on the pavements intensely conversing in what I assume to be Hebrew.
Downhill past the Krays’ Evering Road and gyro the roundabout onto Lea Bridge Road.
It’s after 10pm.
I up the pace.

Half-way along Lea Bridge Road my right knee goes. Tendons go taunt and menisci grind against bone – it becomes reluctant to perform its primary function as a joint and bend. This is sure to sabotage my mission – I’m swinging lead in the dark as I cross back over the river.
I hobble to a corner shop and seek medicine in the form of a can of Stella Artois hastily necked. I’m moving a bit more freely now. It took me 40 minutes to reach this same point on the way out. It’s 10.30 – no chance of making last orders.

Down Church Road, into Capworth Street which is surreally blocked bumper to bumper rush hour style as two drivers lock horns in argument, “So I can be this ignorant and drive”, one menacingly reasons whilst leaning through the window.

In Francis Road at 10.49. The pain returns. To seek more Stella would surely sink me – have to grit my teeth.
A final burst and I break through the swinging pub doors 1 minute before the bell rings. Marge is behind the bar. I recount my quest as I order my pint.
“You made good time then”, she says.
“Not really, it’s just before 11″ I reply.
“I know, but we close at 11.30 on a Sunday.”

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Lea Walk

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Headed out for a wander beside the Lea in the late afternoon sun. They’re building a whole new world over the road – the pace of building of the Olympic Park is startling. We duck down away from the madness and into the quiet shade of the willow trees.

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On a section of the bank that looks prone to flooding the boys spot a dead hairy crab washed up with piles of rubbish. The eldest suggests that the pollution must have killed it and he then returns the decaying crustacean to the water.

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We pass through dense thickets of pink flowers catching the sun. Using my 1950’s wildflower book I posit that these may be Himalayan Balsam, that this tattered tome tells me are commonly found by rivers and streams.

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The boys can’t resist the pull of the open sea of pitches on Hackney Marshes and they sprint across. We follow the water again along the Hackney Cut past the barges, joggers and fishermen and reach Lea Bridge Road at the magic hour of last light.

1989

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I saw some of the brilliant photos from this book when Peter Marshall did a presentation at Invisible Cities. They really resonated with me as that was the year I first moved to London as a scruff-bag student.
Here’s the blurb for the book:
‘1989’ claims to be Chapter 1 of a book based on the notes made by the photographer on a walk through the streets of northeast London with a well-known author of ‘psycho-geographical’ works.
But the author is entirely fictional, and the notes, written in 2005, after his death and sixteen years after the pictures were taken are in part a gentle spoof on psycho-geography but more importantly a reflection on photography and the documentary process.
Peter Marshall has been photographing London since the 1970s and had his first one-person museum show more than 25 years ago. His work is in various collections including the Museum of London.
From 1999-2007 he became known around the world for his critical writing about photography as the ‘About.com’ Photography guide.
He set up his first web site in 1995 and has continued to have a high profile with web sites of his work on the ‘Lea Valley’, ‘London’s Industrial Heritage’, ‘The Buildings of London’ and ‘My London Diary’ as well as the ‘>Re:PHOTO’ blog.