The other month I finally shot an interview with brilliant artist Jessica Voorsanger in her studio at Norlington Road, Leyton.
The other month I finally shot an interview with brilliant artist Jessica Voorsanger in her studio at Norlington Road, Leyton.
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.
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.
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.
Needed to stretch the legs for the first time post-Yuletide sloth and gluttony. A Yule Yomp if you like. Even so I didn’t emerge from the Christmas-lit tinsel-draped cave till 3pm, freezing cold and directionless. With visiting family still encamped I should resist the urge to keep walking West till the will left me, but could I?
Coronation Gardens is always a good place to wander and muse. The Lea Valley sunset starting to break through the bare trees. Looking at the lonely bandstand I remembered the first Leyton Food Market back in May that wraps itself around the bandstand on Saturdays. I could almost feel the Fille Brook (Philly Brook) gurgling beneath the footpath that runs down the northern edge.
The development imposed upon the old car lot that occupied the corner of Oliver Road and Ruckholt looks near to completion staring blankly at the row of cottages on the other side of Dunedin Road. Waltham Forest Council recently unveiled the Lea Valley Eastside Vision which identifies Leyton as “a key growth area” centred on three ‘Key Areas’ of: Leyton (Leyton Mills, Coronation Gardens, and New Spitalfields Market), Lea Bridge which includes a potentially troubling waterside development that could encroach upon Leyton Marshes, and Church Road which seems to mostly build on the work they have already done on Marsh Lane Fields. This ‘Vision’ needs proper scrutiny before a response can be given – but looking at this first phase on Ruckholt Road I do not feel overwhelmed with optimism. Let’s hope I’m wrong.
They were few people out walking as I made my way over the patchwork of football pitches on Hackney Marshes. A dog teased me with its ball – running up with the ball held aloft and veering away as I reached down to play. Eventually it got bored of the game and scarpered off after its owner.
It was dark as I made my way along the Lea Navigation Towpath past Millfields and the small orchard we wassailed a few years ago with the Hackney Tree Musketeers. I stood on the Lea Bridge swivelling East and West trying to decide which way to go before being swayed by obligation and turning East the length of Lea Bridge Road up to Whipps Cross Roundabout.
There was little illumination along Whipps Cross Road aside from the trundling boxes of white light in the form of the frequent buses and flickering bicycle lights in the undergrowth around the Hollow Ponds. The Hitchcock Hotel presented itself at the right time – I rarely go there for a drink, although it was one of the first London pubs I ever visited, back in 1989. I exit, one pint down and half-time in the football I live in hope that I will see the Hitchcock fulfil its true potential as a really good pub.
I reach home just after 6, the family have moved to the table engaged in a furious game of Monopoly that would make the Wolf of Wall Street retire to the sofa. I watch the rest of the footie and start to plan expeditions for the coming year.
Fantastic to hear that the abandoned ground of Leyton Football Club on Lea Bridge Road, one of London’s oldest clubs, has been granted Asset of Community Value status by Waltham Forest Council.
Earlier this year I interviewed ardent Leyton F.C supporter Stephen Madge about his memories of the club.
Let’s hope that football one day returns to the Hare and Hounds Ground.
A morning walk isn’t the ideal time to find yourself outside one of the finest pubs in London. The William the Fourth at Bakers Arms, Leyton looks resplendent in the glaring morning light. The hanging baskets puke out great rainbows of petunias.
The William the Fourth is home to Brodie’s Fabulous Beers and you could drink your way round East London in this majestic mirrored boozer – from Dalston Black through Hackney Red IPA, Stepney Green Steam, Bethnal Green Bitter, London Fields Pale Ale, Hoxton and Old Street IPA. But it’s 10am, the pub is closed and I’m heading for Walthamstow Cemetery on the scent of a tip off I was given by a nice couple after a talk I gave on Lea Bridge Road earlier in the year. They mentioned that one of the early cinema pioneers was buried there and it might be of interest.
I checked in again on the beguiling Hoe Street Telephone Exchange before turning into Queens Road and on to Walthamstow Cemetery. It’s a boiling hot morning – possibly one of the last of the year – and I’m the only living person in this expansive Victorian necropolis. It soon becomes apparent that a number of the headstones are listing drastically – in some cases leaning across to meet their neighbouring grave. Some plots are sinking into the barren gravely soil. It has a strong air of abandonment.
I now realise I don’t have the name of the grave I am looking for and am relying on chance – I Google to find the name of Birt Acres but looking out across the tombstone rubble don’t fancy my chances of locating the grave. Acres is credited with inventing the first 35mm moving image camera in Britain and a system for developing and projecting the films. Among his first productions were Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, The Boxing Kangaroo, and Performing Bears. He is also said to be “the first travelling newsreel reporter in international film history” (Wikipedia).
It isn’t clear how Acres came to be buried in Walthamstow cemetery. The area had been a centre of film production in the early 20th Century with the British and Colonial Kinematograph Company having a large studio in Hoe Street not far from the cemetery so that could perhaps explain Birt Acres’ connection to Walthamstow.
A headstone sitting in the shade of a tree and wreathed in ivy reads ‘Eliza The Beloved Wife of Thomas William Aldridge Who Was Drowned In The “Princess Alice” September 3rd 1878 Aged 33 Years.
After a while I start to feel as if I’m intruding although such is the age of the majority of the graves you imagine mourners are few and far between. Birds natter in the trees. Cats stalk the pathways. I move on through the gates back into Queens Road.
Something magical happens when you pack your bag for a walk, even on a day like today when my enthusiasm is thin. In goes the notebook and 2 pens, a copy of Rachel Lichtenstein’s new book Estuary, OS map of the Lea Valley & Epping Forest, camera + mini magnetic tripod, a light jacket, and finally a cap I stuff down the side. All of this crammed into a messenger bag that was given away by the thousand at the London Film Festival 12 or 13 years ago.
I contemplate the journey ahead over coffee at Costa in Leyton Mills – the vast carpark here with its expansive Lea Valley skies is one of my favourite open spaces in London – it’s like the American Midwest of my imagination. The prospect of the relatively short walk along the Dagenham Brook increases in appeal as the caffeine kicks in. These minor urban excursions can easily snowball into epic quests. It’s the anticipation of the unknown buried within the familiar. Of becoming lost in a suburban swamp.
I navigate my way across the grid system of the Asda car park and over to Orient Way, under the Leyton sign to find the point where the Dagenham Brook disappears underground before making its confluence with the River Lea. This is so close to where the Fillebrook momentarily appears above ground (in a reversal of fortunes) that I wonder if these two brooks merge before running into the Lea as a single watercourse.
A broken hole in the thick undergrowth gives me my first glimpse of the Dagenham Brook. I slide down the bank getting snagged in the brambles in the process and struggle to extract myself once I’ve logged my encounter with the river. Urban river hunting is not as easy as it seems.
Fifty yards or so further along a recently surfaced new path hugs the river as it meanders through Marsh Lane Fields. I remember the Beating of the Bounds here on a wet May Sunday afternoon 10 years ago just after we’d moved to Leytonstone. It had been organized by the brilliant New Lammas Lands Defence Committee and was my real introduction into the culture of this section of the Lea Valley with the deep passionate attachment to the landscape. Marsh Lane has had a powerful hold on me ever since.
The brook curves round behind the goal of the abandoned ground of Leyton F.C. – the weeds thick, nearly enclosing the watercourse. I call artist Lucy Harrison to see if she’ll give me a quick 5-minute interview about the Warner Homes that straddle Lea Bridge Road and have the Dagenham Brook running through the gardens. Lucy did an interesting project with the residents of the Warner Estate and I wish I knew more about them – now would be my chance.
Lucy obligingly popped out into Blythe Road and told me about how the houses had been built around the beginning of the last century to provide quality affordable rentable homes and had gradually been sold off since the 1960’s. Although they have lost the tidy uniformity of their early years when Warner staff trimmed the hedges and painted the doors and window frames green and cream – they retain a distinctive architectural style with the arched double front doors and elaborate gables. You know when you’ve strolled into a Warner Estate.
The Brook gently flows on into territory where I can’t follow it closely – behind cul-de-sacs, round the back of industrial estates and allotments. There are allotments all along the course of the river – even more so than along the Filly Brook. The occasionally waterlogged, spring-fed land unsuitable for building or industrial use, I guess good for growing crops fond of wet soil.
I eventually rendezvous with the Brook again near the end the W19 bus route where it winds around the edge of Low Hall Sports Ground. I pay homage with a nod, a photo and a few seconds of video before moving on back along the road unable again to walk along the riverbank. In truth physical encounters are a bonus with urban river walking for me, it’s more of a simple device to open up what might appear an unpromising landscape unenthusiastic about yielding its secrets. The brook sets the route and tells you its story, guides the way.
The Dagenham Brook suggests I take a look at St James Park, one of those backstreet open spaces known mostly to the locals but a beautiful spot. There are only a handful of people in the park – a lady sitting on the ground appears to have positioned herself dead centre of a large empty section. An access road leads down the middle of a wonderful grand avenue of lime trees. The park occupies part of the site of the 14th Century Low Hall Manor which was purchased by Walthamstow Council in the late 19th Century.
The brook slides behind park and under the railway bridge now running parallel with the broader River Lea Flood Relief Channel. I’ve seen discussion online suggesting that the Dagenham Brook is also a man-made watercourse, a drainage ditch. Old OS maps of the area show an elaborate tapestry and ditches and ponds adorning the landscape – nearly all now buried or filled in occasionally rising again to flood a basement or waterlog a garden.
Moving beneath the railway you are greeted by a sequence of murals on the end of terrace walls. On the corner of Chester Road a verse from Ewan MacColl’s timeless song written for Peggy Seeger is painted in elaborate filigree font
The first time ever I saw your face
I thought the sun rose in your eyes
On the other end of the block is a work by Louis Masai of a Fox, Badger and Bees – the bees carry a placard appealing to ‘Save Us!’, the badger sits behind a sign saying ‘No to the Cull’. Around the corner is a colourful abstract work by Italian street artist Renato Hunto.
Moving in to Coppermill Lane I can’t see any further trace of the Dagenham Brook as it appears to have merged with Flood Relief Channel. I stand on a concrete block and look north along the course of the Lea and bid my farewell to this understated, wonderful watercourse.
Yesterday I showed a new video, about Leyton F.C, and did a talk on a few aspects of Leyton at Lucy Harrison’s installation and event at 97 Lea Bridge Road.
The building has a fascinating industrial heritage and is now sadly scheduled for demolition. Waltham Forest Council have recently granted planning permission for a complex of 300 flats (with only 20% ‘affordable’) despite objections by local residents to the scale and character of the scheme.
Talking about Leyton F.C with local historian David Boote and some other interesting conversations with local people at the event made me think of Nick Papadimitriou’s remark that he knew of the Leyton ground as it had a river running along one side. I’d assumed he’d meant the Orient that has the culverted Philly Brook trundling beneath the pavements behind one of the stands.
Walking home though I spied the Dagenham Brook gurgling along behind one of the goals at the now derelict Leyton F.C ground.
‘Busy Lea Bridge Was Once A Lonely Road’ continues at 97 Lea Bridge Road on Sunday 19th June 2-8pm.