What’s Cookin ‘rockin country fried music’ served up at the Ex-Services Club in Leytonstone every Wednesday. An annex of Graceland transplanted to London E11. Tonight it was Porchlight Smoker – Americana roots that mingled with fine ales conjured up Appalachian cabin fireside jam sessions.
Why did this vista grab me by the elastic hood straps of my rain jacket this morning? I walk past it every day – sometimes twice but today I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I was compelled to take out my camera in the rain and grab a couple of snaps. A tube train a-clunk-a-clunked past and ruined the first photo and to be honest even this one that I’ve cropped doesn’t do the magnificence and mysteriousness of the view proper justice. It’s the back and side of the 491 Gallery – the front of which must be one of the most photographed buildings in Leytonstone with its glowering Alfred Hitchcock mural. The other rear corner is pretty interesting too, offering a peek into the gallery’s sculpture garden. But this aspect almost appeared to me this morning across the tube tracks as a Tuscan hill town bathed in the Leytonstone rain. The moisture from the grey pellets showered down from the cinder block sky saturated the colours of the pollution marinated brickwork. The doors shone brilliant azure, the white walls gleamed dazzling the drivers on the M11 Link Road. I’ve done life drawing classes in one of those rooms and never saw anything as remarkable – not even the display of Japanese Rope Bondage that proved to be a sketch too far.
A real joy to make this latest episode of my series of walking vlogs as Wanstead Flats is probably my favourite open space in London – and also because it gave me a chance to use the footage of my Dad finding a Hedge Mog on the flats a couple of years ago that I described in Chapter 10 This Other London.
I‘ve decided to start a daily vlog of my routine walks (well Monday to Friday) – mainly just local wanderings, occasionally further afield. I normally just record these in my head with notes scribbled in my pocket book and etched into my psyche, but for the sake of YouTube I’ll use the more conventional means of compact camera.
I’ve been watching a few travel vloggers – jet-setting around the globe – Zorbing in New Zealand, Kayaking in Kenya, Skateboarding in Santiago and this is my version – taking a daily schlepp around East London. These aren’t the expeditions into remote London as recorded in This Other London, but spontaneous drifts, meditative meanderings on familiar turf, although I never truly know where I’m going to end up – one morning I set out and emerged through a hedge 3 hours later on the outskirts of Harold Park.
This first one follows a regular trail down Leytonstone High Road, past the Jet garage built on the site of Alfred Hitchcock’s childhood home with the recently painted ‘Birds’ mural next door. I couldn’t resist a look at the dying days of the Homebase DIY store with its empty aisles – it had a creepy Hitchcockian ambience. It’s a glimpse into a near-future where all large retail units will be reduced to this.
Here’s a video of the walk I did last weekend from Leytonstone to Ponders End. I’ve collaged a soundtrack from some old records, field recordings I made on my phone and some music I quickly knocked up on my laptop using Garageband – it more accurately reflects what’s going on in my head as I walk. Bob and Roberta Smith talked of creating a ‘sound sandwich’ when I interviewed him at the Barbican during the Cultural Olympiad where he was performing with his Apathy Band, and he related the idea, using lots of overlapping records playing, to the psychogeographical walks I was undertaking – but in audio form – a ‘psychogeographical sound sandwich’.
The first ‘found sound’ on the video is from a gem of a record in the BBC Wildlife Series featuring recordings of birdsong made by Eric Simms originally broadcast on the Radio 4 Countryside programme. It’s a selection of Spring choruses – ‘a busy rookery’ recorded in Sussex, 1960. In the sleeve notes Simms writes, “For me perhaps the quickest way to evoke memories of places is to listen to recordings that I have made of their background sounds”. For me when I walk the sounds of the present are mingled with sounds, voices and memories of other places.
There was a serendipitous moment when I grabbed a bit of a recording of ‘If It Wasn’t for the ‘Ouses-In-Between’ performed by John Foreman when I just happened to skip to the lines:
Oh! it really is a wery pretty garden
And Chingford to the Eastward could be seen
Wiv a ladder and some glasses
You could see to ‘Ackney Marshes
If it wasn’t for the ‘ouses in between
Which is a fairly accurate description of the view from the footbridge over the North Circular between Walthamstow and Woodford, except the song was talking about the overcrowded East End of the 1890s, harking back to some rural idyll just beyond the rooftops. Is this what draws me out into the forest?
The urge was to walk without any particular destination and let my feet decide which way to go. They pulled me in a familiar direction – up Wallwood Road and past the Hindu temple to the Hollow Ponds. The merest drop of rain turns Leyton Flats into a bog and a crow paddled in a large pool of rainwater.
Rooks decorated the bare boughs making rook sounds (is it a Corr or a Raww) gathering for their late afternoon parliament. I can only distinguish the rooks from the crows by remembering my Dad saying ‘A rook on its own is a crow’.
RS Lounge is looking rather sorry for itself these days – I black bin-liner was wrapped around its once glowing neon sign fluttering in the wind like a harbinger of doom. RS was built on the site of the Rising Sun pub which dated back to at least the 1850’s before the £2million refurb that transformed it into an Ibiza style luxury bar and dining thing.
The thwack of tyres over the cattle grid scares the wildfowl from the pond. The footbridge crossing the North Circular offers one of my favourite views of London a north-western slice across the Lea Valley, tall chimneys spewing out fumes, the tower blocks in the distance set at angles I suppose to maximise sunlight. It’s an expansive, varied vista, industrial London, broad freeways, a carpet of housing, the river, reservoirs, the forest, green plains, hills on the horizon.
I pick up a stick to help steady my progress through the ankle deep mud. I skit between the path and the undergrowth not so much walking to Woodford as sliding and skating, with my stick and greying beard I feel like Gandalf on Ice.
The Ching gurgles blissfully between steep river banks as it slips round the edge of the lake at Highams Park. Now I have my sights set on Chingford Green – a place that seems incongruous in modern London, like one of those out-of-place artifacts that defy the conventional understanding of human history. I leave the forest sludge and rest my trusty staff against a bench by the pavement and ascend Friday Hill once I’ve acquired a Double Decker from the petrol station to fuel my climb.
Friday Hill House has the forlorn look of a place that was once loved but now abandoned and unwanted. Built in 1839 by Lewis Vulliamy for the Boothby-Heathcote family, they eventually sold it to the London County Council who constructed the Friday Hill Estate in the grounds and the house became a Community Centre and later an adult education college. Its fate now remains unclear.
The Chingford United Services Club though appears to be thriving and the Seafood stall in the carpark had a short line of customers eager for cockles, winkles and crab. After admiring the ‘Second Empire’ architecture of The Bull and Crown coaching inn (now a branch of Prezzo) I retire to Sams ‘quality fish and chips restaurant’ – notice the ‘chips’ in plural.
It’s not been the brightest of days and now 30mins before sunset it’s positively gloomy. I’m drawn along the path beside the parish church to the crest of Kings Head Hill and a close-up of the view I’d taken in earlier from the bridge across the North Circ. I keep plodding on, my destination reached but my feet aren’t ready to quit just yet.
Halfway down the hill past Sunnyside Lodge and opposite a fine cottage-style electricity substation there is a brass plaque set in the pavement commemorating the 1986 Year of Peace. An odd place to celebrate an international event unless of course Chingford has a hidden link to the Baha’i Faith that seems to have instigated the event. Is the substation a temple pumping out peace around the world? Nothing would surprise me about Chingford.
Looking across the Lea Valley at sunset this corner of North East London always makes me think of America – open spaces, wide roads, car lots, Wim Wenders directing Paris Texas, David Lynch weirdness, possibility. The sodium lights of the industrial Lea Delta after a muted sunset. Pylons, sheep grazing on the grassy banks of the reservoir. A Harvester pub and restaurant which I would love to enter but my boots are caked in London Clay which has also splattered up my legs to my knees.
Now I am bound for Ponders End in the dark. The tower blocks of the Alma Estate (Kestrel, Cormorant, Merlin and Curlew House) guide me in by the few lights still shining, with the estate slated for a £150 million regeneration scheme I guess they must have started to move tenants out.
A Roundabout of Death tricks me to walking along the hard shoulder before doubling back to find my way to the Station – cars zipping past at speed heading for the desert, for Vegas, or more likely Waltham Abbey and Cheshunt. My feet led me well on this walk – I should trust them more often.