Edgeland stumble – Leytonstone to Picketts Lock

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There’s a light patter of rain on the tree canopy along the edge of Leyton Flats as I head out on a Sunday morning walk – a rarity for me as I usually start in the afternoon and walk into the sunset. But today I have to introduce a secret film at Close Up in the evening.

The rain makes gentle circles in the Birch Well – a Victorian drinking spot for the grazing cattle who wandered this way until the BSE outbreak in the 90’s. This first narrow section of forest offers little opportunity for aimless wandering nor allows you to surrender to the woodland spirits because you encounter a road crossing about every 300 yards.

A giant fallen tree lies across the path leading out of Gilberts Slade. I’m feeling the effects of a viral cold, heavy legged, sore feet, wondering how far I’ll make it.

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The long wet grass by the gypsy stone at Woodford soaks my trousers to the knee. I pause for a moment under a tree at Highams Park Lake. The broad shade on the far side and the meander of the River Ching is a favourite spot in the Forest, it has a middle earth like magic even though BBQ smoke and the sound of playing children waft over from the back gardens of surrounding houses.

I stop at the Royal Café in Chingford Hatch for sausage, egg, and chips with tea so strong you could stand a spoon upright in it. Hunger must be dealt with first before assessing whether I have the desire to push on with the walk. I’ve been waiting for this walk to claim a narrative. I can pinpoint almost every other forest schlep with some event or association – even minor excursions like the one that ended here one wet day and I left my walking stick propped against a bench over the road and felt like I was abandoning an old friend. Maybe this stop in the Royal Café will provide that narrative hook.

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The Café sits on the ground floor of a block of flats – there’s a decorative tiled relief set into the wall showing a vase brimming full of flowers in bloom above the letters of the London County Council 1949.

The profusion of peddle-dash along the side of New Road Chingford, the nearby Harvester, these are some of the great signifiers of the London fringe – you find the same motifs heading west through Greenford and Northolt.

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At Chingford Mount I buy a two-pack of socks from Poundland and put both pairs on sat on a bench near the clock tower. With food in my belly and dry socks on my feet I feel like a new person ready to pursue the quest.

Lower Hall Lane offers up a classic slice of Lea Valley edgeland. Men sitting in parked cars in this deadend road – cabbies waiting for the next call. Suburban husbands escaping bungalow wives. Newbuild housing abuts the Grade II-listed Victorian pumping station. A grand brick pile built in 1895 by the East London Water Works, the local paper reports arrests made in recent years for planning violations. Permission to convert to site to residential use was granted by Waltham Forest Council in 2007 but now appears to be under review.

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19th Century excavations in Lower Hall Lane unearthed a series of Bronze Age Cremations – one of many such sites that line the Lea Valley. Further archaeological investigations in Lower Hall Lane revealed a medieval brew house, barns, moats, walls, and ditches. It’s a site of continuous human usage stretching back thousands of years. Today it’s just me and the dog barking at the gate of the deserted pumping station. A shiny new thick chain and padlock adorn the adjoining cottage gate. Perhaps someone is inside watching me from behind the curtains.

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I sauntered past London Waste up the cycle track on the opposite side to the towpath. From the bridge I spot the polythene of a temporary home flapping in the thick undergrowth – makeshift settlements scatter the fringes of London, like Harvester restaurants. A shrine suspended on a pylon pays tribute to ‘RIP Hasan 1987 – 2011’.

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I loiter in the foyer of the Odeon of Picketts Lock  before getting the train back to Stratford from Ponders End.

Cycle dodging along the Lea from Hackney to Ponders End

River Lea at Hackney

River Lea at Hackney

I stood outside Sports Direct at Leyton Mills for too long contemplating buying a cheap bike to help me scoot up the Lea Valley out of London quicker than I’m able to do on foot. In the end the enormity of the move proved too much for me to take in – walking is so fundamental to my being that the idea of taking to  mechanized transport did my head in.

Springfield Park

Springfield Park

I regretted not taking the leap all the way past the Olympic Park and across Hackney Marshes looking enviously at every bike that I saw scooting along – on one of those machines I’d be half-way to Waltham Abbey by now, I thought.

Ten minutes of being continuously buzzed by cyclists on the towpath at Hackney made me realize that’s no way to drink in the world, it’s too fast. My focus would be taken up by trying to balance on the bike whilst slaloming lumbering pedestrians and double prams rather than the multicoloured reflections on the water.

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I decided to stick to the Hackney side rather than my usual path over the marshes. The pylons appeared across the water like an old friend.

Tottenham Marshes

Tottenham Marshes

Tottenham Marshes

Tottenham Marshes

A flying V of geese passed overhead at Tottenham Marshes. The path cleared of people with only a trickle of cyclists. This last burst of daylight along the riverbank as you approach the city limits is priceless.

Ponders End

Ponders End

A fox runs across water at Ponders End – scooting over the top of the thick weeds on a culverted channel like a pond skater. The magic of the River Lea.

In the fading light I thought the Harvester at Ponders End would allude me once more – I’m usually still pushing north but fatigue and hunger made the pub sign shimmer like a desert oasis. Doubling back down a dark dusty lane past horse fields I found it in time to slurp a pint on the river bank as the sun went down.

Walk from Leytonstone to Ponders End

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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.

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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’.

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A rust coloured rivulet trickled near the overflowing Birch Well leading to/from the Eagle Pond, this area is cross-stitched with a tapestry of nameless seasonal ditches and brooks.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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.