It was deep into the heart of Hainault Forest that I realized why I am drawn into the woodlands during summertime – I mean the urge is particularly strong in the summer months. I went walking with my Dad over the corner of the South Chilterns near our home throughout my childhood but it was in the cool shade of the beech and oak, and I can’t recognize any other trees sadly but let’s take a punt on hornbeam, that I reflected that we only ever walked in the autumn and winter as my Dad was a dedicated cricketer and so weekends from April through till the end of September were spent playing cricket and I went along to watch until I was old enough to play for the men’s 3rd XI. So summertime woodlands are an exotic treat for me. Or at least that was the idea that occurred to me this Sunday afternoon.
Like Epping Forest, Hainault Forest is a remnant of the once mighty Forest of Essex. The 336 surviving acres representing just 10% of the forest of Hainault that was recorded at the time of Henry VIII. If Edward North Buxton hadn’t led a campaign that resulted in the purchase of the forest in 1901 then even this tiny portion would have been swallowed by the tidal wave of bricks that cascaded out of London.
Sitting in the Two Brewers Pub in Chigwell Row at 8.15pm I spread out my OS map on a table in the car park and tried to work out where I’d actually been. Even by sticking to the well-marked forest trails I’d somehow significantly over-shot the boundaries of the forest. I’d assumed the beautiful meadow at the edge of the woodland was Three-Cornered Plain and took the scenic path that ran down one side past an abandoned mobility scooter. Eventually I reached a fenced in enclosure and realized my mistake. Still the views eastwards were majestic from the high ground and I made my way along the field edge path assuming I’d emerge in Lambourne End.
You can imagine my surprise when I encountered the abandoned mobility scooter in the path – I still can’t work out how that was possible – the path even looked completely different. Was this the forest sprites at play? A lady walking her dog pointed me back in the right direction and I found my way to the beguiling named Camelot Car Park.
I wonder if one day I’ll fathom how to properly read an OS Map or will they always remain a pretty fold up picture to make my walks more interesting.
I’d toyed around for a while with the idea of walking the Central Line Loop that cleaves off after Leytonstone and skirts the Roding Valley through Redbridge. Initially I’d spoken to some fellow travelers about some kind of Redbridge modernist architecture walk before we realized that many of the buildings were either the Central Line stations or close by.
So on a cloudy day during the Easter School Holidays when I was looking for an excursion the idea re-presented itself and off I went. From previously taking random journeys to stations on the loop I’d noticed the different character to the areas along the line once you left Wanstead and headed through Redbridge – from there through to Hainault had a post-war feel, more working class than the old West Essex ambiences of Snaresbrook, South Woodford, Buckhurst Hill, Epping. The Central Line Loop feels like a displaced satellite of the East End as opposed to say Loughton or Theydon Bois which clearly have Essex in their DNA. But that’s just my projection, although Hainault was mostly built but the GLC after the war and Barkingside became home to a large section of London’s East End Jewish population – so there is some substance to this ‘vibe’ emanating from the redbrick.
When undertaking a set expedition with a designated beginning and end I nearly always leave home too late to complete the walk in daylight. This gave the walks in This Other London an added jeopardy as there was often a location that I needed light to see properly and document. And so it was again – although it only takes 26 minutes to travel round the Loop by Tube I estimated it was roughly 11 miles and with detours and time for photos etc could take me around 4 hours to walk.
Although I pass them every day the Hitchcock mosaics took on added significance when putting them into the context of this yomp – they are one of Leytonstone’s very few recognizable attractions, its almost solitary tribute to its famous son Alfred Hitchcock, but other than that you’ll find little else. I’ve made the point before that when I’ve told Americans about my home suburb’s claim to fame and how little is made of it they are astonished – were ‘Hitch’ from just about anywhere in the States they tell me, you wouldn’t be able to walk more than 5 yards without ducking under animatronic Birds, every second window would sport Psycho silhouettes and there’d by jowl-faced masks and Hitchcock director’s chairs in just about every shop in the high street. The mosaics are beautiful though as is the mural on the building near the Jet garage that replaced the building on the High Road where he grew up.
At Wanstead I stop to admire not only the design of the station but have a gander at the crudely painted murals that I’ve never taken much notice of before – Make Art Not War one says.
The footbridge over the Eastern Avenue has great views of some of the terrain ahead, offering a vista across the Roding Valley, that river fast becoming my favourite of London’s watercourses (the submerged Fille Brook still has the edge but it’s neck and neck with the Lea).
Walking beside the A12 Eastern Avenue is brutal – a heavy metal assault upon body and soul, a full-frontal confrontation with autogeddon.
Sandwiched between the pollution caked houses at the roadside between Redbridge and Gants Hill I spot a tall red brick monolith radiating mystery. It’s just sat there between bow-windowed semis trying not to attract attention as if it must hide some secret project. I remark as much in the video I record. Just now I received a comment on the video on YouTube with a link to an excellent article on Ian Visits who researched the history of the building and another on Cambridge Avenue in Wanstead. During the Second World War this section of the Central Line was used as a secret munitions factory and the monolith was a goods lift and now functions as a ventilation shaft. Despite shedding its top secret status in 1945 it can’t leave behind the air of wartime secrecy like a spy who never came in from the cold.
By the time I reached Gants Hill the steady rain had hardened into hail stones that bounced off the paving slabs. Charles Holden’s tiled subterranean tunnels leading into and around the station beneath the roundabout provided shelter before I had to plough on in the storm. There is a strong similarity between the parades of shops at Gants Hill and the other Central Line station buried beneath a roundabout at Hanger Lane – its cousin out towards the western end of the Central Line – designed by a former employee of Holden’s studio.
I was wet and miserable by the time I took in the Ilford War Memorial Gardens and took shelter in another of the Loop’s architectural masterpieces – Newbury Park Bus Station which was honoured with a medal at the Festival of Britain in 1951. I pushed on regardless.
The bend of Oaks Lane was matched by a glorious rainbow rising behind Aldborough Hatch Farm, sunlight broke through the clouds. The A12 felt like a bad dream as I walked the country lane past barns and farm machinery – the walking gods rewarded my persistence through the rain and hail.
At Barkingside the Central Line hugs one side of Fairlop Waters Golf Course so I took the opportunity to stick with the green space. Bluebells nodding in the shade of the trees lining the fairway hiding stray golf balls.
The sun was starting to set as I came out on Forest Road near Fairlop Station – it would be dark by the time I reached Chigwell if not before.
I turned off the road past Ilford Wanderers Rugby Club coming out near Hainault Station. It was then into a grid of peddle-dashed streets where it is always Sunday. I rested in a bus shelter opposite open fields in the last of the light near Grange Hill Station.
The footpath running along Chigwell Cemetery looked like a good prospect on the map – a twilit holloway, but after 20 yards I was ankle deep in mud. The path skirted a farm field with a solitary tree on the brow of the hill, the purple sky invoking memories of the ends of childhood walks with my Dad.
I crossed the Central Line over a caged metal footbridge and into the Essex Golden Triangle bound for Chigwell and the last of the loop. That colourful moniker was foisted on the zone between Chigwell, Loughton and Buckhurst Hill in the 1980’s when the dominant cultural association was the popular sitcom Birds of Feather before TOWIE dragged the epicenter of Essex bling further East to Brentwood. The area worked its weirdness frying my navigational sense as I managed to turn back on myself and halfway to Hainault in the pitch black. It was a fortunate accident as I was presented with a spectacular view from a park on the edge of an estate looking Westwards across north London – the twinkling lights of the Lea Valley and beyond like the Los Angeles basin viewed from the Hollywood Hills.
The Chigwell mansions were inscrutable in the darkness save for the odd illuminated sweeping staircase. The station platform glowed sodium yellow from the bridge. It was apparent the walk was up. The route to Roding Valley wasn’t clear on the OS map – a truncated lane that could lead to an unmarked footpath but could equally become a dead end. The alternative was a huge detour by road that seemed to defeat the object of following the train line. One stop short (or two depending on whether you consider Woodford part of the Loop) seemed cruel, but sitting on the platform waiting 15 minutes for the next tube I thought of Bill Bryson quitting his 2000 mile Appalachian Trail thru-hike at the beginning of the last short leg in the 100-mile Wilderness. That blank portion of the OS map between Chigwell and Roding Valley was my 100-mile Wilderness.
The next morning I realized I had to go back and complete the walk – it should only take an hour I figured. Instead of returning to Chigwell by tube I walked from Hainault where the train terminated. The transition from Hainault’s postwar ‘Homes for Heroes’ to Chigwell’s ‘City Boy Bling Villas’ was more noticeable in daylight. Pensioners having a chat with the council workers mowing the grass verge gave way to locked gates and warnings that private security were on patrol. The same company seemed to be protecting all the houses in Chigwell and I noticed one of their vans slide past me as I took a photo of their sign embedded in a hedge.
Luxborough Lane crossed the brutal M11 – the road that broke the heart of Leytonstone. To walk out of London is to cross a series of arterial roads and motorways – the North Circular, the M11, the M25. London is encased in this halo of pollution that we live within. To finally break through this asphalt collar into open country is a liberating experience.
The lane was a classic edgeland landscape – water treatment works, waste disposal, some run-down old cottages forgotten by time and then the river Roding with the Central Line passing overhead on a majestic brick viaduct. This pattern is repeated all around the outskirts of London – motorway/A-Road, scrubland, public utilities, water, train tracks.
This point on the Roding has been the end and beginning of two previous walks along the river – my Huckleberry Finn riverbank. From here it’s across the Rugby pitch and up to Roding Valley Station – the station so slight and discrete it almost isn’t there. The last of the stations solely on the Central Line Loop – but not the end of the walk.
It’s a short distance to Woodford along a straight suburban street that would be nondescript if it weren’t for the fine views it afforded across the Roding Valley at every cross street and break between the houses.
It’s a sultry afternoon and I seemed to have been walking in the rain for the last couple of weeks so I decide to walk on home to Leytonstone turning the loop into a straight-sided ‘O’.
Although the character changes on this branch of the line it’s still marked with some modernist architectural gems – the Odeon Cinema at South Woodford and Hermitage Court near Snaresbrook. The tiling on the underpass beneath the North Circular Road not only matches that at Gants Hill but also out West at the Hanger Lane gyratory, some design features that knit the city together.
The old coaching inn – The Eagle is already filling up and a trickle of commuters are starting to dribble out of Snaresbrook Station. I pay homage to the High Stone marking the return to ‘Leyton-atte-Stone’ and slide back down through the passages beneath the Green Man Roundabout to a table at the Wetherspoons and a pint of pale ale from Leyton.
A midweek morning drop the kids off at school then wander. The patch of forest off-cut opposite The Green Man glimmered in the morning sun – it was irresistible. I followed the back roads up to the Redbridge Roundabout then suffered the Eastern Avenue till the chunks of pollution got too big to chew down and I ducked off the main thoroughfares again till emerging at Gants Hill.
Lurking beneath the roundabout at Gants Hill is a network of tunnels more like a space station than a tube station – the eastern cousin of the subterranean complex at Hanger Lane, opened the year before Gants Hill was finally revealed in 1948. Both stations sit upon the Central Line – Gants Hill’s ‘bright empty space’ beneath the roundabout the great tube architect Charles Holden‘s tribute to the Moscow Metro which he had been invited to visit after the builders of the Moscow network had originally been inspired by Holden’s Piccadilly Circus station. (Hanger Lane was completed by a former assistant of Holden – Frederick Curtis).
The golden vaulted ceilings of the concourse between the platforms reverses the pattern of other underground stations which show their wares upfront with decorative ticket halls. At Gants Hill the ticket hall is barely there – a minor node in the tangle of tunnels before the escalators guide you to Valhalla deep below the traffic hell.
Looking at the lines of cars rammed bumper-to-bumper along the M11 Link Road, glued together by the tube strike, it’s a good day to strike out along one of London’s natural arteries – the glorious River Roding where the only congestion is caused by the dragon flies, herons, and song birds. I even spotted a grass snake slithering across the path into the long grass.
It’s a place I’d only glimpsed from the W14 bus on the way back from South Woodford Odeon, one of the other great art deco wonders of Redbridge. But following my nose out to the forest the other week I finally took a closer look at Hermitage Court.
This suburban modernist marvel was built in 1935-6. It sits back off the Woodford Road, emitting a low hum of high architectural class and a sense of mystery brooding behind the net curtains. Lawyer to the Greater Train Robbers George Stanley rented a flat here for his mistress. In his book The Secret Train Robber, Lee Sturley recounts how George introduced Hermitage Court to fellow solicitor Maurice Lesser who apparently fell in love with the place and used it to for liaisons with various boyfriends at a time when homosexuality was illegal.
What other stories does Hermitage Court have to tell? This must just be the tip of the iceberg.
I set out bound for Ilford, following Thomas Burke’s dictum that “to go to Ilford is a fool’s act”, but in fact ended up trapped in a curious geographical anachronism. I’ve been fascinated by Aldersbrook ever since moving to Leytonstone – it’s like that beautifully mysterious world behind the garden shed when you’re a kid – a place of dreams but with an uncanny tinge. I dedicated a few pages to it in This Other London when I conned my kids into walking to the far side of Ilford by telling them I was taking them to South Park (which is a beautiful park between Ilford and Loxford as well as a brilliant animated TV show).
Somehow I had always managed to bypass Brading Crescent and would have done so again if I hadn’t needed some provisions for the push East and noticed the sign for a ‘Convenient’ Store. Must be good to have so confidently deviated from the standard ‘Convenience’ Store.
Straight away you are faced with the fine block of flats that at the time I wasn’t sure if they were 80’s mock baronial or part of the original Edwardian Aldersbrook development. It was in fact built as the Aldersbrook Children’s Home in 1910 by West Ham Board of Guardians with each block named after local notables – Lister, Fry, Morris, Hood, and Buxton. It was transferred to East Ham County Borough in 1929 and in the mid-1950’s converted into flats.
The handsome brick community hall in the grounds bears an inscription recording its opening by County Borough of East Ham in 1931 and today it is still confusingly owned by Newham Council despite sitting inside the London Borough of Redbridge.
I can think of fewer fine introductions to a place than the bus station that greets you outside Newbury Park Tube. This vaulted modernist masterpiece designed by Oliver Hill and opened in 1949 illuminates an otherwise unpromising stretch of the Eastern Avenue with its green cooper-covered roof.
Once I’d finished marveling at Hill’s bus temple I wandered into the peaceful haven of Ilford War Memorial Gardens serenaded by lusty choruses of birdsong from the bare boughs of small-leafed Lime trees that flank the pathways around the garden’s edge. Robins, Blackbirds and Blue Tits make their homes in the trees here which also support clumps of Mistletoe (apparently a rarity in London these days) and bats are known to forage among Lime trees.
The information board says that the gardens form a ‘Connectivity’ with nearby green spaces at Fairlop Plain, Fairlop Waters, and Valentines Park – providing a stop-over for migrating species.
The Memorial Gardens opened in 1922 and the fine hexagonal Grade II Listed Ilford War Memorial Hall followed in 1927 with its slightly Masonic vibe going on in the brickwork and corner carvings.
I’m not entirely sure what drew me in to the enormous Toys ‘R’ Us behind the McDonalds on the crossroads but I came away with a Bilbo Baggins action figure for 96p – to inspire future ‘Unexpected Journeys’ such as this one.
I pass a trophy shop and a newsagent called Fags and Mags on Ley Street and come to an inscrutable Local Government facility ominously named ‘Redbridge Resource Centre’. It sits opposite a grand monolithic electricity generator humming away. With the Ley Street Depot just along the road this is clearly an important part of the civic infrastructure of the London Borough of Redbridge, soon to celebrate its 50th Anniversary since being formed from the amalgamation of the Municipal Boroughs of Ilford, Wanstead, and Woodford, while absorbing Hog Hill from Dagenham and Hainault from Chigwell.
It’s leaden grey and chilly by the time I walk through a side gate of Valentines Park. For some reason I think of Patrick Keiller’s Robinson films – perhaps it’s the birdsong which is even more sonorous here than in the Memorial Park. I lurk beneath some trees and attempt to make a recording on my phone.
The Pavilion Park Café deserves a Grade II listing of its own with its formica tables and plastic bucket seated school chairs. There’s a photo of the café from 1910 which means it might have provided refreshment for Thomas Burke when he visited the Park in 1921 and declared it, “the most beautiful of London’s natural parks”. I’m the only customer as I tuck into my bacon roll and cappuccino, Bilbo Baggins on the table beside me. This is the perfect place to stop and stare out at the world for a bit. To the extent that I don’t notice the café filling up and by the time I leave there’s a decent smattering of parents with young children ordering plates of chips and babycinos.
Every passage through the glory of Charles Holden’s majestic Gants Hill tube station is a treat to savour. Holden designed the station as a tribute to his work on the Moscow Metro. Here beneath the golden Valhalla-like curved ceiling you happily dwell as trains pass through, a place more to pass the time rather than a point of transit. Lingering here you realize Hope resides in the Eastern suburbs.