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.
The Outer Circle – Rambles in Remote London by Thomas Burke (1921)
100 Years of Suburbia by Kathryn Morrison and Ann Robey (1999)
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.
The North Circular cut short my walk away from the Redbridge Roundabout so the only route left was an overgrown path beside some football pitches. The metal barrier across the entrance and the way the branches held hands across the path indicated it was little if ever used aside by some intrepid fly-tippers, and from the rusted remains of what had been dumped even they hadn’t been this way for a while. The moss speckled Redbridge Council sign poking through the foliage is like something from a future post-apocalyptic London, a still from The Day of the Triffids.
After running into several solid walls of bramble I end up in a patch of grassland where toppled fence posts enclose waist-high weeds and wildflowers.
The rusted frame of classic old municipal chair, its canvas covers long rotted away, stands guard over these abandoned allotments. They are still marked on Redbridge Council’s map of allotments with the legend, ‘Currently not in use’. No kidding.
Across the football pitches, where the fence has collapsed, another path hugs the River Roding. Mellifluous birdsong fills the warm air. I feel like an intruder – this land has been returned to the wildlife and here I am barging back in.
The River Roding runs clear. Electric blue dragonflies zip amongst the tall stems of grass and wildflowers. Long spikes of purple loosestrife cling to the riverbank. Across the water – Lincoln and Rook Islands in Wanstead Park.
The path leads through what is referred to on Wanstead Wildlife as ‘Whisker’s Island’. I continue as the Roding flows through Ilford Golf Course then take the path through cool wooded shade stalking the Alders Brook with the City of London Cemetery on my right. What was a reel around the Redbridge roundabout has turned into a country ramble along forgotten byways serenaded with birdsong and beguiled by the babbling Alders Brook.
The bucolic reverie is ended as I am dumped out onto the Romford Road just shy of Ilford, looking startled, rubbing my eyes like I have slipped through time from the 17th Century. It takes me a while to readjust and work out where I am. Once orientated I soon find my way to back country London on Wanstead Flats for the fieldpath ramble to Leytonstone.
Hope is a place in Snaresbrook (with echoes of West Hollywood)
I came to admire the gothic revival architecture of the orphanage designed by Sir Gilbert Scott (he of the Albert Memorial and St Pancras Midland Hotel) and William Moffatt (1841). The other people in the grounds were beating a hasty path to the Snaresbrook Crown Court as witnesses, barristers, friends sucking anxious fags outside, “Yeah I know a bloke who got banged up for turning over the same place”
The Eagle Pond – formerly Snares Pond. This is a high ground of gravels – there’s water everywhere – you need good boots when walking through the forest here.
Is this a remnant of the Saye’s Brook / Sayers Brook that gives Snaresbrook its name, now reduced to a muddy ditch at parts and elsewhere running along a concrete culvert.
Apparently there were two streams running through Snaresbrook, across Wanstead and into the Roding – the Saye’s or Sayers Brook and the Holt. All around London these tiny tributaries have been buried, lost, ignored but they’ve stamped their names all over the A-Z – the Saye’s Brook has its named called out regularly on the 6 o’clock news, “Today at Snaresbrook Crown Court”.
Ill omens littered the roadside as I passed from Redbridge into Barking & Dagenham along this death road. A cement mixer parted my hair in the wrong direction. The wild East. The twin towers of Ilford shimmered in the distance across fields of newly sown wheat.
The signs had been there when I’d staggered out of the woods on the muddy slopes of Dog Kennel Hill, my trainers caked in mud. Naturally, this was an unplanned excursion.
Hop on the Central Line eastwards – have a wander round Hainault – a tube station marooned in swell of pebbledashed suburbia. The footpaths were numbered – a code.
A gap in the hedge beyond Yellowpine Way offered an escape from this model of postwar suburbia, of the city spilling out into all available space. Down the muddy track, plastic bags hang in bare trees like Red Indian scalps.
Pulled across a wide green field, lured by the offer of open spaces, flung out of the orbit of the city. I sat on a log at the end of the field and looked back at London – vast, diverse and unknowable.
It must have been the euphoria of that moment that led me to trust the footpaths of Redbridge (my dalliance with Barking and Dagenham had been brief). London Transport bus stops isolated amongst fields are beguiling and uncanny, the chance to have a look at one should never be passed up. The view the other way was of a labyrinthine housing estate.
I was away from the death roads – back amongst beauty (Billet Road had daffodils on the roadside rather than ill omens) – following Footpath No.86 straight to Arcadia.
How easily we are deceived. But I am a stickler for sticking to the footpaths when out in the countryside – even on the Redbridge borders. The farmer looked to have a field of succulent greens at a tender stage of growth and I wasn’t about to trample all over them.
I confess that this was the low point of the walk – thankfully the only one. After all if you get to experience the ancient forest of Hainault and walk along Whalebone Lane North and glimpse the Caesar’s Palace of the East at the City Pavilion, then there’s going to be the odd sticky moment.
Somehow I found my way through a gap in a hedge after a precarious clamber over a deep muddy ditch. I tentatively sloped along the Hainault Road, my trust in the numerical code of the Redbridge footpaths dented but not entirely diminished.