Epic Lea Valley Hike from Leytonstone to Hertford

7.30am and the dog has pissed in my boot. I discover this as I slide my foot into my great new walking boots to head out on a slightly crazed quest to walk from Leytonstone to Hertford or at least as far up the Lea Valley as my legs will carry me in a day.

Hoe Street Bakers Arms Walthamstow
It’s a cold and misty pre-Christmas dawn as I slope past Leyton Midland Road Station – the Barking to Gospel Oak line on hiatus while its platforms are lengthened and the line electrified.

An hour later at the end of Chingford Road, Walthamstow my legs are getting sore which doesn’t bode well for the long walk ahead. I need to pace myself, let the natural rhythm of the plod take over. Clear my mind.

Walthamstow Stadium
The road into Sewardstone is cloaked in thick mist. I pass an abandoned row of breeze block sheds apparently used for selling fireworks. I cross the border out of London into Essex – an uncanny quarter of the Borough of Waltham Forest, London in the country.

Sewardstone
Turning off Sewardstone Road down misty Mill Lane I get my second wind. I figure I’ll need to have a third and fourth wind to reach Ware or Hertford. Crossing the rough ground beside the reservoirs I am stalked by horses – three friendly creatures who follow me for around 200 yards before returning to their grazing spot in the bushes.

Reaching Waltham Abbey at midday I can’t face the extra mile round trip into town for lunch so pop into MaccyD’s for a Big Mac Meal and recuperation although I keep my stop to a strict 30 minutes before returning to the Lea footpath.

Sewardstone

Beyond Waltham Abbey and the Outer London Defence Ring the path is clear of people. The mist rises off the Lea reminding me of the dense fog of the Po Valley.

2.15pm and stop for tea and Kit Kat by the river at Broxbourne. 2.30pm back on the move.

St. Margaret's Wood

St. Margaret’s Wood

Onto the New River Path at Broxbourne up to Great Amwell past pumping stations and through St. Margaret’s wood and into the dark of winter evening. The plan the night before had been to walk the entire 28-miles of the New River Path from Islington to Hertford. But answering the alarm call at 6.30am on 5 hours sleep the thought of an hours travel to start a walk I probably wouldn’t finish wasn’t enough to shift me from under the duvet. However starting the walk from home was far more appealing.

Great Eastern Tavern Hertford

Finish at 5.30pm at the Great Eastern Tavern near Hertford East Station – a lovely cosy old pub with friendly staff and a good pint of McMullen’s ale. The feet are humming but that’s to be expected of a walk of around 23-miles. Christmas Carols are playing on the jukebox ‘Simply having a wonderful Christmas time’. A second pint to make sure the ale reaches all ten toes before hopping the train into Stratford.

Pudding Mill Lane, Sugar House Lane & IKEA City

Pudding Mill Lane

I hadn’t been back to Pudding Mill Lane on the edge of Stratford for at least a year and the area around Sugar House Lane for around 2, so I was keen to see what was happening there now.

Pudding Mill Lane Station is all slick and new, seemingly fully completed and you can now exit without walking through a tight tunnel of plastic fencing, although construction around the station appears to be still at an early stage of development.

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The Lost River

Marshgate Business Centre is still intact – a final reminder of the old industrial Stratford. Digging out copies of ‘Your Park’ from 2007 & 2008, the glossy pamphlets that were dropped through our doors in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics, there is an update in September 2007 about the relocation of newts from the Pudding Mill River before the river can be drained. It was ultimately filled in and I believe the Olympic Stadium was built on the site.

City Mill River

It is also curious to note that on a ‘Walk the Olympic Park’ map published in July 2007 the section of the City Mill River where it crosses Marshgate Lane is marked as the St Thomas Creek. The most detailed description I’ve found of the network of rivers that branch off from the River Lea once it passes through Leyton, is in a 1936 publication celebrating the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Borough of West Ham. ‘Fifty Years a Borough’ published by the County Borough Council West Ham, makes no mention of the St Thomas Creek, so it raises the question of where the Olympic Park cartographers got the name from.

 Danes Yard Stratford

The Ikea City

Crossing Stratford High Street I pass down Sugar House Lane into a vast building site. The former light industrial zone has been flattened to the ground. Diggers move back and forth flattening the muddy earth creating a blank slate from which the property development arm of flatpack furniture retail giant IKEA can build what has been dubbed as ‘IKEA City’. So far the only visible sign of what’s to come is a peculiar wicker-looking sculpture rising into the sky from Danes Yard. The rest of Strand East will consist of 1,200 new homes, workspaces and a designer hotel. Insert your own jokes here about allen keys and flatpack construction nightmares. One of the many security guards on site told me the ground preparation work will continue for another year before a 3 year building period.

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Three Mills

I cross an iron bridge onto Three Mills Island where the Bow Creek, River Lea and Three Mills Wall River meet – an auspicious spot. Three Mills Studios continues to form a vital function in the London production sector and over recent years has been the location for Tim Burton animations, Big Brother, 28 Days Later, among others. In the week that London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced his intention to make London the most film-friendly city in the world the future of Three Mills must surely look bright.

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The Prescott Channel

The sunset attempts to crack through the hard cloud shell and signals that it’s time to head home. The path along the edge of Three Mills Green gives a final cross-section view of the Strand East site, the only two standing structures a late Victorian brick building and a tall chimney on the West of Sugar House Lane. The Prescott Channel branches off from the Three Mills Wall River at the far end of Three Mills Green and what appear to be geese make a noisy crash landing on the waterway startling a bunch of gently drifting ducks.

 

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.

Welcome to New London – Whitechapel to the Lea

Whitechapel Station

What seemed like a gentle morning stroll turned into a minor epic. The plan was simple, meet Gerry King at Whitechapel at 11am and go for a wander round the area for a couple of hours. Maybe it was the initial shock of the transformation of Whitechapel High Street around the old station entrance – I was only there a couple of months ago but already the beautiful 1911 statue has been removed and the old entrance closed for works.

The only direction we had is that Gerry wanted to avoid Bethnal Green so we walked along Mile End Road for a bit, stopping to admire the Trinity Almshouses and Spiegelhalters Department Store before turning off for Stepney Green.

Stepney Green
Stepney is one of the ancient districts of East London – the name is said to be of Saxon origin and is recorded in the Domesday Book. It was part of the huge tract of land owned by the Bishop of London that stretched from the City to the Lea. It became a place of manor houses in Elizabethan times then the country retreats of City merchants. There are still some grand houses around Stepney Green and also some fine social housing blocks – one of which Gerry speculated had the look of what was known as 4% housing.

Crossing the Mile End Road puts you in the zone of the river – descending into Thameside marshlands and traffic bound for tunnels and docklands.

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We passed the site where Doctor Bernardo set up his first children’s home. Round the corner, just behind St. Dunstan’s, we stumbled upon a left-behind street of small Georgian terraced houses with some of the old shop fronts.

We passed through the site of the Stepney Gas Works demolished in 2004 with the feet of one of the Victorian gasometers left as a feature in the landscaping. This led us to the canal and a decision point – to head across Mile End park and on to Bow Back Rivers or follow the canal towards the river. We opted for the latter purely on the basis that it offered a more realistic prospect of food.

We had lunch in the Museum of London Docklands before Gerry had to head off. It started raining, we’d had a good walk and I could easily have made my way home. But with a free afternoon I felt duty bound to plough on.

Canary Wharf
I never feel comfortable around Canary Wharf – maybe because my long hair and beard, general dishevelled appearance brings me unwelcome attention amongst the massed ranks of uniform suits and uniform inscrutable faces. I prefer it on Sunday afternoons when the financial workers are back out in the commuter belt or passing through the neon lit skyline on the DLR at night. But I had a long mooch around the underground shopping mall waiting for the rain to ease, which it didn’t so I pushed on anyway.

I was shooting some video of the underside of the railway bridge with my pocket camera when I heard an inquisitive high-pitched, ‘Hello Sir, hello sir’, I tried to ignore it but it wouldn’t stop. I turned to see a smiling security guard looking at me, a member of the large private army patrolling the fiefdom of Canary Wharf. They seem to have chosen a uniform that is confusingly similar to a standard police uniform – bearing in mind that they could wear anything, why not take a lead from the world’s most famous private security force, the Vatican’s Swiss Guard and wear red velvet with great plumes of feathers sticking out of your head. But private security firms in London seem to have a penchant for imitating the legitimate force of law and order in London – the Metropolitan Police. Are these people who were too short of too flat footed to make the actual Force?
‘Do you mind if I ask what you’re doing?’
I told her
‘Do you mind if I have a look at your photos?’
I said that I did
‘Could I have a look anyway?’
‘You can but I’m not deleting anything’, I said
I deliberately scrolled back to the beginning of the walk in Whitechapel and talked her through each shot of the entire walk.
‘Oooo they’re nice photos’, she said
‘Why did you ask to look?’, I said
‘In case you’re taking pictures of the CCTV cameras and security arrangements’
‘And what if I was – you can’t make me delete them’. She didn’t answer. And off she went.

It feels like a form of low-level harassment – a gentle reminder that this is private property and that you’re being watched. What it actually makes me want to do is return with my big camera and photograph every CCTV camera in Canary Wharf.

Trinity Buoy Wharf
I tried to shake it off and retreated from this citadel of corporatised global capital along the pulsing Limehouse Link Road, rain lashing down, slicing through clouds of pollution like hacking through mangrove swamp.

Eventually I stumbled into East India Dock Basin reclaimed as Salt Marsh – a fitting sorbet to wash away the nasty aftertaste of Docklands. The exit leads to Orchard Place and Trinity Buoy Wharf. Jem Finer’s Longplayer installation in the Lighthouse is closed, I mooch about a bit before standing over one of the most sacred spots in London – the confluence of the River Lea with the Thames.

River Lea confluence with Thames
In London on the Thames (1924), H. Ormsby puts forward the idea that there was a significant port at the mouth of the Lea that formed part of a communication route with Europe until the Romans built their port further up the river in what we today think of as a the heart of London – but in the Bronze and Iron Ages this site may well have been the centre of power in the nascent city.

You could possibly trace the current blitz of rapacious property development in London back to the flood of government cash poured into the Lower Lea Valley for the 2012 Olympics. Ken Livingstone openly admitted the motive for hosting the Olympics was to encourage foreign in investment into East London. From here, the bonanza of overseas money from pension funds, oligarchs, state investment funds, banks, gangsters, dictators, drug dealers, and hedge funds has spread out through the rest of London like a zombie virus. So in a way the Lower Lea Valley is once again the driving force in the changing nature of London.

River Lea
The iconic pylons straddle the river near the flyover. The Lea Valley fans out from this spot. In the 10 years of living in Leytonstone I have only recently developed a regional identity attached to the Lea Valley. When I first moved out here Waltham Abbey seemed like a distant provincial outpost – Holborn and Islington where more my stomping grounds. Now my homing instincts draw me towards Waltham and beyond – into the forest that tops the valley.

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I try to follow the river north but soon find myself having to weave in and out of the City Island construction site. The workers finishing their shift are wary of the camera and give me a wide birth shooting furtive glances back in my direction. It’s still pissing down and I’m wet through and tired but I can’t allow this to be the end of the walk – it would feel as if New London, this private corporate London, had won. I plough on.

River Lea City Island
Eventually I find a gap in the security fencing screening off the river and make my way down to the path. Here is the ending I was seeking – standing beside the Lea, tall reeds swaying in the acid wind, the river running free and proud and just waiting for its moment to rise and reclaim the land we have foolishly appropriated for ourselves.

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.

Beside the Lea

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Yesterday took a stroll along the new path that runs up the side of East Marsh, the firm gravel surface seems far too appealing to cyclists, some of whom looked to be taking to a bike for the first time. I waited a while to see if one would wobble off into the cow parsley – but it wasn’t to be.

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The Red Campions were out in force (unless the 30 minutes consulting 3 different wildflower books was a waste of time and these aren’t red campions – I’m not yet confident with my wildflower identification). Apparently the latin name comes from the Greek god Silene (their latin name is Silene Dioica) because like the female red campion he was covered in a sticky goo. Folklore tells us that they guard the place where fairies stash their honey. I didn’t find any.

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Somebody had a BBQ with flames so high it licked the overhanging boughs of a tree, there was an air of May Bank Holiday madness evident all around.

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The other side of the White House Bridge the birds belted out their tunes as though they too had been on the sauce all weekend. Somebody had set up camp in a secluded spot on the river bank hidden by a low-hanging tree. I pushed on for the filter beds then lapped back to Leyton via Marsh Lane Fields.