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.

A Lea Valley Odyssey – Leytonstone to Rye House

Here are a few images from a research trip I took on Sunday for my new book (as yet untitled). I wanted to start at Leytonstone House, the home of Edward North Buxton – author of Epping Forest (1884) the book that informs most of my forest walks. There was more to the Buxton link but you’ll have to wait for the book to find out (and also till I’ve untangled the complicated web cast by the fact the Buxtons seemed to use about two names throughout the family and all marry members of the Gurney banking dynasty).

It wasn’t my intention to morbidly gawp at the crime scene at the Hollow Ponds where a body was recently discovered but it was en-route to the W16 bus stop on Shernall Street. I then walked from Sewardstone to Rye House near Hoddesdon.

The trip just happened to fall on the second anniversary of the publication of This Other London. Work on the follow up is slower than I would have liked but you know, there it is, you can’t rush these things unless you’ve got a publisher breathing down your neck which I currently don’t have. As my friend Nick Papadimitriou pointed out, ‘you’re gathering lots of material’, and he’s not wrong, there’s stacks of the stuff, and I intend to gather a lot more.

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.

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.