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.

Leyton under the waters of the River Lea

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This is a sobering image, in light of the current floods, from W.H. Weston’s The Story of Leyton and Leytonstone (1921) showing the ‘probable’ scale of the east bank of the River Lea around the time of the Late Stone Age.
I keep looking at it as it appears to show my home under a watery finger that laps over Francis Road up to Fairlop Road.

This map on Wanstead Meteo shows the extent of the flooding in the area when the Lea broke its banks in 1809 – although I find this vision more encouraging as it would submerge Westfield.

The nearby Philly Brook which was famously prone to flooding until it was culverted seems to still be gurgling soundly beneath the streets although I’m going to pop round to check on Dennis’ corner shop in a minute as it sits right in a gulley beside the brook in Norlington Road which was so sodden that it was dubbed ‘the valley of Doom’.
You can’t hold mother nature back forever.

Over the Marshes to Harringay

It started as a mundane amble up to Baker’s Arms with the wife for a mooch about. She headed off to pick the kids up from school so I followed my nose down Boundary Road. I’m going to speculate that it was the Boundary between Walthamstow and Leyton but that’s just a wild stab in the dark.

The Dagenham Brook winds its way behind the houses to the River Lee. Further along its course at Marsh Lane Fields the council are lavishing large sums of money on a new bridge across its narrow banks. It’d better be a good bridge, the one that was there already did the job of getting you from one side to the other without getting your feet wet, so this new expensive bridge better come with its own troll, perhaps a kiosk in the middle, and free foot massages.

I took several photographs of the brook from different angles – transfixed by it, wanting document its existence and pay homage to this slither of wildness passing through our realm of bricks and mortar. Some blokes were testing out new car speakers nearby and I wondered how I could justify to them my fixation with what might look like a muddy ditch.
I fumbled around in my head for a bit past lists of chocolate bars and the Suarez 10-match ban and came to the conclusion that people go to great lengths to seek out historical monuments of the man-made world for their supposed links to the past but here was a tangible relic from a much more distant age, as old at least as a Wooly Mammoth, just sliding past the backs of terraced house gardens minding its own business.

I got drawn into the industrial estate off Lea Bridge Road and wandered around admiring the modernist industrial architecture – it’s like a miniature version of the splendour of the Great West Road.

One of the factories in Staffa Road was possibly where the Panjandrum was built. With the high-tech military research funds long gone the great brains of Leyton have turned their attention to constructing giant wooden shoes.

The bridge that took me over the railway tracks was thick with flies – I had a mouthful by the time I reached the other end. I must remember to keep my mouth shut and not have my tongue hanging out in those situations.
The horses mowing the grass of the Lea Valley Riding Centre on the other side were less than sympathetic and harassed me for sugar cubes and Polo mints – neither of which I had.

The once mighty River Lee tamed and subordinate. I’ve written a few thoughts about it in my forthcoming book so don’t want to blow that now – I can’t think of anything else to say for now – just that I prefer the tributaries, although I’ve only mentioned the Dagenham, Coppermill, and Filly Brook in my book.

After following the path round Porter’s Field I ended up in a section of Walthamstow Marshes navigating my way along tunnels cut through a deep growth of brambles. Around and around I went through this maze of thorns with no evident way out. In a clearing a man was laid in the sun reading a book – he just looked up and smirked. I was too embarrassed to ask directions.
By the time I reached Springfield Park with lacerated hands I was more than ready for afternoon tea on the lawns drinking in the view across the Lea Valley to the dark ridge of Epping Forest.

It’s impossible to pass through the area without noticing the spire of the Georgian Orthodox Church in Upper Clapton. Apparently this was previously home to the  ‪Agapemonite sect – what a great name, up there with the Muggletonians.
I couldn’t get a decent photo of the winged creatures looking out from the belfry – Wikipedia says they are a reference to Blake’s Jerusalem.

The Salisbury on Harringay Green Lanes seemed like a natural place to end up. We used to drink here when I lived in a student house up on the Harringay Ladder. One night the pub was closed so they could film a scene for the Chaplin biopic directed by Dickie Attenborough and starring Robert Downey Jr.
From memory Chaplin is stood at the bar and berated by a couple of locals about not supporting the war effort during WWI. He’d be safe in the Salisbury today – there was only me and a couple of old fellas.

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