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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Down the Hackney Cut

With the sun finally out I set off walking West and got sidetracked by the Hackney Cut/ Lee Navigation.

Part of the Olympic legacy seems to be to get rid of every trace of graffiti they can reach. The walls are now being coated with a paint resistant chemical that looks like hardened slime.

I chatted to some engineers who said they are building a tunnel under the Cut for a new tube line running into Pudding Mill Lane. I think he meant Cross Rail.

This swan near the entrance to the Hertford Union Canal made me think of Andrew Kotting in his swan-shaped pedalo as he arrived at the end of the journey he’d made with Iain Sinclair from Hastings in the film Swandown.

It’s difficult to tell if this is part of the new ‘sanctioned’ graffiti or not – but it looked nice reflected in the water.

During the Olympics the Fringe at Swan Wharf was a £90/day pop-up private members club – looked very quiet today.

Well it’s definitely Fish Island, the Riviera needs a bit of work. According to wikipedia it’s “home to one of Europe’s largest growing creative communities”.

At the Bow Flyover I looped back to the Wick and had a lovely pint of Citra Ale brewed on-site at the Crate Brewery. That was a bit more like a Riviera.

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Lea Valley in 2005 before the Olympic Blitz

Bob Stanley presents this great look at the urban wilderness of the lower Lea Valley for the Culture Show before work on the Olympic site and the big shopping centre began – includes interviews with Iain Sinclair and Richard Wentworth.

It’s well worth seeking out Stanley and Paul Kelly’s film, What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? set around the locations in this video – it’s a real gem and brilliantly captures the area at a moment of transition.

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