Across the fields from Epping to Roydon

pylon in field near Epping

11am at the tube station bound for the end of the Central line at Epping where fieldpaths branch off from the transport network. Epping is like a frontier post on the border between London and the ancient tribal territories of Essex. The fields appear above rooftops. It’s a release, a necessary abandonment of the day-to-day, of the troubled city, its beehive activity.

It’s a sultry Saturday, I’m running a slight temperature. Fat sagging clouds hang oppressively low over the skyline.


Along beside a deepditch by the field edge with a trickling brook. The sound of rushing water beneath the iron Thames Water manhole cover , a slight whiff of sewage, a mechanical intrusion pulling you back to the toilets of West Essex, the sewage farm out here somewhere tucked away behind a thick barrier of weeds. Stems of borage sway in the autumn zephyr. An electricity substation hums beside a double hedge where muddy planks ferry you over the brook. Not a soul around. Solitude. ‘Solitary, slow and wayward’ will be my credo for the day.

Epping Long Green

Crossing Cobbins Brook I try to remember the story of Boudicca in these hills and the link to this modest watercourse. Did she wash the blood from her hands in its waters, or was it here that the warrior queen bled out?

I rest on a hilltop overlooking Orange Wood. The south-westerly gathers pace shunting the clouds reluctantly across the sky. You have to stop and admire the spectacle taking place above your head. Then the wind drops and the clouds slow to a resting stop.

Stort Valley Way
Approaching Epping Green a deer skips across a patch of rough ground ahead of me. A posse of ramblers appear too close behind on Epping Long Green, and I feel as if I’m being pursued by a hungry pack. I skip over the deep muddy track that skirts copy wood sensing they will get bogged down on the ankle-deep ruts and it seems to work. I don’t see them again. In fact the only other person I see on the way down to Roydon is a fellow walker eating a sandwich on a bench in Nazeing Churchyard.

Netherhall Common
Birds flying in alignment with the pylons in a field looking down across the Lea Valley. I hear the distant rumble of the Rye House Speedway track, as I walk along the ridge above Netherhall Common.

The light is dimming as I drop down the field edge to the beginnings of the River Stort Navigation and the point where I first considered this walk back in April when I was walking the towpath to Bishops Stortford.

Nazeing, Essex

The rain progresses from drizzle to pitter-patter as I move along the Lea to Rye House station and the journey’s end.

 

From the crumbling coastline to the Suffolk death road

southwold footpath

On a whim I decided to make for the headland that juts out from the shoreline north of Southwold pier. A simple 30 minute walk along the beach I thought – and perhaps it would have a been a straightforward 90 min stroll along the beach if the tide were out – but it was high tide and the waves were happy slapping the sea wall.

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The only way to continue the walk was inland along a green tunnel footpath hoping that it would turn across the adjacent farmland. But in fact it mislead me to the busy main road at Roydon. I was loathe to quit despite heading half-a-mile in the wrong direction.

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I found a dusty farm track where the sea shimmered over the swaying ears of golden corn dotted with poppies. The end of the track was barred – Danger No Entry – Cliff Eroding.

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I passed beside the end house into a field then skirted the edge past a digger dumped in the corner and along the top of the crumbling coastline which gently sloped down to the beach at one end. This was now far away from the holiday vibe and the 6-figure brightly painted beach huts. This beach was deserted, otherworldly, apocalyptic. Danger signs abounded. The trees in the wood that gave Southwold its name tip-toed on the precipice of the cliff root toes dangling over the edge waiting to swan dive into the sea in the next storm.

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Finally I sighted people, and a church spire in the distance – that must mean food and drink and perhaps even a pub. A footpath ran from the sand dunes direct to the romantic ruins of St. Andrews Covehithe. The first vicar was appointed here in 1459 but two hundred years later they realized the church was too big for such a small parish and tore sections down to build the smaller church within its precincts where I now sat and considered my options. There was no food or drink in the village and my solitary bottle of water had expired a while ago. I’d have to walk along the road the 5 miles back to Southwold in the hope of finding sustenance on the way.

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It was a mile along the country lane to the Lowestoft Road. Soon the grass verge pavement dissolved into steep hedgerows as the busy road narrowed. What now?

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I clambered through hedge and over ditch into farmland to skirt the fields that hugged the road but was quickly forced away back through trees onto the Death Road. Across the road I found a beguiling lost byway that provided sanctuary for a while along its zigzag route. The map on my iPhone was blank, I was in a land beyond the omnipresent reach of Gods Apple and Google – did the place in fact exist then?

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A field of freshly harvested corn stalks slashed at my shins – the hacked off stems poking from the cracked earth like broken scimitars. Another hedge scramble to escape left nettle stings and bramble thorns the length of my sorry legs – feet and ankles like pin cushions.

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A second church spire brought salvation for a while – saved by the delightful old ladies of the South Cove Flower Show and the cream tea they served up beneath the thatched roof of the church. I feasted on scones and clotted cream followed by a slab of Victoria Sponge (they only served scones and cake – no sandwiches – what could I do?).

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Refueled I headed back for more near death experiences walking along the Lowestoft Road. Deciding I’d rather incur the wrath of a farmer than get splattered on the road I again found a breach in the 10-foot hedge and scuttled through into a rough field of weeds.

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I pursued the field boundary in the direction of the sea and soon spied an actual marked footpath into a nature reserve. Over a small wooden bridge and the path disappeared almost instantly among head-high reeds and grasses. I ploughed on regardless until I felt the water rising up to my ankles from the bed of the marsh. I retreated and fell into a 40-minute vortex of looped and blocked paths. When I eventually came onto the other side of the Nature Reserve I saw the orange barrier declaring the path I’d entered on the far side Closed.

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I was almost a broken man and started to wonder if I would ever make it back to Southwold and see my family again. Another car hooned past my shoulder. All I’d seen were DANGER – KEEP OUT signs and automobiles intent on murder. It felt like Suffolk was telling me to Fuck Off.

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I negotiated one more field boundary that led to a farm house and had a final hedge scramble that filled in any unmarked areas of my shins with cuts and nettle stings. Finally I hit solid, firm pavement at Roydon with blood-streaked shins scarlet and humming with stings. It was a great unplanned walk in inadequate footwear with no map – an excursion which nearly killed me. Can’t wait for the next one.