I needed to cover some mileage after an August of relatively shorter walks. To that end some sort of constrained walk was required where I could just follow a pre-ordained route or path – a road, river, trackway, railway, or something more esoteric or abstract that avoided an undue amount of map reading. The Metropolitan Line appealed as it would take me out to the edge of London being one of only two lines on the Underground that ventures outside Greater London (the Central Line is the other and that wasn’t running east from Bethnal Green due to new track being laid at Leytonstone).
I caught the Overground to Finchley Road and Frognal and made my way the short distance to Finchley Road Tube Station on the Metropolitan Line. Examining the map in the Station I figured that anywhere past Pinner would be a bonus – it was 1pm, I was leaving late as ever.
This first section to Wembley Park is one of the longest gaps between stations on the Underground – the longest being further along the Metropolitan Line between Chalfont & Latimer and Chesham at 3.9 miles – although Finchley Road to Wembley Park can’t be far behind. My walking route stuck fairly close to the track as far as Neasden where I then had to take a series of loops around Neasden Rail Depot, then along the North Circular, before crossing and heading up Blackbird Hill and reconnecting with the Metropolitan Line at Wembley Park Station. This two station leg of the walk clocked in at 9 miles somehow, which I’m still struggling to understand.
Slicing through West Hampstead, Kilburn, Willesden Green and Dollis Hill to Neasden was a slideshow of late Victorian and Edwardian railway suburbs bisected by traffic-clogged High Roads blackened by pollution. The tube trains rattled by behind the tall houses at the end of the gardens, heard but rarely seen from the street. It was a drizzly Sunday, a premature end to the summer, few people about. There were early signs of Metroland suburban villas in Brondesbury and Kilburn, redbrick medievalism, rookeries of accountants that spawned a generation of soap opera actors and rock stars. I wonder who lives there now.
Nascent high-rise blocks are going up around Wembley Stadium, I still miss the old towers, that new arch just doesn’t have the same grandeur. Soon the once historic home of football will just be a feature in another ‘area of opportunity’ dwarfed by the ‘safety-deposit boxes in the sky’.
After checking in at Preston Road Station, which looks oddly like it was plonked down on someone’s house when they relocated the station from across the road in 1932 and shortened the name from Preston Road Halt for Uxendon and Kenton, I cross John Billam Sports Ground to Woodcock Hill. The leaves on the trees that flank the Tube tracks are along turning bronze and amber, autumn seems to have arrived early this year, the price for that early burst of hot summer that feels long ago.
Harrow-on-the-Hill town centre was not flattered by the grey spittle celebrating the closing of the shops. I needed a cup of tea and a rest so headed to the shopping centre food court where long queues formed at Subway and Burger King so I crossed back to the Costa Coffee by the Tube Station and watched the shoppers evacuating the Town Centre like the fall of Saigon.
Leaving North Harrow I spotted an opportunity to make a long-delayed visit to Pinner Court – an art deco development of apartment buildings described in SPB Mais’ 1937 book England’s Character. Mais describes an expedition ‘suburb hunting’ in north-west London and writes of a “surprising moment of courage in building a series of dazzling white flats with green tiles, recessed balconies, multitudinous glass, and terraces fronting a communal public unfenced garden.” When I first read this 6 years ago I used the internet to track down the location of the flats at Pinner Court and planned a trip that I never made – it was slated as an episode of Ventures of Adventures in Topography, then a chapter of This Other London but remained elusive. Finally standing there on the unfenced public garden out front as described by Mais it didn’t disappoint. The building, designed by architect HJ Mark and completed in 1936 would have been gleaming new when Mais visited, it still sparkles even in the rain.
I wished I had more time to loiter in Pinner, but the light was fading along with my stamina and to stop now would have been fatal. Carluccio’s was bustling and there wasn’t a table to spare in Cafe Rouge. There were a couple of inviting old pubs beneath the church on the hill. I pushed on along the road to Northwood Hills and was rewarded by another modernist wonder at Elm Park Court designed by HF Webb also in 1936.
Elm Park Court
The rain hardened as I approached Northwood Hill station. I dug my poundshop groundsheet from my rucksack and spread it on a wet bench and munched an dinner of bread and banana. I was tired now but determined to chalk off one more station so forced myself onwards to Northwood with its proud high street and war memorial. Luckily there was a comfortable friendly pub not far from the station where the locals watched the Belgium v Greece match. A singer with a guitar started playing cover versions to a digital backing track and people instantly got up and danced. The perfect end to a walk into Metroland.
I’d toyed around for a while with the idea of walking the Central Line Loop that cleaves off after Leytonstone and skirts the Roding Valley through Redbridge. Initially I’d spoken to some fellow travelers about some kind of Redbridge modernist architecture walk before we realized that many of the buildings were either the Central Line stations or close by.
So on a cloudy day during the Easter School Holidays when I was looking for an excursion the idea re-presented itself and off I went. From previously taking random journeys to stations on the loop I’d noticed the different character to the areas along the line once you left Wanstead and headed through Redbridge – from there through to Hainault had a post-war feel, more working class than the old West Essex ambiences of Snaresbrook, South Woodford, Buckhurst Hill, Epping. The Central Line Loop feels like a displaced satellite of the East End as opposed to say Loughton or Theydon Bois which clearly have Essex in their DNA. But that’s just my projection, although Hainault was mostly built but the GLC after the war and Barkingside became home to a large section of London’s East End Jewish population – so there is some substance to this ‘vibe’ emanating from the redbrick.
When undertaking a set expedition with a designated beginning and end I nearly always leave home too late to complete the walk in daylight. This gave the walks in This Other London an added jeopardy as there was often a location that I needed light to see properly and document. And so it was again – although it only takes 26 minutes to travel round the Loop by Tube I estimated it was roughly 11 miles and with detours and time for photos etc could take me around 4 hours to walk.
Although I pass them every day the Hitchcock mosaics took on added significance when putting them into the context of this yomp – they are one of Leytonstone’s very few recognizable attractions, its almost solitary tribute to its famous son Alfred Hitchcock, but other than that you’ll find little else. I’ve made the point before that when I’ve told Americans about my home suburb’s claim to fame and how little is made of it they are astonished – were ‘Hitch’ from just about anywhere in the States they tell me, you wouldn’t be able to walk more than 5 yards without ducking under animatronic Birds, every second window would sport Psycho silhouettes and there’d by jowl-faced masks and Hitchcock director’s chairs in just about every shop in the high street. The mosaics are beautiful though as is the mural on the building near the Jet garage that replaced the building on the High Road where he grew up.
At Wanstead I stop to admire not only the design of the station but have a gander at the crudely painted murals that I’ve never taken much notice of before – Make Art Not War one says.
The footbridge over the Eastern Avenue has great views of some of the terrain ahead, offering a vista across the Roding Valley, that river fast becoming my favourite of London’s watercourses (the submerged Fille Brook still has the edge but it’s neck and neck with the Lea).
Walking beside the A12 Eastern Avenue is brutal – a heavy metal assault upon body and soul, a full-frontal confrontation with autogeddon.
Sandwiched between the pollution caked houses at the roadside between Redbridge and Gants Hill I spot a tall red brick monolith radiating mystery. It’s just sat there between bow-windowed semis trying not to attract attention as if it must hide some secret project. I remark as much in the video I record. Just now I received a comment on the video on YouTube with a link to an excellent article on Ian Visits who researched the history of the building and another on Cambridge Avenue in Wanstead. During the Second World War this section of the Central Line was used as a secret munitions factory and the monolith was a goods lift and now functions as a ventilation shaft. Despite shedding its top secret status in 1945 it can’t leave behind the air of wartime secrecy like a spy who never came in from the cold.
By the time I reached Gants Hill the steady rain had hardened into hail stones that bounced off the paving slabs. Charles Holden’s tiled subterranean tunnels leading into and around the station beneath the roundabout provided shelter before I had to plough on in the storm. There is a strong similarity between the parades of shops at Gants Hill and the other Central Line station buried beneath a roundabout at Hanger Lane – its cousin out towards the western end of the Central Line – designed by a former employee of Holden’s studio.
I was wet and miserable by the time I took in the Ilford War Memorial Gardens and took shelter in another of the Loop’s architectural masterpieces – Newbury Park Bus Station which was honoured with a medal at the Festival of Britain in 1951. I pushed on regardless.
The bend of Oaks Lane was matched by a glorious rainbow rising behind Aldborough Hatch Farm, sunlight broke through the clouds. The A12 felt like a bad dream as I walked the country lane past barns and farm machinery – the walking gods rewarded my persistence through the rain and hail.
At Barkingside the Central Line hugs one side of Fairlop Waters Golf Course so I took the opportunity to stick with the green space. Bluebells nodding in the shade of the trees lining the fairway hiding stray golf balls.
The sun was starting to set as I came out on Forest Road near Fairlop Station – it would be dark by the time I reached Chigwell if not before.
I turned off the road past Ilford Wanderers Rugby Club coming out near Hainault Station. It was then into a grid of peddle-dashed streets where it is always Sunday. I rested in a bus shelter opposite open fields in the last of the light near Grange Hill Station.
The footpath running along Chigwell Cemetery looked like a good prospect on the map – a twilit holloway, but after 20 yards I was ankle deep in mud. The path skirted a farm field with a solitary tree on the brow of the hill, the purple sky invoking memories of the ends of childhood walks with my Dad.
I crossed the Central Line over a caged metal footbridge and into the Essex Golden Triangle bound for Chigwell and the last of the loop. That colourful moniker was foisted on the zone between Chigwell, Loughton and Buckhurst Hill in the 1980’s when the dominant cultural association was the popular sitcom Birds of Feather before TOWIE dragged the epicenter of Essex bling further East to Brentwood. The area worked its weirdness frying my navigational sense as I managed to turn back on myself and halfway to Hainault in the pitch black. It was a fortunate accident as I was presented with a spectacular view from a park on the edge of an estate looking Westwards across north London – the twinkling lights of the Lea Valley and beyond like the Los Angeles basin viewed from the Hollywood Hills.
The Chigwell mansions were inscrutable in the darkness save for the odd illuminated sweeping staircase. The station platform glowed sodium yellow from the bridge. It was apparent the walk was up. The route to Roding Valley wasn’t clear on the OS map – a truncated lane that could lead to an unmarked footpath but could equally become a dead end. The alternative was a huge detour by road that seemed to defeat the object of following the train line. One stop short (or two depending on whether you consider Woodford part of the Loop) seemed cruel, but sitting on the platform waiting 15 minutes for the next tube I thought of Bill Bryson quitting his 2000 mile Appalachian Trail thru-hike at the beginning of the last short leg in the 100-mile Wilderness. That blank portion of the OS map between Chigwell and Roding Valley was my 100-mile Wilderness.
The next morning I realized I had to go back and complete the walk – it should only take an hour I figured. Instead of returning to Chigwell by tube I walked from Hainault where the train terminated. The transition from Hainault’s postwar ‘Homes for Heroes’ to Chigwell’s ‘City Boy Bling Villas’ was more noticeable in daylight. Pensioners having a chat with the council workers mowing the grass verge gave way to locked gates and warnings that private security were on patrol. The same company seemed to be protecting all the houses in Chigwell and I noticed one of their vans slide past me as I took a photo of their sign embedded in a hedge.
Luxborough Lane crossed the brutal M11 – the road that broke the heart of Leytonstone. To walk out of London is to cross a series of arterial roads and motorways – the North Circular, the M11, the M25. London is encased in this halo of pollution that we live within. To finally break through this asphalt collar into open country is a liberating experience.
The lane was a classic edgeland landscape – water treatment works, waste disposal, some run-down old cottages forgotten by time and then the river Roding with the Central Line passing overhead on a majestic brick viaduct. This pattern is repeated all around the outskirts of London – motorway/A-Road, scrubland, public utilities, water, train tracks.
This point on the Roding has been the end and beginning of two previous walks along the river – my Huckleberry Finn riverbank. From here it’s across the Rugby pitch and up to Roding Valley Station – the station so slight and discrete it almost isn’t there. The last of the stations solely on the Central Line Loop – but not the end of the walk.
It’s a short distance to Woodford along a straight suburban street that would be nondescript if it weren’t for the fine views it afforded across the Roding Valley at every cross street and break between the houses.
It’s a sultry afternoon and I seemed to have been walking in the rain for the last couple of weeks so I decide to walk on home to Leytonstone turning the loop into a straight-sided ‘O’.
Although the character changes on this branch of the line it’s still marked with some modernist architectural gems – the Odeon Cinema at South Woodford and Hermitage Court near Snaresbrook. The tiling on the underpass beneath the North Circular Road not only matches that at Gants Hill but also out West at the Hanger Lane gyratory, some design features that knit the city together.
The old coaching inn – The Eagle is already filling up and a trickle of commuters are starting to dribble out of Snaresbrook Station. I pay homage to the High Stone marking the return to ‘Leyton-atte-Stone’ and slide back down through the passages beneath the Green Man Roundabout to a table at the Wetherspoons and a pint of pale ale from Leyton.
Every Londoner at some point should take a trip on the Epping to Ongar Railway – think of it as a reward for all those times you’ve had to change at Bank during morning rush-hour or been booted off a bus at Agar Grove on a wet Tuesday night in order to “regulate the service”.
The volunteer run trains operate on the defunct section of the Central Line that continued east from Epping through North Weald to Ongar stopping along the way at the tiny Blake Hall Station )which had the distinction of being the quietest station on the Underground with just 6 passengers a day till it closed in 1981). Tube services between Epping and Ongar stopped in 1994 but a band of passionate Railway enthusiasts run trains on the old line regularly throughout the year.
I cajoled my youngest son into the trip with tales of the golden age of steam which relied heavily on references to the Harry Potter films. The adventure starts in fine style with a journey by Routemaster from Epping Station to North Weald where we boarded a train chuffing out steam. It was interesting to see how my son was more taken by the Routemaster than the train, making me realise that he’s grown up in a post-Routemaster world whereas once you’re sat down in the train carriage it’s only the sound of the hissing chugging engine that makes the train experience distinctive.
North Weald Station has been loving and beautifully restored to its 1940’s grandeur complete with vintage advertising and dark wooden ticket office. Ongar Station, built in 1865 and Grade II listed, dates from the time when this was the eastern outpost of the Great Eastern Railway before being transferred to London Underground in 1949, and has been returned to its original state.
There was something magical about watching the steam billowing out across the Essex fields and getting caught in clouds around the bare tree boughs making them look like candy-floss trees. I think next time the trains are running I’ll walk the route to experience it from the fields.
A midweek morning drop the kids off at school then wander. The patch of forest off-cut opposite The Green Man glimmered in the morning sun – it was irresistible. I followed the back roads up to the Redbridge Roundabout then suffered the Eastern Avenue till the chunks of pollution got too big to chew down and I ducked off the main thoroughfares again till emerging at Gants Hill.
Lurking beneath the roundabout at Gants Hill is a network of tunnels more like a space station than a tube station – the eastern cousin of the subterranean complex at Hanger Lane, opened the year before Gants Hill was finally revealed in 1948. Both stations sit upon the Central Line – Gants Hill’s ‘bright empty space’ beneath the roundabout the great tube architect Charles Holden‘s tribute to the Moscow Metro which he had been invited to visit after the builders of the Moscow network had originally been inspired by Holden’s Piccadilly Circus station. (Hanger Lane was completed by a former assistant of Holden – Frederick Curtis).
The golden vaulted ceilings of the concourse between the platforms reverses the pattern of other underground stations which show their wares upfront with decorative ticket halls. At Gants Hill the ticket hall is barely there – a minor node in the tangle of tunnels before the escalators guide you to Valhalla deep below the traffic hell.
I can think of fewer fine introductions to a place than the bus station that greets you outside Newbury Park Tube. This vaulted modernist masterpiece designed by Oliver Hill and opened in 1949 illuminates an otherwise unpromising stretch of the Eastern Avenue with its green cooper-covered roof.
Once I’d finished marveling at Hill’s bus temple I wandered into the peaceful haven of Ilford War Memorial Gardens serenaded by lusty choruses of birdsong from the bare boughs of small-leafed Lime trees that flank the pathways around the garden’s edge. Robins, Blackbirds and Blue Tits make their homes in the trees here which also support clumps of Mistletoe (apparently a rarity in London these days) and bats are known to forage among Lime trees.
The information board says that the gardens form a ‘Connectivity’ with nearby green spaces at Fairlop Plain, Fairlop Waters, and Valentines Park – providing a stop-over for migrating species.
The Memorial Gardens opened in 1922 and the fine hexagonal Grade II Listed Ilford War Memorial Hall followed in 1927 with its slightly Masonic vibe going on in the brickwork and corner carvings.
I’m not entirely sure what drew me in to the enormous Toys ‘R’ Us behind the McDonalds on the crossroads but I came away with a Bilbo Baggins action figure for 96p – to inspire future ‘Unexpected Journeys’ such as this one.
I pass a trophy shop and a newsagent called Fags and Mags on Ley Street and come to an inscrutable Local Government facility ominously named ‘Redbridge Resource Centre’. It sits opposite a grand monolithic electricity generator humming away. With the Ley Street Depot just along the road this is clearly an important part of the civic infrastructure of the London Borough of Redbridge, soon to celebrate its 50th Anniversary since being formed from the amalgamation of the Municipal Boroughs of Ilford, Wanstead, and Woodford, while absorbing Hog Hill from Dagenham and Hainault from Chigwell.
It’s leaden grey and chilly by the time I walk through a side gate of Valentines Park. For some reason I think of Patrick Keiller’s Robinson films – perhaps it’s the birdsong which is even more sonorous here than in the Memorial Park. I lurk beneath some trees and attempt to make a recording on my phone.
The Pavilion Park Café deserves a Grade II listing of its own with its formica tables and plastic bucket seated school chairs. There’s a photo of the café from 1910 which means it might have provided refreshment for Thomas Burke when he visited the Park in 1921 and declared it, “the most beautiful of London’s natural parks”. I’m the only customer as I tuck into my bacon roll and cappuccino, Bilbo Baggins on the table beside me. This is the perfect place to stop and stare out at the world for a bit. To the extent that I don’t notice the café filling up and by the time I leave there’s a decent smattering of parents with young children ordering plates of chips and babycinos.
Every passage through the glory of Charles Holden’s majestic Gants Hill tube station is a treat to savour. Holden designed the station as a tribute to his work on the Moscow Metro. Here beneath the golden Valhalla-like curved ceiling you happily dwell as trains pass through, a place more to pass the time rather than a point of transit. Lingering here you realize Hope resides in the Eastern suburbs.
You wouldn’t normally think it was a stroke of luck to have to break a tube journey to head off on another branch of the Piccadilly Line. But in the brilliant sunshine of last Sunday morning it was my good fortune to find myself at Acton Town Station.
Looking back towards Central London was like gazing at a mountain range. Wikipedia says the station was originally called Mill Hill Park before the Piccadilly Line barged through.
It’s another of Charles Holden’s masterpieces with it’s graceful modernist curves and geometric windows. I was grateful for the 6 minute wait for the next Rayners Lane train.