Central Line Countryside Walk from Theydon Bois to Chigwell Row via Lambourne End

Theydon Bois is under-rated as a gateway to the London Countryside – it’s the equivalent of a Himalayan Base Camp for the London / West Essex edgeland walker. I fueled up on a great hot salt beef bagel before taking the footbridge over the Central Line tracks and down across fields to where I was confronted by the magnificent Theydon Bois Earthwork. This land sculpture by Richard Harris was commissioned by the Woodland Trust and completed in 2013. One kilometre of chalk and flint paths spiral their way into the side of the hill in a shape inspired by tree seeds. I stood atop one of the inner banks as the traffic throbbed past on the M11 and gave praise to the landscape.

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Moving across fields on the far side of the motorway near Hydes Farm, I examine my OS map and discover that the section of footpath I’m looking for aligns with the Roman Road further north at Hobbs Cross, that I walked along in 2016. This modest path that runs up the field edge makes a perfectly straight line to the acknowledged Roman Road that linked London to Great Dunmow, passing through Leyton and Leytonstone along the way. I turn to follow the route imagining the passage of Legions drawn from across the Roman Empire, hot desert lands, and what they must of made of this cold muddy terrain.

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To the north of Aridge I encounter my old friend the River Roding, ambling through the fields flanked by tall grasses and rushes. I pay my respects then cross the road and head for Lambourne End.

River Roding at Abridge

I lament not having time to have a look at the medieval Lambourne Church, but glad of the beguiling path leading down to Conduit Wood. A gnarly old tree beside a murky green pond looks to be home to a colony of wood sprites. An information board tells us that the path “runs alonsgide and ancient green lane”. The woods have a feel of magick and timelessness, where the path could as easily lead to another plane of existence as Gallman’s End Farm where I actually find myself.

Lambourne Church

A bridleway so deep in mud that it has made me hate horses, takes me down to the edge of Hainault Forest. Several comments on the YouTube video inform me that this quagmire goes by the name of Featherbed Lane.

Hainault Forest

A pond in Hainault Forest captures the sunset and holds it fast just beneath the surface of the water. It’s glorious to be in the forest celebrating what feels like one of the first real spring days (it was 15th April) after a long hard winter. I decide to toast the arrival of the new season and head off into Chigwell to purchase a can of San Miguel which I swig heartily as I make my way down off the high ground to Grange Hill Station.

Neolithic Trackway through Epping Forest – walk to Cheshunt

The cold biting down on the winter dark towpath out of Waltham Abbey to Cheshunt, turned out to be the perfect ending to this walk back at the end of November. It seemed a folly to eschew the cafe warmth of Sun Street to head out along the road to Waltham Cross as the sun was setting at 4.15pm. A mile-and-a-half up the Lea Navigation to Cheshunt seemed reasonable, and I needed a little more to tag onto the schlepp from Theydon Bois. A fella slugged beer from a green bottle on the deck of his barge. A single white bike headlamp zig-zagged in the distance til it fizzed past me. An illuminated barge looked impossibly cosy, like a floating Hobbit Hole. The red lights flashed at the Cheshunt level crossing where I started my Ermine Street walk in the snow in February. I like this stretch of the towpath and was a little sad to give it up – but it was time to go home.

Epping Forest

The aim had been to cover a small pocket of Epping Forest I’d somehow bypassed on previous Forest wanders – north-west of Theydon Bois, beyond Amesbury Banks – around Crown Hill and Warren Wood. Crossing Epping Road I discovered that the asphalt path I was walking along followed the course of a raised Neolithic trackway that ran across boggy ground that had recently been carbon dated.

Potkiln wood path

Potkiln Wood path

I picked up a narrow overgrown path beside Crown Hill Farm, crossed the M25 and waded through deep muddy ruts along the edge of Potkiln Wood towards the outskirts of Waltham Abbey. Open countryside gave way to scrubby fields abutting 80’s housing estates navigated via reluctant footpaths. Mangy horses chewed grass down to the roots. The sun set perfectly over the Abbey, casting it ablaze in a heavenly endorsement of the 11th Century vision that led to the establishment of the Abbey by Tovi the Proud. Popping inside the Abbey just before closing, a CD of choral music and a 2018 Diary were pressed into my hands by a member of staff for the exchange of a few pence. And then it was out to that dark winter towpath.

Cobbins Brook

Cobbins Brook, Waltham Abbey

New Year’s Day Walk 2018

Whipps Cross Leytonstone

Whipps Cross Leytonstone

Up through the backstreets of Upper Leytonstone emerging on Whipps Cross Road. Early pangs of mid-afternoon hunger are sated at the Lakeside Diner with a sausage baguette. I was only coming out for a local wander, now I need to walk this thing off.

Forest Rise Walthamstow

Around Whipps Cross – recorded from the 14th – 16th Centuries as Phips Cross/ Fypps Cross and literally referring to a cross erected by the Phips family. I cross Woodford New Road to patch of boggy rough ground and pass along St. Peter’s Avenue to Forest Rise. The dead tree stump I photographed in 2010 is still there – thriving in the afterlife.

Hale End Road

Hale End Road

Why did I have the urge to pass through Hale End? I have no idea but as I approached the North Circular crossing I realise how my relationship with the environment was formed by growing up within the acoustic footprint of the M40 – constantly humming out a white noise refrain throughout my childhood from the flyover that curved around the edge of the village. You passed beneath it to go on walks with my Dad in the woods heading up into the Chiltern fringe, and again it loomed ominously overhead walking to the doctors in the next village with my Mum dripping dark liquid down its vast concrete pillars. We viewed glorious sunsets on the other side of the 6 lanes of traffic from a pub garden we often used in my early years. It was an ever present. These motorway/aerterial roads link me to deepest childhood – particularly at sunset as now.

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Down a street of picture perfect suburban semis in the beautifully named Sky Peals Road. WG (I think the WG means Woodford Green but I have no clue as to why).

Forest Drive Chingford

Then along Forest Drive Chingford, Christmas lights twinkling at the bare forest trees over the road.

River Ching

I cross the River Ching – a candidate for my favourite tributary in the whole of London (I don’t think the Fillebrook counts as I believe it runs into the Dagenham Brook) – and when you consider that the River Lea alone has 30 tributaries (ok some are in Hertfordshire) that is quite an accolade.

Highams Park

Highams Park was the perfect place to end this New Year’s Day walk with its cosy parade by the station and the level crossing. I went into the Tesco megastore and bought some new half-price headphones and a packet of pens.

Trail Magic – dreaming of the Appalachian Trail and the PCT

Wild Cheryl Strayed

In these dark winter days thoughts return to long summer walks. At night I watch videos made by hikers on America’s Appalachian Trail  – with the hiking season kicking off in April it’s at this time of year that people reflect on their thru-hikes and others start to plan their epic trek along the 2000 mile trail.

I’ve just started watching videos from the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2659-mile long path that stretches along the western spine of the US from California to Oregon and Washington – skirting the Mojave Desert, crossing the Sierra Nevada, and scaling the Cascade Mountains, through desert, snow and forest. The nearest I get to Sierra Nevada is through a bottle of the delicious Pale Ale bearing its name that I buy from the corner shop.

The longest trail we have in Britain is the South West Coast Path at 630 miles. We’ll have to wait for the completion of the England Coast Path in 2020 before we have a challenge on the scale of the AT. Locked into the domestic routine of a stay-at-home Dad the idea of life on the trail is amplified by how distant the possibility of spending 6 months walking actually is – a distance I can measure in years rather than miles. In the meantime I satisfy my wanderlust with my excursions around London, in themselves a hangover from my twenties backpacking years, and nightly binges on YouTube hiking videos.

I have also just opened Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, an account of her PCT trek (my discovery of the AT came after reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods bought at the end of a walk to Ilford in the howling wind). A guide to the Ridgeway sits on my desk as well that sings to me at night. There are a few more winter months to while away, day-walking, watching, reading, plotting, and then … who knows what the summer will bring.


 

Here are 5 of my favourite YouTube Hiking Channels – in no particular order

Hiker Trash VideoSeven out chasing Hikers and ‘safety material’ on the AT

John Zahorian – beautifully produced videos with stunning vistas and practical advice on ultra-light long-distance hiking

Homemade Wanderlust – Jessica (Dixie) is a great guide to life on and off the trail and a good source of practical information. Also love that she hiked the AT with her dog

Will Wood – hiking everywhere across the US, always on the trail. Zpacks team member

Neemor’s World – there’s a gentleness to Neemor’s videos out on the PCT and the AT and also some good gear reviews and tips.

 

 

Will Self on “under-imagined” landscapes and “embracing the liminal”

Earlier in the year I dug out this unused footage from the interview I shot with Will Self for The London Perambulator in December 2008. He talks about his airport walks – one of which features in the film when I rendezvoused with him and Nick Papadimitriou on the canal near Wormword Scrubs and followed them along the towpath to Perivale, an episode that crops up in Will’s book Walking to Hollywood.

He also mentions some of the walks he’d taken in the past with Nick Papadimitriou –  “bisecting the Ridgeway at the concrete works near Princess Risborough and walking up into hills there, your stamping ground in fact John” – referencing the area around where I grew up and carried out a psychogeography project with my sister between 2004-05.

The walks out to the Isle of Grain, were part of “extending that idea of the liminal out into landscapes, topographies that are under-imagined in that way – the Grain for me was the great under-imagined place even though of course it features in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, it features in Celine’s Mort a Credit, even though it features in Dickens it’s the opening of Great Expectations, not actually on Grain but on the marshes between Gravesend and the Isle of Grain”.

He describes these as Interzonal Walks.

The lure of such interzones is “our willingness to abandon romantic conceptions of both the urban and the rural and to embrace the liminal …. is a sign of that we are prepared to engage with the totality of our environment”.

 

 

A chat with Iain Sinclair in the basement of the London Review Bookshop

Iain Sinclair was launching his latest book, 70×70 – Unlicensed Preaching: A Life Unpacked In 70 Films so I got the opportunity to interview the great London magus in the basement of the London Review Bookshop. This was the second time I’d interviewed Sinclair, the first was for my documentary, The London Perambulator in his Hackney home 6 years ago almost to the day.

On that occasion we’d talked off camera about Iain’s elusive film collaborations with Chris Petit that had been originally broadcast on Channel 4 – The Cardinal and the Corpse and The Falconer, now impossible to find on DVD or YouTube and Iain had invited me to watch them with him there and then on VHS. But I’d had to pass up this golden opportunity as the strong painkillers I was taking following knee surgery were making me dizzy and nauseous and it had been a massive effort to get through the interview without passing out on his floor.

Those Petit collaborations had eventually been screened in the 70×70 season put together by King Mob to celebrate Iain’s 70th birthday – a year of 70 films which had been mentioned in Sinclair’s books, and screened in venues both obscure and grand, some of them joining the ranks of the disappeared before the season had been completed.

The 70 x 70 book is more than just a record of this filmic dérive around London, it is a repertory cinema season on paper, the SCALA brought back to life in print; a revival of the world of wall-charts peppered with classics by Fritz Lang, Douglas Sirk, Godard, unheralded oddities, all-nighters interrupted at 4am by a punk band to keep you awake. But it is also a form of autobiography, weaving a path through Sinclair’s life and work as he discusses the background to each selection, or “an accidental novel”, as he describes it.

So we chatted not just about the book. We spoke about Iain’s early years in London as a film student and eager cineaste, the Paul Tickell film for BBC’s Late Show that captured the world of Downriver when it was still provisionally titled Vessels of Wrath. This rare 20-minute gem included memorable scenes of Sinclair reading aloud in the still semi-derelict Princelet Street Synagogue and the notorious bookdealer Driffield scavenging for rare tomes in Gravesend and Tilbury.

He discussed his collaborations with Chris Petit and Andrew Kotting. It led us to the subject of John Clare and the idea of ‘fugue’ walking, “… to do it purposefully, if that’s not a contradiction, seems quite an important way of dealing with a city that is a series of defended grids and official permeable ways that you can drift through that lead you to the next supermarket”.  Walking, Sinclair told me is “absolute”; “The silence of just moving, hearing your own footfall, listening to the city, watching the city, drinking it through your pores”.

The interview came to a natural conclusion as the camera battery ran out just after Sinclair had recounted a pavement confrontation in Hollywood with a Warren Oates lookalike. The event organiser seized their moment and moved in as went to my bag for a spare. I could have kept asking him questions all night and Iain is so amiable and tolerant you sense he’d sit there patiently answering, but upstairs Chris Petit, Gareth Evans and Susan Stenger were waiting sat before a packed audience for the 70×70 launch event.

70×70 Unlicensed Preaching: A Life Unpacked in Film is published by King Mob

This article was originally published on 3:AM magazine