The Secret Suburb – Higham Hill Walthamstow

This was a tip-off from a friend and the realisation that I had actually never been to Higham Hill, it had remained mythologised as the termination point of the W15 bus with the automated robot voice stating its identity as the ‘W15 to Higham Hill Cogan Avenue’. My mate had mentioned in a follow-up text that the area possessed some interesting industrial history, important developments printing and type, the site recently converted into housing with the blocks named after various fonts.

Higham Hill Walthamstow

Higham Hill was not merely a  suburb of Walthamstow, the latest feasting ground of ravenous estate agents. Higham Hill Road offered fantastic eastwards views towards Epping Forest and Claybury. There was indeed fantastic art deco industrial architecture, abundant allotments, and well-kept open space. I spent three hours wandering round as the sun bashed down burning out the last day of May and I found a beautiful Victorian book for sale for a couple of quid in the Post Office before jumping the bus back to Leytonstone.

Wetlands Trail – Woodberry Wetlands to Walthamstow Wetlands

The approach to Woodberry Wetlands from Harringay Green Lanes was dominated by the, to put it mildly, ‘controversial’ redevelopment of Woodberry Down Estate. The blocks, old and new dominate one side of the horizon around this urban oasis created by the London Wildlife Trust out of an active reservoir. It was only when talking to London Wildlife Trust staff, here to celebrate the first anniversary of Woodberry Wetlands, that I learnt of how this reservoir drew water from the New River and fed it down to the Walthamstow Reservoirs via an underground culvert. It seems incredible that the New River, opened in 1613 to supply London with drinking water still fulfills an important function in the city’s infrastructure.

 

Woodberry Down Estate Woodberry Wetlands

Once the Klezmer Band started to wind down I exited the Wetlands onto the New River Path and slowly followed it down to the edge of Stamford Hill carving a trail along the path of the culvert down to Walthamstow Wetlands at the other end of the pipe.

The New River Harringay

There were plenty of people passing over Clapton Common and I exchanged a few words with some Hasidic Jewish gentlemen about the fate of Tower Court Estate. One landmark that remains is the Church of the Good Shepherd, now a Georgian Orthodox Church, built by the curious Agapemonite Victorian sex cult.

Tower Court Hackney

New signage indicates the intention to create a trail linking the two wetlands. When I next follow this path, after the formal opening of Walthamstow Wetlands, I fully expect to see clumps of backpacked urban hikers schlepping the couple of miles between the two waterscapes.

Woodberry Wetlands Walthamstow Wetlands

Springfield Park is the perfect place to sit on a bench at sunset and watch the world drift by looking across at the dark wooded hills on the eastern flank of the Lea Valley. Revived, I passed Walthamstow Marshes in the fading light to the closed gates of Walthamstow Wetlands due to open this autumn. It took me back to standing at the spot just after sunset in January 2013 when I walked a wide loop from Leytonstone across Leyton Lammas Lands to Wassail the fruit trees in Clapton and Springfield Park before walking back through Walthamstow. With that in mind I made my way along the deserted market for a couple of pints in The Chequers to toast north east London’s new Wetlands.

 

Walthamstow’s Sinking Cemetery and the Cinema Pioneer

A morning walk isn’t the ideal time to find yourself outside one of the finest pubs in London. The William the Fourth at Bakers Arms, Leyton looks resplendent in the glaring morning light. The hanging baskets puke out great rainbows of petunias.

William the Fourth Leyton

The William the Fourth is home to Brodie’s Fabulous Beers and you could drink your way round East London in this majestic mirrored boozer  – from Dalston Black through Hackney Red IPA, Stepney Green Steam, Bethnal Green Bitter, London Fields Pale Ale, Hoxton and Old Street IPA. But it’s 10am, the pub is closed and I’m heading for Walthamstow Cemetery on the scent of a tip off I was given by a nice couple after a talk I gave on Lea Bridge Road earlier in the year. They mentioned that one of the early cinema pioneers was buried there and it might be of interest.

Walthamstow Cemetery Queens Road
I checked in again on the beguiling Hoe Street Telephone Exchange before turning into Queens Road and on to Walthamstow Cemetery. It’s a boiling hot morning – possibly one of the last of the year – and I’m the only living person in this expansive Victorian necropolis. It soon becomes apparent that a number of the headstones are listing drastically – in some cases leaning across to meet their neighbouring grave. Some plots are sinking into the barren gravely soil. It has a strong air of abandonment.

Walthamstow Cemetery Queens Road Walthamstow Cemetery Queens Road
I now realise I don’t have the name of the grave I am looking for and am relying on chance – I Google to find the name of Birt Acres but looking out across the tombstone rubble don’t fancy my chances of locating the grave. Acres is credited with inventing the first 35mm moving image camera in Britain and a system for developing and projecting the films. Among his first productions were Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, The Boxing Kangaroo, and Performing Bears. He is also said to be “the first travelling newsreel reporter in international film history” (Wikipedia).

Walthamstow Cemetery Queens Road
It isn’t clear how Acres came to be buried in Walthamstow cemetery. The area had been a centre of film production in the early 20th Century with the British and Colonial Kinematograph Company having a large studio in Hoe Street not far from the cemetery so that could perhaps explain Birt Acres’ connection to Walthamstow.

Walthamstow Cemetery Queens Road
A headstone sitting in the shade of a tree and wreathed in ivy reads ‘Eliza The Beloved Wife of Thomas William Aldridge Who Was Drowned In The “Princess Alice” September 3rd 1878 Aged 33 Years.

After a while I start to feel as if I’m intruding although such is the age of the majority of the graves you imagine mourners are few and far between. Birds natter in the trees. Cats stalk the pathways. I move on through the gates back into Queens Road.

On the trail of the Dagenham Brook

Leyton Sign Ruckolt Road

Something magical happens when you pack your bag for a walk, even on a day like today when my enthusiasm is thin. In goes the notebook and 2 pens, a copy of Rachel Lichtenstein’s new book Estuary, OS map of the Lea Valley & Epping Forest, camera + mini magnetic tripod, a light jacket, and finally a cap I stuff down the side. All of this crammed into a messenger bag that was given away by the thousand at the London Film Festival 12 or 13 years ago.

I contemplate the journey ahead over coffee at Costa in Leyton Mills – the vast carpark here with its expansive Lea Valley skies is one of my favourite open spaces in London – it’s like the American Midwest of my imagination. The prospect of the relatively short walk along the Dagenham Brook increases in appeal as the caffeine kicks in. These minor urban excursions can easily snowball into epic quests. It’s the anticipation of the unknown buried within the familiar. Of becoming lost in a suburban swamp.

Dagenham Brook
I navigate my way across the grid system of the Asda car park and over to Orient Way, under the Leyton sign to find the point where the Dagenham Brook disappears underground before making its confluence with the River Lea. This is so close to where the Fillebrook momentarily appears above ground (in a reversal of fortunes) that I wonder if these two brooks merge before running into the Lea as a single watercourse.

A broken hole in the thick undergrowth gives me my first glimpse of the Dagenham Brook. I slide down the bank getting snagged in the brambles in the process and struggle to extract myself once I’ve logged my encounter with the river. Urban river hunting is not as easy as it seems.

Dagenham Brook
Fifty yards or so further along a recently surfaced new path hugs the river as it meanders through Marsh Lane Fields. I remember the Beating of the Bounds here on a wet May Sunday afternoon 10 years ago just after we’d moved to Leytonstone. It had been organized by the brilliant New Lammas Lands Defence Committee and was my real introduction into the culture of this section of the Lea Valley with the deep passionate attachment to the landscape. Marsh Lane has had a powerful hold on me ever since.

Dagenham Brook Leyton FC
The brook curves round behind the goal of the abandoned ground of Leyton F.C. – the weeds thick, nearly enclosing the watercourse. I call artist Lucy Harrison to see if she’ll give me a quick 5-minute interview about the Warner Homes that straddle Lea Bridge Road and have the Dagenham Brook running through the gardens. Lucy did an interesting project with the residents of the Warner Estate and I wish I knew more about them – now would be my chance.

Warner Estate Leyton
Lucy obligingly popped out into Blythe Road and told me about how the houses had been built around the beginning of the last century to provide quality affordable rentable homes and had gradually been sold off since the 1960’s. Although they have lost the tidy uniformity of their early years when Warner staff trimmed the hedges and painted the doors and window frames green and cream – they retain a distinctive architectural style with the arched double front doors and elaborate gables. You know when you’ve strolled into a Warner Estate.

Dagenham Brook p1010216
The Brook gently flows on into territory where I can’t follow it closely – behind cul-de-sacs, round the back of industrial estates and allotments. There are allotments all along the course of the river – even more so than along the Filly Brook. The occasionally waterlogged, spring-fed land unsuitable for building or industrial use, I guess good for growing crops fond of wet soil.

Pumphouse Museum Walthamstow
I eventually rendezvous with the Brook again near the end the W19 bus route where it winds around the edge of Low Hall Sports Ground. I pay homage with a nod, a photo and a few seconds of video before moving on back along the road unable again to walk along the riverbank. In truth physical encounters are a bonus with urban river walking for me, it’s more of a simple device to open up what might appear an unpromising landscape unenthusiastic about yielding its secrets. The brook sets the route and tells you its story, guides the way.

St James Park Walthamstow

The Dagenham Brook suggests I take a look at St James Park, one of those backstreet open spaces known mostly to the locals but a beautiful spot. There are only a handful of people in the park – a lady sitting on the ground appears to have positioned herself dead centre of a large empty section. An access road leads down the middle of a wonderful grand avenue of lime trees. The park occupies part of the site of the 14th Century Low Hall Manor which was purchased by Walthamstow Council in the late 19th Century.

Dagenham Brook Walthamstow p1010264

The brook slides behind park and under the railway bridge now running parallel with the broader River Lea Flood Relief Channel. I’ve seen discussion online suggesting that the Dagenham Brook is also a man-made watercourse, a drainage ditch. Old OS maps of the area show an elaborate tapestry and ditches and ponds adorning the landscape – nearly all now buried or filled in occasionally rising again to flood a basement or waterlog a garden.

Seb Lester mural walthamstow
Moving beneath the railway you are greeted by a sequence of murals on the end of terrace walls. On the corner of Chester Road a verse from Ewan MacColl’s timeless song written for Peggy Seeger is painted in elaborate filigree font
                           The first time ever I saw your face
                          I thought the sun rose in your eyes

Louis Masai walthamstow

On the other end of the block is a work by Louis Masai of a Fox, Badger and Bees – the bees carry a placard appealing to ‘Save Us!’, the badger sits behind a sign saying ‘No to the Cull’. Around the corner is a colourful abstract work by Italian street artist Renato Hunto.

Mural Walthamstow
Moving in to Coppermill Lane I can’t see any further trace of the Dagenham Brook as it appears to have merged with Flood Relief Channel. I stand on a concrete block and look north along the course of the Lea and bid my farewell to this understated, wonderful watercourse.

sunflower walthamstow

Wood Street Walthamstow to Larks Wood along the Greenwich Meridian

Larks Wood had eluded me for a couple of years. I would see it as my usual Epping Forest route crossed Oak Hill. It teased me when I was pushing onwards to Loughton and beyond – a detour and distraction – a pull away from the forest – there it was seductively poking above the rooftops of Highams Park.

Larks Wood

On a couple of occasions on winter walks when the light drew in I made towards it but always got bogged down navigating my way around Highams Park Lake and across the Ching, eventually getting lost in the ‘delightful’ suburban swamp that lies on the eastern side of the railway tracks. I would end up finishing my walk in the Tesco superstore in the dark and watching the level crossing.

Wood Street Market

So this time I set out with Larks Wood as my destination, noticing when I referred to my map sat by the standing stones at the end of Wood Street that my path followed the Greenwich Meridian. I couldn’t resist a mooch in Wood Street Market and picked up some copies of Crisis in the second-hand bookshop next door.

Larks Wood Bluebells

Finally arriving at Larks Wood in the early evening I found a tranquil scene of bluebell carpets and only 2 other walkers. To be honest the view across the Lea Valley was not what I’d hoped for – if you push on a little further north there are majestic vistas westwards from Pole Hill, Yardley Hill, and Barn Hill. But it was beautifully peaceful sitting there on the edge of the wood capturing a timelapse on my GoPro. So much so I forgot to have a look at the site of the Larkswood Lido – an excuse for a return journey.

Viking Trail to the Beavertown Brewery

Left home at 5pm with no plan except a vague idea to head towards to the Beavertown Brewery at Tottenham Hale and their Saturday taproom which closed at 8. I was torn between my usual walk until dark and/or my knee stops working, and the desire to actually get somewhere by a specified time.

From Midland Road, the schlep of my old work commute with a nod to the home of Harry Beck’s Blue Plaque (but stupidly not shot of it for my walking vlog) then down Coopers Lane and Farmer Road yards away from the wheel screech of Leyton High Road but always tranquil somehow.

Antelope Church Road

So sad to see The Antelope on Church Road boarded up. At a meeting to discuss the future of the Heathcote Arms last week – miraculously re-opened although still owned by a property developer – James Watson from CAMRA told the room that Waltham Forest has lost something like 50% of its pub stock. Thankfully now the local authority seems determined to lose no more – the Heathcote was among a number of pubs granted Asset of Community Value status. Let’s hope that like the Heathcote, the Antelope gets to be reborn.

I decided against the scenic route to Tottenham Hale, down Marsh Lane and over the Marshes because by now I could start to feel the tingle of a Beavertown Gamma Ray American IPA on my taste buds, so opted for the fast track via Markhouse Road and Blackhorse Road.

It’s sad to pass the boarded up Standard opposite Blackhorse Road Tube – once a legendary rock venue. I came here when I was 16 to watch my mate Johnny Lee play with his band. It was a big gig for a provincial outfit – it was said A&R men hung out at the bar looking to spot the next big thing.

The hubbub of the Beavertown Taproom crowd can be heard from a good 200 yards away – I thought it might be me and another 20 or so beer fans sat in the carpark of a Tottenham Industrial Estate. How wrong. There must have been 150 of the trendiest people I’ve seen in one place since I was backstage at a Katy Perry concert. Thank god I’ve got a beard.

Beavertown Brewery tour

After a transcendent Neckoil Session IPA and a Beaver Double IPA I tentatively enquired whether they did any brewery tours, “This is the tour I’m afraid”, the barman said gesturing from the bar to the expansive unit of polished brewing vessels. I must have looked visibly disappointed because he called a fella named Cosmo over and asked if he wouldn’t mind showing me around. At 8pm on a Saturday when they’d been flat out serving for hours they’d have been perfectly entitled to say No – but Cosmo couldn’t have been more enthusiastic, swinging back the barrier and leading me among the brew kit towards a 30 barrel mash tun where 5,500 litre batches are brewed using a tonne of malt for the 5% beers and double that for the stronger beers.

He explained how sugars are extracted from the malt by stewing and steeping it like a gigantic pot of tea. Then it is pumped into a copper for heating before it is cooled where the flavours of the hops start to emerge. The brew passes through a heat exchange into a fermenter where yeast is added and some more hops for dry hopping ‘to give extra hoppy aromas’ explained Cosmo. It is further chilled and carbonated for a week before either being kegged, canned (Beavetown have the best cans), or put into a wooden barrel for barrel-aging.

Beavertown cans

I can think of no finer end to a walk than to be given a guided tour of the brewery of one of your favourite beers. I walked away with the rosy glow of strong beer and a carrier bag containing a Beavertown T-shirt and a mixed six pack. I’ve got one cracked open on the desk beside me now.

An Accidental Pilgrimage

The intention was to cover a small area I’d missed out on previous walks from Leytonstone to Chingford – the zone along Blackhorse Lane up to the Banbury Reservoir, and then to just keep going till I broke out of London – somewhere.

IMG_4371

I skipped well worn tracks and jumped the Overground two stops to Blackhorse Road, a point where I usually make an instinctual turn west and head for the uplands of north London. Across the road legendary pub rock venue The Standard looks like a Motorhead roadie who did one tour too many. It was one of the first London venues I ever attended – travelling up from Wycombe one Thursday on a school night with my mate Johnny Lee to watch one of his many bands. It was a big gig for a provincial band on the up, rumoured to be a place where A&R men hung around looking for the next quite big thing. Now it awaits a new life as a Turkish supermarket.

It doesn’t take long for the walk to take over and the plans tossed up into the easterly blowing breeze. I am seduced by a green path leading to Tottenham Marshes which runs alongside the flood relief channel around the reservoir and onto the marshes. I surrender to the towpath and the northward pull. The sun comes out. Someone shouts ‘Hello’ from a slowly chuntering barge heading in the opposite direction. It’s talented film-maker Max Brill, ‘Off on a walk?’
‘Yes, but I have no idea where, until my knee gives up’, and they chug on out of earshot.

I’m developing a sixth sense which tells me when to step aside to allow the cyclists to buzz past, sometimes two abreast. The recreational mountain bikers, often couples, are replaced by knackered-looking slowly commuting factory workers as I pass through the North Eastern Rust Belt. A former HSBC office block has been pulverised into a mound of white concrete that is whipped up into dust clouds by gusts coming down off the Essex hills.

The northern city wall is breached when passing along the towpath under the North Circular at Edmonton. There’s a release of pressure that not even the tower blocks at Ponders End can cloud. Breaking free of the metropolis, the path ahead clears. A silver sign shows how to spot Otters.

I am tempted by the second of two enticing tributaries leading westwards  away from the Lea Navigation – the meandering waters of the Turkey Brook and the Pymmes Brook seem to hold more mystery than this canalised well-trodden waterway, but it’ll need to be another day, or perhaps when I can splash up here in a kayak.

I find the short passage through Enfield uncanny with the Lea navigation passing along one side of an ordinary suburban street where 70’s and 80’s semis look across the high water at a row of old cottages.

My boots are coated in a film of white trail dust. I pass under a subdued M25, a road that for me forever belongs to Iain Sinclair.
I carry a memory of Sinclair’s schlep to Waltham Abbey but can’t recall a word of what he wrote. But it’s enough to signal this as an appropriate point to depart from the waterways to head inland.

I arrive at the Abbey doors just before 8, to me, unexpectedly open so I enquire of the two people stood in the porch why. ‘It’s the Easter Vigil’ they say slightly surprised as if I must have come from some foreign, non-Christian culture. I take a look inside then stroll in the last light round the peaceful Abbey gardens, half looking for King Harold’s tomb. I start to give up and head for the nearest pub, believing that the tomb of the last Saxon king would be hard to miss when I stop to look at a graveslab with a wreath of conifer and some flowers placed on top. Running my fingers over the stone beside it I trace out the letters HAROLD. It’s appropriately English that such a symbolic spot in English history is so modestly commemorated.

I decide to eschew the pub and slip in at the back of the Abbey for the beginning of the Easter Vigil. A scattering of around 30 worshippers in the gloom, the only illumination coming from two candles behind the altar beneath the stain-glass windows that cast star-shaped patterns of light. The readings from Genesis are done in deep, slow, sombre voices. It’s certainly the first time I’ve ended a walk at a church service but it seems to fit. As the reading from Exodus starts I reckon I’ve paid my homage and creep back out into the streets to get a pork pie from the Co-op and plod over the Hertfordshire border in the dark to get the train from Waltham Cross back into the heart of the city.