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.

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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.

Hoe Street Telephone Exchange

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I’ve fallen under the spell of the old Telephone Exchange on Hoe Street, Walthamstow. Out for a wander the other day it drew me across the road, compelling me to sit on the front step for a while, momentarily slipping outside of the ‘other’ world into its strange orbit.

Built in 1956 it belongs to the world of The Quatermass Experiment and The Goon Show. A post-war world of technological progress, decaying Empires, buzz cuts. It would make the perfect Headquarters for the National Institute of Applied Psychogeography.

For now though it appears to still function as telephone exchange pushing high-speed broadband into Walthamstow homes delivering online multi-player games and on-demand TV.

Walk to Chingford

Lying on my back in the garden in the shade of the Sumac tree I kept seeing a view in my head. It wasn’t of Tuscan hills or the Chilterns but the view from the end of The Drive in Walthamstow that looks down along the Lea Valley. So at 7.30pm I set off.

I might not have made it as far as Chingford Road if I’d had the £20 in my pocket to take a boat out on the Hollow Ponds, full of families splashing about.

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The original George Monoux School dates from 1527. I bought a pamphlet about it in the Vestry House a while back but haven’t read it yet so that’s all the info I can pass on for now.

 

Immense views stretch out from the footbridge over the North Circular near the Crooked Billet Roundabout. The Holiday Inn Express in a weed-strewn lay-by had the forlorn look of a mid-west motel on the Lost Highway.

Where will they film the obligatory scene at the greyhound stadium that every mockney Gangster movie is required to have once they’ve converted ‘the Stow’ to housing? Lucky Blur stuck it on their Parklife album cover.

There’s a battle raging over the future of the track. ‘Save our Stow’ claim it as ‘the most historical greyhound track in the world’. I passed Catford Dogs on one of my walks for This Other London – also awaiting the same fate. London just has 3 of its original 33 dog tracks left.

I landed up at Chingford Mount as the sun was taking a dip in the Banbury Reservoir and jumped a 158 back to Leyton.


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In search of the North-East Passage

Headed out from home 7pm on Sunday night on foot in search of the north-east passage. I’m now well familiar with the other two routes across the marshes that separate Leytonstone from the western city, well from London really. But the most northerly was unknown to me. It lies north of Walthamstow in an unpromising corner of the city at the end of Blackstock Road.

I spent the first 100 yards preoccupied with an uncomfortable right shoe. This had the potential to be a fair old yomp so my footwear had better be right. Once fixed I then became overly aware of the sloshing of the water in my aluminium water bottle – and what were the dangers of drinking from an aluminium vessel. I was only two streets away from home.

Soon past Leyton’s archaeology row with Walnut House, and the former home of Essex County Cricket Club. When this area was being developed at the end of the C19t Palaeolithic flint flakes ‘as sharp as knives’ were turned up, forming what was claimed to be a remarkable ‘Palaeolithic floor’.

The cottages in Vicarage Road are in fine bloom – village Leyton lives with the spirit of the antiquarian Revd. Strype. I check-in with the beguiling 1940’s blocks of flats on the corner of Brewster Road with their cross-work brick patterns, they’re aligned to catch the sun like a standing stone monument ready for the veneration of Julian Cope.

I am trying to understand the ‘northern-ness’ of where I live. Leytonstone gains its identity from being on the eastern fringe – we are eastsiders. That is until you look at a map or walk back from central London via the most direct route and find yourself pushing north up through Clerkenwell and Highbury.

Crossing Lea Bridge Road near the fine stone obelisk protecting the library I wonder whether Markhouse Road runs along a watershed. The ground drops away to the west running off into the river Lea. Numerous streams run beneath the tarmac from the higher ground around Whipps Cross and the Dagenham Brook runs just below Markhouse.

The hop fields in Boundary Road have long since gone. The Lea Valley pylons appear between houses. I pass an electricity substation wearing a wig of Russian vine. St. Saviour’s Church looks abandoned. I wander round to the Gothic building behind which turns out to be Barking Lodge, Diocese of Chelmsford, Barking Area Office. There is a CofE school and further church buildings. An ecclesiastical encampment among the heathens of the marshes.

Past the sad scene marking a ‘Fatal Collision’ among the withering yellow flowers are weathered soft toys and three apples.

I move quickly along crumbling Blackhorse Road – reduced to a post-industrial rat-run. Waltham Forest Council has identified this as a spot to ‘re-introduce the country into the city’ – to allow glimpses of the marshes to break through the phalanxes of asbestos-lined buildings. They’ve got their work cut out.

I cross the Valley between Walthamstow Reservoirs and Tottenham Marshes as the sun ducks behind great puffy cloud formations and stop for a swift half in the Ferry Boat Inn.

There’s a certain optimism in the aspiration that drives up the development of Hale Wharf. Great hunks of isolated apartment blocks with birds-eye views of the rusting Lea Delta but little else in the way of infrastructure unless you plan to commute by coracle. A channel of the river around the site has become clogged with weeds – a metaphor perhaps or am I trying to look too hard for signs and meaning. It’s what this landscape does to you.

I land on the western shore of the Lea at Tottenham Hale. My reaction to ‘North’ as I forward more cautiously is to want to head home – to be back in my local by closing time, impossible on foot without tracing my steps and even then unlikely. I’m tempted by the train at South Tottenham but am not ready to leave the ‘fugue’ and so force myself on – but to where? I hadn’t thought this far ahead – I hadn’t thought much at all. I’m simply following instinct now.

The High Road climbs a steep incline of churches that will soon fade into the synagogues of Stamford Hill. I could turn north again here – for Finsbury Park and beyond. It is 9.40pm and as I stand at the crossroads of Amhurst Road I pledge to get back to my local by 11pm closing. Can’t be done I think, but I won’t give up until I know it’s impossible.

Clapton Common has a dream-like midsummer air with Hassidic Jews strolling across the grass and beneath the hanging boughs in the last light. Large groups of men congregate on the pavements intensely conversing in what I assume to be Hebrew.
Downhill past the Krays’ Evering Road and gyro the roundabout onto Lea Bridge Road.
It’s after 10pm.
I up the pace.

Half-way along Lea Bridge Road my right knee goes. Tendons go taunt and menisci grind against bone – it becomes reluctant to perform its primary function as a joint and bend. This is sure to sabotage my mission – I’m swinging lead in the dark as I cross back over the river.
I hobble to a corner shop and seek medicine in the form of a can of Stella Artois hastily necked. I’m moving a bit more freely now. It took me 40 minutes to reach this same point on the way out. It’s 10.30 – no chance of making last orders.

Down Church Road, into Capworth Street which is surreally blocked bumper to bumper rush hour style as two drivers lock horns in argument, “So I can be this ignorant and drive”, one menacingly reasons whilst leaning through the window.

In Francis Road at 10.49. The pain returns. To seek more Stella would surely sink me – have to grit my teeth.
A final burst and I break through the swinging pub doors 1 minute before the bell rings. Marge is behind the bar. I recount my quest as I order my pint.
“You made good time then”, she says.
“Not really, it’s just before 11″ I reply.
“I know, but we close at 11.30 on a Sunday.”

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Lammas Walk

Received this by email. I did a beating of the bounds around the Leyton Marshes Lammas Land when I first moved to the area – wonderful way to connect with the landscape in a ritualistic perambulation. Walthamstow Marshes is a similarly blessed spot and deserving of such veneration.

The Lammas Lands Defence Committee invites you to join us for our annual Autumn Walk around Walthamstow Outer Marsh on
Sunday 1 November.

Meet us at the Lee Valley Ice Centre car park, Lea Bridge Road at 2.15pm (Buses 48, 55, 56). Or meet up for lunch first at the nearby Princess of Wales.

The walk will take about 2 to 2 and a half hours and will end at the King’s Head Bridge near the Ice Centre.

Please wear sensible flat waterproof shoes or boots!

More information from Katy 0790 415 9398 or Laurie 0208 539 3330.

Barry Buitekant

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