Wanstead Flats looked resplendent the other morning cloaked in a thick frost.
Wanstead Flats looked resplendent the other morning cloaked in a thick frost.
A real joy to make this latest episode of my series of walking vlogs as Wanstead Flats is probably my favourite open space in London – and also because it gave me a chance to use the footage of my Dad finding a Hedge Mog on the flats a couple of years ago that I described in Chapter 10 This Other London.
Tested out an old Olympus Zuiko OM 50mm lens on my Panasonic GH3 camera at the weekend over on Wanstead Flats. After a long hibernation you can see Spring starting to visit the Flats.
I wish I was better at identifying wildflowers – I’ve sat here with 3 wildflower books on my desk, looked at 4 websites and I still can’t identify this beautiful little plant that was growing along the avenue that once led from Leytonstone High Road to the gates of the grand Wanstead House.
I show this picture to my 80-year father who instantly identifies it as Blackthorn. A Druid website says that in plant lore, “The Blackthorn tree is esoterically known as both the Mother of the Woods and the Dark Crone of the Woods.” And is also said to have, “the most sinister reputation in Celtic tree lore” associated with “ill omens” and to witches represents “the dark side of the Craft”.
I’m going to stick my neck out here and say this is a gorse bush but with the caveat that I could be wrong and they merely look like a gorse to the untrained eye.
Yesterday saw thousands of people take to the streets of London in the March for Homes. This builds on recent high profile housing campaigns such as Focus E15, the New Era Estate, and Our West Hendon. But this is just the tip of the iceberg, as one campaigner from Feminist Fightback told me there are 70 social housing estates undergoing ‘regeneration’ which is often just a means of demolishing the existing homes, displacing the tenants and privatising some if not all of the land. The group has calculated that there are around 160,000 tenants facing eviction and/or rehousing. The land value of these 70 estates is estimated to be in the region of £52billion.
There was a great spirit amongst the diverse range of Londoners traipsing through the rain from the congregation points of St Leonard’s Church Shoreditch and the Elephant and Castle – converging on City Hall, Boris Johnson’s Death Star. A lady thrust a yellow flier into my hand whilst I stood on a peddle-dash plinth trying to get a decent shot of the procession from a higher vantage point. ‘Fred & John Towers Not For Sale’ – Leytonstone’s own iconic tower blocks beside Wanstead Flats that played host to snipers and anti-aircraft missiles during the London Olympics. The E15 Campaigners have joined forces to help the residents who face being rehoused while Waltham Forest Council sell off one of the blocks and dispose of 70 Council homes in the process.
Next week the residents of Earls Court will be demonstrating to save the heart being ripped out of their area with a £8billion development. New battle lines are being drawn all across London every day in the fight for the soul and the future of this great ancient city.
I’d been wanting to walk around the border of Leytonstone for some time – the major obstacle being working out exactly where Leytonstone ended and Leyton/Stratford/Forest Gate/Walthamstow/Wanstead began. Walking around the E11 postcode district wouldn’t work as a big chunk of it is Wanstead and Snaresbrook in the borough of Redbridge. There’s also the potential anomaly that Leyton tube station is in E11 so did that mean it was Leytonstone? Council ward boundaries weren’t much help as they crossed over into areas that are definitely in other parts of the borough. Andrew Stevens suggested using early administrative boundaries for sewage and water works and although it threw up some interesting nuggets didn’t fully solve the conundrum. I rang the Council who were helpful but concluded that Leytonstone had no recognized boundary.
In the end I sketched out a route using the E11 postcode where it was in Waltham Forest, the areas containing a borough boundary where it couldn’t be anywhere but Leytonstone (see later for where this occurs and falls apart) and added areas that are commonly agreed to be landmarks of Leytonstone – e.g. Whipps Cross, Hollow Ponds, Thatched House, St. Patrick’s Cemetery. That gave a fairly reliable start point and only left a few grey areas that would have to be tested on foot. Although I’ve lived in Leytonstone over 8 years now and walked most streets in the area I couldn’t feel I truly understood where I lived until I’d stalked the entire perimeter in a single perambulation; sticking doggedly to my turf, looking out beyond as much as in.
I met Andrew and his son on the corner of Norlington Road (E10) and Newport Road (my brood bailed early on for Abbots Park, Leyton). One side of Newport is apparently in Leytonstone with the other allegedly in Leyton (Jersey Road being the exception where E11 crosses sides). This is a low point in the ground where the Fillebrook gurgles beneath the tarmac through what would once have been open fields and could have been used as a boundary although unlikely as it seems to have cut through one parcel of farmland or estate. From here we followed the blue postcode line on my Knowledge map taking us round Pretoria Road then surprising goes the length of Norlington Road on the school side then loops round to take in the end of Hainault Road E11 where it meets Leyton High Road.
Turning off Hainault Road we would have needed to leap across garage roofs to stick rigidly to the boundary so we took a 20 yard detour into Leyton to pick up the end of James Lane. It was a straight run along the backs of garages – easily imaginable as an old laneway or cart-track when the area was rural. We then turned along Peterborough Road which I’d always assumed was Leyton but it’s marked E11 and the alternative would be to go through the grounds of Whipps Cross Hospital and miss out a small section of roads on the far side. Skirting round the edge of Whipps looking across at the boarded up nurses accommodation block we kept tight to the Leytonstone border through a tidy nest of streets containing a mysterious abandoned-looking Hansel and Gretel cottage coming out onto the small green at Whipps Cross Roundabout where the trams once stopped. What the people of Leytonstone wouldn’t give to revive the old tramlines from here into Whitechapel.
The border skirts the edge of the Whipps Cross Roundabout in a curious corner where Leytonstone, Leyton and Walthamstow meet and exchange harsh words, sledging each other across the road. This leads up to one of Leytonstone’s oddities – the row of Victorian houses beside the patch of open land with pond known as The Forest. First time I stumbled across this isolated settlement I was sure there had to be a pub to round off the image of the perfect village green but all I found was the expensive Forest private school.
Here we had to rely on the borough boundary separating Waltham Forest from Redbridge that cuts through the forest keeping tight to one edge of the Eagle Pond and behind Snaresbrook Crown Court. Here in the trees Andrew’s son spotted a small pool covered in a mat of luminous green algae. It looked like a well with carved stone edging and water around 2 feet deep. I posted the photo on Facebook and within 30 minutes had been told exactly what it was and its history. Philip and Richard responded with both descriptions and sketch maps confirming that this was The Birch Well – an “important source of water” at during times of drought and water shortages.
We clambered over an ivy-covered wall so Andrew could show me the ruin of the Chaplainry from the time when the law courts were an orphanage (Andrew wrote a piece on it for 3:AM). Following a dried up ditch that I speculated could be the course of the River Holt we emerged on Holy Bush Hill and walked down to the holiest of holy Leytonstone relics – the High Stone. Although it’s been moved a couple of times over the years this marks one corner of the area – everything around it is Redbridge.
Under the Green Man roundabout and rest-bite in the North Star which is blissfully close to the Bushwood border. There’d been a Leytonstone Jumble Trail that day and a few houses on Bushwood still had scattered items in their front gardens. Across the road from here is neither Redbridge nor Newham but the Corporation of London (get your head round that – although nowhere near as confusing as when you run into the Corporation livery when going for a stroll in Burnham Beaches, Bucks).
We skirted the edge of Wanstead Flats by the iconic Fred Wigg and John Walsh towers and payed homage to the fine Metropolitan Cattle Trough, coming out through the trees onto Harrow Road. As we passed the end of Cann Hall Road headed for the E7 section of Waltham Forest Andrew refused to go further on the solid grounds that ‘no one in their right mind would say that this was Leytonstone’. Fair point. But there is a block of streets from Cann Hall (recognized Leytonstone E11) to Vansittart Road round the edge of West Ham cemetery onto Leytonstone High Road via Janson Road that sit within the boundary of Waltham Forest and surely couldn’t be in Leyton. Andrew argued that simply part of Forest Gate must be in both Newham and Waltham Forest. I did wonder whether he was just tired and fancied cutting a chunk off the walk, however Cann Hall Road did make more sense.
I’m still raw from the closure of my precious local The Heathcote Arms so walking past the boarded up Lord Rookwood and The Colegrave Arms converted to a mosque, both on Cann Hall Road, topped off by the Thatched House invaded by a bookies, opposite the junction with the High Road, was like a macabre exhibition of the fate that befalls pubs once sold. Let’s hope not eh.
While Crownfield Road, E15 seems like a natural border a few small streets to the south appear to be in Waltham Forest. We couldn’t decide at which point Crownfield Road became Leyton and the idea that Leyton High Road was on the border seemed mad so we made an arbitrary turning off Crownfield up Ellingham Road into Downsell Road (the school here is listed as Leytonstone) heading for Langthorne Road – undeniably Leytonstone and taking us past the old Infirmary, St Patrick’s Cemetery (which has Leytonstone on the plaque by the entrance), and the legendary Birkbeck Tavern – a pub saved from being zombied into flats.
There are a series of streets leading down to Leyton High Road here that are in E11 and could be claimed for Leytonstone but it’s unlikely anyone living there, so close to Leyton tube would refer to this as Leytonstone (Leslie Rd, Millais, Frith, Calderon, Webster, Goodall) – but we could well be wrong. After writing off the E7 parts of the borough we were becoming gung ho with our judgments and had no problem dispatching a block of E11. On reflection I think this might have been a mistake.
From here it was fairly straightforward to cross the Link Road via the foot-tunnel, up Grove Green Road, along Francis Road, into Twickenham, St. Anne’s (half of which is Leyton) and up Newport on the eastern side with a detour round Jersey Road E11, to close the loop by Dennis’s shop. In total took us around 4 hours to cover approximately 8 miles.
The North Circular cut short my walk away from the Redbridge Roundabout so the only route left was an overgrown path beside some football pitches. The metal barrier across the entrance and the way the branches held hands across the path indicated it was little if ever used aside by some intrepid fly-tippers, and from the rusted remains of what had been dumped even they hadn’t been this way for a while. The moss speckled Redbridge Council sign poking through the foliage is like something from a future post-apocalyptic London, a still from The Day of the Triffids.
After running into several solid walls of bramble I end up in a patch of grassland where toppled fence posts enclose waist-high weeds and wildflowers.
The rusted frame of classic old municipal chair, its canvas covers long rotted away, stands guard over these abandoned allotments. They are still marked on Redbridge Council’s map of allotments with the legend, ‘Currently not in use’. No kidding.
Across the football pitches, where the fence has collapsed, another path hugs the River Roding. Mellifluous birdsong fills the warm air. I feel like an intruder – this land has been returned to the wildlife and here I am barging back in.
The River Roding runs clear. Electric blue dragonflies zip amongst the tall stems of grass and wildflowers. Long spikes of purple loosestrife cling to the riverbank. Across the water – Lincoln and Rook Islands in Wanstead Park.
The path leads through what is referred to on Wanstead Wildlife as ‘Whisker’s Island’. I continue as the Roding flows through Ilford Golf Course then take the path through cool wooded shade stalking the Alders Brook with the City of London Cemetery on my right. What was a reel around the Redbridge roundabout has turned into a country ramble along forgotten byways serenaded with birdsong and beguiled by the babbling Alders Brook.
The bucolic reverie is ended as I am dumped out onto the Romford Road just shy of Ilford, looking startled, rubbing my eyes like I have slipped through time from the 17th Century. It takes me a while to readjust and work out where I am. Once orientated I soon find my way to back country London on Wanstead Flats for the fieldpath ramble to Leytonstone.
Love this fantastic ‘patch map’ of Wanstead Flats from Wanstead Birder marked with ‘boggy bit’, ‘motorbike wood’, a red cross warning (or notifying) of cruising in Long Wood, ‘Police Scrape’ (I was showing this to someone this morning), ‘Pub Scrub’ etc. Have a look at the comments as well for a list of birds spotted on the Flats.