It was probably unwise to head out into the Forest in the peak heat of the day at 3pm. The temperature rose to 30 degrees and stayed there well into evening. I needed shade, but first I required food so stopped for a Full English at Lamb’s Cafe at the top of Lea Bridge Road.
Heading over Whipps Cross, and along Forest Rise, I took the path beside St. Peter’s-in-the-Forest seeking the dark cool patches beneath the trees. I attempted to Livestream direct to YouTube from my phone as I’d done on a recent wander across Wanstead Flats, enjoying the dialogue with viewers as their comments popped up on the screen. But the forest wanted me all to itself and the signal dropped out after a minute.
Looking at the maps in E.N Buxton’s definitive Epping Forest guide first published in 1884, the raised area of grassland approaching the waterworks is marked as the ‘Poor Allotment’. When looking for the names of various areas in the forest, Buxton is the most comprehensive source. The proposed route of the ‘New North Road’ is sketched out cutting across the allotments (my edition is dated from 1923) – presumably the North Circular which left a much deeper scar upon the landscape.
The footbridge over Forest Road offers one of my favourite views in the area (the other not far away), down along Forest Road to the high ground rising on the far side of the Lea Valley. This stretch of the Forest Road is marked as Haggar Lane on Buxton’s map.
I continued chuntering a monologue into my camera to be uploaded ‘Uncut’ to YouTube when I got home, to the point where the bridleway over the North Circular offers one of the most spectacular views in the whole of London, laying bare the Lea Valley rust belt. This vista makes me dream of lost highways and diners and drifters propping up lonely bars near closing time. It reveals the true endless expanse of the city. A London that stretches forever.
Traversing Rushy Plain into Upper Mill Plain you become aware of this as being part of a spine of high ground separating the two valleys of the Roding and the Lea falling away from either side. It’s a special spot.
I soon found myself at Woodford Green cricket pitch just as the final balls were bowled before a much needed drinks break. Then I followed Monkhams Lane down alongside Knighton Wood, once Buxton’s backyard, before following Forest Edge to Buckhurst Hill.
“cause people round here are always cracking up, after which they go to Claybury Hospital”Lenny’s Documentary
This was in some way a reprise of a walk I did in March 2007 inspired by a line from Ian Bourn’s early video work Lenny’s Documentary set in Leytonstone, “cause people round here are always cracking up, after which they go to Claybury Hospital”.
Claybury Hospital was the fifth London County Asylum, designed by asylum architect George Thomas Hine, and opened in 1893. It was closed in 1995 and converted into a slightly eerie gated community of luxury flats popular with Reality TV stars and Premier League footballers. Claybury is also mentioned by Iain Sinclair in both Rodinsky’s Room (with Rachel Lichtenstein) and London Orbital in relation to the mysterious hermit of the Princelet Street Synagogue David Rodinsky, whose sister was a patient there.
The walk also took in the Merchant Seaman’s Orphange on Hermon Hill, founded in 1827, also converted into apartments. From there I dropped down, crossing the River Roding, past the Pet Cemetery and a Toby Carvery. The route then took a lop-sided slant through a nest of streets into the Crooked Hat Plantation, one of those curious pockets of ancient woodland, once part of the great Forest of Essex, cut off and stranded by urban sprawl.
The views from Claybury are superb, some of the finest in London. When I was here 10 years ago, sliding around in the mud, I spoke to a lady walking her dog who’d worked in the asylum as a nurse. Today it was hot and humid. A group of Secondary School kids were returning from a trip to the pond. I skirted the railings to get a good view of the iconic water tower before walking down a long road through the grounds of the private settlement. There was an eerie Stepford Wives vibe about the place – it spooked me, so I got out as fast as I could and jumped the tube back to Leytonstone.
You never know where your feet will carry you – in this case aided by a W13 bus and riding it to the end at Woodford Wells. Passing The Horse and Well, an 18th Century coaching inn established 1730, I dipped down into Knighton Wood, once part of the grounds of the grand house belonging to Edward North Buxton (1860-1924), author the classic Epping Forest guide book that I take on all my forest walks. Buxton had lived for a period of time at Leytonstone House (along with various other members of the Buxton family). He spent much of his life campaigning to preserve Epping Forest at a time when it was threatened with development using his considerable influence through his family (who were also part of the Truman, Hanley, Buxton Brewing empire and Barclays Bank) and as MP for Walthamstow.
I can find no mention of Knighton Wood in Buxton’s Epping Forest, published in 1885, but he does mention Lord’s Bushes which forms part of this glorious area of woodland, “conspicuous for its picturesque oaks and beeches, and dense undergrowth of hollies …. an hour may be well spent in exploring its beautiful glades.”
I spent more than an hour exploring its ‘beautiful glades’, now enhanced by some of the surviving landscaping of Buxton’s home at Knighton House with resplendent rhododendrons in full bloom. There are also the ornamental lakes, wilder, more untamed than the ponds in Wanstead Park. I had pleasant chats with the dog walkers and at one point stood inside a hollowed out tree staring up at the sky the ambient sound being processed through mould, bark, and insect colonies to create an organic mix. I would love to mic that tree up, a giant arboreal ear. For a moment I had stepped out of the day-to-day urban life and was backpacking once more, the musty woody aroma, the embrace of the forest transporting me back to jungle trekking in Thailand, Sumatra, Sarawak. Such is the magic and enchantment of trees.
The Friday after the Westminster Terrorist attack and flags are flying at half-mast over the public buildings at Woodford. I head down over the golf course to Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge and pop into The View Visitor Centre where I buy a postcard of a painting by Jacob Epstein. The lady at the counter tells me that she thinks that it shows ‘The Lost Pond’ (the painting is untitled) – Epstein lived at Baldwin’s Hill, Loughton and often painted the forest. She has matched the image on her morning dog walks along the Loughton Brook. She shows me roughly where the Lost Pond is on the map covering the floor although it isn’t marked. ‘I’ll try and head back that way later’, I tell her, although I’m bound in the opposite direction – out through Bury Wood towards Fernhills.
Before I’d found myself lost in the forest in the dark the previous weekend I’d been tempted to follow the Cuckoo Brook north. Checking the map in the pub afterwards I saw how it would have led me to an area just outside the forest I’d never visited so today that was where I headed.
The views from Fernhills were as fine as I’d hoped for – stretching out over Waltham Abbey and to the Epping Uplands. The footpaths of the Greenwich Meridian Trail towards Mott Street also offered majestic views of the Lea Valley and led me to witness the curious anomaly of Hangman’s Hill. A mini reversed towards me from Pynest Green Lane and the young driver wound down the window, ‘Do you the story about this area?’, she asked. ‘No, but I bet you do’, I replied. ‘Apparently if you release your breaks your car is pulled uphill’, she told me, ‘this was a place where people were hung and they were dragged up here to the gallows’. She then released the handbrake and the car appeared to slowly roll back up the hill. As we stood there a couple of lads pulled alongside in their car and the same thing happened.
As I walked off I saw them both repeatedly returning to the same spot and surrender their vehicles to paranormal forces not wanting to mention that on foot you could see that there was a slight camber in the road that actually sloped away downhill.
Turning back across High Beach I decided to find the location of Jacob Epstein’s painting but had forgotten the directions the lady had given me to the ‘Lost Pond’. Arriving at Baldwin’s Hill Pond I matched it to the postcard and found a good enough likeness to declare in the video above that this was spot Epstein had painted. Subsequently it has been pointed out that the ‘Lost Pond’ is elsewhere, near the Loughton Brook. The hunt for the location of Epstein’s painting goes on.
Emerging from the forest I was greeted by the expansive views right across London from Woodbury Hollow, apparently reaching as far as Crystal Palace and Croydon.
“The spirit of devotion for the woods, which breathes through the simple expression of the poet [John Clare], is akin to “that hereditary spell of forests”, which Robert Louis Stevenson describes as acting “on the mind of man who still remembers and salutes the ancient refuge of his race.”
From the opening pages of London’s Forest by P.J.S Perceval published in 1909 which follows on from a quote by John Clare. He continues:
“Such a refuge once was London. Indeed she makes her first claim on history as a mere stockade in the woods – the Llyndin of the ancient Britons. Her wood and fen and heath, with the sweet country which once surrounded her, have disappeared, while a part only of the Essex Forest remains to recall the once great forest of the East Saxon Kingdom, which once had Lundentune for its port and ecclesiastical centre.”
To me Epping Forest is still a place of refuge, a haven from the pressures of urban life, a step through time. I headed out on Saturday, departing the tube at Woodford, then turning down Whitehall Lane by Bancroft’s School. Perceval writes how Bancroft’s was once the site of a poor-house. Its annual fees of £16,323 are more in the tradition of the mansion belonging to the Earl of Essex that had previously occupied the same land. The Earl wanting to be close to his supposed love Queen Elizabeth I when she used the hunting lodge on Chingford Plain.
My wander took me past the Warren Pond and Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge. I reflected that this is often where my forest walks end, in the bar of the Premier Inn next door but today I wanted to walk on into sunset. I crossed Chingford Plain and took a path beside the road for a short distance before turning into the rump of the trees past bushcraft shelters dotted amongst the undergrowth.
The light started to give out as I crossed the Cuckoo Brook so I consulted my map to pick a route towards an exit and a way home. I decided to walk East towards Loughton, a simple case of staying on the path I was on till I hit the road by The Warren.
I got caught up in the reverie of being alone in the woods while people bustled around going home from the shops, pubs filled up, and streets were abuzz with activity. Then I came upon a narrow lane in the darkness and looked for the way across to head down towards Loughton but the far side was blocked by hedgerows and fences. I followed the lane what I thought was south till finally becoming slightly concerned that I was going in the wrong direction. My map reading isn’t the best but surely I couldn’t have gone wrong on a straight path. I checked my compass then the map on my phone – both indicated that I was heading north towards High Beach, placing me between Springfield Farm and the Field Study Centre. Impossible I thought, how could that be?
I decided to follow my nose and turned away from the road back into the now pitch black forest and walked for 15 minutes or so using instinct, enjoying the quiet of the night trees. Something splashed in a pool beside the path then was gone into the undergrowth. A pair of green eyes looked out at me from a clump of holly. I started to feel like an intruder – the animals that avoid human contact during daylight could reasonably expect to have the forest to themselves at night but here I was clomping along the gravel path disturbing their nocturnal activities. I stood still for a moment hoping to sense some wildlife moving around in the trees – but there was just silence. Beautiful silence.
I checked my phone once more and it indicated that I was heading North East. I put this down to lack of GPS coverage in the forest and returned to my cheap old-school compass. It too told me that I was walking in a northeastern direction. I decided to head South for Chingford, and hopefully pick up paths familiar enough to be recognised in the dark. My concern now wasn’t spending a few hours walking in circles in the forest at night (actually very pleasant) but finding myself having to make my way along dark country roads to a station at the mercy of speeding cars not anticipating a stray walker.
I still couldn’t make out any familiar features in the gloom but simply kept following the compass needle south enjoying the quiet of the evening. It made me think it would be nice to spend an entire night wandering the forest if you could manage to avoid the doggers, cottagers, and deep ditches (if people stuck to having woodland sex in the ditches that would help to avoid all hazards in one go).
Soon I recognised the section of path leading down from the Long Hills towards Magpie Hill and Connaught Water. The sign for the Cuckoo Trail marked the route that I assumed I’d taken an hour previously, highlighting just how far off trail I’d been. The trees parted and the sky opened up over Chingford Plain.
Settled with a pint of IPA and packet of Prawn Cocktail crisps in the Premier Inn next to the Hunting Lodge I studied my OS Map trying to work out how I’d managed to get my location so wrong. It boiled down to one simple error – that when I’d crossed the Cuckoo Brook and checked my map in the poor light I’d assumed I was on a different path – one that ran east – west, when in fact I was beyond Woodman’s Glade heading north through Bury Wood across Ludgate Plain towards Lippitts Hill. The loudness of the helicopters from the Police heliport should have been a clue.
But it proved once again, that even what starts out as a simple walk in the woods can turn into a minor adventure as long as you manage to get lost.
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.
Here’s a video of the walk I did last weekend from Leytonstone to Ponders End. I’ve collaged a soundtrack from some old records, field recordings I made on my phone and some music I quickly knocked up on my laptop using Garageband – it more accurately reflects what’s going on in my head as I walk. Bob and Roberta Smith talked of creating a ‘sound sandwich’ when I interviewed him at the Barbican during the Cultural Olympiad where he was performing with his Apathy Band, and he related the idea, using lots of overlapping records playing, to the psychogeographical walks I was undertaking – but in audio form – a ‘psychogeographical sound sandwich’.
The first ‘found sound’ on the video is from a gem of a record in the BBC Wildlife Series featuring recordings of birdsong made by Eric Simms originally broadcast on the Radio 4 Countryside programme. It’s a selection of Spring choruses – ‘a busy rookery’ recorded in Sussex, 1960. In the sleeve notes Simms writes, “For me perhaps the quickest way to evoke memories of places is to listen to recordings that I have made of their background sounds”. For me when I walk the sounds of the present are mingled with sounds, voices and memories of other places.
There was a serendipitous moment when I grabbed a bit of a recording of ‘If It Wasn’t for the ‘Ouses-In-Between’ performed by John Foreman when I just happened to skip to the lines:
Oh! it really is a wery pretty garden And Chingford to the Eastward could be seen Wiv a ladder and some glasses You could see to ‘Ackney Marshes If it wasn’t for the ‘ouses in between
Which is a fairly accurate description of the view from the footbridge over the North Circular between Walthamstow and Woodford, except the song was talking about the overcrowded East End of the 1890s, harking back to some rural idyll just beyond the rooftops. Is this what draws me out into the forest?