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?
The urge was to walk without any particular destination and let my feet decide which way to go. They pulled me in a familiar direction – up Wallwood Road and past the Hindu temple to the Hollow Ponds. The merest drop of rain turns Leyton Flats into a bog and a crow paddled in a large pool of rainwater.
Rooks decorated the bare boughs making rook sounds (is it a Corr or a Raww) gathering for their late afternoon parliament. I can only distinguish the rooks from the crows by remembering my Dad saying ‘A rook on its own is a crow’.
A rust coloured rivulet trickled near the overflowing Birch Well leading to/from the Eagle Pond, this area is cross-stitched with a tapestry of nameless seasonal ditches and brooks.
RS Lounge is looking rather sorry for itself these days – I black bin-liner was wrapped around its once glowing neon sign fluttering in the wind like a harbinger of doom. RS was built on the site of the Rising Sun pub which dated back to at least the 1850’s before the £2million refurb that transformed it into an Ibiza style luxury bar and dining thing.
The thwack of tyres over the cattle grid scares the wildfowl from the pond. The footbridge crossing the North Circular offers one of my favourite views of London a north-western slice across the Lea Valley, tall chimneys spewing out fumes, the tower blocks in the distance set at angles I suppose to maximise sunlight. It’s an expansive, varied vista, industrial London, broad freeways, a carpet of housing, the river, reservoirs, the forest, green plains, hills on the horizon.
I pick up a stick to help steady my progress through the ankle deep mud. I skit between the path and the undergrowth not so much walking to Woodford as sliding and skating, with my stick and greying beard I feel like Gandalf on Ice.
The Ching gurgles blissfully between steep river banks as it slips round the edge of the lake at Highams Park. Now I have my sights set on Chingford Green – a place that seems incongruous in modern London, like one of those out-of-place artifacts that defy the conventional understanding of human history. I leave the forest sludge and rest my trusty staff against a bench by the pavement and ascend Friday Hill once I’ve acquired a Double Decker from the petrol station to fuel my climb.
Friday Hill House has the forlorn look of a place that was once loved but now abandoned and unwanted. Built in 1839 by Lewis Vulliamy for the Boothby-Heathcote family, they eventually sold it to the London County Council who constructed the Friday Hill Estate in the grounds and the house became a Community Centre and later an adult education college. Its fate now remains unclear.
The Chingford United Services Club though appears to be thriving and the Seafood stall in the carpark had a short line of customers eager for cockles, winkles and crab. After admiring the ‘Second Empire’ architecture of The Bull and Crown coaching inn (now a branch of Prezzo) I retire to Sams ‘quality fish and chips restaurant’ – notice the ‘chips’ in plural.
It’s not been the brightest of days and now 30mins before sunset it’s positively gloomy. I’m drawn along the path beside the parish church to the crest of Kings Head Hill and a close-up of the view I’d taken in earlier from the bridge across the North Circ. I keep plodding on, my destination reached but my feet aren’t ready to quit just yet.
Halfway down the hill past Sunnyside Lodge and opposite a fine cottage-style electricity substation there is a brass plaque set in the pavement commemorating the 1986 Year of Peace. An odd place to celebrate an international event unless of course Chingford has a hidden link to the Baha’i Faith that seems to have instigated the event. Is the substation a temple pumping out peace around the world? Nothing would surprise me about Chingford.
Looking across the Lea Valley at sunset this corner of North East London always makes me think of America – open spaces, wide roads, car lots, Wim Wenders directing Paris Texas, David Lynch weirdness, possibility. The sodium lights of the industrial Lea Delta after a muted sunset. Pylons, sheep grazing on the grassy banks of the reservoir. A Harvester pub and restaurant which I would love to enter but my boots are caked in London Clay which has also splattered up my legs to my knees.
Now I am bound for Ponders End in the dark. The tower blocks of the Alma Estate (Kestrel, Cormorant, Merlin and Curlew House) guide me in by the few lights still shining, with the estate slated for a £150 million regeneration scheme I guess they must have started to move tenants out.
A Roundabout of Death tricks me to walking along the hard shoulder before doubling back to find my way to the Station – cars zipping past at speed heading for the desert, for Vegas, or more likely Waltham Abbey and Cheshunt. My feet led me well on this walk – I should trust them more often.