To date we have not been able to discover the true identity of the Evening News’ walking guide, Pathfinder. Afoot Round London, his two volume collection published in about 1911 and his wartime rambles (published weekly in the paper – I possess a collection of these cuttings pasted into a little mauve scrap book that was issued specially for the purpose) explore areas around the capital that, in Pathfinder’s day, were still largely rural. It was our original intention to take a walk through the Cuffley Hills to Potters Bar as described in the volume of Afoot Round London dedicated to walks north of the Thames. However, a reconnaissance walk I undertook on my own several weeks back revealed that once the walk hit Cheshunt the route devolved down to endless car-dodging along B-roads, the margins of which consisted of new suburban homes complete with latticed windows providing discreet glimpses of white leather sofas and chunky TV sets within.
There was nothing wrong with this of course. It could even be argued that the whole point of replicating Pathfinder’s walks a century on was to spot differences. Transport was a bigger problem: we agreed that the train journey from Finsbury Park to Gordon Hill – where the walk begins – was too time consuming, too difficult to fit around John’s busy family life and work schedule. An alternative was sought from the same volume and finally we settled on a long Epping Forest walk from Grange Hill, through Chigwell and Loughton and then via High Beech to Waltham Abbey.
It was with some trepidation that I waited on the forecourt of Grange Hill Station for John and Peter, our long-suffering photographer a couple of Sundays back : though the weather was fine – in sharp distinction to the previous night’s gale force winds and rain – I sensed that it was going to be difficult to complete the walk before darkness set in. My assumption – correct as it proved – was that none of us possessed the foresight to bring a torch and that the onset of evening would curtail the walk somewhere around Loughton. A further worry was that the little country lanes described by pathfinder would have become busy A- and B-roads, our perambulations being pushed to the margins of the roads by endless car journeys. In this I was also proved (largely) correct.
The team assembled and we set off east along the road uphill towards Chigwell Row. Within minutes we were forced to stop, held up by an astonishing view southwards across the Thames basin towards the Kentish Hills. It was a drear landscape we surveyed – everything in sight somehow aspiring to the oozy greyness of Thames mud. Far off to the right was the Canary Wharf complex as I had never seen it; a sullen attempt to humanise the land, looking like it was within inches of failing miserably. Due south were broad flats intersected by alternating bands of hedgerows, a glistening arterial road (the Eastern Avenue) and clusters of blocks and suburban houses (perhaps Barkingside or Seven Kings). I thought of Kathleen Raine’s descriptions of Essex suburbia in her autobiography Farewell Happy Fields and how she felt that such developments killed the poetic impulse. While John filmed me chattering to myself and Peter triggered off an endless run of pictures I found myself disagreeing with Raine: what I saw below and beyond was the unstable dream-like attempt to impose the human world upon the deep infrastructure of geology and time, a futile optimism in the face of the turmoil of politics and commerce. The enormous landscape challenged the temporary dream of the city and suburbia. It was the stuff that poetry feeds upon.
Staggered at the very beginning of our walk, and linked to Pathfinder through our awareness that he himself had commented on the view, we made our way to Chigwell Row. Here there is a pub called the Maypole. We laboured under the impression that this was the pub so named in Charles Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge. In fact that pub was based on the Tudor hostelry at Chigwell village named the King’s Head (when we saw it later, John instigated a serious discussion on whether the building was genuine Tudor – whatever topographical qualifications he and I imagine we possess, architecture definitely isn’t one of them!).
field recording: no path
Our plan was to cut sharply north westwards across land to Chigwell but we were foiled by a closed footpath and so we decided to walk due north along Pudding Lane and then due west to Chigwell along footpaths running parallel with the Roding valley. It turned out to be fortuitous that the path was closed because Pudding Lane was blocked to traffic and we had a half-mile of road pretty much all to ourselves. John got down into a ditch with his little sound-recording device and caught the busy rush of water for use in our radio programme while I stopped and admired the beaded berries of black bryony There were fine views eastwards across rolling Essex countryside towards Lambourne End. I wondered whether the little watercourse John was recording was the health-enhancing stream that temporarily gave Chigwell a reputation for healing waters during the nineteenth century. I am often intrigued by how streams – despite being overlooked – have to be actively accommodated through channelling, bridging and the scalding of ditches in February: they really are much more powerful and persistent then is generally realised. They have their history also, and it outlasts our paltry span, the ridiculous fashions and silly electronic devices that we imagine lift us to individualisation.
We turned west across fields, walking alongside a bank of blackthorn. We passed a rusting tractor and tall oaks. Northwards the sunlight lit up the orange rooftops of Loughton and Debden. I am intrigued by these towns along the Roding, the way they spin out into a parallel universe to my own Hampstead life: Places such as Loughton and Chigwell manage to ride the fine line between familiarity – they are instantly recognisable as a type to any contemporary English person – and the displaced. Here they are, clustering along the Roding as it turns east towards its source, little villages swollen by the advent of the electric railway; rural in aspect when seen against the classic English landscape and yet linked by mere minutes of journeying by train or M11 to London in its darkness over yonder. I watched the vast pools of sunlight shift from Loughton towards the black mass of the forest farther off and resolved to study this region more thoroughly.
John pulled ahead and then stopped short exclaiming ‘dead fox!’ There, resting by the track’s edge, by an oak tree and within inches of a sharp drop down into a hedge lined ditch lay the dead animal. Sun and wind had done a certain amount of work in drying out his body, yet the dark eyes seemed complete, somehow lagging behind the rest in the process of decay. Now they stared out at us accusingly. Something powerful had ruptured this little creature born of the earth’s surface, turning his body inside out. Dogs? A shotgun? Who knows, but either way I felt the townsman’s fury at his death. As we crowded round and I closed in with my digital camera for some portraiture, I sensed a further crime being committed: walloped by man-sized values and robbed of life for expediency or sport, Reynard was now being recycled in the name of more monkey business, his holy death picked up and travelling the airways via our radio show or blog. Consider this, please.
We edged through to Chigwell and then along Roding Lane – a car-thick terror sans footpath – passing the school and church until the drone of motorway filled the air and the road curved to a bridge over the M11 which was running down along the floor of the river valley. The further side brought us to dead roads and warehouses, a footpath round the attached car park leading through to a pretty little bridge over the Roding. The river had been a presence all afternoon, its course shaping the landscape in which we had walked. Now we saw it up close and stopped to admire its energy and importance as a factor in this Essex world. Rivers are my element and I silently paid homage to this grey god, winding its way towards the vast floodgate at Barking Creek (visible from Grange Hill earlier on) and Jenkins Lane before passing into the Thames.
field recording: B-Road
The land hereabouts was a veritable green utility with geese squonking away by the side of a filled gravel pit and dogs being walked everywhere. The locals were very friendly and I took the opportunity to check on a dispute that had been bubbling away below the surface all afternoon: John insists on pronouncing the name of the river rodding, whereas I favour the more refined roading. This difference had brought John and I to near blows at one point and it was only the yogic equanimity of Peter’s presence that had saved the afternoon. Clearly we needed to check this out with the locals and this I did. ‘Well, we say roading but you can say rodding too’ a kindly gentleman replied. That clinched it – I knew I was right.
We crossed sports fields towards suburban houses on the edge of Loughton and I became interested in a channelled tributary that hit the Roding close by. As we walked towards the underground station and began to discuss food I noticed the steam running alongside the road in a brick culvert. Such things draw me and I have a fanciful notion that others see me as a near-mythic river man, an ipsissimistic being who lives inside the water systems of our region and experiences the stories of our collected streams, ditches and hatches in a transtemporal manner. When I once broached this subject with John he looked aghast and began to edge away from me nervously, so I think there is more work to be done in that area. When I got home that night I researched the stream, using OS maps and JA Brimble’s wonderful London’s Epping Forest (1968 edition). Apparently this sizable watercourse is the only stream flowing westwards off of the Epping watershed: a northern tributary rises near the Wake Valley Pond (which it fills) and runs south to join a second stream cutting through Little Monk Wood. A second sub-set of streams rise on Shelley and Broom Hills and close to the Robin Hood public house before running north to join the Wake Stream. The collected waters then run down through Loughton to join the Roding.
This knowledge, gained after the walk, was as close as I got to Epping Forest that day: darkness thickened as we walked uphill into Loughton and a waiting Wimpy bar finished us for the day. We settled down to chips and various burgers and then made our way to the station and home.
field recording: watercourse/ wimpy bar