Lea Valley in peace and war – Desire paths and a garlic harvest on the Mighty Dollis – Shed tears and steam clean up: winners and losers in the heritage industry – A good walk hosed: crazy golf in Theydon Bois.
Wednesday (4th April) to Cheshunt for a circular walk via Monkhams Hall. The best view in the Lea Valley – especially since the last semi-wilderness areas of the lower valley are now covered in circus tents, lego and gulag fencing.
I first came across the walk in a Lea Valley Park leaflet. They no longer list it. Perhaps because no one in their right mind would walk along Waltham Road even for the 300 metres before a stile appears in the hedge and – with a sigh of relief – you escape through fields and climb to the wooded ridge. Still, various sites on the web publish a similar walk, including the AA. Although the half-way pub – The Coach and Horses – has sadly served its last pint. RIP.
I was reminded of the walk because I’d just read “In Search of the Zeppelin War,” by Dr Neil Faulkner and Dr Nadia Durrani, which is about the archaeology of the first blitz. I had often sat on the concrete remains of the anti-aircraft battery near Monkhams Hall to enjoy the fantastic view without ever thinking that it might have been in use in the first war as well as the second. The Lea Valley was the approach corridor of choice for Zeppelins which would navigate – not always accurately – to the metropolis from the East Anglian coast.
I did a double take when I reached the hill – there were several people there already with hi-vis jackets and hard hats. I thought the archaeologists had come back. It turned out to be contractors working for the MoD – at least, that’s what one of them told me. He said his name was Edward Thomas, which with hindsight I suppose should have rung alarm bells. The WW2 gun platform, he explained, had been protected with a plastic membrane and then covered with sand and gravel and a fresh layer of concrete. This was to be the site of an AA missile system for the duration of the Olympics.
“You can’t even see Stratford from here,” I protested. But he patiently explained that the site had been chosen to protect the air corridor from Luton.
“This is potentially route No 1. We’ll have guys in trees on Telegraph Hill and if Johnny Turk turns left at Leagrave we should be able to slot him before you can say “orbital motorway”.
“What’s the difference between a plane crashing in to Tottenham and a plane crashing into Stratford?” I asked.
He stared at me in blank incomprehension.
“We win, obviously.”
His grandfather (his eyes became shiny at this point and he picked up a handful of earth from the ground) had lost a leg and an eye when the hill was recaptured from the Germans during the invasion of 1910.
Even today there was a very nearly 360 degree view from here apart from a few degrees in the north west obscured by trees.
There was a good view of the M25 and Sainsbury’s distribution centre sheds stretching for what must be a kilometre along side it – the other side of Waltham Abbey.
Smoke was rising from a big fire somewhere the other side of Pole Hill – a vacant DIY warehouse in Chingford, as it turned out – lending atmosphere to my research.
Good views too of Epping and the forest, some glass houses – tiny compared to the Sainsbury’s depot.
Smoke billowed across Canary Wharf, the Lea Valley reservoirs, Crystal Palace, the Shard, the London Eye in the West End, and the Northern Heights. Dramatic clouds alone would have been enough but the smoke and the slight orangey tint of the light on the panorama was sublime. Hope it was insured. That may of course have been the point as my friend uncharitably pointed out.
The field at my feet was of grass and scrubby young hawthorn. There was a trig point off to my right behind me. A row of half a dozen or so mature oaks marched across the field well separated. Beyond were wheat fields and rows of snowy hawthorn hedges.
Down to the right were the watery delights of Cornmill Meadows, cut by the Greenwich Meridian. This was my route back to Cheshunt, skirting what’s still called on my map the Government Research Establishment. Here strange brick structures and abandoned buildings loomed through the trees and perimeter fence.
Such places often have the feeling of having been recently abandoned in a hurry – there’s usually a door banging somewhere. But the occupants could return and straighten the number on the wall brush away a few cob webs and carry on whatever it was they were doing.
Today I had the slightly sinking feeling that the landscape around the pond – viewed through the high MoD fences – was just a little bit too tidy. When I first walked here fifteen or twenty years ago, the sentry box and barrier on the concrete track from the Crooked Mile (named because of its meander around the bottom of Monkhams Hall Hill?) were still standing.
I suppose a dredged pond is a more bio-diverse one. Left to its own devices the buildings would disappear altogether in the jungle. But still I can’t help feeling something is lost as well as gained in the transaction.
On Wednesday (11th April) a walk in proper April weather without the showers except a spot or two which I saw fall in to the Mighty Dollis before I felt them on my head.
I walked from High Barnet following the river all the way to Finchley. Almost all the way.
It was always going to be a battle today. My mind was a desert. I was not confident that the river would work its magic. It seemed to reflect my torpor. There wasn’t enough water to turn a stone let alone a mill wheel.
I was envious of the crows hunting worms near the Underhill stadium . They were tied to the rhythm of the earth and didn’t have to write drivel or play hooky on the river bank to make themselves feel alive.
I trod on last year’s conkers and listened to the song of the river in spite of myself. I drank tea and felt the sun on my back as the river wrapped itself around me.
Just before reaching a playing field a brand new wooden gate – locked – stood where there used to be just a bollard.
I was just turning round when I saw that you could still get round the side.
I retraced my steps anyway and followed the fingerposts through suburban streets, but noticed a couple of joggers cutting along the edge of the field I had just been turned back from.
At the far corner of the field the fence was only about knee high and with the water low the joggers didn’t even need to get their feet wet in the Folly Brook which joins the Dollis at this point.
Locals in the know (at least those whose weight or something else doesn’t prevent them squeezing like a fox round the gate) can enjoy their riverside without interruption along Route 22. Oiks from the town who long ago beshat and entombed their own streams in concrete must detour through suburbia to see how they too might have lived if only they hadn’t been so feckless and lazy.
The best part of the walk is the last section before the Mill Hill viaduct. It is “wilder” more unkempt and at this time of year banks of wild garlic – now just flowering – are at their best.
The allotments were busy. If sitting round chatting is busy. But I was surprised to walk past two Italian men arguing loudly. For some reason the scene brought to mind a quote from Richard Jefferies: “The wheat fields are beautiful but human life is struggle.”
Near the viaduct two Chinese women were harvesting garlic leaves – they had filled maybe a dozen carrier bags. Even so they had made barely an impression in the sea of garlic. I smiled at one of them and she smiled back.
I was once more a citizen of the world – the river and the sunshine had pulled me like the wild garlic from the void.
Friday (27th April) from Chipping Ongar to Theydon Bois under black skies and intermittent – trippy – sunshine in one of the wettest Aprils on record.
The peg that this bespoke walk hung on was half of a twin shed WWI aircraft hangar which was apparently rescued from North Weald Bassett Aerodrome and reassembled a few miles away in the Essex village of Moreton where it saw service as a barn and then a garage.
The trip began badly – the bus timetable I downloaded was out of date: the bus from Epping Station had gone. What I didn’t realise was that this was a theme that would re-echo over the entire 13 miles.
Much of the walk followed the Cripsey Brook, a tributary of the River Roding which rises somewhere and eventually finds its way to the Thames at Creekmouth, Barking.
With Ongar behind me, the rain and soon-wet feet didn’t dampen my spirits. I even felt a little smug.
Water meadows, horse pasture and soggy arable fields of new wheat and mellow yellow gangrape. Old oaks hollow as smugglers’ caves. Swallows – my first this summer. But only a handful – above one field – and not seen again.
I continually chased up larks from whatever they do silently in the wheat. They would skitter skyward in a flash of white tail feathers and erupt into song which outbabbled the brook.
The higher animals are the only things in the landscape not in a hurry. Even the dandelions seem to be competing for their day in the sun.
At Moreton the Roman Road crosses the Cripsey Brook. There are two pubs in the village – pretty good in an age where pubs are disappearing faster than hens’ teeth. Travellers may have taken a dram here 2,000 years ago. It would have been a natural place to stop and water the 4×4.
But the hangar had gone. Replaced by a housing development. The new wooden beams of the roofs rose naked above the Harras fencing – a strange echo of the hangar – and a reminder that these houses too will one day be old and unprofitable.
For a while the monument to the first Blitz will be preserved digitally in an energy guzzling concrete bunker somewhere in the Nevada desert and available for perusal at streetview on the personal communications device of your choice.
I approached the village of North Weald Bassett – still following the stream – by the side of a golf course and entered St Andrew’s Church through the lichgate. Part of the cemetery is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
My eye was caught by one date which kept cropping up – 23 January 1945.
It was the day a V2 rocket aimed at the capital and flying rather faster than the speed of the sound of loneliness landed in a barracks at the airfield in Stapleford a few miles to the south of here (twenty miles from Charing Cross). In the Second World War strategic bombing had become a lot more lethal.
But no more accurate.
Another grave that drew my attention was decorated with a Czechoslovak lion – the symbol of the country which emerged in 1918 from the wreckage of the Hapsburg monarchy. Tomáš Kozák- a pilot – was killed when his night flying Hurricane, which had taken off from Stapleford Abbots, got caught up in the glare of multiple searchlights and crashed near Duxford on 14 June 1941.
I walked along Church lane past pill boxes and with views to the modern flight control tower and warehouses poking above the trees. Then through suburban North Weald Bassett where I was surprised to find the answer to a question that I didn’t know had been nagging me.
It was, I suppose, a heritage success to set against my earlier disappointment. The Epping Ongar Railway is about to take passengers again for the first time since the line was closed in 1994. The Harras fencing will come down the hanging baskets watered and the ticket office swept. The belle end of the Central Line reborn in heritage steam.
You would have to be a real sour puss not to be just a little excited by the thought of a ride on steam train. But the feeling of excitement is mitigated by the thought of the thousands of car journeys that would be saved if it was still part of the underground.
It also seems a shame that often what survives is dictated by what can – albeit with charitable help and a considerable amount of volunteer labour – pay for itself. From that point of view I suppose half a grotty aircraft shed was never really going to fly.
I enjoyed picking up the Roman road again a mile or so out of town (the same one that ran through Moreton) especially the bit just before it passes in a tunnel under the M25. Two streams meet here as well and share the tunnel in a metal cage. The road retains some pebble cobbling so is good walking even in rubbish weather.
Which is more than I can say for the last part of today’s walk into Theydon Bois across a landfill desert. Every step sank in sinister clag – I really did wonder, only half-jokingly, whether each step would be my last. I had visions of having to telephone for help and be dug out like a tourist trapped in Morecambe Bay.
It had been dumped by gangsters exploiting a loophole in the law. Three million tons of rubbish was dumped at the green belt site – undeveloped grazing land at Blunts Farm – on the ostensible basis of hard landscaping for a golf course and thus exempt from environmental taxes. The golf course was never built. The environmental damage of removing the blot on the green belt was deemed to be worse than leaving it where it was.
It is the sort of thing that gives perfectly reasonable golf entrepreneurs like Donald Trump a bad name.