Hannah and I set out from Belsize Park and head out across Hampstead Heath. Overall, I decide I rather like NW London; it is people sized for the most part, its villageness still distinct in many places. I am about to be very impressed with Hampstead village and turn back to wish it a fond farewell only to be taken aback by the sight of the massive building that is the Royal Free Hospital that forms its back drop.
Fenella, accompanying us as far as the village, sings its praises, it is the best hospital in London, was the first to admit women, and not to be attached to a church. I can see the advantages, but still find its presence incongruous in the otherwise village landscape.
Fenella leaves us and Hannah and I strike out onto heathland. It is incredible; within seconds of leaving London streets one would be hard pressed to find more real countryside. We are surrounded by old trees, and not a hint of parkland. It is lovely; I reflect that Hannah probably has more access to open countryside here than I do living down a green lane in Devon that is all farms and private land and no where really open to walk.
We get a little lost as we meander around the wooded heath, enjoying exploring and not being map bound. It is a long walk today so we have set out earlier and it feels good to have a bit of freedom. Hannah tells me about the secluded swimming pools, mixed, one for men, and one for women, and about a group of women she knows that come and swim every day; all the year round. She also tells me a bit about Transition Belsize, who as well as having a seed swop stall every week on the main street, also have a foraging group that come onto the heath regularly, sometimes as guided walks teaching people what to gather.
They have been getting together with their neighbours Transition Camden just along the canal path for some events and there is tell of a Camden currency in the making.
As we walk I am attracted by a big old tree that stands alone. We stand beneath and try to decide if it is living; there are no leaves. Gradually we make out buds high up and come to the conclusion that it is an ash. Hannah reminds me that
Oak before ash and we’re in for a splash, ash before oak and the summer’s a soak
This all makes good sense; I have passed plenty of oaks coming delicately into leaf and not identified ash at all. It is a good omen, a summer made for walking through!
We stop to marvel at tree creepers effortlessly walking up vertical tree trunks, and to enjoy the sight of a woodpecker. All in all I have seen more wildlife in London than all the other places put together!
When we find our way through the heath, past Kennington House, with its sweeping lawns straight out of Jane Austin, we are in Highgate with its tall Victorian houses. It is here that Hannah leaves me, by the Woodman’s inn on the edge of Highgate Woods. There has been a certain fond sadness for the London I have newly accepted and am now about to leave as we walked but now it feels time to get out the OS map again and see which footpath will eventually take me north out of the city.
I discover that the trail I need, the Capital Ring, some of which has helped me on my way already in its circuit around the city, starts by the tube station as it follows the bed of the old train track. Or at least it should do…the trail appears to disappear before I have really picked it up. As I stand dithering at an intersection an old man with Eastern European accent comes to ask where I am going. I start to explain but he interrupts saying
“You won’t find it”
I think of the folk in Old Malden and expect a repeat but it turns out this elder knows exactly what he is talking about; the pathway has been obliterated by, he thinks, allotments. He does know, however, where it starts up again, around the building where he lives, bear left, and rejoin it at the other side of the walled area.
We cross the road together, he points to the road to our right;
“That’s that A1 – goes all the way to Edinburgh”
I stop to look, I am remembering Fenella’s story about Dick Wittington coming into London by Highgate Hill; I had gasped at our first view of London coming off the heath, seeing the Post Office Tower and the Millenium Wheel far in the distance but close enough to make an impression.
My guide thinks I am impressed by the road’s existence, and then reminds me to be careful crossing; someone killed every day, he says, they drive too fast
“I drove too fast too, before my heart attack” he continues.
We cross over safely, and he tells me about how he once walked down the track where I’m going to walk, and picked blackberries to make jam.
“But I’m too lazy now”
Until last Autumn he was picking blackberries down the end of the garden of the building where he lives but
“They have cemented it all over – say it’s disturbing the structure of the wall, making it not safe”
He seems resigned to this; sad but accepting, confident that it is a temporary measure.
His directions are perfect; and within a couple of minutes I am on the old railway track and a sign tells me it’s 2 and a half miles to Finsbury Park. It’s is weird to see this here rather than at a tube station. I have been enjoying as I’ve walked through London how place names really mean what they say; are not simply names on an underground map.
The path is flat and straight, I do recommend old railway tracks for walkers, and it is nice to see them finding a new use. In no time at all I am in Finsbury Park where I learn that Sarah Pankhurst spoke in the first world war, where fascists and anti fascists clashed in the years leading up to the second world war, and how the park was turned over to allotments during the second world war.
I go park hopping again but find it much more difficult without a trusty Sustrans map; it is so easy to lose sight of the trail markers when in a city where there is so much to distract you; being flattened by oncoming traffic, for example. It takes 10 minutes of walking the wrong way along the Seven Sisters Road (the seven sisters were, I learn, seven elm trees chopped down to make way for the road) before I realise where I have gone wrong and backtrack. It is a little surreal; one of my earliest visits to London was to Stamford Hill, this predominantly Brazilian ghetto in the midst of orthodox Jewish settlers. I hear Portuguese and Yiddish, and no English from the passersby for the next little while.
I make it to Clissoid Park from where the trail should be straightforward, but no, this whole north eastern corner of the city is in the midst of a big make over, no doubt ready to impress the Olympic visitors, rather than through any real sense of serving the community though that will be the end result I suppose. The park is open but the trails make no sense and I end up out the other side confused and go the wrong way for another 10 minutes before the names on bus stops give me a hint that I am going in the opposite direction from where I should be.
I about turn and walk between the two St Mary’s of Stoke Newington, the very old (the old square tower still visible though a newer spire pokes out through the top of it nowadays) and the relatively new. From there, a little more road tramping, at least there are pavements everywhere whilst in a city, and then the strangest sight yet; the path cuts off a corner by going through the old cemetery. It is in the grounds of the old abbey which is abandoned and bricked up. It is quite surreal; the gravestones are opulent late Victorian to late 90’s modern, all covered in ivy and thick undergrowth. The Victorian stones are of the very sentimental “fell asleep 1878” variety, the modern all polished marble and still with fresh flowers. The abbey and its grounds must have once been very fine; I see no plaque explaining what befell it.
Finally the path leads me to Springfield Park, a plaque telling me how it was still countryside well outside of London until the coming of industry in the 1800s.Then in late Victorian times three grand houses were built, the gardens of which form the park that exists today. The name derives from the fact that the gardens contain an unusual geological feature, a hill left by the ice age where springs sometimes burst though the deposited chalk from the clay layers below. It is the gateway to Springfield Marina, and the beginning of the Lea Valley trail.
I now begin to walk north out of London; it has taken all morning to cross west to east to reach it. I am to follow the Lea River now all the way out of Surrey, through a touch of Essex, and into Hertfordshire.
It is a strange walk; it is easy walking, well signposted, but never far enough from industry, either past or present, for me to relax into my day. Since my childhood, growing up in Lancashire in a terraced house opposite a towel factory I have had an aversion to anything even vaguely suggestive of industrial. I am walking along a river that has been humanified into canal, and sometimes it is quite lovely, lined with colourful barges, many permanently moored with neat little gardens complete with garden sheds, and there are plenty of nesting birds, graceful swans perched on large nests made out of what they could find locally, not a pretty sight, reminds me of families after a war scrapping together a home out of what they can scavenge, and pairs of water fowl screeching at the threat of passers by.
All too often, however, works and sewage plants line the banks on one side, and then the other, and sometimes both.
The splash of rain the rhyme forecast comes, and goes again, and though it’s cold and overcast today a bit of sunshine escapes from the clouds occasionally.
I am headed for Waltham Abbey, it seems a long way, much harder to stay in the present when walking through reminders of what humankind does to some of its surroundings in order to enjoy comfort in others. To enable me to carry on I keep allowing myself to stop at the next lock. Perhaps I can stay there the night; after all I am not staying with a transition host tonight. I know perfectly well that it is going to be unlikely that I find an inn in this locality but somehow giving myself permission to stop and give up, maybe even get a train to somewhere nicer, gives me the will to keep going; Pickets lock, Pounder End, Enfield lock, at each I stop, allow my aching feet to think we’re there, and the finger post distances to Waltham Abbey get less and less till one says a mile and a quarter.
The path goes under the M25. I feel a huge sense of relief; I hadn’t quite realised how much I had been looking forward to the moment when I would step out of the other side of the massive conurbation I have been walking inside for several days. I have passed through the guardian at the other side; I feel free, I have made it, I am not trapped in a sea of people, buildings, and covered up earth anymore. For all its pockets of green, it is still, to me, one of the biggest mistakes humankind has made to allow settlements to merge together without regard for the carrying capacity (http://www.sustainablescale.org/ConceptualFramework/UnderstandingScale/MeasuringScale/CarryingCapacity.aspx
of the land.
I feel sad that our sense of place has become so far removed from reality that we will quite happily have children without considering whether the land around us can support another mouth to feed. I can only hope that city dwellers are willing to get very creative in their growing of food. Haringey council have planted a community orchard in Springfield Park, and some of the barge dwellers are growing things in pots and boxes on their roofs, but with 1 acre needed to feed seven people, a little more than this will be needed.
Waltham Abbey, says Kenny, Isle of Man bred manager of the New Inn, is the weirdest place he has ever worked in, and I am inclined to agree. Its grand name is initially lived up to as the abbey is the first thing you see and it is beautiful, flint and chalk, and sits in a perfect position in a V between two roads. After that the main street is pedestrianized; it is easy to see the lay of the original town and many of the old pubs are still in business though none of them offer accommodation.
I am just starting to think there is going to be another walk to find the outskirts where the accommodation must be when I come to the New Inn, at the very end of the street where it becomes very much a thoroughfare, commuter belt land. The inn is clearly catering for workers, but it’s 7.30 and I don’t care; it’s a bed for the night, it’s cheap, the manager friendly. He asks about my walk and I tell him about transition. He talks about his home island and how everyone complains at the price the local farmer charges for he has the monopoly; all local produce there. Then he talks about Waltham; it has a twice weekly market, which unfortunately I will miss, of the sort where you can buy caps for 50p of an old man. This clearly does not impress Kenny, young, in his twenties, and clearly wondering what he has done to deserve being posted here by his brewery!
I find I am curious; I will explore Waltham Abbey before returning to the Lea River in the morning; I haven’t dared look yet to see if it remains industrial all the way to Hertford.