By Dan Carney:
Snaresbrook Road is a perfectly straight 800-metre stretch, along which can be found the Waltham Forest/Redbridge border. At its western end, there’s the sleepy, scruffy ambiguity of Walthamstow Forest, alternately bucolic and unsettling, dependent on factors such as season, time of day, and resting heart rate. The affluent suburban village of Wanstead is to the east, tucked up comfortably along the western flank of the London Borough of Redbridge and, according to The Sunday Times in 2018, one of the top ten places to live in the capital. Wanstead is a place not without a recent history of radicalism and subversion – the 1990s saw a series of high-profile protests against the construction of the nearby A12-M11 link road - but at a glance now it’s boutiques, tasteful cafes, and posh second-hand shops, satisfaction and prosperity, tethered and tiled.
This end-to-end contrast, between unpredictability and conformity, also runs side-to-side. There’s regimentation and structure, represented by the public school Forest, Snaresbrook Crown Court (housed in an imposing Elizabethan-style mansion designed by the famous Victorian Gothic revivalist George Gilbert Scott), and the concentric functionality of the adjacent Hermitage housing estate. On the other hand, the numerous woodland paths leading to Hollow Ponds and Leyton Flats, as well as the debris-strewn Eagle Pond - which separates the eastern end of the road from the court building on its oak-lined southern bank - embody nature, improvisation, and secrecy. The area directly behind the pond is Epping Forest’s most active homosexual cruising site, an eastern Hampstead Heath analog, where tissues, used condoms, and other sexual debris can be found strewn in thorny undergrowth. It’s played host to these activities since before World War II, when gay sex was yet to be legalized, and the existence of homosexuality yet to be acknowledged in any widespread form. Now, the forest authorities accept that it is one of the things that happen here, with keepers working alongside LGBTQI organisations in order to promote good littering practice.
Snaresbrook Road thus takes you from the panoptical and the administrative to the concealed and the unrecorded, in the space of a few dozen strides. It’s a syncretic centre line, a starting point for any possible tangent, where high court judges on ornately carved chairs deliver public verdicts a few yards from men, many of whom lead outwardly straight lives (and some of whom may well be high court judges), engaging in furtive, frantic woodland liaisons. Footfall is, however, sparse, and even with the Victorian opulence of the court building, as well as the pond’s considerable size and appeal, Snaresbrook Road’s in-between status ensures it never quite feels like an actual place. Semi-fluorescent joggers, returning dog walkers, and waterfowl enthusiasts eager to inspect the tufted ducks, coots, mute swans, moorhens, and Canada geese that gather at the water, trudge a thoroughfare that seems only to have been implemented as an afterthought. A connective in search of a destination; a lonely, infinite corridor, laid in the absence of any other planning initiatives.
This air of unreality frequently tempts the mind into a dreamlike lull, where thoughts form unanticipated and unhindered, free to seep idly into whatever nooks and crevices appear. In the imagined worlds into which I have stumbled while walking here, Snaresbrook Road has been both the M1 and the Pacific Coast Highway, while the court building has morphed into the White House or the US Capitol, with Eagle Pond the reflecting pool in front of the Ulysses S. Grant memorial at the base of Capitol Hill. While it is the insubstantiality, the essential blankness, of the road that invites the arbitrary superimposition of fantasy over fact, Washington DC over Wanstead, this fuzzy ambience can quickly harden into something sharper and more hostile. Sometimes, in the half-light of dusk, when grey, smoky clouds hang low and perfectly still in the gloaming, and there is a rare, portentous lull in the traffic hum, the fronts of the flats, houses, and retirement homes opposite the water can appear as facades, fabricated or adapted for the concealment, or ventilation, of something undesirable behind. Two-dimensional, intended to mask, distract, and deceive, recalling the two “houses” comprising 23-24 Leinster Gardens, Bayswater, erected to hide an uncovered section of railway line, or the townhouse-turned-subway vent on Joralemon Street in Brooklyn Heights. The fact that there is nothing behind the buildings here which might need concealing or ventilating does very little to lessen this early evening architectural paranoia. When it hits, one is left disconcerted and uncertain, keen to wander around the backs of the buildings, to seek reassurance amidst the car parks and the gardens.
The pond, unprotected from the road by railing or wall, stands as testament to our relentless appetite for the seemingly arbitrary division and allocation of land. Its banks are owned by different entities, with the City of London Corporation, Her Majesty’s Court Service, and the London Borough of Redbridge each responsible for a particular section of the surrounding grass or concrete. The water body itself, which seems to have existed in some form since the eighteenth century, was adjudged part of Epping Forest - and thus the responsibility of the Corporation - in 1882. When you stare across the pond surface as you walk, it’s not hard to conjure the sensation of floating serenely across it, like an overfed waterfowl or even a piece of fetch-driven litter. Sometimes, even on a drearily overcast, uninviting afternoon, the urge to take advantage of the lack of pavement barrier, and dive gleefully into the water, can be momentarily overwhelming. Although the pond is covered in considerable islets of green algae, it would likely provide an excellent place to float or wade, separate from everything else but still visible, and easily contactable, from the pavement twenty metres away. It may be that this is the standpoint from which Snaresbrook Road is best experienced; present but not completely involved, removed but vigilant and ready, with a watchful eye on all sides. Even if the buildings don’t quite feel real, the birds seem happy enough. You’d probably get used it as well, given time.
Dan Carney is a musician/writer from north-east London. He has released two albums as Astronauts via the Lo Recordings label, and also works as a composer/producer of music for TV and film. His work has been heard on a range of television networks, including BBC, ITV, Channel 4, HBO, Sky, and Discovery. He has also authored a number of academic research papers on subjects such as cognitive processing in genetic syndromes and special skills in autism. His other interests include walking, hanging around in cafes, and spending far too much time thinking about Tottenham Hotspur.