In Walthamstow Forest

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By Dan Carney

Wide, flat dirt paths carving through lush woodland, open meadows flanked by wooded corridors and undulating, densely covered glades. Clusters of hornbeam, oak, and birch, many ancient, pollarded at the top to encourage further growth, presiding over hundreds of plant species; grass, herb, nettle, weed, fern, and wort. Underfoot, the fossil-rich London clay soil, hard and stiff but deceptively quick to churn during wet weather. Birdsong mingling with the low, umbilical hum of traffic on the A104, Epping to Islington, everywhere between, periodically suppressed by the sound of a plane or the sudden and invasive whooping of a siren. Bisected by both the Woodford New Road and the endless, disheveled North Circular, this is the beginning trickle, the tentative first stretch of the north-east London woodland panhandle which will open out into Epping Forest proper, and eventually creep, pleasingly, just beyond the confines of the M25. This part of the forest is a scruffy outpost, often overlooked in favour of its more storied and unbroken counterparts. There are no visitors’ centres, Iron Age settlements, or Grade II-listed timber hunting lodges here, but the paths lead, eventually, to all these things.

The first path, approaching the southernmost entrance to Rising Sun Wood, is inauspicious; a thin, dusty track, cracked and dry in the summer months, running through an open field, reassuringly parallel with the 1930s semis of Forest Rise opposite. The entrance is marked by a wooden post, painted white at the top, ground-secure in the shadow of the trees at the top of Greenway Avenue. Underneath the first flourish of woodland canopy, the path widens, becomes even and firm. The trees are tall, with dramatic branch formations exploring every possible angle. Some are hollowed out, exposing tender white bark. Dead trunk husks lie everywhere. A sparse glade foregrounds the wrought iron gate of the St. Peter’s-in-the-Forest graveyard, where the headstones are lopsided, covered in ivy, many rendered semi-legible by weather and time. The air is comfortable and still.   

Just to the north is an open, unkempt meadow. Large oaks guard secretive glades along one side, hash paraphernalia and half-empty chicken boxes strewn at the thresholds. Opposite, behind the incongruously shiny Empire Lounge on Woodford New Road (“Enjoy The Food, Enjoy The People, Enjoy The Vibe”), lays Bulrush Pond. Bog-like, derelict, murky water mostly obscured by large clumps of reeds. Once there were paddle-wheel boats, ice-cream kiosks, and deckchairs, before widespread car ownership enabled the leisure-seeking families who gathered here on bank holidays to travel further afield. It’s quieter now, but by no means deserted or bereft. Joggers, cyclists, dog-walkers, families on short-hop rambles, occasional equestrians, and groups of teenagers punctuate the calm, but now it’s less organized, no longer an end point but a backdrop, a surrounding, or a point on the journey. On a warm summer’s day, the meadow feels enveloping, hermetic, unconnected to anywhere else, only leading back to slightly differing iterations of itself, like a gently fluttering audio loop or blinking, cyclical visual display. Bucolic and restorative, a place to think things through, but always with something flickering away, faintly, off to the side. A made-for-TV fever dream poking through the idyll. Layers and stories just beyond the lens flare, unseen, unarticulated but ready to emerge and speak, when the wind rises and the nights draw down.

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Back inside the forest cover, the track splits around a stubborn old hornbeam, its knotted roots securely encased under the top layer shingle. The route to Mill Plain is kinder here, on the west side of the A104, where there’s no need to engage with the fractured grimness of the Waterworks Corner pedestrian interchange. This is where the path breaks clear of the cover and ramps up, knobbly, cracked, onto a raised, open ridge, where the track bends gently through the long grass and willowherb. To the right is the Thames Water pumping station, its wonky rear steel fence offering negligible protection from anything with sufficient stature and determination, and the Waterworks Corner roundabout, only metres away. South Woodford to Redbridge, Barking, Beckton, Woodford Green, Loughton, Epping. To the left, the scoop of the Lea Valley. The atmosphere is sleepy and strange, ominously peaceful. Twin paths converge and slope down towards Forest Road, the occasional tent visible through the bushes, and the sharp tops of City of London buildings poke through the trees. Look into the valley-dip from the bridge adjacent and it’s Walthamstow, Tottenham Hale, Edmonton, Harringay, Alexandra Palace, Brent Cross. Stadiums, reservoirs, retail parks, antennae, the ever-present wash of the traffic, distant and interior.

On the other side, nestled behind the roundabout, is a raised, circular grass platform, flat, wide, and empty, aside from a shabby Thames Water brick hut at the edge. Marked, appropriately, as “The Circle” on Google Maps, it offers readymade laps for joggers, and numerous exits, down the tight, surrounding verge, back into the cover of the forest. Manmade and incongruent, barely visible from the road, it’s easily cast as the site for something more atavistic and obscure. A sacred place, where anonymous figures gather to offer up euphoric human sacrifices to a provincial woodland deity. A landing site for a small extra-terrestrial reconnaissance craft, carved out to order by devoted earthbound aides. A place to hide in the open. Stay too long and the joggers, smiling and efficient, assume – possibly through no fault of their own - a slightly sinister, collective aspect.

The path to the bridge over the A406, just beyond, is gravelly and uneven, bricks and slate pieces baked into the dirt, recalling the clay pits and brick kiln once residing nearby. A well-covered passage, accessible via a tight, cosy glade, runs parallel with the road, overlooking it. Thorny and narrow, discarded carrier bags hanging forlornly from bushes, a person-thin viewing corridor for the unending, thrusting snake of the daylight Walthamstow traffic. Crossing the bridge, to the South Woodford side, is a journey of metres but feels like an escape from this exhaust-choked claustrophobia into something wholesome, time-frozen, pastoral. The trackway widens, getting flatter and kinder underfoot. The canopy is less oppressive, offering a pleasing combination of light and shade. Patches of sunlight cast through the trees, dappling the floor. Little private clearings just off the main track lead into exquisite mini-mazes. To the left, an intricate branch structure built around a large horizontal trunk, and a carved stone memorial marking the birth site of a celebrated gypsy evangelist. Everything honeyed in yellows and browns. With minimal effort, you can block out the vehicle drone. Approaching the open field in front of Oak Hill, boundaries begin to dissolve; thoughts flicker and fade, hazy before they have fully formed. You start to feel drowsy, detached, separate, before the sudden rustle-rush of a small animal brings you back, sharply, to jittery alertness. You turn and hurry back the way you came. The sun hangs low and follows you, blinking and glinting through the gaps, and the temperature starts to drop.

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Dan Carney is a musician and 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 also has a PhD in developmental psychology, and has authored a number of academic research papers on cognitive processing in genetic syndromes and special skills in autism. His other interests include walking, writing, and spending far too much time thinking about Tottenham Hotspur. Dan on Twitter.

 

 

 

 

 




Seven Days Walking by Ludovico Einaudi

"I remember that in January 2018 I often went for long walks in the mountains, always following more or less the same trail…”

Ludovico Einaudi is a prolific Italian composer and pianist, and has published 20 albums since 1988. In his work he is often influenced by the quotidian and nature: his album 'Una Mattina' is the perfect soundtrack for a lazy spring morning with a book and a good coffee, and in 2016 he recorded a heartbreaking 'Elegy for the Arctic' for Greenpeace. 

His latest project is 'Seven Days Walking', a series of seven albums that will be published in the next seven months; all focusing on a different day of the same walk in the Alps, and how the days change while walking, slowly but discernible. 

"The idea first came to me as I was listening to the recordings of the first sessions: each version seemed to me to have its own personality, with subtleties so distinct from one another that I was unable to choose which I preferred. I associated everything with walking, with the experience of following the same routes over and over, discovering new details each time. And so in the end I decided to thread them all together in a sort of musical labyrinth, a little like stepping inside the twists and turns of the creative process, to understand how a musical idea can develop in multiple directions, and changing once again at the moment in which it is heard."

You can listen to the album through a variety of different services here.

Seven Sisters

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Sussex's white cliffs are something else: steep rolling waves of white, seven in a row. I'm with friends, walking straightish route 14 miles along the coast from Seaford to Eastbourne. It’s the first walk back after winter, and the simplest, easiest and least ambitious escape I could make. Whatever it is, though, I need it. The walk grabs all the energy my lazy London arse could muster for a sunny Saturday. I could have been lying in my garden all day, sitting up only to drink another tinny. Instead I struggle four hours in dusty walking boots towards my destination: a cold shandy.

I've been at work all week, fingers tripping the keyboard and feet tucked under the desk. The newspaper’s been an endless churn of stories about the Home Office, and its new assault on the Windrush generation. Objective: getting out of my head. Here are waves of turf. Here is a beach cut in half by a river. Here the sea makes chalky plumes. Walls of green grass ride up and fill my gaze and cliffs of white chalk soar up from short backshores. Out there, the big blue Channel spindles out to the horizon. The view is huge and the walk is satisfying. Within half an hour, my hamstrings ache and the back of my T-shirt is damp with sweat.

In Kent, Dover's cliffs are just outside the sea port. They run white and constant, at a uniform height. (UKIP once ran an anti-immigration poster showing escalators running to their tops). From the sea, the cliffs are a picture of high-walled Britain. Now, even inside Fortress Britain, a dreading vertigo grows. Whenever you came, whatever your standing in the community, the Home Office can still pull the rug from under you. Uneasy residents cloak discrimination with the state-sanctioned term, ‘hostile environment’: in reality this means putting ‘Go Home’ vans on the roads, deporting survivors of abuse and torture, and forcing teachers, doctors and the general public to police one another’s immigration status. It wouldn't take much for us to fling you out, the tactics say. To even third- and fourth-generation Britons, people still ask: no, but, where are you really from…

Between Seaford and Eastbourne stand England’s other 'white cliffs'. The Seven Sisters come in waves. Peaks trade with dips, where shingle beaches and gaps let us down to the sea. The current of chalk swells and dwindles. At times, the cliffs stand unassailable; at others, the land admits a fault. But at every point along the path, whether high or low, you can see the line of the land in flux.

In 'Wanderlust', Rebecca Solnit writes: "When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back; the more one comes to know them, the more one seeds them with the invisible crop of memories and associations that will be waiting for when you come back, while new places offer up new thoughts, new possibilities. Exploring the world is one the best ways of exploring the mind, and walking travels both terrains.”

What happens when the place you give yourself to, gives nothing back? What happens when someone else harvests 'the invisible crop of memories' you sowed, weeded and watered? I cannot write about these white cliffs without writing about those white cliffs. We read the landscape, and the landscape reads us. The coastline changes and our landscapes retake us.

Ellie Broughton is a writer from London and wrote for Elsewhere No.04. On Twitter she's @__ellie