Snaresbrook Road

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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.

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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.

Dan on Twitter

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.