It all started when Paul Clarke went to Sheppey.

Actually, it didn’t quite start there, because Paul had been responding to a tweet from somebody else a day or so earlier, which had caught my eye too, but didn’t react to with quite Paul’s alacrity (and can’t now remember whose tweet it was).

Anyway, Paul went to Sheppey, and took some photographs, as he does. That in turn prompted a bit of twitter chat about the minor islands of Great Britain, including an arresting assertion from Tom Loosemore.

It had never occurred to me that I might ever want to go to Canvey Island. I had vague associations with oil refineries, flooding, and distant cousins, last heard of decades past. As is often the way with islands, it’s impossible to go there by accident, it’s not on the way to anywhere else (unless you have a predilection to hitch a ride on an LPG tanker to Russia). Against all that, ‘unmissable’ seemed a sufficiently unlikely endorsement to be well worth investigating.

So yesterday I took advantage of perfect weather, cold, still and clear, to look for myself. In the absence of any greater attraction, the obvious thing to do with an island is to walk round it. So I did – though on a short January day and a not very early start, 15 miles began to feel a bit like a competition with the fading daylight.

But before that, it was glorious. Strong, low sunshine. An absolutely clear sky, broken only by the vapour trails of planes stacking and converging on Heathrow. Walking on the sea wall – more of an earth rampart most of the way round – a few precious feet higher than the surrounding land. The Ordnance Survey does not grace Canvey Island with a single contour line – so impressive chutzpah to whoever got away with naming Canvey Heights Country Park.

For the first couple of hours, I didn’t see another person – except a couple of children with their dog over on the mainland, a hundred yards and an hour’s walk away. Towards Holehaven Point, the first few dog walkers appeared, before reaching metropolitan Canvey a couple of miles further on. This is where the flood defences get really serious – the length of what in any other riparian town would be the promenade, consists of a concrete path with an eight foot wall completely blocking off the town. There are occasional glimpses of nothing very interesting looking through the heavily-gated gaps in the upper part of the wall which allow access, but were it not for the dozens of benches memorialising deceased Canveyites and a greater incidence of dog walkers, the town might as well not have been there at all. The one structure which braves the seaward side of the wall is the Labworth Cafe, which I might have been more tempted to stop at had I realised that it is the only building designed by Ove Arup, when he was an architect not an engineering company.

Round the corner and out of the sun, the temperature drops to a sudden chill. The last third of the walk, back round the north side of the island is less dramatic and the low sun is starting to get even lower. A lone small cloud appears – the inverse of a sailor’s trousers – as the bridge to the rest of the world finally comes into sight and the sun sets over the oil refinery.

Click on any of the pictures to see full size versions. Or see the full set.


Parks and Cemeteries

In a big, spawling city, you take your green spaces where you can find them. Some of them are parks. A few are the routes of long-closed railways. And some are cemeteries, high-density housing for the dead.

A pleasant weekend stroll from Crystal Palace to Nunhead takes in three parks, three cemeteries, and two nature reserves, one of which is a stretch of the abandoned railway which once connected Crystal Palace to Nunhead without the trouble of walking at all. It’s over sixty years since this line last saw trains, and it would be hard to guess that the path was once the track bed. It’s an odd thought that the last time I was walking in this neck of the woods, it was probably closer in time to when the trains were running than that time is to now.

The first of the cemeteries is Camberwell Old Cemetery, which is neither all that old, nor in Camberwell, but is part of the Victorian need for burial grounds beyond the capacity of churchyards. The layout of the graves is slightly chaotic and the ground uneven; faded, but with little sense of much past grandeur. It all feels quite enclosed until, in one corner, a vista opens across to St Paul’s and the shard, and the grey of the tombstones merges into the grey of the clouds and of those distant buildings.

Nunhead Cemetery is the oldest and grandest – and most faded – of the the three. Most of the memorials are in poor shape, some leaning on one another for support, others collapsing into the encroaching undergrowth. But there are two plots, a little apart from one another, bounded by neat hedges and with pristine gravestones, where order is preserved. They are graves from the first world war, the first of Australian soldiers, the second mainly Canadian. There is no indication of how death brought them to Nunhead – perhaps they died of wounds having been brought back across the channel for treatment.

In all three cemeteries, but more among the newer graves than the older ones, I was struck by how many of those lying there were described as being asleep. Death, of course, has many euphemisms. In American English, though not yet in British English, it seems hardly possible to speak of somebody having died with so harsh a verb. I have made no scientific study – indeed I have made no study at all – of the language of tombstones, but my impression is that the prevalence of the language of sleep was much higher in the Camberwell cemeteries than in others I have been to. It’s entirely possible that there is no real difference, and so nothing to explain, but I wondered idly whether something as simple as a stonemason’s pattern book might affect the words chosen by the grieving. It might have been Mr Henry Daniel, Mason, whose fine memorial stands prominently in Nunhead Cemetery and who was, it seems, ‘for many years connected with the Highgate and Nunhead Cemeteries’. But more likely not, since he departed this life, rather than falling asleep.

20161022_47Between the two Camberwell cemeteries, One Tree Hill would offer a panoramic view across London, were it not for the fact that there are many more trees than one. The one true tree is an oak under which Queen Elizabeth is said to have rested in 1602 – though the present tree was planted only in 1905 by the leading lights of the splendidly-named Enclosure of Honor Oak Hill Protest Committee, and in any case it’s not clear what on earth she would have been doing there in the last year of her life. Perhaps she fell asleep there, but she did not then depart this life.

London Loop 21 to 24 – Harold Wood to Purfleet

The last sections of the Loop feel more manufactured than much of what has gone before. For most of their fifteen miles the paths have hard surfaces, including a long continuous mile besides roads. Soon after leaving Harold Wood (which is not a wood at all), the path goes through Pages Wood. It’s pleasant enough, but it’s a very tidy landscape, perhaps not surprising when it turns out that the whole thing is a new creation, with 100,000 trees planted since 2001.

Pages Wood

Turning a corner, a line of pylons marches through adding a further blast of modernity.

Pages Wood - pylons

The idea that pristine nature is to be found within the M25 is of course all romantic twaddle, a shadow of the pathetic fallacy. The landscape of Pages Wood was made by people – but so was this entire landscape, some of it centuries ago, some decades ago, and some (such as the huge landfill site at Rainham reached in the final section of the Loop) being created as we watch. Older is not the same as more natural, but it’s hard to shake the instinct that somehow it must be.

For most of the nine miles to Rainham, the path follows the River Ingrebourne, a narrow strip of woods and wetlands dropped between housing. It’s easy,  fast and rather uninspiring walking, with only one stretch edging round field boundaries through long, wet grass. Once through Upminster, it’s even possible to see the river from time to time. More impressively, the path is uninterrupted by roads for almost three miles, underlining how much even a small river can form an impermeable barrier.

Rainham itself is distinguished mainly by Rainham Hall, an imposing Queen Anne house only opened to the public a few months ago, after long restoration. The Loop passes the front door, with railings bedecked with temptations to enter. Since this was the first, and quite possibly the last, time I have ever found myself in Rainham, perhaps I should have seized the opportunity. But I didn’t, preferring to keep to the rhythm of the walk.

My original plan had been to stop at Rainham and come back another day for the final section along the river to Purfleet. But the day was young and another five miles seemed entirely manageable, so I crossed the old railway on a level crossing and the new HS1 on a particularly convoluted footbridge and carried on across Rainham Marshes. As the path reaches the river, there is an area of newish industrial units, where the team which builds straight paths had done a fine job, but the team which does bendy connections had never quite caught up.

Joining up 1 Joining up 2

The modern industrial estate stands on older foundations. The 1897 6″ OS map records a pub, a chemical works and a fish manure works. Just beyond where the fish manure works once stood, there is a row of large tanks and a pervasive smell of boiled rice where Tilda Rice does whatever it is you do to process rice.

Tilda rice

From then on, the path follows the river, past a vast area where marshland is being displaced by landfill at the rate of 1.5 million tonnes a year. Along the river there are odd structures in various stage of dilapidation harking back to a time when the river was more intensively used than it is now.  One of them looks initially like industrial junk, but closer up resolves into a sculpture of a diver, placed it turns out to disappear with the tide.

The Diver

Half way along is Coldharbour Point, a wholly unremarkable turn in the river – except that it is precisely opposite Erith where the London Loop begins. It is an odd feeling looking half a mile across the river to the stretch I walked three years ago and haven’t set eyes on since.

The weather was getting hotter and muggier. I had hoped that there would be a breeze when I reached the river, but the air was barely moving and there was not an inch of shade. The last couple of miles, past what were once the Purfleet rifle ranges and are now an RSPB reserve, were increasingly heavy going. Thunder started to rumble at a distance, gradually getting closer and bringing the relief of rain. I took refuge in the RSPB cafe, with the surreal sight of a row of birdwatchers, cameras and binoculars to hand, looking through a picture window from the comfort of a line of sofas. The only sign of movement was the occasional Eurostar hurtling through the middle distance.

And so finally to Purfleet, the wholly unremarkable and unmarked end of the Loop. It’s taken 17 walking days, unevenly spread over three years to do. It’s officially 152 miles long, though I have somehow managed to walk 164 miles without ever intentionally diverging from the route (except for the stretch made completely impassable by the flooding of the River Crane).

It’s an odd mixture – idyllic landscapes, canal towpaths, rolling farmland and innumerable parks giving way unpredictably to banal suburbia, light industrial grot and arterial roads. It’s taken me to parts of London I would never have got to for any other reason and given me a perspective on my home city I couldn’t have got any other way.  But now it’s done. Time to move on.

There are words about the later part of the route and pictures from pretty much all of it.

London Loop 20 and 21 – Chigwell to Harold Wood

Sunshine, buttercups, wildlife and panoramic views. On a glorious day, these two stages had much of what is best about the Loop, as well as a good dose of it in slightly desperate mood, trying to create the illusion of a rural idyll from distinctly unpromising raw material.

Even when the illusion is at its best, modernity intrudes unexpectedly. After a stretch of woods and meadows, with no sound except birdsong and passing aeroplanes, the curve of the path brings a sudden glimpse of Narnia, before dissolving into the more prosaic sight of the A1112.


At several points there are sweeping views. In this low lying country, even a little height provides a great vantage point. Fourteen or so miles away, beyond the green, the skyline of the City shimmers gently in the haze.
City skyline, 14 miles

Pyrgo gatepostIn the corner of a field there is a rusting gate post, which is apparently the last remaining trace of Pyrgo House, a royal palace where Mary and Elizabeth Tudor spent part of their childhood. This corner of Essex seems to be littered with vanished haunts of the Tudors. Havering Palace came just half a mile before and Elsynge Palace was back in stage 17. Between them just outside Chingford at the beginning of stage 19 was Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge, the only one of the buildings to have survived, and the only one where there is no evidence that she ever set foot.

Walking along a field boundary, a woman accosts me from half way across it. It took a couple of goes to get the message across, but a combination of shouts and gestures tells me that there are five deer somewhere nearby. It’s unclear what she expects me to do with this information, so I press on. Unsurprisingly, there are no deer to be seen, though twenty minutes later three small deer emerge from a wheat field and race across the path in front of me to disappear into woodland. Along the way, there have also been a rabbit, a fox, several pheasants and innumerable waterfowl, which is probably more variety than the rest of the Loop put together.

Signpost lost in trees‘Continue straight ahead, as the signpost in the corner of the wood reassures’, the directions instruct. But the signpost has almost completely vanished, with the finger pointing ahead quite impossible to read. It comes at a point where reassurance is not much needed, rather than at one of the many points where reassurance – and indeed a clear direction – would have been more useful. Along most of the route, the written directions compensate for lost or overgrown waymarking, with the Ordnance Survey as occasionally essential backup for both. Along this section, the directions seem vaguer, and include a passage where the route being described is clearly quite different not just from the waymarking, but also from the sketch map in those very directions.

The last forty five minutes are very different. The Loop designers have done their best, but they haven’t had much raw material to work with. The path follows a brook along what the route description calls a ‘steep sided sylvan dell’, where it is hard to imagine a greater mismatch between the floridity of the description and the dingy reality, before emerging to run in sedate order through parks and housing estates. The final obstacle is the A12, with stern instructions to walk 500m along it to a safe crossing point and then 500m back the other side. The prospect was depressing, the reality a pleasant surprise – not only was there no obstacle to walking straight across, there was a clear path and a central refuge, and even dropped kerbs to ease the way. The nanny state occasionally has a libertarian moment.

London Loop 18 and 19 – Enfield Lock to Chigwell

Teachers get ever younger, policemen get ever shorter – and so it seems do legs of the London Loop. As far as Enfield Lock, the average is seven miles; from Enfield Lock onwards, it drops to four and a half. So there’s a chance to accelerate the apparent pace, without actually going any faster at all.

There’s lots of water on this stretch, most of it artificial.  It crosses the River Lee Navigation and the River Lea decidedly non-navigation. It looks over the vast King George V Reservoir. Much later, it wraps round a flooded gravel pit before a stretch beside the River Roding. And where there is water, there are water fowl – a pair of swans with their cygnets, herons standing in the shallows, geese demonstrating axes of symmetry. My ornithology is somewhere between basic and non-existent, though, so I might be mis-identifying almost everything.

Walking on waterThe now-flooded gravel pit was apparently dug to provide material for building the M11, so presumably dates from the early 1970s. It seems that the Ordnance Survey has not yet caught up with this state of affairs, with rights of way continuing undeterred across the water. The lower map overlays the modern lake on the paths and river course on the OS 6″ map of 1897 (using the National Library of Scotland’s addictive tool) –Map overlay from which it’s obvious that the paths converge on a foot bridge which vanished a generation ago.

Comparing the maps also shows that the short stretch of the River Roding which the route follows is also a modern artefact – before the pit was dug, the river looped to the west of the lake. So the picture below is a completely artificial by-product of building a motorway. I wouldn’t have guessed.

River Roding

There’s a circus on Chingford Plain. You can hear it long before you know what it might be, and long after it has become all too clear. Somewhere not far from there, there’s a barbecue, never seen but detectable over quite a distance. And then there is the building roar of the M11, which lasts so much longer than the few minutes spent walking across it.  The illusion shimmers again.

The final stretch offers a view back towards the city. The Shard stands tall, a little over ten miles away. Chigwell station provides the means of getting there – the station with the second smallest number of passengers on the underground, at a point where the Central line seems as acute a misnomer as the Northern line at Mordern.

Brush up your Shakespeare

On the weekend of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death day, a curious commemoration ran along the south bank of the Thames. Thirty seven screens showed thirty seven short films, each summarising and encapsulating one of Shakespeare’s plays.

A lot of thought, wit and good humour had clearly gone into the making of the films. A lot of organisation and technical problem solving must have gone into getting the screens up and running (an achievement emphasised as much as undermined by the fact that on the first day quite a lot of them didn’t work). So it was a shame that even when it all worked, it didn’t really quite work.

Joan of Arc and the London Eye

There were several overlapping reasons for that, some more obvious than others. Each film was trying to do a lot, with a mixture of scenes from staged performances and scenes shot in the locations where the plays were set. Sound was an inevitable problem: quieter dialogue got lost altogether and even the more energetic action stood little chance against passing trains. And it is the nature of the experience that you always arrive in the middle, trying to make sense of things without a great deal of context (and long drawn out credits did little to encourage people to wait for the beginning again). The Shakespearean in our little group was a bit confused. The non-Shakespearean was baffled.

Titus Andromicus under Hungerford Bridge

And yet. Some scenes worked really well. Petruchio chasing Kate round a villa in Padua was visually clear with rapid fire dialogue which was almost all audible. Modern dress Henvy VI on the streets of Spitalfields, interspersed with library footage of rioting and disconcertingly anachronistic decapitations, had enough visual power to hold attention even when the words were inaudible and incomprehensible.


The idea of making films like these was a great one. The idea of bringing Shakespeare’s art to life on screens along the river was another great one. But two great ideas combined don’t necessarily add up to a great experience.

All of that is another reminder – if one were needed – about the need to design services to meet the needs of users in the circumstances in which they actually are rather than in some idealised form it would be convenient for them to be. But those are thoughts for another time and place. Shakespeare can stand up to some pretty rough treatment, and often has done. But these films could be more powerful shown in a different way. I hope we haven’t seen the last of them.


Harvesting sunshine

A walk in the Cotswold countryside to the slightly unlikely destination of a solar farm. The panels are in long lines, following the slope of the field, protected by strong metal fences, warnings of death and lines of cameras – but with not a single person anywhere to be seen. SecurityThere is a public footpath through the middle and around the perimeter which hasn’t exactly been blocked but which avoids attracting any attention to itself – only the Ordnance Survey offers any confidence that it exists at all. I wonder whether to be a walker here is to be instantly suspicious, but the cameras do not turn, and even poking a camera over the fence prompts no reaction.

The solar panels stand in grassland which would be hard and inefficient to keep tidy with machinery. There is of course a simpler and long-established method for keeping parkland tidy – and so the impersonal modernity of renewable power generation is supported by some gently grazing sheep. It’s tempting to call it Combined Sheep and Power.

Combined Sheep and Power

Along the way, the light and clouds keep shifting, the threatened downpour never quite materialising.

London Loop 17 – Cockfosters to Enfield Lock

It seems odd to walk out of a tube station and within three minutes to be walking along a muddy path without a building in sight.

Unsystematic study, possibly affected by sampling errors, suggests that more people walk their dogs on Good Friday than on any other day of the year.

The illusion of rurality continues to amuse. Looking across a meadow, gently rising towards a line of trees across the skyline – and a red double decker appears running along the road hidden by the trees.

Country bus

Near what was once Elsynge Palace, the path crosses the spot where Sir Walter Raleigh is said to have spread his cloak over a puddle so that the queen could cross unmuddied. The invention of tarmac has made the gesture redundant – and has made much of this stretch of the Loop feel a bit incongruous: paths along streams and through woodland where there should be some give (and after a few days rain, some discernible squelch) underfoot, but instead there is the hardness of urban pavement. The illusion shimmers once more.

The A10 is crossed by a footbridge, which is a big improvement on the A1, which is crossed by a detour.

There are more cemeteries along this section than I can remember in any earlier one. The last of the three is a bit surreal. A vast lawn apparently randomly interspersed with benches and flowers, which manage to look wholly unnatural while avoiding any suggestion of death. And then, in the furthest corner, a row of fresh graves, the soil still roughly piled on top.

I bought a 50mm prime lens a couple of days ago. This was its first outing. When I started taking pictures, a zoom lens seemed an unaffordable and unattainble luxury. Now, a prime lens feels almost an indulgence. In the same way that I used to be able judge exposure pretty well without a light meter, I learned to frame a shot by moving myself, not the lens. Both skills have left me, but the second is one I think it’s worth reawakening.

Spring blossom

Five bridges and an eight

Albert is a fine name for a bridge, Battersea a little prosaic. But then comes Cremorne, which is a splendid name for a splendid bridge, even if it was built to carry the less euphoniously named West London Extension Joint Railway over the river. And after Wandsworth, about which there is nothing to say, comes Fulham Railway Bridge, which is unimaginative but exact, with eights shooting unexpectedly from under pedestrians’ feet.

Who pays for footpaths?

Here is a typical English rural scene. It’s early June, the sun is shining, the crops are growing, the footpath skirts the edge of the field, and there is almost nobody about – except a small group of teenagers who have just gone past trying, not altogether successfully, to get their heads round orienteering.

The only slightly odd thing about it isn’t apparent from the picture. This farm is not in some bucolic shire, it’s in Greater London, just 17 miles as the crow flies from Trafalgar Square.

As a Londoner, I think that’s fantastic. I get to go for long walks in the country without going out of range of my oyster card. But it’s also a bit odd. Astonishingly (at least to me), 10% of the land area of Greater London is used for agriculture, with a further (in)decent chunk (or so it feels from walking around and across them) taken up by golf courses. For a city facing acute shortages of affordable housing, that might look like a solution waiting to be seized. But as a post in CityMetric which prompted this reflection notes, the London Assembly Planning and Housing Committee concluded something very different:

There is a good case to be made that commercial agriculture is one of the best and most productive land uses in the Green Belt. The benefits include: opportunities for local job creation, skills development, regeneration, preservation and management of green space, potential for waste management, providing healthy locally produced food and so reducing food packaging and food miles, and the potential for improving food security.

So as ever, there are costs and benefits. I reap some of the benefits (and part of the benefit is that there often seems to be very few other people interested in sharing them) but incur none of the costs. So who is paying for my enjoyment?

One answer is everybody – this is a consequence of a green belt policy and so is a collective self-denying ordinance not to allow alternative uses for the land. There is apparently strong popular support for the policy – but then this is a near perfect example of a policy where a small number of people capture a very large share of the benefits (people who live in or near the green belt) and a much larger number of people share the costs (people whose housing choices are constrained or journeys to work elongated); the first group find it much easier to defend their shared interests than the the second.

Another answer therefore, is that the cost is carried by everybody who could make better use of the land but is prevented form doing so.  The people who would live in the houses which cannot be built are quite literally not in the picture. That leads to suggestions such as the observation by the Adam Smith Institute that a million homes could be built within walking distance of stations in the green belt and in doing so take up only 3.7% of the total area – met unsurprisingly with an equally strong rejection from the Campaign to Protect Rural England (and that such a campaign would concern itself with the rurality of the world inside the M25 is itself cause for reflection).

It seems pretty clear that we are not going to run out of land any time soon – not even of land close to major urban areas. The enjoyment of that land may not have a direct monetary cost, but its preservation does have consequences.

While the arguments continue, I will keep on walking, hoping as I go that if anything is to be built on, it’s the golf courses which go first.