A bit of an exaggeration, that title, but it does encapsulate the sense of the divide that the Thames creates for London’s residents. When you first move to London, you usually have zero prejudice about north v south. Then you find a flat, a bedsit, a place to lay your hat and that, pretty much is that. Occasionally you meet someone in the demilitarised zone – the City and the West End where most jobs and entertainment lurk – who comes from the Far Side, The Dark Side, The Here Be Dragons zone and the dilemma has to be addressed. Move north and enter a Circle of Hell somewhere between Fraud and Wrath or head south to Milk, Honey and sunlit uplands. I’m being fair and balanced, people, so bear with me…
So it is that agreeing to do a walk that is exclusively north of the City carries with it the need, for a long term southerly resident such as me, to make a few basic preparations: passport – tick; inoculations against beri beri, slopey-headed small-mindedness and the Cult of the Pumpkin Latte – tick; Kevlar impregnated personality – tick.
I was ready. I supped a coffee from a jolly vendor whose stand shivered outside Highgate tube and waited for the Alternative Power Executive (Ape, natch) and considered our day. The rain cleared away as I waited, Dog chewed at some tenacious part of his foot and the coffee vendor rubbed his arms in the probably vain hope of generating warmth. I mean we are damn nearly inside the arctic circle here, no wonder it was parky.
And then we set off and, you know what, it was splendid. The start – Park Walk – is a former railway line that was once tipped to be a motorway extension but is now a footpath through the trees that give air to Londoners and home to a variety of creatures.
Indeed we came across two unique creatures that we didn’t expect to see.
The first was a Spriggan, a mythological fellow that causes mayhem and chaos and who we found crawling out of the brickwork at the now disused Crouch End station.
The second was an elderly jogger who passed us twice, the second time thanking us for moving to one side. To us he was a harmless old geezer, to many he is the epitome of a mayhem and chaos creator: Jeremy Corbyn, MP, Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition.
Me and the Ape stared after him. What surprised us was not seeing him but the lack of any minders. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. On the one hand his principles would almost certainly make him reluctant to accept overt police protection; but on the other is it worth that risk? He was completely vulnerable. Does it say something about our society that we allow him to run free and take his chances? Or about me and my expectations? Maybe, as some would attest, he is an alien species and thus protected from anything as banal as an assault. Or maybe it was because he was wearing blue, not red and so, inevitably, would confuse any would be assailants.
We left the walk and crossed Finsbury Park heading for one of London’s cute villages, Stoke Newington. We followed the New River, neither new or a river but a watercourse built in 1617 to bring fresh water to the city via a 40 plus mile watercourse that drops two inches every mile. Genius.
Now it feeds into Stoke Newington East and then West reservoirs. Don’t go around asking ‘What did the Stuarts ever do for us?’ because it clearly extends beyond weird sword dancing and haggis.
On the far side of the second reservoir is a now redundant Victorian pumping station that houses a boating club and a climbing centre. As it was with the Victorians they couldn’t just build a box. Oh no. This time they decided on a pastiche of Dracula’s Castle. I mean; why not?
A short hoppity skip and we were into Clissold Park, with its former grand manor and a couple of churches:
- St Mary’s, all priapic spire and ‘look at me’ grandeur, the product of the mind of Gilbert George Scott, Victorian architect extraordinaire;
- and the Ancient Mother Church (also St Mary’s) that sits on the site of a church first built in 940 or some such and rebuilt in the 1600s and then again in the 1820s. Its wooden spire and plain walls are somehow more in keeping with what I always understood religion to be about but then I don’t understand it so a Portland stone space rocket to the stars like the one across the road might be the truer representation of what is being worshipped here. In truth I’m happy we have them both because, as buildings they both have there pluses.
Stoke Newington Village is a trendy place with an excess of cafes and shops that will tune your violin or retail small pots of Venezuelan mud balms at the cost of a couple of ponies a knock.
At the end of Church Street is the entrance to Abney Cemetery, one of London’s Magnificent Seven cemeteries built to take the increasing number of dead that London was generously generating in the Victorian era.
This place, just outside the city boundaries gave homes and succour to many non-conformists and political activists and, as such, the cemetery houses them in some wacky tombs. Today the place is a tumbled mass of graves and overgrown trees and things lurking just over there…. You want spooky for Halloween? Then go here.
We left this repository of the macabre, indulged in some rather good crusted halloumi and Azerbaijani fermented oak poultices – as you do – and headed off through Stamford Hill towards Hackney – or ‘ackney as it’s known still.
Stamford Hill was, is a centre for some of the most Orthodox of London’s Jewish communities. Being Friday and not yet dusk its denizens were out in force getting things done before the Sabbath. There is also a more recent but increasingly big Muslim population and we passed three Victorian Houses that have been converted into a Masjid – e Cuba mosque. Friday prayers were in full swing and many of the faithful were coming or going. In one of those reminders, rather like a top politician jogging on his lonesome, that London isn’t a bad place to be, most of the time, these two communities, who if you believed a lot of what you hear, would be at each other’s throats, or at least crossing the road to avoid each other, were moving about their lives, smiling or frowning, chatting or contemplating, but all the time just getting on. If there’s one reason I like living here, now, it’s because most people, most of the time just ‘get on’: with their own, with their neighbours, with their lives, in each case without any fuss or need for praise or applause.
Whenever I feel uplifted by things so simple, I usually find I need to pee and Springfield Park provided us with a suitable stopping point. Dog waited patiently, having been more active in that department during the earlier parts of our walk.
Springfield Park is nice, nothing particularly special or grand but it slopes away gently to our next section, the canal that leads down from the north towards the Thames, called the River Lee Navigation, which is not to be confused with the slightly differently spelt River Lea that parallels its course.
We crossed a bridge – we had to cross several as we headed south – and followed its banks taking in the wildlife and open marshes vistas of ‘ackney Marshes.
The canal is full of boats, many seemingly moored as permanent homes with only a few plying their trade up and down the generally still flows.
This is an improving area. When I first walked this route, in 2006, London had just been awarded the 2012 Olympic Games and the main park was ahead. Back then there were still derelict warehouses and redundant industrial sites.
Now new housing has sprung up, taking advantage of the canal side and water views. There’s still graffiti – street art – and some odd sculptures.
There are the Middlesex Filter beds – Middlesex as a county having long gone from hereabouts – which treated polluted water. In a field the remains of a pumping station’s foundations lurk like some ‘ackney ‘enge, seeking to rival Stonehenge in its, albeit smaller scale grandeur.
The path winds and wends and eventually, ducking underneath the thundering concrete of the A12 as it heads East, we were alongside the Olympic, now Queen Elizabeth, Park.
The first buildings were the broadcast centre, home to an academy and, yep, cafes. Then there were the power station and finally the stadium itself and that stupid giant smashed trombone of a fairground attraction, the Orbit.
We admired what had been done, wondered a little at how all that good feeling the Games generated has somewhat dissipated in the egregious pontificatings of a Brexit obsessed political class and remembered what we had seen earlier. Yep, not to bad, underneath.
We had tea, we had cake and we stepped up on the NOSE – the Northern Outfall Sewer Extension – the huge 90 inch pipes that still take the vast bulk of London’s sewerage out to the treatment plants and Abbey Mils and Crossness. We spotted a random bird of prey, thinking, or maybe preying…
The top of these pipes has been cleverly turned into a wide footpath that leads some three miles, through the southern tip of the Park to the Thames at Beckton. We only had a mile to walk before we broke off and headed home from West Ham station but there was one final sight for us before then.
Abbey Mills pumping station (there’s a theme, isn’t there). If the water pumping Castle in Stoke Newington was grand, this was palatial. A cross, someone said, between a railway terminus and a cathedral; you have to admire the chutzpah of those Victorian Engineers. To build this takes balls and, as the younger residents of this part of East London might have it: ‘it’s one shit hot palace’.