The Capital Ring: Hackney Wick to Woolwich (part 1)

A grey-overcast Saturday morning in East London. At Hackney Wick, the Overground train to Stratford pulled into the station. Not many got out, and those that did looked up at the sky and wondered when the intermittent drizzle would turn into something more. I zipped up my fleece and walked down the slope to the streets with the boarded-up Lord Napier pub, the closed cafés and the scrap metal dealerships. A sign pointed to something called the Wacky Market, but there was no sign of any market. Or wackiness, come to think of it.

On the bridge over the River Lea (or Lee) navigation channel, I got a view of the Olympic Stadium amid the almost-empty plastic beer glasses that hadn’t been cleared away from the previous night’s drinking. The river looked as grey as the sky, although still the only rain was the sort of light drizzle that makes you wonder if it’s worth the effort of breaking out the waterproof jacket. I didn’t.

Following the Capital Ring from where I’d left off, I headed south along the towpath, past locked-up narrowboats whose occupants had either got up early or, if they were sensible, were still in bed. Views from the water pointed to the buildings of the City or the Docklands, depending on which way you looked. The waterside warehouses looked disused to me, but that could’ve been because it was Saturday.

The Capital Ring follows the same route as the Lea Valley Walk (fifty miles, Luton to Limehouse Basin) as far as the Old Ford Lock, where I saw a cormorant diving for fish , a couple of moorhens and a swan. One of the green signs told me that I was 9¾ miles from Highgate Wood, and 4½ miles from Beckton District Park, the end of section 14 of the Capital Ring. 

The sign to Highgate Wood got me thinking … briefly. Since I’d done my first part of the Capital Ring back in March, it had started to pop up everywhere. Someone did the walk for Time Out, and my Dad, who just happens to own a copy of the Capital Ring guidebook, had a go at a few stages; he told me that in Highgate Wood he’d seen a tatty-looking plaque commemorating the launch of the Capital Ring in September 2005, its launcher being a Greater London Assembly Member called Jenny Jones (of the Green Party). An odd place to launch it, I’d thought – especially given that, according to the section numbering system it’s supposed to start and end at the Woolwich Foot Tunnel. Perhaps that was deemed insufficiently green for the big opening. I, naturally, had somehow managed to overlook the plaque completely when I walked through Highgate Wood.

Old Ford Lock is where the Lea’s navigation channel merges with the rest of the River Lea, and it’s also where the Capital Ring leaves the Lea and turns eastwards. Specifically, it joins onto another path, the Greenway. This is a raised footpath-cum-cycleway which dates back to the Nineties when it was built (if a footpath can be ‘built’) on top of the Northern Outfall Sewer, which takes all manner of effluent from Hackney to the sewage treatment plant at Beckton; like many of London’s sewers, it’s the work of that Victorian civil engineering titan Joseph Bazalgette and it works by gravity.

From the Greenway I got a great view of the Olympic Stadium and the construction workers who were hard at work converting it into West Ham United’s new home (as with the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, it seems like one of the main beneficiaries of the London Olympics is going to be a football team). Unlike Dad, I didn’t have a guidebook; I had a print-out for the relevant section of the walk that I’d downloaded from the TfL website that was getting progressively more damp. According to it, I would be following the Greenway for about three miles but just after crossing Stratford High Street I encountered some barriers blocking my access to the next section of the path and a sign telling me to “KEEP OUT!”.

Being Victorian, the Northern Outfall Sewer needs some maintenance every now and again, and Thames Water is at present carrying out some renovation work. The accompanying notice had a diversionary route which took me along an urban back-road called Abbey Lane which passes the Abbey Mills Pumping Station and emerges onto Abbey Road (no, not that one). At some points I could even see the Greenway, tantalisingly out of bounds and (just) out of reach. I somehow managed to get a bit lost amid the terraced houses, and was briefly distracted when the road I was on afforded me a glimpse of a series of back gardens serving a row of two-up, two-down terraced houses, many of which had extensions at the back; interestingly, the gardens ranged from the well-kept to the astonishingly overgrown (one of them had a mattress and a sofa in the undergrowth). Briefly, it put me in mind of the views of back gardens that I’d experienced on the Parkland Walk section.

The drizzle thickened sufficiently to persuade me to dig my waterproof out. Eventually I made it onto Manor Road, which I followed down to West Ham station (Tube, DLR and BR; not the nearest station to the football ground) where after diverting into a nearby park I made it back onto the Greenway. 

Back on a path running between back gardens, but much more exposed than the Parkland Walk. That didn’t stop a few hardy dog-walkers and joggers, though, as I followed the Greenway east – wondering at how a walk through an urban area like Plaistow could result in my encountering so few people. I could see the Beckton treatment plant looming in the background, but the Capital Ring left the Greenway long before it got that far.

Following the green signs, I took a left that led my to a nondescript back-street called Stokes Road which in turn led me onto a footbridge over the A13. After this, I made my way through a park which apparently contains species of tree from around the world. Alas, tree recognition is one of my blind spots as far as nature is concerned so this was rather lost on me. I’d reached the end of another section of the Capital Ring and could, if I so wished, call it a day and get the DLR out of East London. Or I could carry on walking; according to the sign, it was only 3½ miles to the Woolwich Foot Tunnel.

Another 3½ miles? Why not?


Tripe and onions

As has been noted on previous occasions, there are few parts of an animal that I am not prepared to eat. I have bought into the notion, popularised by the likes of Fergus Henderson and Hugh Flippin’-Whatsisname, that if you’re going to eat meat (and, let’s face it, the day I turn vegetarian will be the day Satan has to wear snow-shoes), you should make use of the whole animal.

Liver, that most divisive of cuts (you really do either love it or hate it, it seems) is a particular favourite of mine, especially when served up with bacon and onion gravy. I rather enjoy kidneys too, and when we went to that 24-hour restaurant in the Les Halles district of Paris called Au Pied de Cochon, I had to have the pied de cochon (pig’s foot, served in this particular instance with Béarnaise sauce and pommes frites). The subject of today’s post, though, is tripe.

It may be a delicacy in some parts of the world (especially Italy; if you’re in Florence, do try the trippa alla Fiorentina, the tripe sandwich obtainable from the food-trucks outside the Mercato Centrale) but this meat product made from the stomachs of various animals is poorly regarded in Britain these days. It used to be a popular dish, especially in Lancashire although its appeal, rather like that of jellied eels in London, does appear to have been limited to the working classes. Rather like liver, it was nutritious but fell out of favour in the increasing affluence of postwar Britain. Apparently, in Lancashire they liked their tripe cold (not uncooked; rather like ham, it always had to be cooked – boiled, to be precise, which is what gave it its white colour – first) and served with vinegar. Malt vinegar, presumably – and that turns me right off; my food adventurousness only goes so far! I’m no fan of vinegar (I’ve never even liked it on chips) and the only reason why we have a bottle of (distilled) malt vinegar in the house is because it’s great for unblocking drains when combined with bicarbonate of soda.

But I digress.

A couple of months ago, we were shopping in Morrisons when I spotted some tripe in the pre-packed meat section. Naturally, I had to buy it. Even after it was made very clear that this would be something that I would be cooking at a time when Allison would be away.

Given tripe’s associations with the Red Rose County, I was intrigued to note that the brand of tripe I was buying was called Real Lancashire Tripe, made (if that is the right term for a product described on the label as “100% ox tripe”) by the Real Lancashire Black Pudding Company – which has a black pudding recipe that dates back to 1879 and has featured on Rick Stein’s Food Heroes. The tripe, so the label tells me, was ready-cooked, just like it was back in the day. I could even eat it cold and straight out of the packet should I so desire.

I wanted to do something with it, though, and so I searched our recipe books. My recipe of choice can from an unlikely source, Len Deighton’s Action Cook Book – a Sixties period piece which apparently introduced men to the world of gourmet cooking. I bought the book second-hand for myself for a laugh (would his recipes be as unnecessarily complex as the plots of his novels, I wondered?), but it turns out that when he published a cook-book, Deighton wasn’t having a laugh.

He’d trained as a pastry-chef and was a cookery columnist for the Observer while he was also writing spy thrillers; his columns usually consisted of illustrations with short instructions that he had initially developed so he could avoid getting his expensive cook-books dirty in the kitchen. His two worlds collided when one of his books, The Ipcress File, was made into a film in 1965 and the anonymous protagonist of the novel became Harry Palmer, the spy played by Michael Caine in one of his first major roles; being a Sixties spy film, the movie was obviously inspired by the Bond movies but this showed a more downbeat British spook; unlike Bond, Palmer is a Cockney who lives in Notting Hill (at a time when that part of London was decidedly unfashionable) and constantly has to deal with red tape while badgering his boss for a raise. Like Bond, though, he has a taste for gourmet food and in a memorable scene he cooks a meal in order to impress a female colleague who he’s brought back to his flat. What I hadn’t realised before was that Deighton himself was on hand to provide cookery training for Caine, and in the cooking scene the recipes tacked to the wall of Palmer’s flat are from Deighton’s cookery columns, while Deighton’s own hands were used in a close-up.

This is credited with having encouraged men to get into the kitchen (as Tom Parker-Bowles has pointed out, “If hard-bitten Palmer could be a chef, then so too could any average British male”), and to coincide with the film the afore-mentioned cookbook, complete with the author’s own illustrations, was published. Recently, The Ipcress File was referenced on the superb TV show Back in Time for Dinner – in the Sixties episode, it’s the impetus for the dad to go into the kitchen and cook his first meal of the show while the mum goes out and gets her hair done.

The point I’m getting to is that among other very interesting recipes, Len Deighton’s Action Cook Book has a recipe for tripe and onions, and it’s the one I used. 

The tripe was cut into strips and simmered in milk for about an hour (surely, though, it’s the milk that’s simmering – wouldn’t the tripe be getting stewed or poached?). While this was going on, I needed to fry an onion in butter and use some more butter – well, the recipe is from the Sixties – to make a roux. What with preparing a green vegetable to go with it, I had four pots and pans on the go on the stove. 

I don’t recall seeing Michael Caine doing any washing up after cooking that meal in The Ipcress File, and having cooked one of Deighton’s recipes and cleared up afterwards I must say that I’m a little surprised that he doesn’t devote a page or two to washing-up liquids; I’m sure that if he had, he’d’ve recommended a good brand (after all, he famously recommends having a dozen bottle of Pomerol in a “basic” wine cellar; either it was much cheaper back then, or this was the bit where he was having a laugh). 

Anyway, the milk that was used to simmer the tripe ended up being added to the roux, and the tripe (very tender after being simmered in the milk) and the onion were added to this. Deighton recommended garnishing the result with parsley or paprika (I chose the latter), presumably to add a bit of colour to a very white dish. I liked it – buttery, gelatinous (tripe is, after all, rich in gelatine) and very filling. 


Poached egg on butter beans and ham

Among Allison’s many cookbooks is a slim volume by Matthew Fort called Cooking by Numbers. The concept here is that the book is divided into chapters not by the type of food being cooked (meat, fish, etc) but by the number of people you’re cooking for. I’m on my own this week, so after some though I turned to the chapter on cooking for one to see what I could do to expand my repertoire for dining solo.

I came across a couple that I liked the sound of. One of them, poached egg on butter beans and ham, sounded very good. Fort – who I had somehow imagined to be a young man, although in reality he’s a year older than my dad) apparently likes his butter beans (“I quite like them straight from the tin (when no one’s looking)”) and I’m a bit of a fan of them too if truth be told.

The recipe was almost ridiculously easy – I cut up 85g ham and gently fried it in 30g butter for a couple of minutes, then added the (drained) contents of a tin of butter beans and braised gently for 20 minutes. In the meantime, I poached an egg (the healthy option, I guess, to counter the butter). Just before serving the ham and butter beans, some chopped parsley and some whole grain mustard was mixed into; I’m not much of a fan of mustard, but I found some whole grain honey mustard in the fridge and halved what Fort recommended.

The poached egg was served on top.

Delicious. I’ll be using more of Matthew Fort’s recipes in the future.


The redevelopment of Vicarage Road

In May 1986, I was taken to my first Watford game (a 1-1 draw against Manchester United, in case you were wondering; Luther Blissett scored for us). Dad and I stood on a section of terracing called the Family Terrace, a part of the stadium which adults could only access if they were accompanied by a child. It was not for nothing that Watford, then in the old First Division, were the original family-friendly football club.

This was during a particularly grim time for English football in general (hooliganism was rife, and English clubs were banned from European competition as a result of the Heysel disaster the previous year), but from a Watford point of view it was towards the end of the most successful period in the club’s history, which lasted for the same length as Graham Taylor’s first stint as manager (1977-87); it was during this time that Watford went from the Fourth Division to the First Division in five years and, having made it to the top flight for the first time in the club’s history, went on to play in Europe and reach the FA Cup Final. Alongside Taylor, responsibility for that success lies with Elton John who, having supported the club as a boy, had become a director in 1973 and taken over as chairman in 1976 and proceeded to invest large amounts of money in the club, as well as working tirelessly behind the scenes (as well as board meetings, he also lobbied Watford Council on the club’s behalf) and playing fund-raising gigs at Vicarage Road; to describe him as a ‘celebrity fan’ doesn’t even begin to cover it. We may, a few years ago, have sung of Marlon King being the King of Vicarage Road, but I think we all knew that the real King of Vicarage Road was, and is, Elton.

By the mid-Eighties, having overseen promotion of Elton John’s Taylor-made Army to the top flight, he turned to investing in the ground itself (having been unable to persuade the Council to let him build a brand-new stadium outside the town, as several clubs have since done). The result was that during the summer of 1986 (just after my first game), the Shrodells Stand, a section of covered terracing dating back to the Thirties which ran for much of the length of the west side of the pitch (named, presumably, after the hospital located next door, which nowadays goes under the name of Watford General) was demolished and replaced by a brand-new, two-tiered all-seater stand – several years before the Taylor Report recommended that all clubs in the top two divisions should have all-seater stadia. Here was another example, alongside the club’s family-friendly outlook, of Watford being ahead of its time. The stand was named the Rous Stand in honour of ex-FIFA president Sir Stanley Rous (the archetypal old-fashioned, blazer-and-striped-tie administrator whose connection with Watford was, it has to be said, slight – he once taught at the boys’ grammar school off the Rickie Road). Vicarage Road had tentatively entered the modern era.

(Incidentally, the ground had its own train station back then, Watford Stadium Halt, which had of course been opened by Elton and which was located on the branch line connecting the Junction with Croxley Green and which got nicknamed ‘Hooligan Halt’ as its main intention was to keep away fans out of the town centre; this line was closed in the Nineties – although it is shown as operational on my 2001-vintage copy of the A-Z – but there are now plans to re-open it as an extension of the Metropolitan Line, with a new station, Watford Vicarage Road, to serve both the football ground and the hospital.)

The good times, of course, didn’t last – GT left, Elton stepped down as chairman and the club was relegated to the Second Division. However, thanks to the all-seater recommendations of the Taylor Report, development of Vicarage Road continued in the Nineties. During the summer of 1993, the open-to-the-elements terrace that was the Vicarage Road End was demolished and replaced by covered seating; this also meant that the benches for the coaching staff and subs, located in front of the East Stand, finally got covering of their own, as back in the Eighties GT had steadfastly refused to have these covered until the home fans got a roof (a promise that his successors kept). Two years later, the Rookery End got seats too – a slightly larger stand than its counterpart, it’s now home to the rowdiest elements of the home support.

That left one side of the ground stuck firmly in the past; the East Stand, complete with a disused patch of terracing (the old Family Terrace) to the side, dated back to 1922, when Watford had first moved to Vicarage Road. It had seats – it has been the first part of the ground to have those by some considerable distance – but it looked horrendously out-of-date compared to the rest of the ground, a factor which was exacerbated whenever home games got televised because, what with the main TV cameras being located on the gantry high up in the Rous Stand, it was the East Stand that got the most air-time – when Watford made it to the Premier League during the second Elton-GT era in the late Nineties, much of the mockery I got from fans of other clubs centred on our apparently out-of-date ground rather than our position at the bottom of the table. There were always plans to knock it down and build something more modern, but financial troubles – most notably the fall-out from the collapse of ITV Digital in 2002 – meant that they were on hold for years (indeed, at one point the club almost lost the stadium, and was only able to buy it back after Elton played a gig there and donated all of the proceeds to the club). The stand itself was eventually declared unsafe in 2008, although the money to replace it wasn’t forthcoming until the takeover by the Pozzo family in 2012.

This season, the process that began back in 1986 has been completed – and in the process, two of the club’s finest servants have been honoured. Rous has been consigned to the history-books with the stand that bore his name being re-christened the Graham Taylor Stand, while the East Stand’s long-awaited replacement, provisionally called the Community Stand earlier on in the season, is now officially open for business as the Sir Elton John Stand.

At the home game against Wigan Athletic back in December, Elton himself was in attendance to dedicate the new stand. Clad in an old-fashioned bar-type scarf, he walked out onto the pitch before the game to a standing ovation with his husband and their kids (a continuation of the family-friendly ethos that he and GT had worked so hard to promote back in the old days). In a pre-game speech he spoke movingly of his lifelong support for the club and, in a nod to the future, he praised the Pozzo family, our current owners; as seals of approval go, that’s hard to beat from a Watford perspective!

In an article in the programme from the Wigan game, Elton speaks of the new stand being “the final piece in the jigsaw that we began over 40 years ago”. He’s right, of course. Vicarage Road is now a totally modern, Premier League-standard stadium for a club with Premier League ambitions.


Raiding, and learning about, the lost Ark

The other night, Raiders of the Lost Ark was on BBC3, the digital channel which occasionally justifies its existence by showing films like this. This film, which I was astounded to note was released in 1981 (meaning that it’s the same age as my brother), is the first Indiana Jones adventure, and concerns everyone’s favourite university professor’s quest to find the Ark of the Covenant, while battling with his nemesis Belloq – who’s in cahoots with the Nazis, naturally – and romancing Marion Ravenwood to the accompaniment of a large runaway boulder, early-Eighties special effects, a Nazi-saluting monkey, many snakes, Denholm Elliott and a somewhat anachronistic prototype Luftwaffe aircraft. Archaeology and action – what’s not to like?

The Indiana Jones films constitute my second-favourite movie series (James Bond’s always hard to beat) and while my favourite is The Last Crusade (probably because I got taken to see it in the cinema, back when Edgware still had one of those, although the presence of Sean Connery as Indy’s dad is no doubt a factor too), Raiders is a film that I can happily watch again and again even though I do have a couple of issues with it.

The main one was the afore-mentioned aircraft – the one from the scene where Indy and the character credited as ‘First Mechanic’ have a fight which ends in the latter’s bloody demise by way of the propeller. It always frustrated me that I could never find such a plane in any book about the aircraft of Nazi Germany and/or the Second World War, and it was only after the advent of the Internet that I realised it was fictional! It was based on a glider that was developed into a prototype jet towards the end of the war. But even if it wasn’t real, what on Earth was such an advanced-looking military aircraft doing in British-controlled Egypt in 1936, given that the Nazis presumably wouldn’t have wanted to draw attention to themselves while they searched the ruins of Tanis for the Ark? That said, though, US intelligence had already figured out what they were up to, which is of course how Indy comes to be involved.

Another, more of a slow burner it must be said, was the question of whether everyone was looking for the Ark of the Covenant – that Biblical chest containing the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed – in the right country. If it exists at all (and, let’s be honest, that’s a very big ‘if’), isn’t it supposed to be in Ethiopia?

When I went travelling in Africa – ten years ago, I note with surprise – I visited a town in northern Ethiopia called Aksum. It’s part of the ‘northern circuit’ – other towns on this are the medieval capital of Gondar, the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela and, on the shores of Lake Tana, Bahar Dar. These are all popular tourist destinations and as such are accessible by plane from Addis Ababa. I, however, visited all of these by bus during my African journey, starting with Gondar (a day’s journey from the Sudanese border), then up north to Aksum, down and across to Lalibela and on to Bahar Dar before heading south to Addis. Ethiopian public transport, I should point out, is not for the faint-hearted; on almost all of the buses I was on, I was the only faranju (‘white man’ – the Amharic equivalent of mzungu).

Although somewhat dusty and nondescript-looking at first glance, Aksum is said to be one of the oldest continually-inhabited places in Africa, with ruins of palaces and underground tombs littered across the town amid the donkeys, the market-traders and the farmers. It’s the home of the Stelae, tall stone obelisks believed to have been carved and erected in the fourth century AD. Decorated with multi-story false windows and doors, they are believed to be markers for underground burial chambers (plenty of those in Aksum) and they are some of the largest monoliths in the world (one of them was stolen during the Italian occupation in the 1930s and was on public display in Rome for many years before being returned in pieces in 2005 and put back together and re-erected in Aksum three years later).

Local legend has it that the Queen of Sheba, the Biblical monarch who visited King Solomon, came from Aksum; one of the ruined palaces is called the Queen of Sheba’s Palace (although her ‘bath’ is in fact a modern reservoir).

Then there’s the church. St Mary of Zion (actually two churches, one built in the seventeenth century and the other in the twentieth) is Ethiopia’s holiest shrine, for this is where Ethiopian Christians believe the Ark to be located today, it having been taken to Ethiopia by King Menelik, the Queen of Sheba’s son by Solomon and the ancestor of the Ethiopian Kings.

The Ark itself is – so I was told – located not in either of the churches but in a separate building between them called the Chapel of the Tablet. Access to this building is strictly forbidden to everyone with the exception of one elderly monk. Only he may look upon the Ark, for reasons which will become apparent if you’ve read the relevant parts of the Old Testament and/or have watched the ending of Raiders.

For me, Aksum was part of a crash-course in Ethiopian history (with particular emphasis on the religious aspects) which had began in a church I visited in Gondar (said to be the only church in which the Prophet Mohamed is depicted on the walls) and would continue with the frankly unbelievable churches of Lalibela that are carved out of solid rock – a place that is for the most part several centuries behind the rest of the world. By the time I got to Bahar Dar, I was quite literally ‘churched out’ and as a result probably less appreciative of the island monasteries of Lake Tana than I might otherwise have been.

Amid all of that, the story of the Ark got merged in with everything else – the Ethiopian version of how it got there is indelibly tied up with the wider story of the Ethiopian variant of Christianity (one of the world’s oldest), the heartland of which is the highlands of the north that I had visited before heading to the capital; the southern lowlands are mostly Muslim, and have been since the Aksumites were driven back to the mountains in the seventh century AD. All of the Ethiopian kings, down to and including Haile Selassie (the last one, deposed by the Communists in 1974), claimed descent from King Solomon as a result of the legend about how the Ark got to Ethiopia.

Anyone looking for more details about the Ark, and how it (apparently) came to rest in Ethiopia, is advised to get hold of a copy of Graham Hancock’s book The Sign and the Seal which was published in1992, not long after the Indiana Jones movies. A journalist with plenty of previous experience of the region, Graham Hancock (who at around the same time made a cameo appearance in the Ethiopia section of that superb Michael Palin travelogue Pole to Pole) set out on a quest to discover the whereabouts of the Ark of the Covenant. This took the Old Testament as a starting-point, and moved onto various Medieval texts from diverse places, the Knights Templar and several locations in the Middle East, Northern Africa, France and Scotland.

Hancock’s theory is that the Ark was removed from  Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem in or around 650BC, and that it subsequently spent a couple of centuries in Egypt before it was taken to Ethiopia by way of the Nile and was kept on an island on Lake Tana for around 800 years before being taken to Aksum. The Knights Templar come into the story in the 13th century when, having searched for the Ark on the site of Solomon’s Temple (present-day Temple Mount), they somehow figured out that it was in Ethiopia; they travelled there, where they may have had a hand in building the churches of Lalibela before the Ethiopians, fearful of losing the Ark, got in touch with Pope Clement V; his fear of the Knights Templar acquiring the power of the Ark is given as a key reason for his suppression of the  Knights Templar in the early fourteen century.

Readers of a serious disposition should bear in mind that this is no scholarly work. No academic would dream of making such assumptions as Hancock makes here based on very scant evidence, what I strongly suspect is a fairly fast-and-loose interpretation of certain historical texts and a ready willingness to resort to outright speculation based on the author’s own assumptions wherever the facts dry up. Which they do ... frequently. That said, this is a work that is part-travelogue, part historical detective work that quickly captures the reader (this reader anyway; perhaps unsurprisingly given that I’m a fan of the Indiana Jones movies and have been to Aksum, I was hooked after the first chapter) and leads us on such a fascinating journey that I for one was prepared to forgive Hancock his various foibles.

Perhaps they were all digging in the wrong place...