Writing Portfolio


The Capital Ring: East Finchley to Hackney Wick (part 3)

Springfield Park is at the top of a hill, and at the bottom of it is what the maps call the River Lea or Lee, the spelling of this river – which forms the ancient border between Middlesex and Essex – having long been disputed. This particular part of the river was the navigation channel (the canalised bit that runs from Hertford down to the Thames), and as such it boasted a marina and many narrowboats.

As I crossed the bridge, I noticed that one of these was selling LPs. I don’t know all that much about vinyl (although thanks to my Dad’s collection I can state with confidence that LPs play at 33⅓ rpm, singles at 45), but I do know that it’s still popular, even among people my age who grew up with CDs and graduated to iPods; when Allison and I did a car-boot sale a couple of years ago, the first person who came up to us (while we were still unloading) was a man who asked us if we had any LPs to sell, and near where I work the stalls at Old Spitalfields Market are selling LPs more often than not. Perhaps the man selling the LPs on the narrowboat had been doing the rounds at the car-boot sales earlier that day – although March may be a little early for those.

Over on the other side of the river, keeping a careful eye out for cyclists who I was encountering en masse for the first time today (and I could see why – it looks like a nice stretch to cycle along), I couldn’t help but notice that all of the narrowboats had at least two bikes – including a Boris bike, in one case – and a pile of wood (for the stoves, presumably) on their roofs. Most of them had what looked like piles of junk as well.

My goal for the day was Hackney Wick, the end of section 13, and the rest of this part of the walk simply involved following the river. I noticed many people sunning themselves in a riverside pub garden (the thought of a swift half was, indeed, tempting), a solitary tent pitched out on the marshes, a few would-be bikers doing their CBT in a car park and some construction work going on by the Lea Bridge Road (riverside flats, anyone?).

South of the Lea Bridge, I crossed over to the Middlesex Filter Beds – once a water filtration plant, now a nature reserve – and came across a gang of middle-aged birdwatchers, presumably on an organised walk (I’ve been on a couple of these before; local branches of the RSPB do them on a regular basis). They all had their binoculars trained on a ring-necked parakeet and, although they’d probably all seen one of those before, they were all speculating on just how these spectacular-looking birds – avian symbols of postwar immigration – have managed to make themselves so at home in the South-East over the past few decades . The most likely explanation is that they escaped from captivity (although the story about them all being descended from a pair that was released by Mick Jagger and/or Jimi Hendrix – depending on which version you hear – in the Sixties is a good one), but the fact remains that they really have made London their home – a field guide I have expresses surprise at how they can survive the winters, but looking further afield their natural habitat does include the Himalayas so maybe that’s not so surprising as it might first appear.

Moving on to Hackney Marshes, it did not surprise me to see several football matches in progress. This part of the world is something of a mecca for amateur football leagues; indeed, according to the Guinness Book of Records, Hackney Marshes has the largest collection of football pitches in the world, and those sets of goalposts do seem to go on for ever. On Sunday mornings, the place is apparently heaving.

Leaving the birdwatchers and the footballers to it, I continued along the towpath with the joggers, the cyclists and the dog-walkers. A narrowboat piloted by a man in a hooped shirt and bowler hat chugged by, giving someone a tow; he seemed to know everyone on the river and in the narrowboat community I’ll bet he’s something of a character. It was parkland on the side I was walking along, while on the other side stood housing, a rather utilitarian combination of modern-looking terraces and equally modern tower-blocks.

Passing under a bridge, some graffiti that had clearly taken some time to produce proclaimed ‘Hackney Rejects’ leading me to wonder what (or who) exactly Hackney was rejecting, or whether this was the name of some sort of gang. Graffiti, I suddenly realised, had been an ongoing feature of my walk; the disused station in Crouch End had more than its fair share, although I hadn’t seen much at Woodberry Down. In his book Lights Out for the Territory, an account of a series of London walks, Iain Sinclair had spoken of “runnels and enclosed ditches where unwaged scribes are at last free of the surveillance cameras”; almost two decades on from that book’s publication, this still rang true; even today, who’d bother to use CCTV to monitor a disused station, or the underside of a bridge going over a canal? Another graffiti-artist had gone for a more minimalist style, having simply sprayed ‘change the ... thing’ on a bridge, less ornate than ‘Hackney Rejects’ and if anything even more vague, but as this was directly over the water it was, I felt, more deserving of some sort of recognition – for nerve, if nothing else.

Further down, the Olympic Stadium hove into view and my mind started to move onto the question of how I was going to get home; what line was Hackney Wick on, I wondered? 

As it happened, the answer to that question didn’t really matter as there was no service on the line that day, so after taking in the graffiti-strewn atmosphere of closed-down pubs, scrap-metal dealers and the tantalising aroma wafting from a bagel-bakery (which sadly did not appear to have a serving-hatch for hungry passers-by; in the absence of a branch of Greggs, I found a newsagent selling pre-packaged sausage rolls instead) I had to get a bus into the City, and the Tube home from there.

Before then, though, just before leaving the waterway I heard some jazz music, and saw a man playing a clarinet on a narrowboat which also looked like it was selling books. This, it turned out, was Word on the Water, a floating second-hand bookshop which has been going for four years and, not being confined to dry land, changes its location every now and then; one of the blokes who runs it said that the week before, they’d been at Paddington Basin but had felt the urge to head east for a bit. Second-hand bookshops are my favourite sort of shop by some considerable distance, and I stayed and browsed for a bit even though my full bookshelves at home meant I’d have to walk away empty-handed. Sunshine, jazz and second-hand books; what more could I have asked for at the end of my walk?


The Capital Ring: East Finchley to Hackney Wick (part 2)

Towards the end of the Parkland Walk, I encountered some more people who were neither jogging nor walking dogs; instead, these people were on a litter-picking trip, with a supervisor (self-appointed, I guessed) shouting at everyone else not to wander off.

The Parkland Walk ends at the footbridge over the East Coast Main Line, with Finsbury Park located on the other side. It was a lovely day for a walk in the park (this particular one having been one of the first public parks to be laid out by the Victorians) – whether people wanted to take the dog or the kids (or both) for a walk, feed the ducks (whose numbers, as well as the usual mallards, included pochards, I noticed – although the ducks were outnumbered by Canada geese and many black-headed gulls), sit on a bench in quiet contemplation, play football or even strum away on a guitar. The flowers (daffodils and crocuses) were out in bloom, and there were plenty of ground-feeding starlings as well. Another sign advised me that I had 2 miles to go to Clissold Park, although I could take a shortcut if I wanted to avoid some steps on the next stretch; I opted against that.


On the other side of Green Lanes (the plural, by the way, is deliberate because it used to be a drovers’ road that linked several villages), the Capital Ring took a turn for the seedy and run-down as it followed the course of the New River, an artificial waterway constructed in the early seventeenth century to provide fresh drinking water for London (it runs from Hertford to Islington, and there’s a New River Path that you can walk along for most of its length). The first thing I saw was a discarded computer monitor that someone had chucked in the river; further along I came across a chair, a submerged mattress and a floating mess of weeds and discarded rubbish brightened up by a few ducks, a couple of coots, a moorhen and a swan. To my left I had views of an industrial estate (and, beyond that, Alexandra Palace), while to my right stood the tower-blocks of Woodberry Down, the largest council estate in the country.

The New River twists and turns, running under the Seven Sisters Road (pedestrians must cross over) and then doubling back on itself as it passes two reservoirs, which according to my map are called East Reservoir and West Reservoir. These afforded some good views to the south, including a lovely juxtaposition of a church spire (later identified at St Mary’s, Stoke Newington) and the Shard. Closer by, I can across my first path blockage of the day – a construction site where the redevelopment of Woodberry Down is taking place.

Further along, I passed an empty-looking sailing-centre (why was it empty? It was a lovely day – surely someone must have wanted to go boating on the reservoir?) before re-emerging onto Green Lanes by The Castle – an old Victorian water-pumping station that became one of London’s biggest indoor climbing centres in the 1990s. I, though, was back walking along a main road for the first time since Highgate, although only for a few hundred yards until I came to Clissold Park.

This was teeming with life, much more so than Finsbury Park which it predates, having originally been the grounds of an eighteenth-century villa. More footballers, more families out for a walk, and more flowers. Both the children’s play area and the café – located, spectacularly, in the villa itself – were full of people. A good place in which to enjoy the sunshine of early March.

Out on the other side, I came up against the church I’d seen from the reservoir, and found out that there are actually two St Mary’s churches in Stoke Newington, one across the road from the other. The older of the two dates back to the sixteenth century, with the new one – the one with the big spire – having been built in the 1850s to deal with the rapid rise in the population (and, therefore, the congregation).

Further along Stoke Newington Church Street, I came across a pub named after Daniel Defoe, opposite a house with a blue plaque commemorating said author who lived in a house on that site (he also has a street and a garage named after him). The house bearing the plaque looked eighteenth-century to me, right down to the bricked-up windows which were so done by the owners in order to avoid having to pay window tax, although I could be wrong here as I’ve been told before now that some houses that were built after said tax was abolished were given the bricked-up window effect too, the idea being that it broke up an otherwise plain wall. 

Once again, the Capital Ring split into two alternative paths as the next part of the walk involved some steps. I duly went up the steps and entered the strange world that is the old, decaying and overgrown Victorian cemetery.

This was Abney Park, created in the 1840s as one of the so-called ‘Magnificent Seven’ large London cemeteries (the others are Brompton, Highgate, Kensal Green, Nunhead, West Norwood and Tower Hamlets). After nodded greetings to a trio of dog-walkers who’d congregated for a smoke by the last resting-place of William Booth, I passed on though, noting the plethora of overgrown plots and collapsed headstones (no wonder so many of these old cemeteries have been designated as nature reserves). A strange world, and a lost one too.

Back in the land of the living, I crossed Stamford Hill and, having thus completed section 12, I briefly toyed with the idea of calling it a day and going home by way of Stoke Newington Station. But I was on a roll and the sun was out, so instead (after noticing a Salvation Army charity shop and wondering if its position had anything to do with the grave of that organisation’s founder being so close by) I turned down the interestingly-named Cazenove Road and continued on my way.

Although I saw signs for a mosque and a Muslim community centre, the religion most on show on Cazenove Road was Judaism, and highly orthodox Judaism at that – the men in beards and circular fur hats, accompanied by their bewigged wives and ringletted boys; everyone decked out in their Saturday best.

Architecturally, this road ranged from the Victorian (this part of the street included the mosque) to the post-war, with big houses gradually giving way to blocks of flats, one named after Nelson Mandela (which briefly made me think of Only Fools and Horses), another an Art Deco pile called Hadley Court. Other buildings, by contrast, looked more down-at-heel.

I carried on, crossing the Upper Clapton Road and passing a large mock-Tudor house and another block of council flats (this one named after Keir Hardie), before entering Springfield Park. This one – like Clissold Park, once the grounds of a manor house – had a fountain on the duck-pond (which contained Egyptian geese), and after a quick pit-stop at the café (the former nineteenth-century manor house, naturally) I beheld a spectacular view out over Walthamstow Marshes.