The top floor of Queen Elizabeth’s hunting lodge gives an excellent view across Chingford plain, and of the forest beyond. I’ve visited it many times, but it was only on my last trip that I noticed an annotated map with some of the landmarks marked. One of these, almost directly in front of the hunting lodge, and a mile or so distant was ‘phone mast tree’.

When you know about it, it’s blindingly obvious. Phone mast tree towers over its more natural neighbours, its branches spaced suspiciously regularly and the foliage of its canopy a faintly ridiculous fancy dress costume.

I shall hunt it down on a run through the forest soon and see it up close. I will probably need my phone’s GPS to find my way back, but at least the signal will be good.

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Alien on the edge

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Clapton, Walthamstow Marsh (running on the edge 3)

I never noticed them before, but, come 5.30pm in the City there seem to be hundreds of runners obviously running home. It’s only recently I’ve occasionally joined them and discovered all the added dimensions this brings. Running home from work is not without its challenges, and certainly not something to do on the spur of the moment- it needs careful thought and preparation. Ideally you need to avoid running with a bag which means some careful juggling of things between between gym bag, office bag, and desk drawers.

Shoes are left under the desk, shorts and T-shirt donned in the office toilets and the days clothes stuffed in drawers to worry about later. Weighty loose change removed from wallet, essential valuables accommodated in shorts pockets, phone armband strapped on, water bottle filled at the cooler and diary checked to ensure there’ll be time in the morning to çome to the office and change shoes before first meeting.

With all that accomplished I leave the office feeling half naked with bare arms and legs – double checking I actually do have train ticket and house keys, and hoping there is another clean pair of trousers at home for the morning.

I’ve never actually run all the way from the City to Highams Park – 15k or so after a day at work feels like too much, so I head for my normal train from Liverpool street and get off at Clapton. Anyone who commutes on this line will know that Walthamstow Marshes lies between Clapton and St James Street stations. It’s not unusual for a train to stop for a minute or so between these stations and its then that tired commuters look up from phones and newspapers and gaze across the fields. Cows now graze on the marshes for much of the year, you can see more sky than from most places in London, and its entirely possible to forget, for a moment, that you’re somewhere between Hackney and Walthamstow.

That escapist feeling hits tenfold when you jog onto the marsh after a short trip down Southwold Road, from Clapton station.

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It’s multiplied again when you see a train that you could well have been sweating on pass over the bridge in front of you.

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This section of the journey home really does makes any of the inconveniences seem worthwhile. For a mile and a half, jogging along the path by the Lee, or directly across the meadow with the Olympic stadium and Orbit visible in the distance, then along the road past the reservoirs and waterworks to Coppermill Lane, thoughts of the days events are processed and dismissed for the evening.

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If seeking a shorter run it would be easy enough to finish at St James Street or Blackhorse Road, and pick up transport from there. I continue through streets lined with Walthamstow’s famous Warner housing, and through the Priory Court estate, emerging onto Chingford Road to cross the North Circular and return to Highams Park.

Highams Park and Lake (Running on the edge 2)

When I was a true Walthamstowvian, Highams Park existed as a station before Chingford and little else. Although I am sure it is now known to more local residents (who probably call it Highams Green) since the opening of Tesco last October, it still feels unlikely that it is a destination in its own right for many – and perhaps particularly so for runners from elsewhere in Waltham Forest, who are more likely to see Chingford Plain as the gateway to long cross country routes in Epping Forest and use the marshes for their shorter off road runs.

Highams Park itself, and the neighbouring lake, offer a short run combining paths, grass and forest trails, providing one of the most panoramic views of the City anywhere in Waltham Forest and varied wildlife spotting opportunities to say the least. Though I’ve more than once been startled by rats darting across my path, I’ve also seen bats when out running at dusk, and some of the largest dragonflies I’ve ever come across.

A circuit of the lake or park is easily incorporated into any number of longer routes but here is a suggested c. 5km – easily reached from the station (Chingford to Liverpool Street line) so perfect for a quick after work escape for Walthamstow dwellers.

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The gateway to the forest

Exiting the station at the clock tower side (not Tescos side) Highams Park itself can be quickly reached with a few minutes jog up Handsworth Avenue, taking a right turn it crosses with Falmouth avenue and left into Tamworth Avenue. My preferred route however , uses Vincent Road and reaches the park with a short detour through a sliver of forest which somehow remains in the middle of the relatively built up area. I always think of the path through this attractive wood as my gateway out of London – from here, barring one or two road crossings, it is actually possible to run through forest all the way up to the M25 at Epping.

 

The City - View from the Edge

The City – View from the Edge

Most walkers through the park stick to the paths, and it was only when I started running that I went right round the perimeter and realised what I was missing. It’s not flat by any means, but a lap or two is more than rewarded by a view of the City from the top. This view, more than anything brings home the fact that we are truly On The Edge of the capital.

 

Down along at the bottom of the park there’s more than one gateway/ stile which will lead you into the forest and onto the path which goes right around the lake. It is to me one of the most beautiful parts of Epping forest.

Highams Park Lake

Highams Park Lake

 

The mud tracks stay relatively clear most of the year round, though this part of the run can feel like proper cross country at certain times. The River Ching (which gave Chingford its name) runs alongside the lake – there is a path between the lake and the river, as well as a bridge which takes you to another (often drier) path on the other side. I normally do two laps of the lake, and run both these paths. Emerge onto the road and take a right turn to set you on course back towards the station.

 

 

Highams Park Forum has lots of information about the area, including an interesting history http://www.highamsparkforum.co.uk/history.html

Running on the edge

fromtheedge.org was originally inspired by living in a place where five minutes in one direction takes you deep into Epping Forest, whilst the same short distance in the other direction leads to the heart of some of the most diverse and densely populated parts of the country – communities with all the excitement and challenges that inner city living can bring.

Anyone who knows me well will know that I’ve been running for the last year or so (those hours spent pounding the trails and streets are perhaps part of the reason this blog has been so quiet). So this summer I’m going to rejuvenate this site with a series of posts based around my favourite routes in the area …long runs through the forest without crossing a road, trips through parks and round lakes, runs home from the City taking in the marshes, Victorian housing and modern estates, and my first half marathon which beat the bounds of the borough – through Chingford, Wathamstow and Leyton.

These posts will generally be less about running itself and more about the places and routes – but I can’t finish this introductory post to my running series without a reference to the route I run probably more often than any other. Three laps of a local Sports Ground playing fields may not sound like the most exciting running route in the borough but I’m there at 9am most Saturday mornings for the weekly Walthamstow Parkrun .

Parkrun is an amazing example of communities making something happen because they want it to. Organised by volunteers at over 200 sites across the country these free timed 5km runs are open to all and are relaxed and uncompetitive events – it’s true that some runners enjoy chasing a PB each week, but just as many jog leisurely, enjoying the fresh air and weekly catch up with others.

Walthamstow Parkrun started in February of this year, and in the 30 weeks since then has had 342 runners take on its three lap course. Some are club or marathon runners looking for a short fast run as part of their training, some families with multiple generations running together, others parkrun tourists – visiting as many of the sites as possible. The run is a 3 lap course of pleasant tree lined playing fields – a small hill near the beginning means the course is not without its challenges but they set up the weekend nicely, and more often than not what was supposed to be a gentle run finishes with a sprint to the end in an effort to achieve that 21.30 time which has so far eluded me.

Walthamstow Parkrun is at Peter May Sports Ground, Wadham Road, Walthamstow, E17 4HR at 9am every Saturday morning – more details at http://www.parkrun.org.uk/walthamstow/.

Register for free on the website before attending.

 

Scientifically speaking…..

Two really interesting papers have been published in the last couple of weeks which have really chimed with me, and they have happened to come at a time when my own work is evolving to encompass many of the issues raised, and will perhaps allow me to explore these issues further. Firstly, Counting What Counts, published by Nesta, and written by Anthony Lilley and Professor Paul Moore makes a convincing argument that the arts and cultural sector is neither properly collecting or making good use of data which could help us to understand and increase the social and cultural impact of our work – and importantly could enable us to to unarguably demonstrate the results achieved through the investment of not insignificant amounts of public money.

This I think is really important to all of us working in arts education and the participatory arts sector. Everyone involved in this sort of work has stories about how engaging with the arts has ‘changed lives’. This is sometimes presented in the rhetoric of the evangelist in efforts to get across just how important our work is – only last week I attended a presentation in which colleagues who deliver an inspirational arts education programme in the States talked of ‘rescuing people’ through music. I don’t doubt any of these stories, or the essence of the many evaluation reports I see which assert that arts programmes have had effects on people’s lives which extend way beyond developing their artistic skills. We use reports and evidence like this to make the case for funding and investment in our work, and we are often required to produce them by funders to show the return we are delivering on their investment. And of course it is vital that we do hold ourselves to account, when we are usually spending public funds or other people’s money. I may write another time about the way we do this, the sophisticated models that we do have in place, and we do have many – from extensive quantitative data collection and analysis, to those individual and often inspiring case studies.

However, amongst the issues raised by the Counting what Counts is the fact that this so often happens in isolation. We don’t have mechanisms or infrastructure in place to look at the really big picture – the ‘Big Data’ which has the potential to really change practice and influence at the highest level. The other primary issue is related to what we do collect and why, and the fact that it is, as mentioned above, so often seen as the way of justifying our work and existence, and not as a fundamental tool which we can use to inform and shape decision making.

In recent months a combination of things, some work related, have led to me paying more attention to science stories in the news. Another thought I had, whilst reading this paper was how many arts project evaluations are actually subjected to the rigorous standards that any scientific study would be before being published and accepted by the scientific community. I am sure it happens and that there are pockets of good practice, but there is a strong case to be made for an arts education resource and training provision which helps organisations with areas such as statistical analysis. How often has it been demonstrated that the effectiveness of an arts project in achieving social impact is statistically significant? – I’d be really interested in any examples of such evaluations. There is also a case to be made for a peer review system as is standard for publication of all scientific papers.

With the Counting What Counts report still very much on my mind, I was really excited to read that Dr Ben Goldacre had written a paper advocating for use of random controlled trials in educational contexts, and, again for the building of an infrastructure echoing the now well established mechanisms that exist in the medical world. The paper speaks for itself and can be read here. If the arts education world were to take some of these points on board we could really add weight to those inspirational case studies and be in a position to make scientifically proven arguments about the effectiveness of our work in schools, communities and other contexts in addressing social issues and genuinely making the world a better place.

This as ever will take time, but I’d urge anyone who has the opportunity to do research and evaluation around their work with the arts to think as scientifically as they can, and I hope that the Arts Council and other major bodies take both these pieces of work seriously and are able to help the sector build the infrastructure and develop the skills which will be required for the realisation of the potential impact of these pieces of work.

After the ball is over

I’m fairly sure it’s not actually over yet, but for many of us in the arts world the beginning of the London Olympics came as something as a relief as wall to wall sport took over from one of largest and most intensive arts festivals we’d ever delivered. Officially lasting four years, but not really gearing up until the beginning of this July, with festival 2012, the Cultural Olympiad delivered extraordinary moments, a few disappointments and an intensity to rival the sporting event which has picked up the baton this week.

There is a big danger that after the games and the summer break, we will start the new season both with something of a hangover and severe withdrawal symptoms. We’d been planning for this summer for so long, pushed major projects into this key period, committed and raised substantial sums of money for some truly extraordinary moments that what we’ve just produced seems like a virtually impossible act to follow. It is unlikely that in the foreseeable future we’ll ever again be able to stage anything as ambitious as ten of Pina Bausch’s extraordinary works in the space of a month, or revive Philip Glass’s epic Einstein on the Beach, or bring companies from across the world to the UK to perform the complete works of Shakespeare in their own languages, or take over five sites on the banks of the Thames for the biggest free world music festival we’ve ever seen. It seems likely that we’ll enter a period where arts organisations need to play it safe, revive bankable hits, reduce risk and keep costs down. I’m sure along the way there will be standout new productions, and emerging talent to get excited about, but I don’t doubt that anyone who has been around this festival will acknowledge that it was genuinely a once in a lifetime event.

Nonetheless I see a massive opportunity in the aftermath of all this. Across this festival, and in the last week alone, we have seen some high profile demonstrations of the role the arts can play in society, and people who might not previously have thought the arts have a relevant and useful role to play in their lives have been inspired and directly involved. Most obviously, Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony seems to have succeeded in pleasing at least most of the people most of the time, and showed how a big artistic statement can increase awareness of shared values, culture and collective memories to bring large groups of people together. Earlier that day, Martin Creed’s All the Bells did exactly the same thing across the country, with a much simpler (and cheaper), but effective work of art. Within festival 2012 the bouncy inflatable stonehenge did the same job, with added value for fans of Spinal Tap, and, as I write, the enormous sculpture Godiva Awakes is being towed towards Walthamstow by 100 volunteer cyclists where she will be met by a celebration which will bring people from across our community together.

This power to contextualise, transform, unite and inspire any group of people, in any setting, across any boundaries which may be in the way, is one which is almost unique to artists, and one which can be exercised anywhere, anytime, without budgets of Olympian proportions. Those of us trying to follow the biggest artistic statements we are ever likely to see could do well to harness this power, to nurture and support the artists who realise this potential, and to build sustained relationships with those around us who could be directly impacted and involved. The good news is that this is happening across those organisations whose plans I am privy too, and I am sure elsewhere too. That certainly helps me shake of the hangover and look forward to planning a very different type of party.

It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.

In his keynote speech at the Royal Philharmonic Society awards, the people’s conductor Gareth Malone, said ‘I think that classical music is better than the rest. It’s better than folk, it’s better than drum and bass, it’s better than rap.” Tempted though I was to blog vehemently about that at the time, I didn’t. Surrounded by the entire classical music industry, after a good meal and wine, it’s easy enough for such things to slip out. I think that Gareth in all probability would say, in a different context, that there is good and bad music of all types, and that what is good in one context can be entirely wrong in another. Certainly to my mind one of his many gifts is choosing appropriate, and usually ‘good’ music to encourage the people he is working with to take their first tentative steps as musicians. I would be surprised if he were to follow through on his statement and only ever use Western Classical music when working with his choirs, be they of young people, military wives or any other background.

So, I’ve long argued that good music is good music, and my own musical life has reflected this. As someone passionate about music education, and convinced that making music can empower and enfranchise people, bring out undiscovered personal qualities and develop the skills needed for success in any walk of life, I’ve always been unconcerned about what the music that does this should be. There’s not something magic about playing a Beethoven Symphony – in some contexts it will indeed be playing in an orchestra, in others a band in a mates garage, a folk club session or a freeform jazz improvisation. The key thing is it has to be as good as it can be – it’s the commitment and dedication, blood, sweat and tears that it takes to do it well which will truly develop the elusive ‘transferable skills’ and enable individuals to translate musical participation into empowerment. The challenge of those of us setting up and leading music education activity is to ensure the pleasure and satisfaction outweighs the pain caused by the hard work.

On Midsummer’s day, a week long celebration of one of the most extraordinary cultural institutions began in Stirling. I am not going to add much to the many descriptions of El Sistema, Sistema Scotland, or England’s In Harmony programme here, but readers seeking background on this may well want to start with this this Guardian piece and accompanying video. I shared the open air performance in Raploch through BBC4s broadcast. It was very much a display of the commitment, dedication, selflessness, teamwork and sharing that first convinced conductor Jose Antonio Abreu, and later Edinburgh’s former bishop Richard Holloway, that the orchestra was a model which could transform communities. The concert was an extraordinary, and potentially life changing moment for the performers and audience alike.

However I was a little troubled to find a tiny Gareth Malone sat on my shoulder that night saying ‘see, I told you classical music was best’. Of course, it was Purcell that the youngest Scottish players approached with infectious enthusiasm, and Beethoven that stilled a Scottish crowd and overcame unseasonable weather. When the stakes are high – and this programme aims to help whole communities overcome some of the biggest social problems – is it a case of only the best – only classical music, will do?

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Later that week, I watched BBC3s Project Hackney in which Plan B, Labrinth, and Leona Lewis worked with young people who had been excluded from mainstream education. The programme finished with scenes of their performance of music they had produced themselves. The pivotal scene for me was Plan B telling the group words to the effect that ‘it’s only going to be good if it’s good, people won’t make allowances for who you are’. In the end it was good. Despite my initial suspicions of the intentions behind this project, it had integrity – my only concern is to know how committed the BBC are to ensuring it has a legacy, and that the young people are enabled to continue on this course which may just have got them back on the rails.

This week, in a Hackney Community centre, some of the 150 young people who regularly work on the Barbican and Guildhall school’s drumming project have been collaborating with young Brazilian musicians from the Pracatum school to develop new material which will be performed in their communities, and at this weekend’s Back2Black festival at Old Billingsgate market. The Pracatum school bring their own take on Samba and other Brazilian music – the Barbican project has, for over four years, been built on the premise that the young musicians build material from the sounds they relate to as young twenty first century East Londoners. Beats lifted from Grime and Hip Hop are woven into their powerful performances – and they will be a key part of this November’s major performances Unleashed which will explore their dreams and the realities of their East London. Evident in the rehearsal room this week, and sure to resonate with audiences at the weekend, are the same qualities – commitment, sharing, selflessness, dedication – that were present in Raploch a week ago, and the evidence and testimonies from people that have been part of this project over the years show substantial impacts on the individual and on the wider life of their school communities.

I’m not going to make a judgement that any of the projects I’ve talked about here are better than the others, but I finish these thoughts more confident than ever that making music together does have the power to impact communities and change individuals lives; pleased, that on this evidence, good project design, inspiring leadership and integrity are more important to the success of this area of work than the musical medium chosen, and happy to continue my genre crossing musical existence, whatever Gareth says.