A Song of Open Space

‘ there is no square mile of earth’s inhabitable surface that is not beautiful in its own way, if we men will only abstain from wilfully destroying that beauty’ William Morris. 1884

We tell ourselves, when out in Epping Forest, or on Walthamstow or Hackney Marshes, that we are walking in wild, ancient places. That these woods and meadows have resisted the inevitable push of London to expand its boundaries. That somehow this wilderness has survived where numerous hamlets and villages have not – they after all are only remembered in the names of underground stations or the handy estate agent speak which gives us ‘urban villages’.

It’s nonsense of course. Epping Forest and the Lee Valley Park are as closely managed and curated as the parks of central London and other urban areas. And that’s nothing new. My fantasies of intrepid hunting expeditions in Epping Forest were somewhat shattered by the discovery that the Queen Elizabeth hunting lodge began life as a platform where the hunting party could stand in the dry and shoot at the carefully managed herd as they were driven into easy reach. Every meadow of course has to be mown and pollarding and coppicing are forestry techniques used for many centuries to tame the forest, to make it work for us, to make it yield the maximum possible for the least amount of human effort.

So these have not been untamed landscapes for centuries, and their relationship with the city and its inhabitants is complex. Perhaps these green spaces only survive at all because past generations of Londoners realised that left unchecked London would inevitably swallow up every copse and clearing.

Three pillars of legislation theoretically protect the fragile balance that keeps our part of London so special. The Epping Forest act of 1878 placed the Forest under the stewardship of the City of London Corporation who “shall at all times keep Epping Forest unenclosed and unbuilt on as an open space for the recreation and enjoyment of the people’; The Lee Valley regional parks authority was formed in 1967 to manage the Lee Valley, including parts of Hackney and Walthamstow marshes, and other parts of the marshes are designated as Metropolitan Open Land – a designation intended to protect areas of landscape, recreation, nature conservation and scientific interest’.

So that’s alright then. Previous generations have realised the value of these special places on the edge of London and ensured that they are preserved for the foreseeable future. They should not be susceptible to the short term vagaries of economic crises, or to the commercialism of multinational companies. London can be held back and we will always be able to escape into our green spaces.

But when a 15m high and 46m wide advertising hoarding appears on the Hackney Marshes centre, or when ‘the bikers tea hut’ is put out to tender and the prospect of Starbucks Epping Forest becomes a real one, or when a new changing facility and accompanying car park is proposed for the marshes we are reminded that this balance is a very fine one.

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We remember that after radio one’s big weekend on hackney marshes many of the football pitches were unusable for the whole season. That following the removal of a temporary Olympic basketball facility on Walthamstow marshes flooding became an issue due to failure to reinstate the land properly and the installation of a rubber sheet under the top soil. We remember those who fought for the common land which is now the Olympic park and perhaps invoke the spirit of William Morris in making our voices known , in scrutinising and challenging proposals which go beyond the spirit of that legislation and exceed the powers invested in the land’s temporary custodians.

Save Lee Marshes

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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

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.

 

A tale of two boroughs

I’ll start From The Edge with a bit of scene setting about Waltham Forest, its surrounding area, and its relationship to the rest of London. None of this will be news to anyone who has lived here for any time, and there are many local residents who have far more knowledge of the history and politics surrounding many of the issues I’ll write about here. However, there are a few key themes which I know will recur throughout this blog – things which certainly inform the way I think about this part of London, things which I believe make this such an interesting place to live in and write about, and things which present a special set of challenges.

On The Edge

Like most London Boroughs Waltham Forest is, or at least once was, a collection of many small towns and villages. Each of them – Walthamstow, Leyton, Leytonstone, Chingford – still has their own distinct centre, community and personality, but are undeniably a part of something much bigger. However, it is not far enough away to have one genuine centre with a strong gravitational pull (unlike for example Richmond, or Croydon) but unlike Boroughs closer to the centre of London, it often feels genuinely disconnected from the capital, especially in the North of the borough. Which brings me nicely onto….

The Question of Essex

Many residents of Chingford will claim they do not see themselves as living in London at all – they are Essex boys and girls through and through. Until 1965 Chingford was a municipal borough in Essex, when it was consumed by London, and became part what is now the London Borough of Waltham Forest. There are those who feel this is an unnatural and unhappy marriage, and it is at times a difficult one, at least in part due to….

The Dividing Line

The A406, or North Circular, cuts through Waltham Forest – on an (infrequent) good traffic day many hundreds of cars must pass through the borough in no more than 10 minutes. Though it is always dangerous to generalise, there are clear social, ethnic, and political divides in the borough, and crossing the A406 can feel like entering new territory. At times, the residents of this collection of very disparate wards and constituencies – from Duncan Smith’s Chingford to Stella Creasy’s Awesomestow are only genuinely united by their disatisfaction with an oft criticised borough council which struggles to achieve genuine consensus or nurture strong leadership. From 2002 to 2010 the political pendulum swung from left to right as you moved north through the borough, with no party having overall control. Although currently labour, the Socialist Worker leafleters in Walthamstow town square excite little sympathy from Chingford residents popping across the north circ to top up on cheap essentials from Wilkinsons.

2 million trees

Finally, a quick word on Epping Forest, an escape for Chingford villagers and Walthamstow workers alike and, for me, one of the main attractions of living on the edge. A five minute walk from Chingford station can take you deep into forest from where you can walk for a day without ever crossing a major road. A popular day trip since Victorian times, and inspiration to artists from William Morris to the inhabitants of the vibrant cluster of studios on Walthamstows Blackhorse Lane, the forest has a magical quality which, in the mist of an autumn morning can transport you back to a time before London swallowed up the hamlets of Woodford and the country manors of Walthamstow.