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.

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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

Changing Spaces

Walthamstow based artist Jonathan O’Dea has a new exhibition opening this weekend at the Waterworks in the Lee Valley Park. I’ve known Jonathan for a few years now and we’ve spent the odd evening in the Rose and Crown talking, I am sure very wisely, about art and music, amongst other things. One subject we both keep returning to is Waltham Forest’s position on the edge of the city – and the way that this perhaps denies this part of London the identity and attitude of its East London neighbours, or the home counties security of adjoining Essex.

The first exhibition I saw of Jonathan’s work seemed to me to directly reflect these themes – a series of abstract landscapes on whose horizons shimmered objects which may have been trees, or could have been industrial buildings. Perhaps these were echoes of this part of the East End’s memories – of the factories and warehouses which were cleared from the Lee Valley when work began on the Olympic Park, or maybe they were natural features which have been covered up by the urban sprawl – future echoes from the utopian world of William Morris’s News from Nowhere.

Artwork from London is London, England is England

Jonathan took some of these ideas further in a show at Walthamstow’s Vestry House museum last year. In London is London – England is England the St George’s Cross rose above those abstract landscapes – a symbol of a national identity which this Irish artist struggles to perceive in 21st century London – England, for Jonathan, doesn’t assert itself until way beyond the M25.

When I visited Jonathan in his studio a few weeks ago those landscape canvasses were stacked in racks in the corner – and he has clearly compartmentalised that work mentally as well as physically. The pieces he was working on for this exhibition are strikingly different. Jonathan has had free reign to remove junk and waste from the Lee Valley park and has produced a series of pieces using materials he has found there, or reclaimed from disused rooms in warehouses. Wooden pallets have been transformed into organic looking structures, bricks neatly mounted, painted, and then partially annihilated. Wooden materials are made to look metallic and old disused pipe work is newly painted.

The most ambitious piece in the show will be a large site specific sculpture in which a slowly decaying tree is encased in a wire mesh.

Site Specific sculpture in the Lee Valley Park

As this piece rises at the edge of the glistening Olympic park and those transformed pieces of rubbish are mounted as artworks near to where they were once abandoned, this show promises to encourage viewers to reflect on the way we change and transform the landscapes around us, to imagine how the ground beneath our feet was once different, and wonder how future generations will transform the places we know so well.

 Changing Spaces is at the Waterworks Nature Reserve Lee Valley Park from 16th June to 8th July

Jonathan has been blogging about the project at http://wwwchangingspaces.blogspot.co.uk/

Images of artwork from London is London,England is England (2011) and Changing Spaces (2012) used with the permission of the artist.

Where’s our music service gone?

A bit of arts education news which doesn’t seem to have filtered through to local level yet, is that Waltham Forest Music Service is, to all intents and purposes, no more. Given some quite vocal protest when the music service was threatened during the borough council cuts, this may seem surprising. However, my opening sentence was deliberately flippant, and I, along with others working in this field am generally optimistic about the new landscape for music education.

Historically, music services have existed for most local authority areas. They have received government funding via local councils, and have provided services including local youth orchestras and ensembles, peripatetic music lessons in schools, and instrument loan services for children. London had one music service for each borough, ranging from the extraordinary to the sub standard. Waltham Forest was not among the best.

Last year the government commissioned Darren Henley, the Managing Director of Classic FM to undertake a national review of music educationof Music education. Henley consulted widely across the sector and produced a report which contained a survey of the state of music education, and a number of recommendations. He found a very diverse landscape, with pockets of good practice, and a number of serious gaps in provision. His primary recommendation was that the government produce a National Plan for music education, to set and ensure high standards of provision across the country. To their credit, after numerous delays, the National Plan for Music Education emerged last autumn, and was generally well received by the music education sector.

The Plan enshrined another of Henley’s key recommendations – that music education should be led by Hubs, each Hub serving a geographical area and being composed of a consortium of organisations working in partnership. Most hubs therefore would include music services, along with arts organisations and other service providers. It was widely envisaged that there would be many less hubs than there were music services, with organisations joining together and forming new partnerships. Generally speaking, when the hubs were announced a couple of weeks ago, that did not happen – there remains a hub, mostly led by the music service, in pretty much every London borough. Not Waltham Forest however – it was conspicuously absent from the listof organisations awarded funding.

Fortunately that does not mean there will be no music education provision for the young people of Waltham Forest – whether the existing music service put in a bid to continue existing I do not know, but in the event a new hub has been formed, led by Redbridge music service, to deliver across both boroughs. It is a shame this type of merger doesn’t seem to have happened more widely – maintaining over 30 organisations in London, all doing the same job for relatively small geographical areas must surely divert resources away from providing children with amazing musical opportunities and towards management, overheads and other running costs. It will be very interesting to see how this new North East London hub’s delivery compares to the single borough hubs going forward.

The other key change is that hubs are funded and monitored by the Arts Council of England unlike music services which received funding via local councils. This is definitely a good thing – the arts council will have an overview of the national picture, will help share good practice and make links between hubs and other arts organisations, and if it does it’s job properly will push for the highest standards and quickly challenge those which are not performing.

So, from September, Waltham Forest music service is no more, and I am looking forward to seeing how music education provision in the borough develops in this new landscape. Why is all this politics important to me? Simply because I do believe every child deserves access to quality music education and musical opportunities, that it can transform lives and impact on all areas of development and that access to, understanding of and participation in the arts makes all of us better individuals, and builds better communities. More on that later, maybe.

The big six – what next?

This weekend brings Party on The Pitch to Leyton Orient Football ground. A pop concert, featuring a former X factor winner, and other top forty acts, the event is one of Waltham Forest council’s ‘Big Six’ events celebrating Waltham Forest’s status as an Olympic Borough and giving local residents a chance to join the party.

Although there has been well documented concerns from residents about the cost of the events and controversy over the sources of funding, I have no problem with the principle of the council investing in major events such as this as a means to fostering pride in the borough and community engagement. I do believe these aims are a genuine motivation for Chris Robbins, the leader of the council, in driving these events forward. I also hope everyone lucky enough to get tickets in the unavoidable limited ballots has a great time. However, I do feel there has been something of a missed opportunity in the design of the events.

Firstly, opportunities for local artists and performers to be a part of most of the events is something which could easily have been built in at planning stage. Waltham Forest has an incredibly rich and vibrant artistic community which really does punch above its weight. Performance slots for individual local artists or performers could have been built into the schedules for concerts, perhaps with a talent competition style selection process, and could have provided an incredible showcase for local talent. Similarly, links could have been made with major events already established in the borough – the Art Trails, Festivals in Leyton, Leytonstone, or Chingford – the investment and profile of the Big Six could have given some of these events a massive boost, and bought a local flavour to them.

This local involvement need not have been at the expense of the star acts and wouldn’t have changed the overall nature of the events, but it could have made them truly about Waltham Forest, rather than a replication of the type of event which happens in Hyde Park or at any other pop festival. It is not too late to change this – my first plea to the council and big six organisers is to find ways to engage local talent in the remaining events. This Autumn’s film festival should be exceptional – lets use it to showcase the work of local filmmakers, and use some of the available budget to enable young people and other communities to make new short films to be shown in the festival.

My second concern is about the legacy of the events. If one of the drivers is to make local residents feel good about the borough, and another to foster community cohesion, I am not convinced this will work. Imagine a 13 year old boy, living in challenging circumstances on one of the estates in Leyton. He is perhaps truly excited to hear that Dappy from N dubz will be playing on his doorstep, and if he is lucky and has access to the booking process, might get a ticket to go to this summer’s Urban Classic concert. He will have a great time – the show blew the roof off the Barbican in March. He may even be intrigued by the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s performances in the gig and want to know more. But, a week, or a month, after the show, I am not convinced his life will have changed. There won’t be another Big Six in the borough- and central London’s concert venues might as well be on the moon. My next plea is that some thought is given to what happens next….let’s find ways to engage with those people who come to events – the Barbican, The BBC, Serious and Bigga Fish are all partners in Urban Classic and all have a variety of projects and programmes which our newly inspired audience could get involved in. Let’s make sure they are pointed towards them, and that they look back on getting a ticket for a big six event as a moment that changed their life, and not as something good that happened five years ago.

Finally a note on two recent events which for me are an indicator of what could happen in Waltham Forest the next time we find ourselves with money to spend on major events to increase community cohesion. Last years National Theatre of Wales production of the passion of port talbot, drew national admiration – both as a work of art, but also as a pivotal moment for an entire community. People were truly engaged as part of something extraordinary which really did bring people together. A few years before this, the Margate Exodus had a similar impact on the Kent Coast, with local communities producing new art, music and drama, alongside some of the countries most inspirational artists.

We could still make something like this happen in our borough- what better themes to explore than the aftermath and legacy of London 2012.

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.

From The Edge

From The Edge is written from the fringes of London, where, depending on your direction of travel, a 20 minute journey can lead deep into ancient forest, to the heartland of TOWIE, to the birthplace of the 2012 riots, to the Olympic Park, or to one of the worlds leading financial sectors. I’ll explore these themes through writing about Waltham Forest’s people and places, history and happenings.

I’ll also be using the site to document and develop my thoughts on the arts, education and other areas I come across through my professional life and personal passions. I like to think my cultural leanings are at least close to the edge, the truth is I’m just not that hip, but, based on my diary for the next few months you can expect musings on everything from Wagner to Glass, Shakespeare to Complicite, Dickens to Neal Stephenson, and William Morris to Jeremy Hunt.