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?

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