Hello again and welcome back or a fresh welcome to you if you have not read any of my pages before.
In the last couple of entries I walked the Wandle Trail which follows the course of the river of that name in South London from Wandsworth, where it empties into the Thames, to one of it’s two sources at the rather picturesque Carshalton Ponds. It is a distance of about nine or ten miles (depending on which website you read) and had taken me two days which doesn’t sound like much and indeed it isn’t compared to the distances I did in my youth. Without wishing to bore my regular readers, the brief story is that I had been hospitalised in the latter part of 2019 and the medicos had told me to take plenty of exercise.
Due to a bad back and various other factors, the most telling of which is advancing old age, a lot of forms of strenuous physical activity are out and so I decided to do a lot of walking which I love and had done regularly anyway. I was on the hunt for other delineated paths to tackle and found the Essex Way, an 81 mile way-marked long-distance footpath which runs from Epping on the outskirts of London to Harwich on the coast.
The Essex Way appealed for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the start point is at Epping Tube station which is only about a 45 minute journey “door to door” from my home with no changes. Secondly, Epping is tied up with some public transport history, which I have an interest in. I was planning for my first day’s walking to go as far as Ongar which is linked to the same transportation history. Let me tell you about it.
I had always had it in my head that the Tube system was a 19th century innovation and to a certain extent this is true. I still travel quite often through tunnels that were cut in the latter half of that century and equally often in conditions that you might think were designed as a torture from a much earlier era. I knew there were fairly recent lines like the Jubilee which I remember opening but I had always sub-consciously taken the Central to be one of the older ones. The Central Line, incidentally, is the red one on the iconic Tube map, if you are not familiar with the network. Technically, I suppose it is 19th century as it was constructed then although it was not opened to the public until the first year of the 20th century, with a line from Shepherd’s Bush in the West to Bank in the heart of the City of London.
It was not until 1911 that it was extended a mere half mile to connect with Liverpool Street train station and further expansion to the West took place in the 1930’s. At this time work was underway to extend East all the way to Ongar, well outside the London boundary in the County of Essex, but the Second World War put paid to that. Many of the unopened new stations served as air raid shelters against German bombing during the Blitz.
it was in one of these unopened stations at Bethnal Green that the single greatest loss of civilian life during the War occurred. A woman with a baby in the crowd entering the station tripped and the resulting pile-up of humanity on the stairs resulted in the loss of 173 lives with many more injured. Bethnal Green is a mere ten minutes walk from my home and I regularly go down those same steps, pausing to glance at the memorial to those who perished.
Another three mile section of the unopened line between Wanstead and Gant’s Hill was converted into a munitions factory which I think was quite ingenious.
The line to the East was not as difficult as it might have been as much of it merely entailed the electrification of an existing mainline route and only five of the 16 stations on the new line had to be constructed from scratch. With the War finally over, the new Eastern section was eventually opened all the way to Ongar between 1946 and 1949.
From the outset, the line beyond Epping was something of an oddity as it was single line with a passing place at North Weald which meant it was only possible to operate a service every 40 minutes. This probably was not too much of a problem as it also passed Blake Hall Station which, at one point, averaged a mere six passengers per day. The only reason it was built at all was that the “Lord of the Manor” insisted on it as part of his agreement to allow the railway to be built over his land at all. Strange but true.
In the latter part of the 20th century it made little sense to keep the extremity of the line open and the section beyond Epping was closed in 1994 amidst huge public outcry. I even remember a guy singing a song that he had composed about it in a folk club I was associated with then. Sadly the Club, like the Tube Line, is long gone. The silver lining in this particular cloud is that the track stations and all the ancillaries have been taken over by the Epping Ongar heritage railway which I shall be coming extremely “up close and personal” with in a few paragraphs.
The whole day was an exercise in lunacy from the outset as I had been up most of the night due to insomnia and the weather was pretty awful with no improvement indicated in the forecast. I took the image above at my start point at the unearthly hour of 0750 which gives you an idea of what it was like. I got out to Epping quite comfortably as I was going against the flow of commuters heading into the city to start a day’s work. I really didn’t envy them in the trains we passed, crammed in together in conditions that would have put the Black Hole of Calcutta to shame.
What prompted this lunacy? I was annoyed by my inability to sleep, I hadn’t been out for a couple of days and I was, quite frankly, getting a bit sick of the sight of the four walls of my living room. As a little further impetus, I had bought a new pair of hiking boots to replace the venerable old Line7 pair that had sadly passed away in Luxembourg back in 2017 and, although I had worn them to the pub and on an urban wander or two, I had not really tested them. I thought a walk in the countryside in late November might test them a bit. I was right!
There is an old Army saying which informs us that “prior preparation and planning prevents piss-ups and poor performances” which, apart from being a lovely piece of alliteration, is also very true. It ranks up there with the phrase so beloved of PT Instructors that “pain is only another sensation”. Try mentally processing that one when you are on or beyond the point of total exhaustion. I obviously wasn’t mentally processing anything very well as I completely failed to prepare and then compounded the felony by making a series of extremely poor decisions as you shall see.
My planning had consisted of looking at an extremely large scale map, fixing Epping and Ongar in my head, knowing there was a marked path between the two as well as an occasionally used heritage railway and that was it. How difficult could it be? I’ll tell you now.
I came out of the station and totally failed to see the sign informing me that this was the start of the Essex Way and that it had been put there in 1993 on the 21st anniversary of it’s opening. Even if I had seen it I would not have been much better off as there were no directions given. Within 30 yards of the station door I was on the wrong track and was not to be on the right one all day. I should have gone over the footbridge to the other side of the station but I just wandered up the access road following the direction of the now only partially used track. Straight ahead was a residential development which didn’t appear to lead anywhere so I turned left towards the village thinking that a right turn there would be leading me towards Ongar (correct) and also that I was bound to hit the path sooner or later (completely incorrect).
I had been to Epping before and knew it to be a pleasant and fairly affluent village but I had never really explored it properly. I hadn’t gone too far when I spied the impressive St. John the Baptist Church. It would have been hard to miss it with it’s slightly unusual clock tower where the clock is not on one or more faces of the tower itself but rather extends over the High Street in the manner of, say, an old bank or department store. The original Parish Church stands on another site but there has been a place of worship on this site since at least 1397. It is now the main church of three which are grouped in one joint ministry.
The Church was designed to mimic late 14th century architecture which was a common practice in the late Victorian period when it was constructed. It is to the design of G.F. Bodley who died before the tower was consecrated in 1909. He did, however, live to see the main building dedicated in 1891. Bodley had studied under George Gilbert Scott who I am a great fan of and who I have mentioned in previous entries. I know I will do so again as I know what the next project here is!
I took my external image and went to the door more in hope than expectation as I know that nearly all churches are closed up in the modern age which is very sad but sensible. To my great delight, not only was the door open but there were lights on and when I removed my headgear and entered I saw two ladies bustling about with a tea trolly. I started up the aisle and was met by not one but two clerics who must have wondered what I was doing there at nine o’clock on a dreary November Monday morning. I briefly explained my quest (nice vaguely religious allusion there, I thought) and was bade welcome with a hearty handshake and told I was free to explore at my leisure and take as many images as I wanted. Having greeted me in such a friendly way, the two gentlemen of the cloth hurried off to wherever it was they were going to. I nodded a greeting to the tea ladies and set about having a look round.
The Church is typical of the period and style but there are a few of features of note which no doubt contribute to it’s Grade II listing. I liked both the pulpit and font which Historic England describe thus. “The polygonal wooden pulpit, of wine-glass type, dates from 1889 but was rebuilt in 1914: its figures stand under richly traceried canopies. The font has an octagonal bowl with shields in recesses and stands on a base surrounded by Frosterley-type marble shafts”.
The organ was very impressive and there were some very fine stained glass windows, mainly the work of Burlison and Grylls and C.E. Kempe. I do like stained glass. There were also a couple of war memorials which I pictured for inclusion on the War Memorials Online site I contribute to. I hope the collage above gives some idea.
Exiting the Church and walking past a few market stalls setting up I went from being a bit lost to becoming fairly hopelessly lost. I have no idea what compelled me to do it but I ducked down a side alley and tried to use my mobile (cell) ‘phone to find out where the path was but that proved to be way above my pay grade so I just kept on walking. I found myself passing through a tidy residential estate in what I thought might be vaguely the right direction until I found myself on a fairly busy road which had left the housing estates behind and was going through Epping Forest. There was a sign for Ongar so I just kept on going.
I knew that in my direction of travel the railway / disused train line was to my right and so when I saw a “street” sign saying “The Woodyard” and the remains of very old wooden footpath sign I reckoned that was worth a go. I walked a little way down and saw an notice board telling me that the wooded area to my left was called Wintry Wood and never was a place better named as this was that morning. It looked very wintry indeed and not a little soggy underfoot so I went on down the lane to be stopped in my tracks by the gates of, you’ve guessed it, a woodyard. There were saws screeching and the very pleasant aroma of freshly cut lumber but there was clearly no way through. Nothing else for it but to risk the wood and see what my new footwear was capable of. These boots were made for walkin’ as Nancy Sinatra once famously sang although I doubt she envisaged a soggy Epping Forest in winter.
I began on what looked like a path which very soon wasn’t and although I could clearly hear the traffic hurtling by no more than one hundred yards away I was trudging through leaves and mud, trying constantly to disentangle my clothing from brambles and branches. Strangely, given all that I have described, I was completely happy and took to singing audibly. My chosen song was almost inevitably “The Battle of Epping Forest”, a great favourite of mine by the band Genesis from the album “Selling England by the Pound” which was part of the soundtrack of my very prog-rock influenced teenage years.
It is a Peter Gabriel composition based on a supposedly true story of two East End gangs settling a turf war by means of a gang fight in the Forest. It is nearly 12 minutes long and has about a hundred verses, OK not literally, so there is no way I can remember all the words. What scant fauna may have been about were treated to a mere precis which definitely included Harold Demure from Art Literature nipping up his tree! Please look up the lyrics for yourself to stop me going on any further.
After my own battle with Epping Forest, I came to a dead end and so had to return to the road for a bit more. If you had been here 450,000 years ago, you would have had more than a few brambles and a bit of mud to worry about as you would have been buried under ice. This was the Southern edge of the Anglian Ice Sheet which covered most of Britain and apparently defines the geology here although I didn’t notice it. There is also a brick pit in the wood which fell into disuse about the time the church was being built but I didn’t see that either. I was too busy looking where I was going.
I walked as far as a junction where I turned right to try and find this elusive railway and found myself entering Coopersale Common, no more than a hamlet really, and bingo, my instincts were proved correct. I passed under a bridge which was obviously the missing railway and so it was now just a matter of following it, or so I thought.
I walked along a quiet residential road which was marked as a cul-de-sac and soon found a footpath leading off it which I took. Although I did not know it at the time, I had entered Gernon Bushes nature reserve, which understandably looked very much like Wintry Wood.
After a short way I came upon a strange circular feature whilst trying to photograph a fallen tree (of which there were plenty) and so I went to investigate. The feature was circular and obviously not a natural phenomenon as it was too regular and my immediate thought was that it was some sort of prehistoric structure like a round fort which I have seen plenty of. Almost immediately, I discounted that idea as it was clearly too small, perhaps 20 feet across. I still don’t know what it was but I remain convinced that it was a human construction and this idea seems less far-fetched to me now as it did at the time.
My research whilst writing this piece has thrown up the information that there were prehistoric settlements hereabouts in the form of Loughton Camp and Ambresbury Bank that form part of a chain which marked the often violently disputed boundary between the lands of the Trinovantes and the Catuvellauni. Queen Boudicca, whose name you may have heard misrepresented as Boadicea, of the Iceni tribe from further North in present day Norfolk, was roaming about here in the early years of the Common Era and giving the Romans quite a headache.
The fairly well defined path I was on began a gradual but still obvious turn to the right which meant I was soon heading back the way I had come and I really didn’t want that. It was at that point that my decision making became completely unhinged. To my left there was a pasture with beasts grazing and a farmhouse just visible in the distance. In a former life I learned how to get over fences without damaging them and this is what I did. Wrong, stupid and criminal but I did it. I really was not thinking straight at all.
Thankfully the beasts were at the far side of the large field and were not inquisitive enough to come over to check me out so I kept to the fence line and kept on going. There was, however, one substantial obstacle in my way in the form of the M11 motorway which was manically busy. I knew that trying to cross it would be further illegality not to mention an arguably suicidal act so that was not an option. What I was hoping for was some sort of farm track under it as I have seen before where old rights of way were preserved when motorways were built.
Right in the corner of the field there was a way under the motorway all right, it was the railway which had curved round to go under. I was now really in the proverbial rock and a hard place situation. I could die horribly on the main road from London to Cambridge or I could commit further trespass and stray onto a railway line which is not the smartest of moves. Yes, there was another option of heading back via the farm which had to be linked to a road but that risked a potentially interesting conversation with the farmer complete with shotgun and / or his dogs. Hmm.
I chose the railway, primarily because I was fairly sure it was no longer electrified and I was almost certain it would not be in use on a day like this. My fence-friendly traversing skills were not even required as there was a Fergy sized hole in it. Honestly. It was just Fergy sized and no more and there was further snagging of my ordinary street jacket before I managed to scramble down the bank and onto the tracks. Despite being 99% certain there was no power in the lines I made damn sure not to step on anything metal, just in case, and headed off in the direction of North Weald. I kept my eyes and ears well tuned as well. 99% certainty, in this case that there would be no traffic, is not much consolation when you are run down by 50 tons of locomotive.
On the way, I saw the rather sad but strangely photogenic sight you see above and hoped that it was not an omen. I thought I would make best speed but it was surprisingly difficult as my normal stride was too long to step on every sleeper and not quite long enough to go for every other one. I toddled along in a most ungainly manner until I could see a station in the distance with plenty of old rolling stock sitting about. Great, that must be North Weald and I would obviously be able to regain a road there.
Nothing was ever going to be simple that day and as I approached the station I could see that there was a gang of workmen going about their business close by the track. There was no way I was going to turn back and I thought I might be able to front it if they were just contractors and not members of the heritage railway. I strode purposefully on and not one of them even looked at me. It was as if it was the most normal thing in the world to see a guy wandering up the middle of a railway track from the depths of the Essex countryside.
Having got past them, I really chanced my luck. Undoubtedly I should have hightailed it out as fast as I could but it was a disused Tube / railway station with lost of interesting things to look at so it seemed rude not to. Apparently this was the highest point of the Tube network once upon a time at an Alpine 340 feet above sea level. With my fetish for knowledge I looked it up and I can tell you that that distinction is now held by Amersham station which is a Himalayan 480 feet above. You may need oxygen! I’ll let the images speak for themselves but if you have nothing else to do with your time you may want to try to find the spelling mistake on the air raid notice.
Having taken my fill of images I walked out of the station forecourt, went down to the main road and turned right in the approximate direction the line had been going. By now it was nearly 1300 and when I spied the wonderful Kings Head there was only ever going to be one outcome and in I went. It had been quite a trying morning one way and another and I thought I needed a pint, albeit one of my silly and only marginally alcoholic concoctions.
The pub was formerly called the George IV and parts of it date back 450 years although the majority of what you can see was contructed in the mid 17th century from old ship’s timbers. Who said recycling was a modern concept? I took a seat near the very welcome blazing log fire and tried to imagine a very much more recent period in history than the construction of the pub. I was thinking of the Second World War.
North Weald is probably most famous for it’s airfield, which still exists and functions as such, and which was hugely important during World War Two, particularly in the Battle of Britain. It has a history dating right back to the Royal Flying Corps in 1916 and therby pre-dating the RAF by two years. It was always a fighter base as opposed to housing bombers and initially hosted Hurricanes and Blenheim night-fighters.
Later on, American Eagle squadrons and two Norwegian squadrons flying Spitfires. Although I didn’t know about the Allied pilots at the time, I was thinking about RAF men, many of them ridiculously young to be doing what they were asked to do, sitting and standing around the roaring fire, smoking and drinking and not knowing if they would be alive that time tomorrow for another drink. I’ll swear I could almost hear them.
I could have happily spent more time in this fine old pub but it had become a matter of “Ongar or bust”, it was personal now after the morning’s performance. I was going to finish this if it killed me and, little did I know it then but it damn nearly did.
I had decided to give up on ever finding the Essex Way and the concept of me suddenly and miraculously mastering my mobile ‘phone was equally remote and so I resolved to stick to the roads. Surely that could not be too difficult, especially after I saw a road sign for Ongar and so off I set at a brisk pace. All went well at first and I paused only briefly to take a couple of images. I should have stuck to my plan.
After a while I took a right down an unpaved road which I was sure would lead me back to some sort of path except that it didn’t. It led me into a field and I ploughed on although the farmer hadn’t bothered. The field was still in grass but the recent heavy rain made it pretty boggy underfoot. The gate to the field had indicated a right of way although there was no footpath marked anywhere and so I walked until I came to some outbuildings blocked by a gate and a fairly unequivocal “Private Property – No Trespassing” sign. Not there then as I faced the possibility of irate farmers with twelve bores and slavering hounds again. I followed the hedge line round and I could see dwellings tantalisingly close but with absolutely no way to get to them With no obvious exit it was all the way back up the hill the way I came and back to the road again. I reckon that little excursion had cost me about thirty minutes.
Whilst it had been a total waste in terms of progress, it had produced an interesting if somewhat ugly point of interest which you can see above. I was desperately trying to work out what it was as there were a few of them in the field, and I thought that it must be something to do with the airfield. My initial surmise was that they were tethering posts for barrage balloons to defend the airfield but surely that was a double edged sword as they would endanger your own aircraft as well. Having poked around a bit online, the best guess I can come up with is that they were indeed anchor points but for radio antennae rather than balloons.
Presumably due to the relative elevation of North Weald, it was deemed a good position for radio masts and the Marconi company had been operating here since 1920. From what I can discover, the masts were indeed a problem for the pilots. As always, please get in touch if I am completely wide of the mark.
A short distance along the road I came to the old milepost you can see and I had not even gone half way. Three miles by road and I had probably done five with all my meandering. Still, I was good to go for a bit of a push along a signposted road and I know I can do four miles an hour if I stride out. It was now about 1400, the light was due to go at 1559 in good conditions but these were not good conditions. It had barely been properly light all day and it certainly was not going to get any better. The road was only marginally less busy than the M11 had been earlier, at least it seemed that way but at least I was allowed to be on this road and this pavement and then the pavement stopped.
OK, keep facing the traffic and the pavement will start up again. It didn’t. I spent what seemed like an eternity jumping in and out of the hedge trying to avoid cars and lorries, it was terrifying. My images tell me that it was not an eternity but just about an hour dead. I thought I was dead several times, never mind the time. I have done some fairly stressful things in my time and that is right up there with them. I didn’t want to deviate along a side road as that was going to be no better in terms of width although undoubtedly in terms of traffic but I didn’t know where any of them led. Keep plugging on. I really had lost all reason by this stage and it was just all senses on full to get to Ongar in one piece.
Eventually I saw a sign which told me that I had arrived in Ongar and that it was twinned with Cerizay in France. That’s nice for them but it still didn’t look much like a village to me but at least there was a verge to walk on which was a relief.
I took a couple of images of a rather sorry-looking bridge which I now know spans the equally sorry-looking Cripsey Brook and in my discombobulated state my brain started raging at the fact that there probably had not been a centenary ceremony in 2013. Undoubtedly, grand structures like Tower Bridge or the Forth Rail Bridge either had or will have celebrations on significant birthdays so why not the Cripsey Brook Bridge? What was going on? I was mentally rehearsing arguments urging egalitarianism for the bridges of the UK. I really had lost it a bit by this stage.
After a bit more walking it became apparent that there was indeed a settlement here and it had not been completely abandoned after Boudica died. I had finally made it to Ongar without the slightest recourse to the Essex Way. I am sure I have been happier to see habitation in my life but I really cannot remember when. After what I had been through, it was a joy to walk along the High Street and even I could not miss the station which I took a few snaps of. It looked great, as North Weald had, and I am more determined than ever now to have a trip on the heritage railway. It will be a damn sight easier than the route I had taken.
By now there was only one thing for it and that was a pint. I didn’t just want one, I really needed one. I looked at the Cock Tavern, looked at myself and decided against. I had made a bit of an effort to get the worst of the mud off my boots and the foliage off my jacket but the bottom of my jeans were a bit muddy and I reckoned I would find somewhere a little more appropriate. I passed the Kings Head for much the same reasons and then did a bit of a double take when I saw the shop you can see in the image. The Brick Lane Bagel Co., what was all that about?
Brick Lane is a road running from Whitechapel Road up to Bethnal Green Road, not far from where I live. It is in the heart of what was a traditionally very Jewish area although it is now virtually 100% Bangladeshi with numerous curry houses. Undeoubtedly the most famous remnant of the Jewish era is the Beigel Bake which has been there for over 100 years and never closes. It is very good but not actually the best beigel place on the lane which is Everings. Take it from a local!
I could not for the life of me understand why they had expanded to such a random place as Ongar but it appears they haven’t. A quick look at Companies House records shows the business is registered in Ongar with the other named person living in Hornchurch. It is a very dubious, although presumably legal, appropriation of the concept of the Brick Lane outlet but don’t be fooled. I have no idea how good it is but the staff were good enough sports to give me a wave after they saw my taking the image.
I really needed a pint, not a bagel and my salvation came in the form of the Royal Oak which looked more my sort of place. When I went in, it was my sort of place. I have a nose for these things. I got my pint of cider spritzer and immediately had to set about resisting the attempts of a complete maniac who plonked himself right beside me when there were loads of seats available in the small “snug” I was in. The main bar had been pretty full and I had deliberately chosen it as I wanted to just relax quietly for a while before heading home.
His opening conversational gambit was, “They don’t like me in there, they say I’m a nuisance” and I knew I was not going to have too much peace. I didn’t tell him to go away in so many words but my lack of response, general appearance and probably pretty deranged stare seemed to do the trick because he did so anyway.
With my pint finished, I walked back up High Street to the bus stop to wait for the bus back to Epping and on the way I was looking out the window as we drove along the road I had walked and wondered all over again how I was not dead. At least the day’s exertions and excitement had the desired effect and I slept like a baby that night.
Incidentally, if you are wondering about the title of this entry, it is a bit of play on one of those appalling “reality” TV shows that we are subjected to here in the UK called “The only way is Essex”. As far as I can see the only reality is that they are all populaced by self-promoting wannabees getting famous for being famous and having no other visible talent. I loathe them and never watch them but I was thinking lately that some TV crew should have filmed “Fergy’s way is not the Essex Way”, it could have been a lot of fun.
By my own fairly lunatic standards, this had been an eventful day and the next entry is a lot less frantic. In it I manage to find the Essex Way at last, I manage to get to Ongar (again) with only a few detours and I visit the oldest wooden church in the world so stay tuned and spread the word.