Yesterday morning I headed north through Higham Hill, in search of… I wasn’t quite sure. Was I walking towards something, or was I walking away?
I passed a fire station, some 1930s housing, and a local school. Eventually I came to a main road, and a blocky new housing development. It was the new normal chunk of flats, built above and around a chain supermarket. Still, I headed in to its parking-heavy backstreets because I thought I saw a flash of green. This colour turned out to be trees, but trees trapped behind a fence. But I kept walking and eventually the fence ended, and things opens up, and I could see grass, chimneys and pylons. And immediately I felt at home. This was my kind of landscape.
Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts called them Edgelands. John Grindrod wrote about outskirts. Others have less polite or poetic names for the jumble of pylons, dual carriageways, business estates, and old canals that make up the liminal spaces of our cities. As someone who grew up in suburbia, and likes to walk and cycle, these spaces are important and despairing to me. I don’t know exactly what they make me feel, but they make me feel something.
Pylons are giant lattice sentinels of the edgelands. The design was chosen by architect Sir Reginald Blomfield in 1927, and according to this lovely science and industry museum blog post, Rudyard Kipling and John Maynard Keynes were among the public figures decrying these new electric behemoths as a blight on the landscape. But Blomfield responded:
“Anyone who has seen these strange masts and lines striding across the country, ignoring all obstacles in their strenuous march, can realise without a great effort of imagination that [they] have an element of romance of their own. The wise man does not tilt at windmills—one may not like it, but the world moves on.”
And so I moved on, onto Folly Lane.
Folly Lane was silent, overgrown and had seen better days, despite the butterflies. I felt sad for it, because it might once have been beautiful, and now it was mainly being used by dozy truckers for naps and to empty out their bottles of piss.
The lane passed around the edge of Banbury Reservoir, the roar of the north circular getting ever closer. I passed a panicked notice appealing for the return of Arthur, a Jack Russell terrier, and then an extraordinary shrine to Speedy, including poetry, pictures, and an actual gravestone. Was Speedy buried here, just outside this caged and concreted parcel of land?
Folly Lane ended without ceremony and I joined Harbet Road, a service road which seems to connect a bit of the north circular with other bits of the north circular. I passed a Costco, and more resting truckers parked up after 17,000 hours at the wheel. Another feature of these edgelands is fly tipping, and I saw many signs asking me maybe not to do that. But to dump assorted shit you don’t want any more in significant quantities you need a van. As a pedestrian, I just had my body, and people would probably ask questions of me dragging a stained mattress across half of Waltham Forest.
Next up was a beautiful and crumbling monument to Victorian waterwork pride, with more pylons looking on. Just as interesting were the two houses next door, the only residential properties on this road used mainly for passing through, fenced in by reservoir land in one direction and the road to the dual carriageway in the other. Despite all this, and the presumably insane levels of air pollution, it felt like a strangely peaceful, isolated spot. You could imagine one of these houses being an excellent headquarters for an informal dogging association, with a big old map pinned to the dining room wall showing all the likely local hotspots. You could imagine that, but I have no idea why you would want to.
We now passed over the river Lea, guarded by a truly magnificent cavalcade of pylons, mighty defenders ensuring the river flows forever unharried by giant mechanical wasps or other theoretical dangers. On the other side there was a postwar industrial estate, offering some rather pretty if gone-to-seed units, baking hot portacabins, and a sign for the Golden Palace Banqueting Suite, in case you want your wedding reception to have a post-industrial wasteland theme, as many do.
I now entered the gauntlet of the pavement-parked scaffold vans. As you might imagine, this isn’t the most pedestrian-friendly of roads, and I had to run across in an eventual gap between the speeding vans piloted by furious men. My reward was a tower of used tyres – unlike the one in Springfield, it was not on fire – and an overgrown footpath, leading me to have to cross over again, joined by another, inexplicable pedestrian. What was he doing here? Can he not see that this is my own personal empire of dust?
He was walking quickly, as he had somewhere to go. I let him overtake me and disappear so I could return to my fantasies.
Harbet road was coming to an end, and I faced a tangle of concrete ramps and bridges, an inexplicable bike lane, and the world’s most dangerous bus stop. You had to pass two lanes of traffic impatiently roaring its way onto the north circular to reach this particular bad boy, with no crossing to speak of. It was a bus stop for daredevils and rebels without a cause.
My path led down under the overpass, to the Lea navigation, and gone to seed narrowboats, and rubbish thrown from moving cars.
But my eye was drawn to the path leading to the bus stop heading in the other direction, and with it the name of this area, this muddle of concrete and dirt, this strangely reassuring non-place.
This was, or once was, and is, Cooks Ferry. And we’ll take it back someday.