The London Countryway – Day 13

October 12, 1986: Broxbourne to Theydon Bois

Harold at our pub in Waltham Abbey

Harold at our pub in Waltham Abbey

The Lees were my only companions for Day 13 of the London Countryway. Dorothy was recuperating from the cold I may have brought home two weeks earlier (I was still stuffed up a bit), and I didn’t want to take Toby on an outing that I knew would be a difficult one for a loose Schnauzer. The three of us met at Liverpool Street, therefore, shortly before 9:00. Tosh was in a temper because there didn’t seem to be a kiosk open for coffee. While I bought my ticket she went scouting out in front of the station. A taxi driver told her to try the other side of the station. Here we found everything open – and our platform. We each had a cup of coffee and bought a candy bar for the trail.

Not surprisingly (it being Sunday), our train was late arriving from Bishops Stortford. It was 9:30 – eighteen minutes late – before we began making slow progress north. At Broxbourne we retraced our steps to the loo at the end of the New River, then returned to the tunnel mentioned in the previous account. This time we were correct in entering it and turning right (no “path” however) to climb up toward the municipal baths on a road from the boating center. It was 10:30 when we rounded the refreshment stall and began a long trudge along the Lea Valley Navigation canal, heading due south along a towpath on the west side.

The place was crawling with maggots and their owners. Normal fishing from the bank had been suspended because of a special competition and the contestants were under foot for miles. They had brought with them an arsenal of technological tools and trays full of assorted creepy crawlies. We had to step over their long poles, like so many hurdles in an obstacle course. There were other family walkers about – they seemed to be on a sponsored walk of some sort as well and had set up stands every mile or so for juice administration. To add to these challenges there was a serious threat of rain in the morning. It was quite humid and dark. We made terrific progress on the towpath, of course, particularly after Cheshunt, when the crowds began to thin out. Gossip about the school also helped pass the time, though Harold admitted that he was so hungry that he tuned much of this out.

Chesterton notes that some walkers like the canal and its adjacent reservoirs, the birds (coots and geese today), and the water plants, while others object to the tedium, the derelict greenhouses, and the menacing pylons. I was not very pleased with this stretch today, but sun would have helped a lot. A new bridge (not seeming to go anywhere) raised false hopes that we were nearing Waltham Abbey, but we had to continue beneath the real road bridge before climbing back up to the Old English Gentleman (“No travellers”). They weren’t serving food, but the barmaids suggested some places that might be, including the Coach And Horses (“No dogs”), which we spotted on a side street situated diagonally across the square from the Abbey itself. Here we spent a happy hour, from 12:15 to 1:15.

The Coach and Horses was a wonderful working class pub – pool room in the back, dart board prominent on the side, little old ladies supping Guinness in silence, banter between the regulars and the bar staff. We each started with a half (shandy in Tosh’s case), but the food was long in coming and we started all over again. I had a cheeseburger (on toast) and chips, Tosh a ploughmans, and Harold a steak and kidney pie. Tosh was charmed by the place for some reason – perhaps it was Frankie Laine’s Greatest Hits on the tape deck. She got up to have a look at all the old photos of the place and the town, her historical curiosity not sated until we had toured the crypt of the Abbey itself, which we visited next.

Waltham Abbey was a very lovely church, with modern stained glass, a Norman colonnade, and an acid rain problem. We wandered around for about fifteen minutes and Tosh hailed the priest at the opposite end of the nave in order to pay for some post cards. It was now 1:30 and I suggested we should get going again. Tosh had put some tape on a toe during lunch and was now able to march through the rest of the town in greater comfort.

There were complicated instructions for getting through the town, but fortunately all the street signs, closes and alleys still seemed to be in place. The M25 motorway presented another challenge at this point, for Chesterton’s account seems to have been written before its completion; after reaching playing fields after Elm Close we were a bit nonplussed. A bridge over a stream beckoned invitingly but we were supposed to looking for a bridge over the M25. This could have been the one above us, so we climbed an access road from the fields and regained the “main road” we had crossed just a short while before, several hundred yards to the north. Over the M25 we went and on the other side we descended in an easterly direction to the beginning of a large housing estate. Lodge Lane, our next landmark, was easily located here and we moved along it, parallel to the motorway. The Lees stopped at every other garden to bewail their own results with similar foliage.

At the end of Lodge Lane a footpath sign pointed us along a southerly-heading track. This petered out when we reached a large plowed field, but we persevered along its edge until another track joined us from behind. There then followed some complicated twistings and turnings as we gradually shifted to a southeasterly direction across open fields on good surfaces. Shooting was taking place somewhere off to the north. The sun was trying to come out and the mist was lifting. It was quite nice now – even the temperature was rising – though it was still quite humid.

We kept to the right of a hedge and then a wood, looking for a stile that would permit further progress along the same southeasterly line. None could be located near a good track (which did correspond to the OS map’s dotted lines – which were pretty useful today) and so we continued on the track, with the help of gates and stiles. The last section, path again, was pretty overgrown but Tosh marched resolutely forward and we reached tarmac at last. She and I kept up a non-stop gossip throughout the afternoon as well. As we reached High Beech Farm the Lees each shed a sweater; we then walked downhill to the corner of a second road, Wellington Hill.

This was a real hill and we trudged up it slowly, having a look at the efforts of the Sunday gardeners at work on their posh suburban hedges. We passed a golf clubhouse, the Duke of Wellington pub (where Tosh hit the loo), and then near the top of the hill we sat down on the steps of the Epping Forest Youth Hostel for a drink of water. Tosh and I each had a peek into the dorm on the end – getting ourselves ready for our Derbyshire Alternative, now only nine days away.

After our rest we continued to the end of Wellington Hill, where we discovered an ice cream van. A young boy was lolling on the sill. Many of the things we asked for were “finished.” “This is our last day,” the lad explained. A stricken Tosh wanted to know why, but was reassured when the boy explained that this was merely the end of the summer season. She ate a large cone and I had a Feast Bar. I would have paid for all of this but our boy couldn’t find change for a £5.00 note.

We were about to enter the confines of a famous woodland and Tosh now asked, “Isn’t Epping Forest where they always find bodies?” – we were just passing a heavy police presence on the north side of the Royal Oak Inn. “Nowadays,” I replied, “bodies seem to be everywhere.” Following an instruction to strike off at the next road bend, we left a little road behind and followed a footpath in an easterly direction. Unfortunately there were dozens of paths around and I was soon unsure if we had chosen the right moment to leave ours for a sandy path swinging south. Here too I guessed we had gone far enough after just a moment – so that we could plunge downhill toward the sounds of the traffic on the A11. The reward came in the form of a small advertised parking lot across the highway. Here the last of the Feast Bar was consumed and we continued eastward, following berry pickers and encountering some wonderful dogs. I had forgotten the compass today and I was happy that Chesterton had provided his own maps for this stretch.

We turned north on a wide sandy track and followed this route for several miles, twice crossing highways. The Forest was lovely today, with the sun out at last and the ground quite dry, but there were just too many people about – it was like a Sunday on Hampstead Heath. There was no peace. We were continually overtaking grannies, toddlers in strollers, dogs and young lovers. No wonder we continued deep in our gossip. This latter may have caused us to overshoot our turnoff opposite Ambersbury Bank – which was not easy to see anyway. Urgent white arrows on trees invited us to descend to the south and the route seemed to be exactly as described in the guidebook, but after a junction of streams and a turn to the north again we met a crossing sandy track much too soon (i.e, well before the advertised 600 meters) and I persevered beyond this until everything became quite overgrown. So we retreated after just three minutes or so – back to the sandy track, headed south over a bridge on it, and soon discovered a promised golf course on our left.

At the top of the hill we were directed to descend by the side of a fence (and behind houses) but things were quite overgrown very close to the fence – and we probably would have done better a little further off. Eventually we came out onto a common, with the road to Theydon Bois on the other side and our progress blocked by a hang glider that an enthusiastic young man had unpacked to impress his girlfriend – there being no wind today.

We marched along the sidewalks of suburbia and found the Central Line station – the first (but not the last) time we had entered the underground directly from the end of a walk. It was now growing cool and we had just missed a train, but another arrived at 5:35. I believe I had eighteen stops just to reach Oxford Street – where I switched to the Bakerloo Line, arriving home at 6:40.

To continue with the next stage of our walk you need:

Day 14: Theydon Bois to Brentwood ­