25 September 2016

Exploring forgotten byways

I volunteered to help with a project to map all the pedestrian routes in Walthamstow. Each volunteer is allocated a one-kilometre square of map to explore. With the deadline approaching, Saturday afternoon was spent exploring, first on Google Earth to look for likely spots, then on bikes to explore on the ground. The results were surprisingly interesting, a chance to see to places you would never go otherwise.

Our square includes Higham Hill Road, the Priory Court estate and the complicated maze of streets on both sides of Billet Road, with a corner on the edge of the Lea Valley Park. First up is the pedestrian path that starts at the end of Green Pond Road, next to the allotment gates, and runs alongside the overgrown allotments fence through to Priory Court. It’s a shortcut from the blocks of flats to Higham Hill Road and it’s used by lots of people. There are barriers at both ends to stop cyclists tearing through. Definitely a useful route and not on the official map.

Next is a steep climb up Higham Hill Road to look at an unusual place, five rows of houses laid out in a zigzag arrangement with triangular green spaces in between the house fronts, so they don’t face a road at all, just a line of pavement. The pavements connect between Billet Road and McEntee Avenue, so they might count as footpaths. We’re not sure, but mark them on the map anyway. It looks like a nice place to live even though it’s right on busy Billet Road.

There is another green at Millfield Avenue, a wide expanse of grass with roads all round and the avenue running through diagonally. We find a tiny opening between the houses, marked only with a no cycling sign. The path is just wide enough for two people to pass, but only just. It runs between garden fences, turns a sharp angle and connects into Faulkner Mews, off Carlton Road. It would be a long walk around by road, although you wonder who actually uses it. We continue down the road to see if there is another path where Carlton Road almost touches Millfield Avenue, then veers off abruptly. In fact there is a way through that's wide enough to be a road, but closed off by big brick planters. If there ever was a road connection it must have been a long time ago, because four mature plane trees block the way.

Back to the green, there is another path on the opposite side, a path that is already on the map, but we decide to check it really does go through. It starts off reasonably clear apart from head-high nettles, then turns a corner into something less friendly. One side is a low building painted black, the other side a high metal fence facing on to an overgrown wasteland. The place is littered with beer cans, a sizeable pile of Tennents Super empties posted through the mesh in one spot. Spider webs stretch across the path at eye level and two large spiders seem likely to be the first of many. It’s not easy to turn the bikes around in the narrow passageway but that is definitely the right thing to do. We cycle round to the other end in lovely Shaw Square to check it exists and yes, it does. Someone is using it as a motorbike parking spot. Nobody uses this as a through route, although it does have other uses.

The last but not least promising lead is on the other side of Billet Road, in dead-end street Cheney Row. A locked gate leads to an unkempt expanse of grass. It’s easy to get around the fence, which is probably just there to keep vehicles out. Inside is a rough BMX track, undulating humped tarmac paths designed for jumping. The gates are unlocked and it looks disused - research afterwards shows it was associated with the bike shop in Billet Road, now long gone. Out in the field, fires are smouldering in a couple of places, and a strange metal play structure looks like something out of an abandoned Soviet mining village. In the far corner of the field, a regular footpath joins another, a narrow dirt path that runs between the playing fields and more untidy waste land. A burnt out scooter, electricity pylons, abandoned goalposts in a field of long grass - the path is nice but the surroundings are strange. Although it's long and lonely, it’s evidently used - we pass a family and a lady walking her dog in the short time we’re there. We continue as far as the fortified gates of Britannia Lodge, which looks far too ramshackle to still be the way into Britannia Fields playing fields - then we turn back. The other end brings us to familiar territory, the Islamic cemetery, the houses facing the reservoirs on Folly Lane, and the cycle route back onto Blackhorse Lane.