Dull, wet, oppressive sinks the afternoon, through a rising restlessness I can’t define. Puddles beneath my feet. Familiar streets chiding my every turn.
Northeastwards from here in Epsom, the city stretches wide. Twenty miles to London Bridge, and as many reaching out beyond. The megalopolis, looming heavy in the rain.
I pull the cap down above my face, and strike a steady rhythm towards the Friday traffic. My shoes are pattering on the pavement, the sound of my breathing counting out the flow of time. Moments passing, each with thoughts unopened and memories wiping clean.
Far from the madding crowd, and yet unconnected with the primaeval landscape. No joyful hedgerows here, no rolling contours to stretch the mind. No thrill of city either, nor vibrant urban night ahead.
Just greyness, stretching out in all its mediocrity. City tears, weaving weary paths across the empty afternoon.
Ewell looks grim and uninviting. A hamlet beside the Downs it may once have been, before the city swallowed it between the wars.
And what is it now? A dislocated high street – a clapperboard house and a Georgian façade or two, submerged and cast adrift amidst the seamless thirties sprawl. Commuterland reaching down the railway to swab away its lifeblood and choke the spirit of its suffocated heart.
The cars wait dripping at the lights. All across this Friday’s soggy conurbation, a million drivers’ lives are wasting deep within the traffic. A woe of contraflow far out near Cobham. A lorry shed its load at Loughton. Angst and umbrage, stretching way past Uxbridge.
Across the road stands a lonely pool of water. Encased in brick and stone it might be, and yet it’s as natural as the rain. The name Ewell comes from the Old English Aewell, meaning river source or spring.
Unlikely as it seems, this pond marks a geological boundary, half-sunk today beside a busy road and a suburban council park. To the south lies Chalk, rising dry towards the downlands. And north from here – London Clay, dark and black and muddy, yet impermeable to water.
This ancient springline has tales to tell. Of Roman soldiers, thirsty as they marched on Stane Street. Of early settlement and the birth of this village.
Woodsmen, cattle herders, sheep shearers and farmers once gathered beside the running water. Legend has it that William the Conqueror stopped his horse to drink right here – perhaps on his triumphant march to London, almost ninehundred and fifty years ago.
The stream heads north, and I leave the road to follow through a leafy glade beside the Hogsmill River. Deep and dark, spreading ten metres wide already, the current flows languidly past reeds and rushes and between Victorian houses now, ambling on towards the Thames ahead.
A set of shallow dams and complex channels lie forgotten beside the path – the mill race of a gunpowder factory which stood here long ago. Around a bend, the stream wanders under a boardwalk to find a tunnel beneath the railway embankment. Then, running faster, the Hogsmill River narrows into green and open space at last.
The riverbank is dark and wet, a riverside of mud to splash around my ankles. No buildings are in sight now, just trees and bushes and lush broad grass. A thin leap of stream and floodplain stretching green towards the city.
Nature irrepressible, trickling constant through the tide of all development.
A map stands here, plotting the Hogsmill’s nine mile cut across suburbia to meet the Thames at Kingston. Somewhere nearby, it says, Millais’ most famous work was set – his painting of Ophelia. Hamlet’s tragic love, fallen from a willow tree, laid low amongst the reeds to drown.
The river walk beckons further, and the afternoon is slowly brightening. But it’s past too late already. Reluctantly I find the stepping stones, submerged today an inch or two to fit the rainy afternoon. I splash across and up the other bank to head slowly south, my shoes tripping silently through the grass.
On another afternoon of sparse blue and fluffy clouds of white, I’ll return to find this place. The thin vein of nature and vestigial landscape will paint their play on brighter days, when willows weep green tears of guilt for Ophelia, falling loose across the sunshine.
The last blades of grass run hard against the afternoon’s encircling greyness. Ahead lie houses, streets and offices. The city’s sprawling grasp reaching through the dying hours of a working week still left to kill.
Finally, it’s five miles or six that fall behind me on this run of buried rocks and hidden stream.
An hour cut through London’s damp tragedy of suburbia – and all wrung out, along a muddy road of stone.
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