The rain is falling softly beneath a grey and weeping sky.
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.
London’s suburbia was surely built for days like these. Unwelcoming, pointless hours spent just existing, nowhere.
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.
176. Ashtead Common 2 – a winter’s trail to spring
83. Seven Bridges Road – the Wey floodplain
151. Our secret space – Epsom and Ashtead Common
48. Chaucer’s April
39. Woking – from Necropolis to Technology Junction
109. Happiness, more or less
I love the way that your words takes us on these runs…
From too many years ago, I recall the name of Uxbridge. It was past the little village of Ruislip. (Please don’t ask me which direction) I think it was when I was trying to navigate your “tube” system. Try to imagine a young and very “country” American girl riding the tubes then…Most times I couldn’t enjoy the adventure because I was so hopelessly lost.
I can picture your run as I paste those long ago memories of my visit to my ex husband’s “Nanny’s”. It was such a mystery to me to see how each little hamlet melted into each other…It was all London to me, that is until I spent some time there…
Thanks for taking me along on this run…that is the only way that I will be able to revisit my stay in your lovely country…
That’s a classic piece of Metroland as described by our late lamented poet, John Betjeman. The growth of London into the giant beast it is now did not happen overnight. The mediaeval, Roman city was too cramped and overcrowded for elegant living, and a smarter, more elegant Georgian twin was built to the west in the 1700s, still recognisable today as the fashionable and expensive West End.
The advent of the industrial revolution saw the building through the 1800s of huge stocks of Victorian terraced houses which still define the inner suburbs in places like Clapham to the south and Kilburn to the north. But the city’s appetite was far from sated, and the expansion of the transport system between the wars provided the corridors for growth.
Betjeman recorded the transformation of the landscape by the Metropolitan Railway (now the Metropolitan Line of the tube) as it marched towards the countryside northwest of London. The area was portrayed by the railway company as a new kind of rural idyll for city workers. It was a piece of pure marketing genius which proved ironic, as its very success destroyed the vision of green space which underpinned that dream.
In the landscape I describe today, across the outer southwestern suburbs, the story was different, and yet very much the same. Expansion here took place along the path of the overground railway. Ewell East station opened in 1847 on a new section of railway running parallel to the ancient Roman road, Stane Street, in its journey out towards the hills.
Pockets of Victorian housing date back to that time. But the towns and villages here still retained their identity and a landscape in between.
It was in the 1930s that life in these areas on the southwestern fringes of the city was completely and irrevocably transformed. Farms and villages and entire rural landscapes and communities were simply swallowed up.
Housing developments spread out over vast swathes of previously unspoilt countryside. The boundaries between communities were blurred and the link with the underlying landscape more or less obliterated. Exactly the same process which affected Ruislip and Uxbridge on the other side of London during the same period.
It was only the passing of the Town and Country Planning Act in 1947 which belatedly put a halt to that process by defining an outward limit to London’s development and safeguarding a ring of green countryside (the Green Belt) to surround it.
That, in its turn, forced planners and developers to seek new pastures to turn into concrete, a search which provided the flawed utopian vision of the new towns which were built from scratch outside the green belt during the post-war years, with every house all the same. Crawley, where I used to work, is a type example with its bleak 1960s architecture.
The story of London’s voracious and pitiless suburban growth is depressing, in lots of ways, especially when it’s raining. But it’s a human story, all the same. The workforce which drives this city and this country forward has to live somewhere.
And despite the often grey and bleak, inhuman sprawl, there are still clear fragments of landscape and geology and the lifestyles of older times hiding deep within the suburbs, if you know exactly where and how to look.
‘Rocks make landscapes beneath our feet’.
That works for me, Silver Fox.
Hi Roads, a bleak but ever brightening run …
Jane Jacobs should be mandatory reading for any ‘urban developer’, no?
You inspire one to pull out those dusty old sneakers from the back of the cupboard … Keep at it.
There was an amusing little ‘news’ clip on the CBC a few weeks ago about some London based runner who is over 100 …I think they said he was 104 … Ever seen him? Thin as a rail, beard, likes to smoke and drink. Did a marathon with ‘pub’ stops to ‘revitalize’ himself on route … A ‘character’, like you, by any other name.
Darn it, C – so my cover’s finally blown …
Roads, I’m tagging you for the Six Word Meme (see my site) – if you are interested!
Keep up the great writing.
We are blessed by a great number of these long distance walking paths and I only heard about them recently.
Should I get one of “those” magazines through my letter box I will be spoilt for choice – limitless long distance options for me.
I’m still not sure what sort of magazine my crossed fingers are hoping for though.
Yes, Angela – and I’ve often run one riverside section of the Jubilee Walkway, near Limehouse whilst training for the London Marathon.
And there are plenty of other great stretches to choose from. If you add the Grand Union canal and the Thames Path into the mix, the possibilities are almost endless, as you say.
One of ‘those’ London Marathon ballot acceptance or rejection magazines will be winging my way soon, too. And I don’t know which one to hope for, either…