6♦ Chingford/Walthamstow The former boroughs of Chingford and Walthamstow were once destined to merge, that is until Leyton was added to create what we now know as Waltham Forest. The chief river hereabouts is the Lea, but I've chosen to walk the length of another which starts in Epping Forest, and (conveniently) flows through the two boroughs in question.[8 photos]
THE UNLOST RIVERS OF LONDON The Ching Chingford → Highams Park → North Circular (6 miles)
[Ching → Lea → Thames]
The Ching, obviously, is a river in Chingford. Less obviously the river got its name from the town rather than the town getting its name from the river. In its upper half the Ching is easy to follow, and rather pretty. In its lower half, alas rather less so.
The Ching drains a central part of Epping Forest, specifically the woodland between Chingford and Loughton. The chief feature at the source is Connaught Water, an artificial lake dug out by hand in 1880 to keep the marsh in check, and shallow enough to be used for paddling in and hiring out rowing boats. These days the main action is around the lake rather than on it, with pleasure seekers enjoying a half hour circuit from the car park past numerous brazen waterfowl. It's peak youngling season at the moment, which necessitates stopping at regular intervals to coo over nuzzled ducklings and cygnets waddling up the path.
The Cuckoo Brook, a minor tributary, joins just below the lake and marks the official dividing line between Essex and London... a function then taken over by the Ching itself. It crosses Ranger's Road, at this point a trickling channel lost in nettles, fairly close to Queen Elizabeth's Hunting Lodge and Chingford's other historical treats. A footpath runs alongside with the river mostly screened from sight, and instead the buttercup expanse of Whitehall Plain to enjoy. Bumblebees traffic from flower to flower and magpies hop down from old oaks - this corner of only-just London is a charmer.
South of Whitehall Road it's again hard to realise the Ching is there, not unless you cut into the trees to discover a stream weaving below thick beech cover. The main path remains open but rutted, with occasional muddy dips which suggest boots are a must-have in the winter months. One ivy-clad tree is currently bedecked with pale stacked fungi, revealed on the neighbouring stump to bear a striking resemblance to freshly-flipped pancakes. Another tree by the golf course bears a single Vote Labour poster, not that it'll swing the clubbers' vote, and Iain Duncan Smith is sure to be returned here today.
The Ching's finest stretch is undoubtedly through Highams Park, initially as a natural stream with textbook meanders and riffles, should any local geography classes be planning a field trip. Beyond a couple of footbridges the water broadens out to form a long artificial lake, dammed at its southern end by landscape designer Humphrey Repton for the benefit of the manor house on the ridge. The lake and its surroundings were bought for the Forest Conservators in 1891, hence the continued existence of alder, pollarded hornbeam and willow around the perimeter path, and yellow iris and flowering lilies on the water. A splendid amenity to have on one's doorstep, and another active waterfowl retreat.
By Hale End the river has retreated to a deep channel on a shallow gravel bed, occasionally littered with bollards, trolleys and a selection of European-brewed lagers. Along Vincent Road it skirts a fresh-mown common before disappearing behind buildings for the first time, including a delightful terrace with a variety of mosaic-samples across sequential gables. I wouldn't have thought to risk the subsequent brambly scramble along the backs of garden fences at Brook Park Crescent had not the West Essex Ramblers walked it previously. "The path is at first overgrown but does improve", they reassured, although I saw plenty of evidence of the former and none of the latter.
At River Walk a stream-side alleyway ducks beneath the Overground, enlivened by the mural of a giant owl on the end house. Further road walking confirms that Highams Park is a jolly pleasant place to live, and then a cycleway between a school and a sports field leads to the most jarring sight of the entire walk. A condensed patch of new housing has been squeezed into a rectangular enclosure, with multi-storey terraces packed close to narrow stacked balconies. All is not quite finished, although delivery companies are already unloading for the earliest residents... and hang on, that looks like a Tote board.
The Ching, it turns out, runs in a culvert alongside what used to be Walthamstow Stadium and is now the housing estate the developers threatened. 292 homes now fill the space where hares ran, dogs bolted and generations of punters enjoyed a flutter, and all that remains is the iconic neon facade up one end, and the Tote building and dog kennels at the other. The latter look rather splendid, having undergone 'sensitive refurbishment', and are now fronted by sufficient raised earth beds to act as 'pocket allotments' for 7% of the residents. But the apartment blocks in the centre could be anywhere, and in no way "truly enhance and celebrate the historic character of the stadium", except in the developer's pipedreams.
The final opportunity to walk alongside the Ching is a paved path connecting two supermarkets. One's the enormous Sainsbury's opposite the stadium and the other's a slightly smaller Morrisons, joined by a municipal cut-through past nettles, sports grounds and buzzing pylons. This emerges into part of the Chingford Hall Estate, a modern creation whose shopping parade is two-thirds takeaways and whose pub is already boarded up. At the far end of Ching Way are a pair of dragon mosaics and a plaque unveiled in 1994 by the Rt Hon Lord Tebbit of Chingford C.H., plus a deliberately tall brick wall to block out the roar of the North Circular immediately behind.
Enjoy the view from heights of the A406 footbridge (Docklands tick, Shard tick, Gherkin tick, Ally Pally tick) because the Ching's last quarter mile is somewhat desolate. It emerges from culvert alongside an overgrown back lane where lorry drivers sleep, it skirts the rim of the Banbury Reservoir past a compound guarded by an angry dog, it nips round the back of a barricaded Victorian pumping station, and it ends alongside a truly grim road despoiled by mountains of trash unloaded from skip hire trucks. A break in the concrete banks of the Lea beneath a chain of pylons marks the point where the Ching finally disgorges its load - an unsightly end, and to think, it started so well.