The Roding is one of London's longest rivers and a significant barrier to travel. The M11 and the North Circular both run alongside, shamelessly exploiting the valley, and only a handful of roads cross from west to east. Back in July I explored the six lowest crossing points on the Roding on a 2½ mile hike from Barking to Ilford, and last weekend I walked the next eight miles as far as Debden. December's not the ideal month to explore the river because the wildlife's muted and the paths are muddy, so I recommend waiting a few months before following in my (somewhat brown) footsteps.
The Roding Valley Way starts at Ilford Bridge, or would do if there was a footpath, but instead the North Circular launches itself up the valley atop concrete pillars. A heron turned up to see me off but you may not be so lucky. The walk proper begins up Aldersbrook Lane and is waymarked by a couple of bright circular signs, one of which is sufficiently ungraffitied for the map to be legible. Look for the alleyway bearing off underneath the railway and on the far side will be a shallow narrow river. Sadly it's the wrong river, it's a tributary called the Aldersbrook, but it meanders sweetly in a way the Roding absolutely doesn't.
The path ahead is entirely constrained between the City of London Cemetery and Ilford Golf Course. For the next ten minutes there's no way out, just a narrow track following an unbroken line of railings with only a well-hidden patch of allotments squeezed in along the way. This graveside hike is actually part of Newham's longest public footpath, but given there are only five others that's no great claim to fame. At the fourth pylon it's finally possible to break away from the cemetery edge, rejoin the Roding and pass through some metal railings into... Epping Forest. Evidence for this unlikely transition comes from a City of London noticeboard with byelaws on the back, and the reason is because we've just entered Wanstead Park (and crossed into the borough of Redbridge).
The park offers a single opportunity to escape, either west into the park proper or east over the North Circular into Cranbrook. A fingerpost confirms destinations and times by bike but fails to tell pedestrians how far away anywhere is, indeed the entire Roding Valley Way signage brief prioritises two wheels over two feet. Those who enter Wanstead Park can walk all the way around the Ornamental Water, a massive landscaped lake dug in the 18th century and fed by the Roding. Those who choose to continue along the RVW are instead isolated on the far side of the river with only the occasional glimpse (up the Straight Canal) of the circuit everyone else is enjoying. Still, it's a decent surface with a decent view, for as long as it lasts.
All too soon the path casts off from the waterside to divert around a thoroughly desolate recreation ground with fenced-off goalposts and a bush growing in the middle of the pitch. It skirts some sparse looking allotments making better use of the flood plain, but which still have a sign at the entrance which essentially translates as Bugger Off. Here the path rubs up against the North Circular for the first time, and very much not the last, alongside the northbound offslip for the Redbridge Roundabout. A crescent of postwar housing occupies the Roding flank, ideal accommodation for those who prefer to live in a Ballardian dystopia. For pedestrians further progress relies on weaving within and across the roundabout, and likely hoping the walk gets better.
Once upon a time, before the A12 Eastern Avenue thundered through, the brick span here was the red bridge the borough of Redbridge would eventually be named after. Its concrete replacement returns the path to the raised banks of the Roding and then it's time to follow the pylons again. Visitors are greeted by graffiti sprayed by someone whose tag is Eggs, and this heralds a whole gallerysworth painted onto slabs slotted beneath the North Circular Road. Nothing about the scene suggests a natural waterway, more a river that's been forcibly tamed to permit smooth vehicular flow. My passage was accompanied by two canoodling teenagers smoking something stronger than your usual weed, but I'm not sure it's any nicer here in summer.
What stretches ahead is Roding Valley Park, which is the borough's branding for a stripe of flood plain they can't build on. One path follows each bank with the sensible cycle-friendly track on the western flank. Occasionally footpaths bear off to either side permitting access for nearby residents, assuming that this is somewhere they'd ever want access to. On the bright side I did spot another heron stalking in the reeds and got to giggle at the world's slowest jogger making all the right arm movements while proceeding at a walking pace. Also the sun came out just long enough to admire the Victorian pumping station upriver, plus you can't really see the main road at this point... and then a footbridge tempted me across to the much narrower path following the eastern bank.
At last this felt like a proper river walk, apart from the occasional artificial weir and piped outflow. It was also the first time I'd been glad I was wearing boots rather than trainers, although it wasn't so bad they wouldn't have coped. The onset of winter had tamed the vegetation somewhat, providing a clearer view of the water but also of more pylons and an electricity substation. Eventually the squidgy track curved round to pass beneath two elevated concrete spans, this time not the North Circular but the two sliproads which mark the southern end of the M11. This poor scrap of river valley was brutally transformed into a multi-level interchange in the 1970s, and a Rodingside walk provided the ideal vantage point to inspect the damage wrought.
...and Debden's still another five miles upstream, so expect a lot more mud and motorway tomorrow.