Routemaster in-depth: On the Olympic Trail
From Hadleigh Farm’s rural mountain-biking track to the urban arenas of Stratford, Mark Rowe follows a new walk by Essex Ramblers that celebrates the region’s Olympic venues and the landscape in between
For the world’s athletes, the road to the London Olympics is as long as it is arduous. Walkers have it easier, though, and there was a spring in my step as I set off from Leigh-on-Sea in deepest Essex, bound for the Olympic Stadium at Stratford in the heart of London’s East End. I was following the Hadleigh to Stratford Legacy Walk, which, at 116km/72 miles, is more than a marathon but less than a sprint. Astonishingly, an Olympic race walker could chalk up almost half the route in under four hours; I planned to take a decidedly less ambitious six or seven days.
From Leigh, the route meanders westwards through rural Essex, along rivers and canals, through towns and conurbations such as Chipping Ongar and Epping, but generally avoiding the major population centres until it hits the Lee Valley, where it finally drills south to Stratford. The walk was devised by Essex Ramblers, who readily admit they were touched by the spirit of the Games. “The Olympics has encouraged people from all walks of life to try to do their bit,” says Ann McLaren, the local Ramblers’ vice-president. “We’ve done that here. So many people have ownership of this walk. It’s the thing I’m most proud of – capturing the spirit of the Olympic movement.”
Pubs, ruins and mountain bikes
Leigh-on-Sea turned out to be an excellent starting point. I stepped back in time along Old Leigh’s exquisite high street – a cobbled delight stuffed with creaking, superbly named pubs such as Ye Olde Smack, where you expect to encounter peg-legged, just-landed sailors. I passed rows of shops selling freshly caught cockles, mussels and whelks as I strode out west along the path, which sweeps up to the 13th-century Hadleigh Castle. Deployed by Edward III and now a crenulated and scattered ruin, it was the subject of one of Constable’s most admired oil paintings. The views from here stretch across the Thames to Kent and east over Canvey Island to the refineries of Coryton. A few hundred metres to the west – perhaps a 40-second dash for Usain Bolt – was a more modern landmark: the Olympic mountain-biking centre at Hadleigh Farm, purpose-built on undulating Salvation Army-owned hills. The 550-acre site will host more than 3,000 spectators during the Games, cheering on cyclists as they tear around the open grassland and low shrubbery that makes up the scenic yet challenging course.
These first few miles set a theme for the whole walk, with its schizophrenic rhythm of rural-urban-picturesque-eyesore. Many churches lie along the route, and the first cropped up 13km/8 miles later, as the path dipped over a meadow and into Hockley churchyard. I tread softly, sympathetically, over the grave of William Waight, who was buried under the churchyard path. He’d been trampled on all his life, he argued, so wished to reinforce his persecution complex in death. Struck by the views from the church over the River Crouch, I kept going, following the river’s raised banks as the light faded – a silver sheen settling on serene waters.
The walk was proving extremely good at unpicking some of the Essex stereotypes. Most long-distance walks gradually reveal a melody, their own characteristic rhythm; I’d assumed that the Essex melody, if it existed, danced to a brash, engine-revving beat. I couldn’t have been more wrong: Essex is full of silence, fractured by strident church bells and birdsong, where nature rolls up its sleeves and punches back against the urban sprawl and dual carriageways. To prove the point, I later dismissed the M25 at a stroke, walking above it across a common, past a cricket pavilion and surprising a flock of exotic-looking yellowhammers – resembling minature parrots – as I did so.
From Constable to Lowry
Inexorably, the urban jungle does close in. At the end of a woodland path through Hooks Marsh, near Cheshunt, it’s possible to actually pinpoint this dividing line. The oaks and hazels halt abruptly by a railway, and staring bleakly back at you is a wall of drearily rectangular two-storey offices and MOT centres. Fortunately, the Legacy Walk flicks south
at this point, picking up the River Lea and its parallel companion, the canalised Lee Navigation. On the right was the sizeable White Water Centre. Built from scratch on the edge of the 1,000-acre River Lee Country Park, its 300m of artificial rapids will play host to the Olympic canoe slalom. Dipping under the North Circular, the landscape shifted from Constable to Lowry, with conspicuous urban deprivation, fenced-in housing estates and graffiti-daubed train bridges.
At this point, even the most footloose of walkers might turn heel and not pay the Lee Valley the attention it deserves. It is a Jekyll-and-Hyde landscape, making for a cracking, if slightly surreal finale. Walthamstow and Leyton Marshes boast meadows that are home to dragonflies and water voles, as well as fields grazed by cattle, yet they are criss-crossed by sclerotic overhead electricity pylons. Nearby were the Middlesex Filter Beds and the WaterWorks Nature Reserves and bird hides, whose bucolic air belies their original purpose of keeping the Victorian horrors of cholera and diphtheria at bay. Finally, along a towpath of the Lee Navigation – suspiciously well scrubbed for the perusal of the world’s sporting bigwigs – the Olympic Park hove into view, shielded by a 5m-high fence, electric wire and ubiquitous CCTV.
After 116km/72 miles of build-up, I couldn’t help finding the stadium itself – all angles and rims of grey steel – a little underwhelming. From my canal-side vantage point, it felt overshadowed by its architectural neighbours, including the new Olympic Energy Centre: an imposing power station clad in perforated panels of rusted steel. Immediately south of the stadium, the path nudges through the locks of the nature reserve of Old Ford Island. Kestrels hover here, along with a species that has evolved a pace or two behind Homo sapiens: the contestants of Big Brother, which was filmed on adjacent land deep in the waterways of the old Bow locks. The house was dismantled when planning permission ran out and the land returned to nature, but something more substantial has since happened to the lower Lee, thanks in part to the Ramblers’ involvement in the Olympics’ legacy projects.
The area around the Olympic Park has benefited hugely from funding, which the Ramblers has had some influence on through its involvement with the Active Travel Consortium – an organisation of walking, cycling and health groups recognised by the Olympic Delivery Authority. Thirty new bridges have been put in place in and around the site, crossing roads, rail lines and rivers to link the Park together, while 8km/5 miles of waterways have been restored or opened. More than £10m has been invested in creating and upgrading a network of eight walking and cycling routes, which will provide the main transit routes for spectators moving between the Olympic Park and other Games venues around the Thames.
The Greenway, a former major sewage outfall pipe that had become overgrown and blighted by tumbleweed, is the showcase regenerated footpath running along the southern perimeter of the stadium. But there are also new routes that link the Olympic Park to Epping Forest via Wanstead, to Hackney via Finsbury Park, and to Islington via Victoria Park and the Regent’s and Hertford Union canals. All in all, the East End is already undeniably a more enjoyable place to stroll since the days when industrialisation grabbed the area by the throat. And with the planting of 350,000 wetland plants and 4,000 new trees, the Olympic Park will eventually become the largest urban park to be created in Europe in over 150 years.
Finally, I skipped up some steps – my equivalent of the Olympic podium – on to the Greenway to the finishing line of the Legacy Walk. As a reward to the footsore walker, the path gives an uninterrupted view of the Olympic Stadium. But how far does the Olympic legacy actually stretch, I wonder? Just 20 minutes’ stroll downriver, the metronomic drumming of factories and A-roads returned. Solitary chimneys punched up from the concrete earth of derelict factories, and I felt marooned by merchant’s yards and scrap-metal dealerships. Then, round a bend in the Lee, swam a great crested grebe to lift the soul. If it had been dangling a gold medal on its dagger-like beak, I couldn’t have been happier.
Photography: Steve Morgan
TIME/DISTANCE: Allow five to seven days to walk the 116km/72 miles of the Hadleigh to Stratford Legacy Walk, from Leigh-on-Sea to the Greenway by Pudding Mill Lane DLR. Seven days is best, which allows for roughly equal distances each day and overnight stops with good accommodation.
MAPS: OS Explorer 162, 174, 175 and 183; Landranger 166, 167, 168 and 177.
FURTHER INFO: Hadleigh to Stratford Legacy Walk (£3.34 including p&p) by Essex Area Ramblers is available from www.essexarearamblers.co.uk, or email email@example.com.