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A Walk Along The Black Path

April 22, 2018
by the gentle author

Sculpture of porters resting at London Fields

Taking to heart the observation by the celebrated poet & resident of Aldgate, Geoffrey Chaucer, that April is the time to go on pilgrimages, I set out last week for day’s walk in the sunshine along the ancient Black Path from Walthamstow to Shoreditch. The route of this primeval footpath is still clearly visible upon the map of the East End today, as if someone had taken a crayon and scrawled a curved diagonal line across the grid of the modern street plan. There is no formal map of the Black Path yet any keen walker with a sense of direction may follow it as I did.

Tracing a trajectory running northeast and southwest between Shoreditch Church and the crossing of the River Lea at Clapton, the Black Path links with Old St in one direction and extends beyond Walthamstow in the other. Sometimes called the Porter’s Way, this was the route cattle were driven to Smithfield and the path used by smallholders taking produce to Spitalfields Market. Sometimes also called the Templars’ Way, it links the thirteenth century St Augustine’s Tower on land once owned by Knights Templar in Hackney with the Priory of St John in Clerkenwell where they had their headquarters. No-one knows how old the Black Path is or why it has this name, but it once traversed open country before the roads existed. These days the path is black because it has a covering of asphalt.

On the warmest day of spring I took the train from Liverpool St Station up to Walthamstow to commence my walk, seeking respite in the sunshine after the harsh winter that outstayed its allotted season. In observance of custom, I commenced my pilgrimage at an inn, setting out from The Bell and following the winding road through Walthamstow to the market. A tavern by this name has stood at Bell Corner for centuries and the street that leads southwest from it, once known as Green Leaf Lane, reveals its ancient origin in its curves that trace the contours of the land.

Struggling to resist the delights of pie & mash and magnificent 99p shops, I felt like Bunyan’s pilgrim avoiding the temptations of Vanity Fair as I wandered through Walthamstow Market which extends for a mile down the High St to St James, gradually sloping away down towards the marshes. Here I turned left onto St James St itself before following Station Rd and then weaving southwest through late nineteenth century terraces, sprawling over the incline, to emerge at the level of the Walthamstow Marshes.

Then I walked along Markhouse Avenue which leads into Argall Industrial Estate, traversed by a narrow footpath enclosed with high steel fences on each side. Here you may find Allied Bakeries, Bates Laundry and evangelical churches including Deliverance Outreach Mission, Praise Harvest Community Church, Celestial Church of Christ, Mountain of Fire & Miracle Ministries and Christ United Ministries, revealing that religion may be counted as an industry in this location.

Crossing an old railway bridge and a broad tributary of the River Lea brought me onto the Leyton Marshes where I was surrounded by leaves unfurling, buds popping and blossom exploding – natural wonders that characterise the rush of spring at this sublime moment of the year. Horses graze on the marshes and the dense blackthorn hedge which lines the footpath provided a sufficiently bucolic background to evoke a sense that I was walking an ancient footpath through a rural landscape. Yet already the municipal parks department were out, unable to resist taking advantage of the sunlight to give the verges a fierce trim with their mechanical mower even before the the plants have properly sprouted.

It was a surprise to find myself amidst the busy traffic again as I crossed the Lea Bridge and found myself back in the East End, of which the River Lea is its eastern boundary. The position of this crossing – once a ford, then a ferry and finally a bridge – defines the route of the Black Path, tracing a line due southwest from here.

I followed the diagonal path bisecting the well-kept lawn of Millfields and walked up Powerscroft Rd to arrive in the heart of Hackney at St Augustine’s Tower, built in 1292 and a major landmark upon my route. Yet I did not want to absorb the chaos of this crossroads where so many routes meet at the top of Mare St, instead I walked quickly past the Town Hall and picked up the quiet footpath next to the museum known as Hackney Grove. This byway has always fascinated me, leading under the railway line to emerge onto London Fields.

The drovers once could graze their cattle, sheep and geese overnight on this common land before setting off at dawn for Smithfield Market, a practice recalled today in the names of Sheep Lane and the Cat & Mutton pub. The curve of Broadway Market leading through Goldsmith’s Row down to Columbia Rd reveals its origin as a cattle track. From the west end of Columbia Rd, it was a short walk along Virginia Rd on the northern side of the Boundary Estate to arrive at my destination, Shoreditch Church.

If I chose to follow ancient pathways further, I could have walked west along Old St towards Bath, north up the Kingsland Rd to York, east along the Roman Rd towards Colchester or south down Bishopsgate to the City of London. But flushed and footweary after my six mile hike in the heat of the sun, I was grateful to return home to Spitalfields and put my feet up in the shade of the house. For millennia, when it was the sole route, countless numbers travelled along the old Black Path from Walthamstow to Shoreditch, but last week there was just me on my solitary pilgrimage.

At Bell Corner, Walthamstow

‘Fellowship is Life’

Two quinces for £1.50 in Walthamstow Market

Walthamstow Market is a mile long

‘struggling to resist the delights of pie & mash’

At St James St

Station Rd

‘leaves unfurling, buds popping and blossom exploding which characterise the rush of spring’

Enclosed path through Argall Industrial Estate skirting Allied Bakeries

Argall Avenue

‘These days the path is black because it has a covering of asphalt’

Railway bridge leading to the Leyton marshes

A tributary of the River Lea

Horses graze on the Leyton marshes

“dense blackthorn which line the footpath provided a sufficiently bucolic background to evoke a sense that I was walking an ancient footpath”

‘the municipal parks department were out, unable to resist taking advantage of the sunlight to give the verges a fierce trim with their mechanical mower even before the the plants have properly sprouted’

The River Lea is the eastern boundary of the East End

Across Millfields Park towards Powerscroft Rd

Thirteenth century St Augustine’s Tower in Hackney

Worn steps in Hackney Grove

In London Fields

At Cat & Mutton Bridge, Broadway Market

Columbia Rd

St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch

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10 Responses leave one →
  1. Paul Loften permalink
    April 22, 2018

    The best walk ever! Spent my childhood playing footy on the marshes and Millfields every night after school. We lived on the estate that was opposite the Clapton Dog Racing Stadium, now long gone but then an attraction to thousands of hopeful punters ona Thursday night and before that what was once the home ground to Clapton Orient , now Leyton Orient. A few hundred yards walk and there was the marshes. Another world of open space and the River Lea . there was always an old rope hanging from the dead tree by the river which we used to swing across the murky Lea . It was not a pleasant prospect to have fallen in that water.

  2. April 22, 2018

    Well done on your pilgrimage! Valerie

  3. Greta Kelly permalink
    April 22, 2018

    Will follow in your footsteps next weekend.
    Thanks for the feature on Verdi, we had a scrumptious meal there last night. Very exciting …….the fire alarm went off, and no one moved! Couldn’t leave our culinary delights behind.

  4. Coralie Mattys permalink
    April 22, 2018

    Ooh the memories! I know every step of this journey and have walked them (not all at once, but sections at a time). The only things missing for me are the cattle that used to be (not sure if they still are) put out to graze on Walthamstow Marshes. Also, the horses – they weren’t around in my time. Lovely memories thank you.

    The Bell – on my walk or cycle ride to work at Sir George Monoux College. The market – many a time
    Markfield Road and the Lighthouse garage
    Coppermill Lane leading down to Springfield Marina where I lived for 23 years
    Across Walthamstow Marshes and cycling along the Old River Lea
    Lea Bridge Road, Chatsworth Road, Cooper and Wolf cafe, Powerscroft Road and Mare Street.
    Hackney Grove where I worked for six and a half years at Off Centre
    Towards London Fields – Martello Terrace where Matt’s Gallery used to be years and years ago and where I saw Richard Wilson’s sump oil installation
    Broadway Market and the path along the Hertford Cut to the River Lea one way and Regent’s Canal the other
    Hackney City Farm in Goldsmith’s Row and then Hackney Road
    And then on to Columbia Road Market bursting with flowers and people.

    Great memories.

  5. stuart goodman permalink
    April 22, 2018

    memories!!! fascinating! miss all this now i live in norfolk. thank you!!!

  6. pauline taylor permalink
    April 22, 2018

    Thank you, thank you GA, oh how I wish that I could follow your footsteps as my lovely grandfather and his family would have known every step of this path I am sure as they grew up in Spring Lane Clapton right beside the River Lea and we have paintings of the views across the marshes to Walthamstow when it was all open countryside. My great grandfather, a farmer, had horses on the fields near Spring Lane and my aunt used to tell me about travelling beside him on a cart when he went to the market (nor sure where that would have been) ‘ I used to beg to be allowed to go’ she said ‘ so mother used to wrap me up in layers of warm clothes and off we went.’ My grandfather was great oarsman and I still have medals and trophies that he won for sculling on the River Lea and my father had the runners that he used for skating when the river was frozen but these have, sadly, now been lost. I think the river must have been much cleaner in those days as grandfather was a great swimmer as well.

    I have a copy of a photograph of all the members of the Tiger Rowing and Athletic Club taken outside C MEGGS and SON on the River Lea circa 1890. This shows over 60 men and boys together with their oars and four very early bicycles, my grandfather is sitting cross legged in the front row wearing a white sweater and a cap at a very jaunty angle. I would love to know more about this rowing club and if anyone reading this can help I would be so grateful. I have donated a copy of the photograph to what was Hackney Archives but I can’t trace what has now become of it. It is a wonderful photograph and I would love to share it with more people so any help would be much appreciated.

  7. April 22, 2018

    I went to Walthamstow a couple of months ago ( and was amazed by the market (two enormous pomegranates for £1!), but it hadn’t occurred to me that you could walk back into the East End … thanks for this account!

  8. April 22, 2018

    This brings back memories… When I was staying in Walthamstow a couple of years ago, I often took a bike ride through Walthamstow Marshes to London Fields. Just lovely.

  9. Peter Chapman permalink
    April 23, 2018

    Pauline, I am also a Rower of over 50 years and still compete as a veteran at the Lea Rowing Club of which I am a founder member, a union of the last five remaining clubs at Springhill in 1980. I now live in Walthamstow and know the Black Path route very well. If you want to know about the history of Rowing over 200 years on the Lea there is a book by Richard Anderson and another by Clyde Radley which covers 130 years of boat building on the River Lea. Both books have many old photographs. What was your fathers name?

  10. pauline taylor permalink
    April 23, 2018

    Peter, thank you, the man I am talking about was actually my grandfather and he was Alfred Russell, his father, Samuel Denton Russell, had a farm on Spring Lane, at the bottom of Spring Hill, long since gone of course but I did manage to walk along where it would have been some years ago now. I am delighted to hear that you too love rowing, I sometimes wear my grandfather’s Gladstone medal as it is so pretty.

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