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Along The Black Path

April 1, 2019
by the gentle author

‘Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote… Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages’

Taking to heart the observation by the celebrated poet & resident of Aldgate, Geoffrey Chaucer, that April is the time for pilgrimages, I set out for day’s walk in the sunshine along the ancient Black Path from Walthamstow to Shoreditch. The route of this primeval footpath is still visible upon the map of the East End today, as if someone had taken a crayon and scrawled a 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.

The Black Path links with Old St in one direction and extends beyond Walthamstow in the other, tracing a trajectory between Shoreditch Church and the crossing of the River Lea at Clapton. 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. 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 on that day 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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In Search of the Walbrook

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7 Responses leave one →
  1. Greg Tingey permalink
    April 1, 2019

    Time from here to the “Bell” … 8 minutes
    Time from here to the “Old Rose & Crown” … 7 minutes
    Time from here to the clock-tower wit heraldry … 5 minutes
    Time past there to L Manze’s … approx another 8 minutes ….

  2. April 1, 2019

    Thank you for this brilliant and most descriptive tour of an area that I know so well from my childhood. From the age of 8 till 12 I lived at Cecil House which was part of an old housing estate on Millfields which no longer stands . It stood a stones throw from the River Lea . Of course at that age I was not aware of Chaucer or the Black Path but I can follow precisely every place that you mention with a clear picture of how it was then . Sadly at Millfields I am . haunted by a memory of an event with a much loved dog that once followed my friend Peter and I,in a lift to the top floor of the newest block,which stood nearest to the river.We went up there as it gave us both a panoramic view of the Lea , Marshes and the James Latham woodyard. I tried to stop Patch getting in the lift with us but he rushed in as the door closed. When the lift door opened he instantly jumped over the top floor balcony. it happened so quick we couldn’t stop him.I remember trying to grab him as he rushed out. It still brings tears to my eyes and a terrible sadness when I think of it.
    Every spare moment was spent on the marshes birdwatching , playing football, and swinging on ropes suspended from trees across the river. Later on at school I read Chaucer for O level English Lit but had no idea that he was so close to our lives until this morning ,when I read your wonderfully descriptive account of the walk along the Black Path . I wish our teacher at school could have introduced this aspect to our lessons. I am sure it would have helped in deciphering his Old English verse.

  3. April 1, 2019

    I’m exhausted! Great journey.

  4. Milo Bell permalink
    April 1, 2019

    I’ll be staying with a mate of mine who lives in Walthamstow later in the year. That walk will make a great excuse to scuff along, swapping memories and popping in the odd pub…
    How long did it take you?

  5. Pauline Taylori have a fantastic permalink
    April 1, 2019

    Thank you for sharing this GA it is all such ‘home ground’ for my grandparents and great grandparents, they would all have known it so well. My aunt, born in a house in Powerscroft Road, used to tell me so many stories of visiting her grandparents in Spring Lane, beside the River Lee. They were married from addresses in Old Street before moving to Hackney where my great grandfather bought and farmed land which later became part of Springfield Park, how it all must have changed. My grandfather, the youngest of four children, was a great sportsman, rowing, swimming and skating as well as boxing and I have a fantastic photo of him and all the members of the Tiger Rowing and Athletics Club which was one of the many on the river Lee at the time, in the late 1890s, I also have the Gladstone Medal which he won in the single sculls in 1898. Oil paintings in the family, which used to hang in my grandparents home, show the view across the river Lee from Spring Lane towards Walthamstow, then a very rural view indeed. I have walked along Spring Lane, as it is now, once, but all the houses have long since been demolished as they became subject to flooding, but Coppermill Bridge, over the river, is still there I believe and this is shown in the paintings.

    I am so grateful to you for venturing away from Spitalfields into Hackney and I envy you your walk but, looking at the photos, I can be with you in spirit and it brings me so much pleasure so thank you again.

  6. Adele permalink
    April 1, 2019

    Fascinating. Had no idea this path existed.

  7. John Churchill permalink
    April 2, 2019

    I was first introduced to the Black Path some years ago by the ever lovely and much missed Katy Andrews. A force of nature on the marshes. She organised the summer Lammas picnic and beating the bounds on Rogation Sunday. A tireless champion of the marshes she did much to protect this magical area against ‘development’ and inspired others with her enthusiasm. Her ashes are close to the black path and that ancient boundary line of black poplars.

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