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A Walk Along The Black Path

April 7, 2022
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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10 Responses leave one →
  1. John Price permalink
    April 7, 2022

    Droving routes are so interesting. History for the reading of. Drovers came from the north to what is now Pond Square, Highgate, let their flocks drink and then plumped them up a bit on the east heath before heading down Holloway and Liverpool Rds, first to Smithfield, later to Caledonian Market.

  2. Penny Gardner permalink
    April 7, 2022

    Ah , memories of Norf London, Queen Eleanor School ,where likely lads had a ready opening for the jobs on Smifffield Market . The Redoudtable Smiff Clan had their horses on Leyton Marshes and my great grandad (Fishy Dick) was a Billingsgate Porter. Everyone a towering viking, spawn of the Lea.

  3. Greg T permalink
    April 7, 2022

    Did you note the memorial plaque on the clock-tower to the horrendous death toll from a V-1 that landed there? ( 390 metres from my front door ) ….
    L. Manze’s is threatened with permanent closure – did you know?

  4. John Finn permalink
    April 7, 2022

    Great post and photography (as usual) especially as I live near the path in Hackney.

  5. Jill permalink
    April 7, 2022

    My forebears – g g g grandfathers weee described as ‘cattle herders’ or ‘cattle drovers’ on followed the direction of the A1.. down to Clerkenwell and Smithfield market.
    A great morning read as always. Thankyou, Gentle Author.

  6. Leana Pooley permalink
    April 7, 2022

    Years ago when I lived on a hillside in Herefordshire and after I’d read Alfred Watkins’ Old Straight Track I became aware of the white and black tracks crossing the countryside. According to Watkins they were routes along which were carried salt and coal.

  7. Bernie permalink
    April 7, 2022

    My grammar-school’s playing fields were in Walthamstow and we lived for some time in Shoreditch, but I sadly confess that no word of the Black Path or its history reached me in all those years. Kudos to the GA for teaching so much!

  8. Marnie permalink
    April 7, 2022

    Dear GA,

    Nostalgia and all that, but I often cringe when viewing the remote, overgrown, disheveled paths you–alone and unarmed, I imagine–are merrily reminiscing about.

    I would have a few close friends around me–a complete SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) Team with a BearCat armored vehicle.

    Perhaps its just that I am a vulnerable woman.
    Such are the times we live in.

    Thanks for enabling us armchair travellers to accompany you on your fascinating jaunts.

    Love the sheep and the grazing pony!

  9. paul loften permalink
    April 7, 2022

    I know this route so well. In the early 60s I lived on an old council estate bordering Millfields and close to the Lea and with my mates we would spend hours on the marshes. We used to watch the barges carrying coal and timber from the James Latham wood yard and delivering the coal to the power station. The barges would pass us and the old bargee with his cloth cap would give us boys a cheery wave as it slowly made its way down the Lea . We then moved in 1961 to the brand new Nye Bevan Estate which was even closer to the marshes and so much of my time was spent playing football in the evening after school in Millfields with boys from the estate. I knew so many of them from the estate . Directly opposite us was the Clapton Dog Track it was once the home ground of Clapton Orient FC but it has all disappeared along with power station. I recall seeing the huge concrete chimney on the marshes demolished . We all gathered there to watch from a distance.
    The River Lea also has some sad memories for me . There was a boy at school who fell off a rope hanging from a tree by its banks into the river and drowned . We would all use it to swing accross the river . I recall the day the council workmen came to remove it after a campaign by the boys father . He stood there crying by the banks of the river .

  10. Marcia Howard permalink
    April 10, 2022

    An interesting walk, which left me with the thought of ‘eating quince with a runcible spoon’

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