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A Pilgrimage Along The Black Path

April 1, 2023
by the gentle author

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‘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 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.

I took the train from Liverpool St Station up to Walthamstow to commence my walk. 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, 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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8 Responses leave one →
  1. April 1, 2023

    Good to see that the weather was kind. My Mum was born in Leyton but then the family moved to Chingford. My Dad’s family moved from Bethnal Green to Walthamstow. My Mum described long country walks with her beloved Airedale terrier, Jack and my Dad learned to swim in the River Lea. I struggle increasingly with both of these visions whenever I visit but nearly one hundred years have passed since they had been little children. It is good to see that some patches of the natural landscape remain so that spring can make its presence felt to cheer everyone after a dismal winter.

  2. Kate Amis permalink
    April 1, 2023

    Reading this has lowered my blood pressure ! Such a soothing read..this walk is on my to do list now .Thanks GA for this lovely account of your walk .

  3. Greg T permalink
    April 1, 2023

    Until about a year ago, “the Bell” was a decent pub, with decent beer, but unreasonable levels of “muzak” …
    It’s now been internally converted into a “sports bar” (SHUDDER) with multiple screens, showing many muscle-bound morns & even higher noise levels.
    As you may gather, I’m not going in there, again!
    The clock tower … { Argent, in a pale Sable, a Pike’s head, erased, Or } – & the plaque commemorating the V-1 that came down there in 1944 ….
    A trundle down High St – with far fewer fruit-&-veg stalls than used to be there, sellling by volume, not weight, too.
    Manz’s has not only changed hands, but I didn’t realise it had re-opened … good.
    The mural at the top of Copper Mill Lane …
    Argall …
    Over the railway, but NOT with a bicycle, or only a very lightweight one …
    NO – that is not a “tributary of the Lea, it’s the Flood Overflow Channel { Not that it stops Little Egrets fishing in it in summer }
    And, the Lea, proper, close to “Colditz” ( P.o.W. ) – now the Princess of Wales, of course
    To Hackney – & – Lunnon-Fields & the Broadway

  4. Bernie permalink
    April 1, 2023

    How I would like to emulate you, GA! But the days when that was possible are long gone. Sadly, I was a schoolboy who might have done so because every Wednesday we had to follow a similar path from Cambridge Heath, where Parmiter’s School was situated to Highams Park where our sports field was placed. Torture for unsporting me! And no hint about the existence of an ancient way provided by the history master or any other teacher, alas!

  5. Duncan McAra permalink
    April 1, 2023

    re paragraph 2, the Priory of St John in Clerkenwell belonged to the Knights Hospitaller.

  6. John Finn permalink
    April 1, 2023

    Hello GA, always enjoy the daily postings. The first thing I read from my email (most of the rest gets deleted!).

    One comment: the Priory of St John at Clerkenwell was the HQ of the Knights Hospitallers, not the Templars whose HQ was the Temple in the City by the Thames. When the Templars were suppressed their Hackney property was handed over the Hospitallers.

  7. Joanna Sewell permalink
    April 1, 2023

    Thankyou so much for historically illuminating this area I knew and loved as a child.

  8. Marcia Howard permalink
    April 6, 2023

    Looks to have been a lovely walk, but apart from one stray piece, all the roads and paths were clean looking and rubbish free. What joy!

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