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My Pilgrimage Along The Black Path

April 4, 2024
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 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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9 Responses leave one →
  1. Steve permalink
    April 4, 2024

    Sadly Manze’s is no more. At least not in Walthamstow market. For over a year now it has been a Japanese restaurant. Compared to the ‘90s the market is a shadow of its former self. Roughly half the stalls have gone completely. Gone are the vegetable stalls but there is still a variety of clothing stalls for those on a tight budget.

  2. April 4, 2024

    This may well be the path that my great grandfather used to walk with his barrow to Billingsgate and the City, accompanied by my father as a small boy. I’ve added it to my list of ancestral walks. I have also been researching my maternal great grandfather who came from rural Essex but settled first in Hackney and then Lea Bridge. After he died, his wife continued to live near the river and my grandmother took up the fashionable sport of rowing.
    Thank you dear GA for another very interesting post.

  3. Greg T permalink
    April 4, 2024

    The second picture – the clock-tower decorated with coats-of-arms is very close to me.
    I can remember when it wasn’t there – just an empty space. Because, in 1944 a V-1 pulse-jet missile hit a fish-shop queue on a Friday.
    There’s a small plaque facing on to Hoe St

  4. Herbert Lakey permalink
    April 4, 2024

    Interesting piece,a small point,we know the marshes
    as Walthamstow.

  5. Milo permalink
    April 4, 2024

    I suspect a person could combine that walk with a rather interesting pub crawl. In fact I feel compelled to do it and shall in the not too distant future.

  6. Adele permalink
    April 4, 2024

    Fascinating read. Would never have guessed Powerscroft Road, where I had relatives,would have been part of this ancient path!

  7. Saba permalink
    April 4, 2024

    Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
    The droughte of March hath perced to the roote …

    (had to change that twice before the spelling algorithms gave up)

    What a wonderful outing and gift to your readers. We memorized a short passage in grade school.

    I love the wooded banks along the canals and rivers around London. These could never exist in New York.


  8. Christine permalink
    April 4, 2024

    Beautiful greenery and local life! I agree with Milo a good pub crawl could be had x

  9. Harry permalink
    April 8, 2024

    A link I found on the Strange Company blog led me to a wonderful path I never would have heard of otherwise. I especially love the photographs. They’re all so thoughtfully composed. My favorites are Station Rd., Argall Avenue, and the staircase leading from the railway bridge. Thanks for sharing your work!

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