I stopped off at the Golden Fleece for tea on the way home, slightly dizzy from lack of food and thinking to make the most of the joint remainders of sun in sky and book in bag. Aldersbrook – my estate, a conversation area of Epping Forest named after the Alders Brook, a tributary of the nearby River Roding – is a bit of a London oddity, in that it has absolutely no pubs. A Wikipedia entry (now deleted) blames this upon “the generally pro-temperance Edwardian era in which the estate was laid out”; either way, if I fancy a pint I have to walk 25 minutes, either to The George (in Wanstead), The Wanstead Tap (not in Wanstead), or The Golden Fleece (Manor Park).
The table to the left of me was home to a few of the most obnoxious men I’d seen in AT LEAST the past week, who were having some sort of “comedy competition” which seemed to rest upon which of them could make the loudest, most unintelligible grunting noises, occasionally interspersed with references to how much they all admired Keith Lemon. In short, a shower of absolute tosspotting cunts. The table to the right, on the other hand, seated a handsy couple who were deep in muttered discussion over how to covertly record a third party whilst also ensuring it would stand up in court. I necked a dispiriting butterfly chicken and chips and got the hell out of dodge.
My route home led over the Flats, which are – as their name suggests – very flat, an attribute which tonight seemed somehow to make the sky seem much bigger than usual. A couple of glasses of wine in, I gawped up at it, feeling slightly panicky and overwhelmed at the sheer size of it. The sun was low on the horizon, and the clouds were lower still; heavy, pendulous clouds in charcoal grey, heralding the thunderstorm we’d been promised for the past four days. “When I get home,” I announced to nobody in particular – because nobody was there – “I shall listen to The Big Sky by Kate Bush.” The burnished gold of the near-setting sun along with the oppressive darkness of the clouds made the world around me look like an under-exposed sepia photograph. Kids were on the playing fields, making the most of the last hours of daylight, the last days of summer; the texture of the light drenching them in nostalgia before the moment had even passed.
Wanstead Flats was historically part of the Forest of Essex; however, due to its reputation as a bit of a wasteland, it was less favoured by the nobility, something which commoners took advantage of by using it as a space for grazing. In the 1800s, during disputes between landowners and commoners over the ongoing enclosure of huge swathes of the forest, the Earl of Cowley attempted to enclose a large section of the Flats. This led to considerable protest from commoners, who were encouraged to “attend by thousands…to protest against the enclosures”.
Ongoing tussles over enclosure led eventually to the Epping Forest Act of 1878, which ensured the protection of Epping Forest and its continued use by the public by placing it under the management of the City of London. More on this here. On the Flats, local people being granted the right of common pasture, enshrining their grazing rights in law. It’s possible actually that I still have this right; however due to my current lack of cattle it’s not something I’ve looked into in any detail.
By Alexandra Lake – the largest of the lakes on the flats, and a particular haven for birdlife – I discovered an odd thing. It was roosting time, but instead of taking their usual nesting spot on the banks of the pond, a large group of geese (Canadian) had arranged themselves in a circle on the football field, like a fairy ring of mushrooms. I slowed and quietened my footsteps, trying to take advantage of the fact that most of their heads were stowed under-wing to get close enough to work out what was happening. No luck – they rose en masse and shifted off as soon as I drew closer than three metres. I carried on, leaving them to whatever sacred ritual they were performing.
Birds, of course, have a known history of performing black magic.
On the banks of the lake I met a good clump of the splendidly named black horehound (ballota nigra); a member of the mint family which is a deep purple-black in colour and smells – to me at least – like Walkers’ smoky bacon crisps. It doesn’t taste like it (believe me, I’ve tried); like many of the less palatable mints, it tastes a little of rusted metal, a little of rotted flesh. Not a great flavour for toothpaste.
(During my childhood, there’d been a plant in the front garden which we’d referred to as “smoky bacon plant”; I’m not sure it’s the same thing, though I suspect that that was probably also a mint. The lamiaceae family is a notorious cross-breeder, so when in doubt I tend to just gesticulate wildly & say, “Oh, yes, certainly a mint – could be a hybrid.” I literally know nothing about anything.)
I glanced back toward the fairy ring of geese before leaving. Another woman had stopped on the outside of the circle and was stood stock still, staring at the circle of geese in bewilderment. I paused, meeting her eyes in a brief flash of solidarity – solidarity for being so small, for being apart from nature, for not being able to go back to what we once were, for not understanding what was happening here. A fat raindrop landed on my shoulder; the beginnings of the storm.