Vast and unkempt, Snaresbrook offers rugged rurality a stone’s throw from Central London.
Think of a Tube station with a tree-lined car park. Not that easy is it? That’s because allocated parking is usually the preserve of the countryside railway station or sober commuter towns; welcome to Snaresbrook. Named after a tributary to the nearby River Roding and nestled in the self-proclaimed ‘Leafy Suburb’ of Redbridge – so named as one quarter of the borough is covered by forest and green space – Snaresbrook feels every inch the village station, but is this bucolic image replicated throughout?
Adorned with saloons, sedans and what I can only describe as a foreman’s shed offering express ironing services, Snaresbrook station reeks of commuterdom. A petite village, saddled with sedate suburbia, Snaresbrook is not the kind of place where you expect to be greeted by an imposing Grade II listed Crown Court, but greeted we were. A short walk north of the station, the former orphanage and school has been a bastion of justice since the seventies, but our hopes of snooping round the grand building were quickly dashed. Not only was the Court off-limits to Joe Public unless they’re heading to the dock, but photography was also strictly prohibited for security reasons. It was less clear why each entrance had a cattle grid.
In order to catch a sneak peak, we set off round the nearby Eagle Pond, which guards the Court’s eastern edge. Views of the Court remained at a premium, but with the pond poised at the southern tip of Epping Forest – London’s largest continual open parkland, stretching 2,400 acres from Epping in the north to Forest Gate in the south – we had new direction.
Unlike the oft-manicured nature of London’s central parks, there is a rugged, unkempt freshness to Epping Forest. Footpaths weave through woodland and water, grassland and bogs; blotches of windswept plains reminiscent of a Links Golf Course.
We strolled idly over such a plain until we approached the Hollow Pond – a body of water littered with small islets and coves, where a number of couples were taking advantage of the fine spring sunshine by grating their hands on oars and dabbling in some amateur ornithology. We were tempted to perform our own re-enactment of Three Men in a Boat, but decided instead to indulge in a mini-skimming championship, which resulted in a fractious debate about whether distance or bounces determined the best skimmer.
Arguing, we carried on south towards the Wanstead Flats, past the appropriately austere Sir Alfred Hitchcock Hotel, before detouring down Leytonstone High Street. An avid collector of premier league stickers as a child, I only knew of Leytonstone as the birthplace of David Beckham, so I was keen to remedy that ignorance.
Leytonstone is supposedly on the gentrification to-do list and considering its leafy demeanour, its pub-lined, partially cobbled high street and quick links to Liverpool Street, you can see why. A pub garden seemed an attractive proposition at this juncture and we soon spotted the perfect venue: the Walnut Tree, a Wetherspoons. Yes, there may be just under 1,000 outlets in the UK – 150 of which are inside the M25 – but you just cannot argue with a pint of Shipyard for £2.55. Yep, £2.55.
I asked two of our fellow pubgoers for recommendations post-Spoons, but the muted grunt of ‘we live in Stratford’ worked as they hoped and I bothered them no more. Further down the high street, I was struck by a pub called the Birds. Surely two references to the “Master of Suspense” couldn’t be a coincidence? Was this Hitchcockville? Were his infamous horrors set in these parts? Set no, inspired perhaps: the ol’ boy was born in Leytonstone in 1899. Becks eat your heart out.
Next stop was the Wanstead Flats, which easily passed the Ronseal test, given the number of people taking advantage of the wide, exposed, uncluttered space. From feeding ducks to playing American Football, Wanstead’s finest were making the most of the unspoilt wilderness.
In fact, the only urban encroachment to the Flats came in the form of two dour high rises protruding from the earth, which I thought gave the area a distinct A Clockwork Orange feel. However, my delusion as a film buff proved to be just that, as I discovered (through the power of Google) that Thamesmead in Bexley was in fact Kubrick’s setting for Burgess’ dystopian delinquents.
On the south-eastern corner of the Flats, the Golden Fleece lay in wait for us and our rumbling bellies. A respectable selection of beers, we took our pews in the garden and ogled the menu. I noted two vegetarian options – both just labelled ‘vegetarian option’ – with two varying prices, £7.99 or the reassuringly expensive £8.99. I didn’t feel like taking the risk and plumped for a very tasty cod and chips (£8.99) and a pint of Hop House (£3.85).
We settled into the Fleece for the finale of the Premier League season with all three of us later demonstrating our football prowess by soundly beating some 10-year-olds in a game of ‘who can kick the ball the hardest’ in the pub’s garden. Although clearly impressed by my kicking ability, the bar lady proved as effusive as our friends in the Walnut Tree when it came to post-Fleece recommendations. We continued our traverse over the verdant bluffs.
Bar the daunting City of London Crematorium and Cemetery, the north-eastern corner of the Flats proved to be more of the same. More lakes. More unkempt grass. One colleague commented that the area has ‘done a great job at maintaining its fluvial system’ and I have to admit that I find it hard to disagree with him.
Yet, we soon spied a large conglomeration of people cavorting in the distance; a mini-festival (the £2 entry should highlight the size) was taking place. A live band promised “scintillating sun-drenched” guitar riffs and “lazy trombone”. Warm cans of lager frolicked with homemade cakes. We shamelessly freeloaded. Gazing at the 18th century temple from behind the railings, the festival had the air of an upmarket village fete. Snaresbrook once again revelling in its countryside veneer.
We left the Flats and were soon hit with that most country of smells: manure and straw. After a brief 100m sprint and a K Cider (£1.30) – not usually enjoyed in the same instant for readily apparent reasons – we found ourselves trundling down a quintessential suburban street. Although something was awry. The houses were all neatly lined, classic Essex facades, but the vehicles on each driveway were hardly fitting. First house: Maserati, Porsche and Range Rover. Second house: Bentley and two Range Rovers. A Honda down the road had a smashed windscreen – clearly not in keeping with the desired aesthetic. Hot Fuzz vandalism.
Finally, we reached Valentines Park; the 30-minute suburban stroll was certainly worth it. Yes, uninterrupted sunshine always helps, but Valentines was striking. Its centre piece was a 17th century Mansion, built for a widow of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Naturally, we had hoped of a quick sojourn inside, but once again our plans were dashed, this time by the time (6pm on a Sunday). We thought our chance of a refreshment at the adjacent Cottage Café would meet the same fate, but we hadn’t counted on acts of human kindness: a staff member returned with a round of Mr Whippys (£2.50); handing them through the closed gates.
We lay in the flower-strewn park – complete with boating lake, bandstand and period gardens – lazily content. The thought of traipsing back to ‘real’ London the only malaise on our mind. But, in the end, the return was remarkably painless. A short walk down Ilford High Street and we were able to experience the latest addition to the Tube Map – the TfL Rail – which travels to Liverpool Street from Ilford in a little over 10 minutes. Snaresbrook, you can come again.
Time: 6 hours (with extended pub lunch)