Of all the places in the world I wouldn’t have expected to find a Metaphysical Supply Shop, Eltham is high on the list. However, there, not far from the station on Well Hall Road, stands Wicca Moon. If you’re ever in the area and in need of Magick goods, tarot cards, crystals, or Blessed Be car stickers, the shop can probably see you right.
This witchy slap-in the face to my middle-class Guardian reading, geographically-based stereotypical assumptions was no doubt well deserved. As with people, I’ve long tried not to pre-judge a place. I’d rather look for hidden depths, unexpected corners of interest, before deciding I don’t like it. But this is Eltham. The name makes me think of Stephen Lawrence. When I first went there, to get some work done to the car, I half-expected to see goblin-faced, sunglasses wearing racists leering out of every shady corner.
Instead, on the high street I clocked a surprisingly grand looking library, passed through an intriguing little recreation ground called Fairy Hill, stumbled across the Tarn – a bird sanctuary with an old ice well tucked in a corner and walked across a series of hilly fields, many populated with horses, via an ancient leafy lane called King John’s Walk.
Now, after a few car related visits, and time-killing rambles around the area, I’ve expanded my mental map of London SE9. A useful reminder of the strange alchemy that makes a place, a meeting of the people who are in it and the physical space itself. A deceptively simple equation: Physical Geography + Memory + Mood + Imagination + the Senses = Place.
The last time I had to be in Eltham, faced with an estimated 5 hours of waiting around, I decided to go somewhere else. I had no plan, but I did have a rare free day, unencumbered by work or children wanting bread, entertainment or less detestable trousers. I made for the train station, with a vague notion of going to the nearest, most quickly accessible destination that was outside London.
Fate and a chunky yellowy-grey South Eastern trains monitor threw me Dartford. Unlike Eltham I had no real preconceptions about the town at all. I knew it was in Kent. I knew there was a crossing, but that was it. It didn’t matter, within minutes I was on a near empty train carriage, going somewhere, and that’s almost always exciting. A rare, unrecorded version of Bob Marley’s Acoustic Medley faded up in my head-stereo: This train is bound to Dartford, this train.
As the train slipped out of the chewed edges of south east London and into Kent, there seemed no obvious division between city and country. Rather than green belt, an absent-minded stretching out, as houses and streets began to spread further apart; Ian Nairn’s subtopia I suppose.
Here and there, random pockets of brown-field sites between the tracks threw up tangled island-kingdoms of buddleia and laurel, bramble and nettle. Knitting the vegetation together, along with wind-blown wrappers and other rubbish, were winding trails of hedge bindweed; the gleaming white trumpet shaped flowers almost pretty. Blackbirds busied in and out of the undergrowth. Surrounding and framing these weedy polders, warehouses and works, carparks and industrial facilities blobbed the industrial fields, like thick splats of paint.
We arrived. I got out and headed for the centre. First seen from the concrete overhead walkway, leading from the civic centre to the Orchard Theatre and the Orchards Shopping centre, the town looked as though it had swelled uncomfortably beyond its bounds, bigger than was ever intended. I wondered at the names, had there once been fertile Kentish orchards on this spot, fat with apples? If so these are long gone and thanks to today’s post-referendum hostile environment there’d be few people left willing to travel here to pick them now.
On the high street milling between familiar chains, lots of different faces filled the pedestrianised strip; thin, fat, distant, smiley, cheery, sad, deadpan. Something about the scene stirred long dormant, sullen memories of aimless wanderings in Bristol’s concrete Broadmead back in the 1980s. A place I always resented as a child because I knew that once, before the department stores and carparks, a castle had stood nearby.
I found a paperback bookstall in the corner of a second shopping centre, near Sainsburys. I tried to remember that for each of those faces this town would mean something different; home, mates, playing in a band, learning, big nights out, sparrows in the garden, snogging, adventure, escape.
At Bell Corner, a giant mural by Gary Drostle, depicted scenes from Dartford’s industrial past. A big, double-gabled, boarded up inn, near a cash-converters hinted at different stories to come. The sun shone fiercely. I bought a hat in Kenton’s Army Surplus and went looking for a park.
Cutting through the carefully tended flowerbeds of Dartford’s Central Park Gardens, I carried on past playgrounds and sports areas until stopping on a bench, which faced a slow-moving stretch of river, the Darent. I saw a sign for the Darent Valley Walk. Things were looking up. I began to follow the footpath, skirting the park until reaching a tunnel. On the river in front by a sharp, reedy meander, were two watchers on the Darent. One, a black-painted CCTV camera on a pole, beady eyes on the path, the other a heron, facing away from the mouth of the tunnel towards the water.
In the tunnel, some sort of classical waltz was piped out into the air. Presumably this is intended to stop teenagers or other potential ne’r do wells from hanging out here and getting up to no good. Maybe the local councillors have never seen Kubrick’s A Chocolate Orange.
Past the tunnel, the path edges along Brooklands Lake until moving through a small wood and then between fields and a large industrial estate. I started to wonder how far I should go, without a map or much water, but a trail leading out of town and into the fields is always hard to resist. An impulse that must have been with us for centuries and certainly one Richard Jeffries felt, as he sagely remarks in Nature Near London: “Never omit to explore a footpath, for never was there a footpath yet which did not pass something of interest.”
I carried on through a field of long grass and wildflowers, then hit an A road, which the path followed for a while, before swinging back into fields after passing under the A2. Back amongst hedgerows and trees I looked up and saw some sort of raptor circling high overhead. Also, in the distance as if floating above the scene, lorries appeared to speed along a suspended carriageway. As I grew nearer a motorway sign poking up between the tree line loomed ever larger. Here was the M25. The path and the Darent passed under it. Underneath was a jarring scene, as the river trickled on between green, flowered banks, but rising up on either side vast concrete walls rose up to meet the floor of the motorway running above.
A pile of rusting spray cans lay next to the path by a concrete support column. On either side of the river, the grey concrete canvas beneath the motorway had been painted bright with clouds of colour, tags and bored, uninventive but angry swearing. It occurred to me that I might write about this walk. A thought swiftly pursued by a vision of a leering, impish Iain Sinclair, perched, like a Spriggan, on a nearby branch shouting ‘I’ve said it all already.’
What is there to say about a place you’ve never been and do not know? A somewhere stumbled into by half accident? Did aurochs once chew their way through here, aeons before the plastic took hold? Had pilgrims passed this way? I surveyed the scene, a gentle plash of water, a constant rumble of traffic overhead. Some twisted apple trees, hawthorns, ash, ragwort and dozens more plants and shrubs, I couldn’t name. On some iron bars on a platform over the water, yellow, flower-like blooms of rust dotted the surface. Well done. Tick that off in your Eye Spy Book of bedraggled riverside walks.
Soon after this stretch, the path ran into another road to be crossed, and an unclear onward course. I found a discrete sign and squeezed into a narrow, single-file stretch between private fishing lakes. Ivy clung to high metal fences, where on the lake side anglers chatted over beer cans and listened to the radio. In-between them on the unkempt track I squelched and kicked through nettles and grass.
There were clouds of gnats or midges everywhere. I realised that, aside from a few birds, mostly woodpigeon and blackbirds – along with the heron and the distant raptor – I’d seen hardly any animals or insects. A butterfly or two, but little else. As if to taunt me for thinking this, a disturbed rat hurried off, its cordlike tail flicking low behind it. Finally reaching the end of this claustrophobic corridor, the path emerged out of the lakeside and into a field – a deer park no less, according to a National Trust notice. I couldn’t see any deer but did see an old piece of farm equipment slowly collapsing back into the ground.
At Sutton-at-Hone I found a shop, then headed back for Dartford. This time choosing a broader path that ran the other side of the Darenth fishing lakes. Fields of oilseed rape stretched away, buttering the slope towards a road I later learned is called Roman Villa Road. Step by step, more grudgingly than when heading out, I made my way back to Dartford. Through the tunnels into Central Park, the heron – two hours later – stood in the same spot, only the angle of its head had changed. The CCTV camera-Dalek eye thing also remained at its post.
Back in town I noticed a series of ‘Love Dartford’ posters. Positioned next to bus stops, or shops, these featured black-and-white images of famous Dartfordians like Malcolm Allison, Mick Jagger Keith Richards and Diana Quick – Quick to leave I bet – all surrounded by contrasting bright coloured swirling patterns and letters. All had found fame and fortune elsewhere.
Later I looked up some others: Pete Tong and Len Goodman. Same story. And now I’ve randomly blown in and out, managing to arrive and leave twice in one day. Well, thanks for the walk Dartford, we’ve hardly met, I’d best get going.