To the rat-a-tat-tat of a drum, they march on London. Climate protesters? Milk-price complainers taking inspiration from their cousins across the Channel? Some historical re-enactment rump? It must be charity. Look at the cameras. There aren’t enough of them to bring out Boris Johnson, who never failed, in all the years of his mayoralty, to insert himself on the television ‘news where you are’ for London: in hardhat, bicycle helmet, scrumcap squashed down on the finger-flicked golden mopflop of thuggish charm. A vortex of self-inflating cartoon energy always seen to be doing something dramatic where no intervention is required, or burying inconvenient papers, facts and people, when the real problems of the disintegrating megacity could not be ameliorated by a visible headline gesture.
If, during the recent Bank Holiday weekend, you were taking the air in the Lea Valley, rambling somewhere near the line of zero longitude, you might have noticed a strung-out procession of eccentric pilgrims following a shamanic drummer in the general direction of the waste-burning chimney of Enfield, the glittering ice-denture towers of Docklands. Half a dozen oddly costumed filmmakers, musicians and artists, with one occasional diarist, setting out from the memorial to Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon king, sited where the high altar of Waltham Abbey once stood, for a five-day tramp to another heritage marker at Battle Abbey. And on, strength permitting, to the marble effigy of the slaughtered English warrior who is cradled, in serpentine embrace, by his lover and unofficial consort, Edith Swan-Neck, mother of his children. This piece, by the Anglo-German sculptor Charles Augustus William Wilke, was banished from the grounds of Hastings Museum to a corner of the West Marina Gardens in St Leonards-on-Sea adequate to its transcendent obscurity. The decaying low-baroque tableau of conjugal tenderness, features eaten away by the syphilis of time, played so well, on an anvil of whitewashed cement, alongside a municipal bowling green, that it became the provocation for a pedestrian expedition testing the Brexit boundaries of a timeless mead-hall England, before the fleet of plundering Papist Normans came sailing over the horizon. Just as tabloid gangs of Albanian drug-trafficking white slavers were now reputed to be sneaking ashore on Romney Marshes, at Deal and Camber Sands, on their Rigid Inflatable Boats, kayaks and leaking air mattresses. Could anyone bring themselves actually to cast a vote for Brexit, a commodity that sounds like a cereal bowl of Nordic cattlecake manufactured from wood shavings with an added ingredient to purge the bowels?
Our hobbled pilgrimage launched itself in the traces of Harold’s exhausted army, as it made a forced march south after the triumph at Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire, and the deaths of the fearsome Norseman Hardrada and his ally Tostig, the king’s exiled brother. The Bank Holiday jaunt was underwritten by intimations of the Euro debate and the votes we would soon be casting with fingers crossed (like Harold Godwinson, washed up in Normandy and swearing a politic oath of allegiance to Duke William). Do promises made in foreign lands really count? In the graphic novel of the Bayeux Tapestry, Harold is depicted stretching out between twin altars of relics: this was the metaphorical map of our intended journey.
The group was divided between those who had already sold up in London and relocated to St Leonards and those who had contemplated the terrible move but postponed it for the moment. At the dawn of the new millennium, soon after I completed a pedestrian circuit of the M25 motorway at Waltham Abbey, I began to spend time in Hastings. Various categories of internal exile were visible along the shoreline: melancholy asylum seekers housed in fading hostels and not permitted to take employment while they waited to be processed, lively drinking schools and their dogs around bonfires on the shingle in front of Bottle Alley, unsponsored sadhus and performance artists pushing prams or wrapped in grubby duvets. All these marginal presences have been swept away, relocated in the cosmetic upgrade that goes with the arrival of a new demographic, down from London, pinched bohemians and ordinary working citizens driven out by impossible rents and escalating house prices. The loudest manifestations of regeneration bounty were a revamped pier, a bypass cutting through the usual tree-occupying protests on the back route to Bexhill-on-Sea, and limited sponsorship for legacy-promoting artworks and performances, such as a 1066 hike channelling the futile defiance of the last Anglo-Saxon brigand. Dead Harold as Boris Johnson in chainmail.
Beachfront clearances come with a degree of collateral damage. Processions of early morning joggers and a brisk uptake in the generous cycle lane provision signal a lurch in property prices: only the proscriptively young and comfortably situated have the energy to work on self-image and endorphin boosts. The dispersed community of beach drinkers fragmented and transferred a few streets inland. I witnessed one opportunist vodka thief being bounced from an Asian minimart and having his head treated like a football by an aggrieved associate who found him lying on the pavement.
This is how we must have appeared to cyclists and narrowboat occupants as we walked the towpath of the Lea Navigation towards the span of the M25 overpass at Rummey Marsh. The filmmaker Andrew Kötting, the driving force of the expedition, is a stocky alpha male with a deep trench of damage in his right leg after a motorcycle collision on the Old Kent Road. He is dressed in a sack of a suit covered with marker-pen Enochian symbols. On his head is a reindeer herdsman’s pointed felt cap with earflaps, like a Norman battle helmet reconfigured by Joseph Beuys. It is warm. Kötting’s thick white gypsum facemask is melting. Later, coming into the outskirts of Tunbridge Wells, as a sharp wind from the east begins to bite, he puts on a kneelength transparent rain cape under the jacket of his suit, giving him, to watchful eyes behind twitching curtains, alerted by the beat of the drum, a Taliban aspect. Beside the filmmaker, long striding and sometimes dancing in transports of delight at the prospect of another steep hill, another field of daisies or verge of meadowsweet, is the torch singer and lyricist Claudia Barton. She wears a stylish vintage wedding dress and a pair of black Doc Marten boots. In this flowing outfit, with her scarlet mouth, intensity of expression and softly spoken Audrey Hepburn phrasing, she is like the rawly jilted Miss Havisham, relieved to be free of the entanglement and letting it all out in a crazy fugue walk. By the time Barton arrives at the coast, her trailing white train belongs to the familiar gothic spinster: a nest of twigs, owl droppings, creepers and muddy footprints. With headdress and enveloping floor-length silk immersion, the singer is another alien spectre to challenge the xenophobes of the suburbs.
Following in their wake, thanks to the drag of a machine of wheels and spikes that looks like a device for painting white lines on the 82 football pitches of Hackney Marshes, is the former Pogue Jem Finer. Finer is gleaning for acoustic shivers. He attaches objects found at the roadside, forks and flattened beer cans. This is a man with a joint degree in computing and sociology, capable of realising a composition designed to play for a thousand years without ever repeating itself. When the weather turns and Finer pulls a beret and a neat black raincoat out of his rucksack, he too becomes a Euro suspect. But his habitual expression of fermented amusement, despite the crippling blisters and the self-inflicted burden of his Mother Courage musical cart, never falters. He is accompanied by Anthony O’Donnell, a pinhole photographer who trades under the title of Anonymous Bosch. When Bosch herds the fractious troubadour rabble into a group shot, his skullcap, made from the lining of Kötting’s felt helmet, gives him the aspect of an assistant executioner waiting for a crack at Mary Queen of Scots.
All the marchers had authentic Europhile connections and antecedents. The Anglo-German Kötting made films in France and escaped whenever he could to a primitive forest house beside an old Cathar track in the Pyrenees. Barton came to Hastings from Paris, and found her inspiration, as the reviewer Nick Hasted said, in ‘charity shop glamour, Gallic chanteuses, Weimar ice divas’. Finer made recordings and live performances with the Hamburg-based ‘swamp pop legend’ DM Bob. And, driving them on, setting the pace, in the orange jumpsuit of a Guantánamo veteran extraordinarily rendered into the North Circular Road hinterland, was the Deptford percussionist David Aylward. His strident hi-vis disguise, colour co-ordinated with the favours of the London Overground, had been made for a French hunter who wanted to stand out when the bullets were flying in some seasonal avian cull. Aylward was a veteran of pilgrim routes. He had completed the Camino de Santiago from St Jean Pied-de-Port, the full voie lactée, with a final push to Finisterre. (He wanted to step beyond the legend of St James, slayer of Moors, back to the earlier Roman track to the end of the western lands.) There was no discussion around the great Euro debate, the marchers were too busy arguing over different accounts of Edith Swan-Neck and scratching at their tablets and iPhones for weather reports, cricket scores and Captain Beefheart growling out Ice Cream for Crow. It was a given, they were in favour of borderless cultural links and freedom of movement. The public arguments for Remain (money-fear) or Leave (immigration paranoia) didn’t touch them. Look at the mendacious billboard names and faces, the evil statistics. We are not being offered a viable choice, just another expensive media circus.
Aylward, who has been drumming on the rims of barges and the pillars of underpasses, on tyres and cylinders abandoned beneath the M25, turns his attention to bicycles. Out here alongside the reservoirs, where the pylons stand proud, cyclists are not a tsunami of self-righteous entitlement. They are spiky individualists with schemes and projects, affection for the territory, and they are happy to engage with Kötting’s banter. Taking his violin bow from a huntsman’s tote bag, Aylward asks permission to play the spokes of well-travelled bicycle wheels, to sound the tension. A melancholy drone to which Barton sometimes adds her plaintive voice in a lament for the dead Harold. One cyclist, Sean Sexton, who handed me a card announcing himself as a dealer in ‘Early Cameras & Photographs’, pulled up his red T-shirt to show off the scars of major surgery. The towpath was his lifeline as he upped his daily quota of miles, returning to health and strength and Pickett’s Lock.
Within the fugitive stretches of the Lea Valley, from which the travellers who used to dive for scrap metal have been expelled, along with a number of camps of economic migrants and rough sleepers, our ragged troubadour procession passed without comment, beyond the occasional herbal wave of acknowledgement from a narrowboat. As we approached the spectacular unreality of the Olympic Park, buildings appearing and disappearing before we could reach them, the peloton of commuting cyclists thickened. They were silent assassins, sweeping up from behind, often with growls of resentment that mere pedestrians were occupying their favoured highway. This zone, now that the barriers were down and the military returned to barracks, was a ‘park’ only in the sense of ‘retail park’ or ‘car park’. It was alive, certainly, in patches. Bars and artisan burger hangouts and bright new structures so adaptable that they seem to have slid seamlessly from the CGI versions that used to be plastered across intimidating blue fences. The Olympic Park felt disturbingly provisional, like a promised Eden that might be withdrawn in an instant or returned to landfill. The private security guards on motorised buggies who watched us through binoculars couldn’t decide which offence we were committing. The intrusive novelty of the landscape reminded me of Ebbsfleet in the early days of its privileged status as a transport hub and garden city. I’d asked a worker, out there at one of the all-purpose warehouses, for directions to the river. He’d never heard of it. But the Thames flowed as usual, fifty yards behind the barrier of storage sheds and distribution depots.
That spatial disorientation was demonstrated, shortly after our return from the walk, by a report from the London Ambulance Service on a shameful incident in which a sixty-year-old recreational cyclist at the Velodrome suffered cardiac arrest and died before paramedics could reach him. Two emergency ambulances and a rapid-response vehicle were hopelessly confused when their sat navs failed. ‘The access to E20 Olympic Park (the Velodrome in particular) is difficult, especially for crews not used to the area,’ said the report. There was something of a history here. Hours after Bradley Wiggins won his gold medal in the time trial in 2012, Dan Harris, a 28-year-old internet consultant on a racing bike, was killed after being dragged under an Olympic bus within the shadow of the stadium.
Pushing on into the early evening, we found that familiar markers had vanished. Novelty towers in striking colours rose above the remnants of dirty industries. The old detour that once carried hikers across the lethal swirl of the Bow flyover has been replaced by a shivering pontoon walkway, on the fence of which somebody has sprayed the obvious response: ever changing world. All too soon permitted paths ran out and we were trudging down the diesel-ditch of the A102 towards the Blackwall Tunnel. But the weirdest challenge to memory was a capture from cyberspace, a promotional image displaying a rank of pristine swan pedalos parked at the dock between Zaha Hadid’s Aquatics Centre and Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit superslide. In 2012, in our original tribute to Edith Swan-Neck, I pedalled a plastic swan, alongside Kötting, from Hastings to the Olympic Park, where it ran against chains, helicopters, police patrols. As soon as it is understood that the working model for the regeneration project – helter-skelter, swan pedalo ride – is a steal from the Flamingo Amusement Park in Hastings, the Olympic vision begins to make sense. Compulsory fun with budget.
The first day’s march came to an end in the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, with Aylward sawing away at more bicycle wheels and Barton busking along with a blue-chinned, floppy-haired guitarist of Spanish gypsy appearance, who claimed to be Italian but who struggled with the rudiments of the language. Together, they made lovely, tile-bounced music. A silent video of their performance, on security monitors, was beamed into the passenger lift.
Returning, next morning, to pick up the walk at Greenwich, I became aware that most of my fellow passengers, waiting for the DLR connection at Shadwell, were mutants. They looked like regular Docklands folk – neat, shiny shoes, considered hair – but there was always one element out of place. The girl in the pristine white coat had sprouted a pair of crow’s wings. The programmer with the burnt-out red eyes was carrying an expensive leather satchel and a plastic light sabre. Morning-after party girls with rescued maquillage had spiders’ webs across their faces and horns spouting from freshly airfixed heads. Yesterday, it felt like a natural extension of the terrain when I noticed a chunky young woman in a rubber Superwoman outfit on the platform at Ponder’s End. But now every Canary Wharf commuter was morphing into a comic-book character, a second-life spook with no terrestrial identity. The mutants were making their own pilgrimage, striking out east to the boosted badlands around ExCel London for a giant comic convention.
Leading us to the statue of General Wolfe on Greenwich Hill, Aylward pointed out areas where ancient trees had been lost in preparing the ground for the equestrian events of the London Olympics. He claimed distant blood kinship with Wolfe, the man who introduced freemasonry into North America. And he told us to feel, at this notable viewpoint, the surge of energy from the ley line running down the broad park avenue from Blackheath. We detoured to take in a set of rough mounds, which Aylward glossed as earthworks, set beside an established trackway. When he struck the drum, security moved in. The two officers, one male, one female, were sufficiently impressed by Aylward’s antiquarianism to allow the troop free passage, to play on, with discretion, while the park guardians moved out of earshot.
Brief acknowledgment having been made, as we passed over Blackheath, to Wat Tyler and the Peasants’ Revolt (excessive war taxes, unstable governance in London), we picked up the pace, and reversed the journey of the disaffected 1381 rebels by marching towards Kent. Saturday morning coffee sippers on the narrow pavements of Blackheath Village looked askance at this unmannerly intervention of oddly dressed individuals grouped around a deserted bride, without proper charitable accreditation, grimly following the drumbeat of the man in an orange jumpsuit. Suburbs unravelled into ribbon-development respectability. Parks and modest green oases around persistent rivers like the Quaggy broke the tedium of our advance on Chislehurst. Somewhere in the neurasthenic tranquillity of Bromley, a French woman, with whom Kötting engaged in a rapid-fire Franglais dialogue, was holding a garage sale in her front garden. I came away with a toy that might have charmed André Breton: the severed head of a fox, to which had been fixed a pair of binoculars. By tweaking the beast’s right ear, it was possible to view a surreal carousel of images: an Alpine scene, a Judex figure in somewhere like the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, the North Downs as barren as the Sahara, a farm hut surrounded by sinister canisters. I interpreted the sequence as a pre-vision of our walk. Kötting reckoned it was a marketing spin-off from Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox. Close inspection revealed that the toy had been produced in China for the McDonald’s franchise.
The long day’s tramp ended at Green Street Green, on the edge of Orpington, with a hallucinatory lurch into country lanes that carried us back, after thirty minutes’ slog, to a point twenty yards from where we’d started. Already I could hear the hissing derision of the M25 as it shadowed the Pilgrims’ Way. The only vote remain placard I’d registered was back in Hackney, propped against the head of Buddha in the ground-floor window of a Victorian villa. The only britain stronger in europe was pasted on a green recycling bin at the end of my road.
Leaving the peaceful village church at Chevening, where we halted to pay our respects to the memorial stones for Kötting’s father (subject of his Deadad project) and his paternal grandparents, we ran up against the first major white-on-red vote leave board. It was propped against a rustic fence like a border warning. When we processed over the multiple lanes of unseeing traffic, we were committing ourselves to another country. Finer’s cart bleeped a warning as it bounced on the uneven surface. There were hard uphill miles ahead to the Sackville park at Knole. Anonymous Bosch found a shop selling gluten-free cakes with which to celebrate his birthday. And Kötting encouraged children in the care of a distinctly Europhile young woman in a grey Jean-Luc Godard Masculin Féminin sweatshirt to make felt-tip additions to the art on his baggy suit.
With the dappled acres of Knole, deer in the shadow of ancient oak trees, long straight paths, and a descent by tangled hollow way to Samuel Palmer’s visionary Underriver, we became figures embedded in a particular kind of English pastoral. We meandered by quiet fields, groves of flopping gunnera, into the outskirts of Tonbridge. In the golden hour, we emerged alongside Tonbridge School, where the privileges of private education were demonstrated by immaculate cricket pitches. Delivering a talk at this school back in 2015, I was astonished not only by the well-equipped theatre and the bespoke studio in which an interview was filmed, but also by the precocious intelligence of 15-year-old pupils who had taken the trouble to read my books before the event.
Between Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells, we cut across the devastation of major road improvement schemes and through buttercup meadows in which Claudia Barton might have been expected to break out with a life-enhancing aria from The Sound of Music. The story darkened beneath the rounded redbrick arches of the 1845 Southborough railway viaduct, where a dyslexic message in purple capitals had been sprayed: jack davis got rapped under this bridge. Soon afterwards our footpath disappeared into a deserted farm from which there was no obvious exit. Even the convex roadside mirror marking a dangerous bend had been stolen, leaving a dull pewter shield. no livestock will be accepted dirty!!! Sheds and outhouses stank of coming slaughter. We found a pen of sheep crammed together, bleating helplessly, untended, in an open barn.
Royal Tunbridge Wells is taken as the exemplar of a certain strand of spa-town respectability. We felt its hostile gaze. Our access road trenched through a zone of car showrooms and forecourts in which gleaming vehicles were penned as close as the sheep. motorline: business as usual. Waxed Skodas come with a proud number plate: approved. The miles of tidy estates to be negotiated before we struck out for Wadhurst, with Aylward in the vanguard, drumming for his life on blind corners, had been freshly planted, like those shrublings in tubes beside new bypass schemes, with a forest of vote leave signs. When I paused to photograph our weary troop struggling uphill, with one of the signs in the foreground, a large lady sprung from her house to mark my card. Her discreet advertisement, the size of a monster TV screen, was not intended for public consumption. It stood on private property. How she and her partner, hovering with menace in the doorway, intended to vote was their own affair. Clearly, I had misunderstood the sign’s function. It was an order: move on. At the summit of the slope, more signs loomed over brutally trim privet. They twinkled like the boasts of estate agents out of picture book English gardens.
Aylward’s drumming never faltered, the bride never missed a step, but the road into Wadhurst was the longest mile and a half I have ever travelled. We were encouraged by the friendly interest taken in our expedition by the cooks and waiters who congregated outside an Indian restaurant. They offered to follow in our wake with trays of takeaway curry. There were many more red signs in the tidy villages of Kent and East Sussex. This vote would be a close-run affair, with metropolitans inclining one way and the rest, stirred by visions of unlicensed immigrant hordes, Magna Carta liberties lost to faceless European bureaucrats, opting out.
The site of Harold’s battlefield was in dispute. Kötting tried to muster enthusiasm for a group portrait on a busy roundabout that flattered some recent recalibration of Senlac Hill. Now we understood how foot-foundered those standfirm troops must have been, after a forced march to York and back. The military commanders, the Godwinson siblings and their allies, rode between engagements, then parked the horses. We were welcomed into this tourist-trap town by a yellow AA sign offering bows, arrows & battle tactics. After protracted mobile-phone negotiations, we were given permission to round off our expedition with a photograph at Harold’s ‘other’ monument inside Battle Abbey. Escaping from the lavishly stocked giftshop, we were confronted by an obstructive official who withdrew the original offer. The commemorative slab was covered in tarpaulin, scaffolding was in evidence. English Heritage do not permit images of scaffolding.
We straggled over the battlefield, where no physical evidence of battle was ever found. Harold, I decided, was an Anglo-Saxon Osiris, his parts distributed across the country. Some said he was buried under a cairn of stones at the shoreline. A mound on which, Viking fashion, Duke William climbed to assert his sovereignty. Bosham claimed a few limbs and Waltham Abbey took the head. Legend had the king surviving the battle and living out the rest of his days as an anchorite in Chester. According to the Dr Who Annual for 1985, Harold was cured of his wounds and took on the identity of Hereward the Wake, then to fight an eternal Nigel Farage crusade against benefit-scrounging invaders.
An icy wind nips as we circle the sculpture of Harold and Edith Swan-Neck in St Leonards. I notice that the laminated map of Normandy, which stood for years guarding a car park and tempting us across the Channel, has been removed in a strategic gesture, leaving nothing but two bare posts. A few days later we heard that three Iranian men had been rescued by the border force vessel HMC Seeker just off Hastings. ‘The group will now be processed,’ a spokesman said.