An occasional blog about walking in the edgelands of North East London and various other places

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River Roding: Leg 9 - To the Source ...

River Roding: Leg 8 - The Roding Villages

Across to Two Tree Island

River Roding: Leg 7 - Through Fyfield

River Roding: Leg 6 - Upstream to Ongar

The Land Art of Theydon Bois

What Is It With All This Walking and Writing?

The Heights of Epping Forest

River Roding: Leg 5 - Out of London

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The Lost Lido of Leytonstone

River Roding: Leg 2 - the Barking Barrage to Ilford

River Roding: Leg 1 - Thames to the Barking Barrage


27 July 2016

Travelling out of London along the M11 motorway, you will probably notice a field containing a set of concentric earth banks. This structure appeared a few years ago, and I’ve often wondered what on earth it could be … An emergency services helipad? A target area of some sort? Something to do with Essex Water? I recently discovered that it is in fact a land art installation by the sculptor, Richard Harris. So I decided to take a close-up look at this artwork as part of a short circular walk, during which I would also visit another nearby example of a “land sculpture” - the M11/M25 interchange.

I took the Central Line eastwards, along the section which runs above-ground towards Epping. After Debden, the line leaves the suburbs and passes through fields for another mile or so until it makes its penultimate stop at the village of Theydon Bois (usually pronounced “Boyz”, or sometimes “Boyce” - never “Bwahh”). I walked out of the station, past The Bull pub and village green and pond, then turned down a side street and took a path over the rail lines and across fields towards the motorway.

The area containing the Harris sculpture is managed by the Woodland Trust. New trees have been planted in the area, so as to create Theydon Bois Wood, and the intention was to plant trees along the base of the sculpture’s circles, with a different species for each circle. Once the trees were fully grown the sculpture would disappear from view, only to reappear every time the trees were cut. This is similar to the well-known land art installation by Robert Smithson, the Spiral Jetty at the Great Salt Lake in Utah, which reveals itself at times of drought before the water submerges it once again. However, when I arrived at the site of the earthwork, I discovered that no one had got around to planting the trees - all I found was a large, sloping field of long grass and sow thistle. Of the Richard Harris earthwork, I could see no sign.

Of course, that’s one of the problems with land sculptures … they look fine from a distance or from the air, but can be difficult to distinguish on the ground. So I walked uphill through the sow thistle, until I could finally make out the earth bank of the first circle.

The picture-book pond at Theydon Bois

The earthwork seen from the air, shortly after installation

The bank of the outer circle appears

I clambered over the first bank, then a second, and a third; my dodgy knee was beginning to struggle by the time I reached the top of the fourth bank. At this point,  I realised that at the top of the field the earth banks flatten out, and I could have simply walked around the banks and reached the innermost circle over flat ground.

Eventually, I reached the centre of the mandala inside the fifth circle. I stopped and stood and listened - but the only music I could hear was the white noise of the motorway traffic a couple of hundred yards away. Standing amidst the sow thistle and a few white lines on the ground, I realised that this is a sculpture whose only real existence is for those driving north on the M11.

From the top of the field the towers of central London were visible in the distance

Leaving the land sculpture behind, I walked to a road which passed under the M11, and then turned off to follow rights-of-way along field edges until I reached “Monks Walk” - a tree-lined path which passes behind Theydon Garnon Church and across its cemetery.

An appropriate sign on Monks Walk

Exiting on the far side of the cemetery, I turned left and soon caught sight of the motorway signs and lighting paraphernalia bristling over Garnish Hall, which nestles right beside the M11/M25 interchange.

The footpath took me through a tunnel under the M11, and I then climbed a small hill to see if I could get a better view of the motorway junction. I could clearly see the M11 carriageway, but the junction itself was hidden behind a mass of trees - like any good land sculpture, it can only be properly appreciated from above …

Descending the hill, I followed the path back towards the tube station, crossing over an area that had once been a golf course - until it was purchased by a company who used it as a landfill site under the guise of redeveloping and landscaping the course. At one point some 300 trucks a day were arriving to dump their loads. Fortunately, the area now appeared to be safe to walk over, if rather uneven underfoot, and I soon arrived back at the station at Theydon Bois.

The motorway junction is much more impressive from above …

… than it is from ground level.