Grim up north? South London comedian Arthur Smith experiences the Lee Valley

In the first of a new series tackling the critical issue of the north/south London-divide, we introduce resolute southerners to this part of the world to show them that things are alright up north.

For every black cab driver that refuses to go south of the river, there are said to be three south Londoners that have never been as far north as Camden.

Former road sweeper turned West End playwright, comedian, author and Grumpy Old Man Arthur Smith hates it up here.

When asked by the BBC what his most hated building in London was, Arthur replied: “North London in general.”

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Determined to show him another side to this side of the city, we invited Arthur to Walthamstow. We meet at Rodi’s Cafe in Blackhorse Road. He’d arrived half an hour early to eat a hearty breakfast, before we ventured along the River Lea down to Clapton’s Springfield Park, through Markfield Park and into Walthamstow Marshes.

After a difficult start navigating the entrance to the towpath due to building works at Ferry Lane, we were further confused by a lost construction worker dressed in luminous orange who told us to “go back”. We safely ignored him after he admitted that he too was “not from round these parts”.

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There were about 20 men dressed in orange positioned around the river, purposefully standing still. One of the men in orange knew where he was, and led us through a diversion through some gates. Still, it had it taken us the best part of an hour to reach the river path by Tottenham Hale.

“Coming up to Walthamstow has been a bit terrifying,” says Arthur. “It’s a completely different landscape from one I’ve ever seen in London before.”

We followed the river to the north side of Markfield Park, which had a sign on the gates so large you’d have be flying past in a Cessna to read all of it at once. Inside the park, remains of old sewage filter beds now form part of a designated graffiti spot.

Just over ten years ago, Haringey council sourced £3.5m from the CLG, Lottery funding and Football Foundation to kick life back into Markfield park. The funding resulted in an impressive Beam Engine Museum being built, along with a rose garden, a large cafe, a bowls club and a BMX area.

By now Arthur seemed to be enjoying the scenery, marvelling at the sheer amount river dwellers living in boats along the Lea. We paused to admire a open bathtub atop one of the boats. Boats were moored next to boats, stacked side by side like horizontal apartments.

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An article in The Guardian last year reported that London’s waterways were “struggling to cope” with the influx of people choosing to live on them.

But for many people fighting to remain in London, it’s an affordable alternative.

At the peak of Springfield Park, we stopped to look at the view, encompassing the spiny steeple of the Church of the Good Shepherd, originally built as the Church of the Ark of the Covenant for the Agapemonites sect, a scandalous cult that existed for just over 100 years before its demise in 1956. It is now used by the Georgian Orthodox Church.

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Continuing further south, we came to a “stupidly low bridge” near the marshes. At five feet high, we watched as people crawled underneath it to get to the other side.

We bowed under the bridge to cross into the marshes, where one of many signs warned of cattle beyond the gate. The cows have been reintroduced to the area, but this part of the Lee Valley has remained pretty much untouched and is typical of how most of the area would have looked in the past.

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“It’s not so coiffured as you see the commons of south London,” says Arthur.

“You have a really have a slight sense of wildness. You feel a bit like you’re in the 19th century, or even a pre-industrial era.”

And as a sweaty man cycled past, Arthur bid farewell, back to his natural habitat in south London.

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