Life. It has a funny way of getting in the way of the most essential things. Those should-be-sacrosanct activities we now view as spare time luxuries: going for a walk, breathing in more than one mouthful of fresh air, observing the seasons by the measure of leaves falling from a tree rather than the widening flood by the kerb at the bottom of the road. As such I haven’t been to the Flats for a while. Too tired, too busy, too cold, too drizzly, just a little bit too far away even though it’s right there, at the top of the road, exactly where I left it last time.
I’ve also been driving more than I should be, following years of a largely pedestrian and bicycle lifestyle. Nipping here and there to pick the kids up or drop them elsewhere. Not by choice I say to myself but then that’s often how choices happen.
Not getting out in nature is also a choice as is making a move to reconnect with it.
It’s hard though, isn’t it? When it’s bucketing down outside, and you’ve got the wrong shoes on, and you’ve only got a few precious minutes between work or errands. A cuppa sounds much more restorative. Maybe I’ll even put the heating on for an hour (90p well spent?!)...
But then came Monday and an appointment over towards Maryland. It’s a regular affair and one that I know is quickest as the crow flies, by bike, by way of Wanstead Flats, Capel Road to Jubilee Pond and a quick trip down Cann Hall Road. Cycling would mean changing my trousers though, so those pesky wide hems don’t get caught in the pedals. I’ll have to walk. I feel reluctant. I need an incentive.
Enter, a long-lost brainwave. Don’t go for a walk, listen to music. The rest will follow, along with your feet and legs.
And so, I donned my trusty wired headphones (I haven’t succumbed to EarPods yet due to the feeling that I’ll still be wearing them as a 90-year-old while everyone else is connecting via hologram; also, the panic of losing them) and set off up to ‘Gate 190’ at the top of Tylney Road. For want of another Forest ‘Gate’ this is the way in if you’re a fan of formal access points (it’s really the gate to the car park, but there’s no time for splitting hairs in a cost-of-living crisis).
Thanks to Lauren Laverne and her excellent and diverse taste in music via her early Monday morning Radio 6 Cloudbusting programme, I meet a full wall of classic Wanstead Flats fog at the seam of Oasis’ Cigarettes and Alcohol and John Martyn’s couldn’t-be-more-aptly-selected Solid Air. (If you want the full foggy playlist it’s here).
I literally can’t see my hand in front of me. It’s perfect. Nothing to see here. I’m fading into convenient anonymity.
A few steps in, however, and the usual nature-inspired awe kicks in. A mist-shrouded circle of trees (A Feeling That Never Came – First Aid Kit); the wonder and consistency of a company of dog walkers, albeit hazy in the distance (Quiet Dog – Mos Def); the fading in and out of perspective (Checking Out – Divorce); a sparkling spider’s web running threads around a clump of ribwort plantain and still-blooming yarrow (Dream Girl Evil – Florence + the Machine); swans and ducks a swimming and signalling through the mist, those that have made it through the current bout of Avian flu (Funky Horn – Fela Ransome Kuti & Nigeria 70); a ray of sunshine beaming through (No Confusion – Ezra Collective & Kojey Radical); a study of dew-dropped mushrooms and moss (to a backdrop of the news and a chat with moss expert in the Supernature section); and how to get all the mud off my shoes before my meeting (It’s Tricky – Run DMC).
I arrived at my destination to… and I kid you not: I Am the Resurrection by The Stone Roses, feeling fully reconnected and restored. For a few hours at least. But then, that’s all it takes sometimes. Music, mizzle, mist, and magical mushrooms. The perfect nature combination.
Sonya Patel Ellis is a writer, editor and artist exploring the interconnectedness of nature. Author of Collins Botanical Bible (Harper Collins, 2018), The Heritage Herbal (The British Library, 2020), Collins Garden Birdwatchers Bible (Harper Collins, 2020) and The Modern Gardener (Harper Collins, 2022) she is often to be found roaming around nearby Wanstead Flats or in her garden for botanical inspiration. See www.abotanicalworld.com for more details plus signed books and botanically inspired prints.
Photography © Sonya Patel Ellis