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currently stashed in: Cheshire Street, London
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December 11, 2005 || 4:40 pm
Walking upriver

It was a stunningly beautiful day today, as every Londoner noticed, I'm sure. Time for a proper walk - and while what I really wanted to do was go to Blackheath for a brisk one and a late pub lunch, I had no accomplices amongst my busy friends so instead I set off northeast, aiming to get to the the Lea River.

The walk was many stages of parkland and Sunday football. Weavers Fields, my local park, was full of local Bangladeshis having matches in various stages of organisation. Then came the near side of Victoria Park, all beautiful mature trees, canal boats and strollers, with its edge of fine terraced houses that will, I'm sure, rival Holland Park prices in a few years. Crossing over the road, and the other side of the park is plainer, tower blocks on the horizon, with kids' football teams playing in impeccable striped kit and bellowing parents on the sidelines. Get to the other side, cross over the roaring A12 on a deserted cycle bridge and suddenly the land drops away into the Lea Valley. From the genteel terraces to car repair shops, odd corrugated shacks more reminiscent of my recent visit to Delhi than to London, past Hackney Downs station and along the Lea Navigation canal for a few steps before negotiating the motorway again and emerging onto Hackney Marshes.

I've never been to the Marshes before on a Sunday when the famous football games are in progress and it was quite astonishing. The testosterone, the rawness of the atmosphere was extraordinary, somewhere between intoxicating and terrifying. I was the only girl there - and almost the only white person, apart from the guys manning the tea-and-burger van. The car park was full of cars, some pounding out bass beats, and a mass of men milling around in muddy kit. On the pitches, violent shouts, messy tackles, a spilling over of all the stuff that had been ignored in a week of hard, obedient work, wives and kids. Real football, a world away from Highbury on a Saturday afternoon.

This is where, you might hope, at a stone's throw from the Olympics site that the future Beckhams and Lampards would be found - but of course this isn't so, these men are too old already and even the kids in Vicky Park with their parents urging them on are never going to make it. It's a world of football that will always live on the edge between clan thuggery and dreams of self-improvement, of lifting oneself momentarily into brief glory. The stories from those games will be retold tonight in the pub, or in diluted form to the wife or girlfriend who has never been near the games and will never understand why these rituals with such animal ferocity, yet playing by the rules, take primacy over anything else that a Sunday afternoon may hold.

I bought a bacon roll and walked round the edge of the pitches by the side of the Lea river, reached finally yet diminished here by being merely the overflow from the canal on the other side. At the top of the marshes the two join (or part) at the site of the old water filtration beds and millrace. Clapton seemed genteel here too - notices about community meetings tied to the railings, families, middle-class couples with vaguely well-bred accents in a real ale pub. Mill Fields had already seen its day's play, judging by the mud and stud marks, and only a father and son were still kicking a ball around in the wet grass.

A six mile walk, according to my calculations: not bad for a Sunday, and it took two and a half hours. I took the bus home and it was nearly dark by the time I got back.



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