The Ordnance Survey's Explorer maps are divided into the kilometre squares of the National Grid, which stake out the paper at four centimetre intervals. OS Explorer 174 (Epping Forest and Lee Valley) covers an area from inner London out to the country of Essex and Hertfordshire, six hundred squares in all. The whole of the modern Epping Forest is there, together with almost all of the New River. Roman Ermine Street and its descendant, the Great Cambridge Road, course lengthwise along the sheet, and the ancient way to Colchester likewise runs across the southern edge. Near here the Ordnance Survey has recorded my own home, a short section of a pink rectangle, a carefully delineated plot behind.
Somewhere else on the sheet, a similar splash of pink (I should imagine) is home to John Rogers, film maker, author and Waltham Forest's psychogeographer-in-residence for their 2019 "London Borough of Culture". He has amassed over three years an extensive videography of his walks through the Lee Valley, and although I have met him only a few times, I have accompanied him along many miles of virtual space, and it must have been a comment in one of these that inspired me to take a more systematic approach to my own explorations.
Completing the map
The plan I had in mind was to fill the grid with memory: to visit every square over the course of a single year, entering or leaving each one on foot, and then to produce something, although quite what would remain to be seen.
Starting on New Year's Day, it took thirty-one of these trips to cover the grid: I was not done until well into December. Most likely it would be a weekend morning at Liverpool Street, from which the railways fan out over Hertfordshire and Essex; the walk would be longer or shorter depending on the season and the weather, heading across country to another station for the return journey, crossing grid line after invisible grid line, often consulting the map to check my path and plan the kilometres ahead.
Back home after each trip I would trace my route across sheet 174 in coloured pen. My wavering lines gradually obscured the map's neat blue squares, replacing the standardized symbols of the Ordnance Survey with a more amorphous knowledge. And over the months the map began to fall apart: tears spreading along the folds, defining a new grid, preparing for a final disintegration along new and unremarked lines.
Now I have finished the job. Sheet 174 lies in rectangular pieces, four folds across by ten down, and each one is ready to become a chapter of my essay. Their organisation respects my little project no more than they did the careful work of the Ordnance Survey: long days in the fields have been sliced up arbitrarily, outings in different seasons are forced together. I like it this way. Recalling some areas, I see them from different angles and in different weathers; for others, there is just a single impression.
And for some, already, the line sparks no recognition at all. I could never have filled the grid with memory, it was always going to leak through the net. The sheaf of defaced panels becomes more and more inscrutable as their author grows more distant. And what in there speaks of the land?