Scouting for Cyclists

Our first ride of the year took us to the Scouts Association’s HQ, on a crisp January morning.

It wasn’t far. In fact, it was just outside the Borough of Waltham Forest and the boundaries of any London borough, although you wouldn’t know it judging by the postcode, E4. One of those London curiosities the ride leader Tony Fincham revels in.

We took the quiet route from Walthamstow to Chingford, passing the Turner-Prize nominated shopping trolley art installation at the Billet Underpass en route. On Bury Road we passed a couple of fluorescent horses and were in turn passed by another group of cyclists. The road had a magnificent feel of being in the country.

Gilwell Park greeted us with directions to Max’s 50th birthday party. It is a 44 hectare (109 acre) site and has the White House at its heart. Home of the Scouts since 1919 when it was donated to Baden-Powell by its former owner, the 18th-century hunting lodge has since acquired modern neighbours to cope with the Association’s relentless growth as well as the venue’s commercial applications.

Our guide Claire came up to Gilwell Park especially to take us round. She pointed out architectural features of the White House (including 18th-century jerry building) and told us about the Ernest Stafford Carlos paintings of scouts. In one, a ghostly figure of Christ stands behind a scout, like a guardian. Originally Baden-Powell was supposed to be the model for Christ’s face. Carlos was advised to moderate his zeal.

Outside the lodge we toured the grounds. While Claire was telling us about the unusual chimney-pots and the mysterious ceramic material they were made of – its creator took the recipe with her to the grave – we were leaning on a stone balustrade which, Claire explained, was in fact part of the Second London Bridge. Not the one in Arizona, although behind the balustrade stood a small statue of a buffalo, donated by the Scouts of America.

There were further cosmopolitan quirks. Claire was pleased that the UK Scouts embraced ecumenism and showed us, beside an Anglican and a Roman Catholic chapel, a Thai Buddhist Sala, a thousand years old, donated and kept by the Thai Embassy.

Further on Claire showed us a caravan which was donated to Baden-Powel in 1929 on the Scouts’ 21st birthday, together with a Rolls-Royce and a pair of braces. The man had indeed asked for a pair of braces. The caravan was tiny in its Art Deco interior, but evidently Be Prepared was just five foot four.

Beyond, we walked past an abseiling wall and towards the edge of the Park from which extended a panorama of King George’s Reservoir and Enfield.

If you would like to visit Gilwell Park, you may well have another chance with us. We liked it so much it might become a regular destination.

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