Wednesday, September 03, 2014
A Thames Estuary Airport isn't the first impractically grand scheme to have foundered on the Hoo Peninsula. There were once plans for the best holiday resort in Europe to be built here, on the northern coast at Allhallows-on-Sea. The fact you may not even have heard of the place should give some hint as to how far short those plans fell. And now, with Boris Airport definitively crossed off London's regional hub shortlist, there's nothing to stop this small village from living out the future in continued obscurity. I visited at the weekend too. (11 photos)
There are two villages here, one old, one new. The old is a mile inland, that's Allhallows, which grew up around the church of the same name. Like many churches on the peninsula this was established in Saxon times, although the present building dates, in part, to the 12th century. It's very pretty, with a tiny tower perched above castellated walls, but also very locked, usually, if you were hoping to take a look inside. It's also the second Grade I listed church that the Estuary airport would have obliterated, this under one of the western terminal buildings and Grain three miles east under the end of a runway. You can see right over to Grain from the lane close by, across harvested fields and liquid gas tanks, in a peculiar mix of utterly rural and utterly not.
And the village might have remained undeveloped had it not been for the keenness of the Southern Railway to create a new holiday destination to compete with Southend. Herne Bay and the Isle of Sheppey they deemed too far away, while Gravesend was lacking in beach, so they alighted on the Hoo Peninsula as their best compromise. A railway already ran to Grain, not profitably, but it was easy enough to drive a branch line across the marshes to a new station called Allhallows-on-sea. Services began in 1932, and by 1934 almost ten thousand visitors made a bank holiday daytrip to this fledgling resort. They didn't find much, apart from what they made themselves. A large Charrington's pub was built by the station, The British Pilot, but the promised spread of shops and attractions never quite developed. WW2 put paid to dreams of hotels and enormous swimming pools, and afterwards the crowds never returned, having worked out that Brighton was easier to get to and a lot more fun.
The station's long demolished, replaced by a long thin caravan park which looks like the affordable face of retirement. The British Pilot survives, now reliant on local residents and car-driving families, although don't think of walking in across the marshes because Patrons With Muddy Boots are Not Welcome. There were a few folk out following the path along the estuary at the weekend, this being the relatively less squelchy part of the year. I'm not sure quite how far they were heading, although they seemed to be aiming for the monument at the mouth of Yantlet Creek. This is the London Stone, the traditional beginning of the Thames estuary, and once marked the boundary of the City of London's fishing rights. I understand the creekside path runs far enough to join up with a back lane though the marshes and thence to the village of Grain, but round here the existence of a line on the map is no guarantee of safe passage.
What seems most peculiar about the village of Allhallows-on-Sea today is the lack of access residents have to the coast. I should qualify and say residents in houses, because what's grown up between the last road and the sea is a substantially-sized caravan park. Two guards sit in a hut by the entrance, and they'll raise the barrier for your car if you can give the name and number of your caravan without stumbling. Pedestrian access seems to go unchallenged, but finding a direct path through the estate isn't entirely straight-forward, and in particular there are no obvious signs directing non-residents back to the exit.
The park's on the large side, spread out along a kilometre of sloping foreshore, and divided into two very distinct halves. To the east nearest the ex-station are the older chalets, more shed-like than mobile, while to the east are more modern metallic cuboids. Families who like this sort of holiday are in abundance, most taking advantage of the onshore watery facilities (pool with flume, coarse fishing lake) rather than having anything to do with the beach. You can see their point. From the greensward promenade the view is of grey estuary, passing ships and a thin strip that turns out to be Southend. Step down through a gap in the sea wall and the beach is, well, extensive, and might be sand or might be mud depending on how good a PR agency you hired.
It's extremely hard to picture Allhallows-on-Sea as the best holiday resort in Europe, as Kent County Council and the railways and once hoped. Equally it's extremely hard to picture an artificial airport spread out for miles across the mudbanks and marshes, destroying the ancient landscape and dislocating the past. Intriguingly the eastern side of Allhallows was pencilled in as the terminus for the new High Speed railway, reopening a connection that lack of interest had formerly closed. But that's not going to happen now, except in Mayoral pipedreams, leaving this dead end oddity of a village to survive as best it can on estuarine charm.
How to get to Grain, Allhallows and Hoo: Take the train to Strood or Rochester, either fast from St Pancras or slow from Victoria. Then you'll need the 191 bus which runs approximately hourly most days, but only two-hourly on Sundays. The route twists to take in every sizeable village along the way, so the bus takes all of an hour to reach Grain at the tip of the peninsula. But the double deckers afford an excellent grandstand view across the landscape, and there probably won't be anyone battling you for the front seat. A Medway saver ticket costs £6, allowing you to nip off as the fancy takes you, which is how I got to visit Grain and Allhallows before lunchtime, and then take a walk in the afternoon...
High Halstow to Cliffe (5 miles) (11 photos): One terribly impressive thing about even the smallest village on the Hoo Peninsula is that they all have clean, open, functioning toilets. They also all have old churches, and are mostly named after them, although not the 10th century survivor in High Halstow. The village is located at the highest point on the peninsula, and lies adjacent to a large RSPB reserve at Northward Hill which supposedly has the largest heronry in Britain. I saw none on my woodland wander, but I did catch a ghastly mis-carved apostrophe, and was amazed to spot Docklands and the Shard rising faintly on the horizon. The next village along is Cooling, one of Charles Dickens' favourites, and he took regular constitutionals to the church. Outside the main door are a dozen baby-sized gravestones which inspired the opening to Great Expectations, and are now known colloquially as Pip's Graves. The church is now redundant, but that's good news for the visitor because a charitable trust keeps it maintained and open. At the western end of the village is Cooling Castle, once overlooking the estuary, now two miles inland. Its impressive gateway survives, while the interior contains a more modern dwelling currently owned by none other than Jools Holland. Across the fields, past orchards dripping with excess pears, lies the ancient settlement of Cliffe. This consists of one long street along a low chalk escarpment, leading to one of the largest parish churches in Kent at its tip. Had Boris's Estuary Airport been built then residents here would have been first in line of fire from the southern flightpath, although that's far better than under a previous plan whereby the airport was located on top of Cliffe rather than Grain. As it is, the whole of Hoo can continue in peaceful obscurity, at least until some other dreamer with a grand plan turns up.
» 40 photos from the Hoo Peninsula (the new ones are at the bottom, sorry)
posted 01:00 :
Tuesday, September 02, 2014As well as being Mayor of London, Boris Johnson is also self-appointed overlord of three North Kent villages. They have the misfortune to exist where he'd like to build a 3200 hectare international airport, and he wants to wipe them from the map. It's a bold and eye-catching scheme, but also expensive and impractical, hence today the Davies Commission is pulling the plug. But what's the threatened area, located in one of the remotest parts of southeast England, actually like? I visited the Isle of Grain at the weekend to try to find out. [map]
The Hoo Peninsula juts out from the top of Kent into the Thames estuary, with the Medway flowing in along the southern side. It consists of a ridge of high land surrounded on either side by marshes, which have been increasingly drained and reclaimed over the years. A small number of villages are scattered across ten or so miles, adding up to a tiny number of residents to blight with noise pollution had an airport been built. One main road heads up the central spine, officially the A228, historically the Ratcliffe Highway. It's a ridiculously good dual carriageway for much of its length, with average speed cameras positioned to limit progress to a steady 40mph. Eventually the road slims, passing between golden harvested fields and meadowy marsh, with panoramic views to either side across to Rochester and Southend. Beyond Lower Stoke a humpy bridge rises from the flatness to carry the main road over the single track freight railway. And straight ahead, across the horizon, an expanse of chimneys and pylons and silos.
You can't drive into the Isle of Grain, at the tip of the peninsula, without passing through an extensive industrial area. Various land-hungry facilities have been sited here, well out of the way of anywhere, with the neighbours more likely to work here than complain. First up is one of the newest clusters, a Liquefied Natural Gas import facility, and not something you'd want to accidentally crash an aeroplane into. There follows an archaic level crossing, complete with rickety manual signal box, by the entrance to what used to be a postwar oil refinery. That's since been replaced by Thamesport, one of the largest container ports in Britain with giant cranes lined up along the water's edge. And still the main road ploughs on, fenced off to shield former fuel and storage capability beyond, to pass the mighty chimney of Grain Power Station. It's not as huge as Kingsnorth down the Medway, but still hard to miss, at least until it's dismantled following recent decommissioning.
It may surprise you to hear that the whole of this energy and import zone was destined to survive the coming of Boris Airport, whose boundary would have passed narrowly to the north. No such luxury was afforded to the village of Grain, which would have been summarily erased to provide space for off-runway facilities. The settlement's historic, but don't get the idea it's all picturesque and would have been keenly lost. The church is 12th century and Grade I listed, the pub 16th century and Grade II, but most of the houses in Grain are more modern. They're clustered a short distance back from the shoreline, forming a none-too upmarket community that doesn't mind living at the very end of the line. I smiled on spotting a corner shop called the Grain Store, but most of the provisions hereabouts are purchased at a double-fronted Co-Op on the High Street. Here too are a school, a library and a community centre, although I assume the fire station survives for the benefit of facilities nextdoor, because it's not strictly necessary for a population of only 1600.
Just past the church is a seasonal cafe that's lightyears away from Hub Terminal Pre-Flight Catering. The Beach Hut looks more like the parking area round the back of someone's house, but a trailer is set up to cook and serve, and the selection of drinks and nosh is most appealing (Full English at weekends for a fiver, Earl Grey less than a quid). Keep walking and you'll come out at Grain Fort, a coastal defence built in the 1860s. Now only its ramparts survive, plus a few underground tunnels, and the demolished centre has become a wooded wilderness that's home to orchids and dragonflies. And below is Grain's brief beach of piled-up shells leading down to mud, not that the concrete ambience would ever win any tourist awards, but the onshore coastal park is pleasant enough.
Across the Thames, that's Southend, and across the Medway, Sheerness. And poking out above the mudflats, or the sea if it's high tide, is the peculiar sight of Grain Tower Battery. This is another Victorian defence, a Martello Tower approximately circular in cross-section, located quarter of a mile out from the shoreline. It was put up for sale recently, you may remember, although substantial improvement work would be required and the building's only temporarily accessible. "You know when the tide is?" asked a well-meaning couple on the foreshore as I wandered down towards the causeway. I knew low water had only just passed, but I still didn't fancy risking the walk out along a muddy dilapidated path, some of which was broken brick and much of which was mud. An opportunity missed, but whoever buys this atmospheric fort will get the chance to trudge (or float) out to their own private refuge as and when.
And all of Grain would have been destroyed, even the offshore fort, to make way for a four-runway Heathrow replacement. Boris Airport would have been constructed seven metres up on an elevated platform, both to reduce the risk of flooding and to make way for high speed railways entering below. Plans suggest the Grade I listed church would have been lost beneath one end of Runway 26L, while the village proper would have disappeared beneath supporting facilities. Today's shortlist refusal means the area survives, although before you cheer it probably means Harmondsworth gets bulldozed instead to satisfy our increasing need to fly, which simply shifts the losing community elsewhere. And it also means that instead of hundreds of millions of people visiting the Isle of Grain annually, you'll probably never come. I think the local residents will much prefer it that way.
(I assume you'd like to see 18 photos of the Isle of Grain, as a visual counterpoint to today's big news story)
(and tomorrow I'll tell you about the other two villages reprieved today - that's Allhallows and Allhallows on Sea)
posted 01:00 :
Monday, September 01, 2014Yes, it's September already. Then next month the clocks go back, then it's Fireworks Night and before you know where you are Christmas will be rolling round again. Never fear, London always puts on a last flurry of events and activities and happenings before the nights draw in, and we're all invited. Here's my weekend by weekend guide to free September delights.
» Totally Thames (Sep 1-30): There was a time, not so long ago, when the Mayor's Thames Festival filled the South Bank and lit up the sky for one weekend in September. No more. Now we get a whole month of events, many of them ticketed, kicking off on Tuesday evening with the arrival of a giant floating thing. If you fancy a Lost Rivers walk or a boat trip, prepare to stump up, but there are also plenty of splendid freebies if you explore the programme carefully.
Weekend 1: September 6/7
» Royal Greenwich Tall Ships Festival (Fri-Tue): Fresh from Falmouth, over 50 tall ships will be sailing up the Thames to float off Greenwich and Woolwich. An impressive number of events are planned, including various parades of ships, plus fireworks on the Friday and Saturday. A rare event, and it's going to be big.
» The Thames SENSEation (Sat, Sun, noon-7pm): See what they did there? A sensory extravaganza, historical London style, is promised in Victoria Embankment Gardens.
» Dartford Bus Garage Open Day (Sat, 10-4): The last of the Year of the Bus garage open days.
» Hampton Transport Gala (Sun, 10-5): Marking the 150th anniversary of the opening of the railway between Fulwell Junction and Shepperton. Includes steam locos and vintage buses.
» Angel Canal Festival (Sun, 11-5): Waterside gaiety beside City Road Lock. Expect the Mayor of Islington to arrive by narrowboat.
» Palmers Green Festival (Sun, 12-7): All the fun of a community bandstand, the UK DJ Academy and Britain's tallest mobile climbing wall.
» Brentford Festival (Sun, from 12): Funfair, stalls and a dog show, in Blondin Park W5. And you can arrive by free Routemaster bus from Brentford or Hanwell.
» The Cally Festival (Sun, 12-6): Community event on the Caledonian Road, featuring music, art, food and creative workshops.
Weekend 2: September 13/14
» Heritage Open Days (Thu-Sun): Hundreds of buildings that aren't usually open, are open. Most of them are outside London, but there are plenty open in Kingston (which is spending the weekend pretending it's in Surrey). (See also Berks, Bucks, Essex, Herts, Kent)
» Blue Ribbon Village (Sat, Sun, noon-6.00): This assemblage of stalls and family-friendly activities by City Hall is all that survives of the original Thames Festival.
» St Katharine Docks Classic Boat Festival (Sat, Sun, 11.00-6.00): Annual gathering of small boats near Tower Bridge. Includes a visit by the The Barnet Hill Lifeboat Crew Shanty Singers.
» Tour of Britain (Sun, 11.00-5.30): The final stage of this cross-country bike race is a ten-lap lycra-tastic sprinty circuit starting and finishing on Whitehall.
» Kings Place Festival (Fri-Sun): Head to King's Cross for 100+ performances of spoken word, comedy, dance, jazz and classical music. Here's a list of the free events.
» London Design Festival (continues until next weekend): Hundreds of design-er events will be taking place across the capital. I'm struggling to spot a highlight this year.
Weekend 3: September 20/21
» Open House London (Sat, Sun): The grand-daddy of architectural festivals, with hundreds of weird and wonderful buildings throwing open their doors across the capital. Most of the really special events are fully booked, but you're not too late to sign up for the this four-property raffle. There'll be tons to see over the weekend, in fact far too much to choose from. Be there, or regret it for the next 52 weeks.
» Great Gorilla Run (Sat, from 10.30): Dress up as a gorilla and run 7km to raise money for charity (or just come along and watch sweaty knackered apes).
» Bermondsey Street Festival (Sat, 11-7): It's usually Designers, Dance and a Dog Show, plus food and stalls (but this year the website's useless, so who knows?)
» There must be something else on this weekend, surely.
Weekend 4: September 27/28
» Autumn Ambles (Sat, Sun): 40 free guided walks around London's strategic footpath network. Most are in the centre of town, but a handful will take you out to the periphery for a proper ramble. Praise be that Walk London's budget still somehow survives. See the full list of events here.
» Abbey Gardens Harvest Festival (Sat, 1-4): This year's theme at the historic Newham allotments alongside Abbey Road DLR is PumpkinFest 2014.
» The Great River Race (Sat, 12.30-15.40): 300 craft engage in a spectacular paddle up the Thames from Docklands to Richmond.
» There must be something else on this weekend, surely.
(And don't forget the Folkestone Triennial for an eclectic dose of seaside art, any time before 2nd November)
posted 07:00 :
Sunday, August 31, 2014LONDON BOROUGH TOPS
1 Bromley 245m On Westerham Hill, 400m south of Hawleys Corner (lofty) 2 Croydon 175m In Sanderstead Plantation, up the path from the west (leafy) 3 Harrow 153m On Magpie Hall Road near Alpine Walk, Bushey Heath (dull) 4 Sutton 147m In the southwest corner of Clockhouse recreation ground (remote) 5 Barnet 147m At the covered reservoir by the water tower, Arkley (alien) 6 Camden 134m On Spaniards Road near the 'Hampstead Heath' bus stop
(or maybe at the Heath's summit by Whitestone Pond)
(sandy) 7 Hillingdon 134m At the top of Potter Street Hill, Northwood Hills (posh) 8 Greenwich 132m By the pond in Eaglesfield recreation ground, Shooters Hill (secluded) 9 Haringey 116m At the top of Highgate High St, by Highgate School chapel (classy) 10 Enfield 115m At the gate on Camlet Way, Hadley Wood (detached) 11
112m On the top of Sydenham Hill, at one end or the other (median) 13 Lambeth 110m Along Westow Hill, probably at the top of Jasper Road (retail) 14 Havering 105m In Havering-atte-Bower, by the church or the cricket pitch (village) 15 Islington 100m Road junction where Hornsey Lane meets Highgate Hill (steep) 16 Brent 92m On Wakemans Hill Avenue between Kingsbury and Colindale (suburban) 17 Waltham Forest 91m The trig point on the top of Pole Hill, Chingford (proper) 18 Redbridge 90m Top of Cabin Hill, Hainault Forest Country Park (brambly) 19 Kingston 90m Covered reservoir at Telegraph Hill, Malden Rushett (private) 20 Ealing 85m Trig pillar at the summit of Horsenden Hill (glorious) 21 Bexley 83m Langdon Shaw, a residential road by the Sidcup bypass (estate) 22 Wandsworth 60m On a heaped mound of spoil on Putney Heath (tumulus) 23 Richmond 56m Up King Henry's Mound in Richmond Park (vista) 24 Merton 55m Along the southern edge of Wimbledon Common, probably (common) 25 Westminster 50m Where Boundary Road crosses Finchley Road (trunk) 26 Ham & Fulham 45m Along the Harrow Road, just west of Kensal Green Cemetery (mundane) 27 Ken & Chelsea 45m Entrance to Kensal Green Cemetery, on Harrow Road (funereal) 28 Barking & Dag 43m North end of Chadwell Heath Cemetery, Marks Gate (grave) 29 Hackney 39m Where Woodberry Grove meets Green Lanes, Manor House (parky) 30 Hounslow 33m Traditionally the junction of Meadow Waye and The Vale in Heston
(alternatively where Western Road crosses the Grand Union Canal)
(uncertain) 31 City of London 22m Where Chancery Lane meets High Holborn, WC1 (central) 32 Tower Hamlets 16m Maybe where Cambridge Heath Road cross the Regents Canal
Or maybe around Altab Ali Park, Whitechapel
(it's a flat borough, so nobody's entirely sure)
(no idea) 33 Newham 15m Traditionally the corner of Sidney Road, Wanstead Flats
(but quite possibly now in QEOP opposite John Lewis)
» 100 photos of London Borough Tops
» List and map of London Borough Tops
» Ollie's OS-updated list of London Borough Tops
» The whole series in order, top to bottom (page 1) (page 2)
posted 08:00 :
Saturday, August 30, 2014LONDON BOROUGH TOPS
Bromley: Westerham Heights
245 metres (1st out of 33) [map] [map] [map]
The highest point in my final borough is also the highest point in London. It's on the southeastern edge of the capital, slap bang on the border with Kent. It's not in a field or up a track, it's on the main road south of Biggin Hill. It's Westerham Heights, and at 245 metres (804 feet) above sea level it's really quite surprisingly high.
Let's put this in perspective. It's higher than One Canada Square (235m), the Crystal Palace transmitter (219m), the Gherkin (180m) and the BT Tower (177m). It's over 100 metres higher than the London Eye (135m), the crest of Wembley's arch (133m) and the tallest skyscraper in Stratford (133m). I know it's not entirely kosher to judge a building from ground to top against a height above sea level, but if we pretend it is, then Westerham Heights is taller than every single building in London except the Shard.
It's also higher than every point in Hertfordshire (244m), Bedfordshire (243m) and the Isle of Wight (241m). It's convincingly higher than everywhere in Northamptonshire (225m), Nottinghamshire (225m) and - not surprisingly - Norfolk (105m). It's only three metres lower than the highest point in East Sussex (248m), and only six metres lower than the highest point in Kent (251m), which is nearby. And all of this is thanks to the North Downs, a ridge of chalk hills that runs to the south of London, in this case just to the north of the M25. Parts of Bromley are really quite scenically lumpy, if you've ever been that out far to take a look. You can even take the bus.
The highest bus stop in London is a request stop at Hawleys Corner, a fiveways junction on the border with Kent. The 246 will drop you here near the end of a long run out to Westerham, not that many get out because there are only a handful of houses hereabouts. London's highest house is a cottage well-screened by hedges, and with a very convenient post box immediately outside the front gate. There's also an incredibly convenient Indian restaurant just across the road, the flagship of the Shampan chain, a 350-seater opened three years ago. Previously the building was a pub, The Spinning Wheel, and out front is a tiny thatched cottage which, if you go back far enough, used to be a tearoom. Our dining-out preferences have changed somewhat over the years, but on my visit to the area I have to say I'd much have preferred a cuppa. [4 photos]
A sign on the road leading north from the junction welcomes you to Bromley, and a sign leading south welcomes you to Kent. It's true that the road passes from one authority to the other at this point, but the boundary runs another 400m south along the left-hand hedge. The highest field in London is very hard to see, being almost entirely screened by trees and with no public right of way passing through. It looked a bit overgrown through the gate on Grays Road, but aerial shots suggest it gets a bit meadowier further in. The garden centre on the right of the main road used to be in London too until 1994, at which point it was transferred to Sevenoaks council, hence the composts, new season roses and discount fireworks are now sold outside the capital.
Hawleys Corner is nine metres lower than London's highest point, which is located 400m up the road. To start with there's a verge, but then pedestrians are forced off into the path of oncoming traffic because this isn't really somewhere people walk. Near the top of Westerham Hill is a small electricity substation and then a large livery stables, each of these still on the Kent side and so of no interest. But the hedge opposite rises and rises until the road starts to dip down, and it's precisely here that London ultimately tops out. It's a shame that you can't actually stand 245m above sea level in London, only 236, but you can stand at 245m two steps into Kent, and that'll do for me.
A track leads off from a locked gate at the crucial location, giving pedestrians the opportunity to step off the road and stand by an outcrop of nettles. They're Kentish nettles, but the tree spreading above is a London oak. Not that you'll be looking in that direction. The open vista across the next field will have grabbed your eye, with the land falling away to reveal the wooded High Weald in the distance. It is typical, I guess, that the view only becomes distantly impressive the second you step fractionally outside the capital.
There's a better view from the next gate down, currently across golden stalks, in the last field before the land drops away. The M25 is hidden in the valley, only a mile away but 120 metres lower down. I considered walking to the bottom of Westerham Hill but thought better of it, given the speed of the cars up the 10% gradient and the lack of a verge between the hedges. Instead I found a gap and stared across to the other side of the road where the land rises to the highest point in Kent, Betsom's Hill. A couple of horses grazed on the summit, or near enough, and somewhere in an indentation lay a hidden car repair business. That'll be the Graham Hall Coachworks, which is also the name of the highest bus stop in Kent. This unassuming brow holds several elevation records, and only Londoners on the Shard's top viewing platform stand taller.
by bus: 246
» 100 photos of London Borough Tops (three from each, and one extra today)
» List and map of London Borough Tops
» Previous reports: Outer NE; Inner E; Inner N; Inner NW; Outer NW; Outer N; Outer W; Inner SW; Outer S; Inner SE; Outer SE
posted 01:00 :
Friday, August 29, 2014LONDON BOROUGH TOPS
Greenwich: Shooters Hill
132 metres (8th out of 33) [map] [map]
Not to Greenwich Hill but Shooters, a much loftier prominence to the southeast of town. Watling Street runs over the summit, and once led Canterbury pilgrims and Kent-bound stagecoaches into potential danger in the woods. Were early highwaymen responsible for the Shooters Hill name, or did it come from archers using the slopes for target practice? 18th century travellers and their horses paused at The Bull for refreshment, the current building being a Victorian rebuild. An octagonal water tower was built later on the top of the hill, broodily gothic in style, and probably the most visible water tower in the whole of London. Much of the northwestern flank of the hill was covered by housing in the 1930s, but the southern side mostly survived undeveloped, including the ancient forest of Oxleas Wood (which also fought off a proposed road scheme in the 1990s). Deep in the trees is Severndroog Castle, very recently restored and reopened after triumphant efforts by local volunteers. I wanted to go inside but this was my last Borough Top visit of the day so I was about an hour too late. A shame, because from the viewing platform on the roof you can see all the way across to Central London, in much the same way that from Central London you can see all the way back to here. [3 photos]
I'd expected the highest point to be on the Oxleas side but no, it's wrapped up within the Wimpey estate. A recreation ground covers most of the hilltop, which is a nice touch, with a few fortunate flats encroaching from the west. This is Eaglesfield Recreation Ground, much of which has too steep a gradient for ball games but there is a flatter zone at the top where a children's playground has replaced a Yacht Pond. I'd never been up here before, so was impressed to stand on the slopes by the Green Flag and stare out across Bexley, the Dartford Crossing and the Thames estuary beyond. The towers of the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge are only fractionally higher than this hilltop, and most everything else within the panorama substantially lower. The land below Eaglesfield Road drops away fairly steeply across Shooters Hill Golf Course, and in the valley below is Woodlands Farm, possibly the closest agricultural land to the centre of London, and definitely the largest city farm in the whole of Britain. Meanwhile up on the summit, behind a row of trees, is a quiet approximately square pond with a boardwalk for dipping purposes along one bank. The whole thing's fenced off to prevent improper access, which must really annoy whoever had kicked a red football into the water and couldn't retrieve it. And there's a single bench overlooking the lot, where I sat and congratulated myself on reaching the 33rd of my 33 borough tops, and wondered if there might be a medal or certificate. My apologies but I'm writing this out of order, so you've still got two to go.
by train: Falconwood by bus: 89, 244, 486
LONDON BOROUGH TOPS
Bexley: Langdon Shaw
83 metres (21st out of 33) [map] [map]
Nowhere in the London borough of Bexley attains the lofty heights of Greenwich nextdoor. Instead there's a significant ridge at Belvedere near the Thames, and a more general rise up from the Cray valley in the south of the borough. Very very nearly on the border with Bromley is a small prominence, extant as a ring contour on the OS map and also plainly visible in real life. It's perhaps best seen from Frognal Corner, a major roundabout on the A20 Sidcup Bypass close to Queen Mary's Hospital. The playing fields of the local sixth form college rise fairly sharply to make room for a single sports pitch on the top plateau, where the groundsman has already erected the rugby posts for next term's games afternoons. [3 photos]
The top of the hill sits at the rear of a housing estate along a single road called Langdon Shaw. It's not a long road, more a hooked crescent of about fifty homes, I'd say postwar semis, and a pleasantly ordinary slice of Outer London. One resident has a black cab, two have caravans, and I suspect there are several Mail and Express readers behind the net curtains. Two of them came out to fill their wheelie bins, and two small boys rode their bikes repeatedly along the pavement to the dividing line their parents had set and back again. And I thought there might not be much more to say until I walked down to the junction with Tyron Way and saw the view. It's been a theme of my London Borough Top journey, spotting views of somewhere else (generally central London) from high points all across the capital. And this didn't disappoint, first with an obvious sightline to Shooter's Hill beyond the "Humps for 300 yards" sign, then the traditional Shard/Gherkin combo from the lawn by the postbox plus Canary Wharf poking its pyramid above the nearest rooftop. Langdon Shaw's a very ordinary street, for sure, but with a special outlook that only those who live up here ever see.
by train: Sidcup by bus: 160, 229, 269, 286, B14, R11
» 96 photos of London Borough Tops (three each, so far, and four to go)
» List and map of London Borough Tops
» Previous reports: Outer NE; Inner E; Inner N; Inner NW; Outer NW; Outer N; Outer W; Inner SW; Outer S; Inner SE
posted 01:00 :
Thursday, August 28, 2014I'm nearly done with London Borough Tops, but there are a few stonking southeastern heights still to go...
LONDON BOROUGH TOPS
Lewisham: Sydenham Hill
Southwark: Sydenham Hill
112 metres (11th and 12th out of 33) [map] [map]
For the avid London Borough Top bagger, inner southeast London makes it easy. Five boroughs meet on the Crystal Palace plateau, and two of these precisely share their highest point. The boundary between Lewisham and Southwark follows the ridge of Sydenham Hill, so find the peak contour along the way and you can cross off two boroughs simultaneously. Where precisely that is remains debatable, or at least I've been unable to to find definitive proof on the internet to persuade me that one point definitely beats another. But that's OK, I'm here for two boroughs-worth of ascent, so I can write a bit about both. [3 photos]
I think the proper summit of Sydenham Hill is on the bend in the ridge and the end of Wells Head Road. A capacious crossroads covers the high point, fairly tediously, with a lone traffic island in the centre. The only building of note is the Dulwich Wood House, an attractive looking gastropub with a trellis-topped tower, but because their website currently loads with a "Plan your Christmas now" pop-up, I'm loath to write anything else complimentary about them. Opposite the pub is a gated walk up from Sydenham Hill station, and a relentlessly long slog it is too, at least 50 metres up from platform to summit. Thankfully it's also rather pretty, more private drive than public footpath, passing as it does through the heart of Dulwich Wood. A little further round, at the foot of an equally steep hillside, are the delights of Sydenham Hill Wood. Formerly railway land, now wildlife haven, a blocked-up tunnel can still be seen where tracks led under the hill to Upper Sydenham station.
Back up at the summit a lot of the surrounding housing is, surprisingly, flats. Those on the Lewisham side are fairly mundane, but those on the Southwark side get the tumbling-away contours and so have more prestige. The crescent along the ridge is called Woodsyre, and is as pretentious as it sounds, with mere plebs discouraged from walking anywhere near what would otherwise be very ordinary flats. Big green signs scream Unauthorised Entry To Houses and Grounds Prohibited, and announce that this is part of the Dulwich Estate, hence the perceived need to keep away. At Rock Hill the steep descent even has Private Road painted in large unfriendly letters on the tarmac, and a street sign describing this as a Private Cul-de-Sac in case you haven't got the hint.
In this short distance the ridge top road has dipped and risen again, to reach a secondary peak which Ollie thinks may be loftier than the other. An OS spot height declares 111m rather than 112, so maybe he's wrong, but standing here it'd be impossible to bet money on which end of the dip is actually the higher. The next ugly brown block of flats on the Southwark side is called Blyton House after one of the borough's more famous residents, but much more exciting is the blue plaque on the neighbouring house dedicated to Sir Francis Pettit Smith, Pioneer Of The Screw Propeller. His is one of several grand Victorian townhouses and cottages along the final stretch of hilltop road, originally built on land leased from Dulwich College, now just fantastically prestigious places to live. Note the lack of TV aerials on any of the roofs, this because the Crystal Palace transmitter is at the end of the road, almost but not quite as high as this exclusive residential ridge.
by train: Sydenham Hill by bus: 202, 356, 363
LONDON BOROUGH TOPS
Lambeth: Westow Hill
110 metres (13th out of 33) [map] [map]
At the other end of Crystal Palace Parade, Southwark meets Bromley meets Croydon meets Lambeth. It always feels strange to me that Lambeth stretches this far out, poking out past Norwood and rising to a tapering point. The boutiquey parade from Cafe Paradou to Doris Florist is somehow in Lambeth, as is the quirky Westow House pub on the big crossroads. It's around here that the borough's highest point is reached, although judgement by eye suggests it's fractionally further west along the main shopping street, Westow Hill. The first estate agents' boasts a blue plaque to beat them all, announcing that impressionist painter Camille Pissaro stayed here for a few months in 1870-1871. He emigrated briefly from France to avoid the Franco-Prussian War, leaving a legacy of a dozen local paintings of what was then London's rural fringe. He'd have more trouble finding spots to set up his easel nowadays, but there is a fantastic view from the hilltop a little further along. [3 photos]
Try peering through the lattice at the bin store round the back of number 63a, and there's the Shard and City cluster perfectly framed beyond the guttering. But move on to the junction of Woodland Road and the vista opens wider for some woo, yes, I like that. Four-storey terraced townhouses stagger steeply down the street, dropping so sharply that the basement of number 3 is higher than the roof of number 35. And hanging beyond above the treetops there's the City again, more detailed than expected, with the Barbican's three towers clearly separate from the main Shard/Gherkin groupings. It was chucking it down with rain when I visited so I suspect I didn't see the view at its best, plus various items of street furniture and scaffolding lowered the tone. But for a combination of panorama, retail options and accessibility, the top of Lambeth's probably one of London's best.
by train: Crystal Palace by bus: 249, 322, 417, 432, 450
» 90 photos of London Borough Tops (three each, so far)
» List and map of London Borough Tops
» Previous reports: Outer NE; Inner E; Inner N; Inner NW; Outer NW; Outer N; Outer W; Inner SW; Outer S
posted 01:00 :
Wednesday, August 27, 2014Norfolk postcard: RAF Air Defence Radar Museum
Neatishead, nr Wroxham, NR12 8YB
Times: 10am-5pm. Entrance: £7
Open: the second Saturday of the month, plus Tuesdays, Thursdays and Bank Holiday Mondays between April and October
You won't find it on the Ordnance Survey map, not if your map's of a certain age, because during the Cold War it didn't officially exist. But RAF Neatishead used to be the Control and Reporting Centre for air defences across the south of the UK, which means nuclear bombers would have been tracked and directed from this unassuming spot beside the Norfolk Broads. And before that it was a pioneering hub in early radar experiments, helping us to win World War II by anticipating when the Luftwaffe's aerial attacks would come. And now it's a museum - a highly intriguing one - which tells a dozen stories with a local connection. They've been open twenty years, on and off, but saw their greatest ever number of visitors this Bank Holiday Monday, one of whom was me.
The building doesn't look so big when you arrive, but that's deceptive because (unsuprisingly) the biggest room's underground. You'll get there on the guided tour, which kicks off every half hour or so from the briefing room opposite the cafe. Everything's run by volunteers, most of whom used to be servicemen hereabouts so are experts and brimming with appropriate anecdotes. They'll lead you off down to the first room, which is set out circa 1940 when radar was in its infancy, and explains how enemy attacks during the Battle of Britain were repulsed. By 1942, in the second room, technology had moved on somewhat, with a spinning dish up top and the familiar trace/blip on an electronic screen. You can find out far more about the dawn of radar in some of the adjacent rooms once the tour's over, including how it spread to planes, the golfballs at Fylingdales, and even the back end of the Falkland Islands.
But it's the third room on the tour that sends shivers, the bunker from which the last four minutes of life in Britain could have been conducted. Neatishead's role was to scramble all the RAF's planes into the pre-nuclear sky in the hope that they'd have somewhere safe to land sometime afterwards. We came close, apparently, and the base continued to monitor Russian planes' sorties down the North Sea in case this was ever 'the one'. Staff here stood down in 2006 and passed control to a single tracking station in Northumberland, leaving the obsolete electronics and command positions to a mere sightseeing role. You may not be reassured to hear that the large glass information screens on the main wall were filled in by staff writing backwards from behind with chinagraph pencils - on such low technology rested the fate of our nation.
Once left to explore on your own, there are umpteen rooms of military malarkey to explore. Many of these are related to Neatishead, but others relate to the much larger RAF Coltishall. This closed down eight years ago after several decades of service, and all the ephemera stored in the air base's museum and archive had to go somewhere. From Spitfires to Vulcans and Lightnings to Harriers, the volunteers can tell you much more, including the lowdown on how difficult some were to maintain. But there are none outside at Neatishead today, not least because much of the exterior of the site is still run by the RAF as a Remote Radar Head and therefore remains Top Secret. Sssh, don't tell everybody.
posted 07:00 :
Suffolk postcard: Ickworth House
Horringer, nr Bury St Edmunds, IP29 5QE
House opening times: 11am-5pm. Entrance price: £14
Ickworth's a most unusual building. The central portion looks like it's landed from outer space, a double decker monster with a giant rocket booster on top landed unexpectedly in the heart of the Suffolk countryside. In truth it's an Italianate rotunda built around the turn of the 18th century for the Marquesses of Bristol, a dynasty renowned for hell-raising behaviour right up to the present day. Two single storey wings curve off to each side, each deceptively thin, more for show than practical use. The family lived at the end of the east wing, and the central rotunda was usually used only for guests, especially when shooting parties descended and needed a luxurious base. Today the National Trust owns the lot, leasing the east wing as a posh hotel and much of the west wing as a conference centre, leaving visitors the glorious centre to explore.
Entry is via the servants' quarters, the entire downstairs slice, expertly dressed up with as it might have been one day in 1935. Even the scratchy toilet paper looks authentic, but it's a bit cold down there in places, even in August. Climb the staircase to enter a broad high opulent entrance hall, and a trio of grand state rooms dressed with drapes, chandeliers and accumulated works of art. The upper level houses bedrooms for guests and is on an equally lofty scale, with daylight streaming down through a void in the hollow roof. As usual the Trust's volunteers are on hand to tell you more, even more politely helpful here than usual, and there's a tasteful cafe (and second hand book stall) tucked away in the west wing.
Outside is the first Italianate Garden in Britain. It's more topiary-based than floral, with a secret "stumpery" hidden behind hedges at the rear where decades of spiky tree roots have been decoratively positioned to create a fairy tale vibe. Assuming you're up for a walk the estate stretches for miles, down past the parish church, walled garden, ornamental river and beyond. Various tracks are signposted, although the prescribed times for completing them are ludicrous as if calculated for joggers rather than genteel NT patrons. The park and gardens are open all year, with the house open most days of the week from Easter to the end of October. The full package isn't cheap, but if you're ever in the Bury St Edmunds area... yeah right.
posted 01:00 :
Tuesday, August 26, 2014The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich usually throws a good exhibition. They've done Nelson, they've done astronomy, and now they're doing time. Specifically they're doing Longitude, to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Longitude Act in July 1714. The exhibition is called Ships, Clocks & Stars, which is the museum's attempt to make a fairly obscure theme sound slightly more exciting. I'm not convincing the title is luring people in, but a steady stream of visitors was trotting round the exhibition last week which bodes well for its six month run.
The downstairs gallery kicks off with a video of the rolling sea and also a Sponsor Statement, which is the usual pile of corporate guff, but thanks for all the money. First up we have to discover what longitude is and why it was critically important, and this is well explained within a giant globe. Britain's sea trade relied on ships knowing precisely where they were, and while north-south could be determined from the sky, east-west was impossible to determine accurately. The government put up a £20000 prize, a life-changing amount in its time, and Britons chased after it with a variety of schemes. Some were crackpot, which fills another room, while two shone through, and the remainder of the exhibition concentrates on those.
Chief of these were John Harrison's clocks, more normally to be seen in the Royal Observatory on the hill, but moved down to the museum until the New Year. The intricately mechanical H1, H2 and H3 appear in one display case, while the much smaller H4 is more easily overlooked alongside. Indeed many visitors walked straight past the victorious pocketwatch without giving it a second glance, before discovering in the subsequent rooms quite how ground-breakingly important it was. Some interesting graphic devices and screens keep what could be a dry story fresh, although you'll probably not want to drag any smaller children round.
The other successful method of calculating longitude involved taking measurements of the phases of the moon. This wasn't easy on a ship, plus you had to be an expert mathematician to do the calculations, so the timekeeper method generally worked rather better. But this is a good excuse for the museum to get several gleaming scientific instruments out of its archive, and this fills up much of the rest of the exhibition. It's no blockbuster overall, but it's interesting enough, and it's good to explore a key historical story that challenges intellectually.
Tickets cost £8.50, which also gets you a free look around the Royal Observatory. Ditto tickets for the Royal Observatory cost £8.50 and also get you a free look round the Ships, Clocks & Stars exhibition. I'd not been round the Royal Observatory since they introduced an admission charge in 2011, so it was good to visit again and see what's changed. Most of the time stuff has been temporarily removed, and the space filled with a collection of steampunk creations with a fictional narrative. It's not what you'd expect, and I doubt most of the visitors quite understood what was going on, but it's sparky and fun, if not entirely relevant.
The biggest change since the observatory started charging is in the composition of the crowd. Previously there'd be Britons in amongst the visitors, but on my visit they seemed conspicuously absent. Instead most people here are foreign visitors "doing London", and shuffling round the building taking in the heritage sights. And the most depressing difference is in the main courtyard where the meridian line cuts across the cobbles. Where this used to be an informal free-for-all, now a long queue builds up so that each and every visitor can have their minute astride the meridian. They wait for ages for the chance to pose in front of the metal sculpture... grin, snap, post to Facebook and move on. If you've been missing the chance to do the same, Ships, Clocks & Stars might inspire you to see zero degrees longitude again.
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