diamond geezer

 Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Marking the meridian: Chingford

What are the chances of the meridian passing precisely through the summit of the tallest hill in northeast London? But it does.

This is the top of Pole Hill, a wooded hillock in Norman Tebbitt's old stomping round of Chingford. It's quiet, it's gorgeous, and it's unique. This is the edge of London, the border with Essex lying less than half a mile away. This is where the green belt begins, the northern slopes rolling down to form the edge of Epping Forest. And this is where the Greenwich Meridian passes, marked by not one but two stone pillars.

xlvi) The taller, western monument was built first. Unlike most of the other markers along the meridian it's not just ornamental but once served a real practical purpose. In the early 19th century the main telescope at Greenwich was James Bradley's transit telescope. This was used to observe the passage of stars across their highest point in the sky by timing them as they passed a fixed north line. Any transit telescope needs to be checked regularly to ensure that it really is pointing north and so a northern reference marker was required. It was an extremely fortunate coincidence that the Greenwich Meridian passed exactly through a hilltop 11 miles to the north - and that's why the Astronomer Royal of the day built an obelisk here on Pole Hill.
This pillar was erected in 1824 under the direction of the Reverend John Pond M.A. Astronomer Royal. It was placed on the Greenwich Meridian and its purpose was to indicate the direction of true North from the transit telescope of the Royal Observatory. The Greenwich Meridian, as changed in 1850 & adopted by international agreement in 1884 as the line of zero longitude, passes 19 feet to the East of this pillar.
xlvii) The shorter, eastern monument was built later when the Airy meridian was adopted at Greenwich. It's a stumpy concrete triangulation point, complete with Ordnance Survey benchmark (which is strange given that all OS maps are still constructed based on the Bradley meridian 6 metres to the west). Recently a few local yobs appear to have added some unnecessary streaks of red graffiti to this particular monument, but they're probably just aerosols.

Lawrence of Arabia adored this place so much that he purchased a plot of land on the hilltop and built himself a small timber hut and a tiny swimming pool. The hut no longer stands and I found no evidence of the pool, but there's still a great view from the top of Pole Hill. You can gaze down towards the City skyline, with the BT Tower and London Eye immediately recognisable in the distant Thames valley. Unfortunately the one place you can't see any more is Greenwich because the surrounding trees have grown up over the years and blocked the important line of sight from the great transit telescope. Maybe the view's better in the winter but I loved the place with leaves, long grass and and tiny spiders hanging from the trees. A place of true beauty on the meridian - what are the chances of that?


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