THE NORTH CIRCULAR BY BUS(prologue)
Gunnersbury - Ealing Common Length of journey: 2 miles, 40 minutes
The North Circular Road was conceived by the Greater London Arterial Roads Conferences of 1913-16, a decision-making body from which also sprang the Great West Road and Eastern Avenue. While the South Circular never really took off, being little more than some ordinary roads with a special label, the North was built mostly from scratch. Most of the new road was laid out in the 1920s, and ran from Hanger Lane to Gants Hill via Finchley and Edmonton to create a useful by-pass around the edge of Victorian London. There were plans in the 1940s for the entire A406 to be upgraded to a six-lane highway as part of the mostly-aborted Ringway scheme (ofwhichmorehere). But while several sections of the North Circular are now at motorway standard, for example the eastern extension from the M11 down to Beckton, others still have a much more constricted feel.
I've decided to ride the North Circular by bus. At 25 miles it's a bit long to walk, plus parts of it aren't entirely suitable for pedestrians. Some of it isn't entirely suitable for buses either, there being nobody living alongside, so TfL don't route services that way. But they route buses directly along the rest of the North Circular, so the great majority of this arterial road can be covered in just four buses. Or maybe five, let's see how it all pans out, shall we...
Nowadays the North Circular Road begins at the Chiswick Roundabout. As evidence for this, the road sign on the approach shows five roads radiating outwards, only one of which is appropriately designated. Another points to the South Circular, which might seem unlikely given that we're north of the river, but the A205 really does start here before crossing Kew Bridge and heading round towards Woolwich. This is a seriously important road junction, it's where the M4 begins and continues hundreds of miles west to Swansea and beyond. But by this point the motorway is already in the air, soaring above the roundabout via the legendary ChiswickFlyover. For those of us at ground level the environment is a little more mundane, with walls and garages and other buildings around the not inconsiderable perimeter.
Given the roundabout's size, pedestrians are courteously offered the option of walking straight across the middle. I was pleased to see an attempt's been made to make the route more appealing by lining the path with wild flowers and small trees, plus some stumpy brushed metal lamps to light the way after dark. Someone's even tried to brighten the section beneath the flyover with the inclusion of some girder-like arboreal sculptures, but instead the concrete arches dominate, and this is still more somewhere you'd come to doss down for the night. The Chiswick Flyover was officially opened in 1959 by actress Jayne Mansfield, and her words "It's a sweet little flyover" are printed on an unlikely commemorative sign positioned so that only those on foot will see it. There are also two other giant metal towers, which at first I thought were art but turned out to be supporting electronic adverts for the benefit of passing motorway drivers. On Saturday they were blaring out news of a "Free Flag With The Sun Tomorrow", which should in fact have read "Free Flag With The Sun Today", so maybe the newspaper should ask for their money back.
But these garish signs are nothing compared to what's planned for the empty brownfield site on the northern corner of the roundabout between the motorway and the start of the North Circular. This is the proposed home of the London Octopus, an asymmetric office block that's soon to become the capital's ugliestbuilding. Its exterior will be covered by the largest digital advertising screen in Europe, some 50m tall, with the express intention of providing "an infinite opportunity to express branding in as bold or as subliminal a fashion as can be imagined." Global marketing barons will no doubt salivate at the opportunity to directly engage with high volume traffic flows at "a strategic location with exceptional prominence". But I dare you to explore the Octopus's website without feeling queasy or watch the publicity film without being aghast.
The first two miles of the North Circular follow Gunnersbury Avenue, all the way from the Chiswick Roundabout to the Uxbridge Road. This is a major artery and a mostly-residential road, so it's surprising to find that no London buses head this way. And that meant I had to walk, starting beside the Peugeot garage and striding north past the big B&Q. Traffic going my way was flowing freely, but in the opposite direction was a long tailback of frustrated drivers and the occasional flapping England flag. The road's a four lane highway at this point as it passes the entrance to Gunnersbury Cemetery and runs along the edge of Gunnersbury Park. Should residents on the opposite side of the road choose to visit their local recreational amenity they've been afforded a lofty footbridge, the first of very many I'll be passing before East London is finally reached.
I nipped into the park and its museum at this point, as you'll remember I told you yesterday. Good timing, because the heavens opened while I was inside, and when I returned to the road it was awash with puddles. Indeed exceptionally good timing, because as I reached the junction with Gunnersbury Drive I heard a loud droning noise behind me and turned to see the half the Queen's Birthday flypast approaching. These planes had delighted crowds on The Mall two minutes earlier, and now here they were flying low over Gunnersbury on their way towards RAF Northolt. A lumbering Globemaster III took the lead, ahead of an Air Force Voyager flanked by three Typhoons and three Tornados, the procession aligned precisely overhead. The few of us walking in the right place at the right time grinned in awe, which extended when the Red Arrows appeared and sped across semi-detached rooftops, before normality swiftly returned.
Ahead lies the narrowest section of the A406, a single carriageway with only one lane in each direction. It seems barely worthy of the North Circular brand name, but there's no easy way to widen the road without swallowing up the front gardens, and maybe the homes, of those living to either side. One of those used to be comedian Sid James, he of the Carry On films, commemorated at number 35 by a blue plaque from the British Comedy Society. By now the road is edging into Ealing, and soon runs along the edge of Ealing Common, a very pleasant open expanse. And it's in the far corner, just past the Uxbridge Road, where TfL finally deigns to send a bus along the North Circular. The next seven miles will be rather quicker. 112>>
Update: A surprising inhabitant of Gunnersbury Avenue that I overlooked (thanks Daniel) is the NorthKoreanEmbassy, based in a semi-detached house at 73. Or at least I thought I'd missed it until I looked up where number 73 is, and it turns out I was standing outside when the Queen's Birthday Flypast thundered over. That's it beneath the fighter planes in one of the photos I took, and in the bottom left hand corner of the montage above... what are the chances?