LONDON BOROUGH TOPS The City of London: Chancery Lane/Holborn 22 metres (31st out of 33) [map][map]
The best London summit to tackle first, I thought, would be the most central... in the City of London. There are two historic hills here - Ludgate Hill and Cornhill - around which the ancient city originally grew. But these are barely hills at all, merely gravel terraces overlooking the Thames, and neither quite tops 18 metres in height. Of the two Cornhill is fractionally higher, but is topped by a site outside the old City walls in the ward of Farringdon Without. That place is the westernmost tip of the City of London, partway up High Holborn at the junction with Chancery Lane. Head any further and you'd be climbing into the West End, or Midtown as they'd like you to call it. But south of the Cotswold Outdoor Clothing store on the corner, past the mobile phone shop, Specsavers and Costa Coffee, that's the Lord Mayor's jurisdiction right down to river level. [3 photos]
The precise point, I think, is in the middle of the yellow box junction amid the traffic lights. Cyclists and road vehicles turning right out of Chancery Lane take it in turns to be the highest vehicle in the City, whereas pedestrians would be ill-advised to follow. Instead they can cross via the highest traffic island in the City, a thin paved area down the centre of High Holborn. Few would deliberately linger here, so I got a funny look when I paused to inspect a particularly charming item of old street furniture. It's a ribbed iron column, too tall to be a bollard but too short to be a modern lamppost, its black and white paint peeling with age. It's also far more ornate than function would require, with hoops of floral swirls and knobbles rising up a sturdy pillar to a thinner tapering stalk, topped off by an orb and stubby pointed peak. It's obviously an [insert function of post here], although any hooks or supports for hanging lights or signals are long gone. [Aha, traffic lights, thanks!]
I visited this street corner at the height of the evening rush hour, with the surrounding shops taking the day's last sales and with bikes and commuters rushing all around. It'll almost certainly be the busiest London Borough Top I tick off, as ought to be expected at the heart of the capital's commercial district. And all this just a short distance up from the Thames, because the land immediately north of the riverbank is unexpectedly higher than everywhere in the two east London boroughs I'll be travelling to next. by tube: Chancery Lane by bus: 8, 25, 242, 341, 521
LONDON BOROUGH TOPS Tower Hamlets: Cambridge Heath Road 16 metres (32nd out of 33) [map][map]
There are no hills in Tower Hamlets, unless perhaps you count Tower Hill, which in truth is anything but. The land slopes up imperceptibly from the Thames, with a second gradient rising up from the Lea Valley along the eastern border. The highest point in the borough was therefore always going to be something of a disappointment. A gentle incline rises up the Cambridge Heath Road, past the Museum of Childhood, past the old Town Hall and past a long run of low brick railway arches. You'll know the area if you know the giant gasholder by the Regents Canal, and you'll know the precise spot if you know the lightly-humped bridge where Mare Street crosses over. The highest building in Tower Hamlets, at ground floor level at least, is the Ombra bar and restaurant. Its cuisine is Venetian, which seems highly appropriate overlooking the canalside, with a cluster of giant mushrooms on the roof as a less Italian touch. [3 photos]
But hang on, how can the highest point in a borough be on a canal? Canals are by definition flat, non-existent locks aside, so it makes no sense for there to be a high point here. Indeed the towpath passes three metres below the bridge, along which pass joggers and walkers and streams of ding-ding cyclists. A gap in a graffitied arch reveals a waterside garden, and the buildings alongside the path look like they're the natural ground level instead. Is the canal in a shallow cutting, as evidenced by the cobbled cul-de-sac running down from Cambridge Heath Road to a locked gate beneath the railway viaduct. Or is the land to either side of the bridge raised to allow the road to pass over, and straight on into Hackney with barely a wobble. Depending on where you stand, it's possible to believe either. by train: Cambridge Heath by bus: 26, 48, 55, 106, 254, 388, D6
Which is, I think, why Tower Hamlets has an alternative Borough Top. A handful of London boroughs have one, a secondary peak of approximately the same height, presumably when the author of the definitive list couldn't quite make up their mind. It's mighty hard to scour maps of built-up areas for contour lines, and in this peak-bagging game every metre counts. But Tower Hamlets' second crest is in a much more memorable spot, hurrah, the top right corner of Altab Ali Park. This central E1 greenspace has an illustrious history, it was originally the site of St Mary's Church, the white chapel after which the area is named. A recent makeover picked out the outline of the blitzed church in raised stone, a rather tasteful two-tone memorial, although the fag ends and beer cans discarded all around suggest the seating blocks are used for social pleasure rather than remembrance. And when you stop and think it makes perfect sense that the oldest church in the area would have been built on the highest patch of land, no matter how lowly its elevation. [3 photos]
As part of the park's relandscaping, one corner of the park was adorned with a cluster of artificial mounds. They look like a little like prehistoric barrows, not that such objects would have appeared in a Christian churchyard, especially not one with marble steps up to the top. Scattered amongst the grassy humps are a few large boulders, the intention being to mark out this area beyond the main footpath as somewhere to sit, lounge and recline. Two local gentlemen on the top step eyed me suspiciously as I wandered over and started taking photos. I was trying to line up the replica Shaheed Minar memorial with the tower block in the background for a proper circumspectual shot, whereas they presumably assumed I was there to collect snooping security-related evidence. No problem, I waited until they left, and then trod up the steps to the very top of my borough (houses, apartment blocks and skyscrapers excepted). by tube: Aldgate East by bus: 25, 205, 254
LONDON BOROUGH TOPS Newham: Wanstead Flats 15 metres (33rd out of 33) [map][map]
When the highest point in a London borough is in a place called Something Flats, you know you're in for a mountaineering disappointment. But then, contourwise, Newham is the biggest disappointment of all. Large swathes of the south of the borough are under threat of inundation should the Thames ever flood, and in the event of global warming, no other borough goes under quicker. Indeed the last house in Newham to fall foul of rising floodwaters would be number 6 Sidney Road, Forest Gate... that is assuming rioting, looting and rampant malaria haven't taken out the capital by then. [3 photos]
Newham's northern boundary runs along the edge of Wanstead Flats, the mostly-treeless bottom end of Epping Forest. Sidney Road is the last street before the Flats begin, and the only one where the grassland backs onto a terrace of houses rather than the road. Number 6 is a fairly ordinary end terrace, for Newham at least, with turreted bay window and a palm tree in the front garden. But the borough's highest point isn't out front in the street, but round the back behind the garages. If these houses are in the borough then their outbuildings must be too, hence the Newham boundary protrudes out to swallow a bite-shaped chunk of Redbridge beyond. Head up the driveway between numbers 20 and 22, or more politely walk up the footpath via the Flats, to reach a row of lockups overshadowed by nettly vegetation.
Actually the residents would probably rather you didn't visit. Stickers on the garage doors warn of Closed Circuit Television with 24 Hour Video Recording, although looking around I have my doubts. Instead a Union Jack flutters proudly from a flagpole, a box stashed with garden rubbish awaits collection, and some tomato plants curl dejectedly out of a trio of bright blue growbags. It's left to those at number 6 to make the only splash, their lock-up door painted with the last verse of a Robert Frost poem in chunky colourful letters. Where I'd anticipated nothing, an unexpected highpoint.
LONDON BOROUGH TOPS Newham: Beckton Alps 25 metres (disqualified) [map] Artificial, and hence apparently ineligible.
LONDON BOROUGH TOPS Newham: Westfield Avenue 22 metres (unconfirmed) [map]
After checking the latest Ordnance Survey data, Ollie reckons the new road past John Lewis is now the highest point in Newham.