LONDON BOROUGH TOPS Waltham Forest: Pole Hill 91 metres (17th out of 33) [map][map]
The highest point in the borough of Waltham Forest is a proper hill, indeed one of the more special hills within the Greater London boundary. Pole Hill rises above the western end of the town of Chingford, indeed the hill is named after St Paul's Church on the village green, which is in turn named after St Paul's Cathedral. It actually feels like a proper hill when you climb it too, rising steeply from the Lea Valley alongside, indeed there's a mighty fine view across two reservoirs from the grassy slopes on the western flank. Or you can walk up via the residential avenues of Chingford Green, one of whose houses on Woodberry Way has a back garden rising almost to the summit. One particularly famous resident of Arabia Way was Lawrence of Arabia, back when he was the only person here and living (occasionally) in a hut in the woods. Or the easiest ascent is up the unmade road along the edge of the golf course, rising gently into forest to reach a beechy earthen glade. There are sufficient ways up and down Pole Hill to provide considerable variety for even the most demanding Chingford-based jogger or dog walker. [3 photos]
Step out onto the plateau at the top of Pole Hill and you'll find a pair of pillars, both of which hold significance. The smaller is the Ordnance Survey trig point, recording an elevation of one foot below three hundred. It's also on the Greenwich Meridian, which by a complete coincidence passes through the summit of the hill. This fortuitous alignment was used by the Royal Observatory's astronomers who used to line up their telescopes in Greenwich with the top of Pole Hill ten miles due north. The other obelisk was erected in 1824 when the Greenwich Meridian ran 19 feet west of where it does now, lined up on the crosshairs of James Bradley's transit telescope. It's therefore fortunate, or perhaps deliberate, that the tree cover is at its thinnest in this general direction, although copious branches have grown up far enough in the intervening years to completely obstruct views of Greenwich through the summer.
I do love sitting up here - there's one bench - although the finest panorama from the Gherkin round to the BT Tower can only be seen by standing on it. Others enjoy the peace too, evidenced by the empty can of Strongbow perched on the plinth at the foot of the obelisk. Two cyclists - I suspect they'd like to think of themselves as mountain bikers - paused by the summit before diving between the oak trees to plunge down the slopes to the west. And two joggers passed by, one sweating across his now two-tone t-shirt, the other ambling slowly in pristine vest. I eventually picked my exit route and followed one of them down, but not before enjoying my Pole position for a little while longer. by train: Chingford by bus: 313, 379, 385
LONDON BOROUGH TOPS Redbridge: Cabin Hill 90 metres (18th out of 33) [map][map]
Hainault ForestCountry Park, it seems, is a treat known only to locals from almost-Essex. They drive in, or maybe walk from the estates of Hainault if they're that way inclined, and park up in number at the end of the lane. From here a variety of activities suggest themselves. A trip to Foxburrows Farm - a petting zoo treat for the littluns - or the chance to buy something & chips at the Global Cafe (a popular choice that at the weekend, I noted). Several three-generation families had brought picnics and were sprawled out on the grass, generally not too far from the car for convenience sake, slowly bloating and reddening as the afternoon passed. What you can't currently do is walk on the site where thousands of military 'volunteers' camped out during the Olympics, because amazingly that's still sealed off even two years afterwards to give the wild flower carpet time to regroup. Or you could go for a walk - there are several trails across the site, some merely up the meadow and back but others more worthy ascents into deep forest. And one of these woodland walks, from the farthest end of the site, leads up to Redbridge's Borough Top. [3 photos]
The Greater London boundary runs in from Grange Hill and Chigwell Row, almost precisely slicing the Country Park in two. Along the way it passes through the summit of Cabin Hill, where Redbridge meets Havering meets Essex, with the London side more steeply sloping than the wooded out-of-town flanks beyond. On the gravel path ascent I passed several visitors walking slowly, pretending not to be out of breath, and a retired couple brambling for first fruits in the hedgerow and dropping their bounty into an M&S bag. And at the pinnacle itself, treats and disappointment. A treat, in that the borough of Redbridge has plonked a huge wastebin emblazoned with the name of the council on its highest point. A treat in that an information board explains what there is to see nearby, including the immediately-adjacent county through the hedge. And a disappointment in that the bench where I'd hoped to sit was already taken by a teenager checking his phone, and no way was he going anywhere while (presumably) the rest of his family explored the woodland paths beyond. Tree cover atop Cabin Hill means there's no view as such, but a definite sense of place presides. by tube: Grange Hill by bus: 247, 362
I decided on a three mile walk to the next Borough Top, rather than attempting to find a bus, instead reprising the second half of London Loop section 20. Top choice. The path tumbled down a golf course, then cut a furrow through a field of head-high corn as if this were the American midwest. Down in the Rom Valley a farmhand swept by on his combine harvester, feeding grain into a truck, waving as he passed. And on the other side a spectacular panorama of London Skyscraper Central became visible across the fields, before I climbed (via one of only two redwood plantations in Britain) through Havering Country Park. That good.
LONDON BOROUGH TOPS Havering: Havering-atte-Bower 105 metres (14th out of 33) [map][map]
This triple-barrelled village probably shouldn't be part of London, and only scrapes inside by half a mile. Havering-atte-Bower is a proper hilltop settlement with a green and a twisty main street, plus royal connections to Edward the Confessor established a timber lodge here. This became the centre of hunting grounds known as The Royal Liberty of Havering, and later a proper palace grew up (to which the 'atte-Bower' suffix relates). Nothing remains, although the parish church is built on the highest point which is the site of the old palace chapel. St James and St John lost its parish priest two years back and now shares a vicar with a much more modern building down the hill in Collier Row. The churchyard slopes upwards, which makes the village green fractionally higher, possibly sloping upwards to the stocks by the T-Junction. By London standards buses are infrequent, but those who live in the adjacent cottages mostly drive or, as seems very typical round here, ride a horse. [3 photos]
Or maybe the other half of the village is higher - whoever compiled the list of London Borough Tops isn't certain. Broxhill Road dips slightly down and then back up again towards the cricket club, and it's very hard to judge which end is higher purely by eye. Hence Havering has an alternative secondary peak barely quarter of a mile east of the first, also at 105 metres, in the vicinity of Round House Farm. A bright white water tower rises here, perhaps evidence that engineers thought this was the highest point hereabouts. The cricket ground must have a good claim too. Within its chalk-lined boundary all is flat, but immediately beyond the land tumbles away to reveal Romford, intermediate suburbia, Dartford and the heights of Kent in the far distance. The Thames really does carve a valley through the heart of London, even in its more estuarine reaches, and the elevated residents of Havering-atte-Bower see this more clearly than most. by bus: 375 (not Sunday)
LONDON BOROUGH TOPS Barking & Dagenham: Marks Gate 43 metres (28th out of 33) [map][map]
Sorry, but after those three elevated treats, this is potentially more of a letdown. Barking and Dagenham is another flattish borough, rising gently as it tapers north along Whalebone Lane but without ever breaking into a proper climb. The top end of the borough features broad arable fields, broken by a curry-based Rollerbowl experience and the housing estates of Marks Gate. The main road's a bit grim, lined on one side by a McDonalds, various lowbrow farm shops and a huge quarry ("Danger Quicksand"). Somewhere in the scrubby verge is the Mark's Stone, a stumpy boundary marker with the dubious honour of being the final place I ever visited on my Random Borough tour. And just south of Kingston Hill Avenue is a landscaped hump planted with trees, adjacent to a fenced-off lawn where brave residents sunbathe amidst potential dogpoo. [3 photos]
But the highest point in B&D, it's thought, lies within the perimeter of Chadwell Heath Cemetery. This is far more interesting than its situation suggests, laid out in the early 1930s by Dagenham Borough Council (look out for their insignia on the entrance gates) and is unexpectedly Grade II listed. At the cemetery's heart is a slim Art Deco chapel, designed by the borough surveyor, surrounded by an orbital pathway through the gravestones aligned to resemble an astronomical diagram. I would have explored more deeply had not the official closing time just passed, afraid the gates might be locked upon me if I ventured too far within. But the ground to the north rose sharply up a steep grassy bank to an 8-acre cemetery extension, currently under development now that the lower site is full up. Those eventually interred within this flat turfed platform will sit at the very pinnacle of Barking and Dagenham, a concept I'm reassured to have discovered actually exists. by train: Chadwell Heath by bus: 62, 296, 362