diamond geezer

 Wednesday, April 30, 2014

URBAN WALKS (RMT edition)
Euston to Bow (6 miles)

Thanks to those nice people at the RMT, London is once again a walking city. The travelling population has taken to the streets, abandoning the subways in favour of a swift Spring stroll. Many central thoroughfares are teeming with people taking advantage of the sunshine and a chance to see the sights. I felt compelled to join the perambulating masses in their overground joy, so took a six mile hike from the Euston Road to home. Strike out, why don't you, and join an RMT walk today.




It's an exciting day to be at Euston, to be sure. There are people everywhere, tonight gushing in rather than spilling out. And there are buses everywhere, many of them not moving because another of the buses is immediately in front. One of these buses is going to my house, but it's not moving, and it's full, so surely a walk would be a better idea.

The Euston Road is heaving, as befits a historic thoroughfare. Some careful dodging helps keep my walk on track as a merry band of ramblers stride towards me. Some are deep in conversation, but others seem less happy, tugging suitcases up the gentle hill from the British Library. The gothic towers of St Pancras are an early highlight, sidelit in the late afternoon sun. And then another human surge throngs Kings Cross Square, around the new Giraffe Kiosk, where earlier several members of the RMT were handing out walking leaflets. It seems many have stopped to take their advice.

Continuing straight ahead on Pentonville Road, the path ascends out of the valley of the River Fleet. My walking pace is faster than a bus, I decide, but those on two wheels are definitely nipping by faster. Some are more than confident, whereas others are wobbly first timers taking advantage of the RMT's generosity. It takes some time to cross the Great North Road at the Angel, where the flood of bikes seems at its height, and the whiff of exhaust fume particulates is strong. I remember a bike shop here by the hotel - it's gone, and a fresh façade of brick shields yet another infill of brightly lit offices.

Shortly I pass the home of the Crafts Council in their classical pillared HQ. The string of new buildings shooting up further down the City Road is perhaps less welcome. These soaring apartment towers have names like Lexicon and Caravaggio, this particular pair overlooking the end of the City Basin, and are the latest penthouse hideaways for foreign investors. Another nearing completion is called The Eagle, named after the old pub immortalised in Pop Goes The Weasel. It's proper monolithic, rising like a tower of Mordor opposite the Moorfields Eye Hospital, but that's the way the money goes.



How hipster is Shoreditch these days? My walk takes me from the tech hub at Silicon Roundabout into the heart of bleeding-edge cool, past an even greater number of cyclists than before. Most of the lunchier pop-ups have packed away, but a number of parked-up scooters remain, and the backstreets are brimming with infeasible numbers of men with lumberjack beards. They're not walking home, they're hanging around for a craft beer, along with several less stereotypical folk going nowhere fast.

Crossing Brick Lane the buzz dribbles on, down a street of impossibly hip barbers, coffee shops and ukulele dealers. Even the piled-up binbags sit beneath a graffitied three-eyed cat clutching an ice cream cone, such is the artistic gentrification now nudging into the E2 postcode. But the magic fades, or more likely reality returns, past a pub where the Kray Brothers drank, a linen workshop and a 125 year old boxing club. Nobody here is walking the RMT walk, the entire concept of commuting is an irrelevance.

Stepped back from Roman Road, the estates of Bethnal Green are typical of the high density heart of Tower Hamlets. Low-rise blocks intermingle with the occasional terrace of low-brow townhouses. Kids kick footballs against garage walls while a bunch of parents look down from a balcony with beer cans in hand. Through a Victorian arch lies Meath Gardens, formerly a private cemetery, now a large open greenspace surrounded by 21st century flats. I suspect I look conspicuous walking through, the only one not pausing to gossip, play or exercise a dog.

From the footbridge over the Regent's Canal the spires of Canary Wharf are clearly seen, if locally irrelevant. Mile End Park is looking lush, with a speckling of bluebells amid the long grass along the lawn's edge. I duck along the towpath to meander back towards the Mile End Road, where a cavalcade of out-of-town buses is transporting those who've chosen not to walk today. And I confess, I could have caught a Routemaster plying route 205 about four miles back, but where's the challenge in that? The delights of a proper RMT walk, fully embraced, reveal a side of the city those underground never see.



 Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Bang on schedule, very early yesterday morning, the new Pudding Mill Lane station opened to the public. Either you've been down already, in which case you know what it looks like, or you'd like to see some photos, in which case here are 30.
(Another alternative is that the subject of new stations bores you to tears, but you're here aren't you, so I think we can discount that one)

My New Pudding Mill Lane DLR gallery

So what can I tell you?

It's huge
The old station was little more than a raised platform with a shelter on, as was the style of former DLR stations back in the day. But the replacement is enormous, the largest station on the DLR network, because one day that may be important.

It's too big
There is absolutely no justification for a station of this size in the middle of mostly nowhere. But one day Pudding Mill Lane will be at the heart of a new post-Olympic residential neighbourhood... and anyway, Crossrail are paying for the upgrade, so the bigger the better.

It's footballproof
The stairs are really wide, three aisles abreast, so that future stadium crowds can be herded politely in and out (reducing the pressure on Stratford station). The platforms are also on the broad side - all the better for waiting four deep (but not for a couple of years yet).

It's weatherproof
At the old station there wasn't much you could do if a horizontal rainstorm hit, whereas here the tracks might get wet but you can shelter in the dry. The windows are extensive (and currently very clean), should you fancy a look at the Crossrail building site outside.

It's loud
The volume on the "The next train at platform 1 is for Stratford" announcements was rather high yesterday morning, almost joltingly so. I think they turned it down a notch during the day, but I wouldn't buy a new flat too close to the station if I were you.

It's functional
The station won't be winning any awards for its architecture, unless they're awards for Making The Most Of Austerity Funding By Doing Precisely What It Needs To, in which case it has every chance of sweeping the board.

It's a bit teal
The platforms have a bold blue stripe, in the official DLR hue, along the top of the glass wall. Elsewhere the blue is more muted, indeed the handrails on the staircase are more Overground orange, and the exterior of the lift shafts is a rather violent lime green.

It has space to sit
Some stations have very few seats, other than in cafes. At Pudding Mill Lane there are (probably sufficient) seats on the platforms, plus a pair of rather nice elliptical benches downstairs looped around two of the concrete supports.

It's realigned
Trains now head along a new alignment, further from the mainline, and closer to the new 2012 legacy allotments. This broad viaduct route seems quite strange today, but in a decade or so it'll be hard to remember that the line ever went anywhere else.

It's double-tracked
The old station was a mere passing loop in a run of single track railway from Bow Church to Stratford, but the whole of the new viaduct is double tracked, which allows much greater flexibility in timetabling trains and should lead to a more frequent service.

It's no longer all or nothing
At the old station, because of single tracking, either two trains were in the station or none at all. At the new station it tends to be one at a time, hence this suddenly feels much more like a real station and not part of a scheduling ballet.

It's vastly overstaffed
I think I counted ten DLR staff in pink and orange tabards hanging around in the entrance hall and on the platforms. Only one said something to me, this after several minutes, the rest just stood around staring and chatting. They'll be gone within a week.

It's not yet step-free
The lifts were out of service on the first day - both of them - which is damned careless. A fortnight ago there was a perfectly accessible step-free station, and oops, they've replaced it with one that temporarily isn't.

It's very open underneath
Downstairs you simply wander in under the viaduct, so it doesn't look like the station can be sealed off. But there are metal gates if you look carefully, concealed to run beneath the platform signs above the foot of each staircase, along the red line.

It's got space for retail
Nobody in their right mind would open a coffee shop here today. But there's a big empty glass-fronted space for hire beneath the viaduct, and (I'm told) plenty of other units further along for when a convenience store, dry cleaners and estate agents are eventually needed.

It comes with free mints
I was a bit surprised at Stratford station yesterday to be handed a tin of celebratory DLR mints. Nothing PML-related, nothing informative or specific, just a 12g tin of spearmint candies with a roundel imprint. A cool friendly opening day gesture, or a baffling waste of funds?

It's not been officially opened
Normally Boris pops down and gives some bubbly speech on day one, especially when station openings are rare as hens' teeth. But presumably TfL deemed negotiating an end to today's tube strike more important than celebrating the dawn of a ticket-office-less station.

It's the future
The station has no ticket office and is generally unstaffed, but passengers still manage to travel. Meanwhile the trains have no expensive drivers, just attendants on cheaper salaries. The DLR is run the way TfL would like to run the tube one day... but that day remains a long way off.

It's the last new station for years
Now that this last piece of Olympic fallout is complete, there are no immediate plans for any fresh station openings elsewhere. Croxley's three years off, Crossrail five, Battersea heaven knows when, and anything intermediate was scrapped on Boris's bonfire of budget cuts some time back.

It's closed this weekend
Just in case you were thinking of coming down this weekend for a look, don't. The station's closed over the entire bank holiday weekend because of Crossrail work. Indeed the entire surrounding area is still very much a building site, and likely to remain so for some time.

It's huge
It's too big, far too big for now. On a Tuesday afternoon or late at night you could very easily be the only person here, rattling around inside this vast transport cathedral. But one day Pudding Mill Lane station will come of age, and then you might even come and take a look.

 Monday, April 28, 2014

There's one Metropolitan railway all Londoners know - the purple line on the tube map heading out towards Amersham. But there is another London railway with the Metropolitan title, some considerable distance away, and it's a steam railway to boot. You've probably never been, it's not yet been open a year, but it is still a railway with a fine history and with considerable plans for growth.



The Metropolitan Water Board Railway runs in the southwestern corner of London in the general vicinity of Sunbury, Hanworth and Kempton. More precisely it runs in the grounds of the Kempton Park Water Works, a massive engineering feat built to pump water into London in the 1920s. The engine house required coal to power it, and this was unloaded at a Thameside wharf in Hampton. From here a three mile narrow gauge railway transported the fuel via a meandering route through a collection of reservoirs, across the Upper Sunbury Road and around Kempton Park racecourse. The line closed after the war when road replaced rail, with the pumping station finally taken out of action in 1980. Thankfully the engine house was restored about ten years ago, and is now the most amazing museum. And the railway kicked back into action last spring, thanks to the hard work of a body of volunteers, and is open every Sunday (and certain Saturdays) between now and November.

I say railway, whereas what I really mean is a brief loop of track in a field of horses. The engine shed is a metal container of the kind transported on lorries, and the ticket office is a hut with an awning out front. More to the point there's only one station, Hanworth Halt, and that's little more than a bench on some patio tiles at the end of a gravel path. But mock not, it's a professionally run affair, with hats and uniforms and everything, and even a level crossing part way round. Plus there's a proper vintage steam engine circa 1903 by the name of Darent, pulling a Large Devon Coach for the comfort of passengers. Every miniature railway with big dreams has to start somewhere.



Saturday was a steaming weekend at the Kempton Steam Museum, so the railway was open to paying customers. Most tacked their rail journey onto to a much longer trip round the museum, but it was hard to miss the friendly volunteers waiting to encourage you aboard. Tickets cost £2 for adults and £1 for children, sold by an extremely keen young girl playing her full part in proceedings, and who didn't try too hard to sell any of the other railway-related souvenirs laid out close by. At least four further volunteers were down on the platform, who along with the train crew pretty much filled the place up. Tickets were duly checked and clipped, and doors secured, and off we hurtled at a fairly sedate pace.

For the best view you need to sit on the right hand side of the train. On the left you get up close to the nettles and the other undergrowth round the edge of the field, plus the occasional engine shed, but the curvature of the train means you'll never see the loco. On the right you'll also get to enjoy the field, or more likely its horses, plus watch the steam billow across the tracks as each Whistle point passes. One of these is by the big yellow signal on the approach to the station, where there might be someone to wave at you from the fledgling 'picnic site'. You should catch sight of the tall twin chimneys of the power station through the trees, they're unmissable hereabouts. And I won't reveal how many times round the loop you get for your two quid, but rest assured it's more than two.

The Metropolitan Water Board Railway has some extremely ambitious expansion plans, and why not, because it pays to think big. They want to extend the railway along its original route, or at least as far as they can before hitting the impenetrable Thames Water treatment works in Hampton. The extension's not going to be in any way easy. Permission will be required to cross roads, lanes, paths and aqueducts, and the old trackbed will need to be cleared up to allow new tracks to pass. Most awkwardly where the old railway dipped below the main line to Shepperton there's now only seven feet of headroom, so the tracks will probably need to be lowered. But if all goes to plan then trains should (eventually) be able to reach a new station to be created inside Kempton Nature Reserve, and the current demonstration loop can be dismantled.



The main attraction round here is the Kempton Steam Museum, one of London's less well known engineering marvels. The Art Deco engine house contains the largest working triple-expansion steam engine in the world, a multi-level monster over 60 feet high, plus another identical model not in working order. The latter is used for guided tours, if you have a head for heights, and provides an amazing perspective as the great beast opposite powers up. I wrote a full report on KSM back in 2007 (see here) but never had time for the full guided tour and that turned out to be excellent. If you like big greasy machines, or just want to go somewhere with true wow factor, be sure to stick Kempton Steam Museum on your must-visit list. If you need tempting further, Andrew was also there this weekend and took some rather splendid photos. You've seen nothing like it, I assure you.

» Kempton Steam Museum (visiting times) (audio tour)
» Kempton Steam Railway (2014 timetable & brochure) (history video)

Steaming weekends at Kempton take place roughly once a month from March to November, with the next being on May 24th and 25th. They're definitely the best time to come, because you get to see the engine house in full operation and the railway running. To view the museum's engines in static mode, come along any Tuesday or Thursday from 10.30am to 4pm. The railway meanwhile is open every Sunday, but be warned you'll have to contact them in advance else you'll never get through the locked entrance gate. That's not going to help visitor numbers this coming Sunday, so your presence would be more welcome than ever. Or maybe step up and join Kempton's volunteers yourself, because several dozen smiling faces can't be wrong.

 Sunday, April 27, 2014

This isn't true.



But it will be true tomorrow morning at 0517 when the first Stratford-bound train pulls into the new Pudding Mill Lane station. The line's been closed for the last 10 days so that the connection to the old station can be broken and fresh tracks to the new station can be laid. All that has now happened, and this weekend DLR trains are running in practice mode to make sure everything works. Every few minutes a train glides out of the station along the new viaduct towards Stratford, a band of hi-vis employees at the helm, then a few minutes later another glides back to pull up at the new platforms. Business as usual is now very close.



Nothing's very usual for would-be passengers, though, as the switchback of paths through the surrounding Crossrail site continues to migrate. The usual access up Pudding Mill Lane has been closed, and pedestrians are instead diverted up neighbouring Marshgate Lane. This had been closed since 2007, and was then reappropriated as the main Olympic Park vehicle entrance, but all that temporary infrastructure's now been wiped away. Instead a reinstated road (lined with very young flowerbeds) heads beneath the new railway viaduct and then the old, providing vehicle access to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park Loop Road. Those wishing to walk to the new station are directed through a new lime-walled passage which leads back onto Pudding Mill Lane, and from there they can enter the brand new station from underneath. That's starting tomorrow morning, twelve hours from now, until which time the ghost trains rumble on.

Note to dissatisfied commenters
Yes, this is my blog and I can write what I like. Don't feel obligated to read it.

 Saturday, April 26, 2014

It's been the most exciting run-in to the Premier League title race in years.

Liverpool are running away with the title, they've had a stunning run of results, they literally demolished Norwich at the weekend, although it was a close match in the end, a definite champions' performance, and Sterling had an incredible match, but they're only five points clear, and Chelsea are snapping at their heels, although it could be closer, they really weren't expecting to be beaten by Sunderland like that, nobody was, it was one hell of a surprise defeat, I mean they're the bottom club for heaven's sake, now that's embarrassing, it was Jose Mourinho's first home Premier League defeat, and yet earlier in the season it'd looked like Chelsea's title to lose, mind you they said that about Arsenal, now look at them hanging on in fourth, they might even not make it into the Champions League this year, something that's never happened before, all it takes is Everton playing well over their last three games, but they've still got to play Man City who are two places above them, that'll be a needle match, and it's not clear whether David Silva's ankle injury will play a part, but Aguero's hamstring has healed up, that's got to help, and City have a game in hand of course, so even though they're six points behind that could potentially be only three, and then there are still other games to play so it's anyone's title really, though not Arsenal, they've now lost one match too many, but they've got quite an easy run-in at the end of the season, all the bottom clubs including Norwich, again, in fact Norwich have got a killer end of the season playing all the top clubs, well I say top, Manchester United are having a rough time of late, hardly the team of old, not that it was ever going to be once Sir Alex left, a truly hard act to follow, and surely David Moyes was never going to amount to anything, I mean it must be hideously humbling to be only the seventh best football team in the country, I wonder if Ryan Giggs knows what he's taking on, they're all offering their praise today but you wait until he has a run of losing matches under his belt, I mean imagine the damage Sunderland could do, it was Borini's penalty that stuck the knife in at Stamford Bridge, the Blues just couldn't get past that goalkeeper, and they must be gutted that Ramires is out for the rest of the season, but that's a four match ban for you, serves him right for elbowing, and it might well turn out to be critical, especially if it all comes down to goal difference, because Man City's goal difference is much better than Chelsea's, and they've got a game in hand, so what could happen is that Man City win their match in hand against Aston Villa and then that leapfrogs them above Chelsea but if they only draw then that puts the two teams equal on points so that's when goal difference kicks in and that would put City not Chelsea in second, and in that case even Arsenal could sneak ahead if they win all their remaining games and the teams above them don't, that's how the game works, but Arsenal can no longer win the title, it's between the top three teams now, in fact the title's in Liverpool's hands now, all they have to do is win all three of their last three games, or win two and draw one, that'd still be enough, but if they only win two and lose the other then there is a chance that Man City could climb level on points and they'd probably have the better goal difference, but not necessarily, you can never take anything for granted in football, that's the whole point, but having said that Chelsea are surely going to beat Norwich, and Arsenal'll beat them too, so Norwich are definitely going down, and that could have quite an impact on the title challenge, but not as much impact as this weekend's top of the table clash between Liverpool and Chelsea, blimey that really is Super Sunday, we can expect high drama as the top two teams battle it out for three points, and Chelsea well know that a win might just let Man City through to take the honours, but then Chelsea have the best defence record in the Premier League, although Liverpool have won 13 of the two teams' 21 Premier League meetings at Anfield, and statistics like that are always important, but perhaps Chelsea will prioritise their Champions League second leg instead, because arguably that's where the greatest chance of glory is, and meanwhile Arsenal of course have the great distraction of the FA Cup Final, because it's about time Arsène got some silverware because his cupboard has been bare for years, it's quite frankly embarrassing, and Arsenal really threw away the league title earlier in the season, so at any lesser club he'd have been sacked by now, but a trophy would perk him up no end, and the signs are good because Arsenal thrashed cup finalists Hull in the league last weekend, and everyone knows that one football match is very much an indicator of how another will play out, like how West Ham beat Sunderland earlier in the month but Sunderland beat Chelsea and Chelsea are better than Man City so West Ham will obviously beat Man City in the last match of the season, stands to reason, and I can't believe it'll all be over in a fortnight, but there are still so many ways it could all pan out, the race for the fourth Champions League slot is especially tight, it's basically Arsenal versus Everton, which is ironic because Everton beat Arsenal recently but that slip up against Crystal Palace has cost them dear, not even Jason Puncheon's half-volley could help them, but Everton can go ahead if they beat Southampton today and then pretend they're fourth until Monday evening when Arsenal beat Newcastle, unless Newcastle win, or unless Southampton win, whatever, and we haven't even mentioned Tottenham yet, but then we don't have to really because they're no longer in the running for anything, not unless some mathematical improbability plays out, but it could happen, football's a funny old game, even with Liverpool five points clear they aren't yet assured of the title, but they must be the definite favourites, that is unless some other team wins, because it's wide open like that, and we probably won't know until the last match, but that's not going to stop me from endlessly speculating about what might happen and who might beat who and why, and the title's still basically anyone's.

It's been the most tedious run-in to the Premier League title race in years.

 Friday, April 25, 2014

COUNTRY WALKS (Book One, 1971 edition)
Walk 1: Black Park

Langley to Uxbridge (11 miles)

Having picked up a 1970s copy of London Transport's Country Walks (30p from all good Underground stations), I thought I'd better start with walk number 1. It didn't sound promising, a walk from almost-Slough through the motorway end of Bucks to the shops at Uxbridge. But it was somewhere I'd never been before, and all accessible by London bus and tube. In accordance with the instructions I took the Piccadilly line to Hounslow West and then the number 81 bus, which was an adventure in itself. The Bath Road alongside Heathrow Airport is surely one of the most architecturally vacuous in the capital, but the centre of the village of Colnbrook proved rather sweet. I alighted as directed at the Cedar Way bus stop in Langley, in a very ordinary slice of suburbia, and kept my fingers crossed that instructions I was about to follow hadn't changed too much in 43 years. If you'd like to follow along, I've traced out the route for you here.




For the first half mile or so, there's nothing country about this walk at all. A metalled tree-lined path leads between Langley's more ordinary housing estates, before arriving suddenly at a 12th century parish church. St Mary's is the hub of the amusingly named Parish of Langley Marish, and boasts a line of rather nice almshouses running along behind. My guidebook then referred to "a dirt track over the railway", whereas instead a revamped footbridge has been opened over the Great Western as part of the Colne Valley Trail. Here I passed a weary young couple waiting patiently for their young son to tire of watching the trains so they could go home. Next I crossed the parallel Slough Arm canal bridge, and then paused for the first time to try to work out which way to head next. The book's instructions were detailed and precise, but only if you were sure which "cross-path" was which, and were absolutely sure it hadn't subsequently disappeared.

A brief trek through a caravan park convinced me I was on the right track, watched over by the twitching curtains along retirement trailers. And then it was out into what the book promised would be a timely highlight... "The walk is particularly attractive in Spring when the cherry orchards just outside Langley are in blossom." I'd timed it perfectly, seasonally speaking, but alas now only two lone cherry trees remained at the centre of a large grassy meadow. Through the next meadow the path entered the grounds of Langley Park, the largest mansion hereabouts and set in umpteen acres of landscaped parkland. The 3rd Duke of Marlborough used to live here when he wasn't at Blenheim, and brought in Capability Brown to enhance the view from his windows. Much of the former deer park around the main house is still fenced off, somewhat ineffectively, requiring mere mortals to divert around the perimeter. But the public portion of the estate is extensive and still mighty fine, including a large arboretum and a pastoral lake.



My guidebook had warned me that "Denham is the first place on the walk where refreshment may be obtained", but this was no longer the case. A visitors centre and cafe were added at Langley Park in 2008, and I don't know what ice cream they serve but their 99s are lush. Adjacent are the Temple Gardens, a long-established collection of rhododendrons which are coming into their own at the moment and quite lovely to behold. Stand where the "temple" used to be and a vista opens up between lines of trees stretching all the way to Windsor Castle in the distance. It's easy to see why an organisation like The Friends of Langley Park exists, so do check their website for further details and a History Trail leaflet.

And Langley Park's not the end of it. Across the roaring A412 dual carriageway, the parkland continues for at least another mile to the north. This is Black Park, the largest country park in Buckinghamshire, and formerly the less tame-able half of the Duke of Marlborough's estate. It's named after the Black Pine trees planted here in the 18th century, and there's still a feeling of timber plantation throughout as avenues of conifers lead off in all directions. Down by the lake is another centre of refreshment, very well frequented at the weekend, and a good base for families and friends on shorter strolls. More active souls can enjoy the Go Ape centre deep in the forest, which explains why a dozen folk on Segways suddenly passed me by, bedecked in matching safety helmets, before trundling off in convoy into the trees.



What's most amazing about Black Park is that, even if you've never been, you've almost certainly seen it before. That's because Pinewood Studios (named after the pine woods) are sited on the other side of a long metal fence, through which it's almost possible to glimpse scaffolding, scenery towers and the famous Underwater Stage. And this immediate proximity means that hundreds of scenes from movies have been filmed in Black Park over the years, most especially along the pine avenues and down by the lake. Several Bond films have saved money by pretending this is Eastern Europe, or central Africa, or indeed (in Goldfinger) the area around Fort Knox. I certainly had a sense of déjà vu watching a Harry Potter DVD with my family the day after my walk... "Been there!" "Been there!" "Been there!"

Now halfway through the Country Walk, the route finally exits Black Park to follow Sevenhills Lane. The 1971 instructions mention clumps of trees, hedges and the "little river Alderbourne", but there's been a huge incursion hereabouts since the book was published. Slap bang on top of the old footpath is Junction 16 of the M25, the Denham Interchange, where a vast tract of farmland has been hijacked to link up with the M40. With Sevenhills Lane now forced to cross a tarmac chasm ten lanes and three hard shoulders wide, I wondered if the original right of way through the fields would have been permanently severed. Not so - a hard-to-spot footpath doglegged back to follow the very edge of a slip road. But just as I thought I'd been triumphant, I met two horses guarding a tiny bridge over a brook, and they didn't seem keen to let me pass. I edged forward, they edged forward, and eventually I decided the safest course of action was to retreat.

So I'm sorry, but I never completed the last four miles of the walk. No other footpaths crossed the valley, and the all-conquering motorway blocked all access to the north and west, so I didn't feel up to the lengthy diversion required to continue. I ended up instead on the A412 dual carriageway, trudging awkwardly along the verge in the absence of any pedestrian provision, and headed to Uxbridge via a much less interesting route. I missed out on Denham Village, and I missed out on the Grand Union Canal, rendering page 5 of the walk essentially null and void. But at least I'd explored and enjoyed the twin treats of Langley Park and Black Park, which I'd never even have known about were it not for an old guidebook from when I was six.

 Thursday, April 24, 2014

In 1936, London Transport brought out the first in a series of three books of Country Walks. The idea was very simple, to encourage Londoners out to the extremities of the network to take a stroll in the countryside. People from inner streets and suburban avenues got to enjoy the tracks and byways, fields and riverbanks, and London Transport got to sell more off-peak tickets on otherwise empty tubes and buses, so everyone was a winner.

Three books of Country Walks were produced over the next couple of years. Each came with a specially commissioned Eric Ravilious woodcut on the cover. Each cost threepence, which for over 100 pages was damned good value. Each contained from a dozen to two dozen walks, most of which were approximately around the ten mile mark. Each came with a full page route map, something proper to follow rather than an artistic sketch. And most came with a black and white photo showing some of the delights you might see if you were to venture along the way. Sandwich the lot between a month by month list of flowers in bloom and a copy of the Country Code, and you had a fine book to grace any shelf or knapsack.

During the 1950s London Transport brought out the entire series again, suitably revised and updated, this time with a cover price of two shillings and sixpence. By the start of the 1970s another set of three was on sale, a little more modern in their outlook, but still blessed by those same Ravilious woodcuts on the front. I remember them being on sale in my local tube station, and I also remember that I never bought a copy, which may have had a lot to do with being only six at the time. As a car-less family we were very much the book's target audience, but day-long hikes weren't really suitable for children of infant school age, and 30p was a lot of money in those days.

Thirty years later I'm much more target audience, so I wondered if I could get my hands on a copy. I wanted the 1970s book rather than the originals, because that was the version I could have had but didn't. And a quick search of the internet revealed that yes, people did indeed have copies for sale. Prices varied somewhat, sometimes in relation to condition but also according to website, with some Amazon sellers demanding peanuts and some bespoke sellers charging rather more. I broke the habit of a lifetime and engaged in the digital transaction thing, and hey presto within a week my small blue book arrived.

Blimey it was in good condition - almost new, indeed almost as if I'd owned it myself. I treat books with enormous reverence, never ever breaking the spine, folding a page or even scuffing the cover. So I dipped inside very carefully and soaked in the typeface, the vintage photos and the edge-to-edge Ordnance Survey maps. According to the introduction maps of the Underground are available by writing to the Public Relations Officer at 55 Broadway SW1, while full details of London Country Bus services can be obtained by dialling Reigate 42411. I should, perhaps, never complain about the inadequacies of the updated TfL website again.

Book One contains thirteen walks in total, so obviously I flicked through (carefully) to see where they went. Here's a list, transcribed for posterity (or alternatively someone on Etsy has taken photos of the contents and you can see for yourself).
Walk 1 (10 miles) BLACK PARK: Langley, Black Park, Denham, Uxbridge
Walk 2 (6 miles) FOLLOWING THE PINN: Ickenham, Ruislip, Ruislip Woods, Pinner
Walk 3 (10 miles) THE LEE CHURCHES: Chesham, Pednor The Lee, Chesham
Walk 4 (10½ miles) DOWN ON THE FARM: Chesham, Ashley Green, Hockeridge Bottom, Ley Hill, Chesham
Walk 5 (11 miles) ST ALBANS TOUR: St Albans, St Michael's, Bedmond, St Albans
Walk 6 (11 miles) ESSEX SPIRES: Ongar, Greenstead, Stanford Rivers, Navestock, Kelvedon Hatch, Ongar
Walk 7 (8 miles) THE FRINGE OF THE FOREST: Chingford, High Beach, Upshire, Bell Common, Epping
Walk 8 (6 or 14½ miles) DOWNE AND AROUND: Farnborough, Downe, Cudham, Knockholt, Chevening, Knockholt Pound, Farnborough
Walk 9 (13½ miles) THE NORTH DOWNS: Caterham, Woldingham, South Hawke, Oxted, Tandridge, Tilburstow Hill, Godstone, Caterham
Walk 10 (9 or 11 miles) HEATH AND HILL: Tattenham Corner, Headley, Headley Heath, Mogador, Walton-on-the-Hill
Walk 11 (9½ miles) THE SURREY COMMONS: Leatherhead, Stoke D'Abernon, Oxshott, Esher Common, Claygate, Chessington

INNER LONDON SECTION
Walk 12 (9 miles) RODING TO THE CHING: Wanstead, Leytonstone, Highams Park, Chingford
Walk 13 (11 miles) CAESAR'S CAMP: Wimbledon Common, Richmond Park, Ham Common, Petersham, Richmond Park, Wimbledon Common, Putney Heath
There are some enticing walks on that list, as well as some less well known places you might never think to go. The selection's much closer to the capital than most of the rambles to be found in Country Walks' modern equivalent, the Time Out Book of Country Walks. But that's because back then every walk had to be accessible by underground or red or green bus, and the London Country network only went so far. Things have changed a tad since then. The Metropolitan still stretches to Chesham (walks 2 and 3) but the Central was withdrawn from Ongar (walk 6) twenty years ago. As for buses, your Oyster card will still get you to Farnborough (8) and Leatherhead (11), but St Albans (5) is alas now off limits.

It'd be nice if TfL did something similar today, a publication to encourage us to visit the outer reaches of their empire. A Chiltern ramble from Chalfont and Latimer (on the Met), perhaps, or a North Downs climb at Box Hill (by 465), or a Kentish hike from Chartwell (by 246). But TfL don't produce publications like this any more, because books of country walks aren't on-message and fail to match with key performance indicators. There is the excellent Walk London campaign, of course, but that's increasingly underfunded and in danger of becoming little more than a series of Facebook updates.

There was a time when TfL promoted out of town destinations with vigour. You've probably seen those gorgeous posters at the London Transport Museum promoting Bluebell Time at Kew Gardens, Dorking By Motor Bus, or To Twickenham By Tram. Alas, no more. Instead we have campaigns for select types of transport, generally those commercially sponsored, prioritising the mode of travel rather than the destination. The official TfL Twitter feed has mentioned the River Bus, @BarclaysCycle and @EmiratesAirLDN several times over the last week, for example, but never once suggested somewhere they might take you.

I stepped out on one of the Book One country walks over the Easter weekend, and I'll tell you tomorrow how that went. I also bought Book Two, because I can see me walking a fair few more of these, so eclectic is the selection of places visited. Both copies of course remain pristine, even after a ten mile hike, so please don't ask to borrow either of them, you can jolly well source your own. And if anyone at TfL's ever interested in putting together a collection of 21st century Country Walks accessible by London bus or tube, or in creating a pdf or app on their behalf, I think that would be a mighty fine thing.

 Wednesday, April 23, 2014

For St George's Day, to St George's Fields SE1.

The south side of the Thames built up much more slowly than the north, being mostly marshland, and the largest part of this was St George's Fields. Originally Southwark Field, this medieval expanse lay inland from the Thames between what's now Waterloo station and Elephant and Castle. The land originally gained its saintly name from St George's Church on Borough High Street, in whose parish it sat, although no parishioners lived this far out. Only tracks and causeways crossed the fields, one of these leading eastward from the Horseferry at Lambeth in the general direction of Kent. Londoners used the common land to grow crops and to graze animals, until the development of two new river crossings in the mid 18th century brought greater importance to the area. One of these was Westminster Bridge, the other Blackfriars Bridge, and it was the latter that made the greatest mark.

The architect of Blackfriars Bridge, a certain Robert Mylne, built a grand Parisian-style boulevard due south into St George's Fields. This ran for almost a mile down to the junction with Borough Road, and here Mylne created a circus with a stone obelisk at its centre. New roads were built radiating out in all directions, with the intention of creating a well-to-do neighbourhood of Georgian terraces where previously there'd been only marshland and a pub. The Dog and Duck tavern was replaced by the relocated Bethlem Hospital, otherwise known as Bedlam, and now the home of the Imperial War Museum. The area built up swiftly after that, not always to Mylne's high standards, but the road pattern and especially the obelisk survive.



It's not been here all the time since 1771, having been relocated to nearby Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park in 1905 to make way for a Diamond Jubilee clocktower. Indeed it wasn't until 1998 that the now-listed obelisk was returned to its rightful place at the hub of St George's Circus. You'll most likely see it from the bus, because several routes pass this way, standing tall and lonely in the centre of a large paved piazza. This isn't the most pedestrian friendly of spaces, neither is the surrounding road a complete loop thanks to a one-way street on London Road. But you can get right up close to the inscription - in part tribute, in part grandiose milepost.
North: ERECTED IN XI YEAR OF THE REIGN OF KING GEORGE THE THIRD MDCCLXXI
East: ONE MILE FROM PALACE YARD, WESTMINSTER HALL
South: ONE MILE, CCCL FEET FROM FLEET STREET
West: ONE MILE, XXXX FEET FROM LONDON BRIDGE
Around the edge of St George's Circus the buildings aren't quite so impressive - a tandoori restaurant, a Subway, a wall of 90s student flats and a stack of very 60s offices. The latter, and a considerable length of Blackfriars Road beyond, are under immediate threat of redevelopment from a joint project between Barratt Homes and Southwark Council. To be fair much of what's planned to disappear is ugly postwar commercial architecture, but after the urban cleansing debacle at the nearby Heygate Estate it's hard to view such schemes objectively. Barratt's plans are for a "residential-led, mixed-use scheme" and include what they describe as a "landmark" concave building facing the circus, although their artist's impression suggests mundane and bland to me. Instead the most interesting building hereabouts is concealed behind the brown façade beside Subway - that's the subsurface depot for the Bakerloo Line.

And beyond that, never quite joining up with the circus, lies St George's Road. This broad street runs along the same alignment as that medieval track from Lambeth Palace, skirting the edge of long-vanished fields. It's now part of the one-way system hereabouts, and rather busy, leading up from Elephant and Castle towards Westminster Bridge Road. It's not a retail sort of road, more a mix of residential, religious and educational use. The E&C end's the bleakest, although with some fine turn-of-the-19th tenements at St George's Buildings. Various denominations of faith and non-denominational school get a look-in, plus a few surviving terraces of aspirational Georgian townhouses.

The IWM looks out towards St George's Road across Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park, the latter given to the LCC by Lord Rothermere in 1934 and named after his mother. The park's relatively quiet at the moment, what with the museum being closed for redevelopment, but arguably this creates a better setting for the Dalai Lama's Tibetan Peace Garden. I particularly like the Ice Age Tree Trail, a collection of 34 species that colonised these isles following glacial retreat, including all your well-known trees like oaks and willows but also a wild service tree and a wych elm.

And across the street is St George's Cathedral, which in 1848 became the first Roman Catholic cathedral to be built in England since the Reformation. Its architect was Augustus Pugin, more famous for the rebuilding of the Palace of Westminster, although this is a far less gothic creation. Step inside to stand in the lofty arched nave, which alas isn't original but a postwar rebuild following heavy bombing. Look out for the restored remains of Pugin's high altar frontal in one of the chapels, and a more modern shrine dedicated to the Patron Saint of Migrants alongside the confessional booths. And where better to pay one's respects on St George's Day, than in the cathedral named after the fields named after the parish church named after the patron saint brought home from the Crusades?

» For a truly in-depth history of St George's Fields, Patrick tells all

 Tuesday, April 22, 2014

I had been, thus far, unimpressed by the Year Of The Bus.

The YOTB was announced very quietly, you may remember, at the end of last year. It was to be the follow-up to 2013's highly successful 150th anniversary of the Underground, this time hanging on the 60th anniversary of the Routemaster and the 75th of the RT. But as 2014 began nothing much bus-related actually happened. Tube 150 had the huge advantage of kicking off with a bang with the actual anniversary in the second week of January, whereas the YOTB began with a campaign resembling tumbleweed. Some fashion photos went on top of some bus shelters along Piccadilly, and a New Bus For London got painted silver, but other than that things were rather quiet.

And then these stickers appeared.


Someone had finally come up with a logo for the YOTB, better late than never, and started slapping it on bus stops around the capital. I think it's only ever appeared inside Zone 1, there being too many bus stops throughout the rest of London to justify the expense. It's not exactly a top quality sticker either, more some vinyl that'll peel off easily later, and too small to cover the entire board, and not always stuck on very accurately either. That St George's Circus example above is a bit of a mess, for example.

And then the YOTB logo started appearing on the side of buses.


This doesn't appear on all buses, indeed I'd say a minority, but watch out next time you're boarding in case yours has this emblem stuck on the side. It's a peculiar graphic, in that only half is given over to the YOTB logo, and the other half is devoted to promoting an advertising company. Exterion Media is TfL's outdoor advertising partner, formerly known as CBS Outdoor International (having being rebranded following a private equity takeover in January). It's telling that TfL weren't able to add a logo to the exterior of their own buses without including an advert alongside... or else it's a sign that nobody at TfL would have wasted the company's money on YOTB branding had not a commercial concern stepped in to pay.
Year of the Bus is supported by and delivered in partnership with Exterion Media, Abellio, Arriva London, Clear Channel, Go-Ahead London, Metroline, RATP Dev UK Limited, Stagecoach, Wrightbus, Optare and telent Technology Services.
Things stepped up a notch when the TfL Twitter account started tweeting bus-related facts and sticking #YOTB at the end.
» BUS FACTS: The 25 is the busiest bus route carrying over 23 million people a year, more than the population of Australia #YOTB
» BUS FACT: The first red London buses were introduced in 1907 - all buses in the fleet are painted in Pantone 485c #YearoftheBus #YOTB
» We have improved our on-board iBus system by introducing a digital clock for our passengers’ convenience #YOTB
» Bus Fact – Jill Viner was the first female bus driver in 1974 #YOTB
» Smell like teen spirit at your bus stop? Kurt Cobain is one of the celebs featured in Juergen Teller’s bus stop tops photo exhibition #YOTB
I didn't make that last one up, by the way. But it is the only genuinely YOTB-related tweet. The digital clock that's appeared on the iBus display in the last fortnight isn't really a YOTB initiative, for example, it would have happened anyway. Indeed up to this point I'd say there's been something of a feeling of desperation in the Year Of The Bus's promotional narrative.

Hurrah, then, for the announcement of actual proper Year Of The Bus events. A couple of weeks ago the London Bus Museum stepped in and organised a mass heritage run along route 22, which was of course excellent. The London Transport Museum are running several bus-related talks, including one on Routemasters (not yet sold out) next Tuesday. Rather more excitingly, for people who like buses, a number of bus garages are throwing open their doors for a series of Open Days over the summer. Those confirmed so far are as follows.
Saturday 10 May: Catford Bus Garage
Saturday 7 June: Alperton Bus Garage
Saturday 21 June: Stockwell Bus Garage
Saturday 28 June: Fulwell Bus Garage
Saturday 5 July: Potters Bar Bus Garage
Saturday 19 July: Walworth Bus Garage
For people who like modernist architecture, the really exciting one on that list is Stockwell Bus Garage whose concrete roof is a post-war classic. And for everyone else, the highest profile event takes place the following day in the heart of the West End.
Sunday 22 June - Bus Cavalcade in Regent Street
Around 30 buses, spanning the last century, from Horse Buses through to the very latest New Routemaster will be on display. Visitors will be able to explore the buses and take part in family activities.
It takes a lot of clout to close Regent Street for the day, not least because it buggers up the buses, so this is clearly The Big One in terms of PR mileage and public consciousness. You might well want to mark the third weekend in June in your diary now. You might also note the full-on 60th birthday party for the Routemaster scheduled a few weeks later.
Finsbury Park, London – 12th & 13th July 2014
In 2014, the very first of London's famous Routemaster buses, RM1, will be sixty years old. The Routemaster Association will be commemorating this significant anniversary by staging a birthday party for RM1 at Finsbury Park – and everyone is welcome to join in.
A number of smaller events are planned later in the year, notably the restoration of a 100 year-old Battle Bus to commemorate the centenary of the First World War. But all the best stuff appears to be happening in June and July. Calling it The Year Of The Bus may be overstretching things somewhat, but the Two Months Of The Bus promise to be rather special.

 Monday, April 21, 2014

I've been suffering from reservations recently. That's because I've been travelling on a lot of trains outside London, and you only get reservations on trains outside London. They started out as means to ration seats on busy services, but have metamorphosed into apparatus to allow people to book early and pay less for their tickets. I'm not a big fan of reservations, and here are a dozen reasons why.

1) Reservations take forever to come out of the ticket machine. Remember when tickets were single small pieces of card? Now they're issued as multiple coupons, sometimes 5 or 6 at a time, so there's a real risk that you accidentally leave one in the machine and then your ticket is useless. Also I always end up wasting time at the barrier trying to work out which of the identical orange rectangles is the one I currently need.

2) It's not always obvious where your lettered coach is going to stop before the train comes in. Some train companies make this obvious and stick letters on the platform. Others not so, and you can end up having to walk the length of the train very quickly ("Where's coach C? Where's coach C?) if you guess incorrectly.

3) Sometimes staff don't manage to put the paper reservations in the backs of the seat in time. If the train's delayed at its start point and there's no time for the guard to nip through with the cards, suddenly the entire reservation system collapses and the train degenerates into chaos.

4) Those electronic reservation indicators aren't especially helpful. They're hard to read, and unlike old fashioned paper reservations they never say which stations the seat is reserved between, just "Reserved". The more information the better, but these give far less.

5) You don't always get you what you asked for. On one journey last week I specifically ordered a window seat, but Virgin trains gave me one of their special glassless window seats with no view whatsoever, the bastards. There's no way I'd have chosen to sit there given free choice, but the reservation selection software dumped me in the dark seat anyway.

6) You don't always get the chance to ask for what you do want. I usually prefer a double seat, not a table seat, because that way I can avoid being suddenly surrounded by three loud people I didn't ask to endure a journey beside. But train companies don't offer the option of "not a table seat", they only offer "table seat?".

7) Reservations are inconsistently policed. You go to all that effort to sit in precisely the right seat, and then the ticket inspector doesn't even bother looking at your reservation. Or he gets all heavy-handed ("Can I see your railcard and reservation please?") and makes you feel like a guilty cheapskate.

8) Reservations are rarely policed. Even when someone official actually looks at a reservation, they're usually only interested whether you're on the right train and very rarely check to see if you're in the right seat. Which is annoying if somebody else isn't sitting in their proper seat.

9) Reservations generally have to be policed by passengers, not staff. It's always embarrassing to have to say "Excuse me, I think you're sitting in my seat." I walked onto one long distance train recently to my find my reserved seat occupied by one of a group of foreign students, and decided against saying anything because I didn't want to end up surrounded by the other seven.

10) It's not always obvious which seat number is by the window and which is by the aisle. These people who design graphics think they've made it oh so obvious which is which, but they're wrong. So if you turn up and one of the two seats is occupied, it's hard to argue that they're in the wrong one.

11) A heck of a lot of reserved seats never seem to get used. A byproduct of the insistence on printing a reservation with your ticket is that a lot of people never turn up, or sit somewhere else, or take another train. And that can leave a forest of seats annoyingly unavailable, when really nobody ever had any intention of sitting in them.

12) You end up crammed in the cheap carriage. The most crowded carriage on a long-distance train is usually the one full of people with reservations. The booking software tends to dump everyone together, creating a mostly-reservations carriage, and leaving the rest of the train (where I'd much prefer to sit) rather emptier. Would it really hurt to space us out a bit more? Or indeed simply to reserve us onto the train, not into a specific seat?

There's nothing worse than an automated inconsistent bureaucratic suboptimal incompetent nannying system, and that's what rail ticket reservations appear to have evolved into.

 Sunday, April 20, 2014

50years@BBC2
1964 Play School, Horizon, Match Of The Day, The Likely Lads; 1965 Call My Bluff, Man Alive, Not Only But Also; 1966 The Money Programme, Chronicle; 1967 The Forsyte Saga, colour television; 1968 Gardeners' World; 1969 Pot Black, Civilisation, Q; 1970 The Goodies; 1971 Open University; Face The Music; The Old Grey Whistle Test; Play Away; 1972; 1973 The Ascent Of Man; 1974; 1975 Fawlty Towers, Arena; 1976 I Claudius, One Man And His Dog; 1977 Abigail's Party, Top Gear; 1978 The Great Egg Race; 1979 Life On Earth, Not The Nine O'Clock News, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; 1980 Great Railway Journeys of the World, Newsnight, The Adventure Game, Yes Minister, Training Dogs The Woodhouse Way; 1981 See Hear, The HitchHiker's Guide To The Galaxy; 1982 The Young Ones; 1983 Boys From The Blackstuff; 1984 Floyd On Fish, Threads; 1985 Live Aid, Edge of Darkness, Acorn Antiques; 1986 A Very Peculiar Practice, A Bit Of Fry And Laurie, The Life And Loves Of A She Devil; 1987 French And Saunders, Tutti Frutti; 1988 Red Dwarf, Def II; 1989 The Late Show; 1990 Have I Got News For You, The Mary Whitehouse Experience, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit; 1991 Probably The Best Logos In The History Of The World Ever; 1992 Absolutely Fabulous, Later... with Jools Holland; 1993 Shooting Stars, The Wrong Trousers; 1994 Ready Steady Cook, The Day Today, The Fast Show; 1995 Room 101; 1996 Never Mind The Buzzcocks, This Life, Sister Wendy's Story of Painting, Our Friends In The North; 1997 Ground Force, I'm Alan Partridge, Robot Wars, Holding On, Teletubbies; 1998 Goodness Gracious Me, The Royle Family; 1999 The League Of Gentlemen, The Naked Chef; 2000 The Weakest Link; 2001 The Office; What Not To Wear; 2002 Look Around You, Balamory; 2003 Little Britain, Restoration, QI; 2004 The Catherine Tate Show, Who Do You Think You Are?; 2005 The Apprentice, Mock The Week, Dragons' Den, Springwatch; 2006 The Choir; 2007 The Restaurant, In The Night Garden, The Tudors; 2008 Maestro; 2009 Miranda, Pointless; 2010 The Great British Bake Off, Great British Railway Journeys, Wonders of the Solar System; 2011 Stargazing Live; 2012 Line of Duty; 2013 The Great British Sewing Bee, The Wrong Mans, An Adventure in Space and Time; 2014 Inside No. 9, House of Fools

Leith Hill Place
Location: nr Coldharbour, Surrey RH5 6LY [map]
Open: Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday (11am-5pm) (Apr-Oct)
(welcome leaflet)

One of the National Trust's newest, or at least most recently-opened, properties sits on the slopes below Leith Hill. It's called Leith Hill Place, perhaps not surprisingly, and is of note not because of its architecture but because of the astonishingly talented dynasty that lived there. In particular that's three families instantly recognisable from their surnames; Wedgwood, Darwin, Vaughan Williams. That's quite some dynasty.

The house is a fairly standard country affair, by which I mean it's big and gabled and surrounded by a considerable chunk of land. The shell dates back to 1600, but was done up in Palladian style in the 18th century by Richard Hull, the bloke who built the observation tower on the nearby hill. It's just the sort of house a high-flying businessman might own, and so it was in 1847 that Staffordshire pottery magnate Josiah Wedgwood III snapped it up. That III should be a clue that he's not the Josiah Wedgwood, merely his grandson, who escaped the business early to move to Surrey. He married his cousin Caroline Darwin, sister of the famous Charles, who in turn married Josiah's sister Emma. I hope you're following this.

Joe and Caroline had four children, one of whom - Margaret - married a Gloucestershire vicar called Arthur Vaughan Williams. And their youngest child was called Ralph, who moved to Leith Hall Place in 1875 when his father died prematurely, and who later grew up to become a famous composer. When the house eventually passed back to him in 1944, Ralph met with the National Trust the following day to begin the transfer of the property. The house finally opened, fullish-time, to the public last summer. It's still not really ready, currently being described as "a house in transition", but the NT wanted people in before they'd completely finished restoration. A floor and a bit are open, but you're assured of a warm welcome if you visit.

The house is easily missed, indeed if you follow the orange waymarkers of Leith Hill's woodland walk it's not even signposted, despite being a few yards away. But if you walk up the lane, or park in the Rhododendron Wood car park, you should find the (not especially well signposted) front door. This brings you to the entrance hall, and the official National Trust Greeter, where you can pay your four pounds or flash your card. Ralph learned to play the piano in this hallway, so they've installed one here that wasn't his so visitors can have a go. A much nicer antique piano has been positioned by the window in the Wedgwood Room, also playable, but don't touch the special instrument in the Terrace Room because that's for recitals only.

Rest assured the tea is excellent. Volunteers bake their own cakes in the kitchen, from which the most gorgeous smell of flapjack was emanating on my visit. Refreshments aren't actually priced, you're asked to leave a donation, and then there's the chance to eat and drink your purchases in the Wedgwoods' actual dining room. And the view's good, isn't it? The lawn drops away beyond the rear terrace to reveal the golden farmland of the Weald stretching off as far as the South Downs. You can stand and stare while the music of RVW plays from a recording, or you can step out through the courtyard and enjoy the garden down to the ha-ha at the end. For a completely different aspect, head down to the cellar to see some Egyptian-type murals, more recently graffitied over by pupils at the boarding school Leith Hill Place became.

It won't take you long to look around, afternoon tea excepted. But there is one additional treat upstairs, a 40 minute Ralph Vaughan Williams "soundscape". This covers the length of the second floor and is accessible only by timed ticket, not that there seems much danger of these running out. If the NT volunteer can press the controls correctly, a four-part recording traces Ralph's life story from his Leith Hill Place childhood to a second wife and international acclaim. The first half's narrated by Virginia McKenna, and the last part is really quite moving as the Pastoral Symphony gently fades away.

It's much more a four quid visit than a tenner, but none the worse for that. You could hang on a couple years until they've done the place up properly, but thus far there's music and cake, and an evocative homage to a prodigious talent.

 Saturday, April 19, 2014

Southeast England's not renowned for its mountains. The best we have are hills, and even they aren't much compared to what the rest of the country boasts. But there are some significant peaks in the Chilterns and along the Downs, even if you don't need your climbing boots to reach the summit. And the highest of the lot - at 294 metres the highest point in southeast England - is Leith Hill.

Leith Hill's in Surrey, a few miles south of Dorking on the Greensand Ridge. Box Hill's not far away on the parallel North Downs, but a full 70 metres shorter. It's also much easier to get to, whereas Leith Hill provides more of a challenge. It's a drive-to sort of place, which suits Surrey down to the ground, with five separate car parks spaced out a reasonable distance from its base. A rambler-friendly minibus runs from Dorking on summer Sundays, which saves a five mile hike. Or you can get the train from Victoria down to Holmwood station, any day of the week except Sunday, and from there it's a couple of miles cross-country. Yesterday I did the latter, a most pleasant stroll, and made my assault on the hill from the east.

Much of the surrounding area is owned by the National Trust, and a lot of it's undulating and wooded. Not for nothing did the Olympic cycling road race head for the lanes of Surrey, and I passed a lot of men in lycra yesterday enjoying the contours hereabouts. I also passed a heck of a lot of pheasants, ambling across the fields and skulking into copses, so presumably a lot of the local residents enjoy a good shoot. Plus there were bluebells, oh boy were there bluebells, probably more and more widely spread than I've ever seen anywhere else. Several slopes were a veritable carpet of blue, like some sort of Countryfile porn, ideal for lustful admiration and the taking of copious photos.

After the relative peace of the surrounding slopes the summit of Leith Hill can be rather busy. All those families who've trooped up from the car park slump here and stare out across the view, which it has to be said is damned good. Cyclists rest and drop their bikes awhile, and dogs enjoying longer walkies than usual pause to frolic on the grass. Yesterday there was a lengthy queue at the servery hatch waiting for hot and cold drinks, home-cooked flapjacks and freshly-prepared sandwiches. The previous proprietor moved on last year when the NT demanded a 7-days-a-week franchise, and the new lot are more expensive but one suspects more likely to impress.

At the very summit, beside the trig point, stands a mock gothic tower. This was built by local resident Richard Hull in 1765, partly to act as an observation point, but mostly because the hill fell fractionally short of the magic height of one thousand feet. Richard's 20m Prospect Tower made all the difference, rising above the trees to afford a broader panorama, and he was duly buried underneath when he died. Today the tower's accessible on payment of £1.50, or a flash of one's National Trust Card, including a brief historical display in the tiny room halfway up the spiral staircase.

On a clear day they say you can see 13 counties from the top, so swiftly does the land fall away in each direction. To the south it's easy to watch planes coming into land at Gatwick Airport, considerably lower than you, while if visibility's good the Shoreham Gap may permit sight of the English Channel. To the north you should see London, and maybe Dunstable Downs, although it was a little grey in the distance to catch that yesterday. There is a free telescope, but I'd brought binoculars, and I definitely spotted the Wembley Arch, London Eye, Shard and Docklands cluster. Indeed standing on the top of Leith Hill Tower I was rather higher than Canary Wharf, even slightly higher than the Shard, and absolutely grinning at the prospect.

When you've finally tired of the view, or if you'd like to enjoy it from a different angle, the National Trust have laid on several well-signed walking routes around the estate. The green route's perhaps the least thrilling, but passes the highest cricket ground in southeast England above the village of Coldharbour. The pink route tours the bluebells in Frank's Wood so is magnificent at present, although the mile-long circuit is perhaps less of a must for the rest of the year. The 2½ mile orange route is more definitely the way to go, touring various chunks of woodland and also the Rhododendron Wood, whose flowers are coming into their own at the moment and putting on quite a display.

I thought Leith Hill made a damned excellent day out, if quite a tiring one, and made all the better by the spring sunshine. Plus it had one more treasure to impart, of which more tomorrow (unless you visit today).


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jack of diamonds
Life viewed from London E3

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