diamond geezer

 Sunday, September 13, 2015

Beyond London (9): Slough (part 1)

I'm now halfway through my district-by-district journey round the outside of London, and oh joy, it's Slough. John Betjeman's least favourite suburb has a depressingly mundane reputation as a town neutered by progress, although dropping bombs on the place would be going too far. My mission to visit Slough and find it interesting was therefore a considerable challenge, there being not a single tourist attraction (and barely a scrap of countryside) within its diminuitive boundary. But I managed just fine, in part thanks to it being Heritage Open Days weekend, on a journey that took me from Mars to Uranus (insert joke here) [14 photos]

Somewhere to begin: Slough Museum
You may be wondering why Slough has a museum. It doesn't have much of one, tucked away in a single downstairs room at the concrete vault otherwise known as the town's main library. But Slough does have a history, as an assemblage of medieval villages and as a more modern industrial town, so there is a tale to tell. Two whole walls are given over to local exhibits, plus a special display case given over to the town's most world-famous resident (of whom more later). A lot of the references are to businesses that started out in Slough, such as Horlicks, Suttons Seeds and Ladybird children's clothing, or to stuff that was simply made here, such as Ex-Lax, the 1948 Olympic torch and chocolate (of which more later). Some of the exhibits are old in the wrong way, like the 'modern' mobile phone that's older than all the schoolchildren who must come visiting. But expect all that to be shaken up when the museum (and library, et al) moves into a stonkingly new cultural centre called The Curve at the end of the year, one of many futuristic buildings being dotted across the town centre as Slough forcibly regenerates. Betjeman's Slough is being replaced by something he might have hated even more, in which case the surfeit of shiny roofs will at least make the place easier to target.
by train: Slough  by bus: 81

Somewhere historic: St Laurence, Upton-cum-Chalvey
The oldest building in Slough is the parish church of the former village of Upton, on the edge of the Thames marshes overlooking the fields of Eton. I hope I haven't made that sound too idyllic, because today the church sits by a roundabout near the M4, with aeroplane noise thrown in for good measure. But St Laurence's somehow survived the Reformation and centuries of neglect, helped in no small measure by its proximity to royal Windsor, and several Norman features remain. It's now Grade I listed, and was the only building in Slough to scrape onto the Heritage Open Days programme this weekend. Which is great, because I got to go inside and see the man buried under the carpet, and see his window, and meet the parishioners who keep the church ticking over. I think they were very pleased to see a visitor.

The man in question was Sir William Herschel, Astronomer to the Court of George III, who made his name by being the first person in millennia to discover a planet. The planet in question was Uranus (originally known as 'Herschel', although William would have preferred to call it George's Star), identified in 1781 from a back garden in Bath. With new found fame came a move to Buckinghamshire to be closer to the King, first to Datchet and then to Observatory House in Slough, where William lived for almost 40 years until his death. With his cutting edge Forty Foot Telescope he went on to discover two moons of Saturn and over 2000 nebulae, deduced the existence of infra-red radiation and was the first person to coin the word 'asteroid'. Not surprisingly the town of Slough has been only too keen to commemorate his fame, naming a street and a park in his honour, and a shopping centre after his observatory. They also knocked down his house, this back in the 1960s, and when I went along to see what they'd replaced it with I discovered they've just knocked that down too.

Herschel is buried inside St Laurence's in a tomb beneath the tower. Normally it's covered by a carpet to protect the inscription, but on special days they roll it back to reveal the Planet Man's final resting place. Thankfully there's another more obvious memorial in the west wall, where a beautiful trio of stained glass windows was installed in 2001. They depict the planets of the solar system, along with Herschel and his telescope, with pride of place given to the gas giant Uranus at the centre of a misty blue roundel. But there's plenty more to see within the church, as my guide was only too pleased to explain. The chancel's old and gorgeous, the font's Norman, and half the building was added in the mid 19th century after Queen Victoria and others gave money to rescue the tumbledown masonry. A peculiar touch was added by having the theme from Riverdance and Sade's Smooth Operator playing out over the PA, I think on panpipes or something of that ilk, plus there was a vast table of homemade jams, jellies, chutneys and marmalades for sale "while stocks last", which looked like it might be several months. I bought two.

Nextdoor is Upton Court, a large 14th century timbered manor house, and across the road is the entrance to Herschel Park. This semi-formal Victorian creation was originally built for the sole use of those living in the fine villas around the perimeter, but now anyone can come, especially it seems small children on a duck feeding mission. A nature reserve fills the space between the park and the M4, with raised woodland paths looking out across the carriageways - I met nobody on my safari, it was great. Do grab the three trail leaflets from the Museum to help you enjoy this municipal space to best effect. And if anyone ever tries to convince you that Slough is all despond, Upton's elegant desirability should be enough to change your mind.

Somewhere pretty: Slough Canal Arm

Slough came to the canal network late - only the Manchester Ship Canal is younger. The Slough Canal Arm was opened in 1882 to service a new brickworks to the north of the town, providing a direct link to the Grand Union five miles to the east. Initial success soon faded once supplies of clay and gravel started running out, and a long decline led to closure in 1960, after which the canal might have been filled in. But local campaigners fought back and persuaded the British Waterways Board otherwise, helped by there being no expensive-to-mantain locks along its length, and the Canal Arm reopened in 1975. As a navigable cul-de-sac that heads nowhere special the waterway's not busy, but the towpath provides a popular route to walk or cycle. [4 photos]

I started at Slough Wharf on the Stoke Poges Road, once I'd spotted that what looked like an overgrown supplies depot was in fact the canal basin. There were no welcoming facilities on the reedy banks, only a basin for turning round, so it seems nobody's promoting Slough as a narrowboat destination. But the towpath looked well maintained and appealing as the waterway headed off arrow straight through the trees. The other side of the canal adjoined back gardens, pylons and a mosque, while the nearside turned out rather more industrial, because the centre of Slough is like that. These backwaters were the preserve of ducks and fussing moorhens, plus a lone swan guzzling down water from the channel, and only the occasional plastic bag. A few bikes shot by, and the odd supermarket shopper, and then a narrowboat with a dozen sightseers on board... because once again I'd chosen the day of my visit with care.

This weekend sees the annual Canal Festival taking place in Bloom Park (a slightly awkward location because this is the point where the Canal Arm exits Slough and enters Bucks). A few dozen boats were moored up along the towpath, some with bright flowers and bunting on top, others more mundane, with the opportunity for a short ride if you'd booked ahead. But the main action was in the park where a large arena had been set out with doggy-jump hurdles, surrounded by a threadbare collection of stalls from local organisations. There were sheep and birds of prey to meet (not simultaneously), and ferrets to race, and a van or two selling burgers, plus a tent half-full of craftspeople (where the Friends of Slough Canal were holding forth). According to the earnest man on the public address the Dulux Dog is expected to visit today, which'll be an excellent photo opportunity for all the family, but I'll give that a miss. I also skipped walking the remaining four miles to Yiewsley, because it had been a long day, but I must return and do the whole lot one day.
by train: Slough, Langley, (Iver, West Drayton)

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