Somewhere famous: Slough Trading Estate
Until I properly visited, I'd had no idea how utterly enormous Slough's famous trading estate is. You'll know it from the opening titles to The Office, and as the home of Mars confectionery. But its two square kilometres contain far more than that, including over 500 businesses, several corporate HQs and some prefab-style units where some of my childhood favourite TV programmes were filmed. The estate originally grew out of a WW1 army transport repair depot, conveniently located on either side of the railway, but alas still under construction when the war was over. Surplus wasted vehicles were piled up here, earning the nickname 'The Dump', before the site was sold off to a group of investors who saw much greater potential. They established the Slough Trading Co. Ltd, later renamed Slough Estates Ltd, transforming army sheds into industrial units and adding more. Companies such as Citroën, Johnson & Johnson and Berlei moved in, and service industries such as shops and banks sprung up to serve the growing daytime community. Betjeman's elegy to Slough marks a phase where he thought the estate was growing too fast, but it remains Europe's largest business park in single ownership and drives Slough's powerhouse economy to this day.
I had two particular targets to visit, but to reach them had to stride through a considerable cross section of the 500 acre site. A large sign on the Bath Road announced the Trading Estate's presence with appropriate modern branding, although the units beyond were not always quite so smart. Several looked more like capacious huts, while the majority were gleaming glass temples, or under construction to become the latter. Some businesses on site are relatively unknown, working out of all or some of an anonymous box, but everywhere has a car park because there's always plenty of room. Every road is named after a British town or city, the main thoroughfare being Buckingham Avenue, while the estate also has its own central power station with enormous looming chimneys. Only two bridges link either side of the railway, one of which (from Brunel's era) is currently being replaced with a much wider lorry-friendly span. This has sadly required the demolition of CrossbowHouse, the fictional home of David Brent, whose Office workplace has been replaced by a junction on the new connecting road.
A tyre depot beside the other bridge over the railway, by B&Q, holds a very special place in the history of children's television. Gerry Anderson bought the unit on Ipswich Road in 1959 for the filming of his new series Four Feather Falls, and continued with the production of Supercar and Fireball XL5. Half the building became a studio where puppeteers teetered on a Dexion bridge high above the stage, but noise from the Bath Road and Great Western Railway proved problematic (so sound recording always happened on a Sunday). In 1962 Lew Grade was so impressed by the output from this primitive building that he bought the company, providing enough capital for Anderson to move out. This means it's now barely possible to imagine the building in its heyday, but that space where men in overalls jack up cars to check the tyres was once regularly broadcast on ITV. All production was promptly moved to Stirling Road. This dog-leg cul-de-sac round the back of the power station was lined by a series of semi-detached gabled units, and these could now be separately appropriated for Supermarionation, Art, Post-Production, etc. The last unit on the right-hand side was used for special effects, which were more much important in Stingray (Gerry's 1964 series), and grew to even more explosive proportions in Thunderbirds (1965) and Captain Scarlet (1967). [full history][7 photos]
I will therefore confess to being mildly thrilled as I turned up Stirling Road, even using my phone to play the Thunderbirdstheme tune, its bars first heard when the series launched 50 years ago this month. I knew I was in the right place when I spotted four other pilgrims wandering around with cameras, one of whom was pointing at buildings and doorways as if he knew what he was talking about. The original hut-like units still fill one side of the road, although they're now occupied by businesses that make plastics and industrial hose, and those on the opposite side have almost all been replaced. Nevertheless number 697 still has the word 'Reception' above its doorway, which I'd like to think is a survivor from the days of the Century 21 Organisation. Excitingly, one of these units (unidentified) has just been taken over by a Kickstarter project to film three episodes of "Thunderbirds 1965" using original techniques. But best of all, on my visit at least, the entire road smelt of chocolate! It was wafting across from the adjacent Mars factory - a low metal fortress expelling lorryloads of Maltesers - and making the air a delight to inhale. Two childhood pleasures in one street, fab. by train: Burnham
Somewhere random: Jubilee River
The Thames has long been a threat to the towns of Maidenhead, Windsor and Eton, increasingly so over the last century as its banks have been steadily urbanised. To alleviate the risk of inundation (and associated insurance costs) the Environment Agency dug a seven mile diversion as a flood protection bypass. Where possible they followed the path of minor waterways like the Roundmoor Ditch and the Chalvey Ditch, and completed this major project in 2002 which is why it's called the Jubilee River. Officially it's not a river, it's a 'hydraulic channel', but it acts and looks like one, if in a rather artificial way. Its deep lush banks reminded me of the northern half of the Olympic Park, which performs a similar preventative function, and probably cost almost as much. I was also struck by how wide it was, all the better to hold a once in a generation flood, although following 2014's extremely wet winter some have claimed it's simply pushed the problem further downstream.
I didn't have time to walk the full seven miles, so I targeted the stretch past Slough, accessed off the dual carriageway at the foot of the Windsor Road. It's certainly scenic where the river tumbles down a broad artificial weir, particularly if aheron's taken up fish-watching on top, although other stretches are more blandly reedy and straight. The M4 runs almost alongside, which isn't a coincidence because it too was driven through the marshy bit where residential development would be inadvisable. Planes from Heathrow follow almost overhead, at approximately "disappearing into the clouds" distance, in case you're a bit of a spotter. And I'm told the wetlands at Dorney are rather nice, although I split at the sewage works which aren't. I'd thought the path would be busier, but very few people passed me by - one with dogs, a couple out jogging and the rest on bikes. Indeed the entire route is ideal for cycling, being flat and wide and green, in case you're ever in need of a good ride from not-quite Maidenhead to almost Datchet. [4 photos]