ROUND TOWER A walk around the edge of Tower Hamlets
10) Hackney Wick → Bow(2 miles) [26 photos]
And finally, on my circumnavigation of the borough of Tower Hamlets, the Olympic fringe. The boundary cuts into a small slice of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, including some bits you'll recognise. And then it follows the Lea, which proves problematic because the only path is on the Newham side, so an awkwardly meandering detour is required. If you're ever planning to walk this twenty mile circuit for yourself, the sudden descent from world famous to backstreet irrelevance probably isn't the best finale. [map]
White Post Lane continues across the Lea Navigation, with fresh slipways down to the waterside as part of the as-yet underwhelming Canal Park. Acres of empty land mark the site of the former Carpenters Business Park trading estate, which one year soon will arise as Sweetwater, one of the post-Olympic residential neighbourhoods. Its twee name came from the Clarnico sweet factory based across the road, of which today only Kings Yard survives. The last vestiges of the remainder were laid low to build QEOP's massive bio-friendly Energy Centre, almost with a look of the multi-storey about it, were it not for the modern chimney releasing steam into the sky. Ahead is Carpenters Road, as yet wilfully undeveloped, with the Park's administrative headquarters housed in blue portakabins to one side. Most visitors passing between the northern and southern halves of QEOP cross high above the road, passing through windswept Mandeville Place, its elevation required to cross the Overground.
It's no coincidence that three of London's poorest boroughs meet at the centre of the largest development site in the capital. The precise intersection is the centre of the railway bridge across the River Lea, which is also the point where the Tower Hamlets boundary turns south and follows the centre of the waterway all the way to the Thames. There's also a footpath, and what's more it's actually open, curving past the mooring crayons to what used to be Carpenters Lock. All of the tumbledown mechanical structure was removed before the Games, leaving a couple of gates and a depth marker, but the mirrored bridge that zigzags across the top is a crowd-pleaser, and the secluded waterside is the highlight of many an Olympic stroll. I still don't understand why there's no longer a footbridge at ground level, but the Tower Hamlets side definitely has the best views (and usually the best flowers).
Laid into the path where three rivers meet is a Pindaric Ode, commissioned (but not written) by Boris Johnson to commemorate London 2012. The path then follows the Old River Lea to the Great British Garden, a triple-centred RHS project based on 'gold, silver and bronze' that too few spectators stumbled upon three years ago. Though still very pleasant its lush planting shines less with every passing summer, and even the swing bench at its heart has recently been broken, taped off and (very) recently removed. My route passes through a tunnel of intertwined branches (avoiding a snogging couple), round the back of the lily pond and past a cleared area with a couple of cheap DIY bee hives.
And then the feel of building site returns, with two helmeted gents guarding Bridge 3 across to Stadium Island, and another barring traffic from the Loop Road. This month pedestrians have been allowed to walk through to the Greenway for the first time, even to duck beneath sewage pipes along the Old River Lea, but they're in the wrong borough again, so my next destination has to be Old Ford Lock. Yes, the Big Breakfast Cottages still stand, the latest owners increasingly concealed and fortified, but not averse to a nice game of croquet on the lawn. And the locks are still busy with narrowboats passing through, watched over by the clientèle of the tiny E20 Lockside Cafe, an angling-friendly hideaway, and about as far from a trendy caffeinated pop-up as it's possible to get.
As the crow flies I'm only 1km from the end of my walk, directly ahead along the River Lea towpath. But at the next footbridge this passes into Newham, so I face a 2km walk through some less lovely parts of Fish Island and Bow instead. Given that I've been walking now for almost eight hours, and my legs feel it, it's not the route I'd choose to take.
Fish Island, named after constituent roads that include Roach, Bream and Dace, ought to be a lowly commercial quarter. Instead the rise of the Olympic fringe has brought increased developmental pressure, held at bay at present thanks to a conservation zone which keeps the warehouses full of artists rather than hipster incomers. I pass a few of the former on bikes, for example at the former Percy Dalton peanut factory, and a few of the latter standing around in the street trying to locate the nearest Eggs Benedict via their smartphone. An uneven staircase leads up to the Greenway, this the point where Bazalgette's main northern sewer emerges above ground level and heads for Beckton. 150 years on it's topped by an important cycleway and footpath, alas again heading into the wrong borough, and the final accessible crossing before the Bow Roundabout.
Wick Lane must once have been a rural backwater, rather than a built-up rat run between decaying echoes of the past. A well-known storage company now occupy the premises of Dudley Stationery Ltd, while other businesses have sequentially been taken over by whopping apartment behemoths for those who'd like to pay over the odds to live out of the way. One one side of the road a derelict brick shell remains, on the other canalside flats butt up against automotive overhaul units, and stumpy streets named Iceland and Autumn. Increasingly tired now, I reach the A12 for the penultimate time in my journey. If only it hadn't once been a motorway it might have a pavement and then my journey south would be easier, neither can I continue along the neighbouring lane. Crossrail sealed off the direct route years ago for the construction of the Pudding Mill Portal, and I can't wait for them to finish so that I can walk around my local neighbourhood unimpeded again.
Instead I have to walk round three sides of Bow Quarter, one of the original gated communities (circa 1990) housed in a repurposed match factory (circa 1910). Once the largest factory in London, and a touchstone in the history of industrial relations, its residents now have their own shop, swimming pool, and restaurant/bar to save them ever having to leave. Beyond the low bridge is Bow bus garage, its location awkwardly forcing every departing double decker to turn left, behind which a small enclave of elegant Victorian terraces survives. And following this dead end avenue leads finally back to the fumes of the A12, and a bleak pavement past substations and a door handle factory to the Bow Roundabout. After eight hours and twenty miles I'm finally back where I started, where the Bow Flyover crosses the Lea, my circumnavigation complete. I've learned a heck of a lot about the borough where I live by walking its perimeter... and my kettle and sofa are thankfully only a couple of minutes away.
London's busiest bus service is the 25, which runs from Ilford to Oxford Circus. But sometimes it feels like two bus services split at Bow Church, roughly halfway, which is where the drivers change over. They're based at a bus garage in Leyton, off-route, but are mustered at Bow Church to chat, swap over and clamber up into the cabin. Sometimes when a bus arrives all the passengers are turfed off off to wait for another service, more often they get to wait for a few minutes while the switch occurs, while at certain times of day the changeover is scheduled elsewhere and there's no delay at all.
Mid-route driver changeovers are never fun, although often essential when garages don't coincide with termini. The lingering 25 particularly annoys me when I'm trying to make a quick dash from Bow to Mile End to catch a train, as the changeover can take longer than the whole of the rest of the journey. Another consequence is that several vehicles often pile up outside the DLR station, as waiting 25s get in the way of stopping 25s and other services. In total three other bus services stop here, the 205, 425 and D8, as does the regular A8 coach, next stop Stansted Airport.
So I thought I'd pop down to Bow Church to watch the drivers swap, and the buses queue, and to see how bad the cluster gets. I picked a Friday afternoon, tried to look like I was waiting to travel, and noted down the times that buses arrived and left. I thought I might have to hang around for an hour, but in fact I learned everything I needed to know in less than fifteen minutes. Oh, and there is a point to this, which relates to the imminent arrival of an upgraded Cycle Superhighway. Bear with me.
Here's what happened at eastbound bus stop A between two o'clock and ten past. Imagine that the buses are running from right to left.
2.00: At the start of my survey there are five buses waiting at the bus stop, four of these 25s. The front two 25s (a and b) are empty, the third (c) is waiting while its driver changes over, and the fourth (d) has just arrived. Meanwhile a D8 bus turns up and leaves.
2.01: The front two (empty) 25s are going nowhere. The second two 25s finish changing over and depart.
2.02: The front two 25s are still going nowhere. Another 25 (e) turns up and the driver plays the "this bus will now wait for a short time for a change of driver" announcement. Meanwhile a 205 turns up, drops off its final passengers and heads off round the corner into Bow Garage.
2.03: On the 25 front, nothing happens. The driver of the third bus is having a chat with a member of bus company staff who's popped aboard.
2.04: Another 205 arrives, drops off and departs. The three 25s do nothing.
2.05: Another 25 turns up and joins the back of the queue. A second driver changeover is underway. The first has been underway for three minutes, and shows no signs of completion.
2.07: Here's another 205 to briefly join the party on Bow Road. That's the second time there have been five buses parked up in a bus stop designed for maybe three.
2.08: Lots happens. The empty bus at the front of the queue is finally given the nod to drive back (empty) to the garage. The second driver changeover completes, after three minutes, and the passengers finally depart. Yet another 25 turns up to begin the charade, so there are briefly five 25s on this side of the road (and, incidentally, three on the other). But the poor folks on the bus that arrived six minutes ago are still hanging around. Some of them look pretty pissed off by now.
2.09: Finally, thankfully, the new driver of the Marie Celeste faffs his last, and his busload of delayed passengers moves on. Meanwhile the A8 Stansted coach turns up and, what with the majority of the bus stop still blocked, zips straight by without stopping. I wonder what he'd have done if I'd brought a suitcase with me.
2.10: This is the quietest it's been for some time - just three buses, still with an empty 25 at the front and with two driver changeovers underway behind. And that's where I'll end my blow by blow account, because the graphic for 2.11 would have been exactly the same. But I did hang around long enough to see bus (g) eventually move off at 2.12, and bus (h) finally leave at 2.14.
Of the five driver changeovers I observed, one took one minute, one took three, one took four, one took five and one took seven. That's an average delay to passengers' journeys of about four minutes. Again I'll remind you that the 25 is the busiest bus route in London, so that's potentially a lot of people's lives cumulatively wasted sitting around in Bow. And whilst I recognise that every changeover has to take some time, it did look like the staff were engaged in a lot of merry gossiping, and in at least one case some thoughtless shilly-shallying. Does the 25 bus run for drivers' convenience or for passengers'?
Of more immediate relevance, the Cycle Superhighway 2 upgrade is now in full effect in the Bow area, and considerable amounts of construction work are underway. In particular the bus stop I've been surveying is due to be temporarily suspended from mid-September for around six weeks while a bus stop bypass is engineered behind. Where are all the driver changeovers going to take place then? If it's the bus stop opposite the church where additional buses also stop (and which they're digging up as I speak), just how congested might the queues of vehicles then be?
And when the new bus stop bypass has been created at the bus stop I reported on, will the pedestrian island actually be long enough to cope with four, five, maybe even six vehicles all lined up in a row? Cyclists won't care, they'll get to whistle by in their own safe private lane with a smile. But drivers, pedestrians and bus passengers might not find the arrangements quite so convenient once the pavement's been re-engineered. I'm sure the CS2 planners have thought about this. I'm sure we'll be fine.
Firstly, all Thames Clipper services will accept Oyster Pay As You go for the first time. Currently you have to show your Oyster card at the pier kiosk or on the boat to get a discount, but from mid-September you'll be able to touch in and touch out like you do on the tube. Not having to queue will speed up boarding, which is great, but means you'll no longer be able to buy a ticket on the boat. The 'pay before you travel' policy also means staff need to see you touching in as you board, so passengers will be warned not to touch the reader while they're waiting for the boat to arrive. But the lack of hassle might just encourage you to sail more often.
Secondly, the fare structure for river tickets is changing. Currently there's a flat fare according to which service you use, entirely irrespective of distance. A ride on the main route (RB1) all the way from Embankment to Greenwich costs £7.15, exactly the same as a short hop from Bankside to the London Eye. A ride on the West London commuter route (RB6) always costs £6.70, whether you go from Putney to Chelsea or all the way to Blackfriars. But in future there's going to be an attempt at linking fares to distance, as river routes are split into three different zones.
The Central zone runs from Vauxhall to the Tower, where the majority of journeys made by river begin and/or finish. The West zone runs from Putney to Chelsea, where the only passengers are rush hour travellers. And the East zone runs from Canary Wharf to Woolwich, frequented by both tourists and commuters alike. Travel in two zones, pay more, restrict your journey to just one, pay less. And maybe a lot less.
Let's compare Oyster single fares now and Oyster single fares-to-be by looking at RB1 - the main river service between Westminster and Woolwich, running every 20 minutes.
Embankment → Tower (Central only)
Embankment → North Greenwich (Central & East)
Canary Wharf → North Greenwich (East only)
If you only travel in the Central zone, your Oyster fare decreases, but only slightly. If you travel between the Central zone and the East zone - the most popular journey of all - your Oyster fare increases, but only slightly. The big winners are those who only travel in the East zone, whose fare decreases by a third.
Similar savings might be made on RB6, the peak-hours-only West London commuter route.
Putney → Chelsea (West only)
Putney → Westminster (Central & West)
Putney → Canary Wharf (All three zones)
Most commuters will ride through two zones, where the fare increases slightly. Docklands commuters (on occasional express services) will travel through all three zones, with their fare rising by 7%. Meanwhile there's a big decrease on a West-only journey, but no sane commuter would do that because it's barely any distance at all.
I'll mention one other route, and that's RB4, the cross-river Hilton Ferry.
Canary Wharf → The hotel on the other side of the river
Canary Wharf → The hotel and back (return ticket)
This brief journey lies entirely within the East zone, and a single fare rises only slightly. But currently you can buy a paper return ticket for your Oyster card and make a saving on the second trip. Once 'touch in and out' begins you'll pay the same on the return as on the way out, which is an overnight 18% price hike.
And what if you pay with something other than Oyster, say on the most popular tourist route?
Embankment - Greenwich (Cash)
Embankment - Greenwich (Oyster)
Embankment - Greenwich (Travelcard)
Embankment - Greenwich (Contactless)
The full headline fare is expensive, at £8.00. Oyster fares are 10-20% off what anyone who turns up with cash has to pay, which is a smaller discount than most other forms of TfL travel. If you have a Travelcard on your Oyster card, like I do, you get a much better 33% off the full fare, which might suddenly make taking the boat look worthwhile. But if you only have a contactless card, sorry, the system isn't going to be able to cope with these until next summer, so for now you're going to end up paying full whack.
Most Londoners won't pay these prices to travel by river when there are cheaper faster options by train. Westminster to North Greenwich, for example, is only 12 minutes by Jubilee line rather than 45 minutes by boat, and the journey costs £4 less. Only if you like the view from the river, or hate the squash on the tube, is a Thames Clipper ticket a good deal. Equally I'm now looking at an all-East river journey from Canary Wharf to Woolwich with my Travelcard and thinking £2.80 might be a damned good price for a 25 minute trip.
So anyway, in summary... 1) Some time next month you'll be able to use Oyster on river services to touch in and out 2) The changes to fares aren't really terribly dramatic 3) If you're going to pay over six quid for a boat ride, make it a long one.
ROUND TOWER A walk around the edge of Tower Hamlets
9) Cambridge Heath → Hackney Wick(2½ miles) [25 photos]
Here's a long section across the northern edge of the borough, the majority of which is park. Anywhere other than Tower Hamlets this could be a bit dull, but the park in question is Victoria Park, one of the borough's outdoor treasures, so all's good. Then on to Hackney Wick, the part which isn't actually in Hackney, before returning to the Lea and knocking on the door of the Olympic Park. By the time I reached this part of my circumnavigation I'd been walking for seven hours and had only stopped for a rest once. If you're struggling too, rest assured there's only one more section to go. [map]
Cambridge Heath Road (Tower Hamlets) becomes Mare Street (Hackney) at the bridge over the Regent's Canal. It's a busy spot, more so on the road than the water, although the towpath can be chock full with bikes and feet at times. I'd like to take the riverside route from here but am again thwarted by the towpath being on the left hand side and therefore in the wrong borough. Shame, because the canal would be the direct route to Victoria Park, but I now need to take a backstreet diversion instead. Vyner Street looks a bit grim, a cobbled thoroughfare lined with warehouses and the wrong kind of offices, and a string of taxis parked up so that they can be maintained. The only sign of life is The Victory pub, outside which one lone drinker eyes me suspiciously as I pass by with my camera. Only later do I discover that Vyner Street is a celebrated art hotspot with a cluster of cutting edge galleries... or at least was. A handful remain, but most moved out a couple of years ago due to excessive rent increases, and would anybody like to buy a luxury duplex apartment?
Housing kicks back in at the end of the street, initially in a nondescript way. Along Lark Row there's even a big enough gap to see through the fence across the canal, most notably the western entrance to Victoria Park, tauntingly unreachable on the opposite bank. It looks pretty, and pretty busy, and I'll be there in about ten minutes. Oh but Sewardstone Road is lovely too, the kind of desirable Victorian terrace that makes homeowners smile and estate agents leap. Tower Hamlets still boasts residential gems like this in unbombed, unredeveloped clusters, and this area around the London Chest Hospital is a good example. Or rather that's the former London Chest Hospital, whose services transferred to Barts in April and so is now up for grabs as a 'Residential development opportunity'. Potential purchasers are advised that "the site is subject to a number of Tree Preservation Orders", but that none of the buildings are listed, so imagine the profits four acres of shiny towers could bring.
A broad bridge finally leads across the canal into the splendours of Victoria Park. An ice cream van often awaits those arriving here, as do two howling hounds perched on plinths at the Bonner Gate. These are the Dogs of Alcibiades, sculptures from classical Rome copied from the British Museum and posted here in 1912 (or rather they're recent copies, the originals having been heavily vandalised a few years back). Next there follows a walk of over a mile and a half around the edge of Vicky Park, that's almost 10% of the perimeter of Tower Hamlets. Everywhere within the park is within the borough, whereas all the houses, roads (and two pubs) immediately across the fence belong to Hackney. For once I'm walking the right side of the line.
Initially my route demands that I walk back along the canal to the entrance I spotted earlier, past narrowboats tied up along the bank. But then I leave the water and curve round through the park proper to head back in the opposite direction. It's a hot and sunny day (remember those?) so the grass is liberally dotted with peeled and peeling bodies taking full advantage. On the floral lawns a Staffie rolls over and waves her legs in the air, while her owner picnics behind a palm tree and pretends not to notice. Meanwhile on the internal roadway the occasional scarlet-painted TfL-funded hirebike wobbles past, and a fleet of kid-powered mini-scooters pushes by. It's nice here, and tens of thousands of local residents know it.
Grove Road divides Vicky Park into two very unequal halves, the smaller western bit more ornamental and the much larger eastern bit more recreational. At the interface is The Royal Inn On The Park, a Lauriston local, after which it's grass and trees pretty much all the way. One particularly splendid feature is the Burdett-Coutts Fountain, a Gothic granite creation provided for the people of the East End by Angela Burdett-Coutts, a banking heiress who devoted most of her life to philanthropic largesse. Her gift no longer dispenses drinking water, but was recently renovated to celebrate its 150th anniversary and looks loftily magnificent. Alas most of the park's other fine features lie away from the perimeter, so I plod on along the avenue with a cricket match the most notable attraction.
The furthest north that Tower Hamlets goes is the park's Molesworth Gate, by chimneyed Molesworth Lodge, leading down and out onto busy Wick Road. I'm pretty much knackered now, having been on my feet for a good seventeen miles, so in need of a decent place to rest. Thankfully a much better option than a bogstandard bench exists, one of the fourteen stone alcoves from Old London Bridge, of which four still survive. Two are here, a decent distance apart, donated to the pioneering park in 1860 and now with convenient seating inside. Once rested I exit the park along the boundary through a gap in Cadogan Terrace, where a hooped footbridge crosses the chasm of the A12 dual carriageway. There's a pretty good view across Hackney Wick from up here, and also of occasional military flypasts - any plane heading for The Mall generally flies over here first.
The border here follows Wallis Road to the Overground station, then tracks directly along the railway line. The area hereabouts somehow remains packed with backstreet businesses and a creative vibe, as yet unwrecked by the 2012 tornado immediately across the river. Long-dead pubs are covered with better-than-averagegraffiti, artists' studios remain affordable, and the smell of baking bagels wafts out across White Post Lane. The Wick retains its cool, and draws in copious numbers of the young and hip to craft beer pizzerias, concealed skateparks, pop-up cider gardens and the occasional flea market. Wandering through without a beard, I feel almost out of place. And while I love that the neighbourhood survives, I can't help wondering how long landlords will be able to resist piecemeal replacement of commercial yards and buildings with more profitable residential boxes, until nobody'll think it worth bothering to come at all.
: Sometime this morning, just after nine o'clock, diamond geezer will receive its five millionth visitor. More accurately it'll be the five millionth time that a slightly ropey stats package has registered a unique visit, which isn't quite the same thing at all, but I think still very much worth celebrating. Five million visits is an impressive total - the equivalent of everyone in Scotland reading my blog once. But viewed another way it's not much - on average one packed tube train of readers a day, which is only 0.01% of the population of London. What I do know is that my audience is coming faster. The first million took just over five years, the last million's taken nearer a year and a quarter.
These visitor numbers rack up essentially in three different ways. The bedrock of the figures are those of you who come back on a regular basis to read what I've written, maybe even every day, to whom I say enormous thanks. Some days you're rewarded with a post that hits your target, other days I'm droning on about something you care little about, but hopefully you find plenty of interest eventually. Then there are the folk who land here because a search engine, usually Google, has directed them here. I've published over six thousand posts since 2002, many on obscure and under-featured locations, so there's a good chance a reference to my words will appear in the results. Most searchers never return again, but a few hang around, and a special hello if that's how you first arrived. And then there are people who turn up because someone somewhere has read something interesting or relevant on my blog, and then specifically linked through in the hope that other people will read it. These visits come in spikes, some huge, most small, and often with no rhyme or reason as to why some posts inspire and others fall.
What I like to do, every time one of these millionaire milestones rolls by, is to look back and analyse where my visitors came from. In particular I like to draw up a league table of top linking blogs, ordered by volume of visitors clicking here from there. This used to be quite interesting, and important, back in the era when blogs thrived solely because other blogs linked to them. How times change. Now when people like what you've written they no longer announce it via their own blog, because writing paragraphs is too much hassle. Instead they tap a few characters into some micro-blogging portal or social media messageboard, that is when they're not too busy commenting on national news stories or sharing an swift selfie. The ability to drive traffic to blogs has wholly shifted, away from those who generate their own content towards those who merely digest the content of others.
So my regular linking league table again includes a range of websites broader than mere blogs. I've not gone as far as including Google, because that would be top of the list by a factor of 20. But you'll spot three particular services that didn't exist when I started out, and which now dominate beyond expectation. My apologies if they've shoved your website down the top 20 since my last league table at Easter last year. And thank you all for linking (assuming you still exist).
Over the last million visitors, Reddit is the star performer. Members of this geeky messageboard are always on the lookout for quirky jewels to share, not that they find them here too frequently, but a single mention does tend to send the Redditors flooding. As yet they've not come close to topping Twitter, and both are still a long way off dislodging Girl With A One Track Mind from the summit, but they're easily the dominant force in blog referral of late. As for Facebook, I'm not a member so I have no idea what you lot are up to behind the password wall. But posting (or tweeting) a link takes almost no effort at all, and people are ever so willing to click through on blind faith, and hey presto that's another DG visitor notched up.
Meanwhile in blogworld, surprisingly little has changed since the four million rankings. Londonist sometimes kindly mention me, and a small fraction of their million readers a month take an interest, which maintains their lofty position in my table. They ditched their blogroll some years ago whereas the über-transport site London Reconnections introduced one at the very bottom of their new template, an act of kindness which has led to them becoming my highest climber. They'll be in eighth place pretty soon, but the underlying totals suggest seventh will be a much tougher nut to crack.
I extend a special hand of solidarity to Scaryduck and (the football-related) Arseblog, who like me maintain the absurd notion of publishing at least one post every day. And look, I have two new entries, both positioned at twenty-something last time. Ian Visits arrives thanks to his regular Friday transport round-ups, cheers. As for affable-lurking, well, if you'd started a blog ten years ago and clicked through to mine once every day, you'd be in the second column of the table too. Thanks David. But also feel the tumbleweed. Four previously mega-active blogs have slipped into long-term hiatus or been completely deleted, while four of the others now appear to post only every blue moon, and hence are inexorably slipping back.
Interestingly, every single blog that was in my one million Top 10 back in 2008 is still in my five million Top 20. Click-throughs really were at their highest in the early days of blogging, and very few blogs that have come along since have ever had that level of traction. Indeed since my two and a half million league table in 2011, that's the halfway milestone to today, the Top 20's mostly just shuffled around a bit rather than done anything exciting. You probably spend most of your surfing time on professionally-resourced online platforms these days, as the Huffingtons and Buzzfeeds of this world monetise what many of us used to write for fun.
My visitor counter still counts those of you who surf in via smartphone, because I refuse to allow Blogger to serve you up a generic mobile template (unless you've somehow opted out). But I've completely lost track of the significant number of you using RSS and various feedreaders, whose simplicity allows thousands to read this blog without ever visiting it. As far as you're concerned I'm no longer writing a continuous story, I'm generating atomised blogposts - which makes a complete mockery of attempting to count visitor numbers accurately anyway. In reality I passed the magic five million many months ago, but didn't realise it. Never mind the inexactitude. I don't mind where you come from, I'm just well chuffed that you bother. Hello and thanks to all of you. And here's to many more...
ROUND TOWER A walk around the edge of Tower Hamlets
8) Shoreditch → Cambridge Heath(1½ miles) [18 photos]
If I had to call it, this is the least interesting section of my walk round Tower Hamlets. The northwestern edge of the borough butts up against the southern edge of Hackney, kicking off somewhere fairly trendy and then heading somewhere less so. There should be a pretty bit near the end, but then a gasworks gets in the way. But don't let any of this put you off. [map]
Although Shoreditch High Street seems the epitome of cool, the Tower Hamlets boundary runs one street back. It's even called Boundary Street, in case you hadn't got the message. A few on-trend ripples have washed out this far, with a white-blinded organic cafe/bakery at the junction with Redchurch Street offering bourgeois on-pavement dining opportunities. How things change. Off to the east was once the worst slum in London, the Old Nichol, less a housing estate than a maze of jerry-built misery, for families living one rung above the workhouse. Thousands of people were crammed into tiny rooms and cellars, disease was rife, and the area wasn't properly cleared until 1891. In its place rose the Boundary Estate, the world's first council estate, and still a model scheme for how to do these things properly. A series of tall brick tenements radiates from a central circus, where a bandstand sits on top of a rounded pile of slum rubble. It's a restful scenic spot, but I only spy it from a distance walking by.
Shoreditch's 'Oranges and lemons' church lies just across the yard in Hackney, while Boundary Street peters out as a narrow lane with a dead Tudorbethan-style pub at the end. At least The Conqueror is still standing, which is more than can be said for the Mildmay Hospital, over whose remains a fleet of yellow diggers now scavenge. A replacement opened recently close by, but the ward in which Princess Diana famously shook the hand of an AIDS patient is now dust. The latest casualty hereabouts is The George and Dragon, Shoreditch's most achingly kitsch gay pub, on the tip of Austin Road. A "dramatic" rent hike forced its owners to put the lease up for sale earlierthismonth, as rapid gentrification hereabouts continues to snuff out the creative spaces that made it possible. But the pub's not gone yet, and a Drag Sale was in full swing as I passed, with glamorous punters picking over racks of vintage dresses.
After a considerable amount of wiggling, the Tower Hamlets boundary now latches onto one street and sticks to it for the whole of the next kilometre. That street is Hackney Road, gateway to the East, which should be top of your list should you ever desire to buy a wholesale handbag. The brightly painted shops at the Shoreditch end are most likely to sell you expensive bling, while the bargains are with the older traders further up. The first junction with Columbia Road is marked by a portaloo and a Welcome to Tower Hamlets sign, after which boarded-up shops intermingle with minor commercial premises along graffitied brick parades.
I nearly rented a ground floor hovel here when I moved to London, a possibility I abandoned the split second I walked through the door. One of the nearest shops is now occupied by a professional whittler, the magnificently monikered Barn the Spoon, who sculpts his wooden cutlery either here or in the middle of a wood in Herefordshire. Alternative entertainment used to be provided by the enormous bingo hall across the road, formerly an Odeon cinema, but the last balls were drawn inJune after the business received a financial offer they couldn't refuse. The area's elderly residents are now ferried to a neighbouring hall in Camden by gleaming white bus, and the replacement buildings will no doubt appeal to a much younger (and wealthier) demographic.
The second junction with Columbia Road marks the point where the Tower Hamlets boundary cuts a dash to the north. To one side of Goldsmith's Row is Hackney City Farm, a delightful outpost of Haggerston Park, which mixes pettable animals with a rustic Italian cafe in a way that many local families find irresistible. On the other until recently was Queen Elizabeth Children's Hospital, currently being transformed into a few affordable homes and a series of unaffordable apartments under the unutterably pretentious name of Mettle&Poise. Apparently "Mettle represents the area’s resilience and strength, whilst Poise demonstrates the elegance and sympathetic addition the development will bring to Hackney", because there are lots of well paid jobs in on-brand hogwash these days. What housing lies behind is more reassuringly standard, notably the sinuous brick blocks of the 1930s Dinmont Estate, so very Tower Hamlets.
At this point, were geography kinder, I ought to follow the boundary on to Broadway Market. The edge of Tower Hamlets then follows the Regent's Canal, which would be a great walk, except the only towpath is on the Hackney side. And because there's no way out without changing borough I can't even follow Pritchard's Road to the waterside, and bring you tales of pie and mash, boutiques and gentrified food. Instead a diversion round the Bethnal Green Gasworks is required, at least for a few more years before the housing estate it's due to be replaced by is opened. The gasholders lookfinest from the side I'm not allowed to go. Enjoy them while they last.
Straining advertising standards somewhat, the Hotel Shoreditch is a chunky newbuild located far from the area most Londoners would describe as such. Their website says "this is a highly fashionable area so please dress to impress", whereas I doubt Billy's Cafe across the road sees much in the way of haute couture. At the Lithuanian church on backstreet Emma Street I have to divert round a large (and jolly) wedding party billowing onto the tarmac. From here a low key commercial zone finally leads down to the canal, bifurcating round 'The Oval', which turns out to be an elliptical car park. A two-storey office block made of shipping containers looks out over the water, while Empress Coaches (founded 1912) still somehow plies its trade from a characterful cobbled yard. The road beneath the railway is blocked off to vehicles, but thankfully those of us on foot can stroll by to reach the canal bridge at Cambridge Heath Road.
A bus service to a deserted village in a danger zone in the middle of Salisbury Plain accessed by a fleet of Routemasters. Who wouldn't enjoy that?
Poor Imber. In 1943 the War Office needed a lot of space to practice D-Day manoeuvres, and spotted that they could seal off a huge area of Salisbury Plain so long as they evacuated one small village. Imber's residents were given a few weeks notice to quit, and were gone by Christmas, thinking they'd be back again after the war was over. No chance, the army liked its hilly playground too much, and the village continues to provide a census return of zero. But the road through the ghost village is still sometimes opened up, including for two weeks every August. and that's when route 23A arrives.
So popular has the event become that on most of the scheduled journeys two buses double up. On alighting from the train I was faced with one old and one new Routemaster, and a no-brainer of a decision. I recognised the New Routemaster as the LGBT rainbow bus from Bow Garage, which I can catch any day of the week by stepping out of my house. Plus it was a hot day, and my local knowledge told me not to ride the expensive bus with no opening windows if I could possibly avoid it. So I was delighted (and relieved) when I managed to secure a place on the open-topped proper Routemaster, which was a breezy win.
The route out of Warminster passes large amounts of army housing, and is also a relentless climb, which meant very slow (and highly-revved) progress up Sack Hill. After the vehicle depot and military checkpoint the road becomes thinner and the scenery changes, to a landscape of lush rolling chalk grassland and the occasional blasted tank. Anywhere else in southern England this land would be covered with crops, or at least sheep, but obviously there's none of that here, just long grass and the occasional patch of woodland. It may looks highly enticing but no! - regular signs remind civilian visitors "Danger Unexploded Military Debris - Do Not Leave The Carriageway". Various cross-country tracks are laid down for the benefit of armoured vehicles (we passed several signs announcing "Tank Crossing") while designated strategic areas are marked out by a series of white posts.
It takes about twenty minutes to get to Imber, now a shadow of its former self, where only a few original buildings exist. Most important of these is medieval St Giles Church, tucked safely behind a barbed wire fence, and now maintained by the Churches Conservation Trust. They open for a carol service and for St Giles Day every year, plus this August fortnight, with Imberbus Day the busiest of the lot. A generator is brought in to power a supply of hot drinks, jars of Imber honey are sold (heaven knows how they manage that), and a set of display boards reveal the living history of the village. Wandering the churchyard I spotted a couple of gravestones dated 1983, which shows just how much former residents must have loved the place.
The next stretch of road east across the plain is glorious, apart from the regular reminders of soldiers being trained to kill. These include watchtowers, masts and earthen humps that might be tumuli but are more likely (given the ring of warning signs surrounding them) merely unexploded. I thought I could see all the way down to Old Sarum, and maybe Devizes, as we descended another scenic track. After a couple of miles another checkpoint is passed and suddenly you're back on a civilian road, as you can tell because farming and livestock kick back in, and the occasional homeowner is out front tinkering with his car.
Gore Cross Interchange is a most unlikely bus station, essentially two farms and a pond at a crossroads, but it's here that the various branches of route 23A intersect. As such up to four vehicles are scheduled to meet here on the hour and half hour, which makes for some amazing photos of chains of rural Routemasters if the timing is right. It can also be hit or miss to attempt to switch to an alternative service, as there aren't always enough seats to go round, and at one point I had to stand all the way to the next village.
The most exciting destination is Brazen Bottom, whose name belies its elevation, a destination chosen I suspect purely because it looks comical on the bus's blind. What's best is the descent from the hilltop, down a particularly steep single track hill where you pray not to meet any vehicle coming the other way, and where those on the open-topped upper deck occasionally needed to duck. It's as close as you'll ever get to riding a Routemaster rollercoaster.
Meanwhile the other major branch leads to the proper village of Tilshead, linked to the world outside the danger zone only by the A360, and which boasts the cheesiest reimagining of the Rose and Crowninn sign I've ever seen. Then on past idyllic scenes of combine harvesting to Chitterne, whose good ladies were serving tea in the village hall so that alighting passengers had something to do for an hour. The return trip to Tilshead was another highlight, this time via a three mile road weaving through more of Army Manoeuvres country. Beautiful, and yet unnerving, at the same time.
And throughout all this time I was sharing the top decks with The Men Who Like Buses. Most clutched printed out timetables with planned schedules duly highlighted, while others perused Ordnance Survey maps or road atlases in an attempt to trace our route. Most were of retirement age, although several families had turned up, with the younger generation of bus aficionado making its way up in the ranks. And while most watched and smiled silently, or chatted quietly, there were also certain men intent on conversing loudly in Inner Monologue, and this became somewhat grating.
I left before 2015's rain came, having thoroughly enjoyed a bright sunny day somewhere I wouldn't normally be able to go. Huge thanks to the organisers, and to the volunteers, and to the top bus company (and Network Rail) bosses spotted driving us around. But if you fancy a trip to Imber you're too late, because the road was sealed again at 7am this morning and the red flags won't be coming down until Remembrance Sunday. Or just make a note to attend Imberbus next August. The exact date will be announced in the spring, but Ian always blogs the details in advance, and that's how I remembered to ride a Routemaster to a deserted village in a danger zone in the middle of Salisbury Plain.
Liverpool postcard:Brookside Close To the first of three very different Merseyside housing projects, and the most familiar of the trio. Brookside Close was filmed on a specially-built housing estate in the eastern suburb of West Derby, five miles to the east of Liverpool city centre. I took the number 13 bus deep out into the suburbs, to a neighbourhood with an increasingly leafy vibe, past a local pub with a betting shop in the car park, and a giant Tesco that used to be an army barracks. Deysbrook Lane eventually fades out in a web of cul-de-sacs, but before it does a pair of curved brick walls lead off to the left, one painted with the street name - Brookside. Yes, there is an actual brook, it's called the River Alt, which rises close by and flows behind the Grants' old house into Croxteth Hall Park. I'd show you a photo, but the stream is mostly obscured by flowering vegetation, and the shot would tell you nothing. Executive producer Phil Redmond bought up the entire close in 1982, the aim being to provide a secluded but realistic space for filming, with the brook on one side and woodland on the other. Of the thirteen houses seven were used for administration, post production and canteen facilities, and stayed mostly out of sight, and it's these you encounter as you walk up the first wiggle of close. They stand in twos and threes, now occupied by ordinary members of the public, while a couple of similar-looking newbuilds have just been squeezed in on the penultimate bend. And then you reach the final dogleg and there they are, six of the most famous homes in the country, looking much as they ever did. [5 photos]
Had I ventured here five years ago I'd have seen a very different sight. Brookside Close was sold to a private developer after the soap stopped filming in 2003, then gutted and redecorated and put up for sale at what were then extremely high prices. The developer duly went bust and the houses slowly decayed, while the gardens and pavements became overgrown, a situation turned round only when another developer bought up the whole lot for three quarters of a million pounds. Houses on the original set had no water mains or telephone cables, so these had to be added along with functioning kitchens and complete internal walls, and today they're all rented out, one suspects to families and fans. Confusingly they're now numbered upwards from 47 in odd numbers, rather than consecutively from 5 to 10, but other than that the panorama is unmistakeable. It took me a while to work out that the three houses nearest the river weren't any of the main residences but were used for back-up, and carefully cut out of shot on camera, but the other six I knew inside out. Sheila and Bobby at number 5, the legendary Casa Bevron at number 8, and the most famous patio in Britain out of sight round the back of number 10. Apparently the owner of the latter still gets regular knocks on the door from fans who want to see his garden, so I decided to stand well back and observe from a respectful distance. Thankfully all the residents were indoors or out back, one with some unnecessarily agitated dogs, or just driving back from the shops (as I suddenly discovered). Sorry to be the stalking tourist, but simply being here was enormously evocative for one of the millions who grew up around here.
Liverpool postcard:Port Sunlight A completely different kind of soap opera took place on the other side of the Mersey, halfway down the Wirral (so not officially in Liverpool, yes, I know). The soap in question was Sunlight, Lever Brother's pioneering laundry detergent, which didn't smell of carbolic and was the first domestic bar to be sold cut and wrapped. With its success came the need to build a large manufacturing plant, so a riverside site was selected and Port Sunlight was born. What makes it special is the garden village William Lever built to house his workforce, a place of function, benevolence and beauty, and not what late Victorian society was used to. Each of the 800 houses is unique, grouped into blocks designed by different architects, with all the attention to detail you'd expect from an Arts and Crafts environment. Wandering round what strikes you is the sense of scale and space, and greenery, beauty, and that this is somewhere you'd be inordinately proud to live. But it's also far less working class than it used to be, no longer the sole preserve of Unilever staff after private sales began in the 1980s, and the cars driving round the broad boulevards suggest considerable upmarketing has occurred.
As well as housing, Lever kitted out Port Sunlight with a fine array of municipal buildings. These included a cottage hospital (now a hotel), a Technical Institute (now flats) and an open air swimming pool (now a garden centre). The Girls' Club building now houses Port Sunlight Museum, which I turned up too late to enjoy, as the crowd outside sipping their cups of tea drank up and moved on. But there was time to look round one late arrival to the village which still fulfils its original purpose. The Lady Lever Art Gallery was built in Beaux Arts style to house the philanthropist's acclaimed collection of art, furniture and ceramics, and opened in 1922 a few years before his death. It still looksstunning, despite the rebuilding works going on up one end, and entrance is free (because Liverpool museums are excellent like that). The main gallery has a feel of Dulwich Picture Gallery about it - one long room with high walls bedecked with art - but with considerably more rooms off to each side, and packed with a much wider variety of pieces. One rotunda houses classical sculptures, another gallery exquisite Chinoiserie, plus there are five period rooms decked out with all the soft furnishings of eras past. Again looking round there's a feeling that Port Sunlight is now a very middle class day out, but then this is the Wirral, and Port Sunlight remains very much for all. [11 photos]
Liverpool postcard:The Welsh Streets The Welsh Streets are a ladder of Victorian terraces in Toxteth, each named after something suitable Celtic like Gwydir or Elwy or Rhiwlas or Treborth. The houses are small and nothing outlandishly special, except that Ringo Starr was born in one, and because of the astonishing furore over their future. In 2004 these eleven streets were threatened with demolition under a New Labour programme called Housing Market Renewal, there being too much 'obsolete' low level accommodation in the city, or so the rationale said. Residents said otherwise, infuriated that perfectly good housing stock was to be eliminated in favour of lower density development, but the council moved them out anyway and boarded up their homes. Except that the expected regeneration never came, and the Coalition government withdrew funding, and an entire L8 neighbourhood has been blighted. Eric Pickles threw out the latest plans, which would have retained part of Ringo's homestreet, and a decade on the Welsh Streets problem looks no closer to being solved.
I walked down through Toxteth from the cathedral, elegant townhouses making way for more ordinary flats and a particularly scruffy shopping parade on the way down the hill. But at least everything looked occupied, that is until I reached High Park Street and the metal shutters appeared. On one side of the road a girl played in a well-tended front garden, while nobody lived on the other, and the Tasty corner shop appeared to have sold its last sandwich some time ago. I made for Ringo's road, that's Madryn Street, and soaked up the compellingly unsettled vibe. The place was completely dead, bar a run of trees dripping with red berries, with the feeling I could have stood in the street for hours without anyone else walking or driving through. Number 9 was identifiable only by considerable marker-pen activity across what had one been its window and doors, not even a burglar alarm hanging limp like many of the adjacent properties. But further down I found a single house still under occupation, its brickwork clean, its front door bright orange and its top window open in complete defiance of the establishment's intent. Parallel Powis Street was even more affecting, the entirety of each boarded-up façade painted black and without a single tree to break the barren panorama. Coming as I do from a city with a housing crisis based on lack of supply, the whole thing looked insane.
At the age of four Ringo's family moved to Admiral Grove, one block north, where they were still living when the Fab Four's fame began. It's not under threat, indeed number 10 is particularly well scrubbed up with whitewashed walls and a bright pink drainpipe. This street still teems with life and desirability, indeed in inner City London these narrow terraced houses would command a tidy sum. But a pocket of intractable indecision lingers close by, as the Welsh Streets await an undoubtedly unsatisfactory fate. [8 photos]