Kensington & Chelsea didn't take long to cross, it's only narrow, and Hammersmith & Fulham isn't much wider. I'll soon be in Ealing, and that'll take rather longer. But if it's exciting places you're after, sorry, 51½°N has already peaked. [map][photos]
To provide some bearings, the Uxbridge Road runs about a mile to the north of the 51½°th parallel, the A4 about half a mile to the south, and we will never quite hit either of them. Instead we're kicking off in residential territory round the back of Olympia, in the borderlands between Hammersmith and Shepherd's Bush.
Shepherd's Bush Road [51.5°N 0.222°W]
A quiet country lane until the mid 18th century, Shepherd's Bush Road became a spine road off which subsequent suburbia grew. It ferries traffic from the apex of Shepherd's Bush Green to the Hammersmith gyratory, and was once wide enough for trams, so feels pretty spacious. They still do proper pubs round here, the local being The Richmond, which retains a beer'n'Sky vibe, and whose food menu consists solely of a well known frozen pizza brand. Elsewhere along the parade, a more gentrified vibe has encroached. The cafe on the corner doubles up as a fitness studio and deli, plus a useful space to park the kids for 'indoor play', while round the back is a candlemaking supplier with a royal warrant.
A coach pulls up outside the acupuncture clinic, a shaky-looking luggage trailer tagged on behind. A man with a ponytail dashes out of the dry cleaners and yells up the road towards his shaggier mate. Thames Water are digging up the pavement by the estate agents. Sandbags hold down a metal stand supporting a long-vanished road sign. The off licence that's proved surplus to requirements is plastered with posters for the Shepherds Bush Green Family Funfair. For morning coffee and the Mail, tables out front at the Mustard Brasserie suffice. That window arrayed with with four smart dresses and a pot plant is what passes for a charity shop hereabouts. Inhabitants of the broad Victorian avenues to either side seem well blessed.
Aware I'm nipping across the borough too fast, I pause in Benbow Road for a glimpse of how things are. Smart terraces are the order of the day, here generally one floor lower than they were a mile back. These are homes where most residents climb steps to their front door but some descend to a semi-basement, whose front rooms are either cautiously shuttered or open to reveal Sunday-supplement-perfection. Old maps confirm this area was once a hamlet called Cacklegoose Green, which is so brilliant a name you'd think a local developer would have appropriated it, except it seems there's nowhere to be redeveloped. If you're counting, I'm now the same distance west of the Greenwich meridian as I was east when I started out on the edge of Essex.
Starch Green [51.5°N 0.240°W]
Here's an unfamiliar but genuine place name (as can be confirmed by the spider maps in local bus shelters being titled "Buses from Starch Green"). This former hamlet has been almost completely swallowed apart from a scrap of eponymous green beside a pair of mini roundabouts. Once there was a pond here, around which several laundries grew up, hence the name. Today there is still one dry cleaners on King's Parade, but Starch Green's roadside edge has been fenced off to discourage egress, and its benches are better used by pigeons than passers by. I was impressed by the variety of trees, including a thick gnarly plane and a dense pine, and by the council operative cleaning, tidying and generally keeping the garden ticking over.
The most obvious landmark is the The Oak W12, or as it was once known The Seven Stars, as evidenced by the name carved into some jaunty stonework above the gastropub's side door. The most unnerving shop name is a hairdressers called Askew Cuts, named because it sits at the foot of Askew Road but come on, would you risk a a restyle in there? Another tonsorial lost opportunity is Ali's & Sons International Gents Hairdressers, which surely would have been better off as Ali Barbers. The most intriguing shop name is Bears Ice Cream Co, who do Icelandic soft scoop, but alas not in the morning when its shutters are down. And apologies, because if 51.5°N had run a fraction further south I could have brought you a report about the top of Ravenscourt Park, rather than a rundown of small businesses on the Goldhawk Road.
HAMMERSMITH & FULHAM EALING
Bedford Park [51.5°N 0.257°W]
Hurrah, I thought when I first saw where the line for 51.5°N went, I'm going to Bedford Park. Laid out across fields to the north of Turnham Green station in the 1870s, it's widely seen as the very first garden suburb, or at least the prototype, and I've never blogged about it before. The estate had a troubled start, and grew in a fairly ad hoc manner, but that helped give it character and a genuine leafy feel, and today's residents are no doubt delighted by their housing choice. And then I looked at the maps on The Bedford Park Society's website and noticed I'd be skirting the oldest bit, where the 200+ listed buildings are, and passing instead through the fractionally-younger not-quite-original avenues around the perimeter. Hey ho.
Abinger Road's lovely, though, a backwater tree-lined street pushed right up against the estate's impermeable boundary. Its houses are varied enough to have real character, with low walls or spruce hedges or more likely a perfect white picket fence along the front. By being built just before the dawn of the motor car these homes have front gardens too narrow to park a vehicle in, which is I think the key to why everything looks so attractive, although it does instead mean endless parked cars along the road. Over in St Albans Avenue the houses are fractionally later still, and a lot terracier and brickier, but still with that late Victorian sparkle. An adorable characteristic is how each house was built from a subtly different shade of brick to its conjoined neighbour, and who wouldn't want a plaster relief cornucopia beneath their upper bay window? You lucky lucky people.
South Acton station [51.5°N 0.270°W]
Less than half a mile away, the ambience is very different... and we have a station. South Acton's on one of the Overground's quieter arms, hence other Acton stations draw much higher passenger numbers. Because of the way the timetable falls, the allocated member of staff has several minutes between overlapping trains to pop round the back of the ramp for a vape, or to sit on the platform with a Metro. But what's more striking, indeed unmissable, is the housing estate going up alongside. Welcome to Acton Gardens.
The first block of flats, by the railway, was built on the site of the terminating platform of a minor District line shuttle cancelled fifty years previously. More recent blocks have part-tiled facades in signature colours, possibly so that if you're heading home blind drunk you simply head for the tangerine one, the turquoise one or the butterscotch one. As for the new block perched above the token Sainsbury's Local, this has variegated bricks resembling mottled chocolate, plus golden balconies, and the photograph I took of it looks uncannily like an architect's vision. I think only the Biffa waste bin gives the game away. And it's not finished yet, because Acton Gardens is a massive project involving the sequential replacement of the entire South Acton Estate. I watched as an extendable claw grappled with what was once the balcony of a maisonette on the tenth floor of Charles Hocking House, and sent a lifetime of debris smashing to the ground. They'd never knock down Bedford Park and replace it with something more suitably-dense, but pockets of social housing continue to replenish and renew.
Gunnersbury Park [51.5°N 0.285°W]
We had to hit another park eventually, and this one's splendid, and historical, and home to an excellent newly-renovated museum. Fortuitously I blogged about it in June, so don't need to go into enormous detail about it again, plus it turns out the 51.5°N line just misses the main building where the museum is. Instead it hits the so-called Small Mansion, the one lottery money hasn't got round to restoring yet, where the Learning and Curatorial Department hides out behind a woefully peeling porch and faded frontage. Inside are stacks of chairs and tables, and piles of packing boxes, and an office one of whose occupants has a pencil case in the shape of an Egyptian sarcophagus. Brilliantly the line also slices through Princess Amelia's bathhouse, a tiny folly containing a flint-walled pool (not generally visible to visitors).
The park is wide, and stretches all the way to [51.5°N 0.297°W] (across the boating lake, horticultural college and a huge fenced-off area awaiting transformation into a dual-borough outdoor sports centre). But my eye is particularly drawn to a sign on the very farthest gates, which have been blocked off and clearly labelled 'Project Kiss'. Another sign on the adjacent footpath apologises on behalf of "work for Secret Group", and a separate map displays the full restricted area ("for further information, please get in touch with email@example.com"). It's an open secret that this summer's sold out Secret Cinema event is Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, but officially nobody is supposed to know quite where it's being held. As a posh charcuterie van rattles across the grass, and staff unlock the barrier to let it out to fetch fresh meat for tonight's fancy dress hordes, my lips are sealed.