Greenwich is world famous as the point on the Earth's surface which defines the zero line of longitude. But London's line of latitude is far less numerically satisfying, hence much less well known. The 51st parallel passes well to the south of the capital, somewhere around Haywards Heath, while the 52nd parallel passes well to the north through Milton Keynes. Greater London lies slap bang between the two, indeed the line for 51½°N slices the capital pretty much in half.
So my intention is to undertake a journey along this fifty-one-and-a-halfth parallel, the line of latitude also known as 51.5°N or 51°30'N. I'm not walking it, not least because this particular line crosses the Thames as many as six times, and only one of these has a bridge. But I will be stopping off at numerous locations which happen to lie precisely on this imaginary line, i.e. exactly 103 one-hundred-and-eightieths of the angular distance between the equator and the North Pole.
Because this is essentially a random east-west line, it traverses some utterly mundane parts of London and just misses several places of genuine interest. But sometimes the mundane bits can be the most fascinating, and don't worry, there are some amazing direct hits along the way. I'll be starting out east, on the edge of Thurrock, and crossing at least a dozen London boroughs on my way to the river Colne in almost-Buckinghamshire. I promise not to blog about my journey every day, but let's see if I can tick off all thirty-one miles by the end of the month. [map]
Places on the 51½°N parallel outside London: Slough, Bristol, Cardiff, southern tip of Ireland, mostly-uninhabited Canada, one of the Aleutian Islands, Russia, very-northern China, Russia again, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Poland, Germany (Dortmund), Netherlands (Eindhoven), one Belgian village, Thames Estuary, Thurrock Thameside Nature Park, North Stifford, Aveley.
Wennington interchange [51.5°N 0.229°E]
Bang, right at the very edge of the capital we have a direct hit on a major road junction. I'm standing above the A13 dual carriageway, on a bridge between two feeder roundabouts, amid a Ballardian landscape of marshland and central reservations. Immediately to the east the A13 passes into Thurrock, and sweeps round towards M25 J30, where the London orbital makes a break for the QE2 Bridge. And to the west the A13 rises up onto the Wennington Viaduct, which is currently paralysed by a three mile tailback caused by an accident involving a spillage of Coca-Cola cans somewhere near Barking. I'll be heading into London long before any of the poor bastards down there.
The dominance of road transport in this location is astounding. The roads are busy, obviously, but so are the pavements from parked-up lorries seeking a space to rest, including several on the bridge itself. What's more, all the local businesses are auto-related in some way, including a significant cluster of car dealers just beyond the slip road to the north. Whether you're after a £30K BMW or a sub-thousand runaround, the Essex Car Company or the grimly-named Car Realm have a guaranteed finance deal for you. Here too are Rainham Motor Caravans, and the greasy breakfast hub of Noakes Kebab and Burger, and the engine-tweakers at Track N Road Powerformance. Passing through on foot I felt borderline unworthy.
Unsurprisingly the bridgetop is scattered with litter, from bleached crisp packets to empty bottles of Lucozade chucked from the cab. A single white butterfly flits between the detritus, pauses awhile on some concrete crushed beneath the front wheel of a Tesco delivery lorry, then flies away. A motorcycle cop watches over the entrance slip on the Thurrock side of the border, advising traffic it may not want to join the logjam below. And I am strangely heartened by the skyline of central London being plainly visible on the horizon, behind the lampposts, pylons and a giant rotating wind turbine. How fortuitous that the precise alignment of a line on a map should afford such a perfect view of the journey yet to come.
It's not possible to stand on the 51½th parallel for the next mile and a half, because not a single road or public footpath cuts across. First it's dual carriageway, then a tiny wedge of fenced-off fields, then the High Speed One railway line dividing the wetland landscape as it speeds Kentward. On the other side of the tracks are the Rainham Marshes, but these are the private parts the boardwalks of the RSPB reserve never reach, so only birds and other wildlife are allowed inside.
Coldharbour Lane [51.5°N 0.192°E]
Welcome to one of London's least hospitable thoroughfares. Coldharbour Lane started out as a track across the marshes to serve sheepfolds and firing ranges, and links the foot of Ferry Lane in Rainham to the Thames foreshore near Purfleet. It's long and initially perfectly straight, and a useful if unlikely shortcut if you don't want to follow the bleak estuarine footpath via Coldharbour Point. Alas Coldharbour Lane is even worse for sightseeing purposes, as it doesn't have a view, and is accompanied by a relentless procession of rumbling lorries. These juggernauts and tipper trucks are on their way to the Freightmaster Estate, a seriously remote riverfront corral where pallets are stacked, road sweepings reprocessed and goods of all kinds stashed for safe keeping. Many of the vehicles crawling by are emblazoned with wholly generic company names, like General Express Services or Economic Waste Management, while others represent inconsequential empires run by two-bit scrap entrepreneurs. This truly is a side of London you never see unless you work here.
I thought I was going to have to follow the traffic, past a shuttered sentry box labelled Smile, You're on CCTV, but thankfully there's a separate footpath to one side. This squeezes between barriers to deter motorcyclists, ducks beneath a overhead pipeline and heads bleakly ahead with no escape for the next mile. Thankfully I only have to go a fraction of that distance before reaching 51½°N, a point which my GPS also informs me is two metres below sea level. I'm prevented from switching to the road by a reedy ditch (Steep bank! Soft Mud!), and from trespassing elsewhere by an interminable bank covered with brambles, nettles, convolvulus and hawthorn bushes. Somewhere over the other side is an enormous Veolia landfill site, and quite possibly decades of your discarded trash. And all along the side of the path are red posts marking the presence of stumpy vertical pipes, their caps padlocked and numbered, restraining any gassy discharge within. Out of sight, out of mind.
Havering Riverside [51.5°N 0.182°E]
The only other point where you can stand on the 51½th line of latitude in Havering is immediately alongside the Thames, at the very tip of Rainham's riverside industrial estate. You'll know the spot if (and probably only if) you've walked the final section of the London Loop - it's where a scrappy footpath escapes from beneath the concrete wall around the Tilda Rice factory and emerges beside a muddy bay filled with peculiar treasures. There's also a tiny car park, for pensioners who want to drive to the edge of beyond and sit in their vehicles whilst staring across the ditchwater estuary towards Erith. It is simultaneously an abominable and an amazing place.
The precise spot I'm trying to find is marked by a wooden signpost pointing to Coldharbour Point, and a graffitied council information board confirming that one day the footpath will extend further to Purfleet... which it did in 2009. The tide has dumped chunks of polystyrene, packaging and plastic on the foreshore, while unseen humans have added lager cans to the mix. Hundreds of seagulls have perched along the metal jetty, and launch off sequentially with a choreographed flourish as I approach. Some settle on the dozen concrete barges dumped here in 1953, now silently rotting at a variety of attractive angles, and which rumour has it took part in the D Day assault. The other other-worldly structure is The Diver, a skeletal sculpture of the perfect height to be covered and uncovered by the tide twice a day. Lovers of oddball London should make a beeline here post haste.
I can see my next destination on the other side of the river amid the silos and chimneys of the Belvedere Industrial Estate. But I can't get there direct, not since the medieval ferry from Coldharbour to Erith was closed down in the 19th century. I fire up Citymapper, for a laugh, which informs me it's a 5 hour walk via the Woolwich Ferry, or at best a two hour journey by rail. What's more they're right, the train journey to Belvedere taking just 48 minutes, hugely prolonged by the schlepp I now have to make back across the marshes to Rainham station.