The centre of London is generally taken to be Charing Cross, specifically the statue of Charles I in the middle of the roundabout. For today's post, I've visited the points two miles due north, two miles due east, two miles due south and two miles due west, to see what's there. I've already done one mile, so it made sense to double the distance.[map]
TWO MILES NORTH: St Pancras Lock (Regent's Canal, by the gasholders)
What are the chances... I'm back in King's Cross, less than fifty metres from Coal Drops Yard. This is St Pancras Lock, one of 13 on the Regent's Canal, which has been here for 200 years. Across the water is an old lockkeeper's cottage, its garden now tended by the St Pancras Cruising Club. They're particularly keen on boats, for the avoidance of doubt. The lock's top gates are open and the lower closed, although nobody is barging through. An Arctic wind ripples the surface of the water in the chamber alongside, which spills over the rim into a separate gully. Several leaves and an M&Ms packet are caught in the weir. An iron gate, treated with anti-climb paint, ensures that only those with a key can cross to the central island.
Where there used to be one towpath, now there are two. The original cobbled track hugs the canal, where a horse could still use it, but the newest rises up to deliver passers-by into the heart of the Coal Drops. It's like a filter, the serious walkers with boots and rucksacks staying low, and potential shoppers with pristine trainers and smart jackets climbing high. Bags dangling in the opposite direction suggest treats and trinkets have been purchased. One couple rocking a beret'n'beard combo stop by the lock to frame the perfect selfie, then release it via 4G before proceeding. A train bedecked with poppies crosses the canal heading into St Pancras, followed at a safe distance by a double-ended rainbow, because it's important for rolling stock to send messages these days.
"Those used to be gasholders," says a well-wrapped bloke to his partner, who looks like she may never have seen one before. "People live inside them now!" An unmade bed is clearly visible inside one of the lower apartments. Nobody is out on their tiny balcony, but a smattering of metal furniture hints at warmer days past. The sole unfilled gasholder, with its mirrored pergola and copious benches, is a lot less busy now a shopping centre has opened in the vicinity. All the flower beds fronting the development are still replete with floral colour, and the teardrop lawns pristine. But scrubby vegetation reigns alongside the towpath, the demarcation line between private and public gardening all too plain.
TWO MILES EAST: Pool of London (River Thames, off the starboard side of HMS Belfast)
You can't stand here, in the Pool of London, but you can float. I suspect more tourists have been here than long-term Londoners. The river is initially clear but choppy, with the twin obstacles of HMS Belfast and Tower Pier slimming the channel. A flock of seagulls has settled on the water in the shadow of the gunship. A couple of visitors can be seen nosing around the gun emplacements at the bow before clambering back below deck.
A Thames Clipper motors off from Tower Pier and spins upstream, leaving a curve of churning froth in its wake. Just for a second it crosses the point precisely two miles east from Charing Cross and becomes a useful photographic marker. A logjam of further boats arrives, jostling for position beside the pontoon or waiting patiently for the hubbub to subside. One of the vessels is a tourist launch named Mercedes, the oldest Westminster Party Boat, its upper deck crammed with revellers who had hoped the weather was going to be warmer. Those wishing to board a City Cruise should manoeuvre to the tip of the pier, but only once they've shown their inkjet printout to the ticket gods on the gangway. Don't waste time snapping Tower Bridge from here, you'll be underneath it in a few minutes.
The section of the Thames Path closest to the 'two mile' marker has been sealed off for the construction of luxurious Barratt homes. On the approach is a cluster of fake igloos, a winter promo inside which toasty families can be seen ordering drinks from the dedicated gin menu. Far cheaper fun is to be had on the narrow beach uncovered by the low tide. Here mudlarkers pick across pebbles and sand, and a line of wooden posts reveals the damp stunted remains of former wharves. I attempt to join them, treading carefully down the slippery stairs, until the antepenultimate step proves to be entirely covered with an inch of gloopy mud, and my trainers think better of it.
TWO MILES SOUTH: Thorncroft Street, SW8 (off Wandsworth Road, not far from Nine Elms tube)
Every compass-quartet has its lowlight, relatively speaking, and once again it's south which fails to deliver. Thorncroft Street is an unremarkable residential road in South Lambeth, a few hundred metres in length, its former terraces erased after WW2. Their replacements are sturdy multi-storey blocks - Dean Court, Sheldon Court and Burden House - the latter proudly owned by the Church Commissioners. Given the choice, Burden House looks the nicest. You will not be getting into any of their railinged gardens.
We may be only two miles from the centre of London, but owning a car is really popular here. A red Corsa arrives, radio pulsing, and manages to find a gap in the parking bay. A young couple emerge, unlock the boot and take out a week's shopping and two cat carriers. Another couple have driven back from the gym, with hubby in beach shorts carrying a stuffed Lonsdale bag. The cabbie with the light blue taxi drives off so his mate can fill the vacant space with an estate. I smile when I see that the driver of the white van from Harvey & Brockless, "the fine food co", is stuffing his face with a saucy chicken takeaway.
Luke, the golden retriever, has stopped to be admired by the neighbours. His owner questions what might be stuck around his mouth, then walks very slowly in the direction of Sainsbury's. A pink suitcase with a butterfly design has been abandoned on the pavement beside most of an apple. Someone has dumped a broken chair next to the bins. Finches flock to the feeders on a balcony brightened by tubs of geraniums. An old man limps past the basketball court towards the pub on the corner, the sole building to survive postwar demolition. The Nott is an uncomplicated careworn boozer offering Chinese cuisine, rock'n'roll on Fridays and a night of misspelt Halloeen entertainment. For those in need of karaoke, a banner above the door lists Elvis's mobile number.
TWO MILES WEST: Kensington Gardens (on the banks of the Long Water)
Here's a lovely spot in Kensington Gardens you might just know, the first waterside vista to the south of the Peter Pan statue. Kensington Palace is to the west, on a sightline behind the Physical Energy statue, while Henry Moore's 37 ton Arch lies immediately across the lake. You may know it as the Serpentine, but officially this end is the Long Water. Pleasureboat-free, it's the sanctuary waterfowl prefer. One gull has perched on each of the wooden posts along the water's edge. Two swans glide by. A moorhen disappears with a ripple.
The footpath is busy, with tourists and hire bikes and over-bellied joggers. One well-prepared party pauses to scatter crumbs on the ground, which is the signal for avian scrutineers to hotfoot over. The air is briefly full of ducks. Several geese hop out of the water. All but three of the wooden posts are now empty. The crumb-sower whips out his phone to grab the photo he wanted, beaming to camera, than quickly walks on. The geese progress further onto the lawn, where an entwined couple are finishing off a treat from the Hummingbird Bakery, surrounding them on two flanks. I hope they looked carefully at the grass before they sat down.
A long bench runs down to the water, one of its wooden slats uncomfortably missing. I grab a seat at the far end after a retired couple have departed, and just as a single yellow leaf floats down and lands beside me. The green box which is supposed to contain a lifebelt appears to be empty. Two Peroni bottle caps lie on the tarmac. A rustic-looking sign urges "No bathing, fishing or dogs permitted in this lake". Most of the ducks and geese have had enough of waddling and have returned to the lake. The trees across the water look splendid. Nobody else is here because of the precise distance it is from Charing Cross, but sometimes following the numbers pays off.