A walk through five London boroughs (in less than 10 minutes)
There's only one place to start, and that's the Vicar's Oak at the top of Westow Hill. Alas it no longer stands because it was chopped down in the 17th century, but this fabled tree in the Great North Wood once marked the boundary between the parishes of Battersea, Camberwell, Croydon and Lambeth. Reassuringly a local art project has just put itback in the form of an oak stump embedded in a ring of resin-bonded gravel immediately outside the gates to Crystal Palace Park. It's not quite in the right spot, the busy crossroads alongside having swallowed that up, but this is still the place where the boroughs of Bromley, Croydon, Lambeth (and almost Southwark) meet. Let's walk. [map]
1) BROMLEY[time elapsed: 0 min 0 sec]
The Vicar's Oak 'stump' is in Bromley, but to keep this walk as short as possible we need to start on the southeastern corner of the crossroads (which is in Bromley too). Here we find The Grape & Grain pub, which closed last year and is currently boarded up and fenced off awaiting redevelopment as a three-storey Wetherspoons. Previously on this site was the Royal Crystal Palace Hotel, well-frequented by Victorian tourists (including Emile Zola and Emperor Frederick of Germany), but irreparably damaged in the war. The clock starts on our walk the moment the pedestrian crossing lights turn green and the streaming traffic briefly pauses.
(cross Church Road)
2) CROYDON[time elapsed: 0 min 5 sec]
Here we are on one of the pointy corners of the Norwood Triangle, so narrow that the only building which fitted was another pub. Or former pub, because The Cambridge closed down in the summer of 2011 and has been vacant ever since. The pub had a pretty poor reputation inside, but boasts some splendid floral glazed tiles outside, as befits its late Victorian heritage. Alas there's no time to admire them closely, or look in on the dentist nextdoor, because it's imperative to get across the next road before the lights change.
(cross Westow Hill)
3) LAMBETH[time elapsed: 0 min 15 sec]
Our third borough is Lambeth, which somehow stretches from Waterloo Bridge to this suburban outpost. The pub on the corner, if you're not yet thoroughly tired of hearing about pubs, is Westow House, formerly The White Swan. Currently concealed behind a cage of scaffolding, a huge dangling banner is required to convince potential drinkers it is still open. The estate agents nextdoor has a blue plaque confirming that the painter Camille Pissaro once lived here for several months, taking refuge from the Franco-Prussian war, but we're not going that way. Instead a single parade of single-storey shops is all that our sojourn in Lambeth provides.
I am always impressed by Doris Florist, if only for the name, and the blooms arrayed out front always look splendid too. Cafe St Germain exudes an alfresco dining vibe, even in grim November. Palace News and Royal Fish and Chips have rather more traditional offers. Keen Group minicabs and the Kish Mish Persian cafe are both squeezed into number 13. Niazi Food and Wine sells food from England, Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and Lithuania. Cafe Paradou majors in baguettes, paninis and ciabattas. The public conveniences underneath the pavement have been converted into a most unusual flat. And that's about all there is in Lambeth, passed in one minute flat.
(cross Farquhar Road)
4) SOUTHWARK[time elapsed: 1 min 10 sec]
Three London boroughs in close proximity is nothing special, but four is unique. Seventy seconds after leaving Bromley we're in borough number four, because Southwark somehow stretches as far south as does Lambeth. We'll be in Southwark for the next eight minutes as we make a break for borough number five. This end of Crystal Palace Parade is all about the bus station, the Southwark side kicking off with the stop where terminating vehicles turf out their passengers, plus a grim-looking cabin where a supervisor might sit. Peer over the brick parapet to your left to see the site of the former Crystal Palace High Level station, now a somewhat atypical housing estate. What you won't see is the amazing Crystal Palace Subway, only the steps down, but know that something amazing lies under your feet.
What utterly dominates this walk is the Crystal Palace transmitter, all 219m of it, just across the other side of the road in Bromley. It's been here since the 1950s, serving more viewers than any other UK TV mast, and you don't normally see it up quite this close. The mast rises up opposite the end of College Road, which you might be waiting to cross for some time if the lights are against you. On the other side is a Shell garage, should you fancy a hazelnut praline latte, then some rather ordinary flats, then a recent amalgam of segregated cycle lanes, mini-roundabouts and zebra crossings. Some borough's roadworks team has been exceptionally busy here.
(cross Sydenham Hill)
5) LEWISHAM[time elapsed: 9 min 30 sec]
Stop the clock. A giant blue sign announces entry into the borough of Lewisham (as does a blue litter bin placed just beyond). Check the small print and it turns out the entire borough is a Designated Drinking Control Zone, which means you can now be fined up to £500 if you refuse to stop quaffing on request. The dominant building on this street corner is the Astra Palace Hotel, a converted villa with en-suite rooms and unsurprisingly downbeat online reviews. Intriguingly the precise boundary point here is on the other side of the road, near the driveway to the Caravan Club, where a historic parish marker post is embedded in the verge. If we'd stayed on the eastern side of Crystal Palace Parade we could have walked all the way from the start point within just one borough - Bromley - but instead we've just visited five in under ten minutes. A unique achievement.
Other short multi-borough walks 5: By walking through Willesden Junction station, then down the Harrow Road beside Kensal Green Cemetery, you can pass through Ealing, Brent, Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster in just under half an hour. 4: A walk down Worship Street, across Shoreditch High Street and into Folgate Street takes you from Islington to Hackney to the City to Tower Hamlets in just over five minutes. 4: A ten minute walk from Wimbledon Common along the Beverley Brook, over the A3 and into Richmond Park takes you from Merton to Wandsworth to Kingston to Richmond. 4: A fifteen minute walk up the Olympic Park from Carpenters Road to Eton Manor takes you from Tower Hamlets through Newham and Hackney to Waltham Forest. 4: If the Thames froze over near the Oxo Tower you could walk from Southwark to Lambeth to the City to Westminster in about two minutes. 3: There are, I think, 50 places where three London boroughs meet.