diamond geezer

 Monday, August 31, 2009

The River Lea Walking the Lea Valley
Three Mills → Trinity Buoy Wharf
(2 miles)

Bow LocksBelow Three Mills, the Lea rises and falls. Twice a day, to be precise, because the last couple of miles of the river (along Bow Creek) are properly tidal. Sometimes the water's lapping up to the banks, and then six hours later there'll be barely a trickle creeping across the mud at the bottom of a gapingly empty channel. At such times there's no hope of navigating anything deeper than an origami paper boat, which may explain why the promised flood of waterborne Olympic construction traffic through Prescott Lock has yet to materialise. The final lock on the Lea is at Bow Locks, enhanced by a picture-postcard bow-shaped footbridge which is fun for walkers but a bit of a slog on a bike [photo]. And here, after my 40 mile journey down from Luton, the official footpath faded out. I could have walked down to Limehouse along an adjoining canal, or even taken a carbon monoxide slog along the A12 to Blackwall, but the creeky Lea denied me a through route along its industrially-obstructed banks.

The Fatwalk: There are big plans for this barrier to Lea-side progress to be removed. A Lea River Park is being designed, including a linear riverside parkland route that will finally link the Olympic Park to the Thames. For some godforsaken reason they're planning on calling this path the "Fatwalk", because it'll be quite wide, even though this is clearly a ghastly name with negative "Obesewaddle" connotations. And yes, I have told the planners this, but they just smiled and repeated their brandspeak, which assumed that local people would all come to understand and love the name eventually. I think not. Nevertheless it'll be great to have money spent on linking Bow to Canning Town via a series of activity-packed footpaths, cycleways and bridges. And it'll be the bridges that'll cost most of the money. A whopper needs to be constructed at Bow Locks, and then another further down because the most suitable bank for access varies as the river progresses. Hopefully by March 2012, maybe. Ah, aren't these Olympics a fantastic catalyst for actually getting things done around here?

view from Bow CreekPart of the Fatwalk will be an existing creekside footpath along the edge of the Twelvetrees Crescent Industrial estate. It's so little known that I only discovered it existed last month, and yet it's a full kilometre long and streetlit and everything. And it's adorable, not only because of the waterside isolation but also because of the across-river view. In the reedy foreground Bow Creek, which ought to be mudflatty and waterfowl-rich if the tide's out. On the opposite bank a series of warehouses, skips and scrapyards - perfect for adding some failed industrial melancholy. And in the background an unbeatable sequence of iconic East London buildings, including Canary Wharf, Goldfinger's Balfron Tower and a row of three meridian-based gasometers. I defy you to come here on a sunny morning and fail to take an excellent photograph [photo] [photo].

Brief hiatus: This charming riverside path is currently a dead end, blocked at Poplar Reach by an unbreachable dry dock. So from the far end I could see the next bridge 500 metres away, but I couldn't reach it without a tedious 1½ mile inland detour. Please twiddle your thumbs while I relocate to the East India Dock Road viaduct... [photo]

Bow CreekBefore entering the Thames, the Lea negotiates the most impressive meander in London. I climbed up to the dual carriageway for an elevated view of this doubled-back wiggle, although it's probably best seen in the opening second of any episode of EastEnders. The western tongue of land is home to the Bow Creek Ecology Park [photo], and hence to scores of birds, flowers and insects. Indeed I might have enjoyed some rare peace with the pondlife were it not for the DLR viaduct slicing along the centre, providing a grandstand view of the natural environment (once every three minutes) for any traveller who cared to look out of the window [photo]. I doubt they spotted the two tops-off sunbathers behind a tree near the dipping pool, but I certainly surprised them with my Lea-side explorations. The eastern tongue of land is the Leamouth Peninsula, until recently home to the fat-belching pipework of Pura Foods, more recently completely demolished in readiness for redevelopment. It looked to me like the first foundations of something extensive were being laid, although I can't imagine anybody wanting to live or work here until somebody builds a bridge across to Canning Town station. Not in the foreseeable future, no.

Trinity Buoy Wharf & the end of the Lea

Trinity Buoy Wharf: And finally, really finally, the tidal Lea twists round two final bends to reach the Thames. Tucked in beside the river's mouth I entered Trinity Buoy Wharf, a site acquired 200 years ago by Trinity House for the construction and storage of buoys. An experimental lighthouse was also built here, used by Michael Faraday to pioneer a new lamp for the clifftop at Dover, and this still stands. I climbed to the top partly to listen to a 1000-year-long musical composition, but more particularly for the view. To my right a once-unique 5-storey studio block made of metal containers, and round a bit further those Docklands towers again, rather closer this time. Straight ahead, across the Thames, the 12-spiked millennial white elephant that I can't quite bring myself to name after a mobile phone network [photo]. And down to the left, beyond the bright red lightship [photo], the dividing line where the Lea becomes the Thames [photo]. The departing river looked broad and deep, even maritime, and a whole geography-textbook-chapter distant from the rain-filled trickle I'd started following back in Bedfordshire. I celebrated my achievement with a delicious chocolate milkshake at Fatboy's Diner - the Lea's lowest refreshment outlet. If you ever choose to follow in my footsteps, or even someday walk the Fatwalk, maybe you'll rest your aching feet here too.

www.flickr.com: my Lea Valley gallery
There are 90 photos altogether. That's the lot. You can take a look at them now.
If you really do fancy following in my footsteps, I recommend Leigh's Lea Valley Walk book.
There's a guided walk along this last stretch, with more info about the Fatwalk, on 27th September.
For a multitude of days out, explore the Lea Valley Regional Park.
Read my entire walk on one page in the right order, here.

 Sunday, August 30, 2009

The River Lea Walking the Lea Valley
Hackney Marsh → Three Mills
(2 miles)

London 2012When Olympic officials speak of regenerating the Lower Lea valley, they have in mind only a brief stretch of this 42-mile long river. But that's still a heck of a lot of land to transform. The valley between Hackney Wick and Bow is wide, with more than one waterway snaking southward, so there's plenty of room inbetween to cram a stadium, several arenas, a souped-up swimming pool, an athlete's village and as many branches of McDonalds as spectators' stomachs demand. Most of the main 2012 facilities are being constructed along the banks of the Old River Lea, or dotted at whim between the artificial braids of the Bow Back Rivers. The Lea Valley Walk, however, follows the canalised Lee Navigation, along which many of the Games' backroom facilities are being built. This should mean the towpath remains fully accessible during the construction period, but any view of what's really going on will be relatively restricted.

As I approached Hackney Wick, the legendary Lesney toy factory still stood proudly beside Marshgate Bridge [photo]. If you played with Matchbox cars in your youth, this now-decaying building was the source of all your miniature delight. Take photos while you can, because there's a demolition order on the place plus a planning application whose consultation period ended last month. Yet another chunk of history has been judged to be functionally useless, and will be replaced by yet another mixed-use development including 209 new homes and a fifteen-storey tower. Somewhat ironically, they'll all be living in matchboxes.

IBC fence / Leabank SquareOlympic Park: A shady dip beneath the A12 East Cross Route, and then the Olympics hit me full in the face. Here beginneth the building site. The expanse to the left used to be Arena Fields, an open greenspace beside the former Hackney Wick Stadium. Now it's the emergent site of the International Broadcast Centre - a vast (and architecturally vacuous) shed which will also house the world's sporting journalists in 2012 (assuming any newspapers survive that long). On the opposite side is Leabank Square, whose vibrant community campaigns vociferously (though sometimes unwisely) against the noise and dust that now shatter their waterside peace. A few trees along the towpath had been singled out with tape for preservation, while the rest had been unceremoniously chopped, Alongside, the skeleton of the Park's Energy Centre stood tall [photo].

At White Post Lane I crossed over to the Hertford Canal junction for the best view of the structurally-complete Olympic Stadium [photo]. It'll be a while before the cranes disappear, but the Lea-side panorama has been changed forever. A webcam on the roof of Forman's bright pink salmon smokery was keeping its beady eye on construction, although most of the other businesses opposite the stadium remained as tumbledown and unaltered as ever. At Old Ford Lock, where the Roman Road to Colchester once crept cautiously across the river, I spied the famous Big Breakfast lockkeepers cottages. They're now a private home, somehow magically spared from the Olympic axe despite their immediate proximity to the overshadowing stadium [photo]. At the bottom of Chris and Gaby's garden a blue-boarded wall prevented my passage up the Old River Lea, while a string of barbed yellow buoys did the same for those afloat. Ah 2012 - we can look, but we can't yet touch.

heron on the Bow Back RiversNext to be negotiated was the Northern Outfall Sewer, piping half of London's excrement over my head on its way to nearby Abbey Mills Pumping station. It can't be the most fragrant neighbour for Fish Island residents cooped up in various residential developments alongside. But I enjoyed the continuing industrial desolation of the next section, because this reminded me how the Bow Back Rivers had looked before the 2012 eraser scrubbed them clean. Concrete mixers, incinerator tanks, leafy trees and a broad algae-filled river - it's reassuring that such vistas still remain as a reminder of times past. But not for long. Once the Olympics are out of the way then Crossrail will be burrowing through, emerging precisely here at the Pudding Mill Portal and this stretch of the Lea will become first unwalkable and then unrecognisable. Shame, because it's not every day I get to see a heron perched mid-river and then soaring off into the sky just a few hundred yards from my front door. (At this point I popped home for a cup of tea, and enjoyed a comfy overnight stay before returning to complete the remainder of the walk the following day. My apologies, but you probably won't have this luxury)

The most dangerous part of the entire Lea Valley Walk is at the Bow Flyover [photo]. There's a dual carriageway with multi-directional traffic to negotiate, and not a single footbridge, subway or pelican crossing in sight. Check carefully before you cross. Walkers' progress won't be helped either by the black plastic fingerpost recently mis-installed by Lea Valley Regional Park staff. The sign for "Old Ford Lock ¾ mile" points to Three Mills while the sign for "Three Mills ½ mile" points to Old Ford Lock - and both are sealed fast so that no E3 vandal can interchange them. I tried, sorry, I tried. There was no sign either to direct me off the Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road, except for a small metal disc eroded on the pavement, but yes the footpath's down there beyond the Calor Gas delivery yard. I love this back route to Tesco (it's one of the few remaining bits of the Lea with post-usebydate industrial buildings on both banks) and when out shopping I rarely meet anybody venturing the other way. Again, wholesale eradication and regeneration threatens.

Three MillsThree Mills: There are, of course, two mills at Three Mills (although there used to be eight in medieval times). The House Mill (1776) [photo] is reputedly the largest tidal mill in the world, used for grinding flour until the 1940s, more recently fully restored. A group of volunteers open up the building to not-many visitors every Sunday from March to October, and I can vouch that the tour is excellent. Try Open House Weekend if you want to look round for free, although I suspect the owners would prefer your cash on one of the quieter weekends either side. Across the cobbles is the Clock Mill (1817) [photo], boasting twin oasthouse chimneys and a characterful canopied belltower. There's a lovely view from the riverside, especially sunlit at low tide with the Lea rushing noisily through the millrace. International filmmakers certainly know about this place - many's the famous director to have recorded at the Three Mills Studios, also home to the first two seasons of UK Big Brother. But for most Londoners Three Mills is a historical delight that they will never even notice, let alone visit.

 Saturday, August 29, 2009

The River Lea Walking the Lea Valley
Tottenham Hale → Hackney Marsh
(3 miles)

If you want to access the Lea via the Underground, head for Tottenham Hale. The tiled murals on the Victoria line platforms show the medieval ferry that used to exist here, whereas a modern design would probably show Tottenham Lock and its tall alien-looking lamppost [photo]. There are two parallel locks, only one of which is currently operational, so it was fun watching a day-tripping narrowboat heading ignorantly into the wrong one and then attempting to manoeuvre some kind of three point turn into the other.

beneath Warwick Reservoir WestDownstream, from here almost to the Olympic Stadium, there's a very distinct land use pattern. To the west of the canalised river the banks are mostly residential, and modern residential at that. There'd once have been plenty of industry here but most of that's long moved on, and anyway, waterside property's where it's at these days. Some are older Hackney-slope habitations, some are more recent labyrinthine estates, and some are speculative glass-and-steel developments that enthuse 21st century estate agents. In contrast, nobody at all lives on the opposite, eastern, bank (not unless they're afloat). The broad Lea floodplain is far too risky for any major settlement so the space is given over to reservoirs and marshland. This is good news for wildfowl and nature-lovers, and means the view from bedrooms and balconies opposite is generally rather lovely.

The first greenspace on my walk down from Tottenham was at Markfield Park. It's recently been given a multi-million pound makeover by the local council, and is scheduled to be officially 'reopened' in a fortnight's time. At the heart of the regeneration is the Markfield Beam Engine Museum, formerly the sewage treatment works for the surrounding area, and housing a (fully functioning, eventually) Victorian Steam Pump. There's further evidence of the industrial past as Haringey made way for Hackney, with the triangular timber-loading cranes of Oak Wharf jutting out across the river [photo]. I passed a large number of Orthodox Jewish families along this stretch, out enjoying a towpath walk and wearing their Saturday best (of black, black hats and more black).

Walthamstow MarshesWalthamstow Marshes: The arrival of this wide open space was signalled by a rowing club, a cafe and a marina [photo]. All were bustling in the August sunshine, although most visitors seemed happy to watch the on-stream oarsmanship with a cup of tea or baguette in hand. I made a brief diversion along the edge of the Coppermill Stream to visit what may be London's lowest bridge [photo]. Anybody taller than 5'0" needs to duck to get beneath the railway, although it's possible to speed beneath on a bike if you limbo sufficiently low. That's perhaps just as well, given that this obstruction lies on Sustrans National Cycle Route 1. The marsh was ablaze with wildflowers, although some of the long grass had recently been cut for Lammas (following an age-old tradition) and lay piled up in slowly-yellowing haybales. Horses trotted across a diagonal bridleway, delighted dogs bounded about in the undergrowth, and an army of unseen amphibians lurked deep in limpid creeks. There was a barbecue in full swing at the Anchor & Hope at the foot of Harrington Hill - the pub unreachable except via a mighty long footbridge detour. And trains rumbled regularly across the valley over the A.V. Roe arches, which I'd visited only last month on the centenary of Britain's first home-powered aeroplane flight. Already a fence had gone up to seal off his empty workshop space, but a fresh blue plaque enticed passers-by over to view this historic site beneath the viaduct [photo]. But there was so much more on the Marshes that was unmarked, unlabelled, yet equally special. East London's very lucky to have them.

Middlesex Filter BedsThere are so few bridges across the river that Lea Bridge gets away with pretending it's the only one. Stacks more shiny apartments were going up where road meets water, ideally located for Dancing On Ice audience members who'd like to be within skating distance of the Lee Valley Ice Centre. The riverside pub here used to be called the Prince of Wales, but changed sex following a Parisian car crash in 1997. A little further south were the Middlesex Filter Beds, laid down in the 1850s to help provide Londoners with cholera-free water. They're no longer required, and have been transformed into a variety of reedy woody habitats ideal for cultivating wildlife. Human visitors tended to be less well behaved, I noted, noisily picknicking amid the sculptures and flagrantly ignoring the sign saying "dogs must be kept on a leash".

Hackney Marshes: Next up, London's largest sports ground [photo]. There are 80-odd full-sized football pitches on Hackney Marshes - rammed with filthy footballers every Sunday, but ghostly silent for most of the rest of the week. Matches resume next week, if you want to pop down and hear grown men swear. This isn't a true marsh, having been comprehensively drained in medieval times, hence its suitability for the playing of ballgames. Leyton FC started out here, before they went all Orient, but they were based a bit further east. The Lea Valley Walk followed the western edge, with a choice of cyclepath or fenced off towpath - which didn't make for the most exciting route. But, at a bend near the Cow Bridge footbridge, came the first sight of cranes and a crown of white metal beams. Not far now to the Olympic Stadium... and don't forget that 2012 will be coming to Hackney Marshes too, because every world-class Games needs a car park.

 Friday, August 28, 2009

The River Lea Walking the Lea Valley
Waltham Abbey → Tottenham Hale
(6 miles)

Enfield LockBeneath the M25, somewhere near where Junction 25½ ought to be, the Lee Navigation trickles into London. It runs through Rammey Marsh, which is the last vaguely natural bit of valley before Walthamstow, and where there's always a string of brightly painted narrowboats tied up [photo]. But it's not far until Enfield Lock, where housing re-intrudes. Enfield Island used to be home to the Royal Small Arms Factory, where the army manufactured a century's worth of firepower including the Lee Enfield rifle (it's named 'Lee' after its designer, not the river). More recently the island site has been redeveloped as an isolated housing estate, with a number of the original buildings left standing uneasily amidst a sea of bland townhouses [photo]. Some of the riverside cottages I thought were delightful, but the Rifles pub had long been boarded up, and the Swan and Pike Pool seemed to attract far more plastic bags than birds and fish.

And then the reservoirs began. Two of these (King George's and the William Girling) filled the broad gap between river and navigation. They're vast - a total of three miles long, and with a combined capacity of nearly thirty billion litres. I didn't see much of them from the towpath, just a high grassy embankment along which trapped sheep circuitously grazed. Horses nibbled the thin strip of marshland closer to the river, best viewed from a rare footbridge at Mossops Creek. On the opposite bank, a few swans excepted, the view was rather less pastoral. The Brimsdown Industrial Estate clung to the river, wafting the smell of something almost bread-like across the water, close to where a chain of pylons erupted from a power station to stalk the valley. It ought to have been very ugly, but this two mile strip was alluringly disjoint [photo].

Ponders EndDiversion: I guess it had to happen eventually. At Ponders End Lock a sign slapped to some iron railings announced "STOP. Towpath Closed. Diversion ←". There were apparently workmen refurbishing the overhead lines somewhere along the next stretch, even at the weekend, and a few hundred yards ahead the towpath was gated shut. Damn you National Grid, damn you. There was absolutely no indication of how long the diversion would be, nor precisely which route I'd be forced to take, just a series of yellow arrows to follow. A bleak walk alongside the roaring A10 ensued, although there was one bonus which was the additional opportunity to photograph the iconic Ponders End tower blocks from yet more photogenic angles [photo]. Eventually the arrows pointed back towards the river, diverting through the grounds of the Lee Valley Leisure Complex. Last time I was here, five years ago, I found a disused local sports centre, some buddleia-covered tennis courts and a locked-away driving range. Now a gleaming blade-shaped sporting facility had been erected on site - the Lee Valley Athletics Centre [photo] - through whose glassy walls I could spot budding young superstars engaged in pre-Olympic warm-ups. The diversion seemed interminable, trudging past the 400m track then back towards the river down Pickett's Lock Lane. Here there should have been access to Pickett's Lock itself, but no, the car park was full of construction vehicles and walkers were kept well away. Every couple of minutes or so a yellow-jacketed worker whizzed down the lane and back in a tiny electric buggy, just for a laugh, scaring off unseen dragonflies. And as the two mile diversion eventually drew to an end, I heard a distinct 'clink' on the opposite side of the river as a gate was unlocked and the direct route along the towpath reopened. Damn. Pylon-tweaking had finished early for the day, and I'd missed out on a lengthy chunk of the Lea unnecessarily. Never mind, I'm sure I'll see Pickett's Lock properly the next time I'm here.


Only a handful of roads cross London's Lea Valley, and the darkest shadow is cast by the North Circular [photo]. This arterial dual carriageway draws a industrial cluster to the floodplain, including one of the capital's three giant blue IKEA sheds. The Stonehill Business Park takes full advantage of the area's accessibility, its workers fed whilst sitting on assorted plastic chairs outside the Leaside Cafe [photo]. The dead-end towpath road looked like it should be virtually unused, but I discovered a surprisingly large bus garage at the end so had to watch out for approaching bendy 29s. Tottenham Marshes were considerably lovelier, with squelchy green walkspace to either side, and parallel channels which reminded me of the narrower river further upstream. That's where I saw yet another heron, swooping towards the focal point of my latest photograph three seconds after I'd put my camera away.

From here onwards the Lea became a linear village [photo]. A succession of floating narrowboaters had made their homes here, temporary or otherwise, and here they were reading on the towpath, blaring out loud music from astern or wandering back from Tesco with a weekend's provisions. There was a lot more food closer to home. The riverbanks hung low with blackberries and blackcurrants, and two enterprising teenage girls were attempting to sell fruit-filled bags for £1.20 from a makeshift stall on a nearby bench. If they'd managed to stop giggling they might have been more successful. A more successful catering option was the Watersedge Cafe at Stonebridge Lock, home to Lee Valley Canoe Cycle and a wide range of tasty fry-ups. Car-driving families like to park up here and pretend they've visited the river. They've barely scratched the surface.

Note to readers: I'm using the rest of this month to finish off my Lea walk.
Note to self: watch visitor numbers plummet

 Thursday, August 27, 2009

An alphabetical journey through the capital's museums
Pollocks Toy Museum

Location: 1 Scala Street, W1T 2HL [map]
Open: 10am - 5pm (closed Sundays and bank holidays)
Admission: £5
Brief summary: vintage miniature toybox
Website: www.pollockstoymuseum.com
Time to set aside: about an hour

Pollock's Toy MuseumIf you've got kids and want to take them round a museum full of toys, go to the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green. But if you're child-free and would like to remember your own far distant childhood, try Pollocks. The museum's tucked away in the backstreets of Fitzrovia, in the shadow of the BT Tower. Two characterful houses, one Georgian, the other Victorian, have been interlinked and packed with long-past playthings. Every nook and cranny has some childlike treasure crammed inside. It's a bit like Emily's shop from Bagpuss, except that nothing springs to life while you're not watching.

On stepping through the front door, I thought I did a fantastic job of ignoring the Eurovision personality stood chatting to the bloke on the till. Yes, that was definitely, you know... but I politely avoided enquiring about bloc voting and instead passed to the right through the shopkeeper's magic portal. The staircase was lined with glass cases, all the way up to the second floor and beyond, including a selection of American toys (North, South and Central) and some early 20th century card and board games. Most looked charmingly old, but a few were disturbingly familiar. I deduced that some of the games my grandparents had got out whenever the young me came to visit were far older than they looked. They don't make ludo boards like that now, but they did then, right down to the tiny mis-shapen dice. As for the archaic Pik-a-Styk box, many's the time I'd played with the clump of painted pointed wooden rods inside.

Pollock's Toy MuseumFirst room, boys' toys. A case of things to build with (anyone else remember Bayko?), another of shiny metal spacecraft-y robot things, and a third of miniature locomotives. The Ever Ready Electric Train set, for example, included a Morden-bound tube train for 66 shillings and ninepence (battery not included). In another case was a selection of penny toys bashed out in tin for a few marketplace coppers, while rather more traditional was the care-worn rocking horse resting above the fireplace. Young scientists would no doubt have preferred playing with a twirly gyrospcope, or else some of the fine collection of magic lanterns and zoetropes - for the more visually inclined.

Upstairs again, to a room filled with Mr Pollock's trademark toy theatres. Benjamin Pollock lived in premises on Hoxton Street in pre-trendy Shoreditch, and fed a thriving market in miniature stagecraft during the long years before the dawn of wireless. His renowned toy shop moved from Hoxton to Scala Street in the 1950s, evolving more into a museum, which is why you'll now find Sooty, Sweep and Sue alongside scenes from tiny Shakespeare. I lingered awhile in this room, because I suspected that there were quite a lot of dolls coming up beyond the next set of stairs. I was right.

Pollock's Toy MuseumWax dolls, rag dolls and china dolls - each no doubt delightful in their own way, but two roomsful all staring forward through glassy beady eyes were quite sufficient to give me the shivers. Rather more endearing were the Edwardian teddy bears, their owners long since passed away, as well as an unthreatening uncensored shelf of jet black golliwogs. The intricacy of dolls house design drew some admiring glances, although more from passing adults than passing children. Modern youngsters seemed keen to drag their parents around the museum as quickly as possible (or maybe they assumed there'd have to be a room containing a Wii and PSP eventually, although there wasn't).

The museum contains a wonderfully diverse collection of old toys, both historically and geographically, all with an emphasis on the traditional rather than the perfect. If you're of a certain age there's plenty here to stir the memory (ooh look, a Tri-ang kitchenette) (oh boy, a Chad Valley Give-a-Show Projector). And there's a rather nice toyshop at the end, which I suspect I'll be returning to before Christmas in search of unusual stocking fillers. As it was I left Pollocks feeling unexpectedly old, and yet also delightfully young.
by tube: Goodge Street

P is also for...
» Petrie Museum (of Egyptian archaeology)
» Photographer's Gallery
» Pitzhanger Manor Gallery & House (I've been)
» Prince Henry's Room (currently closed)
» The Pumphouse (Rotherhithe local museum)
» Pumphouse Gallery (in Battersea Park)
» Pump House Steam & Transport Museum (Walthamstow - currently closed)

 Wednesday, August 26, 2009

It's eight years since I got the keys to my flat, ready to start a brand new job in London. The toilet needed a really good scrub, the previous tenant had a letterboxful of unopened bills, and my TV reception was appalling. I loved it.

It's seven years since I was taken out to discover the joys of total Bank Holiday weekend clubbing. The music was tuneless thumping, the crowd was on a totally different planet and the temptation was ignorable. I left early.

It's six years since I had to fight off the unwanted attentions of one of my office colleagues. She was unnecessarily flirty, and mildly over-motherly, and occasionally inappropriately tactile. I believe she's still married.

It's five years since I regularly overdid my hours at work. Loads of stuff needed doing, and I thought it was essential I hung around late to do the lot. It took me a while to work out that going home was more important.

It's four years since I took a week off work to spend time with some friends who then studiously ignored me. They were too busy socialising with new mates, and I was only a temporary sideshow. I've never wasted a week's leave since.

It's three years since I packed all my work-stuff into boxes ready to change desks. I'd shifted desks several times previously, and I've shifted desks umpteen times since. I'm still not entirely sure why it's so often necessary.

It's two years since I spent the weekend with my parents - sleeping on the floor of the spare room, going out for the day to a Tudor stately home, and dining on roast beef and lemon meringue pie. Some combinations are unbeatable.

It's one year since I cleared the living room so that some painters could come round and re-magnolia it. They bish-boshed the walls, and slop-slapped the ceiling, and I brewed lots of tea. I can still see the spot they missed.

It's less than 24 hours since bosses at work announced a significant number of redundancies. I'm OK, thanks for asking, for the time being at least. But I wouldn't dare guess what might be happening in my life one year from now.

 Tuesday, August 25, 2009

You might have seen a map doing the rounds yesterday showing "the hottest spots on the Underground". If you saw the original version with a white background, then be aware that it was statistically unsound. And if the version you saw had a black background, then be warned that it was over-simplified drivel.

how hot is the tube?On the hottest day last summer, TfL measured the temperature at both ends of several central London tube platforms. Then they took a map of the underground and coloured the lines inbetween those platforms (red hot, green cooler) rather than colouring the stations themselves. The result looks pretty, but isn't a valid way of recording the data. Look at this snippet (on the original map) between Monument and Tower Hill stations, for example. The platform temperature at Monument (eastbound) is orange (approx 30°C), but somebody's decided that it must have got variably cooler along the tunnel to Tower Hill - and that's totally unverifiable. The black-background map, dumbed down by graphic artists at The Times, is far worse because it smooths out most of the station-by-station nuances (eg around Angel or Tottenham Hale). It also fails to mention that the colour-free sections (eg west of Monument) might be because no data was recorded, not because they were cool. Never trust a map that says "Tott. Ct, Road", that's what I say. Still, some people will believe anything if it looks pretty enough.

So I thought I'd abuse the map's information even further by compiling a headline-grabbing but 100%-unverifiable list of London's sweatiest tube lines.
1) Central (sweltering armpit hell)
2) Bakerloo
3) Victoria
4) Piccadilly
5) Jubilee
6) Northern
7) District
8) Circle
9) Metropolitan
10) Hammersmith & City (fridge-fresh and breezy)
Londoners might like to note that aircon is only scheduled to be introduced on the bottom four.

St Swithun's Day results (40 days on): Hasn't the weather been awfully wet this summer? Well, yes and no, and I have the data to prove it. I've been checking the weather every day since Wednesday July 15th to see if at least one raindrop fell on London, or not. It chucked it down back on St Swithun's Day, so the superstitious amongst you might have expected 40 days of rain, but that's not quite the way it turned out...

My data shows that exactly half of the last 40 days have seen rain, and exactly half have stayed dry. That's more damp days (50%) than the long term average (30%) might predict, but by no means a complete washout. So far August has been noticeably drier than July, which is great news if you've been off work recently. Rain has also tended to avoid Saturdays and Sundays, on the whole, whereas every single Thursday since mid-July has been wet. Don't go blaming a dead archbishop for this, and don't blame global warming either. Our weather is merely very good at being random, and next summer's pattern will almost certainly be completely different. In the meantime it's fingers crossed for the bank holiday weekend (and best pack both suncream and a brolly just in case).

 Monday, August 24, 2009

C-shaped LondonContrary to popular opinion, London isn't a elliptical city. It isn't circular-ish, it isn't approximately round, and it isn't egg-shaped. London would be roughly ovallish were it not for that long wiggly river snaking across the middle. The Thames splits the capital into two geographically distinct halves, and getting from one side to the other is often a lot harder than it looks. Not in very-central London, where crossing the river is a doddle, and not so much out west, where bridges are relatively regularly-spaced. But head out east, especially beyond Greenwich, and traversing the Thames is nigh impossible.

C-shaped LondonOh no, London isn't elliptical, it's C-shaped. And heaven help you if you want to cross from one eastern arm to the other.

Tower Bridge is the easternmost point at which crossing the Thames is easy. Beyond that, much harder. There's the East London Line at Rotherhithe (sorry, closed until next summer, look elsewhere). There's the Rotherhithe Tunnel, which is OK if you have four wheels, a bit ropey on two, and possible (but highly unwise) on foot. Are there any buses through the Rotherhithe Tunnel? No there aren't, not any more, so public transport's not an option. The Jubilee line crosses the Thames a magnificent three times, so its contribution to linking London is excellent, but all that disappears when TfL schedule yet another weekend closure. At Greenwich there's a choice of DLR or foot tunnel, at least for the time being (although the council are planning a year-long closure of the foot tunnel in advance of the Olympics, which is very bad news for cyclists who aren't allowed on the DLR). The twin bore Blackwall Tunnel allows road traffic through, plus the 108 - east London's only Thames-crossing bus. Then there's a crossing bonanza at Woolwich (ferry, foot tunnel and DLR), but after that nothing until Dartford, and that's outside the capital's boundaries. Between Bexley on the south bank and Barking and Dagenham and Havering on the north, none shall pass.

the great divideI tried getting across the Thames yesterday, from the Leamouth end of Tower Hamlets to the Dome. Mistake. One lane each way of the Blackwall Tunnel was closed, creating lengthy tailbacks for road traffic. I couldn't get the Jubilee line because it was closed, and any DLR crossing would have required a ridiculously lengthy detour. So I thought I'd avail myself of the rail replacement ferry service. When the tube's buggered, folk at The O2 pay Thames Clippers to run a boat across from East India Pier every 10 minutes - which sounded like a good option. But, in a triumph of bad planning, East India DLR station was also scheduled to be closed, so the gate from the quayside to the pier was locked, and I had to take a badly-signed 15 minute diversion to find my way round to the pier from the Blackwall side. That was two boats missed. And, in an even bigger triumph of bad planning, East India station wasn't actually closed after all, so the locked gate was totally unnecessary (and annoying a heck of a lot of other people too). Whatever the O2's website may claim, North Greenwich is most definitely not "So Easy To Get To". Half an hour it took, to get from one bank of the Thames to the other. I could have walked it in five, if only there hadn't been a heck of a lot of water (and centuries of non-investment) inbetween.

It's a bit rubbish, really. Radial traffic in London works fine, but orbital connections go all pear-shaped when they reach the eastern Thames. Permanent river crossings out east have never been a priority, first because of the engineering skill required, and then because of the expense. More recently the environmental costs of any new crossing have come to the fore - a bridge would be cheaper but more damaging, a tunnel would be less damaging more more expensive. We may be getting a new Crossrail link within the next decade, but (several) other plans remain on the drawing board mired in controversy. All of which leaves certain neighbouring London boroughs anything but neighbours. Because London is actually C-shaped, with a watery divide preventing millions of inhabitants from coming together.

 Sunday, August 23, 2009

The River Lea Walking the Lea Valley
Broxbourne → Waltham Abbey
(5 miles)

Broxbourne Boat CentreIf you fancy messing about in a boat on the Lea, head to Broxbourne [photo]. You can hire anything from a pedalo (for an hour) to a narrowboat (for the day), or (if you're feeling refined) go for a river cruise on the "Lady of Lea Valley". I resisted, even the special offer of a cream tea afloat, because none of these options would have deposited me any further down the valley. But the Broxbourne bend is a fine spot for a boating centre because there's a variety of interesting scenery nearby (wooded, meadowy, residential), plus a big riverside pub to recuperate in. And, more importantly, there are no nasty annoying locks close by to get in the way of horizontal watercrafting.

I followed the flotilla downstream, past some vole-filled freshwater marsh and a row of rich Essex houses with boats at the bottom of the garden. At King's Weir the Lea tumbled away to one side, and the towpath continued alongside the Lea Navigation. The artificialness of the waterway soon became clear - broad, arrow-straight and relentlessly featureless. A screen of trees hid the commuter 'burbs of Wormley and Turnford from view, with occasional views of bird-rich filled-in gravel pits inbetween. It was a relief when Aqueduct Lock finally appeared, if only because there'd be something different to stare at. I must say I wasn't expecting that something to be a bare-chested 30 stone man in a Viking helmet [photo]. He had more drooping wobbly bits than my brain could comfortably cope with, none of which were helping his boat party to negotiate to the lock. I moved swiftly on.

near Fisher's GreenThis was a lonely stretch, segregated from reality with only the occasional whizzed-by cyclist for company. A two-mile chain of wooden electricity pylons followed the towpath, their elevated cables prohibiting anglers from dangling any lines beneath [photo]. Another change in elevation broke the monotony, this time at Cheshunt Lock, and I took the opportunity to go and stare briefly at another water-filled gravel pit. Then on, past some very keen young canoeists, and a welcome bend at the turn-off to Cheshunt station. Oh joy, more straight stuff, all the way down to Waltham Common Lock. There were five parallel streams here, and I was stuck on the non-meandering one.

Waterway 1 - Small River Lea: Precious little originality in the naming of rivers round here, eh?
Waterway 2 - Lea Navigation: That's the straight one (here with a lot of geese, ducks and swans)
Waterway 3 - Millhead Stream: This one feeds the picturesque canal system of the Royal Gunpowder Mills (a fascinating and historic explosive attraction - do go visit)
Waterway 4 - Old River Lea: The proper river (and wholly unwalkable)
Waterway 5 - Cornmill Stream: On the west bank is the Cornmill Meadows Dragonfly Sanctuary (which is very pretty, but where I didn't see a single dragonfly). And on the east bank is the former GLC Arboretum (which contains my favourite mile-long meridian-following footpath between two granite statues)

London 2012A big surprise after the bend at Cheshunt Marsh was the appearance of a sprawling contoured building site. Hillocks of earth had been piled up across a former overspill car park, with red-and-white striped cylinders dotted here and there like discarded slices of seaside rock [photo]. An information board by the footbridge revealed that this was the site of the London 2012 White Water Canoe Centre. There'll be four days of canoe and kayak action down the artificial course, and those cylinders are for the pumps to keep the white water flowing. Unlike the Olympic Park downstream, these facilities are scheduled to open for public use in 2011, with a separate intermediate course as well as the scary world-class rapids. It's early days yet - more of a mudpile than a lake and torrent - but an impressive watersports attraction awaits.

Waltham AbbeyWaltham Abbey: I have a soft spot for the town of Waltham Abbey, because it's jam-packed with little but lovely things. It's only a short walk from Waltham Town Lock into town (you are now entering Essex), past the entrance to the aforementioned Gunpowder Mills to the doors of the medieval Abbey itself. Church services prevented me from getting inside, but the grounds were lovely, including the reputed grave of King Harold and a Meridian gateway at the entrance to the walled garden. The meridian was also marked on the pavement in Sun Street, not far from the small and almost-interesting Epping Forest Museum. Summer Sunday opening at the museum didn't seem to be drawing in the crowds, and the untouched pots of pens and scissors on the "children's activities" table in the garden told their own forlorn story. If you head for the town yourself, pick a sunny day, and remember there's just as much around the edge of town as in the centre. [tourist leaflet pdf]

And yes, that rumbling viaduct in the distance, that's the M25. London beckons.

 Saturday, August 22, 2009

The River Lea Walking the Lea Valley
Ware → Broxbourne
(6 miles)

Departing WareOn the way out of Ware, the Lea evolves further. The Lee Valley Regional Park starts at the town bridge, stretching 22 recreational miles down to the Thames, so all the waterside signage is suddenly a lot better. There's a bend a little further along where the river finally turns to head south-ish rather than east, starting the long slog down towards Bow and the Dome. And it's here that the waterway splits - the official River Lea meandering one way, and the far-straighter Lee Navigation another. Walking alongside the latter is a whole new broad-gauge linear experience, and a world away from the narrow rippling channel experienced further up.

The valley's rather wider, and lake-ier, from here on [photo]. Along the next stretch are glimpses of various filled-in gravel pits - now the Amwell Nature Reserve, whose hides are a great place (if you've brought binoculars) to watch for waterfowl and otters. Hidden behind the trees on the towpath side is the picturesque village of Great Amwell, through which the artificial New River runs - probably worth a brief detour across an unmanned level crossing. There's a greater flirtation with civilisation at St Margaret's/Stanstead Abbotts - two very-neighbouring villages separated only by the Lea. The Greenwich Meridian crosses the river above Stanstead Lock, known for its rare swingbridge (which allows those living in the lockkeeper's cottage to get their car out) [photo].

Rye House gatehouseRye House: The Island of Rye, surrounded by floodable marsh, has been a select spot for settlement since Saxon times. In 1443 a local nobleman built a fine brick manorhouse by the river here, most of which has long since crumbled, but the entire Rye House gatehouse still stands. It's no ruin, but a nigh-perfectly preserved example of high quality 15th century brickwork [photo]. Finest of all, especially to anyone with a camera, is the tall twisting 'Barley Sugar' chimney on the roof [photo]. And yes, it was possible to climb up there to take a closer look. First of all I had to cross the moat to meet with the gatehouse custodian, guarding her till (and the shop) from marauding invaders. I don't know if it's always the same lady, but the East Ender I met added to the experience by being chatty, forthright and fun. She took my £1.80 and then flicked a switch so I could listen to three wax dummies plotting to kill the King. Oh, yes, back in 1683 Rye House almost changed British history. King Charles II and his brother (King-to-be James II) were due to ride back from Newmarket through the estate, where conspirators planned a monarch-eliminating ambush. All might have worked perfectly if only the royal pair hadn't accidentally saved their own lives by returning home a week early. The Rye House plot could have been fictitious, but its ringleaders were swiftly dispatched nevertheless. After a dash of 'history' on the vaulted ground floor, I ascended to 'architecture' level where it was possible to admire the rendering close-up and learn a bit more about brickery. And then the roof. I love a good roof, especially when I've got it to myself and there's a decent view. Here I could gaze across nearby Hoddesdon, and another nearby bird reserve, plus a large caravan park where the Showmen's Guild store fairground rides over the Winter. That droning buzz to the south was the sound of speedway at the Rye House Stadium, home to the Rye House Rockets (I'm only related to one of them, apparently). All this (plus a station on the doorstep, a decent riverside pub, and rumours of nearby dogging) makes Rye House a compact yet fascinating spot. Add it to the list of places you now know you haven't been.

The Lea continues southward, past the Speedway circuit [photo] and a pylon-infested power station, to be joined by the largest tributary of all - the Stort. That's the river which flows down from Bishops Stortford, obviously, and its also been canalised to enable navigation by narrowboat. There were a lot of boats on the Lea as I walked down, almost as many as there were bikes on the towpath. At Feildes Weir Lock a 50th birthday party (afloat) was in full swing, with the party girl identifiable by a cheap plastic sash and a rather more expensive glass of bubbly.

Dobbs WeirThe next weir was possibly the most picturesque on the whole river [photo]. Dobbs Weir has three long V-shaped notches, which greatly increase the length over which the water can tumble [photo]. They used to be much loved by daredevil canoeists, but British Waterways have now locked them away in lieu of expensive repairs. The area's long been loved by anglers (Isaak Walton included), not just the flat river above but also the weirpond below. Britain's largest chub was landed here (it's been beaten since), and there were plenty of would-be record breakers lining the banks when I wandered by. A favourite haunt of families who never walk more than 200 yards from the car park, I thought, aided and abetted by the presence of a fine pub plus waterside terrace. But that's Essex for you. For the next five miles or so, one's bank's Hertfordshire and one bank's Essex, and it's here at Dobb's Weir that a bridge carries the towpath from the former to the latter.

A leafy curved stretch followed, with the three extensive lakes of Nazeing Meads screened off behind the trees. I'd not have noticed them, nor their watersports, nor the cucumber-packed glasshouses beyond, if I hadn't stepped off the towpath for an inquisitive scout-round. My detour allowed a merry stag party barge the opportunity to overtake, until I caught up with them again at Carthagena Lock [photo]. The lockkeepers here keep a particularly fine cottage, with hanging baskets across the lower gates and a "ring the bell for service" kiosk hidden round the back. Negotiating the descent slowed the floating revellers just long enough to give me a decent head start into Broxbourne, where their journey terminated. Messing around in boats may be a lot of fun, but it sure isn't fast.

» See a canal-boater's view of today's walk (in reverse) here and here.

 Friday, August 21, 2009

Omigod, thelondonpaper is to close.

How will Londoners ever get home with only one newslite freebiesheet to read?

Simple, just print out the following and take it with you to read on the train every day.

It's awful, but have you seen the photos?
Some politics has happened, and people are very cross.
Hopefully a cyclist somewhere, or a sliced-off bus top.
About 18, roughly, with showers. Don't forget to take a brolly.
Because we know where our readers really go to eat.
I like that Boris, and foreign tourists suck
(Katie, Croydon)
We read about something strange in Thailand. Here's a photo.
There were severe delays on the Jubilee at lunchtime, if that helps.
You can lick them if you like. Mmm, handbags.
They're just like you and me, aren't they, only more interesting.
Awww, see the cuddly guinea pig, awww isn't she cute, so cute. Kitten tomorrow.
Which is of bugger all interest to you where you live.
Should they write for us again? txt YES/NO to 8011045
green hair boy @Holborn, you was eyeing me up, fancy a shag?
(except we went to print four hours ago, so our report's not that useful really)
Blah blah blah blah cut and paste blah blah blah
This is cutting edge journalism, this is.
Sky 1, obviously, and there's another great Sky Movie at 9pm.
It was at the bottom of page 5.
Your favourite actress is in it, and she looks lush.
But nobody cares about the suburbs, so we don't either.
See if you can fill in the five empty squares (answers tomorrow).
And we have some groundless transfer speculation.
Remember this desperate publicity seeker? We're happy to oblige with a story.
But who pays for news any more? Damn.

It'll be just like thelondonpaper never went away.

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