diamond geezer

 Sunday, June 21, 2015

Beyond London (8): Spelthorne (part 1)

Spelthorne used to be the southern slice of Middlesex, until swept away to form the only Surrey district north of the Thames. Squeezed in between the Heathrow, Hounslow and the river, it's the sixth and final Surrey district I've visited on my circumnavigation around the capital. It's also a tad dull, the largest town being Staines, and almost 20% of the district being covered by giant reservoirs. But I took the opportunity of a fifteen mile walk to try to seek out some of Spelthorne's less mundane corners, and I hope you'll agree it wasn't quite a Saturday wasted.

Somewhere historic: Staines-upon-Thames
I know, what were they thinking? Formerly plain old Staines, in 2012 the council took the somewhat pretentious step of appending "-upon-Thames" to their name, switching overnight from a homophone of "blots" to a name that sounds like there's an oil slick on the river. The town has a proper ancient history that long precedes Ali G, thanks specifically to its location on gravel at a rare natural crossing point of the Thames. The Romans knew it as Pontes, or 'the bridges', and their walled settlement now lies lost beneath the town centre. 800 years ago King John's barons set out from here to sign Magna Carta at Runnymede, just upriver, and the Civil War stopped by a few times centuries later. To get the hang of Staines and the surrounding district, be sure to drop into the Spelthorne Museum at the back of Staines library. One of its rooms is open whenever the library is, the other (plus the shop) only for three afternoons a week. How fortunate was I?

Did you know, for example, that linoleum was first produced in Staines? Businessman Frederick Walton created the famous floor covering from linseed oil, hence its name derived from 'linum' (flax) and 'oleum' (oil), and opened the Linoleum Manufacturing Company on a site to the north of the town centre in 1864. The factory grew to cover 45 acres and was by far the largest employer in the town, but closed in 1970, and the site is now covered by the Two Waters retail park and a housing estate. In commemoration (and I suspect this is unique) there's a statue in the High Street of two men carrying a roll of linoleum inscribed with a poem. “Roll out the lino from Staines to the world! Release every pattern from chessboard to twirl! In every hopeful kitchen let life unfurl..." On TripAdvisor the linoleum statue has been voted the 6th best tourist attraction in Staines, in a list of ten that quite frankly won't have you rushing.

Another Staines quirk is the London Stone, a medieval boundary marker delimiting the upper end of the City of London's jurisdiction over the River Thames. The town was once the farthest upstream that tidal flow could be observed, barely a few centimetres, but sufficient in 1285 for a London Corporation stone to be erected beside the river. In the 17th century the stone was replaced by an ornate two-foot plinth, this later raised on a stepped pedestal, and the Mayor of London would sail upriver every few years to reclaim his rights in a sword-touching ceremony. The stone's moved several times since then, its traditional location in the Lammas Recreation Ground now empty (so try not to waste fifteen minutes of your life hunting for it there). Meanwhile that's a modern replica in the Memorial Gardens, the original having been shifted in 2004 to a glass case in Spelthorne Museum, where it looks somewhat neutered behind glass.

If the thought of visiting the town excites you, next Sunday is about as good as the experience gets. June 28th is the annual Staines-Upon-Thames Day, a riverside shindig in the Memorial Gardens promising dragon boat racing, live music, a duck race and "canoe taster sessions". Spelthorne Museum will be specially opened, such is the civic joy this day engenders. Meanwhile the last Sunday in the month is also when the Staines Society of Model Engineers get out their self-built locomotives and ride passengers round a looping wooden track in Staines Park. Interestingly that's not Staines-Upon-Thames Park, neither is the town's river crossing Staines-Upon-Thames Bridge, nor is the local station Staines-Upon-Thames, but presumably that's austerity renaming for you.
by train: Staines  by bus: 117, 203, 216, 290

Somewhere random: Staines Moor
England's worst ever air crash took place just outside Staines, on a drizzly Sunday afternoon in June 1972. BEA Flight 548 took off for Brussels from Heathrow shortly after 5pm, and crashed less than three minutes later killing all 118 on board. Various factors came together to cause the crash, including an argument set off by strike action planned for the following day, and the possible cardiac incapacitation of the pilot. He failed to maintain sufficient air speed after take off, and the crew failed to notice (or believe) instruments in the cabin suggesting that a deep stall was imminent. The Trident dived out of low cloud above the King George VI Reservoir, grazed the traffic on the Staines bypass and plunged tail-first into a narrow field on the outskirts of town. No houses were damaged, not quite, but the plane broke in two on impact and there were no survivors.

A memorial to the crash has been built nearby in Moormede recreation ground, and a remembrance ceremony has been held here every year since 2004. Visiting two days after the anniversary I expected to see the floral tributes still laid out, but they'd all been removed and the 'Papa India' memorial lay bare. Instead, somewhat awkwardly, a local man sat on the benches smoking a cigarette, and seemed bemused by the interest I was taking in his seat beneath the trees. The plaque at his feet was small, meaning I had to get closer than I'd like to see it, and had to make do instead with a surreptitious inspection from behind the grassy mound. Elsewhere a significant proportion of the dogs of Staines yapped excitedly beside the playground as their owners stood and chatted, as if nothing untoward had ever happened.

Close by, beneath the bypass, is the vast expanse of Staines Moor. Two square kilometres of alluvial meadow have survived here, sandwiched between the M25 and a reservoir, unploughed for more than a millennium. The moor has a rich and diverse flora, attracts copious bird species and also boasts Britain's oldest anthills (of one particular type, before you get too excited). The Colne and Wraysbury rivers thread through the site, a remarkably open space with free public access, while an abandoned railway viaduct crosses the western flank. Yesterday the moor was dry with an abundance of yellow flowers, although I can imagine it's potentially impassable during a wet and marshy winter. At one point needing to cross a footbridge I ended up walking through the centre of a watchful herd of cattle and horses, which unnerved me somewhat, but my trek to the village of Stanwell Moor was an unexpected delight.

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