diamond geezer

 Wednesday, July 13, 2016

London's artificial hills

London has numerous proper hills, from the hump on which the City was founded to the peaks of Chingford, Croydon and Greenwich. But there are also several artificial hills, including all of the following (and several others you'll probably remind me about in the comments).

» Beckton Alps (25m)
At the far end of Newham, where a gasworks used to sprawl, is the tallest artificial hill in London. It started out as a slag heap, piled high with debris from Beckton Gas Works, once the largest in Europe. Opened in 1870, it took in coal by river and converted it to gas pumped right across the northern half of the capital. But natural gas from the North Sea hastened its end, which came after 100 years of operation, and the entire site was abandoned. Various film crews took advantage, most notably Stanley Kubrick who destroyed most of the buildings to create the last hour of Full Metal Jacket. Most of the site is now business park, retail park or "still too poisonous to do anything with", while the waste tip was landscaped with the addition of rubble from the basement of the British Library. A dry ski slope opened here in 1988, as part of the creation of Beckton's new residential neighbourhood, and downhill blading continued until 2001. A bold attempt by Norwegian investors to create a Snowdome on the site then fell through, and for the last decade and a half the so-called Beckton Alps have reverted to nature.

Despite being long closed, a certain amount of infrastructure remains. A zig-zag footpath, unsigned and unkempt, rises up from Woolwich Manor Way via slightly more hairpin bends than you'd expect. Either keep to the tarmac, brushing overhanging stems out of the way where necessary, or take a steep but well-trodden shortcut up the centre. Yes, of course the summit's been fenced off for health and safety reasons, with additional yellow signs warning Danger Hazardous Site KEEP OUT, and additional notice that Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted. But head to the locked gate at the very top of the path and you'll see this hasn't been enough to deter determined locals, because a couple of metal uprights have been removed to leave a gap easily wide enough to squeeze through. Obviously you won't be doing this.

Just beyond the gate is a wooden observation platform whose central planks have all been broken away, creating a jagged hole which justifies the earlier sign all by itself. The main slope is covered in grassy scrub, concealing the occasional landslip and a variety of apres-ski debris. And the path continues upwards for one last zig, now rough and narrow, for a final steep assault on the summit. The top's flat, and just about large enough for a picnic, with a row of a dozen corrugated iron plates rammed into the earth on the westward flank. Rusting and heavily graffitied, they look like some kind of urban fortification, or maybe they're just helping to keep the whole thing up. With the rest of the landscape relentlessly flat, the view is excellent, particularly the skyline towards Docklands and the City drawn out along the long sweep of the A13. Shooters Hill stands out on the far side of the Thames beyond the trading estate, while planes glide into City Airport somewhere inbetween. A damned shame then that this unsung vantage point has gone rapidly downhill, out of bounds and out of mind. [10 photos]

» Northala Fields (22m, 18m, 18m, 12m)
Not just one artificial hill but four, sculpted out of building spoil on former wasteland beside the A40 in Greenford. Using rubble from the demolition of Wembley Stadium and the creation of Westfield at White City, a quartet of grassy mounds was created, their cumulative height the same as that of Wembley's twin towers. Not only do they help block out traffic noise but they're undeniably striking, each a squat symmetrical hillock with steep grass sides, and begging for interaction. The three smaller peaks aren't officially for climbing, but several radial grooves reveal desire lines created by those intent on reaching the top. But the biggest hill has an observation corral at the summit, accessed via a lazy spiral path that takes ages to ascend, edged by gabions of concrete debris and the occasional bench (used by shortcutters as a step).

Again there's little to obstruct the view, the other three peaks aside. A series of boards reveals the identity of each significant bump on the horizon, from the local parish church to the distant Shard. The dual carriageway is somewhat unavoidable, so turn instead to face the lakes and playground on the opposite side, and the relentless flow of tiny aircraft in or out of Heathrow. You never quite know who you'll be sharing the summit with - I've met a blithely courting couple, a pack of dogs and a Help For Heroes can shaker. But if you've ever fancied a very minor workout with a 360° panorama as a reward, Northala Fields is the place to visit. [7 photos]

» Stave Hill (9m)
The transformation of Rotherhithe from docks to real estate led to the throwing up of this little beauty. Most of the centre of the Surrey Docks was filled in during the 1980s, the resulting landscape recognised by the developers as a bit dull so they dug a new waterway - the Albion Channel - and used the excavated earth to create Stave Hill. This truncated cone is scaled via a single staircase of 59 steps, and stands on top of what was once Russia Dock, as a beautiful 3D map of the former landscape at the summit confirms. It was added to give residents a view over their immediate neighbourhood, something otherwise tricky in an area colonised by proper houses rather than endless flats. And it's a view that has changed dramatically over the last thirty years.

The skyscrapers of Docklands are less than a mile away across the Thames, and every pinnacle post-dates Stave Hill. Spin round to see the City cluster, centred on the Gherkin, directly aligned above the staircase and along the associated avenue. Almost all of the Shard is visible but only the top of the Eye, while the Olympic Park is conspicuous only by its obstruction. Closer by the redevelopment of Harmsworth Quays is underway, swapping print distribution for stacks of flats, while a LDDC fountain gushes unobserved on Dock Hill Avenue. But most attractive is the curve of trees surrounding the entire eastern perimeter, the Russia Dock Woodland, now a much-loved recreational hideaway for those who live nearby. Rotherhithe would be diminished without this pudding-shaped beauty at its green heart. [5 photos]

» Monolith Hill (29m): Artificial summit in a former gravel pit in Hounslow, now Bedfont Lakes Country Park, landscaped with 2 million tonnes of soil and topped off by a big lump of stone and a metal disc for identifying the encircling landmarks.
» King Henry's Mound: This fabled lump on Richmond Hill, used by Henry VIII to survey his hunting grounds, is the source of a protected sightline view of St Paul's, and most likely a Bronze Age burial chamber. [5 photos]
» Gallions Hill: Circular heap of recycled excavated material in the centre of the West Thamesmead estate, beneath the City Airport flightpath, with flat estuarine panorama. [5 photos]
» Belmont: Originally Bell Mount, this manmade mound was created for the Duke of Chandos's landscaped estate in the early 18th century, and had a summerhouse on top. Now part of Stanmore Golf Club, and crossed by a single public footpath.
» Hill in Mile End Park: Built on the site of New Globe Tavern Gardens, a twirly circuit leads up to a pair of planters on the flat top where a lot of students hang out. [panoramic photo]
» Mill Hill: Not that one in Barnet, but the largest of the landscaped rubbish tips at the eastern end of Mitcham Common.
» Mudchute: The clue's in the name - a former dumping ground for mud dredged from the Millwall Docks, now home to the largest urban farm in Europe. [photo]
» QEOP's teardrop mound: This highpoint near the Velodrome supports the Olympic Rings, and numerous selfie-takers (although the mound alongside is fractionally higher).

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