Greenwich is world famous as the point on the Earth's surface which defines the zero line of longitude. But London's line of latitude is far less numerically satisfying, hence much less well known. The 51st parallel passes well to the south of the capital, somewhere around Haywards Heath, while the 52nd parallel passes well to the north through Milton Keynes. Greater London lies slap bang between the two, indeed the line for 51½°N slices the capital pretty much in half.
My challenge over the last two weeks has been to undertake a journey along this fifty-one-and-a-halfth parallel, the line of latitude also known as 51.5°N or 51°30'N, from the edge of Thurrock to almost-Buckinghamshire. I didn't walk all thirty-one miles of it, not least because this particular line crosses the Thames as many as six times, and only one of these has a bridge. But I did stop off at numerous locations which happened to lie precisely on the line as it traversed some fascinatingly mundane parts of London and scored a few amazing direct hits along the way.
And most importantly, here's the map, showing the 51½°N line and all the points I stopped off at.
I hope you enjoyed reading that as much as I enjoyed researching it. I didn't do the journey all in one go, I went out on seven separate days, as you might have been able to tell from all the different weather in the photos. When I started out, in Havering, the summer heatwave was still in full effect. But in the two hours it took me to cross the river from Rainham to Erith the blue skies broke, the rain came, and the skies have been somewhat cloudier ever since.
I got to observe London from the viewpoint of a narrow 11m strip, venturing from the bleaker parts of the Thames Estuary to the very centre of the city and out the other side. I tracked land values from almost nothing to as high as they get, observed suburbia as it gets denser and older towards the middle of town, and met a diverse swathe of the population along the way. I visited parks, canals, hotels, stations, museums, galleries, embassies, street markets, lakes, woods, council estates, newbuilds, supermarkets, farms, fields, factories, pubs, churches, a debating chamber, a cablecar terminal, even the entrance to a tunnel. By following this line of latitude I have (quite literally) visited a cross section of the capital.
By no means have I seen everything London has to offer. I missed the City and its office blocks, I skipped Metro-Land, I didn't get to see a huge number of shops, and I barely crossed a decent contour line because 51½°N parallels the Thames for most of the way. A slightly different choice of latitude and my story would have been very different. 51.4°N would have taken me from St Paul's Cray to Hampton Court via Bromley and Mitcham, whereas 51.6°N would have linked Harold Hill to Harefield via Tottenham and Finchley. But 51.5°N felt properly numerically correct, and my word, it delivered.
Along my journey I stopped off and wrote about sixty separate locations, which is an average of one every half a mile. No wonder my adventures took such a very long time to write up. Best of all, there were more than 20 of these locations I'd never visited before, which when you think of how much of the capital I have been to is pretty impressive. Traversing a line of latitude became a voyage of discovery, with yesterday's eyepopping discoveries in West Drayton a case in point. If you've never been out randomly exploring in London, you have missed out.
Ten other things I didn't mention at the time
• In Wennington, I felt sorry for the two kids spending the last sunny day of the summer holiday waiting for Dad to decide which pre-loved car to buy.
• In Belvedere, I'd like to apologise for pointing the newbie Tesco distribution worker in completely the wrong direction, five minutes before it chucked it down.
• In North Woolwich, when I tried to take a photo of the strip club, one of the chubbier punters crouched down and posed for me with his arms outstretched.
• In North Greenwich bus station, the 'helpful' map propped up in the kiosk window is so old it doesn't have the Woolwich branch of the DLR on it.
• In Rotherhithe, the leader of a group of feral cyclists dropped his phone while showing off doing a wheelie, and had to go back for it, and looked a right pillock.
• On Westminster Bridge Road, I got to duck unchallenged beneath three strips of blue and white police tape, before it turned out the fourth was the real one.
• In Methodist Central Hall, our tour was hijacked midway by a loud Australian who managed to twist the remainder of the conversation to be all about him.
• In Starch Green, I nearly choked when I saw the price the traiteur on the Goldhawk Road was charging for over-sized pastel-shade meringues.
• In Elthorne Park, a mother screamed increasingly loudly trying to stop her daughter running too far ahead, too close to the strange man taking photos.
• In Nestles Avenue, even though the London Motor Museum closed permanently in June, Del Boy's Reliant Robin was still parked up round the back.
An intriguing by-product of my challenge is that I haven't been travelling so extensively elsewhere for the last three weeks. Normally I'd have gone to several self-picked attractions, even ventured repeatedly outside the capital, for tasty nuggets to tell you about. But with my blogging focus set, and no space to report on anything else, I fear this may have narrowed my horizons rather than broadening them. I won't be doing another 12-part epic in so concentrated a period of time again for quite a while, that's for sure.
But, yes, I enjoyed that. And there's also the immense satisfaction of having turned a line on a map into a sixteen thousand word photo essay, just for the hell of it. Normal service will now be resumed, whatever normal service is.