diamond geezer

 Monday, December 31, 2018

It's the road of the year. It's the A2018.

It's also a road packed with interest, and one end of it's in London. So let's go for an end-of-year walk.

The A2018 is three miles long and links Bexley to Dartford. In the 19th century it was two country lanes joined by a track across open heathland. In 1927 a short section was dualled to take the A2 trunk road to its new course on Rochester Way, and in 1970 that was further bypassed as the A2 went full-on arterial. What we have now is a suburban lane leading to a massive grade-separated interchange amid an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty leading to an oversized dual carriageway leading to a twisty residential artery. It was all a lot more interesting than I was expecting.

The western end of the A2018 is called Vicarage Road, and begins in Old Bexley, just beyond St Mary's church. It breaks off from North Cray Road at a mini roundabout by the former Coach and Horses pub, which has planning permission to become flats, because that kind of thing happens even out here on the edge of London. The first stretch of road boasts some fine Victorian villas, and a cul-de-sac which used to be the vicarage, and the whiff of manure from the Old Bexley Equestrian Centre. If you've ever walked the London Loop this is the very end of section 1, around the point where you start wondering if it's all going to be worth it.

Vicarage Road climbs in cutting, because the land around it is rising more steeply. A horse watched me from an unfeasibly high vantage point across some paddocks. A moped rider in a blue Cookie Monster onesie sped by, and it was hard to gauge whether that was a Christmas present or just normal for round here. A row of houses on the bluff cover what was once an orchard. The house on the corner of Hill Crescent has a green copper roof and palm trees in the garden, and wouldn't look out of place in Metro-Land. This is the bijou suburb of Coldblow, an exposed elevated enclave with some of the most expensive houses in the borough of Bexley, and whose residents once included Roger Moore and Dorothy Squires.

Now called Dartford Road, the A2018 curves gently past an increasing number of lesser bungalows and a lonely Baptist church. Every road which feeds in is part of London's Low Emission Zone, despite all of them being ultimately dead ends, but the A2018 remains drivable even by the filthiest exhaust. On the inside of the bend is the Cypry Angel Pool Fishery, a carp lake excavated only last year, whose 12 swims include "bars,plateuxs islands reeds and Lilly's". I can confirm that it's a busy destination for the Bexley angling set between Christmas and New Year, and that at least one of them arrived, rod in hand, by B12 bus.

The last shopping parade in London is a six-unit affair, which currently features a dry cleaners, an off-licence, an e-tobacconists, a hairdressing salon and a Chinese takeaway. The sixth shop is the fantastically-titled Modern Screws, its name displayed above the shutters in a typeface that's anything but modern, and which'll be reopening for the sale of pop rivets, grub screws and self tappers next Monday. To the left of Lou's Kitchen is a white coal tax post, one of 200-or-so surviving markers from the days when levies were charged on coal entering the Metropolitan Police District.

Here the road changes its name to Old Bexley Lane, and a more obvious road sign welcomes drivers to Kent, The Garden of England. The county boundary comes at the edge of Dartford Heath, the first vestiges of which are hidden behind a fence as the road ascends. In the 19th century the land alongside this stretch of country lane belonged to a large house called Baldwyns Manor, whose estate was sold off to the LCC in the 1870s for the construction of an enormous mental asylum. Its workers needed somewhere to live, so a trio of lowly terraced streets were built across the lane and the resulting hamlet was named Maypole. Now festooned with satellite dishes and with BMWs parked out front, it's a fair bet that none of the current residents are NHS orderlies.

The asylum survived until 1998 after which it was knocked down to create Bexley Park, an exclusive housing estate, with the chapel transformed into a health club and the main house repurposed as luxury accommodation. The only two shops on site are a Londis and a foodie-friendly delicatessen called Dennis of Bexley, proud winners of a Diamond Award for their Turkey Cracker encroutes, and emblazoned outside with adoring quotes from the like of Rick Stein and Heston Blumenthal. Old Bexley Lane originally veered off across the heath from a point opposite the main gates, but that link was severed when the A2 intruded, and a decaying strip of tarmac now runs off into an evergreen wilderness for a few hundred stunted metres.

The next section of the A2018 is not meant for pedestrians, even though signs suggest they're catered for. Immediately ahead is the Dartford Heath roundabout, which gouged out the heart of the heath fifty years ago, before environmental campaigners grew teeth. A ring of traffic sits atop a dual carriageway in cutting, and those on foot must take their lives in their hands when crossing the entry and exit slips. The pavement exists almost as far as the northern side, then suddenly disappears, leaving those on foot to proceed with caution along a bumpy verge. At one point a badly positioned countdown marker forces pedestrians into the traffic, and basically don't try this journey yourself.

Every so often a genuine footpath disappears off into the trees, presumably the continuation of another path arriving on the other side of the dual carriageway, and a sign announces the Fire Post number to be quoted in case of conflagration. Eventually another roundabout appears, smaller this time, but still adrift in the centre of an unpopulated heath. This is the junction with Rochester Way, which used to ferry the A2 Channel-ward between 1927 and 1970, but now only runs for half a mile before petering out and merging into the suburban road network. For the road-numbering fans amongst you, everything I've walked so far was originally designated the A210 in 1922, downgraded to the B2210 in 1935 and reupgraded to the A2018 in 1970.

From here on the road is called Shepherds Lane, which is a nod to the utter backwater it started out as. The arrival of the A2 instead transformed this particular half mile into a dual carriageway, now with a line of gorse-filled planters up the central reservation. Students of geography will recognise classic ribbon development, a chain of large semis facing a busy road, and not ideal for the families with five cars in their front garden trying to get in or out. These are the outskirts of Dartford, where suburban avenues mesh up against what used to be the Dartford bypass before the new A2 did a much better job.

After the last mega-crossroads things calm down somewhat. This is the section of the A2018 that's been the A2018 for longest - over ninety years - and is lined by houses of a similar age. One has a 'No Riff Raff' sign in the porch, and a plague of overblown Christmas decorations across its garden which suggests the opposite. Numbers 32a, 32b, 32c and 32d have been carefully squeezed into a formerly vacant plot. The Shepherds takeaway has a poster outside declaring that its 18 inch pizzas are the biggest in town, whereas I'd have thought all 18 inch pizzas were the same size. It's taken a while, but the road here feels almost normal.

Before the final bend comes Dartford Grammar School for Girls, and then the rather more jumbled frontage of the Boys equivalent. The latter has built an arts centre to celebrate its most notorious pupil, Mick Jagger, presumably for his musical achievements rather than the morally dubious life of drug taking and womanising he once led. The next band to perform are The Style Councillors in three weeks time, while the real Nine Below Zero are due in October. The houses opposite are Victorian, including three neighbours whose homes are dated sequentially 1880, 1881 and 1882. The nearer you get to the centre of Dartford, the older the buildings are. And that's it, at a mini-roundabout at the top of West Hill where the road of the year finally bows out. There isn't an A2019, by the way, so you'll be saved from similar reportage next year...

Other recent A-roads
A2010: Brighton (1.2 miles)
A2011: Crawley (2.1 miles)
A2012: Reserved for the Thames Gateway Crossing
A2014: Tonbridge (0.8 miles)
A2015: Beckenham (1.6 miles)
A2016: Plumstead - Erith (5.1 miles)

Near-future A-roads
A2021: Eastbourne (2.1 miles)
A2022: Epsom - West Wickham (13.5 miles)
A2023: Hove (1.8 miles)
A2025: Lancing (1.1 miles)
A2026: Dartford (1.1 miles)
A2029: Lewes (1.2 miles)

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