diamond geezer

 Tuesday, January 15, 2019

4 miles from central London

I've visited the locations that lie four miles north, east, south and west from the statue of Charles I in Trafalgar Square. I suspect you'll know two of them.

[1 mile], [2 miles], [3 miles], [map]

FOUR MILES NORTH: Fairbridge Road, N19
(not far from Upper Holloway station)

Near the top of the Holloway Road, immediately beyond the railway bridge, pause at the kitchen showroom on the street corner opposite the church. Here begins Fairbridge Road, a long street of fine Victorian villas running parallel to the Overground. Come on the first Sunday of the month and this is a playstreet, as a traffic sign on a lamppost warns and some paper lanterns hanging from a tree assert. The rest of the time it's quiet-ish, a string of gabled attic windows looking down over tiny front gardens scattered with shrubbery and recycling bins. Three greyhounds are being taken for a walk by three smiling dogwalkers, and sniffing every potential treat along the pavement. "Oh I can see a baguette! No you can't have it." A woman harangues the UPS driver who's dared to park outside her house whilst delivering to a neighbour. A street sweeper pauses to check his phone. At the top of the street the bells of St John's chime the hour.

Take time to admire the Hovis advert painted on the wall of what used to be A. H. Fryer, Baker & Confectioner. Be surprised to find that Geo. F. Trumper, the esteemed Mayfair barbers, are actually based in a lowly ex-cornershop on the corner of Sussex Way. But for the four-mile point head to the junction with Ashbrook Road, amidst a flank of elegant brickwork somewhere in the vicinity of number 50. Most of the windows along here are net-curtained, but in some of the others can be seen colourful cushions, a black and white jacket, a rainbow flag and the pegs of a guitar. Officially the four-mile target is round the back of these houses, in one of their hidden gardens, therefore best seen from a passing train. Thankfully there are still some on the Goblin at the moment, not that a lengthy fence and a wall of undulating rear extensions reveal enough to make the trip worthwhile.

FOUR MILES EAST: Limehouse Reach
(River Thames, between Limehouse and Rotherhithe)

For the second time my 'Miles From' journey has led us to the middle of the River Thames (and will do so again at nine, should I ever get that far). We're right on the sharp bend where the Thames first curves to loop the Isle of Dogs, with the newest towers in Docklands climbing rapidly just to the east. To reach the actual spot would require a boat ride, and even that would likely miss, so instead I choose to visit the banks on either side (with an almost hour-long journey inbetween).

On the northern side is the most famous part of Limehouse, Narrow Street, and the early Georgian terrace where Sir Ian McKellan owns a pub. Because these buildings date back to wharfier days only the residents have riverfront access, enjoying a covetable panorama downstream to Deptford and upstream to the City. The Thames Path is forced to follow the street instead, and even the entrance through Duke Shore Wharf has been sealed off while some very slow repair works take place. Only from the windowboxed promenade round the back of Dunbar Wharf is a view of the river regained, or from the wiggly footbridge which carries several of Canary Wharf's lunchtime joggers. Cyclists are specifically not welcome. The Thames is very grey, very broad and very quiet, until a cruise boat floats by with only the hardiest sightseers on the upper deck.

Over on the southern bank the inside of the bend forms the remotest end of Rotherhithe. This used to be Pageant's Wharf, now Pageant Crescent, which was built so early in the redevelopment of the London Docks that the builders thought two-storey three-bedroom terraced houses were the best use of the land. These days the properties merit a million pound premium, with at least one Range Rover, Porsche, Merc and BMW out front, and who knows what parked in the garages underneath. The unmarked obelisk at one end of the terrace was positioned here in 1992 and aligns precisely with the axis of the Docklands estate - a kind of Canary Wharf Meridian marker, if you like. Being near enough low tide a decent-sized beach has been revealed below the river wall, dotted with silent seagulls resting on the sand, which gets a soaking half a minute after a Thames Clipper speeds by.

FOUR MILES SOUTH: Saxby Road Estate, SW2
(close to Brixton Prison)

Where precisely a geographical marker lands is a bit of a lottery. A slight nudge to either side and we'd have landed amid Victorian terraces, not always immaculately maintained... a little further and we might have hit a dense LCC estate or even prison cells. Instead welcome to the Saxby Lane Estate, an enclave of postwar council housing a couple of streets from the South Circular. A sign showing the staggered layout of these 70 homes has been planted into a low-walled lawn at one end, along with a few emerging daffodils. Lambeth's architects weren't over-keen to give most residents front gardens, so have provided communal shrubberies, raised beds and lawns instead. One such raised bed is empty other than a mattress, a broken table and chairs, plus a fridge-freezer. Rose bushes have been ferociously pruned. Dogs are forbidden from squatting. Balls must not be kicked.

I take a seat on the central bench, with its plaque in memory of Alim Uddin, son and brother. Noticing that he died aged only 17 I do a quick Google search and discover that he was stabbed quarter of a mile away after an argument over a failed bike purchase. Around the foot of the bench are numerous fag ends, scatterings of freshly-mown grass, a bottle top and a single bacon-flavour corn-based snack I still think of as a Frazzle. The phone box still works, unexpectedly, although these days functions mostly an advert for Rennie. A pasted-up sheet of paper announces that Mehret is offering holistic pain-free pilates taster sessions 25 times a week in January, which suggests she's rather short of custom. I count 22 satellite dishes on the surrounding flats and houses, plus one England flag. Saxby's tenants could be holed up somewhere far worse.

FOUR MILES WEST: Westfield London
(i.e. Shepherd's Bush, not Stratford)

Don't say this feature doesn't deliver diversity. Four miles west of Trafalgar Square delivers us to Europe's largest shopping mall, within the confines of the retail maelstrom that is Westfield London. The specific spot is along the promenade linking the central atrium to the upmarket 'Village', where the shops that would never thrive in Stratford are clustered. It's lofty, it's spacious, and because I've turned up on a Sunday afternoon it's quite busy. Those in their 20s and 30s generally have carrier bags in their hands, those in their 40s more likely small children. Triangular skylights reveal the outside world shoppers aren't meant to notice. Private security personnel keep a careful eye on proceedings.

Up on Level 1 the mall passes between Zara and a boarded up unit, new retailer (hopefully) coming soon. In the centre of the aisle is an 'outdoor' overspill for Pret, plus a sushi vendor with fewer, shabbier banquettes. Oud Milano are offering 50% off their selection of oriental beauty products, this small kiosk their only outlet this side of the Alps. A lowly operative wheels over her trolley to empty the litter bin, which is mostly full of empty cups. Wave your phone at the QR code on Zara's shop window for exclusive details of sales promotions within. The music pumping out from somewhere overhead is so mainstreamly modern that I recognise none of it.

Downstairs, or rather down-escalator, the units are smaller and more fashionable. Armani, Versace and Calvin Klein are amongst the famous names bedded in, the latter exclusively for the sale of underwear. I worry that Tory Burch might be a political faction's HQ, but instead its gold shelves are sparsely dotted with not many handbags. One young couple pause to look over the watches and Ray-Bans slotted into a mid-aisle display. A very patient-looking dad pushes his offspring forwards inside a hired red miniature sports car. Another family have hunkered down on some benches and unleashed the kids' packed lunches, spilling crisps and Haribo onto the carpet. Westfield is their day out, Sunday is no day of rest, and once more round and then we'll go home.

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