diamond geezer

 Tuesday, April 28, 2020

I miss hills.

I haven't climbed a hill since I was in Neasden six weeks ago (and that was only 30m).
I haven't climbed a decent hill since I was in Cornwall seven weeks ago (and that was only 50m).
I haven't climbed a proper hill since I was in Crowborough nine weeks ago (which was all of 140m).

Back in February, my smartphone tells me, I was averaging an ascent of eighty metres a day. This month I've been averaging six.

Since lockdown started even escalators are entirely off limits. I've now got to the stage where I'm eyeing up steps like these and making a deliberate detour to try to remember what climbing things felt like.

My problem is that my daily exercise takes me no further than the Olympic Park, and the Olympic Park is devoid of hills. It does at least have artificial ridges, which is more than the surrounding area can muster, but they're not exactly challenging.

This is as good as it gets for me these days, an assault on the northern face of the mound with the Olympic rings on top. It must be all of eight metres high, and takes almost fifteen seconds to yomp to the top. Small pleasures.

From the summit I can see a good length of the River Lea, the towers of Docklands and the tip of the Shard. It used to be possible to see the City of London too but the new flats in Eastwick have put paid to that. It's not a bad view though, from the loftiest viewpoint I'll be tackling for the foreseeable future.

My real problem is living in East London, within walking distance of no hills whatsoever.

Which is how I got to wondering where my nearest proper hill actually is.

Estuaries are generally flat places, and the Thames estuary is no exception. Along the north bank of the river the contours barely fluctuate between Tower Bridge and Canvey Island. As for the lower reaches of the river Lea they only serve to flatten out my local neighbourhood even more, indeed much of Newham used to be marshland until the late 19th century.

What's difficult is visualising all this on a map. Google doesn't believe in contours, and even on an Ordnance Survey map the faint orange lines are almost entirely overwhelmed by roads and sprawling suburbs.

The clearest depiction of London's topography I've been able to find is this relief map, beautifully crafted in porcelain by The Little Globe Company. Zooming in on east London confirms the paucity of ups and downs around here.

Nothing much is going on along the Thames through central London, contour-wise, but the flat valley floor really spreads out once the Lea is passed, especially north of the river. Nowhere in Tower Hamlets or Newham exceeds 20m above sea level, neither Hackney nor Barking & Dagenham ever top 50m, and the highest points of Waltham Forest, Redbridge and Havering are all to be found along their northern boundaries.

It appears I have no hope of reaching high land within my daily exercise limits, let alone climbing a hill.

For a more nuanced view, wherever you live, I recommend en-gb.topographic-map.com. This displays the elevation of the land using a colourful scale, with blue the lowest and red the highest. Precisely what colour equals what height varies as you zoom in and out. On this London map at this scale the reds go up to 700 feet, or about 200m.

I live bang in the centre of this extract, surrounded by a sea of blue.
A rise in sea level of about 20m would submerge most of the blue region. This is another reason why my lack of local hills could be problematic.

Northwest London has hilly bits, especially around Barnet and Hampstead. Northeast London has hilly bits, notably along the Essex fringe. But it's southeast London where the properly hilly bits are, and not just along the edge of the North Downs. You're never far from a gradient in Sydenham, Hayes or Chislehurst, even New Addington, in a way that north London rarely manages.

Southeast London's particular good fortune is that its high land spreads almost to the Thames. A ridge of chalk and sand stretches from Greenwich to Erith via Charlton and Woolwich, including the hump on which Greenwich Observatory was built and the heights of Shooters Hill. If I lived south of the river I'd have a lot more options for daily exercise involving hills... but for the time being south London is somewhere I can only dream of visiting.

So to return to my earlier question, where exactly is my nearest proper hill?

It could be Greenwich Park at 3½ miles, although as we've just determined I can't get there right now. The City of London has a few steep slopes and is also 3½ miles distant, although I don't think anything there really counts as a hill. Primrose Hill and Parliament Hill are definite summits, but they're both 6½ miles away so out of contention. East of the Lea I'd need to get out to Chingford to reach anything resembling a proper slope, but that's no closer.

I think my closest hill is in Upper Clapton, specifically around Springfield Park opposite Walthamstow Marshes where the land rises sharply from the banks of the Lea. It may not be a thrilling summit at barely 30m high, but the ascent takes at least a couple of minutes which would add a hillclimbing frisson that's been missing from my life of late. Alas Springfield Park is 3 miles from home... and even further via the towpath... so again not an option for reaching on foot under current circumstances.

I have over the past couple of decades entirely underestimated the importance of public transport in helping me to reach hills that are properly worth climbing. Only now do I fully recognise the folly of living somewhere without a single decent slope within an hour's walk. I hope your daily exercise, unlike mine, includes the option of a slightly challenging gradient.

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