Posted in London on Saturday 3rd October 2015 at 11:10pm
My discipline in planning these excursions had slipped I thought, as I looked at the locked gates of the Hammersmith and City line platforms at Paddington. I thought it again as I stood at the bus stop a few minutes later, realising the 205 wasn't coming and having it confirmed by an overheard conversation from a nearby TfL official. I finally clambered aboard the Rail Replacement Bus - just like I had a couple of months back - getting deposited a short walk from Baker Street station. The weather had also failed to cooperate so far with a thick mist descending during my journey to London which had only deepened once I'd reached the city. I finally emerged at a busy, fractious Kings Cross station, queueing to get an onward ticket to start my walk. Crowds were arriving early for the Rugby match later, and their was an edge of concern at the potential result. Only a day of tourist activity and drinking could put these worries to the back of their minds it seems, as every food, coffee and beer outlet was already jammed with white shirts and red rose emblems. I spotted a suburban service leaving in a few short minutes, and taking advantage of the much easier to navigate new station, soon found myself a seat on board. The train shuddered into life, lurching into Copenhagen Tunnel and steadily edging north to Finsbury Park where a fairly large crowd joined. As we left I noted a blue, metal bridge crossing the tracks, calculating that I'd be crossing at this point later if all went to plan. Beyond this, the dips and valleys of the northern slopes were hidden by mist, only occasionally punctured by cranes marking new developments. I was heading for the Northern Heights today - and I had been promised wondrous views across the city. I rather doubted these would be forthcoming...
I had been fascinated by the Northern Heights branch for years - even the name suggested something special, something rather European perhaps? I'd pored over maps of the abandoned line, and viewed endless images of the route - both in it's heyday and afterwards. It was a surprising story in some ways - many surprising London Transport projects have progressed to fruition despite their costs or complexity. But this one - to take a branch of the joint GNR/LNER leading to the terminus at Alexandra Palace and incorporate it into the line to Moorgate - was scuppered early on. The branch benefited from a steam service to Kings Cross and North Woolwich between the wars, and despite a decline in ridership, the chance of decanting brokers and businessmen from the increasingly salubrious suburbs of Crouch End and Muswell Hill directly to the city was surely a winner? Work began, the ironwork to support the electric cables was erected, conductor rails laid - the line curved south and west from the Palace, linking to the Underground at Highgate where a substantial surface station remains even now, then turned east towards Finsbury Park, flying over the mainline station and descending to join the branch to Moorgate. Then war broke out and the project was mothballed. Steam services rather surprisingly began again in 1945 - but in a half-hearted fashion. Coal shortages followed, the branch was cut back to a shuttle service to Finsbury Park, and eventually closed in the 1950s. The rails remained in some sections until the 1970s to facilitate the transfer of Underground stock between lines, and it's perhaps this which prevented the land being annexed by developers early on. By the 1980s the campaign to preserve green spaces was more vocal, and much of the line became The Parkland Walk, reputedly London's longest park. The wooded margins of the line were left to grow around the well-intentioned signs erected to encourage pedestrians. By the time I began my curious interest in the Northern Heights it was a green snake in the suburbs, a curious absence on the map which, to perhaps only the trained and curious eye, denoted a former railway alignment.
I found myself at a misty Alexandra Palace station, buying a coffee from a busy cafe/flower shop combination called The Yard. Outside, visibility was down to a few metres and the suburbs were wearily recovering from their Saturday morning hangover. I crossed the footbridge and set out towards the Palace. Seeing a track leading down into the park, I set off. The path was besieged by joggers and dog-walkers who, it seemed, weren't entirely comfortable with each other's presence at all. I saw a number of minor altercations as dogs decided that the heavy-breathing runners decked out in their serious lycra wanted to play and irritated owners hauled their panting companions off. However, both the joggers and the dog-walkers could unite when it came to cyclists, who were a common enemy. No-one rang a bell out here in the suburbs, they felt their entitlement strongly and weaved crazily around obstacles - human or canine. It was during the fascinated watching of this minor conflict that I realised I'd already taken a wrong turn. Looking up the steep rise to my right, I could see the vast antenna of Alexandra Palace rising from the building, disappearing into cloud. I turned for the building, realising that this walk would feature something absent from my usually water-based wanders - hills. I slogged up the bank, dodging impromptu streams which trickled down the slope, my hip complaining and out of breath. I felt completely out of shape and out of practice as I met a gent on a single crutch hobbling down the steps from the Palace. He chatted amiably about his walk, how he had used the crutch for so long he thought he'd forgotten how to walk without it. I felt ashamed of my groaning at the hill. Moving on, I skirted the front of the Palace building. Still an active venue, the place is in a range of states - some parts looking fit to collapse at any moment, while the grand hall could still be in its prime, with only the more cosmopolitan tastes reflected in the closed-up Sushi and Thai food concessions around the hall's perimeter giving away the century. The grand Palm Court entrance gave way onto a yard, now full of hospitality tents. I poked my camera into windows and tried to get a sense of what was inside, but the building was resolutely closed today. I set off, down hill and westwards, trying to gain the path of the railway which emerged from a now abandoned but still extant station at the north of the Palace site. Briefly the line was clear in the level course of a path between trees, but it was interrupted by a fenced entrance to a Health Club. I headed across the curve of the Palace driveway, emerging into Alexandra Park. I tried to remain faithful to the railway, skirting the northern edge where I could as the path snaked around a little café which seemed well-patronised despite the gloom and mist, mostly by cyclists, resting their steaming lycra. The path regained the railway alignment here, disappearing under the road at what was clearly once a bridge now filled-in to offer a typically narrow urban underpass. Above was Muswell Hill - where I'd had a vague plan to start this walk before deciding to extend east to Alexandra Palace. I didn't feel any need to explore the area - there was a path to walk ahead, with the first taste of railway arcana evident in the presence of some of the iron railings which would have supported the electricity supply cables which never quite made it this far.
This first section of the Parkland Walk (North) as designated by the London Borough Haringey takes in the broad sweep west which the line took to reach Cranley Gardens station. Curving high above the suburbs on a broad brick arch, the views to the south are said to be noteworthy. Today however, the valley was a sump of cloud with only some relatively nearby modern office blocks peeking through the carpet of white. Looking north, the spire of St. James Church loomed ominously among the redbrick villas of Muswell Hill. I walked on, still dodging joggers and cyclists. I revisited my casual survey of cyclists use of bells - on the towpaths in the east a merry ding was fairly common to warn of a passing hazard, but north and west of the city a reluctant grunt was more likely. Those passing today did nothing to buck the stereotype. As the path began to turn south, the trees closed into a tunnel overhead and I was reminded that this wooded slope down to the Thames had been forest until relatively recent times, and this quiet path had quickly reverted to type once the railway was taken up. Rather suddenly, the path opened out to reveal a brick overbridge, the hum of traffic drifting down to the path signifying a fairly busy road. Passing under the bridge, the footpath forced an ascent back to road level. The trackbed immediately east was built on, blocked before it swung around the edge of Highgate Wood. At street level now I had a choice - the suburban delights of Muswell Hill Road or a walk through the woods. Perusing the notice and map at the gate sealed the deal - at the heart of the woods was a café and toilet combination - beloved of Local Authorities everywhere, and so often closed - but it was worth a punt. I set off into the deep, mossy woodland of ancient trees. Quiet descended immediately, and voices travelled eerily far within the woods. I heard a distant group of children playing before I saw them, and could hear - but not understand - every word of a 'phone conversation of a French woman on a bench a fair distance away, as she smoked herself into a lazy stereotype. I plunged into the heart of the park, circling the Corporation of London facilities until I found the wonderfully spick and span Gents toilet. Much relieved I headed back out to the edge of the park which skirted the road. My instinct had been to hug the curve of the railway but the sign was clear "Abandoned Railway - No Public Access". Instead I headed for the point where the road converged with the former railway at Highgate Station. The walk was cool and pleasant - an antidote to the close, misty fug outside the woods. I enjoyed the strange sense impressions of being in woodland within a city for a while before I found myself at a convenient exit onto Muswell Hill Road. The road curved slightly uphill here, and a queer little block of haphazard white cottages filled a gap in the otherwise deeply typical North London street scene. The centre cottage had a blue plaque reminding passers that Peter Sellers had lived here as a boy. In fairness, he hadn't stuck around long - and after finding early success he'd headed uphill and upscale to nearby Highgate - but it was a sobering reminder that these properties which now shift for well over half-a-million were fairly humble in origin. A little way on, a confusing mess of traffic lights and pedestrian crossings signals Highgate - or at least a stretch of the A1 which is not quite Highgate and not quite Archway. A mixture of low-aspiration chicken shops and higher-spec bars, the area seems a little confused and transient. Highgate Station is a strange anomaly - one of the deepest tube stations on the network, topped by a fairly extensive and surprisingly intact surface station which used to serve the Northern Heights line. There are a couple of reasons for its survival - firstly, its a fairly solid concrete structure which is integral to the sub-surface part of the station, and secondly even the parts of the station above the ground are nestled at the foot of a deep chasm here. Access to the ticket hall for the underground is via steps or escalator from street level to a concourse immediately below the former surface station with one of the small car park areas overlooking the former platform canopies. Thousands of people catch a glimpse of the former station as they pass each day, and I wonder if any of them ponder the history of the place? I'd like to dwell on the station a little, get a good picture perhaps - but it's evident that this is going to be a frustrating exercise. The site is closed off and the official routes busy with people. The station is just inaccessible enough to be tantalising. Instead I walk a little way along the street to get a drink at a newsagent, before turning back and dodging into a side street - it was time to find Parkland Walk (South).
The southern section of the linear park is remarkably similar to the first, if a little longer and more regularly crossed by other routes. As the line descended the slope from Highgate towards Finsbury Park, it curved eastwards, cutting across Crouch End where the station platforms remained intact. I decided to walk along one of these long abandoned platforms - the route was still busy, and it would at least get me out of the path of the cyclists for a time. Hemmed in by trees, it was quiet and oddly rural here, while over the embankment the suburbs were beginning to turn into the perma-highstreet of outer London radial routes, with their endless fried chicken shops and encroaching Tesco Metro branches. Here though, all was green and still. I paused a moment to regard a carving of a woodland spirit or Spriggan, clambering menacingly down from a brick arch. Perhaps this sylvan guardian keeps the real world at bay in this little nook? Beyond the station, the line crosses a multilayered intersection at Stroud Green - beneath it the suburban Stapleton Hall Road, and further beneath that the Gospel Oak to Barking Line, ploughing east towards Harringay Green Lanes, with the tight curve onto the East Coast Mainline evident in the near distance. This is a signal that I've almost completed a circle now, and I move on towards Finsbury Park. Here the parkland walk ends rather inauspiciously in fact. No metal archways like the Greenway or Ridgeway, just a choice - a slope down to the road or through a kissing-gate and onto the blue metal bridge over the railway which I'd spied earlier. I took the bridge which deposited me at the edge of Finsbury Park - and I realised I'd never been here. Well, I'd been to the place called Finsbury Park, and indeed the station which borrowed its name - but I'd never visited the park save for a bus journey skirting the eastern edge. With the pathways uncertain, I struck east and tried to cross the unfamiliar park. The way was blocked by a playground and a lodge, converted into a closed art exhibit, but I finally found myself cresting the rise and crossing a wide expanse of open grass towards the road. Now I was at a point of decision. My entire purpose today had been to walk the Northern Heights line - it was a walk I'd long set-aside, and it felt good to have done it. But what would I write about? What would be the defining theme or moment to my walk? I realised that - despite most of my ramblings being mere descriptive text, they all had a hook. This had none of that - it was a pleasant suburban walk which echoed the same experience of all of those joggers and cyclists. There was nothing special about a trudge along a North London footpath, was there? Feeling a little dejected I plunged into deeper suburbia, and with it, the London Borough of Hackney.
Hackney has always intrigued me - a nexus of opportunity and corruption, of commonplace London life and strange mysteries. I doubted that this fission of normal and strange would produce the goods today, but it was with an open mind that I zigzagged through the backstreets of the deleted suburb of Brownswood Park, heading for water. That was always a good plan. After its arrow-straight and pedestrian-unfriendly progress through the backstreets of the Harringey Ladder, the New River starts to meander crazily towards Islington nearby. One of these broad loops edges around a pair of reservoirs which I had largely ignored on my map until thinking of this walk - so I tramped a short section of Green Lanes southwards to the strange Castle Climbing Centre. This curious Victorian edifice is a folly in part, but was built with a purpose - housing two giant steam pumping engines - the Lion and the Lioness - connecting the New River and nearby filter beds. Now the castle houses a centre dedicated to dangerous sports, with an impressive set of disclaimers and liability dodges posted before you even enter the compound. Nearby a shop fixes bikes beside a boat club, a string of cyclists with their upturned machines lining the path. The ghosts of the whole New River enterprise are never far away - a public housing estate across the street named Myddleton Close ensured that the forgotten river was celebrated in civic terms at least. I turned aside to cross a small bridge and emerged from the trees to see the sweep of the West Reservoir with the narrow New River curving around it. As a string of canoes paddled towards me I knew I'd found my route at last. The river path was quiet and refreshingly cool - welcome, as the day had stayed misty but become humid as the sun rose behind the murk. Across the reservoir I could see a trio of tower blocks which drew me eastwards, following the path around the reservoirs. Somewhere along this path I crossed a strange threshold, which at first I didn't register - the rough track turned into a broadly sweeping, well surfaced pathway, with neat benches and trimmed grass at its edge. The buildings changed too - from the red-brick 1930s built social housing blocks into the grey panelled, glass fronted apartments which are ubiquitous around the encroaching fringes of the city. I had entered Woodbury Down - or, to provide its modern rebranded name WoodberyPark. I didn't know this place at all, but it felt odd - like a sliver of the Olympic Village laid down in the midst of suburban Manor House. Impressive water features - utterly unnecessary in a place surrounded by beautiful lakes and a curving man-made river - tinkled in the background. There were information panels on the wildlife and flora. This felt very, very strange. Lordship Road bisects the two reservoirs, and appeared from my ancient maps to once have provided something of a centre to the area, with a busy string of shops and businesses. Now the narrow channel is an exhibition of traffic-calming measures, hemmed in by tall apartment towers. At the foot of these are the traditional amenities of a housing project - the post office, a hairdresser, a corner-shop - squeezed into small 'business units'. There was also a surprisingly well-stocked Turkish supermarket offering baked goods from which I purchased generous helpings of carbohydrate. Crossing the street into another neatly planted zone near a complicated looking children's play area and a 'nature zone' I sat and pondered Woodberry Down - and while I ate I turned to the internet for an explanation...
Woodberry Down was, it turned out, the subject of one of the largest and most expensive regeneration plans in Western Europe. I'd stumbled into a zone which had been marked out for what was unflatteringly described by some as state sponsored gentrification. Like many such areas, its history was noble - a model social housing scheme conceived to alleviate slum living and built to a relatively high standard for its time. The mix of low-rise housing and mid-rise, typical local authority blocks clustered around the river and the reservoirs, nestled in a curiously quiet nook of north west Hackney, far from the bustle of its traditional centre. In fact, it was quite a way from anywhere - and despite the presence of Manor House station on the edge of the zone, it was always somehow disconnected and separate. The social and political consequences of placing a vast swathe of public housing here - no less than 2000 homes at its zenith - were not important. The need was clear, so the job was done - houses built for those in need to Herbert Morrison's masterplan: taking land formerly inhabited by sprawling suburban mansions and dedicating it to public use. The inverse of gentrification perhaps? The story is familiar from there on - the London County Council is abolished, an impoverished and corrupt Borough neglects its duties, the estate becomes an ill-maintained sink of unlettable properties, its population an uneasy mix of long-term local residents and transient people from across the borough desperately in need of housing. The social problems escalate in inverse proportion to the decline of the fabric. By the 1980s, Woodberry Down was infamous and mostly unvisited. Its spiralling drug problems marginally troubled the Police, but largely prevented their intervention in local affairs. The blocks crumbled around the loyal residents who clung on, part of a community if nothing else. The cry that 'something had to be done' turned into a long-term vision which saw Hackney's councillors ride the wave of private capital which was sweeping the City. The stock sold, a developer and housing association engaged, a masterplan for a long, slow redevelopment of the area proposed in attractive but hazily provisional drawings. The worst blocks would be replaced first, the residents decanted and replaced in like-for-like social housing 'units', but some blocks would be sold commercially to provide a return on the investment. It was a commercial and political win-win. The program started a slow march through Woodberry Down. There were delays and changes, of course - it was a hugely complex task - but the changes soon took on a worryingly familiar theme. Suddenly, the commercial blocks were promoted in the running order, and those nearest the waterfront were redesignated to be sold rather than let. The river's edge walk I'd just made along the brochure-friendly sweep of glass and granite blocks was meant for overseas investors, not the locals. In the large tower fronted by the water feature, upper floor apartments sold for £1.3m. This was now private land, compulsorily taken, given back to the public, now retaken to be sold to let. Regentrification. A real-estate soap opera. A little way along the river path, it abruptly ends at the foot of the last refurbished block so far. Large slabs of crumbling apartments with boarded windows march east, backs to the new builds, the neat pathway giving way to a sandy, rutted track. A couple bump a pram along the grooves heading for home. This is the real Woodberry Down - or at least what is left after the carrion has been picked over by the developer. At this point I felt a little ashamed - I'd been hammering on about events east of here for years, and in housing terms at least, the Olympic scam was a perfect microcosm of this issue at work. Here though, many thousands of people's lives were being changed by a grand scheme dedicated to offshoring maximum profit. The people I felt perhaps most empathy with were those who hadn't yet had the developer's eye turned on them - they waited. It could be three more years, or it could be never. The promise of a decent home, underwritten by Hackney Council, supported by the sale of the private elements of the scheme seemed more like a gamble with uncertain odds.
On the bank of the New River, looking south across the misty expanses of water I brooded on this scheme. I found myself shaking with anger at the failure of my fellow public servants to deal openly and to hold capital to account. A rare political aside here: I fundamentally think that public and private together are the right way to do this stuff - indeed maybe the only way now. But the failure of Boroughs to manage these huge commercial deals effectively means they get trampled under the slick presentations and scary numbers peddled by these huge corporations. The Mayor of London seems to have the right idea in principle, the Councils talk a good deal too - but on the ground, again, people are suffering the consequences of officials losing control of projects. Over the last four decades, the lot of the public sector has been a poor one, often divorced from reality and drawn into cul-de-sacs of political correctness and ill thought-out, credibility sapping spending sprees - it's time to recover our wits and become part of the real world again. Woodberry Park could have become a very different place if Hackney had believed their own hype and this was genuinely a partnership - but it isn't - it is an abdication. I left the estate, haunted by a quote from one of the agents selling off-plan properties here to an investor who came to see this place:
Later, Dhimi recounts how a client bought an apartment here off-plan from one of those hotel suites a world away. When it was finished, he drove her directly from Heathrow to have a look. “As we got closer, the surroundings got rougher and she went quiet. And when we arrived she said: ‘Dhimi, I can’t stay here: put me in a hotel.’ The next morning she wanted to sell up. Immediately.”
I was beginning to feel footsore when I found my way onto Amhurst Park and started the turn southwards towards more familiar ground. The mist had begun to lift a little and there was a weak but warm sun breaking through as I passed over the railway line at Stamford Hill. Groups of Hasidic men wandered home in shtreimel and rekel, talking and gesturing with varying degrees of merriment and seriousness as they went. The street was busy with life, which was a relief after the near silence of Woodberry Park. At the busy meeting of ways at the centre of Stamford Hill I turned south onto the A10 - the long, straight drag leading directly into the city. It was dry and dusty, crowds of shoppers waiting for delayed buses, casual anti-semitism uttered on sour, lagered breath. I needed to be near water to complete my walk, and I felt the pull of the River Lea again - the marine parallel of this dreary road south. After pausing outside the gates of Abney Park Cemetary to rest my feet, I turned east, staggering my progress via suburban streets and narrowly avoiding Kray connections on Evering Road. If this was gangland, it was curiously quiet and leafy today with no hint of menace behind the net curtains and CND stickers in the windows. My next encounter with civilisation was at Clapton, zig-zagging across Upper Clapton Road to dive through the Southwold estate to the river. Again, I recalled the reputation of this long, southbound main street - once the fringe of Hackney's 'murder mile' but now bookended by gentrification - there was more chance of taking a NutriBullet in Clapton now. The sun was at an afternoon high as I began the gentle descent to the river. The owners of the small, provisional and oddly half-empty corner-shops of Southwold Road were out front, enjoying the hazy warmth. Kids played in the street noisily. Occasional raised voices leaked from inside quiet homes. At the foot of the hill the street opens into Millfields Park with direct access to the Lea. Despite being tired and sore, I picked up the pace, eager to reach the water. I realised though that something had changed. The horizon was unfamiliar - the flat, empty bulge of Essex Wharf across the water now home to more of the anodyne apartment blocks which are appearing all along the river. These seemed very new - beginning to be inhabited, but surrounded by unmade ground with exposed pipes and builders detritus. I snapped a picture to compare with my 2012 view as cyclists dinged by. I had been away from this path for far too long it seemed.
My walk south was essentially a reversal of a long-ago excursion made just weeks after the Olympics ended. The world here is different now - but not wholly. Crossing the Lea Navigation just south of Lea Bridge Weir, I pass the entrance to the Middlesex Filter Beds - still quiet and green, still a monument to long-gone municipalism. My legs feel like stone, and I plot several escapes via bridges and bus stops - but none of them really appeal. I want to unwind this walk all the way to Bow Church. As I pass the now unfenced edges of the Olympic Park I notice they are still officially closed while planting takes place. Some of this land has been inaccessible for a decade now I noted as I skirted the 'soon to open' Here East buildings - fronted by the former the IBC/MPC block. Oddly, once I've passed the stadium at Old Ford Lock the towpath feels unchanged. Still overhung by trees and collapsing warehouses, paving slabs still clunking underfoot. The cement works looms over the path and there is little to give away what has happened here over the last ten years - except for one tiny hint in some graffiti on a crumbling brick workshop which somehow has survived: "ODC Domain". I clamber up the bridge at Bow Roundabout, tempted to press on under the junction via an yet-to-be-walked sliver of towpath - but it's now a little late in the afternoon, and I'm incapable of taking more than tiny steps ahead. My knees are locked tight and my hips hum with a vague but persistent pain. I've walked well over twelve miles - and somehow in the midst of terrain I feared would be faceless, anodyne and suburban I found both anger and inspiration. Trying to describe this feeling, the sense of dismay at lost opportunities and the flash of anger at the greed and stupidity of local politics I recall the words of Iain Nairn, standing in a ruined Lancashire pulpit: "It makes me BURN".
Posted in London on Sunday 6th September 2015 at 10:09pm
It had been a busy month of excursions already, and it was impossible not to suffer the slight financial disquiet which always seems to ensnare me at such times when faced with the prospect of a weekend in London. But it had been a while since we'd ventured up here on a joint visit - and when some very old friends from the US had announced they would be in town, it turned out to be possible to extend one of my now regular monthly walking trips to ensure we got to meet up. In fact, things had taken an even more fortuitous turn a week or so beforehand when we spotted that Iain Sinclair would be speaking at the Design Museum during the morning of my trip. After a good deal of prodding and persuasion which is always necessary to get me to spend money on what my unconscious anxieties deem a luxurious non-necessity, I quickly reorganised things, booked a ticket and shelved a planned walk until the next trip. The Northern Heights could wait for a while.
I set out early, leaving a pleasantly autumnal morning at home and finding myself in a damp, mist-shrouded city. Surfacing at Tower Hill, the top of the White Tower was above cloud level and the ever-growing city skyline seemed to loom weirdly out of the mist. I realised I'd need to brave the rain to get to my destination, and decided to strike out for the south bank right away. Strangely, I realised that this would involve my first ever crossing of Tower Bridge. As I wandered under the vast towers I tried to mentally catalogue my walks in this part of the city, but I could genuinely never recall crossing the bridge by any means. It seemed impossible, but thinking of the focus of my walks over the years it was entirely likely. It became pretty clear that I didn't know my way around this part of the world when I got to the southern shore. I knew the Design Museum's location due to a very recent walk which ended near here, but it still took me a while to figure that the only way down to the embankment without a long detour were the stairs in the middle of the footway. Once beneath the bridge, I ducked around the corner into the tall warehouse blocks of Shad Thames, finding a spot to get coffee. I was experiencing all the usual apprehensions of attending an event like this - the sense of intellectual inadequacy, the oddly proletarian fear of not 'acting right' in a cultural venue. I shook it off as far as I could - I was going to hear perhaps my favourite living writer speaking for the first time since 2009. Eventually I managed to administer the necessary internal slap to get myself moving, and headed for the Design Museum. Handing over my ticket, I realised I was probably the first one here and found myself directed upstairs to a gallery curated by the Spanish footwear company Camper, entitled Life On Foot. I browsed the exhibition for a while, savouring the shoe-shop smell I'd experienced as a child but have studiously avoided ever since. It's clear the brand is irreverent, innovative and interesting - but to be brutally honest, their line in bright, casual shoes wasn't my thing. I looked at my dusty but much loved walking boots - possibly the most I'd ever invested in footwear, and silently thanked myself for overcoming the urge to save money just that once! By far the most interesting part of the exhibition was the section on new approaches to walking the city - it was here that Iain Sinclair's involvement had been secured, and his work sat alongside other attempts to alter the walker's view - including some neat 'games' involving technology and walking. Alongside this, under a crazily-angled roof beam sat about twelve small chairs. This was going to be an intimate occasion it seemed.
The talks began with Peter Watts describing a Twitter-guided excursion from the Design Museum. In short, he let his followers direct the action at each decision point, and wandered according to their whims. He talked a lot about method - should every junction be a decision point for instance? What about decisions which would clearly create a circle? Interestingly he travelled only a short distance from the museum and ended up back at the river - its magnetism ever present. Iain Sinclair followed with a less structured and more conversational talk given the small audience. He described his pre-digital engagement with the city and compared Peter's walks to Situationist practice, before taking a long, discursive ramble through his recent walk covering the London Overground project, the post-Olympic legacy in London and the privatisation of space he'd experienced when trying to swim in the highest pool in London, buried somewhere high in The Shard. The session was to be followed by a signing, but the small crowd seemed to drift oddly away, so I plucked up the courage to present a very old, battered copy of Lights Out For The Territory, appropriate because it was one of the texts which set my walks on a rather less travelled path many years ago. Iain generously signed the rough old paperback, and given the lack of any other punters indulged me in a short but interesting chat. We parted with a handshake, and scurried off in our separate directions - both with new walks to consider, and old haunts to linger on. I found it a little difficult to settle into the day after such an interesting and challenging morning, and found myself wandering back over the bridge to eat, watching the river and the tourists, before heading for our hotel for the night deep in the City. After checking in I wandered out for coffee, finding myself close to The Monument and the coffee shop I'd used for years on my city jaunts - mercifully still open at the weekends. Checking news from home, we scheduled our meeting in London for later and I decided to strike out on a bus trip east. I was still oddly spooked by my morning, so I didn't wander far, disembarking at Limehouse and wandering the grounds of St. Ann's church for a while, before getting the DLR back into the city for a quiet evening, the novelty of getting to meet up in London not lost on me.
Sunday dawned cool and bright, and I couldn't resist an early wander in the deserted city. I'd arranged to head west and collect our friends at 10, so I had time to do a circuit of the eastern precincts of the square mile finding myself drawn, unwillingly, to the Walkie Talkie building. Recently voted the worst building in London - but on what basis I'm still unclear as there are many contenders now - this odd thumb-shaped smudge on the horizon seems to intrude on every picture of the city, despite not being the tallest tower by some stretch. There is something about its arrogant, bulging presence which offends the eye somehow, not to mention the strange environmental effects its shape and bulk are causing. I circled it, eyeing it critically but honestly. It didn't look like a bad building to work in - but it was hard to ignore it. It will never quite feel like part of the fabric I fear, set aside from the cluster of towers as it is. I pressed on in a loop around Fenchurch Street and back to The Monument for coffee, before getting the tube west to Gloucester Road. The utter change in the environment was a strange shock - from glass and steel to stucco and porticos, I wandered into one of the specific type of hotels beloved of overseas travel agents and met friends I'd not seen for more than twenty years, it was a strange and rather special morning indeed. Wanting to give our visitors the tourist experience, we headed for the Tower via their first Underground ride and a short walk around the city. It was, as ever, crowded and frustrating to get around the attraction, but we covered a fair bit of ground including the obligatory crown jewels and an ascent of The White Tower which involved a lot more steps and stairs than I'd expected. Once we'd seen enough armour - and there is a surprisingly exhausting amount on show - we headed out for a very strange pub lunch in a very busy Fullers' outlet before escorting our friends back to Gloucester Road en route back to Paddington for our own homeward trip.
Reflecting during the trip home, I realised what a complicated relationship I have with London - tourist, walker, reader and writer of obscure little blogs - and how as my friends and family have become a global concern, it has become a canvas for showing Britain's history to them. This weekend I've managed to pack all of these roles into a single visit, so it's perhaps no surprise I felt a little disoriented at times. Next month, thanks to First Great Western's unusually well-timed special offer, my walks will return to their usual pace and solitary nature. While I look forward to wandering far more mundane locales, away from the tourist trail, I'll miss having company on my trek.
Posted in London on Thursday 3rd September 2015 at 7:09am
It's strange how once you've encountered an event, it's repercussions and associations seem to haunt you. A month or two back I wrote about a walk to Tripcock Ness, touching on the terrible events of 1878 when the Princess Alice sank on her return voyage from Gravesend with the loss of an estimated 650 lives. I first encountered this story in Iain Sinclair's 'Downriver' a decade or more back - and it has nagged at me whenever I've visited this part of the Thames. Since visiting the site in the summer though, I seem to have found more and more associations with the events of September 3rd 1878.
To mark the anniversary of what remains the worst public transport disaster in British history, I thought I'd link to Stephen McKenna's brief but beautifully filmed documentary about the Princess Alice:
Posted in London on Saturday 1st August 2015 at 7:08am
Crossing London can be a trial at the best of times, but today offered some special challenges. I knew in advance that various parts of the Underground network were out of action, but my early luck in tumbling onto a replacement bus service lured me into thinking this might well be simpler than I'd hoped. The bus lurched around a couple of corners from Paddington, rather suddenly depositing us in a back street which the driver claimed was Baker Street. It wasn't by any stretch - but a brisk walk, down into the station and finally onto a Metropolitan Line train for Aldgate - and I felt pretty smug. I was beating the city at its own game. Another quick walk to Tower Gateway and onto the DLR platform - a train was waiting silently for departure, so I made the walk down to the front to get the best view. As we meandered between landmarks from my previous excursions, I thought about my next move. I could, very reasonably, choose to use the cable car to traverse the river on this occasion - it would deposit me exactly where I wanted to start and afford me some interesting views. But for some reason, I decided that it could wait for another day and foolishly I bailed out at Canning Town. As I descended the stairs and saw platforms taped off I remembered that this part of the Jubilee Line was closed too. I turned and fought my way back up to the platform through a throng of disgruntled travellers. Perhaps this wasn't going to be so simple after all... As I waited for a Woolwich bound train I pondered how my early start had been squandered, how my intense fear of escalators could elongate an already epic journey, and finally how London had a treacherous habit of confounding those who dared to claim they knew the city even passably well.
I finally rolled up to North Greenwich Bus Station a good deal later than planned, and desperately requiring coffee. In fairness the crossing of the city, once I'd given in to its circuitous nature, had been interesting. A pleasant arc across the rooftops of Silvertown and North Woolwich, then a bus ride through territory I'd walked on the south bank a month ago, mostly strangely indistinct and suburban. I knew we were close when Bugsby's Way made a dip under the railway lines to Angerstein Wharf and the now abandoned eco-Sainsbury's store appeared. Stepping out of the bus station, I ventured towards the Dome - I'd avoided it last time, when I felt deeply out of place here. I didn't feel any more comfortable this time - but I was less ragged and sunbaked, and there were far fewer people around this morning. Spying a familiar coffee vendor's logo I ventured inside the building, to find that the store was being refurbished to "improve my O2 experience". I left and found a rival chain, busier than it deserved because it appeared to be the only coffee on the Peninsula. After another interminable delay I decided to drink and walk. There was no more time to waste at this millennial folly. It had already drawn me into spending longer than I could spare on it. I struck out for the river, finding the path just a few metres from where I'd turned aside a month ago. The river shimmered under cloudy skies, the marine breeze tempering the heat of an already strong sun. On the path, Gary Hume's "Liberty Grip" gave the finger to the dome - a huge bronze casting based on store mannequin parts, This is a part of an impressive exhibition - The Line - which brings public art out into the Lea Valley, The Royal Docks and the Greenwich Peninsula. I'd missed the publicity for the opening back in June, but have oddly found myself stumbling around the route between the artworks almost instinctively. Indeed, it's only a short walk from Hume's work to the second, far more unassuming piece - Thompson & Craighead's "Here" sits in the middle of the pathway, a regulation British road sign pointing out into the river, roughly on the Prime Meridian. The destination? Here. The distance? All the way. While I enjoy the conceit, I'm soberly reminded of Iain Sinclair's words:
An involuntary return to the point of departure is, without doubt, the most disturbing of all journeys
Rounding the curve of the peninsula, the views across the river provide a new take on old haunts - the diamond-paned lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf gleams in the late morning sunshine, while behind it the bigger expanses of City Island's red hoardings reflect nothing. It's possible - almost - to ignore the gravity of the Dome here, as the tangled skyline of the Isle of Dogs draws the attention. Across the water in Blackwall I see the flapping stars and stripes on Virginia Quay, and somehow this makes the city skyline seem entirely elsewhere - an unexpected transatlantic transport from an area rich in such escapes over the years. I press on, turning south, the tradesmen's view of the Dome evident. Delivery hatches, cooking smells, containers lined up and marked with the names of food concessions. The path deviates a little from the river here, slipping around an unfinished building site and skirting the edge of the Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road, the red stone gauging arch sitting proudly in the expanse of flat former marshland, like a fragment of transported Glasgow tenement. Pushing through a narrow section of path and challenged by frustrated cyclists, I emerge at Victoria Deep Water Terminal - a place designed apparently to test my nerve and my prejudices. Firstly - it looks like I can't pass. I am so conditioned to expect exclusion and prohibition, that I can't imagine that the way through this desert of aggregate dust and swinging crane jaws can seriously be a footpath. There is also an alternative route marked for cyclists, and I wonder if I'm condemned to fight my way through them instead, but unexpectedly the hard-hatted inhabitant of a small safety station motioned me forward and gave a signal to the crane driver. I approached and hugged the fence while the empty jaws of his bucket wheeled overhead. As he dropped them into the hull of the ship he called me forward. I tried to calmly pass by as I felt the bucket raising again behind me. My trials weren't over - a smaller machine was shifting a pile of dusty grit across the path with a much lower derrick - again I was called on, offered effusive but mute thanks with a hand gesture and hurried under. As soon as I dared, I turned and snapped a picture of the wharf in literal full swing, the towers of Docklands behind them. Like a tiny history of British industry in the last century. Meanwhile, across the river the Isle of Dogs was broadening into perhaps the most famous river bend on TV, leaving its towers and financial centres behind in favour of low-rise housing, slum-clearance estates and the occasional prefabricated block. From here it was hard to conceive of how the area had figured so readily in recent history - newspaper disputes, fascist councillors, insider trading all seemed unlikely headlines when reflected on the quiet red-brick waterfront dwellings with their little post-modernist flourishes and nautical round windows. The path here was unexpectedly secluded, trees overhanging the riverfront, abandoned jetties rotting in the water, framed views of the other bank between fronds of water-loving foliage. Looking ahead, the western turn in the river provided views of where I was heading: the hulk of abandoned power station at Greenwich dwarfing the grandeur of the Royal Naval College.
In fact the walk towards Greenwich instilled a false sense of security. The river path is quiet, sometimes feeling almost rural in aspect. The developments which encroach on the path are well-intentioned if sometimes clumsily executed attempts to fit the area's provenance. There's no doubt that Greenwich recognises the importance of the Thames to the borough, even perhaps cultivates its myths. There is permitted dereliction. Piers quietly decay behind 'Danger' signs, remnants of older industrial uses when we were less sentimental about - or perhaps less aware of the equity in - the river front. Suddenly, the scene shifts, from the tangle of buildings around the bulky power station, the hospital building emerges - a squat, white plastered tower built in 1616 and decorated in vivid red and gold. The gardens are prim and pristine, the path stepping up to the tower ornamentally. Looking ahead, the river path is narrowed and hemmed in by the railings which surround the Royal Naval College - there are suddenly people everywhere, enjoying the gasps of sunshine between ominously long cloud breaths. I deviated briefly into the College grounds for a picture, remembering being here years back, at a summer conference. I was in awe of the buildings then, amazed at this rather prosaic, educational use of protected heritage assets - but approaching from the river, it's easier to see how this fits into the tourist trail - Maritime Greenwich, home of time and place, centre of the historical universe. I wait for an unobstructed shot across the perfectly cropped quad between the blocks, the distant view into the park signalling a walk not yet attempted. Indeed this view could have been entirely different if Flaxman's Brittania had been built. Our very own Statue of Liberty could have dominated the view here. It is simply not worth returning to the river here - the crowds blocking the narrow strip of path unclaimed by the College are sluggish, stopping for frequent selfies against the fence. Instead I cut across the grass, passing the Meantime Brewery and out on the plaza surrounding the Cutty Sark. Since I last visited this vessel has completed a phoenix-like cycle: both burned and risen again, with the area around it turned into an amphitheatre of naval history. A Saturday market is in full swing, the school holiday crowds fully exploited by local artisan food huts and coffee vendors while a string quartet plays in a tent. After deviating briefly to get supplies I grab an overpriced coffee and take a seat a little way from the action. Across the river, Island Gardens nestles between the towers of the Isle of Dogs. I remember similar rest stops there many years ago. It looks quiet and cool - the grass most assuredly greener in fact, and I feel a pang of regret for being this side of the river. It will pass, its just the consequence of this tide of people intruding on my usually solitary, utterly selfish walks.
Leaving Greenwich by the river path is a new experience, and improves on the usual route: there was always a sense of disappointment as the perfect heritage-groomed town centre gave way to sprawling suburbia on route to the station. But the Thames Path feels more honest - leaving Greenwich means entering Deptford. First though, the disadvantages of travelling with ancient maps are made apparent. I expect a dog-leg via Creek Road to cross the mouth of Deptford Creek, but instead find a shiny, modern footbridge spanning the water where it meets the Thames. It appears to be part of the planning gain from a new development - Greenfell Mansions - which flanks the river on the western side, a stack of apartments topping a nearly-empty café and hairdresser. A glance back down the creek as it turns back east is equally uninspiring, skirting more modern, anodyne blocks before the road bridge. Below footpath level the steep sided channel is sluggish and brown, a remnant of its industrial past and remarkably a conservation area, though little of historical note remains. The real ruins are further along the Creek - here it's all about exploiting the river front. Soon after crossing the Creek it's necessary to turn aside from the Thames briefly as the path is broken where the Borough of Greenwich begins to peter out. Forced to edge around an electricity substation, I realise that I'm about to pass into Lewisham and wonder how the boundary will be marked? I soon find out at the corner of the improbably named Twinkle Park - no signs or ceremony, just a pile of steaming dog shit strewn haphazardly across the path and impossible to avoid. I slide ridiculously in the ordure, grabbing a railing and checking to see just how much dignity I've lost. I'm alone luckily, scraping a boot pointlessly on the dry ground. Welcome to Lewisham, and time to find some grass to clean my boots. However, there's little foliage to exploit as the vast Convoy Wharf, formerly the Royal Dockyard, interrupts the river path. The site is now an endlessly flat plain of cement with the vast hangar of the Olympia Warehouse describing a dark sine wave on the view towards the Thames. The large and irregularly shaped site soon gives way onto the street, and I poke my camera through a railing just feet from a security cabin with no apparent response. It's abandoned, quiet and dusty, the archaeologists have left after digging for history as a planning condition. The site belongs to News International - an artefact of an urgent acquisition of various large off-city plots of land for Murdoch's union-busting masterplan which eventually saw his fortress land over the water in Wapping. After trudging miserably through a low-rise, litter strewn municipal estate I make for green space as a priority. Firstly, I stumble into Sayes Court Park - an unprepossessing, unkempt square of yellow, parched grass which once housed John Evelyn's house, and which is linked to the nearby dockyard by historical association. Land deals and wartime appropriations have left this space for the people, a central formal garden listlessly trying to leverage the antiquity of the site. Next is Pepys Park - dedicated to the other local diarist who worked in the Royal Dockyards when not busily exploiting his patronage elsewhere in the city. The park serves - and indeed shares a name with - a important post-war housing development which I barely even note today aside from its remaining highrise block, Aragon Tower, leering over the path. Life here has been surprisingly well documented because of the approach taken to replacing the former industrial slums which served the dock workers - and its perhaps not unexpected decline. The park is remarkably quiet and unexpectedly capacious. I cross the flat playing fields, before plunging into a wilder, stepped area given over to wildlife. From the second floor of a building on the edge of the park, a parent is unfurling a hose pipe to fill a children's paddling pool on the park edge. It's good to see people using this space, living in it, not feeling constrained by rules or practicalities. The artificial gardens of Greenwich seem a long way off here. The park climbs back towards the river path and Deptford Strand, where in 1593 Christopher Marlow was allegedly killed in an drunken brawl at Eleanor Bull's home. The most notorious unsolved murders in London seem always to come from north of the river, but this one remains a deeply suspect case and by modern accounts seems more of an assassination with Marlow punished for his "epicurism and atheism". The Strand now is a quiet, private space, free of conspiracies with the wine warehouses and the Victualling Yard converted into pleasant, if expensive dwellings to front the right-to-buy paradise.
Turning north to follow the dramatic curve of the river, I cross the mouth of Greenland Dock by way of a climb up the boards of the arched Victorian footbridge in preference to the modern roadway, This is the southernmost remnant of the Surrey Commercial Docks which once riddled this bulge of land with waterways, clustering around the Grand Surrey Canal. All the signs direct me to Surrey Quays or Rotherhithe stations - the assumption is I don't want to be here and the assertion is to leave swiftly. Indeed, there is little of note on this odd peninsula, and the low rooftops which have crept relentlessly over the in-filled docklands are strangely suburban in nature. Everywhere the eye is drawn to the north bank, to Limehouse Church, or east to the ever-brooding towers on the Isle of Dogs. A distant parade of No. 277 buses wink in the sunlight as they amble around Westferry Circus, running empty on a weekend afternoon. Suddenly I'm alerted by the unexpectedly rural sounds of sheep, as I find the path delving into the fringe of Surrey Docks City Farm. I'm tempted to wait time here, find a bathroom and a place for refreshment in this oddly charming little nook, but time is pressing and with the compromised transport options and being urged to wash my hands to prevent transmission of animal diseases, I feel the need to press on. I make a note to revisit though, as I know these sheep would be popular with others back home! The path is interrupted again, this time by a confusing Doubletree Hilton Hotel, sprawling across several buildings with unclear rights of access to the river. A token ferry service runs - often empty - across to Canary Wharf Pier apparently just to allow the hotel chain to claim its Docklands provenance. The service is sponsored by Transport for London - a little known, little used crossing, funding justified by the apparent importance of plugging a gap in the infrastructure between Tower Bridge and Woolwich. Reaching the tip of the Rotherhithe peninsula, I cross a stymied and sluggish inlet which disappears into a string of ecological parks in the centre of the former docks. The riverfront road is called Sovereign Crescent here - a nod to the former King and Queen Wharf in name only - nothing is left here of the past. In fact nothing gives a clue to the former nature of this area for some considerable distance, until the rotunda housing Brunel's Thames Tunnel portal appears a little inland and reminds me of a brief walk here when I was exploring the old East London Line. Further inland still there is a historic district to explore, with unexpected links to Scandinavia - but not today, I'm sticking to the river out of bloody-mindedness. I've almost reached my target. Footsore and surprisingly sun-reddened giving the earlier gloom, I detect a change in the fortunes of the area - in typical London style I have made the unannounced switch into a new locale. This is Bermondsey. Where Rotherhithe and Deptford have largely turned their back on the river, Bermondsey was an early adherent to the cult of gentrification. The situation is perfect - close enough to the City to benefit from rising rents, but south of the river - so out of the pernicious grasp of the Corporation. As industry retreated from London and the wharves closed, so the great docks on the north bank were levelled and left as desolate film sets for apocalyptic epics. Here though, there was a swifter turnover. The first loft conversions east of Brooklyn arrived before Docklands had left the drawing board. The narrow streets still wind between tall brick warehouses, bridges still cross haphazardly between them, sometimes dripping with foliage. It's dark, redolent of the river, the reek of Dickens' prose hanging heavy about the streets. Approaching the end of my walk I'm undecided - I know of many interesting landmarks I'd like to find deeper into Bermondsey, but the river is the focus and I feel compelled to stay with it to the planned point of departure. I make a short diversion along Mill Street to take in New Concordia Wharf with its towering chimney and retro-painted gateway, before plunging into a gap between buildings to reach the narrow footbridge over the River Neckinger at its confluence with the Thames. The path is busy with well-dressed people shuttling between the waterfront restaurants near Tower Bridge and the up and coming Bermondsey boutiques. A dusty river-walker is not required here. I push through to get the view - warehouses clustering haphazardly around the dark inlet which partly encircled Jacob's Island - a once notorious slum. Now, The Shard glowers over the tall blocks like a sliver of glass dropped into the landscape. I'm jostled as I try to take a picture. Nearby a young women is comforted by a gaggle of friends after a romantic disaster. The trials of Bermondsey life have changed little over the century in some ways, but are unrecognisable in many others.
Just short of Tower Bridge I leave the path, skirting the Design Museum and heading inland to make a loop back to London Bridge station via the heart of Bermondsey's increasingly fashionable artisan district. The long tunnel under the fan of railway lines leads me to the edge of the redeveloped station site with its arches once bustling with industry now closed for redevelopment and relaunch as gentrified boutique units. A new-build business district flanks the station with glass-fronted chain eateries and bars. I wait for a bus, knowing that the Ride London cycle event is blocking the streets of the City, and that I have a long journey west ahead of me. My journey to Tower Bridge - an unofficial goal - was not quite completed in the end, but my walk along the river covered the ground I'd broadly hoped I'd manage. Turning back west for recent walks was not an easy decision in some ways, and using my limited visits to stray from the main centre of my interests was a gamble. But it has paid off - and I find myself intrigued and eager to explore more of these areas which again I've only skirted over by rail. As I idly gaze into the glass of the bus window I realise that my face is tender from the sun, my hair wild and sweat-drenched. I feel foolish here in the City, amidst the cyclists and their irritatingly healthy glow. It's time to head home.
You can find a gallery of images from the walk here.
I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.
I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.