Posted in London on Sunday 7th July 2013 at 11:07pm

With only the loosest of plans we're heading east again. Having an Essex bolthole is proving hugely advantageous, but I'm out of practice at the advance booking game, and with Wimbledon reaching its inevitable conclusion this weekend, it was never going to be cheap. That said, we managed to use the unusually wonderful weather to our advantage - especially at our first destination which was Kew. After a minor altercation with a local who managed to get tangled in an ill-advised photo session some tourists were conducting, we headed for the village. It was calm and salubrious, a little market and a weirdly bad and expensive coffee shop, saved only by outdoor tables in a good location. Access to the gardens themselves was by expensive admission - even just to stalk the green spaces, so we picnicked on a village bench eating home made things happily and contemplating the weekend. The plan had been to hit the British Museum next, but we were sporting just too much luggage so we sought refuge from the heat in a Cafe Nero we'd visited once before. It was a welcome respite from the baking air outside.

The ascent from Bloomsbury by bus is slow and sure - less fragmented and hot than the crawl along Oxford Street but still at times it's a wonder we can nose through the crowds in Camden. The markets pour humanity onto the High Street. The heat reduces the pace to a crawl. It's almost a relief to begin the climb through docile suburban scenes to Hampstead. Once at the terminus though, the village is just as busy. Beer gardens overflow and people mill idly around enjoying the sunshine. We start the walk to Parliament Hill, encumbered by bags but undetered. The huge, stately villas of Hampstead impress not just with their order and beauty, but with their provenance - Orwell's name adorning the last in the row before the street gives way to a grassy rise. As we crest the hill, the slope falls away to reveal a knot of people basking in the sun, and beyond them a hazy, shimmering view over the city. I have completed another circle - returning here in entirely different circumstances. A whole new configuration.

A hazy view from Parliament Hill
A hazy view from Parliament Hill

Its even hotter when we head out the next morning, and we're drawn towards Westfield again. The manufactured streets throb with reflected pre-noon heat, and the unseen speakers leak terrible music. In the middle distance the dust bowl of the Olympic Stadium reflects heat upwards in a shimmering mirage. Everywhere there is publicity for the relaunch of the park and its environs. Names for new locales selected with only the most tenuous links with history, but with marketing blurb which uses them like they've always existed...we're asked to believe Sweetwater was always know as that because it's '...where they made Clarnico Mint Creams'. London's newest suburb in E20 - or a strange rebirth of the oldest village outside the city walls at Old Ford? It's a strange parting in the subway at Stratford station. A place I've spent disproportionate amounts of time lurking in the past, and which has featured oddly often in our visits to London recently too. It feels odd to be cut loose - a little groundless, lost and purposeless. But the walk is full of possibility and expectation - it's the hottest day of the year again and I wonder how I always manage to be shuffling around these dusty, empty pathways at this time of year? No hope of a designer coffee stall this side of the Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road. I have a vague notion of where I want to be - but no real thought of how to get there. This is how the best journeys all begin...

In the end I plump for the DLR. I hop in and unexpectedly get the prime front seat. Pretending I'm driving for the short trip to West Ham is diverting - but I'm aware I'm annoying a bunch of young Spanish students who wanted to do the same. I wonder idly if they're the same bunch who taunted me on my Limehouse Cut walk a year back? Perhaps I'm being haunted? On the platform at West Ham it's quiet - but the heat whacks me in the face the moment I leave the shade of the canopy. I climb the stairs, and I'm momentarily unsettled by the echoing brick cavern of the station. It's oddly good to be out in the open after this, walking a dusty industrial route alongside the railway. A deleted bridge sparks my interest briefly before the Greenway steps, which I ascend - the wide gated approach built for Olympic sized crowds now purposeless. It's too hot to be out, so apart from a few hardy cyclists the Greenway is clear. The Orbit shimmers in the middle distance back at my starting point.

Abbey Creek, looking towards the Thames
Abbey Creek, looking towards the Thames

The dense air clamps around Abbey Creek as clouds of insects rise and whirl. The ghost of the Channelsea Ricer reflected in the office block windows - which are now equally unrequired and empty. The reek from the modern pumping station envelops the old temple of municipalism, Abbey Mills Pumping Station - a weirdly oriental presence in the searing afternoon heat. Another small group of cyclists pause for water, but sniffing with distaste they soon move on. I cross the creek, and walk northwards towards the thin blade of a tower block on Stratford High Street, an oddly overt bit of Olympic planning gain. It could be a year ago - with all the tension and possibility that this walk would have contained then - but things feel very different. The temporary bridge taking the Greenway over the street isn't there anymore. The route is deleted in every respect. So, I turn west into the little knot of Bow streets which snuggle between the river and the sewer. A curious little estate of streets which seem quiet and inconsequential now, just as they were last summer at the height of the area's fame. Picking my way around the heat-blasted streets I find Three Mills Wall River and edge south. The park is full of sunbathers and frolickers - but its proving too hot to be energetic, so people loll listlessly on the grass. I'm an odd presence - still shirted, walking determinedly.

I linger briefly on Three Mills Island, because it always feels like a rather special spot. The tide is high, and the mill buildings look superbly solid and familiar. It's easy to get caught up with comparison and reassessment here, but I press on along the narrow spit of land which divides the watercourses. Even the ever present cyclists have decided to stay at home, and I have an unusually trouble-free trip to Bow Locks, with none of the incessant and impertinent bell-dinging high speed swishes of metalwork. The water shimmers ominiously here - a long-haired latin model is posing for a photoshoot against the lock machinery in his billowing pirate shirt, otherwise the scene is deserted. I traverse the looping bridge with its curious steps which make my ankles ache, and head up the slope beside the Limehouse Cut which leads to the Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road. Appearing just over the rows of gantry signs and low-rise, empty-windowed former industry is Balfron Tower which I'd visited a few weeks back. Slowly, surely, this corner of the city is beginning to make sense to me.

Bow Locks
Bow Locks

Deciding that a bus adventure needed a little more time, I slogged the final section of the walk through Bromley-by-Bow on tired, hot feet. The High Street was quiet, occasional whoops of joy penetrating the quiet from garden paddling pools. I cut through the back of a block and onto Bow Road to pick up a more direct bus back to the City and soon found myself on an overheating 25 which must have been the first for a while as it stopped almost everywhere. I'd meant to get an 8 and take a circuit of Bethnal Green, but this would do fine. It also meant a brief final walk from Aldgate to Liverpool Street, passing the entrance to Bevis Marks Synagogue which I'd mentioned very recently based on a memory of a visit. As I refreshed myself with reduced priced baked goods and fruit juice in the gardens of St.Botolph's Church, I reflected on a walk which I couldn't have made a year ago because of security checks, but which now was just as diverting and engaging as ever. Any thought that it was the grand Olympic project which drew me here dissipated - it certainly helped, but the pace of change is always in a strange parallax out East. I'll be back, because I need to see what happens next...

You can see more pictures from the walk here. As an experiment, you can also follow the route on the map below - the blue line is the walking route.

View Revisiting the Lower Lea Valley in a larger map

Posted in London on Sunday 23rd June 2013 at 10:47pm

This trip had caught me somewhat unawares, coming at the end of a month which had been pretty eventful and as a result, fairly expensive. So, it was London on a shoestring - something I'd done plenty of times before. Indeed London is a city where it's very easy to do lots and spend little - and while its always easier to do the opposite, there is a kind of purity in keeping it simple. An added complication was the demise of my Oyster Card. I've had the card for years - and despite a few issues which have always been refunded, it's worked fine. But now, TFL have decided to take issue about a payment which was due during my debit card switch over period. I could just pay - but they've decided to cancel the entire account instead. So this felt like a very odd trip in some ways - London without the traditional means of getting around, and with very little planned. A blank canvas?

First stop once at Paddington was to get a new card and load on some credit. From here we made the eastward run to the place we were staying with friends once again. We arrived on a blustery but clear evening - the longest of the year - and relaxed. It was good to kick back after a fairly tough week or so, and the prospect of a day of exploration in areas I hadn't visited for a while was a fine one. With a fairly late start the next day, we set off on foot to Snaresbrook station. The terrain out here is always surprising. Once out of the Lea Valley and over the ridge into the Roding, the change in tone and situation is evident immediately. A little vestige of Epping Forest on the corner is testament to this being a much more salubrious neck of the woods. But just a stop or two down the line and we're in Leyton - closer to my usual wandering zones - comfortable with my discomfort. We press on to Mile End and make the cross-platform leap to the District Line and straight to South Kensington. Exit is by the Museum Tunnel - the second time I've used this - and it's still an impressively engineered, fiercely practical way of moving dry, happy people around this vast complex of knowledge.

The Albert Memorial glistens in the gloom
The Albert Memorial glistens in the gloom

After a pleasant morning coffee in the quadrant, surrounded by the fine buildings of the V&A, we perused the South Asian and Indian collections before regrouping in the stunningly tiled refreshment room. Our next plan was to wander up the grand Exhibition Road and find the Albert Memorial. I hadn't walked this way for a very long time, but the geography was quickly recovered - the long, straight planned sweep up to Hyde Park, the huge bulk of the Royal Albert Hall oddly hidden until up really close, the suddenly a flash of gold in the otherwise grey skies as the first glimpse of the memorial appears. We spent a while here, interpreting the text below the figures of great artists and examining the corner groupings which represent each continent - aside of course from examining the gleaming golden man himself, set in a starry-ceilinged booth. It was both spectacularly overdone and deeply touching in once. Seeing it thus, through new eyes after long years, it seemed both fresh and surprisingly real, standing against the wind. Return was a meandering trek - a top-deck bus ride along Oxford Street, a shopping trip on the Caledonian Road, then the Underground back to base.

Another lazy Sunday start led us onto the train, alighting at Stratford and heading to get coffee in Westfield. I remain intrigued by this place - it's odd mixture of public life and private function, and especially the rather zealous security guards who prowl, only an armband and a walkie-talkie between them and real trouble. We whiled away an hour or so, before heading out to press our noses against the fence of "London's most exciting new suburb". The site was quiet and empty, and felt odd. We made a run to John Lewis and headed for the bus back west along Whitechapel Road, switching near the Bell Foundry for the direct bus back to Paddington.

We packed quite a bit into a couple of short lazy days this visit, and a tired but happy run home confirmed this. London opens new doors each time I visit, and even more opportunities arise each time I visit in company. The contrast between the treasures and wonders we saw in South Kensington, and the skeletal pointlessness of the Arcelor Mittal Orbit couldn't be greater - but I still love the eastern fringes much better somehow...

Posted in London on Sunday 2nd June 2013 at 10:06pm

It's fair to say that life has changed quite a bit in recent times - and while my excursions to London are less frequent they have also become a little more important in terms of keeping me connected to the city. This weekend has been a purely tourist jaunt in many ways, though even a sightseeing trip can't avoid re-treading old paths. I found myself stalking the corridors of Windsor Castle around thirty years after I last visited - but also finally explored the tunnel between South Kensington station and the museums which I'd read about so often but never actually needed to use. But on a Sunday afternoon in surprisingly good weather I found myself with a little time for the kind of wandering which wouldn't work well on the tourist itinerary.

I began in the unlikely territory of Wanstead, hopping a bus in the High Street and heading into the suburbs. Curving around the wide, yellowing expanse of Wanstead Flats, we nudged through traffic and shadowed the railway through Maryland to Stratford. In more familiar territory I disembarked and changed for the DLR. It was odd to be unencumbered - no bag, not even a coat - and I felt almost inauthentic and exposed. The DLR took me to All Saints, where I ascended and crossed onto Chrisp Street. No market today, just baked pavements and cars sluggishly trawling, banging out dance music. I felt even more out of place, unwelcome - a rare feeling here and one I wasn't expecting.

Balfron Tower looms above the Brownfield Estate
Balfron Tower looms above the Brownfield Estate

My target was the Brownfield Estate. I'd read an article which had extolled the virtues of Balfron Tower - the eastern cousin of Trellick Tower which signalled my arrival at Paddington each time I found myself in London. Trellick is brutal but oddly graceful - tall, set away from other buildings and surrounded by a low-rise development of sister blocks. Balfron Tower soon made it's presence felt too - squatter somehow, the service tower seemingly more delicate against the bulk of the utilitarian residential block. It too was the tallest building for quite a distance, but it didn't seem so completely free of clutter and couldn't been seen clearly until up close. When it did loom up out of the ground, it was stark, shocking and unsympathetic. But, doubtlessly impressive. The ground level area was dirty, empty of people and subject to redevlopment. A few children yelped by after bursting from a nearby door. A student couple looked disdainfully at me as they left the tower, scornfully regarding me flicking my camera out to get a shot of the building. Otherwise, any sound was confined to the hum of the distant East India Dock Road and an occasional Heathrow bound jet scoring the otherwise blue skies.

The slender service tower looks out of scale with the bulky building
The slender service tower looks out of scale with the bulky building

I picked my way north, skirting Glenkerry House - another block with a Goldfinger style tower attached - but this one was less residential and looked like some sort of lookout tower policing the Blackwall badlands. The lazy summer sunday feeling returned a little as I progressed towards Langdon Park. A bus slowly plopped over the traffic calming measures, and I found myself beside Langdon Park DLR station, where a new youth centre is being built from gleaming pink plates of copper which beat the sun back at me pleasantly. Each platform was adorned with chunky, cast metal writing which looped the name of the station in friendly hand script.

My short excursion was done - and I considered how London and it's environs could still fascinate and draw me in. From the surprising interest of Windsor Castle to the odd, magnetic presence of Ernő Goldfinger's powerfully brutal blocks, the built environment and it's affect on the city and the people remains a strange attraction. As the anniversary of the grand spectacle of 2012 approaches, and I gain a year of perspective on the feverish, almost desperate walks I undertook at such a strangely liminal time of my life, I'm beginning to understand how important the city is to me too.

Posted in London on Monday 4th March 2013 at 9:40pm

Flying has always been a solitary experience for me. Save for one ill-fated trip to Glasgow which I took in the company of a small group intent on birthday revelry, I've always been in the company of my own thoughts. Over the past few months I've spent a lot of time flying - and a lot of time thinking...anticipating strange new adventures to come, or miserably regarding a return to reality. In either case, I've rarely slept, and looked too often at the moving map telling me how many of the 4792 miles I'd covered so far. The thing was it didn't feel very far at all...the journey to Heathrow was fraught with obstacles, but once I was in the air it was a mere few footsteps. That was of course until my last jaunt with it's abortive first attempt to pressurise the cabin and a return to Heathrow.

But that seemed like a lifetime ago. This flight had been different. In company I felt calmer, the flight felt shorter, I even slept a little. The last hours dragged of course. We were eager to land - and we did so in suprisingly pleasant weather, not unlike what we'd left in Seattle. It was cold and bright - still Winter in March here. We lingered a while in Terminal 5, just enjoying being here without the pressure of a departure. Then the complicated journey began - five huge suitcases were lugged onto the Heathrow Express, trollied across Paddington and then into a taxi for the short run to Leinster Gardens. The grand but peeling stucco houses of this western corner of the city had been my first taste of London many years ago - but now they took on a new significance. We were back.

Our first excursion after washing away the inexplicable film of grime which air travel seems to leave, was eastwards. We headed out of the hotel and made leisurely progress towards Paddington. It became clear pretty soon that we weren't too far away at all - just at the end of Praed Street, in territory which I'd not walked since getting lost trying to walk from the station into Central London around twenty years ago! On that occasion I'd accidentally zig-zagged off the straight path and managed to get confused by the endless rows of plastered white buildings. It took a moment of panic and an A-Z to get me back on track - no GPS, no 'phone. Just a sense of direction and a map which would eventually become scuffed and torn from similar wanderings. But this little village around the station was more extensive than I remembered. A host of little restaurants - exhibiting a range of cuisines and degrees of dilapidation - alongside charmingly disorganised hardware stores, newsagents, hotels and almost concealed Orthodox churces with mysterious inscriptions on their gates. I remember finding myself here and thinking that the Bureau de Change and Aberdeen Angus Steak Houses were so metropolitan, that this must be London. My view has altered immeasurably over the intervening years, and our eastward bus step described this arc via St.Pancras, Clerkenwell and eventually the City.

So, if you'd been in the English Restaurant in Brushfield Street tonight you might have seen a tired but happy pair quietly reliving an earlier meal, savouring the novelty of being in the same place again, then slipping out into the chilly night to head back to the western suburbs. The entire journey to arrive here - from the Edgewater Hotel, via SeaTac and Heathrow, then the 205 bus route - felt like a single curve. Nowhere felt very far from anywhere anymore. The tiny village at the bottom of Praed Street could be anywhere.

Movebook Link


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.

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