Posted in Reading on Thursday 28th September 2017 at 9:09pm
The destruction of London is an unsettlingly familiar trope. There is something which seems to deeply satisfy authors and readers alike in the toppling of seemingly infallible towers or a surging tide along the sinuous Thames. While it's title is similarly apocalyptic The Last London doesn't describe a literal ending - but suggests a city which has reached its final condition. It is an ending though in another sense - the final work in a cycle of of semi-fictional novels and essays which have tumbled out of Hackney since 1975. Taken together these books form a remarkable cultural catalogue which documents the sometimes jarring changes which have wracked the city as it shudders into the 21st Century. London often feels briskly futuristic on its face, but in truth it always lags behind. Things change disarmingly slowly in a city of this impossible size and complexity, and it takes a sharp jolt to propel London forward. Sinclair posits the 2012 Olympiad as the moment things change. The moment which London enters its final phase. The moment at which he starts to step away from the city, their paths forking in distinctly different directions. The Last London draws the themes which have emerged in his work since 2012 to a spectacularly written conclusion.
It also marks a distinct shift in Sinclair's writing style which brings his exasperation to the fore, electrifying and spiking his prose and rendering it curiously similar to some of his earliest poetic works on London. I've seen commentators bridle at this frustration and irascibility - but I think in a literary career which has spanned well over forty years and countless revolutions in the experience of navigating London, Sinclair has earned a hearing. The irritations which he catalogues as he moves around the rapidly evolving city are individually innocuous but collectively deafening. The flow of digital information along unmediated channels challenges the well-walked paths and mysterious connections which Sinclair has meticulously mapped and remapped. These old ways are clogged with cyclists who have no time to avoid pedestrians now. The sense that devices demand maintenance and drain agency from the people moving around the city's boroughs seems a minor inconvenience to the rest of us until we're facing down a crowd coming the wrong way, heads down, minds elsewhere. It's easy to dismiss the exasperated tone which some passages in the book take as the snarls of a man aging at a different rate to the city - but almost all of them have rung true at some point, even to a relative technophile like me.
The Last London begins in Hackney with a sage-like silent man on a bench in Haggerston Park, and slowly expands to the limits of the London which Sinclair has written himself into, and now out of. The journeys this time though are partially an act of erasure - undoing his London Oveground circuit by reversing its direction, revisiting the docks and dereliction of Downriver after the passing of 'The Witch' and finally venturing into the stage-managed artificiality of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park left behind by the Grand Project. By the time the circuit is completed, the mysterious presence has gone from the park. Things are changing again, London is being remade in the image of Beijing or Bahrain. Legacy and Inclusivity - once the bywords of the Olympic city - are now virtual concepts which rarely make the leap into reality from the computer generated vistas which wrap new developments.
As the book approaches its conclusion, Sinclair is on the hoof again in pursuit of the next London, if indeed it exists. His walk from Gospel Oak to Barking in the company of (literally) ghostwritten friends who have gone, charts the path of the partially-electrified railway which will eventually spark life into the provisional community rising from the sedge and mud at Barking Riverside. There is a point on the journey where his narrative splinters - the narrator is no longer the walker as he pushes over boundaries and into sectors of the suburbs which are outside his experience. It's strange, and liberating as a long-time reader of Sinclair, to feel the author's raw response to the strangeness of this hinterland. He crosses the North Circular into Barking and recognises the kind of territory he used to occupy pushed out here to the margins, and soon to be pushed back further. He is spun back to Hackney in relief - that he has left Barking, or that places like Barking still exist?
The series of walks which are described in the final chapters of The Last London have another function - they detail those who will continue to walk and record. John Rogers, Andrew Kötting, Effie Paleologou - in words, film and images they have already long since taken up Sinclair's mantle. They walk beside him, and they'll carry on walking into their own Londons and beyond. Their work is generously referenced, openly admired. Their activism and vigour a match for the demands of the last London - their variations on Sinclair's themes spinning off into new territory, new media, new technology, but always anchored into a shared past. Thinking of the influence of Sinclair's now extensive body of London writing, I wince a little on reading my own over-egged thoughts here and see an homage to Sinclair in every description of a decommissioned facility or deleted franchise. The companions on these final walks are commended to us by Sinclair, not least for his appreciation of their ability to navigate the city in its current situation. They are doing what he can't now, receiving messages which are incompatible with his self-confessed duncephone. The book closes with a final pilgrimage - an account of the march from Waltham Abbey to St Leonards on Sea which morphed into Kötting's Edith Walks film - once again piercing the skin of the M25, out into the fractious hinterlands where 'Vote Leave' signs line the lanes. Out of the city, out of the UK, out of Europe. The uncertainty of the future weighs heavily on Sinclair, and he almost pines for the easier times under Thatcher when the needle on the national moral compass was inverted rather than spinning erratically. A time when satire didn't turn eagerly into newsprint with each dumb tweet from Donald Trump. It's down to these new walkers to make sense of the next London in a post-factual, digitally altered world. It would be a gloomy way to pass out of the city if it wasn't written with such vigour and precision - Sinclair is playfully pithy to the bitter end of his walk, enjoying the freedom perhaps of looking back on London?
The Last London is as ever an erudite, complex work which will have readers reaching for references and chasing down works by Sinclair's kindred spirits. It's not an easy read, but it rewards time and effort to untangle the threads of myth and modernism which wind around his map of the city, reaching out to his coastal redoubt. While it refers deeply into Sinclair's history of writing on London, it stands alone as a guidebook to future cities which exist everywhere and nowhere. Perhaps it also sounds a call to the next generation of pavement botherers, mythmakers and diviners of this ancient, ever-changing city. If they turn in an account half as vital and detailed as this, there is an interesting future in the written city.
You can read, and hear, a discussion between Iain Sinclair and John Rogers about The Last London at The Lost Byway.
Posted in London on Saturday 2nd September 2017 at 10:09pm
Despite my careful attempts to end the last leg of my walk somewhere I could easily pick up the threads, my arrival at Forest Hill had been a little fraught. With rail services not calling today due to planned engineering works I'd somehow entirely missed, I'd headed instead to Catford via a departure from the impressively extended and modernised Blackfriars station. While there, my bank card had been rejected by the ATM leaving me in a state of mild confusion and paranoia. I didn't even notice how bright the morning sun had turned as I headed for the bus stop near Catford Station and hopped on board. Not until I'd had managed a successful transaction at Forest Hill Sainsbury's was I assured that there hadn't been some sort of financial mishap. These things always bother me - and the prospect of a conversation with my bank instead of walking this morning wasn't edifying at all. As I stepped back out into the bustle of surprisingly gentrified Forest Hill I sighed with relief. Perhaps I was ready for this after all? Completing the circle seemed impossibly far off - but it had become something of a cause now. This leg of the trip would take me into areas I simply didn't know, and which I couldn't connect with any of my other wanders at all. That in itself felt strange - so many of the unexpected pleasures of the last few walks around the Circular Roads were in turning unknown corners to find familiar views from new angles. This was a different excursion - deep into the suburbs, in almost the opposite direction to that in which I comfortably tend to turn. I dodged sturdy designer prams and expensive bikes to gain the outer edge of the pavement in order to get an angle on the sign of 'Ferfect Fried Chicken' - this legendary local eatery was allegedly unprepared to pay to use the existing name when the shop was purchased from a group of franchises, and so a surprising accurately matched 'F' was tiled over the sign. The fact it makes absolutely no sense appears to have troubled no-one, and so in the midst of the rapidly upscaling Forest Hill townscape, opposite the rather fine old 1920s Capitol Theatre turned Wetherspoons, the errant chicken purveyor remains. This felt like the perfect place to begin walking. The beginning of the end of the South Circular...
As I climbed away from Forest Hill, still surprised by the upturn in its fortunes in comparatively recent times, I saw the tower of the Horniman Museum appearing at the crest of the hill amidst a cluster of greenery. Charles Harrison Townsend's curious 1901 design fuses Arts and Crafts decoration with a rather foresighted and clean lined modernism, making for an odd but pleasing building, sitting almost at the brow of Forest Hill. The museum itself houses Frederick Horniman's extensive collection of curiosities, purchased with the proceeds of his inherited tea trading empire. The collection majors on cultural and anthropological history, and has a legendary collection of taxidermy and musical instruments. There was no time to check out what sounded like a charmingly odd expression of one man's passion for collecting today, instead I slipped into the surprisingly capacious gardens beside the museum to find a spot to apply sunscreen and chug cold water before setting off in earnest. I found the rather beautiful grounds of the museum busy with locals out for a stroll and families working on what appeared to be an edible garden project. The pathways curled around the site, luring me deeper into the wooded nooks. The temptation to explore further was strong, especially because the northern edge of the site offers impressive views over London from the comparatively high ground of the hill. Instead I set off west, crossing the former trackbed of the London Brighton & South Coast Railway's branch to Crystal Palace High Level. Much of the railway can now be walked as part of a nature trail running between the suburban streets, and which after crossing the South Circular, climbs into the woods of Sydenham Hill. Having never recovered traffic following the destruction of the Crystal Palace by fire on 30th November 1936, the line limped on until 1954. It has the dubious distinction of being the first electrified mainline railway line to close in London. Now it's a barely discernable hump in the road, the path disappearing into the Lapse Wood Walk housing estate where some remains of the line can be spotted by the eagle-eyed. I trudged along the road towards it's awkward junction with Lordship Lane, choosing unwisely to attempt to cross near 'The Ferns', a very early attempt at constructing a home entirely from concrete dating from 1873 by Charles Drake's Patent Concrete Building Co. In disrepair for a while, it was good to see that a recent refurbishment had restored it to former glory, while retaining the name of the property. I had a while to ponder this feat of engineering as I waited for a gap in the traffic on the South Circular...
I had only the vaguest idea of Dulwich. Somehow I'd cobbled together an idea of the place through the oddest disconnected parts: Margaret Thatcher, the Picture Gallery, the exclusive, private college which produced the odious Nigel Farage. While all these things form part of this curious place, there is something stranger at work here. Dulwich, despite being sandwiched between areas not far away which are challenged and struggling, is an incredibly genteel neighbourhood. The green, wooded slopes of Sydenham Hill rise high above the broad playing fields of Dulwich College, home to the Old Alleynians - named for Edward Alleyn, actor and founder in 1619 of 'God's Gift College'. Beyond them, the almost impossibly tall transmitter tower at Crystal Palace strikes the skyline. Snaking around the edge of the sports ground is Hambledon Place, a gated community of large modern dwellings, perhaps surprisingly built by Barratt Homes, in the style of the large mansion houses which line the other side of the South Circular in Dulwich. Behind these gates, a battle-scarred Margaret Thatcher briefly reflected on her ousting from Downing Street. She had taken her husband's advice and purchased a bolt-hole to which she could escape when her increasingly inevitable downfall occurred, and the proximity to a good golf course bears his influence too perhaps? Dennis is reputed to have suggested she could wander down to the village with her basket to shop, and then a car could pick her up and take her to the Lords for a vote, which perhaps suggests more about Dulwich than it does the Thatchers. In the event, Margaret and Dennis didn't spend a great deal of time in Dulwich before their repair to Belgravia, and the local association with them is perhaps unwarranted. I lingered on the corner trying to decide if I could poke my camera through the automated gates, festooned with cameras and electronics. As I decided, a large, sparklingly clean Landrover cruised up to the gates, the driver a middle-aged Indian man wearing shades and the garb of a country gent out for the shoot. "What are you doing here? Why don't you fuck off?" - there was no pause for a response between his two plainly rhetorical questions. I silently did as I was told, cursing my failure to defend my ground on the public highway outside the gates. There was something in his response which typified Dulwich too. As I've walked the Circular roads, I've encountered a surprising number of clandestinely privatised places: edgeland strips of littered scrub protected by a forest of cameras, retail parks under constant surveillance, gated communities like Hambledon Park. But there is a more sinister edge here in the affluent south. There are areas where a tyranny of manners guards access - where you might 'look' wrong and the fear of being asked what on earth you think you're doing here guards against intrusion. Perhaps only in Britain - maybe only in London - could this work so effectively to repel the unwanted? I definitely felt that I wasn't required here in Dulwich, and as I hurried along the perimeter of the college, its beautiful gothic buildings largely concealed by scaffolding as it was buffed and repaired for another lucrative school year, I was acutely aware of the this entire area being carefully managed. The Dulwich Estate centres on the various schools and colleges, and its long and complex history records generations of very smart investment, clever capitalisation of legacies and maximisation of income. Indeed the estate still operates the only remaining toll road in London, though this most traditional but financially savvy of institutions does allow locals to pay via an electronic tag. The rigorous preservation of a certain kind of English village life, coupled with an astute sense of being an island within a vast city makes Dulwich feel self-aware, a little apart, overtly stage-managed. I wasn't sad to pass over the boundary.
The transition from Dulwich to Tulse Hill was however, something of a jolt - the quaint wooden fingerposts and crimped lawns of the Dulwich Estate gave way to the well graffitied and apparently disused Variable Message Signs which were about the only hint of the strategic importance of the South Circular. A few stray flags on lampposts urged me to 'Love West Dulwich' - an area which appeared to consist entirely of an attractive if rather sparsely used railway station and a tricky to navigate crossroads with the route to Herne Hill. The quiet suburban area clung to its eastern and more affluent neighbour desperately. There really isn't any West Dulwich aside from the railway - but they're trying really hard to believe there could be. A low bridge where sleek, new Thameslink trains passed overhead marked the boundary, and yet another badly thought-out gyratory spun the road around the Victorian centre of Tulse Hill. It struck me here that the most problematic spots on the South Circular were often where well-meaning attempts to improve traffic flow had been implemented. This area was largely undeveloped until the early 19th century, and only really became populous after the railway arrived in 1868 when the difficult geography and the straggling forested remnants of the once extensive Great North Wood finally gave way to a district of rather plain and functional terraces. The last thing I expected to detain me on this leg of the walk was surprising architecture - but descending from the heights of Tulse Hill, the South Circular curves along the edge of the Palace Road Estate. This early 1970s low rise development was built by the Greater London Council and designed by their chief architect, Sir Roger Walters. His modern but subdued buildings snake along the awkward rise beside the road in attractive zig-zagging blocks which lengthen towards the western boundary of the site. His work for the GLC is remarkably distinguished if somewhat unsung, with the Thames Barrier and the rejuvenated Covent Garden bearing his signature. He is perhaps less well known for Perronet House at Elephant and Castle, a modern social housing block dating from 1970 which uses unusual design features to give all residents an aspect at both sides of the building, uninterrupted by external communal corridors. Wikipedia, ever resourceful, reminds us not to confuse him with Roger Waters. We won't, I'm sure. As the road headed further down Streatham Hill towards Clapham, an equally curious building rose steadily above the brow. First a curious pyramid appeared, then a tall, striated brick tower and finally a squat and solidly modern looking church beneath. Christ Church by James William Wild in fact dates from 1841, and is a truly remarkable building. While now essentially an inclusive and suburban outpost of the Anglican Communion with its extensive estate of dull urban churches, this building appears to belong in another time. Meanwhile its patterned brickwork and Star of David rose window seem to come from another continent entirely. After delivering a number of solid but unremarkable parish churches in Hampshire, Wild travelled extensively in Egypt and the Middle East. A period of mysterious inactivity followed his return to Britain, after which he worked on the complex of museums in South Kensington and their outpost at Bethnal Green, now the Museum of Childhood. Perhaps the building that owes most to Christ Church though is his Italianate water tower at Grimsby Docks. The church is an arresting sight in the slightly mundane surroundings of this part of the road - a welcome relief from the suburban monotony of the hinterland separating the boroughs of Lambeth and Wandsworth.
Shortly after Christ Church, the South Circular crosses the A23 on its long trek to Brighton. From here, for just a short section, the road is a broad six-lane dual carriageway. Oddly, this is also one of the quieter sections with most traffic apparently content to head along the radial roads into London or out to the suburbs and the coast. The South Circular soon returns to its ponderous, pottering single-carriageway meander into Clapham, through pleasant terraces and bursts of more recent development. It strikes me that this part of the route must be more affluent - there is a Tesco Metro or Sainsbury's Local on almost every major junction, something distinctly lacking in the eastern quadrant. I'm also aware that I'm starting to head north towards the river, having passed the most southerly point of the road's curve some way back. The arc of the South Circular is shallower than its northern counterpart, returning to the Thames much closer to the West End, and stretching out an arm along the river to the western suburbs. Now though, the road arrived rather unexpectedly at Clapham Common. The junction was busy with traffic from all angles, and crossing was difficult - but sure enough, tucked away between the branches of the road was the squat cylindrical tower which signified the shaft leading to one of the Deep Level Shelters. This network of extremely deep and well-protected tunnels were built when the public demand for shelter from the blitz began to overwhelm capacity around the city. The tunnels echoed stations on the Northern and Central Lines, with the intention that they would be linked together to form an express tube network in peace time. Progress on the building was slow due to wartime labour shortages, and by their completion in 1942 the intensive bombing had largely subsided and demand for shelter had reduced. The Goodge Street shelter became General Eisenhower's wartime base, and other stations hosted troops in transit, but the tunnels were hardly used for their original purpose if at all. They also failed to live up to their intended post war use as new Tube lines, but almost all of the tunnels have found a peacetime role: as document stores, telephone exchanges or even for a brief period during the 1951 Festival of Britain, a hotel. Now however, the rather sorry looking Clapham Common entrance is overlooked by a line of very fashionable eateries and bars stretching along the edge of the common. I knew this area was becoming more desirable and the demographic changing, but to see it in such a sudden burst of activity after the resolutely suburban progress of the South Circular was a shock indeed. But perhaps it shouldn't have been a surprise - Clapham has been fashionable since its earliest development as a suburb, with the spacious villas surrounding the Common providing homes for the 'Clapham Sect' - an informal but influential group of evangelical Anglicans numbering among them William Wilberforce and Henry Thornton. The atmosphere of intellectual and religious freedom which was enjoyed by the 'saints' as they were known, saw them wandering the common between their homes to discuss matters of social and liturgical importance. It was among these houses where the rigorous parliamentary campaigning was plotted which led to the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire by 1807 and the later emancipation of all slaves in 1833. I followed my route around the smaller, western extension of the common, realising that I would actually lose the A205 briefly for a few miles here as it shared a route with the A3 on its western journey to Portsmouth. The South Circular was now firmly in brackets on the signs - an indignity which its northern cousin never quite succumbed to. It was hard to imagine members of the sect scurrying across this busy swirl of traffic, eager to impart their ideas on freedom and faith to each other.
The road passed swiftly through the busy crossroads of Battersea with its lines of tall, red-brick shops snaking away north towards the railway, and then crossed the northern edge of Wandsworth Common. The Common, though still a large tract of open land even now is divided by a griddle of railways and roads, with a neat arrangement of grand Victorian villas known as the 'toast rack' eating into its western edge. I strayed from the road briefly along Spencer Park to find the memorial to those who perished in the Clapham Junction rail crash in 1989. The simple curved stone commemorates both the 35 victims of the crash, and those who worked to help them on the morning of 12th December 1988 when a simple but ultimately catastrophic signal failure resulted in a collision involving four trains in the deep cutting below Spencer Park. Some of the first on the scene were staff and pupils from the nearby Emmanuel School, and as I contemplated the difficulty of clambering over the palisade fencing and down the steep bank to the railway to offer aid, some of the current pupils passed by heading back from sports practice. It was hard to imagine these young people, full of chatter and innocence, having to deal with some of the horrors that day. The carving on the stone shows a hand grasping another from above, which felt perfect for this memorial. The safety culture of British Rail was changed greatly by the crash, but just a few years later the privatised railway would need to relearn some of these lessons all over again in other parts of London. As it stands, the railway in the UK is now possibly one of the safest in the world - but it felt cruel and tragic that this incident and others like it were the necessary catalyst for this change.
Soon after passing Spencer Park, the road crossed the rather grander A214 - one of the few completed relics of a scheme to connect two of the unbuilt and much maligned London Ringways, which would have included a rather steep, ski-jump of a flyover if fully realised. Ploughing south from the infamous Wandsworth Roundabout, the road is a broad dual-carriageway in a deep concrete cutting which gouges deep into the Common. Rising again to the south, the road is a broad, urban arterial with a tree-lined median - and is perhaps one of the best indicators for what the road network of London could have looked like had the Abercrombie plan or even the GLCs later revisions come to fruition. As it is, the A214 soon becomes a fairly mundane suburban route out to Crystal Palace and West Wickham, leaving this section in Wandsworth a somewhat over-engineered and marooned hint of what could have been. The A3 and South Circular continued west in combination, passing 'Mount Nod' - an abandoned and currently inaccessible Huguenot Burial Ground - and descending into the valley of the River Wandle which the road crosses in Wandsworth Town Centre. My only vague knowledge this area was from frequent travels on the railways which pass largely beneath the town, and I was a little surprised by Wandsworth. The eastern approaches pass the impressive Town Hall which still provides a civic centre for the Borough. A wedding was taking place in the inner courtyard, perfectly framed by the Portland stone entrance which faces the street. Along the wings of the triangular building, stone reliefs depict scenes from local history above manicured lawns and pristinely weeded flower beds. Years back, I'd stayed in a down-at-heel budget hotel a little way towards Clapham Junction and had developed an assumption from its hinterlands that Wandsworth was a grim and unprepossessing place, being swiftly encroached upon by dull riverside apartment blocks. If only I'd strayed a little further from my digs perhaps I'd have found this building and thought differently. Disappointingly there was no access to the River Wandle at present as the redevelopment of the former Ram Brewery has temporarily closed the pavement on the north side of East Hill. Behind the wooden fences a range of waterfront properties can be seen rising slowly to form the almost inevitably named 'Ram Quarter'. Wandsworth is about to change it seems - and The Ram, an inn which can trace its history back to 1550 or thereabouts, is again a central part of the story. Young's brewed their last beer here in 2006 with production subsequently moving to Charles Wells in Bedford - but the developers of the site in Wandsworth have committed to the presence of a 'nanobrewery' in the former laboratory building to continue the tradition. For now though, the northern side of the street was off limits, the old Inn's frontage disappearing behind hoardings to rise again as a protected feature of the site. Forced to cross the street I noted that the river disappears under the Southside Shopping Mall here surfacing some way south, and as I strolled through the reeking clouds pouring from a grill in the pop-up street food market on the broad pavement covering the river, I rather wished I could see it. The Wandle is possibly the very first London river aside from the Thames which I'd learned about by way of Michael de Larrabeiti's novel The Borribles which I read as a child in the early 1980s, long before I'd ever visited the capital. The vision of a dark, confusing and unforgiving city conjured in this novel with hidden layers of meaning has perhaps never quite left me. It was also perhaps the first book which treated me like an adult, refusing to pull punches or sugarcoat disappointment, and it left a strong impression of a dirty, shifting city with curious culverts and sinister people living altogether disconnected lives in the unknown suburbs. The characters squatted in derelict houses, openly questioned authority and spent their time evading the Police. It's hard to imagine the book being published for children now - the concept of young adult fiction had re-emerged in the 1960s and the discovery that there were books other than those about the triumphs and tribulations of football teams or impossible space battles arrived with my slightly advanced reading age. It's fair to say that de Larrabeiti's work stayed with me for long years after reading it, so much so that on an expedition to Streatham Cemetery to research William Kent twenty years later, a glimpse of the River Wandle played a part in reigniting a reading and walking habit which in many ways led me to this very point, hovering above the same river. I thought back to that walk from Haydon's Road station through industrial hinterlands. It took me a good while to find the nerve to make that kind of trek, and now it was practically my modus operandi. Times changed, but the oldest of influences seemed to remain. I was disappointed not to spot the Wandle today - but knowing it flowed into the Thames nearby, and passed beneath my feet was curiously edifying.
Climbing up West Hill out of Wandsworth, I began to realise just how far I still had to go. The sun was still bearing down on me, and the long, flung out arm of the South Circular seemed endless. I was determined to reach the end of my walk today if I could. I bought more water from a Tesco nestled uncomfortably into a tiny, rather quaint corner shop building and set off again. It wasn't easy going, in part because it soon became apparent that this section was going to be relentlessly suburban and featureless. I put my head down and walked, crossing the site of Beverley Brook which was now in culvert with only an old bridge wall remaining beside the road, and skirting the wild and interesting edge of Barnes Common to the north of the road. Here the Thames, the railway and the road ran in parallel along the same flat plain, and signs frequently directed me to stations for places which were notionally on my route, but were in reality just a little way from the South Circular. The lack of importance of the road explained its largely unimproved state here in the west. There were always other routes to get to places more quickly or directly. The A205 was a bypass for nowhere. At East Putney, the Underground provided a brief distraction with an intriguing pagoda sitting in front of the brick built station entrance, while white stuccoed totems declared the station name across the broad V-shaped gap between the lines. Entirely over ground here, two fine old iron bridges pass over the road - the easternmost arm of the junction carrying the little-used curve from TfL's network to the mainline railway at Point Pleasant Junction - one of the few pieces of track in London which I haven't travelled on. Putney straggled along the road a little, the main and far more affluent centre a little to the north around the mainline railway station. Soon the road returned to suburbia. I began to seriously wonder if I would complete the walk today - my feet were tired but still game for the walk, I was hot and tired but not unexpectedly so. It was the sheer unrelenting suburbanity that was sapping my will. The suburbs of the south are different to those of the north - often more uniform, less grouped into villages defined by ancient geography. The south benefited from large swathes of common land which have been worried away at over the year to produce vast estates of visually similar homes ranked in long, straight avenues. It felt like I was walking directly across one of these. It felt never-ending.
The South Circular ploughed on through a place which might have been East Sheen or Mortlake, the main business streets of the latter having moved south, away from the river over centuries in favour of riverside dwelling opportunities. The A205 now formed the long and pleasantly prosperous High Street, traffic sluggishly navigating the side-streets, nosing into unlikely parking opportunities. At Milestone Green, the road from Mortlake Station to nearby Richmond Park crossed, and I realised an odd thing about the South Circular - in the effort to give the road a much-needed identity in the absence of an actual coherent route junctions have been 'named' like those around other major routes. However, the names appear to have little local resonance at all. The last few miles had produced numerous named 'gyratorys', 'Red Rover' and now this junction - none of which seemed to have gained any traction as a local feature or even any obvious history. The South Circular's disguise was wearing ever thinner as I approached its ending. It had one more trick up its sleeve though - up ahead, as the shopping area of East Sheen dwindled into the ubiquitous run of small offices and tyre dealers, it made its last abrupt ninety degree turn to the north. The road ahead continued, unperturbed to Richmond while I was directed to turn right for Ealing and the M4. I climbed a railway bridge and passed between Fulham and Mortlake Cemeteries on a lazily curving trajectory along the tongue of land on which Kew nestles, in a broad meander in the Thames. The National Archives were held here, beyond the perimeter of an unprepossessing and oddly sited retail park. The solid, concrete block giving an assurance of the safety of our history despite much of the collection now being digitally stored of course. A final railway crossed the road - bringing the District Line and Overground from Gunnersbury where this whole sorry enterprise had begun for me. I could smell the Thames now. Around Kew Green, the road developed a new character - artisanal stores, little bistros, gastropubs with deliberately distressed furnishings and lots of grey paintwork. It felt oddly familiar - distinctly like North London, and a jarring change from the quiet suburbs I'd just crossed. As I navigated around double-pushchairs with wheels built for off-roading, complicated families groups filling the entire width of the footway and endless pavement cyclists with no regard for humanity, the appeal of quiet suburbia began to feel stronger. Across the street, my walk had one final surprising building too - St Anne's Church, built in 1714 but much extended by the patronage of both Kings George III and William IV. The red brick and verdigris of the church winked between ancient, swaying trees as I pushed on, asking my feet to give me just another mile or so if they could. The sun escaped from cloud cover again, and the church glowed on the green. It was a curiously inspiring sight.
The arrival of the Thames was heralded by two events - a sudden cool breeze drifting from the east, and the arrival of a noisy group of over-dressed wedding-goers attempting to have their picture taken on the busy riverside path. The bridge arched gently over the silvery surface of the river, and I dodged oncoming pedestrians to get a picture looking eastwards. The wooded thicket of Oliver's Island divided the flow of pleasure craft, now largely a nature reserve but historically a toll booth for river traffic with legends of Civil War era tunnels to Strand-on-the-Green on the northern bank. I paused for a while - this wasn't quite the end of the road, but it was a significant enough milestone to make me reflect on this trip. I summoned the will to push on, tired and beginning to feel the effects of a cold which had dogged me for the last few days, but which I was determined not to succumb to. Landfall brought me to the boundary between the boroughs of Hounslow and Brentford, and the busy junction in front of the Express Tavern. The view to the east was dominated by the tall water tower of the Grand Junction Waterworks Company - now the London Museum of Water and Steam. I however, needed to turn west along the final section of the South Circular. Now the road was north of the river, it had become a busy and businesslike continuation of the North Circular at last - a four-lane dual carriageway running between dilapidated shopfronts and retail parks. It seemed comfortably familiar, and the sight of the towering glass hotels and offices around the beginning of the M4 up ahead felt almost like coming home. I picked my way around the south-eastern quadrant of Chiswick Roundabout, alongside Surrey Crescent - the remnants of a row of once rather fine houses which were largely demolished to create the flyover, opened to much ceremony and glitz in 1959 by Jayne Mansfield in a 'skin-tight crimson dress'. These slightly grubby but grand homes have survived in its shadow against the odds. I turned the corner onto Chiswick High Road and rather suddenly found myself at a familiar spot. Above me was the roadsign which I'd taken a snapshot of before heading off to walk the first section of the North Circular. I recalled the amused tourists from the nearby hotel who had sniggered at me for taking the picture, and wondered if they'd imagined I'd planned to walk all the way around the city, back to this spot? I'm not sure at that point whether I'd even quite formulated that idea fully then. Certainly, there were times - especially on this tough final leg - when I'd wondered why I set myself projects like this? When I had complete control of the rules, why would I make them harder than they needed to be? This walk had taken me into southern suburbs I'd been content to 'know' only through passing by train, areas where I felt alien and uncomfortable, where I was in many ways, lost. I'd seen places which perhaps only locals would normally regard, and then only with the tired eyes of the familiar. I'd surprised myself by finding places I'd wanted to revisit to explore, ideas for future excursions and connections back into my past reading which intrigued me. I stood beneath the sign and felt the need to celebrate - I contemplated emptying the refreshingly cold contents of a bottle of Sprite Zero over my overheating and aching head, but I thought of the tourists and figured I shouldn't give them the excuse for another chortle at my expense. I calculated that the journey around the North and South Circulars totalled around fifty-three miles of walking which had taken me into the depths of suburbia, into the forest, along the banks of hidden brooks and through the complex geography of the city. It felt like a strange privilege to be able to make this circuit, and to spend time researching and recording what I'd seen. I often questioned if my records of these walks were ever read by anyone, but figured it didn't matter. I wasn't the first to walk around London, I wouldn't be the last and I had few original insights to impart. But I'd honoured a city with which I've had long and complex dealings by walking around it. For a few moments at least, while my aching feet were forgotten in the thrill of completion, It felt like an entirely sensible thing to do.
I shuffled the short distance to Gunnersbury Station and caught a train, deciding to cross the street and change for the Circle Line back to Paddington when I reached Hammersmith. As I sat on the train, trundling quietly over the rooftops on a viaduct with the sun picking out the yellow London Brick of the rows of houses beneath, I suddenly realised my route would pass the wreckage of Grenfell Tower. As we left Latimer Road station, the blackened view into the lower floors of the block filled the windows of the train, shockingly close to the line. Stripped back to the concrete core on this flank, the gaping windows gave a view entirely through the gutted structure. It was horrible to behold, and terrifying to imagine being within the conflagration. As the line curved to the west and the building slipped slowly into the distance the full horror was revealed, standing like a single dull, dead tooth in the blue sky. I looked around the sparsely filled carriage, but everyone else was busy reading, talking to their fellow travellers or just looking at the floor in the time-honoured way of the Tube. I wondered if I was perhaps the only one who hadn't seen this before? The only one who hadn't had to live with this expression of loss and death above me on my daily comings and going? It was a haunting image - so different to seeing it on the screen and often reduced to a backdrop to a political dialogue - either a timely reminder of inequality or a tragic bandwagon jumped by protesters depending on one's viewpoint. I don't think I'll ever quite forget the sight of the tower, abandoned but still glaringly present in the skyline. It haunted my dreams on the sleepy train ride home, vying with the views of collapsed viaducts in Los Angeles back in 1994 for its utter alienness and unreality. Whatever the outcome of the investigations and discussions which the fire has precipitated, whatever the fate of the officials and trustees who appear to have slalomed around regulations to create the conditions in which this could happen, these events are an exclamation mark in the story of London life. A point for pausing to consider the gravity and complexity of life and death in the city. As a full-stop for a circumambulation of London, it was both fitting and sobering. I hadn't just walked around a landscape or a museum, I'd circuited a living and dying metropolis of diversity and disparity, where eight million souls struggle beside each other. When I'm next asked the question 'why?' I make these walks, perhaps I have the beginnings of an answer...
You can find a gallery of pictures from the walk here.
Posted in Travel on Sunday 6th August 2017 at 8:08pm
I'd never seen traffic like it - every road out of town was an unmoving snake of vehicles. Whichever instantly updated traffic map you referred to was a tangle of red ribbons centring on the motorway junction. Meanwhile, out on the road, an army of orange-jacketed men laboured on the removal and replacement of a road surface corroded by an oil-spill. As we crept home, inch by tiny inch, a man in a 'Thirst Patrol' t-shirt and his son walked along the queue, offering a kindness of bottled water through car windows. Some cars had been stuck for hours - and some would sit for longer than us as they edged out of town. Meanwhile, thousands of tiny aggressions exacerbated the fouled-up estate roads: drivers surged into chicanes designed to slow traffic, effectively blocking both lanes and causing even longer delays. In the midst of this I thought of the irony - we were going to take a road trip to Shepperton, the suburban home of J.G.Ballard. This kind of tyranny of the roads, this weaponisation of the motorcar, would have been entirely up his street - and so, soon would we.
A day later, an a world away from the scenes of a tense Friday night traffic snarl, we cruised easily along the motorway. It was busy for spells with holiday traffic heading west, but mostly we were able to progress effortlessly towards London. As we approached the nexus of Heathrow, the Ballardian reference points were directly evident: the huge metal and glass swoop of Terminal 5, the stacked access roads, the infrastructure of landing lights peppering the otherwise empty fields around the airport. We entered Shepperton via an unlikely rural route, the town suddenly appearing at a crossroads ahead of us. Left at the lights, and into an unremarkable development of 1930s homes ranged along a long, straight, dead-end street. Amidst this, at No.36, a familiar badly-repaired yellow door and the curve of a fine set of windows - this had been Ballard's home for forty years until his death in 2009. A place where this extraordinary man had led a deeply, almost deliberately ordinary life: raising his three children alone after the far-too-early death of his wife, writing on the clock between preparing meals and ironing school uniforms. Iain Sinclair writes about his encounters with Ballard here - and speculates that the suburbs fuelled his abstract urban dystopia, rather than distancing him from the city. Perhaps in fact his failure to engage personally with the modern city made him an almost weirdly accurate predictor of its function and dysfunction?
While the significance of place figures strongly in my own thinking and writing, I've never been given to personal pilgrimages. I'll track the route of a road or a river, seek out a deleted suburb or station, but rarely have I tried to deliberately locate the homes of writers I admire. It seems an intrusion too far, a breaking of the spell perhaps? But with Ballard it's different - his disconnection from the cities he documented and his oddly perceptive way of writing shopping malls, airport terminals and motorways mean that he is everywhere and everywhen in modern Britain. We knocked the door and met the happy soon-to-be-family who now inhabit Ballard's former home. They were charming, accommodating and keen to show us their new home. Much will change - but much will remain the same. The house will receive the updating which Ballard never quite got around to in his lifetime - it will be fitted to nurture a new generation. The new inhabitants know the history, and have gleaned a little knowledge of the former occupant, but they're not fans. They've seen people occasionally snapping pictures outside and they've been amazed at the interest. They've also oriented pictures of Ballard at work within the house and can place him in their new world. Ballard was by no means reclusive - but his life didn't permit great excursions away from Shepperton. Thus, many interviews and photo-shoots took place here. Those oft-seen jacket shots offering a glimpse of garden through a nearby window seem strangely familiar as we sip tea at a table in the room where he wrote and talk about holidays and plans for the house.
Soon we're doing business - lugging out the beautiful, tiled fireplace which has been removed from its original moorings on the wall upstairs. It takes three of us to manhandle it around the roadworks which line Old Charlton Road and into the back of our car. We bid our hosts, and Ballard's home goodbye and carefully reverse onto the quiet road in preparation for our return trip. The tiled mantle rests heavily in the car, a solid reminder of a curiously transient trip. A brief passage into the personal world of a much loved author, a view into a life lived on the periphery of the city. As I walked the edges of the docks and the quiet southern suburbs just a day before this trip, I'd thought often of Ballard - of his influence on me and on a generation of writers which I try desperately hard not to plagiarise. It's not easy - as Iain Sinclair once said:
When in doubt, quote Ballard
Iain Sinclair - Dining On Stones - 2004
The inevitable conversations about our weekends will occur in the office tomorrow. I'll tell people I went to Shepperton to buy J.G.Ballard's fireplace. I suspect most of my colleagues won't bat an eyelid...
Posted in London on Saturday 5th August 2017 at 11:08pm
I've never considered myself a particularly superstitious or ritualistic person - but there are some things I like to do just right, often boxing myself with arbitrary restrictions in the process. Readers of my last piece on the walk around the North Circular might recall that I pushed on to Ilford, as much to end the walk somewhere I could easily get back home as anything. However, that day I'd also made a considerable effort to begin the second part of that walk from almost exactly the spot I'd left the road weeks before, unwittingly binding myself into a set of rules which would make the start of today's jaunt a little more complex. I arrived in Ilford in surprisingly fine weather and surfaced from the station just in time to catch a single-decker 366 bus which swiftly whisked me east, deep into the hinterland of the town centre and between huge cinema and shopping developments. We emerged onto a more traditional suburban terraced street near the prosaically and perhaps optimistically named 'Cost Effective Newsagent' and plunged into the huge expanse of late-nineteenth century development which sprawls south of Ilford and into Barking. I was beginning to get restless - I wanted to be walking, and the bus appeared to be wandering off route around endless diversions. I was distracted, at least momentarily, by the appearance beside the road of the Loxford Water - a tributary of the River Roding which flows above ground for only a very short stretch. Thus we pressed on into the suburb of Loxford - once an ancient manor in the ownership of the ever powerful Abbess of Barking, now a collection of schools, clinics and homes which range along the edge of the borough boundary. Arrival at Barking was disorienting - the looping bypass always appearing to deliver me at the station from an unexpected angle. The bus had no opportunity to wait here in a crush of terminating routes and so we set off again, passing the site of the Abbey and crossing the Roding to Highbridge Road which runs parallel with the North Circular. At last the relentless stream of traffic I'd been tracking these past few walks was beside me. I couldn't easily walk the stretch between Ilford and the end of the road at the Thames, beyond re-treading the very approximate routes I'd already used to walk the Roding and Barking Creek, but I could at least ensure it was part of my journey. This missing link, connecting the arc I'd begun at Chiswick back to the Thames felt like an important way to begin today's venture.
The bus left the thundering A406 behind to skirt the industrial sites of Fresh Wharf and the Police Custody Centre, while the road rose, carriageways dividing in preparation for the huge interchange with the A13 a little way south. We meandered around the private roads which allow access to the Newham Borough Depot at Jenkins Lane, skirting the inlet of Hand Trough Creek, and reappearing south of the A13 amidst the retail parks of East Beckton. This part of the trip was intriguing to me - I'd walked some of these areas in attempts to stay close to road or river and usually felt deeply unwelcome in these odd public/private interzones. Today I was being chauffeured around their perimeters, untracked by cameras and uninterrupted by security guards. It felt like a luxury. My immediate impression of the area, now I could see how the various zones fitted together, was how little of it has actually been developed. Ghost exits leave roundabouts for development opportunities as yet unrealised, provisional concrete roads to nowhere crack to reveal nature creeping through. This area, first an ancient marshland and then a safely distant haven for the most unappealing of industries, is now beginning its third life as an investment - a valuable but unrealised asset on a balance sheet. The roads between retail parks retain all the characteristics of these areas: a margin lined with wild flowers and weeds, an eddy of litter swirling around the gutters, dust and particulate matter settling on the remarkably hardy marsh plants which prosper because they're left to do so. Occasional lay-by middens mark areas where truckers park up for the night - piles of food wrappers, beer cans and discarded low-rent pornography. What's possibly most disturbing is how reassuring all this feels after the artificially sculpted world of the retail parks. Pylons stalk across the marshes towards the river, and a partly-finished luxury housing development appears on the horizon. I'm almost at my stop...
Galleon's Reach DLR Station sits above the roundabout where the North Circular arrives - now known as the A1020 or Royal Docks Road but still signposted as part of the great semi-circle around the city. It's a much quieter proposition here too, as the A13 has taken up the main flow of traffic east and west. The road that I join to head south is signposted 'North Circular, Woolwich Ferry' and immediately rises to cross the Sir Steve Redgrave Bridge over the Royal Albert Dock. It feels good to be walking at last in the morning sunshine, the heat haze rippling the runway of London City Airport as I take in the impressive, sweeping view - the distant city, the towers on the Isle of Dogs and the bulk of Tate & Lyle's plant in Silvertown. Beyond them I see green tree-lined slopes on the south bank of the Thames and I realise that I'll soon be climbing into those unknown parts. 'South of the River' - an old cliché, but a strangely accurate one perhaps. Who goes south of the river in lieu of the apocryphal unwilling taxi driver? Shady characters with bodies to bury, corrupt coppers working a scam and selling the story, semi-gentrified comedians and artists who grew out of Shoreditch? I'm aware of my prejudices and trying hard to push them aside. When I've walked the Thames Path or the Ridgeway I've found the southern boroughs surprisingly diverting - but gazing at my map before leaving I see only an unknowable expanse of suburban streets. I have to convince myself that the East felt equally impenetrable and blank once too. The road is silent as I turn west into North Woolwich. I can hear distant giggles and shrieks of playing children in Royal Victoria Gardens and smell late breakfast being prepared in the fine row of redbrick terraced house on Barge House Road, but there is no sign of anyone on the street. This is still the North Circular - as confirmed by the signs for the Ferry which impose prohibitions on explosives, corrosives and other dangerous materials. Such cargoes are consigned to heading east to Dartford to try their luck on the bridge, or the Blackwall Tunnel which is inexplicably signposted hereabouts like it's just around the corner. Nowhere on the circuit has the road ever been deserted completely, until now. I passed the impressive columns of the 1854 railway station building, now derelict yet again after the closure of the museum, and beside it the site of the tiny utilitarian platform I'd used just before the railway closed here in 2006. At this point I had a decision to make: to take the foot tunnel under the river which descended from the solid, brick rotunda ahead of me, or to turn the corner and wait for the ferry. I decided to stay above ground - true to the route of the road, and to take advantage of the rare chance to cross the Thames by boat. The rather workmanlike ferries are not designed for sightseeing during the brief crossing, and with a small group of other pedestrians I was directed below deck and told to remain seated while cars and trucks rumbled onto the ferry overhead. From the open side of the ferry I could see us slowly pushing away from the north bank, passing the former Steam Boat Pier which once served the Great Eastern Railway's short-lived competing ferry service, and turning south. The silvery carapaces of the Thames Barrier gleamed to the west and the forest of tall, new buildings which now formed an almost unbroken chain into the city marched into the middle distance. And so, as we docked at Woolwich Pier the missing link was complete - by means of a convoluted bus ride, a walk and a boat trip I'd approximately tracked the final few pedestrian-unfriendly miles of the North Circular to the banks of the Thames. Beyond the ferry terminal a long straight road could be seen heading uphill and away from the river. It was time to explore new horizons...
And so the South Circular began. It's important to note just how different this road is to its northern counterpart. While long stretches of the North Circular are purpose-built to near-motorway standard using the geography of London's brooks and rivers to snake swiftly around the suburbs, the plan for the South Circular never quite made it that far. While some sections where the route crossed open, easily purchased land were improved in the early twentieth-century zeal for roadbuilding, other sections simply plot a tortuous route through suburban streets climbing steep hills and crossing major roads at junctions which regularly snarl into long traffic queues. The South Circular isn't so much a road as a route - a collection of sign-posted fragments which attempt to provide drivers with a barely optimal route through a dysfunctional network. Skipping from urban centre to urban centre, the road was only ever going to be a temporary measure. Patrick Abercrombie's ambitious Ringways should have swept all this away - including great chunks of the suburban sprawl I'd be walking through. This ambition for clearing a new path never chimed with public opinion, and was ultimately the downfall of the plan. By the early 1970s the road's fate was sealed - there would be little done to improve the South Circular beyond minor tweaks to priorities at junctions, and while each was probably a minor triumph for a harassed planner, there was no overall strategy. A final attempt to radically alter the road network in the south was detailed in the Roads for Prosperity White Paper in 1989, but like many of the schemes in that ill-fated document, they had disappeared by the change of government in 1997, quietly disposed of to avoid further public disquiet and an emboldened environmental lobby. My walk around this odd historical aberration would be different too - indeed it felt more like the process of charting a lost river running between suburbs than that of walking a grand highway around the city. The road did however have a somewhat more attractive beginning than the North Circular: ascending from the roundabout near the ferry terminal one of the few purpose built sections of dual-carriageway on the route curves between two places of worship which have co-opted former palaces of entertainment. On the left of the road, its solid brick back facing the road, is the former Granada Cinema - now the Christ Faith Tabernacle Cathedral. This impressive modernist building opened in 1937, with a luxurious interior which has been mostly preserved by a succession of new tenants including, inevitably, a bingo hall. Luckily, the location has remained in almost constant use, and its current owners have gone to some effort to source fittings and furnishings from the same makers as the originals. In cinema's golden age of studios sparring for the best stars, across the street the striking art-deco Odeon Cinema set up shop in direct and defiant competition during the same year. The Odeon survived a little longer as a cinema - becoming the Coronet in 1983 and later being altered to include a second screen. A short time after its final closure in 1999 the New Wine Church purchased the building to become Gateway House.
As I began the climb away from Woolwich High Street between these two impressive temples of earthly delights which have bucked the secular trend, I spotted the rear of the Royal Artillery Barracks up ahead. It was here where Wellington Street meets the South Circular that Fusilier Lee Rigby met his untimely end at the hands of Islamist terrorists in 2013. The site isn't formally marked - there are memorials elsewhere in Woolwich now - but the concern that any marker on this ill-fated spot might become the target for extremist abuse seems unfounded. The railings beside Elliston House remain an unofficial memorial, adorned with St. George Cross and Union flags, scattered with flowers and tributes. The site is tidy and well-kept, flowers fresh and flags clean - and it has been kept this way by locals since the terrible events took place. Sometimes, memorials are spontaneous and simple, rather than resulting from grand municipal gestures. It was sobering to cross the eerily traffic-free rise of the South Circular to find this spot, a quiet urban corner on the edge of the leafy barracks site. I wondered how I should write it into my account - whether I should let it pass unremarked out of quiet respect? This is after all an account of a journey which, though opinion intrudes, tries hard not to stray into polemic. But there is no doubt that this corner has become a part of the story of Woolwich and it felt wrong to pass by without contrasting the quiet suburban scene I found with the act of incalculable violence which took place here. My patriotism is tinged with realism and a sense that in an open, well-connected world we can likely never again presume to close ourselves away from the affairs of other places - but when they are brought into our lives screaming hatred and discord, it should never ever be quietly accepted. A little further up the hill, beside the road is the Royal Garrison Church of St. George - almost destroyed by a flying bomb on 13th July 1944, this spectacularly decorated church was originally erected to support the moral and spiritual well-being of the artillery officers stationed at the Barracks, largely in response to the outcry about conditions servicemen faced during the Crimean War. The remains of the church are carefully cared for, with a large arched roof erected to protect the remaining mosaics from the elements. The church is sometimes opened to the public, and inside Fusilier Rigby is commemorated alongside other Artillery officers who have fallen, including those killed by the IRA at the nearby Kings Arms public house in 1974. The ornate, multi-coloured brick pattern of the church is the work of the Wyatt brothers, and sections of the walls still stand to give some idea of how grand this place once was. This was definitely somewhere to revisit on one of the rare opening days, and a fitting place for a more official memorial.
Outside the church, the South Circular has for the first time diminished to become a single-carriageway road. To the west, the broad expanse of the parade ground in front of the grandiose front elevation of the Barracks is empty and quiet, stormclouds rolling overhead ominously. I'd been promised thunderstorms, but so far my walk had been warm and dry. Traffic zipped by the broad pavement, untroubled by queues. This felt so strangely different to the experience on the A406 where the pedestrian was relegated to the fringes of the route, suffered angrily by the traffic. At the improbably named Ha-Ha Road I briefly wandered onto Woolwich Common. This expansive and semi-wild area of grassland was once part of a much bigger tract of open land belonging to the Manor of Eltham, with encroachment towards the currently remaining common area taking place in the 18th Century. A portion to the north became Barrack Field, while to the south east, the Royal Military Academy claimed land, opening to recruits in 1806. A less permanent but equally audacious land-grab took place in 2012, when the temporary structure of the Olympic Shooting Venue was erected on the common. Today the common was busy with people walking or sunbathing, ambulances occasionally darting along Ha-Ha Road towards the Queen Elizabeth Hospital which loomed on the eastern edge of the land. Moving south, the common is divided by the South Circular with the triangle housing the former Academy now part of an exclusive, gated community known simply as The Academy, Woolwich. The pinnacled towers of the central block rising against the backdrop of the wooded slopes of Eltham Common and Oxleas Wood, looking not dissimilar to those of the Tower of London. On the western side of the common the smaller but equally fine buildings of Victoria House, the former Medical Corps. officers mess stood in an isolated crescent on the corner of Shooters Hill Road. This fine but oft forgotten building has provided additional accommodation for the popular Greenwich Free School in recent times, and may at some point form a more permanent part of a new Primary School extension. For now though, it sits a little unloved in an overgrown and wooded corner of the common, fronted by a solid and smart but very firmly closed block of mid-century public conveniences.
Shooters Hill Road stretched arrow-straight to the east and west, tracing the path of the ancient Roman Watling Street from Dover to London. I remembered the couple we'd met on our visit to the Edith and Harold statue in St. Leonard's who said they lived near here, and despite retiring and the possibility of moving almost wherever they wished, had never wanted to leave. Shooters Hill Road was markedly busier than the South Circular here, which seemed very much the minor player at the crossroads. The steep hill rose away to the east, towards the strange Gothic folly of Severndroog Castle. This monument to Commodore Sir William James and built by his wife, takes its name from a corruption of Suvarnadurg - the local name of an island fortress near Goa of which James commanded the successful overthrow in 1755. Run as a tourist attraction by the London County Council in the early twentieth-century, the building passed eventually to Greenwich Council who finally decided they could not fund the upkeep. Derelict and boarded up since 1988 the folly fell into disrepair and its future was threatened until a preservation group formed in 2002. Happily in 2014 the doors once again opened to the public. Looking back along Academy Road, it was remarkable how steeply I'd climbed from the Thames. Here the route began to turn gradually west, and the land sloped gently down into the valley of the Quaggy River. It was hard to recognise the strategic importance of the route from its appearance here - two lanes of traffic with broad expanses of bus lane filling much of the carriageway. Motorists were regularly reminded of the route of the road with South Circular A205 signs nudging them in the right direction when it wasn't entirely obvious where to go - which was fairly often. The road ambled through pleasant suburbs, with decent housing lining the route not unlike that around the North Circular - if perhaps a little quieter and less battered by road grime. At Well Hall Roundabout I briefly stopped for provisions at a Tesco Metro housed in yet another disused cinema building, this time the Well Hall Odeon built in 1936, becoming the Coronet in 1981. The building fell into disuse from 2000, but now forms part of a modern development of shops with an entrance hall and sweeping circular canopy topped by a glass staircase tower still betraying its origins as a theatre. Leaving the store I reoriented myself and turned onto Rochester Way, the 1927 route of the A2, where the South Circular immediately veers off at a crazily arranged junction. It's a short walk to the new course of the A2, a wide elevated viaduct taking the road above the A205, with the railway crossing soon after. A train accelerating away from the 1985 resiting of Eltham station crosses the scene, passing near the elegant planned gardens of Well Hall Pleasaunce. Suddenly, at last, the road is busy. After miles of almost eerie quietness, the South Circular is a clogged, groaning mess. Traffic nudges into lane, drivers apparently surprised by the complexities of the interchange, set against a backdrop of a terrace of almost cartoonishly textbook mock-tudor villas. Traffic noses under the bridges, slowly emerging to the west. Suddenly I'm again walking a suburban dual carriageway flanked by mid-century houses arranged along a separate access road. Sadly this access road obscures the crossing of the Quaggy River, a tributary of the Ravensbourne which has flowed south and east from Lewisham. I pause at a rank of urban shops, watching the drama unfold as a local carelessly shunts a car into a bollard in a low speed collision, shrugging their shoulders then disappearing into the Co-op.
The gathering storm clouds are massing to the north and west, and while for a time I'm in the bright halo of sun on the edge of the churn of brownish-black sky a tell-tale change in the wind signals that I'm not out of danger. Soon enough, large cold raindrops start to patter around me as I walk onward, the land rising again beyond the Quaggy. A rusting sign hangs over the footpath, welcoming me to the Borough of Lewisham somewhat unconvincingly. On a memorable passing over the border between Greenwich and Lewisham once before, I was ceremonially blessed with a huge steaming pile of dogshit. Today it may be a watery tribute instead. It feels like I'm outpacing the storm, but distant rumbles of thunder and the unreal flashes of lightning inside the bruise-coloured clouds signal a downpour. When it finally comes it's sudden and intense - a typical summer storm. I hunch into the roadside under the overhang of a tall hedge near Burnt Ash Hill. The gullies of the road swiftly give up and flood with rainwater - the traffic does much the same in apparent sympathy, trailing into a single, sluggish carriageway running slowly through glum, damp suburbs. Eventually, the rain rather suddenly relents as such intense storms often do, and the ionised air is fresh and clear. I returned to slopping along damply, a soaking from a passing white van now the biggest risk. Luckily for the most part, the pavements were broad despite the narrow road. This area felt forgotten and somewhat lost - not quite Lee and not quite Hither Green, hemmed in by railways and not really on the way anywhere. I know the name Hither Green from my railway travels, but often wondered at its origins - thus I'm amused to see that a nearby street is named 'Further Green'. A low railway bridge ahead of me narrows the road even further, traffic snarling instantly at the lights which control passage. I edged under, staying as far away from the sizeable puddle where the road dipped to pass under the railway. Emerging into the light, the rain seemed to have passed completely and the clouds were rolling away to the north. A weak sunshine was breaking through the gloom ahead, though the road was less than bright. The long straight road headed directly west, a narrow avenue which was adequate on a quiet Saturday afternoon but would clearly buckle under peak traffic conditions. It was easier to see here how this road gained its poor reputation. I put my head down and walked, noting again the carpet of squashed sloes which seemed to have littered the route all the way from Woolwich, a carpet of lurid purple squelches on the grey flagstones.
I'd begun to tire early - a little like my first outing on the North Circular in fact - and couldn't pin down quite why. Perhaps it was the delayed start to the walk which had sapped my energy, or the strange and oppressive atmosphere before the storm. Maybe though, it was just the long uphill slog which had formed the early part of the route. In any case, I'd already begun to consider where I'd leave the A205 today. One option was Catford - with two railway stations on separate lines which tangle around each other both offering escapes from the road. Arrival in Catford wasn't inspiring however - Brownhill Road became a dull, urban arterial running between sadly rather run-down terraces of large, once rather grand Victorian homes. The rakes of green bins outside each property signified their new status as houses in multiple occupation, their front gardens given over to parking spaces or makeshift refuse tips. Up ahead I could see the brick ziggurat of Owen Luder's threatened Milford Towers - the Barbican of the South - stretching across the street. An important building but one which hadn't been entirely successful in terms of living space, the refurbishment of the surrounding shopping centre will soon claim it. Towering in front of Catford was a somewhat ungainly concrete block with a zig-zagging glass stairway tower, curiously staggered curtain walling, and an impressive crop of aerials and antennae. This challenging and strange building was Eros House, another Luder building which was originally intended to be part of a larger scheme. As it stands, it is dynamic but queasily out of balance with its surroundings. Once though, this was the exciting future for down-at-heel Catford:
A monster sat down in Catford and just what the place needed. No offence meant: this southward extension of Lewisham High Street badly wanted stiffening. Now there is a punchy concrete focus [...] The gaunt honesty of those projecting concrete frames carrying boxed-out bow windows persists. It is not done at you and it transforms the surroundings instead of despising them. This most craggy and uncompromising of London buildings turns out to be full of firm gentlenessRegenerating Catford appears to have always been a tricky business - mixed land ownership and a fairly hands-off policy by Lewisham Council until recent times have made for a patchy process which doesn't seem to have reached the lives of most of the residents of Rushey Green - one of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the country. Immediately beside the oddity of Eros House was the Catford Gyratory - a huge squared circle of a traffic island where the A21 to Hastings intersects the South Circular. I took the gyratory in the anti-clockwise direction mostly on instinct which advantageously avoided the circumnavigation of a truly huge Mecca Bingo hall. Arriving at the pedestrian crossing where the road from north to south joined the junction, I'll admit some pleasant surprise. A parade of remarkably smart local stores jostled for business with some High Street names, their facades broken only by the protruding sign for the Catford Centre with a giant fibreglass feline gazing across the street at the old village green. Beyond the KFC and echoing the curve of Catford Broadway with its straggling street market, is the rather wonderful art deco Broadway Theatre. The building fits into an awkward site with some ingenuity and remains in use today. The gothic-style stone features were designed to be in keeping with the style of the former Lewisham Town Hall building, now demolished and replaced with the low concrete sweep of the Town Hall and Civic Centre which arrived in the late 1960s, complementing the theatre's shape if not its decor. These buildings too are now partly redundant, with the confusingly christened 'Old Town Hall' now housing local businesses. Catford surprised me - far from being the butt of 1970s TV comic's gags, or the depressing southern nexus for bent coppers and gang violence which it seemed to suggest in the 1980s, there is a strangely positive feeling to the place. I'm curious to come back and explore a little more.
Iain Nairn - Nairn's London - 1966
I left Catford via a crossing of its two railways, each with their own local station - first Catford Bridge on the branch line to Hayes, then Catford - served by Thameslink. Between them the River Ravensbourne wound under the road, soon to become the River Pool for the remainder of its journey south. The railways hug the river valley here, using this notch in the landscape between Catford and Forest Hill to escape from the gravity of London. To the south, the pristinely mown playing fields of St. Dunstan's College line the edge of the South Circular as it rises gently to the west. I'm immediately back in suburbia as soon as I've passed the impressive College buildings. It feels like a long, hot slog now to Forest Hill where I've decided I'm going to end today's walk. As I make my way along the street pursued on foot by a hurrying bridegroom and his driver who appear to have either broken down or decided to flee the scene ('there's nothing here, no shops, no garages, NOTHING!') I spot a removal van at the side of the road which appears to have come all the way here from my coastal hometown. I glance at the driver, who looks back - but there's no recognition. Why would there be? We'd neither expect to see a familiar face on this most inconsequential stretch of road. The road curves, thrown off line by the need to cross under another railway up ahead at an awkward point. The course of the route is so improbable here that even more of the regular signs are needed to remind the driver: A205 South Circular. It feels at times, as I've tried to follow the route of this odd, almost makeshift way around London that the signs are trying to convince us that there really is a road, that we haven't just imagined the South Circular by means of some collective, hyrdrocarbon-induced hallucination. This is a route which does what you'd least expect and often at the most inconvenient of times. It echoes perfectly the often truculent, sometimes wilfully perverse and always darkly humorous south-of-the-river character. I climb the surprisingly steep rise to Forest Hill station and shuffle tired feet onto the platform just in time for a London Bridge service. Just like my first attempt at the North Circular I feel the road has beaten me today - I didn't get as far as I'd hoped by any measure. But perhaps that's how these roads work - they're designed not to be taken as a whole, because they're never the most direct way between two points. They are experienced piecemeal - fragments of a journey on route to other places. Who would be stupid enough to try to walk their entire length? Before we depart I take note of my surroundings in preparation for another ritualistic future reconnection with the route. Soon, the train clatters into the much-modernised London Bridge station on the edge of the City of London - a station I haven't used in a good many years - and I navigate my way through the unfamiliar concourse out into the sunshine bouncing from the lower tiers of The Shard. It feels a long way from the ferry, and even further from the curious centre of Catford.
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.