Posted in Travel on Monday 2nd July 2018 at 9:07pm
We are heading out to Germany for a few days to meet friends and see a little of Europe before it gets more complicated to do so. On some of the hottest days of an already warm World Cup summer, travel would present a number of challenges - but today, as ever it seems, French Air Traffic Controllers had decided to strike. The knock-on effects of this were minimal in many ways - a bit of a wait for take-off and a slightly irritated Captain - but there were benefits too... With slots over France in short supply, we took off on the eastern runway, heading directly over Central London and out along the estuary. Even at around 20,000 feet, the view was clear enough to see the city unfolding before me along the glimmering ribbon of the Thames. Seeing the territory I've walked and rewalked mapped out below was a rare and privileged sight for me.
As the contorted city river gave way to the broadening maw of the estuary I thought of the connection between the Thames and the Rhine, once a great river through a united continent which was soon to be artificially separated once again. Beneath me the Dartford Crossing signalled a passing into Kent, and soon the tiny towers of Reculver could be seen below. Beyond this, a sweep of blue showed the channels which boats eager sought between the off-shore wind farms and the ominous heads of the forts at Shivering Sands. Soon there was nothing but water, and then almost imperceptibly the countryside below was Belgium. It didn't look so hugely different from up here, but culturally and politically it could be a world away just now.
Posted in London on Saturday 2nd June 2018 at 10:06pm
A sweaty clamber up from Honor Oak Park brought me to the top of One Tree Hill, and as the curtain of summer foliage parted Central London unravelled before me. Since the beginning of the ascent from the roadside near St. Augustine's Church I'd been mostly alone - with just glimpses of dog walkers through the trees - and I was glad. Already drenched and with eyes streaming with allergen-sponsored tears, I felt like a mess - and certainly not suitable for public viewing. The tree-framed window through which London was visible swayed hazily at its edges - perhaps the view would have been more expansive in Autumn, but for now I was content to look on a shimmering city of cranes and towers which rose in the middle distance. London abstracted - no visible sign of the chimerism of inequality or the growing concern about violent crime amongst young people which seemed to be the dominant narrative now. This was an unreal city which, from these southern slopes at least, appeared to be a painted backdrop. I'd meant to come to One Tree Hill for a long time - intrigued by the name, and directed here again by a recent episode of the excellent London's Peaks podcast, I'd finally found the route to fit the urge. My recent walks had occupied me in the south-eastern corner of London, which while something of a diversion, was not unprecedented. This fringe territory where endless suburbs blur into the edges of provincial, unreconstructed Kent had interested me for a long time and the views east from the Thames foreshore were always a draw. So, I'd scored a hasty and uneven line roughly north-easterly along the map - connecting One Tree Hill with my recent travels and roughly approximating the tangled and somewhat unloved Green Chain through South London. The day stretched ahead of me, sweaty and pollen-flecked. It was time to set off...
Before I left One Tree Hill I wandered the top of this significant peak, circling the concrete base of a First World War gun emplacement which sat at the summit to counter zeppelin raids. Sometimes more prosaically known as Honor Oak Hill, the hilltop has been strategically significant for some time, with an East India Company semaphore station established here in the eighteenth century, and the provision of a warning beacon during the Napoleonic Wars. The single tree after which it is named is known as the Honor Oak - where legend has it that Queen Elizabeth rested on her journey to Lewisham, and for centuries a marker of the southern extent of the Honour of Gloucester. This vast feudal estate comprised 279 manors by 1166 when the tree would have been situated in the midst of the still impressive extent of the Great North Wood. The hill later passed to the ownership of the Abbots of Bermondsey before the Dissolution of the Monasteries put paid to their tenure too. The slopes then took on a largely unremarkable existence, with little attention paid to their frequent but informal recreational use until 1896 when the local golf club attempted to enclose the land with a six-foot high fence to deter the locals. The formation of the Honor Hill Protest Committee - including numerous local dignitaries - soon followed, with the aim of protecting the public right of way to walk on the hill. The interminable administrative process of dealing with numerous landowners and vestries threatened to drag on for far too long for a number of local folk who on 10th October 1897 broke down the fence and stormed the hill. A reported crowd of 15,000 dispersed peacefully after singing 'Rule Britannia' at the summit. A week later with ranks swelled to over 50,000 the mob was more unruly, with stone-throwing and fire-setting taking place. Ten were arrested for trespass and fined or imprisoned which appeared to successfully quell these guerilla tactics. However, the protest continued through more ponderous legal channels, not finally being resolved until 1905 when the recently formed Borough of Camberwell purchased the land. The view - once claimed by Sir John Betjeman to be "As a prospect [...] better than that from Parliament Hill on Hampstead Heath" remains impressive - and with this last outcrop of the range of hills which climb steadily from Croydon being visible from some distance, it is no suprise that it has attracted a mythology - from Boudicca's last defeat to Dick Turpin's look-out.
I skirted the foot of the hill via the woodland path which wound between the trees, shadowing Brenchley Gardens. This broad, curving road sat on the embankment of the former railway branchline to Crystal Palace which I'd encountered previously on the South Circular. Beyond the railway alignment in in an unlikely symbiosis, the vast underground Honor Oak reservoir was covered by the well-kept greens of the Aquarius Golf Club. Glimpses of the view across the Thames filtered between the buildings as I followed the road to the gates of Camberwell New Cemetery. I passed the through imposing white-painted gateway and walked the ceremonial route towards the Mortuary Chapel - a rather traditional ecclesiastical-looking building by Sir Aston Webb and his son, Maurice which opened with the cemetery in 1927. A path took me towards the more impressive Crematorium by Maurice Webb working alone which was built in 1939 in a modern style with a fine square tower and stained glass window. While the bereaved rolled up to refresh flowers and tend graves, it felt strange and perhaps wrong to photograph this building, but there was a curious life and buzz about the place which prevented it becoming entirely macabre, assisted by the fact that the paths of the cemetery were surprisingly well used by those heading for the nearby recreation ground in football colours for a junior match of some apparent importance. This corner of London - not quite Forest Hill, not quite Peckham - is a strange city of the dead with the former boroughs of Camberwell and Lewisham both locating their respective Necropolis on the line dividing their turf. The tracks of the railway lines to Brighton parallel the old administrative boundary, occupying the former route of the ill-fated Croydon Canal, and I crossed their deep cutting via a slightly forbidding footbridge and entered the often overlooked village centre of Crofton Park. This suburb on the site of the original hamlet of Brockley largely exists only because of its own small and somewhat unloved station on the lines into Blackfriars. Near the station, the Rivoli Ballroom stands resolute - the last extant example of the opulent and somewhat kitsch dancehalls which would have graced almost every suburban High Road in the mid 20th century. My route continued east via the long curving route of Brockley Grove, a pleasant street of decent houses which faced the tall, swaying uncut grass of Brockley and Ladywell Cemetery. Formerly separated by a wall, these two burial grounds opened within a month of each other in 1858 as Deptford and Lewisham Cemeteries respectively, and didn't finally become a single cemetery until 1948. Given their proximity to the Naval Yards of Depford, both feature a number of nautical burials, not least that of William Rivers who was killed by 'falling from the maintop of HMS Sapphire at Hobart Town on November 5th 1877 aged 19'. Now the wall separating the two sites had fallen, and both had returned to nature to a great extent - but at the Ladywell end a rather grand iron gate still worked hard to outshine its neighbour.
Stately Brockley Grove dissolved into Ladywell Road and once again I crossed one of the imperceptible lines which divide South London communities. The road began a gradual descent into the valley of the Ravensbourne via a ladder of terraced streets leading south, all given clumsy-sounding compound names to honour the Victorian builder's sizeable flock of children: Elsiemaud, Amyruth, Arthurdon and so on passed by as I trudged towards the much-gentrified centre of Ladywell. I quickly recognised the pleasant little village around the railway station from a previous walk, but I hadn't noted during that riparian approach just how jarring the transition was from a proud but struggling mainly black neighbourhood into the resolutely white hipster-magnets of the bakeries and taverns which clustered around the bridge. Beneath the road, the River Ravensbourne gurgled in its concrete prison while the heat which was now beating down on the tarmac made the cool flow of even this beleaguered watercourse seem oddly attractive. I moved onward, descending from the bridge and soon leaving Ladywell to enter the hinterlands of Lewisham. I hadn't originally intended to head this way - my plans suggested a route further to the south, even perhaps rewinding part of my perambulation around the South Circular - which felt less than edifying today. But the need to find a drink had driven me towards civilisation which was perhaps no bad thing. The route also led me past the remarkable Ladywell Bathhouse. More lately known as the 'Playtower' this remarkable survival of a 19th century swimming pool and bathing facility is part of a cluster of former civic buildings beside the Police Station and Mortuary buidlings. Erected in 1884, and designed in part by the local architect Thomas Aldwinkle, the building was remarked on by the Kentish Mercury as 'quite an ornament to the neighbourhood, standing in striking contrast to the ancient church behind it. The building has a remarkable local history - having hosted record-breaking swimming champions, political meetings, Olympic standard gymnasts and finally a play centre until final closure in 2004. Since then the building has decayed and suffered arson attacks - to the extent that it was named one of the ten most at risk buildings by the Victorian Society in 2015. Boarded up and abandoned, the building awaits its fate - which more optimistically appears to be conversion to a Curzon cinema sometime soon.
After the rather quiet civic island on the outskirts of town, the sudden rush of Lewisham High Street was something of a shock. Traffic pulsed through the lights, and I tried to plan my next move while navigating the busy pavement. People stood around outside shops as if stunned by the sudden heat, and I slalomed around them in an attempt to find somewhere to stock up on liquids before taking on the steeper hills later in the walk. My initial plan of dashing across the street and back into the suburbs was soon abandoned - this stretch of High Street had little to offer and I was forced to head for the centre of town. The skyline was a broad frieze of blue sky and tall cranes - the same knot of new buildings I'd seen from the river on an earlier visit. Close up the new developments were uninspiring and formulaic: stacked geometries of primary colours and too-clever angles. Names were to be assumed by interpretation from some ancient use of the ground on which these new buildings sprouted, resulting in a proliferation of granaries, mills, stables and the like. A little way to the north, the High Street divided around the gloomy brick stacks of the former Riverdale Centre. Dating from 1977 this surprisingly large shopping centre is due for an upgrade soon, and in some ways is remarkable in retaining considerable footfall despite new developments nearby which have effectively killed-off similar centres around the capital. That said, the offer here was in the mid-to-lower sector of the market which was echoed in the drab facades of the clearly struggling High Street which glowered across at the centre. Between the run of bus stands and the stores, a steel band belted out music to a heat-subdued crowd which nodded and shuddered lazily to the irrepressible clamour. I swerved onward, finding myself at the unprepossessing corner of Lee High Street. A wall of buses waited to turn the corner, and I wondered if I'd made the right choice of walk today. The sun had dipped behind low cloud and the air had become a sticky, fume-laden soup which coated the inside of my dry mouth unpleasantly. I withdrew cash but couldn't find anywhere to spend it - Lewisham had almost defeated me. It remained an overheated and frustrating mystery - and just as confusing and unwelcoming as it had felt on my previous brief passes through the territory. Perversely, I wanted to understand the place even more as a result. The road ahead - the A20 - which was still somewhat anachronistically signposed 'Channel Tunnel' swiftly became a typical London escape-route which could be at any corner of the compass with the ubiquitous ranks of hair salons and kebab shops tumbling along both sides. Preparing for a dull stretch of walking, I glanced along the oblique junction with Clarendon Rise and was stunned out of my mental grumbling. Firstly, a beautiful Hindu temple stood rather surprising among the garages and back-entrances, set a little back from the road and in a tight, corner site. The decorative plaster front dripped with carvings and reliefs, the gable divided by an impressive stacked tower which glinted above its drab surroundings. At ground level beside the temple a faded blue railing signified water. I've come to know these tell-tale gaps in the streetscape well and always investigate them for potential brooks and streams. Sure enough, trickling grimily below the road the Quaggy River snaked out from under Lewisham and headed east. This gave my walk something of a new energy - and I struck out with a little more effort than I'd managed on the last stretch.
The Quaggy soon slipped out of site. Forming the boundary of back gardens and mediated by flood relief schemes, it is an anonymous river for much of its course. My own first encounter was years ago at Lewisham Station where it passed below the platform in an unremarkable concrete culvert helpfully accompanied by an Olympic-funded information board. Here though it was still cocooned, but it felt wilder and intruded somewhat more on its surroundings. The land dipped towards its shallow valley, and the street patterns followed its torturous curves. The Quaggy was still making its mark it seemed. I pressed on via road, following the straighter route while the river looped lazily to the south. I could have deviated away from the road and headed for Manor Park, but I was confident I had the river in my sights again. Sure enough, as I poked around the outskirts of the Sainsbury's at Lee, the river again appeared passing under a nondescript bridge nearby. Its neighbours had built a platform to sit above the waters beside their business, and it was hard to tell if this was a slight on the apparent unimportance of the river or a genuine attempt to make the most of otherwise urban surroundings. Once I finally found my way into the store, I shopped swiftly and considered my options - I could try to approximate the route of the Quaggy, ending up at the South Circular a little further away than I'd hoped - or I could use it as a loose guide and strike out into the uncharted private avenues of the Cator Estate? I opted for the latter, disappearing into the leafy and primped Manor Way and soon feeling unpleasantly oppressed by the experience. Once past the gates and the rather disapproving glare of the red-brick gatehouses the road was straight and dull, lined on one side by ranks of pleasant and expensive looking homes while to the south the land fell away to become Blackheath Park on the banks of the Quaggy. Much of my walk through the estate of John Cator (who's other lands I'd encountered before) was spent worrying about finding an exit or being turned back to the start by an overeager security guard. In the event, the exit showed up first - after passing a little extension to the estate posed around an ornamental lake formed from what appeared to be the sometimes elusive Mid Kid Brook stream, a grim access path led away behind a block of untidy garages next to the less salubrious homes of Casterbridge Road. Here I noticed a phenomenon which had seemed at first unlikely but for which evidence was now harder to ignore: the endless parade of 'Saturday dads' walking or wheeling their children along the quiet afternoon roads. Across Lewisham and Ladywell I'd seen the same parade - a faintly depressing sense of resignation on the faces of the pushchair driving men while their offspring chattered excitedly or dozed in the heat. I sensed the frustration and defeat of many of them, among sometimes more hopeful scenes. Aware of my perhaps unfair assumptions, I took my spot in this parade and slalomed along a much-diverted path through a development zone bounded by view-defying temporary wooden fences covered in computer-generated scenes of urban paradise. I need not have worried about finding a way out - the proprietors of Kidbrooke Village really seemed to want me to head this way and to see all of their promotional material...
And so I found myself in one of the most uncanny zones of London I've experienced since those heady pre-2012 days in Stratford. Put simply, Kidbrooke Village didn't exist, despite the best efforts of Berkeley Homes to convince me it was here. This was the site of the Ferrier Estate. Constructed between 1967 and 1972 by the Greater London Council, when completed the estate consisted of nearly 2000 homes in eleven 12-storey prefabricated blocks and associated low-rise units linked by walkways. Perched on the edge of resolutely White British Greenwich the estate didn't fare well and became a convenient spot to manage demand for social accommodation by the flawed strategy of housing many families who were on the margins of the Borough's population on the same estates. A combination of sharply increased numbers of refugee families, a dizzying mix of languages and ethnicities and a policy of generally abandoning maintenance and improvements meant the fate of the estate was sealed. It was often mentioned in the same breath as the other two inconveniently troublesome South London 'hell holes': Heygate, Aylesbury, Ferrier. Only total erasure would exorcise these failures of policy - at least in the minds of those who had, in some cases presided over their construction. And so they fell, and thus by 2012 much of the old estate had gone and Kidbrooke Village had moved from a hazy, watercolour sketch on a drawing board to a concrete plan. Meanwhile the Ferrier residents were being scattered around the capital and beyond. Berkeley were going to do this differently, however - they'd build a community, not just houses. And so in the midst of the landscaped wetlands which may or may not be fed by the vestigial waters of the Kyd Brook, the 'Village Centre' squatted the corner of a modern block. Looking worryingly temporary in nature, the doors were closed today. Few people were around, and while I unenthusiastically downed an unripe banana, only a few more dads and a powered-wheelchair passed by. I located a waste bin - pristine and empty of course - and headed east towards the station. The parcel of vacant land between the railway and the village was being slowly filled in - a new academy and more housing were promised on the glossy hoardings surrounding the plot - and the road onward was lined with scaffolded blocks awaiting their final fit-out. It struck me here that Kidbrooke was no more - the station served the new village, but any sense of a historical Kidbrooke had been erased. The suburban hinterlands stretched away north - but the place had been bypassed twice already, and the focus had shifted south. I navigated the pedestrian subways under the confusing junction where the improved route of the A2 bucked and reared northwards towards London noting there was no indication of how far away Kidbrooke was on foot among the direction signs. In fact, this spot in the underpass may as well have been the real village centre - and indeed perhaps once was?
The footpath emerged from its cool, green tunnel at Kidbrooke Green Park. This parched lozenge of parkland bounded by the old and new routes of the A2 was scattered with sunbathers and dog walkers who didn't appear to regard their local bit of respite from the suburbs as a historically important scrap of ancient wetland at all. This remaining corner of the former village green is evidence of a set of historical compromises which could have led to a very different landscape hereabouts. Kidbrooke as a suburb is a recent development, having largely grown up along the route of Rochester Way - a bypass for Shooter's Hill which offered traffic a flatter, less taxing route out of London from the 1930s, slicing into the green in the process. The remains of the village green were then later proposed as the location of a vast interchange between the southern and eastern flanks of The C Ringway - the urban motorway which was to have connected the North Circular to a replacement for the South Circular. This road would then have turned east and scythed an utterly destructive course through South London's suburbs on a viaduct. Little of this road was built, but evidence of the extent of its impact can be seen in the strips of new development which fill in the once reserved motorway corridors which languished while the plan was debated by the GLC and the Boroughs. The complex twist in the A2 here also gives a clue as to how much would have been entirely obliterated by the South Cross Route as it ploughed west towards Brixton and Camberwell. The plans were not popular with the London Boroughs, and in particular were fought bitterly by Eltham and Greenwich, and despite a number of proposed concessions they were finally buried with the remains of the inner Ringway plans by 1973. The people of Kidbrooke likely have the residents of Blackheath to thank for this, as the organised opposition to the devastating destruction of shops and homes in their village forced consideration of a cut-and-cover tunnel which delayed construction and escalated costs to unsustainable levels. There may not be much of Kidbrooke's Village Green to see now - but there could have been far, far less. It was becoming extremely hot walking weather now - and I clocked the temperature at approaching thirty degrees as I crossed the yellowing grass of the park and emerged on Rochester Way. The long straight carriageway shimmered in the heat between its generous pavements and wide verges. This was classic London arterial: a textbook example of how roads into and out of town were envisaged in the earliest days of the motor age. I set off, fixing my eyes on the wooded slopes rising in the near distance. I was keen to get back under the trees and to shelter from the overbearing sunlight as soon as I could. The ribbon of tarmac unravelled endlessly ahead - a modern-day Watling Street on which surprisingly little traffic bothered my ears. A bypass that had been bypassed already, its lifespan as a major route ended by the wider and louder A2 which was still within earshot to the south, offering a thrum of white noise to the still and hazy afternoon heat.
A diversion into the quiet side streets had given me an initial hint of how steep the ascent would be from this direction, but I wasn't fully prepared for the slope which rose between houses to climb a meadow and disappear into the trees. Shooters' Hill had been a challenge last time, but approaching from the south the ascent was steeper and less forgiving. I fixed on a bench halfway up the rise towards the crest and leant into the climb. As I approached I noticed that a family had set up their picnic under the trees opposite the bench, and my British reserve wouldn't allow me to collapse sweating and panting just feet from their chosen spot. So I pushed on, suppressing my heavy breathing enough to pant a hopefully nonchalant and breezily casual 'Afternoon!' as I trudged by. At the top of the hill I found a fallen tree I'd been aiming for had just been alighted on by a cackling and capering gang of exchange students with lurid backpacks and packed lunches, so I leaned against the cool trunk of a venerable tree and rested, surveying the panorama of South London which was revealed from this height. The view southwards often feels less impressively sweeping - perhaps because the hillier terrain of the south doesn't permit the same vast panoramas seen toward the north. It struck me however, under the canopy of ancient woodland here, that there would once have been a sea of treetops as far as I could see - the Great North Wood stretching south into a hazy green distance. I turned back to the climb, wanting to find my way deeper into Oxleas Woods. The footpaths were busy with families, a distinct aroma of sunblock and ice cream preventing me from feeling like I was truly treading ancient byways here. Nevertheless, the woodland paths felt surprisingly wild in places and I was able to head deeper and lose myself in the greenery. The mossy trunks and ceiling of foliage tinted the view green, and kept me pleasantly cool while the path crunched with fallen twigs and seed pods. I slowed my pace to enjoy the cool respite offered by this venerable swathe of woodland. In the process I managed to regain both composure and a reasonable core temperature, at least until I emerged in the remnants of formal gardens which had belonged to one of the large properties which once flanked the woodland where the sun beat down on me once again. The water tower at the top of Shooter's Hill dominated the view - and I soon found myself near The Bell once again, waiting to cross the busy flow of traffic and looking back over the scene of my recent walk in from Kent. My aim now was to further retrace that route, at least as far as the Shrewsbury Tumulus. I wanted to take the mysterious route of Mayplace Lane down the hill towards the Thames. Sure enough, the curious little track was waiting beside the swaying grass on the burial mound, just as it had apparently waited for time immemorial. My oldest maps of the area show the lane bending to the north and slightly east, resolutely retaining its route as generations of new development slowly surrounded it. The street signs suggested the route was not suitable for vehicles - and in fact it appeared it was also not ideal for my aching left knee which clicked and popped ominously as I began the descent on the winding lane which provided a rutted and uneven service road at the rear of properties on Eglinton Hill. I marvelled at the driving skills of residents who apparently managed to get their cars along this track and into the various garages and gardens which backed onto the route. The lane headed steeper down hill, crossing several roads of Victorian terraces which had remarkably allowed this old route to cross unhindered. I was amazed that the unsentimental and economically-minded builders of that era would have willingly left a house unbuilt on each road to accommodate Mayplace Lane. Eventually the route gave up at the foot of the hill near the shops on Herbert Road. The tall, brick blocks of the somewhat infamous Barnfield Estate loomed over the end of the lane as I made my way between buildings and back to more modern carriageways, glad to have followed Mayplace Lane - but still intrigued to know if it had ever reached all the way to the Thames?
I was now heading east again along Plumstead Common Road, which was surprisingly congested and difficult to cross. My aim was to walk a short distance along the road before getting swiftly off the pavement and onto the Common. As I approached I noticed the grass was busy with sunbathers haphazardly scattered across the generous green area which had, like One Tree Hill been hard-won. The Common has a long history of public use, being mentioned in the Domesday Book as Plumstede - a place where plums grow - even then known as common land used for grazing. As the Royal Arsenal expanded operations at Woolwich, large swathes of the Common were secured from Queens College, Oxford who owned the land, to provide space for workers' homes. The coming of the railways rapidly accelerated this process of building new suburbs, and In June 1876 the local populace began to take action to defend their ancient rights. These protests caught the attention of the Commons Protection League and charismatic and radical Irishman John De Morgan in particular - and on 1st July, under his leadership a crowd of 1000 people stormed the common, tearing up illegal fences and marching on the home of Sir Edwin Hughes, local Member of Parliament and at the time, also leader of the Conservative Party. De Morgan was arrested and jailed for seventeen days, but the increasing pressure on local politicans resulted in the passage of the Plumstead Common Act in 1878 and the purchase by the Metropolitan Board of Works which has resulted in the area remaining protected to this day. Near a rank of well-used tennis courts I paused to rest, watching a mysterious black-clad young woman undertaking some sort of outdoor art-project involving a huge carpet of taped-together paper and spray-cans on the footpath nearby. A little way across the common was the football pitch where Arsenal FC had played their first games, originally as the 'football division' of Dial Square Cricket Club, founded by the workers of Woolwich Arsenal. Much had changed on the common since then, and the tiny café next to the Old Mill public house was now 'The Plumstead Pantry' with a nice line in artisan coffee and exclusive baked goods. As I trudged by, glancing up at the brick tower of the windmill which remained in the grounds of the nearby pub, a young customer pushed by, busily devouring a croissant in a cloud of pastry dust and swaggering across the width of the pavement. He paused to glug greedily at a thimble-sized cup of coffee, so I made my escape- scooting by and getting on my way as swiftly as I could. The Common stretched to the east - an impressive swathe of land had been secured by those protests including a spot intriguingly marked on my map as The Slade Ravine. I followed the path rather skeptically, thinking that something as impressive as a ravine would surely have made it into the mythology of London which I'd been reading for years? The path dipped into a tunnel of trees and became a flight of steep stone steps, and two things became apparent: firstly that there was genuinely a ravine in Plumstead Common, and secondly that I'd likely to have to clamber up the other side of this rather deep impression in the landscape! At the bottom of the ravine a series of ponds separated by weirs and filter beds provided a cool, green-shaded haven for wildlife. This strange, venerable place deep in the earth felt safe and hidden, even from the now overbearing heat and the drone of traffic on Kings Highway nearby. Formed by a glacier melting into a fast-flowing river during the last ice age, The Slade was now a dry gully carved deep into the land, dividing Plumstead Common from Winns Common where a Bronze Age burial mound is all that remains of an established dwelling which endured through Roman times. Winns Common was reinhabited briefly after the Second World War when a village of prefabricated homes housed the Blitzed and displaced folk of London. Generations of settlers would have known this spot, and unlike its surroundings, it would have looked remarkably similar to them too.
I struggled up the steps out of the ravine slowly, noting another walker following me and picking up my cue to take things equally steady despite likely being a good deal fitter than I. I collapsed onto a nearby bench and tried to look nonchalant as I consumed the last of my water and decided what to do next. I think my fellow sweaty and exhausted walker was jealous of my bench, but there were others to be had not far away! My plan had been to tackle Bostall Hill and descend on Abbey Wood via the site of Lesnes Abbey - but that would have to wait. Another ascent in the blazing sunshine was a little too much to contemplate just now. Instead I decided to strike out for the same spot by staying on the flat as far as I could. After crossing Winn's Common I began the descent towards the Thames, my knee now making genuinely ominous noises as I shuffled downhill passing by a series of geologically-themed squat tower blocks: Crystal, Galena and Marble House. All of them were prematurely decked with the St. George Cross in anticipation of a World Cup to come. From this vantage point the floodplain of the Thames opened out impressively below, with the near distance occupied by the Crossrail depot and the curious industrial estate-like anonymity of HMP Belmarsh, home to Britain's most violent and prolific offenders. Flanked by its sister prisons, HMP Isis and HMP Thameside, all three looked like innocuously vast branches of B&Q from this safe distance. At the foot of the hill, Plumstead High Street pulsed with heat and shuddered with car stereo basslines while we all waited time at the junction with Basildon Road. Fumes and dust hovered in the air, and I was glad to reach an opportunity to turn into the side-streets and zig-zag towards Abbey Wood station. My spirits and my feet had rallied now that the end of the walk was in sight, but swiftly fell again when I spied a bus heading my way marked 'Rail Replacement Service'... I may not have needed to plan this walk extensively, but I had - embarrassingly - left some of the key details unchecked it seemed. I swiftly replanned - and noted a regular bus service from outside the currently closed station which made a circuit of Thamesmead before depositing passengers at Plumstead station, the current extent of operations on the line. This local service seemed infinitely preferably to a slog through the same clogged streets I'd just walked on a hot bus full of disgruntled would-be rail passengers. A short wait followed, before a small group of us were whisked away by a single-decker which navigated the intricate web of roads through this vast and relatively late-come suburb of London. As we passed over the Southern Outfall Sewer at Eastern Way I was able to orient myself by way of an earlier walk in similarly hot weather. After observing the other-worldly architecture of the original concrete blocks and walkways of Thamesmead passing by, I settled into my seat for the remainder of the ride, before joining most of the other passengers on a dash around the corner for a waiting train at Plumstead station.
On the run back over the South London rooftops I pondered today's walk. Everything felt strange and temporary just now, uncomfortably close to the brink. My thoughts and indeed dreams were plagued by decisions I had little power over. This was the perfect antidote - a walk to connect points which had become increasingly familiar, but one which didn't have a definite purpose. With no river or road to follow and no fixed itinerary, I'd failed no-one by turning aside here or there: being seduced into tracking parts of the Quaggy River in Lewisham, but abandoning it to explore the lost suburb of Kidbrooke or even my final diversion away from the route in Abbey Wood. Instead, I'd walked off a little of my anxiety, letting it evaporate into the heat as I let the byways of London take me largely where they chose. I thought back to the moment on the top of One Tree Hill, gazing out over London as an unreal, painted city. I thought too about the protestors who had gathered at One Tree Hill and on Plumstead Common to protect my future right to walk on unspoiled greenspaces within London. The backstreets of Lewisham felt more solid and dependable than any panorama just now, and a bit of steadfast reality was just what I'd needed today.
You can find a gallery of images from the walk here.
Posted in Travel on Tuesday 15th May 2018 at 5:05pm
Despite heading into London by train on a fairly regular basis these days, I'm much less likely to find myself patrolling the network with anything like my former frequency. In particular, trips to points north are far less common and my familiarity with some places where I'd once have popped-up frequently has long since diminished. Some things though, never change - and so my first port of call on arriving at Bristol Temple Meads on the first leg of our journey to Manchester was the Customer Services desk. We'd been sold an empty promise - an 09:41 to Gloucester which simply didn't exist. The Filton Four-Tracking works were clearly going to cause us to have a long and fairly convoluted trip today - but I was surprised that it was going to be quite this tricky. As it happened, Great Western's staff sorted things swiftly by passing us on the 09:45 Crosscountry service to Birmingham New Street which took a long, lazy wander out to Swindon then reversed to amble up the Golden Valley Line via Kemble and Stroud before regaining its regular route at Standish Junction. At New Street of course we were left at the mercy of the Train Manager on the next service north - but a friendly and understanding railwayman let us travel in First Class for our troubles. I lazily dozed as we sped north on a route which I'd not travelled for a good few years. We arrived in Manchester a little late but relaxed and relieved to not have been too troubled by the awkward beginning to our trip. A swift tram ride through the busy city centre, basking in unusual bright sunshine, and we were at our hotel for the next two nights. It was good to be back.
Our last visit to Manchester had been on the hottest day of the summer, in a hotel which decided not to air-condition its upper floors. Predictably it hadn't created positive memories and much of the visit passed in a frustrating haze of heat. This weekend was predicted to be warm too but less intensely so, and we were able to get out and explore the city a little. During our stay I took my customary, early morning strolls and found myself approaching familiar streets from a different angle. All of my previous visits had focused on the narrow, north-south axis between Piccadilly and Victoria. This time I found myself crossing my own path and happening upon corners which I'd passed often but never turned. Manchester now, of course is a much changed city - vibrant, busy and cosmopolitan in comparison to my earliest visits. I negotiated the relatively recent Second City Crossing with some confusion, finding trams where I didn't expect them. Finally, and rather remarkably on the anniversary of the last time I stayed, I happened upon the Merchant's Hotel - a grim reminder that things had changed for me, if not for this forsaken hovel which was remarakbly still in business! On Sunday afternoon we wandered the Northern Quarter's busy market which I confess to finding a little dizzyingly busy, but the walk was rewarded with good coffee - first with indifferent service in Foundation Coffee and then in the much more welcoming Takk. We zig-zagged back to the hotel via Piccadilly Gardens, busy in the bright afternoon.
The main event though, and the reason for this trek up north, was the live My Favorite Murder. This has been a frequently heard podcast here for some time, and when tickets were announced earlier in the year, I knew I had to ensure they were secured! A VIP package meant some merchandise, priority entry and seating, and perhaps more nervewracking for both of us, a chance to meet Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark. I'm not great with celebrity - projecting my own thoughts onto them by imagining that they really just want us to leave them alone - but for others, it was the thrill of meeting people who've become heroes of a sort. Their irreverently funny but touching and sensitive forays into true crime have become a defence against homesickness - a little slice of the saner and calmer America delivered via the airwaves. We ate a swift dinner before heading to the Albert Hall - a former church turned concert hall which appeared to be crumbling from within, paint peeling and fixtures wobbling with little concern for modern health and safety rules. The bright sunshine illuminated the art-nouveau style stained glass from outside, giving the whole place a strange glow. While the performers found their 'daytime' show a little odd at first, the venue couldn't have been more perfect. I surveyed the crowd - predominantly female and a defiant mix of geeky types which it was a delight to be part of. I made conversation with a young gent sat next to me accompanying his girlfriend as a birthday gift. We speculated on the murders which might feature - what might be 'too soon' or 'too local' to land well. We played the reluctantly dragged spouses at first, but soon gave in to the admission we were looking forward to this too.
A couple of hours later we stumbled out into the dark of Peter Street, having met the perfectly delightful pair of presenters for a few short minutes. A little starstruck, still laughing at the show we stopped in for a beer before heading back to the hotel where yet again the ever declining Premier Inn brand let us down on customer service yet again. It wasn't going to spoil the day though - and consoled ourselves in knowing that the final night of our trip was being paid for by my talent for complaining. The next morning after a fine breakfast at Friska, a nearby eatery which appears to have made the leap from Bristol to Manchester, we headed for the station to cross the Pennines to York. On our last trip, a genuinely bizarre performance by the staff of Hotel Indigo had resulted in a full refund, an apology and an offer of dinner, bed and breakfast on the hotel in order that we could experience their normal level of service. The trip from Piccadilly brought back memories of long-ago excursions: craning my neck to see what was lurking on Guide Bridge Yard, secretly wishing I could stop off at the fine Station Buffet at Stalybridge and marvelling at the sudden burst into Yorkshire at the end of Standedge Tunnel. We soon found ourselves approaching York in wonderful sunshine, the station gleaming golden in the afternoon light. It was good to be back in a favourite spot.
After checking in - a much less irritating experience this time I'm glad to say - we headed out to catch up with friends at the York Tap. It was good to meet old friends and new, and to see some happy faces too. All too soon it was time to head back for our complimentary dinner. It was - well, better than last time - but still a long, drawn out and rather odd experience. As the restaurant closed around us while we waited for our dessert we speculated that this would probably have generated a complaint if we were paying. After this, we were a little wary of breakfast - but were greeted by one of the best spreads I've ever enjoyed at a hotel. The service was swift and friendly, and the food was frankly amazing. If we'd booked just the excellent room and this wonderful breakfast we'd probably have happily skipped the weird dinner experience. As we boarded the slightly overheated 10:45 back to Bristol I composed my response to the manager of the hotel. We'd had a much better time and a great welcome - but the restaurant was still strange and slow.
We stepped off the train into the usual mess of afternoon delays at Bristol, but feeling remarkably relaxed after the warm trip home. I've known for a long time that travel is good for me - but I'd underestimated how much I needed to escape on the rails like this. The next months - indeed the next week - will be busy and challenging. It's unusual to think of Manchester as an oasis of calm, but that's certainly what it's been for us this weekend.
Posted in London on Saturday 28th April 2018 at 11:04pm
Today's walk had crept upon me unexpectedly. The weeks had tumbled by unusually swiftly and a confused calendar thanks to rail works and changing plans meant I'd not prepared myself. In reality, the process of planning a walk isn't as onerous or complex as I often make it sound: usually, it's a germ of an idea followed by a cursory study of a map to ensure there is actually a path to follow. The research comes afterwards, reconstruction undertaken with feet smarting and imagination fired. There are numerous half-formed plans circling at any given time - and sometimes one leaps forward as an essential next step or perhaps just won't quite stop cropping up, coincidentally or otherwise. It was just one of these nagging presences which drew me south of the river again today... I felt like I'd been haunted by Watling Street for years now. I had a map of Roman Roads as a boy on which I'd been shown how close my home was to the confluence of Icknield Street and Fosse Way - but it was the improbably perfect diagonal trajectory of Watling Street which most intrigued me. After lying dormant in my imagination for years the road had resurfaced - first in print with Jon Higgs state-of-the-nation travelogue and Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore tramping Steve Moore's 'psychic circuit', then it began to assert a presence on the ground seemingly wherever I've walked in recent months. When I've looked at maps to plan future excursions the arrow-straight incision across the north of Kent has been impossible to ignore. The red slash of an A-road scythed across the map like a fresh, clean paper cut. Walking roads - ancient and often less so - has some precedent here, so it didn't feel strange to plot a course along the route as a potential future trip. Yet I still filed this one away, for an especially rainy day perhaps - because surely a straight line couldn't make for the kind of convoluted itinerary I'd prefer? But as I prepared hastily for this trip, I couldn't quite shift the idea that I needed to connect up previous walks via this old track.
And so I made my way to Charing Cross to take my pick of the carriages on an empty train to Dartford. The rumble and shudder through the southern suburbs was becoming very familiar now but felt somewhat eerie as I appeared to be almost entirely alone onboard. The train snaked through the refurbished London Bridge station - grey plastic panelling and swooping escalators descending into the re-imagined undercroft - and left the gravity of the city. I let the greenery of the suburbs drift by the window while I pondered my changing relationship with Kent over the years. On my first excursion here I was entirely unimpressed: the ponderous amble through the middle of the county by train was dull and charmless, ultimately leading to desolate, unremarkable Ashford. I revised my view over subsequent visits - especially those involving the northern coast which had grown to fascinate me. Now, after a sequence of walks which had dallied along the border of the county, I was curious to exit by this most ancient of trackways. It felt like a fitting way to mark a re-evaluation. The train slowed after passing familiar ground at Crayford, and high above the marshes I could see the towers of the Dartford Crossing and the distant glower of Essex on the horizon. Lurching across the junctions where the splayed branches of the North Kent Lines finally reconstituted themselves into a single railway, the train slowly came to a halt at Dartford. Below the raised platforms of the station, I spotted the former millpond fed by the River Darrent which was busily being redeveloped as a waterfront living opportunity. The narrow platforms and dated, gloomy exit stairs led out to a modern but down-at-heel ticket hall tacked onto the rear of the Borough's grim civic centre. A bridge took me over the busy inner ring road, descending near the red brick flank of the Orchard Theatre. Dartford was a town which had willingly conceded its soul - and just a few miles along Watling Street the vast hole-in-the-chalk of Bluewater sucked the income out of the locals with alarming efficiency. Dartford mopped up the rest via a network of pound shops, chain pubs and gambling opportunities. I headed for the centre of town where Spital Street followed the ancient geometry of the Roman road, heading in from the settlement of Vagniacae at nearby Springhead. The site there had been a centre of worship before the coming of the Romans, with evidence of Iron Age rites near the pools where the River Ebbsfleet rises. The tradition of worship and offering continued, with the Romans turning the site into a major complex of temples - and now Bluewater stands close by, drawing its own pilgrims. Perhaps grim, inward-looking Dartford has always been the poor relation hereabouts? I turned west on Spital Street, suspecting that any hint of interesting shopping opportunity lay along the pedestrian zone to the east. The narrow road was lined with abandoned shops, proper old-fashioned independent cafés emitting tempting breakfast aromas and a brace of repurposed theatres deputising as evangelical churches. I felt uncomfortable, though there was nothing especially menacing about the place. Perhaps in fact a little edge would have helped. Dartford just felt tense and contracted: out of the gravity of London despite being (just) within the grand circle of the M25. I began to climb West Hill, finally falling into step with the historical route of Watling Street as it passed the Royal Mail sorting office and the crumbling remains of The Lock-up: Dartford's first police station and latter-day dosshouse for itinerants. It was good to be walking, and a relief to be leaving this oppressive town.
The last stretch of Watling Street within the boundaries of modern Kent was a drab channel through suburbia, with occasional bursts of local shops which were invariably closed for business. The land rose gently ahead of me as I crested the narrow tongue of high ground which separated the Cray and the Darrent. It struck me that only a few weeks ago I'd been further north on the bleak marshland which sat between this road and the Thames. Up ahead was a junction with the B2174 - an inauspicious number for what was an early incarnation of that most British of institutions, the bypass. The road arcing south around Dartford and avoiding the narrow progress of Watling Street through the town was opened by the Prince of Wales in 1924 - or perhaps by an overzealous worker who severed the ribbon in advance of the royal scissors. The press of the time dubbed this the 'New Watling Street'. The road meets its much older counterpart at this rather inconsequential roundabout which, since 1965 at least, has formed the border between London and Kent. Looking west there a proud sign advised motorists that they were about to enter the London Borough of Bexley, while to the east Kent offered no such welcome. There was however a marker here - squarely between the poles of the sign advertising the roundabout an 1861 Coal Duty post remained in place and in good shape. As my excursions have taken me further out into the suburbs of London, these administrative obelisks have become welcome markers of my progress back towards the City. Finding one here today felt like a first indication that this might be a more interesting walk than perhaps I'd expected. There were few other signs that I'd passed into London - the line of former council houses didn't break step, even when the insignia on the wheelie bins changed. Beyond the junction, the road led downhill once again, into the valley of the Cray. There was a brief thrill of familiarity as I noted the retail parks which had greeted me when I'd entered Crayford from the south. I braved a pair of scornful, braying locals concealing cans of Special Brew to snap a picture of the clock tower before heading across the river. Crayford was much as I'd left it a few short weeks ago - a busy churn of suburban life shot through with traffic heading for Bluewater or Lakeside. It was only after a few minutes of brisk uphill walking that I realised my plan to attempt this walk largely without a map had failed me. The road had turned slightly north to cross the river and I'd blithely headed straight on. The High Street began to dwindle as I climbed, the local shops being replaced by a string of takeaways and abandoned vape shops. I knew this wasn't where I should be and instinctively stopped to consult the map. I had indeed gone straight ahead - but the kink in the route over the river had thrown me off course by about 45 degrees. I trudged back downhill, acutely aware I was passing people I'd just moments ago huffed past on my ascent. I adopted a facial expression which I hope conveyed that of course I'd meant to walk up the hill and back again so soon. Back at the bridge I turned southwest, immediately recognising the route I'd taken in reverse along London Road while walking along the Cray. I was back on track.
Watling Street was dominated for a few miles now by suburban encroachment. The green spaces of Shenstone Park and Bigs Hill Wood gave some relief from the parade of recycling boxes and wheelie bins as the road made a steady climb away from the Cray valley. I'd been intrigued by the near life-size silhouette bronze sculptures of cows in Shenstone Park on my last passing, and getting closer enabled me to read more of the story: David Evans & Co. made silks nearby, using the Rubia Tinctorum or Common Madder plant to create a vivid red dye and maintaining a herd of cattle on the site to provide manure to fix the colour in the cloth. Beyond the park, the road returned to suburbia, still climbing as I faced down a cold, persistent drizzle of rain. The rise reached a plateau at Pinnacle Hill - a rather overstated name perhaps - and the view ahead opened before me. This was Bexleyheath, as announced by the strange tumble of gables and brick of the new Civic Centre. For many years the busy corner of Watling Street and Erith Road was occupied by the computer centre of The Woolwich Equitable Benefit Building and Investment Association which those of a certain age will recall being advertised in a chummy inclusive fashion: "I'm with The Woolwich". In the heady days of 1989 they made a bold move to relocate their HQ into a purpose-built block on this corner. The heady days of demutualization and acquisiton that followed were a small part of the build up to the crashes of 2007, and by 2006 the Woolwich was part of Barclays PLC and the HQ was closed. The Borough stepped in, selling the site of their civic offices to Tesco and snapping up the Woolwich site as a bargain. The redeveloped area was disarmingly quiet at the weekend - built in part as a plaza to cap the busy High Street, there's little need for people to press on this far beyond the shopping centre. The Civic Centre towers and tumbles above the crossroads, facing London defiantly, the exterior only hinting at the impressively refurbished, modern facilities within. I waited at the crossing for what seemed like long minutes, sharing my wait with a couple off to a wedding who were impatient to get out of the rain - there was a concern that suede would matt and hair would frizz. I considered my own appearance, bedraggled and damp, red-faced from stomping the hill from Crayford, and figured that the well-turned-out pair had little to worry about yet.
After crossing Erith Road, Watling Street becomes Broadway, the main drag of Bexleyheath - and a relative newcomer to the area. In the early 19th century the wild heathland pressed directly against Watling Street and there were few houses in the area save for the hamlet of Upton where William Morris decided to locate his 'palace of art' - The Red House in 1859. The construction of the house, which was swiftly absorbed into the suburbs as the commercial centre of Bexley shifted onto the heath and Upton was swallowed, largely bankrupted Morris. He was forced to sell up in 1865 vowing never to return to the house or to Upton. Now, two broad bypasses sweep traffic north and south of the centre, leaving Broadway to continue as a pedestrianised walkway on the line of Watling Street. This largely featureless, pavement, part-covered by an inaqequate awning, delved between a carpark and an extension to the 1984 shopping centre including a huge Sainsbury's and a multi-screen cinema. As ever I was walking against a tide of shoppers heading for their cars or buses home. Across the expanse of parked vehicles, the white chequerboard flank of the utilitarian Magistrates Court gleamed, all the better for a soaking of rain to slough away the traffic grime which still streaked the less exposed rear of the building. This wasn't, I'm sure, how Bexleyheath wanted to be introduced to newcomers - and it seems that the ceremonial march along Watling Street didn't do the place justice at all. As the enclosed alleyway which I'd been walking burst out into surprising sunshine, the street opened out into a much redeveloped and bustling market square. At the centre was the Clock Tower erected in 1912 to commemorate the coronation of King George V. The architect, Walter Epps, designed the tower with niches which he hoped would in time be filled by busts of the Royal Family which has largely been the case - though in 1996 a bust of William Morris was allowed into the hallowed company to celebrate the centenary of his passing. The tower was a focal point in a pleasing pedestrianised area which stretched along Broadway, taking full advantage of the straight-line of the Roman Road to create a promenade between the modern shopping centre and the more traditional street scene to the north. In 2000, to celebrate the millennium, the bells in the Clock Tower rang for the first time since they were silenced by the Defence of the Realm Act in 1914. I was surprised how much I liked Bexleyheath - in essence just another fringe centre which ought to feel as oppressive as the hugely redeveloped Wood Green. But here, just enough of the town had survived, and just enough of the character of a place which was not ancient but remained proud seemed to linger. I decided to stop for refreshments and watch Bexleyheath pass by for a while.
A consequence of the long, straight course of Watling Street is the tendency of settlements to become drawn-out, straggling places - and Bexleyheath appeared reluctant to give up just yet. The twin bypasses rejoined Broadway to the west of town, and traffic was once more permitted to flow along the ancient road - though it was relatively sparse given the swifter route of the A2 carving through Kent a little way to the south. I crossed the junction of Upton Road, practically all that remains of the now subsumed hamlet, and where I'd turn south if I wanted to visit Morris' home - today though I pushed onward as Watling Street became the curiously named Crook Log. Opposite the apparently well-used leisure centre of the same name, the Morris Wheeler Gates of Danson Park proudly bore the insignia of Kent and its motto Invicta. This impressive green space was gifted to the Borough in 1925 having previously been part of the lands surrounding Danson House which remains at the heart of the park, with views over the ornamental boating lake. The house was built in the 1760s for Sir John Boyd, a prominent figure in the British East India Company, and there is debate about whether it was Capability Brown himself or his assistant and scholar a 'Mr. Richmond' who laid out the lake and parkland surrounding it. Little appears to be known of this mysteriously acolyte save for the plans for Danson Park which survive in Bexley's archives. By the time of Boyd's death, the area was already in use as pleasure gardens, and the association with recreation continued despite being threatened by its acquisition by Alfred Bean, a railway engineer and prime mover behind the Bexleyheath Railway Company who envisioned the area becoming a vast residential estate. On Bean's death in 1890 some areas were indeed auctioned for building plots, but by 1921 on his widow's demise, the Urban District Council acquired the land at auction. In 1937, Lord Cornwallis presented the council with the status of a municipal borough under an ancient oak tree in the park - and the Charter Oak remains enclosed within the park, and indeed in the arms of the Borough of Bexley. The park and house have benefited from much restoration in recent times, and it seemed busy with locals despite the rather gloomy beginning to the morning.
Danson Park marks a passing which would otherwise be hard to detect - from Bexleyheath into Welling, another long and drawn-out settlement which hugs the line of Watling Street. Welling, while perhaps not as significant in the borough's recent past, has a longer history. Evidence of neolithic occupation has been unearthed at East Wichkam, now wholly absorbed into modern Welling, but once a distinct village which once housed a temporary village of workers huts serving the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich. This link is celebrated with the loan of a 36lb Russian cannon which sits at Welling Corner, now largely ignored by passing shoppers but favoured by clambering children. The railway reached Welling in 1895, crossing the western end of the long High Street via a high brick bridge, and opening up lands north of the area for development by way of a station a short walk from the main street. The long stretch of shops leading to the bridge still maintained a prosperous and pleasant air, with a surprising diversity of stores - the usual suburban mix of chicken shops and cafés supplemented by craft stores and the like. Welling also benefitted from several major supermarkets setting-up shop in premises along the line of the main street rather than at some spot on the outskirts, thus ensuring a constant stream of pedestrians along the pavements. I was acutely aware that London was just over the next hill - at least the London which most would recognise as such - but this place felt full of provincial bustle. Perhaps Welling really was the last outpost of Kent - and the insignia on the gates of Danson Park referred to its triumph over the creeping suburbanisation of the borough? It might seem that London was close by, its inevitable gravity already pulling in road and rail, but ahead of me was a mighty barrier, and rising above the line of the railway bridge a distant green smudge against the grey skies signified Shooters' Hill. Rearing above the road, this formidable barrier had been easy to ignore until now. I tightened the straps of my rucksack and marched onwards, under the railway bridge with its rather impressive murals of Bexley life, including an image of the ill-fated and short-lived double deck trains of the Southern Railway. It was time to head back into the city...
Despite the grey skies and general gloom, the day was becoming warm and humid, and as I passed the last possible place I could rest before my ascent at the appropriately named 'We Anchor in Hope' public house, I decided that my best chance for an assault on the hill was to tackle it in one lung-busting push. Detours into the temptingly dark and cool Oxleas Wood to the south could await another walk, and the opportunity to stray into Woodlands Farm to see gambolling baby lambs needed to wait too. Instead I looked ahead at the straight, steep road disappearing into the tunnel of overhanging trees. At the foot of the hill a burned out car had collapsed onto the driveway of Thompson's Plant and Garden Centre, notices explaining that there was currently no parking or vehicle access. The air nearby had a taint of melted electronics and charred fabric. I edged uneasily around the stricken vehicle and began my climb. At first it felt surprisingly easy - the hill, though 433ft high was not steep on its eastern flank, and the walking was challenging but manageable. After a steeper and sharper rise near the summit which was more taxing, the road levelled a little near Eaglesfield Road. I turned north, puffing into the quiet park which sat on the brow of the hill here, and found a seat to survey the view back east. The description of the prospect from the top of Shooter's Hill written by Celia Fiennes has perhaps never been bettered - and remains remarkably accurate today. Fiennes was born in 1662 and never married, instead embarking on a series of tours of England which she undertook "to regain my health by variety and change of aire and exercise". Her memoir, largely intended for friends and family, was never published in her lifetime but has since seen the light of day, providing a remarkable contemporary account of the country as it thundered haplessly towards industrial revolution.
Shuttershill, on top of which hill you see a vast prospect ...some lands clothed with trees, others with grass and flowers, gardens, orchards, with all sorts of herbage and tillage, with severall little towns all by the river, Erith, Leigh, Woolwich etc., quite up to London, Greenwich, Deptford, Black Wall, the Thames twisting and turning it self up and down bearing severall vessells and men of warre on itIn the distant haze I could see the Dartford Crossing, close to where I'd set out earlier this morning. The suburban settlements along the railway and on Watling Street formed a continuous chain of red-brick smudges stretching from the horizon and ending near my feet. There was a surprising presence of green spaces too - not always evident from the ground, but nestled between developments and in the useless triangles abandoned where estates adjoined each other there were clumps of trees, patches of suburban parkland and expanses of municipal playing field. Kent shimmered in the distance, the Thames visible mostly as an absence from this vantage point. I pondered the walk to this point, and planned my next move. Since I was here on the slopes of this hill with its neolithic history it felt only right to seek out the Shrewsbury Tumulus where Steve Moore had anchored his esoteric visions of this neighbourhood. I would be treading in the recent steps of better writers and deeper thinkers once again, but it felt wrong not to make the short walk over the ridge to the mound. A meander through the quiet streets brought me to the mound, tall grasses and a bright swathe of wild flowers almost concealing its form. The corner site, fenced in and protected, was a quiet place in an already sleepy residential suburb. A curious peace lay across the Shrewsbury Park Estate with its fine 1930s homes glowing in the afternoon sunshine which had finally made an appearance. The parkland here was associated with Shrewsbury House which stood nearby and was rebuilt as recently in 1923, and was later purchased by the London County Council for new housing. The archaeological significance of the area was already reasonably well-known - but only one of the Iron Age tumuli survived even then. Watling Street likely long pre-dated the Roman road, an ancient track to a place of burial and reverence atop the highest point for miles around. I paused a while, intrigued by the apparently ancient route of Mayplace Lane which wound downhill towards the Thames. This narrow track had been paralleled by more modern routes, but still found its own meandering course down towards the shore. I noted its route for further investigation - intrigued by the suggestion of a route to causeways over the marshes. I'd been a little sceptical about the lure of this place which appeared to completely ensnare Steve Moore, working its way into his writing - even indirectly influencing the work of (the unrelated) Alan Moore with whom he frequently collaborated. In the work of both Moores there was a deep historical significance to place, and Steve had anchored his visions deeply here on Shooter's Hill. Considered alongside distant Shepperton in the west, the houses provided a fitting counterbalance of mid-century modernity. In these geographically distinct suburbs Moore and Ballard worked to redefine their environs in dark fantasies. Somehow their visions grounded London, pinning down its sometimes hazy character under a near-perpetual dome of cloud and drizzle, and providing a dream life for its suburbs.
Diary of Celia Fiennes - 1697
I returned to Shooter's Hill near The Bull, a long established refreshment stop those who had tackled the ascent of the hill by coach and presumably wished to celebrate doing so unmolested. Now it promised suburban taproom character at London prices. The famous water tower leered above the hostelry, now a private home with unparalleled views across Eltham Common towards Severdroog Castle, or over the Thames to the aspirational environs of Galleon's Reach.
The western side of Shooter's Hill had seen work to flatten the climb during the 1950s when lower powered motor vehicles didn't always make the crest, and now the road dipped into a man-made chasm between the pavements. Walkers were consigned to the original gradient, steep enough to give me the uneasy sense of tumbling forwards and to conjure a dull ache in my shins. Much of the southern side of the road was occupied with the Memorial Hospital, now largely providing mental day health services, the grand gateway advised those with more pressing issues or injuries to head for the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Lewisham. Opposite the hospital and set back from the road, the Red Lion was preferred over The Bull for staging Mail Coaches on the route to Dover and remained an inn of a fairly unreconstructed nature - offering a special on pies and pints, and a full range of Sky Sports channels. Beside the pub, a terrace of five cottages stepped down the hill and it struck me how isolated a spot this must once have been. Shooter's Hill was, for centuries, synonymous with utter lawlessness. The slow climb and the wooded areas around the hill made the work of highwaymen all too easy - more visceral and far less romantic than stories suggest. During the reign of Henry IV the crown ordered clearance of trees along the edge of the road to prevent 'violent practices' yet these persisted - and indeed increased in frequency - for centuries to come. Even the practice of hanging the corpses of executed thieves over the road as a warning seems not to have deterred attacks, with Samuel Pepys describing in his diary for 1661 passing by "the man that hangs upon Shooters Hill". By the 19th century a substantial village had begun to grow on the slopes north of the road, while Eltham Common had been partly cleared to the south. The presence of a range of larger houses and follies such as Severdroog Castle had also altered the character of the area considerably. It was no longer necessary for Eltham to maintain two Police stations to manage the disorder in the area, as was the legend. My own nod to this history of malfeasance was to disobey signs ordering pedestrians to cross the busy street to avoid some apparently abandoned roadworks, and feeling justly proud for maintaining tradition, I came upon the crossing of the South Circular. I recalled standing at this spot while stormclouds massed over the city, pondering the walk ahead of me. Today I continued westwards into Blackheath, passing the former Royal Herbert Hospital which had, for over a century, housed veterans of British military expeditions overseas. Built initially to house those returning from the Crimean War, the facility opened in 1865 and many of the then-innovative design features arise from the input of Florence Nightingale who had been sent to the Crimea by Sidney Herbert, Minister of War and had formed very clear views on how casualties should be managed both on the field and back at home. Royal Patronage came in 1900 when Queen Victoria visited veterans of the Boer War at the hospital, then noted for its fine buildings and health-giving proximity to the open spaces of Oxleas Wood. The hospital remained in use as an Army teaching hospital, admitting civillians injured in the wartime bombing of the Royal Arsenal and caring for injured prisoners of war during the World Wars. The site finally closed in 1977 and the fine buildings appeared doomed until the designation of the Woolwich Common Conservation Area and a Grade II listing. Now, predictably, the buildings have been converted to luxury accommodation with pools, bars and tennis courts on site. A little further west, near Hornfair Park was another location dedicated to the relief of wartime suffering - this time for the animals innocently caught up in human conflict. The Old Blue Cross Cemetery was founded by the curiously anachronistically named Our Dumb Friends League in 1897. The site once also housed a bustling kennel and quarantine point for animals returning from war overseas, but this was closed by 1958 - surviving longer than the cemetery which was flattened in 1947 due to the cost of repairs. The site has recently been restored, a walled garden of surprising quiet in the midst of a busy housing estate, and work continues to uncover and interpret the memorials. The long tongue of green space leading north from here towards the Thames was once Hanging Wood, reputed to be the favoured hiding place of the highwaymen and brigands of Shooter's Hill. Today, the quiet park stretched away from my route inviting a future walk but offering no challenge as I continued on my way.
The road divided in Blackheath, the route of Watling Street contested from here on. Certainly, the southern fork, towards the Sun in the Sands then continuing as the A2 into London was a straight, direct route which resembled the traditional course of a Roman road - but the northern fork towards Greenwich seemed a more likely candidate for my walk. Driving directly ahead onto the scrubby and attractive fringes of Blackheath, the road passed over the seething concrete gully containing the Blackwall Tunnel Southern Approach Road and abruptly entered the charming village centre of Blackheath. Pleasant local shops lined the walk up to the busy junction beside the Royal Standard pub, and it was easy to see why this had become such a desirable address in recent times. I continued heading west into Vanbrugh Park, named for architect and bawdy playwright Sir John Vanbrugh who built his home, Vanbrugh Castle, nearby on Maze Hill. Initially, the streets were lined with imposing townhouses as I'd expected from an area bearing this distinguished name, but as I approached the Heath I noticed a block of low-rise, modern dwellings presenting their rather stark rear aspect to the road. Vanbrugh Park Estate was designed by Chamberlain, Powell and Bon - perhaps better known for their work at The Barbican and Golden Lane Estate in the City of London - and it was possible to see the germ of these later developments in this mix of housing types and dedication to vigorous modernism. The two-story houses which abut the Heath formed a square, looking inwards to narrow streets and walkways along the blocks. Behind these, a taller block of four distinct towers interlinked with decks and stairways rose over the houses, with distinctive corner windows giving the building the appearance of hanging from an external skeleton of concrete. Everything was separated by well-cared-for green space, and the area felt quiet and serene. Most of the homes were now privately owned - and given their heritage, much sought-after nowadays. It seemed surprising and brave to locate something so modern and incongruous on the edge of ancient Greenwich and so close to the open, and in parts still rather wild Blackheath. It seemed stranger still to cross the street and delve into an opening in the wall of Greenwich Park...
There have been recent reconsiderations of how Watling Street entered London, and the route around Greenwich in particular has been disputed. A Romano-celtic temple was discovered in Greenwich Park in 1902 and has been re-excavated in recent times to suggest it was of considerable importance. In use from around CE100 the site was very close indeed to the straight line I was attempting to strike through the park, roughly continuing the course of Watling Street which I'd walked in from Dartford. Distracted by the beautiful rose gardens and the impressive old trees, I continued uphill towards the Observatory with a growing admiration for the area. I felt like a fool in fact - I'd assiduously avoided Greenwich Park for years, once staying close to its gates but refusing to walk uphill for fear of the throng of tourists I'd seen pouring out of the gates. I'd fallen victim to an inverted snobbery which I now realised was foolish. The park was busy, the queue to visit the Observatory certainly long and tedious, but the view to the south was utterly spectacular - and entirely free of charge. Up here, gazing across the hazy and sombre shadows of the Isle of Dogs and regarding the silvery curve of the Thames I was reminded of Joseph Conrad and 'The Secret Agent' and the tale of a 'dynamiter anarchist' attempting to stop time which inspired it. The park had always been busy, always a focus of London life - of world attention no less. It made sense that Watling Street - or at least a significant branch from the road - would have passed into the park and towards the river at this near-perfect strategic viewpoint over the Thames Valley. Below me, the buildings of the Royal Naval College spread out in formal squares and courts, the sun gleaming from the Portland Stone and shimmering over the lead domes. My walk had begun in inauspicious Dartford, a place seemingly devoid of promise, and had ended here in a picture-book view of London spread out before me. I carefully picked my way down the steep path and out of the gateway into Greenwich. The sudden burst of activity felt disorienting and strange. People swirled around the tiny pattern of streets, dodging between beer gardens and street food vendors. Traffic nudged impatiently through the crowds, attempting to assert its right to dominate the old thoroughfares. Tourists ambled without apparent targets, gazing at guidebooks rather than the road at their feet. In the midst of this, the cool, dark churchyard of St. Alfege called me - Hawksmoor's most understated design perhaps, but still austere and impressive despite the lack of the octagonal west tower he planned which would have made it a southern cousin of St. George in the East. The garden felt damp, ancient and distinctly riverine under the tree canopy. It was also oddly silent despite the nearby thrum of traffic and people. This felt like the right place to end my walk.
From the platforms of Greenwich station I looked back east, the curve of tracks framing the church and the tumble of buildings which fell towards the bank of the Thames. I'd found myself here twice in recent times, and realised that during my one brief stay here I'd barely done the place justice. Despite a liking for the place, I'd often skirted around Greenwich like it was an inconvenience, ignoring the history which seeped from the ground and preferring to look north, away from the park on the hill. It had taken an ancient road to bring me here, a road walked long before the Romans and one which was almost ingrained into the land by continuous use. Somewhere between the ascent of Shooter's Hill and the descent from Greenwich Park I'd made sense of the walk and found a way to begin to read the southern geography at last. I boarded a train bound for Cannon Street where London Stone should be, but currently wasn't. I was still following the most ancient of ways...
You can find a gallery of images from the walk here.
I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.
I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.