Posted in London on Saturday 13th January 2018 at 10:01pm
The turn of a year always generates reflection - and as I sped towards London on an unusual mid-month trip, I realised I'd not slept nearly enough. I was troubled by both physical and mental disquiet, suspecting I'd picked up some sort of minor virus to accompany a strange and unshakeable anxiety which had stalked me into the new year. I was restless to get underway yet simultaneously prematurely fatigued and it was easy, in these conditions, to begin question why I undertake these treks across London, and even if perhaps I should just cut my losses and stop? Too often, when challenged, I cleave quickly to the charge of pointlessness. I wonder if I'm perhaps trying to write myself into the shoes of thinkers and authors I admire, or to moderate others' experiences through my own strange schemes and invalid contrivances - but then I think it's far, far simpler than that. I realise, as my memories of childhood start to idealise a time of stability and simplicity, that I want to turn the map into the territory: the years of solitary wonderment at the pages of the A-Z, the drawing and redrawing of optimal routes across terrain I could barely even imagine. I've needed to be able to make these walks for many, many years. Why London when it's not 'my' city? Because it is no-one's city - and therefore eternally up-for-grabs. A tangled, dark mass which feels unknowable, but of which millions can picture their tiny corner in minute, local detail. A city where one can still discover things afresh and stumble into novelty unexpectedly, but also where thousands of years worth of sometimes dubious clues to the undocumented treasures have been laid by prior travellers. As I step off the train at Paddington and start a zig-zagging bus and rail journey south towards Croydon, I resolve to keep walking at all costs whether anyone is reading or not...
Curiously, a former colleague had been in touch during the week as I'd planned this walk - he sought an introduction to someone who could help him with a project he was beginning at the London Borough of Croydon. The footer of his email dispensed with the legalities and declared simply CROYDON in bold font, mimicking the Mayor of London's own block capital strapline. However I stepped out of West Croydon station into a decidedly lower-case tangle of unruly buildings running along the edge of the railway. In particular, a glowering, red-brick Victorian shopfront faced me from across the street and channelled me towards a crossroads where the more salubrious shopping areas began. I hadn't strayed into Croydon in years - and when I was last here it was a fleeting visit to cover the new tramlines. The reality of Croydon was both more interesting and much more confusing that it had appeared from the windows of a tram - a modern city centre imposed on an overgrown suburb as a mid-century modernist project, with a second generation of new glass towers already striking against the dull January skies. A forest of cranes signalled the ever-present redevelopment, while my route west lay between terraces which could comfortably have been resettled in Nottingham or Edgbaston. The town was divided by Roman Way - a sweep of dual carriageway, elevated to clear the railway and tramlines heading west from the centre and named for the disputed presence of the ancient route between London and the coast. Assumed to branch from Stane Street at Kennington and ploughing south through the Caterham Gap to cross the Low Weald, the existence of the road is based on fragmentary evidence - pieced together tracks, flint beds robbed for turnpike surfacing, and Anglo Saxon street-nomenclature along the way. It is comforting to feel anchored into the past though, as Croydon had an indistinct and impermanent feeling this morning. From the rapid cycle of demolition and rebuilding in the centre to the futureless and stateless people awaiting their fate at Lunar House, the nearby Immigration Compliance and Enforcement office, nothing felt like it was permitted to contemplate its future here yet. Croydon floated uneasily over the headwaters of the River Wandle. In the much-misused gazetteer of the Royal Mail's postcode directory, the centre of most major towns and cities is always 1 - the primary zone. In Croydon, it is an absence - CR0. Ground zero for both the river and the city was the same patch of boggy marshland. As I shuffled under the main road and headed for the water, I noted the road was appropriately named 'Pitlake'...
A short tramp through the suburban backstreets of Croydon brought me to the first of several Wandle Parks I'd visit today. Formerly two marshy fields - Froggs Mead and Stubbs Mead - the area was drained and established as a public facility in 1890. The River Wandle makes its first public appearance here nowadays. Despite being culverted in 1967 due to regular drying-up and appalling water quality, environmental improvements in that heady project-obsessed Olympic summer of 2012 saw the river uncovered and allowed to wander across the southwestern corner of the park as an enhanced public amenity. The stream begins to gather strength under the streets of Croydon, where seasonal streams or winterbournes from Caterham and Coulsdon merge to form a sizeable, relatively clean flow through the park, before disappearing again under New South Quarter, a surprisingly decent but depressingly predictably named development of new homes which hugged the course of the river with excellent access to the nearby Tramlink stop. Having crossed the tramlines I was forced to navigate the crescents of the development, feeling ill-at-ease in the domestic business of the obviously private zone but equally pleased to see the river cleverly managed into the development. The Wandle curved reedily and silently in a deep channel which bisected the development, before disappearing from view again to pass under Purley Way and the run of vast retail sheds which are slowly reclaiming large zones of former industrial brownfield vacated by the vast Croydon Gasworks. As I passed by an apparently recently opened John Lewis at Home superstore I reflected on this area - once largely empty marshland, fed by the remarkably fickle waters which make up the Wandle - streams which rose and fell with the season, sometimes disappearing entirely and then returning as a fatal tumult when heavy rain fell. On the northern horizon two chimneys towered over the low-rise retail landscape, remnants of Croydon's municipal power station which fed the street lighting locally until surprisingly recently and utterly complicated its renewal. The tall stacks are marooned in an Ikea carpark, surrounded by a newly laid pattern of streets which crackle with false memory: Volta and Ampere Way surround the store. They make a striking mark on the dull wintry sky - and there is always the temptation of strolling north for a picture - but I'm painfully aware of the risks the amateur explorer faces in lurking in Ikea carparks. At best, arrest is possible - at worst, perhaps trespassing on a trademark?
At a rather gloomy crossroads I turned west again onto Mill Lane, one of many streets in the Wandle valley with a similar name, giving a hint to the nearly constant industrial uses of the river. By the late Victorian era the waters turned the wheels at over ninety mills between Waddon and Wandsworth, many of which had existed from time immemorial. The Domesday book mentions a flour mill at the northern end of Waddon Ponds which remained operational as late as the 1870s but which was finally demolished in 1928 and has apparently now been replaced by a strangely ornamental modernist multistorey car park marooned among the grimy, crumbling factories of an early 20th century industrial estate of the type which fanned out along London's arterial roads. Access to the ponds was forbidden - further work was underway to make the green spaces around the river accessible here. A narrow path apparently once known as Brandybottle Hill climbed beside the line of trees which marked the edge of Waddon's backstreets, and soon the river was overground once again, flowing west into the exclave of Beddington Park which stretched east towards Croydon. I hedged my bets on walking the southern bank of the river here and soon found I'd possibly taken a wrong turning already, emerging on a narrow residential street simply called 'Bridle Path'. But as the rather quaint street wound north and west I was surprised to find myself walking alongside another brook which appeared on an older map to be the established line of the Wandle, divided here to power a Snuff Mill with an underground sluice still regulating the waters. The now more minor brook crossed under Hilliers Lane, emerging again into Beddington Park to rejoin the branch of the river which I'd lost track of a few streets before. Not for the last time today had the Wandle's indecision and bifurcation confused me. Walking in the park was quiet and pleasant, but my physical condition was taking its toll already. I slogged along the northbound path towards the Pavilion Café in the hope of a brief rest, but I found it already overspilling with the families of junior football players who were taking part in a Little League tournament nearby. I turned southwest instead, striking out across the wet grass of the open park towards a knot of trees indicating the course of the river. The huge expanse of green space here is a remnant of the Carew family estate - formerly a deer park with their home and the village church neatly squared away within acres of parkland which still has a curiously rural feel today. The house remains in the midst of the park, an impressive formal Tudor manor which now serves as a Special School. The Carew family finally left the area in 1859 after a turbulent few centuries which saw them fall in and out of favour with the royal court. In 1538 Thomas Cromwell seized the hall and lands from Nicholas Carew whose popularity had apparently begun to irritate the notoriously easily rankled Henry VIII. The family found more stable patronage under Queen Mary with their lands in Beddington restored to Francis Carew who perhaps advisedly took to carefully improving the gardens and lands around the hall rather than attempting to further make a name for his family at court. After the Carews departed the building became a 'Female Orphan Asylum' before slowly progressing towards its current purpose. Close to the house, the confusingly named Canon Bridge's Bridge spans the Wandle, a low red-brick decorative parapet memorialising the Rector of the nearby church from 1864-91. I regained the footpath in the hope of walking beside the lake in Grange Gardens where the Wandle broadens to form yet another former millpond - this time for a long closed paper manufactory, but I was soon thwarted by more improvement works and found myself unceremoniously booted towards the main road a little north of the gastropub which now inhabits The Grange. After passing under Wallington Bridge the river disappeared between suburban back gardens, and I needed to decide where the head next...
By now I was realising that understanding the historical or geographic journey of the Wandle was far from a simple task and as I headed south again into the former village of Wallington, which now seemed to consist of little more than a permanent traffic bottleneck, I noted the shallow rise of land to the west which divided two branches of the headwaters of the river. The branch I'd followed from Croydon now turned north, but there was a western stream rising at Carshalton Ponds which lay a short climb away along Butter Hill. This stream is The Wrythe which gives its name to the tiny hamlet-like settlement which sits north of Carshalton, retaining a curious isolation from its surroundings in no small part due to the natural boundary of the river. As I descend from the twisting course of Butter Hill to pass under a low railway viaduct the stream appears beside the road, a busily bubbling green-fringed channel which runs almost unseen towards the nature reserve at Wilderness Island where the branches of the Wandle finally meet. They tumble together at a weir which disappears under light industrial units built on the site of a former leather mill. Looking back across at the damp, green shore of the island, it seemed a miracle that it had survived so relatively unscathed among the industrial and residential developments which crowd around the Wandle - and perhaps more remarkable still that the river has remained above ground for much of its course to the Thames. The path emerged onto Hackbridge Road, the original site of this tiny village having apparently almost entirely succumbed to more of the drab industrial shacks which seemed to populate every spare corner of land around here. The centre of the village, such as it was, had packed up and moved northeast to meet the railway - my path was quiet and my walking uninterrupted. Except, that is for swarms of midges which by my reckoning shouldn't be out here in January. As I skirted the edge of Watercress Park - named for the naturally occurring crop which was harvested and indeed cultivated along the river until pollution made it entirely unsafe - I found myself plunging into a cloud of flying insects which it was impossible to avoid inhaling and swallowing. It's a reminder that this was once a significantly broader expanse of marshy wetlands, and that it is only relatively recent development which has penned the river into a narrower and less complicated course - but there is also a troubling signal that seasons aren't quite how they ought to be nowadays, and that a cold and damp January day feels almost like March.
At this point on my journey I realised with some surprise that I'm in a part of the city I barely knew, and of which I hardly even have a mental map. I've passed above this landscape many times on trains and trams, and even changed at stations nearby, but I have only the slightest grasp on the geography. Years of walking in the north and east provide me with frequent shocks of recognition as the familiar districts tessellate satisfyingly together, their landmarks appearing on cue - but here in the south I was as close to being lost as I've been for a long time. The river provided a constant guide, but the whirl of Morden, Merton and Mitcham around it didn't yet make any sense to me. I figured it would come in time. My meandering route between the headwaters of the river earlier in the day also meant that I was barely further north than my starting point at West Croydon and apparently only a little further west. The land here seemed to remain divided on some long-observed strip system - a long ribbon of industry running close to the river, then to the east a broader stripe of wasteland and open space, much of it scarred by past use for landfill and waste processing. On the western edge of these zones, the river persists, running through reclaimed parkland and frequently dividing into abandoned millstreams and drainage ditches before recombining. The water also seems clean despite a surprising amount of unidentified and ominous looking pipes and gullies dribbling into its course - though as I pass through Poulter Park, named for Harry Reginald Poulter - a local architect of the early 20th century, a large lifeless fish stares up, empty-eyed from the stony river bottom. The Wandle has been abused for centuries, and more than once named the dirtiest water in London. While it is arguably cleaner now that for many decades with much of the filth-producing industry which once blighted it now disappearing, in common with other urban rivers it faces new challenges from misdirected domestic drains and surface-runoff. At the edge of Poulter Park, I take a wrong turning and find myself walking the scrubby, overgrown path on the perimeter of Watermeads Nature Reserve rather than the recently improved path beside the river. This sliver of wetland remained off-limits to most of us until 2015, having once been home to four mills and a trout stream until it was purchased by the River Wandle Open Spaces Commitee in 1913 and its management vested in the National Trust in memory of Octavia Hill whose efforts to protect green spaces like this 'ill-treated and still hardworking little river' inspired the local burghers. While public access to the river and wetlands is now much improved here, my route between the drainage ditch and the high wire fence of the neighbouring gym wasn't nearly as pleasant. The unmistakable smell of human waste drifted from the ditch in clear evidence of a drainage problem nearby, and the midges were back with a vengeance in this fertile breeding ground. Already feeling sick and tired, I wondered again at the wisdom of taking this walk today? The miasma and associated wildlife dogged me into Ravensbury Park, an otherwise attractive green space which seemed to be a chosen hang-out for small groups of glowering youths tossing spent Relentless cans into the river and practising looking as furtively urban as possible in Collier's Wood - an otherwise quiet and apparently fairly well-to-do sector of the suburbs. I kept a straight face as the youngest, whitest member of a group inexpertly and solemnly flicked a cigarette end away while referring to his equally pasty-faced colleague as 'blud', before carefully crushing the butt with the toe of a gleamingly fresh Christmas present trainer. I wasn't sorry to emerge onto relatively dry land and to follow the road a little way along the walled gardens of Morden Hall Park. Even this diversion didn't take me far from the water as the wall ran beside a millstream which flowed west from the main line of the river. It's easy to assume the wide, green spaces of Morden Hall's extensive deer park are ancient in origin - but they date in fact only from the relatively recent 1770s. While records indicate that an earlier house seems to have existed here, this rather grand home of a Tobacco Merchant is testament to how recently the southern suburbs have grown on the back of the emerging middle classes and their industry. Even a hundred years after the building of the Hall it would have delighted in a rural location with very little development around it despite the railway running along the eastern edge of the park. Now a National Trust property with a profitable garden centre and café on site, the main Hall is an exclusive wedding venue - though a number of interesting survivals are maintained in the park including a watermill formerly used to process tobacco. A large area of the grounds close to the eastern edge of the site has been returned to wetland, and after swiftly crossing the churning A24 to purchase refreshments on Merton High Street I headed back into the park to regain the line of the river by way of the Boardwalk, a reassuringly solid wooden walkway which zig-zags around the wetland landscape, reminiscent of the Marsh Trail I'd encountered in Seattle. I paused at a quiet spot on the boards to take refreshment and to enjoy the reflections of steely skies and tall reeds in the silvery waters while an intrepid photographer splashed and clambered around finding unusual angles on the scene nearby. Setting off again, I crossed the Tramlink line to Wimbledon and set out along a long, apparently canalised section of river which was stalked by the ubiquitous line of pylons which I never fail to encounter when walking near rivers. The landscape I was walking through now set the scene for much of the rest of the river's journey - a broad and sluggish river running quietly and anonymously behind crumbling industrial sites on its slow progress north. Perhaps the Wandle had only survived intact because it appeared to have entirely slipped from the minds of those who live nearest to its waters?
Given the entirely practical approach to the Wandle taken by industry, a perhaps surprising survival alongside the river is Merton Abbey Mills. This complex of former mills and factories on the site of Merton Priory has a remarkable place in the history of British textile manufacture. Merton Priory was destroyed during the dissolution of monastic properties in 1538, having been a seat of ecclesiastical learning since 1114. During the tenure of the Priory, both St. Thomas of Canterbury and Nicholas Breakspeare who became Pope Adrian IV studied in its precincts. The priory has a solid civil history too - and the Statute of Merton, enacted at a parliament summoned at the priory by King Henry III in 1235 is the oldest recorded English parliamentary statute. By 1667, textile manufacture had begun at the mills on the site of the former Abbey, and soon refugee Huguenot silk weavers were working at the Mills, with calico printing also taking place from the mid-eighteenth century. This was clearly a consideration for William Morris who located the textile printing works of Morris & Co. on the site in 1881, employing weavers from Spitalfields who were still regarded as the pinnacle of the profession. Liberty & Co. joined Morris at the site in 1904, with both businesses using the Wandle's waters and the wetlands nearby to grow dye plants for the high quality fabrics. In 1940, Liberty took over the Morris works and continued to produce their designs on the Abbey Mills site until 1972. Some smaller traders hung on to the tradition, but by 1982 however all textile production at Merton had ceased. In a appropriate rebirth though, this historic corner of the Abbey Mills site remains a cluster of workshops and buildings now given over to craft stalls, restaurants and entertainment venues. The only remains of the very comprehensively destroyed Priory buildings are located in a foot-tunnel under the road which leads pedestrians to the huge retail complex on the banks of the Wandle. I stayed above ground, following the broad curve of the river around the gigantic silvery flanks of a Sainburys/M&S megastore before passing under a contemporary reconstruction of the Abbey gateway and into the quiet and aptly-named terrace of Wandle Bank which ran the length of Merton Bus Garage, home to London General. Buckling tree roots and cars parked haphazardly made walking along the railings beside the river a challenge, but I was able to amble along the middle of the quiet backstreet, sticking close to the now wider and slower-flowing river.
At Bewley Street, a development of recently-built apartments had resulted in a brief section of freshly-made footpath along a particularly pleasant, tree-hung stretch of the river. Beyond the trees, the concrete ghosts of the Wandle Valley Storm Tanks marked the only remaining evidence of the huge sewage works which dominated this section of the river from 1877 until 1970. A stocky wooden footbridge crossed the river nearby, descending into a wide span of pleasant edgeland between road and railway. There had been a plan to build a new stadium for Wimbledon Football Club here for many years, one of fourteen sites in Merton which the club had considered and rejected before finally decamping to Milton Keynes in time for the 2003 season, forever severing ties with the area. Considerable pressure from local residents and the fact that this riverside site would share many of the frustrations which the club already endured at the Plough Lane further downstream site meant this site was soon discounted, with the plans abandoned by 1989 when Merton Borough Council designated this area a nature reserve. It seems likely that prior to purchase for use by the waterworks the land would have been water meadows, and slowly the site is returning to nature with the ribs of concrete under the grass slowly disappearing and the trees along the river beginning to obscure the bank from view. A weak but persistent sunshine reflected from the rank of pylons which ranged along the valley floor, and I felt like I was on more familiar walking territory here as the path left the river and headed briefly eastwards to navigate a graffiti-adorned low underpass beneath the loop of the Thameslink lines from Wimbledon to Sutton. Turning west again to skirt a sliver of industrial land between the railway and Lambeth Cemetery, the path shadowed the tall, moss-covered concrete retaining walls which enclosed the final metres of the River Graveney deep below. The Graveney met the Wandle at a rather curiously placed viewpoint which strode out onto a platform on the thin tongue of land between the rivers, suspended above the water. I didn't linger here as I was aware I was nearing one of the few spots where I'd encountered the River Wandle before, almost fourteen years ago in January 2004 in fact, when I'd trekked out to Lambeth Cemetery on the heels of William Kent. I recall the uncertain walk into the strange, semi-industrial zone east of Wimbledon, along Plough Lane, and over the Wandle where I was now standing. Little had changed, the area was still a mess of pylons and prefabricated warehouses, with the corrugated iron flank of Wimbledon's doomed greyhound and speedway stadium still clunkily overshadowing the north side of the road awaiting demolition. I crossed the road, dusty from passing commercial traffic despite the recent wet weather, and disappeared along the riverside path separating the water from the recently built residential development which had appeared at some point in the last decade or so on the vacant land which had once accommodated the football stadium, already demolished before my first visit. It felt strange after a day of almost entirely alien scenes to recall a moment on a much earlier walk so vividly. The path here was easy to walk and the weather had improved to the point that there was blue sky overhead. I'd begun to feel a good deal better, and despite feeling tired I had the first inkling that actually I could manage the whole of my planned route despite the challenges. The Wandle was a sluggish green now, a strange combination of the weedy riverbed and the reflection of the overhanging trees - but it also recalled my very earliest association with the River as a mysterious presence in Michael de Larrabeiti's Borribles trilogy. I've written before about the effect that this oddly grown-up take on a gothic urban fantasy had on my view of London, with a gang of lawless children who have been freed from the shackles of parental responsibility using the River as a highway of sorts through the territory of rival factions of city denizens. I've also written before about how this chance walk reignited a strand of exploration which continues even now...
Once the Wandle had been a pleasant stream, but years of industrialization had turned it into a treacherous ooze of green and muddy slime, a mixture of poison waste, decomposed rubbish and undigested lumps of plastic which rolled slowly along the river's surface as it slid like a thick jelly down to the Thames.
Michael de Larrabeiti - The Borribles - 1976
This curious tale - a sort of warped analogue of the pastoral, environmentally-friendly Wombles who stalked a fictional version of nearby Wimbledon Common for stray litter - had a strange and lasting effect on me. Not least in the idea that there were other rivers in London, and that they might not be well-trodden or widely known, but that they led somewhere, and had a purpose. The final book in de Larrabeiti's trilogy - Across the Dark Metropolis - pitted the army of mischievous and sometimes amoral child-creatures against a dystopian reimagination of the Metropolitan Police force, which may not have been too far from the now emerging truth of South London's corrupt and lawless coppers of the mid-1980s. It was though, all a little too real and present for his publisher who just days after rioting culminated the killing of PC Keith Blakelock at Broadwater Farm decided that "the present climate of urban Britain is not the climate in which we would wish to publish this book". It finally emerged a year later, and of the trilogy perhaps best captured his unapologetic revolutionary Socialist response to the division and inequality of London in the Thatcher years. De Larrabeiti died in 2008 - a champion of the underling to the end. It's tempting to hope that despite witnessing a new age of inequality beginning to divide the city, he also lived to see the green ooze of the Wandle flow clear again. Certainly the London his characters stalked in the mid-1970s is largely now hidden from view - unless of course we decide to explore these dank river trenches and hidden culverts where the past is never far from the surface. I'd like to think that despite different political approaches, my own explorations honour his ability to make the commonplace mysterious and interesting.
The path continued, with the river winding towards the Thames through more industrial zones which served to divide Wimbledon from Earlsfield. As the afternoon had turned a little warmer and having finally settled into the rhythm of the terrain I was rather sorry that I was approaching the last leg of the walk. The path was mostly deserted and the calm churn of the river as it passed by silent factories and yards closed for the weekend and lapped under tumbling sheds overhanging the riverbanks from their allotments was at last relaxing me. Before long the path took me over a footbridge and dumped me unceremoniously onto the backstreets of Summerstown, where the boroughs of Merton and Wandsworth face off. This tiny suburb has largely been written out of modern maps, but in 1913 when Edward Thomas made an epic cycle journey from Clapham to the Quantocks - he saw the curious contrasts of the rural and industrial faces of the Wandle clearly:
The main part visible was twenty acres of damp meadow. On the left it was bounded by the irregular low buildings of a laundry, a file and tool factory, and a chamois-leather mill; on the right by the dirty backs of Summerstown. On the far side a neat, white, oldish house was retiring amid blossoming fuit trees under the guardianship of several elms, and the shadow of those two tall red chimneys of the electricity works … A mixture of the sordid and the delicate in the whole was unmistakable.
Edward Thomas - In Pursuit of Spring - 1914
The discontinuity in the Wandle Trail footpath has been on the radar of Merton Council for years, but as the river heads off under the railway and into the pattern of suburban streets here, it's difficult to see how a path close to its line could be found even by the most determinedly community-minded of local authorities. Instead I'm directed into busy Garratt Lane - Earlsfield's de facto High Street. The usual, ubiquitous coffee chains clustered around the station entrance among some unexpectedly high-end local stores which were perhaps not the image of this part of London which I'd carried with me for years. It was tempting to linger here and attempt to understand how this part of the city ticked, but I was close to my goal now and despite aching feet I thought I'd be able to make it to the Thames. I turned west again after passing under the railway and found my way into King George's Park where the River soon reappeared on the eastern edge of the space, close to the backstreets of Earlsfield. The sun was beginning to sink low into the western sky, but the break in the relentlessly bad weather of the last few weeks had coaxed out a good number of families who were walking and playing in the well-kept park. The five tower blocks which flanked the Southside development cast long shadows as I walked towards them in order to get my last glimpse of the Wandle before it disappeared under the centre of Wandsworth. The river has been straddled by development here since 1971 when the Arndale Centre opened, spanning the waters and regarded in its day as something of an engineering miracle. At the time, the Wandsworth Arndale was the largest indoor shopping centre in Europe, and it contained a mix of housing, retail, offices, a large indoor market hall and even a nightclub. The centre declined in popularity in the intervening years as anchor tenants Sainsbury and Tesco decamped to larger, purpose-built premises nearby leaving the all-too-familiar pattern of shuttered units and 'value' stores which has blighted a number of centres of a similar vintage. The centre struggled on to the turn of the century, until a comprehensive modernisation and redevelopment began in 2004, largely now complete despite setbacks due to the economic downturn. Little of the original 1971 fabric remains evident aside from the contemporary residential towers which dominate the Wandsworth skyline from all directions. I caught my last glimpse of the river here at Mapleton Road, balanced on a tiny pavement with a steady traffic of bus passengers tramping by seemingly unaware of what lay beneath their feet. The stream divided, flowing swiftly and darkly into two concrete tunnels under the building. Above the river a car park access road disgorged vehicles from a similar opening in the building, the river largely forgotten by the motorists queuing to escape Southside. Turning north into Garratt Lane again, I was shocked by the press of people which I faced. While the walk had been far from solitary by my standards the crowd of shoppers, eyes fixed on the bargains and attention diverted from their immediate surroundings, was more of a challenge to navigate. I weaved and slalomed my way to Wandsworth High Street, swiftly crossing and delving into the hinterlands behind the Ram Brewery to escape a busy Saturday scene. The redevelopment of the brewery and the riverbanks beyond continued behind hoardings decorated with hyper-real scenes of future Wandsworth - everyone seemed happy in these artists impressions, and just like now the river appeared to be ignored entirely by the device-absorbed couples wandering the unreal new world projected on the barriers. It was good to be away from the tide of present-day people blundering around the shopping area, and the landscape north of the High Street gave a tantalising clue as to how the area may have looked as recently as the middle of the last century. The maritime air of the place was evident, with long brick walls and low sheds running along the muddy creek to which the Wandle had given way for its final few yards. I turned into a narrow, curving street reassuringly named The Causeway and tried to ignore my fatigue for just a little while longer.
After crossing the point where the river divided, with Bell Lane Creek forking muddily to the west and Wandsworth Creek - sometimes obscurely known as Frying Pan Creek - to the east, the Causeway became a footpath onto a tiny sliver of land which sat in the midst of the two streams. Near this point a tidal bell hung, activated by the rising and falling of the river and ringing four times each day - but sadly not at the time I was passing by. The land here had an impermanent and shifting feel, with the Wandle's marshy delta coerced into the narrow channels between high flood walls and muddy banks. The Causeway originally linked Wandsworth Plain, the site of the original settlement here, with the river and would once have been a busy route between the Thames and the village. Today it was near silent, and as I tramped on, the smell of the tidal river began to replace the fumes of the nearby A3. Beside the creek the huge Western Riverside Waste Authority's works brooded, quietly dominating the waterfront here and diverting the riverside path inland to accommodate a wharf for offloading refuse. The area occupied by the depot had once been water too: In 1801 the Surrey Iron Railway Act authorised the construction of a basin connected to the Thames and running as far south as Wandsworth High Street at a spot known then as Ram Field. Freight would be transferred to ships from railway wagons here, which had begun their journey from "a place called Pitlake Meadow in the town of Croydon" - the start of my walk today. The original plans had favoured the proven technology of a canal for the entire distance, providing a bypass around the numerous mills which blocked the Wandle to navigation, but surprisingly the plan for a cheap and somewhat poorly built railway prevailed. The line was never successful and its poor construction standards necessitated frequent mending of rails broken by the weight of loaded wagons. By 1848 the railway was being removed, the company having been unsuccessful in attempting to sell it to the London Brighton & South Coast Railway as an extension to their growing network. The canal basin found a second life when, in the ownership of the McMurray family, it began to serve a paper mill close to the site of the modern-day shopping centre which continued in operation until the 1920s along with providing access to the Ram Brewery. Sections of the canal basin appear to have begun to be filled in to accommodate new industrial buildings during the 1930s and by 1956 the basin had disappeared entirely from the map, only evident in the presence of a bridge parapet pointlessly lifting the railway over an expanse of car park which had once been the wharf.
The causeway path led out onto the narrow tongue of land where a generous bench faced out onto the Thames beside Sail, Sophie Horton's blue steel sculpture which formally marked the end of the Wandle's journey. On the bench, a young man was having an apparently animated and frustrating telephone conversation, which he'd clearly thought would be private out here at the confluence of the rivers where no-one much seemed to come, at least on a January afternoon. He eyed me with dismay and mild disgust, and wandered back towards dry land leaving me to rest alone on the ship-like curve of railings and to contemplate my walk. It had sometimes felt unlikely that I'd finish today's trek - despite the distance not being challenging on paper at least. The tired, sick feeling which had stalked me lifted briefly with the satisfaction of completing the walk, but soon descended with a vengeance as the sky churned into a grey-black threat which the brown tidal waters couldn't adequately reflect. The muddy creek which flowed out to the Thames seemed a far cry from the bubbling brook which had twisted across the parklands of Croydon, but did at least fit with the menacing Wandle of unctuous and deceptive green sludge which had first intrigued me in Michael de Larrabeiti's writing. I recall being a shy, quiet child who had lived out these adventures purely in my mind, marvelling at parts of a city which I didn't expect to ever see. Somehow being out here, at the mouth of the river which felt like the spark of a thirty-year obsession was a special moment, and one I was a little surprised I'd not sought out before. The mysterious southern rivers felt like a new project for a new year, one to be savoured and filed between excursions in less alien territory. My prejudice in favour of the north wouldn't easily be overcome - but now I was sure there was a reward in persisting.
You can find more pictures from the walk here.
Posted in Travel on Monday 8th January 2018 at 11:01pm
The last few weeks of the year felt like a bit of an epic slog, and only the prospect of the long break we'd planned over the festive season kept things on an even keel. In recent times, we've fallen into a very pleasant pattern at this time of year - a quiet Christmas, a small gathering at home for New Year, then away on a road trip on the first day of the new year - a week when everyone else is unwillingly slogging back to work. It has worked remarkably well - hotels offer up rooms at ridiculously low rates in the post-festive slump, and if you don't mind short days and sometimes unpredictable weather, then it's a good time to be away - a brave attempt to stave off reality for another week perhaps?
Our trips also have a familiar pattern - up the west coast, the long straight arm of the M6 stretching into northern regions which still feel oddly exciting and wild to me, just like my earliest rail journeys along the remote and sometimes otherworldy main line. We pause on the journey north for a night - often somewhere in Lancashire - to maximise daylight driving, and to rest on what sometimes feels like an epic northern journey. This time our staging post was Liverpool - a city we've visited before, but this time we headed north out of the city in a sudden downpour, towards Stanley Dock. The grid of streets here hasn't seen much redevelopment - the sounds of the much diminished but still busy docks at Bootle shudder through the high walls which surround former smaller basins along the Mersey shore. The landscape is predominantly decaying industry with the occasional tile warehouse or shabby dockers' pub crumbling into the stones. Amidst all this is the Titanic Hotel - a vast, converted warehouse which squats on the northern edge of Stanley Dock. Inside the warm and spacious building a beautiful refurbishment built around the maritime history of the City had transformed the huge space into a comfortable and welcoming hotel. We were almost sorry to just be spending one night in the huge room with a view north across the docks to the mouth of the Mersey.
We set off in the morning and headed back onto the M6 for the journey north to Glasgow, breaking our trip at Abington where the flock of crows which has stalked the service area on two prior visits wasn't to be seen. We were staying for two nights - testament to the success of my gradual reintroduction to Glasgow following a despair-filled visit two years ago. Cruising into the city on the elevated carriageway of the M74 as it curved towards the Clyde, it was impossible not to feel lifted by a return to this place which has long served as a second, northern home to me. The glass towers sparkled in the damp afternoon and the trains shuttled along the bridge high above the river. It was good to be back, and after some confusing changes of room - handled impeccably by the hotel - we found ourselves in a wonderful spot overlooking the roof of Central Station, which reminded me of a visit long ago when the hotel was still a creaking, tired and menacing place with its long corridors stretching endlessly along the wings of the station. A return to Glasgow meant a chance to become tourists again, and we visited the People's Palace - a grave omission from my previous trips when I'd only stepped into the building to use the public facilities. The museum remains in the ownership of the city - an honest and frank appraisal of the rapid rise of the city and the problems that brought, and a celebration of the language, culture and political activism which are never far from any discussion of Glasgow. Afterwards we stepped into an old haunt, The 13th Note - but our quiet drink was disrupted by an ultimately harmless but persistent local who had turned up and seemed to be working the bar for a chat. His prodigious drunkeness though, lost it's charm and shortly after he was moved on - so did we. It was tough to leave the place again, especially in such strange circumstances.
Still repeating our itinerary from previous trips, we next headed through to Edinburgh using the finally completed M8 to swiftly cross from city to city. We'd changed our routine a little for this visit by staying in the New Town opposite North Bridge, with views over Waverley Station and the Castle to the south. It seemed a little strange to abandon the Grassmarket and not to experience the bracing climb up to the Royal Mile each morning, but the new location was a surprising win - affordable and decent accommodation which looked directly into the unattainable windows of The Balmoral across the street! A persistent rain set in a little after we arrived and stuck around for much of our stay - but it was still good to be back in Edinburgh. We headed out to our favourite restaurants and wandered Princes Street, along with a trip to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery housed in a remarkable building and home to a surprisingly varied collection. Edinburgh once again proved to be a relaxing and interesting spot, my old prejudices challenged once again by the city as it sparkled in a light dusting of snow spied from our window over Princes Street. It wasn't easy to leave at all.
Our final destination, after a long haul down the coast on the A1, was York - and again while a favourite location, a new prospect for our accomodation. However, it was to prove an odd and frustrating place. It's fair to say that Hotel Indigo's rooms were beautiful, but getting into the room was a painful process. A parking set-up that defied logic and seemed to require quantum physics to obtain a spot, followed by a check-in process operated by a corporate robot which had less charm and more inflexibility than an automatic check-in terminal was our introduction. The restaurant was even more of a challenge - the concept of Yorkshire Tapas essentially meaning that it was impossible to tell what was a main course, what was a starter and when the dishes would arrive. The staff, young and inexperienced, dashed from one calamity to the next - finally presenting me with a blank sheet of paper to sign when the till crashed.
And so our trip ended on something of an odd note - a fine week of travel, of old haunts revisited and new ones discovered - but with something of a flat last day dealing with the hotel. At the very least we came away with a stock of anecdotes, and the room was truly very comfortable. We've been exceptionally lucky on our trips so this is to be perhaps marked up as a minor irritation and an opportunity to vent on Tripadvisor. We head into the new year, and hopefully new travels, thankful for this all too brief interlude. For a few days at least, when I close my eyes to sleep I see the white lines of the road stretching ahead. I always dreamed of road trips as a child, imagining cruising the idiosyncrasies of the British Motorway System. I'm finally getting to do just that.
There are a few pictures from the trip here.
Posted in Railways on Friday 29th December 2017 at 6:12pm
It's a long time since I've set off aimlessly on a train, just for the hell of it. These odd days between Christmas and New Year have, traditionally, been an ideal time for this however - peak fares relaxed, trains quiet, and little else to do has meant I've often disappeared around the network on some sort of largely unplanned excursion. On a few occasions I've picked up one of the more local Rover tickets and spent a few days zipping around the local lines which I'd generally neglected in favour of more exotic trips during the year. In short, until I curtailed my rail-borne activities a few years back, this had been a time to escape from the sense of ennui and restriction which the festive season often brought with it.
Times change, and life here certainly has - but this year I found myself with three days off between Christmas and our new year trip. The house was empty save for me and two very sleepy cats, and so somewhere during the first day or so I realised I'd very swiftly finished the run of little jobs I'd assigned for myself and was twiddling my thumbs. Too restless to read, I began to think about a trip - and one immediately suggested itself. I'd wander up to Bristol to have a look at the stock move bringing a short rake of former Virgin 'pretendolino' carriages north to Crewe in preparation for a contractual-obligation run on New Year's Eve, then I'd try to get a first ride on one of the new Class 800 trains operating on the Great Western Main Line. If I could squeeze in a trip on one of the not-even-nearly-new Class 166s which have now been handed down to be used in the West, that would mean I hadn't completed the year without experiencing the changes on the network in my local area at least... I was slipping - my wife had already had one of her commutes on a Class 800 - but maybe I could catch up?
I didn't decide I was definitely heading out until this morning, and I did so in such haste that I set off earlier than needed. My journey to Bristol was on tidy and freshly green-vinyled 150244, which was also rather well refurbished inside with wifi, sockets and USB points throughout. It was a bright, cold morning - a good time to be out and about - and so I settled in for a long, chilly wait at Temple Meads with coffee. It was, in some ways just like the old days. My over-eager start meant quite a considerable fester on the platform, and I began to feel conspicuous as I wandered around to keep warm and see what was happening. There was a time I'd have been confident enough that I was well-known to not care too much, or would at least have felt like I was acting less furtively. I also realised that I'd not brought a proper camera, so the passage of the convoy from Laira to Crewe wouldn't get recorded. As it happened, low winter sun from the south west filled the cutting just before the moment of arrival, and any picture would have been a challenge. A few moments early, 57303 led 37059 rather ponderously through the station with four gleaming silver coaches in tow. I understand that these coaches have yet to be converted electrically for use with the Class 68 locos which will haul them - so anyone who does brave the short 'unadvertised' working between Manchester Airport and Manchester Piccadilly on New Years Eve will be very cold indeed!
During my wait, a pair of Class 800s had silently crept into Platform 13 and waited to form the 13:30 departure. The various published diagrams for these new trains have gone to pot due to the holidays, slow progress in driver training and initial teething troubles - so I hoped this cycle would repeat on the 14:30, which I planned to catch as far as Swindon. I was curious to try the Class 800 for a number of reasons - not least because the Great Western Main Line is one of the few routes I use regularly, and my comfortable and relaxing trips to London have become an essential part of keeping me on the straight and narrow in recent years. I wanted to know how the trip would feel in future, and how to navigate the new trains. I also wanted to acknowledge the beginning of an important transition - the High Speed Train has been such a feature of my travels over the last few decades that I almost can't believe we'll see the end of it here sooner than elsewhere. The Class 800s have earned derision for the Department for Transport, for GWR and for Hitachi due to teething troubles - but how often has any new stock arrived which hasn't struggled at first? I wanted to make my own mind up - from the point of view of a traveller as well as an enthusiast - which is sometimes a challenging shift to achieve.
But, it wasn't to be... I was relieved to get off the wedged HST I took out to Swindon, stepping over students lurking in the vestibule rather than taking seats which meant sitting next to other punters. Perhaps they did this in some sort of tribute to Jeremy Corbyn's own vestibular antics? Swindon station hadn't changed - a long windy platform with a tired and sleepy buffet on the platform and a deserted WH Smiths concession. I crossed to the newer Platform 4 and lurked in the warm of the long waiting room, popping out for each westbound train as it was due. Each one was a HST - with the parade of Class 800s which had passed towards Bristol regularly passing the other platform. I had one more opportunity before I needed to be back at Bristol - and yet again, it was a HST. I settled into the warm seat, put on my headphones and relaxed into the journey - it was good to be out and about as the sun sank behind the rolling Wiltshire scenery. It had been a good day - a reminder that even when I'd meticulously planned things in the past, they'd sometimes not worked out. I reminded myself that it was all a little like fishing - and sometimes you didn't get a bite...
Back at Bristol, I headed for the Taunton-bound train my wife was catching home from work, shuffling along with the trickle of unfortunate commuters working in these strange days between the holidays. I thought of the trip we were taking in a few days and of the excursions to London I'd already planned - the adventures have changed a little, and now they're ours rather than just mine. When the time comes, I'll be interested to try out the new trains - but I know I'll miss the smell of hot brake pads and the slamming doors of the HSTs...
...and the train home wasn't a Class 166 either!
Posted in London on Saturday 2nd December 2017 at 11:12pm
When I wrote a somewhat belated introduction to my series of London's Other Orbital walks, I perhaps played down just how obsessively fascinated with roads I was as a child. For a chubby, shy and relentlessly bullied boy from the Midlands, getting home from school and being able to pore over maps of blue, red and green lines snaking over the country was my escape. The journey home itself was a fantasy world of civil engineering projects and complex interchanges, as I imagined each side-path into a housing estate as a motorway junction along my walk. I drew endless networks - sometimes imaginary, sometimes improvements to the tangled and congested junctions on the maps. I internalised an intimate understanding of the complex and sometimes apparently arbitrary numbering system which had landed on the maps in 1922 and had almost immediately been littered with exceptions and compromises. In short, I was a strange and introverted boy who preferred the company of maps to other people. To some extent, I'm just a slightly better socially-adjusted version of that same youngster nowadays. The gift of a map is always a delight as friends and family know - but they can then expect to lose me for hours. When I finally moved the last of my possessions out of my parents home in preparation for its sale, I uncovered a stash of ageing maps: huge single-sheet Bartholomew road maps were tucked into the queasy golden-brown cover of an early 1970s AA Book of the Road, with its magical strip-maps of motorways, some represented by thick dashed lines and still yet to be built. Indeed, some never were built. Growing up to be a non-driver isn't, as many who offer me unwanted advice seem to assume, a great source of regret - I truly haven't the right skills to do it safely or without undue stress - but it does mean that my experience of the road network is a little different. Writing about the routes which slink across London, between the mighty arterials which pulse traffic into the city's core, has been revelatory: I've simultaneously discovered how well I know the suburbs and how little I know of them. When arriving at a familiar junction from a new direction, the world fits together a little better, but new arms on the sign become fresh mysteries.
Why the introspection? This is likely the last of these proto-orbitals north of the Thames. There are other roads to walk, and I hope to get to those on future trips, but none of them conform to the admittedly loose brief I set myself with this project. Indeed this walk was a little contrived in itself - the A5109 and the A109 have never really been one route - but there is some evidence that this arc of tarmac which starts at Mill Hill and manages to break out of the gravity of urban London before descending from the heights into the Lea Valley at Edmonton has been used to skirt the northern suburbs for time immemorial. It has the well-worn feel of a country lane for much of its length - a road which has always been there perhaps? It certainly begins its journey on an ancient trackway - and I began my walk there too, under threatening grey skies at the crossroads where Edgware straddles the venerable course of Watling Street on its journey from Dover to Anglesey. The modern junction is a textbook London suburban centre - a vast mid-century pub, The Masons Arms, takes up an entire corner while a range of red-brick shopfronts and a run of mock-tudor cottages heads north. The businesses on this busy intersection are low-key, unloved and apparently not well-patronised on Saturday mornings. I turned south on the A5, enjoying the surprisingly long view offered by the altitude and the straight carriageway. Modern Edgware, away from the bustle of its small urban centre at least, is a little grey and down-at-heel. The road is flanked by uninhabited office blocks, business centres and building suppliers, a landscape without people - which makes those walking beside the road strange and threatening. It's not hard to fit this into the narrative of Dick Turpin, the celebrated highwayman who was perhaps not the heroic character which has been passed through the purifying flame of nostalgia - his gang's raid on Earlsbury Farm in Edgware in February 1735 saw Joseph Lawrence, a man of seventy, tortured, stripped and burned while his servant girl was raped. Edgware still feels like the place where a blind eye would be turned, where people would thank their lucky stars it wasn't them and hurry away. This may be uncharitable - but trudging along the lonely and brooding dark channel of the A5 did not inspire much faith in humanity today.
This short stretch of Watling Street did however take me over the Edgware Brook, a filthy and rather noisome stream which curved under the road in a concrete culvert near to the junction where the A5109 turned east - and where my walk began in earnest. The rise of the road as I headed into the suburbs indicated that I was heading for the higher ground where the headwaters of the River Brent rise, and that I'd be crossing numerous tributaries which snaked together to form the Silk Stream and the Dollis Brook, converging at a point I'd passed on a previous walk. It was hard to read this suburban climb as an A-road at all as it slowly ambled between pleasant inter-war semi-detached homes. Deansbrook Road rose gently towards the bridge which carries it above the Northern Line on its final stretch towards Edgware and the watercourse for which it is named. The Deans Brook rises on the high ground of Scratch Wood, taking in the waters of the Edgwarebury Brook, the Edgware Brook and the Burnt Oak Brook before becoming the Silk Stream near Burnt Oak Station. A footpath descended to snake briefly alongside the brook before passing between the houses below, but it wouldn't have taken me further along my route. Instead I followed the road to its first junction, an unremarkable suburban roundabout where it turned illogically north to skirt the edge of Mill Hill. The road climbed again and began to curve towards the east, with the impressive hulk of John Keble Church gradually revealed ahead - first the golden brick of the tower, then the stepping bulk of its nave. Designed by D.F.Martin-Smith, the church was consecrated in 1936 and Grade II listed in 1989, the slender louvred tower dominated the view uphill with Keble's name inscribed in stone above a stylised eagle - emblematic of a poem in his Christian Year. Reportedly, this is the only church dedicated to Keble, the humble but influential poet-vicar who formed part of the Oxford Movement. It sits on this rather inconsequential spot, a formative step in modern church building. In 1958, Martin-Smith, then in partnership with Henry Braddock went on to build the swooping brick and concrete St. Mary's in Crawley - a more ambitious and challenging building, but perhaps one that sits less comfortably in its surroundings than this arresting hilltop structure?
The road continued to head northeast, passing through the rather drab shopping zone at The Hale - one of the several knots of urban life which make up Mill Hill. There is no real centre to this suburb, in part due to the haphazard railway development which saw a single track line from Finsbury Park to Edgware opening in 1867 with the plan to expand when traffic grew. In the event, the High Barnet branch was much more profitable and the second track was never laid. The line languished on with a shuttle service to Finchley until 1935 when the London Passenger Transport Board's New Works Programme proposed to link the suburban lines from Finsbury Park into the Northern Line, and to use a long-established right to build rails beyond Edgware to Bushey Heath. The complex web of Northern Heights lines would thus feed into the branches of the Northern Line, and would link the suburbs to the city - but the war intervened, and little was achieved beyond electrification to Mill Hill East. The line beyond this was abandoned and now provides a TfL supplies depot, a nature reserve and an intermittent and somewhat forlorn greenway between Edgware and Mill Hill. Beyond The Hale the road climbed steadily to another of Mill Hill's scattered urban loci at Apex Corner. The origin of the curious name for this spot appears lost in history, but likely refers to its relative elevation and the meeting of the roads to Watford and Barnet. The modern incarnation of the junction sees the A1 and A41 sweep in from the south as a single, wide road before dividing at the roundabout and heading in their respective directions. Meanwhile, just feet from the roundabout and entirely disconnected from this earlier incarnation of the trunk road network, the M1 thunders in a cutting alongside the Midland Mainline to St. Pancras. By the early 1960s the junction had acquired its current configuration, swirling around a sunken pedestrian area with a tiled bank of chequerboard stone raking up to the road and solid stone portals providing access to the radiating footways. At some point Apex Corner must have been a busier spot for walkers, but now the junction is a bleak prospect on foot. While one corner retains a typical suburban retail parade now operating the ubiquitous mix of betting, tanning and eating establishments, housing has largely encroached elsewhere. But on the northern flank, between the arms of the roundabout which stretch out to Watford and points north, a drive-thru KFC and a Shell filling station provide necessary services to those who are sticking to the old routes. Apex Corner is the ghost of a staging post on the road north, and while traffic rumbles north on the nearby motorway, this oddly bleak circus sits on its hilltop looking beyond London.
My route was briefly with the A1, before the A5109 turned northeast at an awkward afterthought of a divergence, necessitating traffic skittling across the central reservation after being freed of the gravity of Apex Corner. The main road continued north, a silvery ribbon of tarmac heading out of the suburbs and rising into the greenbelt which curtailed London, allowing the green spaces of Scratch Wood and Moat Mount to remain undeveloped. The scene reminded me of the vintage 1980s logo adopted by the London Borough of Barnet, featuring a sweep of dual-carriageway snaking around oversized trees. The woods here were once threatened by the semi-mythical Stirling Corner Link - a road joining the M1 and the A1, and the first chance for northbound traffic to leave the motorway at Junction 3. This junction was never completed, with three-quarters of a roundabout forming an awkward access to London Gateway Services instead. The road, if built, would have carved through the top of Scratch Wood, sending sliproads arcing over the A1 and descending into Thistle Wood in at least one version of the scheme. The planned Junction 3 was part of the 1961 plan for the M1 which had it ploughing on to Marble Arch, unhindered by anything in its path. The more modest Hendon Urban Motorway opened in 1967 without Junction 3 and sputtered to a premature halt near Fiveways Corner rather than relentlessly progressing into the West End. Various references in the National Archives to soil slippage at Scratchwood and expensive remedies needed for shifting concrete walls along this section of route may give a clue to why this was the case. However, the plans remained resolutely part of the future development of the motorway until being quietly shelved in the straightened public spending round of 1976. The link road concept has resurfaced at times, not least in 1989 as part of the Roads for Prosperity plans - getting as far as an invitation for prospective builders to tender on that occasion. But in 1994, the plan was finally killed for good, and the services continue to delight in the most bizarre and confusing access routes in the land. The green spaces remain, quiet and undisturbed - at least for now...and I was soon to find myself practically out in the country, despite being firmly within the confines of Greater London.
There was a distinct shift as the road climbed Highwood Hill - suburban semis became large villas and gated dwellings of impressive scale, and the cars outside properties were newer and far fancier. At the peak of this first climb, the pavement switched sides, the first of a number of times I'd need to cross the A5109 as it became essentially a country lane. This rural byway however saw traffic at North London speeds and densities, and even had a regular service of red double-decker buses. This was an indication that my sloppy categorisation had been accurate - this was an orbital route in the same way that some of its more impressively proportioned relatives further south were being used - the most direct route from somewhere to somewhere-else, even if not the officially sanctioned means of crossing London. Satellite navigation has changed behaviour here, and the most direct route is suddenly open to even those who don't know the terrain. You can detect them - barrelling into corners and shifting gears erratically to scale hills, but utterly unaware of what lies beyond. They trust the instincts of the machine, and mostly it works out for them - and so they continue until they're let down by the technology in some dead-end. Even then, they'll usually allow the algorithm to re-route them out of trouble. Highwood Hill was an exclusive address as early as 1825 when Sir Stamford Raffles, fresh from his colonial exploits in Singapore and the Far East returned to live out his last days here. While Raffles was a proponent of colonial reform, his ideas were perhaps not entirely in tune with the great reformer and supporter of emancipation William Wilberforce, who retired to his own property nearby just a year later. In declining health and having retired from Parliament, he survived long enough to see his campaigning result in the final Commons reading of the Abolition of Slavery Act in 1833. At the crest of the hill, between the sites of these two gentlemen of the Regency era, Nan Clark's Lane leads north into the fields - marking a final retreat of an entirely other nature. Nan Clark was a barmaid in The Rising Sun with many admirers, but wed to an exceptionally jealous husband. When rumours of an affair reached him, he is reputed to have dragged her by the hair along the lane to a lake where he drowned her in front of a horrified audience who had followed them from Highwood Hill. The legend has spawned a range of stories of supernatural goings on which are sadly the only record of Nan Clark now. Fuelled by the presence of the lane and with The Rising Sun still trading nearby the legend is a popular local ghost tale which adds a slight frisson of the rural English gothic to the estate agents patter when they're flogging property on the overheated market in NW7.
Shortly after reaching the peak of the hill both pavements gave up completely, the road narrowing and curving menacingly into the next rise. Relying on my map, I headed through a gate and into Totteridge Fields. This local nature reserve is perhaps not at its best in December, but the faint sunshine and the glorious sweep of ungoverned green was a welcome relief from the road. I squelched diagonally across the former hay-fields, which narrowly escaped conversion into a cemetery in the early 1990s and which are now leased by Barnet Council to the London Wildlife Trust. Aside from a well-kept information board and some sturdy kissing gates, they've left the land to run wild and the desire-line I followed was ghosted by the skeletons of autumnal weeds and wildflowers bending in the breeze. At the edge of the field I crossed a tiny brook by way of a wooden bridge, realising that this was one of the barely trickling sources of the River Brent which had seemed such a broad and mighty presence on my last walk. Here I could press onwards to find the London Loop which meandered along with the nascent Dollis Brook nearby, or I could double back towards Totteridge and the road. I felt duty bound to do the latter, and after scrambling over a muddy stile worked my way up an indistinct footpath lined with frequent dire warnings not to stray. The waterlogged scramble eventually brought me to a drive between two impressive farmhouses, and then back to the road. This was Totteridge - a long, straggling village set in former Manorial lands now in trust to a private association. Each house, set back and discreetly screened from the road, bore its name on a curved, white painted stake on the road. A footpath was tolerated but often ill-kept and ruptured by ancient roots. No-one walked this stretch - it was too important to be seen in right kind of motor car, cruising by the long ponds which lined the southern flank of the road. Nothing interesting was happening here, and everything was just so - the Manor's groundskeepers ensuring that the carefully preserved and jealously guarded lack of event was undisturbed. The scenery was green and pleasant, but I must confess utterly dull and surprisingly charmless. The road curved and descended a little towards the Dollis Valley and a few fellow walkers appeared, surveying my muddy and leaf-caked boots with disdain and alarm. They headed for The Orange Tree, a vast rural pub with a well-stocked car park and an enviable menu of gastropub delights near the edge of Totteridge. Eventually, at the foot of the hill I found the anonymous parapet where the Dollis Brook headed under the road on route to Welsh Harp. The footpath into Whetstone Stray, alongside the churning waters which had already gathered some surprising pace and width since I'd seen their tiny tributary a mile or so back, was tempting - but the road needed to be walked to its conclusion. Up ahead, the A5109 shuddered to a halt at a staggered crossroads not far from Totteridge and Whetstone station. This little knot of urban normality felt like a relief after the forced conservation of Totteridge. As I navigated around an angrily accelerating driver who was hot on my heels as I completed my crossing of the road, I didn't spot the the Whetstone until I had passed by. This stone of unknown origin appears to have been used as a mounting block beside the tollgate which controlled access to the Whetstone and Highgate Turnpike here until 1863.
On the corner where the A5109 meets the former Great North Road stood Eveready House - now known as Barnet House, a strikingly modern block built in 1966 by Richard Seifert for the British arm of the Eveready battery company. Gravity-defyingly bulky, the building stands on pleasingly solid looking stilts above the ground. Seifert's almost impossibly prolific output in London alone produced such a mix of wonderful, terrible and downright ordinary buildings that it is hard to approach preservation of his heritage - however, as the building was adopted by Barnet Council in 1986 its recent fortunes have remained fairly assured. It is difficult to image how such a substantial block this far out of the city could survive for long without this public patronage however. My next stretch of road departed the former A1 route directly opposite the building, the surprising suburban bulk glowering over the rather innocuous beginning of the A109. This road has always been numbered thus, unlike the A5109 which was until the 1940s a lowly B-road - but it has a sort of deferential air, giving way to other roads and allowing them precedence at junctions. The A109 comes into its own for just the kind of local in-the-know traveller I've talked about before - for whom the journey across and within the city is more important than simply getting to or from London. The village centre of Whetstone clung to the road for a spell, allowing me to find some much needed sustenance - it had been quite a hike up from Edgware and I was wondering if I'd set myself a challenging walk in the time available today. I rested briefly on a damp bench among a disarmingly constant stream of pedestrians - it felt like I'd been largely alone for much of the morning, and needing to weave around people was an odd new feeling. I set off again, heading downhill now with surprisingly good views to the east. This was the largely unremarked suburb of Oakleigh Park, lining the route with pleasant, suburban homes which for a decade from 1941 housed a secret listening station for the Soviet news agency, TASS. The plug appeared to be pulled by the Security Services in 1951, but only after Barnet Council had unsuccessfully tried to close the station on planning grounds. The road continued south, bridging the railway at an awkward angle before running alongside it towards the city. The sliver of land to the west of the road was hemmed in by the tracks, and when it finally became broad enough to be useful hosted a string of industrial units and building suppliers. The road was quiet here - there are lots of better ways of getting across town nearby and the A109 is left to its rather forlorn own devices. Only buses and the occasional white van heading for one of the local businesses passed me as I trudged on into a purple, brooding sky. It felt like night was already encroaching and I fell into a reflective frame of mind as I walked south, thinking about how this route was now converging with other walks: the valley of Pymmes Brook ran parallel close by to the east, and I was once again converging with the North Circular on its relentless arc. These northern zones which once seemed so unreadably vast and dull were becoming strikingly familiar in parts, but still maintained a capacity to surprise me with a sudden view or diversion.
The A109 began to climb again near New Southgate Recreation Ground, part of a swathe of green space which stretched north to the Pymmes Brook valley and Brunswick Park, crossing the spoked wheel arrangement of the cemetery. This site - then known as the Great Northern Cemetery - would have been the first to offer cremation in the UK in 1861 had the Bishop of Rochester in whose diocese large parts of suburban North London still sat, not replied that he had neither the will "nor the power to allow such a mode of disposal of the bodies of the dead". The Cremation Society persisted in its efforts, and finally the first cremation of the modern era took place in 1885. The Cremation Act followed, passed in 1902 to authorise burial authorities to establish crematoria but also to outlaw open pyres like that used by the self-ordained Druid Dr. William Price to dispose of the body of a child fathered to his housekeeper. At the peak of the rise the A109 again deferred to other roads at the oddly named Betstyle Circus. This little urban cluster in the suburbs seems confused - either masquerading as Friern Barnet or New Southgate, and with the boroughs of Barnet and Enfield erratically switching territory around the spokes of the roundabout. My route unexpectedly took the easterly exit here, before swiftly turning south again to pass by New Southgate station. Across the rails and above the trees the impressive buildings of Friern Hospital could be seen, formerly the Middlesex County Asylum and now an exclusive housing complex. The boundary of the boroughs edged along the railway here, with the road falling into step beside both until it dog-legged to the east to skirt the site of the former New Southgate Gasworks, now given over to a vast builders trade supply business which sat atop the arches of the railway siding which once served the site. The single remaining gasholder reminded me I was approaching the North Circular once again, and encountering a familiar view from a different direction. A new development of apartments was slowly rising beside the pavement here, wedged into the corner created by the A109 and the Bounds Green Brook. The hiss and shudder of the busiest road I'd encountered since leaving Edgware was evident before I could even see it stretching along the valley floor, bisecting my onward route which climbed the valley ahead of me. I had no business with the A406 today, but I did need to cross the six lanes of traffic here. The crossing had an entirely different impact approaching from the north, and the road felt more like an imposition on the landscape from this aspect. As I waited for the lights to change, the sole pedestrian in sight I supposed, I noted a small group huddled on the central island. Occasionally when a stream of traffic braked hard for a red light, they would groan and rise, tottering at first on uncertain legs, before working the stream of cars. Some, the most downtrodden and disabled among them, would beg in the most direct sense. Meanwhile a more enterprising younger man in a hi-vis vest he'd probably retrieved from the verge of the road sold multipack cans of Diet Coke and bottles of water from a shopping basket. This probably worked well in a summer traffic jam, but on a grim December afternoon when snow threatened, drivers seemed less inclined to buy. As the lights changed and I crossed, the forlorn group repositioned to ply the next queue of traffic. I hadn't noticed these people when I made my way along the North Circular. Had they been there, and my onward focus too unwavering to miss them? Or had they been obscured by others using the crossing that day? For all that's said about my introversion and self-absorption - especially when I'm walking - I'd hope that I wouldn't have overlooked such a sorry scene taking place on the midst of this unsheltered tarmac plain? I completed my crossing and began walking up the hill which climbed out of the valley of the Bounds Green Brook. Looking back, the figures were only barely visible, scuttling and hobbling towards cars in a display of surprising optimism each time the lights changed.
It was possible to walk along a surprisingly broad area of green space beside Bounds Green Road, which rather reminded me of its appearance on early maps of Middlesex as a country lane in a wooded channel between the fields. Suburbia had encroached by the late 19th century, with Wood Green sprawling inexorably towards Southgate as Londoners moved out of the city along the railways. Bounds Green however seems to have stayed surprisingly upmarket, with many fine old houses ranged along the terraces beside the road. Not all remains of course, and around the twin brick towers of Newbury House and Finsbury House is a small estate of modern, low-rise housing which feels a little unloved and in need of refurbishment. Nearby, in surprising contrast is the red-brick and white stone Braemar Avenue Baptist Church, an unusually decorative approach to a non-conformist chapel and a reminder that Wood Green and Tottenham were hotbeds of religious dissent. The congregation relocated to this fine building in 1907, having previously assembled in a range of homes and halls across the area. I'd encountered the church during my walk along the New River Path, and I soon crossed the route of the river's tunnel which meant I was closing in on Wood Green. One last surprise before I plunged into the urban maelstrom of 'The Mall' was the obelisk dedicated to Mrs Catherine Smithies which sits on a patch of ground outside a rather gentrified run of shops and pubs. Smithies was responsible for the formation of the Band of Mercy - an organisation which aimed to teach children kindness and humanity to animals in the hope of creating a future world peopled by peaceful adults. Smithies modelled her new organisation on the Band of Hope temperance movement initiated by the Baptist minister Reverend Jabez Tuncliffe in Leeds. By the end of the century, the RSPCA assumed responsibility for the Band of Mercy movement, though it continued to grow in strength in the United States through the work of George T. Angell who restated the organisations aims to:
[...] teach and lead every child and older person to seize every opportunity to say a kind word or do a kind act that will make some other human being or some dumb creature happier.It felt rather odd to see Wood Green as a cradle of kindness and religious diligence as I approached a crossing the High Road. The flank of Haringey Civic Centre with its pleasing brick and stone lines betraying its origins in the late 1950s. From the rear, a dramatic wing of the building strode out across the car park on stilts with metal stairs elbowing into view, partially obscured by St. Michael's Church. A little further along the street the Fishmongers Arms was a reminder of the Fishmongers and Poulterers Almshouses which occupied this site before it was a seat of Local Government. I crossed the street near the rather drab little scrap of park dedicated to King George VI which had been occupied by a dedicated drinking school on my last visit. Today it was empty, the cold weather and the stream of pedestrians heading for their festive retail destinations driving out the locals. I turned towards Wood Green with some trepidation...
I wasn't sorry to make the turning into Lordship Lane near Wood Green Underground Station. The pavements were impassably busy, with people darting between streams of travellers emerging from the tunnels and some testy exchanges as they cannoned into each other in their haste. Pedestrians were laden with bags or staring into electronic devices, always too occupied to focus on their surroundings - and it struck me that I was the only person in this strange little urban swirl who was walking for the sake of the act. No wonder I was regarded oddly, my boots and trousers marked by dried-on Middlesex earth and my face masked by a scarf against the cold and fumes. A little south of here, somewhere under the massive brick ziggurat of Wood Green's mall, was the site of Alderman's Bridge where the River Moselle passed under Green Lanes and formed the edge of the building plots on the southern side of Lordship Lane. The road quickly reverted to suburbia, leaving the chaos of the shopping centre behind. However, the rather uniform buildings suddenly gave way to the somewhat bizarre Wood Green Crown Court building. Originally built as the Royal Masonic School for Boys, supporting the children of deceased and poor Freemasons, the building remained as a place of education until the 1930s when it was acquired by the Tottenham and District Gas Company and renamed Woodall House in honour of Sir Corbet Woodall, former chairman of the Imperial Gas Light and Coke company who is commemorated by a statue now at Twelvetrees Crescent in Bow. After nationalisation in 1948 the building found use as the headquarters of the Eastern Gas Board. In 1974 it was acquired by the Borough of Haringey and modernised to become Wood Green Crown Court and Remand Centre. The building's current appearance, with a dramatic and somewhat strangely mountainous roof filling the gap between the tower on each flank dates from rebuilding after an arson attack in 1989. The Court continues to find new ways of remaining in the public consciousness too - seeing Britain's first juror jailed for using the internet in contempt of court in 2013. Today, all was quiet outside the building except for a group of drinkers loudly discoursing in the garden - I couldn't help but wonder if they were the displaced group from King George VI Gardens, relocated to a more exclusive spot to avoid the crowds. Perhaps they are part of the civic fabric of Haringey?
I continued to head east, aware of the Moselle's hidden course nearby, recalled in the street names if nowhere else. I remembered my walk to find the remains of the river in a heady, turbulent summer five years ago. I hadn't quite imagined the turn my walks, or indeed my life, would take after that. As the pale and stark towers of Broadwater Farm rose above the terraced houses lining Lordship Lane appeared, almost fading into the purple-grey sky, I spotted a housing development much more more modest and human in scale as the Tower Gardens Estate edged against the road. This was the London County Council's well-intentioned but somewhat half-hearted attempt to bring a little of the Garden Suburb approach to deepest Tottenham. Built between 1904 and 1913, the semi-circular estate of cheaply but attractively built cottages is encircled by The Roundway, a diverted arm of the A10 which takes it away from its old course through Edmonton and onto a menacingly busy urban dual-carriageway. This means that Lordship Lane becomes a somewhat quiet backwater near Bruce Castle, the grand manor house built and modified over a long period of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. An early occupation by Sir William Compton, one of Henry VIII's most prominent courtiers is recorded, with the building variously changing hands through seizure, debt and sale across the centuries before falling into the ownership of John Eardley Wilmot who as a Member of Parliament was charged with leading a 1783 commission investigating the events of the American Revolution. He also presided over the rather lesser known effort to provide housing and alms to 60,000 loyalist refugees who returned to Britain after Independence was declared. By 1827, Bruce Castle had become a branch of the Birmingham radical school operated by Sir Rowland Hill and his brother. Hill moved to Tottenham to become the headmaster of the new school, and his later career would take in planning the colonisation of South Australia and reform of the Postal System. Meanwhile, Bruce Castle found its final incarnation as a museum and garden in the ownership of Tottenham Council by 1906. It remains a similar facility today, under the stewardship of the post-1965 London Borough of Haringey, a rather odd intrusion of history into the heavily and relatively recently developed hinterlands of Tottenham and Edmonton. Incidentally, no castle has in fact, ever stood on the land here - though large tracts of the area were owned until his accession to the Scottish throne in 1306 by Robert the Bruce. The manor here is recalled the the rural setting which Bruce would have known in John Abraham Heraud's 1820 epic poem 'Tottenham':
Silent and lone, and on the greensward dies —
But when on ye her heavenly slumber lies,
TOWERS OF BRUS! 'tis more than lovely then. —
For such sublime associations rise,
That to young fancy's visionary ken,
'Tis like a maniac's dream—fitful and still again.
Outside Bruce Castle I faced a choice. Technically, the A109 continued for a few hundred yards towards Edmonton where it came to an end on the old High Road. However, I'd walked that last stretch before and had found it a rather gloomy stretch of route somehow. Beside me, Bruce Grove cut the corner, heading directly south east towards the station with which it shared a name, and taking this turn could save me from ending my last walk of the year at a drab, inconsequential crossroads. I paused for some time, deciding whether to break my self-imposed rules here? It's true that this was perhaps the last of these 'orbital' walks in the North, and it felt odd to be changing the plan at this late stage. But I'd walked for miles, the light was beginning to fail, and the chill damp of the afternoon was finding its way to my bones as I tired. I reasoned that it had been a long, challenging year of walks - and it should at least end by covering new ground - and so I broke my rule and struck out along the previously unwalked line of Bruce Grove. The station beckoned, the railway bridging the junction ahead, declaring the location in bold white letters on the blue ironwork. The sky had turned a pinkish-grey as the weak winter sun fell and the streetlights were developing halos in the frosty air. It was the perfect way to head back towards civilisation. I had almost walked the length of the A5109 and the A109, an arc across the northern reaches of the old County of Middlesex - a deleted administrative unit which had come to figure largely in my travels this year. Descending into the Lea Valley from the Northern Heights felt like a perfect way to enter the seasonal pause in my walks. My decision not to cover those last few yards niggled at me - but as I boarded the train for Liverpool Street, I found myself sitting across from a young, smiling woman who was devouring an artisanal doughnut with enviable guilt-free glee and happiness. It was impossible not to get caught up in the sense of contentment: my feet ached from a walk completed, I had a host of surprising finds to unravel and research, and as ever new twists and turns had suggested future exploration on the way. Perhaps rules were meant for breaking after all?
You can find a gallery with more pictures 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.