Posted in London on Saturday 12th January 2019 at 11:01pm
A month ago I didn't expect to be here in London. Arriving at the bustle of Paddington station on one of GWR's flagship new trains for the first time, I was a little early. The skies over Berkshire had seen a reassuring red dawn fade into a marine silver sheet which didn't bode well, but otherwise, things had gone to plan so far. I wasn't used to this - it had been a month of confounding twists, difficult turns and unwelcome disappointments. The turn of the year had seen our annual trip - always a highlight, and despite being a little shorter and more austere this time around, a welcome break from the routine. A plunge back into a fractious and grumpy working environment where the low rumble of national politics invaded every decision had made for a difficult week too. Delay was everywhere, inaction was the standard response. I was itching to get walking again. I didn't linger at Paddington, heading directly for the Circle Line and hence to Kings Cross St. Pancras. I was there only long enough to charge my coffee cup, grab a swift but unusually fancy breakfast, and head down onto the Thameslink platforms with BTP officers slaloming around me to apprehend some early fare-dodgers who'd somehow spoofed the gateline. As they dashed around the corner towards the stairs, one of them carefully discarded his takeaway espresso cup to better make pursuit. It was good to be back in London: outwardly civilised but always on the brink of something. As my train snaked into the station and we escaped from the tunnels somewhere north of Thomas Hardy's graveyard packed with human jam, a grey morning opened before me. A new year and a new project. Time to get moving, again, at last.
My journey out of London was the usual experience: as the interval between the suburban stations began to lengthen, more greenery crept into the window views. The sprawling city relaxed like a muscle, its margins ragged and ill-defined. I disembarked at Elstree and Borehamwood. Outside the official administrative margin, but still inside the concrete circlet of the M25 - at least, just inside... I didn't know this part of the world at all well. It was a map-smudge between Barnet and Edgware which remained unexplored, and despite being formally and spiritually in Hertfordshire, it felt perhaps more like a suburban satellite than some of the towns which had arbitrarily crept into London in the 1965 redefinition of its boundaries. While Enfield and Barnet felt like small, independent market towns which had only accidentally strayed into the city's ambit, Borehamwood felt exactly like a suburban enclave should. I navigated out of the station car park with some challenge and set off along the High Street - a haphazard grouping of national chains and local traders inhabiting a dissonant mix of 1930s shopping parades and 1990s plastic-fronted retail centres. It was busy and self-contained, and in the unexpectedly temperate January morning, not a bad place to start walking. I peeled off to the south long before the strip of shopping opportunities had ended, heading into the residential hinterlands with their mix of bungalows and modern church buildings. The road leered above me, a long straight row of tail-lamps rising ahead of me into the trees. Borehamwood ended slowly, persisting along the road out of town. Cresting the hill, I saw my route creeping in from the north to converge with my current bearings. My target today had, in fact, suggested itself a long time back, but felt like the wrong walk back then. I didn't want to be that road walking guy who endlessly recounted treks along the byways of London for their own sake. There were two considerations though: firstly, I was that road guy - a consistent string of ambulations focused on routes ancient and modern proved it. Secondly, I'd probably always been thus. My earliest memories are of lying on the living room floor puzzling out an interchange or scratchily drawing Primary Route signs after Kinneir and Calvert. But after all, who cared anyway? No-one was reading. I could walk wherever I wanted, write whatever I felt and remain largely unashamed of my preoccupations. I felt a sudden flush of freedom when I was pondering my walk on the train into London this morning. I was going to begin a new year with a new plan: five long walks along the principal A roads leading into London. All of them converged on the shifty, ill-defined 'Centre' of the city. All of them crossed the boundary at an inconvenient and distant spot somewhere in the scrubby, semi-industrial edgelands. This was just my kind of walking. At Stirling Corner, after visiting the local branch of Morrisons where sleepy Saturday-morning people appeared intent on crashing and colliding into each other with an alarming lack of care, I finally found the A1 arriving fresh from its bypassing of Borehamwood. A fire engine howled around three-quarters of the roundabout, quicker than braving the traffic lights and turning directly south. Traffic momentarily stopped and pulled aside, then ebbed back into the space it had left for the emergency vehicle as if nothing of note had happened. To the left, the road was simply signposted 'The NORTH', to the right the familiarly abbreviated 'C. London' which I always seemed to be heading towards - I crossed the busy carriageways gingerly and began walking. The next sign told me it was five miles to Brent Cross and twelve to Central London, while the clouds closed in overhead to form a grey, sound-deadening mass. Cap pulled tight and head down, I set off along the narrow footway beside the litter-strewn laybys which signalled my passage out of the Home Counties and into Greater London.
The road was broad but divided into narrow lanes which pushed the slower moving juggernauts closer to my path. I hugged the margin of bushes carefully, trying not to let my shoulder protrude in case of a stray wing-mirror. Having walked some fairly major routes around the city, this felt more precarious than any so far. The tarmac scythed through a patch of green - to the east, the public open space at Moons Moat, damp and edged by a forest of leafless, intertwined trees which presented a grim barrier against the road. To the west, a golf course - the scourge of the greenbelt - and then the M1 and London Gateway Services, formerly known as Scratchwood, after the belt of tree-covered hillside here. The services were reached by an aborted junction - a half-finished roundabout which whirled rest-area bound traffic illogically around itself before allowing them access to M&S, Starbucks and the other facilities. The M1 made a dramatic break for freedom here, curving sharply to the west and finally parting company with the railway line it had shadowed for miles out of the city. The history of the motorway and my road are inseparably linked, twin grey lines ploughing north through the lesser-valued patch of north-western suburbs which are not quite Hertfordshire, yet. Just a few days before I'd stood at the corner of Leith Street and Princes Street in Edinburgh - the start, or indeed the end of the A1 depending on your viewpoint. We'd followed its bleak and impressive beginnings south into England on our journey home, twisting into the low grey clouds which hugged the coast. It felt fitting to begin the year on this route. A band of light tinted red by the pinkish grey cloud cover broke through to the south, making the wet pavement gleam. It felt like a premature sunset. I walked towards the light...
I finally got my bearings at Apex Corner. Approaching from the south on my first visit this swirl of traffic had seemed like the end of civilisation, the A1 stretching away into the trees. Now it was a welcome return to suburbia where the road slowed and quietened somewhat, at least temporarily. I edged around the roundabout above ground rather than descending into the subways, and as a result, I witnessed the aftermath of a minor traffic incident. The police were already on scene, cars with deformed plastic fenders askance and airbags hanging flaccidly post-inflation neatly sequestered on the central reservation. I turned south, heading into the environs of Mill Hill. The land climbed to the east, into the rural edges of London which I'd skirted on the A5109 - sleepy Totteridge and the muddy slog over the fields to Whetstone lay beyond. To the west, the landscape fell away into the valley of the Dean's Brook which formed an early headstream of the Brent. The road continued south through suburban sprawl which was neither Edgware nor Mill Hill quite yet, impressive double-fronted houses and gated villas stepped up the bank, away from the road. Some of them had grand entrance stairways sweeping up to their gates, designed for impressive arrivals by equally prestigious motorcar and likely not used now that they provided access only to the litter-strewn carriageway of a shuddering, congested expressway into London. A street of shops led away west to Mill Hill Broadway station, the settlement's spiritual and commercial centre as defined by M&S Food, lying some way from the brow of the hill with its impressive views over West London. Away beyond the northbound carriageway a small knot of red brick civic buildings clustered together - the stocky, almost ecclesiastical tower of Mill Hill Fire Station glowering over the single-storey public library opposite. I continued along the route south, passing the exotic crop of domes which housed the telescopes of the UCL Observatory. Opened in 1929 the low-rise buildings were sleek, whitewashed blocks very much typical of their time, supporting the silvery domes which housed the range of telescopes, the earliest of which was manufactured in 1881 with the most recent installation just last summer. The road bisected the expansive spread of Mill Hill Park, accessed from the A1 only by a gloomy looking footpath leading to a subway linking the two segments of green space. As the road began to rise above the level of the back gardens abutting its course, I experienced the unsettling jolt of recovering a memory: I had scanned this part of the map in detail for a previous expedition. Ahead was a site of double abandonment.
Plans to extend the Northern Line have never fared well, and the interruption posed by World War Two cancelled many of the projects in the New Works Programme which would have seen these northern suburbs better served by the underground, largely by integrating the Edgware, Highgate and London railway into the system. This railway, authorised by act of parliament in 1862, carved an ambitious and costly path into the Middlesex suburbs which were growing over the hills and valleys north of London via audacious tunnels, viaducts and embankments. It also filled a marked gap in the growing Underground map. While the former Palace Gates line is a better-known casualty of post-war austerity, now the Parkland Walk, a further scheme was also cancelled. Currently, some Northern Line trains don't make the awkward curve east towards High Barnet, continuing instead to the rather lowly single-platform terminus at Mill Hill East. Historically, High Barnet was the branch line and this, the mainline, originally reached Edgware by way of the route which passed under the A1 here. The line was near ready for conversion to Electric operation by Northern Line trains when hostilities curtailed the plan. Parts of the route still appear walkable while much has succumbed to encroaching development, but this section of the line's course survived to serve again, becoming the temporary terminus of the M1. Built piecemeal over the course of the 1970s, the route of the motorway into London was a bewilderingly challenging project, the final course of which depended on the plans for the Ringways and the complexities of squeezing a major road into the narrow channel through the hilly edges of the suburbs in which the Midland Mainline already ran. For a time while the politics and practicalities of motorways into urban London were evolving, a temporary terminus was constructed swinging traffic east to join the A1 here, just north of Fiveways Junction. Looking down on the abandoned sliproad, last officially part of the M1 in 1977 when the final section to Staples Corner opened, I was amazed to see a fairly intact road surface and mossy but extant metal crash-barriers below. In fact, the route saw a third incarnation when, following the IRA bomb at Staples Corner in 1992, it was resurfaced and pressed back into use as a terminus for the motorway once again. Maintained as a strategic priority until the early part of the 21st century, the road was now beginning to return to nature once again. A footbridge zig-zagged over the curve as it began its ascent to rejoin the A1, and at the end of the ramp I found a spot where I could scramble over a patch of wet grass to stand on the surface, exit blocked by locked barriers and huge concrete blocks, while the traffic on the A1 unsuspectingly sluiced surface-water towards me. I pondered this tiny rediscovery as I picked my way back to the footpath: my walks were often overtaken by these fragments of microhistory which, taken in isolation, seemed inconsequential. But I found a strange solace in standing on this rather heroic bit of infrastructure which had returned and returned again to serve the ever-evolving transport needs of the capital.
I negotiated the grim, clattering flyovers of Fiveways quickly but was careful to note the group of cast lions standing atop pillars around the junction. David Annand's sculptures, commissioned by the Highways Agency as a foil to the unrelenting noise and inconvenience of the frequently traffic-snarled junction, delighted in the punning title 'Civic Pride'. I ascended a bleak, narrow sliproad to join the traffic braking hard to readjust to urban conditions at the end of a higher-speed trip along the M1, my route rather suddenly changing pace too, and reverting to life as a rather quiet arterial route. Like all approaches to London, the road was flanked with large, mid-century villas which were now forlornly marooned alongside six lanes of traffic, and I trudged through a persistent drizzle along the dusty service roads which was all the separated these homes from the bursts of traffic emitted by the junction. At least the steady mizzle of precipitation kept the dust down. The road banked downhill, navigating its way into the confluence of the Dollis and Mutton Brooks below. The terrain here felt comfortably familiar - I'd previously crossed the route at Finchley Lane, and stalked the course of the Dollis Brook along the valley floor. I knew I was closing in on the North Circular near a point where the walk I'd taken there had begun to feel impossibly long and debilitating. The junction, where Great North Way folded into the North Circular as Falloden Way, was a complex entanglement of traffic signals and lane choices. Traffic approaching it fenced and jostled for position in the correct channel, space was contested and fractious. My irritability with the surroundings was rising too and I felt like I was picking up something of the road's temperament, but I resolved to stick to the tarmac and not use the path along the Mutton Brook as I had on a previous crossing of the valley. This would also allow me to get a look at the impressive frontage of the Finchley United Synagogue. Approaching the building, several things were apparent: firstly that security was very tight - yellow jackets and headsets teemed around the entrances and escorted departing worshippers to their cars. Also, the facade of the building was so impressive that I needed an angle on it. I crossed to the grassy triangle of Charter Green and turned to frame the building in my camera. The vast finned shield gleaming in the grey morning like a huge radiator, pairing with the defiantly lofty sword of La DÃ©livrance, Guillaume's wartime sculpture purchased by Lord Rothermere and insistently sited here to enable him to see it when driving to his mother's home. The moment I clicked the button, the yellow jackets were triggered. As I turned to walk away, they shouted after me and heavy footfalls could be heard. A small group of them joined what was to be a short and low-speed pursuit as I figured that engaging was going to be the better outcome here. They caught up with me on the green and a couple passed by to ensure I was fully encircled. The leader stepped forward, a stocky but well-spoken young man bedecked with badges of authority and communications technology. "Do you know what the building is?" - I agreed I did - "So why did you take a picture of it? Can I see your camera?". I sighed - this all felt predictable and I dreaded writing of it. These challenges by extra-jurisdictional hi-vis have become all too common and are generously over-written. Anyone who dares to walk outside a set of unspoken but apparently acceptable routes will suffer such events at some point. I railed at the thought of having to describe this here, throwing myself open to derision for my hackneyed, privileged white-guy psychogeography yet again. But, however much I bristled the rule is to stay polite and firm - and I did. I first spelt out the deal - yes, they could see my camera so long as we agreed they couldn't remove it from me, handle it or attempt to delete any of the images I'd taken. Also, that despite their well-executed encirclement they had no power to hinder or detain me. A little taken aback by the well-practiced nature of the delivery I suspect, the young ringleader agreed readily - as keen to end the debacle as I. I showed them my litany of dullness: grim shots of a litter-strewn Dollis Brook, crumbling concrete stairs to nowhere, gantry signs above a rain-gleaming roadway. He looked confused but satisfied I was no risk, or at least not to the Synagogue. The yellow jackets relaxed at his relief, hands returned to pockets. They scanned the green for more pressing matters while their leader wrapped things up here. "I'm sorry sir, you'll understand why things are like this just now?". I agreed I did, and that I too was sorry that he needed to apologise for this here, now in Britain. We talked a little more - about how they'd seen protests from both the far-left and far-right, and how the temper of the debate was changing, getting edgier and more directly anti-semitic. We parted on good terms, and he returned to guard the synagogue. That last phrase is something I still find myself surprised and saddened to be writing in 2019.
Beyond this encounter the road felt muted and strange. After forking from the North Circular and curving south and east, it also seemed quieter and somewhat less important. This peeling away of traffic as the road crosses significant routes was a feature of London's radials which I'd forgotten until now. Slowly, even the greatest roads towards the City dwindle, and the A1 appeared to have lost a good deal of its strategic heft back at Henly's Corner. Now, the road hugged the valley of the Mutton Brook which wound back and forth under it, occasionally evident beneath a tangle of greenery before it disappeared into Northway Gardens. This stretch of road dated from the First World War, and was built to serve an extension to the model cul-de-sacs of Hampstead Garden Suburb which hugged the contours of Highgate Hill. Founded by Dame Henrietta Barnett who had, with her husband Samuel, also masterminded the Whitechapel Art Gallery and Toynbee Hall, the suburb took its cue from the beginnings of the Garden City movement. The suburb was to be an egalitarian enterprise, providing dwellings for all classes of person in detached houses with gardens. There were to be hedges rather than walls, and the streets would be broad and tree-lined with a much lower density than was then common, even in the suburbs. The homes to the south of the road were fine, cottage-like and attractive - and it's no wonder that the area continued to feature a number of celebrities among its freeholders. To the north of the road, the houses were a little less elaborate and more prosaic, but the magical effect of the suburb seemed to linger over them too. I wandered into the Co-op on busy Market Place and shared my concerns about the poor quality bananas with an elderly but spirited German woman who seemed less inclined than I to let this pass unremarked to the manager. Back out on the road, I ate while I walked, mindful of the time and the challenging distance ahead. I was curious to stray south towards Sir Edwin Lutyens' Central Square with its two churches and impressive school buildings, but that was for another walk. One which might equally stray along The Bishops Avenue which crossed my route nearby. Part of a cluster of streets named for Arthur Winnington-Ingram, one-time Bishop of London and prolific local landowner, this street has become an almost ludicrous proposition: sometimes regarded as the most exclusive street in London, it winds south from East Finchley towards Hampstead Heath and is lined almost entirely by mansions. The list of owners read like an unlikely collision of mid-century British culture (Katie Boyle, Sir Billy Butlin, Gracie Fields) and flat-out crooks (Emil Savundra, Asil Nadir). Nowadays, the properties are in the hands of Sultans and Saudi royals, many of them maintained only as investments in the overboiling property market which London currently provides. They still launder money through this odd little enclave, but it's all above board nowadays. On the A1 though, no such lofty denizens were found - save perhaps for an infant Jerry Springer raised in the sweeping moderne blocks of Belvedere Court - and in fact I realised that I'd seen few people walking at all, even in this relatively pleasant suburban stretch. My route was fast closing in on the old road north - a route I'd crossed and recrossed on my earlier walks through Barnet, Whetstone and Finchley - and now I met it at a dour, choked gyratory where the terraced houses ended in an abrupt demolition plot. The rest of the terrace had long since been cleared for the new road's progress exposing, the internal geometries of the chimneys to Bakers Lane. Here I turned south again, back onto the original route of the Great North Road into London.
For a brief stretch the road felt familiar - I'd blundered unexpectedly into Highgate once before when navigating between the north and south sections of the Parkland Walk, and then - as now - it was a shock of bustle and pedestrian activity. I jostled with small groups of other human beings at the street crossings, narrowly avoiding properly equipped cyclists in their expensive an unforgivingly tight kit. It's fair to say that I'd hardly strayed from relatively affluent areas of North London on this route, but this felt much more ostentatious. For a while at least, the focus shifted from the grey asphalt strip which had defined the walk to the smells of tiny delis and the chatter of young people outside stores. I was glad to be able to gaze down from the path onto the roof of the decaying surface-level railway station which had once graced the Northern Heights line. Its quiet repose beside this busy street was comforting, and the temptation to plunge into the trees and enjoy the walk along the leafy chasm left by the ghost railway was very strong. Instead, I left Highgate behind, heading south along the deepening cutting of the former turnpike built to avoid the steep hill and originally proposed as a tunnel by engineer Robert Vaizie in 1808. In 1812 the tunnel workings collapsed and it was left to John Nash, the darling of Regent's Park and its Regency terraces, to rescue the project with a brick viaduct above the deep chasm which gave the area the name Archway. Replaced with an elegant cast iron bridge carrying Hornsey Lane in 1893, the crossing still defines the landscape: as the road dipped to pass through the geological outcrop of the Northern Heights, the towers of the city were framed by the flanks of the cutting with the ornate bridge above bearing the arms of Middlesex. London shimmered through the window of the bridge, cloaked in a grey mist with a rosy cloud drifting across an attempt at an early sunset. It was hard not to be awed by the idea of blasting this culvert through the side of a mighty and ancient hill. The hazy view of London in the middle distance brought to mind the legend of Dick Whittington, turning again from these heights to return to London, taking up the office of Lord Mayor three times. The area has subsequently adopted Whittington as its genius loci with a modern hospital bearing his name climbing a substantial way along Highgate Hill. The real Whittington had a more prosaic ascent, and one not so unusual to modern audiences - having never truly been a poor man, he came to the City to turn his hand to trade and then to more lucrative money lending. He gained favour by making loans to King Richard II, and was directly installed as Lord Mayor upon the death of Adam Bamme in 1397. The Crown had previously seized the lands of the City due to misgovernment, and an early act by Whittington was to regain these lands for the huge sum of Â£10,000. Richard II's deposition and the subsequent reigns of Henry IV and Henry V did little to affect his good standing, and he brought surprisingly modern changes to the medieval City, including facilities for unmarried mothers and a vast public convenience known as Whittington's Longhouse. On his death his generous gifts assured him a place in the memory of London, allowing the building of a library at The Guildhall, extensive rebuilding of Newgate Prison and repair of the crumbling St. Bartholomew's Hospital.
The Turnpike rejoined the old route north at the foot of Highgate Hill where a predecessor of the Whittington Hospital still broods on a corner site. The Holborn Union Infirmary opened in 1879, providing separate accommodation for Male and Female patients in an imposing yellow brick neo-gothic building with tall wings to the north and south. By 1895 the site had already been extended, a pattern which would follow throughout the twentieth century as local need grew and treatment evolved: at some point, glass verandah were added to the south-facing walls of all blocks to allow tuberculosis patients access to sunlight and fresh air. In 1944 the hospital merged with the nearby St. Mary's Hospital and Highgate Hospital to become the Archway wing of the new Whittington Hospital. It remained part of the new NHS until 1980 when functions were centralised on the current Whittington site. The building fell into decay until it was jointly purchased by UCL and the University of Middlesex in 1998 to provide a new campus for health and professional studies. Now it was again abandoned and boarded up: a Victorian imposition in the ever-modernising whirl of Archway. The forlorn, somewhat forbidding building is part future movie set, part sad hanger-on from what the locals will tell you were better times. It's harder to picture this rose-tinted past from the perspective of arrival via the A1 which was once a far less pleasant experience. Nowadays, the newly regenerated and partially gentrified Archway bustles and crackles with activity. The once dominant road network which marooned the area in the midst of a churn of impenetrable traffic has been defanged by closing a section of the gyratory. Instead, a paved market area leads through the centre of the pattern of old streets which pre-date the motor car. Outside a branch of Starbucks, a wedding party was being photographed in their finery, holding freshly brewed drinks. I must have looked askance, as an onlooker leaned over to confide "It's OK, they work there. It's where they met". I suspect I hadn't been the first disapproving passer-by in a street where pleasant, independent businesses rubbed shoulders with multinational mainstays. My last visit here had been in the early 1990s and plainly put, Archway had been a traffic-choked, grimy dump at the time. We'd played a gig at a pub more used to Country and Western acts on Junction Road, promoted by a wiry old Fields of the Nephilim fan with the unlikely moniker of 'Slim Chance'. To a country boy - Somerset via Worcestershire - the pavements had reeked of unfamiliar cuisine and the area radiated menace. It was perhaps my third trip to London, and first out of the western edges and into these cosmopolitan northern districts. Even setting aside my novice status, it was hard to see why the Archway of the late 20th century could be a nostalgic time or place for anyone who'd lived here. Not least because of the presence of the baleful gravestone of Archway Tower - a darkened tooth which seemed to overshadow their memories and anchor the zone in that era of bad politics and worse dental health.
The tower was completed in 1963 by Oscar Garry and Partners, providing seventeen storeys of office accommodation for government departments, financially advantageous by being well outside the central area, but still eminently accessible by Tube with Northern Line station in the basement. By 1967, via a process of selling-off and leasing back, it provided offices for the then Department of Health and Social Security, which remained on two floors near the top of the building until 1994, a little after our awkward gig just along the Junction Road. For almost all of its existence, it has been despised by most locals and those passing artists and musicians who often decamped here from points north on their journey towards fame or infamy. The ground around the tower swirled will ill-winds, caused by pressure differentials around the stark sides of the building, and the rite of passage of attending a dehumanising interview in the building to obtain benefits seems to have been amplified in horror by the looming fabric of the tower. As buildings go, it doesn't appear an especially terrible one - but it is perhaps hard to love because of its imposition on the low-rise suburbia around it. Archway developed slowly in the 19th century as the slums of Somers Town and Camden were cleared and railways threaded into the city, and the terraces of London Brick which gradually filled the lower flanks of Highgate Hill weren't built to bear this overshadowing behemoth, clad for much of its working life in gloomy black marble. My own memory returns as I catch sight of the glowing blue of the station sign beneath the tower: walking up Junction Road into an eddy of people and traffic, dodging beggars and drunks who were haphazardly tottering away from the tower as if repelled by its magnetism. We paused at the station entrance to meet a friend of one of our party arriving from a long trip in from Sheffield. She was late, the single working escalator disgorged endless passengers, but never her. Finally, her knitted hat peeked over the emerging steps, shoulders hunched against the city, looking small and a little terrified at the prospect of Archway being slowly revealed to her as she rose. My friend threw himself onto the filthy cigarette-strewn pavement in relief at her arrival, oblivious to the ominous dark stains creeping from the walls. Above us, with no light left to reflect from it, the building disappeared entirely into the darkening night sky. It appeared to me rather like the object on the cover of Led Zeppelin's 'Presence' - an ill-defined and inert but obviously sinister absence of a thing.
The tower lay empty for some years while rumours of demolition and gentrification competed for column inches in the local press. No-one agreed on the right course of action - and everything was unfunded and impossibly hard to accomplish while Archway was essentially a huge island in the strategic road network. The local eyesore was, however, a rallying point for the discussion about what Archway could become. In 2012 an art installation by Ruth Ewan used technology to present a live view of the Island site without the tower. It was memorialised in a booklet of reminiscences called How to Make Archway Tower Disappear which included the stories of workers from the DSS office, musicians, artists and local residents. Among them, the comments of local MP Jeremy Corbyn stand out: for him, the tower was a deliberate brutality wrought on the poor - both those employed by the state and the unemployed who plead their cases to them. He fuses form with function, seeing the Tower's rather unremarkable 1960s vernacular as an assault on an older London. A pre-welfare state London which was surely less fair and more precarious to live in perhaps? The non-committal nature of his localism stretches into the current political unravelling, and the question remains where are any of us, actually from? There's no plan in all this - just an appeal to an impossible, distant past on all sides. Apparently the most remarkable aspect of the tower was the view across London in every direction from the upper floors:
There are some nice parts of London You can see them from hereThe site was finally redeveloped and rebranded as Vantage Point in 2016 and today is clad in neutral tones, fading into the winter skies and only reflecting a little light back from carefully tinted window panes. The slab-like visage to the north and south is mute and softened by the cladding and it begs to be ignored as an unremarkable residential block. It is still, by far, the tallest building for some way around, despite competition from its contemporary 1970s neighbour, Hill House which now shimmers in mirrored glass, bouncing light onto the new pedestrian area outside the utilitarian, stocky brick Post Office. Whether it was the opposing wind channelling along the new market square or the magnetic force of the monolithic building, it was hard to escape the drag of the Tower. I briefly considered a diversion to find the site of our musical endeavours along the street, but there was too little time, and while the sky was clearing to reveal a brightness ahead, the sun was fast sinking. I wanted to reach the city in the light so I headed on towards it, passing into the edges of Holloway.
Saint Etienne, 'Archway People', 1993
The Great North Road has its very origins in Holloway with a new road opened by the Bishop of London, owner of much of the land around Highgate Hill, by 1318. This safer, straighter escape from the city laid the foundations of the direct route north which survives at least as far as Archway where newer alignments take over. Much else about Holloway is unclear - and while tempting to understand its name as a rural hollow-way, worn deeply into the ground by the cattle heading for Smithfield, it is as likely to be a reference to the Hallowed Way to pilgrimage at Walsingham. In either case, modern Holloway bore little relationship to either a via sancta or an ancient cattle track. The much-improved pavements were broad and busy, carrying steady traffic from the station at Upper Holloway to the Tesco Metro and Sainsbury's Local which fronted up to the curious brick missile silo of St. Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows. The area fizzed with energy largely due to the presence of residential accommodation for students which is strung between the Archway Campus of Central St. Martins and the dour, overhanging concrete tower of London Metropolitan University. In the midst of this was Emirates Stadium, home to Arsenal and on any other Saturday, a little over 60,000 of their devout. Today, the team was across town, playing at West Ham's London Stadium in the midst of the Olympic Park. The eateries and pubs of Holloway were busy, but not overwhelmed and I longed to step in and rest in the increasingly fancy looking premises as I headed south and deeper into Inner London. I crossed a rubicon at Nag's Head - I'd passed through before, both on an excursion along the A503 to distant Wanstead and when I was heading back from an attempt on the North Circular. As such it felt like a boundary to a known London. A string of local businesses and familiar bookmarkers signs clustered alongside pound shops and takeaways, hugging the crossroads. It felt almost comfortingly typical - like I was home in a semi-suburban London I knew better. Beyond here, though I'd not walked much of the remaining route, I knew I was within the range of buses and trains which would get me back to somewhere near where I needed to be. My range anxiety melted away, and it became clear that it was perhaps the presence of slight frisson, a mild fear of the unknown which had kept my feet moving thus far. I felt heavy and tired, the remaining distance weighing on me as the road dwindled into a less important link between the City and the suburbs. It felt like the A1 was giving up on me, rather than the reverse. At Highbury Corner I felt myself pass through another shockwave of the nearing city - the station pulsed with activity, the population diversifying and the volume increasing. This felt like the London I'd known from my earliest visits. The darkness of Archway couldn't penetrate this far, the Tower was gone from my view now.
The pace accelerated, the city drew me in. Soon I was on Upper Street, with memories of snatched meals and happy reconvening after days spent walking. On Islington Green, Sir Hugh Myddleton stood guard, the remnants of his New River trickling underground now, streets away. Traffic careered around the junction and I realised what a destination in its own right this little corner had become. Shoppers filled the pavements, spilling into the road and precipitating attacks of honking as they blundered back onto the kerb. Despite the usually glum retail prospects for January, there were plenty of store-branded bags in evidence. Islington was fully gentrified, at odds with its radical associations and celebrated position as a centre of political influence. The seagulls, in particular, benefited hugely from the footfall, pecking at discarded scraps and strutting along the edge of the raised pavement. Since the 1960s the area has been dragging itself slowly up - terraces rejuvenated by middle-class owner-occupiers, cracked panes exchanged for CND stickers and wind-chimes on the porch. The district is home to a very specifically London kind of left-wing thought: intellectual rather than spiritual, honed in academia, hard to pin down and utterly dependent on the success of capitalism for its continued existence. This is where people voted to remain in the EU and can't for the life of them see why anyone wouldn't. This is where injustice is felt acutely and argued against loudly, but is often genuinely experienced just streets away with stoic silence. But, a kind of centrism which appals the true believers on both wings has its shameful heart on the sleeve of Islington. It's no surprise that the Blairs settled here on their journey to Downing Street. The people of Islington can win - or lose - elections for parties. These people hold the precarious balance of the Europe question, the next General Election, and probably the Bake Off final in their digits. In Britain, you always have to win the middle or lose the game. Jeremy Corbyn is duty bound to relentlessly play up his ascetic 'Good Life' credentials to continue living in the heart of the increasingly well-off, gentrifying Borough. There was, however, little sign of anti-capitalism today as Upper Street vibrated to the chirp of chip-and-pin transactions and steamed in the fragrance of chain restaurants. I pressed on, passing the Angel and crossing City Road. I was in very familiar territory now - inside the loop of the 205 bus route - but there were surprises still to be found. I'd never walked along the northern part Goswell Road - always preferring Bunhill Row or Whitecross Street to enter the City from the north with a nod to either George Gissing or William Blake. Suddenly, rearing above me like a chequerboard slab was Turnpike House. The entrance was via an elegant bow-like arch at the foot of the block, with tantalising hints of green space beyond. For the second time on this walk I thought of Saint Etienne. My appreciation of their work had begun early, with a crop of vital, life-affirmingly retrospective pop anthems which emerged in the 1990s. But we drifted apart: I found my niche in noisy low-fidelity art rock, and they strayed alarmingly into club territory. Worlds would occasionally collide in the following years with a snatched hearing of a new single or an appreciative glance at the ever glamorous Sarah Cracknell on TV, but I imagined that my London of grimy concrete and semi-industrial suburbs would never again align with their West End swagger and black-and-white movie chic. Then, almost a decade after I'd first heard them, a new side of Saint Etienne began to emerge: lyrics which read like Louis Macneice poems full of North Circular kitchen-sink drama, odes to suburbia, even a brace of films about London. The first of these Finisterre arrived in 2002, directed by Paul Kelly and scored by the band with a gritty, sometimes rather angular sounding electronic pulse. It was a hymn to the London of the early 21st century, but it drew unashamedly on the documentary films of the past, nodding knowingly at The London Nobody Knows along with the work of Patrick Keiller. The second film, What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day? toured the site of the future Olympicopolis on those two fateful days in 2005: the announcement of the 2012 games coming to town, and the terrorist attacks on 7th July. Between these two anchors, Tales From Turnpike House was released. A gleefully London-themed pop opera of an album with a cast of almost depressingly real characters languishing, living and loving in an alienating, modern city. Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs, unashamed Londonphiles and historians of the urban speculated that their Turnpike House would be somewhere in Croydon, on the fringe of London - but the clues were there: the architecture and alignment of the building was perfect, and The Birdman of EC1 lived in just the right postcode district.
I paused for a while here, enjoying the modern sweep of the arch under the building - a shallow portal into the greenery beyond while the grid of flats began to light up in a cryptic coded pattern as residents arrived home. The block marked the edge of the City of London, an alternative portal to replace the former Aldersgate which would have given entrance to The Barbican. Now the three concrete towers of the Chamberlain Powell and Bon designed complex: Cromwell, Lauderdale and Shakespeare, aligned across my route in silhouette against the pale red of the sunset. Their jagged shadows adumbrated on the light I'd been walking towards all day. Aldersgate, spanning the Great North Road, was recorded as early as 1395 when the Lord Mayor's sword-bearer was gifted the mansion above the gate. It was rebuilt in 1617 and repaired after the Great Fire before finally being demolished in 1761. Now the ancient way was flanked by modern, anodyne commercial facades which were dark and quiet on a weekend afternoon. It wasn't always this way, and the street has more than a hint of the supernatural about it: here the Bishops of London were housed to shorten their journey from Fulham Palace to St. Paul's Cathedral, and in 1738 John Wesley underwent his profound religious experience and conversion to Methodism as recorded in The Aldersgate Flame, a sculpture sited nearby. Naturally, not all such experiences were what they seemed and in 1554 Elizabeth Crofts, a serving girl, was hidden in the wall of a house on Aldersgate Street, her disembodied 'heavenly voice' giving dire warnings about the consequences of the marriage of Catholic Queen Mary I to Prince Phillip of Spain. A crowd of around 17,000 attended over the following day to listen before the wall was demolished and Crofts discovered as its source. This final stretch - along the former Pickax Street - was hard on the feet, but was a strangely uplifting walk: a trip I hadn't dared to think would take place had led me along a route which had been unexpectedly compelling. I trudged through the low-rise blocks of the Golden Lane Estate, and circumnavigated the brick rotunda of The Museum of London which posed as a non-descript traffic island, from some angles at least. The dome of St. Pauls was looming between the crystalline reflections of the Barbican in the fascia of Cheapside offices which hid the little church of St. Vedast. The tourists lingered, aiming for a final shot of Paul's Cross in the golden hour, the sky a fine orange band behind the stark white ashlar of the building. I didn't really know where the A1 ended - or indeed began - but it couldn't go any further than the end of New Change where it met Cannon Street. I turned the corner to mark and ending at the point where I'd contemplated the possible loss of these walks back in December, in front of the Phoenix on the south door.
After lingering in the Cathedral precincts for a while, watching tourists wrapped up in winter gear framing their perfect selfies against an unforgivingly blank sky, I summoned the effort to trudge a little further, to Ludgate Circus and a familiar old coffee stop. Resting my feet there in the quiet, surrounded by students flicking at 'phone screens and staff gossiping about other crew-members, I reflected on today's walk - and on the optimistic chance that I'd be able to continue these walks despite my concerns at the end of the year. There was much to consider - new twists in my own tale to work into the coming months - but having broken ground on a new project, one which would see walking challenging miles in sometimes inhospitably non-pedestrian zones felt good. As ever, I agonised over the rules I'd impose on myself: I'd walked the 'modern' route of the A1 after all, not the ancient Great North Road - had I already invalidated my own plans? Or perhaps that walk, through the ancient villages of Middlesex, was a different walk again. At least, for now, it felt good to be contemplating the continuation of these trips.
A gallery of images from the walk is here.
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 cafÃ© 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 London on Saturday 4th November 2017 at 11:11pm
Heading west out of Paddington, minutes after arriving, felt very strange indeed. A few minutes later, as I waited in a steady downpour outside Ealing Broadway station for the bus to Hanger Lane, I tried to rationalise my persistence with today's endeavour. I needed to walk... It had felt like a tough few weeks, and I knew I had an equally challenging month ahead. I also felt like I had unfinished business out here - and despite feeling like a trudge along some damp eastern pavements might have been a far more sensible idea given the promised poor weather, I'd been drawn back to the River Brent which had proved so elusive and wayward on my last walk here. When I'd left the river last time, it had been a reluctant parting - I'd figured that Brentford and the Thames were mere miles away, and ought to have been easily reached had I stepped up the pace and not been confounded by diversions. Thus today's walk felt like it might be worryingly short and on the way into London I'd been concocting possible additions and extensions to fill the day. As it was, the Brent more than occupied my time today, and the walk was not as short as I'd feared...
Sheltering in a shop doorway, just out of reach of the spray from cars hurtling around the Hanger Lane Gyratory, I deployed the hood of my coat and tried to secure it in a spot which didn't wholly deprive me of my senses. Prepared, and steeled for the rain, I set off - much to the amusement of some of the passengers on my bus who had watched me preparing to get going. I realised from my reflection that the look of grim determination I was wearing must have seemed oddly out of place as I strode off along the slip-road down to the A40. I was starting my walk on another typical arterial road. The slick river of tar stretched ahead, red tail lamps winking into the dark distance and neon signs on the nearby buildings appearing weirdly over-bright in the gloom. I woudn't be spending long walking this road, thankfully, but the more pressing issue was that I didn't fully know how far to go. My research for this walk had focused on what seemed like tricky pathless sections further ahead, and I was striking out into the unknown a little here. As I walked, the hulk of the Vanguard warehouse near which I'd abandoned my last Brent excursion dominated the view west. Ahead of it, the river passed under the A40 via an unremarked bridge. I'd been so close to the water before, but tantalisingly it lay just out of sight, between the road and the railway. Near the bridge a wooden kissing gate led into a grassy space beyond and I'd have probably ignored this save for the 'Brent River Park' direction indicator on the post. Beneath, the river was a grey rush - swollen with rainwater from the heights of Middlesex, its course was more urgent and turbulent than when I'd last been beside it. I was reluctant to head into the field given how wet things were, but it couldn't hurt could it? I swung through the gate and left the road behind. The river curved to meet the flattened path, a carpet of fallen leaves providing me with traction underfoot. This was already beginning to feel like the right direction to head in...
The river wound around the edge of a golf course, providing a boundary between the primped greens and fairways and the much more democratic municipality of Pitshanger Park. I followed its course as closely as I could here, remembering how tricky it had been to walk alongside the river further upstream. The scrubby fields between the road and the park were deserted except for a lone dog walker who patrolled the perimeter, eyeing me with a little suspicion as I trudged carefully around some of the wetter spots on the path. The river turned west, and I needed to retreat to the roads to find it again, doing so via an inelegant clamber over a stile and into the attractive and quiet streets of Brentham Garden Suburb. This rather sleepy and at first unremarkable estate is in fact an early example of a cooperative housing development built to incorporate Ebeneezer Howard's principles as outlined in 'To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform'. Published in 1898, this work kickstarted the Garden City movement which suggested the possibility of enjoying the conveniences of city life in almost rural settings. With construction beginning in 1901, Brentham pre-dates its better known and now rather exclusive cousin at Hampstead by some years but being a little further out of the city, isn't perhaps well positioned to become the haunt of the well-to-do and famous. Walking west, towards an entrance to Pitshanger Park, I watched the estate waking up - supermarket delivery vans puttered between streets, families wandered outdoors, wrapped in winter clothes. The rain had almost stopped as I turned into the park entrance which was guarded by a gang of gossiping dog walkers, their bored hounds grunting and sniffing at the floor in anticipation of their excursion recommencing. I set off across the park to its northern boundary where the river was hidden behind a line of trees. There were few others in this part of the park away from the sports club and cafÃ©, and while still a little damp my walk was quiet and pleasant. At the edge of the park I turned north along a narrow hedge-lined alleyway cutting through the golf course. The river, after being joined by what appeared to be the stub of a forgotten tributary or former diversion, also turned north, and through the hedge I could see it winding between greens and fairways, providing a genuine challenge to errant golfers.
The path divided near a wooden bridge over the Brent, marking the point where I'd expected to enter the park had my excursion through the fields not proved viable. I turned west again, rejoining the river as it took a broad loop to the south and then north along Argyle Road. A detour here took me close to the riverbank as far as Perivale Lane where I feared I was trespassing on the grounds of St. Benedict's School. I tramped back to Argyle Lane, retracing my steps rather than following an arc around the playing fields of a leisure centre which, while closer to the river were clearly muddy and very wet and offered no clue about how I'd escape at the other end. I began to fear that perhaps the Brent was to be as elusive today as it had been on the first part of my walk in from Finchley. I headed west along Ruislip Road East, a long straight route running directly from Ealing to Greenford which the borough had recently improved to favour walkers and cyclists. Frequent banners hung from the fence behind which the river ran, informing me how this five-mile long route was safe, well provided with frequent crossings and speed controls and could enhance my health and wellbeing. Indeed there did seem to be a fair number of people wandering back and forth as I passed under the railway line from Greenford with the Brent churning darkly under the adjacent arch of the bridge. The road began to rise towards a junction with Greenford Broadway, crossing the river by way of an ornate bridge. Beside the bridge a gap in the fence provided a surprisingly anonymous entrance to the continuation of the Capital Ring walking route. I'm still asked fairly often if I'm 'doing' this walk - and equally often I'm told how unattractive and borderline dangerous my questioners found the walk. At this point I'm forced to grit my teeth and suggest that I'm not walking the route but inevitably I'm encountering parts of it on my travels. I'd love to add that circling a vast, complex city like London is bound to take a walker through a variety of landscapes which make up the edgelands, but I suspect they're already busily ticking off their next sanctioned and sanitised walk somewhere. After a brief pause to buy lunch I returned to the inconsequential gap in the fence and plunged into the cool, quiet tunnel between the trees which lined the river here. Near the road there was the usual evidence of temporary occupation: blue carrier bags, Polish lager cans, the marks of extinguished fires and discarded clothing - but soon these petered out too, and it was just me and the river. The Brent was wide and fast-flowing here, swirling with rainwater from the numerous streams and gullies which joined it on its suburban journey. This wedge of parkland, hemmed in by a recycling centre and a large development of inter-war housing was almost entirely deserted. The sky churned overhead, but promised brighter conditions might be coming later, and I happily trudged south, the river tumbling and twisting beside me. The way was marked by infrequent wayfinding posts, and one of these sent me down a flight of wooden steps cut into the steep valley side and onto a rarely walked diversion on the bank of the river. Unsure if this path would safely return me to my route without a muddy scramble, I was a little uneasy about heading onwards - but the lure of the water was strong and I'm glad I continued. This was the closest I'd managed to get to the Brent so far, and it felt good to be walking beside it more directly for a short spell as it cascaded over a weir and swirled around hanging boughs of trees which leaned down into its surface. Returning safely to the path further ahead, I crossed a bridge and found myself on a comparatively well-made stony path passing directly through another golf course, marked by signs warning me that by passing them I accepted the risk of encountering low-flying balls. There were few golfers braving the unpredictable November weather today, so I gladly took the chance and continued. The river was to the east now, denoted by a snaking line of trees beyond the flags and bunkers, and I once again wondered how much more of it I'd manage to see? Above the trees, the steeple of St. Mary's Church in Hanwell was a black silhouette on a turbulent and dramatic sky which seemed to shift to dominate the view from every direction as the path turned with the river. There has been a place of worship here for well over a thousand years, and it struck me that the development of parks and golf courses around it meant that it still provided a landmark from some distance away with little encroachment by other tall buildings. The path rejoined the Brent, crossing it by way of a solid but scruffy metal bridge, and then divided again - the more formal sandy track leading up to the church while a series of wooden flets sunk into the muddy bank took the path into a broad meadow and towards the curve of the river again. I chose the muddier path and stayed with the Brent.
At the top of the steps I found an expansive park, surrounding the fences of Hanwell Zoo and allowing me to take a wet but relatively mud-free excursion along the riverbank as it wandered east around the edge of the Millennium Maze and into Churchfields Recreation Ground. The thunder of trains could be heard over the chatter of children and braying of goats, apparently the only animals braving the wet weekend morning in a compound at the back of the zoo. It occurred to me that I'd soon be passing under the Great Western Railway which had brought me into Paddington a few hours ago, the twists and recursions of today's journey echoing the contortions of the Brent. Now though, the river slunk quietly in a low gully at the foot of the park, screened by high trees and hedges which hid the graceful arches of Wharncliffe Viaduct from view until at the foot of the sloping parkland one of the great arches leapt into view, gracefully crossing the path and the river. This awe-inspiring structure was one of the earliest projects attributed to Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and also one of the first completed along the route west from Paddington to Bristol with trains running above from 1838. The viaduct also has the honour of being one of the first buildings 'listed' for preservation in 1949, and such forms a key part of the bid to have the whole original GWR route named a World Heritage Site. While it remains unclear if Queen Victoria really did insist the Royal Train pause on the viaduct to let her enjoy the view along the Brent Valley, there are now others who linger here - namely a vast colony of bats which live within the hollow archways. The river turns south again here, initially in a brick culvert which neatly brings it alongside the path and under one of the easternmost arches of the viaduct. Looking along the structure, its grace and scale are overwhelming, and perhaps not fully appreciated until viewed from the hay meadow to the south of the line where Lord Wharncliffe's family arms are visible on the central span - recognition of his support for the parliamentary bill authorising the Great Western Railway. I paused here, trying to get a picture which would truly show the sweep of the arches over the valley, an amused dog walker letting his charge scamper in the long grass while he watched me struggling to frame the shot against a dull grey sky. Behind me as I faced the wonder of Victorian engineering, another impressive bulk of a different era loomed: the huge Ealing Hospital - a solid grey block raised above a wide pediment, with ramps leaping and curving from the ground to deliver ambulances direct to the entrances. I'd passed this way countless times, spotting the rather grim building from trains speeding west from Paddington, but up close the building felt impressive, dour and overbearing. Before reaching the Hospital, the river needed to pass under the Uxbridge Road via a low stone bridge. There was a choice of routes here - the path ascended to cross the busy road at grade, or I could stay beside the river and pass under an arch in the bridge built to accommodate the footpath. This passage dipped low, close to the river's edge and appeared worryingly waterlogged. I weighed up the alternative route up to the road, but decided that I was brave enough to attempt the slither down the stone slope and under the bridge. In the edge of the river beside me, a forlorn and slowly moulding office chair was marooned in a shallow pool of greenish water. The roof was close to my head, stippled with drips of calcification and dangling here and there with more ambitious stalactites, but the passage was uneventful save for paddling through an inch or so of water - either rainfall or overspill from the Brent which felt perilously close. The path climbed again, rising to pass close to the eastern perimeter of the Hospital, revealing the inner workings and complexities of the building, rather spoiling the illusion of the futuristic swooping concrete ramps and the rather inhuman face of the tall concrete blocks. Built in 1979, the site fills the nook between the River Brent and the mainline of the Grand Junction - latterly the Grand Union - Canal. To the west of the current hospital the former Middlesex County Asylum, opened in 1831 remains in use as a modern psychiatric unit, still sequestered behind a solid red-brick wall. Known for some time as St. Bernard's Hospital, the facility pioneered early forms of occupational therapy under Dr William Ellis its first superintendent, and was later instrumental in the removal of restraints in favour of less invasive means of protecting patients, including the padded room. The relative humanity of the regime at Hanwell under Ellis is evident in his principled resignation upon learning that the Commissioners and Justices wished to cram more patients than he felt could be properly be cared for.
This corner of Hanwell also holds a significant place in the nation's industrial history. Beyond the hospital the path divided, with a spur leading up to the towpath of the canal at the bottom of the Hanwell Flight - a series of six locks with associated balancing ponds built in 1794 to bring the Grand Junction to the level of the Brent, with which it merges nearby. As I emerged beside the bottom of the flight, two young couples were beginning the ascent of the flight, enjoying the sunshine which had finally escaped weakly from the cover of low cloud and not yet tired from, or perhaps fully cognisant of, the effort required in operating the six locks to raise their boat through fifty-three feet. I was tempted to follow the canal but I stuck with the river path as long as I could, taking the path which shadowed its last sluggish twists between the cottages on Green Lane and the canal, before finally reaching the junction under a brick bridge. From here I would be walking the southern part of a route which was navigable to Birmingham and beyond, and which had revolutionised transport in the 18th century. The River Brent, for a time at least, was subsumed into the wide, businesslike line of the canal - but it wasn't entirely absent. The river's meanders and twists as it approached the Thames largely dictated the course of the canal. Where the meanders were too tight and wide the river branched from the canal into foliage-choked and litter strewn loops which tumbled busily over weirs while the canal took a more sedate route through the wide green spaces of Osterley Park. The grand house here has its origins in an Elizabethan Manor which, at a respectable distance from London attracted the Child's, a well-connected banking family who in 1761 engaged Robert Adam to rebuild the house which was by then in considerable disrepair. Osterley House was once set in open countryside, and while its immediate grounds remain a park in National Trust management, a surprisingly large area of apparently unmanaged open land which would once have been part of its substantial grounds shadows the Brent here. To the east of the river this has become a managed wildlife area, part of the chain of spaces which make up Brent River Park. To the west the former Great Western Railway branch to Brentford runs broadly in parallel, passing the curiously named Trumpers' Crossing nearby. On the towpath, a large sign notes the location of the prize-winning length of pile in the 1959 Kerr Cup Pile Driving Competition. This contest, apparently organised by British Waterways, appears lost to history - even Google largely drawing a blank except for references to the sign itself. Both canal and railway pass under a more modern transport innovation here too, with the M4 sweeping above on a curving route into West London via a practical and unadorned concrete and iron overbridge. The traffic shuddered and screeched above, the notoriously bottlenecked road seemingly flowing freely for a welcome change.
For a while, the motorway, railway and canal ran in parallel along the broad lower Brent valley. The river meandered to the east here, passing around large wooded islands under the road, traffic above seeing a carpet of treetops below and largely unaware of the presence of the waterways. The towpath climbed over the river by way of an elegant iron bridge spanning solid, brick piers. Beyond the fence the silent machinery of a waste transfer station waited restlessly for the next load of detritus from the suburbs. This was once Brentford Town station on the somewhat unloved Brentford Dock branch, Brunel's final railway project before his death. The aim was to secure a GWR connection to the tidal Thames at Brentford - but the line struggled from the start with objections to its construction raised by the Grand Junction Canal Company and the Duke of Northumberland, owner of nearby Syon House. When eventually opened to goods in 1859, and then to passengers in 1860, the initially single track, broad gauge line failed to deliver on its promise in attracting commuters. The anticipated passenger flows to the Dock for ferries to Kew Gardens didn't ever begin operation, but freight traffic grew steadily with cargoes transferred to barges at the busy docks beside the Thames. By the time services were suspended as an economy measure during the First World War the branch was operating as a more conventional double track spur from Southall - but passenger traffic was never strong, in part because the connection to the mainline faced west making through-trains from Paddington unworkable. The London & South Western Railway had arrived in Brentford in 1849 with swift services direct to Waterloo - and the GWR simply couldn't compete. Despite restoration after hostilities ceased, the service was reduced to a peak time shuttle in 1929 and ceased entirely in 1942. Perhaps surprisingly, freight traffic continued to the goods depot at the Town Station site until 1970, with private sidings serving Firestone and other factories along the 'Golden Mile' of the Great West Road - the great mid-century sprawl of industry out to the west of London. Now the line stops short of its former crossing of the A4 while the collected waste of Hounslow, Ealing and Richmond is sifted and containerised at the railhead. Soon after passing under the road near the vast mirror of the Glaxo Smithkline global HQ, the river is bridged by the L&SWR's 'Hounslow Loop' - and with electric trains passing frequently above it's perhaps easy to see why the Great Western's branch never quite made its mark as a passenger railway. I emerged from beneath the Great West Road to find the hulking remains of an overhanging warehouse leering out into the waterway. It appeared that boats awaiting repair were now stored here, somewhat sheltered by the structure which seemed to be in the midst of a long process of overhaul. The path edged around the skeletal building, feeling oddly unofficial - this area was in the throes of redevelopment with the walkway temporarily transferred onto an unnerving floating pontoon in the canal. I trudged carefully along the queasily oscillating plastic walkway, noting the modern apartments which had encroached on the broad canal as it approached Brentford Gauging Lock. Walking here felt like trespass, and I wasn't sorry to emerge on Brentford High Street which felt down-to-earth in comparison to the eerily quiet developments along the canal.
Brentford High Street was surprisingly quiet too, with the Great West Road now taking the strain of much of the through traffic. At this, western end of town things were starting to feel the effort of gentrification - pubs were smartening up and a few specialist stores opening opposite a modern hotel building on the edge of the Canal basin. The towpath continued, descending via a slick, steep flight of stairs onto a narrow ledge which turned east along the Brent's final meander towards the Thames. This part of the walk had looked straightforward from the maps - a last trudge along the path to the confluence - but it was a surprisingly complicated endeavour. Firstly, the path was confusingly discontinuous and was often thrown aside from the water by private stretches of mooring. At one point following the path necessitated clambering up onto a concrete ledge to cross the river frontage of a timber merchant's warehouse which would formerly have received deliveries by barge. There were few people around and sparse signage to indicate I wasn't way off track - making the narrow and unclear right-of-way feel strangely menacing. The afternoon was becoming warm too, with the morning's mist and rain now a memory as the sun beat down on the water, reflecting dizzily back at me. I crossed the river again near a muddy inlet which reminded me that the River had now taken precedence again, and that this was Brentford Creek rather than the managed route of the canal. Immediately after crossing the bridge the route descended a steep staircase down to the grassy riverbank, as the more solid walkway through the Brentford Dock Estate remained private. Design of this development of homes by GLC architect Sir Roger Walters began on the closure of the docks in 1964, and building was finally complete by 1978 - the year of his retirement. Originally proposed for social letting, only around one fifth of the units were rented with leases for the rest sold by the GLC, resulting in the privately managed estate of today. In 1980 the associated Marina development was opened by the flamboyant GLC leader Sir Horace Cutler arriving by boat from County Hall. Cutler was by all accounts very keen on such showmanship, and although his administration is regarded as largely unsuccessful, he raised ideas which later found more general acceptance - not least the extension of the Jubilee Line into Docklands to spark regeneration, the promotion of the London Marathon and an audacious scheme to bid for the 1988 Olympic Games - which failed to find Government support. Cutler also correctly predicted that if elected, the Labour leader Andrew McIntosh would be ousted by the left of the party and that Ken Livingstone would become GLC leader. However, fighting the election on this negative basis seems to have assured Labour of the very victory which Cutler feared. Six years after Cutler's triumphant arrival stunt at Brentford Marina, the GLC which he had himself described as "too big, remote and shadowy" was finally abolished by the Thatcher government, nominally for those same reasons.
I crossed the Brent for the final time at Thames Lock - the tidal gates which controlled entry to the docks until their closure, and which still allow experienced boaters to access the Thames at designated times. The area around the lock was a pleasantly haphazard zone of chandler's yards and crumbling warehouses which transported me with a jolt to the unreconstructed reaches of the Lower Lea Valley more than a decade ago. Boats of all kinds were visible, some floating queasily askance, others hoisted from the water and in various states of repair or decay, but no-one seemed in a hurry to do much this sunny, Saturday afternoon. Here too, regeneration was slowly encroaching - and the people who I met crossing the bridge over the last loop of the river were upwardly mobile, young and optimistic looking types. Dock Road led down towards Brentford High Street which was a confusing and somewhat downbeat mix of buildings awaiting demolition, new developments and tired looking blocks from the late 20th century. A little further east I found the signposts marking the route to the Thames Path. Here, like some of the places I'd encountered the path in the east of the city, there were discontinuities and complex diversions where the riverfront rights of way hadn't yet been resolved. A short way ahead I found an alleyway which returned me to the final few metres of the River Brent at Point Wharf Lane beside some tidy and well-used residential moorings and some shiny newly built apartments stacked atop a trio of Turkish, Indian and Italian restaurants. The last mile of the Brent had been quiet and residential, and felt curiously private in nature. The river belonged to those who lived beside it and I felt like an intruder walking the path beside their homes. As the path turned east, I realised that I'd unexpectedly reached the point of confluence - and I tried to snap a picture inconspicuously over the heads a family working on their boat. I also calculated that the walk from Perivale to this spot had in fact been around ten miles in length - there was certainly no way I'd have finished this walk on my last outing, and perhaps I'd been too tough on myself for not pressing on to Brentford. after all? My estimate, minus the winding and curving of the river, had been dramatically off beam. Now I needed to head briefly back inland near the giant stainless steel swoop of Simon Packard's 'Liquidity' sculpture - a commission which had almost broken the spirit of the artist - standing resolutely on the quayside at Ferry Lane despite local homeowner's protests at its size.
The Thames Path meandered confusingly again, through a forbidding iron gateway and up a strange flight of outdoor stairs at the rear of Waterman's Park - an apparently abandoned 1970s office complex which felt like a set from a TV show. I expected to be chased along the raised brick gangway by Denis Waterman at any moment. Eventually though, I found my way through to the park proper - a sliver of green which runs along the Thames, the site of the former Brentford Gasworks which closed in 1963. A busy arts centre now occupies part of the cleansed and remediated land, and the river moorings are contested territory - longstanding residents forced out to accommodate luxury boats. Beside me the brown waters of London's river parted to sluggishly churn around Lot's Ait and Brentford Ait - a pair of wooded islets in the river. Up ahead, the tall tower of the former Grand Junction Waterworks Company loomed at Kew Bridge, marking the point where my South Circular walk had returned me to the north bank of the river. This dogged but doomed company had tried in vain to extract clean water from the Brent and the Colne, but resorted in the end to syphoning off the murk of the Thames and using the lofty standpipe tower as a means of filtering out the worst of the filth and detritus. Somehow, even when I least expected it, my walks formed connections and strengthened my sense of the city. My earlier walk along the northern reaches of the river had almost convinced me that these western tributaries would be frustrating to follow and wouldn't form substantial walks, but today had persuaded me otherwise. I waited for one of the trains which had passed over my head earlier to arrive at Kew Bridge and take me swiftly back to Waterloo while I pondered my eastern prejudices. It's true that having been engaged in other parts of the city had made me pine for points east, but if these western walks continued to produce these new and surprising insights into the fringes of the city, then I'd be back to walk more of them. At times during the previous month, the River Brent had felt like a millstone - unfinished work, an incomplete walk sitting on the ledger - but it had in fact been deceptive - a river much longer, swifter and deeper than I'd imagined, and a route surprisingly capable of capturing my imagination. I wasn't the first to be persuaded it seems, and it was interesting to ponder quite what our former Poet Laureate would have made of modern Brentford?
Gentle Brent, I used to know you
Wandering Wembley-wards at will,
Now what change your waters show you
In the meadowlands you fill!
Sir John Betjeman - Middlesex - 1954
You can find a gallery of pictures from the walk here.
Posted in London on Saturday 2nd September 2017 at 10:09pm
Despite my careful attempts to end the last leg of my walk somewhere I could easily pick up the threads, my arrival at Forest Hill had been a little fraught. With rail services not calling today due to planned engineering works I'd somehow entirely missed, I'd headed instead to Catford via a departure from the impressively extended and modernised Blackfriars station. While there, my bank card had been rejected by the ATM leaving me in a state of mild confusion and paranoia. I didn't even notice how bright the morning sun had turned as I headed for the bus stop near Catford Station and hopped on board. Not until I'd had managed a successful transaction at Forest Hill Sainsbury's was I assured that there hadn't been some sort of financial mishap. These things always bother me - and the prospect of a conversation with my bank instead of walking this morning wasn't edifying at all. As I stepped back out into the bustle of surprisingly gentrified Forest Hill I sighed with relief. Perhaps I was ready for this after all? Completing the circle seemed impossibly far off - but it had become something of a cause now. This leg of the trip would take me into areas I simply didn't know, and which I couldn't connect with any of my other wanders at all. That in itself felt strange - so many of the unexpected pleasures of the last few walks around the Circular Roads were in turning unknown corners to find familiar views from new angles. This was a different excursion - deep into the suburbs, in almost the opposite direction to that in which I comfortably tend to turn. I dodged sturdy designer prams and expensive bikes to gain the outer edge of the pavement in order to get an angle on the sign of 'Ferfect Fried Chicken' - this legendary local eatery was allegedly unprepared to pay to use the existing name when the shop was purchased from a group of franchises, and so a surprising accurately matched 'F' was tiled over the sign. The fact it makes absolutely no sense appears to have troubled no-one, and so in the midst of the rapidly upscaling Forest Hill townscape, opposite the rather fine old 1920s Capitol Theatre turned Wetherspoons, the errant chicken purveyor remains. This felt like the perfect place to begin walking. The beginning of the end of the South Circular...
As I climbed away from Forest Hill, still surprised by the upturn in its fortunes in comparatively recent times, I saw the tower of the Horniman Museum appearing at the crest of the hill amidst a cluster of greenery. Charles Harrison Townsend's curious 1901 design fuses Arts and Crafts decoration with a rather foresighted and clean lined modernism, making for an odd but pleasing building, sitting almost at the brow of Forest Hill. The museum itself houses Frederick Horniman's extensive collection of curiosities, purchased with the proceeds of his inherited tea trading empire. The collection majors on cultural and anthropological history, and has a legendary collection of taxidermy and musical instruments. There was no time to check out what sounded like a charmingly odd expression of one man's passion for collecting today, instead I slipped into the surprisingly capacious gardens beside the museum to find a spot to apply sunscreen and chug cold water before setting off in earnest. I found the rather beautiful grounds of the museum busy with locals out for a stroll and families working on what appeared to be an edible garden project. The pathways curled around the site, luring me deeper into the wooded nooks. The temptation to explore further was strong, especially because the northern edge of the site offers impressive views over London from the comparatively high ground of the hill. Instead I set off west, crossing the former trackbed of the London Brighton & South Coast Railway's branch to Crystal Palace High Level. Much of the railway can now be walked as part of a nature trail running between the suburban streets, and which after crossing the South Circular, climbs into the woods of Sydenham Hill. Having never recovered traffic following the destruction of the Crystal Palace by fire on 30th November 1936, the line limped on until 1954. It has the dubious distinction of being the first electrified mainline railway line to close in London. Now it's a barely discernable hump in the road, the path disappearing into the Lapse Wood Walk housing estate where some remains of the line can be spotted by the eagle-eyed. I trudged along the road towards it's awkward junction with Lordship Lane, choosing unwisely to attempt to cross near 'The Ferns', a very early attempt at constructing a home entirely from concrete dating from 1873 by Charles Drake's Patent Concrete Building Co. In disrepair for a while, it was good to see that a recent refurbishment had restored it to former glory, while retaining the name of the property. I had a while to ponder this feat of engineering as I waited for a gap in the traffic on the South Circular...
I had only the vaguest idea of Dulwich. Somehow I'd cobbled together an idea of the place through the oddest disconnected parts: Margaret Thatcher, the Picture Gallery, the exclusive, private college which produced the odious Nigel Farage. While all these things form part of this curious place, there is something stranger at work here. Dulwich, despite being sandwiched between areas not far away which are challenged and struggling, is an incredibly genteel neighbourhood. The green, wooded slopes of Sydenham Hill rise high above the broad playing fields of Dulwich College, home to the Old Alleynians - named for Edward Alleyn, actor and founder in 1619 of 'God's Gift College'. Beyond them, the almost impossibly tall transmitter tower at Crystal Palace strikes the skyline. Snaking around the edge of the sports ground is Hambledon Place, a gated community of large modern dwellings, perhaps surprisingly built by Barratt Homes, in the style of the large mansion houses which line the other side of the South Circular in Dulwich. Behind these gates, a battle-scarred Margaret Thatcher briefly reflected on her ousting from Downing Street. She had taken her husband's advice and purchased a bolt-hole to which she could escape when her increasingly inevitable downfall occurred, and the proximity to a good golf course bears his influence too perhaps? Dennis is reputed to have suggested she could wander down to the village with her basket to shop, and then a car could pick her up and take her to the Lords for a vote, which perhaps suggests more about Dulwich than it does the Thatchers. In the event, Margaret and Dennis didn't spend a great deal of time in Dulwich before their repair to Belgravia, and the local association with them is perhaps unwarranted. I lingered on the corner trying to decide if I could poke my camera through the automated gates, festooned with cameras and electronics. As I decided, a large, sparklingly clean Landrover cruised up to the gates, the driver a middle-aged Indian man wearing shades and the garb of a country gent out for the shoot. "What are you doing here? Why don't you fuck off?" - there was no pause for a response between his two plainly rhetorical questions. I silently did as I was told, cursing my failure to defend my ground on the public highway outside the gates. There was something in his response which typified Dulwich too. As I've walked the Circular roads, I've encountered a surprising number of clandestinely privatised places: edgeland strips of littered scrub protected by a forest of cameras, retail parks under constant surveillance, gated communities like Hambledon Park. But there is a more sinister edge here in the affluent south. There are areas where a tyranny of manners guards access - where you might 'look' wrong and the fear of being asked what on earth you think you're doing here guards against intrusion. Perhaps only in Britain - maybe only in London - could this work so effectively to repel the unwanted? I definitely felt that I wasn't required here in Dulwich, and as I hurried along the perimeter of the college, its beautiful gothic buildings largely concealed by scaffolding as it was buffed and repaired for another lucrative school year, I was acutely aware of the this entire area being carefully managed. The Dulwich Estate centres on the various schools and colleges, and its long and complex history records generations of very smart investment, clever capitalisation of legacies and maximisation of income. Indeed the estate still operates the only remaining toll road in London, though this most traditional but financially savvy of institutions does allow locals to pay via an electronic tag. The rigorous preservation of a certain kind of English village life, coupled with an astute sense of being an island within a vast city makes Dulwich feel self-aware, a little apart, overtly stage-managed. I wasn't sad to pass over the boundary.
The transition from Dulwich to Tulse Hill was however, something of a jolt - the quaint wooden fingerposts and crimped lawns of the Dulwich Estate gave way to the well graffitied and apparently disused Variable Message Signs which were about the only hint of the strategic importance of the South Circular. A few stray flags on lampposts urged me to 'Love West Dulwich' - an area which appeared to consist entirely of an attractive if rather sparsely used railway station and a tricky to navigate crossroads with the route to Herne Hill. The quiet suburban area clung to its eastern and more affluent neighbour desperately. There really isn't any West Dulwich aside from the railway - but they're trying really hard to believe there could be. A low bridge where sleek, new Thameslink trains passed overhead marked the boundary, and yet another badly thought-out gyratory spun the road around the Victorian centre of Tulse Hill. It struck me here that the most problematic spots on the South Circular were often where well-meaning attempts to improve traffic flow had been implemented. This area was largely undeveloped until the early 19th century, and only really became populous after the railway arrived in 1868 when the difficult geography and the straggling forested remnants of the once extensive Great North Wood finally gave way to a district of rather plain and functional terraces. The last thing I expected to detain me on this leg of the walk was surprising architecture - but descending from the heights of Tulse Hill, the South Circular curves along the edge of the Palace Road Estate. This early 1970s low rise development was built by the Greater London Council and designed by their chief architect, Sir Roger Walters. His modern but subdued buildings snake along the awkward rise beside the road in attractive zig-zagging blocks which lengthen towards the western boundary of the site. His work for the GLC is remarkably distinguished if somewhat unsung, with the Thames Barrier and the rejuvenated Covent Garden bearing his signature. He is perhaps less well known for Perronet House at Elephant and Castle, a modern social housing block dating from 1970 which uses unusual design features to give all residents an aspect at both sides of the building, uninterrupted by external communal corridors. Wikipedia, ever resourceful, reminds us not to confuse him with Roger Waters. We won't, I'm sure. As the road headed further down Streatham Hill towards Clapham, an equally curious building rose steadily above the brow. First a curious pyramid appeared, then a tall, striated brick tower and finally a squat and solidly modern looking church beneath. Christ Church by James William Wild in fact dates from 1841, and is a truly remarkable building. While now essentially an inclusive and suburban outpost of the Anglican Communion with its extensive estate of dull urban churches, this building appears to belong in another time. Meanwhile its patterned brickwork and Star of David rose window seem to come from another continent entirely. After delivering a number of solid but unremarkable parish churches in Hampshire, Wild travelled extensively in Egypt and the Middle East. A period of mysterious inactivity followed his return to Britain, after which he worked on the complex of museums in South Kensington and their outpost at Bethnal Green, now the Museum of Childhood. Perhaps the building that owes most to Christ Church though is his Italianate water tower at Grimsby Docks. The church is an arresting sight in the slightly mundane surroundings of this part of the road - a welcome relief from the suburban monotony of the hinterland separating the boroughs of Lambeth and Wandsworth.
Shortly after Christ Church, the South Circular crosses the A23 on its long trek to Brighton. From here, for just a short section, the road is a broad six-lane dual carriageway. Oddly, this is also one of the quieter sections with most traffic apparently content to head along the radial roads into London or out to the suburbs and the coast. The South Circular soon returns to its ponderous, pottering single-carriageway meander into Clapham, through pleasant terraces and bursts of more recent development. It strikes me that this part of the route must be more affluent - there is a Tesco Metro or Sainsbury's Local on almost every major junction, something distinctly lacking in the eastern quadrant. I'm also aware that I'm starting to head north towards the river, having passed the most southerly point of the road's curve some way back. The arc of the South Circular is shallower than its northern counterpart, returning to the Thames much closer to the West End, and stretching out an arm along the river to the western suburbs. Now though, the road arrived rather unexpectedly at Clapham Common. The junction was busy with traffic from all angles, and crossing was difficult - but sure enough, tucked away between the branches of the road was the squat cylindrical tower which signified the shaft leading to one of the Deep Level Shelters. This network of extremely deep and well-protected tunnels were built when the public demand for shelter from the blitz began to overwhelm capacity around the city. The tunnels echoed stations on the Northern and Central Lines, with the intention that they would be linked together to form an express tube network in peace time. Progress on the building was slow due to wartime labour shortages, and by their completion in 1942 the intensive bombing had largely subsided and demand for shelter had reduced. The Goodge Street shelter became General Eisenhower's wartime base, and other stations hosted troops in transit, but the tunnels were hardly used for their original purpose if at all. They also failed to live up to their intended post war use as new Tube lines, but almost all of the tunnels have found a peacetime role: as document stores, telephone exchanges or even for a brief period during the 1951 Festival of Britain, a hotel. Now however, the rather sorry looking Clapham Common entrance is overlooked by a line of very fashionable eateries and bars stretching along the edge of the common. I knew this area was becoming more desirable and the demographic changing, but to see it in such a sudden burst of activity after the resolutely suburban progress of the South Circular was a shock indeed. But perhaps it shouldn't have been a surprise - Clapham has been fashionable since its earliest development as a suburb, with the spacious villas surrounding the Common providing homes for the 'Clapham Sect' - an informal but influential group of evangelical Anglicans numbering among them William Wilberforce and Henry Thornton. The atmosphere of intellectual and religious freedom which was enjoyed by the 'saints' as they were known, saw them wandering the common between their homes to discuss matters of social and liturgical importance. It was among these houses where the rigorous parliamentary campaigning was plotted which led to the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire by 1807 and the later emancipation of all slaves in 1833. I followed my route around the smaller, western extension of the common, realising that I would actually lose the A205 briefly for a few miles here as it shared a route with the A3 on its western journey to Portsmouth. The South Circular was now firmly in brackets on the signs - an indignity which its northern cousin never quite succumbed to. It was hard to imagine members of the sect scurrying across this busy swirl of traffic, eager to impart their ideas on freedom and faith to each other.
The road passed swiftly through the busy crossroads of Battersea with its lines of tall, red-brick shops snaking away north towards the railway, and then crossed the northern edge of Wandsworth Common. The Common, though still a large tract of open land even now is divided by a griddle of railways and roads, with a neat arrangement of grand Victorian villas known as the 'toast rack' eating into its western edge. I strayed from the road briefly along Spencer Park to find the memorial to those who perished in the Clapham Junction rail crash in 1989. The simple curved stone commemorates both the 35 victims of the crash, and those who worked to help them on the morning of 12th December 1988 when a simple but ultimately catastrophic signal failure resulted in a collision involving four trains in the deep cutting below Spencer Park. Some of the first on the scene were staff and pupils from the nearby Emmanuel School, and as I contemplated the difficulty of clambering over the palisade fencing and down the steep bank to the railway to offer aid, some of the current pupils passed by heading back from sports practice. It was hard to imagine these young people, full of chatter and innocence, having to deal with some of the horrors that day. The carving on the stone shows a hand grasping another from above, which felt perfect for this memorial. The safety culture of British Rail was changed greatly by the crash, but just a few years later the privatised railway would need to relearn some of these lessons all over again in other parts of London. As it stands, the railway in the UK is now possibly one of the safest in the world - but it felt cruel and tragic that this incident and others like it were the necessary catalyst for this change.
Soon after passing Spencer Park, the road crossed the rather grander A214 - one of the few completed relics of a scheme to connect two of the unbuilt and much maligned London Ringways, which would have included a rather steep, ski-jump of a flyover if fully realised. Ploughing south from the infamous Wandsworth Roundabout, the road is a broad dual-carriageway in a deep concrete cutting which gouges deep into the Common. Rising again to the south, the road is a broad, urban arterial with a tree-lined median - and is perhaps one of the best indicators for what the road network of London could have looked like had the Abercrombie plan or even the GLCs later revisions come to fruition. As it is, the A214 soon becomes a fairly mundane suburban route out to Crystal Palace and West Wickham, leaving this section in Wandsworth a somewhat over-engineered and marooned hint of what could have been. The A3 and South Circular continued west in combination, passing 'Mount Nod' - an abandoned and currently inaccessible Huguenot Burial Ground - and descending into the valley of the River Wandle which the road crosses in Wandsworth Town Centre. My only vague knowledge this area was from frequent travels on the railways which pass largely beneath the town, and I was a little surprised by Wandsworth. The eastern approaches pass the impressive Town Hall which still provides a civic centre for the Borough. A wedding was taking place in the inner courtyard, perfectly framed by the Portland stone entrance which faces the street. Along the wings of the triangular building, stone reliefs depict scenes from local history above manicured lawns and pristinely weeded flower beds. Years back, I'd stayed in a down-at-heel budget hotel a little way towards Clapham Junction and had developed an assumption from its hinterlands that Wandsworth was a grim and unprepossessing place, being swiftly encroached upon by dull riverside apartment blocks. If only I'd strayed a little further from my digs perhaps I'd have found this building and thought differently. Disappointingly there was no access to the River Wandle at present as the redevelopment of the former Ram Brewery has temporarily closed the pavement on the north side of East Hill. Behind the wooden fences a range of waterfront properties can be seen rising slowly to form the almost inevitably named 'Ram Quarter'. Wandsworth is about to change it seems - and The Ram, an inn which can trace its history back to 1550 or thereabouts, is again a central part of the story. Young's brewed their last beer here in 2006 with production subsequently moving to Charles Wells in Bedford - but the developers of the site in Wandsworth have committed to the presence of a 'nanobrewery' in the former laboratory building to continue the tradition. For now though, the northern side of the street was off limits, the old Inn's frontage disappearing behind hoardings to rise again as a protected feature of the site. Forced to cross the street I noted that the river disappears under the Southside Shopping Mall here surfacing some way south, and as I strolled through the reeking clouds pouring from a grill in the pop-up street food market on the broad pavement covering the river, I rather wished I could see it. The Wandle is possibly the very first London river aside from the Thames which I'd learned about by way of Michael de Larrabeiti's novel The Borribles which I read as a child in the early 1980s, long before I'd ever visited the capital. The vision of a dark, confusing and unforgiving city conjured in this novel with hidden layers of meaning has perhaps never quite left me. It was also perhaps the first book which treated me like an adult, refusing to pull punches or sugarcoat disappointment, and it left a strong impression of a dirty, shifting city with curious culverts and sinister people living altogether disconnected lives in the unknown suburbs. The characters squatted in derelict houses, openly questioned authority and spent their time evading the Police. It's hard to imagine the book being published for children now - the concept of young adult fiction had re-emerged in the 1960s and the discovery that there were books other than those about the triumphs and tribulations of football teams or impossible space battles arrived with my slightly advanced reading age. It's fair to say that de Larrabeiti's work stayed with me for long years after reading it, so much so that on an expedition to Streatham Cemetery to research William Kent twenty years later, a glimpse of the River Wandle played a part in reigniting a reading and walking habit which in many ways led me to this very point, hovering above the same river. I thought back to that walk from Haydon's Road station through industrial hinterlands. It took me a good while to find the nerve to make that kind of trek, and now it was practically my modus operandi. Times changed, but the oldest of influences seemed to remain. I was disappointed not to spot the Wandle today - but knowing it flowed into the Thames nearby, and passed beneath my feet was curiously edifying.
Climbing up West Hill out of Wandsworth, I began to realise just how far I still had to go. The sun was still bearing down on me, and the long, flung out arm of the South Circular seemed endless. I was determined to reach the end of my walk today if I could. I bought more water from a Tesco nestled uncomfortably into a tiny, rather quaint corner shop building and set off again. It wasn't easy going, in part because it soon became apparent that this section was going to be relentlessly suburban and featureless. I put my head down and walked, crossing the site of Beverley Brook which was now in culvert with only an old bridge wall remaining beside the road, and skirting the wild and interesting edge of Barnes Common to the north of the road. Here the Thames, the railway and the road ran in parallel along the same flat plain, and signs frequently directed me to stations for places which were notionally on my route, but were in reality just a little way from the South Circular. The lack of importance of the road explained its largely unimproved state here in the west. There were always other routes to get to places more quickly or directly. The A205 was a bypass for nowhere. At East Putney, the Underground provided a brief distraction with an intriguing pagoda sitting in front of the brick built station entrance, while white stuccoed totems declared the station name across the broad V-shaped gap between the lines. Entirely over ground here, two fine old iron bridges pass over the road - the easternmost arm of the junction carrying the little-used curve from TfL's network to the mainline railway at Point Pleasant Junction - one of the few pieces of track in London which I haven't travelled on. Putney straggled along the road a little, the main and far more affluent centre a little to the north around the mainline railway station. Soon the road returned to suburbia. I began to seriously wonder if I would complete the walk today - my feet were tired but still game for the walk, I was hot and tired but not unexpectedly so. It was the sheer unrelenting suburbanity that was sapping my will. The suburbs of the south are different to those of the north - often more uniform, less grouped into villages defined by ancient geography. The south benefited from large swathes of common land which have been worried away at over the year to produce vast estates of visually similar homes ranked in long, straight avenues. It felt like I was walking directly across one of these. It felt never-ending.
The South Circular ploughed on through a place which might have been East Sheen or Mortlake, the main business streets of the latter having moved south, away from the river over centuries in favour of riverside dwelling opportunities. The A205 now formed the long and pleasantly prosperous High Street, traffic sluggishly navigating the side-streets, nosing into unlikely parking opportunities. At Milestone Green, the road from Mortlake Station to nearby Richmond Park crossed, and I realised an odd thing about the South Circular - in the effort to give the road a much-needed identity in the absence of an actual coherent route junctions have been 'named' like those around other major routes. However, the names appear to have little local resonance at all. The last few miles had produced numerous named 'gyratorys', 'Red Rover' and now this junction - none of which seemed to have gained any traction as a local feature or even any obvious history. The South Circular's disguise was wearing ever thinner as I approached its ending. It had one more trick up its sleeve though - up ahead, as the shopping area of East Sheen dwindled into the ubiquitous run of small offices and tyre dealers, it made its last abrupt ninety degree turn to the north. The road ahead continued, unperturbed to Richmond while I was directed to turn right for Ealing and the M4. I climbed a railway bridge and passed between Fulham and Mortlake Cemeteries on a lazily curving trajectory along the tongue of land on which Kew nestles, in a broad meander in the Thames. The National Archives were held here, beyond the perimeter of an unprepossessing and oddly sited retail park. The solid, concrete block giving an assurance of the safety of our history despite much of the collection now being digitally stored of course. A final railway crossed the road - bringing the District Line and Overground from Gunnersbury where this whole sorry enterprise had begun for me. I could smell the Thames now. Around Kew Green, the road developed a new character - artisanal stores, little bistros, gastropubs with deliberately distressed furnishings and lots of grey paintwork. It felt oddly familiar - distinctly like North London, and a jarring change from the quiet suburbs I'd just crossed. As I navigated around double-pushchairs with wheels built for off-roading, complicated families groups filling the entire width of the footway and endless pavement cyclists with no regard for humanity, the appeal of quiet suburbia began to feel stronger. Across the street, my walk had one final surprising building too - St Anne's Church, built in 1714 but much extended by the patronage of both Kings George III and William IV. The red brick and verdigris of the church winked between ancient, swaying trees as I pushed on, asking my feet to give me just another mile or so if they could. The sun escaped from cloud cover again, and the church glowed on the green. It was a curiously inspiring sight.
The arrival of the Thames was heralded by two events - a sudden cool breeze drifting from the east, and the arrival of a noisy group of over-dressed wedding-goers attempting to have their picture taken on the busy riverside path. The bridge arched gently over the silvery surface of the river, and I dodged oncoming pedestrians to get a picture looking eastwards. The wooded thicket of Oliver's Island divided the flow of pleasure craft, now largely a nature reserve but historically a toll booth for river traffic with legends of Civil War era tunnels to Strand-on-the-Green on the northern bank. I paused for a while - this wasn't quite the end of the road, but it was a significant enough milestone to make me reflect on this trip. I summoned the will to push on, tired and beginning to feel the effects of a cold which had dogged me for the last few days, but which I was determined not to succumb to. Landfall brought me to the boundary between the boroughs of Hounslow and Brentford, and the busy junction in front of the Express Tavern. The view to the east was dominated by the tall water tower of the Grand Junction Waterworks Company - now the London Museum of Water and Steam. I however, needed to turn west along the final section of the South Circular. Now the road was north of the river, it had become a busy and businesslike continuation of the North Circular at last - a four-lane dual carriageway running between dilapidated shopfronts and retail parks. It seemed comfortably familiar, and the sight of the towering glass hotels and offices around the beginning of the M4 up ahead felt almost like coming home. I picked my way around the south-eastern quadrant of Chiswick Roundabout, alongside Surrey Crescent - the remnants of a row of once rather fine houses which were largely demolished to create the flyover, opened to much ceremony and glitz in 1959 by Jayne Mansfield in a 'skin-tight crimson dress'. These slightly grubby but grand homes have survived in its shadow against the odds. I turned the corner onto Chiswick High Road and rather suddenly found myself at a familiar spot. Above me was the roadsign which I'd taken a snapshot of before heading off to walk the first section of the North Circular. I recalled the amused tourists from the nearby hotel who had sniggered at me for taking the picture, and wondered if they'd imagined I'd planned to walk all the way around the city, back to this spot? I'm not sure at that point whether I'd even quite formulated that idea fully then. Certainly, there were times - especially on this tough final leg - when I'd wondered why I set myself projects like this? When I had complete control of the rules, why would I make them harder than they needed to be? This walk had taken me into southern suburbs I'd been content to 'know' only through passing by train, areas where I felt alien and uncomfortable, where I was in many ways, lost. I'd seen places which perhaps only locals would normally regard, and then only with the tired eyes of the familiar. I'd surprised myself by finding places I'd wanted to revisit to explore, ideas for future excursions and connections back into my past reading which intrigued me. I stood beneath the sign and felt the need to celebrate - I contemplated emptying the refreshingly cold contents of a bottle of Sprite Zero over my overheating and aching head, but I thought of the tourists and figured I shouldn't give them the excuse for another chortle at my expense. I calculated that the journey around the North and South Circulars totalled around fifty-three miles of walking which had taken me into the depths of suburbia, into the forest, along the banks of hidden brooks and through the complex geography of the city. It felt like a strange privilege to be able to make this circuit, and to spend time researching and recording what I'd seen. I often questioned if my records of these walks were ever read by anyone, but figured it didn't matter. I wasn't the first to walk around London, I wouldn't be the last and I had few original insights to impart. But I'd honoured a city with which I've had long and complex dealings by walking around it. For a few moments at least, while my aching feet were forgotten in the thrill of completion, It felt like an entirely sensible thing to do.
I shuffled the short distance to Gunnersbury Station and caught a train, deciding to cross the street and change for the Circle Line back to Paddington when I reached Hammersmith. As I sat on the train, trundling quietly over the rooftops on a viaduct with the sun picking out the yellow London Brick of the rows of houses beneath, I suddenly realised my route would pass the wreckage of Grenfell Tower. As we left Latimer Road station, the blackened view into the lower floors of the block filled the windows of the train, shockingly close to the line. Stripped back to the concrete core on this flank, the gaping windows gave a view entirely through the gutted structure. It was horrible to behold, and terrifying to imagine being within the conflagration. As the line curved to the west and the building slipped slowly into the distance the full horror was revealed, standing like a single dull, dead tooth in the blue sky. I looked around the sparsely filled carriage, but everyone else was busy reading, talking to their fellow travellers or just looking at the floor in the time-honoured way of the Tube. I wondered if I was perhaps the only one who hadn't seen this before? The only one who hadn't had to live with this expression of loss and death above me on my daily comings and going? It was a haunting image - so different to seeing it on the screen and often reduced to a backdrop to a political dialogue - either a timely reminder of inequality or a tragic bandwagon jumped by protesters depending on one's viewpoint. I don't think I'll ever quite forget the sight of the tower, abandoned but still glaringly present in the skyline. It haunted my dreams on the sleepy train ride home, vying with the views of collapsed viaducts in Los Angeles back in 1994 for its utter alienness and unreality. Whatever the outcome of the investigations and discussions which the fire has precipitated, whatever the fate of the officials and trustees who appear to have slalomed around regulations to create the conditions in which this could happen, these events are an exclamation mark in the story of London life. A point for pausing to consider the gravity and complexity of life and death in the city. As a full-stop for a circumambulation of London, it was both fitting and sobering. I hadn't just walked around a landscape or a museum, I'd circuited a living and dying metropolis of diversity and disparity, where eight million souls struggle beside each other. When I'm next asked the question 'why?' I make these walks, perhaps I have the beginnings of an answer...
You can find a gallery of pictures from the walk here.
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.