Monday, January 24, 2005
Great British Roads - January 2005
In honour of the fact that the country's first five arterial roads all start in central London, I've decided to take a walk along the first mile of each of them...
Great British Roads - A1: London - Edinburgh
The first mile: Barbican - Islington
Road begins: Aldersgate (Museum of London)
Britain's most important trunk road starts somewhere rather unimportant. This wasn't always the case. The A1 used to begin outside St Paul's Cathedral, following an old coaching road north up St Martin's-le-Grand, past Little Britain and past the site of the magnificent Victorian General Post Office. That was before the IRA came along, causing City authorities to erect 'the ring of steel' in the mid 1990s. The A1 now starts a few yards past an unstaffed security checkpoint at a shadowy characterless roundabout. A circular brick island rises up in the centre of the roundabout - this the well-hidden entrance to the Museum of London (which is well worth a visit, by the way). And the A1 heads north from this lonely spot, unlabelled, unsigned, unnoticed.
This is Aldersgate, a medieval street once the site of one of the seven gates into the old city of London. There's nothing medieval about the road today, however. Here lies the Barbican estate, a sprawling monument to 60s architecture complete with arts centre, lake, tall towers and a baffling labyrinth of concrete walkways. I looked into renting one of the two thousand posh flats here when I moved down to London, but a quick check of my bank balance soon put an end to my dreams. Those with deeper pockets might appreciate the huge residents' car park beneath the Barbican, from where it's easy to slip one's BMW or Bentley out onto the deserted A1. A little further up the road lies the rather less affluent Golden Lane Estate, the northernmost outpost of the City of London. Weekly rents here are only in double figures, and rows of grimy net curtains betray the fact that the residents here are more likely to be cleaning under a desk in some financial institution rather than sitting at one.
A griffin on a pedestal near the junction with Old Street marks the shift from the Square Mile to the London borough of Islington. There's an obvious change as Aldersgate becomes the Goswell Road - lower wealth, lower status but not quite lower class. The Hat & Feathers pub (Victorian, yellow and ornate) has long closed down through lack of business, and there's a gaping scar behind which has been taken over as a makeshift NCP car park. For a few hundred yards the A1 is lined by small shops and services, including Dennis Motor Accessories, Nicola Jane (mastectomy wear) and Spunkies Imaging (they look quite legit, don't worry). But after Kings Square Garden (think dog waste bins, patchy grass and pigeons) the A1 opens out and heads rapidly downmarket, bordered by boxy modern tenements and one very ordinary tower block. You wouldn't imagine such social housing to exist so close to the financial centre of town, but a lot can change in a mile.
Mile ends: The Angel, Islington
At the Angel the A1 climbs gently to meet London's Inner Ring Road, the A501, and the road number is signposted for the first time. All of a sudden there is proper traffic, and a bustling busyness that hasn't been present along the road before. Cars whizz round the one-way system, trapping pedestrians on a small triangular island in the middle of the flow. A well-kept clock stands here on a square green pillar in the middle of a pristine flowerbed. On each side is written in gold leaf the name of J Smith & Sons, once eminent local clockmakers, along with their long defunct telephone number - Clerkenwell 1277. Just around the corner Upper Street beckons, and thence the long journey to part of Britain that only really exists on road signs - The NORTH. There are still 408 miles to go until the A1 reaches Edinburgh's Waverley station, but I suspect the final mile is rather more impressive than the first.
Road continues: Upper Street, Holloway Road, Archway Road, Barnet By-Pass, Borehamwood, South Mimms, Hatfield, Stevenage, Peterborough, Grantham, Doncaster, Scotch Corner, Durham, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Edinburgh (Waterloo Place/ Princes Street)
A1: The Great North Road (an in-depth e-book)
A1 route description (from uk-roads)
the route of the A1 in North London (then, later and now)
[link to this post]
Great British Roads - A2: London - Dover
The first mile: Borough - South Bermondsey
The A2 is the road to Europe, and has been for almost two thousand years. The modern road follows the alignment of Watling Street, along which Roman soldiers would have trooped on their way from London to Dover and beyond. The section between London and Canterbury was almost arrow-straight, and Chaucer's pilgrims (of whom more tomorrow) would have journeyed along what was left of this ancient road more than a thousand years later. Watling Street was still visible across south London back in the 18th century, but nothing remains today except a line on a map.
Road begins: Borough, SE1
The A2 is the only one of London's five major trunk routes to begin south of the river. It starts innocuously at a junction with the A3 outside Borough tube station, then heads southeast down the
major intercontinental highwayquiet residential street you can see in the photo. Great Dover Street has a real mix of housing along its half mile length. At the top there's the Dover Castle, a pub that's also a cut-price backpackers' hostel, and further down there are student halls of residence for freshers attending Kings College. There are plenty of council flats in long blocks, some old and some new but almost all with satellite dishes pointing southwards. Visible to the southeast is the Trinity Estate, a well-preserved collection of 18th century terraced houses and the only part of the area where you might actually aspire to live.
Next comes the Bricklayers Arms roundabout (more a squareabout really), a giant road junction carved out of what were once residential streets. The roadway is five lanes wide, with a concrete flyover sweeping across from Elephant & Castle carrying traffic towards the coast. In the centre there's a large grassy patch with benches that you can reach by subway or pelican crossing, though goodness knows why anyone would want to sit here breathing in swirling exhaust fumes. A railway terminus was established here in 1844, but closed down within a decade when passengers from Kent realised they'd much rather travel closer to London and arrive at London Bridge instead.
Mile ends: Old Kent Road
The A2 then turns into the cheapest property on the Monopoly board. Personally I reckon the Whitechapel Road is more downmarket these days, but the Old Kent Road definitely deserves its place in the inexpensive light brown corner. This disadvantaged thoroughfare has resisted all attempts at gentrification and remains stubbornly inexpensive. At the northern end there's a giant Lidl supermarket (say no more), while the nightclub over the road advertises Wacky Wednesday Karaoke ("Hats are not to be worn at any time. Anyone found wearing a hat or cap will be asked to leave"). Further down come numerous small shops of the non-chainstore type, perfect should you ever want to eat fried chicken, order a minicab, have your hair braided, get your nails buffed, stock up on bottles of rum, buy a sandwich or pick your way through trays of Jamaican vegetables. It's built-up, it's busy and it's bustling, but I still reckon £250 for renting a little red hotel round here is a bit steep.
Road continues: New Cross Road, Blackheath Hill, Shooters Hill Road, Rochester Way, Bexley, Dartford, Gravesend, Rochester, Chatham, Gillingham, Sittingbourne, Faversham, Canterbury, Dover.
A2 route description (from uk-roads)
A2: London's lost Roman road?
[link to this post]
Great British Roads - A3: London - Portsmouth
The first mile: London Bridge (north) - Elephant & Castle
Road begins: Monument
The A3 starts where London nearly finished - at the Monument. The Great Fire of London was kindled just around the corner in Pudding Lane, killing only six people but destroying four fifths of the City. The Monument was built by Sir Christoper Wren to commemorate the conflagration, and is exactly as far away from the bakery where the fire began as it is tall. At 202ft it remains (I believe) the world's tallest free-standing stone column and became one of London's first tourist attractions with its stunning panorama over the rebuilt city. The view from the upper platform now includes rather more office blocks and rooftop ventilation units than would have been the case in the 17th century, but in my experience it's still well worth making the 311 step ascent to the top.
To be truly accurate, the A3 really begins in front of the House of Fraser department store on King William Street, but somehow that's not quite so interesting.
The A3 spends only a few hundred metres north of the river before reaching the capital's oldest permanent river crossing - London Bridge. The current bridge is at least the tenth on the site, the original built by the Romans in AD80. Several timber bridges followed before construction of the first stone bridge was completed in 1209. The 200ft span was supported by 20 arches, and featured a drawbridge, traitors' heads on spikes, numerous houses and a big chapel in the middle. The bridge survived the Great Fire because it had only been partially rebuilt following an earlier fire and the flames couldn't jump the gap, and this medieval structure went on to provide more than 600 years of service. A granite replacement was opened by King William IV in 1831, only to be sold off in the 1960s to an American businessman who shipped it across the Atlantic to span Lake Havasu in Arizona. The latest London Bridge (opened 1971) with its six lane highway is more able to cope with modern traffic but definitely lacks the architectural charm of its predecessors. At least the view downstream towards Tower Bridge is still spectacular.
Southwark Cathedral guards the southern end of the bridge (although this is soon to be dominated by the 310 metre tall London Bridge Tower). Underneath the railway arches lurks Borough Market, famed foodie nirvana where you can buy squidgy cheese, fruit juice with bits in, organic scallops, wild boar meat, spicy chutneys and (allegedly) some produce which actually tastes nice. To the south stretches Borough High Street, an important bridgehead thoroughfare in medieval times when it was packed with all the bawdy revelry and lewdness that wasn't permitted north of the river. Only one of the old coaching inns now survives - The George. It may be cunningly hidden up an alley just off the High Street but all the tourists and real ale drinkers still seem to find it, and rightly so. Up a neighbouring alley, where Copyprints now does business, stood The Tabard Inn from whence Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims supposedly set off in 1386."Byfel that in that sesoun on a day,A little further on, where the local library now stands, is the site of the infamous Marshalsea Prison (opened 1373). When Charles Dickens was 12 his father was imprisoned here as a convicted debtor, leaving the young boy to face six months working in a nearby bootblack factory. The experience traumatised impressionable Charles who later based much of Little Dorritt ("a child of the Marshalsea") in the local area. Borough High Street wends its way southwards, becoming less historic and more lacklustre as it goes. The A2 begins at a junction outside Borough station (we took that route earlier) while the A3 heads on towards the now-less-pink Elephant & Castle. Thankfully my first mile concluded just beforehand, outside a huge white mansion that serves as the Crown Court for half of London. Not somewhere you'd want to end up, but thankfully I was free to walk away.
In Southwark at the Tabard as I lay
Ready to wenden on my pilgrimage
To Canterbury, with ful devout courage,
At night was come into that hostelrie,
Wel nyne and twenty in a compainye."
Mile ends: Inner London Crown Court, Borough High Street
Road continues: Elephant & Castle, Kennington Park Road, Clapham High Street, Battersea Rise, Wimbledon Common (west), Kingston bypass, Chessington, Cobham, Guildford, Hindhead, Petersfield, Waterlooville, Portsmouth.
A3 route description (from uk-roads)
Old London Bridge Museum
Old maps of Southwark (including Borough High Street 1658)
London SE1 community website
[link to this post]
Great British Roads - A4: London - Bristol
The first mile: Holborn - Charing Cross
The A4 used to start in the same place as the A3, at the Monument. Ten years ago walking the first mile along the A4 would have taken me west along Cannon Street, round St Paul's Cathedral, down Ludgate Hill and up Fleet Street. Writing about this journey could easily have filled a blogging week all by itself. But that's not the first mile any more. Terrorist paranoia in the City of London has beheaded this particular mile from the route, forcing the A4 to retreat to the edge of the City beyond a miserable security checkpoint cordon. And now the Great West Road starts somewhere rather less glamorous.
Road begins: Holborn Circus
Six roads meet at Holborn Circus, which is now little more than a glorified roundabout surrounding a statue of Prince Albert trapped in the middle. The new route chosen for the A4 follows the most insignificant of these roads, that tiny street in the centre of the photo squeezed inbetween a branch of Lloyds Bank to the left and the glass-fronted Sainsbury's head office to the right. This is New Fetter Lane, which leads before very long to the similarly quiet and narrow Fetter Lane. At the junction of the two stands London's only cross-eyed statue, a memorial to 18th century libertarian John Wilkes. Here too are magnificent Gothic buildings which once formed the Public Records Office but now house the King's College library. If you own a copy of Peter Ackroyd's London - the Biography (especially if you've always been meaning to get around to reading it) then you might enjoy the centuries-old story of this historic backstreet in Chapter 22.
At the foot of Fetter Lane the A4 turns finally turns right to join its original path along the western end of Fleet Street. Still world-renowned as London's journalistic heart, the press have long since moved out and the only papers you'll find in Fleet Street nowadays are sold in a tiny newsagents. This end of the street, however, has always found more favour with financial and legal practices. Here you'll find Child's (Britain's oldest bank, 1661), Hoare's (London's only remaining independent bank) and a branch of Coutts (the Queen's bank), none of which (inexplicably) has a cashpoint outside. A magic timbered portal on the south side leads through to the Temple, where the country's top legal minds scurry round a maze of ancient passages and courtyards in search of the perfect argument. And opposite the entrance, standing guard in the middle of the road, stands the dragon that acts as a replacement for Temple Bar (about which I've already written far too much). It may not look as impressive as its arched predecessor, but at least traffic can get past it.
After Temple Bar Fleet Street metamorphoses into the Strand, named after the foreshore of the River Thames which once lapped closer than it does today. Benjamin Disraeli described the Strand's heady mix of palaces, hotels and playhouses as 'perhaps the finest street in Europe', although much of the gloss has been lost since then. At the top end of the road is the coffee house where Thomas Twining established his first teashop, and also the Strand's most famous theatre - the Royal Courts of Justice. Next, alongside Aldwych, the A4 passes three famous houses - Australia House (your portal to Down Under), Bush House (BBC global HQ) and the monumental Somerset House (once home to the General Register of Births, Deaths and Marriages but now more well known for its winter ice rink - closes Sunday).
Strand's most well-known stretch leads from Aldwych down to Trafalgar Square along a bustling boulevard packed by theatre-goers and tourists. There's a raised cobbled strip down the centre of the road that most pedestrians use as an elongated traffic island, but I took this path to complete my journey. This kept me away from the restaurants, the red phone boxes and the hotel foyers, and a safe distance from the mobile phone shops, the bewildered foreigners and the Starbucks clones. I avoided the demonstrations outside the Zimbabwean embassy, resisted the charms of Stanley Gibbons the stamp dealer and bypassed the Savoy Hotel at the end of a tiny cul-de-sac (the only road in the UK where traffic drives on the right). But most of all I mourned the passing of the magnificent mansions that once lined this historic street.
Mile ends: Charing Cross
The end of my journey was also the final resting place of Queen Eleanor of Castile. She died while on royal walkabout in Lincolnshire in 1290, and a grieving Edward I had a cross erected at each of the 12 places where his wife's coffin rested on the long journey home to London. Seven centuries later just three Eleanor Crosses remain but alas the monument at Charing Cross is not quite one of them, being merely a stone replica erected in 1863.
OK, so the first mile of the new A4 does appear to be at least as fascinating as the original. And the second mile's even better, continuing from Trafalgar Square to pass along Pall Mall and Piccadilly (which I've already spent an entire month writing about). Of all the capital's major trunk roads, it's the A4 that gets off to the best start.
Road continues: Trafalgar Square, Pall Mall, Piccadilly, Knightsbridge, Brompton Road, Cromwell Road, Hammersmith, Brentford, Heathrow, Slough, Maidenhead, Reading, Newbury, Hungerford, Marlborough, Chippenham, Bath, Bristol, Avonmouth.
A4 route description (from uk-roads)
A walk down the Strand and Fleet Street
My journey down Piccadilly (the second mile down the A4)
[link to this post]
Great British Roads - A5: London - Holyhead
The first mile: Edgware Road
Road begins: Marble Arch
The A5 begins in the dead centre of town. Not the middle, you understand, but at the Tyburn Tree - site of London's public executions for more than six centuries. More than fifty thousand criminals were hung here, originally from the branches of a tree beside the Tyburn river but later from a purpose-built wooden tripod of death. A memorial to these notorious gallows is paved into a traffic island at the very bottom of the Edgware Road, just to the left of the white van in the photo (and if you want to know more, I wrote all about the gruesome goings on here last year). The most famous landmark in the vicinity today is Marble Arch, originally designed by John Nash as a triumphant entrance to Buckingham Palace but moved to its existing location when the palace was extended in 1851. Of greater personal significance, however, are the hallowed seats of the Odeon Marble Arch on the corner with Oxford Street, the first London cinema I ever visited (to see Bedknobs and Broomsticks when I was an awestruck child of six).
Like the A2, the A5 follows the Roman road of Watling Street, of which this is the start of the northern section. The road from Marble Arch to the edge of the suburbs is the longest straight line in London, never once deviating to left or right for a full twenty miles. The first mile is a cosmopolitan shopping street, although probably not one you'd go out of your way to visit. Unless you were Lebanese, that is. There's a distinctly Arabian flavour to the very bottom of the A5 - perfect for stocking up on pomegranates, using your Bank of Kuwait cashpoint card or smoking aromatic tobacco out of some mysterious piped bottle. It'll be a handy local high street for Middle Eastern electioneer Tony Blair when he eventually retires and moves into his new townhouse just round the corner in Connaught Square. The local school is the architecturally innovative Hampden Gurney Primary, a six-storey circular glass and brick tower with the hall in the basement and a sheltered playground on the roof. A few hundred yards further along, beside the hotel with possibly the worst view in London, the Marylebone Flyover cuts across the Edgware Road like a concrete wound. The elevated multi-lane A40 Westway is a reminder of the twisted nightmare that the old Roman A5 could have become, but thankfully hasn't.
Directly north of the flyover is Paddington Green police station, the secure strongbox where Britain's most dangerous criminals and suspected terrorists are locked away. Paddington Grey would be a more appropriate name. The shopping street continues, but it's now more markets and poundstores than Marks & Spencers. Here you'll find Church Street Market, Westminster's largest collection of stalls and traders, selling all the useful everyday stuff that Portobello doesn't. I watched one shopper in a dirty black anorak emerge from the market wielding a bottle of cheap perfume. She stood in full public view on the pavement and sprayed herself from top to bottom with the fake scent, masking one unpleasant smell with another, then shuffled off in the general direction of the tube station. I proceeded up the gentle hill until the shops ran out.
Mile ends: Regent's Canal, Maida Vale
The shops run out exactly one mile up the A5, at which point a miraculous transformation takes place. In the space of just a few yards, across a short bridge, the road suddenly becomes an extremely desirable place to live. Here the Edgware Road renames itself as upmarket residential Maida Vale and there isn't another shop to be seen. This is one of the few areas of London to be named after a pub - in this case "The Hero of Maida Vale" (in turn named after an 1806 Napoleonic battle). The border into respectability is marked by the Regent's Canal, seen in this photo heading off towards Little Venice (although I thought that there was more than a hint of Amsterdam here instead). Houseboats and expensive terraced villas line the waterway, while well-heeled ladies (wearing expensive perfume) take yappy canine triplets for walkies along the towpath. I reckon there's a whole new series of posts to be written about the canals of London but, for the time being, my trunk road trip ended here.
Road continues: Maida Vale, Kilburn High Road, Shoot Up Hill, Cricklewood Broadway, Hendon, Edgware, [15 mile gap past Watford], Harpenden, Dunstable, Milton Keynes, Towcester, [Watford Gap], Nuneaton, Tamworth, Telford, Oswestry, Llangollen, Betws-y-coed, Bangor, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, Holyhead.
A5 route description (from uk-roads)
See all the shops along the Edgware Road
[link to this post]
Thursday, January 20, 2005
10 top tips for tourists visiting London
1) Bring a torch: It's always foggy in London. Every single day the capital is clouded in thick peasouper fog (except between noon and 1pm which is when they take all the official tourist photographs). Over the last few centuries all Londoners have developed chimneysweep eyes which enable them to see in the pitch black streets. This endless murk is also the reason why London's trains run underground - it's lighter there. Visitors are advised to buy a fluorescent white iTorch from the Apple Store on Regent Street.
2) Bring an umbrella: It always rains in London, which is why Londoners carry umbrellas at all times. The umbrella evolved from an ancient jousting weapon used by knights in medieval times (that's before the invention of history). Londoners also all wear bowler hats, each with a rim specially designed to act like guttering and keep the rain off. If you want to keep dry and blend in properly while you're in London, make sure you never leave your hotel without a bowler and brolly.
3) Stay in the suburbs: Hotels in central London are extremely noisy places to stay because the sound of Big Ben wakes everyone up every fifteen minutes during the night. Take our advice and stay slightly further out in quaint market towns like Nuneaton, Swindon or Calais. These towns are cheap and convenient, each located less than 100 miles away from the centre of the capital as well as being international tourist magnets of their own.
4) Don't drink the tea: Tea is the devil's drink, an unnatural blend of chopped leaves which defies all attempts at vending machine palatability. Londoners are brought up drinking this acidic brown drink from an early age which is the reason why all their teeth are stained and rotten. But don't worry - there are plenty of coffee shops everywhere in London, maybe even more than there are at home.
5) Don't bother learning the language: The English don't speak proper English like Hollywood actors do, they speak Cockney which is an ancient street slang invented by William Shakespeare. Those wishing to brush up on their Cockney should watch Dick Van Dyke's performance in Mary Poppins several times prior to their visit, Alternatively, should you be unwilling to waste your time learning an alien language, just shout loudly until the locals eventually understand and bring you a root beer.
6) See the sights from the back of a taxi: There's nowhere better to view the sights of London than from the back seat of a black cab (except perhaps from the top deck of a Routemaster, but that would mean sharing seats with the locals and would clearly be unhygienic). Ask your friendly cabbie to take you on "the scenic route", and prepare to enjoy your extended journey at a very special price.
7) Be vigilant: London is always jam-packed full of foreigners so be sure to keep a watchful eye open for potential terrorist activity. Look out in particular for people with oversized rucksacks talking in strange accents standing around outside major tourist attractions taking an unnatural interest in their surroundings. You may even be one of them.
8) Order double portions: London cuisine is world-renowned for being bland, uninspiring and undersized. Restaurants always serve up stingy portions, sometimes just a slice of roast beef on a few leaves squirted artistically with watery sauce. Should your waiter forget to serve up a huge side portion of french fries with your meal then remember that negative tipping operates in the UK, and that there's almost certainly a McDonalds down the road where you can pig out properly.
9) Pop in to see the Queen: Arrive at 11am in time to watch the Changing of the Guard. You may even be lucky enough to be chosen to join the voting panel that decides which guard should be changed. Her Majesty loves to welcomes visitors, especially those in fancy dress. If the policeman at the front gate won't let you in, bring a ladder and try shimmying up over the side wall instead. However, whatever you do don't let Her Majesty offer you a cup of tea - just look at her teeth...
10) Take Nigel's advice: Be sure to check out the steeple outside Charing Cross station, all that remains of the subterranean cathedral designed by renowned architect Eleanor Rigby, and which was demolished to make way for a bigger ticket hall.
Wednesday, January 19, 2005
Voyage of the dawn treader: Very occasionally my job takes me somewhere different. Yesterday it took me on a 20 mile train journey to a small town in Thurrock (that's the arse end of Essex). I set off in darkness, travelled eastwards up the Thames estuary (via Barking, Dagenham, Grays and Tilbury) and arrived at my destination just after sunrise. It was a journey into dawn, and here are some of the sights I saw.
Dawn minus 50: early truckers tucking into drive thru breakfasts, a tiny cloudburst of blue fire dawning in the eastern sky
Dawn minus 40: discarded copies of Metro in an empty carriage, compressed commuters rattling past in the opposite direction, gasholders silhouetted against approaching morning
Dawn minus 30: redbrick valleys and concrete cuttings, litter-strewn back yards cloaked in shadow, bleary car workers lined up on platform 7 with tabloids in hand
Dawn minus 20: motor city, tarmac fields blanketed by identical saloon cars, industrial deserts where nobody lives, whirling wind farms driving away the darkness, a busy trunk road on concrete stilts
Dawn minus 10: unspoilt expanses of gloomy marshland, the dawn chorus sung by waves of waterfowl, le nouveau chemin de fer exprès vers Paris, distant chimneys belching smoke into daybreak, affordable housing in blocks and boxes, jammed traffic suspended in midair across the QE2 bridge
Dawn: delivery lorries at the Poundstretcher hypermarket, long lines of containers stacked tall by the dockside, warehouse after warehouse after warehouse after warehouse, ocean-going ships revealing the river's hidden path, towering pylons stalking the landscape, water towers reflecting the first glints of sunlight
Dawn plus 10: power stations that Londoners never see, local traffic queued at level crossings, a flock of gulls alighting on a silent lake, medieval churches perched on tiny hillocks in a muddy patchwork of brown and green, a load of bullocks on Mucking Flats, far-flung communities under threat of tidal flooding, an orange globe peeking over the lowland horizon, a new day rises in the east
Sunday, January 09, 2005
Random borough 4: Sutton
Yesterday I made another of my semi-regular visits to a randomly selected London borough. So anonymous is this borough that I had to think really really hard to remember exactly where it was (below Wimbledon and west of Croydon, as it turned out). But Sutton is where I ended up, scouring the borough to try to find some places of interest to report back on. And it was hard work because there really isn't very much in Sutton apart from people's houses, but I tried and I managed to find some places that were almost interesting.
Somewhere famous: Croydon Airport
It may not be famous now, but between 1920 and 1939 Croydon Airport was London's glamorous gateway to the world. Two WW1 aerodromes were combined to form London's first international airport, with scheduled flights to Paris, Rotterdam and Amsterdam. Imperial Airways was formed here in 1924 and the world's first terminal building was opened in 1928 (that's the one in the photo). Charles Lindbergh and Amy Johnson both flew from Croydon, and when Amy returned here having made the first flight to Australia by a woman she received a rapturous welcome. After WW2 the title of London's main airport passed to Heathrow because it was more able to cope with larger jetliners, and Croydon Airport was slowly run down before closing completely in 1959.
The western part of Croydon Airport was redeveloped in the 1960s as the Roundshaw housing estate. It's a million miles away from international glamour, more a poor collection of concrete blocks and Wimpey Homes gathered round a Co-op supermarket. You wouldn't live here. All the cul-de-sacs are named after famous aviators or aeroplanes, and the local primary school commemorates local hero Amy Johnson. To the east the terminal building still stands, refurbished as office units with a restored De Havilland Heron perched outside overlooking the main A23 road. The central part of the old airfield remains undeveloped, home to six football pitches, a nature reserve and a model aircraft flying zone. There were only kites flying in yesterday's high winds, but it was good to see the area's aeronautical tradition being maintained.
by bus: 119, 154
Somewhere historic: Whitehall
Not the real Whitehall, you understand, but a very old house in Cheam dating back to the 16th century. Some farmers lived in it. It's now a local museum. Sorry, but that's about as historic as Sutton gets. But the park at the bottom of the road just over the border into Surrey has a much more impressive history. It was here in 1538, on the site of a razed village, that Henry VIII ordered the construction of Nonsuch Palace. This was to be a magnificent Renaissance showpiece, and eventually was, but unfortunately the exterior walls were so ornate that Henry died before they were completed. Charles II later gave Nonsuch as a gift to one of his mistresses, Barbara Villers, but she was eventually forced to demolish the palace to pay off huge gambling debts. There's nothing more than parkland on the site now, which is a shame, and the place merits no more than a small exhibition in the old farmer's house.
by train: Cheam, by bus: 151, 213
Somewhere pretty: Carshalton Ponds
You can always tell when somewhere suburban is pretty because it's full of people exercising their dogs and looking the other way when they foul the grass. In which case various parts of Carshalton must be very pretty indeed. There's an unexpectedly big lake (with ducks) near the town centre, at the western end of which is the Honeywood heritage centre (pictured). To the north, past some more ducks, is an old water tower (open summer Sundays). And to the east lies Beddington Park, a very pleasant rolling green expanse and the source of the River Wandle. A faded sign at the entrance warns that 'Dogs are being stolen from this park', but the place was full of exercising canines when I visited so the owners didn't seem to be too worried. All pretty then, but not sufficiently so to go out of your way for a visit.
by train: Carshalton, by bus: 407
Somewhere fictional: Railway Cuttings, East Cheam
23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam, was the fictional home of comic legend Tony Aloysius Hancock. Hancock's Half Hour remains the classic TV sitcom of the 1950s, detailing the everyday life of a Cheam resident with ideas above his station. The show was written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson (who also wrote Steptoe and Son) and they brought us such classic episodes as The Blood Donor and The Radio Ham. As time went by Tony Hancock became more and more insecure with his fame, first sacking fellow actor Sid James and then taking to reading his script off autocue rather than memorising his lines. An ill-advised move to ITV followed and alcoholic Hancock was eventually depressed enough to take his own life.
But neither East Cheam nor Railway Cuttings actually exist. There's a North Cheam, but Galton and Simpson invented the fictional eastern suburb as the sort of posh place in which Tony Hancock might have aspired to live. As you can see in the photo above there are indeed railway cuttings in the area (these are on the Thameslink line) but there's no actual road bearing their name. I spent a half hour scouring the area's suburban streets looking for a suitable substitute. Beside the cuttings I found Grove Avenue, a short tree-lined road with pretensions of grandeur. One man was out washing his car but the remaining residents lurked inside behind twitching net curtains. Signs on brick pillars at each end of the street warned that this was a private road (residents parking only) and just walking down the street felt oppressive and uncomfortable. But the faded 1930s mock Tudor semi at number 23 (see photo) looked to be just the sort of place in which Hancock might have lived, and maybe his modern equivalent is still doing so.
by train: Cheam
Somewhere sporty: Sutton United
When grown men want to sneak away from their wives at weekends they don't go after loose women, they join football teams. The fitter blokes might end up in the squad but the rest just yell from the touchline every other Saturday or, even better, get a job in club management. Sutton United feels like the sort of team that such men might aspire to join, currently languishing mid-table in the Nationwide Conference South. Their ground at Gander Green Lane boasts a post-war grandstand and the legendary Rose's Tea Hut, but all that was evident on the pitch when I peered through a gap in the fence on Saturday was a large crowd of noisy seagulls. The team were preparing to play away so a huge white coach was standing ready to transport the squad, a few supporters and associated suit-wearing hangers-on to the afternoon's match at Redbridge. The coach was later involved in a minor road accident, delaying kickoff by 15 minutes, but nobody was hurt. I'm pleased to say that Sutton thrashed the opposition five nil, the latest in a string of five consecutive recent victories, and I hope that all (cough) 158 supporters present enjoyed the match.
by train: West Sutton, by bus: 413
Somewhere retail: Sutton
I was somewhat surprised to discover that Sutton is a retail magnet, located as close as it is to both Croydon and Wimbledon, but the High Street boasts a huge range of shops that those of us living in East London can only dream of. Every chain store worth its salt has a presence and shoppers come from miles around every weekend to throng the pedestriansed streets and modern malls. I was impressed. On Saturday afternoon shoppers outside the St Nicholas Shopping Centre were being serenaded by a Chinese gentleman playing some sort of wailing one-stringed electric instrument. He was playing a tune that was almost identical to Rod Stewart's Sailing but wasn't quite, presumably for copyright reasons. You can see him in the photo being hassled by six mocking youngsters (they had loud whistles, the little scamps), but unfortunately I failed to capture the moment a few minutes later when another shopper stopped by and actually bought one of his CDs for a tenner. Further up the road a middle-aged man in a rainbow-coloured wig was folding balloon animals for stupefied toddlers, some brave lad had dressed up as Superman to hand out soon-discarded leaflets, and two dear ladies shaking tins for the RNLI were losing out big time to the tsunami bucketeers standing a little further down the street. Just another Sutton Saturday.
by train: Sutton