Sunday, August 31, 2014
LONDON BOROUGH TOPS
1 Bromley 245m On Westerham Hill, 400m south of Hawleys Corner (lofty) 2 Croydon 175m In Sanderstead Plantation, up the path from the west (leafy) 3 Harrow 153m On Magpie Hall Road near Alpine Walk, Bushey Heath (dull) 4 Sutton 147m In the southwest corner of Clockhouse recreation ground (remote) 5 Barnet 147m At the covered reservoir by the water tower, Arkley (alien) 6 Camden 134m On Spaniards Road near the 'Hampstead Heath' bus stop
(or maybe at the Heath's summit by Whitestone Pond)
(sandy) 7 Hillingdon 134m At the top of Potter Street Hill, Northwood Hills (posh) 8 Greenwich 132m By the pond in Eaglesfield recreation ground, Shooters Hill (secluded) 9 Haringey 116m At the top of Highgate High St, by Highgate School chapel (classy) 10 Enfield 115m At the gate on Camlet Way, Hadley Wood (detached) 11
112m On the top of Sydenham Hill, at one end or the other (median) 13 Lambeth 110m Along Westow Hill, probably at the top of Jasper Road (retail) 14 Havering 105m In Havering-atte-Bower, by the church or the cricket pitch (village) 15 Islington 100m Road junction where Hornsey Lane meets Highgate Hill (steep) 16 Brent 92m On Wakemans Hill Avenue between Kingsbury and Colindale (suburban) 17 Waltham Forest 91m The trig point on the top of Pole Hill, Chingford (proper) 18 Redbridge 90m Top of Cabin Hill, Hainault Forest Country Park (brambly) 19 Kingston 90m Covered reservoir at Telegraph Hill, Malden Rushett (private) 20 Ealing 85m Trig pillar at the summit of Horsenden Hill (glorious) 21 Bexley 83m Langdon Shaw, a residential road by the Sidcup bypass (estate) 22 Wandsworth 60m On a heaped mound of spoil on Putney Heath (tumulus) 23 Richmond 56m Up King Henry's Mound in Richmond Park (vista) 24 Merton 55m Along the southern edge of Wimbledon Common, probably (common) 25 Westminster 50m Where Boundary Road crosses Finchley Road (trunk) 26 Ham & Fulham 45m Along the Harrow Road, just west of Kensal Green Cemetery (mundane) 27 Ken & Chelsea 45m Entrance to Kensal Green Cemetery, on Harrow Road (funereal) 28 Barking & Dag 43m North end of Chadwell Heath Cemetery, Marks Gate (grave) 29 Hackney 39m Where Woodberry Grove meets Green Lanes, Manor House (parky) 30 Hounslow 33m Traditionally the junction of Meadow Waye and The Vale in Heston
(alternatively where Western Road crosses the Grand Union Canal)
(uncertain) 31 City of London 22m Where Chancery Lane meets High Holborn, WC1 (central) 32 Tower Hamlets 16m Maybe where Cambridge Heath Road cross the Regents Canal
Or maybe around Altab Ali Park, Whitechapel
(it's a flat borough, so nobody's entirely sure)
(no idea) 33 Newham 15m Traditionally the corner of Sidney Road, Wanstead Flats
(but quite possibly now in QEOP opposite John Lewis)
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LONDON BOROUGH TOPS
Bromley: Westerham Heights
245 metres (1st out of 33) [map] [map] [map]
The highest point in Bromley is also the highest point in London. It's on the southeastern edge of the capital, slap bang on the border with Kent. It's not in a field or up a track, it's on the main road south of Biggin Hill. It's Westerham Heights, and at 245 metres (804 feet) above sea level it's really quite surprisingly high.
Let's put this in perspective. It's higher than One Canada Square (235m), the Crystal Palace transmitter (219m), the Gherkin (180m) and the BT Tower (177m). It's over 100 metres higher than the London Eye (135m), the crest of Wembley's arch (133m) and the tallest skyscraper in Stratford (133m). I know it's not entirely kosher to judge a building from ground to top against a height above sea level, but if we pretend it is, then Westerham Heights is taller than every single building in London except the Shard.
It's also higher than every point in Hertfordshire (244m), Bedfordshire (243m) and the Isle of Wight (241m). It's convincingly higher than everywhere in Northamptonshire (225m), Nottinghamshire (225m) and - not surprisingly - Norfolk (105m). It's only three metres lower than the highest point in East Sussex (248m), and only six metres lower than the highest point in Kent (251m), which is nearby. And all of this is thanks to the North Downs, a ridge of chalk hills that runs to the south of London, in this case just to the north of the M25. Parts of Bromley are really quite scenically lumpy, if you've ever been that out far to take a look. You can even take the bus.
The highest bus stop in London is a request stop at Hawleys Corner, a fiveways junction on the border with Kent. The 246 will drop you here near the end of a long run out to Westerham, not that many get out because there are only a handful of houses hereabouts. London's highest house is a cottage well-screened by hedges, and with a very convenient post box immediately outside the front gate. There's also an incredibly convenient Indian restaurant just across the road, the flagship of the Shampan chain, a 350-seater opened three years ago. Previously the building was a pub, The Spinning Wheel, and out front is a tiny thatched cottage which, if you go back far enough, used to be a tearoom. Our dining-out preferences have changed somewhat over the years, but on my visit to the area I have to say I'd much have preferred a cuppa. [4 photos]
A sign on the road leading north from the junction welcomes you to Bromley, and a sign leading south welcomes you to Kent. It's true that the road passes from one authority to the other at this point, but the boundary runs another 400m south along the left-hand hedge. The highest field in London is very hard to see, being almost entirely screened by trees and with no public right of way passing through. It looked a bit overgrown through the gate on Grays Road, but aerial shots suggest it gets a bit meadowier further in. The garden centre on the right of the main road used to be in London too until 1994, at which point it was transferred to Sevenoaks council, hence the composts, new season roses and discount fireworks are now sold outside the capital.
Hawleys Corner is nine metres lower than London's highest point, which is located 400m up the road. To start with there's a verge, but then pedestrians are forced off into the path of oncoming traffic because this isn't really somewhere people walk. Near the top of Westerham Hill is a small electricity substation and then a large livery stables, each of these still on the Kent side and so of no interest. But the hedge opposite rises and rises until the road starts to dip down, and it's precisely here that London ultimately tops out. It's a shame that you can't actually stand 245m above sea level in London, only 236, but you can stand at 245m two steps into Kent, and that'll do for me.
A track leads off from a locked gate at the crucial location, giving pedestrians the opportunity to step off the road and stand by an outcrop of nettles. They're Kentish nettles, but the tree spreading above is a London oak. Not that you'll be looking in that direction. The open vista across the next field will have grabbed your eye, with the land falling away to reveal the wooded High Weald in the distance. It is typical, I guess, that the view only becomes distantly impressive the second you step fractionally outside the capital.
There's a better view from the next gate down, currently across golden stalks, in the last field before the land drops away. The M25 is hidden in the valley, only a mile away but 120 metres lower down. I considered walking to the bottom of Westerham Hill but thought better of it, given the speed of the cars up the 10% gradient and the lack of a verge between the hedges. Instead I found a gap and stared across to the other side of the road where the land rises to the highest point in Kent, Betsom's Hill. A couple of horses grazed on the summit, or near enough, and somewhere in an indentation lay a hidden car repair business. That'll be the Graham Hall Coachworks, which is also the name of the highest bus stop in Kent. This unassuming brow holds several elevation records, and only Londoners on the Shard's top viewing platform stand taller.
by bus: 246
LONDON BOROUGH TOPS
Croydon: Sanderstead Plantation
175 metres (2nd out of 33) [map] [map]
Croydon is a very hilly borough, at least in its southern half, with impressive rises around Farthing Downs and the Addington Hills. But the highest point is in Sanderstead, to the south of Croydon town centre, on an escarpment surrounded by suburbia. The most obvious landmark is the 13th century parish church at the top of Sanderstead Hill, its spire roofed with wooden shingles, and rightly Grade I listed. Close by used to be Sanderstead Manor, a large Tudor country house which eventually became a hotel, destroyed by fire during WW2 and demolished soon after. The Lords of the Manor were teetotallers and hence the entire suburb is dry, even 500 years after their covenant first prevented the opening of taverns and hostelries. That's something to remember if you're ever tempted to move here by the generously-sized houses and rolling landscape - it's a long way to the pubs in Warlingham. [3 photos]
Where the land tumbles northward most steeply, a timber plantation was established to provide shelter for the manor house. That wood is now all that survives, covering Sanderstead's hilltop with eight acres of beech, oak, cherry and sweet chestnut. It's managed as a public open space, criss-crossed with paths, just large enough to wander and get lost within. It's also surprisingly muddy underfoot, even in the summer, so I expect the wooden posts laid flat in the footpath for support are entirely overwhelmed for much of the year. The highest point lies off the main track, so you'll not reach it without stepping off through the groundcover and negotiating branches and brambles on the way. A tree bursts forth from the summit, though the surrounding woodland means there's nothing to see in any direction but leaves so don't bother coming up for the view. The City panorama from the top deck of a passing bus is rather better, if only briefly over the rooftops. And OK so I'd hoped for more from the second highest Borough Top in London, but at least it's a proper hill, and I loved the compact solitude of the surrounding plantation.
by train: Sanderstead by bus: 412
LONDON BOROUGH TOPS
Harrow: Bushey Heath
153 metres (3rd out of 33) [map] [map]
You probably wouldn't have guessed that Harrow holds bronze medal position in the league table of highest London boroughs. But there's quite a scarp above Stanmore, at the point where the Jubilee line halts and the Green Belt begins. One flank is Brockley Hill, up which Watling Street ascends, reaching a pretty-high point by the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital. But Stanmore Hill rises even higher, to a sort-of plateau around Bushey Heath, and what turns out to be the highest point in North London. It was also the highest point in Middlesex, back when that was a county, and is higher above sea level than the top pod on the London Eye and the chimneys of Battersea Power Station. It's just a shame that it's not a very interesting spot, not quite. [3 photos]
It almost is, but the Hertfordshire border fractionally lops off the top of the hill. The land on the non-London side rises two metres further, and it's here that three more covered reservoirs have been built to take full gravitational advantage. The housebuilders of Bushey Heath grabbed the remainder of the upland for suburban development, one of Watford's more aspirational outposts, and would have been more so if they'd ever got their tube station. North London's peak is on Magpie Hall Road, a cut-through from Harrow Weald to the M1, close to a fairly generic crossroads. Here a single avenue of fairly ordinary houses is tucked into a grassy corner dominated by a run of pine trees and conifers - that's Alpine Walk. Across the road is an Italian restaurant called The Alpine, a little dressy from the look of the family I saw stumbling out into the car park, but also well-stuffed and inebriated.
Just down the hill, definitely in Harrow this time, is the entrance to a very famous wartime hideaway. This is Bentley Priory, from whose stately rooms RAF Fighter Command won the battle in the skies, and still an RAF building in 2008. Part is now a brand new museum, but the remainder is becoming luxury housing, not just the Georgian centrepiece but more modern mansion homes for the seriously rich laid out along exclusive crescents in private parkland. Even the enormous marketing suite at the top of the drive has been built with a classical portico in a show of wealth, or I'd say vulgar ostentatiousness. Mere mortals should instead explore Stanmore Common, whose splendid woody acres feed the Aldenham Reservoir, and so nearly the top spot in the borough, but not quite.
by tube: Stanmore by bus: 142, 258
LONDON BOROUGH TOPS
Sutton: Clock House
147 metres (4th out of 33) [map] [map]
Regular readers will know that I once judged Sutton to be London's least interesting borough, so I was really hoping its highest point would help reverse that opinion. Alas, not so. Despite being one of the top five highest Borough Tops in London, the reality was far more mundane - the corner of a playing field on the edge of a housing estate. I took the bus to Clockhouse, a postwar suburb of Coulsdon named after the farm it replaced. Three sticky-coiffed teenage boys sat behind me bantering all the way, and then chose to press the Hail and Ride exit button at the precise street corner I needed. They disappeared off towards some avenue of semis, and I walked a few yards up The Mount towards the local rec. On the no-through-road signpost I spotted a small sticker from an Italian cycling company directing two-wheeled visitors straight ahead. They offer an 8-day Greenway Cycling Tour from Paris to London, which for some reason heads through the obscure end of Sutton, which must be a bit of a letdown after Impressionist Normandy. [3 photos]
The only people on the recreation ground were a man walking his dog and four lads playing football using a traffic cone and the dog mess bin for goalposts. With the playing field as flat and featureless as playing fields are, their kickabout was the only thing of interest so I decided to take a picture. "That bloke's taking photos," said one before playing on, so I felt the need to head for the far side of the grass and skulk out of sight. Thankfully this corner was the precise highest point in Sutton, although it would have been hard to tell without the Ordnance Survey's reassurance. Surrey started immediately across the hedge, on a scrappy patch of heathland, and also immediately across a stile, littered with blowaway plastic bags at its foot. I could have walked steeply down through Prospect Plantation to Woodmansterne station, but instead chose the Italian cyclists' path to Woodmansterne village. Its parish church and village green are also about 147 metres above sea level, and much more interesting than where I'd just been, but alas not in London, so sorry, Sutton loses out again.
by train: Woodmansterne by bus: 463
LONDON BOROUGH TOPS
147 metres (5th out of 33) [map] [map]
The London borough of Barnet is pretty much nothing but hills, in complete contrast to much of East London which isn't. Hampstead Garden Suburb tops 100 metres, Mill Hill reaches 119m, and the village of Totteridge 126m. But the toppermost spot is in the village of Arkley, on a ridge between High Barnet and Borehamwood. Best of all it's a proper summit, not an gradient on an administrative boundary, although the precise peak is hard to pin down. I arrived on the number 107 bus, quite late in the day, and gave myself the 20 minutes before the next service to cram my visit in. The best view was actually from the top of the bus, as the land drops rapidly down to the Dollis Brook, occasionally opening up a vista towards the City through the trees. I could see the Shard more clearly than Arkley windmill, one of very few surviving mills in London, but stashed away up a private road behind another leafy screen. [3 photos]
My destination was Rowley Lane, off the main drag, past a whopping great house with security camera and floodlights poking up above the hedge. Of more interest was the view through the hedge opposite, which shielded yet another covered reservoir, this time at the highest point precisely. It's like the Water Board nipped round London reserving all the hilltops for water storage before any house builders realised they could have got maximum value from these summit sites instead. And blimey, what an architectural find, assuming you're the sort of person who likes concrete on stilts. Arkley Water Tower is an amazing snowflake-like structure, constructed from six hexagonal chambers suspended above the ground on a series of tapering columns. It's like some alien craft landed here in the 1970s and is biding its time in obscurity before rising up and firing a death ray from the hilltop, or maybe that's just my imagination. I wonder what folk leaving the golf club opposite thought as I snapped repeatedly from imperceptibly different angles through the fence, but I suspect I could have got a much better photo in the winter, with the chlorophyll shield removed.
by bus: 107
LONDON BOROUGH TOPS
Camden: Hampstead Heath
134 metres (6th out of 33) [map] [map]
Camden boasts some of the best hills in the capital, which is pretty impressive for a Inner London borough. Primrose Hill and Parliament Hill fall within its bounds, but they're only 60- and 90-something metres high respectively, which for this project's purposes is insufficient. Instead maximum elevation is reached atop Hampstead Heath on the crown of the Hampstead and Highgate massif, wherever precisely that might be. There is some debate. I'd have expected the peak to be around Whitestone Pond, a triangular water feature located above the headwaters of the Fleet and Westbourne rivers. Originally a dew pond used by thirsty horses, it was later enlarged to become a shallow decorative feature, and very recently done over with wetland plants and white granite edging. I'd say it's an improvement, even if the council did insist on relocating the bus stop 100 metres further away purely for aesthetic reasons. [4 photos]
Close by is another covered reservoir, below which residential Hampstead tumbles down the hillside, and whose raised lid is probably the highest surface hereabouts. But the official Borough Top is a little further away, in a less thrilling location, along the sandy ridge that leads from here to Highgate. That the road from Jack Straw's Castle to The Spaniards Inn is arrow straight should be a hint that it's entirely artificial, as is also evidenced by the slight drop from the embankment on either side. But the needs of traffic have won through, with a tree-lined single carriageway bordered by a segregated cycle path and joggers' pavement. Nearly halfway along is a bus stop where the 210 rarely picks up passengers, adjacent to a path down into the woods and the end of a private drive leading to someone's phenomenally expensive house. It's here (on a slight hump) that the Ordnance Survey have marked their spot height of 134 metres, not just the highest point in Camden but the highest point in Inner London. You can rest awhile to celebrate in the bus shelter, or on one of the neighbouring weatherbeaten green benches. But I wouldn't linger long - this is no scenic spot, and there are far better views to be had both on and from the Heath nearby.
by tube: Hampstead by bus: 210, 268
LONDON BOROUGH TOPS
Hillingdon: Potter Street Hill
134 metres (7th out of 33) [map] [map]
A lot of Hillingdon is fairly flat - it's why Heathrow Airport and RAF Northolt were built here. But head to north of the borough and the land bubbles up to heights the equal of Hampstead Heath. The station to go to... and this is obvious once you've thought about it... is Northwood Hills. The name's a Metroland invention, but the situation's about right, with suburban avenues beyond the Pinner Road rising inexorably higher and higher. One proper summit is the Hogs Back Open Space below Hillside Crescent, still farmland until the 1950s, now surrounded by a Bungalow Conservation Area. But that's nothing compared to Potter Street Hill, a surprisingly leafy lane that tracks the border between Hillingdon and Harrow. The best view comes a short way up before the trees intrude, back down across gabled rooftops towards Ruislip and the Colne Valley. But up here the houses are far more exclusive, great detached hideaways set inside secluded acres of garden, with names like Antolido and The Sloes. The lane is half a mile long and bordered by barely a dozen properties, because it's in shady corners like this that London's richer residents buy seclusion and delight. [3 photos]
The top of the hill is a triple-H intersection, where Hillingdon meets Harrow meets Hertfordshire. You can tell it's the right spot because there's a cast-iron coal post plonked on the verge, marked with the City of London's insignia, and in remarkably good nick. The road from London up to Herts is very narrow and blocked by bollards, one of which looks like it might be retractable if ever the emergency services had to rush through. The houses are even grander on the Oxhey side, plus there's another of those covered reservoirs I keep finding on highest points, this tucked into some rather lovely woods. On the Harrow side a warren of private roads extends beyond a smart entrance lodge, which you're only supposed to drive past if you live here or are heading to Pinner Hill Golf Club. I ventured past and set off an automated "you are being recorded by security cameras" message, so made sure I strode around a bit more just for show. And on the Hillingdon side, nothing so grand, just a National Grid portakabin fenced securely in the top corner of a school playing field. An intriguing spot to visit, this secluded cul-de-sac summit, with more to see than my map had suggested, but I can't imagine ever needing to come back.
by tube: Northwood Hills by bus: H13
LONDON BOROUGH TOPS
Greenwich: Shooters Hill
132 metres (8th out of 33) [map] [map]
Not to Greenwich Hill but Shooters, a much loftier prominence to the southeast of town. Watling Street runs over the summit, and once led Canterbury pilgrims and Kent-bound stagecoaches into potential danger in the woods. Were early highwaymen responsible for the Shooters Hill name, or did it come from archers using the slopes for target practice? 18th century travellers and their horses paused at The Bull for refreshment, the current building being a Victorian rebuild. An octagonal water tower was built later on the top of the hill, broodily gothic in style, and probably the most visible water tower in the whole of London. Much of the northwestern flank of the hill was covered by housing in the 1930s, but the southern side mostly survived undeveloped, including the ancient forest of Oxleas Wood (which also fought off a proposed road scheme in the 1990s). Deep in the trees is Severndroog Castle, very recently restored and reopened after triumphant efforts by local volunteers. I wanted to go inside but this was my last Borough Top visit of the day so I was about an hour too late. A shame, because from the viewing platform on the roof you can see all the way across to Central London, in much the same way that from Central London you can see all the way back to here. [3 photos]
I'd expected the highest point to be on the Oxleas side but no, it's wrapped up within the Wimpey estate. A recreation ground covers most of the hilltop, which is a nice touch, with a few fortunate flats encroaching from the west. This is Eaglesfield Recreation Ground, much of which has too steep a gradient for ball games but there is a flatter zone at the top where a children's playground has replaced a Yacht Pond. I'd never been up here before, so was impressed to stand on the slopes by the Green Flag and stare out across Bexley, the Dartford Crossing and the Thames estuary beyond. The towers of the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge are only fractionally higher than this hilltop, and most everything else within the panorama substantially lower. The land below Eaglesfield Road drops away fairly steeply across Shooters Hill Golf Course, and in the valley below is Woodlands Farm, possibly the closest agricultural land to the centre of London, and definitely the largest city farm in the whole of Britain. Meanwhile up on the summit, behind a row of trees, is a quiet approximately square pond with a boardwalk for dipping purposes along one bank. The whole thing's fenced off to prevent improper access, which must really annoy whoever had kicked a red football into the water and couldn't retrieve it. And there's a single bench overlooking the lot, where I sat and congratulated myself on reaching the 33rd of my 33 borough tops, and wondered if there might be a medal or certificate on completion.
by train: Falconwood by bus: 89, 244, 486
LONDON BOROUGH TOPS
Haringey: Highgate Village
116 metres (9th out of 33) [map] [map]
Highgate Hill continues to rise for half a kilometre beyond the Islington border. It climbs past lovely Waterlow Park, past the big phone mast on Bisham Gardens, up to the heart of chichi Highgate Village. Here stationers and old school butchers nudge up to jewellers and chocolatiers, an almost precise antithesis to Hackney's Manor House parade. The shop that sells lottery tickets also does organic groceries, and the cupcakes in the pantry window have a few more sparkles than elsewhere. It's all really rather pleasant, if residentially unattainable. At the mini-roundabout where the turnpike once bent north is a tiny little florists, its potted blooms dwarfed by The Gatehouse, a well-disguised Wetherspoons in Tudorbethan style. More to Highgate's taste is the Red Lion and Sun on North Road, more gastro than boozer, alongside a very retro Total garage with a row of three pumps lined up outside. [3 photos]
Thanks to a topographical quirk, Haringey's the only north London borough whose highest point is on its southern border. So what's on the summit? That's long been requisitioned by Highgate School, or as it's more properly known Sir Roger Cholmeley's School at Highgate. Sir Roger established his charitable bequest in 1565, initially for the poor boys of the parish under a single teacher, but also offering up the chapel of ease to local residents. Considerable expansion took place later, and the enlarged brick chapel and most of the Big School buildings are a Victorian addition. It's the chapel that resides on Haringey's highest point, this and the surrounding graveyard with its weathered stones and the occasional obelisk. School's currently out for the summer, which helped when I wanted to take photos through the railings, but passing shoppers probably gave me enough funny looks anyway. To follow in my footsteps look out for the retro London Borough of Haringey sign at the top of Highgate Hill, complete with original 1965 'Eight Rays' logo before some branding team remoulded it.
by tube: Highgate by bus: 143, 210, 214, 271
LONDON BOROUGH TOPS
Enfield: Camlet Way
115 metres (10th out of 33) [map] [map]
Enfield's borough tops only scrapes into London's Top Ten. Its peak is located in the westernmost corner of the borough close to Monken Hadley Common, which is a gorgeous spot to the north of New Barnet, and the last surviving fragment of the ancient woodland of Enfield Chase. I had to walk because the 399 bus is one of London's least frequent, and gives up running after 3pm. But that meant an enticing stroll from High Barnet, past the pond and the almshouses and the parish church, and onto the common where the last overs of a cricket match were playing out. One fielder stood right beside the road on the boundary, his additional role presumably to prevent the ball from accidentally smashing through a passing car's side window. Two gentlemen wandered over from the clubhouse clutching jugs of orange squash to share with the scorer, as the game thwacked on towards the inevitable tie. And that would all have been perfect, except the common is full square in Barnet, while Enfield begins quarter of a mile down the hill. [3 photos]
Monken Hadley Common ends fifteen metres lower than the cricket pitch, at a white gate on Camlet Way. The gate is mostly ornamental, to indicate where the byelaws begins, and marks a sudden transition between woodland and residential. Enfield council have erected a bland sign to welcome drivers to the borough, its lettering part-peeled, but still much better than Barnet council who haven't bothered putting up any sign at all. The suburb beyond the gate is Hadley Wood, a right-angled bite of affluence on the East Coast mainline. There are no small houses in Hadley Wood, indeed Camlet Way is lined by desirable detached mansions all the way down to the Cockfosters Road. Most are gated, and seemingly all are protected by the Legion Group whose 24 hour security hotline is advertised on every gatepost. Hadley Wood's an extreme example, but it's amazing how many of London's highpoints have been colonised by the wealthy.
by train: Hadley Wood by bus: 399
LONDON BOROUGH TOPS
Lewisham: Sydenham Hill
Southwark: Sydenham Hill
112 metres (11th and 12th out of 33) [map] [map]
For the avid London Borough Top bagger, inner southeast London makes it easy. Five boroughs meet on the Crystal Palace plateau, and two of these precisely share their highest point. The boundary between Lewisham and Southwark follows the ridge of Sydenham Hill, so find the peak contour along the way and you can cross off two boroughs simultaneously. Where precisely that is remains debatable, or at least I've been unable to to find definitive proof on the internet to persuade me that one point definitely beats another. But that's OK, I'm here for two boroughs-worth of ascent, so I can write a bit about both. [3 photos]
I think the proper summit of Sydenham Hill is on the bend in the ridge and the end of Wells Head Road. A capacious crossroads covers the high point, fairly tediously, with a lone traffic island in the centre. The only building of note is the Dulwich Wood House, an attractive looking gastropub with a trellis-topped tower, but because their website currently loads with a "Plan your Christmas now" pop-up, I'm loath to write anything else complimentary about them. Opposite the pub is a gated walk up from Sydenham Hill station, and a relentlessly long slog it is too, at least 50 metres up from platform to summit. Thankfully it's also rather pretty, more private drive than public footpath, passing as it does through the heart of Dulwich Wood. A little further round, at the foot of an equally steep hillside, are the delights of Sydenham Hill Wood. Formerly railway land, now wildlife haven, a blocked-up tunnel can still be seen where tracks led under the hill to Upper Sydenham station.
Back up at the summit a lot of the surrounding housing is, surprisingly, flats. Those on the Lewisham side are fairly mundane, but those on the Southwark side get the tumbling-away contours and so have more prestige. The crescent along the ridge is called Woodsyre, and is as pretentious as it sounds, with mere plebs discouraged from walking anywhere near what would otherwise be very ordinary flats. Big green signs scream Unauthorised Entry To Houses and Grounds Prohibited, and announce that this is part of the Dulwich Estate, hence the perceived need to keep away. At Rock Hill the steep descent even has Private Road painted in large unfriendly letters on the tarmac, and a street sign describing this as a Private Cul-de-Sac in case you haven't got the hint.
In this short distance the ridge top road has dipped and risen again, to reach a secondary peak which Ollie thinks may be loftier than the other. An OS spot height declares 111m rather than 112, so maybe he's wrong, but standing here it'd be impossible to bet money on which end of the dip is actually the higher. The next ugly brown block of flats on the Southwark side is called Blyton House after one of the borough's more famous residents, but much more exciting is the blue plaque on the neighbouring house dedicated to Sir Francis Pettit Smith, Pioneer Of The Screw Propeller. His is one of several grand Victorian townhouses and cottages along the final stretch of hilltop road, originally built on land leased from Dulwich College, now just fantastically prestigious places to live. Note the lack of TV aerials on any of the roofs, this because the Crystal Palace transmitter is at the end of the road, almost but not quite as high as this exclusive residential ridge.
by train: Sydenham Hill by bus: 202, 356, 363
LONDON BOROUGH TOPS
Lambeth: Westow Hill
110 metres (13th out of 33) [map] [map]
At the other end of Crystal Palace Parade, Southwark meets Bromley meets Croydon meets Lambeth. It always feels strange to me that Lambeth stretches this far out, poking out past Norwood and rising to a tapering point. The boutiquey parade from Cafe Paradou to Doris Florist is somehow in Lambeth, as is the quirky Westow House pub on the big crossroads. It's around here that the borough's highest point is reached, although judgement by eye suggests it's fractionally further west along the main shopping street, Westow Hill. The first estate agents' boasts a blue plaque to beat them all, announcing that impressionist painter Camille Pissaro stayed here for a few months in 1870-1871. He emigrated briefly from France to avoid the Franco-Prussian War, leaving a legacy of a dozen local paintings of what was then London's rural fringe. He'd have more trouble finding spots to set up his easel nowadays, but there is a fantastic view from the hilltop a little further along. [3 photos]
Try peering through the lattice at the bin store round the back of number 63a, and there's the Shard and City cluster perfectly framed beyond the guttering. But move on to the junction of Woodland Road and the vista opens wider for some woo, yes, I like that. Four-storey terraced townhouses stagger steeply down the street, dropping so sharply that the basement of number 3 is higher than the roof of number 35. And hanging beyond above the treetops there's the City again, more detailed than expected, with the Barbican's three towers clearly separate from the main Shard/Gherkin groupings. It was chucking it down with rain when I visited so I suspect I didn't see the view at its best, plus various items of street furniture and scaffolding lowered the tone. But for a combination of panorama, retail options and accessibility, the top of Lambeth's probably one of London's best.
by train: Crystal Palace by bus: 249, 322, 417, 432, 450
LONDON BOROUGH TOPS
105 metres (14th out of 33) [map] [map]
This triple-barrelled village probably shouldn't be part of London, and only scrapes inside by half a mile. Havering-atte-Bower is a proper hilltop settlement with a green and a twisty main street, plus royal connections to Edward the Confessor established a timber lodge here. This became the centre of hunting grounds known as The Royal Liberty of Havering, and later a proper palace grew up (to which the 'atte-Bower' suffix relates). Nothing remains, although the parish church is built on the highest point which is the site of the old palace chapel. St James and St John lost its parish priest two years back and now shares a vicar with a much more modern building down the hill in Collier Row. The churchyard slopes upwards, which makes the village green fractionally higher, possibly sloping upwards to the stocks by the T-Junction. By London standards buses are infrequent, but those who live in the adjacent cottages mostly drive or, as seems very typical round here, ride a horse. [3 photos]
Or maybe the other half of the village is higher - whoever compiled the list of London Borough Tops isn't certain. Broxhill Road dips slightly down and then back up again towards the cricket club, and it's very hard to judge which end is higher purely by eye. Hence Havering has an alternative secondary peak barely quarter of a mile east of the first, also at 105 metres, in the vicinity of Round House Farm. A bright white water tower rises here, perhaps evidence that engineers thought this was the highest point hereabouts. The cricket ground must have a good claim too. Within its chalk-lined boundary all is flat, but immediately beyond the land tumbles away to reveal Romford, intermediate suburbia, Dartford and the heights of Kent in the far distance. The Thames really does carve a valley through the heart of London, even in its more estuarine reaches, and the elevated residents of Havering-atte-Bower see this more clearly than most.
by bus: 375 (not Sunday)
LONDON BOROUGH TOPS
Islington: Highgate Hill
100 metres (15th out of 33) [map] [map]
My journey to the top of Islington involved a bus ride up the Holloway Road to Archway, and thence up Highgate Hill. It's a relentless ascent, with barely a dip on the way, following the Great North Road on its escape from the centre of town. At Archway the A1 veers off to follow a 200 year-old cutting through the hillside, while the old route climbs past the Whittingtons (Hospital and Stone). On and on it climbs, eventually more than triple the elevation of Hackney's summit. But for Islington's purposes the climb runs out on the 100 metre contour, at the steeply-slanted junction with Hornsey Lane, where Camden and Haringey take over the remainder of the ascent. The divide is marked by three fine-roofed landmarks, one with a tower, one with a spire and the other with domes. The tower marks Linden Mansions, a part-whimsical turn of the century apartment block, the spire tops the Old Crown pub, long a place for travellers to rest, while the twin domes belong to St Joseph's RC Church, a listed Romanesque/Byzantine hybrid. [4 photos]
This yellow box junction is the official Borough Top, but I was tempted to walk east along Hornsey Lane towards another famous landmark. The road beyond the Georgian townhouses definitely dipped, but then rose again, and from the pavement outside the nursing home it was impossible to be certain which end was higher. If the latter, then St Aloysius' College may be the highest building in Islington, its "Founded 1879" looking somewhat incongruous on the front of a bland 21st century façade. On the opposite side of the road is a flat-topped reservoir, often a sign of a municipal highest point, but that's in Haringey again. The famous landmark is just round the bend, maybe a metre lower, the Hornsey Lane Bridge. Formerly an arched bridge after which the neighbourhood is named, the cast iron replacement is one of the most notorious suicide spots in London. Its barbed metal rails wouldn't prevent a determined descent, although the view down the dual carriageway just might. From the Cheesegrater to the Shard, with the Gherkin and the Barbican between, the City's skyscrapers line up almost one by one. Best turn again, and walk away.
by tube: Archway by bus: 143, 210, 271, W5
LONDON BOROUGH TOPS
Brent: Wakemans Hill
92 metres (16th out of 33) [map] [map]
The housebuilders got this one. A hilltop higher than Horsenden rises up from the Edgware Road in the general vicinity of Kingsbury. It's harder to see on the map, there being streets and houses everywhere, but this too is a proper hill with bullseye contours, if rather shallower on the flanks. The borough peak is on Wakemans Hill Avenue, a typically broad suburban street built when space in outer London wasn't at a premium. It's lined by white-fronted semi-detached houses topped with tiled gabled roofs, each with either a well tended front garden or more likely hardstanding for two cars. The cul-de-sacs to either side have names like Summit Close and Hillview Gardens, as a hint to what lies beneath, and there are indeed some fairly bracing views towards Colindale and Finchley as the main avenue drops away. On the brow of the hill I passed a man delivering leaflets door to door, I think for dial-up pizza, while another man out tending to his hedge almost reversed into me with a power saw. And if you're thinking it all sounds very Metroland, you'd be right, indeed this very hilltop featured in Betjeman's famous documentary. [5 photos]
It's not a long segment, slotted in between longer trips to Wembley and Harrow, but Sir John appears briefly on what looks like the battlements of a castle, only for the camera to pull back to reveal a most peculiar house. He'd come to Kingsbury to revel in the work of Ernest Trobridge, a quirky architect from the 1920s with a taste for timber-framed construction. Some of Trobridge's more cottagey homes remain in the area, for example just round the corner in Buck Lane, but his style didn't prove popular at the time and the more traditional semi-detacheds smothered the area. Betjeman picked Highfort Court for the programme, an amazing corner-site apartment block with crenellations, turret and arrowslits, accessed up a rather narrow central staircase. Across the street is a slightly lesser beast, this time with twin white towers, now partially obscured behind a lofty conifer. Even closer to the summit is Whitecastle Mansions, the name perhaps more impressive than the reality, but those who live in Trobridge's maisonettes today no doubt revel in their oddity. And OK, so Horsenden Hill has done so much better in surviving untainted, but at least the smothering of Wakemens Hill was done in style.
by tube: Kingsbury by bus: 32, 83, 142, 183, 204, 302, 324
LONDON BOROUGH TOPSWaltham Forest: Pole Hill
91 metres (17th out of 33) [map] [map]
The highest point in the borough of Waltham Forest is a proper hill, indeed one of the more special hills within the Greater London boundary. Pole Hill rises above the western end of the town of Chingford, indeed the hill is named after St Paul's Church on the village green, which is in turn named after St Paul's Cathedral. It actually feels like a proper hill when you climb it too, rising steeply from the Lea Valley alongside, indeed there's a mighty fine view across two reservoirs from the grassy slopes on the western flank. Or you can walk up via the residential avenues of Chingford Green, one of whose houses on Woodberry Way has a back garden rising almost to the summit. One particularly famous resident of Arabia Way was Lawrence of Arabia, back when he was the only person here and living (occasionally) in a hut in the woods. Or the easiest ascent is up the unmade road along the edge of the golf course, rising gently into forest to reach a beechy earthen glade. There are sufficient ways up and down Pole Hill to provide considerable variety for even the most demanding Chingford-based jogger or dog walker. [3 photos]
Step out onto the plateau at the top of Pole Hill and you'll find a pair of pillars, both of which hold significance. The smaller is the Ordnance Survey trig point, recording an elevation of one foot below three hundred. It's also on the Greenwich Meridian, which by a complete coincidence passes through the summit of the hill. This fortuitous alignment was used by the Royal Observatory's astronomers who used to line up their telescopes in Greenwich with the top of Pole Hill ten miles due north. The other obelisk was erected in 1824 when the Greenwich Meridian ran 19 feet west of where it does now, lined up on the crosshairs of James Bradley's transit telescope. It's therefore fortunate, or perhaps deliberate, that the tree cover is at its thinnest in this general direction, although copious branches have grown up far enough in the intervening years to completely obstruct views of Greenwich through the summer.
I do love sitting up here - there's one bench - although the finest panorama from the Gherkin round to the BT Tower can only be seen by standing on it. Others enjoy the peace too, evidenced by the empty can of Strongbow perched on the plinth at the foot of the obelisk. Two cyclists - I suspect they'd like to think of themselves as mountain bikers - paused by the summit before diving between the oak trees to plunge down the slopes to the west. And two joggers passed by, one sweating across his now two-tone t-shirt, the other ambling slowly in pristine vest. I eventually picked my exit route and followed one of them down, but not before enjoying my Pole position for a little while longer.
by train: Chingford by bus: 313, 379, 385
LONDON BOROUGH TOPS
Redbridge: Cabin Hill
90 metres (18th out of 33) [map] [map]
Hainault Forest Country Park, it seems, is a treat known only to locals from almost-Essex. They drive in, or maybe walk from the estates of Hainault if they're that way inclined, and park up in number at the end of the lane. From here a variety of activities suggest themselves. A trip to Foxburrows Farm - a petting zoo treat for the littluns - or the chance to buy something & chips at the Global Cafe (a popular choice that at the weekend, I noted). Several three-generation families had brought picnics and were sprawled out on the grass, generally not too far from the car for convenience sake, slowly bloating and reddening as the afternoon passed. What you can't currently do is walk on the site where thousands of military 'volunteers' camped out during the Olympics, because amazingly that's still sealed off even two years afterwards to give the wild flower carpet time to regroup. Or you could go for a walk - there are several trails across the site, some merely up the meadow and back but others more worthy ascents into deep forest. And one of these woodland walks, from the farthest end of the site, leads up to Redbridge's Borough Top. [3 photos]
The Greater London boundary runs in from Grange Hill and Chigwell Row, almost precisely slicing the Country Park in two. Along the way it passes through the summit of Cabin Hill, where Redbridge meets Havering meets Essex, with the London side more steeply sloping than the wooded out-of-town flanks beyond. On the gravel path ascent I passed several visitors walking slowly, pretending not to be out of breath, and a retired couple brambling for first fruits in the hedgerow and dropping their bounty into an M&S bag. And at the pinnacle itself, treats and disappointment. A treat, in that the borough of Redbridge has plonked a huge wastebin emblazoned with the name of the council on its highest point. A treat in that an information board explains what there is to see nearby, including the immediately-adjacent county through the hedge. And a disappointment in that the bench where I'd hoped to sit was already taken by a teenager checking his phone, and no way was he going anywhere while (presumably) the rest of his family explored the woodland paths beyond. Tree cover atop Cabin Hill means there's no view as such, but a definite sense of place presides.
by tube: Grange Hill by bus: 247, 362
LONDON BOROUGH TOPS
Kingston: Telegraph Hill
90 metres (19th out of 33) [map] [map]
I shake my fists at the gods of Administrative Topography. The next borough high point on my list isn't just somewhere wilfully inaccessible, it's in the most far-flung corner of London from where I live. The borough of Kingston sticks a thin tongue down into Surrey, stretching two miles down from Surbiton and out past Chessington World of Adventures. To get further requires a ride on an elusive bus, the 465 to Dorking, which for reasons best known to TfL serves communities up to six miles beyond the Greater London border. The village at the tip of Kingston's tongue is Malden Rushett, a remote outpost on the Leatherhead road of whose existence I'd not previously been aware. A cluster of houses, a Mitsubishi showroom, a hi-tech business park - it's that kind of place. I'm sure its few hundred residents enjoy the semi-rural setting, and the convenience of having an M&S Simply Food at the local garage. [4 photos]
But I needed to go even further than that, so alighted at the delightfully named Shy Horse and walked on past the last lonely cottages to a pair of farm entrances. One of these farms caters for all your Horse, Pet and Poultry supplies, if you're interested, while the other has its own 500m-long airstrip. The main road climbed a low hill beyond, this leading to my ultimate target, although a strip of woodland along each side rendered the summit entirely invisible. On I trudged past a relentless stream of traffic, until I eventually reached a locked gate blocking access to a short upward track. Somewhere up there was Telegraph Hill, so named because it used to be part of the signalling chain between London and Portsmouth. But Thames Water didn't want me to get any closer to their covered reservoir, the location of Kingston's elusive 90m contour. Damn, I thought, I've come all this way, but is this going to be the first borough top it's impossible even to photograph?
With more time I could have continued downhill to the first pub in Surrey, the Star, and then taken a forest walk through the Crown Estate at Prince's Coverts. But I didn't have time enough on this occasion (note to self, looks nice, come back), so decided instead to try to peer through the roadside woodland scrub. No way was the traffic stopping to allow a deluded pedestrian to cross, so I took my life in my hands and attempted to nip quickly through. Once over I had to step through nettles and brambles to a small clearing, negotiate a dumped fridge and gas canister, and finally peer over a hedge to view the grassy bump beyond. No telegraph passes this way today, only a minor string of power lines, but a dish-topped mobile mast continued the communications motif in more modern style. And somewhere beyond the hedge at the top of the rise was that elusive covered reservoir, not really worth the danger and effort, but I left with my completist tendencies satisfied.
by train: Chessington South by bus: 465
LONDON BOROUGH TOPS
Ealing: Horsenden Hill
85 metres (20th out of 33) [map] [map]
Ealing has a proper peak. Horsenden Hill rises up steeply on all sides, the way a child would draw it, while an Ordnance Survey map displays a bullseye of concentric contours. Whichever side you arrive it's a good 100 foot climb to the top, and there are several possible ascents, which makes this a good place for an urban hike. The Capital Ring passes over the summit, and members of Horsenden Hill Golf Club climb a fair way every time they make a round. I took the golf club route - badly signposted, but nobody was out on the course so my random wander didn't get in anyone's way. [3 photos]
The hilltop's relatively flat, easily large enough for a ballgame, even if the grass isn't cut to make that entirely practical. But only if you spot the access panels would you necessarily spot the slight artificialness that conceals yet another of London's covered reservoirs beneath Horsenden's mown façade. The land round the central trig point is more real, it's where an iron Age hillfort sat, and here the long grass is alive with unseen buzzy creatures. A single oak stands where the main footpaths meet, but there are considerably more trees around the southern rim blocking any hope of seeing through. Instead panoramas to north and west are what you get, which you can interpret from the information boards Ealing Council have helpfully plonked in the corner. Peer through the dead flies and grime to confirm that yes, those are the Chilterns, and that's Stanmore, and that big flat-roofed white building is the Royal Mail Distribution Centre in Perivale. Various charred piles suggest that bonfires and barbecues are popular up here, perhaps as the ideal chill-out at dusk for those that live in the avenues beneath. Thankfully Shirley Ann's wooden memorial bench hasn't gone up yet, but one fears it can only be a matter of time.
I had the plateau much to myself initially, until joined by a selfie-snapping mum who'd lugged a pushchair up the hill. Some young children wandered by like this was their summer playground, because how great would that be, and a barrage of unrelated ramblers followed. I was surprised how few of those climbing to the top stopped and lingered, especially after climbing the steeper paths from the canal - a quick pause and they were straight back down again. And then a bloke arrived with a picnic table, closely followed by three small boys carrying sports gear - the advance guard for an extended family invasion. Up they panted from the car park, barely 100 metres away direct, but far enough below to spread out the group into mountaineers and stragglers. Before long the space beneath the oak tree had become a social encampment decked out with blankets and sunshades, with Jack Daniels being poured and a variety of supermarket picnic food on display. I left them to their rounders, or whatever, and headed back down rejoicing that the house builders left Horsenden alone.
by tube: Sudbury Town by bus: 204, 487, H17
[For London Borough Tops 20-33, click here]