The centre of London is generally taken to be Charing Cross, specifically the statue of Charles I in the middle of the roundabout. I've visited the points one mile due north, then two miles, then three miles, all the way up to ten miles, to see how London changes the further north you go.[map]
ONE MILE NORTH: Russell Square (western corner, by the Cabmen's Shelter)
The Little Green Hut in the corner of Russell Square is one of just 13 remaining Victorian shelters providing rest and sustenance for London's cabbies. They get to hide away inside with a cuppa and a fry-up, but anyone can step up to the hatch and place an order. A cup of tea's a quid and the holy grail of an egg and bacon roll is £3.20, the same price as a liver sausage baguette. The hut's exterior is draped with hanging baskets, tubs and bunting, while two tubs of geraniums brighten the outside benches. Why so many students are heading back to lectures clutching a Costa remains a mystery.
The red phone box by the garden gates is locked. Inside are a stool, a shelf and a couple of power points, courtesy of the Pod Works mini-office start-up, although they've gone bust so the computer screen is missing and the clock's stuck on 00:00. At least ten trucks and trailers are parked around the square facing Senate House, hired from Bristol TV Film Services, whose catering staff are tidying away the serving trays after the lunchtime rush. I don't know what they're filming, but the names stuck to the dressing room doors suggest I should look out for Camille, Heather, Jake and Sebastian in the credits at a later date.
Through the gates, Humphrey Repton's restored gardens are primed for relaxation and recuperation. A woman sits cross-legged on the grass beside a suitcase, reading a book. The approach of a sleek black labrador startles a group of pigeons. A small boy kicks through the bare minimum of fallen leaves. Four office workers arrive in sports clothes and proceed to jump, squat, jog and wave their arms, or indeed any other athletic movement the fifth member directs them to perform. A whiff of spliff walks by. Two students are practising their lines from a playbook. A woman on an electric tricycle circles the lawn before spotting an empty bench and occupying it with a beer and a sandwich. Someone's attempting one last sunbathe before autumn draws in. Plane trees rustle. Fountains gush.
TWO MILES NORTH: St Pancras Lock (Regent's Canal, by the gasholders)
I'm in King's Cross, less than fifty metres from Coal Drops Yard. This is St Pancras Lock, one of 13 on the Regent's Canal, which has been here for 200 years. Across the water is an old lockkeeper's cottage, its garden now tended by the St Pancras Cruising Club. They're particularly keen on boats, for the avoidance of doubt. The lock's top gates are open and the lower closed, although nobody is barging through. An Arctic wind ripples the surface of the water in the chamber alongside, which spills over the rim into a separate gully. Several leaves and an M&Ms packet are caught in the weir. An iron gate, treated with anti-climb paint, ensures that only those with a key can cross to the central island.
Where there used to be one towpath, now there are two. The original cobbled track hugs the canal, where a horse could still use it, but the newest rises up to deliver passers-by into the heart of the Coal Drops. It's like a filter, the serious walkers with boots and rucksacks staying low, and potential shoppers with pristine trainers and smart jackets climbing high. Bags dangling in the opposite direction suggest treats and trinkets have been purchased. One couple rocking a beret'n'beard combo stop by the lock to frame the perfect selfie, then release it via 4G before proceeding. A train bedecked with poppies crosses the canal heading into St Pancras, followed at a safe distance by a double-ended rainbow, because it's important for rolling stock to send messages these days.
"Those used to be gasholders," says a well-wrapped bloke to his partner, who looks like she may never have seen one before. "People live inside them now!" An unmade bed is clearly visible inside one of the lower apartments. Nobody is out on their tiny balcony, but a smattering of metal furniture hints at warmer days past. The sole unfilled gasholder, with its mirrored pergola and copious benches, is a lot less busy now a shopping centre has opened in the vicinity. All the flower beds fronting the development are still replete with floral colour, and the teardrop lawns pristine. But scrubby vegetation reigns alongside the towpath, the demarcation line between private and public gardening all too plain.
THREE MILES NORTH: Hilldrop Lane, Holloway (behind St Mungo's on Camden Road, N7)
This isn't pretty. I had hoped it might have been. Walking towards my target destination I passed through several streets of solid four-storey Victorian villas, but also crossed several undistinguished modern estates, and this road felt closer than most to the bottom of the heap. A back lane, divided by a barrier, once home to greenhouses and a garage, now a row of mundane flats and lock-ups. No front gardens, just an iron grille facing onto tarmac. Some homes have floor-to-ceiling grilles behind their ground floor windows, just in case. In the shared garden, someone's discarded three broken office chairs. Humps ahead, maximum speed 5mph.
Lined up on one windowsill, a collection of commemorative beer glasses. Pinned up on one door, Beware of the dog. Attached to the foot of several up-and-overs, a mechanical 'Garage Defender'. Last time the lockups saw fresh blue paint, heaven knows. Private parking only, with permit, penalty £100. Just two streetlamps, and good luck after dark on the stretch inbetween. No access to Belmont Lane. A row of bollards. The Tansley Close Community Garden, leaf-strewn and locked. The sound of drumming from the Baptist church at the end of the lane. A trio in trapper hats walk past drinking from cut-price cans. The shadow of Moelwyn Hughes Court. For several Londoners, home. One mile from New King's Cross, three from Trafalgar Square.
FOUR MILES NORTH: Fairbridge Road, N19 (not far from Upper Holloway station)
Near the top of the Holloway Road, immediately beyond the railway bridge, pause at the kitchen showroom on the street corner opposite the church. Here begins Fairbridge Road, a long street of fine Victorian villas running parallel to the Overground. Come on the first Sunday of the month and this is a playstreet, as a traffic sign on a lamppost warns and some paper lanterns hanging from a tree assert. The rest of the time it's quiet-ish, a string of gabled attic windows looking down over tiny front gardens scattered with shrubbery and recycling bins. Three greyhounds are being taken for a walk by three smiling dogwalkers, and sniffing every potential treat along the pavement. "Oh I can see a baguette! No you can't have it." A woman harangues the UPS driver who's dared to park outside her house whilst delivering to a neighbour. A street sweeper pauses to check his phone. At the top of the street the bells of St John's chime the hour.
Take time to admire the Hovis advert painted on the wall of what used to be A. H. Fryer, Baker & Confectioner. Be surprised to find that Geo. F. Trumper, the esteemed Mayfair barbers, are actually based in a lowly ex-cornershop on the corner of Sussex Way. But for the four-mile point head to the junction with Ashbrook Road, amidst a flank of elegant brickwork somewhere in the vicinity of number 50. Most of the windows along here are net-curtained, but in some of the others can be seen colourful cushions, a black and white jacket, a rainbow flag and the pegs of a guitar. Officially the four-mile target is round the back of these houses, in one of their hidden gardens, therefore best seen from a passing train. Thankfully there are still some on the Goblin at the moment, not that a lengthy fence and a wall of undulating rear extensions reveal enough to make the trip worthwhile.
FIVE MILES NORTH: Bedford Road, N8 (close to the heart of Crouch End)
Crouch End's clocktower is precisely five miles north of Charing Cross station, but I'm not measuring from there so have ended up marginally further west. Take Crouch Hall Road to climb gently into the suburban backstreets, flat roads very much not being a thing round here. Whoever named these streets in the 1880s had a thing about the letters B and C, hence we find Birchington, Berkeley and Bryanstone, as well as Clifton, Coolhurst and Coleridge. The shortest of these is Bedford Road, the only street T-junctioned at both ends, and cramming in no more than two dozen fine Victorian villas. The houses are constructed primarily of red brick with white painted banding, prominent square bay windows and shaped gables. One leaflike decorative motif appears several times on the odd-numbered side. Four of the cast iron lamp standards are original. One of the streetsigns predates alphanumeric postcodes, stating simply Bedford Road, N.
Only from the very top end of the street do you get a sense of hillside living. Further downslope is more intimate, with well-kept hedges shielding small shrubberied gardens. Everyone has two green bins, each displaying a different evolution of Haringey council's logo. Two red-ringed roadsigns warn drivers not to exceed 20mph, not that it'd be possible to go much faster without crashing at the end of the street. Residents Parking restrictions apply only between two and four in the afternoon. A car drives off with a sulking son in the back seat. Another returns with planks on the roofrack. One family's storing a tricycle in their recessed porch, another a toboggan, and one has a plastic rack for milk bottles on their front step. Two houses are out of action behind bright orange hoardings, courtesy of Mulroy Architects and Ingenious Construction Ltd. If London still has middle class enclaves, here's one.
SIX MILES NORTH: Alexandra Palace (on the grassy slope out front)
Having been to some pretty dull residential corners on this mileage quest, this is a proper treat. Six miles due north from Charing Cross lies Alexandra Palace, the heritage entertainment bastion (plus TV mast) on its high hill overlooking the capital. I'd not been recently, and was mighty impressed by the upgraded theatre entrance in the East Court. This vast space has been spruced up with a multi-coloured geometric floor, a rather good historical exhibition (from Wild Bill Cody to the BBC) and the deadest cafe you ever did see. But the precise spot is outside, across the road and down a bit - so not quite at 'perfect vantage point' level. Head down the steps and turn left, towards the tallest tree, stopping where the path bends back on itself. Bingo.
The grass is freshly mown, scattering dandelion heads, lolly sticks and fag ends amid the cuttings. Leaves rustle. Birds sing. Frisbees are thrown. A Green Flag flutters. Up on the South Terrace a double decker bus rolls by. A flurry of foliage blocks sight of Docklands and the City, but the consolation prize is the Spurs saucer, a couple of towers in Ilford and possibly riverside Woolwich. A few steps away behind a picket fence is the entrance to the Ally Pally Pitch and Putt course, unusual in having ten holes. Jack has this month's best score, with 36, while Helen leads the women with a 57. One round plus equipment hire clocks in at just under a tenner, but come before 2pm on a schoolday and they'll let you go round twice. Only two players are taking advantage, and the lad in the hut looks a bit bored. Perhaps they'll ask him for a Solero when they hand their clubs back.
SEVEN MILES NORTH: Bounds Green Road, N11 (junction with Warwick Road)
It turns out there is a green in Bounds Green, and here it is, marked by a green sign saying Welcome To The Green. A narrow grassy stripe tapers towards the North Circular, at this end broadening slightly to encompass a cluster of wooden exercise equipment and a retired couple on a bench. He's reading something weighty, she's reading about Heroic Failure. The pub on the corner is The Ranelagh, a free house since 1899, brightened by a rim of lush flowers tumbling over the claret woodwork. The chef's idea of fish and chips is "ale-battered cod with triple-cooked chips and tartare sauce", plus "posh mushy peas" on the side as an optional extra. At the adjacent Sunrise Cafe it's "egg, bacon, tomato, sausage, fried slice and tea" all-in for a fiver. Outside Sonjig's off licence two men from Shutters Ltd have climbed stepladders to wrestle with some improperly-descended metalwork, while the shop assistant brushes fallen detritus towards the kerb.
By my calculations the precise seven mile point is outside the bus shelter opposite, where the 221 pulls up after its brief descent from the tube station. Illuminated posters advertise 7 Up and Muller Light. The bench rattles. Here is where the big houses stop and a sequence of flats intervenes, behind a raised public lawn that would otherwise have been front gardens. The block behind the bus stop is called Warwick Court, which is odd because so is the block on the other side of the road, which is odd because that road isn't Warwick Road it's Passmore Gardens. Its residents held a street party on Sunday, the only trace of which is a permission notice tied to a lamppost. Just beyond is Scout Park, an eight acre compound offering plenty of space for camping cubs, opened in 1928 on the site of a pottery and now offering opportunities for archery, air rifle shooting and climbing. I bet more than one of you has slept here overnight.
EIGHT MILES NORTH: Brycedale Crescent, N14 (junction with Arnos Grove)
Long before Arnos Grove was a tube station it was a manor house, originally called Arnoldes Grove, located half a mile uphill from where the Piccadilly line stops today. The house survives today as luxury apartments, but the estate was sold off in the 1920s for housing and to create Arnos Park. The estate's spine road was also called Arnos Grove, just to add one more into the mix, and boasts the grandest houses as it descends from Southgate Green. The uppermost tier is Minchenden Crescent, named after the even older country house nextdoor, but the eight mile point comes one rung lower at Brycedale Crescent. This is a Neighbourhood Watch Area. Kill Your Speed. Road Works Ahead.
These are big chunky semis, far enough out not to have been subdivided into flats, although one postwar pebbledash intruder has been inserted at the head of the street. Front gardens have space for horticulture as well as parking, including crazy-paved roses and longstanding conifers. One resident has a Range Rover designated SWA99A, another a Nissan called B5VVY. The rear alleyway on the odd-numbered side is firmly padlocked. Several gateposts are topped with lanterns, several bay windows augmented by dishes. But the feature which really makes this road stand out is a strip of mixed shrubbery along the edge of the pavement, some of it privet, some alive with purple blooms, some dripping with hips. One mini-hedge has a blue stripe painted up the side and another a red line daubed across the top, because Thames Water are preparing to dig up the road and someone's been overzealous with the coloured aerosols. They'd better not be planning on deforestation.
NINE MILES NORTH: Chase Road, Southgate N14 (near the junction with Chelmsford Road)
If only a mile were slightly shorter I'd be reporting from Charles Holden's magnificent Southgatestation, but instead we've overshot and started to climb the hill beyond. This was once the southern edge of the royal hunting forest of Enfield Chase, hence the name South Gate, and it's also why the road we're on is called Chase Road. One side has a short burst of Victorian terrace, but the majority of housing hereabouts consists of large Thirties semis built after the arrival of the Piccadilly line. The gradient from the pavement up to the front door provides householders with a landscape challenge which some address with a ramp, others with steps and a few with terraced shrubbery. Workmen are busy paving over one front garden... smoothing the soil, lugging a hod, splitting bricks and tessellating furiously.
Those waiting patiently on the oversized traffic island can pass the time gazing down towards the minor towers of Southgate. An ambulance has turned up to collect a patient, her fold-up wheelchair abandoned by the side of the kerb. Someone's cat pads through a hedge, then pauses to inspect some spiral topiary. A chain of red buckets emerges from a loft extension and opens its mouth above a skip in the street. A handful of roses and sunflowers are holding out into autumn. Everyone's bin has had a tag attached explaining how the council is ending free garden waste collections at the end of the month (pay your £65 now to get 17 months for the price of 12). A handyman pushes a reappropriated supermarket trolley up the hill, his stepladder balanced on top, his brushes wrapped in plastic bags within. The bus from Eight Miles North to Ten Miles North occasionally overtakes.
TEN MILES NORTH: Trent Park Equestrian Centre N14 (along the back fence, alongside Trent Park Golf Club)
Precisely ten miles north from central London the houses stop and open country begins. The houses are in Oakwood, a well-to-do housing estate which followed the arrival of the Piccadilly line in the 1930s, its tube station a triumphantbox. A lengthy parade of surprisingly good shops stretches off to one side, with barely a chain or fried chicken shop amongst them, rather restaurants, salons and the occasional florist. For those used to inner-city living, it's eye-openingly comfortable out here. But on the opposite side of the road the Green Belt prevented further development, so Eastpole Farm never metamorphosed into leafy avenues. Instead its fields became a golf course and its stables became an equestrian centre.
Trent Park Equestrian Centre is one of London's larger horsey hubs, with stables, livery facilities and exercise areas across several acres. It's well shielded from the road, allowing £62 lessons, children's parties and mucking out to proceed in private. Every so often a line of black helmets bobs above a hedge. Occasionally the clopping of hooves can be heard. Head up the muddy bridleway towards Trent Park proper and you might meet a group of proficient riders out for a hack. But what you won't be doing is walking in off the street to reach the precise Ten Miles North location at the rear of the site, because that's off limits.
The only other way to reach the right spot would be to play a round on Trent Park Golf Course. The fairway for the tenth hole brushes up against the back of the equestrian centre, should you ever be interested in coming (non-members welcome, weekdays £17). But there's no convenient public footpath across the course, and the screen of woodland around the outside is deliberately obstructive, so I never managed to point my camera at the designated location from any angle. Instead I glimpsed a few youthful golfers through the trees, smartly dressed and fashionably capped, and watched their buggy glide silently by. Ten Miles North is solely for private playtime, be that on two feet or on four.