Friday, November 01, 2019
Miles west from central London
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 west, then two miles, then three miles, all the way up to ten miles, to see how London changes the further west you go. [map]
ONE MILE WEST: Audley Square, Mayfair
(on South Audley Street, behind the Dorchester)
Mayfair is a different world. Its streets are old and narrow, and plied by a better class of vehicle. Five consecutive taxis drive towards me along South Audley Street, which I suspect isn't in any way abnormal. One drops off a headscarved woman outside The Embassy Of The State of Qatar, where the doorman checks she has appropriate business to be allowed inside. Across the road is a Merc with diplomatic plates, and another with the personalised registration QTR 1 (the first letter of which must've involved some high-level string-pulling). Yet another Merc is parked up round the corner with a chauffeur at its wheel, awaiting the call to action.
Most of the men who walk by are middle-aged, wearing suits in fractionally different shades of blue. One couple are carrying a property portfolio. The handsome sandstone building at number 2 Audley Square, with the cornucopia relief, has been owned by the University Women's Club since 1921. A Union Jack is wrapped several times around its flagpole. The sash-windowed townhouse nextdoor at number 3 is perfectly presented, and conceals a luxury 5-bed dwelling with knockthroughs and basement swimming pool behind its flawless facade. But number 4 is missing, as are the former 5, 6 and 7, because the remainder of Audley Square is a levelled demolition site behind a wall of blue hoardings.
What's been taken down is a public multi-storey car park inserted in 1962 and the disused petrol filling station behind, to make way for "the finest residential apartment building (and facilities) ever built in Mayfair and in the wider London area". The billionaire speculator making this massive boast is John Caudwell, former owner of Phones4U, whose snail's pace project was only given the go-ahead when he agreed to build some affordable housing three streets away in a former street-sweeping depot. He bought the site for £155m, but hopes to flog the three penthouses for £100m each, which should make the lower 27 apartments pure profit. One mile from the centre of London, a whole lot of shenanigans are going on.
TWO MILES WEST: Kensington Gardens
(on the banks of the Long Water)
Here's a lovely spot in Kensington Gardens you might just know, the first waterside vista to the south of the Peter Pan statue. Kensington Palace is to the west, on a sightline behind the Physical Energy statue, while Henry Moore's 37 ton Arch lies immediately across the lake. You may know it as the Serpentine, but officially this end is the Long Water. Pleasureboat-free, it's the sanctuary waterfowl prefer. One gull has perched on each of the wooden posts along the water's edge. Two swans glide by. A moorhen disappears with a ripple.
The footpath is busy, with tourists and hire bikes and over-bellied joggers. One well-prepared party pauses to scatter crumbs on the ground, which is the signal for avian scrutineers to hotfoot over. The air is briefly full of ducks. Several geese hop out of the water. All but three of the wooden posts are now empty. The crumb-sower whips out his phone to grab the photo he wanted, beaming to camera, than quickly walks on. The geese progress further onto the lawn, where an entwined couple are finishing off a treat from the Hummingbird Bakery, surrounding them on two flanks. I hope they looked carefully at the grass before they sat down.
A long bench runs down to the water, one of its wooden slats uncomfortably missing. I grab a seat at the far end after a retired couple have departed, and just as a single yellow leaf floats down and lands beside me. The green box which is supposed to contain a lifebelt appears to be empty. Two Peroni bottle caps lie on the tarmac. A rustic-looking sign urges "No bathing, fishing or dogs permitted in this lake". Most of the ducks and geese have had enough of waddling and have returned to the lake. The trees across the water look splendid. Nobody else is here because of the precise distance it is from Charing Cross, but sometimes following the numbers pays off.
THREE MILES WEST: Kensington Place, Notting Hill
(at the junction with Hillgate Street, W8)
Kensington Place runs a couple of streets back from Notting Hill Gate, sloping down towards Kensington Church Street, and is nowhere the hoi polloi would normally go. One side is perfect pastel terraces with sash windows, basement steps and prices approaching three million apiece - ideal for purchasers who want reconfigurable internal space with hardly any garden to fuss over. The other side is a school playground, colourfully marked, and a block of brown flats built on the site of a garage on the site of a disused reservoir. The street could have traffic both ways, but folks need to be able to park their Mini Coupés out front so it has to be one way only.
A kid from the flats speeds down the pavement on his silver scooter, and thanks me ever so politely for stepping to one side. Two floppy haired blonds with brogues and Barbours walk down the middle of the road, confident of not being run over. Some terribly nice vases are on show on parlour tables, unless the shutters are down because there's nothing, or too much, worth ogling. Someone in the unpainted stretch has got the scaffolders in. The primary school offers weekend classes in Family Yoga. A copper-spired church on Campden Hill dominates the top of the street. The display of autumn colours at number 30 is currently stunning. What a difference a mile makes.
FOUR MILES WEST: Westfield London
(i.e. Shepherd's Bush, not Stratford)
Four miles west of Trafalgar Square delivers us to Europe's largest shopping mall, within the confines of the retail maelstrom that is Westfield London. The specific spot is along the promenade linking the central atrium to the upmarket 'Village', where the shops that would never thrive in Stratford are clustered. It's lofty, it's spacious, and because I've turned up on a Sunday afternoon it's quite busy. Those in their 20s and 30s generally have carrier bags in their hands, those in their 40s more likely small children. Triangular skylights reveal the outside world shoppers aren't meant to notice. Private security personnel keep a careful eye on proceedings.
Up on Level 1 the mall passes between Zara and a boarded up unit, new retailer (hopefully) coming soon. In the centre of the aisle is an 'outdoor' overspill for Pret, plus a sushi vendor with fewer, shabbier banquettes. Oud Milano are offering 50% off their selection of oriental beauty products, this small kiosk their only outlet this side of the Alps. A lowly operative wheels over her trolley to empty the litter bin, which is mostly full of empty cups. Wave your phone at the QR code on Zara's shop window for exclusive details of sales promotions within. The music pumping out from somewhere overhead is so mainstreamly modern that I recognise none of it.
Downstairs, or rather down-escalator, the units are smaller and more fashionable. Armani, Versace and Calvin Klein are amongst the famous names bedded in, the latter exclusively for the sale of underwear. I worry that Tory Burch might be a political faction's HQ, but instead its gold shelves are sparsely dotted with not many handbags. One young couple pause to look over the watches and Ray-Bans slotted into a mid-aisle display. A very patient-looking dad pushes his offspring forwards inside a hired red miniature sports car. Another family have hunkered down on some benches and unleashed the kids' packed lunches, spilling crisps and Haribo onto the carpet. Westfield is their day out, Sunday is no day of rest, and once more round and then we'll go home.
FIVE MILES WEST: Ollgar Close, W12
(where Shepherds Bush meets Acton)
Here's dull. We're on the Uxbridge Road one mile west of Westfield, at the point just before Hammersmith & Fulham morphs into Ealing. Ollgar House is a 1980s-looking development of three redbrick blocks of flats, the shorter two poking out at right angles from the longest to create square landscaped gardens. It was designed to make better use of the open space behind the shops on the main road, now demolished, and is a resolutely private affair. Gates into the estate are padlocked, signs warn interlopers away, and the only access for non-residents is the access road round the back. Fortunately for this post, and unfortunately for the reader, that's where the exact five-mile marker falls.
Ollgar Close starts between a very modern school for autistic children and a tiny cottage offering French polishing expertise, then progresses past a row of lock-ups and a fence covered with obviously fake-foliage. Before long it reaches the ugly backside of the longest block of flats, where a handful of parking bays are labelled with signs telling visitors not to park here unless they want a £100 fine. I was trying to work out how on earth residents get up to their flats, there being no stairs, when a lift door opened and the caretaker emerged with a mop and bucket. He wandered off to the plant room, a rumbling chamber of grubby machinery, and I carried on walking towards the shrubbery at the far end like I had some reason to be here. The capital's fourth fatal stabbing of 2018 occurred here when an argument on Instagram escalated and a male model was fatally wounded, his killers subsequently jailed for life. Private places always look more appealing from the front.
SIX MILES WEST: Cromwell Close, W3
(Acton, off the High Street)
Acton's smart and dapper, at least in the slice between Churchfield Road and the High Street. Desirable Victorian terraces cut through, conveniently located for shops that sell craft beer, vintage clothes and farmhouse cheese. Turn off Grove Road halfway down to find Grove Place, and turn left off that to enter Cromwell Close. Its residents would rather you didn't because they've slapped Private Property signs everywhere in an attempt to deter unwanted parking, and in the vain hope that pedestrians won't discover it's a cut-through. These flats are rather newer, the central block resembling a converted mill whereas it's absolutely nothing of the sort. Before 1971 this was the site of Acton Technical College, in its later life a campus of the fledgling Brunel University, whose demolition left a hole ripe for redevelopment. No Cycling. No Ball Games. No Dumping. CCTV In Operation. And lots of space for parking.
Through a gate on the far side is Locarno Road, a brief cul-de-sac connecting to the High Street. As well as being packed with Pizza Hut delivery bikes it has two tiny shops, one a barbers and the other an entirely unbranded cafe with space for four chairs outside on a scrap of astroturf. The streetsign high on the wall behind a drooping cable is headed 'Borough of Acton'. Looming across the main road is the clocktower of redbrick Acton Town Hall, as was, deemed surplus to requirements by Ealing council and sold off as a valuable asset. The building's now emblazoned with signs advertising 58 luxury apartments, and its marketing suite and showhome are open seven days a week. Ealing's housing register contains over 12000 applicants, but priorities post-austerity are somewhat skewed.
SEVEN MILES WEST: Ealing Common, W5
(Gunnersbury Avenue, aka North Circular Road)
When you think of the North Circular you think of a drear dual carriageway, but here in Ealing it's a narrow tree-lined avenue. No planner ever dared encroach upon the common, or deprive the villas along Gunnersbury Avenue of their front gardens. These have highly decorated gables crafted with overlapping terracotta tiles, and intricate arched porches that plead with you to come inside. The two houses guarding the entrance to Crosslands Avenue even have turrets. They're built on the site of Ealing Common Farm, and the estate beyond used to be its orchard. Today's residents perch pots of pansies on their gateposts, and drape hosepipes across their front lawns to refresh their rosebushes, and park their Mini Countrymans beside their BMWs, and live out an idyllic Thirties suburban dream as if in a quiet corner of Chorleywood but in zone 3.
The corner of the common that abuts the North Circular is closed to all traffic but bicycles. One bright orange steed has been left propped up beneath a sycamore, this one of the Chinese-funded Mobike fleet that still attempts to eke out a dockless living across Ealing. The common bristles with rich vegetation, grassy stalks and scattered wildflowers. Follow the sandy track to a bench where you can watch the delivery lorries go by, or spy the tower of the local parish church, or flop back with a podcast and a wrap. Close scrutiny of the horse chestnuts reveals clusters of tiny spiked green cases preparing autumn's conker harvest. Beyond the treeline the Eid In The Park festival is getting underway. Best not rush ahead to eight miles too soon.
EIGHT MILES WEST: Waldemar Avenue, W13
(at the corner of Lyncroft Gardens)
And briefly to West Ealing, a stone's throw from Walpole Park, amid a web of bucolic Edwardian avenues. This is prime middle class territory, mixing palm-fronted properties, redbrick villas and 4-bed semis with the twiddliest of external features. An old garage has been left to fall apart behind a broken fence. Gnarled roots erupt repeatedly from the pavement. LED bulbs droop from original fluted lampposts. Number 10 has thrown several chunks of their back garden into a set of skips. The inaugural Ealing Art Trail takes place next weekend, please take a brochure. Sorry, there's little to say about life hereabouts, other than it looks like a lovely place to live.
NINE MILES WEST: Maunder Road, Hanwell, W7
(off Boston Road)
Hanwell's a lot older than it looks, and used to be important until Ealing overwhelmed it. At its heart is the Uxbridge Road, and off that a triangular one-way system, and off that the brief dogleg of Maunder Road. It's been here since Victorian times when it ran down to some fields, whereas now it merely dodges the back of Lidl. One of its corner shops is occupied by a beauty bar, which is smart by local standards, although looking around that isn't hard because the gentrification whirlwind has yet to hit. The other corner shop belongs to some solicitors, while across the road is a shuttered unit called LookingForBargain.com, a website which probably never existed (and probably never should).
Maunder Road is "Unsuitable For H.G.V.S." according to its street sign, partly because parked cars make it too narrow but mainly because of the sharp bend at the end. Twenty terraced houses have been squeezed in along its length, each with barely any garden front or back but still boasting a half-million price tag. Only proper hanging baskets grace their frontage, there'll be none of those cheap topiary globes here. Most of the houses have a single attic skylight in the centre of the roof, but number 7 has had the builders in to give their extra bedroom some decent width. Only one resident has a Garage In Constant Use, and only one a Driveway In Constant use, neither of which I saw being used. It's all delightfully ordinary, and ever so convenient for Crossrail.
TEN MILES WEST: Great Western Industrial Park, Southall UB2
(at the bend in Dean Way)
If you know the Uxbridge Road, or indeed the Great Western Railway, we're by the Iron Bridge. The quirky Three Bridges, where Isambard Kingdom Brunel slotted a road bridge above an aqueduct above a railway line, is close by. In 1927 this site was chosen by Associated Daimler Co Ltd for their new factory, and it's where A.D.C. (soon renamed A.E.C.) spent the next half century manufacturing commercial and passenger vehicles. They specialised in chassis for buses and lorries, plus the occasional artillery tractor, and are perhaps most famous for turning out classic Routemaster double deckers. In the 1960s A.E.C. was the largest employer in Southall, with a labour force exceeding 5000, but in 1979 British Leyland closed it down and the flattened site is now an industrial estate.
Great Western Industrial Park is a Screwfix, Topps Tiles and Carpet Town affair, plus a large Matalan to help draw the crowds. But drive fractionally further in and the large grey sheds are less public, mostly warehouses, freight depots and factories for the processing of food. Up Dean Way, where we're heading, two statuesque elephants guard the entrance to Noon Foods, the heart of a Southall entrepreneur's ready meal empire. If you pinged a chicken tikka masala in your microwave during the early years of convenience food it may well have come from here, and the Waitrose lorries parked out front suggest business is still hot. Across the road we find Delifrance, automated manufacturers of artisan bread, whose factory is flanked by tall metal silos and a row of red, white and blue flags. And at the end of the road trains to Cardiff can occasionally be seen rushing by, but that's One Hundred And Thirty Miles West and I am very much stopping at Ten.
Tuesday, October 01, 2019
Miles south from central London
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 south, then two miles, then three miles, all the way up to ten miles, to see how London changes the further south you go. [map]
ONE MILE SOUTH: John Islip Street, Millbank
(just north of Tate Britain, by the junction with Marsham Street)
One road back from Millbank, all is quiet. John Islip Street is a road of two halves divided, roughly at the point where I'm standing, into an unchanged older part and a sleeker modern quarter. The older part includes what looks very much like an atypical council estate, with four parallel blocks named after painters, the exterior perfectly maintained and the courtyard sparkling with potted flowers. Across the street is Tate Britain's administrative building, where the offices are, with a splendid redbrick frontage topped by a sugar-magnate crest. Lorries creep in up the side. Occasionally a lowly member of staff pushes the binbags out on a trolley.
Across the fault line is Millbank Court, a quintessentially 1970s concrete apartment block with pebbledash inserts, and a first floor lobby extending forwards between granite slabs. It looks the ideal place for a secret agent's liaison - MI5 are based just around the corner - or somewhere a provincial parliamentarian might have their pied à terre. The DoubleTree Hilton is a more recent intrusion, all glass and taxi bay, whose menu looks reasonably priced until you spot the small print saying "dishes are small and designed to share - we recommend three per person".
The pavement outside Abell House has been sprayed with red, white and blue marks, including the location of an Empty Duct. A helicopter flies across. Three workmen sit chatting on a gap in the topiary, then move to stand outside a garage door, then disappear. A stream of civil servants and Burberry employees drip down from the top of the street. It's not hard to deduce who's who.
TWO MILES SOUTH: Thorncroft Street, SW8
(off Wandsworth Road, not far from Nine Elms tube)
Thorncroft Street is an unremarkable residential road in South Lambeth, a few hundred metres in length, its former terraces erased after WW2. Their replacements are sturdy multi-storey blocks - Dean Court, Sheldon Court and Burden House - the latter proudly owned by the Church Commissioners. Given the choice, Burden House looks the nicest. You will not be getting into any of their railinged gardens.
We may be only two miles from the centre of London, but owning a car is really popular here. A red Corsa arrives, radio pulsing, and manages to find a gap in the parking bay. A young couple emerge, unlock the boot and take out a week's shopping and two cat carriers. Another couple have driven back from the gym, with hubby in beach shorts carrying a stuffed Lonsdale bag. The cabbie with the light blue taxi drives off so his mate can fill the vacant space with an estate. I smile when I see that the driver of the white van from Harvey & Brockless, "the fine food co", is stuffing his face with a saucy chicken takeaway.
Luke, the golden retriever, has stopped to be admired by the neighbours. His owner questions what might be stuck around his mouth, then walks very slowly in the direction of Sainsbury's. A pink suitcase with a butterfly design has been abandoned on the pavement beside most of an apple. Someone has dumped a broken chair next to the bins. Finches flock to the feeders on a balcony brightened by tubs of geraniums. An old man limps past the basketball court towards the pub on the corner, the sole building to survive postwar demolition. The Nott is an uncomplicated careworn boozer offering Chinese cuisine, rock'n'roll on Fridays and a night of misspelt Halloeen entertainment. For those in need of karaoke, a banner above the door lists Elvis's mobile number.
THREE MILES SOUTH: Cottage Grove, Clapham
(Fenwick Estate, nr Clapham North station, SW9)
The Falcon, with its mustard frontage and beer terrace, is certainly trendy enough for Clapham. But Cottage Grove alongside is the gateway to a dead end council estate, knocked up in the 1960s and hidden away beside the railway embankment. The Fenwick Estate, a loop of courtyard and linear blocks, has seen better days. The Vehicle Testing Station on the way in is a big clue, with its blue MOT triangles and the offer to fix CARS, MOTOR CYCLES, THREE WHEELERS. Shabby wooden doors face the pavement, or can be accessed up backstairs along balcony walkways. A tabby cat looks down from a concrete ledge. Children kick about in a high-fenced football corral. A mural commemorates Billy Cox, 1991-2007. Someone's rice takeaway fills a puddle. The Residents Association Winter Party is pencilled in for mid-December.
A few runs of flats are boarded up, their windows firmly pinned shut. Squibb Group Limited started demolition last month within a zig-zagged sliver alongside the railway. The site's being developed by TfL as part of their new role as the Mayor's housing provider, and will shoehorn 55 all-affordable flats into this awkward space. If I say bricky and balconied, you already know exactly what they'll look like. The remainder of the Fenwick Estate is on Lambeth council's regeneration list, hopelessly delayed, but already pumping out newsletter after newsletter to keep existing residents informed. Everyone'll be sequentially decanted, rather than kicked out in favour of rich incomers, but not for a while yet. Don't expect open staircases in the replacement.
FOUR MILES SOUTH: Saxby Road Estate, SW2
(close to Brixton Prison)
Where precisely a geographical marker lands is a bit of a lottery. A slight nudge to either side and we'd have landed amid Victorian terraces, not always immaculately maintained... a little further and we might have hit a dense LCC estate or even prison cells. Instead welcome to the Saxby Lane Estate, an enclave of postwar council housing a couple of streets from the South Circular. A sign showing the staggered layout of these 70 homes has been planted into a low-walled lawn at one end, along with a few emerging daffodils. Lambeth's architects weren't over-keen to give most residents front gardens, so have provided communal shrubberies, raised beds and lawns instead. One such raised bed is empty other than a mattress, a broken table and chairs, plus a fridge-freezer. Rose bushes have been ferociously pruned. Dogs are forbidden from squatting. Balls must not be kicked.
I take a seat on the central bench, with its plaque in memory of Alim Uddin, son and brother. Noticing that he died aged only 17 I do a quick Google search and discover that he was stabbed quarter of a mile away after an argument over a failed bike purchase. Around the foot of the bench are numerous fag ends, scatterings of freshly-mown grass, a bottle top and a single bacon-flavour corn-based snack I still think of as a Frazzle. The phone box still works, unexpectedly, although these days functions mostly an advert for Rennie. A pasted-up sheet of paper announces that Mehret is offering holistic pain-free pilates taster sessions 25 times a week in January, which suggests she's rather short of custom. I count 22 satellite dishes on the surrounding flats and houses, plus one England flag. Saxby's tenants could be holed up somewhere far worse.
FIVE MILES SOUTH: Streatham High Road, SW16
(at the end of Leigham Avenue)
Streatham's high street lays claim to being the longest in Europe (which means we'll still be on it at Six Miles South). On this occasion we're at the top end, nearer Streatham Hill, slap bang in the immediate vicinity of Nando's. Diners at windowside tables can be clearly seen tucking into peri-peri, forking salad into their mouths or fiddling with their phones while they wait for chicken to arrive. Across the street is Tariq Halal Meats, its windows larger, its counter display brighter, its website more prominent and its meat offering more varied... mutton, lamb, goat, quails. For coffee and e-cigarettes, try Caffe Vape. For disco equipment, obviously Fizz DJ. On a Saturday afternoon businesses are ticking over nicely.
What's unusual is that the shopping parades meeting here both sit beneath enormous mansion blocks. Leigham Hall forms one end of Streatham Court, designed in classic late-30s style by Reginald Toms, hence the lovely coppery-green tiles arrayed along porches and roofs. Across the street is The High, built one year later with similarly Art-Deco-ish entrance doors tucked inbetween the shops at ground level. Look up, however, and the windows of The High are original and miserably peeling, whereas Leigham Hall's have been renewed and look like they might keep the heat in a bit better. I'm not sure if either still boasts a Billiards Room or Uniformed Porters, and rents must now be well above the original £80 per annum, but how great to live at the heart of things in a building of character.
SIX MILES SOUTH: Streatham Common
Six Miles South serendipitously lands in the bottom left-hand corner of Streatham Common, alongside the High Road, just opposite Sainsbury's. Lush slopes, intermittently fenced off with orange netting, spread uphill towards the tearoom and the distant Rookery. Down here there's simply an avenue of horse chestnuts, in full blossom, and a plane tree which may or may not be dead. Criss-crossing paths lead off across the common, carefully following desire lines so nobody feels the need to divert onto the grass. Shoppers trudge by, variously laden, followed by a glum youth in a NASA hoodie smoking a rollup. A gardener from Lambeth Landscapes edges his white van down the footpath taking care not to run anybody over.
At the bus stop a posse of homebound schoolkids in maroon blazers hurl swear words, and in one case a heavy log, at one another. A procession of hearses crawls by, kicking off with Grandad, then a floral tribute in the shape of a football, then various members of his family. The Friends of Streatham Common invite you to a Bat Walk on Friday, a Bird Box Survey on Saturday and a Kite Day on Sunday. Silvana Ices have parked up opposite the entrance to the playground hoping that someone will take their advice and 'try a twin cone today'. The clock on the tower of Immanuel and St Andrew's Church is 70 minutes slow. Dad kicks a football through the dandelions, and Small Son passes it back. 'Celebrate Streatham', says the banner hung from the streetlamp, and here you would.
SEVEN MILES SOUTH: Northborough Road, SW16
Northborough Road breaks off from the main road by Norbury's Wetherspoons and dives deep into Edwardian suburbia. The estate agent on the corner appears to have the monopoly on house sales and flat rentals further up. Initially they're quite terracy, with front gardens barely large enough to hold Croydon's full complement of three bins. Then a few gabled properties intrude, then it gets quite mixed, but always stitched together with no direct rear access. The house numbers are my favourite feature, each embedded in the wall as separate digits on glazed tiles, one brick's length from the edge of the porch. The precise location we're looking for is in the high hundreds, by the stinkpipe, right on the brow of the hill.
The view to the west is remarkably lowrise, with Merton Civic Centre the sole tower along a woody skyline. Lined up to the east are the Crystal Palace TV mast, a church spire and the former Windsor House office block. A learner from the Polka Driving School ascends the road with caution, slowing for each hump, trailing a procession of vehicles behind her. The council streetsweeper smiles by, earbuds drooping, although he has yet to reach the fox-ripped bag spilling takeaway trays across the pavement. A family emerges from behind a high hedge in their Eid finest before piling into an estate and driving off to celebrate. Two recycling sacks have been left on a damp pillow at the end of Norton Gardens. A blackbird sings.
EIGHT MILES SOUTH: Mitcham Road Cemetery, CR0
(previously Croydon Cemetery)
I wondered how long it'd take this feature to hit a cemetery, and here we are, if not quite dead centre. Croydon Cemetery opened in 1897 as overspill for Queen's Road Cemetery, the other side of Thornton Heath. It's big and it's irregular, having been extended once in 1935 towards Mitcham Common and again in 1937 towards Mitcham Road. 8 Miles South is to be found within the northwestern strip, specifically in section U, just over the wall from Archbishop Lanfranc Academy. Look for the Jamaican flag, then nudge back a bit towards the central lime avenue. Other parts of the cemetery had mourners, shortcutting pedestrians, even learner drivers enjoying off-road practice, but nobody interrupted me here.
The graves hereabouts are a particularly motley assortment, mostly from 1935 but with infill from dates clustered around 1960 and 2014. Older headstones commemorate Alfreds, Louisas and Mildreds, the most recent Luigis, Franciscos and Murildas. Most graves are low-edged and weed-topped, a few sparkle with plastic blooms and it seems only Jane merits real gladioli. A deflated balloon hangs from Margaret's temporary marker. A tennis ball and an empty can of Scrumpy Jack rest in the trimmed grass. Most of the interred had a good innings, notably Major Dorothy Bristow who hit 93, but Skye barely reached 15 and Our Baby Eileen Patricia just 2½. Undoubtedly the saddest tale is that of Cicely Boswell who lost her husband in an accident in May 1939, then her 18 year-old son in an accidental drowning on Easter Day 1949, while she herself lived on until 1998. Here they all lie, the remembered and the forgotten.
NINE MILES SOUTH: Beddington Industrial Area, CR0
(junction of Marlowe Way and Beddington Farm Road)
This isn't pleasant. We're on the site of Beddington Sewage Works, since relocated to the other side of Beddington Lane to leave space for a huge wodge of industrial estate. The closest landmark is Croydon's IKEA, but that and the remainder of the Valley Park Retail and Leisure Complex is deliberately segregated from the Beddington Industrial Area resource management hub, which is very much Sutton's grubbiest quarter. I trekked in dodging trucks and vans, and a one-off pony and trap, heading for the line of pylons crossing Marlowe Way. At the end of the road is the backside of a very big Asda, and across the road a major distribution centre for another supermarket, namely Sainsbury's. Most of it is lorry park, and several of the dozen bays have Eddie Stobart containers poking out.
The Nine Mile point is occupied by the Beddington Conference Centre, reputedly "the ideal place for organising business meetings, conferences or a complete solution for events and receptions ideal for corporate clients". I hope the interior's something special because from the outside my first thought was provincial motel. A rim of barbed wire and a security guard with a barrier combine to ensure nobody gets to wander in off-spec. Also within this perimeter is the HQ of Fruitful Office, a company who deliver baskets of fruit to offices because that's a thing now. Their chief selling point is that they split the bunches of bananas and grapes in advance to stop employees taking too many, but they must be doing well because I counted 20 delivery vans outside. If your company needs a regular wellbeing perk, never ever tell your staff that their plums arrive via a former sewage works.
TEN MILES SOUTH: The Chase, South Beddington SM6
(backing onto Godalming Avenue)
Finally here's another residential one. We're in Beddington, between Wallington in Sutton and Waddon in Croydon, and administratively in the former. A hundred years ago these were open fields outside the hamlet of Bandon Hill, facing an aerodrome that would shortly become London's first airport. The march of suburbia then claimed the available space between main road and railway, forming the High View Estate, hence I find myself amid very Thirties houses along very Thirties avenues built with the lower middle class very much in mind. The Chase is the spine road, and runty Central Avenue would have provided the retail focus but has now been reduced to three shops. One's a convenience store that still does newspaper delivery, one's the HQ for a slotcutting company and the third belongs to the 'Sausage Master'. Drop in and Daniel Parker will sell you Pork, Stilton & Cranberry, Black Porkies or a full-on Venison, because that's what fourth generation butchers now do.
The local housing stock consists of what looks like several semis joined together. This makes rear access tricky, so the architects also squeezed long narrow alleyways round the back between the avenues. This is also where they stuck the garages, because motorists' needs were less important then, but driving today's vehicles in and out would be far more impractical so everyone now parks out front. Down The Chase each front garden is large enough to accommodate a family saloon, but on Godalming Avenue most bonnets poke out onto the pavement. Because I visited on Sunday morning cars were being washed, hoovered and generally worshipped. Unmodified porches still had their original stained glass house numbers. The lower branches of one conifer were heavy with bird feeders. One pink rose looked like it'll hang on into winter. A tabby cat padded past. Such is London life, ten miles from the centre.
Sunday, September 01, 2019
Miles east from central London
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 east, then two miles, then three miles, all the way up to ten miles, to see how London changes the further east you go. [map]
ONE MILE EAST: Blackfriars Road
(just south of Blackfriars Bridge)
Queues of cars and vans and trucks and taxis line up in four directions, awaiting permission for onward passage. Cyclists have their own separate highway, busy enough that when a recovery truck driver jumps the lights and attempts to drive across it, a display of raised fists holds him back. The wind whips one man's spectacles into the path of a stalled taxi, which thankfully sticks at red long enough for the myopic stooge to locate his prey. A woman walks past clutching six kitchen rolls, a Kinder Bueno and two pints of milk. A cloud of unseen raspberry vapour lingers. Whoever commissioned the streetsigns which spell out 'Blackfriars Road' did so in a jarringly over-emboldened typeface.
Utterly dominant hereabouts is the 52-storey boomerang of One Blackfriars, whose marketing team's desire that Londoners would come to call it The Vase has understandably not come to pass. Those with business or an apartment within disappear through its revolving doors into a luxurious lobby. Mere hoi polloi can perch outside on the rim of what passes as a garden - three raised beds filled with immaculate plants and a wet riser inlet disguised as a silver globe. The white flowers in that tasteful tub at the rear turn out to be artificial. Sealed off behind temporary barriers is the low-rise chunk of the development, Sales And Marketing Suite Now Open.
Not to be outdone, the opposite side of the road awaits transformation into Bankside Quarter, a significant destination gateway (insert your own buzzword here). The previous office blocks were deemed wasted potential so have been demolished, and will soon arise as a cluster of rigidly orthogonal towers with no aesthetic sympathy for the giant banana across the way. 40% of future residents will get a parking space, because transport policies are for flouting, and Southwark council are more than happy with the windfall. A tiny suggestion box is attached to the hoardings, although it's too late to complain now.
TWO MILES EAST: Pool of London
(River Thames, off the starboard side of HMS Belfast)
You can't stand here, in the Pool of London, but you can float. I suspect more tourists have been here than long-term Londoners. The river is initially clear but choppy, with the twin obstacles of HMS Belfast and Tower Pier slimming the channel. A flock of seagulls has settled on the water in the shadow of the gunship. A couple of visitors can be seen nosing around the gun emplacements at the bow before clambering back below deck.
A Thames Clipper motors off from Tower Pier and spins upstream, leaving a curve of churning froth in its wake. Just for a second it crosses the point precisely two miles east from Charing Cross and becomes a useful photographic marker. A logjam of further boats arrives, jostling for position beside the pontoon or waiting patiently for the hubbub to subside. One of the vessels is a tourist launch named Mercedes, the oldest Westminster Party Boat, its upper deck crammed with revellers who had hoped the weather was going to be warmer. Those wishing to board a City Cruise should manoeuvre to the tip of the pier, but only once they've shown their inkjet printout to the ticket gods on the gangway. Don't waste time snapping Tower Bridge from here, you'll be underneath it in a few minutes.
The section of the Thames Path closest to the 'two mile' marker has been sealed off for the construction of luxurious Barratt homes. On the approach is a cluster of fake igloos, a winter promo inside which toasty families can be seen ordering drinks from the dedicated gin menu. Far cheaper fun is to be had on the narrow beach uncovered by the low tide. Here mudlarkers pick across pebbles and sand, and a line of wooden posts reveals the damp stunted remains of former wharves. I attempt to join them, treading carefully down the slippery stairs, until the antepenultimate step proves to be entirely covered with an inch of gloopy mud, and my trainers think better of it.
THREE MILES EAST: Park Vista Tower, Wapping
(Cobblestone Square, opposite Tobacco Dock, E1W)
Go back forty years and this spot was off-limits within the London Docks, midway between the Western and Eastern Docks, bookended by two swing bridges. Then the basins were filled in for extensive housing, none of it especially highrise because this was the 1980s, leaving a single ornamental canal to snake through the development. But what I've managed to hit here, quite by chance, is Wapping's sole multi-storey tower, squeezed in where Ballymore spotted a slim gap. It's long and thin and stacked and silver, with an Italian restaurant at the bow, rising increasingly steeply to a penthouse pair. It's very 2014, so glass not brick, which is probably in its favour.
Whoever called this Cobblestone Square was having a laugh, or a liar hoping the name'd put prices up. A long slabbed walkway leads to a locked gate which keeps the riffraff of Wapping Woods out, but also the joggers of Park Vista Tower in. A fake canal runs along one side, pumped to ensure movement. An empty chamber of muscle-flexing machines props up the ground floor, because residents have paid extra for gym and concierge. Somebody's moving out today, their worldly goods being trolleyed in taped-up boxes into the back of a van. At the end of the road London's hippest musical youth are milling by, making their way into BBC Introducing Live at Tobacco Dock. Early arrivals are taking advantage of a break between masterclasses by smoking alongside the pirate ships. I feel hideously off-trend.
FOUR MILES EAST: Limehouse Reach
(River Thames, between Limehouse and Rotherhithe)
For the second time my 'Miles From' journey has led us to the middle of the River Thames (and will do so again at nine). We're right on the sharp bend where the Thames first curves to loop the Isle of Dogs, with the newest towers in Docklands climbing rapidly just to the east. To reach the actual spot would require a boat ride, and even that would likely miss, so instead I choose to visit the banks on either side (with an almost hour-long journey inbetween).
On the northern side is the most famous part of Limehouse, Narrow Street, and the early Georgian terrace where Sir Ian McKellan owns a pub. Because these buildings date back to wharfier days only the residents have riverfront access, enjoying a covetable panorama downstream to Deptford and upstream to the City. The Thames Path is forced to follow the street instead, and even the entrance through Duke Shore Wharf has been sealed off while some very slow repair works take place. Only from the windowboxed promenade round the back of Dunbar Wharf is a view of the river regained, or from the wiggly footbridge which carries several of Canary Wharf's lunchtime joggers. Cyclists are specifically not welcome. The Thames is very grey, very broad and very quiet, until a cruise boat floats by with only the hardiest sightseers on the upper deck.
Over on the southern bank the inside of the bend forms the remotest end of Rotherhithe. This used to be Pageant's Wharf, now Pageant Crescent, which was built so early in the redevelopment of the London Docks that the builders thought two-storey three-bedroom terraced houses were the best use of the land. These days the properties merit a million pound premium, with at least one Range Rover, Porsche, Merc and BMW out front, and who knows what parked in the garages underneath. The unmarked obelisk at one end of the terrace was positioned here in 1992 and aligns precisely with the axis of the Docklands estate - a kind of Canary Wharf Meridian marker, if you like. Being near enough low tide a decent-sized beach has been revealed below the river wall, dotted with silent seagulls resting on the sand, which gets a soaking half a minute after a Thames Clipper speeds by.
FIVE MILES EAST: Aspen Way, E14
(marginally north of Docklands)
This could have been really interesting - the towers at Canary Wharf are ever so close and Billingsgate Fish Market closer still. But no, the vagaries of compass direction have sent us instead to the middle of the dual carriageway that sweeps across the neck of the Isle of Dogs, a strip of bleak infrastructure which exists so that the nearby financial district can thrive. Traffic thundering out of the Limehouse Link follows Aspen Way towards the Lower Lea Crossing, or veers off here for the Blackwall roundabout. The DLR rises onto a split concrete viaduct immediately behind. Adverts for Easyjet and Santander blaze in both directions on the overpass. A speed camera waits to trap drivers over-enjoying their downhill run. What looks like a pavement on the northern side of the road leads only to a road junction you'd need a deathwish to cross, then peters out at crash barriers below Poplar station. Basically you breathe in at your peril.
Immediately to the north is the Poplar Trading Estate, or at least as much of it as hasn't been demolished for the building of luxury flats. Manhattan Plaza has been slotted in beside one of the DLR's squealiest curves, overlooking the depot, and is currently advertised as 95% sold. Book now for your exclusive appointment and the nice lady will show you the gymnasium, 21st floor showhome and roof garden. To the south we find Billingsgate's car park, also fated to be residentialised one day, and Tower Hamlets' magnificent traffic light sculpture. This used to be located more prominently but was demoted mid-roundabout a few years ago, and sadly isn't flashing red amber and/or green at present. As for the McDonalds alongside, that's been flattened and surrounded by black hoardings, and may eventually become a pair of Infinity Towers (with a replacement drive-thru on the ground floor). There are more pleasant, better-connected places to be.
SIX MILES EAST: Thames Wharf DLR station
(Scarab Close, E16)
With almost pinpoint accuracy, welcome to a DLR station that doesn't yet exist. We're on the site of the former Thames Iron Works shipbuilding yard, close to the mouth of the River Lea, where a sheaf of railway sidings once ran down to the dockside. After the Royal Docks closed the area was given over to scrappy industrial uses, notably metal recycling and waste management, because the land was polluted and cheap and nobody else wanted it. The DLR extension to Woolwich sped through it on a viaduct without stopping, and Dangleway passengers get to inspect it in unnecessary detail as they rumble all-too-slowly above. The road into the heart of the site is called Scarab Close, perhaps deliberately named after dung-rolling beetles, and is not somewhere any urban explorer should be venturing. Access is off Dock Road, home to five tall readymix concrete silos, a lockup for the storage of JCB diggers and a Brutalist office block abandoned long ago by Carlsberg-Tetley.
This is the very last corner of the Royal Docks to be redeveloped, but plans for 7000 homes are now on the table and even the Chancellor has thrown in some money. The project's called Thameside West, because that sounds nicer than Brownfield Dump, and its residential towers are expected to be particularly densely packed. But they'll only sell if the DLR stops, hence the intention to build Thames Wharf station between Canning Town and West Silvertown. The name's been programmed into the onboard display system for years, you may remember. A major catch is that the Silvertown Tunnel is due to emerge alongside, indeed Dock Road is due to be transformed into its northern portal, gushing forth traffic towards a reconfigured Tidal Basin roundabout. Two major building projects side by side is a recipe for pollution, disruption and delay, so don't rush to buy a flat, and don't expect to be disembarking from a train here anytime soon.
SEVEN MILES EAST: ExCel
(in the car park, eastern side)
The interior of the ExCel exhibition centre can be pretty desolate during non-conferences, but that's nothing compared to the car park out the back. Its sprawling rectangular grid lies empty behind a lowered barrier, occupied solely by birdlife and the occasional wandering pedestrian. It seems ridiculous that so large a chunk of prime development land lies fallow, but vehicles must be catered for, and at £20 a time (when operational) it's a nice little earner. Mothballed in one corner is a squat black prefab marked with the Avengers logo, this a Marvel "multi-room experience" for die-hard fans packed with suits, screens and props in cases. It closed months back, godawful TripAdvisor reviews perhaps to blame, and awaits transfer to fleece the population of Cardiff.
Look carefully to see a rail embedded in the concrete a few yards back from the water, this a remnant of the tracks once used by dockside cranes. A shorter parallel rail has been preserved slightly further along. In the water are a quartet of paddleboarders, the most athletic of whom has just slipped and soaked himself, to the amusement of his gawkier companions. Three rowers walk past from the direction of the London Regatta Centre, bantering about that time they caught crabs. A bottle of Ribena floats by. A car alarm blares. Every few minutes a DLR train weaves along a viaduct between the Aloft, Premier Inn and Doubletree hotels. Meanwhile across the dock the entire Silvertown Quays lot remains vacant, long pencilled in for intensive mixed use development, but to date home only to a few abandoned 2012 entertainment pavilions.
EIGHT MILES EAST: Royal Albert Dock, E16
(alongside London Design & Technology UTC)
I couldn't have got here before summer 2019 because the disused northern edge of the Royal Albert Dock was firmly sealed off. As far as Newham's council offices yes, and as far as UEL's library block yes, but the half mile of waterfront inbetween absolutely not. The catalyst is the opening up of the first phase of a 35 acre Chinese-funded commercial neighbourhood alongside Beckton Park DLR. Architecturally it's stunningly bland - four long cuboids divided by a dark canyon called Mandarin Street, and watched over by circulating security. Office units are numbered 14-27, and as yet generally unfilled. Raised beds fill a pristine square beside empty recycling bins. If you want to see what London's turning into, come visit soon.
One day the eight mile spot will be covered with something symmetrically similar, but for now it's a patch of cleared dockside where a row of enormous warehouses once stood. A freshly opened path follows the water's edge, constrained between a wire fence and already-graffitied hoardings. The rail once followed by dockside cranes is still intact, whereas back at ABP it's been replaced by a strip of darker tiles. I had to dodge out of the way of a man with a megaphone on a bike, occasionally yelling encouragement at an eight rowing through the choppy waters. An Alitalia plane taxied up the runway opposite, reversed and revved its engines, sped past the windsock and roared into the sky.
At the end of the path is the big black box on yellow stilts which houses the London Design & Technology UTC. This opened three academic years ago, adjoined to the UEL campus, and isn't somewhere a non-student would have dallied before this new path opened. I was thankful I'd turned up before the start of term, while the ground floor canteen was empty, nobody was playing outdoor table football and the only human presence was a group of cleaners come to wash the windows. A dozen humanoid robots stared out from one ground floor laboratory alongside a glut of mechanical arms, because D&T's moved on a lot since you were at school.
NINE MILES EAST: Gallions Reach, River Thames
(between Royal Albert Wharf and Thamesmead)
This is the third time a Miles East waypoint has landed in the middle of the Thames. This time it feels properly estuarine, the landscape flat, the banks only partially developed. One bank is on the underconnected edge of Newham, at the mouth of the Royal Docks, and the other's in that corner of Thamesmead nobody's ever got round to doing anything with. One day a Gallions Reach bridge may span the Thames here, and I'd have a way to reach the midpoint, but for now all that crosses the water are low-flying planes seconds out from City Airport. Because I'm a glutton for punishment I visited both sides of the river, and wasted a lot of time travelling inbetween.
To see the Nine Mile point from the western side, take the DLR to Gallions Reach and keep walking past the newly-erupted flats towards the river. If you've ever followed the last section of the Capital Ring you will have done this, and perhaps wondered what godforsaken wasteland you were entering. A few benches overlook the flood barrier by the former gas works, while the riverside follows an increasingly overgrown path behind a towering radar mast. Intermittent laddered steps lead up and over the concrete wall. It is not a spot to linger. But behind the grey railings a sequenced transformation is taking place as a wall of flats erupts to form phase 2 of so-called Royal Albert Wharf. One block is externally complete, its neighbour is getting its balconies added, its neighbour is getting its windows fitted and its neighbour is still a scaffolded brick shell. Once residents are fully on board this riverfront zone will be opened up with textbook boardwalks, mini-playgrounds and prim rows of trees - you know the score - but for now an edge of character remains.
Over on the eastern bank any intention of building flats is many many years away. The last vestiges of West Thamesmead splutter out after a cul-de-sac named Defence Close, beyond which the developers have bequeathed a strip of park hardly anyone uses, beyond which the Thames Path continues alone. Inland are high fences shielding a vast brownfield site despoiled in the days when the Plumstead Marshes were for explosive use. The riverbank by contrast is wooded and occasionally open, should you fancy picking your way through long grass and thick brambles. At one point Greenwich council have provided the most vandalproof bench they could think of, a solid concrete slab, and here the foreshore has been littered with dozens of discarded bottles and cans. Just offshore is the very spot where in 1878 the paddle steamer SS Princess Alice collided with a coal ship and sank, flinging over 600 passengers into sewage-churned waters. It remains Britain's deadliest inshore shipwreck, an unimaginable end to a jolly day out, commemorated by a now-illegible information panel beside the navigation light at Tripcock Ness. Should you choose to proceed further, the next escape point is almost one mile distant.
TEN MILES EAST: Morrisons, Thamesmead SE28
(in the car park, front right)
I love the fact that travelling ten miles east from Trafalgar Square brings you to the beating heart of Thamesmead, specifically its shopping centre, specifically the car park outside Morrisons. This isn't the original shopping centre, the peculiar huddle round the clocktower with its waterside piazza and umpteen ducks, but the larger retail park that's evolved out back. The first supermarket to move in was Safeway, in the giant store now occupied by Morrisons, but Thamesmead's shoppers now also have the option of an Iceland and, once they've finished completely rebuilding it, an Aldi. At the weekend this is a place of pilgrimage for thousands, streaming in with their reusable bags, plus partners, children, flatsharers or mates in tow. You can even get your hair cut in a modified shipping container plonked outside.
The precise spot in the car park is a couple of lanes to the right of the main entrance, immediately before the trolley store. Here I watched one couple return semi-laden, already eating one of their snackier purchases, before climbing into their Lexus and driving away. A replacement family arrived shortly afterwards, looking very much like they'd be filling a cheaper trolley, and faffed a bit before heading shopwards. A lifesize cutout of a policeman welcomes shoppers venturing inside Morrisons' hallowed portal, and beyond that at this time of year is a Christmas tree with baubles saying Let It Snow. A rack of newspapers and flavoured Tic Tacs still has prominence, along with a wall of chocolate selection boxes on special offer. And when you're done, perhaps throw in a trip to Poundland, a browse in Peacocks and lunch from KFC to make a day of it.
Thursday, August 01, 2019
Miles north from central London
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 Southgate station, 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 triumphant box. 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.