Thursday, 7 May 2009

Walking the borough boundaries: Westminster

I’ve always believed that weekend quiet throws up the freshest perspectives on the capital, but today, embarking on my second boundary walk, around the City Of Westminster (a borough with City status), I decide that this 17 mile loop of London’s core, traversing parkland, river, world heritage sites and industrial grime, requires the push-and-pull of an ordinary weekday.

And so it’s a grey Friday morning when I meet old friend Max at our appointed start, the northern entrance of Regent’s Park’s Broadwalk, where trainer-clad commuters are strutting penguin-like towards the Euston Road. “What I love about London is the bits you forget,” he enthuses, as we set off, admiring the creamy Nash terraces, and daffodils dozing in the formal gardens.

Crossing Marylebone Road, like magnets drawn towards the looming BT Tower, we slink down Cleveland Street, a backwater so quiet you can almost hear the rustle of tabloids in its caffs. “Imagine how many cameras we’ll be caught by,” says Max, pointing at the first of many CCTV signs. “Someone could watch us all day.”

At Goodge Street, the city is back into full throttle, a Niagara of sounds. Fitzrovia is always nostalgic, its cheap Italian restaurants the backdrop to our boozy student nights. Centre Point, Charing Cross Road, Seven Dials: “everything in London provides a memory”, says Max.

But the city never allows us to wallow in the past for long: down Shelton Street alleyway, near Drury Lane, we are reminded that this is very much 2009: CCTV cameras whir, there’s a warning of “anti-climb paint”, and a wiry deterrent resembling a medieval torture device is shocking. Rather surreally, a graffitied protest – in the form of lyrics from “Let The Sunshine In” – covers the wall below.

And the strange juxtapositions continue: past Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the windows of the tiny Seven Stars pub behind the Royal Courts Of Justice display sheep skulls in wigs, sinister dummies of judges’ heads, and a skull wearing a single lens: “When he was 17,” reads a plaque, “the surrealist Marcel Marien brought his broken spectacles to the optician and asked them to be made into a single spectacle. He called the result L’Introuvable (The Unfindable).”

Unfindable: an appropriate adjective for the city in general, although not for the river, which soon draws us down to its level. Max has spotted a barge bearing the words working for the tidal Thames. “Why does everything have a banal slogan?” he wonders. “What else would a boat be doing?”

It’s now cold and blustery and, as tourists swarm past, we amuse ourselves dreaming up new collective nouns: a “horror” of children, perhaps? We observe endless floating restaurants, as suburban trains pull pensioners across the river to matinees, pleasure-seekers gawp from the pods of the Wheel, and predatory Euro coaches prowl the kerb for tourists gazing too long at marine timetables. Even on this well-trodden strip, history surprises us: we learn that the Sphinx at the base of Cleopatra’s Needle still bears the scars of WW1 bomb damage.
Trapped in the tourist hell of two hundred mobile phones vying to snap the Houses of Parliament, Victoria Tower Gardens provides instant calm, but the remaining riverside route to Chelsea Bridge is unexpectedly bleak, a flashback to a derelict London, with a view of silent cranes and flat warehouse facades crouching around the fallen majesty of Battersea Power Station. Decay is underlined by boarded-up nightspots from the 70s: “Dinner and Dance”, suggests Villa Elephant on the thunderous Grosvenor Road.

As we pass Pimlico’s Churchill Gardens, the seminal post-war estate designed by Powell & Moya, rain sweeps across the hazy water, gusts of wind nearly claiming the flapping pages of my notebook. “It’s like being on the moors,” says Max, as we fight with waterproofs under a tree.
West London offers few surprises: blondes in outsize sunglasses sucking on fags outside Sloane Square tube; the whiff of strong perfume in Knightsbridge. The naked wind hurries us along Hyde Park’s Broad Walk, and, as we take Chepstow Place in Bayswater up towards Westbourne Grove, we’re now strangely excited by this boundary-following, and the fact that it’s Kensington & Chelsea on the other side if the street, Westminster on ours. Amazing how the mind can focus.
Avaricious West London morphs into the industrial Northwest, trumpeted by Trellick Tower: and suddenly we’re on the Grand Union Canal, against the roar of the Westway, as geese dawdle and coots blow along in the wind.

“Nowheresville,” sighs Max, as we snake round the necklace-shaped boundary at Kilburn Park Road, unbelievably still in Westminster, alpine clouds squatting over Brent’s chewing gum-grey towerblocks opposite. A dazzling blue sky breaks through over the Islamic Centre of England, where the appropriately-named Boundary Road beckons us from Maida Vale back to glossy St John’s Wood, and its idiotic 1970s villas with barred windows even upstairs. Finally, we glimpse our bucolic goal, seven hours after the start.

A knife of sun on the path, a black dog leaping towards us, trainer-clad commuters moving slowly now towards the sanctity of their weekends: we collapse on a bench exhausted, the secret of our 17 mile journey deep within us.

Walking the Circle Line

The 19th century philosopher Xavier De Maistre, in his insightful Journey Around My Bedroom, suggests we should try to notice what we have already seen. And where better to test this idea in London than by walking round the Circle Line? Not only does the enigmatically slow 14-mile circuit shuffle round 27 stations that we probably think of as drearily familiar – Victoria, King’s Cross, Liverpool Street – but the chances are we’ve never even pondered its or their existence in the first place.

First, a little backstory. The idea of an ‘inner circuit’ round London was first proposed in 1863 after the success of what is now the Hammersmith & City Line, connecting Paddington and Farringdon with the more southerly stations in Zone 1. In the clockwise direction, the original 1863 line was extended east to Moorgate in 1865, Liverpool Street in 1875, and finally in 1884 to Tower Hill, which the ‘anti-clockwise' direction reached at the same time, creating the Circle as we know it – although its name was only awarded in 1949 (before then being simply a service run on the Met & District Lines). It is technically a ‘sub-surface line’, rather than a ‘tube’, running not much deeper than the basement of surrounding buildings.

But why does Circle grip the imaginations of so many? After all, Antipodeans and students use it for pub crawls, a shot at every station. Flash mobbers have held parties, most famously in 2003 when 600 protesters snuck on at Liverpool Street station for two circuits (‘At least one man was seen naked,’ reported The Guardian). A book of Circle Line stories, ‘From Here To Here’, was published in 2005. A knitting club has been known to hold knit-ins. And it’s even admired by Peter Ackroyd, who, in ‘London: The Biography’, celebrates it as ‘adventurous and breezy’ (unlike the ‘somehow desperate’ Northern Line).

Walking the route over ground might, I hoped, throw up a clue or two. And, if nothing else, it would at least lend a fresh perspective to the eclectic neighbourhoods around Zone 1.
Choice of time and day seemed important, so we started clockwise from King’s Cross at 730am on an atypical morning, the Easter bank holiday. But as we stood on the Euston Road, the icy winds made it hard to care about the station’s illustrious history: that it had opened in 1863, and has witnessed fires, bombs and terrorist attacks.

But gradually we warmed up and the empty streets allowed our eyes to focus on what would normally be un-extraordinary details: tourists forever bumping suitcases on wheels down steps; a neon-jacketed cleaner plucking an empty bottle from the kerb, St Paul’s poking through warehouse buildings, the Barbican tower’s teeth-like balconies grimy against the granite sky, the rhythmical sound of a sweeper, as soothing as the tide. And as we passed elegant 18th century church St Botolph Without Aldgate, a stone’s throw from where Jack The Ripper murdered Catherine Eddowes, I realized how eerie the City seems off-peak. Even the roads around Liverpool Street, one of the busiest stations in the UK with 123 million visitors a year, were bare, with Starbucks and Prêt closed, the taxi rank and piazza deserted. ‘It used to be a mental hospital’, said my brother, about the site’s 14th century usage, and somehow the logic between its original identity as Hospital of Saint Mary of Bethlehem – or Bedlam – and current incarnation, as high-stress transport hub, seemed strangely consistent.

The silent streets enabled us to contemplate the stations’ rich history of crashes and bombs, too: Moorgate witnessed the tube’s second greatest loss of life in peacetime in a 1975 crash which killed 43 people, whilst Liverpool Street was the first place in WW1 to be hit by German aircraft in May 1917, killing 162. Aldgate and Cannon Street were badly damaged in WWII, but Monument suffered most with 56 killed in its ticket hall. And of course no-one will ever forget July 7 2005, when a bomb was detonated on a Circle train close to Aldgate. Pounding the streets against the wind, the history seeping out underground, we realized how our everyday lives barely skim the surface of the city we live in.

There were unexpected discoveries too. Opposite Cannon Street, behind an iron grille, we passed the unassuming London Stone, a fragment of an original 3000 year old piece of limestone that for years was recognized – in a much larger state – as the symbolic heart of London. Mentioned in Shakespeare, William Blake and Dickens – there’s even a myth suggesting the Stone's safety is linked to that of the city itself – it is, however, strangely unromantic, and was peddling its worth quietly that morning, as wide-eyed ravers shrieked and smoked fags outside the eponymous pub next door.

From Blackfriars the Circle runs parallel to a major Victorian sewer, and here purple-cheeked joggers bobbed beside the khaki-coloured Thames towards Temple, the only Underground name shared with the Paris Metro. Soon we were in the heart of the tourist throng at Westminster, the lowest point of the line beneath us, at 13 ft below high tide (the highest is Edgware -103 ft above).

History is everywhere in London, of course, but minor stations seemed to conceal the more fascinating stories: when Sloane Square was constructed in 1868, the river Westbourne (which runs through Hyde Park as the Serpentine Lake) was carried above the platform in a large iron pipe suspended from girders (still in place today). It was also the only tube station ever to have a built-in pub – the Hole in the Wall – which closed in 1985. And, sadly, it was where Peter Llewelyn Davies, the inspiration for Peter Pan, threw himself under the train in 1960, after years of resenting his association with the character.

As we edged further round, Rolls Royces, elegant Georgian terraces and roof gardens with palms blowing in the wind gave way to shabby Notting Hill hotels with chipped pillars, the football-screen pubs and fast food outlets of Paddington, and hundreds of tourists hovering on the pavement outside Madame Tussauds. Worth a return trip are unexpectedly characterful neighbourhoods like little France in South Ken, and the Greek community on Moscow Road near Bayswater, with its Athenian stores and tavernas.

Finally we arrived back in King’s Cross. The hike had taken 7 hours, with two breaks of 1 ½ hours in total. But the experiment seemed incomplete without riding at least one entire loop underground. A circuit in theory takes 47 minutes, but because the Circle shares most of the track with three other lines, meaning trains can only arrive every 7 ½ minutes, it often has to wait between stations, bumping up the average journey to around 52 minutes.

Just a handful of people were in the front carriage when, on a Tuesday lunchtime, I boarded at King’s Cross: a man, flinging The Times to one side, sighed; another, dangling a plastic bag, stood gobbling a sandwich, and a woman stretched out, as if on an armchair at home. I wondered whether anyone else on the train, like me, was riding without destination – which itself felt luxurious – but as we descended into what Ackroyd calls the ‘ever deeper levels of anonymity and oblivion’, the carriage grew so shudderingly empty, the only sound that of the computerized female station announcer, that I was pleased for the rush of prams, suitcases and children at Baker Street.

Disembarking at King’s Cross after a 62 minute loop – 10 minutes’ late, alas – I realized that the tube, like London, needs its bustle. We don’t do ‘empty’. Just as we don’t, perhaps, stop and stare at our city in our rush to get to work. And, as I stood blinking in the funereal half-light of the Euston Road, it seemed impossible to make any glib conclusions about the Circle line, and why it grips the imaginations of so many, but perhaps GK Chesterton had the answer when he noticed, in awe, that the stations below St James’ Park, Westminster, Embankment, Temple, and Blackfriars ‘are really the foundation stones of London’.

Capital Ring: a 78 mile route round London

‘It’s like being in Palermo,’ ventured my partner Russell, as he pushed open the window to its limited hilt, welcoming in the roar of traffic below. Our room, fuggy with sewage, could use some fresh air, and, as we lay tipsy on the stiff bed, sirens wailing, I had to remember that we were actually on the first night of our holiday in Stratford, not Sicily.
Can anywhere – even our locale – become interesting if we apply the right mindset? When I glimpsed a leaflet, in Clapton’s Springfield Park, suggesting I walk London’s ‘Capital Ring,’ I was curious. ‘Sole-searching’, it punned, ‘discover the heart and soul of London on foot.’ Inside, a map outlined the 78 mile circular route through Woolwich, Crystal Palace, Wimbledon, Richmond, Harrow-on-the-Hill, Stoke Newington, Highgate and Hackney Wick.
We formed a plan: to walk the Ring in a week, 12 miles a day, with each night’s accommodation – a pre-booked jumble of boutique B ‘n’ B’s, chain hotels and opulent riverside palaces – as near as possible to the route; to begin and end in Highgate (geographically convenient); and to raise money for the charity Walk Once More (, set up by a friend with spinal cord injury. What holiday, we wondered smugly, could be greener?
Rucksacks bulging, a week or so later we closed our front door into the glare of the Saturday morning sun, relishing no airport express, no delays, no glum faces, and, thrillingly, no half-hearted compulsion to drain the historical interest from an unknown city. This adventure would, we decided grandly, give fresh perspective to our lives in the great metropolis. (Sipping a pint in Balham, half way round, we watched sharp-suited commuters, so upright and serious, with a fascination normally reserved for an indigenous people.)
And from the start in Highgate, the Ring, a well sign-posted route which meanders through mostly green spaces, threw up immediate delights, despite the hum of traffic never far away. Near the disused platform of the former Crouch End station, on which you imagine the long dead, lined up for work, a giant sculpture leapt out of the wall. This was a spriggen, a local goblin rumoured to steal human babies. A mythical beast near Finsbury Park? Whatever next – Stonehenge in Hackney?
Well, yes. But before we encountered the vernacular ‘Ackney ‘Enge, originally the base of a pumping engine, other little-known sights slid past: ragged Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington, with its 300,000 graves, and deep earthy smell; a flotilla of painted canal boats at Springfield Marina, and kestrels hovering over Walthamstow Nature Reserve, the last surviving marshlands in London.
We soon learnt a few tricks, though: our lunch of smoked haddock kedgeree and chicken pie was delicious, but the afternoon walk was, groaned Russell, ‘like being pregnant.’ And too much booze was a no-no: a red-wine fuelled first night in Stratford made the second stretch, down to Woolwich, initially rather bleak. But, as we strolled along the river Lea that fuzzy Sunday morning, we soon became imaginers of other people’s lives: why was the Polish man slumped on a bollard by the lock, head in hands? What lurked in the floating bin bags, taut like outsized testicles? Whose was the sodden black hoodie on the bank? Solo rowers swished by, fishermen with dreads smoked reefers to loud reggae music, and a shrill gospel choir rung out besides a long stretch of graffitied wall. I started to think, under the granite sky, about how many lives were going on in this city.
‘So we’re walking on shit’, quipped my brother, who had joined us, as the smell wafted over the breeze. This was the Greenway path, a brambly recreational route from Hackney to Beckton, built over 6 miles of sewage pipes pumping 100 million gallons a day. Although the path offered a vantage point over the low-level, work-in-progress Olympic Park Regeneration area, it looked, for a moment, like a civilization after extinction: cranes rose stiffly over warehouses, whilst skips and tractors squatted on mud, the silence punctured only by the bleep of a lone truck traversing fly tips and scrapyards. Yet, along this unlikely stretch were gems like the Abbey Mills Pumping Station – a Grade II listed, oriental ‘palace’, opened in1868 – known, delightfully, as the ‘Temple of Sewage’.
That afternoon the Woolwich Foot Tunnel, with its stench of urine, ejected us out south of the river, where the awe-inspiring metal of the Thames Barrier – ‘Sydney Opera House’, said Russell – gleamed in hazy sun. And now, our trek moved across South East London, a blur of palaces, gardens, and commons, including Charlton House, a splendid Jacobean pile near Blackheath, derelict Sevendroog Castle, built in 1784 and the highest point of the Ring (404ft), and windswept Beckenham Mansion, as grey and forlorn as a widow. Most spectacular, however, was world-class medieval royal residence Eltham Palace, recently restored to art Deco splendour.
By the third day, after a sleepless night in a brand new boutique hotel near Blackheath, aches and pains had predictably blossomed: blisters itched under the skin of our feet; I had been stung by a wasp; and shoulders and lower backs throbbed. Yet nothing was more of a reality check than seeing roadside flowers at regular intervals, so easy to ignore in the flapping urgency of our lives: ‘Bruv – Ben – Cuz,’ read one on Southend Road. ‘Don’t mourn for me. I’m still here, though you don’t see.’
And it was while considering this, the sunlight filtering through the hornbeams, the rattle of woodpeckers in the distance, that I realized there was nothing on my mind. The drum of anxieties had stopped beating. All you have to do is follow the road ahead, I thought, crunching leaves underfoot. It was as simple – and as transient – as the seasons.
But then the weather turned. On the fourth day, leaving the charmingly anachronistic Bromley Court Hotel (‘Crossroads!’ snorted Russell), torrents swept across South London. Under funereal skies we forged ahead, the rain pouring down into the shadowy depths of the wood, gusts rattling the crowns of yellow-leaved oaks. Clocking up 14 miles in four hours, we could only glimpse the dripping dinosaurs in Crystal Palace Park, its landscaped waterfall tropical in the mist, before taking shelter under the green steel girders of the crumbling café, where we sipped hot tea from polystyrene cups. And, after paths on Biggin Wood and Streatham Common had turned into mudslides, we were relieved to be greeted by the B ‘n’ B owner with mirage-like words: ‘I’ve got flapjacks in the oven and the kettle’s on.’ How unexpected it is, I thought, stewing in the bath later, to holiday in London with your needs reduced to the basics: food, water, and rest.
Our remaining journey across South West London chomped through Wimbledon Common, Putney Heath and Richmond Park, where rutting stags, protecting their females, nearly charged at us, and screeching parakeets danced round pines. Long buried teenage memories flooded back: snogs by ponds, Sunday family walks, playing fields where I hid between frowning goalposts, and Russell’s first studio flat, where his neighbour hammered techno music ‘till 6am.’
Most nights we chose simple lodgings, but a must-stay was the elegant Petersham Hotel, with its terrace overlooking cattle grazing in the meadows by the Thames. And early next morning Richmond Bridge, enshrouded in mist, with its clatter of boats, brought to mind Venice, as silhouetted café owners un-stacked chairs with choreographed precision. And eerier still was nearby Isleworth ‘Ait’, a creek that, with the tide out, its barges beached on banks, was as other-worldly as a dead arm of the Mississippi.
Six days after setting off, we had hiked full circle back into North West London. Here the route was almost empty, apart from three middle-aged ladies conquering it in stages: ‘We’re far too busy to do it all in one go!’ they chirruped. Drifting through swathes of suburbia, I realized it was the quiet details that, over the week, had endured in my memory: the former East London slagheap re-named, in upbeat municipal fashion, the Beckton Alps; the all-you-can-eat Chinese meal in Charlton where we were warned to finish one course in its entirety before being allowed another; and drab Brent Reservoir, in Victorian times a fashionable resort called the Welsh Harp.
Our last stop was attractive Harrow-on-The-Hill, a time-capsule town awash with schoolboys in boaters and teachers with mortar boards, yet, we discovered, once a site of pagan worship. ‘At least,’ said Russell after an average dinner, ‘its restaurants have made it into the 1970s.’ Black steak with shallot sauce, anyone?
Highgate’s hilly copses – or Gravel Pit Woods – provided a dramatic climax to the trek, and as we collapsed with a pint, in a kind of blank appreciation of our goal, I was reminded of an information board back in Beckenham Park: ‘Walking in parks and woodland,’ it told us, ‘is a relaxing way of coping with the demands of modern life.’ ‘Solvitur ambulando,’ announced my father, our final guest walker, as he sipped his restorative shandy, before adding: ‘Things are worked out by walking.’

Walking the borough boundaries: City

THE QUEST, over the coming months, is to walk the perimeter of each of the 32 London Boroughs. History dictates, however, that we start with the capital’s origin, not just a mere borough, but the smallest UK county (since 1132), the second smallest British city in population and size (after St David’s in Wales) and, most famously, the richest square mile in the world.

But why walk perimeters at all? Isn’t it a bit recessionista, the whim of the cash-pressed flaneur, the indulgent appreciation of hard architecture with soft ideas; what Hitchcock would term a MacGuffin?

There’s only one way to find out. On an icy Saturday morning we start the 6 mile walk, map in hand, at an arbitrarily-chosen north-west corner of the City: Chancery Lane Tube. Sunrays pierce the tinted windows of office blocks, and pillows of cloud shadow our steps as we pass the hangar-like Smithfield market (named after the ‘Smooth Field’ outside the city walls), where meat has been traded for 800 years. In a nod to its infamy as former site of execution, a butcher flashes a smile, cleaver in hand, whilst across the road, metropolitan couples swish past to brunch, broadsheets under one arm.

The Barbican tower, built between 1965 and 1976, looms above Farringdon like a dirty fishbone, and we’re soon pattering round its adjoining forest of concrete, the City’s largest residential area (4000 people in 2000 flats). Lesser known is Golden Lane Estate, to the north, built earlier by the same architects (Chamberlin, Powell and Bon), with striking panels in primary colours. And along the shopping parade, we smile at the Barbie-like pink font of Barbican Greengrocers.

Yet it’s all so silent. If, in the countryside, silence is the sound of rest, or isolation, in the city it possesses an ambiguous quality, and the empty streets around Moorgate provoke eerie, other-worldly thoughts about the layers of dead beneath our feet, the plagues, bombs, tube crashes, fires (the Great Fire of 1666 destroyed four-fifths of the City). In the depths of recession, all this seems to underline our transience.

But on Moor Lane our quietude is slashed by the hypertrophy of civilisation: the whir of cranes, yells of builders, roar of trucks, and the scrape of metallic barriers, like fingernails on a blackboard. Is the City saying ‘enough’? We crane our necks at the infinite towerblock, its windows like gills, a fish out of water, and wonder if it is healthy defiance against the crash, the embodiment of the government’s desires – or futile giganticism, 590,000 sq ft of wasteland?

The north-eastern tip of the perimeter brushes against Hackney. We stroll down the brief Norton Folgate, where playwright Christopher Marlowe lived in 1589, and onto Bishopsgate, the beauty of Hawksmoor’s Christ Church rising in the far corner of Spitalfields, just beyond our boundary. (All the while Liverpool Street station yawns on our right.)

‘There’s a real sense of the old City wall,’ says my partner Russell, as we snake around Middlesex Street, Widegate Street, Goodman’s Yard. London Wall was built by the Romans in the late 2nd century but has largely disappeared, whilst the current boundary has expanded over the years. Near the Tower of London (itself in the borough of Tower Hamlets) we spy two surviving sections (the others are near the Museum of London and St Alphage).

The City’s boundary runs bang down the centre of the river, though it controls both Blackfriars and London Bridges, so we race over to find the black bollards with trademark Dragon insignia that mark its southern tip. On London Bridge, families with pushchairs survey the saturnine view and, as clouds sail above the water like steamships, I imagine the Monday morning rush hour, observed by TS Eliot so clearly in The Waste Land:
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

(Oscar Wilde was blunter still: ‘To me the life of the businessman who…catches a train for the city…is worse than the life of the galley slave. His chains are golden instead of iron.’)

We make one diversion away from the perimeter up to the City’s only Hawksmoor church, the elegant St Mary Woolnoth, built in 1716 from the proceeds of coal tax. As trains rumble deep into the clay beneath its foundations, we admire its belfry, rising up like the prow of a boat.

At the western boundary (with Westminster) two wonderful Dragons stand on either side of the Embankment, defiant against a sudden blue sky. A bronze plaque informs us that they represent a ‘constituent part of the armorial bearings of the City of London’ and were mounted above the entrance of the old coal exchange, demolished in 1963. Even more ornate is the entrance at Temple Bar on Fleet Street.

We’re back at Chancery Lane three hours after our start, and about to dive into the cavernous Cittie of Yorke pub. I glance over at the cranes perched like question marks over the City’s future prosperity. As Iain Sinclair argues in London Orbital, ‘gradually, landscape induces confidences’. For that reason alone, our quest must continue.