diamond geezer

 Sunday, August 31, 2014

LONDON BOROUGH TOPS
(approximately, non-definitively)


1 Bromley245mOn Westerham Hill, 400m south of Hawleys Corner(lofty)
2Croydon175mIn Sanderstead Plantation, up the path from the west(leafy)
3Harrow153mOn Magpie Hall Road near Alpine Walk, Bushey Heath(dull)
4Sutton147mIn the southwest corner of Clockhouse recreation ground(remote)
5Barnet147mAt the covered reservoir by the water tower, Arkley(alien)
6Camden134mOn Spaniards Road near the 'Hampstead Heath' bus stop
(or maybe at the Heath's summit by Whitestone Pond)
(sandy)
7Hillingdon134mAt the top of Potter Street Hill, Northwood Hills(posh)
8 Greenwich132mBy the pond in Eaglesfield recreation ground, Shooters Hill(secluded)
9Haringey116mAt the top of Highgate High St, by Highgate School chapel(classy)
10Enfield115mAt the gate on Camlet Way, Hadley Wood(detached)
11
12
Lewisham
Southwark
112mOn the top of Sydenham Hill, at one end or the other(median)
13Lambeth110mAlong Westow Hill, probably at the top of Jasper Road(retail)
14Havering105mIn Havering-atte-Bower, by the church or the cricket pitch(village)
15Islington100mRoad junction where Hornsey Lane meets Highgate Hill(steep)
16Brent92mOn Wakemans Hill Avenue between Kingsbury and Colindale(suburban)
17Waltham Forest91mThe trig point on the top of Pole Hill, Chingford(proper)
18Redbridge90mTop of Cabin Hill, Hainault Forest Country Park(brambly)
19Kingston90mCovered reservoir at Telegraph Hill, Malden Rushett(private)
20Ealing85mTrig pillar at the summit of Horsenden Hill(glorious)
21Bexley83mLangdon Shaw, a residential road by the Sidcup bypass(estate)
22Wandsworth60mOn a heaped mound of spoil on Putney Heath(tumulus)
23Richmond56mUp King Henry's Mound in Richmond Park(vista)
24Merton55mAlong the southern edge of Wimbledon Common, probably(common)
25Westminster50mWhere Boundary Road crosses Finchley Road(trunk)
26Ham & Fulham45mAlong the Harrow Road, just west of Kensal Green Cemetery(mundane)
27Ken & Chelsea45mEntrance to Kensal Green Cemetery, on Harrow Road(funereal)
28Barking & Dag43mNorth end of Chadwell Heath Cemetery, Marks Gate(grave)
29Hackney39mWhere Woodberry Grove meets Green Lanes, Manor House(parky)
30Hounslow33mTraditionally the junction of Meadow Waye and The Vale in Heston
(alternatively where Western Road crosses the Grand Union Canal)
(uncertain)
31City of London22mWhere Chancery Lane meets High Holborn, WC1(central)
32Tower Hamlets16mMaybe where Cambridge Heath Road cross the Regents Canal
Or maybe around Altab Ali Park, Whitechapel
(it's a flat borough, so nobody's entirely sure)
(no idea)
33Newham15mTraditionally the corner of Sidney Road, Wanstead Flats
(but quite possibly now in QEOP opposite John Lewis)
(shallow)




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» Ollie's OS-updated list of London Borough Tops

 Saturday, August 30, 2014

LONDON BOROUGH TOPS
Bromley: Westerham Heights

245 metres (1st out of 33) [map] [map] [map]


The highest point in my final borough is also the highest point in London. It's on the southeastern edge of the capital, slap bang on the border with Kent. It's not in a field or up a track, it's on the main road south of Biggin Hill. It's Westerham Heights, and at 245 metres (804 feet) above sea level it's really quite surprisingly high.

Let's put this in perspective. It's higher than One Canada Square (235m), the Crystal Palace transmitter (219m), the Gherkin (180m) and the BT Tower (177m). It's over 100 metres higher than the London Eye (135m), the crest of Wembley's arch (133m) and the tallest skyscraper in Stratford (133m). I know it's not entirely kosher to judge a building from ground to top against a height above sea level, but if we pretend it is, then Westerham Heights is taller than every single building in London except the Shard.

It's also higher than every point in Hertfordshire (244m), Bedfordshire (243m) and the Isle of Wight (241m). It's convincingly higher than everywhere in Northamptonshire (225m), Nottinghamshire (225m) and - not surprisingly - Norfolk (105m). It's only three metres lower than the highest point in East Sussex (248m), and only six metres lower than the highest point in Kent (251m), which is nearby. And all of this is thanks to the North Downs, a ridge of chalk hills that runs to the south of London, in this case just to the north of the M25. Parts of Bromley are really quite scenically lumpy, if you've ever been that out far to take a look. You can even take the bus.



The highest bus stop in London is a request stop at Hawleys Corner, a fiveways junction on the border with Kent. The 246 will drop you here near the end of a long run out to Westerham, not that many get out because there are only a handful of houses hereabouts. London's highest house is a cottage well-screened by hedges, and with a very convenient post box immediately outside the front gate. There's also an incredibly convenient Indian restaurant just across the road, the flagship of the Shampan chain, a 350-seater opened three years ago. Previously the building was a pub, The Spinning Wheel, and out front is a tiny thatched cottage which, if you go back far enough, used to be a tearoom. Our dining-out preferences have changed somewhat over the years, but on my visit to the area I have to say I'd much have preferred a cuppa. [4 photos]

A sign on the road leading north from the junction welcomes you to Bromley, and a sign leading south welcomes you to Kent. It's true that the road passes from one authority to the other at this point, but the boundary runs another 400m south along the left-hand hedge. The highest field in London is very hard to see, being almost entirely screened by trees and with no public right of way passing through. It looked a bit overgrown through the gate on Grays Road, but aerial shots suggest it gets a bit meadowier further in. The garden centre on the right of the main road used to be in London too until 1994, at which point it was transferred to Sevenoaks council, hence the composts, new season roses and discount fireworks are now sold outside the capital.

Hawleys Corner is nine metres lower than London's highest point, which is located 400m up the road. To start with there's a verge, but then pedestrians are forced off into the path of oncoming traffic because this isn't really somewhere people walk. Near the top of Westerham Hill is a small electricity substation and then a large livery stables, each of these still on the Kent side and so of no interest. But the hedge opposite rises and rises until the road starts to dip down, and it's precisely here that London ultimately tops out. It's a shame that you can't actually stand 245m above sea level in London, only 236, but you can stand at 245m two steps into Kent, and that'll do for me.



A track leads off from a locked gate at the crucial location, giving pedestrians the opportunity to step off the road and stand by an outcrop of nettles. They're Kentish nettles, but the tree spreading above is a London oak. Not that you'll be looking in that direction. The open vista across the next field will have grabbed your eye, with the land falling away to reveal the wooded High Weald in the distance. It is typical, I guess, that the view only becomes distantly impressive the second you step fractionally outside the capital.

There's a better view from the next gate down, currently across golden stalks, in the last field before the land drops away. The M25 is hidden in the valley, only a mile away but 120 metres lower down. I considered walking to the bottom of Westerham Hill but thought better of it, given the speed of the cars up the 10% gradient and the lack of a verge between the hedges. Instead I found a gap and stared across to the other side of the road where the land rises to the highest point in Kent, Betsom's Hill. A couple of horses grazed on the summit, or near enough, and somewhere in an indentation lay a hidden car repair business. That'll be the Graham Hall Coachworks, which is also the name of the highest bus stop in Kent. This unassuming brow holds several elevation records, and only Londoners on the Shard's top viewing platform stand taller.
by bus: 246

» 100 photos of London Borough Tops (three from each, and one extra today)
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» Previous reports: Outer NE; Inner E; Inner N; Inner NW; Outer NW; Outer N; Outer W; Inner SW; Outer S; Inner SE; Outer SE

 Friday, August 29, 2014

LONDON BOROUGH TOPS
Greenwich: Shooters Hill

132 metres (8th out of 33) [map] [map]


Not to Greenwich Hill but Shooters, a much loftier prominence to the southeast of town. Watling Street runs over the summit, and once led Canterbury pilgrims and Kent-bound stagecoaches into potential danger in the woods. Were early highwaymen responsible for the Shooters Hill name, or did it come from archers using the slopes for target practice? 18th century travellers and their horses paused at The Bull for refreshment, the current building being a Victorian rebuild. An octagonal water tower was built later on the top of the hill, broodily gothic in style, and probably the most visible water tower in the whole of London. Much of the northwestern flank of the hill was covered by housing in the 1930s, but the southern side mostly survived undeveloped, including the ancient forest of Oxleas Wood (which also fought off a proposed road scheme in the 1990s). Deep in the trees is Severndroog Castle, very recently restored and reopened after triumphant efforts by local volunteers. I wanted to go inside but this was my last Borough Top visit of the day so I was about an hour too late. A shame, because from the viewing platform on the roof you can see all the way across to Central London, in much the same way that from Central London you can see all the way back to here. [3 photos]

I'd expected the highest point to be on the Oxleas side but no, it's wrapped up within the Wimpey estate. A recreation ground covers most of the hilltop, which is a nice touch, with a few fortunate flats encroaching from the west. This is Eaglesfield Recreation Ground, much of which has too steep a gradient for ball games but there is a flatter zone at the top where a children's playground has replaced a Yacht Pond. I'd never been up here before, so was impressed to stand on the slopes by the Green Flag and stare out across Bexley, the Dartford Crossing and the Thames estuary beyond. The towers of the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge are only fractionally higher than this hilltop, and most everything else within the panorama substantially lower. The land below Eaglesfield Road drops away fairly steeply across Shooters Hill Golf Course, and in the valley below is Woodlands Farm, possibly the closest agricultural land to the centre of London, and definitely the largest city farm in the whole of Britain. Meanwhile up on the summit, behind a row of trees, is a quiet approximately square pond with a boardwalk for dipping purposes along one bank. The whole thing's fenced off to prevent improper access, which must really annoy whoever had kicked a red football into the water and couldn't retrieve it. And there's a single bench overlooking the lot, where I sat and congratulated myself on reaching the 33rd of my 33 borough tops, and wondered if there might be a medal or certificate. My apologies but I'm writing this out of order, so you've still got two to go.
by train: Falconwood   by bus: 89, 244, 486

LONDON BOROUGH TOPS
Bexley: Langdon Shaw

83 metres (21st out of 33) [map] [map]


Nowhere in the London borough of Bexley attains the lofty heights of Greenwich nextdoor. Instead there's a significant ridge at Belvedere near the Thames, and a more general rise up from the Cray valley in the south of the borough. Very very nearly on the border with Bromley is a small prominence, extant as a ring contour on the OS map and also plainly visible in real life. It's perhaps best seen from Frognal Corner, a major roundabout on the A20 Sidcup Bypass close to Queen Mary's Hospital. The playing fields of the local sixth form college rise fairly sharply to make room for a single sports pitch on the top plateau, where the groundsman has already erected the rugby posts for next term's games afternoons. [3 photos]

The top of the hill sits at the rear of a housing estate along a single road called Langdon Shaw. It's not a long road, more a hooked crescent of about fifty homes, I'd say postwar semis, and a pleasantly ordinary slice of Outer London. One resident has a black cab, two have caravans, and I suspect there are several Mail and Express readers behind the net curtains. Two of them came out to fill their wheelie bins, and two small boys rode their bikes repeatedly along the pavement to the dividing line their parents had set and back again. And I thought there might not be much more to say until I walked down to the junction with Tyron Way and saw the view. It's been a theme of my London Borough Top journey, spotting views of somewhere else (generally central London) from high points all across the capital. And this didn't disappoint, first with an obvious sightline to Shooter's Hill beyond the "Humps for 300 yards" sign, then the traditional Shard/Gherkin combo from the lawn by the postbox plus Canary Wharf poking its pyramid above the nearest rooftop. Langdon Shaw's a very ordinary street, for sure, but with a special outlook that only those who live up here ever see.
by train: Sidcup   by bus: 160, 229, 269, 286, B14, R11

» 96 photos of London Borough Tops (three each, so far, and four to go)
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» Previous reports: Outer NE; Inner E; Inner N; Inner NW; Outer NW; Outer N; Outer W; Inner SW; Outer S; Inner SE

 Thursday, August 28, 2014

I'm nearly done with London Borough Tops, but there are a few stonking southeastern heights still to go...

LONDON BOROUGH TOPS
Lewisham: Sydenham Hill
Southwark: Sydenham Hill

112 metres (11th and 12th out of 33) [map] [map]


For the avid London Borough Top bagger, inner southeast London makes it easy. Five boroughs meet on the Crystal Palace plateau, and two of these precisely share their highest point. The boundary between Lewisham and Southwark follows the ridge of Sydenham Hill, so find the peak contour along the way and you can cross off two boroughs simultaneously. Where precisely that is remains debatable, or at least I've been unable to to find definitive proof on the internet to persuade me that one point definitely beats another. But that's OK, I'm here for two boroughs-worth of ascent, so I can write a bit about both. [3 photos]

I think the proper summit of Sydenham Hill is on the bend in the ridge and the end of Wells Head Road. A capacious crossroads covers the high point, fairly tediously, with a lone traffic island in the centre. The only building of note is the Dulwich Wood House, an attractive looking gastropub with a trellis-topped tower, but because their website currently loads with a "Plan your Christmas now" pop-up, I'm loath to write anything else complimentary about them. Opposite the pub is a gated walk up from Sydenham Hill station, and a relentlessly long slog it is too, at least 50 metres up from platform to summit. Thankfully it's also rather pretty, more private drive than public footpath, passing as it does through the heart of Dulwich Wood. A little further round, at the foot of an equally steep hillside, are the delights of Sydenham Hill Wood. Formerly railway land, now wildlife haven, a blocked-up tunnel can still be seen where tracks led under the hill to Upper Sydenham station.

Back up at the summit a lot of the surrounding housing is, surprisingly, flats. Those on the Lewisham side are fairly mundane, but those on the Southwark side get the tumbling-away contours and so have more prestige. The crescent along the ridge is called Woodsyre, and is as pretentious as it sounds, with mere plebs discouraged from walking anywhere near what would otherwise be very ordinary flats. Big green signs scream Unauthorised Entry To Houses and Grounds Prohibited, and announce that this is part of the Dulwich Estate, hence the perceived need to keep away. At Rock Hill the steep descent even has Private Road painted in large unfriendly letters on the tarmac, and a street sign describing this as a Private Cul-de-Sac in case you haven't got the hint.

In this short distance the ridge top road has dipped and risen again, to reach a secondary peak which Ollie thinks may be loftier than the other. An OS spot height declares 111m rather than 112, so maybe he's wrong, but standing here it'd be impossible to bet money on which end of the dip is actually the higher. The next ugly brown block of flats on the Southwark side is called Blyton House after one of the borough's more famous residents, but much more exciting is the blue plaque on the neighbouring house dedicated to Sir Francis Pettit Smith, Pioneer Of The Screw Propeller. His is one of several grand Victorian townhouses and cottages along the final stretch of hilltop road, originally built on land leased from Dulwich College, now just fantastically prestigious places to live. Note the lack of TV aerials on any of the roofs, this because the Crystal Palace transmitter is at the end of the road, almost but not quite as high as this exclusive residential ridge.
by train: Sydenham Hill   by bus: 202, 356, 363

LONDON BOROUGH TOPS
Lambeth: Westow Hill

110 metres (13th out of 33) [map] [map]


At the other end of Crystal Palace Parade, Southwark meets Bromley meets Croydon meets Lambeth. It always feels strange to me that Lambeth stretches this far out, poking out past Norwood and rising to a tapering point. The boutiquey parade from Cafe Paradou to Doris Florist is somehow in Lambeth, as is the quirky Westow House pub on the big crossroads. It's around here that the borough's highest point is reached, although judgement by eye suggests it's fractionally further west along the main shopping street, Westow Hill. The first estate agents' boasts a blue plaque to beat them all, announcing that impressionist painter Camille Pissaro stayed here for a few months in 1870-1871. He emigrated briefly from France to avoid the Franco-Prussian War, leaving a legacy of a dozen local paintings of what was then London's rural fringe. He'd have more trouble finding spots to set up his easel nowadays, but there is a fantastic view from the hilltop a little further along. [3 photos]

Try peering through the lattice at the bin store round the back of number 63a, and there's the Shard and City cluster perfectly framed beyond the guttering. But move on to the junction of Woodland Road and the vista opens wider for some woo, yes, I like that. Four-storey terraced townhouses stagger steeply down the street, dropping so sharply that the basement of number 3 is higher than the roof of number 35. And hanging beyond above the treetops there's the City again, more detailed than expected, with the Barbican's three towers clearly separate from the main Shard/Gherkin groupings. It was chucking it down with rain when I visited so I suspect I didn't see the view at its best, plus various items of street furniture and scaffolding lowered the tone. But for a combination of panorama, retail options and accessibility, the top of Lambeth's probably one of London's best.
by train: Crystal Palace   by bus: 249, 322, 417, 432, 450

» 90 photos of London Borough Tops (three each, so far)
» List and map of London Borough Tops
» Previous reports: Outer NE; Inner E; Inner N; Inner NW; Outer NW; Outer N; Outer W; Inner SW; Outer S

 Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Norfolk postcard: RAF Air Defence Radar Museum
Neatishead, nr Wroxham, NR12 8YB
Times:
10am-5pm. Entrance: £7
Open: the second Saturday of the month, plus Tuesdays, Thursdays and Bank Holiday Mondays between April and October


You won't find it on the Ordnance Survey map, not if your map's of a certain age, because during the Cold War it didn't officially exist. But RAF Neatishead used to be the Control and Reporting Centre for air defences across the south of the UK, which means nuclear bombers would have been tracked and directed from this unassuming spot beside the Norfolk Broads. And before that it was a pioneering hub in early radar experiments, helping us to win World War II by anticipating when the Luftwaffe's aerial attacks would come. And now it's a museum - a highly intriguing one - which tells a dozen stories with a local connection. They've been open twenty years, on and off, but saw their greatest ever number of visitors this Bank Holiday Monday, one of whom was me.

The building doesn't look so big when you arrive, but that's deceptive because (unsuprisingly) the biggest room's underground. You'll get there on the guided tour, which kicks off every half hour or so from the briefing room opposite the cafe. Everything's run by volunteers, most of whom used to be servicemen hereabouts so are experts and brimming with appropriate anecdotes. They'll lead you off down to the first room, which is set out circa 1940 when radar was in its infancy, and explains how enemy attacks during the Battle of Britain were repulsed. By 1942, in the second room, technology had moved on somewhat, with a spinning dish up top and the familiar trace/blip on an electronic screen. You can find out far more about the dawn of radar in some of the adjacent rooms once the tour's over, including how it spread to planes, the golfballs at Fylingdales, and even the back end of the Falkland Islands.

But it's the third room on the tour that sends shivers, the bunker from which the last four minutes of life in Britain could have been conducted. Neatishead's role was to scramble all the RAF's planes into the pre-nuclear sky in the hope that they'd have somewhere safe to land sometime afterwards. We came close, apparently, and the base continued to monitor Russian planes' sorties down the North Sea in case this was ever 'the one'. Staff here stood down in 2006 and passed control to a single tracking station in Northumberland, leaving the obsolete electronics and command positions to a mere sightseeing role. You may not be reassured to hear that the large glass information screens on the main wall were filled in by staff writing backwards from behind with chinagraph pencils - on such low technology rested the fate of our nation.

the crash location, beneath the bridge, east of St John's

Once left to explore on your own, there are umpteen rooms of military malarkey to explore. Many of these are related to Neatishead, but others relate to the much larger RAF Coltishall. This closed down eight years ago after several decades of service, and all the ephemera stored in the air base's museum and archive had to go somewhere. From Spitfires to Vulcans and Lightnings to Harriers, the volunteers can tell you much more, including the lowdown on how difficult some were to maintain. But there are none outside at Neatishead today, not least because much of the exterior of the site is still run by the RAF as a Remote Radar Head and therefore remains Top Secret. Sssh, don't tell everybody.

Suffolk postcard: Ickworth House
Horringer, nr Bury St Edmunds, IP29 5QE
House opening times:
11am-5pm. Entrance price: £14



Ickworth's a most unusual building. The central portion looks like it's landed from outer space, a double decker monster with a giant rocket booster on top landed unexpectedly in the heart of the Suffolk countryside. In truth it's an Italianate rotunda built around the turn of the 18th century for the Marquesses of Bristol, a dynasty renowned for hell-raising behaviour right up to the present day. Two single storey wings curve off to each side, each deceptively thin, more for show than practical use. The family lived at the end of the east wing, and the central rotunda was usually used only for guests, especially when shooting parties descended and needed a luxurious base. Today the National Trust owns the lot, leasing the east wing as a posh hotel and much of the west wing as a conference centre, leaving visitors the glorious centre to explore.

Entry is via the servants' quarters, the entire downstairs slice, expertly dressed up with as it might have been one day in 1935. Even the scratchy toilet paper looks authentic, but it's a bit cold down there in places, even in August. Climb the staircase to enter a broad high opulent entrance hall, and a trio of grand state rooms dressed with drapes, chandeliers and accumulated works of art. The upper level houses bedrooms for guests and is on an equally lofty scale, with daylight streaming down through a void in the hollow roof. As usual the Trust's volunteers are on hand to tell you more, even more politely helpful here than usual, and there's a tasteful cafe (and second hand book stall) tucked away in the west wing.



Outside is the first Italianate Garden in Britain. It's more topiary-based than floral, with a secret "stumpery" hidden behind hedges at the rear where decades of spiky tree roots have been decoratively positioned to create a fairy tale vibe. Assuming you're up for a walk the estate stretches for miles, down past the parish church, walled garden, ornamental river and beyond. Various tracks are signposted, although the prescribed times for completing them are ludicrous as if calculated for joggers rather than genteel NT patrons. The park and gardens are open all year, with the house open most days of the week from Easter to the end of October. The full package isn't cheap, but if you're ever in the Bury St Edmunds area... yeah right.

 Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich usually throws a good exhibition. They've done Nelson, they've done astronomy, and now they're doing time. Specifically they're doing Longitude, to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Longitude Act in July 1714. The exhibition is called Ships, Clocks & Stars, which is the museum's attempt to make a fairly obscure theme sound slightly more exciting. I'm not convincing the title is luring people in, but a steady stream of visitors was trotting round the exhibition last week which bodes well for its six month run.

The downstairs gallery kicks off with a video of the rolling sea and also a Sponsor Statement, which is the usual pile of corporate guff, but thanks for all the money. First up we have to discover what longitude is and why it was critically important, and this is well explained within a giant globe. Britain's sea trade relied on ships knowing precisely where they were, and while north-south could be determined from the sky, east-west was impossible to determine accurately. The government put up a £20000 prize, a life-changing amount in its time, and Britons chased after it with a variety of schemes. Some were crackpot, which fills another room, while two shone through, and the remainder of the exhibition concentrates on those.

Chief of these were John Harrison's clocks, more normally to be seen in the Royal Observatory on the hill, but moved down to the museum until the New Year. The intricately mechanical H1, H2 and H3 appear in one display case, while the much smaller H4 is more easily overlooked alongside. Indeed many visitors walked straight past the victorious pocketwatch without giving it a second glance, before discovering in the subsequent rooms quite how ground-breakingly important it was. Some interesting graphic devices and screens keep what could be a dry story fresh, although you'll probably not want to drag any smaller children round.

The other successful method of calculating longitude involved taking measurements of the phases of the moon. This wasn't easy on a ship, plus you had to be an expert mathematician to do the calculations, so the timekeeper method generally worked rather better. But this is a good excuse for the museum to get several gleaming scientific instruments out of its archive, and this fills up much of the rest of the exhibition. It's no blockbuster overall, but it's interesting enough, and it's good to explore a key historical story that challenges intellectually.

Tickets cost £8.50, which also gets you a free look around the Royal Observatory. Ditto tickets for the Royal Observatory cost £8.50 and also get you a free look round the Ships, Clocks & Stars exhibition. I'd not been round the Royal Observatory since they introduced an admission charge in 2011, so it was good to visit again and see what's changed. Most of the time stuff has been temporarily removed, and the space filled with a collection of steampunk creations with a fictional narrative. It's not what you'd expect, and I doubt most of the visitors quite understood what was going on, but it's sparky and fun, if not entirely relevant.



The biggest change since the observatory started charging is in the composition of the crowd. Previously there'd be Britons in amongst the visitors, but on my visit they seemed conspicuously absent. Instead most people here are foreign visitors "doing London", and shuffling round the building taking in the heritage sights. And the most depressing difference is in the main courtyard where the meridian line cuts across the cobbles. Where this used to be an informal free-for-all, now a long queue builds up so that each and every visitor can have their minute astride the meridian. They wait for ages for the chance to pose in front of the metal sculpture... grin, snap, post to Facebook and move on. If you've been missing the chance to do the same, Ships, Clocks & Stars might inspire you to see zero degrees longitude again.

 Monday, August 25, 2014

So this appeared on my local post box this week.



At the moment the post is collected no earlier than 5.30pm each weekday and 11.30am on Saturdays. From mid-September it'll be collected no earlier than 9.00am each weekday and 7.00am on Saturdays. And this sounds plainly ludicrous. What's going on?
What changes are taking place and why?
We are improving the level of public access to postboxes in areas of under-provision, by adding around 2,000 boxes to the 115,000 we currently have. 45,000 to 50,000 low-use boxes will move to ‘collection on delivery’ with the postman or woman emptying the box on their round, rather than providing a dedicated collection by van. No postboxes will be removed from service as a result of this initiative.
Ah yes, the Royal Mail are planning to save money by not collecting mail from about half their post boxes at the end of the day. The postie in his van will only visit certain boxes, and all the rest will be collected by the delivery staff at some point during their round. Collecting could be at the end of the morning, if the delivery round is long, but it could be eight hours earlier than now if the acts of delivery and collection are combined.
Why has the collection time for my postbox been changed?
There has been a significant fall in the number of items posted in postboxes, leaving many now not covering their costs. Rather than decommission uneconomic ones, we’re improving the cost effectiveness of collections. Emptying these low-use boxes on delivery enables us to be much more efficient going forward.
We're not using postboxes so much any more, with email and other electronic communication long ago taking the place of the written word on paper. Parcels remain popular but tend to be sent via post offices, and a diet of greetings cards won't keep the Royal Mail in business. And OK, so many organisations still like to send us printed material, but they don't use postboxes, so maybe their days are numbered.
Why is the collection time from my local postbox now so early?
Because of the need to improve the efficiency of our collections and maintain collections from postboxes, your local box is now collected by our postmen and women whilst out on delivery. This means the box will be cleared earlier in the day. There will be no change to the ultimate delivery of the items you post, they will go through our system in exactly the same way. There should be a later collection from another nearby box, typically in the late afternoon.
Nothing arrives at its destination any later, sure, but you'll have to get out much earlier in the day to make sure your letter's in the box on time. And that's ridiculously earlier on a Saturday, which essentially means the weekend no longer has a collection service at all. What's disappearing here is the ability to turn round correspondence in one day. I remember when my letters arrived at breakfast time, and then I had the entire day to get my response into the box. Now I'm lucky if my mail's arrived by lunch, and by then the only collection of the day will most likely have gone.

Except it's not quite that bad yet.
Why's my box being cleared earlier and not the one down the road?
Not all postbox collection times are changing, the majority will keep a 4pm or later collection time. We’ve carefully considered the distribution of all our postboxes and their accessibility. Our plan is balanced, based on usage and the need for later collections in the area and we believe provides the best mix of earlier and later boxes for all our customers in the area. Your box receives fewer than 50 items a day and is within half a mile of another box which is keeping its later collection time.
Post box times will only be getting earlier in urban and suburban areas where the density of boxes is relatively high. There'll always be a box within half a mile with an end-of-the-afternoon collection time, so all you have to do is go to that instead. The Royal Mail saves tons of money on a pointless collection service, and you'll merely be mildly inconvenienced every time you post a letter. It sounds fine, except that's a round trip of up to a mile, which adds up over a year, and you might be old or disabled making the extra journey really quite impractical.
How do I find out where the nearest box with a later collection time is?
Call our dedicated Customer Service Team on 03456 011399 and they will be pleased to help you find your nearest box with a later collection time.
I tried ringing the number, and got an automated message urging me to check the Royal Mail website for more details about the changes. I'd already tried that, but all that's available is general advice and absolutely nothing geographically specific. You'd think a postcode query database cold be available online, but no, the only way to find specific details is to ring up, which is hardly a money-saving option. And when I tried on Friday the office was closed, as presumably it will be until tomorrow.
Isn't this just a cost-cutting excercise typical of a newly privatised business?
Every business needs to examine its costs and Royal Mail is no different. In order to protect the long term future of postbox collections, we need to improve our efficiency and become as cost-effective as possible. Moving these low-usage boxes to a ‘collection on delivery’ footing enables us to realise these savings and maintain service to customers.
We live in an age where efficiency has become more important than service. The modern mantra of "we simply can't afford it" means we're all enduring cutbacks these days, because cutting back is the default austerity option. A lot of decisions are being made in many public services to scale back, and services lost may never be recovered. And of course the Royal Mail is now a private company so can make decisions without public redress, and if that means a less good customer experience, so be it.
Has any consultation been entered into before deciding to do this?
We have communicated our plans to Ofcom, Citizen’s Advice, Citizen’s Advice Scotland and Consumer Council Northern Ireland. Research shows that postal users are positive about the idea of moving collections, particularly from low-use boxes, to link with delivery. 91% of users did not choose their box based on collection time. Users understand this approach is more efficient and fitted with their desire for a more efficient postal service. We will put a notice on every affected postbox four weeks ahead of the change to collection times. There will also be clear sign-posting for customers on the relevant postboxes as to where their nearest late posting box is.
This looks like bad research being twisted to fit a management narrative. Of course 91% of users don't choose their box based on collection time, and that's because collection times always been at teatime or later. But people will mind a lot more when they have the choice to post a birthday card either one day earlier or half a mile down the road. Plus I still have no idea where my nearest late posting box will be. No "clear sign-posting" has yet appeared, only existing guidance that a box a mile and a half away gets a collection after half past six, and no way am I walking that far.

Erosion of service begins on September 15th. It's not the end of the world, it may not even inconvenience you at all, but it is another small round in the death of a national service by a hundred cuts.

 Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Overground in northeast London is good at not interchanging with other lines. It misses the Central line, misses the Piccadilly line twice, misses the Northern line twice too. But the Victoria line it hits twice, because the Victoria line was built with interchange in mind. And now it hits again, with the long-awaited opening of a pedestrian link in Walthamstow, specifically between Walthamstow Queens Road and Walthamstow Central. The connection's been a very long time coming, and has been almost complete for a year or two but never quite opened up for public use. But this month the barriers have come down, some directional signs have gone up, and you can now exit Walthamstow Queens Road on the quick side.



This is a very rampy station, and the new connection adds yet more ramps to that number. Stairs are available to bypass most, but the newest exit requires a zigzag climb because there isn't any room to install steps. Rampiness is an issue at a number of Overground stations, in particular Hackney Wick where the ascent is so unavoidably convoluted that many passengers miss their train. Here at Walthamstow Queens Road the diversion's only brief, but step-free access is the priority and so stepped access is unavailable.



It has always been possible to walk from WQR to WC, but via an indirect route along a trio of Victorian terraced streets. That particular deviation took seven minutes for the walk between stations, whereas the new link cuts the time to only four minutes. The new eastern exit brings you up into Edison Close, formerly a quiet residential cul-de-sac, now a residential cul-de-sac with interchanging passengers walking through. Unlike the previous route there are as yet no official directional signs, so the Barking - Gospel Oak Rail User Group have stepped in and installed laminated signs on most of the lampposts to guide passengers to their destination. We thank them.



And it's not a lovely walk. The cul-de-sacs are a bit bland, unlike the Victorian terraces where each house had its own name chiselled into a plaque on the front. The new path takes you into a parking area and past a bin store, in an "are you sure this is the right route?" sort of way. In this short stretch it's been called Ray Dudley Way, named after a member of the BGO Rail User Group, which is a nice personal touch. And then it tracks up the edge of a large car park, fenced off with barriers for passenger safety, before passing a number of apartment blocks and commercial units currently under construction. It's not a lovely walk at all, but it is a short-cut that lops 40% off the time it takes to walk from one station to the other, so practicality wins.



You might not realise that a southern entrance to Walthamstow Central exists, but it does, on the side opposite to the busy shopping centre and bus station. Workmen are currently giving this south side a spruce-up, resurfacing the piazza outside and adding what looks like a sundial out front. There's even a poem etched into one of the flagstones near the station entrance, if you look down, a short verse by Graham Clifford. It's called Crushed, and it compares the TfL roundel to a clock "bisected with hope". The eight lines were a bit too nebulous for me, but the idea of etching stanzas into the pavement might just catch on.



So anyway, you're unlikely to want to change between Overground and Victoria lines here in Walthamstow because there's a much better interchange at the next station, Blackhorse Road. But you might well want to change between the Overground and the rail line to Chingford, because that serves Walthamstow Central too creating a much more useful connection. And next year the Chingford line will itself be absorbed into the Overground, which means the new link that's just opened will connect the Overground (old) to the Overground (new). Expect to see this connection highlighted as an interchange on 2015's tube map, and smile because this more direct connection just saved you three minutes off your walk.

 Saturday, August 23, 2014

Another connection into the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park opened this week, this time linking E3 to E20. It's a new footbridge across the Lea, or rather it's an existing footbridge that was built shortly before the Olympics but which has only now been linked to an elevated bank on the opposite side. It crosses to the south of White Post Lane and to the north of Old Ford Lock, beside the Omega Works, not far from the end of the Hertford Union Canal. More specifically it links Fish Island to Sweetwater, if you can cope with those as names of places rather than twee hydrological terms. And it's about time. [no. 16 on this map]

Fish Island's been in need of a connection into the Olympic Park for a while. There is a new path beside the old Big Breakfast House leading into the back end of the park, but it's not exactly direct and doesn't yet touch down anywhere especially useful. The new footbridge whams in at the end of Monier Road, alongside one of the hipster cafes this corner of Fish Island is renowned for. The entry point is marked by a tall red brick chimney with the name MK Carlton painted on the side. The name refers to the MK Carlton Shoe Company who used to have their factory here, but the chimney was originally built for the Gas Light and Coke Company in 1893. Bits of the remainder of the building and the front wall survived until fairly recently, but they've now been demolished to provide access to the bridge and only the refreshed chimney remains.

The bridge's designers have got around the problem of step-free access by providing a zigzag path up the side of the main staircase. I guess if you have a wheelchair or pram then you're used to taking the long way round, but cyclists may not be impressed by having to change direction five times on the way up. Once at bridge level there's a fine view across to the Olympic Stadium, now undergoing transformation into the YourBrandHere Stadium when West Ham finally move in. The Park's Energy Centre is also highly visible in the opposite direction, and probably several hipster souls sat at tables beside the Lea sipping coffees. But on the immediate QEOP side, apart from some building works, bugger all.

What's coming here, starting later in 2014, is the Canal Park. This is planned as an "active waterfront", five to twenty metres wide, along the whole of the eastern bank of the Lea from Old Ford to the A12. A varied set of landscapes and plants is promised, including woodlands, meadows, coppices, reed beds and green walls, plus a lot of benches for sitting on and some play areas for good measure. There is a reason for all this riverside planting, rather than the more usual legacy response of sticking up huge blocks of flats, and that's what's under the ground. Two 42-inch Thames Water mains run the length of the Canal Park and create a significant no build zone above them, even restricting the types of tree that can be planted. Here by the Monier Road Bridge black poplars, wildflower slopes and daisy lawns are planned, and it should all look jolly pretty. It just doesn't yet.



The footbridge lands above the cobbled towpath with a linking ramp down, if that's the way you want to go. But straight ahead is one of the most bland expanses of tarmac imaginable, because not all of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is very nice. The tarmac spreads out far wider than seems necessary at the riverward end, then slowly narrows with lime-yellow barriers along each side, with a run of streetlamps (21st century style) down the middle. One of the History Trees that guards each main entrance to the park stands waiting, but other than that, this is pretty miserable stuff. What's more it doesn't get any better on reaching the existing heart of QEOP, namely Mandeville Place. They've given it a nice name, but the reality is yet more tarmac sloping down from the park's central spine, making for a desolate mostly-wasted space.

And the reason the new link runs between fenced-off zones of nothingness is that these areas are scheduled to become the E20 district of Sweetwater. Around 600 new homes are planned, most of these in the sky, plus a new school, library and health centre. An all-through Free School is planned, not because Tower Hamlets council wants one but because here in QEOP the Mayoralty has sway. Development of Sweetwater has been brought forward by a number of years in return for a reduction in the proportion of affordable housing, which sounds like a woefully bad deal to me unless you happen to be one of the construction companies. Building work'll probably kick off in earnest next year, before which all we've got is a convenient cut-through from Fish Island to Westfield via the new footbridge, and only E3 locals are likely to notice.

 Friday, August 22, 2014

LONDON BOROUGH TOPS
Kingston: Telegraph Hill

90 metres (19th out of 33) [map] [map]


I shake my fists at the gods of Administrative Topography. The next borough high point on my list isn't just somewhere wilfully inaccessible, it's in the most far-flung corner of London from where I live. The borough of Kingston sticks a thin tongue down into Surrey, stretching two miles down from Surbiton and out past Chessington World of Adventures. To get further requires a ride on an elusive bus, the 465 to Dorking, which for reasons best known to TfL serves communities up to six miles beyond the Greater London border. The village at the tip of Kingston's tongue is Malden Rushett, a remote outpost on the Leatherhead road of whose existence I'd not previously been aware. A cluster of houses, a Mitsubishi showroom, a hi-tech business park - it's that kind of place. I'm sure its few hundred residents enjoy the semi-rural setting, and the convenience of having an M&S Simply Food at the local garage. [4 photos]

But I needed to go even further than that, so alighted at the delightfully named Shy Horse and walked on past the last lonely cottages to a pair of farm entrances. One of these farms caters for all your Horse, Pet and Poultry supplies, if you're interested, while the other has its own 500m-long airstrip. The main road climbed a low hill beyond, this leading to my ultimate target, although a strip of woodland along each side rendered the summit entirely invisible. On I trudged past a relentless stream of traffic, until I eventually reached a locked gate blocking access to a short upward track. Somewhere up there was Telegraph Hill, so named because it used to be part of the signalling chain between London and Portsmouth. But Thames Water didn't want me to get any closer to their covered reservoir, the location of Kingston's elusive 90m contour. Damn, I thought, I've come all this way, but is this going to be the first borough top it's impossible even to photograph?

With more time I could have continued downhill to the first pub in Surrey, the Star, and then taken a forest walk through the Crown Estate at Prince's Coverts. But I didn't have time enough on this occasion (note to self, looks nice, come back), so decided instead to try to peer through the roadside woodland scrub. No way was the traffic stopping to allow a deluded pedestrian to cross, so I took my life in my hands and attempted to nip quickly through. Once over I had to step through nettles and brambles to a small clearing, negotiate a dumped fridge and gas canister, and finally peer over a hedge to view the grassy bump beyond. No telegraph passes this way today, only a minor string of power lines, but a dish-topped mobile mast continued the communications motif in more modern style. And somewhere beyond the hedge at the top of the rise was that elusive covered reservoir, not really worth the danger and effort, but I left with my completist tendencies satisfied.
by train: Chessington South   by bus: 465

LONDON BOROUGH TOPS
Sutton: Clock House

147 metres (4th out of 33) [map] [map]


Regular readers will know that I once judged Sutton to be London's least interesting borough, so I was really hoping its highest point would help reverse that opinion. Alas, not so. Despite being one of the top five highest Borough Tops in London, the reality was far more mundane - the corner of a playing field on the edge of a housing estate. I took the bus to Clockhouse, a postwar suburb of Coulsdon named after the farm it replaced. Three sticky-coiffed teenage boys sat behind me bantering all the way, and then chose to press the Hail and Ride exit button at the precise street corner I needed. They disappeared off towards some avenue of semis, and I walked a few yards up The Mount towards the local rec. On the no-through-road signpost I spotted a small sticker from an Italian cycling company directing two-wheeled visitors straight ahead. They offer an 8-day Greenway Cycling Tour from Paris to London, which for some reason heads through the obscure end of Sutton, which must be a bit of a letdown after Impressionist Normandy. [3 photos]

The only people on the recreation ground were a man walking his dog and four lads playing football using a traffic cone and the dog mess bin for goalposts. With the playing field as flat and featureless as playing fields are, their kickabout was the only thing of interest so I decided to take a picture. "That bloke's taking photos," said one before playing on, so I felt the need to head for the far side of the grass and skulk out of sight. Thankfully this corner was the precise highest point in Sutton, although it would have been hard to tell without the Ordnance Survey's reassurance. Surrey started immediately across the hedge, on a scrappy patch of heathland, and also immediately across a stile, littered with blowaway plastic bags at its foot. I could have walked steeply down through Prospect Plantation to Woodmansterne station, but instead chose the Italian cyclists' path to Woodmansterne village. Its parish church and village green are also about 147 metres above sea level, and much more interesting than where I'd just been, but alas not in London, so sorry, Sutton loses out again.
by train: Woodmansterne   by bus: 463

LONDON BOROUGH TOPS
Croydon: Sanderstead Plantation

175 metres (2nd out of 33) [map] [map]


Croydon is a very hilly borough, at least in its southern half, with impressive rises around Farthing Downs and the Addington Hills. But the highest point is in Sanderstead, to the south of Croydon town centre, on an escarpment surrounded by suburbia. The most obvious landmark is the 13th century parish church at the top of Sanderstead Hill, its spire roofed with wooden shingles, and rightly Grade I listed. Close by used to be Sanderstead Manor, a large Tudor country house which eventually became a hotel, destroyed by fire during WW2 and demolished soon after. The Lords of the Manor were teetotallers and hence the entire suburb is dry, even 500 years after their covenant first prevented the opening of taverns and hostelries. That's something to remember if you're ever tempted to move here by the generously-sized houses and rolling landscape - it's a long way to the pubs in Warlingham. [3 photos]

Where the land tumbles northward most steeply, a timber plantation was established to provide shelter for the manor house. That wood is now all that survives, covering Sanderstead's hilltop with eight acres of beech, oak, cherry and sweet chestnut. It's managed as a public open space, criss-crossed with paths, just large enough to wander and get lost within. It's also surprisingly muddy underfoot, even in the summer, so I expect the wooden posts laid flat in the footpath for support are entirely overwhelmed for much of the year. The highest point lies off the main track, so you'll not reach it without stepping off through the groundcover and negotiating branches and brambles on the way. A tree bursts forth from the summit, though the surrounding woodland means there's nothing to see in any direction but leaves so don't bother coming up for the view. The City panorama from the top deck of a passing bus is rather better, if only briefly over the rooftops. And OK so I'd hoped for more from the second highest Borough Top in London, but at least it's a proper hill, and I loved the compact solitude of the surrounding plantation.
by train: Sanderstead   by bus: 412

» 84 photos of London Borough Tops (three each, so far)
» List and map of London Borough Tops
» Previous reports: Outer NE; Inner E; Inner N; Inner NW; Outer NW; Outer N; Outer W; Inner SW


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