Tag Archives: circumnavigation

Distant suburbs with names starting in H

To Bedfont Lakes for a work meeting, or sales pitch. Second time I’ve been in the Heathrow area in a few weeks – I popped over to have a drink in the bar at the end of Eastercon (as usual I couldn’t go to the con myself as its one of the busy times of year at church) That was train to Feltham, then local bus to the north side of the airport, today train to Feltham and little local bus to Bedfont.

Architecturally its still the 1960s out there in the outer western reaches of London where where placenames start with “H”. If not the 1930s. As always in buildings 30 or 40 years out of date looks more dated than 300 or 400, and the Heathrow area looks very dated. OK, know a lot of the hotels and offices are newer than that but they don;t look it. Compared with the buildings you see in Inner London these look dull and unimaginitive. Air travel was once a thrill and airports were once stage-sets for the party of the future, but now they look boring. Inner London. even the parts of it full of Gearogoan or Victorian retrofits, looks much more futuristic

The most interesting buildings you can see from the Heathrow Perimeter Road are in fact the older ones that look left over from the 1940s or 50s or even before. Rows of sheds with unlikely looking corporate logos advertising some small company you have never heard of that is in to import/export, or oil exploration, or even “aviation” whatever exactly that means nowadays. Its as if the old between-the-wars civil aviation culture of small engineering firms, dodgy dealers, and mechanics tinkering with This and That that I vaguely remember in the backdrop of old films and TV programmes has somehow managed to survive in the gutters and beneath the onramps of the corporate monocultures that replaced them.

In a similar way the little 1920s bungalows in the suburbs round about, squeezed between rows of 1970s officed or 1990s blocks flats, some retrofitted into newer larger “properties”, others still looking like small sheds with fake beams and tarmac sheeting rooves (but all I suspect double glazed) are more interesting than the EMEA HQs and cheap business hotels.

The whole place is caught in a sort of fast-moving limbo. Its not the network of semi-rural suburbs it once was, before the War and the motorways and above all Heathrow Airport turned it over, although it is full of survivals of that era. But its not quite the American-style low-rise decentralised suburban landscape it could have been – there is just too much naff 1950s and 1960s municipal Englishness about, a whiff of the the Council Estate, the H-Block, the Nissen Hut and the Scout Hut. The overlaid palimpsest of the 1950s, a hint of Durrington. Yes, if Woodingdean was thirty times the size, flat instead of hilly, and had a major international airport inside it, and was nowhere near the sea, it might look like this. Maybe that’s why it feels like the early 1960s to me because the buildings (nothing else, just the buildings) remind me of where I spent my own early 1960s. And it hasn’t gone forward to the kind of post-modern high-tech complexity that it might one day become.

From a literary-architectural point of view the Heathrow area left John Betjemen behind, bypassed JG Ballard (though he chased after it and nearly caught it) and hasn’t yet arrived at Ken MacLeod.

Not too many photos from the Con I’m afraid. It was dark most of the time I was there.near_heathrow_8178

I do have a few of the hotel bar though. Like most cheap/mid-price hotels, whether in suburban sheds with legoland trimmings (as this one was) or in old buildings in town it seemed to have that tedious interior design that’s a sort of mixture of fake vaguely 18th century English wood-panelled massiveness and late 19th century French frippery. Flock wallpaper and cut glass, the direct descendent of the Gin Palace without the over-the-topness. Both unimaginitive and deracinated.

But the room the bar was in was much better! A sort of truncated atrium dominated by a vast garden water-feature with pastic glow-in-the-dark fish on sticks. And big Buddhist pots in piles of pebbles. OK jsut as ersatz and off-the-shelf but at least its different and most importantly it was a pleasant and easy space to be in – though I guess a lot of that was due to the lightly-arched glass roof that meant the whole room was adequateley and indireclty lit by natural light right up almost to sunset. Follow th link for more (though not better) pictures: easterc0n_8170

The visit to Bedfont Lakes produced even fewer photos. I’ll have to go back one day when I’m not working. Its a nightmare to navigate, no rationality to anything and no signage. Took us longer to find the building we were looking for once there than it did to get there from Feltham Station over a mile away. Everything assumes you are coming by car. What I should have done is follow the car road in and walk straight in ignoring the barrier that said “No Pedestrian Access”, which was how I got out. As it was I ended up getting to the Cisco building by going round the back of one of the IBM buildings and past the lake. Which was pleasant. I’m sure there is another way in on foot – I can even guess where it might be – but its not signed.

These places are too planned, too centrally controlled, and have too few children visiting them. A council estate laid out like that (and the word ones are) would soon be crossed by “paths of desire” taking you everywhere you need to go. That doesn’t seem to happen here.

So to Staines, just because I’ve never been there before. Much the same applies to Ashford and Staines as to the places begin with H. Except that the river is of course wonderful. Staines looks a bit sad, its not what it once was. Of course in an absolute sense it and its inhabitants are much more prosperous than ever before. But in a relative sense, over against London or the countryside round about, I get the impression that it was at its peak in the late 19th century. Its full of places that look as if the used to be small shops run by locals and are now rotting.

It would have been as small but prosperous market town, connected to the rest of the world by river, canal, and railway, with enough industry (Lino a speciality I think) to provide work for the locals and the nucleus of an industrial proletariat and skilled workforce. Near enough to London to commute to work, but too far to do your regular shopping there. There woud have been libraries and churches and social clubs and a full range of shops and services on the High Street. On Saturdays and Sundays Londoners might come up for a spot of boating or a walk by the river and a pint of local beer in the Swan. (All of which are still available to them and I can tell you walk and the beer are very pleasant) An HG Wells or Jerome K Jerome sort of place. staines_8201

Destroyed as a viable and distinct economic community by the Great War, the motorways, Heathrow Airport and shopping malls. Its still there, it still has some lovely houses, its probably very convenient (if expensive) if you have a car and you work bear Waterloo Station, but its not quite a Place of its own. It has become a node in the broken network of outer suburbia. At least its a lot prettier than Bromley, Dartford, or Romford.

And Ali G exists. There really are young Asian men in baggy trousers and hoods talking rap. Well there were some at the end of Platform One at the station. Or are they consciously living up to the stereotype? Maybe they are Londoners taking a day trip to Staines to act like Ali G? The trainers and hoodies as real or as fake as the blazers and Oxford bags and straw boaters that other young men wore on days out to the same station a century ago?

Why do the outer reaches of West London always smell bad?

The Dark Streets of London

I’ve been going up and down to town by bus a lot more recently. Partly because I’ve been travelling later so miss the rush hours so buses can get around better, partly because I’ve been deliberately trying to see more of some parts of South East London. On Thursday when London reacted as badly to a whole centimetre of snow as it always does, I had to stay late at work and might have missed the last train so I set off on the 188 bus from Russell Square. Or tried to, the first bus was ten minutes late and it was after 1am when we got to the Elephant. So instead of getting off to wait beside Old Kent Road in the sleet to change to a bus to Lewisham I stayed on thinking to change to a 47 at Canada Water where I could wait under cover. Except of course the station was closed so I ended up waiting for nearly half an hour for an N47 at the bottom of Evelyn Street, with my boots sliding around on the ice. Well after 2am when I got home. Commute Fail. I should have known better than to trust the 47 after dark.

That part of London is about as dingy and gloomy as London gets, especially after midnight in the sleet and slush. I’ve been seeing a lot of it recently.
As well as using the 188 late at night, in the past few months I’ve sometimes had reason to take the number 1 bus from town towards the other end of Bermondsey in the early evening.

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The first two or three times I went to the Elephant on a 68, and squeezed on to a packed number 1, but then I realised it was easier to walk to Tottenham Court Road and get on at the begining of the route and get a decent seat – the best one is on the top, at the front as every seven-year-old boy knows (why do people grow out of trying to sit there?)

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London gets a lot dimmer as soon as the bus turns off Tower Bridge Road to Southwark Park Road. The streets are actually dark. There is less light around, there is less to see, the views are more restricted – there are very few long views except when Canary Wharf looms at the end of a street, for example when you turn left at the bottom of Galleywall Road into Rothrhithe New Roiad and look through or beyond the bridge.

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The area is carved up into sections by long railway viaducts, and its dead flat so lots of sightlines are terminated by railway bridges or by the workshops and warehouses that line the track using the arches

There are few big blocks of flats until you get to Deptford and too many of the smaller ones (both council the new legoland-alike private blocks that want to grow up into “gated communities”) turn their backs on the street presenting a brick wall or a pointless fence to the street, and a little grassed over dog-toilet between that and the doorless (or even windowless) ground floors of the buildings. Between them and the warehouses and walls and hoardings around derelict old industrial buildings and post-industrial waste spaces, the narrow streets are all too often blind on both sides.

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I know these streets well – this is pretty much one of my more usual cycling routes home – but things look different from the top of the bus. Its dingy and gloomy. There are few shops and they are mainly closed by this time of night. The street lights are sparse and that orange colour that doesn’t really illuminate brick so compared with central London – or even with Lewisham – there isn’t that much visible outside the windows.

The first time I try it I forget – if I ever knew – that the number 1 goes down Galleywall Road and I get off two stops early and walk through the dark streets to Ilderton Road (a place I first heard of on a record sleeve back in about 1976 – my copy of Dillinger’s “Cocaine” proudly claimed to have been released by “New Cross Records, Ilderton Road” – I have no idea why I should remember that after over thirty years).

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When the business of the evening (a football match at Millwall) is over I set off home. Its even darker walking along the Surrey Canal Road – a sort of Bermondsey Bypass along the route of the old canal that used to connect Peckham to the Surrey Docks, filled in in the 1970s and now one of London’s darkest, dingiest streets, lined on both sides by warehouses, scrapyards and a very few small factories, as well as three huge shiny buildings – the Millwall ground, Deptford combine heat and power plant and a very large shed that seems to be something to do with the new East London Line extension

The road parts company from the old canal route at Folkstone Gardens in what might be the most unpleasant junction I know in London for a cyclist or pedestrian – a sharp S-curve passing under two lowish railway bridges that cars and lorries can approach from five separate directions, with no traffic lights and blind-spots everywhere,

Along the slightly more gentrified residential streets of Deptford Park (only slightly – though if it was anywhere else in London a lovely little park like this overlooked by bay-windowed Edwardian terraces would be as posh as a posh place) and up to Evelyn Street to get a bus home.

And decide to turn right (towards Lewisham) rather than left (towards the nearest busstop) and walk down to the next stpo[, over the old Canal Bridge which is the nearest thing to a hill between Tower Bridge and New Cross.

But the next stop is shut, because of some road works. Really weird ones that seem to consist entirely of traffic cones that divert three lanes into one for no obvious reason. So carry on down past St Luke’s Church and all the way to the stop by the John Evelyn pub, by which time I’ve walked over half way home and had I gone down to Old Kent Road I’d have probably been home by now.

The stop has one of those little red displays that pretends to tell you when the next bus is coming the way that train indicators work at a station. This one says that there will be a 188 along in a few minutes, and 199 a little later, but doesn’t mention the 47, the bus I want. It does have times for the N1 and N47. As its only just after 10pm and these night buses start after midnight I assume that has to be a typo. Maybe the N47 will turn out to be a 47 really,

The 188 comes on time, the 199 comes on time, then another 188 and I count down the minutes to the supposed N47 – 8, 6, 4, 2… then it disappears from the list. Nothing comes of course. Nor does the N1 materialise Another 199 comes, and another N47 is promised, and finally a 47 is flagged up at 19 minutes in the future. I’m not much further walk than that from home. But I wait – there is no N47 of course and wait – and the bus is postponed, the last 12 minutes take nearly half an hour. But one does come in the end, about 10.50, three quarters of an hour after I got to the stop. It is surprisingly uncrowded.

I get off at Brookmill Road perhaps the most gloomy street of the whole journey after Galleywall Road, barely lit, with 1950s and 60s brick light-industrial sheds on one side of the street and 1990s legoland metal ones on the other.

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Mostly now Nigerian churches for some reason. Its only round the corner from home but it can feel scary at night, overlooked by no-one except the very end of platform 1 of Lewisham station, on the other side of the abandoned and ruinous Traveller’s site.

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Round the corner into Jerrard Street, onto the main road, and the pub is still just open and I have a pint and one of the sandwiches the darts team didn’t eat.

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South-East Suburban Circular

One of the crazy things about asthma is that its often better being upright and out of doors. So when I managed to get to church on Sunday morning after four days more or less confined to my smelly little bedroom in my smelly little flat I felt a lot better for it. So I thought I’d spend the afternoon outside. But I’m too knackered to walk far, and not into sitting on park benches, so time to try another bus trip.

Bought a one-day travelcard in one of the local shops and got on the first bus that came down Loampit Vale – a 321. Crazy route, Sainsbury’s to Tesco’s, part of the current fashion for breaking up the Great Old Busroutes into inner and outer suburban sections. It starts near New Cross then down to Lewisham and transects what I think of as the layer of classic suburbia, straight up Lee High Road and then Eltham Road, Eltham Hill, Eltham High Street, before turning right on Footscray Road and down to Sidcup, where I walked down towards the station and got on a 229 through Bexley and Bexleyheath towards Thamesmead.

There aren’t many people on the street in these outer reaches of South-East London. You see some of them through their windows – some teenage girls chatting round a table, some men on stepladders Doing It Themselves.

Its suburbia, but its quite dense suburbia, and its not neat suburbia. There is something makeshift and ramshackle about it. Lots of little gaps. Pebbledash in some of the more downmarket parts. Odd bits of 1970s brutalism embeded among the older buildings. Small shops with cliched names – at least three “Buds of May”, a restaurant with the unfortunate name “Sophie’s Choice”, a shop called “Doors of Distinction” which sounds like the location of a spoof sitcom.

Glimpses of small, empty, muddy, sports grounds at the ends of side streets, Hills to the north and south, and over the hills and far away to the east, the lights of Dartford Bridge and the industrial North Kent Marshes

Why does Old Bexley call itself a “village” on the signs, when it was clearly a small town before London ate it, and not a village at all?

Things begin to change on the dual carriageway from Bexley towards Bexleyheath. Things are more open, more 1970s, more concreted. Bexleyheath announces itself with a big new Legoland-style Marriot hotel on top of a hill. There’s a lot of the feel of Legoland about the architecture of Bexleyheath shoppng centre. It looks as if they knocked it down and rebuilt it sometime in the 70s or 80s, and there are streets of huge shops. But there is no back to it – its like a sort of concentric Blackpool – the town-centre buildings back straight on to rows of 1920s and 1930s terraced houses, there is no urban depth to it – not even the sort of urban depth you get in Eltham or Sidcup with their pubs (some of which even have customers), their disused crumbling pre-war cinemas, Edwardian public buildings, and interjections of civic brutalism.

But there are more people around. Its getting dark, and all of a sudden the bus is full. I suppose it must be people who have been shopping and are going back to Erith or Thamesmead. The bus runs through Barnehurst to Erith and then back west again to Belvedere (more or less along a route
I walked a couple of years ago) Even Erith is getting posh private flats these days.

The view is occasionally spectacular – the towers of red lights down the Thames by Dartford, the lights of the City in the other direction, the multistory blocks of Plumstead and Thamesmead and most of all the industry by the Thames and in Belvedere. In the day it might not look so good, but at night it is a landscape of lights.

Thamesmead itself is magnificent in a way. But it looks utterly uninhabitable. Dark, threatening, inorganic, with no obvious plan or logic to the layout. Places that just grow have reasons for being the way they are. Thamesmead is laid out by obsolete whim. The bus goes round and round through probably similar sections – probably because I can’t quite see them. Other planned suburbs (& Thamesmead is nothing if not a planned suburb), other planned suburbs are being gradually humanised as they grow older. They become natural, they accquire an artificial backstory. Trees grow, streets are altered, new walkways broken through, buildings are infilled, retrofitted, reused. But Thamesmead is so structured, so constrained, so racked by its curvy grid of near-motorway roads that it has no way of linking itself across them. Most of the little neighbourhoods turn their backs on the streets, and hence each other, often set back twenty or more metres from the road, on a different level, screened by fences and lines of scrubby trees and municipal planting. This is a place built for cars, not people.

But weirdly, even though its dark and getting cold, and there is nothing to so, nothing open in the gloom., there are more people around on the streets and in the buses than there were in the posher suburbs further south. Mostly black and Asian. A lot of them look as if they are on their way to or from church. Its built for cars but a lot of the people who live there can’t afford them.

And a 177 back to New Cross, through Abbey Wood and Plumstead and Woolwich and Charlton and Greenwich and Deptford, and finally back to church for the evening service on another 321. Or maybe it was even the same one.

Preston

Bank Holiday Monday was the circumnavigation of Preston. Starting and finishing in Penwortham, on the other side of the river – and now sadly represented by a Tory council – I wonder if they will change the rather unconservative-sounding slogan of the council: “Forward with South Ribble!”. Why do local councils need slogans and logos and brand identities anyway? And when they get them why are they always so naff? Redcar – “its not red and we can’t afford a car”. Why has anyone in the English-speaking world, even once since the 1970s, called any public building “The {whatever} Centre” or named any freeby news or propaganda sheet “The {whatever} Voice”.

Whatever. Starting and finishing in Penwortham and walking round the city but never quite going into the centre, trying to stick to inner suburbs or the transitional zone between the central and suburban areas. Which in a city the size and style of Preston isn’t at all hard to do – its not very big and its mostly all inner suburb, residential terraces, post-industrial refits.

Miller and Avenham Parks, along the river past Frenchwood, up past Fishwick…

Banks of the Ribble near Avenham/Miller Park

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(which sounds like it should be in Sussex) to Ribbleside, through Deepdale to the North End ground…

No Ball Games at Preston North End

…then Moor Park and almost back into the centre, quick pint in the Lamb and Packet (local beer, regulars, some kids playing pool, county cricket on the TV), slower one in the Britannia Inn (at least six real ales, organic beer, pork scratchings, 70s music on the juke box, middle-aged bikers, rugby fans, some people discussing the location of the Dun Cow pub in Durham City (I could have told them!), a few elderly bearded blokes who seemed a little the worse for the afternoon and whose wives wanted them back for tea), backtrack out towards the docks, back up to behind the County Hall, (there is a pub that advertises “Disco’s ECT” as part of its exciting programme of entertainment), down to Broadgate, another pint or two in the Ribbleside Inn (a very different sort of pub, a bit downmarket of the others, bar staff and quite a few of the drinkers seem to have London accents, seems to have a few thirty-something mothers with premature wrinkles, too much makeup, and young kids in tow. I was asked to play killer pool by two of the kids) – and back over the old bridge to Penwortham.

St Stephen's, Broadgate, Preston

There’s plenty to see round the north side of Preston. Well, there is if you find semi-ruined post-industrial desolation fascinating and or beautiful. Or if you are intellectually fascinated by the range of different solutions to the problem of packing in decent housing and open space into a high density urban network cheaply enough so that lots of not-very-well-off people can live there.

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Oh well, maybe that’ll just be me then. Lots of nice houses, a few good parks, but still quite a lot of waste ground, places where buildings once were but now aren’t, gaps in the fabric of the urban continuum of a sort that you don’t see so much in the south any more (although there were lots in Peckham until about 1997).

Some dinky little mosques in a presumably new vernacular style, shiny dark red brick like the ones used in the posher terraced houses of a hundred years ago, slate rooves, little towers with with rather pretty little minaret tops to them, usually in green and gold, that look more Indian than specifically Muslim to me, but off-the-shelf panel doors and PVC double-glazed windows that could have been bought from B&Q.

Preston, mosques, infirmary

I didn’t take many useful pictures of the mosques because people were using them or going in and out or at least standing around chatting and I tend to avoid looking as if I’m taking pictures of people rather than buildings (though will make exceptions for very public places and events)

Odd building on Barnabas Road

A rather odd building near Burrow Road that looked cross between an engine shed, a church hall, and a ballroom.

Rail to Nowhere

And an apparently disused railway that doesn’t seem to go anywhere, but disappears underground just a block away from it

Preston has loads of good pubs, but they are all located in the same corner of town. In the unlikely event that anyone is reading this who is both intimately familiar with the geography of Preston, and not a member of my immediate family (who will know all this already) this is how you find the good pubs. They are nearly all in an area roughly bounded by Fishersgate to the south (the main shopping street, running from the bridge to the station to the museum square), by the town Market and Friargate and Adelphi Street to the east, and by the Lancashire County Hall to the west. I’m not so sure of the northern extent of the zone. I suspect it peters out before Plungington, maybe somewhere in the region of what used to be Lancashire Poly and is now the vital beating heart of the University of Central Lancashire. (Who can’t have either “ucl.” or “ucla.” as part of their DNS domain. Believe me, they tried. Well, believe third-hand rumour then. I never saw the application.).

Anyway, more research is needed.

Overheard from kids in Deepdale:

Two young children – maybe four years old? Possibly even younger? playing in the street. One of of those impossibly cute golden-ringletted little girls with a boy r perhaps her brother. She is trying, and failing very badly, to climb a drain pipe, he is failing to help her. I’m briefly worried that she is going to fall off backwards hand hurt her head. Which is probably silly as she is barely half my height off the ground and weighs perhaps one tenth of what I do. Older boy maybe 8 (crew cut, ManU shirt) cycles by and asks:

“Are you chasing Kim”

“Yes!”

He cycles off. Boy turns to girl

“Who’s Kim?
“I don’t know”

Two other children, maybe six or seven, run out of a back alley giggling, and off into some waste ground on the other side of the street.

“That must be Kim!”
“Lets chase him!”

In Preston accents so broad that if they had been Rochdale accents you could have been in a Gracie Fields biopic. IYSWIM. (I’m sure there must be some famous people with Preston accents but I can’t think who at the moment. And no, its not the same as the rest of Lancashire).

And I got sunburned. On a rainly day in Lancashire. I can get sunburned by spending more than an hour or two out of doors on a cloudy day.

And for my next trick: The Quest for the Lost Land of Higher Penwortham.

It must be round here somewhere. Try going up Leyland Road…