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What the dickens

I can almost hear that collective groan from here – not another few hundred words about the Victorian novelist Charles Dickens. Well let me own up straight away I’m a big fan but I’m aware of the Dickens fatigue that many are feeling as a result of the bicentennial birthday overload. It’s not just the books but also the exploration and exploitation of London that I love. And who couldn’t love an author who gave us Mr Toots, the Cheerybles, the Boffins and Mrs Bangham alongside the more well known Scrooge, Nancy, Micawber and Betsy Trotwood?

Dickens was also a great walker (which is a bit like saying Greece has a couple of debts) who thought nothing of walking 20 miles a day so is rarely out of place in this blog. (As I understand it Dickens was an ardent republican too, which sits well with me, though you wouldn’t have known it at the birthday celebrations last month where various royals were basking in the reflected glory. But then again this is the family who featured Milton’s poetry and Blake’s music at their most recent royal wedding.)

Anyway I digress I’m down on a soggy Hoo Peninsula battling the rain after putting the final touches to a Dickens themed walk I’m leading for the Metropolitan Walkers on Sunday 6 May. It’ll start at Higham station and meander past Gads Hill Place to Rochester. Now Rochester is definitely a place to avoid if you care little for Dickens. He spent some of his childhood just down the road in Chatham and lived in Gads Hill Place from 1856 until his death. As a result the surrounding area is well versed in seizing the commercial opportunities linked to his illustrious name. Fireplace shops named ‘Grate Expectations’ and such like.

The Hoo Peninsula is the land separating the estuaries of the Thames and Medway. And Hoo comes from the old English word meaning a spur of land – which sort of makes it the spur of land peninsula. Much of the peninsula lies in one of the Saxon divisions of England called ‘hundreds’: here it is the Hundred of Hoo and how cool does that sound? The geology is dominated by a line of sand and clay hills surrounded by an extensive area of marshland made up of alluvial silt. What this means when you’re down on the ground is that this land is rich in wildlife – particularly birds.

I’d come down from London by train to Gravesend, checked out Pocahontas’ grave, found my way to the Saxon Shore Way and then followed the route onto the North Kent Marshes which carry the many acronyms of protected areas. Under your feet you have a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a Special Protection Area (SPA).  As if that isn’t enough, it’s also been designated as a Ramsar site which is a global marque applied to the planet’s most important wetlands. And finally on 27 February this year Caroline Spelman included the area as one of DEFRA’s newly created 12 Nature Improvement Areas (NIA). If weight of alphabet was enough this would be one of the safest areas of land on the globe.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before but we’re about to find out (again) because there are plans afoot to build an airport here. Back in the 1970’s when considering a site in the vale of Aylesbury for London’s 3rd airport one member of the commission suggested nearby to here, Maplin Sands instead. The project would have included not just a major airport, but a deep-water harbour suitable for the container ships then coming into use, a high-speed rail link together with the M12 and M13 motorways to London, and a new town for the accommodation of the thousands of workers who would be required. The Maplin airport project was abandoned in July 1974. The development costs were deemed unacceptable and a reappraisal of passenger projections indicated that there would be capacity at Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and Luton, aided by regional airports.

In 2002 the government identified a site at Cliffe on the peninsula as the leading contender among potential sites for a new airport for London. The proposal was for up to four runways arranged in two east-west close parallel pairs, with a possible fifth runway on a different alignment, which might be used only at night and in particular weather conditions. In December 2003 the government decided against the proposal on the grounds that the costs (detecting a theme yet?) of a coastal site were too high, that there was a significant risk that the airport would not be well used and an increased danger of aircraft being brought down by birdstrike. D’oh really?!

Now the area faces two further challenges. The Thames Hub, complete with floating runways, proposed by Foster & Partners and Shivering Sands (which sounds like something Captain Haddock would shout) that grew from a feasibility study commissioned by the Mayor of London. Even more worrying is the fact that the Chancellor has thrown his weight behind this sort of vanity project as a way of ‘growing the economy’ out of stagnation. This is just plane stupid, London’s already got 6 airports how many does one city need? And doesn’t the left hand know what the right hand’s doing in this coalition government – one part grants extra protection while another green lights development?

George Osborne made his budget statement on 21 March and lost amongst all the proper furore about granny tax and pasty vat is this government’s continuing folly to blelieve they can build their way out of recession. There is still plenty of time to tell them to put environment at the heart of the economy and ditch ridiculous schemes like the Thames Estuary airport.

Today I’m heading for the RSPB reserve Cliffe Pools with its huge flocks of wading birds and waterfowl. I don’t keep a list or anything but I have carried a small pair of binoculars with me when I’m out walking for the last 5 or 6 years. I spot some redshanks, quite a few grebe and hear a curlew or two. I was hoping to see a Goldeneye (and you just thought that was a Bond film) but didn’t have much luck although there’ve been a few reported sightings lately.

I love walks like this. There’s all the history – you wouldn’t be surprised if a Saxon came bowling along the path (well you would but you know what I mean). There’s the celebrity of someone like Dickens – I half expected Abel Magwitch to come hurtling out of the mist. And there’s the wildlife – you don’t have to be an expert to appreciate the sheer scale of the bird migration in the area.

The phrase ‘What the dickens’ has nothing to with Charles. It comes from Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor – Mrs Page exclaims it about Falstaff  – and it’s meant to be in puzzlement/incredulity like ‘what the devil’. I can think of a no more apt phrase when asked about the idiocy of this government’s economic policy and the lunacy of building an airport on the Hoo Peninsula.

Things to do:

Come on my 5 mile Dickens walk on Sunday 6 May – meet at Higham station at 10.50

Visit RSPB Cliffe Pools


Everything you need to know about George


Anything by Charles Dickens – for what it’s worth my favourite is Our Mutual Friend

Listen to:

Jackson Browne – Late For The Sky – LP Version Remastered

Goldfrapp – Melancholy Sky

Renée Fleming – Moonfall [The Mystery of Edwin Drood]

Bruce Springsteen – Rocky Ground

Tina Turner – Goldeneye (Single Edit)

Big Audio Dynamite – The Bottom Line – 12 inch Remix, Edit Version

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Message in a bottle

27 May 2010

In Charles DickensPickwick Papers, Sam Weller is said to have a knowledge of London that was ‘extensive and peculiar’ while Sherlock Holmes, according to Dr. Watson, had ‘an exact knowledge of London’. I’ve always been more Weller than Holmes and one of the really great things about being out of work is that I have the time to aimlessly wander round London. And for me one of the things that makes London worth wandering around is the street art.

Unfortunately there ain’t as many Banksy’s around these days but there’s still a fine example near the Barbican in Chiswell Street. Then there’s your more official stuff like the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. Here you’ve got Nelson atop of his column, fountains and four plinths for statues in the square. Bronze statues stand on three of them: General Sir Charles James Napier is on the plinth in the southwest of the square, Major General Sir Henry Havelock on the southeast plinth and King George IV on the northeast plinth. The Fourth Plinth, built in 1841 in the northwest corner, was set aside for another equestrian statue but has largely been empty. (Can’t think why – it’s not as if we’re short of imperialist warmongers to glorify is it?) It is now the location for specially commissioned artworks. The most recent is leading Anglo-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare’s Ship in a Bottle. This artwork is the first commission on the Fourth Plinth to reflect specifically on the historical symbolism of Trafalgar Square, which commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar (nothing if not literal them Victorians), and will link directly with Nelson’s column. It is also the first commission by a black British artist.

Bloody good it is too. It’s drawn admiring crowds since it’s unveiling on 24 May and the day I was there I stood next to actor Bill Nighy discussing its merits. He was a fan too. As Yinka Shonibare himself says his piece will reflect the story of multiculturalism in London: “For me it’s a celebration of London’s immense ethnic wealth, giving expression to and honouring the many cultures and ethnicities that are still breathing precious wind into the sails of the United Kingdom. A ship in a bottle is an object of wonder. Adults and children are intrigued by its mystery. How can such towering masts and billowing sails fit inside such a commonplace object? With Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle I want to take this childhood sense of wonder and amplify it to match the monumental scale of Trafalgar Square.” It has been commissioned by the Mayor of London and supported by Arts Council England and The Henry Moore Foundation with sponsorship from Guaranty Trust Bank. (Glad to see a bank doing something worthwhile as opposed to just screwing the global economy while paying out obscene bonuses to the culprits.)

The art gives us a reason to reappraise London’s architecture and geography and see the unifying spirit behind its sprawling diversity. It’s good to look at as well. Right now London is hosting the biggest outdoor event ever – the Elephant Parade. As the Evening Standard says: “A Jumbo Jamboree”.  Organised by conservationist Mark Shand to raise money for the endangered Asian elephant, 258 individually artist-decorated fibreglass statues are dotted around London in prominent locations.  Throughout May and June from Heathrow to Greenwich you can check them out undertaking your very own elephant safari. What better excuse do you need to tramp London’s streets?

Not that I’m any sort of expert but as all the ones I’ve seen are tuskless I’m guessing that they’re all girls. Most are already sponsored, though some can still be ‘adopted’ for charity and all of them will be collected and auctioned off on 3 July. If you’ve neither the funds nor the space for a 2 metre high elephant you can buy miniatures from Selfridges. I’ve seen quite a few so far. Before playing softball the other evening I investigated the 6 that sit behind the railings at the east end of the Serpentine in Hyde Park. The royal parks are good locations for the statues. In St James Park you can see a line of them – for all the world like Colonel Hathi’s troop in The Jungle Book. I especially like the ones in front of the Royal Exchange. Paul Smith has designed a cool stripey version.

It’d take a few trips to catch ‘em all but I make a mental note to journey south of the river to view the one outside the Elephant & Castle shopping centre before the end of June. Public art in public spaces for the public benefit – it makes you proud to be a Londoner. It helps you reconnect with the city and the various bodies responsible for all this should be congratulated on their vision and willingness to put these displays together.

Listen to:

The Police – Message In A Bottle

Bright Eyes – Ship In A Bottle

Sara K. – Ship In A Bottle

Toy Dolls – Nellie The Elephant

Fleetwood Mac – Tusk – Remastered LP Version


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