Tag Archives: metropolitan walkers

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

Watch:

Everything you need to know about George

Read:

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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In the bleak midwinter (December 2010)

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Very appropriate except it probably should say ‘just a while ago’ and they’re not kidding with the ‘snow on snow, snow on snow’ bit are they? On Saturday 18th trusting to the weather reports I popped out to the shops for the paper and a spot of panic buying early in the morning. The Met Office forecast snow at around noon. Almost as I shut my front door the few flakes fluttering lazily down from leaden skies turned into a howling blizzard. By the time I reached the main road the snow was crunching noisily under my boots and collecting on my eyelashes. The journey down by the river truly was magical.

The snow abated early afternoon leaving a crisp white even covering of about 6 cms. The birds seeing their chance descended on the feeding pole in our front garden with some relish. It’s a pretty grim time for garden birds; smaller birds like wrens lose the heat from their bodies pretty quickly, so they need to be eating all the time to survive. Trouble is they really need us to be putting food out for them because the berries on trees, the insects and fish in frozen ponds and rivers, small mammals, or the worms and insects in the frozen ground are all inaccessible. But they love grated cheese, porridge oats, fruit, cooked pasta and rice (before sauce), cooked potatoes, and unsalted bacon, cooked or raw. Festive things like pastry and cake crumbs are also welcome.

Sport was another big casualty of the weekend. I’d been looking forward to watching the mighty Chelsea get back on form by beating Manchester U but that game was called off a day early. Post has been severely interrupted as well – not great at this time of year. (Hope of everybody who Amazon’d their presents got their stuff delivered on time – aah the worries of modern life.) But talking about post my favourite Christmas card is without doubt the one that has an Edwyn Collins illustration of a robin on the front.

With the snow largely melted from London on Tuesday evening (winter solstice day) with images of Odin slaying the frost giant Ymir playing in my head I set off to lead a Metropolitan Walkers walk based around Dickens in London. I’m a big Dickens fan me – and Wilkins Micawber always seems appropriate but even more so these days: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery. The blossom is blighted, the leaf is withered, the god of day goes down upon the dreary scene, and – and in short, you are for ever floored.” They don’t write ‘em like that anymore – well sadly not George Osborne’s speechwriters anyway. (You young readers might want to find an old person to explain the vagaries of pre-decimalized currency to you. And anybody who can explain to me whether ‘Oik’ Osborne has any economic theory, however misguided, underpinning his cost cutting programme would be more than welcome.)

After a very enjoyable walk I had a couple of beers in The Dickens Inn at St Katherine’s Dock. I couldn’t find any connection to Dickens himself but thinking it was just a ruse to drag in the tourists I was told that one of his great great grandchildren opened the pub here years ago when the re-development of Docklands began. The journey home was definitely messy. Held up for over 45 minutes at Earls Court while police attempted to clear revellers off the rails near West Kensington I was forced to re-route to Heathrow on the Piccadilly line and catch a 24 hour bus back home. Got in just before 2 am. Ah the problems of winter travel in the UK. So with the modern version of the Nativity apparently being no room at the airport terminal I hope you all had a great holiday break.

Listen to:

Annie Lennox – In The Bleak Midwinter

Edwyn Collins – Girl Like You

Dolly Parton – Santa Claus Is Coming To Town

Darren Hayman & The Secondary Modern – Winter Makes You Want Me More

Charles Dickens – Christmas Ghosts

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Hotter than July

30 June & 13 July 2010

All I see turns to brown
As the sun burns the ground’

Well it ain’t that often you’ll see Led Zeppelin lyrics quoted here (Kashmir in case you’re asking) but summer is definitely here and definitely hot. Before I get on talking about the 2 evening strolls this blog is about I s’pose I ought to say sorry that we’re still in London but like people say a lot these days, ‘We are where we are’, and I do live here.

 

The first stroll is more like stroll+ because it’s a 12k Richmond circular – down to the river, up to the park via Ham Common and then back for a few beers at the White Cross. All very standard stuff but no less enjoyable for all that and 28 other people obviously thought so too. Metropolitan Walkers are trying out new ideas to make their already incredibly successful evening strolls programme appeal to yet more London walkers.

The Thames is always a delight to walk beside but as we pass by Twickenham on the far bank I’m reminded that Alexander Pope made his home there from 1719, where he created his famous grotto and gardens. (They must be famous because there’s a pub, The Alexander Pope, commemorating them.) Pope’s entire life was affected by the penal law in force at the time upholding the status of the established Church of England, which banned Catholics from teaching, attending a university, voting, holding public office or living closer than 10 miles from the centre of London on pain of perpetual imprisonment. (Those were indeed harsh times.) Pope decorated the grotto with alabaster, marbles, and ores such as mundic and crystals. He also used Cornish diamonds, stalactites, spars, snakestones and spongestone. Here and there in the grotto he placed mirrors that were very expensive embellishments for those times. A camera obscura was installed to delight his visitors, of whom there were many. The serendipitous discovery of a spring during its excavations enabled the subterranean retreat to be filled with the relaxing sound of trickling water, which would quietly echo around the chambers. Although the house and gardens have long since been demolished, much of this grotto still survives and now lies beneath St James Independent School for boys, open to the public once a year.

We return leaving Richmond Park and take time to admire the view from Richmond Hill down to the Thames. In spite of the words introducing this blog the scene is still remarkably verdant. The front markers had set a cracking pace and we polished off the 12k in two and a half hours leaving me plenty of time to enjoy some welcome Staropramen in the pub.

A coupla weeks later, with the ceaseless sun giving way to some light drizzle, (not enough for my garden I fear) I’m waiting outside Norbiton station just before 7 pm.  Clare’s leading this stroll as well and this time the invitation has been extended to the other London Rambler groups so we’ve got some representatives from South Bank, Hammersmith and Hampstead there as well. And very welcome they were too.

As we enter Richmond Park using the Kingston Gate we are welcomed by the gleeful cacophony of a flock of ring necked parakeets. These colourful birds thrive round here lighting up the skies with flashes of luminous green while dominating the dawn and dusk choruses with their airborne shrieks. There are estimated to be at least 6,000 Rose-ringed Parakeets (Psitticula kraneri) – often referred to as the Twickenham or Kingston Parakeets – flying wild in the South London suburbs. Their specific origins are unknown, but most likely they originated from a single pair of breeding parakeets which escaped or were released in the mid-1990s. Other origins, however, have been attributed to them: the most popular theory is that they escaped from Ealing Studios, during the filming of The African Queen (which was actually made in the Isleworth Studios) in 1951; they may have escaped from an aviary during the 1987 hurricane; and it has even been suggested that the pair released by Jimi Hendrix in Carnaby Street in the 1960s is to blame. (I really want the Hendrix urban legend to be true and vow to propagate it at every available opportunity!)

We exit the park at Ladderstile Gate and cross the road to the Coombe estate. Coombe is one of the more affluent private estates in south west London and is home to television personality Jimmy Tarbuck, tennis player Annabel Croft, while Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood also lives in an estate on Kingston Hill, located opposite to the entrance of Coombe Park. One of Saddam Hussein‘s daughters had a house in Golf Club Drive for a number of years, and Elisabeth Murdoch also lived here for several years. Dwight D. Eisenhower, when Supreme Allied Commander during WWII, lived at “Telegraph Cottage” in Coombe, which was adjacent to the golf course which he used at weekends. We finish the walk back at the station and then a good few of us repair to The Albert for some well earned London Gold.

View the routes:

Richmond Circular

http://www.mapmyrun.com/view_route?r=266127911585125559

Norbiton Circular

http://www.mapmyrun.com/view_route?r=104127911628073221

More information:

For a similar route to the Richmond Circular (and 40 others) see here:

Listen to:

 

 Stevie Wonder – Hotter Than July

Led Zeppelin – Kashmir

The Faces – Richmond

The Isley Brothers – Summer Breeze

Seals and Crofts – Summer Breeze

Jimi Hendrix Experience – Little Wing

Camera Obscura – Tougher Than The Rest

 

 

 

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Hello walking world!

walking-class-heroWelcome to Walking Class Hero – a regular sideways look at walking and the walking environment. Whether you like walking on your own, with friends or in an organised group this blog will cover it. It’ll embrace walking in cities and towns and villages. Walking in the day and during the night. Walking in the countryside and along the coast and up hills and down dales. Walking through parks and by rivers and across heath and down and moor. It’ll comment on public rights of way, access to open country, permissive paths, public urban space and countryside protection. Sometimes it’ll even be about walking outside the UK. Basically if you can walk there it’ll be in this blog.

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