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Thursday, 25-Nov-2004 00:00 Email | Share | | Bookmark
Postman's Park

Postman's Park (i)
Postman's Park (ii)
Memorial to heroism
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At the eastern end of the little street of Little Britain lies one of London's secret spaces. This is the churchyard of St Botolph's, Aldersgate - an irregular patch of grass, trees and flowerbeds hemmed in tightly by the church and other surrounding buildings. [a place for heroes] Here you'll find a fountain in a tiny pond, some benches and a litter bin, as well as the occasional headstone propped up against one of the walls on the southern side. It's the traditional British park in microcosm, only without the football pitch. Scores of office workers fill this narrow space during weekday lunchtimes, although when I visited at the weekend it was quite deserted. There used to be a big General Post Office round the corner, and its sandwich-nibbling sorters earnt this place the unlikely nickname "Postman's Park".

The park is also home to one of the capital's most unexpected and unlikely monuments. Well, I wasn't expecting to find it here anyway. Along one wall of Postman's Park stands a 50ft-long roofed gallery, conceived and funded by Victorian philanthropist George Watts. He wanted to commemorate Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee with a memorial to the unsung heroes of London, and so he commissioned Royal Doulton to manufacture several glazed plaques in their honour. Each plaque tells the story of a life lost to selfless civilian valour, be it by drowning, through fire or as a result of some obscure industrial accident. I stopped and read the lot, and found the whole assemblage really quite heart-tugging.

Wednesday, 24-Nov-2004 00:00 Email | Share | | Bookmark
Little Britain

Entrance to St Bartholemew's church
Little Britain - western end
St Barts - Gloucester House
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Little Britain actually exists. It's a quarter-mile long street in the City of London, just to the north of St Paul's Cathedral, named after the Dukes of Brittany who once used to own the land round here. The street's unusual because it's split into in three very distinct sections, two very quiet either side of one rather busy.

Little Britain begins as a cycle path outside Smithfield Market, the site of carnivorous trading for more than 800 years. The vaulted market hall is 150 years old and, if you can manage to drag yourself there at 5am, it's well worth a butchers. Hidden behind a Tudor gateway lies St Bartholemew's Church with its fine 15th century tower, and round here was also the site of London's annual Bartholemew Fair, a late-August medieval three-day knees-up. One further Bartholemew is St Barts Hospital (London's oldest hospital, founded 1123) which dominates the western third of Little Britain. It's all very functional and austere, especially Gloucester House which looks like the very worst 1950s social housing, but this is still very much a thriving hospital.

Little Britain then bends south, for a few metres only, to become a busy main road. Head north on the one-way system from St Paul's Cathedral (for example on the number 56 bus) and you'll pass through here on your way to the Barbican. This is a brief modern intrusion on an ancient street, edged by Barts Anaesthetics Department on one side of the road and LA Fitness on the other.

But turn left and the street ends as a quiet narrow backwater flanked by a motley terrace of tall townhouse offices. This used to be the centre of London's publishing industry. London's first daily newspaper, The Daily Courant, was printed in Little Britain in 1702, as was the very first issue of The Spectator. A young Benjamin Franklin once lodged here (for three shillings and sixpence a week) while trying to make his living as a printer, Samuel Johnson stayed here as a sick three year old child, and Brothers Charles and John Wesley converted to Methodism in one of the houses here in May 1738. It's quite a street. I found Little Britain to be an unexpected mix of old and new, and just as charming as the TV series.

Wednesday, 20-Oct-2004 00:00 Email | Share | | Bookmark
Marking the meridian: Waltham Abbey

...and Discovery
(and inbetween)
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xlviii) Waltham Abbey is a curious mix of old and new. The meridian arrives in town across the 20th century M25 (between junctions 25 and 26), crosses cobbled 16th century Sun Street (site of the Meridian coffee shop), then promptly hits the ruined remains of an 11th century abbey. The main Abbey building lies a few metres to the west, a spectacular example of Norman architecture. Or so I'm told, because it was closed to the public on the day I visited so that three consecutive Essex weddings could take place. The local men looked slightly uncomfortable squeezed into hired suits, while the local ladies oohed and aaahed at the horse and cart pulled up outside the church. Lovely gardens for the wedding photos though.

xlix) Waltham Abbey Gardens are so ancient that they may well be the burial site of King Harold (think '1066', think 'came second'). The meridian passes between the moat and the cloisters, straight through the Rose Garden where a steel arch forms a Meridian Gateway (complete with moon, stars and giant red sextant). The line continues across a pile of stones that used to be the old blacksmith's forge, then narrowly misses an arched medieval stone bridge (called, imaginatively, Stoney Bridge). It really is a lovely spot for a picnic, just so long as you can ignore the traffic on the Waltham Abbey bypass a few metres to the north.

l) Cross the bypass, turn right at the Dragonfly Sanctuary and you come to Cornmill Meadows, possibly my favourite of all the sites along my meridian journey. This long thin peaceful woodland was once part of a Greater London Council arboretum which supplied many of the trees planted in London's parks. The meridian passes right up the centre, marked to north and south by two statues carved from granite blocks taken fom the old London Bridge. This unlikely pair are called Travel and Discovery, one (south) featuring a world map carved with 0�° line of longitude and the other (north) blessed by some slightly strange human form. But my favourite bit wasn't the statues, it was the arrow-straight footpath that stretched between them. I followed this grassy track for a full 15 minutes through a multitude of trees, crossing a wooden footbridge over a tiny stream and tiptoeing through a couple of muddy meridian puddles. This green line had zero people but maximum charm. I was able to walk uninterrupted precisely along the meridian for nearly a mile, in a way that just hadn't been possible anywhere else on my journey. Having tracked as many as 50 meridian markers between here and Greenwich, this felt a perfect place to stop.

Tuesday, 19-Oct-2004 00:00 Email | Share | | Bookmark
Marking the meridian: Chingford

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What are the chances of the meridian passing precisely through the summit of the tallest hill in northeast London? But it does.

This is the top of Pole Hill, a wooded hillock in Norman Tebbitt's old stomping round of Chingford. It's quiet, it's gorgeous, and it's unique. This is the edge of London, the border with Essex lying less than half a mile away. This is where the green belt begins, the northern slopes rolling down to form the edge of Epping Forest. And this is where the Greenwich Meridian passes, marked by not one but two stone pillars.

xlvi) The taller, western monument was built first. Unlike most of the other markers along the meridian it's not just ornamental but once served a real practical purpose. In the early 19th century the main telescope at Greenwich was James Bradley's transit telescope. This was used to observe the passage of stars across their highest point in the sky by timing them as they passed a fixed north line. Any transit telescope needs to be checked regularly to ensure that it really is pointing north and so a northern reference marker was required. It was an extremely fortunate coincidence that the Greenwich Meridian passed exactly through a hilltop 11 miles to the north - and that's why the Astronomer Royal of the day built an obelisk here on Pole Hill.

xlvii) The shorter, eastern monument was built later when the Airy meridian was adopted at Greenwich. It's a stumpy concrete triangulation point, complete with Ordnance Survey benchmark (which is strange given that all OS maps are still constructed based on the Bradley meridian 6 metres to the west). Recently a few local yobs appear to have added some unnecessary streaks of red graffiti to this particular monument, but they're probably just aerosols.

Lawrence of Arabia adored this place so much that he purchased an 18 acre plot of land on the hilltop. The land is no longer in the family, but there's still a great view from the top of Pole Hill. You can gaze down towards the City skyline, with the BT Tower and London Eye immediately recognisable in the distant Thames valley. Unfortunately the one place you can't see any more is Greenwich because the surrounding trees have grown up over the years and blocked the important line of sight from the great transit telescope. Maybe the view's better in the winter but I loved the place with leaves, long grass and and tiny spiders hanging from the trees. A place of true beauty on the meridian - what are the chances of that?

Monday, 18-Oct-2004 00:00 Email | Share | | Bookmark
Marking the meridian: Newham

circle on the line
the streets of Leyton
it's a sign
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Three cheers for the London Borough of Waltham Forest, whose marking of the meridian is nothing short of superb. You can't see the meridian in Stratford but, once you cross the border into Leyton, it's everywhere. Back in the year 2000 the council decided to mark the millennium across their borough in a most original way. They ordered some menial operative to paint a big blue and yellow circle on the pavement of streets in Waltham Forest that crossed the meridian. And there are tons of them. As a result it's possible to walk all the way up the zero degree line to Walthamstow without the need for a map. So I gave it a try.

xxiv-xxx) I found my first meridian circle (pictured left) outside a house in Crownfield Road. I got my first funny look too as soon as I started taking photographs of the pavement. The next street north was Drapers Road and yes, another pavement, another circle, but then I spent five minutes wandering up and down Stewart Road looking in vain for a circle that turned out not to be there. Better luck in Downsell Road, except that the pavement had been re-tarmacked after the meridian householder had erected a new front wall so only a quarter of the original circle remained. Up and down these residential streets I went, locating a total of seven blue and yellow circles within one 500 metre corridor and no doubt alerting a number of Neighbourhood Watch schemes in the process.

xxxi) After Langthorne Road the meridian entered St Patrick's Roman Catholic Cemetery, the final resting place of Jack the Ripper's final victim. It passed through some nuns' graves (may the Sisters of Wanstead rest in peace), clipped the corner of the chapel and headed north through a sea of ornate marble monuments. A crowd of mourners had gathered beneath a tree for a burial dead on the meridian, so I beat a hasty retreat. On across the Central Line (just east of Leyton station), the new A12 relief road and the lounge bar of the Northcote Arms.

xxxii-xliv) More rows of houses followed, and more circles. I saw a woman having a screaming row sitting in the front seat of her car on the meridian, and a boy sitting on a front garden wall combing his afro on the meridian. On through Norlington Boys' School (cutting through cycle locker number 8 and the technology annexe) and precisely through the side entrance of Barclay Infant School. On through the top left corner of Whipps Cross hospital (where David Beckham was born) and through a parade of shops on the Lea Bridge Road (more accurately through the Roti Roti Restaurant, specialising in 'grilled and Karachi dishes'). All in all I saw more than 20 blue and yellow circles on the meridian before I got bored and went home.

xlv) ...but not before I'd visited the one pre-millenial meridian marker in Walthamstow. This grooved concrete slab lies on the eastern side of Wood Street, just south of Wood Street station (one of those rare slap-bang-on-the-meridian stations). It was odd place to find such a marker, set into the pavement outside an obscure lock-up beside the 14th Walthamstow Scout Group HQ, but no more odd than my meridian pilgrimage had been I guess.

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