Long-distance paths and written records: the London Countryway and the Greensand Way

In this year which is now nearing completion, I completed the London Countryway. Like the Capital Ring and the London Loop, the London Countryway is a long-distance path which encircles London, but it differs from them in two ways. The Capital Ring and the London Loop are both within Greater London; the London Countryway is indeed in the country outside it. And the Capital Ring and the London Loop are official long-distance paths; the London Countryway is not.

The London Countryway is some 205 miles long, enclosing an area bounded by Box Hill, Marlow, St Albans and Tilbury. It was devised pretty much by one man, Keith Chesterton, who published a short guide to it in 1976, and later a book. I have not seen the book, but my mother bought the guide when it appeared, more or less as a curiosity and without thought of doing the walk, at least in full. It sat on the family shelves for 40 years until I, enthused by the other two circular walks, took it down and decided to walk the route. In format the guide shows its age: it was produce on a typewriter, photocopied and stapled. The outline map of the walk is hand-drawn. The front cover photograph of Ranmore Common was, like the text, reproduced on a photocopier, a process which, to put it politely, removes all subtlety from a photograph. But cottage-industry publication could do little else back then.

This guide was the only guidance I had; being unofficial, the route is not shown on maps or signage. So the night before I walked each section I had to co-ordinate the directions it gives with the paths on the map and commit to memory the paths I should use. What surprised me was how relatively straightforward this was – the paths have changed very little in forty-odd years. The completion of the M25, and some lesser road-building, sometimes required me to negotiate junctions and footbridges where Chesterton referred only to a track or minor road. Some fields in south Essex can now be crossed by a more direct route than the more circuitous one specified by Chesterton (which appears no longer to be usable). Chesterton recommends using Brookmans Park station (Hertfordshire) to reach the starting point of one section, but Welham Green station, a good deal nearer the route, has been opened since he wrote, so I used this.

The rights of way the London Countryway uses have remained rights of way for the most part. But I wonder how far the route can be said still to exist as a unified long-distance path when it is unmarked, guides to it are rare and obtained only by chance unless you know anyway what you are looking for, and it appears few people walk it nowadays. Is a written record of something such as this necessary to reify it, even when the tracks which make it up still exist, so that to constitute the route as a whole we need only keep their connections in mind?

We might compare the London Countryway in this wise with the Greensand Way, on which I have now embarked. This is an official long distance path. It is marked on maps and is well signposted. But there is currently no guide to it in print. In this it contrasts with the North Downs Way, to which it runs parallel, and from which it is never more than a few miles: chalk is more obvious, and so more glamorous, than glauconite. I had to search for guides second hand. So while many people living near the route or exploring the countryside there must be aware of the Greensand Way because of the signposts and map legends, how many people have a sense of it as a whole? How many people walk it end to end compared to those walking the North Downs Way? Again, is its existence less definite because a written record is hard to come by?

It was instructive too that the guides I found were published by the Surrey (1989) and Kent (1992) county councils. This sort of thing was once a common local government activity, one means among many of promoting the well-being of an area and so of improving its economy. Would such guides be published today?

Well, memory and tradition too can preserve the vitality of a thing – but a written record spreads knowledge widely, preserves and hands on memory, can both keep alive traditions and establish new ones. In their turn written records themselves need to be remembered and kept alive. So here is a written record of sorts to help all this.

I need only add that the London Countryway is well worth walking. It will take you through the North Downs, the River Thames in both its placid and its estuarial manifestations, the Chilterns, and rolling Hertfordshire with a seamless transition to Essex, before that county gives way to flat marshland. You will also pass through the middle of some towns, most notably Windsor, Marlow, St Albans, Broxbourne, Waltham Abbey, Brentwood and Gravesend. Seek out the guide if you can. Start and finish at any point on the circle, but start soon!

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And indeed sir ’tis true sir

If you go into the waiting room on platform 6 at Derby railway station you will see a large colourful display board. It was placed there by Derby College, and recounts how the college has restored the old railway roundhouse and associated buildings to the east of the station and converted them for use as college buildings. It is worth quoting from the board at length (emphasis in the original):

THE ROUNDHOUSE: Breathing New Life into Derby’s Historic Railway Quarter

Open to the Public

You don’t have to enrol as a student to visit The Roundhouse Campus. Derby College extends a warm welcome to all at The Roundhouse where you can enjoy the cafe and social facilities, take part in special events and guided visits…

This iconic building now has a new lease of life as part of Derby College and will bring lasting benefits to the people of Derby. The Roundhouse is open as a visitor centre and social hub where people can discover more about Derby’s proud industrial heritage with iconic and interactive images and information…

The site… focuses on The Roundhouse which is the social hub of the site – open to students and the general public.

Now that surely is a tempting thought for one interested in railways and cityscapes. But it’s lies, all lies. Leave the station on the east side with a view to visiting the Roundhouse and you will find it closed off by an ugly steel security fence which obscures the view of the complex and ruins the perspective of the variegated buildings, preventing proper appreciation even from outside of the architecture of this large piece of Derby’s history. The only entrance even to the courtyard is through a staffed hutment, and entry is only permitted to those who can show college ID or state definite business. This sealed fortress brings no wider benefit whatever to the people of Derby. And the students, who could have mingled with the public at the college and courtesy of the college, are kept apart from the society in which they should be mingling and taking their place as citizens.

If I find this policy detestable, as I do, I recognise that it is not altogether the college’s fault. The problem is the unsatisfactory state of the law, which continues to regard 16 and 17 year olds as children when they no longer are, and so in need of protection from a threat which does not exist; and this is one of many ways in which we are nowadays officially encouraged not to trust each other, to the detriment of civil society. But if this must be the policy the college has no business showing publicity saying in as many words that the college is open to the public when it is not. Yet the display board remains, extolling the college’s openness and public spirit, “And if you had been in Derby / You’d have seen it as well as I”.

The University of Leeds and a wasting disease of the heart

Perhaps the finest perk I have ever had is that, as a graduate of the University of Leeds, I am entitled to a ticket for the university library for no more than the payment of a small annual fee.  This is more than just a great privilege: I simply could not have carried out much of the scholarship I have without this access to one of the country’s largest research collections.  So I was dismayed this autumn to find that the library has had its budget cut, and that the cut has been applied by having the Brotherton library, where the main collections in the arts and humanities are kept, bring its weekday closing time forward from midnight to 20.30.

 

University budgets may have to be reduced but I wonder why it is the library that suffers.  It should surely be at the heart of a university.  It is a device for independent working – the chief way university is supposed to differ from school.  It is a place to explore any subject.  My tutor at Leeds told me early on that you did not come to university only to take a degree in your subject.  Throughout my formal education I never felt constrained by a syllabus, and as an undergraduate I spontaneously explored many subjects.  As well as my degree subject of linguistics I borrowed books in English, education, politics and music amongst others.  And even in your own degree subject you are likely to have special interests and find unexpected delights in the library that your lecturers don’t mention.

 

I find it difficult to believe, even with the advance of technology, that books are no longer in fashion with the young as tools of study and enlightenment: all complaints of this kind tend to be exaggerated.  And whether or not it is true the university ought to be, as it surely is, urging books on undergraduates.  The main reason why I won’t use Twitter is that first thoughts ought to be refined before they go public.  Extensive, careful exploration of a subject such as a library affords helps this process, helps bring a view and analysis of a subject that is as good as it can be for the time being.  (The books in the library have, one hopes, been created this way by their authors.)

 

That is why I feel dismay that it is library hours that have been chosen to be cut.  It is true that the university’s other libraries, the Edward Boyle (sciences and social sciences), the Health Sciences library (medicine and allied subjects) and the Laidlaw (undergraduate collections) have had their hours preserved.  But undergraduates, if they are to delight in their studies and to have some feel for the frontiers of knowledge, should be moving beyond the main undergraduate collections and should not have their ability to do so restricted.  And the arts and humanities of all disciplines rely most on libraries for research.  Why is it they that have suffered?

Put your litter in a Lister bin

Lister litter bin

Some decades ago – certainly in my youth – probably the most common type of litter bin to be found in parks was this design by Lister of Dursley, Gloucestershire. These bins consisted of wooden slats arranged conically, with a metal bin painted red or green inside, and were to my mind a classic of industrial design because they mingled the industrial with the bucolic in perfect proportions. (The rarer green-painted bin tilted the look towards the bucolic.) They were thus able to take their place neatly in the urban park scene, contributing to its aesthetics even while fulfilling their necessary but unlovely function.

It is a pity, therefore, that the design is no longer used. Today most litter bins seem to be made entirely of fibreglass, which does not lend itself to the bucolic, even the urban-park bucolic. Amid the greenery of a park it is conspicuous for the wrong reason. It is also all too easily set on fire; and there can be few things uglier than burnt-out fibreglass.

So let us keep alive the memory of the Lister bins. Let us remember what is possible in the design of everyday things. The bins are hard to find now, but if they are history let it be recorded history.

What is it about queens and roads?

Millicent Bell, in her notes to the Penguin edition of Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove, tells us that Bayswater station, on the Circle Line of the London Underground, and Queensway station on the Central Line, were both formerly called Queen’s Road. (Both stations stand in what is today Queensway.) According to Douglas Rose’s The London Underground: a Diagrammatic History Bayswater was opened by the Metropolitan Railway as Bayswater in 1868, renamed Bayswater (Queen’s Road) and Westbourne Grove in 1922 – after Henry James’s time – and reverted to plain Bayswater in 1933. Queensway station was indeed opened as Queen’s Road in 1900 and renamed in 1946. It is a name which seems to have caused trouble for railway authorities.

When British Rail were eradicating the last of the totem station signs (a subject I have discussed before) one of the stations to get this attention was Queen’s Road Battersea. According to Dave Brennand’s exhaustive documentation of British Railways Totem Station Signs (1991) the three words of the station name were arranged in two lines in the central section of the totem, and as was customary in capitals. About 1980 the totems were replaced by black on white Gill Sans upper and lower case saying simply Queen’s Road – no Battersea. Within months these signs were themselves replaced by new ones saying Queenstown Road, with Battersea in much smaller letters underneath.

Now Queenstown Road had long been the name of the road: it was shown as such in my parents’ Atlas of Greater London, which was published before 1960 since it did not show our road which was built in that year. So was the road ever just Queen’s Road? It had in any case been Queenstown Road long enough that British Rail should either have changed the name of the station when the totems were replaced or should boldly have kept the discrepancy: there can be no excuse for the waste of two changes of sign within a few months.

The current signs, put up by South West Trains, say only Queenstown Road – once again Battersea is omitted. This does mean that the station cannot be confused with the nearby Battersea Park station, but it would be helpful to know which district it serves. (It would anyway be difficult to confuse one station with Battersea last and one with Battersea first.) And today the booking hall at Queenstown Road is got up in a reproduction of the green and cream of the former Southern Railway, from which those who remember can catch a faint ironic mockery of the relentless replacement of totems over three decades ago.

Picture yourself on a Northern coach tour in 1962

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I bought this brochure in a junk shop for 10p some years ago. Northern General ran bus services in Tyneside and north Durham, but it also had a private hire and tours department. Since the brochure was issued its title has acquired a double meaning. There is the original one: consider that you might take a Northern coach tour in 1962 – perhaps you actually will? And there is the new one for today: what would it have been like to take a Northern coach tour over half a century ago?

The sense of time was very different. In those pre-motorway days a coach travelling from Newcastle to Torquay for a week’s tour of Devon was obliged to make an overnight stop in Leicester. A 15-day tour to Vienna and the Danube began with a journey down the Great North Road, including a lunch stop at Doncaster, to Deal, and a night spent there before the sea crossing. This then had to be done in reverse on the return journey: overnight in Deal, lunch in Welwyn Garden City and high tea in Doncaster. Tours to the Scottish highlands required overnight halts in Edinburgh or Glasgow. Still, these journeys themselves seem almost to have been billed as sightseeing tours. A tour to Bournemouth and the Isle of Wight, for example, used different routes for the outward and return journeys. Going out: Darlington, Boroughbridge, Wetherby, Doncaster (lunch), Ollerton Nottingham (overnight) Leicester, Market Harborough, Northampton, Towcester, Oxford (lunch), Abingdon, Newbury, Whitchurch, Winchester, Southampton, Lyndhurst, Bournemouth. Coming home: Salisbury, Amesbury, Marlborough, Lechlade, Burford, Stow on the Wold (lunch), Warwick, Coventry, Leicester, Nottingham (overnight), Ollerton, Bawtry, Thorne, Selby, York (lunch), Easingwold, Northallerton, Darlington (high tea), Newcastle. No doubt, with many by-passes yet to be built, they passed through the centre of many of these towns. And sometimes at least they stopped. On another tour of the Highlands the route between Dunbar and Perth included “South Queensferry (Forth Bridge)” and “Linlithgow (Palace)”.

Names, turns of phrase and everyday mundanities which could hardly then have been noticed as characteristic now re-create the flavour of the age. There is the very name Northern General Transport Company, and those of the other companies which provided booking and enquiry offices for the tours: Tynemouth and District Transport Co., Wakefield’s Motors, Tyneside Tramways and Tramroads Co., The Sunderland District Omnibus Co. These are straightforwardly descriptive rather than the short but over-manicured brand names of today. Local newsagents were used as booking agencies. Northern General’s telephone number was advertised as having “6 Lines”. Telephone numbers for hotels show that some consolidation of exchanges was taking place – that of the Grosvenor Court in Margate was Thanet 22442 – but there were still many small local exchanges (“Windsor – White Hart Hotel, Tel. 521”), some tiny ones (Monmouth – King’s Head Hotel, Tel. 17”) and one, on Valentia Island, Ireland, positively minute: “Royal Hotel, Tel. 7”. Of travel insurance we are told that it is “really worth-while [nowadays it would be a harder sell] to arrange these insurances [who now uses insurance as a countable noun, and in the plural?]”. The booking conditions say sternly, “a flat suitcase is essential”. With the popularity of rucksacks and holdalls this would surely now be impossible to enforce, and I suspect then reflected the general use of suitcases rather than any real necessity.

A tour to Norway sailed from Tyne Commission Quay, North Shields, which is the location of today’s Port of Tyne International Passenger Terminal and which reflects the modern tendency, as at London, Rotterdam and Bremen, for ports to move down river, some way from their cities. On the other hand a tour to Denmark sailed from Newcastle Quayside, No. 11 Wharf: the traditional city port still existed.

All photographs are in black and white, including one of the Valley Gardens in Harrogate, whose floral displays surely clamour for colour. Another shows a prosperous-looking Morecambe Promenade, with well-kept buildings and gardens, and crowds of people such as Morecambe no longer attracts. The British holidaymaking tradition here seems undisturbed. But it soon would be. Air travel appears in this brochure at the margins, and to a reader of today presents itself as something by then established but still out of the ordinary. There is a tour to the Isle of Man by air, while the tour to Norway has an air-travel alternative, with the same itinerary in Norway itself as for those going by sea. On both these tours the flight is from Newcastle airport, referred to in the old-fashioned way by its actual location of Woolsington. But an air tour to Ostend involved an overnight journey via the Great North Road to Southend for the short flight. The company simply seems to have wanted people to enjoy the novelty of a flight; once the journey to the south had been made it would have been as easy to cross by sea to Ostend, as indeed several of the tours which went further into continental Europe did.

In 1962, it seems, many older practices were right in the middle of ceding to new. This is easy to see now; how easy was it to see then? Old and new are both in evidence here. If many people remarked the new arrivals, it would perhaps have taken more perception to see that some familiar things were on their way out.

Weaver Conjunction

Weaver Navigation and Hartford BridgeMy picture shows the River Weaver Navigation at Hartford, Cheshire, where the Navigation is perhaps at its most bucolic. I have caught it, moreover, in its autumnal colours. But in the background is Hartford Bridge, built by Cheshire County Council in 1939, whose utilitarian design and bright blue paint might seem incongruous. It might seem to spoil the view. But I suggest that that view would not be special without it. What makes the scene is the balance of the natural and the artificial. Up close the bridge has the brute beauty of pure engineering:Hartford Bridge from below Hartford Bridge frm aboveit is the girders and the concrete that impress themselves on us. In the distant view the severity of the bridge is softened by the water and foliage; but at the same time the water and foliage are counterpointed by the bridge.

Human activity inevitably imposes artifice on a landscape. We tend to exalt the countryside – there, we say, is ‘nature’ – but houses and street furniture are not fundamentally different in villages from in towns and cities. And though, as I said above, this is probably the Weaver at its most bucolic, this section, the Vale Royal Cut, is in fact one of several artificial sections, variously straightened, provided with locks or bypassing the river proper altogether. The Navigation was created to meet the requirements of industry; and the work on it began relatively early in the eighteenth century, some time before the canal age and the apotheosis of industry.

Hartford Bridge symbolises what a river navigation is – an essentially industrial thing – and it asserts that character even in such a sylvan setting as this. It is the tension between these two opposites which makes the scene uniquely delightful.