Saturday, 29 August 2009

Tales of antique power

Another year, another scheme for redeveloping Battersea Power Station begins to wilt. The site is caught in a double bind. The listed power station (right, photo Tagishsimon) takes up so much space and requires so much investment to keep it safe, let alone equip it for re-occupation, that it is hard to make any scheme make commercial sense at the best of times.

Balancing the books requires a density of development on the rest of the site that cannot be reconciled with its poor public transport accessibility, and the costs of building new infrastructure (the most recent proposals include a spur from the Northern Line) just make marginally viable proposals more fragile still.

You could argue that the only way to bring the site into use would be to demolish the power station. That would be a shame. I have been lucky enough to visit the building, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and opened in 1933, and its interiors are as stunning as its looming form, if not more so. The turbine halls are elegantly tiled, and the control rooms truly magnificent. Crafted wooden fittings are surrounded by decorative wall and ceiling tiles, and bakelite switches are inscribed with the names of substations and districts. This, the interiors say, is a place where something important, and magical, takes place.

The overall impression is one of pride, pride in the modernism and progress that this temple of power once represented, a pride that can also be seen in elaborate Victorian shrines of sanitation, like Bazalgette's ornate pumping stations at Crossness and Abbey Mills (left, photo Gordon Joly).

This pride in utilities is something we have lost. As I walked through Redhill a couple of weeks ago, the contrast between the grandeur of the Royal Earlswood Hospital and the shabby incoherence of the East Surrey Hospital could not have been starker. While offices, libraries and civic centres can still win awards, it is almost as if the mundane necessities of power, health and sanitation have become embarassments, to be covered up and smothered, like a burp in polite company.

We are left with tacky trash, rendered all the more conspicuous by its artless attempts to blend in.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Walking fifty miles in their shoes?

I have done some sniffing around the web to find any other accounts of walking from London to Brighton, and have found very little. Two minor gems: this marvellous Pathe film of a London-Brighton walking race in 1955, and - even more eccentrically - these photographs of Mademoiselle Florence, a lady who walked from London to Brighton on a ball in 1903. Respect.

Trains, planes and automobiles

Redhill is a good place to leave. I had arrived by train from Victoria, where I saw a family of recently arrived tourists (Iranian, I think) trying to collect the necessary change to use the public loos (£1.50 for the five of them). It felt deeply shaming that this chiselling approach to basic human needs was to be one of their first experiences of the UK.

Back to Redhill, where a bit of fancy footwork along the A25 took me away from the shopping mall that appeared to have replaced the town centre, and to the south. Redhill's former 'asylum for idiots', the Royal Earlswood Hospital has - like so many of London's green belt asylums - been redeveloped as housing. The main building is imposing and impressive (you can see it from the railway line), as befits an establishment that was the residence of the Queen Mother's nieces for many secret years. It is now mocked by the cheap pastiche that surrounds it, buildings crammed together like Monopoly houses. There is still a gate, presumably to keep people out rather than in nowadays, though it's a pretty moot point.

From alongside the hospital (and leading past the newer East Surrey Hospital and the isolated housing estate (perhaps a 'New Village'?) of Whitebushes), a slightly monotonous bridleway and cycle track takes you south to Horley, staying a fairly consistent field's width away from the railway line. In several places, what was marked on the OS map as fields has been taken over by new housing estates. Many of these can be seen from the train. They do not look much more impressive close to.

The Farmhouse, just on the northern edge of Horley, lies alongside one of these estates, but has a good garden for a pint (and a magnificent 'smoking pavilion', in which the landlord has drolly made space for a bar "should the Government...ban alcohol in pubs in future"). Continuing clockwise round the town, I made for Thunderfield Castle, which looked more impressive on the map than it did with reality: a caravan site surrounded by a redundant moat of oily, stagnant water.

Modern buildings down these small back streets and bridleways were far more effectively secured, with electric gates and high hedges protecting the privacy of large houses and large cars.

Clear of Horley, the roar of the motorway grows again as you approach the M23 spur to Gatwick, this time mixed with the intermittent rattling of trains and the keening whine of aircraft. Cows in the fields alongside seem curiously nonchalant, as I creep through the din and the brambles to the airport.

Stats: 2.5 hours, 12.75km, 8 miles

Saturday, 15 August 2009

I fell in love with the beautiful highway

"The journey of 1,000 miles starts with a single step"

I spend so much time travelling between London and Brighton, that I thought it would be worth walking the route, if only to understand better the familiar but always half-glimpsed landscape as it flashes past the window.

Coulsdon South was the starting point. I wanted the trip to be more honest than scenic, but trudging through Streatham, Norbury, Purley and all points in between seemed to be an exercise in unnecessary masochism. A few yards from the station, the path across Farthing Downs takes you to the top of the North Downs, the hillsides dotted with forests in one direction and suburban villas in another. The road narrows and continues down towards Chaldon, with huge SUVs squeezing past each other, rushing to conclude the slightly furtive business that seems to dominate London's fringes.

I wandered off the road to try to follow a path through Devilsden Wood, but quickly got confused by too many paths rather than two few, almost all of them marked 'Happy Valley Nature Trail'. That wasn't what I wanted - it sounded far too urban and didactic for my mood - but it seemed to have taken over all signage, like Japanese Knotweed smothering native species.

I returned to Ditches Road pretty near where I had left it, dodged some more SUVs and the occasional tractor, then walked past Chaldon's 11th Century Church (no camera this time, but I hope to remedy that in future stages). Past a couple of farms and then the most fantastic vista over the great closerleaf of the M23-M25 junction, with the M23 snaking through misty skies to the South.

Motorways may be bad in all sorts of ways (planet, health etc), but watching them twining together through wooded valleys, you are reminded what beauties of engineering they are too. Walking through cornfields down to the road, the roar of the traffic growing steadily more insistent, you feel like an archaeologist or an alien, unearthing something at once thrilling and abstruse.

A path passed under the M23, through Merstham, cut off like a sandbank between two rivers, then over the M25. Following the bank round above the junction, I passed more intriguing edge of city developments (razorwire and daubed signs - 'GUARD DOGS LOSE AT ALL TIME! KEEP OUT!!!').

Nature reserves indicated the sites of past gravel pits, and the path eventually emerged at Nutfield Marsh. The Inn on the Pond was exactly the pub I didn't want to find for lunch: restaurant-focused, with precious little bar service, and an interior that looked like it had been selected by an auto-gastropub programme. Very sorry, very Surrey.

The chef cites "Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver and Thomas Keller of Napa Valley’s ‘French Landry’ [sic] restaurant fame as his food influences". I had a ham baguette, in which few of these influences were discernible. It's a bit like me saying that this account is inspired by Patrick Leigh Fermor. It may be true, but it has no bearing on the quality of my prose.

From there, the idea of walking into Redhill, past the huge new housing estates being built in gravel pits that I had seen from the train, seemed too depressing a prospect, so I took a slightly woozy route across fields to Nutfield itself, then a further stroll (downhill again) onto South Nutfield, where a train arrived, miraculously, as I did.

Stats: 3.5 hours, 13.25km, 8.25 miles