Snaresbrook

Vast and unkempt, Snaresbrook offers rugged rurality a stone’s throw from Central London.

Think of a Tube station with a tree-lined car park. Not that easy is it? That’s because allocated parking is usually the preserve of the countryside railway station or sober commuter towns; welcome to Snaresbrook. Named after a tributary to the nearby River Roding and nestled in the self-proclaimed ‘Leafy Suburb’ of Redbridge – so named as one quarter of the borough is covered by forest and green space – Snaresbrook feels every inch the village station, but is this bucolic image replicated throughout?

Adorned with saloons, sedans and what I can only describe as a foreman’s shed offering express ironing services, Snaresbrook station reeks of commuterdom. A petite village, saddled with sedate suburbia, Snaresbrook is not the kind of place where you expect to be greeted by an imposing Grade II listed Crown Court, but greeted we were. A short walk north of the station, the former orphanage and school has been a bastion of justice since the seventies, but our hopes of snooping round the grand building were quickly dashed. Not only was the Court off-limits to Joe Public unless they’re heading to the dock, but photography was also strictly prohibited for security reasons. It was less clear why each entrance had a cattle grid.

In order to catch a sneak peak, we set off round the nearby Eagle Pond, which guards the Court’s eastern edge. Views of the Court remained at a premium, but with the pond poised at the southern tip of Epping Forest – London’s largest continual open parkland, stretching 2,400 acres from Epping in the north to Forest Gate in the south – we had new direction.

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Unlike the oft-manicured nature of London’s central parks, there is a rugged, unkempt freshness to Epping Forest. Footpaths weave through woodland and water, grassland and bogs; blotches of windswept plains reminiscent of a Links Golf Course.

We strolled idly over such a plain until we approached the Hollow Pond – a body of water littered with small islets and coves, where a number of couples were taking advantage of the fine spring sunshine by grating their hands on oars and dabbling in some amateur ornithology. We were tempted to perform our own re-enactment of Three Men in a Boat, but decided instead to indulge in a mini-skimming championship, which resulted in a fractious debate about whether distance or bounces determined the best skimmer.

Arguing, we carried on south towards the Wanstead Flats, past the appropriately austere Sir Alfred Hitchcock Hotel, before detouring down Leytonstone High Street. An avid collector of premier league stickers as a child, I only knew of Leytonstone as the birthplace of David Beckham, so I was keen to remedy that ignorance.

Leytonstone is supposedly on the gentrification to-do list and considering its leafy demeanour, its pub-lined, partially cobbled high street and quick links to Liverpool Street, you can see why. A pub garden seemed an attractive proposition at this juncture and we soon spotted the perfect venue: the Walnut Tree, a Wetherspoons. Yes, there may be just under 1,000 outlets in the UK – 150 of which are inside the M25 – but you just cannot argue with a pint of Shipyard for £2.55. Yep, £2.55.

I asked two of our fellow pubgoers for recommendations post-Spoons, but the muted grunt of ‘we live in Stratford’ worked as they hoped and I bothered them no more. Further down the high street, I was struck by a pub called the Birds. Surely two references to the “Master of Suspense” couldn’t be a coincidence? Was this Hitchcockville? Were his infamous horrors set in these parts? Set no, inspired perhaps: the ol’ boy was born in Leytonstone in 1899. Becks eat your heart out.

Next stop was the Wanstead Flats, which easily passed the Ronseal test, given the number of people taking advantage of the wide, exposed, uncluttered space. From feeding ducks to playing American Football, Wanstead’s finest were making the most of the unspoilt wilderness.

In fact, the only urban encroachment to the Flats came in the form of two dour high rises protruding from the earth, which I thought gave the area a distinct A Clockwork Orange feel. However, my delusion as a film buff proved to be just that, as I discovered (through the power of Google) that Thamesmead in Bexley was in fact Kubrick’s setting for Burgess’ dystopian delinquents.

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On the south-eastern corner of the Flats, the Golden Fleece lay in wait for us and our rumbling bellies. A respectable selection of beers, we took our pews in the garden and ogled the menu. I noted two vegetarian options – both just labelled ‘vegetarian option’ – with two varying prices, £7.99 or the reassuringly expensive £8.99. I didn’t feel like taking the risk and plumped for a very tasty cod and chips (£8.99) and a pint of Hop House (£3.85).

We settled into the Fleece for the finale of the Premier League season with all three of us later demonstrating our football prowess by soundly beating some 10-year-olds in a game of ‘who can kick the ball the hardest’ in the pub’s garden. Although clearly impressed by my kicking ability, the bar lady proved as effusive as our friends in the Walnut Tree when it came to post-Fleece recommendations. We continued our traverse over the verdant bluffs.

Bar the daunting City of London Crematorium and Cemetery, the north-eastern corner of the Flats proved to be more of the same. More lakes. More unkempt grass. One colleague commented that the area has ‘done a great job at maintaining its fluvial system’ and I have to admit that I find it hard to disagree with him.

Yet, we soon spied a large conglomeration of people cavorting in the distance; a mini-festival (the £2 entry should highlight the size) was taking place. A live band promised “scintillating sun-drenched” guitar riffs and “lazy trombone”. Warm cans of lager frolicked with homemade cakes. We shamelessly freeloaded. Gazing at the 18th century temple from behind the railings, the festival had the air of an upmarket village fete. Snaresbrook once again revelling in its countryside veneer.

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We left the Flats and were soon hit with that most country of smells: manure and straw. After a brief 100m sprint and a K Cider (£1.30) – not usually enjoyed in the same instant for readily apparent reasons – we found ourselves trundling down a quintessential suburban street. Although something was awry. The houses were all neatly lined, classic Essex facades, but the vehicles on each driveway were hardly fitting. First house: Maserati, Porsche and Range Rover. Second house: Bentley and two Range Rovers. A Honda down the road had a smashed windscreen – clearly not in keeping with the desired aesthetic. Hot Fuzz vandalism.

Finally, we reached Valentines Park; the 30-minute suburban stroll was certainly worth it. Yes, uninterrupted sunshine always helps, but Valentines was striking. Its centre piece was a 17th century Mansion, built for a widow of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Naturally, we had hoped of a quick sojourn inside, but once again our plans were dashed, this time by the time (6pm on a Sunday). We thought our chance of a refreshment at the adjacent Cottage Café would meet the same fate, but we hadn’t counted on acts of human kindness: a staff member returned with a round of Mr Whippys (£2.50); handing them through the closed gates.

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We lay in the flower-strewn park – complete with boating lake, bandstand and period gardens – lazily content. The thought of traipsing back to ‘real’ London the only malaise on our mind. But, in the end, the return was remarkably painless. A short walk down Ilford High Street and we were able to experience the latest addition to the Tube Map – the TfL Rail – which travels to Liverpool Street from Ilford in a little over 10 minutes. Snaresbrook, you can come again.

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Time: 6 hours (with extended pub lunch)

Cost: £19.19

 

 

Cockfosters

Pleasant, but prosaic, the Piccadilly’s Line northern terminus offers little more than its jocose moniker.   

When explaining the concept of Beetle’s Eye View, there is always one Tube station at the tip of fans’ tongues. One station that brings our inner immaturity to the fore. One station whose name is indomitable. That station is, of course, Cockfosters. But, is there more to Cockfosters than a jokey nomenclature? Should it be known for ulterior reasons? Well, I finally decided to go and see for myself.

Being the northern end of the Piccadilly Line, Cockfosters is one of 33 termini on the London Underground network. A terminus does not necessarily mean the back o’ beyond – think the populous hubs of Brixton, Wimbledon and Stratford – but travelling the nine miles out to the Enfield / Barnet border was eerily sombre. Not only was my carriage completely devoid of life some 15 minutes before disembarking, but the neighbouring carriages were vacuums too. Cockfosters may well be renowned, but it’s celebrity seemingly fails to entice visitors.

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Cockfostersites are clearly a well-heeled bunch, if their high street is anything to go by. An array of patisseries, fishmongers and vets. Coffee shops, chocolate shops and even a floral design boutique are mainstays of the short promenade south of the station. Towards the end of the high street were a troupe of banners claiming that the nearby Chicken Shed had been “making ground breaking theatre in Enfield for over 40 years”; first destination solved.

As the name suggests, the theatre comes from the humblest of beginnings. Aimed with the vision of ‘harnessing creativity in everyone and anyone’, the theatre company gradually transformed a fowl enclosure into an arts megaplex with multiple theatres (the largest seating 300), dance studios and an ever-growing list of socially-inspired projects; diversity and inclusiveness remaining the bedrock of its existence.

After being given a protracted history of the Shed, I finally had a chance to ask the Question: turns out the area garners its inimitable name from the estate granted to the chief (Cock) of the foresters (Fosters) of Enfield Chase. Where was this Enfield Chase? Ceased to exist centuries ago. However, if it was alluring parkland that I was after, I should head to Trent Park.

A relatively uneventful stroll later – taking in such cultural behemoths as the Trent Park Golf Club, the Southgate Hockey Club and a burnt-out Citroen Saxo – and we were face to face with the illustrious Trent Park. Bequeathed to George III’s doctor in 1777 after he saved the life of the king’s brother in Trento, Italy (hence the name), the Mansion has clearly seen better days. Used as a special German prisoner of war camp in the Second World War, the ‘Cockfosters Cage’ had been home to eighty-four German generals in its heyday (hidden microphones affording the British invaluable insight into German military know-how) before playing host to the Middlesex Polytechnic campus between 1947 and 2012.

Yet, a fascinating past does not necessarily correspond to a fascinating present and it seems little has happened to the House in the last five years, bar the erection of some flimsy scaffolding and the arrival of squatters. A sign informed us that Trent Park’s grounds will soon be transformed into much needed housing, but ‘soon’ may be a tad fanciful given the of level of construction activity on show.

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Funnily enough, Trent Park is also a park. A 320-acre country park, whose serenity stems from the paucity of its offering, with little to its bow besides a Go Ape zip-wire centre and a Wildlife Rescue and Ambulance Service hut. Given the number of overweight dogs waddling back from the latter’s doors, it would appear that the obesity crisis stretches far beyond the school gates. One of the mutts even had a pram.

The park may not have been inspiring, but it was certainly thirsty-work and with no-one about to ask, we googled the nearest pub: the Cock Inn. Trust pubs to always champion the innuendo; I was certain we’d stumble across the Cock and Pussy later in the day.

The Inn itself is a rather formidable building: formerly just the Cock, it has been here since the 18th century and the exterior promises a drinking hole steeped in heritage.

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The exterior could not have been more perfidious. Inside it was part hotel lobby, part wine bar. Swirling, curling, sick-inducing carpets were beautifully complemented by the emetic quotes splashed across its walls. “Time to drink champagne and dance on the table” was particularly galling.

Already bemused, we shouldn’t have been surprised when our half-pints of Weiss Belge de Bruxelles (£2.40) were served in thin flutes. The place was overkill. We were still baffled by the tackiness of the establishment until we turned out the car park and encountered the plethora of swish motors, personalised plates and elaborate electric gates that constituted the Cock’s immediate neighbourhood. Fitting.

In stark contrast to the vulgarity, we soon found ourselves at the start of the Pymmes Brook trail: a peaceful, yet highlight-lite, walk; a description that would suit the area as a whole. The trail took us alongside the quaint Beech Hill Lake, where fervent members of the Hadley Angling and Preservation Society were wooing perch with their tackle, before emerging in the urban hub of New Barnet. Like its neighbour, East Barnet Village, the enclaves were not what you would call thriving, unless you determine prosperity by the number of worshipping hotspots on offer.

Leaving the Village, our eye was taken by the unbeatable ‘two meals for £11.49’ available at the Prince of Wales. In we went. I plumped for a pint of Rat Race (£3.50), which I would recommend to those partial to drinks that somehow manage to be bland and bitter at the same time, and a uncomplicated vegetable risotto (£5.75). I was contemplating the texture of the latter, when my esteemed companion informed me about a hidden pub rule, which plays on British politeness. Apparently, when you inevitably mutter ‘yes’ (no matter your real feelings) to the perennial ‘is your meal ok’ question, you have entered into a verbal contract, where you can no longer send your food back. Fussy people and scrimpers take note.

I must admit, Cockfosters had not stirred much in us. It may have the funniest name on the Tube Map – that is unless you add the suffix ‘r’ to Marylebone – but there is little else to recommend it. Except if you like golf. Whereas open space is a precious commodity in Central London, the reverse is true up here, allowing four courses of varying difficulty to saturate the area. With our budget in mind, there was only one choice for us – the superb Grovelands Pitch and Putt (£7 for a round).

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Down past Southgate station and the Priory – of celebrity-drug-addict fame – we paid our green fees and proceeded to produce a masterclass of slicing, over-hitting and swearing. The crowd went wild when yours truly sunk a monster putt to win on the last. Cockfosters was redeemed in my eyes.

Cost: £18.85

Time: 5 hours

 

San Carlos de Bariloche, Rio Negro, Argentina

Nestled in the foothills of the Andes, the beating heart of the Nahuel Huapi National Park may well be the most beautiful place in the world. 

Day 1

Being the last flight of the day from Terminal 5 is a peculiar experience. Heathrow – synonymous with queues, crowds and perpetual angst – was unnervingly empty. The vast, bright, but people-less atriums surrounded by sealed stores and vacant restaurants gave the place a post-apocalyptic feel; the two Duty Free employees having a cigarette in the toilets being the only sign of life until I reached my gate.

London to Buenos Aires is British Airways’ longest non-stop flight, clocking up some 6,900 miles in 14 hours. 14 hours in which to muse about the oddities and comfort of long-haul flights – the sadism of reclining your seat, the velvety texture of airplane food and the unwavering homogeneity of pilots (surely they can’t all be middle-aged men?) to name just a few. I was going to include a full debate on each as a prelude to this blog, but I thought a 1,500 word rant could be a tad off-putting at this early stage.

 

From touching down on the tarmac at Pistarini airport, the next eight hours of travelling were remarkably painless. Immigration flew by, the shuttle service to the domestic airport was timely, good value and comfortable, there was no queue at check-in, I had bags of leg room on my internal flight, my bag came off the carousel in prompt fashion and I was the first drop-off of my van transfer.

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I was staying at the Hostel Inn Bariloche – a place I’d chosen solely for the view – and I can happily report that the online pictures didn’t do the place justice. The deck, with loungers and tables overlooking central Bariloche and the vast Huapi lake (which gives its name to the Nahuel Huapi National Park I was now in), was simply lovely.

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I would have been perfectly happy sipping on beers and soaking in the view for the rest of the evening, but, as surprising as it sounds, I made some friends and went out for a cheese fondue, which gave me the chance to whip out my one Spanish sentence: Los zorros son alemeños que matan las gallinas (foxes are vermin that kill chickens). I didn’t make any more friends.

Day 2

The sui generis nature of Bariloche is also its primary drawback: there’s simply too much to do. Hiking, cycling, white water rafting. Riding, kayaking, paragliding. Think of an outdoor activity that takes place on water, rock or track and they’ve got it; a super-sized playground. The most popular part of the playpark: scaling Cerro Campaniaro;  the ‘best view in the world’ according to the hostel receptionist.

These sweeping statements are not my cup of tea, but nevertheless, there is usually some foundation in them, so I headed for the bus. Roughly 18km west of Bariloche centre lies a set of lakes, islands and peninsulas that seem to be the hub of tourist activity in the region; the main draw. You would have thought the bus system would therefore be up to scratch. Nope. No timetables, no consistency – I’m sure there’s a knack to them, but at my first attempt it took me a solid 1 hour and 45 minutes to just get on one.

From the base of Campaniero to the summit is a short, but relatively intense, 45 minute uphill hike. Covered by woodland, there is nothing to write home about, which made the emergence at the top even more breath-taking. I dislike superlatives. I believe that their over-usage detracts from their significance. It’s the reason I took the receptionist’s homage with a mighty dollop of salt. On this occasion, I shouldn’t have been so cynical: the view from Campaniaro might well be the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Even with the capricious Patagonian weather deciding to moodily spit over the mountain, it was awesome. Adjectives are useless in these moments – they just don’t do the beauty justice.

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Some people’s paradise is a white sandy beach and azure sea, others may plump for snow-topped peaks, never-ending desert canyons or even the unique green of the British countryside. These are all worthy, but for me, the combination of shimmering lakes, resplendent mountains and bountiful forests is unassailable. The view from Campaniero is the cherry that sits on the shoulders of the cherry. Mesmerising.

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Back in San Carlos de Bariloche – to give it its full name – I went very Beetle’s Eye View. I walked and walked, dipping down side streets, onto beaches, under bridges, through gardens – anything that piqued my interest. And pique my interest it did – from Christmas trees made of skis to an abandoned public pool, a graffiti-strewn velodrome to a shy paleontology museum, I walked all over Bariloche. Any other highlights I hear you ask? Certainly: the fiambréria serving treats like mayonnaise pie and dried cabbage ball; a to-scale fake horse in the middle of a dusty backfield; a Cathedral; endless rows of Swiss-inspired architecture. There really is nothing like just walking in no particular direction – you never know what you’ll find. To be that guy who quotes Russian novelists in a blog, Dostoevsky once said that the only way to explore a city was to get lost in it. Nicely put Fyodor.

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Back at the hostel, an animated game of ‘what swear words are there in your language’ was taking place in the bar, which I had no intention of joining. I appreciate that some people may have come to Bariloche for rejuvenation, but regressing to the banality of 11 year old platitudes was not what I had in mind. I hit the hay.

Day 3

Day 3 and I had my eyes set on the Circuito Chico. I had envisaged a leisurely cycle around 27km of rich Patagonian tapestry and on the latter point, I could not have asked for more. Littered with bays, islets, peaks and beaches, the Circuito Chico inveigles sincere consideration of emigration, and that’s before you take into account the numerous idyllic lake-side properties that adorn its finer edges. However, ‘leisurely’ is not exactly the word I would use to describe the cycle; ‘horizontal’ neither. Perennially up or down, I found myself walking the inclines and freewheeling the descents; I suppose ‘cycle’ is a bit of a misnomer then too.

My first prolonged pit-stop was the Patagonia Pub, whose unimaginative name seemed to be its only fault. An unassuming gravel path does little to entice the weary traveller, but as I’m sure a famous person once said: if you don’t ask, you don’t get. The Patagonia is one hell of a watering hole. A microbrewery with homegrown hops, the beer is, needless to say, delicious. Oh and then there’s the open terrace overlooking one of the lakes – the sort of beer garden that makes a mockery of every other. The festival-idyll vibe was enhanced by fairy lights, chairs made of skis (must be a thing), hammocks and the smooth reggae on the selecta – the irony of Concrete Jungle streaming out as I supped my Weiss Beer was a nice touch.

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The next stop came at Bahia Lopez, where I bumped into one of my hostel roommates. He spoke no English, but I think I managed to convey my feelings accurately through the laconic spouting of ‘muy tranquillo’, ‘incredible’ and ‘me gusta mucho’. Those three technically challenging phrases would not be out of place anywhere on the circuit, which – despite the casual sodomy from the bike seat – continued to charm for the full 27km.

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Think Argentina, think steak. I will probably have more than one in my time here, but the bar could not have been set higher in round one. So high that I found myself taking photos of the slabs of cow delivered to our table – an action I usually revile. I’m not writing a restaurant review, so I won’t dip my toe into the delectable-tender-mouth-watering vernacular that denigrates that genre, but I will say this: you don’t hire a waiter who solely serves steak if it isn’t top notch.

Not to be outdone, the wine waiter was keen for us to try one of the more expensive options on his extensive list, but, being Argentina, you know that a bottle of Malbec for under £10 will still be fantastic. Perhaps if he had the handle-bar moustache, vermillion bandana and ‘I’ll butcher you if you ask for ketchup’ stare of the meat waiter, we would have been more liberal with our wallets. Alas, he did not.

1.25kg of prime cow ingested by the four of us, the thought of doing much else that evening was not high on the ‘to-do’ list, but on our way back to the hostel, we stopped off for a drink at yet another craft beer bar: Bachmann. Perusing the menu, it struck me that the beers here – and in all the other craft breweries in Bariloche – never had individual names. No Gamma Ray, Punk IPA or Atlantic, there was simply the style: Amber, American Pale Ale, IPA, Weiss, Stout, Pilsener. I don’t really know what to discern from this. Maybe it says something about prioritising quality and taste over commercial interests. Maybe they all just come from one brewery.

Day 4

Before coming to Bariloche, I had my heart set on one activity: paragliding. I was prepared to pay top dollar, but even money cannot control the weather. With wind on the peaks deemed too severe to fly, I set off to hike to the summit of Cerro Otto (1405m).

As a hiking neophyte, I probably underestimated the trek, which was spent mostly at 45 degrees, with the last 20 minutes coaxing more use out of my hands than my legs. But, I certainly underestimated the all-consuming feeling of awe one feels at the peak. Maybe it was because of the hike; maybe it was because the sun was dancing across the sky, or maybe it was down to the phantasmagorical view, but I was overcome with a burning desire to just let loose at the summit, to yodel to my heart’s content. So I did. Slight fear of being noticed was brushed away by my sense of belonging; I’d earned this strange release. Besides, there was no-one around. I stayed there for an hour, eating my lunch, reading my book and every five minutes or so, just gazing out over the jaw-dropping scenery. I said it when at Campaniaro – I’ll say it again – it’s breath-taking.

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My descent only accentuated my love for this day. Lolloping down a pathway through the forest, I came across Refugio Bernhof – one of a number of mountain shelters scattered across the north of Patagonia. Here, I was able to order an artisan beer, served on a balcony overlooking the woodland slopes. Luca – the guardian of the shelter – spoke at length about the shelter’s isolation, the solitude being a small price to pay.

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Refreshed – and feeling a wave of smugness about my decision to quit my job back in October – I trundled down through the mountain for around 4km until I hit the main road, when feeling like Forrest Gump, I just wanted to carry on walking. So I did. I walked to the lake and then all the way back to town (a further 6km) affirming my growing belief as a true hiking disciple.

Day 5

Despite such hard graft the day before, I endured a restless night due to the combination of a violent storm both outside and in the adjacent room. The morning looked ferocious – the kind of sky that is ready to strike you down on the merest of provocations. But, being Patagonia, it was only necessary to seek refuge in a coffee shop for an hour or so, before that frown was turned upside down with beaming sunshine.

By now, I had a particular routine: head to the greengrocers for two bananas and a giant plum ($20AR), the nearby fiambréria for a baguette and charcuterie ($30AR), up the hill to the smooth-jazz playing CoCafe for a coffee and wifi ($40AR), before a long wait at the bus stop, which inevitably led me to walking most of the way. Today, the latter reached such a pinnacle that I ended up hitch-hiking to the base of Cerro Catedral instead. My goal, Refugio Frey (1700m).

The hike to Refugio Frey can be characterised in around three stages. Initially, you embark on a flat traverse through 10-feet high bracken, log bridges and a copse of burned, white trees that protrude from the ground like clones of Saruman’s White Hand. All the while, the resplendent Lago Guttierez rests idly below.

This is followed by a woodland hike, twisting and turning your way up through the trees and rivers, until you reach a cabin in the woods: a resting point, one hour from the top. It is from here that the calves start being kicked into serious action, and as you emerge from the trees – no longer protected from the increasingly strong sun – you start to see what all the fuss is about.

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The mountains open up a vast valley of brown and green, of gravel and grass, of snow and sand. Here, forest meets rock, mountains greet trees and sun burns face. A potent cocktail. But, there was more. After finally reaching the shelter, you are greeted by a luscious mountain lake – 1700 metres above sea level – enclosed on a plateau guarded by mountainous sentinels. Ever wondered how rivers start? Well, here you go.

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I tucked into my lunch on a rock overlooking the lake, with a cold beer from the neighbouring shelter. The Lord of the Rings analogy came back to me as I thought of the numerous mountain shelters in this section of the Andes – all constantly inhabited by at least one person; the lighter of the beacons.

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I stayed for around an hour, before trundling back to Bariloche. Upon my return, I headed to Manush – known for having the best beer in Bariloche. A (nother) craft brewery, it serves half-price pints during a generous happy hour (17.30-20.00) and incredibly delicious they were too. First off I played safe with their Pale Ale, before settling in and trying the range. Well, I had walked 28.7km, 271 floors and 32,576 steps.

Lessons from Bariloche

So, have I come back enlightened? Will a solo trip to the Andes see me come back a changed man? I doubt it, but that’s not say I haven’t learned a thing or two:

  • Hiking is awesome; there is no other feeling like it.
  • Walking shoes are seriously comfy; I’m going to wear them around London.
  • Argentinians understand sarcasm much better than Europeans; both good and bad for me.
  • Singing on mountains is liberating; well, you’d expect it to be wouldn’t you.
  • Bus timetables are underrated; no secondary comment to make.

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Turnpike Lane

From lofty palaces and cosy pubs to sequestered suburbs and sedate woodland, Turnpike Lane serves up a refreshing thali of North London charm.

I arrived at Turnpike Lane in high spirits – not only was I embarking on my first Beetle’s Eye View for a month, but London Underground was blaring out some Handel in the atrium, which I think should be mandatory for all Tube stations. It was just as well that I suffered such a paroxysm of joy, as this was immediately counterbalanced by the boring grey day I was confronted with. Not that the day was boring, but the grey. That mild, bland, flat light that promises nothing. Not the hope of Elephant’s Breath, the foreboding of Gun Metal or the mystery of silver, but one that at best offers a slim chance of drizzle.

In this weather, there’s nothing better than a stroll up a random high street, so it was lucky that Turnpike Lane is at the crux of one. The high street to Wood Green is one of those Poundland, Poundworld Extra and Mighty Pound types. Corners sprinkled with florists, grocers and fresh shellfish stalls were a nice touch, but there was an increasing inevitability about an impending megaplex. The vast, unsightly and imaginatively-named ‘The Mall’ fitted the bill perfectly.

Not one for shopping at the best of times, I spied a sign to Wood Green’s ‘Cultural Quarter’ and soon found my way disappearing from the populace. After walking through the tranquil, but frankly unassuming, Barratt Gardens, I found myself face-to-face with the Decorium, a neo-classical complex with overtures to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory; needless to say, I was intrigued. With no indications on what occurred within its depths, I decided to pop in: wedding venue. Whilst perusing the brochure, which informed me that the Decorium “unravels an epitome of elegance beneath a striking façade”, the receptionist recommended that I head to the Alexandra Palace as it was ‘the only thing to really see round here’. ‘What about the Cultural Quarter?’ I asked. She’d never heard of it.

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Meandering my way under footbridges and over sewage canals (actually the New River), I eventually caught sight of the ‘Ally Pally’, which is nothing short of spectacular. Having always thought of it as just a darts venue, I had never appreciated the ‘Palace’ aspect of its moniker. Perched atop a hill, overlooking its kingdom, the vast structure reeked of feudality.

I traversed across a former-racecourse-come-boggy-marsh in shoes clearly not designed for such arduous pursuits given the osmosis occurring between my socks and the nearby grass, before traipsing up the incline. Like so many places in London, the view stretches for miles, but this lofty summit had a unique quality: traffic. Was this the highest bus stop in London?

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Opening as the ‘People’s Palace’ in 1873, the Ally Pally has been at the forefront of London entertainments ever since. From hosting the All-England Pigeon Races in 1875 to being the home of the Haringey Racers Ice Hockey team, the Palace seems to have built-up a reputation for championing ‘lesser-known’ sporting contests – of which I no longer include the almighty world darts championships. Spectacles such as the 2002 version of Miss World, Brooke’s Great Monkey Show of 1889 and an 1878 re-enactment of the last days of Pompeii have all taken place here, but, perhaps just eclipsing all of those feats, was a humble television broadcast by the BBC in 1936 – the world’s first.

I left the birthplace of television and set off towards Highgate Woods, as, according to the effusive Ice Rink attendant, a stroll amongst its boughs, followed by a coffee in Crouch End, is the ideal way to spend a day.

To get to Highgate Woods, my route took me through Muswell Hill, which I was very much looking forward to see. Synonymous with affluence and affability, Muswell Hill should also be known for its remoteness, as the nearest Tube or Overground station (Highgate) is over a mile away. The Tube is the beating heart of London’s transport system and most of us yearn for access to its arterial network, but as you get closer to this cloistered community, you get the feeling that Muswellites rejoice in their distance from it. Perhaps that is why it is so affluent and affable.

Signs for a local gluten and sugar free delicatessen were proof that I’d finally made it onto hallowed ground, but, I must admit, I was a tad disappointed: Muswell Hill is not as jaw-droppingly serene as you might expect for a place that is near impossible to get to. True, the high street is more Planet Organic than Planet Pizza and the O’Neills (converted church) and Wetherspoons (converted tea room) masquerade as upmarket drinkeries, but I was not blown away. I suppose that’s the problem with expectations. Much better to go in blind.

Luckily, I’m a fickle man and was in awe of the area soon after: Highgate Woods are pure escapism. There may not be ‘much to see’ – bar the smattering of submerged cottages, which would easily beguile even the most uppity Hansel – but that was the most refreshing part. They are actual woods. After leaving the shrieks and shrills of a nearby schoolyard behind, the cacophonous tweets of songbirds and the occasional crackle of branches were all you could hear. What’s more, which is a rarity for London’s ‘green’ spaces, the Woods were completely devoid of Lycra. Priceless.

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I segued from Highgate Woods to Queen’s Wood, which was more of the same with the added bonus of a woodland café. Sloping walkways and homemade log swings conjured images of the Blair Witch Project – in a good way – before I ventured out into the open on the Wood’s eastern edge. I didn’t have to stay in suburbia for long, as almost immediately I was offered the chance to divert down a bramble-strewn path; an offer I gladly accepted. Skulking round the back of tennis courts and an old cricket pitch, I felt a little self-conscious of my perceived voyeurism and I was buoyed by finally coming to yet another park. Priority Park, however, isn’t going to knock your socks off.

The Philosopher’s Garden promised a sliver of distinction, only to be no more than a cordoned-off section of uncut grass, meaning that by far the park’s best feature is its proximity to Crouch End: surely the jewel in North London’s crown. Stocked full of welcoming pubs and quirky boutiques, Crouch End is what I expected Muswell Hill to be. I wandered up and down the arms of this Y-shaped enclave, admiring the 19th century clock tower at its centre, its arthouse cinema and the Grade II listed Hornsey Town Hall, before deciding to give into the splenetic rumblings of my stomach.

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With such a wide range of establishments to choose from, I was chuffed with the butcher’s suggestion. The Queens Hotel really is a fantastic pub. Ornate Victorian décor? Check. Great value lunch menu? Check. Wide ranging selection of craft beers and ales? Check. Armchair in the corner? Check. Classic rock on the jukebox? You know it. I tucked into a delicious moules frites (£5.50) and a pint of Five Points Brick Field Brown (£3.90) and gave myself a metaphorical pat on the back for no reason at all.

Cost: £9.40

Time: 3-4 hours

Deptford Bridge

Hustling and bustling, Deptford Bridge is a charming mish mash of unconventional markets and arts in the shadow of glorious Greenwich.

‘Down and out in dirty Deptford’ – the best local description so far. Alliterative, potentially Orwellian and undeniably flattering, the clearly-rehearsed quip could well be the title of a low budget sitcom. But, is it an accurate depiction of this south east London enclave?

Deptford’s roots are firmly planted in the annals of London history. As its name suggests, ‘Deep Ford’ was where the mighty Roman Road from the port of Dubris (Dover) crossed over the not so mighty River Ravensbourne on route to Britain’s biggest city: Londinium. It just so happens that my destination – Deptford Bridge – is almost exactly where the ford enabled safe passage.

At first glance, this may seem a trivial point, but hold with me: the aforementioned road (now the infamous A2) has been in constant use since its construction; the most direct road route from London to the Continent for almost two millennia. Emperor Claudius may not have that much in common with Eddie Stobart, but their employees do – all have been aided by a bridge at Deptford. I think that’s quite something.

Alas, practicality is not a precursor for mental stimulation and the current crossing leaves a lot to be desired. So, my friend and I pootled down past Deptford Broadway to the High Street – a shop-lined boulevard dubbed the ‘Oxford Street of South London’ during the 1850s.

Oxford Street it is not. Not even close. But, given the plight of high streets during this Amazon age, I wouldn’t say that Deptford is faring badly. A generous helping of kebab vendors, £1 stores and clothes stalls are not the usual recipe for lively, but the High Street was humming.

We stopped off to ask a man about his dog and were told to keep our phones in our pockets and head to neighbouring Greenwich if we wanted a nice, theft-free, day out. Deprecatory locals are nothing new, so we continued unperturbed down the street, past a Butchers / Cash and Carry and then a House Wives / Cash and Carry. What came first: the competition or the innovation?

Soon we came to Deptford Market, which, I can safely say, is unlike any market I’ve ever seen. Local estate agents would probably call it a ‘charming bric-à-brac bazaar’, but Deptford Market just sells junk. This isn’t snobbery either: the market vendors accept and advocate that they’re selling junk. Well, one man’s trash…

If you’re on the lookout for blunt garden tools, board games with missing pieces, old tennis balls, lampshades, Lord of the Rings figurines or a cricket pad, you will be in seventh heaven. Bikers’ leathers, electricals from the 80s, partially-used stationary? You’ve come to the right place. And that’s just one stall. I absolutely loved it and nearly reduced my daily budget by splurging on a Discman and some chipped golf balls.

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Lying submerged in the jumble jungle is the Albany. Dating back to 1899, the Albany is a community arts centre that celebrates the cultural diversity and creativity of south east London and has recently become a bastion for spoken word poetry. One of the UK’s leading poetry collectives, Chill Pill, is a regular fixture, but looking through the programme, there was an eclectic mix of performing arts, including: the Insect Circus (‘arthropod aerialists, balancing beetles and beauteous butterflies’), Meet Fred (a two foot tall cloth puppet who fights prejudice every day) and Spring Reign (real-life accounts of the Syrian conflict). Alternative, sure.

Next up: Deptford Market Yard. Lined with cobbles and set up underneath a restored carriage ramp from 1835 (London’s oldest surviving railway structure), the railway arches are now home to a smorgasbord of quirky, independent boutiques. You’ve got an artisan florist, a ‘curated lifestyle store’, an ethical hair salon, ‘cocktails in teapots’ and a tuk-tuk emblazoned with Frankie goes to Bollywood. Need I say more. Smack bang outside the glass-fronted Deptford station, it’s not much of a surprise that anti-gentrification graffiti adorned its walls pre-opening last November. Given gradual economic decline, a high student population (Goldsmiths and Greenwich universities), the proximity to central London (a 10-minute train to Cannon Street) and the surfeit of street art, the ‘next Dalston’ tag seems justified. Deptford may not be ‘dirty’ for much longer.

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Down and out of Deptford we strolled, passing through the exquisite Grade I listed St Paul’s Church and over Deptford Creek, until we found ourselves amongst soulless riverside flats and plazas of chain coffee shops: western Greenwich.

Greenwich – despite this hiccup – is phantasmagorically lovely. So lovely, I felt I could use that preposterous adjective. Outside the Square Mile, it’s hard to find a place richer in historical beauty and importance. No wonder it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I’ll just rattle through a couple of reasons why: Greenwich Foot Tunnel (a 113 year old thoroughfare under the Thames); the Cutty Sark (last surviving British tea clipper); the National Maritime Museum; the Old Royal Naval College; the Queen’s House and the Royal Observatory. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

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It’s like loving everything on the menu; a splendid nightmare. Where the hell do we start? To give us direction, we accosted a security guard at the Royal Palaces, who told us his favourite place was ‘King Henry VII’s Palace under the Queen Anne building’. ‘But’, he added with a cheeky smile, ‘you can’t go in there. It’s restricted for the Greenwich Foundation’. His enthusiasm for the area was infectious and helped to put Greenwich’s glut of riches into perspective. The Painted Hall in the Navy College – Britain’s equivalent to the Sistine Chapel – was next on the list, but was closed for refurbishment. The views from the Royal Observatory took bronze.

Before we set off up the vertiginous slope to the Observatory, we decided to have a pit stop at the riverside Trafalgar Tavern (half pint of Loose Cannon – £2.40), before getting side-tracked by a lunchtime piano concert in the College Chapel, where the wonderfully-named Minji Kim serenaded us with some Schubert in B-flat.

Commissioned by Charles II in 1675 and designed by Sir Christopher Wren, the Royal Observatory is a tour de force. The location is nothing short of spectacular – I didn’t want to include another ‘London Panoramic’ photo, but it’s hard not to.

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Yet, location is nothing when you consider its global significance. Home to the Prime Meridian, this is where all time is set from. Where all charts and maps take their bearings. 0° longitude. Democracy, Empire, Time: if anything highlights Britain’s former international importance, setting the world’s clock has got to be up there.

The Observatory is understandably a major tourist attraction, but the crowds were not overwhelming. The architecture and history of the building are well complemented by more recent additions, such as the Planetarium – a self-styled ‘tour bus of the Universe’ (I’ve been before; it’s great). However, what caught our eye was an exhibition of the Astronomy Photographer of Year award. The exhibition is not for the faint-hearted: nebulae, constellations, galaxies, aurorae – it’s mind-blowing. Just as you are basking in Britain’s significance, you are given a celestial smack of reality by unfathomable numbers and indescribable beauty. The Best Newcomer Prize – a photo of the Magellanic Cloud – is a mere 14,000 light years away. Even a lump of rock at the entrance claims to be the ‘oldest object you will ever touch’ at 4.5 billion years old. Nothing like being put in your place by a lump of rock.

Doctors have long prescribed a dose of fresh air when feeling light-headed, so we then set off around Greenwich Park: one of eight former monarchical hunting grounds, which make up London’s Royal Parks. Given the area’s Roman heritage, the ‘remains of a Roman Temple’ seemed a good place to start, but it would appear that someone forgot to add the word ‘no’ before the description, as we only encountered a path and a faded plaque. Next up was the Deer Park, followed by the Flower Garden, until we crossed the A2 onto Blackheath.

Extensive, flat and open – the Heath has been an oft-used assembly point for armies – both of the Crown and rebels – since the 12th century. Most notably, it was the rallying point for Wat Tyler’s Peasant’s Revolt of 1381.

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Now, Blackheath is a picture of serenity. The only disturbances coming from the occasional joyous yelp of a preparatory school sports lesson or a gaggle of yummy mummys deciding upon which independent café or middle class clothing outlet (think Fat Face, Jigsaw and the like) they were going to frequent. I must admit though, it’s rather delightful.

Just the 15,000 steps this time round, but that felt quite enough. We breached the doors of the Railway and settled down to a pint of Ubu (4.45) and a quinoa burger (£10). Yes, that’s right, a quinoa burger. Well, because I’ve never seen one before. Yes, it was delicious, thanks.

Cost: £16.85

Time: 5 hours, but depends where you go in Greenwich.

Gospel Oak

‘There’s just so much to do’ – overflowing with stunning sights and attractions, there’s not a much better way to sum up this leafy suburb of Hampstead Heath.

 

Parks are an ubiquitous feature of my excursions and there are a number of reasons for this: firstly, London is an incredible 47% green space and so the likelihood of stumbling across a park is pretty high. Secondly, parks are not homogeneous. Yes, the occasional splodge of bland grass exists for dogs to do their business and for people to spontaneously picnic, but the vast majority of them are unique; cultural treasures in their own right. Third, they are inherently public: each one reserved for the use of all and, therefore, free. Why am I going off on one about London’s parks? Well, because Gospel Oak is the gateway to one of London’s most famous: the indomitable Hampstead Heath.

Hampstead Heath is so vast it’s hard to know where to begin, let alone where to middle and where to end; a decision made even harder by the bizarre and intriguing places within, such as the Vale of Health, Jack Straw’s Castle, the Sham Bridge and the Stone of Free Speech. Luckily, Gospel Oak is located on the Heath’s south-eastern tip, next to the Parliament Hill Lido, and so I headed in there for advice.

Built in 1938 for the princely sum of £34,000, Parliament Hill Lido was the most expensive lido constructed during the golden age of lidos (yes, there was such a thing – 1920-1939 – and yes, I like saying the word lido). After a quick chat about swimming, I asked the lifeguard about the Heath’s ‘must-sees’: ‘Well, it’s hard to say, there’s just so much to do’ – he replied helpfully, oblivious to the fact that his response was the reason for my enquiry.

Yet, after a couple of prods, he soon became more animated: ‘Most people go to Parliament Hill first, also known as Kite Hill, as that’s where the kids go to fly their kites – it’s got great views of London’. First stop sorted. ‘The Vale of Health is so-called because during the plague they set a perimeter of fire around it to stop the infection from getting through’. Interesting; stop two. ‘Kenwood House is beautiful and is the backdrop to many films’. Ah, ‘yes’, I said, ‘Notting Hill’? ‘No, nowhere near it’. Stop three.

Parliament Hill, whose name derives from its defence by Parliament troops during the Civil War, offers cinematic views of London – a panoramic sandwich of Canary Wharf and the BT Tower with everything in between. It’s pretty spectacular and rightly takes the view plaudits, but casting a glance in other directions is hardly a wasted effort. Rows upon rows of neatly stacked Victorian homes, sprinkled with church spires and steeples, once again reminds you that London is just a patchwork of different villages; a very large patchwork.

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Also, an uneven patchwork. In fact, London is a crumpled quilt. From Watford to Wimbledon, Uxbridge to Upminster, London ripples with peaks and troughs and nowhere are these undulations more evident than in Hampstead Heath. It’s a lolloping roller-coaster. Mezzanines of ponds, fields and woodlands interconnected by topsy-turvy walkways.

As I weaved westward, initially down tarmac paths and then down increasingly muddy paths, I realised how easy it would be to get lost here. I was lost. Every five minutes of strolling and I was confronted with yet another fork: Robert Frost would have had a meltdown. I went past the same viaduct (although, indeed lovely) twice, before I ended up at a public toilet that wouldn’t look out of place in Hansel and Gretel. A lady, who was clearly a fan of the hand-soap given her distinctive odour, kindly pointed me in the direction of the Vale of Health. Her directions led me to a caravan park. Turns out, this was the Vale of Health.

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Stop three was Kenwood House – ‘one of the finest country houses in London’. Bought by the Earl of Mansfield in 1754 as a country escape from London, Kenwood still feels like a country retreat despite now being entirely engulfed by the city. How so? Well, the estate is a prime example of the ‘English Landscape-garden’ – during its construction, roads were purposefully moved, woods were planted and water features added to make the estate seem like an endless landscape. That’s why. Oh and I should mention the house – remodelled by Robert Adam (the architect behind Syon House) after Mansfield bought it – is mesmerising, both inside and out.

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Whilst we should laud Mansfield for these decisions, higher praise must be bestowed upon Edward Cecil Guinness, the 1St Earl of Iveagh and heir to the Guinness Fortune. Not only did he save the estate from being turned into housing in the 1920s, but he later bequeathed it all – along with is phenomenal art collection – to the public.

As a result, you can peruse over 60 stunning masterpieces free of charge. And, when I say masterpieces, I’m not saying this lightly. One of the volunteers told me that the collection is ‘easily one of the Top 10 in the country’ and with internationally-known paintings, such as Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait with Two Circles and Vermeer’s The Guitar Player, complemented by works from Turner, Constable, Gainsborough, Van Dyck and Reynolds to name just a few, I can see why. That’s even before you take into the account the breath-taking neoclassical interior of Kenwood House, which serves as the gallery. Edward Cecil Guinness, I take a bow.

Wondering where to head next, the volunteer asked if ‘I had been to Highgate Cemetery?’ – I had not – and ‘did I know that Karl Marx was buried there?’ – weirdly, I did.

The Grade I listed Highgate Cemetery may well be the most famous cemetery in London. 100 years before the golden age of lidos was the golden age of cemeteries. A combination of overcrowded graveyards, non-Church of England members wanting somewhere to bury their dead and a Parliamentary Bill encouraging their construction, saw private cemeteries begin to proliferate in the 1830s and 40s. Highgate Cemetery was London’s third in 1839.

The Cemetery is ‘above all else a place for tranquil reflection’, but below that, is a treasure chest of ornate memorials, insightful epitaphs (‘had a faithful dog called Emperor’), obscure professions (‘Urologist’; ‘Ophthalmic Surgeon’) and superb first-names (‘Dugmore’; ‘Clarabetty’; ‘Annamelia’). My favourite? Well, it was a tie between Issachar Zacaharie – the ‘First Grand Supreme Ruler of the Masonic Order of the Secret Monitor within the British Empire’ – and Hercules Belleville – a film producer. Undoubtedly celebrities in their own right, most of Highgate Cemetery’s famous residents are overshadowed (quite literally, considering the size of his memorial) by Karl Marx. Author of the Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital, Marx is arguably the most influential political philosopher in human history – laying the foundations for Marxism, socialism and communism and effectively designing modern sociology. He also had a cracking beard.

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For a place that profits from death (and still does, both in terms of new arrivals and visitor fees – £4), it’s remarkably lovely, which, incidentally, is the whole point: the London Cemetery Company ‘determined that Highgate should attract custom by the splendour of its architectural features and the beauty of its landscape’. 53,000 graves is a pretty strong endorsement.

The Cemetery neighbours Waterlow Park. Home to the 16th Century Lauderdale House, a variety of gardens and ponds and overlooked by the imposing St Joseph’s Church, Waterlow Park is a microcosm of what the Heath has to offer, without the fear of getting lost. Although, like the Heath, there is no escape from the plethora of dogs in fleece onesies. I mean, c’mon, what do you think all that hair is for?

Given all the distractions, I’d completely forgotten about eating until my stomach growled at a passing jogger. A fellow park enthusiast told me that the Flask in Highgate Village was very popular as Jude Law often frequents it and so, listening to his suggestion, I walked in the opposite direction of the Flask until I came to the Star Inn. The Star, however, was jammed pack full of funeral-goers and so I continued on to the Bull and Last, only to find the cheapest main was £15.

By this point, it was after 3pm and I was struggling to find a pub that was still serving lunch. I walked all the way down to Kentish Town and was about to cave to the delights of a local café, when I came to the Assembly House. The pub had clearly been through a recent renovation (‘cool’ modern posters and craft beers galore) and looked like the kind of place that thought it was pretty hip. Well, hip or not, the Fish and Chips (£11.50) was very nice, as was the Old Dairy Gold Top (£4). Just what I needed after nearly 5 hours on my feet.

Cost: £19.50

Time: 5 hours

 

Rotherhithe

Quiet and unassuming, this serene slice of London is in fact bursting with historical treasures.

Situated on a peninsula on the south bank of the Thames, Rotherhithe is the yin to the Isle of Dogs’ yang; a stalagmitic landmass protruding into the river and one that has long been on my to-do list. Rotherhithe effortlessly fulfils both my formal criteria (outside of Zone 1; on the Tube Map) and informal preferences (peculiar name; topographically diverse), but also has that special ingredient: intrigue. How could I know so little about an area within touching distance of central London?

Before my trip, I’d only heard of Rotherhithe because of its tunnel, which seems to be an omnipresent feature on radio travel reports (‘heavy congestion in the Rotherhithe Tunnel’; ‘never-ending tailbacks from the Rotherhithe Tunnel; ‘caravan party in the Rotherhithe Tunnel’); it’s a surprise that anyone dares use it. But, evidently, they do – too much.

On arriving at the station, it was this engineering feat – opened in 1908 – that greeted me. However, I soon learnt that another underpass holds pride of place in these ends: the Thames Tunnel. Completed 65 years earlier, the Thames Tunnel was not only London’s first underwater thoroughfare, but the world’s. It was even dubbed the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ when completed.

Unsurprisingly, engineers encountered a slew of problems during its construction (more flooding than funding being just one of them), but if there was one person who could see the project through, it would be the best-named Briton of all time: Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

From steamships to railways, dockyards to bridges, Brunel’s ingenuity transformed these Isles; the Thames Tunnel was his first engineering project. A museum dedicated to it resides within the engine room of the Tunnel, five minutes’ walk from Rotherhithe station.

The museum was a potentially reasonable £6 to enter, but with a full day ahead of me, I decided it would be best to explore the surrounding garden and come back later on. I was glad I did, not least because the garden comes complete with a monkey puzzle (my favourite tree; if you don’t have a favourite tree yourself, I’d recommend this one), a Knights of the Round Table sculpture and a plaque dedicated to the feats of Marc Brunel – surely Isambard was not a made-up name?

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Concerned, I set off down a cobbled street and soon came to the uniquely-named St Mary’s Parish Church, whose congregation had seen fit to erect a slide amongst the gravestones. Thoughts of the congregation addressing an existential question through the contrasting symbolism of youth and death swirled around my mind, but they were clearly not that insightful, as I can’t recall them now.

I continued past the Rotherhithe Watch House – a former base for parish constables in the early 19th century (now a minuscule café) – and the Grade II listed Hope (Sufferance) Wharf, before coming to the King’s Stairs Gardens: “one of the last remaining riverside parks in London”, don’t you know. Supposedly, King Edward III (whose father was the one killed by that infamous poker) used the stairs to access his manor house in Bermondsey back in the 14th century.

The park may allude to the area’s monarchical connections, but neighbouring Southwark Park is the very essence of a public green space. The 26-acre, Grade II listed park (yes, another listing, I told you Rotherhithe is historic) opened in 1869 and perfectly balances beauty with utility. On the one hand, the people of Rotherhithe are treated to a resplendent 19th century bandstand, an ornamental lake and picturesque gardens, while on the other there are tennis courts, football pitches, a bowls lawn, an art gallery and a café.

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Yet, if there was one thing that caught my eye about the park, it was the memorials: the Gardens are dedicated to Ada Salter – a leading advocate of social reform, who was one of the UK’s first ever women councillors and mayors – while a drinking fountain near the bandstand pays homage to temperance activist Jabez West – one of the first public monuments erected in honour of a working-class man in this country. Well done Southwark.

Rotherhithe, as you’d likely expect, is smattered with bodies of water, each with a different use and level of upkeep. Some are filled with reeds, some with rubbish. Some are home to boating communities, some to floating communities. All of them are filled with duck houses. Southwark Council doesn’t employ Sir Peter Viggers does it?

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As I walked round one of these large puddles – Greenland Dock – I started to notice a certain homogeneity: the houses looked identical, the streets were carbon copies of each other and everything was named after Scandinavia: Sweden Gate; Norway Gate; Finland Street. Perhaps the Scandinavian connection was testament to the quaint, neatness of the area?

Having almost circumnavigated Greenland Dock, I came to the Moby Dick or ‘da moby’ as the other patrons were calling it. Cosy with sofas overlooking the water, the pub seemed the perfect place to put feeling back in my fingers and food in my belly. Looking at the menu, I was intrigued by the ‘ocean pie’ and duly enquired to its contents. Apparently, that was a stupid question, as the response of ‘fish’ came with a healthy dollop of ridicule and disdain. I ordered a cheese and marmite toastie (£3.50) and a pint of Jack Frost (£3.90).

Leaving the Moby, I soon found myself at the Russia Dock Woodland, which as the name suggests, is an infilled dock-come-park; 90% of Rotherhithe’s docks have been drained since the Second World War. As I contemplated which direction to take through the woodland, a kindly local resident asked if I was lost. After badly explaining that I was sort of lost, but that was sort of my plan, he proceeded to share his views on this ‘changing, but unique’ part of the capital.

Now a ‘blissfully quiet and peaceful’ community, Rotherhithe was the first place to have purpose-built docks for the convenience of London and was the heart of the city’s timber trade in the 19th century – kick-starting the area’s association with arctic nations (besides the street names, Rotherhithe is also home to separate Norwegian, Finnish and Swedish churches, while Nordic architects helped to develop much of the area – I felt vindicated for my earlier thoughts). His favourite spot: ‘Easy. The top of Stave Hill’.

Stave Hill was a short meander through the woodland and, despite its name, is not actually a hill, but an artificial mound that rises 30 feet above the surrounding ecological park. My new friend had told me that ‘you can see the whole of London on a clear day, while at night the lights of Canary Wharf make you feel like you’re in New York’. It was neither a particularly clear day, nor night-time, but his passion for the views were not mis-sold: they were excellent.

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From here on, I continued to zig-zag through the peninsula, walking down canals and under bridges until I hit the Thames Path, when I remembered about the Brunel museum, which I was certain I could afford.  Yet, as I tried to pay, the honest attendant informed me that I had missed the daily tour of the tunnel and would only be admitted to the museum. In other words, it wasn’t worth it. Instead she gave me a leaflet, which cleared up my earlier concerns about Isambard’s name: Marc was his father. An engineer also, the Thames Tunnel was the only project they worked on together.

As we have already established, historical appetites are easily satisfied in this quarter of London and I continued to fill my boots at the Mayflower pub just beyond the museum. Whether or not the pub’s claim to have been the “favoured Inn” of the Mayflower’s captain, Christopher Jones, is true, there is no doubt that the infamous Pilgrim Ship – immortalised in the annals of American History – began its epic voyage to New England (via Southampton and Plymouth) at Rotherhithe port. The pub also claims to date back to the 17th century and its interior – cluttered, cramped and illuminated by a crackling fire – certainly helps to capture the essence of the epoch.

I ordered a pint of Mayflower Scurvy Ale (£4.10), sat on the jetty and listened to the Thames sloshing under my feet, thinking about the continuous, but varied, importance of Rotherhithe throughout the ages. It was then that I realised I still didn’t know the etymology behind Rotherhithe: it’s Anglo-Saxon for ‘landing-place for cattle’. If you say it out loud, it’s almost onomatopoeic; it’s certainly lovely.

Cost: £11.50 (£17.50 if you take in the Thames Tunnel tour)

Hours: 4

Morden

The most southerly point on the Underground, Morden can lay claim to one of the most spectacular parks in London and the largest mosque in Western Europe.

Ever travelled south on the Northern Line? Well, if so, there’s a strong chance that you’ll have heard of Morden. Known for being the most southerly station on the whole Underground network and a choice destination for narcoleptic and inebriated south London dwellers, Morden is often derided for being the end of civilisation; the final frontier. Given Morden isn’t even in one of the extreme boroughs (Merton is fully London-locked with Sutton directly south of it), it seemed reports of its dearth may be greatly exaggerated.

I arrived at the station to find my friend mid-conversation with a council enforcement officer, who was proudly, yet despondently, stating that Morden has the biggest concentration of bins and ashtrays in London. Given she’d already fined 10 persons that morning, the local residents were clearly not as enthralled by such wonderful amenities; a point she lamented. She also noted that Morden had the biggest mosque in London and pointed out an excellent pub to go to if we wanted to get into a fight.

Whilst we digested these useful nuggets and our lady enforcement friend dished out her 11th fine of the day – an unsuspecting man letting the pavement feel the wrath of his cigarette butt – we saw signs to Morden Hall Park. The fighting would have to wait.

A mere five minutes from the hustle and bustle of downtown Morden, Morden Hall Park describes itself as a “green oasis in the city”. Formerly owned by a tobacco merchant by the name of Gilliat Hatfield, the 125-acre park is now in the care of the National Trust (one of only 14 sites within the M25 run by the conservation charity) and pledges to transport you “to the middle of the English countryside”.

Not knowing where to begin, we consulted the map at the entrance to the Park, which had been delicately annotated to include “murder scene” and “rape spot”. The same annotator (I presume through handwriting style) had also seen fit to inscribe the word “Fuck” across the centre of the map to further highlight the esteem in which he or she held the place.

With this reverence in mind, we decided to march on to the Wetlands, which was free of annotations. Given my previous experience of ‘nature reserves’ in London, I was not expecting much, which is why I was taken aback by the majesty of it. Renovated this year to include a 200m boardwalk and viewing platforms, Morden Hall Park’s wetlands should set a precedent for other councils: tasteful, clean and informative, the walkways meander through an abundance of reeds and long grasses and allow you “to get nose to nose” with the flora and fauna.

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It might be a stretch to call it south London’s answer to the Okavango – in fact, that certainly is a stretch – but it was still delightful and a taste of things to come. Criss-crossing over babbling brooks, we then came to face to face with the 18th century Morden Hall, which incidentally was not the lodging of Mr Hatfield. Well, he owned it, but preferred to stay in the slightly less pretentious, but still equally splendid, Morden Cottage – a weather-boarded villa built surrounded by a 2.5 acre rose garden.

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Given his occupation, it’s unsurprising that the estate was also home to two snuff mills, which ground imported Virginian tobacco into the fashionable Victorian commodity. The mills were powered by the effervescent River Wandle until snuff was no longer in vogue, with the machinery ultimately being removed at the start of the Second World War due to the dying need for scrap metal. However, one of the water wheels remains and, being the National Trust, is complemented by a museum highlighting the “journey of snuff” from the US to the nasal cavities of the English, via Morden.

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Already impressed, we then came to a garden centre, an apiary and the Potting Shed Café, before finding a second-hand book shop enclosed in the Stable Yard. Whilst perusing classics, such as “great British dishes” from the 1970s, we asked the bookkeeper about his favourite spots in the area; odds were short he’d say the Park. He didn’t dissappoint. Yet, he also suggested we walk up the River Wandle to Carshalton (his neck of the woods) and visit Merton Abbey Wells. These were in differing directions, so we plumped for the former suggestion.

On our way, we stopped off at the Surrey Arms for a quick half-pint of Guinness (£2.10) and a bag of peanuts (£1). Guinness was not our first choice, but our options were otherwise limited to Carling, Foster’s or another variety of fizzy, golden water. The service was excellent though.

At Ravensbury Park, we reconnected to the Wandle trail and headed upstream. The River is only around nine miles in length – emerging in Croydon and meeting the Thames in Wandsworth – but used to be one of the most hard-working rivers in the world, with over 100 mills in operation along its banks in Victorian times. Such fervent industry led to a perennial tainting of its waters and it has taken a considerable conservation effort to improve the water quality and see fish stocks flourish once more. This operation is clearly still ongoing, as we saw two Environment Agency workers waist deep in the Wandle, plucking out trunks and trash. What’s the best thing they’d found in its waters? ‘Found a watch the other week’. Gold? ‘G-shock’; he was chuffed. His colleagues had found guns upstream in Mitcham.

Conscious we were heading quite a way from Morden, we decided to U-turn and head to the enforcement’s officer’s favourite mosque. With its two minarets towering over the surrounding buildings at 35 metres high, we didn’t struggle to locate it; we did struggle to get in. The security guard was more than happy to tell us that a) the mosque was in fact that largest in Western Europe and b) it accommodates 10,000 worshippers (5,000-6,000 tend to come on its busiest day, Friday), but was not so obliged as to let us stroll in and take a look for ourselves. Apparently, there are special visiting days.

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As such, we trotted back to the River Wandle and headed downstream to Merton Abbey Mills. Along the way, we walked past a particularly classy Wimpy joint serving breaded camembert, the Trinitarian Bible Society (a warehouse dedicated to the Word of God) and yet another city farm, which had far too many excitable kids for my liking.

The walk was certainly worth it though, as Merton Abbey Mills is really quite unique. A former monastery and then manufacturing hub, the area was restored in 1989 as a cultural centre and now lays claim to be “London’s alternative market”. It certainly had an eclectic mix of arts & crafts shops and studios, alongside a ‘pirate steak house’, a ‘rock star sushi shop’ and a ‘tattooed bakers’. Throw in the Colour House Theatre – currently showing productions of Cinderella on Saturdays and Sundays – and a shop wholly dedicated to rock (the tooth-destroying sweet) and the party was complete. Alternative? Yep, sure.

Pride of place, however, went to the William Morris pub. Having visited the William Morris Gallery up in Walthamstow back in November, I was a little surprised by its nomenclature, but knowing the previous industrial prowess of the Wandle and Morris’ penchant for textiles, it soon became clear. Complete with an old water wheel, the pub rests cosily alongside the Wandle with a riverside terrace and tastefully-decorated interior. ‘An ideal date spot’, my friend noted – which was just as well as two of our female friends were joining us for lunch.

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Nestled on a table overlooking the river, we enjoyed a pint of the aptly-named Wandle (£3.50), before tucking into a pint of Mosaic Pale Ale (£4) and a ‘Hippie’ Burger (£8.50). Unfortunately, someone had swapped the falafel in my burger with a bale of straw, but the bun was lovely.

After lunch, our Wandle-dominated day continued with a leisurely stroll downstream. Thinking back to the mystery annotator, I reckon they must have run out of ink before they could add “…ing wonderful”.

Price: £19.10

Hours: 4.5

Boston Manor

A blend of historic homes, picturesque parkland and relaxing riverside routes, it is hard to believe that this locale is less than 10 miles from Central London. 

Pop quiz: how many stations on the Tube Map include the word ‘Manor?’ Four. Ruislip Manor, Manor House, Manor Park and this week’s destination of choice Boston Manor, which sits on the notoriously slow stretch of the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow. My carriage, therefore, was dominated by holidaymakers; I was effectively one of them too.

I exited the station, crossed the road and found my friend soaking in the views of a Tube train depot in the distance. He told me that although he thought the depot was a particularly delightful one, what had really caught his eye was a sign on the bridge we were standing on, which declared that “this bridge belongs to London Underground. In case of a bridge strike, Freephone…”. How does a bridge go on strike, he asked? And why? A good point – perhaps they get tired of being walked all over for no pay? Turns out ‘a bridge strike’ is just the term for when a vehicle crashes into or on a railway bridge.

On that bombshell, we set off and soon came to our first attraction: Blondin Park. To enter it, we had to take a narrow pathway that ran adjacent to a sinister-looking allotment. I don’t know if it’s the run-down sheds, the array of tools, the churned ground or the eerie silence, but you just get the feeling that every murder ever has taken place in an allotment.

I tentatively approached a lady walking her dog, who told us to leave Blondin Park and head to Boston Manor Park – home of the eponymous manor itself. After that, she advised a stroll along the canal. The very fact that she had something to recommend was a good sign, but two…well, you can just imagine my excitement.

On our way, we popped into a local nature reserve, which, like all other nature reserves in London, had more empty beer cans in it than wildlife. Luckily, Boston Manor Park was the reserve’s antithesis: brimming with birds, ancient cedar trees and an attractive lake, the Park was magnificent as it glistened in the winter sun. If that wasn’t enough, the Park played host to Boston Manor House – “one of West London’s lesser-known gems”. Unfortunately, the Grade I listed Jacobean manor house – which dates to 1623 – is not open during the winter, but the little Pavilion Café some way beyond the ornamental lawns was. I had a reassuringly cheap sausage bap (£1) and black coffee (£1).

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From the pleasantness of the park, we passed underneath the M4 and soon found ourselves on the London end of the Grand Union Canal. The Canal stretches 137 miles from Birmingham to the Thames Lock in Brentford, which turned out to be roughly a mile from where we stood. The canal side route to Brentford is as much fascinating as it is serene, with several information boards recounting the history of the area as far back as the Battle of Brentford during the Civil War.

It was easy to see why a barge owner would choose this stretch as their home, but apparently, it is not as simple as dropping anchor where you please. A local barge owner explained that there are two types of barge licence: mooring and cruising. The former usually includes paying an extortionate fee to stay in a marina, while the latter dictates that you can park-up almost anywhere, but you have to move every fortnight or risk sanctions from the ‘vigilant’ and merciless canal patrol.

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We left the canal after the Brentford Lock and headed up to the bustling high street. A rich array of restaurants and pubs (mostly Fuller’s-owned, which is unsurprising given the brewery is downstream in Chiswick) line the High Street, which is much nicer than the Brentford-based TV series People Just Do Nothing would make you think; a point underlined by the vibrancy of the food market in front of the Magistrates’ Court.

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We decided to take a pit stop in one of these many pubs and plumped for the Beehive, where a London Pride will set you back £3.90. It is also where you can encounter animated cries of ‘penalty’, ‘red card’ and ‘hard Brexit’.

Refreshed, we then headed down the beautifully-named Catherine Wheel Road, passed the Brewery Tap and found ourselves on Johnsons Island (no apostrophe, I checked). A former home to the lock keeper’s and station master’s offices of Brentford, the small island lay derelict until it was converted into an artist’s studio and gallery in the 80s.

Crossing over the River Brent, two friendly scousers recommended we go to Syon Park, but this proved easier said than done. The Park, for some reason, was bordered by a vertiginous wall and deep ditch. An attempt to launch over the wall naturally ended in failure, but we soon found a gate, which was locked, covered in anti-climb paint and guarded by barbed wire. This seemed more hassle than it was worth so we double-backed on ourselves to find another way in.

As we got closer to the main entrance, I started to get the impression that Syon Park was not just going to be your average London park. Firstly, the signs towards the main entrance were embroidered with golden lions; regal insignia. Second, these same signs also pointed to a Hilton and a Marco Pierre-White restaurant. Third, there was a coach park. Then it all made sense: Syon Park is the London residence of the Duke of Northumberland.

Syon House, along with its 200 acres of Grade I listed parkland, has been in the Duke’s family for the last 400 years and rightly claims to be “one of England’s most magnificent great houses”. I would normally be agitated by their use of two synonymous adjectives, but in this case I was prepared to let it slide: it really was magnificent and great. Bedecked with classical interiors designed by Robert Adam (‘the most famous architect of his day’), who wanted to create a palace of ‘Graeco-Roman splendour’, Syon House is home to a wealth of art and architectural wonders, including an imposing 19th century conservatory.

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Meanwhile, the estate is an ecological dream, harbouring “fine lawns” and “open meadows”, as well as an arboretum and ‘enchanted woodlands’ (which are illuminated for three weekends at the end of November). It really is hard to believe that we are less than 10 miles from Central London. Admission to the House and Gardens would usually be £12 (hence the walls, ditch and barbed wire we encountered earlier), but it was closed for the winter, so we continued through the parkland until we came to Isleworth.

Isleworth is a treat; a charming village steeped in history. On our right, the 14th century All Saints Church. On our left, the Isleworth Stairs, where the Nine Day Queen, Lady Jane Grey, set off to the Tower of London to accept the Throne in 1553, only to be imprisoned nine days later. The Stairs and the adjacent Isleworth Eyot, which temporarily splits the Thames into two, is overlooked by a Grade II listed pub: the London Apprentice. An ideal spot for a late lunch.

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Being a Sunday, I quite fancied a roast, although a quick bit of arithmetic later and I realised I’d better have my second batch of sausages for the day instead, otherwise I’d be going without a drink to stay in budget. The sausages and mash (£8.99) were perfectly decent and were well complemented by a pint of Mad Goose Ale (£4.10).

Already charmed by Isleworth, we then strolled through its centre, complete with a 16th century man made river (constructed to divert water from the Duke of Northumberland’s River to the Isleworth Flour Mill), before making our way home, incredibly satisfied about how the day panned out.

Cost: £18.99

Time: 5-6 hours

 

Pudding Mill Lane

Nestled amongst the Bow Back Rivers, Pudding Mill Lane provides a nostalgic view of East London’s past and a worrying look at its future.

Clearly enjoying the Borough’s delights too much, I decided to head back to Newham for the second consecutive week to discover the wonders of Pudding Mill Lane. First impressions were not great: the station is surrounded by construction work; a vast complex of building sites. I know East London is going through a transformation, but this did seem to take the piss. Luckily, we know not to be dissuaded by first impressions.

With Pudding Mill Lane sitting directly south of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, in between Stratford and Bow, one of the first non-construction buildings I saw was the ArcelorMittal Orbit. 114-metres tall and resembling a strand of DNA, I’m surprised its owners didn’t follow the almost mandatory trend of naming a new tower after its shape – something like the Helter Skelter or the Genome. Then again, ArcelorMittal Orbit is pretty catchy, so fair enough.

Despite its prominence, I didn’t feel like heading to the Olympic Park straightaway. I’m not entirely sure why, but I think, given its newness, I felt it shouldn’t be my first taste of Pudding Mill Lane. Instead I walked south and after seeing a sign to Three Mills Island, I knew I had my first destination.

My route to the Island was indicative of what was to come: I passed the Print House – a trendy-looking, riverside gastropub – and a 40-metre-high Olympic Torch as I strolled down the Three Mills Wall River – one of the Bow Back Rivers that carve through this area of East London.

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Walking onto the Island, you are first graced with Three Mills Green, a compact oasis of grass that is home to one of the more bizarre statues I’ve seen. We British like a commemorative statue. Usually we erect these sculptures in homage to some prodigious statesman or indomitable general. Occasionally we give a nod to a composer or writer. Always, though, a person of historical significance. This statue did not fit that mould. It featured a smartphone – in fact, a man wearing a Puffa gilet, with one hand in his pocket and the other holding a smartphone. Why? I’ve no idea. Nor did the person I asked nearby, who merely allowed his dog to bark at my questions, while he himself stayed mute.

Walking round the Green, I came to the Three Mills Lock, which gave me a clear view of the Bromley-by-Bow Gasholder station – a set of seven Grade II listed Victorian gas holders. Despite my love of these cavernous examples of 19th century industrialisation, I decided to head round to an older, even greater-listed example: the House Mill.

Part of the Three Mills that give the island its name, the House Mill is the largest surviving Tidal Mill in the world. Although this version was built in 1776, there has been a mill on this site since before the publication of the Domesday Book, some 700 years previous. The Mill may not currently be harnessing the power of the surrounding rivers, but it does operate tours on Saturdays and “hosts a rolling programme of artists and designers throughout the year”. It also has a café, which was closed. Well, for me anyway. Jay Rayner – the Guardian Restaurant critic – was standing outside the Mill with film crew in tow and I suspect they might have made an exception for him. Bloody journalists eh.

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Three Mills Island is the epicentre of the Bow Back Rivers – a set of interconnected waterways that would have been the Spaghetti Junction for barges in its heyday. The amount of traffic might have reduced over the years, but the rivers are still home to several barges and narrowboats, as well as fishing clubs, bars and galleries. Their role may have changed, but the canals’ contribution to the local economy remains plain to see. Meanwhile, these strips of water, guarded by buildings on either side, have become a mecca for graffiti artists. Every building and pathway is a canvass. Even the barges are fair game.

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Heading north, you can instantly tell when you are getting closer to Hackney Wick due to the gradual proliferation of canal front bars and street food stalls. One of them – Number 90 – advertised a £5 weekday lunch offer and so I decided to pop in. I’m very glad I did. Decked out with a large open-kitchen, an expansive riverside terrace, an art gallery and a DJ booth, Number 90 was clearly more than just your average drinking hole. As I order the lunch offer – a homemade, hearty chicken and bacon carbonara – and a pint of Shedhead American Pale Ale (£5), I’m told that the spacious venue has an events programme that covers the whole culture spectrum: music to film, theatre to art, debates to comedy. Definitely worth a visit.

However, leaving Number 90 and crossing over the river toward the Olympic Park was a critical juncture in my day. Passing in between the Copper Box Arena (London’s ‘newest and most exciting’ multi-sport venue) and Here East (the ‘biggest Tech Innovation Centre in Europe’), the character of the area changes from quirky and local to vast and corporate; the Olympic Park is shamelessly purpose-built. I appreciate the Park was actually built for a purpose – and the legacy of that purpose is impossible to mask – but the area has as much charisma as concrete. All the benches are exactly the same. The walkways are wide, empty and lined with branded flags. The velodrome, the aquatics centre and the London Stadium are ghostly. I’m sure they were vibrant in 2012, but now they appear lifeless.

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I tried to make light of it by walking through the Park’s Wetlands, but the only ‘nature’ I encountered was two swans and a gaggle of Canada geese; animals that are omnipresent in London parks. It is fair to say that my mood was a little dampened, not least because a worrying conversation I’d had in Number 90 – about new developments gradually ruining the atmosphere of the place – was becoming more accurate by the minute.

Stratford is emblematic of this phenomenon. The place is going through a metamorphic transformation – hence the explosion of building sites – but this rejuvenation is clearly coming at a cost. It seems telling that the Pudding Mill River, which gave my station its name, was infilled in 2007 so that the Olympic Stadium could be built on top of it.

My mood clearly translated into my (lack of) friendliness, as I then asked a fellow park-goer a particularly loaded question: ‘Are there any parts of Stratford that aren’t either related to the Olympics, a building site or a block of new flats?’

“Westfield”, she replied.

Ah yes, Westfield. Synonymous with soulless; culture’s kryptonite. This gigantic tribute to commercialisation taints the whole area with its lack of originality; its aversion to charm. I’ll admit, I’ve never been to a Westfield before and my views on them may be a little skewed as I loathe both shopping and people, but I’m struggling to think of a better metaphor for a place having no soul than having a Westfield as its heart. Functionality is not the be all and end all.

I normally finish off the day in some sort of pub or café, but as I was getting a train to Essex from Stratford I decided to pick up a tin of M&S Belgian Lager instead (£1.60). Contemplating the day, I came to a similar conclusion to my other Newham trip: the area is a game of two halves. On the one hand, Pudding Mill Lane is an advert for East London – a way to explore its industrial past and its cultural present – while on the other, it is a worrying insight into its future.

Cost: £11.60

Time: 4 hours