The Withey Beds

A short visit to a local nature reserve between Moor Park and Watford, just north-west of London, proved an unexpected atmospheric delight, as can be seen from these photos, taken just before sunset in mid-winter, after a number of days of rain. The Withey Beds (named after withys, which are willow stems) is a relatively undisturbed area of wetlands, and so the main field was partially underwater and inaccessible, but the ~300m boardwalk that runs through the south of the site was just below the waterline.

The boardwalk is extremely atmospheric, particularly with the spooky submerged forest all around, and is in good condition so is an easy walk.

There is a curiosity early on the boardwalk – what looks like a simple clump of vegetation, is actually a woven willow feature, created by a local artist, which includes a tunnel – not accessible at all during the waterlogged season, but visible from a short dead-end section of boardwalk, just off the main route.

Fauna included a number of sheep in the main field, staring at me from a slightly raised (and so not submerged) section, a couple of ring necked parakeets that were enjoying unharvested apples from a wild apple tree, and most excitingly of all a Muntjac deer which lurked in the wooded section near the entrance to the reserve, before scampering off.

Access to The Withey Beds is very poor, there is only one entrance, and it is off a busy road (Moor Lane/Tolpits Lane) with no pavement. There is also no car park, although there is a tiny layby on the other side of the road a bit further down, for a couple of cars. The reserve is about a 15 minute walk north-west from Moor Park underground station, through the eponymous private estate and then around 200m on the busy road. Walking from the north, via Croxley station, Croxley Common Moor, the Ebury Way rail trail and Tolpits Lane, is not recommended, due to a long and unpleasant pavement-free section along Tolpits Lane.

It is difficult to see how this could be remedied without considerable expense – a pavement would be the obvious fix (and there is space on the far side of the road) plus an informal crossing near the entrance itself. An eastern entrance, making use of a bridge across the River Colne and an old tunnel underneath the railway, also looks feasible, but would require the blessing of Merchant Taylors School and Prep School, whose sites are on either side of the line.

The Withey Beds. © OpenStreetMap contributors.

There is however something to be said for the current, difficult access. You are very unlikely to bump into anyone else in the reserve, and so you can have all the flora and fauna to yourself.

Leisure London

Reopening of the Painted Hall in Maritime Greenwich

This Saturday, the 300-year-old Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, reopens to the public, after a two-year, £8.5 million restoration.

To help preserve the painted walls and ceiling, the old entrance has been permanently closed, and visitors now enter through the undercroft, which was previously a private dining hall for the Royal Navy, but now has a large cafe on one side and shop on the other, with admission desk at the end. At the far end is a small gallery detailing some of the history and relics of the hall.

In this gallery, intriguingly, is an oval-shaped hole. Peering down through this space, you can see parts of the old Greenwich Palace that were discovered during the restoration work. Some tiles from the palace’s hall floor, and alcoves, thought to be for the storage of honey, can be glimpsed.

A glimpse of the old Greenwich Palace.

There is also a dead-end passage ahead which looks rather intriguing – this is the “Ripley Tunnel” which runs underneath the outside path that forms the main “axis” of Maritime Greenwich. The tunnel runs between the Painted Hall and the Chapel.

The Ripley Tunnel.

Visitors then proceed upstairs to the first “wow” moment which is the vestible. Look up, as you are directly underneath one of the two cupolas which define the buildings of Maritime Greenwich (the right-hand one, in that famous view from Island Gardens).

Looking up at the cupola from the Vestible.

Up more stairs and you are in the Painted Gallery itself, with its breathtaking ceiling – the “Sistine Chapel” of the UK. Red cushioned seating, in the middle of the hall and at the sides, allow visitors to lie down and look straight up. The windows have net screen in front of them, to further preserve the paintings, but these also dim the whole hall, giving it a slightly spooky feel. Discrete lighting ensure that the ceiling and other ornamental parts of the hall are lit. At the far end, the Upper Hall contains a plaque on the floor commemorating Lord Nelson (who lay in state at that spot) and his deputy, and another large mural on the wall.

One of the lighting fixtures…

It’s undoubtably an impressive site. The hall is a big, mainly empty space – all the more to appreciate the walls and ceilings, and presumably also very useful as a flexible space for evening events.

The trust have introduced an admission fee – £12 to get in for adults, which is somewhat controversial, as it was free before. However, the first Wednesday of the month is pay-as-you-like (presumably including £0?), and definitely free on this day with a lottery ticket (the Heritage Lottery fund having funded around 40% of the work). The entrance fee includes an audio guide or group guided tour, which undoubtably is useful for interpreting what you see in the hall – as otherwise you do end up just vaguely gazing at the ceiling and its epic battle scene, and thinking it is impressive, without gaining a deeper understanding of what is being depicted and how it was created…

There’s a few other nice bits and pieces to spot – including a modern obelix at the entrance to the cafe, created by students at a college in Stratford. Beside this, there is also an attractive, back-lit drawing of the Maritime Greenwich site. In the main hall, there are also a number of cabinets containing recreations of period objects, such as an ornate crown, to try on. Or just lie down on the red cushions…

The backlit frieze at the entrance to the undercroft, showing Maritime Greenwich viewed from the north.

So, if in Greenwich, this is certainly worth visiting, along with its nearby attractions of the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory Greenwich, both of which are a few minutes walk away – particularly on the first Wednesday of the month when you can get in for nothing.

View from the south – the Painted Hall is in the building on the left.


Promenade Plantée

As part of a brief trip to Paris, I recently walked the western part of the Promenade Plantée raised linear park or “rail trail”, in the southern part of the city. The Promenade Plantée, also known as the Coulée Verte, predates the well known “High Line” in New York City (and a potential London version) by many years. Its western part is around 1.6km long – about half as long as the NYC High Line and twice as long as the proposed one in Camden. It is raised a few metres above the streets, on a long viaduct, allowing for the characteristic “street scene from above” views:

Around half way along, the route crosses a long, wooden bridge (not an original from the time when it was a railway line) which dips down into a park in a surprisingly gritty and unattractive part of Paris, before continuing eastwards under the street level, in a series of tunnels and cuttings. This is also a key access point to both sections, with a set of steps and a lift:

There is also a short section here where you can look down beneath your feet:

I didn’t walk along the section section, which is always open and accessible to bicycles as well as pedestrians. The western section is pedestrians only and is locked at night.

The park, being a former railway line, is generally narrow, but does broaden in a couple of sections:

It also has some interesting detail, for example, near the western end, the walker passes under a number of wooden trellises, full of plants. Further on, the path splits into two, passing either side of a narrow but long pond, bordered by hedges but with a couple of small bridges connecting the two paths:

A section with tall bamboo on either side, creating a natural tunnel, was also of interest.

There was a little bit of antisocial behavior in a couple of sections, but this didn’t spoil the general atmosphere. It was surprisingly busy, with a mixture of local walkers, families (it was a Sunday afternoon) and quite a lot of joggers.

Some of the bridges are the original railway bridges. These have solid iron sidewalls, but the wooden decking has been slightly raised here, with a safety bar added to the top of the sidewall, so that users of the walkway can easy (but safely) see over and along the streets below:

Like the New York City version, there is the interest of passing through (and over) a building, which intrudes on to the route in a dramatic way. Unlike New York City’s version though, there is no trace of the original railway track, with the ballast and rails completely replaced by a mixture of wooden decking and concrete paths, along with plenty of flowerbeds on either side.

It was good to walk the Promenande Plantée, and great to see it so well used, considering its age and that it is not in perfectly maintained condition. Even though it is only 1.6km along, I took a good hour to do the walk, allowing plenty of time to study some of the murals and other small artworks along the route, both official and unofficial (including a piece by Invader), as well enjoying what is essentially a long, thin public roof garden in the heart of a metropolis.

Leisure London

A Glimpse into Walthamstow Wetlands

I was on a guided tour of the Walthamstow Wetlands today, a huge area of 10 historic reservoirs that has long been the preserve of fishermen, birdwatchers and water company workers, that is about to be turned into a large, publicly accessible nature reserve. The area is near to the Woodbury Wetlands, which similarly was a largely unknown area of water and reeds that has now been opened up, the guest of honour at the opening ceremony last month being none other than Sir David Attenborough. However, Walthamstow Wetlands is ten times larger, and the London Wildlife Trust, who are delivering the tranformations in both areas and led today’s tour, describe Woodbury Wetlands as just a “dress rehearsal” for the Walthamstow Wetlands area, which is 6 times the size and is due to open in 2017. It will be far and away the largest area of wetland habitat in London and one of the most important in Europe.


The area is already teaming with birds, other animals, and wildflowers, and some early signs of the conversion are already in progress, compared with my previous visit a few years back. The surface has been laid on a new walking/cycling route that will run the length of the reserve, with two new entrances being created at either end to complement the only current access which is from Ferry Lane in the middle of the reserve. Several areas have been fenced off in the Reservoirs 1, 2 and 3 – the earliest, hand-dug and shallow ones, the aim being to turn these into areas of reed beds to encourage bitterns back into the area. The two main islands, Heron Island and Cormorant Island, are full of their respective birds – the latter island being largely bare of vegetation and full of the squarking animals. Other wildlife spotted included a variety of geese and ducks (some as families), some large fish (the area is a major spot for angling) and many dragonflies. Also, somewhat less fortunately, there was a grass snake near the entrance – run over and squashed presumably by estate traffic.

Plans include complete renovation of the historic engine house in the middle of the site, to act as the main visitor centre, cafe, exhibition and an education facility. The house will have part of its tower rebuilt with hollow bricks, to encourage skylarks to nest. The renovation is well underway with the building gutted and in scaffolding. Various bits of machinery from its days as a pumping house will be retained, although the main pump itself was removed many years ago. At the southern end of the reserve, the central part of the Coppermill building will have a lift added, allowing access into the tower for a great view over the reserve. The look of the building will be carefully preserved, this means the lift will not make it to quite the top of the tower. Access to the reserve, centre and viewpoint will all be free. Possible future plans, subject to the success of the reserve and its ability to be self-funding following opening, will be a second small visitor facility being built in the rest of the Coppermill building, which, for now, remains a storage site for Thames Water.


Top and second: Preparation of the new reed beds. Above: One of the tracks through the reserve, which has had bracken removed and has been planted with wildflowers to encourage different kinds of birds. Below: Geese and a swan on another of the reservoirs. Bottom: Looking from Ferry Lane into the north part of the wetlands, which was not part of today’s tour.


There is more information about the project on the official website.


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The Camden High Line

[Update: Being actively considered/promoted by Camden Town Unlimited]

Over the last two weeks I have featured eleven potential London High Lines (see all the previous ones here) – all of them could be interesting place but none of them quite have the potential to be a London “High Line”.

Today, my final London High Line, is the one that I think ticks all the boxes. It runs through post-industrial gritty inner-city London, it’s elevated, it’s an old railway route, and the land is just lying there, undeveloped. It is the Camden High Line – a potential High Line that runs between Camden Gardens Park (just off Kentish Town Road), around the back of Camden Road station, across a number of intact, unused bridges and finishing at an existing footbridge across the Midland Mainline, just past Camley Street. In all, a distance of around 800m (half a mile), with a possible Phase 2 future extension across to the huge and evolving development area behind King’s Cross station, although this additional section would require the building of at least one footbridge.


The route:

1. Western end


This would likely need the most expensive new structure – a lift with a surrounding staircase, to allow step-free access onto the route from the western end. It would also need to use a small section of the public park here – Camden Gardens Park – for the lift/staircase to “land”.


The route would then move quite quickly away from the current line, using the disused (and now heavily overgrown) section behind Camden Road station – another possible access point and one that could provide an alternative step-free entrance using the existing lift there, from the eastbound platform (ticket barrier location notwithstanding).

The route moves back towards the current line, crossing Camden Road on a disused but intact bridge as it does so. This is the bridge which currently has “Camden Road” painted on its side, prominently, by Network Rail, visible when travelling down the hill from Camden Road. (The other nearby railway bridge also has “Camden Road” painted on it, when facing the other way.) As you can see from the Google Streetview imagery, the bridge is sitting waiting for a walkway to be added onto it:


2. Middle section

The route continues along the former double-track, alongside the existing double-track between Camden Road and Caledonian Road & Barnsbury, walled off safely but with plenty of space available for the High Walk itself.


Shortly, a couple of other bridges are crossed. One crosses over at a road junction. There is plenty of pavement below the bridge here and so this is a potential landing location for a staircase (possibly spiral) for an intermediate entry/exit to the walk.


3. Eastern end

The route continues eastwards, narrowing quite a bit near the end at the final bridge across Camley Street although still with plenty of space beside the operational railway for a path and appropriate screening from the operational railway.


There is a choice of endings at the eastern end. There is already a (pretty unpleasant and unsafe feeling) set of steps down from the western side of the Midland Mainline existing footbridge. This could be remodelled and made safer. At the bottom is the northern end of Camley Street, a light industrial estate, with an existing pedestrian link north to Agar Grove, and a quiet road south that leads to the Regent’s Canal – from there, King’s Cross Central is nearby. Alternatively, continuing along the road eventually leads to St Pancras International station.


The second ending is a level access from the footbridge crossing the Midland Mainline – at its eastern end, paths head north and then northeast, connecting to Agar Grove and eventually Caledonian Road. This has the benefit of providing a step-free end to the walk, so that, unlike at the western end, a lift would not be necessary.

4. Phase 2 extension

This would connect the eastern end of the Camden High Line, southwards to the huge mixed-use King’s Cross Central redevelopment and Central St Martin’s College, behind King’s Cross station. Such a route would require crossing over (or under) the existing North London Line, and various other lines emerging from St Pancras, with at least one footbridge needed – as such it would be an expensive exercise. I’m just mentioning it here as having a complete “High Line” link running all the way between, Camden Town and King’s Cross, to parallel with the Regent’s Canal route to the south of it, seems like an obvious route between two major north London walking destinations.

So could it happen? Well, the viability of the project would depend on Network Rail reliquishing its land, on support from Camden Council, a fundraising effort to fund a feasibility report and build the actual trail, and on the creation of a local trust dedicated to maintaining such a route once it opened on a largely voluntary basis, like happens on the New York High Line. In short, it wouldn’t be easy, but it is certainly very possible.

See all 12 of my London “High Lines”.

Photos from Google Street View and Google Aerial Imagery. Map from OpenStreetMap (Data ODbL, cartography CC-By OSM contributors). Subsequent to first publication, I’ve renamed this blogpost from “The Camden Line” to avoid confusion with the MARC Camden Line rail commuter line in Maryland, USA.

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High Lines 11. Garden Bridge


This is one in a series of posts about possible High Lines for London. Look out for the final one – my big idea for a High Line that I think has real potential – tomorrow.

[Update: cancelled]

Well, this is a controversial one. It’s not a structure that exists in any form (let alone being abandoned), it has nothing to do with railway lines – although the landing on the north side is on the roof of Temple station – and it is a high-profile project with influential (& wealthy) backers but also significant opposition. It’s the Garden Bridge, a pedestrian, daytime only bridge to meander along, linking Temple/Strand to South Bank.

It fulfils many of the High Line concepts – it is a private initative to add something “nice” to London. It is substantially privately funded and would be run by a trust. Being a bridge, it certainly affords great views of London. It would be intensively cultivated with trees and flowers to encourage meandering and dawdling rather than it becoming a commuter link (the nearby Waterloo and Blackfriars bridges cater well for that). And finally, it would have tightly controlled access – no cycling, large groups/gatherings, or access after dark.

It is this last point – that it would be a privately owned/managed and controlled space, muscling into a highly visible location in central London, but partially funded, and guaranteed, by public funds – that has proved controversial. However, as long as the governance is appropriately inclusive, i.e. representing the concerned bodies as well as the sponsoring ones, and appropriate covenants were added, e.g., dedicating free public access during daylight hours, every day of the year (no daytime closures for private parties), and income private evening/night time events on the bridge went partially back to public funds, then much of the opposition would maybe be quelled. It certainly doesn’t blend in to the surroundings and its location/height may spoil views of the City from Waterloo Bridge, but if it ends up looking like the impression above, it would be fantastic – another London green space which is (mostly) dedicated to the public, and a wonderful, free London facility for contemplation and enjoyment of the outside. I hope it gets built.


Postscript: There is another “Garden Bridge” already in London – the Green Bridge that crosses the A11 road by Mile End station (it’s actually bright yellow, underneath), linking the two halves of Mile End Park. Originally it had trees growing on top of the bridge itself, however the soil was not deep enough to allow the roots to build and the trees to flourish, so sadly they have been replaced with just grass. Hopefully the designers of the Garden Bridge will have learnt from the mistakes of the Green Bridge and, earlier, the Barbican Estate’s waterfall.

Photo/map from the Garden Bridge website.

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High Lines 10. Borough Market Bridge

This is one in a series of posts about possible High Lines for London. Look out for the next one tomorrow.

[Update (2016) – the main (southern) bridge featured here is already in use by trains now.]

This new railway bridge got lifted into place a couple of years ago. Eventually, in 2018 or so once London Bridge Station has been rebuilt, it will form the dedicated tracks between this station and Charing Cross, with the old bridge going to just Blackfriars, rather than to both at the moment. But that’s a few years away. At the moment the bridge is empty, and just used for storage. How cool would it be if you could walk straight from the concourse in front of London Bridge Station, to Borough Market, without having to cross Borough High Street? A couple of scaffolded staircases would allow for such a possibility, even if it was only for a couple of years.

There is also potential for using the track that curves westwards from Cannon Street to Charing Cross, as no scheduled train needs to use this curve. However there is still a single track here, which is used as a siding after the morning rush-hour, so, although there is enough room for a path alongside, it’s (even) less likely that this would ever become a High Walk for the public.


Top photo: Steven Craven on Geograph. Aerial image from Google Maps.

Leisure London

High Lines 9. Pedways of the City

This is one in a series of posts about possible High Lines for London. Look out for the next one tomorrow.

Complementary to the Highwalks of the Barbican, the concept (originally called Pedways by the 1950s planners) was intended in fact to spread throughout the “Square Mile” of the City, of which the Barbican formed the northern edge. For several years, new offices were required to have an entrance and lobby on the first floor, as well as on the ground floor as normal. In time, a network of Pedway bridges would connect the offices to each other and provide a complete alternative network of pedestrian routes around the City. Such 1950s utopian ideals never came to pass. There is a great video here about the rise and fall of Pedways and the 1950s buildings that accompanied them. Outside of the Barbican, the few Pedways that did get built are gradually being removed as the 1950s buildings alongside come to the end of their lives, however a couple of significant fragments in the City remain, both of which I feature here. It’s unclear how long they will remain for, but for now they remain a fascinating and hidden way to move around and explore London’s financial district without having to cross roads.

pedway_tower42The first is the link that runs behind Tower 42 (the former Natwest Tower). It used to head east to what is now the Gherkin, however the bridge here (across Bishopsgate) was severed when the Pinnacle construction started. The Pinnacle project was then cancelled and the concrete stump is now disappearing again, to be replaced by another skyscraper – but with no bridge link restored. The other link heads north, right through the Lloyds Banking Group building, before coming to another bridge across a busy road. This is still there – for now – but leads to a dead-end, as its steps down were recently removed. So, the urban explorer here has to take the steps down just before the road.

The other is an even less well known link that leads directly from The Monument (to the Great Fire of London) to one of the best views in London – an elevated, river-bank view of Tower Bridge from the elevated plaza at St Magnus House. It passes through a couple of buildings, one on each side of Lower Thames Street, before opening out to a podium for the view, and a convenient staircase (ignored by the great majority that pass below it) that then drops directly down onto the Thames Path.

Iain Targett walked both of these routes, as well as one of the Barbican routes, and documented what they looked like in this photo set.


Top and bottom photos of the Tower 42 Highwalk, both by Steve Keirestu. Map Copyright OpenStreetMap contributors, ODbL (data) & CC-By (cartography).

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High Lines 8. Barbican Highwalks

This is one in a series of posts about possible High Lines for London. Look out for the next one tomorrow.

The Barbican is a huge 1950s/60s housing development in the “raw concrete” Brutalist style which divides opinion (personally, I love it). The concept of the Barbican is having the pedestrian level on two “podiums” 4-6 metres above the car/street level, entirely separated from traffic. Connections between the podiums and the street level, and between different parts of the estate, are via “Highwalks”. These walkways in the sky are in fact legally considered public streets, and if you are familiar with the geography of the Barbican, are a pleasant way to pass through part of the City without encountering traffic.

The Highwalks are shown as orange lines on the estate map below. Some have actual orange lines painted on the ground, these are to help visitors, who are unfamiliar with the complex 3D nature of the walking routes in the area, to make it to the Barbican Art Centre – by following an orange line from an entrance to the estate, you should find your way there. One of these orange lines can be just made out on the far left in the photo above.


One section of the Highwalks near the Barbican that has recently disappeared, is a triangle of land near London Wall, that used to connect the predominately residential Barbican to the Guildhall. This has recently been demolished for a new complex of office towers, London Wall Place. Thankfully, the raised sections will be coming back, as a nice looking long bridge, passing through the new buildings and restoring the connection between London Wall, the Barbican’s own network of Highwalks and podiums, and the Guildhall and rest of the City. The temptation these days, surely, must be to improve the pedestrian realm at street level, as ultimately that’s where people want to be, but it’s good to see that, in this case, the “first floor” pedestrian level will live on, as a route from which to observe the buzz of the city below.


Map: Phil Gyford. Bottom photo: London Wall Place.

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High Lines 7. Limehouse Curve

This is one in a series of posts about possible High Lines for London. See the full list here including the one with the best potential.

The Limehouse Curve lies just east of Limehouse station in east London, it used to be a link between Stratford/West Ham and the Isle of Dogs/Blackwall. These days only a short section remains, around half of the curve itself, running from the DLR viaduct at the eastern edge of Limehouse Basin, and crossing Commercial Road, beyond where a line of apartments stands. The link is short (120m) but it is raised, and through an appropriately gritty part of the post-industrial inner city. There are two bridges that are solely part of the disused route (both seen below in this wide-angle Google Street View image), plus a third which is shared with the existing DLR route, beside which a wooden decking and descent down to street level could be assembled – although step-free access, likely a prerequisite for any funded project, would be very tricky at this end.


There was a tentative project a few years ago to create connections at either end and make it a short walkway and linear park, but sadly nothing came of it. However, the route remains, including a potentially useful bridge across a busy road. Maybe one day it will live again.


Top photo from What If. Bottom photo and aerial imagery above from Google Maps aerial view.