Sunday, 13 December 2015

London Christmas Lights Walk

London Christmas lights. I've never really bothered, too crowded and dare I say it - tacky.

But this year my determination to cycle everywhere rather than tube it had given me glimpses of old narrow streets hung with festive brightness and buzzing with excitement. Putting together a Christmas lights walk for friends and family suddenly seemed just the thing to do.

A week later I spent three hours scouting the best walk and on Friday night we met up at Carluccios in St Christopher’s Place for hot chocolate before we set off.

The route allows the Big Street Christmas lights fix, but avoids the crowds by weaving through pretty back streets, alleys and arcades, with time to sample what I hope are some of the best Christmas window displays. Selfridges had been on my list, but this year didn’t grab me, so was struck off. Whilst only 3-4 miles we passed through several very distinct historic areas of London each with a different look and feel. 

St Christopher's Place Christmas Lights London 
St Christopher’s place seemed a perfect place to meet, loads of al fresco cafes off the main drag of Oxford Street, with views up oldie worldy narrow streets.

We made our way to Oxford Street via Gees Court, a narrow passage way. Turning left onto Oxford Street we walked the short distance to the first set of traffic lights, to the sound of a live steel band. This gave us enough time to take in Oxford Street’s pretty baubles.

Oxford Street Christmas Lights London 

Crossing the road we then wandered down pedestrianised South Molton Street, passing from high street fashion to the more expensive designer boutiques and through fairy arches, now and again stopping to look at shop windows.

South Molton Street's Christmas Light Arches London 

Christmas shop window in South Molton Street

At the end of South Molton St. we turned left and crossed the road. Shortly before New Bond Street, turning down Lancashire Court a narrow alley on the right with large bells above. Dip down and pass closely by a long line of lamp lit tables.

Lancashire Court Christmas Lights London 
When the passage comes to an end turn left and you come onto New Bond Street the heart of Mayfair with its peacock lights and luxury brands.  

New Bond St Peacock Christmas Lights London 

New Bond Street London 

Cross New Bond Street and turn right and then take the first left down Maddox Street, a little less Christmassy but it does have the rather magnificent 18th century St George’s church half way along. You soon hit Regents Street. We nipped straight across and along Great Marlborough Street to see Liberty's shop windows.

Liberty's wallpaper themed windows

Retracing our steps to just before Liberties, we turned left down Kingly Street dipping our toes into Soho. 

Kingly Street's Christmas Lights London 

Before going very far we took a left down Fouberts Street. Suddenly one of my favourites appears, Carnaby Street, outrageously flamboyant.

Carnaby Street Christmas Lights London 

Rather than joining the crowds in Carnaby Street, we kept going straight on and turned right into Newburgh Street with its elegant independent shops and small Christmas trees standing to attention. 

Newburgh Steet's Christmas lights London 

At the end of Newburgh St we turned right back to Carnaby Street and met the huge lightbulbs of Ganton Street

Ganton Street's Christmas Lights London 

We turned left down Carnaby Street and dived right into sparkly Kingley Court walking straight through to Kingly Street again. Left and then another right down Tennison Court took us back to Regents Street. On my first visit I was rather underwhelmed by the Street's watch themed display, but it's grown on me. 

Regents Street Christmas Lights

We crossed Regents Street, walked down to its left curve and turned right along Vigo Street. We’re now back in Mayfair and into bespoke suit land, touching the bottom of Saville Row. We came across Ede and Ravenscroft. Established in 1689 they claim to be the oldest tailors in the world and still supply royalty with their robes and suits and judges with their wigs. Their shop and the ones before could have been plucked from a period Christmas film. 

Ede and Ravenscroft Chistmas window

The road becomes Burlington Gardens and before New Bond Street, we took a left down the long Burlington Arcade, built in 1819 and second oldest of Piccadilly's five 19th century arcades, precursors of the shopping mall. 

Burlington Arcade

We turned left down Piccadilly, on the other side of the road is another very Christmassy arcade

Then across to my favourite foodie window displays at Fortnum and Mason, with their glace fruit, Christmas pies and puddings

Glace Fruit in Fortnum and Mason Christmas Window Display 
Fortnum and Mason Christmas Window Display 
Fortnum and Mason Christmas Window Display 

I couldn’t resist a small diversion into the 1707 store, with their thick carpet and baubled interior to ogle their marzipan fruits, sugar encrusted jellied sweets, stacks of Florentines in celephane, refined teas and biscuits. Of course I shouldn’t really be promoting them since they were selected by UK Uncut as one of the companies which appear to be avoiding tax in the UK. 

Continuing along Piccadilly we turned right down the next arcade to Jermyn Street and into St James. An area I’d been completely unaware of until last year, with its exclusive gentleman’s clubs and old fashioned shops. 

Jermyn Street Lights 

Turning left down Jermyn Street you can peek into Paxton and Whitfield, cheese mongers since 1798 and another shop supplying the royal household. Winston Churchill apparently observed ‘ a gentleman only buys his cheese at Paxton and Whitfield’, all ridiculously snobby, but good fun to gawk at. 

Paxton and Whitefield in Jermyn Street 

We made our way to Piccadilly Circus and then to maintain the Monopoly theme under the Christmas lights of Coventry Street with Leicester Square's big wheel lit up in the distance.

Coventry Street Christmas Lights 

Just before Leicester Square we took a sharp left up Wardour Street and into China Town.
China Town

Turning right down Gerrard Street we wound our way to Charing Cross road and into Covent Garden. Down Great Newport Street, stopping to buy chips at Five Guys. Up Upper St Martin’s lane and into Seven dials' delightful display of lights, my photo does it no justice. 

Seven Dials Christmas Lights 

Right down Earlham St and at the end right down Neal Street, crossing Long Acre and down James Street to Covent Garden, whose extravagant mistletoe decks the ceilings of the 1830 building which once housed London’s main fruit and vegetable market. 

Covent Garden Christmas Lights 
Covent Garden Christmas lights 
As we left Covent Garden to make our way down Russel St, we passed a reindeer. 

Covent Garden

Right down Wellington Street and passed the Lyceum where we went to 'discos' and 'gigs' as teenagers. It's now the home of the Lion King. Across the Strand, with it's lovely display of lights and onwards to Waterloo Bridge. 

Christmas Lights along The Strand

What Christmas walk would be complete without those beautiful night time views down the Thames towards St Pauls and the City on one side and the Royal Festival Hall, London eye and Westminster on the other? I never ever get tired of these views, they sum up the wonder of London and I'm love struck each time. It was one of those winter evenings when everything is crisply clear, I'm afraid the photos don’t do it justice.

The Thames looking across to the National Theatre

The Thames looking down to the City and right to the Shard. 

The Thames with St Pauls on the left, Blackfriars Bridge across the Thames and the City behind. 

We were beginning to get cold and in need of a drink, so on the other side of the bridge we walked down the stairs to the Southbank and walked along to the Royal Festival Hall for sustenance. The Southbank looked beautiful. 

Southbank Christmas 
Southbank and Hungerford Bridge. 
The London Eye 
Tired but happy, we made our way home. 

A rather approximate and messy map of the walk is below. 

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Isle of Grain Country Park, Kent

At the tip of the Hoo peninsula where the River Thames meets the River Medway is the perfect walk to survey the Thames Estuary.

Opposite, in the distance a string of Essex towns from Benfleet to Shoeburyness form a continuous line. To your right Sheerness and the Isle of Sheppey. Beyond, on a clear day, you can see the Whitstable coast leading down to the Isle of Thanet ending at Margate. 

At every turn reminders of our centuries old fear of invasion emerge, a Napoleonic fort  sticking out of the sea and second world war anti tank obstacles on the beach.

A string of tiny beaches are made up entirely of cockle shells. You could even swim here at high tide. At low tide vast mudflats are suddenly unveiled and quickly populated by hundreds and hundreds of waders. Further out vast container ships make their way to Tilbury or disembark just across the water at Sheerness or further down the Medway at Thamesport.

The industrial hinterland is inhabited by enormous power stations and oil refineries, mostly disused. Wildlife colonises the swathes of green, freshwater pools and scrub between sea and industry which makes up the country park.

I wasn’t expecting much but as you can probably tell, I was entranced by this place. Keep your expectations low and perhaps you will be too.

How to Get There. 
About an hour and a quarter car journey. Out through the Blackwall tunnel onto the A2 or alternatively over the dart crossing,  turning off at junction 1 as it becomes the M2 follow the signs to Isle of Grain and then to Grain itself where there is a small car park by the beach. 

The flag marks the walk

As you drive through the middle of the Isle its remoteness is striking, it's also interesting to drive between the fields of oil refineries and energy plants. 

The Walk 
This walk is only 4 miles long a 'there and back' walk, but it's easy to spend hours here if you  like to sit and gaze. For the map lovers among us it's explorer 163 Gravesend and Rochester.

An easy straight forward walk, essentially along the esplanade or sea wall, all part of the country park. 

You could make it a circular walk as the footpath goes inland a bit and back to Grain, but that looked a bit boring. However we did walk up to the high points in the country park and through the woodland paths in the last stretch before Grain on our way back which was nice. 

It's claimed this is where Turner sketched 'The Fighting Temeraire'. HMS Temeraire had played a key role in Nelson's victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. In 1838 the gun ship was decommissioned and taken by tugs from Sheerness to Rotherhithe to be broken up. 

The Fighting Temeraire Turner (1838) (The Guardian)

The walk begins, looking across the Thames to Southend on Sea. 

Looking the other way down the Thames with Isle of Sheppey in the distance

Shell beaches along the way

Very little pottery along these lovely small beaches, but surprisingly they are made up entirely of shells. We spent ages just gazing out to sea, watching ship after ship sailing up the Thames 

Container Ships on the Thames from the Isle of Grain

Isle of Grain Country Park 
Less than a mile into the walk  Grain Tower comes into view, stuck out in the mouth of the Medway Estuary. It was built in the 1860s when there was considerable tension with France, it was only decommissioned in 1956. Most of the fort has been demolished. In the second world war huge anti submarine nets crossed the rivers from here, preventing German Uboats from making their way up the Thames or down the Medway. 
Grain Tower with Sheerness port in the distance

Grain Tower

At low tide a causeway to the Tower appears which you can just make out in the photo below. You can walk out and explore the Tower, sadly we didn't have time on this visit. 

As you walk further the Medway Estuary opens out. The bridge linking the mainland to the Isle of Sheppey can be seen in the distance. 

Medway Estuary from the Isle of Grain Country Park

A huge disused power station comes into view. The building was due to be demolished the day after we visited and the tower comes down next September, what a shame. 

Grain power Station Build in the 1970s

You can begin to make out the cranes of Thamesport, the UK's third largest container port and the remaining circular oil storage containers. 

Isle of Grain with the cranes of Thamesport in the distance.

Across the Medway is Sheerness port, originally established as a Royal Navy dockyard in 1669 after the Dutch raids on Medway in 1666. It became a commercial port in the 1960s and is now one of the major UK ports for importing meat, vegetables and cars. 

Sheerness Port


and more industrial buildings on the Isle of Grain.  

The walk ends when a high wire fence crosses the path preventing you from going any further. To the left a jetty ventures into the river, unfortunately that too is fenced off. 

A jetty at the end of the walk  

It is worth timing your visit to catch both high and low tides. There was a strange point in the cycle when the water seemed like a lake and the sound of the sea changed. The next time we looked over a quarter of mile of mudflats had suddenly appeared. 

The Thames just before low tide at Grain

Thames Mudflats at Grain looking out to Southend on Sea. 

Anti tank obstacles from the second world war on Grain beach.