For years, Barnes has with unassailable prominence held the mantle of hosting London’s premier wetland centre-now a scrappy, ambitious E17 upstart is gunning for eminence in the city’s popular imagination. After a £10.6 (publicly funded) restoration of existing Victorian reservoirs, Walthamstow may now with great pride assert their claim to housing Europe’s largest urban wetland reserve, a sprawling 500-acre site with a 13-mile network of pathways, a beautifully restored engine house that offers a cafe, children’s centre and gift shop, and a viewing deck at the top of Grade 2-listed Italianate Coppermill Tower that affords a stunning widescreen optic kick of the surrounding grounds and Lea Valley. From its elevated platform, a guest may see a comprehensive cluster of London landmarks in close succession, from City skyscrapers, Canary Wharf, the Olympic Village development, even, most surprisingly, Ally Pally (and, at another vantage, for football fans, a distant-but impressive-view of the new Spurs stadium). The grounds are bisected by the fairly busy Ferry Lane/Forest Road exchange, so the solace and serenity of your visit may be momentarily shattered as you cross between the sections. For avid anglers and birders, opportunities abound, countless berths available from which to practice the passions; small islets provide sanctuary for a variety of birds throughout the year, and the environment is officially recognised as a breeding ground for the grey heron, cormorant, tufted duck and egret. Scattered throughout the space are engineering remnants of its past, including two majestic water gate towers that speak of Victorian solidity and style. In the atrium above the cafe (The Larder, serving hearty fare), the most incongruous element is found: a neon piece from legendary local business God’s Own Junkyard, a blinged-out glitter heart with a written greeting that would not look out of place at Studio 54. The period Ferry Boat Inn (now a pub, formerly a ferry house-there was once a bridge toll to pay), located on the main road, is another option for sating the appetite. Although I very much enjoyed my crisp winter walk amongst the wildlife, I await a return in the  gentler air of spring or summer for a more indulgent, less bracing idyll. The reservoirs are not merely cosmetic-they remain operational, supplying water to 3.5 million Londoners. Officially (and modestly) open since October 2017, this free public space (a parking fee applies should you drive) is a fairly secret gem that needs to be discovered. You needn’t have to travel to Surrey or Kent for a swift commune with the country air.




If you should fancy an uncomplicated expedition well within London city limits (no prebooking train tickets needed, or any advance prep of any kind), the National Trust-run grounds of this 125-acre parklands and estate once owned by the Hatfield family is to be found a few minutes walk from the Morden tube stop at the very end of the Northern line. A quick jaunt along the high street, and a dash across a busy roadway, brings you to a passageway by which you may slip into the park (the main entrance is further up the road). Once inside, the sound and fury of the unabating traffic almost immediately recedes, and it is possible to believe yourself far removed from the city. In addition to the grand hall itself (now mainly used as a wedding venue) with its fronted lattice of ornamental bridges and congress of decoratively fashionable trees (yews, lime and chestnut, all carefully structured and considered as involves status), the grounds include the stables (and yards), mills, a cottage at one time a hunting lodge (eventually the residence of Hatfield’s bachelor son) and the buildings once devoted to tool and potting sheds and day stables (now repurposed as a garden centre and the park’s posh cafe named, appropriately, the Potting Shed), as well as sprawling meadows and wetlands. The river Wandle very lazily and haphazardly wanders its way through the landscape, and, although I visited a bit late in the season, in the spring and summer months the rose garden is a much-celebrated effusion of colour and scent, now being restored to the aesthetics of its 1920s origins. For the adventurous, a wander over the tram tracks in one direction leads to Merton Abbey Mills, a former textile factory abutting the Wandle (William Morris once housed his design and printing company on the site, hence the pub named in his honour), and originally the location of an Augustinian Priory built in the  early 12th century. On the property is the only waterwheel still in full operational order (which can be viewed on the weekend). The rest of the space is given over to crafts businesses and independent restaurants and boutiques, a mixed-use performance space and a bandstand which hosts musicians and a weekly open-air market. The ethos is alternative and quirky. In the other direction, and a heartily ambitious walk away (about three miles) is the pretty village of Carshalton, with its scenic high street and broad main square, encompassing Grove Park and the gorgeous broad Ponds, flanked on one side by the picturesque Greyhound hotel, once an 18th century coaching inn, and, although now extensively restored throughout the years, one of the only examples of its kind still in existence. Certainly an entire day’s worth of activity is to be had even if you shouldn’t stray too far from Morden Park itself, but you will emerge rich in experience and memory no matter how near or far you step, and you will feel refreshed and moored, ready again for the flash of London proper.





Opened on 28 July, 2017 (but around in some form and structure from the early part of the 20th century, overseen by the Postal Heritage Trust), this museum devoted to the rich archival history of the Royal Mail and British postal system offers full immersion in the seismic and pioneering social experiment that led to the first revolutionary shifts in the scale and reach of communication. From its origins as a delivery scheme exclusive to the King and the Royal Court to the first public charters to inaugural days of transport (first by foot, then crude carriage vulnerable to atrocious road conditions and highwaymen) to its peak as a business through worlds wars (ferrying letters of love and grief), tremendous social upheaval and cultural shifts from the native to global, through to its evolutionary decline in the age of ever-more immediate technologies, all eras are covered. To the generation suckled on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and Snapchat, the stodginess of this once-dominant format must seem awfully quaint. The museum is rampant with interactive displays (many of which, curiously, had already broken on my visit), and is housed with intriguing historic examples of transport vessels, various designs of post boxes through the ages, poster art (and issues of an in-house trade periodical), and a philatelic archive of particular interest to stamp collectors. There are also a surprising amount of wildly dramatic incidents and accounts to be read on display boards, more than you would imagine possible for such a seemingly conventional and straightforward business. The real draw for most will be the opportunity to experience a ride on the Mail Rail (for an additional price), located just across the road from the museum in the bowels of the Mount Pleasant sorting office, offering a 20-minute journey through the labyrinth of subterranean tunnels used by the Royal Mail between the years of 1927-2003. A relatively obscure bit of London lore, the tunnels encompass a 6.5 mile wide track running from Paddington Station to Whitechapel, criss-crossing tube lines, once an efficient way to carry loads of mail (somewhere in the vicinity of four million letters per day, operating on a 22-hour schedule!) between sorting stations without having to navigate congested London streets. Visitors board either of two recreations of original trains for a fairly truncated journey (the ride covers just over half a mile of track, solely within the parameters of the Mount Pleasant depot), stopping occasionally at platforms to hear personal accounts of former employees or to watch timeline videos and, unfortunately, have to endure for the length of the journey a fairly pedestrian and infantile commentary (try your best to shut it out of consciousness and simply enjoy the movement through the tunnel). I also caution those who may suffer claustrophobia, as the cars are of very snug dimensions-you feel keenly the cramp of every limb. Otherwise, you are free to amble around the space and try your hand at being the engineer or traffic controller or sorting employee for the line through the collection of artefacts on display. 

On my Instagram account, for those interested, I have posted two videos from my experience of the Mail Rail, one witness to a train arriving back from a run, the other a quick sensation of moving along the tunnel.




Even if a visit to St. Louis in the U.S. State of Missouri has never risen in your consciousness, this singular, mad and visionary creative mecca (like a rather curious and unsettling coupling between Gaudi and a Disney theme park) should automatically thrust the city into the forefront of destination travel-I can honestly say I have never seen the likes of it (there indeed may be as daring and imaginative a sibling somewhere in the wide world, but I have no knowledge of it). The fever dream of artist Bob Casilly, who bought (in 1997) the 600,00 sq foot, 10-storey building that once housed a shoe factory, work began in earnest to convert the space into a hybrid of playground, museum and, curiously enough, repository of architectural and cultural history (Art Deco and Beaux Art mouldings, doorways, and other various features from lost historic buildings now reside throughout the rooms) . The centrepiece of an already monumentally stupefying environment is the exterior MonstroCity, a dizzying network of slides, metal climbing shafts, bridges and objects (including the fuselage of a Sabreliner 40 aircraft and a castle turret, all materials repurposed), some perilously suspended high overground, through which overjoyed children (and more than a few adults) scuttle and creep. You can only stand and wonder at the enormity of the health and safety sanctions in place. Inside, in addition to a series of restaurants and rest areas for parents, as well as activity rooms for kids, is found the Shoe Shafts, a series of spiral conveyances once used to shift product from floor to floor, now recast as slightly intimidating, elongated slides, from which a visitor may choose between a 10-storey or 5-storey plunge, periodically soundtracked to the fateful intonations of a Wurlitzer pipe organ. Beneath this space lies the dimly-lit, fascinating Enchanted Caves, a disorientingly narrow system of constructed pathways and portals and corridors, some of which only uncomfortably loop back on themselves. The ground floor offers the single largest continuous piece of tiling in the U.S., extending from the floor up along the supporting  columns and along the stairway, beautifully patterned and coloured. The eye is repeatedly engaged, as there is a constant surrounding flux of activity, bodies climbing, crawling, ceaseless motion. A rooftop area, which includes a pond, a working Ferris wheel, and a school bus precariously perched over the side of the building, is open only on weekends, so I wasn’t able to access it. A truly astonishing day may end with a walk and visit to the nearby iconic Arch (which I would not recommend to those who suffer the least bit of claustrophobia, as the dimension of the car that transports the curious to the top is no bigger than the interior of a washing machine, is absent of windows, and crowds five people at a time!). From there, it’s easy to retire to the City Garden, a verdant stretch of urban land and space devoted to sculpture, hosting 30 pieces by an international set of artists. On indecently hot days, the newly opened Kaldi’s cafe offers respite and sanctuary in the form of cold drinks-from a perch on the terrace, you may take in more than a few of the garden’s features. In a city still visually struggling to emerge from the recent economic collapse, these are perfect examples of positive and ambitious development and investment projects (City Museum continues to add new layers, and the immediate area around the arch is currently undergoing a large-scale cosmetic upgrade).




An hour’s journey from London’s Waterloo station (33-some miles from the City) is this resplendently scenic Surrey town, the central feature of which is the stunning 2,200 hectare Crown Estate-run park through which Virginia Lake dazzlingly and tranquilly twists and winds. A visitor may choose from several paths throughout the spacious environment, visit various specialty gardens, even pass by a 100-foot tall totem pole (presented to the Queen in 1958 by the Canadian people to mark the centenary of British Columbia), a waterfall and, bizarrely enough, encounter a Roman ruin folly (actually remnants from myriad buildings from the Mediterranean city of Leptis shipped to Windsor in 1817, but not assembled onsite until 1826 after a decade’s rest at the British Museum, a “gift” from the Consul General in Tripoli to the future George IV). The main pathway is a gently rambling  and profoundly serene 4-and-a-half mile course around the lake, a true riot of arboreal and floral porn, especially at this time of year, the landscape a relentless fertile rush. The occasional dog scampers nearby, frolicking in the water, other people calmly amble past. You feel a pleasantly helpless surrender to the healing thrust of nature. Surrounding the park is the Wentworth Estate, an enclave of stylish mansions and extensive grounds, mostly tantalisingly revealed in brief glimpses from between tightly planted perimeter hedges or through gates (you are meant to wander its streets only after being granted permission from the estate council, a principle which I outright flouted). This area has the distinction of being second only to London in house prices, the average property set at £1.3 million and beyond. Immersed in the wonder of the lake and woods and gardens, impossibly lush residences and clean, prodigious air, it’s quite easy to feel a world away from urban terrorist attacks and tower block tragedies, a soulful and salvaging balm.



DAY OUT img_1075

Either because I am a masochist or just merely unadulterated in my obstinacy (and driven by unmodest curiosity), I found myself exploring the final stage of the Shipwright’s Way, the trail about which I wrote a few weeks back detailing my experience with the challenging terrain of its initial stages miles away in the Alice Holt Forest region. I could not prepare myself for the vastly contrasting conditions of this concluding section of the route which amounts to an immensely pleasurable and scenic coastal walk along broad expanses and paved roadways. img_1076Portsmouth is replete with picturesque sights, from the gargantuan Historic Dockyards (a full day of activity in itself, with access to several brilliant examples of Britain’s naval might and glory) to the sleekly modern curve of the Spinnaker Tower with its observation deck  (a shapely pledge to the city’s nautical identity) to the stunning retail development of Gunwharf Quays.img_1081 Old Portsmouth is a period marvel of pubs and housing, mostly undisturbed by the contemporary, dotted with remnants of the city’s military past (the Square and Round Tower which were amongst the earliest stone fortifications, the glorious ruin of the Garrison Church). The area also provides an intriguing tiered walking path informed by a structure of defence walls. Positioned slightly offshore are the curious and imposing circular Solent Forts, once solid bastions of protection now repurposed as luxury accommodations and events spaces. img_1083Further along are the attractions of the South Parade Pier and the sprawling complex of the Royal Marines Museum. Southsea neighbourhood is well worth a diversion, a satisfying mix of humbly cheap and cheerful traditional businesses with trendy bistros and cafes, coexisting comfortably. Just off the slightly bewildering sight of the Flemish inspired clock tower (with its wooden medieval soldiers standing guard) is the one establishment I would recommend you not miss if visiting the area-Pie & Vinyl, a cafe featuring a full homemade menu of the beloved staple (with several vegetarian and vegan options) along with a full-service music shop with space for many an in-store appearance by up and coming alternative bands. img_1077The decor is a shower of funky eclecticism, a storm of knickknacks crowding the shelves, soft lighting casting an inviting twilight thrum upon the dark wood surfaces, as if happening upon a warm inn after a day’s long journey (at least this is how I encountered it in the late afternoon hours). img_1078Trains run frequently from Waterloo station and the travel time (if on a fairly direct route) is just over an hour. I must also assure any travellers who suffer overactive bladders need not worry, as I’ve never encountered such a prevalence of public loos in my life as I did along this promenade. Extraordinary.




Nothing in any of the advance informational literature I read (including a diary penned by a journalist I believed to be a hapless urbanite given the task of reporting on a hearty rural biking route) prepared me for this rigourous, challenging sprawl of terrain. Part of the same regional system of pathways that provided such a serene and striking stroll along the Basingstoke Canal this summer has now yielded a much more primal and basic stretch of land to traverse. Due in part, perhaps, to the time of year in which I elected to experience it, what with its deep, inhospitable ruts of mud and slickly dangerous overlay of wet, compact leaves, its utter lack of interest in pavement of any kind, I felt as if I was engaged in an extreme sports course, but without the proper BMX-sponsored bicycle model! img_1038The 50-mile route begins in Alice Holt Forest and winds all the way to Portsmouth Harbour, with a slight detour (via ferry) at Hayling Island, and is comprised of 12 sections, broken into parts anywhere from 2-7.5 mile stretches. Signage isn’t consistently conspicuous so a certain degree of vigilance is required lest you go off-track. The route is named for the journey oak timber grown in Alice Holt Forest would take to the dockyards of Portsmouth for the building of stately Tudor vessels. img_1040The path was just officially opened this past autumn, and is serviced along its course by several rail stations, so it’s quite easy to pick up at any juncture. Several rest stops along the way, including historic pubs and funky cafes, offer respite and flavour for a weary pilgrim. Despite any misgivings I may have, I will return to portions of the trail I didn’t get to conquer on my initial visit, perhaps on foot this time and at a different time of year, to compare and contrast degrees of difficulty, although I suspect that at any given moment, this trail may be for the more adventurous and ambitious traveller.