Sunday, 8 December 2019

The days of empty Lidos: London Fields and Brockwell Park

I went for a swim a couple of weeks ago for the first time at London Fields Lido. I was surprised how busy it was on a cold and wet November day, even with a heated outdoor pool. Lunch afterwards from the famous Jewish Deli stall on nearby Broadway market was also excellent.

On the way out I bumped into an old friend who swims there regularly and he reminded me that the Lido had only reopened in 2006 having been left closed and empty for many years. He recalled going there when it was squatted and used for events by Reclaim the Streets and others in the 1990s. 

'In at the deep end' - Reclaim the Streets benefit at London Fields Lido, 1993
I didn’t go there then but it was a similar story in South London at Brockwell Park Lido, close to where I used to live in Brixton.  I went there occasionally when I moved to London in the late 1980s, as I recall it was as much a place to hang out in the sun (Brixton beach) as to swim, don't recall too many triathletes bombing up and down the lanes in those days but maybe I was just unaware. The Lido closed in 1990 due to Council funding cuts, but the vacant building was occupied at various points for parties and other events, and I went there a few times - I remember going to visit a friend, a German squatter, when she was living in a room by the side of the pool. A big event was the Exploding Cinema 'Dive In' festival in August 1993, where films were projected in the empty pool. The Lido reopened the following year, and I have been back and actually swum in it with water and everything! Long may it last

'Life is a swimming pool in the terminal bunker' 

Exploding Cinema Dive-In festival  at Brockwell Lido, August 1993 (more at Brixton Buzz)

Hard to believe with the current outdoor swimming revival that we nearly lost these places permanently. Others such as Victoria Park and Peckham Rye Lido were demolished in that 1980s/90s period. There were active plans too to demolish London Fields, with campaigners having to block a bulldozer at one point (see history of campaign to reopen it here). So thanks to the people who in different ways kept the buildings in use in the dark days of the empty Lidos.

The video for Serafina Steer's lovely 'Night before mutiny' (2012) was filmed at London Fields Lido. Directed by Jarvis Cocker, it features Asha Randall and Olivia Federici of the UK Olympic Synchronised swimming team 

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Running the lost river Peck

Secret Rivers, a recent exhibition at the Museum of Docklands, highlighted London’s lost and neglected waterways. As the city spread in the 19th century rivers and streams were increasingly covered up and diverted underground through pipes and sewers. Still for the most part they continue some kind of subterranean existence and we may even find some ghostly traces remaining above ground.

One such 'lost river' is the Peck, which apart from one small section has largely disappeared from view in its South London home. A couple of weeks ago I set out to run its course.

View from One Tree Hill
I started from One Tree Hill at Honor Oak close to the supposed source of the river, always a bracing run up to the summit from Brenchley Gardens. From the top there are great views across London. I paused too to remember the time I played three-sided football there 20 years ago

. There's no sign of the river here or on its route flowing down to Peckham Rye, although running down Kelvington Road/Cheltenham Road towards the Rye you do pass another hidden body of water - the covered Honor Oak Reservoir with its improbable Aquarius Golf Club course on top.

Peckham Rye park is the only place where a section of the Peck can still be seen.
Along with many other runners I have lapped this park many times during Peckham parkrun. The course crosses the narrow stream and its rivulets five times so each parkrunner crosses 15 times every Saturday morning.

The area of the park through which the stream flows was first laid out in the late 19th century with its current course there being the result of human landscaping. It is sometimes little more than a trickle, but at least here the water can be seen and appreciated.

One part of the park is known as the Sexby Gardens, named after horticulturist and first Superintendent of London County Council Parks Department, Lt-Colonel J.J. Sexby who oversaw the development of many London parks. His fascinating 1905 book ‘The municipal parks, gardens, and open spaces of London; their history and associations’ includes a description of the Peckham Rye water features:  'In a secluded hollow delightfully shaded with trees a lake has been made. It has an island in the centre and is fed by a small watercourse running though the grounds, which has been formed into a number of pools by artificial dams. This rivulet has its source in a fountain springing out of the rockwork, and thence meanders through the park, receiving some life when babbling over some miniature waterfalls before its entrance to the lake' (you can read/download the whole book for free at

Illustration from Sexby's book

The river now disappears underground with its course following the western edge of the park (Dulwich side) towards Peckham. Greenwood's 1830 Map of London  shows what seems to be a pond fed by the river on the north end of the Common, the triangle now cut off by East Dulwich Road. This was also the location of Peckham Lido which was open from 1923 to 1987 - plans have been put forward to rebuild it, we can only hope.

Peckham Lido

 The map shows the river carrying on down Peckham Rye, past the White Horse (a pub of the same name still stands on the same spot) and then more or less  following the line of what is now Copeland Road, with a footpath alonside it. In the 1830s it seems to have filled a pool in what is marked on the map as a brick field site - this may have been a result of quarrying rather than a natural feature.

1830 map

After that the river is believed to have crossed Queens Road and headed towards the Old Kent Road crossing it at a point somewhere north of the the Ilderton Road junction - I ran down Consort Road, Kings Grove and alongside Brimmington Park to Old Kent Road then crossed over and ran down Ormside Road before joining Ilderton Road. Somewhere in the vicinity of South Bermondsey Station the Peck joined the Earls Sluice, another now buried stream which still flows on to the Thames - but today as part of an underground sewer. I will return to the Earls Sluice another day.

Peckham Lights - from a series of contour maps of the Peck and its environs by artist Loraine Rutt

Here's my River Peck running route - full details on mapmyrun - just under 7k  though I actually ran 12k getting to and from the route. It's an approximation of the course of the river, as there are fences, railways and buildings in the way 

For other people's takes on the route see: London's Lost Rivers, Londonist,  Peckham Society, Diamond Geezer

Monday, 16 September 2019

Let's go to Dungeness

 Dungeness on the Kent coast has a famously bleak beauty, a shingle headland between Romney marsh and the Channel. Taking advantage of the September sunshine, we went down at the weekend.  A couple of intrepid members of our party swam in the sea but I contented myself with a run around the area - flat for miles around with the only real hazard apart from the occasional car  being stretches of running on pebbles. 

Other than than the nuclear power station there is a stretch of mainly wooden low houses in unfenced plots facing the sea, two lighthouses and a couple of pubs.  It is very much a working stretch of coast, with fishing boats pulled up on the shore as well as the decaying remains of previous seaside industry. Sea anglers certainly outunumber sunbathers, in fact I didn't see any of the latter.

We had a drink at the Britannia Inn, and food from the Fish Hut Snack Shack which is just what it sounds like. Freshly caught fish served up with salads, rolls and wraps with a vegan alternative for those so inclined. We also popped into the End of the Line cafe, located at the local train station at the end of the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch light railway (where there are clean public toilets incidentally).

Dungeness has its own micro-climate with lots of wildlife. I saw a couple of black redstarts which are fairly rare.

Prospect Cottage, pictured below, was the home of film maker Derek Jarman (1942-1994) in the later period of his life. His Dungeness garden, built around driftwood and other beach finds, became quite celebrated and still attracts visitors.  

Jarman was one of the most outspoken public figures talking about living with HIV in the early 1990s, a period when I was working in the AIDS sector. I like the fact that a plaque was recently placed to mark the 25th anniversary of his death at another place he lived, Butlers Wharf by Tower Bridge (close to my work and which I often run past)

Derek Jarman plaque at Butlers Wharf  'film-maker, artist and gay rights activist'

I looked back at his Dungeness diary from September 1992 (published in 'Dancing in Slow Motion') - 'Swallows swoop low around the house... The garden has never looked better'. He mentions a visit by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (drag nun AIDS activists) who had annointed him a queer saint -'we all walked to the sea where the most intrepid paddled in the waves' with 'nuns changing in the loos of the Britannia Inn'

'here comes another winter of long shadows and high hopes'

Dungeness has featured in numerous films, videos and photoshoots because there is nowhere else quite like it. The Prodigy  (Indvaders must die) and Nicki Minaj (there's a funny film of her being carried down the boardwalk while making Freedom video) have shot there, while Athlete and Trembling Bells are amongst those namechecking it in songs. I particularly like the fact that the cover of joyous noughties album ‘So much for the City’ by The Thrills was apparently shot there. The album is essentially a fantasy of West Coast USA as imagined from Ireland. The band even got to appear in the OC - let’s just say that Dungeness is a long way from the Orange County.

Sunday, 21 July 2019

The View from a Hill - getting lost in the Sierra Cabrera

I recently had a family holiday in the semi-desert landscape of Almeria in Spain - an area where many classic 'western' films were made, such as Sergio Leone's 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' and 'Once upon a time in the West'. We stayed in Los Matreros, a tiny village on the edge of the Sierra Cabrera mountains, with lots of great running trails if you don't mind hills... and more hills stretching in all directions.

The best feature of where we were staying was a swimming pool where we all spent lots of time. In the evening swallows would dive around it - one flew in to the house and got trapped there (eventually it got tired and I was able to gently cover it in a sheet then released it outside).

The pool was oriented towards a striking hill on the other side of a dried up river valley so I was determined to run up it. It seemed easy enough, I could see that there was a track that wound around and up the lower part of it at least.

So I set off one morning, following the track as it headed behind the hill and then clambering up towards the top - my legs getting scratched by bushes as I did so. Of course I wanted to look back at where we were staying and I could see the small village of white buildings nestled into the hills opposite. But I could not see our house at all and it should have been easy to spot as it was next to the only high trees in the village. There was no sign of the trees or the house.

After a while I concluded that I must have been looking at a different village altogether but I couldn't work out how it could be in apparently the same place. If I was standing on top of this hill surely I must be able to see the house as from the house there was such a clear view of the hill. I had a spooky sensation that brought to mind M R James' classic ghost story 'A View from a Hill' (1925). 

James sets up the story by making it clear that a traveller is heading into unknown (to him) and sparsely populated territory: 'How pleasant it can be, alone in a first-class railway carriage, on the first day of a holiday that is to be fairly long, to dawdle through a bit of English country that is unfamiliar, stopping at every station. You have a map open on your knee, and you pick out the villages that lie to right and left by their church towers. You marvel at the complete stillness that attends your stoppage at the stations, broken only by a footstep crunching the gravel...He was in the depths of the country. I need not particularise further than to say that if you divided the map of England into four quarters, he would have been found in the south-western of them'

Stopping at his destination, the local Squire accompanies him on a walk - 'it was hot, climbing a slippery grass slope that evening.... A small clump of old Scotch firs crowned the top of the hill; and, at the edge of it, commanding the cream of the view, was a wide and solid seat, on which the two disposed themselves, and wiped their brows, and regained breath. ‘Now, then,’ said the Squire, as soon as he was in a condition to talk connectedly, ‘this is where your glasses come in. But you’d better take a general look round first. My word! I’ve never seen the view look better.’

Looking through the binoculars that he has been lent, the protagonist spots buildings in the distance that he cannot see with the naked eye and which his companion cannot see either. There is a gallows and a large church. The explanation in this case is that the binoculars have been manufactured with some act of sorcery that enables people using them to see what was there in the past.

In my case the explanation was more prosaic - it dawned on me that I must in fact be on a different hill to the one I thought I was on. I ran down and up the similar shaped adjacent hill and yes there was our village and house, with my son waving at me from by the pool. 

It was a reminder to me of just how quickly and easily you can become lost and disorientated in hills. You take a wrong path, imagine you are somewhere when in fact you are somewhere else, and if you continue you could find yourself in trouble in some circumstances.   When I hear about people doing solo running feats in hills and mountains  I am impressed by the endurance of endless ascent and descent but most of all I am impressed by how people can navigate in such landscapes, often in dark and/or harsh weather conditions. The potential dangers are the reason, for instance, why the Bob Graham club discourage unaccompanied solo attempts to run the famous round of Lake District mountains in 24 hours. 

My little run in Spain was certainly no Bob Graham round and I was not in any danger but it was a reminder not to take the lonely hills lightly. 

The sun rises over the hills while running on the Summer Solstice 2019

Monday, 27 May 2019

Off our Blocks - 1990s women's sport zine with a guide to running London parks

I recently came a couple of issues of  'Off our Blocks' a 'women's team sports zine' published in London in the mid 1990s, a time when women's sport had very little media recognition. This seems to have been a modest attempt to redress this in the DIY photocopied zine format more commonly used for music and politics at this time. The name of course refers to the starting blocks in running and swimming but was presumably also referencing the US feminist magazine 'Off our Backs' which was quite influential in this period. 

Anyway issue number one from 1994 includes a hand written guide to 'Running the parks of London' with tips on 'things to contemplate while training'. Runners in Holland Park are advised to 'watch out for slow moving nannies and elderly gentleman feeding the squirrels' and 'secondary kids smoking in the bushes at lunchtime', while Kensington Gardens comes with a warning to watch out for 'duck shit, picnicking tourists, rollerbladers, exploding embassies'.

As the contact address for 'Off our Blocks' was in London SE7 (Charlton) no surprise to see Blackheath featured with things to contemplate including 'lots of Georgian houses and BMW’s' and 'why Canary Wharf seems to keep changing position'. As well as 'whether or not to extend the run to nearby Greenwich Park' described as having the 'best views over London at any park. Very up-and-down, so good for endurance but bad if you’ve not done much for a while'.

25 years later these parks are still full of runners, not sure if much has changed from these descriptions. Is there still a marked out 'Peace mile' in Finsbury Park? In terms of running parklife in London the biggest change of course has been the advent of parkrun, a guide to which would take a whole book.

According to a note in Issue 2, the editors of Off Our Blocks were Cress Rolfe and Jen Strang. I came across these zines in 'Still I rise: feminisms, gender, resistance, Act 2' at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill on Sea. The exhibition closed on 27 May 2019.

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Running Songs: The Blackleg Miner

During the nineteenth century, and indeed earlier, a competitive run was often referred to as a 'foot race', presumably to distinguish the human event from a horse race. Foot races, even before the birth of modern athletics, were sometimes a big deal attracting thousands of spectators (see examples here). Still extensive research (OK I just looked at the considerable archive of folk songs at  Traditional Songs and similar sites) has only uncovered one song that specifically mentions a foot race.

Surprizingly (to me) it is the famous strike song, The Blackleg Miner, which includes the lines:

'Oh, Delaval is a terrible place.
They rub wet clay in the blackleg's face,
And aroond the heaps they run a foot race,
To catch the blackleg miner!'

The song apparently dates back to a miners strike in 1844, undermined by 'scab' strikebreakers who in mining areas became known as blacklegs - those who ignored strike calls to work in the mines were of course identifiable by coal dust on their legs and elsewhere. Stakes were high in this period with thousands of strikers and their families evicted from their homes in Northumberland (Seaton Delavel is a village in this area which had a colliery), and violent threats to those undermining the strikes. Hence the threat to 'rub wet clay in the blackleg's face' (or worse) and to 'run a foot race,
To catch the blackleg miner'.

Local records document the popularity of foot racing in this period in the North East of England. On July 18 1842, 'A foot race, for £150 aside, took place at Butcher Race, near Durham, between two men, named Atkinson and Whitehead. Nearly 15,000 persons were present, the event exciting great interest. Atkinson fell about 20 yards from the goal' (Local records; or, Historical register of remarkable events, which have occurred in Northumberland & Durham, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Berwick-upon-tweed, 1832-1857). No doubt events like this were in the mind of the anonymous songwriter when they coined the image of miners racing to catch the strikebreaker.

Incidentally, I heard this song performed last week by folk band 'A Grande Scheme', playing atthe Free Woodland Folk Music Festival in Brockley Nature Reserve as part of the Telegraph Hill Festival in South East London.

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Dunstable Downs parkrun

Dunstable Downs rise in Bedfordshire on the edge of the Chiltern Hills. The chalk grassland landscape is partially managed by the National Trust, and is famous for gliders and kite flyers making the most of the air currents at this highest spot in the county. I grew up nearby and have spent many happy hours there walking, running, and taking in the great views of the surrounding countryside, so I was delighted to hear that a parkrun had started there in February.

Delighted but also daunted - the Downs rise to 203m above sea level. I am pleased to report that the course stays at the top of the escarpment rather than requiring a steep descent/ascent, though there is a short uphill section near the start and some undulations along the way.

I ran the 6th event (6/4/19) and I have to say this was one of the best parkrun courses I have run. It is a single lap out and back across the hilltop, heading through some woodland and around a couple of fields, almost entirely on grass/trail. The start is right next to the National Trust cafe/car park at the Downs' highest point with the finish at the beacon nearby.

115 runners took part when I ran, with local clubs represented including Dunstable Road Runners, Dacorum and Tring AC and St Albans Striders. First finisher - as he has been for most of the parkruns there so far - was St Albans' Steve Buckle in 17:35.

The course heads along part of the Icknield Way, so you are following some ancient footsteps not to mention those of Robert Macfarlane who describes a walk along this route in his great book 'The Old Ways: a Journey of Foot' (2012): 'I was soon on the summit ridge of Dunstable Downs, where scores of people were having fun. I sat and rested in a cooling wind and watched children flying kites. My legs preserved a ghost sense of stride, a muscle memory of repeated action, and twitched forward even as I rested'.  

Macfarlane was himself following the footsteps of Edward Thomas who describes his walk in 'The Icknield Way' (1913). Looking back over the Downs he is struck, like many visitors, by the grandeur of the skies as much as the hills: ' The air was now still and the earth growing dark and already very quiet. But the sky was light and its clouds of utmost whiteness were very wildly and even fiercely shaped, so that it seemed the playground of powerful and wanton spirits knowing nothing of earth. And this dark earth appeared a small though also a kingly and brave place in comparison with the infinite heavens now so joyous and so bright and out of reach'.

I drove to the Downs this time, on other occasions I have run up from Dunstable. Coming in that direction a chalk pathway passes over Five Knolls, a series of burial mounds dating back to the Neolithic but with burials from other times too, including the Medieval period when a gallows was located there.

Other Bedfordshire runs:

Monday, 18 February 2019

The Ponds and the Southerns: Swimming and running in the Hampstead Heath sporting landscape

I enjoyed 'The Ponds' (2018),  Patrick McLennan and Samuel Smith's documentary following a year in the life of the famous outdoor men's, women's and mixed swimming ponds on London's Hampstead Heath. Much of what was said about the joys of this kind of swimming can be translated to running - the therapeutic effects of exercise, the appreciation of being outdoors in all weathers, the companionship of the intrepid band of enthusiasts.

I was particularly struck by one of the swimmers referring to what he referred to as a Russian concept of  living water ('Zhivaya voda'), with the pools somehow infused with some of the life force of all who have swam in them before- something continually renewed by each swimmer returning to the water.

I sometimes have a similar sensation running over historic courses in the footsteps of thousands who have run them before. This is nowhere more so than on Hampstead Heath where I ran in the South of England Cross Country Championships last month. Athletics shares the sporting landscape of the Heath with swimming, with its cross country courses and of course the Highgate Harriers running track at the bottom of Parliament Hill  - in recent years home to the iconic 'Night of 10,000m PBs' races.

The cross country races start by another swimming landmark on the Heath - the Parliament Fields Lido -from where so many runners have charged up to the top of the hill at the start of the National and Southern Champs. Most of the greats of English athletics have run that course, including David Bedford who incidentally features briefly in 'The Ponds' as a sometime swimmer.

The start of the senior women's race in South of England Cross Country Championships,
Parliament Hill, 26 January 2019
The Southerns have been happening on the Heath since 1954 and the Nationals since 1957, but as the even longer history of the Ponds shows we should not take this for granted. As recently as 2004 the City of London Corporation, which is responsible for the Heath, tried to close down the Ponds but backed down after a successful campaign. I saw 'The Ponds' last month at a screening at the Phoenix Cinema (East Finchley) with a Q&A afterwards with the directors and a representative of the Kenwood Ladies Pond Association. The latter mentioned that the Ponds have got increasingly busy with the current outdoor swimming boom, something that some of those used to the previous early morning solitude may be ambivalent about - but which helps build the case that stopping swimming there would be unthinkable. Likewise there were nearly 6,000 entries for the Southern cross country champs this year. Long may running and swimming continue on the living tracks and waters of Hampstead Heath.

See previously:

Back to Parliament Hill: South of England Cross Country Championships 2016
National Cross Country Champs, Parliament Hill 2015