Tag Archives: London sights

Highest and lowest

Ihave been thinking recently of just how high and how low I’ve travelled whilst driving a cab.

If you take sea level as the mean, the lowest seems easy

The UK’s Ordnance Datum is based on measurements at Newlyn in Cornwall, so it’ll come as no surprise to hear that the midpoint between high and low tides is generally how the zero point for altitude is defined. The highest spring tides at North Woolwich reach 12ft above sea level whereas the very lowest gets down to 9½ft below.

How low can you go?

As they say, every cloud has a silver lining. One night one of those fortuitous events happened, the London to Brighton train service was cancelled.

So here I was in a convoy of cabs heading for Brighton. Long after midnight found me parked on Madeira Drive on the seafront taking a picture of the pier, with the cab a few feet above the sea, although I’m not sure how close the tide was to the Datum Mean.

But where was the highest?

Heights can be measured above ground level, which is what we do with tall buildings, or above sea level, which is what we normally do with hills. The two measurements give different answers. The bottom of the Shard is 43ft above sea level, for example, which lifts the elevation of the observation deck from 1,014ft to 1,057ft. This turns out to be important because the highest ground in London at Westerham Heights is 804ft above sea level, and that extra 43ft makes the Shard substantially higher.

Obviously, I couldn’t take the cab to the top of the Shard, so just where have I been whilst sitting in the cab?

Researching this post using Wikipedia (naturally), I’ve discovered that a road and a house with the most magical name and address, the Grade II Listed house is very near me – Blue Boar Hall on Orange Tree Hill in Havering-Atte-Bower is at 344ft the 18th highest in London.

One of my favourite places in London, the curiously named Vale of Health in Hampstead, is slightly higher at 427ft above sea level.

I’ve never been to Westerham Heights, but if memory serves me right, its got be Stanmore Hill, the third-highest in London at 499ft that is the highest I’ve pushed the cab.

As we are on distances, what were the shortest and longest journeys?

The short is very short

The shortest journey I ever undertook involved picking up two young Japanese girls from the Heathrow Express rank in Paddington. Both were carrying suitcases twice as heavy as them and nearly their height. Not knowing their hotel’s location, and with my Japanese a little rusty, they thrust a piece of paper at me. The Prince William Hotel is located just 400 yards from the station’s exit. After much giggling and struggling, they left my cab after paying the princely sum of £1.80.

And the long is much longer

On a Saturday night, a desperate pair hailed me near Victoria station. The men had gone to a football match and downed a pint – or two. Then they discovered that a replacement rail service was in operation. Nothing unusual you might say, except there was a two- or three-hour wait for the bus and they had to get back to close their wine bar – in Bristol. I questioned their overall planning abilities but dutifully drove them home. Before leaving Bristol I was even hailed again! Pity I didn’t hold a Bristol licence.

Featured image: Havering Atte Bower farm is the 18,306th highest peak in the British Isles and the 3,942nd tallest in England © Derek Voller (CC BY-SA 2.0)

London’s Glories

St. Paul’s dome illuminated before dusk,
The zoo rhinos each with a tusk;

Claridge’s for peaceful afternoon tea,
Kew’s hive with no sign of a bee;

The Globe’s Taming of the Shrew,
The smell of Regency Place’s loo;

Highgate Cemetery with its gravestones,
Ham House eating tea with scones;

Taking a black cab for a ride,
Chelsea pensioners uniforms worn with pride;

James Smith’s umbrellas in case of rain,
Huntingdon museum displaying a brain;

Free concerts on Trafalgar Square,
Geo F Trumper to cut one’s hair;

Riding on a number 15 Routemaster bus,
On which Londoners never want to discuss;

At Greenwich standing on the Cutty Sark,
Visitors finding there’s nowhere to park;

Blitz scars on Cleopatra’s Needle,
A Burlington Arcade authoritative beadle;

Red phone boxes smelling of urine,
Smithfield’s streets once walked by bovine,

Samuel Pepys writing his diary,
Charterhouse that once was a friary;

The Millennium Bridge not now wobbly,
Thames foreshore very pebbly;

Pedestrian crossings telling look right,
The Shard with its impressive height;

Uber drivers never knowing their way,
It’s possible to see a new play every day;

Turner’s art on display in Tate Britain,
Tate Modern’s contents treated with disdain;

The Tower of London’s Norman tower,
Red poppies in the moat, full flower;

Broadcasting from Parliament Green,
New Year’s fireworks, must be seen;

Victoria Embankment beside the Thames,
The National Gallery’s its painted gems;

Vertigo on the Millennium Wheel,
Portobello Market for an antique deal;

St. James’s Park in Springtime,
The Greenwich Meridian Line;

Doggett’s Coat and Badge river race,
Hampton Court with its sense of place;

The Chinese Embassy’s protestors,
The classical architecture of my ancestors;

The New Year chimes of Big Ben,
Anything designed by Christopher Wren;

The view from the BT Tower,
Battersea station which gave us power;

Waterloo Sunset once sung by The Kinks,
The Cheshire Cheese selling more than drinks;

The highest pod of the London Eye,
Garden Museum’s grave of Captain Bligh;

Less rain than tourists expect,
Banksy graffiti in need to protect;

Modern art on the Fourth Plinth,
Hampton Court’s Maze, a labyrinth;

New Johnston font on the tube,
Modern art viewed at the White Cube;

Christmas at the Geffrye Museum,
ENO performing at the London Coliseum;

The museums of South Kensington,
No. 1 once owned by Wellington;

Realising that Dr Johnson was right,
Nelson’s column what a height?;

The Santa Maria weathervane at Temple Place,
The Tate Modern Turbine Hall what a space;

The Tube’s announcement Mind the Gap,
Old ghost signs which now look crap;

A shortcut down back streets not seen before,
Passing on London’s rich vein of lore;

Eyeballing a famous person in the street,
Knowing beneath my feet is the River Fleet;

Protected gas holders against a bright blue sky,
Keeping right at the Savoy that I have to comply;

London plane trees shedding their bark,
Piccadilly Circus adverts in the dark;

London’s constant resilience for two-thousand years,
At Greenwich straddling the world’s two spheres;

When Wordsworth penned ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’,
He did a lot better than my verse:
At Pentonville prisoners doing their porridge,
This rhyme’s gone from bad to worse.


When it comes to preserving Britain’s heritage, it is often small groups of enthusiasts who end up doing all the heavy lifting. This certainly goes for the fine volunteers behind the Stretcher Railing Society, who are campaigning to save London’s railings made of unused wartime stretchers.

[I]N THE ANTICIPATION of enormous casualties during the Second World War, more than 600,000 steel stretchers were mass-produced by Steelway in Wolverhampton to be used by Air Raid Protection officers.
The stretchers consisted of a wire mesh and two steel poles, while two kinks at either end of each pole allowed the stretcher to be rested on the ground and picked up easily.

Despite high casualties, fortunately not all the stretchers were used and authorities were left with enormous stockpiles at the end of the war. As railings across the city had been removed to aid the production of munitions and war materials, this seemed like the perfect opportunity and stretchers were turned into railings. Across London, particularly in the south-east and east, they were welded together and fixed into position.

Today, there are still many post-war estates that have surviving stretcher railings, although it’s fair to say that most have seen better days.

Now history enthusiasts are pooling their efforts to preserve them and have called for passers-by to send in pictures of railing sightings.

Go to www.stretcherrailings.com


Wheel of fortune

Today we have the London Eye which is rightly regarded as a marvel of modern engineering.

Tall as it is the wheel is not London’s first. In 1895 the World’s tallest Ferris wheel opened at Earls Court.

The Great or Gigantic Wheel (as it is called on the brooch left) stood at 310ft, today’s Eye is only a third taller at 443ft.

[F]orty open air gondolas each holding 30 people with 10 handsomely furnished for 1st class passenger and five were smoking capsules. A total of 1,200 passengers could be accommodated at a time (the London Eye by comparison has 32 capsules and a capacity of just 800).

It was based upon the Ferris wheel at the Chicago Exhibition of 1893 and of the dozens subsequently built by its designers only the Ferris wheel in Vienna which featured in the 1949 film The Third Man remains.

The Earl’s Court wheel was originally planned to have built recreation towers on either side with lifts carrying visitors up to the axle, through which it would have been possible to walk.

When in operation a completed revolution with interruptions, so that passengers could admire the view, took 20 minutes and during its 12 years carried 2½ million passengers its Vanity Fair described it as ‘A revolution of the Graydon wheel will exalt the passengers in its forty cars by 300 feet above the groundlings . . . it can hardly be doubted that we shall all do the circular trip at Earl’s Court – rising as if in a balloon, in a comfortable carriage, without risk and “without exertion”, rising as if in a balloon in a comfortable carriage without risk and without exertion’.

The Builders publications were more critical:

We have as little sympathy with this foolish kind of sensational toy as we have with Eiffel towers . . . it is only a pity that all the ability and cost expended in its construction should not be devoted to some more useful end than carrying coach-loads of fools round a vertical circle.

The wheel was notoriously temperamental and ‘stuck on the wheel’ became an over-used excuse for lateness. But for some sightseers, the ride made them very late indeed.

At 9pm on 28th May 1896, just as passengers were enjoying panoramic views from the top, the drive mechanism snapped and the wheel came to an abrupt stop. It was clear repairs would take some time so sailors from the Royal Navy were called in to climb the wheel with iced buns and soda water for the stranded.

When midnight struck and engineers were still scratching their heads, the Band of the Grenadier Guards assembled at the base to blast out some jolly tunes.

Weary passengers were eventually freed at 7 o’clock next morning and as they disembarked, each was given a crisp £5 note. The next day some 11,000 gathered to ride on the wheel, in the hope of another breakdown. The episode spawned a music-hall song ‘I’ve Got The Five-Pound Note’).

The wheel was pulled down in 1906. Kensington and Chelsea library has a full illustrated account of The Great (or Gigantic) Wheel. Picture: Big Wheel Brooch on Ebay.