A Straight Line Walk Across London

by Paul K Lyons

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Brighton Cross

Kip Fenn
A novel about
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2 - Objets d'auto, subway murals, green sandstone and motorway noise

Leaving Rockshaw Road and turning north along a path which follows the 300 easting almost exactly, I find a rotting car. There's a lot of grubby litter lying around, but the car itself, with all its innards and wiring exposed and every bit of metal turned rust-brown, is rather attractive. The earth and nature seem to be reclaiming it, albeit slowly. It must have been here for years. A few yards further north, still very close to the 300 easting, I find a large square-shaped concrete subway that takes me under the M23. It's wide enough for a road, but there's no vehicle access, and, oddly, it's as tall as it is wide, as though it was built to allow machinery to pass through. At the south end, there's an abandoned scooter, in several pieces, as rusty as it's nearby companion, the car. It could be a still life art exhibit. There are two murals at the north end of the tunnel. One is in a cartoon style. It pictures a youngish boy with a pointed head, pointed chin, and pointed ears. He is screaming, perhaps to be heard above the roar of the motorway traffic in the surrounding areas. It's signed, I think, by T. M. L Stars (but I could be completely mistaken about this). The other mural is rather futuristic in style, all black, and grey and blue, and sinewy - perhaps it's meant to represent the the cartoon boy's brain!

I need to abandon the 300 easting for a while as there is no public footpath nearby. I walk northeast along the North Downs Way path. It takes me upwards and diagonally across a chalky field, full of young parsnips. Stones along the path glint, like quartz, and catch my eye. When I bend down to examine one of these stones, I find it is a piece of chalk with a covering of ice, and it's the crystalline ice catching the sun. I've never seen this before. Only the chalk pieces have this layer of ice, none of the other stones.

Towards the top of the field I stop and turn to look back, south to Merstham, the nearest town to the start of my walk, Reigate and, in the distance, to the line of the South Downs. The most striking feature, though, remains the motorways, which I can see below me, and in the west, beyond the Wandle Valley. Merstham (a name which is thought to mean the stone house by the mere or marsh), which is mentioned in the Domesday Book, was once famous for its green sandstone quarries. The Romans quarried here; Merstham stone was used in the rebuilding of London after the great fire in 1666 and in the building of London Bridge. At the beginning of the 19th century, the owners of the quarries, Hylton and William Jolliffe, were also involved in the famous Surrey Iron Railway which was constructed before the age of steam in 1802. Historians say it was the first public railway, which initially ran between Wandsworth and Croydon, and, in 1803-05, was extended to Merstham. Goods (such as limestone, chalk, coal, timber, flour and potatoes), not passengers, were carried on three or four wagons pulled by horses, mules and donkeys at up to four mph. By 1839, it could no longer compete with the more efficient steam railways and most of the track bed was bought by the London & Brighton Railway to be used for the main Brighton Line.

Looking casually across the landscape, there's not much obvious evidence of the old quarry areas, because such scars tend to fade with time, partly as a result of nature herself (weathering, and trees and shrubs) and partly because of man's own agricultural and building activities. The mighty M23 and M25, for example, marched right through some of the quarry areas, flattening everything in sight. However, archaeologists apart, there is one group of people that remain very interested in the quarries: The Croydon Caving Club.

The quarries are not easy to pick out from the landscape, but, by following the line of Rockshaw Road, across the M23, I can see two copses, Ockley Wood, which nestles right against the M23, and Bedlams Bank, a little further east. Beneath these two woods, sits a complex of underground tunnels, part of Chaldon Bottom Quarry. There are, according to the cavers, two entrances to the quarry tunnels, both of them near Rockshaw Road, one to the west of Ockley Wood and the M23, and the other to the east of Bedlams Bank. Gillian Robinson, a reporter on the Croydon Advertiser, who joined the Caving Club members for a rescue training exercise in 1974, said the men who mined the workings must have been dwarfs or hunchbacks judging from the height of the ceilings (Croydon Caving Club). I wonder if you can hear the motorway traffic roar underground as well as above it; and I wonder how far away I'll have to be before I can no longer hear the traffic at all. I must be nearly a mile away now, but the noise is still extremely unsettling, it makes me feel irritated, anxious. I feel - I don't know how to put this accurately - mentally disabled in some way.

I don't wish to stand in this field for much longer, and I'm keen to get as far away from the motorways as possible, but I do wish to think for a few moments about what could be done about traffic noise. In no particular order, here are a few random solutions: we could all wear earplugs, although I think the roar I can hear would penetrate them, and any real blockers would stop us talking to each other; our society could abandon cars altogether, although life without cars might be considered worse than life with traffic noise; we could separate roads and traffic from the rest of our society, which would be a tad complicated since it's the same people who make up society and drive cars; we could build roads with less noisy surfaces; we could build roads with better environmental protection barriers towards the rest of the landscape; or we could manufacture cars and tyres which create less noise.

 A Straight Line Walk Across London - along the 300 easting

by Paul K Lyons
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