A lot of bad things are written about LAND'S END, the westernmosttip of the Cornish peninsula. I loved it... but only when I stepped away from the commercialised blemish at its heart.
To get here requires driving as far as you can go - the A30 starts in Hounslow and ends at the gate to the car park. Cars and coaches rumble down the final twisty lane, past a kiosk which later in the season will collect their parking fee. Those who've walked from John O'Groats are afforded a painted finishing line, simultaneously marked up as 'Start' for those heading in the opposite direction, its chequerboard pattern barely visible after last winter storms. And straight ahead is what looks like a late-1980s carpet warehouse, with white-pillared portico and Land's End written boldly above the colonnade. You're welcome.
In good news, stepping inside this mini theme park is free, as is access to the coast beyond. The owners hope you'll wander into the West Country Shopping Village for something to take away, and the coach parties duly do, picking over the branded leisurewear, scented candles and boxes of fudge. They hope you'll get hungry and stop for a snack-on-the-go or pause for a cream tea, then extend your stay with a meal in the hotel restaurant. But most of all they hope you'll buy tickets for their interactive attractions, especially targeted at children they know will get bored of looking at the sea after a few minutes.
Throughout my visit the Wallace and Gromit theme tune blared out on endless loop, with a member of staff stood outside A Grand Experience attempting to shame passing parents into allowing their offspring inside. I saw no takers for Arthur's World, an interactive mythical challenge in a big shed, nor for the Lost World cinema show, described as 4D because it includes a bit of shaking and squirting. The gloomiest employee sat waiting inside a kiosk entitled Land's End Doughnut Company, mute and inactive until a mother with a pushchair finally put his fryer to use by purchasing a single greasy ring. I spent 25p on a postcard, and left it at that.
Walk round the back of this obstructivecluster and there, finally, is the sea. It's immediately obviously that geography got lucky here. England's easternmost point is a drab coastal defence in Lowestoft, but the landscape at Land's End is blessed with an igneous intrusion of microgranite, and clifftops careering down to frothing Atlantic breakers. A mile offshore is a rocky reef named the Longships, complete with working Victorian lighthouse to keep shipping firmly at bay. Rather further out lie the Scillies, although they weren't visible last weekend, even if you fired up the Talking Telescope, and beyond that three thousand miles of ocean.
This is where Land's End's famous signpost is located, and jealously guarded by the custodians of the alphabet tiles. It stands on a chained-off terrace slap bang in front of the best view, and belongs not to the company that owns the theme park but to an independent family business. Nobody prevented me from snapping my own photo of the post, from a distance, but if you want to be stood grinning beside it, expect to pay. I guess everyone who's walked from John O'Groats coughs up.
To get your hometown added to one arm, plus its approximate mileage, costs a minimum of £9.95. The photographer will zoom in for a professional photo, then go away and develop it, and eventually post a mounted copy to your home address. In this selfie age it's all very old-school, a bit like the service provided by a school photographer. Gary Barlow's had his taken, and Professor Brian Cox, and a Dalek, according to the samples pinned up alongside, as did a family from Nepal and Dave♥Samantha on the day I was there.
Intriguingly the Land's End resort isn't built at the mainland's absolute westernmost point, which is about 200 metres to the north. That's the delightfully named Dr Syntax's Head, a stubby finger of land descending sharply out to sea and ending in a stump of granite columns. However most of this extremity is fenced off, behind copious signs saying Dangerous Cliffs and a slew of information boards (whose information appears to have been removed for winter). The accessible part includes the First and Last House, which has been dishing out souvenirs and refreshment since the 19th century, although this year's ice cream season isn't yet underway.
I suspect this is as far as the majority of visitors get. But from here the South West Coast Path heads off uphill as a rough track, and within a few strides you can leave the commercial heart of the Land's End resort far behind. I was fortunate and timed my assault during Saturday's single hour of sunshine, and had the subsequent mile of undulating trail pretty much to myself. These scenic rocky uplands are protected by the National Trust, swinging high over sheer cliffs I could only see properly once I'd walked further round.
The path remained just-about trainer-friendly throughout, even where it crossed tiny streamlets channelling recent rain towards a coastal waterfall. I picked up a couple of tiny chunks of sparkly granite I thought would be nice to take home. I paused partway round to enter the remains of Maen Castle, an Iron Age fort on a promontory, whose ramparts now appear as an oblique scattering of rocks. And I peered cautiously down into the cove at Castle Zawn where the cargo ship RMS Mülheim ran aground after the chief officer fell unconscious after a trouser-related incident. The wreck occurred 15 years ago this week, and even now the remains of the bulkhead remain smashed and rusting, jammed into the shore.
My destination was Sennen Cove, England's westernmost village, squeezed in above the sweep of Whitesand Bay. Half its residents live along a single road along the clifftop, and the other half along the promenade (where'll you'll find the lifeboat station, gift shop and chippie). What brings the place to life is its surf school, taking advantage of the phenomenal waves which, on my visit, were crashing in at the lower end of the beach. I stood alongside a bloke with a zoom lens wrapped up in a Co-Op carrier bag, and numerous yappy dog walkers, watching chilled rubber-clad bodies braving the swell. And then I walked back to Land's End.
And then I carried on along the cliffs to the south, for good measure. Daytrippers are encouraged this way to visit Greeb Farm, another paid-for attraction nestled up a tiny valley, whose off-duty llamas and Shetland ponies can be seen for free in stonewalled enclosures out front. But climb the footpath round the back, following the track by the footbridge, and you'll emerge onto what the resort's map describes as Wild Land's End, i.e. nobody's yet wrecked it.
Wahey, this is "I can't believe they're letting us get this close to the edge" territory. The path opens out onto an exposed rocky headland, Carn Greeb, offshore from which is a heavily-jointed granite stack in whose clefts numerous seabirds reside. The next big rock along the shore has even more birdlife, plus two seaward holes, one of which passes straight through to create an arch while the other is 'merely' a cave. Standing here brought my old school geography textbook properly to life, amid coastal geomorphology at its most fetishistic.
The official South West Coast Path traverses a little further inland, but this little footpath hugs the coastline improperly close, ducking down into sodden grass then rising sharply upwards round the rim of a crumbling ravine. Ten minutes of careful tread - walking boots recommended - will set you up on top of the next headland looking back across thunderous waves towards scoured cliffs and a distant four star hotel. Wallace and Gromit are not required, the landscape of Land's End is perfectly spectacular enough as it is.
Meanwhile, ST IVES sits on the Atlantic coast of far-west Cornwall. It's no Penzance, it's quite the tourist trap.
St Ives has a population of eleven and a half thousand (which for those of us with a SW Herts mindset makes it approximately a Croxley Green). It's very much not Croxley Green, though, it's a) absurdly gorgeous b) intrinsically arty c) a bit of a surfer's paradise. There is a catch, however, which only struck me after I'd been wandering around for a while. And it's not just the seagulls.
The town's setting is dramatic, behind a headland at one end of the sandy sweep of St Ives Bay. It's not somewhere to drive to though, if that can be avoided, so the local railway doubles up as a Park and Ride. Trains shuttle every half hour up the edge of the Hayle estuary, far busier than any peripheralbranch line has a right to be. Car-based passengers board at Lelant Saltings, where the river may be little more than snaking channels in the mud, beyond which the single track climbs slowly into the dunes and onto the clifftops. It all gets wonderfully picturesque, and I even got to enjoy a rainbow for good measure beaming down onto distant sands.
St Ives is blessed with four main beaches, each with a conveniently different orientation, one of which (Porthminster) spreads out immediately below the station. It's where I imagine families build sandcastles and break off intermittently for kiosk ice cream, but at this time of year imagining is all I could do. The main town is to the north, either up onto the clifftop for those who live locally, or hanging in at bay level for those only visiting. The lower route is lined with what are now holiday cottages, many of whose names are web addresses, in case passers-by fancy typing them in online for next time they come to stay.
The harbour sweeps round to a long stone pier, stacked with lobster pots, with a dinky lighthouse at the far end. Around its rim are a string of souvenir shops, fish restaurants and pasty outlets, plus a (busy) 13th century pub called The Sloop Inn which is one of the county's oldest surviving buildings. I thought the combination complemented the setting in a charming rather than a tacky way. There are also numerous 'Beware The Gulls' signs warning visitors to shield their food, which I smiled at, then five seconds later recoiled somewhat when I felt two webbed feet landing in my hair. It's OK, I (and my bagged-up Cornish Hevva cake) survived unscathed.
For a town of this size, the shops are really good. Fore Street runs one back from the harbourside, barely wide enough for deliveries, boasting bijou bistros, boutiques and bakehouses. Well this is nice, I thought, as a well-to-do London emmet, although I'm not sure Cath Kidston is what the locals actually need. The other ubiquitous presence is the smattering of tiny art galleries and studios, many tucked into impossibly cute backstreets. St Ives has a long-standing renown for painting and pottery, allegedly because of its fine light, and continues to attract the creative to this day. Again there's many an objet d'art for middle class visitors to take home, and livings to scratch for the artists who remain.
I visited when the tide was in, so there was only just enough space on Harbour Sands for a decent game of beachcricket. Porthgwidden beach wasn't much larger, but with no cafe to sustain it only four people had turned up. I'd expect that state of affairs to change considerably once the Easter break begins. That's also when the town's museum opens, so I didn't see inside that either, and probably never will. But I did hike up to the coastguard station at the tip of the headland, and got blown around by the wind at Saint Nicholas Chapel, which perches above the old town on an undeveloped rocky mount.
And this was when I caught sight of the waves on Porthmeorbeach. Wow. The swell was rolling in from the north, every so often firing a massive ridge of water parallel to the shore, which eventually curled and smashed towards the sand. It's hard to know if this is normal behaviour or whether I just got 'lucky' with the weather, but I understand proper hollow waves are fairly rare. A shoal of bobbing wetsuits hung out in the breakers at the western end of the bay, occasionally deeming one of the humps appropriate enough to tackle, then attempting not to fall off on the way in. I could have watched for hours, which I believe is the raison d'etre of the alfresco cafe on the foreshore, although its patrons are probably eyeing up the surfers whereas I was obsessed by the rhythm of the waves.
But Porthmeor is also where the Tate Gallery stands, so I tore myself away from the view, paid up and went inside... (tbc)
ST MICHAEL'S MOUNT, a rocky tidal island in Mounts Bay, is one of Cornwall's most famous landmarks.
It lies just under three miles down the coast from Penzance, opposite the former fishing village of Marazion. Walking along the sea wall, sandwiched between the railway and the beach, makes for an easy and increasingly scenic stroll. But to walk the last few minutes out to the island relies on the tide being right, and the causeway being exposed, otherwise the local boatmen's services need to be sought.
The causeway is made from chunks of flattened granite, laid together like a mosaic, and snakes its way across the bay. Turn up at random and it'll probably be submerged beneath the waves, because it's only uncovered for about two hours either side of low tide, and even that interval varies, occasionally (at neap tides) being barely exposed at all. I picked my dates for visiting Cornwall very much with St Michael's Mount in mind, partly to hit the spring tides when the range is greatest, but also because the National Trust don't open up the castle until mid-March.
I crossed with a light herd of daytrippers, a pair of joggers, and some particularly excitable children. At one point we had to step aside to allow one of the island's white vans to pass, taking advantage of the ebbing tide to bring in provisions, or perhaps more ice creams for the shop. A narrow band of rockpools lay to either side, all of which would have dried out before my return a couple of hours later.
The island belongs to the St Aubyn family, whose castle and grounds take up the majority of the acreage. But the foreshore by the harbour has a couple of streets of houses, where the families of staff and gardeners live, and a boatyard, and a couple of former pubs. One of the old cottages is now a visitors centre, with informative displays and a video to watch - which is especially useful if you're not going to be able to walk up the hill. Alongside look out for twin rails poking beneath a gate and terminating on the quayside, this the lower end of a tramway which still hauls supplies (and definitely not people) through the rockface and up to the castle.
There is always theharbour to walk round, or almost round, following two curving stone arms. While most visitors busied themselves taking selfies at the far end, I spent my time watching a JCB dredging the drainedmud and tried to picture how different it must all look at high tide when the sea's six metres higher. At such times the islanders have a unique amphibious vehicle they use to reach the mainland, which you might see parked up beside the ticket office. Elsewhere are two gift shops, a cafe and a proper sit-down restaurant, perhaps as an acknowledgement that there isn't all that much to see unless you pay extra for admission to the private bits.
The private bits are amazing, not least how you get to them. The Pilgrim's Steps are rough and uneven, increasingly so as they ascend the island's rocky core, until it feels like you're scrambling over natural granite rather than any manmade attempt at stairs. The castle perches right at the top, and must have a golf-buggy-friendly back entrance somewhere, otherwise there's no way the 87 year-old Queen could have made it up here on her last visit. What a view there is though, gazing down over the full sweep of the bay... ideal for a gun battery as well as more plaintive admiration.
Here Lord St Levan welcomes you into his home, or at least a National Trust volunteer does, directing you through a series of historic wood-panelled rooms. Portraits of the family are interspersed with keepsakes and vintage objects, it soon becoming clear that the family has a thing for maps of Cornwall, and for weapons of various types. The most impressive room is called Chevy Chase, the refectory when this was a medieval priory, with a splendid plaster frieze depicting hunting scenes. The chapel is even older, matching that at Mont St Michel across the Channel, and is still used for Sunday services during the summer months.
One of the best parts comes when you emerge onto the South Terrace, which is essentially the roof, offering another opportunity to peer excitedly over the edge. Down below are the castle gardens, an intricatesub-tropical delight, but which can only be explored at ground level from April onwards. Don't rush back inside the building too soon. The St Aubyn family live in the East Wing beneath your feet, which helps to explain why through one window I spotted a pair of skateboards hanging up over a banister. It's a privilege to be allowed in, indeed allowed across to this iconic location, tide permitting.
NEWLYN is the next town round from Penzance, originally separate, but more recently coalesced. It's the smaller of the pair, with a population of just over four thousand (which for those of us with a SW Herts mindset makes it approximately two Sarratts). It's where the fisherfolk hang out, and also the place from which sea level in the UK is measured. The Ordnance Survey established a Tidal Observatory at the end of the harbour arm in 1915, then spent the next six years taking measurements every 15 minutes to establish the sea's average height. That datum is marked by a brass bolt set in the granite pier, which you'll never see it because it's locked inside a hut beside the lighthouse, which itself is publicly inaccessible.
Newlyn is a major fishing port with dozens of small boats in its well-sheltered harbour, and mackerel historically the chief catch. A drab but functional fishmarket is laid out at the northern end, from which bearded men in woolly hats and white wellies intermittently emerge to visit the neighbouring pub or pasty shop. Seafood aside, the most desirable food in town is the ice cream served from Jelberts, an unprepossessing shop near Newlyn Bridge which sells nothing but homemade vanilla. Queues can often be seen snaking down the street, waiting to sample the single daily batch churned out by the grandson of the original owner, perhaps with a flake but ideally dolloped with clotted cream. Alas Jelberts don't open for the season before Easter, so my tastebuds had to go without.
I also missed out on Newlyn Art Gallery, contemporary counterpart to The Exchange in Penzance, neither of which choose to open on a Monday. Newlyn is renowned for the art colony which settled here around the turn of the 20th century, and an art school still thrives in a building up the hillside which looks remarkably like my former infant school. A lot of Newlyn's residential streets lie sharply uphill, and even the main road descends precipitously between rows of houses with passing places and intermittent pavement. I hiked up some of the back lanes for the view and was left breathless, confirming that living here either provides excellent exercise, or requires expert driving skills.
A short distance round the coast is MOUSEHOLE (pronounced Mowsel (which is important to know if you're asking a bus driver for a ticket)). The M6 minibus runs regularly from Penzance, its dinky size suddenly crucial near the end of the route as it's forced to negotiate a double bend between cottages before terminating on the quayside. Mousehole is a proper Cornish fishing village, essentially a harbour overlooked by hillside houses, although I arrived around low tide when its supposedly scenic centrepiece was a bowl of exposed sand crossed by radially draped chains.
Mousehole is famous as the home of a fictional cat, and also for Stargazy pie, a fish and egg confection which has pilchards' heads poking out of the pastry. No thanks. My alternative culinary target was a Cornish cream tea at the Rock Pool Cafe, but unfortunately they'd decided not to open because the weather forecast was so bad. Instead I frequented Jessie's Dairy, whose sullen owner managed the "tea" part of my request but forgot the "cream" part until prompted, eventually delivered with all the magic of a dollop of jam scooped from a supermarket jar. Most daytrippers seemed to have holed up in the pub, or the posh restaurant, or the surprisingly expensive deli on the harbourfront.
The village wasn't named after the gift shop at one end of the quayside, but after a cave set into the cliffs on the southern outskirts. I hoped to follow Cave Lane to The Mouse Hole, but the public footpath became increasingly squelchy, then degenerated into a mudbath on the final descent, so I was forced to withdraw rather than soil my sole pair of trousers. Instead I got to hike four miles back to Penzance in a freezing blizzard, glad of the gloves I'd pessimistically packed, musing along the way that I really hadn't timed my visit to Mousehole at all well. If nothing else it gives me a good reason to go back.
Cornwall is a historic/beautiful/isolated/deprived county at the tip of southwest England. Penzance is the westernmost town, a few miles from as far as you can go, and the end ofthe line anyone travelling by train. Newcastle's actually further from London, but getting to Penzance takes twice as long thanks to the dawdliness of the Cornish railway. I took advantage of a pair of £12 rail tickets and booked three nights away, using the town as a base to explore... a Cornish safari I will now proceed to describe at length.
PENZANCE is an old fishing town with a population of about 22,000 (which for those of us with a SW Herts mindset makes it approximately a Rickmansworth). Penzance faces the English Channel on the rim of Mounts Bay, a sweeping 40-mile curve of rock and sand, its understated harbour no longer a driving force, nor indeed especially attractive.
The main drag is Market Jew Street, from the Cornish 'Marghas Yow', meaning Thursday Market. These days the Market Hall is closed, and occupied instead by Lloyds Bank, but its dome still provides the dominant feature at the head of a downhill run of high street shops. The big statue in front of the former Guildhall is of Sir Humphrey Davy, who was born in a house alongside in 1778 before moving up country and transforming chemistry. The northern pavement is raised above the roadway, and accessed via a series of tiny stone staircases, which must cause the occasional tumble. Amongst the traders are the usual Sports Direct, WH Smiths and Santander, but also several minor independents and charity shops, and a heck of a lot of shops that sell pasties. Warrens has three branches on the same road, the Mounts Bay Pasty Company displays its awards on a chalkboard, and Lavenders is the place for a more deli-artisanal bite.
Leading further uphill is Causewayhead, a pedestrianised shopping street, where the Indoor Market used to be. Partway up is the Savoy, opened in 1912 and the oldest continuously running cinema in the UK (if you discount the recent temporary closure which saw screens two and three combined). I was hoping to pop in and enjoy a screening, but it turned out the only decent film on the schedule was one I'd accidentally seen in Hackney earlier in the week. An even older business which is Pengelly's Shoes, established in 1899, but whose closing down sale is alas currently underway.
For something a little more historic try Chapel Street, which wends down to the harbour via the parish church, and is where all the boutiquier establishments hang out. The most striking building is the Egyptian House, a triumph of eccentricpost-Napoleonic style, built as a geological museum, and whose upper floors are now three holiday cottages. Smugglers used to operate from the cottages and inns further down, which may go some way to explain the presence of a man in a tricorn hat outside the Admiral Benbow on Saturday evening. Chapel Street's top prize for business name goes to a Mac repair business called Apple Crumble. And right down at the bottom is the town's gold pillar box, celebrating rower Helen Glover's 2012 Olympic success.
The ferry to the Isles of Scilly leaves from the harbour, offering a potential sub-£40 day trip if your stomach can tolerate the swell. I might have been tempted except that the first scheduled ferry of the year departed on Monday, and I was already on the train home before it returned. I was also thwarted in my attempt to enjoy a slap-up fish meal at the main harbourside restaurant, which it seems doesn't open at 6.30 every evening as the sign on the door promises, so those local scallops alas went ungulped.
Neither is March the right time to visit the ArtDecoJubilee Pool, an outdoor lido on the seafront. It's currently closed so that geothermal power can be piped in to heat one section, the funding provided by that pesky European Union which the majority of the local populace voted against. Instead a bracing walk along the promenade is the best that's on offer, although I don't recommend trying this in a driving blizzard - conditions which thanks to the Gulf Stream beset the town with exceptional rarity.
Indeed Penzance's temperate climate makes it one of the few places on the English mainland where sub-tropical plants can thrive, with Morrab Gardens a prime example in the heart of the town. Thick-trunked palm trees droop brazenly, the camelias are already past their best, and in one corner I was impressed to see primroses in bloom long before April. The other central park is less jungly, but does contains Penlee House, Penzance's museum and art gallery. I missed out on most of the art, thanks to a badly-timed rehanging, but the museum's very informative, so I now know all about the local archaeology and why the town's seal features a decapitated head.
I was in Penzance long enough to be able to explore some of its lesser-trod streets, from the tightly packed terraces on the slopes above the high street to the broad thoroughfare of guest houses leading down to the shore (Sorry No Vacancies). I think I passed a drug deal on creepy Bread Street, and the well-wrapped old lady sat outside the art gallery was definitely smoking pot. A very mixed community lives here, with unemployment high, and it was noticeable on Saturday night that Wetherspoons was packed while the higherbrow restaurants sat mostly empty.
No doubt you'll be wanting to hear all about the railway station. I stayed just across the road in the Longboat Inn, which I can recommend as a place to stay if you're ever in town. A pub with a restaurant and an internet cafe and a left luggage facility ticked all my boxes, the staff were chirpily polite, and the cooked breakfasts continue to register on my bathroom scales now I'm safely home. Let me also recommend Penzance as a base for exploring the surrounding area - relatively accessible, not so posh as to be expensive, and just characterful enough to make a stay a pleasure.
The new extension to Westfield London opens today. That's the Westfield in Shepherd's Bush, not the Westfield in Stratford. Westfield London is now the largest shopping centre in Europe. This is the most incredibly exciting news.
And if you visit today, there are special offers. These special offers!
Flagship Department Store: a) Coffee tasting and demonstrations; b) Personal Stylist talks; c) Free tasting samples; d) Home Design trend talks; e) Free jeans personalisation with any purchase; f) Easter crafting workshops; g) Double points for storecard holders. Luxury beauty retailer: a) Free luxury tote bag for first 100 shoppers; b) Free gift bag if you spend £100; c) £1000 of beauty products if you unlock the Beauty Vault; d) Mini facials and makeovers. Multinational clothing retailer: a) Launch of the company's first ever nail bar; b) Gift card for first 100 customers. American furniture company: a) Free workshops (including a paper flower masterclass with A Petal Unfolds, brush lettering with The Lovely Drawer and lino printing with Emily Dawe); b) Sweet treats and coffee; c) Gin cocktails in the evening. Danish furniture company: a) Win an iconic chair by entering the Grand Opening competition; b) fizz and Danish nibbles. Danish variety store: a) Free goody bag to first 50 customers to spend £10 or more; b) Take part in a prop-based photo opportunity to win in-store credit; c) Celebrate with a day of sweet treats. Seller of white goods: a) Goodie bag for first 100 customers; b) Free 'signature candle' if you spend £75; c) Bubbles and truffles. Spanish clothing company:a) Complimentary gift with purchases; b) Drinks served from 4pm to 8pm. Upmarket cosmetic connoisseurs: a) Complimentary single wick candle if you spend £60; b) Indulge in fizz and nibbles; c) Signature hand and arm massage. Handmade cosmetics retailer: Create your own bath bomb... a) 11am Twilight themed bath explosion, b) 2pm Dragons egg. British chain store chemist: a) Balloons; b) free samples; c) Makeovers. British menswear tailoring: a) 15% off; b) Complimentary tea and coffee. Luxury British perfumery: Complimentary 7.5ml atomiser when you spend £130. American clothing retailer: "Take home a gift with purchase". Frozen Yoghurt Dispensary: Free frozen yoghurt for first 100 customers. Global sportswear brand: Interactive games to test your accuracy and ball handling. Upscale nailcare boutique: 15% off. Eight cheapskate retailers: No special offers. I for one am most excited by the "complimentary single wick candle". How about you?
More to the point I'm on holiday by myself. I never go on holiday by myself, so this is a big deal.
I do go on holiday with friends occasionally. Last year I went to Newcastle and the Isle of Wight, in 2015 to Berlin and Rome, in 2014 to the Isle of Man and in 2011 to Iceland. But I never go on holiday by myself, even though I obviously could.
I do go on a heck of a lot of day trips. You've probably noticed. Some of those day trips are quite long, like to Lake Windermere or Belgium and back, and most people would probably add an overnight stay. But I don't much like hotels, and solo breakfasts, and all that dead time in the evening, nor do I enjoy having luggage to lug around.
But on this occasion I've taken the plunge and gone away by myself. It's not a full week, just an extra-long weekend, but still very much out of character. I've not gone abroad or anything, I'm still in the country, but hey, it's a good start.
Solo breakfasting turned out to be OK, because the food's generic, so they're relatively quick. But the evening dining was a little more uncomfortable, thanks to those regular pauses in the ordering process where nothing happens. They're easily filled in company, with conversation, but alone they're quite awkward, and getting your phone out always looks gauche.
I booked my trip a few months ago, when some ridiculously cheap rail tickets became available. Given the distance from home I decided that a few nights away would be the best way to take advantage. Two travelling days with two sightseeing days inbetween seemed the way to go, so I booked, and here I am.
I could have picked January or February, but they sounded potentially cold. The train deal didn't let me book anything over Easter or later, so I plumped for the middle of March. The worst of the winter will be over by then, I thought, and I might even get some decent weather.
Instead, of course, I accidentally got The Beast From The East Part Two. Friday was fine, but Saturday was wet and nippy, and Sunday delivered actual snow. I wasn't expecting to have to pack a pullover and gloves, not when I booked, but alas they've proved invaluable.
Locals were unconvinced the snow would arrive. "It won't come to that," said the ladies at the museum. "It won't get this far," said the man at the shop. But arrive it did, and I duly battled 4 miles back to my accommodation on a blizzard, just as the forecast predicted.
On the bright side, it's not been as bad here as it has been in London. We even had some sunshine while you were getting snowflakes, so perhaps I dodged a bullet. But I did have to scrap some of my plans because I couldn't rely on public transport holding out, which is annoying given I may never come back.
Now that I'm preparing to come home, of course, the weather is getting better. It seems I could hardly have picked a worse window for my trip if I'd tried, but these are the perils of booking in advance. Sometimes you get gloriously atypical sunshine and warmth, and sometimes the atmosphere gangs up and throws everything at you.
Obviously it's been an excellent holiday. I fear I shall be telling you all about it very soon.
If you said "west", you're usually wrong. But today you're correct, just as today is also a rare day when the sun actually rises in the east.
Let me attempt to explain.
The astronomical term for what we're interested in is azimuth, which is the direction of a celestial body from an observer on Earth. It's measured as an angle around the horizon, clockwise from north. Think of it as a compass bearing. North is 0°, East is 90°, South is 180° and West is 270°.
The celestial body in question is the Sun. The azimuth (or direction) of the Sun changes throughout the day, thanks to the rotation of the Earth. In the northern hemisphere it passes 180° around noon.
Specifically we're interested in the solar azimuth at sunrise and sunset - the compass bearing at which the sun crosses the horizon.
It's well known that the times of sunrise and sunset vary each day, thanks to the tilt of the Earth on its axis. This ensures that the Sun is above the horizon for a different length of time each day. But it also means that the Sun's path across the sky intersects with the horizon at a slightly different point each day, hence the gradual shift of where sunrise and sunset appear to take place.
Here's what's going on at the moment.
I've picked Greenwich Observatory as my point of reference, to make the calculations easier. But the azimuth doesn't vary much across London, or indeed across England, even though the time of sunrise may be very different. The azimuth is identical along the same line of latitude.
Azimuth at sunrise, Greenwich, London
See how the sun rises at a slightly different point on each successive day. That point changes by about 0.6° every morning. Yesterday it rose at 90.8°, which is fractionally south of due east. Tomorrow it'll rise at 89.5°, which is fractionally north of due east. Today it rose at 90.2°, which is as near to due east as it'll get. Today is the only day in the first half of the year when the sun rises in the east.
Azimuth at sunset, Greenwich, London
A similar thing happens at sunset. The point on the horizon where the sun sets nudges round each day, and today is the closest day to 270°. Today is the only day in the first half of the year when the sun sets in the west. I must say, I was expecting the key date to be 20th March, because that's the date of the spring equinox, but for obscure geometric reasons the actual date is a couple of days earlier.
Another complication I haven't mentioned yet is height. Greenwich Observatory is 48m above sea level, and I've used that elevation in my calculations. But if it were at sea level then the azimuth would be slightly different, essentially because you couldn't see quite so far towards the horizon. Here's what difference it would make to today's sunrise make if Greenwich Observatory were at a different height.
Azimuth at sunset, 18th March, London
An elevation of 20m would give an angle of precisely 270°, or genuinely due west. I've included 244m in the table because that's the height of the uppermost observation deck on the Shard. If you're watching the sun set from up there then the sun lingers fractionally longer above the horizon, and so sets slightly further north. It's only a tiny difference, but enough to make the Shard's "due west" sunset yesterday rather than today.
And while these changes aren't particularly noticeable over the course of a week, they're considerably more obvious across a year. Here's a table showing the compass bearing of sunrise on the 21st day of each month.
Azimuth at Greenwich on the 21st day of the month
The point at which the Sun rises above the horizon varies by an amazing 80° over the course of a year. At the winter solstice in December it's almost southeast. At the summer solstice in June it's almost northeast. And inbetween those dates it shifts gradually between SE and NE, passing due east in March and September.
Azimuth at Greenwich on the 21st day of the month
Similarly the point at which the Sun sets below the horizon also varies by 80° over the course of a year. At the winter solstice in December it's almost southwest. At the summer solstice in June it's almost northwest. And inbetween those dates it shifts gradually between SW and NW, passing due west in March and September. Specifically today.
And yes, this would all be a lot clearer on a diagram.
My diagram shows the direction of sunrise and sunset in London on the 21st day of each month. You can see clearly just how much it changes, especially in spring and autumn, if less so in summer and winter.
This is why north-facing gardens see hardly any direct sun in the winter. This is why I can almost see sunsets out of my back window at the height of summer, but at no other time of year. This is how Stonehenge could be built so that the sun rises above the Heel Stone on the longest day of the year. And this is why today the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, and will do again in September.
Our ancestors would have known all about shifting sunrises and sunsets, and how they mark the seasons of the year. I wonder how many of us dashing around in our modern technological lives ever realise that this solar ballet is taking place. But smile, because tomorrow the sun rises and sets nearer to the northern horizon than to the south. It may still feel like winter out there, but the good half of the year is on its way.
This is Vittoria Wharf, on Fish Island, opposite the Olympic Park. It's a former Victorian warehouse, until recently used as artists studios. It's being demolished.
It's being demolished so that a new footbridge can be built. This new footbridge will replace an existing footbridge a couple of hundred metres upriver. The existing footbridge is less than four years old. The existing footbridge is to be replaced by a road bridge. It seems the London Legacy Company aren't particularly good at forward planning.
The new road bridge is needed to service the new neighbourhood of Sweetwater. Sweetwater is being squeezed into the space between the Olympic Stadium and The River Lea, south of the Overground and to the north of Old Ford Lock. All the land where Sweetwater will arise is now sealed off behind hoardings. A heck of a lot of new hoardings are going up at the moment.
This hoarding shows what the neighbourhood of East Wick will look like. East Wick will be squeezed into the space between the Olympic Park and The River Lea, north of the Overground and opposite to Hackney Wick. East Wick will have the same generic brick flats that everywhere else in London is getting. If this artist's impression is correct, its main shop will sell jumpers and handbags.
Workmen have been busy this month sealing off a long, thin section of the walkway across the centre of the Olympic Park, between the Copper Box and what will eventually be Sweetwater. This is so that a brand new road can be built, leading south from the Copper Box towards the western side of the stadium. Once that's finished, the existing Loop Road which runs closer to the river will be closed, and then built over. More riverside flats means more money for the developers, I guess.
The existing road curving down from the Copper Box to Carpenters Road will also be permanently closed. All traffic heading south will take the new route into Sweetwater, where another new link will be opened to the new road bridge that's currently a footbridge. This will allow vehicles to flow onto Fish Island. Here's more about the bridges, here's a map of the final layout, here's a map of the enabling works taking place over the next twelve months, and here's where more information will eventually appear.
Next time you walk between the south of the Olympic Park and the north, don't expect to see quite so many sweeping openspaces as before. This area was always intended for flats, so that's no surprise. But having transformed the road network hereabouts once for 2012, it does feel like someone's changed their mind since, and here we go again.
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