Sunday 30 March 2014

Best dog walks in West London: walking in the footsteps of Brunel ...

Now I know I've said as much before, but this walk really is just a little bit different. It takes you past some truly outstanding architecture with a more industrial, utilitarian flavour: stuff that was conceived to be useful rather than just pretty; stuff that screams out our industrial past.

It follows the tow path of the Grand Union Canal, which was once the major artery linking London with the rest of the canal system throughout the country. Barges loaded with coal, foodstuffs and manufactured goods once snaked their way down this watery corridor to feed the burgeoning demands of the Capital, jostling for position in the locks, overnighting in noisy clusters along its banks with their horses grazing on the grassy meadows that fell away to either side. It's a different picture today, but with a little bit of imagination you can just about see how it used to be: a bustling, busy waterway, full of the drama of everyday life.

One of the biggest names in nineteenth century engineering is unquestionably that of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Did you know that the two projects, which bookend his career are to be found here in Ealing? And that it's possible to take an afternoon stroll along the banks of the Grand Union Canal and the River Brent to see them both?

Best dog walks in West London: Walking in the footsteps of Brunel ...
Grand Union Canal, Ealing
The two projects that I'm talking about are the Wharncliffe Viaduct, built by Brunel at the beginning of his career (1836 to 1837), and his (slightly wacky) Three Bridges, where a canal crosses a railway, with a road running over the top, which was his last major project, completed just a couple of months before his death in 1859.

The walk starts at the Three Bridges, which you can find on Windmill Lane, just behind Ealing Hospital. The post-code is UB2 4UT if you want to track it down on the SatNav. We parked in the retail park on Armstrong Way and crossed Windmill Lane to get down to the canal tow path. Alternatively the closest underground station is Boston Manor on the Piccadilly Line. If you follow my broken red line on the map below it'll take you from the Three Bridges to the Wharncliffe Viaduct.

Sometimes the Three Bridges are referred to as the Windmill Bridges after a windmill that used to stand close by. This is how it looked when Joseph Mallard William Turner painted it back in 1808:

Ah, the great Turner, I should mention that he came to live in Brentford with his maternal uncle, Joseph Mallard William Marshall in 1785/ 1786 for about a year. He was born in Covent Garden, but was sent out here to enjoy the cleaner air. It must have made an impression on him as he came back again in 1808 to paint the windmill.

I digress; let's get back to the Three Bridges. Brunel, by then the top go-to guy for big ideas, was asked by the Great Western Railway Company to come up with a plan that would allow a branch line (linking Southall, where the trains stopped, with Brentford Dock on the Thames) to cross the road and the canal.  This is what the great man came up with:

View from the road bridge of the canal trough with the railway below

It's a pity about all the rubbish that's been dropped down onto the railway tracks, but you get the idea. Brunel channelled the canal across the railway line in a great big cast-iron trough, and then built a metal bridge on top to carry the traffic on Windmill Lane.

Down at canal-level this is what you see:

Best dog walks in West London: Walking in the footsteps of Brunel ...
Three Bridges: railway below, canal in the middle and road on top

Best dog walks in West London: Walking in the footsteps of Brunel ...
Three Bridges: road bridge carrying Windmill Lane on top with the canal trough below

Best dog walks in West London: Walking in the footsteps of Brunel ...
Three Bridges: canal trough with the road bridge for Windmill Lane on top
Now look carefully. Do you see a black metal rod on the right hand side of the bridge just to the side of the tow path?

Here's a close-up with Emi's finger in a groove to give you some sense of scale:

This iron bar was attached to the side of the bridge to protect it from rope burn. Back when the barges were being hauled along by horses - or, more recently, by tractors the ropes cut into the brickwork eroding the structure of the bridge. To protect it they put this bar on the wall, and the grooves that you can see were made by the friction and pressure of the ropes pulling the barges along. Impressive, eh? I'm feeling a little bit closer to the daily struggle of those long-forgotten draught horses and the folk who drove them already.

One of the many lovely things about this stretch of canal is that it's still working; it's still got boats, the locks still operate and there's enough traffic to make things interesting without making it so busy that it isn't peaceful to walk along.

Here are some of the rather splendid boats that we saw moored just below the Three Bridges:

Loving that roof garden!

And then we strolled by the Lock Keeper's Cottage, although I doubt that there's a lock keeper in residence these days. 

The old Hanwell Lunatic Asylum is on the left as you walk away from the Three Bridges. You can make it out in the photo below. It was opened in 1831 to house pauper lunatics, and soon grew to become quite a busy little community. Behind those high walls were large kitchen gardens, a brewery, a chapel with its own graveyard, the asylum and accommodation for about a hundred workers. The site had been chosen for its relative isolation from other built up areas, coupled with the comparative ease with which it could be visited occasionally by the families of the poor souls incarcerated within. Many of the one hundred or so people who looked after the one thousand plus patients also lived within its walls. Their work was poorly paid, but it was attractive to have accommodation thrown in, even though it involved living in an asylum. Many of the staff came up from the West Country to work here, and would seldom have made it home to visit their own families.

A blocked up arch used to allow coal deliveries to the asylum and for the surplus garden produce to be loaded onto barges for sale in the London markets. You can see it on the lower left of the photograph below with part of the old hospital building towering above. There are also a few fire holes in the wall along here that firemen would have been able to open to fetch water from the canal to put out any fires that broke out in the hospital.

My boys were very interested in how the locks worked, and spent a happy half hour chatting with some boat people who were going through the Hanwell Lock system.  It has to be said that the canal falls like a flight of stairs along this stretch with multiple locks making for slow progress on the water.

Meanwhile Maxi (our dog) had a good old bark at the canal boat dogs, safe in the knowledge that they couldn't get at him. He's a real lion when he knows he's safe.

Best dog walks in West London: Walking in the footsteps of Brunel ...

Just past the lower gate of the Hanwell Lock (Number 96) you should take the little path on the left down to the River Brent. It's marked with an arrow like so:

This pathway will take you along the bank of the River Brent...

Best dog walks in West London: Walking in the footsteps of Brunel ...

Best dog walks in West London: Walking in the footsteps of Brunel ...

... all the way to Hanwell Bridge.

Best dog walks in West London: Walking in the footsteps of Brunel ...
Hanwell Bridge
The pathway continues under the arches of the bridge, taking you underneath the Uxbridge Road and into Brent Meadow, a traditional hay meadow, on the other side. When the river is high the path may flood but you can take the steps up to the Uxbridge Road, and go across at street level.

When you emerge on the other side you have a magnificent view of the Wharncliffe Viaduct, Brunel's first major project for the Great Western Railway Company, which, as you can see, has stood the test of time and is still in use today.

Best dog walks in West London: Walking in the footsteps of Brunel ...
Wharncliffe Viaduct

Best dog walks in West London: Walking in the footsteps of Brunel ...
Arches of the Wharncliffe Viaduct

The coat of arms of Lord Wharncliffe, who was the chairman of the Great Western Railway Company when the bridge was built, adorn the central pillar of the viaduct. It's a pity about the graffiti, which also adorns the bridge, but it's only a minor detail on such a majestic structure. Not surprisingly it enjoys Grade I listing.

Best dog walks in West London: Walking in the footsteps of Brunel ...
The Wharncliffe coat of arms on the central pillar of the Wharncliffe Viaduct, Ealing

Best dog walks in West London: Walking in the footsteps of Brunel ...

Best dog walks in West London: Walking in the footsteps of Brunel ...

Best dog walks in West London: Walking in the footsteps of Brunel ...

You can see a large, dark crack in the underside of the arches, which marks where the bridge was extended. Brunel originally built it to fit two broad gauge railway tracks, but then Stephenson's narrower gauge tracks were adopted as the norm. Traffic increased and they modified the infrastructure to accommodate the new standard so that everything was the same throughout the country. As a result they widened the bridge to take 4 narrow-gauge tracks across the valley.

The brick pillars supporting the viaduct are hollow, creating perfect bat caves inside. I'm told that there are thriving colonies of happy bats living in the bridge, although they weren't around when we passed by. On the sides of the pillars I saw several window-like openings, which presumably allow them to come and go as they please. 

You can travel on over the footbridge on the right hand side of the viaduct and wander up the hill behind to Churchfields Recreation Ground. There's a children's play area and a lovely green park up there. On Church Road, on the other side of the park, you may like to take a look at the Hermitage, a lovely little gothic cottage built in 1809. I'm sorry but Emi couldn't be persuaded to leave the swings, and as a result we didn't make it that far to take a photo. But you can't miss it: it's a sweet, thatched building that looks like somewhere Bilbo Baggins would be proud to call home. 

Best dog walks in West London: Walking in the footsteps of Brunel ...

Now the only slight snag is that this walk isn't circular, so you have to retrace your steps and go back the way you've come, but that's not a serious draw-back given how much there is to see. It's not a long walk. You can comfortably cover it, there and back, in an hour and a half without breaking a sweat.


Bonny x

Friday 28 March 2014

5 random facts for the weekend

1. My son, Emi, is without a passport; he is passport-less, a person who cannot cross international frontiers. This is putting a serious dampener on our Easter holiday plans, because without the necessary paperwork we cannot go home to Spain to spend the time with my husband's family. It's my fault (of course) as I failed to notice in time that his travel documents were coming to the end of their life, and now it's also the Irish Embassy's fault because they are taking an inordinate amount of time to get him kitted out with a new passport. They're an impossible bunch to deal with down at the Embassy. They randomly switch off the telephones when they can't be bothered to answer them, and forget about trying to send them an email: that just goes on a one-way trip into cyber-nowhere-land!

So just now I'm doing a lot of sitting around, waiting for the mail man ... when I should actually be here:

2. Meanwhile down at the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square they're busy researching climate change. Researching climate change? In the National Gallery? Yes, really. They've discovered that the great artists have faithfully recorded all the colour pigments of smog over the course of the industrial revolution, and after major volcanic eruptions. JMW Turner is apparently top-dog in the scientific accuracy stakes. His famous sunset paintings faithfully record all the colour spectra of the various dioxides, sulphides and other pollutants that affect the colour of the sunset. They're saying that his information on the subject is as reliable as that stored in the ice cores of Antarctica.

3. Emi and I have been reading Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie at bedtime this week, and I want to tell you that it totally rocks! It's a truly great read for children and for adults who still believe, just a little bit, in magic. I'm a big Rushdie fan. When he's on form no one else can touch him, and I think his brand of Magical Realism is at its best when it's written for children. Luka and the Fire of Life has been written as a sequel to the equally fabulous Haroun and the Sea of Stories, so it's probably best to start with that one first if you're interested.

4. I got a lovely Mother's Day card from Emi. He'd made it for me at school and signed it off "From your dearest boy", which sounds nice, in a slightly old-fashioned, Edwardian, sort of way. In England we celebrate Mother's Day on Sunday.

5. Also on Sunday - well, ok, at midnight Saturday night to be totally accurate - we put our clocks forward to British Summer Time, and I think it's not a moment too soon. We had the equinox over a week ago, and I've been noticing the bright mornings and waking up earlier. I wish they'd just leave the clock permanently fixed to British Summer Time. It would allow us to live so much more of our lives in daylight. One of the things that I find really difficult about winter in this country is the darkness in the depths of December and into January. Maybe if the Scots vote for their independence the rest of the country won't feel inclined to move the clock around for the benefit of the Hebridean sheep farmers, although I do hope the Scots decide to stay part of the UK. Speaking as someone of Scottish descent I'd be sad to see them go their separate way.

Anyway all the best for a great weekend,

Bonny x

Thursday 27 March 2014

Waiting for the mail man .... and wrapping Easter presents ...

Today I'm waiting on the mail man. My son, Emi, is due a new passport, and we can't get started on our Easter holidays without it. The plan was to go home to Spain and spend some time with my husband's family, but we forgot to check little Em's passport until it was time to think about booking the tickets. And so here I am, waiting, waiting, waiting ... .

Emi always exchanges gifts with his Spanish cousins and amigitos when we meet up. We never post things. As a result we didn't do Christmas presents  (we weren't there for Christmas), but now we're firing to go on Easter presents. When you're a little person it's a good thing not to have all your presents at the same time, don't you think? Better to spread the present-tastic happiness across the year a bit more, a bit like getting an even slather of butter across your toast in the morning.

Anyway I'm wrapping Easter presents to pass the time. I've hit upon a scheme of using jazzed-up plain brown paper, decorated with ribbon and stickers from the children's craft section of a local discount store. All cheap-as-chips, but rather a fun result, don't you think? I'm sure that the younger members of our clan will enjoy unwrapping the wrapping!

Instead of using sticky tape, I've used the children's stickers, and then prettified the package with strands of double pastel ribbon, tied in a standard bow that will open when someone pulls the ends - I hate it when the wrapping can only be only be penetrated with the aid of scissors and a carving knife!

Not bad, not bad at all, ... even though I say so myself.

Now where has that passport got to ????

Bonny x

Wednesday 26 March 2014

Astrakan cushions: cushion makeover part 1

I have a dilemma. I have a couple of rather boring beige sofas that are very functional and very comfortable, but they lack a certain pizzazz. I mean they're beige for crying out loud - not magnolia or buttermilk or Devon cream - but beige: flat, dull beige with tones of smog-grey.

I've always been committed to not throwing things out if they still have life in them. I've been into up-cycling/ recycling since forever, so chucking them out for something more glamorous is a no-no! It has occurred to me that I could dye the covers, but that's far too risky. These sofas live in our family home in Northern Spain, and I can only imagine what slightly hot bodies, still a bit damp from the swimming pool might do to the dyed cloth in the heat of summer ... . I've got a nasty feeling that my friends and family might find that a lot of the colour had come away on their legs - which would not be a good result for anyone.

So my B-Plan is to inject a little interest with some strategically-chosen scatter cushions. Now, as it happens, I have lorry-loads of scatter cushions - no, honestly, I do. But none of them are appropriately dressed for what I have in mind. Now here's the master plan: I've bought a huge consignment of on-offer, cheap-as-chips, chunky wool in 2 colours, and I plan to knit/crochet my way to a new look with a collection of contrasting but co-ordinating cushion covers.

And here is my first cushion makeover:

Astrakan cushions: cushion makeover part 1
Astrakan cushion

Ta-dah: meet the Astrakan. It's pretty straight-forward to make. I decided to use the more time-consuming astrakan stitch on only one side, and use a plain double crochet that I could bomb through quickly on the reverse side. And this is how the reverse side turned out:

Astrakan cushions: cushion makeover part 1
The reverse side
The texture on the Astrakan side is really, divinely loopy. It sort of invites your fingers to dive in and tease the pile. And the best bit of all is that it's quite easy to do.

My cushion measured 21"/ 54 cm x 13 1/2"/ 34cm to start off with.

Here it is, sitting with its brother, waiting for its new coat on my (super-untidy!) desk.

The only down-side with this little project is that it devours - and I do mean devours - wool. I used about 500 yards of  Hayfield Bonus Chunky to make this little baby, but it has the very best texture you've ever scrunched in your fingers, and it looks like I spent a fortune on it in some la-di-da designer shop.

Anyway if you'd like to give it a go, here's what you need to do to cover a cushion of this size (21"/ 54 cm x 13 1/2"/ 34cm).

1. Using a 5:00 mm (American H/8) crochet hook cast on and chain 59 stitches. If you're working to another size, the trick here is to crochet a chain that is just slightly snug for the length of your cushion as it will stretch a bit with wear. Crochet your chain so that it looks maybe a couple of links short of the right length, and then chain an extra three stitches to turn for the next row.
2. Work a British Treble or an American Half Treble ( i.e. yarn round once, insert hook into the fourth stitch from the hook, yarn over again, draw the yarn through (3 loops on the hook) wrap the yarn over again and draw two loops through (there are 2 loops left on the hook), wrap the yarn over again and draw the last 2 loops through) and then carry on to do a Treble into each stitch in the chain. This should produce a row of 56 Trebles.
3. When you get to the other side do not turn your work around. There are no row-turns in this pattern. You keep the right side facing you at all times. Now chain 7 stitches and link them with a slip stitch to the front loop of the next Treble in the line. When you work your slip stitch you should have the chain up behind you, like in this photograph. Now chain another 7 and do a slip stitch into the next treble and carry on down the line to the last treble. Have a look at these photos to see how I'm placing my needle when I do that slip stitch:

4. Now, to start the next row,  you need to chain 3 and then work a Treble into the back of the slip stitch where the first chain 7 from the last row were joined in. Carry on across the row, working a Treble into the back of each of the 7 chain joining slip stitches. You should have a row of 56 Trebles when you finish.
5. Repeat rows 3 and 4 until the work measures the correct depth for your pillow, finishing on a Treble row which will be tidier and easier to sew up.
6. Cast off, darn in your ends and admire your work. You have finished the front of your cushion cover.

And it just wouldn't be complete without one of my high-tech crochet maps, drawn with the assistance of my super-sophisticated graphite software.

Now it's time to do the back cover for the cushion.

7. Cast on 57 stitches (56 stitches for the length of the cover and one stitch for turning. You need to work out your number if you used a different sized cushion - it will be 2 stitches less than whatever you went with for the front cover).
8. Work a British Double Crochet or American single crochet stitch (hook in, yarn over and pull yarn through the first loop on the needle (2 loops on the needle), yarn over and draw 2 loops through) into the second stitch from the hook. Continue like this all the way along the line, working 56 double crochet stitches in total.
9. Chain 1 stitch to turn, and work a line of another 56 double crochet stitches working into the front loops only of the doubles in the previous row. By only working the stitches through the front loops in this way you will incorporate a slight ridge from the unused back loops of the previous row, which gives the striped/ striated texture that you can see on the reverse side of my cover. Alternatively, if you're not bothered about having this texture, just work the rows of double crochet as normal.
10. Keep going until your back cover is the same size as your front cover. Lay the front cover wrong side down to compare them as it's impossible to see what you're doing with the Astrakan side face up!

11. When you've got the right size, cast off and sew the two sides together with your cushion in the centre.

Ta-dah! You've just made the Astrakan cushion. Stand back and admire your handiwork!

And now I'm off to work out a style for another, bigger cushion to pair with my little Astrakan. I'm thinking stocking stitch stripes of the same grey colour with the acid green might look good.

Watch this space, and I'll let you know how I get on.

All the best,

Bonny x

Monday 24 March 2014

Top 5 West London dog walks: Northala Fields

Now for something a bit different: Northala Fields. Maybe you've seen it from the A40. It's on your left driving out of London: that park with those strange, conical hills with tiny, ant-like people, working their way to the top.

Do you remember how they appeared out of nowhere back in 2008? One day there was nothing, just some nondescript derelict land with building rubbish, and the next day there was this weird landscape ... .

Top 5 West London dog walks: Northala Fields

To my way of thinking this is a funky park. Funky? Well it's hard to say, but there's nothing quite like Northala Park in the rest of London. It was built out of the rubble from the old Wembley Stadium and the stuff that they dug up when they were building Westfield. Ealing Council hit upon the brilliant plan of offering the then-derelict site to the developers as a place to dump all their building spoil, charging them £70 to £90 per lorry-load for the privilege. 60,000 lorry-loads later they had the raw materials with which to construct the four conical hills, that now sit in a slight curve along the side of the A40. And I, for one, think that this was a brilliant way to recycle rubbish that would otherwise have been destined for a landfill site 100 miles away. It just goes to prove that one man's junk is another man's treasure!

Top 5 West London Walks: Northala Fields
Northala Fields fishing pond

The resulting landscape is ... well, the word just has to be funky. It's pleasing to the eye, although it's like nothing Mother Nature would ever have created. It's modern, metropolitan and kind of re-invents the concept of a city park. Everything you'd expect to find is there, but just not in the conventional form in which you'd expect to see it. Children and adults alike delight in the challenge of climbing the hills for the super views of the city in the distance, and the traffic on the A40 just below. And, believe me, from the top of the tallest hill the vehicles on the A40 look more like toy cars.

There's something humorous about the landscape design; I can't help but smile when I look at those strange little hills. What do they look like? Burial mounds from Salisbury Plain or something extra-terrestrial? I don't know. Who cares? They're fun!

Top 5 West London dog walks: Northala Fields, Northolt
The city of London from Northala Park
The Sunday before last we went there to walk off a few calories after lunch. It was a glorious spring day and the place was heaving with people. I've never seen it so busy. There seemed to be folk there from everywhere, talking loads of different languages, each observing their own dress and cultural customs and all muddling along very happily together: London at its multi-cultural best.

The park has a couple of inventive play areas for the little people. They've built a miniature conical hill to support a rather splendid slide, which you can just see to the right in the photo below. And there are more miniature hills made out of that safe-surface recycled rubber in the playground beside the Kensington Road gate. The play areas have been cleverly designed with verve and humour. I especially liked the climbing frame in the shape of a ship sitting beside the ponds. If there hadn't been so many people around I'd have had a bounce on it myself.

Top 5 West London dog walks: Northala Fields
The sailing ship climbing frame with the slide to the right

And then there are the fish ponds, which I was told are 8 to 10 feet deep and well stocked with coarse fish.

Top 5 West London dog walks: Northala Fields
The fish ponds

Top 5 West London dog walks: Northala Fields
Fishing at Northala Fields
The venue is open to the public for fishing; all you have to do is buy a day-ticket, bring your tackle and off you go. I found a link for the fishing details, which you can check out if you're interested: Northala fishing

The park sits beside one of the busiest roads into London from the North West, but there's not much traffic noise once you're inside. The hills were designed to shield the park and its users from the noise and pollution of the A40, and they certainly seemed to be doing that when we visited.

If you fancy a coffee or an ice-cream there's the San Remo cafe just beside the fishing ponds. The little terrace outside makes a good spot for an al fresco cappuccino.

Top 5 West London dog walks: Northala Fields

If you'd like to check out Northala Fields the address is: Northala Fields, Kensington Road, Ealing, UB5 6UR. The nearest underground station is Northholt (on the Central Line).

If you're coming by car from London you need to exit the A40 at the Target Roundabout and go right round the roundabout to take the exit to go back to central London. As you go down the slip-way to rejoin the A40 there's a little road that goes down to your left. Take this, go right at the T-junction at the end, which takes you through an underpass below the A40 and then take the next right which will get you into one of the designated Northala Fields car parks - or there's another one straight ahead. Bizarrely there are no signs to direct you to Northala Fields from the A40. But I've drawn a diagram - drum roll - with the very latest, and most sophisticated, mapping software (not!). Just follow my turquoise arrows if you're coming from London, and you'll get there no problem.

The Northolt underground station is further up Church Road (the pretty pink one). It runs straight into Mandeville Road, which is where the station is.


Bonny x