The Chingford Meridian

Another in my Greenwich-related days out today; the glorious Chingford Meridian. Right at the top of Pole Hill, the highest point in Chingford, the then-Astronomer Royal, John Pond, erected an obelisk so that everyone north of the river could delight in Britain being the centre of the world. It was put up in 1824 under the excuse that it would help astronomers find True North from the transit telescope. It was the pride of Chingford.

Then disaster struck. Zut alors! The Meridian line changed. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been – Paris was most keen to become the city of the Meridian – but it did shift everything by the frustratingly short distance of 19 feet, in 1850. Suddenly the good folks of Chingford felt as though they were somehow committing a fraud – luring unsuspecting meridian-chasers up to the top of the hill, only to sell them a lie.

They considered just moving the monument – but it was solid granite and had been enough of a huff and puff the first time. No one wanted the job of moving it again…

It hung around like a bad smell, embarrassing the mayor and shaming the councillors for 34 years. When the new line was officially adopted in 1884, they decided enough was enough. A new, somewhat less attractive pillar was erected (I mistook it for some kind of MOD relic when I first saw it) and an apologetic plaque stuck on the old one.

Visiting the monuments is quite a fun quest, if you’re stuck for something to do in the long school holidays. We spent quite some time trying to work out exactly where it was, so you don’t have to – the map reference is here – and, in fact, once you actually have the map it’s quite obvious where it is – it’s the bit marked “Obelisk…”

You can drive reasonably close – go to the top of a loop-y road of a very residential nature and park as near the apex as possible. You have to climb the last 50ft or so, but it’s not a big deal – the grass is roughly cut and although there are no signs you just head for the top.

We had a fight against time – a massive storm loomed in the West – we watched it approaching through the handy gap in the trees (hence the moody look of the shot at the top – click on it to see it properly.)

I’d say that the very best time to go would be on a bright winter’s day, when the trees are bare. The view is of central London – the Gherkin, BT Tower, London Eye, etc. and very dramatic, but if the trees were leafless I’m pretty sure you could see Greenwich (after all it was intended for exactly that…)
Most of the time we were alone, though a snogging couple did turn up at one point, and thinking about it, it’s a perfect lovers’ walk. In between slurps, he loudly announced that the Meridian Line began at the Millennium Wheel. She ooohed and aahed appropriately.
They didn’t last long up there, and we didn’t last much longer than them - the storm was getting closer and closer. We left it as long as we dared, but still didn’t make it back down the hill before giant drops announced a torrential downpour. The last part was an undignified scramble down some rather muddy slopes in great stair rods of rain.
There’s one last oddity about this place. On the granite column, another small plaque tells us that TE Lawrence (of Arabia) and his friend Vyvyan Richards had intended to build a place to print copies of Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom on the top of the hill. It never happened – but Richards lived in a hut up here until 1922.

Random but fun…

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