Category Archives: London

So this is Christmas and what have you done

Another year over and a new one just begun*

As 2016 ends I’ve been looking back on what I’ve done since returning to the UK in December 2014, after 15 years living overseas, in New Zealand, Rarotonga (in the Cook Islands) and New York City (December 2010-14). Settling back in the UK has been difficult.

2015 was particularly stressful because I spent a tiring and, at times, demoralising 12 months applying for jobs (a process I’d already spent 6-months on back in the US). It wasn’t until November 2015 that I got a Living Wage job in a sector (social care) I would never have considered until it became obvious I would not get a job specific to my qualifications, skills, and experience as a science adviser and researcher.

During this time my New Zealand wife went through a costly, drawn out and stressful process, including a return to Auckland, to obtain the right to live in the UK.

The major plus was that I’d bought a flat in London in the 1990s when if you were on a reasonable wage you’d be offered a mortgage that allowed you to buy a decent property in a reasonable part of London. I bought a basic 2-bedroom flat with French windows opening onto the Lea Navigation Canal below Tottenham Lock. Now mortgage-free, we can sit and watch canal life as people go boating, cycling, dog walking, fishing, running, sculling, walking by. If we’re feeling more energetic there’s 28-miles of towpath to explore between the tidal river Thames at Limehouse Basin to the northern terminus at Hertford.

Looking upstream to Tottenham Lock from our lounge

A major reason for moving back to London was to be near family and friends, but working shift work and weekends in low paid work supporting people with learning disabilities left little energy, time or money to socialise.

However, 2016 ended on a high when in mid-December I started working at a local college where I am supporting young people with autism. I am no longer working shift or weekend work, and am working in an environment which promises to be more personally rewarding.

There have also been more travel and leisure experiences during the past year. In July we stayed in an old country villa in Corsica with friends from New Zealand. This lazy 5-day trip was a much-needed break from my job. In contrast, my previous trip to Corsica with my brother in 1988, focused on walking the Grande Randonnée (GR) 20, a rugged 180km (112.5 mile) trail considered one of Europe’s most beautiful mountain trails.

One of the spectacular views around the Corsican town of Corte

In September we took a six-day road trip with my wife’s mum and sister who visited from New Zealand. We took in Canterbury and Dover Castle in Kent; Eastbourne, the Brighton Pavilion and Chichester Cathedral in Sussex; Stonehenge, Avebury and Castle Combe in Wiltshire; Dorchester, Cerne Abbas, Abbotsbury and Lyme Regis in Dorset; Exeter, Castle Drogo, and Dartmoor, including the Bronze Age settlement of Grimspound and the village of Widecombe-in-the-Moor, in Devon; and Wells in Somerset, with its fantastic cathedral.

Looking toward tors on Dartmoor from the graveyard of the Church of St Pancras, Widecombe-in-the-Moor, Devon

When I left New York City I vowed to keep up with my birdwatching in the UK after all the pleasure I had from being involved in it in the US. Getting out on birdwatching trips with a local Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) branch and the local Wren Wildlife and Conservation Group has become a mainstay of my social life.

When I want a walk or to go birdwatching alone I’m only a few minutes’ walk from the Walthamstow Reservoirs (which will feature in future posts). They’ve become a regular bolt-hole for me over the past year. They were particularly atmospheric and eerily quiet in the foggy weather of a few days ago.

Reservoir No. 5 Walthamstow Reservoirs, in the fog (30 December 2016)

With weekends and summer evenings now free, I’ll be spending more time birdwatching and getting involved in local conservation efforts. I’ll also be visiting different parts of the UK (both old favourites and new destinations) and will have an eye open for flight/accommodation bargains that make overseas travel possible.

However, my main New Year’s resolution is to spend more time on independent and art house cinema, an interest developed during my years in 1990s London. I had good options to pursue this during my years living in Wellington, NZ, and in Astoria in NYC, . where the excellent Museum of the Moving Image was only a 15-minute walk from home.

We have joined the British Film Institute on London’s South Bank, where my wife and I recently enjoyed the 1939 Howard Hawks comedy His Girl Friday. Starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, it is one of the fastest-talking films ever: the dialogue has been estimated at 250 words per minute against an industry average of 100-150 words. It was the first movie we had seen in a year. It’s time to put that right!

*Click for full lyrics of John Lennon’s “So this is Christmas”

Slowly settling back into life in the UK

Since moving back to the UK at the end of 2014 after 15 years away I’ve been settling back in London in a flat I bought back in 1994. Thank goodness I kept hold of it; given the earning potential of jobs  now available to me I wouldn’t have a chance of purchasing a property of any sort in London these days. I can only imagine how hard it is for youngsters trying to get onto the property ladder these days!

It’s great being close to friends and family again, along with  opportunities to revisit favourite places and explore the UK more. However, its proving difficult to adapt to changes that have occurred while I’ve been away. Limited job opportunities, a changing political landscape, growing inequality across society, government red tape etc. are all proving obstacles to feeling settled.

The part of London I grew up in allowed easy access to parts of the Metropolitan Green Belt, formally proposed in 1935, “to provide a reserve supply of public open spaces and of recreational areas and to establish a green belt or girdle of open space”. There’s still plenty Green Belt of accessible from where I live, but unfortunately it may be vulnerable  with research showing that politicians are allowing much-loved and well-used land to come under threat from development. Alternative brownfield sites are available but I guess prospective developers don’t see themselves making as much profit with such sites!

While overseas I managed to get back home to visit family and friends every few years. In the last few visits the large number of flats being built across London has been very obvious; in the immediate vicinity of my flat there’s been a lot of recent development including blocks of student accommodation.

Hale End Village
Commercial and residential development at Hale End Village
van and flats
Residential development on opposite side of canal to proposed development

Most of the development is limited to around 8 – 10 storeys but there is a current proposal that has been submitted that will see  the demolishing of existing structures over the road from the estate I live on and alongside the canal running past my flat.  In their place blocks of primarily residential accommodation, ranging from 4 to 21 storeys and providing up to 502 dwellings, would be built.

Existing restaurant and function centre. It will be demolished to make way for the new development.

The 10 storey buildings are already quite imposing in the context of the surrounding areas and skyline. 21 storey towers will take this to a new level creating more shadows and obstructions of views, while the extra residences and accompanying parking and roading will put additional strain on infrastructure that is already creaking under the weight of road and tube/rail users.

The area to the right of the canal will be redeveloped

The existing area may not be paradise but despite the completely rosy picture the developers try to paint regarding impacts there are bound to be impacts on the local ecosystems. With the huge number of flats and supporting infrastructure being constructed in London the sentiments expressed in Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi lyrics come to mind.

To try and give myself a better work-life balance I’m getting to meet new people and travel further afield by pursuing my interest in birdwatching, rekindled in New York (2010 – 14), and wider interests in the natural environment. Local groups such as the Wren Wildlife and Conservation Group (Wren website) and the North East London and Havering Local Groups of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) offer trips that allow me to build up my natural history knowledge and meet people with similar interests while visiting locations that are often new to me. The trips are also throwing up some unexpected surprises unrelated to birdwatching, which I’ll be posting on in the future.