Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Da do run run

The runners have limped home, the spectators have gone and the many thousands of empty bottles that littered the gutters have been cleared away. Yes, another London Marathon has disappeared across the finish line.

The London Marathon is one of the biggest sporting events in the world. Over half a million people line London's streets to cheer on the runners, and many millions more watch the event on TV. On Sunday 22 March, a record 36,396 people started the marathon. By 6pm 35,674 had crossed the finish line - another record, by 400 people.

But how did it all start? The marathon has been run since 1981, when nearly 7,500 althetes took part out of more than 20,000 who applied. It was the brainchild of British althlete and former Olympic champion Chris Brasher, who had just run the New York Marathon. Inspired by the way the runners, spectators and organisers had pulled together to make New York's marathon such a great event, Brasher wrote an article for The Observer wondering if such a thing could ever happen in London.

The feature received such a positive response that Brasher and Donald Trelford, the then editor of The Observer, decided to take the matter further. They met with the Greater London Council, the Metropolitan Police and athletics' governing bodies in 1980 and Brasher made various trips to the US to study the organisation and finance of big city marathons such as those in New York and Boston (the world's oldest city marathon).

Brasher put together a budget, and the authorities gave a cautious green light, with £50,000 sponsorship from Giliette and charitable status helping tip the balance. The inaugural race was run on 29 March 1981 and the runners were led home by American Dick Beardsley and Norwegian Inge Simonsen, who crossed the line hand-in-hand, in a deliberate dead heat.

The race is run over 26 miles and 385 yards (42.195 km), the traditional Olympic length. Originally this was to be 26 miles. London was host to the 1908 Olympics and the marathon was to end in front of the royal box, where Queen Alexandria would be watchimg. Continuing the royal theme, the race started at Windsor Castle. A late request from the queen, asking if the starting line could be moved to where it could be seen from the nursery, added the extra 385 yards, and so the tradition was born.

Some London Marathon facts:
Nine people have died running the marathon, including, sadly, one man who died after running this year.
On 19 April 2003 former boxer Michael Watson, who had been told he would never walk again after a fight with Chris Eubank, made headlines by finishing the marathon in six days.
In 2006 Sir Steve Redgrave (winner of five consecutive Olympic gold medals) set a new Guinness World Record for money raised through a marathon by collecting £1.8 million in sponsorship.
The fastest times are 2:05:38 for men (Khalid Khannouchi, USA) in 2002 and 2:15:25 for women (Paula Radcliffe, UK) in 2003.

The London Marathon

Thursday, 12 April 2007

Off the grid: Go down to the woods today

Welcome to the inaugural posting of what I hope will become a regular, if erratic, feature. With Off the grid I will aim to bring to you word of the many places that lie off the beaten track.

Aye, wood: This ancient woodland is just eight miles from the centre of London

Shooters Hill

The first to qualify is Oxleas Woods in Shooters Hill, southeast London. Shooters Hill is about as far away as you can get from tourist London and still be in London. It's part of the borough of Greenwich but it's closer to Woolwich, Eltham and Plumstead.

The woods are made up of Oxleas Wood, Shepherdleas Wood, Oxleas Meadows, Jackwood and Castle Wood. Eltham Common and Woodlands Farm are also attached. The woods cover 77 hectares and are at least 8,000 years old. Oxleas Woods are are one of the last remaining ancient woodlands in London. They contain oak, silver birch, hornbeam, coppice hazel and several fine examples of the wild service tree, a relatively rare specimem that is generally confined to pockets of ancient woodland.

Watch the birdie: The colourful jay prefers to live in wooded areas where there is plenty of space to hide

The woods are home to a great number of birds, animals and plants. It was designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1984 in recognition of the thousands of plant and animal species that have lived there since the last Ice Age. We were lucky enough to see a jay, a colourful but shy bird that often flies away before being spotted.
Mr The London Lowdown and I visited the woodland just last week, on the cusp of spring. The weather was beautiful and a few blossom trees had started to flower. New leaves were growing and the woods were thick with the dark green leaves of bluebells and rhododendrons. In a couple of weeks' time the woods will be spectacular with colour and scents. I'll be going back with a picnic. There is a cafe so you don't have to supply your own snacks.

Man's folly : Severndroog Castle was built to commemorate Sir William James, late of the East India Company

We walked through Jackwood to Castle Wood to satisfy my desire to find Severndroog Castle, a folly built in 1784 with a history that deserves an entry all of its own. We found the castle and wandered back to Jackwood where we found rose gardens, some lovely terraced gardens and the remains of 20th century mansion. Then it was on to Oxleas Wood, where a very vocal blue tit seemed to be warning us away from something. I wonder if she was protecting her eggs.

Shooters Hill Road, the main way to the woodland, follows the route of ancient Watling Street, an important thoroughfare into London for almost 2,000 years. The woods here were once a notorious haunt of highwaymen, one possible origin of the name Shooters Hill. The bodies of convicted highwaymen were left hanging in roadside gibbets as a deterrent to others.

In ancient times these woods would been essential to the community, providing fuel, building materials for homes and ships and bark for tanning leather (as well as a hiding place for those highwaymen). Wild animals, fruits and herbs would have been food and medicine, while woodland clearings would have been used for grazing stock - hence the names Oxleas and Shepherdleas, pastures for oxen and sheep, respectively.

Oxleas Woods

Wednesday, 4 April 2007

The saga of the slides - Part 2

It was a cold, gloomy Monday afternoon in February and I was sure I would get to go on the slides this time. No school holidays, people in work and a couple of months to go before the tourist season would begin in earnest, plus the intallation had been in place for a few months so surely, I thought, the interest had waned somewhat.

As you've no doubt guessed, I couldn't have been more wrong. I arrived to almost exactly the same scene as my previous trip to Tate Modern - queues to the door and families milling around waiting for their turn on these magnificent slides. People had come well prepared too; newspapers, books, drinks and snacks were all being consumed. These were no novice queue-ers, they knew exactly what they were doing and I felt quite the innocent abroad. I had no idea that queing could be such serious business.

There was no way I would get on the installation this time either - I simply hadn't put in the preparation. So I treated myself to some books from Tate Modern's wonderful shop and took some photos, and then went on my not so merry way. Heading back to London Bridge, however, I came across two attractions I'd never heard of before - the Kirkaldy Testing Museum and the Ring, London's first boxing ring, both of which are likely to appear in future postings here. So all wasn't lost, and I was reminded once more just how full of surprises London really is.