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Tuesday, 19-Oct-2004 00:00
Marking the meridian: Chingford
What are the chances of the meridian passing precisely through the summit of the tallest hill in northeast London? But it does.

This is the top of Pole Hill, a wooded hillock in Norman Tebbitt's old stomping round of Chingford. It's quiet, it's gorgeous, and it's unique. This is the edge of London, the border with Essex lying less than half a mile away. This is where the green belt begins, the northern slopes rolling down to form the edge of Epping Forest. And this is where the Greenwich Meridian passes, marked by not one but two stone pillars.

xlvi) The taller, western monument was built first. Unlike most of the other markers along the meridian it's not just ornamental but once served a real practical purpose. In the early 19th century the main telescope at Greenwich was James Bradley's transit telescope. This was used to observe the passage of stars across their highest point in the sky by timing them as they passed a fixed north line. Any transit telescope needs to be checked regularly to ensure that it really is pointing north and so a northern reference marker was required. It was an extremely fortunate coincidence that the Greenwich Meridian passed exactly through a hilltop 11 miles to the north - and that's why the Astronomer Royal of the day built an obelisk here on Pole Hill.

xlvii) The shorter, eastern monument was built later when the Airy meridian was adopted at Greenwich. It's a stumpy concrete triangulation point, complete with Ordnance Survey benchmark (which is strange given that all OS maps are still constructed based on the Bradley meridian 6 metres to the west). Recently a few local yobs appear to have added some unnecessary streaks of red graffiti to this particular monument, but they're probably just aerosols.

Lawrence of Arabia adored this place so much that he purchased an 18 acre plot of land on the hilltop. The land is no longer in the family, but there's still a great view from the top of Pole Hill. You can gaze down towards the City skyline, with the BT Tower and London Eye immediately recognisable in the distant Thames valley. Unfortunately the one place you can't see any more is Greenwich because the surrounding trees have grown up over the years and blocked the important line of sight from the great transit telescope. Maybe the view's better in the winter but I loved the place with leaves, long grass and and tiny spiders hanging from the trees. A place of true beauty on the meridian - what are the chances of that?

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