Geocaching first came into my life through a film. The 2009 romantic comedy Splinterheads is pleasant enough without being groundbreaking. Sweet but hopelessly pathetic Justin falls for the bewitching, tattooed, Galaxy. She introduces him to the world of Geocaching. Small containers hidden in public spaces with the GPS coordinates then uploaded to the app.
The aim is simple; find these containers. It sounds easy. It often isn’t.
“So what’s the point?” one of my friends asks me. That’s probably exactly it, there isn’t really a point. There’s no magical prize at the end of the rainbow. But the benefits of being outdoors, on the move are undeniable.
As Sharon Reid, Chair of the Geocache Association of Great Britain, says: “It helps you mentally, just getting outside calms you down — and keeps you fit of course”
A quick glance on the app’s map shows they are liberally scattered across London. I choose five caches spread throughout the city, each with some kind of historical link. A journey that will take me from my home in Leyton to Waterloo station.
"One downside of Geocaching: you frequently look deranged"
Turning off Lee Bridge road I skirt along Hackney Marshes before turning right at the Middlesex filter beds, a place I had passed dozens of times without even realising it.
In 1849 London’s worst outbreak of cholera tore through the city, killing an estimated 14,000 people. The Epidemiological Society of London was established to investigate epidemic diseases, and in 1852, the filter beds were constructed by the East London Waterworks Company in an attempt to filter water from the cleaner Walthamstow river. Two years later John Snow discovered that in fact the epidemic had originated from a single water pump in Soho, but the filter beds remained in operation until 1969.
The compass on the Geocaching app swirls back and forth while I’m standing at the entrance — it’s close. I’m rummaging through a bush when I suddenly look up to see an elderly lady eyeing me suspiciously. She yanks her dog and quickly hurries along. This is one serious downside of Geocaching: you frequently look deranged.
Moments later I have my first cache in my hand.
"Increasingly I just prod things in the hope that might help"
I walk past the marshes once more with the city skyline baking in the summer heat. My next cache is a mile and a half away so I put my phone away and enjoy the walk along the canal. In Bow I leave the towpath and turn left onto Grove Road, which eventually leads beneath a rail bridge with a blue plaque high above it.
On the night of 13 Jun — just one week after D-Day — a mysterious sound broke the London sky. Between 1940 and 1941, the Blitz had brought destruction to the British capital, but with German forces already being pushed back in Normandy, Hitler authorised the use of the first V-1 rocket.
The sound that was later described as "like a motorbike without a muffler" appeared above Grove Road in the East End at 4.25am. The rocket crashed into a railway bridge, badly damaging it, and demolishing a number of houses, killing eight people. This was the first of five that would hit London that night.
Considering how small the cache is I find it surprisingly quickly, sign my name and quickly return it.
Tucked away on Graces Alley I find Wilton's Music Hall. A place I had never visited or even heard of. The day before I had been shocked to learn that the charming, quiet building dating from 1859 is the oldest grand music hall in the world. I spend 15 minutes walking back and forth, peering into cracks, and increasingly just prodding things in the hope that might help. Finally, I check the hint on the app, and after another 10 minutes I find it, in what I must say is an ingenious hiding spot.
"Standing in front of the metal railings is an unsettling experience"
I quickly place it back just as a muggle approaches. What is a muggle I hear you ask? A muggle is a name given by the geocache community to anybody not in on the secret. Basically anybody who isn’t geocaching. I walk on through St Katharine Docks, over the Tower of London and along the Thames, before turning left and into Southwark, a place of dark history.
At the corner of Union Street and Redcross Way lies the Cross Bones Graveyard. Commonly referred to as a prostitute’s graveyard, excavations of the site, which began in 1991, revealed that in fact two thirds of those found were under the age of five. Despite its early links with the red light district over the years it became a pauper’s cemetery, which was finally closed in 1853 with overcrowding at such a point that coffins were said to be placed just two feet below the surface.
In the early 1990s, excavations removed 148 skeletons from the top layers of soil, leaving almost 99% of the total still in the graveyard. Today ribbons and messages adorn the metal railings and the site has become a symbolic place to remember the outcast dead. The graveyard itself has become a garden in which, on the 23rd of each month, a small ceremony of remembrance takes place.
Standing in front of the metal railings is an unsettling experience. In the modern world we tend to think of burial in an orderly way, done with a mark of respect. This was not always the case. The cache here is the most difficult of the day, even with the aid of the hint. I’m close to walking away, telling myself it isn’t worth it, but I force myself back. I’m finally rewarded, and could have kicked myself for not thinking of it earlier.
"This is a whole different way to see London"
I continue down Union Street then along The Cut before and once again my phone begins vibrating. I’m standing in front of a decorative building that seems a little out of place to those around it. It was here that the Necropolis Railway line once ran from. The word Necropolis means cemetery, often associated with ancient cities. Opened in 1854 the Necropolis line transported coffins out of London, with its heavily congested cemeteries, to the newly built Brookwood cemetery, 30 miles southwest of London. The ornate building we can see today was specifically designed for mourners with private rooms for individual services.
By now, I realise that this particular geocaching adventure is tinged with death.
I quickly locate the cache, but the sheer volume of people walking along the road makes it impossible for 10 minutes. Eventually I place my bag on the floor and feign interest with something inside before reaching out and grabbing it quickly. After scribbling my name down I wait patiently again for a break in traffic before stuffing it back where I found it.
Straightening up, I quickly check around me, before slipping quietly into the steady stream of unaware muggles trudging towards Lambeth North Station. This is a whole different way to see London.