diamond geezer

 Friday, April 29, 2016

Alarm. Second alarm. Mug of tea. Out of the door in one hour flat. I am the King of my commute, optimised to the point of perfection. Bound out of tube station. Ignore glum operative dispensing free advertorial. Approach office.

Retrieve pass from pocket. Nod to security guard on front desk. Wait. Crowd into lift with the bleary coffee-clutchers. Say hello to the neighbouring workers who get in even earlier than you. Never talk to them again all day. Hang coat in slightly rancid cupboard. Switch on computer. Keep fingers crossed this isn't the morning it wants a new password. Twiddle fingers. Dismiss nagging opportunity to update Adobe Flash Player. Open up email. Delete overnight spam filter report. Check phone in case something exciting has happened in the real world in the last five minutes.

"Morning morning morning." "How are you doing?" "Did you have a good evening?" "We went to that new place I had the chicken hearts it was literally like eating mushrooms." "We watched Game of Thrones, the new episode, then we did House of Cards." "Well, I think it's Leicester's to lose."

Email flashes in. Process email. File email. Check phone.

Someone has overdone the aftershave this morning. The boss briefly wanders the floor to chivvy. Someone has forgotten to go to a meeting. The lifts are always busy at the turn of the hour. A conversation full of three letter acronyms breaks out. Mug of tea.

The workforce sit passively at their terminals. The system drips micro-tasks into their field of vision. The cascade is never-ending. A monkey could probably do a lot of this. If the shareholders get their way, one day a monkey will do a lot of this. The landline hardly ever rings any more.

Two plastic tubs of cookies and mini traybakes have been unsealed on the cupboard beside the gangway. Someone else has baked cupcakes and brought them in for Hassan's birthday. Sophie's brought some untranslatable ethnic nibbles back from from holiday. Later a senior manager will buy doughnuts to keep everyone motivated. One or two of the thinner employees have a gym bag under their desks.

The sun nudges round a micro-fraction. Suddenly it becomes impossible for one poor soul to see their screen. The blind comes down. The sun nudges round. The blind never goes back up.

Mug of tea. Banter erupts at the hot water dispenser. "I like what you've done with your hair." "We were thinking of doing the new Thai this evening." "Yeah I'm working at the weekend." "We should definitely do that Crystal Maze thing as a team." The fridge is stuffed full of personalised cartons of atypical milk.

The photocopier's jammed again. The backup photocopier's out of toner. The slightly older photocopier that does the slightly blotchy copies will have to do. Janice's job will only take another four minutes, if you're patient.

Sandwich at the desk and a can of Coke. A Tupperware box from home full of leaves and pasta. Spicy reconstituted powder in boiling water. Some kind of four quid wrap. Chicken Cottage guzzled greedily with greasy fingers. That free sample instant curry the lady at the station dished out this morning. No time for lunch, deadlines to meet, head down.

An online meeting kicks off at someone's desk. It's a lot cheaper than going to Birmingham. The rest of us sigh, because we can hear every word (apart from the bits when the connection drops, and then we can hear every swear word). Sudden realisation that an unknown number of people in Birmingham can hear everything we're gossiping about.

Someone brings down a tray of leftover sandwiches from a meeting somewhere. They dry and curl as the air-conditioned afternoon progresses. All the pastries are rapidly swiped. A mini-quiche slowly sweats.

I need to sharpen my pencil. Where can I sharpen my pencil now nobody has their own bin any more? Someone's put half a sandwich in the paper recycling bin. Which recycling bin is it for cardboard? It doesn't say.

Clockwatch. Should have taken lunch a bit later to make the afternoon shorter. Mug of tea. Window open watching YouTube. Window open watching the BBC News live sports tracker. Window open checking Facebook. Rapidly-maximised spreadsheet.

Too many mugs of tea. A fellow employee trails behind you into the gents, then quickly nips into the cubicle rather than have to expose themselves beside you at the urinal. A strip of toilet paper lies discarded on the tiles. With a warning beep, the automatic air freshener pumps out a burst of artificial scent. It always takes two goes to get the drier to do both hands.

Return to your desk to find someone you've never seen before sitting in your chair having an impromptu meeting. "Oh do you want it back?" Thanks for asking. That blind is still down.

The workstream is never-ending. Have you done your objectives? Well done to Narinda for living our values. Would anyone like to volunteer to help out at the awayday? We're expecting another big desk move soon.

Clockwatch. Consider a final mug of tea. Clockwatch. Watch the clock in the bottom corner of your screen ticking round to hometime.

Clock ticks round. Close windows, log off, shut down, coat on, grab bag, head for exit. Depart into the big wide world, along with everyone else streaming for home. Pick up biased freesheet to read on train. Squeeze onto train into space too small to be able to open biased freesheet. Someone underdid the deodorant this morning. We are being held at a red signal and we should be moving shortly.

Traipse home from station. Mug of tea. Try to enjoy remainder of evening. Prospect of more of the same ad infinitum, if you're lucky.

 Thursday, April 28, 2016

Only one week remains until London's Mayoral elections. There are also elections for the London Assembly next Thursday, but nobody's really going on about that. Instead the focus has been on the battle for the big job, and specifically the two men most likely to end up in charge.



2016 is the first Ken Livingstone-free Mayoral election, plus the last two also had Boris, so there is a sense that something's missing on the towering personality front. This year's candidates are less charismatic, less of an obvious figurehead for London, which makes it rather more difficult to choose between them. Indeed, even at this stage, I still haven't decided which one of them I'm going to vote for. I know who's getting my second preference, the one that really counts, but my first preference is still very much up for grabs.

There are many ways to decide who to vote for. Many people always vote for the same party no matter what, some vote tactically to keep one candidate out, while others go with gut instinct rather than any attempt to engage with policy. I'm a policy man myself, because I like to know what the next four years might be like if a particular Mayor came to power. More to the point, I prefer to vote for someone who isn't going to do something I think stupid, which means I'm looking for the best candidate with the fewest red lines. Whoever that is.

If you bother to read the manifestos of the four main candidates, they're jam-packed with good stuff. Pick a random promise in a random manifesto and it's probably a good thing, even something that should have happened long ago. Better controls on housing, improved facilities for cycling, action on air pollution, they're all saying very similar kinds of thing. If only our elected mayor actually did half of what they promised, what a great city this would be. But lurking in amongst the slamdunk ideas are statements that make me tut, or cuss, or sigh, and I wonder why I should offer my vote to someone who's pledged to do that to London.

Sadiq Khan's red line is his headline pledge to freeze fares for the full term of his mayoralty. It's an eyecatching policy, indeed an undoubted vote winner, but is it wise? A fast expanding city needs more transport, adequately funded, if the capital's not to start choking up. A real terms cut in revenue isn't going to help future Londoners get around, and Khan's expectation of finding internal efficiency savings won't necessarily wash. Is TfL really a bloated organisation, indeed after the government cuts of the last six years how can it be? Sadiq comes over as the austerity candidate, pushing an unexpectedly cost-cutting agenda, while his main opponent refuses to rule out fare rises to fund investment, which is surely a much more a Labour thing to do.

Zac Goldsmith's manifesto is littered with red lines, at least in my book. He wants to make it much harder for tube workers to strike. He wants to introduce a snoopers' app, a Virtual Neighbourhood Watch. He refuses to fix a specific proportion of affordable homes in new developments, claiming it's more important homes get built than that they're relatively cheap. He wants to build a Silvertown Tunnel and toll it, while filling our roads with electric cars. He plans to fund more police officers on the tube by cancelling the free travel passes enjoyed by families of TfL staff members (I tutted twice during that pledge). And he repeatedly says he wants to build on the great successes of Boris's eight year reign, which means a lot of his pledges are just things that are planned to happen anyway, which suggests a singular lack of vision. So no, Zac was never going to get my vote.

In contrast, Sian Berry's Green manifesto reads like a checklist of right-on egalitarian ideas. Renters' rights, a Bank for London, a laser focus on cutting air pollution, a lot of this sounds like a model for a considerably fairer city. We've got used to a hands-off wealth-friendly Mayor, and Sian would be very much the opposite. But is her long-term aspiration for a single London fare zone viable (for similar funding reasons to Sadiq's fare freeze)? And as for her idea to close City Airport and cover the site with homes and innovative industries, is that inspired or wilfully misguided? I'm nearly sold but, as with the other candidates, certain policies on the longlist rankle.

I've read Caroline Pidgeon's manifesto twice, and I can't see any obvious red lines. That's not bad for a 101 page document, indeed it's damned impressive. Let's slap a diesel levy on the Congestion Charge, let's Oysterise the cablecar, let's invest more in affordable housing, and let's scrap the Garden Bridge before it hijacks any more public money. There's a practicality about her list of pledges that's not so explicit elsewhere, a reflection of the years that Caroline has spent living the minutiae of London life as a member of the Assembly. By comparison Zac and Sadiq come across as politicians first and Londoners second, which maybe isn't what a complex capital city needs.

So my first preference for Mayor is going to be either Caroline or Sian, I haven't quite decided. One's eminently capable, with the electoral millstone of a LibDem label round her neck, and the other's more radically exciting, with the occasional flash of "oh hang on, really?". I've got a week, I'll make my decision by next Thursday, and will be quietly surprised with myself whichever lady it turns out to be.

Of course either Sadiq or Zac is going to win the election, a walkover for Sadiq if the bookies are correct, or a shock victory for Zac if Inner London fails to turn out on the day. So it would be pointless to give my second preference to anyone other than these two. Sorry to Caroline or Sian, but whichever of you doesn't get my first vote isn't going to get my second, because that's how the Supplementary Voting system works. 2016 is the Zac v Sadiq show, just as previous years boiled down simply to Ken v Boris. At least there's always the London Assembly ballot papers to help balance things out, which is where Sian and Caroline are most likely to be victorious anyway.

And I mention all of this not because I expect you to follow me, nor even to agree with me, but to point out how difficult it's been to choose a Mayor this year. The leading candidates lack stardust and soul, while those from the other parties are likely to be overlooked as people vote on reputation rather than policy. You vote for who you like, but remember to be an idealist on your first preference, and a realist on your second.

 Wednesday, April 27, 2016

So, who are you voting for in next week's London Mayoral election, then?

Sadiq: votes (31)   Zac: votes (8)   Caroline: votes (12)

Sian: votes (29)   Other: votes (4)  Don't know: votes (1)

After 63 weeks, the Cycle Superhighway 2 upgrade might just be finished.



Or it might not.



 Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Anorak Corner (the annual update) [tube edition]

London's ten busiest tube stations (2015)
1) ↑2 Waterloo (95.1m) 2) King's Cross St Pancras (93.4m) 3) ↓2 Oxford Circus (92.4m) 4) Victoria (82.9m) 5) ↑1 Liverpool Street (73.3m) 6) ↓1 London Bridge (72.0m) 7) Stratford (61.4m) 8) Bank/Monument (57.5m) 9) Canary Wharf (54.4m) 10) Paddington (49.6m)

Waterloo returns to the top of the tube rankings, after relinquishing its crown to Oxford Circus for a single year, adding almost four million passengers on top of 2014's total. King's Cross and Victoria hold firm at two and four respectively, while Liverpool Street and London Bridge swap places, the latter presumably the casualty of continued long-term engineering works on the commuter lines feeding into the mainline station. There's no change further down the top ten, with Bank/Monument adding the greatest number of passengers since last year.

For comparison, ten years ago King's Cross St Pancras had 52m passengers, but it's now 93m. Over the same period Canary Wharf has rocketed from 38m to 54m, and Stratford's usage has almost tripled from 22m to 61m. It's no wonder Crossrail's looking an essential addition to London's transport network, rather than simply nice to have.

London's ten busiest tube stations that aren't also National Rail stations (2015)
1) Oxford Circus (92.4m) 2) Bank/Monument (57.5m) 3) Canary Wharf (54.4m) 4) Leicester Square (43.7m) 5) Piccadilly Circus (42.8m) 6) ↑3 Holborn (40.5m) 7) ↓1 Green Park (39.6m) 8) ↑* Bond Street (37.1m) 9) ↓1 South Kensington (33.9m) 10) ↑* Brixton (30.8m)

The top five tube-only stations have remained static over the last twelve months, while Holborn has leapt up into sixth place with a 10% increase in passengers (which perhaps puts the escalator trial into perspective). Most of these ten non-rail stations are at the heart of the West End, delivering millions of Londoners to the shops and to work. Canary Wharf is an exception - that's simply work - and look at Brixton nudging in at number 10, as south London makes its presence stronger felt.

London's ten busiest tube stations outside Zone 1 (2015)
1) Stratford (61.4m) 2) Canary Wharf (54.4m) 3) Brixton (30.8m) 4) ↑1 Finsbury Park (28.85m) 5) ↓1 Hammersmith (District & Piccadilly) (28.83m) 6) North Greenwich (26.4m) 7) ↑1 Shepherd's Bush (22.3m) 8) ↓1 Camden Town (21.9m) 9) Highbury & Islington (18.4m) 10) Walthamstow Central (18.3m)

This list has barely changed since last year, with the swap between 4th and 5th places merely a statistical technicality. It's instructive that Walthamstow Central may be tenth on this non-central list but it's merely the 46th busiest tube station overall, because zone 1 is where the vast majority of the action is.

London's ten least busy tube stations (2015)
1) Roding Valley (261000) 2) Chigwell (559000) 3) Grange Hill (658000) 4) ↑1 Theydon Bois (850000) 5) ↓1 Chesham (875000) 6) Moor Park (886000) 7) North Ealing (893000) 8) ↑* South Kenton (957000) 9) ↓1 Croxley (1050000) 10) Ruislip Gardens (1110000)

The least used stations on the Underground remain those at the Essex end of the Central line, with poor Roding Valley less than half as popular as the next station on the list. An additional 60000 passengers a year are now using Chesham, hence its downward move, while Croxley also does well to nudge the same way. As for South Kenton, that's yo-yoed in and out of the Least Busy Top Ten for years, but this is its highest position yet. It's notable that none of these ten stations will be receiving a Night Tube service (although station number 11, Fairlop, will).

The next ten least busy stations: Fairlop, Chorleywood, Upminster Bridge, Ickenham, Mill Hill East, West Harrow, Barkingside, Chalfont & Latimer, West Ruislip, West Finchley

The ten least busy tube stations in Zone 1 (2015)
1) Lambeth North (3.3m) 2) Regent's Park (3.5m) 3) Edgware Road (4.5m) 4) ↑2 Bayswater (5.2m) 5) Borough (5.4m) 6) ↑2 Mansion House (5.6m) 7) ↑2 Lancaster Gate (6.3m) 8) ↑* Edgware Road (7.2m) 9) ↓2 Hyde Park Corner (7.4m) 10) ↓6 Cannon Street (7.5m)

The top three least used stations in zone 1 are all on the Bakerloo line, which hints strongly at this being central London's least busy tube line. The other stations are all over the place, but generally on or outside the Circle line. Cannon Street's rapid descent is in part due to now being open on Sundays, and in part to being the recipient of increasing numbers of commuter trains bypassing London Bridge.

London's ten tube stations with the biggest percentage increase in passengers (2010→2015)
1) Stratford (+128%) 2) Chesham (+105%) 3) Cannon Street (+90%) 4) Southwark (+79%) 5) Canons Park (+69%) 6) Bermondsey (+59%) 7) Kensington (Olympia) (+58%) 8) Wembley Park (+56%) 9) Tottenham Hale (+54%) 10) Bromley-by-Bow (+53%)

You'd expect Stratford to be top of this list, and it is, and Bromley-by-Bow also feels the Olympic housing effect by landing at number 10. Canons Park and Wembley Park also owe their rise to recent housing developments near each station, while Bermondsey and Southwark are proving the wisdom of routing the Jubilee line extension along the South Bank. And just look again at those increases in passengers, in every case in excess of 50%, and this over a mere five year period. If your train to work is feeling more crowded, you are not alone.

» Tube passenger data here (total annual entry and exit frequencies)
» For the annual rail passenger data update, see last December's post

 Monday, April 25, 2016

10 things you can see at the London Transport Museum Depot

It's in Acton. It's open for a couple of weekends a year. You just missed one.



1) Old tube trains: When old tube stocks die, at least one carriage is normally shunted off to the LTM Depot for safekeeping. The most recent additions are the old Victoria line stock (died 2011), the old Metropolitan line 'A' Stock (died 2012) and the old subsurface 'C' Stock (died 2014). A single District 'D' Stock will no doubt be squeezed in by the end of the year. But there are also some seriously old carriages in the collection, some made of wood, others with pointy windows, and others sheer Thirties luxury compared to what we ride today (although I bet the suspension was worse). The oddest carriage is probably the 1986 Stock Central line prototype, which is green, and was part of a full-scale consultation (with 'red' and 'blue') to see which the public preferred. Red won, but how sleek our journeys might have been if green had triumphed.

2) Old tube maps: Upstairs on the mezzanine you'll find a selection of tube maps that once graced platforms in days gone by. Some of the earliest are enamelled geographically accurate beauties, often part-eroded, while some of the postwar bunch are ugly angular concoctions best hidden away in an archive. If you're a Londoner, obviously the first thing you do each time is hunt down the section of the map where you live, but a much more enjoyable quest is to track down lines since closed and stations since renamed. Clapham South was nearly called Nightingale Lane, who knew?



3) Old tube signs: Rather more of the mezzanine is taken up by station signs of all kinds, from roundels to line diagrams to those long thin nameplate things that run across the top of platforms, saved here to preserve the vast variety of types and styles generated over the years. The roundels come in all sizes and fill at least four gangways, hence a much-repeated activity at Acton is to hover around the end of one of the gangways waiting for it to clear of people so you can take a photo. The line diagrams are often more interesting, especially if they're for lines that were never built, or contain stations long since renamed, or even have a ghastly error (which it was hard to fix in the era of costly hand-created enamel). There's probably an old sign from your local station (I eventually found a Croxley, though not a Bow Church), but also dozens you'll never have imagined existing.

4) Old Overground signs: Not every old sign is worth keeping, so several traders turn up at these depot open days with the intention of flogging old stuff to the punters, and this weekend their haul included frshly-removed vinyl-covered signs from the outer reaches of the New Overground. A whole stack of Hackney Downs, Silver Streets and Bush Hill Parks were up for grabs, at a not entirely unreasonable price, made redundant in their original locations by the provision of bespoke orange enamelled replacements. And by golly they were selling well, despite their enormous size, presumably because train fanatics living up the Lea Valley hadn't previously had much in the way of TfL signage to acquire before the Overground arrived. I was very interested to see if any Theobalds Groves were available, this being the station where I caught contractors last year erecting a spelling mistake, but alas seemingly no.

5) Acton Miniature Railway: It's only rarely open to the public, when Depot Open Days permit, but this short miniature railway is seven and a quarter inches of ride-on pleasure. A ride from Depot Approach up towards Ealing End costs only a quid, and it's not only for children (although most of those on board either were or had recently sired some).



6) A spiral escalator: Several large-ish objects have ended up at the Depot, from generator panels to signalling systems, and old lightboxes to yellow ticket gates. One particular oddity is the remains of the experimental spiral escalator installed around the circumference of the second lift shaft at Holloway Road station in 1906. It had two separate helical tracks, one up and one down, and unsurprisingly didn't work, indeed its operational lifespan is believed to have been measured in hours rather than days or weeks. Swiftly scrapped, a brief section was later recovered from the bottom of the shaft, and this symbol of misplaced technological optimism now rests on a pallet near the Depot entrance for visitor perusal.

7) Station models: Before a new station, or station feature, is created, somebody often feels the need to knock up a model to explain to everyone else what it'll look like. They're often big models too, hence take up quite a bit of room, for example that for the installation of the Bank Travelator, or the entrance piazza for Canary Wharf. One particularly whopping example is for Oxford Circus, with all the intertwined passageway tunnels faithfully reproduced, another created for the post-fire inquiry at King's Cross, and (my favourite) a scale model of the Stratford area before the Olympics were even dreamed of showing where the new-fangled Channel Tunnel Rail Link might go.

8) Lego tube trains: Danish plastic blocks are very 'in' at the moment, if indeed they ever went away. So it was no surprise to find at least two exhibitors had knocked up some splendid railway-based Lego exhibits, the most impressive from @Cheshambricks who had not only a model 55 Broadway with a station underneath, but also a full Baker Street style cutaway with with two layers of railway below and a streetful of different type of buses above. Their pile of £20 four-carriage Lego tube trains sold out very quickly.



9) The poster store: Out the back, in the bit that most visitors never see, are various rooms for the storage of small and paper-based items. One of these is a large L-shaped room in which TfL's poster archive is stored, tucked away in a variety of drawers, and with a select few on display around the wall. But it was possible to get in if you joined one of this weekend's special taster tours, this with an Edward Johnston theme as the depot celebrated the centenary of his font and all things lettered. While our guide pointed at something the curator thought relevant, but not necessarily exciting, my eyes were spinning round the entire room to soak in the other typographical beauties on display. Full hour-and-a-bit tours of the poster store are available, at other times, for those who'd like to dig further.

10) The Big Steam Print: Meanwhile out the back, near the food trucks, this weekend's special attraction was a steamroller wheeled in from Sussex. The Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft have an Edward Johnston exhibition on at the moment (I've been, you should too), and used their giant press to print a variety of arty posters and etchings by rolling heavily over the top. Hell, why not?

» I last visited the Depot in 2007, and shared 20 photos. This time round I've added 25 more. Not much has changed. Here's the full 45, as a gallery and as a slideshow.

 Sunday, April 24, 2016

It sounded like a fantastic idea to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. A string of 37 big screens, each showing a short film related to one of William's plays, strung out along the South Bank in almost-chronological sequence and free to view. And indeed it was a fantastic idea. The artistic director at the Globe Theatre oversaw the creation of the project, combining extracts from filmed stage productions with specially commissioned scenes recorded in the actual locations Shakespeare intended. Some seriously famous actors got involved, and the end result is a collection of superb introductions to, and summaries of, the Bard's back catalogue.

The intention of The Complete Walk is that you start at one end (near Westminster Bridge) and walk to the other (by City Hall), taking in as many or as few of the short films as you please. At about ten minutes a time, the entire sequence would take about seven hours to watch in its entirety, including a pleasant two mile riverside stroll. So I thought I'd have a go, attempting at least a taster of each, which would be most of Saturday gone. Alas things didn't quite work out like that, as the entire project half-collapsed in a typically British mess. But they'll be having another go today, if technology permits and you're interested, and the films are so good that it might just be worth your while.



1) The Two Gentlemen of Verona: The trail kicked off in the garden at St Thomas' Hospital, once I'd found my way in, and featured Meera Syal on set in northern Italy. Good start.
2) Henry VI, Part 3: Just across the lawn, suitably out of audible range, it was already obvious that "The Histories" were going to be a bit more of a challenging watch than the rest.
3) The Taming of the Shrew: And then things started going wrong. The big screen in Jubilee Gardens was showing what looked like a floating gallery of maritime flags, because it was buggered. So, no Shrew.
4) Henry VI, Part 1: Ditto this Wars of the Roses featurette. A blank screen greeted viewers wandering across to the other side of Jubilee Gardens, so there were no viewers.
5) Titus Andronicus: Bullseye. Shakespeare's goriest play got the full works on a screen located under Hungerford Bridge, including pie-based cannibalism and, ooh, Peter Capaldi acting his socks off in the title role. It was just a shame that much of his dialogue was drowned out by the 12.36 to Sevenoaks rumbling overhead.
6) Henry VI, Part 2: It's OK, Shakespeare wrote his trilogy in the wrong order, hence the unusual sequencing. We enjoyed much cockney banter, as filmed at Spitalfields Market.
7) Romeo and Juliet: Moving up to a screen outside the Royal Festival Hall, this classic Italian-themed romance was drawing decent crowds.
8) Richard III: Another classic, but alas not on this occasion. "Ladies and gentlemen, due a technical fault this screen is closed" read the apologetic message on the screen, while a member of staff fiddled with the electronics round the back. We eventually got sound, but no picture was visible, perhaps due to continued problems, or perhaps because the screen was pointing directly into the sun. An old lady with an unimpressed grandson wandered over to tell the volunteer how displeased she was by all the broken screens. "We're trying our best, madam."



9) Love's Labours Lost: Where better than immediately outside the National Theatre for a part-rendition of this melancholic masterpiece? We even got to enjoy a song at the end.
10) King John: Less of a classic, and struggling to compete with a) the song drifting across from screen number 9 b) the sound of the ventilation unit round belching out of the NT.
11) The Comedy of Errors: Ah, another blank screen. I was struck by the play's highly appropriate title, given the way the project was rolling out thus far.
12) Richard II: Nothing. Ah hang on, pictures but no sound. And then a jump back to the beginning to try again. And then a jump back to the beginning to try again with sound. And then a minute later another jump back to the beginning... and those watching started to wander away.
13) A Midsummer Night's Dream: It had now started raining, but this screen had been cleverly positioned in the bandstand at Gabriel's Wharf, so the entire audience had crammed up close beneath the roof to stay dry, which meant I couldn't see the Bottom.
14) The Merchant of Venice: The first of three screens in Bernie Spain Gardens. But only one of the three was working, and it wasn't this one.
15) Henry IV, Part 1: In a complete tour de force, actor Toby Jones played a drunken Falstaff staggering around the interior of the George Inn, haranguing a man with a charity bucket, and soliloquising at the gents urinals. We loved it.
16) Much Ado About Nothing: Ah, another blank screen. I was struck by the play's highly appropriate title, given the way the project was rolling out thus far.



17) Henry IV, Part 2: Tucked away in the courtyard behind the Oxo Tower, a forlorn screen with no film and no audience.
18) The Merry Wives of Windsor: Ditto. I was now halfway through the sequence of screens, and precisely half of them hadn't been working.
19) Hamlet: Not to be.
20) Henry V: Once more unto the breach.
21) As You Like It: Sans everything.
22) Julius Caesar: Et tu, Brute?
23) Othello: No Moor.
24) Measure For Measure: At last, action! But having missed out on Jonathan Pryce, Sam West, Mel Giedroyc and David Harewood during the duff sequence past Tate Modern, this perhaps wasn't the finest return to form.
25) Twelfth Night: Here on Clink Street was the biggest crowd pleaser of the entire walk, as hundreds enjoyed footage of a hilarious comedic staging featuring Stephen Fry and Mark Rylance. Unfortunately the screen's location under the Cannon Street railway bridge reflected back the sound of the generator, ensuring that much of the dialogue was awkwardly muffled.



26) Troilus and Cressida: A great location, in the ruins of Winchester Palace, although this meant this was little room for an audience as well as the usual tourists, and the cobbled street got very crowded.
27) All's Well That Ends Well: The most relaxed setting, on the cafe terrace outside Southwark Cathedral, with chairs available for those who'd already walked a long way. Unfortunately Lindsay Duncan's reenacted scene was interrupted by the arrival of a white van which had to reverse up to the cathedral door, for some reason, necessitating the displacement of several old ladies from its path.
28) Timon of Athens: A rather smaller audience was watching this one, perhaps Shakespeare's least impressive play. Only now, three-quarters of the way through my parade, did I finally spot a volunteer handing out free maps to show my route.
29) Anthony and Cleopatra: Screened at London Bridge Pier, this filmed segment was shot on location at the Pyramids in Egypt, reflecting the enormously ambitious scale of this anniversary production.
30) King Lear: This was my favourite film, coherently summarising the plot and then shifting Kenneth Cranham and Zawe Ashton to the top of the White Cliffs of Dover. Brilliantly acted, and the kind of taster that must have made many think "You know what, perhaps I really ought to go and watch the full play some time".



31) Macbeth: Shot at Glamis, and wonderfully atmospheric, the Galleria audience enjoyed a compilation including the Porter, a lot of hand-washing and a battlefield death. My subconscious was pleased to discover that my O Level in English Literature hadn't been wasted, and I could chant along with almost every word.
32) Coriolanus: After eight consecutive operational screens, the gremlins were back. An engineer in a Fonix jacket stood alone round the back, outside More London, bleating to somebody on his phone.
33) Henry VIII: One of Shakespeare's least well known plays had the prime spot in The Scoop outside City Hall, its capacious bowl offering a rack of concrete stalls... mostly unoccupied.
34) Pericles: One of the sponsors of The Complete Walk was the Mayor of London. But the screen in Potters Field outside his office window wasn't working.
35) Cymbeline: And this was very much not working either. I felt sorry for all the actors who'd gone to the bother of travelling miles and acting their socks off on location, only for some random power glitch to mean that nobody would see their work.
36) The Winter's Tale: And then a third failure in Potters Fields, which made a disappointing way to end the walk.
37) The Tempest: Thankfully the very final screen was up and running. Unfortunately it had been cheapened by the appearance of two pink promotional flags, one on either side, and an advert for the Bermuda Tourist Board in the pre-roll. No doubt sending Douglas Hodge and the film crew to Bermuda had been expensive, but I was getting all the wrong echoes when he started to recite "we are such stuff as dreams are made on".



When half the screens in an anniversary cavalcade aren't working, you know somebody somewhere has screwed up. The organisers had a half-decent excuse for some of their troubles, namely that the President of the United States had been at the Globe Theatre at the same time things were supposed to be kicking off, and put out an apology on their website: "Due to heightened security in the area this morning, there were some delays in set-up, and there have also been some localised power issues." My money was with the power issues.

What films I saw were excellent, in many cases inspirational, conclusively proving that what makes Shakespeare come to life isn't simply the words, it's the staging. I hope they'll be made available for wider consumption, rather than shoved onto a DVD or locked behind a subscription paywall. But if you want to see them for free, and the organisers have got their act together, The Complete Walk concludes beside the Thames today, with curtain up at ten and exeunt at eight. Come hither, lest gentlemen in England now-a-bed shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here.

 Saturday, April 23, 2016

Historians aren't certain that William Shakespeare was born on St George's Day 1564, but we do know that he died on this day 400 years ago. Hordes of people will be visiting Stratford-upon-Avon today to celebrate, and rightly so, his hometown's a great day out on any day of the year. But for several years of his life Shakespeare's home was London, and it's a fair bet you won't find anniversary hordes flocking round any of his London residences, not even today. In part this is because we don't know where most of them are. But there are a couple we have proper documentary evidence of, neither of which still exist, but you can have a sit down in one and a beer in the other. Near enough.

by 1592: William Shakespeare first moves to lodgings in London.
1593: Now lodging somewhere in Bishopsgate.
1596: Now lodging somewhere in the parish of St Helen's in Bishopsgate.

1599: Now lodging somewhere on Bankside, near the Globe Theatre. [map]



And that's not the current Globe Theatre, which is too near the Thames. Back then a row of theatres ran slightly further back, within the 'Liberty of the Clink', an ancient enclave whose laws permitted entertainments banned in Surrey a few streets away.

The site of the original Globe can be found by crossing Southwark Bridge and then taking steps down immediately beyond the FT's offices. An arc of information boards on Park Street reveals that the site lays before you, beyond the railings, within the protective realm of a block of flats. The limit of the Scheduled Ancient Monument area is defined by a change in the cobbles, with a late Georgian terrace plonked straight across the middle of it, because nobody back then cared of heritage. Indeed the Globe had burnt to the ground in 1613, ignited by a cinder during a performance of Henry VIII, and only a few minor archaeological traces remain. It's believed that Shakespeare might have lived in a house adjacent to the theatre, but that's mere speculation, and nobody knows precisely where. Moving on...

1604: Now lodging in Cripplegate. [map]

Things were going well for Shakespeare by this time, he'd already written most of his classics like A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hamlet and Othello. Perhaps in response to his increased reputation he moved back north of the river and rented lodgings in the City. His landlord was Christopher Mountjoy, a French Huguenot refugee and a maker of ladies' ornamental wigs in the elaborate Elizabethan fashion.

We'd know none of this were it not for a family dispute following the marriage of Mountjoy's daughter Mary to his apprentice Stephen Belott. When a promised dowry failed to materialise in full, Bellot took Mountjoy to court and Shakespeare was called as a witness. His words, in this case, weren't particularly useful, but modern scholars were bequeathed a rare example of his handwriting as a result, and also a precise address.

The Mountjoys' house was situated on the corner of Silver Street and Monkwell Street, on the boundary between the wards of Farringdon and Cripplegate. The catch is that neither the house nor either of the streets still exist. The house disappeared in the Great Fire, as you'd expect, and then the local area was wiped from the map again during the Blitz. Pretty much the whole of Cripplegate was consumed, and the street pattern substantially remodelled during the erection of the Barbican estate.

The location we're trying to pinpoint lies just outside this modern development, either underneath or fractionally to the south of London Wall, which despite its name is another modern interloper on the A-Z. Head to the section east of the Museum of London, close to the actual remains of the actual London wall on Noble Street, very near to where the local branch of Eat dispenses caffeine and wraps.



The best clue to the precise site of the Bard's lodgings is St Olave's church, a small place of worship whose churchyard abutted the street corner in question. This was also destroyed in WW2, but its footprint remains as a tiny garden, as is the way with many of the City's former places of worship. It's quite pleasant too, with a raised lawn and a footpath winding through, and an old stone bowl which might be a font or maybe a birdbath, its hard to be sure.

The City have erected a plaque by a bench to confirm the Shakespearian connection, using the usual convention of 'Near Here' to confirm there's no remaining wall to properly attach it to. If you're planning on getting up close and maybe taking a photo, best hope there isn't a modern day Romeo and Juliet canoodling on the bench when you visit. But if it's free, take a seat and look around you at the lofty offices and highwalks, and try to imagine that Macbeth and King Lear were likely written right here.

1613: Now with property in Blackfriars. [map]

By this time Shakespeare had retired to a fine house in Stratford, but was now rich enough to be able to buy a second property here. Maybe it was his bolthole in the capital, or maybe simply an investment, there isn't even enough documentary evidence to prove he ever stayed the night. Whatever the reason, when he bequeathed it to his daughter he left us one of only six confirmed signatures still in existence today.
'I Gyve... unto my Daughter Susanna Hall... All that Messuage or ten[emen]te with th’appurtenaunces wherein one John Robinson dwelleth, scituat, lyeing & being in the blackfriars in London nere the Wardrobe'
The document goes on to locate the property "upon a streete leading downe to Pudle wharffe", now known as St Andrew's Hill. It confirms the land "being in the tenure or occupacion of one William Ireland", which suggests a specific backstreet called Ireland Yard. It states "part of which said Tenement is erected over a great gate", which can only mean the Blackfriars Gatehouse, the former entrance to an ancient monastery. And the Wardrobe is a church, in case you were wondering, still jammed between the local buildings to this day.

But even these clues aren't quite enough to end scholarly dispute and pinpoint the site with accuracy. The best guess is that the property may have occupied the north side of Ireland Yard where it joins St Andrew’s Hill, which is where the City of London have placed another blue plaque. But this building's a bit dull, on the face of it a Georgian townhouse but actually a modern office reproduction, so I prefer to believe our attention should be on the pub across the alley where the other side of the gatehouse might have been.



This is The Cockpit, a small but resplendent tavern where gamblers at the local cockfights once came to drink. Its pointed black frontage gleams, and drips with colourful hanging baskets, while a flurry of (I take it temporary) St George's flags hang from the upper level. And yet it wasn't busy after work this week when I wandered by - all the local City gents were across the road supping on the pavement outside the rather more upmarket (and oddly named) Shaw's Booksellers.

Things would have been a lot busier around here in early Jacobean times, not least because of the Blackfriars Theatre where Shakespeare's troupe played out the winter months. These days the bypassed quadrant of backstreets to the south of Ludgate Hill goes mostly unnoticed except by those who work here, which is a shame because it's almost quaint in parts. It's also easier here than at the Barbican to imagine our greatest playwright stepping out from home... until that fateful day 400 years ago when Will's will suddenly became important.

 Friday, April 22, 2016

Day out (continued): Salford
And then there's Salford, which definitely isn't part of Manchester proper. It's part of Greater Manchester, but that's different, Salford being an entirely separate place, attaining city status in 1926. The two are barely separated by the River Irwell, although it's for the old docks on the Manchester Ship Canal that Salford is now best known.


Salford Quays
After the decline of the third biggest port in Britain, which isn't bad for 40 miles inland, Salford City Council spent the 1980s intensively regenerating its quayside. They wiped away the cranes and gantries, dammed off the polluted waters, added roads and bridges, knocked up a whole new set of buildings and created a whole new urban landscape called Salford Quays. The original buildings look terribly dated these days, all low density lowrise surrounded by car park, and it's ever so easy to imagine Michael Heseltine turning up in a hard hat to oversee construction, then returning in a suit to open everything. A second burst of life has occurred over the last decade, kickstarted by the BBC's decision to move lots of its production out of London, and other media organisations have followed to create a proper entertainment cluster.

The first landmark building to be erected was The Lowry, a theatre/gallery complex on a tip of land at Pier 8. It looks classically alien from the front, like a collection of bold geometric shapes, and rather shinier and more steely from across the water. Inside The Lowry are two theatres and plenty of gallery space, including a unique collection of matchstalk paintings by its artist namesake... or so I'm told. I've walked past twice, once in 2003 and once at the weekend, and never quite felt sufficiently welcomed to push open the door and step inside. I walked up to the front this time and tried to work out if it was OK to go in and look at the pictures, there being no obvious signs, because all I could see from the outside was a box office and a dead-looking cafe, but seemingly best not. So I went in the shopping centre instead. The Lowry Outlet Mall is what drives the majority of non-working traffic to Salford Quays, because nothing beats wandering round double decker arcades lined by cavernous shops selling stuff slightly cheaper than you can no longer buy elsewhere. I didn't stay long.



Across the dock, past Nando's, is the rather more recent MediaCityUK. A splayed out crescent of glass towers curves round a paved piazza, not quite as excitingly as you might hope, thanks in part to the twin towers of a Holiday Inn rising behind. Stickers on the windows hint at what's made inside, with CBBC and Mastermind in the building by the bridge, BBC Breakfast and Match of the Day on the other side, and BBC 6Music broadcasting further back. The BBC must have entered its "We'd better not spend too much" phase when this was built, because its constituent blocks are capacious without ever quite being interesting, and the overarching effect left me cold. What's also missing is the opportunity to properly interact and go inside unless you've pre-booked on a tour, and a selfie opportunity with a fibreglass Pudsey doesn't quite cut it.

Thank goodness then for the Blue Peter Garden, northern version. This is located by the tramstop, and is fully open and accessible to the public, which shows a major level of trust given the overnight trashing its southern counterpart once endured. I was delighted to see that the Italian Sunken Garden still exists, if a covered rectangular pond surrounded by pots and paving counts, beautifully maintained with bright blooms and numerous representations of the Blue Peter ship. I was also reassured to see the original 1978 concrete footprints of Percy, Lesley, Simon, Shep and Goldie have been transferred to Salford, now augmented by similar indentations made by the show's current crew (precisely one year before my visit). And yes, Petra's statue watches over the lot, just as she did at Television Centre, except here anyone can pay homage.



Across the Media City footbridge, officially crossing from Salford into Trafford, sits the most peculiar building of the lot. It's the Imperial War Museum (North), a juxtaposition of three elemental 'shards' by Daniel Libeskind, and opened in 2002. The visitor experience is deliberately disorienting, and right-angle-free, entering through a minor doorway then bending back up the stairs to reach the main internal exhibition space. The museum focuses on first hand experiences of war, so isn't bursting over with artefacts to view, but tells the story of a century of war in sufficient grim detail around the irregular perimeter. Every hour the lighting dims and an immersive audio-visual experience is projected across the upper walls - I got memories of the Home Front, you might get a Baghdad air raid. And whereas last time I visited it was also possible to take the lift up the Air Shard for a grandstand panorama, alas the entrance to this windswept viewpoint appeared to be very boarded up, as if they don't like to talk about it any more.

Coronation Street


If you've ever wondered where ITV's flagship soap opera is filmed, the answer is on a backlot at Salford Quays. Specifically it's by the Ship Canal adjacent to the IWM, and immediately opposite the BBC's main building, and would be really quite public had the studios not been surrounded by a giant wall. The cobbles are well back from the water, behind a second screening wall, and the outer bailey has two giant metal street signs on it in an attempt to make potential visitors think they've actually seen something. Don't come expecting to see anything.

ITV's studios haven't been here at Trafford Wharf for long, with first filming in 2013 and a first appearance on screen in 2014. Previously they were in town, that's Manchester, coincidentally on Quay Street. Granada opened studios on former railway sidings at the start of its franchise in 1956, but it wasn't until 1968 that Coronation Street filming emerged from indoor studios to a specially constructed set on the backlot. Tours of a further-upgraded street were available for several years, except on Mondays when the cobbles between the Rovers and the Kabin were used for filming, and restarted in 2014 after the production team moved to Trafford. Unfortunately the Granada Studio Tour finished for good at the end of last year, so that the old set can be demolished and the land reused for much more profitable redevelopment. Some of the old studios are being retained for media, events and retail, but there'll be no tiny terraced houses on the refreshed site owned by harridans in hairnets, and nothing more than a small plaque in memoriam.



The original 1960 set was inspired by Archie Street in Ordsall, as seen in the opening credits for years, and which was bulldozed in 1971 so don't go looking. But there is a genuine Coronation Street a short distance away, on the northern edge of Ordsall, by chance approximately halfway between the soap's old and new filming locations. A few of the original streets around Regent Square survive, of which Coronation Street is one, with its one long terrace and some green metal railings in lieu of a front garden. The handful of streets opposite meet at fenced-off back alleys, or blossoming greenspace, while pigeons peck at the tarmac and the occasional postie goes by. It looks almost gentrified, were this Hackney, but this is no rich neighbourhood, as the extremely famous building at the end of the street affirms. For this Coronation Street is also the location of the Salford Lads Club immortalised by The Smiths on the inner sleeve of The Queen Is Dead, in all its redbrick glory, and still doing sterling recreational work keeping local youth off the street. A man several decades past being a lad was out front smoking when I passed, making it difficult for me to pose moodily outside, but if I'd realised the building is open to visitors on Saturdays (from 11am to 1.30pm) I could have eagerly explored inside.

My Manchester gallery
There are 75 photos altogether [slideshow] [24 Salford Quays photos]
(and that's how to do a day out!)

 Thursday, April 21, 2016

Queen Elizabeth II was born 90 years ago today in a Chinese restaurant in Mayfair. Obviously it wasn't a Chinese restaurant at the time. After a few months the family moved to a new home in a luxury international hotel on Piccadilly. Obviously it wasn't a luxury international hotel at the time. And when it suddenly became clear that her father was about to be king, the whole family moved into a tourist attraction at the foot of The Mall. At least that much hasn't changed.

The Queen was born at 17 Bruton Street London W1, a Georgian townhouse with pillared stucco frontage. The house in Mayfair belonged to the Earl and Countess of Strathmore, better known as the Queen Mother's parents, whose quietly ennobled existence had been thrust into the spotlight when their daughter accepted the hand in marriage of the future George VI. Prince Albert and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon had wed two years earlier, and financially were perfectly capable of buying their own home, but it was being redecorated as the pregnancy drew to a close hence the temporary Bruton Street stay. Our current Queen was delivered (by Caesarean section) at 2.40am on Wednesday 21st April 1926, and the Home Secretary was present (by tradition) in the house to ensure that no ungenealogical baby-swapping took place.



The house in Bruton Street no longer stands, having been destroyed by a bomb during World War II. Indeed most of the southern side of Bruton Street has been replaced by an office block of millennial ugliness, six storeys of brick-fronted offices overlying a layer of commercialised concrete. For a hint of previous grandeur cast your eyes across to the opposite side of the street where the collective façade is pretty much intact, or has at least been sympathetically rebuilt, and a succession of contrasting Georgian properties coalesce. We're in Mayfair's fashion quarter here - Bruton Street links New Bond Street to Berkeley Square - and a lot of the ground floor premises are couturiers or boutiques. Stella McCartney has her main outlet at number 30, and dressmaker Norman Hartnell's base was a couple of doors along at number 28.

But any tourist visiting number 17 for its regal connections faces a disappointment. Whichever room it was wherein the Queen breathed her first has long been replaced by a box in the sky, and all that indicates the site's historical significance is a pair of plaques, one from Silver Jubilee year and another from the Diamond. The original plaque is more ornate, chiselled into what looks like gilded slate, while the latter is a more mundane green roundel forelock-tuggingly placed by the local council. Less delightfully, immediately below thetwo plaques is a fenced off area of pavement with a tall heater alongside, this the designated outdoor smoking area for the Chinese restaurant that now claims number seventeen.



It's quite a restaurant, specifically Hakkasan, a Michelin-starred Cantonese restaurant under the direction of Head Chef Tong Chee Hwee. This is the international chain's second London outlet, opened in 2010, and the interior designer clearly had the word 'black' on his mind during its creation. And blimey it's expensive, with lobster, duck and caviar heavily featured, the fish courses priced at £39 apiece, and the addition of a bowl of pak choi to your meal adding £12.80 to the bill. But then this is Mayfair, as you can tell by the Bentley car showroom on the corner, and the adoring faces of Hakkasan diners should a sleek for-sale vehicle be parked up outside. I doubt that Hakkasan will be serving up a special commemorative Elizabeth stir-fry this evening, but if your pocket's deep enough you can book a table and raise a glass to the famous baby born upstairs.

After a few months at Bruton Street the Queen's parents moved into 145 Piccadilly. Their spacious townhouse was located at the foot of the street, near the junction with Park Lane, amid a terrace of similar white-fronted properties. Today it'd be thought luxurious - the number of bedrooms was well into double figures - but at the time it was fairly typical in urban aristocratic circles with a staff of sixteen servants to accommodate. Baby Elizabeth lived in a suite of rooms on the top floor, comprising two nurseries and a bathroom, overseen by a formidable and all-controlling nanny nicknamed Alla. At least the back garden was communal, so the princess occasionally got to mix with the neighbours on the extensive lawns. At the age of four she was joined by a sister, Margaret, and of course a lot of their time was spent elsewhere as the family darted from Scottish castle to rural royal retreat to meet a lifestyle of social obligation. But for ten years, 'home' for the young princess was a civilian property overlooking Hyde Park Corner, until the abdication crisis forced the family to move on.



In a perhaps predictable denouement, number 145 was bombed during WW2 and no trace of it or its neighbours remains. In its place, the bottom block of Piccadilly is now to home the InterContinental London Hotel, a five star hospitality behemoth for the privileged traveller. It was designed in the late 1960s by Sir Frederick Gibberd, whose other work includes Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral and the town of Harlow, hence has a little more character than your average modern hotel. Alternate windows jut out in boxy ribs, above an extended ground floor of thin pillars and glass, while off-white concrete gives the building an airy touch on the skyline. Only an exclusive few are allowed inside the seventh floor Club lounge, necking canapés whilst gazing out above the canopy of Green Park. Mere everyday guests get to dine in the ground floor restaurant, while passers-by peer in through the floor-to-ceiling windows and watch them picking at their plates.

The hotel's main entrance is up Hamilton Place, with a pull-in layby where a bowler-hatted man will oversee the parking of your limo, while an enormous fleet of taxis waits patiently for the custom of those who've not been able to bring their limo with them. But the hotel chooses to give its address as 1 Park Lane, because that's about as perfect as any hospitality address gets, even though the only door opening out this way is for the benefit of staff arriving for their shift or popping out for a crafty cigarette. Celebrities and the global rich are regular visitors to the InterContinental, which is perhaps an appropriate destiny for the former home of one of the wealthiest women in the world, although it's by no means clear which numbered room now occupies the space once taken by the royal nursery.



And in December 1936, when Elizabeth's father found himself suddenly elevated to the monarchy, the family swiftly moved into Buckingham Palace. It's been our Queen's London home ever since, that's almost eighty years, which is pretty impressive going for the occupation of a single property. She won't be there today, as the tourists crowd to watch men in bearskins marching up and down, and the selfie-takers mass in front of the gates. But her three West End homes make Her Majesty very much a Londoner, by birth, in childhood, and through a life of service.

 Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Day out (continued): Manchester (part 2)
As well as attraction hopping, I also took two journeys to see more of the 'real' Manchester. A walk along an inner-city canal, and a tramride to the suburbs.


Rochdale Canal: Castlefield → Piccadilly [14 photos]
The industrialisation of Manchester played a key role in the development of canals in Britain. The Bridgewater Canal was arguably the country's first, opened in 1761 to transport coal into the town, but I'd not be walking that. The Manchester Ship Canal was once the world's widest, opened in 1893 to serve a thriving inland port, but I'd not be walking that either. Instead I chose to walk the first mile of a canal that threads through the centre of town, in some places a key real estate asset, in others almost entirely overlooked.



The Rochdale Canal starts at Castlefield Basin, a once-bustling hub from which the Bridgewater Canal heads off in the opposite direction. Less pivotal today, it's surrounded by brick warehouses and brick trying-to-look-a-bit-like-warehouses, inside which Manchester's metrosexual dimension holds court. There are a lot of modern housing developments around here, because post-industrial land was available and because heritage sells, including one patch with the seemingly undesirable name of Potato Wharf. In London you'd find this sort of semi-highrise glass-panel stuff up the Regent's Canal or down the Lower Lea Valley, but in Manchester it's a lot more central.

Having tracked east beneath the railway, and through an opened-out tunnel, at Deansgate the canal provides the bottom slice of an entertainment sandwich. On top is the main tram route out of town, high on a viaduct in the shadow of the slablike Beetham Tower, at 47 storeys the tallest building in the UK outside London. This being Manchester the architect gets to live in the penthouse, over 500 feet up, rather than some absentee overseas landlord, which is nice. And squeezed into the railway arches below is a sequence of trendy food and bar spaces, each with double decker terrace looking down across the water, where the smart casual set come for a lager, cocktail and chinwag on a Saturday evening. I felt quite underdressed, and also very much out on a limb being the one walking the towpath rather than reflecting above it.

The nature of the canal changes as it slips away from the main road between two banks of flats. Those on the right might look unremarkable, and architecturally they are, but a glance at the vandalproof panels facing the towpath confirms a much more exciting past as the fabled Haçienda nightclub. An annual tally of talent is punched into each grey metal sheet, from Bernard Manning's opening night jibe in 1982, via the Smiths, New Order and Happy Mondays, to the final DJ night in 1997. Nothing of the pill-popping paradise remains (other than the name), it was all demolished by a housing company a few years later to create the Haçienda Apartments, the party very much over.



What follows is a deep canyon, first between flats then unconverted warehouses. At first I passed knots of aspirational youth, but as the balconies died out round the bend I was surprised to find myself almost alone. The stretch of canal either side of Oxford Street is only rarely walked or jogged, it seems, and my only company was a pair of lads drinking cheap beer on a metal barge who seemed surprised I'd disturbed their bacchanal. I'd passed five locks already, with a sixth and seventh imminent and an eighth and ninth to come, which may explain the paucity of boats passing through. The Rochdale Canal is scenic but demanding in terms of effort, and we're not yet anywhere near the scenic bit.

Before long the towpath heads into private territory, then gives out altogether, forcing a return to street level to continue. What follows are three of the most famous blocks in the city, namely Canal Street, the heart of Manchester's gay village. A series of pubs and bars face the open water across a strip of cobbles, some frontages festooned with rainbow flags, others advertising drag-hosted evenings with cheap booze. I was expecting the street to be busier on a Saturday evening, but maybe seven o'clock is still too early, or maybe everyone was rammed inside The Rembrandt blaring out Girls Just Want To Have Fun at the tops of their voices.

Beyond the last pink door the towpath returns, at quite low level, then vanishes inside a low-arched tunnel. It looked a bit dark ahead, but it was the official signed towpath so I assumed it couldn't be that scary and marched inside. All seemed empty, until I came upon a dishevelled man drinking by the water's edge, and another man pissing up against the wall, and two more in the recessed gloom where the canal opened out into a low basin. No I don't have a light, I said, and sped up to exit the chamber unscathed, then dashed up some steps back to the main road. I doubt that many people walking away from Manchester Piccadilly station realise there's a canal and fully working lock beneath their feet, let alone a cavern where drunkards swig and Canal Street regulars cruise... well, not unless they read the papers.

Heaton Park


A quick trip on a yellow tram takes you from Piccadilly to almost the edge of the city. Or at least the last bit's quick, streaking through the suburbs past not-quite looked-after houses and prim semis, past sportscapped boys monkeying on the platforms, to a concrete halt. Emerging with the locals and crossing the street past the Prestwich Balti, the entrance to Heaton Park lies immediately ahead. It's huge, at 600 acres the largest municipal park in the country, and almost a neighbourhood in itself (if you're a donkey, alpaca or squirrel). Part is fenced off for livestock, part is woodland, part is a golf course, and the main central section rises to a low grassy peak. Up here on the highest point in town is Heaton Hall, a neo-classical pile built for Lord Wilton in 1789, and whose estate escaped being paved over to create parkland instead. The hall is undergoing renovation but will now occasionally be open for booked tours, from this month onwards. Also not open on my visit was the heritage tramway round the boating lake, which is Sundays only, which was a shame because I'm told it's great fun. But then I'd turned up in a hailstorm, proper stereotypical Manchester weather, and the park was barely occupied. The fairground by the Papal Field struggled on with maybe four punters, an ice cream van near the summit gave up hope and drove away, and when I looked to the horizon I could see snow on a hump of moorland to the northeast. It's got a bit of everything, Heaton Park, including the crumbling remains of the front of Manchester's old Town Hall, and even a tunnel underneath because the Lord didn't want new-fangled railways despoiling his land. He was right too, it's a highly agreeable amenity.

 Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Day out: Manchester
England's second city, in stature if not in population, rose to international prominence in the 19th century on the back of the Industrial Revolution. Textile manufacturing brought it riches, until the rest of the world learned to spin cotton cheaper, and the city has since reinvented itself as a hub of innovation and culture. Its centre is very Victorian, but simultaneously very modern, with shiny modern flats shooting up everywhere above a dark brick skyline. And there's tons to see and do, as I tried to discover when I spent ten hours in the city (and the city nextdoor) at the weekend. Here are ten places I managed to fit in, every single one of them with free admission, because Manchester's damned excellent like that.
» Visit Manchester


Piccadilly Gardens
Built on the site of the Manchester Royal Infirmary, and just up the road from Manchester Piccadilly station, this is the largest greenspace in the centre of town. It's a fraction bleak, with a slightly featureless lawn and a couple of old monuments thrown in, but some fenced-off regeneration is going on, with the fountain switched off and alongside what looks like a giant crazy golf hole being added with metallic swirl and droplet-splattered hump. A thin silver building divides off the main piazza from Manchester's main road transport hub, where dozens of buses congregate and yellow trams glide in from Didsbury, Eccles and Bury. The tourist information centre in the corner was a disappointment, I've rarely seen one so lightly stocked, but the ladies on duty were charming.

Arndale Centre
It might not be why you'd visit, but most people come to central Manchester to shop. The Arndale Centre is enormous, having taken advantage of the aftermath of the IRA bomb in 1996 to regenerate and renew itself. The biggest bomb to be detonated in Great Britain since World War II was stashed in the back of a van on Corporation Street, killing nobody due to a timely evacuation, but causing massive damage. A postbox close to the epicentre survived and has been reinstated, complete with commemorative plaque, below a replacement bridge (in twisty glass) linking Marks & Spencer to the Centre opposite. Although the surrounding precincts are almost entirely modern, a couple of surprisingly old buildings lurk in Shambles Square, lifted wholesale from their original position 300m to south. One is the half-timbered Old Wellington, the city centre's only surviving Tudor building, while nextdoor is Sinclair's Oyster Bar, an 18th century Punch House now run by Sam Smiths, and a popular pub with the shaven-headed.



Manchester Cathedral
There are more interesting cathedrals, to be frank, but Manchester came late to the diocesan game (circa 1847, if you're asking). Nevertheless the rededicated building is medieval, in perpendicular Gothic, which helps it to blend perfectly with much of the city's later architecture. I think I'd have been more impressed had the centre of the (record-breakingly-wide) nave not been curtained off for renovation work.

Urbis
Let's build a Museum of the City, said the council at the millennium, not just our city but every city, because urbanisation is a fascinating thing. Visitors disagreed, and came in disappointingly small numbers, to journey up the mega-escalator and then wander down through a cascade of galleries inside a wedged-shape façade of glass. So in 2004 they broadened its appeal to focus instead on British culture, and when even that didn't work they stole the National Football Museum from Preston and shoved that inside instead. I considered actually going inside to "learn more" about the beautiful game, but decided not to sully my memories of visiting in 2003 back when the interior was proper urban.

John Rylands Library
This Neo-Gothic bookstack is a proper treat. Enriqueta Rylands' tribute to her late husband took ten years to build, finally opening in 1900, and better resembles an ornate church than a university library. Entrance is via a modern four-storey extension, with cafe, from which you step inside a dark maze of passages with stone bosses embellishing the ceiling and chambers filled with complete sets of ancient volumes. In one exhibition cabinet is Papyrus P52, which some experts believe is the oldest surviving fragment of New Testament text, ripped from St John's gospel chapter 18. A tall open staircase leads up to a nave-like reading room, where sweaty students with satchels pore over essays on laptops, and visitors wander around in mild awe.



People's History Museum
Appropriately located on a street called Left Bank, this repository of political ephemera started out as the National Museum of Labour History in Limehouse E14. Rescued by Manchester Council and the TUC it's ended up here, in a converted water pumping station, and is described as "a march through time following Britain's struggle for democracy over two centuries." It's unusual to see history represented from a radical viewpoint, never outrageously so, but with a relentless focus on social conditions, reform and protest. Here the key events in British life include strikes and struggle, and several of the items on display are brightly coloured banners. You probably already know whether you'd enjoy looking round, but I found it refreshingly thought-provoking rather than militantly preachy.

St Mary's The Hidden Gem
As its name suggests you have to deliberately hunt this 18th century church down, accessed via two back alleys, or approached via a tented village of rough sleepers beneath a stilted concrete office block. But step inside and an oasis of calm awaits, spacious and ornate with marble pillars. To the left of the high altar is the shrine of Our Lady of Manchester, because such a thing exists, while an acclaimed set of modern-art Stations of The Cross runs along two adjacent walls - Sister Wendy was so very impressed.

Museum of Science and Industry
As a reader of this blog, I can pretty much guarantee you'd like this one. Essentially a collection of local technology, its extensive footprint surrounds the oldest surviving railway station anywhere in the world. That's Manchester Liverpool Road, the eastern terminus of Stephenson's Rocket-driven railway, whose elegant station building is one of those you can explore within the museum. Connected beneath the tracks is the original station warehouse, home to some exhibitions that aren't as exciting as their curators hoped they were, while another old building contains working engines and locomotives to delight anyone with a penchant for grease. Other attractions include the Great Western Warehouse, home to everything you ever wanted to know about the manufacture of textiles, and a reproduction of the world's first computer - something else Manchester is rightly famous for. Across the road is the Air and Space Hall, with exhibits including an Avro Shackleton, a Spitfire and a locally-produced Ford Model T. And all extremely child-friendly, if the number of under-10s I saw grinning their way round were anything to go by.



The Manchester Museum
For the history of the city, try MoSI (above). But for biology and geology, try this redbrick repository (part of Manchester University) located some distance down Oxford Road. Most impressive is the narrow three-floor central gallery of mostly stuffed animals, with a kid-oriented investigative zone on the upper floor and Horniman-esque glass cases intelligently filled below. Children were also loving the live animals in the vivarium (look mummy, a frog!), as well as the prehistoric bones and minerals stacked up in further galleries elsewhere.

Whitworth Art Gallery
Further still down the Oxford Road, and very much within Student Territory, the revamped Whitworth was the proud winner of the Museum of the Year 2015. Bordering the local park, and taking its inspiration thereof, this Edwardian building has been recarved and extended to create fresh new galleries with a crisp modern touch, and a series of varied exhibitions within. The portraits cluster I enjoyed, the filmset video installation less so, but the true eye-opener was a retrospective of the work of Tibor Reich in the gallery upstairs. This Hungarian textile designer moved to the UK after the war, taking his inspiration from natural textures to introduce vibrant colour schemes to austerity Britain - Concorde's upholstery was one of his - and he was a dab hand at ceramics too. Throw in a galleryful of 1950s and early 60s wallpaper designs nextdoor, and I left beaming.


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