diamond geezer

 Friday, March 06, 2015

Yesterday this Gift Horse was unveiled on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. It's minutes old in this photo, which is why there's still a cameraman loitering on an adjacent crane, presumably looking it in the mouth.

Gift Horse is the tenth work of public art to appear on the plinth, following hot on the tail of that big blue cock. It's the work of New Yorker Hans Haacke, selected by committee and placed on public view for the next eighteen months. His design features a skeletal horse with an electronic ribbon tied to its foreleg that displays up-to-the-minute stock market prices. The horse is a reference to the equestrian statue of William IV that would have appeared on the plinth in the 1840s had public money not run out. And the share price thing is a wry comment on London's relationship with wealth and power, or it's whatever you'd like it to be, because that's art.

I didn't plan on being in Trafalgar Square at the right moment, indeed I missed the cover sheet being pulled off and Boris's big photo opportunity. By the time I arrived the dignitaries had left, the last TV crew was wrapping up its piece to camera, and the square was returning rapidly to normal. Indeed a large number of people standing around seemed oblivious to the new arrival, preferring instead to point their cameras at the fountains, Nelson's Column and especially each other. The Gift Horse doesn't stand out in the same way that Hahn/Cock did, being a far more subtle intervention, and not an obvious selfie backdrop.

At the foot of the plinth, operatives were busy tidying away the signage erected to give the launch a correctly-branded backdrop. Two more staff were overseeing operations from the northern terrace, each bedecked in an official black #fourthplinth t-shirt (complete with hashtag). I don't know what their day jobs are, but Plinthing can't be a full time role, at least not since Anthony Gormley's One and Other in 2009.

You've got until autumn next year to see Gift Horse for yourself, which is a long enough period that you probably won't need to make a special visit. And then it'll be swapped for a giant thumbs-up instead, and who knows what after that, until either King Charles unveils his mother on the Fourth Plinth, or Londoners decide they'd much rather this quirky sequence continued.

In case you hadn't noticed, this year's exhibition at Two Temple Place is in full effect. That's the neo-Gothic mansion near Temple station, which only opens for three months a year, but puts on a damned good show when it does. This year that's Cotton to Gold, subtitled "Extraordinary Collections of the Industrial North West", and it runs daily (except Tuesdays) until 19th April. A trio of Pennine museums have trawled through their shelves and dug out some really terribly splendid items gathered by some of the great industrialists of their age. These grime capitalists were also great philanthropists, and running a mill would often allow them to collect rare historical treasures on the side.

On the ground floor are some beautifully illustrated medieval books, a wall of old Japanese prints and an extremely rare run of Roman coins including one from every single emperor. If beetles give you the willies then avoid the display cases at the foot of the stairs - a few of the colourful specimens pinned in their boxes are enormous. Upstairs in the great hall (which is amazing in its own right, but then so is the entire house) are cases containing ivory sculptures and a Peruvian mummy, as well as a collection of exquisite Tiffany glassware (I hope those aren't real goldfish embedded within).

The watchword for the exhibition ought to be 'eclectic', indeed there's a touch of the Pitt Rivers about it, and it's great to see an exhibition that truly recognises a cultural life well beyond London. Full marks to Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, Accrington's Haworth Art Gallery and Burnley's Towneley Hall for taking up the challenge, and to the Bulldog Trust for putting on yet another fine show. I can't wait to find out what next year's is going to be.

 Thursday, March 05, 2015

We're now about three weeks into the upgrade of Cycle Superhighway 2, the long-term aim being to replace a stripe of blue paint with something segregated and safer. As part of the fifteen-month upgrade things will get much better for cyclists but worse for pedestrians, and during the works period alas worse for both.

In today's post I'd like to focus on changes to the pedestrian crossings along Bow Road, which for simplicity's sake I'm going to assume runs the full length of this map. [full details of TfL's plans are here (west), and here (east)]

Bow Road is a busy trunk road, about a mile long, linking Mile End to the Bow Roundabout. There aren't many major road junctions along its length, with only those at Campbell Road and Fairfield Road being signal controlled. A broad road, with two lanes of traffic in each direction, it can form a barrier to local pedestrians trying to get around.

Those of us needing to cross Bow Road on foot have a choice of nine pedestrian crossings spread out irregularly along its length. I've labelled these from [A] to [I] on the map, and thankfully all are staying as part of the CS2 upgrade. But there's also a fair amount of central reservation, intermittent and unbarriered, allowing the fitter of us to dash to the middle through any gaps in the traffic and then wait again to dash to the other side. And much of this is going. It's being removed to make more room for a proper segregated cycle lane on either side of the road, so it's being sacrificed for a good cause. But the end result is going to be fewer opportunities to cross, lights that stay red for longer, and more pedestrians dashing across in less safe places.

[A] TfL are making some whopping changes at the junction of Burdett Road, paving over two left turns, banning two right turns, and threading cyclists through the middle. For pedestrians this means that crossing [A] will be shunted slightly to the east, further away from the junction, and staggered. It means a less direct walk across, which will be tiresome rather than inconvenient, with the real losers the local drivers who suddenly can't turn right any more.

[B] The pedestrian crossing outside Mile End station is being moved. It's currently to your right as you exit the station, but in future will be immediately out front, where the bus stop isn't going to be any more. Unfortunately the other half of the crossing is being staggered in the opposite direction, that's further from the bus stop on the other side, so I predict a big increase in station users following a desire line rather than using the crossing.
This is one of the pedestrian crossings that TfL have published timing figures for. Previously the average crossing time was 66 seconds, but by the end of next year it'll be 83. Yeah thanks for that.

[BC] Until very recently there's been a very useful central reservation running approximately half of the distance from crossing [B] to crossing [C]. But contractors are currently digging up that reservation, and when it returns it'll be both 50% shorter and rather thinner too. Indeed it's chaos between [B] and [C] at present, especially for vehicles who are being forced temporarily down one fewer lane than usual. If you were in the back of the ambulance I saw stuck here at rush hour last night, I hope you got to hospital eventually. But pedestrians are suffering too, with crossings [B] and [C] currently closed, requiring an unpleasantly lengthy detour, and crossing [D] replaced by a temporary push-button stand-in.

[C] This used to be a staggered crossing, but in the new world there isn't enough room for a central island so it's being converted to a straight-across. For pedestrians, once the red man eventually goes green they'll be able to get across in one go rather than two. But with more road to cross the lights will have to hold the traffic back for longer, which isn't necessarily good news for cars, cycles and buses.

[D] Much re-engineering is currently taking place here, near the girls' school, but it looks like this crossing will end up aligned much as before.

[DE] This is the longest gap between crossings along Bow Road, although at present there's a tiny traffic island halfway along. Alas that's being removed, making this the longest gap between crossings, no ifs, no buts. Expect to see more people dodging between the traffic in the future.

[E], [F] and [G] are all staggered crossings and aren't changing much, although their central waiting zones will be remodelled and shrunk slightly. What will disappear is my favourite bit of central reservation inbetween [E] and [F], near Bow Road station, which currently allows me to cross the road in two parts when gaps in traffic allow. I've only got until August to make use of it.

[GH] One interesting omission in the sequence of pedestrian crossings down Bow Road is the lack of a crossing immediately outside Bow Church DLR. Lots of people exit their train and want to cross the road to catch a bus on the other side, several of whom can't be bothered to walk a minute in either direction to cross safely, so choose to risk the direct route dodging directly through the traffic instead. At present they usually end up waiting halfway in a narrow hatched zone hoping that nobody runs them over. But in future that hatched zone will be removed to make room for a bus stop bypass, leaving jaywalkers to linger on a single white line in far greater danger than before.

[H] This is the crossing at the foot of Fairfield Road. Much remodelling will be taking place here to ensure that cyclists can turn off safely, plus the creation of a new right turn into Bow Road that cyclists haven't (officially) been allowed to make before. Pedestrians crossing Bow Road will have an extra slip road to cross, with a corresponding increase in waiting times, while pedestrians crossing Fairfield Road will have a signalled crossing for the first time, staggered indirectly in two parts rather than direct as now.
This is one of the pedestrian crossings that TfL have published timing figures for. Currently the average crossing time is 73 seconds, but by the end of next year it'll be 98. Yeah thanks for that.

[I] is the crossing to the huge traffic island containing St Mary's Church in the middle of Bow Road. The big change here is that in future it'll go straight across, rather than around the Gladstone statue, to touch down immediately before the exit for Bromley High Street rather than immediately after. That's good news for anyone trying to get to a westbound bus stop quicker, but less good for anyone heading the other way. I use this one a lot, and will be inconvenienced, so I'm intending to press the button and then walk up to where the crossing used to be to save having to negotiate an extra sliproad.

And there isn't a [J], at least not yet, because [J] would be at the Bow Roundabout and that's still up for consultation. It's a miracle that anybody's thinking about [J] at all, to be frank, but currently [I] is the last safe pedestrian crossing of Bow Road/Stratford High Street for over half a mile.

The whole point of the upgrade of Cycle Superhighway 2 is of course to make things much safer for cyclists, and in this respect it should be very successful. But the remodelling of the street is less good news for those of us on foot, with fewer traffic islands, further to walk and longer to wait. Indeed if the next life to be lost on Bow Road was that of an impatient pedestrian choosing to take an ill-advised shortcut, I wouldn't be entirely surprised.

 Wednesday, March 04, 2015

As a Londoner, I don't often visit the most popular paid attraction in town. That's partly because it's damned expensive, but also because it's seen as a thing that only tourists do. So it's probably no coincidence that I only took a spin because a tourist was in town, in this case my brother down from Norfolk, and with a few hours after work to fill. He hadn't been in years, and neither had I, and the sun was lowering in the sky, and hell why not?

The London Eye's been operating now for 15 years, having opened to the public on my 35th birthday in March 2000. In that time it's gone from laughing stock to international icon, and is also a prime canvas for any brand keen to stamp itself onto global consciousness. British Airways kicked things off as main sponsor, then Merlin Entertainments and EDF Energy took their turn, until this year the big wheel was taken over by a well known purveyor of sugary drink. I was interested to see if they'd made any changes to the experience as a result, or if anything else was significantly different since my last visit, as well of course as enjoying the view.

It costs how much?! I remembered mid-teens, but the turn up and ride fee is now a whopping £21.50. Book online and you can get 10% off, for what it's worth, but for a family this soon adds up for what's essentially a half hour whirl in the sky. Book online and they also hide the cheapest price beneath three different versions of 'Fast Track Entry', the fully flexible variant of which costs a few pence short of £38. In high summer there might be a point to avoiding the queue, but on a winter weekday it's pretty much non-existent, and on our visit I had to laugh when the Fast Track queue was longer than the non-existent Standard.

Since 2009, the first thing to do after checking in is to visit the 4D Experience. I'm always nervous of any attraction whose name pays a blatant disregard to science, and even more nervous when the first thing they do is line you up against a green screen to take your photo. The Experience turned out to be a mini cinema into which about a hundred punters at a time can be corralled and shown a brief film about how mega-fantastic central London is. There are no words, instead a seagull soars around various landmarks, and the whole thing comes to life because you're wearing 3D specs. The fourth dimension comes from smoke, breeze and foam fired at appropriate moments, which when you're watching a film about a seagull makes you fear precisely what might be squirted next.

A few minutes later you're done, nicely pepped but not exactly blown away. After the firework finale the chimes of Big Ben play the sponsor's jingle, because marketing is crass like that, and then it's out to face the first upselling experience. "Would you like to look at your photo?" We declined, because we didn't want to pay extra for a souvenir portrait of two middle-aged men looking cajoled in front of a jaunty graphic. The lady behind the desk seemed aghast we didn't even want to look, which suggested either she was very good at acting or else a significant part of her wages is based on rates of follow-through purchase.

And then it's outside to the wheel itself, in this case (as I hinted) with no further wait. There's a security check where the correct answer to "Do you have any bladed objects?" is "No", to ensure you don't end up trapped in the sky with a violent nutter. There's another forced photo opportunity, which might be for flogging later or might be so that MI5 can quickly check your face against a database of known violent nutters. And there's also a small refreshment stall, in case you can't go half an hour without a bag of crisps, where a certain bottle of red fizzy drink is displayed in a very prominent position. Ready?

The wheel goes round quite fast, or at least that's how it feels as you're about to step on. The Eye's onboarding operation is very efficiently choreographed, from the brief bomb-frisk before entry to the capsule door closing behind the final entrant. We had only eight other people with us, rather than the maximum 25, which turned out to be great later because they didn't clog every space in front of a window when we fancied a change of view. Our fellow riders also seemed to be mostly foreign tourists, so were initially awed by the elevation, then much quieter because they weren't quite sure what the various landmarks actually were. Had they been interested they could have looked this up on one of the "Samsung interactive capsule guides" (a scrolling map on a fixed tablet with Wikipedia-lite info attached), but most ended up sat in the middle having a chat instead.

No commentary is piped into the cabin, nor any intrusive audio visual feature tour, and the circuit's all the better for it. Instead you can focus on the sights of London as you rise, first in the immediate vicinity and then increasingly further as successive rooftop levels are passed. The Palace of Westminster's the star throughout, but gradually the parks beyond appear, and the remainder of the West End, and that must be Hampstead, and look there's Wembley, and that could be Heathrow, and blimey doesn't London stretch for miles? The Thames is seen clearly down towards Vauxhall, but a bend means it's less obvious into the City, with Tower Bridge pretty much obscured by development in the vicinity. And only true south Londoners spend much time looking any further south than the Shard or Waterloo station, sorry, it's genuinely not so interesting in that direction.

Because of the way circles work, you spend a lot of time nearly at the top. These are the minutes you've come for, lording it over the capital, the King or Queen of all you survey. And OK, so the viewing platform at the Shard is almost twice as high, but here you get Big Ben up close, and from above, which probably wins. The descent comes almost imperceptibly, until you suddenly realise you can't see the good stuff any more, at which point it's almost time for yet another photo opportunity. The management are really keen for you to take part in this one, so they trigger an announcement in English over the PA directing you towards a special zone painted on the floor, and have stuck a "look over here and smile" pictogram on one of the struts immediately before the flashpoint comes round. I was therefore highly amused when everyone else in our capsule failed to notice, with the end result later a sullen line of backs to the camera.

The movement of the wheel reveals itself again as you step off, though in truth it's less than a kilometre an hour so shouldn't feel so disconcerting. And then, yes, the final photo-flogging moment (over ten quid, seriously?) and another gift shop in case you feel happier buying gassy fizz now you're back at ground level. Rest assured that my brother and I enjoyed our rotation enormously, without any of the add-ons, because there really is no other experience quite like it. But pick your moment. We chose fiery dusk, which was a winner, and hugely better than accidentally pre-booking overcast skies. And right now, before the main tourist season kicks in, is an ideal time to ride the Eye too. London's rooftops look just as good after work on a wintry Wednesday as on a summer Saturday, plus there's none of that unnecessary queueing to do, and you might even get a capsule almost to yourself.

 Tuesday, March 03, 2015

London's bus maps have taken a turn for the better.

You may not have noticed. Most people don't use bus maps, they either know where they're going or they 'do a search' and get their directions spoonfed to them. But TfL do provide three different kinds of bus map capital-wide, and one of these has recently changed to show Hail & Ride sections in full and glorious brown.

It's quite important to know where the Hail & Ride sections on a bus route are. If you're on board an electronic voice chirps up to announce the start and finish, generally accurately. But if you're standing in the street there are no bus stops, only the occasional information board, so you might not realise you were on a particular route until a bus went sailing past.

You may not care. Hail and Ride sections generally run along quiet residential roads or narrow lanes, and anyone who lives nearby probably knows of their existence already. But in the interests of transparency and convenience, not to mention practicality and usability, it's damned good to know where these Hail and Ride sections exist.

The maps getting the H&R treatment are the quadrant maps (NW, NE, SW, SE), produced in paper and pdf format, and updated by TfL's cartographers approximately every nine months. They're works of art, continuing a long tradition of London-wide bus maps stretching back decades, and can be picked up from Travel Information Centres, bus station windows and an increasingly diminishing list of other places.

Previously these maps showed roads with regular bus routes in grey, and routes with only non-TfL buses in green. But with January 2015's update came the recolouring of every Hail & Ride section in a sort of coppery maroony reddish brown. They look like arteries pulsing through the suburbs, and it's fascinating to finally see visual confirmation of where these individual H&R sections actually are.

The first thing that strikes you if you spread these maps out across a very large table is how Hail and Ride is focused far more in certain parts of the capital than others. Central London misses out, as do Tower Hamlets and Newham, and Harrow and Southwark barely feature. In contrast Barnet and Enfield are H&R hotspots, while Sutton appears to pulse blood red.

A lot of Hail and Ride sections are revealed as wiggles round housing estates, part of TfL's commitment to route buses within 400m of almost everyone in the capital. Examples of this include the H2 and H3 round Hampstead Garden Suburb, the W12 through Walthamstow Village or the G1 on Battersea's Shaftesbury Estate - this the closest H&R to the centre of London.

Other Hail and Ride sections are longer runs, often down rural lanes where flagging down a bus makes more sense than installing widely-spaced stops. The 399 from Barnet to Hadley Wood is an extreme version of this, its route being almost entirely H&R, while the Hail & Ride kings are the R5, R8 and R10 serving the outer extremities of Bromley, where there are no bus stops for miles.

Or perhaps the true Hail and Ride champions are those routes which dip into stoplessness on more than three occasions. The 434 via Coulsdon and the 499 around Romford have four distinct H&R sections (as do the 384, G1, S1 and W9). The 424 in Fulham/Putney ticks the H&R box five times, while Kingston's K5 and Sutton's S4 up the bar to six. But the winner as far as I can see is the S3 from Maldon Manor to Sutton Hospital, which serves a Hail and Ride section no fewer than seven times. Sutton certainly seems to scoop the prize for the most tortuously communal bus routes.

I thought I'd create a Hail & Ride bus map of my own. It's approximately geographical, based on smaller divisions than the published quadrant bus maps. Where buses barely go Hail & Ride at all I've used brackets, and where they go into Hail and Ride a lot, or cover lengthy sections, I've used bold. It's all terribly subjective, and potentially incorrect too, but it should give you a general idea.

  326 383 384 389 399192 298 299 377 382 W6 W9 W10379 385 397 491  
(U2) U9 U10(206) 223 (305) 324 395 (E10)(143) (382) H2 H3184 234 318 W4 W5(230) 366 W11 W12 (W15)364 462193 346 499
(U1) (U3)226 (E5) E6 (E9) (E11)272    
 H26419 424G1273 284 336 380B11 B12 B13 B14 B15 
 K4470 K1 K5 S1 S3 S4315 322(138) 352233 314 R1 R2 R3 R4 
   434 463464R5 R8 R10 

Hail and Ride's a very north London and southeast London thing, and not an especially central or east London thing at all. It's very much the province of lettered buses, and of 300- and 400-and-something buses, and nothing that double-digit buses ever do. And whilst it may not be especially interesting to delve into in such unnecessary detail, these services are an important part of life in the suburbs, so it's good to see them depicted and celebrated cartographically.

I'm delighted that TfL have introduced a thoughtful and informative update to their quadrant maps, rather than some marketing wallah deciding that all New Routemaster routes should be in gold, or some such travesty. I'm pleased that somebody's thought about Outer London for once, rather than always concentrating on the middle. But above all I give thanks that these paper maps still exist, in full technicolour glory, for those of us who choose to plan our own journeys rather than have some algorithm choose it for us.

 Monday, March 02, 2015

Beyond London (6): Mole Valley (part 2)

For today's trip to upland Surrey, I'm visiting two adjacent attractions to the north of Dorking.

Somewhere sporting: The Zig Zag Road, Box Hill
When the Olympics came to London, there was really only one place for the cycling road race to go. To Mole Valley, and more specifically to Box Hill, which provides the only sustainable steep climb in the South East. The peloton swept out of London to the midst of Surrey, toured Woking and Dorking, then passed several times round a hilly loop through undulating downland. And that repeated ascent started each time with an assault on the Zig Zag Road, a mile and a half of relentlessly steady incline from the A24 at the bottom to the National Trust cafe at the top.

Normally you'd cycle here, obviously, but you could also catch the bus. We may be four miles south of Greater London but the 465 bus still stops at the bottom of the road, serving little more than a T junction and a couple of cottages. There's little to indicate that this is the entrance to a strenuous bike-testing route. Indeed the first stretch looks almost ordinary, if at a gradient, climbing steadily through mixed woodland. There's no pavement, there doesn't need to be, so if you're an interloper on foot you often have to get out of the way. Both cars and cycles head this way, this also being the only road up to the NT car park, and hence the zig zag to make the summit attainable. The land rises up fairly steeply to either side, to the right being the Burford Spur, which is one of the favoured trails for hikers heading to the top. But so far, relatively straightfoward.

At Zig One the forest opens out to reveal a precipitous tumble of chalk grassland. This is also where the National Trust's land kicks in, hence a sign saying Private Road, and a great big I [acorn leaf logo] Box Hill painted on the road to remind riders who's boss. Various footpaths converge at this bend, one of which scrambles straight up to allow ramblers to take a steep stepped shortcut. But I wanted to experience the cyclist's full climb so I stayed on the main road, or at least a narrow ledge-like path perched immediately alongside. An intermittent stream of cyclists passed by, generally in an upward direction, but occasionally a grinning freeloader freewheeling down. Most were in lycra of various levels of fluorescence, teeth gritted and an intense look of concentration on their face. Fifty metres done, and 'only' seventy-five more to go.

Zig Two is extremely sharp, and it's important to turn else you end up careering down the drive of an extremely remote nursing home. There follows a full half mile without a turn, and soon noticeably higher up than the road previously travelled. Again this first part's footpathless, so it's important to get out of the way of any steely cyclist for fear of putting them off their stride. The view here is at its finest, towards Ranmore Common and beyond, with the land rapidly dropping away to reveal tiny cyclists making their assault a few minutes behind. This was the prime viewing area during the Olympics, on the expanse of open grassland above the road, leading down from the wooded ridge of Lodge Hill. Spectators got to watch the men ride by nine times, the ladies twice, and maybe sneak out and scrawl a message in chalk on the road.

Then back into woodland, the view extinguished, for another spell where pedestrians aren't especially welcome. This is beech forest, with the floor to the right increasingly resembling a ravine, hence the need for another sharp bend at Zig Three to pass back along the other side. The road's now quite gentle compared to what's been before, indeed the whole thing's been fairly laughable compared to the most challenging Alpine stages of the Tour de France. But that's not to belittle the achievement of anybody pedalling to the top, many of whom can be seen parked up by the Box Hill Servery sweating over a cup of coffee. Alternatively they might go celebrate with cake in the National Trust cafe, much easier at this time of year when the place isn't packed out. And then it's either onwards via a great long loop to ride elsewhere, or straight back down to try again. Wheeee!
by train: Box Hill & Westhumble  by bus: 465

My next destination was less than a mile away, and reached via one of the more popular hikes in the National Trust canon. Almost a million people ascend Box Hill each year, most to enjoy the view over Dorking from Salomons Memorial, although on Saturday that was mostly cloud and mist. A particularly popular route involves negotiating steps on the western flank of the hill, indeed several flights, and always one or two more than you'd hope there would be. After a wet winter the treads are muddy, and the path at the foot of the climb exceptionally so, in a potentially trainer-destroying manner. Only a few of us were braving the descent, and as for the ascent still fewer, but it was none the less exhilarating for that. I had hoped to cross the famous Stepping Stones close to the lower car park, but the River Mole was so high that each of the seventeen stones was covered by a few centimetres of torrent. Instead a detour via the footbridge downriver was required, adding additional squelch to my boots, which I then tried very hard to clean up before approaching the wedding venue next on my itinerary...

Somewhere retail: Denbies Wine Estate
You will not, I can guarantee, be as fortuitous with your visit to the largest vineyard in England as was I. The signs weren't good. Denbies' vines don't look their best at this time of year, leafless and pruned back, plus it was raining all the way across the plantation and under the railway. Nevertheless the car park outside the winery looked remarkably busy, the shop and restaurant seemed to be doing a bustling trade, and Edward and Melanie's wedding was in full flow somewhere inside. I worried that the guided tour might be sold out, but quite the opposite, with only me plus a couple of Groupon parties signed up. I plumped for the cheaper of the two options, which meant ordinary wine rather than sparkling fizz at the end, and prepared to hand over a tenner. Not so, apparently the 360° cinema had succumbed to a power failure so we'd skip that, and a sizeable discount was offered.

If you have any romantic views regarding winemaking, think again. The backroom tour involved walking past some giant metal vats, inside which some of last year's bumper harvest was resting, then standing almost beside the bottling machines. What made the experience special was the commentary by our guide, a splendidly direct lady with a sense of humour as dry as a Sauvignon Blanc. She explained the grape-gathering process with aplomb, and answered the group's questions without making it sound like she'd heard them all a dozen times before. She only ever referred to the chemical expert who tweaks the recipes as The Winemaker, and to the vineyard's owner as The Owner. He'd bought up the land in 1984 with the expectation of running a farm, only to be advised by The Geologist that the area's micro-climate would be ideal for wine-growing, and increasingly so as global warming advanced. Today one square kilometre is covered, representing 10% of all the vineyards in England, and only once (in 1993) has the harvest been seriously frost-damaged.

The tour ends in the cellar, where you get to sample three glasses of whatever you signed up for at the beginning. I was especially fortunate in being the only one signed up at my price point, so got surreptitiously bumped up to the better wine to save them from opening more bottles. Some serious vinicultural talk ensued, with Goulden-esque adjectives bandied about and the vintage of each composition carefully explained. There was even the unexpected offer of a bonus wine, kindly taken, so that by the end of the underground half hour I'd downed four glasses of mostly-sparkling wine at a ridiculously knock-down price. You will not be this financially fortunate, I can assure you, but I wholeheartedly enjoyed my winery tour and its comfortingly bubbly afterglow.

Over 60% of the vineyard's output is sold in the shop on site, including the world-beating Chalk Ridge Rosé which won an international Gold award in 2010. The Owner hopes you'll finish off your tour by purchasing several bottles, then stop for a meal in the restaurant, which it seems most people do. There's also a brewery on site, and a bed and breakfast, and a farm shop, all to ensure financial diversification should the harvest ever fail. Denbies certainly makes for a very different day out for the wino in your life, and offers even more in the summer when you can tour the slopes of the vineyard in a land train. Just remember to bring a designated driver with you, and some means to cart all your purchases away.
by train: Box Hill & Westhumble  by bus: 465

Fine local walks: The Mole Gap Trail, The Mole Gap, six National Trust Box Hill walks

 Sunday, March 01, 2015

Beyond London (6): Mole Valley (part 1)

Mole Valley's one of the largest districts I'll be visiting on my outer orbital tour around London, covering a hundred square miles of deepest Surrey. It only just touches the capital, hanging by a thread from the bottom of Kingston, but that's a good enough reason for me to take a day trip. The top quarter of the district is M25-side commuter belt, the next quarter includes a row of settlements along the foot of the North Downs, and the remaining half is sparsely populated Wealden land. I didn't get as far as the rural half, sorry. Mole Valley's outdoor gems aren't best visited in winter drizzle, so I was glad I'd already visited Leith Hill, Headley Heath and Polesden Lacey in milder times. I did manage one muddy ascent into the clouds, but spent most of yesterday's visit down at River Mole level, in particular the district's two main towns. Let's start in the prettier of the two.

Somewhere pretty: Dorking
I like Dorking. That's not a confession, it's affection for the commuter town at the foot of the North Downs and its general affableness. I've visited before but somehow never quite got around to blogging about the place, so allow me to make up for that omission today.

Dorking Museum: Some local museums are a tad uninspiring, mainly because nothing of great local significance ever took place. But Dorking has a varied history, and its story is well told in this museum tucked off the main street in The Old Foundry. The whole place was given a major rejig three years ago, thanks to some clearly dedicated volunteers, and the two pound entrance fee feels a very fair price. That's a fossilised Iguanadon tail in the long cabinet by the door, part of the geological display every local museum has to have, with tales from the old coaching road beyond. Dorking used to be pretty much cut off before the turnpike came, then took off population-wise when two crisscrossing railways brought easy access. The grandest estate hereabouts was Deepdene, home to two Dukes of Norfolk, and one fascinating exhibit charts its decline after the town's bypass was driven in cutting within a hundred metres of the mansion's front terrace. The current temporary exhibition focuses instead on the bicycle, and the not-implausible suggestion that the contoured challenge of the surrounding countryside makes this the cycling capital of the UK. Meanwhile by the gift shop is a tall case containing what may be the UK's only collection of mousetraps, twenty of the things, from simple snappers to more decorative follies. You can sense the care with which the entire museum has been put together, with due attention to the under-10s as well as those seeking to be educated and informed. Turn up on Thursday, Friday or Saturday to get inside, or take a virtual skim online here.

West Street: Dorking has four ancient compass-pointed streets, each leading off from Pump Corner, with that leading east now the town's main High Street. West Street's really narrow, and a bit of a traffic bottleneck, but also an antiques hotspot. There are a couple of dozen antiques boutiques down here, interspersed with an Airfix model seller and a knitting/craft shop called the Fluff-a-torium. And that independent coffee shop near the museum, that's the last surviving UK home of one of the Pilgrim Fathers. William Mullins set off on the Mayflower in 1620, succumbing to the American winter a few months later, but his daughter Priscilla survived and gave birth to ten children... whose descendants later included President John Adams, Orson Welles and Marilyn Monroe.

Dorking Caves: As in nearby Reigate, the soil round here was ideal for burrowing, so several cellars and tunnels were dug under the town for the storage of wines and other produce. Entrance to the largest underground complex is on South Street, beside the War Memorial, down some innocuous-looking steps and beyond a locked blue door. Monthly tours halted a few years back, before I got my act together and went, but I'm pleased to say that the Museum's now taken ownership and have plans to restart tours in May. You'll need to assemble a group of twelve and prebook, there'll be no turning up on spec, but it'll be great to have the opportunity to explore down below again.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958): One of England's finest composers grew up at Leith Hill, a few miles to the south, but in his fifties moved to Dorking and lived in the town for 25 years. With his wife Adeline he bought a grand half-timbered house to the west of town, and here composed some of his most significant works sat at an upright piano in the study. Alas White Gates no longer exists, it was demolished in 1967 to make way for a private road and residential development, but RVW's musical legacy lingers elsewhere in the town. In particular he was the driving force behind the Dorking Halls, a major concert venue opened in 1931. A bronze statue of Vaughan Williams stands outside, a-conducting, while every spring the Leith Hill Musical Festival takes place inside, now in its hundred and somethingth year.

Dorking Heritage Trail: To get the best out of my time in Dorking, I followed these two easy trails around town. And I'm glad I did, else I'd have completely missed a) the blue plaque outside the smart and very middle class terrace in Wathen Road where Sir Laurence Olivier was born, b) Cotmandene, the raised common land behind the High Street, where one of the earliest known pictures of a game of cricket was painted, c) the Dorking cockerel, a striking metal sculpture at the centre of the Deepdene Roundabout, commemorating the bulky five-toed bird supposedly brought to the UK by the Romans. You can pick up a leaflet at the museum, or download a map from here. P.S. Don't bother to get the 'Walking in Dorking' app, it's woefully uninteractive and a perfect example of why the smartphone will never replace a good paper map.
by train: Dorking, Dorking Deepdene, Dorking West  by bus: 465

Somewhere less pretty: Leatherhead
Having loved Dorking, I was expecting better of Leatherhead. But no, the famed commuter town off junction 9 of the M25 turned out to be a bit ordinary. It has a few fine old buildings, from a 15th century pub to a 1935 pumping station, but nothing you'd travel out of your way to visit. Nevertheless I did manage to follow the two loops of the Leatherhead Heritage Trail, this solely because I'd had the foresight to squirrel away a leaflet ten years ago. Both circuits start off from the Leatherhead Museum, housed in a quirky Jacobean cottage, but alas closed until Easter. Attractions included a former Post Office, the site of a former coaching inn, and some council offices that John Wesley never knew.

On the more interesting front, a) the 14-arched Town Bridge spans the Mole near a group of particularly possessive swans, b) the Town Guide map by the War Memorial was beautifully glazed onto an array of tiles in 1968, c) Anthony Hope Hawkins, author of The Prisoner of Zenda, is buried at the top end of the 11th century parish church's graveyard, c) a recent ironwork creation on the front of the Letherhead Institute (original spelling) depicts the Olympic cycling road race. And yet, even though it was a Saturday and by now the rain had stopped, the centre of town was remarkably quiet. I dropped in on one large independent shop where the owners were discussing the death of the High Street around the turn of the century, seemingly due to over-virulent pedestrianisation, and how only now were the restaurants regaining a reputation as somewhere to go. Given the choice, I'd say Dorking every time.
by train: Leatherhead  by bus: 465

 Saturday, February 28, 2015

During February 2003 on diamond geezer I kept myself busy by counting things. Ten different counts, to be precise, in a none-too thrilling daily feature called The Count. My 28-day tally chart may have been deathly dull to the rest of you, but I've continued to count those categories again, every February since, purely to keep tabs on how my life is changing. Twelve years later, I think we can agree it's changed quite a bit, and yet not changed too. Below are my counts for February 2015 (also available in graphical form via Daytum), accompanied by the previous statistics and some deep, meaningful pondering.
(Part one yesterday, part two today)

Count 5 (Nights out): That's an increase to eight nights out, or a decrease to twenty nights in, depending on how you look at it. And that's one of my better social performances, so well done me. Half of those were trips round to BestMate's sofa, where we watch telly and put the world to rights, and three involved my brother and I celebrating our respective birthdays. But the other was an actual genuine proper night out, admittedly with folk from work, but it's a start.
The number of nights in February 2015 I went out and was vaguely sociable: 8
2003-2015 review: In February 2003 I was a social whirlwind, but Best Mate emigrated three days later and a long term decline set in. You can see how things picked up a bit in 2008 when he returned, settling at a fairly consistent lower level of "once or twice a week". A special thanks to the rest of you who've dragged me out of my comfort zone and shared an evening (or ten) over the years. But nobody comes to this blog to read about London's sparkling nightlife, that's for sure.
(2003: 21) (2004: 7) (2005: 2) (2006: 2) (2007: 3) (2008: 7) (2009: 7) (2010: 4) (2011: 9) (2012: 6) (2013: 4) (2014: 6)

Count 6 (Alcohol intake): For the purposes of this long-term count, my definition of alcohol is a specific gassy bottle of German lager. I cling to Becks for familiarity and ease of ordering, plus it doesn't give me hiccups, but this month my consumption is a big fat zero. I've sunk several glasses of wine on BestMate's sofa, but those doesn't count towards The Count. I've downed half a dozen other lagers because the pub I was in didn't serve Becks, but alas they don't count either. So my rock bottom February total is an inadequate reflection of my alcohol intake... but still fairly close, to be honest.
Total number of bottles of Becks I drank in February 2015: 0
2003-2015 review: Again 2003 is the outlier, with a couple of further uptick years in 2008 and 2011. But overall my Becks consumption is falling because considerably fewer pubs are stocking the stuff. How my heart sinks when I scan the selection behind the bar and realise I'll have to order something else. A sure sign of Becklessness is the presence of "Becks Blue", the non-alcoholic cop-out option, because if that's present the real thing is invariably absent. If current trends continue, I fear I may have to choose to count something else.
(2003: 58) (2004: 17) (2005: 0) (2006: 7) (2007: 1) (2008: 28) (2009: 4) (2010: 3) (2011: 20) (2012: 14) (2013: 2) (2014:4)

Count 7 (Tea intake): Apart from one dodgy year when workplace kettle usage was banned, my tea consumption remains astonishingly consistent. Every February other than 2005 has fallen within a very narrow range of 127-137 teas, despite very different behaviour on weekdays and weekends. My office days are always brimming, brown-liquid-wise, whereas days off tend to find me rushing around without pausing for refreshment. But I am on average, it seems, a four-and-a-half cups a day man. Milk, no sugar, thanks.
Total number of cups of tea I drank in February 2015: 128
(2003: 135) (2004: 135) (2005: 81) (2006: 128) (2007: 137) (2008:134) (2009: 129) (2010: 136) (2011: 135) (2012: 133) (2013: 127) (2014:129)

Count 8 (Trains used): This count's normally remarkably consistent too... always just over a hundred a month. That's apart from the year when I had a "one train" commute rather than two, when the total dipped a bit, and apart from the year when I upped the total by blogging relentlessly about the Bakerloo line. I'm back in the zone again this year, averaging about four train journeys a day, because we Londoners do swan around in carriages a lot.
Total number of trains I travelled on in February 2015: 124
(2003: 103) (2004: 109) (2005: 117) (2006: 107) (2007:100) (2008: 117) (2009: 103) (2010: 83) (2011: 109) (2012: 118) (2013: 139) (2014: 101)

Count 9 (Exercise taken): Rather than fork out good money to use a gym, I get my step action by walking up escalators, usually at tube stations. I always attempt to walk up every escalator I ascend, which usually works so long as there's not some tourist, suitcase or buggy blocking the left hand side. I'm not thrilled with my total this year, but my commute doesn't afford the multiple climbs it once did, so I could do better.
Total number of escalators I walked up in February 2015: 37
(2003: 73) (2004: 72) (2005: 38) (2006: 35) (2007: 31) (2008: 33) (2009: 28) (2010: 13) (2011: 32) (2012: 43) (2013: 40) (2014: 29)

Count 9a (Steps walked): Here's a recent innovation to The Count, introduced two years ago when I got myself a smartphone. By uploading the Moves app I've been able to keep track of my daily step count without the need for a pedometer attached to my waist. It's a brilliant app, if no longer free to new users, and a bit of a battery hog. It's also potentially stalky because it records everywhere I go (both when and where), plus how I travelled inbetween. I've learned that a typical working day requires me to walk only 4500 steps, whereas my weekends and days off are considerably more variable, but usually much higher. During February I've walked more than ten thousand steps in a day on nine separate occasions, and over thirty thousand once, which was my extreme day trip to Stoke. Most impressively I appear to be maintaining a year-on-year total of around a quarter of a million steps per February, which is just over 100 miles a month, which I hope makes me one of the capital's more serious walkers.
Total number of steps I walked in February 2015: 282300
(2013: 273300) (2014: 254600)

Count 10 (Mystery count): Sorry to disappoint you all, again, but the legendary diamond geezer Mystery Count continues to be nil. Admittedly at the time of writing there's still one day left, and Saturday is probably the most likely day for the Mystery Count to uptick. But I wouldn't get your hopes up, I most certainly haven't, so expect 2015 to throw up yet another big fat mystery zero. Ah well, maybe next year...
Total number of times that the mystery event happened in February 2015: 0
(2003: 0) (2004: 0) (2005: 0) (2006: 0) (2007: 0) (2008: 0) (2009: 0) (2010: 0) (2011: 0) (2012: 0) (2013: 0) (2014:0)

» The Count 2015

 Friday, February 27, 2015

During February 2003 on diamond geezer I kept myself busy by counting things. Ten different counts, to be precise, in a none-too thrilling daily feature called The Count. My 28-day tally chart may have been deathly dull to the rest of you, but I've continued to count those categories again, every February since, purely to keep tabs on how my life is changing. Twelve years later, I think we can agree it's changed quite a bit, and yet not changed too. Below are my counts for February 2015 (also available in graphical form via Daytum), accompanied by the previous statistics and some deep, meaningful pondering.
Yes, I know February's not over yet, so all the figures below are based on best estimates for the final 48 hours. But don't worry, I'll come back and update the 2015 data as the next couple of days play out, before settling on the finalised figures at the end of the month.

Count 1 (Blog visitors): It's almost a record. The very busiest month on this blog was August 2012, for Olympic reasons, but February 2015 is firmly lined up for second place. I've had three other months top sixty thousand visitors, but they were 31-dayers, whereas this February's daily average is much higher. I'm averaging just over two thousand visitors a day, which is as good as it's ever got, so I can't complain. It amazes me sometimes that anyone comes back when there's the risk of reading about Stoke-on-Trent or an essay on my local roundabout, which is hardly "must read" subject material for the average man in the street. Indeed I do wonder whether this blog is evolving into a travelogue about increasingly obscure parts of London and beyond, or is over-dependent on transport-related topics. But I try to provide you with a varied diet where possible, and this month somehow I've hit a rich seam of topics with broader appeal that's fed in folk from elsewhere. There's still demand out there for original subject matter, like a report from the low tide Thames or a top five of London labyrinths, rather than endless recycled press releases. But it's not all high octane stuff here, not by a long chalk. As one of my regular two thousand, I assume you either keep coming back for the variety, or can put up with the personally-irrelevant stuff inbetween.
Total number of visits to this webpage in February 2015: 58380
2003-2015 review: Twelve years ago, when this blog was mere months old, I attracted one double-decker busful of readers a day. That leapt up a bit in the following years, with atypical peaks in February 2006 and 2008 skewed by external linkage. Numbers have bobbed around a bit since, but almost always upwards, and this February's total is the equivalent of three crowded tube trains of readers daily. That's still insignificant in the grand scheme of things, and peanuts compared to what certain blogs get, but most gratifying all the same. Accurate visitor numbers remain incredibly difficult to ascertain, given the number of folk reading via RSS feeds or whatever. But it's quality of readership rather than quantity which most makes me smile, so thank you!
(2003: 2141) (2004: 6917) (2005: 9636) (2006: 42277) (2007: 23082) (2008: 32006) (2009: 26048) (2010: 30264) (2011: 37200) (2012:40018) (2013: 55369) (2014: 51727)

Count 2 (Blog comments): There's nothing quite so unpredictable as comments. Some days this blog attracts hardly any, while other days the discussion catches fire and you add dozens. Interestingly this month there's been rather more of the latter than the former, resulting in an extra-chatty February. Only twice has a day gone by with comments in single figures, while we've topped 30 seven times and 50 once. Admittedly this February's most commented post was one where I deliberately asked you for feedback, and you provided birthday suggestions in droves. But you lot talk even when not asked, and usually even on topic. Altogether this February you've fired more than 600 comments my way, which represents 22 comments per day, on average, which is a fantastic level of engagement. Most blogs have commenting zones resembling tumbleweed, but somehow you lot always seem to carry on talking. Often you're taking me to task or telling me something's wrong, usually politely, but that's good because I'd rather my posts were correct than riddled with errors. Sometimes you only join in when I discuss something generic (like work), or mention a keyword (like 'train'), and not when I get too place-specific (because you've never been). But somehow a community has evolved here, where regular and occasional commenters co-exist, and that's not an easy thing to create. Thanks everyone, because it's you that helps to bring this page to life.
Total number of comments on this webpage in February 2015: 625
2003-2015 review: What's most surprised me about the last decade of diamond geezer comments is how similar the monthly totals are. They bob up and down a bit, and the first year was understandably low, but since then the average has been unexpectedly consistent - between 400 and 600 comments a month. I might have expected numbers to fall, because commenting's a very old-school blogging thing, peaking in the "Golden Age" of 2005-2008. People don't have time to comment on blogs any more, not now there's a wealth of online content to distract them. They do all their commenting on Twitter or Facebook, because that's instant, but the debate is entirely transitory and rapidly ebbs away. To still have readers commenting in 2015 is a bit of a triumph, and against all the odds. Alternatively I might have expected numbers to rise, because I have far more readers now and they ought to talk more than they do. Ten years ago I received one comment per 20 readers, whereas now it's more like one comment per 100, and that's a far less impressive engagement rate. But at least what comment remains is intelligent, relevant, insightful and (mostly) non-stalky. I'm delighted, obviously.
(2003: 166) (2004: 332) (2005: 463) (2006: 648) (2007: 566) (2008: 504) (2009: 472) (2010: 396) (2011: 558) (2012: 440) (2013: 546) (2014: 477)

Count 3 (Blog content): I continue to write too much. 2015 isn't quite my most prolific February yet, that was last year, but my blog output still averages over 1000 words a day. I always mean to keep things succinct, but rarely manage. There's usually something extra I want to add, another fact to flesh out, another sentence to squeeze in, and before I know where I am I've written another essay. One thousand words a day is not to be sniffed at - it's the equivalent of writing five novels a year, except I never end up with a book at the end of it. And I write fairly slowly too, the words don't usually pour out, not least because there are facts to check and links to add even after I'm done. I know you'd still read this blog if I wrote less, but something keeps driving me to write a bit more, and then a bit more again. I may have eased off fractionally since last year, but I haven't learnt my lesson yet. Tl;dr.
Total number of words in diamond geezer in February 2015: 30362
2003-2015 review: I kept my output pretty much in check until 2008, writing approximately 500-600 words each day. This was manageable, even allowed me a social life as necessary, and you probably didn't think any the worse of me. But then the slow climb began. A few more words each day, a lot more words each month, it all eventually added up. I have now doubled the number of words I write compared to a decade ago, which means you lot have to invest twice as long to read it. Compare for example a typical post about a walk up a main road from 2005 (700-800 words) with a similar post from 2015 (1300-1400 words). You might be loving the outcome, because you get more to read. But I'm spending more of my time writing, and less of my time "having a life", and that's not really how things should be. Don't worry, I haven't broken yet.
(2003: 14392) (2004: 16214) (2005: 16016) (2006: 15817) (2007: 17102) (2008: 17606) (2009: 20602) (2010: 21595) (2011: 23120) (2012: 25698) (2013: 29410) (2014: 32283)

Count 4 (Sleep): Daytum provides a fascinating way to visualise my February as a purplish pie chart (reproduced here). In the past I've depicted my work/life balance in four sectors, but this year I thought I'd simplify things and just count up how much I sleep. This is pertinent, because my bedtime is often directly related to how late I stay up writing you stuff. Often this creeps past midnight, I won't say specifically how far, because it is of course crucial that I get to the end of my final paragraph before turning in for the evening. So if you look at my pie chart you'll see I slept for only a quarter of my February. That's six hours a day, on average, which I suspect may be less than you survive on. What's more this average hides weeknights where I sleep for barely five hours, balanced out by weekends where I sometimes nod off for eight. And yet I still bounce through a day at work after a four-and-a-bit-er without needing coffee or having to gulp down a Red Bull to kickstart my morning. It's as if Margaret Thatcher and I shared the same genes, slumber-wise, which is brilliant because less sleep leaves you more time to do everything else in your life. Eighteen hours a day is plenty, even with work and travel taken out, to do the eating, blogging, socialising, visiting, tellying, slobbing, that sort of thing. If I needed to sleep more, you wouldn't get fresh bloggage in the morning on a regular basis, I can assure you of that.
Total number of hours spent sleeping in February 2015: 169 (25%)
(2011: 172) (2012: 167) (2013: 163) (2014: 165)

Full figures for February 2015

(to be continued tomorrow)

 Thursday, February 26, 2015

How do you close all 300 Underground ticket offices and get away with it? The answer: very slowly
TfL announced their intention to close every ticket office on the network back in 2013, but only this month has the actual closure programme begun. Remember all the noise and fuss there was when the news first broke, carefully coupled with the big Night Tube reveal to act as cover? Now listen to the deafening silence as the axe finally falls. A few news outlets mentioned the first closures in passing, notably the Wimbledon Guardian because South Wimbledon was top of the hitlist. But the public seem to have got all the anger out of their system fifteen months ago, long since replaced with a sense of resigned capitulation.

How do you close all 300 Underground ticket offices and get away with it? The answer: defiantly
Whatever everybody else said, TfL were resolutely consistent in their intention to close every single ticket office on the network. No ifs, no buts, no rolling over in the face of repeated strike action, just the firm restatement that no really, every single one would be closing. And as with so many seemingly immovable decisions, eventually the unions grew weary of shouting at a brick wall and the public lost interest and looked elsewhere.

How do you close all 300 Underground ticket offices and get away with it? The answer: prematurely
Because management have long been absolutely certain that Transforming The Tube was the future, they started extinguishing ticket offices years back. For example, when Wood Lane station was opened to serve Westfield London in 2008, no ticket office was included, only a wall of machines. When Cannon Street reopened after a major makeover last year, tickets were available only from TfL's new improved prototype machines, rolling out at a station near you soon. And when Tottenham Court Road opened its flash new Crossrail-friendly entrance last month, the lack of a ticket office earned barely a mention. Design them out early, that's been the plan.

How do you close all 300 Underground ticket offices and get away with it? The answer: by starting small
Only two* ticket offices are on the closure list this month, and they're not big ones. One is Queensway, in a part of the West End popular with suitcase-lugging tourists, and the other is South Wimbledon. Neither is a big-hitter with public opinion on its side, indeed both were probably selected to ensure that closure processes were workable on a small scale before being rolled out elsewhere. Next month another ten or so join the list, and then in the period April-June this number ramps up sharply to seventy-something. It'll be the end of the year, we're told, before the last ticket office finally succumbs. But by picking off a tiny number first, the masses closing later are merely part of an ongoing program and no longer news.
* This week Covent Garden's ticket office closed permanently too, by default, as the station switched back to exit only while some lifts are upgraded.

How do you close all 300 Underground ticket offices and get away with it? The answer: peripherally
Several outer London stations with minimal passenger flows lost their ticket offices some years back. Chigwell, Roding Valley, Theydon Bois and Upminster Bridge are in the Underground's top ten least used stations, hence almost nobody minded when the staff there were kicked out of their little cubbyholes and the shutters brought down. The same set-up's coming to Oxford Circus and every other station soon enough.

How do you close all 300 Underground ticket offices and get away with it? The answer: with misdirection
TfL's publicity machine is keen not to mention ticket office closures. They're focusing instead on "modernisation", and the benefits that bringing staff out from behind the window will bring. Hundreds of jobs are being lost, and not every station will see extra staff, but TfL aren't particularly keen to mention this either. "In the future, all stations will be staffed from the first to last Tube" they say, cunningly misdirecting passengers away from the fact that this is already the case. "We are moving our staff into ticket halls where they are more visible and can assist you more effectively" they say, and this may indeed turn out to be true. Why not pop down to Queensway or South Wimbledon today and see how the redeployed staff are adding value?

How do you close all 300 Underground ticket offices and get away with it? The answer: improvingly
TfL's official list of ticket office closures isn't headed "Ticket office closures", it's titled "Ticket hall scheduled improvement work". The marketing team of any organisation always looks on the positive side during a corporate restructure, because this helps to make enormous changes sound more palatable. TfL's "improvement" list chooses to focus on when stations are having their ticket offices functionally tweaked, and approximately how many months this will take. Most offices'll only take a month to become whatever they're going to be next, which might be a closed-off room or a knocked-through space with additional machines. Some stations like Gloucester Road and Mile End are pencilled in for 3 months, presumably because something seriously major is going to happen, while others are down for "1-3 months", which presumably means nobody's thought this through yet. Meanwhile Green Park, Baker Street and Russell Square have hit the jackpot with the maximum transformation period of 4 months, so expect something pretty wow afterwards, or maybe just a new Starbucks.

How do you close all 300 Underground ticket offices and get away with it? The answer: imprecisely
Although TfL announced each station's transformation date in a list late last year, they've only ever published the month of closure, not the day. The first that regular station users know of the precise moment is the appearance of a board by the ticket window a couple of weeks before Doomsday - that's Stockwell's in the photo at the top of this post. By carefully controlling the information like this it's harder for the general public to focus any kind of campaign against specific closures, or indeed to even care.

How do you close all 300 Underground ticket offices and get away with it? The answer: rebranding
Six particularly busy stations may be losing a ticket office, but they're gaining a Visitor Information Centre. This isn't just the same old ticket office tweaked a bit with a different name, this is recognition that visitors to London will still need personal attention, and that an office with a counter is the best way to deliver this. King's Cross is first up, with a remodelled VIC up the St Pancras end complete with colourful curves and Post Office style queueing, and scheduled to open this month. Following by the summer will be Liverpool Street, Victoria, Heathrow 123, Euston and Paddington. But that's your lot if you want counter service in the new world - either join the hideously long tourist queue or give in and use the machine.

How do you close all 300 Underground ticket offices and get away with it? The answer: incompletely
Actually, not every station is losing its ticket office. Some are more Overground than Underground, so won't be culled immediately as part of this customer-facing transformation. Hence Gunnersbury, Harlesden, Harrow & Wealdstone, Kensal Green, Kenton, Kew Gardens, North Wembley, Queen's Park, South Kenton, Stonebridge Park and Wembley Central, along with Finsbury Park, are all on the closure list as "Timing to be confirmed". More long-termly, Barking, Ealing Broadway, Richmond, Upminster and Wimbledon aren't TfL-operated, so will be carrying on as normal unless their operating rail company chooses to pull the plug. If you still want to talk to a member of staff through glass, you know where to go.

How do you close all 300 Underground ticket offices and get away with it? The answer: realistically
Most Londoners haven't used a ticket office in ages. Only a small proportion of journeys start at a ticket window, and your Oyster card or contactless card probably functions perfectly well without the need to queue. And OK, so there'll be times when a machine can't cut it and human interaction will be required, in which case a member of staff "equipped with handheld mobile device" will be around to provide "up to the minute information". But if you've ever used the DLR, which has been pretty much ticket-office-free for decades, you already know deep down that we'll all cope.

2 Feb Queensway, South Wimbledon; 23 Feb Covent Garden; 2 Mar Bethnal Green; 9 Mar Brixton, Seven Sisters, Stockwell; 12 Mar Highbury & Islington; 22 Mar North Greenwich (any more?)

 Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A couple of weeks ago, a brand new attraction opened in the heart of Holborn. It's only small, and Tudor House isn't somewhere you'd accidentally stumble across, but I was pleased to find the place packed out when I visited at the weekend. That's Tim Hunkin's Novelty Automation, on Princeton Street (close to Theobalds Road), a unique collection of inventive and experiential slot machines.

As well as being a cartoonist and engineer, Tim's been making unusual automata for years. Many of these have appeared in public, for example he designed the Secret Life of the Home gallery at the Science Museum, but Tim's main coin-op collection has always been on display at The Under The Pier Show on Southwold Pier. If you're ever on the Suffolk coast, it's an enchanting attraction to poke around. Now after several years of inventing he's started running out of space there, hence the decision to open a second outlet in London so that even more of his peculiar machines can be enjoyed by even more people.

Novelty Automation takes up the ground floor of a backstreet building, so is about the same size as the downstairs of a house. In good news, an awful lot's been packed in, and in better news, admission is free. What you pay for are tokens to bring each of Tim's machines to life, currently a pound a time, purchased from the smiling member of staff at the main desk. And once each slot is filled you can then stand back and watch to see what unfolds, or better still join in.

I counted at least six arcade machines altogether in the front room, from a Wallace-and-Grommit-like box to settle the destiny of a lamb, to an armchair you sit in and then get jolted through a Microbreak foreign holiday. In another exhibit you get to Test Your Nerve by placing your hand inside an iron cage containing a mechanical hellhound, and see how long you can hold it there while the thing growls and slobbers. Most popular on my visit was the Money Laundering machine, a bit like one of those grabbers you find outside a seaside amusement arcade, but in this case where users have to try to sneak money into the City of London without its shadowy regulators catching sight.

Even more machines have been crammed in further back. I was particularly taken by the Instant Eclipse, a box you climb inside and then watch the animated Sun slowly disappear above your head. But families with children were more interested in the larger interactive fare, particularly the giant Autofrisk whose rubber arms reach out to give you an automated patdown. Another large booth takes a strip of photos if you climb inside, the quirk being that "parts of the booth may move unexpectedly", providing a variety of facial expressions entirely unsuitable for a passport. I didn't see anyone risk placing their foot inside The Chiropodist, a machine originally housed in Covent Garden, but one teenager couldn't be prized away from his extra-terrestrial encounter with the Alien Probe.

The variety and inventiveness of Tim's automata is impressive, with some clearly all-out entertainment, and others more artistic and thought-provoking. And while you can just come and watch others using the machines, the experience works best if you interact. Better still bring a group, be that your family or just mates, to join in together on the larger button-pushers or to share a grin as each display plays out. And expect the unexpected, that's all I'll say, as some of Tim's machines climax with the odd unheralded action.

I hope that Novelty Automation gains the attention it deserves, and the buzz last weekend suggested that several punters have already discovered its charms. It's open from 11am on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, generally closing at six but with an extra late-night hour on Thursday evenings. If you can't get there, Tim's website is fascinating enough to poke around, or you can keep a visual eye on the place via Twitter. But how charming to have a new central London attraction that's inventive, creative and fun, and as Tim says, "a (coin-op)portunity not to be missed."

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