diamond geezer

 Friday, August 28, 2015

Two changes are coming next month to the way you buy tickets for River services in London. They might even make you want to use the river more (or they might not).

Firstly, all Thames Clipper services will accept Oyster Pay As You go for the first time. Currently you have to show your Oyster card at the pier kiosk or on the boat to get a discount, but from mid-September you'll be able to touch in and touch out like you do on the tube. Not having to queue will speed up boarding, which is great, but means you'll no longer be able to buy a ticket on the boat. The 'pay before you travel' policy also means staff need to see you touching in as you board, so passengers will be warned not to touch the reader while they're waiting for the boat to arrive. But the lack of hassle might just encourage you to sail more often.

Secondly, the fare structure for river tickets is changing. Currently there's a flat fare according to which service you use, entirely irrespective of distance. A ride on the main route (RB1) all the way from Embankment to Greenwich costs £7.15, exactly the same as a short hop from Bankside to the London Eye. A ride on the West London commuter route (RB6) always costs £6.70, whether you go from Putney to Chelsea or all the way to Blackfriars. But in future there's going to be an attempt at linking fares to distance, as river routes are split into three different zones.

The Central zone runs from Vauxhall to the Tower, where the majority of journeys made by river begin and/or finish. The West zone runs from Putney to Chelsea, where the only passengers are rush hour travellers. And the East zone runs from Canary Wharf to Woolwich, frequented by both tourists and commuters alike. Travel in two zones, pay more, restrict your journey to just one, pay less. And maybe a lot less.

Let's compare Oyster single fares now and Oyster single fares-to-be by looking at RB1 - the main river service between Westminster and Woolwich, running every 20 minutes.

Embankment → Tower (Central only)£6.44£6.30
Embankment → North Greenwich (Central & East) £6.44£6.50
Canary Wharf → North Greenwich (East only)£6.44£3.90

If you only travel in the Central zone, your Oyster fare decreases, but only slightly. If you travel between the Central zone and the East zone - the most popular journey of all - your Oyster fare increases, but only slightly. The big winners are those who only travel in the East zone, whose fare decreases by a third.

Similar savings might be made on RB6, the peak-hours-only West London commuter route.

Putney → Chelsea (West only)£6.70£3.90
Putney → Westminster (Central & West)£6.70£7.00
Putney → Canary Wharf (All three zones) £6.70£7.20

Most commuters will ride through two zones, where the fare increases slightly. Docklands commuters (on occasional express services) will travel through all three zones, with their fare rising by 7%. Meanwhile there's a big decrease on a West-only journey, but no sane commuter would do that because it's barely any distance at all.

I'll mention one other route, and that's RB4, the cross-river Hilton Ferry.

Canary Wharf → The hotel on the other side of the river £3.78£3.90
Canary Wharf → The hotel and back (return ticket)£6.60£7.80

This brief journey lies entirely within the East zone, and a single fare rises only slightly. But currently you can buy a paper return ticket for your Oyster card and make a saving on the second trip. Once 'touch in and out' begins you'll pay the same on the return as on the way out, which is an overnight 18% price hike.

And what if you pay with something other than Oyster, say on the most popular tourist route?

Embankment - Greenwich (Cash)£8.00
Embankment - Greenwich (Oyster)£6.50
Embankment - Greenwich (Travelcard)£5.30
Embankment - Greenwich (Contactless) £8.00

The full headline fare is expensive, at £8.00. Oyster fares are 10-20% off what anyone who turns up with cash has to pay, which is a smaller discount than most other forms of TfL travel. If you have a Travelcard on your Oyster card, like I do, you get a much better 33% off the full fare, which might suddenly make taking the boat look worthwhile. But if you only have a contactless card, sorry, the system isn't going to be able to cope with these until next summer, so for now you're going to end up paying full whack.

Most Londoners won't pay these prices to travel by river when there are cheaper faster options by train. Westminster to North Greenwich, for example, is only 12 minutes by Jubilee line rather than 45 minutes by boat, and the journey costs £4 less. Only if you like the view from the river, or hate the squash on the tube, is a Thames Clipper ticket a good deal. Equally I'm now looking at an all-East river journey from Canary Wharf to Woolwich with my Travelcard and thinking £2.80 might be a damned good price for a 25 minute trip.

So anyway, in summary...
1) Some time next month you'll be able to use Oyster on river services to touch in and out
2) The changes to fares aren't really terribly dramatic
3) If you're going to pay over six quid for a boat ride, make it a long one.

 Thursday, August 27, 2015

A walk around the edge of Tower Hamlets
Cambridge Heath → Hackney Wick
(2½ miles) [25 photos]

Here's a long section across the northern edge of the borough, the majority of which is park. Anywhere other than Tower Hamlets this could be a bit dull, but the park in question is Victoria Park, one of the borough's outdoor treasures, so all's good. Then on to Hackney Wick, the part which isn't actually in Hackney, before returning to the Lea and knocking on the door of the Olympic Park. By the time I reached this part of my circumnavigation I'd been walking for seven hours and had only stopped for a rest once. If you're struggling too, rest assured there's only one more section to go. [map]

Cambridge Heath Road (Tower Hamlets) becomes Mare Street (Hackney) at the bridge over the Regent's Canal. It's a busy spot, more so on the road than the water, although the towpath can be chock full with bikes and feet at times. I'd like to take the riverside route from here but am again thwarted by the towpath being on the left hand side and therefore in the wrong borough. Shame, because the canal would be the direct route to Victoria Park, but I now need to take a backstreet diversion instead. Vyner Street looks a bit grim, a cobbled thoroughfare lined with warehouses and the wrong kind of offices, and a string of taxis parked up so that they can be maintained. The only sign of life is The Victory pub, outside which one lone drinker eyes me suspiciously as I pass by with my camera. Only later do I discover that Vyner Street is a celebrated art hotspot with a cluster of cutting edge galleries... or at least was. A handful remain, but most moved out a couple of years ago due to excessive rent increases, and would anybody like to buy a luxury duplex apartment?

Housing kicks back in at the end of the street, initially in a nondescript way. Along Lark Row there's even a big enough gap to see through the fence across the canal, most notably the western entrance to Victoria Park, tauntingly unreachable on the opposite bank. It looks pretty, and pretty busy, and I'll be there in about ten minutes. Oh but Sewardstone Road is lovely too, the kind of desirable Victorian terrace that makes homeowners smile and estate agents leap. Tower Hamlets still boasts residential gems like this in unbombed, unredeveloped clusters, and this area around the London Chest Hospital is a good example. Or rather that's the former London Chest Hospital, whose services transferred to Barts in April and so is now up for grabs as a 'Residential development opportunity'. Potential purchasers are advised that "the site is subject to a number of Tree Preservation Orders", but that none of the buildings are listed, so imagine the profits four acres of shiny towers could bring.

A broad bridge finally leads across the canal into the splendours of Victoria Park. An ice cream van often awaits those arriving here, as do two howling hounds perched on plinths at the Bonner Gate. These are the Dogs of Alcibiades, sculptures from classical Rome copied from the British Museum and posted here in 1912 (or rather they're recent copies, the originals having been heavily vandalised a few years back). Next there follows a walk of over a mile and a half around the edge of Vicky Park, that's almost 10% of the perimeter of Tower Hamlets. Everywhere within the park is within the borough, whereas all the houses, roads (and two pubs) immediately across the fence belong to Hackney. For once I'm walking the right side of the line.

Initially my route demands that I walk back along the canal to the entrance I spotted earlier, past narrowboats tied up along the bank. But then I leave the water and curve round through the park proper to head back in the opposite direction. It's a hot and sunny day (remember those?) so the grass is liberally dotted with peeled and peeling bodies taking full advantage. On the floral lawns a Staffie rolls over and waves her legs in the air, while her owner picnics behind a palm tree and pretends not to notice. Meanwhile on the internal roadway the occasional scarlet-painted TfL-funded hirebike wobbles past, and a fleet of kid-powered mini-scooters pushes by. It's nice here, and tens of thousands of local residents know it.

Grove Road divides Vicky Park into two very unequal halves, the smaller western bit more ornamental and the much larger eastern bit more recreational. At the interface is The Royal Inn On The Park, a Lauriston local, after which it's grass and trees pretty much all the way. One particularly splendid feature is the Burdett-Coutts Fountain, a Gothic granite creation provided for the people of the East End by Angela Burdett-Coutts, a banking heiress who devoted most of her life to philanthropic largesse. Her gift no longer dispenses drinking water, but was recently renovated to celebrate its 150th anniversary and looks loftily magnificent. Alas most of the park's other fine features lie away from the perimeter, so I plod on along the avenue with a cricket match the most notable attraction.

The furthest north that Tower Hamlets goes is the park's Molesworth Gate, by chimneyed Molesworth Lodge, leading down and out onto busy Wick Road. I'm pretty much knackered now, having been on my feet for a good seventeen miles, so in need of a decent place to rest. Thankfully a much better option than a bogstandard bench exists, one of the fourteen stone alcoves from Old London Bridge, of which four still survive. Two are here, a decent distance apart, donated to the pioneering park in 1860 and now with convenient seating inside. Once rested I exit the park along the boundary through a gap in Cadogan Terrace, where a hooped footbridge crosses the chasm of the A12 dual carriageway. There's a pretty good view across Hackney Wick from up here, and also of occasional military flypasts - any plane heading for The Mall generally flies over here first.

The border here follows Wallis Road to the Overground station, then tracks directly along the railway line. The area hereabouts somehow remains packed with backstreet businesses and a creative vibe, as yet unwrecked by the 2012 tornado immediately across the river. Long-dead pubs are covered with better-than-average graffiti, artists' studios remain affordable, and the smell of baking bagels wafts out across White Post Lane. The Wick retains its cool, and draws in copious numbers of the young and hip to craft beer pizzerias, concealed skateparks, pop-up cider gardens and the occasional flea market. Wandering through without a beard, I feel almost out of place. And while I love that the neighbourhood survives, I can't help wondering how long landlords will be able to resist piecemeal replacement of commercial yards and buildings with more profitable residential boxes, until nobody'll think it worth bothering to come at all.

Round Tower: 188 photographs from the walk so far [slideshow] (new photos at the bottom of page 2)
Maps: the boundary of Tower Hamlets; my walk so far

 Wednesday, August 26, 2015

5000000: Sometime this morning, just after nine o'clock, diamond geezer will receive its five millionth visitor. More accurately it'll be the five millionth time that a slightly ropey stats package has registered a unique visit, which isn't quite the same thing at all, but I think still very much worth celebrating. Five million visits is an impressive total - the equivalent of everyone in Scotland reading my blog once. But viewed another way it's not much - on average one packed tube train of readers a day, which is only 0.01% of the population of London. What I do know is that my audience is coming faster. The first million took just over five years, the last million's taken nearer a year and a quarter.

0Sept 2002 
      1000000    April 2008    5½ years
2000000Jan 20112¾ years
3000000Oct 20121¾ years
4000000Apr 20141½ years
5000000Aug 20151¼ years

These visitor numbers rack up essentially in three different ways. The bedrock of the figures are those of you who come back on a regular basis to read what I've written, maybe even every day, to whom I say enormous thanks. Some days you're rewarded with a post that hits your target, other days I'm droning on about something you care little about, but hopefully you find plenty of interest eventually. Then there are the folk who land here because a search engine, usually Google, has directed them here. I've published over six thousand posts since 2002, many on obscure and under-featured locations, so there's a good chance a reference to my words will appear in the results. Most searchers never return again, but a few hang around, and a special hello if that's how you first arrived. And then there are people who turn up because someone somewhere has read something interesting or relevant on my blog, and then specifically linked through in the hope that other people will read it. These visits come in spikes, some huge, most small, and often with no rhyme or reason as to why some posts inspire and others fall.

What I like to do, every time one of these millionaire milestones rolls by, is to look back and analyse where my visitors came from. In particular I like to draw up a league table of top linking blogs, ordered by volume of visitors clicking here from there. This used to be quite interesting, and important, back in the era when blogs thrived solely because other blogs linked to them. How times change. Now when people like what you've written they no longer announce it via their own blog, because writing paragraphs is too much hassle. Instead they tap a few characters into some micro-blogging portal or social media messageboard, that is when they're not too busy commenting on national news stories or sharing an swift selfie. The ability to drive traffic to blogs has wholly shifted, away from those who generate their own content towards those who merely digest the content of others.

So my regular linking league table again includes a range of websites broader than mere blogs. I've not gone as far as including Google, because that would be top of the list by a factor of 20. But you'll spot three particular services that didn't exist when I started out, and which now dominate beyond expectation. My apologies if they've shoved your website down the top 20 since my last league table at Easter last year. And thank you all for linking (assuming you still exist).
  1) girl with a one track mind
  2) Twitter
  3) Reddit (↑3)
  4) londonist
  5) random acts of reality  
  6) Facebook (↑1)
  7) arseblog
  8) scaryduck
  9) london reconnections (↑4)
10) london daily photo
11) blue witch
12) 853
13) casino avenue
14) tired of london (↑2)
15) route 79
16) linkmachinego
17) my boyfriend is a twat
18) dave hill
19) ian visits (new)
20) affable lurking (new)
Over the last million visitors, Reddit is the star performer. Members of this geeky messageboard are always on the lookout for quirky jewels to share, not that they find them here too frequently, but a single mention does tend to send the Redditors flooding. As yet they've not come close to topping Twitter, and both are still a long way off dislodging Girl With A One Track Mind from the summit, but they're easily the dominant force in blog referral of late. As for Facebook, I'm not a member so I have no idea what you lot are up to behind the password wall. But posting (or tweeting) a link takes almost no effort at all, and people are ever so willing to click through on blind faith, and hey presto that's another DG visitor notched up.

Meanwhile in blogworld, surprisingly little has changed since the four million rankings. Londonist sometimes kindly mention me, and a small fraction of their million readers a month take an interest, which maintains their lofty position in my table. They ditched their blogroll some years ago whereas the über-transport site London Reconnections introduced one at the very bottom of their new template, an act of kindness which has led to them becoming my highest climber. They'll be in eighth place pretty soon, but the underlying totals suggest seventh will be a much tougher nut to crack.

I extend a special hand of solidarity to Scaryduck and (the football-related) Arseblog, who like me maintain the absurd notion of publishing at least one post every day. And look, I have two new entries, both positioned at twenty-something last time. Ian Visits arrives thanks to his regular Friday transport round-ups, cheers. As for affable-lurking, well, if you'd started a blog ten years ago and clicked through to mine once every day, you'd be in the second column of the table too. Thanks David. But also feel the tumbleweed. Four previously mega-active blogs have slipped into long-term hiatus or been completely deleted, while four of the others now appear to post only every blue moon, and hence are inexorably slipping back.

Interestingly, every single blog that was in my one million Top 10 back in 2008 is still in my five million Top 20. Click-throughs really were at their highest in the early days of blogging, and very few blogs that have come along since have ever had that level of traction. Indeed since my two and a half million league table in 2011, that's the halfway milestone to today, the Top 20's mostly just shuffled around a bit rather than done anything exciting. You probably spend most of your surfing time on professionally-resourced online platforms these days, as the Huffingtons and Buzzfeeds of this world monetise what many of us used to write for fun.

My visitor counter still counts those of you who surf in via smartphone, because I refuse to allow Blogger to serve you up a generic mobile template (unless you've somehow opted out). But I've completely lost track of the significant number of you using RSS and various feedreaders, whose simplicity allows thousands to read this blog without ever visiting it. As far as you're concerned I'm no longer writing a continuous story, I'm generating atomised blogposts - which makes a complete mockery of attempting to count visitor numbers accurately anyway. In reality I passed the magic five million many months ago, but didn't realise it. Never mind the inexactitude. I don't mind where you come from, I'm just well chuffed that you bother. Hello and thanks to all of you. And here's to many more...

 Tuesday, August 25, 2015

A walk around the edge of Tower Hamlets
Shoreditch → Cambridge Heath
(1½ miles) [18 photos]

If I had to call it, this is the least interesting section of my walk round Tower Hamlets. The northwestern edge of the borough butts up against the southern edge of Hackney, kicking off somewhere fairly trendy and then heading somewhere less so. There should be a pretty bit near the end, but then a gasworks gets in the way. But don't let any of this put you off. [map]

Although Shoreditch High Street seems the epitome of cool, the Tower Hamlets boundary runs one street back. It's even called Boundary Street, in case you hadn't got the message. A few on-trend ripples have washed out this far, with a white-blinded organic cafe/bakery at the junction with Redchurch Street offering bourgeois on-pavement dining opportunities. How things change. Off to the east was once the worst slum in London, the Old Nichol, less a housing estate than a maze of jerry-built misery, for families living one rung above the workhouse. Thousands of people were crammed into tiny rooms and cellars, disease was rife, and the area wasn't properly cleared until 1891. In its place rose the Boundary Estate, the world's first council estate, and still a model scheme for how to do these things properly. A series of tall brick tenements radiates from a central circus, where a bandstand sits on top of a rounded pile of slum rubble. It's a restful scenic spot, but I only spy it from a distance walking by.

Shoreditch's 'Oranges and lemons' church lies just across the yard in Hackney, while Boundary Street peters out as a narrow lane with a dead Tudorbethan-style pub at the end. At least The Conqueror is still standing, which is more than can be said for the Mildmay Hospital, over whose remains a fleet of yellow diggers now scavenge. A replacement opened recently close by, but the ward in which Princess Diana famously shook the hand of an AIDS patient is now dust. The latest casualty hereabouts is The George and Dragon, Shoreditch's most achingly kitsch gay pub, on the tip of Austin Road. A "dramatic" rent hike forced its owners to put the lease up for sale earlier this month, as rapid gentrification hereabouts continues to snuff out the creative spaces that made it possible. But the pub's not gone yet, and a Drag Sale was in full swing as I passed, with glamorous punters picking over racks of vintage dresses.

After a considerable amount of wiggling, the Tower Hamlets boundary now latches onto one street and sticks to it for the whole of the next kilometre. That street is Hackney Road, gateway to the East, which should be top of your list should you ever desire to buy a wholesale handbag. The brightly painted shops at the Shoreditch end are most likely to sell you expensive bling, while the bargains are with the older traders further up. The first junction with Columbia Road is marked by a portaloo and a Welcome to Tower Hamlets sign, after which boarded-up shops intermingle with minor commercial premises along graffitied brick parades.

I nearly rented a ground floor hovel here when I moved to London, a possibility I abandoned the split second I walked through the door. One of the nearest shops is now occupied by a professional whittler, the magnificently monikered Barn the Spoon, who sculpts his wooden cutlery either here or in the middle of a wood in Herefordshire. Alternative entertainment used to be provided by the enormous bingo hall across the road, formerly an Odeon cinema, but the last balls were drawn in June after the business received a financial offer they couldn't refuse. The area's elderly residents are now ferried to a neighbouring hall in Camden by gleaming white bus, and the replacement buildings will no doubt appeal to a much younger (and wealthier) demographic.

The second junction with Columbia Road marks the point where the Tower Hamlets boundary cuts a dash to the north. To one side of Goldsmith's Row is Hackney City Farm, a delightful outpost of Haggerston Park, which mixes pettable animals with a rustic Italian cafe in a way that many local families find irresistible. On the other until recently was Queen Elizabeth Children's Hospital, currently being transformed into a few affordable homes and a series of unaffordable apartments under the unutterably pretentious name of Mettle&Poise. Apparently "Mettle represents the area’s resilience and strength, whilst Poise demonstrates the elegance and sympathetic addition the development will bring to Hackney", because there are lots of well paid jobs in on-brand hogwash these days. What housing lies behind is more reassuringly standard, notably the sinuous brick blocks of the 1930s Dinmont Estate, so very Tower Hamlets.

At this point, were geography kinder, I ought to follow the boundary on to Broadway Market. The edge of Tower Hamlets then follows the Regent's Canal, which would be a great walk, except the only towpath is on the Hackney side. And because there's no way out without changing borough I can't even follow Pritchard's Road to the waterside, and bring you tales of pie and mash, boutiques and gentrified food. Instead a diversion round the Bethnal Green Gasworks is required, at least for a few more years before the housing estate it's due to be replaced by is opened. The gasholders look finest from the side I'm not allowed to go. Enjoy them while they last.

Straining advertising standards somewhat, the Hotel Shoreditch is a chunky newbuild located far from the area most Londoners would describe as such. Their website says "this is a highly fashionable area so please dress to impress", whereas I doubt Billy's Cafe across the road sees much in the way of haute couture. At the Lithuanian church on backstreet Emma Street I have to divert round a large (and jolly) wedding party billowing onto the tarmac. From here a low key commercial zone finally leads down to the canal, bifurcating round 'The Oval', which turns out to be an elliptical car park. A two-storey office block made of shipping containers looks out over the water, while Empress Coaches (founded 1912) still somehow plies its trade from a characterful cobbled yard. The road beneath the railway is blocked off to vehicles, but thankfully those of us on foot can stroll by to reach the canal bridge at Cambridge Heath Road.

Round Tower: 163 photographs from the walk so far [slideshow] (maybe start on page 2!)
Maps: the boundary of Tower Hamlets; my walk so far

 Monday, August 24, 2015

A bus service to a deserted village in a danger zone in the middle of Salisbury Plain accessed by a fleet of Routemasters. Who wouldn't enjoy that?

Poor Imber. In 1943 the War Office needed a lot of space to practice D-Day manoeuvres, and spotted that they could seal off a huge area of Salisbury Plain so long as they evacuated one small village. Imber's residents were given a few weeks notice to quit, and were gone by Christmas, thinking they'd be back again after the war was over. No chance, the army liked its hilly playground too much, and the village continues to provide a census return of zero. But the road through the ghost village is still sometimes opened up, including for two weeks every August. and that's when route 23A arrives.

Sir Peter Hendy and pals devised the Imberbus run in 2009, as a challenge to run a service somewhere nigh impossible, and it's since become an annual event. A regular service of heritage buses runs from Warminster station to Imber, and then onwards across the plain to a variety of surrounding (more ordinary) villages. £10 buys an all-day rover ticket, allowing almost ten hours travel, and a substantial portion of the money raised goes to charity. It's a bonkers yet utterly brilliant idea, and thousands turn up every year to take advantage.
     Imberbus website (@Imberbus)
     This year's Imberbus timetable (pdf)
     A full report from last year (it rained a lot)
     Lots of photos from 2013 (from London Reconnections)

So popular has the event become that on most of the scheduled journeys two buses double up. On alighting from the train I was faced with one old and one new Routemaster, and a no-brainer of a decision. I recognised the New Routemaster as the LGBT rainbow bus from Bow Garage, which I can catch any day of the week by stepping out of my house. Plus it was a hot day, and my local knowledge told me not to ride the expensive bus with no opening windows if I could possibly avoid it. So I was delighted (and relieved) when I managed to secure a place on the open-topped proper Routemaster, which was a breezy win.

The route out of Warminster passes large amounts of army housing, and is also a relentless climb, which meant very slow (and highly-revved) progress up Sack Hill. After the vehicle depot and military checkpoint the road becomes thinner and the scenery changes, to a landscape of lush rolling chalk grassland and the occasional blasted tank. Anywhere else in southern England this land would be covered with crops, or at least sheep, but obviously there's none of that here, just long grass and the occasional patch of woodland. It may looks highly enticing but no! - regular signs remind civilian visitors "Danger Unexploded Military Debris - Do Not Leave The Carriageway". Various cross-country tracks are laid down for the benefit of armoured vehicles (we passed several signs announcing "Tank Crossing") while designated strategic areas are marked out by a series of white posts.

It takes about twenty minutes to get to Imber, now a shadow of its former self, where only a few original buildings exist. Most important of these is medieval St Giles Church, tucked safely behind a barbed wire fence, and now maintained by the Churches Conservation Trust. They open for a carol service and for St Giles Day every year, plus this August fortnight, with Imberbus Day the busiest of the lot. A generator is brought in to power a supply of hot drinks, jars of Imber honey are sold (heaven knows how they manage that), and a set of display boards reveal the living history of the village. Wandering the churchyard I spotted a couple of gravestones dated 1983, which shows just how much former residents must have loved the place.

Elsewhere in Imber are several rows of house-shaped shells used by the army for shooting practice, this being the closest the danger zone comes to an urban battleground environment. And as if this wasn't surreal enough, a pair of London-style bus stops have been positioned in the main street (I assume from the lack of bulletholes on only one day a year). As the main hub of the bus service the road is often blocked by vehicles, including this year the London Transport Museum Battle Bus which was offering brief rides up to the Danger No Unauthorised Access sign and back.

The next stretch of road east across the plain is glorious, apart from the regular reminders of soldiers being trained to kill. These include watchtowers, masts and earthen humps that might be tumuli but are more likely (given the ring of warning signs surrounding them) merely unexploded. I thought I could see all the way down to Old Sarum, and maybe Devizes, as we descended another scenic track. After a couple of miles another checkpoint is passed and suddenly you're back on a civilian road, as you can tell because farming and livestock kick back in, and the occasional homeowner is out front tinkering with his car.

Gore Cross Interchange is a most unlikely bus station, essentially two farms and a pond at a crossroads, but it's here that the various branches of route 23A intersect. As such up to four vehicles are scheduled to meet here on the hour and half hour, which makes for some amazing photos of chains of rural Routemasters if the timing is right. It can also be hit or miss to attempt to switch to an alternative service, as there aren't always enough seats to go round, and at one point I had to stand all the way to the next village.

The most exciting destination is Brazen Bottom, whose name belies its elevation, a destination chosen I suspect purely because it looks comical on the bus's blind. What's best is the descent from the hilltop, down a particularly steep single track hill where you pray not to meet any vehicle coming the other way, and where those on the open-topped upper deck occasionally needed to duck. It's as close as you'll ever get to riding a Routemaster rollercoaster.

Meanwhile the other major branch leads to the proper village of Tilshead, linked to the world outside the danger zone only by the A360, and which boasts the cheesiest reimagining of the Rose and Crown inn sign I've ever seen. Then on past idyllic scenes of combine harvesting to Chitterne, whose good ladies were serving tea in the village hall so that alighting passengers had something to do for an hour. The return trip to Tilshead was another highlight, this time via a three mile road weaving through more of Army Manoeuvres country. Beautiful, and yet unnerving, at the same time.

And throughout all this time I was sharing the top decks with The Men Who Like Buses. Most clutched printed out timetables with planned schedules duly highlighted, while others perused Ordnance Survey maps or road atlases in an attempt to trace our route. Most were of retirement age, although several families had turned up, with the younger generation of bus aficionado making its way up in the ranks. And while most watched and smiled silently, or chatted quietly, there were also certain men intent on conversing loudly in Inner Monologue, and this became somewhat grating.

I left before 2015's rain came, having thoroughly enjoyed a bright sunny day somewhere I wouldn't normally be able to go. Huge thanks to the organisers, and to the volunteers, and to the top bus company (and Network Rail) bosses spotted driving us around. But if you fancy a trip to Imber you're too late, because the road was sealed again at 7am this morning and the red flags won't be coming down until Remembrance Sunday. Or just make a note to attend Imberbus next August. The exact date will be announced in the spring, but Ian always blogs the details in advance, and that's how I remembered to ride a Routemaster to a deserted village in a danger zone in the middle of Salisbury Plain.

And go on, you'll be wanting 20 photographs, so here they are. [photos] [slideshow]

 Sunday, August 23, 2015

It's amazing how much of Liverpool you can see in ten hours if you put your mind to it. As well as the six vignettes I've posted below I also made it to the following (and took far more photos than you could ever be interested in viewing).
Liverpool Cathedral: The longest cathedral in the world, and dominating the skyline, this Giles Gilbert Scott masterpiece took most of the 20th century to build. It's both lofty and gorgeous, and somewhat surprising throughout, from the Tracey Emin pink neon by the entrance to the sunken Lady Chapel at the far end. Alas I visited on the day of the World Association for the Advancement of Veterinary Parasitology Gala Dinner, so the nave was packed with immaculately-laid tables and many of the transepts were sealed off for catering purposes. But, still, magnificent. [5 photos]
Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral: In complete contrast, but also completed in the 1960s, the Roman Catholic cathedral stands at the top of Hope Street like an upturned concrete funnel. I arrived after closing time, so only got to stalk the exterior, but the early evening light was suitably dazzling. [5 photos]
William Brown Street: ...whereas I was too early to get into the Walker Art Gallery, one of the dense concentration of historic listed public buildings up a short hill in the Cultural Quarter. Also close by are the imminently-doomed Futurist cinema, the mouth of the Birkenhead Tunnel, and Lime Street station. Have you seen the diddy Ken Dodd statue in the latter, by the way? [8 photos]
Liverpool 1: The saviour of Merseyside retail, these 42 acres of redeveloped land (opened 2009) attract the majority of the city's leisurebound travellers. Other shopping facilities are available, though I found the St John's centre rather drab, and forgot to go up the Radio City Tower to enjoy the view.

My Liverpool gallery
There are 75 photos altogether [or why not enjoy a slideshow]

Liverpool postcard: Brookside Close

To the first of three very different Merseyside housing projects, and the most familiar of the trio. Brookside Close was filmed on a specially-built housing estate in the eastern suburb of West Derby, five miles to the east of Liverpool city centre. I took the number 13 bus deep out into the suburbs, to a neighbourhood with an increasingly leafy vibe, past a local pub with a betting shop in the car park, and a giant Tesco that used to be an army barracks. Deysbrook Lane eventually fades out in a web of cul-de-sacs, but before it does a pair of curved brick walls lead off to the left, one painted with the street name - Brookside. Yes, there is an actual brook, it's called the River Alt, which rises close by and flows behind the Grants' old house into Croxteth Hall Park. I'd show you a photo, but the stream is mostly obscured by flowering vegetation, and the shot would tell you nothing. Executive producer Phil Redmond bought up the entire close in 1982, the aim being to provide a secluded but realistic space for filming, with the brook on one side and woodland on the other. Of the thirteen houses seven were used for administration, post production and canteen facilities, and stayed mostly out of sight, and it's these you encounter as you walk up the first wiggle of close. They stand in twos and threes, now occupied by ordinary members of the public, while a couple of similar-looking newbuilds have just been squeezed in on the penultimate bend. And then you reach the final dogleg and there they are, six of the most famous homes in the country, looking much as they ever did. [5 photos]

Had I ventured here five years ago I'd have seen a very different sight. Brookside Close was sold to a private developer after the soap stopped filming in 2003, then gutted and redecorated and put up for sale at what were then extremely high prices. The developer duly went bust and the houses slowly decayed, while the gardens and pavements became overgrown, a situation turned round only when another developer bought up the whole lot for three quarters of a million pounds. Houses on the original set had no water mains or telephone cables, so these had to be added along with functioning kitchens and complete internal walls, and today they're all rented out, one suspects to families and fans. Confusingly they're now numbered upwards from 47 in odd numbers, rather than consecutively from 5 to 10, but other than that the panorama is unmistakeable. It took me a while to work out that the three houses nearest the river weren't any of the main residences but were used for back-up, and carefully cut out of shot on camera, but the other six I knew inside out. Sheila and Bobby at number 5, the legendary Casa Bevron at number 8, and the most famous patio in Britain out of sight round the back of number 10. Apparently the owner of the latter still gets regular knocks on the door from fans who want to see his garden, so I decided to stand well back and observe from a respectful distance. Thankfully all the residents were indoors or out back, one with some unnecessarily agitated dogs, or just driving back from the shops (as I suddenly discovered). Sorry to be the stalking tourist, but simply being here was enormously evocative for one of the millions who grew up around here.

Liverpool postcard: Port Sunlight

A completely different kind of soap opera took place on the other side of the Mersey, halfway down the Wirral (so not officially in Liverpool, yes, I know). The soap in question was Sunlight, Lever Brother's pioneering laundry detergent, which didn't smell of carbolic and was the first domestic bar to be sold cut and wrapped. With its success came the need to build a large manufacturing plant, so a riverside site was selected and Port Sunlight was born. What makes it special is the garden village William Lever built to house his workforce, a place of function, benevolence and beauty, and not what late Victorian society was used to. Each of the 800 houses is unique, grouped into blocks designed by different architects, with all the attention to detail you'd expect from an Arts and Crafts environment. Wandering round what strikes you is the sense of scale and space, and greenery, beauty, and that this is somewhere you'd be inordinately proud to live. But it's also far less working class than it used to be, no longer the sole preserve of Unilever staff after private sales began in the 1980s, and the cars driving round the broad boulevards suggest considerable upmarketing has occurred.

As well as housing, Lever kitted out Port Sunlight with a fine array of municipal buildings. These included a cottage hospital (now a hotel), a Technical Institute (now flats) and an open air swimming pool (now a garden centre). The Girls' Club building now houses Port Sunlight Museum, which I turned up too late to enjoy, as the crowd outside sipping their cups of tea drank up and moved on. But there was time to look round one late arrival to the village which still fulfils its original purpose. The Lady Lever Art Gallery was built in Beaux Arts style to house the philanthropist's acclaimed collection of art, furniture and ceramics, and opened in 1922 a few years before his death. It still looks stunning, despite the rebuilding works going on up one end, and entrance is free (because Liverpool museums are excellent like that). The main gallery has a feel of Dulwich Picture Gallery about it - one long room with high walls bedecked with art - but with considerably more rooms off to each side, and packed with a much wider variety of pieces. One rotunda houses classical sculptures, another gallery exquisite Chinoiserie, plus there are five period rooms decked out with all the soft furnishings of eras past. Again looking round there's a feeling that Port Sunlight is now a very middle class day out, but then this is the Wirral, and Port Sunlight remains very much for all. [11 photos]

Liverpool postcard: The Welsh Streets

The Welsh Streets are a ladder of Victorian terraces in Toxteth, each named after something suitable Celtic like Gwydir or Elwy or Rhiwlas or Treborth. The houses are small and nothing outlandishly special, except that Ringo Starr was born in one, and because of the astonishing furore over their future. In 2004 these eleven streets were threatened with demolition under a New Labour programme called Housing Market Renewal, there being too much 'obsolete' low level accommodation in the city, or so the rationale said. Residents said otherwise, infuriated that perfectly good housing stock was to be eliminated in favour of lower density development, but the council moved them out anyway and boarded up their homes. Except that the expected regeneration never came, and the Coalition government withdrew funding, and an entire L8 neighbourhood has been blighted. Eric Pickles threw out the latest plans, which would have retained part of Ringo's homestreet, and a decade on the Welsh Streets problem looks no closer to being solved.

I walked down through Toxteth from the cathedral, elegant townhouses making way for more ordinary flats and a particularly scruffy shopping parade on the way down the hill. But at least everything looked occupied, that is until I reached High Park Street and the metal shutters appeared. On one side of the road a girl played in a well-tended front garden, while nobody lived on the other, and the Tasty corner shop appeared to have sold its last sandwich some time ago. I made for Ringo's road, that's Madryn Street, and soaked up the compellingly unsettled vibe. The place was completely dead, bar a run of trees dripping with red berries, with the feeling I could have stood in the street for hours without anyone else walking or driving through. Number 9 was identifiable only by considerable marker-pen activity across what had one been its window and doors, not even a burglar alarm hanging limp like many of the adjacent properties. But further down I found a single house still under occupation, its brickwork clean, its front door bright orange and its top window open in complete defiance of the establishment's intent. Parallel Powis Street was even more affecting, the entirety of each boarded-up façade painted black and without a single tree to break the barren panorama. Coming as I do from a city with a housing crisis based on lack of supply, the whole thing looked insane.

At the age of four Ringo's family moved to Admiral Grove, one block north, where they were still living when the Fab Four's fame began. It's not under threat, indeed number 10 is particularly well scrubbed up with whitewashed walls and a bright pink drainpipe. This street still teems with life and desirability, indeed in inner City London these narrow terraced houses would command a tidy sum. But a pocket of intractable indecision lingers close by, as the Welsh Streets await an undoubtedly unsatisfactory fate. [8 photos]

 Saturday, August 22, 2015

Liverpool postcard: Pier Head

England's greatest maritime city owes its wealth to the River Mersey. Two long stretches of docks and warehouses grew up on opposite banks, focused on the Pier Head, where stand the so-called Three Graces. The two less well-known of these are the Cunard Building and the Port of Liverpool Building, while the tallest (and most famous) is the Royal Liver Building. Revolutionary for its time (circa 1910) it's built from reinforced concrete, and is named after the insurance company it still houses. Its clock faces are larger than Big Ben's, all the better to aid passing shipping, and atop its two clock towers are the famous Liver Birds. legend has it that if they were ever to fly away the city would fall, but a) they're each attached with metal struts which are perfectly visible from the ground b) they're both made of copper, so Liverpool's safe for a while yet. There were once plans for a Fourth Grace, a millennial building to be erected on the former docks alongside, but a combination of inappropriate architecture and spiralling costs thankfully put paid to that. Instead the Mann Island site has been filled with tall black wedges, purportedly a mixed-use development but essentially dead at ground floor level. They look utterly out of place, and were nominated for the Carbuncle Cup in 2012, but were instead beaten by the restored Cutty Sark. A far worse abomination would be the Liverpool Waters project, pencilled in for Central Docks to the north, which would totally overshadow the waterfront with a 50-storey residential tower, and which forced UNESCO to place Liverpool - Maritime Mercantile City on its List of World Heritage in Danger. The commercial obsession with desecrating the sky with luxury apartments is by no means restricted to London.

Equally modern, and jarring in a more acceptable way, is the Museum of Liverpool, a long low concrete building that opened in 2011. A huge rectangular window pokes out at each end, while at its heart is a splendidly sweeping spiral staircase (warning: 84 steps ahead). Such is the city's historic importance that this is a National Museum, despite having Liverpool as its sole focus. And the good news is it's all terribly well done. Rather than a scattergun approach the museum focuses on a few choice areas, for example providing a fascinatingly in-depth look at the Liverpool Overhead Railway rather than dipping into all forms of local transport. One of the best galleries is devoted to the city's creative flair, from playwrights to comedians, but more specifically football and music. The Beatles merit an entire case and a fifteen minute theatre show, but don't think John Peel and Echo and the Bunnymen don't get a look in. And by the time I'd immersed myself in The People's Republic gallery I was struck by what stands Liverpool apart. Other cities, Birmingham for example, use museums to celebrate their commercial heritage and entrepreneurial flair, while Liverpool maintains a laser focus on society, workers and community. Its glory days may have passed, but its people shine on.

Liverpool postcard: Albert Dock

Back in the 1840s this large rectangular dock lined by warehouses was cutting-edge, indeed Britain's first entirely wood-free commercial premises. A secure place to store precious cargoes it thrived, then boomed, then inexorably declined. In the 1980s a restoration project saw the Albert Dock reborn as a mix of office space and retail, the most famous tenants probably Richard and Judy's This Morning and its floating weather map. The warehouses along one side are filled by the Merseyside Maritime Museum, a multi-storey memory bank of all things seafaring. A little tired in places, but by no means lightweight, two engrossing displays tell (in some depth) the story of the sinkings of the Titanic and the Lusitania. The third floor is separately branded as the International Slavery Museum, a little on the small side given the tale it has to tell, but a timely reminder that Liverpool's financial success (and that of the British Empire) rests on the disgraceful exploitation of Africa. It has some excellent staff too, for example Barbara whose Scouse tales of first-hand racism in the not-so-distant city had groups of visiting children suitably enthralled.

Oh, but the rest of the Albert Dock is mostly a disappointment. It's all restaurants, gift shops and bars, appealing to lowest common denominator tourists in need somewhere to spend and slump. I was reminded of the back avenue at the O2 combined with the Trocadero, and scuttled round the perimeter in extra quick time. Although there is one cultural triumph, namely Tate Liverpool, the gallery's first venture outside the capital, and home to four floors of modern art. At present the paid-for exhibition is a display of Jackson Pollocks, so I gave that a miss, whereas floors two and one housed an eclectic constellation of pieces that merited more concentrated attention. Meanwhile if you step away from the dockside at the far end you'll find the entrance to The Beatles Story, because there had to be a Fab Four immersive experience somewhere, for £14.95 minus any Tesco vouchers you might have. On my whistlestop tour, a This Morning museum might have been much more appealing.

Liverpool postcard: The Mersey Ferry

I dunno, Gerry and the Pacemakers write one song about it and suddenly it's the most famous ferry in the world. It also runs two very different services - one for tourists and one for locals. Tourists get the daytime to play, with a 50 minute triangular "River Explorer Cruise", which departs from the Pier Head and visits two stops on the Birkenhead side. At Woodside there's a U-Boat to explore, and at weekends a historic tramway outside the terminal too. Meanwhile Seacombe boasts a stellar-themed Spaceport, aimed firmly at families with children, and visiting which increases the prices of your £10 round ticket. Meanwhile before 9.30am and after 5pm the ferry operates for the benefit of commuters, shuttling back and forth rather faster, and that's when I chose to travel. The fare was included in the price of my Saveaway rover ticket, which also allowed me to travel on buses and trains all day, and which came loaded on an almost-smart plastic card. In London we have Oyster, in Liverpool they have Walrus (and insufficient card readers, so you have to carry your receipt around to avoid an excess fare).

I turned up at Woodside after five, fresh from the Merseyrail at Hamilton Square, only to be told that the ferry had stopped running for the day. I hadn't read the timetable carefully enough, and had missed the crucial detail than the commuter service ran from the other pier. Don't worry, said the cleaner, it's only ten minutes up the waterfront, and like a fool I believed her. In fact the distance was more like two miles, as I began to deduce when I triangulated the direction in which the latest ferry appeared to be heading. The intervening Mersey-side path rounded all sorts of decaying docks and outlying detritus, including the mammoth ventilation shaft for the Birkenhead Tunnel. What I thought was the correct pier turned out to belong to a much larger player, disgorging ferries from Belfast into a watery wilderness. I like this kind of urban desolation, don't get me wrong, but it took three-quarters of an hour of indirect route march to finally reach my quarry.

Not surprisingly, for a late-in-the-day against-the-flow service, the Mersey ferry wasn't busy. That was great because it meant the chance to stand in the small space up front and watch the river rush by, rather than being crammed out back or down below. But not right at the prow, of course, because that was fully occupied by a family filming themselves doing Titanic 'Jack and Rose' impersonations, because this never gets tedious to watch, natch. Until the end of next year the ferry is in full Dazzle Ships mode, a multi-coloured wartime redesign orchestrated by Sir Peter Blake, which livened up the surrounding grey somewhat. But there's always a proper estuarine feel, the surrounding land being relatively low and the Irish Sea not too far downriver. Although a diverse cavalcade of buildings hugs the Liverpool shoreline it's always the Liver Building that draws the eye, growing ever closer because that's where the boat docks. And although the tourist services always get it loud over the tannoy at this point, we commuters thankfully don't get to listen to Ferry Across The Mersey at this point, because the river itself has been experience enough.

 Friday, August 21, 2015

I booked my day trip to Liverpool several weeks ago, when rail tickets were going cheap, so turning up on the day of Cilla Black's funeral was quite a coincidence. Not just the chance to pay my respects as the cortège passed by, but also the possibility of seeing Cliff, Tarby and Biggins, a heady celebrity brew. But the procession was going nowhere near a station, and I had other things to shoehorn into my ten hours, so I thought I'd likely give the event a miss. Except...

The tall blonde looked like being a handful when she boarded the train at Euston, making a show of settling down and laying out her belongings on the table. Officially she was only entitled to a quarter of it, but she positioned her pieces with aplomb - the laptop swivelled into the space of the man next to her, the notebook into the shadow behind, the coffee into the gap by the aisle, the bottle of water plonked in the outfield - like a master chess player on the attack. Then from her bag she retrieved a sheaf of papers, with Cilla's funeral order of service on top, then various other printouts from the internet. Chomping down on a Pret sandwich she started to read Cilla's Wikipedia article, dutifully underlining certain key passages. Then she started on the newpspaper obituaries, but underlined nothing this time, presumably because most of these were based on the same Wikipedia foundations. Journalist, I thought.

Eventually she reached for her notebook, once she'd remembered where she'd stashed it, and started transcribing various key phrases for later use. Among the scribble was the email address of a certain Julie at itv.com, which you should know I wasn't trying to read, but this is precisely what happens when someone pushes their belongings into the nether reaches of a rail carriage table. Eventually everything came together as she started to type purposefully into her keyboard, possibly completing an article you read online yesterday, or maybe a script you heard on the television. If so, be alerted that it was written hours before the funeral even took place.

Somewhere around Nuneaton her cameraman rang up. He was already in town, and had a couple of items of bad news to relate. Firstly there was nobody outside the church yet, which I thought wasn't surprising because it was still before nine, and the service wasn't until one. Secondly the family had banished the media from the church grounds, leaving a space for photographers far enough back that they wouldn't be able to see much, but this was still the best place to be so they'd need to arrive early. But there were still voxpops to be done, because modern TV news cannot function without, so the two of them would need to head first to Woolton Road and interview any earlybirds they could find, then rush along to St Mary's to stake out their sub-prime spot. It didn't sound like the day would be brimming with job satisfaction.

In Liverpool city centre, around ten o'clock in the morning, Mathew Street was being hosed down in readiness for the day's revelries. A small collection of floral tributes had been laid on the cobbles in front of the Cavern Club, where Priscilla was once a cloakroom attendant, and somebody had stuck the front page of the Liverpool Echo to a pillar. 'Our Cilla' said a homemade poster in bright pink letters, sellotaped by the door, below a scrappy 1980s photo with a certain Diana-esque touch. Two white haired ladies stopped in the street to examine the haul, while a few of us earlybirds with mobile phones stood back to await a clear shot of the scene. Rather more flowers were laid out up the road by the Cavern Pub, a space with no Merseybeat connection having been opened in 1994, but then this is a street which also boasts a Lennons Bar and a Fab 4 Pizzeria.

I spent the rest of the day avoiding Woolton, instead dashing across town from the Albert Dock to Toxteth, and from West Derby to Birkenhead. The city seemed to be powering ahead as usual, and not especially mournful, although I did notice that the flags on the Pier Head by the Liver Building were all at half mast, which was a nice respectful touch.

And here I stumbled upon a TV news crew set up by the dockside, their three vans arranged into an L-shape to shield goings on from either the wind or the public. I was excited to see that this was indeed ITN, with one of their trademark blonde anchors carefully positioned with the Liver Building behind her, ready to feed live into the six-thirty news. When the time came she delivered a mere ten seconds to camera before a pre-recorded film cut in, with eventually some more general spiel to follow. The palaver that goes into giving you the viewer something to watch is immense... as Cilla the professional presenter would undoubtedly have known.

And there in the front of one of the vans I spotted the woman from the train, I think, stuffing her face with another sandwich while the key broadcast went out. But as for what the report said, or how the funeral service played out, alas I missed everything Cilla-related on the TV yesterday because I was in the city where it was happening.

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