diamond geezer

 Sunday, February 01, 2015

The timetable for off-peak DLR services gets a bit of a tweak tomorrow. TfL have announced four headline changes, two of which are bona fide good news.

Twice as many trains between Bank and Lewisham from 21:00 to 23:30 Monday to Friday with a train every 5 minutes
Longer 3-carriage DLR trains at weekends between Stratford and Canary Wharf, increasing capacity by half


And the other two are probably good, but maybe not entirely.

Twice as many trains between Woolwich Arsenal and Canning Town during off-peak hours and at weekends (with a train every 4-5 minutes)
Beckton - Stratford International service will be replaced with a Beckton - West Ham service operating from 10:00 to 16:00 Monday to Friday and from 08:30 Saturdays and 10:30 Sundays to 19:30


I'm trying to work out precisely what this means, but the DLR section of the TfL website is remarkably coy about revealing where its trains go. Gone are the days when the service pattern was explicitly stated, instead there's now a lot more emphasis on using the Journey Planner or simply turning up. As for the new DLR timetables page, I'm sure the coding team are well chuffed at producing mobile-friendly bespoke station to station hour by hour results, but if it's old school overview timetables you seek, they've long been sacrificed in the name of dumbing-down. So, anyway...

Up until tomorrow's timetabling update, trains from Stratford International went to Woolwich Arsenal during peak hours but to Beckton off-peak and at weekends. That's now changing, if I've got this right, so that trains from Stratford International will only go to Woolwich Arsenal.

Viewed in the opposite direction, trains from Woolwich Arsenal will now alternate (approximately every five minutes) to Bank and to Stratford International. That's a regular service to Westfield all day, which is not the case at present, especially at weekends. Meanwhile off-peak trains from Beckton will also alternate (approximately every five minutes), one towards Tower Gateway and one up the Stratford branch. But no train from Beckton will ever go as far as Stratford International, they'll terminate early at West Ham where passengers will either have to wait five minutes for the next DLR service or cross to the Jubilee line instead. That's the downside in the new timetable, I assume because not enough trains are available to run a full service to Stratford.

...or something, because the DLR 's information architects don't believe in being 100% transparent. If you understand things differently, or better, let me know.

For twelve consecutive Februaries on diamond geezer I've kept myself busy by counting things. Ten different counts, to be precise, in a stats-tastic 28-day feature called The Count. You therefore won't be surprised to hear that I intend to do exactly the same again this year, indeed you'd no doubt be disappointed otherwise. I kicked off this annual exercise way back in 2003, so I now have a dozen years of thrilling historical data to analyse. Expect a post or two of comparisons at the end of the month, if you're vaguely interested, and if you can bear the wait. Here's my selected list of ten countables for February 2015.

Count 1: Number of visits to this blog (Feb 2014 total: 51727) (↓7% on 2013)
Count 2: Number of comments on this blog (Feb 2014 total: 477) (↓13%)
Count 3: Number of words I wrote on this blog (Feb 2014 total: 32283) (↑10%)
Count 4: How many hours each day I sleep (Feb 2014 total 165) (↑1%)
Count 5: Number of nights I go out and am vaguely sociable (Feb 2014 total: 6) (↑50%)
Count 6: Number of bottles of Becks I drink (Feb 2014 total: 4) (↑100%)
Count 7: Number of cups of tea I drink (Feb 2014 total: 129) (↑2%)
Count 8: Number of trains I travel on (Feb 2014 total: 101) (↓28%)
Count 9: Number of steps I walk (Feb 2014 total: 254579) (↓7%)
Count 10: The Mystery Count (Feb 2014 total: 0) (again)

I've tweaked a couple of these counts this year, just to keep things fresh. In count number 4 I used to count the number of hours I worked, rested and played, but this year I've decided to focus solely on the number of hours I sleep. I suspect that's the interesting figure, being relatively low, that 165 hour total averaging out at 5 hours 54 minutes a night. And count number 9 is new, replacing 'the number of escalators I walk up' with 'the number of steps I walk', thanks to the modern smartphone's ability to tally physical exertion automatically. Unless running is your hobby, I suspect my quarter of a million steps per month may be better than yours, because that equates to 94 miles in total. Annoyingly the month just gone was even better, at a rip-roaring 147 miles, but that's because I've been on leave a lot in January and alas February's unlikely to match it.

The Count 2009Once again I'll be using an online website called Daytum to keep track of my counts. Daytum is a real-time data tracker which displays numbers in a pretty way. For a while it'll be displaying last February's totals, but then I'll set everything back to zero and start reporting this year's counts from scratch. I then intend to update my counts on Daytum at least once a day until the 28th of the month, and then I'll come back and tell you how my February went. Who knows, the Mystery Count might even require enumeration this year, although I'm not holding my breath. Stalk away.

» The Count 2015

 Saturday, January 31, 2015

On 30th January 1965, Winston Churchill's state funeral took place. I missed it by a few weeks, so it was great to be able to catch up yesterday when the BBC re-broadcast their entire outside broadcast. The first 25 minutes, narrated by Richard Dimbleby, provide a fascinating overview of the funeral route and of the cold dark lowrise city as London once was.

Fifty years on, the boat on which Churchill's coffin was carried repeated its journey from the Tower to Westminster.



The Havengore, a small craft, ferried several dignitaries and members of the family through the chill air. It manoeuvred beneath Thames bridges to draw up opposite the Houses of Parliament, where large crowds of politicians and other staff had gathered to watch, and to follow the service of remembrance from the banks.



From Westminster Bridge nothing could be heard, as a wreath was thrown into the water and the Havengore returned downstream, its commemorative journey complete. We have not seen its like again.

 Friday, January 30, 2015

It is the dream of every gallery curator to come up with an exhibition that everyone will want to visit.

"So, how about Ladybird books, then?"

And that's the majority of Britons over 40 hooked. We grew up on Ladybird books, either reading them or reading them to our children, and they represent something safe and cosy from our past. So the De la Warr Pavilion in Bexhill is onto a winner, aspirationally at least, between now and the middle of May.

If you've never visited the De la Warr before, it's gorgeous, a sleek Art Deco swoosh on the East Sussex coast. As well as an auditorium (coming soon, Alan Davies and Rick Wakeman) there are three galleries, with the largest on the ground floor current devoted to the humble Ladybird. I mean, what's not to love? [8 photos of the DLWP]

The introductory section of Ladybird by Design is brief, but includes the hand-drawn mock-up for the very first ornithological tome and an example of the single printed sheet that was chopped and folded to make each 56-page book. There's also a video, not the same as the recent BBC4 documentary, plus a terribly nice exhibition guide, fully illustrated. At £1 it's eight times more expensive than a Ladybird book used to be, but a delightful keepsake of your visit.

Along the main corridor are approximately 500 Ladybird books, cover by cover, from the curators' personal collection. This is a proper step back in time, with titles of books I once owned jumping out with a smile. Understanding Maps, Play with us, The Night Sky, Flight Four India, 'How It Works' Television, oh yes oh yes oh yes.



The main part of the exhibition, however, features over 200 original illustrations used across the series. These are the illustrators' final works, in enlarged size, with scribbled notes around the edges in the guillotine zone. And each is very much its own work of art. The wildlife scenes in What to Look for in Spring/Summer/Autumn/Winter are intricate, the characterisation in Well-Loved Tales: Cinderella accomplished, and blimey did they really use Letraset to label the diagrams in The Public Services: Electricity? As a representation of mid-to-late 20th century Britain, and middle class sensibilities, the Ladybird images are unparalleled social documents.

Three books have been selected for the full treatment, with each of their 24 illustrations presented sequentially. First up is Shopping with Mother, its sequential panels detailing a trip along Every-High-Street circa 1958. This is a retro treat, with a Julie Andrews-esque mother cajoling her perfect offspring from one generic shop to the next until they return home heavily laden to share their treasures with Dog and Cat. Wonderfully evocative of an era of drapers, grocers and ironmongers, it's hard not to imagine how tedious a hypermarket edition fifty years later would be.

From the early seventies we get every page of People at Work: In a Big Store. This visual trawl through a very different consumer experience features shopfloors and canteens, cashiers and storemen. Although only the pictures are present it's all too easy to imagine the words that would have accompanied them, so well drilled are we in Ladybird style. And the third volume to be so honoured is Tricks and Magic, from 1969, which was one of my very favourite books at the time. Many of these images are imprinted deep on my memory - how to switch two matchsticks, how to trace a magic square, and how to shake a wand to create a highly unconvincing wobble.

It being midweek, most of yesterday's audience was well past retirement age. The gallery was also relatively empty, which I doubt will be the case at weekends when nudging through to view the full sweep of images may be more difficult. The shop at the pavilion is very good, currently with a wide range of Ladybird-related stock, and the curator's £20 tome already out of print before the first week of the exhibition is up. If a trip to the De la Warr is always a pleasure, for the next few months upgrade that to a delight.

And OK, so Bexhill is a long way from London, if that's where you are - almost two hours by train. A ticket's not cheap either, more than £30 even for an off-peak return, perhaps putting this free exhibition out of reach. But I got there for only £17.90 by buying a Southern Offpeak DaySave. This can only be used after 10am (or any time at weekends), and has to be booked online at least three days in advance. But the ticket then allows you to wander anywhere on Southern's network, which is how I visited Bexhill and Eastbourne and Brighton yesterday before heading home. Plan ahead and the south coast is nearer, and cheaper, than you think.

 Thursday, January 29, 2015

At the heart of any good democracy is a publicly accessible debating chamber. What I'd not fully realised until yesterday is quite how accessible.



I hadn't left home with the express intention of entering Parliament, nor pre-booked anything, nor communicated with my MP. So I wasn't quite sure what would happen when I wandered up to the public entrance to the Palace of Westminster (about halfway along, opposite Westminster Abbey, close to the densest cluster of security barriers). A small group of uniformed officials wait outside, just off the pavement, to assist, support or ward off approaching members of the public. I watched for a bit, and all the other folk going in looked to be important, or at least rather more smartly dressed, as if with some kind of Parliamentary business to attend to. But I asked anyway, "is it possible to go in to the Public Gallery?"

And yes it is, right away. That's so long as either the Commons or Lords is in session, which is alas an increasingly rare occurrence as this rump of a Parliament stumbles towards the next election. The Lords weren't in session until 3, I was told, but the Commons had kicked off at noon with Prime Minister's Questions - the only half-hour slot of the week for which tickets should be obtained in advance. I was given a green laminated sheet and asked to hold it in front of me on the way in so that I'd be treated, and directed, appropriately. And within fifteen seconds I was entering the security theatre that would allow me to enter unchallenged.

The list of Don'ts on the way in is nothing unexpected - no bombs, no blades, no explosives. Three armed police guard the top of the entrance ramp (that's three police with bloody large firearms, not triple-limbed upholders of the law). There's sometimes a queue on the way down (apparently "a wait of one or two hours is common") but midweek afternoons in January aren't peak times so I had the friskdown posse in the security cabal entirely to myself. On entering I was handed a dated visitor pass to hang round my neck. At no point was I ever asked my name, although I assume they took a photo of me for their records on the way in, and for all I know some clever bit of intelligence software had already deduced my date of birth, postcode and bank account details before my personal belongings had exited the scanner.

And in. The public get to skirt the edge of New Palace Yard before entering the building via Westminster Hall. This is a treat in itself, the great medieval building with its hammerbeam roof has seen more than its fair share of history over the centuries. Plaques mark the spot where Charles I stood trial and where Nelson Mandela stood in triumph. It was particularly affecting to see the spot where Winston Churchill's coffin lay in state, precisely 50 years ago this very week, and to imagine the reverent queues processing through. Again it was quiet here, just the odd school group or tour party, and various suits and heels clipping through on official business within.



At the far end, up the broad stone staircase, St Stephen's Porch leads to St Stephen's Hall. Its splendid frescoes are well worth a look, before you step with a wow into Central Hall, You'll recognise it from TV, a highly-decorated high-domed space where four important corridors meet, with the Commons to the left and the Lords to the right. Again I was impressed at being allowed to walk around freely, to inspect the four statues of Victorian statesmen and to observe goings on at the members' internal post office, even if I didn't spot anyone famous or catch a TV crew setting up for an interview on camera.

The entrance to the public gallery is through the doorway immediately on the left. Here you swap your green laminated sheet for a green slip of paper, which you must sign and deposit to agree that you will not create a disruption in the chamber. Again there's no attempt to link your signature to a given name, but that won't save you if your reasons for entry are nefarious. You're now in a rather ordinary back corridor, part of the working life of the building, which leads to an even more ordinary staircase (apart from the cloistered view from the window on the spiral ascent). One final encounter requires you to hand over your bag, phone, camera, laptop and any other electronic equipment, in exchange for a numbered token. And then you really are in.

The public gallery hangs above the southern end of the House of Commons, with nine rows of green benches raked down in the manner of a theatre balcony. Architecturally it's an integral part of the chamber, but about ten years ago a glass shield was bolted in to screen Them from Us, and since then no well-aimed flour bomb has ever hit a serving minister. The divide means speeches can only be heard indirectly, via loudspeakers, with BBC Parliament cameras relaying the action from down below. Around thirty members of the public were present when I arrived, although at least a hundred more could have been packed in. They came and went - a school group in hi-vis tabards, an elderly couple, a party of visiting Hasidic Jews, and several suited entourages (briefly) present to see democracy in action.

I'd arrived on Opposition Day, during a debate entitled NHS (Government spending). It had already been going for some time, and had reached the point where backbenchers on both sides were keen to make sure their twopennorth was heard. We heard of good work in Islington, investment in Dover and shocking inadequacies in ambulance services in the northeast. The rhetoric was as partisan as you'd expect, but polite, and always with due deference to other Honorable members. Each MP had seven minutes to make their point, a time reduced to six and then five as the debate proceeded, and which ticked down on a green screen towards the moment when the Deputy Speaker would brutally cut them off. More charitable members gave way to interruptions from other members, ensuring arguments were properly challenged, and the variation in oratory also helped us to stay awake.

I really shouldn't need to tell you all this, because goings on in Parliament are broadcast live on their own dedicated TV channel which you could easily watch, but don't. Instead let me tell you a little more about what the cameras don't see, or at least which the director chooses not to show. MPs are allowed to use smartphones and tablets in the chamber and will often sit there checking the BBC news webpage or tapping furious messages. A more traditional means of communication is also available, with a clerk popping into the chamber on a regular basis to deliver, or to collect, written messages. I noted that anyone who spoke on the official record received a delivery shortly afterwards, and also that speakers generally stayed to listen to the speech immediately after theirs before nodding to the Speaker and exiting the chamber.

By the third hour of a debate the benches seem generally quite empty, except with those waiting to speak (and whoever's lumbered being the front bench spokesperson). At one point I counted barely 20 elected representatives present, although that number slowly rose as the scheduled end of the debate approached. It was at this point that the only well known minister arrived, this being Jeremy Hunt the Health Secretary. He turned very deliberately to talk to the MP behind him throughout the whole of the Shadow minister's summing up, jabbing repeatedly at a notebook he'd brought, then turned back to face forwards the second his deputy opened her defence, his Blackberry in full effect. Of all the participants on all sides, including Coalition, Opposition and a speaker from the SNP, only Jeremy's behaviour rankled me with his petty schoolboy posturing.

There followed a vote, or as it's officially called a division. It was great to watch this up close, as the tellers trooped off to their positions and the stewards took up position by the doors. Suddenly the whole panoply of MPs trooped through, more than 500 in total, revealing they'd been in the building all this time just not particularly interested in the debate. Some had been in Select Committees, others no doubt in the bar, but the bell drew everyone in to vote over the ensuing ten minute window, thanks to Parliament's delightfully archaic system which requires physical presence and progression through a particular lobby. I spotted several more well-known members at this point, including Sarah Teather and a particularly frail-looking Gerald Kaufman, but I was equally struck by the huge number of non-famous identikit MPs whom nobody would ever recognise outside their own constituencies. The motion fell by 298 votes to 228.

And then we were straight into the next debate, on sustainable development goals. This was considerably better attended, or at least the opening speeches were - I suspect numbers drooped significantly as this three hour discussion dragged on. The initial debate seemed much livelier too, with higher levels of verbal jousting and a heartfelt intervention from Caroline Lucas, Britain's only Green MP. But I'd had enough by this point, and left the high-ranking ladies to battle amongst themselves as I went to collect my belongings. I can't claim to have been excited by what I'd heard, indeed it's easy to argue that the chamber is little more than a talking shop while the real business takes place elsewhere. But I was thrilled by seeing the parliamentary process in the flesh, which means that from this point on I can picture every televised debate in its proper setting in a high Gothic chamber beneath six heavy lamps. And all I had to do was walk in off the street.

 Wednesday, January 28, 2015

0700: Don't look at me, I'm still asleep, I'm having the week off.
0800: Normally I'd be in the office by now, but I'm still in bed.
0830: Judging by the weather out there, maybe I should have gone to work.
0930: Cup of tea - tick. Bowl of Shreddies - tick. This is the life.
1000: Whizzing round the supermarket is a breeze on a Wednesday morning.
1045: It's also much easier to grab the front seat on the DLR.

1130: Winning snaps from the Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2014 competition are currently on show at the Royal Greenwich Observatory (in the free bit, alongside the Planetarium). Though not a big exhibit (indeed you'd probably see more on Flickr), the quality of these illuminated amateur images is astonishing. Nebulae loom large, and there are several good eclipse shots, but my two favourites were a Venus/Lunar occultation timelapse and the ultimate winner, a stunning auroral reflection in an icy lake. Free, until 22 February.
1145: Now that the lashing rain has passed, Greenwich Park is an empty delight.



1300: Christian Marclay's new exhibition opened today at the White Cube in Bermondsey Street. In prime position along the main corridor is a video work entitled Pub Crawl, shot last year on the early morning streets of East London. Eleven looping films show the artist rolling discarded beer bottles, squishing empty (and full) lager cans, and generally tapping any glass-based alcohol detritus with his metal pen. The resulting gutter-opera tinkles most appealingly, and merits detailed contemplation. In two side galleries are a collection of Batmanesque paintings - Splash! Plop! Kersplosh! - each against an explosion of red paint. And in a darkened carpeted chamber, four walls play out twenty minutes of snaking, fizzing, exclamatory lexicography in Surround Sounds. It's like sitting inside a verbal firework display as the words and images rattle round the walls.  A surefire epileptic experience for some, and alas no The Clock this time, but Marclay's visuals never disappoint. Free, until 12 April.
1315: Some parts of SE1 appear to exist solely for the benefit of people who can't be bothered to make a packed lunch.

1415: A trip round the National Portrait Gallery is always a delight, with the added pleasure at present of Who are you? by Grayson Perry. Fourteen original works are scattered in a trail around the first floor, including tapestries, ceramics and sculptures. Each arose from the recent Channel 4 series, but you don't have to have seen that to fully engage. The works are typically detailed and inventive, often comical, but what really hits home are Perry's thoughtful (and surprising) descriptions on the meaning of personal identity pasted underneath. The woman in the hijab is white, the Benin bronze man used to be female, and the 'Idealised Heterosexual Couple' are divorced. You'll stop and think. Free, until 12 March.

1430: For the next bit, I have to surrender my phone. I can't believe it's this easy.
1630: So you simply walk up to the Palace of Westminster, unbooked, ask to go into the House of Commons Public Gallery and, one security friskdown later, get to watch a parliamentary debate on the NHS from on high. Fascinating stuff, but I wonder how long you could have stuck it.
1645: I might pause for a 2nd cup of tea and some food soon. Or I might not.

1730: This year the Landscape Photographer of the Year exhibition has moved from the National Theatre foyer to the upper concourse at Waterloo station. It's not ideal, viewing the best 100 or so photographs outside Yo Sushi while trains to Woking are announced, but it'll have brought these amazing images to a wider public. As ever, the trick to a winning capture appears to be to ascend a remote mountain before dawn on a morning when mist is forecast, but I remain in awe of the gorgeous colours, natural diversity and expert composition. Free, until 31 January.
1745: Taking the rush hour Waterloo & City against the flow is always more enjoyable.

1830: Finally back home again. Cup of tea - tick. Toast - tick. Bowl of soup - tick.
1900: I should probably write up that trip to the House of Commons for you to read about tomorrow.

 Tuesday, January 27, 2015

post-Olympic update
Around the park

It's not the greatest of anniversaries, but today marks two and a half years on from the London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony. The immediate impact of the Games may have faded but its legacy lingers, in particular around East London's newest neighbourhood - Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. How's it getting on? Anyone can make a park look busy in midsummer, so I'd say midwinter usage is a far better guide to potential long-term success. Let's run top-to-bottom.

Marsh Field allotments: Veg growers on the Manor Gardens allotments were turfed out in 2007 so that Gamesgoers could sit on a lawn and watch British Airways adverts. Their replacement plots were scraped out of Marsh Field, a mile to the north, inside a green fence resembling a prison exercise yard. It's taken several long summers to cultivate this muddy rectangle, but the new site has finally acquired a smidgeon of the character of its predecessor. And yes, I know I told you this yesterday, but today there's a photo [photo]. Today there are going to be several illustrative photos. [18 photos]
Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre: They're probably not your two favourite participation sports, hockey and tennis, but the new sports facility at Eton Manor (based on a Paralympic venue) is ticking over nicely. The car park off the A12 was fairly busy over the weekend, with a bunch of sportsmen exercising by the war memorial and families delivering kitted-up youngsters to the front entrance. I can't speak for the tennis courts, but a loud and fiercely fought match was being played on the bright blue hockey pitch, with spectators making levels of noise more usually seen on Hackney Marshes. [photos]
East Marsh: They churned up the eastern part of Hackney Marshes for a coach park during the Games - not a popular move. Even six months ago the 'grass' was still fenced off and recovering, but now at last the marsh is clear, and green, with a bit of legacy car park up front and a grandstand terrace for watching any games that may one day return here. Recovery complete. [photo]
Draper's Field: Another recreational area commandeered for the Olympics, in this case for the Athletes Village stores and supplies, Leyton's children have spent several summers unable to play on their local rec. Again it's finally back, and proving popular, with kickabout courts for ball games and a rippled 'natural play' area for younger residents.
Mountain bike course: All sorts of landscaped bumps have been threaded through the roadside gaps in the north of the park, creating bike trails of varying degrees of difficulty. Now the cyclists are finally out and using them (and, I think paying, in compliance with the highly optimistic notices tacked up in even the most remote parts of the circuit).

Velodrome: Spectator passes for the cycling were some of the hottest tickets of the Games. And now you can just walk in, any weekend, and see the building for yourself. Enter on the ground floor, turn left at reception and take the glass stairs (or lift) up into the heart of the building. About a third of the perimeter is accessible, plus the seating down to the track edge, where you can sit and watch the action for as long as you like. I watched a group twenty ordinary members of the public engaging in what I think was a pre-booked taster session (£1 hr, £30). Following the safety chat and kitting out they took to the Siberian pine track for a few circuits under close supervision. Twice round the flat inner track, twice round the light blue, up to the black line and twice more, then black, then red, and eventually a few spins much higher up the slanting bend. But only a few before descent, and all a little bit crocodile, and all complete and off the track within fifteen minutes. I didn't stay the full hour, and the next more experienced group had a far less underwhelming time speeding repeatedly round, but I'd recommend coming and seeing what you're in for before you book. [photo] [photo]
Chobham Manor: The Park's first fresh housing estate is up for sale, if you'd like to express an interest in moving in. You may have read people queued overnight last week to get a flat, including one resident of Folkestone in search of a post-theatre bolthole. You may also remember that, years ago, people wondered if these apartments would ever make money. Should perhaps have built some council flats instead. [photo]
Here East: They were going to call it iCity, the reconditioned media centre down the northwestern edge of the park, but apparently that name wasn't good enough so they went with Here East instead. Like that's better. Whatever, the name's been written in giant letters across the end of the building in an entirely intrusive manner, visible as far away as Westfield. One almost wishes the intervening flats would be built quickly to blot it out. Or maybe not. [photo]
Canal Park: This is Winter 2015's big new arrival, a strip of green along the Lea down the west side of the Park. It was due to be completed this month, and maybe the landscaping is, but it'll be a while before we're allowed to tread where the plants will be. Down by Hackney Wick thus far the Canal Park looks unspectacular, more a thin barrier so that later flats don't encroach completely on the river [photo]. But at the top end of the park they've tried harder, with slides and play equipment and even a linear water feature - currently a very shallow dent in sodden soil. Watch this space. [photo]
Eastcross Bridge: The broad pedestrian bridge across the heart of the northern park has now mostly been removed, awaiting something a little slimmer to take its place. All planned since day one, of course, but in the meantime the wetland landscape looks a bit of a mess. [photo]

Mandeville Place: That's the posh name for the vast tarmac piazza in the centre of the park. It has some gym equipment and some circular planted areas, but remains a dead and characterless expanse linking two much livelier halves. [photo]
Stadium Island: The stadium's crown of floodlights is long down, a cluster of cranes are aloft, and a flatter broader roof is being added for the benefit of West Ham's spectators. As well as work within, much is being done on the slopes overlooking the City Mill River where it appears the public may eventually be able to walk unchallenged [photo]. If you head round the back of the stadium you can tell a lot's going on because at half three on Saturday afternoon the workforce start to stream out in large numbers - most walking to Stratford for the train home, a couple heading to the View Tube for a drink. Football remains 18 months away, but world rugby gets a brief look-in this autumn. [photo]
Year of the Bus: The southern end of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park was impressively busy over the weekend, which is quite something for January, aided and abetted by the presence of 60 fibreglass buses. Possibly the final event of TfL's Year-and-a-bit of the Bus, these 3D artistic canvases were stacked up on the bridge past the Aquatic Centre in such close proximity that ticking them off was almost child's play [photo]. I say almost, because apparently a couple were missing, making a mockery of the "can you find them all?" activity sheet. Further play was taking place inside a marquee, where the 60th bus was getting its decorative coating and an awful lot of free stickers (date-checking '2014') were on offer [photo]. A full size New Bus For London also drew the crowds, particularly for car-driving outer Londoners who may never have seen one in the flesh before (and maybe never will again). As an event space, QEOP continues to prove its flexibility and popularity.
The Orbit: Unheard of scenes... a queue at the ticket office on Saturday! And this was groups and families unaware of the pre-book discount but still willing to part with £15 for a view from the sky. I can't speak for Sunday, when clouds may well have discouraged visitors from ascending, but if you can get enough people into the Park on a sunny day, the Orbit's white elephant qualities temporarily fade. [photo]
Southern exits: Carpenters Road is open now, remember, and the steps down to the top of Warton Road are also finally (finally!) complete [photo]. But the last two exit routes remain blocked - one down the edge of the Waterworks River and the other to link up with the Greenway at Stratford High Street. Crossrail are to blame for the blockage - they're still demolishing the old Pudding Mill Lane and driving a flyover through the gap. We were promised back in 2009 that this area would reopen "in spring 2015", but there's absolutely no sign of this coming true thus far. What may be almost ready is the second replacement allotment site, pegged out alongside the DLR, the identikit sheds awaiting users who can give the place a smidgeon of character. But that's where we came in...

 Monday, January 26, 2015

THE UNLOST RIVERS OF LONDON
Dagenham Brook
Walthamstow → Leyton (2 miles)
[Lea → Dagenham Brook → Lea → Thames]


The most important thing to be clear about the Dagenham Brook is that it goes nowhere near Dagenham. Instead it's a very Waltham Forest kind of river, an artificial tributary of the River Lea dug for drainage purposes along the eastern edge of Leyton Marshes. Go back quarter of a million years and it's thought the Lea itself flowed this way, but now it's merely one of several ways that water flows from upstream of Walthamstow towards the Olympic Park. The expansion of suburbia has made it a very urban river, tracking between the back gardens of E17 and E10, but still open enough in a couple of places to be quite pleasant. I'm indebted to the Waltham Forest Walks team for their damned useful pdf with map and directions. [5 photos]



To find the start of the Dagenham Brook, make your way to St James Street station in Walthamstow and head down Coppermill Lane. The parallel residential streets cease before the reservoirs kick in, where St James's Park (not that one) exists to give local dogs somewhere to run amok. Follow the railway viaduct down to the big river - that's the curve of the Lea Flood Relief Channel - and look for the much smaller brook beneath the bridge. The Dagenham Brook emerges from pipes on the far side of the railway line, fed in from the upper Lea, and traces one side of a triangle of pleasant woodland. Almost narrow enough to step across, a muddy footpath follows one bank while the backs of allotment sheds abut the other. This is the Low Hall Wood Nature Conservation Area, a dead-end corner where I stumbled across a man leaning against a remote tree trunk reading the paper. His eye never wandered from the printed page as I stepped onto the riverbank for a photo, but why he felt the need to hide out here beats me.

The brook continues along the edge of the Low Hall Sports ground, home to two recreational mouthfuls. The Leyton Orient Advanced Soccer School Football Club (LOASS for short) kickabout on one side, while the Asian Cricket & Sports Club step out from the Mohsin Beg Pavilion. These Leaside marshes are also home to a substantial industrial presence, sprawled out across extensive yards and warehouses, thoughtfully tucked out of sight of suburbia. Let's not go there. Instead the closest through road to the Dagenham Brook passes a memory of its Victorian past - the Walthamstow Pumphouse Museum. No longer required to move water, the building houses two restored Marshall steam pumping engines, while the yard is outside is rammed full with mechanical and transport ephemera. I spotted a Routemaster, a steam locomotive and a Victoria line carriage, as well as other machines that help tell the industrial story of the Lea Valley Corridor. Closed for a refit since 2013, the Museum hopes to reopen with a splash on Sunday 1st March, and those of you who like this kind of thing should put that date in your diary now.



For the next mile, sightings of the Dagenham Brook become somewhat intermittent. There's one from Cockerell Road, a residential cul-de-sac seemingly squeezed in for the sake of it, with the lingering whiff of water tanks and a recycling centre adding to the challenge of living here. A strip of allotments block direct public access south, hence a ridiculously roundabout route is required to follow the river fractionally dowstream. The residents of Luther King Close seem particularly unwilling to welcome visitors, slapping up 'Stop' and 'Private Property' and 'Vehicles will be removed' signs with such abandon that I decided their management committee must be a bunch of joyless isolationists. Nevertheless I strode through to catch a glimpse of the river, as directed, and can reassure you that the view through the railings isn't worth the bother.

Rather more tasteful, and completely out of character in this part of town, is Tudor Court. A grassy close of mock-timbered houses leads down to the river, hidden behind a swoosh of garages, in sharp contrast to the Victorian terraces that cover most of the southern half of Waltham Forest. Acacia Road is one of these, and Theydon Road another, the latter sloping down to the river on a gradient steeper than the trickle at the bottom would suggest. I sparked the curiosity of several locals by pausing on Bridge Road to take several photos of the river that passes between their back gardens, but I think I got away with it. I was less inconspicuous on Lea Bridge Road, waving my camera over the top of a wall at the narrow channel passing underneath. I'd never noticed the brook here before, labelled 'Lee Bridge Road Culvert' by the signwriters at the Environment Agency, and continuing equally incognito on the other side. Somewhat appropriately, residents of Dagenham Road are the last to have gardens backing down to the brook, while on the opposite bank is the homeground of Leyton Football Club (the ordinary one, not the Orient).



After hiding behind more allotments and a secondary school, the Dagenham Brook finally reemerges along the edge of Leyton Jubilee Park. Formerly known as Marsh Lane Playing Fields, it was given an Olympic spruce-up a few years back, and is now a livelier place to play. In a fenced-off corral at the bottom of the park are the relocated Manor Farm allotments, infamously shifted to make way for London 2012, now finally acquiring a smidgeon of the character of their predecessor. Closer to the brook the Eton Manor Athletics Club HQ building is now shared by a fully accessible (and very reasonably priced) cafe, decorated with external teagarden mural. And alongside is a swish new bridge over the river, with punched-out motifs in the metalwork depicting various forms of sporting activity, rather grander than the waters beneath would seem to demand.

As part of the park's rebirth a riverside path has been created alongside an elevated nature reserve, this now the most pleasant part of the brook's two mile flow. A series of pipes and culverts of various diameters feed in, with that beneath the wiggly footbridge being particularly broad. Past Ive Farm the river cuts a deep channel approximately two metres wide, before one final footbridge links the path to Orient Way. You're not supposed to carry on, but a minor track leads to the edge of yet more allotments, and the chance to tread carefully down the bank to the water's edge. Public access goes no further, with the final quarter mile proceeding unseen behind a scrappy hedge along Orient Way. Look carefully just before the recycling centre and you'll spot the concrete portal where the Dagenham Brook heads back underground, presumably to duck beneath the Eurostar depot and enter the Old River Lea unseen. The watermills at Temple Mills are long gone, but the brook which fed them still somehow survives.

 Sunday, January 25, 2015

Underground stations
  4) Oval
  5) Upney
  6) Pinner
  7) Mile End
  8) Burnt Oak
  9) Green Park
10) Bond Street
11) Canary Wharf
12) Covent Garden
13) Russell Square
14) North Greenwich
15) Leicester Square
16) Piccadilly Circus
17) Willesden Junction
18) Tottenham Court Road
19) Great Portland Street
20) High Street Kensington

 One-word Underground stations
  4) Bank
  5) Angel
  6) Temple
  7) Pimlico
  8) Monument
  9) Bayswater
10) Embankment
11) Westminster
12) (Cassiobridge)
13) Knightsbridge
DLR stations
  4) Bank
  5)
  6) Poplar
  7) Beckton
  8) Mudchute
  9) Blackwall
10) Heron Quays
11) Pontoon Dock
12) Crossharbour
13) Island Gardens
14) Deptford Bridge
15) Pudding Mill Lane
16)
17) London City Airport
18)
19) Custom House for ExCel
20)
21)
22) Stratford International
23)
24)
25)
26)
27)
28)
29) Cutty Sark for Maritime Greenwich

 Overground stations
  4)
  5)
  6) Hoxton
  7) Wapping
  8) Homerton
  9) Gospel Oak
10) Kensal Rise
11) Rotherhithe
12) Wanstead Park
13) Imperial Wharf
14) Hampstead Heath
15) Kilburn High Road
16) Dalston Kingsland
17) Clapham High Street
18) Highbury & Islington
19) Leytonstone High Road
20) Finchley Road & Frognal
21) Walthamstow Queens Road
22)
23)
24) Caledonian Road & Barnsbury
Tramlink stops
  4)
  5) Arena
  6)
  7) Mitcham
  8) Centrale
  9) Ampere Way
10) Sandilands
11) Lebanon Road
12) New Addington
13) Dundonald Road
14) Beddington Lane
15) Mitcham Junction
16) King Henry's Drive
17) Beckenham Junction
 Crossrail stations
  4) Iver
  5)
  6) Slough
  7) Romford
  8) Southall
  9) Abbey Wood
10) Maidenhead
11) Whitechapel
12)
13) Chadwell Heath
14) Ealing Broadway
15) Liverpool Street
16) Hayes & Harlington
17) Heathrow Terminal 4
18) Tottenham Court Road

London National Rail stations
  3) Lee
  4)
  5) Cheam
  6) Hendon
  7) Tooting
  8) Deptford
  9) Brimsdown
10) Twickenham
11) Cricklewood
12) Ravensbourne
13) Woodmansterne
14) City Thameslink
15) Alexandra Palace
16) Woolwich Dockyard
17) Carshalton Beeches
18) Northumberland Park
19)
20) Loughborough Junction
21)
22) Stratford International
23) West Hampstead Thameslink
 National Rail stations
  3) Rye
  4) York
  5) Crewe
  6) Oxford
  7) Torquay
  8) Holyhead
  9) Doncaster
10) Kilmarnock
11) Leatherhead
12) Peterborough
13) Middlesbrough
14) Llanfairfechan
15) Stallingborough
16) Berwick-Upon-Tweed
17) Stratford-Upon-Avon
18) Burley-In-Wharfedale
19) Ascott-Under-Wychwood
20) Stansted Mountfitchet
21) Bradford Forster Square
22) Ebbsfleet International
23) Birmingham International
24) Birkenhead Hamilton Square
25) Southampton Airport (Parkway)
26)
27) James Cook University Hospital
...
33) Rhoose Cardiff International Airport
(unless of course you know better)

 Saturday, January 24, 2015

I don't know what you call this building.



From the turn of the century to 2007 it was known as the Millennium Dome. But you probably call it The O2.

The name is a marketing invention, of course, and utterly meaningless if you stop and think. O2 is the chemical symbol for an oxygen molecule, which the Dome patently doesn't resemble, and which is approximately three trillion times smaller. But O2 is also the name of a mobile phone company who've paid millions for the naming rights, hence you lot dutifully chant their brand name every time you reference the building.

But for how much longer?

Hong Kong's richest businessman Li Ka-shing, who already owns the Three mobile network, is currently in talks to buy up the O2 network as well. If successful the two companies would be combined, and the O2 brand name most likely lost. And whilst that's probably good news for Mr Ka-shing and his PR team, what might this mean for North Greenwich's most famous attraction?

If the O2 phone company adopts a new brand as part of the buyout, it's inconceivable that The O2 will keep its current name. That's not how naming rights work - they exist solely to pump a marketing identity into the public consciousness. So what might the new O2/Three hybrid company be called, should it be forced into existence?

Ten possible names for a merged O2/Three company
O2Three   (alas the telephone code for Southampton)
O23   (looks better than it reads)
3O2   (chemically undistinguished)
O3   (a runner, I think)
Ozone   (which is of course the preceding name written differently, and therefore much too clever to be adopted)
ThreeO2   (which sounds like the number two above three hundred)
Throw2   (that's just silly)
Threeieeio   (ditto)
3PO   (targeting the Star Wars demographic)
Plinth   (if Orange and T-Mobile can call themselves EE, then O2 and Three can call themselves anything)

OK, now take one of those ten names, add 'The' in front and try imagining this building with a new name.



It's not easy, is it?

"One Direction are playing tonight at The O3"
"This is North Greenwich, change here for The Ozone"
"I've booked us tickets for the cinema at The Plinth"


But in fact there is a very strong clue as to what's about to happen, because it's already happened in Ireland. Last year Three took over O2 for mobile customers in Ireland, and nobody bothered to create a new brand name at all. Instead Three swallowed O2 whole, and the O2 name is disappearing altogether.
O2 is becoming Three.
We will soon be welcoming O2 customers into the Three family. You’ll see the O2 logo disappearing on the high street and online and start to be replaced by Three, but for you, it’ll be business as usual.
We'll likely see the same thing happen here in the UK, with purchaser company Three (customer share 12%) completely erasing O2 (customer share 29%). Who cares that Three is possibly a worse brand name than even O2? In the world of corporate takeovers it's dog eat dog and winner takes all, so Three wins.

The Irish experience also provides a more precise lesson in venue rebranding. Ireland's largest indoor arena was formerly called The O2 (I know, total lack of originality), but as of last September it was renamed the 3Arena. Since then Ed Sheeran, Lady Gaga and The Who have all played the 3Arena, and Dubliners now think nothing of calling the old venue by its new name.

So if the UK's O2 takeover does take place, we'll likely be calling The O2 something Three-related pretty soon afterwards. The 3Arena has to be a strong contender, because we already know these naming rights people have a fairly limited imagination. But alternative possibilities include The 3Dome, The 3Bowl, The 3RingCircus or even The Three.

All of these sound pretty stupid at present. But you'll get used to it, whatever trumped-up name they choose, because you did last time.

 Friday, January 23, 2015

Paid £15 and gone up the Orbit yet?

If not, maybe a recent tweak to the ticketing system will help persuade you to visit.

The Orbit opened during the Olympics, and access was only available to people with a ticket to an Olympic event. Going up top was fun, I thought, not least because the view below was of an Olympic Games in full effect, and a buzz of sport and colour.
2012 Admission price: £15

But then the Orbit closed for almost two years while the land below was reconstructed as a park. It reopened last Easter, at the same time as the southern half of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, to what I could describe as a volley of indifference. Tourists didn't rush to see the capital from above, and Londoners weren't that keen to view a building site in the East End at close quarters. Plus the Orbit was still an expensive experience. Tickets cost the same as they had during the Olympics, with just £2 off to residents of neighbouring boroughs on production of proof of address.
2014 Admission price: £15
2014 Admission price (local residents): £13

I've been a regular visitor to the Olympic Park since it reopened, but I've never seen the Orbit busy. Indeed I've never seen more than one group of visitors at the ticket office, nor a queue at the entrance, nor a crocodile of people descending the exterior staircase. The gift shop beside the cafe had a tumbleweed feel so was emptied out at the end of the summer and the sale of souvenirs moved elsewhere. Indeed the whole attraction has had the air of white elephant about it - never completely empty, but near enough.

So this year the management have introduced a cut in the Orbit's admission price and an important modification to the terms and conditions. If properly promoted, and especially if you're local, this could be a game-changer.

First of all the bad news - a ticket up the Orbit still costs £15. That's if you turn up at the ticket office on the day, which is of course the case for the vast majority of QEOP visitors. Turn up unplanned on a sunny afternoon and think "ooh, it'd be nice to go up there", and you'll still end up paying full whack.
2015 Admission price: £15
2015 Admission price (local residents*): £13
* Barking and Dagenham, Greenwich, Hackney, Newham, Tower Hamlets, Waltham Forest


But book online in advance, and now the deal is 20% off. In fact you'll be offered fractionally over 20% off, because the going price is £11.95 rather than the strictly accurate £12. There is a disadvantage to pre-booking, of course, which is that you might plump for a day that turns out to be dull, wet and/or foggy and then get a fairly miserable view. But twelve quid's definitely a better price than fifteen, so might well help to entice more visitors up top. And there's even better news for residents of the six Olympic boroughs who still get their £2 off, if booking by phone, which brings the admission price down below a tenner.
2015 Admission price (booked online in advance): £11.95
2015 Admission price (local residents): £9.95

And yet that's still quite a lot to pay for a view of East London, so it's the second amendment that could make all the difference. In the past your ticket only allowed you up once, but from now on your ticket is automatically an annual pass. You go up first at the time and date stated in your original booking. But then you can come back again, and again, and again, until a full year is up.
2015 Annual pass (booked online in advance): £11.95
2015 Annual pass (local residents): £9.95

I haven't seen the precise terms and conditions to check whether there's a hidden limitation, like only being allowed to go up once a day, or once a week, or whatever. But even if you only choose to come back once, to see a different season of the year or because you're passing through, this cuts the price of an ascent to under six pounds.
2015 Admission price (two visits): £5.98 each

Like I said, I'm local so I find myself in the Olympic Park quite a bit. Normally I walk straight through, or go and explore some other aspect of the landscaped zone, but now I have the option of popping up the Orbit for half an hour if I so desire. I love a good view, especially one that includes the City, Canary Wharf and my house, so the opportunity to treat the Orbit as an almost-free viewing platform really appeals.
2015 Admission price (three visits): £3.98 each
2015 Admission price (four visits): £2.99 each
2015 Admission price (six visits): £1.99 each
2015 Admission price (ten visits): £1.20 each
2015 Admission price (monthly visits): £1.00 each
2015 Admission price (weekly visits): 23p each
2015 Admission price (365 visits): 3p each

Now OK, that list gets rather silly at the end, but you get my point. If you live in East London, and can remember to come back rather than lose your ticket, this is a bargain. If you visit Westfield frequently and fancy a sky-level view and an exhilarating descent before you start shopping, this is a bargain. If you spot an amazing sunset in the offing, or if swirling snow is suddenly forecast, this is a bargain. If you're not one for views and only ever visit places as a one-off, then don't bother. But if you'd like to make Britain's tallest sculpture part of your everyday Olympic legacy, then £11.95 might well be an appealing price to pay, now every Orbit lasts a year.
2015 Admission price (as many times as you like for 365 days): £11.95
(local residents £9.95) (concessions £9.95) (child £5.95)


Orbit tips
Opens at 10am daily, with last entry at 3.30pm (Oct-Mar) or 5.30pm (Apr-Sep)
An obvious one, this, but come on a sunny day, East London's prettier that way.
Come on a sunny morning for the best view of all, with central London lit from the front.
On an early afternoon visits, photos of Docklands will be into the sun.
On a late afternoon visit, photos of Central London will be into the sun.
The view up top isn't 360°, there are restricted views of the northern Park and none of Leyton.
A lot of the views would be a lot better if there wasn't a frame of red bars in front.
The only views that aren't behind glass come immediately after you exit the lift.
Don't be in a rush to move on, you can stay as long as you like on each of the two upper floors.
The floor-to-ceiling curved mirror on the viewing platform is ideal for Facebook selfies.
Don't go down in the lift, take the external walkway, it's not a vertigo-inducing experience.
Check the Orbit's events list for special activities up top, used as visitor-boosters.
The Shard's viewing platform is three times taller, but costs more than twice as much.
My review from Summer 2012 might be a bit out of date, but you'll get the general idea.

 Thursday, January 22, 2015

Towards the end of Betjeman's 1968 TV documentary Contrasts it becomes clear why Sir John is making the journey from Marble Arch to Edgware - he's in mourning for a county.
The sisters Progress and Destruction dwell
Where rural Middlesex once cast her spell.
Dear vanished county of such prosperous farms,
Where now are gone your weatherboarded charms?

Still in my dreams I see your sudden hills,
Your willowy brooks, and winding lanes and rills,
The red-brick Georgian mansions' garden wall,
The little church, the spreading cedar tall.

See the Welsh Harp, with undulating shore,
And hear beyond the road's arterial roar.
Your swinging signboards, barns with curly tiles,
Your little lakes on which the sunset smiles.

Keats and Leigh Hunt in better lines than these
Have praised your misty fields and towering trees.
Constable's brush, with light and liquid fire,
Immortalised this unforgotten shire.

Dear Middlesex, dear vanished country friend,
Your neighbour, London, killed you in the end.
The county of Middlesex had been swallowed up by the creation of Greater London a few years previously. Its loss was keenly felt in northwest London, as residents on either side of the Edgware Road suddenly found themselves in Brent or Barnet overnight. But Sir John was lamenting more than just a name - he'd been around long enough to remember the landscape before it was overwhelmed by suburbia. He liked a good housing estate it's true, but he loved the villages they'd replaced more, and it's on such rural images that his documentary unapologetically lingers.

Welsh Harp: When Sir John reached Staples Corner, it wasn't yet the concrete megajunction we know today. The M1 connection wouldn't be made for another 10 years, so he never paused to decry the despoliation of its careering viaducts. Instead he pauses fractionally further on, to the west of the Edgware Road, at the Welsh Harp lake. Its sylvan setting is deceptive, the truth being that it's a reservoir formed by damming the River Brent and flooding farmland, almost 200 years ago. You can't fish here but you can sail, and the watersporters were out in number at the weekend taking advantage of the wind. Unfortunately they were all up the far end near Neasden, so all I got to see were some swans and cygnets watched over by a number of pigeons.

The eastern end of the Welsh Harp is overlooked by a curve of semi-detached houses, not many in number, though rather more sit further behind with no view of the water. It's all very Metro-land, and therefore unobjectionable today, but imagine the fuss when the foreshore was originally built over. A similar story is being told today on the north arm of the lake where Barratt Homes are creating Hendon Waterside, a "flagship regeneration development". In this familiar tale a former council estate (here York Park) is being replaced by a high-density housing project, in this case exchanging 680 homes for 2171. Some of these new homes will be in 29-storey towers, with balconies overlooking the water, utterly out of keeping with the existing lowrise neighbourhood. But none of this is at odds with Brent and Barnet's future plans for West Hendon and Colindale, in line with the hint that Betjeman first spotted a short distance up the Edgware Road some fifty years ago...

Colindale: Merit House was brand new in 1967, a gleaming 12 storey office block located immediately alongside the Edgware Road on the site of the Hendon Tram Depot. So new that it was still empty, its only tenant the Brylcreemed caretaker at the front desk. Betjeman greets him with some incredulity, wrongly assuming that he must be very lonely, even very frightened, sitting here alone all day. His tone becomes increasingly patronising towards the unfortunate employee, the best that Sir John can say of the building being that the views from the top floor must be marvellous. "It would be a very good place to have an office, if one could get here," he adds, overlooking the fact that Colindale tube station is barely five minutes walk away.

I found Merit House relatively easily, although at present it's the tower with no name. The entire building is being renovated, or should I say repackaged, to better appeal to relocating businesses. Thus far the exterior has been reclad in environmentally-friendly louvred glass, as is the modern fashion, and there are workmen in helmets out front and on the roof. The developers claim to be "regenerating an unsightly, under-used and outdated office building into a positive, high quality, high performing, sustainable building", which is more the sort of thing you expect in NW1 than NW9. Heaven knows what Sir John would have made of the "open plan break out area featuring Wagamama-style benches and private booths set against a stunning feature wall", but I doubt he'd have been impressed. Instead his lift ride to the empty echoing top floor inspired my favourite of the four poems in the documentary.
One after one rise these empty consecutives.
Now we have come to the uppermost floor.
Where in the car park are Jags of executives?
Where far behind them the bikes of the poor?

Ghosts of the future are waiting to settle here,
Click of the typewriter, buzz from the boss.
The tea trolley's tinkle and hiss of the kettle here,
"Hurry up Myrtle, he's ever so cross."

Pig troughs of light will hang down from the ceiling,
Holiday postcards this bareness adorn,
Brave indoor plants give a tropical feeling,
Eyes will look lovingly, hearts will be torn.

Somewhere they'll raise where the views are extensive,
Beige, pink and soundproof, a partition wall
At fine-figured walnut, on leather expensive,
Here may be sitting the top man of all.
The true purpose of Betjeman's ascent was to view his beloved Middlesex, and to point out pockets of countryside within the extended metropolis. Distant Mill Hill boasts green slopes to this day, and the Silk Stream still trickles through the nearby recreation ground, but the great flat stretch of Hendon Aerodrome has long succumbed to redevelopment. Part exists beneath the RAF Museum and part below Hendon Police College, but the majority lies under the Grahame Park Estate, first occupied in 1971. One of the GLC's larger mistakes, designwise, it too is getting another lease of life as Barnet council and some bulldozers attempt a second start. Indeed one gets the feeling from visiting Colindale that everything here is being replaced, from the old hospital by the tube station to the tube station building itself. One high profile casualty is the British Library's cavernous Newspaper Library ("Land Acquired"), another the amazing Oriental City market/restaurant complex closed in 2008 and still not yet rebuilt as ugly townhouses and a Morrisons. Whilst planners hope they're creating a vibrant and cosmopolitan urban quarter here, all the signs are that Colindale is fast becoming a densely-packed and characterless residential blandspot, its de-Middlesex-isation sadly complete.

Edgware: Betjeman omits Burnt Oak, which is a shame, because he says he liked the place. Instead he skips from the Silk Stream to the end of the Edgware Road, which is of course in Edgware. Production notes for the documentary show that Sir John planned to film a sequence in the Green Shield Stamp Building "which defaces Edgware", ideally with a tea trolley in shot, but this never transpired. Instead the camera lingers briefly on the parish church ("very low, but not worth close inspection inside") and Station Road (where the boarded-up Railway Hotel awaits rebirth as a Tudor-fronted 100-room hotel), before departing the Edgware Road altogether. Betjeman's final stop is St Lawrence church, Little Stanmore, as fine a place of worship as this small country town could deserve. The verger leads him inside the Baroque building and turns the pages as Sir John sits at the organ, the payoff being that the organist here was once none other than your actual George Frideric Handel. I hoped to look inside myself but the church only takes visitors on a Sunday afternoon, so my attempt to follow Betjeman to his closing credits faltered right at the end. But I commend his choice of route, and his sequence of stops, and can confirm that the Edgware Road's Contrasts remain, indeed have strengthened, some fifty years on.

My Edgware Road gallery (there are 50 photos - 16 of them new today) [map] [gallery] [slideshow]

Contrasts: Marble Arch to Edgware (first broadcast 31 January 1968)

 Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Edgware Road is the longest straight road in the capital. As the former Watling Street that's no surprise, but in London it's highly unusual to be able to travel in the same direction for three miles without deviation, let alone nine. I have blogged about the first mile of the Edgware Road before, precisely ten years ago (when I didn't used to write so much). But this time I'm going all the way, following in the footsteps of Sir John Betjeman and his 1968 documentary Contrasts: Marble Arch to Edgware. I'm assuming you've iPlayered it by now. Yesterday we got as far as the Marylebone flyover, which is hardly any distance at all, and today we'll continue to the North Circular.
Ah, what a change. Breadth, leafiness, space.
Maida Vale: Sir John was clearly relieved to reach Maida Vale, as it had architecture far more to his liking. He stopped off to admire "a charming villa, like an English spa", a step change in residential desirability compared to main street Marylebone. But in doing so he missed the dominant housing type around here, the redbrick mansion block, characteristic of the estate laid out here at the end of the 19th century. It makes for an elegant neighbourhood, not least the broad sweeping avenues so wide that there's room for a linear parking space down the centre. Like Elephant & Castle the area is named after a pub - the Hero of Maida, which used to stand near the Regent's Canal. Like Waterloo the area is named after a battle against the French - the Battle of Maida, which took place on the 'toe' of Italy. As for the Vale, that's long built over, but sufficient green spaces survive to hint vaguely at the rural past.
And all the time the traffic goes on and on and on.
Betjeman paused on camera to bemoan the heavy traffic, more specifically the lorries, that plagued the Edgware Road. They still rumble through, though are less dominant today because the majority of long distance traffic takes the Finchley Road instead. These two former turnpikes run roughly parallel through northwest London, the A41 now a more important artery than the A5 despite its lowlier number. While the Metropolitan follows the former, it's the Bakerloo that tracks the Edgware Road, though generally at a distance. I would say more, but most of the stations on this section of the Bakerloo celebrate their centenary this year, a couple in ten days time, so best keep stumm til then.

Kilburn High Road: Kilburn dates to Anglo Saxon times, long a stopping point on the great march north, and grew up near the start of a stream now known as the Westbourne. Indeed if you look up above one of the empty shops on the southern stretch, near the Overground, a plaque declares "This was the site of the Kilburn Wells". The High Road is now the site of considerable retail activity, and for quite some distance. On the western side, in Brent, are the rather lacklustre market and the vibrant Tricycle Theatre, now with a single screen cinema tucked round the back. Meanwhile on the eastern side, in Camden, are the larger chain stores and an ex-2000-seater cinema, once one of the largest in Britain, now the hangout for an evangelical church.

And then there are the pubs. Kilburn's always had several, and they like to compete in the game of "who's oldest" with dates emblazoned on their frontages like a game of heritage Top Trumps. The Black Lion announces Rebuilt 1898, while The Old Bell lays claim to Foundation 1600. That's nothing, says the Cock Tavern, which can boast Licensed 1486, and Rebuilt 1900. And the Red Lion laughs at them all, with Established 1444 and Rebuilt 1800, or would laugh if only it hadn't been reborn recently as a one-star cocktail bar called Love & Liquor. But then pubs are an essential staple in an Irish part of town, which is Kilburn through and through, creatingly an oddly appealing fusion of emerald and spice down the main street.

Ho for the Kilburn High Road! Ho for a sumptuous feast.
It's your road and it's my road, and Ireland meets the East.
Let's mount the Sixteen bus with care, it's empty, wide and free.
It will take us out of everywhere to the days that used to be.

Forget the littered pavements, the chain stores row on row
And the super-super cinema where our parents used to go.
With Shoot-Up Hill before us we leave the hemmed-in town
And raise a country chorus to Cricklewood and the Crown.

There stood a village marketplace where now you buy your yams,
And I like in memory to trace the red electric trams.
However far their journeys made they always waited here
And in this terracotta shade their passengers drank beer.

Cricklewood: Beyond Kilburn the road to Edgware rises up the delightfully named Shoot-Up Hill before descending as Cricklewood Broadway. What a difference a mile makes. Cricklewood lacks the oomph of its trendier neighbour, and you'd be harder pushed to window shop down the high street. Betjeman thus focused on one of its most important buildings, namely The Crown pub. Built on the site of an 18th century tea gardens, and a smaller subsequent hostelry, The Crown's enormous size is down to two contrasting quirks. Firstly in the 1880s it was selected by the London General Omnibus Company as the terminus of its horse-drawn double-deckers operating from Marble Arch. Secondly it was at the time the only permitted licenced premises in Cricklewood, so obviously the bigger the better. Many of the drinkers were Irish, the forecourt outside being a key daily recruiting point for casual labour, and Dexy's Midnight Runners shot most of the video for The Celtic Soul Brothers within and without. The Crown's reputation wasn't great, but the building itself is gorgeous, and the pub still boasts a lengthy bar capable of coping with weekend crowds. A jarring note is struck by the hotel of the same name more recently attached to the side, all curves and sheets of glass, opened to appeal to a globetrotting Wembley-bound audience. But I suspect that if John Betjeman were filming his documentary again today, this sandstone edifice would still catch his eye.

My Edgware Road gallery (34 photos - 14 of them new today) [map] [gallery] [slideshow]


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