diamond geezer

 Friday, March 23, 2018

Meanwhile, ST IVES sits on the Atlantic coast of far-west Cornwall. It's no Penzance, it's quite the tourist trap.

St Ives has a population of eleven and a half thousand (which for those of us with a SW Herts mindset makes it approximately a Croxley Green). It's very much not Croxley Green, though, it's a) absurdly gorgeous b) intrinsically arty c) a bit of a surfer's paradise. There is a catch, however, which only struck me after I'd been wandering around for a while. And it's not just the seagulls.

The town's setting is dramatic, behind a headland at one end of the sandy sweep of St Ives Bay. It's not somewhere to drive to though, if that can be avoided, so the local railway doubles up as a Park and Ride. Trains shuttle every half hour up the edge of the Hayle estuary, far busier than any peripheral branch line has a right to be. Car-based passengers board at Lelant Saltings, where the river may be little more than snaking channels in the mud, beyond which the single track climbs slowly into the dunes and onto the clifftops. It all gets wonderfully picturesque, and I even got to enjoy a rainbow for good measure beaming down onto distant sands.

St Ives is blessed with four main beaches, each with a conveniently different orientation, one of which (Porthminster) spreads out immediately below the station. It's where I imagine families build sandcastles and break off intermittently for kiosk ice cream, but at this time of year imagining is all I could do. The main town is to the north, either up onto the clifftop for those who live locally, or hanging in at bay level for those only visiting. The lower route is lined with what are now holiday cottages, many of whose names are web addresses, in case passers-by fancy typing them in online for next time they come to stay.

The harbour sweeps round to a long stone pier, stacked with lobster pots, with a dinky lighthouse at the far end. Around its rim are a string of souvenir shops, fish restaurants and pasty outlets, plus a (busy) 13th century pub called The Sloop Inn which is one of the county's oldest surviving buildings. I thought the combination complemented the setting in a charming rather than a tacky way. There are also numerous 'Beware The Gulls' signs warning visitors to shield their food, which I smiled at, then five seconds later recoiled somewhat when I felt two webbed feet landing in my hair. It's OK, I (and my bagged-up Cornish Hevva cake) survived unscathed.

For a town of this size, the shops are really good. Fore Street runs one back from the harbourside, barely wide enough for deliveries, boasting bijou bistros, boutiques and bakehouses. Well this is nice, I thought, as a well-to-do London emmet, although I'm not sure Cath Kidston is what the locals actually need. The other ubiquitous presence is the smattering of tiny art galleries and studios, many tucked into impossibly cute backstreets. St Ives has a long-standing renown for painting and pottery, allegedly because of its fine light, and continues to attract the creative to this day. Again there's many an objet d'art for middle class visitors to take home, and livings to scratch for the artists who remain.

I visited when the tide was in, so there was only just enough space on Harbour Sands for a decent game of beach cricket. Porthgwidden beach wasn't much larger, but with no cafe to sustain it only four people had turned up. I'd expect that state of affairs to change considerably once the Easter break begins. That's also when the town's museum opens, so I didn't see inside that either, and probably never will. But I did hike up to the coastguard station at the tip of the headland, and got blown around by the wind at Saint Nicholas Chapel, which perches above the old town on an undeveloped rocky mount.

And this was when I caught sight of the waves on Porthmeor beach. Wow. The swell was rolling in from the north, every so often firing a massive ridge of water parallel to the shore, which eventually curled and smashed towards the sand. It's hard to know if this is normal behaviour or whether I just got 'lucky' with the weather, but I understand proper hollow waves are fairly rare. A shoal of bobbing wetsuits hung out in the breakers at the western end of the bay, occasionally deeming one of the humps appropriate enough to tackle, then attempting not to fall off on the way in. I could have watched for hours, which I believe is the raison d'etre of the alfresco cafe on the foreshore, although its patrons are probably eyeing up the surfers whereas I was obsessed by the rhythm of the waves.

But Porthmeor is also where the Tate Gallery stands, so I tore myself away from the view, paid up and went inside. This bright white building was opened in 1993 on the site of a former gasworks, whose former tanks were incorporated to create a striking circular frontage. Inside are ten main galleries, the majority strung out in a long thin chain upstairs, and the others curved around a central void. They tell the story of mid 20th century art in St Ives, a period when the town was a haven for behemoths like Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, plus lesser known talent like Wilhelmina Barns-Graham. I found it a much more satisfying collection than Bankside in London - relevant and coherent and without too much abstract splash.

Last autumn an additional set of galleries were opened at the far end, hewn out from the hillside, and capacious enough to merit a price hike on the admission fee. The latest exhibition is inspired by the writings of Virginia Woolf, who spent much of her childhood in the town, and has assembled nigh on 100 works with a feminist perspective. Only after I'd walked round did I twig I hadn't seen a single male face in any of the paintings (unless you count the small boy picnicking on a clifftop with his mother and sister), which made a thoroughly refreshing change. But where windows permitted I was still captivated by the view across the bay, both from the inner gallery and from the top floor cafe. Even one of the guides was staring out wistfully at the undulations of the surfers, rather than keeping an eye on the rest of us maybe touching a sculpture.

All in all St Ives was a delight, from its twisty lanes to its sandy bays with crashing waves. Even on a weekday in mid-March visitors had flocked to savour its food, ride its seas and admire its art. And yet therein also lies its downside - a town overtaken by outsiders, its economy externally-oriented and its empty cottages awaiting the Easter rush. Those with the wherewithal to visit no doubt adore the gentrification, but those who overwinter hereabouts may not be quite so enamoured.

My St Ives gallery
There are 25 photos [slideshow]

 Thursday, March 22, 2018

ST MICHAEL'S MOUNT, a rocky tidal island in Mounts Bay, is one of Cornwall's most famous landmarks.

It lies just under three miles down the coast from Penzance, opposite the former fishing village of Marazion. Walking along the sea wall, sandwiched between the railway and the beach, makes for an easy and increasingly scenic stroll. But to walk the last few minutes out to the island relies on the tide being right, and the causeway being exposed, otherwise the local boatmen's services need to be sought.

The causeway is made from chunks of flattened granite, laid together like a mosaic, and snakes its way across the bay. Turn up at random and it'll probably be submerged beneath the waves, because it's only uncovered for about two hours either side of low tide, and even that interval varies, occasionally (at neap tides) being barely exposed at all. I picked my dates for visiting Cornwall very much with St Michael's Mount in mind, partly to hit the spring tides when the range is greatest, but also because the National Trust don't open up the castle until mid-March.

I crossed with a light herd of daytrippers, a pair of joggers, and some particularly excitable children. At one point we had to step aside to allow one of the island's white vans to pass, taking advantage of the ebbing tide to bring in provisions, or perhaps more ice creams for the shop. A narrow band of rockpools lay to either side, all of which would have dried out before my return a couple of hours later.

The island has long belonged to the St Aubyn family, whose castle and grounds take up the majority of the acreage. But the foreshore by the harbour has a couple of streets of houses, where the families of staff and gardeners live, and a boatyard, and a couple of former pubs. One of the old cottages is now a visitors centre, with informative displays and a video to watch - which is especially useful if you're not going to be able to walk up the hill. Alongside look out for twin rails poking beneath a gate and terminating on the quayside, this the lower end of a tramway which still hauls supplies (and definitely not people) through the rockface and up to the castle.

There is always the harbour to walk round, or almost round, following two curving stone arms. While most visitors busied themselves taking selfies at the far end, I spent my time watching a JCB dredging the drained mud and tried to picture how different it must all look at high tide when the sea's six metres higher. At such times the islanders have a unique amphibious vehicle they use to reach the mainland, which you might see parked up beside the ticket office. Elsewhere are two gift shops, a cafe and a proper sit-down restaurant, perhaps as an acknowledgement that there isn't all that much to see unless you pay extra for admission to the private bits.

The private bits are amazing, not least how you get to them. The Pilgrim's Steps are rough and uneven, increasingly so as they ascend the island's rocky core, until it feels like you're scrambling over natural granite rather than any manmade attempt at stairs. The castle perches right at the top, and must have a golf-buggy-friendly back entrance somewhere, otherwise there's no way the 87 year-old Queen could have made it up here on her last visit. What a view there is though, gazing down over the full sweep of the bay... ideal for a gun battery as well as more plaintive admiration.

Here Lord St Levan welcomes you into his home, or at least a National Trust volunteer does, directing you through a series of historic wood-panelled rooms. Portraits of the family are interspersed with keepsakes and vintage objects, it soon becoming clear that the family has a thing for maps of Cornwall, and for weapons of various types. The most impressive room is called Chevy Chase, the refectory when this was a medieval priory, with a splendid plaster frieze depicting hunting scenes. The chapel is even older, matching that at Mont St Michel across the Channel, and is still used for Sunday services during the summer months.

One of the best parts comes when you emerge onto the South Terrace, which is essentially the roof, offering another opportunity to peer excitedly over the edge. Down below are the castle gardens, an intricate sub-tropical delight, but which can only be explored at ground level from April onwards. Don't rush back inside the building too soon. The St Aubyn family live in the East Wing beneath your feet, which helps to explain why through one window I spotted a pair of skateboards hanging up over a banister. It's a privilege to be allowed in, indeed allowed across to this iconic location, tide permitting.

My St Michael's Mount gallery
There are 20 photos [slideshow]

NEWLYN is the next town round the coast from Penzance, originally separate, but more recently coalesced. It's the smaller of the pair, with a population of just over four thousand (which for those of us with a SW Herts mindset makes it approximately two Sarratts). It's where the fisherfolk hang out, and also the place from which sea level in the UK is measured. The Ordnance Survey established a Tidal Observatory at the end of the harbour arm in 1915, then spent the next six years taking measurements every 15 minutes to establish the sea's average height. That datum is marked by a brass bolt set in the granite pier, which you'll never see because it's locked inside a hut beside the lighthouse, which itself is publicly inaccessible.

Newlyn is a major fishing port with dozens of small boats in its well-sheltered harbour, and mackerel historically the chief catch. A drab but functional fishmarket is laid out at the northern end, from which bearded men in woolly hats and white wellies intermittently emerge to visit the neighbouring pub or pasty shop. Seafood aside, the most desirable food in town is the ice cream served from Jelberts, an unprepossessing shop near Newlyn Bridge which sells nothing but homemade vanilla. Queues can often be seen snaking down the street, waiting to sample the single daily batch churned out by the grandson of the original owner, perhaps with a flake but ideally dolloped with clotted cream. Alas Jelberts don't open for the season before Easter, so my tastebuds had to go without.

I also missed out on Newlyn Art Gallery, contemporary counterpart to The Exchange in Penzance, neither of which choose to open on a Monday. Newlyn is renowned for the art colony which settled here around the turn of the 20th century, and an art school still thrives in a building up the hillside which looks remarkably like my former infant school. A lot of Newlyn's residential streets lie sharply uphill, and even the main road descends precipitously between rows of houses with passing places and intermittent pavement. I hiked up some of the back lanes for the view and was left breathless, confirming that living here either provides excellent exercise, or requires expert driving skills.

A short distance round the coast is MOUSEHOLE (pronounced Mowsel (which is important to know if you're asking a bus driver for a ticket)). The M6 minibus runs regularly from Penzance, its dinky size suddenly crucial near the end of the route as it's forced to negotiate a double bend between cottages before terminating on the quayside. Mousehole is a proper Cornish fishing village, essentially a harbour overlooked by hillside houses, although I arrived around low tide when its supposedly scenic centrepiece was a bowl of exposed sand crossed by radially draped chains.

Mousehole is famous as the home of a fictional cat, and also for Stargazy pie, a fish and egg confection which has pilchards' heads poking out of the pastry. No thanks. My alternative culinary target was a Cornish cream tea at the Rock Pool Cafe, but unfortunately they'd decided not to open because the weather forecast was so bad. Instead I frequented Jessie's Dairy, whose sullen owner managed the "tea" part of my request but forgot the "cream" part until prompted, eventually delivered with all the magic of a dollop of jam scooped from a supermarket jar. Most daytrippers seemed to have holed up in the pub, or the posh restaurant, or the surprisingly expensive deli on the harbourfront.

The village wasn't named after the gift shop at one end of the quayside, but after a cave set into the cliffs on the southern outskirts. I hoped to follow Cave Lane to The Mouse Hole, but the public footpath became increasingly squelchy, then degenerated into a mudbath on the final descent, so I was forced to withdraw rather than soil my sole pair of trousers. Instead I got to hike four miles back to Penzance in a freezing blizzard, glad of the gloves I'd pessimistically packed, musing along the way that I really hadn't timed my visit to Mousehole at all well. If nothing else it gives me a good reason to go back.

My Newlyn, Mousehole and Penzance gallery
There are 30 photos (Newlyn and Mousehole first) [slideshow]

 Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Cornwall is a historic/beautiful/isolated/deprived county at the tip of southwest England. Penzance is the westernmost town, a few miles from as far as you can go, and the end of the line anyone travelling by train. Newcastle's actually further from London, but getting to Penzance takes twice as long thanks to the dawdliness of the Cornish railway. I took advantage of a pair of £12 rail tickets and booked three nights away, using the town as a base to explore... a Kernow safari I will now proceed to describe at length.

PENZANCE is an old fishing town with a population of about 22,000 (which for those of us with a SW Herts mindset makes it approximately a Rickmansworth). Penzance faces the English Channel on the rim of Mounts Bay, a sweeping 40-mile curve of rock and sand, its understated harbour no longer a driving force, nor indeed especially attractive.

The main drag is Market Jew Street, from the Cornish 'Marghas Yow', meaning Thursday Market. These days the Market Hall is closed, and occupied instead by Lloyds Bank, but its dome still provides the dominant feature at the head of a downhill run of high street shops. The big statue in front of the former Guildhall is of Sir Humphrey Davy, who was born in a house alongside in 1778 before moving up country and transforming chemistry. The northern pavement is raised above the roadway, and accessed via a series of tiny stone staircases, which must cause the occasional tumble. Amongst the traders are the usual Sports Direct, WH Smiths and Santander, but also several minor independents and charity shops, and a heck of a lot of shops that sell pasties. Warrens has three branches on the same road, the Mounts Bay Pasty Company displays its awards on a chalkboard, and Lavenders is the place for a more deli-artisanal bite.

Leading further uphill is Causewayhead, a pedestrianised shopping street, where the Indoor Market used to be. Partway up is the Savoy, opened in 1912 and allegedly the oldest continuously running cinema in the UK (if you discount the recent temporary closure which saw screens two and three combined). I was hoping to pop in and enjoy a screening, but it turned out the only decent film on the schedule was one I'd accidentally seen in Hackney earlier in the week. An even older business is Pengelly's Shoes, established in 1899... but whose closing down sale is alas currently underway.

For something a little more historic try Chapel Street, which wends down to the harbour via the parish church, and is where all the boutiquier establishments hang out. The most striking building is the Egyptian House, a triumph of eccentric post-Napoleonic style, built as a geological museum, and whose upper floors are now three holiday cottages. Smugglers used to operate from the cottages and inns further down, which may go some way to explain the presence of a man in a tricorn hat outside the Admiral Benbow on Saturday evening. Chapel Street's top prize for business name goes to a Mac repair business called Apple Crumble. And right down at the bottom is the town's gold pillar box, celebrating rower Helen Glover's 2012 Olympic success.

The ferry to the Isles of Scilly leaves from the harbour, offering a potential sub-£40 day trip if your stomach can tolerate the swell. I might have been tempted except that the first scheduled ferry of the year departed on Monday, and I was already on the train home before it returned. I was also thwarted in my attempt to enjoy a slap-up fish meal at the main harbourside restaurant, which it seems doesn't open at 6.30 every evening as the sign on the door promises, so those local scallops alas went ungulped.

Neither is March the right time to visit the Art Deco Jubilee Pool, an outdoor lido on the seafront. It's currently closed so that geothermal power can be piped in to heat one section, the funding provided by that pesky European Union which the majority of the local populace voted against. Instead a bracing walk along the promenade is the best that's on offer, although I don't recommend trying this in a driving blizzard - conditions which thanks to the Gulf Stream beset the town with exceptional rarity.

Indeed Penzance's temperate climate makes it one of the few places on the English mainland where sub-tropical plants can thrive, with Morrab Gardens a prime example in the heart of the town. Thick-trunked palm trees droop brazenly, the camelias are already past their best, and in one corner I was impressed to see primroses in bloom long before April. The other central park is less jungly, but does contains Penlee House, Penzance's museum and art gallery. I missed out on most of the art, thanks to a badly-timed rehanging, but the museum's very informative, so I now know all about the local archaeology and why the town's historic coat of arms features a decapitated head.

I was in Penzance long enough to be able to explore some of its lesser-trod streets, from the tightly packed terraces on the slopes above the high street to the broad thoroughfare of guest houses leading down to the shore (Sorry No Vacancies). I think I passed a drug deal on creepy Bread Street, and the well-wrapped old lady sat outside the art gallery was definitely smoking pot. A very mixed community lives here, with unemployment high, and it was noticeable on Saturday night that Wetherspoons was packed while the higherbrow restaurants sat mostly empty.

No doubt you'll be wanting to hear all about the railway station. I stayed just across the road in the Longboat Inn, which I can recommend as a place to stay if you're ever in town. A pub with a restaurant and an internet cafe and a left luggage facility ticked all my boxes, the staff were chirpily polite, and the cooked breakfasts continue to register on my bathroom scales now I'm safely home. Let me also recommend Penzance as a base for exploring the surrounding area - relatively accessible, not so posh as to be expensive, and just characterful enough to make a stay a pleasure.

» 20 Penzance photos

 Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The new extension to Westfield London opened today.
That's the Westfield in Shepherd's Bush, not the Westfield in Stratford.
This sounded like the most incredibly exciting news.
I had to be there.

This new extension sticks out to the north of the existing mall, on the site of the former Silver Road Industrial Estate. It's on two floors, linked by occasional escalators, beneath a twisted lattice ceiling. At the far end is a glassy atrium, with links down to a small lower level and two additional car parks. And beyond that is the big anchor tenant, a new John Lewis over four floors - the largest in the country, and allegedly designed with 'West London shoppers' in mind.

The new mall opened this morning at ten o'clock. Unofficially security let queuing punters inside about fifteen minutes earlier, to ensure there was a buzz, and then the individual shops did their thing at ten. I've seen much longer queues. We streamed in quietly, threading our way to the escalators, past beaming staff with welcoming leaflets to thrust. As a gentleman in my fifties, it took a while before someone decided I was worthy of being thrust at.

A lot of smartly-dressed businesspeople had turned up, lanyards dangling, to cluck around their company's latest retail outlet. Members of shop staff lined up in doorways for one final pep talk, behind a ribbon to be cut more for their excitement than for ours. Meanwhile a series of temporary carts offered shoppers a variety of free sweet treats, from cream-topped coffees to some kind of posh fruit'n'nut mix. I was pleased to accept a gingerbread unicorn, although I was nearly elbowed aside by a steely-eyed mother in the process.

An entirely inaudible ceremony heralded the opening of John Lewis, and then the first customers flowed inside, past cameras eager to capture their initial response. Smiling partners with white roses pinned to their lapels waited to meet and greet, impeccably polite, as you'd expect after undergoing special engagement training with the National Theatre. It's like Stratford's John Lewis but nicer, and a bit bigger, were my initial thoughts. And then I spotted the differences.

On the ground floor is an 'Experience Desk' where you can book exclusive events and personal services. These include a Style Studio hosting workshops and fashion talks, a Home Design Consultation space, an &Beauty Salon and even a Personal Styling zone for men. There's also a Nursery Advice portal, an Apple-sponsored Discovery Room and a little tiny cocktail bar. The aim is very much to provide something customers can't get online, making the Westfield store far more of a must-visit destination. It's also wilfully wallet-emptying, and would never work in Stratford, but West Londoners are expected to be far more amenable.

The main external entrance to John Lewis is at the corner of a new piazza slotted in alongside Wood Lane station. In the lobby is a cutesy Benugo van flogging hot drinks, which at nearly three quid for a takeaway tea I thought over-priced... until I discovered the Nespresso department at the top of the escalators. But there's no need to go outside, indeed it's clear from the internal layout that Westfield's architects would rather you didn't.

Before you dash, be aware that most of the shops in the new extension haven't opened yet. Some are unwrapping themselves over the next weeks, others later in the summer, and several units don't even have a confirmed brand name attached. When all that's complete, Westfield London will officially become the largest shopping centre in Europe. I'm sure those whose idea of a good day out is a focused retail odyssey will lap the place up, and spend plenty. But there's nothing here you actually need, nor that you couldn't have got somewhere else.

n.b. if you visit today, there are special offers. These special offers...

Flagship Department Store: a) Coffee tasting and demonstrations; b) Personal Stylist talks; c) Free tasting samples; d) Home Design trend talks; e) Free jeans personalisation with any purchase; f) Easter crafting workshops; g) Double points for storecard holders.
Luxury Beauty Retailer: a) Free luxury tote bag for first 100 shoppers; b) Free gift bag if you spend £100; c) £1000 of beauty products if you unlock the Beauty Vault; d) Mini facials and makeovers.
Multinational clothing retailer: a) Launch of the company's first ever nail bar; b) Gift card for first 100 customers.
American Furniture Company: a) Free workshops (including a paper flower masterclass with A Petal Unfolds, brush lettering with The Lovely Drawer and lino printing with Emily Dawe); b) Sweet treats and coffee; c) Gin cocktails in the evening.
Danish Furniture Company: a) Win an iconic chair by entering the Grand Opening competition; b) fizz and Danish nibbles.
Danish Variety Store: a) Free goody bag to first 50 customers to spend £10 or more; b) Take part in a prop-based photo opportunity to win in-store credit; c) Celebrate with a day of sweet treats.
Seller of white goods: a) Goodie bag for first 100 customers; b) Free 'signature candle' if you spend £75; c) Bubbles and truffles.
Spanish Clothing Company:a) Complimentary gift with purchases; b) Drinks served from 4pm to 8pm.
Upmarket cosmetic connoisseurs: a) Complimentary single wick candle if you spend £60; b) Indulge in fizz and nibbles; c) Signature hand and arm massage.
Handmade Cosmetics Retailer: Create your own bath bomb... a) 11am Twilight themed bath explosion, b) 2pm Dragons egg.
British Chainstore Chemist: a) Balloons; b) free samples; c) Makeovers.
British Menswear Tailoring: a) 15% off; b) Complimentary tea and coffee.
Luxury British Perfumery: Complimentary 7.5ml atomiser when you spend £130.
American Clothing Retailer: "Take home a gift with purchase".
Frozen Yoghurt Dispensary: Free frozen yoghurt for first 100 customers.
Global Sportswear Brand: Interactive games to test your accuracy and ball handling.
Upscale Nailcare Boutique: 15% off.
Eight cheapskate retailers: No special offers.

Only the Luxury Beauty Retailer still had a queue outside ten minutes after opening.
The pull of a 'complimentary single wick candle' wasn't managing it elsewhere.
All the free gingerbread unicorns disappeared in minutes.
Don't rush, it's just another shopping mall.

 Monday, March 19, 2018

I'm on holiday. I don't go on holiday very often.

More to the point I'm on holiday by myself. I never go on holiday by myself, so this is a big deal.

I do go on holiday with friends occasionally. Last year I went to Newcastle and the Isle of Wight, in 2015 to Berlin and Rome, in 2014 to the Isle of Man and in 2011 to Iceland. But I never go on holiday by myself, even though I obviously could.

I do go on a heck of a lot of day trips. You've probably noticed. Some of those day trips are quite long, like to Lake Windermere or Belgium and back, and most people would probably add an overnight stay. But I don't much like hotels, and solo breakfasts, and all that dead time in the evening, nor do I enjoy having luggage to lug around.

But on this occasion I've taken the plunge and gone away by myself. It's not a full week, just an extra-long weekend, but still very much out of character. I've not gone abroad or anything, I'm still in the country, but hey, it's a good start.

Solo breakfasting turned out to be OK, because the food's generic, so they're relatively quick. But the evening dining was a little more uncomfortable, thanks to those regular pauses in the ordering process where nothing happens. They're easily filled in company, with conversation, but alone they're quite awkward, and getting your phone out always looks gauche.

I booked my trip a few months ago, when some ridiculously cheap rail tickets became available. Given the distance from home I decided that a few nights away would be the best way to take advantage. Two travelling days with two sightseeing days inbetween seemed the way to go, so I booked, and here I am.

I could have picked January or February, but they sounded potentially cold. The train deal didn't let me book anything over Easter or later, so I plumped for the middle of March. The worst of the winter will be over by then, I thought, and I might even get some decent weather.

Instead, of course, I accidentally got The Beast From The East Part Two. Friday was fine, but Saturday was wet and nippy, and Sunday delivered actual snow. I wasn't expecting to have to pack a pullover and gloves, not when I booked, but alas they've proved invaluable.

Locals were unconvinced the snow would arrive. "It won't come to that," said the ladies at the museum. "It won't get this far," said the man at the shop. But arrive it did, and I duly battled 4 miles back to my accommodation on a blizzard, just as the forecast predicted.

On the bright side, it's not been as bad here as it has been in London. We even had some sunshine while you were getting snowflakes, so perhaps I dodged a bullet. But I did have to scrap some of my plans because I couldn't rely on public transport holding out, which is annoying given I may never come back.

Now that I'm preparing to come home, of course, the weather is getting better. It seems I could hardly have picked a worse window for my trip if I'd tried, but these are the perils of booking in advance. Sometimes you get gloriously atypical sunshine and warmth, and sometimes the atmosphere gangs up and throws everything at you.

Obviously it's been an excellent holiday. I fear I shall be telling you all about it very soon.

 Sunday, March 18, 2018

In which direction does the sun set?

If you said "west", you're usually wrong. But today you're correct, just as today is also a rare day when the sun actually rises in the east.

Let me attempt to explain.

The astronomical term for what we're interested in is azimuth, which is the direction of a celestial body from an observer on Earth. It's measured as an angle around the horizon, clockwise from north. Think of it as a compass bearing. North is 0°, East is 90°, South is 180° and West is 270°.

The celestial body in question is the Sun. The azimuth (or direction) of the Sun changes throughout the day, thanks to the rotation of the Earth. In the northern hemisphere it passes 180° around noon.

Specifically we're interested in the solar azimuth at sunrise and sunset - the compass bearing at which the sun crosses the horizon.

It's well known that the times of sunrise and sunset vary each day, thanks to the tilt of the Earth on its axis. This ensures that the Sun is above the horizon for a different length of time each day. But it also means that the Sun's path across the sky intersects with the horizon at a slightly different point each day, hence the gradual shift of where sunrise and sunset appear to take place.

Here's what's going on at the moment.

I've picked Greenwich Observatory as my point of reference, to make the calculations easier. But the azimuth doesn't vary much across London, or indeed across England, even though the time of sunrise may be very different. The azimuth is identical along the same line of latitude.

Azimuth at sunrise, Greenwich, London

See how the sun rises at a slightly different point on each successive day. That point changes by about 0.6° every morning. Yesterday it rose at 90.8°, which is fractionally south of due east. Tomorrow it'll rise at 89.5°, which is fractionally north of due east. Today it rose at 90.2°, which is as near to due east as it'll get. Today is the only day in the first half of the year when the sun rises in the east.

Azimuth at sunset, Greenwich, London

A similar thing happens at sunset. The point on the horizon where the sun sets nudges round each day, and today is the closest day to 270°. Today is the only day in the first half of the year when the sun sets in the west. I must say, I was expecting the key date to be 20th March, because that's the date of the spring equinox, but for obscure geometric reasons the actual date is a couple of days earlier.

Another complication I haven't mentioned yet is height. Greenwich Observatory is 48m above sea level, and I've used that elevation in my calculations. But if it were at sea level then the azimuth would be slightly different, essentially because you couldn't see quite so far towards the horizon. Here's what difference it would make to today's sunrise make if Greenwich Observatory were at a different height.

Azimuth at sunset, 18th March, London

An elevation of 20m would give an angle of precisely 270°, or genuinely due west. I've included 244m in the table because that's the height of the uppermost observation deck on the Shard. If you're watching the sun set from up there then the sun lingers fractionally longer above the horizon, and so sets slightly further north. It's only a tiny difference, but enough to make the Shard's "due west" sunset yesterday rather than today.

And while these changes aren't particularly noticeable over the course of a week, they're considerably more obvious across a year. Here's a table showing the compass bearing of sunrise on the 21st day of each month.

Azimuth at Greenwich on the 21st day of the month

The point at which the Sun rises above the horizon varies by an amazing 80° over the course of a year. At the winter solstice in December it's almost southeast. At the summer solstice in June it's almost northeast. And inbetween those dates it shifts gradually between SE and NE, passing due east in March and September.

Azimuth at Greenwich on the 21st day of the month

Similarly the point at which the Sun sets below the horizon also varies by 80° over the course of a year. At the winter solstice in December it's almost southwest. At the summer solstice in June it's almost northwest. And inbetween those dates it shifts gradually between SW and NW, passing due west in March and September. Specifically today.

And yes, this would all be a lot clearer on a diagram.

My diagram shows the direction of sunrise and sunset in London on the 21st day of each month. You can see clearly just how much it changes, especially in spring and autumn, if less so in summer and winter.

This is why north-facing gardens see hardly any direct sun in the winter. This is why I can almost see sunsets out of my back window at the height of summer, but at no other time of year. This is how Stonehenge could be built so that the sun rises above the Heel Stone on the longest day of the year. And this is why today the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, and will do again in September.

Our ancestors would have known all about shifting sunrises and sunsets, and how they mark the seasons of the year. I wonder how many of us dashing around in our modern technological lives ever realise that this solar ballet is taking place. But smile, because tomorrow the sun rises and sets nearer to the northern horizon than to the south. It may still feel like winter out there, but the good half of the year is on its way.

 Saturday, March 17, 2018

This is Vittoria Wharf, on Fish Island, opposite the Olympic Park. It's a former Victorian warehouse, until recently used as artists studios. It's being demolished.

It's being demolished so that a new footbridge can be built. This new footbridge will replace an existing footbridge a couple of hundred metres upriver. The existing footbridge is less than four years old. The existing footbridge is to be replaced by a road bridge. It seems the London Legacy Company aren't particularly good at forward planning.

The new road bridge is needed to service the new neighbourhood of Sweetwater. Sweetwater is being squeezed into the space between the Olympic Stadium and The River Lea, south of the Overground and to the north of Old Ford Lock. All the land where Sweetwater will arise is now sealed off behind hoardings. A heck of a lot of new hoardings are going up at the moment.

This hoarding shows what the neighbourhood of East Wick will look like. East Wick will be squeezed into the space between the Olympic Park and The River Lea, north of the Overground and opposite to Hackney Wick. East Wick will have the same generic brick flats that everywhere else in London is getting. If this artist's impression is correct, its main shop will sell jumpers and handbags.

Workmen have been busy this month sealing off a long, thin section of the walkway across the centre of the Olympic Park, between the Copper Box and what will eventually be Sweetwater. This is so that a brand new road can be built, leading south from the Copper Box towards the western side of the stadium. Once that's finished, the existing Loop Road which runs closer to the river will be closed, and then built over. More riverside flats means more money for the developers, I guess.

The existing road curving down from the Copper Box to Carpenters Road will also be permanently closed. All traffic heading south will take the new route into Sweetwater, where another new link will be opened to the new road bridge that's currently a footbridge. This will allow vehicles to flow onto Fish Island. Here's more about the bridges, here's a map of the final layout, here's a map of the enabling works taking place over the next twelve months, and here's where more information will eventually appear.

Next time you walk between the south of the Olympic Park and the north, don't expect to see quite so many sweeping open spaces as before. This area was always intended for flats, so that's no surprise. But having transformed the road network hereabouts once for 2012, it does feel like someone's changed their mind since, and here we go again.

Cost to get from Zone 1 to Heathrow Airport by train

Heathrow Express*: £22.00 (off-peak), £25.00 (peak)
Heathrow Connect*: £10.30 (off-peak), £10.30 (peak) until 19th May 2018
TfL Rail/Crossrail**: £10.10 (off-peak), £10.20 (peak) from 20th May 2018
Piccadilly line: £3.10 (off-peak), £5.10 (peak)

* Oyster and Travelcards not valid.   ** Oyster and Travelcards valid.

Cost to get from Zone 1 to Heathrow Airport by road

Taxi: £48-£90
Coach: £10
Bus: £3.00 (or £1.50, if you play your Hopper right)
Nightbus: £1.50

Time to get from Zone 1 to Heathrow Airport

Heathrow Express: 15 minutes
Heathrow Connect: 30 minutes until 19th May 2018
TfL Rail/Crossrail: 30 minutes from 20th May 2018
Piccadilly line: 45 minutes
Taxi: 40-60 minutes
Coach: 40-60 minutes
Nightbus: 80 minutes
Bus: 120-150 minutes

Cost per minute (approx)

Heathrow Express: £1.50, Taxi: £1.20, Heathrow Connect: 34p, TfL Rail/Crossrail: 34p, Coach 20p, Piccadilly line: 6p, Bus/Nightbus: 2p

 Friday, March 16, 2018

I've had a go at walking round the Circle line.
That's the original loopy Circle line, not the extra spiral arm added in 2009.

It was a very interesting walk.
I wonder if you can guess how long it took?

n.b. I started at Aldgate, and walked clockwise.
n.b. I passed the 'main entrance' of all 27 stations on my circuit.
n.b. I attempted to follow the quickest walking route between stations.

n.b. I didn't run.
n.b. My walking speed is on the fast side of average.
n.b. I'm not averse to crossing a road on a red light.

I don't know if any of that changes your guess.


I thought I'd be able to walk it in one go. But somewhere around Notting Hill Gate I realised I'd been walking for ages without stopping and was quite tired, so I gave up and went home. I came back to walk the second half from Notting Hill Gate to Aldgate another day. This should mean my timings are more accurate, because I wasn't knackered and slower on the return journey. But blimey, it's a lot further round the Circle line than you think. Turns out it's a fifteen mile walk altogether. I wonder if that changes your guess again.

Here's a map showing how many minutes it took me to walk between each station. Times are in minutes.

You may be surprised how irregular all the timings are. Most of the gaps look roughly equal on the tube map, but real life turns out to be very different. Cannon Street, for example, is only three minutes away from the Circle line stations on either side. Meanwhile Sloane Square and High Street Kensington are about quarter of an hour away from their neighbours. The longest hike is from King's Cross St Pancras to Farringdon, which is well over a mile and took me 22 minutes. The average walking time between Circle line stations is nine minutes. Distances in the City and along the Embankment are generally shorter than elsewhere.

This geographical map gives a good idea of how irregular the Circle line actually is, and why the timings vary so much.

The Circle line is anything but a circle. Paddington isn't really the 'top left' station. Victoria is a lot further south than Embankment. Notting Hill Gate is actually the furthest station west, and King's Cross the furthest north. Walking from Farringdon to Blackfriars would be a lot quicker than catching a Circle line train. The long gap between King's Cross and Farringdon really ought to be filled by another station, if only TfL had an unlimited supply of money. The loop is really an amorphous wiggle. No wonder my Circle line orbit took so long.

Altogether my walk around the Circle line took me four hours and ten minutes.
That gives me a walking speed of about 3½ miles per hour.
A Circle line train completes the loop in approximately fifty-seven minutes.

I wouldn't get exactly the same results if I walked it again. The traffic would be different, and a long wait at a pedestrian crossing can really slow the timings down. Also, I was only recording the times between stations to the nearest minute, so some of them might round up a bit. I'd allow a margin of error of plus or minus a minute on all the individual figures. But four hours and ten minutes is probably about right overall.

You probably wouldn't get these timings if you walked it. You probably walk at a different speed to me. You'd probably follow a different route. Even crossing a road junction one way rather than another can add a minute on. There's no such thing as an absolute value.

But there are definitive walking times for how long it's supposed to take. TfL have a walking map they're very proud of, to encourage us all not to take the tube but to walk between neighbouring stations instead. How, I wondered, do TfL's official walking times vary to mine. The figures on this map provide the answer. The red numbers are TfL's times, and the blue numbers are my own.

Four of the times are identical, but generally TfL took a couple of minutes longer than me to walk between each station. Perhaps they were slower, or took a less direct route, or had worse luck with traffic and traffic lights than I did. Indeed, who even knows how they worked their figures out?

One of the more significant differences is between Embankment and Westminster, where I managed the simple Thames-side walk four minutes quicker than they did. Another yawning gap is Euston Square to King's Cross St Pancras, where TfL took a full five minutes longer than me (although that may be because I timed myself to the Circle line portal rather than to the centre of the complex).

Three of the larger discrepancies (Gloucester Road to High Street Kensington, Bayswater to Paddington and King's Cross to Farringdon) occur where I took a shortcut through the backstreets rather than sticking to the main roads. Meanwhile the only walk TfL managed quicker than me was Victoria to Sloane Square, which isn't the easiest of cut-throughs, so maybe they know a more direct route than I do.

TfL's figures suggest that a complete walk round the Circle line takes five hours two minutes.
That's a walking speed of approximately bang on three miles an hour.
My circuit was almost an hour faster.

Just know, it's a heck of a long way round.
And if you ever fancy a fifteen mile walk without leaving central London, follow the Circle line.

 Thursday, March 15, 2018

Random Station: ALL SAINTS
London Borough of Tower Hamlets
DLR, zone 2
Hinterland: 0.3km²

When I proposed my Random Station feature, someone asked how I'd cope when a DLR station with a tiny catchment area rolled up. Here's where we find out. All Saints is hemmed in by Langdon Park 500m to the north, Poplar 500m to the southwest and Blackwall 500m to the southeast. That doesn't leave very much space to explore, only an approximate triangle with an area of barely 80 acres. So here are twenty places of interest closer to All Saints than any other station.

All Saints' Church
All Saints DLR is named after All Saints' Church. This striking building in Greek style is almost 200 years old, and was originally erected to support the growing community of merchants around the East India Docks. The interior isn't quite what it once was, but its ministry still thrives, and the surrounding churchyard is a rare haven of peaceful undevelopment.

Hope & Anchor
Hidden down Newby Place, this is a proper little East End boozer, by which I mean plain frontage, an unwelcoming set of doors and a bloke sat out front smoking a fag. Officially known as Jack Beard's at The Hope and Anchor, the place screens European football as and when, and hosts live bands with a nostalgic bent. This Saturday at 7.30pm it's The Aces, a vintage Essex four-piece who only play songs that have been number one in the charts.

The Greenwich Pensioner
Tucked away in neighbouring Bazeley Street, despite its south-of-the-river name, this pub has a bit more going for it. It's prettier (the Georgian stock brick frontage means it's listed), it serves rock solid deliverable food, and the interior is an open space with bar stools and a pool table. That said, I didn't get the feeling from the beery gentlemen lighting up outside that I'd be any more welcome inside.

Robin Hood Gardens
This seminal Seventies estate based on 'streets in the sky' is much beloved by concrete aficionados. Alas, starved of maintenance it became less beloved by residents, the inevitable outcome being that demolition is currently underway. One of the two gargantuan wall-like blocks is currently in the firing line, the southern end still boarded up and broken, the northern half already smashed to piles of rubble.

Blackwall Reach
What's replacing Robin Hood Gardens is more generic brick vernacular housing fare. Eventually there'll be 1500 flats rather than 214, the majority technically affordable, although by no means all of the previous residents will be able to move in. This major regeneration project could be a lot worse, but the corner already finished epitomises bland, and there's no way it'd merit inclusion in a list of 20 Interesting Places ten years hence.

Blackwall Tunnel Approach
Half of the roundabout where the Blackwall Tunnel emerges falls into my area under consideration, a key distribution point carving deep across the local neighbourhood. Loops of carriageway swirl down from the East India Road while vehicles swarm (or queue) below, as a cautionary reminder of what much of inner London might have looked like if the GLC's Ringway zealots had had their way.

Blackwall Tunnel Roundabout subway
This subway was dug beneath the A13 to help pedestrians negotiate their way, specifically to access bus stops located on the lower carriageways. Some municipal department went to a lot of bother to brighten it up, lining the walls with transport-themed tiling. And then TfL rerouted the 108, making Bus Stop L entirely redundant, and removing all need for anyone to use the subway. Maybe one day someone'll come and remove the map in the shelter which suggests the bus still stops.

Balfron Tower
It's Brutalist Heaven round here, because looming high over the A12 is Erno Goldfinger's iconic Balfron Tower. It's in no danger of demolition, but all previous residents have long been decanted, and work is underway to reimagine the interior. It'll be respectfully refurbished, of course, but news that the utility tower will soon contain "a cinema, a play room and a dining room" confirms that the intended future residents are the smugly privileged rather than the locally needy.

Giant Chihuahua
Yes, that's absolutely a four-storey dog, brightening up the end wall of a block of 60s flats in Chrisp Street. It was painted up the side of Kilmore House a few years back by artists Irony & Boe, adding a dash of canine quirk to the neighbourhood, and somehow managing to target the acceptable side of cute.

Chrisp Street Market
Chrisp Street Market was the UK's first purpose-built pedestrian shopping area, knocked up for the Festival of Britain in 1951. At its heart is a street market slotted under a glass-panelled canopy, selling lowkey general goods like rugs and kumquats six days a week to a mainly subcontinental clientele. Across the square an office of suited men are coordinating toned-down plans to introduce Your New Market Coming Soon, via An Exhibition, Keeping You Informed.

Chrisp Street Clocktower
Another FoB favourite, part of the architectural display designed to lure Festival attendees out to the East End, this rusting tower consists of two twin staircases rising to an observation deck beneath a giant brick-faced clock. Once it would have been free to access, but health and safety kicked in early, and these days the doors are only unlocked for Open House (or similar very special events). I take advantage every time.

The Festival Inn
Another Festival favourite, obviously, given the name, which replaced the Grundy Arms in 1951. Its interior is decked out with tip-top Trumans decor, including wooden panelling and a long brass bar inlaid with grid-patterned marquetry. Again there's no hint that gentrification has affected those boozing within - think bitter and crisps - as old school Poplar continues to keep the cocktail crowd at bay.

Idea Store Chrisp Street
Any other local authority would call this Poplar Library, but Tower Hamlets went out on a limb in 2004 and started opening Idea Stores instead. This one was designed by David Adjaye, essentially a glass box with green and blue striped panels, plus a clump of trumpets plonked in the square outside. The internal escalator may have been switched off to save money, but the interior is still a hive of activity, and its RIBA London Award seems well deserved.

George Green's School
George Green's started out as an educational establishment on Chrisp Street founded by a wealthy shipbuilder. This peculiar Victorian confection is its 1880s upgrade, complete with clocktower and inspirational religious quotation above the main entrance. Bob Hoskins scraped a single O Level here in the 1950s. All the students moved to a new site at the tip of the Isle of Dogs in 1978, and the building is currently occupied by Tower Hamlets College.

Poplar Recreation Ground Memorial
Although we associate air raids mostly with WW2, the greatest civilian loss of life in WW1 was due to a bomb dropped on Upper North Street School in Poplar in June 1917. A German Gotha, returning from a raid over the City, released high explosives which fell into the ground floor classroom where 64 infants were being taught, killing 18 of them and injuring more than 30 others. This elegant memorial, depicting an angel on a column of Sicilian marble, was paid for by public subscription.

Woodstock Terrace
A lot of modern Poplar is housing estates, replacing slums and bomb sites, but here and there some splendid streets survive. Woodstock Terrace is a one-sided row of 1840s townhouses, once one of the most respectable streets hereabouts, whose residents included two clergymen, three schoolteachers, a wine merchant and two master mariners. Its modern tenants enjoy convenient parking out front, a view across to the recreation ground, and a conveniently brief commute to Docklands.

Cottage Street
But the next street along, behind the fire station, is much more typical. Blocks of flats accessed via external walkways is generic Tower Hamlets style, here specifically stacks of maisonettes (with a more recent tower dropped in at the end). These residents overlook a brightly-coloured plastic playground, an attempt at a wildflower meadow and a separate fenced off area for squatting dogs.

Poplar Coroner's Court
London has eight coroners courts, one of which is this cottage-like building on Poplar High Street. I particularly like the GLC lettering by the door, and the old wooden sign reading "Entrance to Public Mortuary" on the front. Around half a dozen inquests take place here each week - today's are for 70 year-old David and 43 year-old Robert.

Poplar Baths
A Thirties replacement for a former East End bath house, this splendid building provided a multi-level entertainment space for the local population until 1988, when it closed and fell into disrepair. Against all the odds it's been restored and reopened, again with a swimming pool downstairs, but with the dance hall transformed into a sports hall, and of course a gym squeezed in elsewhere. Two years on, Poplar Baths' facilities perhaps aren't yet widely known.

All Saints DLR station
And finally back to All Saints DLR, or All Saints for Chrisp Street Market as the station nameboards have it. Prior to 1926 this was Poplar station, on the London to Blackwall Railway, but was repurposed and reopened for the DLR in 1987. It's one of a handful of stations to retain its original curved glass canopies (and, annoyingly, two-car southbound trains always stop at the far end of the platform, spurring a mad dash by everyone waiting back by the stairs). Its catchment area may be tiny, but it packs a proper punch.

click for Older Posts >>

click to return to the main page

...or read more in my monthly archives
Jan18  Feb18  Mar18
Jan17  Feb17  Mar17  Apr17  May17  Jun17  Jul17  Aug17  Sep17  Oct17  Nov17  Dec17
Jan16  Feb16  Mar16  Apr16  May16  Jun16  Jul16  Aug16  Sep16  Oct16  Nov16  Dec16
Jan15  Feb15  Mar15  Apr15  May15  Jun15  Jul15  Aug15  Sep15  Oct15  Nov15  Dec15
Jan14  Feb14  Mar14  Apr14  May14  Jun14  Jul14  Aug14  Sep14  Oct14  Nov14  Dec14
Jan13  Feb13  Mar13  Apr13  May13  Jun13  Jul13  Aug13  Sep13  Oct13  Nov13  Dec13
Jan12  Feb12  Mar12  Apr12  May12  Jun12  Jul12  Aug12  Sep12  Oct12  Nov12  Dec12
Jan11  Feb11  Mar11  Apr11  May11  Jun11  Jul11  Aug11  Sep11  Oct11  Nov11  Dec11
Jan10  Feb10  Mar10  Apr10  May10  Jun10  Jul10  Aug10  Sep10  Oct10  Nov10  Dec10 
Jan09  Feb09  Mar09  Apr09  May09  Jun09  Jul09  Aug09  Sep09  Oct09  Nov09  Dec09
Jan08  Feb08  Mar08  Apr08  May08  Jun08  Jul08  Aug08  Sep08  Oct08  Nov08  Dec08
Jan07  Feb07  Mar07  Apr07  May07  Jun07  Jul07  Aug07  Sep07  Oct07  Nov07  Dec07
Jan06  Feb06  Mar06  Apr06  May06  Jun06  Jul06  Aug06  Sep06  Oct06  Nov06  Dec06
Jan05  Feb05  Mar05  Apr05  May05  Jun05  Jul05  Aug05  Sep05  Oct05  Nov05  Dec05
Jan04  Feb04  Mar04  Apr04  May04  Jun04  Jul04  Aug04  Sep04  Oct04  Nov04  Dec04
Jan03  Feb03  Mar03  Apr03  May03  Jun03  Jul03  Aug03  Sep03  Oct03  Nov03  Dec03
 Jan02  Feb02  Mar02  Apr02  May02  Jun02  Jul02 Aug02  Sep02  Oct02  Nov02  Dec02 

eXTReMe Tracker
jack of diamonds
Life viewed from London E3

» email me
» follow me on twitter
» follow the blog on Twitter
» follow the blog on RSS

my flickr photostream