diamond geezer

 Friday, October 21, 2016

Number 19: Walk the Belmont Trail

If you're ever in Harrow, say making a visit to the Heath Robinson Museum [TTDIH no18], why not fit in a walk along the Belmont Trail? This path follows the route of a disused railway which once ran between Harrow and Wealdstone and Stanmore, and has recently been refreshed to make it more appealing to cyclists and pedestrians alike. At one mile long it's not an over-challenging assault, and could easily be combined with a hike along the Wealdstone Brook [TTDIH no10] or a poke around Headstone Manor [TTDIH no4].

The Harrow and Stanmore Railway was opened in 1890, its original aim to help deliver hotel guests to the Bentley Priory estate [TTDIH no12]. Traffic was not brisk, but was boosted unexpectedly in 1932 when the Metropolitan Railway opened a competing branch line to Stanmore and kicked off a housing frenzy. Major developments halfway along the line at Belmont led to an intermediate halt being built, but offpeak traffic never matched the daily commuter flurry. In 1952 the terminus was cut back from Stanmore to Belmont, and in 1965 Beeching's axe lopped off the entire branch. Stand at Harrow and Wealdstone station [TTDIH no26] today and you can still clearly see a broad grassy strip opposite platform 6 where trains on the 'Belmont Rattler' used to depart.

But we can't start there. The first half mile of the old branch line is inaccessible, lost beneath an industrial estate and Harrow's Waste, Refuse and Recycling Centre. So the Belmont Trail begins on Christchurch Avenue, at the lacklustre end of Wealdstone, where a rail bridge once spanned the road. One side of the embankment still stands, in its modern way resembling the ancient Grim's Dyke [TTDIH no3]. A nice touch here is a staircase of old sleepers which has been laid to ascend from the pavement, but don't bother going up there because the footpath dissolves into an overgrown tangle. The main trail follows a gentle sandy ramp alongside, and here the golden mile begins.

If you've walked a disused railway before you'll know what to expect. A strip of land maybe two tracks wide, fringed with undergrowth and a line of trees, perhaps with a series of back gardens beyond the fence. This is very much like that. One intriguing neighbour is the Harrow Driving Centre [TTDIH no7], a miniature world of roads and roundabouts and traffic lights for beginners to practice on, except this appears to have closed following council cuts and is now used to park a entire fleet of municipal minibuses. Fractionally more interesting is Wealdstone Cemetery, a small Edwardian burial ground with serpentine paths, concealed behind a screen of evergreens. There's no direct access, so enterprising locals have broken a gap in the railings and a scattering of cans suggests good use is made.

Self-righteous strollers will appreciate the sign bolted to a tree announcing that the Belmont Trail was cleared with the aid of Community Payback, specifically "offenders working for the community". Wave your Daily Express with pride as you pass. Those whose love is railways will instead be keeping their eyes open for leftover infrastructure and signage, so can't fail to notice an actual gradient marker, and a post labelled three over four marking ¾mile from Harrow. Elsewhere I spotted a Rat On A Log, a Brick In Some Privet, and several As Yet Unharvested Blackberries, these very much the staples of any disused railway walk. Naturally you'd see better wildlife along the River Pinn [TTDIH no11], and better views from the top of Harrow Hill [TTDIH no1].

The path narrows slightly as it funnels between Grasmere Gardens and Kenmore Avenue, and wiggles fractionally off course, even rises and falls briefly in a way the railway never did. A 'No Tipping' sign stands alone in a brief clearing, before the confined path connects again with the surrounding estate at the foot of (I am not making this up) Dobbin Close. After skirting the rear of several owl-like flats, the bridge over Kenton Lane is reached. Once a rural lane amid fields, this span has been lowered several feet since trains ceased running and now feels very much like an urban subway, brightened by colourful artwork added by the local primary school in 2012. Northolt Park [TTDIH no15] has nothing on this.

By this point you'll have been walking for fifteen minutes, so it may be time to take a break. Thankfully Belmont Circle is alongside, its car park coving the land where Belmont station* once stood. When the new suburb of Belmont was built in the Thirties this was the obvious place to locate its retail heart, a circular brick parade that's very Metro-land, with traffic orbiting a central shrubbery. My go-to bakery in this quarter of town is Wenzel's, but you could alternatively try the Greggs at the garage, grab some Fancy Peri Peri, or take a seat in the independent Cinnamon Cafe. When fed and watered be sure to go window-shopping, specifically to Shoe Repairs where £9.99 slippers rotate on a turntable, and patriotic front pages provide a backdrop to sundry bric-a-brac.
* Not to be confused with the existing Belmont station in South London, one of the 10 Things to Do in Sutton.

The trail continues at the far end of the car park. It's much wider here, a sandy track wending between the trees, their leaves now brightly reddening in sequence. Local residents use this part of the trail as a shortcut to and from the shops - the route evidently both safe and useful in this respect. In a former cutting I passed a lady with a small dog, which was probably the highpoint of this brief five minute section. And then the Trail stopped. The route ahead is blocked by a synagogue's fence, then more importantly swallowed by the edge of Stanmore Golf Course, so technically the Belmont Trail ends here. To reach the former station at the end of the line you'll have to divert circuitously along residential streets, or maybe cut across the golf course via the artificial mound which gives Belmont its name [TTDIH no17].

However you decide to trace the intervening mile, you'll eventually reach a prim triangular green with a cluster of pines at its centre, where Gordon Avenue meets Old Church Lane. It was here that Stanmore Village station was built, its original structure topped off by a spire to make it more acceptable to the slightly snooty residents. When the terminus was finally sold off to developers in 1969 the building was unsympathetically refurbished with a modern roof, and is now a smart squat home called The Old Station, with church-sized front doors and a plaque alongside listing the Harrow and Stanmore Railway's key dates. The former tracks behind are now covered by more ordinary housing, and Stanmore tube is a mile away on the other side of town [TTDIH no29].

» A line I've drawn on a map to show where the Belmont Trail goes
» Ian has also visited, and wrote this longer report with more photos
» Geoff made this 90 second summary video for Londonist
» Julian has taken 50 photos so you can see what you're missing
» Full line history for those who require 100% railway background
» Tommy has taking a video while cycling the Belmont Trail
» 30 Things To Do In Harrow
is taken from the forthcoming book 1000 Things To Do Across London

 Thursday, October 20, 2016

What area of London has the same population as...?

Ranking the 316 English local authority districts

316 = 201 non-metropolitan districts + 55 unitary authorities + 36 metropolitan boroughs + 32 London boroughs + City of London + Isles of Scilly

Top 5 by population: Birmingham (1111307), Leeds, Sheffield, Cornwall, Bradford
Bottom 5 by population: Purbeck, Rutland, West Somerset, City of London, Isles of Scilly (2324)

Top 5 by area: Northumberland (5013 km2), Cornwall, Wiltshire, Shropshire, East Riding of Yorkshire
Bottom 5 by area: Hammersmith and Fulham, Isles of Scilly, Islington, Kensington and Chelsea, City of London (2.9 km2)

Top 5 by population density: Islington (15179 per km2), Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Kensington and Chelsea, Lambeth
Bottom 5 by population density: West Devon, West Somerset, Richmondshire, Ryedale, Eden (25 per km2)

Top 5 by population growth: City of London (5.5% pa), Tower Hamlets, Westminster, Forest Heath, Islington
Bottom 5 by population growth: Oadby and Wigston, Blackburn with Darwen, Harrogate, Blackpool, Richmondshire (-2% pa)

Ethnicity - most White: Allerdale (98.9%), Eden, Isles of Scilly, Mid Devon, Ryedale
Ethnicity - least White: Tower Hamlets, Redbridge, Harrow, Brent, Newham (29%)

Ethnicity - most Asian: Newham (43.5%), Harrow, Redbridge, Tower Hamlets, Slough
Ethnicity - least Asian: South Hams, Allerdale, West Devon, Isles of Scilly (0.1%)

Ethnicity - most Black: Lewisham (27%), Southwark, Lambeth, Hackney, Croydon,
Ethnicity - least Black: Allerdale, Eden, Isles of Scilly, West Devon, West Somerset (0%)

Ethnicity - most Mixed: Nottingham (10%), Lambeth, Lewisham, Croydon, Harringey
Ethnicity - most Arab: Westminster (11%), Kensington & Chelsea, Ealing, Brent, Hammersmith & Fulham

Districts (inside London) appearing on the above lists 3 or more times: City of London, Kensington and Chelsea, Lambeth, Tower Hamlets
Districts (outside London) appearing on the above lists 3 or more times: Allerdale, Eden, Isles of Scilly, West Devon, West Somerset

 Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The least used station in... Surrey
(Annual passenger usage: 8960)

I've visited the least used stations in Berkshire, Hertfordshire, Greater London, Essex and Bedfordshire. But they were all quite normal compared to the least used station in Surrey. This is on the main suburban line to Ascot and Reading, three stops past Staines, so you might expect it to be busy. The stations to either side see over half a million passengers a year. But Longcross is different, Longcross is weird, indeed I'd go so far as to say Longcross is creepy. Go if you dare.

Ten years ago, if you'd managed to find a train that stopped at Longcross, you might have had trouble leaving the station. It's seemingly in the middle of nowhere, sandwiched between the M3 motorway, the largest National Nature Reserve in the southeast of England and a world-famous golf course. But more specifically it's here because the Government requisitioned the land immediately alongside the railway for military purposes in 1941, and needed a station to get troops and supplies in and out.

The Department of Tank Design was based on one side of Chobham Lane, with the Fighting Vehicles Proving Establishment on the other. By 1970 this was the Military Vehicles and Engineering Establishment, or MVEE for short, ideal for road-testing armoured tanks and various forms of hush hush technology. Trains remained infrequent, especially given that workers preferred driving, and security guards were prone to swoop on any civilian who alighted at Longcross to query their presence. The MoD finally abandoned their 'secret' test track in 2006, by which time the station was served by only two trains a day in either direction. Things aren't quite so restricted today - a large film studios has since taken over the western part of the site, and the area to the east is pencilled in for housing. But alighting at Longcross still feels like stepping back into the Cold War, sealed off from civilisation, with eyes watching from the trees. [map]

First let's deal with getting there. Longcross is one of a tiny handful of stations marked on the London and South East rail map with an open circle, signifying a limited service. They're not joking. In the morning rush hour there are half-hourly trains from London and three from Reading. Between the peaks just one lunchtime train calls, with nothing for hours either side. Then there are half-hourly trains home in the evening, this time mostly towards London, and nothing whatsoever at the weekend.

Westbound (to Reading)Eastbound (to Waterloo)
0605 0635 0705 0735 0805 0835 0854
1723 1835
0813 0843 0913
1713 1813 1843 1943 2013 2043
(no trains Saturday or Sunday)

Essentially it's a service for workers and nothing more, and deliberately so. I timed my visit for the early evening, and made sure my ticket was a return.

Only I stepped off the packed commuter train at Longcross, less than an hour before dusk, while two wiser passengers got on. It didn't take long to be left completely alone in the forest. The platforms are overlooked by lofty pine trees, with ferns spread beneath, presently at the beginning of their autumnal phase. Both sides have a rudimentary breezeblock shelter, that on the eastbound considerably longer, better suited to keeping 100 troops out of the weather than for comfort. The westbound has an additional building, toilets-sized, though more likely somewhere for the equivalent of a stationmaster to hide away. An sturdy concrete footbridge joins the two, potentially army issue, with bright yellow posts and handrails. One single CCTV camera keeps watch - I was expecting more - pointed downwards so as to be of almost no use. And some wag has added two hoops to chain a bike to, not that I suspect these ever see much action, or any.

So how to escape? The station map on the Onward Travel Information board shows a road you can't reach because of a fence and a lot of green. The green to the north is pristine, but inaccessible, unless you have the key that unlocks the gate. This is the edge of Wentworth Golf Course, an exclusive sportsground intertwined with executive estate, where the PGA Championship takes place annually. The Chinese owners who recently bought the Club have already tried flushing out three-quarters of the members by increasing fees, so it's no surprise they're not interested in rail access, and the gate is checked at least four times a day by security. It's odd they haven't noticed the gaping hole anyone could climb through.

South, then. Again there's a gate, which could once have kept unwelcome passengers locked inside the station, but which is now unlocked. A short walkway leads down to a turnstile, marked Private Property No Public Right Of Way, which for ten years has been the access to Longcross Film Studios. A collection of buildings once used by the army has been requisitioned, including arched brick sheds and several indistinct hangars, with the three main production Stages all close by [map]. Several well known movies have been shot here, including most of Clash of The Titans and Skyfall's Highland finale, plus this is where the Poplar BBC drama Call The Midwife is filmed. I'd not be getting out this way either.

But there is an external footpath. Normally you expect a footpath from a station to be metalled, but this was just a narrow dirttrack between two fences, the station on one side and the ex army base on the other. A row of pines wheeled in close before the path opened out into a clearing beneath two radio masts, then continued a little wider than before. It took a couple of minutes to reach the first potential exit - a track leading out onto the most inaccessible corner of Chobham Common, part-blocked by a slice of concrete pipe and two posts. Best stick to the main path, I thought, as it bent south round a muddy depression, through further trees. There had been no streetlamps for the last quarter of a mile, and this was very much not somewhere I would want to be after dark. I checked my watch to ensure I could get back before sunset, and walked on.

The path opened out onto Burma Road, which looked promising on the map, but had a look of military perimeter about it. The road entered the studio site at what would have been a checkpoint, and is now a point of access for contractors making the eastern part of the site ready for housing. I was expecting the sign on the fence to warn me off, but instead it invited me to adopt a goat courtesy of the Surrey Wildlife Trust. This edge of the site is to become a Ecological Buffer Zone, an environmental sop for the development, but currently houses little more than a few beehives and a lot of undergrowth. Oh, and a couple of cameras peering down from a high pole, adding to the nagging feeling that I must be being watched for the crime of having used a station.

Burma Road's almost half a mile long, and had two empty cars parked up partway down. I fully expected someone to emerge from one of them, perhaps to admonish me for taking photographs, before working out that the owners were probably off dogwalking on Chobham Common which runs all along one side. I stepped through the trees at one point to take a look, following a public footpath fingerpost onto open acid heathland. It's gorgeous walking country, gently undulating, heading west for miles wherever the mansions with acre-sized gardens have yet to encroach. The sun was crackling gold in the sky, its orb now dipping fractionally behind Oystershell Hill, so I got a move on and returned to the road.

Two red wooden barriers had been drawn back beside a layby marked Lorries Turning, at a former checkpoint now used by the studios for HGV access. With the site's main entrance now close by there was considerably more evidence of former military presence, including lumps of concrete positioned defensively on the verge and an MoD sign warning against flytipping or overnight camping. Most unusual was the red and white striped arch for unrestricted access, labelled for vehicles under seven foot tall and less than six foot six wide only, while lorries had to pull over to be let through a gate alongside. Eventually I reached the main road, specifically a shielded roundabout on the B386, leading to a bridge across the M3. There was nowhere for pedestrians to go, nor anywhere it would be particularly sensible to try, bar a continuation of the common beyond the motorway. Time up.

Now let's look at the whole palaver backwards. There is absolutely nothing at the roundabout to indicate that a station lies half a mile up this road. This is possibly wise, because it's impossible to drive there, but there's no hint whatsoever for pedestrians either. Burma Road looks highly unfriendly, as confirmed by leftover MoD signage, and even the open barriers feel like a deterrent. At the first studio entrance there's no suggestion of which way to go, and at the second no indication that you ought to take the minor path into the trees. The footpath through the forest narrows as it continues, without any confirmation that you're on the right track, amid an increasing sense of isolation and helplessness. That Longcross station exists at the far end as a place of safety comes as a total surprise... or would have done had I not walked out and back, there being nowhere else to go.

Luxury homes and the upcoming business park at Longcross are being promoted on a glamorously-marketed website by developers Crest Nicholson. "Heathrow and Farnborough are within 20 minutes drive, and Fairoaks airfield just 10 minutes away", they say, hinting heavily at the calibre of occupant they expect. Their map shows what appears to be an outstanding rail connection, with "an on-site train station providing a half-hourly service to London Waterloo (48 minutes) and Reading (35 minutes)." What potential residents are not told is that the rail service dries up during the day, doesn't run at weekends, and the last weekday train leaves Waterloo at ten to six. There are, obviously, long-term aspirations to improve the service once development reaches a tipping point, but in the meantime best not sell the limousine.

As skies darkened, my solo sojourn on the eastbound platform ended ten minutes before the scheduled departure time. A studio employee emerged through the turnstile and crossed the footbridge to slouch beneath it, joined shortly afterwards by two mixed groups chatting animatedly. Their post-work gossip continued until the train appeared round the bend, at which point they split into two different groups and headed to opposite ends of the platform. One final employee made a dash for the footbridge at this point, afforded the luxury of working close enough to be able to turn up bang on time. And a dozen of us gratefully boarded what would shortly become a rammed service, but early enough to grab a seat. That's Longcross, their private Surrey station, and occasionally unwelcoming of visitors.

» My Longcross Flickr gallery - 20 photos (and slideshow)

 Tuesday, October 18, 2016

A map of London's department stores

John Sanders
Brent Cross
John Lewis
House of Fraser
Oxford Street
Debenhams, House of Fraser
John Lewis, M&S, M&S
John Lewis
Harvey Nicks
Fortnum & Mason
Covent Garden
Peter Jones
House of Fraser
House of Fraser
(John Lewis)
House of Fraser
John Lewis
New Malden
Tudor Williams
House of Fraser
(John Lewis)

There was a time when the department store was the cornerstone of any major high street. No longer. But London still has dozens, and many of those in the centre of town are world famous. Harrods is surely the ultimate example of the one-off one stop shop, and Selfridges' flagship store on Oxford Street can't be far behind. But look out to the suburbs and several independent stores somehow survive, battling against changes in household taste and the onslaught of online shopping.

In Ruislip High Street there's John Sanders, and in Wembley the drapery-focused Blands, while New Malden hosts a proper family business at Tudor Williams. Morleys of Brixton branched out in Tooting and then bought up several other independent stores, including Elys on nearby Wimbledon High Street. Its other conquests are to the north and east, including Pearsons of Enfield, Selby's on the Holloway Road, Roomes in Upminster and the delightfully named Bodgers of Ilford. If you've never been to any of these outer London outlets, you're missing a treat.

Fans of John Lewis have only five 'proper' department stores to choose from, although others exist just outside London in Watford and Bluewater. Houses of Fraser are even more scarce, whereas Debenhams are ten a penny, and Marks and Spencer trade all over. Other than central London there are department store hotspots at Brent Cross, the Westfields, Ilford, Kingston and Croydon. Southeast London fares relatively poorly, but the largest department store vacuum appears to be in north London, as if Brent Cross sucked all the customers away.

All this is assuming I've got the map right, of course. Have I missed any department stores anywhere, or included any that have since closed? Sorry, I'm not interested in closed ones, because that'd be a whole different post...

London's closed department stores

Central: Army & Navy (Victoria), Bourne & Hollingsworth (Oxford Street), Catesby's (Tottenham Court Road), Civil Service Supply Association (Strand), Daniel Neal (Portman Square), Debenham & Freebody (Wigmore Street), Dickins & Jones (Regent Street), Gamages (Holborn), Gorringes (Victoria), Jordans (Lisson Grove), Marshall & Snelgrove (Oxford Street), Swan & Edgar (Piccadilly Circus), Thomas Wallis (Holborn), Woolland Brothers (Knightsbridge), Whiteleys (Bayswater)
North: John Barnes (Finchley Road), Bartons (Wood Green), B B Evans (Kilburn), Evans and Davies (Palmers Green), Jones Brothers (Holloway Road), Pearsons (Wood Green), Stephens (Stoke Newington), Wards (Seven Sisters), Wilsons (Crouch End)
West: Barbers (Fulham), Barkers of Kensington, Bentalls (Ealing), Derry & Toms (Kensington), F H Rowse (West Ealing), General Trading Company (Kensington), Goslings (Richmond), John Sanders (Ealing), Pontings (Kensington), Randalls (Uxbridge), Soper's (Harrow), Wright Brothers (Richmond)
South: Allders (Croydon, Sutton), Arding and Hobbs (Clapham Junction), Bon Marché (Brixton), Grants (Croydon), Kennards (Croydon), Pratts (Streatham), Quin & Axtens (Brixton), Shinners (Sutton)
Southeast: Chiesmans (Lewisham, Bexleyheath), Cuffs (Woolwich), Fantos (Deptford), Garretts (Woolwich), Hides (Bexleyheath), Hinds (Eltham), Jones and Higgins (Peckham), Medhursts (Bromley), Pyne Brothers (Deptford), Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society (Woolwich), Tower House (Lewisham), Walter Cobb (Sydenham)
East: Bearmans (Leytonstone), Boardmans (Stratford), Chiesmans (Ilford, Upton Park), Dawson's (City Road), Dudley's (Dalston), Gardiner's (Whitechapel), Houndsditch Warehouse (Aldgate), Harrison Gibson (Ilford), Keddies (Romford), J R Roberts (Stratford), Wickhams (Stepney)
Various: British Home Stores, Co-Op, Marks & Spencer, Owen Owen (Finchley, Ilford, Richmond, Uxbridge)

 Monday, October 17, 2016

For many years the people of Pinner have had ambitions to celebrate a great artist who once lived amongst them - the illustrator William Heath Robinson.
In 2008 I wrote:
The William Heath Robinson Trust hold many of his humorous artworks, and plan to showcase them in a new museum at West House in Pinner Memorial Gardens. But the old mansion requires considerable restoration, at great cost, and completion remains some years off. The Pinner Association continues to campaign and fund raise, and will hopefully provide the town with its first steampunk tourist attraction.

In 2014 I wrote:
The Chairman of the Trust told me that plans are well advanced, following two decades of fundraising and a million-plus Heritage Lottery grant. If the last hundred thousand can be found then building work can begin on the car park next spring, and a brand new Heath Robinson Museum opened in 2016. It's inspiring stuff, and will hopefully bring these wildly inventive works to a new generation.
And in 2016 I'm delighted to report that the Heath Robinson Museum is finally open. The official opening ceremony was on Saturday afternoon, attended by the Mayor of Harrow, a Lottery representative and the Merrydowners Morris Dancers. Local poet Michael Rosen cut the ribbon with the aid of a suitably complex contraption designed by pupils at a Northwood girls' school. And then the public poured in, supposedly 300 in number which is a fantastic total for a small museum... unless you're intending to look at the exhibits, that is, which is why I left my visit until Sunday.

The museum's at the top of Pinner Memorial Park, barely five minutes from the tube, behind a landscaped lake. Alongside is West House, a minor mansion left municipally bereft, but separately upgraded a few years ago to house a cafe and a chiropractors. Where I remembered a car park there was now a large angular cabin, seemingly two-storey, with two sides mostly brick and two sides mostly glass. Initially I walked up to the wrong front door, thinking the way in would be via the big doors under the main sign, but no, that's the Activity Studio for school visits. Instead access is up the side, by the wooden overbridge, to save you looking quite so lost.

There are two galleries, one for the permanent display and one for special exhibitions. The main room is laid out with William's life story and a wide variety of his works, to show his evolution from early illustrator to national treasure. Initially everything was in black and white, but WHR later broke out into colour for a series of lavish gift books, and a dozen such pictures decorate the upper wall. Lower down are framed prints and numerous books and magazines in cases, well worthy of scrutiny to catch all the detail and tiny in-jokes. Frustratingly they're not yet labelled to match the numbered keys in the exhibition's text, so it's not always easy to work out what's what... but, early days.

Heath Robinson's career really took off in the 1930s with commissions for magazines and advertising, for example comparing The Hovis Family to the chaos taking place at dining tables elsewhere. His contributions to the "How To..." series were much admired, for example the labour-saving and space-efficient gadgets depicted in How To Live In A Flat. Critics admired his "absurd activities taking place in beautifully realised settings", with their quirky complexity often concealing a sharply-observed social message. But William still secretly preferred his watercolours, which never quite earned the same acclaim as his penmanship.

The museum's first special exhibition looks at Heath Robinson's wartime illustrations, many of them saved for the nation last year by the National Heritage Memorial Fund. Of the 50 frames on display half cover the First World War and half the Second, including in the former William's only foreign trip, as war artist for the American army in France. The WWII batch are more fun, but then they were meant to be, featuring in Sketch magazine from 1940 in their "To Cheer You Up" section. Most show soldiers coping against the enemy in amusing ways, and because all the pictures are portrait rather than landscape there's often detail in the air as well as underground. A typical print would be "The sort of thing you are not supposed to do with your air raid shelter", including upturning it and adding balloons, but my favourite (and that of the volunteer on duty) was definitely "Deceiving the invader as to the state of the tide".

One thing you need to know if you visit in the next month is that the museum's not quite finished. All the bits are in place but the building's still in need of finalisation, so the builders are popping back to do some 'snagging'. The lighting's a bit of an issue at the moment, with certain lamps not yet in place and the skylights in the closed position. It's also best I don't recount my experience at the cash desk on my way in, because any new operation deserves some leeway on its opening weekend. Upstairs may look tempting but is roped off, this being where the reserve collection is housed which will feed into future exhibitions. The ceilings look great, though, with complex wooden structures and air conditioning units deliberately sculpted to look more than a little Heath Robinsonesque.

For the next few weeks the Heath Robinson Museum is open Friday to Sunday only, 11am-4pm, but this is due to extend to six days a week before Christmas. Admission costs £6, which I thought was fair for 45 minutes deliberation, plus they're still paying off the costs of the building so every purchase in the shop helps too. There are Heath Robinson books and cards and prints aplenty, plus a 2017 calendar, plus several books on local history to satisfy the local audience. As yet there's not much synergy between cafe and gallery - you could easily visit one and miss the other. But it is brilliant that decades of hope and effort by the people of Pinner have paid off, and there is now a genuine reason to visit.

» Dave's review of the opening day at the museum

 Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Queen's House is a stunning 400-year-old classical building in Greenwich, designed by Inigo Jones. Originally intended for Anne of Denmark, wife of James I, construction took so long that she died and Charles I's queen held court here instead. The Old Royal Naval College has a gap of identical width to the House, to preserve views of the river. As for the extended colonnades which stretch like a barrier across Greenwich Park, these were added in the early 19th century.

Now part of the National Maritime Museum, the Queen's House has been closed for the last 14 months for renovation. It reopened this week in sparkling fresh form, essentially as an art gallery, but where the building's worth just as much of a look as the paintings. Entrance is via a narrow passage at ground level along the building's line of symmetry. Entrance is free, but a £4 donation is passively requested, and staff are only too keen to talk about Gift Aid should you appear keen to contribute. They don't have a floor plan yet, nor indeed a map of any kind, so you'll need to explore the rooms and passageways carefully to make sure you don't miss anything.

There are lifts to all floors, should you require these, but otherwise you take the stairs. These don't look much to start with, more a winding dark ascent, but when they open out at the next floor they're amazing. These are the Tulip Stairs, the first self-supported spiral staircase in England, with an ornate wrought-iron balustrade rising elegantly to an upper lantern. Their gorgeousness has not gone unnoticed, so expect to find at least one photographer at the bottom pointing upwards and cursing quietly at any intrusive hand upon the rail. Feel free to ascend and ruin their frame, or join the scrum and await your turn for Instagram gold.

At the centre of the building is The Great Hall, designed by Jones as a perfect cube, hence loftier than you'd expect. Its floor is also somewhat geometrical, the black and white design laid in marble in 1635, and still to striking effect. A wooden balcony runs all the way around at top floor level, from which courtiers could have looked down over a regal dance, or whatever was taking place below. The ceiling's not original, indeed the gold leaf artwork speckled across it has been added during the recent closure by Turner-winning artist Richard Wright, but the overall effect is sympathetic and equally photogenic.

To each side of the hall, on two levels, are the palace rooms now used as galleries. Downstairs the emphasis is on the 19th and 20th centuries, and very much on maritime tradition, including a Lowry no less, his somewhat unexpected View of Deptford Power Station from Greenwich. Upstairs the emphasis is more Tudor, Stuart and Georgian, and there are far more rooms up here so expect more of the older stuff. One painted ceiling dazzles, and below it is the famous Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I, the NMM's most recent arty acquisition.

Expect a lot of admirals posing sternly, and also the odd scale model ship (including the oldest known, dating from 1669). But mixed within are several more varied objects, including Delftware and astrolabes, with each small room carefully themed and labelled. Indeed the gallery upgrade seems faultless, presenting a broad range of material that's not just a load of canvases hung on the wall. Having said that, my favourite exhibit is a painting, namely Greenwich and London from One Tree Hill by the Dutch landscape artist Johannes Vorsterman. It shows the view from the top of the park in 1680, from the small town of Greenwich to the spires of a rebuilt London, but my eye is always drawn to the tall ships on the river running between undeveloped grassy banks round the Isle of Dogs meander.

Allow up to an hour to stroll around the revamped Queen's House, and expect it to be busy at the weekend, especially as the place reopens. If you're not local then remember Greenwich has tons of other stuff to offer, for free, including the National Maritime Museum upstairs, the Painted Chapel by the river and the Astronomy Centre behind the Observatory on the hill. But before you leave the Queen's House, make sure to walk round the side and discover the arched passageway buried through the centre. This was once the main road between Deptford and Woolwich, with the queen's residence built across the top to ensure continued access. This former thoroughfare explains why her first floor is so much larger than her ground floor, and is one further insight into this unique royal treasure.

 Saturday, October 15, 2016

Foreign tourists are being offered an increasingly bad deal at the National Maritime Museum.

Who commented the most in October? (annual Top 10s)

2002: diamond geezer, solosurfer, robbie nightbus driver, Scott, arseblogger, denz, Glenn, Rob, anne-marie, Benj, FootballFobic

2003: diamond geezer, Annie Mole, Blue Witch, Peter, Alan, Jag, Dave, Lyle, Scaryduck, Vicky

2004: diamond geezer, NiC, Blue Witch, Dave, Matt, drD, Katherine, Scaryduck, Chig, Lyle, Tim, Tom Reynolds

2005: diamond geezer, NiC, Blue Witch, Annie Mole, Ant, Chig, Dave, Katherine, verity74, Great Aunt Annie

2006: diamond geezer, ian, strandman, Pedantic of Purley, Blue Witch, Ham, Another Andrew, NiC, Great Aunt Annie, Chig, Chz, City Slicker, Johnny Topaz, quin

2007: diamond geezer, flashgordonnz, Blue Witch, Venichka, NiC, Debster, John, Great Aunt Annie, Inspector Sands, Jag, mazz, quin

2008: Andrewh, diamond geezer, Bina, Bowroaduk, Pedantic of Purley, Blue Witch, Geofftech, Mr Thant, Debster, Venichka

2009: Blue Witch, Geofftech, Anonymous, CornishCockney, diamond geezer, Debster, Sy, graybo, Pedantic of Purley, Michael

2010: CornishCockney, diamond geezer, John, Blue Witch, Michael, Great Aunt Annie, martin, logistical, Amused, B, Dominic, IanVisits, Pedantic of Purley, SELondoner

2011: diamond geezer, Timbo, Andrewh, CornishCockney, Michael, Pedantic of Purley, B, Blue Witch, Geofftech, martin, Rational Plan

2012: John, martin, Andrew, B, diamond geezer, swirlythingy, EskimoPie, Roger, Richard M, CornishCockney, David, Timbo

2013: Briantist, Timbo, Andrew, diamond geezer, Andrew Bowden, John, Antipodean, Blue Witch, geofftech, amber, CornishCockney, Malcolm

2014: Timbo, Greg, Andrew, diamond geezer, John, Bronchitikat, B, Briantist, RogerW, Caroline

2015: Timbo, diamond geezer, Gerry, Bronchitikat, Malcolm, PC, Antipodean, Geofftech, Cornish Cockney, John, kev, Blue Witch

2016*: Timbo, Malcolm, Andrew, diamond geezer, John, PC, Cornish Cockney, martin, Chris, Frank F

* covers the last 31 days

Number of comments on diamond geezer over the last 31 days: 772
Number of differently-named commenters over the last 31 days: 249
Number of comments needed to get into the October 2016 top 10: 12

Number of nameless comments over the last 31 days: 57

 Friday, October 14, 2016

It still mystifies me why Next Train Indicators at tube stations perform so very differently. At Bow Road, for example, we've only ever had one minute's advance warning of the next westbound train, and the second train is never mentioned. Mile End, meanwhile, gets up to six minutes advance warning of up to three trains. Why should passengers at two consecutive platforms get such completely different information?

The main problem is the hotchpotch of legacy systems that make up London's subsurface signalling, some of which date back to the 1920s. There are major plans to replace the lot, especially the really flaky sections, but it'll be years until the full upgrade's complete. In the meantime we get to make do with minimal information at certain stations, and rather more at others.

So I've been on a tour of the Hammersmith & City line to see how good or bad its Next Train Indicators are. They're certainly a mixed bunch. Most look like one of the four designs pictured here (which I've numbered so we can keep track). First up is an older two-line version (Type 1), and below that a chunkier three-line box (Type 2). The newest indicators are rather sleeker (Type 3 and Type 4), and more usually seen on the deep level lines. Sorry, they don't all photograph very well. Meanwhile Edgware Road struggles on with some vile red LED display, and one station functions with the aid of a 40 year-old lightbox. There is no consistency here, no consistency at all.

I started at Barking and travelled in to Aldgate East, then switched ends to Hammersmith and rode back. I stood on each platform waiting to answer two questions: "How many trains does this Next Train Indicator display?" (it's invariably 1 or 3) and "How much advance warning does it give?" The latter's quite a difficult question to answer, because you need to watch for the moment when a previously invisible train suddenly appears on the display. The flow of trains doesn't always make it easy to do this, but I hung around long enough on each platform to confirm the maximum.

Next Train Indicators on the Hammersmith & City Line (westbound)
StationType of
Number of
next trains
BarkingType 438 minsOnly 1 minute's notice is given for H&C trains (which start out as "Check Front of Train").
East HamType 432 minsA relatively recent replacement for an old (obsolete) lightbox.
Upton Parklightbox13 minsThe oldest NTI on the line, which still refers to the Metropolitan line, not the H&C. See below.
PlaistowType 213 minsOnly the next train is shown, and no number of minutes is given.
West HamType 311 minThe next train is already in sight before it appears on the display.
Bromley-by-BowType 212 minsOnly the next train is shown, and no number of minutes is given.
Bow RoadType 2nilnilThe NTI has been out of service for months (but used to give only 1 minute's notice).
Mile EndType 235 minsTwo smaller boards are positioned at the other end of the platform.
Stepney GreenType 136 minsThe second oldest NTI on this stretch of the line (and one of the clearest).
WhitechapelType 411 minWhile rebuilding works continue, these are positioned opposite the entrance, not on the platform.
Aldgate EastType 211 minOnly the next train is shown, and no number of minutes is given.

Allow me to pop back to Upton Park, which boasts an adorable lightbox indicator on each platform. Eastbound the destination of the next train lights up, be that Barking, Dagenham East or Upminster. But the westbound service is more complicated, so this lightbox has only two options. One says DISTRICT LINE via EMBANKMENT & VICTORIA, which for District line trains is true. But the other says METROPOLITAN via LIVERPOOL STREET & KING'S CROSS, which is false, because the Metropolitan line hasn't served this station since 1990 when the Hammersmith & City line was branded.

What's more, even taking this mislabelling into account the wrong line frequently flashes up. I watched two Hammersmith & City line trains enter the platform announced as District, and a District line train enter the platform announced as Metropolitan. Upton Park's Next Train Indicator is doubly wrong, being both out-of date and inaccurate, making it entirely unfit for purpose. I'd hesitate to remove this heritage classic but, given that it's been displaying incorrect information for 26 years, isn't it about time somebody did something with it?

Next Train Indicators on the Hammersmith & City Line (eastbound)
StationType of
Number of
next trains
HammersmithType 4nilnilThe display merely announces the next platform, eg "Next train is from Platform 1".
Goldhawk Road
→ Royal Oak
-nilnilThere are no functioning Next Train Indicators at these seven stations.
PaddingtonType 4313 minsExcellent advance warning (but westbound, no information at all).
Edgware Roadancient1¼ minBarely any advance warning at all. The signage here is old, faint and atrocious.
Baker StreetType 131 minOn one side a central strip has blacked out (and so reads "Circle line via l    ool Street").
Great Portland StType 231 minWith only a 1 minute advance warning, it's rare to see two trains on the board, let alone three.
Euston SquareType 133 minsIn the opposite direction, westbound, over 10 minutes advance warning is given.
King's Cross
St Pancras
Type 345 minsNext trains are also announced by a semi-intelligible automated female voice.
FarringdonType 238 minsLater trains to termini not on the board are intermittently shown.
BarbicanType 1nilnilThe Next Train Indicator is currently out of service (but used to give up to 8 minutes notice).
MoorgateType 139 minsFor some unexplained reason, all the Next Train destinations are in capital letters.
Liverpool StreetType 1311 minsProvides all necessary information (but is hard to see...).

Like I said, the Next Train Indicators on the Hammersmith and City line are a motley and entirely inconsistent bunch. What information passengers see is a complicated mix of how good the signalling is, how far past a junction the station is, and when the box was last replaced. We get by, it's not difficult to wait for a train, but neither is this the quality of service we expect on deep tube lines, the Overground or the DLR. Meanwhile if you whip your phone out and open up an app, a wi-fi connection often reveals precisely what's on its way and when. And TfL surely know where all their trains are, it's just that they haven't got round to telling us yet.

It may be 2022 before subsurface resignalling is complete, so don't expect to see consistent improvements any time soon. In the meantime it's often easier to discover when the next ten buses are due (above ground) than the next one train (below).

 Thursday, October 13, 2016

The least used station in... Bedfordshire
(Annual passenger usage: 7712)

Having already visited the least used stations in Berkshire, Hertfordshire, Greater London and Essex, here's an even quieter one in Bedfordshire. My target is on the Marston Vale line, an unlikely Beeching survivor linking Bletchley to Bedford. Despite an hourly service this particular station attracts an average of only 25 passengers a day, that's not even one per train. I was surprised it's that many.

"To where?" asked the ticket clerk at Bedford station. Either I was mumbling or she doesn't get many requests for Kempston Hardwick, two stops down the line. The size of the train was also a clue. There aren't many places near London served by a 1-carriage train but here's one, purring on platform 1a and ready for the off. At least you get a friendlier guard on these little trains, chirpily checking tickets and conversing with the regulars. The Sprinter departs and quickly diverts from the mainline, heading slowly through the Train Presentation Depot. The first stop is just beyond the River Ouse at Bedford St John's, a dour single platform affair beneath the Ampthill Road. The line then continues past the backs of houses, along the edge of the retail park on the bypass and out into the clayfields that built much of London. There is seemingly nothing here, so that's where I alight. [4 photos]

Just me then? Thought so. I've been deposited on a low wooden platform, one carriage in length, which is another clue as to potential footfall. Interestingly the opposite platform is twice as long, having been deliberately extended, but the southbound remains its original stunted self. The guard peers out of the front of the train to check what I might be doing here, then ducks inside and the Sprinter departs.

Kempston Hardwick station is located between two fields at a level crossing, across which a succession of cars and lorries sporadically careers. Both platforms open out towards the road, while halfway up each is a superfluous step-free ramp, one of them sealed off and slightly overgrown. Only northbound passengers get a bench and shelter, this being the more likely direction for a commute, not that many people seem to bother. White picket fences give the platforms a genuine rural railway feel, as does the notice saying "There are no bus services serving this station". There are also two Next Train Indicator boards, one at each entrance, exactly the same as you'd find on the tube at Whitechapel or Barking (only with a far less good service).

Kempston Hardwick station attracted notoriety back in 2003 when statistics revealed it was one of the least used stations in the country. Only 38 passengers per month were passing through, the equivalent of maybe two commuters, causing national newspapers to send journalists to experience the bleak ennui for themselves. One of the problems was apparently the lack of parking space, although there is now a rough turnaround space beside platform 1 where the crossing keeper's cottage used to be. A bigger problem is the lack of potential customers on the doorstep. The (substantial) village of Wootton lies a mile away across the fields, but few would walk that far, and after dusk in winter the footpaths and lane inbetween would be positively unwelcoming, even downright dangerous.

The village of Kempston Hardwick is a linear settlement, for which read a few houses strung out along a road. I wandered off to take a look, sticking to the narrow verge above the traffic to avoid being mown down. The first houses appeared after a couple of minutes, a pebbledash parade opposite a single lamppost, plus a noticeboard listing the latest parish council agenda. Further down (but sadly invisible from the road), a moat is all that remains of Hardwick Preceptory, a 13th century priory of the Knights Hospitaller. A few industrial premises follow, intermittently, before reaching what might be called the centre of the village, by the Chimney Corner pub on the Bedford Road. The mainline to St Pancras runs close by, but wouldn't pause for a hamlet like this.

There was once a point to Kempston Hardwick station - a pair of brickworks. The largest was at the far end of Manor Road, the Coronation Brickworks, which for nearly half a century it transformed clay quarried nearby into building materials. Landfill eventually became a more profitable enterprise, and in 1980 the brickworks at Chimney Corner were demolished. Guy Michelmore and the Guinness Book of Records were in attendance, the simultaneous toppling of 18 slender chimneys being a genuine one-off, although the About Anglia news report makes the whole thing seem somehow underwhelming. Immediately beside the station, the Eastwoods Flettons brickworks survived a couple of decades longer, with production finally ceasing in 1999. Nothing can be seen of the site from the road, bar an overgrown gated entrance, but a large expanse of rectangular foundations is clearly visible from the train with buddleia bursting through. [aerial view]

It'd make a lot more sense to have a station at Kempston, Bedford's largest satellite, than out here in the middle of nowhere. Hundreds of potential commuters might choose to start their journeys here rather than battling the traffic jams into town, and the aforementioned retail park would suddenly become a lot more accessible to those without a car. Instead Kempston Hardwick gets the hourly trains, the fortunate recipient of budgetary inertia.

But there is major upheaval on the horizon, with the Marston Vale line a linchpin of the proposed East West Rail Route. This key infrastructure project seeks to reconnect Oxford and Cambridge along a line built by the Victorians and severed by Dr Beeching. The first section out of Oxford is due for completion this December, then a freight line east from Bicester will be appropriated and several miles of disused tracks reinstated. Bletchley to Bedford already exists, but from there to Cambridge things get tougher as the old route has been built upon in several places, and a new path will be needed via Sandy. All sorts of exciting new connections will be made possible, maybe by 2019, maybe by 2024, especially for freight traffic which will be able to follow a new 'Electric Spine' across the country. The tracks through Kempston Hardwick will be a lot busier, but none of the additional trains will be timetabled to stop.

The line's so straight here that it's possible to see my returning train four minutes away as it stops at Stewartby. This time I'm on the two-car-length platform and a 2-carriage train turns up, which can't be operationally deliberate and must be a coincidence. The button by the door takes an age to light up, raising the prospect of being stranded here another hour, before finally permitting admittance. Just me, of course. It's not far back to Bedford, past the ex-brickworks and quarried pits, the industrial estates and retail park. There are several reasons to visit the Marston Vale by train, but rest assured Kempston Hardwick isn't one of them.

» Marston Vale Community Rail Partnership
» Bedford to Bletchley Rail Users' Association
» Kempston Hardwick station over the years

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