diamond geezer

 Friday, September 30, 2016



There was a time, when Sundays were special, that most English families owned only three books. The Bible was one, Pilgrim's Progress another, and the third was Paradise Lost. Its author was John Milton, a 17th century poet and politician, and "one of the preeminent writers in the English language". Paradise Lost is an epic tale in blank verse, more than ten thousand lines of the stuff, with leading roles for Satan, Adam and Eve and a cast of supporting angels. Impressively the author wrote none of it, every word was dictated, because Milton went blind fifteen years before Paradise Lost was published. And the twelve volumes were finished off in the only one of his homes that still stands, a rented cottage in the village of Chalfont St Giles, a few miles to the west of London.
Now came still evening on, and twilight gray
Had in her sober livery all things clad;
Silence accompany'd; for beast and bird,
They to their grassy couch, these to their nests,
Were slunk, all but the wakeful nightingale;
She all night long her amorous descant sung.
John Milton didn't stay here long, just long enough to escape the Plague in the City, and for the Great Fire to wipe out his London property. But Milton's Cottage remains of national importance, and has been in the hands of a group of volunteers since 1887 when Queen Victoria was first to chip in with some money to save it. It is a gorgeously higgledy building, with irregular brick chimneys and gables askew, and is in fact three old cottages knocked together - John lived in the end one.



In the room where the great author would have sat and pondered, at a wooden desk in front of a roaring hearth, the museum has a unique collection of first editions. You can also sit down and read an illustrated version of his epic, should you have the time, and be wilfully impressed by Milton's command of English. He introduced hundreds of words to the language, far more than Shakespeare, including 'echoing', 'lovelorn', 'padlock', 'fragrance', 'terrific' and 'gloom'. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein kicks off with a direct quote from Paradise Lost, as is the title of Philip Pullman's trilogy 'His Dark Materials'.
Which thus must ever fight,
Unless th' Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more Worlds,
Into this wilde Abyss the warie fiend
Stood on the brink of Hell and look'd a while,
Pondering his Voyage.
Don't worry, the museum's not all books, there are for example portraits and busts and pottery sculptures, plus a lock of hair from a disinterred corpse that might or might not be John's. None of the furniture from the rented home survives, obviously, but the floorboards are "as trodden", and a high-backed chair in the adjacent room is thought to be an original from a home elsewhere. It's also illuminating to read about Milton's separate life as a politician, rising swiftly to Cromwell's favour in the month after Charles I was executed and becoming the Commonwealth's equivalent of Foreign Secretary. He spoke more than ten languages and was well travelled in Europe, even meeting up with Galileo on his travels for a chat. But the mid 17th century was a turbulent time, so Milton's beliefs fell in and out of favour, resulting in a prison sentence at the Restoration, then huge public acclaim when Paradise Lost went viral.



Having toured the ground floor there's then the garden to explore, which is larger than it first appears, well-tended and informally laid out. Every plant is labelled on a laminated map, if that's your thing, or you can simply wander up and back and round. A nice touch is the miniature Milton's Cottage in a rear flowerbed, like an escapee from a model village, and another is the selection of nature-focused quotations from Paradise Lost scrawled on mirrored tiles and scattered appropriately. The wishing well beside the front lawn is original, and the magnolia nearby was planted by the Queen Mother when she visited in 1977. Indeed she's been, the Queen's been, the next King's been, this is very much a favoured royal dropping-in point.
Nor love thy life, nor hate; but what thou liv'st
Live well; how long or short permit to Heaven.
On previous visits to Chalfont St Giles I'd always found Milton's Cottage closed, because it was only open on Tuesdays. Now Tuesday is the only day it never opens, but make sure you turn up between Easter and the end of October, and not before 2pm, and not on a Sunday or a Monday unless it's a bank holiday weekend. This Saturday would be fine. Bring £7 in cash (not plastic), a price you might think a bit steep for three rooms and a garden, but the volunteers receive no additional funding so deserve all they get, plus they'd be delighted if you bought a souvenir or two. I must praise the two ladies who showed me round, who were excellently informed and brought the place to life, as well as knowing when to step back and leave me to it.

Oh, and Chalfont St Giles is lovely too. It has the kind of ye olde village green and independent cottagey shopping parade most estate agents would kill for, and it's Buckinghamshire's Best Kept Village again this year, the lucky residents.

How to get to Chalfont St Giles
» Drive (satnav HP8 4JH) and use the free car park alongside
» Get the 730 bus from Beaconsfield, Gerrards Cross or Uxbridge (hourly)
» Get the 353 bus from Amersham, Gerrards Cross or Slough (two-hourly)
» Walk from the train: Seer Green & Jordans (2 miles) or Gerrards Cross (3 miles)
» Walk cross-country from the tube: Amersham (4 miles), Chalfont & Latimer (3 miles) or Chorleywood (3 miles)


Also nearby
» Chiltern Open Air Museum (1 mile)
» Bekonscot model village (3 miles)

 Thursday, September 29, 2016

Here's a fabulous piece of tube trivia.
All 22 stations on the Metropolitan Line from Amersham to Liverpool Street have a letter 'R' in their name.
If only Aldgate had an 'R' as well, that'd be the whole journey from one end of the line to the other, but alas not.

Meanwhile there are 18 consecutive stations with a 'T' on the Piccadilly line between Knightsbridge and Heathrow, and 15 consecutive stations with an 'A' on the Metropolitan line between Barbican and Ruislip Manor.

I confess I didn't spot this myself, it came from a thread on District Dave's Forum last month.

But what really caught my eye was what happens if changes of line are allowed - how many consecutive lettered stations are possible now? To clarify, it's tube stations only, and no station may be visited more than once in each chain.

According to the thread it's possible to travel through 20 successive stations containing the letter 'T', 24 stations with an 'E' and 28 stations with an 'A'. But the winner in this alphabetical challenge is 'R', a letter which they said could be found in the names of 36 successive tube stations from Amersham to North Greenwich. So I thought I'd give this record-breaking 'R' journey a try. And hurrah, I actually managed 38! Here's how.



AMERSHAM
This route begins almost as far out of London as you can get by tube. Only Chesham would be further, but Chesham doesn't have an 'R' in it, so Amersham it is.

→ CHALFONT & LATIMER → CHORLEYWOOD → RICKMANSWORTH
Technically I could divert via Croxley next, because there are a tiny number of journeys round the North Curve between Rickmansworth and Croxley either very early in the morning or very late at night. But connections would be awkward, and TfL don't bother putting this line on the tube map, so I'm going to ignore the possibility.

→ MOOR PARK
When the Metropolitan line extension is opened in 2020 (or whenever), there'll be a better way to start the 'R' challenge. All the stations from Watford Junction down to Croxley will have an 'R' in, and there'll be five of them, knocking the final total up to 39. In the meantime, however, Amersham is the better way to begin.

→ NORTHWOOD → NORTHWOOD HILLS → PINNER → NORTH HARROW → HARROW-ON-THE-HILL → NORTHWICK PARK → PRESTON ROAD → WEMBLEY PARK
Metropolitan line trains from Amersham used to run fast through a lot of this section, skipping stations to get passengers to central London faster. But these days only a few rush hour services run fast, which means residents of Pinner get more trains but residents of Amersham get slower trains (and stop at lots more stations with an 'R' in).

→ FINCHLEY ROAD
Could a diversion down the Jubilee line have added five more stations? Alas no, because Neasden, Dollis Hill and West Hampstead don't have an 'R' in them, so I had to stay on the Met and speed by.

→ BAKER STREET
Similarly I couldn't take the Jubilee line along this stretch because Swiss Cottage and St John's Wood aren't playing ball. Indeed it's a well known piece of tube trivia that St John's Wood is the only tube station to share no letters with the word 'mackerel', and that's got an 'R' in it.

→ GREAT PORTLAND STREET → EUSTON SQUARE → KING'S CROSS ST PANCRAS
The Metropolitan line continues to Liverpool Street via four more stations with an 'R' in them, but Liverpool Street is surrounded by stations that don't have an 'R' in them so is pretty much a dead end. Instead it's finally time to get off my first train and head for the stations inside the ring of the Circle line. One hour down, one hour to go.

RUSSELL SQUARE → HOLBORN → COVENT GARDEN → LEICESTER SQUARE
The Piccadilly line is the only way out from King's Cross St Pancras, because I can't travel via Euston, because it doesn't have an 'R' in it.

→ TOTTENHAM COURT ROAD → GOODGE STREET → WARREN STREET
And now the shenanigans begin. By some fantastic lexicographical quirk, every station inside the Circle line has an 'R' in it (excluding Queensway up one end, and Bank and St Paul's up the other). This reduces the challenge to 'trying to visit as many stations as possible without doing one twice', before exiting the central area at Victoria. Expect a lot of zigzagging.

→ OXFORD CIRCUS
After Oxford Circus and before Green Park, there's a choice of nipping to either Bond Street or Piccadilly Circus - it's not possible to collect both. I chose to take the Bakerloo line because the interchange at Oxford Circus is really easy.

→ PICCADILLY CIRCUS
It'd be nice to pick up Charing Cross by going one more stop down the Bakerloo and coming back up the Northern, but I've already been to Leicester Square, so Charing Cross has to go uncollected.

→ GREEN PARK
And it'd be nice to continue along the Piccadilly line to pick up Hyde Park Corner and Knightsbridge, but South Kensington has other ideas about that, by not having an 'R' in it.

→ VICTORIA
I've now reached the opposite side of the Circle line and grabbed ten stations inbetween, which I believe is the maximum possible, and the key to the challenge.

→ ST JAMES'S PARK → WESTMINSTER
If the first hour on the Metropolitan line was easy, the last 40 minutes spent interchanging around central London has been somewhat of an assault course, and is not for the faint-hearted.

→ WATERLOO → SOUTHWARK → LONDON BRIDGE → BERMONDSEY → CANADA WATER → CANARY WHARF → NORTH GREENWICH
Thankfully the end of the journey is easy, as the Jubilee line delivers seven consecutive stations to finish off the challenge. What is it about the letter 'R' which makes it appear so frequently in the names of tube stations? But it's not possible to continue past North Greenwich as the next stations are Canning Town and West Ham, and they're sadly R-less. Still, that's 38 stations in a row all with the letter 'R' in them, which is pretty damned impressive in itself.



P.S. Yes, I have genuinely travelled this route, and it took me 1 hour and 57 minutes.

P.P.S. If the cable car were part of the tube network, I could then have continued from Greenwich Peninsula to Royal Docks - it's not even necessary to include the name of the sponsor - making 40. And if the DLR were allowed too, I could then have extended my route from Royal Victoria all the way to Gallions Reach, making 47 in total. But that's not allowed, so 38 it is.

P.P.P.S. When Crossrail opens, I think we can get the 'R' total up from 38 to 40 by including a hyperleap between Tottenham Court Road and Bond Street. But in the meantime 38 is the maximum possible, and that's still amazing enough, I think you'll agree.

 Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Government announces Brexit Bank Holiday

The Home Secretary has announced that the triggering of Article 50 next year will be marked by a public holiday.

Prime Minister Theresa May welcomed the announcement and said: "Pressing the button to exit the European Union will be a happy and momentous occasion for our country. We want to mark the day as one of national celebration. A public holiday will ensure the most people possible will have a chance to celebrate on the day."

A full programme of commemorative events will be held across the country, from Sunderland to Cornwall, and from Blackpool to Great Yarmouth. Celebrities including Noel Edmonds and Sir Ian Botham will lead rallies in key constituency hubs, and a range of British-made souvenir merchandise will be available for purchase.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said: "The last few months have been a difficult time for Britain. A turbulent referendum campaign tore the country apart, pitting neighbour against neighbour and reason against hate. We now seek to drive forward the momentum of that collective decision, and to heal the wounds with a good old British knees-up."

All private sector workers will be given the day off, along with selected public sector workers including teachers in academies and outsourced colleagues on zero hours contracts.

David Davis, Minister for Exiting the European Union, said: "Only when Article 50 is triggered will the Brexit process become real and unstoppable. Whilst we are not yet ready to release all the details, we want the public to be as prepared as possible for this historic day, and to unite together towards a common aim."

The public holiday will apply only to businesses in England and Wales. The electorates of Northern Ireland and Scotland failed to vote Leave, so it would be unfair to give them the day off.

Small amounts of funding will be available for hosting street parties, village fetes and parades of armed forces veterans. A 'Fifties' theme has been confirmed, looking back towards a golden age of rosy austerity. All free-to-air TV channels other than BBC1 and ITV will close down for the day, and the Channel Tunnel will be temporarily sealed off. Meanwhile Mary Berry and Marks and Spencer will join forces to release a special selection of era-appropriate British treats including spam and blancmange washed down with a bottle of dandelion and burdock.

Citizens will be encouraged to send 'Happy Article 50' greetings cards and to drape their homes with red tape. Gary Barlow and Andrea Leadsom will headline a special concert on The Mall in conjunction with The Sun newspaper, with tickets awarded to a random selection of confirmed Leave voters. At dusk a chain of beacons will be lit starting from the White Cliffs of Dover, spreading a message of hope to all four corners of our country. Migrants may be invited to the festivities with community consent. The day will end with a series of bonfires beside rivers, because it would be especially symbolic to burn bridges as our exit from the EU is confirmed.

The name of the public holiday is as yet undecided. The Prime Minister suggested Article 50 Day, but focus groups suggested this was a bit dull. Liam Fox suggested Victory Over Europe Day, but this was thought too triumphalist. Boris Johnson suggested The Big Brexit Red Button Holiday, until it was pointed out that this is too long to fit in a Daily Express headline. Nigel rang in to suggest Independence Day, but this was considered a bit over-the-top, and the actual day of independence will be at least two years hence. The Home Office sub-committee in charge of things even considered asking an expert, then remembered that Britain's had enough of experts. Instead a shortlist of suggestions will be aired on The One Show in November and put to the public vote, and the most populist of these will be adopted. In the meantime the codename St Brexit's Day is being deployed, which seems to sum things up well enough.

As yet it is not possible to confirm the date of this additional bank holiday. We cannot pre-announce the precise moment that Article 50 will be triggered because this would place us at a disadvantage in future negotiations with the EU and our trading partners. Obviously June 23rd is high on the list, as this would be the first anniversary of Our Glorious Revolution, but that's probably too obvious. Several Cabinet members were quite keen on April 23rd, except that's a Sunday next year and so ineligible. Boris Johnson wanted May 30th to make a long weekend of the Spring break, but the Chancellor explained he probably can't target the date that precisely. Instead the public holiday will be scheduled whenever fits best with how things are going, all things considered, and will be delivered in the fullness of time when conditions are right.

Confirmation of the date of St Brexit's Day will be released via social media on the previous evening, shortly after financial markets cease trading, thereby increasing economic stability in turbulent times. This is an important part of the plan, almost as important as guaranteeing that the stock markets are closed on the day Article 50 is triggered. This isn't really a public holiday for the public, it's a bank holiday for the banks, ensuring that there can't be a run on the pound when Brexit becomes irreversible.

In the meantime rest assured that this current period of political stalemate will soon be over, because our plans are definitely coming together. We do very much know what we are doing, and we'll have those trade deals and that ban on immigration sorted before you know it. In the meantime we've cooked up this diversionary sideshow as a patriotic smokescreen, and to make it look like we're doing something.

Please make plans now to join us on St Brexit's Day, assuming it happens, and whenever it may be.

 Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Beyond London (14): Broxbourne (part 2)

Yesterday I hastened down the Lea from Hoddesdon to Holdbrook. Today it's time to trek across Broxbourne from east to west. [11 photos]

Somewhere historic: Waltham Cross
Two Walthams coexist on either side of the River Lea - the more ancient Waltham Abbey on the Essex side, and the one we're interested in in Herts. Its name derives from the funeral procession of Queen Eleanor of Castile, beloved wife of King Edward I, who died in a village near Lincoln in November 1290. The queen's embalmed body was then transported to Westminster Abbey for burial, pausing overnight a dozen times, and the King later had memorial crosses built at each stop along the way. Waltham was the last stop before London, a diversion from Watling Street to Ermine Street so that Eleanor's procession would end with a ride through the City. Of the twelve Eleanor Crosses only three survive today - two in Northamptonshire and one here at Waltham, now Waltham Cross.



The monument has three hexagonal storeys, like an ecclesiastical wedding cake, topped off with a spire and cross. It almost didn't survive, having been ill-treated by villagers and clipped by several coaches over the years. In 1728 a certain Mrs Robinson "rebuilt part of her house and encroached upon the road and broke down a good deal of the cross to make way for her roof", and in 1796 "much of its beauty is concealed and many of its ornaments disfigured" thanks to extensions at the neighbouring tavern. The cross's exterior brims with 13th century symbolism, and features some especially fine carvings of the queen, but these are not the originals. When the cross was restored in 1950 the crumbling carvings were due to be binned, but Cheshunt's librarian far-sightedly rescued and rehoused them, and they're now in the care of the V&A.

Eleanor's cross now stands behind railings in the centre of a pedestrianised square and looks clean and cared-for, though surrounded by buildings that are anything but ancient. On Saturday the cross was being serenaded by two buskers, almost tunefully, while a man in a red trailer parked alongside attempted to flog me Virgin Broadband. The betting shop opposite is the site of the aforementioned tavern, Ye Old Four Swannes Inn, well known in these parts for the quartet of swans perched on a gantry across the High Street. Again these are replicas, the elm originals having been transferred to Lowewood Museum in 2007 (where I caught them earlier, and very splendid they are too).
by train: Waltham Cross,  by bus: 217, 279, 317, 327, 491

My next location is less than a mile distant, but excuse me while I make a pilgrimage to my grandparents' house along the way. I know this area well from visiting it a lot as a child, and my Mum knew it better because she grew up here. Their very ordinary semi still stands, though only just, being a hairsbreadth from the tarmac chasm bulldozed through Waltham Cross in the late 1970s to feed traffic onto the A10 bypass (whereas at least the M25 had the good manners to tunnel underneath). The diamond lights in my gran's front door might still be the same, but the solar panels on the roof are new, and the lawn in the front garden has been paved over so that two identical black Fords with matching personalised numberplates can be parked outside. On Saturday new neighbours were emptying their belongings from the back of a white van, while the oddball in the house at the top of the street had stuck a sign to their wall urging 'The Pigs' to STOP LEAVING RABISH NR MY DOOR OR TAKE IT TO YOUR MOTHER. Never go back.

Somewhere pretty: Cedars Park
Whereas Queen Eleanor only passed through Waltham Cross, King James I spent much of his time here. He took a particular shine to Theobalds Palace, and persuaded the Cecil family to swap it for Hatfield House, whereupon he had the place extended into a turrety mansion on the scale of Hampton Court. The estate was enormous, marked by a ten mile long wall around the perimeter, and swiftly became James's favourite place outside the capital. A menagerie of animals including five camels and an elephant was kept to entertain guests, along with grand gardens centred round a marble fountain with secret pipes to splash unwitting passers-by. Charles I spent much of his childhood at Theobalds, and the announcement of his accession to the throne was made at the gate after his father died here following a particularly nasty bout of dysentery. But Charles was also the palace's undoing, it being handed over to the Commonwealth after the Civil War who promptly demolished it.



A subsequent mansion called The Cedars is now a conference centre, privately owned, in whose grounds London's Temple Bar nearly crumbled away. But the spot where the palace once stood is now a 47 acre park, open to the commoners of Broxbourne, who flood in to enjoy a resource far better than your average recreation ground. One 17th century arched wall remains, which you can walk or ride or even skateboard through on your way to the rose garden. Down by the wildflower meadow is a spiral turf mound, or Venusberg, recently piled up to mimic a Jacobean viewing feature. The trees are particularly fine, as you tend to find on the estate of a former mansion, and a couple of older buildings contain a tearoom for the adults and a Pets Corner for the kids. The original Elizabethan palace had a hedge maze, and this has been recreated by volunteers from News International, whose monolithic 21st century printing works lurks less than half a mile away. And all across Cedars Park are impressively evocative plaques, really very well done, explaining what used to be here when this was Monarchy Central.
by train: Theobalds Grove

Somewhere musically famous (1): 12 Hargreaves Close, Bury Green
Cliff Richard is from Broxbourne, although not originally, neither was that his real name. Harry Webb was born in India in 1940, his family emigrating to England after independence, downsizing several notches from Empire comfort to suburban house-sharing. In April 1951 the family were offered a three-bedroomed council house in Bury Green, an estate on the western side of Cheshunt, at 12 Hargreaves Close. Young Harry went to the same school as my Mum (though she'd have left by then), and performed his first concert at the youth club behind the church where my parents got married (though he'd have been far too famous by then to appear at the reception). Band rehearsals took place in the front room at number 12, where the skiffle sometimes got too loud for the neighbours at number 11 who once begged the council to stop "these long, noisy evenings." Harry gave them short shrift, and played on. [map]



Hargreaves Close is rather quieter today, or at least it is on a Saturday afternoon. Not a soul was out of doors, which is probably just as well when you're stalking a cul-de-sac with a camera. Each side of the close is a single terrace, made up from what look like semi-detached houses merged together, with a central space of lawn and hardstanding for parking all the cars everybody now owns. Number 12 is down the far end on the right, now with porch and uPVC windows, and a small shrub in a grey stone pot by the door. The owner's probably tired of fans dropping by for a gawp, although it can't be as bad as the time in 2009 when Cliff himself popped back for a visit and an interview with Piers Morgan. I liked the estate, it had a sense of space and greenery, and endearing street signs with each road's name hand-painted with letters of somewhat variable thickness. All this plus an adventure playground on the green in Tudor Avenue - as I say, deserted, but still a good place to bring up The Young Ones.
by train: Theobalds Grove

I'd nearly been to Cliff's road several times, but not quite, because my grandparents are buried 100 metres away in Cheshunt Cemetery. I was never sure how they managed to get such a prime location near the chapel, and I still don't know which arm of the family comes down to keep the gravestone clean. I strode up the yew avenue and paused for a short while to say hello, like you do, then wandered up to the very far end where I failed to find my auntie. While walking back to the entrance I spotted a blue star-shaped helium balloon rising over my head into the sky, and looked across to see the small child who'd just released it. "Bye Dad!" he called, standing proudly with his brother, mum and nan as the balloon drifted higher and eventually out of sight. Always go back.

Somewhere musically famous (2): The Old School House, Goffs Oak
Victoria Adams is from Goffs Oak, the only significant village in the district of Broxbourne. She's better known as Victoria Beckham, perhaps better still as Posh Spice, one of the sparky girl group who owned the mid-Nineties. And having been to Goffs Oak I now see where the 'Posh' bit came from, indeed the adjective could hardly have been anything else. [map]

There are two bits to Goffs Oak, with the main village a commuter hub up a long hill from Cuffley. It's smart but not oppressively so - it has a laundrette and a Co-Op, so how could it be? By contrast the Adams family's bit of Goffs Oak is disjoint across the fields, a nucleus of homes unreachable by pavement, but then nobody around here doesn't drive. At its heart is a crossroads and a single pub, the Prince of Wales, off whose four arms curl a handful of more-than desirable cul-de-sacs. Not all the houses are gated, but the majority are, with spike-topped railings in black and gold, and intercoms to keep unwelcome visitors out. Personalised numberplates are the order of the day, so I wasn't surprised when three consecutive Range Rovers went by, nor when the only business on St James Road turned out to be a car wash.



Most of the houses are infill but Victoria lived in one of the originals, The Old School House, located halfway between the pub and the parish church. Two-storey and three-gabled, it's large without being massive, and nicely finished in cream and timber. Further back along the road is a double garage with a toy soldier on sentry duty outside, and space for a full dinner party to park alongside. Just a fraction of garden is visible from the road, complete with classical statue, and there's every hint that this would have been a delightful place to grow up. Indeed I understand Victoria's parents still live here, which says something when your daughter is a global brand who could fund a house anywhere. But who'd move when Goffs Oak appears to get posh right, still a compact community rather than a string of isolated fortresses, and quite some springboard for a girl with dreams of fame.
by train: Cuffley

So far: Dartford, Sevenoaks, Tandridge, Reigate & Banstead, Epsom & Ewell, Mole Valley, Elmbridge, Spelthorne, Slough, South Bucks, Three Rivers, Hertsmere, Welwyn Hatfield, Broxbourne

 Monday, September 26, 2016

Beyond London (14): Broxbourne (part 1)

Broxbourne's the last of four Hertfordshire districts on my orbital tour of the capital, and one of the smaller boroughs surrounding London. Essentially it's a string of merged residential areas threaded down the A10 to the west of the River Lea, plus a bit of countryside tacked on for balance. Hoddesdon and Broxbourne are the towns at the top of the chain, and Cheshunt and and Waltham Cross at the bottom. Two of the most obvious places for sightseeing are the New River and River Lea itself, but I've walked both of those before so gave them a miss. And whilst Broxbourne's not otherwise an obvious destination for a day out, I hunted down a few hopefully interesting locations. [11 photos]

Somewhere to begin: Lowewood Museum



Broxbourne's museum is housed in a Georgian mansion at the quiet end of Hoddesdon's High Street. It's part of a municipal cluster which includes a police station and Broxbourne's civic hall, the latter recently rebranded 'Spotlight', and soon to welcome Julian Clary and a Little Mix tribute act (separately, you'll be relieved to hear). The museum has a couple of rooms downstairs and three up, plus a central hallway with a video camera which allows the unseen lady on the desk to say hello to you as you walk in. The borough has a fair bit of history from its location on the road north out of London, and as a favoured spot for royalty, which I'll come back to in due course. There's also a goodly collection of Victoriana from an era of long-gone shops, and souvenirs from when local towns were favoured weekend destinations for leisure-seeking Londoners.

Hoddesdon gets rather more of a look in than the rest of the district, perhaps not surprising when it's on the doorstep, but a bit of a disappointment if you're a visitor whose family grew up at the Cheshunt end. A rather broader approach was taken by the travelling exhibition in the main gallery which showcases musical talent from across the East of England, including the not-local Depeche Mode and the very local Cliff Richard. This exhibition closed yesterday, so I won't go on about it, but I did relish the opportunity to press a button and play my Mum's favourite song in her local museum, and the discordant clash this made with the wartime ditties playing outside. Meanwhile the gift shop so prominently advertised outside on the pavement probably won't solve your Christmas gift problems, sorry, unless you're a resident with an interest in local history, in which case there's every chance.
by train: Broxbourne

Somewhere random: Hoddesdon



I'm not sure how I've never been to Hoddesdon before, although this may have a lot to do with badly-spaced stations. The town's had a market since the 13th century and grew later as a coaching stop, being not quite halfway to Cambridge, before the railway whisked that trade away. A surprising number of old buildings remain - the downloadable Heritage Trail lists 52 separate locations - including a charming tavern from 1532 and an repurposed office block from 1622. The High Street in particular is bubbling over with character, much of it timber-framed, and remains a popular location for weekend shopping. The Victorian clocktower at the north end was built on the site of a medieval chapel, hence still belongs to the diocese of St Albans, and retains two of the original clock faces. Looming behind is an ill-advised block of flats above a Morrisons, plus a modern shopping mall that looks wholly out of place (and is mostly dead). So yes, a nice town to have on your doorstep, but not even the Heritage Trail could fire my enthusiasm for a longer stay.
by train: Rye House

Somewhere retail: Tesco HQ
If you have a tin or packet from Tesco in your kitchen cupboard, and it's been there for a year or more, it probably says 'Produced for Tesco Stores Ltd, Cheshunt' on the back. Jack Cohen's company rolled into town in 1973, opening up New Tesco House on Delamare Road to act as its headquarters. At the time Tesco wasn't the retail behemoth we know today, just a high street stalwart diversifying into grocery, but the scale of its new office suggested high hopes for the future.



Delamare Road is one turn back from Cheshunt station, a one-street industrial estate running for quarter of a mile beside the railway. It's not the kind of place you'd expect to house such a major brand, indeed the immediate neighbours are a printing company and a Monster Gym. But there it is, a five-storey concrete bunker with several rows of identically indented windows, either magnificently brutalist or oppressively no-frills, depending on your perspective. Look closely at the white plastic fascia above the entrance and you can just make out the company logo, while underneath a security guard sits waiting for a workforce who will never return. For alas New Tesco House is a casualty of the company's recent accounting scandal, closed to save money with the loss of 2000 staff, and all business merged into existing premises on the dull side of Welwyn Garden City.

The electric car charging points installed out front now seem a complete waste of money, and the sign pointing round the back towards Deliveries is no longer true. Two further buildings across the road have been sealed off with low concrete blocks, sufficient to deter invasion by vehicle if nothing else, together with a forwarding address and map for anyone who turns up here by mistake. No lorries turn up any more, and judging by the scale of one rear depot there'd once have been dozens of them. Instead the site waits to discover its future, with housing the most likely ultimate fate. Thousands of new residents will be able to commute easily to jobs up in London, which'll be convenient, there being rather fewer opportunities on their doorstep.
by train: Cheshunt

Somewhere sporting: Lee Valley White Water Centre
When London's 2012 sporting infrastructure was doled out, Hertfordshire got canoe slalom, the original intention being to build a circuit by the Lea near Broxbourne. But that site was too contaminated, so instead an overspill car park beside the county boundary with Essex was acquired, which is how several medals came to be handed out just off the main road between Waltham Cross and Waltham Abbey. And four years later the resulting infrastructure at the Lee Valley White Water Centre is still being well used, indeed at the weekend it was absolutely thriving.



There are two slalom circuits, one wild and Olympic standard, the other for more intermediate paddlers. You'd likely have more luck on the latter, the Legacy Loop, where children skim round in what look like tyres and middle-aged men in wetsuits haul themselves out of the water after an unfortunate kayak tumble. But all eyes are on the main cascade, a rough descent over artificial grade 4 rapids, where the white water of the centre's name is all too apparent. Canoeists use the weirs to practise turns and tumbles, but the main commercial event these days is rafting. Groups of nine tog up in protective layers and inch (or hurtle) round the course, watched over by a coach who encourages and cajoles, and a team of staff who watch from the sidelines ready to help anyone who flies loose. Several participants came unstuck while I was watching, one flopping out like a dead salmon as their raft descended into the foam, before hauling himself back on board further down the course.

It's not for me, I have enough trouble swimming, and I'd have been weeded out by the safety assessment in the lake at the beginning. But corporate clients lap up this stuff midweek, while stag and hen parties are amongst those taking advantage at the weekend. At £50 a seat it's not cheap, but it is a nice little earner for the site, and goes to pay for the hydraulics which keep the waterway churning over. The other thing management got right was the The Terrace, a cafe bar plus BBQ which overlooks the start of the descent. The first time I saw its exterior decking five years ago I thought it far too large, but this Saturday it was packed with friends and families and hangers on of those out on the water, plus those who'd already been round, totally ignoring the action while they tucked into coffee, prosecco, beers and meat. A rip-roaring post-Olympic success, I'd say, in a way the Velopark back in Stratford rarely seems to be.
by train: Waltham Cross

 Sunday, September 25, 2016

Where do North, West, South and East London meet?

In terms of postcodes they don't, because the 'N' postcodes and 'S' postcodes never touch.

But there are two spots where three postcode compass points meet, and they're the red dots on this map.



The point where South meets West meets East is in the middle of the River Thames. It's almost exactly the same spot where Westminster meets Lambeth meets the City, and is less than 100 metres from the centre of the Garden Bridge, should that ever be built.

But you can't actually visit South West East London unless you're in a boat, so I'm giving it a miss.

Instead I've been to the point where North, West and East London meet - that's the top red dot on the map. What's more it's nowhere important, it's an obscure road junction on a side street, about half a mile from the Royal Mail's largest London sorting office. And it looks like this.



This rather splendid row of Georgian townhouses is in Finsbury, near Angel, just off the Pentonville Road.

The houses on the left are in East London. This is Amwell Street EC1, named after one of the sources of the New River which ends at the bottom of the road. It's a broad and desirable thoroughfare with smart sash windows and basement flats, and small independent shops of the type that the Evening Standard likes to gurgle about. There used to be a Post Office a few doors down but that closed ten years ago.

The houses on the right are in North London. This is Claremont Square N1, a fractionally more upmarket location with terraces of smart villas around three sides. In the centre is a covered reservoir, 55 metres square, built by the New River Company in 1855 to store and filter their water supply. Concealed beneath a raised mound of grass, the reservoir is reputedly made from four million bricks, and is still in use today.

The road leading off inbetween is in West London. This is Cruikshank Street WC1, a short one-way street of elegant 4-bedroom maisionettes with a classical touch. Originally called Bond Street, it was renamed in 1938 to honour 19th century caricaturist George Cruikshank who lived nearby. At the foot of the street is Bevin Court, a striking Y-shaped block of Modernist social housing designed by Berthold Lubetkin.



This quiet corner of Islington is the only place in London where the street signs have postcodes starting with N and W and E. It is the very kind of location that tends to make urban psychogeographers very excited.

I stood on the street corner for a few minutes attempting to channel the creative tension and cultural disconnect, but felt nothing, which isn't surprising because postcodes have no bearing on anything other than how residents' letters are sorted. But this is the precise point where North, West and East London meet. For what it's worth.

 Saturday, September 24, 2016

100 years ago today a bomb fell on the Black Swan pub in Bow Road, and five people were killed, including the publican's two daughters.

And this might be just another wartime tale, except that the flying machine causing the damage was a Zeppelin, the German crew were later captured by a village policeman, and the two daughters reputedly came back as ghosts.

This is the story of L33, one of four Super Zeppelins which targeted London and the South East on the evening of 23rd September 1916. At 200 metres long, these rigid airships were Germany's latest masterweapon and on their inaugural mission, and only one of the four would return safely to base.

Zeppelin L33 was captained by Alois Böcker and had a crew of twenty-one, plus a cargo of high explosive bombs and incendiaries stashed in a compartment in the centre of the keel. After crossing the Channel it passed over Foulness Island at 10.40pm, approaching the capital via Billericay (11.27pm) and Upminster (11.40pm). Here it dropped its first bombs on the common, causing no damage, before reaching Wanstead at a minute to midnight. A change of course took the Zeppelin down towards the Thames, passing between the anti-aircraft guns at Beckton and North Woolwich, then zigzagging back towards West Ham. It was a misty night, but East London was well served with searchlights and these picked out the aerial invader with ease, and a few minutes into Sunday 24th September one of the ground-based defences scored a direct hit.

With hydrogen now leaking from within, the German crew needed to lose weight fast, so an impromptu bombing raid began. The first cluster of high explosives landed off St Leonard's Street near to the junction with Empson Street (today just off the A12 opposite Bow School). Four terraced houses were wrecked, many nearby windows were shattered, and six people were killed. Some larger bombs were dropped on the North London Railway Carriage Depot, a maze of sidings and engine sheds beside what's now the DLR, north of the Limehouse Cut. Considerable damage was done to a boiler house, to rolling stock and to the tracks themselves. The next bomb damaged several houses and a Baptist Chapel on Botolph Road, a slum street long since vanished (behind the betting shop on Stroudley Walk). And then the Zeppelin reached Bow Road.



The Black Swan pub had stood on the corner of Bromley High Street for a hundred years, opposite St Mary's Church in the heart of the old village of Bow. The landlord in 1916 was Edwin John Reynolds, and he and his extended family lived in a suite of rooms above the bar. At precisely 12.12am a single 100kg bomb hit the pub dead centre, taking out all the floors down to the basement, and leaving a heavy pall of smoke in the air. The wife of the licensee was found in the cellar, and his two daughters Cissie and Sylvia were killed by the blast. His mother-in-law Mrs Potter also lost her life, and firemen found the dead body of Sylvia's one year-old daughter stuck in the rafters. Seven other local residents were injured when the neighbouring premises were destroyed, after what had been a wholly unexpected and tragic night.

The Zeppelin continued to the north, dropping another 100kg bomb at the eastern end of Wrexham Road (now the junction with the A12 dual carriageway). Three women were injured here, but little damage was done. Turning east towards Stratford the flight path now crossed what was then an industrial zone along the River Lea. A bomb fell on Cook's Soap Works (on Cooks Road) and failed to explode, while the British Petroleum works on Marshgate Lane were not so fortunate - several underground oil pipes were broken and a large water main damaged. Most of the airship's remaining bombs fell inconsequentially on Stratford Marsh (now the southern part of the Olympic Park), but one hit Judd's Match Factory, setting it on fire and destroying most of the stock.

Even with its ammunition dropped, L33 was still losing height and the captain made the decision to withdraw into Essex. The wounded Zeppelin headed off via Leytonstone, Woodford and Buckhurst Hill, taking another hit from ground defences at Kelvedon Hatch, eventually reaching the coast near West Mersea. Böcker's plan was to sink his airship in the North Sea to prevent the British from recovering its technology, but at 1.15am a gust of wind brought the craft down tail first in fields outside Little Wigborough. All of the crew survived the crash landing, and promptly set their craft alight in the hope that it would be destroyed. Then they marched off down the lane, where they promptly bumped into a Special Constable on a bike with a flashlight, attracted by the blaze. He was, understandably, suspicious.

"How many miles is it to Colchester?" asked Kapitänleutnant Böcker, in a not-quite-convincing English accent. Suspicions confirmed, the constable followed the Germans up the lane to Peldon, where they were delivered to the village constable who formally arrested them. Böcker and his crew became the only armed soldiers to be captured on English soil during the First World War, and were swiftly transferred to the military base on Mersea Island. Meanwhile the frame of the Zeppelin was still mostly intact, and attracted a quarter of a million sightseers and souvenir hunters over the subsequent weeks. The military were also delighted to have foreign technology to investigate, and incorporated aspects of the German design into later British airships.



The crash of the L33 is the most exciting thing ever to have happened in Little Wigborough, and is being celebrated this weekend with a centenary event called Zepfest. A £10 ticket will allow you to walk the crash site, hear talks from experts and see a selection of World War 1 vehicles, as well as experience a flypast (weather permitting). You should also be able to pop into St Nicholas church to see the memorial to Zeppelina Williams (1916-2004), a baby girl born in the neighbouring village on the day of the crash and whose name was suggested by the doctor who delivered her.

Back in Bow, the Black Swan pub was eventually rebuilt in 1920. All sorts of apocryphal tales exist of the ghosts of Cissie and Sylvia Reynolds appearing in the building, and of beer taps starting and shutting off by themselves. It's clearly tosh, especially any supposed sightings in the last 40 years because the pub was demolished in the early 1970s to make way for the widening of Bromley High Street. Head down today and you'll see Hardwicke House, a none-too exciting block of flats, and absolutely no pubs at all. So entirely has pre- and post-war redevelopment wiped away the Bromley side of Bow that few who live here now could even begin to picture the scene 100 years ago when fire rained down from a Zeppelin overnight. But what a story.



» Other accounts of the L33 raid
» Ordnance Survey map of Bow (1898)
» Photos of the Black Swan before demolition (1970)
» Two-minute video clip from Little Wigborough (BBC)
» An incendiary bomb that fell on Bromley-by-Bow (now at the IWM)

 Friday, September 23, 2016

Should we build the Garden Bridge? I've been down to the intended site to decide for myself.

I started at the northern end of the proposed span, at Temple. Very few people were using the station, which is fortunate because it's going to have to be closed for six months when construction gets underway, and this means nobody will be inconvenienced. When the bridge finally opens the station will be immediately adjacent to a world-class tourist destination, thereby justifying its existence, and providing useful access to Somerset House and the Strand.



The area immediately around Temple station is an inaccessible backwater, adjacent only to the Thames Embankment, and would be greatly enhanced if tourists from the South Bank were able to reach it more easily. Also the East-West Cycle Superhighway passes this way, so cyclists won't need to go up to the new bridge to push their bikes across the river, and £30m of transport funding won't have been wasted.

At the moment the immediate locality can only support a small independent cafe, an Australian-themed bar and two stalls selling magazines and fruit. Although this makes it easy to buy a proper breakfast and a copy of Private Eye, modern visitors expect so much more, and the opportunity to introduce chain outlets selling mass-produced pastries should not be understated.



Alongside in Temple Place is a Grade II listed Cabmen's Shelter, a small green hut opened in 1880, providing rest and sustenance for the taxi trade. This will have to move when the road is pedestrianised, shifting parking spaces for the cab trade into neighbouring Surrey Street, and with the added benefit that passers-by will then no longer be distracted by the offer of a freshly-fried bacon butty or toasted ham sandwich from the hatch for £2.50.

Access to the Garden Bridge will be via lifts or stairs to an upper deck on top of Temple station. This upper deck already exists, and is a bland featureless expanse with only a table tennis table and more than thirty benches. Bad planning means that any view across the river is blocked by trees, so in summer there really is nothing to see, and heaven knows why quite so many people were up there.



The view from the centre of the river will obviously be much better, there being no annoyingly massive trees in the way, because the deck of the bridge can't support substantial roots. But the span will thrive with plantlife, which means nobody will miss the three plane trees on the Victoria Embankment which will have to be felled so that the Garden Bridge can carve through. From what I saw, the leaves are already turning yellow and starting to fall off, so the removal of these diseased trees can't come soon enough.

A big gap exists between Waterloo Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge, a ghastly planning oversight which makes crossing the river very difficult. To reach Waterloo Bridge from Temple I had to walk for three and a half minutes, which is clearly beyond the ability of most people. More to the point I passed only forty trees along the way, suggesting that the new Garden Bridge will really bring this barren stretch of the Thames to life.



The view from Waterloo Bridge is distinctly substandard, with some domed cathedral in the background, and a big watery space where the Garden Bridge ought to be. Also there's no vegetation on Waterloo Bridge, only an awful lot of traffic, and none of the deck is sponsored. Especially confusing are the rules which mean the bridge is permanently accessible to the public and not sealed off overnight, nor watched over by private security guards, nor closed twelve days a year for jollies.

The South Bank is of course ridiculously busy, and urgently needs an additional exit to ease the pressure. My trek back from Waterloo Bridge to the Garden Bridge's intended landing point took all of three minutes, so was a real slog, and involved walking past another forty trees. Again the riverside walkway isn't really suitable for cyclists, so preventing them from riding across a beautiful arboreal span will prove no hardship.



The Garden Bridge clearly has to touch down somewhere, and a patch of lawn in front of ITV's South Bank studios is more ideal than most. Hardly anybody uses it, so a concrete and steel platform will be more welcome than the risk of treading in something unpleasant. A number of occasional coffee vans already utilise the embankment close by, and IBM's office block isn't exactly scenic, so the arrival of a grey structure with retail outlets won't look entirely out of place.

Somewhat disappointingly a pressure group has attached signs to each of the three dozen trees on the South Bank they say will be cut down to make way from the bridge and its associated podium. But they may be lying, and these mature specimens may somehow be left standing around the footprint of the new building, so long as the row of shops and cafes doesn't stretch out too far. What's for certain is that this invasive propaganda has an impact on those walking by, and many strike up a conversation about the integrity of the Garden Bridge as they pass.



It's surprisingly hard to envisage the impact the Garden Bridge will have at its two endpoints, even given the vast amount of publicity this landmark project has had over the last few years. Only when the trucks arrive and the chainsaws start to whirr will the reality start to bite, and it'll then be a couple of years before the utopian crossing opens and the sponsors start to get their money's worth.

The Lumley-Heatherwick Bridge, as it will surely be known, is a bold architectural project unique in its ability to divide public opinion. How astonishing it might be to walk across the Thames between horticultural specimens from around the world, pausing to enjoy the vistas opened up mid-river and paying heed to all necessary bye-laws. Tourists will flock to London to see it, two vibrant cultural districts will be linked, and an ever-changing seasonal landscape will be unlocked each day at six.



But how can the project's questionable funding be justified, and should we be encouraging the privatisation of public space, and wouldn't any bridge be better located elsewhere? Let's hope this folly is never built.

 Thursday, September 22, 2016

300 things I love about London
[because it's fifteen years today since I moved here]

Life, nightlife, the sense of history, the Underground, the Overground, canalside strolls, the view from Greenwich Park, the fact there's always somewhere new to discover, cutting-edge architecture, classical architecture, curvaceous Regent Street, the chimes of Big Ben, the 2012 Olympics, layers of history, nightbuses, investment, world cinema, world cuisine, the world in a city, a Muslim Mayor, London is Open, sunlight on the Thames, the museums in South Kensington, the museums that aren't in South Kensington, not needing a car, the wobbly Millennium Bridge, the City's dragons, a bus stop within 400m, it's quicker to walk, being able to choose from more than two local radio stations, suburbia, Trellick, Balfron, step-free travel, Tate Modern, mudlarking, Hampstead, the view from Hampstead Heath, diversity, acceptance, mind the gap, five of Arsenal's Premiership away matches being nearly at home, strolling along the South Bank, Waterloo sunset, the view from the top of anywhere tall, low tide, festivals, the Royal Festival Hall, pavement swagger, ghost signs, ghost stations, sitting in the Radio 4 audience, Trafalgar Square, knowing that I could walk home from Trafalgar Square if I really had to, art-filled piazzas, 100% style, tracing a line on a map, taking the tram, realising that the person drinking next to me in the pub is a celebrity, the Woolwich ferry, Hammerton's Ferry, the plurality of alternative routes, St Pancras station, cultural gravity, the highest pod on the London Eye, lost rivers, not-yet lost rivers, walking up the escalator, decent mobile phone reception, clapping the Marathon, density of infrastructure, free newspapers, the Night Tube, cab drivers, memories embedded in every streetscape, heritage Routemasters, the tiles along the Victoria line, blue plaques, global landmarks, having a local library, taking a shortcut down a back street I've never walked down before, realising that Dr Johnson was right, scouting the rural outskirts, Hawksmoor, Soane, Holden, watching the dawn over Tower Bridge, watching twin bascules rise, Blue Badge guides, the forgotten corner of a Victorian cemetery, the West End, the East End, the Congestion Charge, 24 hour bagel shops, 24 hour fridge-filling, culture on my doorstep, Banksy on the wall, the original of that famous work of art, an unexpected rainbow, deckchairs in Green Park, Roding Valley, Ruislip Lido, the Embankment illuminated, eyeballing a famous person in the street, recognising where a film was shot, Riddlesdown, revisiting Nairn's London, the DLR, sitting at the front on the DLR, meeting up with mates, Totters Lane, 0° longitude, standing in two hemispheres, the City, parklife, knowing when your bus is coming, Citymapper, the Ceremony of the Keys, being alone under the Thames in a foot tunnel, greasy fry-ups, fast trains to the coast, the view from Primrose Hill, far less fog than everyone imagines, snow on terraced rooftops, a good service is operating on all lines, Covent Garden, yes they deliver, creative possibilities, the view from the front seat on the top deck of a bus, alleys, tunnels, the middle of Richmond Park, free-roaming deer, D Stock, getting caught up in West Ham turfing out, street art, street food, Kenwood, being out at 4am, an unexpected smile in the rush hour, the Gherkin, critical mass, Soho, pie and mash, Longplayer, the opportunity to pop into Parliament, street markets, lidos, late-openings, rooftop terraces, gasholders against a bright blue sky, Open House, speeding down the river beneath world famous bridges, bleak estuary strolls, film premières, Farthing Downs, regular flypasts, garden squares, General Roy's cannons, not needing to drive home from the pub, pedestrian countdown lights, postcode identity, hyperlocality, Epping Forest, swiping my Oyster, pay-as-I-go, the smell of bacon from a Cabmen's shelter, undeveloped farmland, the Low Emission Zone, finding myself somewhere you've never been, Northala Fields, high streets that stay open after 5:30, art galleries that stay open after 6, still buzzing on a Sunday evening, always having something to do even when it's raining, Mornington Crescent, pocket parks, atypical roundels, characterful terraces, Denis Severs' House, urban wildlife, a night at the dog track, outstaring a fox, Foyles, youthfulness, a nearby launderette just in case, lights at night, pounding the Loop, free fireworks on Blackheath, the National, the Saatchi, the Serpentine, the Sales, garden squares, suburbs pretending to be villages, actual proper unswallowed Kentish villages, anything that Bazalgette built, one hundred different burgers, the heat island effect, Remain, the Hainault loop, crossing Oxford Circus diagonally, cycle superhighways, living in a medieval village, Sister Ray, walking faster than the traffic, overtaking a jogger, Kew Gardens, standing under the dome of St Paul's Cathedral, living in a city that tourists pay £100 a night to visit, not needing a hotel before catching the red-eye, Spitalfields, King's Cross, never needing to Uber, windmills, forest, hills, fields, Hilly Fields, Strawberry Hill House, the 4th plinth, Norway's gifted tree, the Geffrye at Christmas, the top floor at the V&A, the Sultan's Elephant, gelateria, lavender fields, Limehouse to Little Venice, this not being Ipswich, following in Roman footsteps, stepcounter heaven, plane trees, grime, world-class design, the Freedom Pass, heron-spotting, New Johnston font, so many cinemas, still so many bookshops, wi-fi, 1908, 1948, E20, EL2, RV1, 4G, Zone 6, crossing Westminster Bridge at night on the back of a bike, the skyline at dusk, Eel Pie Island, do not touch the walrus, do not feed the pelicans, Beckton Alp, the Hoover Building, a sewing machine museum, gridlessness, reaching the middle of Hampton Court Maze, long-term planning, wondering what the Turbine Hall will hold next, anything you need within half an hour, if the local branch doesn't stock it ten others might, floating towpaths, legacy, Little Waitrose, international churn, the sheer variety of Theatreland, the contrast between Erith and Twickenham, nipping down to national celebrations, it's only a short dash to the country, knowing the ambulance will get here in time, the British Museum, arthouse pop-ups, brutalist symmetry, some pubs still aren't flats, free stuff-to-do every weekend, whatever I want, anything I need, the anonymity of not knowing my neighbours, being one in nine million, collective consciousness, common ground, independence, invisibility, togetherness, cosmopolitan coexistence, centrality, accessibility, the proximity of possibility, social autonomy, human availability, the fact it's not as scary as out-of-towners think it is, Metro-land, moquette, deserted Thames-side beaches, a 600 square mile playground, the buzz, infinite choice, the city's constant resilience, feeling alive, simply living here.

 Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The sheer variety of Open House venues keeps the event fresh.

Open House: SELCHP



A self-guided tour through the heart of an operational power station? Don't mind if I do. SELCHP stands for South East London Combined Heat and Power, and is a waste incineration plant tucked into the railwaylands west of Deptford. You've probably seen it from the train on the way out of London Bridge, a large industrial shed with a thin chimney rising forth - it's been tucked in opposite The Den since 1994. But I've actually been inside as part of an Open Day timed for Open House, and organised with a particular eye on enticing local residents to learn more about their neighbour. Hard hat on and goggles poised I was directed off towards the steam turbine and generator, technically the end of the process, then followed a maze of walkways and landings to the hoppers where rubbish is tipped into the belly of the machine. SELCHP was set up by three councils keen to curb their reliance on landfill, and now creates enough electricity to power 48000 homes. From the main control room we peered down into the gargantuan bunker where binbags and rags and smelly shreds accumulate, and a grinning five year-old girl was shown how to operate the giant grabber as if this were an oversized amusement arcade. The whiff worsened on the other side of the door, where each measured dose of clutched organics is dropped into the incineration grate. Yes it's fine, nodded the security guard from behind his ear protectors, go ahead and lower the handle and peer inside the furnace to watch the raging flames. From here the steam heads upwards to be treated to remove toxins, and to create the electricity, while the solid residue is cooled and sorted and shaken and dumped in ashen piles at the end. It was eerie wandering through the industrial passageways like some kind of Crystal Maze contestant, but also hugely educational concerning the process that takes place within, which was of course the intention. If you have small children to entertain and this Open Day runs again next year, which I suspect it will, you'll enjoy learning where your power comes from, and where your rubbish goes.

Open House: Billingsgate Roman House and Baths



101 Lower Thames Street is an unprepossessing City office block with an astonishing relic in its basement. First uncovered in 1848 when the Coal Exchange was being built, the remains of this 2nd century dwelling were swiftly recognised as something special and became one of Britain's first scheduled ancient monuments. Now under the care of the Museum of London, there's not much to see at what's now ground level. But follow the staircase down from the lobby and you'll enter a long low chamber left undeveloped when the 60s office block was plonked on top, save for a few concrete supports drilled down where they'd do least damage. First up are the foundations of what would have been a riverside house, back when the Thames was wider than it is now, most probably used by visitors to Londinium as the equivalent of a cheap hotel. The remains of the central heating system can still be seen, along with some extensive but crumbly-looking walls, hence visitors walk around the top on metal gangways. Better preserved, hence more impressive, are the remains of a 3rd century bolt-on bathhouse. Its shape is somewhat phallic, sorry to be frank, with one larger rectangular cold room and two smaller warm and hot rooms on opposite sides at the far end. An impressive number of towers of tiles remain in the warm room, plus several of the flagstones laid on top where decades of sweaty feet would have trodden. Curators were on hand to explain what we were seeing, but there was a touch of conveyor belt about visitor throughflow given the size of the queue waiting outside. If you missed out, or if you'd prefer longer to stare in better-informed conditions, 45 minute tours can be booked (for £8) at weekends between now and the middle of December. [3 photos]

Open House: Roman Bath



Yes, another one, although this antiquity up a sidestreet behind Aldwych station is a misnomer. A single plunge pool, curved at one end and rectangular at the other, this brick-lined cistern is of sufficient size to squeeze in a football team, in some discomfort, but not much more. It's thought to date back to 1612, at least a millennium after the decline of Empire, and started its life feeding a nearby fountain before being transformed into a public bathing facility. Even David Copperfield came to Strand Lane for a dip, or would have done had he been less Dickensian. A century ago, with memory of its origins lost, a local rector convinced himself and others it was Roman, and the bath became a public curiosity. Now under the care of the National Trust and Westminster Council it's seen little love, and lingers on in a musty chamber off a locked passageway up a dead end lane. Worth a brief look, but if all you do is peer through the window you've not missed much.

Open House: Salters' Hall



The City of London supports 110 livery companies, of which the first twelve are the most important, of which the Salters come in at number 9. They made their money when food preservation was at its most basic, and mined salt particularly expensive, before branching out later into the wider chemical trade. These days they're mostly a charitable concern, and a bastion of tradition, and are somewhat unexpectedly based in a Brutalist livery hall close to London Wall. This is the building's sixth incarnation, the fifth having been destroyed in the Blitz, and was designed by Sir Basil Spence (of Coventry Cathedral fame). A crystalline confection in hand-chipped concrete, it was opened in 1976 and for the last ten has been undergoing a refit, which is why it's not been open for Open House before. One of the architects showed us round, which is always a good sign, and generally means a longer more in-depth tour. Unusually the company's main hall is on the top floor, perched on top of five floors of office space (which are being leased out to the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music). Spence's contemporary wood-panelling has been retained, overseen by an anachronistic Buglers' Gallery and a 'Ladies Dining Room' that's no longer single sex. A whopping great big salt crystal, mined in Cheshire, has pride of place in the hallway outside, and even the lights dangling in the stairwell have ornate salty shades. 2016's main addition is a lofty glass-roofed entrance lobby, sympathetically attached and facing the new Barbican-Guildhall pedestrian axis. "And if you look up there," said the architect at the end of our hour, "you'll see a new pedway under construction." New pedway? Fantastic, and all the better to see Salters' Hall from. [4 photos]

Open House: St Paul's, Bow Common



The UK's Best Modern Church is in Bow, according to the National Churches Trust and Ecclesiastical Surveyors and Architects Association. Built between 1958 and 1960, and designed by two 20 year-olds, it replaced a Victorian church destroyed in the Blitz with something that looks more like a squared-off shopping mall than a place of worship. But St Paul's exterior gives little away, and only stepping inside past the mercurial font reveals the striking use of space. The altar is positioned centrally beneath a pyramidal lantern, placing the congregation in the round rather than as a body to be preached at. Most impressive is the ring of mosaics around the upper rim - The Heavenly Host - a chain of ten blue-green angels with an elemental creature in each corner. Each Venetian tile was individually placed over a five year period by the artist Charles Lutyens, grandson of Sir Edwin, displaying an astonishing level of dedication to a single work. The overall interior effect feels somehow more Catholic than Anglican, but this is a high church establishment, the architecture springing from the wishes of the post-war congregation. What's more the modern day bunch are more than welcoming, with a better website than most, and a 347 page downloadable illustrated guide to their building's unique heritage should a quick video not suffice. [4 photos]

My Open House 2016 gallery
There are 60 photos altogether [slideshow]

» Robin Hood Gardens / Cranbrook Estate
» Here East / Three Mills Lock
» Tottenham Court Road (Crossrail)

 Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Next up, two classic 1960s Tower Hamlets estates with very different futures.

Open House: Robin Hood Gardens

A patch of land off Poplar High Street overlooking the entrance to the Blackwall Tunnel ought not to be desirable real estate, not least because of the noise. The site was cleared by the GLC in the mid-Sixties and the challenge of rebuilding offered to the architects Alison and Peter Smithson. They adopted a novel approach, designing two long low concrete blocks with a large open space between, the taller eastern block forming a barrier to blot out the sound of the traffic. They also embraced the concept of the street in the sky, as at the contemporary Balfron Tower a few streets to the north. The end result is one of the most famous Brutalist council estates, much admired by those with a bent for architecture. But the scheme was never listed, and while the first residents in 1972 loved the place the latest residents aren't as keen, and so in a few months time its demolition begins.



Robin Hood Gardens looks nothing like any of the other housing in the area, more like a pair of gargantuan walls with windows, softened greatly by the contoured landscape inbetween. The older kids have a kickabout space at one end, probably not original, while the central grass and trees and mound don't see the toddler footfall they once did. A community centre of sorts lurks in one corner while I assume the vanful of police positioned in the road outside was a random weekend thing rather than a permanent presence. And although the estate's wide open, should you want to take a look, the walkways were sealed off some time back to help prevent vandalism and crime, so it was only thanks to a photography project (and Open House) that any of us got inside. I'd better not tell you how we unlocked the door.

The lifts aren't lovely, and the stairs not much better. They wind round a narrow stairwell with crumbling treads and poor sightlines, so were once places of fear, and the exits aren't exactly obvious either. The lowest elevated passageway comes at floor two, then five, then eight, due to the Trellick-like way the flats have been crammed in. Tenants live on two floors, alternating upwards then downwards from the front doors along each 'street'. These looked safe and homely over the weekend, with bikes and plants and even an exercise bike enlivening the alcoves, plus extended families wandering back with shopping and querulously eyeing up the middle class invaders.



Stepping inside your flat the hall's not enormous but the kitchen's large, that is assuming you want to use the space for cooking rather than dining. Most of everything else is upstairs (or downstairs, depending), in this case with four bedrooms and a living room leading off a labyrinthine landing. The whole set-up felt a little compact, although dimensions were in excess of the minimum standards laid down at the time, and the disrepair in the empty flat we got to view won't have helped. But there was a balcony, if you can call a ledge no more than one person deep running along the front of the flat a balcony, this doubling up as a fire exit in case of the unthinkable.

Having visited both the Balfron and Trellick Towers courtesy of Open House in previous years, there were a number of similarities to the feel of the place. But the flats at Robin Hood Gardens were perhaps a little less brutal, and with added layers of design, such as the way all the kitchens faced out over the central park so that Sixties mothers could watch over their Sixties kids while cooking. This was the only social housing that the Smithsons ever built, even though they entered every municipal competition going, and the 20th Century Society have used this and several other mitigating reasons to try to get the building listed. But there are better examples elsewhere, the argument goes, and a lack of care means that the structure is economically past the point of saving.



What happens next is Blackwall Reach. This multi-stage project is a joint venture between Tower Hamlets and a housing group, and phase 1 beside the East India Dock Road is already complete. This has allowed the council to move everyone out of the western block (or disperse them elsewhere if their tenancy wasn't protected), which now stands empty. Phase 2 will see the western block demolished, starting in the New Year, and when that's complete in a couple of years those in the eastern block will move across. The replenished estate will eventually have 1500 flats rather than the current 214, with half deemed affordable and an overall increase in socially rented homes. In further good news they're keeping the open space in the centre, but marketing to the over-privileged of Docklands has already begun, and the dynamic of the site is going to change utterly.

You have approximately four months to come down and see Robin Hood Gardens in its natural denuded state (and pick a bright day if you can to bring out the monolithic splendour of the concrete). This time next year it'll resemble more of a worksite, and by the end of the decade we'll have to rely on photos to remember. And while the replacement architecture won't look awful, it won't look amazing either, just another bog standard late-2010s estate, and I very much doubt that Open House will ever be coming back. [10 photos]

Open House: Cranbrook Estate

To Bethnal Green and a site off Roman Road, south of Victoria Park, formerly covered by workshops and terraced houses. In 1955 the council decided upon wholesale clearance, with all the existing residents to be rehoused in a new high-rise neighbourhood of groundbreaking design. The architects they appointed included Berthold Lubetkin, the modernist pioneer, in what was to be his final public scheme. His plans for development included fifteen-, thirteen- and eleven-storey blocks, each with four flats per floor, plus some rather lower infill and a row of old people's bungalows out front. Each tower was named after one of Bethnal Green's twin towns - they had enough in those days - and the development was officially opened in 1965. [history here]



Although densely-plotted the site feels spacious, with plenty of open space and little in the way of traffic. Originally the street pattern was based on two diagonal axes, but that's since been upgraded to a figure of eight to make vehicular access a bit easier. The exterior of each block features characteristic green cladding arranged as at the intersections of a grid, and the windows alternate in pairs to accommodate shifts in the balcony space at each corner. Oh, and you'll have seen the Cranbrook Estate on TV, if only fleetingly, as it was where Little Britain's Lou and Andy used to live, not that this is particularly relevant architecturally-speaking.

What happens if you add a Modernist housing estate to the Open House listings for the first time is that dozens of people turn up. A good idea, then, to have opened up the estate's Community Centre for an informative exhibition of photographs showing before, during and after construction, plus the official mayoral programme for the opening ceremony. An inspirational idea to have a handful of long-standing residents present to provide first-hand reminiscence (they were lovely, as you'd expect). And an exceedingly brave idea to invite members of the public into your flat, especially when there are quite so many of them, and your flat isn't especially enormous.



The stairwells are magnificent, a very Lubetkian trait, in the case of Mödling House a teardrop-shaped lightwell with a single railing spiralling down fourteen floors. The council later added bobbles to the banister to discourage boisterous children from skidding down the banister, although I suspect vertigo would be the clincher for most. As at Robin Hood Gardens the central circulatory space used to be open access, but about twenty years ago the council added ground level entry doors which means only those with friends here will ever see inside, but no doubt makes residents feel a lot more comfortable.

Into the flat we crowded, impressed that the hallway was large enough to hold us all, although the living room with all its furniture was more of a squeeze. Originally all the walls were painted battleship grey, bar one in each room which was instead pillarbox red, if you can imagine living under such indecorous conditions. Free underfloor heating was provided, a municipal perk which was rapidly withdrawn once the council worked out how much cheaper giving every flat its own boiler would be. Our Open House host was extremely keen to share her enthusiasm for the building, and rightly so, though with a mild hint of terror at the thought that one day Tower Hamlets might decide it's time to build something new. As yet there's no sign, hurrah, as these homes of character pass their half-century unscathed. [6 photos]


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