diamond geezer

 Sunday, December 04, 2016

Beyond London (15): Epping Forest (part 1)

I've finally reached Essex in my orbital tour around the capital, crossing the River Lea to reach the district of Epping Forest. Only a small part of its area is forest, the majority is sparsely populated farmland, and most of the population lives south of the M25 in the commuter towns at the tip of the Central Line. The only town of any substance in the eastern half of the district is Ongar, abandoned by the tube in 1994, and that big dent you can see in the northern border has been drawn to specifically exclude Harlow. There's plenty to see, indeed I've visited several times, but travelling around the sprawling hinterland can be rather more of a challenge.

Somewhere famous: The Golden Triangle
London collides with Essex along the southern edge of Epping Forest, and three towns in particular exemplify the area's flash brash reputation. One's Loughton, one's Buckhurst Hill and the other's Chigwell, and the zone bounded by the three has been dubbed 'the golden triangle' by columnists who saw its residents on TV and fancied giving it a label. This is TOWIE country, where groomed lads flash their cash and teeth, where bottle blondes totter into souped-up motors, and where obviously not quite everybody lives like that. I hopped on the tube to visit all three golden vertices.

Chigwell: Still perhaps best known for Birds of a Feather, this oversized village's reputation stretches back a lot longer than 1989. Charles Dickens was a huge fan.
"Chigwell, my dear fellow, is the greatest place in the world. Name your day for going. Such a delicious old inn opposite the churchyard, such a lovely ride, such beautiful forest scenery, such an out-of-the-way, rural place, such a sexton! I say again, name your day."
So taken was Dickens that he immortalised the 'delicious old inn' as the central location in Barnaby Rudge, fictionally renamed the Maypole but in reality The King's Head. It still has "more gable ends than a lazy man would care to count on a sunny day", but is no longer a pub, having fallen into the hands of one of Chigwell's current residents, the entrepreneur Lord Sugar. It's now a very upmarket restaurant called Sheesh, a name which is nothing if not memorable, serving Mediterranean cuisine to an opulent no-trainers clientèle. Access is via an electronic gate, beyond which staff will valet park your car, and the interior is replete with chandeliers, leather seats and gleaming floors. And yet from outside it retains half-timbered Dickensian frontage with leaded lozenge windows, and still looks like it could be a coaching inn serving pints of bitter, heaven forbid.

Across the road is St Mary's Church, final resting place of many a local resident, including the man responsible for kickstarting London's bus network. George Shillibeer built the first horse-drawn coaches capable of transporting a large group of people, called them Omnibuses and started a fare-paying service between Paddington and Bank in 1829. This earned him rather more money than life as a midshipman, eventually enabling him to buy Grove House in Chigwell Row, and that's why he's buried in St Mary's graveyard, on the main path just beyond the church porch.

The modern heart of Chigwell is the shopping parade near the station, a modest sequence of irregular brick flats with occasionally immodest retail outlets tucked underneath. The dry cleaners is the Chigwell Valet Service and the local caff is the Village Deli, while the showroom at the top end sells top end Volvos. Yes, there's a tanning salon and a health food shop, while the finest ladies' fashions are brought to you by Debra - now downsized into a smaller unit while her former store by the railway awaits rebirth as luxury flats. Elsewhere the avenues are widely infilled by new-money new-build, and security gate installers must do a roaring trade, but Chigwell's not entirely exclusive, nor indeed unfriendly, and six-car households remain the exception.

Buckhurst Hill: On the other side of the River Roding, and with a little less glitzy oomph behind it, lies Buckhurst Hill. The original hamlet grew up along the ridgetop, on the main coaching route to Cambridge, but the arrival of the railway in 1856 dragged the residential centre downhill. Geographically it's less well defined than Chigwell, bleeding into Woodford to the south and Loughton to the north, its avenues smart if not so grand. But one of Buckhurst Hill's genuine advantages is a better run of shops, somehow meriting two Costa coffees, plus a whopping perfectly-targeted Waitrose at the foot of Queens Road.

This one-way street has been the setting for many a TOWIE insert, especially when the lead characters need to pretend to have a commercial interest. Swish lingerie fills the window at Pretty Things, a golden shimmer surrounds the window at Never Fully Dressed, while the bay frontage of Anita at Crème is awash with frilly bows. Fur boots are easily obtained, these being the seasonal footwear of choice for many a 4×4 passenger, and the lady in the flower shop stepped out wearing a particularly eye-turning pair. Meanwhile I suspect more ITV2 footage has been shot inside The Queen's Rooms wine bar than at the Green Owl cafe, and that several male characters have kitted themselves out at Zap, a slate grey corner shop that's allegedly "the leading men's designer boutique in the UK".
by tube: Buckhurst Hill  by bus: 167, 549

Loughton: This is the proper town of the trio, a coaching stop ten miles from the City, with a proper substantial High Street and everything. Much of Loughton covers land that used to be Epping Forest, before an Act of Parliament intervened, and the edge of this marvellous resource is still easily accessible up the top of the hill. The town apparently gained its middle-class character because the Great Eastern Railway didn't offer cheap workmen's fares, and this cachet was preserved when the London County Council decided to build a massive postwar overspill estate one stop up the Central line at Debden. It may not be quite as rich as Epping, but Loughton still has the edge when it comes to flaunting it.

I passed more than one shop selling silver gifts that might look nice in someone's house, including a bunch of silver cherries on a silver cushion on a silver stool. I dodged a lad doused in aftershave with a silver gift bag dangling from his arm, sidestepped a small dog in a silver jacket, and noted a Big Issue seller pleading seemingly in vain for silver. I was too early to step beneath the silver portal at the Nu Bar, and too poorly dressed to have a hope of entering the (ah, jet black) LuXe nightclub. Loughton's by no means all glitz - there's a Wimpy for a start, and Centric Parade is a pig-ugly collection of high street staples. But it's easy to see why people enjoy living here, unswallowed by the capital, in a provincial suburb with class.

While we're here, a couple of buildings of interest. Lopping Hall is the town's community hub, a gothic turrety thing visible above other rooftops, with a large hall and shared space for activities within. The City of London paid to build the facility in return for residents losing their 'lopping rights' in the forest, and it's sited on the original terminus of the railway before this was extended to Epping. Some of the exterior decor is gorgeous, including the terracotta round the entrance, and some proper fifties font work above what's now the main entrance. Meanwhile, up at the library on Traps Hill, an unlikely musical presence is tucked away on the first floor. This is the National Jazz Archive, a charitable repository of all things impro, founded by trumpeter Digby Fairweather in 1988. The collection contains books, journals, photos and memorabilia, but not actual music because the archive's about everything else. If jazz is your thing you can visit the reading room every weekday except Thursday, or hit the website to read interviews and search the catalogue online. Nice.
by tube: Loughton  by bus: 20, 167, 397, 549

Places in Epping Forest I might have visited if I hadn't been before:
Somewhere famous: Epping Forest
Somewhere historic: Waltham Abbey, Royal Gunpowder Mills, Copped Hall, Greensted Church, Epping Forest Museum
Somewhere pretty: Gunpowder Park, Theydon Bois, London Loop sections 19 and 20, Epping and Ongar Railway, Ongar
Somewhere sporting: -
Somewhere retail: -
Somewhere random: Roding Valley station, Blake Hall station, Stapleford Abbotts, Hainault Loop, Greenwich Meridian

 Saturday, December 03, 2016

How booked is it?

Here are 30 things you might want to do today. But can you go, or are they fully booked? I checked online yesterday evening, to save you the effort of looking. And it turns out some are hot tickets, some rather less so.

» The View from the Shard (£25.95): Sold out from 3pm-4pm, only 4 tickets remaining at 4pm, otherwise full availability from 10am-9pm
» Skygarden (free): No slots today (or on any other weekend date within the three week booking window)

» Winter Wonderland - Ice-skating (£14.50): Limited availability in all slots, 10am-9pm
» Winter Wonderland - The Nutcracker on Ice (£18.95): Seats available for noon and 8.30pm (but the four performances inbetween are sold out)
» Winter Wonderland - The Magical Ice Kingdom (£10): No availability 10am-9pm, limited availability 9pm, full availability at 9.15pm and 9.30pm

» Madame Tussauds (£32): Availability from 10am-1.45pm, and then from 3.15pm-5pm (the latter for £29)
» London Eye (£22.45): Apart from 11am and 11.15am, full availability from 10am-8.30pm (costs £21.20 after 5.30pm)

» Warner Brother Studio Tour - The Making of Harry Potter (£35): Sold out for the rest of December (apart from a 2pm tour next Tuesday, and a 10am and 2.30pm tour on Wednesday)

» Wembley Stadium tour (£20): All six tours have availability (but only 3 tickets out of 40 remain for the last tour at 3pm)

» London Stadium tours (£17): There are no tours on match days (but good availability in all timeslots tomorrow)
» West Ham v Arsenal at London Stadium (£?): Limited tickets available, but only to club members and supporters with a booking history
» Arcellor Mittal Orbit Slide (£15): Tickets available for 12.45pm, then almost all slots from 2.30pm-5pm
» Arcellor Mittal Orbit (£10): Full access all day, 10am-5pm

» Dangleway return ticket (pre-booked, £7): Full availability from 8am-8pm (the requirement to pre-book in 15 minute slots has been removed)
» Up at the O2 (£35) Ascents available in every slot from 10am-6.15pm, except for 10am, 12noon and 2.30pm-4pm

» British Library - Maps and the 20th Century : Drawing the Line (£12): "Plenty of tickets"
» Design Museum - Fear and Love (£14): Full availability
» Design Museum - Designs of the Year (£10): Full availability

» Houses of Parliament guided tours (£25.50): Tours run every 20 minutes from 9am-4.15pm, but only the penultimate tour has any availability

» Skate at Somerset House (£16.15): Fully booked from 10am-8pm
» Ice skating at Canary Wharf (£16.95): Full availability from 9.30am-11pm, apart from limited availability 4.45pm-6pm

» Harrods Christmas Grotto (£10): Sold out back in September, all the way up until Christmas
» Breakfast with Santa at Selfridges (£35): Sold out

» Some pop-up alcoholic snowstorm thing in Shoreditch (£8-£85): Completely sold out, 6.30pm-midnight
» Lady Dinah's Cat Emporium (£6.50): Fully booked noon-8pm, apart from one ticket for the 6pm-7.30pm slot

Evening performances:
» The Lion King (£62.20-£152.20): Only single seats available
» Wicked (£50.25-£125): Groups of up to 6 seats available
» No Man's Land (£150): Only 4 tickets available
» The Mousetrap (£28.50-£67.50): Still approximately 50 seats available in the stalls

» A nice walk somewhere (£0): Full availability

 Friday, December 02, 2016

Lost river, anyone?

The Effra is south London's most famous lost river, and once flowed from the heights of Upper Norwood to the Thames, via West Dulwich and Brixton. Its waters were culverted in Victorian times, permitting the suburbanisation of the valley, and only a few clues to its existence remain. Contours are a dead giveaway in the upper course, especially above West Norwood, and the occasional stink pipe stands as a reminder of what still lurks underground. Now Lambeth, the borough through which the majority of the Effra flowed, is seeking to mark the course of the river with intermittent pavement plaques. And what's more, they're gorgeous.

A local illustrator was asked to represent the flow of water within a circular roundel, and fourteen different designs were selected, digitised and retouched. The writing around the edge was set in Albertus, a much-loved glyphic typeface designed by former Stockwell resident Berthold Wolpe. The plaques were then forged in cast iron, the hope being that they would gradually age, and the first six were installed in a new public square outside Brixton Police Station in July. There are rather more of them today.

As far as I know there isn't a public list of where the Effra plaques have been laid, only an aspirational map as part of the Brixton Public Realm Design Study (based on the definitive map in The Brixton Society's essential publication, Lambeth's Underground River). So I decided to walk from source to mouth - it's only six miles - and to keep my eyes open, especially in the vicinity of locations which the map suggested were potential "points of celebration". I had mixed success.

The first location to explore was at the top of Upper Norwood Recreation Ground, a rolling wedge of green below Crystal Palace. Nothing. I shouldn't really have been surprised, because the upper mile of the Effra flowed through what's now the London borough of Croydon, not Lambeth. But I had more luck on the other side of Norwood Park, on Gipsy Road, where the road dips blatantly across the valley. A tall green stink pipe marks the lowest point, and immediately alongside in the pavement was one of the new plaques - small but unmistakeable, and orangey brown in patina.

Next stop West Norwood Cemetery, or more precisely Robson Road which runs along the northern perimeter. About halfway along, not far from the bus stop, I spotted another Effra plaque in the pavement. It was a little browner than the last one, indeed the writing was already quite hard to read, suggesting that these plaques are weathering a little faster than their creators intended. But as a former scholar of all things Lost River I was impressed by the positioning, beneath the wall at what I believe is the precise point where the Effra would once have flowed north out of what is now the cemetery. It's all too easy to get geographical exactitude wrong, but Lambeth council appears to have got it right.

And then my luck left me. I knew there was another plaque somewhere in West Dulwich because I'd been alerted to its existence by a tweet by local artist Priscilla Watkins. But hell no, I couldn't find it. It's difficult following an invisible river which once ran diagonally beneath a grid of streets, particularly when the plaque could be on either side of the road, maybe behind a parked car, and quite possibly covered with leaves. Lambeth's aspirational map suggested one plaque along Thurlow Park Road and another halfway up Croxted Road, along whose pastoral verge the Effra once flowed. Nothing. And when I'd walked in vain all round the centre of Herne Hill, where the river still sometimes emerges and drowns the shops, I wondered if my quest for plaques had peaked.

Not so. Another green stinkpipe rises opposite Brockwell Lido, adjacent to the Meath Estate, and a telltale replaced paving slab lies beneath. What's more I found another just up the road - a stinkpipe and a plaque - at the end of Chaucer Road. This one's by the kerb, appropriately overlooking a drain cover, alas with a six-letter word scrawled into the concrete surround before it set. Then barely 50 metres away another, this time at the junction of Brixton Water Lane and Effra Parade, then almost immediately another at the foot of Barnwell Road. I was now getting a very different view of the project, as if Lambeth were planning to install dozens of plaques along the river's length, rather than just a paltry few.

Because I know my Effra, I zigzagged through the subsequent streets and found another plaque at the corner of Mervan Road and Rattray Road, immediately alongside the rare Penfold pillarbox. The concrete around this one looked like it was almost fresh, and some had unfortunately spilled over the rim of the plaque making the lettering almost illegible. The central design was the same as that back at Effra Parade - the swirly 'fingerprint' pictured at the top of the post - but whereas that looked sharp and golden, this one looked dull and rather more mundane. Perhaps it'll take a while before all the plaques have weathered sufficiently to look distinguished, and we're some way off that yet.

I found nothing else through Brixton, even though the Effra once flowed through its heart, until I reached the new public realm at Canterbury Square. The original plans were for a large cast iron disc "to reflect the manholes and sewers used in Victorian times to culvert rivers", and raised from the ground "becoming a focal point that people can lean or sit on and of course children can play on". That ambition has summarily failed to come to fruition, and instead six small plaques have been laid across the somewhat austere piazza - running in a direction the original river might have followed. It's all somewhat understated, but Canterbury Square is currently the best place to see half a dozen different plaque designs in one go.

The Effra then flowed north, along the eastern side of Brixton Road, so I walked that. This time I found no plaques, but I did find a succession of numbered shapes spray-painted on the pavement, a couple of metres up sidestreets in precisely the locations I'd have expected plaques to appear. The numbers intrigued me. Between St John's Crescent and Cranmer Road I found a 33, 31, 30 and 29 - evidently missing a 32 somewhere, and suggesting there were still another 28 to go. I found none of those - neither a plaque nor a number - as I rounded The Oval cricket ground and finished my walk on the embankment at Vauxhall. I doubt that Lambeth will be able to embed any plaques on the private waterfront at St George's Wharf, but maybe they have big plans for a lot more inbetween.

It seems we're still at the installation phase of this project to commemorate the Effra, and maybe eventually there'll be as many a hundred plaques to find along the route. If that's so then this is an even greater project than it currently appears, combining craftsmanship and art to reconnect the population of Lambeth to their subterranean history. Imagine something similar for the Fleet, Tyburn or Westbourne, if only Westminster had the kind of council that ever did things like this.

If you're interested in taking a look for yourself then Herne Hill to Brixton seems (currently) to be the best bit. There isn't yet an official map, so I've updated my approximate Google map of the Effra with red stars to show where I found plaques, and if you know of any more please let us know.

 Thursday, December 01, 2016

Where are London's bussiest bus stops?

And by 'bussiest bus stops' I mean the bus stops served by the most bus routes, which isn't necessarily the same as the busiest. Most of London's bus stops are served by only one or two routes, but a couple of hundred bus stops get into double figures, and a handful hit the twenties. They're the really cluttered ones.

To determine the definitive list I've juggled a TfL database revealing which buses stop where, then double checked against the TfL website to remove duplicates, then triple checked by visiting the top contenders. Thank goodness most of the really bussy ones are in the centre of town. Here's the Top 10.

1st=) Southampton Street / Covent Garden (A)
1st=) Savoy Street (U)
1st=) Bedford Street (J)
24 buses: 6 9 11 13 15 23 87 91 139 176 N9 N11 N13 N15 N21 N26 N44 N87 N89 N91 N155 N199 N343 N551

London's most cluttered bus stops are on the Strand. More accurately they're in the theatre-y bit of the Strand, between the Adelphi and the Lyceum, just to the west of Waterloo Bridge. A lot of buses chug down the Strand, which is why the street's often a queue of red double deckers, and all of them stop at this particular trio. Specifically that's two stops heading west (Savoy Street and Bedford Street) and one heading east (Southampton Street), each served by an astonishing 24 different routes. Admittedly the total includes 14 night buses, which might seem like cheating, but Trafalgar Square is London's night bus hub and they've all got to go somewhere. Only 10 routes stop here during the day, and there are bus stops below with a lot more than that. But the undisputed kings of heavy numbering are these three on the Strand (sorry, they don't photograph especially well in winter).
The eagle-eyed amongst you may have spotted that 24 buses appear on the flag for bus stop A, but only 23 on the flags for bus stops U and J. The missing bus is the N26, which does in fact stop at both, but only for passengers to alight because it terminates down the road at Charing Cross station.

4th=) Waterloo Bridge / South Bank (N)
4th=) Waterloo Bridge / South Bank (P)
21 buses: 1 4 26 59 68 76 139 168 171 172 176 188 243 341 521 RV1 X68 N1 N68 N171 N343
8th=) Lancaster Place (T)
20 buses: 1 4 26 59 68 76 139 168 171 172 176 188 243 341 RV1 X68 N1 N68 N171 N343

Next, it's just round the corner to Waterloo Bridge. A lot of buses come this way, it being the main Thames crossing from the West End to the South Bank. What's more a lot of daytime buses go this way, 17 in total, which comfortably beats those other bus stops on the Strand. The first two here are at the south end of the bridge, inbetween the National Theatre and the Hayward - for many buses the stop immediately before (or the stop immediately after) Waterloo station. The other bus stop to be reckoned with is Lancaster Place, at the northern end of the bridge just before Aldwych, which you'll see has one less bus than the other two. The difference in numbers here is caused by route 521, whose single deckers disappear into the Strand underpass just before bus stop T, cutting the total from 21 to 20.

4th=) Aldwych / Somerset House (R)
21 buses: 6 9 11 13 15 23 87 91 N9 N11 N13 N15 N21 N26 N44 N87 N89 N91 N155 N199 N551
10th=) Aldwych / Somerset House (S)
19 buses: 1 4 26 59 68 76 168 171 172 188 243 341 521 RV1 X68 N1 N68 N171 N343

A short distance away, opposite St Mary le Strand, are the next pair of bussy bus stops. One's outside Somerset House and the other's almost alongside, outside King's College, if you're trying to picture where. This short stretch of the Strand is the street in London with the most bus routes, a gobsmacking 40 in total - a consequence of the one-way system around Bush House. Check the photo carefully and you'll see that no bus stops at both stops, only one or the other. 21 of the 40 bus routes serve bus stop R - they're the ones about to head along the Strand towards Trafalgar Square - and the other 19 bus routes serve bus stop S - they're the ones about to turn left over Waterloo Bridge. Note that bus stop R doesn't even reach double figures if you only count daytime buses, and also that the 748 isn't included in my tally because it's a coach to Hemel Hempstead.

4th=) Edgware Station (G)
21 buses: 32 79 107 113 142 186 204 221 240 251 288 292 303 305 340 605 606 642 N5 N16 N113

If you've been counting, you'll have noticed that there's one more fourth place bus stop to go. And just for a change, it's way out of central London in zone 5, specifically at the entrance to Edgware Bus Station. Because of the way this set up works, all the buses entering the bus station disgorge their passengers here, outside a side entrance to the Northern line terminus, then collect their passengers from one of four different bus stops further on. More than twenty different buses pass by on their way into Edgware Bus Station, five of them in both directions, but you can't tell any of this from bus stop G's flag which merely states 'Alighting point only'. This is the only one of the Top 10 you can't catch a bus from, only get off. And if you're not familiar, those three buses starting with a '6' are school buses, which we'll be seeing more at the next stop.

8th=) Hounslow High Street (K)
20 buses: 81 110 111 116 117 120 203 222 235 237 281 423 E8 H22 H28 H32 H98 635 681 N9

Next it's out west to zone 4, unexpectedly to Hounslow, where the bus stop flag isn't giving much away. The bus stop in question isn't actually on Hounslow High Street, which is served by only half a dozen routes and westbound only, so as not to disrupt people's shopping. Instead it's located at the eastern end of Hanworth Road, which runs sort of parallel, in a rather downbeat spot outside the Des Pardes restaurant. This stop hoovers up all the eastbound services, of which there are many, but more than half of which are just about to terminate at Hounslow Bus Station. This means that although 20 services stop here you can only catch 9 of them, which isn't exactly top drawer.

10th=) Museum Street (E)
19 buses: 1 8 19 25 38 55 98 171 242 N1 N8 N19 N38 N41 N55 N68 N98 N171 N207

Finally it's back to central London, not quite to Aldywch again, but to nearby Holborn. This particular stop is outside St George's church on Bloomsbury Way, and collects every bus service funnelled east along New Oxford Street and Shaftesbury Avenue. Again this means a lot of night buses, most of which are simply extended versions of identically numbered daytime routes, but that's enough to knock the tally up. If you were only interested in daytime buses then this bus stop wouldn't even figure. Indeed, just for completeness sake, the bus stop served by the most daytime routes of any in London is that one in Hounslow, with 19 in total. And if you're interested in the bus stop where you can catch the most daytime buses, the two aforementioned Waterloo Bridge (South Bank) stops hold that honour, along with all four Orpington bus stops in the "equal twelfth place" list below.

12th=) Horse Guards Parade
12th=) Horse Guards Parade
18 buses: 3 11 12 24 53 87 88 159 453 N2 N3 N11 N44 N87 N109 N136 N155 N381

12th=) Bromley Civic Centre (S)
12th=) Bromley Civic Centre (T)
18 buses: 61 119 126 138 146 162 208 246 261 314 320 336 352 358 367 638 N3 N199

12th=) High Street / Orpington War Memorial (R)
18 buses: 51 61 208 353 358 B14 R1 R2 R3 R4 R5 R6 R7 R8 R9 R10 R11 N199
12th=) High Street / Orpington War Memorial (S)
18 buses: 51 61 208 353 358 B14 R1 R2 R3 R4 R5 R6 R8 R9 R10 R11 654 N199

12th=) Tubbenden Lane (outside Orpington station) (H)
12th=) Tubbenden Lane (outside Orpington station) (J)
18 buses: 51 61 208 353 358 B14 R1 R2 R3 R4 R5 R6 R7 R8 R9 R10 654 N199

12th=) Walthamstow Central Station (AP)
18 buses: 20 34 48 69 97 212 215 230 257 275 357 W12 W15 W19 675 N26 N38 N73

 Wednesday, November 30, 2016

It's the other people I don't like.

They do things differently, the other people.

Have you seen some of the different things the other people do?

I don't like the way other people behave. We've been doing things one way for years and they come along and do things a different way, and it's just not right.

I don't understand the other people. How could anyone want to do the things they do? It's different, and it's wrong, and it disturbs me.

They make me uncomfortable, the other people. I don't like the idea of them doing their different things, and what's worse, doing them quite so close to where I live.

They worry me, the other people. They do these different things that I don't like, and I worry that one day they'll want everyone to do them, because that's their ultimate aim, it always is.

We didn't used to have this problem with the other people doing these things, back when the other people weren't around to do them. Let's be up front, I preferred things how they were, and I bet you did too.

What's more the other people can't see that doing these different things is wrong, they just carry on like doing these things is perfectly normal, whereas in fact it's different.

We should tell the other people they're not welcome being different, that'd stop them doing the things they do. If we all tell them I'm sure they'll get the message, loud and clear.

We'd be a lot happier, and a lot safer, if the other people weren't doing these different things they do.

The other people want to change the things we do, forcing their way of life on ours, and I'm not having it. We should force them to do things our way before they force us to do things theirs.

The other people always stick together. I see them out together, doing their different things, and I don't like it.

I'm proud not to be one of the other people. I bet you're proud not to be one of the other people too. We should stick together.

How dare the other people do things differently to us? It offends me. We should stop the other people doing things differently, it's only right.

We'd be better off if it wasn't for the other people. If we got rid of all the other people doing their different things I'm sure we'd all be better off, in fact I know we would.

We'd have better prospects if the other people weren't being different, if only they went away. The other people are getting in the way of us doing things better, and that's not right.

The other people and their different ways are a threat that must be stopped. The other people are a danger to us all.

So say no to doing different things, say no to being different.

Together we can stop the other people from doing different things. They'll still be the other people, but they won't be doing different things, so that'll be much better.

We must all clamp down on these other people doing different things. Let's focus our efforts on preventing difference, and join together in this uplifting righteous cause.

And then let's turn our attention to the other people doing other things differently.

They do things differently, the other people.

It's always the other people I don't like.

 Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Design Museum
Location: 224-238 Kensington High Street, W8 6AG [map]
Open: 10am - 5:45pm (last entrance 5pm)
Admission: free (but two of the exhibitions cost)
brief summary: showcase for contemporary design
Website: designmuseum.org (& Twitter)
Time to set aside: at least an hour

The Design Museum started out in 1989 in a converted banana warehouse on Shad Thames. We never quite hit it off. Getting any further than the shop cost money (£6 in 2005, £11 in 2012), and the restricted gallery space upstairs meant a visit to the ever-changing pair of exhibitions never felt like good value. I rarely went. The Commonwealth Institute opened on Kensington High Street in 1962, an amazing building with hyperbolic paraboloid copper roof and a series of ethnic treasures within. I went once as a child and then, a decade after the place went into liquidation, was first in the queue when they opened up the shell for Open House. Still wow.

Over the last few years the Commonwealth Institute has been gutted and transformed into a new home for the Design Museum. A completely new interior has been installed, with three times the floor space of the old museum, and exhibits have been brought out of storage in readiness for last week's grand opening. But has the upgrade been worthwhile?

It's no longer so easy to see the Grade II* listed building from Kensington High Street, as a substantial sum for the refit has come from plonking three large apartment blocks into the former grounds. Only residents on the upper floors get a good view of the whizzy copper roof, and the size of some of the cars nosing out of the underground car park suggests they've paid a hefty price. Mere mortals can access the museum's entrance from Holland Park, or by dipping under one of the new blocks where the flagpoles used to be, past a shop and some dribbly fountains. The original setting wins hands down.

Walking into the building still brings a wow, but in a different way, the interior no longer a cohesive whole. A new expansive rectangular atrium rises up to roof level, its purpose to showcase the ribs and swooshes careering overhead, which otherwise would be lost to view. A sequence of open stairs and balconies loops up and round to the second floor, a shared circulation space which'll be appearing in thousands of Instagram photos before the end of the year. The first staircase has terraced seating as does the first mezzanine, a visitor-friendly facility other museums often lack. But a lot of the doors you'll pass lead to event spaces, offices and other off-limits facilities, for economic reasons, and the proportion of the building's volume given over to display is disappointingly small.

As a freeloader you can make your way all the way up to the second floor, and the permanent Designer, User, Maker gallery. A lot of this stuff was in the old museum, but more of it wasn't, and end result is a dense comprehensive celebration of global design. An opening timeline skims from Wedgwood to 3D printing, including a forelock-tugging nod to museum sponsor Sir Terence Conran along the way. There is a fair whack of 3D printing in the exhibition, because it's modern and quite cheap, positioned alongside the actual 3D printer on which it's produced. Yes, there's a tube map - they've gone for the 1968 version which looks boss - and also a section on Kinneir and Calvert road signs, including the museum's ginormous blue 'M1 J25' sign propped up above.

All aspects of design get a look in, from the first fitted kitchen to Olivetti posters to a selection of chairs. The Design Museum has always liked chairs. You'll like the evolutionary wall of gadgets, where all the branches (be they music, time, photography, communication or whatever) appear to end up at a Samsung smartphone. I remembered the modernist lemon squeezer from the previous DM's display, and wasn't surprised to find it again later in the museum shop. Almost everything's well labelled, and educationally so, although there are several hints that some of the displays aren't quite finished yet in the rush to get the place open. The filmed interviews on the big video wall, for example, are very interesting but aren't listed in sequence alongside, so felt like they'd probably have gone on forever if I'd stayed to watch. So much has been crammed in that this gallery's going to get quite squashed at weekends, so be warned that staff with clickers are poised to close it off if density passes critical.

So, what else can you see for nothing? The upper floor also has a wall of crowd-sourced design classics, and a small gallery devoted to a selection of Designers in Residence, some of whose goodies can be touched, and others merely admired. Clementine Blakemore has an additional exhibit outside in the one corner of the garden that isn't flats, a small geometric pavilion covering a bench, which on my visit absolutely no other visitors had spotted. Back inside the building there's a surprisingly cramped and downbeat cafe, technically a Coffee & Juice Counter, and a first floor restaurant whose absence of menu keeps all but the gilded of Kensington safely without. Oh, and don't forget to peek in the basement, where the Institute's opening plaques and its lovely Commonwealth map have been retained.

And then there are the paid-for exhibitions. One's in the underground gallery, a two-storey showcase of the Designs of the Year, and the other's at the back of the ground floor and more general. Neither is cheap, and if you want to see them both it'll set you back more than £20, which is the privileged Kensington aesthetic writ large. I skipped the downstairs and treated myself to Fear and Love: Reactions to a Complex World. Eleven different scenarios are given space within, each with an emphasis on 'design in context', although you'd be hard pushed to guess the connection simply by wandering round.

The most memorable installation is an industrial robot whose arm follows you around, then gets bored and goes off and follows someone else. The meatiest installation is a 20 minute multimedia presentation about Grindr, the gay dating app, and how its location-based functionality has liberated millions but targeted state oppression on others. I was most unnerved by a series of crystalline death masks, Alien facehugger-style, artistically created to capture the wearer's last breath. I learnt a bit about Mongolia and recycling clothes by colour, and stayed an hour mostly by watching all the videos through to the end, but overall found the exhibition disjoint, inextensive and a bit hit and miss, so hardly a £14 must-see.

The must-see is the building, obviously, and the excellent free galleries on the second floor. Hurrah that the Design Museum is now housed somewhere worthy of the name, and that some of our country's finest technologies have been proudly recognised. If you have any youngsters with a creative bent, bring them, and have some plastic bricks or tools out ready to funnel the inspiration when you get home. But maybe avoid the next few weekends, because it's going to be rammed, and rightly so.

» Go on then, sixteen photos of the new museum (mine all mine)
» And 36 from inside the former Commonwealth Institute in 2011 (not mine)

 Monday, November 28, 2016

One of the pleasures of alighting from the Overground at Hackney Wick station is the whiff of bagel. Beyond the foot of the ramp on the corner of White Post Lane are the premises of Mr Bagels, a fully automated £3m facility opened in 2003, pumping out steam-baked dough rings for the benefit of major retailers and catering companies. But no longer. I walked out of the Overground yesterday to see a large knocked-down space behind blue hoardings, now almost entirely rubble apart from a couple of wall-less rooms awaiting the chop. The boys from Havering Demolition Ltd have been hard at work, probably for some time, and have succeeded in levelling the former bagel factory to the ground. It's going to become flats, obviously. And it's not alone.

Over the next few years the site at 52-54 White Post Lane will become "a mixed use sustainable development of 2330m² of flexible and high quality employment spaces aimed at creative industries with 55 residential units above". Specifically that's seven employment spaces to retain job provision on site, with 13 affordable and 42 non-affordable apartments perched above. It's very much the modern approach, making good use of space by stacking flats on top of commercial units, then submitting planning applications full of generically upbeat phrases. No building here is due to rise higher than six storeys, so the development won't be overly intrusive, but neither will it be interesting. It's more of this, I'm afraid.

I often wonder why we still teach English Literature to children, when what they should instead be studying is a GCSE in Marketing. The ability to make something ordinary sound amazing is key to success in 21st century Britain, and nowhere is this more evident than in the descriptive world of property development. The estates team have been hard at work here crafting glossy verbal sheen, rarely less meaningful than in their claim that the "elevational treatment" will range "from rigid grids to playful windows". What these weasel words really mean is that this development will look pretty much the same as the typical brick vernacular now springing up across the capital, so nothing special, and indeed pretty much the same as the even larger development pencilled in nextdoor.

This is 24-26 White Post Lane, another brick cluster on similarly brownfield land. Allegedly the architecture "takes inspiration from the existing area where creative industries and residents live side-by-side in the converted warehouses and factories left over from the Victorian industrial buildings", but in fact it looks exactly like everything else going up everywhere else at the moment. This time there'll be 103 homes alongside 2900m² of commercial space - all well and good for contributing to the area's economic and residential needs, but aesthetically dead compared to the grimy post-industrial Hackney Wick that's existed up until now.

Some online digging swiftly reveals what's planned for other parts of this Olympic-side neighbourhood. The long wedge between White Post Lane and Wallis Road, currently McGrath Bros Waste Control Ltd, is ultimately destined to become another 54 residential units, plus 630m² of retail space and 221m² of studio space. The site opposite Mr Bagels, behind the bus stop on Hepscott Road, has already been knocked down and is destined for flats. The former Lea Tavern site is pencilled in for "a contemporary interpretation of the adjacent warehouse vernacular", for which read "glass monstrosity which looks nothing like what was here before". And then, blimey, there's the enormous bit around the station.

Hackney Wick Central is a significant redevelopment scheme covering six hectares on either side of the railway line, including many of the creative industries that currently give Hackney Wick its buzz. The affected zone runs from the edge of Leabank Square in the north to White Post Lane in the south, and east all the way down to the edge of the river. All the listed buildings in the target zone will be retained, and there are several, but the remainder of the less distinguished warehouses and studios will be knocked down so that a brand new mixed use neighbourhood can be created. Commercially it's a far better use of space, but the chances of the area's long-term vibrancy surviving within these sanitised ground floor units must be small.

A new pedestrianised north-south spine road will be cut through, leading to an upgraded (and more central), station. A new retail centre will be established, with sufficient shops to support residents from existing local neighbourhoods and local neighbourhoods yet-to-be. It's proposed that the much-graffitied long-closed Lord Napier is brought back into use as a public house, so that's a plus. The Eton Mission boathouse will also survive, its facilities for rowing unmolested, at the heart of a new public space faced by cafes and restaurants. But expect much of the riverside to be turned into apartments, because waterside is where the real money is, as a walk south along this stretch of the Lea increasingly proves.

The Omega Works has stood at the end of the Hertford Canal for some years, but developers are now squeezing in another block of 35 designer apartments called Carpenters Wharf on the other side of the new footbridge. There aren't enough bridges across the Lea, apparently, so the artistic community at Vittoria Wharf are due to see their buildings demolished to make way for another - who'd not be angry? Construction on the primary school across the river has just begun, as Sweetwater neighbourhood starts to take shape, and the footpath behind the Big Breakfast cottage has recently been sealed off. Fish Island Village is scheduled to arise unimaginatively alongside the Hertford Union from 2018, which means considerably more of the same. And then there's the waterside overlooking Old Ford Lock, empty since being used by Formans for hospitality in 2012, now boarded off and due to be reborn as this ugly bulkhead.

We've always known that the aftermath of the Olympics would be a developmental whirlwind, indeed that was the original intention. But commercial pressure is now proving unstoppable outside the borders of the original park, as Hackney Wick inexorably succumbs to widespread gentrification. We'll gain more thousands more boxes in which to live, all urgently required, and ideally located to meet public need. But this corner of East London will lose the vibrancy that once made the place special, as characterful spaces are replaced by a blander more tedious landscape, which because it's the late 2010s means "gridded brick" all over. If you get to move in, congratulations. But if the rest of us decide not to visit this hackneyed landscape any more, don't be surprised.

 Sunday, November 27, 2016

A self-guided tour of Chez DG

A downloadable annotated map is available here.

Welcome, and please wipe your feet.
1 The front doormat is from the London Transport Museum, and the bristly image depicts London's zonal fare system. It was bought in a sale, presumably because nobody thought it worth buying until the price was under a tenner.

2 The stuffed toy on the side table is a Ty Beanie Baby, official name Puffer, introduced at the end of 1997 and retired on 18th September 1998. Once thought eminently collectible, similar puffins are now available on eBay for less than £2.

3 The 20th century cathode ray television set upturned by the front door malfunctioned four years ago, but is too heavy to be manhandled out onto the landing and down the stairs to the street, so here it rests.
Push open the door on your right to see the bathroom.
4 Yes, the lock's broken. The mechanism ought to push back in with the aid of an Allen key, but the only Allen keys in the flat are too big. Fortuitously almost nobody ever visits, so the lock is invariably superfluous.

5 The lime green and orange alarm clock on the toilet cistern was already here when the flat was rented, because who would buy such a thing? The hands still show British Summer Time, because they could be changed but life's too short.
The next door along the hallway leads to the kitchen.
6 Legend has it that the magnetic letters on the fridge were arranged by a visitor who understood what the phrase portrayed actually means. The use of the letters G and I to form a makeshift question mark shows levels of artistic creativity.

7 Eagle-eyed visitors may be able to spot a selection of Earl Grey teabags, two particularly jaunty sideplates from Stoke-on-Trent, a slightly leaky London 2012 water bottle, and five Creme Eggs left over from the early 2016 season.

8 The brown towel hanging over the rail on the oven is meant to be brown, and was purchased in the early 1980s from the Co-Op as part of a package of essential things to take to university (see also 8a - plastic tray, and 8b - pepper grinder)
Ahead is the spare room - a wasteful luxury in 21st century London.
9 Although now faded, the geometric pattern on the waste paper bin matches that of the wallpaper of the current tenant's bedroom when aged nine, and could hardly be more mid-1970s if it tried.

10 Cassettes were once a popular means of playing recorded music. The assembled collection represents a considerable financial outlay, and can still be played on some (but no longer all) of the hi-fidelity decks scattered around the property.

11 It is conceivably possible that the cardboard packaging which once housed the HP Officejet G55 printer will one day again be useful to relocate the 20th century reproductive device to another location, but it would probably be better chucked.

12 This stack of heritage classics speaks for itself.
Follow the illuminated winter lights to the next doorway.
13 The bedroom is off-limits on this tour, but by standing behind the protective barrier it should be possible to see 13a - a complete set of toy Clangers on top of the bookshelf, 13b - clean socks, 13c - that big purple cushion Mum knitted.
The main living room is the heart of this famous abode.
14 According to the landlord the dining table is a Seventies classic, but he doesn't have to use it, and the matching Seventies chairs aren't exactly practical either.

15 Every home has a Mr Men drinks coaster, and this is no exception, here depicting popular character Mr Happy. Coincidentally of a similar vintage to the dining table, it has become slightly lumpy in the middle through overuse.

16 The west wall is dominated by a geographical map of London, because obviously it is.

17 It remains possible to watch video cassettes on the flat screen television, presumably, if it were possible to work out where the cables plug in round the back without pulling any others out and wrecking the current fortuitous set-up.
Step through the double doors and enjoy the view from the balcony.
18 Alas no, you can't really see anything, can you?

19 This Christmas cactus has flowered every year since goodness knows when, except it got waterlogged during the summer when it rained a lot, so this winter looks like it's dead, which is bloody 2016 for you.
Step back inside, taking care to wipe your feet again.
20 Yes, that is the actual laptop on which the popular blog diamond geezer is composed. Tomorrow's post may even be partly written. No peeking.
Exit via the gift shop. Exclusive merchandise available.

 Saturday, November 26, 2016

Reducing the number of buses along Oxford Street has long been on TfL's radar. They've taken several steps already, altering certain bus termini, diverting routes and cutting services back. But a consultation launched yesterday takes matters firmly in hand and proposes changes to 21 different routes, many of them West End stalwarts, with the aim of reducing the number of buses along Oxford Street by as much as 40%. Additional reasons for change relate to a reduction in passenger demand in central London due to slower traffic speeds and the introduction of Crossrail in two years time, and the effects will ripple out as far as Wembley and Ilford.

So comprehensive is the consultation that TfL have had to divide up the affected routes into eight different groups, as follows, should you wish to click through to see the specifics.

[3, 137, N3] [6, 15, N15] [8, 172, 242] [22, C2, N22] [23, 46, 332, 452] [25, 425] [73, 390] [N2]

And because it's always best to understand in advance what might be happening, rather than to nod now and look surprised when the changes roll out, here's what's proposed group by group, and route by route...

RouteCurrent situationProposed changeEffect on
Oxford Street
3Runs from Crystal Palace to Regent Street, via Trafalgar Square.After Trafalgar Square will instead run via Leicester Square and Tottenham Court Road, then pass in front of the British Museum to Russell Square.no longer turns here
N3As above, but terminates at Oxford Circus.Will run as above, terminating at Russell Square.no longer turns here
137Runs from Streatham Hill to Oxford Circus, via Marble Arch.Buses will now terminate at Marble Arch.REMOVED
6Runs from Willesden to Aldwych, via Oxford Street and Regent Street.Will be diverted at Marble Arch to run via Hyde Park Corner and Piccadilly, returning to the existing route at Piccadilly Circus.REMOVED
15Runs from Blackwall to Trafalgar Square, having been cut back from Regent Street in 2013 due to congestion.The temporary cut will be made permanent.none
N15Runs from Romford to Trafalgar Square, having been cut back from Regent Street in 2013 due to congestion.Buses will be extended up Regent Street to Oxford Circus, because congestion isn't so bad at night.will now turn here
172Runs from Brockley Rise to St Paul's (King Edward Street), via Ludgate Circus.After Ludgate Circus will instead turn up Farringdon Road (to link with Crossrail) and continue to Clerkenwell.none
242Runs from Homerton Hospital to Tottenham Court Road, via St Paul's.Buses will now terminate at St Paul's (at the former 172 stand in King Edward Street).no longer goes near
8Runs from Bow Church to Tottenham Court Road, having been cut back from Oxford Circus in 2013 due to congestion.The temporary cut back to Tottenham Court Road will be made permanent. Westbound buses will follow the 242's former route along High Holborn. Eastbound buses will no longer start by looping round via Gower Street.REMOVED
C2Runs from Parliament Hill Fields to Victoria, via Regent Street, Mayfair and Hyde Park Corner.Buses will now terminate after Regent Street, "reducing the length of route C2 significantly".none
22Runs from Putney Common to Piccadilly Circus, via Green Park station.Diverted at Green Park to follow the C2's former route through Mayfair, terminating at Oxford Circus.will now turn here
N22Runs from Fulwell to Piccadilly Circus, via Green Park station.Diverted at Green Park, to follow the C2's former route through Mayfair, terminating at Oxford Circus.will now turn here
23Runs from Westbourne Park to Liverpool Street, via Paddington, Oxford Street and Regent Street. A previous consultation has proposed cutting the City terminus back to Aldwych.Significant changes. Will now be diverted after Paddington to terminate at Lancaster Gate - a 5 mile reduction in route. To compensate, will now start in Wembley.REMOVED
332Runs from Brent Park to Paddington, via Kilburn High Road and Edgware Road.Will be diverted between Kilburn High Road and Paddington, via Kilburn Park and Warwick Avenue, then extended to Lancaster Gate.none
46Runs from St Bart's to Lancaster Gate, via Hampstead and Paddington.Buses will now terminate at Paddington (making room for the 23 and 332 to terminate at Lancaster Gate).none
452Runs from Kensal Rise to Vauxhall, via Ladbroke Grove.Start of route switched to Harrow Road, near Westbourne Park, joining the original line of route at Ladbroke Grove.none
25Runs from Oxford Circus to Ilford, but half the buses only run between Mile End and Ilford because of increased congestion at the western end of the route.*The Mile End to Ilford buses will be withdrawn, leaving buses running every 7-8 minutes along the entire route.fewer buses
425Runs from Clapton to Stratford, via Mile End.Will be extended from Stratford to Ilford - a 4 mile extension - to make up for cuts at the eastern end of route 25. Buses will run slightly more frequently.none
73Runs from Stoke Newington to Victoria, via the entire length of Oxford Street.Buses will now terminate at Oxford Circus, cutting the length of the route by 2 miles. Buses will run slightly less frequently.REMOVED from western half
390Runs from Archway to Notting Hill Gate, via the entire length of Oxford Street.Diverted at Marble Arch to run to Victoria instead of Notting Hill Gate. Buses will run slightly more frequently.unchanged
N2Runs from Crystal Palace to Trafalgar Square, via Victoria.Diverted at Victoria to run via Park Lane and Marble Arch to Marylebone (as daytime route 2).ADDED (slightly)

These spaghetti-like before, during and after maps may, or more likely may not, make things clearer.

If you fancy a long read here's the 'West End Bus Services Review' document in full, or you could follow the example of the lazymedia and simply skim the press release.

In summary, here's what's proposed for daytime buses travelling along Oxford Street.

yearMarble Arch to
Selfridges to
Oxford Circus
Oxford Circus to
Tottenham Court Road
2006 2, 6, 7, 10, 15, 23, 30, 73, 74, 82, 94, 98, 137, 159, 274, 3906, 7, 8, 10, 13, 15, 23, 73, 94, 98, 113, 137, 139, 159, 189, 3907, 8, 10, 25, 55, 73, 98, 176, 390
2016 2, 6, 7, 10, 23, 73, 74, 82, 94, 98, 137, 159, 274, 3906, 7, 10, 13, 23, 73, 94, 98, 137, 139, 159, 189, 39010, 25, 55, 73, 98, 390
2018 2, 7, 10, 13, 74, 94, 98, 159, 189, 274, 3907, 10, 94, 98, 113, 139, 159, 39010, 25, 55, 73, 98, 390

You might like a lot of the proposed changes. You might like some of them. You might not like some of them. But all of them are going to happen over the next couple of years, unless the public's input to the consultation suggests otherwise. London has until 29th January to respond.

* According to the West End Bus Services Review:
"Route 25 has been affected by a number of roadworks and permanent highways schemes that have reduced highway capacity over the past few years. The effects of this have been particularly severe in the past year with a weekday drop in usage of nearly 20% and an increase in journey times of around 10%, and up to 20% on the section between Stratford and Aldgate. Journey times have increased substantially west of Stratford and particularly on the section of routeing directly affected by the CS2 scheme. It is not expected that journey times will reduce significantly and it is therefore assumed that the current situation is now business as usual. Given this, it is not expected that passenger numbers will increase significantly in the near future."
There are three pages of graphs, data and conclusions relating to route 25 in the consultation report, and it's pretty damning stuff, if any journalists are reading this.

 Friday, November 25, 2016

Inside - Artists and Writers in Reading Prison
4th September - 4th December 2016 (Thu, Fri, Sat, Sun)

A rare opportunity has arisen to look inside one of Her Majesty's more historic prisons. To be fair, the opportunity arose a couple of months ago, and there are only two weeks left, but it's not too late to go.

Berkshire's premier detainment facility, Reading Gaol, was modelled on the New Model Prison at Pentonville and opened in 1844. It took a new approach to confinement, replacing dormitories with individual cells, here laid out on three levels along three long wings. The cells continued in use until 2013, refitted and upgraded, and were last used as a young person's detention centre. And with the building standing empty, exhibitioneers Artangel have taken temporary possession and filled it with a diversity of artistic commissions. Art plus History = Wonder.

Reading's most famous prisoner was Oscar Wilde, incarcerated here in 1895 after unwisely prosecuting his lover's father for libel. Two years hard labour broke his spirit, but also inspired two of his most famous works - the unaddressed love letter De Profundis, and The Ballad of Reading Gaol, an anonymous poem written later subsequently in Paris exile. So Oscar was the obvious focus for Artangel's contributory artists, and the opportunity to stand in his cell a compelling draw.

It's an peculiar experience to walk deliberately into a prison building, across the courtyard and through the internal unlocked gate into the heart of the institution. The inside of this Victorian jail looks utterly archetypal, as seen in dozens of crime dramas over the years, with thin narrow staircases rising through protective netting to galleries on the upper levels, and a high vaulted roof illuminated in striplight gloom. Look once to see middle class art lovers on a creative safari, but think harder and it's easy to picture generations of convicts slopping out, or queues patiently filing out for daily exercise, perhaps even a minor riot.

It's worth £9 simply for the opportunity to walk round freely inside a prison and explore. For many a convicted felon and for many a year these walls were all they knew, and for the best part of that a single cell. Dozens are open for you to step inside, a single high window at the far end, and a modern metal washbasin/toilet insert plumbed partway down. Some have latticed beds, perhaps a chunky table and blocky chair, each chosen for their unchuckability rather than for aesthetics. Others are completely empty, an echoing space, with room for pacing up and down and not much more.

Oscar's cell was C.3.3. on the second floor, since renumbered C.2.2. after some sacrilegious internal rationalisation. For this exhibition it's been left art-free, but with a single pink rose on the table and an unlit candle alongside. There are two power points and a shelf, luxuries Wilde wouldn't have known in his lifetime, plus a handful of orange lino tiles to break the pattern of the floor. It's easy to imagine how an even emptier lockup would have driven a social genius to empty desperation. Wilde was fortunate that the governor eventually allowed him more than the regulation one book a week from the prison library, and copies of his lending choices are displayed in neighbouring cells.

The art elsewhere is quite varied, but a good excuse to explore every corner of the building. Some of the artists have provided paintings, in Wolfgang Tillmans' case self portraits of himself reflected in two of the cells' distorted mirrors. Other artists have gone for video presentations, with forbidden sexuality a common theme, and one particular cell has a warning outside of explicit adult content, which I can confirm is an erectile understatement.

Roni Horn's close-up photos of the Thames are disturbingly bleak, with suicidal undertones, and sharply provoking. Meanwhile several cells contain Letters of Separation, missives to loved ones by contemporary writers, which you can either read or listen to via headphones. The most moving of these, I thought, was Ai Weiwei's description of incarceration by the Chinese state, which he came to terms with by realising that his young guards were even more trapped by circumstance than he was.

Once the art becomes 3D it gets more hit and miss. A couple of lightbulbs on a wall, a gold-plated mosquito net on a bed, some upturned tables stacked with soil inbetween; these left me cold. More captivating were Robert Gober's hollow sculptures with flowing water features somehow placed inside, and top of the shop was the actual wooden door from Oscar's original cell placed on a plinth in the prison chapel. On Sundays famous actors including Ben Whishaw and Maxine Peake have sat here to read the entirety of De Profundis to an appreciative audience, if they can stick the full four hours.

Oscar's two Reading-based compositions are featured in the governor's office, which hangs at the heart of the prison providing excellent sightlines along each gallery. From here you get a good idea of the building's compact oppression, and can pause to wonder how you might cope with being locked into sensual deprivation should the state ever decree. But only for another couple of weeks. Reading Jail is top of the government's list for selling off, their intention to wipe away Victorian practices and to replace it with inner city housing. The main building is Grade II listed so will survive, but shamelessly neutered, and never as evocatively as this.

Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard.
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word.
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Oscar Wilde, 1898

 Thursday, November 24, 2016

Greater London contains around 2000 National Grid squares, each 1km by 1km in size. I've taken to picking one of these at random and visiting it to see what I might find, and over the weekend I did it again. Last time I got Hounslow, and the time before that I got Barking and Dagenham, and this time I got Barnet. Specifically a square just to the south of High Barnet station, and teeming with outer suburban variety. There's little reason for TQ2595 to ever appear in Time Out, but that's not a reason not to visit, indeed there's tons to see. [aerial view, 1939]

20 Things To Do In Grid Square TQ2595

1) Enjoy the panorama from Barnet Hill
If you know the original town of Barnet, specifically Chipping Barnet, you'll know it perches at the top of a long hill leading up from the southeast. The bottom of that hill is in grid square TQ2595, the section where the road opens out to reveal a grassy embankment beneath and the rooftops of several housing estates beyond. This area's called Underhill, a name which forms the basis for most of the grid square to the west of the railway line. That's leafy Totteridge you can see in the distance, and the floodlights in the foreground belong to a former football ground, of which more in a moment. Don't look the other way, because that's a van hire yard piled high with containers in front of the railway, and less than scenic.

2) Sit on the railway bridge awaiting a platform
The Northern line approaches High Barnet on an embankment, then in cutting, before emerging briefly to cross the foot of Barnet Hill diagonally on a low bridge. Trains often pause here, above the traffic, waiting for a platform to become clear at the station a short distance ahead. If you're sitting in one of the front two carriages you might get a decent view over Underhill at this point, as well as mildly frustrated.

3) Follow the Great North Road
The Great North Road passes through Barnet, one horse-change from London, which helped bring the location to economic prominence. Climbing Barnet Hill often proved problematic, so in the 1820s Thomas Telford remodelled the ascent with a gentler gradient, the original road having run through the primary school now in position at the foot of his embankment. Barnet was comprehensively bypassed in the 1920s, so the A1 now runs elsewhere, but a broad mostly residential road still runs up from Finchley.

4) March up the hill and march down
In 1471 the Battle of Barnet, one of the more decisive engagements of the Wars of the Roses, was fought (three grid squares away) to the north of the town centre. But to get there the Duke of York had to march his men up Barnet Hill, and after victory he got to march them down again, which is either the direct inspiration for the famous nursery rhyme, or more likely one of many alternative fictional derivations based on several Dukes from several eras in several unconfirmed locations.

5) Mourn the loss of The Old Red Lion
Opened in the 1720s at the foot of Barnet Hill, this coaching inn once provided stagecoaches with an extra couple of horses to assist them on the ascent. These were known as a Hercules pair. Telford's reconstruction reduced demand, but a pint was always welcome, and the pub was rebuilt in the early 1930s to serve newly laid out estates. Alas the number of customers declined significantly when the local football ground closed, so the pub shut for good in February last year and is currently re-emerging as "a collection of six contemporary homes", for which read stark 4-bed split-level brick semis with prices starting at £895,000.

6) Mourn the departure of the Bees
Barnet FC once played their home matches at the Underhill Stadium, a bijou low-res operation whose pitch boasted one of the steepest slopes in professional football. The stadium opened in 1907, but never really proved satisfactory when the team were promoted to the Football League, and in 2013 they moved out following disagreements with the local council. That's the short version, anyway. Barnet now play in League Two at The Hive stadium, which is not in Barnet, and Underhill Stadium is used by the London Broncos rugby league club for training. If you've ever wanted to watch the Under 19s play I understand you can still get in.

7) Mourn the loss of Barnet Cricket Club
I don't know if you're spotting a pattern here. Barnet Cricket Club closed down at the same time as Barnet FC moved on, their pavilion now fenced off, and the pitch roughly unkempt and uneven. There are big plans for the football stadium, cricket pitch and adjacent greenspace to become an academy, but purchase of the land by the Education Funding Agency stalled, the proposed opening date has slipped back to September 2018, and as yet no works on site have taken place. A bit of a fiasco all round, really.

8) Play ping pong at the Barnet Table Tennis Centre
Thank goodness some sporting activity is still available in TQ2595. The BTTC is based at the foot of the playing fields in a large brick hut on the banks of the Dollis Brook. Coaching nights and practice tables are available within, a summer league takes place annually, and quite frankly it sounds like just the kind of social facility many a London neighbourhood needs, but doesn't have.

9) Run amok on Barnet Playing Fields
A large area of undeveloped meadow survives as Barnet Playing Fields, a sweep of green leading down to the river that's a cut above your average rec. A play area and an outdoor gym are provided, as well as a basketball zone and copious space for a kickabout. For centuries this was the site of Barnet Fair, a Michaelmas mass gathering visited by Samuel Pepys, founded in 1588 and once described as 'three days of pandemonium'. Horse racing was held up the hill where the tube terminus now stands, and even though that aspect has faded away a slimmed down equine fair is still held on the meadows upriver at Mays Lane each September.

10) Walk the Dollis Valley Greenwalk
11) Walk the London Loop (section 16)
The Dollis Valley Greenwalk is a ten mile path following Barnet's finest river from almost Edgware to nearly Hendon. Only 500m passes through TQ2595, but it's not bad, following the gentle meanders of the brook's middle course at the foot of the playing fields, then bending south towards the Brook Farm Open Space. The banks are leaf-strewn and occasionally deeply-banked, and magnets for dogwalkers and joggers. The London Loop arrives the same way, but breaks off after the Table Tennis Centre to climb the fields towards the railway bridge, then proceeds up a ratrun lane on the other side. As this is the only section of the Loop I haven't completed, I'll say no more for now.

12) Ride London's shortest bus route
Here's a cracking reason to visit TQ2595, a chance to ride the only TfL bus route less than one mile long. What's more it's this grid square which creates the need for the 389's brief run, specifically the long thin Grasvenor Estate sandwiched between the playing fields and the railway, and with no way out except the way you came in. Buses depart the Spires shopping centre and run down Barnet Hill, turning off at Underhill to make a hail and ride circuit down to Western Way and back. Officially these count as two different directions, it being 1.1 miles down and 0.9 miles back, a duty generally completed in ten minutes flat. What's more buses only run between 10am and 3pm, hourly, six days a week, making this the third least frequent bus in London. Catching a 389 is tricky, but I succeeded, and was impressed how full of shoppers it was, fully justifying the vehicle's existence. Indeed the trip down from Barnet had the feel of a pensioners' outing about it, with most of the passengers known to one another, and a collective conversation underway. By listening in I learned lots about Joyce, she used to work in Pearsons, they found her body you know, such a shame. I was also treated to a heartwarming spectacle when the lady at number 72 flagged down the driver to ask if anyone had found her keys, she thought she'd probably left them in Santander but they might be on the floor under the seat behind the door, could everybody check. Not quite heartwarming enough that the keys were found, alas, but I got a real sense that the 389 is a happy community service that helps support several elderly residents in their own homes. Short, and sweet.

13) Track down the old Middlesex border
Before 1965 most of what's now north London was in Middlesex, and a small adjacent patch was in Hertfordshire. Barnet was a bit of an anomaly, a irregular finger of Herts intruding into Middlesex, and almost completely surrounded by it. The point at which the Great North Road passed out of Middlesex was a few yards south of the junction with Lyonsdown Road, now a neighbourhood of interwar courts and aspirational but slightly dated apartments. Confirmation of the area's administrative transition comes in the name County Gate for a cul-de-sac of executive semis leading down to the railway, but the boundary is otherwise unmarked.

14) LOL at Pricklers Hill
Ha, yes, the section of the Great North Road leading up to Underhill is known as Pricklers Hill. The name comes from the Prittle family who once lived in one the few medieval houses hereabouts, later known as Greenhill Grove. A milestone partway along the main road, still extant, marks the point that's precisely 10 miles from central London. Another oddly-named local resident with a street to their name is Lancelot Hasluck, whose demolished property is now covered by a string of near-£million semis along Hasluck Gardens.

15) Feed the ducks at Greenhill Gardens
When Greenhill Grove's estate was residentialised, two fish ponds at the bottom of the garden were protected from development. The smaller pond was filled in and grassed over, but the larger lake remains and the pair now form a not inconsiderable recreational resource. Ducks, drakes, geese and waterfowl of all kinds colonise the waters at Greenhill Gardens, and strut around on the muddy banks - I interrupted several on my five minute circuit. All credit to East Barnet Council for having the foresight to protect this land in 1928, and there's an even better example up the road, which I'll get to at the end of the list.

16) Pass your driving test
I thought I'd seen a lot of learner drivers on my wanderings around TQ2595, and when I stumbled upon Raydean House I realised why. This drab long block - the kind of building that gives the 1970s a bad name - is Barnet's driving test centre, and a Job Centre too for good measure. Even on a Saturday afternoon teenagers were nervously reversing their vehicles close to the kerb by the verge up the road before setting off on yet another tour of the surrounding quiet three-point-turn-friendly avenues.

17) Watch a movie in Art Deco splendour
The Odeon Theatre opened on the Great North Road on Wednesday 15th May 1935, with a columnar Moorish design across its frontage and over 1500 seats in its auditorium. The interior decoration continued the north African motif, with jazzy Art Deco detailing and alternating red and blue upholstery, but no organ because the Odeon chain didn't believe in that kind of thing. I can tell you what the first film was, if you're interested, and also the names of the three architects. In 1974 the cinema was subdivided into three screens, later to become five, and in 1989 the building was given a well-deserved Grade II listing. Then last year the long connection with the Odeon brand ended and Everyman took over, and it's their name which now glows out front in gold 'neon'.

18) Eat in style at Fresh Fry Fish and Chips
Listings magazines may be full of smart bistros and pop-up diners, but the average Londoner's average meal out is a more ordinary affair. A quick lunch at Fresh Fry Fish and Chips, for example, the end-terrace unit at Western Parade, where top quality maritime cuisine is de rigueur. I sampled the fresh fried chips from the takeaway, lovingly stacked in a plastic tray and sprinkled with non-brewed condiment. For many local couples, however, it's the fish, chip, bread, butter and tea combo at the adjacent sit-down restaurant which calls, competitively priced at £6.50 - an ideal treat. Other nearby dining options are of course available, including authentic Thai at the Rice Terrace, or pie, mash and liquor from the Hole In The Wall at the Meadow Works down the road.

19) Go for a drink at the Weavers Arms
The Old Red Lion may have been levelled but the Weavers Arms endures, at the far end of the shopping parade beside the butchers. A chalkboard outside announces that this is a 'traditional pub', and the beery blokes lingering out front with a fag certainly confirm this assertion. Upstairs is a Bed and Breakfast, should you ever be in the area without either, but perhaps avoid Friday when the function room is taken over by karaoke. Alternative alcohol opportunities are available beside the BP garage at the Queen's Arms, cavernous enough to have once coped with coach parties, and where 2-4-1 Peri Peri Chicken is always on the menu.

20) Follow the tree trail round Highlands Gardens
Here's a little treasure to end with, another preserved back garden lovingly maintained for communal good. Highlands House was built in 1897 on the high ground above Leicester Road for a wealthy stockbroker, and boasted an oak staircase, Crittall windows, and a copper dome on the roof for stargazing. The house was sold for flats in 1930, and the council bought up the garden as an ready-made park. It's gorgeous, with a pergola walk, several almost-convincing rock formations, a couple of rustic bridges and a tumbling water feature twisting down to an artificial lake. It reminded me of a Bournemouth chine, for some reason. And because this is a rich Victorian's garden the trees are both varied and mature, which has enabled the creation of a Tree Trail up to the top of the grounds and back again, with a dozen specimens labelled for inspection. I found the yew and the medlar, the maidenhair and black walnut, a palm and at least three different species of oak, plus a similarly diverse selection of leaves artfully spread around each. A lovely hideaway for the residents of Barnet Vale to have on their doorstep.

And all this is to be found in just one square kilometre of our capital, randomly selected, and appreciatively enjoyed. London is an amazing city, even the bits that used to be in Hertfordshire, with so much to explore if we only think to look.

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