diamond geezer

 Tuesday, May 03, 2016

The full Regent's, Limehouse to Little Venice
Nine miles end to end, that's three hours
The towpath threads between and beneath
Maybe my sixth time, maybe the seventh

A defunct Water Bus stop in the basin
Stream of joggers, stream of bikes
One hired canoe, hauled out at every lock
Graffiti, bluebells, contented ducks

The dogwalker has a cello on her back
I remember when all this was warehouses
The Hertford's sealed off for how long?
Bank Holiday crowds fill Vicky Park

Pair of gasholders still stand, for now
Ding ding, make way, make way!
Those flats weren't here last time
Looks like the architects took the day off

Cycle hire jam, picked the wrong day for it
Pause to snapchat the tiny ducklings
Hackney seems to go on forever
Waterside views, would suit second time buyer

Pigeons perch atop an arched water pipe
New planters, poetry, a fish-shaped bench
Narrowboats two abreast, for seven days max
Sweaty lycra, barely faster than walking

Up into Islington past Boris's pad
Sofa.com coming soon, Chapel Market shuttered
To the far tunnel portal, blossom droops
The book barge is setting up for the day

Astroturfed steps herald New King's Cross
Those with no sense of adventure linger here
Negotiate the rocking floating walkway
Tiny balconies surround Gasholder Park

Fewer bikes now, families a-stroll
Twists and turns, Costa on the towpath!
Slo-mo crowds at Camden grid-Lock
Guzzling noodles and falafel from trays

A better class of towpath rambler
Bijou back gardens, the waterbus chugs by
Bluebells ablaze in St Mark's churchyard
Zoo traffic overhead, storks fly 'free'

Lush gardens, one public, the rest private
String of villas with manicured lawns
Trotting dog, hesitant Santander riders
Dip beneath trunk road and railway

Pristine moorings with hanging baskets
Step carefully over the electricity cables
Maida Hill tunnel power cable repairs
Towpath closure until further notice

Climb up to street level, cross with care
Crocker's Folly is serving pints again!
(Well, mostly wine, a bit posh really)
Final approach to Little Venice

The crowds thicken, the narrowboats throng
Canalway Cavalcade is in full swing
The sun comes out, much bunting flaps
Meticulous manoeuvring afloat

Every space on the bridge is taken
A riot of colour around the basin
Programmes are free, donation expected
The Parade of Historic Boats is starting soon

Stallholders hope to sign up volunteers
Or sell handicrafts, or flog fudge
Morris dancers thwack, a jazz band plays
A 'Posh Hot Dog' will cost you seven quid

IWA man glides by in hat made from balloons
Walk past the parallel parkers one more time
Several boatowners are heading for home
Same again next May Bank Holiday?

 Monday, May 02, 2016

Seaside postcard: Brownsea Island
Of the five islands in Poole Harbour, by far the largest and most well known is Brownsea. A mile and a half long and three quarters wide, it's best known as the site of the very first Scout camp in 1907. But the island also has a long strategic history, and considerable ecological significance (red squirrels!), as well as being a fantastic place to visit. Indeed my Saturday target wasn't really Poole or Sandbanks, it was Brownsea.

Everyone arrives by boat. For the general public this means the main jetty, but guests at Brownsea Castle have their own exclusive landing place alongside. This waterfront fortress is part of Henry VIII's chain of south coast defences, and a rare survivor, although it's been rebuilt several times since. Its last owner was the reclusive Mary Bonham-Christie, who hid away on her private island until 1961, after which ownership transferred to the National Trust to pay the 98 year-old's death duties. Today it's leased out to the John Lewis Partnership who use it as a holiday home for employees, although the waiting list is apparently five years long. The NT use some of the quayside buildings for a cafe and gift shop, and collecting their £7 entrance fee, but once you're past the gatehouse the island opens out and becomes increasingly tranquil and remote. Assuming the place isn't crawling with scouts, that is.

They were flocking across the green below the church when I arrived, it being a bank holiday weekend and therefore ideal for camping. This was bad news for the peacocks that live here, dozens of them, scuttling away from unwelcome attention to hide away in what remains of the daffodils. Things quietened down once various Akelas had led their charges away, at which point the younger peacocks returned to impressing the younger peahens, rapidly vibrating their backsides despite their feathers not yet being in any way spectacular. Inside St Mary's church a volunteer waited to pounce and explain the history of this isolated place of worship, while up the hill in the island's Visitor Centre (a former daffodil-packing shed) three more volunteers stood waiting to advise and flog 50p red squirrel maps.

Much of the northern half of the island is a nature reserve, including a large saltwater lagoon important to migrating birds including avocets and little egrets. This area is generally sealed off from the public, barring a series of boardwalks and hides added courtesy of the Dorset Wildlife Trust, accessible for an additional £2 donation. Instead I followed the track along the fence into the heart of the forest, a dense landscape of pine and silver beech, increasingly untroubled by other passers-by. Racks of black beaters are a regular sight along the trail, the threat of fire a real and present danger to the ecosystem, indeed most of the trees on Brownsea date back to the aftermath of a particularly nasty conflagration in 1934.

At the far end of the island, which I suspect most visitors never reach, are the remains of the hamlet of Maryland. A row of a dozen cottages once stood here, plus a pub, for workers employed to turn the local china clay into pottery. Unfortunately the deposits turned out to be of poor quality and the business swiftly went bust, and the village was used as a convenient decoy during WW2 so was bombed out of existence. The remains of several kilns can be still found along the south coast, along an idyllically rippled beach, although the steep clay cliffs are highly unstable so they'll not last much longer. Indeed landslips are a perennial problem here, taking out banks of trees and forcing the closure of footpaths, reminding visitors that Brownsea has a long but finite lifespan ahead.

The southwestern corner of the island is where Baden Powell set up his experimental camp for twenty proto-scouts. Boys were woken at 6am by a blast on the Kudu Horn, and took supper at 8pm round the camp fire before turning in at nine. Inbetween they learnt skills according to a daily theme, including knot-tying, tracking, first aid and 'chivalry', subjects a modern scout would still recognise, although they probably wouldn't be subjected to a compulsory hour's rest after lunch. I wondered why the fabled spot wasn't more heavily featured on the National Trust's map, and got my answer when I discovered dozens of tents pitched across the site, a temporary home to beavers, cubs and scouts from across the country, with several more lumbering in with bulging rucksacks throughout the day. Fenced out, I had to make do with hovering by the memorial stone up top on the edge of the heath.

I was surprised by how good the view was from the clifftops. Sandbanks and the entrance to Poole Harbour can be seen to the east, the sparkling blue water criss-crossed by the wake of speedboats and jetskis. The Purbeck Hills rise up to the south, a long green ridge terminating at Old Harry Rocks, which I wasn't expecting to be able to see. But the real joy of Brownsea is inland, in its mix of natural environments with tracks to follow and wildlife to see. Although I kept my eyes peeled I'm sorry to say I didn't see a single red squirrel - apparently there are only 300 on the island, and they're most active in the autumn. But I did stumble upon two sika deer, sandwiched between two sets of photographers and therefore less hard to spot than they might have been. Baden Powell was clearly onto a good thing when he scouted here, and it's easy to see why so many people still drop by each year.

Getting here: Between March and October a regular ferry service runs from Poole and from Sandbanks, the latter a much shorter crossing at six minutes rather than twenty. Returning to Poole takes considerably longer, a full three quarters of an hour, as the voyage continues round the harbour to pass the other islands in the inland archipelago. Furzey Island has 22 oil wells hidden behind a screen of trees, and was until recently owned by British Petroleum - not the only BP around here! Green Island is currently owned by Lord and Lady Iliffe, whose redwood log house is a rapid replacement for their first, which burnt down a couple of years ago. Round Island has holiday cottages... and by this point in the journey most of the girl scouts on the open upper deck of the boat had given up and gone downstairs to be out of the chill. If you're up for sightseeing it's quite an interesting trip, whereas if you're simply trying to get home the endless meandering must be quite infuriating. Poole Harbour is notoriously shallow and the only safe channels are meticulously marked by posts and buoys, these particularly circuitous to the south and west. Just be sure to be off the island by the time the last boat departs at 5pm, or to have brought a tent and bedding, otherwise an awkward night awaits.

» Twenty Brownsea photos

My Poole/Brownsea/Sandbanks gallery
There are 40 photos altogether [slideshow]

 Sunday, May 01, 2016

Seaside postcard: Sandbanks
There's wealth, and then there's Sandbanks. The settlement that's grown up on the sandy spit across the entrance to Poole Harbour was rated a few years ago as the fourth most expensive place to live in the world. In terms of cost per square foot it was beaten only by the richest parts of London, Hong Kong and Tokyo, which isn't bad for a square kilometre surrounded by sea where nobody lived until the end of the 19th century. An inn grew up to serve travellers using the Studland ferry - still the quickest way of nipping between Bournemouth and Swanage. The first houses were built in the 1890s, specifically to help fund coastal defences, and in the 1920s the very-sandy beaches encouraged the development of a holiday resort. By the 1990s estate agents had whipped up interest to fever pitch and a ring of modern luxury homes began to encircle the waterfront, and today owning a property at Sandbanks has become the ultimate badge of self-made success.

I was expecting to be more wowed. I mean, it's nice, and the personalised numberplate count is high, but the overall feeling of peak exclusivity was somehow lacking. A lot of this is down to the traffic, which is much busier than you might expect on a spit thanks to the ferry at its tip, which sends pulses of traffic around the one-way perimeter road. Some of the properties are gleaming architecturally-sharp edifices with copious balconies at the end of gated drives, but many are simply big houses, and others look like flats. The only restaurant on Sandbanks is a Rick Stein, but otherwise the handful of shops isn't nearly exclusive enough, with the southern parade clearly targeted more at tourists and passing traffic. And the whole place feels a little densely-packed, but then it would, given that such a tiny area has such great value.

The Haven Hotel by the ferry is famous as the home for several years of radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi, and hosted one of the world's very first wireless broadcasting stations. These days a gate keeps out non four-star guests, and retired couples park outside and read the Times, Mail or Express in sheltered leatherette whilst watching the yachts and speedboats shuttling in and out of the harbour. Punters at the prestige car showroom on Panorama Road block the bike lane with their BMWs, causing passing cyclists to curse, and scottie dogs trot back from the promenade with their clutch-bagged owners in train. And the massed ranks of Poole and Bournemouth flood in to enjoy the east-facing beach, which is gorgeously sandy, filling up a car park which could otherwise be given over to umpteen million pounds worth of homes.

It didn't take long to spot that Sandbanks is really two communities, one inside the perimeter road and one without. The premier location is on the outside with a house backing down onto the water, indeed it's the whopping ratio of properties with seafront access that delivered Sandbanks its residential kudos in the first place. Harry Redknapp's £4m hideaway has a harbour-top lawn and private jetty, while other peripheral mansions have their own berth, and an often idiosyncratic design. Inside the perimeter road the houses are relatively smaller, and relatively more squashed - here you're paying for the address rather than the view. And at only two points is there a public footpath down to the water's edge, one a brief alley down the side of the Royal Motor Yacht Club, the other a quick link to the beach. A clear message is being sent that this millionaire's playground is not for you. A five metre rise in sea level will destroy the lot.

» Ten Sandbanks photos
» Lots about the history and geography of the Sandbanks spit

Seaside postcard: Poole
Today it's hard to spot the dividing line between Poole and Bournemouth, apart perhaps from spotting the street where the recycling bins change colour. But what looks like one big sprawling south coast conurbation is in fact two very separate towns, with Bournemouth the Victorian upstart and Poole the ancient settlement. Once one of the most important ports in Britain, Poole is best known for its enormous natural harbour - only Sydney's is larger in size. If it's sun and sand and sea you want, then Bournemouth every time, but for anything involving heading out onto the water, Poole is where it's at.

What you don't want to do, as a tourist in Poole, is hang around anywhere near the railway station. Much of the town was upgraded between the 1950s and the 1980s, with older buildings wiped away to make way for new civic buildings, shopping centres and flyovers. It may be functional but it's not pretty, with Falkland Square a particularly bleak point of access to the Dolphin Mall, and hence the ideal location for tedious referendum campaigners to harangue the local populace. The High Street is mostly pedestrianised, and runs down to the harbour across a level crossing. It's a fairly ordinary shopping street, given that all the big chains are in the Dolphin, and features a wealth of minor independent stores selling ironmongery, fresh baked lardy cakes, fancy dress and more.

At the foot of the street, where it gets historically narrow, sits Poole Museum. It's made up of three separate buildings, the Town Cellars, a 19th century grain warehouse and a very 21st century extension (which perches on the front). It also spreads across four floors, from the preserved logboat at street level to a collection of local ceramics up top, with intermediate floors focusing on the town's maritime past and life as it is lived. A decent package well presented, I'd say. But I'd query the positioning of the museum cafe on the 3rd floor, even if this means it gets a nice roof terrace overlooking the street, because there was zero evidence that any of the population of Poole can be bothered to hike up that far.

Rest assured there is an Old Town, a few acres of deliberately undemolished twisty streets surrounding the old parish church. But the main tourist drag in Poole involves the quayside overlooking the harbour, and a road specifically called The Quay. Once this would have been alive with port traffic, indeed the last time I was here, circa 1970, I think it was. Back then the Custom House oversaw the administrative side of maritime trade, whereas now it's a bar and restaurant, such is progress. Further along are pubs and a chippy, though not an amusement arcade, Poole's a bit too classy for that. Folk who sail motor yachts into its marina prefer finer dining and the chance to buy an apartment in the very modern silvery block than dominates the skyline from the harbour.

Alongside is a cavernous building that's home to Poole Pottery, a renowned Victorian company that's slipped in and out of administration of late. As well as a studio area where actual design work is carried out, the shelves are filled with hundreds of colourful ceramics, both firsts and cut-price seconds, and the air is thick with the whiff of gift candles. Unfortunately for the company's coffers I much prefer PP's older stuff, arrayed in a couple of cabinets at the back labelled Collectors Corner and far too valuable to be sold.

The old lifeboat station at the far end of the marina is only small but contains a free museum (and maybe a man outside flogging plaice). The RNLI has a considerably greater presence round the back of Asda, nearer the station, where you'll find the national Head Office and Training Centre. But the top attraction hereabouts would appear to be the opportunity to go out on a boat around the harbour. Three companies compete for your custom from three different coloured huts, at least two of which turn out to be in cahoots, so the ticket you buy from yellow might mean a ride on orange, and vice versa. Boats run half hourly to Brownsea Island and back... which obviously is what I did next, and I'll tell you more later.

» Eleven Poole photos

 Saturday, April 30, 2016

Wahey, here comes the month with two bank holiday weekends. Assuming you have time on your hands, what to do and where to go? Here's my list of mostly-free suggestions...

Weekend 1: April 30/May 1/May 2 [BANK HOLIDAY]
» Canalway Cavalcade (Sat, Sun, Mon): The annual narrowboat festival at Little Venice. It's usually very busy, and very colourful, and brings a welcome slice of watery heritage to the heart of London.
» Rochester Sweeps Festival (Sat, Sun, Mon): For one weekend only, the town centre is taken over by morris dancers, sooty-faced musicians, beer drinkers and a Jack-in-the-Green. [my report from 2010]
» Jack-in-the-Green May Day Festival (Sat, Sun, Mon): Lasts all weekend, but the amazing day is Monday when the townspeople of Hastings dress in foliage, dab green spots on their foreheads and dance through the streets like they're in the Wicker Man before ending up on the clifftop for a booze-up. Arrive early, and it's quite some day out. [my report from 2014]
» Jack In The Green (Sun, 11.30-16.5): A garlanded man will be paraded around the streets of Southwark and the City to celebrate May Day - looks like a pagan excuse for a pub crawl to me.
» May Day Rally (Sun, from 11.30): Jeremy Corbyn will be amongst those marching from Clerkenwell to Trafalgar Square for a rally to celebrate International Workers Day, comrade.
» Gumball Rally 3000 (Mon, 12-8): If you like cars and bling, you may want to welcome some C-list American celebs in pimped-up wheels to Regent Street this afternoon. Destination Bucharest.
» Brixton Beer and Bread Festival (Mon, 1-5): To celebrate the bicentenary of the windmill, an afternoon of local breweriness, very local flour and live music.

Weekend 2: May 7/May 8
» Westminster Morris Men, Day of Dance (Sat, 10-6): The annual takeover of Westminster's streets and squares by hanky-wielding bell-ankled baton-thwacking jigglers. [my report from 2009]
» Boring Conference 2016 (Sat): Yay! But sold out. [my report from 2015]
» Covent Garden May Fayre & Puppet Festival (Sun, 10.30-5.30): Punch and Judy Professors from all over the country and abroad gather in the garden of St Paul’s Church.

» Honourable Artillery Company Annual Open Evening (Tue 10th, 5-9): Your chance to visit the largest greenspace in the City of London to see helicopters, parades, military acrobatics and big guns, and poke around inside the HAC's ancient HQ. [my report from 2015]

Weekend 3: May 14/May 15
» Museums at Night (Wed-Sat): Sleepovers and after hours tours at museums across the country.
» Eurovision (Sat, 8-11): Just a reminder.
» Streatham Common Kite Day (Sun, 11-5): Aerial acrobatics, wind permitting. Includes hog roast.
» Urban Village Fete (Sun, 12-7): The housebuilders and placemakers of the Greenwich Peninsula curate a second design and entertainment fair in an attempt to give their expensive residential developments a creative foundation. [my report from 2015]

Weekend 4: May 21/May 22
» Spring into Summer (Sat, Sun): Walk London's thrice yearly celebration of London on foot. Dozens of free guided walks are available, most of them easy and central, plus a few more interesting more challenging outer rambles. Clearly getting too popular, because this year (for the first time) you have to book in advance.
» Fawley Hill Steam and Vintage Weekend (Sat, Sun): Rare opportunity to visit Lord McAlpine's back garden, and his private steam railway, three miles north of Henley on Thames. It's a pain to get to, and be warned that the "free shuttle bus" fills up fast, but lovers of all things vintage, steamy and mechanical will love it. [my report from 2014]
» Rickmansworth Festival (Sat, Sun): Canal-based hi-jinks at the Aquadrome. [my report from 2010]
» Nunhead Cemetery Open Day (Sat, 11-5): Enjoy tours and stalls in the grounds of one of Victorian London's Magnificent Seven. [my report from 2013]
» The Cup Final (Sat, 5.30): Southeast London club battles one of the Manchesters.
» LSO Open Air Classics (Sun, 6.30): Open air all-Tchaikovsky concert in Trafalgar Square (includes noticeable car sponsorship).

Weekend 5: May 28/May 29/May 30 [BANK HOLIDAY]
» RHS Chelsea Flower Show (Tue-Sat): Showgardens and horticultural dazzle.
» Something'll else turn up, surely (Sat or Sun or Mon): ?

 Friday, April 29, 2016

Alarm. Second alarm. Mug of tea. Out of the door in one hour flat. I am the King of my commute, optimised to the point of perfection. Bound out of tube station. Ignore glum operative dispensing free advertorial. Approach office.

Retrieve pass from pocket. Nod to security guard on front desk. Wait. Crowd into lift with the bleary coffee-clutchers. Say hello to the neighbouring workers who get in even earlier than you. Never talk to them again all day. Hang coat in slightly rancid cupboard. Switch on computer. Keep fingers crossed this isn't the morning it wants a new password. Twiddle fingers. Dismiss nagging opportunity to update Adobe Flash Player. Open up email. Delete overnight spam filter report. Check phone in case something exciting has happened in the real world in the last five minutes.

"Morning morning morning." "How are you doing?" "Did you have a good evening?" "We went to that new place I had the chicken hearts it was literally like eating mushrooms." "We watched Game of Thrones, the new episode, then we did House of Cards." "Well, I think it's Leicester's to lose."

Email flashes in. Process email. File email. Check phone.

Someone has overdone the aftershave this morning. The boss briefly wanders the floor to chivvy. Someone has forgotten to go to a meeting. The lifts are always busy at the turn of the hour. A conversation full of three letter acronyms breaks out. Mug of tea.

The workforce sit passively at their terminals. The system drips micro-tasks into their field of vision. The cascade is never-ending. A monkey could probably do a lot of this. If the shareholders get their way, one day a monkey will do a lot of this. The landline hardly ever rings any more.

Two plastic tubs of cookies and mini traybakes have been unsealed on the cupboard beside the gangway. Someone else has baked cupcakes and brought them in for Hassan's birthday. Sophie's brought some untranslatable ethnic nibbles back from from holiday. Later a senior manager will buy doughnuts to keep everyone motivated. One or two of the thinner employees have a gym bag under their desks.

The sun nudges round a micro-fraction. Suddenly it becomes impossible for one poor soul to see their screen. The blind comes down. The sun nudges round. The blind never goes back up.

Mug of tea. Banter erupts at the hot water dispenser. "I like what you've done with your hair." "We were thinking of doing the new Thai this evening." "Yeah I'm working at the weekend." "We should definitely do that Crystal Maze thing as a team." The fridge is stuffed full of personalised cartons of atypical milk.

The photocopier's jammed again. The backup photocopier's out of toner. The slightly older photocopier that does the slightly blotchy copies will have to do. Janice's job will only take another four minutes, if you're patient.

Sandwich at the desk and a can of Coke. A Tupperware box from home full of leaves and pasta. Spicy reconstituted powder in boiling water. Some kind of four quid wrap. Chicken Cottage guzzled greedily with greasy fingers. That free sample instant curry the lady at the station dished out this morning. No time for lunch, deadlines to meet, head down.

An online meeting kicks off at someone's desk. It's a lot cheaper than going to Birmingham. The rest of us sigh, because we can hear every word (apart from the bits when the connection drops, and then we can hear every swear word). Sudden realisation that an unknown number of people in Birmingham can hear everything we're gossiping about.

Someone brings down a tray of leftover sandwiches from a meeting somewhere. They dry and curl as the air-conditioned afternoon progresses. All the pastries are rapidly swiped. A mini-quiche slowly sweats.

I need to sharpen my pencil. Where can I sharpen my pencil now nobody has their own bin any more? Someone's put half a sandwich in the paper recycling bin. Which recycling bin is it for cardboard? It doesn't say.

Clockwatch. Should have taken lunch a bit later to make the afternoon shorter. Mug of tea. Window open watching YouTube. Window open watching the BBC News live sports tracker. Window open checking Facebook. Rapidly-maximised spreadsheet.

Too many mugs of tea. A fellow employee trails behind you into the gents, then quickly nips into the cubicle rather than have to expose themselves beside you at the urinal. A strip of toilet paper lies discarded on the tiles. With a warning beep, the automatic air freshener pumps out a burst of artificial scent. It always takes two goes to get the drier to do both hands.

Return to your desk to find someone you've never seen before sitting in your chair having an impromptu meeting. "Oh do you want it back?" Thanks for asking. That blind is still down.

The workstream is never-ending. Have you done your objectives? Well done to Narinda for living our values. Would anyone like to volunteer to help out at the awayday? We're expecting another big desk move soon.

Clockwatch. Consider a final mug of tea. Clockwatch. Watch the clock in the bottom corner of your screen ticking round to hometime.

Clock ticks round. Close windows, log off, shut down, coat on, grab bag, head for exit. Depart into the big wide world, along with everyone else streaming for home. Pick up biased freesheet to read on train. Squeeze onto train into space too small to be able to open biased freesheet. Someone underdid the deodorant this morning. We are being held at a red signal and we should be moving shortly.

Traipse home from station. Mug of tea. Try to enjoy remainder of evening. Prospect of more of the same ad infinitum, if you're lucky.

 Thursday, April 28, 2016

Only one week remains until London's Mayoral elections. There are also elections for the London Assembly next Thursday, but nobody's really going on about that. Instead the focus has been on the battle for the big job, and specifically the two men most likely to end up in charge.

2016 is the first Ken Livingstone-free Mayoral election, plus the last two also had Boris, so there is a sense that something's missing on the towering personality front. This year's candidates are less charismatic, less of an obvious figurehead for London, which makes it rather more difficult to choose between them. Indeed, even at this stage, I still haven't decided which one of them I'm going to vote for. I know who's getting my second preference, the one that really counts, but my first preference is still very much up for grabs.

There are many ways to decide who to vote for. Many people always vote for the same party no matter what, some vote tactically to keep one candidate out, while others go with gut instinct rather than any attempt to engage with policy. I'm a policy man myself, because I like to know what the next four years might be like if a particular Mayor came to power. More to the point, I prefer to vote for someone who isn't going to do something I think stupid, which means I'm looking for the best candidate with the fewest red lines. Whoever that is.

If you bother to read the manifestos of the four main candidates, they're jam-packed with good stuff. Pick a random promise in a random manifesto and it's probably a good thing, even something that should have happened long ago. Better controls on housing, improved facilities for cycling, action on air pollution, they're all saying very similar kinds of thing. If only our elected mayor actually did half of what they promised, what a great city this would be. But lurking in amongst the slamdunk ideas are statements that make me tut, or cuss, or sigh, and I wonder why I should offer my vote to someone who's pledged to do that to London.

Sadiq Khan's red line is his headline pledge to freeze fares for the full term of his mayoralty. It's an eyecatching policy, indeed an undoubted vote winner, but is it wise? A fast expanding city needs more transport, adequately funded, if the capital's not to start choking up. A real terms cut in revenue isn't going to help future Londoners get around, and Khan's expectation of finding internal efficiency savings won't necessarily wash. Is TfL really a bloated organisation, indeed after the government cuts of the last six years how can it be? Sadiq comes over as the austerity candidate, pushing an unexpectedly cost-cutting agenda, while his main opponent refuses to rule out fare rises to fund investment, which is surely a much more a Labour thing to do.

Zac Goldsmith's manifesto is littered with red lines, at least in my book. He wants to make it much harder for tube workers to strike. He wants to introduce a snoopers' app, a Virtual Neighbourhood Watch. He refuses to fix a specific proportion of affordable homes in new developments, claiming it's more important homes get built than that they're relatively cheap. He wants to build a Silvertown Tunnel and toll it, while filling our roads with electric cars. He plans to fund more police officers on the tube by cancelling the free travel passes enjoyed by families of TfL staff members (I tutted twice during that pledge). And he repeatedly says he wants to build on the great successes of Boris's eight year reign, which means a lot of his pledges are just things that are planned to happen anyway, which suggests a singular lack of vision. So no, Zac was never going to get my vote.

In contrast, Sian Berry's Green manifesto reads like a checklist of right-on egalitarian ideas. Renters' rights, a Bank for London, a laser focus on cutting air pollution, a lot of this sounds like a model for a considerably fairer city. We've got used to a hands-off wealth-friendly Mayor, and Sian would be very much the opposite. But is her long-term aspiration for a single London fare zone viable (for similar funding reasons to Sadiq's fare freeze)? And as for her idea to close City Airport and cover the site with homes and innovative industries, is that inspired or wilfully misguided? I'm nearly sold but, as with the other candidates, certain policies on the longlist rankle.

I've read Caroline Pidgeon's manifesto twice, and I can't see any obvious red lines. That's not bad for a 101 page document, indeed it's damned impressive. Let's slap a diesel levy on the Congestion Charge, let's Oysterise the cablecar, let's invest more in affordable housing, and let's scrap the Garden Bridge before it hijacks any more public money. There's a practicality about her list of pledges that's not so explicit elsewhere, a reflection of the years that Caroline has spent living the minutiae of London life as a member of the Assembly. By comparison Zac and Sadiq come across as politicians first and Londoners second, which maybe isn't what a complex capital city needs.

So my first preference for Mayor is going to be either Caroline or Sian, I haven't quite decided. One's eminently capable, with the electoral millstone of a LibDem label round her neck, and the other's more radically exciting, with the occasional flash of "oh hang on, really?". I've got a week, I'll make my decision by next Thursday, and will be quietly surprised with myself whichever lady it turns out to be.

Of course either Sadiq or Zac is going to win the election, a walkover for Sadiq if the bookies are correct, or a shock victory for Zac if Inner London fails to turn out on the day. So it would be pointless to give my second preference to anyone other than these two. Sorry to Caroline or Sian, but whichever of you doesn't get my first vote isn't going to get my second, because that's how the Supplementary Voting system works. 2016 is the Zac v Sadiq show, just as previous years boiled down simply to Ken v Boris. At least there's always the London Assembly ballot papers to help balance things out, which is where Sian and Caroline are most likely to be victorious anyway.

And I mention all of this not because I expect you to follow me, nor even to agree with me, but to point out how difficult it's been to choose a Mayor this year. The leading candidates lack stardust and soul, while those from the other parties are likely to be overlooked as people vote on reputation rather than policy. You vote for who you like, but remember to be an idealist on your first preference, and a realist on your second.

 Wednesday, April 27, 2016

So, who are you voting for in next week's London Mayoral election, then?

Sadiq: votes (31)   Zac: votes (8)   Caroline: votes (12)

Sian: votes (29)   Other: votes (4)  Don't know: votes (1)

After 63 weeks, the Cycle Superhighway 2 upgrade might just be finished.

Or it might not.

 Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Anorak Corner (the annual update) [tube edition]

London's ten busiest tube stations (2015)
1) ↑2 Waterloo (95.1m) 2) King's Cross St Pancras (93.4m) 3) ↓2 Oxford Circus (92.4m) 4) Victoria (82.9m) 5) ↑1 Liverpool Street (73.3m) 6) ↓1 London Bridge (72.0m) 7) Stratford (61.4m) 8) Bank/Monument (57.5m) 9) Canary Wharf (54.4m) 10) Paddington (49.6m)

Waterloo returns to the top of the tube rankings, after relinquishing its crown to Oxford Circus for a single year, adding almost four million passengers on top of 2014's total. King's Cross and Victoria hold firm at two and four respectively, while Liverpool Street and London Bridge swap places, the latter presumably the casualty of continued long-term engineering works on the commuter lines feeding into the mainline station. There's no change further down the top ten, with Bank/Monument adding the greatest number of passengers since last year.

For comparison, ten years ago King's Cross St Pancras had 52m passengers, but it's now 93m. Over the same period Canary Wharf has rocketed from 38m to 54m, and Stratford's usage has almost tripled from 22m to 61m. It's no wonder Crossrail's looking an essential addition to London's transport network, rather than simply nice to have.

London's ten busiest tube stations that aren't also National Rail stations (2015)
1) Oxford Circus (92.4m) 2) Bank/Monument (57.5m) 3) Canary Wharf (54.4m) 4) Leicester Square (43.7m) 5) Piccadilly Circus (42.8m) 6) ↑3 Holborn (40.5m) 7) ↓1 Green Park (39.6m) 8) ↑* Bond Street (37.1m) 9) ↓1 South Kensington (33.9m) 10) ↑* Brixton (30.8m)

The top five tube-only stations have remained static over the last twelve months, while Holborn has leapt up into sixth place with a 10% increase in passengers (which perhaps puts the escalator trial into perspective). Most of these ten non-rail stations are at the heart of the West End, delivering millions of Londoners to the shops and to work. Canary Wharf is an exception - that's simply work - and look at Brixton nudging in at number 10, as south London makes its presence stronger felt.

London's ten busiest tube stations outside Zone 1 (2015)
1) Stratford (61.4m) 2) Canary Wharf (54.4m) 3) Brixton (30.8m) 4) ↑1 Finsbury Park (28.85m) 5) ↓1 Hammersmith (District & Piccadilly) (28.83m) 6) North Greenwich (26.4m) 7) ↑1 Shepherd's Bush (22.3m) 8) ↓1 Camden Town (21.9m) 9) Highbury & Islington (18.4m) 10) Walthamstow Central (18.3m)

This list has barely changed since last year, with the swap between 4th and 5th places merely a statistical technicality. It's instructive that Walthamstow Central may be tenth on this non-central list but it's merely the 46th busiest tube station overall, because zone 1 is where the vast majority of the action is.

London's ten least busy tube stations (2015)
1) Roding Valley (261000) 2) Chigwell (559000) 3) Grange Hill (658000) 4) ↑1 Theydon Bois (850000) 5) ↓1 Chesham (875000) 6) Moor Park (886000) 7) North Ealing (893000) 8) ↑* South Kenton (957000) 9) ↓1 Croxley (1050000) 10) Ruislip Gardens (1110000)

The least used stations on the Underground remain those at the Essex end of the Central line, with poor Roding Valley less than half as popular as the next station on the list. An additional 60000 passengers a year are now using Chesham, hence its downward move, while Croxley also does well to nudge the same way. As for South Kenton, that's yo-yoed in and out of the Least Busy Top Ten for years, but this is its highest position yet. It's notable that none of these ten stations will be receiving a Night Tube service (although station number 11, Fairlop, will).

The next ten least busy stations: Fairlop, Chorleywood, Upminster Bridge, Ickenham, Mill Hill East, West Harrow, Barkingside, Chalfont & Latimer, West Ruislip, West Finchley

The ten least busy tube stations in Zone 1 (2015)
1) Lambeth North (3.3m) 2) Regent's Park (3.5m) 3) Edgware Road (4.5m) 4) ↑2 Bayswater (5.2m) 5) Borough (5.4m) 6) ↑2 Mansion House (5.6m) 7) ↑2 Lancaster Gate (6.3m) 8) ↑* Edgware Road (7.2m) 9) ↓2 Hyde Park Corner (7.4m) 10) ↓6 Cannon Street (7.5m)

The top three least used stations in zone 1 are all on the Bakerloo line, which hints strongly at this being central London's least busy tube line. The other stations are all over the place, but generally on or outside the Circle line. Cannon Street's rapid descent is in part due to now being open on Sundays, and in part to being the recipient of increasing numbers of commuter trains bypassing London Bridge.

London's ten tube stations with the biggest percentage increase in passengers (2010→2015)
1) Stratford (+128%) 2) Chesham (+105%) 3) Cannon Street (+90%) 4) Southwark (+79%) 5) Canons Park (+69%) 6) Bermondsey (+59%) 7) Kensington (Olympia) (+58%) 8) Wembley Park (+56%) 9) Tottenham Hale (+54%) 10) Bromley-by-Bow (+53%)

You'd expect Stratford to be top of this list, and it is, and Bromley-by-Bow also feels the Olympic housing effect by landing at number 10. Canons Park and Wembley Park also owe their rise to recent housing developments near each station, while Bermondsey and Southwark are proving the wisdom of routing the Jubilee line extension along the South Bank. And just look again at those increases in passengers, in every case in excess of 50%, and this over a mere five year period. If your train to work is feeling more crowded, you are not alone.

» Tube passenger data here (total annual entry and exit frequencies)
» For the annual rail passenger data update, see last December's post

 Monday, April 25, 2016

10 things you can see at the London Transport Museum Depot

It's in Acton. It's open for a couple of weekends a year. You just missed one.

1) Old tube trains: When old tube stocks die, at least one carriage is normally shunted off to the LTM Depot for safekeeping. The most recent additions are the old Victoria line stock (died 2011), the old Metropolitan line 'A' Stock (died 2012) and the old subsurface 'C' Stock (died 2014). A single District 'D' Stock will no doubt be squeezed in by the end of the year. But there are also some seriously old carriages in the collection, some made of wood, others with pointy windows, and others sheer Thirties luxury compared to what we ride today (although I bet the suspension was worse). The oddest carriage is probably the 1986 Stock Central line prototype, which is green, and was part of a full-scale consultation (with 'red' and 'blue') to see which the public preferred. Red won, but how sleek our journeys might have been if green had triumphed.

2) Old tube maps: Upstairs on the mezzanine you'll find a selection of tube maps that once graced platforms in days gone by. Some of the earliest are enamelled geographically accurate beauties, often part-eroded, while some of the postwar bunch are ugly angular concoctions best hidden away in an archive. If you're a Londoner, obviously the first thing you do each time is hunt down the section of the map where you live, but a much more enjoyable quest is to track down lines since closed and stations since renamed. Clapham South was nearly called Nightingale Lane, who knew?

3) Old tube signs: Rather more of the mezzanine is taken up by station signs of all kinds, from roundels to line diagrams to those long thin nameplate things that run across the top of platforms, saved here to preserve the vast variety of types and styles generated over the years. The roundels come in all sizes and fill at least four gangways, hence a much-repeated activity at Acton is to hover around the end of one of the gangways waiting for it to clear of people so you can take a photo. The line diagrams are often more interesting, especially if they're for lines that were never built, or contain stations long since renamed, or even have a ghastly error (which it was hard to fix in the era of costly hand-created enamel). There's probably an old sign from your local station (I eventually found a Croxley, though not a Bow Church), but also dozens you'll never have imagined existing.

4) Old Overground signs: Not every old sign is worth keeping, so several traders turn up at these depot open days with the intention of flogging old stuff to the punters, and this weekend their haul included frshly-removed vinyl-covered signs from the outer reaches of the New Overground. A whole stack of Hackney Downs, Silver Streets and Bush Hill Parks were up for grabs, at a not entirely unreasonable price, made redundant in their original locations by the provision of bespoke orange enamelled replacements. And by golly they were selling well, despite their enormous size, presumably because train fanatics living up the Lea Valley hadn't previously had much in the way of TfL signage to acquire before the Overground arrived. I was very interested to see if any Theobalds Groves were available, this being the station where I caught contractors last year erecting a spelling mistake, but alas seemingly no.

5) Acton Miniature Railway: It's only rarely open to the public, when Depot Open Days permit, but this short miniature railway is seven and a quarter inches of ride-on pleasure. A ride from Depot Approach up towards Ealing End costs only a quid, and it's not only for children (although most of those on board either were or had recently sired some).

6) A spiral escalator: Several large-ish objects have ended up at the Depot, from generator panels to signalling systems, and old lightboxes to yellow ticket gates. One particular oddity is the remains of the experimental spiral escalator installed around the circumference of the second lift shaft at Holloway Road station in 1906. It had two separate helical tracks, one up and one down, and unsurprisingly didn't work, indeed its operational lifespan is believed to have been measured in hours rather than days or weeks. Swiftly scrapped, a brief section was later recovered from the bottom of the shaft, and this symbol of misplaced technological optimism now rests on a pallet near the Depot entrance for visitor perusal.

7) Station models: Before a new station, or station feature, is created, somebody often feels the need to knock up a model to explain to everyone else what it'll look like. They're often big models too, hence take up quite a bit of room, for example that for the installation of the Bank Travelator, or the entrance piazza for Canary Wharf. One particularly whopping example is for Oxford Circus, with all the intertwined passageway tunnels faithfully reproduced, another created for the post-fire inquiry at King's Cross, and (my favourite) a scale model of the Stratford area before the Olympics were even dreamed of showing where the new-fangled Channel Tunnel Rail Link might go.

8) Lego tube trains: Danish plastic blocks are very 'in' at the moment, if indeed they ever went away. So it was no surprise to find at least two exhibitors had knocked up some splendid railway-based Lego exhibits, the most impressive from @Cheshambricks who had not only a model 55 Broadway with a station underneath, but also a full Baker Street style cutaway with with two layers of railway below and a streetful of different type of buses above. Their pile of £20 four-carriage Lego tube trains sold out very quickly.

9) The poster store: Out the back, in the bit that most visitors never see, are various rooms for the storage of small and paper-based items. One of these is a large L-shaped room in which TfL's poster archive is stored, tucked away in a variety of drawers, and with a select few on display around the wall. But it was possible to get in if you joined one of this weekend's special taster tours, this with an Edward Johnston theme as the depot celebrated the centenary of his font and all things lettered. While our guide pointed at something the curator thought relevant, but not necessarily exciting, my eyes were spinning round the entire room to soak in the other typographical beauties on display. Full hour-and-a-bit tours of the poster store are available, at other times, for those who'd like to dig further.

10) The Big Steam Print: Meanwhile out the back, near the food trucks, this weekend's special attraction was a steamroller wheeled in from Sussex. The Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft have an Edward Johnston exhibition on at the moment (I've been, you should too), and used their giant press to print a variety of arty posters and etchings by rolling heavily over the top. Hell, why not?

» I last visited the Depot in 2007, and shared 20 photos. This time round I've added 25 more. Not much has changed. Here's the full 45, as a gallery and as a slideshow.

 Sunday, April 24, 2016

It sounded like a fantastic idea to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. A string of 37 big screens, each showing a short film related to one of William's plays, strung out along the South Bank in almost-chronological sequence and free to view. And indeed it was a fantastic idea. The artistic director at the Globe Theatre oversaw the creation of the project, combining extracts from filmed stage productions with specially commissioned scenes recorded in the actual locations Shakespeare intended. Some seriously famous actors got involved, and the end result is a collection of superb introductions to, and summaries of, the Bard's back catalogue.

The intention of The Complete Walk is that you start at one end (near Westminster Bridge) and walk to the other (by City Hall), taking in as many or as few of the short films as you please. At about ten minutes a time, the entire sequence would take about seven hours to watch in its entirety, including a pleasant two mile riverside stroll. So I thought I'd have a go, attempting at least a taster of each, which would be most of Saturday gone. Alas things didn't quite work out like that, as the entire project half-collapsed in a typically British mess. But they'll be having another go today, if technology permits and you're interested, and the films are so good that it might just be worth your while.

1) The Two Gentlemen of Verona: The trail kicked off in the garden at St Thomas' Hospital, once I'd found my way in, and featured Meera Syal on set in northern Italy. Good start.
2) Henry VI, Part 3: Just across the lawn, suitably out of audible range, it was already obvious that "The Histories" were going to be a bit more of a challenging watch than the rest.
3) The Taming of the Shrew: And then things started going wrong. The big screen in Jubilee Gardens was showing what looked like a floating gallery of maritime flags, because it was buggered. So, no Shrew.
4) Henry VI, Part 1: Ditto this Wars of the Roses featurette. A blank screen greeted viewers wandering across to the other side of Jubilee Gardens, so there were no viewers.
5) Titus Andronicus: Bullseye. Shakespeare's goriest play got the full works on a screen located under Hungerford Bridge, including pie-based cannibalism and, ooh, Peter Capaldi acting his socks off in the title role. It was just a shame that much of his dialogue was drowned out by the 12.36 to Sevenoaks rumbling overhead.
6) Henry VI, Part 2: It's OK, Shakespeare wrote his trilogy in the wrong order, hence the unusual sequencing. We enjoyed much cockney banter, as filmed at Spitalfields Market.
7) Romeo and Juliet: Moving up to a screen outside the Royal Festival Hall, this classic Italian-themed romance was drawing decent crowds.
8) Richard III: Another classic, but alas not on this occasion. "Ladies and gentlemen, due a technical fault this screen is closed" read the apologetic message on the screen, while a member of staff fiddled with the electronics round the back. We eventually got sound, but no picture was visible, perhaps due to continued problems, or perhaps because the screen was pointing directly into the sun. An old lady with an unimpressed grandson wandered over to tell the volunteer how displeased she was by all the broken screens. "We're trying our best, madam."

9) Love's Labours Lost: Where better than immediately outside the National Theatre for a part-rendition of this melancholic masterpiece? We even got to enjoy a song at the end.
10) King John: Less of a classic, and struggling to compete with a) the song drifting across from screen number 9 b) the sound of the ventilation unit round belching out of the NT.
11) The Comedy of Errors: Ah, another blank screen. I was struck by the play's highly appropriate title, given the way the project was rolling out thus far.
12) Richard II: Nothing. Ah hang on, pictures but no sound. And then a jump back to the beginning to try again. And then a jump back to the beginning to try again with sound. And then a minute later another jump back to the beginning... and those watching started to wander away.
13) A Midsummer Night's Dream: It had now started raining, but this screen had been cleverly positioned in the bandstand at Gabriel's Wharf, so the entire audience had crammed up close beneath the roof to stay dry, which meant I couldn't see the Bottom.
14) The Merchant of Venice: The first of three screens in Bernie Spain Gardens. But only one of the three was working, and it wasn't this one.
15) Henry IV, Part 1: In a complete tour de force, actor Toby Jones played a drunken Falstaff staggering around the interior of the George Inn, haranguing a man with a charity bucket, and soliloquising at the gents urinals. We loved it.
16) Much Ado About Nothing: Ah, another blank screen. I was struck by the play's highly appropriate title, given the way the project was rolling out thus far.

17) Henry IV, Part 2: Tucked away in the courtyard behind the Oxo Tower, a forlorn screen with no film and no audience.
18) The Merry Wives of Windsor: Ditto. I was now halfway through the sequence of screens, and precisely half of them hadn't been working.
19) Hamlet: Not to be.
20) Henry V: Once more unto the breach.
21) As You Like It: Sans everything.
22) Julius Caesar: Et tu, Brute?
23) Othello: No Moor.
24) Measure For Measure: At last, action! But having missed out on Jonathan Pryce, Sam West, Mel Giedroyc and David Harewood during the duff sequence past Tate Modern, this perhaps wasn't the finest return to form.
25) Twelfth Night: Here on Clink Street was the biggest crowd pleaser of the entire walk, as hundreds enjoyed footage of a hilarious comedic staging featuring Stephen Fry and Mark Rylance. Unfortunately the screen's location under the Cannon Street railway bridge reflected back the sound of the generator, ensuring that much of the dialogue was awkwardly muffled.

26) Troilus and Cressida: A great location, in the ruins of Winchester Palace, although this meant this was little room for an audience as well as the usual tourists, and the cobbled street got very crowded.
27) All's Well That Ends Well: The most relaxed setting, on the cafe terrace outside Southwark Cathedral, with chairs available for those who'd already walked a long way. Unfortunately Lindsay Duncan's reenacted scene was interrupted by the arrival of a white van which had to reverse up to the cathedral door, for some reason, necessitating the displacement of several old ladies from its path.
28) Timon of Athens: A rather smaller audience was watching this one, perhaps Shakespeare's least impressive play. Only now, three-quarters of the way through my parade, did I finally spot a volunteer handing out free maps to show my route.
29) Anthony and Cleopatra: Screened at London Bridge Pier, this filmed segment was shot on location at the Pyramids in Egypt, reflecting the enormously ambitious scale of this anniversary production.
30) King Lear: This was my favourite film, coherently summarising the plot and then shifting Kenneth Cranham and Zawe Ashton to the top of the White Cliffs of Dover. Brilliantly acted, and the kind of taster that must have made many think "You know what, perhaps I really ought to go and watch the full play some time".

31) Macbeth: Shot at Glamis, and wonderfully atmospheric, the Galleria audience enjoyed a compilation including the Porter, a lot of hand-washing and a battlefield death. My subconscious was pleased to discover that my O Level in English Literature hadn't been wasted, and I could chant along with almost every word.
32) Coriolanus: After eight consecutive operational screens, the gremlins were back. An engineer in a Fonix jacket stood alone round the back, outside More London, bleating to somebody on his phone.
33) Henry VIII: One of Shakespeare's least well known plays had the prime spot in The Scoop outside City Hall, its capacious bowl offering a rack of concrete stalls... mostly unoccupied.
34) Pericles: One of the sponsors of The Complete Walk was the Mayor of London. But the screen in Potters Field outside his office window wasn't working.
35) Cymbeline: And this was very much not working either. I felt sorry for all the actors who'd gone to the bother of travelling miles and acting their socks off on location, only for some random power glitch to mean that nobody would see their work.
36) The Winter's Tale: And then a third failure in Potters Fields, which made a disappointing way to end the walk.
37) The Tempest: Thankfully the very final screen was up and running. Unfortunately it had been cheapened by the appearance of two pink promotional flags, one on either side, and an advert for the Bermuda Tourist Board in the pre-roll. No doubt sending Douglas Hodge and the film crew to Bermuda had been expensive, but I was getting all the wrong echoes when he started to recite "we are such stuff as dreams are made on".

When half the screens in an anniversary cavalcade aren't working, you know somebody somewhere has screwed up. The organisers had a half-decent excuse for some of their troubles, namely that the President of the United States had been at the Globe Theatre at the same time things were supposed to be kicking off, and put out an apology on their website: "Due to heightened security in the area this morning, there were some delays in set-up, and there have also been some localised power issues." My money was with the power issues.

What films I saw were excellent, in many cases inspirational, conclusively proving that what makes Shakespeare come to life isn't simply the words, it's the staging. I hope they'll be made available for wider consumption, rather than shoved onto a DVD or locked behind a subscription paywall. But if you want to see them for free, and the organisers have got their act together, The Complete Walk concludes beside the Thames today, with curtain up at ten and exeunt at eight. Come hither, lest gentlemen in England now-a-bed shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here.

 Saturday, April 23, 2016

Historians aren't certain that William Shakespeare was born on St George's Day 1564, but we do know that he died on this day 400 years ago. Hordes of people will be visiting Stratford-upon-Avon today to celebrate, and rightly so, his hometown's a great day out on any day of the year. But for several years of his life Shakespeare's home was London, and it's a fair bet you won't find anniversary hordes flocking round any of his London residences, not even today. In part this is because we don't know where most of them are. But there are a couple we have proper documentary evidence of, neither of which still exist, but you can have a sit down in one and a beer in the other. Near enough.

by 1592: William Shakespeare first moves to lodgings in London.
1593: Now lodging somewhere in Bishopsgate.
1596: Now lodging somewhere in the parish of St Helen's in Bishopsgate.

1599: Now lodging somewhere on Bankside, near the Globe Theatre. [map]

And that's not the current Globe Theatre, which is too near the Thames. Back then a row of theatres ran slightly further back, within the 'Liberty of the Clink', an ancient enclave whose laws permitted entertainments banned in Surrey a few streets away.

The site of the original Globe can be found by crossing Southwark Bridge and then taking steps down immediately beyond the FT's offices. An arc of information boards on Park Street reveals that the site lays before you, beyond the railings, within the protective realm of a block of flats. The limit of the Scheduled Ancient Monument area is defined by a change in the cobbles, with a late Georgian terrace plonked straight across the middle of it, because nobody back then cared of heritage. Indeed the Globe had burnt to the ground in 1613, ignited by a cinder during a performance of Henry VIII, and only a few minor archaeological traces remain. It's believed that Shakespeare might have lived in a house adjacent to the theatre, but that's mere speculation, and nobody knows precisely where. Moving on...

1604: Now lodging in Cripplegate. [map]

Things were going well for Shakespeare by this time, he'd already written most of his classics like A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hamlet and Othello. Perhaps in response to his increased reputation he moved back north of the river and rented lodgings in the City. His landlord was Christopher Mountjoy, a French Huguenot refugee and a maker of ladies' ornamental wigs in the elaborate Elizabethan fashion.

We'd know none of this were it not for a family dispute following the marriage of Mountjoy's daughter Mary to his apprentice Stephen Belott. When a promised dowry failed to materialise in full, Bellot took Mountjoy to court and Shakespeare was called as a witness. His words, in this case, weren't particularly useful, but modern scholars were bequeathed a rare example of his handwriting as a result, and also a precise address.

The Mountjoys' house was situated on the corner of Silver Street and Monkwell Street, on the boundary between the wards of Farringdon and Cripplegate. The catch is that neither the house nor either of the streets still exist. The house disappeared in the Great Fire, as you'd expect, and then the local area was wiped from the map again during the Blitz. Pretty much the whole of Cripplegate was consumed, and the street pattern substantially remodelled during the erection of the Barbican estate.

The location we're trying to pinpoint lies just outside this modern development, either underneath or fractionally to the south of London Wall, which despite its name is another modern interloper on the A-Z. Head to the section east of the Museum of London, close to the actual remains of the actual London wall on Noble Street, very near to where the local branch of Eat dispenses caffeine and wraps.

The best clue to the precise site of the Bard's lodgings is St Olave's church, a small place of worship whose churchyard abutted the street corner in question. This was also destroyed in WW2, but its footprint remains as a tiny garden, as is the way with many of the City's former places of worship. It's quite pleasant too, with a raised lawn and a footpath winding through, and an old stone bowl which might be a font or maybe a birdbath, its hard to be sure.

The City have erected a plaque by a bench to confirm the Shakespearian connection, using the usual convention of 'Near Here' to confirm there's no remaining wall to properly attach it to. If you're planning on getting up close and maybe taking a photo, best hope there isn't a modern day Romeo and Juliet canoodling on the bench when you visit. But if it's free, take a seat and look around you at the lofty offices and highwalks, and try to imagine that Macbeth and King Lear were likely written right here.

1613: Now with property in Blackfriars. [map]

By this time Shakespeare had retired to a fine house in Stratford, but was now rich enough to be able to buy a second property here. Maybe it was his bolthole in the capital, or maybe simply an investment, there isn't even enough documentary evidence to prove he ever stayed the night. Whatever the reason, when he bequeathed it to his daughter he left us one of only six confirmed signatures still in existence today.
'I Gyve... unto my Daughter Susanna Hall... All that Messuage or ten[emen]te with th’appurtenaunces wherein one John Robinson dwelleth, scituat, lyeing & being in the blackfriars in London nere the Wardrobe'
The document goes on to locate the property "upon a streete leading downe to Pudle wharffe", now known as St Andrew's Hill. It confirms the land "being in the tenure or occupacion of one William Ireland", which suggests a specific backstreet called Ireland Yard. It states "part of which said Tenement is erected over a great gate", which can only mean the Blackfriars Gatehouse, the former entrance to an ancient monastery. And the Wardrobe is a church, in case you were wondering, still jammed between the local buildings to this day.

But even these clues aren't quite enough to end scholarly dispute and pinpoint the site with accuracy. The best guess is that the property may have occupied the north side of Ireland Yard where it joins St Andrew’s Hill, which is where the City of London have placed another blue plaque. But this building's a bit dull, on the face of it a Georgian townhouse but actually a modern office reproduction, so I prefer to believe our attention should be on the pub across the alley where the other side of the gatehouse might have been.

This is The Cockpit, a small but resplendent tavern where gamblers at the local cockfights once came to drink. Its pointed black frontage gleams, and drips with colourful hanging baskets, while a flurry of (I take it temporary) St George's flags hang from the upper level. And yet it wasn't busy after work this week when I wandered by - all the local City gents were across the road supping on the pavement outside the rather more upmarket (and oddly named) Shaw's Booksellers.

Things would have been a lot busier around here in early Jacobean times, not least because of the Blackfriars Theatre where Shakespeare's troupe played out the winter months. These days the bypassed quadrant of backstreets to the south of Ludgate Hill goes mostly unnoticed except by those who work here, which is a shame because it's almost quaint in parts. It's also easier here than at the Barbican to imagine our greatest playwright stepping out from home... until that fateful day 400 years ago when Will's will suddenly became important.

 Friday, April 22, 2016

Day out (continued): Salford
And then there's Salford, which definitely isn't part of Manchester proper. It's part of Greater Manchester, but that's different, Salford being an entirely separate place, attaining city status in 1926. The two are barely separated by the River Irwell, although it's for the old docks on the Manchester Ship Canal that Salford is now best known.

Salford Quays
After the decline of the third biggest port in Britain, which isn't bad for 40 miles inland, Salford City Council spent the 1980s intensively regenerating its quayside. They wiped away the cranes and gantries, dammed off the polluted waters, added roads and bridges, knocked up a whole new set of buildings and created a whole new urban landscape called Salford Quays. The original buildings look terribly dated these days, all low density lowrise surrounded by car park, and it's ever so easy to imagine Michael Heseltine turning up in a hard hat to oversee construction, then returning in a suit to open everything. A second burst of life has occurred over the last decade, kickstarted by the BBC's decision to move lots of its production out of London, and other media organisations have followed to create a proper entertainment cluster.

The first landmark building to be erected was The Lowry, a theatre/gallery complex on a tip of land at Pier 8. It looks classically alien from the front, like a collection of bold geometric shapes, and rather shinier and more steely from across the water. Inside The Lowry are two theatres and plenty of gallery space, including a unique collection of matchstalk paintings by its artist namesake... or so I'm told. I've walked past twice, once in 2003 and once at the weekend, and never quite felt sufficiently welcomed to push open the door and step inside. I walked up to the front this time and tried to work out if it was OK to go in and look at the pictures, there being no obvious signs, because all I could see from the outside was a box office and a dead-looking cafe, but seemingly best not. So I went in the shopping centre instead. The Lowry Outlet Mall is what drives the majority of non-working traffic to Salford Quays, because nothing beats wandering round double decker arcades lined by cavernous shops selling stuff slightly cheaper than you can no longer buy elsewhere. I didn't stay long.

Across the dock, past Nando's, is the rather more recent MediaCityUK. A splayed out crescent of glass towers curves round a paved piazza, not quite as excitingly as you might hope, thanks in part to the twin towers of a Holiday Inn rising behind. Stickers on the windows hint at what's made inside, with CBBC and Mastermind in the building by the bridge, BBC Breakfast and Match of the Day on the other side, and BBC 6Music broadcasting further back. The BBC must have entered its "We'd better not spend too much" phase when this was built, because its constituent blocks are capacious without ever quite being interesting, and the overarching effect left me cold. What's also missing is the opportunity to properly interact and go inside unless you've pre-booked on a tour, and a selfie opportunity with a fibreglass Pudsey doesn't quite cut it.

Thank goodness then for the Blue Peter Garden, northern version. This is located by the tramstop, and is fully open and accessible to the public, which shows a major level of trust given the overnight trashing its southern counterpart once endured. I was delighted to see that the Italian Sunken Garden still exists, if a covered rectangular pond surrounded by pots and paving counts, beautifully maintained with bright blooms and numerous representations of the Blue Peter ship. I was also reassured to see the original 1978 concrete footprints of Percy, Lesley, Simon, Shep and Goldie have been transferred to Salford, now augmented by similar indentations made by the show's current crew (precisely one year before my visit). And yes, Petra's statue watches over the lot, just as she did at Television Centre, except here anyone can pay homage.

Across the Media City footbridge, officially crossing from Salford into Trafford, sits the most peculiar building of the lot. It's the Imperial War Museum (North), a juxtaposition of three elemental 'shards' by Daniel Libeskind, and opened in 2002. The visitor experience is deliberately disorienting, and right-angle-free, entering through a minor doorway then bending back up the stairs to reach the main internal exhibition space. The museum focuses on first hand experiences of war, so isn't bursting over with artefacts to view, but tells the story of a century of war in sufficient grim detail around the irregular perimeter. Every hour the lighting dims and an immersive audio-visual experience is projected across the upper walls - I got memories of the Home Front, you might get a Baghdad air raid. And whereas last time I visited it was also possible to take the lift up the Air Shard for a grandstand panorama, alas the entrance to this windswept viewpoint appeared to be very boarded up, as if they don't like to talk about it any more.

Coronation Street

If you've ever wondered where ITV's flagship soap opera is filmed, the answer is on a backlot at Salford Quays. Specifically it's by the Ship Canal adjacent to the IWM, and immediately opposite the BBC's main building, and would be really quite public had the studios not been surrounded by a giant wall. The cobbles are well back from the water, behind a second screening wall, and the outer bailey has two giant metal street signs on it in an attempt to make potential visitors think they've actually seen something. Don't come expecting to see anything.

ITV's studios haven't been here at Trafford Wharf for long, with first filming in 2013 and a first appearance on screen in 2014. Previously they were in town, that's Manchester, coincidentally on Quay Street. Granada opened studios on former railway sidings at the start of its franchise in 1956, but it wasn't until 1968 that Coronation Street filming emerged from indoor studios to a specially constructed set on the backlot. Tours of a further-upgraded street were available for several years, except on Mondays when the cobbles between the Rovers and the Kabin were used for filming, and restarted in 2014 after the production team moved to Trafford. Unfortunately the Granada Studio Tour finished for good at the end of last year, so that the old set can be demolished and the land reused for much more profitable redevelopment. Some of the old studios are being retained for media, events and retail, but there'll be no tiny terraced houses on the refreshed site owned by harridans in hairnets, and nothing more than a small plaque in memoriam.

The original 1960 set was inspired by Archie Street in Ordsall, as seen in the opening credits for years, and which was bulldozed in 1971 so don't go looking. But there is a genuine Coronation Street a short distance away, on the northern edge of Ordsall, by chance approximately halfway between the soap's old and new filming locations. A few of the original streets around Regent Square survive, of which Coronation Street is one, with its one long terrace and some green metal railings in lieu of a front garden. The handful of streets opposite meet at fenced-off back alleys, or blossoming greenspace, while pigeons peck at the tarmac and the occasional postie goes by. It looks almost gentrified, were this Hackney, but this is no rich neighbourhood, as the extremely famous building at the end of the street affirms. For this Coronation Street is also the location of the Salford Lads Club immortalised by The Smiths on the inner sleeve of The Queen Is Dead, in all its redbrick glory, and still doing sterling recreational work keeping local youth off the street. A man several decades past being a lad was out front smoking when I passed, making it difficult for me to pose moodily outside, but if I'd realised the building is open to visitors on Saturdays (from 11am to 1.30pm) I could have eagerly explored inside.

My Manchester gallery
There are 75 photos altogether [slideshow] [24 Salford Quays photos]
(and that's how to do a day out!)

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