diamond geezer

 Saturday, April 25, 2015

Walk the Underground: Theydon Bois to Epping

An anniversary is sometimes little more than an excuse. And yesterday, it turns out, was the 150th anniversary of the opening of the railway line between Loughton and Ongar. It wasn't on the Central line at the time, it was a spur of the Great Eastern Railway, plunging out into the Essex countryside in search of not terribly many passengers. 150 years later the Epping Ongar Railway are celebrating with a special in-steam extravaganza this weekend, and London Underground are celebrating with a trio of special posters. I thought I'd celebrate with an evening walk from Theydon Bois to Epping, because hell why not, and I didn't have any better offers. Armed only with an Ordnance Survey map and a desire for fresh air, I headed off for a two and a bit mile stroll beyond the boundary of London. And as Friday evenings go, it may have beaten yours.

Theydon Bois (rhymes with Boys) is the least used station in Zone 6, but still disgorges a healthy footfall in the evening peak. They pour out onto Station Approach into the front seats of their beloved's cars, or into The Bull for a pint, or down cherry blossom avenues to be home by The One Show. This is a lovely village, one of the most pleasant spots you can reach by Underground, its large triangular green surrounded by cottages, a duckpond down one side, and plenty of space for a kickabout up the meadowy end. For my walk I turned right past the very-Essex parade of shops (where the discerning resident can buy award-winning pies, leave their dry cleaning or get their wrinkles sucked), then on past dream suburban gardens to the footpath at the end of Forest Drive where the pavement runs out.

The path ahead is part of The Oak Trail, a waymaked route courtesy of the City of London who own Epping Forest in these parts. But ignore that for a bit and head into the fields alongside, which are private land with free public access, and whose grassy slopes afford fine views of the surrounding undulations. From the top of the ridge at Piercing Hill the outlying streets and gardens burst with colour, a distant field glows with rape, and the M25 rumbles in the not-so-very distance. A rope swing has been hung from the single oak tree near the summit, where two girls out walking their rather small dog pause, one to push and one to screech at the acrobatic horror of it all. And every four minutes or so, in one direction or the other, a Central line train glides by following the dip at the bottom of the field. Only Epping-folk get to see the reverse panorama from their seats, assuming they're looking up, 150 years on.

Returning to the path, the next ascent follows a hedge past a flurry of white blossom. From the other side can be heard snorts and the occasional neigh from an unseen stables, the field you're walking in being more-than-adequate visual compensation. How green the leaves are at this time of year, dressing another solo oak at the top of the rise before a proper lane descends between hedgerows on the other side. To the left is the farthest corner of a golf course, where Essex blokes with trolleys are surprised to see a rambler heading by, and to the right is possibly the easternmost outpost of Epping Forest, a coniferous thicket wedged between road and railway.

To continue, near the farm outbuildings, follow the sign that says No Public Access Except By Public Footpath, because this is one. Beyond the stile is one of the M25's most peculiar junctions, more a slip road really, and completely out of bounds to normal traffic. Should your vehicle be permitted to pull off, the ramp leads to a cattle grid, then a bridge across eight lanes of freshly-resurfaced tarmac, and then straight back down again, with no means of alternative escape (unless you're the local farmer). I could have diverted down to the hard shoulder, no problem, but was instead struck by the density of wildlife hereabouts. Rabbits scampered back and to, while the large backside I saw disappearing into the nearby trees belonged to a deer almost as surprised as me.

The field beyond looks across to the hamlet of Ivy Chimneys, a finger of cottages stretching down to the point where the M25 disappears into a cut and cover tunnel beneath a cricket pitch. I could have hit the edge of Epping in minutes, but instead took the path downhill to the railway, past a local geezer and his daughter taking a macho puppy called Jazz for a stroll. The Central line is crossed by a dour 40s footbridge, caged in to prevent gravity-induced vandalism, and then the official path continues straight (and untrod) across a field of barely-sprouted crops. Have faith, and switch to the banks of the tiny brook before crossing back across an unexpectedly wobbly footbridge.

The outer streets of Epping lie ahead, past a concrete fingerpost. It's seven-something on a Friday evening and going-out time for the smartly-dressed residents, slipping into their Audis and limited edition Beetles for a drink or a meal somewhere, perhaps with a bit of a bop to follow. One husband emerges from his porch with a handbag-sized dog, which he accidentally drops because the poor hound's legs weren't as close to the pavement as he thought. And a few London-bound souls head for the station to begin their night out, via the long alley round the car park, pushing against the pulse of commuters streaming through the ticket gates. The railway that opened a century and a half ago has brought them home.

 Friday, April 24, 2015

It turns out we didn't have a mayoral election in Tower Hamlets last year, we had fraud. While the rest of London trooped into polling stations to choose councillors and European representatives, electors here ran the gauntlet of intimidation and illegal practices. But because four residents had the tenacity to collect evidence, and the balls to stand up and point the finger, the unduly elected Mayor has been found guilty of electoral malpractice. I bet this sort of thing doesn't happen where you live.
The evidence laid before this court, limited though it necessarily was to the issues raised in the Petition, has disclosed an alarming state of affairs in Tower Hamlets. This is not the consequence of the racial and religious mix of the population, nor is it linked to any ascertainable pattern of social or other deprivation. It is the result of the ruthless ambition of one man.
Until yesterday, councillor Lutfur Rahman had been the first directly-elected Bangladeshi mayor in Britain. He won the first or second preference votes of over half of those who voted in last year's borough elections, and there's no indication that his winning margin would have been overturned had all been fair and square. But a lengthy inquiry has now confirmed what many had long suspected, that his Tower Hamlets First party won power under suspect and illegal circumstances.

The judge's statement confirms that some THF candidates gained their place on the ballot paper by naming a house they didn't live in as their place of residence. At least one THF candidate registered on the electoral roll twice within the same ward, and somehow managed to cast his vote twice too. THF agents visited certain housebound residents before polling day and persuaded them to hand over their blank postal votes, presumably to complete in Lutfur's favour. Meanwhile Lutfur's council has made questionable decisions over financial grants to ineligible local groups, and council buildings have been sold off to friends of the Mayor for below expected market value. A picture is painted of a leader trying every tactic to remain in power, and if this meant disregarding electoral law so be it.
Mr Rahman’s election as Mayor on 22 May 2014 was void, that is to say, it is as if it had never taken place. He has not lawfully been Mayor since that date. It is declared that Mr Rahman shall be incapable of being elected to fill the vacancy for the office of Mayor of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets under s 164(1)(b) of the 1983 Act.
So, in case we weren't sick enough of elections already, voters in Tower Hamlets will be invited to return to polling stations on June 11th to elect a new Mayor. Technically we haven't had one for the last eleven months, and yet decisions have still been made (for example on the relocation of the Town Hall) that will shape the face of our borough for years to come. Lutfur won't be allowed to stand, and it's unlikely that his party could find as charismatic a candidate to sweep the electorate along. A Labour victory thus looks likely, most probably John Biggs who came second in 2014, although Tower Hamlets politics is quirky enough that nothing is ever a foregone conclusion.

In a secondary decision, mayoral aide Alibor Choudhury has been found guilty of corrupt and illegal practices and has been forced to vacate his position as councillor. In consequence a by-election will have to be held in the Stepney Green ward at the same time as the mayoral vote is rerun, which could dramatically change the face of the council. At present no party has more than half the seats, but if Mr Choudhury's place is taken by Labour they'd suddenly command a majority. Not that this matters, because under a mayoral system the Mayor takes all and majority politics is void, but it's perfectly possible that Lutfur's downfall will end up handing everything to his main opponents.

The murky world of Tower Hamlets politics has once again thrown up a situation that those of you who live elsewhere must find incredible. It's a reminder of how easy it is for one ambitious person to manipulate the electoral system to their advantage, and almost get away with it. I thank the campaigners who had the courage to risk bankruptcy to bring the case to court, and I wait to see what June's trip to the ballot box throws up next.

Still, it could be worse, I could live in Barnet.

Thank you for your astute and comprehensive comments on the subject of guerilla pedestrians. Having read them, here are three paragraphs I wish I'd written yesterday. Please insert them where you think fit.

And it's not just at pedestrian crossings. Guerilla pedestrians are perfectly happy to cross the road inbetween, even when this might be entirely unwise, because they think walking all the way up to the lights takes too long. The worst miscreants get only halfway across the road, and are then forced to hover in the middle on a thin white line hoping that a passing driver will take pity and pause to let them pass. Or maybe just run across anyway causing havoc, as is their prerogative.

Spotting approaching cars is easy, but the guerilla pedestrian often overlooks those on smaller means of transport, forcing cyclists and bikers to curse and swerve or worse. Stationary traffic creates a particular hazard, as guerilla pedestrians assume nothing's moving so start to weave their way through the maze of vehicles, only to be mown down by a two-wheeled oncomer previously invisible partway across. And if one side in the conflict raises a fist in blame, it'll probably be the wrong one.

Perhaps the advance of the guerilla pedestrians is the byproduct of a policy shift. To keep the traffic flowing, pedestrian crossings have been subtly retimed to give greater priority to the motorist, leading to an increase in the time that walkers are left stranded on the pavement. Who'd not get impatient after waiting seconds longer day in day out, no matter how many times you press the button, and so start jumping the lights as a matter of course? Downgrade our lights and we misbehave more.

 Thursday, April 23, 2015

Often it's cyclists who get a bad press at traffic lights, but perhaps another breed of road user deserves a stronger dressing down. I speak of those of us on foot, who think nothing of dashing across the street whenever we think fit. Are we seeing the rise of the guerilla pedestrian?

We pedestrians have always been bad at obeying the rules of the road. We had them drummed into us in childhood, all that looking left and right and waiting before crossing, then once we get older we invariably get more lax in our approach. But what I'm think I'm seeing, from observations at the same pedestrian crossings over several years, is an increasingly brazen disregard for doing as we should, and a steady increase in rushing across whenever the hell we like. We used to wait, but now we don't wait, because we think we're more important than that.

Turn up at a pedestrian crossing when the green man is green and there's no issue. But turn up one second later and guerilla action is afoot. Rather than shrugging and hanging around on the kerb for god-knows-how-long, instead we assume we've still got plenty of time to cross the road and step out anyway. And sometimes we're right, because the crossing in question has been programmed to allow a very slow person to cross very slowly. But at other times the oncoming traffic is immediately upon us, perhaps accelerating on green, and all we're doing is getting in the way.

Like we care. For the guerilla pedestrian traffic lights are for losers, because there's always a gap in the traffic if you run fast enough. We don't like to wait, and what's more we don't have to, because for us the red and green lights are merely advisory. If we want to cross while the red signal's red then we can, even though you on your bikes or you in your cars could be prosecuted if you did the same.

I'm sure we've all crossed the road on red when nothing's coming, because it's pointless hanging around. But what I think's now changing is how keen we are to break ranks when road traffic has right of way, and when we really ought to be keeping out of its path. I see this creeping anarchy every day at a junction near work - a horde of pedestrians buzzing to be on the move - and it's definitely getting worse.

For example, as soon as we spot that traffic lights are turning in our favour, we're out in the road before the last car has passed ready to step into its wake. For example, as the lights change for other traffic but not for us, we're exploiting the brief hiatus between one stream and the next to dash across. And for example, as the countdown timer ticks down, well, if we're a few seconds longer, where's the harm?

Those of us on foot in London have become pretty badly behaved, all told. Forever pushing the envelope, or chancing our arm, for the prize of a few less seconds on our commute. And the more regularly we travel, the more we know the idiosyncrasies of the lights we're crossing, the more likely we are to think we know how best to zip through. The guerilla pedestrian is on the march, or more likely on the run, at a road crossing near you.

It's a wonder we don't kill ourselves more often. But then once is all it takes, and if we've successfully negotiated a path between the traffic a thousand times before, we never imagine that the next reckless crossing might be our last. A car we haven't spotted, a bus travelling faster than we thought, if we choose to encroach on the road when it's not our turn we're putting ourselves at risk.

And we're putting others at risk too. A second breed of pedestrian I've seen a lot lately are human sheep. These sheep don't pay attention to what's going on around them, most likely because they have their head in their phone, so tend to cross the road by instinct along with everyone else. And if everyone else is jumping the gun because they've judged the situation 'safe', there's a very real danger that those following behind without watching might be stepping into danger.

You have to be a bit of an idiot to be a sheep. More interested in Facebook than red lights, more interested in Whatsapp than the truck bearing down on you, your implicit assumption that you have some kind of magic protective aura could end up doing you harm. But in fact it's the guerilla pedestrian who lures you out into the street, because if everyone had behaved and stayed where they were then you'd have stayed put on the pavement too.

We don't have laws on jaywalking in this country, and rightly so. Were we all forced to cross only at places of safety and only when signals were green, getting around would take intolerably long. But we pedestrians need to remember we don't own the road, and those we share it with are generally larger and considerably heavier than ourselves. And we need to remember that we can only push our luck so far, and that the rise of the guerilla pedestrian is ultimately unsustainable.

 Wednesday, April 22, 2015

As a stalwart user of TfL services, you probably don't give a second thought to people using them for the first time. But visitors to our capital often find travel daunting, and TfL has a special wodge of tips, advice and special offers to help them get around.

If you're new here, TfL very much hope you'll find their Visiting London webpage before you arrive. As well as an embedded journey planner, the page leads with five prominent features that might be of interest to London Transport virgins. First off is a big splash announcing that buses in London are cash-free. This won't be news to you, but to those who've not been here in the last twelve months (or have never been) it may come as a surprise. Also, the emphasis on cashlessness allows TfL to push their important offer in panel number two - the Visitor Oyster card.

The Visitor Oyster card is just an ordinary Pay-as-you-go Oyster card, with the same daily caps and everything, but with a prettier pattern on the front. And it has two big advantages over a bog standard blue one, the first of which is that TfL will post it to you before you arrive. Decide how much cash you want on the thing (they recommend £15 for a weekend), stump up a £3 non-returnable 'activation fee' and it'll be on its way. This'll save you queuing up at the first station you reach when you arrive, which is important now that every ticket office is being terminated.

And secondly a Visitor Oyster card allows you to partake in special offers carefully curated by the folk at TfL Towers. These vary, but the current list (available here) includes 20% off your bill at Planet Hollywood, a free hot fudge sundae at the Hard Rock Cafe and 15% off at M&Ms World in Leicester Square. And OK, so these are tourist horrors to be avoided at all costs by discerning folk, but some of the other offers might have much more relevance to ordinary Londoners. 15% off purchases at the Foyles bookshop on the South Bank, for example, that could be damned useful. Or 25% off a Vinopolis tour, assuming you can get in before they close down. Or how about free entrance to a weekend night at the dogs at Wimbledon Greyhound Track (this also available to ordinary Oyster card holders, before you decide to trade yours in).

Panel 3 on the Visiting London webpage leads to a page for "Visitors and Tourists", with a choice of useful two pdfs. One of these is a special tube map I've never seen before. It's called the 'Small theatres tube and rail map', and shows all the railway lines in London along with all the theatres with under 400 seats. There are no West End classics here, but instead dozens of smaller independent venues which deserve our wider attention. There's the Cockpit near Marylebone and the Tricycle near Brondesbury, as well as the Compass near Ickenham and the Chickenshed near Cockfosters. The use of dotted lines to link each theatre to its nearest stations makes for a total mess in places, and is frequently entirely illegible. But I'd say this map (if done properly) is the sort of thing TfL ought to be promoting more strongly to a more local audience, because surely it's Londoners who'd be frequenting these small suburban theatres rather than fly-in fly-out tourists.

The second pdf is an 18 page visitor guide, called Hello London, and brings together all the tourist travel essentials in one place. It explains zones (the Harry Potter Studios are in Zone 9, apparently), gives start/finish times for various services, and urges you to use the Journey Planner to plan your journey. And there's a tube map, a riverboat map and a simplified bus map too, indeed if you downloaded this onto your tablet before you arrived in London you'd be in good shape. But although the brochure's dated 2015 it still manages to mention "Barclays Cycle Hire" on page 2, oops, so presumably it's not updated all that often.

Dig down and the 18 pages are littered with self-promotion. TfL are advising visitors to travel with them, sure, but also to consider travelling more widely on TfL's premium services. Boris's introduction on page 2 doesn't mention tubes and buses, for example, but does mention riverboats, the sponsored cablecar and sponsored hire bikes. The London Transport Museum gets a plug on page 3, as it should, and the capital's new bus gets a glamorous spin ("The New Routemaster bus featured in the James Bond flm ‘Skyfall’ and runs on routes 9, 11, 24, 38 and 390"). Meanwhile the cablecar and river boats get umpteen mentions throughout the document, including a starring role in a sample tourist itinerary on page 15, because the cablecar and riverboats are essentially tourist services so this brochure is their natural home.

Tucked further down the Visiting London webpage, beneath further panels promoting the cablecar and riverboats, are details of London's Visitor & Travel Information Centres. There are currently five of these, and by the end of the year they'll be the only places to go to find a TfL member of staff offering services behind a desk. Their focus isn't really travel, it's more being helpful and flogging stuff, like tickets to Madame Tussauds, coach tours, the London Eye and the top of the Shard. You'll find them at Piccadilly Circus, various central London termini and Heathrow, with VICs at Paddington, Euston and Gatwick Airport opening in the summer. The newly refreshed VIC at King's Cross is open now, in the entrance to St Pancras, replacing the ticket offices that closed down there at Easter. This gleaming facility has the look of an Argos collection point about it, all plastic panels and bright colours, with smiling staff poised at computer terminals, and the opportunity to browse a selection of gifts while you queue.

So as the summer season prepares to kick off, remember the humble London tourist. They get better Oyster cards than us, they get better-presented information than us, and they get secret maps the rest of us never see. They get ticket offices and we don't, because they spend more money than we do on expensive visitor attractions. And they get cablecars and riverboats rammed in their face, because we tend not to use them so there are plenty of seats. You may curse when one stands on the wrong side of the escalator in front of you, but their money probably helps keep your fares down, so be nice.

 Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Which comes first, Crossrail or the General Election?

It's a trick question, obviously, and the answer is Crossrail.

More specifically that's Crossrail Place, the new retail destination at Canary Wharf. You may have spotted it being built in a former dock to the north of the main skyscraper village, indeed if you've been past on the DLR you can't have missed it. It's a huge long building that from the side looks like an ocean liner with a cricketer's shinpad dropped on top, or from each end like an alien snake baring triangular teeth. It's going to be Canary Wharf's new Crossrail station, or at least the very deepest levels are. But two floors above ground and two below are to be devoted to a retail and leisure complex, and that's Crossrail Place.

It's not a very original name, but then where at Canary Wharf is? The long shopping mall at the heart of the development actually has three separate names - Cabot Place, Canada Place and Churchill Place - each in reference to the development they're buried beneath. The parallel shopping mall leading off from the Jubilee line ticket hall is called Jubilee Place, because that's supposed to help remind you where it is. And so this new shopping mall is to be called Crossrail Place, again hijacking the name of a new railway to sell handbags, suits and food.

And Crossrail Place opens on Friday May 1st, a mere ten days from now, which is how you'll be able to pop in for lobster and chips before the General Election takes place. What's amazing at this stage in development is how Google-unfriendly the phrase 'Crossrail Place' still is, with only very minor trumpeting having taken place thus far and the big splash yet to occur. Wander round Canary Wharf's existing malls and you'll now see digital ads for stores at Crossrail Place flashing up to raise awareness. But the wider community has been told nothing, so there's a very real risk that London's cutting edge brandoholics may miss an opening special offer.

So what are we getting on May 1st?
» [dining option] London's third branch of a long-established barbecued crustacean shack
» [dining option] The latest Hakata-style ramen offer in casual, modern digs
» [dining option] Japanese/Danish hybrid concept offering sushi and grilled yakitori skewers
» [dining option] Seventh London pop-up for over-chirpy Mexican burrito merchants
» [dining option] Steak and lager joint aimed at rugby-friendly men in suits
» [dining option] Re-focused greasy fry-up with reputation for massive diner queues
» [vending outlet] Asian tea dispensary, offering to boil leaves for your pleasure
» [vending outlet] Juice bar serving organic-friendly wellness-promoting products
» [vending outlet] Unique coffee/wine menu combo for maximising stockbroker interface
» [fitness unit] Spin class offering high intensity low impact full-body bike workout
» [retail service] Bonus-devouring shop selling bespoke titanium performance bikes
» [retail service] Design outlet cluttered with unnecessary Copenhagen chic
» [financial service] Well-known High Street bank not bailed out by taxpayer
I strongly doubt that the residents of Poplar, a brief walk across Aspen Road, will ever be lured into their new local mall with a combination of shops like that. But this new development isn't aimed at them. Instead, as Canary Wharf expands outwards and upwards, its financial workers and apartment-dwellers are clearly in need of yet more places to gather and spend money. It seems Crossrail Place will literally be filling a hole.

Thankfully there's to be more at Crossrail Place than just food joints for bankers. An extensive roof garden is planned, indeed is probably already nearing completion, indeed looked half-convincing last September when many of us trooped through this building site for Open House. It promises to be green and proper pleasant, unless of course it's filled not only with plants but copious tables for the sipping of cappuccinos. At the heart of the roof garden will be a performance space where an Isle Of Dogs-based theatre group will put on music, dance and theatre, with the inaugural festival taking place over the weekend of May 16th. See how deftly the site's developers ticked all their community boxes there?

And you can't see it from the outside, but an independent boutique cinema has been built on Level -2 with after-work relaxation in mind. There'll be three screens with capacities of 109, 52 and 105 respectively, each with "a mixture of premier armchair and sofa seating with footrest". Tickets for the first screening of Mad Max: Fury Road (3D) on May 15th are now available for only £19.20, plus 75p online booking fee, plus an extra quid if you don't bring your own 3D glasses. A direct hit on the wallets of the target audience there, I think.

Access to Crossrail Place will be from the North Colonnade immediately opposite 1 Canada Square, via an elevated walkway that looks straight out of Space 1999. Alternatively you can descend to former dockside level and cross a paved piazza complete with jet black water feature, this already open bar the dark blue hoardings covering the end. The whole area's dead at present, indeed you may never have ventured this way out of the existing shopping centre/DLR complex. But footfall will start picking up inexorably next month, they hope, until Crossrail Place is as much part of the everyday retail offer hereabouts as Jubilee Place and all the other Places.

And eventually the trains will arrive. Crossrail is currently scheduled to start running on this southeastern branch in December 2018, which is still three and a half years off, with the complete network not up and running until December 2019. And that's less than six months before the country next goes to the polls in May 2020, assuming whatever hybrid government we get limps on that far. Indeed the correct answer to "which comes first, Crossrail or the General Election?" is ultimately Crossrail, but only just. At least you can have a chai latte and oyster platter while you wait.

 Monday, April 20, 2015

Beyond London (7): Elmbridge (part 2)

Just for a change, I visited this particular out-of-London district two days running - on Saturday for the Weather, and on Sunday for the Event.

Somewhere historic: Painshill Park
A bit further down the A3 than Claremont, another landscape marvel. Painshill was the home of a horticultural obsessive, Charles Hamilton, the son of an Irish Duke whose life spanned most of the 18th century. He was determined to create a landscape garden to delight and amaze society, and over the course of fifty years pretty much succeeded. He recontoured the land and dotted a selection of follies across the 200 acre site, embracing the newly-fashionable naturalistic trend over previous formality. Even Thomas Jefferson came to see, like all guests following the approved route around the garden for maximum wow. Eventually the estate was split up, with parts even becoming a pig farm, the entire grand plan falling into decay. Then around 1980 the council bought back the majority of the land, under the auspices of the Painshill Park Trust, and attempted to restore Hamilton's grand plan. It's taken a while but they've pretty much succeeded, and Painshill Park is now a glorious place for a stroll, an exploration or just a nice cup of tea. [9 photos]

The park lies on the banks of the River Mole, technically in Hersham but considerably closer to Cobham. Access is over a modern bridge to a modern visitors' block, where your admission money will be taken, but after that everything's proper retro. Best buy a 40p map to guide you round the full 2½ mile trail else you'll likely miss something, there being a heck of a lot of surprises hidden around the site. An early climb leads to a splendid viewpoint across a tumbling vineyard, where the 'ruined abbey' by the lakeside turns out (on closer inspection) to be plastered brick. A series of ornamental islands follows, connected by a series of bridges which on Saturday were proving the perfect backdrop for a Chinese couple's wedding book. Time your visit right and you can enter the Crystal Grotto, an astonishing space. If the stalactites look somehow artificial that's because they're made from hundreds of thousands of crystals stuck on by hand, once in the 18th century and again during a more recent restoration. And although it feels like you're underground the reality is very different - this is an artificial building crusted with oolitic limestone, and with a very functional pumphouse cunningly shielded around the back.

The Gothic Temple on the hill frames a fine panorama across the central lake, but for the finest view of all head to the opposite end, beside the replica Turkish Tent. It's easy to imagine Hamilton's guests taking a sharp intake of breath after emerging from the upper lawns to see the land drop away across a vista of blue and green. That enormous evergreen is The Great Cedar, at 120 feet tall reputedly the largest in Europe, because it helps having been planted over 250 years ago. Elsewhere in the backwoods you'll find a huge waterwheel used to power the garden's water features, a Gothic Tower tall enough to poke above the highest treetops (alas closed at present, so Canary Wharf went unseen), and a replica Hermitage, all with an unrelentingly bucolic air. I imagine the park changes dramatically with the seasons, hence the attractive offer of an annual pass for more local visitors, but even as a one-off, on a fine day Painshill is quite something.
by train: Cobham & Stoke D'Abernon  by bus: 515

Somewhere famous: Brooklands
The world's first purpose-built motor racing circuit was built in Surrey in 1907, in nine months flat, on riverside meadows to the south of Weybridge. Local landowner Hugh Locke King was a big fan of the newfangled automobile, and wanted to create somewhere off-road that vehicles could be raced legally. His circuit was almost three miles in length, surfaced in concrete rather than tarmacadam, and with steep banked curves for a more thrilling ride. Think of the opening minutes of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and you'll not go far wrong. Motorsport paused during World War I when the War Office requisitioned Brooklands as a military airfield, building on a brief history as a pioneering civil aeronautical centre. After the war motor racing returned with a vengeance, with the first British Grand Prix taking place here in 1926, and the top drivers battling repeatedly to break the course record. By the 1930s Brooklands was one of the great attractions of the day, with enormous crowds coming to watch the races, and to see and be seen by society. Think of the opening half minute of A-Ha's Take on Me and you won't go far wrong. World War 2 put a stop to the racing programme, with the site turned over to the production of Hurricanes and Wellington bombers (plus the development of the bouncing bomb by local scientist Barnes Wallis). So damaged was the racetrack by wartime operations that it never reopened, the site instead taken over by the Vickers aircraft company who churned out Viscounts, Vanguards and VC10s. Brooklands' history is phenomenal, indeed formative in so many ways, and can't be done justice in a single paragraph.

So thank heavens there's a museum to tell the story properly. It opened around 35 years ago in the northeast corner of the site and has steadily grown in content ever since. The Brooklands Museum is open every day, with admission currently pegged at £11, and I'm trying very had to work out why I've never been before. Many of the original buildings from along the Finishing Straight survive, including the domed Clubhouse where officials oversaw proceedings and the sheds where Malcolm Campbell tweaked his cars. One long workshop tells the Grand Prix story, with example vehicles from Brooklands' era and since, plus a McLaren simulator you can hop inside and pretend to drive. Motorbikes get their own separate section, as do bicycles whose history is well told down one long gallery, despite them never have been manufactured here. One flying car with picnic basket will be very familiar, although whether it's the actual Chitty from the film or a damned good replica I couldn't say. One out-of-the-way feature is Test Hill, a steep track (1:4 in part) down which engineers trialled brake systems and up which drivers attempted to break unofficial speed records. And along the edge of the site a lengthy fraction of the concrete racetrack remains, along which it's possible to wander, although management would rather you didn't hike up to the very top of the bank for health and safety reasons.

A separate section of the Museum covers aviation. One part's in a very large hangar, where you'll find a Wellington dredged up from the bottom of Loch Ness, and various other planes and plane bits, including the full story of the original bouncing bomb development. More obvious however are the large planes scattered across the outfield, including several locally-produced Vickers, one or two of which you might be able to enter. But the queen of the display has to be Concorde, this the initial British production model G-BBDG, with many of its parts having been assembled on site. I didn't take the chance (for a pre-booked fiver) to climb the ramp and go aboard as part of the Concorde Experience, nor fork out considerably more to sit in the original Concorde simulator. But I loved the opportunity to walk right up close and underneath to observe all sides, with free exterior access, because I'm always in awe if I meet her. It's just that nobody else seemed to be especially impressed... because they were all here for the buses.

The London Bus Museum is based at Brooklands, despite not actually being in London. Their collection of three dozen vehicles is housed in a long hangar, artfully displayed to tell the story of the capital's buses from horse-drawn to post-war. What's refreshing is the amount of detailed background, fully illustrated, around the walls, without which this might be a somewhat lightweight tour. It's also good to see a variety of older buses, not just the usual suspects, in context and lovingly preserved. Admission is free along with entry to Brooklands, so you get the cars, bikes, planes and buses all thrown in. And some weekends each year the LBM throws a big additional bus-related shindig to make for a proper special day out, this Sunday's being the 'Spring Gathering'.

A hundred or so vintage vehicles turned up, not just ex-London but from all over the country. Oxford, Ipswich and Huddersfield were represented, amongst others, along with a fair smattering from London Transport's Home Counties services. I remembered some of these London Country stalwarts from passing my front door in the 60s, and of course recognised the so-called New Routemaster that passes it today. The mass assemblage had attracted hordes of Men Who Like Buses, very much their own demographic sub-genre, generally of post-retirement age but occasionally in keen teenage clusters. They thronged the car parks with their cameras, willing malingerers to get out of bloody shot, pausing only to discuss with friends or family all the particular details of each vehicle. Of Concorde, alas, they had little to say.

This being a major bus event a number of hangers-on had turned up to try to flog stuff. They laid out their wares on dozens of stalls, both indoors and out, creating an extensive marketplace of four-wheeled ephemera. Photographs are always good sellers, as are books and die-cast models, while others plump for decades-old timetables now changing hands for pounds rather than pence. It made for a buzzing atmosphere across the site, I'd guess far busier than on a bog-standard Brooklands day, not least because of the number of vehicles on the move. Various buses were commandeered to run special services out into Surrey proper, the most popular being the shuttle link to Weybridge station. I'd arrived on RM2760, the last Routemaster ever built, but my journey back at the end of the day turned out to be more unexpectedly special. I don't think any other passenger clocked the identity of the man behind the wheel of RTW 467 but I did - TfL's Commissioner Sir Peter Hendy CBE. He manoeuvred the juddering vehicle out into the modern commercial park the rest of Brooklands has become, rounded the perimeter of the Mercedes Benz test track, and delivered us adeptly to the station ten minutes later. He may be paid a king's salary, but I for one am reassured to know that the man at the top of TfL still volunteers as a bus driver on special weekends.
by train: Weybridge  by bus: 462

Nextdoor: Mercedes-Benz World - for I suspect an entirely different demographic, for whom modern cars and consumption are the thing, this sleek branded attraction with product display and test drive opportunities offers wallet-emptying exhilaration.

My Elmbridge gallery
There are 40 photos altogether (20 from sunny Saturday, and 20 from a Brooklands Sunday) [gallery] [slideshow]

 Sunday, April 19, 2015

Beyond London (7): Elmbridge (part 1)

Unless you've lived there, or nextdoor, you probably have no idea where Elmbridge is. This rural-sounding Surrey borough was created in 1974, combining Esher with Weybridge and Walton-on-Thames. It lies almost entirely within the M25, indeed much of northern Elmbridge is closer to central London than Hillingdon and Havering. It's a wealthy district, once nicknamed England's Beverly Hills, and divided approximately in half by the meandering River Mole. And it's not especially touristworthy, other than being suburbanly picturesque with some glorious open spaces. I arrived by London bus.

Route K3: Surbiton → Esher
The K3 starts by Wimbledon Common and runs through Kingston, but I boarded at the last stop in London, alongside the marginally anomalous Victoria Recreation Ground. Ahead are the leafy avenues of Elmbridge, budding nicely at present, and ablaze with pink and white blossom. Indeed many of the front gardens and verges along the route appear to have been planted with trees chosen specifically to make mid-April a triumph of verdant colour. At first the suburbs merge into one, the first being Long Ditton, sibling of the more well known Thames. Next up (following the railway viaduct) is Hinchley Wood, whose shopping parade surrounds a gated garden and includes such demographically telltale outlets as a hardware store, an osteopath and a fruiterers. TfL is the only bus provider in this corner of eastern Elmbridge, delivering pensioners home from Waitrose and schoolboys to Saturday morning football. On the approach to Claygate the house type switches briefly from "large semi-detached" to "detached with a plot of land". Volunteers of all ages in community tabards are busy clearing litter from the triangular village green, part of an occasional Clean Up Claygate blitz organised by the parish council. Here the K3 heads off round a residential loop, only a couple of streets from Chessington World of Adventures the other side of the A3 Esher Bypass. In a rare show of electoral intent two (and only two) neighbours have erected posters in their front gardens, antagonistically announcing their support for opposing Coalition parties. The main church is a turrety gothic affair, unusually double-spired, while the shopping parade by the station provides everything a stockbroker and their spouse might locally require. Past more magnolia and cherry, the K3 turns eventually onto Claremont Lane, where finally the homes are large enough to be generally gated. And at the top of the hill we reach Esher town centre, a close-knit triangle of estate agents and civic greenery, round 95% of which the bus circulates before terminating. Almost London, but clearly not.
by train: Surbiton, Hinckley Wood, Claygate  by bus: K3

Somewhere sporting: Sandown Park
Surrey's a very horsey county, so it's no surprise to find three top class racecourses across the northern fringe of the county - Epsom Downs, Kempton Park and Sandown Park. The latter is Britain's first purpose-built racecourse, and covers the broad slope above the railway to the west of Esher station. The main entrance is close to the town centre, across an enormous car park that welcomes shoppers on non-race days. Indeed there's a glassy corporate look to the facade, which it turns out is because there's a conference centre behind there, which yesterday was hosting the South East Baby and Toddler Show. Parents and parents-to-be flocked across the car park pushing offspring on wheels and clutching printed-out tickets. Next weekend the racing takes over again with the official end to the National Hunt season (that's 'jumps' to you and me), where £28 will get you inside to watch top jockeys including the retiring AP McCoy. If other sports are your bag then Sandown Park has diversified with you in mind, with a half-mile go-kart track laid out inside the equine circuit, as well as a nine hole golf course and (this time outside) a dry ski slope and fitness centre. Head down the back lane to the rear entrance and you can wander into the site unchallenged, at least when no racing's taking place, and stand between the rails where hooves will (next week) thunder past.
by train: Esher  by bus: K3

Somewhere historic: Claremont Landscape Garden
To the south of Esher, about a mile down the Portsmouth Road, is a beautiful 300 year-old garden once graced by royalty. Claremont was kicked off in 1709 by architect Sir John Vanbrugh, and promptly sold to rising star the Duke of Newcastle, a Whig who'd later become Prime Minister. The Duke threw a fortune into redeveloping Claremont, replacing the house with a Palladian mansion, and bringing in landscape gardener Charles Bridgeman to refashion the grounds in formal style and create a serpentine lake. So proud of Claremont was the Duke that he eventually died here, the estate passing on to Robert Clive (of Of India fame) who brought in Capability Brown, because it seems everybody at the time did. In 1816 Claremont became home to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg and his young wife Princess Charlotte, the only child of the future George IV. Alas Charlotte died the following year after a stillbirth, sending the entire country into a prolonged period of mourning, and Leopold built a mausoleum for her overlooking the lake. Queen Victoria used to visit when still a princess herself, enjoying the rare freedom that staying with her Surrey uncle made possible. The mansion now survives as a private school, and most of the estate was sold off for housing, but what remains of the garden has since the 1940s been under the care of the National Trust.

Spring's a fine time to visit the Claremont Landscape Garden, with green budding out all over, although the grounds are currently post-daffodil/pre-bluebell so less colourful than they could be. Paths meander around and above the lake, on whose banks geese strut and milky-white doves coo, with a pavilion hidden in the trees on the central island. This is about as far as most young families get, settling down on the lawns or swarming over the playground allowing toddlers to tire themselves out. Others venture up the tiers of the grassy amphitheatre, perhaps tumbling down the ridges with glee, or even find the kiddie-friendly thatched cottage in the woods. But few yesterday explored the upper extremities and backwoods trails where I enjoyed peace and landscaped contemplation. One of the best panoramas can be seen from the former mausoleum, marked by a simple plaque, or gazing up the long drive towards the castle-like Belvedere, alas a brick mirage (and out of bounds in the school grounds nextdoor). Prince Leopold's glasshouse has long gone, but several of the camellias within have survived, currently bursting and dropping blooms, with some of the specimens on the top terrace amongst the oldest camellias in the country. I spent an hour a-wandering, and another half with tea, my camera fully satisfied. [6 photos]
by bus: 515 (hourly) (or a 25 minute walk from the terminus of the K3)

Nearby: The Homewood - a Modernist home on West End Common, again under the care of the National Trust, accessible only by booked minibus tour from Claremont on alternate Fridays/Saturdays from April to October. Alas it was Friday this week, so I need to come back.
Nearby: Esher Common - a large area of acid soil heathland, part of an extensive network of commons hereabouts, and not quite desecrated by the pylons and the A3 dual carriageway carving through. Ideal for dog walking, hunting down large dammed ponds, and foresty treks.

(part 2 tomorrow)

 Saturday, April 18, 2015

Meanwhile, this is how Saturday is shaping up...

I may not have seized the day, but I did seize the evening.

Turns out, if you're at King's Cross late enough, Harry's trolley is unmobbed.

 Friday, April 17, 2015

(if you're over 50, probably best not read this one)

It's now just over five weeks since my 50th birthday. And just over five weeks is approximately one tenth of a year. That makes my age at present approximately 50.1. Or, to view it another way, I'm now 1% of the way through my fifties. Blimey that was quick.

My fifties haven't been that different to my forties, to be honest. My body hasn't fallen apart, my hair hasn't turned grey overnight and my social life hasn't taken a nosedive. I never expected it would. I can still do everything I could before, indeed I've walked over 200 miles in the last five weeks, because completing fifty orbits of the Sun doesn't change you overnight. Indeed if I don't think about my age, my state of mind is exactly as it was previously, with me still believing I'm a bright young thing bounding through life. There's no reason to let a number hold me back, barring potentially the opinions of others, who might see a five at the start of my age and somehow jump to different conclusions.

But something has changed slightly, and that's my attitude towards the future. I blame being someone who counts things, because most people would overlook this particular numerical peculiarity. But being 50, well, it's not quite what it's cut out to be.

When you get to 50, because 50 is half of 100, it's nice to imagine that you're only about halfway through.


We all like to think we're going to get to 100, because people do, and more people are doing, so why shouldn't we? The reality however is two decades different, with the average UK 50 year-old male expected to live to 81. Get to 81 and that average increases to 88, because actuarial probabilities are incremental like that. But in reality, your 50th birthday is more like this.


But I'm not actually thinking 81. I'm thinking my likely life expectancy is 75, not because I'm a pessimist or anything, but because getting to 75 runs in the family. If I took after my Dad's side it'd be higher, but chats with doctors over the last few years have hinted more towards my Mum's. Nothing overly disturbing, nothing to particularly worry about, and obviously I'd be dead pleased to get further. But my subconscious has picked 75 as the age I hope to get to, and it's hard to shift that.

Two things. Firstly this means that anything due to happen after 2040 I don't expect to see. The Northern line will never get to Clapham Junction in my lifetime, and little Prince George will likely never become king. Indeed by the time you young'uns face the reality of global warming, I'll be long gone. Being 50 and childless isn't exactly conducive to long-term thinking.

And secondly, the passage of my life now stacks up like this.


Compared to the average, proportionally a little more at the beginning, and proportionally a little less at the end.

And the mathematical quirk I've spotted is this, which is that my life expectancy suddenly divides into three equal parts. One third up to 25, another third up to 50, which is now, and a final third up to 75.


That's two-thirds down, and one-third yet to come. More to the point, the amount of life I've still got to go is only half the length of the life I've already had. And blimey, when you view things this way it bucks your ideas up somewhat.

I've done tons of stuff in those first two thirds of my life, but also not done tons of stuff as well. If there are places I want to go, states of being I want to reach and aspirations I want to attain, I need to get a move on. The next twenty-five years is ages, of course, with more than enough time to do anything I put my mind to. But if I let opportunities drift, or if my health throws a curveball and reins things in, I will be missing out.

Now obviously all this proportional thinking is merely a generalisation rather than a certainty. I could get to 90, or I might not see 60, who knows. But my subconscious has settled on 75, which makes 50 the point at which the time I've had is double the time I've got left. And, bugger, seeing as I'm actually fifty point one, the time I've got left is now less than half of what I've already enjoyed.

birth  death

Seize the day, that's the unspoken message heralded by my 50th birthday. Because, whatever your age, although your life experience only ever increases, that dark blue section only ever gets smaller.

 Thursday, April 16, 2015

What the tube needs is wider escalators.

Existing escalators are wide enough for two streams of passenger traffic - one walking and one standing. Or at least that's the plan. Not everybody understands 'The Escalator Rule', especially visitors to our capital, which is why announcements are often made to "stand on the right and walk on the left". Elsewhere in the world escalators are only for standing on, and if you try to walk up the left you often get stuck. Indeed even escalators elsewhere in London, say in shopping malls, also tend to be for standing only. People step on at the bottom, on either side of the escalator, and get off at the top. Only on London's railways is there an expectation that one side of the escalator is for walking, because we're all in one hell of a rush, hence a rule has grown up that most people follow.

But not everybody. How annoying is it when you're trying to walk up the left hand side of an escalator only to find someone standing there because they didn't understand the rules? Sometimes it's OK because there's a gap on the right instead so you can still get by, possibly with a sharp intake of breath as you pass. Other times it's because they're in a family, or a group, or half a couple, and they thought they'd have a nice chat with the person next to them on the way up without considering the inconvenience this might cause. Children frequently end up on the left beside their parents, for hand-holding reasons, which'd be perfectly sensible if only there weren't a rule against it. Whatever, it should always be possible for people to stand only on the right, and it's irritating for the rest of us when they haven't done so.

And then there's luggage. Negotiating the Underground with a suitcase can be damned awkward at the best of times, given the narrowness of platforms and passages, and the number of people and steps. An escalator provides respite on your journey but also a challenge, namely how to step on and manoeuvre your baggage aboard at the same time. Often a suitcase begins its upward journey alongside its owner, before being repositioned onto the step in front or behind out of courtesy to passengers trying to walk past, but some people leave their suitcase beside them because they don't know any better. Or there's the extra wide suitcase, or indeed the pushchair, which takes up more than half the width of the escalator and which thus necessitates passers-by squeezing through the gap even if optimally placed.

So what the tube needs is wider escalators. The steps on escalators on the underground are always one metre wide. That's precisely 1000mm wide, a standard measurement introduced many decades ago to ensure consistency of experience and the interchangeability of parts. The average human is about 50cm wide at the shoulders, and generally narrower lower down, so a metre-wide escalator is about right for allowing two of us side-by-side. But many people now bulge somewhat at the waist, our nation being broader than it used to be, so sticking to half an escalator can sometimes be a tight squeeze. Often you have to twist your body slightly to the side to get past, or indeed rather more than slightly if the person (plus bags or rucksack) is particularly large.

What the tube needs is 50% wider escalators. A width of 150cm rather than 100cm would allow passage on the left no matter who or what was standing on the right. Lady with umpteen shopping bags - not a problem. Family with pushchair and small child - not a problem. Cluster of foreign students engrossed in chat - not a problem. Airport-bound gentleman with wheelie suitcase the size of a mountain - not a problem. If escalators were half as wide again, those of us who choose to walk up the left hand side would almost always be able to ascend unobstructed, so long as passengers knew to "stand on the right and walk on the left", that is.

And a 150%-width escalator would also allow the introduction of three lanes of traffic if required. One lane on the right for standing, as now, then a central lane for walking up, and then a fast lane on the left hand side for those really in a rush. How annoying is it when you're trying to walk up an escalator only to get stuck behind someone less fit or more dawdly, reduced to climbing at their pace when you could be going much faster. A third lane designed for overtaking would solve the "slow climber" issue outright. Indeed a wider escalator would essentially become a pedestrian motorway, with stationary traffic in the inside lane, steady climbers in the middle lane and speeding travellers in the outside lane. If it works so well on Britain's motorways, why shouldn't it work on the tube?

At busy times a wider escalator could be reclassified to allow two lanes of standing traffic and one of walking. Most people like to stand, hence the queues that sometimes grow at the bottom of an escalator because they refuse to take the plunge and walk up instead. And whilst some passengers are indeed physically incapable of climbing, it often being a long way to the top, others are simply unwilling to commit to so much physical exertion. It's a sad reflection of our increasingly lazy nation that the right of an escalator is generally preferred to the left. We should therefore capitulate to their needs and make more space for standing at the busiest times, so that those waiting at the foot of escalators would be able to board more quickly and the queues would hopefully fade away.

Obviously you can't simply replace today's 100cm escalators with a 150cm model, there isn't room. Nor could you replace two 100cm escalators with two 150cm models, there isn't room for that either. But three 100cm escalators could be replaced by two 150cm escalators, with all the associated benefits that would bring. Three existing 100cm escalators include three lanes for standing and three for walking, whereas two 150cm escalators could include four lanes for standing and two for walking, which would increase upward capacity at the busiest times. And if replacing more extensive banks of escalators, say the existing four at Holborn or Canary Wharf, the benefits would be even greater.

We'd need a public information campaign of course. Passengers would need to be educated as to what the three lanes on a wider escalator were for, perhaps "stand on the right, walk in the middle and overtake on the left". There'd also need to be agreed protocols for rush hour use as the centre lane switched from walking to standing, or perhaps this would simply happen organically as numbers increased. And we'd need more money. It'd cost a heck of a lot to rip out an existing escalator and replace it by a wider one, not to mention the disruption this would cause during the changeover period. But these are not insurmountable issues. Indeed if TfL can potentially fund a pipedream like the Garden Bridge, then all we have to do is scrap that and pump the money into an escalator widening programme instead.

The most practical approach, of course, would be to build wider escalators in the future instead of attempting to act retrospectively. Rather than attempting to match the mistakes of the past, the escalators at yet-to-be-built stations could be created with 21st century dimensions, to better suit our increasingly busy lifestyles and greater girth. We could make a start on the Northern line extension, for example, with a broader-than-normal escalators at Nine Elms and Battersea. The latter would be ideal for escalators with a width of 150cm, I think, given that the Power Station's clientele are bound to be encumbered with flapping shopping bags, pushchairs and extremely large suitcases.

What the tube needs is wider escalators. If only the Edwardians had realised.

 Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Last Friday the Royal Horticultural Society, Nick Knowles and a shedload of volunteers did something wonderful at Cody Dock, transforming a rundown dockside near the mouth of the River Lea into a planted garden with the addition of raised beds and instant landscaping. This was the first salvo in the RHS's Greener Streets: Better Lives campaign aims which aims to create 6000 greener spaces around the country in the next three years. Between sunup and sundown dozens of volunteers helped create a flower-filled riverside walk for the benefit of the local community, and in anticipation of the area opening up to a wider public. It all sounded lovely. So last night I popped down for a look.

Cody Dock's neither easy to reach nor usefully close to anywhere. Option 1 is to walk half a mile down the riverside path from Twelvetrees Bridge in Bromley-by-Bow, and Option 2 is to walk through the Cody Road industrial estate from Star Lane DLR. I took the riverside route, as I've done several times before, because I love the peace, decay and urban beauty. In the distance are the towers of Canary Wharf, increasingly blotted out by lacklustre 21st century apartment blocks, while in the foreground is an expanse of piled-up cars and containers. But Bow Creek itself is a magnet for wildlife, with cormorants and kingfishers amongst the regular visitors to the tidal mud, and golden reed beds line the Newham banks. I maintain it's impossible to come here on a sunny day with a camera and fail to get a striking shot. [4 photos]

But when I got to Cody Dock the gates were locked. They usually are, there isn't often public passage through the site, which remains a community asset waiting to be fully fledged. But that meant I had to squint through the railings and across the inlet to see what green revolution, if any, had been wrought. On the upstream side of the dock a sensory garden has been created, complete with turfed slope, wheelchair-accessible ramp and hooped willow fencing. A most peculiar central feature involves two half tree trunks each with a stainless steel pipe attached, apparently for blowing bubbles, and installed over a much longer time period than a single day's intensive pop-up. The whole thing looked more Ground Force than Chelsea Flower Show, but what do I know?

Alas the RHS's main transformation was far harder to see. Although all Friday's press reports showed a lush verdant oasis of blooms, none of this was immediately apparent from the other side of the inlet. All the hard work appears to have taken place on the eastern quayside and up the approach road, where dozens of raised beds are in place and overflowing with flowers and foliage. I also spotted someone busy watering them, which is no mean task, and just as well in this warmer weather if the RHS's green gift is to survive long term. But because Cody Dock's new garden isn't on public land, essentially I saw nothing, and so wandered back up the cul-de-sac path unfulfilled.

But things are due to change. I know I've been saying this in reports since 2009, but there are still plans to open up this stretch of the river, completing a 30 mile path along the Lea from Hertford to the Thames. All the upstream stuff exists, but the last mile has long been blocked by wharves and industry, so walkers have to divert down the Limehouse Cut instead. Originally the new link was to be called the Fatwalk, potentially one of the worst brand names ever, but the current project refers to the Leaway, which can only be an improvement. 'All' that's needed is a short riverside connection from Cody Dock to Canning Town, and from there either to Trinity Buoy Wharf or the Dangleway, whichever is the Mayoral preference. Yeah, obviously.

Meanwhile another transformational project is almost complete, this time bringing world class sculpture to the Lower Lea Valley. It's called The Line, and plans to create an outdoor art trail connecting Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park to the Millennium Dome. As far as possible the route follows the Greenwich Meridian, but with an awkward diversion via DLR and cablecar to get round the blocked riverside south of Cody Dock. Crowdfunding took place last spring, and the whole thing was planned to be open by early summer 2014, but it turned out that juggling acquisition, security and access was far more complex than the organisers anticipated and the project will be now delivered approximately twelve months late.

Barring last minute hitches The Line will open on Saturday 23rd May. Sculptures will include works by Eduardo Paolozzi and Martin Creed, with Cody Dock getting 'Sensation' by Damien Hirst which should bring punters flooding in. Even better The Line promises 24 hour access, which should mean that Cody Dock's gates are unlocked permanently, creating a genuine public right of way where currently there's only a Lea-side dead end. I'll believe it when it happens, but by golly after all these years it's about time.

But don't expect completion of the long-promised Leaway riverside walk. No public access has yet been driven through the rear of the Electra Business Park, and the improvements at Canning Town aren't due to be complete until this time next year. A new lifting bridge across Cody Dock is also required, apparently, and this isn't even funded. Instead for the foreseeable future those following The Line will have to head out into the adjacent industrial estate, which is visually very unappealing, bypassing the RHS's trumpeted avenue of wooden planters and timber pergolas.

And there's one more fly in the ointment at Cody Dock - the neighbours. Trying to create a communal oasis by the Lea is all very well, but when the company nextdoor are allegedly polluting the area, that makes life tricky. Orion Services' waste transfer station has caused Cody Dock's tenants and visitors to suffer from "unacceptable levels of dust, projectiles, odour, fly infestations, noise and heavy vibrations", resulting in "cancellations and closures of family and volunteer days and tenant abandonments". Orion are currently seeking retrospective planning permission for a shed they built on site last year, causing Cody Dock to put together a petition with over 500 signatures.

Reading the public comments on Newham's planning portal (application no 14/03084/FUL) reveals no love lost between the two sides.
"This year for the Big Draw we had animals and birds come to Cody Dock for people to draw. We had the event inside, but the event was seriously impaired by the smell, dust and most of all the constant stream of flies."
"Me and both my sons work for Orion. I work on site and my sons drive. A new larger shed will not only improve my working conditions and the area but it also gives my family more job security. It must be approved."
"They do not seem to care what time they start or finish driving and smashing things. This makes it impossible to have private hires and community events in the evening."
"Everyone says how we need to recycle more then they try to stop a modern facility being built that employs 150 people. Go figure."
"It's clear that Orion and Cody Dock cannot exist as neighbours - their activities are not compatible. Of course each organisation has it's own validity and is important in it's own right. However it is not possible to move Cody Dock anywhere else."
"We are deeply concerned that approval of this application will result in Cody Dock no longer being viable."
Photos of the RHS's transformational event on Friday make Cody Dock look amazing. Viewed in the opposite direction, however, Orion's stack of waste looms over the site like a mountain of misery. It'd be a damned shame if this burgeoning community hub was forced to close because the surrounding environment had become too inhospitable. Let's hope the two sides can live together, so that sculpture and horticulture can help to bring the crowds to this unique and unsung corner of the capital.

 Tuesday, April 14, 2015

It was my arrival in Ickenham on Sunday, when I'd already been there on Saturday, which made me question what I was doing with my weekend. It's my own fault. I said I'd walk London's unlost rivers this year, and the Pinn turned out to be rather longer than anticipated. Around teatime on Saturday I realised I wasn't going to get all the way to the end in one go, and I had Sunday free, so I decided I had to come back. My own fault for being a completist.

And then I wrote the whole thing up too fast. Dashing through a 12 mile walk in a single post meant writing an over-concise summary and missing out too much detail in the process, when I could have dragged things out for longer. I decided to save you from excess outer suburban reportage, you'll be glad to hear, but in the process shot my weekend bolt early. It's only Tuesday but I've already run out of adventures to tell you about, which can't be good.

So I thought I'd dredge through the unreported parts of my weekend hike in case there was anything else worth discussing, something even those of you who live outside Harrow and Hillingdon might find interesting.

Talking Point 1: In Wealdstone I spotted my first political billboard of the campaign. We don't get them in Bow, we're not marginal enough, but Harrow East is a bellwether so the parties are splashing their cash where it might actually matter. Seeing the poster rather rubbed it in that my vote is essentially wasted, whereas voters in Harrow have the future of the country in their hands. I looked carefully for Boris in Uxbridge town centre, but of his flaxen locks there was no sign.

Talking Point 2: (Hot Topic!) Throughout my walk I spotted far more personalised numberplates than I'd expected in Outer London, often pairs from the same series parked up in the front garden displaying a matching display of intials. Someone in Hatch End even had OWL 8OT on the back of a blue Citroën, for reasons I didn't like to ask. Personalised numberplates are fun, obviously, and an intriguing status symbol, but it's amazing what ultimately pointless fripperies some people will spend/waste large amounts of money on.

Talking Point 3: Ooh isn't it nice out at the moment? Not just the warm weather, which is lovely after the cool spring we've had, but the leaves and particularly the blossom bursting out. I love this time of year as trees suddenly burst into a cloud of green, pink and white. It's beautiful isn't it, but alas wholly temporary, as wind and gravity conspire to end the colourful display. How many weekends of blossom perfection do we normally get, is it one, two or three? Still, at least it's bluebells next.

Talking Point 4: The streets of Pinner, Ruislip and Hillingdon are lined by what were once thought perfectly ordinary semi-detached houses, but I couldn't afford to live in any of them. That's despite me growing up in something similar, and having a decent wage that's higher in real terms than my Dad's was at my age. London is increasingly a housing accumulator it's impossible to join, and when even Ickenham in Zone 6 is impossible to access then something's very wrong indeed.

Talking Point 5: I popped into the corner shop in Eastcote in search of a snack, and was shocked to see that packets of crisps were on sale at 95p each. Surely this can't be the going rate for a bag of Walkers, or even close? I can get a six pack from an ordinary supermarket for no more than double that. Admittedly these bags might have been fractionally larger than normal, but not by much, and nowhere near enough to justify a near-£1 price point. I ended up with a fresh pain au chocolat for 25p less.

Talking Point 6: Walking past an amateur football match somewhere in Ruislip, I was struck by the level of commitment needed to play in a sports team on a regular basis. Whilst other Londoners are sleeping in, or looking after the children, or pootling off down to the supermarket, or vanishing off to the seaside on a whim, this lot devote umpteen Saturdays a year to being there for the match, and not always anywhere near home. Their dedication is impressive, or is their lack of imagination somewhat constraining?

Talking Point 7: The owner of a newsagent in Hillingdon was reading the Sunday papers when I dropped in to buy a chocolate bar. She failed to notice me for ten seconds, so engrossed was she in the behavioural horrors her tabloid was reporting, then looked up with an anxious eye. "Isn't this awful?" she said, attempting to draw me into her pessimistic view of the world, conjured up by the scaremongering journalists whose fiction she sells. What's awful here, I thought but didn't say, is that you believe this crap and take it to heart. I bought a Snickers and left her to fear, unnecessarily strongly, for the future of society.

Talking Point 8: (Hot Topic!) There was a man in Yiewsley taking his kitten for a walk. Is this a thing? It wasn't on a leash, but he'd deliberately taken the tiny black creature to the foot of the meadows near Philpot's Bridge, and was letting it explore the undergrowth unaided. As I approached he scooped the kitten up for protection, its green eyes fixed on me over the man's shoulder as I passed. And then he put it back down, and it crept off hesitantly into the long grass while the man stood and watched. Seriously, is this a thing?

Talking Point 9: The Grand Union towpath in Yiewsley was packed with walkers, and dawdling families, and folk on bikes. I'll bet it was the pleasant weather brought them out. But I was struck by the sharp contrast between the busy towpath and the all the previous miles of waterside path I'd trodden, and the paucity of people thereon. Why is it that London's rivers (Thames and Lea excepted) are generally overlooked, while artificial waterways draw the crowds? Is this because canals have a good press so everyone knows where they are, is it the fact that you can't get lost walking along one, or is the main draw the near-certainty that the towpath won't be a muddy quagmire?

Talking Point 10: (Hot Topic!) I got home at the end of the day with my phone battery on 1%, despite having been afraid to over-use it earlier for fear it might conk out. One day I'm sure we'll look back on the "phone battery anxiety" era in the same way we now laugh at dial-up broadband. For goodness sake can't someone invent a smartphone you don't have to switch on sparingly, and which lasts from leaving the house to getting home?

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