diamond geezer

 Thursday, April 19, 2018

On the Tuesday morning after Easter I waved goodbye to my brother and nephew at Norwich station and wandered off to catch a train back to London. Last night I walked over to BestMate's in Plaistow and we had dinner and watched telly. Inbetween, I met and spoke to absolutely nobody I know. That's 15 days, 9 hours and 12 minutes of conversational solitude. And I coped fine.

To be clear, I did of course speak to people during my fortnight-plus social hiatus. I conversed with the lady at the till in the supermarket, and the newsagent in the kiosk by the station, and the bloke selling me a train ticket to Welwyn North, and the lady who wanted know the best way to Leicester Square, and half a dozen National Trust stewards, plus I said thanks to several bus drivers as I alighted. I also had four phone conversations during that time, two with my Dad and two with a friend, and engaged in several email chats. But for more than two weeks I didn't have a single face-to-face conversation with anyone whose name I knew. I wonder if you'd have coped.

Those of you with dependents probably can't imagine the opportunity to spend even a few days by yourself. Families, partners and live-in offspring make it nigh impossible for this situation to arise. Anyone with a job probably couldn't manage it either, as office and workplace environments generally enforce some kind of inter-colleague discourse. Ditto hospital patients, students, flat-sharers, gym-goers, team players, nursing home residents, club members, and the vast majority of the population. Only those of us who live alone, and can occupy ourselves independently, ever get to be so solitary for such long periods.

It's not always a situation people want to be in. The end of a relationship or the loss of a partner can leave those used to regular connections bereft of interaction. Widowed pensioners, especially those with mobility issues, can be plunged into miserable isolation after decades of dialogue. But I coped fine with my empty fortnight, getting on and doing my own thing, without ever climbing the wall through a need to outpour. You might call it crippling introversion or antisocial inadequacy, but I call it emotional resilience. I'm not saying it was ideal, but I survived almost without noticing how reclusive I'd become. Some of us can do alone without being lonely. Others are simply glad never to have to.

I still reckon London's most almost-circular bus route is the H13.

Bus: 8 miles, 37 mins. Walk: 0.95 miles, 19 mins.

But the 224 is also a contender.

Bus: 8 miles, 71 mins. Walk: 1.0 miles, 20 mins.

While the 325 is proper horseshoe-y.

Bus: 8 miles, 55 mins. Walk: 1.9 miles, 38 mins.

And the R3 is wilfully contorted.

Bus: 9 miles, 47 mins. Walk: 1.9 miles, 38 mins.

As for the straightest bus route?

That's probably the 32 which follows the Edgware Road.

Bus: 7 miles, 54 mins. Walk: 7 miles, 135 mins.

Unless it's the 116, along the Staines Road.

Bus: 6 miles, 27 mins. Walk: 6 miles, 115 mins.

(London has over 500 different bus routes. You can see a map for each one here)

 Wednesday, April 18, 2018

What, I wondered, if my life (so far) were geological strata.

  SEDIMENTARY London gravel Job 4b 
 London clayJob 4a
 Anglian chalkJob 3
 Essex discontinuity
 Chiltern sandstoneJob 2
         Thames Valley limestone        Job 1
    METAMORPHIC   Yorkshire slateUni 2
 Oxbridge marbleUni 1
 IGNEOUSHerts quartzSch 3
 Herts graniteSch 2
 Herts basaltSch 1

(and if it's real UK geology you want, this is fabulous, and so is this, and so is this)

 Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Route H13: Northwood Hills to Ruislip Lido
Location: London northwest, outer
Length of journey: 8 miles, 40 minutes

Some bus routes head straight for their destination, while others go all round the houses. A handful of 'circular' routes deliberately return to where they started. But no London bus route is quite so almost-circular as the H13, taking a wilfully all-round-the-houses route to almost back where it started. Indeed it's possible to walk from one end of the route (above Northwood Hills) to the other end (alongside Ruislip Lido) in half the time it takes the bus. To prove the point, I cloned myself and made both journeys simultaneously.

St Vincent's Hospital perches on Haste Hill, one of the Northwood Hills, at the top of a dead end climb. The view from the top field is extensive, with Harrow's church on show in gaps between the rooftops. What's odd is seeing a bus up here to serve a nursing home and a few hillside flats, but the avenues below merit a regular service, and the driver has to turn around and park up somewhere. He's chatting on his phone when I arrive, so I sit in the shelter until the timetable ticks round, beneath a poster warning me that New Year's Eve Fireworks tickets have sold out.

0 minutes (bus)
And we're off, impressively with one other passenger on board, the devil peering out of a rosebush beneath his shirtsleeves. We zip down the lane into Norwich Road, where a learner driver on possibly their very first lesson meets us on the wrong side of a parked car. We are their living nightmare - large, important, and going nowhere until they've been taught how reverse gear works. A queue of traffic builds up behind us until eventually an appropriate manoeuvre is performed and the road is unlocked. At the bottom of the road had we turned right we could have got fifteen minutes ahead of ourselves but no, we turn left towards central Northwood Hills (and its gorgeous 65 metre-long silk screen mural).
   0 minutes (walk)
Walk past the nursing home into the trees, through an awkward narrow gate, and a whole different route opens up. This is Park Wood, one of the ancient Ruislip Woods, which tumbles down for quarter of a mile towards the shores of a lake. I take the right-hand fork, disregarding the child sobbing about her scooter at the top, and follow the rutted track downhill. It's muddy in places. OK, it's very muddy in places, and I'm glad to have had the foresight to wear boots instead of anything fashionably pristine. At one point I strike a fresh path through the groundcover to avoid hoof-churned squelch, but most of the time I either step carefully or stride ahead brazenly and hope for the best.
5 minutes (bus)
We are the only bus to serve the avenues north of Pinner Road, where traffic is perennially light. Our driver takes advantage by repeatedly nudging the accelerator, at speeds I might describe as not necessarily faster than the speed limit but zippier than your average bus. Private streets head sharply uphill, while our low road undulates somewhat, crossing the boundary between Hillingdon and Harrow. We pass Pinner Wood School, which closed last March when chalk mine tunnels were discovered underneath, and reopened this January after the voids had been filled with 5000 tons of silt. It still looks like a building site. Elton John is its most famous pupil, and we pass his childhood home shortly afterwards.
  5 minutes (walk)
The mud is worse at the foot of the hill - I guess more horses clop this way. I spot two magpies and a very lost golf ball, and hear a woodpecker somewhere in the trees. The tip of Ruislip Lido lies immediately ahead, but can't be reached at this point because the Ruislip Lido Railway blocks access. The only level crossing is further round to the right, so I tiptoe that way, just above the sign marking Neptune in the local solar system. If anything the segregated footpath beside the bridleway proves muddier still. The platform of Haste Hill station is visible through the fence, with three benches and a tub of blooming flowers, but trains no longer serve this former request stop so it's all for show.
10 minutes (bus)
I love the copper-roofed courts along Elm Park Road, appropriately in Pinner Green. Six passengers board here - two in shorts going all the way and another several times their age wrapped in a thick coat, scarf and woolly hat. We shoot down to Pinner proper, one of the loveliest Metroland outposts by dint of having existed before the railways came. Outside the station a bundle of passengers charge for the double decker behind us, while we gain a student with a guitar on her back and a pushchair containing a toddler in glittery pink wellies. The bus is still proceeding on the nippy side, with an ageing rattle, but despite its speed is sticking relentlessly to timetable.
  10 minutes (walk)
A sign stuck by the side of the level crossing alerts daytrippers to the times of passing trains, not for health and safety reasons but in case they fancy waving or taking photos. I've accidentally timed my passage perfectly, so get to do both, eliciting awkward grins from some of the smaller passengers on board. The central wagon is chock full of pushchairs and strollers, confirming target audience. At last I can cross to the lakeside path, although along the next section the water is entirely screened by trees. The remainder of the walk is thankfully on tarmac, ideal for the procession of families, dogs and joggers performing their single circuits.
15 minutes (bus)
We've reached the farthest easterly point on the H13's journey, now bearing onto the Eastcote Road. The houses are a fraction more modern here, and less Metroland-y, but are putting on a fine front garden display of magnolia, daffodils and blossom. The bus still has more people getting on than getting off, as we cross the River Pinn twice and the boundary back into Hillingdon once. We're now approaching Eastcote Village, where the church and village hall reside, this having been the more important location until the station tugged the centre of gravity south. It's also the site of our first holdup, the two mini roundabouts below Eastcote House Gardens jamming the weekend traffic for a minute or two.
  15 minutes (walk)
Out of the woods and immediately alongside the car park, the terminus of the Ruislip Lido railway comes into view. That's Willow Lawn, although venturing onto that lawn today would be ill-advised as its waterlogged grass is ill-suited to picnicking activity. The crowds are much thicker now, thanks to the allure of The Waters Edge carvery and in particular its alcoholic refreshment options. Mild flooding means the water's edge now encroaches through the fence, lapping two of the picnic tables. Several sprawling tattoos which lads and dads endured over the winter are now on full display in the spring sunshine. The bus stand for route H13 is just the other side of the restaurant, so best sit and wait.

20 minutes (bus)
It takes a while to escape the roundabout, and then we follow the High Road beside the river. I'm saddened to see that Felicity Hat Hire at the end of the parade has closed, and the shop has become an opticians, which itself has folded and is up for let. At least the tennis club is still going. After 20 minutes we're finally back level with the edge of Park Wood, which you may remember is where we started, and I could also have walked to here and beaten the bus. Instead we press on through the shrubby suburbs, past signs to swimming pools and sports clubs, as more of our seats slowly fill.
  20 minutes (walk)
I might go and feed the geese while I'm waiting.
25 minutes (bus)
Windmill Hill no longer boasts a windmill, but remains a certified hill. I was expecting an exodus at Ruislip Manor tube, but only one passenger succumbs. Instead eight get on, including a group of bantzing girlfriends tugging suitcases, each clutching the remains of a fizzy drink. One girl's cup looks like a jamjar wasp trap with a straw through its lid, while another uploads a video of her red plastic cup to Instagram because that way lies social success. Almost every seat is now taken, plus several standing, with Ruislip proper surely the intended destination.
  25 minutes (walk)
Let's queue at Mr Whippy behind the geezer with the staffie.
30 minutes (bus)
I'm more than surprised at Ruislip station when only four people disembark but 18 others pour in. Yes there is room for another pushchair, but only if the girls move their suitcases out of the way and block the door instead. A grandson forced by his Nan to sit next to me keeps asking her how many stops it is to the lido, then spots he can wave at himself on the CCTV video screen and this keeps him occupied for the remainder of the journey. A parking attendant hops on near the Cafe Rouge, resplendent in an unnecessarily green uniform. Saturday afternoon shopping may be in full effect, but forget that, we're all going a few stops further.
  30 minutes (walk)
What a lovely afternoon for lounging by the lakeside.
35 minutes (bus)
Most of the week the H13 rumbles up to Ruislip Lido unbothered by clientele, but this is spring's first decent weekend afternoon, so everyone's going. A temporary electronic sign by the roadside announces Car Park Full to the mugs foolish enough to have come in their own vehicle. We pass a steakhouse, the fire station and the entrance to a crematorium, a perhaps unfortunate juxtaposition. Eventually we reach Reservoir Road, where the driver swings round the turning circle and pulls in behind the carvery, only three minutes late. I've rarely seen such an exodus at the last stop on a bus route, but such is the sunny allure of Ruislip's finest beach/beer/burger combination.
  35 minutes (walk)
There was probably time to have ordered some nachos.
40 minutes (bus)
I wonder if my cloned self has walked here yet?
  40 minutes (walk)
I could have walked all the way back in that time.

Route H13: route map
Route H13: live route map
Route H13: route history
Route H13: timetable
Route H13: The Ladies Who Bus

 Monday, April 16, 2018

No day out in the capital is complete without indulging in afternoon tea, the luxury lifestyle break every Londoner enjoys. The perfect foil to a day's hectic shopping or a full-on night out, afternoon tea is always an absolute must-do experience.

So it's thrilling to be able to announce the launch of four new afternoon teas, each unquestionably London's best, exclusive to readers of this site. The only thing more scrumptious than tucking in will be deciding which of these innovative creations to pick first!

DG's Spring'n'Yang Afternoon Tea

Celebrate the new season with this delectable afternoon tea, full of magic, wonder and mouth-watering deliciousness. Two elegant finger sandwiches form the centrepiece of this vernal masterpiece, the absolute ultimate in fine dining. Each has been individually carved from the same slice of Chorleywood loaf, then separately coated with homespun spreads. One half is ripe with the full fruits of autumn, lightly scraped with pip-dusted strawberry jam, while the other half ripples with the intricate mountains and troughs of pitch-perfect peanut butter. No match of yin with yang has ever been bettered!

And yet the choice of beverage tops the lot. Lift the dainty china cup to your lips and let the intricately blended flavours of thirst-quenching tea soak within to refresh your innermost soul. No glazed macaroon sponges or twirly choc-dusted tarts have been allowed to intrude, maintaining the 100% health focus of this detox-friendly combination. A burst of bold daffodils embrighten the experience, artfully swirled in a perspex vase, a few of the blooms not yet shrivelled to a soggy pulp. Tuck into this piquant platter of authentic rustic charm and you're guaranteed to feel spring has sprung. We'll see you there!

Spring'n'Yang Afternoon Tea is served at Beau Church Rooms, E3. The price is £29.50 per person or £14.50 for children under 10. Carb-lite and wheat-free options are available. Find out more and book online via the website.

The Diamond Geezer Chocotastic Afternoon Tea

Prepare yourself for a mealtime marathon of exquisite glamour inspired by everybody's favourite whimsical fictional character, as diners are transported to a themed world of fictional delight. Everything about this afternoon tea drips quality, from the hand-curated combination of individual nutritional elements to the sustainable hardwood breadboard on which the spread is arrayed. Only the finest leaf tea has been sourced, then delicately pre-milked and individually poured into a ceramic receptacle bearing the unmistakeable face of Purple Ronnie's Diamond Geezer. We're sold!

Key highlight is a genuine part-wrapped Wagon Wheel, attractively nudged from its packet, revealing a lush strawberry confection in a dipped chocolate shell. Truly irresistible! Clever chefs have paired this cocoa-coated disc with a granary-specked crispbread, untarnished by toppings, and rested it artfully on the rim of a ribbed microwaveable plate. But the pièce de résistance is surely the sleek micro-vegetable segment, a disc of pure savoury goodness, imbuing the overall experience with much-needed vitamins and minerals. No need to watch your waistline over your wallet, this treat's guilt-free!

The Diamond Geezer Chocotastic Afternoon Tea is served at M'arrêt de Bus, E3. It needs to be booked in advance and costs £35 per person. Vegetarian and sugar-free options are available. Find out more and book online via the website.

Geezer's Afternoon 'Creme' Tea

How's this for a unique spin on an old favourite? Cadbury's perennial chocolate egg inspires the fundamental rationale behind this gorgeous Easter celebration. Not only is there a genuine Creme Egg to unwrap, but tea is served in an astonishing novelty mug whose appearance single-handedly justifies all expense. The mug's subtly iconic design harks back to the golden age of British-owned chocolate, the tight contours of its cross-section ensuring that only the most delicate amount of sepia-toned liquid can fit inside. At this time of year, with Creme Eggs suddenly almost impossible to source, the luxuriant decadence of this off-ration speciality cannot be understated!

For maximal wellness balance, a sublime triptych of healthy nibbles accompanies the chocolate. At least half a dozen individual sultanas have been expertly stacked into a collapsed pyramid. A sophisticated wedge of processed cheddar has been sliced from the corner of a bespoke cheese slab. A single minty ring of Polo has been included as a palate-cleansing dessert, deliberately selected for its low-calorie centre. And the entire smorgasbord is laid out on a blue plastic chopping board in the shape of a fish, because that's quirky, and Instagrammable idiosyncrasy's where it's at. Count us in!

Geezer's Afternoon 'Creme' Tea is served at Borode, E3. The price is £28 per person, or £48 with a glass of prosecco (optional). Vegan and low-fat options are available. Find out more and book online via the website.

Becks 'N' Posh Afternoon Tea

Here we go again. This time we've sourced an actual scone for you, but don't think we baked it ourselves, we have a go-to oven on a suburban trading estate in Ealing and then we defrosted it overnight. Sure, we've dropped it in a ramekin, but only because every gimmick counts, and a bit of light cocoa dusting would have allowed us to charge double. The tea is basically chopped up leaves in hot water, and costs us pennies, but my God the mark-up is exhilarating. But it's the alcohol which really makes our accountants sing, purchased in bulk at the wholesalers, and yes we are taking the piss.

Please help me. I am an English graduate and qualified journalist reduced to generating puff pieces about overpriced hospitality options for a fickle corporate master. When I signed up I hoped to be writing wry social commentary and investigative exposés, but instead I'm sat here with my thesaurus pumping out a conveyor belt of toadying reviews. I don't get to visit the restaurants, I merely scrape the press releases, then add the pre-provided images before seeking editorial approval. I'd love to earn enough to be able to blow £40 on a couple of tiny sponges and a sandwich, but all the money's in flogging afternoon tea, not reviewing it.

Posh Afternoon Tea is served across the West End. The price is whatever the hotel can get away with. Other forms of online journalism are available. Find out more and book online via the website.

 Sunday, April 15, 2018

Random Station: WEST HARROW
London Borough of Harrow
Metropolitan line, zone 5
Hinterland: 1.6km²

The Metropolitan Railway didn't bother with a station at West Harrow when the Uxbridge branch opened, because it was all fields. Later they realised fields=houses, dropped anchor and kickstarted development. Today West Harrow bleeds into North Harrow and South Harrow, to the west of Harrow town centre, overlooked by Harrow-on-the-Hill. Expect what follows therefore to be somewhat harrowing, if not especially exciting.

10 places of minor interest in West Harrow

1) West Harrow station
Opened in 1913, this station's never quite shaken off the ambience of suburban afterthought. The current building was added in 1991 and looks a bit like a garden centre, admittedly a very small one, and serves only the London-bound platform. Westbound trains are reached via a separate (ungated) staircase on the other side of the bridge, watched over by CCTV to ensure every local resident touches in and out every time, which obviously they all do. The view from the platforms is of the largest collection of allotments in Harrow, hence the gentle curve retains an air of rural halt.
Historical nugget: In 1955 the West Harrow Allotment and Garden Association spent £17 on an old railway carriage to act as an annex to their hut. Its eventual replacement cost £1700.

I arrived at the station at the same time as a group of Conservative canvassers for next month's local council elections. They weren't here to press the flesh but to pose with a copy of their latest election leaflet, because nowhere else says "West Harrow" like the front of the station. They smiled at the photographer from a variety of angles, paused politely to let me pass, then went back to holding up their pieces of paper. Thanks to the appearance of these exciting images on social media, I can confirm that two of the group are currently councillors (in other wards), one heads up Harrow's Conservative opposition, one is studying politics at Portsmouth University and one is an award-winning cacti grower. The area's Labour MP has his HQ just up the road, opposite West Harrow Garage.

2) St Peter's Church
The date on the gable of the first house opposite West Harrow station is 1914, as you might expect. But slightly further back is a small cluster of slightly older streets, predating easy access, surrounding a Grade II listed church. St Peter's was designed by a fellow called Fellowes Prynne, and knocked up from snecked rubble in a style described as Somewhat Italianate Late Decorated Gothic. These days it's bigger than it needs to be, which suits the multimedia style of the worshippers within, who seem very much at the modern end of all-inclusive Anglicanism. Come attend a relaxed informal service of contemporary worship, sign up for a mission-friendly Hub, and maybe relive the curate's Pokemon Go sermon.

3) Vaughan Road
Eighteen minutes into his seminal Metroland documentary, John Betjeman reaches Harrow. He spends some time up with the boatered boys on the hill, but also takes time out to visit a row of unassuming houses which fall just inside the sphere of West Harrow station.
"Here at the foot of Harrow hill, alongside the Metropolitan electric trains, tradesmen from Harrow built in the '80s or '90s I should think, from the look of the buildings, these houses, and a nice little speculation they were, quiet, near the railway station, with their own church and public house, and they're named, reverently, after the great people of Harrow School - Drury, Vaughan, Butler." (Metroland, 1972)
I tracked down pretty much the right spot, compared and contrasted. I'd say the houses look much the same as they did almost 50 years ago, only are perhaps less well scrubbed. Harrow is now a four-bin borough, which doesn't help, and neither do the assortment of satellite dishes bolted onto the front since. Scaffolding and skips suggested a flurry of home improvement behind closed doors, as did the armchair one resident was pushing out into the street. Nobody was drying their clothes out of the front window when Sir John passed by, I'll wager, nor sitting on the doorstep smoking a fag.

4) West Harrow Recreation Ground
Well this is nice. The land for WHRC was bought from Roxeth Estates in 1923, which I know from the helpful information board the council erects at the gateway to all its recreational green spaces. This one has very much a sporting purpose, mostly football and cricket, but also bowls and tennis, plus a special "adventure area" for older children (which looks very much like a playground). The West Harrow Bowls Club Welcome Everyone, according to the sign at the entrance to their rinks, which was locked. They also offer free tuition, and have an Open Day coming up on Sunday 6th May, because new blood would be more than welcome. But mostly I found the Rec full of family strollers, elderly sitters and lads on bikes wearing massive Beats headphones. If only the Park View hut had been open, rather than locked with a banner reading "Cafe Open Now" hung on the front, everyone would have been even happier.

5) Shaftesbury Circle
One of the last infrastructure developments hereabouts, which stalled when World War Two broke out, was this circular intersection linking four swish avenues. Two quadrants formed shopping parades, one had the neighbourhood pub and the other was residential. The shops live on, including Lobsters Fish Bar and the Shaftesbury Pharmacy, the latter allegedly 'Winners of 2 National Awards', but their shop window is silent on the matter. As for the pub, not unexpectedly called The Shaftesbury, that's not unexpectedly transmogrified into a full-blown McDonalds drive-thru. It was packed on Saturday, along with a posse of moped-riding delivery boys out front, all contributing to the traffic jams this scenic roundabout now creates.

6) The Philathletic Ground
Harrow School falls outside my geographical remit, but the playing fields on which its old boys play football creeps in. The Old Harrovians are technically the world's second oldest existing football club, two years younger than Sheffield, knocked together under the new association rules in 1859. Alas they never made the FA Cup Final in its earliest days, but one of their players inspired the competition, basing it on Harrow's inter-house knockout tradition. Also alas, Harrow abandoned soccer for rugby in the 1920s causing the Old Harrovians to vanish for thirty years, which is why they can't be the world's second oldest surviving football club. But they did thrash the Old Cholmeleians three nil last weekend, and are closing in on the Old Brentwoods in the Arthurian League Division 1, so are enjoying a decent season.

7) Whitmore High School
Imagine being a pupil at the comprehensive school which looks out across the playing fields towards Harrow. That school is Whitmore High, an oversubscribed co-ed where actor Dev Patel once studied, before it was completely rebuilt in 2008 during that brief era when the government pumped millions into schools. The new building resembles a crab's claw from above, and a gently swooshing fortress from the front, cleverly denying public access to anything but the car park. Only the headteacher's parking space, immediately outside the door to reception, is labelled.

Switching now to the northern side of the forking Metropolitan railway line...

8) Pinner Road
At the end of the 19th century Pinner Road was the sole meandering lane through acres and acres of fields. Unsurprisingly it got built up first, and now has the longest parade of shops in West Harrow's catchment area, plus a Tesco seeking to put several of them out of business. Largest of the competition is the Nita Cash and Carry, with its sacks of rice and stacks of loo roll and milk for a quid. Elsewhere I spotted a vegetarian caterers, a Yellow Fever jab clinic, a lawnmower shop called The Cutting Edge, a web designers called Aspiring Panda, an antique shop, Harrow's oldest tattooist, an Exclusive Indian "Restro-Bar", and a butchers guaranteeing 100% unstunned meat.

9) Harrow Cemetery
Opened in 1887, this long strip of grassy burial ground off the Pinner Road is now 'full', other than for interment in family graves. It's now the ideal site to watch wildlife, walk the dog or to bring your two year-old to play in his model car, if only he were interested rather than staring at the miniature steering wheel in incomprehension. It's also, I'm excited to announce, the place where Harrow council stores its new litter bins. I found forty of them dropped off behind the old chapel, each wrapped in pristine plastic with a '50kg' sticker stuck to the top. Appearing soon on a street corner perhaps near you.

10) Harrow Recreation Ground
And finally, yet another recreation ground, even bigger and better-loved than the last one. Harrow Rec opened in 1885, part park, but mostly sports pitches, sloping downhill with views across the town centre towards the church on the hill. Prior to 1967 it was locked on Sundays. On the first decent weekend of spring it was busy with dogwalkers and joggers, chatterers and snoggers, and a heck of a lot of kids in football kits having encouragement bellowed at them by bellicose fathers. Birds sang. A red-bound copy of the Complete Short Stories of Somerset Maugham lay abandoned under a bench alongside an empty bottle of Русский Стандарт vodka. Budding Andy Murrays tapped meekly on the tennis courts. Couples posed for selfies stood in front of peak pink blossom. When the sun comes out, even a muddy park is still the place to be.

 Saturday, April 14, 2018

Just over 20 years ago I signed up for an internet account. Every month they sent me an invoice in the post. Every month I opened the envelope, checked the invoice was the same amount it always was, then filed it away. I ended up with a lot of invoices.

In 2009 my internet provider wrote me a letter introducing their new Online Invoice Management System. They suggested I might switch over to electronic invoices, but there was no pressure. It all sounded like faff and effort, so I put the letter to one side, then filed it away. They carried on sending me paper invoices.

In 2011 my internet provider wrote me another letter urging me to switch over to e-billing. They were rather more upbeat this time. You'll be able to view itemised bills online instead of getting a paper bill in the post, they said, and it's kinder to the environment. I mulled over their offer for a few seconds and then filed it away. They carried on sending me paper invoices.

In 2012 my internet provider wrote me another letter telling me they were switching everyone over to e-billing. Aha, they said, you'll have Instant Access Anywhere. Woohoo, they said, you can Save Time Online. Wahey, they said, you can Slash The Admin. OK, they added, you can still have paper invoices if you really want, but they'll cost you £1.50 a time. I decided against paying extra, and waited to see what happened. They started emailing me invoices instead. This was fine. The pdfs still looked like the original paper invoices. I always opened them up and looked at them, just in case, and then I filed the email away on my computer.

In 2013 my internet provider suddenly charged me £50 for a free router they'd sent me six months previously. I'd never have noticed if I hadn't opened up my pdf invoice and checked. We engaged in online conversation, and they refunded the error. Nothing out of the ordinary has happened since.

This week my internet provider emailed me with news of their latest billing shake-up. They sound extremely upbeat.

It all sounds remarkably like the letter I received in 2012. It's all Aha, Woohoo and Wahey. I don't need any of these fancy extra facilities, my bill is always the same, and all I want to do is look at it. But the unwritten suggestion is that my monthly pdf invoices will cease, and I'm going to have to log into something to see what's going on.

I don't want a user name that's an unmemorable six digit number. I don't want to have to come up with a complicated password featuring stupid characters. I know I'm going to have to write them both down somewhere to remember them. But most of all, I don't like the fact that checking my monthly invoice is about to become harder, and my internet provider is trying to dress this up as an improvement.

Opening an envelope was easy, but cost my internet provider money. Opening a pdf was easy, but caused my internet provider to have to expend effort to generate an email. Logging into a finance portal and then locating the latest invoice is going to be more hassle for me, but much less hassle for them.

I will not like my new online billing experience. After 20 years I'll be doing all the work, jumping through extra hoops so that my internet provider can jump through fewer. I'll still need to check my invoice every month, in case it's wrong, but the danger is that eventually I won't be bothered, and I'll get caught out.

This is the way of the digital commercial world. They'll save money, I'll waste time. No wonder they're upbeat.

Consecutive days without sunshine in London
(data for Hampstead, 2009-present)

5 days: 30 Nov-4 Dec 2010, 27-31 Dec 2010, 19-23 Feb 2011, 22-26 Mar 2013, 8-12 Feb 2017
6 days: 30 May-4 Jun 2016
7 days: 10-16 Jan 2010
8 days: 6-13 Apr 2018

n.b. No sunshine was recorded at Westminster during December 1890. Kew managed 20 minutes.

 Friday, April 13, 2018

We all hate the BBC and its leftist propaganda, not to mention its lamentable programming output, all unjustly paid for via the Broadcasting Tax. So it was sweet justice when the government froze the licence fee and cut Auntie's finances down to size, forcing her to sell off Television Centre.

Hordes of vastly overpaid staff were kicked out to the frozen north five years ago, and the landmark building was handed over to developers to improve. What a marvellous decontamination job they've done!

Rather than penpushing bureaucrats and so-called acting talent, the former offices round the Helios courtyard now contain prestigious compact flats.
"The Courtyard Apartments are a collection of contemporary conversions with underfloor-heated polished screed, windows the full span of every apartment, and sections of ribbed ceiling."
Most of Television Centre's studios were demolished to create a crescent of designer apartments embracing the original core. It's clearly an improvement in every way.
"The Garden Apartments are designed to take full advantage of the landscaped private grounds, while a palette of pale oak flooring and biscuit-coloured terrazzo embodies the clean lines of Television Centre’s original design."

Where once the Blue Peter Garden doubled up as every viewer's shared backyard, now only genuine residents with bottomless pockets will have access to the space.
"Following the elegant curve between the Helios and the Crescent — a space wider than a London street — a private garden awaits for each resident to explore and enjoy. Imagine living in the middle of a city and waking up every morning to see a lush landscape outside your window."
Actual blue chip offices have been added, where entrepreneurs can earn proper money rather squandering our taxes on so-called entertainment.
"The office reception sits below the atrium at the centre of the internal street, with seating and breakout areas creating a buzzy and dynamic space with full Wi-Fi coverage and 24-hr concierge. The splayed geometry and staggered positioning of the bridge links make a bold, graphic statement across the atrium, and serves to connect people and activity across floors and between businesses."

Rest assured there are no namby-pampy socialist ideals here, only pure unapologetic privilege.
"The health club is a new concept called House Gym from Soho House with top range equipment, an 18.5m rooftop pool, steam room, sauna, fitness and yoga studios, and a spa offering residents and hotel guests a full range of beauty treatments."
In an act of genius, the private cinema will only show content the BBC either never made, or can't afford to broadcast any more.
"A residents’ screening room will show the latest films and sporting events, and will also be available to hire for private screenings."
But perhaps best of all, Television Centre's new owners have opened the gates to the public. Previously menacing BBC commissionaires kept taxpayers at bay, but now anyone can wander up the stepped recreational terrace and enter Auntie's secret sanctum. Imagine orbiting the central fountain to peruse a ring of retail units, each potentially offering juice infusions, light pasta dishes and unorthodox cocktail concepts. What today's audience really wants is a vibrant culinary destination, not some jumped-up tap-dancing space.

And yesterday this is what they got. The inaugural Television Centre Festival kicked off at 5pm, bringing foodie treats and a rotating program of DJs to this once-stuffy enclave. It's intended as a showcase for the top-class eateries moving onto the site, from street-sliced pizza to ultra-stacked burgers, not to mention a Conran restaurant and a mixology hub. Pick the right 'test card menu' and you could splash out an entire licence fee in one evening, rather than frittering it over an entire year.

The first night certainly drew the crowds, who queued patiently under the awning on the astroturf, and hovered round the meat vans clutching plastic goblets of prosecco. I was particularly thrilled to note that almost nobody was venturing further into the circular courtyard to inspect Television Centre's once-iconic architecture. Millennials are more than happy with alcohol and an experience, so should be the first generation not to fetishise the BBC, which should ensure the Corporation's ultimate downfall.

But something had to sour the evening. The BBC Concert Orchestra, an obscenely large body of unnecessary civil servants, put on a free performance in the atrium of the revamped office block. Unsurprisingly they kicked off four minutes late. These musical leeches then proceeded to murder a series of light entertainment theme tunes, from some ghastly Welsh version of Doctor Who to the overrated Strictly.

Office workers emerging after hours of unpaid overtime paused on the overhead walkways to listen in, then got bored and headed home. Some of the downstairs audience were plainly entranced, jiggling to Grandstand and mouthing all the words to Postman Pat, having been brainwashed by one of the BBC's most dangerous entry-level narcotics. But most members of the Netflix generation failed to recognise any of the older themes and talked all the way through the performance, just as if they were sat at home on their flatshare sofa, confirming that linear television is an irrelevance in modern society.

The orchestra won't be playing again and haemorrhaging more public money, thank God, but the festival continues until Saturday night. As well as food, Sarah Malcolm will be hosting a playful vinyasa flow class on mats around the Helios, providing an hour of soft yet fiery yoga practice with a focus on moving with breath and intention. Meanwhile a members' club for women will curate a live podcast, because streaming is the future, while DJ Leo Greenslade spins the decks. I'm sure you'll agree, this inspired line-up features more talent than The One Show has exhibited in a lifetime.

Yes, there are still three TV studios on site, where ITV and other commercial broadcasters will share what used to be an exclusively proletarian site. But consumers of Britain rejoice, for Television Centre is no longer a building but a brand, no more a cultural dictatorship but a lifestyle choice. At long last White City is well on its way to becoming a cluster of cool, and the Biased BBC has been well and truly cut down to size.

 Thursday, April 12, 2018

Yesterday I walked due south from where I live in Bow.
I walked for three hours - that's nine miles altogether.
Here's a snapshot of what I saw, taken every 10 minutes along the way.
(and here's a map, charting my progress in 10 minute leaps)

0h 0m - St Mary's church, Bow
Along the path through the churchyard, the new wooden planters are bobbing with daffodils. The tower is encased in scaffolding, lottery-funded, with a portaloo carefully positioned outside the main oak door. Dour-faced locals wait at one pedestrian crossing and then the next, carrying bulging bags for life. The 108 bus now departing will reach Lewisham an hour before I do.

0h 10m - Devons Road DLR station, Bromley-by-Bow
Every copy of City AM has been taken. The station's confectionery shack - Mo's Hut - is firmly shuttered. In the alley alongside The Widow's Son, as a nod to upscaled gentrification, an enterprising chap in a jaunty hat has set up a coffee stall. To attract attention his cart is parked on astroturf, his stash of napkins sits on a bird table, and two wooden deer nudge their antlers over the pavement. A cuppa costs a quid.

0h 20m - Hobday Street, Lansbury Estate
Built too late for the Festival of Britain, the flats on the northern side of the estate have won no awards. The Lansbury Mosque looks more like an ageing scout hut. Salisbury House rises 10 floors above a tree with a deflated helium balloon trapped in one of its branches. A well-wrapped toddler emerges through the security door followed by grandma, allocated childcare duty in the second week of the school holidays.

0h 30m - Poplar Recreation Ground
Near the empty playground, a ring of perfect white hyacinths surrounds a core of pink around a single palm. An elderly gentleman sits on the bench opposite, legs crossed, flat cap down, with a blue plastic bag at his side. The top of 1 Canada Square is intermittently visible through a blanket of low cloud. In Hale Street, outside the council depot, a mural to George Lansbury and the Poplar Rate Rebels has survived the last decade ungraffitied.

0h 40m - Upper Bank Street, Canary Wharf
Lunchtime has broken out amid the shiny towers, and the boulevards are thronged. Revolving doors spin to reveal officefolk on today's quest for nutritional novelty. Phones are whipped out for a burst of belated tapping. Cigarettes are lit. In the opposite direction, workplace lunchmates in smart suits and paunchy shirts return to their desks dangling meal deals and boxed pulses.

0h 50m - South Quay DLR station
Beneath the gloomy meandering viaduct numerous contractors vans are parked up, each ready to service the latest sky-high building project. Men in helmets and hi-vis await lorries to marshal. The shopping arcade supports a Subway and a Tesco, and no longer anything more. Signs direct curious flatbuyers along the dockside to a snazzy marketing cube on a floating pontoon.

1h 0m - Millwall Outer Dock
Here at the foot of the Millwall Dock it's somehow still the lowrise 1980s. At City Harbour a woman emerges to sit on her grey-facing balcony, wraps herself in a thick coat and lights up. An underfed alsatian, on walkabout with its anoraked owners, sniffs its way round every inch of the edge of the jetty. Every single one of the 50 private moorings reserved for residents of Clippers Quay is empty.

1h 10m - Westferry Road, Isle of Dogs
Chapel House Street is one of a handful of long-standing residential thoroughfares at the tip of the island, as can be evidenced by the Victorian pillar box opposite the Chinese takeaway. These days the street merges into newbuild flats and the Infinity Apartments. The estate agent on the corner eagerly awaits the completion of Island Point, an utterly bog-standard brick-box development which'll look exactly like you think it will.

1h 20m - Greenwich Foot Tunnel
I've finally had to deviate from my 'due south' track to hit this rare Thames crossing, but only by quarter of a mile, so fortuitously is my home located. Both lifts are working. A family wielding a pushchair pursue me into the central flat section. Each lamp is now individually numbered. A Chinese couple pause to take a grinning selfie in front of the tunnel's grimy tiles. No cyclists are present, no rules are broken.

1h 30m - Victoria Parade, New Capital Quay
Back on track at the mouth of Deptford Creek, a "most exclusive waterside village" has erupted along the biggest bend in the Thames. Concierges guard lift lobby entrances. Costa have moved in, plus a busy Waitrose, but the large ground level unit facing the Isle of Dogs remains For Sale/To Let. Once fully stocked with sandwiches, the fire engine departs. A pigeon walks the line of benches, awaiting discarded biscotti crumbs. No ounce of character survives.

1h 40m - Greenwich High Road, Greenwich
My latitude now matches the nearby Greenwich Observatory, but I'm following the meridian shifted 1 minute west, so I'm on the High Road instead. The North Pole isn't the pub it once was, offering a shisha lounge and an upstairs Piano Restaurant. Greenwich Sewage Pumping Station has been overtaken for the Tideway project. A girlfriend with a deathwish walks into the traffic obliviously Facetiming into her phone.

1h 50m - Elverson Road DLR station
Housing on the eastern flank of the station lacks the architectural gravitas of the west. Coldbath Street has flats where taxi drivers live. Bliss Crescent is inappropriately named. Workmen from Morrisons Utility Services are busy reworking some coned-off pavement with the last spoils of the financial year. Access to The Handy Shop, for those in need of cans or mobile top-up, is partially obstructed.

2h 0m - Asda, Lewisham Way
On this, the pretentiously modern side of Lewisham town centre, all the apartment blocks are called Something Cortes. One has childcare at its foot, another gaily-painted pipes. A row of artfully-positioned stones prevents traffic from mounting the kerb and crossing the piazza. Shoppers dodge manoeuvring buses to grab a week's worth from Asda. One short Victorian terrace lingers on, selling laminate flooring, BBQ ribs and hair extensions.

2h 10m - Marsala Road, Ladywell
This is one of several late 19th century residential street hereabouts, with front gardens too small for cars but large enough for three coloured bins. The owner of the Jaz'May ice cream van nips out of his front door, then drives off for a cornet session up Hilly Fields. The front of number 101 is plastered with 'No Junk Mail', 'No Cold Callers' and 'Please Leave And Do Not Return' stickers, plus a rather fetching basket of fuchsias.

2h 20m - University Hospital, Lewisham
What used to be Lewisham Public Library, opened in 1900, now fronts the borough's Registry Office (and Nationality Checking Service). This in turn fronts the University Hospital, a long splurge of less-heritagey buildings, emblazoned with Smoke Free stickers on every outward facing surface. This alas merely shifts the phalanx of puffers onto forecourts and pavements, forcing passers-by (i.e. me) to inhale lungfuls of nicotine as they walk past.

2h 30m - Rushey Green, Catford
My ten-minute snapshot occurs along the dullest part of the shopping parade, after the Sainsbury's ghost sign, but before the chain stores kick in and the giant cat stares down. The discount furniture showroom is empty (other than of furniture). Nando's is buzzing. The Eastern Queen is proud to be fully licensed. Splendid Barbers will do you for a fiver. Shopping baskets are tugged. Off-school children are cajoled.

2h 40m - Bromley Road, Catford
Thanks to geography, I find myself walking along the the A21 for half an hour. Beyond the gyratory it's twin carriageway residential, with speed cameras and doctor's-surgery-sized villas. A beardy ginger courier hops out of his van to deliver a package to the concrete church. A rainbow flag hangs above the side entrance to the Lewisham Unitarian Meeting House. The magnolia on the corner of Penerley Road is splendid, but taped off.

2h 50m - Catford Bus Garage, Bellingham
Red vehicles aplenty are parked up, and swing in, and turn out. Drivers mill around between shifts. Across the road the parade features exactly the same chain of BBQ rib vendor as I passed 50 minutes back. A dilapidated house with broken windows boasts a used car forecourt outside. The Hand Car Wash is a flurry of chamois. A gleaming vehicle pauses to let me pass, then accelerates out into the traffic with a roar before screeching to the lights.

3h 0m - Southend Lane, Southend
After precisely three hours, my walk south is at an end... on Southend Lane in the former village of Southend. Both pubs have become dubiously designed stacks of flats. Tudor-style semis face off against pebbledash. Two boys on bikes perform wheelies which elicit angry shouts from a passing car. A hearse with a personalised numberplate glides by. I have not fiddled the timing, nor the astonishingly apt location, of my ultimate destination.

 Wednesday, April 11, 2018

What is London's longest alphabetical train journey?

(this, of course, depends on what you mean by 'alphabetical journey')

Stations beginning A, B, C, D etc

Only nine tube stations start with the letter A.
Only one of these (Arnos Grove) is adjacent to a tube station starting with the letter B (Bounds Green).
But the next station (Wood Green) starts with a W, not a C, so that's the end of the chain.
The longest alphabetical journey on the tube is therefore Arnos GroveBounds Green.
So that's a disappointing start.

If you extend the search to the entire tube map, four more stations start with A.
But none of these are next to a station starting with B.
Purely in terms of probability, that's not really a surprise.

If you're happy to accept tram stops, there are three more A→B journeys.
AddiscombeBlackhorse Lane, Avenue RoadBirkbeck, Avenue RoadBeckenham Road
But there are still no adjacent Cs.

If you extend the search to all of London railways, hurrah, there's one better success.
Albany ParkBexleyCrayford

And if you allow any stations within the Oyster zone, hurrah, that chain gets even better.
Albany ParkBexleyCrayfordDartford

Across the whole of the rest of the UK rail network, only one other chain of stations matches that.
It's up in Scotland, on the line between Edinburgh and Glasgow.

But A-D is the very best we can do.

Stations beginning with consecutive letters

What if the first station can start with any letter, not just A?

I can find only one chain of three consecutive alphabetical tube stations.
Ravenscourt ParkStamford BrookTurnham Green
Even changing trains mid-journey doesn't add any more to the list.

The wider tube map, adding DLR, tram and Overground, offers nothing as good.

Throw in the whole of the London rail network and there are a couple more chains of three.
LeeMottinghamNew Eltham
RichmondSt MargaretsTwickenham

But three stations is London's maximum, which is somewhat disappointing (unless you know better).

Outside London, here's a four in South Wales (but I can't find a five).
Barry DocksCadoxtonDinas PowisEastbrook

Stations containing consecutive letters

Can we find consecutive tube stations containing A, then B, then C, then D, etc?

Yes we can. Here are some chains of five.
Fulham Broadway → West Brompton → Earl's Court → Gloucester Road → South Kensington
Edgware → Burnt Oak → Colindale → Hendon Central → Brent Cross
Hampstead → Belsize Park → Chalk Farm → Camden Town → Mornington Crescent

Those are all without changing trains.
Allow changing trains, and it's possible to get to nine.
Chancery Lane → Holborn → Tottenham Court Road → Goodge Street → Warren Street → Oxford Circus → Green Park Hyde Park Corner → Knightsbridge

Starting with K instead of A, here's a tube journey which hits the maximum of eleven.
BankLiverpool Street Moorgate → Barbican → Farringdon → King's Cross St Pancras → Euston Square → Great Portland Street → Baker StreetRegent's Park → Oxford Circus
...and here's another.
Southwark → Waterloo → WestminsterEmbankmentCharing Cross → Piccadilly Circus → Leicester Square → Tottenham Court Road → Goodge Street → Warren Street → Euston

Stations in alphabetical order

This should be easier.

In good news, two adjacent stations are always in alphabetical order, in one direction or the other.
In bad news, the next station only has a 50/50 chance of following on, and then again, and then again.
This is similar to flipping a coin until you get a different result, so a long chain isn't very likely.

Here are several examples of five consecutive tube stations in alphabetical order on the same line.
ArsenalFinsbury ParkManor HouseTurnpike LaneWood Green
Baker StreetEdgware RoadPaddingtonRoyal OakWestbourne Park
Barons CourtHammersmithRavenscourt ParkStamford BrookTurnham Green
BermondseyLondon BridgeSouthwarkWaterlooWestminster
BoroughElephant & CastleKenningtonOvalStockwell
CroxleyMoor ParkNorthwoodNorthwood HillsPinner
EastcoteRayners LaneSouth HarrowSudbury HillSudbury Town
LeytonLeytonstoneSnaresbrookSouth WoodfordWoodford

If TfL ever build the Metropolitan line extension there'll be a six.
Cassiobridge → Croxley → Moor Park → Northwood → Northwood Hills → Pinner
(but they won't, so there won't be)

If changing trains is allowed, I can get to six.
Baker StreetBond StreetGreen Park Hyde Park CornerKnightsbridgeSouth Kensington

There is a genuine consecutive six on the Overground.
CanonburyDalston JunctionHaggerstonHoxtonShoreditch High StreetWhitechapel

Here's a seven on the wider London rail map.
BarnesMortlakeNorth SheenRichmondSt MargaretsTwickenhamWhitton

And if you allow changing trains, this is a ten.
Beckenham HillBellinghamCatfordCatford BridgeLadywellLewisham NunheadPeckham Rye Queens Road PeckhamSurrey Quays
(this assumes it's OK to use the interchange at Catford/Catford Bridge)

Across the whole country, using National Rail, here are two sevens.
Cardiff CentralCardiff Queen StreetCathaysLlandafRadyrTaffs WellTrefforest Estate
BidstonBirkenhead NorthBirkenhead ParkConway ParkHamilton SquareJames StreetMoorfields
Change at Moorfields and you can travel one more station to Sandhills, scoring eight.

And if you focus instead on stations stopped at during a single train journey, this is ten.
BarryBarry DocksCadoxtonCardiff CentralCardiff Queen StreetCathaysLlandafRadyrTaffs WellTrefforest
That train journey is the 07:42 from Bridgend to Aberdare, and well done to Tom Forth for finding it.
He has a lot more of this kind of thing, computer-churned, over here.

(we'd best leave reverse alphabetical order for some other time)

 Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Location: Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, CH65 4FW [map]
Open: daily 10am-5pm (closed Mondays)
Admission: £9.75 (ticket acts as annual pass)
Website: canalrivertrust.org.uk/places-to-visit/national-waterways-museum
Five word summary: Canal boats great and small
Time to allow: half a day

It's not where you'd expect a National Waterways Museum to be - beside a chemical works in Cheshire - but there is a good reason. I note there's also a National Waterways Museum in Gloucester, and a Canal Museum at Stoke Bruerne in Northamptonshire... which used to be known as the National Waterways Museum, to complicate matters. But of these three sites operated by the Canal & River Trust, the admission charge in Cheshire is the highest, so I guess it must be the flagship.

Ellesmere Port exists solely because a canal was planned between the Mersey and the Severn in the late 18th century. It was to be called the Ellesmere Canal, named after a small town in Shropshire passed on the way, hence the docks on the Cheshire marshes were named Ellesmere Port. The link was never completed, and the northern end metamorphosed into the Shropshire Union instead, but the name stuck and the docks grew to be bustlingly profitable. The Manchester Ship Canal cut through in 1894, severing the original connection to the Mersey, but bringing even greater trade. That's long gone, but Ellesmere Port's location at the junction of two very different kinds of waterway makes it ideal for a broad-ranging museum.

The NWM is based on a seven acre site sandwiched between the M53 and the Ship Canal, complete with two sets of locks and several large basins. Some of the surroundings have been gentrified Cheshire-style, with a Holiday Inn slapped on one of the quays and a private residential zone overlooking the lighthouse at the actual junction. It seems an odd place to want to live, overlooking flat estuarine nothingness, and with the chemical pipes of Stanlow Refinery flaring not far enough away. But the museum shields you from all that somewhat (so do remember to go and stare at the enormous Ship Canal properly before you leave).

In good news, there's more to look around than there initially appears. Initially you'll be nudged down towards the slipway, where boats were hauled up from the docks for maintenance, and get to meet various 'characters' who once worked here. What you're supposed to do is stand in the right place and use an augmented reality app on your phone to bring them to life, but life's too short, and I found that reading the script on a nearby laminated sheet wasted far less time. There's also the option of walking round with a free audio guide, which might have been excellent but I turned down because it would only have kept me out in the pouring rain for longer.

The main exhibit is inside three brick warehouses, today relabelled as the Exhibition Hall, with rather more tucked away upstairs than down. Here you'll find the full gamut of UK canalboating writ large, from reproduction boatyard toolsheds to painted narrowboats you can walk inside. It's often easy to forget that boating families were confined to a tiny cabin at the stern, with the majority of their internal space given over to precious cargo, rather than the luxurious full-length layout modern holidaymakers enjoy. Elsewhere all the canals' mechanisms and operational extras get a mention, for example painted jugs, mileposts and aqueducts, although if you really want to understand how locks work then best walk outside and inspect the real thing.

The displays are never overly parochial, so although NW England and Wales get a good look in, the rest of the country is covered as well. I smiled when I found a photo of Rickmansworth in a digital display, and grinned more broadly when I found specific reference to Common Moor Lock in a temporary exhibition. 'No Sign Of Canals On Mars' showcases the cruising logs of Eileen Burke, a boater on the Lea and Stort in the 1960s, in appealingly sellotaped scrapbooks interspersed with newspaper cuttings from the Space Race. It's gorgeous stuff (and also available in a limited edition boxed reproduction). Nextdoor I had a go at the icebreaker challenge, where you have to rock your body for 30 seconds to smash through a channel of virtual ice, but only because I knew absolutely nobody else was upstairs watching me.

It's not all about boats. The blacksmiths' forge which used to operate on site has been left as it was when the canal company moved out in the 1960s, and is still used to host day courses in smithing if that's your thing. Gentlemen who like greasy engines are well catered for in the former gasworks power hall, and also the enormous Pump Room, while others regularly get their hands dirty in the heritage boatyard. Another interesting diversion for visitors is the row of four dockers' cottages, each bedecked inside as it would have been in a different decade, from austere Victoriana to the almost comfortable 1950s.

But mainly it's about the boats. Several are moored up around the site, with the larger specimens in the lower basin, and often with the opportunity to clamber aboard unsupervised. Had I turned up the previous weekend there'd have been dozens more as part of the annual Easter Gathering, one of the seasonal cavalcades which keep places like this alive. In better weather the museum also runs a 30 minute barge trip, with commentary, up the Shropshire Union and back. The NWM's not where most locals go at the weekend - the massive shopping centre one junction down the M53 has far more allure. But if you're reading this you'd no doubt enjoy the old boats better.

Other things to do in Ellesmere Port (by reader Si)

1) Cheshire Oaks is not everyone's cup of tea. Nor is it in Chester - it's a few miles away on the outskirts of Ellesmere Port. However, Britain's largest Designer Outlet Mall is a popular destination for the city's tourists. Parking is free, though you can book and reserve a space for £5 as the owners understand the section of their clientele who'd see things like a designer shirt for £95 as a bargain too good to refuse. For those of us that aren't like that, while most of the shops will not be for us, there are some high street retailers offering some products for slightly less than they do on the high street. As such, clearly no visit to NW Cheshire is complete without walking the ¾ mile around this shrine to capitalism.

 Monday, April 09, 2018

Gadabout: CHESTER

Tucked away in almost-Wales, Chester is a popular spot for international tourists 'doing' England. The city walls are the biggest draw, ostensibly Roman and remarkably complete, surrounding some unusually attractive shopping streets. With history and retail within easy walking distance, it's no wonder Chester reels them in. Here are ten things to see and do in the city (although I'm relying on you lot to supply 8, 9 and 10).
[12 photos]

1) Walk the City Walls
These are extraordinary, forming a two mile circuit around the heart of the city, tracing out an approximately playing-card-shaped path. The Romans started them off as earthen banks, soon fronted with stone for greater defensive strength. City fathers later extended the ring to its current extent and topped it off with a capstone walkway. Large gateways allowed the populace in and out, and a variety of observation towers became embedded within. But whereas most English cities knocked most of theirs down, Chester retained its wall, and it's still possible to go for a complete circuit to this day.

Except it isn't quite. A 100m gap on the southern flank facing the River Dee takes you back to street level. Not all of the wall is original - some bits are Civil War restorations, others are Georgian infill, and the odd elevated section looks very much like late 20th century concrete. All the original 'gates' are long gone, replaced by wider vehicle-friendly gaps. One northern section has been fenced off for repairs for two years after the stairs were found to be highly unstable, and trains to Wales run straight through where the northwestern corner used to be. But the remainder's impressive enough, and that's most of it, rest assured.

2) Shop The Rows
Chester's central shopping district is lined by tall half-timbered buildings, very Elizabethan-looking (even if most are Victorian rebuilds), and collectively most striking. Some are boutiques, some are chains like W H Smiths, while others are nothing more than generic mobile phone repair shops in an impressive setting. Most notable are the Rows, a two storey configuration dating back to medieval times, where the upper floor is set back behind covered walkways and the ground floor nudged slightly underground. None of this looks especially disabled-friendly, and the upper terrace I walked along felt a bit untravelled, but my word it puts your local architecturally-bereft shopping centre to shame.

3) Snap the Eastgate Clock
It's said to be the second most photographed clock in England, after Big Ben (which I know is technically not a clock, before all the pedants write in). It's perched on what used to be the eastern gate into the city, replaced by a sandstone arch in the 18th century, and now located partway along the main shopping street. The four-faced clock, glinting gold beneath a copper cupola, was added for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, It looks good from below, but for a decent close-up is best approached along the city walls, and then you can wave back down at all the shoppers snapping up.

4) Tour the Cathedral
The city boasts a middle-ranking cathedral, neither wildly alluring nor drably mundane, perhaps because it's built from local sandstone. Entrance is free, although you have to queue at a desk for a ticket on the way in, and when the till flashes up "Customer" it cheapens the experience somewhat. As well as a donation, what they're hoping is that you'll pay for an 'experience' up the tower, reached via various narrow elevated passageways, although I judged sodden spring days weren't the best time for a decent view. My favourite (downstairs) element was probably the cloisters, with second place to an under-construction 350000-brick model of the cathedral in Lego, currently risen to top-of-the-windows level.

5) Explore the Grosvenor Museum
Chester's museum straddles the needs of locals and tourists alike, hence feels a little underwhelming for a city of this historical calibre. The highlight is the gallery packed with Roman gravestones uncovered from the city walls during renovation, their inscriptions protected from the elements over the intervening centuries. The actual Roman gallery is perhaps a little dated, and the collection of fine silverware upstairs probably never gets busy. I liked the period rooms hidden behind the gift shop, and one of the contemporary art exhibitions, but gave the could've-been-anywhere natural history galleries a miss, sorry.

6) See the Amphitheatre
The city's finest Roman remains lie just outside the walls, specifically England's largest amphitheatre, or rather what's left of it. Once a deep, fully-seated bowl, now only the lower level remains, and two-thirds of the oval has never been excavated. On the undisturbed side lies Dee House, a Georgian townhouse listed in its own right, leaving the council in a dilemma as to which feature should be more worthy of preservation. While they agonise over making their minds up, and whether a boutique hotel would be the best outcome, bring a packed lunch and imagine gladiators battling to the death.

7) Watch the Racing
Chester has the UK's oldest racecourse in continuous use, and also one of the shortest at barely one mile in length. It's located on The Roodee, adjacent to the city walls, inside a meander on the Dee which used to be Roman harbour. Racing's infrequent, between May and September only, and gives members of Cheshire society somewhere to see and be seen. Even without going to the races I was struck by how well-groomed many of the locals were, bedecked in the best labels, shod in proper footwear and with barely a hair out of place (blondes being more frequent than genetics would suggest). Check the dress code before attending.

8) Go to the Zoo
Regularly voted best zoo in Britain, and always the country's most-visited wildlife attraction, Chester Zoo has grown from a private collection to a genuine family-friendly success. I am however unable to write a review because a) I didn't go, b) I have a conflict of interest relating to The North of England Zoological Society. This is your chance to add your comments, if any of you have been, which seems likely given it gets almost two million visitors a year.
Update: Andrew says "The zoo is a good one, particularly if you have children in train. Elephants, rhinos, chimpanzees, orangutans, etc. Monorail and boat trip. Some bits were somewhat tired when I was there last but I understand the owners have been/are refreshing parts of it." Caz adds "The enclosures are spacious and the animals look contented. The new Islands area is very attractive with themed structures, sound effects and planting – and there’s a fun boat trip."

9) Follow the River
The Dee loops around Chester's southern rim, and is easily accessed. Two readers recommend a boat trip "from the Groves upriver as far as the iron bridge", and a third once tried hiring a rowing boat to oar it himself. Mike also suggests "a stroll in the Meadows on the other side of the river, where the countryside comes right into the city". If it's a sunny day, Wole rates "a stroll through Grosvenor Park" (which I see also boasts a miniature railway open at weekends from Easter). Amber has particular memories of the swans, "lots of them, flying or paddling downstream to 'work' in the city centre where they would be fed and photographed."

10) Something else
This one's are over to you. I only spent three hours in Chester, and spent an hour of that checking out a peripheral football stadium, plus I remember scandalously little of my previous visit in 1980. If you don't come up with something I shall be forced to write about a walk along the canal and the underwhelming castle. You can do better.

» Visit Chester

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