diamond geezer

 Thursday, January 19, 2017

100 years ago today, just before seven o'clock in the evening, London's biggest ever explosion occurred.

The location was Silvertown, between the Royal Docks and the Thames, and the cause was munitions work for the Great War. A former caustic soda factory on the waterfront had been taken over for the production of TNT, and on Friday 19th January 1917 it exploded. 73 people were killed and more than 400 injured, which is the kind of mess 50 tons of high explosives can make in a built-up area. So great was the blast from the Silvertown Explosion that 900 adjacent properties were destroyed, the windows at the Savoy Hotel were blown out, and the bang was heard as far away as Norfolk and the Sussex coast.
The explosion was followed by a scene which will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it. It seemed as if some vast volcanic explosion had burst out in the location in question. The whole heavens were lit in awful splendour. A fiery glow seemed to have come over the dark and miserable January evening, and objects which a few minutes before had been blotted out in the intense darkness were silhouetted against the sky. The awful illumination lasted in its eerie glory only a few seconds. Gradually it died away, but down by the river roared a huge column of flame which told thousands that the explosion had been followed by fire and havoc, the like of which has never been known in these parts. (Stratford Express, 27th January 1917)
The explosion had its origin in the melt-pot room, where bags of crude TNT were emptied into a hopper leading to the giant cauldron at the heart of the process. A fire broke out, which workers and firefighters attempted to extinguish, but all too quickly it reached further stores which then ignited. An entire week's supply of TNT went up in flames, much of it sitting in railway wagons close by, because wartime needs had trumped safety concerns. The explosion flung rubble and shrapnel across a considerable area, and the death toll would have been even higher had the day shift not already gone home. The fire continued until the Sunday afternoon, not helped by the local fire station being located immediately opposite the plant and (almost) entirely demolished.
A visit to the scene after the explosion was sufficient to give anybody an idea of the terrific nature of the calamity. It is not too much to to say that the whole aspect of this busy manufacturing centre has been entirely changed. Where the munitions works once stood there remains nothing but a great heap of bricks, rubbish and ironwork, twisted into strange shapes by the fire and explosion. In the main road lay a huge mass of iron, which at one time was a powerful boiler. It is said to have weighed 15 tons, but it was wrenched from its place when the explosion took place and dropped in the roadway. Here it had to remain until Monday morning when a large body of soldiers, by means of a windlass, managed to remove it to the side of the road. (Stratford Express, 27th January 1917)
The government were forced to admit in the morning papers that something disastrous had happened - such a display of pyrotechnics could not be concealed. Volunteers tended to the injured and helped the homeless with their plight, and the Prime Minister duly turned up to tour the aftermath. It wasn't World War One's largest explosion (the Great Explosion at Faversham in 1916 was equivalent to 200 tons of TNT), neither did it bring the largest loss of life (134 died at at the National Shell Filling Factory near Nottingham in 1918), but it remains the largest explosion the capital's ever known. Haven't we been lucky for the last 100 years?



A memorial to the disaster was erected by the company outside the factory gates, and stood until recently under the DLR viaduct on the North Woolwich Road. It doubled up as a war memorial, so only one of the four faces commemorates the explosion, and only employees of the company got a mention, which isn't ideal. It was also carved from limestone, so the lettering hasn't fared too well in London's polluted air and has become increasingly hard to read. Meanwhile the site of the explosion remained barren wasteland until a couple of years ago, deliberately undeveloped, before bowing to inevitable commercial pressure. And that's where the centenary story gets unexpectedly modern.

A huge area of the Silvertown waterfront is being redeveloped into a residential development, namely Royal Wharf. Bankrolled by a Singaporean corporation it's due to bring over 3000 new homes to Newham, sandwiched into the space between Lyle Park and Thames Barrier Park, with much of the land a former Shell oil plant. Royal Wharf's website describes the new neighbourhood as "forging the way for the most exciting new chapter in London's history", which it quite clearly isn't, but this kind of ballyhoo tends to sell units off-plan to east Asian investors. And as part of the plans they've shifted the Silvertown Memorial deep into the heart of a building site. I went looking.



Most of the site's half-kilometre northern frontage is sealed off, unless you're in hi-vis or driving a concrete mixer. But there is an opening opposite Mill Road, by the rebuilt fire station, close to where the memorial used to be. A single lane of tarmac wiggles inside the building site, then continues arrow-straight, hemmed in between tall branded barriers. A pavement has been provided because this is the only way in to Royal Wharf's waterfront marketing suite, hence public access is available from 10am daily. Halfway down this lengthy slog is a muddy gap where tipper trucks nip between the two halves of the construction zone, while swarms of workers troop overhead via a temporary footbridge. I'm glad I didn't wear my best shoes.

After four minutes the access road gently bends to reveal, blimey, a green oasis in the middle of a building site. Plans for the final development show one large garden area opening out onto the Thames, and this has been built first so that the Marketing Suite has an attractive backdrop. A large patch of landscaped grass is criss-crossed by paths that will one day lead somewhere, but for now end at a ring of hoardings, behind which rise numerous blocks of flats at varying stages in their construction. Trees and flowers have been planted, along with a bank of reeds and a rockery, plus a small footbridge across what may eventually be a water feature.



And here's the Silvertown Memorial, scrubbed up and standing proudly in a flower bed. It's certainly a nicer location than before, although that wouldn't be difficult, and I haven't been able to establish whether it's any closer to the centre of the original blast. An information board alongside tells the story, and tells it well, again moved from its former position out on the road. A commemorative event will be taking place here today, attended by the great-grandson of the owner of the munitions factory along with the families of some of the victims. That's a private affair, but you could pay your respects some other time - the marketing people in the triple-decker timber cabin don't seem to mind visitors, indeed perhaps they hope you'll pop in afterwards and take a look round their sample apartment layouts.

While you're here, follow the stepping stones underneath the mock-up balconies to enjoy the view from the waterfront. The Thames is impressively broad here, just upstream from the barrier at Woolwich, and faces a riverbank still occupied by the remnants of London's industrial past. As that history fades away, and a residential wall goes up in place of wharves and workplaces, the new setting of the Silvertown Memorial feels all the more incongruous. A heavy price was paid on this site 100 years ago, and future residents would do well to remember the sacrifice that demolished a community where theirs now rises.



Further background:
» A century on: the mysterious cause and tragic legacy of London’s biggest explosion
» Forgotten Stories at the Royal Docks
» Ian Visits visits the memorial's former site
» Fifty Great Disasters and Tragedies that Shocked the World (as told in the 1930s)
» The Silvertown explosion of 1917 - Museum of London video

 Wednesday, January 18, 2017

An art exhibition by the singer Bob Dylan was held in London a couple of months ago. I wish I'd been.
Bob Dylan, The Beaten Path
05 Nov 2016 - 02 Jan 2017

The Beaten Path features a wide collection of drawings, watercolours and acrylic works on canvas which depict the artist’s view of American landscapes and urban scenes. The Beaten Path invites the viewer to accompany Dylan on his travels as he criss-crosses the USA through the back streets, alleys and country roads. Reminiscing about a landscape unpolluted by the ephemera of pop culture, fleeting snapshots of America emerge from the exhibition.
You can take a look through all 200-or-so drawings and paintings on the gallery's website, here.

I'm particularly interested in this one.



According to the catalogue it's a watercolour, painted by Bob in 2015-6, and shows a Pier in Norfolk, Virginia.

The perspective's perfect, as the planks on the old iron pier lead off towards some domed pavilions at the far end. It's all very evocative.

However.

I received an email earlier in the week from an interested party asking me if I recognised the image. "It looks very much like a photo you took in Blackpool in 2009," they said.



And you know what, they're right!

The illumination's different, but the alignment of the pier and lampposts is identical, as if the artist were standing precisely where I was standing six years earlier. "When I superimpose them they align perfectly," confirmed my correspondent.

What's more, Norfolk (Virginia) does have a pier but it doesn't look like that, it looks like this. Bob Dylan's painting isn't of the USA, it's of the North Pier in Blackpool, and it's been constructed not from the artist's perception but using a photograph I took. This is the actual Bob Dylan we're talking about, the 2016 Nobel Laureate.

It seems highly likely that a projection technique has been used to help to transform my photograph into art - Dylan himself almost admits as much.
"Some of these works have much complexity of detail. Some are less demanding … in some cases my hand couldn’t do what my eye was perceiving. So I went to the camera obscura method."
Such techniques are nothing new, they've been used by some of the greatest painters (for example Caravaggio and Vermeer) to help them to achieve perfect perspective in their work. What's of far greater concern is the production of a painting based on a photograph somebody else took, and appropriating the image as your own, and then telling everyone it's a location somewhere else.

It turns out there's considerable scholarly speculation that many of Bob Dylan's paintings aren't always what they say they are. In this particular exhibition, for example, the painting that's supposed to be of "Classic Car Show, Cleveland, Ohio" is actually located on Route 66 in Arizona, while "Motel, New Mexico" is really in Borrego Springs, California. Passing off a picture of Blackpool, England as Norfolk, Virginia is just the kind of thing Dylan does.
"In every picture the viewer doesn’t have to wonder whether it’s an actual object or a delusional one. If the viewer visited where the picture actually existed, he or she would see the same thing. It is what unites us all."
And it's not just random photos that have been appropriated. Several of Bob's paintings are actually sourced from film screengrabs, including stills from such classics as Rain Man, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Lolita, Paper Moon and Paris, Texas. A full investigation of this recycling phenomenon has been carried out by writer and musician Scott Warmuth, who's written this lengthy essay based on painstaking detective work. When Dylan writes in the exhibition's foreword that "Appearances can be deceiving", that's no lie.

In my case, the Norfolk, Virginia image piqued the interest of a Dutch lady called Hilda, intrigued as to whether it came from another film or from a photo of a landmark elsewhere. She spent almost 24 hours researching piers across the USA, until eventually spotting no, it was the North Pier in Blackpool! Another researcher then noted that my Flickr photo was the definitive source image, and got in touch with me to check, and that's how I found out.

There wasn't just one painting of Norfolk, Virginia Pier in Bob's exhibition, there were two (plus a pencil sketch for good measure). This second version is in acrylic and is from precisely the same viewpoint as the first, except this time there's a couple getting amorous on the boardwalk.



The reviewer from the Irish Times liked this one.
"Dylan portrays a small-town America apparently suspended in the middle of the 20th century, when he was young, a world of diners, movie theatres, hot dog stands and classic cars. Even when he paints a contemporary scene, such as a couple on a pier in Virginia in 2015, the figures are dressed as if they could have been from the 1950s."
And how do I feel about the appropriation of my photograph? I'm not angry. It's not like the Daily Mail or Guido Fawkes pinched it, neither is it in my nature to expect massive compensation. I'm not exhilarated. My photo's been the basis of a minor painting by a major star, which is hardly life-changing, and I'm not the type to gush. What's more, there has been considerable speculation that Bob Dylan doesn't actually paint his own paintings, they're done for him, so where's the joy in that? But I am astonished, because who wouldn't be?

An art exhibition by the singer Bob Dylan was held in London a couple of months ago. I wish I'd been.

 Tuesday, January 17, 2017

8 Deptford/Greenwich
This would have been an oddly shaped borough, had it ever been created, but better fitting the name 'Greenwich' than the Royal Borough we know today. The Herbert Commission's proposal would have combined the area around Deptford that's now in Lewisham, the A2 hinterland from Kidbrooke to the Thames, and actual Greenwich where the meridian is. For my one-off journey I've chosen to walk the riverbank round the North Greenwich peninsula, which would have been mostly gasworks in 1965, to see how all that post-millennial redevelopment's been getting on...

Thames Path: North Greenwich (3 miles)

I'm starting by Greenwich Yacht Club, once easily visible from inland, but now screened behind a curtain wall of rainbow-shaded apartments. Call into the Marketing Suite to find out more, says the hoarding opposite these playbox stacks, behind which yet more flats will one day arise. It's taken long enough. The Millennium Dome was built at the tip of the peninsula nearly 20 years ago to kickstart development on this brownfield expanse, and yet it'll be the 2020s before even half of the area's full potential is met. The developers' marketing campaign strikes a smug note, promising "village life in the city" and boasting "amazingly we've found a new bit of London to live in". I wouldn't rush.



Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park is a long-established wetland enclave, with boardwalks across the reeds and shallow streams running through the alder carr, and an enjoyable place for a brief stroll. The Thames-side promenade, meanwhile, is being used for a much more futuristic activity - the trialling of driverless vehicles. An electric pod called Harry will be trundling around the peninsula from a yellow rectangle painted on the promenade outside Maurer Court, assuming pedestrians and cyclists notice. The boulevard should be quiet enough and wide enough to avoid 'incidents', although it narrows where building work spills out towards the river, creating a couple of more challenging stretches with modal overlap.



A scattering of unusual signs hints that this is a modern-facing corner of the capital. A row of newly occupied homes on the waterfront is described as 'Platinum Riverside'. An enclosure of shoreline play equipment is 'intended for use by age appropriate children.' The event space on the pier called 'Farmopolis' is currently 'closed as we enter hibernation'. An unprepossessing thirty-storey tower is an early signal that five 'towers cut like prisms' are on their way, each with a 'renew floor' where gym, spa and pool will be located. This an 'emerging neighbourhood' of tightly-packed pseudo-luxury, a landscape sprinkled with marketing dust, and becoming denser with every passing year.



The ideal spot, therefore, for the UK's first urban cablecar to have its roots. On a sunny winter Sunday its pods are well frequented, rising sharply between building sites to enjoy the sweeping view - on a Tuesday rather less so. Here too is North Greenwich pier, stopping off point for the eight quid clipper to Westminster, and where shivering operatives wait for potential passengers who might have found their way through the maze of hoardings between here and The Entertainment Tent. On this walk we only get to see the Dome's backroom service area, with all its commercial shebang accessed solely from tube-side.



The upcoming half-circumnavigation is always quiet - building work excepted. Look out across the great bend in the river towards an industrial hinterland where high-rises are not yet the norm and then, on the other side of Trinity Buoy Wharf, an area where they definitely are. Yachts play on the Thames and gulls above it, perhaps picking over the spoils on the beach beyond the long grasses if the tide is low enough. Watch out for the looping lump of sculpture, and the rusting slice of ship, and the ironwork cyclepost, and the reedy wildlife jetty. I've been walking this path for years and very little along the way has changed, at least not on the outside of the O2's security perimeter.



Inside, however, it's a shame. All sorts of pavilions and wetlands were established for the millennium, the latter with the expectation of sustainability, but almost nothing survives. Up by the hotel a particularly sad plaque describes a "newly created environment" on a previously "poisoned" site "which will gradually develop over time", and hopes that the change wrought will be "inspirational". Nah. All the reedbeds and irrigation channels have been ripped out to create delivery areas and a building site, while the meridian poetry plaques around the bend have been absorbed into a sealed-off hotel car park. The automated self-driving pod terminates here.



At Point Drawdock a small girl is rolling empty nitrous oxide capsules down the slipway while her mother watches, seemingly approvingly, because it's something for her to do. A more upmarket game is afoot at what used to be Delta Wharf, now the Greenwich Peninsula Golf Range, an astroturf expanse of thwacked balls, filling in the time before this entire waterfront becomes flats. Developmental delays mean it's still possible to walk the riverside, including the sludgy dockside of the Victoria Deep Water Terminal. The wharf is safeguarded from development, so expect the silos, conveyor belts and piles of aggregate to endure, and be sure to wear something that's not your best pair of trainers as you wade through.



And then the inland diversion begins, supposedly only for six months, so that river defence works can be completed. It's a common tale along this formerly desolate stretch of river, where flats are sequentially replacing wharves and warehouses, and a cruise terminal for mega-liners is on the cards. Pedestrians meanwhile are cast out to the Blackwall Tunnel approach road, sandwiched between industry and exhaust fumes for rather longer than is desirable. Watch out for the optic cloak at the peninsula's Energy Centre - Conrad Shawcross's geometric cover for a 49m flue. Maybe even drop in at the Meantime Brewery, location 0° 0' 30'', for an ale, a tour, or some crafty bottles from their shop.



I'm ending my walk by negotiating back to the waterfront, via a Victorian terraced street that marks the northern limit of former settlement hereabouts. At the end of the road a far more modern cluster of apartment blocks has captured the waterfront, with coloured facades and gleaming glass, but not yet a great deal of life. Potential shops at ground level are boarded up, awaiting interested tenants, and the A3 restaurant unit that Harry Cody-Owen has been trying to rent since 2015 remains unclaimed. Only when the path finally reaches the cobbles of Ballast Quay, and the Cutty Sark pub, does any sense of character return. Three miles of the peninsula's edge are evolving at glacial pace, but irrevocably, into an antiseptic high-stacked city.

 Monday, January 16, 2017

If you enjoy sitting by the window when you travel by train, it's increasingly likely that on the tube you can't.



Time was when most seats faced forwards or backwards, allowing you to sit by the window and watch the outside world go by. But over the years TfL has moved towards increased amounts of longitudinal seating, either when introducing new carriages or by rotating existing seats to face the centre of the train instead. This helps to increase the space available for standing, and so boosts capacity, which means fewer passengers being left behind on the platform at peak times. Sometimes this is even achieved without loss of seats, which is no bad thing. But it does mean we now have to stare at our fellow passengers (and the adverts over their heads) instead of being able to look out of the window, and that's a pleasure lost.

So I thought I'd knock up a table to chart the decline of the window seat, on various forms of TfL transport, over the years.

 Window seats?Currently...Previously...
BakerlooYesIn most carriages, 16 central seats face forwards or backwards (in four groups of four). The other 24 seats face the centre. Carriages might be replaced (with 100% longitudinal seating) in the early 2030s.No change since the 1970s.
CentralNoThere are 38 longitudinal seats in each carriage.Before 1995, the unrefurbished carriages had 16 central seats facing forwards or backwards (in four groups of four).
CircleNoIn most carriages, 30 longitudinal seats (and 6 tip-up seats).The previous carriages, refurbished in the early 1990s and in use until 2014, also had 100% longitudinal seating.
DistrictBarelyA handful of old trains survive for the next few weeks (see next column). In the new carriages there are generally only 30 longitudinal seats (and 6 tip-up seats).In the soon-to-be extinct D stock carriages, 8 central seats face forwards or backwards (in two groups of four). The other 38 seats (and 2 tip-up seats) face the centre.
Hammersmith & CityNoIn most carriages, 30 longitudinal seats (and 6 tip-up seats).The previous carriages, refurbished in the early 1990s and in use until 2013, also had 100% longitudinal seating.
JubileeNoIn most carriages, 34 longitudinal seats.Before 1998, the old carriages had 8 central seats facing forwards or backwards (in two groups of four).
MetropolitanYes
(but fewer)
In most carriages, 16 central seats face forwards or backwards (in two groups of two groups of four). The other 16 seats (and 6 tip-up seats) face the centre.Before 2012, all 58 seats in the old carriages faced forwards or backwards.
NorthernNoIn most carriages, 34 longitudinal seats (and 8 tip-up seats).The previous carriages, in use until 2001, had 16 central seats facing forwards or backwards (in four groups of four).
PiccadillyNoThere are 38 longitudinal seats in each carriage.Before 2001, the unrefurbished carriages had 16 central seats facing forwards or backwards (in four groups of four).
VictoriaNo32 longitudinal seats (and 4 tip-up seats).Before 2011, half the old carriages had 16 central seats facing forwards or backwards, and half had 100% longitudinal seating.
Waterloo & CityNoThere are 34 longitudinal seats in each carriage.Before 1993, each carriage had 20 central seats facing forwards or backwards.
DLRYes
(but fewer)
Refurbished layouts have been introduced in newer carriages, with the 16 seats at the ends still facing forward/backward, but the remaining seats (36 in total) now longitudinal.Older carriages retain 32 seats facing forwards or backwards, and 20 longitudinal seats.
OvergroundNoOn the vast majority of the Overground, all the seats are longitudinal - generally 32 seats per carriage.Before 2008, most seats in the old carriages faced forwards or backwards.
Yes
(for now)
On the Gospel Oak to Barking line (currently closed), most/all of the seats face forwards or backwards. New electric trains (with 100% longitudinal seating) are due to be introduced in 2018.Before 2011, most/all seats in the old carriages faced forwards or backwards.
YesOn the lines out of Liverpool Street and the Romford to Upminster line, almost all of the seats face forwards or backwards. After 2018, new trains will be introduced with mostly longitudinal seating.-
TfL RailYesAll of the seats face forwards or backwards. New Crossrail stock (with more longitudinal seating) is due to be introduced from May 2017.-
Crossrail-Carriages look like they're going to have 16 seats facing forwards or backwards (in two groups of two groups of four) and about 34 longitudinal seats.-
TramYesOn most trams 64 seats face forwards or backwards, and only six seats face the centre. Newer trams, introduced from 2012, have two additional seats.-
DanglewayYes100% of seats face forwards or backwards!-

The table's bound to be wrong, so let me know where, and I'll update as necessary.
potential errors here, please

And I wonder what you think about the decreasing number of window seats (and the consequential increase in standing room).

Sources of data include...
» TfL Rolling Stock information sheet (25 page pdf from this FoI request)
» Wikipedia: London Underground, Overground, Silverlink, Class 710, Class 487
» Other websites: Squarewheels, Tubeprune, Croydon Tramlink, New Crossrail trains, London Transport Forum

 Sunday, January 15, 2017

Number maze: Can you make your way from the 6 in the corner to the 0 in the centre?

The number in each square shows you how many squares to move next. Moves must be either horizontal or vertical.

For example, from the 6 you can only move to the 4 in the top right corner or the 3 in the bottom left corner.

6143214
4515433
2421453
2230135
5413413
3534352
3411235

And can you do it in ten moves?

[Answer tomorrow. Please don't reveal the solution in the comments box, but do tell us how you get on]

A large hollow wooden egg has arrived in London. It's not just an egg, it's an artist's studio, and it floats. It spent a year on a river in the New Forest, and is now travelling around the country on tour. It's the creation of the artist Stephen Turner (who once spent six weeks living alone in the sea forts off the north Kent coast). It's the Exbury Egg, and it's in town until the end of the month.



The egg started out on a salt marsh in Hampshire, just down the estuary from Beaulieu, within the grounds of horticultural attraction Exbury Gardens. It was specially created using boatbuilding technology, and tethered to the shore via a short pontoon so that it could rise and fall with the tide. Inside, Stephen created sustainable artworks based on digital imagery and found objects, focusing on the experience of a year spent up the creek. Later he took the egg to a canalside in Burnley and spent six months living and working there, and now he's taking the egg on a tour of four further locations, of which Trinity Buoy Wharf is the first.

You won't stumble upon the Exbury Egg by accident. For a start you're unlikely to visit Trinity Buoy Wharf by accident, it's at the most inaccessible point in Tower Hamlets at the mouth of Bow Creek. Even then the egg's well hidden, this time indoors, just past Fatboys Diner and the lighthouse, within the Chain Store on the Thames-facing quay. Step inside to view the egg in its London guise - as a large-form sculpture - and to see a small exhibition of associated artworks.

The egg's wooden shell is beautifully constructed, with openings for doors on either side and now stained with a tidal patina. With this stop on the tour being landlocked you have to climb a stepladder to clamber inside, and to discover the artist's studio laid out like a particularly cosy cabin. Jars and bottles, candles and books, all manner of items are tucked along the walls, plus a bed at the far end and a tiny galley kitchen to the side. What looks like the broom cupboard doubled up as a rudimentary shower, but it's not too hard to picture the place as an artistic laboratory among the reeds.



The exhibition includes several ovoid forms constructed from natural materials, including blackthorn thinnings and bladderwrack, plus a variety of drawings using oak ink. A long cabinet includes such delicacies as Blackberry Wine, Sloe Gin and Dandelion Root Coffee, originally locally sourced, while there are also three videos to watch (except, as with most exhibitions, nobody ever sits down and takes the time). You'll enjoy the exhibition more if you stop to engage with Stephen or his wife - they're very keen to fill in the background detail (and delighted to have visitors who haven't merely turned up to scope the room as a potential wedding venue).

The Exbury Egg will be at Trinity Buoy Wharf for the next two weeks, with outreach activities including a downriver walk on Saturday 28th January led by Stephen starting out from the Nunnery Gallery in Bow Road. After that it's going to another canal (Grand Union, Milton Keynes: 3 Apr - 14 May), a shopping centre (Gunwharf Quays, Portsmouth: 16 Jun - 3 Sep) and the seaside (Jerwood Gallery, Hastings: 16 Sep - 15 Oct). It'll probably look much more impressive on the water in these other locations but, given Easter's still some way off, an indoor egg certainly has its appeal.

 Saturday, January 14, 2017

50 things to do in London this weekend

1) Go geocaching in Penge.
2) Window shop on Neasden Parade.
3) Watch the pigeons on Camberwell Green.
4) Head to your local Tesco Express for a pint of milk and a loaf of bread.
5) Share photos of Mitcham Parish Cemetery on Instagram.
6) Scroll through Netflix looking for a film you've already seen and know you like.
7) Buy some new underwear from Walthamstow Market.
8) Walk aimlessly along the South Bank.
9) Wake up too late to get out of the house in time for brunch.
10) Do a couple of lengths at Edmonton Leisure Centre.
11) Walk your dog round Harrow Weald Recreation Ground.
12) Find a copy of Friday's Metro and read that on the tube in lieu of real news.
13) Sit on a bench in Carshalton Park and stream some Ed Sheeran.
14) Dither over which pastry to have with your latte at Starbucks in Orpington.
15) Praise the Lord at Belvedere Pentecostal Church.
16) Meet with friends and go for a drink and have a chat.
17) Stand outside a Mayfair restaurant and look at the menu.
18) Go for a ride round the Hainault Loop.
19) Catch that film that's going to win the Oscars at the Odeon Uxbridge.
20) Check your Facebook feed on the Bakerloo line.
21) Make a cup of tea and open some digestive biscuits.
22) Tackle the Wormwood Scrubs parkrun.
23) Count the CCTV cameras overlooking the Kingsway Underpass.
24) Walk alongside the River Brent through Tokyngton Recreation Ground.
25) Buy some vegetables from a stall in Shepherd's Bush Market.
26) Use Zoopla to check the price of that nice house you can't afford.
27) Ride the R68 bus to Kew Retail Park.
28) Mull over whether to do Pizza Express or upgrade to Jamie's Italian.
29) Sell your tat at the Bounds Green School Car Boot Sale.
30) Play crazy golf at Kelsey Park in Beckenham.
31) Check the price of an Uber home from The Bald Faced Stag in Finchley.
32) Visit the Treaty Centre, Hounslow, to select a new vape flavour.
33) Pop up to Level 4 in Northwick Park Hospital for a Costa coffee.
34) Catch up on some hoovering.
35) Have a go on the swings in Beckton District Park while nobody's looking.
36) Walk round the Whitgift Centre a couple of times.
37) Pick a savoury bake from the selection at Greggs in New Malden.
38) Check Twitter to see if your friends are having a better weekend than you.
39) Take the kids to the free chess club at Redbridge Central Library.
40) Sit on your sofa and order a pizza, some wings and a bottle of Diet Coke.
41) Upload some photos of the heritage ironwork at Bromley-by-Bow station.
42) Play your favourite tunes out loud on the upper deck of the 353 bus.
43) Hire a Zipcar to get a new flatpack bookcase home from IKEA.
44) Argue with the Jehovah's Witnesses outside the Bentall Centre, Kingston.
45) Walk round the block until your Fitbit tells you you've finished.
46) Stand on the terraces and cheer on Pitshanger Dynamo FC.
47) Hunt for bargains in the charity shops on Sidcup High Street.
48) Grab a kebab from the takeaway outside the Night Tube.
49) Play Candy Crush until your phone battery runs out.
50) Explore Romford.

 Friday, January 13, 2017

Q Feltham/Staines/Sunbury-on-Thames
Against the odds, my second Herbert Dip borough is immediately adjacent to my first. What's more, it's one of only six boroughs proposed in 1960 that extend outside what became the boundary of Greater London in 1965. Staines and Sunbury merged to create what's now the Surrey district of Spelthorne, whereas Feltham became the westernmost part of Hounslow. For today's post I've eschewed the Home Counties and chosen to explore Feltham, because I've seriously underblogged the area over the years. I used a local bus route to help me tour the sights...

 Route H26: Hatton Cross - Sparrow Farm
 Length of journey: 6 miles, 30 minutes


So meandering is the route of the H26 that you can actually walk from one terminus to the other quicker than the bus. I did something even more senseless, I walked from one terminus to the other along the actual route itself, diverting to adjacent points of interest along the way, then returning by bus to confirm how much easier that would have been. My journey started at Hatton Cross station, which I'm not at liberty to write about because it's in Hillingdon. But thirty seconds across the A30 the H26 enters Hounslow, and then it's Feltham Urban District all the way.



Hatton: Before Heathrow was built, Hatton was a minor hamlet on the Great South West Road. It's now a hollowed-out trading estate and service hub, a bleak circulatory surrounded by truck depots and freight hubs, although one burger-friendly 17th century pub survives. Behind one battered fence the landing lights for the airport's south runway sweep across bleak pasture where shaggy ponies graze, which must look amazing (and sound appalling) when flights boom low overhead.

Hatton Road: One bus stop down, The Orchard is the home of Bedfont and Feltham FC, a recently-merged entity in the Combined Counties League Premier Division whose chief sponsor (somewhat unexpectedly) is the frozen food company BirdsEye. A few streets of semis dare to exist airportside, their peace regularly shattered by loud ground-based roars which anywhere else in the country would have residents reaching for social media to check the world wasn't ending. A bridge then crosses the Duke of Northumberland's River and the Longford River, at the point where the two artificial channels finally diverge. Terminal 4 is only a brief walk up the riverbank, should you wish to connect with my previous post hereabouts.

East Bedfont: One of two former Middlesex villages, this incarnation is now mostly suburbia, whereas West Bedfont is mostly oil terminal. A hint of rural Georgian charm exists around the conservation area at Bedfont Green, but the pièce de résistance is St Mary's church, Hounslow's oldest place of worship. The timber and tile spire would normally be photogenic enough, but this is completely overshadowed by a giant topiary sculpture outside the front door where a pair of yew trees has been clipped into the shape of two peacocks on pillows linked by an arch. Two dates appear into the base - 1704 which is believed to be the year the yews were first trimmed, and 1990 which is the date of the most recent restoration - and the end result is indeed as amazing as it sounds.



Bedfont Lakes Business Park: This anodyne commercial centre helps keep London's tech businesses ticking over, plus it's also where BirdsEye has its HQ, hence that sponsorship deal I mentioned earlier. Employees at IBM and Cisco have roof terraces overlooking the eponymous lakes for when the weather's better, and a bespoke bus service to the nearest stations so they don't have to ride with the commoners.

Bedfont Lakes Country Park: This is more like it - 180 acres of rolling meadows, woodland and water, landscaped from gravel pits and opened to the public in 1995. The H26 stops at the eastern end, near Bedfont Cemetery and the car park where Volvo drivers coerce muddy dogs back into their vehicles. A swirl of paths leads off around the central grassy expanse and along the edge of various migration-friendly lakes, some of the banks of which are fenced off as nature reserves. In the woods at the far end are a fishing lake, a cafe and an animal rescue centre, while possibly the most interesting feature is slap bang in the middle. Monolith Hill is an artificial mound with a rocky block on the top, and was intended to be the highest point in the borough of Hounslow, reaching a lofty 29m above sea level. Unfortunately certain areas around Heston top 35m, so the record lies elsewhere, but the view from the summit's considerably better.



Feltham Young Offenders Institution: ... or HMYOI Feltham, as the sign outside this juvenile sinbin has it. The H26 stops at a shelter in the car park, where staff and visitors mingle, well away from the Union Flag hoisted prominently by the front gate. Up to 550 young people and young adults are secured within the fenced perimeter, beyond which can be seen numerous slanted rooftops, an industrial-sized chimney and several cameras on very tall poles.

Feltham High Street: Feltham's main drag runs from St Dunstan's to St Catherine's, the former Georgian, the latter now vacant after once being converted into council offices. A few old buildings remain, especially around the Green where the Red Lion has been serving pints since 1800. I spotted a heron on the island in the middle of the pond, and a sign on a lamppost pointing the way along the Feltham Heritage Trail (of which no documentary evidence exists, so best not follow). But most of Olde Feltham has been swept away, the shopping centre twice, with a semi-substantial mall called The Centre now feeding custom past numerous chainstore units to a large Asda at the rear. Bland, but useful,

22 Gladstone Avenue: In September 1964, just before this corner of Middlesex became London, the Bulsara family arrived in Feltham from Zanzibar. Dad Bomi got a job as a cashier, Mum Jer became an assistant at Marks & Spencer, and son Farrokh went to art school. Known to his friends as Freddie, he was still living in this modest semi behind Feltham Park in 1970 when he met drummer Roger Taylor and local guitarist Brian May with whom he formed the band Queen. Rock history ensued. A previous attempt to commemorate Freddie Mercury's life - a flamboyant star-shaped plaque in Feltham shopping centre - suffered such bad weathering that it had to be removed after a couple of years, and was replaced by a lesser slab outside a nondescript office block across the road. Thank goodness then that English Heritage have stepped in and placed a blue plaque in the pebbledash at number 22, unveiled last year, and a proud reminder of the precocious talent nurtured in this most ordinary of streets.



Sparrow Farm: Housing developments have an uncanny knack of naming themselves after what they replace. In this case that's a farm on the banks of the River Crane, formerly fields and orchards and now a minor 1930s estate. The H26 terminates outside a brief brick parade, topped by flats, offering residents a chippie, a Londis and a Christine's World of Beauty. It's a seemingly lacklustre finish to my exploration of Feltham, but locate the exit to the riverbank to enter a much more peaceful world, with shallow waters rippling beneath stripped branches, and Hounslow Heath rising on the opposite bank.

 Thursday, January 12, 2017

 *** SNOW UPDATE *** 

OMG snow!!! That surely means traffic grinding to a halt, the termination of rail services and a commuting apocalypse. It means sledges in the park, weary pensioners shovelling ice from their driveway and hundreds of schools closed tomorrow morning. It means millions of photos of frozen streetscapes and fluffy back gardens all over your Facebook feed. It means... hang on, that's only sleet isn't it, the lying meteorological bastards.
Thursday 12th January, 18:00

That promised snow had better hurry up, because our media intern's due to go home soon, and we can't afford to pay her overtime.
Thursday 12th January, 17:00

We're no experts, but that looks very much like heavy rain to us.
Thursday 12th January, 16:00

Nothing feels quite so sweet as stepping into an Uber while your fellow travellers stand shivering at the bus stop, yeah? So today's the perfect day to download ride-sharing app Cabsnatch and take advantage of their amazing cut price introductory offer. "We use surge pricing to charge you more in awful weather," said chief investor Cassie Ridgeway, "so even 10% off barely scratches our profits." We say join the Cabsnatch party, and never ride with the smelly losers on the bus again.
Thursday 12th January, 15:00

Wrap up warm, London – snow is apparently arriving today and it's not likely to be the gentle flurry from the sky we wished we got for Christmas. According to weather reports we're getting 'thundersnow', and if you think that sounds pretty hardcore, you're right – it's basically the snow version of a thunderstorm. You've probably already heard that The Met Office have issued severe weather warnings which could see heavy rain and this freaky weather phenomenon go down this evening – hardly what we need for the commute home. But hey, it's just a little drizzly for now – and if we can survive a 24-hour tube strike, we can deal with a bit of thundersnow, right?

When Snowmagedon hits, where better to hide than Selfridges Foodhall, where nut butter gurus Nutsmith are opening a pop-up nut butter bar (yes, really), and serving up a selection of gourmet toast and nut-based toppings. Sourdough and avocado? For sure! Or better still take to the streets, because the folks over at Meatcrave have transformed one of London’s red buses into a fully-functioning barbecue shack, so you can cruise around London while chowing down on sauce-slathered flesh. N-ice!
Thursday 12th January, 13:00

Boffins at the Evening Standard are on the case, confirming that London has been placed under a weather alert with snow predicted today, amid dire warnings for rail, road and air transport. Not only have they paraphrased some information they've been told by British Airways and published a carousel of snowy photos from Scotland, but most importantly they've found tweets by sceptical Londoners scared by what their rush hour commute might bring. Mark said “[London] grinds to a halt frequently without snow!" while Betty joked: “Prepared for London to epically come to a total standstill because of a single snow flake #uggsinmybag @UGGUK #snow #London”. We hope Putney freezes over.
Thursday 12th January, 12:00

As the streets of the capital turn into ice rinks, it's not too late to book yourself into the real thing! Several artificial ice rinks opened up before Christmas, and are struggling to attract custom now it's midweek in January, so now's the time to book a sesh. Whether your blading skills are jaw-droppingly magnificent or utterly non-existent, the Midtown Ice Rink at the British Museum boasts several exciting extras to complement the extravagant surroundings. An iced path allows skaters to dash off from the main rink and glide below fairy light-laden trees, while a pop-up bar and restaurant serve everything from Scandi wraps to cheese fondue and hot buttered rum. See you there?
Thursday 12th January, 11:00

Who's scared of a few frozen flakes falling from the sky? Well TfL aren't, because they put out a press release as early as yesterday saying they were really well prepared for the imminent deep freeze. Apparently more than 100,000 tonnes of salt are stockpiled, which we think must be enough for several million tequilas, plus it's enough to last for up to 139 days' worth of icy weather. Wow, not even a Game of Thrones winter lasts that long! Your bus or train will be running for sure when the Siberian blanket hits. Sounds like we're in safe hands, London.

Top burger joint Heyspendo won't be letting today's snowfall wear them down, that's not their style. Their pre-advertised special offer still stands, with the brothers' signature pork and cashew confection being handed out for free to the first 25 lucky customers from noon. Wrap up in your scarves and mufflers sharpish, and hunker down to the epicentre of Haggerston for your amazing lucky treat, it says here.
Thursday 12th January, 09:00

It’s time to dig out your woolly wares as the city is set to get pretty chilly and there may even be some snow involved. The forecasting gurus at the Daily Express have told Londoners to prepare for SNOW HELL, with the whole of the country to be trapped in a -10C freezing double vortex for a week. Two colossal swathes of churning, freezing air will close in on London, triggering Arctic conditions which could last until spring, and it will feel very, very cold thanks to a lovely wind chill in the air. Wrap up warm, folks!
Thursday 12th January, 08:00

We heard that it might actually snow in London today - yes you heard us right, snow! Like you, we're breathlessly excited at the prospect of actual snow in London for the first time since some date we can't be bothered to look up. Snow is brilliant and fantastic, especially for boosting the Instagram likes on your next outdoor selfie, yeah? But snow is also terrible and dangerous, because it makes travelling slower, and Southern are already doing that job perfectly, right? So throughout the day we'll be bringing you all the latest snow news and snow updates, and we hope you'll make us your trusted social media channel of choice as this frightening crisis unfolds.
Thursday 12th January, 07:00

 Wednesday, January 11, 2017

It's fun to go up things.



My brother came down from Norfolk yesterday, and after work we went up the Sky Garden. That's the glass box at the top of the Walkie Talkie, or 20 Fenchurch Street as this inelegant beast is officially known. The public viewing platform opened two years ago this week, and you can go up for free so long as you're awake enough when booking opens three weeks in advance. What's more, it's over 150m up, which is higher above sea level than every single building in Norfolk.



We went up at sunset, which is the best time to go because you get to see the city in daylight and then after dark. The Sky Garden hasn't changed much since I was last there, except it's busier than it was, and the open terrace out the front is now open. That had the best views, but also the coldest weather, so most of the French schoolchildren massed inside for warmth. The 36th and 37th floor restaurants were quiet, but the 35th floor Sky Pod bar was raking in the cash, which isn't difficult when a bottle of Coca Cola costs £3.75. Hot drinks are cheaper, but a pork pie is £4.50, and nowhere near the size of the two quid monster I bought in Leeds at the weekend. You too could visit.



Meanwhile, other things in London are also fun to go up.

Good news from the Shard. Last year they issued a Love London card which for £20.16 allowed you to go up to the viewing platform as many times as you liked during the year. This year they're doing it again, but for £20.17. Given that a single visit currently costs £25.95, this is phenomenal value. Cards go on sale from Monday morning at 7am, and must be claimed in person because you need to show photo ID. Last year the queues were very long, but cards didn't run out on the first day and you could have popped back weeks later and still picked one up. Also be warned that last year you had to be a London resident to qualify, which is probably still the case, even though it's not specified in the terms and conditions. I went up nine times last year, at an average cost of £2.24 per visit. Phenomenal value.
[UPDATE: you don't have to be a Londoner this year, anyone can apply]
[UPDATE2: all the cards sold out on the first day]

Also, news from the Orbit. This is the red sculpture in the Olympic Park with the viewing platform up top, and now a corkscrew slide in an attempt to make the place more exciting. Slide aside, the viewing platform is often ridiculously quiet, and in January especially so. Which is why there's a special half price offer on tickets bought this month, for visits up to and including 10th February. That means £5 for adults, £2.50 for children and £3.50 for senior citizens, which is a bargain. The Slide is not included, neither is there discount on the annual Local Resident offer, and you have to pre-book at least the day before you visit. But if you've always thought about going up and been put off by the price, now's the time.

And news from the Dangleway. Now that TfL have published ridership figures for the last week of the year, it's possible to tot up passenger numbers to see how this cross-river link is performing. In 2016 the Dangleway had 1,490,000 passengers, its lowest annual total to date, but only slightly down on 1,540,000 the previous year, and 1,520,000 the year before that. In fact the annual passenger total has been astonishingly consistent since this tourist attraction opened, as the graph below shows.



It should be pointed out that the 2012 total was achieved in just six months, back when the Dangleway was still a novelty, so isn't technically comparable. But since 2012 the data shows very clearly that the cablecar has had approximately one and a half million passengers a year (an average of 4000 a day), with ridership not really growing nor in decline. For a more detailed overview, see this line graph of cumulative dangles. This would be a good place to remind you that the Dangleway covers its operational costs each year, so isn't losing money, other than the millions poured into building it in the first place. But it is noticeable that TfL have stopped promoting it quite so heavily recently, and so it continues to carry tourists across the Thames, out of sight, out of mind.

Finally, in news that isn't news, the Dangleway is considerably better value than Up At The O2, the neighbouring attraction where people go for a hike over a millennial tent. This pseudo-mountaineering challenge costs £28, or £35 at the weekend, whereas the cablecar costs only £3.50. What's more, Up At The O2 takes you only 52m above ground level, whereas the cablecar reaches 90m so the panorama's considerably better, relatively speaking. And seriously people, if you really want to go hill climbing in the capital try Parliament Hill, which is steeper and higher and free, and arguably has a better view to boot.

Some of the best things to go up in London cost nothing at all.

 Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Yesterday, for a brief trial period, TfL introduced several exciting new Express Tube services. Trains on several lines skipped several intermediate stations, especially in zone 1, delivering passengers to their destinations more quickly than ever before.

These enhanced services were a direct result of management sacking 200 employees more than they should have done last year, claiming everything was going to be OK, and then discovering otherwise when staff shortages transpired.

Obviously these Express Tube services were excellent, especially if they happened to be stopping at stations passengers actually wanted to go to, and less so otherwise. The enhanced services were extremely popular, indeed strikingly so, and many potential customers took to the streets.

TfL thoughtfully produced a digital map on their website to explain clearly how the new services worked and which stations were closed, which was a lot of stations.



If anyone thought to change the settings an even clearer 'reversed' version was available, but very few people thought to do this.



But how great were the Express services? I tried a few to find out.

 JUBILEE Express
Stratford → West Ham → Canning Town → Canada Water → Waterloo → Baker Street → Finchley Road → (all stations to) Stanmore

The Jubilee Express service was excellent, and proper fast. What's more, passengers were clearly shown what to expect on the line diagram at Stratford station, on which the upcoming stopping pattern had been displayed using a black marker pen. No other infographic I saw yesterday came close to the clarity of this.



The driver was also excellent, explaining carefully to passengers which stations were about to be skipped, and what the next station would be. Sometimes this was a very long way away. For example the train didn't stop at either North Greenwich or Canary Wharf, whizzing straight through to Canada Water where Overground staff were in control. The next stop was Waterloo, and then the train zipped all the way through the West End without stopping before pausing at Baker Street, which was excellent unless you wanted to get off somewhere inbetween. I've never travelled from Canning Town to Finchley Road as quickly as this, it was an excellent service.

 BAKERLOO Express
Harrow & Wealdstone → (all stations to) Queen's Park → Marylebone

The Bakerloo Express service was also excellent. Bakerloo line trains didn't bother themselves with all those annoying central stations, the ones where everyone gets off, they terminated short at Marylebone. What's more they skipped a whole load of stations on the final run-in, not stopping at as many as five stations immediately before Marylebone. If you didn't want to go to Paddington and did want to go to Marylebone, this was excellent. It would have been even more excellent had there not been another train immediately in front, causing us to pause in all the stations we weren't stopping at and slowing us down more than a normal train would have been.

But TfL's electronic information couldn't cope with the new Express service. At Willesden Junction a display explained that trains were only running between Harrow and Queen's Park, which wasn't true. What's more the Next Train Indicator was convinced that the train's destination was Elephant & Castle, because it always is, except yesterday it was Marylebone, so this wasn't true. What's more the Next Train Indicator was also convinced the next train was "calling at all stations to Elephant & Castle", which it wasn't, not even all stations to Marylebone. Thankfully the driver was excellent, and carefully explained all the nuances the electronic systems couldn't, in particular the serial non-stoppingness of the final section.

 NORTHERN Express
Old Street → Kennington → Clapham North → Clapham South → Balham → Tooting Broadway → Morden

The Northern Express service was absolutely excellent. The only central London station served by Northern line trains was Old Street, which wasn't especially easy to get to unless you were in the area, in which case it was brilliant. The next five stations were all missed out, due to strategically-located staff shortages, but this didn't matter if you didn't want to get off at Bank or London Bridge. After Kennington the train only stopped five times on the way down to Morden, and didn't stop five times, which is clearly how a good Express service ought to work. All the important interchange connections were covered, so all was fine and good.

The whiteboard at Old Street almost coped with the new Express service, except that somebody had written the two Clapham stations the wrong way round. It's an easy mistake to make, thinking that Clapham South is north of Clapham North, and nobody was inconvenienced.



But TfL's electronic information couldn't cope with the new Express service. The automated announcements on the platform at Old Street declared that when the next train to Morden arrived, the next station would be Moorgate, but it wouldn't because Moorgate was closed. The automated announcements on board that train then announced that the next station was Moorgate, when in fact Moorgate was closed, then went on to (correctly) state that each of the next four stations were closed. The announcements continued to make this specific error, consistently deciding that the first closed station after an open station was open, and that subsequent closed stations were closed.

The scariest part of the journey was immediately before arriving at Morden, when the scrolling display decided that "The next station is closed. This train will not be stopping at the next station." Thankfully we did stop, otherwise the train would have smashed into the buffers, but why would an electronic system know that?

At Morden station, another glaring electronic error was on the Next Train Indicator. According to this, all the trains heading north were going to 'High Barnet via Bank'. In fact they were only going to Old Street, and Bank was one of the stations they wouldn't be stopping at. Thankfully the driver on the journey back was excellent, and carefully listed the few stations we would actually be stopping at, contradicting the electronic displays as necessary.

 CIRCLE Express
Edgware Road → High Street Kensington → Sloane Square → St James's Park → Temple → Mansion House → Monument → Tower Hill → Aldgate → Liverpool Street → Farringdon → Euston Square → Baker Street → Edgware Road → (all stations to) Hammersmith

The Circle Express service was of course excellent. Loads of stations were missed out, including almost all the ones where mainline trains terminate, which speeded everything up. There was an annoying section between Monument and Liverpool Street where the train actually stopped at four consecutive stations, but this was a frustrating blip and the service soon got back to skipping huge great chunks. Even better, trains were only running every 20 minutes, which might sound bad except that Hammersmith & City trains were only running every 30 minutes, so this was 50% better.

But TfL's electronic information couldn't cope with the new Express service. Even though the Circle line is run using some of the newest trains on the network, it turns out they can't cope with seriously unusual stopping patterns. The onboard displays consistently declared that the train was stopping at the next station, even when that station was closed. Then, just before arriving, the message changed to assert that the next station was in fact closed, and that the next stop would definitely be the station after that, even if that were closed as well. This charade continued all around the circuit, a steady stream of digital inadequacy which regularly misfooted passengers.

What's more, the entire Circle line destination system is of course predicated around a selection of important stations, none of which were actually open. For example, the display on the front of the train initially said "Circle line via Victoria", even though Victoria was closed. Meanwhile the scrolling display inside the train declared "This is a Circle line train via Victoria and Embankment", which were two stations we definitely weren't stopping at. Thankfully the driver was excellent, kicking off the journey with the announcement that "This is a Circle line train calling at some stations". No really, he did, and this was faultless information. He then chipped in around the circuit to confirm the station we were really were stopping at next, rather than the repeated lies the displays and automated announcements were spouting.



If you're still reading, there is a serious point here. The Underground's automated systems are generally incapable of coping with the unusual, so when the unusual occurs the outcome is misinformation. Restricted lists of destinations can't cope with irregular termini. Additional announcements designed for added clarity merely confuse when the status quo is breached. Automated messages designed to inform the public about closed stations misfire when wrongly triggered, or when the default information is unexpectedly incorrect. It's not ideal.

Even though this is 2017, it turns out that the Underground's electronic systems are remarkably inflexible, and therefore unhelpfully misleading when the unexpected kicks in. Only the human touch was able to provide consistently constructive information during yesterday's strike service, because humans haven't been restrictively pre-programmed and can think for themselves. One day, maybe, more adaptable systems will be introduced which react to what's actually happening and allow the human element to be phased out. In the meantime it turns out that trained staff are the most reliable way to inform and reassure tube passengers... which I believe is precisely what yesterday's strike was all about.

 Monday, January 09, 2017

Day out: Leeds
Leeds is Yorkshire's largest city, a historic wool town on the River Aire kickstarted by the Industrial Revolution into becoming a thriving metropolis. Half a million people live in the city itself, and nearly three quarters in the wider area, making this the second most populous administrative district in the country (after Birmingham). Leeds is a regional focus for commerce, culture and communication, plus the shops are damned good too. And even if you visit in January, there's still plenty to see. [Visit Leeds]


My Leeds gallery
There are 32 photos altogether [slideshow]

Royal Armouries Museum
Let's move most of the Tower of London's collection of weapons to Sheffield, they said, then changed their mind and moved it to Leeds. A patch of brownfield land by the Clarence Dock was selected, downstream from the main city centre, and a large five storey box constructed to display the National Collection of Arms and Armour. The Queen opened it in 1996, entrance is free, and over a million people come to visit each year.



The wow element is provided by the Hall of Steel, a cylindrical space the height of the building whose walls are covered with swords, breastplates and other offensive malarkey, surrounded by a spiral staircase with portholes so you can peer through and admire. Elsewhere the main galleries branch off a central longitudinal void, the largest of these on even-numbered floors, with with the odd-numbered floors acting as smaller mezzanines.

The 'War' section is exactly what you'd expect it to be, a long-term history of man-to-man combat focusing on the medieval, Tudor and Stuart years, plus an awful lot of suits of armour. There's quite a lot to read, plenty to see and just enough to fiddle with to keep restless younger visitors occupied. Across the way in 'Tournament' the focus is Henry VIII's Field Of The Cloth Of Gold, with costumed staff re-enacting some of the fighting in a central fenced-off paddock once a day. There used to be more of this kind of performance stuff until, you know, cuts.

Less anticipated is the large gallery given over to 'Hunting', looking back at all the ways humans have shot animals for sport over the years, including peculiar methods like puntgunning. More gung-ho parents show all this stuff to their offspring with some glee, while others have to keep explaining "No, Tommy, killing rabbits is bad, most people never do this". There is a small 'Peace' gallery at the back of one of the floors, as a necessary moral jolt, but because there are no weapons here a lot of visitors walk straight through.



The other major gallery is 'Oriental', with a very broad collection of armour and weapons from Japan, China and other parts of Asia - ideal if samurai's your thing. Perhaps more intriguing is the dark gallery devoted to 'Self Defence', where smaller more modern civilian weapons are to be found. This is where all the guns are, from flintlocks to James Bond sharpshooters, as well as numerous nasty stabby little knives. The museum does much outreach work with school parties and youth groups on knife crime, focusing on legal and social outcomes rather than how lovely and shiny the blades are.

All in all the RAM has an interesting and thought-provoking collection, spreading its net more widely than the regal armour on display in the Tower of London, and which might take a couple of hours to look round properly. I was less than enamoured with the surrounding Leeds Dock development, however, a Docklands-style attempt at post-industrial rebirth that's mostly apartment blocks, its anticipated commercial heart having fallen flat. All the designer stores that once moved in have moved out, leaving a Tesco Express and some underused waterside boulevards. Good try, but all Leeds' better retail centres are elsewhere.

The Arcades
Leeds might just have the best shopping opportunities outside London, indeed better than London if you like everything fairly tightly focused. At least three large retail malls are scattered immediately around the pedestrianised city centre, with the recent Trinity centre cleverly mixing outdoor with indoor on several levels. The Corn Exchange boasts several designer stores within a historic ring, and then of course there's Kirkgate Market, mentioned yesterday, whose 800 stalls provide the perfect budget alternative.



But the most elegant purchasing experience is to be found in the Arcades, half a dozen distinct covered walkways leading off the top end of Briggate, Leeds' main shopping street. Built sequentially in the Victorian era, these high vaulting corridors boast ornate ceilings and flamboyant decor, and provide an ideal location for the city's more boutique-y designer shops. Harvey Nicks' first out-of-London outpost runs off the back of Cross Arcade, close to Vivienne Westwood (on County Arcade) and Louis Vuitton (opposite Thornton's Arcade), with some posh mid-channel seating areas (in Queen Victoria Street) serving coffee and/or prosecco. Even if you only prefer window shopping, this is the place to be seen.

Henry Moore Institute
Although the Leeds Art Gallery is temporarily closed, its neighbouring sculptural outpost is in full effect. Opened in 1982, much serious research goes on within its upper floors while exhibitions are held throughout the year in the three galleries downstairs. The latest exhibition is right up my street, a retrospective of the City Sculpture Project which for six months in 1972 placed large abstract artworks in prominent positions in eight British towns and cities. Leeds wasn't one of those, but is now more than happy to display models and designs from the various installations, plus the somewhat bewildered reactions of a public as yet unused to such structural figuralism. I could happily have looked round considerably more stuff, but space is tight... which is why the key exhibit has been placed outside - Birmingham's five metre-tall statue of King Kong - now greatly adored by all passers-by with cameras.



Millennium Square
When Leeds got some money for the millennium, they decided to spruce up the area outside Leeds Civic Hall to create an extensive piazza and potential entertainment space. Normally there's an ice rink here in the winter, but not this year, and the Christmas Market has long been cleared away. Instead a BBC screen plays out films nobody really wants to watch (Greg Wallace getting excitable over regional food experiences, anyone?), and the fountains in Nelson Mandela Gardens (yes, he came to open them) gush unheard. Look out for the golden owl on a high plinth beside the Civic Hall, part of the 25-strong Leeds Owl Trail, celebrating the noble bird on the city's coat of arms.



Leeds City Museum
Looking out across the east end of Millennium Square, in the former Mechanics' Institute, is the city's municipal historical display. Although the original collection's almost 200 years old, the museum nearly faded into obsolescence after the war and was only rescued by an injection of lottery cash in 2004. From my look around I'd have guessed it was a lot older than that, which I suspect is more a reflection of the constraints of the old building than its contents. A central auditorium takes up a lot of the interior space, with only a floor-sized map of Leeds of curatorial interest. Immediately underneath in the basement is the Life on Earth gallery, filled with stuffed animals including a mangy yak and a much-loved tiger.

Further galleries are squeezed in upstairs, including the Leeds Story (which tells exactly the history you'd expect) and another celebrating residents' Asian heritage. At the back of Ancient Worlds is a darkened room containing Nesyamun, the Leeds Mummy, whose blackened part-wrapped remains visitors are expressly forbidden from taking photos of. When I looked in, two exasperated parents were trying desperately to get toddler Thomas to behave respectfully in front of his first dead body, instead of running around willy-nilly. I have to say I have never seen a museum more popular with throngs of small children, although not necessarily for purely educational reasons.

Leeds Industrial Museum


For a more locally-relevant and interesting heritage proposition, head a couple of miles out of town up the Leeds Liverpool Canal. I enjoyed my walk along the towpath from Granary Square, passing rapidly from modern anodyne development to lone industrial chimneys, undisturbed waterside and repurposed mills. Several joggers and cyclists were out too, this being an ideal pathway though the inner city for them to do what they do, while a couple of Canal and River Trust volunteers lurked at Oddy Locks attempting to prise donations from passers-by.

Leeds Industrial Museum is located at Armley Mills, seemingly isolated if you arrive by towpath, but frighteningly close to a Pizza Hut, bowling alley and leisure park on the opposite side. The four storey building was the world's largest woollen mill when it opened in 1805, ideally located at a drop in the River Aire, and with canalside access for transportation of goods. A restored spinning mule on the top floor reflects later days when rudimentary mechanisation first took hold, while a fascinating exhibition on the floor below focuses on the city's tailoring history. Hepworths and Burtons grew their retail empires based on thousands of workers toiling in Leeds, and it's thanks to them that suits became the must-have wardrobe item for men of all classes between the wars.



The world's first motion pictures were recorded in Leeds - brief shots of Roundhay Park and crossing Leeds Bridge - so early cinematography is well covered. The museum even has its own plush cinema lit by flickering lamps, with children's films screened every Saturday afternoon (alas, to barely an audience). A temporary exhibition looks back at the Leeds Flood of Boxing Day 2015, a local catastrophe which inundated the ground floor of the museum to neck height, and means the Locomotives collection is still out of bounds. Never mind, there are still several other engines and mechanical bits to see inside and out, plus a cafe, and all for just £3.80.


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