Friday, October 28, 2016
I've been to the library.
I knew I had a local library, indeed I've been to my local library numerous times, but I suddenly realised I hadn't been for some time. So I went again.
We don't have libraries in Tower Hamlets, we have Idea Stores. Idea Stores are libraries with extra bits, like adult learning courses and activities and events, which might be a bit like your local library except Tower Hamlets likes to brand things differently. The first Idea Store opened in Bow in 2002, which is damned convenient, and now there are five. Oh and we do still have libraries, there's one in Bethnal Green and one in Cubitt Town, either because the transformation money ran out or because they're gorgeous buildings and it would have been wrong to make them temples of glass.
Tower Hamlets hasn't closed any libraries since the cuts started, indeed quite the opposite, they've opened one. That's brilliant, although when you consider we only have one library for every forty thousand residents, perhaps not great. But that's all you need if most of those forty thousand residents don't turn up.
I turned up. It was quite busy. A lot of people had mustered on the internet. A lot of people were sitting with a coffee. A lot of people had settled with the newspapers and magazines. A lot of children were doing childrenly things in their special section out back. Some children were hunting for books for school projects with their mother. Some people were collectively knitting and eating the lunch they'd bought with them. And all because libraries do a lot of extra things that aren't just lending, and have done for a while. The modern library is also a community centre, learning facilitator and events hub, but then you know this, even if you've not been recently to check.
I looked at the books, because that's what I'd gone to the library specifically for. All the newest books were out front, as if this was a Waterstones or something, alongside displays of specially selected theme books, ditto. I remembered libraries having a few new-ish books but nowhere near this many, a selection suspiciously similar to that which might be found on the high street with a price tag. As a child only WH Smiths had the new stuff, whereas my local library had a musty stock of everlasting books. I grew up alongside the browning reference books, the stocky hardback classics and umpteen paperbacks in protective plastic cases. The choice is considerably broader today.
I scanned the shelves, and some more shelves, and several more shelves. There were a lot of shelves. The fiction section went on for ages, and not just the large print Catherine Cookson stuff, but full variety. Even the crime section covered one long wall, because I guess that's what people like to read these days, boasting sufficient whodunnits and Scandi noirs to see anyone through several winters. And plenty of sci-fi, and yes, the historical romance, and even a wider range of horror stories than you'd normally find in a typical bookshop. I'll have that one, I thought. And come back for those four later.
I spent longer perusing the non-fiction shelves. There were so many sections to browse through, and sub-sections within, reminding me quite how many different parts of human knowledge I find fascinating. Scanning across the spines revealed intriguing topics and tempting titles, their blurbs easily checked, far quicker than browsing online. Within the London section I picked out a couple of books I'd considered buying for myself but baulked at the price, and here they were for grabs for nothing. I'd only have them for three weeks, but who reads a book twice anyway? Sorry Foyles, sorry Amazon, this deal's a winner.
I was issued with my library card so long ago I wasn't sure it still worked. It still worked. A member of staff showed me how to use the self service scanner, and got it right the second time, and let me have a go myself on the third. He was bright and engaging, indeed it almost seems a shame to have to check out the books myself next time to save him the work. And I walked away with a printed receipt, which surprised me because since when have libraries given you a receipt, surely they're supposed to datestamp the inside cover in slightly smudgy red text. See, I told you, I really haven't taken out any library books for quite some time.
The other thing I did whilst in the library was to enquire at the counter about my PIN. Apparently I was given a security number when I first got my Idea Store card, and I think I put the scrappy printout in my wallet where it eventually faded and got thrown away. We all have far too many PINS and passwords in our lives, so what hope did I have of recalling one I've rarely used a decade and a half later? The nice lady at the desk changed my PIN to the year I was born, because I have a hope of remembering that, and because it turned out I couldn't remember a randomly generated uneventful year from the 16th century which is what I had before.
Knowing my PIN is especially useful because now I can log into the library service at home, and check my loans and even, if I'm remiss, my overdue fines. More to the point I can search out new books in the catalogue and reserve them, which is like having your own personal bookshop for nothing. I worry that I might now end up going into bookshops less, or doing that thing other people do with jackets or fridge freezers where they browse in store and then go home and buy it cheaper on the internet instead. But surely libraries have always worked this way, for longer than I've been alive, so I doubt my occasional defection will cause booksellers to go bust any sooner.
My online account additionally allows me access to a variety of other services I wasn't expecting, including free eBooks and free audiobooks, for free. I can take the latest Bill Bryson with me on the bus, or work my way through all the Harry Potters, or thousands of other titles from historical fiction to actual DC comics. Plus I have reader access to 2000 global news and magazine titles, from yesterday's complete Evening Standard and Lancashire Evening Post to this month's SFX, Q and Viz, not to mention Simply Crochet, Rail, Grazia and the Beano. This is brilliant, an almost bottomless stream of content, and all because I have (and use) a library card.
I tell you all of this not because I expect you to find it surprising, but because I wonder whether you too have forgotten to visit your library lately. It's not a stuffy room of books, it's so much more, so long as we remember to take advantage. And it's crucial to take advantage, because otherwise this hugely important community service can be whittled away, as I hope yours hasn't been yet. A place of discovery and of learning, a place to meet and socialise, a place to go when it's cold outside, a place to inform and inspire. Don't leave it too long to love your library again.
posted 07:00 :
Thursday, October 27, 2016Sometimes a footpath is closed for so long that you imagine it'll never open again. There have been plenty of these in the Lower Lea Valley over the last decade, mostly as a result of the Olympics, but with Crossrail works severing several foot connections too. The Greenway north of Stratford High Street has been closed since 18th April 2009, for example, and opened only briefly during the summer of 2012 to allow passage for Olympic spectators.
So I'm pleased to be the bearer of good news about a footpath that's been sealed off for even longer, since 20th March 2007 in fact, and which has been silently reopened this week. It's the footpath along the edge of Abbey Creek, a minor backwater between the Greenway and Three Mills, and which can be seen from the tube to the east of Bromley-by-Bow station. This time the closure was thanks to Thames Water, originally to aid the construction of Three Mills Lock, and with the intention of reopening in the summer of 2008. Didn't happen. The next excuse was the Lee Tunnel, a massive sewage-related infrastructure undertaking, coupled to a proposed reopening date of Christmas 2014. Didn't happen either. Instead it's taken until October 2016, a few months short of ten years, but the Long Wall Path is finally accessible again. "And Will Remain Open For The Foreseeable Future", says a helpful laminated sign tied to the unlocked gate.
WALK EAST LONDON: Long Wall Path
Greenway to Three Mills (600m)
The Greenway is all about sewage, a giant Victorian pipe carrying north London's waste to Beckton with a footpath laid on top. Its focal point is Abbey Mills, where one old and one new pumping station sit alongside the waters of the Lea, occasionally overspilling into Abbey Creek. Or at least they used to overspill, dumping 40% of London's Combined Storm Overflow through a row of sluices into the river, but that's all changed since Boris opened the Lee Tunnel earlier this year. Abbey Creek is now free of nasty organic floaters, and the ecosystem from here down to the Thames is a more regularly pleasant environment than it was before. And this means the footpath running alongside is more pleasant too, not that it was ever obviously unpleasant, not that I can really remember given how long ago it was open to the public.
The Long Wall Path begins at a bridge over what used to be the Channelsea River, long since culverted to the north through the Olympic Park and central Stratford. Look out for the graffitied snail, a brightly painted swirl of pipe behind the wire fence, to mark the start of your waterside stroll. The sluices are best seen before you set off, 14 burrow-like holes from which brown liquid occasionally gushed when it rained too much, but which are now more ornamentally inert.
It's immediately obvious, to those who've walked this way before, that a lot of infrastructure work has taken place over the last few years. Two metal cages have appeared on the banks where previously there were none, one monumental in scale, containing pipes and pumps diverting surplus flow elsewhere. A choice of routes remains available to cyclists and those on foot - one via the river's edge, the other higher up - but a lot of concrete has gone in where facilities were previously low key. That pair of chunky planters look new but were added in 2004, according to the plaque, constructed from railway sleepers by community volunteers. Two similarly resilient benches provide somewhere to sit and look across towards Channelsea House, previously a stark lonely office block, now 72 apartments. Thames Water have done their work and made good, even if it's taken them an age.
To chime with modern times the path is now fully accessible, thanks to an expensive zig-zag ramp which links the upper path at Greenway level and the lower continuation. The two alternative footway options join up a short distance ahead below the Abbey Mills perimeter fence, and then the creekwalk proper begins.
It's still October, so much of the path is screened off from the water by trees in leaf. Any blackberries are shrivelled and well past their best, unsurprisingly given that nobody's been able to come brambling this autumn, but there are also a few clusters of red berries which might (but please not yet) form an attractive festive centrepiece. In a couple of locations invasive Japanese knotweed has been identified, and screened off behind fencing prior to someone hopefully coming along and doing something to remove it. Elsewhere the traditional Lower Lea mix of bush and bracken and grass holds sway, ensuring that this wildlife habitat remains appealing to many estuarine species.
The best views come where the treeline breaks, across a broad creek which might be filled by the tide or might, six hours later, be mostly mud. As well as waterfowl you'll see a lot of trains, rattling by to Barking, Upminster or Southend, with the Twelvetrees gasholders rising elegantly in the background. At one point the path nudges fractionally inland to avoid an eroded bank, adding an unnaturally prefabricated slant to proceedings. I noted that a lot of understated remediation work has been going on, for example the ground under foot is scattered with gravel, so this shouldn't become a mudbath in the winter. But don't expect to meet any other walkers along here, not yet, if ever - the most I bumped into was a slightly startled cat.
On the right hand side after the waterworks, or on the left if you're walking the other way, is this blog's favourite secret location. Mill Meads is the site of Channel 4's first Big Brother house, home to Craig and Nick and Brian and Marjorie the chicken, conveniently located for the Three Mills studio where the programme was made. In 2002 the programme moved to Borehamwood and this meadow lay empty, then was sealed off, and has since been used to dump spoil from the Lee Tunnel. The ground's now much higher than before, the ultimate intention being to reopen this as a landscaped public space as part of the Leaway project. For now, however, it looks like a landfill tip infested with scrappy undergrowth, and any physical reacquaintance will have to wait until someone deems the site reborn.
It takes less than ten minutes to reach the other end, turning right where the Prescot Channel flows into the creek. This is where Davina's Bridge used to stand, long gone, and a second unlocked gate allows access where previously there was none. A sturdy track runs up the side of Three Mills Lock, possibly London 2012's biggest infrastructural white elephant, where almost no river traffic passes through the multi-million pound state-of-the-art lock gates. Look through the security fence to see the western end of the Lee Tunnel, resembling a biodome from some dodgy 1980s sci-fi series. Then cross the new bridge to Three Mills Green, a much improved greenspace with a special playground and several artificial ridges. Three Mills itself is beyond, then Tesco, then Bromley-by-Bow station, confirming the usefulness of this abruptly-reopened link. [8 photos]
Other local paths not yet reopened include:
• The narrow path from Three Mills Lock round the watery edge of Three Mills Studios to Three Mills. Also closed in March 2007. I fear it'll never reopen. [map]
• The staircase from the Greenway to Abbey Road, opposite Abbey Mills, closed in 2012. [map]
• Sugarhouse Lane, closed while a massive new IKEA-funded housing estate is built. [map]
• Wick Lane up the eastern edge of Bow Quarter, closed for Crossrail works since 2009, meh. [map]
• The tunnel beneath the Greenway at the end of Blaker Road, sealed in 2007. [map]
• The footpath joining Otter Close to the Greenway, closed 2007. [map]
• The path up the Waterworks River past the allotments into the Olympic Park. [map]
• The Greenway north of Stratford High Street, as discussed. Apparently Crossrail were planning to be finished by Christmas, but then "Thames Water need to carry out strengthening works to the bridge over the Waterworks River (adjacent to Stratford High Street) and therefore this section of the Greenway will remain closed until around the end of July 2018." And that's so far away as to leave me in some kind of frustrated post-Olympic despair. But the example of Abbey Creek shows that sometimes public bodies do keep their promises, even if it takes nine and a half years, and the final result (assuming you haven't died in the interim) can be worth the wait. [map]
posted 07:00 :
Wednesday, October 26, 201610 Postcards from Runway Three
This is the view of Heathrow Expansion most commonly offered yesterday by television news. A gaggle of media vans adorned with satellite dishes gathered around Harmondsworth's village green as the government confirmed that Heathrow was their chosen option for an additional runway in the southeast. The village was originally going to be completely consumed beneath the tarmac, before an improved option was proposed nudging the new runway fractionally further south. This reprieves the village green, two pubs, the 12th century parish church and the largest tithe barn in the country. But the new runway will run perilously close to this spot, and houses less than 50 metres away will be demolished as a new northwestern perimeter wipes three quarters of Harmondsworth away.
This view shows precisely where the third runway will be going. It'll be cutting across this field, approximately along the line of poplars, before smashing into what used to be Hatch Lane. From here it'll head due west through the village of Harmondsworth, making a beeline for the primary school and community centre, if you can get your head around the idea of taking off on a foreign trip through what used to be kitchens, living rooms and classrooms. Most of the houses along Hatch Lane have No Third Runway posters in the window, while the lampposts are bedecked with a flurry of Stop Heathrow Expansion posters. Alas yesterday every resident's luck ran out, and not for the first time, although maybe it's better to have your home bought up with compensation than to have to live in decibel hell a few dozen houses up the road.
Every bungalow in Harmondsworth Lane is safe from demolition, but the runway will be scything straight across the field they look out across. It's not that noisy here at present, perhaps surprisingly, because it's much quieter to live parallel to an airport than at either end. But because the plan is to align the third runway as far north as possible within the new Heathrow envelope, with all the taxiways to the south, the screech of engines will then be a lot closer than anyone would like. The field's been farmed for generations, and the owner of Home Farm has no intention of caving in quietly. Everything up to and including the A4 is to be appropriated for airport expansion, including several business parks and hotels along the Great West Road, as a mile and a half of existing infrastructure is displaced.
Nudging the runway slightly south and west has provided a much more beneficial outcome for the village of Sipson. Like Harmondsworth it had been due to disappear, but now its pub and butchers and primary school and hundreds of homes will survive. All except these houses on the western side of Sipson Road, that is, which have to be sacrificed to create the RESA, or Runway End Safety Area. This'll be the overshoot safety zone, running right up into the back gardens of three dozen houses, and swallowing up a small cul-de-sac for good measure. How those living on the opposite side of the road will cope with takeoff roar and landing burn is anyone's guess, but perhaps a Holiday Inn or trading estate will be dropped here instead when local plans are finalised.
On the other side of Harmondsworth, beyond the Duke of Northumberland's River, lies Harmondsworth Moor. It looks very attractive, an expanse of braided streams and woodland, with winding paths, a convenient visitors' car park and a fluttering Green Flag to boot. In reality it's a former landfill site, landscaped and prettified by British Airways twenty years ago for the benefit of the local community, and to build their global HQ. They own an enormous office complex to the south of the site, alongside a serpentine pool called Swan Lake, and all of this will have to be knocked down. A substantial proportion of the 70000 young trees will have to go too, although those on the northern half of the moor should survive, accessed via a new road carving through the Green Belt along the airport perimeter.
The second village to be seriously affected by airport expansion is less well known, and that's Longford. Unlike Harmondsworth it'll be completely eradicated, every last brick and back garden, vanished as completely as was the village of Heath Row during the war. One of the two pubs is Tudor, one of the listed cottages is thatched, and there are several other hints of heritage among the more recent infill. Longford grew up as a linear settlement on the old Bath Road, and its residents must have been delighted when the Colnbrook bypass swept all its traffic away. But now its luck has run out, Third Runway permitting, as the entire village is replaced by two new piers where planes will dock, or rather the aprons upon which they'll park. The roar of engines will be as loud, but nobody will be left to hear.
Just to the west is Moor Bridge, the last patch of moorland before the edge of London, directly opposite the western end of the existing northern runway. It's currently part of the Heathrow Biodiversity Site, a green barrier of moor and meadow along the River Colne, and maintained by the airport because nobody in their right mind would live there. I've been before, and was amazed to find public access to hillocks immediately beneath the flight path. Heathrow's heaviest jets ascend at shallow gradients as they take off, so expect one to fire low above your head within a few minutes of standing here, at least for now. Expansion plans will see this meadow swallowed by taxiways and an internal parking zone, so picnicking plane spotters should visit soon.
The M25 is the Third Runway's greatest engineering challenge. When it was built it carefully skirted the edge of the airport, but sparing Sipson from the bulldozer has shunted the new runway west and the motorway will need to be tunnelled underneath. Not only will this be massively expensive but a fresh network of feeder roads will be required, and routes for drivers around the edge of the airport will become considerably more limited. The upside is thousands of construction jobs, but in the medium term expect a horrific number of closures and diversions while the new multi-lane carriageway is built, there being no obvious alternative roads to take.
Finally here's a look at the western end of Heathrow's proposed Third Runway, which'll be located to the north of the Colnbrook bypass in a large scrappy field currently grazed by horses. Specifically the runway will terminate beside what are now the banks of the Colne Brook, one of the watery threads of the Colne valley, where today a thicket of trees rubs up against the meandering stream. Relocating local rivers is going to be another massive civil engineering task - it has been every time Heathrow's been extended in the past. Approaching along a rarely-used footpath I disturbed a heron who'd been enjoying the silent banks, and also watched a hawk fly off with a small mammal dangling from its claws. If all goes to plan millions of foreign travellers will one day take off right here instead, and never once imagine the natural environment swept away for their convenience.
Back in Harmondsworth, an old lady with a shopping basket stopped to talk to me outside Gable Stores. She looked bemused by the crowds of media assembled on the green, so I told her they were here because a decision had been made on Heathrow expansion. "I've lived here 87 years," she said, "and I don't know any of those people." I tried to explain further, but the words floated past her, and instead she told me I should go and see the Great Barn. I realised with sadness that she didn't understand much of what was going on any more, and that further discussion about Harmondsworth's fate was no longer possible. Her plight matched that of her childhood village - slowly slipping away, deleting, erasing, until barely a memory remains. And that's when the intended impact of the Third Runway really hit home.
posted 03:00 :
Tuesday, October 25, 2016A brief history of London's airport expansion
Heathrow Gatwick Stansted Luton Croydon Estuary 1920s 1920 Airfield opens 1920 Airport opens
1928 New terminal opens
1930s 1930 Airfield opens 1933 Opens to commercial flights
1938 Airfield opens
1936 130000 passengers
1940s 1943 Secretly requisitioned
1946 Opens as London Airport
1949 Will not be developed further
1943 Airfield opens
1949 Pencilled in as London's second airport
1946 Reopens, but now second to Heathrow 1943 Cliffe proposed 1950s 1953 Confirmed as London’s 1st airport
1955 First terminal opened
1953 Designated London's 2nd airport
1953 Will not have a second runway
1958 Reopens after renovation
1953 Pencilled in as backup for Gatwick 1952 Civil use resumes 1952 Closure proposed
1960s 1961 Renamed London (Heathrow)
1966 Renamed Heathrow
1948 14m passengers
1961 Renamed London (Gatwick)
1963 All charter flights transferred from Heathrow
1963 Proposed as London's 3rd airport
1965 Public enquiry begins
1966 Placed under BAA control
1967 Confirmed as London's 3rd airport
1968 Ignored by Roskill Commission
1968 Luton on Roskill longlist 1963 3rd airport decision required
1968 Roskill Commission enquiry begins.
Shortlisted sites at:
1968 Maplin on Roskill shortlist 1970s 1970 Terminal 3 opens
1973 20m passengers
1977 Underground arrives
1970 Second runway proposed
1973 6m passengers
1974 Second runway abandoned
1979 Agreement not to build a 2nd runway for 40 years
1973 0.2m passengers
1973 3m passengers 1970 Roskill Commission selects Cublington 1971 Government selects Maplin instead
1974 New government cancels Maplin
1978 Maplin briefly reconsidered
1980s 1986 Terminal 4 opens 1984 Gatwick Express begins
1987 16m passengers
1988 North Terminal opens
1984 Development plan approved
1988 1m passengers
1985 New international terminal opens City 1981 Proposed
1987 Airport opens
1990s 1994 50m passengers
1998 Heathrow Express begins
1998 Runway extended 1991 New terminal and station opens 1990 Renamed London Luton Airport
1999 Updated terminal opens
1997 1m passengers 2000s 2003 3rd runway proposed
2008 Terminal 5 opens
2009 3rd runway approved
2000 Terminals extended 2008 2nd runway proposed 2004 2nd runway proposed
2007 2nd runway cancelled
2005 DLR station opened 2002 Cliffe proposed
2003 Cliffe abandoned
2008 Estuary proposed
2010s 2010 3rd runway cancelled
2015 75m passengers
2015 40m passengers 2010 2nd runway cancelled
2015 22m passengers
2015 12m passengers 2015 4m passengers 2011 Grain proposed
2013 Grain sidelined
2015 Grain dismissed
2012 Airports Commission set up to consider additional runway
2015 Heathrow and Gatwick on final shortlist
2016 Government decides
2017 Parliament votes
2020s tbc 2030s (quite possibly nothing)
posted 07:00 :
Monday, October 24, 2016London has a new bus. A secret bus.
Sorry, I may be over-hyping this.
Route 563: Upper Holloway - Holloway
Length of journey: 0.5 miles, 3 minutes
It's never ideal to close the A1, but sometimes needs must. The railway bridge at Upper Holloway needs replacing, and has done for a while, with weight restrictions looming if nothing were done. TfL are therefore throwing £25m at the problem, and also taking advantage of the closure of the Gospel Oak to Barking line to get things done. The existing bridge will be demolished and replaced over the New Year, and a additional service duct has already been constructed alongside to carry pipes and cables. In the meantime relocating the pipes and cables is proving awkward work, with the result that the Holloway Road will be either partly or fully closed from this weekend until mid-January. This weekend has been one of the full closures, with the knock-on effect of diverting all the usual traffic elsewhere, including five bus routes. Which is where the 563 comes in.
Often it's only when a road is closed that travellers realise how much they rely on it. The Holloway Road is the only road to cross the Overground for almost a mile, so its closure is sending drivers and bus passengers on an awkward lengthy diversion along semi-inappropriate streets. Meanwhile those living along the broken stretch suddenly have no bus service, which isn't ideal. Those to the north of Upper Holloway station can walk to Archway, it's not far, even if it is uphill. But those living to the south are instead being offered a temporary shuttle service down to the Nag's Head where they can catch numerous other buses, and that's the 563. And it's free. And it's secret.
Not completely secret, obviously, because it runs with a notice saying 563 in the window, and because TfL have employed lots of volunteers to stand around at relevant bus stops and funnel people towards it. But quite secret, for reasons we will now discover, because this is yet another post about how a new bus route hasn't quite been adequately introduced.
I didn't see any posters at, or near, Archway tube station, regarding where to go to catch a bus. The bus stop on the corner with St John's Way appears to have been removed, because it's not needed again until January, so there were no clues there. A couple of hi-vis-wearing officials were standing nearby, but their role appeared to be observing and chatting, and they didn't offer any advice. At the last bus stop before the railway bridge a proper pink-clad volunteer was waiting, and she was charming and helpful. To help me on my way she gave me a leaflet, a double-sided full colour leaflet no less, with full details of road closure dates and bus diversions. But although the leaflet mentioned every existing bus and where to catch it, it didn't once mention the 563.
There is a pdf which mentions all the bus diversions and the 563. It's available on TfL's website, on a special page set up to provide information on the Upper Holloway bridge closure. The text on this page doesn't mention the 563 either, nor the fact that a free shuttle bus exists, but it is mentioned on the pdf along with a complete description of the route. And yet the print-out being freely offered to the citizens of Holloway, at this bus stop and several others along its route, is definitively 563-free. I can only presume that either the people who printed it are inept, or the 563 is indeed a secret bus.
There is plenty going on at the railway bridge, you'll be pleased to hear. A number of diggers were in evidence yesterday afternoon, and several men in protective clothing doing stuff, and a rather disturbing-looking tanker from a 'Suction Excavation Hire Service'. All the action was on the station side of the bridge, where the cables and pipes are being relocated, but with the full width required for more awkward manoeuvres. Contractors have been charged with working 24 hours a day to get the job done quicker, with noisier activities restricted to daytime hours. Meanwhile the main A1 road to either side was uncharacteristically silent, with only the occasional car approaching and turning off up a minor sidestreet to take advantage of 'local access'.
The 563 starts at a temporary bus stop to the south of the railway bridge. Being a temporary stop there is no indication of what stops here, nor that what stops here is special, maybe even a little bit secret. Only if you ask the hi-vis volunteers do you find out, or if the bus is actually parked up waiting to depart, which to be fair it is quite a bit of the time. The destination blind says Special Service, and a card saying 563 has been stuck lower down in the window. 563 Upper Holloway & Holloway, Nag's Head, it reads. And it turns out that one of these endpoints may be a lie.
"Free bus," said the driver, chirpily, because it's not every day you get to tell passengers this. He made his announcement to eight separate passengers, which I thought was quite a healthy number for a secret bus going not very far every ten minutes.
We headed off down the hill, stopping at a bus stop labelled "This bus stop is not in use". That's odd, I thought, because the bus stop clearly was in use, just not by its normal buses, only by the secret bus. The volunteer waiting by the bus shelter had a sheaf of leaflets stuffed in her pocket, again the not-quite-helpful kind on which the 563 was never mentioned.
We headed off down the hill, stopping at a bus stop labelled "This bus stop is not in use", opposite another bus stop labelled "This bus stop is not in use" at which another 563 was stopping. That's fairly typical, I thought. A passenger who didn't speak English very well tried to board. She asked whether we stopped at Highbury & Islington, and probably didn't understand that we didn't, but did understand the word 'free', so came for the ride.
We headed off down the hill, stopping at a bus stop which was very much in use, being the first after the diversion. "All change," said the driver, "this bus terminates here." This surprised me, because we hadn't yet reached the Nag's Head, indeed the map on the TfL website shows the 563 going two stops further. But no, the driver was off to turn his bus around alone, and our three minutes on the secret service were over.
Heading northbound the 563 does indeed depart from the Nag's Head bus stop, opposite Selby's department store. But you'd be hard pushed to tell. The 563 doesn't appear on the bus stop flag, nor is a timetable provided, nor does it show up on the appropriate digital webpage. There's also no poster or notice announcing its presence, and the Countdown display is switched off, or at least it was yesterday. Two volunteers were standing around when I was there, but they were talking to each other, and there was no hint to anyone waiting that it might be a good idea to talk to them about potential trouble ahead. When the 563 turned up they made a fuss, but the rest of the time they didn't, which left plenty of people boarding buses that were about to be seriously diverted when this might not have been what they wanted.
I caught one of these other buses back to Archway to see what happened. Tons of people poured off as I boarded, having been warned by an electronic message that a diversion was coming up - perhaps they'd guessed how long it was going to take. We made a good start up Tufnell Park Road, but this is no trunk road, more a residential street lined with parked cars, and progress soon slowed to a crawl. A lot of the problem was buses attempting to pass each other, five times more than usual, and another issue was waiting to filter through the traffic lights at the far end. All in all we took 20 minutes to escape, during which time I could have walked direct from Nag's Head to Archway and beat the bus.
This was on Sunday afternoon, hardly the busiest time of the week, so you can imagine how grim this week's rush hours might be. The Upper Holloway Bridge is closed all this week, then next weekend and two weekends in November, then all the way from Christmas to mid-January, and the remainder of the time open northbound only, It's not ideal, but it's got to be done, and the end result will be a bridge which should stand for 120 years. In the meantime TfL are running a marvellous free community service - a digitally invisible secret bus running up and down a silent road stopping at bus stops that are supposedly not in use and terminating early. Another triumph.
posted 07:00 :
Sunday, October 23, 2016Nobody is here to see the Understudy. The audience has paid to see the stars.
Two great shining stars, two leading lights of screen and stage - they sold out all the seats. One's a much loved knight of the realm, a character in that series of films everyone likes, and that other series of films everyone likes, and a national treasure to boot. The other's a much loved knight of the realm, another character in that series of films everyone likes, and world renowned from that TV show even more people like. The opportunity to see the pair together on the West End stage proved unmissable, as sales swiftly proved, and tickets waved at the ushers tonight were snapped up back in March.
An usher stands out front as the bearer of bad news. One of the lead actors will not be appearing in today's performance, doctor's orders, he needs to rest his voice. This is ghastly news. The entire point of the evening was to see the two gentleman friends engaged in verbal sparring, to enjoy the frisson as they stared at one another on the boards, to say you'd been there when they did. How annoying to realise that you'll be missing out, whereas the audience who came last night got the real deal. One of the main voices might have been raspy, but what does that matter when both were there, whereas tonight's cast list has a gaping hole.
But the name was indistinct - which one did they say? Which one would it be better to lose, assuming it were necessary to make the choice? Better to lose the slightly older knight, with his twinkly eyes and decades of experience, or better to lose the slightly younger knight, with his wicked grin and decades of experience? It matters not, the question is moot. Everybody paid up front to see the pair, and that coupling is broken, and oh bugger did you see how much the tickets cost?
The arriving audience can already guess what the terms and conditions will say. They'll say "Ha! Like it or lump it, we've got your money. You paid to see the play, and the play will be performed. Ha!" In fact they say "We reserve the right to make alterations to the advertised time, programme and cast as a result of circumstances beyond our control." Tonight only the cast has been altered, and it matters not that the cast is the only reason everyone's here.
A hastily-printed sign beside the box office window reveals the name missing of the missing knight, and less importantly who's been substituted instead. "Tonight the part of..." it says, confirming one of your two worst fears and crushing your soul. Then underneath it continues "...will be played by Somebody You've Never Heard Of". Googling him might prove informative, perhaps even reassuring, but his name is very common, and the theatre appears to have done a damned fine job of shutting down 4G within its walls.
Fork out extra and there he is in the programme... the Understudy. Normally nobody reads his biography, they don't care, scanning straight past from the lead actors to the production notes, and umpteen colour adverts for other productions with famous names to tempt you later. But tonight the Understudy's brief column is suddenly important; ten years with the Royal Shakespeare Company, stood in as Gandalf at the Theatre Royal, won a Manchester Evening News Best Actor Award, last theatrical work White Christmas at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. All admirable stuff, but with a gaping hole where 'Famous Person' ought to be.
The audience gather in their seats, perhaps more subdued than usual. They are an especially Home Counties crowd, not office workers at the end of their day, and older rather than younger, not the fantasy-loving demographic you might have expected to flock in given the cast. Meanwhile somewhere out back, in a star dressing room to which he is unaccustomed, the Understudy waits for curtain up. He knows the audience hasn't come to see him, he knows they wish he wasn't there, but his job is to step up and do the play full justice because that's the insurance policy he represents.
First out onto the stage is the non-absent knight, inhabiting his somewhat creepy character with award-winning fervour. Only after a good five minutes of monologue does the Understudy fling open the door and join him. How much the audience's hearts might have leapt to see the spark between the actors at this point, and to revel in their partnership on stage. How marvellous it would have been, from this point on, to feel the buzz of being in the actual same room as two actual big names. But not tonight. It soon becomes evident that the Understudy is indeed a fine performer, delivering his part flawlessly and with aplomb, but he is not The Missing One.
The play is not especially engaging, unless you like this kind of thing. It boasts little in the way of plot, and is more a stitching together of circular conversations and verbal power play. One man may not be who he says he is, another drinks to forget, and two additional background characters occasionally muddy the waters. Described by some as a comedy of menace, the narrative earns only a handful of laughs. It's everything you expect from the playwright, everything and more, but his work wouldn't be your top choice for a dramatic night out were it not for the actors inhabiting his roles.
The cliffhanger ending to the first half comes as some relief. Most of the audience shuffle off to stretch their legs or for refreshment, returning with tiny ice creams and plastic goblets of champagne. Many open up their phones in case they've got a signal, or open up their programmes to read about the man they hadn't come to see. A few dare to ask one another what might have been going on. Another famous Shakespearean actor is spotted in the stalls, tall and beaming, and moving around the auditorium to chat to family and acquaintances.
The second half begins with twenty minutes of actual plot. A dash of drunken misunderstanding allows the two lead characters to enter a lengthy verbal joust, riffing off one another in an ever-increasing sequence of fabulous tales and unlikely anecdotes. Had Knight One and Knight Two been here this would have been the highpoint of the evening, with wicked grins and knowing looks, but the couple on stage have no such shared backstory. They're both excellent, firing out the lines with emotion and not a word out of place, but our Night To Remember has not materialised.
The narrative darkens as the play nears its conclusion, perhaps a commentary on withdrawal, perhaps a paean to reclusivity. The curtain call comes swiftly, and a round of much deserved applause is proffered. Secondary Character One slaps the Understudy on the back as recognition of a job well done, and then The Knight Who Is Not Sick signals for hush. He emphasises how heartbroken his old friend is not to be here, and offers a heartwarming tribute to the Understudy for stepping in and smashing the part. The audience applaud all the louder, but not as loudly as if he had not been here.
They have been watching The Play With Only One Famous Person, whereas they'd paid for two. They had anticipated an unforgettable experience, whereas what they ended up with was simply drama. They have become victims of a West End beholden to the Star Name, where fame sells tickets, and the supporting cast are merely filler. The Understudy did everything expected of him, and more, with long hours spent memorising every line bearing forth great fruit. But in doing so he revealed the audience as celebrity-obsessed philistines, come to watch a play they had no interest in, and mistakenly focusing their disappointment on the man who filled the gap.
Nobody ever comes to see the Understudy. The modern West End audience pays to see the stars.
posted 07:00 :
Saturday, October 22, 2016Time for another irregular reminder that you're wasting your time sending me PR emails and marketing invites.
Here are four recent misfires.
Happy Friday!No Maria, I never attend shallow promotional shindigs. But do continue.
I wondered if you would be interested coming to a great launch event we’re hosting on Thursday 20th October?
This week we are officially announcing the return of the iconic <lager brand> beer following a 13-year hibernation. <Lager brand> beer is returning to the UK with a brand new and refined product, look, and taste. The new <lager brand> is slow brewed using a 100% authentic Bavarian method which complies with a 500-year-old German Purity Law.So you're launching a lager that isn't <lager brand>, because that was essentially piss on tap, but calling it <lager brand> in attempt to gain leverage with the national psyche? Go on.
No longer the beer of its past- <lager brand>’s commitment to this ancient law means that their pints will only ever include three simple ingredients. Based on the edge of <forest> Forest, one of Germany’s largest continuous areas of woodland and a biologically unique reservoir, <lager brand>’s brewery draws exceptionally pure water through their own well, as well as using locally grown barley from the private Malthouse based onsite, and hops from the world-famous <never heard of it> region. Additive-free, nutritionally sound, genuinely Bavarian beer? Sounds just lovely, right?No, sounds like an excess of buzzwords linked together into one of the least impressive paragraphs I've ever read.
It’s a great story, so let me know if this might work for you ahead of the launch, and I can send you over the press release, images, and any other details you may need.Alas Maria's 'great story' didn't work for me, so her lager launch went unreported.
Hi Dimond Geezer,Spelling my name wrong is never a good start, Aneesha.
I am reaching out in regards to an opportunity with <rental company>, an international travel brand. I'd like to know if you would be interested in collaborating on a piece of content entitled Hidden Secrets of London?As opposed to Unhidden Secrets, presumably.
Secrets of London will be shared to all of <rental company>'s 50,000 members and 200,000 newsletter subscribers and all of <rental company>'s social media channels, so hopefully we can provide new exposure to Courageously Free Travels.Sorry what? I'm afraid I spurned Aneesha's easy advances.
Hi there,This might be up your street, Siobhan. It is very much not up mine.
Hope you’re good! I’m currently working with a new cultural space in London, named <windswept jetty>. This October, <windswept jetty> are hosting 4 avant-garde dating events, curated by <dating company>. On <windswept jetty>, participants are invited to explore the ideas of intimacy, gender, touch and connection.
The concept of dating in this way challenges the use of Tinder, Bumble, Grindr, Happn etc, as the workshop encourages people to develop connections with others, and not a profile picture. I think this sort of event is quite unique, and think it would make for a great preview piece.Seriously, only 'quite unique'?
Would this be possible with Diamond Geezer Blog? Please let me know your thoughts, it’d be great to bounce some ideas around.I relayed my thoughts, namely that this was of no interest to anyone, and Siobhan bounced back.
Thanks for the feedback!And finally here's another Siobhan, with an offer many <sport> fans would have killed for.
Have a great day.
Hello,You have a cup final you haven't sold enough tickets for, haven't you Siobhan?
Siobhan here from the press office of <World famous sports ground>, hope you are well. I wanted to get in touch to invite you to a preview event taking place at <World famous sports ground> to celebrate the upcoming final of the <sporting event>.
The event will include an ‘Introduction to <sport>’ session with former England <sport> international <Famous Sportsman> and a chance to chat to him about the upcoming final. Don’t worry if you’re not a huge <sport> fan, enjoy the surroundings of the Academy in one of London’s most famous sporting landmarks as <Famous Sportsman> shares his <sporting> hints and tips.The line which really rankled was 'Don't worry if you're not a fan'. I'm no fan, in any way, but I was being offered a Holy Grail experience in return for publicity.
After this, you will be treated to a behind the scenes tour of the prestigious <World famous sports ground>. Dating back to <a long time ago>, <World famous sports ground> is the Home of <Sport> and is steeped in sporting and cultural history – you might even be treated to an anecdote or two from <Famous Sportsman> on the way! The evening will then wrap up with some refreshment in <iconic> bar located within the Grounds allowing you a chance to relax in the surrounding of <World famous sports ground>.I'll go instead of you, said BestMate, who's a big <sport> fan. But we decided best not, it only encourages them.
So please don't waste your time sending me your marketing missives, no matter how marvellous you think they might be, because they'll never make it onto the blog. Except for us to ridicule, that is...
posted 07:00 :
Friday, October 21, 201630 THINGS TO DO IN HARROW
Number 19: Walk the Belmont Trail
If you're ever in Harrow, say making a visit to the Heath Robinson Museum [TTDIH no18], why not fit in a walk along the Belmont Trail? This path follows the route of a disused railway which once ran between Harrow and Wealdstone and Stanmore, and has recently been refreshed to make it more appealing to cyclists and pedestrians alike. At one mile long it's not an over-challenging assault, and could easily be combined with a hike along the Wealdstone Brook [TTDIH no10] or a poke around Headstone Manor [TTDIH no4].
The Harrow and Stanmore Railway was opened in 1890, its original aim to help deliver hotel guests to the Bentley Priory estate [TTDIH no12]. Traffic was not brisk, but was boosted unexpectedly in 1932 when the Metropolitan Railway opened a competing branch line to Stanmore and kicked off a housing frenzy. Major developments halfway along the line at Belmont led to an intermediate halt being built, but offpeak traffic never matched the daily commuter flurry. In 1952 the terminus was cut back from Stanmore to Belmont, and in 1965 Beeching's axe lopped off the entire branch. Stand at Harrow and Wealdstone station [TTDIH no26] today and you can still clearly see a broad grassy strip opposite platform 6 where trains on the 'Belmont Rattler' used to depart.
But we can't start there. The first half mile of the old branch line is inaccessible, lost beneath an industrial estate and Harrow's Waste, Refuse and Recycling Centre. So the Belmont Trail begins on Christchurch Avenue, at the lacklustre end of Wealdstone, where a rail bridge once spanned the road. One side of the embankment still stands, in its modern way resembling the ancient Grim's Dyke [TTDIH no3]. A nice touch here is a staircase of old sleepers which has been laid to ascend from the pavement, but don't bother going up there because the footpath dissolves into an overgrown tangle. The main trail follows a gentle sandy ramp alongside, and here the golden mile begins.
If you've walked a disused railway before you'll know what to expect. A strip of land maybe two tracks wide, fringed with undergrowth and a line of trees, perhaps with a series of back gardens beyond the fence. This is very much like that. One intriguing neighbour is the Harrow Driving Centre
[TTDIH no7], a miniature world of roads and roundabouts and traffic lights for beginners to practice on, except this appears to have closed following council cuts and is now used to park a entire fleet of municipal minibuses. Fractionally more interesting is Wealdstone Cemetery, a small Edwardian burial ground with serpentine paths, concealed behind a screen of evergreens. There's no direct access, so enterprising locals have broken a gap in the railings and a scattering of cans suggests good use is made.
Self-righteous strollers will appreciate the sign bolted to a tree announcing that the Belmont Trail was cleared with the aid of Community Payback, specifically "offenders working for the community". Wave your Daily Express with pride as you pass. Those whose love is railways will instead be keeping their eyes open for leftover infrastructure and signage, so can't fail to notice an actual gradient marker, and a post labelled three over four marking ¾mile from Harrow. Elsewhere I spotted a Rat On A Log, a Brick In Some Privet, and several As Yet Unharvested Blackberries, these very much the staples of any disused railway walk. Naturally you'd see better wildlife along the River Pinn [TTDIH no11], and better views from the top of Harrow Hill [TTDIH no1].
The path narrows slightly as it funnels between Grasmere Gardens and Kenmore Avenue, and wiggles fractionally off course, even rises and falls briefly in a way the railway never did. A 'No Tipping' sign stands alone in a brief clearing, before the confined path connects again with the surrounding estate at the foot of (I am not making this up) Dobbin Close. After skirting the rear of several owl-like flats, the bridge over Kenton Lane is reached. Once a rural lane amid fields, this span has been lowered several feet since trains ceased running and now feels very much like an urban subway, brightened by colourful artwork added by the local primary school in 2012. Northolt Park [TTDIH no15] has nothing on this.
By this point you'll have been walking for fifteen minutes, so it may be time to take a break. Thankfully Belmont Circle is alongside, its car park coving the land where Belmont station* once stood. When the new suburb of Belmont was built in the Thirties this was the obvious place to locate its retail heart, a circular brick parade that's very Metro-land, with traffic orbiting a central shrubbery. My go-to bakery in this quarter of town is Wenzel's, but you could alternatively try the Greggs at the garage, grab some Fancy Peri Peri, or take a seat in the independent Cinnamon Cafe. When fed and watered be sure to go window-shopping, specifically to Shoe Repairs where £9.99 slippers rotate on a turntable, and patriotic front pages provide a backdrop to sundry bric-a-brac.
* Not to be confused with the existing Belmont station in South London, one of the 10 Things to Do in Sutton.
The trail continues at the far end of the car park. It's much wider here, a sandy track wending between the trees, their leaves now brightly reddening in sequence. Local residents use this part of the trail as a shortcut to and from the shops - the route evidently both safe and useful in this respect. In a former cutting I passed a lady with a small dog, which was probably the highpoint of this brief five minute section. And then the Trail stopped. The route ahead is blocked by a synagogue's fence, then more importantly swallowed by the edge of Stanmore Golf Course, so technically the Belmont Trail ends here. To reach the former station at the end of the line you'll have to divert circuitously along residential streets, or maybe cut across the golf course via the artificial mound which gives Belmont its name [TTDIH no17].
However you decide to trace the intervening mile, you'll eventually reach a prim triangular green with a cluster of pines at its centre, where Gordon Avenue meets Old Church Lane. It was here that Stanmore Village station was built, its original structure topped off by a spire to make it more acceptable to the slightly snooty residents. When the terminus was finally sold off to developers in 1969 the building was unsympathetically refurbished with a modern roof, and is now a smart squat home called The Old Station, with church-sized front doors and a plaque alongside listing the Harrow and Stanmore Railway's key dates. The former tracks behind are now covered by more ordinary housing, and Stanmore tube is a mile away on the other side of town [TTDIH no29].
» A line I've drawn on a map to show where the Belmont Trail goes
» Ian has also visited, and wrote this longer report with more photos
» Geoff made this 90 second summary video for Londonist
» Julian has taken 50 photos so you can see what you're missing
» Full line history for those who require 100% railway background
» Tommy has taking a video while cycling the Belmont Trail
» 30 Things To Do In Harrow is taken from the forthcoming book 1000 Things To Do Across London
posted 07:00 :
Thursday, October 20, 2016What area of London has the same population as...?
posted 07:00 :
Ranking the 316 English local authority districts
316 = 201 non-metropolitan districts + 55 unitary authorities + 36 metropolitan boroughs + 32 London boroughs + City of London + Isles of Scilly
Top 5 by population: Birmingham (1111307), Leeds, Sheffield, Cornwall, Bradford
Bottom 5 by population: Purbeck, Rutland, West Somerset, City of London, Isles of Scilly (2324)
Top 5 by area: Northumberland (5013 km2), Cornwall, Wiltshire, Shropshire, East Riding of Yorkshire
Bottom 5 by area: Hammersmith and Fulham, Isles of Scilly, Islington, Kensington and Chelsea, City of London (2.9 km2)
Top 5 by population density: Islington (15179 per km2), Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Kensington and Chelsea, Lambeth
Bottom 5 by population density: West Devon, West Somerset, Richmondshire, Ryedale, Eden (25 per km2)
Top 5 by population growth: City of London (5.5% pa), Tower Hamlets, Westminster, Forest Heath, Islington
Bottom 5 by population growth: Oadby and Wigston, Blackburn with Darwen, Harrogate, Blackpool, Richmondshire (-2% pa)
Ethnicity - most White: Allerdale (98.9%), Eden, Isles of Scilly, Mid Devon, Ryedale
Ethnicity - least White: Tower Hamlets, Redbridge, Harrow, Brent, Newham (29%)
Ethnicity - most Asian: Newham (43.5%), Harrow, Redbridge, Tower Hamlets, Slough
Ethnicity - least Asian: South Hams, Allerdale, West Devon, Isles of Scilly (0.1%)
Ethnicity - most Black: Lewisham (27%), Southwark, Lambeth, Hackney, Croydon,
Ethnicity - least Black: Allerdale, Eden, Isles of Scilly, West Devon, West Somerset (0%)
Ethnicity - most Mixed: Nottingham (10%), Lambeth, Lewisham, Croydon, Harringey
Ethnicity - most Arab: Westminster (11%), Kensington & Chelsea, Ealing, Brent, Hammersmith & Fulham
Districts (inside London) appearing on the above lists 3 or more times: City of London, Kensington and Chelsea, Lambeth, Tower Hamlets
Districts (outside London) appearing on the above lists 3 or more times: Allerdale, Eden, Isles of Scilly, West Devon, West Somerset
posted 06:59 :
Wednesday, October 19, 2016The least used station in... Surrey
LONGCROSS (Annual passenger usage: 8960)
I've visited the least used stations in Berkshire, Hertfordshire, Greater London, Essex and Bedfordshire. But they were all quite normal compared to the least used station in Surrey. This is on the main suburban line to Ascot and Reading, three stops past Staines, so you might expect it to be busy. The stations to either side see over half a million passengers a year. But Longcross is different, Longcross is weird, indeed I'd go so far as to say Longcross is creepy. Go if you dare.
Ten years ago, if you'd managed to find a train that stopped at Longcross, you might have had trouble leaving the station. It's seemingly in the middle of nowhere, sandwiched between the M3 motorway, the largest National Nature Reserve in the southeast of England and a world-famous golf course. But more specifically it's here because the Government requisitioned the land immediately alongside the railway for military purposes in 1941, and needed a station to get troops and supplies in and out.
The Department of Tank Design was based on one side of Chobham Lane, with the Fighting Vehicles Proving Establishment on the other. By 1970 this was the Military Vehicles and Engineering Establishment, or MVEE for short, ideal for road-testing armoured tanks and various forms of hush hush technology. Trains remained infrequent, especially given that workers preferred driving, and security guards were prone to swoop on any civilian who alighted at Longcross to query their presence. The MoD finally abandoned their 'secret' test track in 2006, by which time the station was served by only two trains a day in either direction. Things aren't quite so restricted today - a large film studios has since taken over the western part of the site, and the area to the east is pencilled in for housing. But alighting at Longcross still feels like stepping back into the Cold War, sealed off from civilisation, with eyes watching from the trees. [map]
First let's deal with getting there. Longcross is one of a tiny handful of stations marked on the London and South East rail map with an open circle, signifying a limited service. They're not joking. In the morning rush hour there are half-hourly trains from London and three from Reading. Between the peaks just one lunchtime train calls, with nothing for hours either side. Then there are half-hourly trains home in the evening, this time mostly towards London, and nothing whatsoever at the weekend.
Westbound (to Reading) Eastbound (to Waterloo) 0605 0635 0705 0735 0805 0835 0854
0813 0843 0913
1713 1813 1843 1943 2013 2043
(no trains Saturday or Sunday)
Essentially it's a service for workers and nothing more, and deliberately so. I timed my visit for the early evening, and made sure my ticket was a return.
Only I stepped off the packed commuter train at Longcross, less than an hour before dusk, while two wiser passengers got on. It didn't take long to be left completely alone in the forest. The platforms are overlooked by lofty pine trees, with ferns spread beneath, presently at the beginning of their autumnal phase. Both sides have a rudimentary breezeblock shelter, that on the eastbound considerably longer, better suited to keeping 100 troops out of the weather than for comfort. The westbound has an additional building, toilets-sized, though more likely somewhere for the equivalent of a stationmaster to hide away. An sturdy concrete footbridge joins the two, potentially army issue, with bright yellow posts and handrails. One single CCTV camera keeps watch - I was expecting more - pointed downwards so as to be of almost no use. And some wag has added two hoops to chain a bike to, not that I suspect these ever see much action, or any.
So how to escape? The station map on the Onward Travel Information board shows a road you can't reach because of a fence and a lot of green. The green to the north is pristine, but inaccessible, unless you have the key that unlocks the gate. This is the edge of Wentworth Golf Course, an exclusive sportsground intertwined with executive estate, where the PGA Championship takes place annually. The Chinese owners who recently bought the Club have already tried flushing out three-quarters of the members by increasing fees, so it's no surprise they're not interested in rail access, and the gate is checked at least four times a day by security. It's odd they haven't noticed the gaping hole anyone could climb through.
South, then. Again there's a gate, which could once have kept unwelcome passengers locked inside the station, but which is now unlocked. A short walkway leads down to a turnstile, marked Private Property No Public Right Of Way, which for ten years has been the access to Longcross Film Studios. A collection of buildings once used by the army has been requisitioned, including arched brick sheds and several indistinct hangars, with the three main production Stages all close by [map]. Several well known movies have been shot here, including most of Clash of The Titans and Skyfall's Highland finale, plus this is where the Poplar BBC drama Call The Midwife is filmed. I'd not be getting out this way either.
But there is an external footpath. Normally you expect a footpath from a station to be metalled, but this was just a narrow dirttrack between two fences, the station on one side and the ex army base on the other. A row of pines wheeled in close before the path opened out into a clearing beneath two radio masts, then continued a little wider than before. It took a couple of minutes to reach the first potential exit - a track leading out onto the most inaccessible corner of Chobham Common, part-blocked by a slice of concrete pipe and two posts. Best stick to the main path, I thought, as it bent south round a muddy depression, through further trees. There had been no streetlamps for the last quarter of a mile, and this was very much not somewhere I would want to be after dark. I checked my watch to ensure I could get back before sunset, and walked on.
The path opened out onto Burma Road, which looked promising on the map, but had a look of military perimeter about it. The road emerged from the studio site at what would have been a checkpoint, and is now a point of access for contractors making the eastern part of the site ready for housing. I was expecting the sign on the fence to warn me off, but instead it invited me to adopt a goat courtesy of the Surrey Wildlife Trust. This edge of the site is to become a Ecological Buffer Zone, an environmental sop for the development, but currently houses little more than a few beehives and a lot of undergrowth. Oh, and a couple of cameras peering down from a high pole, adding to the nagging feeling that I must be being watched for the crime of having used a station.
Burma Road's almost half a mile long, and had two empty cars parked up partway down. I fully expected someone to emerge from one of them, perhaps to admonish me for taking photographs, before working out that the owners were probably off dogwalking on Chobham Common which runs all along one side. I stepped through the trees at one point to take a look, following a public footpath fingerpost onto open acid heathland. It's gorgeous walking country, gently undulating, heading west for miles wherever the mansions with acre-sized gardens have yet to encroach. The sun was crackling gold in the sky, its orb now dipping fractionally behind Oystershell Hill, so I got a move on and returned to the road.
Two red wooden barriers had been drawn back beside a layby marked Lorries Turning, at a former checkpoint now used by the studios for HGV access. With the site's main entrance now close by there was considerably more evidence of former military presence, including lumps of concrete positioned defensively on the verge and an MoD sign warning against flytipping or overnight camping. Most unusual was the red and white striped arch for unrestricted access, labelled for vehicles under seven foot tall and less than six foot six wide only, while lorries had to pull over to be let through a gate alongside. Eventually I reached the main road, specifically a shielded roundabout on the B386, leading to a bridge across the M3. There was nowhere for pedestrians to go, nor anywhere it would be particularly sensible to try, bar a continuation of the common beyond the motorway. Time up.
Now let's look at the whole palaver backwards. There is absolutely nothing at the roundabout to indicate that a station lies half a mile up this road. This is possibly wise, because it's impossible to drive there, but there's no hint whatsoever for pedestrians either. Burma Road looks highly unfriendly, as confirmed by leftover MoD signage, and even the open barriers feel like a deterrent. At the first studio entrance there's no suggestion of which way to go, and at the second no indication that you ought to take the minor path into the trees. The footpath through the forest narrows as it continues, without any confirmation that you're on the right track, amid an increasing sense of isolation and helplessness. That Longcross station exists at the far end as a place of safety comes as a total surprise... or would have done had I not walked out and back, there being nowhere else to go.
Luxury homes and the upcoming business park at Longcross are being promoted on a glamorously-marketed website by developers Crest Nicholson. "Heathrow and Farnborough are within 20 minutes drive, and Fairoaks airfield just 10 minutes away", they say, hinting heavily at the calibre of occupant they expect. Their map shows what appears to be an outstanding rail connection, with "an on-site train station providing a half-hourly service to London Waterloo (48 minutes) and Reading (35 minutes)." What potential residents are not told is that the rail service dries up during the day, doesn't run at weekends, and the last weekday train leaves Waterloo at ten to six. There are, obviously, long-term aspirations to improve the service once development reaches a tipping point, but in the meantime best not sell the limousine.
As skies darkened, my solo sojourn on the eastbound platform ended ten minutes before the scheduled departure time. A studio employee emerged through the turnstile and crossed the footbridge to slouch beneath it, joined shortly afterwards by two mixed groups chatting animatedly. Their post-work gossip continued until the train appeared round the bend, at which point they split into two different groups and headed to opposite ends of the platform. One final employee made a dash for the footbridge at this point, afforded the luxury of working close enough to be able to turn up bang on time. And a dozen of us gratefully boarded what would shortly become a rammed service, but early enough to grab a seat. That's Longcross, their private Surrey station, and occasionally unwelcoming of visitors.
» My Longcross Flickr gallery - 20 photos (and slideshow)
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