L ND N

 Friday, September 30, 2005

And so ends diamond geezer's third annual tube week. Admittedly I only managed five days of tubular goodness, whereas people like Annie manage this sort of thing day in day out all year. But I continue to be amazed by how much interactive interest the London Underground inspires, and how much tube-related stuff remains to be written about at a later date. I mean, three years in and I still haven't written a tube week post about disused stations. Maybe next year...


Tube geek (15) (C)rush hour

The tube network's 20 busiest stations (by peak flow), and the time when they're busiest
08:15 - 08:30 Stratford (16th busiest)
08:30 - 08:45 Bank/Monument (1st), Victoria (4th), Liverpool Street (6th), Moorgate (7th), London Bridge (8th), Baker Street (10th), Finsbury Park (11th), Euston (15th), Earl's Court (18th), Paddington (19th),
08:45 - 09:00 King's Cross St Pancras (3rd), Waterloo (5th), Green Park (9th), Holborn (12th), Embankment (17th)
17:45 - 18:00 Oxford Circus (2nd), Bond Street (13th), Tottenham Court Road (14th), Piccadilly Circus (20th)
tubegeek comment: The City is busy early, mainline stations peak in the morning rush and the West End is busier in the evening

The ten busiest ¼ hours at the three busiest stations
Bank/Monument
0800             0900             1000 ; 1700             1800             1900
Oxford Circus
0800             0900             1000 ; 1700             1800             1900
King's Cross St Pancras
0800             0900             1000 ; 1700             1800             1900
[data source here]


Tube quiz (15) Name that station
1) the furthest i) north [Epping] ii) west [Amersham] iii) south [Morden] iv) east [Upminster] on the network
2) Which one of the above answers will change over the next five years, and to what? [1iii) will change to West Croydon, the southern terminus of the East London line extension]
3) the furthest i) north [King's Cross St Pancras] ii) west [Notting Hill Gate] iii) south [Sloane Square] iv) east [Aldgate] on the Circle line?


Tube watch (15) ssssh... Secret Stuff
• Here's a special tube infrastructure map showing i) where all the depots are, ii) which company owns each line and iii) where all the disused stations are. Ssssh!
Tubeworker is a campaigning blog written by a disgruntled tube worker comrade. "Don’t mind us, we only work here." Ssssh!
• Green Park station has three lifts, eleven escalators, six platforms, and step-free access between the Piccadilly and Jubilee lines. How do I know? Ssssh!
Shoreditch station closes next summer, forever, to make way for the East London Line extension. This deadline is tucked away deep inside London Underground's website, as are hundreds of other fascinating pages. Ssssh!
• If you're delayed by more than 15 minutes on the tube, you can claim a refund online. And you can also complain give feedback about your underground experience online too. Ssssh! They don't want everyone trying it...

 Thursday, September 29, 2005

Tube geek (14) Going Underground
Only 45% of the London Underground network is actually underground. The earliest underground railways were shallow sub-surface tunnels, dug using the cut and cover method beneath the roads of central London. By the time later lines came to be built there was only room beneath the ground for deep level tubes. But out in the suburbs the trains arrived in advance of the houses, so there was plenty of space on the surface and no tunnels were required. Today London has a total of 113 miles of tube tunnel (20 cut and cover, and 93 deep level) - an underground nirvana which no mobile phone signal can yet penetrate. So, where are these tunnels? Here's my line-by-line guide to subterranean travel (compiled via geoff's special underground map). I hope it's correct, near enough...

Where the Underground goes underground (very roughly)
Bakerloo: Harrow & Wealdstone → Queen's Park → Kilburn Park → Elephant & Castle
Central: West Ruislip → White City → Shepherd's Bush → Mile End → Stratford Leyton → Leytonstone → Wanstead → Gants Hill → Newbury Park → Hainault → Woodford → Epping
Circle: Edgware Road → Baker Street → King's Cross St Pancras → Farringdon → Barbican → Moorgate → Victoria → Sloane Square South Kensington → Gloucester Road → High Street Kensington Notting Hill Gate Bayswater Paddington Edgware Road
District: Ealing Broadway & Richmond & Wimbledon → Earl's Court → Gloucester Road → South Kensington Sloane Square → Victoria → Aldgate East → Whitechapel → Stepney Green → Mile End → Bow Road → Upminster
East London: Shoreditch → Whitechapel Shadwell → Wapping → Canada Water → Surrey Quays → New Cross (Gate)
Hammersmith & City: Hammersmith → Paddington Edgware Road → Baker Street → King's Cross St Pancras → Farringdon → Barbican → Moorgate → Aldgate East → Whitechapel → Stepney Green → Mile End → Bow Road → Barking
Jubilee: Stanmore → Finchley Road → Swiss Cottage → North Greenwich → Canning Town → Stratford
Metropolitan: Amersham & Watford & Uxbridge → Finchley Road → Baker Street → King's Cross St Pancras → Farringdon → Barbican → Moorgate → Aldgate
Northern: Edgware → Golders Green → Hampstead → ...  / High Barnet & Mill Hill East → East Finchley → Highgate → South Wimbledon → Morden
Piccadilly:  Heathrow → Hounslow West → Hounslow Central → Barons Court → Earl's Court → Bounds Green → Arnos Grove → Southgate → Oakwood → Cockfosters
Victoria:  Walthamstow Central → Brixton
Waterloo & City:  Waterloo → Bank 


Tube quiz (14) Name that tube line - the zone challenge
1) Zone 1 only [Circle, Waterloo & City]
2) Zone 2 only [East London]
3) Zones 1-3 [Victoria]
4) Zones 1-4 [Hammersmith & City]
5) Zones 1-5 [Bakerloo, Jubilee, Northern]
6) Zones 1-6 [Central, District, Piccadilly]
7) Zones 1-D [Metropolitan]


Tube watch (14) Tube watching
Seen on the tube home tonight:
three gangly teenage males in furry anoraks laughing and pointing down the carriage, a small man trying to read half of a half-opened newspaper, chattering Asian mothers, a City bloke apologetically shuffling his bulging gym bag across the floor of the carriage, a fat man sweating home oblivious of his all-pervasive whiffiness, two middle-aged middle managers manoeuvring forcefully towards the door as the train enters the platform, a strap-hanging suited woman staring aimlessly round the carriage, an snoozing bloke with brown sandals cuddling his brown leather bag as he sleeps, a pouting girl applying pinky-red lipstick as the train swerves through the tunnel, young secretarial types tapping away on their mobile phones, two city mates engaged in up-close post-work banter, a tired lady picking her teeth as she flicks through a magazine, a small child failing to wave goodbye to his auntie as the train departs, the same child letting go of an upright pole and having to be rescued from toppling by his worried father, a smiling student just three pages into a foreign novel, one huge yawn, is that woman trying to flirt with me?

 Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Tube geek (13) Rolling stock
Very different types of rolling stock run on London's different tube lines. Some of this is age-related - for example renovated 1961 carriages are still in use on the Metropolitan line, whereas the Jubilee boasts more modern 1996 stock. But trains are also different because tube tunnels come in two different sizes - taller and wider on sub-surface lines like the District and Circle, and squatter and narrower on deep level tubes like the Bakerloo and Piccadilly. And trains are also different lengths, usually because platforms are different lengths - longest on the Central and Victoria lines and shortest on the Waterloo & City. You can peruse the full technical specifications for all London Underground tube trains here. Or simply scan through my special summary table below. But I need some help with the 'Comfort' rating on the bottom row... any thoughts?

 Met1H&C2DisVicBakCenW&CPicNorJub3
Introduced01961197019791967197219921993199319951996
Carriages08668784666
Train length metres41329311113011513266108109109
Train height metres53.693.683.632.872.882.872.872.892.882.88
Train width metres52.952.922.842.642.642.622.622.622.632.63
Train weight tonnes021615614620316717086157176156
Seating capacity0448192280304264272136228248200
Standing capacity01045958958926816930518798773873
Crush capacity6149311501238123010801202654102610211073
Double doors7202401614168121212
Single doors740241211148101010
Comfort (out of 10)09236476?78

Note 1: Includes Metropolitan and East London lines
Note 2: Includes Hammersmith & City, Circle and District (Wimbledon branch)
Note 3: Increasing to seven carriages this Christmas
Note 4: dg estimate, based on length of carriages plus a couple of metres for couplings
Note 5: The first three columns are sub-surface trains, the rest are smaller deep-level tube trains
Note 6: Crush capacity = Seating Capacity + Standing capacity
Note 7: One side of the train only



Tube quiz (13a) (for everyone): Parklife
How many tube stations can you name which contain the word Park?
[You've found all 24: Belsize Park, Canons Park, Chiswick Park, Elm Park, Finsbury Park, Green Park, Holland Park, Hyde Park Corner, Kilburn Park, Moor Park, Newbury Park, Northwick Park, Park Royal, Queen's Park, Ravenscourt Park, Regent's Park, St James's Park, Stonebridge Park, Tufnell Park, Upton Park, Westbourne Park, Wimbledon Park, Wembley Park, Woodside Park]

Tube quiz (13b) (for Londoners): Non bus-y stations
How many tube stations can you name which aren't served by a bus route? (i.e. are more than three minutes walk from a bus stop)
[So far we've definitely got
Arsenal, Barons Court, Covent Garden, Fairlop, Moor Park and Shoreditch]


Tube watch (13) Bow Road station update
When renovation work on my local tube station began we were promised completion by October. Unfortunately that was October 2004, and the whole project has now dragged on almost a year longer than originally planned. Nothing major's happened for months, but the portakabin out the front of the station remains occupied while repairs and renewals continue intermittently inside. New poster frames are still being erected, old surfaces are being repainted, and only last week several random paving slabs on both platforms were mysteriously replaced. Having been wondering for months why this project has taken so long, I've at last uncovered 'the answer' inside September's edition of Metronet's in-house magazine (downloadable here). And who'd have guessed - it's all somebody else's fault...
"Bow Road was the first station on which work started. It is a Section 12 station, which has tougher fire and safety regulations. The reason for the delay has been achieving agreement over the removal of old cables made redundant by our work. There are lots of other utilities' cables that we can’t whip out without prior consent."
Not that this appears to have stopped Metronet from installing huge lengths of new cable at Bow Road. It's been like the spaghetti harvest above some parts of the platforms and stairwells, even if much of the new wiring has now been hidden away inside non-heritage plastic ducting. And as for the 'Section 12' excuse, this relates to special fire safety regulations which apply only to stations which are 'wholly or partly underground'. That's 40% of all the stations on the network, then, including several which Metronet have yet to renovate. But reading elsewhere in the article it seems that an end to the Bow Road upgrade nightmare may (really, genuinely) be nigh.
"Following the 'handover' of the first station – North Harrow – to LU on 13 July, a further six will have been delivered into service by the end of September: Turnham Green, Northwick Park, West Ruislip, Roding Valley, Bow Road and Chigwell."
So the whole circus at Bow Road should be over... by the end of this week! Maybe. I'll let you know if Metronet meet the deadline. What do you think?

 Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Tube geek (12) Barrier codes
How annoying is it when an automatic ticket barrier refuses you passage? You may try inserting or swiping your card again, usually to no effect, but usually a queue of frustrated travellers builds up rapidly behind you and you have to shuffle off to get your ticket checked manually. It happened to the bloke in front of me at Bow Road yesterday. He was baffled, but the small green number 11 that flashed up briefly on the barrier's electronic display revealed to those of us in the know what his ticketing sin had been. Naughty man. Below are some of the more common ticket/Oyster error codes and their meanings (and if you want the full list you'll find it here).

00 Valid ticket
03 National Rail only (no Underground validity)
07 Code unreadable (usually when ticket is upside down)
09 Ticket damaged
11 Out of date
12 Not valid at this time of day (e.g. Off Peak Travelcard before 0930)
13 Under value (additional fare due)
19 Start date in future
21 Ticket already used for entry
22 Ticket already used for exit
24 Has season ticket but travelled out of zone and has insufficient Pre Pay to cover extension
25 Unstarted journey
26 Entry and exit at same station
34 Exit not allowed (Pre Pay not validated on journey)
41 Ticket used three times in quick succession at same station (entry-exit-entry or exit-entry-exit or purchase-entry-exit)
42 Pass back - double use in one direction
51 Already used for 1 journey (single) or 2 journeys (return)
61 Too long spent making interchange
82 Illogical use of ticket



Tube quiz (12) Name that (closed) station
1) closed on Saturdays [Shoreditch]
2) closed on Sundays [Chancery Lane & Cannon Street]
3) no entry on Sunday afternoons [Camden Town]
4) closed before 7am [Shoreditch & Kensington Olympia]
5) closed after 8pm [Roding Valley, Chigwell & Grange Hill]
6) closed until next year [Heathrow Terminal 4 & Queensway]
7) the last three stations to be closed forever [Aldwych, North Weald & Ongar - on 30th Sept 1994]
8) the next station to be closed forever [Shoreditch]


Tube watch (12) Tube games (a clickable selection)
The London Game - a mighty fine 70s board game that my family used to play slightly too often. Still available from the London Transport Museum Shop (images here, travel version here)
Lobo - a 1930s card game based on the London Underground. See the station cards (most evocative), the rules, and what the network looked like at the time.
The Last Tube - an online interactive adventure from the promoters of tube horror film Creep (impressively playable for a freebie, but rather memory-hungry)
Adventures Underground - slightly interactive online game for kids, courtesy of the London Transport Museum again. Would you like to go on an adventure with Toby the train?
Mind The Bombs - tasteless (and very loud) online game which the Sun newspaper thought was sick (but I just think is rubbish).
Tomb Raider 3 [Level 13] - Aldwych
Mornington Crescent (rules here)

 Monday, September 26, 2005

Tube geek (11) Overcrowding
Some tube lines are busier than others. Travel from Kensington Olympia to Earl's Court late in the evening and you'll probably have the whole carriage to yourself. But risk a trip southbound through King's Cross on the Victoria line in the early morning rush hour and you'll probably end up more squashed than the proverbial sardine. Here's a tubegeek guide to the busiest station-to-station journeys on the network at morning peak time (courtesy of Transport for London's stats department):

Busiest line: Victoria line southbound
Finsbury Park(10th busiest section)Highbury & Islington(3rd busiest)King's Cross St Pancras(4th busiest)Euston(busiest)Warren Street(2nd busiest)Oxford Circus
tubegeek comment: The most cramped conditions anywhere on the tube are to be found between Highbury & Islington and Oxford Circus, used by in excess of 42000 passengers every morning rush hour.

2nd busiest line: Central line westbound
Leyton(15th busiest)Stratford(14th busiest)Mile End(9th busiest)Bethnal Green(7th busiest)Liverpool Street(5th busiest)Bank(8th busiest)St Paul's(11th busiest)Chancery Lane
tubegeek comment: This explains why I never manage to open my newspaper on my morning commute into Central London

3rd busiest line: Victoria line northbound
Victoria(6th busiest)Green Park(13th busiest)Oxford Circus

4th busiest line: Northern line northbound
Clapham Common(16th busiest)Clapham North(12th busiest)Stockwell

TfL have definitions of what 'overcrowded' means, which I'll illustrate using a Victoria line train as an example:
Seating Capacity means "the total number of Seat Spaces on a given Rolling Stock type" [304 seats per train]
Crush Standing Capacity means "the maximum number of standing Customers that can be accommodated on a Train at a density of seven Customers per square metre" [one train has a standing area of 132¼m², so the Crush Standing Capaciity is 926]
Crush Capacity means "the sum of Crush Standing Capacity and Seating Capacity" [926+304=1230, i.e. more than three times as many passengers standing as sitting]
Fully Loaded Train means "a Train carrying a load which is equivalent to the Crush Capacity multiplied by 72kg" [1230×72kg = 88½ tons of passengers]


Tube quiz (11) Spot the genuine apostrophe
a) Canon's Park, b) Dolli's Hill, c) Earl's Court, d) Gant's Hill, e) Golder's Green, f) King's Cross St Pancras, g) Knight's Bridge, h) Queen's Park, i) Rayner's Lane, j) Regent's Park, k) St James's Park, l) St John's Wood, m) St Paul's, n) Shepherds' Bush
(Correct apostrophes now underlined. Congratulations to Pashmina and Chz for spotting the lot)


Tube watch (11) One hour later
Lots of Londoners would like the tube to run later in the evening. To be honest many drunken partygoers and debauched clubbers would like it to run all through the night, but that's never going to happen because an overnight gap is needed for cleaning and maintenance. Earlier in the year Londoners were asked to vote on a compromise - running services an hour later on Friday and Saturday nights. The results of the survey are now in (in enormous and fascinating detail) and, what do you know, 73% of respondents were in favour. But the proposals would also mean starting tube services one hour later on Saturday and Sunday mornings, and this was by no means universally popular. "How are we going to get to the airport for our early flights?" wailed some, concerned that the first tube from central London to Heathrow on a Sunday morning wouldn't arrive until nine o'clock. And "How the hell are we going to get to work?" asked those who work shifts or weekends, and who face either loss of earnings spent on taxi fares or loss of sleep caused by having to catch a slower, earlier nightbus. The key message from the survey results seems to be that while a later finish might benefit those who choose to have a night out, a later start would disadvantage key workers who have no choice whatsoever. So, expect nothing to change. Or maybe a compromise "half hour later".


Time once again for diamond geezer to go totally tubular with another week devoted to the London Underground. Prepare for five days of quizzes, facts, commentary and obscure statistics. Two years ago I looked at average speeds, the busiest stations, the great north/south divide, picking the right carriage and journeys where it was quicker to walk. Last year I investigated the closest stations, the easiest interchanges, wheelchair accessible platforms, shortest possible journeys and the growth of the network (amongst other things). I wonder how much I'll manage to cram in this year. Mind the doors.

 Thursday, September 22, 2005

We don't have libraries in Tower Hamlets any more. Libraries are old hat. Not even historic Whitechapel Library, the famous intellectual refuge which opened back in 1892 bringing books and culture to the poor undereducated masses of the East End. A huge collection of Jewish texts was built up, overtaken more recently by an even larger set of Bengali books, inspiring several generations to academic greatness. But 21st century locals don't want musty shelves any more, they want internet terminals and beanbags, so this remarkable building finally closed to the public last month. Its replacement is a shiny glass 'Idea Store', up the road next to Sainsbury's, and it opens today. It's the only way to inspire the borough's youth, I know, but I can't help feeling that the Whitechapel Idea Store won't have anywhere near as significant a legacy as its eradicated counterpart.


The London Olympics open in precisely 2500 days time. Not long when there's a stadium or seven to build and an industrial wasteland to eradicate. So far almost nothing tangible has changed on the Stratford Olympic site, but what has changed is that even the tiniest non-event around here is now news. Potential killer turtle spotted; mini nuclear reactor uncovered; giant hogweed on the loose - everything hits the headlines now, however minor. But there's still approximately 500 days to go until the media can report the rather more newsworthy headline 'Olympic demolition starts'. Come visit while you still can.

 Sunday, September 18, 2005

London Open House: It's four years ago this week since I first moved to London, and events like Open House remind me just how little of the capital I've so far seen. It's always a joy to discover a new treat, and thankfully there must many more delights I have yet to experience. Here are details of my four Sunday visits [and my photos are here]

Crossness Pumping Station: There are always queues on Open House weekend, but I wasn't expecting to find them at an old sewage works on the Thames marshes in deepest Bexley. The old dear driving the ageing minibus from Abbey Wood station had never seen the like either. We'd endured a rattly journey past Thamesmead and down a godforsaken approach road, before being dropped off outside an unexpectedly ornate brick building in the middle of almost nowhere. The smell of effluent filled the air, which made the snaking queue of locals and curious centre-of-towners all the more surprising. The stench was coming from the modern sewage works just along the river but we were here to see its Victorian predecessor - the pioneering and palatial Crossness Pumping Station.

You'll remember from last month's journey down the River Fleet that London's sewage problem was finally solved in the 1860s by master engineer Joseph Bazalgette. Crossness was his crowning glory, the ultimate destination of all the icky brown waste in South London which was piped here so that it could could be stored in huge subterranean reservoirs before being pumped out into the Thames on the ebb tide. And to do the pumping Bazalgette constructed four huge beam engines, each able to lift more than a thousand gallons of sewage in one stroke. The scale of the operation is phenomenal, with 47 ton iron beams rising and falling with the rotation of enormous flywheels spinning beneath. Only one engine has so far been restored, by a group of willing volunteers who clearly love nothing more than the allure of steam and sooty hands. They've done a particularly good job on the decorative ironwork around the central 'Octagon', although even the rustiest corners of the building still retain a genuine industrial charm.

Crossness proved a fascinating building to explore, not just the main hall but also down into the dark pipe-filled bowels and up the winding staircase to the broad ironwork floor at beam level. We were only afforded a glimpse of the dilapidated Triple Expansion Engine House nextdoor, which still waits for an injection of Heritage Lottery Fund cash and for restoration. Meanwhile outside in the old boiler room (safety helmets off) a Museum of Sanitation is being established. Look - a row of old porcelain toilet pedestals! See - a collection of 19th century bedpans! Lo - a roll of Izal medicated toilet tissue! All a little twee perhaps, but the importance of this building to the long-term health of South London should not be overestimated.
(full details on the highly informative and well-illustrated Crossness website)

Trinity Buoy Wharf: It may sound ludicrous but London does indeed have its own lighthouse, situated on the thin strip of land where the river Lea enters the Thames, just to the north of the Millennium Dome. The lighthouse was never used to warn of underwater hazards but was instead kitted out by Trinity House back in Victorian times as a testing ground for their latest lighthouse technology. The site today is surprisingly inaccessible given its proximity to Docklands, with road access hidden away down a shabby industrial backstreet in the southeast corner of Tower Hamlets. There are great views of the Dome and the Thames from the top of the lighthouse, the interior artily filled by the computer generated ringing of Tibetan 'singing bowls' performing a 1000-year sound symphony (honest).

The rest of the wharf site is a strange mix of old and new, and oddly enchanting. An old red lightship is tied up a few yards from a genuine aluminium American diner. Brightly coloured metal containers have been piled up to create low cost office and studio space in a pioneering (keyword: sustainable) project called Container City, which us weekend visitors got to peer inside. Few central London office blocks can beat its low cost riverside panorama. And out at the end of Jubilee Pier I was surprised to be allowed access to the Vic 56 - an 85 foot long WW2 steamboat. There was no gangplank so I had to clamber aboard over the side of both the pier and the boat - rather inexpertly and inelegantly I thought. But it was a treat to wander the decks of this partly restored ship, clambering over ropes and climbing to the wheelhouse, and to meet and talk to the present owners. Seaworthy at least as far as Harwich, apparently, and no shortage of volunteers wanting to hide themselves away in the grimy engine room and stoke the steam engines.

Bank of England: There's only one bank to which we all belong but from which we can never draw money. All the more strange then to be allowed access to the Bank of England first thing on a Sunday morning. I had my rucksack searched by a top hatted security gent in a pink frock coat, and was then taken on a tour of (some of) this mighty fortress's interior by a softly spoken bank worker. As you'd expect the decor is magnificent, from fine crafted Derbyshire limestone walls to painstakingly beautiful mosaics underfoot. Corridors stretch off into the distance, a cantilever staircase rises seven storeys into the sky, and three floors of basement and vaults are hidden underfoot. We trudged through the Governor's office (he has a cheap black plastic government-issue pencil stand on his desk containing just one yellow highlighter pen) and on up the stairs to the room where the Bank of England decide the UK interest rate each month. Every wall and ceiling screamed opulence, especially in the facsimile Court Room, although we were assured that most of the bank's offices were rather more utilitarian. Our tour ended in the Bank of England's mini museum, where I took the opportunity to handle a genuine (and surprisingly heavy) gold bar - worth either 28 pounds or a hundred thousand pounds depending on whether you're weighing it or buying it. The queue was at least two hours long by the time I got back outside - bloody typical even for a top bank, I thought.

19 Princelet Street: Tucked away in a quiet street between Spitalfields and Brick Lane lies a unique 18th century silk weaver's house, now an extraordinary museum. Over the years this house has been occupied by generations of immigrants, first Huguenots fleeing from France and later Jews who built a Victorian synagogue in the back garden. Astonishingly the house and synagogue still stand - but only just, and £3 million is needed to stave off the threat of decay and possible collapse. The exhibition inside depicts the history of East End immigration, right up to modern Bangladeshi and Somali arrivals, using the symbolism of piled-up suitcases. Impressively the majority of the displays throughout have been contributed by local Tower Hamlets schoolchildren, most of whom are immigrants themselves. It's genuinely inspiring stuff, putting across powerful messages with simplicity and clarity. No wonder there were queues outside all weekend (thanks for keeping me company, Ben). Due to the house's fragile nature the museum is only open for a handful of days each year, but I'd urge you to visit this hidden treasure at the next available opportunity.
(make a virtual visit to 19 Princelet Street here)

www.flickr.com: London Open House 2005
(30 photos taken this weekend all around London)

 Saturday, September 17, 2005

London Open House: It's that weekend again, the one where hundreds of London properties open their normally-closed doors to the public (but no Gherkin this year). There are probably too many buildings open, to be honest, because you'd need more than one lifetime to get round them all. But I managed five today from across the capital, and I'm off out again tomorrow to visit some more.

BBC Broadcasting House: The original BBC Broadcasting House was built in 1932, an Art Deco masterpiece at the top of Regent Street [explore the interior here]. Wartime news broadcasts, Listen with Mother and Desert Island Discs - they all came from here, as have millions more hours of BBC radio broadcasts. Now the building is undergoing refurbishment as part of a multi-million pound construction project (don't worry, none of it is coming out of the licence fee), due for final completion in 2010. To the east of old Broadcasting House a new building is being erected on the ruins of Egton House, and between the two there'll be a new public piazza where it's hoped concerts will be staged. On the roof of the east wing a glass cone sculpture [photo] has just been erected as a memorial to journalists and crew killed while on assignment. A laser beam installed inside will fire a beam of light high into the London sky at key moments of national importance (such as the death of a monarch or the start of the Ten O'Clock News). It's like the Batsignal made real, and it's due to be switched on for the first time next year.

As part of London Open House I was lucky enough to get a space on one of the very limited tours that took place this weekend, so I've been inside to see the old and the new. The Art Deco entrance foyer has been sympathetically restored, complete with Latin inscription to "the temple of the arts and muses" and a glowing white reception desk. We were taken inside up a narrow utilitarian 1932 staircase to the BBC Board of Governors' council chamber which, like the whole of the building, had been gutted and restored (now with sprung wood floor to conceal multimedia cabling). On the floor above we entered the holy of public broadcasting holies - the Director General's Office. It's empty at the moment, and will be until the whole building project is complete, but I felt quite at home in the DG's lair. On to a more modern facilty in the heart of the building - the new Radio 4 drama studio. The original studio suffered from vibrations every time a Bakerloo line train passed underneath, so the new facility has been very carefully sprung and soundproofed. There are front doors with knockers and bells for that authentic radio sound effect, as well as two sets of stairs, a bedroom and even a kitchen sink. Finally on to the new open-plan offices on the top floor and out onto the balcony at the front of Broadcasting House. We stood beside the big clock beneath the tall white 'radio mast' and enjoyed a most impressive view south over All Souls' church towards Regent Street [photo]. The whole tour, though brief, was a fascinating insight behind the scenes of a national landmark just before the broadcasters move back in. And I'm sure it'll be lovely when it's finished.
(full details on the BBC's very detailed New Broadcasting House website)

Alexandra Palace: The BBC's other key acquisition in the 1930s was a failed amusement centre located high atop Muswell Hill in North London. Alexandra Palace had first opened to the public in 1873, and then promptly burnt to the ground 16 days later. The replacement building wasn't much more successful, long term, and so was vacant when the BBC came looking for a base for their inaugural high-definition television service. A competition was held between John Logie Baird and Marconi-EMI to see who had the better broadcasting technology, so two studios were built at either end of the building to give them both an equal chance. The world's first public television broadcast was made from the Baird studios on 2nd November 1936. Programmes were shown for just two hours a day (except on Sundays) and could only be received by the very few with appropriate receiving equipment living within 25 miles or so of the site. Eventually the 405-line EMI system won out, until the service was interrupted for six years by World War Two during which time the TV mast was used to jam German navigation signals instead. BBC TV production moved to Lime Grove in the Fifties but television news continued here until the Seventies at which point those bearded Open University types moved in. Then in 1980 Alexandra Palace was hit by another catastrophic fire, the BBC cancelled its lease and the studios fell into disrepair.
(highly recommended histories of Ally Pally here, here and here)

Today's studio tour was hosted by the Alexandra Palace Television Society, whose dream it is to restore this unique slice of broadcasting heritage to some sort of working operation. These very keen amateurs have assembled a fine collection of historical televisual ephemera, from an old BBC television camera to 70-years worth of old TV sets. As part of their presentation we got to watch a video of the cinema newsreel that reported the opening transmission of the new television service in 1936. A Thirties glamourpuss sang a scarily over-the-top song in praise of television (X-Factor it wasn't), and the realisation that she had sung on the very spot where we were sitting sent a chill down my spine.

After an all-too-brief a look round the exhibits our next stop was back in the main building. Here the main attraction is now a municipal ice rink, and I don't think I've ever seen quite so many cocky adolescent girls in fluffy hooded jackets and snarling sportswear-attired boys as I did in the lengthy snaking queue. We headed instead to the old Victorian Theatre. Nothing quite prepared us for the experience as we emerged from the foyer into a cavernous dark space that had once been an auditorium. The theatre had never quite been a success, not least because acoustics and lines of sight were poor, and several decades of neglect made for a very sorry sight indeed. Naturally there's a charitable band of volunteers dedicated to restoring the rotting boards and crumbling ceiling, although I couldn't help thinking they were in danger of spending several years and several hundreds of thousands of pounds on rescuing a theatre that couldn't possibly stand on its own two feet financially. Still, good luck to them, and if you ever get the opportunity to peer inside, do.

Wellcome Trust, Gibbs Building: This year-old office space on the Euston Road won the RIBA 2005 Prize for its architecture, and from the inside you can see why. There's a huge central atrium, there are several floors of glass-walled open workspaces and, most impressively, there's a stunning seven-storey sculpture (called Bleigiessen) made from a hundred thousand glass beads threaded on thin wires in a sort of dangly globby shape that glows and shimmers. See photo left. Lovely.

Kingsley Hall: A few hundred yards down the road from me, in Bromley-by-Bow, there's a community centre with a unique history. I've written about the place before (full history here) but I'd never previously ventured inside. Mahatma Gandhi stayed here for several weeks in 1931 on his only visit to London, advancing the case for Indian home rule (and meeting local people), while psychologist RD Laing took over the centre in the 60s for a not terribly successful schizophrenia project. The current beardy centre manager showed a leftish group of us around, from the pool tables on the first floor to Gandhi's tiny cell on the roof. I was most impressed by the commitment of all those here to peace and to the community, and it's a place I'm proud to have as a neighbour. (more information here)

A13 Artscape: Of all the things I could have done this afternoon, I chose to take a minibus tour down the A13 through Barking and Dagenham. You might think that I was mad. I was certainly the only person on the tour (although I was told that the noon tour had been packed). But I wanted to see a pioneering urban art project which has engineered new landscapes and landmarks alongside what it has to be said is one of London's dreariest arterial roads. My guide in the minibus was the borough's Head of Arts Services, so she was duly passionate about a couple of subways, a lot of fencing and some lights on sticks. And, by the end of the tour, so was I. The various projects along the road are both innovative and functional, from the airport-style lights of Holding Pattern to the towering tarmac cones on the Goresbrook roundabout. The upgraded subways heal the scar cut across underprivileged communities by the A13, and carefully chosen fencing and tree-planting will give the road a new kind of rhythm. Four million quid has transformed dreary and unsafe locations into welcoming public spaces of which the borough are rightly enormously proud. The rest of London would do well to follow their lead. (official website here)

 Thursday, September 15, 2005

A sponsored walk through 21st century London
(St Paul's Cathedral - Dr Johnson's House, < ½ mile, 4 hours) [map]


Stage 1 (75 metres): Our walk starts outside St Paul's Cathedral, which is a big old nipple-domed temple or something. They serve wine (and mini bagels) here on Sundays, but that's no good to a thirsty tourist like you so let's move on quickly. Wander north into Paternoster Square, a collection of modern concrete buildings much admired by architects and the public alike. Soulless - that's how we like our religious experiences these days. Time for that coffee you've been promising yourself. Nip into the Starbucks on the corner of the square and treat yourself to a grande Cappuccino and a shrink-wrapped blueberry muffin. Perfect.
[Starbucks, 1 Paternoster Sq, London, EC4M 9AD]

Stage 2 (75 metres): When you're relaxed and ready it's onward through the alleyway to Ludgate Hill. This is one of the most historic roads in London, but that's not important when there's shopping to be done! Thankfully the street also boasts a bijou-sized Starbucks where you can sit down and plan your next pampering purchases. Accompany your deliberations with a refreshing Frappuccino Light and a slice of blueberry swirl cheesecake for good measure. Perfect.
[Starbucks, 30-32 Ludgate Hill, London, EC4M 7DR]

Stage 3 (50 metres): After a short rest it's time to continue your strenuous walk across London. Or just across the road in this case, where another familiar green Starbucks logo beckons. It's the ideal spot to pause and reflect while staring out through the long glass window at the hustle and bustle of the street outside. And there's plenty of time for a classic Caffè Latte, and maybe a luxury almond croissant too. Perfect.
[Starbucks, 57 Ludgate Hill, London, EC4V 6DR]

Stage 4 (150 metres): This next stretch of the walk is rather on the long side, but take heart because it's all down hill. Take care to maintain your haughty cosmopolitan aura as you tackle the busy pedestrian crossing at Ludgate Circus. Designer retail outlets abound, but head instead for the welcoming comfy sofas of the Starbucks at the bottom of Fleet Street. A handcrafted Caramel Macchiato makes for heaven in a mug, with a Prawn Caesar Wrap to quell those lunchtime hunger pangs. Perfect.
[Starbucks, 32 Fleet Street, London, EC4Y 1AA]

Stage 5 (75 metres): Fleet Street was once the haunt of alcoholic journalists. Clearly they didn't have coffee available in quite such abundance in those days. Mmm, caffeine, it's so addictive isn't it? Don't worry - you can get your next fix at another Starbucks just a few metres up the road. Quick, before you start to get withdrawal symptoms. A Caffè Americano should calm your nerves, with a slab of Marshmallow Twizzle for that rapid sugar high. Perfect.
[Starbucks, 90-91 Fleet Street, London, EC4Y 1DH]

Stage 6 (125 metres): Coffee. Need coffee. Now. Stumble further up street. Head buzzing. Locate Starbucks. Push open door. Demand triple espresso from barista. Wait. Wait longer. Oh come ON! Grab mug of steaming brown liquid. Gulp down sweet sweet caffeine. Aaaah!! And how about a frosted orange cake to clear the palate? Perfect.
[Starbucks, 151-152 Fleet Street, London, EC4A 2BU]

Stage 7 (50 metres): Dr Johnson wrote a big dictionary 250 years ago and his house is now open to the public. But who cares? The curators don't serve drinks, so why bother going? Go home instead. And take some Fairtrade Blend beans with you, because you're not getting any sleep tonight. It's the future, you know.
[Starbucks, everybloodywhere within 5 years]

 Sunday, September 11, 2005

Taken away

Here's a six-month-old photograph of Mam's Fish Bar, Bow Road's premier takeaway establishment, with Mam herself staring out through the glass from behind her deep fat fryer. She ruled over an unfeasibly salmon-hued takeaway, in name a fish shop but in practice a kebab dispensary. If you wanted slightly charred flesh or a tray of grease-dripped chips, Mam was your woman. Her warm and genuine smile beamed out from beneath a shock of red wiry hair, swept back and piled high on top of her head. You could sit and eat her fatty produce while sat at one of the cheap and nasty tables bolted to the floor along the far wall, perhaps sprinkling each trayful with thin weak condiment dripped from non-brandname bottles. I never went in myself, not since her battered cod disagreed catastrophically with my digestive system, but the local teenagers and the minimum waged worshipped daily at her temple.

And then two months ago, without warning, Mam's Fish Bar closed down. It wasn't long before the old shop was hidden behind shiny new black shutters, and workmen could sometimes be seen inside installing gleaming new cooking equipment beneath big metal extractor fans. But there was no food on sale, until yesterday. Where once was Mam's shabby sign, now shines a startling illuminated slogan declaring The Thrill of the Grill. The fish and kebab silhouettes have been replaced by four gleaming red chilis, and two big red posters scream 'Now Open' to slightly more upmarket passers by. Everything's seems just too clean, and much less amateur. You just know that the previous owner would have written 'nOW OpEN' in thin red marker pen instead, on a page ripped out from a faded notepad, and probably spelt at least one of the words wrong. The new menu also looks much more professionally produced, and has substantially 'upgraded' in content - with cod and chips replaced by jumbo king prawns and chickpeas, for example, and steak and kidney pie vanishing altogether. But the biggest change of all is behind the counter. The new staff all look as if they're fresh out of school, standing there in a row beneath corporate red baseball caps, eagerly doling out grilled meat to the weak-willed consumers of Bow. But of Mam herself there is no sign. She's sold out to a Kebabish franchise, presumably in lieu of early retirement, and her presence has completely vanished off the face of E3. I shall miss her siren smile staring out from behind the glass, attempting to lure me in from the pavement for a 90p bag of chips. But I won't miss her fish.

 Sunday, September 04, 2005

Everyone's London

For some reason September is always one of the busiest months for special events in the capital. This year the Mayor and his tourist chiefs have gathered them all together under one big umbrella and are promoting them as September in London. Some will be great, some will be good ways to pass the time and some will be underwhelming over-sponsored rubbish. See if you can work out which might be worth attending.

Sunday 4th: The Tour of Britain comes to London for the final stage of this round Britain cycle race. After all the thrilling scenery of Scotland and Northern England, today the competitors have to put up with circling Whitehall 45 times.
Sunday 4th: Regent Street's been paved with grass today as it pretends to be an English country garden for the Regent Street Festival. There'll be farmers market stalls selling rural(ish) produce, but also a lot of posh shops hoping you'll go home laden with designer carrier bags instead of chutney.
Tuesday 6th: Texas (that's the middle of the road pop group) will be playing a special concert on Tower Bridge - appropriately in the middle of the road.
Sunday 11th: The 10th Brick Lane Festival mixes southern Asian culture, dance, music and curry (although hopefully not all simultaneously).
Thursday 15th: At last, a statue will be unveiled on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, the one that's been empty for years. It's Alison Lapper Pregnant, eight tons of big marble woman - and arrestingly armless.
Thursday 15th - Friday 30th: The London Design Festival showcases the capital's creative flair in architecture, product and graphic design. Includes the intriguing From Here To Here collaborative arts project (about the 27 stations on the Circle line) appearing on posters at all 27 Circle line stations.
Friday 16th: 200 years after his death, Nelson's funeral flotilla is being recreated on the Thames today. The Lord Mayor will be joining some authentic-ish boats on their way from Greenwich to Westminster (but why oh why is this being held on a Friday morning?). There's a more modern Trafalgar River Race between Richmond and Greenwich on the Sunday afternoon.
Saturday 17th - Sunday 18th: London Open House is the public architectural highlight of the year, with 500 hard-to-get-into properties open for one weekend only. Last year I got to go down Churchill's Neasden bunker (hi Louise!), take a tour of the building site at St Pancras and queue for hours to see the view from the top of the Gherkin. I'm still flicking through this year's 72-page catalogue, but I'm sorely tempted by Crossness sewage pumping station.
Saturday 17th - Sunday 18th: Uncle Ken's Thames Festival is one of those wholesome multicultural family-based extravaganzas of the kind that councils can justify spending their taxpayers money on (you know - ethnic drummers, face-painting and strange food). Best time to visit is probably after dark on the Sunday for the Night Carnival and big fireworks.
Thursday 22nd onwards: The Riverfront Jazz Festival is a ten day series of concerts in the Greenwich area, for those who like their music soulful and out of time.
Sunday 25th: Bethnal Green hosts the Green Spaces festival, which is a festival in some of Bethnal Green's local green spaces. There's no website and the whole thing sounds desparately underplanned, but hey this is London and it'll probably all pull together.

 Thursday, September 01, 2005

Red rout: I have the pleasure of living on the A11 - one of London's busy red routes. It used to be possible to park close to the entrance to my house (in one tiny bay and for no more than 20 minutes and only between the hours of 10am and 4pm), and this proved perfectly adequate for visitors such as the engineer who came to superglue the innards of my washing machine last week. But when I emerged from my front door this morning, telltale specks of red gravel littered along the edge of the pavement indicated that our local parking bay had been erased overnight. In its place stretched an extended bus stop, delimited in bright red tarmac, more than double the length of the bus stop that stood here before. And bloody bendy buses are to blame.
    Length of a London bendy bus = 18m
    Length of my local bus stop yesterday morning = 19m (=1.06 bendies)
    Length of my local bus stop this morning = 45m (=2.5 bendies)
    Increase in length of bus stop = 26m = 136%
    Reduction in parking space = 100%

The 'Flagship Manager' of the 'Bus Priority Team' sent me and my neighbours a letter in June last year to warn us that bus route 25 was about to receive new style 'bendy' buses. He went on to give notice that "the protected road space at the bus stop needs to be increased to enable the bus to pull up alongside the kerb". I assumed that an extended bus stop was imminent, but no roadworks materialised before the new buses were introduced and so the parking bay remained. We've had bendies along Bow Road for more than a year now, and drivers have proved perfectly capable of pulling up to the kerb at the old bus stop with relative ease. But never mind the reality of the situation - last night's bureaucracy-led resurfacing means that these giant articulated buses are now the only vehicles that can park close to my front door. So, er, no visitors please for the foreseeable future (unless you're willing to arrive in discomfort aboard a big red cattletruck).


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