L ND N

 Saturday, November 29, 2008

109 journeys between Central London Tube stations that are quicker by foot than Tube
(according to this map, from Legible London's Yellow Book - page 30)

Aldgate to: Aldgate East, Bank
Aldgate East to: Aldgate
Angel to: Chancery Lane
Bank to: Aldgate, Blackfriars, Cannon Street, Liverpool Street, Mansion House, Monument, Moorgate, St Paul's
Barbican to: Blackfriars, Chancery Lane, Mansion House, St Paul's
Blackfriars to: Bank, Barbican, Borough, Chancery Lane, Covent Garden, Farringdon, Holborn, St Paul's, Southwark, Waterloo
Bond Street to: Goodge Street, Green Park, Marble Arch, Oxford Circus
Borough to: Blackfriars, Mansion House, Southwark,
Cannon Street to: Bank, London Bridge, Mansion House, Monument, Moorgate, Southwark
Chancery Lane to: Angel, Barbican, Blackfriars, Farringdon, Holborn, Temple
Covent Garden - quicker to walkCovent Garden to: Blackfriars, Charing Cross, Embankment, Holborn, Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus, Temple, Tottenham Court Road
Elephant & Castle to: Southwark
Embankment to: Charing Cross, Covent Garden, Temple, Waterloo
Euston to: Euston Square, Great Portland Street, Regent's Park, Russell Square, Warren Street
Euston Square to: Euston, Goodge Street, Warren Street
Farringdon to: Blackfriars, Chancery Lane, Holborn, St Paul's, Temple
Great Portland Street to: Euston, Goodge Street, Regent's Park, Warren Street
Green Park to: Bond Street, Piccadilly Circus
Goodge Street to: Bond Street, Euston Square, Great Portland Street, Oxford Circus, Regent's Park, Russell Square, Tottenham Court Road, Warren Street
Holborn to: Blackfriars, Chancery Lane, Covent Garden, Farringdon
Hyde Park Corner to: Victoria
King's Cross St Pancras: it's quicker by tube
Leicester Square to: Charing Cross, Covent Garden, Piccadilly Circus, Tottenham Court Road
Lambeth North to: Southwark, Waterloo, Westminster
Liverpool Street to: Bank, Monument, Moorgate
London Bridge to: Cannon Street, Mansion House, Monument
Mansion House to: Bank, Barbican, Blackfriars, Borough, Cannon Street, London Bridge, Moorgate, St Paul's, Southwark
Marble Arch to: Bond Street
Monument to: Bank, Cannon Street, Liverpool Street, London Bridge, Moorgate
Moorgate to: Bank, Cannon Street, Liverpool Street, Mansion House, Monument, St Paul's
Old Street: it's quicker by tube
Oxford Circus to: Bond Street, Goodge Street
Piccadilly Circus to: Covent Garden, Green Park, Leicester Square, Tottenham Court Road
Pimlico: it's quicker by tube
Regent's Park to: Euston, Goodge Street, Great Portland Street, Warren Street
Russell Square to: Euston, Goodge Street, Warren Street
St James's Park: it's quicker by tube
St Paul's to: Bank, Barbican, Blackfriars, Farringdon, Mansion House, Moorgate
Southwark to: Blackfriars, Borough, Cannon Street, Elephant & Castle, Lambeth North, Mansion House, Temple, Waterloo
Temple to: Chancery Lane, Covent Garden, Embankment, Farringdon, Southwark, Waterloo
Tottenham Court Road to: Covent Garden, Goodge Street, Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus
Tower Hill: it's quicker by tube
Victoria to: Hyde Park Corner
Warren Street to: Euston, Euston Square, Goodge Street, Great Portland Street, Regent's Park, Russell Square
Waterloo to: Blackfriars, Charing Cross, Covent Garden, Embankment, Lambeth North, Southwark, Temple
Westminster to: Charing Cross, Lambeth North

• Roughly speaking, only stations located within the Congestion Charge zone have been included (so no Vauxhall to Oval, and no Bayswater to Queensway)
• I'm not sure precisely how the map was put together, but I'm assuming it's based on surface-to-surface timings (down to the platform, wait for train, catch train, back up to street level)
• I suspect the map has some omissions (and I'm certain they've missed out Chancery Lane to Farringdon, so I've included that)
• The longest journey where it's quicker to walk is Angel to Chancery Lane (1.1 miles)
• The six stations where it's most probably best to walk are Bank, Blackfriars, Covent Garden, Goodge Street, Mansion House and Southwark
• Yes, I know there are more than 109 journeys listed here, because I've counted each journey in both directions.
• And yes, I know there probably aren't exactly 218, but I can't be bothered to count them properly.

 Friday, November 28, 2008

Legible London

In amongst all of London's recent travel news (Western Congestion Zone, who needs it?), some good green tidings have slipped out relatively unnoticed. Boris is busy spending money, on pedestrians. More specifically, on signage for pedestrians. Many Londoners, it seems, choose to hop into their cars or ride on public transport when in fact they could have walked. It's a particular problem in the centre of town. Often important locations are quite close together but, because people haven't internalised a mental map of the capital, they don't realise how close. Stick up some better maps and and signs and fingerposts, and more people will choose to take the two-footed option. That's the theory anyway.

a minilith in South Molton StreetThe project's called Legible London, and it "proposes to change the existing fragmented approach to walking information into a single reliable, consistent and authoritative system." Or, in other words, it's designed to make walking easier. A trial version kicked off in the Bond Street area exactly a year ago. 19 "miniliths" were set into West End pavements, each standing tall like an Arthur C Clarke 2001 black slab. They feature directional info, detailed maps and a street name index, plus a mobile number you can ring for further information. One key addition is an indication of how long it takes to walk somewhere, because people understand time better than miles, yards or kilometres. If you're trying to make your way on foot around unfamiliar streets at the top of Mayfair, these signs really help.

They don't get in the way, either. You might expect a big black block to be a bit of an obstruction, but separate decluttering has ensured otherwise. Gone are lots of unnecessary bits of street furniture and a surfeit of unnecessary obsolete signs. Both minimal and comprehensive, that's the plan.

The new signs are really rather lovely. Maybe it's the clear clean design, or maybe it's the inspired choice of black and yellow, but the enamel surface looks positively lickable. No surprise, then that the Legible London prototypes have met with a very positive reaction from the public. 85% of interviewees said the new system was easy-to-use, two-thirds of respondents said it would encourage them to walk more, and nine out of 10 felt the system should be rolled out across London. So it's going to be. The original Bond Street focus is to be extended along Oxford and Regent Streets over the next few months. Three further lucky areas will see the system rolled out during autumn 2009, and if the cash holds out a lot more of the capital could follow.

a minilith in Oxford StreetSouth Bank and Bankside: That makes sense. The Thames riverside is already teeming with strolling pedestrians, especially at weekends, many of whom only ever stick to the water's edge for fear of getting lost. It's stepping inshore which requires better signage, not least because there are absolutely no underground stations along the South Bank. And the quickest walking route from the London Eye to the Tate Modern isn't along the Thames, but who'd know that without decent maps?

Bloomsbury, Covent Garden and Holborn: That makes sense. There's a warren of non-griddy streets around the eastern West End, and it can be quite hard to tell where you're heading. I suspect TfL have pushed for this area to be included as part of their continuing campaign to get tourists to walk (not tube) to Covent Garden. Short of renaming this crowded deep level station "SmellyPlace Keepaway", it's only decent ground level signage that'll encourage passengers to walk to Covent Garden from somewhere else.

Richmond and Twickenham: That makes sense. Boris likes the suburbs, so why should the centre of town reap all the benefits? Clustering a load of miniliths around Richmond Bridge will be a good test of the system's suitability across more typical swathes of Outer London. Might even encourage a few more drivers to leave their gas guzzlers at home.

Those attending the VIP shopping day in Oxford Street next weekend will be able to find out more by stopping off at TfL's "walking trailer". Further details can be also found on the Legible London website - dormant for the last ten months but which has suddenly reawoken in a flurry of mild activity. One particular statistic in the latest press release caught my eye - the claim that "109 journeys between Central London Tube stations are quicker by foot than Tube." With the aid of Legible London's "Yellow Book", I wonder if I can name all of those tomorrow...

 Thursday, November 27, 2008

Woolworths, Bromley High Street, BR1
Millennium Mills
Just after closing time, on slipping into administration day

 Wednesday, November 26, 2008

BoJoWatch: Help a London Park

"The Mayor of London is giving ten grants of up to £400,000 to London's most needy parks to make them cleaner, safer, greener, and nicer places to visit. Londoners are now invited to vote for which parks win an award."

Hurrah! The money Boris saved by scrapping "The Londoner" is being spent on upgrading several of the capital's much-loved parks. Repaint some railings, lay a new multipurpose games pitch, introduce community vegetable plots... that sort of thing. Which sounds great and green and worthy and fantastic. Except for this "vote" nonsense. Here's the catch.

"There are forty seven deserving parks for you to choose from. To make it easier they have been divided into five London sub-regions. The winners will be the two parks in each of the five London sub-regions, which get the most votes."

So 47 parks deserve money, but only 10 will get any. What Londoners are really being asked to choose are the 37 parks that will get nothing. In common with most reality TV shows these days, harnessing the power of the public vote ensures that there will be far more losers than winners. Never mind sharing out the money 47 ways, it's all going to go on two showcase improvements in each of five London sub-regions. If you live in Hillingdon and the money goes to Hammersmith, never mind, maybe it'll be your turn in 2013.




Which means that voting is really important. The ten communities that rally the most online support will get themselves a 21st century landmark park on their doorstep. And everyone else will have to make do with a few swings and a patch of dog-squat grass. Quick, head over to the online voting form and make your choice! Voting ends at 5pm on 30th January 2009, so there's plenty of time to make your voice heard, and that of your friends too. Vote wisely, vote early, and vote often.

Oh hang on, I've just read the rules more carefully. "Each person has just one vote and can vote for only one park. We will be carrying out various checks on the information put into the website by voters and reserve the right to remove any votes where we have reason to believe irregularities have occurred."

That's a relief. Boris has ensured that online voting procedures will be rigorously regulated and strictly scrutinised. There is no possible way that any park-related voting irregularities will be permitted. The online voting form is absolutely totally 100% fraud-proof. Various cunning security devices have been employed to ensure that vote-rigging is absolutely impossible.







See, that's brilliant. By asking voters to give their name, GLA scrutineers will be able to see at a glance whether anyone has voted before. How fortunate that London's voters are trustworthy souls, and wouldn't dream of typing a false name into either box. Or indeed a different false name every day until the end of January. Or pretending to be ten imaginary members of the same family. These evil devious ploys will definitely not work at all.




See, that's brilliant. By asking voters to give their location, GLA scrutineers will gain additional information to help them weed out multiple voters at the same IP address. How fortunate that London's voters are trustworthy souls, and wouldn't dream of pretending to be at a workplace, or at a school, or indeed "at a park", and then giving hundreds of different false names as if the entire community is voting. These evil devious ploys will definitely not work at all.




See, that's brilliant. By asking voters to give their postcode, GLA scrutineers will have all the information they need to prevent mischievous ballot manipulation. How fortunate that London's voters are trustworthy souls, and wouldn't dream of entering a different postcode each time (or, more cunningly, pretending to be at a workplace and then typing in the same postcode every time). These evil devious ploys will definitely not work at all.

So come on London, let's all vote to give our nearest small park a much needed financial boost. I'm starting my 9-week campaign for the Greenway today. And it's refreshing to know that, when the results are announced in February, it'll only be the most deserving parks that win. And definitely not the big well-known parks with well-mobilised community support and an army of deceitful rule-twisting voters.



 Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Transforming the truth

Given the chance, what would you ask TfL bosses about the tube upgrade programme? I've been thinking what I'd ask (were I not busy when the opportunity arose). Three years ago I'd have asked "Why have you just completely buggered up the modernisation of my local tube station?" But that's old news, so I'd now need to ask something more contemporary. I think I'd ask the following...
"Why are you lying to the public about Bank/Monument?"
Bank dragonThe deceit started eight months ago when a major programme of renewal work started on the escalators between Bank and Monument stations. There are two sets of escalators here, one up from the end of the Northern line platforms and the other up from the DLR. Block both of these and you sever the connection between the two stations. At the end of March, that's what TfL claimed to have done. They launched a flurry of publicity to announce that interchange at Bank/Monument was suddenly restricted. Hundreds of thousands of leaflets were distributed announcing
"No interchange at Bank and Monument stations until August 2009 (except between the DLR and Northern lines)"
This was a lie. Only one of the two escalators between the two stations was shut for repair, so interchange between the DLR, Northern and District lines was still perfectly possible. TfL chose not to tell the public this.

The Bank/Monument upgrade is important renewal work, but with serious risk attached. The DLR and Northern lines have no direct exit to the surface, so closing off an escalator could have caused serious overcrowding underground. To prevent this, TfL closed off lots of additional passageways leading down from the Central line. A huge over-reaction, as it turned out, and some of these through routes were soon reopened. Indeed during off-peak hours and at weekends, getting around the Bank/Monument complex was often no trouble at all. But the "it's all blocked, all the time" message continued to hold sway. Replan your journey, interchange somewhere else, please don't come here, ever.

Scary Bank/Monument stickerStickers like this appeared on tube maps all over the Underground. Here, there, everywhere, a bright yellow warning to avoid the Bank/Monument area at all costs. I spotted this particular sticker on the Waterloo and City line. A line with just two stations, and a sticker advising people not to travel to one of them. How ridiculous is that?

Scary Waterloo & City line map

A subtly different message was being given on TfL's website. "Until summer 2009, there is very limited interchange at Bank and Monument stations. This is due to major escalator replacement works. You are strongly advised to use alternative interchange stations." No out and out denial here, no claims that certain routes were definitely blocked. But all contributing to a tangled web of mixed messages and deliberate misinformation.

And then the weekend before last, things changed. A new phase of work kicked off, unannounced, and one more escalator was sealed off. It's now no longer possible to ride down from Monument to Bank, not at all. But it is still possible to ride up in the opposite direction. Got that?

Scary Monument posterHere's the latest poster announcing the new situation, appearing in ticket halls across the network. The title's misleading for a start. Going to Monument isn't a problem, no matter how you get there. Going via Monument, however, that's a different matter.

The first sentence on the poster is false. Interchange between Monument and Bank stations is possible below ground, but only in one direction. TfL should have said "from/to" instead of "between/and", because that would have been true. This distinction is made correctly in sentence two.

And the confusion doesn't end there. There now seems to be no coherent message being applied across the Underground system. What you're being told about Bank and Monument depends on where you are...
Map on a District line train: "No interchange at Bank and Monument stations until August 2009" [false]
Automated announcement on a District line train approaching Monument: "Change here for the Central, Northern and Waterloo & City lines and the Docklands Light Railway" [false] (but sometimes contradicted by driver announcement)
Map on a Central line train: "Major escalator works. Avoid changing at Bank" [true]
Automated announcement on a Central line train approaching Bank: "Change here for the Circle, District, Northern and Waterloo & City lines and the Docklands Light Railway" [still true] (except during busy bits of the rush hour)
TfL website (tube): "Please avoid using Monument Station to interchange with services from Bank." [true] "Until spring 2009 interchange between District and Circle line services at Monument and all services from Bank station is only available at street level due to escalator refurbishment works." [false]
TfL website (DLR): "Until summer 2009, there is very limited interchange at Bank and Monument stations." [limited, maybe, but not "very limited"] "This is due to major escalator replacement works." [true] "You are strongly advised to use alternative interchange stations." [madness]
Leaflet linked from brand new live travel news page on TfL website: "The complexity of this project means there will be no interchange at Bank and Monument stations except between the DLR and Northern lines." [false, and out-of-date]
October 2008 tube map (key to map): "Major escalator work is taking place at Bank and Monument stations." [true] "Avoid interchange between lines wherever possible" [false, some interchanges are fine]
October 2008 tube map (map): No graphical indication of any problems whatsoever (apart from one of those dagger things that everybody ignores) [surely, TfL, the latest map ought to look something like this]


Is this deliberate misinformation, or just disjoint incompetence? TfL appear so keen to keep crowds away from Bank/Monument that they're willing to spread false rumours and incomplete advice. Their relentless oversimplified information keeps sheep-like customers at bay, leaving canny travellers to work out the truth for themselves. And the truth is somewhat simpler...
"You can't change trains from Monument to Bank at the moment. Other interchanges around the two stations are probably OK, but you might want to avoid Bank station during the rush hour."
Oh TfL, you may be doing important work transforming the tube. But why are lying to us while you do it?

 Monday, November 24, 2008

When Frank Woolworth opened his first store in 1879, everything was priced at five cents. In today's nightmare economic climate a Woolworths share now sells for less than that. So I thought I'd better pay a visit while stocks last. Turns out I live in a Woolworths hotspot, with as many as three Woolies stores within a mile and a quarter of my house. I took a shopping list to all three.

My nearest store: 572-574 Roman Road, Bow E3
Woolworths, BowAh, now that looks like a proper shop. Bold brick frontage, windows splashed with 3 for 2 offers, and a big blue lottery sign dumped outside on the pavement. Who could resist? Well, most of E3, by the looks of it. Business wasn't brisk yesterday, maybe thanks to the downpour that preceded my arrival, or more likely because most of the other shops along Roman Road were closed. Inside, for a select few, the usual Aladdin's Cave of retail titbits held limited appeal. Cutlery, extension leads, Dylon... all left untouched in favour of a few Woolies staples. One lady's basket brimmed over with value toys and cheap glitzy decorations - nothing gets in the way of a traditional East End Christmas round these parts. But entertainment's where it's at, and the DVD/CD/Wii section was the only area keeping profits afloat. The staff were matched roughly 1-1 by customers, which enabled them to offer helpful personal service as appropriate. Whilst skulking around the rear of the store I spotted a bald man sitting in the corner in a tiny walled-off wooden office, keeping careful watch over the personnel and the takings. It was like stepping back in time to the department stores of my childhood, which I guess this place still is. I came away with a lemon squeezer for £2, because I needed one. And I came away with the feeling of a friendly local store where the staff still look out for one another and go the extra mile to get things right.

My 2nd nearest store: 43-44 The Mall, Stratford Centre E15
Woolworths, StratfordHow very different. The Stratford store is considerably bigger and busier than Bow, part of a more modern mall development, with a full range of Woolworths paraphernalia stacked up within. You want music? There's a restricted range of top albums and cheap back catalogue (the best selection in town until upstart HMV appeared a few years ago). You want books? There's a very limited handful of bestsellers (completely overshadowed by WH Smith nextdoor). You want stuff for children? There's everything from themed pyjamas to neon plastic pencil sharpeners (and where else on the High Street are you going to find those). You want rotten teeth? Never fear, because the pick'n'mix is still going strong (now scooping at 69p per 100 grams). Something for the car, something for the kitchen, even replacement plastic insoles, it's all packed in here just in case you might ever want it. And often you only realise you want something when you spot it on the shelves, which is why I walked out with 50 binliners and a four quid oven glove. Nothing classy, but tasteful enough. Until the Stratford City development comes along, Woolworths is still top of the shops.

My 3rd nearest store: 10 Vesey Path, Poplar E14
Woolworths, PoplarAnother store, another differently-branded frontage. This one's proper old school, as if central office have forgotten to upgrade the lettering since the 1980s, but inside it felt the most modern store of the three. Neat parallel aisles, a separate checkout area, and a uniformed security guard by the front entrance. Hmm, for how long have Woolworths stores had a uniformed security guard at the entrance? Do bosses think shoppers are going to run off with a pocketful of cola jelly snakes, or maybe whisk away a surreptitious Terry's Chocolate Orange? Late Sunday afternoon it was no trouble keeping an eye on half a dozen customers. Children's clothes were the big draw here, deserving of their own separate department and chosen with cash-strapped local mums in mind. I noted that Woolies' cheapest compilation CD costs a mere £1, and that the store still sells singles but only if they're X Factor related. My thoughts, however, were focused on the Secret Santa gift I needed to buy for work. With a price limit of only £5, where better than Woolworths to hunt down something appropriate and extra cheap? And yes, of course Woolies came up trumps, but I'm now wondering whether I dare wrap and send my special present even under a cloak of anonymity.

You may sneer but, in each of the High Streets I visited, the local Woolworths is the toppermost retailer in town. That's especially true in Bow and Poplar, impoverished neighbourhood centres overlooked by almost every other major national chain store. If these downmarket marketplaces ever shut up shop, they'll be greatly missed.

 Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Travelling around London at the weekend is no fun. It used to be that tube services ran pretty much as normal on Saturdays and Sundays, but no more. Weekend services have become blighted by a increasing number of engineering works, and we've now reached the stage where lines without closures are in a minority. Yes, I know that these engineering works are no doubt essential, and they all help to ensure that the tube runs better in the future. But the short term effect of 'transforming the tube' is 'destroying the weekend'. Like, for example, last Saturday.
diamondgeezer: I want to slap the idiot who shut the Circle line, the middle of the District line, the middle of the Jubilee line and 90% of the DLR. Hard.
04:55 PM November 15, 2008 from txt
I was at Sloane Square trying to get back to Bow, which is normally one direct train. But not last Saturday. The District line was suspended between Embankment and Whitechapel, and the Circle line wasn't running at all. Never mind, I'd go as far as Westminster and change there for the Jubilee... ah, no, couldn't do that either. I waited ages for the first District line train east, which (when it finally arrived) was rammed full like a Monday morning rush hour. At Westminster various folk got off to change to the Jubilee line, not having heard (or understood) that it wasn't running from here. And I eventually made it to Waterloo, and thence to Canary Wharf for the DLR home... oh damn, that wasn't running either. All in all, unexpectedly hellish.

The trick is to go out prepared. TfL have got better over the years at warning us what they're shutting down each weekend so that we can adjust our plans appropriately. A page in the Metro, big weekly posters at tube stations, even a list of shutdowns they'll post you in a Wednesday email if you so desire. Oh, and the 'weekend' tab on the live travel news page on the TfL website. You know the one. A text-based line-by-line list which details what's going to be shut and between which stations. It's OK if you know the network well, but quite hard to assimilate otherwise. What's really needed here is a map to show clearly what's open and what's blocked. And what do you know, as of this week there now is.

Welcome to the new (Flash) TfL "Planned engineering works" webpage. Look, there's now a map which shows clearly what's open and what's blocked! There's no Circle line at all this weekend, that's instantly obvious. A couple of bits of District line are shut too, which are much better visualised (aha, there and there) than deduced ("suspended between Earls Court and Embankment and between High Street Kensington and Edgware Road"). If you'd like to see part of the map more distinctly, just zoom in. Want full explanatory text? Just point at the closures on the map and a text box appears (and there's a full list of lines to the left of the map with matching information). Clever innit? It's easy to see that one end of the Jubilee's stuffed, and the top end of the Metropolitan too. More importantly, it's dead simple to see which bits of the network are open and unobstructed. Planning your weekend just got easier.

Mostly easier, anyway, because there's still the odd snag. The Waterloo & City line appears on the map even though it's open as normal. It's never open before 8am on a Saturday, nor any time on Sunday, so the map shows it as "shut". The associated W&C text isn't much help either, giving no clue whatsoever that the line closes early on a Saturday evening. And then there are two lines with engineering work, neither of which show up on the map at all. One's the DLR which is half-shut this weekend. The DLR lines do appear on the new Flash map but the DLR engineering works don't, because the DLR's not a 'tube' line. Ditto the London Overground. The Barking end's closed on Sunday, but this doesn't appear as a blockage on the map. TfL's insistence on tabbing their engineering work by travel mode has led to some unhelpful uncoordinated thinking.

Still, mustn't grumble. The new map's a big step in the right direction, and conceals some even cleverer functionality. There's now a date option so that you can check future engineering work on any day in the next four weeks. The weekend after next, Metroland and Upminster and are sealed off. The weekend after that, there's virtually no disruption at all (unheard of!). And the weekend after that, try not to go to Farringdon or Dagenham. Plan ahead, plan wisely.

The new map won't put an end to weekend severance gridlock, and it won't make an army of rail replacement buses go away. But it should help to prevent Londoners from heading into a transport void by mistake, and it might even help me get home quicker.

Newly available: Interactive map of planned engineering works
Still available: Journeyplanner Real time disruption map
Still available: pdf of line closures for the next 6 months [Advance warning: major Jubilee line shutdown next Easter]

 Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Courtauld GalleryFine Art: Courtauld Gallery
Small, and yet perfectly formed. The Courtauld Gallery displays the sparkling art haul of a few seriously rich collectors, and is crammed away on the northern side of Somerset House. Normally it's a fiver to get in, but turn up before 2pm on a Monday and entrance is free. I turned up at quarter to, with a smile, and joined the crowds of clued-up frugal visitors within.

Room one's all the old stuff. Early Renaissance Italian, much of it gold and gleaming, with a particularly heavy dose of Virgin Marys. Then on (and on) up the 18th century semi-spiral staircase to a floor of key French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. I'm not good with my 19th century Parisian art movements, but I know a famous name when I see it and here there are plenty. One of Manet's last major works, some Monets and a lot of Cézannes, just for starters. There's the famous portrait of Van Gogh with his bandaged ear, and upstairs a lot of spotty Seurats too. In just a handful of the Courtauld's rooms there are art treasures encompassing a century of French canvas excellence. I have a hunch that the spotty schoolkids I saw at Tate Britain would have learnt rather more here, and rather quicker.

The Courtauld boasts a great period setting. The ceilings are works of art in themselves, and fine-crafted artefacts such as tables and a harpischord are scattered throughout. There's long been a teaching establishment based here, and 200 years ago the Royal Academy School of Art filled these rooms. Its most famous student is probably JMW Turner, and there's currently a temporary exhibition of his work in an upper room. It was packed, mostly with cultured visitors of Freedom Pass age, who know a top free event when they see one. If you ever have a (non Bank Holiday) Monday off work, why not slip in? Alternatively the famous Somerset House ice rink opens again tomorrow for its winter season, and (what?! £10.50 during the day and £12.50 for an evening session?!) that's free to look at too.
by tube: Temple

Tate BritainCubed Art: Tate Britain
It can't be easy being Tate Britain. For a century you're the gallery to visit, centre of artistic attention, a cultural hub. Then your parents give birth to a younger sibling - Tate Modern - and everybody flocks there instead. Always the way with babies isn't it? Loud, cute and dripping with novelty value, and therefore magnetically attractive at the expense of the rest of the family. Which is a shame, because Tate Britain's as fascinating as it ever was, if only everyone else would notice.

The main gallery's classical Victorian, built on the site of the notorious Millbank Penitentiary. Within its 30 or so rooms is laid out the history of British Art from 1500 to the present day. The old stuff's to the left, and the 20th century's to the right. And don't worry, it's now quite safe to walk down the bit in the middle because the twice-a-minute athletic sprinty thing ended on Sunday. As you wander through you'll see how BritArt evolved, from portraits and religious iconography to landscapes and finally peculiar abstract splodges. Don't worry, there aren't too many splodges in Pimlico, most of that part of the Tate's collection is on the South Bank instead.

If you visit on a weekday, watch out for the school parties. The place was crawling with them yesterday - a complete range of ages from infants to A Level groups. The youngsters were making their own swishy capes in the middle of Gallery 2, then parading up and down to show off their arty handiwork. The exam classes were milling around everywhere else, some posh and floppy, others merely trendy and aspirational. They hovered around various paintings and sculptures, most sketching a copy into their notebooks, but a few just tittering at Tracey Emin's cruder outpourings. Beats sitting in the classroom looking at jpegs.

In a modern extension (past the shop) are many of the works of JMW Turner, all glowing skies and brooding clouds. Some are ace, with the upstart genius's brilliance shining through, while others just looked like weak luminescence. And then there are two paid-for exhibitions, one Francis Bacon retrospective and one Turner Prize shortlisting. I'm advised that the Bacon's unmissable and the Turner's prestigious, but at nearly £20 for the two I was willing to pass both by. Maybe I've been conditioned to expect my art for free, but when there's a room full of Constables down the corridor for nothing I'm perfectly happy enough.
by tube: Pimlico

 Sunday, November 16, 2008

Saatchi GalleryNouveau Art: Saatchi Gallery
Have you been yet? The new Saatchi Gallery in the King's Road, down Chelsea way. It's been open for a month, have you not popped in? It's free to get in, which is a bit of an improvement on the gallery's previous incarnation on the South Bank. And it's full of art! You're bound to go there some time, so why not go soon? well, maybe.

Charles Saatchi's latest art emporium is based in the former Duke of York's Building, a grand Georgian barracks with strong Palladian columns and an extensive grassy square outside. Appearances can be deceptive. Once through the door, the interior is anything but ancient. A pair of brightly lit galleries lead off to each side, each a shuttered white box in which to hang the adman's latest whim. To the rear a modern extension, not huge, but enough for an extra gallery and some extra staircases. There are three roughly identical floors, each a little anonymous, plus some additional space and a shop in the basement. Plenty of room, very flexible, and ripe for revisiting.

Ash Head No 1The first major exhibition here is of New Chinese Art. Nobody you'll have heard of, Charles specialises in the unknown, but this is familiar western-style art with a very definite Oriental flavour. Yes that is Chairman Mao sitting in the royal coach with the Queen Mother, you get the idea. Bold canvases dominate some rooms, surreal sculptures dominate others. It's the latter that you'll remember later. A landscape of architectural icons created from dog chews. The top half of an inscrutable head. A ponytailed mannequin licking the floor. A donkey climbing a metal skyscraper, and a giant turd (not connected). One major work, in the two-floor rear gallery, involves resin human bodies hanging hairless from the ceiling like plucked meat. Down in the basement are 13 old men (who look suspiciously like world leaders) slouched in motorised wheelchairs which move aimlessly back and forth. Not so much geriatric dodgems as an attempt at pointed political satire, and a big hit with visiting punters.

The gallery has an unusual atmosphere, especially if you're used to more formal presentation. There are no barriers in front of the paintings or sculptures, there's just the occasional notice asking you to respect the artworks and to keep children from touching them. No problem if you want to walk into the middle of the wheelchair display, for example, and become part of the performance. Photography is also permitted, big time. The more intriguing pieces each gather a small crowd wielding their cameras or mobiles, which feels either wonderfully inclusive or disturbingly intrusive, depending on your point of view. But it's an interesting space nonetheless, which stands or falls on the choice of works placed therein. Worth a look?
by tube: Sloane Square

through the window of the Serpentine GalleryModerne Art: Serpentine Gallery
Four rooms, regular exhibitions, middle of Kensington Gardens, free admission. Sounds like a perfect cultural detour if you're ever on a stroll in the area, like I was yesterday. So I popped inside, uncertain of what the latest exhibition might involve. Aha, the work of Gerhard Richter, "one of the world's greatest living artists". Sounded promising. But what was this? We were being treated to one of his works of abstract art entitled 4900 Colours. Imagine a grid of coloured tiles, 5 by 5, comprising bright monochrome squares randomly arranged. Then take three further tiles, similarly random, and assemble them (randomly) to create a 10 by 10 square. No point looking for deliberate pattern, there isn't any, just a (random) burst of variegated colours like a wildly haphazard bathroom wall. Then create 48 further 10×10 grids, all equally random, and display them around the gallery in a random order. And that's the entire exhibition. The curators described this as "stunning sheets of kaleidoscopic colour". I described it as "an awful lot of coloured tiles", and "something so bloody simple that I could have thought of it, but didn't". The exhibition was quite pretty for a bit, but then repetitive, and then extremely repetitive. Sorry, but I can't search for meaning in random art because by definition there isn't any. Not impressed. There may be money in it, however, in which case I reckon we should all head down to Topps Tiles for a selection of coloured offcuts and some grout.
by tube: Knightsbridge

 Saturday, November 15, 2008

London 2012  Olympic update
  Power down


Hackney Marshes pylon droopPylons stalk the horizon in locations across the UK. They dominate the view, standing tens of metres tall, tainting the scenery. An army of steel soldiers, linked by cable, transmitting electricity from supply to demand. They cast a permanent shadow on the landscape because their removal would be unfeasibly expensive, and because energy is more important than aesthetics. Except here in the Lower Lea Valley, that is. After years of aerial blight, the arrival of the Olympics requires the unthinkable. It's suddenly a government imperative that the area looks nice by 2012, and that means emptying the sky of metal. Our pylons are coming down.

52 pylons are being dismantled altogether, stretching from Lea Bridge in the north to West Ham in the south. That's rather more than would seem strictly necessary, given that only about ten of these lie within the boundaries of the Olympic Park. But a couple stand very close indeed to the site of the Olympic Stadium, and it would never do to spear a javelin into the overhanging wires. Clearing this central section is the sporting and political imperative, and improving the view across Hackney Marshes and the Greenway merely a happy by-product.

There's been work going on for a couple of years to dig two 6km tunnels beneath the Olympic Park, and these are now filled with 200km of electrical cabling. It's a damned impressive civil engineering project, particularly completed in so short a time, but quite hard to crow about when there's nothing to see on the surface. Subterranean power was successfully switched on in the summer, making the pylons redundant. And this week the long-awaited dismantling finally began.

Greenway pylon dismantlingI was surprised by the pace of change, especially along the Greenway across Stratford High Street. Long thin metal cages hang from the arms of one particular pylon, allowing workers elevated access to the cable connections. On one side the wires are already detached and disappeared, on the other severance is merely imminent. Another deconstruction hotspot is at the top end of Hackney Marshes, near the Middlesex Filter Beds, where a cluster of yellow-jacketed workers have clearly had a busy week. Transmission coils hang vertically from each arm of one doomed pylon, its web of cables now drooping limply towards the ground. Another pylon is already cable-free, awaiting permanent dismantling. Being in open ground it'll probably be toppled over, whereas other pylons in more awkward spots will require the presence of an enormous crane to aid their removal.

They'll all be gone in a few months, clearing the way for further Olympic construction and brightening my local landscape. My apologies if you live in an area of outstanding natural beauty blighted by pylons, because yours are unlikely ever to vanish. But sometimes the incredibly unlikely can be proved possible, and all it takes is political will, and a fortnight of athletics, and an awful lot of cash.

The Pylon Appreciation Society
London 2012 video about pylon removal
London 2012 fact-packed press release
Map of the 52 doomed pylons (best viewed large)
My latest Olympic Stadium photo (includes two doomed pylons)

» Sebastian Coe, Chairman of the London 2012 Organising Committee, said: 'This is a great example of how an Olympic and Paralympic Games can help revitalise and regenerate a city." (which translates as "We're making the Stratford area look a little nicer, which quite frankly isn't difficult")
» ODA Chief Executive David Higgins said: 'The pylons in the Olympic Park will all be down by the end of the year, unlocking the area for the development of new homes, world-class sports venues and essential infrastructure.' (which translates as "We'll never be able to sell these houses if they're built under pylons")
» Mayor of London Boris Johnson said: 'For as long as I can remember the first thing that strikes you as you travel further to the east of town are these ugly structures dominating the skyline and blighting the area.' (which translates as "I have a blinkered negative view of east London, and thank God I don't have to live there")
» EDF Energy Chief Executive Vincent de Rivaz said: 'As the first London 2012 sustainability partner and energy utilities partner we are proud to be playing a key role in helping to deliver what will be a truly sustainable Games and ensuring that come 2012, the organisers have a resilient supply of electricity.' (which translates as "I never said that, but I have a PR team experienced in writing press releases full of on-message drivel")


 Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Stratford Regional station

Stratford Regional stationWhen Boris pulled the plug on London's transport investment last week, he didn't snuff out everything. Some projects survived because they were too important, too far advanced or too well supported. The upgrade of Stratford station is all three. Too important, because the Olympics are arriving close by in four years time. Too far advanced, because the shopping centre nextdoor was planned even before the Games were won. And too well supported because the upgrade is being funded by the Olympic Delivery Authority, not TfL. A stupendously accessible megahub is on its way, estimated time of arrival 2010, and it'll make recent improvements at Shepherd's Bush look like peanuts.

Stratford station's complicated enough already. It's on two levels, with all the east-west trains up top and the north-south departures down below. This makes getting around quite difficult. From the station entrance to the Jubilee line platforms (1999) wouldn't be far were it not for the old North London line platforms (1847) scything inbetween, so passengers have ride up and over and down and across instead. There's an even longer subway'n'stairs trek from the new DLR terminus (2007) to the Stansted platforms (1840) - absolutely no fun when lugging luggage. It's a recipe for confusion and congestion, and it's got to be sorted before hundreds of thousands of additional visitors turn up for the Olympics.

Stratford platform 10a£104m of investment should do the trick. One of the key proposals is to reopen an existing subway beneath the tracks, offering a third route through from one side of the station to the other. Damned short-sighted shutting it in the first place, if you ask me. Some old station buildings (pictured) have been demolished, presumably for not being shiny enough. An extra platform is being built alongside the westbound Central line to provide doubled-up access for early morning London-bound commuters. Two new platforms are being built on the north side of the station, to which all London Overground services will transfer next year. That'll leave the existing low level platforms free for the proposed DLR extension from Canning Town, and then... Actually it still sounds damned complicated, doesn't it, but hopefully a little less crowded to get around.

The genesis of the Stratford City complex immediately to the north will mean further changes. There'll be a new northern entrance, obviously, plus a huge pedestrian overbridge crossing the tracks so that posh shoppers can easily reach the Wilkinson and Wetherspoons in the existing town centre should they so desire. And yet another ticket hall will be built to link the bridge to the station's mezzanine level. I fear that the existing four escalators won't be able to cope with the additional footfall generated, but I rejoice at the introduction of additional ticket-buying facilities. It's usually hell trying to queue at Stratford's current paltry number of ticket windows, and often the line of off-peak-return-purchasers snakes out of the main entrance.

Stratford InternationalAnd then there's the brand new Stratford International station half a mile to the north. It's already erected and ready, as I discovered when I took a tour last year, but no trains of any kind yet stop here. It was built with grand designs amidst open wasteland, but the first international departures remain some years off. Few travellers from Paris want to pause in Stratford when they could speed to St Pancras, so only a handful of future services will ever stop here. Eurostar also assert, quite understandably, that "services will only begin when good quality road and public transport connections are in place". There's only one main road, and that leads into the Olympic Park which is shut. And the connecting DLR extension won't open before 2010, by which time there'll be nothing more international here than Southeastern trains to Dover and Margate.

I still can't quite take on board the enormous scope of the transformation about to be wrought here in Stratford. A vast station complex to match Clapham Junction, surrounded by a major development zone to rival anywhere in London. Direct rail services to the continent and all corners of the capital, plus (eventually) Crossrail too. An upcoming regenerated neighbourhood, even (heavens above) a Waitrose. And all because politicians and sportsmen dared to dream, and backed up their plans with cash. My local area is going up in the world because it slipped through before the transport budget chest was slammed shut. Boris, watch and learn.

London 2012 update on Stratford Regional station (& video)
Maps showing planned station redevelopment (pdf)
History of all the bits of Stratford station

 Friday, November 07, 2008

After Bonfire Night came Bonfire Day. TfL's latest business plan (pdf) has incinerated several slow-burning transport projects, each liberally doused with car-friendly petrol by our beloved Mayor. A few important projects that Boris inherited, such as Crossrail and (most of) the East London line, will be prioritised. And their funding will be secured by sacrificing various smaller projects, generally at the expense of residents in boroughs that voted for Ken. TfL's emphasis will be on upgrading existing networks, not branching out into new areas, no matter how great the local need. Boris refuses to raise taxes to pay for anything, including it seems investment in London's future. There'll be no new transport projects in the pipeline for his successor to open, but never mind, eh?

So, what's Boris shelved?

Cross River Tram
A rail map of Inner London reveals one big blind spot, one great inaccessible desert through which no existing tracks run. The Zone 2 Gap is centred on Burgess Park, around the Aylesbury Estate and Camberwell, and it's through these mean streets that the Cross River Tram was due to pass. Sorry Southwark residents, you'll have to carry on taking the bus instead. Look, TfL haven't quite removed all their CRT plans from the internet yet, so it's still possible to see what you're missing. No more frivolous thoughts of running a tram service on-street between Camden and Peckham, because you can just imagine how many car drivers that might have inconvenienced. Of all the schemes to hit the buffers today, this one's probably the greatest loss. CRT, RIP.

Thames Gateway Bridge
This project's rather more controversial. It's been on the drawing board for aaaa-ages, and would have linked Beckton to Thamesmead across a not-terribly accessible stretch of the Thames. The river's a huge barrier to movement in East London, far more so than out west, and this major bridge would have greatly increased accessibility. Unfortunately it would also have brought more traffic (and nasty concrete feeder roads) to the area immediately around it, so the bridge was never popular with local residents. Now they can live happily in their residential cul-de-sac, and everyone else can drive upriver to the nearest tunnel (3 miles) or downriver to the nearest bridge (10 miles). Or there's always the Woolwich Ferry, still a 19th century solution for a 21st century problem. Boris is apparently looking into constructing another tunnel near Silvertown, but that needs to be planned from scratch and so is unlikely to be built in the next 20 years. In the meantime, the output of a lengthy public inquiry goes in the bin.

DLR Dagenham Dock extension
Who'd live on Barking Reach? Acres of new boxy dwellings are erupting all over the Thames estuary around Creekmouth, and yet at the moment there's only a weedy bus service to link residents to the main transport network. The DLR extension to Dagenham Dock was meant as a long-term solution to this problem - a bold attempt to give Thames Gateway property some value. In a recent consultation 95% of local residents were in favour of the new branch line, planned to open in 2017. Stuff them. If you want to live here now, get a car.

Oxford Street tram scheme
Let's be honest, shopping in Oxford Street could be nicer. We'll see that on December 6th when traffic is banned for a 5 hour festive retail blowout and pedestrians rule the tarmac. Boris is clearly keen on ousting the red tide of buses from the street more permanently, but that won't now mean installing a mile-long tramway to ferry weary shoppers from bargain to bargain. My bet's on him decapitating a few bus services so that they no longer run along the entire street, they terminate earlier at Marble Arch or Centre Point. It may not be convenient for all travellers, but it'd be damned cheap.

Croydon Tramlink extension
This is the biggest surprise on the to-kill list. It's relatively inexpensive, it follows an existing rail corridor, it's already quite well planned, and it's in part of Outer London that's natural Boris-supporting territory. It was also due to interchange with the new East London Line spur to Crystal Palace, which is still on the to-survive list. Not enough to save the tramlink link, alas.

East London Transit and Greenwich Waterfront Transit
These sound much more exciting than they really are. Priority segregated bus lanes with a frequent service, one over Barking way and the other between Thamesmead and Greenwich. Now only some preliminary tidying up is scheduled before the funding runs out, and oh look, that's Barking and Thamesmead buggered again. Do vote more carefully next time, folks.

HS2012High Street 2012
Hang on, that's my local project on the scrapheap! You'll remember that I spent most of August walking up and down the A11 telling you of great transformative plans to improve the public realm along this historic and strategically important corridor. All cancelled, apparently, along with plans to improve Parliament Square and the Victoria Embankment. We're told that these schemes "did not have a strong rationale" (which is political speak for "making places look nice is not cost effective"). And they also "had the added disbenefit of restricting traffic flow and potentially increasing congestion" (which is political speak for "it's more important to be able to drive through somewhere than to live in it"). So it's what-a-shame Whitechapel and bad luck Bow. When the London 2012 marathon comes plodding this way, global TV cameras will see an unchanged and uninspiring hotchpotch of metropolitan backwater architecture. As for the millions that English Heritage were due to plough into my neighbourhood as part of HS2012, they're presumably now lost too and we'll see nothing. Thank you Boris, thank you for nothing.

 Thursday, November 06, 2008

Way To Go?

Phrases to be found in Boris Johnson's newly-launched and slightly unusual 36-page transport strategy document
» "chuntering and roaring"
» "packed to the gunwales with perspiring passengers"
» "roads and pavements are cratered with enigmatic holes, coned, fenced, deserted, as though the city were still recovering from a series of unexpected Scud attacks"
» "the colossal new Cloaca Maxima called the Thames Tideway tunnel"
» "a holy war against holey streets"
» "kerbs seem to have sprouted traffic-throttling excrescences"
» "It does not mean that City Hall has been captured by J Bonington Jagsworth of the Motorists' Liberation Front"

Hmmm, what might this mean, eh?
» "It is absolutely essential for TfL to bear down on costs" [We're going to publish a major "efficiencies" initiative tomorrow]
» "Oxford Street is still bisected by a panting wall of red metal. Can we really leave it as it is?" [Expect the removal of lots of those bloody annoying bus things from Oxford Street]
» "We are considering a tunnel under Park Lane, releasing land for development and green space, which could be funded from the development it produces." [Some rich friends of mine, who own hotels and sports car showrooms, would like to increase pedestrian footfall outside their premises]
» "the day is surely not far off when passengers will swipe through the turnstiles with their mobiles or other hand-held device" [We used to tell you not expose your mobile in a public place in case it got stolen, but our new technological partners would rather we didn't mention that any more]

Is this really a good idea, Boris?
» "We need to make sure that all London's transport infrastructure is fully wheelchair accessible." [Only 200 astonishingly expensive tube station upgrades to go! Why not rip out the entire Victorian-built underground network and start again?]
» "Create dedicated routes that give nervous cyclists the confidence they need." [Great, because most Londoners won't go cycling so long as they fear they might end up under a lorry]
» "A couple of extra seconds on green can cumulatively make a huge difference to traffic flow" [And never mind the two second delay to pedestrians]
» "Think how magical it would be to pick up a boat from central London, and take a day trip downriver to see the Games at Stratford." [Erm, you could get as far as Greenwich, but sailing up the tidal River Lea is going to be bloody difficult at low tide unless the boat's no deeper than a kayak]

Did he really say that?
» "in many parts of London a feeling of oppression is compounded by the thought that public transport is the only option." [How awful that some Londoners feel they can't own their own car]
» "Free travel for kids has brought a culture where adults are too often terrified of the swearing, staring in-your-face-ness of the younger generation." [Bloody kids, they should be driven around by their parents, or start walking]
» "The motor car is not intrinsically evil." [It's only polluting and dangerous when there's a human behind the wheel]
» "I have asked GLA and TfL officials to produce an initial report into an island airport in the Thames estuary" [yes, he really did say that]

Good news: "London has secured a budget of £39 billion for the period 2007 to 2017, and this will be spent on major projects for the improvement of mass transit: Crossrail, the tube upgrades, the expansion of the Overground rail network."
Bad news: "One thing we cannot do is spend tens of millions keeping projects alive, for political reasons, when there is simply no government funding to deliver them."

Projects not mentioned in the under-ambitious document and therefore probably very dead:
» Cross River Tram (bugger Peckham)
» DLR extension to Dagenham Docks (bugger Dagenham)
» East London Transit (bugger Barking)
» Greenwich Waterfront Transit (bugger Thamesmead)
» Thames Gateway Bridge (bugger Beckton)

Statistics gleaned from the document
» Total tube ridership is about 1.1 billion journeys per year
» The average number of passengers on a London bus is 16
» It is not raining in London 94 per cent of the time

Translate the following...
» "if we are going to buy these new tunnelling machines, as we are, why not see if we can use them to dig south of the river, and expand the Tube network there?" [We may have no money, but I don't want Bromley and Bexley to lose faith in me yet]
» "Why is it that so many buses seem half-empty? Passengers may like it, but it is expensive in subsidy." [We intend to thin out London's bus network to save money]
» "The new vehicle will have some of the advantages of the old Routemaster" [The new vehicle will not be a Routemaster in anything but name]
» "I will encourage – with my policing hat on – whatever steps are possible and necessary to crack down on aggressive cycling." [Arrest the red-light-jumping bastards!]

Who's impressed? Londonist; Evening Standard; Boris, obviously
Who's not impressed? Val Shawcross;Tory Troll; Christian Wolmar

 Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Remember Remember... Hoxton Street

plaque at 244-278 Crondall Street, HoxtonThe Gunpowder Plot may have played out in cellars beneath the Palace of Westminster, but one key location in the drama was a small manor house in humble Hoxton. Four centuries ago its main thoroughfare, just north of Shakespearean Shoreditch, was home to many noblemen seeking domestic sanctuary close to the bustling City. One such rich resident was Henry Parker, better known as Lord Monteagle, and the brother-in-law of one of the Plot's Catholic conspirators. It was while dining at home in Hoxton one October evening in 1605 that history came knocking. One of Henry's footmen approached the table bearing a mysterious letter which he'd been given anonymously in the street, and Monteagle duly read the contents out loud to his assembled dining companions.
My lord out of the love i beare to some of youere frends i have a caer of youer preservacion therfor i would advyse yowe as yowe tender youer lyf to devys some excuse to shift of youer attendance at this parleament for god and man hath concurred to punishe the wickednes of this tyme and think not slightlye of this advertisment but retyre youre self into youre contri wheare yowe may expect the event in safti for thowghe theare be no appearance of anni stir yet i save they shall receyve a terrible blowe this parleament and yet they shall not seie who hurts them...
Was this a dire warning of imminent regicide, or just some prankster's sick joke? Playing safe, Lord Monteagle dashed off to Whitehall and delivered the letter in person to the Earl of Salisbury, the King's principal secretary. The threat was dismissed publicly, but taken more seriously in private. Consequently the cellars beneath Westminster were searched on the night before the state opening of Parliament and bingo, Guy Fawkes and his barrels of explosive were discovered. The Gunpowder Plot rapidly unravelled.

That's the official story, anyway. Many historians suspect that the "anonymous letter" was a sham, and that the entire "plot" was a set-up to give Catholicism a very bad name. Monteagle normally dined at his country home, and yet on this one day the messenger knew to seek him out in Hoxton. The letter was clearly a confidential warning aimed at Monteagle alone, and yet he immediately disclosed its contents in public company. The authorities needed to make an example of Fawkes and friends, and Monteagle's convenient revelation gave them the excuse they needed. Whatever the underlying reasons, Parliament and the monarchy survived greatly strengthened and Monteagle was hailed as a national hero. Hoxton Street's most renowned resident was rewarded with an annuity equivalent to £700 a year - not bad for a single evening's work.

244-278 Crondall Street, HoxtonNo trace of Monteagle's manor house exists today. Indeed very little of any historic value exists in this part of Hoxton - the non-trendy northern end into which the meeja set rarely venture. Any housing stock of note has long since been razed, replaced by acre after acre of non-descript blocks of post-war council flats. If Hackney rehoused you here you'd be grateful, but you'd not be pleased. One such development lies between Myrtle Walk and Crondall Street, a bold brick edifice with lateral chimney attached like the key on a giant brown sardine can. Rear access is via a tall blue door with keypad combination, close to a fenced off patch of grass which passes for a communal garden. From the top balcony, or even up at 'penthouse' level, there's an unobstructed view of the bus shelter below where spirited youths gather to snarl at passing photographers. And on the wall at the Hoxton Street end there's a small brown plaque which confirms that, yes, it's this very building which now stands on the site of Lord Monteagle's historic property. I fear no nobleman would consider living anywhere around here these days, not unless he was filming a secret documentary for Channel 4.

There are a fair number of other brown plaques scattered across this part of Hoxton, each attached to a very ordinary block of flats. Pollock's Toy Theatre Shop, purveyor of kiddie playhouses, that was here, now flats. The Britannia Theatre, greatly loved by Dickens, that was here, now flats. Hoxton Hall, intimate Victorian saloon, that was here, now intimate performance space. Ah, so it's not all vanished yet. But most of Hoxton's history exists only in memories, or photographs, or stories. Remember remember.

Real Hoxton
Hackney brown plaques
Tudor Hackney - Shoreditch
A Shoreditch/Hoxton walk (& map) (a most interesting backstreet stroll)
The Monteagle story/controversy

 Sunday, November 02, 2008

Bus 16: Victoria - Cricklewood (Bus Garage)
Location: London northwest
Length of journey: 6 miles, 40 minutes

Our capital's first coherent system of bus route numbering was introduced on Monday 2nd November 1908. Only one London bus still plies the same route as it did 100 years ago, and that's the 16. Its route has been stretched and tweaked and contracted over the years, but the current journey from central London to the suburbs is identical (one-way-systems excepted) to the Edwardian omnibus original. I've been for a centenary ride on its modern double decker equivalent, just to see if anything else about the journey is still the same. Destination Cricklewood.

16... to... Cricklewood Bus GarageNobody queues for buses any more. Not in the street outside Victoria anyway. The 16's not allowed in the shiny bus station, there's no room, so each service kicks off in gridlocked Wilton Road beneath a picture of a musical witch. Passengers attempt to guess precisely where the driver will stop, then charge willy nilly for the door in an attempt to grab the least worst seat for the journey ahead. I wanted upper deck front left - alas no longer an open-topped pleasure, but at least now glassed in to protect me from passing branches. And off through the one-way streets of Belgravia, peering down through autumnal leaves into the Queen's back garden (I bet Edward VII never had a tennis court). Hyde Park Corner was well named in 1908, not a four-lane gyratory, and there was still space around the Wellington Arch for memorials to wars as yet unimagined. "16 to Cricklewood Bus Garage". "Marble Arch."

I'd been fortunate to catch a bus running a few minutes behind the previous service, so we sailed past most of the early bus stops without pausing. My top deck solitude was only broken as we started up the Edgware Road. Most of the pensioners and pushchairs and veiled ladies stayed downstairs, but one gentleman ascended to claim the other front seat where he proceeded to read his exotic newspaper. It's a bit of Arabian bazaar up this stretch of road, full of shisha cafés and Maroush restaurants, and even 1908 travellers would have noted Middle Eastern migrants settled in the area. They'd probably not have recognised the casino or the multi-storey drum-like primary school, however, and they'd have been surprised at the scale of the Waitrose supermarket preparing to open here later in the month.

16, upper deck, front seatMore passengers. A young boy scampered up the stairs, closely followed by his Dad, and noted with visible disappointment that both of the front seats were taken. The pair of them tucked into the seat immediately behind me, and I felt warm breath on my ear as the youngster leaned forward to peer out of the front window. Fat mum squeezed in beside me shortly afterwards, chewing relentlessly beneath her pink headscarf and keeping firm hold on a plump leather clutch bag. I tried hard to cut out the chatter, knowing full well that all three of them wished I wasn't here. And at the next stop, they were gone.

There are some mighty high route numbers these days. A century ago anything above 20 would have been unheard of, and here I was sandwiched between a 332 and 414. My 16 chugged on into more residential territory, beneath a red-piped tower block and into the leafy suburb of Maida Vale. They've championed apartment living here for decades, and the wealthy eight-storey brick courts are far more desirable than any Thames Gateway newbuild. But the upmarket ambience didn't last long. Kilburn High Road was up next, a much more characterful mix of cultures and classes. Some of the buildings alongside have survived the century - the Cock Tavern declared itself 1900 vintage, while the Black Lion proudly displayed 1635 (ah no, hang on, that's the phone number). But the majority of the retail infill is newer and blockier and uglier. Even the lampposts were strange - thin and curved inwards like an intermittent ribcage. Kilburn's somewhere to sightsee, but more than attractive enough to local shoppers.

Kilburn Metropolitan line viaductThe traffic in the opposite direction was horrendous, backed up as far as the eye could see, with much of the congestion created by single cars attempting in vain to turn right. An illegally parked vehicle narrowed the road outside Stephens Menswear. As we attempted to pass, the car driver emerged from the sports shop nextdoor and strode out in the road to unlock her door. Fumble, key, fumble, poke, fail. With an apologetic stare she retreated to the pavement, no doubt reacting to an appropriately stern glare from our driver. He gave the brush off to another old woman lugging her basket on wheels slowly behind her down the middle of the bus lane. We couldn't move until her minute-long procession was over, and because she didn't reach the bus stop in time she was left behind.

On past a variety of Kilburn stations and the odd theatre, to ascend Shoot Up Hill. I was joined on the top deck by Gary Salisbury and his wife, easily identified from the name, address and telephone number written for all to see on a luggage tag hanging from his rucksack. If you ever meet Gary, please do try hard not to giggle at his fedora. The happy couple were heading for Cricklewood Broadway, a long shopping parade which would have been new when the first route 16 passed this way. It's now showing its age. Here cheap furniture shops sell piled-up sofas to cost-cutting landlords, and the Quick Clean Coin Operated Laundry still boasts of its featured Frigidaire Washers. The Crown Hotel still maintains a certain Victorian grandeur, if you like giant pubs with Irish hospitality and don't mind the ultra-modern extension attached nextdoor. Not for me thanks. By the time we reached Cricklewood Lane, two stops from the end of the ride, I was the only passenger left aboard.

Cricklewood Bus GarageThe 16 terminates beneath a railway bridge, virtually the only local feature which might be familiar to Edwardian travellers. The rest of the area's ugly and modern, from two vast Wickes and Matalan warehouses across the car park to the bland premises of newly-relocated Saxon College plonked beside a Lidl shed. Even the bus garage isn't what it was. The old buildings have been knocked down and replaced by a four-storey office block, which manages to be simultaneously eco-sustainable and architecturally vacuous. It's not quite finished yet, and neither is replacement parking for 200 buses, so all terminating services currently park up across the road on floodlit wasteland beside the Midland mainline.

100 years on, route 16's changed out of all recognition. The buses have a roof and talk to you. The streets are full of competing private transport. Shops sell barely-imagined goods at vastly-inflated prices. Children ride alone and shout rude words from the back seat. But there's still only one sensible way to get from central London to Cricklewood, and that's straight up Watling Street. The 16 follows in Roman footsteps, and its long history continues with every journey.


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