Monday, June 30, 2003

Capital Numbers

Today sees the end of my month-long Capital Numbers project, an attempt to list as many interesting number-based London-related facts as I possibly could. I was intending only to go from 1 to 30 but, as you can see, I got rather carried away and went up to 33 instead (mainly because there were still some really good facts around that I hadn't used yet). It's been frustrating trying to find something interesting for every number, sometimes desperately so. Thanks for your help if you contributed any of the facts that I used. It's been intriguing to discover how much more interesting some numbers are than others (17 is far more interesting than 18, for example, and 25 beats 24 by miles too). It's also been pretty challenging to link all these facts to other London-based websites, just to make the list hyper-dimensionally interesting, so I hope you've managed to click on a lot of those as well.

I've decided that all this effort throughout the month deserves to be commemorated in some way, so I've assembled all the facts onto their very own Capital Numbers website. You can click here (or on any of the other links in this post) to find your way in. There's also a new link at the top of my sidebar to the right. As a bonus for website readers I've gone a bit further than 33 on one of the pages, just to use up a few more ideas that wouldn't fit on this page, and I've finally managed to find another vaguely interesting fact about the nigh-impossible number 18 too. I hope you enjoy all of it. And I shall look forward to having a rest in July, from all the numbers at least.

 Monday, June 23, 2003

Big Brother - the sewage connection

Yes, there really is a direct connection between Big Brother and raw sewage. It's just probably not the connection you're thinking of...

East London's cathedral of sewageYou'll remember that a few weeks ago I wandered down to the site of the old Big Brother house in Bow. Just a few hundred yards away from that site lies a startling Victorian building, shaped like a cross, topped by an ornate dome. Is it just an extravagant folly, or is there a reason that someone appears to have built a cathedral in the middle of an industrial wasteland? For the answer to that question you have to go back to the 1850s. A cholera epidemic swept London in 1853, spread by the appalling sanitary conditions in the capital. Cesspits emptied into streams that fed straight into the Thames and often overflowed into the streets. Diseases from insanitary drinking water killed thousands each year. Then in 1858 came the 'Great Stink', when the combination of an unusually warm summer and an unbelievably polluted Thames made living conditions in the capital almost unbearable. A solution to this foul-smelling solution was required, and urgently.

The Greenway starts hereThe man who cleaned up London was called Joseph Bazalgette. He was the Chief Engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works, and his solution to London's sewage problems was nothing short of revolutionary. He ordered the building of 85 miles of new sewers to intercept the many smaller sewers that ran into the Thames, redirecting the effluent to East London where it was discharged into the Thames and flowed out to sea. (map here) North London's waste was conveyed to Abbey Mills Pumping Station in Stratford, the magnificent building in the photograph above, completed in 1868. From here the Northern Outfall Sewer continued eastwards to a huge treatment works at Beckton. That huge sewer still exists and still carries North London's effluent to the sea. The embankment covering the sewer is now the 'Greenway' - a footpath and cycle route at roof-top height through east London - although perhaps the name 'Brownway' would be more appropriate.

Abbey Mills pumping stationsThere are now two pumping stations at Abbey Mills, pictured here from the site of the old Big Brother House. The old pumping station (just peeking out to the left) raised sewage between two levels of the Northern Outfall Sewer, and originally housed eight coal-fired beam engines. Nowadays its pumps are on stand-by to supplement the newest ones in the building on the right, its modern replacement. However, there's a more direct connection between Big Brother and Abbey Mills than merely location. The gothic Victorian pumping station at Abbey Mills was designed by Joseph Bazalgette, great-grandfather of Peter Bazalgette, the creative director of Endemol productions who produce Big Brother. Peter is the godfather of reality TV in the UK, and also the brains behind such shows as Changing Rooms, Ground Force, and Ready Steady Cook. And his family's history lies in sewage. So remember, next time someone tells you that Big Brother is basically a load of shit, they may just be correct...
(Click on each picture to see it full size)

 Sunday, June 15, 2003

Do you Smoke?

"This is my city. This is our city. When I hang up my bag on the Met Line. When I hang from the pole of a Routemaster. When I skip through the tunnels at King’s Cross. When I run for front seat on the Docklands Light Railway. When the chimneys of Battersea loom into view. When I spot Canary Wharf from a precious new place. When I walk the warm streets of Brixton. When I run round the clock tower at Golders Green. When I wake up, half-drunk, at High Barnet. When I wake up, still dreaming, at Morden. When I find a new postcode with which I fall in love. When I find a short-cut never spotted before. When my breath catches me, suddenly, as it did that first time, and all the others, when crossing Westminster Bridge."
[Introduction to Smoke#1, by Jude Rogers]

Smoke is a new fanzine about London. I read about it in the latest edition of Word magazine. Smoke is all about living in the capital, then and now. It's a sort of literary/historical appreciation. It's strap-line is "London peculiar". There's a seriously tempting sample of the contents here. I want a copy, and I want it now. Available here. Can't wait.

 Saturday, June 14, 2003

Sun beats down, London sweats.
Pasty white flesh, sprawled on grass.
Burnt scarlet, fevered, flushed.
Too-tight t-shirts, too short shorts.
Fat thighs, sandals, toenails on parade.
Dehydrated, flaking, Saturday roast.
Tanned hide, ageing flesh, mellow-noma.
Reeking sweat, perspire-nation.
Apologies, once again.
Bit more realistic this time though.

 Friday, June 13, 2003

Sun beats down, London lights up.
Sea of bodies, ocean of heat.
Sun-blessed, barely dressed.
Short sleeves, no sleeves, tanned sleeves.
Blue days, rays blaze.
Deckchairs, grass stains, extended lunch, park life.
Pavement pints, high spirits, shorts.
Sunglasses on sun-baked sun worshippers.
Buildings gleam, ice cream, lie back and dream.
Summer's smile.
Apologies, again.
I just want to be able to look back, read this and remember in six months time.

 Wednesday, June 11, 2003

mind the gapBow Road

My local Underground station is 101 years old today. Sorry, I know I'm a year late for the centenary, but I wasn't blogging this time last year. So, please forgive me while I have a quick rant about my local station. I know that this will be of no interest whatsoever unless Bow Road is your local station too, which it undoubtedly isn't, but I just want to get all this out of my system. You might want to skip past this entire irrelevant outpouring, or even just come back tomorrow instead. I know I talk about the Underground far too much anyway, no doubt because I use it every day, but just humour me on this occasion. I promise to moan about the station just this once, and then shut up about it all.

Bow Road is an Underground station, but only partly an underground station. That's because Bow Road is the station where eastbound District line trains finally emerge from their tunnel under East London and head off towards Barking and Upminster at surface level. Half the station is underground, and therefore has crap mobile phone reception. The other half of the station is open to the elements, and therefore gets wet when it rains. Pigeons appear to be happy to crap on either half.

Bow RoadBow Road is a station on both the District and Hammersmith and City lines. You might think this was obvious from looking on a tube map, but it appears that nobody has yet bothered to tell anyone who works at the station. Once upon a time Bow Road used to be a station on the Metropolitan line, until this part of the line was reassigned to the new Hammersmith and City line back in 1990. That was thirteen years ago, but nobody has yet managed to update any of the signs here. The big nameplate outside the front of the station still proudly displays that Bow Road is a station on the "District and Metropolitan lines". The train indicator on the platform still lights up to announce to passengers that the next train is a "Metropolitan line train via Kings Cross". Wrong. Anyone who wanders into the station expecting to catch a Metropolitan line train is in for a very long wait.

Bow Road is a station on the Hammersmith and City line. Everyone in London thinks they live near the tube line with the worst service in the capital. Everyone else is wrong. The Hammersmith and City line has the worst service in the capital. The trains are infrequent and irregular. On the rare occasions that you might actually want to catch one, you can find yourself waiting around through fifteen minutes of endless District line trains until a Hammersmith and City finally decides to turn up. The trains are shorter than District line trains so you then find yourself having to run down the platform in order to dive headlong into the last carriage before the doors shut. However, should you be waiting to catch a District line train, you can of course guarantee that a half-empty Hammersmith and City line train will rumble into the station instead, open its doors apologetically at the platform and then rumble off into oblivion, ready to stall itself at the signals just outside Aldgate East for ten minutes while everyone in the carriage sighs, shrugs and overheats. Line from hell. Never, ever, rely on it.

Bow Road is a station round the bend. Mind the gap. You have to step carefully on and off the trains to make sure you don't slip and fall through on top of the rats scurrying around on the tracks below. Mind the gap please. More annoying is the impossibility of reading the 'next train' indicator from the far end of the platform. Please mind the gap. Not only is the next destination obscured by the bend and by a huge pillar but, in a way reminiscent of far too many other tube stations, the view is now also completely blocked by the CCTV cameras they've installed - right in front of the 'next train' indicator. Please mind the gap between the train and the platform. Please mind the gap between the ears of the station planners, more like.

Bow Road is a station with thousands of passengers every day. I know this for a fact, because every day they all seem to stand in my way and block the entrance to the ticket gates. Some of them insist on queueing up to buy tickets from the temperamental ticket machines in the entrance hall, a queue which invariably spreads out to block the two foot gap through which everyone everyone else is trying to walk. Other passengers don't bother to buy a ticket at all and instead walk brazenly up to the special gate for those with oversized luggage, open it and saunter through to the buzzing sound of the electronic alarm. Meanwhile the ticket inspector sits disinterestedly in her little booth and continues to read her newspaper, ignoring the gate even when someone with oversize luggage really is trying to get through. Could this explain why London Underground don't collect enough money from fares to invest in our stations?

Bow Road is an interchange station with the Docklands Light Railway. At least that's how it looks on the tube map. In real life, however, Bow Church DLR station is at least a three minute walk up the road, and not particularly well signposted either. You wouldn't want to change trains here carrying a suitcase (although people do, and they generally get their cases stuck in the ticket gates right in front of me too). I seem to end up at least once a week directing lost travellers from one station to the other before they stumble off lost into the back streets of Bow and are never heard from again. Tempting to send them off in the wrong direction I know, but the pavements are crowded enough round here as it is.

Bow Road is 101 years old. And blimey it looks it. The whole place could do with a lick of paint, and not that ghastly combination of green and yellow they still have down on the pillars at platform level. The station could also do with one of those nice 'how many minutes is it until the next three trains' indicators like they have at the next couple of stations down the line. Not that they're very accurate, of course, but they're better than a piece of smashed glass which lights up merely to tell you there might be a train going somewhere arriving sometime. In fact I doubt that London Underground have spent a penny on this station for years. I hear we're nearly next on the list for renovation, but they've been saying that for years and nothing's happened yet. As a result I suspect the station will continue to be the endearing dump it is today for a number of years to come. However, I've promised not to blog on and on about it again, so you may never find out unless you come visiting.

Rant over. Happy anniversary. Thank you for listening.

 Sunday, June 08, 2003

The other BB House - exclusive picture

A couple of weeks ago I reported from the site of the old Big Brother House in Bow. Gone, but not quite forgotten. This weekend I wandered down to the site of the other BB House in Bow - the Big Breakfast House. Forgotten, but not quite gone.

Lock Keepers Cottages, Old Ford Lock, London, E3 2NN

The Big Breakfast was broadcast for nearly ten years direct from Lock Keepers Cottages, Old Ford Lock, London, E3 2NN. The Big Breakfast House nestles beside the River Lea in a quiet and peaceful backwater of East London, pretty much hidden from public view, just a short walk up the towpath from the Bow Flyover. The house used to have millions of viewers. Now its audience consists of occasional joggers, the odd dog-walker and a few disinterested ducks.

In its heyday, the Big Breakfast House was home to some of the most innovative programming ever seen on British television. It was on September 28th 1992 that Chris Evans launched himself and Gaby Roslin onto an totally-unsuspecting world, along with Zig and Zag, Paula Yates on the bed and a fledgling Mark Lamarr out on the road. When Chris went on to bigger and better things, the show faltered a little - Mark Little to be precise. It wasn't until the arrival of Johnny Vaughan and Denise Van Outen that the show really took off again, followed by sparkling chemistry between Johnny and Lisa Tarbuck. The show started haemorrhaging viewers soon after they left, until Richard Bacon led the final conga out of the house on March 29th 2002.

It's now over a year since the Big Breakfast finished, and the house looks pretty much finished as well. The programme's makers were hoping to sell the house off for £1 million or so, but an arson attack last Autumn put paid to their plans. Twenty firefighters battled for almost two hours to control the blaze, and foul play is suspected. The house now sits locked behind an 8 foot wire fence, with blue sheeting covering a gaping hole in the roof. It's still possible to see see some of the props, scenery and staging lying around in the garden, but most of the windows are boarded up and the sunrise-painted wall in the back garden has been daubed with graffiti. However, I was surprised to see that the lawn had been freshly cut, and it turns out that the house is now inhabited again. A family with young children have moved in and are living in part of the house while the rest is renovated. It's good to know that a piece of broadcasting history is being restored, but the glory days of the Big Breakfast House are long gone.

For more on the Big Breakfast, check out the brilliantly-named a load of bow locks, or the vital statistics at brekkie.com.

 Thursday, June 05, 2003


Think of the East End of London and no doubt you think of pearly kings and queens, rhyming slang, jellied eels, the Blitz, slums, smog, bare-knuckle fighting, crime, murder, death... ah, it's not a place with the best associations, is it? Especially if you're a potential American tourist. It appears that visitors to London are foregoing the delights of the East End and are instead spending all their time (and money) in the fashionable West End instead. No doubt they're tempted by the best selection of theatre and entertainment in the world, historic landmarks, culture, shopping, the Royal Family and... well, it's fairly obvious why they're ignoring the East End really.

Enter Mary Tebje, a consultant for the new tourist body TourEast. She, along with four underwhelmed London boroughs, have decided to try whip up international interest in the East End by rebranding it under a new name. Welcome to the Eastside. Mary hopes that local residents will embrace the new name. In fact, what she actually said was "We want to promote a sustainable tourism economy for East London", which sounds rather more like a publically-accountable marketing buzzphrase to me. Her Eastside brand is designed specifically to appeal to American tourists, on the basis that it's a word they already know. The danger here is that Americans might book flights to Eastside New York by mistake, and probably have a much more exciting time as a result.

Having said all that, Eastside London has a lot going for it. Tower Hamlets is home to Docklands and Canary Wharf, as well as the Tower of London (which just sneaks into the borough outside the old City wall). Newham has the ExCel exhibition centre in the Royal Docks, as well as Green Street with its international reputation for quality Asian goods. Greenwich is, well, Greenwich, which as a world heritage site is literally dripping with history. And Lewisham has... well, no, actually you've stumped me there. The 'best' attraction in Lewisham that Mary's managed to come up with is the shopping centre and its award-winning Shopmobility scheme. I've been and, believe me, nothing else about that shopping centre is award-winning.

And there's the one big problem with the Eastside brand - much of East London just isn't up to the expectations of the international tourist. Deptford as a 'core tourist area'? I don't think so. Visitors flocking to the 'Stratford Cultural Quarter'? I think not, not for the next nine years anyway. Hordes of Americans on the streets of Plaistow? Only if they're extremely lost.

East London is a great place to live, and there are some absolute tourist gems here (try pointing your mouse at these ten links, for example ), but I hope Mary's rebranding fails. I'd rather be an EastEnder than an Eastsider any day.

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