Thursday, February 26, 2004

The best view in London?

Last month I asked you to tell me from where is the best view in London? You came up with lots of answers, including up the top of the Eye, Hampstead Heath, the top deck of a Routemaster, and Alexandra Palace. But two particular spots came out on top - Blackheath Point and Richmond Hill. So I went along to see what all the fuss was about.

Click on the picture above to see the full view from 'the Point' - an outcrop on the edge of Blackheath, overlooking the centre of London. Immediately below lie the streets of Greenwich, clinging to the side of this unlikely hill, a stack of neat terraces and bland council flats. And in the distance... well, ok, my camera isn't very good at picking out the detail, but there's a wheel and a gherkin and all the other London sights you might expect. The Point itself is a small strip of parkland, half grass and half mud, well off the tourist trail, used by well off locals for exercising their dogs. I'd have enjoyed the view more if there hadn't been two labradors frisking in the excrement behind me, but the view in front of me was unexpectedly impressive. Thanks for pointing it out.

Across the other side of South London lies Richmond Park, a huge expanse of green untroubled by public transport. In one corner of the park is Richmond Hill, from the top of which can be seen two celebrated views. The most well-known of these is to the west across cow-strewn meadows towards the meandering Thames. It's rather pretty, and the local population clearly enjoy hobbling along the terraces atop the hill to see it, but I've seen better.

Less well-known, but more interesting, is the view to the east. Central London may be a long way away, and the skyscrapers may look more like distant matchsticks, but the astonishing thing is that the City is visible at all. My photo here was taken from the top of King Henry's Mound, a prehistoric burial mound set on the highest point of Richmond Hill. There's a framed gap in the bushes here, looking out directly down an avenue cut through the nearby woods. You won't be able see it in the photo, and it's not easy with the human eye either, but perfectly aligned at the end of that avenue lies St Paul's Cathedral. Precisely 10 miles away.

This is one of London's three designated linear views, protected by planning regulations. You can't build a tall building anywhere on the line of sight between Richmond Hill and St Paul's, it's the law. The other two protected views, by the way, are from Westminster Pier to St Paul's, and from the Mall to Buckingham Palace (though I'm not quite sure what anyone would build on that last one).

There are also six protected London panoramas, one of which is the view from Blackheath Point. Similar planning rules apply. The other five include Alexandra Palace and Hampstead Heath (which shows what good taste you all had), plus Primrose Hill, Kenwood and Greenwich Park. All covered by the London Designated View Framework, which you can find in Mayor Ken's latest umpteen-page London Plan (check page 37 of this enormous pdf for a great map showing all the protected lines of sight). Good to know that you, and your ancestors, will still be able to enjoy these views for years to come.

Me, I still love the view from my desk at work. Alas, that view isn't protected.

 Monday, February 23, 2004

Get London Reading

Today sees the launch of Ken Livingstone's latest cultural extravaganza - the Get London Reading campaign. A bunch of famous authors are gathering at Canary Wharf at noon to plug read from their latest novels, and later in the week there'll be some evening events involving librarians. Sounds thrilling? But hey, there's also a surprisingly detailed website full of 'books about London' (tons of them) which is well worth a look. Discover authors and books based in each London borough, and find out what other Londoners are reading. Great listfuls of fine books about London, and just in time to add to my birthday wishlist (cheap plug - see last Friday for full details).

They've identified 12 books for London to give particular prominence to - on posters, in campaigns and on giveaway bookmarks. Not a bad selection either. I've read the following four of them so far, how about you?
London Orbital by Iain Sinclair: A walk round the M25 on the Eve of the Millennium. Beautifully written, but disappointingly inconsquential.
London by Edward Rutherfurd: Lengthy saga follows London families from the Roman invasion to the present day. History-lite.
Do Not Pass Go by Tim Moore: Street-based London travelogue looks at the real-life Monopoly board. Wish I'd thought of doing that.
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby: A music-obsessed listaholic with one failed relationship behind him. Hmm, who does that remind me of?

But that's only four. Here's another eight London books I'd add to the list to make 12. Four tube-related, four not. Please click away.
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman: A dark twisted underworld living in the tubes beneath London. And one of those one-off classic TV series they never repeat, sob.
253 by Geoff Ryman: Unique set of character portraits on board a crash-bound Bakerloo line train. Started as a webpage, so you can go read it right now...
Tunnel Vision by Keith Lowe: Bloke attempts to visit all London's tube stations the day before his wedding. You can guess how it finishes.
King Solomon's Carpet by Barbara Vine (aka Ruth Rendell): An odd thriller with a bunch of misfit characters all linked through the tube.
Spanky by Christopher Fowler: I could have picked any of his books, most of which are set in nightmarish London, but this modern Faust just swings it. Fab.
Demonized by Christopher Fowler: OK, just one more. This is his new collection of horror stories, and I'm still reading my signed copy. See, I bought something this weekend. Good it is too.
The Long Firm by Jake Arnott: 60s East End gangland beautifully evoked, and currently being filmed by the BBC. Can't wait.
London Compendium by Ed Glinert: After all that fiction, the best stories about London are still the non-fiction ones. Arranged here by postcode. Dip in and enjoy.

 Saturday, February 21, 2004

Twelve tube-tastic links
Animals on the Underground: Yes, I know everyone else has beaten me to this one but, cor, aren't they good?
the 3D tube map: Ditto this site, but Corey's tubes are indeed rather special.
3D tube station diagrams: See how all those tunnels, passageways and escalators link together.
Stop Motion Studies: 20 looped flash movies of people on the tube, sitting, standing, twitching, moving, smiling, snarling, existing.
Platform for art: The tube as an art gallery, retrospective. My favourite's the David Shrigley Billboard Commission.
Estimated time of arrival: Now you can find out where your train is without standing on a platform. But only on the Bakerloo at present.
Free Posters: While stocks last. Three to choose from - I went for the Zandra Rhodes creation. Bet they've run out.
Londonstation: Photographs of various London tube stations. Better than it sounds.
The Transport Forum: Join the tube drivers talking about the tube, or just lurk in the background and wallow in techie anorakness.
tube magazine: A seasonal in-house online magazine, this month featuring Art Deco architecture on the Northern and Piccadilly lines.
One Stop Map Shop: Want to buy, or use, a tube map? Bargain at £290. I think not.
Tourist advice: from the very wonderful Geofftech. He may be almost as cynical as I am.

 Tuesday, February 17, 2004


It's a year today since Ken Livingstone risked his political future and started charging vehicles a fiver to enter central London. As you'll remember, drivers rebelled, gridlock ensued, businesses collapsed and Ken was forced to resign. Except no, it didn't actually turn out like that did it? The streets cleared, traffic speeds increased, drivers acquiesced and Ken is on track to be re-elected Mayor by a thumping majority. Even the Evening Standard seems to have stopped complaining about the Congestion Charge, which has to be a measure of the degree of its success. Of course, it's not all perfect. Some small businesses have suffered, not enough money has been raised to fund improved public transport, and the company who collect the charge are an incompetent monolith. But, overall, an unexpected success.

The Congestion Charge isn't what puts people off driving into Central London. Central London is what puts people off driving into Central London. You have to be mad, or an addicted petrolhead (or both) to want to drive into the middle of this city. One-way systems, bus lanes, traffic wardens, speed cameras, narrow streets, jaywalking pedestrians, limited parking, red routes, endless traffic lights and, above all, other lunatic drivers - driving in London is an absolute nightmare. It amazes me that anyone would want to even own a car here. There's a bloody good public transport network available - not perfect, not complete, and not fast, but still perfectly adequate. I know rich people would still rather sit in their gas-guzzling 4x4s to collect little Jasmine from ballet, but little Jasmine would survive sitting next to a pensioner on the tube, honest.

So, where next for the Congestion Charge? Onward and outward. Ken's eyeing up extending the zone to Kensington, to Heathrow and maybe to Canary Wharf, and other UK cities are equally interested. But Central London could still do better. I'd like to propose a fifty pound charge for the following:
• Driving any single journey of less than a mile.
• Entering an IKEA car park during daylight hours.
• Riding the state coach in a ceremonial procession.
• Parking at bus stops (unless you're a bus, of course).
• Travelling on a giant coach with fifty other foreign tourists.
• Cycling through a red light, because 'red lights are only for cars'.
• Owning a huge jeep designed originally only for Welsh mountainsides.
• Venturing south of the river (most taxis already charge extra for this).
• Running a marathon through the streets of Docklands dressed as a cow.
• Being driven by your own chauffeur (get used to having a bus driver instead).

 Sunday, February 15, 2004


I've discovered where London's Observer readers go on Sundays. They go to Spitalfields market. I bet they do Borough Market on Saturdays to satisfy their organic foodie cravings, but on Sundays it's off to Spitalfields for the capital's biggest pseudo-arty-ethno-leftie car boot sale.

Spitalfields market is a huge covered hall in the East End, hidden between Liverpool Street and Brick Lane. Originally the area was called 'Spittle Field', a poor-quality grazing area for cattle. There's been a market here since the 17th century, although it probably didn't sell healing crystals and hemp lollies back then. In Victorian times the market was frequented by prostitutes, and two of Jack The Ripper's victims were murdered in neighbouring streets. At the turn of the century a fine iron and glass roof was built to protect traders from inclement weather. The fruit and vegetable market relocated to Leyton in 1991, and the present Sunday market then moved in.

You get no sense of the size of the building from outside, but behind the surrounding frontage lies a space the size of a small aircraft hangar. Every Sunday the hall is packed out by stallholders selling alternative wares. No nasty antiques and crockery, just amateur arty crafty stuff, stripy knitwear, old records, mystic tat and objets d'art. I was particularly disturbed to see one stall trying to sell quartz-like rocks as 'natural crystal deodorant', and even more disturbed to spot someone actually buying some. One corner of the market contains a large food court, serving up veggie vegan noodly-type snacks to noodly-type people. Spitalfields feels like a market for young adults who've outgrown Camden, but aren't capitalist enough to want to go to Portobello instead.

But Spitalfields market is now under serious threat from its new owners. Half of the original building was demolished a year ago so that yet another City office block can be built on the site. The other half, the half in which the Sunday market still takes place, is scheduled for internal redevelopment. Ballymore Properties Ltd want to build various glass blocklike structures inside, taking the market upmarket and cutting the number of stalls by nearly a half. It's a future, but it's not a future that the stallholders want, nor that the existing shoppers will support. They've banded together to organise a vocal protest group called SMUT (Smithfield Market Under Threat) - website here. Good luck to them. London contains quite enough anodyne modern retail malls. Spitalfields may not be my kind of market, but it deserves to survive, and to flourish.

 Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Change at Bow Road... They finally, finally, made a start on renovating Bow Road tube station yesterday. Well, they dumped four blue portakabins outside on the pavement, even if nothing seems to have happened inside yet (see photo). This is Day One of London Underground's PPP-funded station update programme, which just goes to show how dull history in the making is. Starting on the first of next month they'll be closing Bow Road station early each night and working passenger-free between 10pm and 6am. That's closing early daily until at least the end of September. Great. Every time I find myself staggering home after closing time this spring or summer I shall have to get off at Walford East instead. It had better be worth it.
(Oh, and great website showing old photos of disused stations here, including the other Bow Road. Love it.) (via Casino Avenue)

 Tuesday, February 03, 2004

In the Limelight

I was invited to a swanky party in town last night. The London News Review is launching in print next month and everyone who bought a copy of the pre-launch issue also got an invite to last night's knees-up. How exciting could that be? Perhaps more exciting than the pre-launch issue of the magazine anyway. They've promised that issue 1 will be better.

The party was held at what used to be the Limelight club, a renovated church down Shaftesbury Avenue. Last time I was there Daphne and Celeste were performing, so this had to be an improvement. The Limelight has recently been reborn as yet another bar in the Walkabout chain, all Australian-themed (as if there isn't enough Australia on the telly and in blogworld at the moment). The LNR team had taken over the bar on an otherwise dead Monday and were hoping to pack the place out with 500 movers, shakers and general technorati. Success.

I went along in the hope of meeting some interesting people. The organisers even promised that some MPs would be present (and maybe those four slightly odd-looking suited blokes were, but I'm not sure). On the way in we were offered the choice of ten coloured ribbons to wear, so I opted for the orange one ("weblogs can be fun, ask me how"). This would have been a very successful idea were it not for the fact that the club was lit by a bright red light, shining down from the dome above, so I could have been wearing yellow (Liberal Democrat), white (disappointed by Hutton) or red (dog-killer) for all anybody knew. Nobody asked, anyway.

I hoped that there might be at least someone there that I knew, and there was. There was Dave Gorman. That's the famous one of the 54. He seemed to be enjoying the evening, even if the general public weren't leaving him (and his elfin girlfriend) alone very much of the time. The general public were also very busy talking to each other. My latent Aspergers kicked in and I stood back and watched the other 499 people having quite a good time. Ah well, at least there were free nibbles. On my way back to the tube afterwards I passed the smiling crowds coming out of the The Streets gig at the Astoria. Hmm, maybe I should have gone there instead - geezers need excitement.

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