Sunday, September 26, 2004

Random borough 3: Enfield

It's been three months since I last took a random trip to one of London's 33 boroughs, and I thought it was probably about time to take another one. So yesterday I ended up in north London in the randomly selected borough of Enfield. Not London's most interesting borough perhaps, but still better than some I could mention. I gave myself an hour to research Enfield on the internet, then spent the rest of the day wandering around. And yes, I did get very wet in the process.

Somewhere famous: Cockfosters
I really struggled to find somewhere famous in Enfield. Even the leaflet 'Great days out in Enfield' struggles to find somewhere famous in Enfield. So, my apologies, but I decided to visit London's most famous knob gag instead. Cockfosters (snigger) lies right at the northern tip of the Piccadilly Line and opened for service in 1933. It's a four-platform terminus with a shed-like concrete roof and a large circular ticket hall. All the other Enfield tube stations (Oakwood, Southgate and Arnos Grove) are architecturally renowned, but I didn't consider Cockfosters to be quite in the same league. It still has much of its original signage, however, including a giant illuminated platform indicator hanging beneath a central yellow clock.

The station lies right on the edge of London suburbia, with the Green Belt beginning just a few yards to the north. A parade of shops stretches half a mile to the south, a rather splendid selection of traditional English retailers with not one well-known chainstore in sight. It's all fishmongers rather than supermarkets, chips rather than kebabs, teas rather than coffees and functional rather than fashionable. I was sorry to see one independent menswear shop that provides for sizes 32"-64" holding a closing down sale - what a waist that is. At the bottom of the Cockfosters Road I also found both the Chicken Shed Theatre (for socially aware young starlets) and the intriguing Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture (alas closed at the time of my visit). End of the line maybe, but not the back of beyond.
by tube: Cockfosters

Somewhere historic: Royal Small Arms Factory
If you were shot by the British Army during the 19th or 20th centuries, chances are that the gun that shot you came from Enfield. The Royal Small Arms Factory was established beside the River Lee at Enfield Lock during the 1820s, ending the army's previous reliance on private gunmakers. The factory was built just too late for the Napoleonic wars but provided most of the firepower for the Crimean and Boer Wars, as well as World Wars One and Two. It was one of the first factories to develop mass production, as early as 1857, and later produced large numbers of the famous Lee Enfield rifle. The factory survived, even through long periods of peacetime, until 1987 at which point it was sold to British Aerospace who promptly closed it down. Now the island site has been redeveloped as a large housing estate, with a number of the old buildings left standing uneasily amidst a sea of bland townhouses. My photo shows the front of the main factory building, and very impressive it looks too, but what you can't see is that the rest of the structure behind has been replaced by a collection of modern retail and workshop units. There's a gym, a Greek restaurant, a new Tesco Express and a by-appointment-only museum that reflects on the much stronger community that once used to thrive here. Gun, but not forgotten.
by train: Enfield Lock, by bus: 121

Somewhere pretty: Forty Hall
Forty Hall is a Grade 1 listed Jacobean house, built in 1632, surrounded by beautiful grounds which include a lake and a 300 year-old cedar tree. And entrance is free. It's the sort of place which one day, when you're retired, you'll come for the afternoon for a nice sit down in the lovely gardens followed by a cup of tea and another nice sit down in the café afterwards. The grounds contain the remains of Elsynge Hall, one of Henry VIII's many hunting lodges and a favourite childhood residence of the young princess Elizabeth. Forty Hall is now home to the Enfield Museum, a surprisingly interesting collection of local artefacts including an ancient sword, a number of old maps of Middlesex and even a selection of OXO tins. I was pleasantly surprised by the whole place, and I'm hoping to come back in 2030 for a nice sit down and a Rich Tea biscuit.
by bus: 191

Somewhere sporty: Picketts Lock
If all had gone to plan the world's athletes would be gathering to compete in Enfield next summer. But things didn't go to plan, they went 100% completely and utterly wrong. A local sports centre was built at Picketts Lock in 1977, a brownfield site by the River Lea with plenty of room for expansion. In 2001 the place was earmarked for Britain's proposed National Athletics Centre, and the IAAF were impressed enough to award the 2005 World Athletics Championships to London. Mistake. Costs spiralled, transport links were poor and the whole project fell apart in a public display of high-level backbiting. The government pleaded with the IAAF to move the games to Sheffield, but the IAAF were having none of it and moved the whole prestige project to Helsinki instead. Dead embarrassing.

Picketts Lock limped on as a local sports centre, but "came to the end of its sustainable lifecycle" a couple of years ago and was closed down. I found a very sorry site, with the entrance to the building locked and its glass windows smashed. The famous 1997 General Election count where Michael Portillo lost his Enfield Southgate seat was held here, but I saw no signs of a blue (or even red) plaque on my visit. All that remains outside the centre is a multiscreen cinema and an under-frequented pizza restaurant. And a golf club, which is still doing very well thankyou (not that golf counts as a proper sport anyway). To the south, on the exact spot where the new stadium would have been built, all that remains is a disused driving range, a few buddleia-covered tennis courts and some empty car parks. By next August, while you're watching the world's best runners competing in Finland, the Picketts Lock leftovers should finally have been demolished. They're hoping to replace them with either a new National Athletics Centre or a small bowling green. I wouldn't bet money against the latter.
by train: Ponders End (¾mile), by bus: W8

Somewhere retail: Enfield town centre
The place to be, even on a wet Saturday afternoon, is Enfield town centre. The shops are packed with people out bargain-hunting, or just standing around bitching and trying to look cool. I don't think I've ever seen quite so many spotty teenagers in baseball caps, hoodies, white trainers and nylon trackies in one place before. One carelessly discarded match and the whole town's youth would probably go up in flames. Enfield boasts a proper town centre, far enough from any large out-of-town shopping mall to have maintained its own retail identity. There's a traditional high street and a small market, as well as a decent 80s shopping centre carefully tucked out of sight behind the existing façades. You can sample the delights of Pearsons, a department store which has somehow survived since 1931 (although it looked to me to be stuck somewhere in the 1960s). But Enfield's biggest retail claim to fame is that the world's first cashpoint machine was installed here, at Barclays in Church Street in 1967. On The Buses actor Reg Varney was invited to officially open the new ATM, and he obliged by withdrawing £10. Nobody I saw in the queue on Saturday looked old enough for their parents to even have been born at the time.
by train: Enfield Town, Enfield Chase

Somewhere random: Crews Hill
This is a photograph of north London. In fact it's the northernmost point in London - a muddy track beneath the M25 between junctions 24 and 25. You can get slightly further north than this if you park along the clockwise hard shoulder of the motorway ¼mile to the west, but this concrete bridge is as far north as anyone can walk. The cyclist in the foreground of the photograph is a few yards into Hertfordshire, whereas the bridge, tunnel, cattle grid and green fields beyond are all part of Greater London. The driving rain during my visit provided a physical manifestation of the boundary, which lies exactly where the light grey track in the photo turns to damp dark grey. I got absolutely drenched walking the half mile up this unmade private lane which leads north from Crews Hill towards Goffs Oak (most famous residents, Posh Spice's parents). At the bottom of the lane stands the Glasgow Stud, and also a lockable gate labelled "Trespassers will be prosecuted" painted in Union Jack colours. The village of Crews Hill itself is nothing but the largest collection of garden centres I have ever seen in my life. You can't move for shrubs, sheds, greenhouses and gnomes, and families in 4x4s driving 20 yards from a car park on one side of the road to a car park on the other. Verily this is the end of the world.
by train: Crews Hill, by bus: W10

 Friday, September 24, 2004

I've been commuting from Bow Road to Holborn instead of Piccadilly for all of three weeks now. Already I appear to have the journey sorted, knowing where to go and where to stand in order to be first up the escalator at the end of the journey. I succeded by miles yesterday, with hundreds of other less able Holborn commuters trailing in my wake. So today I thought I'd offload everything I've learnt about the new tube journey in case any other Bow-to-Holborn commuter should one day find it useful.

London Commuter Handbook: no 6904: Bow Road to Holborn

1) Enter Bow Road station as before, but don't bother picking up a newspaper because you won't be able to read it in the ensuing crush.

2) Pass left along the platform. Don't bother looking at the 'next train' indicator because you can catch any train going eastbound, not just a District line train. Walk just over halfway along the platform, stopping beside the Fire exit sign posted on the door in the blue wall.

3) Enter the first train that arrives. Hang around close to the door you entered through, because you'll be getting off through it again at the next station.

4) When the train arrives at Mile End station, disembark. Cross the platform, which should take all of five seconds - this is the world's easiest interchange. Wait for the next Central line train. If you're really lucky a Central Line train will already be standing there waiting with its doors gaping open. It will also be absolutely jam-packed full of people

5) Squeeze into the rear half of the third carriage. Find a space. If possible try to head across the carriage to stand beside the doors opposite. Do not 'move right on down the carriage' into the narrow gap between the seats. Hold onto something. Breathe in.

6) Prepare for more even people to attempt to cram into the carriage, especially at Bethnal Green and Bank where the third carriage halts adjacent to the platform entrance. Prepare for some people to exit the carriage, especially at Bank, St Paul's and Chancery Lane where commuters head to work in the City above. Use all of these station stops to try to edge even closer to the doors on the left hand side of the train.

7) When the train stops at Holborn station (which is the first station where the doors open on the left) shoot out through the doors onto the platform and into the tunnel opposite marked Way Out and Piccadilly Line. Smile, because a huge scrum is about to develop behind you as commuters who weren't in the third carriage queue to reach this particular exit.

8) Turn right, then ascend the short flight of stairs ahead of you. In ten seconds' time this will be a real bottleneck as people jam into the narrow passageway to try to exit the platform behind you, but right now you should be at the head of the queue. Turn right at the top of the stairs and almost immediately you'll find yourself at the bottom of the main escalators.

9) There are four escalators, the right-hand three of which operate as 'up' escalators during the morning rush hour. It's quickest to take the nearest, right-hand 'up' escalator. Prepare for a long climb of approximately 60 steps, but be brave and walk straight on up to the ticket hall above. It's a great way of keeping fit, if nothing else.

10) At the top of the escalator turn right and exit the station through the underused set of ticket barriers in front of you directly into High Holborn. If you've followed all the instructions properly you should be the first person from your train to exit the station. Just like I was yesterday. Congratulations.

 Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Smoke #4
My favourite1 pocket-sized2 London magazine is out in the shops3 again and available for you to buy4. It's the usual5 eclectic mix of words6, photos7 and graphic art8. There are fine articles on South Bank skateboarding, Beckton Alp9, Brixton Market, secret tunnels under Holborn9, the bins of Pimlico, Zoffany Street9, cottaging and the Ruislip Lido railway10. Buy a copy now4.

1 Actually it's the only pocket-sized London magazine I can think of.
2 Depends on the size of your pocket, of course. Definitely handbag-sized.
3 Only certain shops though. You can find a list of stockists here.
4 But only if you live in London. Sorry, not much use to the rest of you.
5 If something can be 'usual' after just three previous editions.
6 Mostly great stuff, but some of it attempts to be too clever and fails.
7 Ah, it's amazing how good London looks close up in black and white.
8 Not a lot of graphic art though, but the photos more than make up for it.
9 I wrote about this first, you know.
10 And many many more.

 Monday, September 20, 2004


gherk (verb): to queue for hours and hours in the hope that the final view will be worth the wait.

The centrepiece of London Open House weekend was the first public opening of the Swiss Re building, better known as the Gherkin. It's the right-hand building in this photo, lined up next to Tower 42 and Lloyd's, and was finally opened for business earlier this year. Thousands of people turned up over the weekend to visit this new London icon, hoping to look both inside and out, but the queues were horrendous and most of them went away disappointed. I was one of the lucky ones, eventually.

I'd heard stories of four hour queues on Saturday, and that more people had been turned away than actually got to look inside, so I was determined to arrive early on Sunday to stake my place in the line. I thought an hour early would be good enough, but I was wrong. I walked along the queue until I found the end, which took rather longer than I was expecting, and was unnerved to watch the queue lengthening at a rate of 5 metres a minute behind me. And then the waiting started. And then the waiting continued. We shuffled slowly forward in small irregular bursts, unable to see our target except reflected in the office blocks around us.

A fatalistic cameraderie developed amongst those in the queue. Some dashed off to nearby coffee shops to ease the boredom, while others found time to read the entire Sunday Times and all its supplements. After two hours we finally reached the foot of the Gherkin and could see the front of the queue, except that we still had one revolution of the building to go. One family gave up at this point and went off in search of alternative venues. The rest of us shivered slightly, gritted our teeth and continued our gradual progress clockwise.

I doubt that London has seen a queue this long since the Queen Mother snuffed it. There was one easy way to jump the queue, however, and that was to have signed up as an Open House volunteer. One flash of your special green badge and you were permitted to walk straight into the building without any wait whatsoever. And yes Elsie, I saw you swanning in through the side entrance just after 11 o'clock when I still had more than two hours to go.

At last, after 4½ hours, the long wait was finally over. We were ushered through security and into one of the high speed lifts that whisked us up to the 34th floor in 30 seconds flat. One more lift, a flight of stairs and we were on the 40th floor, the Gherkin's very top slice. Suddenly the wait was worthwhile. Elegant glass triangles rose to a peak in a ring above our heads. People were drawn magnetically to the windows, staring out at stupendous views in all directions. We were higher than the London Eye and I could see further across the capital (and beyond) than I have ever seen before. I was struck by how much green there was, and how beautiful the urban environment can be on a miniature scale. I joined the rest of the crowds in taking countless photographs and trying to pinpoint my house and various other landmarks. The white tablecloths that reflected up from the restaurant below spoiled the western view a little, but the whole experience was quite breathtaking.

And there was more. Lifts took us down to the 17th floor where we had the freedom to roam across 1600 square metres of as yet unoccupied office space. The views through the diamond windows were a little less spectacular than before, but easier to access and still most impressive. This was also a good opportunity to admire the internal architecture of Sir Norman Foster's signature building. There was a real feeling of light and space, as well as the illusion of curvature despite the fact that the only curved glass in the building was the lens we had seen at the very summit. Most of us also sampled the toilet facilities - welcome relief after five hours of abstinence. There was no rush, we were able to stay on the 17th floor for as long as we liked before finally descending contentedly to the ground.

A few hours later I was standing back outside my local tube station after a busy and successful Open House weekend. To the west, framed perfectly down Bow Road, stood the proud figure of the Gherkin. I smiled, knowing that three miles away on the top observation deck there were still people smiling back down at me.

 Sunday, September 19, 2004

London Open House: Saturday

1) BBC Television Centre

My life is complete. I have stood in the Blue Peter Garden. Look, there's Petra's statue, and there's the pond full of goldfish in the Italian Sunken Garden which yobboes thoughtlessly trashed one tragic day in 1983. Oh how Janet Ellis cried, and oh how we laughed at school the following morning. The garden is a lot smaller in real life than it looks on screen delimited by a magic rectangle. But then everything on television is like that, and yesterday I went on a guided tour of the house of illusion.

My illusions are shattered. I have seen the Tardis and it is nothing but a wooden box on wheels. I did wonder whether what we were being shown wasn't the Tardis but just a Tardis, but our charming guide assured us that it was being used for filming the new series. I'm also a little jealous that the tour group behind us were allowed to go inside (not all at once, you understand, although had this been the real Tardis I'm sure that would have been possible).

I have stood in the central circular courtyard where Roy Castle broke the mass tap dancing world record. I have seen the world's first multi-storey cantilever staircase hidden inside the question-mark-shaped TV Centre building. And I have stood on the floor of Studio 8, once home to Fawlty Towers and currently being used to stage that rather more forgettable sitcom, The Crouches. But during the 50 minute tour it was the Blue Peter Garden that resonated most. Here was my childhood laid out over a few yards of turf, from the legendary Tree for the year 2000 to the more recent grave of George the tortoise. Youthful memories are always strong, and here were some I made earlier.

2) St Pancras International

The whole Kings Cross area looks like one giant building site, and yesterday I got to don a safety helmet and walk into the middle of it. A new international station is being created at St Pancras so that, in three years' time, quarter-mile-long Eurostar trains can pull right up to the buffers under the magnificent Victorian arched roof. An extraordinarily complex engineering operation is underway to enable this, whilst simultaneously keeping Midland Mainline, Thameslink and London Underground trains operational throughout the construction period.

From our vantage point high above the construction works we could see the platforms of the extended station taking shape and the concrete roof of the new subterranean Thameslink station being poured into place. In the distance we saw the original mainline station (the 'Barlow Train Shed') being gutted, and scaffolding being erected inside so that the roof can be restored and replaced. Today an extremely busy building site, but in 2007 the gateway to a nation. Let's hope the work stays on schedule.

3) Freemason's Hall

It's not every day that you're allowed to enter the headquarters of the United Grand Lodge of England without a rolled-up trouser leg, so yesterday I took the opportunity to investigate this imposing building. No expense has been spared on the internal decoration, and the central Grand Temple is an opulent mix of gold leaf and symbolism (rather like an Egyptian-themed 1930s cinema, I thought). There's a huge cloakroom with 600 coathooks where suited men can change into their Masonic regalia, and a shop in the basement that sells apron-clad teddy bears should you ever run out of Christmas present ideas. To me the whole thing looked like a lot of middle-aged men who've invented their own substitute for religion and like to dress up a lot. I was relieved that nobody attempted to shake my hand on the way out.

 Saturday, September 18, 2004

London Open House: Codename 'Paddock'

Brook Road, Neasden, is a very ordinary looking suburban road. There's some social housing, an old people's home, a bit of office space... and a small squat brick building lying innocuously in someone's front garden. But this is no ordinary building - it's the entrance to the Government's most secret World War Two bunker. Not that you'd guess from looking at the building today. There's no giant red arrow pointing down the steps towards the entrance in real life, oh no. Hush hush, careless talk costs lives.

It was in 1938 that the Government started to get panicky about the imminent outbreak of war and started asking the unthinkable. What would happen if the Cabinet War Offices in Whitehall were bombed? What if Hitler were to invade the country? The British Government had to be able to continue to try to run the country, but from where? Hurriedly they set about building a new secret underground control centre in Neasden, just in case. The bunker was designed to hold the entire war cabinet along with 200 support staff. Two floors were hollowed out of the hillside beneath the Post Office Research Station, protected beneath five feet of reinforced concrete so that the facility could withstand a direct hit from a German bomb. The bunker, codenamed 'Paddock', was ready for operations in 1940 and Churchill visited in October of that year.
"We held a Cabinet meeting at PADDOCK far from the light of day, and each Minister was requested to inspect and satisfy himself about his sleeping and working apartments. We celebrated this occasion by a vivacious luncheon, and then returned to Whitehall."
Our tour guide clearly relished his role as entertainer-in-chief. He led our group down to the first level where it was cool and most definitely damp, ushering us into a couple of dingy rooms filled with rusting machinery. We headed on down a corroded spiral staircase to the lowest level, 40 feet beneath the surface. Here another long corridor stretched off into the distance, tens of small rooms lying dark and forlorn to either side. We stood in the Map Room where Wrens would have pushed little model battleships around on a big chart, and we also stood in the War Cabinet Room where Churchill held that one cabinet meeting back in in 1940. Thin stalactites hung from the roof, dry rot covered the ceiling and the mulchy remains of rotten lino squelched underfoot. Back upstairs we saw the remains of a telephone exchange and the tiny kitchen where food was prepared, although apparently there was a planning oversight and the architects forgot to include toilets anywhere in the complex. We very tried hard not to imagine Winston straining over a small tin bucket.

After nearly an hour underground we returned to the surface, back to normality. A democratic self-governing reality which, had Paddock ever been used for real, might not be the norm today at all. Thank goodness it was only ever a standby facility, and that today it lies rotting and abandoned. The housing association who now own the land above are only contracted to open the bunker twice a year, but there is an excellent virtual tour that allows you to follow in our somewhat-damp footsteps. You may not have been there today, but you can still take a look into the hidden depths of what might have been, beneath the hills of Neasden.

virtual tour
Subterranea Britannica history page (seriously detailed)
more photos

London Open House Day 1: I'm on safari around London today, aiming to visit a few choice gems around the capital as well as that trip to that bunker under Neasden. More on that later. I know you're all too busy to go out yourselves, so why not look back at where I went last year (if you care) or, better still, take a virtual look at just ten of the hundreds of other places that are open this weekend:
30 St Mary Axe (the Gherkin); the A13 Artscape project; Alexandra Palace television studios; City Hall; Crossness Pumping Station; Freemason's Hall; Kingsway Tram Subway; the National Archives; Wembley Stadium site; Outer bits of the Houses of Parliament (Batman costume optional)

 Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Famous Secret places on under the street where I work
Kingsway Telephone Exchange

I know I said I wouldn't go back to the history of buildings down the street where I now work, but I couldn't resist just one extra report. I wanted to take a more careful look at the door to number 32 High Holborn...

How ordinary this door looks. It's an unloved and unlabelled door, tucked anonymously between the newsagents at number 31 and the boarded up shop at number 33. If you were passing you wouldn't give this door a second look, which must have been the idea when they installed it. Even a closer look would reveal no more than a dirty brown door in a thick concrete frame, a small letterbox beneath, a small extractor fan overhead, and a doorbell and intercom set into the right-hand lintel. Peer through the dusty glass and you might catch sight of the two thick yellow metal doors behind, jammed tightly shut with no obvious opening mechanism. But you'd never guess what really lay behind.

During World War Two the Government constructed eight Deep Level Shelters at Underground stations across the capital. These were to give civilians a place of shelter during bombing raids, and one was built at Chancery Lane station. After the war the tunnels were taken over by the Post Office for the construction of a secret international telephone exchange. The Kingsway exchange was planned to be both bombproof and self sufficient, with a permanent staff of 150 and facilities including generators, an artesian well and storage for six weeks' food supply. Kingsway went into service 50 years ago next month, and was soon handling up to 2 million of the UK's long distance calls every week. Entrance was through the unassuming door at 32 High Holborn.

Unfortunately the secret bombproof Kingsway exchange wasn't particularly secret. In 1951 the Daily Express ran a series of front page articles revealing the existence of a 'secret network of tunnels' under London, much to the Government's embarrassment. Unfortunately, again, the secret bombproof Kingsway exchange wasn't particularly bombproof. In 1954 the Russians successfully developed their own atomic bomb, one direct hit from which could have wiped out the new complex. The Government decided to build another secret bunker elsewhere, this time beneath Horseguards Parade (a hideous and extremely obvious ivy-clad brick building at the top of the Mall). The Kingsway exchange continued to be used, its tunnels full of cables and switching equipment, before being sold off by BT in 1996. You can read more here, including photos from journalist Duncan Campbell's illicit subterranean bicycle ride in 1980. But, standing in High Holborn today, who'd ever imagine what was going on beneath the streets of London, behind the yellow door.

 Monday, September 13, 2004

The Battleship Potemkin (Pet Shop Boys, Trafalgar Square)

There are easier ways to watch a film. You could go to the cinema, or you could stay in and watch one on DVD or on telly. But no, last night I went and stood in the middle of Trafalgar Square in the rain and watched a silent movie projected onto a giant flapping sheet. I was a bit worried to begin with. The Square was absolutely packed, the bells of St Martins were ringing out a never-ending peal and various umbrellas were blocking my view of the screen. But thankfully the rain eased, the bells stopped and I managed to find a line of sight not blocked by a six foot something smoker talking into a mobile phone.

Our evening's performance was preceded by what can best be described as a non-party political broadcast on behalf of revolution, recapping some of the protests seen in Trafalgar Square throughout its history. And then the Pet Shop Boys took to the stage, accompanied by the 26 piece Dresdner Sinfoniker. At least I think they did - I couldn't see because there were fifty heads and a fountain in the way. Neil and Chris had composed a new score to this seminal 1925 black and white film by Soviet producer Sergei Eisenstein. Brief summary: Sailors revolt over maggoty meat; Town rises up in support; Pram tumbles down steps; Boat faces destruction in one-sided sea battle.

I wasn't convinced by the score in the opening scenes, it felt artificial and anachronistic. Very Pet Shop Boys. But I was more impressed as the film continued, with driving military beats, soaring emotion and a few vocal interludes. Before long I forgot who the composers were and just got on with enjoying the complete work. That Odessa Steps scene is rightly legendary, and all the more impressive for being three quarters of a century old. And the Boys have come up with an accomplished score which, at 75 minutes long, happens to be exactly the right length to fit on a soundtrack CD. Better on the (very) big screen though, I suspect.

 Monday, September 06, 2004

Famous places down the street where I work
High Holborn

So, I'm moving into my new offices this morning. But one thing's for sure - it doesn't look quite so historic down this street as it did down Piccadilly. It should do because High Holborn is centuries older, but endless cycles of redevelopment have erased most of the old stuff and replaced it with featureless offices, shops and more offices. Still, if this is to be my new daytime home then I thought I ought to delve a little into its famous past. Don't worry, I'm not going to subject you to a month of historical analysis, just the list below. Although, actually, it is quite a long list isn't it? And some of the links below are absolutely fascinating. I'll get back to you on this one...

City of London: The westernmost tip of the City grazes the easternmost end of High Holborn, where two dragons on pillars guard the entrance to London Within.
Chancery Lane Station: There was that train derailment here last year, remember?
London Silver Vaults: Tucked a short distance down Chancery Lane, this secure underground treasure house is home to 37 expert silver traders.
London Weather Centre: This building has the roof a snowflake has to hit for London to have a white Christmas.
Gray's Inn: One of the four Inns of Court to which barristers must belong, at least 500 years old and pretty much hidden from public view.
Cittie of Yorke: A pub (pictured) dating from 1430 (that's the 15th century, not half past two) and including one of the longest bars in the country.
Cold War bunker: This converted underground telephone exchange is entered through an unassuming steel door at number 32. In the 50s it was thought to be invulnerable to nuclear attack, but when atomic bombs got more powerful the government changed its mind and put the site up for sale.
Royal Amphitheatre: Part equestrian arena, part circus, and also the very ring where boxing's Queensbury Rules were first established. The building no longer stands.
Lincoln's Inn Fields: Set back behind High Holborn is the largest square in London (twelve acres), laid out by Inigo Jones in the 17th century. A popular resort of duellists, and of course lawyers.
Holborn station: A disused branch of the Piccadilly line heads from here down to Aldwych, which closed 10 years ago.
Kingsway Tram Underpass: Another disused tunnel - until 1952 this one used to carry trams underground as far as Waterloo Bridge. It's open for London Open House weekend, and I want tickets!
Princess Louise: This ornate Victorian pub is famous for its real ale, and infamous as the pub in which murderer Dennis Nilsen picked up the second of his twelve victims.
Site of British Museum station: Opened on the Central line in 1900, but closed in 1933 in favour of very nearby Holborn station.
Drury Lane: The Theatre Royal here dates back to 1660, London's worst outbreak of the plague occured in this street in 1665, and the very first Sainsbury's opened at number 173 in 1869.
Holborn Empire: Originally an old music hall, the first screening of a feature-length colour film in Britain took place in this cinema in 1914. The building no longer stands.
Cuban Embassy: Where to come for your visa if you're planning on Havana trip.
St Giles: Once the grimmest slum in London (really really grim), packed tight with thieves, prostitutes, immigrants, gin drinkers and the generally destitute.
Oasis Sports Centre: When St Giles was demolished in the 1840s, the Victorians built a new washhouse and public baths on this site. 1879 prices: Swimming, 1st class 4d, 2nd 2d; Shower, warm, 1st class 6d, 2nd 4d; Shower, cold, 1st class 3d, 2nd 2d.

 Saturday, September 04, 2004


Number of Routemaster routes last year: 20 (= 6 + 7 + 8 + 9 + + 11 + 12 + 13 + 14 + 19 + 22 + 23 + 36 + 38 + 73 + 94 + 98 + 137 + 159 + 390)
Number of Routemaster routes yesterday: 11 (= 9 + 12 + 13 + 14 + 19 + 22 + 36 + 38 + 73 + 159 + 390)
Number of Routemaster routes today: 8 (= 12 + 13 + 14 + 19 + 22 + 36 + 38 + 159)
Number of Routemaster routes by Christmas: 7 (= 13 + 14 + 19 + 22 + 36 + 38 + 159)
Number of Routemaster routes by next Christmas: 0 (probably)

Number of Routemaster buses in service last month: 324 (4% of total fleet)
Number of Routemaster buses in service today: 230 (3% of total fleet)

Number of conductors employed on routes 9, 73 and 390 yesterday: lots
Number of conductors employed on routes 9, 73 and 390 today: 0

Miles served by Routemaster routes last year: 150
Miles served by Routemaster routes yesterday: 80
Miles served by Routemaster routes today: 60

Capacity of a Routemaster bus: 72 seated +   8 standing =  80 (90% seated)
Capacity of the new bendy bus: 49 seated + 91 standing = 140 (35% seated)

Age of youngest Routemaster still in service: 36 years
Age of oldest bendy bus still in service: 10 months

Miles per gallon achieved by Routemasters: 8
Miles per gallon achieved by ordinary double deckers:

Estimated percentage of Londoners who love Routemasters: 99%
Estimated percentage of bastards at TfL who love bendies: 99%

Number of no 73 Routemasters I travelled on yesterday: 1
Number of no 73 bendy buses I shall travel on today: 0

 Friday, September 03, 2004

End of an era

Today is my last my last day working down Piccadilly. On Monday my office is being relocated elsewhere. If you were following my website earlier in the year you'll remember we nearly got relocated to Slough, which would have been <insert very rude word here> but thankfully that never materialised so I shall at least still be working down another street in central London. Just not such a famous one. Now you see why I crammed in the last of my local history month earlier in the week.

Today is my last day working for an organisation of my choice. On Monday I start work for a new company that I didn't choose, but that my organisation has chosen for me. Call it rationalisation, call it realignment, call it any corporate buzzword you like, but my team no longer has a place into the new structure and so is being sold off. The team stays in one piece, the team carries on doing what it always did, but the team gets to do it somewhere else for someone else. Terms and conditions remain pretty much the same, as do pension rights because there are pretty strong safeguards in these circumstances, but I'm more than a little uncomfortable watching my livelihood being sold off to a new employer. Ask Geoff, something similar's happening to him in his (completely different) job at the moment:
"In case you haven't been keeping up to speed here (tsk!) then BBC Technology who I work for are being sold to Siemens as of next month - taking 1,400 people with it - and most of us are a little unhappy about it. I say most of us, as I got into quite a heated debate with a (nameless) colleague last night when they said that they "Weren't that bothered really" about being sold off. This really annoyed me and so I pointed out to them that I'd wanted to work for the Beeb from quite a young age, and had worked towards getting my way in, and have now been here for over 12 years - and so to be sold off to work for a global corporation who seem more interested in how much money they make - something the BBC have never done - is something that I'm not entirely pleased about." (11/08/04)
Today is also my last day working in the public sector. It's been 17 years since I took my first job at the useful end of society and there I've stayed, out of choice, until today. Some might call the public sector boring, though I've never found it so. Some might call it unimaginative, though it's never been that for me either. And some would just call it safe, which is one of the reasons I always liked it. From Monday I'm working not for the country but for shareholders. I can sell my services, I can sign up for private health insurance and I can keep my fingers crossed that the company pension scheme is still going strong in 20 years time. It's one giant leap, this.

Yesterday I stood at my desk, surrounded by packing crates, and looked out of my window across London. Big Ben glinted in the evening sunshine. Birds swooped across the green canopy of Green Park. The London Eye turned, imperceptibly. St Paul's Cathedral and the Gherkin stood proud, old beside new. Aeroplanes soared over the chimneys of Battersea Power Station. South London rose up in the distance, bright and sharp. The view from my office window has been absolutely stunning for the last three years and I shall miss this historic panorama more than almost anything else. Somehow staring at a neighbour's brick wall isn't going to be quite the same.

I was late leaving the office last night having taken one final opportunity to stand at the window and soak in the view. I emerged onto the street just in time to watch a number 9 Routemaster chug by. We're both leaving Piccadilly this evening for the last time, both because we worked perfectly but some policy document decided we didn't fit any more. Shame. The replacement number 9 buses are hideous - nasty boxy double deckers with zero character. I hope my fate come Monday is somewhat better.

 Thursday, September 02, 2004

Tomorrow I'll be making my daily morning journey from Bow Road station to Green Park station for the last time. Over the last three years I've learned everything there is worth knowing about this journey, including where to stand, where to sit and how to be first up the escalator at the other end. After tomorrow all of this hard-earned knowledge will be wasted because I have a new journey to study and conquer (of which more tomorrow). So today I thought I'd offload everything I've ever learnt about the old tube journey in case any other Bow-to-Piccadilly commuter should one day find it useful.

London Commuter Handbook: no 2904: Bow Road to Green Park

1) Enter Bow Road tube station. If you need to pick up a Metro then you'll find them hidden just behind the door on your right, but for a journey of this length it's probably better to bring a serious newspaper with you instead. If the middle ticket barrier is green, use it - this avoids pushing past the ticket queues blocking the path to the left hand barrier. Once past the sleeping ticket attendant, turn left on the bridge then keep right down the stairs (it's slightly quicker than keeping left).

2) Pass left along the platform. Glance at the 'next train' indicator as you pass, because the curvature of the platform means you won't be able to read it from the far end of the station. If the indicator says that a 'METROPOLITAN LINE' train is due, this in fact means that a Hammersmith & City line train is due. You can slow down because you don't want to catch this one. If the indicator says that a 'DISTRICT LINE' train is due then hurry along the platform because you do want this one and it'll be here in under a minute. Pass almost as far along the platform as you can, but stop halfway between the fourth and fifth pillar from the end. Stand next to the storage licence posted on the blue wall, right behind the words 'MIND THE GAP' written at the platform edge.

3) When the first District Line train arrives, walk forward and enter the rear door of the first carriage. Expect to have to stand because the train is usually pretty full by the time it reaches Bow Road, but you'll find conditions much emptier in the front carriage than they would be in the rear carriage. Cross the carriage and lean against one of the glass partitions on the opposite side, preferably the one on the right. Try to take exactly one minute to read the front cover of your newspaper.

4) When the train arrives at Mile End station, expect at least half of those on board to move towards the doors ready to cross to the Central line platform opposite. This is good news because they will vacate a number of the twenty seats on either side of where you are standing. Politely stake your claim to one of these seats and sit down quickly before the commuters crossing from the Central line platform try to board your District line train. Given the choice, try to sit in one of the eight 'end' seats because then only one person will be able to sit next to you. Best of all are the two seats at the very rear of the carriage because they have an extra ten centimetres of space adjoining.

5) If you're reading the Guardian, open it cautiously to an angle of no more than 45 degrees. Try to finish the broadsheet section of the paper by the time the train pulls into Tower Hill station, because at this point the carriage is likely to fill up considerably with c2c commuters arriving from Southend and Basildon. Continue to read the tabloid G2 section, including any supplements, aiming to have reached the TV review and Doonesbury cartoon by the time the train leaves Embankment.

6) As the train enters Westminster station fold up your paper, stand up and move towards the door on the left hand side of the train. Listen for the scramble behind you as all the commuters who've been standing since Tower Hill rush for your newly vacated seat. Exit the train and walk forward towards the staircase in the back wall of the platform labelled 'Stairs to Jubilee line'. Do not divert via the escalator. Walk/run down the staircase, which you'll probably have to yourself because nobody else seems to use it.

7) Cross the first concourse to the top of the furthest escalator. If a westbound District line train has recently disgorged from the platform above, try to enter the slipstream of commuters by moving across to the left-hand side of the queue for the escalator. Walk down the left hand side of the escalator, overtaking the few lost souls who insist on reading their Metro between trains. Cross the second concourse, keeping left round the corner past the lift just in case you accidentally walk into a stream of commuters coming the other way. Walk down the left-hand escalator on your right, and at the bottom take the first passageway to your left onto the platform.

8) When you reach the westbound Jubilee line platform, turn right. The track is sealed off from the platform by a wall in which are a series of numbered doors. Look for doors 8 and 9, then stop and rest your backside against the seatrest on the wall opposite. When the next train pulls into the station keep back - do not approach the doors. Wait for all the passengers to disembark - there should be more of these than there are passengers waiting to board. Wait for all the other passengers to board, then walk casually up behind them, look apologetically in their direction, wait for them to edge forward and try to squeeze into the last remaining space just inside the train doors. If this doesn't work, rush down to door 10 and squeeze in there instead.

9) This is the squashed section of the journey. Breathe in and try not to stare into the face of the fellow passenger whose briefcase is pressed hard against your nether regions. Stare out of the window - it'll all be over in two minutes and 30 seconds. Smile, because if you were the last person in at the last station then you'll be the first person out at the next station.

10) When the train stops at the next station, which is Green Park, shoot out of the door into the tunnel opposite, avoiding any commuters hurtling through in the opposite direction trying to catch the train from which you have just exited. There are two 'up' escalators, both to the right of the one 'down' escalator. It's usually quicker to take the emptier, righthand 'up' escalator, unless it's full of passengers just emerged from the opposite eastbound Jubilee platform. Walk straight up to the landing above, then veer right towards the final escalator, avoiding any passengers cutting across to the Victoria line tunnels to your left. Walk up the final escalator, turn left into the main ticket hall and head straight across to the ticket barrier immediately in front of you. If you've followed all the instructions properly, you should be the first person from your train to exit the station. Congratulations.

The return journey from Green Park to Bow Road is rather more straight-forward. Full details are available by email to anyone who can forward proof of home and work addresses in the E3 and W1 areas.

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