Saturday, October 29, 2005
38, the morning after
I took a ride on a bendy 38 this morning, just to see if it would be as awful as everybody had predicted. It was.
Joan the grey-haired trainee bendy bus driver started up her brand new vehicle and tried hard to ignore the instructor perched in the front passenger seat beside her. She edged oh-so-carefully (and oh-so-wide) round the first corner at the top of Clapton Pond, staring intently at the road lest she might accidentally hit some parked vehicle. Six potential passengers stood waiting at the first stop - or at least what had been the first stop until it was converted overnight into an extra 'stand' to provide additional parking space for the new 18 metre monsters, and so was the first stop no more. So Joan drove straight past them, even the lady with the suitcase, even the man with the walking stick, even the mother with a pushchair, and crept out ever so slowly onto the main road. The traffic was bad and the bus lane was blocked, so I was able to join Joan's driving lesson at the next stop, and I stayed with her all the way to Victoria.
The bus slowly filled as we slunk slowly south towards central Hackney. Two parents with a bulky pushchair relished their first opportunity to board the new accessible 38. The baby's elder sister, clad head to foot in rainbow coloured knitwear, seemed rather less impressed. I wondered whether the giant bendy bus would be able to negotiate the Narroway (the road is well named), but Joan took her time and successfully manoeuvred her craft round the sharp turn at the entrance and on down to the bus garage. An inspector poked his head in with a traffic update - "117's broken down at Holborn station, no gears" - before Joan pulled away. At the bottom of the road the bus paused, waiting for a gap in the traffic, its huge length completely blocking pedestrians trying to use the busy zebra crossing there. A bearded shopper stopped to look at us with a mixture of horror and disdain.
Joan turned every corner cautiously and with trepidation, as if she might just be about to steer us into the nearest crash barrier. This was always a distinct possibility. "It's lucky we're not in any hurry today," said the lady sat behind me, somewhat impatiently. At Mare Street a smiling Transport for London lackey (sporting a red "New bendy buses on Route 38" baseball cap) was handing out over-positive leaflets to waiting passengers. One couple boarded but decided a couple of stops later to get off again and take the much nicer non-bendy 242 into town instead. Never let it be said that bendy buses are a fare dodger's transport of delight, however. At Dalston Junction a crack team of (two) inspectors boarded, waved their paperwork at Joan and then proceeded to check our tickets, travelcards and Oysters. I don't think they caught anybody, but the rear of the bus was so far behind me that it was impossible to be sure.
Our snail's pace speed meant that large crowds were waiting by the time we reached Angel. Some were still queueing to use the ticket machine on the pavement as the bus pulled away. There are only 49 seats on a bendy bus, a third less than on the old Routemasters, so now there were a considerable number of people on their feet. On reaching Sadler's Wells the front of the bus was so packed with bodies that old ladies with walking sticks stood trapped at the front of the bus, unable to reach those willing to give up their seats behind. We hadn't quite reached the official standing capacity of 100 (very squashed) people, but I suspect the pushchair invasion had made this an unattainable total. So full was our 38 that Joan drove straight past those waiting patiently at Gray's Inn Road, silently thankful that nobody had wanted to get off. And this was a Saturday morning. Imagine the hell to come tomorrow morning during the vehicles' first rush hour.
We pulled up at the traffic lights outside Holborn station, our bus taking up the same amount of road space as the two old Routemasters I had seen on this very spot on Friday evening. And then, just before we got to Centre Point, Joan's worst nightmare came true - the road ahead was closed. She had to divert off the designated route, veering wide into Shaftesbury Avenue to join a queue of jammed traffic. It soon became apparent that, for several passengers, this was their worst nightmare too. Previously they'd have been able to hop off the Routemaster's rear platform and walk up to Oxford Street in no time at all. But no more. The doors of the new nanny-state bus stayed firmly closed, for safety reasons, and not even increasingly agitated ringing of the bell would open them. "Are you going to let us off!" yelled the angry citizens of Islington, not used to having their personal freedom curtailed, but Joan was unable to comply. It wasn't until we reached Chinatown, a fretful quarter of an hour later, that the bus half-emptied and the long walk back to the shops began.
As Piccadilly Circus approached, an elderly couple rose carefully from their seats and edged towards the doors. They should have sat tight. Joan's cornering skills still hadn't improved and, by the time she'd rounded the next bend, the traffic lights ahead of her had turned red. Even a milk float could have made it through in time. The same red light delay happened again at a second corner, and the old couple also enjoyed a rather too close-up view of one particular road sign in Jermyn Street (thankfully not quite damaged) before their four minutes of purgatory standing by the exit doors was complete. Personally I found it very hard to come to terms with the presence of bendy buses down Piccadilly. Not much more than 18 months ago every service down this historic street had been run using Routemasters, and now not one remained.
Our bendy journey was now nearly at an end, but unfortunately there was one last traffic jam to come because the roads around Victoria were absolutely jammed with barely-moving traffic. Initially it was hard to tell that Joan had slowed down. A five year-old girl then scudded down the pavement beside us on a tiny silver scooter, overtaking us with ease. Again, there was no longer any means of escape for those trapped on board. Eventually, after fifteen minutes of slowly edging forward, Joan was finally able to pull up (unofficially) at a non-38 bus stop to let frustrated passengers disembark. There were now just six of us left on board, each taking up the equivalent of three metres of road space. With a second 38 immediately behind us and a third a few cars in front, a not insignificant proportion of the jam was being caused by the bendy buses themselves. Even when we reached the head of the queue of traffic at Victoria Street, Joan was unable to edge further forward without the great length of her vehicle obstructing the yellow box junction. The third time the lights turned green she risked moving onward, but there wasn't quite enough space for our bus on the other side of the road and she trapped a waiting number 82 bus unable to pass through our rear section.
One last painfully cautious left turn saw us arrive safely (just) into Victoria Bus Station. "That's it" said the instructor to Joan, reassuringly, as she pulled into the final stop a full hour and fifty minutes after setting off. One of the few remaining passengers hobbled out of the front doors with the aid of her walking stick, lighting up an urgently needed cigarette at the earliest possible opportunity. A couple of bus company staff stood gossipping in front of the bus station's tiny orange kiosk. One nodded towards Joan, still sat in the driving seat, and remarked "She's so slow and nervous it's unreal". Personally I was impressed that a lady who'd been used to driving nippy, manoeuvreable Routemasters had managed to transfer her skills to these lumbering, cumbersome, articulated behemoths. I even felt sorry for her as she sat there preparing for the long journey back to Hackney, but I decided the return trip wasn't for me. Good luck to Joan, and all who sail in her.
38 web tributes:
Friday, October 28, 2005
The 38 Stops
Today is the last day that Routemaster buses will run on Route 38. It's one of London's most heavily used bus routes, running from the tube-free deserts of Hackney to the hectic bustle of the West End. Route 38 really deserves speedy-to-board Routemasters, but from Saturday bland bendy buses take over instead and yet another slice of London's heritage will be lost forever. Sob. So earlier this month I thought I'd walk the full length of the route (all seven miles from Clapton Pond to Victoria Station) and take a photograph of a bus at each of the stops along the way. There were 42 bus stops altogether, but I've cunningly ignored four of them to create today's special pictorial tribute feature - The 38 Stops. Go click.
Option 1: The 38 Stops (photostream) click through one at a time to read the commentary
Option 2: The 38 Stops (slideshow) just the photographs, with no added waffle
RE:moving - a photographic exhibition of hidden Lea Valley landscapes, currently on show aboard four 38 Routemasters (until tomorrow)
Route 38 - public consultation for a package of improvements proposed along the route 38 corridor
Route 38 - a history
Route 38s from around the world
Just after 4pm today the last Routemaster ever built, RML 2760, pulled up at the traffic lights outside Holborn station. Its red paintwork gleamed and its unscratched windows shone. On the rear platform the conductor stood grinning, an old silver ticket machine (the one with the wind-up handle) hung loosely around his neck. This old vehicle was one of many additional vintage buses running the 38 today, crewed by eager volunteers and bringing a splash of welcome colour across central London. Immediately behind it purred RML 2060, one of the 38's current fleet, destined to be sold off tomorrow. The paintwork here was less than sparkling, and the mood on board rather more sullen. This conductor, resplendent in his regulation fluorescent yellow safety jacket, didn't appear to be smiling at all. He and 119 of his colleagues will, alas, be out of a job in a few hours time. And then the lights changed to green and both buses headed off towards the West End, and oblivion. I watched as they disappeared forever behind the shapeless mass of a passing bendy bus. And then they were gone.
On Clapton Pond
Deep in the heart of Hackney lies one of London's least visited water features. Smaller than the Serpentine, greyer than the Thames, shallower than West India Dock, this is Clapton Pond.
Looks almost glamorous here, doesn't it, but my photograph is oh-so carefully framed. Imagine a concrete puddle surrounded by tarmac surrounded by iron surrounded by brick. That's Clapton Pond. Most Londoners have at least heard of the place, if only as an exotic destination spied on the front of a passing Routemaster, because it's here at Clapton Pond that every northbound number 38 bus comes to rest. A succession of chugging double deckers queue here along a leafy sideroad, between the pond and some old almshouses, each patiently waiting its turn to return southward to civilisation. I came early one morning, by bus, to see this legendary terminus for myself.
Clapton Pond lies quiet and disregarded behind a cloak of iron railings. It's not a particularly big pond, but there's probably sufficient space to drown approximately eight bendy buses inside so it's not particularly small either. In the centre of the pond is an inaccessible concrete island camouflaged by a mini-forest of trees and verdant undergrowth. Blue plastic bags and crisp packets bob imperceptibly in the algae-strewn waters, and if any fish lurk in these shallow depths they choose to stay well hidden. A gang of Hackney pigeons lines up on the bank, as if preparing to dive in en masse, while stale crusts of bread litter the tarmac path around the perimeter. A second pigeon posse patrols beneath the trees beside the southern entrance, dining on scraps from the overflowing litter bins. Dogs are not welcome, but squirrels are tolerated. A decorative wooden bridge crosses the northern part of the pond, each end recently sealed by green-painted board so as not to contravene health and safety legislation. A willow silently weeps. The pages of an obscure Polish newspaper flutter open on a bench, where later homeless drunkards will gather to devour cans of value lager. In the northeastern corner stands a padlocked green municipal shed, a thin chimney emerging from its black-tiled roof. Nearby a takeaway chicken carton lies upturned beside a discarded wooden chair on a leaf-flecked patch of grass. An old man wearing a black beret enters through the single unlocked gate to sit alone with his memories. Across the road the manager of the Charlie's Angels Sauna rolls up the shutters, ready for another day's steaming. Through the hedge bus conductors can be heard, but not seen, joking with their fellow drivers as they wait until it's time to climb aboard again and head back into town.
And yet, despite all of the above, Clapton Pond retains a real sense of charm. Maybe that's because (unbelievably) it's nearly four centuries old, dug originally during the reign of James I and formerly used as a small reservoir. Today's pond may be little more than a fenced off concrete bowl attracting inebriated lowlife, but the leafy trees and still waters are in sharp contrast to the bleak urban landscape all around. For the past four decades this has also been a fitting destination for a much-loved bus but, just after 1am tomorrow morning, it'll be the final destination for the final Routemaster on route 38. Hankies at the ready. And when the obese bendy replacements arrive and park up at the water's edge, I have no doubt that the elusive elegance of Clapton Pond will be considerably diminished. A golden era ends today.
Thursday, October 27, 2005
What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day?
(Saint Etienne at the Barbican)
Back in July while I was wandering the lower Lea Valley taking pre-Olympic photographs, it seems I wasn't alone. Bob Stanley and Paul Kelly from understated pop group Saint Etienne were there too, filming the soon-to-be lost landscape for posterity. And on tonight they premiered their resulting drama documentary to an appreciative audience at the Barbican. To almost everybody else in the hall this was an evocative piece championing the disappearing industrial heritage of a forgotten corner of the capital. But to me it was a record of the wasteland on my doorstep (almost literally in one shot), and I spent much of the 45 minutes trying to identify the locations used. Look, that's the Eastway cycle circuit, and that's the the bridge over the City Mill River at Carpenter's Lock, and that's the used car scrapyard beneath the DLR at Pudding Mill Lane. When the film's silent teenage narrator set off on his implausible paper round, delivering newspapers to rusty letterbox after rusty letterbox, I recognised the route of his cycle ride as a geographical impossibility. This was a distraction, I admit. But the paperboy's presence wove a golden thread through the tumbledown grey architecture, linking old factories to waterways to allotments to greasy caffs. The carefully framed visuals highlighted the old and sidelined the new, transforming the bleak into the evocative. Local voices provided much of the commentary, chatting and reminiscing about how it was and how it used to be, with David Essex and Linda Robson drafted in as guest characters. And Saint Etienne performed the soundtrack live, often so well you forgot they weren't digital, which made the screening extra special. As the film neared its Thameside finale, Sarah's plaintive vocals bade the Lea landscape "Goodnight". Then, as the credits rolled, the hall burst into well-deserved applause. In seven years time the Olympics will have eradicated almost all of this film from real life, but I'm touched that the band have managed to capture so select a snapshot of my East End before it vanishes.
See the film at the Barbican (again) on 7th December (no live soundtrack this time, alas)
Observer review and interview (a recommended read)
Trent was in the audience too (and so was Suggs, apparently)
Hackney Wick's industrial history (plastic was invented here)
Mervyn Day (1970s West Ham footballer)
Saint Etienne (new single out Monday)
Friday, October 21, 2005
To celebrate the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar I thought it might be appropriate to pay a special visit to Nelson's flagship, HMS Victory. And then I thought no, stuff that, Portsmouth isn't even in Zone 6, I'll head for Trafalgar Square instead. So today I'm wandering around London's most famous public space, investigating everything from the obscure to the iconic. I shan't be venturing outside the edge of the square, so there's no National Gallery, no South Africa House, no St Martin-in-the-Fields and no Admiralty Arch. But rest assured that there's still plenty to see within Trafalgar Square itself, and not just that big column with a half-blind sailor perched on the top. Read on.
Trafalgar Square webcam
Trafalgar Square (1): The square
Trafalgar Square has long been the focal point of London. There's an extensive history of mass gatherings in the square - a magnet for political protests from Chartist rallies to the poll tax riots. More recently, following the pedestrianisation of the north terrace, it's become a place of shared celebration and commemoration. Here for example is a webcam shot of the square snapped yesterday afternoon during Uncle Ken's Divali festivities (presumably nobody told him that Divali is next month). We're a bit far away to see the happy smiling faces, the inspirational multi-ethnic banners and the few remaining pigeons, but trust me they're all present. But it wasn't always like this.
There was no square here 200 years ago, just the open courtyard of the Kings Mews stables which served Whitehall Palace. It was John Nash's idea to demolish the "filthy and disreputable abodes" of the Mews to create an open public space "to add to the beauty of the approach from Westminster to Charing Cross, a Square open to and looking down Parliament Street (where) the greatest part of the population of the Metropolis meet and diverge." Most of the design work was carried out by Sir Charles Barry who, in response to the sloping site, came up with the idea of a central paved square linked to a northern terrace via several sets of steps. And the square's not quite square either, being wider east-west than it is tall, with a a sort of pointy bit down south to fit the local road pattern. Opened in the 1830s this was originally to be called King William the Fourth's Square after the new monarch, but thankfully wasn't because that would have been a bit of a mouthful. However the Nelson myth was already strong, and nowhere in London had yet been named in honour of the nation's greatest sailor, and so Trafalgar Square it became instead. Huzzah!
Trafalgar Square (2): The fountains
The fountains were a late addition to Trafalgar Square, installed in 1845. There are two of them - one to the northwest and one to the northeast - and they're both enormous. Their size was deliberate, designed to reduce the amount of standing room in the square and thereby prevent crowds of excessive size from congregating here. Their shape is officially described as "lobed quatrefoiled basins" (which is posh for 'holds water and looks like a flower from above'). The central stone fountains we see today were designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and date from the late 1930s, as do Charles Wheeler's surrounding figures of mermaids, tritons and dolphins. Just my luck to turn up with my camera on a day when the fountains had been drained for cleaning, so there were no tourists dipping their hands in the water, no gushing jets of spray and no drunken lager louts splashing across the pool with beergut aloft.
Trafalgar Square (3): Three plinths
NE: King George IV (pictured left) - vain royal braggart on horseback
SE: Henry Havelock (pictured centre) - ruthless subduer of the subcontinent
NE: Charles James Napier (pictured right) - obscure hook-nosed army general
With all the fuss surrounding Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth, it's easy to overlook the three blokes who've been looking down from the other three corners of the square since the mid 19th century. King George IV has a good excuse to be here - as Prince Regent he commissioned both the square and the broad sweeping avenue of Regent Street further to the northwest. His statue was intended for Marble Arch but ended up here temporarily in 1840 and has remained ever since. It's harder today to argue for the presence of Havelock and Napier, both alpha-male empire-building army generals. Indeed the crowds celebrating Divali in the Square last weekend might not have been impressed to discover how these two oppressors subjugated their ancestors in the subcontinent a century and a half earlier. But these were fairly revolutionary statues in their time, celebrating meritocracy rather than the usual aristocracy, and it would be a shame to see them displaced to reflect modern values. One spare plinth is quite enough to be playing around with, and heaven knows who we might be lumbered with in their place.
Trafalgar Square (4): The fourth plinth
There was always meant to be a sculpture on Trafalgar Square's northwestern plinth, it's just that the money ran out by the time the rest of the square had been completed. Nobody quite got round to remedying the situation for the next 150 years, not least because it was impossible to agree who else to commemorate, until the RSA stepped in and commissioned a series of three sculptures in 1998. First up was Mark Wallinger's Ecce Homo ("Whether or not we regard Jesus as a deity, he was at the very least a political leader of an oppressed people"), then Bill Woodrow's Regardless of History ("The tree ...makes reference to the never-ending cyclical relationship between civilisations, knowledge and the forces of nature") and finally Rachel Whiteread's Monument ("I decided that the most appropriate sculpture for the plinth would be to make a 'pause': a quiet moment for the space"). The usual overblown arty waffle maybe, but the project was successful enough to initiate an ongoing series of temporary works on the fourth plinth. Starting with...
This is Alison Lapper Pregnant, a sculpture which ticks almost every box a government committee's diversity policy could demand (except it's not black). The sculptor Marc Quinn claims that his marble effigy counterbalances the innate masculinity of the square ("Nelson's Column is the epitome of a phallic male monument") (although I suspect he may just have nicked that line from Not The Nine O'Clock News). This isn't the first depiction of disability in the square - indeed Nelson's right arm is even shorter than Alison's - but it is the first statue to elevate an ordinary citizen to extraordinary acclaim. It's a striking piece, dominating the square at eye level, and extremely powerful in its positive portrayal of physical impairment. I was more impressed than I anticipated by this gleaming sculpture, as it appears are the multitude of pigeons now roosting around Alison's feet. Maybe they're queueing in readiness for the next work to appear on the fourth plinth - Thomas Schütte's Hotel For The Birds - which is due for installation in early 2007. In the meantime perhaps it's just as well that Alison is white, because that's the way the pigeons like it.
Trafalgar Square (5): Three busts
Cunningham (left): Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Fleet, WW2
Jellicoe (centre): Admiral of the Fleet, Battle of Jutland, 1916
Beatty (right): Youngest admiral since Nelson, WW1
You'll find these busts on the northeastern wall at the rear of Trafalgar Square. All three gentlemen are former Admirals of the Fleet, just like Lord Nelson high above them, but in this case from the first half of the 20th century. They're more spaced out in real life than in my photos, and Cunningham on the left doesn't normally have a pigeon perched on his head. Most visitors to the square probably don't notice them but, when the revolution comes (and it will undoubtedly have its epicentre here), it may be comforting to some to know that these three naval officers will be the first up against the wall.
Trafalgar Square (6): The centre of town
In medieval times the top of Whitehall was a quiet underdeveloped backwater. Here the street east to the City met the lane down to Westminster, and a road branched off across what was not yet west London. Go on, take a look on a map. And at the centre of this three-way junction stood a stone cross - the original Charing Cross - built by King Edward I to commemorate the passing of his beloved wife. Queen Eleanor's corpse paused here overnight at the end of a twelve-stage journey south from Lincolnshire (oh you probably know the story, I've told it before, and if not you'll find it here). The Eleanor Cross survived from 1291 to 1647, during which time it became the key point from which all distances from London were measured. And then those puritanical Parliamentarians declared it idolatrous and had it destroyed, breaking it down into stone then used to pave part of Whitehall to the south. After the Civil War an equestrian statue of Charles I took the cross's place in the middle of the road, portraying the king a full six inches taller than he was in real life (before his beheading, that is).
The stone cross you can still see further up the Strand outside Charing Cross station is a cunning Victorian facsimile and rather more ornate than the 13th century original. But that first cross is still commemorated by a metal plaque at King Charles' feet, stranded in the middle of a small cobbled roundabout just a pelican crossing away from Nelson's Column. Those three medieval roads still meet here (joined now by Northumberland Avenue and The Mall), and the surrounding hubbub must be at least as great as before, except with tourists, cars and buses replacing merchants, carts and cows. And, in silent tribute to the body of an otherwise forgotten queen, all distances from the capital are still measured from the exact site of her final resting place. This is London - dead centre.
Trafalgar Square (7): Imperial Standards of Length
How long is a foot, or a yard, or an inch? It was once important to be sure because Britain's trade relied on everyone having the same definition for these key units of length. King Henry I in his wisdom decided that a yard should be the distance from the tip of his nose to the end of his outstretched thumb, while King Edward I decreed that "three grains of barley, dry and round make an inch". Not very standard. It was left to Elizabeth I to come up with a nationally-agreed 'standard yard', but it was not until 1824 that the first Imperial Standard Length was created. This was a metal bar of precise length which was kept locked away safely in Westmister... at least until the massive fire that burnt down Parliament ten years later. A brass copy of the replacement standard yard was affixed to the northeast wall of Trafalgar Square by the Board of Trade in 1876, in full public view. The horizontal distance between pairs of metal marks - here one foot, two feet and the full yard - allowed people to check the accuracy of their rulers [proper photo, bit of history]. All perfectly accurate at precisely 62 degrees Fahrenheit, apparently. Nowadays scientists define the metre as "the length of the path travelled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1/299792458 of a second", which is nowhere near as romantic. Maybe that's why the girl reading a magazine sat on a bench directly in front of the brass plaque gave me a really funny look when I invaded her personal space to take the above close-up photo. From about a yard away, I think.
Trafalgar Square (8): The law
London's smallest police station lurks in the southeast corner of Trafalgar Square. It's really tiny, more a hollowed-out granite column with a big lantern on top than a proper nick. Maybe that's why it's no longer used for its original purpose (in fact, peering inside it looks more like a cleaner's cupboard these days). But a misted-up frame on the rear wall contains a wonderfully petty list of modern Trafalgar Square byelaws, so I thought I'd reproduce a selection of these below to help you to avoid arrest the next time you pay a visit.
Unless acting in accordance with permission given in writing by the Mayor, no person shall within the Square:
feed any bird (which shall include dropping or casting feeding stuff for birds);
play or cause to be played a musical instrument;
camp, or erect or cause to be erected any structure, tent or enclosure;
make or give a public speech or address;
take photographs or any other recordings of visual images for the purpose of or in connection with a business, trade, profession or employment;
go on any shrubbery or flower bed;
wash or dry any piece of clothing or fabric;
use any pedal cycle, roller skate, ice skate, roller blade, skate board or other foot-propelled device;
engage in any organised form of sport or physical exercise which causes a disturbance to any other person using the square;
tow or leave any caravan.
Trafalgar Square (9): The Christmas tree
Don't worry, it's not Christmas yet (this is Trafalgar Square, not Tesco). But the world's most famous Christmas tree is erected right here every December, an annual free gift from the people of Oslo to the people of London in honour of the UK's unfailing support during the darkest days of WW2.
Here's the story of the 2005 Trafalgar Square tree:
i) (1950-ish) An insignificant pine cone takes root somewhere in the depths of a forest just outside Oslo. It grows up to become a seventy foot tall Norwegian spruce.
ii) Strapping Norwegian lumberjack-types tour darkly wooded areas in search of 'the queen of the forest' (that's the perfect tree, not the perfect woman).
iii) The chosen tree is cut down in the presence of the Lord Mayor of Westminster and the Mayor of Oslo. Carols are sung and the civic authorities serve 'forest coffee' and sandwiches.
iv) The tree is shipped across the North Sea by ferry to Immingham, then hauled by road to Trafalgar Square and lowered into a special 6ft-deep hole.
v) 500 white fairy lights are draped around the tree and a big star is placed on the top, ready for the grand switch-on ceremony at the start of December.
vi) Lots of brass bands, carol singers and cute kids in scarves stand at the foot of the tree for a month, making Londoners feel all lovely and Christmassy.
vii) On Twelfth Night the brass bands bugger off, the lights are extinguished and the tree is unceremoniously fed into a chipping machine to be recycled.
Trafalgar Square (10): The pigeons
When I was a child, even a very big adult, the most amazing thing about Trafalgar Square was the number of pigeons. They were everywhere - flocking in the sky, swooping down over the fountains, nibbling seed on the pavement, perching amusingly on tourists' heads, etc etc. One of the reasons they were so prevalent was Bernie Rayner, the local pigeon-food seller, whose family had flogged birdseed to visitors for half a century. Venturing too close to Bernie's stall in the southeast corner of the square was like wading through a grey-white sea of feathers and guano while under heavy aerial attack.
And then the Mayor dug his claws in. He vowed to rid the square of these 'rats with wings' by banning the sale of birdseed and bringing in a hawk (at £105000 a year) to scare the little blighters away. What Ken hadn't counted on was a pressure group called the Pigeon Alliance who fought (successfully) to bring about this reduction in pigeon numbers more humanely. If you're ever out and about in the square at 7:30am, preferably with a camera, you might catch these devoted volunteers (legally) distributing ever-decreasing amounts of food in an attempt to wean the flying rats slowly elsewhere. It's working, with the pigeon population now down from a post-war peak of 35000 to just a few hundred. There's far less caked-in crap here now, and it's also much easier to hold a major event in the square without the participants being dive-bombed, but a lot of the local character (and characters) has vanished as a result. Shame. Although it's a little known fact that the anti-pigeon byelaws don't apply on the newly pedestrianised north terrace, so feel free to pop down and hurl breadcrumbs at the few remaining pigeons if you so wish.
Save The Trafalgar Square Pigeons
Trafalgar Square (11): The lions
No tourist's visit to Trafalgar Square is complete without a photograph taken in front of one Landseer's lions. The blackened bronze exerts an almost magnetic attraction, enticing more athletic visitors to clamber up the stone plinth, crouch in front of the lion's front paws and pose for the nearest camera. Some even complete the assault course to sit astride the lion's back, but they'd better get that photo taken sharpish before a queue develops back down on the ground beneath them. The lions weren't always so popular, however. Victorian artist Edwin Landseer spent a full ten years trying to complete the sculptures to his own satisfaction, during which time their non-appearance became something of a joke in the British press. He had to base the lions' likeness on a dead specimen provided by the London Zoological Gardens, but he was never quite satisfied with the end result. The British establishment were equally critical when the sculptures were finally unveiled in 1867. The front half of each creature was majestic and elegant, but the hindquarters appeared somehow less than leonine. But nobody today seems to mind that the lions' backs curve inwards instead of outwards - maybe because this makes them so much easier to sit on.
Trafalgar Square (12): Nelson's Column
And finally we remember the British hero who died at Trafalgar 200 years ago today - Admiral Lord Nelson. His is the centrepiece of the square, a 156 foot Corinthian column topped off by a 17 foot stone statue. From high above the capital Nelson surveys the streets, staring one-eyed down Whitehall towards the Thames and the distant sea. But he was slow to appear. Nearly 40 years elapsed between Nelson's death and his immortalisation in stone, until at last in October 1843 his statue was ready to be raised up into position from the square below. Fourteen fearless stonemasons took this opportunity to take dinner on the platform at the top of the column, while a hundred thousand Londoners came to view the new statue resting at ground level:"Unless they remembered they were looking at an object intended to be seen only at a great elevation, they may have been surprised at a sort of coarseness in the workmanship. Yet it has all the finish that can be required, and it has the great merit of likeness and character. It has the sharp, angular features, the expression of great activity of mind, but of little mental grandeur; of quickness of perception and decision; and -withal, that sad air, so perceptible in the best portraits of the warrior, of long-continued physical pain and suffering, the consequence of his many wounds, which accompanied him throughout his brightest triumphs, though it never abated his ardour or weakened his energies." (Illustrated London News, 1843)At the foot of Nelson's Column are four bronze reliefs cast from captured French cannons, each depicting a different naval triumph from Nelson's career. That on the south side (pictured) portrays the death of Nelson at Trafalgar and it's a mini-history lesson in itself:"Nelson is being carried from the quarter-deck to the cockpit by a marine and two seamen. At the back of the centre group is the surgeon. To the left are three sailors tightening some of the ship's cordage; another kneels, holding a handspike and leaning on a gun, arrested by the conversation between the dying hero and Captain Hardy. In the front, lying on the deck, are an officer and marines, who have fallen to rise no more. Behind stand two marines and a negro sailor. One of the former has detected the marksman by whose shot Nelson fell, and is pointing him out to his companion. The latter has raised his musket, and has evidently covered his mark; whilst the black, who stands just before the two marines, is grasping his firelock. The figures are of life-size; the casting weighs about five tons. Beneath are Nelson's memorable words, "England expects every man will do his duty."" (Curiosities of London, 1867)Today Nelson's Column stands tall in fitting tribute to Norfolk's most famous son and Britain's most famous sailor. It's one of the most well-known landmarks on the London skyline, and long may it remain. But it's almost an ancient monument now, so the GLA is currently inviting suitably qualified and experienced contractors to tender for its restoration. Deadline 11th November."Conservation works are now required to maintain the statue and column in good condition. Major items of work have been assessed following condition surveys of the column and will include: cleaning of areas; joint replacement; re-pointing; repairs to worn surfaces of sculptures; protective lacquer on bronze works to be removed and renewed; bronze work to be cleaned and re-patination performed"" (Invitation for expression of interest, 2005)Do you think John Noakes will be putting in a bid?
If you're at all interested in naval-gazing then may I heartily recommend a visit to the Nelson and Napoleon exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. The curators tell the parallel life stories of Horatio and Boney through an extensive collection of rare exhibits including the two men's famous bicorn hats, the coat Nelson was wearing when he was shot (complete with hole) and the musket ball that killed him. I was even lucky enough to meet Nelson and Lady Hamilton themselves, although they seemed somewhat preoccupied showing round a party of over-dressed Swedish nautical types and may just have been costumed fakes. Admission to the exhibition normally costs £9, but it's free this weekend if you can beat the queues. And should you miss out, don't worry, because there's one place you can remember Nelson for nothing all year round, and that's in Trafalgar Square...
Friday, October 14, 2005
Bow Road station modernisation - post-project appraisal
According to Metronet, who've been frittering away £3.3 million modernising my local tube station for the last 20 months, "the station was delivered into service on 05 October". Well thank goodness for that. There have been times over the last 86 weeks when I thought this incompetent infraco would never deliver. But now at last they've buggered off, leaving behind what may be a shiny new station with several updated features. But has all the effort and inconvenience been worthwhile? I thought I'd carry out an appraisal of Metronet's initial project objectives, because that's the modern way. Here's what they promised the public in a poster last summer. How have they performed?
1) "The modernisation will result in significantly improved facilities": I guess I have a different definition of the word 'facilities' to the top brass at Metronet. I'd been looking forward to at least one change during the Bow Road upgrade that would significantly improve my daily commute, but all I got was a new drinks machine and a louder public address system. The station staff, on the other hand, now have a lovely new control room full of computer screens (presumably for use when they're not busy reading a newspaper in the kiosk by the ticket gate). Lucky them. [Verdict: fail]
2) "A new ticket hall": When I saw this pledge last summer I wondered whether perhaps a brand new ticket hall might be opened up, possibly in the eastern half of the main building not previously open to the public. But no, the 'new ticket hall' is just the old ticket hall with new lighting, new signage and several layers of fresh paint. [Verdict: fail]
3) "New passageways": There are no new public passageways at Bow Road station, just the same old stairwells down from the ticket hall to the platforms. We did get lots of new flooring - a layer of something plastic across both the ticket hall and the stairwells - but station staff still have to scribble "Caution - floor may be slippery" on the station whiteboard whenever it rains. So much for modern engineering. [Verdict: fail]
4) "Improved station lighting": The western half of Bow Road station is officially 'underground', and the lighting down the far end of each platform always used to be dim, dark and uninviting. Things are much brighter now throughout the entire station, possibly too much so, but the whole place feels rather safer as a result. [Verdict: pass]
5) "New signage": a) At last, Bow Road is on the right lines. The big blue sign attached to the front of the station always used to read "DISTRICT AND METROPOLITAN LINES", even though services on the latter line were withdrawn from the station in 1990. No more. All the new signage throughout the station now correctly refers to the "District and Hammersmith and City lines", with matching green and pink trim as appropriate. There are also proper direction signs to Bow Church on the DLR (please turn right outside station), and it's all really rather tasteful. Big improvement. [Verdict: pass]
b) As for the new next train indicators, however, they're rubbish and a complete waste of money. They ought to be so much better than the ancient bulb-operated indicators we used to have (left) but no. The flashy new electronic displays (right) provide less than 45 seconds warning of the destination of the next westbound train, and no information at all about what may be following behind. If you're standing in the ticket hall and see that the next train is heading for Wimbledon, for example, you have a less than 50-50 chance of zipping down the stairs in time to catch it. If they can provide up to six minutes warning of the next three trains at Mile End, the next station down the line, then why can't we have a similar level of information at Bow Road? In my opinion this is the biggest missed opportunity of the entire upgrade. [Verdict: fail]
6) "New platform edge tactile strips": It's good to see facilities installed to assist visually impaired passengers, even if it took the contractors at least four or five attempts to successfully stick a few bits of yellow rubber to the platform surface. [Verdict: pass]
7) "New platform seating": There was seating on the platform before, but now there's more of it and in a modern more comfortable style. Unfortunately most of the new seating is down at the far end of each platform, and most station users can't be arsed to walk more than ten metres from the foot of each stairwell so it rarely gets used. [Verdict: pass]
8) "New CCTV": There was a complete CCTV system at Bow Road station before renovation began, presumably sufficient to prevent this quiet station from becoming a hotbed of violence and crime. Now we have more than 70 security cameras scanning the station, a gobsmackingly high number for a simple two-platform station serving 5000 passengers a day. Walk through the station entrance (click), across the ticket hall (click click click click), down the stairwell (click click) and along the platform (click x 24) and every last sigh, grimace and nosepick will have been recorded for posterity by the security staff in the new control room. Charles Clarke would be proud. I'm not sure whether I'm more disturbed by the implicit attack on my civil liberties or the undoubtedly exorbitant cost of this wholly unnecessary mega-surveillance system. [Verdict: pass, sadly]
9) "The unique architectural features of the station will be preserved throughout": Take a look at these before and after shots the wall at the western end of the westbound platform. The photo on the left shows a crumbling station with paint peeling from the walls, the end result of years of neglect and underfunding, and desperately in need of repair. And on the right is the same wall today, gleaming and shiny with modern easy-clean panelling. It's undoubtedly a great improvement, except that Bow Road station is supposed to be a Grade 2 listed building and somehow it now looks like a 1902 station with chunks of 2005 bolted on. That old wall will never be seen again, masked forever behind a heritage-free vinyl veneer, and the new spray-painted tube sign is no replacement for the historic Bow Road roundel.
The rest of the station reflects this curious mix of old and new. Take for example the 26 pillars that support the platform roof - probably the station's most prominent feature. These have been lovingly repainted in the original yellow and green, toppped off with bright red, and give the station real character. Unfortunately some twat has also repainted all the metalwork across the platform roof with bright blue paint, and the resulting colour clash looks amateur and uncoordinated. The station frontage has also been carefully repaired and restored, but is now scarred by an ugly electronic sign bolted beside the entrance. The stairwells have scrubbed up well, but they're now dominated by giant glass globe light fittings which look somehow more alien than Victorian. And let's not forget the ubiquitous plastic cable ducting, copious numbers of loudspeakers and all those bloody security cameras. Metronet may indeed have preserved the heritage features at Bow Road, but impact of the old has been considerably diminished by all the additional modern stuff they've installed everywhere else. The station has, alas, been refurbished rather than restored. [Verdict: fail]
10) "The work is due for completion in spring 2005": Leaves are now starting to fall from the horse chestnut tree outside Bow Road station, so it must be autumn, so work has been completed two seasons too late. When I started recording daily (in)activity at Bow Road in February last year, little did I expect to be still going 20 months later. It's taken Metronet more than 600 days to complete their first PPP-funded station upgrade, with Bow Road the guinea pig for their incompetent and wasteful bureaucratic procedures. The whole project has been beset by a succession of over-optimistic deadlines, and hindered by poor planning, excessive paperwork and limited communication. The travelling public have also been forced to endure a year of late evening station closures, the first six months of which were undoubtedly totally unnecessary. Ultimately the taxpayer has shelled out millions of pounds for a gravy train of fatcat contractors to drag their feet carrying out what is essentially a minor facelift. [Verdict: fail]
Conclusion: Whose bloody stupid idea was it to outsource the maintenance and modernisation of London's tube network to the private sector? Let my local station stand as an example of what happens when profit and paperwork become more important than planning and performance. I fear for the desecration these companies could cause at a station with real heritage features. I despair at the amount of money being siphoned from an urgent modernisation programme to line shareholders' pockets. And although I'm glad to see the back of the builders at Bow Road, I'm warned that they intend to return in 7 or 8 years time to start all over again. In the meantime maybe I should turn my attention to the mess these people are about to make of the Lea Valley Olympic site instead... [Verdict: fail]
25 photos taken throughout the 20 month upgrade
www.flickr.com: Bow Road station modernisation
Saturday, October 08, 2005
Random borough 7: Kensington and Chelsea
Kensington and Chelsea is probably London's poshest borough. It's also one of the smallest - a thin strip about four miles long and a mile wide to the west of the West End. To the south Sloane Square and super suave Chelsea, across the centre cosmopolitan Kensington and to the north the multicultural carnival streets of Notting Hill. It's familiar territory for many Londoners, even if most haven't the money to live here. I've scoured the borough from top to bottom, even managing a couple of places I hadn't visited before, and here's my report.
Somewhere retail: Portobello Road
Normally when I do these random borough visits, 'somewhere retail' is the hardest of the six categories. Not so in Kensington and Chelsea, a borough absolutely overflowing with famous shopping locations like the King's Road, Kensington High Street and that big store in Knightsbridge. Maybe everybody round here has loads of disposable income or something. But I took my life in my hands and went instead to the capital's most famous Saturday market, up the Portobello Road, along with half of the rest of London.
Portobello Road is a mile long, almost all of it lined by market stalls, which makes for one hell of an extended retail experience. I started at the Notting Hill end, down where the road is residential with just a smattering of t-shirt vendors and herbal emporia. The market stalls kick in big time as the road heads downhill after Chepstow Villas, and so do the crowds. Maybe they're here for some fancy crockery or bone-handled cutlery, or perhaps they're after some old maps or antique silverware. God knows why, but perhaps they are. I watched as someone stopped off to buy a £45 bowler hat from an impassive old lady with suspiciously blonde hair sat in a deckchair [photo]. Beside her a bored husband stroked a Russian army balaclava hanging from a stall selling army fatigues and gasmasks. An un-self-conscious young couple sporting felt fairytale hats paused briefly to stare at some trinket in the window of one of the many boutiques lining the street. Everyone was in search of that special bargain, or else resting awhile with a cup of something caffeinated before heading off round some other arcade or side alley.
After Elgin Crescent, past the armchair luxury of the Electric Cinema (to which I must go back one day), Portobello evolves into a more normal London market. There's fruit and veg, there's a greasy caff, there are cheap t-shirts, and there's a much higher proportion of local shoppers. Are those DVDs and Calvin Klein undies genuine, do you think, and how can that washing powder be so inexpensive? The stalls continue beneath the Westway (jackets, handbags, reggae, etc) and the Caribbean influence becomes more apparent. And eventually, at Golborne Road, the stalls of cheap tat finally peter out and the final few hundred yards of Portobello Road head northward into obscurity. A few fashionable boutiques linger, just because the address is so desirable, but few if any tourists reach this far. Certainly not as far as the northernmost retail outlet - AK Foods (News Agents & Grocery) - which is frequented only by teenagers on bikes and residents of the surrounding bleak apartment blocks. And I bet they never pop down the southern end of the road for some Art Nouveau porcelain either.
by tube: Notting Hill Gate, Ladbroke Grove, by bus: 7, 70
Somewhere pretty: Kensal Green Cemetery
Right up at the top of Kensington and Chelsea, sandwiched between the Harrow Road and the Grand Union Canal, lies London's oldest public burial ground. Kensal Green Cemetery was established by a local barrister, inspired by the success of the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, and in 1833 the first of several thousands of Londoners were buried here. The garden cemetery was an immediate (and fashionable) success, and they've been packing them in ever since. Two of King George III's children are buried here, as are novelists Trollope and Thackeray, tightrope walker Jean Blondin and engineering double act Sir Mark and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Not that I found any of their graves during my hour-long wander, because this place is vast. The cemetery today is a ramshackle mix of old and new, with modern jet black headstones scattered alongside crumbling tombs and weathered mausoleums as part of a kind of funereal nature reserve. The self-importance of many of the ornate Victorian memorials is astonishing, although many of the more modern graves are just as ostentatious. Granny Collins in particular, you may indeed have been much loved by your adoring family, but the over-ambitious granite shrine they've erected in your memory, guarded by an army of alabaster angels, concrete frogs and smiling gnomes, is quite frankly tasteless in the extreme [photo]. A few of the other plots are well tended with fresh flowers (and even helium 'happy birthday' balloons), but most of the old stones now lay crooked, illegible and forgotten. Somehow a silent autumn day with dying leaves underfoot seemed the most appropriate, evocative time for a visit.
by tube: Kensal Green, by bus: 18
Somewhere sporting: Princess Di's gym
You might have thought it would be easy to find somewhere famously sporting in Kensington and Chelsea. I mean, the last word of the borough's name is a big enough hint. But no, it turns out that Stamford Bridge is just over the other side of the boundary in Hammersmith and Fulham, and that Kensington and Chelsea is almost completely devoid of stadia and sporting venues. So I ended up instead where many of the borough's fitness obsessed residents appear to end up - visiting a gym. But this is no ordinary gym, oh no. It may look like two floors of a converted building above Boots the chemist in the Earl's Court Road, but this is where Lady Diana Spencer came to sweat. She'd nip through the doorway beside Burger King, pop up the stairs and take her turn with the weights and treadmills, no doubt smiling wistfully as she did so. She was living in Coleherne Court at the time, a surprisingly bland residential development above a nearby health centre, all before she moved into the rather more impressive Kensington Palace up the road (which presumably had its own gym somewhere inside). Alas the railings in front of the palace have been cleared of all the gobsmacking poetry I saw last time I passed by, but I'm sure the thought of Princess Diana panting breathlessly after a heavy workout could inspire several more verses.
by tube: Earl's Court, by bus: 74, 328
Somewhere famous: Harrods
Judging by the volume of tourists who make tracks to this giant department store on the Brompton Road, 'Harrods' must be one of the most well-known words in the English language. I bet most of them don't realise that the store's origins lie in Stepney in the East End, where Charles Henry Harrod first established a grocery business in the 1830s. He moved to rural Knightsbridge in 1849, just before the area headed upmarket bigtime, and by the turn of the century Harrods employed 2000 staff and had enlarged to occupy all the surrounding properties. House of Fraser took over the franchise in 1959, but for the last 20 years the store has been owned by "visionary businessman Mohamed Al Fayed" (about whom I'll not hear a bad word said in case he sues). The building is on a vast scale, like a retail fortress, with more than 100 departments covering more than five acres crammed onto seven floors. Finding your way around this dimly-lit warren of rooms, passages and escalators is a bit of a nightmare, so much so that you can imagine entire Japanese families being lost inside for weeks. I disappeared for an hour.
I must have passed the entrance examination because the doorman let me in without sneering. I advanced through several rooms that sold what the proprietor would call designer luxury goods, but which I'd just call overpriced posh stuff for toffs. Grinning permatanned fragrance operatives stood poised to spray some blend of musky floral spices over passing female shoppers. Of Mrs Slocombe or Mr Humphries there was no sign. I passed through into the legendary food halls, won over by the genuine period charm of the seafood counters but unimpressed by the overbearing glitzy decor of the food hamper room. I was in search of a light lunchtime snack, and in the bakery I found the perfect local delicacy - a Chelsea bun. I had to queue behind an elderly gentleman using his Harrods Gold Card to buy £2.70 worth of bread, and a Burberry-collared lady forking out four quid each for four small fudge madeira cakes. I guess it must have been cheaper than hiring servants to bake for her. Nevertheless I was impressed that my extra-sticky bun cost less than a quid, and that the bakery's fresh pain au chocolats were on sale for 30p less than in the Starbucks franchise in the basement.
Onward and upward, into the heart of the store. The selection of luggage was hideous, the menswear wasn't my style and the furniture seemed unnecessary. In the Christmas decoration department my ears were assaulted (for the first time this year) by the strains of Roy Wood and Wizzard, while all around people with more money than taste snapped up gaudy imitation greenery and giant-sized stockings with luxury gold trimming. At least Father Christmas won't be here for another month. And I didn't dare venture into the gentlemen's luxury washroom on the fourth floor for fear of being ostracised by failing to tip the uniformed valet wanting to squirt perfumed soap into my sweaty palm. Tourists seemed content to head mostly for the Harrods World souvenir departments (20th anniversary bears were piled high) and the current Truly British exhibition (postage stamp upholstery, anyone?). The financial mainstay of the department store, however, is the serious shopper with serious money. There were whole departments where every customer was wearing brown and/or green, perhaps with a beige tweed jacket or russet corduroy trousers to top off that upmarket landed gentry look. These people were genuinely excited by the products on sale, perhaps because their second home needed a new rug or maybe because there isn't yet a high-definition home cinema in the west wing. Hell, why shop anywhere else?
I'd heard that Mr Al Fayed had installed a memorial to Princess Diana and his son, but I was unprepared for its sheer unadulterated tackiness (not helped, I have to add, by being situated at the foot of the Egyptian escalator opposite a huge gold-painted sarcophagus). Portraits of the two doomed aristocrats appear in interlinked gold rings above a bronze fountain surrounded by white flowers and four glowing candles. A central plastic pyramid contains both Dodi's engagement ring and a lipstick-smudged wine glass from the couple's last evening together (not that anybody in the car was drunk, of course). But the most disturbing thing about the memorial was the mass of people gathered in front of it, reverently reading the plaque, admiring the kitsch design or lining up their mobile phone camera to capture this garish tableau for posterity. I bet none of the onlookers were thinking about poor dear dead Dodi either, even though the memorial's official title gives his name top billing.
I was mortified when I got home to discover that there was another more recent memorial to Di and Dodi in the store called Innocent Victims (a bronze couple dancing beneath an albatross, no less), which I had somehow managed to overlook during my tour of the building. That's the trouble with Harrods, it's just too bloody big. And quite tasteless.
by tube: Knightsbridge, by bus: 14, 74
Somewhere historic: the Natural History Museum
If London's museums are its crowning glory, then the crown jewels must be the big three in South Kensington. There's fine art and design at the V&A, there's technology at the Science Museum, and then there's the dead animals in the Natural History Museum - which is where I headed. It's somewhere I've been many times before, not least because it seemed to be my primary school's favourite destination for a school trip. We'd pile onto the tube (no overbearing Health and Safety regulations in those days) and bundle down to South Kensington, then set off on the arduous route march through the vast pedestrian subway into Museumland. There were no worksheets on clipboards to complete in those golden days, just an educational wander around the exhibits in small groups, each led by a willing Mum. Then at lunchtime we'd cram into the vestibule behind the main hall and unwrap our clingwrapped ham and cheese sandwiches before continuing round the musty displays of bare skeletons and stuffed mammals. The museum has changed a bit since then, but I still get a kick out of every visit.
The main hall is a Gothic spectacular, almost overshadowing the famous diplodocus in the centre (this year celebrating a centenary on display). Climb the broad stone steps to the upper landing and you can gaze in awe at a slice of 1300 year-old Giant Sequoia tree trunk, as many have before you. Or go and keep the lone curator company in the minerals gallery - a long pillared room filled with rocks, rocks, more rocks and (right down the far end) some rather splendid meteorites. But you won't find anybody under the age of 10 up here - they're all down on the ground floor being scared witless by the dinosaurs. During my visit several mothers had to shield their toddler's eyes as they rushed past the animatronic tyrannosaurus rex, hurrying on to the next section of the exhibition where the fossils didn't growl back. The enormous blue whale hanging nextdoor was another awe-inspiring attraction, especially with children who'd previously thought that animals existed only in cartoons. Meanwhile the stuffed birds and animals in Waterhouse Way merited barely a look - kids were dragging their weekend fathers towards the creepy crawly zone and interactive human biology exhibit instead.
And then there are the Earth Galleries, kicking off with an enticingly dark escalator rising high into a hollow metal planet. This used to be a separate concern called the Geological Museum, complete with a less than magnetic selection of old rocks, as I remember from yet another (sixth form) school trip. Now the space has been updated with six new galleries showcasing the solar system and Earth's more dynamic processes. There's even an seismic simulator where you can stand in a fake Japanese shop and 'experience' the Kobe earthquake, although on Saturday it all felt rather tame compared to the real thing in Pakistan a few hours earlier. B+ for effort, but I'm afraid all the kids were still nextdoor gawping at the big lizards.
by tube: High Street Kensington, by bus: 14, 74
Somewhere peripheral: A riverside stroll east from Lots Road to Chelsea Bridge (1½ miles)
Lots Road: Once London Transport's main power station [pictured], but closed three years ago in favour of the National Grid. The two chimneys still dominate the area, but there are plans to transform the cavernous brick building into flats and add a couple of modern residential skyscrapers at the mouth of Chelsea Creek.
Chelsea Wharf: A riverside jetty with impressive views across the Thames, named after an old warehouse that's currently in the process of being demolished.
Cremorne Gardens: In Victorian times a pleasure garden including a circus, theatres and side shows, but it all got a bit bawdy and was closed down. Now a soulless municipal space with yob-encrusted lawn and an empty paddling pool.
Battersea Bridge: A replacement bridge built in 1890, and a notorious riverboat accident spot. The bridge was closed three weeks ago after being hit by a 200-tonne gravel barge, and on Saturday local pedestrians were still making the most of having the full span to themselves.
Cheyne Walk: Famous residents of this exclusive riverside terrace have included Keith Richards (at number 3), George Eliot (4), Lloyd George (10), Dante Gabriel Rosetti (16), James Whistler (21), Mick Jagger (48), Elizabeth Gaskell (93), The Brunels (98), JMW Turner (119) and Sylvia Pankhurst (120).
Albert Bridge: This fairytale bridge may be pretty, in a kind of pink wedding cake style, but it's also very fragile. Not only is there a 2 ton weight limit but signs have been erected at each end of the bridge warn troops to break step as they cross.
Chelsea Physic Garden: Meticulous herbal garden founded by the Society of Apothecaries in 1673, but alas only open on Wednesdays and Sundays.
Royal Hospital: The most famous old people's home in the world, occupied by a select group of doddery Chelsea Pensioners. They have a huge public back garden, mostly used for playing football and dog walking by the look of it.
River Westbourne: One of London's lost underground rivers flows into the Thames out of a hole in the Embankment just west of Chelsea Bridge. It wasn't flowing much on Saturday.
Chelsea Bridge:Rebuilt in 1937 on the site of a much more ornate 1858 toll bridge. Now overshadowed at the southern end by the lonely towers of Battersea Power Station. Bikers still meet here every Friday night.
by bus: 360, 239, C3
A selection of 30 photographs from the Royal borough
www.flickr.com: Kensington and Chelsea