Sunday, April 09, 2006

Random borough (9): Hillingdon

Yesterday I ended up on the western edge of London in the randomly selected borough of Hillingdon. It's a long way from the centre of town, tucked up against the fringes of Herts, Bucks and Surrey, so it took me ages to get there. And it's a vast borough, the second largest in the capital, stretching a full twelve miles from north to south, so I had my work cut out trying to travel around. Hillingdon's a very suburban borough, really quite rural in places, but with a less glamorous hinterland along the A4 corridor. The council's official list of local attractions suggested I was in for a dull old time, but actually there was plenty of interest to see. Inbetween the dull bits.

Somewhere famous: Heathrow Airport
The London borough of Hillingdon just happens to be home to the world's busiest international airport. Heathrow is like a city within the city, covering more than 3000 acres, employing 68000 workers and processing a greater number of passengers each year than actually live in the UK. It is at the same time both a modern miracle of efficient accessibility and a blight on the environmental living standards of almost the whole of west London. Can't live with it, can't live without it. And it's celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.

Heathrow opened in 1946, an unassuming alternative to the existing London Airport based in Croydon. Terminal facilities were provided in an army tent equipped with armchairs and chemical toilets, and a mere 60000 passengers passed through in the first year. Then came the jet age, the advance of air freight and a mushrooming in international travel and hey presto, one giant airport hub complete with one, two, three, four passenger terminals. A fifth terminal is nearing completion and should be operational in two years' time. It'll dwarf the remaining buildings (T5 could be the third largest airport in Europe in its own right), but only BA and Qantas passengers will get to check in beneath its signature glass roof. The futuristic 87m-high control tower has already opened, although it has the look of a fragile Thunderbirds model and might therefore be expected to explode and topple at any moment.

I got quite lost trying to find my way around between the terminal buildings. There are subways, gangways and slow-moving luggage everywhere. The roads are clogged not with cars but with buses and coaches, ferrying bleary-eyed foreigners to their grim boxy hotels spaced out along the northern perimeter. Suspiciously tanned aircrew wheel miniature suitcases towards unidentified buildings. Bemused families queue at sterile check-in desks in order to prove they're not terrorists. Everybody seems intent on passing through as quickly as possible, but nobody's having much luck. Welcome to the waiting zone.

Strangely the one thing that's very hard to do within the centre of the airport is to watch the planes. There are no aircraft immediately above you, merely those in the process of landing or taking off along the two parallel runways to either side. Visitors used to be able to stand on an observation deck atop the Queen's Building but that's been closed down, presumably in case an unassuming plane spotter turns out to have a surface-to-air missile hidden in their lunchbox. I discovered many displaced enthusiasts standing outside the airport perimeter in the car park close to the Renaissance Hotel. They clutched optical devices with huge lenses, wielded radio receivers which helped them listen in to control tower traffical and jabbered excitedly about percieved anomalies in the landing pattern. Every 90 seconds or so another plane thundered down the runway, its engines screeching as it picked up speed before ascending with a roar into the sun-dazzled western sky. Each passage was observed, discussed and recorded with disinterested fascination.

Beside the same car park I discovered the little-known Heathrow Visitor Centre - a small hands-on exhibition detailing the airport's aviation history. It's adequate, as far as a PR exercise goes, and provides a useful café in which some of the more ardent spotters can rest their heavy notebooks. But the view out through the grimy glass observation window was less than ideal and, while I was there at least, the place seemed to have doubled up as an adventure playground for bored mischievous toddlers. It's not the real Heathrow. I guess the only authentic way to experience the delights (or otherwise) of the airport would be to arrive with a giant suitcase, file meekly through security, drift aimlessly around between the duty free boutiques and then strap oneself down inside a Boeing. Maybe I'll try that particular option next weekend instead.
by tube: Piccadilly line  by train: Heathrow Express

Somewhere historic: Harmondsworth
Harmondsworth is a small village located on flat meadowland just under a mile north of Heathrow airport. It's not historic in the sense that William the Conqueror built a castle here or that Henry VIII stopped by to cure the locals of dropsy, but it is still a very old village. St Mary's Church dates back to the 12th century and its Norman doorway is one of the finest in London. Nextdoor there's a golden-brown tithe barn, reputedly the largest in the country (although I grew up in a different village which also claimed the same thing, so I'd take that with a pinch of salt). Harmondsworth therefore boasts one scheduled ancient monument and several Grade II listed buildings, all gathered around a triangular village green with a couple of pubs and a few sweet asymmetrical cottages. Most historic. For now, anyway.

Because not even the giant Terminal 5 is expected to be enough to feed Heathrow Airport's future expansion, so a sixth terminal and a third runway will most likely be required. Original plans for the third runway (published in 2003) saw the wholesale destruction of Harmondsworth village. Church - razed. Tithe barn - relocated. Quaint village green - tarmacked. And all so that international business could expand, long distance freight traffic could increase and you and I could fly abroad more often. Tough decision. But then last year, after a major public outcry, BAA amended their plans slightly. They still plan to build their new runway except fractionally further east, so now only the northeastern corner of the village is scheduled for demolition. Like the areas pictured below, for example.

The first picture shows part of Harmondsworth Moor - in twenty years' time thunderous aeroplanes will be taking off on the new runway across this field. The second shows one of the many existing houses under threat - this very spot will form the western end of a new taxiway. And the third shows a field immediately to the east of Hatch Lane - the new terminal 6 is destined to be plonked right here. Not good. And not good for the rest of the village left behind either. Although all of the listed buildings will survive, noise levels beside the end of the new runway will be quite unbearable. Nobody's going to want to live here beside the perimeter fence, not quite this close to an umpteen decibel blast every couple of minutes. Every house will be blighted, so when the new runway opens BAA might as well have knocked down the whole village anyway.

It was surprisingly quiet in Harmondsworth on Saturday afternoon. The graveyard around the church was deserted, apart from the odd bumblebee. The tables outside the Five Bells pub were packed with hordes of good-natured unwashed student types with sculpted hair and piercings. An old lady in a sari sat down in the bus shelter on Holloway Lane and smiled across the street. One front lawn in Hatch Lane was busy receiving its first lawnmower trim of the season. A courting couple disappeared with intent down a heavily willowed path into Bateman's Orchard. The cattle on Harmondsworth Moor just stood and watched it all. And, in the distance, the planes taking off at the airport were clearly audible but never overly intrusive. It's strange to think that this peace could be shattered so utterly and irrevocably, and all for the benefit of people who'd never think of visiting Harmondsworth otherwise. Still, it has a better future than the neighbouring village of Sipson which is still due for complete eradication if the third runway gets the go-ahead. The last village round here which suffered a similar fate had the rather quaint name of 'Heath Row'. And who remembers that nowadays?
by bus: U3

the environmental impact of Runway 3 (FoE)
map of proposed airport expansion
local 'Five villages' campaigning blog
route of Runway 3 flightpath (bad news for Chelsea, Hammersmith and Brentford)
existing Heathrow flightpaths for takeoffs
HACAN ClearSkies - campaigning against Heathrow noise pollution

Somewhere pretty: Ruislip Lido
Much of the northern swathe of Hillingdon lies within the green belt, so it's more like proper countryside than part of Western Europe's largest city. Ruislip in particular has the air of a small market town, though admittedly one populated by stockbrokers. By common consent the prettiest spot in the area is Ruislip Lido, a 150-acre lake nestling amid ancient woodlands (and the odd golf course). At first glance it looks like a place of purely natural beauty, complete with wooded banks and resident waterfowl (I was charmed by a couple of amorous crested grebes, and got quite close to a large swan). But look again. Most genuine lakes don't have a child-covered beach with proper golden sand, do they, nor a low dam blocking one end. That's because this is really an artificial lagoon, constructed in 1811 as a reservoir to feed the Grand Union Canal. The place was astonishingly popular in the 40s, 50s and 60s, the beach packed by eager kids who'd never even seen the sea, let alone the Mediterranean. Today the crowds have passed and the sailing club and water skiiers have dispersed, but Ruislip Lido remains a much cherished spot for local people to pass a couple of hours. The tarmac path around the edge of the lido is just long enough to make you think you've done some valuable exercise. Alternatively it's the perfect length for walking the dog, or for jogging round (once) or for taking your toddler out for a ride on their mini tricycle before they get bored. And there's a proper miniature railway right around the lake too, with trains departing from 'Ruislip Lido' station for 'Woody Bay' every 40 minutes, although I arrived too early in the day to see them in operation. No doubt the place is packed with divorced dads on Sunday afternoons, maybe topping off their visit with a meal at the Harvester-style restaurant next to the big car park. All still just the right side of charming, but I hope bird flu paranoia doesn't keep the crowds away in the future.
by bus: H13  by train: Woody Bay

Somewhere retail: Uxbridge High Street
I must confess that Uxbridge doesn't normally spring to mind when I think of London's great retail centres. But the Hillingdon council website assured me that Uxbridge was home to not one but two marvellous shopping centres. And, as you may have noticed by the lack of photo in the report above, I'd managed to leave home without my camera's memory stick so I was in urgent need of a replacement purchase. So I went. Good old Dixons in the Chimes Centre had a memory stick for a bargain price, plus they were only too happy to fetch a pair of scissors so that I could rip open the ludicrously well sealed plastic packaging and start taking photos again. Elsewhere in the two-level mall the families and youth of Hillingdon were partaking of their Saturday shopping fix. Some ripped jeans and glitzy gold chains for the younger consumers, perhaps, or a restful muffin and coffee for the more mature purchaser. I had to fend off a particularly keen woman trying to get me to switch my electricity supplier, twice, and carefully avoided the gangly pierced alternative types signing up at the bottom of the escalator for the Ministry of Paintball. Across the street the Pavilions Shopping Centre proved to be just as large, but slightly more downmarket. There were a few faux market stalls clustered round a central staircase (now I know where to come for all my mobility scooter needs) and several not quite brand-name stores (like Secrets, Purelife, and Popiandy's cafe). Outside a few large traditional stores lived on, like Randalls furniture & carpets store (the family business of the local MP), but shopping in Uxbridge is generally as 'clone town' an experience as you might expect. I didn't stay long.
by tube: Uxbridge  by bus: anything starting with a 'U'

Somewhere sporty: Hayes FC
I suppose, given that I was exploring the heartland of deepest Middlesex, that I should have visited somewhere cricket related. But the MCC are based some distance away and only deigned to play a single one day match at the Uxbridge Cricket Club last year, so I decided against. I was very tempted to write an in-depth report from a local bowling green, this seeming to be the official sport of Hillingdon borough, but thankfully the season doesn't seem to be properly underway yet. So instead I hunted down a top local football team, Hayes FC, from the Nationwide Southern Conference no less, Although maybe not for much longer. The team are languishing in the relegation zone at the moment, so yesterday's match against Lewes was a crucial points-gathering exercise. I tracked down their mid-suburban Church Road ground a couple of hours before kickoff to view the first stirrings of pre-match preparation. The huge car park was still nigh empty, bar the odd souped-up motor or white van. A shaven headed bloke in a suit arrived and lugged a heavy kitbag through the side entrance towards the changing rooms. The groundsman stood by the red-painted turnstiles and waited. Local residents walked, or drove, past without giving the old part-time stadium a second glance. It came as no surprise later to discover that official attendance at the thrilling two-all draw had been only 167. I hope the club survives potential relegation to the Isthmian League - it's a long way down.
by bus: 195, H98

Somewhere random: Yiewsley
Rearrange all of London's placenames into alphabetical order and Hillingdon boasts the last name on the list - Yiewsley. Which seemed a good enough reason to visit. This small town owes its existence to two great 19th century endeavours, the Great Western Railway and the Grand Union Canal. I arrived via the former (happy 200th birthday - today! - to chief engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel) and went for a short walk up the towpath of the latter. The flooded gravel pits of the Colne Valley are really rather scenic, but alas much of this stretch of the canal skirted several warehouses and a patch of post-industrial wasteland instead. A giggly gang of four schoolboys hung from the ironwork off the footbridge leading to the Slough Arm of the canal, and proud barge owners sat looking out from their improvised gardens on the banks of the Packet Boat Marina. Yiewsley High Street, running parallel, was a different world. A long string of shops ran down to the station, featuring such retail delights as Sweet Dreams discount bed showroom, Dades electrical store and Gordon's - one of those slightly musty independent ladies fashion outlets that exist only in suburban parades. Architecturally the only point of note was brick-built St Matthew's Church, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott who was also responsible for the gothic excesses of St Pancras Station. And a warning to any reader tempted to book into the 'Heathrow Guest House' prior to a flight out of the country. You might be expecting a homely hotel close to the airport, whereas what you're really getting is a block of first-floor rooms above an opticians, a bakery and a unisex salon. In Yiewsley. You can do better.
by train: West Drayton

 Friday, April 07, 2006

Waterloo → City

The Waterloo & City line has been shut down this week for a major facelift. The 'Drain' is more than 100 years old, so it's about time that all the trains, tracks and other infrastructure were completely overhauled. The line's completely cut off from the rest of the tube network, which is why over the weekend all the carriages had to be hauled out of their tunnel using a big crane. Come September the line will be reopened - faster, cleaner and with lovely new teal-coloured upholstery on every train. But until then 40000 commuters are going to have to find an alternative way to get from Waterloo to Bank. Here's Transport for London's recommendation...
"During the five-month closure, passengers travelling from Waterloo to Bank are advised to take the Bakerloo or Northern lines to Embankment station and then the District or Circle line to Monument station."
That's not quite the direct trip which commuters are used to. In fact, and I'd like to take issue with TfL on this, their replacement route is considerably longer than necessary. It looks quite sensible on the tube map but, as we all know, the tube map isn't a true representation of reality. For a start TfL's route starts by heading in completely the wrong direction - northwest. Then there's a surprisingly high number of stations on the Circle line section of the journey, slowing everything down. And finally the route requires you to use one of the best disguised inefficiencies on the entire network - the Bank/Monument 'escalator link'. Bank and Monument may look like neighbouring stations on the map but in reality they're nearly half a kilometre apart, joined by a deep subway canyon requiring a descent into the bowels of the City. Look, here's a helpful 3D cutaway diagram. The twisting labyrinth between Monument and Bank takes at least five minutes to negotiate, as those following TfL's instructions will find to their cost.

So I thought I'd do some adding up to try to find the fastest way from Waterloo to Bank now that the Waterloo and City line is out of action. Here's the maths:

Original route (currently closed)
Waterloo & City (4 minutes) = 4 minutes (1 station, 1.5 miles)

Alternative route 1 (change at Embankment - TfL preferred)
Bakerloo/Northern (1 minute) + change (3 minutes) + District/Circle (8 minutes) + walk from Monument to Bank (5 minutes) = 17 minutes (7 stations, 2.2 miles)
Alternative route 2 (change at Tottenham Court Road)
Northern (6 minutes) + change (3 minutes) + Central (7 minutes) = 16 minutes (8 stations, 3.1 miles)
Alternative route 3 (change at Elephant & Castle)
Bakerloo (5 minutes) + change (3 minutes) + Northern (5 minutes) = 13 minutes (5 stations, 2.4 miles)
Alternative route 4 (change at London Bridge)
Jubilee (4 minutes) + change (3 minutes) + Northern (2 minutes) = 9 minutes (3 stations, 1.5 miles)

Hmmm. It seems that there are three routes which are quicker than TfL's suggested diversion. Travelling via Tottenham Court Road means passing through more stations, but is quicker. Travelling southeast via Elephant and Castle involves heading in completely the wrong direction, but is quicker. But it's the alternative route via London Bridge which really stands out. It's only 1½ miles long. It passes through just three stations. And it takes less than ten minutes. It's glaringly better, quicker, faster and more direct than TfL's preferred route. OK, so the Jubilee line may be scarily sardine-like during the rush hour, but even so. Surely TfL should be encouraging displaced commuters to take the tube via London Bridge, rather than a sinuous alternative which takes almost twice as long. I wonder why they're keeping so quiet?

 Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Building a Stonger London

Tony Blair gave a big speech at City Hall yesterday pledging to regenerate London, and East London in particular, in time for the Olympics in 2012. Hurrah. He and Mayor Ken are keen to leave behind a legacy of urban improvement, lest their political epitaph might read that they presided over a financial sporting fiasco of Dome-sized proportions. They urgently need the Olympics to be a catalyst, not an albatross. As a (very) local resident I'm obviously delighted to see that so much time, money and effort is about to be showered onto the surrounding community. So naturally I leapt upon the chance to read a copy of "Building On Success", the newly-launched 50-page glossy brochure in which all these challenges and initiatives are lovingly outlined. Precisely how will my local neighbourhood be improved during the next six years?

Well, I've had a read, and I'm none the wiser. The brochure tells me nothing new. It's just a catalogue of existing political initiatives, from Empty Dwelling Management Orders to Skills Academies and from Neighbourhood Renewal Funds to Community Cohesion Pathfinder Programmes. Buzzphrases such as 'key challenges' and 'pan-London choice' are scattered throughout. It's just more of the same, only with sillier names. 'Unemployment', for example, has been rebranded 'worklessness'. And, in what can only be described as an example of proofreadinglessness, chapter 4 has accidentally been entitled "A stonger, safer, greener city" in giant green letters. Oops. This ill-thought-out document reeks of well-meaning strategic nothingness. I am stongly underwhelmed.

Perhaps most disturbingly of all, as part of this initiative the Prime Minister now appears to be attempting to piggyback on the success of an existing website - pledgebank.com. This is the site where concerned citizens offer to carry out some social obligation, just so long as a target number of other people sign up too. Recent pledges have included contributing money to an orphanage in Uganda (target of 10 signees reached) and writing to the Environment Secretary calling for a levy on outdoor patio heaters (24 people have signed up, 76 more needed). And now there's now a (genuine) pledge from the Prime Minister...
"I will become the patron of a London community sports club. I will work with the club over the years as the Olympics approaches in 2012 to support their development and raise their profile but only if 100 other public figures in London will join me in supporting other clubs." (Tony Blair)
Deadline to sign up by: 25th July 2006
2 people have signed up, 98 more needed
So far only Ken Livingstone and Tessa Jowell have followed suit. I wonder who else (if anyone) will be loaning their time to this special community cause? It would be great if this noble enterprise worked out, but somehow it smacks of a PR stunt to me. What East London really needs is genuine action, not worthy words. And don't tell the PM, but the most successful pledge on the site is "I will refuse to register for an ID card and will donate £10 to a legal defence fund but only if 10,000 other people will also make this same pledge") which is 1365 people over target. I doubt Tony will beat that.

I wandered down to the site of the Olympic Stadium over the weekend (it's only a 15 minute walk, it's not far). The crumpled cardboard box in my photograph marks what will one day be the southwestern grandstand, and those warehouses in the near distance stand in what will eventually be the central arena. But nothing physical appears to have happened around here since the award of the Games was announced. Local businesses are still operational. Tall incinerators still belch cooking oil and waste into the skies. An ethnic ragbag of workers still emerge from rundown factories (at four o'clock precisely) to carry home their minimum wages. Boy racers still drive at speed along deserted Marshgate Lane. Disaffected kids still ride their trailbikes round (and round) a bumpy circuit of overgrown hillocks. Unwanted sofas still litter the pavement beneath an overhead sewer pipe. Pylons still stalk the horizon. Herons still soar high above the industrial landscape. Leafless branches still dip down to touch silently flowing rivers. But not for much longer. This Summer's probably your last chance to visit the Lower Lea Valley as it is now, as it used to be, before the construction companies move in and erase the lot. Let's hope, for East London's sake, that their destruction won't be in vain.

 Sunday, April 02, 2006

There are some great independent booksellers in London. There are fewer than there used to be, partly thanks to the continuing advance of ferociously commercial chains like Waterstones and the convenience of online outlets like Amazon. But there's nothing quite like browsing around a 'proper' bookshop, even if you end up paying a little extra for the privilege. Below are three of my favourite independent London bookshops, reviewed in 50 words or less, and a few you've contributed to the list.

London's best independent bookshops
Foyles (113-119 Charing Cross Road): A towering family business that's somehow survived a century of eccentric business practices. I could never find anything before they rearranged the ludicrous "by-publisher" cataloguing system, but the modernised store is rather more rational. And still huge. And still refreshingly quirky.
Hatchards (187 Piccadilly): Possibly London's poshest bookshop, purveyors of showy hardbacks to the aristocracy, but still with a charming homely touch. Climbing the winding central staircase is like exploring a giant five-storey townhouse, peering inquisitively into library after library. And their carrier bags are well smart.
Daunt (83 Marylebone High Street): A proper Edwardian bookshop with long oak galleries, emerald lampshades and elegant skylights. At the front are the latest hard- and paperbacks, while to the rear the emphasis is on first- and second-hand geographical (all arranged by country). A true retro traveller's treasure trove.
Housmans (5 Caledonian Road): recommended by The Girl
London Review Bookshop (14 Bury Place): recommended by anne and Disgruntled
Gay's The Word (66 Marchmont Street): recommended by Nigel
Newham Bookshop (745-747 Barking Road): recommended by Ems
Crockatt & Powell (119-120 Lower Marsh): recommended by P

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