Monday, October 30, 2006

Mmm, pie

There are loads of places to dine out in Greenwich. There's the noodle bar in the high street, and that big pub on the riverfront, and even the sausage van up on the hill beside the observatory. But forget those - the best restaurant in town is most definitely the pie and mash shop a few doors up from the Cutty Sark. Goddard's has been serving up top quality pie since 1890, and is still run by the great grandchildren of the first owner. It's a proper traditional pie shop, with gnarled glass windows, old marble tables and wooden pews for seating. If you've ever been, you'll know just how good it is. And you'll be as gutted as I was to discover (from a small handwritten notice in the window) that Goddard's is closing down in a fortnight's time "due to family circumstances". No more pie, no more mash, it's the end of an era. But time enough for one last slap up meal.

The trick to getting served at Goddard's at the weekend is to arrive just before noon. Arrive a minute later and there'll be a queue stretching back to the door, probably including a pushchair or two, and you'll be waiting rather longer. At least that'll give you time to decide what to have. A traditional plate of beef pie and mash will set you back just £2.20, or maybe take the vegetarian cheese and onion option instead. Your meal is served up by a bevy of ladle-wielding handmaidens hemmed in behind a high green-tiled counter. Each plate comes with two scoops of finest mashed potato, liberally doused either in dark brown gravy or the more traditional 'liquor'. This green gloop may look a bit strange, but it's really only parsley gravy made from butter and flour. And yes, Goddard's serve jellied eels too. The eels are cooked fresh from the Thames estuary (which is how they came to become a local East End delicacy) and the jelly is formed as the stewing juices cool. Maybe it's not surprising that most of Goddard's modern diners wimp out and plump for a pie instead.

Here's what I had yesterday. This is no ordinary 'takeaway' pie, it's the 'Special' Steak 'N' Kidney Pie for a premium £3. Break your way through the enveloping piecrust and there's an ocean of prime beef inside. No wasted space, no gristle, just chunks of top-quality meat piled high in a moist gravy. There's even more gravy over the two mounds of mashed potato, although thankfully on this occasion I managed not to drip any down the front of my jumper. I should have asked for a side order of mushy peas, just to make this a slightly more healthy meal, but I sort-of made up for this omission with my fruit-based dessert. That's an apple crumble there on the right, concealed beneath a deep layer of non-instant custard, and quite delicious it was too (if perhaps a little heavy on the stomach after all that earlier stodge). And finally a mug of steaming tea to wash the whole meal down - there's none of this namby-pamby frothy coffee at Goddard's. Dining out in Greenwich will be far less enjoyable after they've gone.

Goddard's Pie Shop (until 12 November 2006)
Goddard's pies direct to your door (from Easter 2007)

 Sunday, October 29, 2006

Battersea Power Station - electric cathedral

For a short few weeks this autumn there's been a unique opportunity to take a look inside one of London's most iconic buildings. Battersea Power Station has been opened up as a temporary art gallery, hosting a range of modern work from China, and it's attracting large crowds. But the real magnet is the building itself, its quartet of ivory chimneys rising into the sky like beacons from a bygone age. I've been, she's been, he's been, and you've got one more week to go yourself. Before the new owners transform it into something more 'contemporary'. Hurry now while history lasts.

The past: Battersea Power Station was built by a private consortium in the 1930s in an attempt to stave off creeping nationalisation. They commissioned Sir Giles Gilbert Scott to build a giant generating station by the Thames, far larger than any previously built in the capital [photo]. He began with a huge steel girder box, then clad it in brick and placed an Art Deco turbine hall in the interior [photo]. The futuristic control room had a marble floor and could only be used by operatives wearing felt-soled shoes. The new generating station saw Londoners safely through World War Two, somehow avoiding major bomb damage. The original building was extended by the addition of a second turbine hall in the 1950s [photo], increasing the number of chimneys from two to the now-familiar four. Battersea belched away for a couple of decades more until increasing inefficiency led to the closure of first one turbine hall and then the other. The site went dark on 31st October 1983, and the building has been decaying slowly ever since. Various plans for restoration have been put forward, but the planned theme park never materialised and the Tate Modern ended up inside Bankside instead. The two turbine halls were gutted anyway, just in case.

The present: What a great idea to host an exhibition of Chinese art inside Battersea Power station. Quite frankly any excuse would have done, just to get the doors open again and allow London inside. It was an opportunity I couldn't to miss. You get a decent view of the power station from across the river in Pimlico or from any passing train, but the view stood right up close is so much better [photo]. The chimneys tower above you, the brick walls rise up like sheer cliffs and the broken windows echo with windswept loneliness. Inside it's much the same [photo]. For the exhibition they've erected scaffolding to allow you to walk out into one end of the boiler house, now roofless and open to the sky [photo]. It's a bit like standing inside a ruined cathedral, except that the nave is much longer, the towers are much taller and the glass is stained only by pollution. To each side are the two turbine halls, the first more photogenic than the second. Public access has been restricted to just one end, and you have to try hard to imagine each vast chamber filled with turbines, electrical switchgear and bustling workmen.

A narrow utility staircase leads you up from Turbine Hall B, past various frowning security guards, to three storeys of dark concrete workspaces. For the purposes of the exhibition these have been filled with Chinese art, mostly video-based. Even though you've really come to view the building instead, your attention suddenly switches to these animated windows on an emerging modern culture based 5000 miles away. It's a bonus, to be honest, that the art is a worthwhile sideshow to the surrounding architecture. One memorable installation is a wall-length wire cage filled with slowly-rotting apples, which no doubt by next weekend will smell even more like a tramp's Diamond White breath. Back outside the building the Chinese theme continues, with free bicycles provided for visitors to get around the site [photo]. It's not so vast that bikes are actually needed, but it's a nice touch and it keeps the kids occupied. And everywhere, both inside and out, a crowd of Londoners are snapping away trying to capture the perfect evocative photograph. Just my luck to visit on a wholly grey and overcast day, so my photographs lack the perfect blue backdrop that others managed on earlier visits.
• Tickets must be pre-booked. Book online for next Thursday→Sunday here.
• Arrive early, preferably before 12:30, because the weekend queues get very long very quickly.

The future? What next for Battersea Power Station? That question was answered, sadly, by a promotional video screened in a narrow chamber on the ground floor. Here the site's current owners, Parkview International, showcased their long-delayed plans. You can guess, can't you? The central building will become (buckets at the ready) "an epic space that can variously function as a market place, a concert venue, a product exhibition platform or a fashion and brand showcase." Essentially that's an umpteen-storey shopping mall. Outside, so the on-screen architect enthused, they're deliberately building modern "signature buildings" to provide a "yin-yang contrast" to the old power station [photo]. To the west a long thin "benchmark" hotel will block current views from Clapham and the railway viaduct, and to the east will arise a similarly obstructive "modular" conference centre. Parkview are also squeezing in some "weave-like" office blocks, a "flexible" 2000-seat auditorium and an "advanced concept" residential building, assuming Wandsworth Council let them get away with it. Oh, and they want to knock down the chimneys first, because they're unsafe. But they'll rebuild them, honest, and then stick a single restaurant table at the very top of one. Work may, possibly, begin next summer. Few watching the showreel seemed impressed by the promotional bravado.

The "Power Station" website is full of some of the most vacuous bluster I've ever read, and I truly hope that not all of this redevelopment comes to pass. I know it would be criminal to leave Battersea Power Station to waste away and crumble unseen, but does London really need yet another "destination venue" and "commercial focus"? Some of us think not. There were hundreds of culturally-aware Londoners swarming around the building yesterday, taking one last opportunity to enjoy its unique character and history. But I doubt that any of them will want to come back for a cappucino and some shoe shops.

 Friday, October 27, 2006

Time once again for diamond geezer to go totally tubular with another week devoted to the London Underground. Prepare for five days of quizzes, facts, commentary and obscure statistics. Three years ago I looked at average speeds, the busiest stations, picking the right carriage and journeys where it was quicker to walk. Two years ago I investigated the closest stations, the easiest interchanges, shortest possible journeys and the growth of the network. And last year I wrote about overcrowding, carriages, ticket barrier codes and precisely where the underground is underground. Amongst other things. I wonder how much I'll manage to cram in this year. Mind the doors.

Tube quiz (16) Name that station
a) The name includes a colour. (You found Blackfriars, Blackhorse Road, Golders Green, Goldhawk Road, Redbridge, Shoreditch, Stanmore, Whitechapel and a lot of Greens)
b) The name includes a number. (You found Epping, Harrow & Wealdstone, Heathrow Terminals 1 2 & 3, Heathrow Terminal 4, Leytonstone, Marylebone, Seven Sisters, Stonebridge Park, Tottenham Court Road, Tottenham Hale and Totteridge & Whetstone)
c) The name includes a chess piece. (You found Barking, Barkingside, Blackhorse Road, Elephant & Castle, Kingsbury, Kings Cross St Pancras, Knightsbridge, Queensbury, Queens Park, Queensway, Snaresbrook and Stamford Brook)

Tubewatch (16) Accessibility
London's tube map is getting uglier. A plague of blue splodges is spreading steadily across the map, slowly destroying the elegance of Harry Beck's original design. To blame is Transport for London's crusade to make the underground network as accessible as possible. Every station accessible without using stairs or escalators must now be marked on the map by a small wheelchair symbol inside a dark blue circle. There aren't many accessible tube stations, still only about 50 out of 275, but the overall effect is still highly offputting. Most tube lines aren't blue, so big blue blobs just look wrong. The 100%-accessible Docklands Light Railway (another 37 blobs) has become a tentacled beast in the south east corner of the map and is now visually highly distracting. And the four lines which meet at Waterloo have recently been realigned on the map in a particularly ugly way, merely so that the distinction can be made between accessible and inaccessible interchanges. It's not looking good.

Don't get me wrong, tube station accessibility is a very good thing. It's not the Victorians' fault that they built all of central London's tube stations without due regard for 21st century accessibility legislation. It's just incredibly expensive to add lifts everywhere, especially underground, so it's not surprising that progress in opening up the network is slow. But do we really need a big blue spot to show where the special lifts are? Normal tube interchanges are still marked by empty black circles, which are far less obtrusive. And interchanges with National Rail stations are marked by a discreet red BR symbol, which is just as useful but not as blatant. Why can't we have something similar for accessibility?

Conspicuous as they are, the blue blobs don't tell the whole story. From the map a wheelchair user might assume that they could ride from Heathrow to Stratford by changing at Holborn. But no, the interchange at Holborn is a stepped and escalatored nightmare, to be avoided at all costs. Instead they should make the journey by changing at Barons Court and then Mile End, but that's not obvious from the map either. And not all the blue blob stations are truly accessible. Take Uxbridge, for example. You can wheel a wheelchair from the station entrance to the platforms, no problem, but you might find getting onto a train rather harder. It's more than 8 inches up from the platform if you want to board a Metropolitan line train, and about 6 inches down if you want to board a Piccadilly line train. The Uxbridge blob represents impossibility, not accessibility.

There is a tube map with all this additional information about changing lines and platform heights - it's called the Tube access guide and you can download it from here. It's complicated and it's inelegant, but it does the job. Why can't TfL give out copies of this map to travellers with wheelchairs, pushchairs and other mobility impairments, without inflicting their semi-useless blue blobs on the rest of us. The ordinary tube map is visually complicated enough as it is - there's no need to make it even less accessible.

Tube geek (16) Lifts
deep-level stations with exit by lift or stairs only: Belsize Park, Borough, Caledonian Road, Chalk Farm, Covent Garden, Edgware Road (Bakerloo), Elephant & Castle, Gloucester Road (Piccadilly), Goodge Street, Hampstead, Holland Park, Holloway Road, Kennington, Lambeth North, Lancaster Gate, Mornington Crescent, Queensway, Regent's Park, Russell Square, Shadwell, Tufnell Park, Wapping
stations with 5 lifts: Elephant & Castle, Wembley Park
stations with 4 lifts: Covent Garden, Earl's Court, Goodge Street, Hampstead, North Greenwich, Stratford, Westminster
geek-level lift info

Tubewatch (17) Where not to stand
a) Outside the station entrance fiddling with your umbrella.
b) In front of the ticket barrier trying to find your Oyster card at the bottom of your handbag.
c) Stuck in the ticket barrier with your rucksack trapped in the gates.
d) On the far side of the ticket barrier putting your Oyster card back in your handbag.
e) To the left of the escalator.
f) To the right of the escalator with a huge suitcase.
g) Anywhere on the escalator with a pushchair.
h) Dithering at the bottom of the escalator trying to work out whether to turn left or right.
i) Halfway down the stairs to the platform with three screaming toddlers in tow.
j) Right in front of the entrance to the platform because you can't be bothered to move along.
k) One metre along the platform because you can't be bothered to move any further.
l) In front of the yellow line (stand behind the yellow line).
m) In the gap (mind the gap).
n) Directly in front of the opening doors of a just-arrived train (stand back).
o) Inbetween the doors of a just-about-to leave train (ouch!).
p) Not quite far enough inside the train so that nobody else can get on board.
q) On top of somebody else's foot with your elbow in their ribs.
r) Pressed up against somebody else's armpit.
s) Breathing last night's curry into somebody else's face.
t) Immediately in front of the doors so that nobody else can get off.
u) On the platform immediately in front of the "way out" passageway.
v) To the right of the staircase (keep left, keep left!).
w) At the ticket gate, trying in vain (several times) to get your Oyster card to work.
x) Immediately behind someone at the ticket gate hoping to run through after them without paying.
y) In the station doorway checking your mobile phone for new messages.
z) Just outside the station trying to hand out leaflets and free newspapers.

Tube quiz (17) Topologically equivalent
It's a well-known fact that the tube map distorts reality. All the lines on the map have been stretched and tweaked to appear simpler than they really are. For today's quiz I've stretched and tweaked each of the 12 lines a little more, as if they'd been drawn on a rubber sheet. Then I've shrunk them down, keeping all of the original intersections intact. Five lines have no connections or branches at all, but the other seven are a little more complicated. How many can you identify?

Here are the 12 lines you need to match up.
Have a guess which is which.

Tube geek (17) New stations by 2010
Hammersmith & City: Wood Lane [details]
Piccadilly: Heathrow Terminal 5 [details]
East London: Dalston Junction, Haggerston, Hoxton, Shoreditch High Street [details]
Metropolitan: Ascot Road, Watford West [details]
DLR: Stratford International [details]; Stratford High Street, Abbey Road*, Star Lane [details]; Woolwich Arsenal [details]; Langdon Park [details]
[* Please note that this is not the famous Abbey Road of Beatles fame, which is 8 miles away. That'll confuse the tourists!]

Tube geek (18) We apologise for the delay
District Line: Minor delays are occurring due to an earlier faulty track at Ealing Common and late finish of engineering work at Upney
The tube doesn't always run smoothly. Sometimes trains break down, sometimes signals fail, and sometimes unhappy men hurl themselves headlong onto the tracks. And problems create delays. Transport for London have got much better at informing the travelling public about these delays, now with whiteboards at most station entrances and a webpage where you can keep track of every underground annoyance. And what a lot of delays there are.

Or are there? I thought I'd check just how delayed the Underground is. I've been keeping track of the state of the network at 7:30 every morning since the start of September, noting down every reported incident and the extent of the disruption. That's nearly two months of data across 12 different lines, snapshotted at the start of every morning rush-hour. And here's what I've discovered...

1) Number of disruptions
• Over 37 mornings, there were 57 separate disruptive incidents. That's an average of 1½ incidents every morning.
• Out of 37 mornings, only 7 had no disruptions anywhere on the network. That's roughly one hassle-free morning each week.

2) Severity of disruptions
• Only 12 of the disruptions (21%) involved the suspension of services. That equates to roughly one suspension every three days.
• Just 15 of the disruptions (26%) were described as "severe delays" (involving "significantly increased journey time").
• The other 30 disruptions (more than half of the total) were only "minor delays". A pain, but nothing terrible.

3) Causes of disruption
• 32 of the disruptions were caused by "signal failure". That's more than half of all delays caused by malfunctioning electrics and dodgy points.
• Just over 10% of disruptions were caused by faulty trains, and a similar number by the "late finishing of engineering work".
• Other disruptions included "faulty communications equipment", "faulty track", "fire alert", "obstruction on the track", "non-availability of staff", "police investigation" and "passenger taken ill on a train". None of these delays occurred more than twice over a two month period.

4) Lines disrupted
District 12 times, Piccadilly 7, Metropolitan 7, Circle 6, Hammersmith & City 5, Bakerloo 5, Northern 5, Central 4, Victoria 3, Waterloo & City 2, Jubilee 1, East London 0
• The District line is by far the most disrupted - on average almost twice a week. Other lines average no more than one disruption a week, with the East London line recently achieving early morning perfection.

Conclusion: Tube disruption isn't as bad as I thought it was. Not at half past seven in the morning, anyway. And before you wonder quite how sad I must have been to collect all this information, don't worry, I got Transport for London to send it to me. I've subscribed to their Alerts service, which updates me regularly with all the disruptions along my daily commute. TfL send me a personalised travel alert in an email at 7:30 every morning (just before I leave for work) and then a text message summary on my mobile in the afternoon (just before I head home). The service is extremely useful, it's very flexible, it's free, and you can opt out at any time. If you're interested you can read the FAQ here, or just sign up here. Don't delay.

Tube quiz (18) Long and short
Name that tube station...
a) The name has more than four syllables. (You found Heathrow Terminals 1 2 3; Highbury and Islington, Kensington Olympia; Caledonian Road, Chalfont and Latimer, Elephant and Castle, Heathrow Terminal 4, Piccadilly Circus, Totteridge and Whetstone... and nine other five-syllable names)
b) The name has fewer than seven letters. (You found Bank, Oval; Angel, Upney; Balham, Debden, Epping, Euston, Kenton, Leyton, Morden, Pinner and Temple)

Tubewatch (18) even more tube links
Doug Rose's website captures all the exquisite detail of the tube's Edwardian tile patterns (and more). Well worth a long browse.
• Head over to Mike's Tube Photo Quiz and see if you can guess the name of the tube station from each of his tweaked photos. It's clever stuff... I mean, look at Tottenham Hale. 22 down, 253 to go.
• "The Invisible Force - A Story of What Might Happen In the Days to Come, when Underground London is Tunnelled In all Directions for Electric Railways, If an Explosion Should Take Place In One of the Tubes" - a cautionary tale from 1903 by Fred M. White
275 Places is a linked grid of 275 dots which is topologically equivalent to the London Underground map. It's rather lovely, and it's fascinating to untangle. [pdf version]
• Keep up-to-date with tube-related trivia and geek-level chat at uk.transport.london, The Transport Forum and District Dave's London Underground Forum.
• Create your own tube symphony at the freesound project using their page of Underground audio clips [via plasticbag]

Tubewatch (19) Move down along the platform
The average tube platform is more than 100 metres long. More than long enough for people to spread out along when waiting for the next train. But do people spread out when they reach a tube platform? Do they hell. Most of them enter the platform and then stop, because they can't be bothered to walk any further. There's all that space, but most people don't use it. Here's a diagram to show you what I mean. The long white rectangle represents the platform, and each red dot shows the stopping place of a typical passenger.

I've based my diagram on the eastbound Central line platform at Holborn, but it could be any station anywhere. Passengers enter down the stairwell and walk onto the platform, where the great majority come to a halt bunched up within a few metres of the entrance. Some move a little further along, but far fewer head down towards the sparsely-populated ends of the platform. And a significantly greater number of people head left rather than head right. They've been lulled into a subconscious trance by their journey down the stairwell, and so continue on in the same direction rather than doubling back. Most tube passengers act like sheep, huddling together in predictable patterns rather than thinking for themselves.

Families, tourists and those carrying heavy luggage are always the most likely to stop dead in front of the entrance. Reaching the platform has been a big enough adventure for them already, so why walk any further? But platform lethargy can strike anyone at any time, even hardened commuters. It takes positive action to walk further along the platform, especially right down to the end where you might be able to board the next train more easily. It baffles me why more people don't make more of an effort. I always walk along the platform myself, always, because I like a bit of space to myself. And if the rest of you want to stay huddled around the entrance then that's fine by me, because when the train arrives it means I'm more likely to get a seat. And you may not get on at all.

Plan ahead with the Way Out tube map

Tube geek (19) Single track tube lines
District: Kensington (Olympia) southwards (600m) - the tip of the branch line from Earl's Court
East London: South of 'Canal Junction' to either New Cross (600m) or New Cross Gate (300m) - where the foot of the East London line splits in two
Metropolitan: Chalfont & Latimer to Chesham (6.3km) - the longest tube journey between two neighbouring stations [details]
Northern: Finchley Central to Mill Hill East (1.1km) - over the Dollis Brook viaduct [photos]
Northern: Kennington Loop (700m) - enables terminating southbound Charing Cross branch trains to loop round and enter the northbound Charing Cross branch platform
Northern <--> Piccadilly: King's Cross Loop and Euston Loop (1.1km) - the former is a connecting tunnel allowing a train in the northbound Piccadilly Line platform at King's Cross St. Pancras to enter the northbound City branch platform at Euston; the latter is a connecting tunnel at Euston between the old section of the northbound City branch and the southbound City branch [details] [details]
Piccadilly: Hatton Cross to Heathrow Terminals 1,2,3 via the Heathrow loop (5.5km) - the one-way airport run
Piccadilly: Aldwych to Holborn (800m) - this shuttling branch line closed in 1994 [details]

Tube geek (20) Busiest lines
According to the latest TfL statistics, London's busiest tube line is the Northern line with just over 200 million passenger journeys each year. And the least busy? That's the Waterloo & City line with just under 10 million passenger journeys each year. Or so the headline figures say. I'd like to disagree. Share out each line's passengers equally, station by station, and the tiny Waterloo & City line (with just 2 stations) works out much busier than the Northern (with 50). OK, this may be a fairly meaningless statistic, but it does at least seem to give a fairly sensible rank ordering of busy-ness...

 Annual journeys
  Number of
per station
Victoria1611610.1 million
W & City1024.8 million
Jubilee128274.7 million
Northern207504.1 million
Bakerloo96253.8 million
Central184493.7 million
Piccadilly176523.4 million
District173602.9 million
Circle68272.5 million
H & City46281.6 million
Metropolitan  54341.6 million
East London1081.3 million

The Victoria line rightly comes out as the busiest, with barely a backwater station anywhere along its length, while the "you can always get a seat" East London ends up the quietest. And look, the list splits surprisingly neatly in two, with the deep-level tubes at the top and the cut-and-cover lines at the bottom. Which means that the busiest lines have the narrowest tunnels and the squashedest passengers, while the quietest lines have the broadest tunnels and the most spacious carriages. Typical, eh?

Tube quiz (20) Name that anagrammed station
Back in February the talk of the web was a map of the London Underground with every station name replaced by an anagram. It was so good that Transport for London's lawyers insisted it be removed for infringement of copyright. Tourists might have mistaken it for the real thing, they argued, thereby diminishing TfL's brand image (or some such rubbish). The dabstars! But if you can't see the map any more, then I can base a quiz on it. Below are anagrams of the names of 30 different tube stations, as lifted from the anagram tube map. How many of the original names can you identify?
  1) Pelmet
  2) Pig Pen
  3) Ink Blur
  4) Sap Lust
  5) Big Durex
  6) Wet Mash
  7) No Screws
  8) Candle Oil
  9) Emu Sprint
10) Otter Bends   
11) Frog Innard
12) Flesh Studio
13) Written Mess
14) Wifely Stench
15) Internal Puke
16) Newt Arrester
17) Equal Reasons
18) Browny Helmet
19) Wobbly Embryo
20) Thames Agenda   
21) Chronic Grass
22) Escargot News
23) Prussian Girdle
24) Castrate Angel
25) Pistoleer Revolt
26) Serene Dwelling
27) Snowmobile Thud
28) Concerning Torments
29) Get Report Translated
30) Togetherness Thinking

Tubewatch (20) tube fiction
253 (Geoff Ryman): 252 passengers on board an about-to-crash Bakerloo line train each get one page to tell their life story. And the driver makes 253. [got it, it's good]
Neverwhere (Neil Gaiman): An underworld fantasy about "London Below", which looks suspiciously like the Underground but populated by the weird, the fantastic and the macabre. [got it, it's great]
The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans (Arthur Conan Doyle): Sherlock Holmes tracks the mysterious murder of a government clerk whose body is found on the rails near Aldgate station. [read it, it's OK]
King Solomon's Carpet (Barbara Vine): A bunch of London misfits, linked in various ways by the tube, are drawn to an old schoolhouse overlooking West Hampstead station. [got it, it's Rendell-icious]
Tunnel Vision (Keith Lowe): A geeky groom spends the day before his wedding attempting to visit every station on the tube network. [got it, it's good]
Underground (Tobias Hill): Someone's pushing women in front of tube trains, so a lonesome tube worker ventures down old tunnels to try to solve the mystery. [never read it]
Metroland (Julian Barnes): A suburban 60s coming-of-age story, rather more about sex and idealism than anything Betjeman might have written. [never read it]
The Rats (James Herbert): Gory 70s horror with mutant rats rising up out of the sewers and Underground to feast on unsuspecting Londoners. [read it, it's predictable]
A Metropolitan Murder (Lee Jackson): "The last train of the night pulls into the gas-lit platform of Baker Street underground station. A young woman is found strangled, her body abandoned in a second-class carriage." [never read it]
Geoffrey the Tube Train and the Fat Comedian (Alexei Sayle): I suspect the title tells you all you need to know [flicked through it, never bought it]
Underground Ernie Annual 2007 (Joella Productions): The exciting adventures of every pre-schooler's favourite cheery tube worker and some talking trains. [I'll give it a miss, thanks]

And so ends diamond geezer's fourth annual tube week. I continue to be amazed by how much interactive interest the London Underground inspires, even amongst people who rarely or never use it. And I'm also surprised, every year, that I don't run out of new tube-related stuff to write about. I mean, four years on and I still haven't written a tube week post about disused stations. Maybe next year...

 Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Bloomsbury Festival is taking place this weekend. If you've never heard of it before that's because it's new, and because it wasn't terribly well advertised (unless you just happened to be wandering the backstreets behind Russell Square tube station). The festival purports to be a celebration of the arts, although in reality it's been sponsored by the local shopping centre. It's not a bad little shopping centre either, so long as you've come to admire the Modernist terraced architecture and not the revamped parade of trendy mainstream shops therein. Various stalls and arty activities were on offer in the local park yesterday, as well as blokes on stilts and a farmers market. Also as part of the festival a couple of local museums which usually charge a fiver were open for free, so I went along.

In amongst Bloomsbury's Georgian terraces stands the unassuming facade of 48 Doughty Street, once home to the great novelist Charles Dickens. He lived here with his new wife Catherine between 1837 and 1839 - only a brief spell but long enough to write The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. This is the only one of Dickens' many residences which still stands, and today it's home to the Charles Dickens Museum. The house is quite narrow but spreads upwards over four floors, from the dark basement scullery to the airy upper bedrooms. Plenty of memorabilia has been packed inside, including portraits, correspondence and the desk at which Charles wrote the final unfinished page of Edwin Drood. A small exhibition brings to life the author's deep-seated concern in ending social injustice, including an obsessive interest in the running of a home for "the redemption of prostitutes". And of course there are original editions of Dickens' much-loved novels, each originally published in 20 monthly parts and snapped up by an eager public. You can take a virtual tour of the museum here - you may find that this sufficiently satisfies your Old Curiosity that you need have no Great Expectations of visiting in person. [map]

Well hidden off Brunswick Square, the Foundling Museum is an unusual collection of 18th century treasures. The building was once part of the Foundling Hospital, established on this site 250 years ago to care for the welfare of London's abandoned children. Poverty in the capital was rife, and three quarters of children never lived to see their fifth birthday. Fortunate orphans ended up here in Bloomsbury Fields to train as apprentices or domestic servants. The story of the hospital and its founding philanthropist Thomas Coram is well told on the ground floor. On the first floor, and throughout, several impressive portraits adorn the walls. Many are by William Hogarth, one of the hospital's original benefactors, and through his efforts this became London's very first ever public art gallery. The top floor of the museum is given over to the life and work of George Frideric Handel, another generous patron of the hospital. He gave benefit performances in the chapel, kicking off with the newly-written Messiah, and bequeathed a manuscript of his masterwork to the hospital. In the upper room today you can see Handel's will and a small selection of memorabilia, and even sit in red leather armchairs to listen to the great man's music. Meanwhile outside in the original grounds are Coram's Fields, a very special children's playpark where no unaccompanied adults are admitted. You can read more about the history of the Foundling Hospital here, or bring a child and take a look for yourself. [map]

 Sunday, October 15, 2006

Random borough (11): Bromley

Yesterday I ended up in the south eastern corner of London in the randomly selected borough of Bromley. This is the big one. Bromley is the largest borough in the capital, greater in area than the eight smallest boroughs put together. A lot of it is green belt, and the southern fringe is unexpectedly rural and remote. The rest is classic suburbia, filled with two-car households, leafy avenues and the occasional commuter railway. It wasn't easy getting around, but I hope I managed to pick out several interesting parts of the borough all the same.

Somewhere pretty: Chislehurst Caves
Location: Old Hill, Chislehurst BR7 5NB [map]
Open: 10am - 4pm (tours on the hour, closed Mondays and Tuesdays)
Admission: £5
5-word summary: a lantern-lit underground mine tour
Website: www.chislehurstcaves.co.uk
Time to set aside: an hour

There may be no tube stations in the London borough of Bromley, but there is an underground. Twenty-two miles of underground tunnels, to be exact, carved into the chalk beneath Chislehurst Hill. Nobody's sure quite how long they've been there, but they're definitely not natural. Maybe the Druids built the tunnels as a temple, maybe the Saxons dug them to extract chalk and lime, or more likely post-medieval Britons came down here in search of flint for weapons. But the end result is a vast labyrinth of artificial catacombs - not so much caves as a network of interconnected mines. And, as you'll discover if you visit, thousands of wartime Britons had good reason to be thankful it was here.

Your underground tour begins beyond the cafe and gift shop (cheques made payable to Kent Mushrooms Ltd) at the entrance to three interlinked cave systems. Adults get a flickering oil-lit lantern to carry, which adds greatly to the whole experience. Not far along the tunnels there's a fully consecrated 'church' (number of baptisms: one) and also a low stone concert stage. A surprising number of famous names once played down here, including Lonnie Donegan, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Pink Floyd and some local lads called (appropriately enough) the Rolling Stones. On, deeper into the chalk hillside, with a succession of shadowy passages leading off in all directions. The guide may know precisely where he's going, but before long you'd not have a hope of finding your way out without him.

At one of the deepest points, 30 metres beneath the local cricket pitch, there's a raised stone alcove which may (or may not) have been a Druidic sacrificial altar. In another cavern there's a pool of crystal clear water, dripped and filtered through the chalk above, which may (or may not) be haunted. And every now and then you pass a sign on a brick wall which reads "Ladies Toilets" or even "Citizens Advice Bureau", or something else equally incongruous. During the Second World War these caves were used as a vast underground shelter, and thousands paid a penny a night to sleep in bunk beds far from the bombs falling overhead. A subterranean settlement the size of a small town grew up, complete with its own canteen, barber shop and even hospital. It was stuffy and it was spooky, but at least it was safe.

I enjoyed my hour-long tour of the caves far more than I was expecting. Most of this was thanks to our tour guide, a young black-clad gentlemen who'd clearly spent far too much of his life in the dark and who kept us entertained with dry wit and drama. It was also a masterstroke to be on the same tour as a group of teenage boys celebrating one of their number's 13th birthday - the perfect age for mixing bravado, awe and downright terror. Judging by the way these lads attacked the gift shop afterwards, I wouldn't be at all surprised if a couple of them started turning goth within weeks, then came back to play real-life role playing games in the tunnels at weekends. If you own some wide-eyed adolescents who need to be kept occupied for an hour, or if you just fancy a bewitching Hallowe'en-tide day out, I'd heartily recommend a visit.
by train: Chislehurst  by bus: 162, 269

Somewhere retail: Bromley High Street
Every time I make one of these 'random borough' visits, only one of the six locations I visit is ever full of people. And it's always the shops. Bromley High Street was no exception. You can tell shopping's important round here because they make a special announcement the second you get off the train - "This is Bromley South. Alight here for the Glades Shopping Centre". There must be little else of any importance in the town centre. The long High Street looks just like any other, although we're talking major chain stores rather than pound shops. Single-sex gangs of youths stalk the malls, the girls striding purposefully from fashion outlet to shoe shop, the boys out for a laugh beneath gelled haystack hair. Out in the street there's an upmarket market where pushchairs jostle with shopmobility buggies. It's not too late to buy a shrub for the garden, and it's not too early to buy a homemade teddy bear for Christmas. In Market Square the wall beside Argos has been painted with a giant green mural depicting Charles Darwin's 'tree of evolution' (more from him tomorrow). Until last year the mural featured the life and works of HG Wells instead, which is perhaps more appropriate given that he was born in Atlas House just across the High Street. His birthplace is now a department store, until recently an Alders but since metamorphosed into a featureless Primark. And HG's upstairs window, marked by a small blue plaque, now looks out over a kiddies' mini-fairground ride and a garish pink Ann Summers. No one would have believed it in the last years of the nineteenth century.
by train: Bromley South, Bromley North

Somewhere historic: Down House
Location: Luxted Road, Downe BR6 7JT [map]
Open: 10am - 6pm (closed Mondays and Tuesdays and January)
Admission: £6.90
5-word summary: where Charles Darwin created evolution
Website: English Heritage
Time to set aside: a couple of hours

One of the most important, or most dangerous, houses in the world is located in Downe - a small village on the southeast fringe of London. It was here, five years after his voyage round the world aboard the Beagle, that Charles Darwin set up home [photo]. And it was here that he stayed for 40 years until his death, carrying out experiments which would shape our future. I just wish he'd lived somewhere slightly more accessible.

Getting to Down House by car is easy - it's not far from Biggin Hill off the M25. Buses are rather more infrequent, however, and if you miss one then it's at least an hour until the next. Entrance to the house is via the car park, through the big front door into the hallway and then into the obligatory giftshop. I handed over a small rectangular portrait of Charles Darwin and received £3.10 in change, then entered the ground floor to see where the great man lived and worked. All the fixtures and fittings have been restored just as they would have looked in the late 19th century. An audio guide narrated by David Attenborough provides full background information, both of Darwin's scientific discoveries and of his everyday life here at Down House. You really get the atmosphere of a comfortable but happy Victorian family home in which something extraordinary was being thought through.

The highlight of the tour is the opportunity to stand inside Darwin's wallpapered study. Here he examined thousands of specimens he'd brought back from around the world, using that microscope on the table, and here he mulled over the importance of his many findings, sat in that chair beside the desk. There's the board on which he wrote up his notes, and that's the pen he used for answering his correspondence. Right here is where On The Origin of Species was written, the very spot where men suddenly turned into apes. In this very room evolution was intelligently designed. Even 150 years later Darwin's central argument, created here, still reverberates on.

Charles was a creature of habit and took a walk round his extensive grounds three times each day. He laid out a long tree-lined 'sandwalk' between two meadows to give himself time and space to think, surrounded by the nature he sought to understand. He used his garden as a laboratory, the perfect spot for cultivating earthworms or growing different strains of apple. In his wooden greenhouse he experimented with carnivorous plants and the cross pollination of orchids, experiments which have been recreated today. The grounds of Down House are still both immaculate and productive. I could have come home with a marrow fresh from the kitchen garden, but made do instead with a recently fallen sweet chestnut picked from the lawn. I think I'll plant it round the back of my flat... after all, given where it was born, it's surely fit enough to survive.
by train (& bus): Bromley (then 146) or Orpington (then R8)

Somewhere random: Orpington
I didn't mean to end up in Orpington, it's just that I missed one bus to Down House and it was a long wait for the next one. [And then when it arrived, blimey, it was just a tiny cross-country minibus]. Just in case you should ever find yourself stuck in this market town with time to kill, here are some random places you could visit.
Orpington used to be in Kent, and it still looks rather more Home Counties than metropolitan. So there are lots of quite ordinary shops.
Orpington Priory was founded in 1032. Many of the old buildings survive beside the library, and there are some nice gardens.
Bromley Museum is situated in the old Priory. It's probably full of all sorts of thrilling local ephemera, but it has one of those big wooden doors which looks closed and uninviting even when the museum's open, so I gave it a miss.
• There's a proper Roman villa next to the station, or at least the remains of one, except it's closed on Saturdays.
• In Poverest Road there's an old Roman bathhouse dating back to AD270, but it's not open very often.
• The War Memorial is one of the most prominent landmarks in the town, but it's in the middle of the main roundabout and quite dangerous to get to.
• There are lots of 1850s coal posts in Orpington - you could go looking for them.
• Oh please, hasn't that bus arrived yet?
by train: Orpington  by bus: anything starting with R

Somewhere famous: The Crystal Palace
In the beginning this was plain old Sydenham Hill, and nobody paid it much attention. And then in 1851 the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park opened, and closed, and there was a giant iron and glass building in need of a new home. The Crystal Palace was relocated here on the ridge, high above southeast London, and a new park of entertainment and enlightenment opened up in the surrounding fields. It was a great success, attracting huge crowds by road and rail, although a gradual decline set in after a few decades. In 1936 the palace burnt to the ground in an unexpected and spectacular fire. Head to the top of Sydenham Hill today and you'll find just the artificial terraces where the Italian Gardens once stood [photo], and a few headless statues [photo], and some stone sphinxes [photo]. Be thankful that Bromley Council didn't have their way a few years ago, else there'd now be a 20-screen multiplex cinema and leisure centre on top of the hill in a building resembling an airport terminal. The only thing Londoners can see atop Sydenham Hill today is a giant 200m television mast, built on the site of John Logie Baird's TV studios. Here's hoping nothing uglier is ever slapped down beside it.

Somewhere pre-historic: Crystal Palace Dinosaur park [photo]
"Please Mummy, can we go and see the dinosaurs?"
"Yes certainly. They're over here in the corner of the park, down by the lake."
"But Mummy, that's not a dinosaur, that's a big fibreglass mammal hanging onto a tree."
"It's a Megatherium, darling, a giant sloth. And there's a family of Anoplotherium under those trees."
"But Mummy, they're not dinosaurs either. Take me over the bridge past that waterfall."
"Look dear, there are some artificial rock strata in that artificial cliff-face."
"I'm not interested in fake geology, Mummy. I want to see the dinosaurs that Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins built."
"Here they are! The Iguanodon is so big that Ben held a 20-strong dinner party inside it when the park opened."
"That's just an old wives tale, Mummy. Why has it got a thumb sticking out of its head?"
"It's not anatomically accurate, darling. These dinosaurs were designed 150 years ago before scientists knew any better."
"And the Icthyosaur has seen better days, and that Megalosaurus has pigeons sitting all down its spine, and those Labyrinthodons are just plain dull."
"OK son, I know it's not Jurassic Park, but at least it's free."
"They're brilliant, Mummy! Can we come again next weekend?"

Somewhere sporty: Crystal Palace Athletics Stadium [photo]
In the beginning there was just a park. But no park is complete without sport, and over the years this park has seen greater sport than most.
• WG Grace used to wander over from his house on Crystal Palace Road to play cricket here.
• A football ground was built in the park, and all 20 FA Cup Finals from 1895 to 1914 were played right here. More than 120000 spectators watched Aston Villa beat Sunderland in 1913.
• The England rugby team's first match against the All Blacks was held at Crystal Palace in 1905. Not atypically, England lost fifteen nil.
Crystal Palace FC was formed here in 1905, and remained until 1914 when the army took over the park.
• A race circuit for motorcycles opened around the park in 1927, and was also used for motor racing between 1953 and 1973. Parts of the circuit are still clearly visible today.
• The Crystal Palace Athletics Stadium was opened in 1964. It's capable of hosting world class events, although it doesn't get to hold many these days. You can peer down at the tracks from the grassy bank to the south. The surrounding buildings include a 10 storey accommodation block, and are a bit ugly. The sports complex houses London's only 50m swimming pool, and the whole thing will soon be utterly superseded by the new Olympic Stadium in Stratford.
by train: Crystal Palace (where else?)

 Wednesday, October 11, 2006

London Journeys: the Wandle Trail

The River Wandle is a chalk stream in south London which flows 12 miles from Croydon to the Thames. It's a bit suburban, a bit green, a bit industrial and in places a bit of a scrapheap. It's therefore a fascinating place for a long walk - the Wandle Trail. The trail began life as an amateurly signposted footpath between Carshalton and Wandsworth, but is slowly being transformed into a fully accessible waymarked cycle route. There are now several arty installations along the way, such as metal bridges, numbered posts and even a lamppost which makes noises. A very detailed leaflet showing the entire route is available for download. You might not want to walk the whole thing in one go, but there are few better ways to see the backwater delights of Sutton, Merton and Wandsworth.

I've written an article about a walk down the Wandle Trail in this week's Time Out. And because I know that most of you can't (or won't) read it, I've also taken lots of photographs which readers of the magazine will never see. So do please take my virtual stroll along the Wandle Trail. And if my photos take your fancy then I've provided some links below to help you visit for real.

www.flickr.com : Sights of the Wandle Trail
There are 35 photographs altogether - gallery here, slideshow here, map here

Wandle Trail links
official website
original website
downloadable leaflet (pdf)
detailed map / semi-detailed map
the Wandle Trail Art Programme
route summary (with access information)
wildlife information
Wandle Valley Festival
Wandle Industrial Museum
MonkeyView's photos of the Wandle Trail
more photos, from Dave's Wandle Wander

 Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Hurrah, I've got another article in Time Out this week. And my last article is now old enough to be shared online, so here it is. Just so that those of you living outside London don't feel like you're missing out.

London Journeys: the Woolwich Foot Tunnel

Woolwich and North Woolwich have long been inextricably linked, despite being on opposite sides of the Thames. And not just in name. Medieval men of Kent inaugurated the first ferry service in the 14th century, upgraded to the famous free Woolwich Ferry in 1889 [photo]. But dockworkers needed to be able to get across the river even during thick fog when the boats were suspended, so an alternative crossing was sought. A bridge was clearly out of the question so councillors turned their attention beneath the river instead, just as they had at Greenwich a couple of miles upstream. And so in 1912 the Woolwich Foot Tunnel was opened. It hasn't changed much since.

If you fancy risking a visit, you'll find the northern entrance to the tunnel in a paved area close to the ferry boarding point [photo]. There's a real feeling of space and isolation outside, with the river estuary stretched out ahead of you and the estates of North Woolwich stacked up far behind. Make the most of it, it's your last chance to avoid claustrophobia before you plunge headlong into subterranean confinement. Two porched entrances lead inside the glass-domed brick building at the top of the shaft [photo]. One leads to a gloomy spiral staircase, 100 or so steps down, the other to the lift. If you get the chance, take the easy option.

There's something wholly unexpected about the Woolwich Foot Tunnel lifts. For a start the fact that the lift service exists in the first place, enabling full accessibility to a little-used shortcut beneath the Thames. Then there's meeting the disinterested lift attendants, doomed to spend their days yo-yoing repeatedly into the Underworld. But mostly it's the shock of stepping back in time into a wood-panelled chamber that almost resembles a miniature Edwardian drawing room. Except for a few very modern touches. A mini hi-fi stands on the floor blaring out some lame R&B and look, there's a can of lavender-scented Glade air freshener tucked away in the corner. The lift attendant's brought his own chair and a selection of tabloids, just to block out the monotony. Meanwhile a video screen on the wall flashes up CCTV footage of the tunnels below, but nobody's watching any of it. When the lift doors finally open 50 feet later, you're on your own.

A long narrow tunnel extends out in front of you, curving downwards beneath the river. A big red sign advises No Cycling, Skateboading, Busking, Spitting or Loitering, not that you'd really want to do the latter [photo]. The walls are tiled in what once was white, now more Grimy Cream, sporadically adorned with marker pen graffiti. Several parallel cables run along the ceiling, one powering an intermittent series of strip lights. There's a dank smell reminding you just how close you are to several millions gallons of river water, but thankfully very little visual evidence of invasive damp. Take a deep breath and stride off into the subterranean gloom. [photo]

After a couple of minutes the curvature of the passage obscures the lift doors and the isolation is tangible . It's a long way back to civilisation, and even further forward. That couple approaching from the far distance are probably perfectly law-abiding, but what if they're not? And is that lively racket echoing up the tunnel behind you just a merry gang of local youths, or something more sinister? It's impossible to dial 999 down here, and by the time anybody reviews the CCTV coverage it would almost certainly be too late to respond. If you thought the London Dungeon was scary, this is the real thing. [photo]

It takes a good five minutes to reach the haven of the southern lift shaft. If you're lucky you'll find the elevator operational, otherwise you'll have to pant your way up the surrounding staircase. Eventually you'll emerge from another domed brick building into a forgotten corner of Woolwich, hidden round the back of the Waterfront Leisure Centre [photo]. It's much easier to find your way out than the way in. Indeed, the signage on the southern bank is so inadequate that it's surprising any Woolwich residents ever locate the entrance to this cross-river passageway, let alone discover it even exists in the first place.

The Woolwich Foot Tunnel may be semi-deserted now, but this underwater connection faces an even quieter future. In three years' time there'll be a new tunnel beneath Woolwich Reach as the DLR extends its tentacles further into South London. This journey will be faster and less threatening than a scurry through the Foot Tunnel, even if the convenience comes at a price. One can only hope that the old tunnel survives as a viable alternative until its centenary, and beyond.

Originally featured in Time Out Magazine London [12 July 2006]

 Sunday, October 08, 2006

  the definitive DG guide to London's sights-worth-seeing
  Part 12: New London Architecture

Location: The Building Centre, Store Street, WC1E 7BT [map]
Open: 9am - 6pm (closed Sunday)
Admission: free
5-word summary: what's coming up in London
Website: www.newlondonarchitecture.org
Time to set aside: half an hour

London is a city of building sites, forever changing, forever evolving. Old housing is replaced by new, decaying warehouses become eco-friendly community centres and unloved office blocks are reborn as dazzling glass towers. The New London Architecture exhibition exists to track the pace of this change, and to provide an overview of what's in store for London and its skyline.

The highlight of the exhibition is a giant 1:1500 scale model of Central London [photos]. From Kensington to Stratford and from Islington to Lambeth, the buildings of the capital have been lovingly miniaturised in beige plastic. Look carefully and you can spot all the familiar sights in the centre of town, as well as transport links, parkland and rows of suburban backstreets. I was particularly impressed, zooming in, to be able to identify fine detail such as the indented corners of my flat in Bow and the tiny courtyard beyond. Scattered across the model (in bright white plastic) are various major new building projects, such as the Shard at London Bridge and the cluster of skyscrapers proposed for the City. Riverside developments around Vauxhall and Chelsea are also clearly marked, while out east you can see the full extent of recent plans for the Olympic Park and Docklands. At this scale it's possible to sense whether each new structure will fit seamlessly into its existing environment or else intrusively dominate the skyline.

If you can tear your eyes away from the model, wall displays provide complementary information on individual building projects in every borough across London. Elsewhere on the ground floor, the Centre also runs a series of temporary exhibitions on a variety of issues of architectural interest. The emphasis might be on signage, or office space, or transport infrastructure, or building style, but it's almost always worth a look. You may not stay for long, but the ever-changing displays merit repeated visits. If you want to join the debate as the face of London evolves, it pays to be informed.
by tube: Goodge Street, Tottenham Court Road

 Sunday, October 01, 2006

  the definitive DG guide to London's sights-worth-seeing
  Part 11: The Museum of Brands, Packaging & Advertising

Location: Colville Mews, Notting Hill, W11 2AR [map]
Open: 10am - 6pm (closed Monday)
Admission: £5.80
5-word summary: old packaging to brands new
Website: www.museumofbrands.com
Time to set aside: an hour or two

When was the last time you saw a packet of Omo washing powder? Or a tin of Libby's evaporated milk? Or a Pink Panther candy bar? Once these items were commonplace in shops and cupboards across the country, but no more. Robert Opie remembers, and retains, them all. From a single Munchies chocolate wrapper bought in 1963, he's built up an extraordinary collection of branded products and promotional items which catalogue the evolution of Britain's consumer society. Last year he moved his collection from Gloucester to London and set up shop in Notting Hill round the corner from trendy Portobello Market. It's not an easy location to find, but his new museum is well worth the effort of a visit.

The first, and largest, part of the exhibition guides you through a dimly-lit time tunnel of packaging nostalgia, from Victoriana to the present day. The early displays are a reminder of brands long since eclipsed (Rinso, Vim and Brasso, for example) as well as products nobody buys any more (liniment, desiccated soup, blancmange and effervescing liver salts). Certain older products, such as Milky Bars and Wrights Coal Tar soap, have proved far more resilient and are seen here back in their earliest incarnation. Tastes change as the decades speed by (whatever happened to tins of treacle? whatever happened to Hooch?), while packaging design has become bolder and less elaborate. A series of parallel displays showcase toys and memorabilia from each era, with blackout tape, coronation mugs and Crossroads Motel boardgames each making an appearance as appropriate.

As you walk round the exhibition you'll eventually reach an era which makes you exclaim "good grief, here's all the stuff I'd forgotten I used to eat!" For me it was the 1970s exhibit which transported me straight back to my childhood. I remember that packet of Chivers Jelly perfectly, and that box of Whitworth's currants, and that label on a Hartley's jam jar. And I used to love eating Lyons' individual fruit pies, and Tooty Frooties, and Cadbury's Bar Six, and chutney flavour Outer Spacers, and Magic Roundabout cupcakes, and Bird's Eye mini trifles in square tubs. It's no wonder my teeth are full of fillings.

After the chronological displays comes a special section detailing the evolution of individual brands. Subtle changes are evident when you're able to view several decades of development on a single shelf. Johnson's Baby Powder and Robinson's Lemon Barley Water, for example have evolved almost constantly over the past century but still retain elements of their original design. Where else could you play "spot the difference" with a row of HP sauce bottles, or Co-op 99 tea packets, or jars of Nescafe coffee? But a tin of Lyle's Golden Syrup really does look virtually identical today when compared with its original 19th century incarnation.

I was fortunate enough to have a long chat with Robert, the curator, before I left. We discussed Hartley's jam labels in some depth, like you do, and I told him how much I'd enjoyed the museum. We agreed that it's probably better to go round in a group rather than on your own, so that every memory evoked by brand nostalgia can be immediately shared. And we discussed how difficult it is to collect new examples of old packaging, because they've either long been thrown away or are sitting forgotten at the back of someone's kitchen cupboard. Richard is currently particularly keen to track down a can of wartime Spam, so if you (or an elderly relative) should have one, do please take it with you when you visit.
by tube: Notting Hill Gate, Ladbroke Grove  by bus: 23

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