Saturday, March 31, 2007

City dragonThe City of London boasts 107 Livery Companies. These are trade associations established to further the interests of particular mercantile professions, and many have existed since medieval times. Here's an alphabetical list (and here's a list ranked in order of ceremonial importance). The Livery Companies represent all the ancient trades you might expect - including Grocers, Fishmongers and Ironmongers - as well as some seriously outdated professions whose services are no longer required. Nowadays these ancient guilds are mostly ceremonial, concentrating on charitable work instead of business regulation. But since the 1960s there's been a trend to establish guilds relating to more modern professions, presumably so that high-flying City businessmen don't feel like they're missing out on dressing up in funny robes and throwing slap-up banquets. Any excuse, eh?

Fifteen ridiculously out-of-date City Livery Companies
6) The Worshipful Company of Skinners (fur traders)
20) The Worshipful Company of Wax Chandlers (candlemakers)
21) The Worshipful Company of Tallow Chandlers (smelly candlemakers)
22) The Worshipful Company of Armourers and Brasiers (armour makers and brass workers)
23) The Worshipful Company of Girdlers (girdle and belt makers)
27) The Worshipful Company of Cordwainers (fine leather workers)
29) The Worshipful Company of Curriers (tanned leather dressers)
38) The Worshipful Company of Bowyers (longbow makers)
39) The Worshipful Company of Fletchers (arrow makers)
54) The Worshipful Company of Horners (leather bottle makers)
57) The Worshipful Company of Loriners (stirrup and harness makers)
64) The Worshipful Company of Framework Knitters (fur traders)
70) The Worshipful Company of Pattenmakers (wooden clog cobblers)
72) The Worshipful Company of Coachmakers and Coach Harness Makers
75) The Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing Cards (a pack of jokers)

Ten ridiculously modern City Livery Companies
The Worshipful Company of Information Technologists84) The Worshipful Company of Scientific Instrument Makers
86) The Worshipful Company of Chartered Accountants
88) The Worshipful Company of Builders Merchants
90) The Worshipful Company of Marketors
96) The Worshipful Company of Lightmongers (electric light sellers)
97) The Worshipful Company of Environmental Cleaners
100) The Worshipful Company of Information Technologists
102) The Worshipful Company of Water Conservators
105) The Worshipful Company of Management Consultants
107) The Worshipful Company of Tax Advisers

 Monday, March 26, 2007

Has beans

Starbucks WhitechapelAfter Stratford, the invasion continues. Another Starbucks has appeared, in another previously macchiato-free East End location, this time on the Whitechapel Road between Altab Ali Park and the East London Mosque. This is no throbbing metropolitan hotspot, this is an unimportant site beside a fume-choked bus stop on the run-down side of town. There may be a single McDonalds half a mile up the road close to Whitechapel station, but otherwise this thoroughfare has somehow managed to remain refreshingly clear of bland multinational chain stores. It's a street people visit to buy a sari or some fried chicken or a packet of cigarettes or even a foundry-struck bell, all served up by friendly independent retailers. And it's also no stranger to coffee. There were already plenty of cafes in the surrounding area where passers-by could stop off for a nice mug of caffeine, a slice of cake and a sit down. But now there's another, one that doesn't quite fit, intent on bringing caramel frappuccinos to the E1 masses.

The locals are aggrieved. So on Saturday afternoon a bunch of urban bandits called the Space Hijackers held an alternative tea party on the pavement outside the encroaching Starbucks. They brought fair trade tea and home made biscuits and handed them out to passers-by, for free. By all accounts the weather was freezing and the pavement bleak and windswept, but people stopped, and listened, and enjoyed some very nice carrot cake. There are pictures of the protest here, along with further details of the rationale behind the demonstration. Plus, more importantly, the organisers have provided a map of the West Whitechapel area showing the location of all the existing local cafes whose businesses may be threatened by this corporate invader. I doubt that enough people will see it to make a difference, but let's hope it lessens the risk that workers in several perfectly decent local establishments lose their jobs while unseen shareholders get rich.

Of course, the East End is no stranger to change. Over the centuries each successive migrant population has erased what was here before and replaced it with something more relevant to their culture. Until fairly recently, for example, the spot on which this Starbucks stands was known as Black Lion Yard - an area packed with 18 Jewish-owned jewellery shops, known as the "Hatton Garden of the East End". This was then wiped away to make way for a drab boxy office block, all 80s glass and shiny brown surfaces, with only its new name as a nod to the site's glittering past. Now 'Black Lion House' is used as a tax office and for business training purposes, that sort of thing, with a row of freshly refurbished retail outlets underneath. The owners clearly didn't have any qualms in allowing Starbucks to move in, and a sign at the opposite end of the building reveals that Tesco will be next. A Tesco Express is due to open here in three weeks time, bringing even greater multinational homogeneity to a spot where previously there was none. Unlike every previous commercial invasion of the East End, this one's being co-ordinated from the outside.

Personally speaking, I've never quite understood the need so many people seem to have for a regular intake of corporate coffee. I see them heading for their office desks at 9am, steaming cup in hand, and wonder why they can't wake up unaided. I see them sat in coffee shops, staring out of the window, and wonder if they're just brain-dead addicts. I see them wasting their Saturday mornings, sipping slowly and nibbling on muffins, and wonder how on earth this can be a good use of one's life. What's wrong with a mug of instant? What's wrong with making your own filter brew at home? What's wrong with a teabag dunked in boiling water instead? Honestly, if the rest of you were like me, Starbucks would be dead in the water already. Do please try harder to resist.

 Sunday, March 25, 2007

Goodbye Pinner Hill Road
Elton John's old house, Pinner
Piano maestro Reg Dwight, better known as Elton John, was born 60 years ago on Tuesday 25th March 1947. Here's his childhood home at 55 Pinner Hill Road, deep in the cosy suburbs of northwest London. It's still a very ordinary Metroland semi, resplendent with privet hedge, uPVC windows and a concreted-over front garden. See how the current owners hide their car beneath an all-enveloping tarpaulin, in much the same way that middle-aged Elton used to cover himself with a series of unconvincing wigs. The local council, in their infinite wisdom, appear to have marked this most auspicious musical heritage site not with a blue plaque but with a bright green litter bin. And there's also a bus stop immediately outside the front door, should Sir Elton ever fancy using his new Freedom Pass to take a trip to Ruislip Lido aboard an H13. But somehow I suspect that pensioner Reg has better things to do this weekend. Happy 60th, Captain Fantastic.

 Friday, March 23, 2007

geezer goes out... to experience day 1 of a retail phenomenon
Abercrombie and Fitch - flagship European store now open in Mayfair

Up until yesterday if you'd seen somebody in London wearing Abercrombie and Fitch clothing, you'd have known it had been purchased across the Atlantic. A&F do love to scrawl their brand name across their apparel, so you'd probably have noticed. Maybe some scrappy cloth letters across the front of a sweatshirt, maybe a patch down one leg of some swim shorts, or possibly a slogan sewn above the peak of a baseball cap. It's effortlessly trendy stuff is Abercrombie and Fitch, and has been endowed with a certain smug exclusivity when worn on the streets of the capital. But not any more. Now any Tom, Dick or Harriet can clothe themselves in A&F from head to toe, thanks to the grand opening yesterday of the company's very first UK store just off Savile Row. And what a store.

It's not at all obvious from the outside that this is a shop of any kind. Stand in Burlington Gardens, round the back of the Royal Academy, and the building looks like an extremely wealthy gentleman's well-preserved Mayfair villa. The store boasts a broad white Georgian facade with prim rectangular windows, as befits a Grade II listed townhouse dating back nearly three centuries. There's not even an obvious Abercrombie & Fitch sign above the door. But that's no problem, because the steady stream of shoppers attempting to pass through the elegant entrance suggests that this store will feed off word of mouth alone.

I suspect that the two live specimens of topless chiselled beefcake positioned just inside the front door yesterday were special features exclusive to Day 1. A&F do like to associate themselves with barely-attainable muscle, and there are plenty of pert pectorals depicted in paintings and murals high up on the interior walls. The overarching artistic theme is a sort of classical/public school hybrid - very Mayfair and appropriately un-American - right down to the semi-clad statue stood at the bottom of the staircase. And the staircase still looks like a proper 18th century wood-panelled staircase, even with ultra-keen 21st century shoppers swarming all over it. The parlours, side-rooms and bedchambers leading off from the hallway and landing have been sympathetically transformed into womenswear mini-departments. Meanwhile the central part of the building, with its interlinked high-ceilinged chambers, is where the men hang out.

The shelves are stacked so tall that the upper levels can only be for show. Here are tidy piles of colourful sweatshirts and subdued crewnecks, above tables strewn with neatly-folded shirts and hoodies. In the central hallway there's more of a jeans focus, dispensed from behind a glass-fronted counter reminiscent of a post-war department store (apart from the moose's head on the wall, obviously). Yesterday a throng of curious customers filled the aisles, shuffling round to peer and gawp at every product in every nook. Some schoolgirls looked like they'd bunked off lessons early just to be here, while many 20- and 30-something blokes were staring in reverence as if they'd just had their wardrobe prayers answered. The queue for the gents changing rooms stretched back rather longer than that for the cash desk, although none of the grinning shop assistants seemed to mind.

There is, of course, a catch - these clothes aren't cheap. A triangle of skimpy swimwear will set you back £35, a polo shirt £50 and a tasteful stripy shirt all of £70. You have to mentally translate each price into dollars ($70, $100 and $140) to see that Abercrombie and Fitch are having a highly profitable laugh at the expense of the UK consumer. However cool the brand, this is just high street fashion at wallet-emptying prices. But still very desirable, very aspirational, very must-have. If Day 1 is anything to go by, this brand new store can expect a better-than-rosy future. It's well worth coming and taking a look around, I reckon, just to absorb the full UK A&F experience. But if you want to spend a small fortune on giving your image a trendy transatlantic overhaul then you might be better off waiting until a wet Wednesday morning several weeks hence, when the initial interest has finally died down.

 Monday, March 19, 2007

Stratford froths up

Stratford town centre isn't the loveliest place in East London, as anyone who's ever visited knows. The central shopping area lies trapped on a concrete island encircled by a four lane ring road. Pound shops, fast food joints and bookmakers jostle for passing trade in the characterless mall. Here market traders flog cheap veg and value binliners to tracksuited mums and basket-pushing pensioners. There's a Wilkinsons but not a Waitrose, and a JD Sports but not a Marks and Spencer. This is no chain store clone town, this is something considerably less affluent. If you had the choice, you'd almost certainly go shopping somewhere else.

Starbucks StratfordBut something astonishing has happened in Stratford, which may be the first genuine sign that the long-promised gentrification of the area is starting to have an effect. A branch of Starbucks has opened! In East London! In Stratford! I must say I was gobsmacked when I first stumbled across it. Right in the heart of the town centre, beside the southern entrance to the shopping mall, was the telltale green logo of Seattle's most famous caffeine peddler. More strikingly the front door was open, and local residents were actually stopping to go inside.

But closer scrutiny through the gleaming glass windows revealed that most of those sitting at the yet-to-be-graffitied tables weren't your typical Starbucks punters. E15's fresh coffeeteria boasted a runty kid sat slurping beside his shaven-headed dad, a socket-eyed pensioner staring at the racing pages of a tabloid and an anoraked middle aged couple cradling something warm and steaming. This new Starbucks wasn't yet attracting an upmarket clientele, it was just another café where local shoppers could go for an overpriced coffee and a mid-morning muffin. Stratford's residents haven't yet evolved into mass market consumers with a taste for gratuitous indulgence.

Starbucks StratfordThere are far greater changes to come as the 2012 Olympics draw closer. Look around the skyline and you'll see new apartment blocks springing up all over - swish modern blocks with curvy profiles and primary-coloured balconies. Slowly the moneyed classes are moving in - residents who prefer wine bars and boutiques to off licences and betting shops. One Starbucks is not going to be enough.

That's OK, because an enormous new retail playground is under construction to the north of the station. At the moment Stratford City is just a huge expanse of flattened railway sidings, but within the next few years it'll become a whole new urban district of homes, offices and of course shops. We're promised at least 100 new shops, of precisely the kind that don't exist in Stratford at the moment. There'll even be three major department stores - including a John Lewis! Given the poor retail environment that E15 offers today, this is little short of transformational.

But I fear that we may be seeing the development of two parallel Stratford shopping centres. One south of the railway for all the existing residents, and the other north of the railway for all the affluent incomers. One for everyday necessities, and the other for aspirational luxuries. One where local people shop, and the other where they mop the floors. At least 2007's new Starbucks has appeared in the right place to make a difference. It's a cappucino catalyst, and it might just start attracting more of the smarter shops that people on the opposite side of London take for granted. You'll not be seeing me inside Stratford's new Starbucks because I prefer a nice mug of industrial strength tea and a currant bun elsewhere. But rest assured that your Olympic taxes are already beginning to pay dividends. The bucks start here.

 Sunday, March 18, 2007

The government announced yesterday that the cost of hosting the 2012 Olympics has soared to £9.3bn. Or rather it turns out that the initial estimate of £2.4bn was very wrong, and this new estimate is much more realistic. But if you look at how this £9.3bn is broken down, you'll see that the cost of actually putting on the Olympics (£3.1bn) hasn't gone up much. It's all the associated expenditure which is having a financial impact.
£3.1bn Site construction (all the various stadia and stuff) [47%]
£1.7bn Regeneration and infrastructure (Stratford's a contaminated dump) [26%]
£0.8bn Olympic Delivery Authority tax bill (Gordon has to take his cut) [13%]
£0.6bn Extra security (because it only takes one nutter...) [9%]
£0.4bn Non-ODA provision (whatever that is) [6%]
Expected Total = £6.6bn

+£2.7bn Programme contingency (because things always cost more) [+40% of the above]
Potential Total = £9.3bn
Yes, £9.3bn is a lot of money. It's £155 for every man, woman and child in the country. It's £1.25 each every week until the Opening Ceremony. But it's still a lot cheaper than buying a daily paper, or watching Sky TV, or going to the pub once a month, or feeding a dog, so it's not that terrible. Because, whatever people might hope, investment in the future doesn't come for free. And, believe me, those of us who live around the spot where London's three most deprived boroughs meet, we'll be eternally grateful.

 Friday, March 16, 2007

You know how wonderful it is that mobile phones don't work on the Underground? The fact that you can hide away on a train where the office can't ring you? The fact that you don't have to listen to everyone else in your carriage droning on and on to their mates while you're fifty feet under? Well, that peace and quiet is about to end. TfL have just announced a six month trial of "mobile phone technology services" on the Waterloo & City line, starting in April next year. Passengers will be able to use their phones on the platforms at Bank and Waterloo, and also on trains in the tunnel between the two stations. The W&C isn't London's most popular tube line, so the majority of commuters will be able to avoid this temporary electromagnetic intrusion. But if the trial is successful the technology could be introduced across the entire underground network by mid 2009. And then there'll be no escape. Make the most of being incommunicado while the silence lasts.

 Thursday, March 15, 2007

25,000,000: If you own a camera and have ever been to London, you've probably taken a photograph of the London Eye. In fact, you've probably taken several. Some from a distance, some from underneath, and some from the pod at the very top looking down on all the grinning people in the capsule just beneath you. The London Eye is a magnet for megapixels. It's almost impossible to walk past without whipping out your camera and snapping a shot or three. Indeed a significant proportion of your hard drive or mobile phone memory may be taken up with digitised images of this revolutionary London icon. Today there's an opportunity to unload some of your favourite London Eye photographs onto the attraction's website, and it's all thanks to an imminent visitor milestone.

Very soon, probably at some point during the next seven days, the London Eye will welcome its twenty-five millionth passenger. That's an impressive total, approximately equal to one thousand visitors for every hour that this giant observational wheel has been open to the public. 25 million is of course a very important milestone, and therefore well worth celebrating with a PR-inspired competition. So yesterday the Eye's owners invited a handful of media types and bloggers along for a free ride on the Eye and a glass of bubbly, just in case any of us should choose to publicise the contest on their behalf. What are the chances, eh?

It was interesting to watch what happens when a dozen or so 'photographers' are locked inside a pod on the London Eye for half an hour. Unlike normal tourists, who spend all their time taking photographs of one another with Big Ben in the background, we spent most of our time attempting to take arty shots instead. Three things made this easier than normal. Firstly our flight was timed perfectly for sunset, so bright skies dimmed imperceptibly to pinky-blue darkness as the 30 minute revolution passed. Secondly the Eye is currently bathed in soft red illumination in honour of Comic Relief on Friday, so the spoked metalwork glowed in perfect contrast to the twilight sky. And thirdly there were no tourists or small children getting in the way of all the best shots, so everyone moved around the capsule with appropriate care and deference for one another's line of sight. It was almost too simple.

After our flight we were whisked off into a sideroom at County Hall to meet with some of the Eye's staff and upload a few of the photos that we'd taken. This was, no doubt, a cunning ploy to make sure that the competition gallery has a variety of images already loaded when it launches officially this afternoon. Sorry, but if it's still Thursday morning you won't yet be able to access the competition website, nor view the 4 slightly random photos I uploaded. Once the official site is up and running you'll be allowed to enter up to ten photographs altogether, each of which must be in some way Eye-related. There's a registration form to fill in first, and some terms and conditions about copyright which one of the more professional photographers present last night didn't seem too happy about. I've stuck my ten chosen photos onto flickr while I wait for the Eye's site to emerge. [5pm update: it's emerged!]

www.flickr.com: London Eye gallery
10 photos of (and from) the largest observational wheel in the world

The 25 million competition is open for the next month, after which the best picture will win some photography equipment and a year long ticket to various Tussauds attractions (that's Alton Towers as well as the waxworks, before you sound too disappointed). You almost certainly won't win, but it's a good way to bring your photographic skills to a wider audience. And one of the best things about the competition is that you don't need to fork out £14.50 for a flight on the Eye in order to enter. You can take perfectly good photographs of the Eye for free from a distance or from underneath, without needing to take any from the pod at the very top. In fact, if you have a hunt around on your hard drive you'll probably find that you've already got at least ten photos of the Eye which you could enter immediately. Very few world-class attractions can boast such universal popularity.

 Friday, March 09, 2007

The Ultimate journey of life, the universe and everything
Bus 42: Liverpool Street - Denmark Hill
Location: London south, inner
Length of journey: 4 miles, 50 minutes

London's ultimate bus journey of life, the universe and everything begins in Worship Street, just to the north of Liverpool Street station. This lowly sideroad marks the precise boundary between the wealthy City of London and the rather needier borough of Hackney. On the rich side is one of London's biggest building sites, upon which the 35 storey Broadgate Tower is being constructed. At the moment all you can see is a giant concrete shell surrounded by cranes, looming down over the railway tracks buried beneath, but when finished next year it'll be the third tallest building in the City, visible for miles around as a shiny glassy spike. The first number 42 bus stop is sited, more appropriately, on the poor side of the street. Here, outside a walled-off 5-a-side-football centre, stands a lonely bus shelter where almost nobody ever waits. I was the exception. The driver gave me a very strange look as I boarded, as if somehow unprepared for company so early in the route. And so we set off somewhat uncomfortably, across the girder-topped rail bridge, turning right into prosperity.

The 42 is an ugly bus, both inside and outside - a boxy single decker with almost no character whatsoever. The seat covers are a nasty combination of blue, pink and purple, and far too many of them face backwards. This proved unfortunate when a particularly large woman in a woolly hat climbed aboard and wedged herself in beside me, ignoring at least 6 empty rear-facing double seats. I breathed in and prayed for rapid deliverance. The bus creaked and rattled its way along the eastern edge of the City, all of its plastic fixtures vibrating as we orbited the oversized roundabout at Aldgate.

And then what should be the true highlight of the journey - the crossing of Tower Bridge. Unfortunately the worst place to view the bridge is from a passing single decker bus. You get a decent side view of the Tower itself as you go by, but alas the gothic towers of the Victorian bridge are completely hidden behind the vehicle's broad red roof. Your only hope of seeing Tower Bridge properly is if the central piers have been raised to let through some tall ship, in which case the 42 is diverted over neighbouring London Bridge from where the riverside panorama is rather more impressive.

And so down Tower Bridge Road into Bermondsey, the affluence of the City instantly forgotten. A photocopied sign in the window of a new yellow-striped building reveals that its grand opening by Jade Goody has been unceremoniously cancelled. An unassuming plaque on a very ordinary brick wall reveals that a block of council estate flats has been erected on the site of 11th century Bermondsey Abbey. The famous New Caledonian Antiques Market breathes commercial life into the area, but only on Friday mornings. And there was worse to come. As we entered the Old Kent Road our driver suddenly bolted from his cab and escaped onto the pavement rather than continue any further. It took several minutes for his replacement to emerge, shut the doors and continue our journey southward.

The Aylesbury Estate is one of the largest housing estates in Europe, and also one of the poorest. The 42 heads straight through the middle, down a bleak concrete canyon lined by long narrow blocks of flats. A decade ago Tony Blair came to this run-down social backwater to make his first speech as Prime Minister. He pledged to fight for a brighter future, for Britain as a whole and the Aylesbury in particular. But that fresh start is hard to spot today. A few colourful backlit signs have been erected bearing uplifting messages ("Do Magic!" "Nobody Is Not Loved!" "Yeah Yeah Yippee Yippee Yeah!") but very few of the original blocks and walkways have yet been torn down to be replaced by something better. The area is very badly connected, shunned by every railway line in south London, and the 42 provides one of the few lifelines for escape.

The daffodils are blooming in Burgess Park, along the concreted canal and behind the boarded-up pub. Further down the road Camberwell Green is even less welcoming, once a village green, now a meeting place for yobs and massed pigeons. But things pick up a little, past the shops and a pair of hospitals, as the bus slowly empties and climbs the gentle slopes of Denmark Hill. Here at last is recognisable suburbia, complete with tree-lined avenues and a giant Wetherspoons.

The 42 turns left and drops down into a valley of slightly twee cottages. This is Sunray Avenue, at the junction with Casino Avenue, where this service terminates. I was ejected into an environment unlike any other along the journey, if only for its wholesome ordinariness. Three lads alighting in front of me decided to ride down the street in a discarded supermarket trolley before abandoning it in the gutter, blocking the path of the departing bus. A pit bull with a large stick in its mouth padded slowly home along the pavement in front of its ageing owner. It started raining, quite heavily. As I headed rapidly for the nearest bus shelter I wondered what my ride on the 42 had taught me about life, the universe and everything. Nothing special, I guess. Mostly harmless.

42 links
Route 42: Wikipedia entry
Route 42: route history
Route 42: timetable

 Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Strangers on a staircase

this way outI am the first person off the platform. I am the Underground expert. I always travel in exactly the right carriage, beside exactly the right door, to leap off the train at exactly the right point. I lead the commuter charge off the platform and up the staircase. I know there are scores of passengers pouring off the train behind me, but I never look back, never give them any advantage. The passageway ahead of me is clear. The passageway ahead is mine. I am the King of the Tube.

I am the second person off the platform. Who is that jerk in front of me? I too always travel in exactly the right carriage, beside exactly the right door, to leap off the train at exactly the right point. But today, somehow, he's got in front of me and all I can see is his departing backside. How dare he? But I'll be first tomorrow, you see if I'm not.

I am the third person off the platform. I'm late! And I'm in a hurry! Come on, I've got to be in work in three minutes time, and I'm never going to make it! So I'm going to run up these steps like a man possessed, weaving deftly round those two interlopers ahead of me. Get out of my way! If I can overtake them both I might still be out of the station first. Cha-aarge!

I am the seventh person off the platform. This is easy. Thank goodness I was in the right carriage this morning or else I'd still be back there somewhere, in the middle of that massive mêlée behind me. But this is easy. A quick departure is guaranteed.

We are the ninth and tenth people off the platform. We're in no hurry, no hurry at all. Have you seen this story in today's Metro? Have you finished the sudoku yet? We're going to carry on reading as we walk, slowly, steadily, oblivious to all around us. Why rush? It's only work we're all going to, after all.

I am the eleventh person off the platform. I may have charged off the train really fast, but there's no rushing any more. The slowcoaches in front of me are impeding the crowd's departure, down to a steady crawl, and there's no squeezing past. It's more like being in a queue now, patiently making forward progress, one amongst many. This morning rush is no longer any rush at all.

We are the twenty-eighth and twenty-ninth people off the platform. Ooh, that was lucky. What are the chances of two tourists accidentally being in exactly the right carriage near exactly the right door? Very fortunate indeed. Hang on, let's just stop and work out which way we're going next. Ah yes, over here, probably. It's a bit crowded around here at the moment isn't it? Maybe we should have picked a quieter time to try to get to the airport. But hey, we're still going to to shuffle slowly up the middle of the staircase, lifting our enormous luggage up one step at a time. Why can't people look where they're going and stop tripping over our big wheelie suitcases? Why is everyone else intent on knocking us over as they attempt to struggle by?

I am the thirtieth person off the platform. Damn and blast. There I was making good progress towards the exit when these two inconsiderate tourists appeared and totally blocked the passage in front of me. Do they have no idea of timing? It's the height of the bloody rush hour for heavens sake. I suppose I could try glaring at them, but they're probably too busy gawping hopelessly at a tube map and wittering in foreign. Grrr.

I am the one hundred and ninety-third person off the platform. Sigh. It's taken me two minutes to shuffle along this platform behind a seething throng of bobbing heads. Looks like I was in exactly the wrong carriage, beside exactly the wrong door, at exactly the wrong end of the train. One day I'll learn and plan ahead, and position myself somewhere more sensible in advance. But can you hear that? It sounds like another train is rushing into the station behind me, ready to empty another load of human cargo onto the platform. By the time I reach the top of the steps I bet there'll be another crowd of eager commuters snapping at my heels, racing for the exit. Well, they'll just have to wait.

 Monday, March 05, 2007

geezer goes out... to Three Mills for a British Waterways Open Day
Prescott Lock - a new green gateway to the Lower Lea valley

footbridge across the Prescott ChannelWith Olympic construction due to begin next year, a heck of a lot of building materials need to be delivered to the Lower Lea Valley in the run up to 2012. They could be driven in by road, but a far more environmentally-friendly solution would be to ship them in by boat. And so British Waterways are to build a brand new lock on the Bow Back Rivers, just south of the Olympic Park, with the aim of removing 1000 lorry journeys a week from the streets. The exact location of the lock is the Prescott Channel [photo], a quarter-mile navigation around the back of the Three Mills film studios. Don't worry, it's not named after our esteemed Deputy Prime Minister, just in honour of one of the men who had this cut-through constructed in the 1930s. The Prescott Channel is a quiet waterway - off the beaten track and rarely visited - and yet it's still somewhere you probably know very well. Because it's across this river, during the summers of 2000 and 2001, that Big Brother contestants were led to the studio following their eviction from the House. Because this is Davina's Bridge [photo].

the Big Brother bridgeChannel 4 built the first Big Brother house in a field on the eastern side of the Prescott Channel [photo]. But producers weren't convinced that the show would be a hit and only had planning permission for two years, after which Newham Council insisted that the house be pulled down and the site returned to a natural habitat. Five years later not a trace remains, just a locked-off patch of green wasteland [photo]. Peering through the gate it's hard to imagine that this is where Nasty Nick was unmasked, where Vanessa Feltz went slowly mad and where Marjorie the chicken pecked her way to fame. But the bridge [photo] is still there. The same bridge across which evictees ran the gauntlet of the press, and behind which fireworks erupted as Craig and Brian crossed to victory. But the bridge won't be there for much longer.

map of the Bow Back Rivers around Three MillsTo ensure that Prescott Lock is in place before Olympic construction begins, the old bridge has to go. It'll be replaced, fractionally further upriver by a state-of-the-art tidal barrier, complete with sluice gates, fish ladder and pedestrian walkway. The new lock gates will be big enough to accommodate two 350 tonne barges, enabling building materials to sail up the Lea from the Thames into the heart of the Olympic redevelopment zone. There's also every expectation that a green transport network can be established as the regeneration of the valley continues. It'll then be possible to move waste and recyclables up and down the river by barge, rather than them continuing to be dumped into the water by couldn't-care-less local industries. As those responsible for the development delighted in telling me yesterday, the lock should have a sustainable future well beyond the closing ceremony of the 2012 Games.

One of the biggest problems seeping out into the Bow Back Rivers at the moment is biodegradable human pollution. Most of North London's sewage passes through the Abbey Mills pumping station, just to the north, and the Victorian pipes are no match for modern levels of effluent. Fifty times a year, on average, sewage from Abbey Mills overflows out into Abbey Creek, down the Channelsea River [photo] and into the River Lea. I bet they didn't warn Big Brother contestants of this regular current of sludge sweeping right past their living quarters. And it's not one-way traffic. The Lea is a tidal river and so, less than 12 hours after every discharge, most of the sewage is washed back upriver to contaminate a much larger area of waterway. One extremely useful side-effect of constructing the Prescott Lock will be to block off this brown backwash and prevent it from reaching the Olympic Zone a short distance upstream. Longer term, however, only an upgrade of London's 150-year-old sewer infrastructure can solve the underlying issues with outfall pollution, and the cost of such a major project would dwarf even the Olympics.

train passing the Twelvetrees gas cylinders beside the Channelsea RiverConstruction on the new lock begins in a few weeks time, which means the closure of even more local waterside pathways (this time for an 18 month period). Three different footpaths meet at the bridge and each will shortly be sealed off for security reasons. One heads north to Three Mills Green, and another west along a puddle-strewn track round to Three Mills itself [photo]. But the most charming of the three is the eastern footpath along the Channelsea River towards the Greenway. The water below may be a nasty shade of brown, the view across the river may be of a forest of gas cylinders and the land opposite may be the site of an old cyanide factory, but it's a lovely walk [photo]. Nesting moorhens waddle across the tidal mudflats, and catkins hang low from trees above the riverbank. You can walk along this path and not see a soul, save for scores of passengers peering from the windows of passing District line trains wondering what the hell you're up to [photo]. Before long, however, watching from the train is going to be the only way to keep track of how the construction of Prescott Lock is going. But British Waterways are certain that, once complete, it will kickstart the renaissance of this sub-Olympic corner of the Lower Lea Valley. Let's hope the future round here is green, and not brown.

 Sunday, March 04, 2007

geezer goes out... to the Transport for London Museum Depot
Open Weekend - a chance to get up close to old tube trains and stuff

www.flickr.com: Museum Depot gallery
(20 photos especially for the more anorakky amongst you)

With the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden closed until the Autumn, the capital's bus and train enthusiasts have had nowhere to go recently. Thank goodness for the Museum Depot in Acton Town, home to hundreds of thousands of pieces of transport ephemera, which occasionally unlocks its doors for an official Open Weekend. And then they come, out of the shadows, both young and old, to spend the day staring at tube trains and old trolleybuses and stuff. There was a ridiculously long queue outside yesterday morning, but I'd bought my ticket in advance and so walked past the lot of them. Damn, that probably makes me a bigger geek than any of them.

train carriages in the LT Museum DepotOnce inside there was a lot to see. Several bits of trains are lined up in the main body of the warehouse, from old Metropolitan milk wagons to prototype Crossrail carriages. You're only allowed inside a couple of them, which gave several parents a chance to show their precocious offspring the semi-luxurious conditions in which they used to travel. A number of old buses have been crammed in along one side. Nothing too modern, you'll be glad to hear. Proper buses (some red, others green) with friendly drivers and conductors, and comfy seats, and route information on the front blinds. unlike many of the visitors I didn't remember any of the trams and trolleybuses, but some of the 60s and 70s vehicles looked nostalgically familiar.

Elsewhere there are ticket machines, signals, escalators and engine parts, and racks of smaller items such as clocks and fire buckets. There are 3D models of tube stations, built to assist engineers when the labyrinth of tubes and tunnels beneath was being extended. There's a big shop, where yesterday grown men were queueing to purchase a limited edition Acton 2007 diecast Routemaster 1:76 scale model (already selling on eBay for £89). Upstairs there are rows and rows of station signs ("Look Daddy, Arsenal! Arsenal!"), and old maps, and even some old furniture from London Transport HQ. If you like this sort of thing, you'd have loved it. Maybe next time.

 Friday, March 02, 2007

Websites which have unexpectedly bloody improved: VisitLondon.com
(specifically the "What's On" search engine)

Three weeks ago, you may remember, I told you how utterly rubbish Visit London's official search engine was. Because it was utterly rubbish. I asked the site to tell me "What special events are taking place in London tomorrow?" and the search engine listed 854 events, the great majority of which weren't actually happening at all. So I thought I'd go back today to see if things have improved. And, what do you know, they have! Lots!

Let's try asking that same question again. What special events are taking place in London tomorrow? According to Visit London today, there are 181 special events taking place in London tomorrow. That may sound a lot, and indeed Visit London have a very broad definition of "special". But 181 is a much more realistic total, and 80% lower than the 854 they were offering three weeks ago. I am impressed.

Last time round, Visit London were insistent that a Tuesdays-only art course at Sotheby's happened every day of the week. Now it only crops up if your search includes a Tuesday. Likewise Cripplegate's 7-11 Club is now rightly restricted to Wednesdays, and Storytime at Pollards Hill Library only appears on the last Friday of the month. The search engine designers have pulled their fingers out and labelled everything properly, by date, including a special new "recurring events" category. I am impressed.

Last time round, searching Visit London still threw up events from several months past, such as Lewisham's Winter Festival and Christmas Market. No longer - all these anachronistic events have been deleted. I am impressed. The database still contains a few events ridiculously far into the future, such as next year's Lord Mayor's Firework Show (9 November 2008). I guess it's possible that some tourists really are interested in planning that far ahead, but the continued inclusion of events dated 2010 and 2012 is surely unjustifiable.

Last time round, searching for "free events" generated a list of absolutely no events whatsoever. This counter-intuitive result was a consequence of incompetent programming, which has now been fixed. Attempt the same search today and you'll discover 56 free special events taking place in London this weekend. I am impressed. There used to be a similar problem when searching for events with "wheelchair access" or "disabled toilets" - none whatsoever showed up. Visit London haven't fixed this problem, they've hidden it by removing all four accessibility categories from the search form. There's still absolutely no functionality for disabled visitors, but at least nobody's going to waste their time looking any more.

Last time round, the Visit London search engine had been rubbish for months and months and months. And now it isn't. At some point (very very recently) the site's programmers have knuckled down and sorted out the great majority of issues making the search facility nigh impossible to use. It's still not perfect, but it is at least now fit for purpose. I'm sure it's just a coincidence that all these changes have occurred during the last three weeks, because I'd hate to think that Visit London had to be shamed into action by having their site's flaws exposed in public. But credit where credit is due - I am impressed.

 Thursday, March 01, 2007

geezer goes out... to the British Library Conference Centre
2012 Design - a talk by Jerome Frost, Head of Design at the Olympic Delivery Authority

As part of the British Library's phenomenally successful London: A Life In Maps exhibition (closes Sunday), a series of related talks has been running on Wednesday evenings. The last of these was given yesterday by the man in charge of 2012 Olympic planning, and hence with the job of ensuring that our taxes deliver a lasting legacy to the Games. I think our money's in safe hands.

Planning for the 2012 Olympics isn't just about making sure that all the stadia open on time. It's also about ensuring that local communities benefit from all the millions being pumped into redevelopment and new infrastructure, helping one of the poorest corners of the country to reinvent itself. It's about making sure that government funding isn't just used to spend and spend, it's used as an investment for the future. And, as Jerome explained, this isn't a new idea - it dates back to the Victorians.

Over the last 150 years there have been several attempts to revitalise various areas of London via expensive grand schemes. The Great Exhibition of 1851 inspired the development of our Museum quarter on the fringes of Hyde Park, then delivered suburban acceptability to the newly established suburbs of Sydenham. The development of Alexandra Palace in the 1870s provided another nucleus of development in North London, even though the original building burnt down within a fortnight of its opening. The British Empire Exhibition proved the catalyst for the growth of the Wembley area, and the Festival of Britain in 1951 opened up the South Bank to culture and respectability. Even the Millennium Dome, though much maligned, is finally starting to bring prosperity to the former industrial wasteland of the North Greenwich peninsula. London's history has proven time and time again that substantial investment in green space brings significant added value to the surrounding area. When viewed in the context of long-term legacy, the 2012 Olympic Games are just another example of government-sponsored regional philanthropy.

The plan for 2012 is to "start with the park". Get that right, said Jerome, and everything else should follow. The ODA started their detailed planning by considering what they'd like the Olympic Park in Stratford to look like a few years after the Games have finished, and worked back from there. Sustainable venues such as the Velodrome will be built to last. Other 'unnecessary' venues will be dismantled soon after 2012, and these adaptable plots of land given over to other uses such as housing. It's expected that at least 9000 new homes will have been built around the Olympic Park by 2025 (which, sold off at a few hundred thousand pounds each, should pay back a substantial proportion of the Games' building costs). Initial estimates suggest that the population of this part of East London may eventually rise by between 100,000 and 150,000 people (approximately one-and-a-half Olympic Stadium-fuls). And that's a lot longer-lasting legacy than two weeks of athletics.

Jerome confirmed that the Olympic site in Stratford will be barricaded off in just four months' time. The ODA plan to erect 13km of security fencing to surround the site, allowing major remediation work to begin across the 300 hectares of land within. I've long been concerned that the unique nature of the Bow Back Rivers would be eradicated by the imposition of major building works, but Jerome had reassuring words that this ought not to be the case. The plan is to "enhance, not obliterate", and steps are already underway to populate a seedbank of the Lower Lea Valley's native species to ensure their survival. It won't look or feel the same after 2012, obviously, but it was good to hear that the Olympic Park won't be a bland featureless landscape of lawns and saplings cut through by ugly concrete channels. Come July we locals are to be locked out from our favourite backyard wilderness for at least five years, probably rather longer, before the full extent of Olympic regeneration can be revealed. But after Jerome's talk I'm now more hopeful that it'll be worth the wait.

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