Friday, September 28, 2007

So London has spoken, and Boris Johnson is to be the Conservative candidate for next year's London Mayoral election. Well there's a surprise. There was me thinking that Victoria would wing it, or maybe Warwick or Andrew would sneak ahead and pip everyone at the post. But no. Boris romped home with more than 75% of the vote, at least among the 19000 Tories and 1000 non-Tories who bothered to vote in the primary phase. He'll need a lot more support than that to win in May.

Boris's Mayoral campaign benefits from a not inconsiderable web presence. There's Boris the politcal thinker, battling against the Uzbek billionaire menace. There's Boris the MP, trolling around the village halls of rural Oxfordshire. And there's Boris the multimedia campaigner, inviting you to sign up for email updates and to add a Back Boris banner to your blog. There's not a lot of policy on Boris's Mayoral site at the moment, he's still at the "mission statement" stage. There's not even mention of his beloved bus policy - death to the bendies and Routemaster resurrection. The former policy is clearly a winner, but the latter is more of a smokescreen. There'll be no rear-platformed omnibuses reinstated on the streets of London if Boris is victorious, just a call to TfL's designers to build something a bit Routemaster-like (but with wheelchair access) for delivery on some unspecified date in the future. It's better than nothing, but it's not instant transport nirvana.

The stage is now set for a Ken v Boris election. OK, it'll actually be a Ken v Boris v Brian election (or even a Ken v Boris v Brian v Siân v Lindsey v Garry v Richard v several other nutters election), but all money will be on either red or blue. And hey, there's not long to go now until polling day itself. Only... 222 days. Sigh. It looks like Londoners will have to put up with an extended period of ranting, posturing and mud-slinging before they're allowed anywhere near a ballot box. There's a lot to be said for instant snap elections and not drawn out predictable contests. Assuming you've made your mind up already, as I have, it could be a desperately tedious 8 months.

 Thursday, September 27, 2007

Please spare a fiver for Crossrail

This is an appeal on behalf of the poor commuters of London.
The Central line is hell in the mornings, and nobody will build us a replacement.
We desperately need your help.
Please give generously.

Nearly 20 years ago, government transport planners came up with with the idea of a super-duper railway line straight through the middle of London. Crossrail would speed passengers across town in minutes flat. It would link places like Slough and Heathrow in the west to Romford and Canary Wharf in the east. It would be a futuristic railway with extra-long high capacity trains. It would help hundreds of thousands of people to go to work in the City or shopping in the West End. And it would cost a heck of a lot of money. So it was never built.

It's not easy to find fifteen billion quid for a railway. Governments aren't generally happy at stumping up that sort of money for a transport link which most of the electorate will never use. The total cost is even higher than the entire Olympic budget, and we all know how popular that's been. But you can't dig tunnels under central London without spending money, and without pledged cash this project is doomed to fail.

Things were a lot easier 100 years ago. The Central, Bakerloo, Northern and Piccadilly lines were all constructed within a single decade, using private finance, back in an era when there was far less infrastructure buried under the capital. Only two more tube lines have been built across London since, and Crossrail is doomed not to be the third. Which is why the government is going back to private finance, to the major corporations based in the City, and grovelling for cash. Pay up, or we won't build the railway you so desperately need in order to stay profitable. So far, no response.

Problems at Woolwich demonstrate the mess this project is in. The original plans for Crossrail included a proper big station at Woolwich, on the southeast Canary Wharf branch. Trouble was, this new subterranean station was going to be terribly expensive, so the planners dropped it. Sorry to the local population, all tens of thousands of them, but the new railway was destined to burrow straight underneath them without stopping. A wholly wasted opportunity, and all because the investment wasn't "affordable". But at the last moment a building company stepped in and offered to pay for the station so long as they were allowed to build lots and lots of new homes on top. Result. They'll get a stonking profit later on, and the good citizens of Woolwich are no longer sidelined.

But Crossrail as a whole is still stalled until somebody finds the remainder of the money to pay for it. Ken Livingstone reckons the project just needs "the last few hundred million pounds", but nobody seems to have them. Big business isn't interested, because they have their eyes on short term profit rather than long term gain. And the Treasury isn't interested, because spending money doesn't win votes. Some people have a very blinkered view of the future.

So it looks like we, the people, are going to have to find the last few hundred million pounds ourselves. If everybody in the UK contributed five pounds to the Crossrail project, we'd have the money in no time. A fiver's not much. It's one meal out, or half a round in the pub on a Friday night, all to be paid back (with interest) next time you want to get to Heathrow in a hurry. Or if everybody in London donated fifty quid, that'd reach the total too. It might mean forgoing a few DVDs, or a nice pair of shoes, but it's all for the common good. And we might just have ourselves a transport lifeline by 2015.

Please send your fiver to the following address:
Ruth Kelly
Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and Minister for Women
Bressenden Place
London SW1E 5DU
and let's see if, between us, we can't kickstart this whole sorry process once and for all.

 Monday, September 24, 2007

London 2012  Olympic update
  Demolish, dig, destroy

demolish, dig, designIt's been two months since the Olympic Park was sealed off and its occupants ejected. Two months since an impenetrable big blue wall was erected all around the perimeter, and a bored-stupid security guard posted at every entrance gate. Two months may not sound long, but it represents more than 3% of all the available construction time. So what's been going on here since July? Is the site still a ghost town of crumbling warehouses, or have the Olympic Delivery Authority and their big yellow bulldozers been busy? It's a bit of both, actually.

It's still possible to gain public access to the heart of the Olympic Site by following the Greenway. This sewer-top footpath has recently been resurfaced and upgraded in an attempt to make it more attractive to the local community, and newly installed lighting now makes this a slightly more enticing place to walk and cycle after dusk. Somebody's been a bit over-enthusiastic with the signage, though. Several pristine white signposts have been erected along this stretch of the Greenway, informing travellers that Hackney Wick and Bow are one way and Stratford and West Ham are the other. And then the same thing again 100 metres later. And then again, and then again, at similar 100 metres intervals, just in case you have the memory span of a goldfish. The southernmost signpost even manages to point the wrong way, directing cyclists straight ahead into a fence alongside the Great Eastern railway, rather than down the gentle slope underneath the nearby bridge and up the other side. Full marks for design, zero marks for practicality.

Olympic branded wallThe security fence alongside this particular slope has been specially selected as home to 2012's first "branded hoardings". Alice, the ODA's Marketing Manager, is extremely excited by all this. Rather than leave passers-by staring at blue-painted plywood, her department have covered 100 metres of wall with shiny photographic panels and important brand messages. There are some appropriately uplifting images of athletes, and that technicolour 2012 logo we all love so much. There are big yellow warnings signs urging children not to play on site, plus some artists' impressions of what the finished development will look like. There's a list of the four groups funding construction of the Olympic Park, although no sign of the names of the 40 million taxpayers and lottery players whose money is really making things happen. And finally, as a sign of things to come, there's a gleaming list of official Olympic worldwide partner organisations and their corporate logos, just for added visibility. Coca Cola, McDonalds and Samsung have never taken a blind bit of interest in this industrial wasteland before, but the TV cameras are coming in five years' time and it pays to get here early.

Marshgate Lane, September 2007Up on the bridge above Marshgate Lane, I had my camera at the ready. I've decided to try taking a photograph from exactly the same spot on the parapet every two months or so until 2012, in an attempt to document all the changes taking place down below. At this stage, with just two photographs, the resulting slideshow plays like an Olympic Spot The Difference puzzle. There are huge changes already, but only on the left-hand side of the road. The large brick warehouse with the wedged-vent roof (built by the University of London Faculty of Engineering, and until recently a waste disposal depot) has been completely demolished. All the beautiful willow trees overshadowing the Pudding Mill River have been uprooted and chopped down. Vegetation on the banks of the river has been stripped away. Workmen with a big orange digger were busy dumping rocks and gravel to block off the concrete channel. A further army of diggers could be seen crawling all over the surrounding scrubland, where teenage motor-scooter petrolheads used to go scrambling, levelling the land ready for the Park's perimeter service road to be built on top. Meanwhile, on the right-hand side of the road, almost all of the factories, offices and big metal sheds still stand... but for how much longer? Be in no doubt, the Olympic Stadium will be ready bang on schedule, and nigh nothing visible in my latest photograph will remain.

Half a mile further north, yesterday was also closing-down day for the Manor Garden allotments. With the final harvest now safely gathered in, the last few allotment holders were forced to pack away their tools and have been escorted from the Park for the very last time. Their futile attempt to withstand the invasion of the Olympic planning process has come to nought, and an enforced five-year-plus relocation to Leyton is now underway. A big march and rally were held yesterday afternoon, as a last hurrah, with participants tying bouquets to the iron security gates at the top of Waterden Road in protest. It won't do any good - the 2012 meteorite obliterates everything that lies beneath its destructive path, and no human force can stop it. The demolition of the Lower Lea Valley is already underway. Rebirth suddenly seems a very long way off.

 Friday, September 21, 2007

Last days at the New Piccadilly

the New PiccadillyTo my mind, the finest dining establishments in London aren't in the Michelin Guide. They don't serve up organic medaillions in mango jus, neither do you need to book a table three weeks in advance. No, the finest dining establishments in London are listed in a book called Classic Cafes. They serve up fried stuff with chips, and anyone can slouch down in a formica booth without an appointment. These very special eateries are survivors of a pre-Starbucks age, back when muffins were toasted rather than shrink-wrapped, and when a great cup of coffee came with sugarcubes, not cinnamon sprinklings. But later this month one of the capital's most famous Fifties cafes is closing down, snuffed out by rising rents and creeping redevelopment. It's a damned shame (even if most Londoners never even realised it existed). So, last Friday, BestMate and I sneaked along for one last supper.

The New Piccadilly cafe/restaurant can be found at number 8 Denman Street, just round the back of Piccadilly Circus. It has a bright and colourful frontage, especially if the red neon sign is switched on and the word EATS is illuminated in large friendly letters for all to see. In the right-hand window those "eats" are fully catalogued on a faded orange menu, for your delectation and delight. Apart from the effects of decimalisation and inflation the list of trademark Anglo-Italian dishes has barely changed since the 50s (bar a few replacement platters such as CHICKEN CURRY AND RICE handwritten on white stickers). There are certain meals listed here that you'll not find anywhere else - for example ESCALOPE PICCADILLY GARNI - as well as strange but marvellous concoctions such as STEAK, CHIPS AND SPAGHETTI. Step inside and you can sample the lot.

New Piccadilly tableBestMate and I arrived at half past five expecting queues, but there were none. We headed for a booth halfway down the restaurant, opposite the "ching ching" cash register, beneath a deep red lampshade and a "happy retirement" greetings card. Our vintage beverages arrived promptly, his a sparkling Coke in a dimpled tumbler, mine a cup of perfect orange-brown tea. For my main course I selected one of the house specialities, DAN'S COW PIE AND TWO VEGETABLES, although this divine gravy-soaked pastry concoction has had to be restickered STEAK PIE to fit in with the Trade Descriptions Act. As for the two veg, there's none of your poncey courgettes and broccoli florets here, oh no, we're talking yellowy boiled potatoes and a pile of proper green peas. BestMate's plate was half CHIPS, which is never a hardship, along with a dollop of fried EGG and a thin slice of STEAK. Nothing even approximating haute cuisine, but perfect comfort food all the same.

LorenzoLorenzo, the cafe's owner, was holding court behind the counter. Every now and then he broke off from his conversation to pull another coffee from the vintage pink espresso machine, then returned to the till to survey his fast fading empire. Two white-jacketed waiters dashed around between the tables, increasingly busy as the evening wore on and further diners arrived. It was easy to tell who were genuine regular customers and who were one-off new-media opportunists. The latter all had cameras with them and were busily snapping souvenir photographs of the cafe's finer interior features. I was one of the latter group, alas, but I tried to keep my image retention to an unobtrusive minimum. "OK, I've taken a photo of the wall of postcards and the pile of plastic lemons and the security notice about gentlemen's hats. Hang on, let me just try one more shot of the big horseshoe menu at the rear of the restaurant, this one might not come out blurred."

After clearing our plates, the dessert selection proved irresistable. But which of the six sponge puddings pictured on the back of the menu to choose? Chocolate maybe, or ginger and lemon? In the end BestMate plumped for the TREACLE SPONGE and I chose a very traditional SPOTTED DICK, both liberally flooded in a two-inch deep ocean of skin-topped custard. It's hard to imagine a less healthy pudding, but man cannot live by probiotic yoghurt alone.

New Piccadilly horseshoe menuBefore we left I took the opportunity to visit the prehistoric toilet out the back (which won't be missed when the place closes), and then returned to pay Lorenzo the bill, plus discretionary tip, plus compliments. I'll not be coming back. The cafe closes for good tomorrow evening. And then in October the place will be gutted (as will its clientele) and Lorenzo will head off for a well-deserved retirement. I hate to think what nasty irrelevant development will replace the New Piccadilly, but if they don't serve cow pie and spotted dick I'm not interested.

Classic Cafe: The New Piccadilly
onionbagblogger says farewell
Urban75 drop in and take photos
Russell Davies stops by for a cuppa (and for eggsbaconchipsandbeans)
The Girl In The Cafe

 Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel

the Royal London Hospital, photographed on its 250th birthdayExactly 250 years ago today, on 20th September 1757, the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel opened its doors to the public. This doesn't make it the oldest hospital in the country, but a quarter of a millennium is still a very long time to have been serving the medical needs of some of the poorest communities in the country, and well worth celebrating. If you live in East London this'll be a hospital you'll know well. It's huge, for a start, and the hospital's benefactors also had the sense to build right next to a busy main road. None of this modern greenfield miles-from-anywhere rubbish, where every hospital visit means hopping in your car or catching two buses. The Royal London is where the capital's Air Ambulance service is based, so you've probably seen their big red helicopters either in real life or on a TV documentary. And later this year the BBC will be bringing you Casualty 1907, a historical drama series based on genuine Royal London medical records of the era. Alas infamous hospital resident Joseph Merrick (the "Elephant Man") won't be appearing in any of the stories because he died two decades earlier.

As part of my continued commitment to report back to readers on important London events, I paid a special 250th anniversary visit to the Royal London back in May. It's ever so easy to gain free admittance - just dial 999 from any home in the neighbourhood and a kindly chauffeur will arrive at your front door within minutes to whisk you off to the main entrance. I arrived at half past six in the morning, when admission queues were at their quietest, and was given exclusive access to the A&E department's resuscitation room. This is a long off-white gallery with three separate trauma bays, each with various screens, scanners and gadgets hanging from the walls and ceiling. Most visitors only ever get to see the ceiling. As I waited on my trolley for the day shift to arrive it was sobering to reflect that more people have probably died here, four feet off the ground in this windowless room, than in any other location in the whole of Tower Hamlets. Mine, thankfully, was always going to be a two-way visit.

My grand tour next took me to one of the nearby wards, in a desirable location overlooking the snooker club and McDonalds in Whitechapel High Street. I was one of eight special guests taking advantage of the 24 hour full board experience, although not everyone was enjoying the experience (or even conscious of it). Here the courteous staff attended to my every need with a smile, perhaps because I wasn't the moaning one-legged bitch in the corner repeatedly demanding that the nurses remove his catheter, lift him out of the bed and wheel him to the toilet. There was a genuine tropical atmosphere in the ward, due in no small part to the air conditioning having irrevocably broken down some weeks earlier, and those of us tethered to our beds were forced to endure permanent sweaty steam-room conditions.

Brief respite came when I was offered a wheeled excursion of the hospital's lower levels. Naturally I leapt at the opportunity to explore more of this fascinating building. My tour guide pushed me straight through the main entrance hall, past the little shop that sells flowers, chocolates and souvenir model helicopters. On along the main ground floor corridor, its dour architecture somewhat reminiscent of a crumbling Victorian asylum. Then down a level in the spacious silver lift, avoiding the spiralling institutional staircase with its shiny stone steps and curly iron banister. And finally along a grim basement corridor, deftly avoiding oncoming electric vehicles transporting their cargoes of pristine bedlinen, stained gowns and discarded swabs. As I rose from my chair to wait for my two o'clock appointment, I stared out of the back entrance towards the vast building site at the rear of the hospital. 250 years on, the Royal London is being almost completely reborn. A twin-towered 17-storey glass block is being erected immediately behind the existing main building, and within a few years it'll completely dominate this part of East London. My local hospital will be the biggest, most cutting edge, gleaming-est hospital in the whole wide NHS, so they promise. Let's hope they fix the air conditioning as well.

I enjoyed my anniversary visit so much that I've booked to go back again at regular three monthly intervals. It's lucky I'm not sick or anything.

A history of the Royal London Hospital
The Royal London Museum (open weekdays 10-4:30) [hmm, I must go]
Attend the Royal London's annual Open Day [damn, sorry, that was yesterday]
Proposals, siteplan and images of the new Royal London redevelopment

 Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Two minutes walk from my front door

1907 The door to Morlock's bakery is wedged open and welcoming, wafting the smell of fresh-baked bread out into the high street. A flat-capped East End husband waits patiently outside while his wife buys buns and scones for afternoon tea. The flower seller beneath the gaslit lamppost is pinning a buttonhole to the lapel of a gentleman's jacket. Yes, she has change for a sixpence, thank you kind sir. Across the street it's opening time at the Rose and Crown. Above the doorway hangs a shiny glass lantern bearing the name and logo of the local brewery. Jack and his mates from the docks will be propping up the bar and downing the landlady's finest ales until she throws them out at the end of the evening. Jack hopes he'll make enough money down by the wharf tomorrow to be able to get the wife's engagement ring back from the pawnbroker. Business is quiet at the undertakers, and Selby's fine-trimmed horses pass the time by depositing steaming manure onto the cobblestones. Two petticoated servant girls arrive at Mrs Edwards' steam laundry to collect the household's fresh-pressed bedlinen. One of them catches sight of her sweetheart leaning against the drinking fountain on the village green, and giggles and blushes. Business is brisk at a dozen market stalls along the roadside. Candles are four a penny, firewood is plentiful and cheap, and the greengrocer even has oranges in stock. Grubby children in Board School uniform run rings around the horse trough, shrieking and laughing before their parents summon them home for bed. Miss Mary Anne Read rushes from the schoolroom to the butchers to buy herself a brown paper bagful of braised liver as a special suppertime treat. At number 12 Mr Samuels the fishmonger scrubs his green and white tiles clean of scales and slime, before raising the awning and closing up shop for another day. A queue of orphans, invalids and chancers has built up outside the Good Shepherd Mission Hall, hoping for overnight shelter and charity. Perhaps they'll be fortunate tonight. Poverty has aways been visible here on the streets of Bromley. Nothing changes.    2007 The shutters at the newsagent have come down early. A pot-bellied East End bloke pops into the chemists nextdoor for three months supply of tubular bandages. He banters semi-incoherently with the headscarfed lady behind the counter as she drops his boxes into a plastic bag. With a grin he exits, turns left and pauses for breath outside the boarded-up pub. Three centuries of drinking came to an end last year, the last remaining slice of history in this Blitz-ravaged high street. All the windows at the Rose and Crown have been nailed shut, and the paint across the lintel has started to peel. Above the doorway hangs a grimy glass lantern bearing the name and logo of a former local brewery. Several of the pub's regulars have shifted allegiance to the neighbouring betting shop and are stood, or slumped, outside the open doorway clutching cans of value lager. Their faces are glum and grizzled, and only a winning raceslip can brighten their narrow-focused world. The local barber shop has moved away to a brighter location on the main road. Three hooded youths are intently inspecting the graffiti on its whitewashed wall. "Kombat E3" woz ere. "We set the levels". They appear to approve of what they see. A single midweek market stall has been erected on the concrete piazza, just outside the Bangladeshi greengrocers. A white-bearded man sits patiently while two fully-cloaked women haggle over the price of south Asian vegetables, then shuffle off home with this evening's meal in a blue and white striped plastic bag. In the chippie the smiling Polish fish fryer waits while a family of five select unbranded fizzy drinks from the chiller cabinet. A plump old lady in a pink fleece sits alone at the front formica table dining on Pukka pie and chips - best meal of the day. She watches through the window as two young kids cycle round and round in vicious circles before zooming off towards the dry cleaners at great speed. Regeneration has passed this corner of East London by. Nothing changes.

 Tuesday, September 18, 2007

10pm, Central line: The carriage is a complete mess. A carpet of at least 20 free newspapers lies scattered all across the floor - two left over from the from the morning and the rest a fairly even split between Lites and Papers. There are a couple more on the ledge beneath the window, wedged inbetween empty lager cans and rotting apple cores. And I'm forced to pick up yet another off the seat as I sit down. Damn, it's a London Lite, but I guess it'll pass the time between here and Mile End. Two girls enter the carriage at the next station. "Oh hell, what a mess!" says one to the other, before reaching down to the floor and picking up a copy to read herself. Most of the other seated passengers are doing the same. It's late - well after the last freesheet distributor has left their post and gone home - so everybody's reading a recycled paper. Don't even think about where your copy's been since it was thrust into an eager hand several hours ago. Later, as passengers get off, they dump their paper back where they found it ready for somebody else to flick through. And yes, I'm leaving mine back on the seat too, because there's nowhere nearby to dispose of it properly. Somebody'll thank me for it, but probably not the litter collector with their big plastic bag at the far end of the line. Assuming they haven't gone home too.

Multiply this scene by a few hundred and you start to get some idea of the environmental drama playing out every weekday night in every train carriage in London. Things were bad enough when we just had a free morning paper, but the evening freesheet battle raises the stakes to ridiculous new heights.

And whose fault is littered London? Is it the evil press barons merrily flogging advertising space in content-lite gossip rags? Well partly. Is it the in-yer-face distributors standing outside stations yelling "Lite! Lite!" like demented automatons whilst thrusting newsprint into the face of every passer-by? Well sort of. But I lay most of the blame at the feet of those whose job it is to run our stations and our streets. Because there are never any bloody litter bins around when you want to use one!

You're getting off your train in the evening, free paper in hand. Where do you chuck it? Not on the platform, because there are no bins on the platform. They'd only get in the way and slow down passenger movement, apparently. Not in the ticket hall, because there are no bins in the ticket hall. Typical, stations can find always room for a rack of fresh Metros in the morning, but there's never any space for a bin in which to discard your London Paper later in the day. Not on the street outside the station either. You might find one of those special newspaper recycling bins on the pavement in Zone 1 when you're going to work in the morning, if you're lucky, but in the evening there aren't anywhere near as many of them in the suburbs as there ought to be (and if there are they've usually already been filled to overflowing with other non-paper-based litter anyway). So what do you do? You leave your paper on the train instead, that's what. If there's only a very small chance of having somewhere to chuck your freesheet after you've got off, the obvious alternative is to dump it in the carriage.

If clearing up after discarded freesheets costs so much, why doesn't somebody invest in a series of recycling bins outside every London rail and underground station? No matter what our homeward journey, we'd know there'd always be a receptacle at our destination station in which to dispose of our tabloid leftovers. OK, so not everyone would use them, but surely if you gave the public a guaranteed opportunity to dispose of their rubbish properly outside every station, a significant proportion of the litter problem could be cleared up. Hell, why not go the whole hog and introduce litter bins inside stations too. Sorry, I don't buy the "but they might be used by terrorists to hide bombs inside" excuse. It doesn't happen, does it? Just ensure that these new bins have a newspaper-sized slot in the front to make them rucksack- and gelignite-proof, and there'd be no problem anyway. And then we could all use these bins to recycle our disposable reading material, and not just end up dumping them all over our trains, stations and streets. Come on TfL, come on Ken, come on London boroughs. If you'd like us to act responsibly, at least give us the opportunity.

 Monday, September 17, 2007

Stratford International

Stratford InternationalIn the middle of a vast featureless wilderness north of Stratford town centre there's a long glass box and a deep hole. The deep hole houses several parallel railway tracks, and is linked by tunnel to St Pancras at one end and Europe at the other. And the glass box is Stratford International station, from which it'll one day be possible to take a train to Paris or Brussels, One day. But not yet. For the time being this continental gateway stands structurally complete but entirely empty, awaiting fitting out and its first passengers. It's going to be a long wait.

As part of London Open House, a few select interested parties and transport geeks were afforded access to Stratford International station for a rare look around the site. We were probably the only scheduled visitors this site will have for the next couple of years, and we didn't even get anywhere near the platforms. When Eurostar services commence on the High Speed Rail Link on 14 November, they'll speed straight through Stratford at umpteen miles per hour without stopping. Nobody wants to slow down for a miserable East End commuter halt just seven minutes out of St Pancras, not when they could be halfway to the Thames crossing instead.

Stratford InternationalThe station's other main drawback is that there's currently no sensible way of accessing it by road. We got there in a rickety minibus via a lengthy detour round Clays Lane and along several dusty meandering tracks. The main dual carriageway passing the front of the station ends slap bang in the middle of the fenced-off Olympic Zone, so there's no admittance for taxis, cars or buses via this route. You can't walk to the station from anywhere either, not until they build a new footbridge over the platforms at the other Stratford station. There's absolutely nothing on the surrounding site for half a mile in any direction, apart from barren bulldozed scrubland, and it'll stay that way until the Stratford City development starts to cover the area with shops, offices and unaffordable housing. Even the DLR doesn't get this far until 2010. Come back then and Eurostar might have bothered to add Stratford International to their timetables. But don't hold your breath.

Our tour group was ushered inside the empty entrance hall to view the grand spaces in which international travel will eventually commence. It's very long, with one complete wall of glass, and you'll be glad to know that the clocks and toilets are already fully functional. We swept easily through the non-existent ticket barriers and passport control before emerging into another long gallery, this time for arrivals and departures. One day this space will be full of Starbucks and Tie Racks, but for now it's just as vacant as the rest of the building. Messages flash up on the departure board ("Welcome to Stratford International") ("No further services planned") for nobody to read. In one corner is the entrance to the "CIP Lounge" (there'll be no VIPs here, just Commercially Important Persons). And, at either end of the concourse, several long blocked-off staircases and escalators lead down to the platforms below.

Stratford InternationalThere are an awful lot of different railway tracks passing through Stratford - seven in total. The outermost tracks are for stopping Eurostar trains (and there won't be many of them). Next come the fast lines for non-stop international travel, followed by a pair of domestic platforms. Suburban services from London to Kent will (eventually) pass through this way, splitting at the new Ebbsfleet station to head for either Ashford or Canterbury. And finally, running down the centre of Stratford Box, there's a single track for trains bound for the new Eurostar depot at Temple Mills. Trains will be stopping in the local area, oh yes, but only so that the drivers and staff can get on and off. You won't be coming here any time soon, that's for sure.

My photos of the station (start here, or click in the text above)
Better photographs of the Stratford International visit (from IanVisits)
The official "Eurostar moves to St Pancras" blog (hello to one of my readers who's writing it)
Domestic Southeastern services from Kent (due December 2009)
Stratford International DLR (due mid-2010)
Stratford City (due Easter 2011)

 Sunday, September 16, 2007

London Open House (day 2): I've been on fewer visits today, but they've been rather more varied and spread out than yesterday. I'll save one of them for tomorrow, but here's everything you need to know about the rest.

Also visited:
St Mary's Church, Bow: It's not the church whose Bow Bells photos define the limit of Cockneydom, but it is a 14th century relic sandwiched between the carriageways of a major trunk road. The vicar was delighted to see a very local resident, and I was fascinated to discover even more local history than ever I knew before. I won't bore you with it, not yet anyway... photos.
posted 18:00

2 Marsham Streetthe Home Office: There used to be three hideous hulking office blocks in Marsham Street, inhabited by the Department of the Environment and wrecking views of Westminster Abbey and Parliament. No longer. These 60s eyesores have been demolished and replaced by three less intrusive buildings, just six storeys high, now home to the newly reorganised Home Office. For Open House they threw open their security doors (to a mere handful of punters who happened to spot the late-entrant tour hidden away on the website) and let us see inside Jack Straw's Empire of Justice. Hello to both of my readers who work there (or thereabouts), nice offices you've got. But the main focus of the tour was to view the public art around the outside of the three buildings - a series initiated when the new occupiers realised they ought to engage more with the surrounding environment. The rooftop is edged with coloured glass panels which cast mid-afternoon down light into the street photos. A mysterious 4-part stencilled motif hangs above the main entrance photos (three segments are identical, but rotated, while one is different). The motif is repeated in miniature on various other walls, allegedly hiding a secret message known only to a handful of civil servants. Two lockable walkways cut through the Home Office site, each with another special artwork. A chain of fluorescent tubes lights the way beneath one connecting bridge, while tiled "carpets" pave the northern passage photos. Alas the tiles here have proved rather slippery in wet weather and so the walkway currently has to be sealed off when it rains, for health and safety reasons. It would, presumably, be rather awkward for the department to have to sue itself.
posted 14:22

Shri Swaminarayan MandirShri Swaminarayan Mandir: The largest Hindu temple outside India can, of course, be found in Neasden. It's a mile long walk from the tube station, along the smelly North Circular and past IKEA. And then suddenly, at the end of a very normal suburban street (just behind a mini roundabout), the mandir's marble pinnacles rise abruptly skyward photos. This is no urban Disney castle, this is an important place of daily worship and devoted pilgrimage. Entrance through the ceremonial front gate and up the grand staircase is for special occasions only photos. Daily visitors enter via a slightly less impressive route - via the bag/camera deposit kiosk in the car park, then on through a metal detector and security check into the main building. Shoes off (men to the left, ladies to the right) and spiritual inspiration awaits. Directly ahead is a huge pillar-less prayer hall, not especially ornate but capable of accommodating thousands of contemplative worshippers. The main temple is to be found along a trophy-lined corridor, which could very easily be in a golf club or sports centre, and up a slippery marble flight of stairs (choose your socks with care). Several signs politely request absolute silence. The level of intricate detail in the carved walls, roof and pillars is astonishing. Every surface has been loving sculpted to create miniature deities and floral relief. It's hard to believe that the 26000 constituent parts were shipped across from India to be assembled here like a vast divine jigsaw, but it's easy to see why the temple inspires both awe and peace. And yet somehow it's not as big on the inside as it appeared on the outside - a sort of reverse Tardis, I thought. As locals circuited the perimeter muttering prayers and offering up donations to the gods, we Open House visitors felt honoured to be invited into the heart of a thriving spiritual community.
posted 12:37

the Roof GardensThe Roof Gardens: Unseen above Kensington High Street, on top of what used to be the Derry & Toms department store, is a sixth floor green oasis. Its existence explains the appearance this morning in a sidestreet, next to Gap and M&S, of an ever-lengthening queue full of grey-flecked horticulturalist thrill-seekers. If you weren't in line by twenty to nine you faced a very long wait for the lifts. There are three gardens altogether, each as unexpected as the next, as you wander round the rooftop plateau. First a herbaceous Spanish Garden, very Moor-ish, with blooming flowerbeds, watery trench and grape-twined balcony photos. The illusion is nigh perfect, bar the church spire nextdoor, and it's easy to forget that this is central Kensington photos. Built in 1938, trees and shrubs have had plenty of time to establish themselves, and the soil is deeper than it looks. The Roof Gardens are now part of the Richard Branson empire, and a Virgin flag flutters above the mini-bar and hospitality tent. Don't worry, he's not ruined it. Next to visit, down a long walkway, is the Tudor Courtyard. With white tables and chairs littered everywhere it looks more like a cobbled pub backyard, to be honest, but with much nicer ivy-clad walls. And finally a long thin Woodland Garden, complete with artificial stream, ducks and flamingos. Yes, honest, they've got those up here too - this is proper geographically incorrect decadence. From one corner there's a fine view out across West London photos (I've seen better, but still glorious on a bright blue morning such as this). The vista is rather better from the restaurant terrace above, now with trees and shrubs in the foreground, and the London Eye and Gherkin lined up behind the dome of the Royal Albert Hall. Don't tell the even-longer-now queue down below, but the Roof Gardens are always open to the public (so long as no private event has nabbed them first), so there's hope for everyone who still wants to view this elevated horticultural secret.

www.flickr.com: London Open House 2007
(a full 40 photos to explore)

 Saturday, September 15, 2007

London Open House (day 1): What a glorious sunny day for a trek around central London. I managed to tick off 11 of this year's Open House venues along the way, and without either my camera or mobile phone's batteries quite running out. Around every corner, so it seemed, there was another green banner, another willing grinning volunteer and another lost-looking middle aged couple with an A-Z. There's no other weekend quite like it. Same again tomorrow?

Also visited:
Shoreditch Town Hall: Vast labyrinthine civic warren, abandoned to local government reorganisation in 1965 but currently being restored. Elton John held his 60th birthday party in the main assembly hall photos.
Hoxton Hall: Another old music hall, this time a thriving local performance space, complete with wooden upper balcony and saucy crimson drapes.
The Johnson Building: Bright new office development in Hatton Garden built around a central six-storey atrium (which is apparently lovely in the sunshine, but the roof doesn't half make a racket when it rains).
Haberdashers' Hall: Modern Smithfield HQ of City livery company (who made their fortune out of hats), set around a peaceful cloistered courtyard photos.
Wax Chandlers Hall: Rather more compact home of a smaller City livery company (who made their fortune out of beeswax and candles), where I squeezed into the back of a tour when several pre-booked people failed to turn up. A most entertaining half hour tour & talk.
St Mary-le-Bow Church: High church in Cheapside, within the range of whose bells all true Londoners are (allegedly) born. The interior looked rather more modern than I was expecting, especially the stained glass, but the crypt apparently dates back to 1080.
posted 18:00

20 Fleet StreetTo the City, for free entry to two very different corporate entrance lobbies. 20 Fleet Street is the former home of Express Newspapers photos, and the foyer is an Art Deco masterpiece photos. The floor is an elegant ripple of black and blue marble. A central clock (very 30s) hides a tight elliptical spiral staircase. To either side are two large metal murals etched in silver and gold photos. And the ceiling looks like an upturned silver lemon squeezer, with several ridges radiating from a central drum. The foyer is abuzz with photographers, snapping with creative fury at every surface and every angle. You can't go wrong with a shot of this building in your portfolio.

It's a different story at 100 Victoria Embankment, the newly renovated HQ of Unilever plc. The curved facade may be the Edwardian original, but builders have scooped out the centre of the old building and replaced it with seven floors of modern offices arranged round a gleaming airy atrium photosphotos. There's too long to wait for one of the guided tours, but the company are doling out free tea and ice cream in the lower mezzanine cafe. Free Magnum and cuppa, a perfect mid afternoon treat (also available tomorrow).
posted 15:04

four tube carriages above Great Eastern StreetVillage Underground: A rather less middle aged queue here than at many other Open House venues. That's because this is Shoreditch, and the attraction is four tube carriages hoisted up onto the old Broad Street viaduct photos to be used as artists' studios. Entrance is up a narrow iron spiral staircase, with the first two Jubilee stock vehicles resting at the top. Up again, on top of two glass containers photos, to the higher pair of studios photos. Inside we find not straphanging commuters but graphic artists' workspaces. A laptop here, a banana tree there, and laminate worktops everywhere. There are fine views down over the rooftops and building sites of Shoreditch photos and, best of all, no unexpected delays due to broken down trains or engineering works.
posted 13:37

Wilton's Music HallWilton's Music Hall: The world's oldest surviving Music Hall lurks up a side alley behind a terrace of houses off Cable Street, E1. It's somehow survived wartime bombing, slum clearance and woodworm, and owes a debt of thanks to Sir John Betjeman for keeping the bulldozers at bay. As you step into the dimly lit auditorium you can easily imagine East End Victorian singing stars stepping out onto the stage to rouse the audience with a chorus of Daisy Daisy or Down At The Old Bull And Bush. Arched alcoves around the crumbling walls have been lit with delicate fairy lights, and there are three recently uncovered golden murals on the rear wall of the upper balcony. Ornate floral relief arches span the ceiling, and the spotlight shining on the central rose quivers every time someone steps on a supporting floorboard below photos. It's an astonishingly atmospheric relic of a bygone age and, cor blimey guvnor, it's still open for the occasional performance (Mozart's next). Restoration continues, and another £3½million is needed if the building is to be saved for future generations. I've just spotted the office geek wandering outside - I hope he didn't spot me and think the same thing...
posted 12:50

Kings PlaceKings Place: A brand new mixed-use development just north of King's Cross, beside a backwater basin on the Regent's Canal. It's a building site at the moment (due to open 2008), so I've just had to get togged up in hardhat and fluorescent jacket for the tour. Also joining us were the world's smelliest man and half a party of German tourists. The first floor and above will be the Guardian's new offices, while down below a new public cultural zone is taking shape. We got to stand on a temporary platform 18m above the new chamber music concert hall, and in the canalside rotunda that's planned to become a cafe/bistro. The outer facade is already complete - a unique design of wavy curved glass. Elsewhere there were blokes working, carrying pipes and drinking tea, even on a Saturday. They'll have to get cracking to get the rest of the building ready, and perfect, on time.

 Wednesday, September 12, 2007

the Thames Barrier, closedThere was a bit of a spectacle down at the Thames Barrier on Sunday afternoon. Bet you missed it. Once a year they raise all the gates, just to check that they still work, and attempt to hold back the tide for ten hours. There are shorter monthly barrier closures too, but Sunday's was the full annual showpiece. It's rather impressive too. The closure started at low tide, around six in the morning, and by the time I arrived at noon there was already a considerable differential between the height of the water on both sides of the barrier. Downstream it was most definitely high tide. A crowd of locals had gathered on the terraces by the visitors' centre, looking out over the glassy water towards the upturned gates. This was London's flood defence in full effect, with millions of gallons of water being held back by an impenetrable wall of steel. Upstream the river looked very different. Here it was still low tide, and the pebbly beach beside the barrier remained fully exposed. Nine silver piers glinted in the sunlight, and a swarm of seagulls bobbed and swooped above the choppy white water inbetween. At one o'clock precisely a siren blared out from Barrier Control and a single gate rolled imperceptibly upwards. It raised into "underspill", just far enough to allow water to gush underneath and to begin filling the channel beyond. A surge tide rushed out across Woolwich Reach, forming a swirling tempest in the middle of the river. This was no scary wall of water, nothing dangerous, but it was a rare sight all the same. Every few minutes another gate was semi-lifted, rolling a few degrees upwards to allow yet more heaving water to tumble through. The assembled crowds stared, and smiled, and snapped photographs on whatever electronic gizmo they happened to have brought with them. It would be another three hours before the water levels had equalised sufficiently to allow the gates to descend back into the riverbed, and for maritime traffic to resume plying its trade up and down the Thames. And it'll be another year before the Environment Agency plans anything similar, should you fancy coming down next September (unless it rains a lot, obviously, in which case those gates might be rolling back up rather sooner).

 Sunday, September 09, 2007

Random borough (14): Haringey

Time once again for me to take another random trip to one of London's 33 boroughs. And hey presto, in true Blockbusters style, I've completed a north-south trail of random London boroughs. Thank you Haringey. You'll find this slim parallelogram of a borough at the very heart of North London. It's scythed in two by the mainline railway running straight up the middle - richer to the west, more culturally diverse to the east. This is no tourist paradise either, as the council's official website reveals. But I managed to find several places to visit, and I was almost pleasantly surprised. Eastern half first...

Somewhere retail: Green Lanes, Harringay
Let's start by clearing up the name. The residential neighbourhood just north of Finsbury Park is called Harringay (two rs and an ay). Meanwhile the borough, created in 1965, is called Haringey (one r and an ey). Nobody seems to be quite sure why. But no wonder a quarter of the borough's 11 year olds can't spell.

Green Lanes shop signsFor my Haringey retail experience I headed to Harringay and its central spine road - Green Lanes. The most famous stretch of this old cattle-driving road runs 1½ miles from Turnpike Lane down towards Manor House, with the Piccadilly line rumbling inaccessibly underneath. This is a cosmopolitan shopping street full of hundreds of independent one-off shops, with a Tesco Express the only modern cloned intruder along the Grand Parade. Don't go expecting boutiques or anything bohemian, this is much more down to earth. These shops sell unbranded stuff that never appears in TV adverts, stuff you actually need rather than stuff you don't. Kebabs are a bit of a speciality, along with several other ethnic dishes which may one day enter the English mainstream. There's a definite Turkish presence here, as well as a smattering of Cyprus and Greece. Fancy some lahmacun, pide or tava? Or perhaps sweet delights from a Turkish patisserie? Or just six Polish beers for a fiver. You know where to come. Green Lanes also boasts the usual swathe of laundrettes, hairdressers and clothing importers, plus essential local services like the Cyprus Potato Marketing Board. Halfway down the street is the majestic Salisbury Hotel, now a bar, but with its ornate Victorian interior still very much intact. And there's "North London's oldest furniture store", called Disney's, who've managed not to be sued by American corporate lawyers because they pre-date Mickey Mouse by 15 years. But where are all the crowds? A mile up the road in Wood Green, that's where. They're all milling around the depressingly bland mall at Shopping City, busily acquiring products in mainstream chain stores before treating themselves to a Nando's or some Donut Magic. Some people, it seems, don't recognise choice and diversity on their own doorstep.
by tube: Turnpike Lane, Manor House  by train: Harringay Green Lanes  by bus: 29, 141

Somewhere sporty: White Hart Lane
White Hart LaneI should have been a Tottenham supporter, it's in my genes. Most of my relatives are hardened Spurs devotees, and they still gasp with horror whenever I mention my devotion to "the other" North London Club. But today it was my turn to grit my teeth, as I forced myself to visit their blue and white field of dreams on the Tottenham High Road. White Hart Lane is not, from the outside at least, a particularly glamorous stadium. From the front it looks like an 80s office development with brown tinted windows, from the rear it looks like a brick Victorian factory and from either side it looks like a particularly enormous carpet warehouse. Only the tubular roof adds any character.

LegendsYesterday the pitch was silent (because the goalie was off playing for England) and the ring of sidestreets surrounding the stadium given over to more mundane residential activities. In Park Lane the café was serving up Caribbean treats to the good and faithful from the Cherubim & Seraphim Church. In Worcester Avenue several local lads were having a noisy kickabout on the sports centre's artificial pitches. And in Paxton Street a lone Spurs supporter was promenading his long-suffering girlfriend past the locked-up entrances to the North Stand, just because he could. Up front, however, a steady stream of white-shirted supporters could be seen entering, and exiting, the glass-fronted doors of the Spurs Shop. Tottenham FC is 125 years old this year and they're celebrating with, what else, a commemorative kit. The shirt's a rather odd half-and-half design, launched yesterday, and is already being snapped up in large numbers by the faithful, all keen to fork out £55 for the privilege of wearing a casino advert across their chest. Me, I found it all too easy to resist.
by train: White Hart Lane  by bus: 149, 259, 279, 349

Somewhere historic: Bruce Castle
Bruce CastleHmmm, this sounds like it ought to be the home of millionaire Bruce Wayne, with a secret Batcave in the basement, but alas no. It's not even a proper castle, just a Tudor mini-mansion with a castellated round tower in the garden. Haringey Council have opened up Bruce Castle as a small museum telling the borough's story, and you can get inside for free (any afternoon except Mondays and Tuesdays). And, what do you know, the museum's actually worth a look. This is an endearing stuck-in-the-past attraction, with a broad range of local exhibits from Roman remains to tram tickets all lovingly piled high inside glass cases alongside typewritten labels stuck down with glue. This is the place to come if you want to see the Lord Mayor of Hornsey's official chair, or a Victorian school desk, or photographs of what the Broadwater Farm Estate used to look like when it was still a farm. There's currently a whole room devoted to Tottenham's vast Lebus Furniture factory (opened 1904, made thousands of utility wardrobes, closed 1970), and a splendid interactive "inventory" where Haringey's more creative types, such as Heath Robinson, are celebrated.

Rowland HillEven better, Bruce Castle is the site of real, actual history. When the building was used as a school in the 19th century, the first headmaster was a certain Rowland Hill. In 1837 he crystalised his philatelic thoughts in a seminal pamphlet - Post Office Reform, Its Importance and Practicability - which led to the introduction of the national Penny Post three years later. His marble statue now dominates one of the downstairs rooms, and there are four old pillarboxes in a courtyard out the back just in case you'd like to go and reminisce properly. Oh, and one last local hero is commemorated just down the road at number 7 Bruce Grove. A plaque on the wall of the Tottenham Trades Hall reveals this to be the last home of Luke Howard, "Namer of Clouds". In 1802 clouds didn't have names, so Luke categorised them into three groups - cumulus, stratus and cirrus. His simple classification revolutionised meteorology, and we still use his Latin names today. Altostratus yesterday, sadly.
by train: Bruce Grove  by bus: 123, 243, 318

Somewhere pretty: Parkland Walk

Finsbury Park to Highgate (2 miles)

Crouch End stationThis is a photograph of Crouch End tube station. It's no good searching for Crouch End on an underground map because it isn't there. You might find it on a post-war tube map, but this particular station never opened and now all that's left are these two deserted platforms with a dual carriageway of nettles inbetween. The good people of Crouch End therefore have to rely on the number 91 bus to get them up to town, and the rest of us can enjoy standing in a leafy cutting in the middle of nowhere, imagining what might have been.

There was once a railway here, opened in 1867, but it was owned by the Great Northern. The line ran from Kings Cross out to Barnet, with an additional spur linking Highgate to Alexandra Palace. London Transport intended to take over the Crouch End stretch of the line in the 1930s, but the war intervened, passenger traffic declined, and services ceased in 1954. For a full history of the Northern Heights project, try clicking on one of these links.

And then, hallelujah, in 1984 Haringey Council reopened the railway line as a linear nature reserve called the Parkland Walk. The path snakes its way along embankments and through cuttings from Finsbury Park to Alexandra Palace, and it's really rather delightful. The track can resemble a quagmire after wet weather, so it's advisable to wear stout shoes, and it can be a bit deserted in places, so you might want to take some pepper spray just in case. But I took neither, and I thoroughly enjoyed the walk.

To find the starting point I wandered halfway up the western flank of Finsbury Park to where a footbridge crosses the main London to Edinburgh railway. And there, bearing off diagonally on a raised bank between two rows of houses, that's the Parkland Walk. Before long I came to the site of the first disused station - Stroud Green - although no trace of the platforms remains. There was a fine view down over residential streets and the Gospel Oak to Barking line below, made slightly more disconcerting when I realised I was standing on a bridge built on top of a another bridge across another railway. The walk was really popular on Saturday morning and I kept passing other walkers, several dogs, mums with chunky prams, families of berry pickers and the odd cyclist. There can be a bit of tension between these various groups because the footpath gets quite narrow, soggy and/or rocky in places, and there's not always room for everyone to squeeze by. The Parkland Walk's definitely not 100% wheelchair friendly but, until the council forcibly upgrades it, that's part of its charm.

Parkland WalkContinuing westward the embankment gradually descends into a dark cutting, with tall brick arches holding back the banked-up earth. The tracks pass beneath the busy roads of N8, past a mini skate park and adventure playground built into the steep slopes. And then, wholly unexpectedly, the platforms of Crouch End station loom into sight. The view must be a lot clearer in the winter, leaf-free, especially when seen from the tiny footbridge that crosses the cutting. I clambered up a flight of seven concrete steps to walk along the eastbound platform, and was mighty relieved when a passing dogwalker led her muzzled hellhound along the opposite side. Meanwhile a lone runner emerged from the distance and panted her way along the vanished tracks inbetween. At two miles long, this stretch of the Parkland Walk makes for a perfect Parkland Jog.

After Crouch End the walk became a little less busy (which meant I got to see a few more squirrels and, ooh look, even the odd fox). The residents whose Victorian villas back onto this strip of green are very fortunate, but then they've probably paid hundreds of thousands of pounds for the privilege of living here. I paused to look down on suburbia from the narrow bridge across Northwood Road, which crumbled in the 1970s and has had to be replaced. And then onward to the heights of Highgate.

Highgate TunnelsIt's impossible to walk all the way to Highgate station because there are two tunnels in the way, and these have been blocked off because they're considered unsafe. Shame. But you can walk right up to the twin tunnel mouths for a closer look, and you'll probably have the entire cutting to yourself (so watch out for the empty condom wrappers lurking in the undergrowth). A curtain of ivy tumbles down from above and hangs low over the northern portal. See how the tunnels are rather taller than you might expect - that's so that belching steam from the original locomotives could circulate properly. And stare through the iron railings and you might just spot the faint glow of Highgate station beyond. Sorry, the gate's locked, so you're going to have to walk round the long way.

Today's Highgate station is 100% subterranean, but there used to be "high level" platforms here too, above ground, and that's where the trains to Crouch End used to depart. Those platforms are still there, locked away and inaccessible, but still pretty much preserved (and fully visible on various anoraky websites). That's the southern half of the Parkland Walk complete, ending in the bountiful heart of bourgeois Highgate. Knitting shops, pet parlours and princess party coordinators - you don't get shops like these at the other end of the line! I didn't hang around to explore because I didn't feel the need for a wholemeal baguette or an organic smoothie, and I was quite keen to move on. The Walk continued three quarters of a mile to the north, up Muswell Hill way. And more of that below.

Follow in my footsteps
Follow the original railway on an old map of London
Follow the route today on Streetmap
Lots of photographs from the Parkland Walk
More about the Parkland Walk
Haringey Council Parkland Walk Consultation (closes 28th September)
Parkland Walk upgrade proposals

Somewhere random: 23 Cranley Gardens, Muswell Hill
I don't get very long to research these random boroughs. The random Haringey location I was really seeking was the house of the late Mr Trebus - the notorious garbage hoarder. But I couldn't locate his Crouch End address on the internet in time, so instead I headed north to the home of another man who had trouble disposing of his rubbish. To 23 Cranley Gardens, the last home of serial killer Dennis Nilsen.

23 Cranley GardensToday this is just a very ordinary semi-detached house in a well-to-do residential neighbourhood. Cranley Gardens is a wide tree-lined avenue blessed with panoramic views down the hill to the east. Residents keep their front lawns trimmed and their crazy paving hosed clean. Many of the houses have been divided up into flats, and number 23 is no exception. The garden is full of well tended shrubs, the path has been laid with red terracotta tiles and the front door is a too-bright shade of lilac. Most importantly, the drains no longer smell. That was the telltale giveaway back in 1983, the first hint that the new resident in the attic flat might not be quite as normal as he seemed.

Dennis Nilsen had already murdered 12 men before he moved into Cranley Gardens. In his new upstairs abode he was to strangle three more. John Howlett came round for a night of rampant sex in 1981, but ended up face down in the bath until he never came round again. Dennis attempted to cover his tracks by hacking John into manageable chunks and flushing bits of him down the toilet. He then boiled John's head on the hob, and hid his larger bones either in the garden or at the back of the flat in a tea chest. There's hospitality for you. Homeless Graham Allen suffered a similar fate, as did heroin addict Steven Sinclair several months later. But Steven was one body too many for the sewage system to cope with, and the other residents of number 23 soon summoned a plumber from Dyno-rod to try to clear the blockage. When the police came round and confirmed the discovery of human remains in the pipes, Nilsen promptly confessed all. He's currently serving life at a prison in East Yorkshire, and he's up for parole next year. The local Neighbourhood Watch are no doubt already planning to ensure that he won't be returning to Cranley Gardens when, or if, he ever comes out.
by bus: 43, 134

Somewhere pretty (part 2): more Parkland Walk
Muswell Hill ViaductThe northern stretch of the Parkland Walk begins just a skull's throw from Dennis's old house. The old railway tracks are now a meandering footpath through the trees, emerging from a wooden fence on the site of the old Cranley Gardens station. It's much quieter here than on the southern part of the Walk. The only people I passed along the way were a group of local kids swinging from a rope, and a small girl on her way to piano practice pedalling determinedly behind her "mama".

This is only a short walk, but it holds the most marvellous surprise. The path suddenly juts out across the slopes of Muswell Hill on an unexpectedly tall viaduct, with magnificent views across northeast London and beyond. Walk a few steps further and Docklands and then the City come into view, with the Gherkin, Tower 42 and new Broadgate Tower poking up above the rooftops. This must have been a quite spectacular train journey 100 years ago, even without the skyscrapers. Today's path soon grinds to a halt, however (because the council have since built a school across the tracks), so the final destination can only be reached via a gentle parkland climb. But it's one hell of a destination...

Somewhere famous: Alexandra Palace
Alexandra PalaceIf there's a major attraction in London less fortunate than the Millennium Dome, it must be Alexandra Palace. This hilltop entertainment hub opened to the public in 1873, attracting more than a hundred thousand visitors in its first fortnight. On its sixteenth day the palace burnt to the ground, killing three members of staff. Oops. So the Victorians tried again and rebuilt the place, and it's only burnt to the ground once since. History was made here in 1936 when Alexandra Palace was home to the world's first TV studios (which I've visited before), and a few years later during the war thousands of German civilians were interned here "for their own safety". And now, apparently, council trustees plan to sell the whole building off to a commercial developer intent on converting broadcasting heritage into a fitness centre and restaurant. Oh it's had quite a history has Ally Pally, not all of it good.

I was pleasantly surprised on Saturday to discover that the entrance at the western end of the old palace was open, and the interior deserted. The Palm Court is one of the few parts of the building to have survived the 1980 fire, and its high glass roof is still an impressive sight. I wandered unchallenged beneath the arched ceiling, admiring the fountains and carved pillars and leafy green fronds. Nextdoor the Phoenix Bar was serving up beer and fresh-grilled burgers to a none-too-huge lunchtime crowd, while an ice cream van stood unbothered by the roadside. The front of the palace is in a sorry state in places, but the central rose window rises up majestically above the promenade. Oh the view from up here, the view is fantastic! The whole of London was spread out in front of me, almost completely unobscured by intermediate contours. I watched as a small wedding party gathered at the top of the parkland slopes and pledged their troths, with the photographer making the most of the spectacular vista beyond.

birthplace of tellyThe old BBC studios are in the eastern corner, beneath the giant antenna mast that still pulses TV signals out across North London. And at the far end, by the car park, is the entrance to the ice rink. You won't get very far inside without paying, and you probably won't want to go inside unless you're a screaming pink-jacketed teenage harridan. I don't think I've ever visited another London attraction quite so overrun with gangs of raucous boisterous girls in fat jeans, and I kept my distance as they tottered down through the car park to catch the bus home. Far better I thought to walk peacefully back along the promenade, past the now-snogging bride and groom, to watch the sun breaking through the clouds over Haringey and beyond. Alexandra Palace is a great survivor, and may the council never ruin it.
by bus: W3  by train: Alexandra Palace  by tube: Wood Green

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in the aquarium
diamond geezer
london bus page
london 2012 blog
the last bus home
london daily photo
random acts of reality
london bloggers tube map

ten london links
poverty map 1899
london map 1827
smoke magazine
urban 75 london
panoramic views
street sensation
london ancestor
hidden london
london pubs
time out

ten east london links
where i live
visit eastside
east end photos
east end history
discover public art
cockney translator
greenwich meridian
tower hamlets history
the real albert square
docklands development

ten london transport links
future transport projects
clive's tube line guides
london underground
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various tube maps
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london bus maps
disused stations
london walks