Thursday, December 27, 2007

London Journeys: To the centre of Hampton Court Maze

Hampton Court Maze has been baffling visitors for more than three centuries. It was laid out in the palace gardens in 1690, one of four mazes planted for the enjoyment of King William III and his court. The original hornbeam hedges have long since been replanted in yew, but the same half mile of paths survive to this day. The key to the maze's longevity is its forward-looking design. This is no simple one-track medieval labyrinth. This is a proper puzzle with seductive junctions, frustrating loops and deceptive dead ends. Fancy testing yourself? [1]

this way to the Maze[1] "The aim of the Hampton Court Maze", reads the information board outside the entrance, "is to get to the centre." Just in case you though otherwise. Cough up £3.50 (or wave your Palace entrance ticket) and venture inside. It's not a difficult start. The dead end immediately to your right has been blocked off to form a storage area and an exit passage, so veer left and trek around the western perimeter. It's easy to be over-confident at this point, striding ahead as yet unchallenged. But the first junction - a narrow gap carved through the hedge - introduces initial indecision. Take your pick.
Through the gap and left? [2] Through the gap and right? [3] Or continue along the original path? [3]

[2] This looks promising. A long twisty-turny-path between high green walls, with what looks like a hidden right turn at the end. Damn, no, it's a dead end. OK, time to save face. Turn round slowly and head back, grinning innocently at the steady stream of equally misguided tourists shuffling to a similar fate. Should any of them ask whether this is a dead end or not, just smile and lie. Then pray you don't meet them again further along in your travels. Try that first junction again.
Straight ahead? [3] Or through the gap and straight ahead? [3]

[3] That's right, it doesn't matter which of these two paths you take, you still end up at the same second junction. This is one of those cunningly-designed loops where you could keep walking round and round in circles for ever. But don't. It's just a short distance ahead to the next fork in the path.
Hmm, isn't it foolproof to keep your hand on the left-hand hedge? [4] Or maybe it's the right-hand hedge? [5]

[4] On into the heart of the maze, bend after bend after bend. But rounding the fifth and final corner reveals - damn - an impenetrable green barrier. You've been unlucky here. Contrary to what you might expect there are only three dead ends inside Hampton Court Maze, and you've just wandered down the longest of them. If it's any consolation, King William III probably made exactly the same mistake.
Retrace your steps to the previous junction and take the other path [5]

four-way yew junction[5] This long path skirts around the central clearing, where jubilant finishers can be glimpsed oh-so tantalisingly close on the other side of the hedge. But no premature short-cut through the foliage is possible - the maze's iron-railing skeleton makes certain of that. Although you can pass through the hedge at the next junction, where 20th century gardeners have cut an elegant archway to link two of the original pathways.
Are you tempted through? [left 6, right 8] Or will you ignore the arch and carry on round the bend? [6]

[6] Two of the paths from the arch follow opposite ends of a single hedge, recombining at another junction on the maze's perimeter. A motion sensor is hidden here, one of several installed a couple of years ago as part of a permanent "sound installation". Your passing might trigger genteel laughter, or some softly spoken quotation, or the clang of tiny cymbals - a randomly-generated sound at every location. Rest assured that the overall effect is enchanting rather than intrusive. And that any swearing you might hear is real-life frustration, not art.
Head north, away from the arch [7] Or go back [5]

[7] When Harris took a stroll around Hampton Court Maze in Three Men in a Boat, it was probably within this eastern section that he and the baying crowd got horribly lost. There's one pathway in particular where, no matter which wall you try to follow, the maze will always bring you back to the same spot. Bring along a penny bun and drop it in the right spot, and this truth is easily proved. But Jerome K Jerome was undoubtedly exaggerating the maze's difficulty for comic effect - eternal entrapment is an entirely improbable outcome.
Back west? [6] Down south? [8] Or away to the east? [9]

trim that hedge, boys[8] If you've brought a toddler with you, they're probably gurgling merrily by now. You'd better run after them before they totter headlong down the next leafy canyon and disappear round yet another corner.
Back west? [6] Up north? [7] Or away to the east? [9]

[9] At this point your sense of direction will be screaming that you must, surely, be going the wrong way. The centre of the maze is far behind you, and you really ought to be heading back. So when a new path appears leading even further away from the centre, you'd be forgiven for ignoring it, wouldn't you?
Take it [10] Ignore it [7] or [8]

[10] A single decision stands between you and salvation. One of the two paths ahead looks like the correct route but is in fact a dead end. And the other looks like a dead end but is in fact the correct route.
You know which way to go [11]

[11] Look, the mazekeepers really do have a big green stepladder, over there on the other side of the hedge. Presumably they clamber up and bark directions during periods of labyrinthine crisis, such as when a school party is in danger of missing their coach home. But no assistance is needed from this point on. A small green sign is now visible ahead, blatantly announcing that the "centre" is just around the corner. They've had to erect it here in case disoriented punters stop at the gate labelled "fast exit" immediately beforehand, and pass out through the turnstile without ever reaching their goal. It would be a crying shame to miss out.
On to the centre! [12]

centre of Hampton Court Maze[12] Is this the central courtyard, or is this a concrete patio knocked together by some Channel 4 lifestyle programme? Bland wooden trelliswork holds back a ring of replanted hornbeam. To left and right, where two tall trees once cast a welcome shadow, sit clumps of squat stools awaiting weary backsides. And, in the very centre of the centre, an upturned conic pedestal bears the legend "We found the Maze Centre at Hampton Court Palace 2007" (with the final "7" daubed on in thick temporary paint). You might want to ask those two foreign students over there to take your photograph, before they ask you. Smile - you’ve just solved a classic 17th century puzzle.
Bet you want to go back and solve it again [1]

Originally butchered by over-zealous sub-editors in Time Out Magazine London [12 September 2007]

 Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas at St Pancras

Christmas at Canary Wharf

 Monday, December 24, 2007

A Christmas Tale of Two Cities

Cartier, Old Bond Street1 Now when Christmas was nigh in Mayfair of Westminster in the days of Nigella the Great, behold, there came fur-coated ladies from the shires to Old Bond Street,
2 saying, Where are they who are selling Bling and the shoes? for we have seen their adverts in the glossies, and have driven our 4×4s to worship him.

3 When Ken the Mayor had heard these things, he was troubled, and all London with him.
4 And when he had gathered all the chief policemen and councillors of the people together, he demanded of them where this shopping madness should be borne.
5 And they said unto him, In Mayfair of Westminster: for thus it is written by the Evening Standard,
6    And thou Mayfair, in the land of Congestion Charge,
      art not the least among the wealth of aristocracy:
      for out of thee shall come luxury purchases,
      that shall tempt my people decadently.

7 Then Prince Boris, when he had privily called the fur-coated ladies, inquired of them diligently what time the pre-Christmas sales appeared.
8 And he sent them to Mayfair, and said, Go and search diligently for the shiniest jewellery and designer-iest handbags; and when ye have found them, bring me word again, that I may come and spend my fortune also.

vulgar Bulgari9 When they had heard the floppy-fringed one, they departed; and, lo, the deluxe brand awareness, which they saw in the West End, went before them, till it came and stood over where the exclusive retail destination was.
10 When they saw the shops, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
11 And when they were come into the boutiques, they saw the fabulous riches with Dolce and Gabbana, and fell down, and worshipped them: and when they had purchased their treasures, they presented unto themselves gifts; gold, and fine fragrance, and accessories.

12 And being warned by Boris in a dream that they should not return to Ken, they hailed a taxi and departed into their own country another way.

Chrisp Street Market1 And there were in the same country East Enders abiding in the estates, keeping watch over their budgets by night.
2 And, lo, the economic decline of the country came upon them, and the taxation of the Chancellor shone round about them; and they were sore afraid.

3 And the market inspector said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all immigrants and indigenous Cockneys.
4 For unto you is sold this day in the market of Chrisp Street a Special Offer, which is Three For Two.
5 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the bargains wrapped in a blue plastic bag, lying on a trestle table.

Market Way, E146 And suddenly there was with the inspector a multitude of the heavenly stallholders trading goods, and saying,
7    Glorious plastic toys are the cheapest,
      and on racks t-shirts,
      fake trainers toward men.

8 And it came to pass, as the stallholders were gone away from them into Fred's Cafe, the residents said one to another, Let us now go even unto the pawnbrokers, and sell our things which have come to pass, to pay for that which the Christmas adverts hath made known unto us.
9 And they came home with haste, and found three Uncles and Grandma, and the kids lying on a sofa.
10 And after they had seen Christmas, they made savings which were required of them concerning the New Year.

11 And all they that heard it wondered at these things.

 Sunday, December 23, 2007

No longer true...
There are 12 London Underground lines. No longer true. There are now 11, and will be for the foreseeable future. When the East London line reopens in 2010 it'll be part of the London Overground, not the Underground network.
The Underground has 274 stations. No longer true. There are now 268. Today we've lost Wapping, Rotherhithe and Surrey Quays, which now exist only as replacement bus service stops. We've lost New Cross and New Cross Gate, which now exist only as National Rail stations. And we've lost Shadwell, which is now only on the DLR (which isn't a London Underground line, as any fule know).
terminating New Cross GateThe Underground runs over 253 miles (408km) of line. No longer true. Now it's 248 miles (400km)... plus four particularly useless replacement bus services.
The East London Line is the only line without a station in Zone 1. No longer true. All the remaining lines do.
Five London boroughs are not served by the London Underground. No longer true. Today Lewisham joins that list to make six, along with Bexley, Bromley, Croydon, Sutton and Kingston.
The Jubilee line is the only Underground route that connects with all others. No longer true. (I wonder how long it'll take the O2 website to change this one. Ages probably, given the number of other howlers on the same page). Let's work this one out. Any line which connects with all others must connect with the Waterloo & City line. So we're only interested in lines that pass through either Waterloo or Bank. Through Waterloo we have the Jubilee, Northern and Bakerloo (all of which link up). And through Bank we have the Central (which also links) plus maybe the Circle (if we're allowed to treat Bank/Monument as one station, which TfL increasingly do). But we can't have the District, because that just misses the Metropolitan by a few metres (at Aldgate). So the newly-updated statement should be "The Jubilee, Northern, Bakerloo, Central and Circle lines are the only Underground routes that connect with all others." Which just isn't interesting any more, sorry.
The Thames Tunnel is the oldest section of tunnel in the London Underground. No longer true. Now the oldest is along the original Metropolitan railway tunnel between Paddington and Farringdon, opened 1863. Probably. Unless you know better.
Wapping is the only station which has no letters in common with the word 'lobster'. No longer true. Now every Underground station shares at least one letter with the word 'lobster'. Is nothing sacred?

The East London line, now departing
If you ever seek to meet London's entire population of trainspotters, take a ride on the final service to an about-to-be-disused tube station. And if the last train runs well after midnight don't worry, because you'll easily spot them earlier in the day too. They're the blokes wielding big-lensed cameras on the platforms, and the blokes sitting by themselves in each carriage with a sad but contented smile on their face, and the blokes who stay aboard the train at the end of the line so that they can travel straight back again. And so it was yesterday on the East London line. It's not every day an entire line closes, even if it is only for 30 months, so any excuse to spend a Saturday well away from the wife and the Christmas shopping. Even if the last day is actually the very worst day to try to take photos, because every shot ends up full of other blokes trying to take photos.

the Thames TunnelAll the stations on the East London line were busy, noticeably busier than usual. TfL appeared to have rostered an additional member of staff on every platform keeping an eye on the all the additional enthusiasts lest they accidentally misbehave. You know the sort of thing - using flash photography, or trying to walk into off-limits bits of the station, or leaning out in front of passing trains in search of the perfect photo. I'm not sure what grim fate faces these members of staff today now that their stations are closed until 2010. Pointing passengers towards replacement bus services, maybe, or perhaps redeployed in less important posts at other stations elsewhere. Amputating a limb from the Underground network has a human cost as well as a financial price.

I do wonder what the line's usual passengers made of it all. They expect to be sharing their carriage with the odd well wicked hoodied bro, not a crowd of excitable photographers. They expect to have plenty of room to stand on the platform, not having to walk round a phalanx of eager snappers. And they expect to be able to walk up the stairs at Rotherhithe unhindered, whereas yesterday afternoon I wandered straight into a bunch of paid-up enthusiasts on the Brunel Museum's Tunnel Tour. Thanks for turning on the floodlights in the tunnels, guys, I got a much better photograph as a result. Erm, yes, I admit, I was there taking a few photographs myself. Sorry if I got in the way of your shot.

 Saturday, December 22, 2007

The East London line: a farewell

terminating WhitechapelToday is the very last day of service on the East London line. Tonight, after the last train to New Cross Gate (probably about quarter past one), the entire line faces prolonged shutdown. Come back in June 2010 and the tracks and stations will have been re-engineered and reborn as part of the London Overground network. But come back tomorrow and you'll have to ride the replacement bus service instead. It's not an exciting prospect.

As you'll remember from my in-depth feature 18 months ago, the East London line is a historic little railway. It includes Sir Marc Brunel's pioneering Thames Tunnel, the very first tunnel to be bored beneath a navigable river, as well as some wonderfully atmospheric subterranean Victorian brick stations. And it's also a very modern railway. The entire line was shut down for three years as recently as 1995, enabling the tracks and tunnel to be restored and a brand-spanking new station to be built at Canada Water. As you'll remember. Look, I'm not going to go into all the history again. It's over here if you're interested, in 6000 words and 70 pictures. Think of it as a pen portrait of an endangered species, facing extinction tonight.

Wapping southboundBut for this week at least, it's been business as usual on the East London line. At Whitechapel folk still descend the steps from the District line platforms to catch a little four-coach train south. At Shadwell they still ride the lift down to almost-platform level rather than taking the stairs. At Wapping they still stand somewhat precariously on what must be the narrowest platform on the entire tube network, watching down the tunnel beneath the Thames for the headlamps of an approaching train. At Rotherhithe they still listen to the ominous dripping of pumped-out water rushing somewhere above their heads. At Canada Water they still swarm down the escalators to ride the much more popular Jubilee line into town. At Surrey Quays they still wait beneath the orange-topped columns and ornate iron work clutching bags from the nearby shopping centre. And at bifurcated New Cross and New Cross Gate they still wait patiently for an all-too-rare train to arrive, and pause, and eventually depart. Nothing ever happens quickly here, nor on a grand scale, and that's part of the line's subterranean charm.

shuffling away from Canada WaterThe East London line's not the busiest on the tube network. If you ever want to get a seat during the rush hour, head here. A mere 34000 souls use its services daily (compared to half a million on the Piccadilly and two-thirds of a million on the Northern), perhaps because it doesn't really go anywhere useful. But for local residents and cross-river commuters it's an extremely convenient lifeline, and one they're going to have to learn to live without. Let's hope that the shiny new East London Railway which finally emerges in 2½ years time will be worth the wait.

East London line history
East London line photos
East London line last day arrangements (rumour has it that a not-terribly-special special train will be running the length of the line from about 3pm until shutdown)
East London line replacement bus services (30 months of hideous inconvenience)
East London line future (including a fly-through explanatory video of the new project)

 Tuesday, December 18, 2007

London 2012  Olympic update
  The earth moved

Olympic Stadium site - December 2007Well that didn't take long. It's still less than six months since the 2012 Olympic Park was sealed off, but the wholesale demolition of the site has been extremely rapid. Back in July there were warehouses and factories where the running track will be laid, but they've all been knocked down. Back in July there was a river where the grandstand will be erected, but that's been piped underground. Back in July there were trees where the hotdogs will be sold, but they've all been cut down. Back in July the view from the Greenway bridge was green, but now it's brown. Not one single building now remains on the stadium site, bar a couple of electricity substations just to the south. All that's left are the original roads, a row of lampposts, some walls and fences, and an awful lot of piles of earth.

There are now enough piles of earth in the Lower Lea Valley to make me think that London ought to have applied for the Winter Olympics instead. All it would take is a major snowfall and, hey presto, we'd have ourselves a ready-built range of mountainous downhill sporting facilities. But no, by next summer this entire area needs to be flat as a pancake, ready for the construction of the Olympic Stadium to begin. All the piles of earth and rubble have to be moved out, or at least moved to a different part of the site to be recycled as landfill. This is a sustainable Olympics, remember, so little of the rock-y brick-y debris will be wasted.

the Olympic foothills

No time is being wasted in clearing the land. On Sunday morning the Olympic Park was crawling with big yellow lorries, each carrying yet another truckload of former-factory away from the site. A steady stream of lorries, approximately as frequent as buses along Regent Street, rumbled up and down Marshgate Lane. Each branched off down some different sideroad, through the wreckage of some demolished building, or away across some newly constructed temporary bridge. Diggers swarmed over every distant hillock, like giant orange ants on a compost heap, busy removing every trace of the area's former existence. It won't be long before their endless scavenging leaves the land barren, level and ready for renewal. The only constant in my monthly series of bridge-top photos is irreversible change. Hmm, do you think that curvy embankment down there could be the very first signs of the stadium perimeter?

 Sunday, December 16, 2007

First sight of the new January 2008 tube map, at Langdon Park DLR station, has made me shudder. From a simple and elegant 1930s design, the tube map appears to have evolved fairly recently into a rampant visual monster, jam-packed with unnecessary information. The emphasis has shifted very much from lines to stations, with every square inch of the map increasingly crammed with "local" detail. It's about close-up complexity, rather than zoomed-out ease of use. It's a mess. And it can only get worse.

Here are a few photo snapshots of some of the latest abominations on the new map...

ELL replacement busesHere's the reason the updated January tube map is needed. The East London Line closes next weekend, and will eventually reopen as part of the new London Overground. There'll be no more tubing from Whitechapel to New Cross, just four replacement bus services for the next 2½ years. Two of those bus services meet here, at Canada Water. Previously this was a very simple-looking single-blob interchange, but not any more. Now it appears as a triple-blobbed mega-interchange, as does Whitechapel on the opposite side of the river. This over-complex rearrangement ensures that nobody thinks they can travel from Rotherhithe to Surrey Quays on one bus, because that would be a terrible mistake to make. Incidentally the replacement bus service will be wheelchair accessible, but the wheelchair symbol is only used to show step-free access to a platform. Brilliant, eh?

ELL extensionHere's the first appearance of the new stations being built on the East London Line extension. It's good news for residents of central Hackney, but perhaps not for tube map users. These stations don't open until summer 2010, but they'll still be clogging up the map and confusing tourists for the next 30 months. Even more uselessly, the "under construction" connection from Dalston Junction to Canonbury is also shown, and that won't be opening until 2011. Meanwhile the southern section of the extended ELL (from New Cross Gate to West Croydon) also appears on the new map. It's already open, but still being run by Southern trains so Oyster pay-as-you-go isn't yet valid. As a lot of very small orange print tells you.

Canary WharfHere's a ghastly redesign of one major interchange, attempting (but failing) to better represent reality. As anyone who's ever changed trains in Docklands will know, there are two Canary Wharf stations, a five minute slog apart. The new map makes this a lot more explicit, replacing a single interchange blob with this triangular mess. Linkage is now via the walking distances between Canary Wharf Jubilee line station and its two DLR neighbours. If your eyesight is good enough you may be able to spot that Heron Quays DLR is 50m nearer than Canary Wharf DLR. If the map designer had been good enough he/she might have spotted that the DLR stations are to the west of the Jubilee line, not to the east. And above it, not below it. Come on TfL, if you're attempting to better depict reality, at least do it consistently.

West HampsteadHere's an even grimmer interchange revamp. There are three stations at West Hampstead, all along the same busy road - one on the Jubilee line, one on the London Overground and one served by First Capital Connect. As this graphic attempts to make clear, it's a 100m walk from the Jubilee to the Overground. The third station, West Hampstead Thameslink, is apparently 200m away - but from which of the other two? Real life evidence suggests it's 200m from the Jubilee, but you can't tell this from the map. Would a single blob really be so bad?

Zones 8 and 9Here's the northwest corner of the new map. The big difference here is the appearance of ticket zones 7, 8 and 9 (replacing A, B, C and D). This isn't too messy - it actually makes more sense that the previous zoning. Except in nearby Watford. Watford Metropolitan line station is in Zone 7, but nearby Watford High Street station is in Zone 8 and even nearer Watford Junction isn't in a zone at all, not even zone 9. Oh, and doesn't Chalfont and Latimer station look complicated? The perfect example of how the designers think they've added clarity, but have actually taken it away.

Heathrow AirportAnd finally, here's the new map layout for "Heathrow Airport". There are three stations named after terminals, one of which doesn't open until Easter. I hope you can understand how the loopy one-way system works. Travellers can't get directly from Terminal 4 to Terminal 5, nor directly from Terminals 1, 2, 3 or 5 to Terminal 4. I'm sure that tourists just arrived by plane will find this crystal clear to understand and to follow. Oh, and see that big red dagger next to Terminal 4? There are more than 30 of these littered across the tube map, and they all refer to additional text in the station index beneath. In this case TfL want to warn you that Terminal 4 station closes at quarter to midnight (whereas most stations close nearer half past). Somebody presumably cares. One day, maybe, all this "crucial" red dagger information will be plastered across the map itself. Like I said, the way tube map design is going, information pollution can only escalate.

 Friday, December 14, 2007

London 2012  Olympic update
  High Street 2012

Bow Church, in the middle of the A11, with the Bow flyover in the distanceThe road east from Aldgate to Stratford has a long and mighty history. It's been the main road to Essex from London for the best part of a millennium - the route taken by armies and revolting peasants and stagecoaches and trams. It's part of one of the UK's great trunk roads, the A11, home to traffic jams and exhaust fumes and bendy buses. And in five years time, for a few short hours, it'll be part of the route of the Olympic Marathon. Hundreds of the world's fastest long-distance athletes will be puffing past my front door, just one mile from glory in a billion pound stadium. But Tower Hamlets wants the Olympic legacy to last a bit longer than a couple of brief afternoons. They've had a transformational idea. And that idea is called "High Street 2012". Anybody interested in bringing their vision to life?
"Title attributed to the contract by the contracting authority:
UK-London: High street 2012
- Consulting services for preparation of vision study and strategy for delivery of future public realm improvements."
An invitation to tender has just been issued, attempting to recruit a team who can enable the delivery of transformational change along three and a half miles of East End street. Someone, surely, can breathe new life into the Whitechapel Road, Mile End Road, Bow Road and Stratford High Street. Someone, surely, can suggest improvements which will enhance the area's ambience for both visitors and residents alike. And hopefully something a bit more exciting than tying multi-coloured balloons to all the lampposts.
"Short description of the contract or purchase(s):
High Street 2012 is a programme of initiatives to encourage the A11/A118 (which is a key part of the Olympic and Paralympic Marathon route) from Aldgate East to Stratford, to become a focus for regeneration, community pride and the visitor economy in East London. The London Borough of Tower Hamlets its High Street 2012 partners (Design for London, London Borough of Newham, Transport for London, London Thames Gateway Development Corporation and English Heritage) are seeking to appoint a suitably qualified and experienced design-led multi-disciplinary team to undertake a Vision Study and Strategy that will facilitate short and long-term benefits and public realm improvements along this strategic route for all communities. High Street 2012 will incorporate existing planned projects along the route into an overall coherent concept to develop an engaging public space that is a 'street for everyone'."
The original plan was to name this scheme "Olympic Boulevard", but presumably that was too difficult for local people to spell (and a bit too French), so "High Street 2012" it is. The chosen scheme could be a really exciting blueprint that brightens up my local linear neighbourhood and acts as a catalyst for future regeneration. I could be stepping out of my front door into a thriving cosmopolitan community buzzing with excited tourists and re-energised East End citizens. There might be landscaped public spaces, dynamic transport projects and fully-restored historic buildings. How exciting. But it'll be crucial to assemble the best possible planning team, or else the end result might be nothing more than a few replaced roadsigns and the 2012 Olympic logo painted repeatedly onto the pavement.
"The commission will include vision development and integration of existing studies, street design and landscape strategy, historic built environment, enhancement strategy, highways and traffic, community engagement strategy, vision attraction study and the development of an implementation strategy for projects identified. The multi-disciplinary consultant team needs to comprise of a range of specialists with key services including architectural, urban design and regeneration, project management, community engagement and stakeholder management."
The successful planning team will have between 150 and 200 thousand pounds to play with, and six months to deliver a coherent vision strategy for the High Street 2012 project. There's nothing in the tender application which says that ordinary citizens can't apply, so long as they have economic, technical and financial capability. So I wondered if any of you lot were interested in joining me to form a multi-disciplinary consortium to take on the big guys and bid for the big prize. Any architects out there, or urban planners, or bureaucrats who like writing mind-numbing technical documents in project management-speak, please make yourselves known. We've got until noon on 11th January to put together the pre-qualification questionnaire, and then the council will let us know by 21st January whether or not "DG Regeneration Inc" will be invited to participate in the tendering process. Wouldn't it be exciting to be asked to formulate an overarching design vision to shape the foundations of legacy-based renewal in a challenging inner-urban environment? Because I'd love to live somewhere great, and not a street full of plastic palm trees and Starbucks.

Some fascinating places along High Street 2012: Whitechapel Art Gallery, Whitechapel Bell Foundry, East London Mosque, Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel Idea Store, the Blind Beggar pub, William Booth statue, Mile End Park, the Green Bridge, Bow Church, the Bow flyover, the Greenwich Meridian. (hmm, I can feel an August "local history month" coming on...)

 Thursday, December 13, 2007

Anorak Corner

London's ten busiest tube stations (2006)
1) Victoria (73m)  2) Waterloo (72.9m) 3) Oxford Circus (68.4m) 4) Liverpool Street (57.9m) 5) Kings Cross St Pancras (52.5m) 6) London Bridge (51m) 7) Paddington (38.7m) 8) Canary Wharf (38.5m) 9) Bank/Monument (38.2m) 10) Piccadilly Circus (37.6m)

London's ten busiest tube stations that aren't also National Rail stations (2006)
1) Oxford Circus (68.4m) 2) Canary Wharf (38.5m) 3) Bank/Monument (38.2m) 4) Piccadilly Circus (37.6m) 5) Tottenham Court Road (32.8m) 6) Bond Street (32.7m) 7) Leicester Square (32.6m) 8) Green Park (28m) 9) Hammersmith (District & Piccadilly) (27.7m) 10) Holborn (27.5m)

London's ten busiest tube stations outside Zone 1 (2006)
1) Canary Wharf (38.5m) 2) Hammersmith (District & Piccadilly) (27.7m) 3) Finsbury Park (26.3m) 4) Stratford (22.4m) 5) Brixton (19.7m) 6) Camden Town (18m) 7) Ealing Broadway (14.9m) 8) Wimbledon (13.6m) 9) Highbury & Islington (13.3m) 10) Tooting Broadway (12.2m)

London's ten least busy tube stations (2006)
1) Roding Valley (179000) 2) Chigwell (258000) 3) Grange Hill (287000) 4) Chesham (404000) 5) Fairlop (526000) 6) Theydon Bois (562000) 7) Barkingside (620000) 8) Croxley (656000) 9) Ruislip Gardens (672000) 10) Moor Park (694000)

London's ten least busy tube stations that aren't on the Central line (2006)
1) Chesham (404000) 2) Croxley (656000) 3) Moor Park (694000) 4) South Kenton (697000) 5) Upminster Bridge (822000) 6) Mill Hill East (872000) 7) North Ealing (894000) 8) Kensington (Olympia) (902000) 9) Ickenham (921000) 10) West Harrow (957000)

London's ten busiest National Rail stations (2005/6)
1) Waterloo (61m) 2) Victoria (48m) 3) Liverpool Street (47m) 4) London Bridge (37m) 5) Charing Cross (29m) 6) Euston (27m) 7) Paddington (26m) 8) King's Cross (20m) 9) Cannon Street (18m) 10) Fenchurch Street (16m)

London's ten busiest National Rail stations that aren't central London termini (2005/6)
1) East Croydon (15.4m) 2) Clapham Junction (13.4m) 3) Wimbledon (11.8m) 4) Kings Cross Thameslink (8.8m) 5) Stratford (7.7m) 6) Vauxhall (7.7m) 7) Richmond (7.3m) 8) Ealing Broadway (6m) 9) Surbiton (5.8m) 10) Finsbury Park (5m)

London's ten least busy National Rail stations (2005/6)
1) Sudbury & Harrow Road (2500) 2) Drayton Green (5300) 3) South Greenford (6100) 4) Sudbury Hill (10200) 5) Angel Road (15800) 6) Castle Bar Park (19900) 7) Birkbeck (21600) 8) Blackhorse Road (22600) 9) Silvertown (now closed) (24800) 10) Woodgrange Park (25300)

» Tube passenger data here (total annual entry and exit frequencies)
» Rail passenger data here (total annual entry, exit and interchange frequencies)

 Sunday, December 09, 2007

...new station

Langdon Park DLR
Opened: 9 December 2007 [i.e. yesterday]
Initial feasibility case: May 2000 [blimey, look how long it takes to launch a station]
Reasons for opening: neighbourhood regeneration, too long a gap between adjacent stations.

Langdon Park DLR

When the DLR was built, back in 1987, there was a glaringly long gap on the Stratford extension between Devons Road and All Saints. It might have looked obvious on a map but nobody really cared, because there was nothing important in the gap apart from a couple of crumbling housing estates. There was no "business case" for a station here, apparently. And anyway wasn't it more important that Essex commuters travelling to and from Canary Wharf should be able to save precious seconds by speeding through without stopping? So residents of the Lansbury and Teviot estates got used to watching DLR trains whizzing by behind a big fence, and carried on catching the bus instead. It's taken 20 years to finally put a stop to this rather blatant case of transport neglect.

Langdon Park DLRHere we are in Poplar, just north of the East India Dock Road and close to Chrisp Street Market. The Germans bombed the area quite heavily during the war, and the existing landscape owes much to the un-pretty era of postwar council block redevelopment. The authorities did at least try - the Lansbury was a showpiece estate built for the Festival of Britain, and Erno Goldfinger's Balfron Tower is almost as big an icon as its big sister Trellick on the other side of town. But years of neglect and disinterest eventually led to increasing crime levels and greater marginalisation. If Tower Hamlets ever offer you a council flat here, you'd think twice.

But now there's a new way out, with the opening of a brand new DLR station at the heart of the community. It opened today without any fanfare whatsoever, not even a mention on the TfL website (which still has the opening date listed as "Late 2007"). I think the Mayor is due to pop along and perform some official ceremony sometime this week, but presumably he has better things to do on Sunday mornings than eulogise about regeneration in a speech littered with media soundbites. The station was, I suspect, due to open on Saturday because the DLR had scheduled a mini "open day" with leaflets and giveaways for local residents. But the entrances remained boarded up while workmen scurried around finishing off a few urgent paving slabs, leaving a surprisingly long queue of damp souls waiting patiently beneath umbrellas in the howling rain. Anything for a freebie.

Langdon Park footbridgeThe new station gleams like a shiny alien mothership, miraculously landed in the midst of some decaying backwater spaceport. Its signature feature is the elegantly curved glass footbridge, with a splayed metal cone at each end encircling a pair of liftshafts. Unlike the footbridge it replaced, you'd not feel unsafe crossing the tracks here after dark. Access from Chrisp Street is fairly mundane, up a brief alley, but the plaza on the eastern side is rather more impressive. Up on the roof the station's name has been picked out in big white plastic letters, a bit like at Wembley Park, while down below a row of black bollards prevents local joyriders from smashing into the glass platform walls for a laugh. They would do, I'm sure, given half a chance.

So, will you be stopping off at Langdon Park DLR in the near future? Probably not. Really, there's nothing much around here you might want to come and see. Langdon Park itself is just a threadbare grassy quadrilateral with playground equipment and football pitches - you probably have one of those where you live. Across the road at Langdon Park School (sorry, "Specialist Sports College") there's not yet a blue plaque commemorating Dizzee Rascal's musical scholarship. And festival-goers may have traipsed round the Lansbury Estate in 1951, but you wouldn't want to wander inbetween the apartment blocks today, not for the fun of it. But for those who live here the new station is a precious lifeline to the outside world, and a beacon of hope that somebody somewhere actually cares. Every five minutes, in both directions, life round here just got better.

Langdon Park DLR - the backstory
Life on the Teviot Estate (and some photos)
2nd DLR platform at Stratford (also opened yesterday)
Update: Mayor Ken officially opens the station (10 December 2007)

 Saturday, December 08, 2007

...old station

King's Cross Thameslink
Opened: 10 January 1863 [this is (near enough) the site of King's Cross underground station, on the Metropolitan Railway, opened on the very first day of London's very first underground railway]
Closed: 8 December 2007 [this station terminates today]
Reasons for closure: Too small, too crowded, too inconveniently located, too old.

King's Cross ThameslinkIt's not a lovely station, this. It's a long hike from the main King's Cross station, either across several sets of traffic lights or along a very long pedestrian tunnel (the one where they painted "Smile" on the walls to try to cheer up commuters). The steps down to the platforms are narrow, and if you get stuck behind a family lugging a pushchair you're in trouble. The platforms are called A and B, not 1 and 2, so passengers don't get them confused with the mainline station across the road. Everybody waits at the western end, clogging the platforms, waiting for the next service to Bedford, Brighton or Wimbledon to appear. Can you hear it? No, that's a completely different train chugging invisibly somewhere nearby. The Circle line runs past on the other side of a wall (although it used to stop close by until a new underground station was built up the line). For a quiet wait, walk past Gatwick-bound suitcases or gangs of Luton youths up to the far end of the platform, out in the open air. Waiting here's a risk, because most trains aren't long enough to stop this far up, but you might just get a bench or square metre of platform to yourself. Until escape arrives, up the tunnel, and whisks you away somewhere nicer. Somewhere with a future.

King's Cross Thameslink closes forever at the end of today, to be replaced tomorrow by a brand spanking new station directly beneath St Pancras International. This'll be far more convenient for international travellers and commuters alike, and a lot more spacious too. From a passing train the new station looks like a big grey box, charmless and featureless, and far easier to exit through. But in 24 hours time it'll be the old station that trains will whizz through, past empty benches and fading adverts, past a century and a half of history. All change please.

A short history of King's Cross Thameslink
The King's Cross/St Pancras station upgrade
A map of the (bloody complicated) layout at King's Cross St Pancras (from London Connections)
The Smile subway remains open as a pedestrian exit from the mainline station
Photographs of the old and new stations (from Ian Visits)

 Wednesday, December 05, 2007

 the capital fanzine
 online edition 2 - December 2007

Welcome to London's essential new online newsletter! londonerama is the number 1 online mag for Europe's number 1 city. We have all the news, all the goss and all the up-front info. Well, some of it anyway. Read on...

Do you need a decent walking map to find your way around the West End? A map you can slip into your pocket rather than read on a big plinth? Well, now you can pick up a folded full colour West End map as part of the Legible London initiative. Apparently it's available from Bond Street tube station (although I didn't see one there myself). Or you can download a copy off the website and, er, print it out onto A3 paper or something. Whatever, it looks rather useful should you ever want to walk from the Angolan Embassy to the Café Royal, or just potter around some posh shopping streets inbetween. Me, I'm waiting with anticipation for further maps covering other bits of town. Please.
Download your map here.

Piccadilly CircusHave you ever wanted to see your name up in lights at Piccadilly Circus? It's easy if you're called Mr Coca Cola, or maybe even TDK Sanyo, but otherwise you're going to have to pay for the privilege. The iconic advertising boards above Eros now have their own website (don't get excited, it's marketing guff) and can be hired by anybody with sufficient money to spend. One minute of scrolling message will cost you £1000 (inclusive of "creative and digitisation" and "one set of ammendments"), while 10 minutes will set you back £4000. I hate to think how many bright young City boys will use the service to propose to their wives-to-be.
Read Piccadilly Lights trivia here.
Smoke 11Is your Smoke collection up to date? The latest edition of the thrice-yearly London fanzine has just hit bookshops, and and no doubt you'll be wanting a copy. Within its covers (bedecked this issue by the gorgeous North Greenwich gasometer) you can read all about Fortress Wapping, Bunhill Fields, the Brentford Musketeer, Jonas Hanway the umbrella man and the 108 bus. And all in a very descriptive essayish style, along with moody photographs, camp statues and the usual Routemaster cartoon. You'll know the score by now. And just £2.90 a copy.
Website here, list of stockists here.

If you live, work or shop around Shepherd's Bush, you might be interested in proposed adjustments to several local bus services. These changes are related to the new White City shopping centre, and TfL are seeking your feedback before the end of January. Me, I'm much more interested in their proposals for the Bow area. Ooh, we EastEnders can expect a brand new 425 bus service from Stratford to Hackney via Mile End. And they're going to renumber the S2 and call it the 488 (because lettered routes aren't politically correct any more) and terminate it at my local Tesco. If any of this affects you, do click through and have your say, before you end up with a bus network you don't want.
White City consultation here, Bow consultation here.

If you're looking for an under-a-tenner Christmas present for the Londoner in your life, I can heartily recommend Chambers London Gazeteer. This addictively browseable volume is now available in paperback, and Amazon can sell you a copy for just £8.99. They can also give you a glimpse inside, from Abbey Mills to Aldersgate, giving you an inkling into just how finely detailed each of the thousand other descriptions is. Less than a penny each too, what a bargain. London's bigger than you thought.
Visit Hidden London - the website of the book.
dg 2007)

 Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Lewisham Train Disaster (4th December 1957)

plaque at Lewisham stationThere are certain trains that you should never catch. You won't spot them specially marked in any timetable, nor will their doomed status be flagged on any station departure board. But climb aboard and you may never reach your destination, nor indeed any other destination. Two such trains collided in thick fog in southeast London on the evening of Wednesday 4th December 1957. Ninety passengers and crew lost their lives that night, just east of St John's station, in what is still Britain's third worst railway disaster.

It had been a foggy day across southeast England, and by evening all the rail services to Kent were seriously disrupted. Commuters piled aboard delayed trains in an attempt to get home, and one by one each locomotive headed off towards the commuter belt. But the misty conditions, combined with unscheduled timetabling, led to a series of unfortunate mistakes being made. The over-worked signalman at Parks Bridge Junction, just west of Lewisham town centre, accidentally muddled the order of two eastbound trains. He thought the first train was heading to Hayes, whereas the Hayes train was actually second behind a Hastings-bound service. Both trains queued unnecessarily in the fog, protected to the rear by a red signal. But a red signal is only of any use if somebody spots it in time, and the next train driver didn't.

the crash location, beneath the bridge, east of St John'sDriver William Trew left Cannon Street station at 6:08pm, on the footplate of a steam engine heading for Ramsgate. His train was a whole hour and a quarter late, and it's likely that he was trying to make up some lost time. Trew steamed through New Cross at 35mph, then rushed onwards through the cutting towards St John's. Two amber signals to the right of the track should have warned him to slow down, but he saw neither out of his tiny window through the thickening fog. A red signal at the far end of the St John's platform therefore came as a complete surprise and, with just 138 yards of clear track remaining, a crash was inevitable.

There are certain carriages that you should never sit in. They're not labelled on the window, and they're not always the obvious ones at the front or rear, but you should never ever climb inside. For the Hayes train, stood waiting on the embankment, the carriage to avoid turned out to be number eight. Carriage ten, at the rear, survived mostly intact because the brakes were on. Carriage nine was shunted forwards and upwards, again mostly intact. But carriage eight had the misfortune to end up directly underneath carriage nine and was almost completely crushed and destroyed.

The carnage in the Ramsgate train was even worse. Trew's engine stayed on the rails but the coal truck behind shot off to the left, smashing into a nearby bridge support. Unfortunately this bridge carried a second railway line, running diagonally over the tracks. Collision with the tender caused the entire central section to collapse, girders and all, flattening the front two and a half carriages of the train below. If only the crash had occurred a few feet further on, just past the bridge, scores of lives might have been saved.

the precise crash location, viewed from Sunninghill RoadThere was one particular lucky escape, however. The driver of a Dartford-bound train chugging towards the overbridge managed to spot the twisted girders ahead just in time, and drew his train to a halt before it toppled down onto the tracks below. But that was the only bright spot. By the time local residents had raised the alarm and the emergency services had pulled survivors from the wreckage, ninety commuters were dead and 176 seriously injured. No other UK rail disaster in the last 50 years has had so high a death toll.

Stand on the lonely island platform at St John's station today (as a handful of irregular commuters still do) and the crash site can still be seen photos. You have to walk right to the eastern tip of the platform to be able to view the tracks where the collision happened (over there, beneath the "temporary" replacement overbridge erected two weeks after the crash). Every couple of minutes another sleek white train rushes through this very complicated junction, but there's far less danger nowadays because each is equipped with AWS cab signalling (rolled out nationwide as a direct consequence of this particular incident). Watch them speed by - only a handful of services are actually timetabled to stop at St John's to pick up passengers. Maybe that's why there's no memorial plaque anywhere on the station (councillors decided to erect one on the front of the Lewisham ticket office instead, which is on the wrong line altogether). But there are many people in the area, and across northern Kent, for whom this is a location tinged with great sadness and emotion.

There are certain stations that we should never forget.

The official 1958 Ministry of Transport safety report into the collision (37 pages of vintage pdf)

 Sunday, December 02, 2007

Christmas at St Pancras

Blimey, aren't the marketeers at St Pancras desperate to whip up a festive frenzy of excitement? Not to get you to come and ride on Eurostar, that's not their job. Nor even to get you to come and admire the station's great architecture, nothing so innocent. Oh, no, they want you to come shopping. Please.

I first noticed the Pancras PR squad's advertising onslaught on Friday, when some underpaid lackey outside Holborn station tried desperately to force a free copy of the Evening Standard into my hand. The newspaper had a glossy wraparound cover full of arty snowflakes, plus a dangly luggage label stickered to the front on a bit of string. On the back cover was a very long list of all the special events being held at St Pancras over the next three weeks. No times or anything, just dates, but that's still considerably more useful than the Flash version on the website where you can't see the entire list in one go (and, indeed, will probably have fallen asleep before you've clicked through to the end). And inside the cover sheet, in full blue and gold technicolour, a double page spread inviting London to visit "the world's largest advent calendar". So yesterday I went to have a look.

the world's largest Advert CalendarThe world's largest advent calendar is indeed very large. It covers one entire end of the majestic Barlow Train Shed, which must slightly piss off anybody who's turned up specifically to take photographs of the original building. Yes the famous station clock is still visible, but it's been incorporated into the central logo and appears somewhat overwhelmed. And what of the 24 windows? We're promised on the website that "Every day at 10am a door the World's Largest Advent Calendar will be opened by a celebrity or intriguing character". That sounds exciting, doesn't it? Except it's not. I do hope you weren't expecting revealed images of any religious significance. Day 1's picture is some orangey-pink Art Deco flower fairy abomination, with the logo of Boots the Chemist slapped rather blatantly across the bottom. This is no Advent Calendar, this is the world's largest Advert Calendar. Is nothing sacred any more? Well, no, obviously not.

Elsewhere inside St Pancras, a Victorian Christmas has arrived. Everywhere I turned yesterday, the crowd was peppered with top-hatted gentlemen and ladyfolk in crinoline dresses and lacy shawls. Their job seemed to be handing out mini Advent Calendars, each a small rectangle of glossy card, again with 24 windows just begging to be ripped open. I couldn't resist taking a peek. "Thursday 06" <rip> "Singles Dance Card Dating Night". "Friday 07" <rip> "Mulled wine and shopping evening". It was at precisely this moment that I realised there are no litter bins anywhere inside St Pancras station. Damn. So I ended up taking the calendar home and blogging about it instead. Cunning that.

Children were rather better catered for. Outside the Body Shop a crowd of almost-animated kids were watching a bunch of costumed actors performing something melodramatic on a mini stage. Further up the undercroft, past the big artificial Christmas tree, Santa was in his grotto. He'd arrived by Eurostar on Saturday morning (from Paris, presumably, or more likely EuroDisney). If you should turn up on a weekday when he's not in, never fear, there's a Father Christmas Post Box you can visit instead. It's also fat and red, but this time surrounded by a circular Habitat-sponsored seating area. A big sign on the front of the box warns children to ensure that their letters to Santa have a stamp on them, otherwise they might not receive a reply. And the postbox slot is filled by a solid black block with a narrow slit across the middle, presumably so that evil terrorist children can't post letterbombs to Santa instead. Such is a 21st century Victorian Christmas.

And does all this shameless marketing work? Yes of course it does. St Pancras was crawling with people yesterday, with far more of them downstairs in the undercroft (where the shops are) than upstairs where the pretty architecture is. There's nothing people like better at Christmas than standing around in a shopping mall buying gift sets of organic body scrub whilst sipping cappucinos, and clearly the King's Cross area has been sadly lacking in such retail opportunities. Up until now, anyway.

Look hard enough at the what's on list and you're bound to spot several interesting-looking events being held at St Pancras between now and Christmas, especially if you like historical guided tours, film screenings, carol singing or munching pfeffernüsse. But if you're not really into shopping or travelling to Paris, and you just want to bring your camera for a good look round, you might want to hold back until January 7th.

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