Monday, March 31, 2008

LTSR monogramDistrict 150
Three stations on the District line celebrate their 150th birthday today. This might sound impossible given that the London Underground system itself is only 145 years old, but these three out-east stations were originally part of a completely different pioneering railway network. The London, Tilbury and Southend Railway (LTSR) struck out for the Essex coast in the 1850s, originally via Stratford, but then craved their own direct connection to Fenchurch Street. A new link was built between Bow and Barking, with new stations at Bromley-by-Bow, Plaistow and East Ham, and opened on Wednesday 31st March 1858. If you'd like more information there's a special (extremely well hidden) 150th anniversary page on the TfL website, and they're also selling rather tasteful 150th anniversary posters at the Museum shop.

Here's an anniversary tribute to the three 150-year-old stations, starting with my very-local one.

 District 150: Bromley-by-Bow

Bromley-by-Bow (eastbound)Originally called: Bromley (until 18 May 1967)
Now between: Bow Road and West Ham
Annual entry & exit: 2.6 million passengers
Number of platforms: 4 (2 still in use, 2 woefully overgrown)
Station entrance: A nasty 1972 concrete block with no redeeming features [photo] (was rather lovelier until a nasty fire in 1970)
Heritage features: Clusters of four iron LTSR monograms on the eastern platform; out-of-date signage outside the front of the station declaring Bromley-by-Bow to be on the "District and Metropolitan lines"; proper "next train" lightbox (about to be replaced by bland electronic display, recently installed by jobsworth cretin much further back from the edge of the platform and obscured between two pillars); Mitchell and Webb "PC & Mac" posters (just how far behind the times is this station?)
Claim to fame: Look very closely at the tube maps on EastEnders and you'll see that Walford East takes the place of Bromley-by-Bow.
What's on the special 150th anniversary poster: Clock Mill, one of the two mills at Three Mills on the River Lea.
Anniversary celebrations: A Clock Mill poster on display in the ticket hall (no mention that the anniversary is today, though)
5 things I found outside the station: the A12 Eastway (bulldozed through local streets in the 60s), the Queen Victoria pub (closed), the knocked-down remains of gothic St Andrew's Hospital (to be reborn as 956 distinctly non-gothic semi-affordable homes), my local supermarket, the field where the old Big Brother House used to be.

 District 150: Plaistow
Plaistow (eastbound)Between: West Ham and Upton Park
Annual entry & exit: 5.2 million passengers
Number of platforms: 5 (2 originals still in use, 1 additional siding for reversing Hammersmith & City line trains, 2 gradually decaying)
Station entrance: A block-y brick building, dating from 1905 [photo]
Heritage features: Plenty of green LTSR monograms, especially on the western platform; a forest of thin iron pillars painted with gold trim; white wooden canopies in "arcade" style; double length wooden benches with inlaid LTSR metalwork; the whole station remains relatively un-butchered.
Fact file: London has two Plaistows, both close to places called Bromley. This Plaistow is by far the less glamorous. Personally, I blame the giant sewer running through the centre.
What's on the special 150th anniversary poster: That'd be Abbey Mills pumping station, the Victorian sewage cathedral. Except, erm, Abbey Mills is closer to Bromley-by-Bow than it is to Plaistow, and closer still to West Ham. Bad choice (but Plaistow itself has nowhere better)
Anniversary celebrations: Nothing whatsoever. Not even a poster. Not even today.
5 things I found outside the station: a busy bus stop, a beeping pelican crossing, a Dagenham Motors car showroom, one of Plaistow's two job centres, BestMate's flat.

 District 150: East Ham
East Ham (eastbound)Between: Upton Park and Barking
Annual entry & exit: 11.6 million passengers
Number of platforms: 4 (2 still in use, 2 screened off behind a nasty vinyl wall)
Station entrance: A long multi-entrance building with a gabled brick facade and ornate chimneys, leading into a spacious ticket hall [photo]
Heritage features: Plenty of double LTSR monograms; splendid wooden canopies; the remains of an old stabling bay; lightbox "next train" indicator; eastbound platform considerably heritage-ier than the westbound; ooh you can almost imagine the Victorian ladies in their crinolines waiting for the next steam service to Leigh-on-Sea.
Fact file: Vera Lynn grew up in East Ham. And Jimmy Greaves.
What's on the special 150th anniversary poster: The St Pancras-like gothic towers of East Ham Town Hall (now Newham Town Hall)
5 things I found outside the station: a nigh-stationary queue of traffic, 8 passing bus routes, various non-highbrow retail outlets along an Edwardian High Street, a variety of Asian restaurants, The Who Shop.

 Sunday, March 30, 2008

Bridge over Shoreditch High Street

In the early hours of Saturday morning, slightly earlier than advertised, a whopping great bridge was shifted into place above Shoreditch High Street. It was lifted by a giant yellow crane (Britain's heaviest crane, no less). And, unlike certain airport terminals I could name, the whole thing went like clockwork. Apart from the clock part, that is.

the bridge swings into place"Work starts at 08:00", said the press release. So I was a little surprised to be walking up Bishopsgate at 07:58 and to see the bridge already nudging the final few inches across the road. Obviously it's TfL's prerogative to slide their bridges whenever they like, and this was never meant to be a spectator sport, but I was disappointed all the same. Maybe I should have stayed at home and watched the whole thing on webcam instead - except that didn't appear to be working either. Ah well. I may have been too late for the horizontal but there was a lot of vertical still to go.

350 tonnes of bow-string bridge hung weightily in mid-air above the road. There must have been nearly 100 orange-jacketed workmen watching proceedings, but only a handful of them were actually doing anything. The crane operator was very busy, of course, and a few guys with guide ropes edging the bridge into the correct alignment above the concrete supports. And high up above the sealed off High Street, on the roof of the TEA building, the TFL webcam operator and friends. For everybody else this appeared to be little more than a good opportunity to stand and stare, along with a few early morning spectators, as the latest chunk of London's transport infrastructure fell oh-so gradually into place. Mustn't rush. Come 2010 this bridge is due to be supporting umpteen trains an hour, so it was important to position it absolutely precisely. Inch by inch. Slowly does it. OK, bored now.

ELL watchers

Meanwhile, on the other side of a Victorian brick wall, another pack of workmen were busy laying the foundations for a new Shoreditch station. It'll be built beside the old Braithwaite Viaduct, and marks the point where the old East London line will rise up above ground level to cross the new bridge and continue on existing elevated tracks to Dalston. Oh lucky residents of Dalston who'll soon be able to add Wapping and Penge to the limited list of destinations to which they can travel by train. Nowhere useful, then. But we're assured that this new orbital railway will transform the lives of the Hackney communities through which it passes. Next train in 1.2 million minutes. Might be quicker to walk.

The official East London line project webpage
Map of the ELL through Shoreditch (from London Connections)
The history of the old Broad Street viaduct

 Friday, March 28, 2008

Terminal 5After my obscure trip to Rutland, I thought I'd go somewhere that even fewer of you have visited. Heathrow Terminal 5. Yes, I know that some of you have been there in trials to test the luggage system (you could have tried harder, couldn't you?). And one of you was even on the first tube train into the terminal yesterday morning and had it all blogged before 9am (well beyond the call of duty, eh?). But I had the day off work, and the weather was sunny, and my camera battery was recharged, so off I went. I'm always inquisitive to see a brand new carbon-guzzling megastructure. Plus there was a brand new tube station to see, and there hasn't been one of those before since the turn of the century. Here are 25 photographs to whet your appetite. Go on, I know you want to know see what the place looks like.

www.flickr.com: my T5 gallery

Terminal 5 didn't look like a reputational disaster zone when I arrived. The underground station was clean and efficient, if architecturally uninspiring. OK, so the "next train" indicator seemed to be playing up a little, and I can't believe that a mere 6 ticket gates will be enough to stop queues from forming, but it's all functional enough. From down here there's a choice of either escalators or lifts to your above ground destination. If you're heading for Departures then make sure you take the lift, it'll save a tedious 5 floor ascent. And don't worry, nobody'll be taking your fingerprints on the way up.

T5QOoh, Departures. Very nice. From up here on the top deck you get a real sense of the size and scale of this monumental building. It's 400m from one end to the other, and you can see and walk all the way down from A to H. Look at that one-piece undulating roof, and see the hassled airport staff trying to update would-be travellers with the latest flight cancellations. Everything's been designed to work like clockwork. Automated check-in terminals are clustered close to luggage-dump desks, with a long row of non-glitzy shops and security gates behind. There are very few seats to sit on, but that's OK because the whole check-in procedure "should only take ten minutes". On a good day, that is. Yesterday there were unexpected queues, considerably longer than planned, and the "fast bag drop" desks proved embarrassingly badly named. Somewhere beneath our feet the miraculous new baggage-handling sysytem had gone very wrong indeed. Fortunate then that the world's media were on hand, lenses poised, to capture the full human drama of this very British triumph. Er, fiasco.

If you're only a sightseer nosing around the terminal (or if you suddenly find yourself with unexpected hours to spare), there's plenty to see close by. Go and peer out of the sort-of observation window on the southern wall and look down over the masses of identically-finned BA planes gathered round the terminal building. Or follow the T5 employees popping outside to the elevated coach drop-off lanes for a quick cigarette. It's surprisingly quiet out here, bar the occasional roaring jumbo, and aspiring plane spotters would appear to be untroubled by jobsworth security guards. Or maybe that's just a first day special offer. Oh and over there in the distance, somewhere across the M25, you can easily spot the famous silhouette of Windsor Castle. In common with many of her loyal south London subjects, I do wonder how the Queen gets any sleep at night.

T5 ArrivalsThere's one more level to explore, although it's nowhere near so impressive. Arrivals is on the ground floor, three escalators down. Personally I preferred the intermediate glass staircases, spaced out along the terminal building, although it's a 12 flight descent so better down than up. The Arrivals area is a bit dull, to be honest, bar the upward view of steel rods and hanging circles. Just as well that nobody's going to be hanging around here for long, waiting for three hours for relatives to collect their delayed baggage. From here it's a short walk to what T5 optimistically describes as the "Interchange Plaza". Or, in other words, the bus station. It's a bit gloomy, but it's nowhere near as bad as the miserable concrete dump round the back of Terminal 4.

I chose to depart not by bus (nor thankfully by plane) but back on the tube. And I ended up waiting for the lift with two clearly-annoyed ladies, their anger not helped by the elevator's non-appearance. Come on, where was the button to summon the bloody thing? Ah, it must be automated, we decided. That'd be why it took us to the wrong floor and sat there, doors wide open, waiting for nobody at all to get in. "We're going home," the dear ladies sighed, clutching a pair of un-checked red suitcases. "Our flight's cancelled, and we just grew tired of waiting." The lift responded by spluttering into action and slipping gradually downwards, taking British Airways' reputation with it.

n.b. A few weeks ago I was approached by a T5 marketing presence offering a variety of promotional T5 widgets and T5 images for my blog, should I be interested. There was even a special YouTube interview with Ian Bailey, designer of the Terminal 5 baggage system, which they hoped I'd link to. Well Claudio, good news, I have now.

 Monday, March 24, 2008

  the definitive DG guide to London's sights-worth-seeing
  Part 23: Eltham Palace

Location: Court Yard, Eltham SE9 5QE [map]
Open: 10am - 5pm (11-4 in winter) (closed Thur, Fri, Sat) (closed January)
Admission: £8-ish
5-word summary: classy medieval/Art Deco hybrid
Website: www.elthampalace.org.uk
Time to set aside: half a day

Wow. If you like your sightseeing to be a surprise, then don't read past this first paragraph. But wow. The family home of Stephen and Ginny Courtauld took me aback with almost every room I walked into. Especially the first room. And the big old hall. And the cage. I bet King Henry VIII loved the place. What a shame that its most famous 20th century owners barely had time to enjoy the fruits of their Art Deco makeover.

Eltham Palace - entrance over Tudor bridgeYou wouldn't expect to find a redeveloped palace in the middle of London's southeast commuter belt. But here it is, up a tree-lined sidestreet across a very old stone bridge. The oldest still-operational bridge in London, apparently, and with a rather picturesque willowed moat beneath. There's not much other evidence of Eltham's medieval past, not yet, just one long wing of a more modern-looking stately home. Admittance is via the servants' entrance, and then into a long pea green back corridor which looks like it belongs in a pre-NHS hospital. Round the next corner there's a bloke dishing out protective blue plastic slippers to slip over your footwear. It's not a glamorous look, and completely at odds with the stylish decor coming up next, but it'll help to protect the flooring ahead from unintentional damage. Ok, first room...

Wow. Is this the portholed lounge of some 1930s ocean liner? No, it's the house's main triangular entrance hall, complete with blackbean veneer walls and a unique glass domed roof. The central rug's rather special, all geometric brown and beige and fawn, so please don't step on it. There are extra-large cloakrooms behind the marquetry panels, as befitted the home of a wealthy socialite, and there's also a walk-in telephone cupboard. They were very big on new-fangled telephones, the Courtaulds. Look down at the skirting board and you might even spot the special sockets where servants plugged their vacuum cleaners into an automated suction system. Elsewhere on the ground floor there's an art-packed drawing room, a smart panelled library for him and a sumptuous boudoir for her. With, up on the wall, a large leather map of the Eltham area. I know, a leather map, whoever heard of such a thing?

Eltham Palace - Great Hall & 1930s additionsAnd then, through a Chinese screened doorway, suddenly it's the Middle Ages again. Ginny and Stephen built their family home in the grounds of a ruined royal palace, and deftly incorporated the Great Hall as their main entertaining space. At 100ft long and 55ft high, there was plenty of room to serve cocktails. The hall is a magnificent 15th century relic, designed by Edward IV's chief mason and still with its oak hammerbeam roof intact. Here the English Tudor court came to celebrate Christmas, and here the young Henry VIII spent much of his childhood. Try not to think about the underfloor central heating the Courtaulds installed - they had different planning regulations in those days.

Retrace your steps into the Art Deco Thirties, and upstairs to the bedrooms on the first floor. Yes, these are as modish and dapper as you might expect. Stephen's bedroom has block-printed wallpaper and a blue bathroom, while Ginny's en-suite features a most ostentatious bath beneath a shining gold mosaic. In another room you can watch the two textile millionaires at play in a selection of their home movies, and outside on the landing is the centrally heated cage in which Ginny kept her pet ring-tailed lemur. He was called Mah Jongg and he had the run of the house down a special bamboo ladder. It's how the other half lived, don't you know.

And finally back down to the dining room, complete with inlaid black marble and a recessed spotlit aluminium ceiling. A dinner party here, seated on rose-pink upholstered chairs whilst servants scuttled around with silver platters, must have been quite magnificent. Alas the Courtaulds didn't have very long to enjoy this cultured decadence. The house and landscaped gardens weren't completed until 1936, leaving only a handful of perfect summers before war broke out. Stephen and Ginny hung on here until 1944, assisting the WRVS and stamping out fires, before escaping first to Scotland and later to Rhodesia. Their loss is our gain. And wow.
by train: Eltham  by bus: 126, 161

 Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Replacing the Routemaster

very nearly the last RoutemasterWho would have thought that London's Mayoral election might hinge around the humble Routemaster bus? This much-loved workhorse has come to symbolise the supposed chasm that exists between moderniser Ken and fresh-thinking Boris. Mayor Ken killed off the redoubtable Routemaster a few years ago, and now Boris wants to bring them back. Doesn't he? And all at the expense of the nasty evil fare-dodging cycle-crushing bendy bus. Who could have a good word to say about London's fleet of 337 bendy buses... except perhaps passengers with wheelchairs, or mums with prams, or travellers with suitcases, or freeloaders who fancy a trip across town for nothing. It'll be fab to rid of these articulated roadhogs. Won't it? Well, actually, maybe not.

Boris Johnson has managed to plant an incredibly alluring idea in the minds of London's electorate. "Vote for me and I'll scrap all the bendy buses and bring back Routemasters." As campaign ideas go, it's brilliant. Alas that's not what he's promised at all, it's just what people think is on offer. What Boris has actually pledged is the following...
"I will phase out bendy buses and run a new competition to find a 21st century Routemaster that has full disabled access, runs on clean fuel and has conductors."
So here's problem number 1. Boris can't bring back old Routemasters because accessibility legislation bans the use of non-inclusive 1950s technology. There aren't enough of the old vehicles left anyway, because most of those withdrawn from service a few years ago are now either in private hands or rusting. So all that Boris can promise is a competition to design a "new Routemaster". Something like this Johnson-approved blueprint here (although the design can't be anywhere near perfect otherwise he wouldn't be relying on a contest). Expect the timelag from competition launch to first on-road replacement to be several years. Long term good, but medium term nil.

Then there's problem number 2. The new design won't really be a Routemaster at all, just a rear-platform people-mover with an evocative name. Call it a Routemaster if you like, Boris, but it won't be the classic bumpy spluttering vehicle we know and love. It'll be some new shiny thing with intrusive on-board announcements and electronic destination panels. But before the election, of course, all that matters is a convincing sounding rebranding exercise.

Then there's problem number 3. However much Londoners might wish them gone, Boris can't wipe bendy buses from the streets of the capital on the morning after he's elected. Remove them and there'd be hundreds of thousands of passengers on twelve bendy bus routes stranded at their stops. So the unloved bendies stay, for several years, until somebody's invented and built their replacements. But will the electorate notice this subtle difference in time - it's replace and then scrap, not scrap and then replace.

Then there's problem number 4. Planning to replace only bendy buses won't reinstate Routemasters on their traditional routes. There are 12 bendy bus routes, but there were as many as 20 recent Routemaster routes, and the overlap is surprisingly small. In fact only four RM routes would be reinstated under Boris's plans, a mere 20% of the total. He'd rescue the iconic 12, 38 and 73, and restore part of the old 36. But he'd also upgrade eight routes that either haven't been RM since the 80s (18, 25, 29, 149, 207, 453) or have never been (507, 521). And he'd completely ignore 16 rightful Routemaster routes (6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 13, 14, 15, 19, 22, 23, 94, 98, 137, 159, 390). This isn't true replacement, not at all.

Then there's problem number 5. Scrapping bendy buses, designing a Routemaster-y alternative, kitting them out with 21st century facilities and hiring conductors doesn't come cheap. Certainly nowhere near as cheap as the £8m Boris initially claimed, more like more than ten times that amount. All of which has to be paid for somehow. But I'll leave others to argue that one.

a bendy 38 at Clapton Pond

So, in conclusion, Boris's idea is quite good, but it's nowhere near as good as most Londoners believe it to be. Basically, electorate, you've been had. Even if you vote in Boris now, you won't be seeing any "new Routemasters" (or fewer bendy buses) until around the time of the next Mayoral election in 2012. If you're lucky.

Which leaves Ken's transport plans - a rather uninspiring "more of the same". At least "more of the same" won't include more bendy buses - we had the last changeover in 2006 and Ken now promises he's not planning on introducing any more. But more of the same doesn't win votes, even when it's actually quite progressive. Oh London, I worry about you sometimes. And if you can't see through Boris's Routemaster ploy, then I fear you deserve everything you get.

 Monday, March 17, 2008

St Patrick's Day, Trafalgar SquareIn London's wet city,
where green hats are so pretty,
I first set my eyes on sweet Ken Livingstone,
as he marched for St Patrick,
through streets half-aquatic,
crying leprechauns and shamrock,
a-cliché, a-cliché-o!

A-drip, a-shiver-o!
a-downpour, a-brolly-o!
Crying "This year's St Patrick’s Day celebrations have been another great success. Today's event has been one of the liveliest we've seen yet",
a-liar, a-liar-o!

London 2012Blimey, that was quick. Just eight months ago an undamaged collection of factories and warehouses stood on the Olympic stadium site. And now they don't. The entire area has been cleared, erased, flattened and lowered to create an arena-sized bowl, and the transformation is amazing. I should know, I've been back to watch the changes month by month, and my last visit made me gasp. OK, I'm easily impressed, but it's already possible to visualise precisely where the 2012 centrepiece will take shape. And still the scuttly diggers swarm up and down what used to be Marshgate Lane, repeatedly rearranging the earth until Lea Valley reality is appropriately realigned. It won't be long now.

The latest in my monthly series of photos of Olympic Stadium development (and reverse slideshow here)
Special treat: I've recorded a video so you can all soak up the proper Olympic building site ambiance. With lorries. It's on YouTube. And there's even a really wild pebbledrop incident, just to excite you.
All the latest stadium-building news from the official London 2012 blog
6pm update: Initial plans have been released for the 270-acre legacy Olympic Park, hopefully opening in 2014 (pdf)
March 18 update: A new candidate for "The most boring blogpost of all time" (sorry Catherine, but management jargon is far duller than technospeak)

 Sunday, March 16, 2008

Blue day

Carpenters Arms, Bethnal GreenOne of the best jobs in London is surely that of the Blue Badge Guide. These 500-or-so highly trained professionals spend their days taking tourists visitors around the capital, pointing out sights of interest and recounting fascinating historical tales. Sometimes they stand at the front of coaches and tell Japanese holidaymakers that it's not far to Windsor Castle, honest. Sometimes they walk round Westminster holding an umbrella in the air and wishing that their schoolkid charges would pay attention to their amusing anecdotes. Sometimes they stand beside busy road junctions yelling out hilarious stories that absolutely nobody can hear. They get paid less than £200 a day for their troubles, they work unsociable hours, and even if the weather's rubbish they still have to go out anyway. No really, it's a great job.

Once a year London's Blue Badge Guides organise a special day of free walks. Anybody can turn up and wander around town under their expert tutelage for a couple of hours, and hopefully learn lots of fascinating stuff in the process. 2008's special day was yesterday, as part of British Tourism Week, and I went along to sample a couple of the walks on offer. In the morning I joined Margaret at London Bridge station for a two hour stroll through the City via the medium of "nursery rhymes". She was rather pleasantly surprised when as many as 85 punters turned up, and then attempted to lead her tortuous crocodile (including two walking sticks and one pushchair) down steps, along riverbanks and through narrow alleyways. Our apologies to the miseryguts rambler who tried forcing his way through our rather wide group in a subway beneath Southwark Bridge while we were singing Oranges and Lemons.

The Lion, Tapp Street, Bethnal GreenAnd then in the afternoon a completely different walk, this time around the back streets of the East End. The title of the tour was 'Great British Villains', on which Ian our guide promised to take us to the notorious haunts of the Kray brothers. This time just over 50 people turned up - still more than enough to be a handful. We started outside the Blind Beggar pub on the Whitechapel Road - where else? But Ian knew his Krays (as I suspect he knows pretty much everything else) and whisked us off to far less familiar spots. Up a grim sideroad beneath a stark brick railway viaduct he pointed out the pub where the Krays had been drinking immediately before (and immediately after) Ronnie shot George Cornell in the Beggar. This rather bleak-looking ex-boozer had been called The Lion, but was more widely known locally as "Widows" or "Madge's" after the 60s landlady who ran it. It's since been converted to rather seedy-looking flats, of course. And it's not somewhere I'd have noticed otherwise, nor wanted to linger given the staring eyes of the mechanics in the car-fiddling yard nextdoor.

Elsewhere Ian showed us the church where Reggie got married in style (now more flats) and the church where all the family funerals were held (now a dog-walking ground for evil-looking Staffies). Yet another local pub, the Carpenters Arms, was owned by the nefarious twosome and used as the springboard for some right dodgy activities. If you were invited in here during the Sunday afternoon unlicensed intermission, you were almost certainly up to no good. On we walked, surely now a larger group than when we set out, past an unseen bullethole and the Kray's former boxing club.

178 Vallance Road (third from the left)And finally to the house at 178 Vallance Road where Ronnie and Reggie grew up, except that alas it no longer exists. A row of six smart 80s-built homes has replaced the previous terrace, so we can only imagine the cosy two-up two-down where the twins cosseted their mother and stashed their weapons. Ooh look, there's a special plaque outside number 178 unveiled by no less a personage than the Prince of Wales! It's nothing Kray-related though, just a housing cooperative coincidence. And then, after an appreciative flourish, Ian took his leave and wandered off.

It's not easy to become one of London's Blue Badge guides (in much the same way that it's bloody difficult to become a London cabbie). You first need to pass a "pre-entry" test consisting of two hours of quick questions about Europe, London, art, architecture, geography, history and the like. If successful you then have to pass an interview - presumably to check that you have an outgoing personality - and then stump up nearly £4000 to study on a two year induction course. There are lectures every Tuesday and Thursday evening for six months, twice, plus a series of must-attend tours and visits most Saturdays. You weren't planning on having a social life, were you? The final exam is in six parts, including written papers and practical assessments, with extra tests if you want to qualify in more than one language. But the stringent admission policy must work because every single one of the Blue Badge guides I've heard, from the Palace of Westminster to the backstreets of Whitechapel, has been wonderfully informative and personable. Get your application in next January and maybe you could be stepping out onto the London streets at Easter 2011 with an appreciative audience of visitors hanging on your every word.

 Friday, March 14, 2008

  the definitive DG guide to London's sights-worth-seeing
  Part 22: The Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture

Location: Middlesex University, Cat Hill, Barnet EN4 8HT [map]
Open: 10am - 5pm (2pm - 5pm Sundays) (closed Mondays)
Admission: free
5-word summary: the history of the home
Website: www.moda.mdx.ac.uk
Time to set aside: an hour and a bit

MoDAThe far northern suburbs between Barnet and Enfield are an unlikely spot for a museum. Just down the road from Cockfosters station, off the Cat Hill roundabout, amidst undulating avenues of spacious semis. No really, that university campus behind the duckpond hides an unlikely secret repository. Honest, it's not just students allowed through the entrance, this place is wide open to the infrequent public. Go on, step inside and try to follow the signs up the service road. See that curved glass roof on the front of what looks like a humanities block. That's the entrance into a tiny treasure trove of 20th century domestic design. a proper little community resource. Yes, who'd have thought?

Don't turn left, that's the toilets. Head right, through the swing doors and across the shop (you can come back to this later), then make your way into the ground floor gallery. Look, lots of lovely old things! Old things which, if you're a certain age, will bring back evocative memories of rooms your older relatives used to live in. This is the Exploring Interiors permanent exhibition, blessed by period samples of classic home decoration. In one cabinet are Edwardian drapes and pre-war wallpaper, in another are catalogues depicting frilly lampshades and patterned linoleum. This is a temple to fixtures and fittings and fabrics and furniture - a last resting place for electric two-bar heaters and Coronation TV sets. The gallery's not huge, but it successfully conjures up a picture of how homes really used to be. Isn't that my grandmother's china service?

Sienna, by Midwinter (1962)Various visitors have left their thoughts hanging up on fluorescent post-its:
"In the 1950s it was my job in the winter to light the fire in the dining room so I could do my homework. The room took ages to warm up! The bath was so cold in winter it gave you goose bumps to touch it." [Reg]
"I like the pictures and the kichen because there very old and I like learning about history" [from Shabela]
If you've planned ahead the staff will allow you inside the Study Room to delve deeper into the museum's collection. Or you could search it from home via the special online search engine. I mean, who could resist exploring The Crown Wallpaper collection, consisting of 5000 wallpaper samples and pattern books from the 50s and 60s? Beats a room full of tedious Celtic rock fragments any day.

Shell poster ad (Rye Marshes)Upstairs there's one more gallery, fitted out to house special temporary exhibitions. And between now and November that exhibition is a bit of a winner. The Shell Guides: Surrealism, Modernism, Tourism is an eight-cabinet celebration of an extraordinary series of very ordinary travel books. The Shell Guides were founded in 1935 by Sir John Betjeman, then writing for the Architectural Review. He foresaw the need for newly-mobile middle class England to get behind the wheel of their newly purchased motor cars and to start exploring the country's cultural hinterland. The series kicked off with his adopted homeland, Cornwall, then spent the next 50 years slowly rambling around the UK from county to county. Each guide presented an off-beat collection of discourse and photography, concentrating on buildings, myth and landscape rather than historical fact. Within this framework a variety of guest editors were given free rein to interpret the guidebook brief as they saw fit, producing an eclectic set of volumes linked only by the sponsor's name.
"The Guides managed to appear conventional and mainstream while in fact preserving a subversive and challenging view of Britain. Only the words 'guidebook' and 'Shell' enabled the editors to hide this fact from the public"
For an exhibition which is essentially a room full of printed pages and book covers, it's really very interesting. There are tantalising glimpses of gazetteers and footnotes, as well as black and white illustrations and associated ephemera. Take a seat on the comfy sofa at the far end of the gallery and you can enjoy a series of related videos, including a 60s girl about town filling up her tank with pre-trip petrol, and Sir John's dainty observations on the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Even the jaunty signature music manages to perfectly evoke the timeless optimism of these unique travelling companions. And by the time you reach the cabinet where all 36 guides are proudly displayed, you'll want to smash the glass and take the lot home. Keep watching eBay, they're bound to appear eventually.
by tube: Cockfosters  by bus: 298, 299, 307

a guide to the Shell Guides
a review of the Shell Guides exhibition

 Sunday, March 09, 2008

Bus 43: London Bridge - Friern Barnet
Location: London north
Length of journey: 9 miles, 70 minutes

Last year I rode the 42 to Dulwich. So this year, for my birthday, I thought I'd ride the 43 to Barnet. I wondered if, perhaps, its lengthy journey to the north London suburbs would provide a metaphor for life. And, you know what, maybe it does.

a 43 departs London Bridge stationLife kicks off with a long wait: The 43 must have the scariest bus queue in London. Fifty metres of pavement adjacent to bus stop C have been marked out for a narrow doublebacked queue, with painted lanes arrowed up and down and back up again, as if this were some over-popular Disneyland attraction. Every weekday morning hundreds of Kentish commuters pour out of London Bridge station and wait here patiently, politely, for their cross-river transport to the City. But at the weekend getting aboard was rather easier. There were only four of us waiting, and we ignored the arrows on the ground altogether.

Life can get lonely: The City of London is an unnervingly quiet place on a Saturday afternoon. The financiers stay at home, the shops are firmly closed, and crews of workmen take the opportunity to lug giant cranes up medieval lanes to shift the skyline while nobody's looking. And so we sped through EC2 while absolutely nobody whatsoever boarded our bus, not until we passed Moorgate's rampant griffin and entered downtown Islington. And even then not one soul dared to climb the stairs to join me on the top deck. The girl with the guitar; the pair of mums with bag-filled pushchair; the lady jabbering in a foreign language consisting entirely of vowels; the screaming kid emitting "I'm being kidnapped" yelps - they all crammed in downstairs and left me sitting in peace above their heads. I expected my solitude to end in Upper Street, packed with trendy trinket shoppers, but almost everybody lined up at its chain of bus stops turned out to be waiting for other services to take them somewhere rather nicer instead.

Life begins at Highbury: Well, Highbury Corner at least. The long trek up the Holloway Road, past the off licences and chicken cottages, was where the 43's journey finally got busier. I listened in on the witterings of my fellow passengers. "If I wasn't going to the estate agent I'd definitely be going to your house to see the mannequins." I never did get to the bottom of that mystery. "I'm not five Daddy, I'm five and a half. How old are you, are you 43?" Honest, the flaxen-haired angel sat behind me really asked that, and Daddy really was. "Goodbye darling, hugs and kisses, and love to Jemima." Hmm, leafy Tufnell Park ahead.

Colney Hatch libraryLife is an uphill struggle: Virtually the whole of the 43's journey from the Thames to the suburbs was slowly, relentlessly, uphill. Onward we crawled, up the A1, through ringroad-scarred Archway, beneath Suicide Bridge, and ascending the organic slopes of Highgate. No burger'n'kebab joints were evident here - the residents appeared to dine out in cantinas and brunch daily on Eggs Benedict. The bus then queued behind a traffic jam of Ocado vans before turning right, past Peter Sellers' cottage and woodland daffodils, to the giddy heights of Muswell Hill. Here in this highbrow middle-class enclave, looking down across an ocean of lesser rooftops, our journey peaked. Very tasteful, very much like a Home Counties market town. Along the Broadway I spotted several proper independent shops, and the odd boutique, and even a pub discreetly tucked inside a huge Victorian church. Blue-rinsed ladies lined up to board the bus with their trolley of M&S comestibles to ride the few stops home.

Life gets you down: And finally back down into the valley, past the first bog standard suburban streets of the entire journey. On and on, across the streaming North Circular and out into unexplored Colney Hatch. The penultimate passenger alighted at the old Friern Barnet Town Hall, now converted into luxury apartmentettes. And only I stayed on until the occasionally-open library, where this bus terminates. At this lonely outpost the driver had only a man with a clipboard for company, and a tiny lockable portakabin for officially sanctioned bladder-emptying. It was a very different spot to go-ahead London Bridge, three score minutes and ten ago.

Colney Hatch mental hospital, now the Princess Park Manor development

Life ends up in hospital: But blimey, what was that enormous building just up the road? I mean, like, truly enormous (in terms of length rather than height, that is). Look, a 500m-long residential block with central dome and various perpendicular wings, looking every inch a college or important administrative bastion. Except no, this grand Italianate building was once the largest mental hospital in London. Forget Bedlam, this was the pinnacle of Victorian lunatic provision, tucked away on the leafy outskirts of town where everybody could forget about it. Colney Hatch Asylum boasted the longest corridor in Britain, perfect for wheeling patients down, and up to 3500 inmates were crammed and strait-jacketed inside. As its infamy spread, so Londoners started using the words "Colney Hatch" as a term of abuse, and pretty soon the local station had to change its name to "New Southgate" to avoid any unwanted stigma. It's not a mental hospital any more, of course, it's been reborn as the rather exclusive Princess Park Manor development. There's only one vehicular entrance, guarded by fearsome security guards who check off every visitor against an approved list. The rest of the perimeter is securely fenced, no longer to lock the inmates inside but to keep undesirable elements out. Now jogging bankers exercise on the landscaped lawns, and a gated elite live out their days in rooms which were once anything but desirable. But I'm not convinced many of them ever commute aboard the 43 to the City - they'd have to be insane to sit on a bus for that long.

43 links
Route 43: Wikipedia entry
Route 43: route history
Route 43: timetable

 Friday, March 07, 2008

Iain Sinclair - wandering wordsmith

He writes oblique intricate prose about London. He's an award-winning author with a shelf of books to his name. He lives in Hackney, sort of Hoxton-ish. He's Iain Sinclair. And last night he was giving a talk, for free, at the Museum in Docklands. They do this sort of thing in arty venues across East London on the First Thursday of every month, you know. And Iain's talk was also a special event on the first day of the East Festival, which is casting its cultural shadow across the next five days in this part of the world. So I went along to feast on words.

Around 100 people turned up to hear Iain's take on East London. We were treated to an hour of chat, both from Mr S and from Sara Wajid of Untold London (a diversely-historical London website). She introduced him as a chronicler of the disappeared for whom "location is his muse". I liked that line. And I liked Iain. He spoke as he writes, in meandering anecdotes, not sticking to any linear narrative but most entertaining all the same.

Iain's had many jobs in his time, from a cellar worker at the family-run Truman Brewery to a behind the scenes dogsbody at the Raymond Revue Bar. His favourite job, however, involved several years spent mowing the grass in various Hawksmoor churchyards. A good run around on the lawnmower, the chance to eye up the local community, and long lunch breaks sat reminiscing with old boys who remembered the way the East End used to be. Where once was a grand riverside landscape dotted with dominant steeples, now the invasive "Not London" towers of Docklands overshadow all.

Although Iain's well known as a psychogeographer, it's not a term he feels particularly comfortable with. Psychogeography is just another niche concept hijacked by the mainstream, made popular by repetition and dilution, so he told us. But he's definitely a fan of going places to discover things, as exhibited by his circumnavigation of the M25 for London Orbital. "A quest is the excuse for a journey". I liked that line too, because it's a concept I'm frequently guilty of myself.

Iain told us several stories, including that of bricked-off Rodinsky's Room at 19 Princelet Street, and how the displaced inhabitant ended his life in an asylum. Iain recalled interlinked tales from his latest anthology London: City of Disappearances (which he signed for grateful punters downstairs afterwards). And he read us an extract from his nearly-published book based around his home borough - Hackney: A Rose-Red Empire. The day the London Fields Lido reopened, so we heard, its swishing electronic doors were mobbed by canine invaders. No Sinclair story is ever ordinary.

By the end of the hour, and a brief Q&A session, we knew precisely what Iain thought of Olympic developments in the Lea Valley. A black hole erasing undocumented marginal lands, no less, now brutally hidden behind an unsettling blue wall. And we could probably have listened to him for another hour, had the Museum not been quite so keen to cajole us out of the theatre and down towards the exit. I avoided the book signing and headed back out to the artificial quaysides of business-blasted West India Dock. From the wine bars came the merry braying of bankers, gulping bubbly where labourers once ate their cheese and pickle sandwiches. He makes you look at things differently, does Iain. But I think I'm still more comfortable listening to him than reading him.

A message to the staff at the Museum in Docklands. If your evening talk is due to start at 7:30, don't announce the time as 7pm on your website. Lovely though it was to listen to the London Gay Men's Chorus singing three part harmony in the foyer while strolling around the labyrinth of nigh-empty galleries, I'd really rather have spent the extra half-hour at home.

 Monday, March 03, 2008

Bethnal Green station, southeast entranceStairway to heaven

Britain's worst civilian disaster of World War Two took place on 3rd March 1943. The disaster occurred on a night when no bombs fell. It took place in a tube station not yet served by tube trains. It killed 173 East Londoners, a third of them children. And all the carnage took place on this insignificant staircase. Who'd have thought?

65 years ago, with the eastern Central line still under construction, Bethnal Green station was opened to the public to be used as an air raid shelter. Every time the sirens sounded thousands of people would make their way down to the safety of the platforms below, grabbing a few precious spare feet to spread out their bedding and to wait for the all clear. That wet Wednesday evening was nothing special. The air-raid warning blared out at 8:17pm, heralding what locals believed to be Hitler's retaliation for a recent raid on Berlin. Local residents dutifully made their way through the blackout to the tube station, either directly from home or emptying out of pubs, buses and cinemas. If only they'd known that this was a false alarm then many might have stayed where they were, and lived.

Bethnal Green station, southeast entranceThe entrance to the station was down a 19-step staircase lit by a single 25-watt bulb. There were no handrails in those days, nor any painted markings to show the edge of each step. At the foot of the stairs was a square landing, then seven further steps down to the ticket hall and the top of the escalators. Within this tiny space the tragedy unfolded. At 8:27 a sudden blast on experimental anti-aircraft guns in Victoria Park caused the crowd to panic and rush forward. Down on the first landing a woman carrying a baby tripped and fell, and an elderly man then tripped over the pair of them. This was all it took for the crush to begin, as scores of other shelterers pushed, stumbled and fell into the darkness. Soon the stairwell was filled with a deep pile of helpless bodies, smothered and fighting desperately for breath. Meanwhile further arrivals attempted to enter the station from above, unaware that they were treading on a floor of asphyxiated flesh, and unable to prevent themselves from becoming part of it. Within the space of just two minutes, nearly 200 lives were lost.

Bethnal Green plaqueThe British Government hushed up the terrible incident, fearing it might damage civilian morale. The findings of the official inquiry were held back until the war was over, and it took several decades for a small plaque to be erected in the stairwell in the victims' honour. It's not much to show for such a major incident, especially since TfL have installed a rather tasteless "Emergency - Do not enter" illuminated sign beside it.

Now survivors and local residents have come together to campaign for a more fitting permanent memorial, using publicity surrounding the 65th anniversary to generate awareness of their cause. Their aim is to try to raise £600,000 so that a huge inverted staircase, etched with the names of the dead, can be suspended directly above the scene of the tragedy. This Stairway To Heaven, as they've called it, would be a startling sight alongside a busy road junction. No longer would this be a forgotten subterranean disaster, but a constant jarring reminder on the conscience of the community. Because sometimes, let's remember, stringent Health and Safety regulations are there for a reason. And sometimes you're only a few steps from heaven.

 Sunday, March 02, 2008

  the definitive DG guide to London's sights-worth-seeing
  Part 21: RAF Museum

Location: Grahame Park Way, Colindale, London NW9 5LL [map]
Open: 10am - 6pm
Admission: free
5-word summary: those magnificent men's flying machines
Website: http://www.rafmuseum.org/london
Time to set aside: at least half a day

It's cub scout heaven. A handful of giant hangars in North London, hemmed in beside the M1, packed with instruments of aerial death. Look, an aeroplane, and look, another aeroplane, and look, several more aeroplanes. Just like it was back in the 1970s when I first visited with my cub scout pack, only now quite a bit bigger. So yesterday I went back for another look, this time woggle-free.

Milestones of FlightThere's the main visitor entrance, over there near the car park beneath the swirly yellow sculpty thing. Don't worry, it's free to enter, so you can walk straight past the disinterested door staff without coughing up. Take the underwhelming back stairs up to the first floor and enter the terribly modern Milestones of Flight hangar. That's a Blériot, and that's a Gipsy Moth, and that's a Fokker, innit? There are rather more planes in here than you'd find stacked up over Heathrow at the start of the Easter holidays, and these are rather more famous too. Just don't step over the protective string for a closer look or one of the guides will bark at you. Along one wall is an extremely detailed Timeline of Flight listing aviation accomplishments every year from 1903 to 2002, which would take at least an hour to read properly. This is good stuff, this. But don't get any ideas about going upstairs to enjoy the state-of-the-art 3D cinema or Air Traffic Control exhibition - they'll probably be "out of bounds" due to lack of staff.

On through the canvas tunnel into the main body of the museum. Oh look, yet another hangar filled with planes, this time even more cavernous. And rather darker (plane spotters be warned, not a great place for taking photographs). This is Bomber Hall, home to Buccaneers and Lancasters and scores of other aircraft used for airborne massacre. It therefore seems more than a little inappropriate to spot a bloke eating his sandwiches beneath the delta wing of a Vulcan nuclear bomber, or a mum changing her son's nappy sprawled out beside the remains of a crashed Halifax.

RAF wingsGuess what's in the hangar nextdoor? Yes, lots more planes (and a few helicopters thrown in for good measure). There'll also be also an awful lot of cub-scout-aged boys, caught up in the excitement of aeronautical nirvana, dragging their weary parents around from Kittyhawk to Lockheed. If there's a technologically inspired pre-teen in your family, bring them along to Hendon and they're sure to have a whale of a time plane-spotting. There's even a special section of the museum - Aeronauts - packed with child-friendly interactive experiments. From the whoops of delight I heard coming from this area yesterday afternoon, obviously nobody realised they were swotting up on their Science curriculum.

And there's more, even more, in two further giant hangars outside. The Grahame-White building - Britain's first purpose-built aircraft factory - contains all the old biplanes from the Red Baron era. It's only open in the morning, so if you arrive early make sure you go there first. And across the car park is the Battle of Britain collection. Make sure you enter by the left-hand door, else you'll end up in the restaurant. And don't be tricked by the initial exhibits into thinking that this is going to be a really naff collection of stilted waxworks. Oh no, it's another collection of planes, this time all WW2-related. Spitfires and Hurricanes stand wing to tail with Messerschmitts and Heinkels, again in a rather gloomy lens-unfriendly environment. And every hour, on the hour, the lights are dimmed completely to permit the projection of the "Our Finest Hour" audiovisual presentation. I didn't wait, and the comatose attendant looked like she'd been unbothered by queues for many a month.

This is an old-school museum, plane and simple. Informative displays tell you all you need to know, without too much additional flashiness. It feels a little under-staffed, which may be why all the upper floors were roped off yesterday. But there's tons here, quite literally, in one of London's more under-appreciated visitor attractions. Mind out of the way - cub scout pack coming through!
by tube: Colindale  by bus: 303

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