Sunday, April 27, 2008

The London Olympics: 1908 Exactly 100 years ago today, the fourth Olympics of the modern era kicked off in London. Yes, really, in April. But there was a reason for the early start. The Olympics wasn't a two week made-for-TV extravaganza in those days, but a lengthy international celebration of amateur sportsmanship. All a bit fledgling, and still a bit rough around the edges. London had been asked to take over the organisation of the 1908 Olympics at the last minute, after Vesuvius erupted in 1906 and the Italians wanted to divert their money to rebuilding Naples instead. Which meant that the 1908 Olympics were organised by British officialdom. And it's just possible that we used our home advantage to, erm, cheat. medal table at the BBC Media Village (built on the site of the old White City Stadium)One glimpse at the final medal table, seen here on the walls of the BBC's Media Village in White City, shows the full extent of our "sporting excellence". We didn't just beat the rest of the world, we thrashed them. We won almost as many medals as the rest of the world put together (perhaps because, at that time, only 23 nice upstanding countries with decent chaps got invited). We won all the gold medals in the lawn tennis and the boxing and the yachting and the rowing. We won the football and the hockey and the polo and the tug-of-war. And we were the only country to enter the Racquets competition, so not surprisingly we won that too. Bit suspicious, innit? The 1908 Olympics started on April 27th and ended as late as October 31st. That's a whole six months of intermittent sporting activities, from the opening Racquets event at the Queens Club to the closing banquet at the Holborn Restaurant. All of the athletics events were crammed into a few summer weeks at the new White City stadium, but the rest were spread out across the year in a not terribly coordinated way. No problem if you're the home country and live a few miles up the road, but rather more difficult for foreign teams in an era before international jet travel.
1908 Olympic events not held at White City April: Rackets (Queen's Club) May: Tennis (Queen's Club) June: Polo (Hurlingham) July: Lawn Tennis (Wimbledon), Shooting (Bisley & Uxendon), Rowing (Henley), Yachting (Ryde) August: Yachting (Clyde), Motor boats (Southampton Water) October: Boxing (Clerkenwell), Skating (Knightsbridge)
And another rather dodgy thing. All the organisers and officials at all of the 1908 events were British. No doubt we thought we were just being helpful, not requiring the rest of the world to muck in on home turf, but this decision did leave the competition open to a certain amount of bias. And nowhere was this more evident that in the rowing events at Henley. These were organised by the local boatclub - the oldest rowing club in the world, the Leander. Their stewards were concerned that anyone who'd practised on the course before the Games began might have an unfair advantage, so they banned all foreign teams from advance training on the Thames. They also observed that the Belgian eight had won races at the Henley Royal Regatta for the two previous years, so they banned the 'over-experienced' Belgians outright. And, unbelievably, the Belgians agreed. But the Leander team had no such qualms about their own experience. They entered the 1908 rowing competition on behalf of the UK and, having practised umpteen times on their local river, went on to win gold with considerable ease. So much for British sportsmanship. 1908 Olympic winning bladeYou can see one of these dubious gold medals on display in Henley's fascinating River and Rowing Museum. They've also got a blade from the same race, inscribed with the names of the eight victorious oarsmen, and a rather ornate commemorative programme. No mention of an apology from the Leander club, however. The Olympic regatta returned to Henley in 1948, and once again Team GB was victorious (but this time deservedly so). The museum has the winning coxless pair's boat on display, as propelled to victory by Hugh Laurie's dad. And they're also lucky enough to have Redgrave and Pinsent's winning coxless four from the Sydney Games in 2000 [photo], complete with aerodynamic prow and stuck-down Adidas trainers. I wonder if we stand any chance of coming away with a similar haul of medals when the Olympic Regatta arrives downriver in Eton in 2012. Without deliberately biasing all the arrangements again, I suspect not. Compare and contrastLondon's first Olympics (BBC)London's first Olympics (Daily Mail)London's first Olympics (British History Online)

 Friday, April 25, 2008

IKEA NeasdenWhy is the latest London Underground tubemap sponsored by IKEA? That's 1672 wall-mounted maps at stations, each with a huge IKEA advert slapped across the bottom. That's six million pocket maps, distributed between now and next March, their back covers emblazoned with a big Nordic slogan. And that's four million Oyster wallets, no longer sky-blue but Swedish yellow, being flashed across London's ticket gates for the foreseeable future. Oh very clever Herr IKEA, very clever indeed. But why? Why attempt to brand the tubemap, when your stores aren't exactly tubemap-station friendly?

I mean, for a start, why go to IKEA by train anyway? It's fine if you want a vase or a tea strainer or some votive candles, but buy anything bigger like a flatpack wardrobe or a sustainable bunkbed and you're not going to get very far by public transport. IKEA is a car-owner's furniture warehouse, located where road access is most convenient, and stuff anyone arriving without their own wheels. Anyone attempting to take the tube home with a shelving unit or sofabed is going to jam themselves between a pair of IKEA-sponsored ticket gates.

And here's why I'm really concerned about this branding takeover. The IKEA ad on the back of the tubemap lists all four of their London stores and also how to get there. And, well, the nearest tube stations aren't exactly close, are they?

» IKEA Croydon [IKEA Ampere Way tram stop]
Now that's clever. Apart from a certain oxygenated phone company (and, some would argue, Arsenal football club), IKEA are the only major company to wangle their brand into the name of a London station. In this case, however, it's only a tram stop, and Croydon's tram network doesn't yet appear on the tubemap. So it's not much use advertising there for spur-of-the-moment shoppers, is it?

» IKEA Edmonton [Tottenham Hale tube station. Free shuttle bus]
Aha, an IKEA at a tube station that's actually on the map. Except that this tube station is well over a mile from the store so you'll have to wait for the occasional free shuttle bus, or walk. There is a nearer National Rail station, Angel Road, but it's not on the tubemap, it's closed at weekends and it doesn't accept Oyster cards. Which is a bit rubbish really.

» IKEA Lakeside [Chafford Hundred rail station]
Cheat! This one's not even in London. It's two miles outside, and five miles from the nearest tube station (which is Upminster). Sure you can get here by c2c train, every half hour or so if you're lucky, but they don't take Oyster this far out either. It's M25 or bust, really.

» IKEA Wembley [Neasden tube station] [Free shuttle bus from Stonebridge Park tube station]
I love the way they call this IKEA Wembley, not IKEA Neasden. But then the store is a really grim walk from Neasden tube - long and tortuous involving dubious road crossings and a seriously mucky footbridge. Or take that lovely shuttle bus, approximately every half an hour, from the forgotten end of the Bakerloo line. It's not ideal.

Why is the latest London Underground tubemap sponsored by IKEA? Because they paid two million pounds for the privilege, that's why. And because even car drivers take the tube sometimes.

 Thursday, April 24, 2008

Today is Walk To Work Day. It's a campaigning day, organised by Living Streets, on which Londoners are invited to walk to work. It's not terribly practical if you don't have any work to go to. It's a bit pointless if you work from home. It's not really feasible if you live in Uxbridge and work in the City (or indeed live in Liverpool and work in Manchester). But hey, even a pledge "to walk for at least 30 minutes on your way in" is good enough for the organisers. So, here goes.

I live just over four miles away from my place of work. On a good day, zipping in on the tube, I can get from door to door in less than half an hour. Half of that time is spent on the train, mostly nose to armpit, and the remainder spent walking to and from stations. This morning I'm going to increase the walking percentage to 100% and do the entire journey from Bow to Holborn on foot. Look, I'm up and awake a whole hour earlier than usual. I must be mad.

There are two big problems ahead, the first of which is that I can't travel in a straight line. If I could walk along the mainline tracks into Liverpool Street that would be perfect, but there isn't a perfectly parallel road or footpath running alongside. London's twisted grid of historic streets and alleyways wasn't designed for straight line travel, and there are several built-up obstructions along the way which have no pedestrian access whatsoever.

So I've gone along to the excellent site at walkit.com to plan my optimum route. Enter postcodes, cue detailed routemap. They propose three miles down the Bow/Mile End/Whitechapel Roads to Aldgate, then a curved mile-long trek through the City and onward up High Holborn. Total distance, just under five miles. Identical to the number 25 bendy bus route, in fact, only rather slower. At a fast walking pace (that's 4mph) they reckon I can walk to work in an hour and a quarter. Or at a medium pace (3mph) just over an hour and a half. It'll be good exercise, honest.

And the second problem is road junctions. I can't simply walk for five miles, I have to keep stopping at traffic lights to allow cars and buses and bikes to whizz past. Valuable minutes will tick by as I attempt to cross Cambridge Heath Road, and Commercial Street, and the scary junction outside the Bank of England. That tortuous subway at the Aldgate gyratory is going to slow me down no end, and the roundabout at Holborn Circus wasn't really designed for pedestrians. So I have no hope whatsoever of maintaining walkit's over-optimistic 4mph pace, not without hopping onto a bus, and that's cheating.

I've also tried entering my details on TfL's Journey Planner, which is flexible enough to cope with 100%-walk solutions, and they've suggested exactly the same bendy route. But they reckon it'll take me a couple of minutes short of two hours, which may be a more realistic target. We shall see. But hey, like I care. My morning commute today will take me past St Paul's Cathedral rather than underneath it. I'll get to enjoy the hustle of Whitechapel and the curves of the Gherkin rather than getting extremely squashed on the Central line. I'll be experiencing London rather than hiding below it. My journey may not be direct, and it may not be fast, but it sounds perfect to me. Just this once, though.

Here are my Twitter updates from the journey:
» 06:36 Pedometer strapped on, walking shoes ready... it's time to walk 5 miles to work for Walk To Work Day. I must be mad.
» 06:50 It's a glorious morning, clear blue skies, sun behind me and the City illuminated ahead. Passing Mile End tube, my end still 4 miles away.
» 07:01 The A11 through Stepney may be quiet, but I'm being overtaken by cars, vans, bikes and bendy buses, plus a queue of Heathrow-bound planes.
» 07:14 Whitechapel Market not yet set up, a one-armed beggar outside the tube, and the sun glinting on a golden minaret. Easily averaging 4mph.
» 07:23 Into the Square Mile at Aldgate, surrounded by scuttling City suits, then on between Lloyd's and the Gherkin. Busier pavements now.
» 07:36 One hour precisely from Bow Church to Bow Bells. Breathing in fresh-mixed tar and exhaust fumes... and the magnificent dome of St Paul's.
» 07:50 Across Holborn Viaduct and into the final stretch, past my 8th tube station. Dodging commuters to maintain the pace. Sweating satisfactorily.
» 08:01 Arriving at work at the usual time, 8843 steps later, having walked from home in just under 90 minutes. That's 3.4mph. Feels good. Once.

 Thursday, April 17, 2008

London 2012Don't miss your opportunity
to see the latest designs for
the Olympic Stadium

The Olympic Torch may have bypassed Bow last week, but the Olympic Delivery Authority dropped in last night for a proper session with the local community. The ODA have nearly finished preparing detailed plans for the Olympic Stadium, and they wanted to see what we thought. So they turned up in a local school hall with the architect, set out a few chairs and waited to see who'd turn up. And a few of us did. Maybe if they'd mentioned there was free tea and biscuits, there'd have been more than 20.

The full consultation roadshow came to town. A posh white lectern labelled "engage", a big video screen, lots of microphones, and a headphoned bloke in charge of cables. All of the panellists wore their vivid 2012 logo lapel badges, and the first speaker's Powerpoint notes looked like they'd emptied the ODA's inkjet printer of every colour except black. The ethnic diversity of the E3 postcode was well represented across the ODA staff present, but alas not amongst the audience which was conspicuously white. There's a lot more reaching out to the local community still to be done.

hoardings in Barbers RoadWe were treated first to an update on the state of the Olympic Park. I was already well aware how far advanced the preparations were, having been up on the Greenway bridge taking my monthly photo less than two hours earlier. More than 75% of the entire park has already been demolished, and the stadium site itself now resembles a flattened earth bowl dotted with the occasional digger. We were told how thousands of native fish, insects and amphibians have already been "translocated", in readiness for their offspring to return to refreshed waterways once the legacy phase kicks in. And as for the 52 pylons currently scattered across the site, they'll be coming down later this year and all the cables threaded underground.

Deep breath. Time for the first Questions and Answers session. It was soon clear that the audience had all of the questions, and the panellists had few of the answers. Why is the Greenway still uncomfortably unsafe after dark, and did anyone try liaising with the Lea Rivers Trust before they folded, and will anyone force London Cement to stop belching dust when the Olympics comes? Dunno. In their defence, the ODA staff did politely offer to go away and find out everything they didn't know and forward the details, but this wasn't good enough for one member of the audience who promptly stormed out, noisily. As the evening continued it became apparent that our audience was sprinkled with local residents who might best be described as gauche argumentative nutters. But thankfully not too many of them.

And then the main event - a presentation from one of the architects who helped to design the new Olympic Stadium. We got to see all the promotional photos and videos that the London 2012 team released last November, but we were also treated to some rather finer detail about how the place will actually operate. The stadium looks suspiciously like a giant bowl of trifle, ladled full of custard churned round with hundreds and thousands. It's been cunningly designed so that the top tier can be removed after the Paralympics, reducing seating capacity from 80000 to a more sustainable 25000. Only after the Games will all the spectators be roofed in - during 2012 only two-thirds of the seats will have the luxury of a rain/sun shade. It's "best value", apparently, and it's all about "embracing the temporary". Even the toilets will be housed inside big metal containers which can be carted off and used elsewhere afterwards.

Olympic Stadium site - April 2008The stadium will take full advantage of the natural slope of the land by having two very distinct ground levels. All the service roads and the arena floor will be tucked away down at towpath level, approached from the south and west, while all the spectators will wander around 6m higher up at podium level, approached from the north and east. The architects have also taken full advantage of the stadium's "island" setting (two sides river, one side sewer). Once spectators have made it over the footbridges and onto the "podium island", they'll be free to wander in and out of the stadium or around the surrounding plazas where all the food and services will be based. Please, begged our audience, please make as much of the food as possible locally sourced and not that heart-stopping fat-dripping multinational burger crap. Only time will tell whether or not our voice is heard.

Many topics were raised during the final Q&A session, often of only tangential relevance to the stadium itself. The architect was unable to confirm security arrangements, although he did say that the entire stadium and surrounding island would be capable of being cleared in 8 minutes flat. He was also unable to confirm precisely how many bridges might be built connecting the Olympic Park to Bow. Residents remained keen for access to be as great as possible, not least because we'd rather like the 9000 workers on site over the next few years to come and spend money in our cafes and shops. The ODA spokeswoman assured us that there'll be another consultation later in the year to discuss proposals for the "public realm", including access points and legacy parkland, and I suspect many of us will be back for that.

Meanwhile, back on the Olympic Stadium site, the initial piling starts this week. Foundations and earthworks will be next, and by the time those are complete it's hoped that planning permission for the rest of the stadium will have been granted. All being well we'll have a big bowl of Olympic trifle on our doorstep as early as February 2011, completed ready for test events to take place a whole year before the Games begin. And don't worry, because we local residents hope to be popping back to be consulted at regular intervals between now and then, and we'll try to ensure that your money is being well spent. I have to say, it looks like it so far.

 Saturday, April 12, 2008

Random borough (17): Redbridge

Time yet again for me to take another random trip to one of London's 33 boroughs. Woohoo, halfway at last! The anonymous borough of Redbridge lurks on the edge of northeast London, consisting of Ilford, the M11 corridor and vast swathes of mid 20th century suburban estates. This is affordable London, home to thousands of very ordinary families, and not in any way on the tourist trail. I was quite worried that there wouldn't be enough out here to report back on, but in the end I was very pleasantly surprised.

Somewhere to begin: Redbridge Museum
Yes, even Redbridge has its own museum. It's spread over a couple of floors in Ilford Library, just off the main shopping street so that most blinkered consumers would never find it. The building is cursed by automatic doors that swish open rather prematurely, as if to draw your attention to the goodies beyond. And what do you know, there's plenty of Redbridge history for the museum to boast about. The main gallery contains a variety of themed exhibits, from the usual archaeological finds to the more recent industrial and social history of the area. Burial and supermarkets are unexpectedly popular themes. In the 1860s the complete skull of a woolly mammoth was uncovered beneath what is now Boots the Chemist, buried here when Ilford was just temperate grassland. And the famous Ilford photographic company started up in the town in the 1870s, but the business moved on 100 years later and a superstore has since been built on the original factory site. The museum clearly has an eye on the primary school trip audience, but everything's extremely well presented. Meanwhile in the first floor gallery they've just kicked off a special exhibition devoted to Suffragette and campaigning feminist Sylvia Pankhurst who used to live in Woodford (and also in Bow, so I was especially interested). Well done Redbridge, more people deserve to hear of you.
by train: Ilford  by bus: 25 (and many more)

Somewhere pretty: The Hainault Loop
Gants HillSee that big orange loop at the eastern end of the Central line? That's Redbridge, that is. Apart from the three really quiet stations at the top which are in Essex, so I didn't have an excuse to alight at Roding Valley, Chigwell or Grange Hill. But I visited all the others, and a few of them are very special indeed. This end of the Central line opened in the late 1940s, delayed somewhat by munitions factories being operated in the tunnels during WWII. Many of the stations were converted from LNER operation, and still retain a period charm not entirely wrecked by Metronet. White wooden canopies, well-worn solid benches and decorative ironwork - all a million miles away from the modern brutality of certain central London stations. Fairlop photos is like a rural halt in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Barkingside photos has a footbridge from which you can watch half the action at the non-league club nextdoor. Redbridge photos is more of a subterranean cavern with central tiled pillars, reminiscent of something Eastern European. But the finest examples of postwar architecture lie inbetween.

There's very little sign of Gants Hill station above the surface, just a large roundabout in the middle of the A12 with five brightly tiled subways leading down into the depths. Pass down into the ticket hall and descend the escalators, and then wow! The central lobby ahead has a mighty arched ceiling, with passageways to either side between tiled pillars leading to the two platforms photos. Everything is cream and shiny, even the floor, and the tiles are topped off with light orange trim. And down the centre of this cathedral-like space are three sets of paired uplighters, tall and thin like massive brown goblets. They rise up from a series of marble islands, each with a chunky wooden bench at its heart. Is this an insignificant London suburb or is this an important station on the Moscow underground? The platforms may not be sensational photos, but they still have a sense of architectural haughtiness. Maybe it's the special London Transport clock, with roundels for digits and another roundel for a hand. Waiting for a train here is no hardship.

Newbury Park bus stationAt Newbury Park the impressive feature is outside the station, not down on the unremarkable platforms. Exit from the ticket hall along a long brick corridor and you emerge into a bus station like no other. This interchange building, with its long barrel-vaulted roof topped with copper, makes a mighty modernist statement photos. It's as if someone's sliced a hollow cylinder in half to create a giant concrete insect with a green back and slender curving legs. Inside, beneath the airy canopy, equally-spaced wall-mounted lamps are shielded by thin metal fins photos. And down on the ground just one single bus stop serving a mere three single-decker routes, with infrequent service, in one direction only. A most ambitious project, but whose potential was never fully realised in its locality before the building money ran out. At least Oliver Hill's design won a special architectural award during the Festival of Britain, even if the plaque now has a crack across it. It's well worth getting a ticket to Zone 4 just to take a look.
by tube: Gants Hill, Newbury Park  by bus: 66, 296, 396

Somewhere historic: Wanstead Park
Wanstead ParkOne of the grandest houses ever seen in Britain was built in Wanstead in the early 18th century. Wanstead House was a pioneer of Palladian style, with mighty Corinthian pillars and a 200ft-long frontage. The gardens were landscaped with tree-lined avenues and ornamental waterways, creating a spectacular Versailles-like estate. A mixture of Blenheim Palace and Hampton Court, if you like, and much favoured by the nobles and gentry of the Georgian era. So why have you never heard of Wanstead House, let alone visited? Because it's been completely demolished, that's why, leaving only the surrounding parkland as evidence of magnificence lost. And the tale of its disappearance is worthy of a modern day soap opera.

Wanstead once had a Tudor manor, snapped up in 1667 by the extremely rich Governor of the East India Company, Sir Josiah Child. He was succeeded by his son Richard who knocked down the old house and built an ostentatious replacement, in a successful attempt to improve his social standing. Anyone who was anyone came to Wanstead to admire, to socialise and to marvel. So far so good. In 1750 the house passed to Richard's grandson John - a dapper individual with a love of fine art. John never married (they didn't allow civil partnerships in those days) so the estate was eventually inherited by an unsuspecting nephew. And when his son died at the tragically early age of 10, Wanstead Park ended up in the possession of teenage heiress Catherine. Poor Catherine. She was courted by many men, but in the end discarded the portly Duke of Clarence in favour of raffish young William Pole-Wellesley. As mistakes go, this was a monumental biggie. The Duke went on to become King, and William turned out to be a womanising gambler with venereal disease and an irresponsible lifestyle. 10 years later, in 1822, William's creditors forced the sale of Wanstead House and all of its contents in an attempt to pay back a quarter of a million pounds of debt. But the house, alas, failed to attract any bids whatsoever and so was demolished and sold off piecemeal, brick by brick. Catherine died soon afterwards, tragically young, while her miserable husband lived into old age to wreck several more lives. Roll credits.

Wander around the vast acreage of Wanstead Park today, through the bluebell woods or across gorse-blown heathland, and only a few clues remain to its splendid past. That series of umpteen artificial ornamental lakes for a start, they don't look very municipal. And that crumbling stone grotto by the water's edge, it could only have been built on the orders of an 18th century aristocrat with a sense of the theatrical. And that low pillared building on a grassy mound at the end of a long chestnut avenue, it looks far more like a classical temple than a tea hut.

Wanstead Park Temple

Yes, it's a 'temple', and I was delighted to discover this folly open to the public (behind the scaffolding) when I arrived on Saturday. The park is now maintained and run by the City of London, and two of their finest volunteers were in duty to show me (and a handful of other visitors) around inside. The place is run as a small museum which tells the story of Wanstead Park, and there's no shortage of interesting exhibits. Old maps, information panels, rescued statues, and even the sales catalogue from the 1822 auction. There's also a cabinet full of Roman remains, dug up on site centuries ago when the tree-lined avenues were being laid. Oh yes, there must have been a Roman villa somewhere in the grounds once, but its precise location has long been lost. The extremely enthusiastic guide told me everything I needed to know about the house's history, and more, and I know she'd be glad to welcome you too. Really, this fascinating park ought to be seen and enjoyed by far more than an audience of local dog walkers.
by tube: Wanstead

Somewhere random: the Wanstead Golden Jubilee Walk
Every time I visit a random borough, I like to go on a proper walk described on a local website. So, to celebrate the Queen's visit to Wanstead in 2002, I found myself strolling along and around Wanstead High Street. I didn't quite follow the correct route, and I walked a bit further than they intended, but ooh, what a lot there was to see. No really.

When you reach St Mary's Church enter the grounds by a small gate: A most impressive Georgian pile, the only Grade 1 listed building in Redbridge, and which looks like it'd be more at home just off Regent Street. Look, there's a sentry box in the graveyard once used to guard against body snatchers.
Wanstead drinking fountain and The GeorgeThis Green is a lovely reminder of Wanstead's rural past: Indeed it is, but it's all an illusion. The A12 dual carriageway was carved straight through the middle of Wanstead in the late 1990s, like a concrete scar. But for a few hundred metres it's been hidden in a tunnel, directly underneath the village green, and you'd never realise what a complete mess the road made everywhere else.
'The George' pub: Rather bigger than your average pub, built on the site of an old coaching inn. Most notable is the a stone plaque on the front wall commemorating the theft of a cherry pie by a scaffolder working at the pub in 1752 (and his fine of a shilling and a half). Maybe today's petty criminals should be shamed in the same way, eh, eh?
At the junction with Grove Park is 'The Corner House': Built by a Dr Corner in 1890, and with intricate astronomical etchings in the cement. A plaque by the door commemorates James Bradley, former curate of this parish and later the Astronomer Royal. The whole building is currently sealed off by metal shutters to keep out squatters.
Christ Church, built in 1861: It's a Gilbert Scott, you know. Proper gothic.
On your left is the Wanstead United Reformed Church: You'd never guess, but this church used to be where St Pancras station now stands. And when the Barlow Train Shed took precedence, they rebuilt the entire church here in Wanstead. Near some Art Deco flats.
In Wanstead High Street: What a charming civilised shopping street this is. Heads 'N' Tails Pet and Garden supplies (bedding plants £1.20). AG Dennis Ltd Family Butcher (a proper jolly flesh dealer). Judith of Wanstead (she sells suburban ladies clothes to suburban ladies). And horsfall and wright (my favourite shop, packed with quirky designs, but alas the website's crap).
Snaresbrook Crown Court: This gothic temple to justice (another Gilbert Scott) is no doubt much better viewed from the outside (across the giant duckpond) than from the inside.
by tube: Wanstead  by bus: 66, 101, 145, 308, W12, W13, W14

Somewhere famous: Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill statue, Woodford GreenI really struggled to find somewhere famous in Redbridge. Somewhere celebrated, notable and world-renowned. Erm, no, I couldn't think of one either. So in the end I gave up on a location and settled on a person instead. And Britons don't come much more famous than Sir Winston Churchill. He never lived here, but he did represent the constituency of Woodford (and Wanstead) for nearly 35 years. It wasn't his first choice of constituency either. Winston started out in Oldham (elected 1900), then moved rapidly on to Manchester (elected 1906) and Dundee (elected 1908). In 1924, after three successive defeats elsewhere, he ended up as the "Independent Constitutionalist anti-Socialist" MP for Epping. And it was from this constituency base that he became Chancellor, and Prime Minister, and indeed Much Loved Saviour Of The Island Race. In the post-war election of 1945 the constituency was split in two, so Churchill plumped for Woodford and stayed on almost until his death. During this period the lucky Premier was bestowed with the Freedom of Wanstead and Woodford - a rare honour indeed - and often popped into the Eagle at Snaresbrook for a pint with the locals. Probably not as often as they'd have liked, though. In 1959 a grateful constituency paid £5000 to erect a larger than life bronze statue on Woodford Green. It was unveiled by Field Marshall Viscount Montgomery, and initially required a 24 hour police guard as a precaution against practical jokers. And Churchill's still there, up by the bus stop on the High Road, at the tip of the village green. A splendid avenue of mighty trees stretches up Salway Hill behind him as, with bronze hand resting on bronze coattails, he surveys the constituency that still reveres his name.
by tube: Woodford  by bus: 20, 179, 275, W13

Somewhere retail: Barkingside High Street
Barkingside High StreetOn the edge of London, with rolling Green Belt beyond, is a wonderfully ordinary British High Street. No Starbucks has yet infiltrated, and no out-of-town mall has sucked the independent retailers dry. It's Barkingside High Street - half a mile of proper shopping from Geezer's barbershop in the north down to Chequers Fruit and Veg in the south. And, perhaps of greatest interest, "many of the buildings along the high street are owned by entrepreneur Alan Sugar". So it says on Wikipedia anyway, although with a niggling "citation needed" added as a pedantic superscript, so it may not actually be true. I took a Saturday stroll amongst the Redbridge shoppers to see if I could determine which classy independent retail outlets might be Suralan's. Danny's Pie and Mash, surely, offering all day breakfasts and Great British Dinners at knockdown prices. Styles Ahead, obviously, a beauty parlour from which near-Essex ladies emerge shampooed, re-clawed and browned off. Rossi Bros ice cream parlour, possibly, its frozen produce utterly enticing for those not adhering to restrictive diets. The Mayfair stationers, perchance, given that most of Sir Alan's property portfolio lurks in W1, not IG6. Yosi's Gourmet Bagels, maybe, its chocolate coloured doors long since locked and shuttered down. Panache ladies outfitters, potentially, now under new management and selling blouses for a tenner or less. The Chubby Panda Chinese restaurant, perhaps, offering 10% discount on takeaways but now closed on Mondays. The Barnardo's charity shop, conceivably, because this charity's UK HQ is based in the heritage village at the bottom of the road. Or my very favourite, The Cheesecake Shop, from which guilty feeders emerged grinning onto the pavement stuffed with torte, gateau, mudcake, pavlova or meringue. This is how shopping ought to be. I await with anticipation the first episode of The Apprentice to be filmed here.
by tube: Barkingside  by bus: 150, 167, 169, 247, 275, 462

Somewhere sporty: Cricklefield Athletic Ground
Cricklefield StadiumNow you might think I'm scraping the barrel with a visit to the home ground of Ilford FC, currently scraping the bottom of Ryman League Division One. But ah no, I know a major sporting venue when I see one, and this athletics stadium east of Ilford is just that. It may look little more than a six-lane track behind the pay and display at Ilford Swimming Pool, with a couple of goalposts and an empty grandstand, hemmed in by houses and a cemetery. But ah no, this unassuming backwater is in fact an international Olympic arena. Or at least it was, briefly, at the last London Games in 1948. The England team played a couple of first round matches here in deepest Ilford, the first a glorious two-one victory over Luxembourg and the second a pitiful two-nil loss against France. Not a great year for English football medals, 1948. And best not to mention the only other international football match to take place here at Cricklefield - a friendly against West Germany in 1957 which we lost drei-zwei. Last Saturday's league fixture against Wingate & Finchley was a rather more mundane affair. I arrived in time for the early preparations, with the commemorative iron gates unlocked to admit the eager and the tracksuited. The team gathered slowly on the terraces, noisily warming up for the afternoon's travails. In the spartan clubhouse kitchen six packets of white baps were piled up on a plastic table, awaiting transformation into £3.20 egg and bacon burgers. And what do you know, the league's bottom club managed a home win that afternoon, easing themselves almost (but not quite) out of the relegation zone. Never let anyone tell you that Olympic sporting facilities won't be well used by the local community during the legacy phase.
by train: Seven Kings  by bus: 86

 Monday, April 07, 2008

London 2012Beijing Olympic Torch Relay 2008
Stop 4: London

Light the passion, share the dream

Light the passion? Well they got that right. As for sharing the dream, it was more of a nightmare to be honest. Fiery protests, Tibetan temperatures, dodgy scheduling, blatant marketing and rampant security. I think there were some sporting ideals lost in the middle too. Still, I bet an awful lot of police officers got an awful lot of overtime. Here are four snapshots from along the way.

British Museum (12 noon)
pro-Tibet protesters in Bloomsbury SquareThere were masses of pro-Tibet protesters at the British Museum. Just up the road to be precise, in Bloomsbury Square, safely corralled up a side street so that they could shout at the passing parade from behind a helmeted cordon without getting in the way. Probably a thousand or so angry individuals, waving Tibetan flags and yelling slogans at any official vehicle with the temerity to sweep by. The Coca Cola bus got it in the neck first. "Stop the torture!" And then the grinning Samsung girls gyrating on the back of a lorry. "Stop the killing!" There followed a long noisy pause before the official Olympic double decker crawled into view. "Shame on China! Free Tibet!" The torch waited patiently, somewhere inside the bus, before crawling forward in front of the growling mob. Flags fluttered and balloons bobbed, while the chorus of angry voices grew ever louder. Many of these belonged to Tibetans themselves, or to a sincere throng of woolly-hat wearers and Guardian readers. The bloke in front of me began booing anything and everything that passed. It was when he started deliberately booing a group of Chinese athletes that I started to feel distinctly uncomfortable. There's a thin line between rightful protest and naked racism, and I feared he'd crossed it. Thankfully he seemed to be in a deluded minority. I slunk off, past a Chinese protester being apprehended by the police. Doubly disappointing. When 2012 comes round, we shouldn't be surprised when the world turns round and spits back at us.

Trafalgar Square (1pm)
Sir Trevor Macdonald jogs byHere's how not to hold a successful public event. Invite everyone to turn up at noon, when the main event's at one. Don't erect a stage, just get your performers to dance around at ground level so that only a select few on the edge of the terrace can see what's going on. Pick a bloody cold day, preferably with snow, and then waste money by adding blue tickertape snow of your own. Get a white-haired ITN newscaster to wield the torch, then hide him inside a crowd of jogging minders so that onlookers are shielded from the one thing they've come to see. Watch the faces of the native Chinese community who are here to feel proud, and see their disappointment. And fill the square with branded advertising collateral, and attempt to hand it out to innocent spectators by pretending it's nothing more than a balloon or a flag. I was particularly disappointed by the flags. On the front a small "Beijing 2008" logo overshadowed by the big blue blob of the Korean "presenting partner", and on the rear a great big corporate logo on a featureless blue background. These shameless adverts were being handed out all along the route by opportunistic marketeers. I still have my unbranded 2004 torch relay flag. I recycled my 2008 flag immediately.

Somerset House (2:15pm)
waterproof cape dancing in Somerset HouseI thought I'd go and watch one of the set piece celebrations along the route. Not the great big multicultural spectacle on the South Bank, but the rather smaller affair inside Somerset House. I got there a bit too early, and had to stand around for half an hour in the courtyard feeling increasingly cold as yet another snow shower swirled around us. The crowd never grew too large, which we discovered later was because we'd been sealed inside behind closed iron gates. "Could you hold up the rope?" asked one of the insufficient security guards attempting to keep us well back. We declined. First into the makeshift arena, at last, came the Bollywood Brass Band. They were more Yorkshire fancy dress than Delhi realism, to be honest, but a rousing success all the same. And then 60 small schoolchildren filed out from the Seamen's Hall, jiggling up and down to keep themselves warm in the April chill. They were wearing waterproof red plastic capes, which are an essential fashion item when you're about to leap and dance amongst a courtyard filled with fountains. Unfortunately several of the children ran across the gushing jets and soaked the inside of their costume, while the lack of sleeves meant that most of their arm movements remained invisible. We loved the spectacle, however improvised the choreography, and the performers well deserved their final ovation. And finally the torch arrived, held high by a leggy blonde, hanging around for only a few seconds before continuing into the seething protests outside. But we at least, through the eyes of children, had seen the true Olympic message.

Bow Road (4pm)
the Torch Relay through BowThe good citizens of E3 appeared to have forgotten that the torch was passing through. But as four o'clock approached, and the buzz of helicopters filled the sky overhead, a few headed down to Bow Road to watch the flame go by. Many were of Chinese origin, here to watch a potent symbol from the motherland passing along their local street. The vicar was out with his camera, having set his bell ringers the task of welcoming the flame to Bow (or maybe he just pressed a button inside the tower, it was hard to be sure). And there were no protesters whatsoever, not this far out of town. What could go wrong? The road to the flyover suddenly cleared of traffic and a very large number of police motorbikes zoomed past. And a van, and another van, and the Coca Cola open-topped bus. Was the flame aboard? We didn't think so. Those grinning Samsung girls were next, keeping up their professional act as they danced for a crowd who almost certainly couldn't afford a widescreen telly like the one on the float. And then silence. Was that it?

Thankfully not. After a brief interlude of ordinary vehicles, the empty road reappeared. Yet more police outriders whizzed by, as if every motorcycle copper in the capital was having a whale of a time breaking the speed limit in 10 different boroughs in one day. And then a 4×4, and a couple of vans, and a single-decker red bus. I'd seen this procession several times before, so I knew the single-decker was just a support vehicle packed with bottles of Coke and Malvern Water. More vans followed, and the TV crew lorry, and another single-decker bus, and a luxury coach, and some more vans. Still we scanned the road for sight of any open-topped vehicle that might be carrying a beaming athlete waving a torch. None appeared, only a steady stream of very normal looking traffic. It very slowly dawned on us, with a distinctly sinking feeling, that the flame had already passed. Bugger. It must have been concealed inside one of the unflagged single-deckers, by now at least half a mile away on the road to Stratford. The vicar and I shared a look, as if to say "pah!", and walked away. Here we were, a community on the very edge of the Olympic Zone, and the authorities had sped by without acknowledging our existence or even attempting to include us as part of the celebrations. I do hope that this isn't a sign of things to come in 2012, but I fear it might be.

 Sunday, April 06, 2008

When researching yesterday's map of independent London bookshops, it soon became apparent that there were several independent London bookshops I'd never heard of, let alone visited. In fact they might not have existed at all. Several of them didn't have a website, and it's hard to prove that things exist without a website. So I thought I'd visit a few, just to check. I could have visited loads more, except that touring London orbitally took absolutely ages.

1) The Roundabout Bookshop: 370 Mare Street, Hackney E8 1HR
What was I expecting? Hmm, a bookshop on Hackney's main shopping street. Let's say that my hopes weren't high.
What did I find? A newsagent, with a few books in the window. Not best sellers, but some local interest stuff. And inside? Definitely a newsagent, and not a particularly friendly one. "This is not a library. Please do not read here." And up the back, past the counter, a few shelves filled with not terribly up-to-date books. Including a Rupert Bear annual. And a big sign saying "Closing Down Sale". I can't say I was surprised.
What was the service like? Brief.
What did I buy? A newspaper.

2) West End Lane Books: 277 West End Lane, West Hampstead NW6 1QS
What was I expecting? Not sure. The website is mostly blank pages, and for some reason I've never visited this part of town before.
What did I find? Ooh, a lovely compact bookshop, all wooden surfaces and temptingly-stocked shelves. The selection is just the right side of mainstream, with some intriguingly oblique volumes, and a nod towards books that make you think. A fair scattering of Jewish themes too. This felt a friendly place to browse and flick and peruse, and there was a definite come-back-again atmosphere. Recommended.
What was the service like? Smiley and charming.
What did I buy? The English Year by Steve Roud (£9.99)

3) Willesden Bookshop: Willesden Green Library Centre, 95 High Road NW10 4QU
What was I expecting? A multicultural children's bookshop. That's how the website makes it sound, anyway.
What did I find? A rather modern ambience, in a corner of Brent's main brick-y block-y library. Some carefully-selected bestsellers around a central table, plus several neat shelves on diverse topics. Quite a lot of worldy wise fiction, a fair amount of travel stuff, and a whole rack of spiritual, mystic and paranormal paperbacks. And the children's section lived up to expectations.
What was the service like? Indifferent.
What did I buy? Pies and Prejudice by Stuart Maconie (£6.99)

4) World's End Bookshop: 357 King's Road, Chelsea SW3 5ES
What was I expecting? "An extensive variety of new and second hand books." Which is all that any of those spammy listings websites could tell me.
What did I find? A claustrophobic second hand bookshop, not first hand in any way. Two wings, utterly rammed with piled-high old books, including plenty of ex-library stock. I had to mind where I walked, there were piles on the floor too. When I knelt down to inspect the lower shelves of British travel guides, I accidentally trapped the elderly gentleman perusing the historical books behind me. I think he escaped without knocking everything over.
What was the service like? A cheerful but distant bloke sat behind the central desk, jotting down every purchase in a ruled blue ledger. I wonder if the strange poetry in the free (photocopied and tippexed) copy of "The World's End Mag" was his. I suspect so.
What did I buy? London's Churches by Elizabeth & Wayland Young (£3) (ex Battersea Library, 1986)

5) My Back Pages: 8-10 Station Road, Balham SW12 9SG
What was I expecting? A second hand book shop with some first hand books.
What did I find? An even more crowded shop than the last one. Closely packed shelves, topped with precarious stacks, squeezed into a long thin split-level space. When other customers stopped to scan the shelves I was unable to move around. Plenty of proper old books - including those red/blue-spined hardbacks much beloved of mid 20th century publishing. And, yes, the odd new paperback scattered around in the relevant section as a tempting treat, but not many.
What was the service like? The cash desk was so well screened and camouflaged that it was easy to miss. My purchase had a £6 sticker on the front cover but, as it turned out, the intended £9.95 pencilled inside. The owner charged me six quid anyway. That's my sort of shop. Let's hope it survives.
What did I buy? A Guide to the Small Museums of Britain by Christine Redington (£6)

 Saturday, April 05, 2008

A map of London's independent non-specialist bookshops by postcode

Primrose Hill (NW1), Daunt (NW3) (NW3), Owl (NW5), Kilburn (NW6), Queens Park (NW6), West End Lane (NW6), Willesden (NW10), Joseph's (NW11)
Prospero's (N8), Muswell Hill (N10), Stoke Newington (N16), Big Green (N22)
Swan (RM14)
Daunt (W11)
West End W
Daunt (W1), Hatchards (W1), Heywood Hill (W1)
West End WC
London Review (WC1), Foyles (WC2)
City EC
Metropolitan (EC1)
Eastside (E1), Broadway (E8), Newham (E13)
Langtons (TW1), Houben's (TW9), Kew (TW9), Open Book (TW9)
John Sandoe (SW3), Clapham (SW4), Village (SW17)
Foyles (SE1), Crockatt & Powell (SE1), Riverside (SE1), Kennington (SE11), Review (SE15), Bookseller Crow (SE19), Titles (SE20), Dulwich (SE21), Village (SE21), Chener (SE22), Kirkdale (SE26)
Beckenham (BR3)

I'm trying to create a map of London bookshops. The independent ones (so no Waterstones or Borders/Books Etc). The non-specialist ones (so no Stanfords or Grant & Cutler). The ones that sell first-hand, not second-hand (so no Ripping Yarns or Skoob). Those small-ish friendly bookshops with knowledgeable assistants who can flog you a Richard and Judy or order you an obscure Ian McEwan. There must be more in London than I've found so far. Can you help me out? [permalink]

 Friday, April 04, 2008

London 2012Wahey, the Olympic torch comes to London this weekend. It's chugging round the capital on Sunday, following a rather more ambitious route than it did four years ago. Ah, now that was a sight. If you fancy following the flame in 2008 (with or without placard), here's my approximate guide to where to go.

Roger Black runs through Oxford Circus10:30 Wembley: Actually, don't bother turning up here unless you're a Brent resident and you've got a ticket. The event's in Arena Square, and not inside the stadium where you might expect it to be. And could someone please teach the official Torch Relay website how to spell Harlesden? And then by bus (yes, bus) to...
11:00 Ladbroke Grove & Notting Hill: A bit of symbolic multiculturalism as a very-mini-Carnival cheers on the runners. Let's hope it isn't snowing too ferociously by now. Then some cyclists carry the torch along the top of Hyde Park (probably a good place to jump into the road and wave your pro-Tibet banner) to...
12:00 Oxford Street: Back to an open-topped bus, for the full length of this disinterested shopping street, as far as the British Museum. Let's hope the curator doesn't nick the torch and stick it on show with our other foreign booty. Then jogging athletes take over again, through Soho to
12:30 Chinatown: Obviously. With dragons.
12:50 Trafalgar Square: Probably one of the busiest spots on the run, so a good opportunity for the Torch Relay's greedy sponsors to hand out advertising freebies to grinning children. Who the hell are Lenovo anyway? Then a sprint down Whitehall to
Kriss Akabusi lands at Island Gardens13:00 Downing Street: Gordon Brown grits his teeth and welcomes envoys from another nation with a dismal human rights record, before the flame heads down to Westminster Pier and goes for a jolly jaunt on the Thames to
13:30 South Bank: Waiting here will be youngsters celebrating with arty singing, beatboxing and hiphop (really, it's all very Olympic, honest). I hope they still can be heard above the roar of the security choppers whirring overhead. And then a slow run via Somerset House to
14:45 St Paul's Cathedral: Ooh, bagpipes. It's a real cultural smorgasbord this cross-capital journey, isn't it? Back on the bus to cross London Bridge to
15:00 Tibet: No, sorry, I'm lying.
15:15 City Hall: One of the last events to take place at the seat of London's civic administration, before Mayor Boris sells off the glass building as a terribly desirable apartment block (with gym and concierge). Time to run across Tower Bridge to Tower Hamlets...
15:45-ish Whitechapel Road: The torch will probably be running woefully late by now, so don't blink or you'll miss it. Here we're promised spectacular performances from "the Emperor and the Tiger". And then up High Street 2012, by bus, to
running round City Hall16:08 My house!! Blimey, it's the Olympic torch! Right outside my front door! The flame may be on its way to Beijing, via the world, but it has to go past my chicken nugget-strewn doorstep first. I am duly honoured.
16:15 Stratford: There's no visit to our Olympic Stadium, not this year, but the host borough of Newham are throwing a really big street party. Might be fun. And then, unbelievably, the Olympic flame hitches a ride on the DLR (in direct contravention of DLR Conditions of Carriage Section 4 subsection 5) to
17:00 Canary Wharf: Here's the face-painting. You knew there had to be face-painting somewhere. And jugglers and stilt walkers and probably some scary clowns too. And finally back to the river for a boat trip round the Thames's loopy meander to
18:00 North Greenwich: Sssh, don't call it the Dome. Ssssh, don't call it the <insert name of mobile network>. And don't bother coming to the cauldron-lighting acrobatic finale in the Square if you didn't get free tickets. I didn't get free tickets. I wonder how many Tibetan protesters got free tickets.
April 7th Paris: Rubbing salt in the wounds a bit, innit?

 Thursday, April 03, 2008

It's everywhere on the London Underground at the moment.
"Please avoid changing at Bank/Monument"
On posters, on leaflets, and over the tannoy. Saturation coverage. A desperate attempt by TfL to keep the travelling public away from a pair of congested City stations while they upgrade the ageing escalators. The warren of tunnels linking the various platforms is ridiculously complicated and tortuous at the best of times, and any attempt at interchange often involves a five minute mountaineering trek. But from Monday this week, for the next 70 weeks, no interchange is possible.
"No interchange at Bank and Monument stations until August 2009
During major escalator upgrade and replacement work you will not be able to interchange at Bank and Monument stations (except between the DLR and Northern lines)"
Well, so it says in the ¼million leaflets they've had printed. But, what do you know, this turns out to be a whopping white lie. I've been down into the bowels of the station, for two consecutive rush hours, and interchanging wasn't impossible at all. A bit circuitous and inconvenient maybe, but still considerably faster than using some of the ridiculous roundabout routes via alternative stations that various leaflets are proposing. TfL would probably rather I didn't tell you the following...

Interchange 1: Central (Bank)Northern (Bank)
Bank/MonumentNormally this interchange (3→9) can be made without ever using an escalator. A quick dash down the spiral staircase (from 3), a walk along a long passageway (to 7) and down some steps (9). Not any more. The spiral staircase is closed ("to avoid overcrowding") and there's only one exit from the Central line platforms (3). I had no choice - it had to be up the escalator and out through the barriers into the ticket hall (1). Not surprisingly, the ticket hall was quite crowded. Even more crowded was the unfit-for-purpose narrow passageway between the ticket hall (1) and the Lombard Street entrance (4). Then it was back through the barriers and a choice of routes back down into the depths. Either to wait for one of the four lifts (it's not exactly high capacity, this) or to walk 128 kneecap-numbing steps down the clunky 16-flight metal staircase. Phew. And after this very long up and down slog, where was I? In the big tiled chamber (7) just above the Northern line platforms (9). If only TfL had left the lower passageway open (3→7) I could have walked here in just a minute. But no, they sent me up an escalator, along an alleyway and down in a lift. Is it just me, or is this meandering detour actually serving only to increase congestion all around the station?

Interchange 2: DLR (Bank)District (Monument)
I decided to attempt this interchange (8→11) because it should now be an utter nightmare. Bank and Monument stations have been severed, so this particular connection should involve heading the long way up to daylight at Bank (8→6→5→4), walking along King William Street (4→13) and then re-entering the system at Monument (13). Ten minutes, minimum. And yes, the direct escalator (8→12) is now boarded up. But I nipped up from the DLR to the Northern line (8→9) and, what a surprise, this exit to Monument was still open! The escalator (9→10) was still running, both ways! No blocked-off barriers at all, just straight up the quick way to the District line (11). Two minutes, maximum. Bloody liars! The Bank/Monument interchange IS STILL OPEN. TfL haven't cut the link between the two stations at all. They probably will at some point, but in the meantime they're just scaring passengers away for no particularly good reason. They're delighting in sending those of us who use the station scurrying round an ever-changing maze of one-way tunnels like rats in a laboratory maze. And they clearly want to piss us off so much that we go somewhere else, anywhere else but here. For 70 weeks. I feel deliberately misguided.

So, next time TfL tell you to avoid changing at Bank/Monument because no interchange is possible, do treat their urgings with a huge pinch of salt. Because there's plenty of interchange. I'm sure that telling fibs helps to keep TfL's health and safety people happy, but these two stations aren't as dead and buried as we're being told. Only one set of escalators is currently closed, and all the other disruption is due to blocked-off passageways and one-way systems. Why not come and find out for yourself?

 Wednesday, April 02, 2008

a reflective interlude: The Kyoto Garden
the Kyoto Garden, Holland Park
Blimey, isn't Holland Park unexpectedly lovely?

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