Saturday, May 31, 2008

  MoDA Suburban Guided Walk
(Walk 1)
  Arnos Grove to Southgate (2 miles)

As the Piccadilly line crept northwards in the early 1930s, so the tendrils of semi-detached suburbia pushed out into the fields between Barnet and Enfield. A delightful location, therefore, for an architectural stroll. The Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture has published three pocket-sized mini-booklets detailing guided walks in the area, each starting and finishing at a classic tube station. So I bought the set from the shop at their museum in Cockfosters (£1.99 each, or £5 for three) and set off to rediscover suburban bliss.

Some would argue that there's no finer tube station than Arnos Grove photos. Charles Holden's drum-like ticket hall rises with pleasing lofty symmetry, very much a child of the Art Deco 30s, and perfectly in tune with the surrounding suburbs. These are no identikit homes, these are proper little domestic palaces in a variety of architectural styles. Booklet in hand, I headed off along the designated trail. Within a couple of minutes I'd admired a Grade II listed swimming pool, a geometric-framed library and a neo-Tudor pub, all of which I might easily otherwise have ignored. Down into Arnos Park - a reminder that not all these former fields ended up beneath houses and gardens - and up the other side into residential Arcadia.

Morton Way, New SouthgateMorton Way, and the avenues leading off from it, are quintessential suburbia. Well-spaced gabled semis, set back from grassy verges behind manicured privet hedges. 75-year-old trees with lopped-back branches, shadowing conservatory extensions and set-apart garages. Herringbone brickwork and diamond-lattice windows, brightened by the occasional intricate leaded light. Steep tiled roofs topped with obsolete chimneypots, shielding over-prominent burglar alarms. And so much larger than any London developer would build today. You could get at least four flats out of the floorspace taken up by one semi-detached home, and probably a block of 20 if you threw in the back garden too.

In Whitehouse Way are a few contrasting clusters of flat-roofed modernist semis, noted by Pevsner, each pair with gently curving frontage. My printed guide helped me to identify the shiny pigmented blocks surrounding certain doorways as Vitrolite (alas no longer made, should you want some for your own residence). Onward up Summit Way to the heights of Southgate. It was striking how few of these houses still have a green front garden. Where once were lawns and flowerbeds, the only variety these days is whether the crazy paving is rectangular or irregular, and which car has been parked on top of it. Homeowners' horticultural skills, out front at least, are restricted to a few tiny strips of earth dotted with the occasional shrub or rosebush.

Chestnut Close, OakwoodOn a midweek morning, these residential streets were a hive of middle class activity. The postman was delivering a package to number 48, watched from the end of the garden by a padding tabby. Further up the road a vanful of builders were attempting to look busy, while nextdoor's windows were receiving vigorous attention from a window cleaner perched up a long ladder. Meanwhile the lady of one house was scrubbing down her front porch with purple cleaning fluid, a flash of bright red stair carpet visible in the hallway behind her. I received a polite "good morning" from a permed pensioner walking down the hill trailing a tartan basket on wheels. If only I'd seen a milkfloat humming by, the suburban illusion would have been complete.

It's not all semis. There was a luxurious stack of cottage-y flats at Bush Court, round the back of Chase Side, perfect for the newly-relocated 30s commuter. And then there was Southgate station, of a similar age, and even more outlandish photos. It looked like a flying saucer had landed, or maybe some engineer had built a translucent electricity substation in the wrong place. Surrounding half of the squat circular building was the austere brick crescent of Station Parade. A large clock ticked silently at the centre of a sheer brick curve, beneath which were tiny unbranded shops named only by retail category - "JEWELLER" "ARTS AND CRAFTS" "TAKE AWAY FOOD" "FRIED CHICKEN SHOP". The whole area may now be three quarters of a century old, but it has a coherent modernist appeal that vanquishes anything truly modern.

Walk 2: Southgate to Oakwood. More of the same, but with allotments.
Walk 3: Oakwood to Cockfosters. More of the same, but with contrasting council houses. This walk also passes the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, on the campus at Middlesex University, which you still haven't visited yet, have you? Their Shell Guides exhibition runs until November, so don't delay too long.

How to buy the three MoDA walks
Follow the three walks on a Google map
Guided tour of the four northernmost Piccadilly line stations (June 22, £12)

 Friday, May 30, 2008

(the M11 Link Road)
  Wanstead to Leyton (3 miles)

Now this is a brilliant idea. You head to East London. You collect a free black box receiver from a local museum or library. You plug in some headphones (provided). And then you go for a walk along a prescribed three mile route. Listen carefully, because 20 audio transmitters have been attached to various lampposts and buildings along the way. As you approach, these broadcast a series of memories and reminiscences from the people who used to live here. All the broadcasts are looped, so you can listen to as much or as little as you like. And by the time you get to the end of the walk you should have a much better understanding of what life here used to be like. It's called Linked, and it's a brilliant idea. What's less brilliant is that the idea was needed in the first place.

A12 LeytonstoneIt was obvious, from the 1960s onwards, that a relief road was needed between the foot of the M11 and the Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road. Traffic often queued up through Wanstead, Leytonstone and Leyton, and the problem grew worse with every passing decade. So a link road was planned - a dual carriageway carving through the heart of east London - in an attempt to ease the pressure. But this six-lane highway required the demolition of 400 homes, the evacuation of hundreds of families and the sacrifice of a random linear neighbourhood. As local residents moved out the protesters moved in, and an intense long-term battle with the developers ensued. Many fiendish means of resistance were used to delay the inevitable, but the authorities (of course) eventually won. The new link road opened as the A12 in 1999, and traffic delays have been much reduced ever since. But of the communities that used to thrive here, only memories remain.

I think I looked a bit of a wally standing in the middle of a Wanstead footbridge wearing my municipal-issue headphones. I was trying desperately hard to listen to the first set of recorded voices, but struggling to hear anything coherent above the roar of the traffic below. Something about Anderson shelters, I thought, but there was no volume control on my little black box so it was impossible to tell. Ditto at the next transmitter (something unintelligible about a golf club, I think). Suddenly an audio artwork located along the edge of a busy main road didn't seem a terribly sensible idea after all.

A12 WansteadBut on the far side of George Green, beneath a cylindrical transmitter, I finally latched on to the full impact of the piece. Protesters (including Jean the lollipop lady) recounted their fight for the 250-year-old sweet chestnut that used to stand here. Some chained themselves to the tree, some lived in a treehouse in the branches, while Jean was sacked from her job merely for encouraging others to surround it. Her audio ramblings brought a sense of pathos to the tree's ultimate destruction. The new link road soon carved through central Wanstead in a cut and cover tunnel, and the spot where the chestnut once stood is now part of an illusory platform of grass whose depth is clearly insufficient to support roots.

On to Leytonstone, learning along the way of demolished houses and long gone drill halls. I thought there'd be more transmitters along this stretch - maybe I missed some - but the installation didn't really spring to life until closer to the tube station. I wonder what people thought I was doing, hanging around beneath unwelcoming footbridges and lurking on drizzly street corners. I couldn't move too far or the transmissions would fade away, so my loitering must have looked very suspicious. Few local residents realise that this artwork even exists - indeed the library I visited had only hired out two other receivers since Easter.

Claremont Road, LeytonThe most evocative radio messages came at the Leyton end of the walk. The strongest resistance to the new dual carriageway erupted in Claremont Road, an ordinary terrace of ordinary houses running parallel to the Central line. Protesters moved in before compulsory purchase orders could be served, and filled the street with abandoned vehicles and immovable 'sculptures'. A community of resistance fighters was established, holding out longer than any other until eventually removed kicking and screaming from a final stronghold on the rooftops. The Linked transmitter chooses to tell the story of an earlier resident, remembering happier days before the agonies of moving out. The tale is all the sadder because Claremont Road (see photo) has now been reduced to a mere stump, with no houses of its own, ending abruptly at a brick barrier. There's no longer a community behind the wall, just the perpetual hum of traffic rumbling by. Standing listening to the past in a short cul-de-sac of parking bays really brought home the car's crushing victory.

Few people may be listening, but these transmitters continue to pump out memories of the past all day every day. The gardens described along Grove Green Road still exist electromagnetically, even though the tulips, barbecues and wallflowers have long been wrenched away. The violent acts of the evicting bailiffs, revelling in unnecessary destruction, are still witnessed once every five minutes above Colville Road. And drivers speeding happily along the A12 may not hear it on their radios, but this gaping tarmac chasm is permanently flooded by echoes of what was here before. Indeed, as one protagonist still repeatedly declares, "The house exists in my brain, the community exists in my heart." Do one day get hold of a receiver and bear witness yourself.

Visit the official Linked website here
Follow the Linked walk on a Google map
Background to the protests (especially Claremont Road)
...and now to stick my radio receiver and headphones back into the envelope provided so that someone else can have a listen...

 Thursday, May 29, 2008

  The Beverley Brook Walk

  New Malden to Putney (6½ miles)

According to the Walk London website, tomorrow is National Walking Day. I'm not sure I believe a them, because no other website backs up their claim. But they're celebrating this weekend by running 37 guided walks across London, each following a different part of one of the capital's strategic walks. And I'm celebrating by going for three completely different walks, for three consecutive days, and then writing about them. They're three very contrasting walks, each in some way official, and in completely different parts of London. Starting today with a stroll along a river you may never have heard of.

Erith waterfrontThe Beverley Brook rises on the southwest edge of London, sort of Worcester Park-ish, and flows to the River Thames at Putney. It's not much of a river, often little more than a concrete culvert, but it drains 64 square kilometres of the capital. And some it is really very pretty. Not so the first stretch of the official Beverley Brook Walk. Up the High Street from New Malden station, across a golf course to the A3, then threading a few suburban avenues. Come on, where's this river?

Ah, that's better. From the grounds of the local rugby club, the Beverley Brook runs up the western edge of Wimbledon Common. You're probably thinking open heathland and Wombles, but this corner of the famous common is all woodland. And extremely quiet. The river wiggles northward at the bottom of a deep earth channel, occasionally ruffled by a mandarin duck or a paddling dog. Onward beneath thick trees for almost a mile, with cyclists banned and horse-riders diverted elsewhere. If only the brook didn't have low concrete edges, this really would be quite delightful.

deer in the Beverley Brook in Richmond ParkThe A3 intrudes again, forcing a detour over a high footbridge (for the walk, obviously, not the river). And then, through the Robin Hood Gate, straight into the giant green lung of Richmond Park. Mind the horse manure, and the bikes, and the kids scrabbling for an ice cream. The river's a little wider here, heading up the eastern side of the park parallel to the road for about a mile. And, if you walk unobtrusively enough, you might be lucky enough to find yourself right up close to one of the park's herds of deer. At this time of year it pays to be cautious of overprotective mothers, but I managed to get surprisingly close to a young buck skipping down the bank to drink fron the stream. Highlight of the walk, that.

Exit via the Roehampton Gate, and up a narrow alley to the edge of some more playing fields. That's the last you'll see of the river for a while. Time to safari through suburbia while the brook flows onwards mostly out of sight. There's a brief glimpse at Priest's Bridge (more a street name than a feature), then a double level crossing to negotiate on the way to Barnes Common. Finally, after an eerie trek through an abandoned cemetery, a footbridge brings you back to the water's edge. This is all very pleasant. But just two more bends and the journey is at an end. Suddenly, really very unexpectedly, the Beverley Brook opens out into a small basin and dribbles into the Thames. The contrast in size and breadth is instant and extreme. That's Craven Cottage almost immediately opposite, and the many boathouses of Putney stretching out to your right. Take your pick how you depart - the official walk is at an end.

Follow the Beverley Brook walk on a Google map
Print out a copy of the official walk here
Some more photos, from Jon, and lots more from Francois

 Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Disappearing London: Oriental City

Chinatown in Soho is all very well, but there's a far more genuine East Asian dining experience a few miles up the A5 in deepest Colindale. It's called Oriental City, and it's an unexpected eastern treasure. Alas, it's also doomed. This Sunday evening, at 7pm precisely, the dim sum will stop, the diners will be ejected and the doors will be permanently locked. And all because what this part of London really needs, apparently, is eight blocks of flats, a health and fitness studio and a B&Q. It's a damned shame.

Oriental CityFrom the outside, on the Edgware Road, Oriental City looks like a rather shabby grey warehouse. The garden frontage is threadbare and overgrown, guarded over by a handful of gruff marble dragons. A row of blue canopies give the place a slightly, but not especially, eastern flavour. Various letters have fallen off the wall and not been replaced (ORIENAL) (RIENTAL). And yes, that's Sonic the Hedgehog, attempting to entice passing 90s youth into the "Sega Park" within. Please, don't let any of it put you off venturing inside.

Most shopping malls have a Food Court, but here it's Oriental City's finest feature. A choice of freshly-cooked cuisine, be it Thai, Korean, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Indian or Chinese. Colourful pictorial menus, brought to life on sizzling grills or spinning spits. A large central space to sit down with friends or family beneath dangling orange balloons, waiting for your order number to appear on the electronic displays. And happy feasting punters, chopsticks poised, perched on plastic chairs at wood-effect tables. There were still a few spare seats yesterday afternoon, but I bet this place will be packed out by the weekend.

Oriental City - entrance hallHidden behind the Food Court there's a rather austere Japanese supermarket, much larger than you might expect, but whose shelves are now running down in readiness for closure. Elsewhere, in several small retail units around the site, simultaneous Closing Down sales are underway. There's 80% off giant porcelain vases, 3 for 1 on Japanese lifestyle goods, and a pile of cut price handbags to be fought over. If you've ever wanted cheap plastic flip flops, half price pastel crockery or a special silky kimono, now is the time. And up the semi-functional escalators, level with the top of the car park, they're serving the final meals in the China City restaurant. It's a crying shame.

Some of the retailers have hand-written or printed signs to inform loyal customers that they're relocating elsewhere. The supermarket's off to Queensway, for example, while the Hamazaki Bakery is moving to Whetstone. For other businesses, however, the notices have a more melancholy undertone. "Our last day will be 1st June 2008 and we will be taking orders until 6:30pm. We have not found our own premises yet but please leave your email or mobile number so we can update you." There may be plans to incorporate an oriental marketplace in the new development, but that's several years from completion and many of these family-run businesses will never survive an enforced hiatus. I can't believe that Oriental City's "revitalised" replacement will ever have the character and genuine charm of the original.

Oriental City - supermarketNot being a fan of dim sum, duck and dumplings (as some of you can attest) I didn't stop for a final meal in the condemned Food Court. But I did pause at the Wonderful Patisserie (only the Chinese could get away with a name like that) on my way out. Their sugary fruit-topped cakes looked mighty tempting, but alas unwise, so I made do with a box of Fortune Cookies. No, hang on, the girl behind the counter insisted that they were now 2 boxes for 75% of the price of 1, and who was I to argue? I've got one of the cookies here now, so let's see if its contents offer any insight into the complex's future... "The heart is wiser than the intellect." The heart is certainly wiser than Brent Borough Council's planning committee. Cardiac arrest in four days, and counting.

Jag is a regular at Oriental City and has taken a great set of photos to show you what you're missing
Jag has also filmed a poignant one minute wander round the Food Court
Various reports about the closure
Brent Planning Committee report (November 2006)
Artist's impressions of the new development

 Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Collins Guide To Roses (cover amended by Orton)Borough museums: There are 33 London boroughs. Some of these have their own museum devoted to telling the story of the borough's local history. And some of these museums are quite good. Alas, I can't say the same for the latest addition to the list - the Islington Museum. It opened earlier this month in a basement beneath Finsbury Library, up a very ordinary street you'd never visit by accident. No expense has been spared on a shiny new lift and access ramp down from the pavement, but alas not enough appears to have been spent on making the interior interesting. The museum looks a bit like a conference centre foyer filled with display boards... text-rich and artefact-lite. The permanent display is divided up into nine categories (fashion, childhood, sport, etc), although the selected information rarely makes the borough sound terribly special. A lot of the stuff on show (wartime memories, handbells, old medicines) could have come from anywhere - it's not especially Islington. Even the purchase of local historical souvenirs is currently impossible ["we are not yet able to process your purchases here"]. But there was one display case which made my visit worthwhile. Playwright Joe Orton spent his formative years defacing book covers in Islington Library, and earned 6 months in jail for his trouble. Four of these vandalised masterpieces photosphotosphotos are now in pride of place in the Lesbian, Gay and Transgendered section of the museum. Hypocritical of the council, maybe, but belatedly appropriate, and the only (current) reason that I'd recommend a visit. Still, at least Islington actually has a museum, which is a lot more than can be said for some...

London's borough-funded borough-themed museums
Barking and Dagenham: Valence House Museum [Becontree RM8 3HT] (closed for refurbishment until May 2010)
Barnet: Church Farmhouse Museum [Hendon NW4 4JR] (closed Fri)
Bexley: Hall Place [Bexley DA5 1PQ] (closed for restoration until late summer 2008)
Brent: Brent Museum [Willesden NW10 2SF] (opened last year) <thumbs up>
Bromley: Bromley Museum [Orpington BR6 0HH] (closed Sun)
Camden City
Croydon: Museum of Croydon [Croydon CR9 1ET] (closed Sun)
Ealing/Hounslow: Gunnersbury Park Museum [Acton W3 8LQ] <thumbs up>
Enfield: Forty Hall [Acton EN2 9HA] (closed Mon, Tue) (new museum opens 2009) <thumbs up>
Greenwich: Greenwich Heritage Centre [Woolwich SE18 4DX] (closed Sun, Mon)
Hackney: Hackney Museum [Hackney E8 1GQ] (closed Sun, Mon) <thumbs up>
Hammersmith & Fulham:
Haringey: Bruce Castle Museum [Tottenham N17 8NU] (closed Mon, Tue) <thumbs up>
Harrow: Harrow Museum [Headstone HA2 6PX] (closed Tue)
Havering (museum proposed within the Old Brewery, Romford)
Islington: Islington Museum [Finsbury EC1V 4NB] (closed Sun, Wed)
Kensington & Chelsea
Kingston: Kingston Museum [Kingston KT1 2PS ] (closed Sun, Wed)
Lambeth Lewisham Merton Newham
Redbridge: Redbridge Museum [Ilford IG1 1EA] (closed Sun, Mon) <thumbs up>
Southwark: Cuming Museum [Walworth SE17 1RY] (closed Sun, Mon)
Sutton: Honeywood [Carshalton SM5 3NX] (closed Mon, Tue)
Tower Hamlets
Waltham Forest: Vestry House Museum [Walthamstow E17 9NH] (closed Mon, Tue, Wed)
Wandsworth (closed last year, may reopen privately)

 Monday, May 26, 2008

Bus 135: Crossharbour (Asda) - Old Street
Location: London east
Length of journey: 7 miles, 50 minutes

A new bus to link Canary Wharf to the City. It's amazing there hasn't been one before. So they launched it on a Saturday on a bank holiday weekend, presumably to give the drivers three days to get the hang of the route before the passengers turned up. Everything should be working fine by Tuesday.

135... to... Old StreetI stood for nearly half an hour outside the Asda superstore on the Isle of Dogs, waiting for a 135 to whisk me away. Lots of 135s arrived and proceeded to circle the car park, but none ready for the beleaguered shoppers of E14 to board. Most of Asda's bus-bound customers were either old or obese, struggling from the entrance laden with carrier bags filled with toilet rolls or pushing a tartan trolley piled high with 3 for 2 tins. Not all of Docklands goes to Waitrose. Time passed. A 135 stopped by the bus stop so that an inspector could push a rubber strip back beneath the door-opening mechanism. They're brand new these buses, which is why the vehicle I eventually boarded smelt like fresh rubber rather than sweat and chips.

And straight into a stretch of roadworks, and off on diversion. The 135 will normally be scheduled to run round half of the Isle of Dogs, but my bus managed to tour the lot. All the way round the Thames loop from top right to top left, with barely a river view in sight. Passengers waiting in Manchester Road were perplexed. Not only was our 135 an unknown quantity, it wasn't supposed to be passing their stop anyway. The on-board audio description service also failed to cope with the change of route. Rather than announcing the next stop, a disembodied female voice repeatedly declared <This bus terminates here> until, thankfully, the driver switched her off.
An aside: Is it just me, or does anybody else find these "route-related service information" announcements really annoying? <135... to... Old Street> I don't mind being told what the next stop is, that's rather useful. <West India Avenue> But I am pig sick of being told, every single time the bus stops, what number it is <135... to... Old Street> and where it's going. <135... to... Old Street> Yes, I know it's a bloody 135 to Old Street, I wouldn't have got on board otherwise. <135... to... Old Street> Shut up! Some of these audio systems even operate in persistent nagging mode, repeating a limited repertoire of nannying announcements inbetween every stop. <Please take all litter with you when you exit the bus> <If you see an unattended bag, please tell the driver> <Closed circuit television is in operation on this bus> <Vandalism on London buses is a criminal offence> <135... to... Old Street> And TfL think this is a good thing? I am increasingly tired of being treated like an ignorant criminal every time I travel. <135... to... Old Street> Please, somebody make it stop.
new 135 washes whiterThe first part of my 135 journey was a mind-numbing waste of time. It's only half a mile, direct, from Crossharbour to Canada Square, but we took 20 minutes via the indirect not-quite scenic route. It would have been far quicker to walk. Even threading between the gleaming towers at Canary Wharf seemed to take forever, not helped by having to pause at jobsworth security barriers while private vehicles ahead of us were lightly scrutinised. Only when we escaped out onto the Commercial Road did our progress finally quicken.

In Limehouse I spotted someone I'd always believed existed but had never previously seen - the Bus Stop Route Number Updater. He was a cropped tanned bloke with a fag in his mouth, sitting in the back of a scruffy truck by the roadside. In his lap was the "Exmouth Estate" bus stop information board, and in his left hand a plastic bag full of fresh shiny "135" tiles. As I watched he shuffled the existing numbers around, a bit like one of those 4×4 plastic puzzles you find inside crackers, until the top row read "15 115 135". Jackpot. His handiwork can now be seen at bus stops all along the route - each with one gleaming new tile amongst a stack of weatherbeaten old squares.

And so to the City, whose highrise ostentation came in sharp contrast to the mean streets of Shadwell. Beneath the iconic Gherkin, round a gaping hole which will one day support 36 floors of world class office space, and past the fresh-spiked peak of the Broadgate Tower. What with Docklands earlier, TfL could market this bus to hard-pushed tourists as "the skyscraper tour". Or maybe not. There wasn't much towering above the end of the route, skirting the edge of Shoreditch to pull up outside Old Street station. Unsuprisingly, I don't believe that any of those Asda shoppers followed me this far.

 Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Telectroscope

Victorian engineering was often something special. Those top-hatted inventors were always exercising their grey cells, attempting to conjure up something mechanical and fantastical. Tower Bridge for example, or the Brooklyn Bridge, its contemporary counterpart in New York. Believe it or not, there were once plans to link these two bridges via a strange brass "visual amplifier" named a Telectroscope. No actual physical travel was to be possible, just a projected image propagated along a deep subterranean tunnel. London would be able to look at New York, and New York would be able to look back at London. Now, at long last, one intercontinental Telectroscope has finally been built, emerging this week down beside the Thames at City Hall. Fancy a look?

the Telectroscope outside City Hal

This amazing invention resembles a giant steampunk telescope half-sunk into the piazza. At the Tower Bridge end is a circular glass screen, beyond which a long dark tube curves and bends into inky blackness beneath the earth. A variety of shiny valves and dials control the transmission, each no doubt essential to the design. As for what happens down the tunnel between here and New York, heaven only knows. There's the odd clue on the inventor's descendant's website, but I rather hope it's all done with mirrors.

Roll up, roll up. It only costs a quid to enter the Telectroscope's outer enclosure (although, grrr, New Yorkers don't have to pay a cent). You hand over your coin to the automated seller in the glass booth by the entrance, and he signs your souvenir ticket with an invisible signature before depositing it in front of you. Next, walk along to the screen and join the small crowd peering into Manhattan. There it is, that small distant circle projected deep inside the machine. That crowd you're staring at is 3500 miles away, and they're staring 3500 miles back at you. Wave now!

gawping at ManhattanIt's fascinating watching to see what two distant groups of strangers do in this situation. Their only possible connection is visual, but some still choose to shout unheard words of greeting. Both sides have a small whiteboard on which short messages can be scribbled, although the pens have pretty feeble nibs so it's very hard to read what the other half are saying. But not impossible. "Hello from New York!" "It's very sunny here!" "Blow us a kiss!" Big smiles! What not enough people appear to be doing is to put the marker pen down, lower their camera and actually interact with their transcontinental counterparts. This should be long distance mime, it should be animated two-way audience participation. But it'll probably just end up as a few Flickr photos and forty seconds uploaded to Youtube.

You have three weeks to get yourself down to City Hall (or, indeed, the Fulton Ferry Landing) and enjoy the transatlantic Telectroscope experience. The enclosure is open 24 hours a day, allegedly, which will keep the supervising staff on their toes. Be warned, if it's busy they'll only let visitors stand and stare for five minutes max. I was lucky after work yesterday, the queues were almost non existent. But I suspect that word of mouth will spread fast, a bit like the Sultan's Elephant a couple of years ago, so pick your moment carefully. Brooklyn sunset will probably be particularly quiet at our end.

 Wednesday, May 21, 2008

London 2012  Olympic update
  The big build begins

Today, under the watchful eye of international Olympic officials, construction of London's 2012 stadium commences. Blimey that was quick. Just ten months ago I was wandering around the Marshgate Lane industrial estate - watching the ducks, admiring the roses and peering into the window of the Mercedes repair shop. And now they've all been utterly swept away in a whirlwind of dumper trucks and diggers, and a global landmark building is about to be erected in their place. It's all kicking off weeks ahead of schedule, even before the 2008 Olympics have begun, following not-quite-one-year of Digging, Demolishing and Design. Sometimes, it seems, project management actually works.

the 2012 Olympic plateau

The transformation is astonishing. What used to be a hilly mound between braided rivers has been summarily flattened, and all that remains of the previous industrial landscape is a single tarmac road snaking across a plateau of barren earth. Raised embankments, a few metres high, mark the egg-shaped perimeter of what will one day be the stadium proper. Outside this proto-arena a brand new water feature has appeared, approximately the size of an Olympic-sized swimming pool but rather more irregularly-shaped and full of muddy liquid. I don't think this hole is part of the final plans, but it certainly looks a lot cheaper than Zaha Hadid's genuine Aquatics Centre planned for the opposite side of the river. Whatever, it is now possible to stand on the Greenway bridge and to imagine what might be about to appear. The great knockdown may be complete, but the grand build up will take considerably longer.

Olympic Works this wayThere are now none-too-subtle hints that this area is evolving from a demolition zone into a building site. Two huge blocks of multi-storey portakabins await the imminent arrival of thousands of construction workers. A big green footbridge crosses Marshgate Lane so that everyone can pass safely from one side to the other without being knocked down by a passing truck. Spiked yellow buoys block off all river access into the site, lest some cavalier boatman might sail in and compromise hard-earned security. And outside, beyond the blue-walled perimeter, numerous newly-erected road signs prepare to direct heavily-laden lorries to one of 14 different entrance gates. The concrete is coming, and the world's athletes will only be 50 months behind.

The latest in my monthly series of photos of Olympic Stadium development
At Anna's insistence, I've now assembled all ten photos into their own Flickr set (the slideshow now runs forwards rather than backwards)
Keep an eye on the East-Olympic area on the Newham Olympic webcam (Warning: Java may stall your computer) (Warning: end result may not be worth the wait)
Sixty Minutes: Rob has assembled a collection of sixty, one minute films (each a 360º panorama shot from a motorised tripod) shot in the area designated for Olympic redevelopment.
And what are Boris's revised Olympic priorities? Lower taxes in Bromley and more kids in Richmond playing lacrosse. And not quite so much regeneration round my manor (damn)

 Tuesday, May 20, 2008

return to: St Pancras

St PancrasIt's now six months since St Pancras station reopened. What a lot of publicity and bluster there was, most of it from Eurostar, rejoicing in the architectural splendour of the old Barlow Train Shed and revelling in the sheer decadence of a new luxury rail experience. But has the station lived up to the hype? Is this really "Europe's destination station", or is it just a lot of trains and a few shops selling sandwiches? I've been back to check.

Good news for the marketeers. There are still people gawping at the giant Lovers statue and taking photographs of themselves next to Betjeman. There are even a few people sipping bubbly at the world's longest champagne bar, although from a distance they look like they're sat in a very thin wood-panelled burger restaurant. But that's upstairs, under the lovely roof. If the station's commercial heart is to survive, then the shopping experience downstairs really has to work.

And it sort of does. Along the main arcade are all the sorts of retail outlet that a passing business traveller might desire. Greetings cards, knickers and flowers, obviously, plus dress shirts, fragrance and watches. There's a tiny Hamleys, in case you want to buy one of a handful of fluffy gifts for some distant offspring, and there's also a rather decent Foyles (where the best selling book, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a nine quid history of St Pancras station). Plus tons of places to eat and drink (or, more accurately, to sip and graze). There's almost nowhere to sit down otherwise, so the Paris-bound are irresistibly drawn to join artificial cafe society. But this is nowhere you'd go out of your way to visit at weekends.

There's one main reason why central St Pancras is now buzzing. It's because there are an awful lot of people catching trains. The Underground arrives at the southern end of the station, while trains to Bedford, Leicester and beyond depart from the northern end. This means that thousands of commuters every day are forced to endure a forced daily route march past the Body Shop, Costa and Le Pain Quotidien. It's no wonder that some of them succumb and buy something.

Starbucks, St PancrasBut one newly-opened corner of the station still echoes with the sound of inactivity. It's called the "Circle", and it's tucked out of the way near the not-yet-opened farmers market. You could easily pass through the station without ever realising that its shops existed, which is why a series of giant advertising boards have been liberally scattered throughout in a desperate attempt to attract custom. It's not really working. The only people I saw in Monsoon and Vodafone were bored sales assistants. The shelves at the front of the deceptively large M&S were stacked with lunchtime sarnies that nobody had bought. Piles of newspapers in Smiths looked doomed to be pulped at the end of the day. And the chalked sign in front of the out-of-the-way Starbucks read just a little bit too desperately. Please come and join us!

Things will change when the tube station's new northern ticket hall opens in a couple of years time. Escalators will deposit passengers right in front of Starbucks' welcoming portal, and some might even notice the large Boots and Yo Sushi hidden behind. Until then the businesses represented in the Circle will probably wish they'd rented somewhere in a much more conspicuous location with significant footfall, far from this bypassed layby.

St Pancras. It's not so much a "destination" as a retail walkthrough with a nice roof. But hey, still hugely lovelier than the grim desert nextdoor at King's Cross.

 Monday, May 19, 2008

Inside City Hall

City HallFor one weekend every month, from roof to basement, the giant glass goldfish bowl at City Hall is opened up to the viewing public. Negotiate the knife-detecting security arch at reception and you too can check out the seat of London democracy. See the lovely view from the roof. See the offices where your taxes are spent. And see the debating chamber where our capital's elected representatives attempt to run things whilst simultaneously shunning that new BNP oik. I couldn't resist a trip to the very heart of Project Boris, just in case there were any clues inside regarding what he's up to. But there weren't. It's still a bit early in the Mayoralty, and he doesn't seem to work weekends.

First stop, the roof. The public lifts allow access only to the second floor and below, plus a single illuminated button for the ninth floor. Up top you'll be welcomed by smiling City Hall employees (presumably on overtime) and directed out into a tedious entertaining space called London's Living Room. Forget that, and head out onto the balcony. There's a great view of Tower Bridge from up here, as well as a direct line of sight across the Thames to the Tower of London. Close by is the cluster of City skyscrapers of which Ken was so fond (time will tell if Boris is quite so keen) with the pointy Gherkin at its heart. Further out, look, Canary Wharf, and Shooter's Hill, and the whole glorious panorama of southeast London. It used to be possible to see southwest London too, but then some property developers erected the shiny glass blocks of More London and now all you can see is posh offices and a concrete plaza photos. Ah well, it's still a damned good free view all the same.

City Hall, central rampTo get back down, you take the stairs. But these are no ordinary stairs, they form a precipitous swirly spiral that slowly descends inside an open cavern at the front of the building. Small loops at first, then increasingly wider and broader as they cascade earthward. Looking down photos, or up photos, there's always a photogenic backdrop. And there's also a unique opportunity to peer through the surrounding glass into six consecutive floors of GLA offices. No sign of Boris's lair, but plenty of hole punches, highlighters and stacked-up boxfiles. On one desk a half-eaten box of Cheerios, on another a pink squishy pig and an invite to a champagne reception at Kew Gardens. Oh, and if the IT department are reading, there's a red flashing light on printer 4250PCL on the third floor. Oh yes, this is certainly open democracy.

At the foot of the stairs is the main debating chamber. I think the royal blue carpet has been there since Day 1 and isn't a recent Boris initiative. Make sure you time your visit to avoid Sunday lunchtime, otherwise this section might be closed off to allow the filming of some BBC Politics programme that nigh nobody watches. Take a look at the latest designs that may one day fill Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth - there'll be a chance to vote for your favorite later. And on, down to the ground floor, around yet another spiral ramp photos. Norman Foster's City Hall building is an especially curvy building, and sometimes it feels as if he could have crammed in a whole lot more offices if only half the building wasn't spiral ramps.

And finally, don't forget to pay a visit to the Visitor Centre on the lower ground floor. The centrepiece is a massive photomat depicting an aerial view of the whole of Greater London. It's incredibly detailed and up to date (this version was reinstalled only last month). Come hunt for your house, and your place of work, and ooh look that's Wembley Stadium, and blimey isn't Bromley green? Plonked on top of the map at present is a temporary installation entitled Greenhouse Britain (sorry if you live in Docklands or Dagenham, you're currently obscured). This is a very Ken exhibition, all global warming and sustainable living, and one wonders whether Boris will want to fork out taxpayers money on similar stuff in the future. Or even want to waste cash on opening up City Hall for one weekend every month. I hope so. But if not, come soon.

 Sunday, May 18, 2008

A Century of Olympic Posters
Museum of Childhood: 17 May - 7 September

London Olympic posters - 1908, 1948, 2012It being a year divisible by 4, curators at the Victoria and Albert Museum have been busy assembling an appropriately Olympic exhibition. They've gathered together a comprehensive collection of Olympic posters, from Paris 1900 right up to London 2012, and all are now on show at the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green. Not a very thrilling concept you might think - there's only so much you can do with five rings and a few sportsmen - but it's actually a fascinating way to view the evolution of global 20th century design. See how the artists of the day tackled the Olympic brand brief, from proud torchbearing patriotism to abstract symbolic ingenuity. And yes, all leading up to that design at the end.

This is a rather larger exhibition than I was expecting, filling at least half of an upper gallery. I'm not quite sure why it's being hosted at the Museum of Childhood - the theme certainly falls well outside their usual pre-adolescent focus. But very young children seemed to be enjoying the exhibition all the same, providing them with a fantastic space in which to run around and chase one another. Most of the genuine visitors appeared to be twenty- or thirty-something male meeja types, here to update their creative portfolio, and absolutely none of them with children.

Mexico 1968The first Olympics are represented here by their programme covers, as it wasn't until Stockholm 1912 that an official poster was published. Early Olympic posters often had a very strong nationalistic theme, with artists depicting proud rippling athletes in front of recognisable landmarks. Berlin 1936 for example, with laurel-crowned victor towering above the Brandenburg Gate, or London 1948 (Big Ben plus discus-hurler plus rings - sorted). In the 1960s, however, things started to change. Tokyo 1964 ditched sport in favour of a big bold rising sun, and Mexico 1968 went all op-art with eye-popping concentric black lines. It's this dazzling Mexican design that still stands out as the most modern anywhere in the collection, and the one that'll probably sell the most postcards in the shop downstairs afterwards.

Munich 1972Munich 1972 was the first Olympics to take poster design seriously, approaching the pick of contemporary artists to create an extensive colourful collection that wouldn't have looked out of place in an Athena shop. This photograph shows a selection, plus in the foreground a genuine London 1948 torch (as used on the run across Belgium, apparently). From the 70s onwards I was impressed by how many of the Olympic logos I remembered. These variations on the simple five-ring design may have had an official lifespan of only a fortnight, but their iconic audacity has nevertheless imprinted upon the global consciousness. (Sorry if that last sentence reads like critical artistic tosh, but most of the labels in the exhibition were like that and I fear I've been infected by pretentious verbosity)

On into the modern day. Soft abstract designs dominate, with cunning logos (like Barcelona 1992 or Sydney 2000) where a handful of brushstrokes represent leaping athletes. Photography has been used only infrequently - Nagano 1998, with a thrush sitting on two ski poles, is a rare exception. And then, yes, all the way up to date with London 2012. The Back The Bid posters, with athletes vaulting over major landmarks, still retain a forceful impact. And then there's Lisa Simpson. We haven't had an official London 2012 poster yet, so the organisers have merely spraypainted a large angular blue logo straight onto the wall. According to the art critique label alongside "The London 2012 brand was launched on 4 Jun 2007, when the emblem was first revealed, exciting an extraordinary public reaction". I'll say. Seen here in context it's very much the odd one out, but it certainly upholds the Olympic tradition of cutting-edge design. What's needed in this space is an electronic poster, not yet published, representing the irreversible shift to dynamic multimedia. But that's for the next exhibition - Two Centuries of Olympic Posters. The children running around the gallery today may well enjoy that.

 Saturday, May 17, 2008


I don't know about you, but I'm too frightened to travel by bus in London these days. It didn't seem too bad a month ago, but now I sense a climate of fear every time I even think of going for a ride. Every big red bus has become a four-wheeled chamber of terror, inside which any number of terrible misdemeanours might occur. The familiar London bus stop has become a beacon of impropriety, enticing the wicked and malevolent to gather beneath its blood-red roundel. Bus shelters have become hotbeds of vice and felony, and our bus stations have descended into sinister anarchic no-go zones. How can I have been so blind not to see it before?

a 43 departs London Bridge stationBut, with characteristic speed and vigour, our new Mayor has acted. His latest policy announcement will increase the number of law enforcement officers targeting bus-related disorder. Trained police officers will be on patrol across the capital to stamp out misbehaviour on our public transport network. Teams of bus hub crime fighters will work together to confront wrongdoing and put an end to petty law-breaking. Low-level anti-social behaviour will be eradicated, and Londoners will be able to flash their Oysters in safety once more. How terribly reassuring.

Boris's new initiative kicks off by targeting as many as three of London's bus stations. It's good news for inhabitants of Canning Town, Wood Green and West Croydon, who will now see nine police officers wandering around their local transport interchange. Admittedly only two of these will be real police officers, but Community Support Officers and Special Constables can be pretty forceful too. They'll be making a visible difference as they wander around checking for knives, looking hard and glaring at teenagers. Other areas of London can look forward to similar levels of invincible crime protection, but not until next year.

I went to Canning Town bus station the other day. There was no actual crime going on, but the fear of crime permeated the building with a foul stench of terror. Large groups of East End youth hung around the automatic doors, no doubt preparing to board the bus to Romford and terrorise the passengers with their ringtones. A pair of foreign-sounding gentlemen crept up behind me, clearly intent on riding ticketless with their feet up on the seats. Every posse of adolescent girls appeared poised to sit on the back seats and launch into a tirade of boisterous swearwords. Which loutish lad would be the one to press the emergency alarm to exit the bus between stops? I even thought I saw a blade-wielding assassin stepping up onto the number 323, but thankfully it was just an old lady flashing a razor-sharp Freedom Pass. As I stood there, quivering, I thought "you know, what this place really needs is a visible police presence so that no marauder dare venture forth onto the bus network and exhibit anti-social behaviour". Boris has answered my prayers.

The Mayor's new policing policy goes straight to the heart of the problem. Stick a handful of uniformed officers at a few key transport interchanges and people will start to feel a bit safer, even if they were actually pretty safe already. Because what's crippling London's bus network isn't crime, but the fear of crime. Passengers don't care that serious bus-related offences are actually on the decrease, they just want reassurance that their next journey won't be their last. The Mayor has correctly recognised that Londoners are a bunch of screaming wusses with no accurate perception of reality, especially those who never travel by bus because they think it's too damned scary. Be afraid, be very afraid.

 Friday, May 16, 2008

Ronan Point (16th May 1968, 5:45am)

Exactly 40 years ago, eighteen floors above the streets of Canning Town, Mrs Ivy Hodge decided to make herself a cup of tea. This turned out to be a ghastly error. The match Ivy struck beneath her kettle ignited a gas leak, hurling her headlong across the kitchen. The force of the blast blew out the concrete walls of her brand new council flat, setting off a terrible chain reaction. Catastrophic structural failure caused the entire southeast corner of her tower block to collapse - wall by wall, flat by flat - sending 22 sitting rooms plummeting to the ground. With just one match Ivy had unwittingly killed four of her fellow Ronan Point residents, altered government housing policy and brought about the premature demise of the Modernist architecture movement. It's dangerous stuff, tea.

Ivy survived, but her early morning brew exposed a fatal flaw in Newham's building plans. Mid-60s architects believed that stacked-up living was the future, and newly created Newham council had taken this philosophy very much to heart. They'd been busily building up into the sky, replacing acres of pre-war slums with stark concrete tower blocks. But construction workers here on the Freemasons Estate had cut corners, failing to bolt together the prefabricated concrete sections with due care, and relying rather too heavily on gravity. One blown-out wall was enough to destabilise this unfortunate house of cards, and Ronan Point's downfall was inevitable.

The disaster could have been far worse. It being before 6am, very few of the kitchens and sitting rooms beneath Flat 90 were occupied. One woman who'd been sleeping on the couch overnight managed to scramble to a narrow ledge along the inner wall, and was rescued from the rubble by her husband. The four flats above Ivy were more seriously damaged, but fortunately these were still unoccupied because Ronan Point had only opened back in March. And even the offending gas stove survived. When the residents moved out so that the block could be rebuilt (yes, rebuilt, not demolished), Ivy took it with her.

The Canning Town collapse had several ramifications. A ban was placed on the supply of gas to high rise blocks. Legislation was passed requiring any new towers to be able to withstand much stronger explosions. And the tide of public opinion started to swing away from head-in-the-clouds elevated boxes back to communal lowrise living. You didn't see Mary, Mungo and Midge much on TV after the early 70s, did you? Newham council took a little longer to come back down to earth. Ronan Point was finally demolished in 1986, along with its eight sister blocks on the Freemasons Estate. Not a trace remains.

Hartington Road, Canning Town

Today a carpet of two- and three-storey dwellings covers this part of Canning Town. Families live in council houses with their own garden and a car parking space out front, next to scrappy patches of grass where wandering dogs relieve themselves. There are bland brick tenements and pebbledash terraces, plus shuttered shops in a peeling parade offering everything from bread rolls to betting slips. Take a walk up Freemasons Road from the ExCel Exhibition Centre and you'll probably be passed by several kids on bikes and the occasional tartan shopping trolley. Look out for the clenched fist sculpture outside the credit union, and smile at the portraits of "Leslie" and "Ethel" carved into the pavement between Leslie Road and Ethel Road. It may not be nirvana, but it's a lot more desirable than Ivy's 60s skyline. And, if you fancy a cuppa, a lot less dangerous.

 Wednesday, May 14, 2008

BoJoWatch: trees a jolly good fellow?

"The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has today announced the closure of The Londoner newspaper saving London nearly three million pounds. A percentage of this saving will be spent on planting 10,000 new street trees as London's new Mayor continues to deliver on his manifesto pledges."
See, I told you. Boris has ditched The Londoner (which he describes as "the Mayor's personal newspaper") and plans to spend some of the saved millions on trees. Very politically astute, swapping newsprint for timber. Some people are impressed. Here's why I'm not.

"The Londoner is distributed to three million homes across Greater London. Had Ken Livingstone been re-elected, Londoners would have spent around £2.9 million next year on The Londoner. By scrapping this, we will save £2.9 million."
The Londoner newspaper used to cost each London family 97p a year (that's 9.7p per copy). Not extortionate, and far less than is wasted producing other London freesheets, but perhaps unnecessary. I wouldn't know, because The Londoner's distribution was so poor that I can't remember the last time I received a copy.

"Boris Johnson's manifesto commitment is to use some of the money saved from The Londoner – around £1 million per year – to deliver our pledge of 10,000 street trees by 2012."
Aha, so only 35% of the money spent on The Londoner is going on trees. The rest will presumably go on other projects, or be used to cut future years' council tax. One thing's for certain, it won't go on trees.

Dutch Elm, Ladywell Fields"The Mayor proposes to work in partnership with charities like Trees for Cities and the London Boroughs to launch a major effort to bring street trees to those areas of London that need them most."
Ooh good. We like Trees For Cities, they're a fine bunch of volunteers who work with local communities to get more trees planted. They're also custodians of the 41 Great Trees of London (one of which is the Lewisham Dutch Elm at the centre of today's photo).

"Rather than dictate from City Hall where these trees should be planted, it is intended that these charities would compile a list of the 40 areas in London that would most benefit from new street trees."
This is an example of the new era of delegation at City Hall. Why make a decision yourself when you can outsource it to someone else instead? And 40 areas isn't many, is it? It's only about one area per borough. Don't expect any of these new trees to be planted down the street where you live.

"On average we will plant 250 trees in each area, and all 40 areas will have trees planted by the end of the four-year Mayoral term."
Ah, so it's 40 areas over the course of four years, is it? That's only 10 areas each year. Less than one location a month. We're talking tokenistic gesture politics here.

"Londoners will be able to vote on the Greater London Authority website to determine the order in which areas are planted."
Oh for goodness sake. This is nothing but a pointless green gimmick. The area that shouts the loudest will get their trees first, and the least web-savvy neighbourhood (probably the area that needs the trees most) will have to wait for 47 months. Boris has merely come up with a cross between Trunk Idol and Twig Brother.

"With a major injection of funds and high profile support from the Mayor, it is anticipated that there is significant potential for tree-planting partnerships with companies and local authorities. Trees for Cities have previously secured significant amounts of match funding for tree planting projects and estimate that each annual grant of £1 million for tree planting would generate match funding of £500,000 from the private and public sectors."
Hang on, the tree planting isn't yet fully funded. One third of the money (and thereby one third of the trees) depends solely on attracting sufficient interest from the private sector. Taxpayers' money will pay for only 6667 trees over the next four years. Scrapping the Londoner will fund fewer than 5 trees a day. That is, quite frankly, pathetic.

"£1.5 million a year for four years is a total of £6 million which, using an average cost of £600 per tree, would give a total of 10,000 street trees over a four-year term."
Ten thousand may sound like a big number, but really it isn't. Boris's grand plan delivers just one tree per year for every 3000 London residents. It's a drop in the environmental ocean, and a mere 1% of what Ken was pledging. I am not impressed.

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