Sunday, July 27, 2008

London 2012  Olympic update
  Team Stadium

Olympic Stadium (four years to go)Four years from today, less than a mile from where I'm sitting, the opening ceremony of the 30th Summer Olympic Games will take place. Four years might sound like a long time, but it's not. There's no stadium as yet, which is perhaps not surprising given that this time last year the site housed several warehouses and the odd factory. But come 2012 there's got to be a huge circular grandstand erected around a mighty arena, otherwise there'll be nowhere to let off the balloons and fireworks. And somebody's got to build it.

Every month since the Olympic Park was sealed off, I've been up onto the Greenway bridge to take a same-angled photo. This month an extra crane has gone up, and all the surrounding land has been flattened and compacted to make terraces suitable for building. Marshgate Lane has been diverted, obliterated even, to be replaced by a new orbital distributor road for construction traffic. But the most striking change I saw wasn't on the Olympic stadium site at all, it was up on the Greenway, and it was walking home.

The Greenway's always been a fairly quiet footpath, bar the odd boy racer on a stolen moped, but no longer. Come half past five in the evening it's suddenly become a hive of commuter activity. No really. I stood to one side as a steady drip of men in suits, women in heels and workmen in boots wandered by, fresh from clocking off. The construction phase has begun, and now there's work to be done. Two great big temporary office blocks have been erected on the edge of the Olympic site, and their pedestrian access is via a long walkway to the Greenway. It's suddenly clear why the ODA have been so keen to keep this sewer-top footpath open during the construction period - it's the main route between the site office and the nearest DLR station at Pudding Mill Lane. And I suspect this also explains the expense spent on installing shiny new streetlights (but only along this northernmost stretch of the Greenway and not along any of the rest yet).

Marshgate Lane (with pelican crossing in the shadows beneath the railway arch)Another unexpected feature was a new pedestrian crossing at the bottom of the ramp beneath the railway arches. It's unlike any I've ever used before. It has lights and push buttons and green men and everything, but this area is so health and safety conscious that the whole length of the roadway is securely fenced off, even the crossing. Wait patiently and the two waiting wardens will press the button for you, stop the traffic and open their gate to let you across. Sigh, I remember when this particular stretch of Marshgate Lane was just a threateningly-quiet dingy tyre-strewn dead end, wholly suitable for fearless independent travellers. Now it's the main through route for Olympic lorries, dumper trucks and construction vehicles, unnavigable without assistance, and requiring a permanent staff of two lollipop men to keep the commuter stream moving. Who says the Games haven't created worthwhile jobs for local people?

Not everybody takes the DLR home, some take the bus. Road traffic on the Olympic Park has recently been boosted by a host of shuttling minibuses, each labelled "Team Stadium" to ensure that employees end up in the correct location. This is a vast construction site, so a complicated transport network has had to be established to move the workforce around and to keep them away from the underside of passing steamrollers. The ODA are even using bendy buses, painted white, to ensure sufficient passenger capacity. I noticed that one such articulated monster still has the number 453 on the back, so maybe this is where Boris is hiding all his bendies until he gets his new pseudo-Routemaster sorted out.

So what can we expect to see in the Olympic Park over the next year as "The Big Build" commences? The ODA are committing themselves to ten new milestones, including the pledge that "the foundations of the Olympic Stadium will be complete" and "work on the upper seating structure and roof will be underway." I'm cheered to see that "the overhead pylons will have been removed", but considerably less thrilled by the promise that "the erection of the new perimeter security fence will be underway". I expect to see something even less inviting than the blue wooden wall that currently encircles the site, incorporating razorwire, sheer concrete barriers and CCTV cameras. But all essential, alas, if the Queen is ever to stand on this building site and announce to a worldwide audience of two billion that London is where it's at. Four years and counting.

Monthly view from Greenway bridge - slideshow
Iain Sinclair muses on the Olympic Park - audio slideshow

 Saturday, July 26, 2008

It was the jaffa cake on the escalator that first alerted me. Escalators should always be cake-free, and indeed object-free, given their repeated circuitous motion. This, then, was a freshly-dropped jaffa cake, sitting chocolate side up on the metal slats. I wondered briefly, as I stepped carefully past, whether it might survive to the bottom intact or whether some other passing footstep would squelch the orange-y bit completely flat. More importantly, however, I wondered how the jaffa cake might have appeared here in the first place.

And then I hit the milk. One moment I was striding confidently down the escalator, holding onto the rubber rail in line with current safety guidelines, and the next my left hand was covered with white sticky white dampness. Yeee-ugh. The slimy trail continued for a few more unpleasant centimetres, and then I pulled my fingers away to walk on unsupported.

That looked like the spillage culprit a few steps below. A man with lank mousey hair and a thick blue jacket, clutching something edible tightly in front of him and lumbering unsteadily downwards. Not the best place for a fast food meal, I thought. He reached the foot of the escalator before me, wobbling unsteadily, and headed off towards his train. I spotted the telltale upturned blue lid of a milk carton on the lowest step as I alighted behind.

Oh great, I was walking behind a ravenous passenger intent on scattering his remnant leftovers anywhere and everywhere. I sped up, attempting to overtake him along the passageway to the platform. As I passed I noticed the unmistakable whiff of ingrained filth erupting from his unwashed torso. This was the kind of man who'd reek even in the middle of winter, but on the hottest day of the summer his fetid aura was all-pervasive. All this plus a little extra dab of milk. I walked a little faster to reach the uncontaminated air ahead.

I made sure I stopped just far enough up the platform to be safe, and looked back to watch my pasteurised nemesis shuffle to a halt. He made for the one remaining seat on a bench of four and settled back to finish off his meal. Alcohol might now be banned on the tube, but there are no such regulations against cow juice and cake. I noted the man's thin feral face, revealing rather too much cheekbone, as he stuffed down yet another jaffa from his plastic stack.

Two smart young ladies, who'd previously been enjoying their chat unmolested, looked briefly at one another and rose silently to evacuate their endangered resting place. Ignorant of being shunned so politely, the stooped diner munched on. With the next train now rumbling in the distance, an elderly couple then took the opportunity to rest awhile on the newly vacated seats. They didn't last long, but still probably several distasteful seconds longer than they'd have liked.

As the doors opened, the source of all our discomfort remained resolutely still, fiddling in his bag and gulping down a few more milky mouthfuls. I thought travellers to Hainault (via Newbury Park) might be safe from the inescapable discomfort of radiating body stench in a confined space, but no. At the last second the hungry hunchback arose, spilling more white liquid, and lumbered purposefully into the train.

By now I was, thankfully, safely tucked away in the carriage nextdoor. But my thoughts were with the nasally-assaulted passengers through the connecting door, doomed to travel in stinking jaffa cake hell. Commuting can be so wonderfully random sometimes, but random is not always wonderful.

 Friday, July 25, 2008

Olympic Marathon 1908 (the pictorial aftermath)

www.flickr.com: my 1908 Olympic marathon route photos
(30 new photos, mixed with 5 old ones)

Yesterday you got the words, today you get the pictures. You could just head over to Flickr and view them all there in sequence, but experience suggests you probably won't. So I'm going to give each of the 30 photos a little plug here, and then maybe you might click through and view the ones that sound interesting (or I might trick you with weasel words into viewing something mighty tedious - your risk).

Windsor: The castle before the tourists arrive; The castle after the tourists arrive; The Union Jack flying (so Her Maj was out); View from the bridge over the Thames (with wheel).
1908 Marathon plaque, EtonEton: Filming in the High Street (proper camera crew and all); Barnespool Bridge (pretty in pink); A "25 miles to go" plaque commemorating the 1908 marathon on a wall at Barnespool Bridge (wow, who'd have thought 100 years later?); Eton College's 'School Hall' and 'School Library'; Eton College Chapel (from a distance); The Playing Fields of Eton (with cricket pitch flattener).
Slough: Shoppers and birdy sculpture in the High Street; Wernham Hoggs (don't get your hopes up, Office fans); Hilariously incorrect road markings (well, OK, quite amusing).
Uxbridge: The boutiques of Windsor Street; The tube station entrance; Pretty pink flowerbeds at the Civic Centre (well, I liked them).
Ruislip: Some old buildings in the High Street; The even older Manor House.
Eastcote: A shop that hires hats (run by a lady called Felicity).
Pinner: A dull photo of the not terribly interesting River Pinn.
Harrow: Hang on, I appear not to have taken any photos in Harrow (but then the marathon missed all the good bits).
Wembley: The closest the 1908 runners got to the new stadium.
Harlesden: Caribbean fish shop (serving mysterious Caribbean fish); The Jubilee Clock (plus 999 personnel); The Willesden Junction Hotel (nice lettering).
Old Oak Common: A fairly spartan cafe (with washing line); Sidings full of old decaying railway carriages; Site of 1966 triple murder (in front of burnt-out council house) (story); Wormwood Scrubs prison.
White City: Monolithic newish BBC building; The BBC Media Village (not the interesting end, sorry, because photography's banned).

 Thursday, July 24, 2008

OLYMPIC CENTENARY: Today I've been following the route of the 1908 London Marathon, blogging live via my mobile

I'm marking the centenary of London's 1908 Olympic marathon by following the original route, all 26 miles and 385 yards of it. I'll be setting out from Windsor Castle later this morning (give me a chance to get there first), then making my way to the site of the White City Stadium in Shepherd's Bush. I'm not running, not in this heat, but I expect to walk the first few miles of the route through Eton, Slough and Uxbridge. After that I'll probably do much of the rest by bus, with various stops along the way to see what these Olympic suburbs look like 100 years on. If you want to see where I'm going you can follow the original marathon route on this useful map, or check out the pre-sat-nav directions here. I'll be live-blogging from my mobile at various points, via email, and also sending updates via Twitter if you're watching on there. Yes, it's a ludicrous thing to do but hey, the weather's lovely and it beats going to work today. And if you're inspired to try something similar, why not sign up for a West London Marathon challenge? OK, I'd better get my trainers on, then head out to the starting line. Time to follow in the footsteps of Olympic history...

Windsor Castle (0 miles, 10:03am): The 1908 Olympic marathon started from the East Terrace, but it's clear I'm not going to be able to get there without forking out some exorbitant admission charge. The entire south, north and east flanks of the castle are sealed off from the public (courtesy of Section 128 of the Serious Organised Crime Act 2005) so I'm stuck on the western side with the tourist swarms. Several foreign parties have already passed by, following grinning guides holding raised umbrellas, and snapping away with their cameras at every stretch of crennellated rampart. There's a considerable but discreet police presence around Castle Hill - I wonder if Her Maj is in residence. As the low flying jumbos scream overhead, and this sun-drenched tourist town prepares to welcome thousands more t-shirted guests, I'm starting my commemorative marathon journey outside the main castle entrance. Only 26 miles, near enough, to go.

Slough (3 miles, 11:41am): After the historic calm of Eton, this much maligned modern town comes as a big contrast. The marathon route passes shiny glass service industries on the outskirts, then threads through the bustling High Street. Workmen are busy digging up the pavements and piazzas while a multicultural band of shoppers stuff themselves with muffins and pastries. There's nothing like t-shirt weather to bring out the full scale of Britain's obesity problem. One cafe-bar has dubbed itself Wernham Hogg in honour of Slough's most famous fictional paper company. Patrons are already drinking cooling pints and milkshakes at its shaded aluminium tables. Great for shopping, but Slough's other delights lie well hidden. 100 years ago the Olympic runners ran through here very fast indeed. I think Sir John Betjeman would have approved.

Uxbridge (8 miles, 1:35pm): From Slough it's a long pedestrian-unfriendly slog up the A412 dual carriageway. 1908's marathon runners would have found the going rather easier - a pleasant rural jog through fields and pinewoods - but I've had to yomp along narrow roadside verges and even down the central reservation. In the commuter village of Iver Heath, after six miles on foot, a rare bus was passing so I decided to cadge a lift to Uxbridge. My extortionally-priced ticket took me over the twin streams of the M25 and the Colne, one considerably prettier than the other. In the main town it's now lunchtime. Office workers with dangling laminated security passes pause to queue for a Meal Deal with Diet Coke, while sweaty shoppers exert minimal effort to walk between one shopping mall and the next. Windsor Street's boutiques sell flowers, handbags and lingerie to the more discerning. Quickly my route passes back out of town, alongside the common, heading north towards Ickenham. Time to put my Oyster card to good use, I think.

Pinner (15 miles, 3:13pm): I've been travelling through the affluent suburban fringes of northwest London, along green avenues lined by bright brick villas and mock Tudor domestic castles. Very few of these would have existed 100 years ago, just the odd village and farmstead along the way. But the Metropolitan Railway had just penetrated peaceful Ruislip and sleepy Eastcote, and the residential explosion was about to begin. Now the hedges along the marathon route are well-trimmed privet, not brambly bushes, and the grass is millimetre-perfect lawn, not bovine meadow. Residential nirvana, for those lucky enough to be at home today, is sitting on the back garden patio under a fringed parasol, sipping iced Pimms or an Earl Grey. Well-behaved sons cycle down to the park with fluorescent cricket stumps packed in their rucksacks, while dainty daughters in flowery dresses ask Mummy politely for an ice cream. As an Eastender used to bustle and densely-packed grime, I find the affluent atmosphere alien and alluring. Pinner is as far north as the marathon route extended. I fear it may be downhill from here on.

Wembley (21 miles, 4:47pm): Ah, that famous sporting arena, forever associated with the 1948 London Olympics. But forty years earlier there was no stadium, no athletic epicentre, just a fledgling suburb on the edge of a growing city. The 1908 marathon runners would have run within 400m of the future stadium site, but never noticed. As a multiethnic crowd arrived from all corners of the globe, they'd feel very much at home in Wembley High Street today. Here there's an unmistakable Asian feel, with mothers in saris manoeuvring pushchairs while off-school babes flounce from clothes shop to nailbar. Further down the road in Harlesden the vibe switches to mostly Afro-Caribbean. Supplies of jerk chicken are plentiful, pumped reggae fills the streets and salons dispensing specialist haircare and beauty products are everywhere. Some of the buildings may be the same, but a century of change has altered this corner of London forever. OK, enough buses, time to walk down to Wormwood Scrubs and the finishing line at BBC White City.

White City (26.2 miles, 6:30pm): I've arrived at the 1908 Olympic marathon finishing line (or thereabouts, because there's no plaque marking the royal box. It's hometime at BBC White City, and streams of trendy meeja workers and smiley secretaries are pouring out of the Broadcast Centre and either heading home or hanging around for a pint. The Olympic rings (1908) are commemorated on the outside wall of the One Show studio, while in the window above is a large cardboard cutout of The Stig. And below in the courtyard are volunteers at a trestle table welcoming stragglers in a special centenary marathon, some jogging in with arms aloft for a celebratory Coke, others biking to a halt with a broad grin. Seems I've not been the only one out on the old course today. I desperately want to take some photos but I can't, because signs tell me I need the prior permission of the BBC (paying the licence fee not good enough, eh?). It's strange sitting in the middle of a busy place of work, once an Olympic stadium, especially when back home in Stratford it's going to be the other way round. My feet are aching now - I reckon I walked half of the 26 miles and bussed the rest. Major respect for all those who ran the distance both today and 100 years ago. Think I'd better limp out of shot before Adrian Chiles shines his big red spotlights on me.

 Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The London Olympic marathon: 1908

1908 Olympic commemoration at the BBC Media Village (built on the site of the old White City Stadium)On Friday July 24th 1908, London hosted the second most important marathon race of all time. It wasn't as important as Pheidippides' Ancient Greek original, obviously, but the London competition set the standard for all modern marathons. Previous marathons had been run over 25 miles, near enough, according to location. But the distance run in London - 26 miles and 385 yards precisely - has since been adopted as the official distance worldwide. And it's all thanks to our Royal Family being a teensy bit selfish.

The 1908 Olympic Stadium was built just north of Shepherd's Bush Green at White City (then home to the Franco-British Exhibition, now the site of the BBC Media Village). Marathon organisers needed an appropriate starting position 25 miles away, and settled eventually on Eton College way out to the west. The fifty-or-so runners would gather on Barnespool Bridge and then run their way through the Middlesex countryside to the London suburbs. But King Edward VII was keen that the race set off from nearby Windsor, so the race was extended backwards across the Thames to start outside the famous castle. And not the front of the castle either, but the East Terrace round the back, starting just beneath the window of the royal nursery. How lovely, thought the Princess of of Wales, if my children could see this marvellous race begin. So the marathon became 26 miles long, not 25, for the benefit of a five princes and a little princess.

BBC Media Village (with 1908 Olympic athletics finishing line)Meanwhile, at White City, further royal moves were afoot. The marathon was due to end inside the stadium at the same finishing line as for the other athletics races. You can still see that finishing line today, etched out in a BBC courtyard (assuming you work for the BBC, that is, or can walk past their security guards unchallenged). But Queen Alexandra wasn't happy with the status quo. She wanted a proper view of the finish, except that her Royal Box was positioned a short distance away (in the wrong direction). Two choices - either shift the Royal Box or shift the end of the race. You can guess who won. In the words of the official Olympic report at the time, "385 yards were run on the cinder track to the finish, below the Royal Box." Total marathon length - 26 miles and 385 yards. And that distance stuck.

The 1908 Olympic marathon was memorable for another reason - its extraordinarily controversial finish. As the runners entered the stadium, the Italian Dorando Pietri was in the lead. But he was extremely tired, staggering erratically towards the tape, and many onlookers feared he'd not reach the end without collapsing. A few well-meaning officials nudged and supported him towards the finishing line, to rapturous applause. But this thoughtless assistance got Dorando disqualified, and his gold medal was given instead to American athlete Johnny Hayes. Public outcry ensured that the Italian was not forgotten, and Princess Alexandra presented him with a commemorative gold cup shortly afterwards. But I bet she kept very quiet about the fact the the race would have been a mile and 385 yards shorter had her relations not interfered, and Dorando would have won outright with ease.

That's how the start and the end of the 1908 marathon panned out, but the route inbetween may also surprise you. The selected course didn't spiral round the sights of central London like the modern television-friendly event, but instead traversed the capital's rural fringe. First stop Slough (mmmm), then Uxbridge (oooh), and then a mostly Arcadian jog through quiet villages like Pinner and Eastcote. I bet it's not such a peaceful route 100 years later! So tomorrow, on the anniversary of the great race, I thought I'd find out. I'm going to attempt to travel all 26 miles and 385 yards, for real, with the aid of a decent pair of walking shoes and an Oyster card. I'll see you in Windsor in the morning, and let's hope I'm not stumbling with exhaustion by the time I reach White City.

1908 marathon route: Windsor, Eton, Slough, Iver Heath, Uxbridge, Ickenham, Ruislip, Eastcote, Pinner, Harrow, Sudbury, Wembley, Harlesden, East Acton, Wormwood Scrubs, White City [map] [join in]
1948 marathon route: Wembley, Kingsbury, Queensbury, Stanmore, Edgware, Mill Hill, Borehamwood, Radlett, Watling Street, Elstree, Stanmore, Queensbury, Kingsbury, Wembley [details]
2012 marathon route: Tower Bridge, [Tower, Monument, Cannon Street, Embankment, Westminster, Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, Strand, Fleet Street, St Paul's, Bank, Aldgate]×3 Whitechapel, Stepney, Mile End, Bow, my house, Stratford [map]

 Tuesday, July 22, 2008

  the definitive DG guide to London's sights-worth-seeing
  Part 24: HMS Belfast

Location: Morgan's Lane, Tooley Street SE1 2JH [map]
Open: 10am - 6pm (10-5 in winter)
Admission: £10.30 (under 16s free)
5-word summary: explore a preserved battle cruiser
Website: hmsbelfast.iwm.org.uk
Time to set aside: half a day

HMS BelfastI must have passed HMS Belfast scores of times, thinking it couldn't possibly be particularly worth a visit. I mean, it's just an old warship dumped in the Thames, and since when was a mothballed naval vessel interesting? But I was persuaded by visiting family members to give it a try, not least because two of them were still young enough to visit absolutely free of charge. And what do you know, it's fascinating. The whole multi-deck experience was like a cross between a museum and an assault course - perfect for keeping a couple of boys engaged and active. And all this plus a great view of Thames-side London too. Come on, down the gangplank.

It soon became obvious that mid 20th century warships didn't really do stairs. Steep ladder-type ascents yes, but gently-rising staircases no. You won't get up to the first gun turret in heels, that's for sure, but we were a testosterone-only party so we scrambled up with ease. Then through a doorway into the massive ship, along the main deck past a huge torpedo and some fairly unconvincing mannequins. We listened to our audio wand commentary relating not-quite thrilling stories of the laundry, the chapel and the mail room, and we hoped that the historical thrills picked up soon. They did.

HMS Belfast (Engine Room)No young children under four foot beyond this point. Youngest nephew was delighted to discover he was a few inches over, and we headed off down two steep ladders into the bowels of the ship. Voila, the boiler room - capable of being sealed off from the rest of the ship in case the steam ever erupted into an uncontrollable explosion. It's proper pipe-y down here, with valves and wheels and dials (and an informative video recording explaining how the stokers did their job). And just when we thought the designated route might be ascending back to the main deck, no, it was right back down again into the claustrophobic engine room nextdoor. It's not every day you get to clamber around a series of metal chambers in the middle of London below the level of the Thames, and we relished the opportunity.

Upstairs was still full of dodgy plastic soldiers, cooking plastic vegetables in the galley or hanging from ropey hammocks on the messdeck. There were also a couple of small museums, not quite interactive enough to entertain the youngest but still a necessary part of the experience. HMS Belfast, we learned, was a town-class cruiser commissioned four weeks before WW2 erupted, and survived only a few months into the war before being crippled by a single magnetic mine. It took three years to make her seaworthy again, just in time to protect our Arctic convoys and take the lead in the D-Day landings. She then saw post-war service in the Far East, before finally being saved from scrap and relocated in the Pool of London as a museum ship in 1978. Yes, it's OK kids, we can leave the museum now and go for a couple more scrambles down to the steering chamber and the magazine.

HMS Belfast (from the fo'c'sle)Eventually we climbed back out into the fresh air on the boat deck. It was impressive to stand at the front of the ship, beside chunky snaking anchor chains, and to look back towards the main gun battery. Photo opportunity now, boys. And one last ascent, this time right to the top of the ship via the bridge and wireless office. An opportunity to see the slightly more luxurious officers' quarters and lots more guns, plus an excellent view of the Tower and Tower Bridge from the highest platform. We were, by now, experts at scurrying up and down near vertical steps, which was just as well because there were several more sets here.

We gave the cafe a miss, sorry, because we had Borough Market in mind as a more discriminating lunchtime experience. So once the final audio history snippet had played out, we handed in our guides to the smiling officers on the quarterdeck and trooped back up the pier to the gift shop. Such restraint, not even a novelty captain's hat or a souvenir pencil sharpener. And we were pleasantly surprised to discover that, without trying, we'd spent nearly two and a half hours touring around London's finest maritime time capsule. How many times have you been past without exploring inside?
by train/tube: London Bridge  by bus: 47, 343, 381, RV1

 Friday, July 18, 2008

The Stratford Hoard

a few of 1000 sugar sachetsI don't normally travel home via Stratford station, but I did yesterday (hi Mum, I've pre-bought my train ticket, I'll see you later). The Central line platforms were the usual mass of scurrying humanity, the subway was a typically frenetic scrum, and the queues at the ticket barriers were as nightmarish as ever. Up on the DLR/Jubilee overbridge, however, I managed to time my arrival for one of the quieter interludes between outpouring trains. And I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the station's upper concourse has been transformed, for a few months only, into a very local museum.

The Stratford Hoard is a series of collections of ordinary objects, such as picture postcards or milk bottles, each contributed by somebody who works at the station or lives nearby. The objects are presented with due reverence in museum-quality cases, elevating what could be a mundane assortment of items to a position of perceived importance. Imagine if you will the highlights of Elizabeth Parker's collection of sugar sachets, pinned out across four separate display cases like an array of mounted butterflies. Or Kacey Young's collection of souvenir teaspoons, comprising ornate silvery-plated treasures from various locations around the world. Or the scarily-oversaturated world of Martin Kingdom's picture postcard graphic wall, reliving the long-gone era when holiday messages took even longer to travel home that you did.

Manorware teapots and painted milk bottlesOr teapots. Susan Langford collects tiny red-spouted Manorware teapots inscribed with the names of British tourist towns. They're usually kept at home and brushed occasionally with a duster, but for the next few weeks they're in pride of place in a glass cabinet beside the entrance to the DLR platforms, just behind a row of late 20th century printed milk bottles. It's a great idea, this exhibition, celebrating the way that ordinary people celebrate the ordinary by collecting it.

I'm almost sorry not to have contacted the curator myself and offered him the loan of my collection of early-1980s chocolate biscuit wrappers. I'm sure the good people of Stratford would have enjoyed remembering what a shiny-coated blue Penguin looked like, and ogling a pristine Trio, and gawping at a pair of long-gone Uniteds (original and orange). Ah yes, sssh, there's a collector in many of us.

As part of the project's official launch yesterday, an additional freesheet newspaper was being handed out to passing commuters. This was Issue 1 of The Stratford Grapevine, an arts-sponsored community newspaper 'by and about the people of Stratford'. Yes, I know, it sounds awfully worthy and dull, but the reality is far better than that. Pride of place is given to a series of articles about the Newham Striders, a well-established healthy walking group, who recommend a few non-standard strolls around the local area. There are reports about the West Ham Allotment Society (Nina recommends them too), the imminent retirement of Stratford's favourite independent tailor and the disappearance of Robert the steam engine. Throw in a Forest Gate Punjabi radio station, a Gerard Manley Hopkins plaque (in a supermarket car park) and a competition to try to find the perfect match for Olympic Fence Blue, and you have a surprisingly interesting package. Issue 2 is due out in September, and Issue 3 in November.

As another DLR train arrived and disgorged its Docklands cargo, I stood back to let the Essex hordes storm through. It was reassuring to see many of them accepting a Grapevine in preference to a London Lite (I know which I'd pick, given the choice), and then sitting reading about E15 rather than W1 on the train journey home. The 20-page tabloid can still be picked up from Stratford station for the next few weeks, or else you can download the pdf and read it at home. But for the sugar sachets and teaspoons you'll have to turn up in person.

 Sunday, July 13, 2008

Random borough (18): Ealing

Time yet again for me to take another random trip to one of London's 33 boroughs. Ah, Ealing, Queen of the Suburbs. This broad swathe of pleasant commuterland lies at the very heart of West London. It's the third most populous borough in the capital (I have yet to visit the top two). It's home to a broad mix of nationalities and cultures. It's strung out along the A40 Western Avenue and the Uxbridge Road. And it's not somewhere I'd previously spent a lot of time. I may have been missing out. Let's start today in Ealing itself, formely fields, now a major metropolitan centre.

Somewhere historic: Pitzhanger Manor-House
Pitzhanger Manor-HouseSir John Soane left his architectural mark on London. He designed the Bank of England (since redeveloped), the House of Lords (since burnt down), various churches and the Dulwich Picture Gallery, amongst others. He's best remembered, perhaps, for the house in Lincolns Inn Fields that now houses an eclectic museum in his name. But there's a less well known outpost of his Neo-Classical empire, out in Ealing, just south of the Broadway. It's easily overlooked. Shoppers pass by through Walpole Park, straight past the front door, without a second look. Staff inside the villa have a series of blue boards labelled "Open today, Free entry" with which they attempt to lure the public within. I'm not sure it works as frequently as they'd hope. But blimey, what a great little manor this is. Because nobody shows off quite so much as an architect designing their own home.

Soane snapped up Pitzhanger in 1800, aiming to transform it into a country retreat where he could impress clients. He succeeded. The facade is bold and striking, with four classical columns topped off by appropriately goddesslike statues. The entrance hall is narrow but unexpectedly tall, with decorative marble and plasterwork above. And... ah, hello, no I've never been here before, and yes I would like an audio wand tour, is it only a pound, that's a bargain, thankyou. The breakfast room is amazing, just a small wood-panelled chamber but with the most fantastically over-the-top ceiling . Clouds swirl around within a central elliptical disc, surrounded by snaking geometric lines and the occasional cherub. The room nextdoor has a ceiling depicting leafy trelliswork, positioned above a compass-style rug and sandwiched between an infinite panorama of twin reflecting mirrors. Very playful, very ornate, very Soane.

the Eating RoomDownstairs, in the oldest wing of the house, is a rather larger pair of rooms linked by three tall archways. The walls of the Eating Room are duckegg blue, there's very little furniture bar a mahogany table and some statues, and again the ceiling tugs at your eyes screaming "admire me". 100 years ago this became the reading room of Ealing Library, and it's now available for hire for weddings, civil partnerships and other ostentatious events. There are further rooms to explore, both up and down the central marble staircase, each with their own lengthy audio wand description. Really, you get your money's worth from this one. By the time you leave the house you'll know all there is to know about Soane, and particularly his troubled relationship with his two sons. John hoped Pitzhanger would inspire them both to become architects, but he was sorely and heartbreakingly disappointed. However, it might just inspire you.

See also: the arty PM Gallery nextdoor, free and with a modern nod to the community.
See also: the walled rose garden, once Sir John's vegetable patch.
Don't see also: the house's collection of Martinware (it's a special type of pottery), part of which was nicked by thieves earlier in the year, so the remainder is now off-limits.
by train/tube: Ealing Broadway  by bus: 207, 65, 83

Somewhere famous: Ealing Studios
Ealing StudiosThe Ealing name is synonymous with comedy. Not your modern sitcom or your Shakespearean knockabout, but a series of British film classics knocked out in the 1940s and 1950s which may well have had you/your parents/your grandparents rolling in the aisles. I can't say they've ever had that effect on me. Passport to Pimlico, Kind Hearts and Coronets, Whisky Galore (and that was just 1949), they're an acquired taste these days. But they were all produced in a back lot off Ealing Green, courtesy of film producer Michael Balcon. He tapped into a postwar feelgood vibe, brightening up the austerity years with such classics as The Lavender Hill Mob and The Ladykillers. The BBC took over the studios in 1955, producing dramas (such as Colditz) rather than comedies. And more recently Ealing's been bought up by a consortium intent on restoring the town's good name in the film business. The latest St Trinian's movie came from here, as well as bits of Notting Hill and Shaun of the Dead. But also Ant'n'Dec's Alien Autopsy, so Ealing's reputation still has a long way to go.

The original White House office building looks its age these days, and gives no hint (bar a blue plaque) that 4 acres of cinematic powerhouse lies behind. But take a short walk up the street and there, beside some rather dull modern offices, is the hotchpotch of buildings and workshops that make up the current studios. You get a semi-decent view through the railings - a chimney, a bland 50s block, a car park, and the door leading to miniature wizards The Model Unit. Somewhere in the near distance is the big stepped hangar where most of the filming happens. But you won't get far because security already have their beady eye on you, so there'll be no gatecrashing the soundstage thankyou very much. Just believe that somewhere in there is an understated plaque, pinned up by Michael Balcon just before he left, which commemorates the site's quintessential Ealing-ness: "Here during a quarter of a century many films were made projecting Britain and the British character."
by train/tube: Ealing Broadway  by bus: 65

  Somewhere random: Capital Ring (section 8)

  Osterley Lock to Greenford (5 miles)

This section of the Capital Ring crosses the centre of the borough of Ealing, so it seemed the perfect walk to take to get to know the place better. I hoped the rain would hold off, and it just about did,so maybe that was why I shared most of my walk with wildlife and not passing humans. The main part of the route follows the river Brent (apologies, inhabitants of Brent, but your namesake waterway is far prettier as it threads through the borough nextdoor). But first I travelled to Boston Manor, one of those annoyingly frequent stations on the tube to Heathrow, to kick off with a canalside stroll.
by train/tube: Boston Manor  by bus: E8  [full walk details]

Grand Union Canal: Only a few miles from the end of the canal (at Brentford), there's an unexpectedly rural feel to the waterway around Osterley Lock. Do try to ignore the M4 carving its brutal way across the valley. A good distraction is the unusual "labyrinth weir", stretching out like a water-gloved hand to maximise river flow in a confined space.
Hanwell LocksHanwell Locks: A rare flight of six locks which raises the level of the canal over 50 feet. The old Middlesex County Asylum rises beside the middle locks, where colourful information boards reveal the history of this historic staircase. Cross the lockgates and there are sideponds to explore. I was lucky, I got to watch a narrowboat making its way up, and got close to a heron by one of the lockkeepers' cottages.
River Brent: Thankyou Mr Fitzherbert for campaigning to open up the riverbank to public access, it's delightful. But the tunnelled footpath beneath Hanwell Bridge was flooded (very flooded) so I had to cross over the Uxbridge Road instead.
Ealing Hospital: Is this the ugliest hospital in London ? It looks like somebody plonked a giant Communist concrete apartment block down in the middle of nowhere, shielded by nothing. Recently rated by patients as the worst hospital in the country, and I can't say my spirits would be raised if I ever had to venture inside.
Wharncliffe Viaduct: Isambard Kingdom Brunel's first major structural project was this eight-arch brick viaduct which carries the Great Western Railway over the Brent valley. It's a striking sight from Brent Meadow, even if I've never noticed it from the train.
Wharncliffe Viaduct
Brent Lodge Park: Also known as 'Bunny Park', because of the small zoo here. Plenty of families with small children were out enjoying the animals, the cafe and the playground, plus a rather splendid Millennium Maze with yew hedges (and parent-friendly viewing platform). Even better, this was where the sun finally came out
River Brent (again): The Brent meanders through meadowland in the shadow of St Mary's Church, past golf courses and cricket pitches, and beside a vast wildflower heathland reclaimed from landfill. The butterflies and I had the whole stretch to ourselves.
Perivale Park: I'm sure it's delightful, but I abandoned the walk two miles early at the Ruislip Road because I had an appointment in Greenford (more of which later).

Somewhere retail: Southall
Somewhere retail? I must admit I was tempted to visit the shop on Acton Hill that was the site of the first Waitrose (but alas it's now a garish pizza takeaway marked only by a gum-splattered plaque set into the pavement). And there was a pet shop in Greenford with a dodgy sign that I quite liked. But no, the only obvious destination was a shopping strip in the west of the borough that's slowly evolved to become part of the subcontinent.

Southall Broadway

Southall used to be a fairly ordinary suburb, grown up beside the canal and railway, with a High Street full of all the usual grocers, butchers and bakers. The first South Asians arrived in the 1950s, attracted by employment opportunities at Heathrow and nearby, and now more than half of the local population is Indian or Pakistani. Over the years Southall Broadway has changed to match. Very few national chain stores bother to have an outpost here. There's a Woolworths and an Abbey, but no Starbucks or WH Smiths. Instead the street bustles with hundreds of independent shops, catering to the more important needs of local clientele - food, clothing, jewellery and music.

SouthallFruit and vegetables are sold from shops that resemble labour-intensive market stalls. Mangoes are everywhere (a bit like weed on the streets of Brixton but rather more legitimate). Brightly coloured fabrics and saris spill out onto the pavement, picked over by elegantly dressed mothers and daughters. Racks of shiny sandals are a big draw for some, while younger women seem more interested in window displays dripping with gold bangles and chains - why settle for sparkle when you can gleam? And the music pumping from passing cars was no doubt purchased in one of the many specialist stores along the Broadway (your one-stop shop for everything bhangra and Bollywood).

It's a harmonious high street, with hundreds of people busily buying and browsing, but I've rarely felt quite so out of place in London as I did here. On one occasion I walked through busy crowds for two whole minutes without seeing a single other white face (and when I did, she was an old lady collecting for the St John's Ambulance). No complaints - indeed many Southall residents must feel the same when they travel to other more monocultural parts of the UK - but I'm afraid I resisted the urge to dip my wallet into Punjabi culture. I didn't stop to watch a Bollywood classic at the astonishing Himalaya Palace Theatre, nor treat myself to a bulging bag of Royal Sweets, nor even grab a mango. In fact I'd better not tell you where I finally stopped off for lunch, you'd be terribly disappointed.
by train: Southall  by bus: 95, 120, 195, 207, 427, 607

Somewhere sporty: London Motorcycle Museum
London Motorcycle MuseumThe National Motorcycle Museum is in Solihull, home to an extensive collection of classic bikes, a self-service restaurant and award-winning conference facilities. Forget that. You want the London Motorcycle Museum - a converted farm building up a sideroad in Greenford, packed with a few hundred two-wheelers, assorted memorabilia and a drinks machine. No contest. And just three quid gets you inside.

Once you've paid your money, you'll be amazed just how many bikes can be crammed into this long but reasonably narrow shed. Motorcycles are squeezed in everywhere, side-on or up on a ledge, tentatively arranged in themed areas. Many of the bikes are Triumphs - the owner has a bit of a thing about Triumphs - but you'll also spot Royal Enfields, Rudges and Velocettes. Laminated information sheets dangle from the central rail, enabling less-knowledgeable visitors to distinguish a Bonneville from a Flying Squirrel. Don't expect to see much modern stuff, but the displays stretch right back to the first engine-assisted boneshakers. Dotted inbetween are various bike-related items such as police helmets and bottles of Castrol GTX, along with various barely-related items such as teddy bears wearing goggles and portraits of the Queen. The whole place smells of garage, and petrolheads will feel immediately at home.

London Motorcycle MuseumFurther up the ramp there's a collection of army bikes, and some racing memorabilia, and several other vehicles that aficionados will no doubt distinguish better than I managed. And finally the "library", which more closely resembles a cheap cafe littered with bike books and brochures. Expect to be offered a free cup of steaming liquid from the vending machine (free of charge, but donations to Cancer Research welcomed). Maybe you'd like to watch an old VHS whilst flicking through some bike mags or checking the date of the museum's next special event. You might even be really lucky and get the special invite I received... "Do you fancy a look at our other machines in the barn?" An offer not to be refused.

An enthusiastic young man led me out through a rear door and unlocked the door to the second oldest building in Greenford. The museum has big expansion plans, starting with this restored barn which should be ready for permanent opening within a year. The plan is to devote the main shed to Triumphs, spaced out a bit better, and then to stack the remainder of the collection in here. There'll be plenty to see. I was impressed by the varied collection of sidecars, one of which was recently used to transport a nervous bride from her wedding to the reception. I even got to see the BSA and sidecar once used by Dad's Army's ARP Warden and verger, and which appeared at the Imperial War Museum only last week for a photo opportunity with the surviving cast.

It's not the most well-ordered museum you'll ever visit, but the ephemeral collection is all the better as a result. The staff are knowledgeable without being imposing, and managed to enthrall both a non-expert like me and a proper biker who was visiting at the same time. And I'm sure they'd appreciate you dropping by, be it on foot or swerving to a two-wheeled halt in the car park.
by train/tube: Greenford  by bus: E10

Somewhere pretty: Hoover Building
Hoover Building, PerivalePeople don't usually get excited by vacuum cleaner factories. But this is no ordinary industrial warehouse, this is the legendary Art Deco Hoover Building, and it's gorgeous. It's 75 years old this year, constructed in response to a 1930s boom in labour-saving appliances. It was designed by Wallis, Gilbert and Partners, and built as the manufacturing hub of Hoover UK's suction empire. Hitler somehow managed to miss its gleaming white stonework, and travellers along the A40 Western Avenue are still wowed by its monumental pillared frontage.

I arrived just as the sun was about to disappear behind a giant grey showercloud, and had to run along the pavement in front of the building to make the most of the light. Quickly I snapped my distance shot, then strode through the angular ornamental gates for a close-up of the fan-windowed entrance. I was impressed by easy it was to gain access to the lawn at the front of the building - this is no locked-away mothballed treasure. Hoover Building, PerivaleSlowly the shadows cast by the bold serif lettering faded away and the bright facade faded to a less vibrant grey. Damn. A few stray streaks illuminated the canteen block to the west and the office pile to the east, but that was my lot. My attempts at intimate arty-angled abstracts were, alas, dulled by approaching cumulonimbus. So I went shopping instead.

From the front it's not immediately obvious, despite some ugly signage, that the bulk of the building is now a cavernous Tesco supermarket. But a slow stroll round to the rear revealed a trolley-ful car park, some fake Art Deco walls and the extraordinary entrance to a very ordinary shopping experience. Where once stood a factory floor, now the people of Perivale purchase ready meals and earn Clubcard points. I don't think the store sells Hoover bags, but I did succumb to some Earl Grey teabags and a bottle of wine. Meanwhile if you're the boss of a medium sized company seeking to relocate, you might like to know that 31000 square feet of office space in the main Hoover Building is currently up for grabs. Imagine the smile on the face of your employees if they ended up working here.
by tube: Perivale  by bus: E5, 95, 297

www.flickr.com: my Ealing gallery
(36 photos altogether)

 Friday, July 11, 2008

 Keep back from
the platform edge

Stand behind yellow line

London Blackfriars
[this platform closes next year]

 Thursday, July 10, 2008

Smoke #12The latest edition of Smoke magazine is now available for purchase. Hurrah! The irregular London fanzine has now reached issue 12, and the latest glossy offering features the usual mix of "words and images inspired by the city". All hail editor-in-chief Matt and his eclectic selection of contributors. Look, the cover even manages to make Peckham appear glamorous. Ah yes, there's still something reassuringly Zone 2+ about Smoke.

Most of the articles have an articulate literary bent, more descriptive than factual, and there's usually an arty angle to the images and illustrations. In this issue you can read about the Bethnal Green ski slope, see more of London's campest statues, explore the backstreets of Mornington Crescent and ride the Bus Of The Month along the Embankment. There seem to be more articles than usual about relationships, be it flirting on the tube to Edgware, going out with a road campaigning squatter from Leyton, or (in a quite delightful piece) nestling on the shoulder of a regular commuter on the 0725 to Waterloo. Perhaps these snippets here will give you a better idea. And then you can fork out £2.90 (stockists here, mail order here) for your own copy, because you're not borrowing mine.

And if you're the sort of person who prefers some decent reading material to a disposable freesheet, you might also be interested in this weekend's London Magtastic. This is a mini-festival devoted to the distribution of cheap/free independent publications, and you'll find it at Hays Galleria on Saturday. Participating periodicals include penny dreadful One-Eye Grey, the fictional Litro, Northern line inspired The Other Side, and various other capitalcentric fanzines. And Smoke, of course. And very definitely not the London Lite.

 Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Heritage at risk

English Heritage have just released an updated list of the country's most important endangered architectural assets. They reckon that the best way to protect these neglected special buildings and structures is first to identify them, and then hopefully preservation and conservation will follow. Sounds like a good idea to me. And there are thousands and thousands of at-risk sites on their list. Watermills, tower blocks, drinking fountains, lychgates, town halls, bandstands, brick walls, viaducts, battlefields... everything's on here. There are several impressively detailed regional pdfs, each downloadable from the Heritage at Risk website, on which you can discover whether there are any threatened gems near you. Go on, you might be surprised.

I was surprised, because apparently there are six threatened heritage sites within a five minute walk of my front door. I live, apparently, at the heart of an at-risk cluster. So last night I grabbed my camera and went out for a (short) walk to investigate. Here's what I found. You can click on the thumbnails if you fancy seeing a full-sized photo (although why you'd want to I don't know, I mean, one of them is a bollard for heaven's sake, a bollard!). I bet that the place where you live isn't this endangered...

163 Bow Road
163 Bow RoadEarly 18th century property. Stock brick with red brick dressings. Modern shop on forecourt. Interior includes panelled rooms and good staircase. Inappropriate window frames added to facade. Paint applied to brick facade.
And I'd always thought this building was just a narrow stumpy 1930s block of flats behind a kebab shop. Just goes to show that appearances can be deceptive. This Georgian residence stands a long way back from the road, accessible only via an alleyway along the side of a launderette, which can't add much to the value of its housing stock. The roof terrace looks a nice place to be in a heatwave, if you don't mind breathing in exhaust fumes and the smell of halal chicken wafting up from below. But I can't say I'd be longing to live here.

199 Bow Road
199 Bow RoadLate 17th century stock brick with red brick dressings. Neo-Georgian shopfront. Unauthorised works to shopfront and alterations including changes to dormer windows.
This unassuming building, dwarfed between a residential block and a police garage, turns out to be more than 300 years old! I'd never have guessed. The ground floor frontage is an unplanned mess, semi-boarded to prevent vandalism and with wholly inappropriate plastic doors and windows. The first floor flats look less than pristine, and the top floor's a delapidated shell with a wooden attic roof open to the sky. This is the perfect example of a building that's somehow survived against all the odds, but may not survive unscarred much longer.

Two bollards, Bow Road
Bollard, Bow Road E3Two 19th century bollards which formed a group along with St Mary's Church, its gates and railings and the statue of WE Gladstone. One of the bollards has been removed.
Honestly? This black featureless bollard that I walk past every day is a Grade II listed building? I'm amazed. I've barely given it a second look before, and even now that I have I can't quite see what makes it special. The metal post is covered in what looks like thick black paint, so there are no obvious inscriptions or emblems anywhere on its surface. And yet, look, there's the circular scar in the pavement opposite where its twin bollard used to stand. Presumably this was ripped out when a pelican crossing was installed immediately beside it, because pushchair access is more important than heritage. Blimey, the things English Heritage keep their eyes on! Load of bollards.

8-12 Stroudley Walk (including Rose and Crown public house)
Rose and Crown Public HouseLate 18th, early 19th century, three storeys, stock brick with shop on ground floor.
Late 18th, early 19th century inn, of three storeys with parapet and stucco band. The roof is not visible. Forms an important local focal point. Now vacant and boarded up.

Not so long ago the Rose and Crown was a rather shabby pub packed with E3's less salubrious drinkers. And now it's a boarded-up shell, somehow retaining an unshattered 'Taylor Walker' glass lantern above the front door. Local alcoholics have been forced to move on, and have since taken up camp outside the betting shop beneath the post-war arched colonnade, where they slouch their lives away while their devil dogs roam the bleak concrete piazza. It's lovely round where I live. Two sozzled characters were particularly intrigued as to why I might be taking photographs of their erstwhile boozer and insisted on staring at me as they necked cheap lager hidden within a rolled-up newspaper. Thankfully they walked out of shot without confronting me and nicking my camera. The 200-year-old shop nextdoor is faring slightly better than the pub, now home to a subcontinental emporium selling vegetables, phonecards and assorted plastic essentials. But it'll take more than an architectural makeover to breathe new life back into this impoverished retail backwater.

How Memorial Gateway, Bromley High Street
How Memorial GatewayCirca 1893. Gabled stone gothic arch with double buttresses at each side. Formerly an entrance to St Mary's Churchyard. Suffering from stonework decay.
There used to be a Saxon church beyond this elegant gateway, one so famous that even Chaucer wrote about it, but no more. A German bomb scored a direct hit during the war, and what ruins remained were demolished in the 1960s to make way for the Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road. Now all that remains is an overgrown corner of the churchyard - perfect for glue-sniffing, arson and depositing canine excrement. Somehow this arched memorial to a much-loved Victorian vicar has survived the architectural carnage, but only just. It's now a depressingly downbeat gateway that nobody wants to use - overlooked, ignored and most definitely out of time. Here's hoping that an appearance on the Heritage At Risk register will safeguard it, and thousands of sites like it, for future generations.

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