diamond geezer

 Friday, June 23, 2017

The first meaningful milestone on the road to Crossrail took place yesterday morning as the very first train ran in operational service. They've been running up and down the line for a few months now to give drivers experience, but yesterday was the first time they've opened their doors to allowing fare-paying passengers inside.

Train 1 had been scheduled to run four weeks ago, then three weeks ago, and was finally bumped into late June due to operational issues. Its precise timing was a secret, with invitations sent out to company employees, media types and the occasional VIP, in the hope that no People Who Like Trains would appear at Liverpool Street and get in the way. What happened instead, which was rather nice, is that a completely random selection of everyday passengers turned up expecting to board the usual service, and got treated to Crossrail's inaugural run instead.

The general impression of the accidental passengers boarding the train seemed to be "ooh, that's nice." They liked the clean bright interiors, they expressed audible appreciation for the aircon, and they appeared to like the stripy purple moquette. I chatted with Pat and Maureen who were off to Romford, and they were genuinely impressed by the upholstery, the extra legroom, and the fact that nobody had yet rested their feet on the clean seats. "My husband really likes trains," said Pat, "so he'll be amazed when I tell him what I've been on today." Meanwhile Maureen was surprised the trains didn't go any faster, so I had to remind her there are just as many stations to stop at as there were before.

A heck of a lot of the passengers on the first train were staff who had been involved in project management, design or construction. Many had purple lanyards dangling round their necks, and rather smarter office attire than would normally be seen midmorning hereabouts, although one less starchy employee did look out of the window with glee at Forest Gate and exclaim "my local station!" Occasionally a familiar face from the BBC2 Crossrail documentary series wandered past, or sat down in an adjacent seat and gave an interview to a journalist. Even Transport Commissioner Mike Brown strode by, looking rightly proud. The ratio of suits and media to ordinary passengers was somewhat lower on the return journey.

These new trains are officially designated Class 345, and are a lot roomier than the 315s which run in service on the Shenfield line at present. Eventually they'll have nine carriages (and be the length of two football pitches) but for the time being they have seven, which ought to be enough to cope with an East London rush hour. A conscious decision was made to incorporate three sets of doors per carriage rather than two, to improve circulation, and the doors open slightly outwards after you've pressed the illuminated button to gain entry.

When transport officials say "more spacious" what they mean of course is "fewer seats". The front and rear carriages, for example, have longitudinal seats in austere banks of ten, plus a lot of standing room inbetween. One other carriage with wheelchair spaces is similarly arranged.

[ ¯¯↓↓↓↓↓↓↓↓↓↓¯¯↓↓↓↓↓↓↓↓↓↓¯¯↓↓↓
[ __↑↑↑↑↑↑↑↑↑↑__↑↑↑↑↑↑↑↑↑↑__↑↑↑

All the other carriages have three longitudinal seats either side of each door, then two banks of paired seats inbetween. Three of the seats at either end of the carriage tip up, providing additional wheelchair or pushchair space as necessary. Only four seats per carriage allow you to sit beside the window facing forwards.

↓↓↓¯¯↓↓↓» «↓↓↓¯¯↓↓↓» «↓↓↓¯¯↓↓↓
↑↑↑__↑↑↑» «↑↑↑__↑↑↑» «↑↑↑__↑↑↑

Each new carriage contains around 50 seats, whereas the stock being replaced had about 80, which might sound like bad news for longer-distance travellers. However this imbalance is mitigated by Crossrail trains being much longer than the old class 315s, so they actually contain more seats altogether, so all is good.

The other very obvious improvement is a step-change in on-board passenger information. The display in the centre of the carriage isn't just a dot matrix of orange lights, it's a screen on which any text or graphics can appear, allowing a greater amount of information to be seen. This means interchange stations can be displayed along with the correct colours for the various lines stopping there... and, most revolutionary, a graphic showing the next three stops can be shown. A little ant-like black train noses in from the left, and anything over and beyond the next three stations is shown by a dotted line.

One oddity - the 'National Rail' box is left-aligned whereas all the other interchange lines are centred (that's not a complaint, just an observation). A more head-scratching quirk is that the Northern line appears on the list of lines serving Liverpool Street, when clearly it doesn't. This is explained by jumping ahead 18 months to when Crossrail proper begins, because the far end of the low level platforms will connect through to Moorgate, and the Northern line does stop there. Before December 2018, however, not so.

And if you wanted reassurance that nothing ever changes, yes, this announcement is still occasionally necessary.

They're long, they're spacious and they're cool, so you'd have to be a curmudgeonly Londoner not to admire the new Class 345s. Just don't expect to find yourself on one soon, as there'll only be a couple of journeys a day to start with, then more as the new trains gradually replace the old over the summer. If your platform indicator ever flashes up the news that "the next train is formed of 7 carriages", that's a telltale sign. But eventually we'll all be riding them... to the West End, to Heathrow, to Bexley, even to Reading, as what's fresh and innovative today becomes the new normal.

It's been a very long time coming, but take your seats for Crossrail, because it'll soon be curtain up.

 Thursday, June 22, 2017

TYNESIDE - Meanwhile in Gateshead...

Gateshead (pop 120,000) sprawls across the south bank of the River Tyne immediately opposite Newcastle (pop 290,000) on the north. The logic of two separate conurbations with centres less than a mile apart seems somewhat odd today, especially with so many bridges to link them, but these easy connections weren't originally present. Instead the Tyne marked a firm historical delineation between Northumberland (to the north) and Durham (to the south), so each city grew up administratively separate. A spirit of cooperation rather than antagonism now exists between the two... although if Newcastle has the best of the old stuff, then Gateshead probably has the best of the new.

BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art
Almost the only old building to survive on the Gateshead bank of the river is the BALTIC, a former flour mill built by Rank Hovis in the 1930s, now poshed up and refitted as an art gallery. Lifts and a metal spiral staircase have been fitted at one end, the latter with a mirror top and bottom to induce infinite dizziness, plus a glass box viewing platform on the fifth floor and a restaurant on the sixth. One of the exhibitions is being changed over at the moment so I had to make do with the other two, each in a single room on a single floor, and each of which made me think "hang on, is that it?". As a Londoner it's easy to be spoilt for art, and easy to forget that most landmark provincial galleries get to thrive on quality rather than quantity. Whatever, after barely five minutes I was in the lift and off up to enjoy the view instead.

It is a great view, mainly of the the river and the Millennium Bridge, full-on, and Newcastle rising behind. On the Gateshead side less so, bar the amazing silver confection bubbling on the grassy plateau above the car park. Indeed it was the enormous car park that most surprised me, again from a Londoner's point of view wondering how so large an area of prime real estate could be left undeveloped. The council have tried - here's a glossy website seeking a funded partner for this "ready to go landmark site with a million possibilities" - but that was two years ago and still the only possibility is parking your car.

Sage Gateshead
The amazing silver confection is Sage Gateshead, in part a concert venue, in part a music school. Essentially it's three separate performance spaces - one huge, one middling and one for rehearsals - enclosed in a jellybaby-like glass and steel shell. Foster and Partners did the architecture, local software group Sage stumped up a lot of cash to be the chief patron, and the Royal Northern Sinfonia call it home.

Getting inside is a bit of an issue at the moment, with the doors at one end exit only because there isn't the money to fund staff to operate a bag search at both. The interior is a public space which doubles up as cafe, 'place to get your laptop out and work' and viewing platform. There's also a really good shop stocked with classy cultural Tyneside artefacts, even a rack of ukuleles and all the sheet music needed to become an expert. You can't always climb the staircases during the day, but signs hint at beginners' recorder lessons and folk workshops taking place somewhere within.

Gateshead Town Centre
Uphill, behind a shield of railway and dual carriageway, central Gateshead is, dare I say, nothing special. The Old Town Hall looks splendid but is empty, and is the subject of another major council regeneration tender (get your bids in by one o'clock on Monday). Above that, until a few years ago, was the iconic brutalist multi-storey car park heavily featured in the Michael Caine film Get Carter. This concrete prominence has alas been demolished to create something more useful if not as memorable - the Trinity Square development. At its base is one of the country's largest Tesco's, on top is a loaf-like layer of student accommodation, and a metal ring has been plonked in the central piazza masquerading as art. I bought some crisps and a bottle of milk, but I'd rather have climbed the car park.

One reason central Gateshead's shopping offer is somewhat downbeat is the presence of Europe's largest shopping centre three miles upriver. Ten years ago they replaced the indoor funfair with a Pizza Express. I chose not to go.

Angel of the North
Likewise I didn't make it to the foot of Gateshead's iron-winged angel, although the number 21 bus does stop regularly close by, and at least I saw it from the train.

 Wednesday, June 21, 2017

TYNESIDE - Postcards from Newcastle

✉ Grey Street

Back in 2002, listeners to Radio 4's Today programme voted Grey Street the finest street in Britain. Newcastle's marketing department has been living off that claim ever since. Pevsner and Betjeman rated it extremely highly too, so there's clearly something to the claim, as is clear when you first glimpse the "descending subtle curve" of four-storey Georgian buildings. At the top of the road is Grey's Monument, erected to commemorate the Reform Act of 1832 which reached the statute books during the premiership of Earl Grey, local tea guru extraordinaire. Around his feet swirl shoppers and students, plus those emerging from the Metro interchange located underneath, while further down the street are the domed Central Exchange and the pedimented Theatre Royal. The broad sweep and gentle slope are no accident - a stream once ran this way, continuing down the line of Dean Street to...

✉ Side

What a great name for a street. Known locally since medieval times as 'the Side' (because it ran down the side of the hill beneath the castle), the street signs nevertheless call it simply 'Side'. My favourite sign has a '1' added in the corner to denote the postal district, the resulting image surely perfect for the label on an old long player. Side's former inns and shops are now more generally pubs and restaurants, part of the entertainment zone spilling along the historic Quayside, and lie in the shadow of a railway viaduct arching high overhead. And yes, Side is indeed thought to be the shortest street name in the country (tied with Hide in Beckton and Ross in County Durham), unless of course you know different.

✉ Newcastle Civic Centre

"Don't say you actually like that building," said BestMate, as I diverted across the gardens to try to get a better shot. Newcastle city council's HQ is very '60s, from the copper-roofed drum to the line of nine jagged flambeaux out front and the monolithic blocks arrayed behind. I almost persuaded him that the ring of heraldic sea horses round the bell tower was endearing, but as for the idea that this might be one of the finest modernist buildings of the 20th century, we agreed to differ.

✉ The Vampire Rabbit

Round the back of St Nicholas', not on the cathedral itself but on a facing building, is an ornate doorway topped by a vampire rabbit. That at least is its local nickname, nobody's completely sure why the crazed beast was carved here, despite much historical research. It might be to scare off graverobbers, it might be masonic, it might be 'a hare that went wrong', or it might only look demonic since someone painted it black, but it's pretty marvellous all the same.

✉ The Hoppings

Once a year, for reasons entirely disconnected to rabbits, The Hoppings comes to town. That's Europe's biggest funfair, a 135-year-old tradition, which turns up on Newcastle Town Moor for a week in June and wows the local population. The Hoppings stretches half a mile along the edge of the common, packed out with rides and stalls and tents and innumerable whirling seats. At the southern end is a village of gypsy caravans, most of which purport to belong to relatives of the original Gipsy Rosa Lee, while at the northern end the army set up a Military Show in an attempt to entice rudderless athletic souls into joining up. The central track is packed with plodding parents, thrill-seekers, kids downing brightly coloured sweets, teens and pre-teens running amok, and more than the usual number of neck tattoos. I risked a ride on the Wild Mouse, then partway round wished I hadn't, and stumbling off cheered that I had. Runs until Saturday, if you're in the area.

✉ Ouseburn Valley

Along the eastern edge of the city a small river has carved a deep valley, and it's here that Newcastle's earliest industries kicked off. The tidal creek still has a somewhat downbeat vibe, although several derelict buildings along the banks have been requisitioned and renovated to create new creative spaces, including the Biscuit Factory, the Toffee Factory and the Mushroom Works. Britain's National Centre for Children's Books is located here, with a magical steamboat moored out back, plus a city farm crammed into the next meander upstream. Three lofty viaducts carry road, rail and Metro high above this most unusual scene, which both bafflingly and brilliantly survives.

✉ Sniffer Dog

Where the Ouseburn enters the Tyne is a bike-hire-repair-shop-cafe called The Cycle Hub where we decided to stop for lunch. On the way in we spotted several police officers and their vehicles, plus a dog walking back and fro beside a car in the car park, and presumed they'd decided to stop for lunch too. Sat outside with our toasted sandwiches we could see the dog still walking back and fro beside the car... and then a policeman sealing off the exit to the car park with tape. Eventually he wandered over and asked us to take our food inside, calmly and quietly please, and not to leave the cafe! This proved an excellent excuse to order another chunk of the finest, thickest caramel slice either of us had ever tasted, as bike hub business carried on as normal, until we were finally able to escape round the backway through the boatyard. Obviously nothing whatsoever was really amiss, but 'you can't be too careful', and the car's owner returned two hours later unaware of all the commotion her odorous vehicle had caused.

✉ Byker

To Britons of a certain age, the Newcastle suburb of Byker will always be synonymous with a certain children's TV programme. The reality, however, is somewhat different... and not just because 'The Grove' was actually in Benwell, five miles to the west. The Byker Estate is architecturally renowned, built between 1969 and 1982 to house around ten thousand people in peculiarly geometric boxes. The most famous of these is the Byker Wall, an unbroken block of 620 maisonettes designed to shield noise from a motorway that was never built. But behind its multi-coloured facade is a warren of lower-rise homes, again peculiarly branded with bright-hued panelling, intermingled with large public gardens and car-free byways. The local kids are just as vivacious as on the TV, I can confirm, in this startlingly unusual place to live.

✉ Saturday night on the Toon

Friday nights in Newcastle are quite busy, but Saturday is the true Geordie Saturnalia. Groups of revellers replace the daytime drinkers, generally single sex, be they hen parties processing along the pavement in chunky heels or bunches of lads dropped off by a parent and spilling expectantly onto the street. An entire quarter of town appears devoted to insobriety, with a brigade of bouncers at every door to mitigate whatever might kick off later. Parties jockey, jostle and coalesce as the night draws on, mothers of the bride take to the dancefloor with handbags raised, and tanked-up students sing along to 80s anthems released long before they were born. By 2am the overwhelmed slump shattered in doorways, relationships have been made, or broken, and lines of taxis are mopping up the afflicted. Up on the Tyne Bridge the pavements are empty, dawn is already breaking as a glow in the northern sky, and I had a great night, thanks.

» There are now 40 Flickr photos to flick through

 Tuesday, June 20, 2017

TYNESIDE - The seven bridges of Newcastle

The city of Newcastle perches above a gorge on the river Tyne, about nine miles from the North Sea. Facing it on the opposite bank is Gateshead, and linking the two are seven bridges, which between them create the most famous views of the city. Let's start at the downstream end, with the newest of the lot.

Gateshead Millennium Bridge (2001)

If you still have an old pound coin, this bridge might be on it. The architects tackled the issue of crossing a navigable river at a low level in an unusual and original way. A curved counterbalanced deck crosses the Tyne, the inner track for pedestrians only and the outer dual use (including bikes). Normally the span's height is sufficient to allow pleasurecraft underneath, but for anything larger the entire structure is capable of rotating up to 40 degrees, which gives the bridge its nickname, the Winking (or Blinking) Eye.

Most days there'd be no need to raise the bridge at all, but the authorities know a good tourist attraction when they see one, so sometimes it rises two or three times a day. I got lucky on my first day in town, as a siren blared out across the valley and the chirpy controller advised pedestrians to hurry up and cross. Within five minutes the gates at each end were shut and the deck started to semi-perceptibly rise, soon reaching angles more suitable for rock climbers than casual strollers. At maximum elevation a pleasure boat which had been moored up on the bank cast off and chugged underneath, then returned with a satisfied hoot before the deck was lowered again.

I also got lucky on my last day in town, watching the entire scenario from the opposite side alongside a promenade of spectators and contented bar-sippers. What I didn't manage to see was one of its after-sunset tilts, or the bridge illuminated in rainbow colours, but the daytime spectacle was damned impressive enough. I wish I'd saved one of the pound coins as a souvenir.

Tyne Bridge (1928)

This green-painted Geordie icon was designed by Mott, Hay and Anderson, the same company as the similar (but larger) Sydney Harbour Bridge. King George V and Queen Mary were the first to drive across, in their Ascot landau, 26 metres above the river and beneath a grand parabolic arch. Crossing on foot feels somewhat exposed, though not vertiginous, hence there's a sign for the Samaritans in the middle for a very good reason.

Lifts were originally built in the four granite towers to allow access from pavement level to the quayside, but these have since closed and the exterior has been taken over by a colony of 800 black-legged kittiwakes. Nowhere else in the world do these birds nest so far from the sea, although they make a hell of a racket and a heck of a mess so aren't universally welcomed.

Swing Bridge (1876)

In approximately the same spot as the Romans built their Pons Aelius, this Victorian bridge spans the Tyne at the foot of the gorge rather than the top. It was built to replace a static crossing, allowing larger ships to pass upstream and stimulating trade, and at the time was the largest swing bridge in the world. The entire structure pivots 90° around a central axis before coming to rest on a long wooden jetty, and is still powered by the original hydraulics. Unlike the Millennium Bridge it only rotates a handful of times a year, and unlike the Tyne Bridge remains pristine and kittiwake-free.

High Level Bridge (1849)

Arguably the city's finest engineering marvel, the High Level Bridge was designed by Robert Stephenson (son of George) to create a rail link north to Scotland. Trains passed across the top tier of the bridge, supported by tied cast iron arches, while a roadway and footpath ran directly underneath. Amazingly it still functions the same way today, if in somewhat diminished form. Road traffic is now restricted to buses and taxis southbound only, after a major restoration project ten years ago inserted protective barriers which reduced the available width. Meanwhile the majority of trains now use an upstream bridge, leaving only lighter services on the Sunderland line to follow the High Level.

Walking through as a pedestrian is a peculiar experience, as the road past Newcastle Castle suddenly enters a gloomy metal box in the sky. An old plaque confirms Robert Stephenson and Thomas Harrison as the engineers, and a modern sign offers the terminally depressed a telephone number to ring. The pavement then proceeds through a series of girdered arches, resembling some steampunk promenade, though with numerous telltale white splashes underfoot. A lot of gulls or pigeons - I didn't want to look up and check - roost in the metalwork of each compartmentalised section... and while I walked through this guano tombola scot-free, BestMate was not so lucky.

Queen Elizabeth II Bridge (1981)
King Edward VII Bridge (1906)

Beyond a stretch of forlornly undeveloped Gateshead riverside, the next two bridges are for trains. The younger of the two is painted blue and serves the Metro, Tyneside's light rail network, with trains emerging briefly from tunnels on either bank of the river allowing passengers to enjoy the view. The larger of the two is older, built to reduce the High Level bottleneck, and consists of four lattice steel spans on concrete piers. If you've ever ridden the East Coast Line north of Durham this is the path you take, and the bridge-tastic panorama is one of three reasons why you should always try to sit on the right hand side of the train.

Redheugh Bridge (1983)

Furthest west of the seven, this prestressed concrete span is the third road bridge to be built in this location and carries the A189 across the Tyne. Princess Diana turned up to open it, as a plaque in the pavement railings above the loftiest drop confirms, hopefully on a day when the wind wasn't gusting too strong. Barely half a mile from the commercial hubbub of Newcastle Quayside, the landscape out this way is bleak and somewhat post-industrial, with a wall of council flats rising on the Gateshead side. Upstream the valley flattens and winds off into distant hills, whereas downstream the view is of the other six bridges... which is the photograph at the top of the post.

» I've uploaded 28 photos of these bridges to Flickr, or you can watch a slideshow here

 Monday, June 19, 2017

I appear to have taken over 600 photos during my long weekend on Tyneside.

Here's one of them.

Before I get round to telling you about my latest trip, I'd like to ask your advice about my next one.

I've booked a cut-price daytrip to Belgium on Eurostar.
I'm going on a weekday before the end of the month.
I'll arrive in Brussels around 10am, and depart around 8pm.

Excitingly I've booked an Any Belgian Station ticket.

This is a regular add-on deal which allows me to travel to any Belgian station.
First I get the train to Brussels as usual.
Then I'm allowed one extra leg to any Belgian station.
Small print
» An Any Belgian Station ticket covers travel all the way from the UK to anywhere in Belgium and back.
» You travel with Eurostar to Brussels-Midi, then it’s a simple change to an SNCB train to continue your journey through Belgium.
» High speed Thalys and ICE trains, as well as the Brussels Metro and trams aren’t covered by your ticket.
» You won’t have a seat booked on the local train, so just hop on and find a seat.
The great thing is I didn't have to specify which Belgian station in advance...
(and I've never been to any of the others)
...which begs the question...

Which Belgian station should I go to?

Your advice would be appreciated.

Your advice
Ghent 28
Antwerp 20
Bruges 18
Coastal tram/Kusttram 9
Liège 7
Waterloo 6
Baarle 4
Ostend 4
Ypres 4
Leuven 3
Eupen 2
Also: Aalst, Blankenberge, Charleroi-Sud, Hever, Kortrijk, Mechelen, Oudenaarde, Schaerbeek, Silly, Sint-Truiden, Tongeren, Tournai, Trois Ponts

 Sunday, June 18, 2017

It's not yet the longest day, but dawn is already on the turn.

Sunrise in London was at 4.42am this morning, the earliest it ever gets, indeed it's at 4.42am for the full week 14th-20th June. But the middle of that week was yesterday, which means today's sunrise is a few seconds later than yesterday's. The mornings are already drawing in.

The evenings aren't drawing in yet, indeed there still some way to go. Sunset in London today is at 9.20pm, whereas the latest it ever gets is 9.21pm, which it'll be across the period 19th-30th June. The very latest sunset, by a couple of seconds, is on 24th June, which is pretty much a week away.

Enjoy the long summer evenings ahead - the next fortnight is as good as it gets.

But yes, sorry, dawn is already on the turn.

n.b. I wrote a post explaining the asymmetricality of solstice sunset times here

n.b. I wonder if 24th June is called 'Midsummers Day' because it has the latest sunset time.

n.b. Various sources give various times for London's sunrises and sunsets, because precise times depend on precise location, and not every source uses the same location.

n.b. Actual sunrise and sunset times vary considerably across the country. For example, the latest sunset in Dover is 9.14pm, London 9.21pm, Bristol 9.31pm, Manchester 9.42pm and Glasgow 10.06pm.

n.b. Sorry today's post is brief, but I'm currently in a city where sunset is at 9.48pm.

 Saturday, June 17, 2017

9 Lewisham
The borough we now know as Lewisham was assembled from two component parts, the Metropolitan Borough of Deptford and the Metropolitan Borough of Lewisham. I've been to the latter, by far the larger of the two, my quest this time to visit some of the highest points of land. Some notable peaks lie just outside the borough boundary, such as Point Hill, One Tree Hill and that covered reservoir off Kynaston Road. But I trekked up half a dozen within the boundary - the hills of Lewisham.

The Hills of Lewisham

Wow, eh? But no, this is the view from Point Hill overlooking Greenwich, 100 metres outside the Lewisham border. For my first summit I'm heading 100 metres in the opposite direction, onto the residential flank of Blackheath.

Dartmouth Hill, Blackheath (45m)

My word there are some lovely houses around Blackheath, for example where Dartmouth Hill meets Dartmouth Row meets Dartmouth Grove. The first Georgian residents nipped in and nabbed the premium space at the top of the rise, and it's surely the perfect spot for a 'Church of the Ascension' too. On the western side of Dartmouth Row the villas have long walled gardens stretching down to Morden Lane, a gated backwater meandering gloomily past private garages. There used to be a viewpoint here, where the land falls away, but now a lone bench decays behind railings and a padlocked gate, and a sign warns Beware Hazardous Slope. Housing at the foot of the drop strikes a very different tone, with a snake of neglected concrete apartment blocks concealed against the hillside. This is the Lethbridge Estate, part of a "complex decant and phasing strategy" hereabouts and due for demolition by 2021.

Hilly Fields, Ladywell (53m)

Perched upon the avenues of Ladywell sits a convex park called Hilly Fields, an extensive green space boasting fine views over Docklands and the uplands of Dulwich. Victorian developers devoured most of the surrounding area in the late 19th century, but this verdant hillock was saved from residential destruction by Octavia Hill, one of the founders of the National Trust. At its summit are tennis courts and half a secondary school, a popular playground and (frequently) the Jaz'May ice cream van. A perfect spot for a minor kickaround, for watching your dog let off steam or for sprawling in the shade of a horse chestnut, and much loved locally. Lines are still on you, Hilly Fields.

Brockley Hill, Brockley (62m)

Other local hilltops were wholly or partially built over. One such lies a mile to the south in SE23, a proper contoured peak sloping up from Brockley Rise. I've not been able to identify a name, but the eastern flank includes an open space called Blythe Hill Fields, and the two streets rising parallel towards the summit are Duncombe Hill and Lowther Hill. Between these lies a private 'social club', namely Brockley Hill Park, supporting woodland and tennis courts and rising in three stepped terraces. This four acre recreation space has no road access to maintain exclusivity for residents whose gardens back onto it, so unless you snap up a local property or know someone who lives there, you'll never visit.

Beckenham Place Park, Beckenham (67m)
Two hills lie within the grounds of Beckenham Place Park, on the southern edge of the borough, including the hump on which the mansion is situated. This imposing building is now open to the public (for a limited time) following the recent closure of the adjacent municipal golf course, the first fruits of a sweeping masterplan drawn up by the council. On my visit children were happily frolicking in the bunkers, and a totally new sport had arrived courtesy of the London Drone Racing Club. Their members were standing en masse on a grassy bank, VR headsets donned, while a horde of tiny drones buzzed around an obstacle course of hoops and flags. From what I saw, these amazing aerial gizmo battles can only gain in popularity going forward.

Across the park, on the other side of the thickest woodland, a higher peak rises to over 200 feet. Here the views stretch towards Croydon and the transmitter mast at Crystal Palace, across a meadow of long grass speckled with birds-foot trefoil. At the summit the park ends abruptly at a row of houses, this postwar infill marking the boundary with the borough of Bromley. Follow a footpath into the trees and down a rooty slope to reach Ravensbourne station, one of London's least used, and too remote to be passed by a bus service. But this hilltop is a lovely spot, as are so many unsung rural corners across the capital.

Downham Fields, Downham (68m)

I'd never been here before either - I'd walked through Downham's postwar estate several times previously but never spotted the hill. It's not exactly a small hill either, nor entirely covered with housing. A long ridge of parkland rises from the brick semis on the estate's spine road, Downham Way, to an open brow ringed with clustered oaks. On the reservoir-facing flank is a flatroofed modern building containing a lively swimming pool, with a fenced-off astroturf football pitch outside. A broader-than-usual panorama covers lowland Beckenham, with Croydon's highrises poking up beyond the intermediate suburbs, a display I paused to admire for longer than expected. Central London's glories were visible only from the upper deck of a bus, briefly, on the ride down to Grove Park station.

Horniman Drive, Forest Hill (106m)

There's no longer a forest on Forest Hill but there is a hill, which you'll know if you've ever been to the Horniman Museum, South London's most eclectic repository, and taken time to explore the grounds. The gardens rise towards a bandstand with a sharp drop beyond, offering excellent views across Dawson Heights towards the spires and towers of central London. But the hill climbs a little further past daisy lawns, through a gate and out onto Horniman Drive. The ridgetop is lined with pristine white semis and several angular Modernist retreats, because lofty elevations tend to attract better-than-average architecture. The highest point is marked by a triangular green, fenced off and ballgame-free by order of the council, with a cluster of oak trees bursting forth within.

Sydenham Hill, Upper Sydenham (112m)
The highest point in Lewisham is Sydenham Hill... but I've been there before, so I'll not blog it again.

 Friday, June 16, 2017

Tower Hamlets once had a really poor recycling rate. Ten years ago only 12% of recyclable waste was recycled, against a national average of 31%, the main problem being that recycling from tower blocks is much harder than recycling from ground floor properties. The council's pink bag scheme, and a slew of positive publicity, helped to get the figures up.

Today the recycling rate is 28%, which is hugely better, if still not great. But the pink bag thing isn't going well.

Originally, Tower Hamlets council delivered a roll of pink bags to your door at regular intervals.
A few years ago the council stopped delivering pink bags to your door at regular intervals and you had to request them instead, either online or by phone. Someone then popped round and delivered some, just to the people who asked. This saved some money.
A couple of years ago they started sending out flimsier pink bags, which was fine if you only recycled cartons and tins, but the bags now tended to break if you filled them with newspapers or bottles. Never mind, this saved some more money.

Last year the council decided to stop sending out pink bags, and instead you had to go to your local Idea Store (i.e. library) to collect them. This saved even more money.
Unfortunately it saved too much money, because the updated system was excessively miserly. Pink bags were now only available at five of Tower Hamlets seven Idea Stores, and only during brief fortnightly slots. In Bow for example they were only available every other Monday, and only for three hours, either from 10am-1pm or 3pm-6pm. If you worked and didn't get home in time, you'd never be able to collect any pink bags at all. Still, this all saved plenty of money.
What's more, every time you turned up to collect pink bags, you had to show ID. Someone behind the counter then had to check your details online, and enter the type of ID you'd brought, and only then did you get your roll of bags. Collecting bags on behalf on another resident was strictly forbidden. This new procedure prevented the misuse of pink bags by residents who didn't need them, or local businesses trying to dispose of waste for free, but it created long queues and was bureaucratically insane. On the bright side, it had saved money.

Back in January thankfully the council saw sense and the procedure was changed. Pink bags are now available at all seven Idea Stores, not five. Pink bags are now available every Wednesday and Saturday, not just fortnightly. Pink bags are now available all day, not just for three hours. This saved face, if not money.
What's more you only have to flash your ID rather than it being scrutinised, and the librarian barely looks at it because she's sick of dishing out bags. Instead she simply reaches under the counter and picks out a roll of sacks and hands it over, sometimes at the same time as talking on the phone or serving another customer. This refocuses scant resources where they're most needed, making more efficient use of money.
I asked why it was pink bags were only available on Wednesdays and Saturdays, when obviously they were kept in a box under the counter all the time, and was told some rubbish about this "ensuring stocks were always available". I suspect the real reason is not to give away too many bags, i.e. to save more money.

The latest change is that the pink bags are no longer pink. Instead they're transparent, and fractionally flimsier, so it's even harder to fill them up with anything heavy. Also, we're now allowed to use any transparent bags, we don't have to use the council's, and they hope we won't, so this saves even more money.

In summary, flat-dwellers in Tower Hamlets are now having to make more of an effort to recycle stuff than they used to. This means less recycling takes place, but it also means the council gets to use fewer resources than before, so it saves money. This transfer of responsibility is very much in line with the way council services are going generally, as funding for non-essentials dries up and citizens are increasingly left to do their own thing. The pink bags were only the start.

 Thursday, June 15, 2017

As this blog has frequently noted, many of the Next Train Indicators on the London Underground aren't all they're cracked up to be. So it's great to be able to confirm that dozens of them are about to improve, specifically on the sub-surface lines where customer information has often been very limited.

It's all part of the 4 Lines Modernisation programme, a long-term long-delayed project to update signalling and thereby run more trains. A new system of Automatic Train Control is being introduced, and due to go live next year, which will mean far more accurate data can be shared regarding where trains are and when. As a precursor to this, existing Trackernet data is being fed to newly-reprogrammed Next Train Indicators, so that passengers are already seeing benefits before ATC finally kicks in.

The first tranche of stations, where displays have already been added or upgraded, is as follows:
Hammersmith & City: Paddington, Royal Oak, Westbourne Park, Ladbroke Grove, Latimer Road, Wood Lane, Shepherd's Bush Market, Goldhawk Road
Metropolitan: Harrow on the Hill
The second tranche, due for completion by April 2019, is rather larger:
District: Ealing Broadway, Chiswick Park, Barons Court, West Kensington, Putney Bridge, Parsons Green, Fulham Broadway, West Brompton, Paddington, Bayswater, Notting Hill Gate, Earl's Court, Gloucester Road, South Kensington, Westminster, Embankment, Temple, Blackfriars, Mansion House, Tower Hill, Aldgate East, Stepney Green, Mile End, Bow Road, Bromley-by-Bow, West Ham, Plaistow, Upton Park, Upney, Becontree, Dagenham Heathway, Elm Park, Hornchurch, Upminster
Metropolitan: Aldgate, Farringdon, King's Cross St Pancras, Great Portland Street, Rayners Lane, Croxley, Chorleywood, Chalfont & Latimer, Amersham, Chesham
That's an impressively long list... although look closely and several intermediate stations have been omitted, for example Stamford Brook, High Street Kensington, St James's Park, East Ham and Dagenham East. Watford isn't included either, whatever that may prove. I'm particularly chuffed to see Bow Road on the list, so hopefully my local station's ineffective Next Train Indicators will be able to display meaningful information within the next two years.

What's more the first two stations in this second tranche are already up and running, namely Aldgate East and Plaistow, so I've been along to take a look. This is Aldgate East.

This level of information might look normal to those of you who use the deep tube lines, but here at Aldgate East it's an amazing improvement. Previously all this Next Train Indicator could display was the destination of the next train, assuming it was less than a minute away, with no indication of when anything else would arrive. Now passengers can see the destinations of the next three trains, not just one, with up to eight minutes warning of their arrival. For those stood waiting for a Hammersmith & City line train, not just yet another District, this is transformational.

And then I went to Plaistow.

Again I was impressed. Both Next Train Indicators now list three trains rather than one, plus they give considerably more advance warning than before. Previously the westbound NTI only flashed up when a train was three minutes away, but that interval has now been extended to fourteen minutes, in both directions, which is unheard of. My camera couldn't capture the flickering display, sorry, but I can assure you all three lines of information are there. I should also confirm that these are precisely the same electronic boxes as before, they're just receiving better information, which shows the power of good data and a bit of decent coding.

Well done TfL, I thought, well done. And then I stood around and waited for a while, and then I changed my mind.

It soon became apparent that what Plaistow's Next Train Indicators were promising wasn't necessarily what was happening. Times jumped about. Intervals lengthened. Destinations chopped and changed. Trains failed to appear. Indeed by the time I'd been waiting quarter of an hour for the next Hammersmith & City line train, I'd learned not to trust the new information at all.

Let's start on the eastbound. Eastbound trains at Plaistow are generally going either to Upminster or to Barking, sometimes Dagenham East, and every train has been on this line since seven stations previously, so the system really ought to know what's on its way. It clearly doesn't.

When I started watching, the next three trains were all due to be going to Upminster, and were 1 min, 9 mins and 11 mins away respectively. Over the next seven minutes the first train on the board remained 1 minute away, and the others slowly ticked down, but no train ever arrived. During this period the destination of the follow-up trains sometimes changed to Barking or to Check front of train, before reverting to show Upminster again. But all this time the first train only ever said Upminster 1 min... and when it eventually arrived it was going to Barking.

As for the westbound indicator, that was differently unimpressive. This time there are usually four possible destinations, namely Ealing Broadway, Richmond and Wimbledon on the District, and Hammersmith on the H&C. The NTI seemed to get the destination of the next train correct, but those following shifted and changed as if jockeying for position, and didn't necessarily bear any resemblance to what eventually turned up.

When I started watching, the next three trains were supposedly to Richmond 1 min, Ealing Broadway 9 mins and Ealing Broadway 10 mins. The Richmond train duly turned up, correctly, and one of the Ealing Broadway trains behind converted magically to a Richmond. Up flashed a message - Next train to Richmond 13 mins - when only a few seconds previously the display had been suggesting 10. The second train on the list then became Check front of train, then Check front of train switched to third place, then vanished to be replaced by another Ealing Broadway. By this point I was really quite confused.

There is a genuine issue with predicting westbound trains on this line, which is trains filtering onto the tracks at Barking. It's not always possible to know where in the sequences these H&C and District line trains will be slotted, so any train further back than Barking is quite likely to be leapfrogged before it arrives. At Plaistow this means details of any train more than eight minutes distant could well be inaccurate, so the new 14 minute envelope isn't necessarily helpful.

I watched as the next Hammersmith & City train supposedly edged closer... 8 mins, 7 mins, 5 mins ... at which point it changed briefly to a Check front of train. Eventually the countdown reached zero, but no train was in sight, despite the display suggesting an H&C was imminent. Baffled passengers spent at least two minutes wondering where the zero-minute train had got to - which isn't something they'd have wondered here previously - before it eventually rumbled into the platform. As a postscript, thanks to yesterday's terrible fire at Ladbroke Grove the H&C was in fact only going as far as Edgware Road, but the display still said Hammersmith because the number of programmed destinations remains limited.

In summary, despite containing much more information than before, Plaistow's Next Train Indicators are displaying misleading and inaccurate data. Times jump about. Intervals lengthen. Destinations chop and change. Trains fail to appear. It seems the only truth passengers can definitely rely on is the destination of the next westbound train... which is the full extent of the information the unimproved display used to show before.

Come 2019, when the new 4LM ATC system is powering several dozen reprogrammed displays, let's hope these inadequacies will have disappeared. In the meantime the upgraded displays are still relying on a truly ancient and unreliable feed, so aren't yet to be trusted. If the Next Train Indicators at your local station suddenly spring into action with fresh levels of information, yes, rejoice, but be prepared to take what they have to say with an enormous pinch of salt.

9pm update: Comment from 'Someone working on this project'

 Wednesday, June 14, 2017

An alternative religion has grown amongst us. It has millions of adherents across the country. It inspires their hopes and dreams. It dictates their lifestyle choices. It motivates their actions. It shapes their weekends.

That religion is Consumerism, and this is its creed.

The Consumer loves to eat and drink and shop. The Consumer embraces the holy trinity of expenditure.

We are all of us consumers, we all eat and drink and shop. But only some of us are Consumers, to whom spending comes naturally, for whom paid-for gratification is a natural state of mind.

When the opportunity arises, and free time allows, a Consumer chooses to spend their free time spending money.

There are thousands of free or inexpensive things they could be doing, like playing sport, or gardening, or going for a long walk, or sitting outside in a deckchair, or making jam, or reading a book, or going for a run, or making a cup of tea, or listening to music they already own, or talking with friends, but no. Their free time is filled with things that cost, because that's the way Consumers are hard-wired.

Visit any Consumer cathedral on a Sunday and you'll see them. They wander round shopping malls looking for things to buy and bags to carry. They pick up a coffee on the way in and a cup of diluted sugar on the way out. They stop off halfway round for an unnecessary burger or a bowl of noodles, then perch on a plastic seat to wolf it down. Their day out consists of multiple purchasing opportunities, sequentially linked, as if this were an entirely natural state of affairs.

True Consumers worship a multiplicity of brands, and will go out of their way to spend more on these than other lesser rivals. To these people Nike is a goddess, Amazon is a warrior, and Olympus is the choice of kings.

True Consumers always read their consumer bibles, embracing marketing spiel as if it were the gospel truth. When a disciple enthuses over some must-have must-visit experience, or when a sacred pop-up ceremonial is announced, they'll make a date and they'll be there.

True Consumers love to embrace their faith online, following false prophets and searching diligently for satisfaction. What's more they'll always spread the Word, sharing the Good News to confirm to everyone what good Consumers they have been.

The devout pay extra to bike in takeaways, rather than creating meals at home themselves. The devout spend their wages on thimblefuls of mass-produced liquid not because they like the taste but because it's the thing to be seen to do. The devout purchase stuff they already own, replace stuff before it's broken, and throw away stuff they never used. The devout eat, and drink, and shop, without giving it a second thought.

And that's the way big business likes it.

There is no money to be made in a nation of unbelievers. Every adult walking in the countryside is a wasted retail opportunity. Every child enjoying a glass of water ought rather to be enjoying a carton or a can. Every family cooking their own dinner means an entrepreneur somewhere is losing out. What's needed are evangelical citizens whose happiness relies on paying others for a service, even when they don't have the financial means to do so, because the generation of profits must come first.

If Britain's populace can be conditioned to buy first and think later, all the better. If behaviours can be nudged and tweaked to naturalise a commercial lifestyle, a multitude of shareholders will be the long-term winners. If children can be inspired to want, and yearn, and need, then another generation of Consumers will emerge to support the system for decades to come.

Britain is essentially a Consumer nation, and our economy would collapse if it were not.

But I'm pleased to be an atheist, immune to impulsive expenditure, and I often wonder why so many of the congregation still believe.

 Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Westhumble to Merstham (10 miles)

Here's a ten mile stretch of the North Downs Way which isn't in London, but both ends of which you can reach by London bus. Inbetween are the glories of Box Hill, the glories of Reigate Hill and the glories of Gatton Park, on what's definitely the best walk yet. It even starts at a bus stop called North Downs Way.

Barely a couple of minutes from the bus stop, through the trees, your adventure begins. Seventeen famous stepping stones cross the Mole, and you can too if you tread really carefully and the river's not in flood. One family I met here demonstrated that this was just the right amount of adventure for an intrepid six year-old, while another ummed and ahhed and then retreated to take the five minute detour into the woods and over the footbridge.

And that was the easy bit. What follows is a relentless ascent up the western flank of Box Hill, where one zigzagging flight of wooden treads follows another follows another. In winter it's a proper mudbath, but at this time of year the only enemy is your lungs, so feel free to pause awhile if the climb gets too much, and expect compassionate looks from those striding past on the way down. The view from the summit is always worth it, though, with a broad green panorama across the Weald spread out below the Salomon's Memorial. A National Trust cafe is hiding behind the treeline if the hike's already defeated you.

However busy the top of Box Hill may be, the North Downs Way finds a quiet path to slip away. A shady track follows the top of the escarpment, at one point passing a lone gravestone inscribed to "an English thoroughbred" (1936-1944). Eventually it breaks out around the top of a huge chalk quarry gouged out for the production of lime, before descending gently below the rim of a second. Betchworth's quarries were once a mainstay for the filming of Doctor Who and Blake's Seven, but the alien landscapes where Sarah Jane and Servalan held sway have long since been covered with landfill and nature is regaining control.

A few post-industrial remnants later, the path becomes a lane lined by an appealing row of cottages. According to the village noticeboard D'Arcy Trinkwon will be giving an organ recital at St Michael's on the 24th, and an alarmist poster urges Betchworth's residents to ring the Counter Terrorist Hotline if they see or hear something that could be suspicious. Best move on quickly before you're shopped for looking out of place. A short stretch of pavement bashing swiftly diverts up a parallel wooded path, then breaks off across fields to return to the foot of the scarp, a line which the next mile and a half dutifully follows.

I first walked this stretch three years ago, and it was here I first decided I ought to give the North Downs Way a go. One particular clearing beneath a chalky slope inspired me, where I stumbled upon a slowworm on the path and a host of tiny purple orchids on the bank. No slowworm this time, but the orchids were again resplendent, and I got to play the timeless game of How Close Can You Get To The Rabbit? Entranced beneath the early summer sun, my decision to walk the full 153 miles now seemed entirely vindicated. What I'd forgotten was the subsequent need to return to the top of the North Downs, which meant another breathless ascent of a seemingly never-ending hill, the second of the day.

I was looking forward to traversing Colley Hill and Reigate Hill, because the views are ace, but soon found myself walking behind a stooped lady with an unpredictably misbehaving dog. I held back to avoid getting too close, correctly as it turned out, aghast as the dog located a group of cattle and barked frantically for a full minute while the owner ignored their plight. It then bounded off to the grassy slopes ahead where several families had settled with picnics, selecting one of these and running off with their coolbag, followed by a particularly angry mother. The dog's owner refused to accept anything was amiss and berated the picnickers instead, and so an irate stalemate ensued. End result - the dog dropped its chewed prey and nosed off elsewhere, the grumpy owner spluttered off, and the victimised family folded up their picnic blanket and packed prematurely for home. When the National Trust advises "please keep your dog under control", there is a reason.

The M25 runs unnervingly close to the North Downs Way along parts of this hilltop, often heard but never seen. On the unspoiled flank are a Victorian fort, an Edwardian drinking fountain and two wingtips marking the crash site of a US wartime bomber. England's oldest reinforced concrete footbridge crosses high above the A217, with a set of steps either side to allow horseriders to dismount. On the far side is the car park used by non-ramblers, surrounded by benches with a view and individual deckchairs, plus the Junction 8 refreshment kiosk and the entrance to Gatton Park.

Gatton Park is a 250 acre estate landscaped by Capability Brown for an ancestral line long since terminated, part owned by the National Trust and a gorgeous spot for a wander. For maximum access to all the gorgeous corners, come on the first Sunday of the month. Accessible at any time are the Millennium Stones, a circle of ten Caithness flagstones each inscribed with a quotation lifted from 200 years of Christianity. Away from the park and gardens a large part of the site is now home to a boarding school, so the North Downs Way gets to weave past dorms and tennis courts and the chapel. Amusingly it also passes an electronic sign which informed me I was approaching at 3mph, which I suspect counts as close to speeding around here.

To finish; a gatehouse, a residential lane, a leafy track, a golf course and a cricket pitch, plus sweeping views of the next hill to be ascended on Day 4. But Merstham is the place to stop for now, a commuter village which grew up where the road and railway to Brighton cut through the Downs. It's also where to catch the 405 bus back to Croydon, if you've opted for the Oyster-to-Oyster variant of the walk. This comes highly recommended.

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