diamond geezer

 Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Royal Air Force Museum has had an overhaul, with a whole new visitor experience launching a couple of weeks ago.

For the avoidance of doubt, that's the RAF Museum in Hendon, not the RAF Museum at Cosford in the West Midlands (which I visited last summer). If you're a Londoner you've probably been to our museum at least once, probably more. But if you haven't been recently then definitely two and possibly three of the hangars have changed utterly since your last visit.

The first change is how you get in. Previously you'd enter through the gates on Grahame Park Road, then wander over to the building of your choice to start your tour. Today everyone is funnelled towards the new building, Hangar 1, via some not entirely obvious signs. Most of the former grassy frontage is now car park, bordered by a sinuous earthwork installed to prevent anyone entering the museum via an undesignated route. I noticed that the earthwork by the staff gate has already been significantly eroded by visitors squeezing through to avoid a long detour, as what probably looked good on the architect's drawing board has proven annoyingly impractical in real life.



Hangar 1 used to be the gloomy Battle of Britain exhibit, and is now a shiny new shed containing considerably fewer planes. The big draw is an exhibition celebrating this year's big centenary: RAF Stories, The First 100 Years. It starts off with a diversity of hats, then opens up into a medium-sized gallery packed with all aspects of aerial armed forcery. We're shown a helicopter and some bombs and a few engines and a token number of suspended aircraft, along with epaulettes and badges and other smaller tokens.

Prominent here are several full-size cut-outs of historical personnel, from pilots to chefs, carefully chosen to prove that women and minorities do exist. A cockpit simulator for budding pilots, at £6 a time, is likely to have a queue building up at the back. But perhaps most importantly there's lots for younger children to do, from hands-on science displays with flashing buttons to tiny model aircraft to clamber into. With its little bit of everything, the gallery struck me as a useful taster, and perhaps as far as certain parents with toddlers ever need to go.



A long corridor along the back of the gift shop continues the interactive theme. It's entitled 'First to the Future’, and aims to take the RAF's story past 2018 by focusing on challenges to come. It was certainly popular yesterday with older schoolchildren hunting for something to fill the time on their end of term trip. But I somehow managed to find a spare terminal or three, and had a go at fighting off a cyberattack, building a virtual plane in response to an endurance challenge, and searching for terrorist targets by drone. Alas the cyber 'simulation' turned out to be a chain of games with no real-world relevance, my virtual plane glitched before it flew, and everyone seemed to be giving up one minute into the drone sim after completely failing to work out what to do with the controls.

I remember visiting this hall two years ago with my youngest nephew (who, incidentally, has since got a job working on the technical side of aviation, so that worked well). We both enjoyed the twists and turns of the Battle of Britain exhibit, and all the old newsreels, and walking down through the fuselage of a bomber to experience what it was like inside. A huge Sunderland flying boat is all that remains of the former exhibition, now forming the centrepiece of a 60-seat cafe serving hot drinks and light snacks, as well as jellybeans wrapped up as emergency rations. The new space is a lot more experience-friendly for a modern audience, but no longer as relevant, and the old men on the internet forums are livid.



Hangar 6 is the other big change. It used to hold 'Milestones of Flight', a canter through aviation history from biplanes to fighter jets, complete with numerous dangling examples of the real thing. It only opened in 2003, but last autumn it was emptied to make way for a slightly sparser exhibit called ‘The RAF in an ‘Age of Uncertainty’. That's code for campaigns from 1980 to the present day, including the Falklands, Iraq and the Balkans, even including a quick flash of Donald Trump on the big screen. Tellingly the exhibit is 'Supported by the State of Kuwait', presumably because the original Lottery grant only supported its first incarnation (which I preferred).



Meanwhile, if you've not been for a few years, Hangar 2 is the other alteration. This used to hold the biplanes, and was only intermittently open, but 100 years after 1914 was transformed into a full-on exhibit about The First World War In The Air. It's very well done, with what I'd say is the right mix of screens and exhibits, although the swarm of infants from an academy in Acton didn't seem quite so interested.



One other proper new thing is The Airfield, which used to be the car park but has now been turfed over to form a central space. The museum's blurb calls it "a new green heart of the community in Colindale", although currently it's mostly yellow and seemed to be lacking somewhat in purpose (except as somewhere for the secondary school crowd to play British Bulldog). Close by is another new cafe, called Claude's, a replacement for the much larger NAAFI-ish canteen which evidently didn't fit the new ambience. And finally there's the enormous Hangars 3, 4 and 5, mainstay of the museum since 1972, whose somewhat worn but treasured aircraft displays surely don't need describing.

In summary the RAF Museum is still one of London's best free museums, and has taken a well-considered nudge in the direction of modernity with this recent refresh. Those who like stuff will prefer the older hangars, and those who prefer experience will prefer the new, which means they've probably got the balance right. I'm not a fan of the external layout changes, which make arriving and departing more of a chore. But so long as the RAF needs recruits, and the justification for a free military collection remains, a trip to Colindale will always be a good day out.

 Tuesday, July 17, 2018

After England's impressive record in this year's World Cup, TfL have renamed a station at the top end of the Piccadilly line after the team manager. The temporary renaming of Southgate station to 'Gareth Southgate' lasts for 48 hours, and all will be back to normal by Wednesday. But in the meantime a nation smiles, and those lucky enough to live nearby can pop down for a selfie.



Anyone looking at the promotional photos from afar might assume that the whole station has been rebranded, but not so. Nothing's changed on the line diagrams on the concourse, and the blue stripe above the spaceport entrance still says Southgate Station. But in a really nice touch, the chief roundel on a pole outside the bus station has been amended to read Gareth Southgate rather than the usual UndergrounD, and that's really turning heads. Throw in a cardboard roundel propped up by the ticket gates, and there's no need to descend into the depths to get your photo.



But if you do, that's where you'll find the main collateral. Roundels on the platform have been flawlessly updated through the addition a fresh blue plastic strip across the centre, proving just how cheap and easy this renaming business is. But an additional sticker has also been added, so close to the top of the red circle that it's hard to crop out, proclaiming the support of a well-known credit card company. TfL wouldn't have undertaken this popular stunt by themselves, it's only here because a global corporation paid for the privilege.



The station's usual passengers are delighted, whipping out their phones for a smiley pic. Several other fans have made the trek, mostly young and male, nipping out to zone 4 to grab their own digital trophy. The best place to stand to get the roundel full-on is beyond the yellow line on the edge of the platform, so great care needs to be taken not to step back too far (or else take a diagonal shot instead). Watching the reaction of others, it only takes a few minutes to spot that considerable joy has been instigated through the addition of just one word.



What viewers elsewhere won't have noticed is that most of the roundels down here haven't been updated. Only eight on each platform have the new name, while the three at each end remain unadulterated, as do all those on the far wall on the other side of the tracks. It's a pragmatic decision, expending no more effort than is absolutely required. Why cut into all that marketing profit unnecessarily, when the wider populace only sees the images provided, and the overall outcome remains the same?



We don't yet know how much the credit card company paid for their takeover, nor whether they'd have paid more if England won, although the contract should eventually appear here on the TfL website. For comparison, Sky paid £94,000 + VAT for their GoT binge, Amazon paid £394,000 + VAT to hijack Westminster for a day, and the original mineral water abomination at Canada Water cost £110,000 + VAT. In this case the company also paid for the right to a sponsored message on the Next Train Indicator every 10 minutes, and an announcement which I believe goes like this...
"You may have noticed something a little different about the station today. Thanks to [Credit Card Company], Southgate station has become Gareth Southgate station to celebrate the achievements of Gareth and the England team this Sunday. Thanks for the incredible journey Gareth."
Given that England weren't playing on Sunday, because they'd been knocked out, an over-optimistic pre-recorded message appears to have been used. Also, look at how slyly the credit company gets its name slipped in, despite having bugger all to do with Gareth Southgate, other than being an official World Cup sponsor. If you watch the video in TFL's #SouthgateSelfie tweet, it's no coincidence that the last three seconds are a close-up on the sponsor's name, not the roundel.

Meanwhile the Paris Metro has been celebrating France's World Cup victory by temporarily renaming six stations, each without any marketing influence whatsoever, because that's how public transport normally works. But it seems sponsor-free is no longer an option over here, indeed in the official press release London Underground's Managing Director was keen to say "This is another great example of how we, and brands, can work creatively together." The appearance of Gareth Southgate station isn't football coming home, simply further proof that austerity is skewing TfL's commercial priorities.

It hasn't rained in Wanstead for the last five weeks. Wanstead Flats are parched, and tinted an unsettling shade of golden yellow across their entire extent. So it was sad, but no surprise, when a fire broke out on Sunday afternoon and set over 200 acres ablaze. The London Fire Brigade came out in large numbers to tackle the capital's largest ever grass fire, and splashed and stamped it down late into the night.



The following morning I wasn't expecting to be allowed anywhere near. But the policeman at the road block assured me that walking across the Flats was fine, so long as I backed away from fire if I saw any. I saw none to start with, only tinder-dry grass, and long hoses draped up Centre Road towards a group of fire engines. But then I saw distant smoke, and a bunch of red-shirted firefighters with water backpacks and beaters, so diverted away.



Close to the Jubilee Pond a charred area of grass spread beyond the trees, then stopped, like a dry black lake. Smoke continued to erupt from one particular clump of undergrowth, occasionally bursting into flames before subsiding again. A few of us stared at the sheer incongruity of it all, then watched as a fire engine reversed from elsewhere... and drove straight past, en route to somewhere more critical.



The most astonishing sight was further ahead along Lake House Road. On one side were the playing fields, unharmed, while on the other lay a scorched landscape of stripped twigs, singed stalks and ash. A large expanse of scrub had been turned completely black, bar a few golden strips that might have been footpaths, or were where the Fire Brigade's hoses had lain. And all this was just one small corner of the affected area. They'll have it under control soon, and nature should swiftly recover, but we live in unusual meteorological times.

 Monday, July 16, 2018

The biannual Bedford River Festival took place over the weekend.




Dear diamond geezer,

Oh for heaven's sake!

We're not interested. Surely you can tell we're not interested. Nobody wants to hear about what you got up to in Bedford, indeed nobody wants to hear about Bedford full stop. Almost none of your readers live there, and those that do probably went, so who's your audience here?

Like most of us, I started reading your blog because it was about London. Not entirely about London, but mostly, and often embracing the quirkier side of life. But recently you've been edging increasingly out of the capital and travelling elsewhere, and quite frankly it's not as relevant as it used to be.

Everyone loves London, even parts they've never visited, because London is a world class city of international renown. The Tower, the Palace, the South Bank, all these are grist to the London mill, and any post about a Royal Park resonates with us all. But you often went that one step further - a backstreet in Battersea, a station in Ealing, a milepost in Penge - and the idiosyncratic side of town has always appealed.

Admittedly even your London stuff has been getting more irrelevant over the last few months, to the detriment of your core readership. Nobody's especially excited when you reach out as far as Romford, even for a lost river, and only you know why you thought West Harrow would get our juices flowing. But at least they're still inside the capital, which is more than can be said for Hastings, or Basildon, or Milton Bloody Keynes, which for some reason you subjected us to for two long days.

In the last week you haven't even bothered to blog about London at all. We've had a photo from the Chess Valley, five seemingly endless days droning on about Paris, and now here you are wasting your time in Bedford. Please stop all this messing around outside the capital, because it's of no interest to your readers. Please get back to writing about life in Islington, Greenwich and the other boroughs, which is the content you deliver best.

Also, you know we're all here for the public transport posts, don't you? We put up with the country walks and the museum reviews, but they're not why we come back. When we log on at seven in the morning we're hoping for a lesser-known tube peculiarity, or a swipe at TfL, or a bus stop update. You can imagine how our hearts sink if we discover you've been to a castle in Sussex, or spent the weekend in Cornwall, as if you have no interest in what we want to read at all.

We want something we actually understand to get our teeth into, and engage with, rather than a parade of locations we've never seen. Most of us have an opinion on suburban branch lines, tram ridership and bus route anomalies. But if you've gone and written about somewhere obscure that isn't even London, only a handful of readers get the chance to chip in and say "wow, I was born there, let me tell you about a local building", and the rest of us merely roll our eyes and move on.

For example, you've just been to Bedford so you must have travelled on the first day of the emergency Thameslink timetable. I have no doubt that your target audience would have found this a particularly engaging topic, and commented at length. So why couldn't you have written about that, rather than droning on about dragonboat racing, burger van options, tattooed dads and the minutiae of the one-way footbridge operation?

I understand you used to live in Bedford, so may be attached to the place. But thank goodness you left, because the thought of a blog relentlessly focused on a tedious county town doesn't bear thinking about. None of us want to hear about the renovation of the Harpur Centre, the state of the grass in Russell Park and the latest insignificant exhibition in the Higgins Museum. Also, there's already an established blog about the railways in Bedford, so that niche is taken.

From what you've written, it seems the most interesting thing about Bedford is a riverside festival whose highlights are a procession of cabin cruisers, a lot of unexciting street food and a lacklustre 12 minute Carnival Parade, and which only happens every two years. Incidentally, the correct word for "every two years" is biennial, not biannual, but that's exactly the kind of careless factual slip we've come to expect from your increasingly irrelevant blog.

Pull yourself together and spend some time in actual London for a change, rather than heading off on these pointless peripheral safaris. We want to hear more about places we've actually heard of, and sites we might potentially visit, and transport infrastructure we potentially know something about. Stop opening our eyes to this provincial tedium, because we're just not interested.

Kind regards

A Reader



Let's hope the weather's as good the next time the River Festival comes to town in 2020.

 Sunday, July 15, 2018

À PARIS: les moments de regret

After six consecutive posts about my day out in Paris, I'd hate for you to think that everything went entirely to plan. So here's a rundown on some of my less successful moments, in case they're ever of use.

One day ticket: I bought the wrong one. I knew I'd be travelling extensively on public transport in central Paris, going no further out than the area covered by the Metro, so a ticket covering zones 1 and 2 would do. But I bought a Paris Visite (1-3) for €12, whereas I should have bought a Mobilis (1-2) for €7.50. I didn't need the extra zone, and I didn't use any of the attraction discounts a Paris Visite affords. Had I travelled less, a set of ordinary €1.90 single-use t+ tickets would have been sufficient, but a carnet of ten still costs €14.90, and because I ended up making ten journeys I was still well ahead. [more info] [more info]
On the bright side... I remembered to bring a pen to write my name and the date on my one day ticket, without which it would have been invalid. Next time I'll remember to bring one that doesn't smudge.



Musée des égouts: London ought to have a sewer museum. Paris does, on the banks of the Seine near the pont de l'Alma. I was looking forward to discovering the history of the famous sewers, as well as following a 500m underground path, for a ridiculously decent entrance fee. Unfortunately when I turned up I discovered the museum had closed for major renovation works ten days earlier, and that these were planned to last until early 2020. I'm sure it'll be excellent when it finally reopens but, damn, just missed.
On the bright side... Because I skipped the sewer museum I got to le Corbusier's house an hour earlier than I would have done otherwise, and so avoided arriving just as it was closing for lunch.

Gold Ring Scam: While I was looking lost and particularly touristy outside on the pont de l'Alma, a middle-aged man attracted my attention by flashing a gold ring at me. I understood from his broken English that he'd just found it on the ground, or he said he had, and he seemed to be asking me whether I'd dropped it. I said not, and made to walk away, when he suddenly rebrandished the ring and invited me to take it from his hand. I was having none of that, not wishing to get involved in anything that might turn very murky, and gruffly dismissed him. Only when I got home and Googled did I discover quite how uncomplicated his scam was, and that all the bloke wanted to do was sell it to me 'on the cheap', knocking down the price until I said yes. Obviously it's not gold, and obviously nobody's just dropped it, but apparently several tourists do chip in and pay a bargain €50, €20, even €10, and the only person who ever gains is the con artist.
On the bright side... I felt a tiny bit streetwise at being suspicious enough not to get involved.



Le Marais: My guidebook told me that Le Marais was the gentrified corner of central Paris, a once downbeat area turned chic, and included one of the most beautiful squares on Earth. I wandered through its narrow streets and found it charming but commercialised, a bit like an upmarket version of Soho, crossed with Spitalfields, crossed with Chelsea. And Place des Vosges was indeed lovely, but a bit gravelly, and too large to absorb in one go thanks to the topiary screen all the way around, and I didn't linger.
On the bright side... I now know where the gelateria are.

Le football: I turned up on World Cup semifinal day, and shouldn't have headed to the city centre just before the match kicked off. An extra-big screen had been erected in front of the Hôtel de Ville, towards which hordes of fans draped in le bleu, blanc et rouge were amiably flocking. Several riverside roads and bridges had been blocked off by the gendarmerie, making getting around much harder than it should have been. The crowds'll no doubt be back, and considerably more excitable, for this afternoon's final.
On the bright side... I was on my Eurostar home before the match finished.



L'heure de pointe: To dodge the football I decided to escape l'Ile de la Cité via its single Metro station. It's one of my favourites, Cité, its curving platforms lit by clusters of arty globes, and accessed down a huge deep shaft via a semi-spiral staircase. Alas the Parisian rush hour seemed to be running somewhat later than ours. Even though it was after half past six every train arrived packed, and when the doors opened we could only stare at the sardines before they slammed shut again. By the time the sixth train had done this I gave up, relieved I'd bought a day pass rather than wasting a ticket, then cursed that all the lifts were out of order and schlepped up more than 100 steps back to the surface.
On the bright side... I did get that cracking photograph.

Le Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie: Paris's science museum is a huge modern box close to the Peripherique, gifted to the city by President Giscard d'Estaing, built into the shell of a former abbatoir and surrounded by an over-fountained moat. It also closes at 6pm, and I arrived at seven, so was entirely unable to explore the interior. I did get a look inside the small shopping centre, which was pretty much dead because there was a football match on, even the tills at M&S Simply Food. Instead I wandered round the perimeter, passing an adventure playground, a Lego exhibition and a giant submarine, and was particularly taken by the IMAX cinema - La Géode - masquerading as a massive silver globe. The whole place reminded me of Milton Keynes, i.e. what futuristic used to look like, but there is considerably more recreational engineering to track down across the Parc de la Villette if I ever come back.
On the bright side... I think that means the 17th is now the only arrondissement I haven't been to.



Finally, here's a link to my Flickr set of 27 photos from this visit, starting with the ones you haven't seen yet.

And here's a recap of my posts about previous trips to Paris, in case for some reason you haven't had enough.
May 2017: les Catacombes
March 2016: Palace de Versailles
March 2013: Eurostar, la tour Eiffel, le métro, Père-Lachaise, Musee d'Orsay, le flâneur
April 2005: la Défense, Jardin des Tuileries, Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur

 Saturday, July 14, 2018

À PARIS: la Méridienne

The equator may be well-defined, but where to place the line of zero longitude is a subjective, contentious matter. Today the world draws its line through the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, but the (slightly older) Paris Observatory was nearly chosen instead, and the French would have been far happier if it had. The Paris meridian's story began in 1667, on the day of the summer solstice, at noon, when members of the Academy of Sciences assembled to mark a north/south line on a patch of land gifted to them by King Louis XIV. L'Observatoire de Paris was built across this line, which duly became France's prime meridian. [map]



The most formal representation of the Paris meridian can be found on the floor of the observatory's central Cassini Room, but that's private, so staff and guests only. More publicly, the line is marked by a brass strip across the lawn of a small public park immediately to the south of the observatory, which descends briefly from a flowerbed towards the park's iron gates. There's not a lot around to explain precisely what the line is, and on my visit a small shrieking girl was using the strip to roll a ball downhill towards her less enthusiastic brother.



A more prominent monument can be found by continuing the imaginary line a few metres further south, to the other side of the main road. The plinth situated here is a memorial to the scientist, metrologist and astronomer François Arago, one of whose (many) roles was as chair of the Bureau des Longitudes, the French equivalent of the Ordnance Survey. The plinth is empty because Arago's statue was removed by the Germans in 1941 to melt down to make weapons. But at its foot is a more recent commemorative plaque surrounding a small bronze medallion, twelve centimetres in diameter, bearing his name and a pair of compass markings. 135 of these medallions were placed across Paris in 1994 to mark the line of the meridian, a marvellously fitting tribute, although a large number have alas since disappeared.



This blog loves nothing more than a walk along an imaginary line, so I thought I'd try tracking at least one of the remaining medallions down. The meridian's initially easy to follow because it follows the main axis of the Jardin du Luxembourg for over a kilometre to the north of the Observatory, but slices less obviously across the Rive Droite, including a direct hit on the Louvre. I resigned myself to a frustrating walk looking fruitlessly for tiny black circles... then walked round the back of Arago's plinth and saw one stuck to the rear, which saved me from what could have been a very long hike.

Paris lost out to Greenwich at the International Meridian Conference in 1884, following a vote in which only France and Brazil abstained. The French continued to use their own meridian until 1911, after which they reluctantly switched to the international standard, which they described as "Paris mean time, retarded by 9 minutes and 21 seconds". But the British proved equally stubborn, refusing to implement Resolution 6 urging adoption of a metric system of units. And of course the metre was originally defined as one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the north pole along the Earth's meridian through Paris, and so the line lives on.

À PARIS: le Musée Rodin

Although the Louvre is the Paris art museum everybody knows, there are dozens more, including several devoted to a single artist. Monet has one, and Dali, and particularly Picasso. But the most enchanting is probably that devoted to the sculptor Auguste Rodin, established 99 years ago in an hôtel the artist once used as his workshop. The main building's a delight, its gardens are extensive, and of course the sculptures therein are astonishing. Head over towards Invalides, in the VIIe, to make your acquaintance.



The Musée Rodin is self-supporting, which is rare in Paris, so it's impressive its admission fee has been kept down to €10. London may have many more free museums, but where they cost, our price points are generally pitched higher. Once you've paid your euros you're at liberty to wander round either the gardens or the museum. I suspect most visitors gravitate straight away towards one of Rodin's most famous statues, Le Penseur, sitting hand on chin atop a pedestal surrounded by torpedo-shaped topiary.



I also suspect most visitors suspect they're seeing "the real thing", whereas in fact this is one of 28 casts of The Thinker now displayed worldwide, indeed I think the first I ever recognised was in San Francisco. Rodin originally intended this image, at smaller scale, to form the centrepiece of his monumental gateway The Gates of Hell. And this you can find on the other side of the courtyard, a breathtaking bronze commission inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy, which consumed much of Rodin's life. Innumerable twisted figures protrude from the inky blackness, writhing and contorted, as if a nightmare is erupting... but only if you step up close.



The hôtel is arrayed on two floors around a grand central staircase, with many a chandelier and antique mirror to add to the general ambience of Belle Époque. Rodin's works are laid out first chronologically and then thematically, from small maquettes to the full-size real thing. I was particularly taken by how good he was at faces, given how hard they are to paint, let alone sculpt, and the humanity of even his caricatures shines through. He really got to grips with emotion and expression too, as exemplified by the sheer naked fury in The Call To Arms, or the tight embrace of another famous work, The Kiss.



There's a bit of variety, as one room features works by Monet and Van Gogh from Rodin's personal collection, and another showcases the sculptures of his mistress Camille Claudel. But mostly it's Rodin all the way, and all the better for it, as you shuffle reverently through to the exit. The cafe in the gardens is fairly reasonably priced, if you want to loiter after orienteering your way round the collection of outdoor pieces. Or if you don't have time for any of this, enjoy a taster on the platforms at the nearby Metro station, Varenne, where a hulking Balzac looms between the electronic gates, and another replica Thinker muses on the local superstar.

 Friday, July 13, 2018

À PARIS: la Promenade Plantée



But there's a better railway walk in Paris, along a more impressive disused railway, and that's the Coulée Verte, or Promenade Plantée. Formerly the line to Vincennes, it was pedestrianised 25 years ago and has since become a much loved stroll. It starts near the Place de la Bastille and heads out east to the Peripherique, a total distance of almost three miles (which in London would be the equivalent of the Tower of London to Canary Wharf). I didn't manage the whole thing because I was tiring by then, but blimey the first half was impressive.



It doesn't look much to start with, a set of steps rising through a brick wall off the Rue de Lyon. But up top, heavens, it's something else. A linear garden, the width of a railway viaduct, deliberately landscaped as a path between cultivated beds. Normally the path runs along the centre, with plants to either side, but sometimes it splits in two around a raised planter, even a pond, before continuing. Pergolas and the occasional belvedere add to the variety, elevating the experience above your average green corridor.



At times bridges and buildings intrude, but more generally it's easy to forget you're several metres in the air on a brick viaduct above the streets of Paris. I completely missed that this section of the viaduct houses dozens of art studios, shops and boutiques in the arches underneath, as I enjoyed my uncommercial hike up top. Benches are provided at extremely regular intervals, generally south facing, making this a particularly popular place for older Parisians to enjoy. Basically it's a triumph, and all the better for having preceded New York's High Line by a decade and a half.



The approximate halfway point is Jardin de Reuilly (where the fizzy water fountain is), which the Coulée Verte crosses on a vaulting footbridge. Beyond that it returns to ground level, complete with bikes and public buildings, and then for variety's sake throws in a tunnel or two for good measure. The tunnels are a popular haunt for bats at dusk, and include cave-like projections and trickly fountains for added wow. I'd say there are are lessons here in spectacle and diversity that those making plans for a Camden or Peckham Highline would do well to learn from. But for sheer scale, and ambience, the Promenade Plantée is probably unbeatable.

À PARIS: la Petite Ceinture

Paris has the ultimate urban disused railway, a 20km loop abandoned by trains and reclaimed by nature. It's called la Petite Ceinture (or "small belt"), and once circled the city just inside its Napoleonic walls. Over the years it evolved from supplying the military to full passenger service, before reverting to freight only and then losing its trains completely*, creating an overgrown corridor accessed by wildlife and trespassing flâneurs. But recently there's been a move to open up certain sections to the public, for walking or as environmental features, the aim being to release 10km by the end of the decade.
* Technically it's much more complicated than that, and some sections do still have trains, and if you want a full history there's this, this, this and this.



I tracked down the longest section currently open, which is an elevated walkway in the 15th arrondisement. This mile-long public park, which opened in 2014, kicks off near Parc George Brassens, close to the HQ of phone company Orange. If it looks a bit unimpressive to begin with, that's because the railway is actually in tunnel beneath your feet, as the path skirts and then ducks underneath an enormous primary school. But at Rue Olivier de Serres it emerges into a cutting, and hey presto there are fresh steps down, even a lift for disabled access, because Parisians are taking this reclamation seriously.



What we have here is a combination of path and railway. One of the tracks has been removed and become a wide path suitable for walking (not cycling, because no bikes are allowed, and dogwalking is barred too). The other track remains, fractionally overgrown but left as a deliberate reminder of what this used to be. Continuing west the rails occasionally disappear, and the path sometimes becomes wooden decking, but most of the way the two run side by side, even with a set of old points exposed and intact further along.



In hardly any time you're out of cutting and onto the level behind a row of Parisian tenements, then gradually elevated until the remainder of the walk is along a viaduct. And that's rather cracking, as every now and then you get to look down over a residential sidestreet, even a main thoroughfare, and watch life playing out below. You get to eye up plenty of architecture too, from thin 19th century houses and massive offices to blocks of modern flats. There are a lot of flats, Paris being one of Europe's most densely populated cities, and some living behind shuttered windows don't seem entirely comfortable with people wandering by.



I passed benches and tables where young Parisians were out having lunch. I passed older strollers with walking sticks. I passed the remains of Vaugirard Ceinture, one of 17 surviving station buildings, and a few old railway signs on the approach. I passed beds of roses, and other pretty flowers. I passed a bee hotel, and several signs pointing out local wildlife. I passed a trio of musicians who wanted me to take their photograph. I passed kilometre markers, painted onto the path to three decimal places. And at the far end I didn't pass a fence warning of electrified rails beyond, instead retreating down a final set of stairs to Place Balard.



It's a fun walk, of constitutional length rather than any particular challenge. The fact it retains sufficient elements of railwayness only adds to its charm. It's rarely gorgeous, because why would the suburbs of Paris be that, but it's green and atmospheric all the same. If more stretches can practically be made safe and public, that'd be great, although urban adventurers might mourn their gentrification. And no, London has nothing, even potentially, to compare, because we still run trains on most of ours.

 Thursday, July 12, 2018

À PARIS: la pétillante

The most brilliantly Parisian thing I saw during my trip to Paris was a sparkling water drinking fountain. There are currently ten across the city, sparsely scattered, with the aim of installing one in every arrondissement by 2020. At present the only central site is on the rive Gauche, near the Pont de la Concorde, the others being sited nowhere the average tourist would look. The original can be found in Jardin de Reuilly, a modern park out east in the XIIe, which I stumbled upon late in the day when my own water bottle was nigh empty.



It's no ordinary tap, more a small pavilion, indeed the first time I saw the fountain I wondered if it might be a pissoir. Its bulk is necessary to shield the gadgetry within, including a coiled coolant unit and a large canister of CO2 for injecting into one of the outputs. Punters have the option of ambient temperature or chilled, and if the latter then still or sparkling. I didn't see anybody opting for anything other than fizzy. Rest your bottle on the gauze, press, and a stream of approximately one third of a litre flows forth.

It's popular too, not least with residents from the surrounding area who turn up with bagfuls of bottles which they proceed to fill one by one. Wouldn't you, if this facility were freely available in your local park? Not only does it promote the use of reusable containers, but it must save vast amounts of money buying expensive bottled water daily from the shops. I eventually got my turn, and filled just the once, and blimey if the chilled liquid didn't taste just great. Oh to have 1200 municipal water fountains back in London, several of which sparkle, rather than a piddly handful.

À PARIS: Maison La Roche

Le Corbusier, the 20th century's most influential architect, was born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret and was actually Swiss. But he moved to Paris permanently at the age of 30, founding his first practice, and the city contains many examples of his finest work. One of these is Maison La Roche, an early commission for a Swiss banker and art collector, shoehorned into an awkward cul-de-sac site surrounded by older residential buildings. It's now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, half private museum and half public showhome, should you fancy looking around.
[Entrance €8; closed Sundays; nearest station Jasmin, line 9] [website]



Maison La Roche exemplifies le Corbusier's Five Points of Architecture, his guiding principles for modern housing design. The first of these is that the core of the building rests on free-standing columns, raising it from the ground, here allowing for a small featureless garden beneath the main gallery. Here you may find a crowd of young foreign tourists, hyped up for a group visit, ideally on their way out so they don't spill into every photograph you later take. The front door is kept shut, and you have to ring the bell so that the solo member of staff inside can let you in.



After engaging in conversation about tickets and rucksacks and blue plastic protective slippers, I was particularly chuffed to be given a copy of the house guide in French, which I then had to swap for English so I had a hope of reading it. Be warned that Le Corbusier didn't provide much space for luggage, and what little there is isn't especially secure. But the entrance hall does exemplify another of his Five Points, an open floor plan premised on a skeletal internal structure. This space rises three storeys, with irregular landings and balconies skirting its rim, all linked by narrow stairs. They've had to install netting across the top landing, I suspect to prevent visitors from accidentally tumbling over.



The most impressive space is the Gallery, a long room supported on those stilts we saw earlier. It bulges outwards, the dominant feature being a ramp which links the main room to a galleried library, and which can be a bit slippery to negotiate when you have blue plastic bags on your feet. The high horizontal windows running the whole length of the façade are another of the architect's Five Points, made easy to include when the external walls aren't loadbearing. Some sparse and quirky furniture only adds to the ambience. The far corner seems to be the optimal place for a photo, although it can be hard to stand there because it's often occupied by optimal photographers.



Several more normal rooms can be found stacked on the other side of the hallway, for dining, sleeping and abluting, because Maison La Roche had to be practical too. But climb to the very top and there's another treat, and another Point - a roof terrace "to form the transition between inside and outside". This one's long and segmented, with sheltered bits and curved bits and plenty of room for sunbathing, not to mention opportunities for chatting with the neighbours on their subtly different terrace nextdoor. This kind of design no doubt works best in countries with a warm climate, but what a wonderful use of limited space.



The last of le Corbusier's Five Points he called "la façade libre", specifically that if exterior walls aren't load-bearing they can be made to act as a curtain concealing the interior. That's certainly true here, as standing outside you have no idea quite what wonders are going on within. As I left, a fresh party of Japanese teenagers were streaming in and bootee-ing up, ready to discover this for themselves. Or more likely they were about to take some cracking Instagram shots, because if there's one thing le Corbusier understood a century ago, it's that great visuals never go out of fashion. [10 photos]

 Wednesday, July 11, 2018

(I think it's time for the football post)

I went walking in the Chess Valley at the weekend, enjoying some glorious views on a 10 mile hike from Chorleywood to Chesham. I particularly liked this view on the slopes above Latimer.



A few steps further on along the footpath, sheltering from the sun beneath a canopy of trees, I stumbled upon a large group of youths. They might have wandered in from the adjacent country house hotel, but they had a snappy staffie with them so it was more likely they were from the local village. There were enough of them to form a football team. A few were wearing a soccer jersey. I wondered how they'd react as I walked by.

The closest lad stopped chatting as I approached, turned to face me, and said "It's coming home!"

He actually means that, I thought. He genuinely thinks it is.

The tone of his voice was confident and smiley. He'd clearly been discussing the football with his mates before I arrived. He also felt certain enough in his beliefs that he could turn to a complete stranger walking by, make explicit his view of the future and expect them to agree too. I gave a brief response which must have sounded like I agreed, because I got a matey laugh in reply, but was in fact carefully judged to be utterly neutral. And I thought to myself, wow, what must it be like to have that level of belief in a process entirely beyond one's control.

I don't do belief. I've had every chance over the years, but I cannot place blind faith in something which might turn out to be entirely incorrect.

I could have believed in God. I got taken to church every week as a child, and got to experience all kinds of worship as a member of the choir. There was enough religion at school too, it being the default part of every assembly and the focus of a regular lesson every week. But I don't ever remember being convinced that the big invisible deity in the sky ever existed. My parents were good at leaving me to make up my own mind, and my own mind said don't believe, because I don't do belief.

I could have believed in politics. A lot of people get swept up, to left or right, and believe there's only one true way of doing things. They know their position, they know how they want their country to be, and they have unshakeable faith in how best to get there. I should make clear that most supporters of political parties are pragmatists, as are most politicians, willing to give or take according to debate. But fervent supporters plough their furrow no matter what the facts, and cannot be turned, and that's not me, because I don't do belief.

I could have believed in football. I latched onto a team aged six, and sort of followed them, but never took it as seriously as I could. I liked it if they won, but I didn't punch the sky if they won big, and I didn't feel despair if they lost. I worked out at an early age that my support wasn't going to make a blind bit of difference to whether my team won or not, that shouting at the TV was pointless, and that my life didn't end if results went the wrong way. I had every opportunity, but I never made football my credo, because I don't do belief.



In particular, I have never believed in my national team. I smile if they win, but I never expect them to be successful just because of who they are. I cannot tie my state of happiness to the one-off performance of a bunch of men solely because they happen to represent the country I live in. I am never 100% certain of the result before kick-off. I do not wake up on match days thinking "we are going to absolutely smash them". Football may be coming home, but I don't believe in my heart that it must.

To be clear, I'm not entirely indifferent about all of these things. To be even clearer, I'm not saying I don't do hope. I hope that all sorts of things will happen, and I suspect you do too. I hope that certain teams will win, that certain political ideas will be successful, that the future will be a better place, even that the weather will be nice. But I can never bring myself to move up the scale into the box marked blind faith, because I don't do belief.

INDIFFERENCEHOPEBELIEF

I like evidence. I can be swayed by an argument. I understand cause and effect. I know things aren't necessarily going to go the way I prefer just because I want them to. I'd say it stands to reason, but those who believe don't need a reason, they just believe.

I also have a grasp of probability, so I know there's a decent chance any football match could swing either way. It's fantastic that we've reached the semi finals of the World Cup, but to win the trophy we still have to win two more matches, and that's no dead cert. It's a bit like having to flip a coin twice and getting heads both times, which is a long way from impossible, but still less likely to happen than not. And yet some people reckon England's coin is heavily biased and should always come up heads, and they're the ones who believe.

I sometimes wonder if my life would be easier if I believed. A God who loves me for who I am. Brexit delivered no matter what the consequences. A devotion to anything Jeremy Corbyn suggests. Certainty that anyone who isn't white and British is a lesser being. And a national football team I could blindly follow to the ends of the earth, the right to victory guaranteed.

I have a theory that society is shaped, and democracies swung, by people who believe. But I'm more than happy not to be one of them.

 Tuesday, July 10, 2018

07:00 I am on a day trip.
07:01 I am on a train.



09:00 I am an hour ahead.
10.00 I am zipping alongside l'autoroute.
11.00 I am being serenaded by an accordion on the Metro.
12.00 I am on an architect's roof wearing blue plastic slippers.



13.00 I am walking the disused railway.
14.00 I am at The Thinker's feet, missing the flypast.
15.00 I am mortified, having just got the pictograms for male and female toilets the wrong way round.
16.00 I am back on the Metro, in search of a fizzy water fountain.



17.00 I am walking the other disused railway.
18.00 I am musing on the fact that I've only seen one tattooed Parisian since I arrived.
19.00 I am swept up in the rush to watch the World Cup at home, in a bar, or on the big screen outside the Town Hall.
20.00 I am far from the semifinals, eyeing up a silver orb on a concrete podium.



21.00 I am in the departure lounge, after 14 miles of walking (and 14 Metro trains).
22.00 I am very grateful to the EU for free data roaming (even if it is only for a year).
22.00 I am an hour back again.
23.00 I am really looking forward to a cup of tea.

 Monday, July 09, 2018

When does Crossrail open?

I ask, because TfL are very keen not to tell us yet.

Obviously it's December 2018. Everyone's happy to admit that much, from TfL on their website to the company delivering Crossrail itself.



But the precise start date is officially unknown, despite there being a target date everyone behind the scenes is working to, and it being an open secret what that date is.

There are several reasons for this secrecy. Firstly, the TFL Press Office has an announcement schedule pencilled in, and we haven't yet reached the day of the announcement. Secondly it's still perfectly possible that the launch of Crossrail will be delayed, say if the stations aren't ready, or the trains aren't fully tested. But most importantly we haven't yet been given an official launch date because THE OFFICIAL LAUNCH DATE MUST NOT BE INCORRECT. It would be mortifying for Crossrail to be seen to fail, even by a day, hence no official launch date will be given until everyone's sure it can be achieved.

The open secret launch date is Sunday 9th December 2018.

Evidence 1: 9th December 2018 is Timetable Changeover Day
Rail timetables across Europe change on two specific dates - the third Sunday in May and the second Sunday in December. Crossrail is a rail line, rather than a tube line, so it stands to reason its new timetable will kick off on Sunday 9th December. No other date was seriously in the running.
BUT when it opens in December, Crossrail will be in three distinct parts. Two of these mesh closely with existing rail services, i.e. Paddington to Heathrow and Liverpool Street to Shenfield. But all the new stations and new infrastructure will be on the line from Paddington to Abbey Wood, and that's entirely separate from every other National Rail line, which means TfL can run it or not run it however they damn like. Basically, if they don't start on 9th December, no other existing services will be affected.

Evidence 2: In September 2016 a Crossrail manager said it would be 9th December 2018
During Open House in 2016, certain Crossrail stations were opened up to a handful of the public to look inside. I went to Tottenham Court Road but Ian Visits went to Bond Street, where a loose-tongued Crossrail manager confirmed the official opening date as Sunday 9th December 2018.
BUT it could have changed since then, obviously. Although this shows just how long ago the target date was set.

Evidence 3: In October 2016 a consultation report said it would be 9th December 2018
It's fair to say few mortals got excited by 2016's "Crossrail Central Operating Section (CCOS) Proposed Network Statement" consultation, let alone took time out to read the accompanying documentation. But if they had, they'd have seen repeated clear indications of the start date: "We are seeking your views on our Network Statement for the Crossrail Central Operating Section valid in relation to the 2019 timetable (which commences on 9 December 2018)." Rock solid proof?
BUT the day a timetable begins isn't necessarily the same day a service begins, so perhaps we can only count Sunday 9th December as the earliest possible date.

Evidence 4: A recent board paper for a TfL committee says it will be 9th December 2018
TfL's Finance committee met last week and, as usual, its minutes and board papers were uploaded to the TfL website. Bosses sometimes hold back certain papers because they contain sensitive information. But Item 10 - Crossrail Central Operating Section - contained a specific indication that the operator MTR Corporation (Crossrail) Limited had been granted a concession "to run passenger services on the CCOS from 9 December 2018." That's another pretty definitive statement.

Evidence 5: Westminster council say it will be 9th December 2018
This is another spot by Ian Visits, and another bullseye. Westminster council's cabinet are meeting today to discuss the transformation of Oxford Street, pushing ahead with plans which don't involve pedestrianisation. Within the accompanying statement, published online, they refer to safety measures which "may be required in advance of the opening of the Crossrail stations at Tottenham Court Road and Bond Street, currently scheduled for 9 December 2018." That's a very definitive statement, and all the more convincing because TfL's Press Office haven't had their censoring fingers anywhere near it.

Evidence 6: Changes to bus services serving Custom House station are scheduled for 8th December 2018
Yes, I know that's Saturday 8th rather than Sunday 9th, but changes to bus routes are always rolled out on Saturdays, so this is as close as you can get. According to the website londonbusroutes.net, half a dozen changes are confirmed for 8th December, including the splitting of the 104 (into a 104 and a 304) and the rerouting of the 241, 300, 330 and 474. All of these changes were proposed last July as part of a Crossrail-related consultation. And if they're happening that weekend, then in these cash-strapped times this must be the weekend Crossrail begins.

But then there's the evidence for the prosecution.

Counter-evidence 1: TfL's "One year to go" press release appeared on 19th December 2017
You may remember this press release, it included a tube map with an extra purple line on it (and TfL's Press Office knows everyone goes nuts about a tube map). Nowhere in the press release was a specific date given, only "December 2018", but the headline was clear enough, beginning "One year to go". A lot of the media assumed this meant Crossrail would begin on 19th December 2018, which was precisely one year ahead, but it'd be astonishingly unusual for a new high profile railway line to be launching on a Wednesday.

Counter evidence 2: TfL's "11 months to go" press release appeared on 22nd January 2018
We've stuck up our first purple roundels, they said, along with a strapline saying "with 11 months to go until the opening of the new railway". If taken seriously, this would suggest three days before Christmas. Surely not?

Counter evidence 3: TfL's "10 months to go" press release appeared on 21st February 2018
We want six exclusive brand partners, they said, along with a strapline saying "to align with the historic launch in 10 months' time". Considering the dates of these last three pieces of evidence suggests that TfL's Press Office has been waiting until roughly the 20th of the month before daring to announce that Crossrail will be open in x months time. This might hint at a slightly later opening date in December, nearer the 20th than the 9th, allowing some wriggle room if things were marginally delayed. But then in April they did this...

Counter evidence 4: TfL's "8 months to go" tweet appeared on 13th April 2018
A tweet about test trains running under Victoria Dock merited an #8monthstogo hashtag, and this was published as early as the 13th of the month. Perhaps an earlier start for Crossrail was now planned. There again, I note TfL didn't risk a #7monthstogo or #6monthstogo tweet, or press release, so perhaps they're becoming a lot more cautious as the great day approaches.

Hearsay 1: Crossrail's running behind schedule.
An electricity substation exploded last year when they switched it on, putting the testing of trains months behind schedule. A software problem means the new Crossrail rolling stock still hasn't made it to Heathrow. Board papers referring to Crossrail milestones are routinely excluded from the TfL website. The construction of Bond Street, Paddington, Liverpool Street and Woolwich stations is running worryingly late, so much so that planned public Open Days have been cancelled. You won't find the TfL Press Office confirming any of these rumours, indeed some may be pure speculation rather than hard facts. But enough whispering is going on to suggest that all is not 100% well behind the scenes.

It is perfectly possible, even likely, that when Crossrail launches in December not everything will be ready. At best, some of the interior station decor may not be complete. Perhaps not every lift or escalator will be operational on Day One, or some of the cladding will be missing. More seriously, certain stations could launch with only one of their two exits open, because one out of two is initially good enough. In a worst case scenario, Crossrail could begin with one or two stations closed, and trains passing straight through while construction work completes.

In conclusion, an increasingly silent uncertainty is the main reason why TfL won't yet commit to announcing a launch date for Crossrail. But if it isn't Sunday 9th December 2018, FIVE MONTHS FROM TODAY, something will have gone disastrously embarrassingly wrong.

 Sunday, July 08, 2018

Local News: Burst water main causes flooding chaos in Bow

Around nine thirty on Friday evening, a pipe under Fairfield Road cracked. It took a bollard with it. Water gushed everywhere.


A lake erupted along Bow Road. Traffic suddenly found itself in deep water, up to half a metre deep in places.


Ten fire engines turned up, along with 72 firefighters and some private vans which said 'Floodcall' on the side.

And I would have been entirely oblivious to this, sat indoors just down the road, had Twitter not sprung into action.
[Fire Brigade tweet] [Met Police tweet] [1 minute video] [37 second video] [27 second video]

So I went out to have a look, taking care to fill my kettle first in case my water supply was about to conk out.

It's not every day you find several fire engines parked outside your house, the crew stood around while a thick tube descends into a neighbour's basement to pump them dry. Bow Road was very much sealed off to traffic. I got my trainers wet attempting to cross to the other side. A group of young people sat on the steps in front of the Roman Catholic church, beyond the police tape, watching proceedings.



Whilst the situation now appeared to be under control, and the lake had shrunk considerably, a flow of water was still making its way round the corner, past the supermarket and down either side of Bow Church. The drains in the blue gutters caught most of it, but some trickled onwards using the banks of the Cycle Superhighway as an artificial channel. One stream pooled above the ramped access to a bus stop bypass, then spilled over the top creating a particularly attractive water feature (unless you were a cyclist, but now was not the time).



The fire brigade hung around until dawn, and then Thames Water made a start on repairing the cracked roadway. In daylight the mess was obvious, with cracks and excavated rubble everywhere, and men in hi-vis with diggers doing their best. My taps were still running fine, but less fortunate properties were now reliant on an inadequate supply of free bottled water.



The bottom of Fairfield Road remained fenced off, denying passage to anything that wasn't on foot or two wheels, which was causing big problems on the buses. A blockage here meant no double deckers could get in or out of Bow Garage, so only buses which were out of the depot were still in play, and routes 8 and 205 were being forced to operate a 50% service.



At breakfast time Bow Road was also still closed to traffic, with a fine residue of light brown mud in places where the temporary river had been. A few puddles remained. At bus stop M, the Countdown display merrily announced the arrival of buses which weren't coming, indeed couldn't possibly have arrived. Cyclists and pedestrians enjoyed the opportunity to wander wherever the hell they liked, from the flyover all the way up to Campbell Road. Car drivers, forced to divert down inadequate sidestreets, were less chuffed.

By lunchtime the traffic on Bow Road was flowing again. By late afternoon the offending cracked pipe had been removed from underneath Fairfield Road and dumped on the roadway. Fresh blue plastic pipes were lined up close by ready to become a replacement connection. By dusk the water supply for numerous properties still hadn't been switched back on, which in this heat must've been no fun. The Bow Bells pub remained closed all day, due to a flooded cellar. And as for the hole, with underground spaghetti now visible threaded above an irregular void, it doesn't look like anything'll be driving over it any time soon.


A couple of years ago this same corner of Bow Road and Fairfield Road caused considerable problems for contractors working on the upgrade of Cycle Superhighway 2, thanks to some awkwardness underground, and they had to keep coming back to do lengthy extra repairs. I also note that this latest cracked pipe has occurred at the precise point where Crossrail's northbound tunnel passes under Fairfield Road, which may of course be a complete coincidence. But best keep an eye.


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