diamond geezer

 Monday, September 26, 2016

Beyond London (14): Broxbourne (part 1)

Broxbourne's the last of four Hertfordshire districts on my orbital tour of the capital, and one of the smaller boroughs surrounding London. Essentially it's a string of merged residential areas threaded down the A10 to the west of the River Lea, plus a bit of countryside tacked on for balance. Hoddesdon and Broxbourne are the towns at the top of the chain, and Cheshunt and and Waltham Cross at the bottom. Two of the most obvious places for sightseeing are the New River and River Lea itself, but I've walked both of those before so gave them a miss. And whilst Broxbourne's not otherwise an obvious destination for a day out, I hunted down a few hopefully interesting locations. [11 photos]

Somewhere to begin: Lowewood Museum

Broxbourne's museum is housed in a Georgian mansion at the quiet end of Hoddesdon's High Street. It's part of a municipal cluster which includes a police station and Broxbourne's civic hall, the latter recently rebranded 'Spotlight', and soon to welcome Julian Clary and a Little Mix tribute act (separately, you'll be relieved to hear). The museum has a couple of rooms downstairs and three up, plus a central hallway with a video camera which allows the unseen lady on the desk to say hello to you as you walk in. The borough has a fair bit of history from its location on the road north out of London, and as a favoured spot for royalty, which I'll come back to in due course. There's also a goodly collection of Victoriana from an era of long-gone shops, and souvenirs from when local towns were favoured weekend destinations for leisure-seeking Londoners.

Hoddesdon gets rather more of a look in than the rest of the district, perhaps not surprising when it's on the doorstep, but a bit of a disappointment if you're a visitor whose family grew up at the Cheshunt end. A rather broader approach was taken by the travelling exhibition in the main gallery which showcases musical talent from across the East of England, including the not-local Depeche Mode and the very local Cliff Richard. This exhibition closed yesterday, so I won't go on about it, but I did relish the opportunity to press a button and play my Mum's favourite song in her local museum, and the discordant clash this made with the wartime ditties playing outside. Meanwhile the gift shop so prominently advertised outside on the pavement probably won't solve your Christmas gift problems, sorry, unless you're a resident with an interest in local history, in which case there's every chance.
by train: Broxbourne

Somewhere random: Hoddesdon

I'm not sure how I've never been to Hoddesdon before, although this may have a lot to do with badly-spaced stations. The town's had a market since the 13th century and grew later as a coaching stop, being not quite halfway to Cambridge, before the railway whisked that trade away. A surprising number of old buildings remain - the downloadable Heritage Trail lists 52 separate locations - including a charming tavern from 1532 and an repurposed office block from 1622. The High Street in particular is bubbling over with character, much of it timber-framed, and remains a popular location for weekend shopping. The Victorian clocktower at the north end was built on the site of a medieval chapel, hence still belongs to the diocese of St Albans, and retains two of the original clock faces. Looming behind is an ill-advised block of flats above a Morrisons, plus a modern shopping mall that looks wholly out of place (and is mostly dead). So yes, a nice town to have on your doorstep, but not even the Heritage Trail could fire my enthusiasm for a longer stay.
by train: Rye House

Somewhere retail: Tesco HQ
If you have a tin or packet from Tesco in your kitchen cupboard, and it's been there for a year or more, it probably says 'Produced for Tesco Stores Ltd, Cheshunt' on the back. Jack Cohen's company rolled into town in 1973, opening up New Tesco House on Delamere Road to act as its headquarters. At the time Tesco wasn't the retail behemoth we know today, just a high street stalwart diversifying into grocery, but the scale of its new office suggested high hopes for the future.

Delamere Road is one turn back from Cheshunt station, a one-street industrial estate running for quarter of a mile beside the railway. It's not the kind of place you'd expect to house such a major brand, indeed the immediate neighbours are a printing company and a Monster Gym. But there it is, a five-storey concrete bunker with several rows of identically indented windows, either magnificently brutalist or oppressively no-frills, depending on your perspective. Look closely at the white plastic fascia above the entrance and you can just make out the company logo, while underneath a security guard sits waiting for a workforce who will never return. For alas New Tesco House is a casualty of the company's recent accounting scandal, closed to save money with the loss of 2000 staff, and all business merged into existing premises on the dull side of Welwyn Garden City.

The electric car charging points installed out front now seem a complete waste of money, and the sign pointing round the back towards Deliveries is no longer true. Two further buildings across the road have been sealed off with low concrete blocks, sufficient to deter invasion by vehicle if nothing else, together with a forwarding address and map for anyone who turns up here by mistake. No lorries turn up any more, and judging by the scale of one rear depot there'd once have been dozens of them. Instead the site waits to discover its future, with housing the most likely ultimate fate. Thousands of new residents will be able to commute easily to jobs up in London, which'll be convenient, there being rather fewer opportunities on their doorstep.
by train: Cheshunt

Somewhere sporting: Lee Valley White Water Centre
When London's 2012 sporting infrastructure was doled out, Hertfordshire got canoe slalom, the original intention being to build a circuit by the Lea near Broxbourne. But that site was too contaminated, so instead an overspill car park beside the county boundary with Essex was acquired, which is how several medals came to be handed out just off the main road between Waltham Cross and Waltham Abbey. And four years later the resulting infrastructure at the Lee Valley White Water Centre is still being well used, indeed at the weekend it was absolutely thriving.

There are two slalom circuits, one wild and Olympic standard, the other for more intermediate paddlers. You'd likely have more luck on the latter, the Legacy Loop, where children skim round in what look like tyres and middle-aged men in wetsuits haul themselves out of the water after an unfortunate kayak tumble. But all eyes are on the main cascade, a rough descent over artificial grade 4 rapids, where the white water of the centre's name is all too apparent. Canoeists use the weirs to practise turns and tumbles, but the main commercial event these days is rafting. Groups of nine tog up in protective layers and inch (or hurtle) round the course, watched over by a coach who encourages and cajoles, and a team of staff who watch from the sidelines ready to help anyone who flies loose. Several participants came unstuck while I was watching, one flopping out like a dead salmon as their raft descended into the foam, before hauling himself back on board further down the course.

It's not for me, I have enough trouble swimming, and I'd have been weeded out by the safety assessment in the lake at the beginning. But corporate clients lap up this stuff midweek, while stag and hen parties are amongst those taking advantage at the weekend. At £50 a seat it's not cheap, but it is a nice little earner for the site, and goes to pay for the hydraulics which keep the waterway churning over. The other thing management got right was the The Terrace, a cafe bar plus BBQ which overlooks the start of the descent. The first time I saw its exterior decking five years ago I thought it far too large, but this Saturday it was packed with friends and families and hangers on of those out on the water, plus those who'd already been round, totally ignoring the action while they tucked into coffee, prosecco, beers and meat. A rip-roaring post-Olympic success, I'd say, in a way the Velopark back in Stratford rarely seems to be.
by train: Waltham Cross

 Sunday, September 25, 2016

Where do North, West, South and East London meet?

In terms of postcodes they don't, because the 'N' postcodes and 'S' postcodes never touch.

But there are two spots where three postcode compass points meet, and they're the red dots on this map.

The point where South meets West meets East is in the middle of the River Thames. It's almost exactly the same spot where Westminster meets Lambeth meets the City, and is less than 100 metres from the centre of the Garden Bridge, should that ever be built.

But you can't actually visit South West East London unless you're in a boat, so I'm giving it a miss.

Instead I've been to the point where North, West and East London meet - that's the top red dot on the map. What's more it's nowhere important, it's an obscure road junction on a side street, about half a mile from the Royal Mail's largest London sorting office. And it looks like this.

This rather splendid row of Georgian townhouses is in Finsbury, near Angel, just off the Pentonville Road.

The houses on the left are in East London. This is Amwell Street EC1, named after one of the sources of the New River which ends at the bottom of the road. It's a broad and desirable thoroughfare with smart sash windows and basement flats, and small independent shops of the type that the Evening Standard likes to gurgle about. There used to be a Post Office a few doors down but that closed ten years ago.

The houses on the right are in North London. This is Claremont Square N1, a fractionally more upmarket location with terraces of smart villas around three sides. In the centre is a covered reservoir, 55 metres square, built by the New River Company in 1855 to store and filter their water supply. Concealed beneath a raised mound of grass, the reservoir is reputedly made from four million bricks, and is still in use today.

The road leading off inbetween is in West London. This is Cruikshank Street WC1, a short one-way street of elegant 4-bedroom maisionettes with a classical touch. Originally called Bond Street, it was renamed in 1938 to honour 19th century caricaturist George Cruikshank who lived nearby. At the foot of the street is Bevin Court, a striking Y-shaped block of Modernist social housing designed by Berthold Lubetkin.

This quiet corner of Islington is the only place in London where the street signs have postcodes starting with N and W and E. It is the very kind of location that tends to make urban psychogeographers very excited.

I stood on the street corner for a few minutes attempting to channel the creative tension and cultural disconnect, but felt nothing, which isn't surprising because postcodes have no bearing on anything other than how residents' letters are sorted. But this is the precise point where North, West and East London meet. For what it's worth.

 Saturday, September 24, 2016

100 years ago today a bomb fell on the Black Swan pub in Bow Road, and five people were killed, including the publican's two daughters.

And this might be just another wartime tale, except that the flying machine causing the damage was a Zeppelin, the German crew were later captured by a village policeman, and the two daughters reputedly came back as ghosts.

This is the story of L33, one of four Super Zeppelins which targeted London and the South East on the evening of 23rd September 1916. At 200 metres long, these rigid airships were Germany's latest masterweapon and on their inaugural mission, and only one of the four would return safely to base.

Zeppelin L33 was captained by Alois Böcker and had a crew of twenty-one, plus a cargo of high explosive bombs and incendiaries stashed in a compartment in the centre of the keel. After crossing the Channel it passed over Foulness Island at 10.40pm, approaching the capital via Billericay (11.27pm) and Upminster (11.40pm). Here it dropped its first bombs on the common, causing no damage, before reaching Wanstead at a minute to midnight. A change of course took the Zeppelin down towards the Thames, passing between the anti-aircraft guns at Beckton and North Woolwich, then zigzagging back towards West Ham. It was a misty night, but East London was well served with searchlights and these picked out the aerial invader with ease, and a few minutes into Sunday 24th September one of the ground-based defences scored a direct hit.

With hydrogen now leaking from within, the German crew needed to lose weight fast, so an impromptu bombing raid began. The first cluster of high explosives landed off St Leonard's Street near to the junction with Empson Street (today just off the A12 opposite Bow School). Four terraced houses were wrecked, many nearby windows were shattered, and six people were killed. Some larger bombs were dropped on the North London Railway Carriage Depot, a maze of sidings and engine sheds beside what's now the DLR, north of the Limehouse Cut. Considerable damage was done to a boiler house, to rolling stock and to the tracks themselves. The next bomb damaged several houses and a Baptist Chapel on Botolph Road, a slum street long since vanished (behind the betting shop on Stroudley Walk). And then the Zeppelin reached Bow Road.

The Black Swan pub had stood on the corner of Bromley High Street for a hundred years, opposite St Mary's Church in the heart of the old village of Bow. The landlord in 1916 was Edwin John Reynolds, and he and his extended family lived in a suite of rooms above the bar. At precisely 12.12am a single 100kg bomb hit the pub dead centre, taking out all the floors down to the basement, and leaving a heavy pall of smoke in the air. The wife of the licensee was found in the cellar, and his two daughters Cissie and Sylvia were killed by the blast. His mother-in-law Mrs Potter also lost her life, and firemen found the dead body of Sylvia's one year-old daughter stuck in the rafters. Seven other local residents were injured when the neighbouring premises were destroyed, after what had been a wholly unexpected and tragic night.

The Zeppelin continued to the north, dropping another 100kg bomb at the eastern end of Wrexham Road (now the junction with the A12 dual carriageway). Three women were injured here, but little damage was done. Turning east towards Stratford the flight path now crossed what was then an industrial zone along the River Lea. A bomb fell on Cook's Soap Works (on Cooks Road) and failed to explode, while the British Petroleum works on Marshgate Lane were not so fortunate - several underground oil pipes were broken and a large water main damaged. Most of the airship's remaining bombs fell inconsequentially on Stratford Marsh (now the southern part of the Olympic Park), but one hit Judd's Match Factory, setting it on fire and destroying most of the stock.

Even with its ammunition dropped, L33 was still losing height and the captain made the decision to withdraw into Essex. The wounded Zeppelin headed off via Leytonstone, Woodford and Buckhurst Hill, taking another hit from ground defences at Kelvedon Hatch, eventually reaching the coast near West Mersea. Böcker's plan was to sink his airship in the North Sea to prevent the British from recovering its technology, but at 1.15am a gust of wind brought the craft down tail first in fields outside Little Wigborough. All of the crew survived the crash landing, and promptly set their craft alight in the hope that it would be destroyed. Then they marched off down the lane, where they promptly bumped into a Special Constable on a bike with a flashlight, attracted by the blaze. He was, understandably, suspicious.

"How many miles is it to Colchester?" asked Kapitänleutnant Böcker, in a not-quite-convincing English accent. Suspicions confirmed, the constable followed the Germans up the lane to Peldon, where they were delivered to the village constable who formally arrested them. Böcker and his crew became the only armed soldiers to be captured on English soil during the First World War, and were swiftly transferred to the military base on Mersea Island. Meanwhile the frame of the Zeppelin was still mostly intact, and attracted a quarter of a million sightseers and souvenir hunters over the subsequent weeks. The military were also delighted to have foreign technology to investigate, and incorporated aspects of the German design into later British airships.

The crash of the L33 is the most exciting thing ever to have happened in Little Wigborough, and is being celebrated this weekend with a centenary event called Zepfest. A £10 ticket will allow you to walk the crash site, hear talks from experts and see a selection of World War 1 vehicles, as well as experience a flypast (weather permitting). You should also be able to pop into St Nicholas church to see the memorial to Zeppelina Williams (1916-2004), a baby girl born in the neighbouring village on the day of the crash and whose name was suggested by the doctor who delivered her.

Back in Bow, the Black Swan pub was eventually rebuilt in 1920. All sorts of apocryphal tales exist of the ghosts of Cissie and Sylvia Reynolds appearing in the building, and of beer taps starting and shutting off by themselves. It's clearly tosh, especially any supposed sightings in the last 40 years because the pub was demolished in the early 1970s to make way for the widening of Bromley High Street. Head down today and you'll see Hardwicke House, a none-too exciting block of flats, and absolutely no pubs at all. So entirely has pre- and post-war redevelopment wiped away the Bromley side of Bow that few who live here now could even begin to picture the scene 100 years ago when fire rained down from a Zeppelin overnight. But what a story.

» Other accounts of the L33 raid
» Ordnance Survey map of Bow (1898)
» Photos of the Black Swan before demolition (1970)
» Two-minute video clip from Little Wigborough (BBC)
» An incendiary bomb that fell on Bromley-by-Bow (now at the IWM)

 Friday, September 23, 2016

Should we build the Garden Bridge? I've been down to the intended site to decide for myself.

I started at the northern end of the proposed span, at Temple. Very few people were using the station, which is fortunate because it's going to have to be closed for six months when construction gets underway, and this means nobody will be inconvenienced. When the bridge finally opens the station will be immediately adjacent to a world-class tourist destination, thereby justifying its existence, and providing useful access to Somerset House and the Strand.

The area immediately around Temple station is an inaccessible backwater, adjacent only to the Thames Embankment, and would be greatly enhanced if tourists from the South Bank were able to reach it more easily. Also the East-West Cycle Superhighway passes this way, so cyclists won't need to go up to the new bridge to push their bikes across the river, and £30m of transport funding won't have been wasted.

At the moment the immediate locality can only support a small independent cafe, an Australian-themed bar and two stalls selling magazines and fruit. Although this makes it easy to buy a proper breakfast and a copy of Private Eye, modern visitors expect so much more, and the opportunity to introduce chain outlets selling mass-produced pastries should not be understated.

Alongside in Temple Place is a Grade II listed Cabmen's Shelter, a small green hut opened in 1880, providing rest and sustenance for the taxi trade. This will have to move when the road is pedestrianised, shifting parking spaces for the cab trade into neighbouring Surrey Street, and with the added benefit that passers-by will then no longer be distracted by the offer of a freshly-fried bacon butty or toasted ham sandwich from the hatch for £2.50.

Access to the Garden Bridge will be via lifts or stairs to an upper deck on top of Temple station. This upper deck already exists, and is a bland featureless expanse with only a table tennis table and more than thirty benches. Bad planning means that any view across the river is blocked by trees, so in summer there really is nothing to see, and heaven knows why quite so many people were up there.

The view from the centre of the river will obviously be much better, there being no annoyingly massive trees in the way, because the deck of the bridge can't support substantial roots. But the span will thrive with plantlife, which means nobody will miss the three plane trees on the Victoria Embankment which will have to be felled so that the Garden Bridge can carve through. From what I saw, the leaves are already turning yellow and starting to fall off, so the removal of these diseased trees can't come soon enough.

A big gap exists between Waterloo Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge, a ghastly planning oversight which makes crossing the river very difficult. To reach Waterloo Bridge from Temple I had to walk for three and a half minutes, which is clearly beyond the ability of most people. More to the point I passed only forty trees along the way, suggesting that the new Garden Bridge will really bring this barren stretch of the Thames to life.

The view from Waterloo Bridge is distinctly substandard, with some domed cathedral in the background, and a big watery space where the Garden Bridge ought to be. Also there's no vegetation on Waterloo Bridge, only an awful lot of traffic, and none of the deck is sponsored. Especially confusing are the rules which mean the bridge is permanently accessible to the public and not sealed off overnight, nor watched over by private security guards, nor closed twelve days a year for jollies.

The South Bank is of course ridiculously busy, and urgently needs an additional exit to ease the pressure. My trek back from Waterloo Bridge to the Garden Bridge's intended landing point took all of three minutes, so was a real slog, and involved walking past another forty trees. Again the riverside walkway isn't really suitable for cyclists, so preventing them from riding across a beautiful arboreal span will prove no hardship.

The Garden Bridge clearly has to touch down somewhere, and a patch of lawn in front of ITV's South Bank studios is more ideal than most. Hardly anybody uses it, so a concrete and steel platform will be more welcome than the risk of treading in something unpleasant. A number of occasional coffee vans already utilise the embankment close by, and IBM's office block isn't exactly scenic, so the arrival of a grey structure with retail outlets won't look entirely out of place.

Somewhat disappointingly a pressure group has attached signs to each of the three dozen trees on the South Bank they say will be cut down to make way from the bridge and its associated podium. But they may be lying, and these mature specimens may somehow be left standing around the footprint of the new building, so long as the row of shops and cafes doesn't stretch out too far. What's for certain is that this invasive propaganda has an impact on those walking by, and many strike up a conversation about the integrity of the Garden Bridge as they pass.

It's surprisingly hard to envisage the impact the Garden Bridge will have at its two endpoints, even given the vast amount of publicity this landmark project has had over the last few years. Only when the trucks arrive and the chainsaws start to whirr will the reality start to bite, and it'll then be a couple of years before the utopian crossing opens and the sponsors start to get their money's worth.

The Lumley-Heatherwick Bridge, as it will surely be known, is a bold architectural project unique in its ability to divide public opinion. How astonishing it might be to walk across the Thames between horticultural specimens from around the world, pausing to enjoy the vistas opened up mid-river and paying heed to all necessary bye-laws. Tourists will flock to London to see it, two vibrant cultural districts will be linked, and an ever-changing seasonal landscape will be unlocked each day at six.

But how can the project's questionable funding be justified, and should we be encouraging the privatisation of public space, and wouldn't any bridge be better located elsewhere? Let's hope this folly is never built.

 Thursday, September 22, 2016

300 things I love about London
[because it's fifteen years today since I moved here]

Life, nightlife, the sense of history, the Underground, the Overground, canalside strolls, the view from Greenwich Park, the fact there's always somewhere new to discover, cutting-edge architecture, classical architecture, curvaceous Regent Street, the chimes of Big Ben, the 2012 Olympics, layers of history, nightbuses, investment, world cinema, world cuisine, the world in a city, a Muslim Mayor, London is Open, sunlight on the Thames, the museums in South Kensington, the museums that aren't in South Kensington, not needing a car, the wobbly Millennium Bridge, the City's dragons, a bus stop within 400m, it's quicker to walk, being able to choose from more than two local radio stations, suburbia, Trellick, Balfron, step-free travel, Tate Modern, mudlarking, Hampstead, the view from Hampstead Heath, diversity, acceptance, mind the gap, five of Arsenal's Premiership away matches being nearly at home, strolling along the South Bank, Waterloo sunset, the view from the top of anywhere tall, low tide, festivals, the Royal Festival Hall, pavement swagger, ghost signs, ghost stations, sitting in the Radio 4 audience, Trafalgar Square, knowing that I could walk home from Trafalgar Square if I really had to, art-filled piazzas, 100% style, tracing a line on a map, taking the tram, realising that the person drinking next to me in the pub is a celebrity, the Woolwich ferry, Hammerton's Ferry, the plurality of alternative routes, St Pancras station, cultural gravity, the highest pod on the London Eye, lost rivers, not-yet lost rivers, walking up the escalator, decent mobile phone reception, clapping the Marathon, density of infrastructure, free newspapers, the Night Tube, cab drivers, memories embedded in every streetscape, heritage Routemasters, the tiles along the Victoria line, blue plaques, global landmarks, having a local library, taking a shortcut down a back street I've never walked down before, realising that Dr Johnson was right, scouting the rural outskirts, Hawksmoor, Soane, Holden, watching the dawn over Tower Bridge, watching twin bascules rise, Blue Badge guides, the forgotten corner of a Victorian cemetery, the West End, the East End, the Congestion Charge, 24 hour bagel shops, 24 hour fridge-filling, culture on my doorstep, Banksy on the wall, the original of that famous work of art, an unexpected rainbow, deckchairs in Green Park, Roding Valley, Ruislip Lido, the Embankment illuminated, eyeballing a famous person in the street, recognising where a film was shot, Riddlesdown, revisiting Nairn's London, the DLR, sitting at the front on the DLR, meeting up with mates, Totters Lane, 0° longitude, standing in two hemispheres, the City, parklife, knowing when your bus is coming, Citymapper, the Ceremony of the Keys, being alone under the Thames in a foot tunnel, greasy fry-ups, fast trains to the coast, the view from Primrose Hill, far less fog than everyone imagines, snow on terraced rooftops, a good service is operating on all lines, Covent Garden, yes they deliver, creative possibilities, the view from the front seat on the top deck of a bus, alleys, tunnels, the middle of Richmond Park, free-roaming deer, D Stock, getting caught up in West Ham turfing out, street art, street food, Kenwood, being out at 4am, an unexpected smile in the rush hour, the Gherkin, critical mass, Soho, pie and mash, Longplayer, the opportunity to pop into Parliament, street markets, lidos, late-openings, rooftop terraces, gasholders against a bright blue sky, Open House, speeding down the river beneath world famous bridges, bleak estuary strolls, film premières, Farthing Downs, regular flypasts, garden squares, General Roy's cannons, not needing to drive home from the pub, pedestrian countdown lights, postcode identity, hyperlocality, Epping Forest, swiping my Oyster, pay-as-I-go, the smell of bacon from a Cabmen's shelter, undeveloped farmland, the Low Emission Zone, finding myself somewhere you've never been, Northala Fields, high streets that stay open after 5:30, art galleries that stay open after 6, still buzzing on a Sunday evening, always having something to do even when it's raining, Mornington Crescent, pocket parks, atypical roundels, characterful terraces, Denis Severs' House, urban wildlife, a night at the dog track, outstaring a fox, Foyles, youthfulness, a nearby launderette just in case, lights at night, pounding the Loop, free fireworks on Blackheath, the National, the Saatchi, the Serpentine, the Sales, garden squares, suburbs pretending to be villages, actual proper unswallowed Kentish villages, anything that Bazalgette built, one hundred different burgers, the heat island effect, Remain, the Hainault loop, crossing Oxford Circus diagonally, cycle superhighways, living in a medieval village, Sister Ray, walking faster than the traffic, overtaking a jogger, Kew Gardens, standing under the dome of St Paul's Cathedral, living in a city that tourists pay £100 a night to visit, not needing a hotel before catching the red-eye, Spitalfields, King's Cross, never needing to Uber, windmills, forest, hills, fields, Hilly Fields, Strawberry Hill House, the 4th plinth, Norway's gifted tree, the Geffrye at Christmas, the top floor at the V&A, the Sultan's Elephant, gelateria, lavender fields, Limehouse to Little Venice, this not being Ipswich, following in Roman footsteps, stepcounter heaven, plane trees, grime, world-class design, the Freedom Pass, heron-spotting, New Johnston font, so many cinemas, still so many bookshops, wi-fi, 1908, 1948, E20, EL2, RV1, 4G, Zone 6, crossing Westminster Bridge at night on the back of a bike, the skyline at dusk, Eel Pie Island, do not touch the walrus, do not feed the pelicans, Beckton Alp, the Hoover Building, a sewing machine museum, gridlessness, reaching the middle of Hampton Court Maze, long-term planning, wondering what the Turbine Hall will hold next, anything you need within half an hour, if the local branch doesn't stock it ten others might, floating towpaths, legacy, Little Waitrose, international churn, the sheer variety of Theatreland, the contrast between Erith and Twickenham, nipping down to national celebrations, it's only a short dash to the country, knowing the ambulance will get here in time, the British Museum, arthouse pop-ups, brutalist symmetry, some pubs still aren't flats, free stuff-to-do every weekend, whatever I want, anything I need, the anonymity of not knowing my neighbours, being one in nine million, collective consciousness, common ground, independence, invisibility, togetherness, cosmopolitan coexistence, centrality, accessibility, the proximity of possibility, social autonomy, human availability, the fact it's not as scary as out-of-towners think it is, Metro-land, moquette, deserted Thames-side beaches, a 600 square mile playground, the buzz, infinite choice, the city's constant resilience, feeling alive, simply living here.

 Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The sheer variety of Open House venues keeps the event fresh.

Open House: SELCHP

A self-guided tour through the heart of an operational power station? Don't mind if I do. SELCHP stands for South East London Combined Heat and Power, and is a waste incineration plant tucked into the railwaylands west of Deptford. You've probably seen it from the train on the way out of London Bridge, a large industrial shed with a thin chimney rising forth - it's been tucked in opposite The Den since 1994. But I've actually been inside as part of an Open Day timed for Open House, and organised with a particular eye on enticing local residents to learn more about their neighbour. Hard hat on and goggles poised I was directed off towards the steam turbine and generator, technically the end of the process, then followed a maze of walkways and landings to the hoppers where rubbish is tipped into the belly of the machine. SELCHP was set up by three councils keen to curb their reliance on landfill, and now creates enough electricity to power 48000 homes. From the main control room we peered down into the gargantuan bunker where binbags and rags and smelly shreds accumulate, and a grinning five year-old girl was shown how to operate the giant grabber as if this were an oversized amusement arcade. The whiff worsened on the other side of the door, where each measured dose of clutched organics is dropped into the incineration grate. Yes it's fine, nodded the security guard from behind his ear protectors, go ahead and lower the handle and peer inside the furnace to watch the raging flames. From here the steam heads upwards to be treated to remove toxins, and to create the electricity, while the solid residue is cooled and sorted and shaken and dumped in ashen piles at the end. It was eerie wandering through the industrial passageways like some kind of Crystal Maze contestant, but also hugely educational concerning the process that takes place within, which was of course the intention. If you have small children to entertain and this Open Day runs again next year, which I suspect it will, you'll enjoy learning where your power comes from, and where your rubbish goes.

Open House: Billingsgate Roman House and Baths

101 Lower Thames Street is an unprepossessing City office block with an astonishing relic in its basement. First uncovered in 1848 when the Coal Exchange was being built, the remains of this 2nd century dwelling were swiftly recognised as something special and became one of Britain's first scheduled ancient monuments. Now under the care of the Museum of London, there's not much to see at what's now ground level. But follow the staircase down from the lobby and you'll enter a long low chamber left undeveloped when the 60s office block was plonked on top, save for a few concrete supports drilled down where they'd do least damage. First up are the foundations of what would have been a riverside house, back when the Thames was wider than it is now, most probably used by visitors to Londinium as the equivalent of a cheap hotel. The remains of the central heating system can still be seen, along with some extensive but crumbly-looking walls, hence visitors walk around the top on metal gangways. Better preserved, hence more impressive, are the remains of a 3rd century bolt-on bathhouse. Its shape is somewhat phallic, sorry to be frank, with one larger rectangular cold room and two smaller warm and hot rooms on opposite sides at the far end. An impressive number of towers of tiles remain in the warm room, plus several of the flagstones laid on top where decades of sweaty feet would have trodden. Curators were on hand to explain what we were seeing, but there was a touch of conveyor belt about visitor throughflow given the size of the queue waiting outside. If you missed out, or if you'd prefer longer to stare in better-informed conditions, 45 minute tours can be booked (for £8) at weekends between now and the middle of December. [3 photos]

Open House: Roman Bath

Yes, another one, although this antiquity up a sidestreet behind Aldwych station is a misnomer. A single plunge pool, curved at one end and rectangular at the other, this brick-lined cistern is of sufficient size to squeeze in a football team, in some discomfort, but not much more. It's thought to date back to 1612, at least a millennium after the decline of Empire, and started its life feeding a nearby fountain before being transformed into a public bathing facility. Even David Copperfield came to Strand Lane for a dip, or would have done had he been less Dickensian. A century ago, with memory of its origins lost, a local rector convinced himself and others it was Roman, and the bath became a public curiosity. Now under the care of the National Trust and Westminster Council it's seen little love, and lingers on in a musty chamber off a locked passageway up a dead end lane. Worth a brief look, but if all you do is peer through the window you've not missed much.

Open House: Salters' Hall

The City of London supports 110 livery companies, of which the first twelve are the most important, of which the Salters come in at number 9. They made their money when food preservation was at its most basic, and mined salt particularly expensive, before branching out later into the wider chemical trade. These days they're mostly a charitable concern, and a bastion of tradition, and are somewhat unexpectedly based in a Brutalist livery hall close to London Wall. This is the building's sixth incarnation, the fifth having been destroyed in the Blitz, and was designed by Sir Basil Spence (of Coventry Cathedral fame). A crystalline confection in hand-chipped concrete, it was opened in 1976 and for the last ten has been undergoing a refit, which is why it's not been open for Open House before. One of the architects showed us round, which is always a good sign, and generally means a longer more in-depth tour. Unusually the company's main hall is on the top floor, perched on top of five floors of office space (which are being leased out to the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music). Spence's contemporary wood-panelling has been retained, overseen by an anachronistic Buglers' Gallery and a 'Ladies Dining Room' that's no longer single sex. A whopping great big salt crystal, mined in Cheshire, has pride of place in the hallway outside, and even the lights dangling in the stairwell have ornate salty shades. 2016's main addition is a lofty glass-roofed entrance lobby, sympathetically attached and facing the new Barbican-Guildhall pedestrian axis. "And if you look up there," said the architect at the end of our hour, "you'll see a new pedway under construction." New pedway? Fantastic, and all the better to see Salters' Hall from. [4 photos]

Open House: St Paul's, Bow Common

The UK's Best Modern Church is in Bow, according to the National Churches Trust and Ecclesiastical Surveyors and Architects Association. Built between 1958 and 1960, and designed by two 20 year-olds, it replaced a Victorian church destroyed in the Blitz with something that looks more like a squared-off shopping mall than a place of worship. But St Paul's exterior gives little away, and only stepping inside past the mercurial font reveals the striking use of space. The altar is positioned centrally beneath a pyramidal lantern, placing the congregation in the round rather than as a body to be preached at. Most impressive is the ring of mosaics around the upper rim - The Heavenly Host - a chain of ten blue-green angels with an elemental creature in each corner. Each Venetian tile was individually placed over a five year period by the artist Charles Lutyens, grandson of Sir Edwin, displaying an astonishing level of dedication to a single work. The overall interior effect feels somehow more Catholic than Anglican, but this is a high church establishment, the architecture springing from the wishes of the post-war congregation. What's more the modern day bunch are more than welcoming, with a better website than most, and a 347 page downloadable illustrated guide to their building's unique heritage should a quick video not suffice. [4 photos]

My Open House 2016 gallery
There are 60 photos altogether [slideshow]

 Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Next up, two classic 1960s Tower Hamlets estates with very different futures.

Open House: Robin Hood Gardens

A patch of land off Poplar High Street overlooking the entrance to the Blackwall Tunnel ought not to be desirable real estate, not least because of the noise. The site was cleared by the GLC in the mid-Sixties and the challenge of rebuilding offered to the architects Alison and Peter Smithson. They adopted a novel approach, designing two long low concrete blocks with a large open space between, the taller eastern block forming a barrier to blot out the sound of the traffic. They also embraced the concept of the street in the sky, as at the contemporary Balfron Tower a few streets to the north. The end result is one of the most famous Brutalist council estates, much admired by those with a bent for architecture. But the scheme was never listed, and while the first residents in 1972 loved the place the latest residents aren't as keen, and so in a few months time its demolition begins.

Robin Hood Gardens looks nothing like any of the other housing in the area, more like a pair of gargantuan walls with windows, softened greatly by the contoured landscape inbetween. The older kids have a kickabout space at one end, probably not original, while the central grass and trees and mound don't see the toddler footfall they once did. A community centre of sorts lurks in one corner while I assume the vanful of police positioned in the road outside was a random weekend thing rather than a permanent presence. And although the estate's wide open, should you want to take a look, the walkways were sealed off some time back to help prevent vandalism and crime, so it was only thanks to a photography project (and Open House) that any of us got inside. I'd better not tell you how we unlocked the door.

The lifts aren't lovely, and the stairs not much better. They wind round a narrow stairwell with crumbling treads and poor sightlines, so were once places of fear, and the exits aren't exactly obvious either. The lowest elevated passageway comes at floor two, then five, then eight, due to the Trellick-like way the flats have been crammed in. Tenants live on two floors, alternating upwards then downwards from the front doors along each 'street'. These looked safe and homely over the weekend, with bikes and plants and even an exercise bike enlivening the alcoves, plus extended families wandering back with shopping and querulously eyeing up the middle class invaders.

Stepping inside your flat the hall's not enormous but the kitchen's large, that is assuming you want to use the space for cooking rather than dining. Most of everything else is upstairs (or downstairs, depending), in this case with four bedrooms and a living room leading off a labyrinthine landing. The whole set-up felt a little compact, although dimensions were in excess of the minimum standards laid down at the time, and the disrepair in the empty flat we got to view won't have helped. But there was a balcony, if you can call a ledge no more than one person deep running along the front of the flat a balcony, this doubling up as a fire exit in case of the unthinkable.

Having visited both the Balfron and Trellick Towers courtesy of Open House in previous years, there were a number of similarities to the feel of the place. But the flats at Robin Hood Gardens were perhaps a little less brutal, and with added layers of design, such as the way all the kitchens faced out over the central park so that Sixties mothers could watch over their Sixties kids while cooking. This was the only social housing that the Smithsons ever built, even though they entered every municipal competition going, and the 20th Century Society have used this and several other mitigating reasons to try to get the building listed. But there are better examples elsewhere, the argument goes, and a lack of care means that the structure is economically past the point of saving.

What happens next is Blackwall Reach. This multi-stage project is a joint venture between Tower Hamlets and a housing group, and phase 1 beside the East India Dock Road is already complete. This has allowed the council to move everyone out of the western block (or disperse them elsewhere if their tenancy wasn't protected), which now stands empty. Phase 2 will see the western block demolished, starting in the New Year, and when that's complete in a couple of years those in the eastern block will move across. The replenished estate will eventually have 1500 flats rather than the current 214, with half deemed affordable and an overall increase in socially rented homes. In further good news they're keeping the open space in the centre, but marketing to the over-privileged of Docklands has already begun, and the dynamic of the site is going to change utterly.

You have approximately four months to come down and see Robin Hood Gardens in its natural denuded state (and pick a bright day if you can to bring out the monolithic splendour of the concrete). This time next year it'll resemble more of a worksite, and by the end of the decade we'll have to rely on photos to remember. And while the replacement architecture won't look awful, it won't look amazing either, just another bog standard late-2010s estate, and I very much doubt that Open House will ever be coming back. [10 photos]

Open House: Cranbrook Estate

To Bethnal Green and a site off Roman Road, south of Victoria Park, formerly covered by workshops and terraced houses. In 1955 the council decided upon wholesale clearance, with all the existing residents to be rehoused in a new high-rise neighbourhood of groundbreaking design. The architects they appointed included Berthold Lubetkin, the modernist pioneer, in what was to be his final public scheme. His plans for development included fifteen-, thirteen- and eleven-storey blocks, each with four flats per floor, plus some rather lower infill and a row of old people's bungalows out front. Each tower was named after one of Bethnal Green's twin towns - they had enough in those days - and the development was officially opened in 1965. [history here]

Although densely-plotted the site feels spacious, with plenty of open space and little in the way of traffic. Originally the street pattern was based on two diagonal axes, but that's since been upgraded to a figure of eight to make vehicular access a bit easier. The exterior of each block features characteristic green cladding arranged as at the intersections of a grid, and the windows alternate in pairs to accommodate shifts in the balcony space at each corner. Oh, and you'll have seen the Cranbrook Estate on TV, if only fleetingly, as it was where Little Britain's Lou and Andy used to live, not that this is particularly relevant architecturally-speaking.

What happens if you add a Modernist housing estate to the Open House listings for the first time is that dozens of people turn up. A good idea, then, to have opened up the estate's Community Centre for an informative exhibition of photographs showing before, during and after construction, plus the official mayoral programme for the opening ceremony. An inspirational idea to have a handful of long-standing residents present to provide first-hand reminiscence (they were lovely, as you'd expect). And an exceedingly brave idea to invite members of the public into your flat, especially when there are quite so many of them, and your flat isn't especially enormous.

The stairwells are magnificent, a very Lubetkian trait, in the case of Mödling House a teardrop-shaped lightwell with a single railing spiralling down fourteen floors. The council later added bobbles to the banister to discourage boisterous children from skidding down the banister, although I suspect vertigo would be the clincher for most. As at Robin Hood Gardens the central circulatory space used to be open access, but about twenty years ago the council added ground level entry doors which means only those with friends here will ever see inside, but no doubt makes residents feel a lot more comfortable.

Into the flat we crowded, impressed that the hallway was large enough to hold us all, although the living room with all its furniture was more of a squeeze. Originally all the walls were painted battleship grey, bar one in each room which was instead pillarbox red, if you can imagine living under such indecorous conditions. Free underfloor heating was provided, a municipal perk which was rapidly withdrawn once the council worked out how much cheaper giving every flat its own boiler would be. Our Open House host was extremely keen to share her enthusiasm for the building, and rightly so, though with a mild hint of terror at the thought that one day Tower Hamlets might decide it's time to build something new. As yet there's no sign, hurrah, as these homes of character pass their half-century unscathed. [6 photos]

 Monday, September 19, 2016

It wouldn't be London Open House if 2012's Olympic legacy wasn't still dribbling on.

Open House: Here East

Here East is a silly name, but not as silly as iCity, which was the original brand name for the giant sheds at the top of the Olympic Park. In 2012 they were used to house the world's media - one for the press and one for TV, plus another for a multi-storey car park. The car park is still there but the media are long gone, which left the thorny issue of what to do with a vast amount of interior space which had been used for only eight weeks. There were pipedreams at one point for the construction of a snowdrome and artificial ski slope, then plans for the filming of EastEnders to move here from Borehamwood, given that the postcode genuinely is E20. But all of that fell through, and a decision was ultimately taken to turn Here East into a place for design, innovation and making things. It's all very Hackney Wick, I think was the inspiration.

The Press Centre has a quarter of a million square feet of floor space, which is a lot to let, spread over four waterside floors. Most of the building is still empty, awaiting negotiation with clients, with the prime space probably on the first floor beside the roof terrace, from which the City, Docklands and several local flats can be seen. One huge chunk is pencilled in as an open plan innovation incubator, where start-ups can gain a toehold and grow before moving off somewhere bigger. A hotel, or members' club, has an eye on part of the southern end, and a row of foodie-nibbly stuff has invaded the retail spaces on the canalside. If you've ever wanted to dine at a branch of Breakfast Club where the queues aren't out the door, and don't mind the trek, Here East is for you.

The Broadcast Centre has two thirds of a million square feet of floor space, plus a dozen tricky-to-sell central voids which in summer 2012 housed huge TV studios. But 'windowless' is just what some clients want, so six have become a data centre, one will be a university robotics lab, and two have been taken by BT Sport. All that football continuity you watch before, after and sandwiched inbetween the big match, all that comes from here, and may soon be scripted in an amazing globular meeting space suspended above reception. Meanwhile Loughborough University have taken the building's northern slice, all the better for attracting foreign students, while an open-fronted grid facing the main park called The Gantry is being filled in with artists' workshops, a bit like a Boxpark for the arts.

Perhaps most intriguingly, linking the two main buildings is a smaller-but-still-large building on stilts. It has to be on stilts because all of the main pipes and cables servicing the Olympic Park pass in a conduit underneath - that string of electricity pylons they removed in 2008 had to go somewhere. This building is The Theatre, or that's its intended future use, providing conference and events space on a scale not generally available hereabouts. But for London 2012 it was designed as a refuge for the world's journalists, somewhere safe to hide should an act of terrorism break out, which of course it didn't. But it pays to be prepared, even if this huge room was used only once during the Games, for a press conference where Seb Coe attempted to explain why there were empty seats. Please hire it soon, someone, and bring it life.

I've read the marketing blurb for Here East and found some of it nauseating. "East London is transformation, graft, talent, spirit. It is a landscape in making." Whoever writes this stuff needs to get out more, or have a bit more respect for the intelligence of their audience. "Here East is a meeting point. Creative businesses growing in scale collide with businesses of scale growing in creativity." But listening to the two gentlemen in charge of the refit and subsequent sell-off gave me a much more positive view of the development, as they explained function and future plans with enthusiasm, experience and candour. One of Open House's greatest strengths is connecting us to our environment, making us understand why buildings are how they are, and helping us to see architecture anew. [9 photos]

Open House: Three Mills Lock

A more unusual form of Olympic legacy sits downstream, near Bromley-by-Bow, astride the River Lea. More accurately it sites astride the Prescott Channel, a thread of the Bow Back Rivers, a distinction which has proved to be important. Three Mills Lock is the only lock to be built on a waterway in London this century, and it's a biggie. It was planned with good intentions, and £23m of cash, the idea being to provide access for large barges delivering construction materials to the Olympic Park and thereby reduce the number of journeys made by road. Unfortunately the lock was completed ten months behind schedule, by which point contractors had already defaulted to lorries, and so very little freight or waste actually passed this way.

Still, British Waterways were pleased. They'd always wanted to upgrade the derelict Bow Back Rivers but could never afford it, and now they had a long-term restoration project plus a giant state-of-the-art lock. Property developers were delighted too, because the new lock permanently stops the channel upstream from being tidal, and it's so much easier to sell property beside a river that doesn't ebb twice a day revealing mud and discarded tyres.

For Open House the lock was opened up to visitors, and a steady stream trotted across Three Mills Green to take a look. It was also possible to look inside the central control tower, a three storey structure linked by a spiral staircase, and with an observation deck on top. This provided good views of the adjacent area, including the Bow flyover, the gothic Abbey Mills Pumping Station and its modern replacement, and the gasholders at Twelvetrees. I was particularly interested to be able to see the cap of the Lee Tunnel, Newham's new supersewer and the deepest bore in London. Alongside is the site of the first Big Brother house, now covered by a landscaped pile of spoil, and destined (one day) to be reopened as a public space. But don't get your hopes up - the footpath alongside has been sealed off for the best part of nine years, and the sign saying it reopens in "early 2016" looks increasingly fictional.

Three Mills Lock has quite a complicated structure, ably explained to us by the two employees of the Canal and River Trust who pop over to operate the machinery should the automated systems be insufficient. On the far side is a fish pass, a series of chambers on a gradient allowing upriver migration to take place, although apparently there's no evidence it's being used by anything more substantial than a few eels. Next come the weir gates, one of which automatically rises or falls every ten minutes to help balance the water level on either side. And then there's the main lock, by far the longest and widest in the area, with 20 ton 'fish belly' gates at either end which can be opened in ten minutes if they're ever needed.

They're rarely needed. Apparently only one boat a month(!) uses the lock, on average - usually a dredger keeping the channel clear. The Prescott Channel's somewhat out on a limb, so pleasurecraft tend not to go this way, heading up the Limehouse Cut or nipping across the tidal divide at Bow Locks instead. Even when Carpenters Lock is restored in the Olympic Park and recreational boating kicks off big time, Three Mills Lock is still likely to remain untroubled by traffic. It's arguably London 2012's biggest white elephant, but while it keeps the water level constant upstream its existence hasn't entirely been in vain. [7 photos]

 Sunday, September 18, 2016

To kick off my London Open House round-up, somewhere you'll not be going for a couple of years.

Open House: Tottenham Court Road (Crossrail)

Building a new underground railway doesn't happen quickly, not these days, because there's a heck of a lot to be done. It's now seven years since the Astoria and the other buildings opposite Centre Point were demolished to make way for Crossrail, during which time giant shafts have been opened up, new entrances have been dug out and twin-bore tunnels have been driven through. To showcase all the hard work so far, construction company Laing O'Rourke led a select few Londoners below ground for Open House to see current progress, and blimey didn't the tickets go fast?

It's a measure of how far Tottenham Court Road's Crossrail fit-out has already progressed that we didn't all need to change into hard hats and hi-vis before venturing down to explore the platforms. Nevertheless there aren't yet any escalators to glide down, nor would it be ideal to take the stairs, so instead we all took the hoist. This judders a little but doesn't take long, and it's how all the workforce (and a lot of the materials) will have headed 24 metres down over the last few years.

Once you reach the bottom and walk out, what strikes you first is the cavernous space. This is very much a feature of all the subterranean Crossrail stations, each designed with smooth future-proof passenger flow in mind, and you'll already have gained some idea of this when TCR's new Eastern ticket hall opened last year. A long, broad escalator bed is in place, six treads wide if I counted correctly, landing closer to the eastbound platform than the westbound.

A faintly complex grid of passageways then leads off, this because the two platforms are at least 50 metres apart at this point. One central distributor passageway has been burrowed between the two, which looks like it goes on forever, but in truth not even halfway to the other end. It's broad and arched and has been sprayed with concrete, itself an attractive finish, but you're unlikely to enjoy its texture because I understand all this is to be covered over.

A trio of similar-looking cross-passages link through to the eastern ends of the two platforms. At the moment they join at a sharp right angle, but these are being covered over with swooshing curved sections to improve safety and sightlines. Again you'll not notice, but we saw various moulded white panels laid out on the floor and a few already pinned up on the walls, each resembling a stormtrooper's breastplate or perhaps a giant's cricket box.

The eastern platform is unique amongst central Crossrail stations in being curved. This became necessary to avoid the foundations of Centre Point a short way ahead, and required some particularly accurate boring when the tunnelling machines dug through. Thus far the tracks are invisible, mainly because they haven't been laid yet, but also because a long temporary screen is in the way. This is to be replaced by a Jubilee-style glass barrier with opening doors, with real-time information scrolling past along the top.

And my word, it's long! We're used to tube platforms up to about 130m in length, whereas TCR's platforms are double that - sufficient to stable a nine-carriage train and future-proofed for ten. The curve hides the overall dimensions a bit, but commentators weren't joking when they said it'll be important to try to be at the right end of a train for your eventual destination. Because we were on a guided tour I couldn't time it precisely, but I'd say it'll take the best part of three minutes to walk from one end to the other.

The platforms are so long that central Crossrail stations have been designed with two exits, in this case an additional ticket hall on Dean Street. It'll be the minor of the two access points, this because there are no tube lines to interchange with at the western end, but it is likely to be your better option if you're heading to the shops. This time the escalator bed is three treads wide, and will go all the way up in one go, so I wonder if it'll end up with similar "no walking" rules to Holborn?

We had plenty of time to look around the western concourse, and to engage the manager and architects in Q&A. One of the joys of a good Open House visit is the opportunity to hear from the experts who've actually been involved in building the place, rather than a volunteer simply reading notes hesitantly off a sheet. We therefore got the full lowdown on materials and structure, as well as the practicalities of construction and just a little nudge at underlying politics, and this really brought the tour to life.

Tottenham Court Road's two ticket halls will have subtly different characters, we were told. The Dean Street end will be "dark and cinematic, reflecting the nocturnal economies that characterise the area", whereas the St Giles end will be "bright and well lit to reflect the 1960s iconography of the nearby Centre Point". You can expect a lot of this kind of underlying artistic piffle at stations throughout the route, but if that means the upper levels of each station gain their own particular character, all well and good.

At lower levels the design will be more uniform, with a common Crossrail style and palette. And that's what's currently being added to the western concourse, as the original breezeblock shell is inexorably blanketed by more public-facing materials. Several large granite slabs have been lowered down the adjacent shaft and the first two have been affixed to metal brackets in front of the wall, while the rest are scattered across the floor awaiting their turn, By the time the fit-out of this space is complete every single surface we saw will have been covered over, save for the upper half of the supporting columns whose concrete will be left clear.

It wasn't possible to exit the station at the Dean Street end, which was good because it meant the tour got to walk all the way back down the westbound platform. This one's straight and therefore more typical, and still daubed with painted codes on the floor and chalkmarks on walls and ceiling. Engineers have also taken the opportunity to lay three slabs of paving, just to see what it looks like and how it performs, as well as installing a single four-seater bench, as yet unwrapped. When you get down here you'll be at least six inches higher up than we were, once the proper depth of platform surface has been laid.

What a privilege to be allowed deep beneath the streets of Soho for a sneak preview of London's newest transport system. Indeed Open House has provided several opportunities to do this over the years, but we can't all get that chance, not until Crossrail's central section opens up twenty-seven months hence. Tens of thousands of passengers are expected down here daily, not enough of whom will stop to consider precisely how they came to be down here in the first place. And only a few of us will remember how it used to look along the way.

» Sixteen photos from down under at Tottenham Court Road
» Ian (and his camera) headed down into Bond Street today

 Saturday, September 17, 2016

London country diary: Riddlesdown

On the last day of summer, before the deluge breaks, a mile of grassy upland gleams in unbroken sun. One of the chalk fingers that stretches out from Croydon into Surrey, Riddlesdown is a contoured glory, one hundred acres of scrub and meadow above a precipitous dry valley. On the opposite slope the spire of Kenley church bursts forth beneath a thick shield of forest, and giant semi-detached houses with bold red gables rise gently in pristine rows. This should also be the fate of my lofty viewpoint, indeed the northern side of the ridge has long been covered with steep suburban avenues. But Riddlesdown has been protected from development thanks to its unlikely owners - the City of London - and survives as a place of leisure, of relaxation and of understated agriculture.

A steady trickle of dogs with owners heads east from the car park, taking the ridgetop path past a chain of well-positioned benches. Off-leash they scurry down into the grassy brow, this recently trimmed, to root out odours or to leave a fresh smell of their own. A drinking fountain has been provided through a distant act of benevolence, which ought to be adequate refreshment in this heat, but nobody's risking it. Here comes the Coulsdon Common Ranger's van, sidling up to the main gate above the railway tunnel, unlocking it and passing through. Cattle are grazing somewhere ahead, but they stay out of sight in the shade, as the old Roman road veers gently downhill between curtains of yew, sycamore and ash.

Woodpecker Fields are usually quiet, at least before the local academy turfs out. Today, however, is different. All the grass in the field has been cut and piled up into long thin ridges, each running parallel and a few metres apart. Amongst the grass are leaves and stalks of flowers, dried to a husk by the summer drought, and churned together to create additional nutritional variety. A man in a tractor is out and about, pulling a large green hopper which scoops up each ridge in turn and compacts the contents until full. Every minute or so the tractor pauses and a green mesh coating is added, before a drum of hay rolls out of the back, and the process continues. Two magpies watch the action from the sidelines, expending minimal effort and hoping that their next meal has been disturbed.

In the adjacent field the hay is already baled, and scattered across the hillside in seemingly random locations. A second farmhand is busy collecting them all, in pairs, this time in a red truck with extendable claw. He uses one bale to knock the second upright before piercing down on both, then slowly manoeuvres his twin cargo to the lowloader at the top of the slope. Once twenty-four bales are in place another tractor hauls them away, past the rim of a deep quarry, aiming for a narrow gap in the hedge that initially seems too small. Somehow the load squeezes through, rocking on the uneven ground as it passes, at this precise point crossing from the very edge of London to the very edge of Surrey. Each bale will overwinter in large barns on the outskirts of Hamsey Green, unwrapped as necessary to provide sustenance for local livestock.

With the golden slopes harvested, Riddlesdown awaits the turning of the season. A last flurry of butterflies dots the uncultivated scrub as a final day of untimely heat plays out. Across the valley a dense canopy of green shines forth, as yet without pockets of yellow and brown to spread and fall. Those fortunate enough to live in this corner of the capital rejoice at such vistas on their doorstep, a far more pleasant place to stroll than some patchwork Zone 2 park, and alive with so much more than pigeons and squirrels. Imperceptibly, fluffs of cumulus bubble up in the azure sky, one eventually growing thick enough to block out the sun, heralding the downfall of summer.

And then it riddles down.

click for Older Posts >>

click to return to the main page

...or read more in my monthly archives
Jan16  Feb16  Mar16  Apr16  May16  Jun16  Jul16  Aug16  Sep16
Jan15  Feb15  Mar15  Apr15  May15  Jun15  Jul15  Aug15  Sep15  Oct15  Nov15  Dec15
Jan14  Feb14  Mar14  Apr14  May14  Jun14  Jul14  Aug14  Sep14  Oct14  Nov14  Dec14
Jan13  Feb13  Mar13  Apr13  May13  Jun13  Jul13  Aug13  Sep13  Oct13  Nov13  Dec13
Jan12  Feb12  Mar12  Apr12  May12  Jun12  Jul12  Aug12  Sep12  Oct12  Nov12  Dec12
Jan11  Feb11  Mar11  Apr11  May11  Jun11  Jul11  Aug11  Sep11  Oct11  Nov11  Dec11
Jan10  Feb10  Mar10  Apr10  May10  Jun10  Jul10  Aug10  Sep10  Oct10  Nov10  Dec10 
Jan09  Feb09  Mar09  Apr09  May09  Jun09  Jul09  Aug09  Sep09  Oct09  Nov09  Dec09
Jan08  Feb08  Mar08  Apr08  May08  Jun08  Jul08  Aug08  Sep08  Oct08  Nov08  Dec08
Jan07  Feb07  Mar07  Apr07  May07  Jun07  Jul07  Aug07  Sep07  Oct07  Nov07  Dec07
Jan06  Feb06  Mar06  Apr06  May06  Jun06  Jul06  Aug06  Sep06  Oct06  Nov06  Dec06
Jan05  Feb05  Mar05  Apr05  May05  Jun05  Jul05  Aug05  Sep05  Oct05  Nov05  Dec05
Jan04  Feb04  Mar04  Apr04  May04  Jun04  Jul04  Aug04  Sep04  Oct04  Nov04  Dec04
Jan03  Feb03  Mar03  Apr03  May03  Jun03  Jul03  Aug03  Sep03  Oct03  Nov03  Dec03
 Jan02  Feb02  Mar02  Apr02  May02  Jun02  Jul02 Aug02  Sep02  Oct02  Nov02  Dec02 

eXTReMe Tracker
jack of diamonds
life viewed from london e3

email    twitter    G+

my flickr photostream

What's on this weekend?
Sat 24 - Sun 25 September
Southend Charabanc
Seaside pleasure trip with arty installations linked by bus.
Part of the ESTUARY Festival.

twenty blogs
ian visits
blue witch
city metric
the great wen
edith's streets
spitalfields life
in the aquarium
round the island
wanstead meteo
london museums
christopher fowler
ruth's coastal walk
london reconnections
dirty modern scoundrel

quick reference features
Things to do in Outer London
The DG Tour of Britain
Comment Value Hierarchy

read the archive
Aug16  Jul16  Jun16  May16
Apr16  Mar16  Feb16  Jan16
Dec15  Nov15  Oct15  Sep15
Aug15  Jul15  Jun15  May15
Apr15  Mar15  Feb15  Jan15
Dec14  Nov14  Oct14  Sep14
Aug14  Jul14  Jun14  May14
Apr14  Mar14  Feb14  Jan14
Dec13  Nov13  Oct13  Sep13
Aug13  Jul13  Jun13  May13
Apr13  Mar13  Feb13  Jan13
Dec12  Nov12  Oct12  Sep12
Aug12  Jul12  Jun12  May12
Apr12  Mar12  Feb12  Jan12
Dec11  Nov11  Oct11  Sep11
Aug11  Jul11  Jun11  May11
Apr11  Mar11  Feb11  Jan11
Dec10  Nov10  Oct10  Sep10
Aug10  Jul10  Jun10  May10
Apr10  Mar10  Feb10  Jan10
Dec09  Nov09  Oct09  Sep09
Aug09  Jul09  Jun09  May09
Apr09  Mar09  Feb09  Jan09
Dec08  Nov08  Oct08  Sep08
Aug08  Jul08  Jun08  May08
Apr08  Mar08  Feb08  Jan08
Dec07  Nov07  Oct07  Sep07
Aug07  Jul07  Jun07  May07
Apr07  Mar07  Feb07  Jan07
Dec06  Nov06  Oct06  Sep06
Aug06  Jul06  Jun06  May06
Apr06  Mar06  Feb06  Jan06
Dec05  Nov05  Oct05  Sep05
Aug05  Jul05  Jun05  May05
Apr05  Mar05  Feb05  Jan05
Dec04  Nov04  Oct04  Sep04
Aug04  Jul04  Jun04  May04
Apr04  Mar04  Feb04  Jan04
Dec03  Nov03  Oct03  Sep03
Aug03  Jul03  Jun03  May03
Apr03  Mar03  Feb03  Jan03
Dec02  Nov02  Oct02  Sep02
back to main page

diamond geezer 2015 index
diamond geezer 2014 index
diamond geezer 2013 index
diamond geezer 2012 index
diamond geezer 2011 index
diamond geezer 2010 index
diamond geezer 2009 index
diamond geezer 2008 index
diamond geezer 2007 index
diamond geezer 2006 index
diamond geezer 2005 index
diamond geezer 2004 index
diamond geezer 2003 index
diamond geezer 2002 index

my special London features
a-z of london museums
E3 - local history month
greenwich meridian (N)
greenwich meridian (S)
the real eastenders
london's lost rivers
olympic park 2007
great british roads
oranges & lemons
random boroughs
bow road station
high street 2012
river westbourne
trafalgar square
capital numbers
east london line
lea valley walk
olympics 2005
regent's canal
square routes
silver jubilee
unlost rivers
cube routes
capital ring
river fleet

ten of my favourite posts
the seven ages of blog
my new Z470xi mobile
five equations of blog
the dome of doom
chemical attraction
quality & risk
london 2102
single life
april fool

ten sets of lovely photos
my "most interesting" photos
london 2012 olympic zone
harris and the hebrides
betjeman's metro-land
marking the meridian
tracing the river fleet
london's lost rivers
inside the gherkin
seven sisters

just surfed in?
here's where to find...
diamond geezers
flash mob #1  #2  #3  #4
ben schott's miscellany
london underground
watch with mother
cigarette warnings
digital time delay
wheelie suitcases
war of the worlds
transit of venus
top of the pops
old buckenham
ladybird books
acorn antiques
digital watches
outer hebrides
olympics 2012
school dinners
pet shop boys
west wycombe
bletchley park
george orwell
big breakfast
clapton pond
san francisco
children's tv
east enders
trunk roads
little britain
credit cards
jury service
big brother
jubilee line
number 1s
titan arum
doctor who
blue peter
peter pan
feng shui
leap year
bbc three
vision on
ID cards