diamond geezer

 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.


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.

 Saturday, July 07, 2018

Copper coins are hard to spend, but they add up. For years I've been storing my excess in a jar, or more specifically a giant plastic Coke bottle with a slot in the cap, accumulating quite a stash. I've always meant to do something with it, speculating I might have a windfall on my hands, and yesterday was the day I finally sprung into action. Would all the effort be worth my while?

There are several options for converting a haul of coppers.

1) Spend them
Copper coins are only legal tender up to 20p, so disposing of them this way involves buying a lot of stuff. If you spread these purchases out across an entire decade it becomes a lot more manageable, but scrabbling around with lots of small change never goes down well in shops. So we invariably get given more coppers than we spend, which is why they stack up.

2) Feed a machine
My local supermarket has a Coinstar machine which swallows coins and returns a voucher in return. But it also swipes 9.9% commission at the same time, so no way was I going to take my coppers there. I understand that all Metro Banks have a Magic Money Machine that's free to use, but my nearest is three miles away.

3) Bag them up and take them to a bank
For this you need some special plastic bags, and a bank. Copper coins should be bagged up £1 at a time. 2ps and 1ps should never be mixed. Be aware that a bank or building society will generally only take bagloads of coins off your hands if you have an account with them.

I went with option three.

3a) Get some bags
Only one bank survives on Bow Road these days, and it's not mine, so I headed into Stratford instead. I had to queue at the main counter, which took a while, because several people in front of me were trying to undertake lengthy complex transactions. Meanwhile several people behind me were getting angry, and making exasperated remarks, even tutting. I started to worry that when I came back with a barrowful of coppers, the queue's ire would be targeted on me. But eventually I got my bags - a few more than I thought I'd need - and confirmed that the bank had no upper limit on how many I could bring back.

3b) Unleash your coins
Pouring all my coins out of my giant plastic bottle proved harder than I expected, and required a heck of a lot of shaking to force everything through the neck. Suddenly I had a huge pile of mixed coinage in front of me, surely numbering into the thousands. They had that dirty accumulated coin smell when handled. I decided to start by picking out as many 2ps as I could, counting as I went, rather than separating everything in advance.

3c) Count your coins
Counting is important, because each bag has to contain exactly 100 1p coins or exactly 50 2p coins. It pays to be correct because a cashier will be checking later, and you'll start looking annoyingly incompetent if proven innumerate. I double counted, because I was mortified of being shown up in public. First I separated out what I hoped were piles of £1, 2p coins first, then 1ps. This took the best part of an hour. Then (to be extra careful) I counted those piles into bags, 10 coins at a time, counting again if the numbers didn't tally. This took the best part of another hour.

3d) Bag your coins
I felt a slight sense of smugness at this point, as I saw the unruly portion of my life savings laid out under firm control. But it doesn't pay to get ahead of yourself. A very important thing to do at this stage is to make sure every bag is sealed properly, to prevent loose coins escaping later in the process, which as I later discovered is a bit embarrassing.

3e) Count your piles
I found I had thirteen piles of 2p bags, and 14 piles of 1p bags. That's twenty-seven bags altogether, making a total haul of £27. That's not to be sniffed at, although it's not as amazing as I might have expected after almost two decades of collecting. I thought it was probably no coincidence I had roughly twice as many 1ps as 2ps.

3f) Take your bags to the bank
I had thought I might be able to carry my £27 in an ordinary carrier bag, but when I lifted it up I realised I'd need to switch to a rucksack. Here's a fact about copper coins - a 1p coin weighs 3.56g and a 2p weighs 7.12g, deliberately twice as much. This means every £1 bag weighs in at 356g, and 27 bags is knocking on ten kilograms. The richer you're about to become, the heavier your burden.

3g) Queue in anticipation
This time it's serious. This time you are going to induce consternation in those behind you when they spot you unloading bags of small change onto the counter. Hold your nerve, because for all you know some of them are planning transactions that'll take even longer. I compounded the problem by turning up just before closing time on a Friday (but this actually worked out well because by the time I reached the counter they'd closed the queue to fresh joiners).

3h) Hand over your bags
To her credit, the cashier didn't sigh, at least outwardly. Instead she reached for her little balance and tested each of my bags one at a time to ensure it really did weigh 356g. Dammit, Bag One was 1p short, so I already looked a pillock... but thankfully I'd had the sense to bring a few spare coppers with me (top tip!), and handed one over, and we were back on track. Altogether I handed over three extra coppers to make up for my miscalculations, but thankfully I seemed to get the other 24 bags right, so earned my brownie points back.

3i) Take your money
I wasn't given cash in return, I had to stick my card in the terminal and the money went straight into my account. Hey presto, that pile of coins that'd been clogging up my house for years was suddenly something more useful, and could actually be spent. I now had £27 to spend on a train ticket to the coast, or a night down the pub, or a heck of a lot of penny chews, depending. I'm just trying not to think about how inflation means I'd have been better off spending my coppers at the time, rather than waiting until 2018 to cash them in.

3j) Return to your life
Impressively, my time at the counter only totalled six minutes. The woman beside me was still in the throes of a much longer transaction, trying to pay her mother's care home bill, and I felt almost virtuous for not tying up the cashiers for longer. I walked out with a receipt and an empty rucksack, and basically something for nothing. Sometimes a little bit of effort pays off, but I must try not to do it too often.

 Friday, July 06, 2018

In recent years, TfL have made sterling efforts to encourage visitors to London onto the tube, the river, hire bikes and (especially) the cablecar. But only rarely have they gone out of their way to suggest that tourists take the bus, leaving the market clear for the high-priced open top sightseeing brigade. So you may be interested to hear of a new initiative on the TfL website, under the Experience London umbrella, introducing a series of 'bus leisure routes' for tourists.

These aren't special extra buses, there'd be no money for that. Instead these are five existing routes, rebranded 'bus leisure routes', each backed up by a downloadable pdf telling tourists how to ride. Take your pick.
Bus leisure route 9: London's Museums and Palaces
Bus leisure route 17: Heritage and Pubs
Bus leisure route 22: Antiques and Curios
Bus leisure route 35: London's Markets
Bus leisure route 139: Classic London
Bus leisure route 9, for example, starts at Somerset House and heads to Holland Park, ticking off three palaces and six museums along the way. Bus leisure route 17 whisks you from King's Cross to London Bridge via four historic hostelries. Bus leisure route 22 covers Fulham Palace to Piccadilly, featuring the King's Road and Royal Academy. Bus leisure route 139 skips from Waterloo to Abbey Road via Hamleys, Selfridges and Lord's Cricket Ground. But I picked at random, which is why I'm now going to tell you of my experiences on bus leisure route 35, from Brixton Market to Columbia Road.

Bus leisure route 35: London's Markets

Brixton Market
Bus stop T: Brixton Station

We're off to a cracking start. Brixton Market is just the kind of non-central gem a visitor to London could easily miss. The online blurb confirms that the local speciality is African and Caribbean produce, and contains a hint that change is afoot, noting that Granville Arcade has recently rebranded as ‘Brixton Village’. Faultless so far.

Borough Market
Bus stop G: Union Street
Bus stop M: London Bridge

Next stop Borough Market. But what the linear map completely fails to mention is quite how far this is from Brixton on a number 35 bus. The 133 does the journey more directly, and gets there faster. Most Londoners would surely take the tube instead. But this is bus leisure route 35, so we're taking the 35, even if that means crawling via Camberwell for 40 minutes. If you're a temporary visitor to London, I'm unconvinced that sitting pointlessly on a busy double decker is the optimal use of your time. I can't say I enjoyed the experience. Bus leisure route 35 does pass two well known markets along the way, namely East Street Market in Walworth (birthplace of Charlie Chaplin) and the Elephant & Castle shopping centre (while stocks last), but I guess they're not sufficiently iconic to get a mention. And even when you do finally reach Borough Market, it turns out that one of the suggested bus stops (Union Street) is a bit of a hike, whereas the other (London Bridge) is almost outside. After an unproductive four mile journey, thank goodness the food offering is tip top.

Leadenhall Market
Bus stop M: Fenchurch Street
Bus Stops L/N: Threadneedle Street

Here's a very different kind of market, more a collection of upmarket shops, but under a fabulously decorated roof, and of course it's been in Harry Potter. Leadenhall Market is easily reached by bus leisure route 35, three stops across the Thames, and the onboard display even announces the correct stop as 'Fenchurch Street for Leadenhall Market'. There's just one catch at present, which is that long-term roadworks are forcing a diversion via Bank so the 35 no longer stops outside. Will Old Broad Street do? It's not clear, but expect a walk.

Lloyd's of London
Bus stop M: Fenchurch Street
Bus Stops L/N: Threadneedle Street

After a four mile hiatus earlier in the route, markets three and four turn out to be in the same place. The trail map's good, because it suggests you should walk from one to the other rather than take the bus, estimated walking time 2 minutes. But the linear map's misleading, because it shows the two attractions at different stops, rather than the same one. Also, see how creatively our trail curators are interpreting 'market' here, Lloyd's being a building with a distinctly financial flavour. It is an amazing architectural confection, but there's not really very much to do here apart from briefly look at it.

Spitalfields Market
Bus Stop L: Liverpool Street Station
Bus stop H Primrose Street

Again the map offers two bus stops to get off at, but the second one is closer. The first stop is actually announced as 'Liverpool Street Station for Petticoat Lane Market', but alas Petticoat Lane's Sunday revels haven't been deemed worthy of inclusion. Thankfully Spitalfields is another excellent London market, or at least one an international visitor would consider as such, with its focus on designer goods rather than cheap kitchen scourers. Bus leisure route 35 has again hit the spot.

Brick Lane
Bus stop H: Primrose Street

But here the trail loses it somewhat. Brick Lane is only five minutes walk from the far side of Spitalfields Market, as the text on the map carefully points out. But bus leisure route 35 goes nowhere near Brick Lane - the 67 and 205 go closer, and the 8 would be a better bet. This is the point on the trail where wishful thinking disconnects with reality, because bus routes don't magically link specific categories of tourist attraction. It's all got a bit contrived... and then it gets contriveder.

Columbia Road Flower Market
Bus Stop X: Shoreditch Town Hall

Shoreditch Town Hall is the stop where the bus terminates, so you have to alight here and walk for 10 minutes to reach Columbia Road. The alternative is to carry on walking from Brick Lane, which is 15 minutes, depending on which end of Brick Lane you start. Visitors would have been better off catching the 26 or 48 from Liverpool Street, but the map isn't allowed to tell you that because it has to maintain the bus leisure route 35 mystique. What the text does correctly warn is that Columbia Road Flower Market only operates on Sundays, as does Brick Lane Market... except Sunday's the only day Borough Market isn't open, so it turns out there isn't a day of the week you can tick off the whole list in one go.

I did not enjoy my journey on bus leisure route 35. One outlier in Brixton and everything else on the eastern border of the City does not make for a happy ride. If I'd taken you on bus leisure route 22 instead, I'd have been moaning about how the last seven places all occur after the point marked "Get off the bus here and walk to the remaining locations". If I'd taken you on bus leisure route 9, I'd have been more positive, but less happy that the bus stopped at the wrong end of Exhibition Road for all the museums. If I'd taken you on bus leisure route 17, I'd have been raving about the pubs, but pointing out that the listed "Heritage" felt a bit random. And if I'd taken you on bus leisure route 139, I'd have groaned at how lowest common denominator touristy it all was, but actually I suspect that means it's the most successful of the lot.

It's great to see buses getting a bit of promotional love from TfL for a change. But the contrived nature of these bus leisure route journeys leads me to suspect that they could end up wasting tourists' time as much as opening their eyes to some proper treats. I'm also disappointed that the quintet doesn't include TfL's most obvious slamdunk tourist bus, the heritage Routemaster service which shuttles between Trafalgar Square and Tower Hill, passing St Paul's Cathedral along the way. Bus leisure route 15 should be getting far more attention from TfL than it currently affords, and I eagerly await its appearance in this peculiar portfolio.

 Thursday, July 05, 2018

Hastings has no ordinary pier.

1872: Pier opens
1999: Pier goes into administration
2001: Pier reopens under new management
2006: Pier found to be unsafe, and closes
2007: Pier partly reopens
2008: Pier found to be unsafe, and closes
2009: Pier "one storm away from collapse"
2010: Pier mostly destroyed by arson
2011: Pier wins Lottery grant
2016: Pier reopens under community ownership
2017: Pier wins Stirling Prize
2017: Pier wins "Pier of the year 2017"
2017: Pier goes into administration
2018: Pier bought by private businessman
25 June 2018: Pier reopens

Hastings Pier once looked quite ordinary, as piers go. A pavilion down the end, with refreshment, amusements and entertainment on the way. But for the 21st century it's been reimagined as a free space, rather than a collection of buildings, and resembles a long wooden tongue stretching out into the English Channel. [website] [webcam] [history]

What immediately strikes you is how empty it is. This is deliberate. An enormous public platform over the sea has huge potential, "inspiring temporary installations and events across a variety of scales". The freedom to roam above the waves and gaze back towards the resort is exhilarating. But generating sufficient reason to visit has proved problematic, and the absence of income proved the downfall of the previous community-led administration.

Only one building has survived arson, storm damage, and reconstruction, and that's the restaurant. A gently-curving glass-fronted building, it's long and thin with a rack of seating outside for nice weather. It was well-frequented in the blaze of yesterday afternoon. But its signage is underwhelming, its closed doors aren't quite welcoming, and its menu is poised one rung above the chippie takeaways in the heart of the town.

The one new permanent structure is a wooden pavilion in the centre of the pier, made from timber rescued after the 2010 blaze. It's a highly attractive multi-purpose space, with steps on one flank where a entire group of French schoolkids might sit, leading to a cafe on the upper deck. This sells beer and snacks, which can be enjoyed sitting atop the pier and gawping seaward, which I can certainly recommend. But the draught beer was off, the serving girl didn't know where the bottle opener was or how to make a coffee, and the function room on the ground floor was wasted dead space because there wasn't an event on.

To either side of the pier are some large beach huts, painted in an optimal spectrum of seaside colours. There are five huts on one side and seven on the other. A couple sell drinks and ice cream, one sells tasteful crafty goods, one is a photo booth and one contains gender neutral toilets. The best hut contains the 21 saucy McGill seaside postcards which were deemed too obscene to sell, including one about a pickled gherkin, one about a bathtime whistle and a frankly astonishing design in which a giant stick of rock emerges from a man's groin. But the other huts were closed, nobody was around to whip up interest, and a commercial buzz was missing.

Walk all the way down to the end of the pier, across empty timbers, to find a few benches and a telescope. Display boards tell you what to look out for (mostly boats and birds), how long the pier is (277m) and what percentage of trusses had to be repaired as part of the restoration (70%). But there isn't much to see other than sea, and there are very few benches, indeed there aren't many benches across the entire pier, either to maximise the space available for temporary events or to funnel those who want to sit down into a refreshment setting. I would have liked a better reason to linger at the end of the pier, or indeed to linger anywhere.

It'd be dangerous to jump to conclusions about the state of a pier less than a week after it's reopened under new management. Most of what's present will have been there before he bought it, and some may not have survived the transition. But the local community are certainly angry about the buyout, given that they'd raised almost half a million pounds to keep the pier as a public asset, only for the administrators to sell it to a businessman for fifty thousand instead. He sounds a bit of a 'character' too, having recently painted his other pier in Eastbourne gold (without planning permission) and ever ready with an excitable quote (telling the community to thank him and stop moaning). This could all end very badly, or he might be the commercial shot in the arm the pier's long-term finances desperately need.

A big retro drum and bass festival is taking place on the pier this Saturday, if you fancy bouncing around to Evil B and Skepsis, plus DJ Hazard on the decks. Next month's long-planned Gilbert and Sullivan double bill has however been unceremoniously kicked out somewhere else, as a result of the administrative changeover, so all is not well on the events front.

Hastings Pier is a glorious space to perambulate, an open canvas for opportunity, and a refreshingly different take on seaside recreation. But the absence of physical stuff could easily result in an absence of purpose, and there is a risk its turbulent history might succumb to yet another magnificent failure.

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jack of diamonds
Life viewed from London E3

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