diamond geezer

 Thursday, December 18, 2014

No doubt you and your family are already making plans to visit the cablecar this Christmas to enjoy The Snowman and the Snowdog.
Specially reworked version of iconic film exclusively available for passengers flying through the air on the Emirates Air Line cable car
But how will your trip differ from the usual Dangleway journey, and will you be wasting your money? I've been along to check, twice.
As well as being able to watch this exciting sequence, visitors to the Emirates Air Line will see the terminal transformed into a magical Christmas experience until Sunday 4 January. Families can also have their photo taken with a life size model of The Snowman before boarding their festive flight. All of this is available at standard ticket prices.
I'm not convinced that levels of transformation count as a "magical Christmas experience". A few snowflakes have been stuck to the windows on the southern side, and a plastic Snowman has been positioned beyond the ticket barrier at each terminal as a selfie-opportunity. The family I followed in, alas, walked straight past without even looking. Meanwhile the big screens downstairs, and then upstairs, are looping a trailer showing a few choice scenes from the in-flight cartoon. It'd give you something to watch while you were queueing, if only there were any queues.

Danny Price, TfL's Head of the Emirates Air Line, said: `The Snowman and The Snowdog is an iconic Christmas film and we are delighted to be able to bring the story to life for our passengers, as they fly like the characters over our capital city.
Passengers don't really have a lot of choice. You step into the cabin as jingly music plays from the newly-installed loudspeakers overhead, then the film kicks in as you take off and continues all the way across to the other side. If you just want to enjoy the view, or fancy some peace and quiet on your commute, bring earplugs.
Footage from the classic film has been given an exciting twist.
I'd say "exciting twist" is pushing it. The original film is 24 minutes long. For the purposes of the Dangleway Special it's been cut to 4 minutes, and then 4 minutes of additional footage has been bolted on in the middle. All the new stuff involves scenes adapted from aerial footage, in which local landmarks are digitally de-coloured and cartoonised, with electronic snow sprinkled on top. When the genuine footage kicks back in, the improvement in picture quality is marked. It's not especially magical, especially when the real thing is visible out of the window.
The iconic 'flying in the air' sequence now sees The Snowman and The Snowdog characters flying over London landmarks such as The O2, the Emirates Air Line, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Greenwich Royal Naval College and the Thames Barrier. This magical sequence is really brought to life as passengers fly over the Thames themselves.
If you've visited the cablecar this year, you'll know they have a shortlist of about a dozen nearby attractions which they plug consistently (for example on the wall map, the website, the app and the onboard 'feature tour'). All the usual suspects pop up in this film too, as the Snowman flies from The O2 to The Crystal via the Olympic Park (where you only ever see The Orbit, because that's a paid-for attraction). However endearing your child might find the aerial sequence, there's no escaping the fact it's a essentially a four minute advert of places on a list drawn up by the marketing department.
Damian Treece, Brand Manager at Snowman Enterprises Ltd, said: `We were delighted when Emirates Air Line approached us with regards to incorporating The Snowman and The Snowdog as a part of their Christmas activity. There is an obvious synergy between what this experience will offer consumers and the magical attributes of our well-loved characters.
You may have giggled there at the word "synergy", but the most important word in Damian's speech comes seven words later where passengers on the cablecar are described as "consumers". There's a reason why all of this Snowdog stuff is free, on top of the usual admission price, and that's because you're being sold to.

The Emirates Air Line is open Monday to Friday from 7am - 8pm, and 8am - 8pm on Saturdays and 9am-8pm on Sundays. Visitors may like to come in the evening to experience the film and glistening lights of London at night for an extra Christmassy feeling.
Well yes. I visited in the morning and could barely see the screen for squinting into the sun, hence my enjoyment of the cartoon was significantly curtailed. So I came back after dark to watch again, and I can confirm that the film was indeed much easier to see. But it still couldn't hold a candle to the view outside the window. All the glittering lights of London spread out for miles make for a most impressive sight, certainly better than the imperfect footage blaring out from the screen above. There was a particularly surreal moment when the music of the Snowmen's dance kicked in as I was looking down into a giant illuminated hangar full of recycled rubbish, but that's the Silvertown shore for you.
Customers are advised to book their tickets in advance to make sure they don't miss out. Tickets can be booked at: https://emiratesairline.theo2.co.uk
I've ridden the cablecar twice this week, including on a Sunday which is its busiest day, and I can assure you that you don't need to book in advance. Staff outnumbered riders on both visits, and the great majority of cabins passing by the other way were empty. So, has anybody actually done as they're told and booked up front? If you go to the booking website you'll see that 250 spaces are available for each half hour slot, and almost all of these 250s remain untouched. There are (at time of writing) four people booked in at 2pm on Sunday and another four at 3pm, but the day's other 5492 seats remain readily available.

So should you bring your kids? Not specially for the film, no. Buy the DVD and watch the whole thing, it's only £8, and you get the full 24 minutes of properly animated storytelling without an promotional snowstorm shoehorned in the middle. But would your kids enjoy the cablecar anyway? Of course they would, it's a cablecar for heaven's sake, and the experience shouldn't need a festive gimmick to drag punters along.

And I spotted one more thing which the arrival of The Snowman and the Snowdog has unintentionally proven. When the cablecar was first introduced, much was made of it as a useful transport connection as well as an aerial spectacle. Timings were therefore adjusted so that the crossing took five minutes during the rush hour but ten minutes at all other times. That distinction has ended this week, and now all journeys take the longer time. The five minute crossing has been scrapped because the film would end early, and paying customers would then be shortchanged. A ten minute crossing shortchanges nobody... because there are no regular commuters - Darryl's Freedom of Information request has confirmed this.

Imagine if on any other form of transport TfL had deliberately doubled the travel time for ordinary passengers and failed to announce this anywhere in advance. There'd be an outcry, it'd never happen. But it's happened on the cablecar, because the cablecar is most definitely a tourist attraction - it is no longer pretending to be anything else.

 Wednesday, December 17, 2014

London's T-prefix buses serve the residential outpost of New Addington. All three were introduced in 2000 to feed the new trams to Croydon, with passengers able to transfer from bus to tram without paying an additional fare - a convenience that still works today. The T32 is a dinky little route, a three mile tour of the estate, while the T33 shadows the tram all the way to Croydon. I went for the happy medium, the T31, which is essentially two short feeder routes bolted together in the middle. And only just in time.

Bus routes in New Addington are currently under review, with a consultation period that ends on Friday likely to lead to big (big) changes in the new year. The T33 will be renumbered, the T31 and T32 will be discontinued, and the existing non-lettered routes will be twisted round additional roads within the estate to make up the difference. It means longer journeys for most, and much longer for some, with direct buses between New Addington and Addington Village almost eliminated. But it also links better to streets where people actually live, and saves TfL quarter of a million pounds a year through a "significant reduction in overcapacity". The statistical background behind the proposed metamorphosis fills a 30 page document and is fascinating, if you like that sort of thing, although I doubt that most bus users in New Addington realise what's about to hit them. If you want to make your voice heard, you have two days.

 Route T31: New Addington - Forestdale
 Length of journey: 6 miles, 30 minutes

The T31 starts at the top of Milne Park, a recreation ground at the top of New Addington. The whole estate is on a gentle slope, and entirely surrounded by open countryside which it's easy to see but surprisingly difficult to get to. The T31 starts by the adventure playground on Homestead Way, at a bus stand that'll be made redundant next year once the consultation's changes are confirmed. I waited for almost the full eight minutes while an England flag flapped above the gatepost of a house across the road, and a boy walked past eating albino chips from the JFC fried chicken shop on the adjacent parade. And if you're already thinking "ugh, New Addington", rest assured that the top half's not that bad, indeed it's almost desirably affordable, if somewhat remote. Hence the bus.

First aboard are a mum and her two kids, one in a pushchair. She gets out her phone and fires up a video of a family member in an outdoor setting, which the eldest daughter watches intently. So engrossed are they that when we round the first corner they totally miss the house completely covered in Christmas decorations. A star tops the chimney on which a plastic angel has been affixed, while Santa is being pulled by nine reindeer across a white sheet on the roof that convincingly resembles snow. Icicles hang from the porch above a front garden populated by a job lot of illuminated carol singers, while the car port is covered by a frame wrapped in multi-coloured tinsel. A nativity scene takes pride of place outside the lounge window, beside an enlarged photograph of a grey haired man I can only assume is "Grandad", whose annual festive tradition this once was. The rest of the family are standing by the front gate, where Mum is attaching one more shiny bauble to a pole while her son (in a Christmas jumper) looks on. It's a splendidly ebullient scene, just the right side of naff, of the kind to be found on estates the country over. I'm tempted to shout "oi, look at this!" but presumably the smartphone video is much more interesting.

I've turned up on the day that New Addington switches on its official Christmas lights. These are the big guns, along Central Parade, being celebrated later with a funfair on the parking spaces outside Iceland. Two men are putting the finishing touches to a teacup ride, two more to the waltzers, while an up-in-the-air-and-gyrating thing looks almost ready to take its first passengers. Our passengers seem much more interested in the extensive line-up of shops (from Captain Cash down to Quality Fish via Meat Express and Priceless Carpets). We've only been going for four stops, but we've already picked up a dozen folk including a lady in a chair and her friend called Winston, and they all get off here or at the tramstop, without exception. The T31's status as a feeder service is becoming apparent, with our next batch of clientele heading exclusively from the tram or shops to home.

They start to drip off along King Henry's Drive, the outermost of a quadrant of curving avenues, which kicks off with a Lidl and ends at a valley-side vista. It's a lot more scenic than I was expecting on a council estate, with the occasional view across the trees to Croydon and the City, and a sign pointing down the dip to an unseen and unlikely 'GOLF'. We pause for a young couple with a pushchair who really aren't hurrying - our driver waits politely - and then their Oyster beeps empty. Hurrah for contactless, otherwise we'd have waited in vain. A couple more stops takes us up and over a bump of suburbia, then sharply the homes we're passing change from houses to flats and the character of the estate shifts. Right on cue the latest bloke to sit behind me smells like he's had a skinful already, which is impressive considering it's barely noon.

Our next target is Fieldway, a long S-shaped road driven through a landscape of over a hundred apartment blocks with no alternative means of escape. Maps of the estate by the side of the road depict a layout of colourful blocks, but the reality is a little greyer. In one case the parallel blocks remind me of an army garrison, lifted visually only by their location on the edge of thick woodland. Further ahead the former fields are occupied by a lowly sports centre that's home to the local boxing club and the Pandemic Steel Orchestra. We pass the foot of New Addington's two proper tower blocks, one named Birch, the other Cedar, by some over-optimistic postwar planner. Our bus is a popular lifeline for Fieldwayites, both for those coming from the shops and those boarding to catch the tram ahead. But if TfL are truly intent on consigning both the 64 and 130 to this meandering detour in future, residents further up the estate are in for a long haul.

At last we're back on Lodge Lane, only two stops further down the hill than we were two paragraphs ago but over ten minutes later. Our driver has to stop the traffic to nudge out from Fieldway, then it's a long run down to the Addington Village Interchange. This is the bus station tram stop combo created at the turn of the century to simplify transfer from one mode to the other, ingenious in every way except for the contorted way buses get in and out. We have to circle the roundabout by the Harvester before entering, then circle the bus station again before pulling up. Here every single other person gets off, that's all twenty passengers and the driver who's off for relief in the mess room. Nobody who's come from New Addington wants to ride the next bit, we merely pick up three people who've got off the latest tram. And then we're off, on a more-than-360 degree spin around the bus station, again, and the outer roundabout, again, with a fresh captain at the helm.

He's a bit sweary, our new bloke. "Ah for God's sake!" he cries at the traffic on Kent Gate Way, as a horse rolls over in the field alongside. But he's also a kindly soul too. We veer off imminently to serve an unusual estate to the south of Selsdon, an blanket of postwar flats nestling in a wooded valley called, appropriately, Forestdale. The T33 takes on the main bulk of the estate while the T31 banks up a halfmile dead end flanked by terraced flats. At the foot of the hill, only two stops from the end of the route, a young mother with an empty Oyster stands waiting. Her card beeps plaintively, twice, at which point our driver invites her and her buggy on board for nothing. His kindness saves her a considerable climb, but not all, because the T31's last stop comes one stop below the top of the hill. There's no room for a bus stand at the top so passengers get chucked off lower down before the vehicle squeezes ahead to the turning circle at the summit. She's still pushing her buggy up to the highest cul-de-sac when the bus overtakes, and swings round to collect a more fortunate mum at the first stop going the other way.

When the T31 is scrapped, this Forestdale leg is going to be taken over by the 353 which currently runs from Orpington to Addington. This runs half as frequently as the eight minutely T31, hence residents of Courtwood Lane are about to lose their turn-up-and-go service. It's also a double decker, which seems entirely inappropriate for this backwater climb between awkwardly placed parked cars to a remote turning circle and back, but presumably drivers will cope. Instead we should praise TfL for their commitment to serve this single residential road in the first place. In any business-driven bus network outside London residents would be expected to catch the T33 to the foot of the hill and walk the rest. Instead they get an almost door-to-door service, this despite the fact that Surrey begins immediately behind the hedge at the summit, beyond which is a muddy bridleway, thick woodland and a golf course. Hurrah for public services that serve the public, even way out here on the outskirts.

» route T31 - route map
» route T31 - timetable
» route T31 - live bus map
» route T31 - route history
» route T31 - route history
» route T31 - The Ladies Who Bus
» route T31 - extinction consultation

 Tuesday, December 16, 2014

I created this table to show how TfL are 'simplifying' Cycle Hire charges from January.

Length of hire 2014 price2015 pricechange
up to 30 minsfreefreeunchanged
up to 1 hour£1£2doubled
up to 1 hr 30£4£4unchanged
up to 2 hours£6£6unchanged
up to 2 hr 30£10£8save 25%
up to 3 hours£15£10save 33%
up to 3 hr 30£35£12save 66%
up to 4 hours£35£14save 60%
up to 4 hr 30£35£16save 54%
up to 5 hours£35£18save 49%
up to 5 hr 30£35£20save 43%
up to 6 hours£35£22save 37%
up to 6 hr 30£50£24save 52%
10 hours£50£38save 24%
13 hours£50£50unchanged
16 hours£50£62increase 24%
20 hours£50£78increase 56%
24 hours£50£94increase 88%

And loads of other people did the same thing, but published it quicker.
• Ian drew up a table and drew some pointed conclusions
• Tom tweeted a table he'd scribbled on a piece of paper
• Geoff drew up a table and threw in the daily £2 flat fee
• Adam said "hang on, this isn't simplification, this is a price rise"

So this may not be timely, but I can confirm...
» no fee rise for journeys less than 30 minutes, or between 1 hour and 2 hours.
» fees doubled for journeys between 30 minutes and an hour, up from £1 to £2
» fees lowered for rides between 2 and 12 hours, in some cases substantially cut
» a tipping point at 13 hours*, beyond which rides will cost substantially more
* not that anybody does this, obviously

 London park quiz

Here are cryptic clues to 32 well-known London parks.
How many can you identify?

  1) Smashwater Park
  2) Healthybadger Park
  3) Spyguy Park
  4) Thicktache Park
  5) Quartzmansion Park
  6) Ackroyd Offspring Park
  7) Boring Sorceress Park
  8) Interdorsals Park
  9) Happyrock Park
10) Naïve Park
11) Ecofriendlyhag Park
12) Arsenalfuneral Park
13) Dutchprovince Park
14) Notjekyll Park
15) 1609m Park
16) Mailstaff's Park
17) Abouturinals Park
18) Mary-Anne Park
19) Monarchgames Park
20) Crowswoo Park
21) Wealthy Mostweekday Park
22) Contains Farleys Park
23) Zebedeeson's Park
24) Beachtrench Park
25) Jumblenosy Park
26) Papermount Park
27) Nottsriver Park
28) Februarycards Park
29) Astracorsa Park
30) Winneria Park
31) Ollivanders' Price Park
32) The Irons Park

(Answers in the comments box)
(And, please, no more than ONE guess each)

 Monday, December 15, 2014

When in Croxley, I like to pop down and see how the Croxley Rail Link is getting on.

Answer: it isn't.

Plenty's been happening over in Watford, with track clearance along the entire length of the disused branch line now complete, rails lifted and 1200 cubic metres of intrusive timber sent off to be burnt for fuel. But back on the Croxley Green side, where there is no disused railway to recycle, nothing at all.

A new viaduct will be built to link the existing Metropolitan line to the embankment where the old railway used to be. Nothing yet. The adventure playground by the Sea Scouts Hut will be closed to make way for concrete pillars. Still operational. The houseboats along the canal will be displaced by a new bridge, and the existing 'garden' of statues, sheds and conifers removed. All present and correct. Construction of the new connection at Cassio Bridge doesn't begin until early next year, so nothing in Croxley's been touched yet.

Except for one thing. The old station by the roundabout had somehow retained its old Network SouthEast sign, this despite the fact the last train left in 1996. That's now finally been removed, along with the shabby noticeboard alongside with way out-of-date blue and red NSE stripes. It's a shame, from a nostalgia point of view, but also far too late, given that the station's had no passenger service since 2003 when the train was a taxi replacing a bus. Hang on, this is getting confusing, I think we need...
A (hopefully) definitive history of the closure of the Watford to Croxley Green branch line
15 June 1912: the line opens, with one intermediate station at Watford West
30 October 1922: electric trains replace steam
late 1930s: maximum daily service - 44 shuttle trains to Watford, 7 trains to London
June 1947: weekday service cut to peak hours only
10 May 1959: last Sunday service
20 April 1966: Barbara Castle refuses to allow Dr Beeching to close the line
1970s: Saturday service withdrawn, now only 14 trains per weekday
4 December 1982: Watford Stadium station opened by Elton John, match days only
1988: Half-hourly daytime service introduced, somewhat optimistically
22 January 1990: service reduced to Monday to Friday peak hours only
21 January 1991: service reduced to three Monday to Friday round trips
17 May 1993: service reduced to a single Monday to Friday round trip at 7am

25 March 1996: rail service replaced by a bus, initially for nine months only
late 1990s: bus becomes taxi (ie no genuine service at all)
23 March 2001: closure notice published
6 November 2002: closure notice approved
26 September 2003: last day of replacement road service
ever since: tumbleweed
14 December 2011: Government funding for Croxley Rail Link approved
21 August 2013: The Croxley Rail Link Order 2013 comes into force
2017: most likely date for opening of Croxley Rail Link
On my every previous visit to Croxley Green station (since I used it regularly in 1983), the front gate has been locked. Not impossibly locked, merely tightly secured, but enough to make gaining access at best awkward, at worst unwise. On this occasion, however, the gate was very much ajar. Still fastened at the very bottom, but simplicity itself to nudge slightly and slip through the gap, should any urban explorer care to try.

The steps ahead aren't the original wooden staircase, these are a narrow precipitous replacement from the last years of the station's life, and much easier to maintain. They're also slippery with leaves at the moment, as you'd expect, and a first indication of the arboreal takeover at the top of the embankment. When a station sees no trains or passengers for two decades, vegetation does tend to take over, and that is very much Croxley Green's fate.

The tracks remain, beneath the undergrowth, with a flat area beyond where the platform would have been. This seems counter-intuitive as the steps are on the wrong side of the rails, but 1990s passengers crossed the tracks at the far end to a temporary and very-cheap-looking low platform, now entirely removed. The original wooden platform was more substantial and overhung the embankment on the nearside. That disappeared decades years back, and today only a handful of squat concrete supports can be seen along the edge of the slope, overgrown by ivy.

A handful of defunct lampposts remain, one at the foot of the main steps, the others up top. They're still painted in Network SouthEast colours, i.e. bright red, and one is bent over at an alarming angle as if not much longer for this world. Various loops of cable survive, snaking out from the rails across the none-too pristine sleepers. And there are plenty of fallen branches across the carpet of leaves, and crisp packets, and lager cans, and Co-Op carrier bags, because this place isn't always as empty as it seems.

Following the tracks beyond the ex-platform is relatively straight-forward, with care, though one suspects rather tougher in the summer with plantlife everywhere. But within about a minute the way ahead is blocked by a metal fence, preventing access to the iron lattice bridge across the Grand Union Canal. This too has been colonised by grass and bushes, the latter leafless at present, and nothing has especially deep roots. And beyond this bridge the land falls away, the line completely broken, thanks to a road cut through to an industrial estate in 1996.

When the Croxley Rail Link flies through in three years time, a replacement station called Cassiobridge will be built on the other side of Ascot Road. But in getting there the new line will completely bypass the old Croxley Green station, severing this disused embankment for all time and consigning it to a more desolate fate. Total demolition's not out of the question, even levelling of the entire structure, but I hope this impromptu nature reserve survives as a reminder of the runtiest branch line in Hertfordshire. [13 photos]

Want more?
history, history, history, history
exploration, exploration, exploration
photos, photos, photos
future, future, future
previous report, previous photos

 Sunday, December 14, 2014

compass pointsCompass points
(an occasional feature where I visit London's geographical extremities)
NORTHWEST London - Drayton Ford Bridge, Springwell Lane, Mill End

London has no right to continue as far northwest as it does, no right at all... except Middlesex did, and so the deed is done. The former county's western boundary followed the River Colne, as does Greater London's today, all the way up from Heathrow to Rickmansworth. After ten miles of north/south the Colne valley bends off to the east, and it's at this point that the London border breaks away from the river to pass between Moor Park and Northwood. A snout of land sticks up in the intervening space, a mostly-unneccessary corner of Hillingdon where almost nobody lives and which might as well be in Hertfordshire. The fact it's still not gave me the excuse to visit.

I made my assault on the northwestmost point in London by walking up the Grand Union Canal. This intertwines with the River Colne for miles, the towpath an easy track to follow even at the height of midwinter. Heading north from Harefield, the Colne breaks away at a bridge by a sewage works with a particularly pungent aroma, creating an outer London island between the two waterways. Here you'll find the Springwell Reed Bed, the largest reedbed in the capital, where dry grasses rise above head height from squelchy water. There's no immediate access for those on foot, not until the canal reaches Springwell Lock and a path leads off, back round a hidden lake.

The lock is your typical Grand Union construction, with a low arched bridge to carry Springwell Lane across the water. London's Low Emission Zone starts here with a heavy climb Harefield-ward, or there's an access road to the left leading to the Springwell Chalk Pit, which Doctor Who's pretended is an alien planet on many an occasion. Two buildings that look like waterside warehouses are in fact recent blocks of flats, these where London's northwesternmost residents live, somehow further from Charing Cross than inhabitants of central Watford. And here too is the start of the Hillingdon Trail, a 20 mile ramble across the borough to Cranford, perhaps not best tackled in December.

Those in search of extremity must head northwest up Springwell Lane. That's past a yapping hellhound behind locked golden gates, and watching out for haulage company tipper trucks careering down the lane never expecting to meet anyone on foot. Concealed on the left is Springwell Lake, accessed via London's northwesternmost car park, a remote and uneven affair targeted at twitchers and wildlife lovers. Meanwhile across the hedge on the right is another large expanse of water, Inns Lake, the smallest of several hereabouts but still a massive 16 acres in size. A multitude of wintering birds hang out around here, so now's an ideal time to visit, and isn't that a heron standing motionless on the far bank? We'll come back this way, if that's OK.

It's not far along the country lane until London peters out. To one side of the road a screen of trees hides something drably levelled, then the big warehouse behind a security fence is Mill End Pumping Station, the capital's most northwesterly installation. And that's the boundary with Hertfordshire ahead, at Drayton Ford Bridge, a very short span carrying the lane over the River Colne. It's not much of a river here, more a tamed channel, but that was deemed good enough back in the day for the edge of Middlesex to be so aligned. Two objects confirm that we're in the right place, one a Welcome To Hillingdon sign on a pole, the other a white coal tax post tucked into the verge above the stream. There used to be a pair of these boundary markers here, but the other is the unlucky soul spirited away to the Guildhall Museum in London an an exemplar exhibit, but currently consigned to the stores.

A few steps further on are the western outskirts of Rickmansworth. Interestingly there's no sign to announce this, as if the county's trying to keep stumm, but I knew immediately because I recognised the design of Three Rivers' lampposts. A couple of cottagey houses kick swiftly in, then the Uxbridge Road, then the outlier estate of Mill End. Plenty of people live here, tucked higher above the flood plain, in Metroland avenues ideal for learner drivers. I passed my driving test barely a mile away, and failed it twice too, never realising that London was quite so close at hand.

Finally, let's retreat to the joys of Greater London's borderline waterworld. These lakes all used to be gravel pits, extracted between the wars, and gravel from here was used in the construction of the original Wembley Stadium. Now they're part of an extensive nature reserve, each with footpaths round the perimeter, and a splendid stomping ground if waterfowl are your thing. The largest is Stocker's Lake, from whose banks I spotted cormorants, moorhens, coots and a black swan, plus something unidentifiably chunky nesting in part-submerged woodland. The county boundary cuts straight across the lake, with the well-known Rickmansworth Aquadrome spread out on the eastern side. But why go there when you can revel in the capital's distant wetlands, beyond the canal, for a birdwatching bonanza?

See also
NORTH London: On the clockwise hard shoulder of the M25 between junctions 24 and 25, just north of Crews Hill station [map] (I visited in 2004)
EAST London: Just off Fen Lane between North Ockendon and Bulphan, east of Mar Dyke but west of the Dunnings Lane crossroads [map] (I visited in 2011)
SOUTH London: On a bend in Ditches Lane, just north of St Peter and St Paul Church in the village of Chaldon [map] (I visited in 2007)
WEST London: At the exit for Poyle on the roundabout above junction 14 of the M25, close to Heathrow Terminal 5 [map] (I visited in 2009)
» see all four geographical extremities on a Google map

 Saturday, December 13, 2014

The first three S-prefixed buses circled Stratford in the early Seventies. This S1 is not one of these, but part of a Nineties foursome serving Sutton. The rest run infrequently or have been cancelled, but the S1 proved its worth and is now the backbone of suburbia. It also runs via several parts of London I'd never previously visited, which when you've lived here 13 years and 'get about' a lot, was most unexpected.

 Route S1: Lavender Fields - Banstead
 Length of journey: 9 miles, 70 minutes

When I heard that the S1 was being extended to Lavender Fields, earlier this year, I assumed this was somewhere scenic. The Sutton area was once famed for its lavender, and Mayfield Lavender is still a (gorgeous) commercial concern. Alas that's near the southern end of the route, and the S1's Lavender Fields is a bog-standard housing estate close to Colliers Wood. The new terminus gleams, in that way fledgling bus shelters do, close to the mini-roundabout that allows the slightly-mini buses to turn around. When I arrive it's just starting to rain, so the driver gets off his phone and allows we two waiting passengers to board early. They're nice like that, bus drivers, sometimes.

My fellow passenger isn't going far, two stops in all. That's the entire extent of the S1's extension into unserved territory, indeed he could easily have walked to the main road in the five minutes we were waiting. But instead he used TfL's red taxi to hide from the rain, or avoid traipsing past the cemetery, or because he's a lazy sod, one of the three. And then he's off, and over the road, and straight onto a much more useful bus to Tooting Broadway. Down Figge's Marsh we gain another lazy sod, female this time, who lasts on board for only one stop. I'm starting to wonder if Merton residents are compulsively idle, or else the S1 has a magnetic attraction.

Pebbledash leads to parade leads to, oh, hang on, this is quite nice. Mitcham is one of the places en route I've inexplicably never been to before, and I'm quite impressed. The greenspace by the shops has an independent panini hut at one end, and further on an unmistakeably villagey vibe. The cricket ground remains at the heart of Mitcham life, a whirl of listed buildings around the perimeter, each discoverable via an information panel near the boundary. At the next stop a blind man is waiting, alone, so has to ask the driver which service this is... and then lets us go without boarding. It strikes me that all these iBus route announcements ("S1... to... Banstead") are no use when trying to work out whether to get on, only to confirm you're on the right bus after it's left.

Our exit from the town centre becomes increasingly green, then positively undeveloped along the edge of Mitcham Common. How fortunate the residents of Mitcham Garden Village, tucked into a snail-like whorl between the railway and the woods. So this is Mitcham Junction station, is it? It's about a mile out of town surrounded by golf course and industrial estate, hence not as useful as local commuters would like it to be, and therefore bus links to the middle of nowhere are much appreciated. Three of our latest complement are only going as far as Mill Green, the next common down, which used to be where the S1 started (and would have saved you from having to read the previous three paragraphs).

Beyond the dead pub and the River Wandle, the S1 starts its backstreets tour of St Helier. Our route round the LCC estates traces out the pattern of two crooked teeth, ticking off streets just to say that a bus runs nearby. But our presence is much appreciated, the bus is starting to fill up now, as we edge past parked cars, yet more open space and various pushchair posses. Green Wrythe Lane scores points for a streetname with an endearing heritage, if not a particularly picturesque present, running through The Circle shopping parade, home to Fudge Cakes Circle Bakery. One particularly narrow diversion takes us past armies of Saturday morning footballers, and their doting parents, playing in the Carshalton Little League. And there across the goalposts rises the Thirties Metropolis fortress of St Helier Hospital.

Several passengers are waiting here, including a rotund mum with the flabbiest neck I've seen in years, which wobbles like a turkey as she pushes down the bus behind her not-yet obese daughter. Three teenagers are holding court by the central doors, one wondering whose idea it was to catch the slow bus, another twiddling a cigarette in anticipation of getting off. As we double back again, avoiding Carshalton, we thread through a very typical slice of outer London - a bit hilly, a bit pleasant, a lot residential, and a Seventies pub for a lager on a Friday night. Then at the foot of the hill Teenager Number Two reaches up as if to press the emergency release button, waits for the look of shocked embarrassment on his companions' faces and grins broadly before retracting, and getting off with everyone else.

So, this is Sutton proper. I've walked down the pedestrianised High Street, but never experienced the parallel one-way system that closely encircles it. Four times we pull over into an odd layby to swap will-be-shoppers for just-been-shoppers, gradually exchanging the entire complement of passengers other than me. The bus is now packed, sufficient to steam up the windows so that the word 'dirty' magically appears scrawled in the mist. We're not seeing the town's best side, indeed we're barely seeing it at all, as we bend round what I think is B&Q towards the station. With another top-up here I count sixteen people standing, which makes this the most crowded lettered bus I've yet ridden.

Most are on board for the next deviation away from a straight line, a detour serving some quite nice houses to the southeast of town. One man goes to the aid of a mother trying to lug her pushchair off the bus, then returns to find his seat taken by someone else, who fails to move. Up next is Belmont, a borderline settlement that again I've never been to, and doesn't instantly impress. Missing two hospitals and a prison we instead make a break for Surrey across the Downs, where one stop appears to serve no-one but ramblers. And hey presto, Banstead, which looks and feels different to London with its verges, old pubs, and long Tudor-style shopping parade. M&S is as far as we're going, which is quite far enough, but well worth the trip.

» route S1 - route map
» route S1 - timetable
» route S1 - live bus map
» route S1 - route history
» route S1 - The Ladies Who Bus

 Friday, December 12, 2014

For years I've been aware that the earliest sunset of the year isn't on the day of the winter solstice, it's a few days earlier. More specifically for London, the earliest sunset of the year isn't on December 21st (3:53pm), it's today December 12th (3.51pm). [data] [full data] [interactive map]

DateLength of day Sunset 
Nov 19h 3916:34
Nov 119h 0516:17
Nov 218h 3516:04
Dec 18h 1115:55
Dec 117h 5515:51
Dec 217h 4915:53
Dec 31  7h 5416:01

But I'd never quite got my head around why this discrepancy should arise. It seems entirely counter-intuitive that the shortest day and earliest sunset don't coincide, so some other factor must be at play to cause the difference. And so I dug around a bit, and I think I finally understand what's going on. Bear with me on this one.

First of all you need to understand this next table, based on data for central London. The amount of daylight each day is fixed, decreasing from almost 10 hours at the start of November to less than 8 hours throughout December. Half of that daylight occurs before noon and half after, so if we halve the total amount of daylight we get the length of the afternoon. And if the afternoon starts at noon, then it's possible to work out at what time the sun sets. Noon + afternoon = sunset. Like so...

DateLength of day      Noon      Length of afternoon* Sunset 
Nov 19h 3912:004h 4916:49
Nov 119h 0512:004h 3216:32
Nov 218h 3512:004h 1716:17
Dec 18h 1112:004h 0516:05
Dec 117h 5512:003h 5715:57
Dec 217h 4912:003h 5515:55
Dec 31  7h 5412:003h 5715:57
* half the length of the day

But those aren't the actual sunset times, as you can see if you compare them with the first table. And that's because the middle of the day, the time the sun is highest in the sky, isn't twelve o'clock. This so-called 'solar noon' changes throughout the year, wobbling over fifteen minutes away from 12:00 at different times of the year. For example at the start of November the sun is highest in the sky at quarter to twelve, but by the end of January it's quarter past. You'd never spot this, day to day, but it's true.

Date Solar noon* 
Nov 111:44
Nov 1111:44
Nov 2111:46
Dec 111:49
Dec 1111:54
Dec 2111:58
Dec 3112:03
* the time the sun is highest in the sky

The reasons for solar noon changing are quite complicated. It's to do with the Earth's orbit not being a circle, but an ellipse. It's to do with the Earth travelling at different speeds at different points in its orbit. It's to do with the Earth being tilted on its axis at an angle of 23½°. It's to do with all three of these things combining to create something called The Equation Of Time, which you can read all about here - I'm not going to go into the details. But The Equation Of Time is why the sun isn't always at its highest at noon. It's why sundials only tell the right time four days a year. And it's why the middle of the day today is at 11.54, but the middle of the day on December 21st will be at 11.58.

To find out what's really happening to sunset times, you have to start counting the afternoon from solar noon, not from twelve o'clock. Solar noon + afternoon = sunset. Like so...

DateLength of day Solar noon Length of afternoon Sunset 
Nov 19h 3911:444h 4916:34
Nov 119h 0511:444h 3216:17
Nov 218h 3511:464h 1716:04
Dec 18h 1111:494h 0515:55
Dec 117h 5511:543h 5715:51
Dec 217h 4911:583h 5515:53
Dec 31  7h 5412:033h 5716:01

At the moment solar noon is at 11.54 and the afternoon lasts 3h 57, which means sunset is at 3.51pm. By the winter solstice the afternoon is two minutes shorter at 3h 55, but solar noon is four minutes later at 11.58, making sunset two minutes later at 3.53pm. And that's why the earliest sunset is now rather than next week... because the sun is highest in the sky earlier in the day.

Here's how the next ten days pan out, sunset-wise.

DateLength of day Solar noon Length of afternoon  Sunset  
Dec 117h 5511:543h 5715:51:49
Dec 127h 5411:543h 5715:51:43
Dec 137h 5311:543h 5615:51:44
Dec 147h 5211:553h 5615:51:46
Dec 157h 5211:553h 5615:51:53
Dec 167h 5111:563h 5615:52
Dec 177h 5011:563h 5515:52
Dec 187h 5011:573h 5515:52
Dec 197h 5011:573h 5515:52
Dec 207h 4911:583h 5515:53
Dec 217h 4911:583h 5515:53

A few caveats. Times have been rounded and may not be 100% accurate. All times are for central London. Locations further north and east see sunset earlier, and locations south and west see sunset later [see map]. Locations well to the south of London have already had their earliest sunset (New York's was on December 6th), while locations north of London haven't had theirs yet.

And if all of this has gone completely over your head, don't worry. All that's important is that the earliest sunset of the year is today, at around eight minutes to four. And from tomorrow, second by second, then minute by minute, the evenings start getting shorter and shorter.

 Thursday, December 11, 2014

This bus is proper unusual.

a) The R10 is one of eleven R-prefixed buses that operate out of Orpington, the last town heading out of southeast London. What's peculiar is that this corner of the capital extends far beyond the edge of the built-up area into open countryside, so TfL has a duty to run services along narrow lanes to connect remote communities. In this case that's the hamlets of Cudham and Pratt's Bottom, as well as the Kentish villages of Knockholt and Halstead, all linked around a ten mile rural loop. This might just be as pastoral as London's bus routes ever get.

b) Normally buses run in both directions, but the R10 runs only anti-clockwise. All journeys in a clockwise direction are numbered R5, this to prevent residents of certain villages accidentally riding the wrong way round the loop and taking an extra half hour to get home. The distinction was introduced in 2008, prior to which all journeys were designated R5.

c) Only one vehicle is assigned to the R5/R10 combo. It runs the R5 from Orpington back to Orpington, changes its driver, flips its blind and then runs the other way as the R10. And this means that intervals between buses are the longest of any buses on the TfL network. The gap used to be two hours until a consultation last year extended it to two and a half, this because individual buses weren't managing to get back to the start in the scheduled hour and the service was becoming wholly unreliable. Local people aren't happy, and said so, but TfL told them a more reliable service is better than a more regular service, so 150 minute gaps it is. If you ever try heading out this way, make sure you check the timetable carefully first.

 Route R10: Orpington - Orpington (via Knockholt)
 Length of journey
: 17 miles, 65 minutes

I checked the timetable carefully before I left home, which was fortunate because there isn't one at Orpington bus station. The R1, R4, R8 and clockwise R5 each have a timetable at the stop, but nobody's been bothered to make sure the anti-clockwise R10 is included too, which is a miserable state of affairs when it runs so infrequently. Thankfully I'd arrived just before my R10 was due to leave, revving up in the parking bay at the far end before driving across to my side. Another passenger was ready to board too, which seemed exciting until I realised he only wanted to go to the High Street and was simply nipping aboard the first bus that turned up.

There's more to Orpington, apparently, according to the sign on Station Road just before the War Memorial. There's certainly more Orpington on this route than you might expect, starting with a run up the High Street... and back again. I'm riding on a Saturday morning, too early for anyone to have finished shopping and be heading home, so we pick up nobody outside Londis on the way up, nobody outside the huge Sainsbury's where we turn round, and only one lady outside McDonalds on our return. Things'll no doubt be rather different in two and a half hours time. Within a few minutes we're passing the War Memorial again, this time straight on, and leaving the muted Christmas lights behind.

A mile of desirable semis lines the Sevenoaks Road on the journey south, broken by a splendid Metroland-style parade with 'Frigidaire Equipped' launderette. Our first destination is Green Street Green, a pleasant village-turned-suburb, somehow deemed important enough to have its own Waitrose. By now we're running slightly ahead of schedule so our driver finds a bus stop labelled "buses must not stand here" and does precisely that. Our other passenger wants the next stop, lugging her shopping off towards Old Hill, whereas we're taking a country lane with the warning sign IGNORE SATNAV AND RE-ROUTE. If I was surprised earlier to discover that the R10 isn't a minibus, I'm even more surprised when I see where we're going next.

Cudham Lane North is two miles of not-quite single track road with either front gardens, or high hedges, to either side. Two cars can pass OK but a bus is another matter, so there are several occasions where we pull in sharply to the side and a vehicle going the other way attempts to edge through. A Tivo van (they're still going, who knew?) finds the going too narrow and is forced to reverse a considerable distance, which slows us down somewhat. It's the obstructiveness of this stretch that baffled R10 users during last year's consultation. They wondered why the route couldn't be run with a smaller vehicle, keeping better to time and retaining a two hour service. TfL disagreed, citing worries that a minibus might fill with short-distance travellers in town, plus they were determined to change the timetable anyway... and so the larger bus squeezes on.

Detached houses and bungalows come and go, but the high hedges and fields beyond carry on. As Cudham approaches a deep green valley opens up on the right hand side, most unexpected for any bus user more used to crawling bumper to bumper down Oxford Street. The village has a lovely setting, if not a green wellies and labradors vibe, plus a plaque to Little Tich the music hall entertainer at the Blacksmith's Arms. Here too is the only bus stop on this long southbound leg - presumably the rest of the journey has been Hail and Ride, but the onboard electronic display has singularly failed to mention this. It fails again by then announcing the Three Horseshoes in Knockholt as the next stop, despite this being four further miles of Hail and Ride down the road.

Horns Green is the last hamlet in London, a string of homes heralded by a tiny village sign on a tree. And after a few more cautious corners and general woody remoteness, we finally turn left into Kent. So, this is Knockholt, is it? I've always meant to visit but never come, so I'm almost tempted to get off for a look, until I remember that the next bus in this direction is two and a half hours away. Plus Knockholt's really long, the same distance as from Marble Arch to St Paul's, so it doesn't pay to alight too early. At this far-western end the majority of buildings really are farms and stables, plus an attractive-looking pub, then the big-drived houses kick in. A road sign warns of toads for the next half-mile, which is mostly fields again, and I'm grinning that my Oyster card allows me on such an adventure.

When we finally reach a proper bus stop on the village green at Knockholt Pound, hurrah, another passenger is waiting. Technically it's here that the return half of the R10's journey begins, so it's no real surprise to have been the only person aboard on the outbound. More surprising is that TfL run a bus out this far at all, as it's the taxpayers of Kent who really benefit, and they fund the 402 which runs through Knockholt hourly. Ditto the village of Halstead, to which we're turning off next. A fairly standard residential estate feels quite out of place compared to where we've just been, but The Cock Inn (established 1718) quickly restores more rural credentials. The R10 uses Halstead's one non-cul-de-sac to loop back round and return the way it came, indeed this extended Halstead loop is one reason the bus can't quite keep to an hour's running time. But we get some elderly custom out of it, and then it's back to Knockholt again, now on the home run.

Our return to London comes at the top of Rushmore Hill, a relentlessly wooded gradient above, and then descending into, a narrow notched valley. At the bottom is a beautifully-positioned primary school, one of Bromley's most isolated, serving the populace of (snigger) Pratt's Bottom. It's well-named, geographically speaking, with rolling fields rising up on all sides, indeed the view from the R10 is briefly overwhelmingly pastoral. We've arrived during the brief window of the village's Christmas Fair, but again I daren't risk getting off to explore. Abruptly we hit a petrol station, a red route and the main A21, bringing our rustic safari to an end, although there's still one last expanse of farmland to savour before we return to Green Street Green.

And you already know this bit, because I rode it on the way down. What's different this time is that we have passengers, because thousands of people live nearby and we're now just another bus to the shops. At peak crowding there are ten of us, a handful from Pratt's Bottom and beyond, the rest, well, it wouldn't have hurt them to walk. Apparently the R5/R10 gets an average of 200 passengers a day, that's about fifteen people per bus, so today we've been running a fraction below par. Oh look it's the War Memorial again, and our third visit to Orpington High Street, this time emptying out and with a lot more queueing traffic. Thankfully this time we escape via a backstreet... and pass the War Memorial a fourth time... does any other London bus pass the same spot quite so often?

And look, I've actually ridden the whole 17 mile circuit back to Orpington station without the driver once eyeing me suspiciously and asking why I didn't get off. Presumably they're used to sightseers on this journey - it's the perfect route for it, should you ever be tempted to take a £1.45 coach trip to London's proper countryside. Blind flipped, the bus is almost ready to go back round again. Any takers?

» route R10 - route map
» route R10 - timetable
» route R10 - live bus map
» route R10 - route history
» route R10 - The Ladies Who Bus

 Wednesday, December 10, 2014

"We're going to the Icebar", said BestMate. "You must come."
Don't say this blog doesn't get about a bit.

The Icebar is pretty much what it says, a bar made of ice. It's located on the ground floor of a well-hidden building up an alley in the middle of Regent Street, hence is aimed firmly at a West End clientele. They have an ordinary bar and a basement restaurant, much like any other, but also a room kept permanently at minus five degrees. [Note to American readers, that's Celsius, we're not talking midwinter Chicago]

Why not come for a Christmas drink, they say, and charge you sixteen quid for the privilege. You're invited to turn up 15 minutes before your allotted slot, but five will do, else you'll probably end up in the non-ice bar slipping down a non-trivially-priced cocktail. About fifty people are allowed inside the Icebar at a time, and all go in together, so first off there's a long queue for capes. You didn't think they'd let you freeze in there, did you? Everyone gets a thermal poncho in some sort of polyester, with a 'fur' trimmed hood to keep your ears warm. The overall effect resembles something you might wear while getting an x-ray at an Arctic dentist, but never mind because everyone's wearing the same thing so the fashion stakes are equal.

The Icebar's through a double door... and actually, that's not too cold is it? Minus five's a chilly winter's morning in England, and therefore perfectly survivable, especially in specialist clothing. The tipping point comes with the 'free' drink that's part of the admission ticket - your choice of about twenty cocktails poured behind the actual ice bar while you watch. But don't expect mixology magic, because these are very basic cocktails with one spirit and a lot of fruit juice, squirted simultaneously out of plastic containers with all the panache of a Sodastream. What's truly special is the glass, which is essentially a thick chunk of ice with a well in the middle for your drink. It's both pretty and pretty cold, hence now is the time to make sure you've donned your thermal gloves else your fingers are going to freeze.

So you're in a low ceilinged room with a chilled cocktail, what are you going to do for forty minutes? Well, admire the place for a start. Blocks of ice have been ferried over from the Torne River in Northern Sweden, and then treated and sculpted in a variety of ways. Some are simply ice-benches to sit on and ice-tables to rest your glass on, but others are free-standing ice-sculptures or designs cunningly embedded in the ice-walls. This year's theme at the Icebar is 'food' so all the sculptures have a vaguely nutritional theme, including a giant cherry-topped cupcake and a hollowed-out pineapple, plus a graphic showing which bits of a reindeer are best to eat. All the designers have names like Jens, Mats and Lars, so this is authentic Scandinavian artistry, and it shows.

So you're in a low ceilinged room with a half-swallowed cocktail, what are you going to do for thirty minutes? Well, take photos, obviously. No 21st century human can visit somewhere new without sharing selfies on social media, so a heck of a lot of that sort of thing goes on. Manipulating your phone in these conditions is tricky unless you take your gloves off, but the temperature's not that scary, indeed one member of the security staff kept popping briefly into the room in a t-shirt. Expect each of the groups and parties in attendance to spend several minutes taking photos of one another in front of the decorated wall, or peering through the gap in the ice-pineapple, or grinning with glasses raised, it doesn't matter what so long as the event is recorded.

So you're in a low ceilinged room with an empty glass, what are you going to do for twenty minutes? Well, buy another cocktail, that's what the bar owners hope. By now the photobombing frenzy will have died down, and there's nowhere else to go, so they've got themselves a captive audience. Ideally you should go sit in one of the ice-booth corners and pretend that this is a normal but very chilly bar, enjoying a chat with your mates about the ice or something. This isn't really somewhere to go alone, more an environment in which drinking is more exciting, and you'll need interaction with friends to lift you through the experience.

So you're in a low ceilinged room looking at the walls, what are you going to do for ten minutes? Well that was probably enough time in a cold room, thanks, so maybe it's time to leave early. You'll feel a lot warmer once your cape's off and you're back outside in normal winter temperatures, readjusting to reality. Time to check in on Facebook and upload those photos - look this is me in the pineapple, and here we all are with our hoods up, and where shall we go drinking next? The Icebar's an interesting if expensive distraction, probably best to tick off rather than repeat.

 Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Beyond London (5): Epsom and Ewell (part 2)

The market town of Epsom is world-famous for two things. Let's do them both. [20 photos]

Somewhere famous: Epsom Well
First the bad news - Epsom Salts aren't made in Epsom. But they owe their name to the town, and were first found here almost 400 years ago, completely accidentally. The chance discovery was made on Epsom Common during the dry summer of 1618 by a man out herding cows. Villager Henry Wicker spotted that a hoofprint in the earth had filled slightly with water, so dug around it in an attempt to bring more to the surface. The following day his hole was running over, but the cattle refused to drink, so he took a sip himself and noticed a bitter metallic tang. It took twelve years before the clear spring water was found to have medicinal properties, but news of this discovery then spread with haste across the country. A small well house was built in the middle of the common, and Epsom became the first spa town in England, to which gentlemen and ladies would flock to take the waters.
"Some drink ten, twelve, even fifteen or sixteen pints in one journey, but everyone as much as he can take. And one must then go for a walk, works extraordinarily excellent, with various funny results. Gentlemen and ladies have their separate meeting places, putting down sentinels in the shrub in every direction. It has happened that the well is drunk empty three times in a morning, in hot and dry summers when the water has more strength. And the people who observe this come then in such crowds that the village which is fairly large and can spread at least 300 beds, is still too small and the people are forced to look for lodgings in the neighbourhood. Some stay there on doctor's orders for several weeks continuously in the middle of the summer, drinking daily from this water, and many people take after the drinking some hot meat broth or ale." (William Schellinks, 1662)
Two discoveries at the end of the 17th century changed things somewhat. A second well was detected much nearer to the town centre, off South Street, which rapidly took the lion's share of the spa trade. Many businesses grew up around the New Wells, including a bowling green, a new-fangled coffeehouse, and a gaming and dancing hub at the Assembly Rooms, so the old well fell quickly into decline and was closed down. Meanwhile a scientist called Nehemiah Grew had been experimenting with the well water to try to discover the formulation of the mysterious salts dissolved within. His evaporation techniques may have been cutting-edge at the time, these being the early days of proper chemistry, but he was able to identify the principal component as sulphate of magnesia. Some lucrative business deals followed, leading to the production of Epsom Salts on an industrial scale, eventually from seawater.

By the mid-18th century Epsom's must-see status had been lost, upstaged by spa towns like Tunbridge or Bath with a more plentiful supply of therapeutic waters. But its tourist-based kickstart had made the town a desirable place in the country for many a wealthy gent, and several generations of provincial respectability followed. Epsom's town centre still has a smattering of contemporary buildings, especially at the western end of the High Street, these shielding a more modern playhouse and a fairly standard shopping mall. The market place outside survives, not too down-at-heel, crammed into a thin strip in the shadow of the famous Victorian clocktower. And the restored Assembly Rooms are now a Wetherspoons, continuing a long tradition of refreshment, but of the spa waters themselves there's no trace.

To find the original Epsom Well you have to walk a mile out of town to the middle of Epsom Common, as the first visitors did, where today sits a most peculiar interwar housing estate. This is almost perfectly circular in shape, with a radius of precisely one furlong, as this was the extent of the commonland given over to farmland when the old well closed down. The Wells Estate therefore consists of two concentric rings of 1930s semis surrounded on almost all sides by heath and woodland, connected to reality by a single access road. In the very centre of this residential labyrinth, enclosed by a ring of bungalows at the top of Well Way, is the original Epsom Well. The decorative iron cover was added in 1989, and the exterior bricks far look too modern, indeed there's an element of garden ornament about the whole thing. But step up from the parking bay and peer through the grille, and you're at the very spot where the contents of a million bathroom cabinets once originated.
by train: Epsom, Ashstead  by bus: 166, 293

Somewhere sporting: Epsom Downs
And then there's the racecourse. Again this has its origins in the 17th century, with England's first recorded horse race meeting taking place on the Epsom Downs in the presence of King Charles II. The open grassland to the south of the town was perfect for riding and racing, and the rolling landscape provided an excellent vantage point from which to spectate. Race meetings organised by the local nobility were soon taking place twice a year, and it was at the May Meetings in 1778 and 1779 that the two most famous races were inaugurated. First off were The Oaks, named after after Lord Derby's house near Carshalton, joined the following year by The Derby, named on the toss of a coin and so nearly called The Bunbury instead. As Epsom's fame grew so the race meetings became larger and more frequent, necessitating the building of a small royal grandstand and much larger stands for the commoners. The whole thing today is run as a huge commercial enterprise, complete with hospitality concessions and a Holiday Inn Express alongside. But the most amazing thing, if you ever visit outside racetime, is the free public access to almost the entire site.

You can't get into the grandstand area, of course. But the downs are open for roaming so long as you avoid the cinder tracks during the morning gallops. I walked down the side of the Duchess's Stand, opened in 2009 by our next Queen, following a sign intriguingly labelled Public Footpath. It led to an underpass beneath the home straight, through which racegoers are funnelled on days when hooves are thundering overhead. And that's nothing, a little further up another public path crosses the very turf itself, as I discovered when I was out this way back in June the day after the Derby. They've long since tidied up the mounds of rubbish, leaving the slopes within the white-railed horseshoe pristine, and ideal for a wander. It was simplicity itself to walk right up to the rails by the finishing line and look up and down the course, and across at the three grandstands - giant, medium and tiny. The dinky one painted pure white is the Prince's Stand, built in 1879 for the Prince of Wales, now used by Owners and Trainers as and when the need arises.

The Downs are a marvellous recreational resource for Epsom's residents, their dogs and their horses. And there's also a fantastic view from the northern side, across the golf course, looking down across most of West London. I timed my visit so that the low winter sun cast its light across the entire panorama, first spotting Wembley's arch, then the City cluster and Shard through the trees. Epsom and Ewell may never quite be absorbed into London, but the capital is never very far away.
by train: Epsom Downs, Tattenham Corner  by bus: 166

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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
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

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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