Wednesday, August 23, 2017
Twenty years ago yesterday I was offline.
Twenty years ago today I first connected my home to the internet.
I never looked back. It changed my life.
In the middle of August 1997 I bought a new computer. I needed a new one, not least because my old one couldn't connect to the new-fangled internet and this one could. At the time only about 5% of UK households had an internet connection, and I very much wanted to attach myself to this futuristic form of communication. I used my existing computer for word processing, printing stuff and playing games, but only with myself. Connecting to the wider world would open up a whole new range of possibilities I thought... and I was right.
The day after I bought my new computer I ordered a modem. My computer wouldn't connect to the internet by itself, I'd learned, so I needed an extra box plugged in at the back. I also needed some special software, so I ordered that too, and then I threw in a digital camera for good measure. Owning a digital camera was cutting edge at the time, and would mean I didn't have to take my negatives down to the chemist every time I wanted photographs. How ridiculously restrictive all that sounds now typing twenty years later.
The day after I ordered my modem it arrived. Gosh that's small, I thought. Then I realised it hadn't come with a connecting cable. this being well before the introduction of wi-fi, so popped out to Tandy in the High Street to buy one. The connection didn't seem to work, even after I'd tried fitting it into all sorts of holes all sorts of ways round, so I went back to Tandy to swap the cable, and that worked fine. But it didn't connect me to the internet.
For the next couple of days I continued in pre-web isolation. I watched some Star Trek repeats on BBC2. I bought newspapers and did the crossword. I picked up the brand new Oasis album in Our Price Records. I walked down to the building society to transfer some money from one account to the other. I played Minesweeper on my new computer. I sang along with Chumbawumba on Top of the Pops. Oh yes, I'm sure my life was well within its usual frame, the day before it came.
On the afternoon of Saturday 23rd August 1997 I finally worked out that the internet was only a phone call away. I rang up Demon, my internet provider of choice, and gave a nice Scottish lady all my debit card details. I then told her my choice of domain name, and she said that was stupid so I changed my mind, and settled instead on something I later wished I hadn't. And once all the necessary admin had been completed she told me I could be online in 15 minutes, and that my email account would be operational the following day.
I don't know what you did the first time you were let loose on the internet, but obviously I searched for stuff. I'd heard there was a search engine called Alta Vista so I used that, once I'd worked out how to type the address without getting any of the punctuation wrong. I swiftly located the Radio 1 website, and a fansite for the BBC2 show The Adventure Game, and the website of the local paper, and a website with amazing detail about upcoming solar eclipses, and a page with contact details for a friend from university, and it snowballed from there.
The next day I discovered newsgroups, and that was lots of Sunday taken care of. Through that I found a site about the London Underground, I don't think it was official, and then attempted to manoeuvre my way through the world of Yahoo. When my parents tried ringing in the evening they discovered my telephone line was engaged and had to try again later, and I had to explain what the reason was. Dial-up killed your phone bill, I'd soon discover, and had to be careful not to spend too long online during peak times on weekdays.
Once my email account was up and running I got in touch with that university friend whose contact details I'd discovered. A flurry of emails followed, my first email conversation, and the next weekend we met up again to say hi. The power of the internet was already apparent. I also discovered IRC, which opened up a completely different channel of communication, and ICQ, ditto. Everything was still seriously primitive compared to everything we can do today, but the enormous benefits of being able to find things out without leaving the house were already clear.
The BBC still didn't have a news website at that point, but the death of Princess Diana that weekend inspired a fledgling minisite which proved the appetite was there. I love the fact that those Diana news pages still exist, complete with tiny photos which wouldn't clog bandwidth and links to historic Real Audio files. These days we think nothing of opening up our phones to discover what someone the other side of the planet said 30 seconds ago, whereas back then it was simply amazing not have to wait for the next hourly news broadcast or daily paper.
Within a month I'd chatted with my future partner online. Within six months that conversation delivered a long-term relationship I'd never have entered offline. Within a year the internet sourced me a new job, 50 miles away, which I'd never have spotted otherwise. And within another year it helped to bring that so-called relationship crashing down, and kept me in touch with a support network throughout, and found me somewhere new to live afterwards. I'd not have moved to London without the internet, or met BestMate without the internet, or be talking to you now.
It's no exaggeration to say that connecting early to the internet changed my life, ultimately for the better. I just never realised quite how transformational it would be, that August Saturday 20 years ago, when my dial-up burbled for the very first time.
posted 07:00 :
Tuesday, August 22, 2017Proud Britons assembled beneath Big Ben yesterday at noon to witness the last chimes of the world's most important clock.
Planned maintenance means that Westminster's iconic clocktower will be out of action for four years, with scaffolding already smothering the lower half of the tower and plenty more to come. It seems some government committee decided the bell needed to be switched off to protect workmen's hearing, thanks to European health and safety legislation, which means no more bongs until 2021.
Thousands turned up in Parliament Square to wave the old girl off, while patriotic MPs gathered in the courtyard at the foot of St Stephen's Tower. Many had their phones poised to capture the bell's last hurrah for posterity, perhaps to replay as a crumb of comfort during the upcoming drought.
Dozens of TV crews had pitched up on the grass facing the Houses of Parliament, this being an event of international significance. In amongst them were several blue-jacketed guides handing out cut price vouchers for tours of the Palace, although their leaflet described Big Ben as 'the Great Bell', a glaring inaccuracy which suggested their special offer might be somewhat suspect.
At a few seconds to noon the familiar strains of the Westminster Chimes rang out from high overhead. Everyone stopped and looked up, enraptured, as the sixteen note prelude to the big event played through. In the short silence that followed both hands on the clock nudged closer to the vertical position, and then the first of twelve final bongs was heard.
The crowd swiftly hushed, their reverent silence interrupted only by the occasional bawling child and the growl of traffic intermittently streaming past. How familiar the sound, but also how fragile. These were the very same chimes which Queen Victoria herself once heard, which introduced Winston Churchill's finest speeches to the nation, and which stir the soul each night before the Shipping Forecast.
Every note which rang out was a reminder of the great clock's longevity, the importance of tradition and the unshakeable confidence of our island nation. A shiver ran through the collective backbone of all those present. Those planning ahead counted the chimes to be certain which was the last, while others lost track partway through, so only knew the tolling was over after the last reverberation finally faded away.
As one, the crowd burst forth into a spontaneous round of applause. Together they demonstrated their heartfelt approval with their hands, then with their voices, as a loud cheer went up across the square and along Westminster Bridge. If only the bell could have heard their approval how proud it would have been, but instead workmen moved in and clamped it tightly to prevent it from ever chiming again.
What kind of country switches off its prime timepiece for four whole years? I'm no expert, but surely the repairs can't be so difficult that Big Ben must be silenced until 2021. We must finish them sooner, tracking down deaf clockmenders if need be, and send them up onto the scaffolding 24 hours a day. Let us regain some of that Dunkirk Spirit! The current maintenance timescale makes no sense whatsoever.
Apparently the bell will be restarted for Remembrance Day, Remembrance Sunday and New Year's Eve, so that's something. But why can we not undertake this complex restitution every evening after the day's work is complete? And what of St George's Day, the Queen's Birthdays and The Day We Leave Europe? The greatest celebrations of our lives will surely ring hollow without the moral support of the Westminster Chimes.
Also, not enough people turned up in Parliament Square yesterday to bid farewell. True Britons would have paid their respects in person, providing true comfort at this desperately sad moment in our island's history, and their failure to show up reveals a real poverty of imagination. What is wrong with our country that we accept this bureaucratic travesty without a fight?
Most onlookers had vanished by quarter past twelve, when the first unnatural silence kicked in, and almost all had fled by one o'clock when the truly historic event occurred - nothing bonged. But let us celebrate the fact that thousands of people did come to see, and cheer, something they could have heard every hour on the hour every day for the past several decades. What sweet rapture it was to experience the truly ordinary one last time.
We shall not hear its like again. How dare they!
posted 07:00 :
Monday, August 21, 2017One cold February morning way back in 1971, just before playtime as I remember, the headmistress at my infant school came bustling into our classroom. She asked us all to go outside, to stand in the middle of the playground and to look carefully upwards. The sky was blue apart from one large fluffy cloud, obscuring the sun but just transparent enough to allow sight of a horned black crescent behind, its upper half eaten away by some unseen cosmic force. This was the first eclipse of the sun that I'd ever seen, and it made quite an impression (though thankfully not by burning out my retina). Since then I've always gone out of my way to make a special effort to view any solar eclipse if I possibly can - although the number I've managed to see has only just crept into double figures, that's how rare these things are.
While I was still at primary school I discovered in a reference book that a total eclipse of the sun was due to cross the UK in 1999. That date seemed impossibly far off at the time - I'd be, ooh, absolutely ancient - but it was most definitely a date to look forward to. Immediately I knew I wanted to be in Cornwall on that August morning several decades hence, simply to experience this once in a lifetime opportunity. As the end of the century approached I got time off work, booked a vastly overpriced hotel room and lumbered myself with a less than enthusiastic (Cornish) travelling companion. We braved the traffic jams and the increasingly pessimistic weather forecast to head southwest, enduring it all just to be in the path of the moon's shadow during that unique two minute slot.
It was sunny in Cornwall at ten past eleven on every other morning that week, but on Wednesday 11th August the cloud rolled in and obscured the sky throughout the entire three hour spectacle. At the crucial climactic moment a huge dark shadow whooshed in from the Atlantic and blackened the land like some eerie premature twilight, but the true spectacle was sweeping across the cloudtops a few hundred feet above our heads. So near, and yet so far. I was crushed. The event I'd been dreaming of for so long had proved the most enormous disappointment, and I suffered "Was that it? You brought me all the way down here for that?" for the rest of the week. London friends crowed on our return that they'd seen everything perfectly and unobscured, except they'd only seen 97% and it was the uniqueness of totality I'd felt compelled to experience.
In amongst all the eclipse paraphernalia I acquired at the time was a book listing every future solar eclipse up to 2020. There seemed to be plenty, but once the partial and annular eclipses were stripped out only 13 total eclipses remained. What's more most of these were in awkward locations like Antarctica or across the open ocean, so I wasn't going to get to see any of those. But one stood out, a total eclipse on 21st August 2017, whose path would cross the entire width of the United States of America and thus be easily accessible. Having failed in 1999, I pencilled in USA 2017 as my next attainable totality.
Last time I was standing in a queue with an eclipse chaser I made sure to ask where the best weather prospects would be found along its track. The Northwest, she said, specifically Oregon, confirming in my mind which side of the country would be optimal. Nobody wants to travel all that way and then see nothing, as I'd discovered in 1999. Meanwhile Idaho and Wyoming seemed too remote for a Brit with no transport, Kansas City was too peripheral to the line of totality, and Nashville had a reputation for summer cloud. There was a time in the last ten years when I had a friend living in Charleston, South Carolina, but they moved swiftly on and that option disappeared. The Great American Eclipse remained a possibility rather than a planned reality.
"We should definitely go," I said to BestMate, and more than once over the entire time I've known him. His work often takes him to the west coast of America, he even has a visa, so that would help. Except, it turned out as 2017 drew closer, his visa expired at exactly the wrong time for a midsummer visit, so going together was suddenly off the table. Never mind, I had one last trick up my sleeve, I lost my job. My time was now my own, and nobody was going to tell me I couldn't have that week off because there was some deadline or a meeting they thought important. If I wanted to go and watch the moon glide precisely in front of the Sun, I could.
But I haven't gone to America. I could have, and I wanted to, but I never got round to planning it. More to the point, just when I was actually thinking about planning it, America changed. From being a sort-of welcoming country under the previous administration, the inauguration of Donald Trump set in train a series of pronouncements on borders, security and immigration control which deterred me from going. Travelling into an American airport is never fun, and if additional procedures were going to make things worse, I didn't want to go. It's probably only a perception issue - a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing - but Trump changed my mind and put me off visiting his country. Totally.
Instead I shall have to watch today's total eclipse virtually from across the pond, from 18:16 BST in Oregon to 19:48 BST in South Carolina. It'll be nowhere near the same as actually being there - no substitute ever comes close to experiencing totality with your own eyes - but I've let this prime opportunity slip away. And then, to rub salt in my wounds, the partial eclipse will come whizzing across the Atlantic and reach the UK just before sunset. The first black nibble over London comes at 19:40, with maximum coverage at 20:04, just before sunset at 20:11. But that means the sun'll be really low in the sky, plus only 4% of the solar disc will be covered which is pathetically small as eclipses go, so this one's really not worth bothering to look at at all.
Three other not very good partial eclipses will be seen from London over the next eight years, before the next cracker in the summer of 2026. Over 90% of the sun will be covered on 12th August 2026, which is as good as it gets until 2081, if you're planning on still being around then. But there are two nearby countries where the 2026 eclipse will be total, namely Iceland and Spain, so maybe I should start making plans to be there instead. That once-in-a-lifetime spectacle deserves to be seen one day, but not today... opportunity spurned, opportunity missed.
London's next ten partial solar eclipses
• Mon 21 August 2017 (20:04 BST) 4%
• Thu 10 June 2021 (11:13 BST) 20%
• Tue 25 October 2022 (10:59 BST) 15%
• Sat 29 March 2025 (11:03 GMT) 31%
• Wed 12 August 2026 (19:13 BST) 91%
• Mon 2 August 2027 (10:00 BST) 42%
• Sat 1 June 2030 (06:21 BST) 48%
• 21 Aug 2036 (19:07 BST) 60%
• 16 Jan 2037 (09:06 GMT) 46%
• 3 Jan 2038 (14:34 GMT) 5%
The UK's next five total solar eclipses
• 3 September 2081 (Guernsey, Jersey)
• 23 September 2090 (South coast, Cornwall to Sussex)
• 3 June 2133 (Outer Hebrides, Dunnet Head, Shetland)
• 7 October 2135 (Central Scotland and Northumberland)
• 25 May 2142 (Jersey)
London's next total solar eclipse
• 14 June 2151 (the last was on 3 May 1715)
posted 07:00 :
Sunday, August 20, 2017I spotted this advert for Royal Museums Greenwich on the tube.
Greenwich is one of the UK's 10 most-visited attractions.
UNESCO are so aware of Greenwich they gave it World Heritage status.
The system of time the entire world uses is based on Greenwich.
Greenwich is not London's best kept secret, in any way whatsoever.
Marketing liars are evil people.
posted 12:00 :
Geoff and Vicki finally finished their All The Stations journey yesterday, after almost 15 weeks on the trains. They started out in Penzance back in May and reached Wick yesterday evening, having visited all of Britain's 2563 National Rail stations. In doing so they've travelled the length and breadth of the country, via almost everywhere, including places you'll never go, and knocked out over 50 videos along the way. Damned impressive stuff.
Should you ever want to follow in their footsteps and undertake a lengthy railway adventure, the ticket you need is an All Line Rover. Try gadding about wherever you like on a normal ticket and an inspector will shake their head, because random meandering's not allowed. Meanwhile all the other rover tickets, of which there are many, are geographically quite restrictive. But an All Line Rover allows allows unlimited travel on any National Rail services for either 7 or 14 consecutive days (certain peak trains excepted, terms and conditions apply), which is definitely the way to go.
The only catch is the price, which is a heck of a lot of money. The Standard Class All Line Rover (7 Days) costs £492, while an All Line Rover (14 Days) costs £745.
All Line Rover 7 days £492 £70 a day All Line Rover 14 days £745 £53 a day
Walk-up tickets for some long-distance journeys are ridiculously expensive, in which case £70 a day is a bargain. But unless you're planning to do a lot of cross-country journeys without getting off to explore, those aren't very appealing fares.
So here's some news that may make you very cross. If you're not British, you can travel for half price.
The Britail GB Pass is sold online by Visit Britain and allows 8 days unlimited rail travel for £250. Several other durations are available, including 15 days for £372, which is half the cost of the equivalent All Line Rover. What's more a Britrail GB Pass has no peak time restrictions, so it's actually a better product. But it's only available to tourists coming from abroad. As the website confirms, "You can't buy a BritRail Pass if you have a UK passport".
BritRail GB Pass 3 days £140 £47 a day BritRail GB Pass 4 days £173 £43 a day BritRail GB Pass 8 days £250 £31 a day BritRail GB Pass 15 days £372 £25 a day BritRail GB Pass 22 days £466 £21 a day BritRail GB Pass 1 month £550 £18 a day
Look, overseas tourists can even buy a 22-day go-anywhere rail ticket for less money than Britons pay for 7 days. How can that fare be fair?
Stringent checks are made to ensure you can't buy a Britrail GB Pass if you're not entitled to one. You have to provide the date of your outbound departure from the UK, plus details of the flight number, train or ferry booking number, and you have to be staying in the country for 6 months or less. During ticket checks inspectors will expect to see "proof of return travel from Britain", and if you live here you can't do that, so you have to pay twice as much.
Britrail GB Passes are clearly marketed as offering "preferential rates as an overseas visitor". That's great, if it helps overseas visitors take the train rather than fly or waste time travelling by coach. But there is a general underlying air of admitting Britain's fare system is ridiculously complicated, so buy this expensive ticket and save the worry of having to queue up or pre-book tickets before you arrive.
Other Britrail Passes are available, but UK residents can't buy any of those either. For example the BritRail England Pass costs £199 for 8 days, which sounds nice, but you can't have one. Only if you surrendered your passport and went and lived abroad could you have the freedom of England's railways for £25 a day.
All of this preferential treatment might make you very cross. But if you are peeved, the thing to be angry about isn't "why do foreigners pay half price?" It's "why do Britons have to pay twice as much?"
posted 07:00 :
Saturday, August 19, 201720 London Museums You've Never Heard Of
All of the borough's historic heritage under one roof
"I never knew Uxbridge was so interesting"
EDGWARE TITHE BARN
Celebrating 13th century life as it was lived
Half price for senior citizens on Mondays
THE ENFIELD OBELISK
Egyptian column with unrivalled views across Edmonton
Unsuitable for those with vertigo
CHINGFORD TANK MUSEUM
World-class display of armoured vehicles
Follow us at @chingfordtanks
Officially London's oldest Tudor relic
Free entry for National Trust members
THE NEASDEN COLLECTION
Teaspoons through the ages
2-for-1 offer available in the cafe
LEA VALLEY FARM
Includes full history of local agricultural implements
Please wash your hands after visiting
Neolithic stone circle
Early closing on Wednesdays
OSTERLEY SAFARI PARK
Middlesex's most exciting big game adventure
n.b. sight of lions not guaranteed
NATIONAL HAT MUSEUM
Britain's finest collection of National Hats
Top Trilbies exhibition - final weeks!
Unique copies of Dickens' First Folios are on display
As recommended in the Northbank Gazette
BARKING WAX MUSEUM
Madame Tussaud's eastern outpost
Combined London Eye ticket available
Guiding traffic down the Thames since 1648
Access at low tide only
TOOTING BEC GALLERY
Best place to see the Great Impressionists
Evening Standard Top Pick ★★★★★
PENGE CANDLE MUSEUM
All the candles. All of them.
Closes at dusk
The stately home of Lord Bexley
Gardens currently closed for renovation
The famous museum of hedges and topiary
Children must be accompanied at all times
See the night sky without leaving London
CROYDON SCULPTURE PARK
Where the leftover Henry Moores are kept
75% off with an Art Pass
Henry VIII's secret jousting HQ
Car Boot Sale every Saturday
posted 07:00 :
Friday, August 18, 20174♥ Croydon
The County Borough of Croydon came into existence in 1889, with the parish of Addington added in 1925. Local burghers have long been keen to grant the borough city status, but proximity to London, and then being amalgamated into it, seem to have quashed that dream. For today's post I've chosen to visit the tongue of farmland which became New Addington and to walk around the edge of the infamous estate. In news which may surprise you, I had a lovely time and it was very pretty.
A walk around New Addington
It's unexpectedly difficult to leave New Addington. Despite the estate's boundary being over five miles long, only two roads lead out of the built-up area and connect to their surroundings - one to the north and one to the south. Both exits follow the line of the sole country lane which once wound across open fields, and inexplicably no other roads (only a tramline) have been added since. What's more, if you check on an Ordnance Survey map, only one public footpath leads out of New Addington to the east, and none at all to the west. Can somewhere with a five-figure population really be so insular, I wondered.
The obvious place to start a circumnavigation of New Addington is the bus station opposite 'old' Addington at the foot of Lodge Lane. Most residents drive or bike or bus or tram or walk up the hill from here to get home. Instead I headed along the dual carriageway towards Selsdon to follow another survivor from agricultural days, Featherbed Lane, which runs parallel to the west. Initially it's very suburban, with a crescent and cul-de-sacs off to one side and the woody ascent into Forestdale on the other. A large meadow opens up on the eastern flank, seemingly somewhere for local hounds to run and defecate, then a Jehovah's Witness hall with a Sunday-sized car park. But all further access to the east is blocked off by the largest landowner hereabouts, Addington Court Golf Club, and they're not letting any New Addingtonians through.
Its 18 holes are split, unseen, on either side of the lane, which proceeds serenely screened through the centre. A long strip of unmown meadow runs along half a mile of footpath, alive with yellow flowers, in complete contrast to the housing estate out of sight atop the ridge. And aha, there is one track straight down from there, it's just not been designated an official public right of way so tends not to appear on maps. It's also a very steep path, so steep that the council have added barriers to prevent two-wheelers speeding down... and this being New Addington each barrier also has a motorbike-width diversion pressed into the surrounding undergrowth.
The upper entrance to this path is poorly signed, and runs down the side of Fishers Farm, a council tip, where cars queue to chuck away recyclables and crushables. It's no alluring exit. But there is a marvellous scenic treasure to be discovered beyond, namely Hutchinsons Bank, a steep chalk escarpment blessed with long grass, woodland and scrub. A labyrinth of gated paths runs along its length, at various heights, ripe for exploration, and with fine views out towards thick leafy canopy on the opposite bank. The shrieks you can hear over there are from a Scout camp, fractionally into Surrey, the capital coming to an abrupt end just across Featherbed Lane.
So quiet were the paths in Threecorner Grove that I startled a deer, right up close, which attempted escape through a concealed fence before realising its mistake and hopping off Bambi-style down the path. I don't think I've ever been closer in the wild, and felt like I was having my own proper wildlife adventure. I'd have expected this doorstep wilderness to be well used for rest and play, especially in the school summer holidays, but the only other people I met across its many acres were white-suited contractors here to spray the grass. Instead this half-mile-long natural resource is barely accessible from the estate above, linked via overgrown footpaths most modern offspring are kept well away from.
'Twas not always thus. At the top of a particularly brambly footpath I reached Fairchildes Avenue, once the home of author John Grindrod, whose latest book Outskirts explores the influence of the edge of the Green Belt. In this case the Green Belt begins immediately across the street, a fringe of trees and undergrowth above a sharp dip, tumbling down towards the amusingly-named hamlet of Fickleshole. John lived in one of these houses facing the outer edge of the estate, occasionally venturing out down the track I'd just panted up... and now I've visited, Chapters Three and Ten make a lot more sense.
At the end of Fairchildes Avenue is a cluster of schools, the secondary named after the Greenwich Meridian which cuts directly across its site. Here too is the only other road out of New Addington, King Henry's Drive, winding briefly towards fields, narrow lanes and Biggin Hill. Even here the public rights of way are non-existent, the only footpath down the side of the playing field unsigned until it crosses into a neighbouring borough. The path also follows a former Roman road, which once linked London to Lewes, and later marked the boundary between Surrey and Kent. As such it defined New Addington's entire eastern boundary, the line beyond which development could not take place, and my next task was to attempt to follow it north.
Initially that was impossible and I had to walk through the estate instead. This meant passing postwar semis nestled round communal greens, with occasional modern infill where the council later realised they could squeeze in more. If you've never visited, it's nicer than you probably imagine. An outlier shopping parade has local needs perfectly sewn up... two supermarkets, two takeaways and a hairdressers... while opposite is New Addington's low key industrial estate, home to welders, car repair centres and evangelical churches. From the pavement at the top of the hill a fine view of distant City skyscrapers can be enjoyed, briefly, before the road dips. And somewhere round here is the entrance to the woods, and another way out...
Croydon council's contempt for New Addington's peripheral space is summed up by the unwelcoming gates and faded warnings across the only entrance to Rowdown Wood. Nothing suggests it might be enjoyable to wander past, deeper into the trees, to meet a forest track along the (approximate) alignment of that Roman road. Five minutes to the right the path stops abruptly at the wall of the industrial estate, with no way of nipping through, before doglegging into the adjacent agricultural nowhere. Even though you could walk out of New Addington this way, it's hard to see why anyone would want to.
But in the opposite direction the track weaves down through the woods, rubbing up against a golden harvested field, before briefly breaking out beside an open space. Alsatians are sometimes exercised here, I noted. I also noted a rough road which I thought might be the elusive 'other way to drive out of New Addington', but it stopped abruptly at the gate of a large electricity substation a few metres beyond the boundary. And then I dived back into the woods, another verdant linear treat, again with the dappled paths entirely to myself. Does nobody ever venture out here, I wondered... and then I got my answer.
Five burnt-out mopeds had been abandoned beside a footpath junction near the top end of Birch Wood. It didn't take long to discover an access point close by, and the boxy closes of Fieldway just beyond, whose youth clearly enjoy having a scrambling track on tap. Logs have been placed strategically along the main path to make driving through the woods more cathartic, and burning your steed at the end of a circuit is presumably sometimes par for the course. When the riders aren't here, however, a mile's hike through the woods is highly enjoyable... all the way down to the main road, one stop from the bus station where I started.
Having been to New Addington several times before, it was a surprise to break out to explore its perimeter, having previously been hemmed in by miserably limited road and footpath access. I don't expect you'll ever follow in my green and pleasant footsteps (although you might give Hutchinsons Bank a try). But I do now understand why John Grindrod describes his home estate as "not just on the edge of the green belt but encircled by it", "an atoll of concrete and red brick surrounded by a sea of green". Unless you know where to find its minimal exits, New Addington really is an isolated residential island.
posted 07:00 :
Thursday, August 17, 2017Open House is returning to London in a month's time, specifically Saturday 16th and Sunday 17th September. It's also the project's 25th year! Only 20 buildings took part back in 1992, but this year there are more than 800. What's more, this is the first year all 33 London boroughs are taking part. Harrow has stopped going its own way, Bromley and Bexley have chipped in, and even Kingston has finally stopped pretending it's still in Surrey and is joining for the very first time.
Obviously if you're interested you should get hold of the official printed Guide (now £7 plus p&p, I remember when you could pick up a free copy at your local library, etc etc). There's also an app, which I understand is free, and arrives on your favourite electromagnetic store today. Today's also the day the website goes live, glitches permitting, so you can try to search through the mountain of stuff and see what there is to visit this year. I've searched the print version, and here's a selection of good stuff which requires prompt action in advance.
n.b. 8am: Links may be incorrect or blank because booking's not supposed to be live yet
n.b. I'll try to add some more links and information after the website updates (which is usually 10am-ish)
n.b. Some of the stuff appears to have 'sold out' already, because booking went live before today (grumble grumble)
n.b. 3pm: The website is now starting to go live, but so far only the homepage and none of the events
n.b. 4pm: The website now appears to be live, but is struggling and keeps falling over
n.b. I'd quite like to meet the designer who gave the website non-scrollable dropdown menus and shout at them, very loudly
n.b. Fewer venues seem to require pre-booking this year, which is good
n.b. Here's Ian Visits' list of bookable choices
n.b. Don't be greedy now...
28 Open House treats to be pre-booked online
• Tower 42 (Sat 10.00-17.00) [sold out yesterday]
• One Blackfriars (Sat/Sun 10.00-17.00) [sold out yesterday]
• South Bank Tower (Sat 10.00-16.00) [sold out yesterday]
• The Leadenhall Building (Sat 10.00-16.00) [open]
• St Paul's Cathedral - Triforium Tour (Sat 11.00-18.00) [sold out]
• St Pancras Chambers and Clock Tower (Sat/Sun 10.00-16.00) [sold out]
• 55 Broadway (London Underground HQ) (Sat/Sun 11.30-15.30) [sold out]
• Tottenham Court Road Station (Sat/Sun 11.00-15.00) [sold out]
• Piccadilly Circus Station (Sat/Sun 11.00-15.30) [sold out]
• Jubilee Line Night Tour (Fri 23:59) [sold out]
• The Queen's Chapel, St James' Palace (Sat 10.00-14.00, Sun 10.00-17.00) [open]
• Lambeth Palace (Sat 09.00-14.00) [sold out]
• Royal Automobile Club (Sat/Sun 10.00, 11.30, 15.00) [open]
• Islington Town Hall (Sun 12.00, 14.00) [sold out yesterday]
• Fishmongers Hall (Sat/Sun 10.30, 12.00) [sold out]
• Lancaster House (Sat/Sun 09.30-15.30) [open]
• Alexandra Palace (basement) (Sat 10.00-16.00) [open]
• The Old Vic (Sat 09.00, 10.45) [sold out]
• Government Art Collection (Sat 10.00-16.00) [open]
• The National Archives (Sat 10.00-17.00) [sold out]
• Lakeside Centre, Thamesmead (Sat/Sun 14.00) [open]
• Abbey Mills Pumping Station (Sat/Sun 10.00-17.00) [sold out]
• Oak Room, New River Head (Sat/Sun 10.00-17.00) [open]
• Central Hill Estate (Sun 11.00-18.00) [sold out yesterday]
• Dawsons Heights (Sat 10.00-16.00) [open]
• Cranbrook Estate (Sun 12.00-17.00) [open]
• The Francis Crick Institute (Sat 11.00-15.00) [sold out]
• New Scotland Yard (Sat/Sun 11.00-16.30) [booking starts 30th Aug]
6 Open House treats to be pre-booked by email
• One Canada Square (Sat 10.00-16.00) [open]
• Silvertown (inc Millennium Mills) (Sat 10.30, 12.30) [open]
• Underground Bunker, Neasden (Sat 08.30-17.30) [open]
• Deephams Sewage Treatment Works (Sat 10.00-16.00) [open]
• Battle of Britain Bunker & Visitor Centre (Sat/Sun 10.00-17.00) [open]
• The Building of a New Town: An Architecture Tour of Thamesmead (Sat 11.00) [open]
5 Open House treats to be pre-booked by telephone
• Yeoman Warders Club, Tower of London [open]
• Phoenix Cinema, Finchley [open]
• Wrotham Park, Barnet [open]
• Fuller's Griffin Brewery [open]
• 155 Holland Park Avenue [open]
3 Open House specials with tickets available by ballot
• 10 Downing Street (expect MI5 to check you out if you win this one) [open]
• BT Tower (includes access to the iconic revolving floor) [open]
• The View from The Shard (OK, it's not so special this one, just a great way to get up top for nothing) [open]
posted 08:00 :
Wednesday, August 16, 2017Approximately three-quarters of London's nineteen-thousand-or-so bus stops have a letter on top. About five hundred of them have a D on top, and about four hundred have a G. But only five of them have a DG on top. I've been to all five.
n.b. Regular readers will already have realised this is not a post about bus stops.
Bus Stop DG: CHAPTER ROAD
Location: Dudden Hill Lane, Dollis Hill, NW10 1DG
London Borough of Brent
Buses: 226, 302, N98
All of London's DG bus stops are in southeast London, except this one. It's in quintessential northwest London, on the outskirts of Willesden, outside a chicken shop and a Polish delicatessen. The chicken shop has bright orange frontage and also does pizzas, plus a special "1 piece chicken, 2 lamb ribs, regular fries" deal for £3. The deli looks rather more decrepit, with a faded sepia sign and several sheets of card in the window shielding goodies from abroad. Other delights in this parade include the Supersavers off licence, Tech Dry Cleaners and the Two Wheels motorcycle shop. No branded coffee outlet has contemplated digging in anywhere nearby.
And yet. Just across the road one corner of the Sapcote Trading Estate has been knocked down and is rising again as The Verge Apartments, a discordant development of panels, balconies and glass. Without wishing to belittle the existing residents of Dudden Hill Lane, there is no way that this downbeat street "nestles in a buzzing cosmopolitan corner of North West London", neither is this in any way "the perfect area to escape from the hustle and bustle of city living". But the Jubilee line from "Dollis Hills" is indeed only just round the corner, so I wonder how long before the neighbouring tyre-fitters, MOT garage and plant hire depot go the same way.
A special message to The People Who Update Bus Stops: The timetable for route 302 is missing. An out-of-date poster for Jubilee line replacement bus service D fills the third space instead.
Bus Stop DG: UNDERHILL ROAD
Location: Barry Road, East Dulwich, SE22 0HP
London Borough of Southwark
Buses: 12, 197
I've crossed London to another Victorian district, but what a contrast. The streets of Dulwich are cosily affluent, with Barry Road fractionally one-up on its neighbours. This leafy avenue runs from Peckham Rye Park to Dulwich Library, the elusive destination often seen on the front of a central London bus but rarely visited. Sturdy villas line the street, the number of constituent flats easily approximated by dividing the number of bins out front by 3. Several, it seems, have still never been subdivided. One has been transformed into the local British Legion HQ, so has a Union Jack fluttering outside, while others have giant lanterns in their porches and/or wine bottles in their recycling.
Bus Stop DG, however, sits outside a large block of mansion flats, presenting a face of decorative brickwork towards the street. One of its tiny balconies is bedecked with hanging baskets and miniature globes of privet, another with twin satellite dishes, according to the tenants' priorities. Barry Road is one of those streets where the bus stops have been built out into the road, narrowing the carriageway, in this case merely reducing the space for parking cars. This being almost-Peckham there's a barber shop at one end of the road; this being almost-Dulwich there's a boulangerie a little further down.
A special message to The People Who Maintain Bus Stops: The lime tree beside the bus shelter is in such fine fettle that the top of the bus stop pole has been entirely smothered by the foliage, making it really difficult to read which two buses stop here, and nigh impossible to read the point letter on top.
Bus Stop DG: KINGSMAN STREET
Location: Woolwich High Street, Woolwich, SE18 5QE
Royal Borough of Greenwich
Buses: 161, 177, 180, 472, N1
A regenerative nucleus is blossoming on the Woolwich waterfront, as well known names in the world of housebuilding move in and stack up flats in lustrous towers. This bus stop lies just beyond the developmental boundary, past the triple-header at Mast Quay, on the start of the run down to Charlton. There has been no redevelopment here. Instead the council estate sweeping back around Woolwich Dockyard station holds sway, and the glory days of the pub adjacent to the bus stop are long past. Happy Hour at the Greyhound now means 50p off a pint, while the 'Weekend Entertainment' promised on a fading painted board is now merely Sky Sports.
As for Kingsman Parade, I might have explored the shops further had there not been a herd of teens holding court outside the bookies and lurking loudly by the chippie. I'm not generally put off my explorations by the local subculture, but here I decided to make a special case. Instead I took a closer look at the mural on the long ramp down into the subway, which I think depicts boatbuilders on a galleon, and waited for a bus to whisk me somewhere, anywhere else.
Bus Stop DG: BROMLEY COURT HOTEL
Location: Bromley Hill, Plaistow, BR1 4HZ
London Borough of Bromley
Buses: 208, 320, N199
That's Plaistow in Bromley, rather than Newham, as my southeast London tour continues. Bromley Hill climbs gently up from Downham, with a decent view back down from the bus shelter towards one of Lewisham's greener hilltops. This Bus Stop DG doesn't immediately look like it serves any local houses, but a drab bungalow is hidden up a driveway opposite and numerous For Sale boards confirm the existence of several dwellings behind the screen of trees. It's also the second Bus Stop DG with an advert for McDonalds emblazoned across the shelter, this drive-thru in Downham supposedly new and 'freshly prepared'.
The hotel in the bus stop's title is located off the main road up what appears to be a driveway but actually leads to a separate suburban street. The Bromley Court Hotel are keen to point out that this is a private road, which they've emphasised by draping shrubbery over both pavements forcing any pedestrians to walk in the traffic. It's quite a building, though, knocked up around the turn of the 19th century as a government minister's country estate, hence the Italianate gardens which survive (for guests only) round the back. £35 will get you a seat at their Rod Stewart tribute night in September, although step back fifty years and the real David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd once played here.
Bus Stop DG: ST PETER AND ST PAUL SCHOOL
Location: St Paul's Wood Hill, St Paul's Cray, BR5 2SR
London Borough of Bromley
As is usually the case if you head on a random journey across London, one of the locations comes up trumps. What I wasn't expecting is that that location would be St Paul's Cray, the postwar overspill estate to the north of Orpington. But this particular bus stop is out on the more affluent fringe, where Arts and Crafts style detached houses rub up against the edge of Chislehurst Common, and that was much more pleasant. One one side of the road is a large patch of thistly flowery meadow, and on the other an expanse of fresh-mown grass leading down to a wall of trees. And that's where I went.
Hoblingwell Wood is a remnant of once-ancient woodland, occupying several acres around a dip where a spring feeds a stream. The name does indeed refer to 'the well of the hobgoblins', as evil spirits were once thought to live here, whereas lizards and foxes are now more common. I traced a newly-laid path round the rim of the green bowl, then a narrower, older track back, startling a cat who thought this was her private domain, and avoiding acorns falling from above. Despite being peak summer holidays no other humans were to be seen, the adjacent recreation ground generally getting all the attention, and I relished the opportunity to explore nature alone. This is the Bus Stop DG I'm most glad I made a (brief) pilgrimage to.
A special message to The People Who Pick Adverts For Bus Shelters: Nobody in outer Bromley is interested in the Santander Cycles app, it does not Unlock Their London.
posted 07:00 :
Tuesday, August 15, 2017The Garden Bridge will absolutely definitely not be built.
The Chairman of the Garden Bridge Trust threw in the towel yesterday.
"The Garden Bridge Trust, the charity established to build and run the proposed Garden Bridge in central London, today announced that it will be winding up the project. It has informed the Mayor of London, as well as Transport for London (TfL) and the Department for Transport, who have both allocated public funds to the project, of its decision. The Trust has had no choice but to take this decision because of lack of support for the project going forward from the Mayor."I went down to Temple station and wept.
This lacklustre corner of the Northbank could have been transformed by groundbreaking design, but instead has nothing going for it, as can be clearly seen from the featureless roof terrace above the station.
What kind of a view is this supposed to be?
It's impossible to see the Thames because there are trees in the way. How much better it would have been to chop them down and replace them with plants on a bridge. But no, the new Mayor thought he knew better.
He's also turned his back on a direct crossing of the Thames at the precise location London needs it most. At present it's almost impossible to walk from Temple to the South Bank, not without hiking four minutes to Waterloo Bridge and crossing there, which inconveniences hundreds of people daily.
And have you seen the view from Waterloo Bridge? There's not a beautiful flower in sight, which there could have been if only the Mayor hadn't been so pettily narrow-minded.
Queueing to cross a sponsored garden would have been a proper experience, smiling at the security guards on the way through the gates, then weaving through the heavy crowds without breaking any of the bye-laws.
What's more the bridge would only have been closed to the public for twelve days a year, or every day if you were a cyclist, because the last thing central London needs is another superhighway.
It's hard to believe that this desolate stretch of the South Bank won't now be demolished. The site currently suffers from scrappy grass, litter-strewn tarmac and a bloke trying to flog smoothies, when it could contain so much more!
How much more realistic to replace it with a beautiful bridge, the space underneath artfully crammed with gift shops and cafes - tourist facilities criminally lacking in the locality at present.
London could have had another world class attraction like the cablecar or the Orbit, but instead a dazzling icon conjured up by the previous Mayor has been cruelly spurned. Fewer international visitors will now flock to our great capital, and we will all be poorer for it.
£37m of public money has been wasted on this drawn-out planning debacle, which is entirely the fault of Sadiq Khan for lacking vision, and definitely not the bridge's trustees who couldn't raise the money themselves.
Next time a privatised bridge comes along demanding public funds, pretending to be a transport link rather than a tourist attraction, we should have the nerve to embrace its folly whatever the long-term cost.
Instead these trees survive, the existing view remains, no further money will be wasted, and some quite rich people have seen their dreams of a floating paradise cruelly dashed. Weep with me.
posted 07:00 :
Monday, August 14, 2017THE UNLOST RIVERS OF LONDON
Mill Hill → Totteridge → North Finchley (2¼ miles)
[Folly Brook → Dollis Brook → Brent → Thames]
The amazing thing about the Folly Brook is that, although it flows across north London for over two miles, its valley is almost entirely un-built-up. Wealthy Totteridge residents stepped in to protect the land from development between the wars, since when the Green Belt has done the job for them. What remains is mostly farmland, woodland and haymeadows, so that's lovely, although it's not always possible to walk alongside the river, especially in its upper course.
The Folly Brook divides Totteridge from Mill Hill, its valley a gentle dip between the ridges to north and south. It rises near the foot of Holcombe Hill, best accessed by 251 bus if you're coming by public transport, across a field occupied by two grazing ponies. The opening few metres run between clipped hedges through a pristine plank-lined trench, which I suspect forms part of a water jump when horsey types come to ride. Beyond that the fledgling brook disappears off into a wedge of woodland, which you can't follow because the paddock's owners have put up 'Private' signs on every available approach. You sense they don't approve of the perpendicular public footpath, but can do nothing to stop it.
The stream's first mile is accessible in only two places, the first on a footpath sweeping down from Totteridge to Mill Hill. I walked in from the former, the posh linear village preferred by celebs, showbiz names and football managers, which always looks like it belongs in Surrey but was in fact once part of Hertfordshire. On my shady descent I passed a haybaler weaving back and forth to bring in the harvest, and a farmer dashing out to watch proceedings on his red quad bike. Folly Brook was barely visible from the footbridge, recent downpours not having been enough to set this end of the stream in motion.
The ascent to Mill Hill is more eventful, passing through the livestock-filled grounds of Belmont Farm. Take care crossing the horse track, for fear of being knocked down by a canterer, then watch out for grazing cattle and pigs snuffling right up against the path. This large-scale visitor attraction is open to all, especially families with young children, with daily activities including Meet The Cows, Meet The Sheep and Meet The Tortoise. Posters out front also seem insistent that Belmont Farm's cafe serves the finest waffles in London, which must be annoying for any foodies who've been grazing in Shoreditch or Peckham instead.
Mill Hill Village, like Totteridge, is a corner of the capital that makes you gasp "seriously, this is London?" The ridgetop road is lined with posh schools and institutions, including the copper-topped bastion of the former Francis Crick Institute. The High Street is 100 metres of quaint terminating at a duckpond, by the almshouses, opposite a church now taken over by a white-robed congregation with Nigerian roots. A couple of streets of posh houses lead steeply down the hill, one of which screams Private but actually has a public footpath at the end, which subsequently crosses the local cricket pitch on a brazen diagonal.
If you were hoping to read about the Folly Brook, the good news is we're finally back on track. To rejoin it turn right at Folly Farm, a residential fortress with a supremely whiny hound, and the only building along the first two miles of the river. Alongside is a meandering channel, which actually has some water in it after the downpours of the last week, though is nothing special to look at. This section of the walk is a favourite for people who've parked up at the garden centre and fancy a short stroll, nothing too strenuous, maybe down to the gate and back, or perhaps across the next open field. One of Totteridge's ginormous deluxe mansions is wilfully visible at the top of the rise.
A previous mansion-on-the-ridge, Copped Hall, is responsible for the highpoint of today's journey. Its formal gardens included an ornamental lake created by damming the Folly Brook, which was then transformed in the 1970s into Darland Lake Nature Reserve. The lake's also really shallow, which is how I got to watch a heron striding purposefully across the centre in search of lunch. A limited number of footpaths lead through the woodland site, including either side of the lake, with connections to the dogwalking meadows below Totteridge as appropriate. I walked round twice, because all was so joyously peaceful, and also slipped off piste into the trees, jumping across the rippling stream like a big child.
The finest stretch of actual river follows, meandering between earthen banks twisted with roots from towering horse chestnuts. Any other river in London would have been confined in some way by now, this far into its descent, but the Folly Brook has been left to flow naturally because there are absolutely no houses anywhere nearby to threaten. Planks and logs in the footpath hint at the mudbath this track becomes in winter, the underlying clay being easily sodden, and even in August there are sections that'll leave your best trainers anything but pristine.
After crossing the ancient trackway of Burtonhole Lane, the brookside path opens out into Dells Down Acre. Brambly scrub and tracts of open meadow make for pleasant walking, occasionally diverting round the remains of a gate or stile installed when the route was a little less welcoming. Only now do the back fences of suburbia brush down towards the stream, specifically the outer edges of Woodside Park Garden Suburb, one side pre-war and the other-post. Emerging alongside the local Sports Club the river abruptly reaches Southover, the only road it crosses along its entire length.
Ahead, just ahead, is the confluence at which the Folly Brook feeds into the Dollis Brook. What's unusual this juncture is that's totally accessible, simply by stepping off the tarmac of the Riverside Walk and advancing carefully through the trees. The stream ends gingerly, braiding around flat pebbled beds in rippling rills. With water levels low it's possible to step across the shallows to a decaying bench sometimes used by littering lager drinkers, or to stand on the very stones where one brook gently enters the other.
» Pre-1965 the entire Folly Brook marked the boundary between London and Hertfordshire.
» To the best of my knowledge the Folly Brook has not yet featured in the Peter Grant novels, which if you're familiar with Ben Aaronovitch's magical detective series is perhaps surprising.
» There are some excellent walks in this part of Barnet, championed by the Mill Hill Society [map]
» If you'd prefer a longer walk in the area, try the Totteridge Circular, #228 from the Saturday Walkers Club [map]
posted 07:00 :
Sunday, August 13, 2017I hesitate to mention (again) the westbound Next Train Indicator at Bow Road station.
But they tweaked it again midweek, and now it's malfunctioning in a completely new and unbelievable way.
No longer is there any pretence that the screen is showing you what the next train might be.
Instead, when you get down to the platform, the display invariably says this.
1 Check Front of Train 2 Check Front of Train 0 mins 3 Check Front of Train 1 min
Zero minutes. Seriously, zero minutes.
Most worryingly of all, it's the second train.
How does a train zero minutes away arrive into the platform second without there being an almighty crash?
What's more, the first train isn't necessarily in the platform yet. The top line on the display now says 'Check Front of Train' all the time, with no number of minutes attached, whether there's a train in the station or not.
Most of the time the second line says 'Check Front of Train 0 min' and the third line says 'Check Front of Train 1 min'. The third train being only one minute away is almost as untenable as the second train being zero.
But every minute or two, for a few seconds, the display flickers and changes to something even more insane.
1 Check Front of Train 2 Check Front of Train 1 min 3 Check Front of Train 0 mins
How is that order even possible?
Either somebody at TfL has invented time travel, or there is something extremely wrong with this Next Train Indicator.
(Spoiler: Nobody at TfL has invented time travel)
The 'second train 1 min, third train 0 min' version of the display stays up for about ten seconds or so, then flips back to the original.
1 Check Front of Train 2 Check Front of Train 0 mins 3 Check Front of Train 1 min
And this cycle then repeats, with the 0 and 1 shuffling around for no obvious reason...
...or at least it has repeated all the times I've been watching since the middle of the week.
How poor can a datafeed be to generate a zero, repeatedly, in the number of minutes? More to the point, how unfit for purpose is the underlying programming which allows these impossible orderings to appear?
Alas, it seems there's no longer any useful information being provided on Bow Road's westbound platform.
• Two weeks ago, before the upgrade, the display offered one minute's notice of the (correct) destination of the next train.
• One week ago the display offered the next three trains, but generally to incorrect destinations at incorrect times.
• Now have we 'Check Front of Train' as a permanent fixture, and no clue whatsoever as to what's going where or when.
On the bright side, at least people walking onto the platform can now immediately deduce that the information on the display is gibberish. Last week they'd have believed it, unless they looked up more than once and saw the seemingly random combinations flipping around.
I'll also remind you that a seriously archaic signalling system is being upgraded, in stages, and that the data arriving at Bow Road is reliant on what stage that upgrade has reached and where. It may well now be impossible to provide good information if enough connections have been broken, or if the data reaching the display can no longer be translated.
But if the best anyone can now do is...
1 Check Front of Train 2 Check Front of Train 0 mins 3 Check Front of Train 1 min
...wouldn't it be less wholeheartedly misleading to cover the display or turn the damned thing off?
posted 07:00 :
Saturday, August 12, 20172♠ Acton/Brentford & Chiswick
The Herbert Commission proposed combining Acton, now in Ealing, with Brentford & Chiswick, now the eastern end of Hounslow. That pairing may not have come to pass, but the two former boroughs are still linked by twin battles during the early days of the English Civil War. In 2007 the Battlefields Trust erected six information boards at the appropriate locations, each of which I attempted to locate, like a giant game of heritage orienteering. If you're resident in this part of west London, do you, perhaps, live on the site of the third largest battle on British soil?
a) The Battle of Brentford (Saturday 12th November 1642)
Syon House [panel 1]
The English Civil War was barely three months old when the focus of hostilities reached Middlesex. Royalist forces were on the move down the Thames Valley after the indecisive Battle of Edgehill, while the Parliamentarians had slipped ahead and returned to their stronghold in London. The two sides met again just west of Brentford, the King's advance guard disturbing a group of red-coated artillerymen outside the house of royalist Sir Richard Wynn. Hedges on each side of the road provided cover for defensive cannon fire, which kept the King's horsemen at bay until a larger group of footsoldiers arrived, and on they pressed.
This early action took place in what was known as New Brentford, a ribbon of housing along the main road to the west of the town, where Sir Richard's house was located by the main exit from Syon Park. That exit is long closed, but the Lion Gate still stands with its classical colonnaded screen and a stone beast prowling on top. As for the Battlefield Trust's first information board, that's been plonked in a flower bed on the Syon Estate, just outside the entrance to the Wyevale Garden Centre. I can't believe many shoppers with pelargoniums on their mind stop to read it, nor long distance coaches dropping off their pensioners, but I did, and then set off to find the rest.
Brentford Bridge [panel 2]
Brentford Bridge has been replaced at least twice since the Civil War standoff in 1642. This key crossing of the river Brent was the strategic position Parliamentary forces were hoping to defend, and had set up a barricade to try to repel the advancing forces. Unfortunately the earlier cannon fire in the initial skirmish had scared off most of the Parliamentary horsemen, so the bridge took less than an hour to capture and the King's men streamed into the town.
The bridge is still a bottleneck, and now crosses a river which doubles up as the Grand Union Canal. It's also considerably more built-up than it was, not least the speculative marina-style residential development that now surrounds the canal basin. Today a large Holiday Inn stands in the prime defensive position, a poster in the window keen to welcome passing trade to the Starbucks within using the bland slogan "Visit our new open lobby concept". I resisted. A worrying proportion of the commercial premises in the parade across the road are up for sale or rent, but Artisan Chocolates remain available, most probably to a royalist demographic.
County Court [panel 3]
A second barricade, close to the top of Ferry Lane, held back the King's forces for a couple more hours. But Lord Brooke's Regiment of Foot were soon almost surrounded, and fled for their lives, either by road back towards London or by escaping into the Thames. Here several drowned, discovering too late that they weren't good at swimming in battle dress. Total Parliamentary losses in the Battle of Brentford were about 50, while fewer than 20 Royalists lost their lives, and they celebrated by ransacking the town. King Charles' men were on the advance, and the next day's battle might prove conclusive.
Information Board number three is outside Brentford County Court, which isn't as illustrious as it sounds, unless you think 1960s reinforced concrete bastions count. Also outside is a pillared monument commemorating this Battle and other key moments in Brentford's history, including some proper big hitters like Edmund Ironside's battle against Canute and (allegedly) Julius Caesar's crossing of the Thames. Meanwhile the heart of Brentford is being systematically wiped away, as boatyards and warehouses are replaced by Waterside Living, but if you still fancy exploring then several old wharves and alleyways survive... for now.
b) The Battle of Turnham Green (Sunday 13th November 1642)
Turnham Green Terrace [panel 4]
On Sunday morning the action switched a couple of miles up the road, to open land in Chiswick, where the two forces assembled at dawn. Only two battles on British soil ever involved more soldiers than this. The Royalists numbered 13,000, and were low on ammunition and provisions. The Parliamentarians who faced them numbered 24,000, their total swelled by untrained militia who'd walked out from London to join the fight. These inexperienced soldiers were sandwiched into the centre of the Earl of Essex's line, as a prominent signal to the King's men that the capital was firmly in favour of Parliament.
Both armies fitted into the gap between what are now Chiswick Park and Turnham Green tube stations, with the Parliamentarians in a line starting close to the latter and stretching south towards what's now Hogarth Lane. It's hard to imagine Turnham Green Terrace as a warzone, unless the battle was gentrification, in which case this upmarket Chiswick parade won long ago. Sushi bars and kids' clothing boutiques mix with patisseries and the ultimate symbol of retail pointlessness, an Oliver Bonas outlet. Board Four is located up the less posh end, opposite the tube station, on Chiswick Back Common. Impressively I had to wait for a mother and son to stop reading it before I could take a look myself, confirming that historical interest is not dead.
Barley Mow [panel 5]
With the opposing armies only 500 metres apart, something of a standoff ensued. The King's troops knew they were greatly outnumbered so were reticent to attack, particularly this close to the capital, and because to be seen to slaughter inexperienced Londoners might be a politically poor move. The Parliamentarians also preferred to stand their ground, aware that their role was simply to prevent a Royalist advance. They also had the advantage that a large crowd of spectators had turned up from London, bringing much needed food and occasional applause, although they also tended to run away when the fighting got too loud.
I took some time to locate information panel 5, the only clue on the overall map being the words 'Barley Mow'. I interpreted this as Barley Mow Passage, home to the Barley Mow Centre, a historic back alley leading off from Turnham Green. But there was no board here, only an interwar office block, a former Post Office and the rear of a pub. I turned to the Battlefields Trust website for clues, but their 2007 photo showed a Woolworths in the background which didn't really help. Eventually I found the board on the High Street round the other side of the pub, which it turns out had been called the Barley Mow since 1788, but changed its name to The Lamb in 2012. No sense of history, these Chiswickians.
Acton Green [panel 6]
The Royalist front straggled off into hedgerows towards Acton, the plan being to protect the army's northern flank from attack. But a Parliamentary manoeuvre soon flushed these diffuse soldiers out, leading to some of the only casualties of the battle. In a separate move the Earl of Essex sent foot soldiers up onto the higher ground in Acton, then thought better of it, withdrawing his troops for fear of splitting his army in two. A stalemate ensued, and late in the afternoon the King's troops withdrew to Hounslow Heath to avoid further confrontation. King Charles would never again come so close to taking London, and a war which might have ended before Christmas dragged on for four more years.
The final information panel is at the western end of Acton Green, a long strip of parkland in the shadow of the railway embankment, and a remnant of the open commons which existed hereabouts in the 17th century. It's now the kind of place where mummies do yoga under the trees, and daddies try to encourage toddlers to ride scooters with due respect for health and safety. Equally it's where a funfair has turned up this week, with a handful of whirling rides and a village of caravans, trailers and generators stretched out behind. It takes a very vivid imagination to strip away the surrounding shops and houses, and to picture tens of thousands of soldiers facing off in a battle which could have been a turning point in our island's history, but wasn't quite.
» Battlefield Trail website
» Battlefield Trail
» Battlefield Trail leaflet
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