diamond geezer

 Wednesday, April 24, 2019

On 28th March 1968 Westminster council granted permission for the erection of a ten storey building on the sites of 30-40 Marylebone Lane, 14-15 Henrietta Place and 74-77 Welbeck Street for use as storage in the basement, shops on the ground floor and a public car park on the upper floors and roof. The client was Debenhams, whose Oxford Street department store stands immediately opposite. The end result was astonishing.

The Welbeck Street multi-storey car park was built between 1968 and 1970, designed by Michael Blampied and Partners. Inside are 359 parking spaces operated by NCP. Outside is a striking, sculptural facade comprised of interlocking precast panels supported on a system of precast frames and columns. It's the tessellating diamonds which make it sing, a giant Pop Art canvas tucked away along a Marylebone sidestreet. For a few more weeks there's nowhere quite like it.

In 2014 the site was valued at £30m. In 2015 English Heritage declined to list the building, unable or unwilling to cite it as a special-enough example of architectural interest. The value of the site shot up to £75m, encouraging owners LaSalle Investment Management to put it up for sale. It was bought by Shiva Hotels, "a dynamic, privately-owned company on a steep growth path with enviable connections and unique capabilities in site acquisition, development and hotel management", and they got busy with plans for transformation. It'll all have to be knocked down, they decided, even the latticed facade, because multi-storey car parks don't provide the headroom today's hotel guests expect.

On 1st December 2017 Westminster council granted permission for "the demolition of the existing building and redevelopment to provide a new building comprising basement, lower ground floor, ground floor and first to ninth floor levels. Use of the building as an hotel with supporting facilities (Class C1) with publicly accessible restaurant/bar (Class A3/A4) and cafe (Class A3) at part ground floor level, publicly accessible spa and guest business facilities at lower ground floor level, roof terrace with swimming pool, roof level plant and associated works."

Because the building would be more than 30 metres high they had to seek permission for the redevelopment under Category 1C of the Mayor of London Order 2008, but Sadiq chose not to intrude, other than to impose a few trifling conditions which were quickly met. The hotel's 205 bedrooms will help meet targets in the London Plan requiring 40000 additional hotel bedrooms by 2031, plus nobody really minds if you get rid of a car park inside the Congestion Zone these days, indeed it's generally seen as a plus.

Shiva tweaked their plans, proposing to excavate two additional basement storeys, and Westminster council deliberated again in February 2019. Of the car park they said "The contribution of the existing building to the character and appearance of this part of the city is considered to be neutral." And of the new hotel, pictured above, they said "The design is considered a high quality building which will contribute positively to, and preserve and enhance, the character and appearance of the area". Imagine being the kind of planning weasel who writes this kind of thing, let alone believes it.

The restaurant on the ground floor promptly closed and the SophistiCats lapdancing club relocated to King's Cross. This month the demolition crew moved in. They're very busy inside at the moment, and thus far all that's happened outside is the erection of some scaffolding across the lower reaches. This forest of metal poles wrecks the exterior symmetry somewhat, for photographic purposes, but nowhere near as much as the building'll be wrecked over the coming months. Nip out of Bond Street station's northern entrance soon if you want to take a look.

This corner of Marylebone is very much in flux at present, with an office block undergoing rebuilding on one side of the car park and a luxury mansion block development on the other. To walk alongside is to dodge trucks, cranes and scores of builders popping out for a caramel vape. Cross Wigmore Street to enter Marylebone Village proper, where commercial cleansing has already replaced irregular blocks with modern infill, cosy boutiques and dining opportunities for the smart set.

An expensive hotel for London's richest visitors will fit in perfectly as the neighbourhood ratchets inexorably out of reach. What hope did a concrete car park ever have?

 Tuesday, April 23, 2019

What I did in the Easter Holidays

 Good Friday, April 19, 2019

Without doubt the finest section of the London Loop is number five. I took BestMate for the full six-mile sub-Croydon hike, because the weather was ace and because he needed to be home by four. The heights of Riddlesdown were glorious, dotted with skylarks and cowslips, plus an unexpected flock of goats atop the chalk cliffs. "I'm afraid there's a payback for this descent," I said, which he soon discovered was a considerable number of steps. Hawkhurst Wood was thick with bluebells. I had been hoping to impress him with Kenley Airfield, but alas none of the gliders were out so we had to make do with an observatory detour instead. Up Rydons Lane we helped an elderly dogwalker from Bermondsey, keen to escape the area, by directing her to the nearest bus stop. Then we stopped for a pint and some lunch outside London's southernmost pub, The Fox, hunkering down in the company of several families who'd hiked no further than the car park. Happy Valley proved even more glorious then Riddlesdown, its dry chalk notch winding between banks of freshly burgeoning green. And finally we strode the ridgetop route across Farthing Downs, overlooking pristine suburbia on both sides, before descending past the City of London cattlegrid just in time for the train home. Without doubt, the finest section of the London Loop.

 Easter Saturday, April 20, 2019

The weather is everything Great Yarmouth's traders could have hoped for, and the seafront is buzzing. Thousands have driven to the coast, lured by the promise of sunshine and fun, only to discover that sea breezes have dragged the temperature down by several degrees but what the hell we're here now. Those with windbreaks set up on the sand, while others enjoy an end-to-end stroll or hide away in the busy amusement arcades. Everywhere is serving chips, and most visitors are partaking. Mind the manure as you cross the segregated horse-and-carriageway. On Britannia Pier gypsy Romany Petulengro stands in her doorway awaiting truthseekers she must have known weren't coming. The Tourist Information Office is entirely empty because everyone already knows why they're here, and it isn't for the culture. Tattoos are on full display across backs, arms and ankles, and gently reddening. At the Pleasure Beach the longest queues are for the wooden rollercoaster, first rattled in 1932. Step back a few streets to find the squashed terraces where the locals live, sandwiching the medieval city walls, then keep going to reach the dockside and its highly impressive heritage waterfront. The Nelson Museum is closed on Saturdays. The Elizabethan House Museum is closed on Saturdays. The Row Houses are closed on Saturdays. I have picked a bad day to visit the historic side of town, so have to make do with people-watching down the coastal strip, and the obligatory bag of chips.

 Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019

Once the Easter roast has been devoured, step out through the patio doors and let's sit in my brother's back garden. Every piece of wooden furniture has been removed from the summerhouse and brushed down, then carefully oriented to face the sun. Cushions have been added where appropriate. For reasons nobody is able to adequately explain, hoverfly density is at its greatest to the rear of the garden by the big hedge. A pigeon takes too loud an interest in the birdbox and is vigorously shooed away. A pack of cards sourced yesterday from Great Yarmouth's amusement arcades proves too flimsy for outdoor use, what with the light breeze, so a sturdier set is requisitioned instead. Later an impossibly hard jigsaw makes an appearance, its 500 tiny pieces supposedly forming the image of a pile of coloured marbles, although probably not for a few weeks yet. Would you like a mini pack of Mini Eggs? Anyone for drinks? Before the first grandparent departs, activities pause for the capture of a set of family photographs in various combinations. Parents and offspring, husband and wife, all the boys please, everyone. In 50 years time these will be the photos on the mantelpiece, assuming photos and mantelpieces survive, to remind the youngest here of faces long passed and to act as genealogical curiosities for their children. Smile please.

 Easter Monday, April 22, 2019

One week on, Extinction Rebellion has not been extinguished. Waterloo Bridge may have been cleared and Oxford Circus may have lost its yacht but Marble Arch remains a traffic-halting bastion. Its central island is covered with pop-up tents, banners have been hung by the pedestrian crossings and a stage blocks the outer carriageway. Up on the platform one of the organising committee is explaining about the decentralised network of screen-printers they got to make all the flags, and at key points the more woke members of the audience wave their hands rather than applauding because it's more inclusive. The Radical Wellbeing tent offers yoga, acupressure and Earth wisdom. Meet at 2pm by the family tent for de-escalation training. A long line curves off from the trestle table serving a vegan meal to those whose provisions ran out days ago, while others hotfoot to Pret or M&S for drinks and sandwiches. Observers are free to wander through the site, but the majority of those here are the committed, marked by hourglass badges and with an air of earnest engagement. The full age range is represented, from young children to the concerned retired, but with a bulge in the crusty twenties. Many will be heading back to school or college tomorrow, be they students or teachers, but this final ER hub shows no signs of fading away while there's a planet still to be saved.

 Monday, April 22, 2019

I spent a couple of hours exploring the City of London Cemetery.

It's in Aldersbrook, near Ilford.

It opened in 1856 and is still filling up.

It is an amazing place.

Perhaps you have been.

Crowdsourced update: Five of you have been. John went to attend a funeral. Most of Ken's family, born in the East End, ended up there. Roger went for Open House weekend, so got to go round the crematorium. He recalls a number of memorials commemorating bulk reburials from other cemeteries which had needed to be cleared, often as a result of being in the way of new railway building. Peter's parents are buried there. So are three of Jack the Ripper's victims - head to the beautiful rose garden to see two of their plaques. Interesting place. The cemetery is an oasis of peace in the heart of urban East London. Four of you have not been. It's actually in Newham.

 Sunday, April 21, 2019

It's a cracking Easter weekend, weatherwise - very warm and sunny across the UK. But how unusual is that?

To help find out, here's a table summarising the weather over the last 50 Easter weekends.

The temperature shown is the highest temperature recorded anywhere in the UK across the four-day bank holiday weekend.

For example, in 1969 the highest temperature was 21°C at Gatwick Airport on Easter Monday. This temperature appears in the second column because Easter Day was Sunday 6th April.

Highest Easter weekend temperature
 23-31 Mar1-8 Apr9-16 Apr17-24 Aprsummary
1969 21°C  very sunny
197013°C   unsettled
1971  18°C dry, fine
1972 19°C  mild, wet
1973   14°Cmixed, cool
1974  18°C mostly fine
197510°C   cold, sunny
1976   21°Cmostly fine
1977  12°C wintry, snow
197815°C   cold, windy
1979  23°C warm, dry
1980 17°C  fair
1981   18°Cwent downhill
1982  14°C cold, bright
1983 11°C  wintry, snow
1984   26°Cvery warm
1985 17°C  unsettled, dull
198613°C   showery, chilly
1987   24°Cwent downhill
1988 17°C  indifferent
198919°C   improving
1990  13°C unsettled
199118°C   went downhill
1992   20°Cwarm, dry
1993  16°C mixed
1994 13°C  wet, windy
1995  19°C went downhill
1996 17°C  mixed
199718°C   improving
1998  12°C wintry showers
1999 19°C  warm, dull
2000   18°Cwet
2001  15°C cold wind
200218°C   went downhill
2003   25°Cwent downhill
2004  18°C average
200518°C   very dull
2006  17°C mixed
2007 20°C  dry, sunny
200811°C   wintry
2009  20°C mixed
2010 15°C  dull, cool
2011   28°Cvery warm
2012 16°C  very dull
20139°C   very cold
2014   21°Cvery sunny
2015 21°C  improving
201615°C   wet, windy
2017  15°C mostly dry
2018 14°C  unsettled
2019   26°Cvery warm

The data comes from a splendidly geeky webpage, now defunct, but captured forever within the Wayback Machine archive. It has full summaries of weather across the Easter weekend between 1959-1989 here, and 1990-2014 here, which you should read if you're after considerably more detail.

It's important to note that the weather often changes dramatically across the Easter weekend, so the highest temperature on one day may not reflect the temperature on the others. For example in 1970 the maximum temperature of 13°C occured on Easter Monday in Suffolk, whereas the highest temperature on the Saturday in London was only 6°C.

Also a high temperature in one part of the country doesn't necessarily mean it was similarly warm everywhere. For example in 1979 the maximum temperature of 23°C occurred on Easter Sunday in London, but Manchester only reached 13°C on the same day.

Also temperature doesn't tell the whole story, so it could have been a mild Easter but also miserably wet. For example Easter Monday in 1973 was plagued by thunderstorms and hail, and London saw over an inch of rain across the Sunday and Monday combined.

That said, the following obvious conclusions jump out...
» Easter tends to be coldest when it's in March
» Easter tends to be warmest when it's in the second half of April
» The two coldest Easters were both in March
» The five warmest Easters were all in the second half of April

» An early Easter is not always cold
» A late Easter is not always warm
» An early Easter (26th March 1989) can be warmer than a late Easter (23rd April 2000)

Also, before anyone gets over-excited...
» A random snapshot of over-specific data proves nothing about global warming
» The Church isn't going to change the date of Easter just because Britons would like better weather

As an aside, I like how the table shows that Easter never appears in the same column two years running. That's because the gap between consecutive Easters can only be 50, 51, 54 or 55 weeks, never 52 or 53.

The worst Easter of the last 50 years is undoubtedly 2013, when a cold east wind pegged temperatures down to 4-6°C in many places and Braemar recorded a record-breaking low of -12½°C on Easter Sunday. Other notably poor Easters include 1994, 2008 and 2012, while more recently in 2016 Easter Monday was blighted by Storm Katie.

The best Easters were probably 1969 (dry, fine and very sunny, except on the east coast), 1984 (fine, warm and sunny), 2007 (dry, sunny and mostly warm), and especially 2011 (whose top temperature of 28°C was the warmest since 1949). We won't top that at Easter 2019, but four days of wall-to-wall sunshine and temperatures in the mid-twenties might just be as good as Easter ever gets.

 Saturday, April 20, 2019

This secret 'tube' map can bring ad-clicks to your media platform

Does your website need more traffic? Have you run out of fresh and exciting tube map variants to embed and surround with adverts? Well, your prayers have been answered because wow, look at this one.

Looks like a proper tube map, right? Wrong, because this baby is nothing less than a map showing all of the capital's main arterial roads. Mind blown.

That yellow ring in the centre isn't the Circle line, it's the Inner Ring Road, and likewise the outer orange ring isn't the Overground, it's the North and South Circulars. TfL's Network Management team have truly excelled with this one.

We love how some of the other colours match up too, like the Bakerloo-brown of the A41 sticking out to the northwest, the District-green of the A4 heading to Chiswick and the Central-red of the A12 aiming for Gants Hill. Damned clever these map boffins, what?

How many times have you listened to the travel news and wondered where Henlys Corner or the Target Roundabout actually are? Wonder no more! Also, how long has the world waited to see Chessington World of Adventures on an actual tube map? Job done!

Look closer and you'll see the map also includes Cycle Superhighways! Interestingly it doesn't show the superhighway along the Embankment, which might mean this map's older than it looks, so best not mention that when you tweet excitedly about how brilliant the 'new' map is.

Copyright is not important. The Deputy Mayor for Transport Heidi Alexander tweeted the map last month which makes it 100% public domain, thus fair game to display on your website however and whenever you think fit. Cheers Heidi!

As a bonus, there's no need to waste time writing actual text to accompany the map. Lots of people responded to Heidi's original tweet so you can simply cut and paste their comments to provide editorial content.
Wow. Love the Yorkshire Grey/ Sutcliffe Park and Sun in the Sands bit!

Someone had some fun - unfortunately it makes driving look too easy. Having said that, grey out the main roads and colour up the cycle routes graded by Bikeability levels and infrastructure and I think you’d be onto something

Needs work - why no junctions on A316 after Apex Corner? Is that really the location of Hanworth - Hanworth Mount might be better description. Also, this only reinforces issues of severance and TfL prioritising vehicles over pedestrians on these roads incl. lack of safe crossings

Lovely map, but is TfL going to get any devolution of further rail services any time soon? Southern and Southeastern metro services perhaps? Moorgate?

How much you spend on someone making up this map? A few thousand pounds? Waste anymore money
But the most incredible thing is that London turns out to have two Apex Corners, one in Edgware and one in Hanworth. Who knew? There's also a Clockhouse Roundabout and a Clockhouse Junction, and somewhere in the suburbs to take the piss out of called Moby Dick, plus the inexplicable presence of Robin Hood, Charlie Brown and Queen Victoria. Your editor should be able to bash out an article really quickly.

Dash to it and grab the full size version of this amazing hidden secret map, and let's get clickbaiting.

 Friday, April 19, 2019

Hampstead's high on the list of London's most enticing neighbourhoods, and is always good for a visit. The High Street has a bohemian vibe, the backstreets are gorgeous and the Heath is extensively explorable. But if your day out needs a little extra, Hampstead is also home to half a dozen historic houses... just don't try to do them all in one go.

Fenton House
Admission £9.00 (free to National Trust members)
Opens at 11am (closed Mondays, Tuesdays)
[website] [full-on blog report, 2017]

This is the eclectic/pretty one.

A fine old house on the higher side of town, Fenton House is a treasure trove of ephemera amid a gorgeous garden. Its last owner, Lady Binning, loved to collect porcelain of dubious artistic value, and the National Trust have used this as an excuse to cram the house with more porcelain, period tapestries and keyboard instruments. "If you hurry upstairs," said the guide at the door, "the harpsichords are about to kick off." The garden is on the large side for Hampstead, and exquisite, with an upper terrace and a lower orchard/vegetable garden which don't initially appear to be connected. At present the house and garden are overrun with middle class off-school children, and this weekend sees the annual Egg Hunt Weekend so stay well away, but avoid the holidays and Fenton is a truly genteel treat.

Burgh House
Admission free
Opens at noon (closed Mondays, Tuesdays, Saturdays)
[website] [full-on blog report, 2009]

This is the independent/museumy one.

At the heart of chalybeate Hampstead, Burgh House was rescued by local residents in the 1970s before it could be sold off as yet another private dwelling. They established a museum upstairs to tell Hampstead's story, filling two rooms, and later added an art gallery round the back. The main display doesn't change much, so they keep visitors coming back with additional exhibitions, which at present include a lovely paean to The Ponds on the Heath. Keeping the place ticking over is expensive, so the fact that weddings are booked every Saturday until next year really helps, plus what people really come for isn't the museum but the basement cafe. Its terrace teems with local life, politely poised over coffee and cake, but do step beyond to the enjoy the collection.

Keats House
Admission £7.50 (free to Art Pass holders, half price NT members, £2 Camden residents)
Opens at 11am (closed Mondays, Tuesdays)
[website] [blog report, 2011]

This is the poetic/dreamy one.

The creative high point of John Keats' tragically short life came during his brief stay in Hampstead, precisely 200 years ago. In 1818 he took lodgings with his publisher on the edge of the Heath, in April 1819 the love of his life moved in nextdoor, and in 1820 tuberculosis struck and off he sailed to Italy. The house is now Keats House in Keats Grove, adjacent to Keats Community Library, and is operated as a visitor attraction by the City of London. It's very well done, essentially in setting an atmosphere because not much survives of Keats time' here other than letters and of course those odes. Sit here, listen to this, read these, and stand in the actual rooms where he wrote and slept. With three storeys-worth to explore and several bicentenary events planned, now is a great time to visit (just not next week when the house is closed for maintenance).

2 Willow Road
Admission £8.00 (free to NT members, joint ticket with Fenton House, £14.50)
First tour at 11am, explore independently from 3pm (closed Mondays, Tuesdays)
[website] [full-on blog report, 2012]

This is the modernist/architectural one.

Hampstead's long had a creative left-leaning bent, so was the obvious place for Hungarian architect Ernö Goldfinger to build a house. Neighbours protested at his plan to replace a row of cottages with a box on concrete stilts, but today his home is thought worthy enough to be protected by the National Trust. Come early and you'll need to join a tour, kicking off with a seriously retro 1996 documentary in the garage, then following your guide up the spiral stairs into the house proper. The guide I got was excellent, buoyed by guests who asked pertinent questions, and gave us 15 minutes longer upstairs than we were due. Only the Goldfingers ever lived here so the place is a proper time capsule (Sony Trinitron in the lounge, tin of M&S ham in the kitchen, Rimmel eyeshadow in the bathroom), as well as being an pioneering exemplar of interior design. My third time round, but I still loved it.

Kenwood House
Admission free
Opens at 10am
[website] [full-on blog report, 2016]

This is the grand/arty one.

Kenwood House perches at the top of the Heath, surrounded by trees, and is the most-visited of the six. It was gifted to the nation by the Guinness family and English Heritage now use it to display the finer points of their art collection. That means florid portraits, including Vermeers and Rembrandts, but with plenty of other historical infill, and the Library is symmetrically gorgeous. When I dropped by yesterday upstairs had been roped off, which limited the attraction somewhat, and the sentinel at the door was attempting to flog the guidebook with coldcaller-levels of focused devotion. For most the cafe is the focus rather than the house, but Searcys don't come cheap so feasting on the paintings might be the wiser option.

Freud Museum
Admission £9.00 (half price for NT members, Art Pass holders)
Opens at noon (closed Mondays, Tuesdays)
[website] [full-on blog report, 2009]

This is the thoughtful/psychological one.

It's also the only one I haven't been to this week, because you can't do them all in one go. But next time you go to Hampstead, pick one or more and make a great visit better.

 Thursday, April 18, 2019

If you've been through a tube ticket hall recently you may have seen, or picked up, TfL's new promotional leaflet.

TfL normally go to great lengths not to print anything, indeed over the last few years leaflet racks have become tumbleweed holders for tube maps, accessibility screeds and not much else. So someone must have thought it financially worthwhile to produce a 20 page full-colour leaflet banging the drum about transport improvements and distributing it widely across the network. That might be the Mayor, who gets to pen a cheery upbeat welcome on pages two and three. Or it might be some other executive who's worked out that people won't ever click on a webpage about TfL's improvement programme but might read about it if you print it out for them.

Rather than eulogising generally, the leaflet focuses on seven different changes, some underway, some complete. Each gets a double page spread with text and two photos, and each covers a different aspect of the capital's transport system. Let's take a look at the chosen seven.

Improvement 1
Easing congestion and improving accessibility at a transformed Victoria station

This is a strange place to start. TfL are rightly proud of the mammoth reconstruction project they've had underway at Victoria since 2011, and which they finally completed six months ago. A new entrance at Cardinal Place, extra interconnecting walkways and full step-free operation are certainly something to crow about. The transformation has also done much to ease congestion, mainly by deliberately directing passengers down extra passageways on tediously devious routes. Lengthy bastardtunnels were first put into operation at King's Cross St Pancras in 2009, and are much despised, and further bastardtunnels have since made an appearance at Tottenham Court Road (oh god, how much further does this corridor go?) and Bond Street (I have no idea where I am, but this cannot possibly be the quickest way to the trains). It's the opening of Victoria's bastardtunnels which has allowed the station to enter a lengthy period of escalator renewal, with a tedious one-way system around a miserable shuffling labyrinth in operation until July 2020. So when I currently think of Victoria the last thing I'm thinking is 'improvement', merely additional grind, and maybe it would have been wiser to keep quiet.

Improvement 2
Greener buses for a cleaner city

The Mayor's been banging the drum about air pollution ever since entering office, initially to emphasise that he inherited the problem rather than causing it, and more recently to be seen to be doing something about it. Fixing bus engines is one of the few things he can proactively do, hence now "all new buses are equipped with state-of-the-art technology". This doesn't mean zero emissions, indeed double deckers only have to be diesel-electric hybrids which "are estimated to reduce carbon dioxide by up to 30 per cent", a fairly meaningless phrase. Meanwhile all new single deckers will be zero emission but only from 2020, and that's only "at tailpipe", and as for the Mayor's long-promised 12 Low Emission Bus Zones, they won't all be in operation before the end of the year. Getting there, but nowhere near job done.

Improvement 3
A more frequent and spacious service on the tube

Here's one of TfL's more overused claims, indeed Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson could rightly have used it, and whoever's Mayor in 2024 will probably be able to do the same. That's because increasing capacity is a mammoth project, involving both signalling and rolling stock, and because nobody's been able to complete the project as quickly as they'd have liked. The leaflet boasts specifically about "two more trains an hour during peak periods" on the Victoria line, and extended evening peak service on the Northern line "between 5pm to 7pm", and an "increased" number of trains on some of the Jubilee line during the "busiest periods in the morning and evening". That's great, but your journey probably hasn't just been mentioned. The leaflet also praises the 192-strong fleet of spacious S Stock trains on the Circle, District, Hammersmith & City and Metropolitan lines, which affects far more passengers, but this replacement programme started way back in 2010 and was completed in April 2017. Future stock renewals remain distant pipedreams, so don't merit a mention.

Improvement 4
Stay connected and updated as you travel

The fact that over 95% of Underground stations have wifi isn't new, indeed checking Facebook underground's been perfectly possible for more than six years. What is new is that you can now connect at Victoria Coach Station and (finally) at 79 London Overground stations. The leaflet went to print in February, so doesn't mention that the impressive fact that onboard wifi is now available on purple TfL Rail trains, nor that free wifi was switched on at North Greenwich bus station this week. What may excite you more is that 4G mobile coverage is coming to the tube "from 2020", unless you're the sort of curmudgeon who enjoys hearing fellow passengers' phone conversations collapse when they enter a tunnel, in which case you'll no doubt hate the idea.

Improvement 5
Connecting more of London with new Night Services on the Tube and Overground

The word 'new' is doing a lot of heavy lifting work here. The tube's had an overnight weekend service for almost three years, and even the most recent Overground addition was in February last year. It makes sense for the leaflet to praise the Night network, and to labour the obvious point that fares in the small hours of the morning are off-peak. But Improvement 5 is also entirely retrospective, with zero mention of any further Night Tube extensions to come, and very much old news.

Improvement 6
Updated Santander Cycles for improved safety and comfort

This is an intriguing headline claim, effectively confessing that the original bikes were unsafe and awkward to ride. Turn up at a cycle hire station today and you're likely to get one of those. The new less cumbersome bikes are being built in Stratford-upon-Avon, and "will offer riders improved handling, safety and comfort, with a new gel saddle, lower frame, tyres with puncture prevention and a new gear hub." The leaflet explains no more, and doesn't mention that they first entered service eighteen months ago, nor that they won't be replacing the original eleven thousand outright, merely adding to them.

Improvement 7
'Please Offer Me A Seat' badge scheme

Here's another welcome, but non-recent, introduction. The POMAS badge scheme was launched two years ago, in April 2017, providing visual notification that the wearer might need to sit down more than you do. The badge is by no means foolproof, as the more recent #LookUp campaign felt compelled to address, but this doesn't get a mention. Instead the double page spread is more a nudge that certain readers might find the badge useful, and the rest of us need to know what it means.

...and the elephant in the room? That's Crossrail, of course, which doesn't get a single mention in any form anywhere in the leaflet. We're now four months past the point where TfL should have been screaming the name Elizabeth in every press-release, poster and publication, but instead all mention remains resolutely off-limits and we don't even have official confirmation of how late it might launch. I choose to see this 20 page leaflet as a distraction, a handful of shiny things new and not so new, designed to help us look the other way.

 Wednesday, April 17, 2019

A walk round Clapham Common

Clapham Common South Side
WC Wine & Charcuterie.
Pigeon-splattered benches.
Cyclist resting on tree stump, phone-tapping.
Crow with opened ketchup sachet in its beak.
Planning notice 18/05422/RG3
Lime-green lime leaves, budding buds, swollen-trunked plane.
Royal Exchange 4½ miles, Whitehall 4 miles.
Bearded jogger in orange shorts.
Bottletop, Kinder Bueno, beauty treatment price list, KitKat Chunky.
BBQs or fires are not permitted.
A baby's bonnet with two pompoms, abandoned on a fencepost.
Five geese on the Long Pond.
Orange balloon tied to pushchair.
Playing an undefined racket sport whilst simultaneously walking the dog.
Bench, fag ends, supermarket receipt, black plastic fork.
Controlled zone (20) Mon-Fri 9am-6pm.
The Windmill, 42 boutique bedrooms. Sunday Roasts. Chef's Pick.
Headphones over a woolly hat.
Chunk of polystyrene pecked by blackbird.
Crosslegged man, hat off, picnic plucked from a Sainsbury's carrier bag.
Cycle path. Discarded bicycle frame.
Red ice cream van, queueless.
Eagle Pond, reeds, railings, heron.
Danger Thin Ice. Do Not Feed The Ducks.
Angler with Warburtons loaf and tray of maggots.
Pauline Smith's tree. Bouquets. Plastic butterfly.
Pigeons on the pitch in 3-5-42 formation.
Dustcart, cement mixer, Driver Under Instruction.
Deep Level Shelter, information board, air vent.
Sawn stumps and piled-up branches.

Nightingale Lane
Discarded scratchcard.
Freshly-mown grass scattered across recreational space.
Two sausage dogs, two owners, one blanket.
A personal trainer and his enslaved starjumper.
Tussock with daisies and dandelions.
Zebra crossing.

Clapham Common West Side
Pergola. Tulips, the last narcissi.
Easter Holiday tennis session with merry kids and scattered balls.
Lucio's First Class Catering at Bowling Green Cafe.
Classic Breakfast £6.10. Healthy Option £5.50.
Lambeth Social Services, having a chat.
Heading home with the au pair, demanding an ice cream.
London County Council boundary marker.
Group hug.
Snogging on a bench.
Funfair, flags and flashes, waltzer, wigwam, win a pink teddy.
Low Level Air Raid Shelters.
Pausing on a bench for a fag and a flask of tea.
Synchronised pull-ups, topless, on the Fitness Frames.
Frisky sniffing hounds.
Kickabout, jumpers for goalpost.
Front lawn, electronic gates, intercom.
Centra Londo N Ultra Low Em Issionzone Oper Ates 24/7
Scooter adventures in Battersea Woods.
Dangerous structure, do not enter.
Plane tree avenue, stinkpipe, bluebells.
Children's playground, please shut the gate.
Three children riding aboard a twin buggy.
Impromptu cricket match using a tennis racket.
Bored girls climbing a streetlamp.

Clapham Common North Side
Headlong dash carrying a football and six orange cones.
Urinating poodle.
Long-tailed rainbow kite, aloft.
Kopparberg bottle, Maryland Cookies wrapper, Dr Pepper.
Old lady walking one dog and carrying the other.
Half-hearted jogger. Stoic jogger. Jogger wielding pushchair. A dozen other joggers.
Ponytailed woman doing enforced press-ups.
Tree number 157 (dead).
Inspection covers for MWB, GPO and BT.
Post inscribed Battersea 1874.
4-way Control Wait Here. Waiting cyclist with backseat toddler.
Illegible milestone.
Laminated poster detailing Mortlake Green Playground Implementation Proposals.
Defecating staffie.
Look Both Ways.
Brown paper bag, candystripe paper bag, plastic carton.
Horse chestnut candles.
Railway ticket sales voucher, price £24.60.
Holy Trinity Clapham. Planters, daffodils, cherry blossom.

The Pavement
Yesterday's Metro, open at page 5.
Cock Pond, drained, imperceptibly sloped, awaiting summer paddlers.
Penalty Charge Notice wrapper.
Green Flag.
Squatting greyhound.
Picture-perfect apple blossom.
Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association trough.
Joe Public - pizza by the slice.
Homeless guy, Special Brew in hand, with black labrador.

 Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Anorak Corner (Paris)

Those nice folk at RATP, the Parisian equivalent of TfL, kindly publish an annual list of passenger numbers at every Métro station. It's part of a large online datafile which includes maps, pictograms, precise station locations, air quality figures and Pantone colours. The file in question is called Trafic annuel entrant par station du réseau ferré. Importantly the data is for entrances only, not exits nor interchanges. 2018's figures are due out in the next couple of weeks, so what follows are passenger numbers for 2017. RER stations are counted separately, so their passengers do not appear.

Paris's ten busiest Métro stations (2017)
  1) Gare du Nord (51m)
Saint-Lazare (47m)
Gare de Lyon (37m)
Montparnasse-Bienvenue (29m)
Gare de l'Est (21m)
Republique (18.2m)
Bibliotheque (18.1m)
Les Halles (16m)
  9) La Defense (15.3m)
↑1 Bastille (15.2m)

The top 5 are all Métro stations attached to major rail termini. Gare du Nord, at the head of the list, is Europe's busiest railway station. Montparnasse is the busiest Métro station south of the river. Four of the top 10 are on line 4, and four are on line 5. Republique is a major hub served by five different lines. By contrast Bibliotheque, Les Halles and La Defense are served by only one Métro line. Châtelet was in the top 10 last year, but has been nudged out this year by Bastille. If passenger numbers for Châtelet and Les Halles were combined (they form a Bank-Monument-style duo), it'd be in fifth place.

To compare these figures with the London Underground, which counts entrances and exits, we'd have to double them. That'd make the combined Top 10 as follows...
» Gare du Nord, King's Cross St Pancras, Saint-Lazare, Waterloo, Oxford Circus, Victoria, Gare de Lyon, London Bridge, Liverpool Street, Stratford

Paris's ten least busy tube stations (2017)
  1) Église d'Auteuil (177017)  [line 10]
  2) Pelleport (361581)  [line 3bis]
  3) Pré St-Gervais (367131)  [line 7bis]
  4) Buttes-Chaumont (542357)  [line 7bis]
  5) Bolivar (552896)  [line 7bis]
  6) Danube (595883)  [line 7bis]
  7) ↑1 Porte d'Auteuil (651903)  [line 10]
  8) ↓1 Chardon Lagache (660183)  [line 10]
  9) ↑1 Saint-Fargeau (715468)  [line 3bis]
10) ↑1 Falguiere (889118)  [line 12]

I've already blogged about the top three stations in this list. Numbers 3-6 are all on line 7bis, the disconnected branch to the northeast of the city. Another two (2 and 9) are on the nearby, even shorter, line 3bis. Another three (1, 7 and 8) are on the buckled loop of line 10, previously discussed. The only other line which gets a look in is line 12, where Falguiere is very close to Montparnasse. Half of the top 10 are served by trains in one direction only.

To compare these figures with the London Underground, again doubling makes sense (although it's not entirely fair for one-way stations). Whatever, the combined Top 10 would be as follows...
» Église d'Auteuil, Roding Valley, Chigwell, Grange Hill, Pelleport, Pré St-Gervais, Chorleywood, North Ealing, Moor Park, Theydon Bois

Église d'Auteuil
ligne 10, XVIe arrondissement
Trafic annuel entrant par station: 177,017
The least used Métro station in Paris

The least used Métro station in Paris is down these steps.

We're in southwest Paris, north of the river, in the former village of Auteuil. This was swallowed up by the city in 1860, back when it most mostly home to nobility and vineyards, and has been a hangout for the nouveau riche ever since. It's pleasant without being overly snobby, and quiet without being dead. It's not the kind of place where you'd expect to find the least used Métro station. But there are reasons, and they're complicated.

We're near the tip of line 10, which was originally line 8 when it opened in 1913. The line ended in a loop, turning back at Porte d'Auteuil on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne. Line 10 took over in 1937, thanks to some tunnelling jiggerypokery elsewhere which need not detain us. In 1980 the line was extended westwards towards Boulogne so the loop was cut and instead became a kind of buckle. Trains head out of town through Église d'Auteuil, Michel-Ange Auteuil and Porte d'Auteuil, and back into town via Michel-Ange Molitor, Chardon-Lagache and Mirabeau. Here's a map, along with annual passenger numbers at each of the stations.

Line 9 cuts down the middle of the loop, with a remarkably equitable two and a bit million passengers at each station. None of the other stations on line 10's buckle come close, and all feature in the 20 Least Used Métro stations. But Église d'Auteuil's total of barely 180,000 is way off-kilter, despite being in the heart of a residential neighbourhood. And the chief reason for this is that RATP only count passengers entering the station. Passengers entering the station can only travel west, towards the banlieues, whereas they probably want to go east towards the city centre. What's more there are two eastbound stations within 250 metres - that's closer than Leicester Square is to Covent Garden - so they get the traffic instead. Lots of people get out at Église d'Auteuil, because it's the first station across the Seine, but they don't officially count.

If you do enter the station, descent is via a couple of flights of steps past all the usual maps and diagrams. At the foot of the stairs are two ticket machines, then a window behind which sits a member of staff without much public to administer to. Beyond the ticket gates is a single tiled platform, gently curved, with four orange plastic seats in the centre. And at the far end is a second exit, not available for entry, which reaches the surface partway down Rue Wilhelm. This station was in fact originally called Wilhelm, after the 19th century French musician, but during the First World War a local councillor became convinced it had been named after Kaiser Wilhelm instead, so he successfully campaigned for the name change. Fake news is nothing new.

Arriving at, rather than departing from, the station involves an intriguing train manoeuvre. The track rises steeply after passing under the Seine, so reaches Mirabeau station at an awkward angle and continues climbing towards Église d'Auteuil without stopping. Those waiting on the eastbound platform get to watch trains whooshing up an incline, and those aboard westbound get to look down on them as they pass. Here's a video which shows, repeatedly, how that looks.

Which brings us back to the square containing Église d'Auteuil itself. The eponymous church which watches over the station entrance has a high narrow dome, several modern extensions and a busy congregation. The obelisk in the heart of the square marks the location of the tomb of Henri-François d'Aguesseau, former Chancellor of France, left behind when the remainder of the cemetery was moved on. Molière once lived in a country house beyond the pedestrian crossing. The Bistro d'Auteuil on the cobbles serves biers, charcuterie and salades. Parisians really are much better at making their street corners somewhere you might want to hang out (and simultaneously much worse at having a decent-sized patch of grass close by).

Rue d'Auteuil wiggles off from here, the historic thoroughfare at the heart of the old village. It's lined with charming little shops selling meat and bread and dainty glazed pastries, and flowers and jewellery and leather goods, like a local high street flecked with upmarket infill. Some of the city's richest citizens live out here in gated enclaves, which is rare in Paris, but those who venture out onto the streets clutching baguettes and bouquets are more bourgeois than grandiose. Keep walking and within four minutes you've reached the main Place d'Auteuil, a charming triangular marketplace where the next westbound staircase descends. Passengers flock here, to the 61st least used Métro station, rather than back there to the least used of all.

 Monday, April 15, 2019

ligne 3bis, XXe arrondissement
Trafic annuel entrant par station: 361,581
The 2nd least used Métro station in Paris

Pelleport and Pré St-Gervais usually jockey for penultimate position in the Parisian Least Used stakes, and Pelleport currently holds the title by a margin of just 6000 passengers. Alighting from the train it looks normal enough, a very typical pair of facing platforms within an elliptical tiled tunnel. Above ground it looks normal enough too, a very typical Parisian road junction in the eastern suburbs. The reason for such low footfall is the railway itself, specifically line 3bis - the runtiest Métro line of them all. Originally it was a branch of line 3, but got disconnected in 1971 to streamline services on the busier arm to Gallieni. Line 3bis therefore serves just four stations, nowhere anybody who isn't local wants to go, and Pelleport is one of the two in the middle.

The platforms are generally deserted, as you can see, partly because of location but also because trains are unnecessarily frequent. Tiles are white. Seats are yellow. A gallery of oversized gilt-framed posters lines the walls. This is a deep level station, indeed 3bis is a deep level line, so Pelleport's lifts are very necessary. On this occasion I decided to ignore them and take the stairs, there being no sign at the bottom warning that this wasn't a good idea. It proved not to be a good idea, as the staircase turned and turned and turned until eventually I'd climbed 98 steps. Adverts on the walls suggest people must come this way, probably downwards at the height of the rush hour, but it was a relief to finally reach the surface.

Above ground Pelleport has a very dinky entrance, almost chalet-like in construction, designed by Charles Plumet using reinforced concrete and ciment de Grenoble. The lift doors open directly onto the pavement, with egress from the stairs on one side and a hideyhole for selling tickets on the other. A high roof is required to conceal the lift machinery, decorated with ornate ceramics plus the word Metropolitan in smart lettering across the middle. Peer closer and the words Rue Pelleport appear in mosaic on the edge of the overhang, which would have been what counted as a station nameplate in 1921. Below that on the main wall are three similarly original signs... ← Billets ←, Ascenseurs and Escalier ...for reasons previously explained.

The station entrance pokes up at the intersection of Avenue Gambetta and Rue Pelleport, less than a kilometre from the edge of the city, on the same block as an oversized hospital. Other corners are taken by the obligatory bistro, an awninged cafe, a run-of-the-mill pharmacy and a tempting boulanger/pattisier/traiteur. No tourist is going to stumble their way out here, ensuring these remain genuine outlets for the immediate populace, along with further independent retailers tucked away on bifurcating sidestreets. Seven-storey apartment blocks shield the spring sun. Coffee and pastries are taken at outside tables. Traffic slowly streams. And a better station on a better-connected line is only 300 metres down the street, so why start your journey here?

Pré St-Gervais
ligne 7bis, XIXe arrondissement
Trafic annuel entrant par station: 367,131
The 3rd least used Métro station in Paris

When in Paris, why not visit its three least used Métro stations? Number three is on the northeastern outskirts of Paris, not so far from number two, almost on the edge of the city. To reach it you take line 7bis, which is a peculiarity in itself (as the name suggests). Originally this was a branch of line 7, but was chopped off in 1967 because it was significantly less busy, and trains now shuttle around a handful of stations. On the onboard diagram the line looks like a paddle, but in real life it better resembles a wriggling sperm, with four stations forming a one-way loop round the head and the other four forming a tail. Pré St-Gervais is the station at the nose end, indeed it's the timetabled eastbound destination (despite the fact that services arrive, carry on and head back).

Trains run into a single platform, commonplace in London but a rarity here, They don't hang around, so the handful of waiting passengers leap up off their blue plastic seats to head off towards Danube and Botzaris. There's no reason to linger. The only way out is up a flight of steps and along a bright tiled passageway, where you could then take further stairs but far better to take the lift. Going up. It's then a short walk past the ticket office and then a final flight to emerge in a quiet part of town beneath an old Métro sign. Most Parisian stations are far from step-free.

Five roads meet at the adjacent road junction, the local housing neither too old nor too new. A few old souls are hunched over on white plastic chairs outside the Bar Du Metro Brasserie. The temperature flashing up on the pharmacy's green cross is five degrees too optimistic. The greengrocer at the corner shop shuffles a few trays of wholly mundane fruit and veg. In the park on the hill a posse of four police officers on bikes stop to talk to some reclining teens, then pedal off. From the summit there's a fine view across the périphérique into the banlieues, densely packed to the horizon. A tram wiggles round what was once the city wall, heading somewhere more useful.

It's partly Pré St-Gervais' borderline location that keep its numbers down, and partly its train service being a one-way loop to nowhere much. But this was not always so. Between 1921 and 1939 an extra rail tunnel was opened between Pré St-Gervais and Porte de Lilas, allowing a more useful shuttle connection to link up with line 3. This operated again between 1952 and 1956, but Porte de Lilas now had a direct connection to the city centre via new line 11, so the underused link was permanently mothballed. But the tunnel's still there, and so is a totally unused tunnel connecting the other way, which is where one of Paris's most elusive ghost stations is to be found. [tunnel map]

Haxo is a brilliant name for a station, or would have been had it ever opened. It was planned as the eastbound twin to Pré St-Gervais, and is located (out of sight) just 100m down the road. But no connection to the surface was ever made, so no trace exists at ground level, only a scrappy raised terrace covered by evidence of exercised dogs and far too many pigeons. Neither is it visible from a passing train - all that can be seen is the entrance to the tunnel that eventually leads there. The only way to reach Haxo is via illegal adventuring, or as part of an occasional film crew in need of an authentic disconnected platform.

There are longstanding plans to reconnect line 7bis and line 3bis to create a brand new line, notionally numbered 19. This would create a more useful arc through the 19th and 20th arrondisements, linking Gambetta to (almost) Gare de l'Est. The two tunnels are disjoint, so the new line would pass through Pré St-Gervais in a westbound direction and Haxo heading east. Should this ever happen, the existing platform at Pré St-Gervais would be taken out of service and the parallel shuttle platform used instead. But newly-opened Haxo would instantly become one of the least used stations on the Paris Métro, because drawing an obvious line on a map isn't the same as running a profitable railway, so don't expect any expensive de-ghosting any time soon.

 Sunday, April 14, 2019

À PARIS: l'axe historique

London's not big on long straight lines, other than a few Roman roads transformed into traffic jams. But Paris boasts a full six-miler - the axe historique - a true ceremonial alignment of arches, obelisks and major thoroughfares. This is what happens happens when you stick kings, emperors and presidents in charge of town planning.

It grew in stages. Originally it was merely the central axis of the garden in front of the royal palace, the Palais des Tuileries, because the French do like a bit of formal symmetry. In the 1660s it was extended to provide a charming vista along an elm avenue, later renamed the Champs Élysées. This reached Place d'Étoile in 1710, where a century later Napoleon ordered the Arc de Triomphe to be built, eventually completed in 1836. The line continues along increasingly arterial roads and crosses the Seine to reach La Défense, a postwar business district sufficiently distant for Parisians to tolerate high-rise building. At the very far end is La Grande Arche, a whopping office block courtesy of François Mitterrand, which completes the line of perspective... for now.

The Louvre

The Palais des Tuileries is no more, having been burned to the ground by a rampaging mob in 1871. This opened up one side of the ginormous quadrangle that forms the Louvre, so today the eastern end of the axe historique is marked by the most famous art gallery in the world. I had been considering going inside, because Thursday mornings are one of the best times to avoid the queues, but decided against because a) the weather was too good to be trapped inside, b) I'd seen the Mona Lisa 39 years ago, before the invention of the smartphone, c) one huge art gallery a day is quite enough. Instead I wandered around the outside of the glass pyramid a bit, which was looking a bit less splendid than usual because the surrounding water features had been drained revealing triangular concrete slabs. All the usual tourists sat around enjoying a rest, or stood around in large groups, the Louvre being one of the sights you have to tick off even if you're not planning to spend hours exploring inside. Maybe next time.

Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel

This is the smaller of the two arches Napoleon had built to celebrate a string of victories, but the only one of the two to be completed before his string of defeats. It lines up precisely with the axe historique, having doubled up as the entrance to the Palais des Tuileries before that was demolished. Intriguingly it doesn't line up properly with the Louvre, whose central axis is slightly out of sync due to the slight curvature of the River Seine. Instead the axe historique now terminates at the equestrian statue of King Louis XIV in the Louvre's courtyard, seemingly naggingly off-centre but in fact perfectly aligned.

Jardin des Tuileries

The palace may have gone but its garden survives, remodelled as the ultimate in French formality. Pristine lawns and topiary clusters are carefully balanced to either side of a scrunchy central promenade, along with colourful flowerbeds and classical statuary. In spring admire the dazzling pinks of the cherry blossom. In high summer dive for the shade of the avenue of clipped trees. Two ornamental ponds complete the facilities, each medially aligned, one smaller and round, the other larger and octagonal. I could have grabbed a perimeter seat in one of the official green non-deckchairs, admired the fountain and watched the small boats, but I had an axis to follow.

Place de la Concorde

Largest square in Paris, threaded through with streaming traffic, centred on a 75 foot obelisk from Luxor and the ideal place to guillotine deposed royalty.

Champs Élysées

No longer bucolic fields the Champs Élysées is Paris's chief thoroughfare, almost two kilometres in length, and is also used for military parades and concluding the Tour de France. One end's green and palatial, the other's mostly shops. I headed to the latter to see what all the fuss was about and discovered a succession of brand temples on either side of a teeming highway. The traffic's far far worse than Oxford Street, but this doesn't matter because the street and pavements are much wider so the cars can do their thing while you windowshop. There's even space to fit tented brasseries between the roadway and the shops, so spacious is the Elysian experience. I checked for riot damage following the recent gilet jaunes protests, and spotted only a handful of shops with telltale boarding (although I doubt Lacoste previously covered their windows with sparkling metal grilles).

Arc de Triomphe

Built long before the motor car, the intention was never to become a roundabout, but that's essentially what this victory arch has become. It sits at the heart of an astonishing twelve-armed road junction, an effect which can only be achieved at scale, which means attempting to walk round it takes absolutely bloody ages. Cars and buses and scooters swirl round, like a circular Hyde Park Corner, while tourists step up to the roadside for a triumphant selfie. The proper thing to do is pay 12€ for the privilege of climbing 284 steps to the roof terrace, via a small museum in the attic, and gawp across Paris in a dozen directions. Thursday would have been a cracking day for it too. But I burrowed down to the Metro station that's sort-of underneath instead, and followed the rest of the axe historique by rail.

Line 1

This is the oldest, and the busiest, of the Métro lines under Paris, and follows the historic alignment from roughly Place de la Concorde to the Grand Arche. It's also fully automated, and has been since 2012, which means there's no driver to get in the way if you sit right at the front. From here you can see both tracks within a single squat tunnel, in this case almost perfectly straight, the most entrancing array of lights being those on the descent to Porte Maillot. For the 1992 extension to La Défense the tracks rise up to cross the Seine mid-dual carriageway, revealing a forest of skyscrapers ahead, before ducking back down into the gloom. It'd be even more fun than the DLR if only the seats faced forwards.

La Défense

Wow. This hi-tech commercial district stretches for a full kilometre uphill, its broad central strip bounded by office towers from the deepest recesses of architectural imagination. Be they colourful, slanted or merely very tall cylinders, each seems fearful of not being noticed so makes an extra special quirky effort. The overall effect is closer to London Docklands than the City, but with a far greater feeling of space despite the commercial clustering. I arrived at lunchtime to find office workers pouring out to collect lunch from a handful of streetfood vans, or more likely from outlets elsewhere, before diving back inside their separate vertical domains. I negotiated a succession of stepped terraces on my ascent, the expansive medial strip concealing an arterial road underneath where no foundations can be placed. I nipped inside Les Quatre Temps, which in 1981 was Europe's largest shopping centre, where armed soldiers mingled cautiously on the escalators. And I made my way inexorably towards the monster building at the far western end.

Grande Arche de la Défense

Officially it's a hollowed-out cube, 110m in length/width/height, clad in marble, but everyone calls it an arch. It was opened in 1989 to mark the bicentennial of the French Revolution, and now houses a couple of thousand civil servants within its twin pillars. Intriguingly the arch is twisted six degrees off-centre, partly to echo the skewness of the Louvre at the other end of the alignment, but chiefly because the railway lines and motorway buried underneath didn't allow the foundations to go in straight. For 15€ it's possible to ride a scenic elevator through the central void to an upper observation deck, which I tried in 2005, got the willies and vowed never again. An "elevator incident" in 2010 did indeed close the attraction down for the next seven years, which I feel somewhat justifies my irrational fears. Instead I settled on the steps, whipped out a thermos of tea and spent several minutes staring back down the canyon of offices towards the Arc de Triomphe, an Egyptian needle and ultimately the Louvre. It's incredible that the central axis of a old royal garden has become all this.

l'axe historique gallery
There are 25 photos altogether [slideshow]

 Saturday, April 13, 2019

À PARIS: Centre Pompidou

Fifty years ago Paris lacked a permanent showcase for the contemporary arts, so President Georges Pompidou decided to build one. A major international competition was conducted, ultimately won by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano with a groundbreaking 'inside-out' design. Centre Georges Pompidou opened in 1977, across seven functional floors, and was thoroughly refreshed for a grand reopening in 2000. Today it attracts over 3½ million paying visitors a year, which is more than any UK attraction manages, and there's nowhere else quite like it. It's also really difficult to photograph.

The large car-park-esque building is located a few blocks north of the river, alongside a rectangular open space whose footprint is approximately the same size. This is a good place to sit and stare up at the pipes, girders and struts on the exterior, plus the tubular escalator snaking up the side. I've got as far as outside the building before, but been thwarted by lack of time or the fact it's always closed on Tuesdays. On this visit I picked my day carefully and timed my visit to avoid the queues by turning up at 4pm. The Pompidou keeps all its exhibition galleries open until nine, so a late visit pays.

Anyone can get inside the main building for nothing, but you do need to make your way through security first. This grants access to a huge atrium, with all the exposed painted pipework and ducting you'd be expecting, plus an underutilised mezzanine level and a labyrinthine basement. If all you want is a wander and the Photography Gallery that's fine, but basically you're not getting anywhere decent without paying. Further wandering costs 5€, but what everybody goes for is the 14€ “Museum and exhibitions” ticket, otherwise all you're going for is a view. Sticking your rucksack in the cloakroom is obligatory, but now free.

As a first time user I confess to being impressively baffled as to where the art was and how to get there, but the gist is that it's "up the escalators". The short escalator I thought connected only to a cinema was the key, leading first to a ticket check and then to the external tubular experience. It's here you step into the escalator zigzag up the side of the building, shielded inside a grimy perspex pipe which might once have felt hugely futuristic but now has shades of '80s shopping mall. It's further than you think. The first two floors contain a public library, accessed elsewhere, and the next floor is only for the exit from the main collection, so you need to climb one grinding flight higher.

Four paragraphs in, and at last here's the art. The Musée National d’Art Moderne showcases key works from 1905 to the present day, conveniently split by floor into 'before I was born' and 'after'. On the 5th floor that means Expressionism at one end and Pop Art at the other, arranged pretty much chronologically, which makes a pleasant contrast to the vagaries of Tate Modern's woolly thematic blur. Starting off down the first long compartmentalised gallery I was starting to worry that the two hours I'd allocated weren't going to be enough.

You don't get a lot of any particular artist, but you do get a lot of artists. And while French painters get more of a look-in than others, that's no bad thing. I loved the bright speckly Matisses, and the expressive Kandinskys, and made tracks to further investigate Quizet. It was inspiring to be surrounded by a select few googly-eyed Picassos, a couple of them pointedly blue. An added dimension was provided by objects rather than canvases, for example a selection of Bauhaus furniture, as well as some intriguing historical displays tucked up intermediate side-passages. All in all a big thumbs up to the fifth floor, and I wish I'd had the chance to walk a bit slower.

Downstairs comes the modern modern art, post 1965, arranged more conceptually. Here we find the plastic lumps, deconstructed metaphors and video installations, tons of them, filling a similar-sized space less densely. More a showcase than a permanent exhibition it's still an intriguing wander, even if nosing round certain corners can be a brief disappointment. A handful of artists get their own mini-exhibitions up one end, these currently including Stéphane Mandelbaum's cartoons, Isidore Isou's graphics and Ellsworth Kelly's windows. I'm not sure whether I enjoyed this floor more for its variety or its unfamiliarity.

Scattered across the building, on the top floor and the first, are four further galleries devoted to specific temporary exhibitions. In the main upper galleries that's currently a Victor Vasarely retrospective. I initially thought "who?", but grew to enjoy his dazzling optic art more and more with each twist and turn. He's on for three more weeks. Downstairs offered The Factory Of Life, a thought-provoking assemblage of bio-chemistry masquerading as art (and vice versa), plus a body of bold vegetal sculpturings from Brazil. Each of these galleries was noticeably busier than the main collection, presumably because all the local visitors have already seen that, possibly several times.

All in all, hugely worth the initial 14€.

Aside: In London the core art comes free, but you get stung for a lot extra to see small individual periodic exhibitions. In Paris entering the art gallery costs, but the small individual periodic exhibitions bear no additional cost. Both models have their positives, and I love that London offers so much for nothing, but the Parisian model is undoubtedly better value for money.

And when you're done with the art, there's the view. The sixth floor balcony extends the length of the building, and is higher than the entire neighbouring skyline so would have some amazing views if only it weren't inside a grime-encrusted plastic tube. The fifth floor balcony has almost as good an aspect and is entirely open, so that's the place to be (beating the fourth floor where the rooftops opposite start to block everything). A few steeples, obviously the Eiffel Tower, distant Montparnasse and a single compact skyscraper cluster in the distance. What wowed me most though was Sacre Coeur on its hilltop, a domed spectacle above lines of chimneypots, proving that architecture is also art. Formidable. [12 photos]

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jack of diamonds
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