diamond geezer

 Wednesday, July 23, 2014

I was very surprised last week to receive an email inviting me to a TfL press event. This never happens. I was even more surprised when the subject of the event was to promote the cablecar.
"Good Afternoon,
To celebrate the introduction of the Emirates Air Line and Thames Clippers exclusive joint packages, we are holding an event to exclusively allow media and press to see what passengers will experience flying and sailing across the Thames."
I've never been the cablecar's greatest supporter, so I wondered if I'd been invited for entertainment purposes so they could throw me out halfway across. But I couldn't have gone anyway, the event's while I'm at work, so I sent a polite email turning them down and continued with my life.

Anyway the event's today, which means you might start seeing press pieces about combined cablecar and riverboat tickets later on. So I thought I'd get in early and see what the package prices look like, and whether this might be value for money.

There are three joint packages - the Single, the Return and the Roamer - each available until the end of August. You'll only uncover the prices if you dig around on the Thames Clipper website and attempt to buy each one. And these packages can only be booked online, in advance, not as turn up and go, so best hope the weather's nice, otherwise you may find you've paid for a damp splash and a ride in the clouds.
Dangleway & Clipper Single: £13.00 (child £7.90)
Dangleway & Clipper Return: £18.60 (child £10.20)
Dangleway & Clipper Roamer: £21.80 (child £11.80)
Let me calculate what it would cost to go on the cablecar and the riverboat separately, and then compare the total with the cost of the supposedly special package. Hold tight, this gets a bit complicated.

For the aerial half of the package, everyone gets a return trip on the cablecar and a visit to the Aviation Experience (which is the advertainment shed adjacent to the southern terminal). Normally the prices are as follows.

Return flight plus
Aviation Experience

I'm not sure why anyone would want to visit the Aviation Experience, indeed it's so Emirates-based that they ought to be paying you. It was empty when I popped by at the weekend, as was the cafe nextdoor and the Emirates giftshop. That's a very peculiar outlet because it sells branded airline souvenirs, not cablecar souvenirs, which may be why I don't think I've ever seen anyone buying anything. One of the two staff was shuffling coffee cups while the other sat bored stupid in the corner waiting for a customer. My appearance, and then almost immediate disappearance, must have been such a disappointment.

For the Thames Clipper half of the package, you can choose between a single riverboat ride, a return trip or unlimited daily travel (anywhere between Westminster and Woolwich). If bought separately, these are the prices.

Thames ClipperAdultOysterTravelcardChild

Riding a Thames Clipper boat is surprisingly expensive. I mean, nearly £7 for a single journey is a heck of a lot, as is £12 for a return. But then what you get is a ride down the centre of one of the finest riverscapes on the planet... past Royal Greenwich, under Tower Bridge and past St Paul's. Most of the seats are inside, which diminishes the visual experience somewhat, but there are three benches out the back and here you can really feel at one with the river. I took a ride at the weekend, carefully starting at the North Greenwich end and travelling into the West End against the flow of passengers. That meant I got a prime seat at the rear overlooking the wash as we whizzed at high speed around the Isle of Dogs, which was great, and something most Londoners probably ought to do more often. By the time the majority of tourists got on at Canary Wharf and Tower Hill we were going rather slower, and they merely got to stand in the doorway and eye my prime position somewhat jealously. Ha, and woo.

Add the cablecar experience to the boat fare and you get these totals, i.e. how much these two things would normally cost if you did them together.

Bought separatelyAdultOysterTravelcardChild
Dangleway + Single£16.80£13.92£12.30£9.40
Dangleway + Return£22.00£18.60£15.80£12.00
Dangleway + Roamer£26.50£24.30£18.80£14.25

One of the treats lined up for the press on the cablecar today is "a guest appearance from BBC presenter, global adventurer and Londoner Simon Reeves, narrator of the new Emirates Air Line in-flight films designed to compliment the great views." I think they mean complement, but I'm not sure, because the in-flight films weren't working when I boarded my cabin at the weekend. Instead the screen alternated between a logo and a message about EU funding, which was less than thrilling, and additional information about the sights was nowhere to be seen. I hope Simon's video mentions the scrapyard below, and the row of cement mixers, and the wasteland gap where the Silvertown Tunnel will eventually go, but I fear not.

Here are the savings you get if you buy the joint package instead.

Joint package savingsAdultOysterTravelcardChild
Dangleway + Single£3.8092p-70p£1.50
Dangleway + Return£3.40--£2.80£1.80
Dangleway + Roamer£4.70£2.50-£3.00£2.45

If you're an adult and you don't have an Oyster card, the joint package saves you about four quid. If you're an adult and you do have an Oyster card, one of the packages saves you nothing, and the other two save you not much. If you're an adult and you have a Travelcard, do not buy the special tickets because you will lose money. And if you're taking a child with you, yes you'll save a bit, but you'd save more by only going on the river or the cablecar, not both.

The idea behind the joint package stuff is, obviously, to upsell the cablecar. Its existence is increasingly justified by the number of leisure visitors who can be enticed aboard and not by any attempt to attract "commuters". This'll explain the cablecar's appearance in the latest Pudsey the Dog film, and the doling out of free cinema ticket goody bags to the first 20 children to ride the cablecar each day this week. You don't get this level of hyper-publicity on the buses, the Victoria line or the tram to Croydon. I think TfL's Head of Aerial Tourism, Danny Price, will be pleased not to have to meet me this morning.

There is one more special joint fare, and this is aimed squarely at families with children. For £50 two adults and up to three children can ride the cablecar and get a Roamer ticket on the river, which is essentially an entire day out. And that's a bargain, at least compared to the price of paying separately. Take three children with you and you'll save as much as £25 on the normal price, indeed the family ticket saves money even if you only have one child. If your brood get bored in the school holidays and you have fifty quid spare, TfL very much hope you'll give it to them.

 Tuesday, July 22, 2014

From 2016 all the stations in Stratford are to be re-zoned from 3 to 2/3. The plan is to extend the boundary of zone 2 to touch Stratford, Stratford International and Stratford High Street stations, which are currently only in zone 3, but in the future will be in both. You probably read the press release.
"The Mayor has also announced that to maximise the unique potential of the Olympicopolis initiative and wider strategic plans for regeneration and growth at Stratford, he has asked Transport for London to 're-zone' the three Stratford stations (Stratford, Stratford International and Stratford High Street) from zone 3 to zone 2/3 effective from January 2016, at a net cost to TfL of about £7m annually. The move will benefit commuters and visitors travelling to the stations at a lower cost, boosting the commercial attractiveness of the area for which the Mayor is responsible through the London Legacy Development Corporation, for workers, businesses and residents."
You probably read a cut and pasted version, because journalists these days tend not to add much of their own analysis when someone spoonfeeds them juicy copy. But I wondered what precisely all this might mean for the travelling public, and how much precisely we might save. Starting with an indicative map.

The yellow area is my representation of how the zones in east London will change, with a bump. At present, pretty much, all stations in Tower Hamlets are in zone 2 and all stations in Newham are in zone 3. There is already a boundary of 2/3 crossover, running approximately down the river Lea, and this includes Pudding Mill Lane, Bromley-by-Bow and East India. 2016's zonal extension will reach out to encompass the three Stratford stations too, increasing the size of the fuzzy zone where one zone merges with the other. Essentially the Olympic Park is being dragged, fares-wise, into inner London, while the rest of Newham remains where it's always been in zone 3. Geographically it's highly suspect. Economically it's an admission that the heart of London is edging further east.

Re-zoning is a rare event, not undertaken lightly, because it generally takes money out of TfL's coffers. In January 2007, for example, six Central line stations between Woodford and Newbury Park were shifted from zone 5 to zone 4. This placed the whole of the Hainault Loop in one zone and was meant to stimulate traffic on an underused part of the line, but also introduced the anomaly that you could catch the tube to Essex more cheaply than to Harrow. The following year Hampstead Heath was moved from zone 3 to zone 2 so as not to penalise passengers on the new London Overground who'd otherwise have been forced to pay a one-station premium for their orbital journey.
Shoreditch High Street's infamous fare problem isn't a re-zoning issue because the station was new. TfL's hands were tied by the Secretary of State for Transport who insisted that Shoreditch High Street be in zone 1 when all the stations to either side were in zone 2, purely for money-raising, funding-reduction reasons. The next fresh zoning decision will be on the Northern line extension, whose new stations at Battersea and Nine Elms will both be placed in zone 1 because that'll make the power station development sound more important. But this outward extension of zone 1 means that Kennington station will have to be re-zoned at the same time, from 2 to 1/2, to give potential apartment owners a clear run into the West End.

There are two reasons why Stratford is gaining admittance into zone 2, one financial but the other purely psychological. When people are making decisions about places, like whether to visit or whether to settle there, which zone it's in can be important. Tourists think twice before going to zone 3, apparently, because it sounds a long way out, whereas when the V&A opens its Stratford outpost in zone 2 they'll come flocking. Estate agents will have a field day too. TfL's fare system creates an unintended desirability hierarchy for housing, with a Zone Four flat capable of commanding a higher price than a mere Zone Five. By upping the whole of the Olympic Park by one transportational notch, the collective property value of the E20 postcode will rise by far more than TfL's annual £7m loss on fares.

As for what the switch to zones 2 and 3 means financially, for those in Outer London it'll make no difference whatsoever. Anyone travelling to Stratford from zones 3, 4, 5 or 6 will see no change in ticket prices because Stratford remains firmly in zone 3. Instead it's those with journeys from zones 1 who'll see the difference, and it works both ways. Travel from your Mayfair hotel to the Olympic Park and your fare will cost less. Commute from Stratford into the West End and your annual travelcard becomes less of a drain. Like so.

By tube from zone 1 (eg Oxford Circus) to Stratford  
Cash fare£4.70£4.70-
Oyster single (peak)£3.20£2.8040p
Oyster single (off-peak)£2.70£2.2050p
7 day Travelcard£36.80£31.40£5.40
Monthly Travelcard £141.40  £120.60  £20.80 
Annual Travelcard£1472£1256£216

Of course by January 2016 fares will have gone up twice, so these won't be the actual prices, they're merely indicative of the differential. It's not a bad little saving, though, I think you'll agree. But the next table, showing the intended savings from zone 2 to Stratford, may surprise you.

By tube from zone 2 (eg Canary Wharf) to Stratford  
Cash fare£4.70£4.70-
Oyster single (peak)£1.60£1.60-
Oyster single (off-peak)£1.50£1.50-
7 day Travelcard£23.60£23.60-
Monthly Travelcard £90.70  £90.70  - 
Annual Travelcard£944£944-

Yes, that's right. When Stratford moves into zone 2, passengers starting their journeys in zone 2 will see absolutely no financial benefit whatsoever. And that's because TfL's fare structure is currently set up so that fares for journeys in zone 2 are identical to journeys covering both zones 2 and 3. There are slight differences to price caps and One Day Travelcards, but apart from these the two rows in TfL's fare table are exactly the same. Travellers from Canary Wharf to Stratford, or Mile End to Stratford, or Highbury & Islington to Stratford, will be making no savings at all, they'll just think they are.

Nevertheless, because Stratford is a mega-interchange, a large number of journeys into zone 1 are going to benefit. Taking the Central line into town, cheaper. Taking the DLR to Bank, cheaper. Taking the Jubilee line to the West End, cheaper (even though the line passes through a bit of zone 3 round Canning Town, presumably TfL will have to charge you the cheaper via-zone-2 fare). Taking the above ground Greater Anglia service into Liverpool Street, cheaper. And in five years time, taking Crossrail all the way to Paddington, relatively cheaper. This is good news, not just for passengers to/from Stratford but for businesses who are there already. Indeed one unintended consequence of re-zoning is that it'll bring both Westfields into zone 2... its shareholders must be hugging themselves with delight.

And yet there is one glaring black hole in the re-zoning plan which everyone's been keeping mighty quiet about, and that's at Stratford International. Dragging this station into zone 2 will only affect the DLR, which is an indirect branch line that goes nowhere near zone 1. The real prize ought to be the High Speed station, the concrete chasm where Eurostar trains were supposed to stop but never have. Southeastern's 'Javelin' trains connect Stratford International to St Pancras in seven minutes flat, which is already the futuristic proximal connection that Boris and the Mayor of Newham dream of. Except that Oyster isn't valid on High Speed trains, you have to pay £5.90 on top of any other ticket you might have, and that's enough to put anyone off using it.

If there was truly a desire to connect Stratford more cheaply to the heart of London, Southeastern's High Speed service would be at the heart of it. Instead the smallprint in their franchise maintains artificially high fares on a line which, for most of the week, transfers empty seats at high speed under Hackney. So hurrah for Stratford's re-zoning, which'll bring benefits to millions when it kicks in in 2016. But it's not quite as great as the journalists who cut and pasted the press release suggested it was, and for many it brings no improvements at all.

 Monday, July 21, 2014

At the end of this week, half the Routemaster bus services in London are being terminated. It's no use complaining. TfL ran a consultation six months ago to explain their reasons and to ask people what they thought. The outcome was that 84% of respondents disagreed, but that didn't matter, so the scrapping takes place this Friday as planned. And it's no use saying "hang on, there are still Routemaster bus services in London?!?" because it's general ignorance of their existence that's contributed to their removal. [5 photos]

After Routemasters were removed from regular service in 2005, two heritage routes were devised to keep the old stalwarts on the road. One ran on part of route 15 between Trafalgar Square and the Tower, while the other ran on route 9 from Aldwych to the Royal Albert Hall. It's the latter which is being stopped this week, leaving the 15 to fly the flag alone for the much-loved 60-year-old bus.

Route 9H, as it's endearingly abbreviated, runs every 20 minutes between about half nine in the morning and seven at night. It runs alongside normal services on Route 9 but only along the central portion, enhancing frequency and offering an attractive means of transport for tourists. The route's endpoints have been tweaked since the early days, at the eastern end from Aldwych to Trafalgar Square, and at the western end as far as Kensington High Street. This extension was at the behest of the local council, who hoped that visitors would alight by the shops and spend some money, rather than getting off alongside the Albert Memorial and merely enjoying the park instead. And even the council's support hasn't been enough to retain the 9H service, so early on Friday evening it stops for good.

The rationale for the withdrawal is twofold - usage on the service is limited, and it's relatively expensive to operate. Why spend a million pounds a year on this, goes the argument, when this money could be better spent on [insert name of pet project here]. As for why few people use the 9H, there are many reasons. It mirrors the normal number 9 route but doesn't go as far, hence anyone wanting a more distant destination isn't going to board. The vehicles aren't wheelchair accessible, which was the main reason for Routemaster removal in the first place. And a lot of potential passengers won't even recognise these as real TfL buses, they look like private hire vehicles, so won't realise that they can hop on board for precisely the same Oyster fare as any other bus.

And then there's the old/new Routemaster issue, which head of TfL Surface Transport Leon Daniels was keen to point out when the latest consultation was announced. With 'New Routemasters' introduced on the remainder of route 9, apparently "nowadays those travelling for leisure purposes tend to choose the new buses." This may be because they like the sleek design of the new bus more than the old, or it may be because they run three times more frequently, it's hard to be sure. Also, according to Leon, withdrawal "eliminates the conflicting arrangement whereby the conductors on traditional Routemasters serve you at your seat and take cash, whereas the second crew member on the New Routemaster does neither." He wrote this in January when cash on buses was still an option, but what he really appears to be admitting is that conductors on proper Routemasters earn their keep, whereas passenger assistants on the New Routemaster are little more than health and safety window dressing.

They're still out there at the moment, the veteran 9Hs, plying their trade through the West End. They muster in Northumberland Avenue, at the same bus stand as the 15H, giving drivers on the two heritage services a chance to chat ("This your last day, then? They keeping you on?"). Number 9 Routemasters then roll round Trafalgar Square to the first stop in Cockspur Street. It's an exceptionally touristy spot, with umbrella-wielding guides leading crocodiles of visitors along the pavement and a bloke from The Big Bus Tour Company handing out leaflets to encourage folk onto the open top service. Rides on his bus cost ten times as much as the humble 9H, although for that you get a commentary, a complimentary River Bus ticket and a poncho for when it rains. I noticed with some disappointment that TfL have already put up the new number 9 timetable, which officially starts next Saturday, hence no evidence now exists at the stop that a special heritage service might come along instead.

The old buses are still looking good for their age, each well scrubbed and mostly ad-free inside. Mine had a musty smell on the top deck, although the New Routemasters aren't exactly known for their fine fragrance either, and at least on the 9H the top windows open. I had the misfortune of riding a New Routemaster home during peak heatwave on Friday, and I can confirm that the air cooling system fails utterly at high temperatures. The thermometer I took with me read six degrees higher on board than off, and alighting after an hour in the upstairs sauna came as blessed relief. Whereas the top deck of a proper Routemaster, with opening windows ensuring circulation, proved a perfectly acceptable proposition. TfL correctly claim that their new vehicle is indeed "one of the most technologically advanced buses in the world", but this week they're scrapping an expensive bus that works in hot weather in favour of an expensive bus that doesn't.

I enjoyed my last-weekend sightseeing ride along the 9H route. The route takes in Pall Mall and Piccadilly, plus a twirl round the memorials at Hyde Park Corner. Most tourists ignored our passing, but several others recognised an icon and paused to take a digital portrait. We sailed through Knightsbridge without many passengers seeking to board, because most folk round these parts aren't the sort to take the bus, then edged along the foot of Hyde Park more as a local service than a tourist draw. I wondered how far up Kensington High Street we'd go, the answer being right to the end past all the shops (and the flats now springing up to hide the Commonwealth Institute). The final stop was outside an Iranian supermarket with bowls of fruit laid out in front, the last place most visitors to London would need, but the ideal place to turn the buses around and park up.

Five days remain to ride the old Routemasters on route 9. The best of the vehicles will then be used to augment the fleet on route 15, ensuring that hard-to-come-by spare parts are available and the old girls soldier on. With continued support, and maintenance, and funding, the 15H Routemasters should then survive for a few more years into the future. They do actually shift useful numbers of tourists to the Tower and back, at least for some of the day, and TfL have no plans to overshadow them by introducing their more modern namesake on the same route. Indeed after Ken erased 99% of Routemasters from our city and with Boris now removing 50% of what's left, it'd be a brave politician who made the entire species extinct.

It'd be nice if TfL gave their one remaining heritage route some publicity. While their press office falls over itself to plug New Routemasters and their beloved cablecar at every available opportunity, these tourist-friendly trips aboard a vintage bus raise barely a tweet. So come on down and ride a proper route 9 Routemaster before the end of the week, and remember to come back again in the years to come to prevent route 15 fading out with a whimper in the same way.

 Sunday, July 20, 2014

The London Loop
[section 6]
Coulsdon South to Banstead (4½ miles)

Section 5 is one of the finest sections of the London Loop, while section 7 is so far the dullest. I therefore wondered which category section 6, through the outskirts of Sutton, might fall into. And the answer was neither, though nearer to 7 than 5, and with an especially purple highlight halfway through. [map]

My heart was telling me to leave Coulsdon South station and head for the hills, for a dead-cert lovely stroll up Farthing Downs and into Happy Valley. But my head told me I'd done that walk, and instead I should abandon those sylvan heights for the next unblogged section of the London Loop. That meant dipping beneath the Coulsdon inner relief road, a stilted bypass still less than ten years old and carrying Gatwick-bound traffic safely out of harm's way. Thence past a locked gate to Cane Hill, Coulsdon's very own former mental asylum, mouldering since the 1980s and awaiting rebirth as 675 Barratt homes. And on towards the high street (tagline "Shop Coulsdon"), with the London Loop signage already so inadequate I was glad I'd brought a map with me. It got better.

To escape the town the Loop crosses the railway via a back alley. Here I stumbled upon a gyrating lady, busy dancing to an unseen audience viewing through a phone she'd propped up on a bollard mid-footpath. She seemed a bit embarrassed when one, then two people wandered through, then restarted her performance when she thought we'd passed and were no longer watching. A steady climb followed, starting at the Croydon Girl Guides centenary flowerbed and ending at the Jack and Jill pub. These semi-detached streets are part of Woodmansterne and then Clockhouse, a Sutton suburb named after the farm it replaced, and accessible to the remainder of the borough only by footpath. At long last, after a mile of road, the Loop takes one of those.

It's actually a bridleway, as the occasional mountain of poo attests, and part of the Sutton Countryside Walk. Before long it becomes a proper getaway, with a high hedge to one side and horsey fields to the other. Across the paddocks are the isolated wooden homes of Little Woodcote, a peculiar smallholding community established for troops returning from World War One. And beyond that, one of the joys of elevated outer London, a panoramic view of the centre. You have to look past trees and the occasional lamppost, but there's the BT Tower, and to the right a highly concentrated City cluster with the Shard rising to the fore. Best bit of the walk, this, not for the immediate locality but for peripheral vision.

If you spot the turnoff, the next field is a summer's delight, with flowers abloom while butterflies flap low above the long grass. It beats the next bit of lane, where serious car avoidance is required, but only as far as the edge of London where a stile permits escape. And as for the upcoming field, that's nothing special according to my Loop leaflet, but in reality it's very special indeed. This is the home of Mayfield Lavender, and for three months each summer it's ablaze with purple plants cultivated in dozens of photogenic rows. I may well have told you all about this yesterday. Time your walk right and you can wander off at will, but come out of season and you're restricted to a single path across the centre, and you can put your camera away.

The next highlight is immediately across the road, and that's Oaks Park. It's now a municipal park, and a fine one, but the estate was originally home to the Earl of Derby. He gave his name to the most famous race at Epsom, and his estate gave its name to the second. You'll not find his mansion here now, the Second World War did for that, but its outline is marked by a white line in the grass beyond the bakehouse. Today's visitors can enjoy food or ice creams from the cafe, one of the better ones I'd say, or a stroll through the walled garden. Just be warned that if you follow the Loop's signs you'll miss most of it in favour of a woodland walk along the edge of a golf course, so do make the effort to deviate properly.

Having made a good show of staying just within the London boundary at all times, the Loop now makes a break for Surrey. A narrow path rises from a private road, with the tang of horses never far from your nostrils. However far from built-up area this might feel, keep half an eye over the security fence to spot HM Prison High Down, an adult male category B penitentiary. Rather prettier are Banstead Downs at the end of the lane, another attractive butterfly-infested space, but divided by a railway and the main Brighton Road. Rather a lot of the Downs are golf course, and it's amidst the fairways and greens that Loop section 6 finally peters out. "Are you lost?" asked one particularly Surrey-looking player, seemingly trying to make me feel small for using the public right of way. But no, merely finished, and glad to be retiring to the station rather than continuing to section 7.

» London Loop section 6: official map and directions; map
» Who else has walked it? Stephen, Mark, Oatsy, Tim, Paul, Maureen, Richard
» See also sections 1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, 12, 14, 15, 17, 18, 20, 22, 23, 24

 Saturday, July 19, 2014

People do the strangest things in a field of lavender. They grin, they amble, they kneel, they gawp, but most particularly they get their cameras out and take photos of one another. Everyone looks good against an indigo background, so get to one sharpish and your image could be liked to high heaven on Facebook within minutes. It's fortunate, then, that London has its very own purple pasture, free to enter, and it's currently ablaze. [10 photos]

Mayfield Lavender is only just in London, indeed that's Surrey immediately beyond the hedge at the bottom of the field. But there it sits, on a lane between Banstead and Purley, beyond where suburbia stops and a floral fantasy begins. You can walk if you're semi-adventurous, or even catch the bus, but most people choose to drive and park up along the top end of the field. Really quite a lot of people at this time of year, even on a weekday, so long as the sun's out.

You could just walk up and down the rows. There are dozens of these running parallel over the slope, most end to end, a few intersected by a sprawling oak. Three different types of lavender are planted in different parts of the field, each flowering at a slightly different time to stagger the harvest. The upper half is currently at peak bloom, and abuzz with bumble bees, while in the lower quarter the occasional employee cuts stalks for sale.

More likely you'll stop somewhere mid-mauve and get your camera out, it's irresistible. Perhaps kneel down so your lower half disappears into a sea of lavender... or if you're only small, toddling has the same effect. Several professional photographers may be present, creating pastel-perfect portraits for loving parents or couples. You might even stumble across the photo-shoot for an album cover, or whatever the digital R&B alternative is these days, so try not to wander into the back of shot.

Expect to see a high proportion of oriental visitors enjoying the spectacle. They love their lavender in China and Japan, so the opportunity to rediscover home on the Croydon Road is irresistible. Bring the whole family why don't you, and pose as a group over and over and over and over. A broad central path easily accommodates a wheelchair, if grandma wants to come too, but the real joy is to be had from stepping through the crop from one purple backdrop to another.

There is a shop in a tent selling locally harvested produce, be that bunches, pillows, or those toiletries you always buy for certain relatives because it saves thinking. At the cafe you can buy a lavender fairy cake or lavender scone to eat with your lavender tea or lavender lemonade (non lavender-based food options are also available). Once an hour, if that delights, you can even take a £2 tractor ride around the field. Mayfield's a wholly commercial enterprise, to be sure, but not in an especially intrusive way.

Come before June or after August and there's nothing much to see. The gates also close at six, restricting access to a single public right of way across the centre. And be warned that whenever the sun dips behind a cloud and the illumination changes, all that vibrant colour magic disappears and you're just left standing in a field. But time it right, as I managed earlier this week, and London's very own lavender farm is an unalloyed delight.

 Friday, July 18, 2014

Anorak Corner (the annual update)

London's ten busiest tube stations (2013)
1) Waterloo (89.4m) 2) ↑2 Oxford Circus (85.2m) 3) King's Cross St Pancras (84.9m) 4) ↓2 Victoria (84.6m) 5) London Bridge (69.9m) 6) Liverpool Street (67.9m) 7) Stratford (54.5m) 8) Canary Wharf (50.0m) 9) ↑1 Paddington (49.7m) 10) ↓1 Bank/Monument (48.9m)

London's ten busiest tube stations that aren't also National Rail stations (2013)
1) Oxford Circus (85.2m) 2) Canary Wharf (50.0m) 3) Bank/Monument (48.9m) 4) Piccadilly Circus (41.7m) 5) ↑1 Bond Street (39.6m) 6) ↓1 Leicester Square (38.6m) 7) Tottenham Court Road (38.1m) 8) Green Park (35.5m) 9) ↑1 Holborn (34.0m) 10) ↓1 South Kensington (32.8m)

London's ten busiest tube stations outside Zone 1 (2013)
1) Stratford (54.5m) 2) Canary Wharf (50.0m) 3) Hammersmith (District & Piccadilly) (29.3m) 4) ↑1 Brixton (27.2m) 5) ↓1 Finsbury Park (27.1m) 6) ↑1 Shepherd's Bush (22.9m) 7) ↑1 Camden Town (22.5m) 8) ↓2 North Greenwich (22.4m) 9) Highbury & Islington (18.1m) 10) ↑* Walthamstow Central (16.7m)

London's ten least busy tube stations (2013)
1) Roding Valley (236000) 2) Chigwell (521000) 3) Grange Hill (562000) 4) Chesham (690000) 5) Theydon Bois (823900) 6) Moor Park (824400) 7) ↑1 North Ealing (861000) 8) ↓1 Croxley (921000) 9) Fairlop (967000) 10) ↑* Chorleywood (986000)

London's ten tube stations with the biggest percentage increase in passengers (2012→2013)
1) Blackfriars (+30%) 2) Edgware Road (Circle) (+30%) 3) Bromley-by-Bow (+22%) 4) Canons Park (+20%) 5) Wimbledon (+19%) 6) Oakwood (+15%) 7) Aldgate East (+15%) 8) Woodford (+15%) 9) Latimer Road (+15%) 10) Queensbury (+14%)

London's ten busiest National Rail stations (2012/13)
1) Waterloo (96m) 2) Victoria (77m) 3) Liverpool Street (58m) 4) London Bridge (53m) 5) Charing Cross (39m) 6) Euston (38m) 7) Paddington (34m) 8) King's Cross (28m) 9) ↑* Stratford (26m) 10) ↓1 St Pancras (24m)

London's ten busiest National Rail stations that aren't central London termini (2012/13)
1) ↑1 Stratford (25.6m) 2) ↓1 Clapham Junction (23.6m) 3) East Croydon (21.0m) 4) ↑1 Vauxhall (19.1m) 5) ↓1 Wimbledon (18.9m) 6) Highbury & Islington (14.7m) 7) Putney (11.1m) 8) ↑1 Richmond (9.1m) 9) ↓1 Surbiton (9.0m) 10) ↑* Lewisham (8.2m)

London's ten least busy National Rail stations (2012/13)
1) Sudbury & Harrow Road (18100) 2) ↑1 South Greenford (38400) 3) ↑1 Sudbury Hill Harrow (51400) 4) ↓2 Angel Road (63000) 5) Birkbeck (86400) 6) Morden South (87600) 7) Emerson Park (113000) 8) Drayton Green (123000) 9) ↑1 South Ruislip (143000) 10) ↓1 Castle Bar Park (144000)

The UK's ten busiest National Rail stations that aren't in London (2012/13)
1) Birmingham New Street (32.1m) 2) Glasgow Central (27.2m) 3) Leeds (26.2m) 4) ↑2 Manchester Piccadilly (23.2m) 5) ↓1 Edinburgh Waverley (18.9m) 6) ↓1 Glasgow Queen Street (16.5m) 7) Brighton (16.2m) 8) Reading (15.4m) 9) Gatwick Airport (15.4m) 10) Liverpool Central (13.5m)

The UK's ten least busy National Rail stations (2012/13)
1) Tees-Side Airport (8) 2) ↑3 Coombe Junction (48) 3) ↑* Shippea Hill (50) 4) ↑3 Barry Links (52) 5) ↑* Kildonan (62) 6=) Elton & Orston (72) 6=) ↑3 Buckenham (72) 8) Breich (102) 9) ↑* Golf Street (112) 10) ↓6 Reddish South (56)

» Tube passenger data here (total annual entry and exit frequencies)
» Rail passenger data here (total annual entry and exit frequencies)

 Thursday, July 17, 2014

My Isle of Man gallery
There are 68 photos altogether. [gallery] [slideshow]
(and there was still so much more I didn't get round to visiting)

Isle of Man (West)

On the western coast of the island sits Peel, a characterful town, or perhaps even city. It houses the only cathedral on the island, hub of the Diocese of Sodor and Man, which might have looked more impressive at the weekend had it not been raining and half-covered in scaffolding. The building is a Victorian replacement for the 13th century ruins on the most atmospheric spot hereabouts - St Patrick's Isle. As a proper island, just far enough offshore to be both accessible and defensible, it was the obvious spot for a Viking fort. This slowly grew into Peel Castle, essentially a whopping stone wall around the perimeter of the island with a motley collection of towers and garrisonry inside. An artificial causeway later linked the Isle to the harbour, making modern-day penetration of the fortifications considerably easier. For a fee you can walk freely within, clutching an audio guide to your ear and typing in numbers to learn more. The commentary is narrated by a fruity actor, and listening to the architectural detail for too long merely confirms that very little of historical note actually happened here. Peer over the curtain wall for a panoramic view, and be sure to seek out the steps down into the crypt beneath the ruined chancel where now only noisy seagulls congregate.

Peel's other main tourist attraction is the House of Manannan, a much more modern interpretation of the island's Celtic and maritime backstory. "We're closing in an hour and a half," said the lady at the ticket desk, "and normally we recommend at least two." She wasn't wrong. A series of multimedia and audiovisual experiences follow, winding around a large building, part of which used to be Peel station. Your guide is the mythical god Manannan, spirit of the sea, who has a tendency for excitable overacting and could easily be related to Captain Birdseye. "Follow me," he cried, popping up on animated screens in a Celtic roundhouse, a Viking longhouse and a field of stone crosses. The largest room is filled by the Odin's Raven, a recreated longship that sailed from Norway to Man in 1979, while another gallery celebrates The Isle of Man Steam Packet Company, the oldest continuously operating passenger shipping company in the world. Don't wander through too fast, you'll miss the point, which is to pause and interact and learn. And OK, so I ended up giggling every time Manannan popped up, but he fell away as the history became more recent, and the overall experience was highly atmospheric*.
* and free, to those of us with National Trust membership - The Manx National Heritage Trust runs a reciprocal scheme that saved me over £20 across the weekend.

Across town is a warren of back-harbour streets, boasting all the quaint shops that Castletown and Ramsey lack. One of these is the Peel Ink Tattoo Studio - surely a highly inadvisable name for a commercial enterprise (although I searched in vain for a potential counterpart, the Peel Sunbed Centre). Down by the marina is the red and white home of Moore's Manx Kippers, a Victorian smokery still going strong and offering Escorted Kipper Yard Tours a couple of days a week if you time your visit right. Instead I arrived on "Secret Gardens" weekend, which meant the alleys in the town centre were thronging with middle-aged couples clutching brochures and attempting to cross off as many horticultural hideaways as they could. There's culture here, of many a kind, in a most (and you'll have been expecting this) a-peel-ing town. [9 photos] [map]

St John's
Had I arrived on the island a few days earlier I could have experienced the joys of Tynwald Day. This is a Manx bank holiday held in the first week of July which celebrates the founding of the world's longest surviving parliament, and is crowned off by an open air sitting on Tynwald Hill. Don't think mountain, think artificial mound comprising four concentric discs of earth containing soil from all corners of the island. Oaths are taken, laws are proclaimed, and then a fair breaks out on the surrounding lawn. Alas, arriving at the end of Manx National Week all I saw were lots of flags by some roadworks. [map]

Spooyt Vane
"No really, it's up here," I told BestMate as he manoeuvred our hire car up a narrow lane off a narrow lane. I'd been expecting a sign on the main road, given that Spooyt Vane was supposedly one of the island's highest waterfalls, but there was nothing, not even a sign on the footpath after we'd successfully parked. A five minute trudge revealed little, until a slight stream trickled gently, and nigh horizontally, beneath a thin stone bridge. "Have faith," I said, "the Ordnance Survey says it's here." And so it was, through a wooded glen and down umpteen steps into a leafy hollow. A volley of white water descended through a notch in the rocks, then tumbled again down a broad tongue of sandstone into a deep pool below. It had rained a lot the day before so we were more fortunate than some, indeed sometimes the gully is so dry that bikers chance their arm riding the approach. But there are post-storm days when the entire 50m descent is gushing with spray, and we didn't get that... just an imposing feeling of natural solitude in a secret spot most non-locals never find. [2 photos] [map]

Off the coast road to the south of Peel, amid one of the remoter stretches of coastline, is a headland called Niarbyl. Its name means 'tail' in Manx, which is a good description of the low spine of rocks stretching out into the Irish Sea. Look down from the cafe's back garden and you might spot basking sharks and dolphins lurking in the bay... I only saw seals, but that was pretty good in itself. Head down to beach level and there are two thatched cottages, picture-postcard friendly, but the finest panoramic views from Peel round to Calf of Man are to be had from higher up. [2 photos] [map]

Calf of Man
And finally, right down at the southernmost tip of the Isle of Man, is a sizeable islet called the Calf of Man. It doubles up as a bird sanctuary, indeed you can get across if time and tide are right, but more likely you'll have to stare across from the mainland. Some of those rocky things are actually seals, if you stare carefully, but be warned that some of the seal-like things are actually rocks. For a protracted stare step inside the squat slate-topped circular building which looks like a Bond lair but is actually the Sound Café. During the day drinks and light refreshments are in order, but on summer evenings, assuming you can drive here, an a la carte menu is served. The premier seats are in a curve along the window, from which you can watch the sun set across the Irish Sea... or at least that would be the plan. A few minutes before BestMate and I turned up a sheet of cloud crept across from Ireland and obscured the entire spectacle, bar a few tantalising streaks of pink through the relentless grey, which was most frustrating. Instead we concentrated on our steak and chips, and the birthday party erupting on the long table behind us, and on the slowly rising tide around a darkening isle. As the other diners drifted away, eventually the only obstacle to an unobstructed view of the Calf was our own hire car, a true scenic own goal if ever there was one. But we still drove away from a highly memorable meal in full daylight - the sun sets at nearly ten during a Manx summer. I suspect we'll be back. [3 photos] [map]

(and it seems Julian was also visiting this weekend - here are his fine photos)

 Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Isle of Man (Southeast)

Manx Electric Railway
Los Angeles may have its Hollywood sign, but Douglas has the Electric Railway. Fifteen illuminated letters beam out across the bay, welcoming passengers to the far end of the promenade for a heritage ride. The Manx Electric Railway runs up the eastern side of the island from Douglas to Ramsey, with its main intermediate station at Laxey roughly halfway. It doesn't run direct either, following a sinuous 17 mile route along the coast, around headlands and across the tops of steep wooded valleys. Local residents could use it - there are innumerable request stops - but generally don't, it's far quicker to drive or take the bus. But the MER is ideal for tourists who want to take it slow and enjoy the view, plus there's an interchange at Laxey for those taking the train up the mountain. Just avoid the rush hour if you want to get a seat.

The first train of the morning looked to have plenty of space, but the luxury coach pulled up alongside should have been a warning. An entire walking party duly poured into the observation trailer from the platform side, squishing in with rucksacks and poles, creating a situation reminiscent of peaktime on the Northern line. And then we rattled off up the hill, past the bungalows and apartments on the edge of town, a hooter buzzing for every sideroad and farm track we crossed. The railway's twin tracks and electricity poles closely follow the main road, occasionally crossing it, before eventually careering off alone through clifftop fields. The first important stop is at Groudle Glen, the original 1890s terminus, where you can alight for yet another heritage railway, or a pootle down to the ruins of a Victorian pleasure garden. The walking party alighted at Fairy Cottage, which I was disappointed to see was a corrugated iron shelter, and then everybody else on board departed at Laxey. Which left BestMate and I with the entire service to ourselves, soaring over crystal blue bays and past goat-infested fields, to a tiny request stop at the top of a waterfalled glen. A proper treat and, if you avoid the busy stretch at a busy time, about as far away from the Northern line as it's possible to get. [7 photos] [map]

The capital of the Isle of Man spreads out along a broad curved bay on the southeast corner of the island. Arrive by ship, say aboard the Steampacket from Liverpool or Dublin, and you'll disembark in the shadow of the Sea Terminal. This 1960s concrete creation resembles a raindrop splashing in a bowl of water, or maybe a gasring, and may be the most Modernist chunk of architecture on the island. It's under threat of demolition, naturally, as the Manx government recently launched plans to replace it with "a new landmark gateway to the island" incorporating cruise liner facilities and commercial opportunities. Cruise liners are a growth area for the town, with one anchored offshore on Sunday disgorging its holidaymakers by shuttle across the bay. They might have enjoyed a walk along the promenade, with its arc of grand hotels and fluttering Manx flags, or taken a ride on the Horse Tram (which is yet another of the island's heritage railways).

Douglas is as close to UK-ordinary as the island gets, with parks and schools and housing estates. The main shopping street has several well-known household names, although I was disappointed to see that TK Maxx hadn't rebranded with an 'n' instead of that first 'x' - surely an opportunity missed. Residents have to get their entertainment where they can, hence the Gaiety Theatre sometimes welcomes acts from the mainland (it's John Newman next month), but more likely puts on a Gala Concert or Abba tribute. Sir Norman Wisdom was a huge fan of the island and spent the last 30 years of his life here. A hotel bar on the seafront is named after him, and a bronze likeness sits on a bench outside the front window, cloth cap on head, should you fancy a photo. If you can stand his cheery demeanour, this 5 minute TV clip promoting his favourite island gives a pretty good overview of the place. [12 photos] [map]

The island's main airport is perched on a flat plain by the coast, so you're likely to fly in low across the waves before touching down. Ronaldsway's departure lounge was opened 20 years ago by Nigel Mansell, another motorsport-related resident, and there's a decent view from the windows of planes taking off if you can't stick watching Channel 5 movies on the big screen telly. That scary-looking dark tower opposite belongs to King William's College, the private school with the nigh impossible general knowledge quiz the Guardian prints every Christmas. [1 photo] [map]

Before Douglas took the administrative crown, the island's capital was Castletown. And that was for several centuries, when the Isle of Man had its own line of royalty and an entirely separate history to the rest of the British Isles. The Kings of Mann had a castle built here to protect them against the Vikings, the Scots and the English, with the current structure dating back to at least the 12th century. Castle Rushen is one of the best preserved medieval castles in the world, what with a dynasty to support and few marauding armies ever getting this far. And as such it's therefore a fine place for a visit, indeed its completeness is likely to make crumbling ruins elsewhere seem almost ordinary. Taking the tour involves climbing a spiral staircase in stages to the roof, or indeed several roofs, and enjoying the view down over town, harbour and Co-Op. More effort has been made on the descent to depict how the Lords of Mann might have lived and entertained, with some finely decorated rooms and a steward who'll tell you all about 17th century banqueting in fine detail until you manage to thank him and walk away.

The Queen is now the Lord of Mann, but only infrequently pops over to exercise her rights. Across the road is the Old House of Keys, formerly one of the houses of the Manx Parliament which, as you may know, is the oldest continuous parliamentary body in the world. This rather understated building was its home in the 19th century, then became a bank, and is now an intriguingly democratic tourist attraction. Visitors are invited to vote on historic motions from the island's past, including the one which gave women suffrage in national elections earlier than any other country in the world. A couple of other museums on the seafront give tourists alternative options for infotainment (the world's oldest yacht, anyone?), although the town centre itself is a bit small, and I can see why those elected representatives relocated. [4 photos] [map]

(If protracted non-London reportage is getting you down, rest assured that later in the week I'll be bringing you all the latest news from Sutton)

 Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Isle of Man (North)

Point of Ayre
The northern coastline of the Isle of Man is a low sand-duney place, curving round to a shingly tip at Point of Ayre. This remote spot is the closest the island gets to the British mainland, just 16 miles from Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland, and is also the location of the island's oldest lighthouse. This was designed and built by Robert Louis Stevenson's grandfather almost 200 years ago, and the signal is doubled up by a shorter metal "winkie" on the beach. The adjacent twin foghorn is a dramatic feature, ideal for an album cover design I'd say, but was decommissioned in 2005 thanks to the march of technology. A proper get-away-from-it-all spot (but mind your step amongst the pebbles so as not to disturb the nesting arctic terns). [2 photos] [map]

The second largest town on the island is Ramsey, with a well-protected harbour and a lacklustre seafront overlooked by ill-advised apartments. The main shopping street runs from an independent ironmongers to a proper family drapery called Looneys via an actual Costa Coffee (their caffeinated tentacles get everywhere). It didn't seem the sort of place to stop for long... [3 photos] [map]

...whereas this village, on a sticky-out headland to the east, was charming. A group of cottages hugs a crossroads by an ancient church, in whose graveyard are some of the oldest Celtic crosses on the island. To find the lighthouse head out the back gate and up the lane, and there it is at the foot of the cliffs. More impressive is the view inland across the Sheading of Garff, which ought to be a Game of Thrones dominion, with rolling fields rising towards not-so distant mountains. Sunday was Maughold's Parish Day, reluctantly postponed from a very rainy Saturday. Villagers were massing on the festooned field above the car park, while a bank of wooden chairs had been lined up on the tiny village green ready for the crowning of the Parish Queen, her throne a couple of rugs and some triskelion banners draped over a low stone memorial. [5 photos] [map]

The one Manx tourist attraction everybody knows is the Laxey Wheel, which is the world's largest working waterwheel, and proper massive. Its size is due to a geological quirk - there is no coal on the Isle of Man, so when Victorian technology on the mainland turned to steam the locals here were forced to maximise their water power instead. The wheel's 72 feet high, six feet wide, and has three feet on the front (this a whopping great triskelion visible far down the valley). Water from the stream below is forced up the tower under pressure and dribbles over into the slatted buckets on the circumference causing the wheel to spin at three revs per minute. Motion is transferred to a lateral crank which pushes an incredibly long rod back and forth. This sits on casters along what looks like a Roman aqueduct, but was in fact a means of powering the drainage pumps in the zinc mine 400 yards up the valley. The Great Laxey Mine was once the richest metal mine in the British Isles and employed 600 men, with their wives doing more menial washing work lower down in the town.

As well as being desperately photogenic, the wheel's other attraction is the opportunity to ascend. A first climb takes you above the dripping base for a close-up of that three-legged logo, then a second brings you to axle level. Only Manx National Heritage Trust staff can step across the barriers to check the mechanics, and some fairly hefty restoration work is planned before next spring which should keep them busy. As for the next set of steps, spiralling around the outside of the water tower, I tried to force myself to climb them but a wobbly bit at the back of my brain said no. "Come on, you're only here once," I told myself, but when the prize for ascent was to stand on an exposed wooden platform with the wheel whirling beneath, I jellied out. Sheepishly I waited for BestMate to pop up and pop down, but even he returned with vertigo on his mind, so I felt less bad about missing out. Instead there were the old mineworkings at the top of the glen to investigate, these eventually higher than the top of the wheel had been, but at least on solid ground. Much to see, and rightly a tourist treat. [9 photos] [map]

Snaefell Mountain Railway
Forget hiking, the most popular way to reach the top of the Isle of Man's highest mountain is by train. The Snaefell Mountain Railway starts from Laxey station and wiggles its way up to the summit along ratcheted rails. Best pick a decent day for it, else you'll get to the top and see nothing but the cafe. The service is run using six wooden-bodied electric railcars, five of which are the originals from 1895 and were built in Birkenhead. Take a window seat if you can - the right-hand side's better for the first half up the valley, and the left-hand side's better for the spiral round the mountaintop. Some of the windows slide open, which is more useful on some days than others, but don't lean out else your camera, arm or head might be thwacked by one of the central posts supporting the overhead wires. Halfway up the five mile ascent the tracks cross the TT Course at Bungalow station, watched over by a giant goat, then continue up ever more exposed slopes to reach the top.

Trains pull up outside the Summit Hotel, 2096 feet up, with the option of exploring the proper peak or hiding inside where it smells of chips. Best I think to climb the ramp to the triangulation point, from which an almost 360° panorama can be seen, blocked only by two whopping mobile phone masts. A mixture of lesser mountains, glens and coastal plain should be visible, and on a really good day all the home nations on the horizon. And then the railcar will take you back down in half an hour flat, making this mountaineering for the lazy, but none the less exhilarating for that. [11 photos] [map]

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