diamond geezer

 Thursday, August 25, 2016

Dear Londoner,

It is with great regret we must inform you that your membership of London Above is under threat.

As you'll be aware, London Above is the lifestyle brand for the discerning Londoner, an acknowledgement that the capital is your oyster. You can dine in it, play in it, shop in it, even own part of it, because you're one of the privileged residents with the capability to consume. Your wealth allows you to play a full part in the economic prosperity of the capital, which as we know is a far more expensive place to live than the hinterland beyond, and your ability to spend helps keep everything ticking over.

But we'll be honest, we're worried.

We've been keeping an eye on your spending over the last few months and we've noticed you're not throwing as much of your money around as you were before. It's been well over a month since you last sat down in a dining establishment and ordered brunch, and well over two since you last bought a round of cocktails for your friends. Your gym membership has expired, no West End theatre seat has seen your backside in ages, and it's even longer since you hailed a taxi rather than walk half a mile down the street.

We're concerned.

A well-known cider brand organised a pop-up launch in Hackney Wick last month and you failed to attend. Your most recent trip to the cinema was somewhere cheap on the outskirts, mid-afternoon, rather than taking full advantage of the plush seating at a boutique screen. When Secret Cinema last came to town, and played for weeks, your credit card somehow didn't register. Heavens, it's National Burger Day today and you haven't even made plans to visit Patty & Bun, let along downloaded the voucher.

Taken separately these individual failures might not be an issue, but a pattern of economic inactivity has been building up, and we don't approve of what we see.

We suspect you might have been buying alcohol in the supermarket, like poor people do, rather than visiting a regulated establishment to enjoy craft beer in convivial company. We think you might have stayed in to watch a boxset, worse still the telly, instead of watching a one-off screening of an 80s movie on a makeshift beach on top of a carpark. There are even rumours you might have been for "a nice walk" somewhere in Zone 6 rather than spending the afternoon at Westfield and grazing between purchases.

You could quite frankly be living in the North, for all the use you're making of London's commercial gems. Your mantra needs to be "Eat. Drink. Shop. Repeat." otherwise this city is going to the dogs.

It's no good simply walking around the capital and admiring it, you have to chip in sometimes. Sure, Kensington Church Street and Broadway Market are great for window shopping, but if you don't stop off to buy some trinkets or grab a burrito, the local economy is losing out. And yes, Clerkenwell is fabulous, but how much more fabulous to cough up for an all-you-can-eat crawfish party, book yourself into a handicraft workshop or pay someone to point out where the street art is?

We recommend you pick up a copy of Time Out, the weekly style bible of London Above, and work your way through several of the activities listed within. Book a ticket to a festival, not necessarily music-based but maybe one of those where they serve one particular kind of food in a warehouse for fifty quid. Browse some vintage clothing, curate a martini, spend the Bank Holiday at an expensive nightclub, source a pop-up blueberry pancake - these are all the things that make London truly great.

Embrace your smartphone and the opportunities it can bring. Use Deliveroo to bring great takeaway food to your door rather than walking down to the shops and buying it for less. Keep an eye out for retail apps which offer quick and easy ways to spend even when you're trapped somewhere dull like a park or a library. And seriously, we've noticed you haven't even downloaded Uber to your phone yet, so no wonder your London Above membership is hanging by a thread.

We hope you haven't lost your job. That would be perfectly ghastly, and would terminate your membership of London Above overnight.

Have you considered downsizing your home, or moving in with friends, simply to increase the amount of disposable income you can spend? And even if you don't have money you should be spending it anyway, what with interest rates at record lows. Embrace a hedonistic lifestyle for today rather than worrying unnecessarily about tomorrow, as all the smart Londoners are doing.

We hope you'll make amends.

As such we shall be closely monitoring your spending for the next week, and all you have to do to prove your worth is to buy at least one gin-infused cocktail before the end of the month. It shouldn't be hard, pretty much every important social event is gin-based these days, and that single purchase will prove to London you're serious about living here again.

Teetotal Londoners should be aware we'll also accept purchase of any avocado-based organic smoothie, or any slice of gluten-free stonebaked pizza. But should you choose to ignore our request we'll have no choice on September 1st but to downgrade you to London Below.

Imagine how membership of our sister organisation would ruin your life. So many Londoners live in relative poverty, with nothing left after the bills have been paid to enjoy a regular cordon bleu feast or even a flash night out. It's true, they do the menial jobs that keep the capital moving, indeed some are even successful graduates who simply can't afford the rent. But don't let their badge of economic worthlessness be your destiny, sign up for a baking masterclass today.

Modern life is less about possessions and more about experiences, and a great experience is going to cost. So get out and about, spend and live. London's counting on you.

 Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The National Grid divides the country up into hundreds of thousands of 1km grid squares. Greater London contains around 2000, being (very roughly) 50 squares from west to east and 40 squares from south to north. So what I thought I'd do is select one of these squares at random and then visit it and tell you all about it. It's what I do, OK, humour me.

I picked a random number for the easting and another for the northing, which gave me grid square TQ4683. Then I looked this up on a map, and sighed, because I'd hit Barking and Dagenham. Specifically I'd hit a one kilometre square between Barking and Dagenham, near Upney, on the busy A13. Well that's one Sunday afternoon I shall never get back, I thought. But I went anyway, and here are seven interesting things I found.


7 Secrets of Grid Square TQ4683




1) Lodge Avenue Flyover

The A13 dual carriageway cuts a gash through grid square TQ4683, just as the road to Southend always has. That's Ripple Road, a former turnpike which bends down from the northwest before being swallowed up by the six lane monster. At the junction between the two is the Lodge Avenue Roundabout, an elongated whirligig with a makeshift-looking iron flyover leaping across the top. A useful shortcut for the cars and lorries passing through, it's had to be closed for several weekends this year to allow maintenance to take place, in what long-term can only be a temporary measure. The council commissioned a most unusual sculpture to enhance the centre of the roundabout, one of many along the B&D stretch of the A13. It's called Holding Pattern, and consists of 76 stainless steel needles rising to echo the flyover passing alongside. During the day the resulting grid is almost missable, but at night each tip glows with a blue airport taxiway light, creating "a dramatic parallax effect" from the front seat of any passing vehicle. [website]

2) The Thatched House

It's not thatched any more, this is arterial East London for heaven's sake, but there's been a pub on the site since 1848. Back then it was known as Stonehill Cottage, serving ale to the tiny hamlet of Eastbrooks and to travellers passing through. The latest incarnation is squeezed between a Shell and Esso garage, and of a size to satisfy a post-war thirst. The most eye-catching sight is the advert for Double Diamond on the roof - alas not served within - while the unfortunate disappearance of three letters on the nameplate facing the main road suggests the pub is called THE  HA CHED HO SE. This is a pub that comes to life after dark, sometimes overly so - incidents last year included facial stabbing and poison-throwing, and resulted in licensing hours being cut back. But if it's Kenyan cuisine you seek, washed down with a nice Jacob's Creek or Lucozade, this could be the gastropub you seek. [website]

3) Rippleside Cemetery

Opened in 1886, when the surrounding area was ill-drained fields, we have the Burial Board of the Parish of St Margaret Barking to thank for this extensive facility. The main gates and mortuary chapel survive, the latter in the far corner and Grade II listed. Designed as a scaled-down parish church in perpendicular style, one of the most unusual features is the hammerbeam roof, not that the casual visitor is able to get inside to take a look. Several mature trees grace the surrounding acres, including cedars, holly, yew and laurel, although rather fewer in number across the eastern extension (circa 1950). Walking round the myriad of paths you'll likely bump into family members here to pay their respects, and be struck by how relatively recent many of the graves are. Here are Hilda and Albert, and Enid and William, and Peggy and Sidney, their names lovingly inscribed into black granite, and a permanent memorial to the last generation before the make-up of Barking and Dagenham started to change forever.

4) Bassett House/Ingrave House/Dunmow House

To a generation of travellers they were the triad of Lego-land tower blocks beside the A13 through Upney, a true landmark on any eastbound journey. How quickly times change. Still standing at the time of the last Olympics, the council decanted all their Goresbrook Village tenants elsewhere and in 2013 the three blocks were dismantled one by one. Today you'd never know they were ever here, so completely has the triple footprint been wiped away by a fresh estate of two and three storey homes. What's more they're almost attractive, mainly flat-gabled terraces in stock brick, and conspicuously different from the pebbledash semis of the Becontree Estate in the surrounding streets. Each new home boasts a small garden and space for parking out front - a world away from life in the sky, though surely not as dense. The one duff note is the lack of easy access to the adjacent open space at Castle Green, where a burnt-out car lurks tyreless beneath the treeline, so maybe the disconnect is for the best. [website]

5) Renwick Industrial Estate

A broad strip of land between the A13 and the railway has been occupied by an industrial estate of tyre-fitters, grocery wholesalers and truck depots. The railway in question is the c2c line to Dagenham Dock, with the Channel Tunnel Rail Link running immediately underneath. On the bridge at Renwick Road is the entrance to a Freightliner terminal, while the wasteland of braided sidings to the west may one day see a brand new station built, but don't get your hopes up. The proposed Overground extension to Barking Riverside is due to bear off from the mainline here, with passive provision made for an intermediate station at Renwick Road, but absolutely no money to see it through. Councillors and residents bemoan the lack of foresight in the latest consultation documents, but only fresh housing developments merit new infrastructure these days, so the long-suffering residents of the isolated Thames View Estate can only watch as their community is bypassed for the new blocks and towers nearer the foreshore. [consultation]

6) Thames View Estate

A post-war housing shortage saw Barking Council construct an unlikely new estate - Thames View - on former marshland to the south of the railway. Huge concrete tubes had to be buried and filled to provide a stable foundation, not bad for 1954, although the resulting outpost of two thousand homes soon faded from initial optimism to distant dilap­idation. The main spine road is Bastable Avenue, with downbeat crescents of flats and terraces to either side, and a fast bus to Barking the only lifeline. Recreational space is limited to Newlands Park, a patch of green with a considerable cluster of adventurous play equipment for tots to teens, but which on my visit had been entirely abandoned in favour of vegetating indoors. But I did enjoy one interaction with local youth, driving past with windows down and raising a finger each in unison, which I responded to with a different hand gesture of my own.

7) Farr Avenue Parade

The estate's central parade was built with high hopes, and a pleasing symmetry, and is well used by the populace on the basis there's nowhere else. Takeaways predominate, with betting shop and pound shop infill, the busiest corner being the queue for the cashpoint at the post office. An attempt to brighten up the canopy with a timeline of local history only reinforces how little of this there is, the most recent 'highlight' the construction of a nicer estate nextdoor. Out front by the pedestrian crossing the Creekmouth Heritage Project has also had a go at inspiring communal feeling with a series of pavement graphics, one word per slab, to spell out a sequence of upbeat quotations. Billy Bragg and Captain Cook have their say, although it's questionable how many would agree with John Tisseman's assertation that "Barking is a melting pot, stir for years and keep it hot". [website]

↑ square to the North TQ4684 - Mayesbrook Park
→ square to the East TQ4783 - Castle Green, Sporting Legends
↓ square to the South TQ4682 - Barking Riverside, Dagenham Sunday Market
← square to the West TQ4583 - Eastbury Manor House, Bobby Moore's blue plaque

 Tuesday, August 23, 2016

As we roll onwards towards, sssh, September, several Open-House-style festival-event-type things are happening and you might want to plan ahead.

There's Open House itself, of course, London's annual frenzy of door-flinging and architectural reverence. This takes place over the weekend of Saturday 17th and Sunday 18th September, and features the usual list of old favourites, suburban oddities and brand new locations. Where precisely to go can wait a few weeks, but several properties require you to pre-book, which requires action now. The most popular of these required action last week, with booking going live at times you had to be psychic to realise, so you've already missed the chance to go up Tower 42 or see behind the scenes at St Pancras. But for the rest of the pre-bookers, allow me to pass you over to Ian Visits who has a complete list, or you could try checking Eventbrite and see what's left, or (thanks Alasdair!) there's this ridiculously useful unofficial summary where you can scan through all 725 locations and see booking details.

Open House whinges 2016
They've changed the size of the guide, so it's now smaller but heavier. Generally it's easier to read, except they've removed all the useful coloured blobs so it's much harder to tell at a glance which venues open on Saturday, which Sunday and which both. I also pray that one day they'll write the word "pre-book" in a different colour, or in bold, to make the bookable items easier to spot. Not only would this really help in August, but it'd also really help on the day itself so you could swiftly ignore all the listings you hadn't booked for. Peculiarly, if you want to know the date of Open House weekend it's only written on the spine and absolutely nowhere else on any of the 144 pages inside. The first forty-or-so pages are now full of magazine-type articles, which might give you something interesting to read on the tube as you head to your first location, or might just be filler. This year the guide costs £7, plus £2 postage and packing, although according to the back cover the price is £6.99 so I've been swindled out of a penny. The Open House app costs only £2.99, but you don't get it for free if you bought the guide, which always feels a bit mean. Meanwhile all the listings are visible for free on the website, which has had an update this year and is much more mobile-friendly, which alas means laptop-unfriendly, and requires more clicking and scrolling to drill down and excavate all the information.


The week before Open House always sees the Heritage Open Days event, which takes place across the entire country outside London (although a dribble of London venues do take part, plus Kingston-upon-Thames which spends the weekend pretending to be in Surrey). The event runs from Thursday to Sunday, that's 8th-11th September, with the majority of events at the weekend. Again some events need booking in advance and others don't, so it pays to check now. Dorking Caves are already full, for example, whereas the Former Atomic Weapons Bunker in Thetford might still have spaces. Some counties take HOD more seriously than others, so Surrey has 320 events, Norfolk 303, Kent 176 and Essex 125, while Bedfordshire can only muster 13. This page has a useful summary of openings by area. Ian Visits has a selection of favourites and recommendations, if you'd like some guidance on where to start.

That same weekend, you might very well be very interested in the Essex Architecture Weekend, a programme of special events curated by Radical Essex. They're organising events and tours on 10th and 11th September to celebrate the county's pioneering role in twentieth century architecture, with a specific focus on three key modernist estates - Silver End, Bata East Tilbury and Frinton-on-Sea. The main hub is at Silver End, which I visited last month, a factory village with characterful housing, where there'll be walking tours, an exhibition and several talks including a Q&A with Jonathan Meades. The Bata Estate is also fascinating, as I'm sure the guided tours and exhibition will prove. Locations will also include Basildon, Benfleet, Braintree and Burnham-on-Crouch, plus other places that don't begin with B, with a bus service to link various disparate spots to Witham station. It all sounds excellent, although the website is a nightmare to navigate, indeed in my browser it's almost entirely dysfunctional, and without this enormous scrolling pdf timetable I'd be pretty much lost.

Again in Essex, and spreading across the Thames to Kent, I'm looking forward to Estuary 2016. This is a sixteen day festival of art, literature, music and film, from Saturday 17th September to Sunday 2nd October, mostly at weekends. Tilbury Docks is the focus on the first weekend, specifically in and around the Cruise Terminal where (wow) 70 authors and artists are lined up on the programme for the free Shorelines Literature Festival. The following weekend things shift downstream for the Southend Charabanc, described as "cultural pleasure seeking and sight-seeing" along the seafront with vintage Canvey buses to whisk visitors from event to event. On the final weekend Southend Pier hosts Sound of the Thames Delta, two days of talks and live gigs with contributions from Karl Hyde, Paul Morley, Martyn Ware and dozens more (if music's your thing, check the list). Other locations touched across the fortnight include Gravesend, Canvey Island and the Isle of Grain, plus there are special behind the scenes tours of (major) estuarine port facilities. Blimey, such a lot of stuff.

And let's finish off with Walk London's Autumn Ambles. This year these are pencilled in for Saturday 1st and Sunday 2nd October, with 42 free led walks across London, as usual with a few proper treks on the outskirts and several lighter strolls in town. In previous years you could simply turn up, but pre-registration is now required "to improve the experience of walkers and to keep everyone safe". Some walks are extremely popular, so this keeps the numbers manageable, but it also snuffs out all the spontaneity and cuts your options down. Five of the walks are already fully booked, six weeks ahead, while one still has 272 remaining places available. While this system persists, I'm giving it a miss.

So, in summary...
10/11 September: Heritage Open Days, Essex Architecture Weekend
17/18 September: Open House, Estuary 2016 (Shorelines Literature Festival)
24/25 September: Estuary 2016 (Southend Charabanc)
1/2 October: Estuary 2016 (Sound of the Thames Delta), Autumn Ambles

 Monday, August 22, 2016

Here's a tube station entrance built in 1999, but which only opened to the public this month.

They plan ahead on the Underground.



This is the Rotunda Building at Canning Town station, originally part of the enlargement works for the Jubilee line extension. If you come down from the trains into the ticket hall and prepare to turn right towards the bus station, the base of the Rotunda Building is on your left. You won't see it, you'll only see a door. It's a posh door too, with a lattice design overlaid on the glass, and the name of a housing development alongside. Push the door open, assuming it's not locked, and you'll see a lift (and a 70-step staircase curling round it) leading up to a silvery concrete rotunda at ground level. This exit leads out to Bow Creek, and a riverside promenade with lamps and benches that's been sealed off for well over a decade. Hurrah, a secret section of the lower River Lea has finally been reopened to the public!

Except there are issues. A whiteboard has been shoved in front of the glass door in the ticket hall, with a message that reads "This exit is closed due to technical safety concerns". It's not entirely clear what these concerns are. If there was a problem with the lift, presumably the stairs would still be OK, and if there was a problem with the stairwell, vice versa. Perhaps we're not allowed one without the other, or maybe there's a more global issue affecting the internal environment or egress. A sign I spotted elsewhere says there's a "station compliance issue", which might just mean a bit of misplaced paperwork, or could be quite serious. Whatever, the Bow Creek exit is currently sealed off "for the foreseeable future", I think less than a fortnight after it officially opened.



The catalyst for opening up this entrance is the City Island development, a cluster of apartment blocks erected along the Leamouth Peninsula with foreign investors in mind. Ten years ago their luxury enclave was a hydrogenated fat refinery, but times change, and this thin tongue of land is being reborn as a mixed-use development instead. Bow Creek meanders in two wild contortions as it approaches its mouth, making this a particularly inaccessible location, indeed the most isolated spot in the whole of Tower Hamlets. But new housing demands good transport links, so two years ago a footbridge was installed to link the tip of the development to Canning Town, specifically to the new station entrance. And only recently have the first residents moved in, so only recently has the footbridge opened to the public, providing a direct link to trains and buses. Or rather that was the plan.

"Sorry for the inconvenience caused" is the apology proffered on the whiteboard at Canning Town. But it is a considerable inconvenience, a bleak fifteen minute walk along the dual carriageway, down the long meander and up the Leamouth dead end, rather than a quick dash over the footbridge. It makes a complete mockery of the marketing blurb in the City Island brochure, which claims Canary Wharf is four minutes away, and Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park six - indeed it currently takes longer to walk to the nearest station that it does to travel onward to the City. But that's what happens when you buy an apartment off-plan based on over-exuberant promises, as the earliest residents of this "island neighbourhood" are now finding to their cost.



On the bright side, for the rest of us, the brief time the new station entrance was open inspired the Bow Creek Ecology Park to unlock a gate. I've been coming here for years, enjoying the pools and greenery and nesting grounds of this riverside nature reserve, but up until now it's always been a dead end. You could walk down the peninsula, duck beneath the DLR viaduct and head back up the other side, but there's never been any way out at the far end. And now there is. The connecting path to Canning Town station is now open, in daylight hours at least, allowing passage to a section of riverbank that's been sealed off for years. There ought to be a more direct link across the DLR, but the gate in the middle of that particular ramped footbridge remains inexplicably locked, denying City Island residents another form of alternative access to the real world.

"Yay, finally" I thought, as I rounded the ecology park and finally reached that creekside promenade. The lamps and benches suggest this area has always been intended as a 'destination', but building works and/or funding and/or security permanently sealed it off. The promenade curves on for a while too, past passengers waiting on the adjacent DLR platforms and downstream to the edge of a Crossrail construction site. Workers there had previously been the only people allowed to use the special station entrance, but now I too could stand in front of the rotunda and admire, if not enter. What most amused me was how there was no sign announcing this isolated entrance was closed, just a board showing all the planned line closures for the week ending 21st August, because some jobsworth rule decrees this must appear.



And the footbridge, the footbridge was open too! I'd entered a competition to name it back in 2003, and now finally I was standing on it (admittedly a different, rather cheaper design). The red ironwork is supposed to resemble a cat's cradle, and I believe there's machinery to raise the whole thing if anything tall ever sails down the Lea. This being the 21st century there are lifts for step-free access at each end, plus there's bench seating along one side, which is a nice low-key touch. How nice to get a completely different perspective on the river, and to be able to cross to a post-industrial peninsula that's been out of bounds for decades.

City Island's Marketing Suite lies on the opposite side, at the tip of the peninsula, while a fenced off waterside path leads around the latest building works to the blocks already completed. Here I stood in the middle of what the brochure laughably describes as "a wooded clearing", but is more a mosaic of pristine lawn and lean-to saplings. Each block is of a different uniform colour, which is City Island's 'thing', and saves it from being yet another example of tedious architectural Biscuitism. At the bottom of the jet black block a concierge sat waiting to be necessary, while the ground floor snooker tables and comfy chairs lay unused, because these are only early days. But the early adopters must feel quite cut off, and will be ruing the closure of the entrance to Canning Town, for however long "for the foreseeable future" turns out to be.



And while they can't get in, sorry, you can't get out. But the Lea River Park is slowly opening up, and Bow Creek's waterside is suddenly more accessible than ever before. [12 photos]

3pm update: A reader writes "It's open today, well at least the staircase is."

 Sunday, August 21, 2016

As the Olympics in Rio come to a close, it's also four years since the end of London 2012. One of the sports that always takes place over the final weekend is Mountain Biking, the cycling event Team GB takes least interest in, with the women's race on the Saturday and the men's on the Sunday. You probably never saw the 2012 event on TV, the marathon was on at the same time, which is a shame given how much effort was put into creating the one-off venue. Hadleigh Country Park in Essex was selected as the location, after the IOC had complained that the hills round Brentwood weren't anywhere near mountainous enough. A sinuous course was designed and installed, with steep drops and sloggable ascents, across a patch of sloping farmland overlooking Canvey Island. The resulting facility was rather more scenic than it sounds, and the good news is that the course is still there, and freely open to the public - a nugget of Olympic legacy that's well worth a visit.



The Hadleigh Park mountain bike circuit lies in the far southeast corner of Essex, almost in Southend, about halfway between Benfleet and Leigh-on-Sea. A lumpy grassy landscape tumbles down to the railway line, and Hadleigh Marsh beyond, a strategically important location as confirmed by the ruined castle at one end of the ridge. The land belongs to the Salvation Army, who had to agree to its change of use, although their herd of Red Poll cattle still grazes across the site so all has not been lost. The Sally Army have in fact been here for 125 years, their long-term aim to use Hadleigh Farm to provide residential employment opportunities for destitute Londoners, and still have several facilities across the site.

I wasn't successful in getting an Olympic ticket, but I came to the test event the previous year and was blown away by the spectacle [report] [24 photos]. So I'm pleased to report that the 5km legacy course looks much the same, minus the magenta hoardings, the food stalls and the torrent of speeding bikes. The course wasn't devoid of bikes on my latest visit but only a few had taken the opportunity to come practise and enjoy, with the majority of younger riders flocking around the concrete bowl and drops of the Skills Area instead. You've got to learn somewhere, and much of the main course is more challenging than an unskilled, or unfit, cyclist would manage.



The difficulty of each harder section is clearly marked, both on the trail map and on the ground, with three categories ranging from blue through red to black. Blue means Moderate, for confident off-road cyclists only, while red is Difficult for the advanced or experienced. The surface of these sections is often rock rather than earth, with stone slabs strategically laid and some awkward gradients. But it's black you really have to watch out for, these being technically demanding obstacles kept over from the Games, and for quality mountain bikes and bikers only. Many still have the names given to them by local schoolchildren, for example Deanes Drop or the Leap of Faith, not that this'll be much comfort if you end up crumpled at the bottom. Rest assured there's always a parallel easier route, so these Severe sections shouldn't put you off turning up.

But the area around the course isn't just for cyclists, think of it as hillside to enjoy. Whilst walking along the track itself is frowned upon, indeed potentially dangerous, there's no problem rambling alongside or setting off up some slope or through some thicket by yourself. The site's also permeable from outside, indeed a public footpath runs straight through, so there's no question of the wheel-less being excluded. Many Essex families make it no further than the grassy brow of Sandpit Hill and settle down to stare out across the action and the Thames estuary below. When you've seen the view, you can't blame them. Beyond the immediate contours tiny trains rattle past harvested fields, Southend-bound flights swoop in over Canvey Island, lines of container cranes shuffle invisible imports upriver, and the low hills of Kent rise beyond a sparkling grey estuarine strip. Bring a picnic, stare.



Ideally you'll visit with your bike. If you're coming from London and don't fancy the 30 mile ride, you can bring your bike on the train, or stick it on the top of your car. Parking at Hadleigh costs £1.50 an hour, capped at £6, with an electronic barrier to catch you on the way out. It's also perfectly possible to hire a bike from the Visitor Centre when you get here, with the going rate £10 for the first hour and £5 for each extra, or £30 to ride all day. I didn't come to cycle so I walked, for around three quarters of an hour up from Benfleet, and fractionally longer back down to Leigh on Sea. It's a glorious walk, if you hit the weather right, with plenty to see along the way.

Hadleigh Park: Originally Hadleigh Country Park, 2012 has been used as an excuse to revamp and rebrand. The park extends well beyond the mountain bike course, with woodland tracks and all-weather trails, with the opportunity to enjoy a lofty panorama or walk at marshside estuary level.
Rare Breeds Centre: A short walk from the cycling, and with its own separate car park, this farm-style attraction will greatly cheer the younger members of the family. Meet Dylan the donkey and a pig called Captain Jack, plus dozens of goats and sheep, then wash your hands before heading to the Sally Army Tea Room chalet.
Hadleigh Castle: Now 800 years old, the ruins of two drum towers and a barbican are all that remain of this defensive fortification, now under the ownership of English Heritage. Freely accessible, and free to enter, this is prime day-out territory for many an Essex family with children merrily clambering over and into all that remains.

 Saturday, August 20, 2016

The world record for visiting all 270 stations on the London Underground is 15 hours, 45 minutes and 38 seconds. But as yet there's no official record for the fastest time to visit every station on the Night Tube, because the system's only been up and running since this morning, so I'd like to claim the crown. I've been out overnight travelling the entire network, from Ealing Broadway to Hainault via Walthamstow and Brixton. And the time the rest of you have to beat is 3 hours, 24 minutes and 7 seconds. Here's how.



Ealing Broadway
It's just after midnight on Saturday 20th August 2016, and what little nightlife exists on Ealing Broadway is about to be transformed. No longer need drinkers at The Shanakee rush to finish their last beer, nor clubbers at the Red Room leave before the last dance, not if they're heading back into the centre of town. The last tube used to leave at two minutes past midnight, but now the service runs all night and a new dawn of weekend freedom can begin. At the station the ticket gates are wide open, which may be a sign of things to come, or may simply be because this is a National Rail hub (last train to Paddington, five to two). While hundreds flood out through the barriers and a line of taxis awaits, only a trickle follows me down to the platforms for departure. The District line train alongside is already Not In Service, as we brave few board the inaugural Night Tube service, and my stopwatch clicks into action.



Ealing Broadway → Oxford Circus [24 minutes]
Last Saturday this Central line train would have wound up a few stops down the line at White City, but tonight it's going all the way to Hainault via Newbury Park. I'm in a clean carriage, stripped of leftover Standards, with only one other passenger deeply absorbed in her phone. At North Acton three beer-soaked groups board, one with Polish lager in hand, another yawning loudly, and the most sozzled opening the end door repeatedly before slumping into a seat. By Notting Hill Gate there are twenty of us, several openly flouting the byelaw on drinking alcohol, but the atmosphere remains jolly and convivial. The vibe is very much "heading home" or "party on" rather than "night shift", and beyond Marble Arch it's standing room only.

Oxford Circus [stopwatch 0h24m]
Last week the platforms here would have been empty, the final train of the evening having departed, but now they're as busy as a normal late evening with a bustle of travellers waiting to board. My first interchange of the night is a long one but goes smoothly, because when trains run this far apart there's generally time to spare. It's here that I spot my first extra police officers, one in the subways and one wandering the Victoria line platform, which is again fairly congested.

Oxford Circus → Walthamstow Central [19 minutes]
Trains are still eight minutes apart, not ten, as the timetable slips over the cusp of additional Night Tube provision. Our northbound service is helping to evacuate the West End, with some carriages rammed, but mine thankfully quite civilised. Passengers are more muted than on the Central, and no alcohol is evident, probably because this bunch are mostly heading home. A dreadlocked man in a pinstripe suit devours a lemon before alighting with a trolley. Meanwhile the lady beside me types "Today is first night train service and I'm in it" into her phone, before adding a smiley and seven unnecessary emoji, and changing the text colour to pink. Passengers thin out gradually from Kings Cross onwards, while a family fresh from Heathrow boards at Finsbury Park having successfully avoided the taxi option. In this carriage ten of us stay on to the end - across the entire train considerably more.

Walthamstow Central [stopwatch 0h51m]
I needn't have got off. Only one platform is in use and our train will be going almost straight back again. A TV crew are on the platform, interviewing the (surprisingly) young driver as he walks back down the train. A group of Underground staff in pink t-shirts and orange hi-vis follow on behind - they've presumably already been spoken to - then step aboard and hold court in the adjacent carriage.

Walthamstow Central → Brixton [29 minutes]
On the outward journey the train's on-board messaging system was very much in daytime mode ("change here for...", even when that line was no longer running). But on the inbound journey something has clearly flipped, as the system starts to reel off a lengthy but incomplete list of overnight closures. "The Northern line is suspended. The Bakerloo line is suspended. The Jubilee line is suspended. The Metropolitan line is part-suspended. National Rail lines from Vauxhall are suspended." Which particular lines get mentioned isn't consistent, and their number gradually increases the closer to zone 1 we get, as if the disembodied voice is going slowly mad. This ever-changing litany is reeled off twice at every station, which proves a highly infuriating quirk and is presumably not what the train's programmers originally intended. Oxford Circus isn't quite so busy by the time I return, this time picking up the returning south London posse as we pass through. Passengers are still politeness personified, and either chatting or subdued, or in one case lost in a good book. At Stockwell plastic tapes block off the Northern line platforms, lest anyone be tempted to wait, and at Brixton two people have to be nudged awake.

Brixton [stopwatch 1h25m]
It's especially hectic here, the flood strongest from the carriages by the Way Out, where regular travellers know to sit. A team of litter pickers dash in to pick up bottles, papers and KFC cartons, while one reveller slouches on a bench before being carried off semi-comatose by his friends. And again all I needed to do was stay on the train, because once the driver's changed ends we'll be going straight back.

Brixton → Oxford Circus [11 minutes]
"I wish there was a kebab right here," jokes one lad to a temporary friend he's never met before, as our Victoria line train heads back beneath the river. A decent amount of demand is evident even now, which is coming up to two o'clock in the morning, as refugees from nightbuses and Ubers enjoy the opportunity for a swift ride. Yawns are common, stoic stares somewhat more so, and the average age of those aboard is somewhere in the mid-twenties.

Oxford Circus [stopwatch 1h44m]
Because of a quirk in the Night Tube's timetables, all the trains at Oxford Circus pass through "on the 9s", so there's no hope of dashing through the subway in time to make a fast connection. I have a ten minute wait, although I'm still bang on schedule, a lucky break which doesn't normally happen on these Tube Challenge attempts. A small mouse scuttles by before the platform fills, the human contingent eventually over a hundred strong. A girl in a pink furry tiara announces that BBC Three are filming upstairs, and hopes very much she won't appear.

Oxford Circus → Loughton [38 minutes]
One eastern arm to go, but it's the tricky one with a split at the end, so I'm nowhere near finished yet. Every seat in the carriage is taken, and a TfL manager (with name badge, suit and shiny shoes) is hanging by the door with radiophone in hand. We are the inaugural guinea pigs to be observed, and fed back on, although as yet with no high jinks to report. "How's it going?" he asks the platform staff at Bank, and "So far so good" is the reply. By Bethnal Green rather more passengers are alighting than boarding, a pattern which accelerates as we head east. At Stratford the Night Manager kindly rouses a sleeping passenger who doesn't want to get off yet, then alights to continue his inspection elsewhere. All the Burger King and McDonalds bags filled in the West End are long exhausted, as we divert off up the line to Loughton, still with dozens aboard the train. Even at Woodford a number of fresh passengers board, escapees from some social event somewhere, with only a couple of stations to go as we cross the border into Essex.

Loughton [stopwatch 2h34m]
Council cuts mean they turn off the street lights in Loughton at 1am, although thankfully those outside the station still appear to be working. A sizeable crowd departs down the double staircase before the train is thoroughly checked for sleepers and is driven away. The next southbound train is Not In Service, then Check Destination, then finally Ealing Broadway. As various doors open and announcements play, there is a sense that the driver is experimenting with the controls, but never fear, we depart right on time.

Loughton → Leytonstone [11 minutes]
This time there are barely a dozen of us on board, but that's not bad for three in the morning at the Night Tube's most far flung station. There were severe delays on this stretch of line earlier due to a signal failure, how typical is that, but I've been fortunate enough to arrive after they've been cleared up. We rattle south through the darkness, returning into London, and picking up a dapper retired gent who travels only one stop.

Leytonstone [stopwatch 2h59m]
The train I've just left is unexpectedly held in the platform for seven minutes while a cleaner is fetched, to mop up something that presumably isn't vegetable soup. Thankfully the delay doesn't affect my journey as I cross to the northbound for my final train, past a policeman watching over the gateline and a steady stream of mouthy clubbers. These excitable teens are highly peeved to face a near-20 minute wait, the longest interval on the Night Tube, but my last train is arriving ten minutes sooner (and means I'll avoid travelling with them, hurrah).

Leytonstone → Hainault [15 minutes]
There's nearly 100 of us aboard this Central line train, I'd say, some excitedly making friends and others nodding off. My final seven stations lie ahead around the Hainault loop, which help to make Redbridge the very best served Night Tube borough. It seems insane that lowly Fairlop gets a 24 hour service, but that's what happens when the depot's just beyond, and the stop is not entirely wasted. I note that nobody's getting onto the train now, only off, entirely as suburban nightlife would suggest. And as Hainault approaches I'm checking my watch for the record breaking time, still very much on schedule, the entire journey having gone as planned.

Hainault [stopwatch 3h24m]
Guinness's pernickety rules don't allow a single challenger with incomplete evidence to claim the world record, so my time of 3 hours, 24 minutes and 7 seconds won't be officially ratified. It's also true that the Night Tube network is as yet incomplete, so all I've done is visit every station on the first two lines, which isn't anywhere near the final tally. But when all five lines are running it'll be totally impossible to cover the entire Night Tube in one night, so I've grabbed the record while someone can, and now it's mine. At least until tomorrow, that is, should any of you want to take me on.



I must conclude by saying it's been an impressive opening night. Not flawless, but smooth and good-natured throughout, and with passenger numbers evidently justifying the decision to launch. At no time did I feel at risk or threatened by another traveller, and everyone from cleaning staff to drivers appeared well-trained and professional. You probably slept through it all, indeed it's likely you'll have little or no need for the service as it rolls on, week in week out. But for those who work or play in the early hours, and happen to live in the right part of town, the Night Tube will make a genuine and positive difference. And that's a matter of record.

 Friday, August 19, 2016

The TfL website has a special Facts and Figures page for data-lovers, with a definitive list of superlatives and trivia on the London Underground network.
The Tube has been an integral part of London's history for 150 years. But do you know which is the deepest station? Or the shortest journey? Find key facts and some interesting figures here.
But as of tonight London has a brand new railway system - the Night Tube. It's got its own mascot, namely Becky, the Night Tube owl. It's got its own map, including a paper version you can pick up in stations. And it's got its very own set of superlatives and trivia.

As far as I'm aware TfL doesn't have a special Facts and Figures page for the Night Tube, so I've had a go at coming up with one for myself. I've attempted to match TfL's original list, and added three more facts of my own. Please note that the data only refers to the initial Night Tube on the Central and Victoria lines, not the full five-line system due later in the year. The list may not be 100% accurate, sorry, but I have attempted to be.

 The TubeThe Night Tube
Date opened18632016
Annual passenger numbers1.34 billion0 (so far)
Length of network402km68km
Number of stations27051
Busiest stationWaterloo - 95.1 million passengers per yearOxford Circus
Annual train km travelled82.5 million km0.36 million km
Average train speed33kmh38kmh
Proportion of network in tunnels45%69%
Longest continuous tunnelEast Finchley to Morden (via Bank) - 27.8kmBrixton to Walthamstow - 21.3km
Total number of escalators423100 (estimate)
Station with most escalatorsWaterloo - 23tbc (Oxford Circus?)
Longest escalatorAngel - 27.4 metres (vertical rise)Holborn - 23.4 metres (vertical rise)
Shortest escalatorStratford - 4.1 metresStratford - 4.1 metres
Total number of lifts on the network19620 (estimate)
Number of moving walkwaysFour, two each at Waterloo and Bank0
Deepest lift shaftHampstead - 55.2 metresGreen Park - 22.8 metres
Shortest lift shaftKing's Cross St. Pancras - 2.3 metresKing's Cross St. Pancras - 2.3 metres
Step-free stations687
Station with most platformsBaker Street - 10Oxford Circus - 4
Highest station above mean sea levelAmersham (Metropolitan line) - 147 metresBuckhurst Hill (Central line) - 135 metres
Stations south of the Thames28 (10%)3 (6%)
Stations outside London162
Furthest station from central LondonChesham (Metropolitan line) - 47km to AldgateLoughton (Central line) - 17km to Liverpool Street
Longest distance between stations Chesham to Chalfont & Latimer (Metropolitan line) - 6.3kmFinsbury Park to Seven Sisters (Victoria line) - 3.1km
Shortest distance between stationsLeicester Square to Covent Garden (Piccadilly line) - 0.3kmHolborn to Chancery Lane (Central line) - 0.4km
Longest direct journeyEpping to West Ruislip (Central line) - 54.9km Hainault to Ealing Broadway (Central line) - 37.6km

Something to mull over next time you catch the 0352 from South Woodford to East Acton.

 Thursday, August 18, 2016

Midland Metro, the light rail system connecting Wolverhampton to Birmingham, first opened to passengers in 1999. Three months ago the line was extended through Birmingham city centre so that trams now run all the way to the freshly-refurbished New Street station, and the shiny shopping centre perched on top.



But what if you're not in the West Midlands for retail, what if you're after some culture? Fear not, I've taken a ride along the entire 13 mile route seeking out galleries, heritage and museums for tram-travellers to enjoy.


[I know I know, probably not the article you were expecting]

Wolverhampton: Wolverhampton Art Gallery



It's a city now, Wolverhampton, and has been since the millennium. A ring road wraps round the former town centre, with an Anglo-Saxon-founded church on the highest ground and a cluster of civic buildings close by. One of these is the Wolverhampton Art Gallery, a late-Victorian confection, and a symbol of how seriously the local authority has always taken the aggregation of art. Upstairs are the Victorian and Georgian Rooms, high gabled galleries with a distinctly retro feel, showcasing a series of old masters and locally-crafted artefacts. Downstairs the art is more temporary and rather newer, including at present that perennial favourite - chocolate bars, crisp packets and ketchup brands stitched out of fabric. The WAG has long embraced the modern, indeed in the 1970s it was regularly vilified by the national press for forking out hundreds of pounds of taxpayers money on Pop Art trash. But now the Gallery's having the last laugh, as its collection of works by Warhol, Caulfield, Paolozzi, Blake et al has attained national importance. I thoroughly enjoyed the current exhibition in the ground floor extension, showcasing several of these Pop Art acquisitions along with their critical reaction at the time, including a packet of cigarettes (disgraceful!), a (baffling!) sculpture with teeth and a gorilla maquette. [free] [5 photos]

↓ 7 minutes

Bilston: Bilston Craft Gallery



Bilston's in the Black Country, the coalfield that helped bring the West Midlands to industrial prominence. The Bilston Craft Gallery exists to celebrate the region's creative flair, in particular the decorative enamels for which the town was famous in the late 18th century. Economics now dictate that the gallery shares its two-storey premises with the local library, but the mosaic floor at the foot of the stairs by the lending desk is a beautiful reminder of times past. Out back is a long gallery where a succession of temporary exhibitions are hosted, at present focusing on Wolverhampton's motorbike heritage (ooh, a Norton, a Diamond and a Wolf) and an eye-opening look at the acrimonious demise of the local steel industry (which survived 200 years until British Steel shut the smelters down). But I was really hunting for the Craftsense gallery - BCG's pride and joy, according to its website and Wikipedia. I looked everywhere but found no trace, eventually deducing that the cases have been permanently whisked away to make space for a Craft Cafe, where children come to make and paint while their parents enjoy tea. It's a brilliant idea, especially during the summer holidays, but when every table is empty and the two staff on duty entirely untroubled, simultaneously a crying shame. [free] [3 photos]

↓ 7 minutes

Wednesbury: Wednesbury Museum and Art Gallery
Doubling up as Sandwell's museum, this purpose built Victorian gallery has one of the world's largest collections of Ruskin pottery. It's also closed four days a week, so I missed out, but it is, obviously, open on Wednesdays. [free]

↓ 7 minutes

West Bromwich: The Public



Sometimes you arrive too late. The Public was West Bromwich's attempt to jump on a post-millennial bandwagon, an architecturally striking arts centre to place the town firmly on the cultural map. But where Margate, Hastings and Eastbourne succeeded, West Bromwich fell flat on its face with an expensive 'digital arts centre' nobody wanted. By the time it opened its doors in 2008 both the architects and the charitable foundation in charge had gone bust, and the interactive galleries weren't properly up and running. Visitors came and were bewildered, following a twisty ramp through the cavernous space, staring at mysterious lights and pressing intermittent buttons. In 2013 the council gave up and shut the place down, ripping out the exhibits and transforming the interior into a much-needed sixth form college. What remains is a monolithic black box with cloudlike pink-edged windows, looming invasively over the shopping centre, accessible only to students. Simultaneously amazing and disastrous, I wish I'd been earlier, while the taxpayers of Sandwell wish it had never been built. [free] [4 photos]

↓ 9 minutes

Soho, Benson Road: Soho House



Handsworth gets a bad press, whereas it was once the very model of Staffordshire respectability, and arguably the cradle of industrial Enlightenment. The resident who helped change the world was entrepreneur Matthew Boulton, who lived at Soho House from 1766 to 1809. Across the fields his Manufactory churned out buttons, buckles and boxes, and it was here that Boulton teamed up with James Watt to build the first economically viable steam engine. The West Midlands was home to several other great thinkers at the time, including Joseph Priestley and Josiah Wedgwood, a group of whom met socially once a month on the night of the full moon and called themselves the Lunar Society. One of the venues was Soho House, in the 1990s rescued from use as a police hostel and restored to full Georgian glory. Visitors are now shown around a building miraculously fitted out with most of Bolton's original furniture and fittings, including the very table around which the Lunar Society met, and some rather fantastic ornaments made from Blue John. My guide was excellent, and really made the house come alive, but also expressed regret that not enough people seem to make the effort to visit. I must say the initial trudge up from the tram stop hadn't looked promising, but the leafy neighbourhood at the top of the hill was charming, Soho House an unexpected pleasure, and they do tea and cakes too. [£7] [3 photos]

↓ 2 minutes

Jewellery Quarter: The Museum of the Jewellery Quarter
I visited this mothballed workshop last year, and loved it, so won't repeat myself except to say that it's an evocative insight into how craftsmanship used to be, and if you're in Birmingham you should go. [£7] [photo]

↓ 8 minutes

Grand Central: The Birmingham Back to Backs
The National Trust's only property in Birmingham, a rare survivor of cramped working class housing, lies a short walk south of New Street station. How the city's architecture changes along the journey, from thrusting gleam to decorated terracotta to plaintive brick. An example of the latter, I also visited the Back to Backs last year, and can also recommend. [£7.85]

↓ 1 year

Centenary Square: The Library of Birmingham



Midland Metro's due to be extended again next year, nudging through the civic centre of the city to terminate in front of the Library of Birmingham. Now three years old, this glittering bookstack is already much loved, even if the council's already had to cut its opening hours through lack of funding. But the real casualty is the old Birmingham Central Library, a brutalist concrete ziggurat which divided opinion, but has now been almost completely demolished. A single grey-stepped section remains, smashed open to the elements, due to be replaced by a modern mixed-use urban centrepiece laughably named Paradise. [free/dead] [photo]

↓ 6 years

Edgbaston: The Barber Institute of Fine Arts
Edgbaston: The Lapworth Museum of Geology



It may be 2023 before Midland Metro reaches out to Edgbaston, and even then not especially close to the University, but hey, I needed an excuse to nudge these last two attractions onto the list. Birmingham's campus is huge, centred around a sweeping Albertopolis-esque court with a thrusting brick clocktower at its heart. To one side is the Barber, an arts complex with a first floor cloistered gallery, and a collection of paintings that punches well above its weight. One circuit passes several treasures, and feels all so terribly refined and enriching, if somewhat dated. Much more up-to-date is the the Lapworth Museum of Geology, in the listed Aston Webb building, a Victorian collection reopened barely a month ago in a strikingly updated space. A sequence of fossil displays tells the Earth's history era by era, while carefully classified stacks of rocks and minerals should satisfy casual visitors and querulous students alike. I spotted a number of degree-educated dads attempting to inspire their offspring with scientific fervour, with varying degrees of success, and with just enough to push and poke in the Active Earth gallery to keep everyone happy. [free, free] [7 photos]

30 photos from along the Midland Metro

 Wednesday, August 17, 2016

This is Platform 1 at Bow Road station.



It's not a bad place to wait for a train, except in one respect, which is knowing what train is coming next.

For several decades an analogue lightbox revealed the destination of the next train approximately 45 seconds before it arrived. In 2005 this was replaced by a modern electronic display, but this is dependent on the same signalling feed so gives no additional information, nor any better advance warning of the next train's arrival. The second and third trains are never revealed, only the first, neither does a time ever appear alongside. In this we're not particularly special - there are still many other stations on the Underground with similarly minimal displays, and some with nothing at all.

Then in early spring we got nothing at all.

Over the course of a weekend TfL took the welcome step of replacing the glass in the roof above the two staircases and the two platforms. It'd got terribly mucky over the years, and the replacement panes brightened up the station no end. Unfortunately their temporary removal also allowed the rain to get in, and the next train indicator boxes promptly steamed up and stopped working.

So for the last few months we've been hearing this message over the loudspeakers at semi-regular intervals.
Ladies and gentlemen. Due to condensation, and for health and safety, the train describers on both platforms have been switched off. Please check the front of the train for the correct destination.
Checking the front of the train is of course the obvious solution when all else fails. But until it rumbled round the corner and into the platform we had no idea where it was going, and absolutely no clue what might be following and how many minutes behind. And this has carried on for weeks and weeks.

Would we be waiting ages for the next District line train or was it imminent? Was the next Hammersmith & City line train one minute away or nine, or worse? We didn't know, we just stood on the platform and waited, sometimes more in hope than expectation.

It wasn't the end of the world. When you're used to getting only 45 seconds notice, getting none doesn't make a lot of difference. But when TfL's technology can now list every bus expected at a particular bus stop over the next 30 minutes, its inability to reveal the next train here at Bow Road does seem a bit feeble.

And even though our screens had gone blank the station staff didn't step in to advise us what was on its way, even though they probably knew, they just played the apologetic message again and left us in the dark.

Almost anywhere else on the tube you can whip your phone out and check online. Wi-fi makes this easy even underground, and TfL's open data policy feeds comprehensive 'next train' data to many a smartphone app.

But Bow Road has no data, we are a total data blackspot. Check your app for 'Bow Road' departures and you'll draw a complete blank, even though Bromley-by-Bow (one up the line) has a full and complete list. And sure, it is possible to check adjacent stations and try to extrapolate, but that's not ideal, indeed you might just have missed a train that's departed and is on its way.

I'm not sure whether Bow Road's unique on the Underground in having no real-time data feed, but I do know that whipping out Citymapper doesn't help, and checking the TfL website is no use whatsoever.

The only thing we had left was a small 'next train' display in the ticket hall, the catch here being that it too gives minimal warning, so by the time you've passed through the gates and reached the platform there's a good chance that the train you saw displayed has already closed its doors or left.

It's baffled me for years why it's proven impossible to provide proper 'next train' information at Bow Road, when passengers one stop down the line at Mile End can be told the next three trains up to five minutes away. And it baffles me why there's no live data feed for Bow Road, and never has been, when TfL surely know where all their trains are.

But I was once told by somebody important that the signalling system in the Bow Road area is held together 'by string', which might explain a lot, and might mean the black hole will continue until the long-delayed signalling upgrade programme finally bears fruit.

Anyway, the good news is that yesterday somebody finally fixed the problem with the steamed up box on the westbound platform and switched it back on. We now have our 45 second warning again, so can shuffle forward into position once we know the train we want is expected. The eastbound display still isn't showing anything useful, but that's been blank or hopelessly wrong for years, so we're pretty much used to that.



Maybe by 2023 we'll know what the second and third trains are, or even the next ten, using whatever passes for a smartphone app by then. But for now, if contractors just could avoid taking the roof off again for a while, that'd be appreciated.

 Tuesday, August 16, 2016

If you've not been through Nine Elms recently, you may be surprised how much the area has changed.



That's not how Battersea Power Station looks now, that was how it looked in 2009, but I could have shown you a photo from 2013 and it would have looked much the same. Not today.



A forest of cranes has shot up, rising from the foundations of the latest phase of development, fed by daily convoys of lorries carting supplies in and taking rubble away. The first phase is already up, squeezing in 800 luxury apartments beside the railway and screening the entire western side of the power station. The interior of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s elemental masterpiece is next, a much more mixed-use development, transforming the interior into on-brand retail units, entertainment spaces and premium penthouses. The upper lateral walls have already been removed to ease the changeover, and of course the chimneys have come down too. Sulphur damage had made them dangerously unstable, and the developers were forced to replace one before removing the other three to prove they had the building's heritage in trust. I'd say these replacement chimneys are going to be utterly key to the success of the final project, because nothing else of the original power station is going to be visible once the surrounding apartment complex is complete.



Except from the other side of the river, that is. Only from the Thames, or from the embankment at Pimlico, will the majestic profile of the power station be unblocked. Something has to pay for the redevelopment of the site, and even ridiculously expensive apartments won't fill the coffers unless there are as many of them as possible. It's also essential to extend the Northern line, because the new residents would never stoop to taking the bus, and work on the station is now very much underway. You won't yet see much above ground level, only the stack of portakabins where the engineering types hang out, but that big gap in the wall in the second photograph above is the gate all the delivery lorries rumble through. There have been 'issues' recently after the height of the building the station was due to be constructed underneath was increased, but if all goes to plan you'll be able to ride the tube to do your Christmas window shopping at Battersea's designer mall in four years time.



Several other housing developments are planned nearby, crammed into every corner of brownfield space, and the Nine Elms area has more than most. First to be completed is Riverlight, a spectrum of crystalline blocks in prime position on the Thames. Their residents live privileged lives on the upper levels, with a coffee shop and 'tavern' on the ground floor, plus pristine flowerbeds and lawns on which dogs are absolutely not allowed. Their buildings are at least distinctive, which is more than can be said for the much larger cluster arising across Nine Elms Lane. The lift shafts I saw last time I was here have blossomed into mundane blocks of New London Vernacular, nothing architecturally special, indeed standing in the midst of them I could almost have been in Barking. But this is Embassy Gardens, the development that'll have the sky pool, the elevated glass-bottomed swimming pool that got everyone worked up when plans were first announced last year. And the supermarket on the ground floor is a Waitrose, obviously, because the target residents wouldn't be seen walking into anywhere else.



Alongside is the other flagship project in the Vauxhall Nine Elms Battersea Opportunity Area, specifically the new American Embassy. Amazingly it's nearly complete, a giant glass cube encased in a rippling metal lattice, with additional silvery undulations attached for good measure. Security when it opens next year will be extra-tight, hence the construction of a landscaped 'moat' outside, this as yet unseen. But for the time being you can wander up almost to the perimeter of the site unchallenged, to read the numerous safety-is-really-important notices and watch the dangling workmen perform aerial ballet. Spreading out beyond are a number of almost-ready apartment blocks, and liftshafts about to become apartment blocks, and demolished depots preparing to sprout liftshafts, and further depots awaiting demolition. The residential potential of these tightly-packed acres is phenomenal, not that anyone expecting anything loosely termed 'affordable' should get their hopes up.



On the opposite side of the railway viaduct is the only other station on the Northern line extension - Nine Elms. Sainsbury's generously sacrificed their car park, and their supermarket, to allow construction of the new station and are now reaping the rewards. The same footprint of land now contains a sealed-off plot of underground workings, a stack of highrise buildings reaching up to 20 storeys, and a gleaming orange-paned supermarket receiving its finishing touches inside and out, with staff preparing to open next week. It's an astonishing change of land use in barely three years, and stands in sharp contrast to the much lowlier council estates on the adjacent roads. Their residents are about to get a direct tube service to the West End, which will either strengthen and boost the local community or turbo-charge its downfall. By the look of the half-shuttered parade of Portuguese shops on Wilcox Road, commercial prospects are already weak even before the new hypermarket opens its doors.



Nine Elms remains very much a neighbourhood in flux, bearing only the first fruits of what's yet to come. The western rim of the power station and the blocks near Waitrose may be complete, but the next five years will see almost unimaginable levels of further redevelopment as Concierge City finally takes form. If you're planning to move in, well done, and I hope you enjoy your shoebox with its view of the balcony of the flat opposite. [14 photos]


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my special London features
a-z of london museums
E3 - local history month
greenwich meridian (N)
greenwich meridian (S)
the real eastenders
london's lost rivers
olympic park 2007
great british roads
oranges & lemons
random boroughs
bow road station
high street 2012
river westbourne
trafalgar square
capital numbers
east london line
lea valley walk
olympics 2005
regent's canal
square routes
silver jubilee
unlost rivers
cube routes
metro-land
capital ring
river fleet
piccadilly
bakerloo

ten of my favourite posts
the seven ages of blog
my new Z470xi mobile
five equations of blog
the dome of doom
chemical attraction
quality & risk
london 2102
single life
boredom
april fool

ten sets of lovely photos
my "most interesting" photos
london 2012 olympic zone
harris and the hebrides
betjeman's metro-land
marking the meridian
tracing the river fleet
london's lost rivers
inside the gherkin
seven sisters
iceland

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london underground
watch with mother
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digital time delay
wheelie suitcases
war of the worlds
transit of venus
top of the pops
old buckenham
ladybird books
acorn antiques
digital watches
outer hebrides
olympics 2012
school dinners
pet shop boys
west wycombe
bletchley park
george orwell
big breakfast
clapton pond
san francisco
thunderbirds
routemaster
children's tv
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amsterdam
little britain
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