Tuesday, April 28, 2015
Outer London Day Out (SW)
I'm continuing my sweep round Outer London cataloguing the most interesting places to visit, today reaching the southwest quadrant. Thanks for all your suggestions yesterday, not that there were many, which must mean a) I listed all the best places anyway b) you don't live in southeast London, or c) you're not especially interested. Again, any top-ups to today's list of sightseeing suggestions would be very welcome. All attractions are free unless otherwise stated.
• Battersea: Battersea Park is a lovely place for a stroll, especially if you find the Pump House Gallery (11am-4pm, closed Monday, Tuesday) in almost-the-middle of the lake.
• Tooting: A fascinating hoard of everyday industrial history can be found upstairs on Balham High Road at the London Sewing Machine Museum (2-5pm, first Saturday of the month) [blogged].
• Wimbledon: There's the tennis of course, its tale told at the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum (£13, 10am-5pm). And nearby is the enormous stroll-worthy Wimbledon Common, at the heart of which is the Wimbledon Windmill Museum (£2, Saturday afternoons & Sundays).
• Morden/Merton: The National Trust manage the green oasis of Morden Hall Park, with its waterwheel and second hand bookshop. Just across the tramtracks is Deen City Farm (10am-4.30pm, closed Mondays), and a bit further up the Wandle is Merton Abbey Mills [blogged] with its William Morris heritage, arts and crafts, and another waterwheel.
• Mitcham: The Wandle Industrial Museum (50p, Wednesday and Sunday afternoons), located in a hut opposite the cricket ground, has possibly the cheapest entrance fee of any London museum.
• For riverside ramblers, the Wandle Trail [blogged] and the Beverley Brook Walk [blogged] are recommended.
• Carshalton: Pick the right day, like this Sunday, and here's an unlikely multi-venue day out. The regular-opener is Honeywood Museum (11am-5pm, closed Monday & Tuesday) [blogged] overlooking Carshalton Ponds, a listed building refurbished in 2012. Close by is the Carshalton Water Tower (£2, 2.30pm-5pm, Sundays from April to October) [blogged], with additional tours of the Hermitage for an additional £1 on the first and third Sundays. Meanwhile down in Carshalton Beeches, Little Holland House (1.30-5.30pm, first Sunday of the month & Bank Holiday weekends) [blogged] is a homemade Art Nouveau/Arts and Crafts fusion, suburban style.
• Cheam: Whitehall (2-5pm - also Saturday mornings - closed Monday & Tuesday) [blogged] is a Tudor timber-framed house (and museum) in the heart of Cheam village.
• Little Woodcote: In the last field before Surrey, Mayfield Lavender (approximately June to August) [blogged] is a blaze of purple colour and, if the sun's out, an absolute delight.
(Sutton in 'more interesting than Wandsworth' shocker)
• Kingston: The royal town, on Thames, is home to the small but well-appointed Kingston Museum (10am-5pm, closed Mon, Wed, Sun)
• Chessington: For London's best (indeed only?) rollercoaster experience, plus safari animals, big rides and mortgage-sized admission prices, it has to be Chessington World of Adventures (£46 on the gate, £26 in advance, 10am-5pm).
• Richmond: Richmond - town and borough - boasts an embarrassment of sightseeing riches. Embracing the river helps, along one of the finest stretches of the Thames Path, which is pretty damned great all the way from Hampton Court to Fulham. But equally lovely is Richmond Park, London's largest green expanse, where the views are extensive and the deer run free. At the foot of Petersham Hill, and along the river a bit, you'll find 17th century Ham House (£10, noon-4pm, March-October). And if you can draw yourself away from all that, the Museum of Richmond (11am-5pm, closed Sunday & Monday) is in the Old Town Hall.
• Kew: Amongst London's very best attractions is Kew Gardens (£15, 10.30am-5pm) [blogged], an unsurpassed botanical collection and a World Heritage Site to boot. Within its grounds lies royal Kew Palace (April-September), now included within the main ticket price.
• Barnes: On a loop in the Thames, the London Wetland Centre (£11.60, 9.30am-6pm) [blogged] is like Heathrow for waterfowl, especially at migratory times.
• Twickenham: Twickenham Museum (11am-3pm, Sat & Tue, plus Sunday afternoons) [blogged] is a tiny thing on the riverfront near Eel Pie Island. Close by to the east there's art at the Orleans House Gallery (10am-5pm, closed Mondays) and also the gleaming white Palladian villa of Marble Hill House (£6.20, guided tours at weekends only), while to the west is the newly restored Strawberry Hill House (£10.80, afternoons, closed Thursday & Friday). And then of course there's rugby, specifically the humbly-named World Rugby Museum (£8, 10am-5pm, closed Mondays) (or £20 with stadium tour).
• Hampton Court: 500 years old this year, Hampton Court Palace (£19.30, 10am-6pm) [blogged] is the great Tudor survivor with much to see and explore, plus the famous maze. If you have time, extensive Bushy Park (with its deer and gardens) is just across the road.
• Chiswick: For a small artist's home by a roundabout, pick Hogarth's House (noon-5pm, closed Sundays) [blogged]. For a grand neo-Palladian mansion in beautiful gardens and parkland, pick Chiswick House (house £6.10, 10am-6pm, closed Thu, Fri, Sat) (gardens free, daily) [blogged].
• Brentford: To the west of Kew Bridge, a Victorian pumping station has become the London Museum of Water and Steam (£11.50, 11am-4pm) [blogged], recently rebranded and relaunched, with rotative steaming on certain dates. A few doors down is the Musical Museum (£10. 11am-5pm, Friday to Saturday) [blogged], a collection of self-playing musical instruments, plus demonstrations on the Mighty Wurlitzer. Boston Manor House (noon-5pm, April-October) is a homelier Jacobean affair by the M4, while Syon House is quite the lordly mansion, set in spacious gardens overlooking the Thames (£12, 11am-5pm, Wed & Thu & Sun) (or £7 for just the gardens, daily)
• Osterley: Hounslow has far more than its fair share of grand mansions, with Osterley Park (£9.90, 11am-5pm, March-October) [blogged] one of the grandest, located at the centre of a landscaped estate large enough to build a small town.
• Hanworth: The world’s largest working triple-expansion steam pumping engine has been restored in an old pumping station at the Kempton Steam Museum (£5, 10.30am-5pm, on Tuesdays, Thursdays and the third weekend of the month) [blogged] and is a breathtaking sight. Also on site, the newly-restored (and very dinky) Hampton and Kempton Waterworks Railway (£2, 10.30am-4pm, Sundays, March-November) [blogged].
If you have any further thoughts on places you'd go out of your way to visit, please add them in the specific comments box. Strictly no food and drink, no shopping and nothing from Zone 1. And I'll add your best choices later.
posted 07:00 :
Monday, April 27, 2015Outer London Day Out (SE)
I've been meaning to do this for ages. A brief rundown of the most interesting places to visit in London that aren't in the middle. All too often tourists and the media focus on central London, and on places to eat and drink, so I'll have none of that. Instead I'm going to attempt to bring together as many sightseeingworthy places as I can, covering essentially zones 3 to 6 (with some outer zone 2 thrown in for good measure). If I miss out anything good, let me know and I'll try to add it, the idea being that this builds into a comprehensive list for anyone to refer back to. I'm going to divide up the suburbs into four quadrants, so expect this to take the rest of the month. If I've been and blogged about it, I'll link to that. And if you're ever bored in the future and in need of inspiration, simply click back to April 2015 on this blog and hopefully something from the list will take your fancy. Because there's more to London than pop-up restaurants in Shoreditch and shopping at Westfield.
• Greenwich: If you can't make a day out out of Maritime Greenwich, you're doing it wrong. Top draws are the Cutty Sark tea clipper (10am-5pm, £12.15) and the world famous Royal Observatory (10am-5pm, £9.50) [blogged], the home of time, which includes London's only planetarium (£7.50) [blogged]. Alternatively there are several free attractions to see, top of which is the National Maritime Museum (10am-5pm), a multi-galleried repository of all things seaworthy. Across the grass is the Queen's House (10am-5pm), with its photogenic Tulip staircase, and don't miss the Painted Hall (10am-5pm) with its exuberant early Georgian ceiling. Additional tourist info can be found at the Discover Greenwich Visitor Centre, near the entrance to the Foot Tunnel. Or for a quirkier more dainty experience, give the Fan Museum a go (11am-5pm, £4, closed Mondays) [blogged].
• North Greenwich: Forget the O2, and walk downstream to watch the wildlife in the Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park (10am-5pm, closed Monday & Tuesday).
• Woolwich: If you hurry you can visit the overlooked Firepower Royal Artillery Museum at Woolwich Arsenal (10am-5pm, £5.30, closed Sunday & Monday) [blogged] before it's forced to vacate the site at Christmas 2016.
• Eltham: Just wow. Eltham Palace is an amazing building, an amalgam of Art Deco mansion and Tudor moated hall (from 10am, £13, open Easter-October and school holidays) [blogged]. English Heritage opened five new rooms earlier this month, so even if you've been before, you haven't quite.
• Green Chain: For a dozen fine walks around Greenwich, Bexley, Bromley and Lewisham, including strolls to Severndroog Castle (£2.50, 12.30-4.30pm, Tue, Fri, Sun) [blogged], the Thames Barrier and Lesnes Abbey, check out the Green Chain website (or buy the official pack so you can do the lot).
• Bexleyheath: Perhaps unexpectedly, it's perfectly possible to fill an entire genteel day out in Bexleyheath. William Morris lived here in an Arts and Crafts home of his own devising, the Red House (£7.20, mid-Feb to October-ish, closed Monday & Tuesday) [blogged], now watched over by the National Trust. Close by is Danson House (noon-5pm, £8, April-October, closed Saturday), a sumptuous Georgian villa, while a short distance down the A2 is Hall Place (10am-5pm, £8) [blogged], a creaking Tudor house in extensive gardens.
• Crossness: Sir Joseph Bazalgette's Crossness Pumping Station (£6, 10.30am-4pm, occasional Sundays) [blogged] is a Victorian engineering marvel, next open on June 21st.
• Crystal Palace: The original glass exhibition hall burnt down in 1936, but Crystal Palace Park remains full of plenty to explore, including a maze, a free museum (11am-4pm, weekends) and the legendary model dinosaurs.
• Chislehurst: Even if it's raining out, you can explore some of the 22 miles of tunnels at Chislehurst Caves (£6, 10am-4pm, closed Monday & Tuesday) [blogged] on a 45 minute lamplit tour. An underappreciated gem.
• Orpington: The Roman remains at the Crofton Roman Villa (£1.50, 10am-4.30pm, April-October, Wednesday, Friday, bank holiday Mondays and the first Sunday of the month) [blogged] are a rare suburban bargain.
• Downe: Charles Darwin came up with his theory of evolution whilst living at Down House (£10.60, 10am-6pm, closed winter weekdays) [blogged], now open as a museum to the great man courtesy of English Heritage. You owe it to your genes to visit at least once.
• Westerham: A short distance across the border (by 246 bus) explore Quebec House (£5.20, March to October-ish, closed Monday & Tuesday) or even Churchill's Kent home at Chartwell (£13, 10am-5pm)[blogged] (bus on Sundays only, March-October).
• Croydon: The Museum of Croydon (10.30am-5pm, closed Sunday & Monday) isn't worth going out of your way for, but the Croydon Airport Visitor Centre (11am-4pm, 1st Sunday of the month) on Purley Way might be.
• Shirley: Shirley Windmill, now mid-housing estate, is open to the public on the second Sunday in May and the first Sundays of June to October (1pm-5pm)
• Coulsdon: The Downs to the south of Purley and Coulsdon are some of the finest rambling territory in London [blogged], especially the finger-ridge of Farthing Downs.
• Forest Hill: Possibly London's most eclectic museum, the Horniman Museum (10.30am-5.30pm) houses a collection of stuffed animals, musical instruments and ethnological treasures, plus some fine gardens to wander outside. Head off via Dulwich Park and you'll soon reach...
• Dulwich: The Dulwich Picture Gallery (£5, 10am-5pm, closed Mondays) [blogged] was the world's first purpose-built public art gallery. It's small but perfectly formed (and attached to a surprisingly pastoral village).
• Brixton: Recently restored, Brixton Windmill takes some finding, but opens for guided tours generally on the second weekend of the month from April to October (2pm-4.30pm). Or head to Brockwell Park for the Lido, the walled garden, the fine views over London and (Sundays only) a ride on the very miniature railway.
If you have any further thoughts on places you'd go out of your way to visit, especially for those three inner boroughs, please add them in the specific comments box. Strictly no food and drink, no shopping and nothing from Zone 1. And I might add them later.
posted 07:00 :
Sunday, April 26, 2015Today, officially for the first time, TfL have renamed a station for commercial reasons. The station in question is Canada Water which, thanks to its proximity to the London Marathon course, has been renamed after a well-known brand of bottled water. [5 photos]
The sponsored product is part of the Nestlé Waters portfolio, and is an "official partner" of this year's London Marathon, which is itself named after a financial service. Nestlé have paid £110,000 to have branded artwork placed across the station and all the roundels temporarily replaced with the brand name of their choice. The replacement affects the Jubilee and Overground platforms, and has been professionally done - there are no tacky stickers here. Even the line diagram at the foot of the escalator has been modified for the day, lest you forget where you're supposed to be. Two of the nameplates outside the station have been left alone, but the tall white interchange signs by the bus station have been rebranded, replacing Canada with the name of a town in Derbyshire. Meanwhile passengers entering the station are greeted by cap-wearing agents dispensing very small bottles of the sponsor's water, sometimes more than once if they're particularly keen.
Information on dot matrix indicators advises customers that "the name change is part of a one day sponsorship deal", and urges them to join in with the promotion by tweeting the specified hashtag. Meanwhile a regular platform announcement, delivered by a much chirpier voice than usual, manages to namecheck the sponsor five times in less than thirty seconds.
TfL have been slightly defensive about the move, aware that not everyone thinks this is a commercial step they should be taking.
The revenue TfL will receive from the deal is part of its wider commercial plans to generate £3.4bn in non-fare revenue over the next decade, which will be reinvested in to improving London's public transport and road network for the benefit of customers and users.Equally, someone in TfL's press release department managed to sign off the following sentence, which suggests that the generation of PR drivel is alive and well on the Jubilee line.The partnership combines two famous brands to celebrate one of the largest and most prestigious marathon races in the world and has been designed to enhance the experience of customers using the station on the day, whilst raising awareness of drinking enough water on the go.Tube maps elsewhere in London have not been adjusted. Indeed were it not for the torrent of wider publicity, only passengers using Canada Water station today would have noticed. Instead the brand name has been splashed across the media since the announcement midweek, allowing Nestlé to get maximum exposure for minor outlay, and I'm sure other companies will be queueing up to have a go. Oh how we laughed back in 2006 at the idea of the Sponsored Tube Map. But now alas, thanks to Middle Eastern airlines and Gatwick-based drinks companies, that tarnished reality is upon us.
I understand that TfL's bosses are (currently) unwilling to go beyond a 2-day renaming, so the chances of a station being permanently vandalised are (currently) nil. But expect a lot more of this sort of commercial contamination of our public services in the future, because at £110,000 a day it'd take 85 years of station sponsorship to rake in the £3.4bn TfL needs to raise to meet funding gaps. Or, and I know this is unfashionable, perhaps we could just put fares up by a few pence? It'd cost us a lot less than the price of a bottle of water, after all.
posted 09:00 :
Bottled water is for losers. That's other than those who buy it for logically defensible reasons, namely:
• being outdoors, and in preference to fizzy drinks
• preferring sparkling water
• running in a marathon
• that other logically defensible reason I forget
But if you can't get through a day without grabbing a bottle of H2O to keep you 'hydrated', then you are officially a mug, and somewhere a shareholder is very pleased.
There's no need to buy bottled water if a tap dispensing drinking water is at hand. You might think there is, if you believe the taste of tap water is tainted by fluorides and chlorates and whatever, but that simply means you've swallowed some marketing myths and are more gullible than you look. Apparently 57% of UK bottled water is consumed at home, which is madness, lugging home liquid you could source perfectly easily (and hugely cheaper) from a tap. Obviously it's your right to throw away your hard-earned cash in this way if you so choose, but quite frankly you're flushing your money down the drain.
Only 13% of bottled water is "carried out", while 30% is drunk "out of home", for example in restaurants or the workplace. I always think that capitulating to bottled water in a restaurant is a sign of weak character, rather than having the bottle to stand up for tap. In a cafe bottled water might be the healthiest drink going, so maybe isn't too bad, although I'd always rather pimp up my water with a boiling teabag. As for clutching bottled water in the workplace, perhaps to get you through a meeting or as a deskside companion, for goodness sake use the drinking water provided you mindless wastrel.
According to www.britishbottledwater.org, a marketing mouthpiece for the British bottled water industry...
• we drink five times as much tea as bottled water, although the gap between the two beverages is closing (they seem pleased about the latter)
• annual bottled water consumption currently stands at 39 litres per person (considerably less than the European average of 115 litres per person)
• sparkling water's share of the market has more than halved since 1998, now accounting for only around 15%
• bottled water typically retails at up to 500 times more than the price of tap water
Actually they didn't mention the last of those facts, it's the elephant in the room, given that water now sells for more than milk, even oil, in many cases. But that doesn't stop drinks companies from selling their overpriced liquid to an audience of naive hydration disciples, and raking in profits by the gallon. Indeed, these greedy corporations are precisely the sort of vacuous marketing behemoths who would sponsor a tube station...
posted 01:00 :
Saturday, April 25, 2015Walk the Underground: Theydon Bois to Epping
An anniversary is sometimes little more than an excuse. And yesterday, it turns out, was the 150th anniversary of the opening of the railway line between Loughton and Ongar. It wasn't on the Central line at the time, it was a spur of the Great Eastern Railway, plunging out into the Essex countryside in search of not terribly many passengers. 150 years later the Epping Ongar Railway are celebrating with a special in-steam extravaganza this weekend, and London Underground are celebrating with a trio of special posters. I thought I'd celebrate with an evening walk from Theydon Bois to Epping, because hell why not, and I didn't have any better offers. Armed only with an Ordnance Survey map and a desire for fresh air, I headed off for a two and a bit mile stroll beyond the boundary of London. And as Friday evenings go, it may have beaten yours.
Theydon Bois (rhymes with Boys) is the least used station in Zone 6, but still disgorges a healthy footfall in the evening peak. They pour out onto Station Approach into the front seats of their beloved's cars, or into The Bull for a pint, or down cherry blossom avenues to be home by The One Show. This is a lovely village, one of the most pleasant spots you can reach by Underground, its large triangular green surrounded by cottages, a duckpond down one side, and plenty of space for a kickabout up the meadowy end. For my walk I turned right past the very-Essex parade of shops (where the discerning resident can buy award-winning pies, leave their dry cleaning or get their wrinkles sucked), then on past dream suburban gardens to the footpath at the end of Forest Drive where the pavement runs out.
The path ahead is part of The Oak Trail, a waymaked route courtesy of the City of London who own Epping Forest in these parts. But ignore that for a bit and head into the fields alongside, which are private land with free public access, and whose grassy slopes afford fine views of the surrounding undulations. From the top of the ridge at Piercing Hill the outlying streets and gardens burst with colour, a distant field glows with rape, and the M25 rumbles in the not-so-very distance. A rope swing has been hung from the single oak tree near the summit, where two girls out walking their rather small dog paused, one to push and one to screech at the acrobatic horror of it all. And every four minutes or so, in one direction or the other, a Central line train glides by following the dip at the bottom of the field. Only Epping-folk get to see the reverse panorama from their seats, assuming they're looking up, 150 years on.
Returning to the path, the next ascent follows a hedge past a flurry of white blossom. From the other side can be heard snorts and the occasional neigh from an unseen stables, the field you're walking in being more-than-adequate visual compensation. How green the leaves are at this time of year, dressing another solo oak at the top of the rise before a proper lane descends between hedgerows on the other side. To the left is the farthest corner of a golf course, where Essex blokes with trolleys are surprised to see a rambler heading by, and to the right is possibly the easternmost outpost of Epping Forest, a coniferous thicket wedged between road and railway.
To continue, near the farm outbuildings, follow the sign that says No Public Access Except By Public Footpath, because this is one. Beyond the stile is one of the M25's most peculiar junctions, more a slip road really, and completely out of bounds to normal traffic. Should your vehicle be permitted to pull off, the ramp leads to a cattle grid, then a bridge across eight lanes of freshly-resurfaced tarmac, and then straight back down again, with no means of alternative escape (unless you're the local farmer). I could have diverted down to the hard shoulder, no problem, but was instead struck by the density of wildlife hereabouts. Rabbits scampered back and to, while the large backside I saw disappearing into the nearby trees belonged to a deer almost as surprised as me.
The field beyond looks across to the hamlet of Ivy Chimneys, a finger of cottages stretching down to the point where the M25 disappears into a cut and cover tunnel beneath a cricket pitch. I could have hit the edge of Epping in minutes, but instead took the path downhill to the railway, past a local geezer and his daughter taking a macho puppy called Jazz for a stroll. The Central line is crossed by a dour 40s footbridge, caged in to prevent gravity-induced vandalism, and then the official path continues straight (and untrod) across a field of barely-sprouted crops. Have faith, and switch to the banks of the tiny brook before crossing back across an unexpectedly wobbly footbridge.
The outer streets of Epping lie ahead, past a concrete fingerpost. It's seven-something on a Friday evening and going-out time for the smartly-dressed residents, slipping into their Audis and limited edition Beetles for a drink or a meal somewhere, perhaps with a bit of a bop to follow. One husband emerges from his porch with a handbag-sized dog, which he accidentally drops because the poor hound's legs weren't as close to the pavement as he thought. And a few London-bound souls head for the station to begin their night out, via the long alley round the car park, pushing against the pulse of commuters streaming through the ticket gates. The railway that opened a century and a half ago has brought them home.
posted 01:50 :
Friday, April 24, 2015It turns out we didn't have a mayoral election in Tower Hamlets last year, we had fraud. While the rest of London trooped into polling stations to choose councillors and European representatives, electors here ran the gauntlet of intimidation and illegal practices. But because four residents had the tenacity to collect evidence, and the balls to stand up and point the finger, the unduly elected Mayor has been found guilty of electoral malpractice. I bet this sort of thing doesn't happen where you live.
The evidence laid before this court, limited though it necessarily was to the issues raised in the Petition, has disclosed an alarming state of affairs in Tower Hamlets. This is not the consequence of the racial and religious mix of the population, nor is it linked to any ascertainable pattern of social or other deprivation. It is the result of the ruthless ambition of one man.Until yesterday, councillor Lutfur Rahman had been the first directly-elected Bangladeshi mayor in Britain. He won the first or second preference votes of over half of those who voted in last year's borough elections, and there's no indication that his winning margin would have been overturned had all been fair and square. But a lengthy inquiry has now confirmed what many had long suspected, that his Tower Hamlets First party won power under suspect and illegal circumstances.
The judge's statement confirms that some THF candidates gained their place on the ballot paper by naming a house they didn't live in as their place of residence. At least one THF candidate registered on the electoral roll twice within the same ward, and somehow managed to cast his vote twice too. THF agents visited certain housebound residents before polling day and persuaded them to hand over their blank postal votes, presumably to complete in Lutfur's favour. Meanwhile Lutfur's council has made questionable decisions over financial grants to ineligible local groups, and council buildings have been sold off to friends of the Mayor for below expected market value. A picture is painted of a leader trying every tactic to remain in power, and if this meant disregarding electoral law so be it.
Mr Rahman’s election as Mayor on 22 May 2014 was void, that is to say, it is as if it had never taken place. He has not lawfully been Mayor since that date. It is declared that Mr Rahman shall be incapable of being elected to fill the vacancy for the office of Mayor of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets under s 164(1)(b) of the 1983 Act.So, in case we weren't sick enough of elections already, voters in Tower Hamlets will be invited to return to polling stations on June 11th to elect a new Mayor. Technically we haven't had one for the last eleven months, and yet decisions have still been made (for example on the relocation of the Town Hall) that will shape the face of our borough for years to come. Lutfur won't be allowed to stand, and it's unlikely that his party could find as charismatic a candidate to sweep the electorate along. A Labour victory thus looks likely, most probably John Biggs who came second in 2014, although Tower Hamlets politics is quirky enough that nothing is ever a foregone conclusion.
In a secondary decision, mayoral aide Alibor Choudhury has been found guilty of corrupt and illegal practices and has been forced to vacate his position as councillor. In consequence a by-election will have to be held in the Stepney Green ward at the same time as the mayoral vote is rerun, which could dramatically change the face of the council. At present no party has more than half the seats, but if Mr Choudhury's place is taken by Labour they'd suddenly command a majority. Not that this matters, because under a mayoral system the Mayor takes all and majority politics is void, but it's perfectly possible that Lutfur's downfall will end up handing everything to his main opponents.
The murky world of Tower Hamlets politics has once again thrown up a situation that those of you who live elsewhere must find incredible. It's a reminder of how easy it is for one ambitious person to manipulate the electoral system to their advantage, and almost get away with it. I thank the campaigners who had the courage to risk bankruptcy to bring the case to court, and I wait to see what June's trip to the ballot box throws up next.
Still, it could be worse, I could live in Barnet.
posted 07:00 :
Thank you for your astute and comprehensive comments on the subject of guerilla pedestrians. Having read them, here are three paragraphs I wish I'd written yesterday. Please insert them where you think fit.
And it's not just at pedestrian crossings. Guerilla pedestrians are perfectly happy to cross the road inbetween, even when this might be entirely unwise, because they think walking all the way up to the lights takes too long. The worst miscreants get only halfway across the road, and are then forced to hover in the middle on a thin white line hoping that a passing driver will take pity and pause to let them pass. Or maybe just run across anyway causing havoc, as is their prerogative.
Spotting approaching cars is easy, but the guerilla pedestrian often overlooks those on smaller means of transport, forcing cyclists and bikers to curse and swerve or worse. Stationary traffic creates a particular hazard, as guerilla pedestrians assume nothing's moving so start to weave their way through the maze of vehicles, only to be mown down by a two-wheeled oncomer previously invisible partway across. And if one side in the conflict raises a fist in blame, it'll probably be the wrong one.
Perhaps the advance of the guerilla pedestrians is the byproduct of a policy shift. To keep the traffic flowing, pedestrian crossings have been subtly retimed to give greater priority to the motorist, leading to an increase in the time that walkers are left stranded on the pavement. Who'd not get impatient after waiting seconds longer day in day out, no matter how many times you press the button, and so start jumping the lights as a matter of course? Downgrade our lights and we misbehave more.
posted 00:10 :
Thursday, April 23, 2015Often it's cyclists who get a bad press at traffic lights, but perhaps another breed of road user deserves a stronger dressing down. I speak of those of us on foot, who think nothing of dashing across the street whenever we think fit. Are we seeing the rise of the guerilla pedestrian?
We pedestrians have always been bad at obeying the rules of the road. We had them drummed into us in childhood, all that looking left and right and waiting before crossing, then once we get older we invariably get more lax in our approach. But what I'm think I'm seeing, from observations at the same pedestrian crossings over several years, is an increasingly brazen disregard for doing as we should, and a steady increase in rushing across whenever the hell we like. We used to wait, but now we don't wait, because we think we're more important than that.
Turn up at a pedestrian crossing when the green man is green and there's no issue. But turn up one second later and guerilla action is afoot. Rather than shrugging and hanging around on the kerb for god-knows-how-long, instead we assume we've still got plenty of time to cross the road and step out anyway. And sometimes we're right, because the crossing in question has been programmed to allow a very slow person to cross very slowly. But at other times the oncoming traffic is immediately upon us, perhaps accelerating on green, and all we're doing is getting in the way.
Like we care. For the guerilla pedestrian traffic lights are for losers, because there's always a gap in the traffic if you run fast enough. We don't like to wait, and what's more we don't have to, because for us the red and green lights are merely advisory. If we want to cross while the red signal's red then we can, even though you on your bikes or you in your cars could be prosecuted if you did the same.
I'm sure we've all crossed the road on red when nothing's coming, because it's pointless hanging around. But what I think's now changing is how keen we are to break ranks when road traffic has right of way, and when we really ought to be keeping out of its path. I see this creeping anarchy every day at a junction near work - a horde of pedestrians buzzing to be on the move - and it's definitely getting worse.
For example, as soon as we spot that traffic lights are turning in our favour, we're out in the road before the last car has passed ready to step into its wake. For example, as the lights change for other traffic but not for us, we're exploiting the brief hiatus between one stream and the next to dash across. And for example, as the countdown timer ticks down, well, if we're a few seconds longer, where's the harm?
Those of us on foot in London have become pretty badly behaved, all told. Forever pushing the envelope, or chancing our arm, for the prize of a few less seconds on our commute. And the more regularly we travel, the more we know the idiosyncrasies of the lights we're crossing, the more likely we are to think we know how best to zip through. The guerilla pedestrian is on the march, or more likely on the run, at a road crossing near you.
It's a wonder we don't kill ourselves more often. But then once is all it takes, and if we've successfully negotiated a path between the traffic a thousand times before, we never imagine that the next reckless crossing might be our last. A car we haven't spotted, a bus travelling faster than we thought, if we choose to encroach on the road when it's not our turn we're putting ourselves at risk.
And we're putting others at risk too. A second breed of pedestrian I've seen a lot lately are human sheep. These sheep don't pay attention to what's going on around them, most likely because they have their head in their phone, so tend to cross the road by instinct along with everyone else. And if everyone else is jumping the gun because they've judged the situation 'safe', there's a very real danger that those following behind without watching might be stepping into danger.
You have to be a bit of an idiot to be a sheep. More interested in Facebook than red lights, more interested in Whatsapp than the truck bearing down on you, your implicit assumption that you have some kind of magic protective aura could end up doing you harm. But in fact it's the guerilla pedestrian who lures you out into the street, because if everyone had behaved and stayed where they were then you'd have stayed put on the pavement too.
We don't have laws on jaywalking in this country, and rightly so. Were we all forced to cross only at places of safety and only when signals were green, getting around would take intolerably long. But we pedestrians need to remember we don't own the road, and those we share it with are generally larger and considerably heavier than ourselves. And we need to remember that we can only push our luck so far, and that the rise of the guerilla pedestrian is ultimately unsustainable.
posted 07:00 :
Wednesday, April 22, 2015As a stalwart user of TfL services, you probably don't give a second thought to people using them for the first time. But visitors to our capital often find travel daunting, and TfL has a special wodge of tips, advice and special offers to help them get around.
If you're new here, TfL very much hope you'll find their Visiting London webpage before you arrive. As well as an embedded journey planner, the page leads with five prominent features that might be of interest to London Transport virgins. First off is a big splash announcing that buses in London are cash-free. This won't be news to you, but to those who've not been here in the last twelve months (or have never been) it may come as a surprise. Also, the emphasis on cashlessness allows TfL to push their important offer in panel number two - the Visitor Oyster card.
The Visitor Oyster card is just an ordinary Pay-as-you-go Oyster card, with the same daily caps and everything, but with a prettier pattern on the front. And it has two big advantages over a bog standard blue one, the first of which is that TfL will post it to you before you arrive. Decide how much cash you want on the thing (they recommend £15 for a weekend), stump up a £3 non-returnable 'activation fee' and it'll be on its way. This'll save you queuing up at the first station you reach when you arrive, which is important now that every ticket office is being terminated.
And secondly a Visitor Oyster card allows you to partake in special offers carefully curated by the folk at TfL Towers. These vary, but the current list (available here) includes 20% off your bill at Planet Hollywood, a free hot fudge sundae at the Hard Rock Cafe and 15% off at M&Ms World in Leicester Square. And OK, so these are tourist horrors to be avoided at all costs by discerning folk, but some of the other offers might have much more relevance to ordinary Londoners. 15% off purchases at the Foyles bookshop on the South Bank, for example, that could be damned useful. Or 25% off a Vinopolis tour, assuming you can get in before they close down. Or how about free entrance to a weekend night at the dogs at Wimbledon Greyhound Track (this also available to ordinary Oyster card holders, before you decide to trade yours in).
Panel 3 on the Visiting London webpage leads to a page for "Visitors and Tourists", with a choice of useful two pdfs. One of these is a special tube map I've never seen before. It's called the 'Small theatres tube and rail map', and shows all the railway lines in London along with all the theatres with under 400 seats. There are no West End classics here, but instead dozens of smaller independent venues which deserve our wider attention. There's the Cockpit near Marylebone and the Tricycle near Brondesbury, as well as the Compass near Ickenham and the Chickenshed near Cockfosters. The use of dotted lines to link each theatre to its nearest stations makes for a total mess in places, and is frequently entirely illegible. But I'd say this map (if done properly) is the sort of thing TfL ought to be promoting more strongly to a more local audience, because surely it's Londoners who'd be frequenting these small suburban theatres rather than fly-in fly-out tourists.
The second pdf is an 18 page visitor guide, called Hello London, and brings together all the tourist travel essentials in one place. It explains zones (the Harry Potter Studios are in Zone 9, apparently), gives start/finish times for various services, and urges you to use the Journey Planner to plan your journey. And there's a tube map, a riverboat map and a simplified bus map too, indeed if you downloaded this onto your tablet before you arrived in London you'd be in good shape. But although the brochure's dated 2015 it still manages to mention "Barclays Cycle Hire" on page 2, oops, so presumably it's not updated all that often.
Dig down and the 18 pages are littered with self-promotion. TfL are advising visitors to travel with them, sure, but also to consider travelling more widely on TfL's premium services. Boris's introduction on page 2 doesn't mention tubes and buses, for example, but does mention riverboats, the sponsored cablecar and sponsored hire bikes. The London Transport Museum gets a plug on page 3, as it should, and the capital's new bus gets a glamorous spin ("The New Routemaster bus featured in the James Bond flm ‘Skyfall’ and runs on routes 9, 11, 24, 38 and 390"). Meanwhile the cablecar and river boats get umpteen mentions throughout the document, including a starring role in a sample tourist itinerary on page 15, because the cablecar and riverboats are essentially tourist services so this brochure is their natural home.
Tucked further down the Visiting London webpage, beneath further panels promoting the cablecar and riverboats, are details of London's Visitor & Travel Information Centres. There are currently five of these, and by the end of the year they'll be the only places to go to find a TfL member of staff offering services behind a desk. Their focus isn't really travel, it's more being helpful and flogging stuff, like tickets to Madame Tussauds, coach tours, the London Eye and the top of the Shard. You'll find them at Piccadilly Circus, various central London termini and Heathrow, with VICs at Paddington, Euston and Gatwick Airport opening in the summer. The newly refreshed VIC at King's Cross is open now, in the entrance to St Pancras, replacing the ticket offices that closed down there at Easter. This gleaming facility has the look of an Argos collection point about it, all plastic panels and bright colours, with smiling staff poised at computer terminals, and the opportunity to browse a selection of gifts while you queue.
So as the summer season prepares to kick off, remember the humble London tourist. They get better Oyster cards than us, they get better-presented information than us, and they get secret maps the rest of us never see. They get ticket offices and we don't, because they spend more money than we do on expensive visitor attractions. And they get cablecars and riverboats rammed in their face, because we tend not to use them so there are plenty of seats. You may curse when one stands on the wrong side of the escalator in front of you, but their money probably helps keep your fares down, so be nice.
posted 07:00 :
Tuesday, April 21, 2015Which comes first, Crossrail or the General Election?
It's a trick question, obviously, and the answer is Crossrail.
More specifically that's Crossrail Place, the new retail destination at Canary Wharf. You may have spotted it being built in a former dock to the north of the main skyscraper village, indeed if you've been past on the DLR you can't have missed it. It's a huge long building that from the side looks like an ocean liner with a cricketer's shinpad dropped on top, or from each end like an alien snake baring triangular teeth. It's going to be Canary Wharf's new Crossrail station, or at least the very deepest levels are. But two floors above ground and two below are to be devoted to a retail and leisure complex, and that's Crossrail Place.
It's not a very original name, but then where at Canary Wharf is? The long shopping mall at the heart of the development actually has three separate names - Cabot Place, Canada Place and Churchill Place - each in reference to the development they're buried beneath. The parallel shopping mall leading off from the Jubilee line ticket hall is called Jubilee Place, because that's supposed to help remind you where it is. And so this new shopping mall is to be called Crossrail Place, again hijacking the name of a new railway to sell handbags, suits and food.
And Crossrail Place opens on Friday May 1st, a mere ten days from now, which is how you'll be able to pop in for lobster and chips before the General Election takes place. What's amazing at this stage in development is how Google-unfriendly the phrase 'Crossrail Place' still is, with only very minor trumpeting having taken place thus far and the big splash yet to occur. Wander round Canary Wharf's existing malls and you'll now see digital ads for stores at Crossrail Place flashing up to raise awareness. But the wider community has been told nothing, so there's a very real risk that London's cutting edge brandoholics may miss an opening special offer.
So what are we getting on May 1st?
» [dining option] London's third branch of a long-established barbecued crustacean shackI strongly doubt that the residents of Poplar, a brief walk across Aspen Road, will ever be lured into their new local mall with a combination of shops like that. But this new development isn't aimed at them. Instead, as Canary Wharf expands outwards and upwards, its financial workers and apartment-dwellers are clearly in need of yet more places to gather and spend money. It seems Crossrail Place will literally be filling a hole.
» [dining option] The latest Hakata-style ramen offer in casual, modern digs
» [dining option] Japanese/Danish hybrid concept offering sushi and grilled yakitori skewers
» [dining option] Seventh London pop-up for over-chirpy Mexican burrito merchants
» [dining option] Steak and lager joint aimed at rugby-friendly men in suits
» [dining option] Re-focused greasy fry-up with reputation for massive diner queues
» [vending outlet] Asian tea dispensary, offering to boil leaves for your pleasure
» [vending outlet] Juice bar serving organic-friendly wellness-promoting products
» [vending outlet] Unique coffee/wine menu combo for maximising stockbroker interface
» [fitness unit] Spin class offering high intensity low impact full-body bike workout
» [retail service] Bonus-devouring shop selling bespoke titanium performance bikes
» [retail service] Design outlet cluttered with unnecessary Copenhagen chic
» [financial service] Well-known High Street bank not bailed out by taxpayer
Thankfully there's to be more at Crossrail Place than just food joints for bankers. An extensive roof garden is planned, indeed is probably already nearing completion, indeed looked half-convincing last September when many of us trooped through this building site for Open House. It promises to be green and proper pleasant, unless of course it's filled not only with plants but copious tables for the sipping of cappuccinos. At the heart of the roof garden will be a performance space where an Isle Of Dogs-based theatre group will put on music, dance and theatre, with the inaugural festival taking place over the weekend of May 16th. See how deftly the site's developers ticked all their community boxes there?
And you can't see it from the outside, but an independent boutique cinema has been built on Level -2 with after-work relaxation in mind. There'll be three screens with capacities of 109, 52 and 105 respectively, each with "a mixture of premier armchair and sofa seating with footrest". Tickets for the first screening of Mad Max: Fury Road (3D) on May 15th are now available for only £19.20, plus 75p online booking fee, plus an extra quid if you don't bring your own 3D glasses. A direct hit on the wallets of the target audience there, I think.
Access to Crossrail Place will be from the North Colonnade immediately opposite 1 Canada Square, via an elevated walkway that looks straight out of Space 1999. Alternatively you can descend to former dockside level and cross a paved piazza complete with jet black water feature, this already open bar the dark blue hoardings covering the end. The whole area's dead at present, indeed you may never have ventured this way out of the existing shopping centre/DLR complex. But footfall will start picking up inexorably next month, they hope, until Crossrail Place is as much part of the everyday retail offer hereabouts as Jubilee Place and all the other Places.
And eventually the trains will arrive. Crossrail is currently scheduled to start running on this southeastern branch in December 2018, which is still three and a half years off, with the complete network not up and running until December 2019. And that's less than six months before the country next goes to the polls in May 2020, assuming whatever hybrid government we get limps on that far. Indeed the correct answer to "which comes first, Crossrail or the General Election?" is ultimately Crossrail, but only just. At least you can have a chai latte and oyster platter while you wait.
posted 07:00 :
Monday, April 20, 2015Beyond London (7): Elmbridge (part 2)
Just for a change, I visited this particular out-of-London district two days running - on Saturday for the Weather, and on Sunday for the Event.
Somewhere historic: Painshill Park
A bit further down the A3 than Claremont, another landscape marvel. Painshill was the home of a horticultural obsessive, Charles Hamilton, the son of an Irish Duke whose life spanned most of the 18th century. He was determined to create a landscape garden to delight and amaze society, and over the course of fifty years pretty much succeeded. He recontoured the land and dotted a selection of follies across the 200 acre site, embracing the newly-fashionable naturalistic trend over previous formality. Even Thomas Jefferson came to see, like all guests following the approved route around the garden for maximum wow. Eventually the estate was split up, with parts even becoming a pig farm, the entire grand plan falling into decay. Then around 1980 the council bought back the majority of the land, under the auspices of the Painshill Park Trust, and attempted to restore Hamilton's grand plan. It's taken a while but they've pretty much succeeded, and Painshill Park is now a glorious place for a stroll, an exploration or just a nice cup of tea. [9 photos]
The park lies on the banks of the River Mole, technically in Hersham but considerably closer to Cobham. Access is over a modern bridge to a modern visitors' block, where your admission money will be taken, but after that everything's proper retro. Best buy a 40p map to guide you round the full 2½ mile trail else you'll likely miss something, there being a heck of a lot of surprises hidden around the site. An early climb leads to a splendid viewpoint across a tumbling vineyard, where the 'ruined abbey' by the lakeside turns out (on closer inspection) to be plastered brick. A series of ornamental islands follows, connected by a series of bridges which on Saturday were proving the perfect backdrop for a Chinese couple's wedding book. Time your visit right and you can enter the Crystal Grotto, an astonishing space. If the stalactites look somehow artificial that's because they're made from hundreds of thousands of crystals stuck on by hand, once in the 18th century and again during a more recent restoration. And although it feels like you're underground the reality is very different - this is an artificial building crusted with oolitic limestone, and with a very functional pumphouse cunningly shielded around the back.
The Gothic Temple on the hill frames a fine panorama across the central lake, but for the finest view of all head to the opposite end, beside the replica Turkish Tent. It's easy to imagine Hamilton's guests taking a sharp intake of breath after emerging from the upper lawns to see the land drop away across a vista of blue and green. That enormous evergreen is The Great Cedar, at 120 feet tall reputedly the largest in Europe, because it helps having been planted over 250 years ago. Elsewhere in the backwoods you'll find a huge waterwheel used to power the garden's water features, a Gothic Tower tall enough to poke above the highest treetops (alas closed at present, so Canary Wharf went unseen), and a replica Hermitage, all with an unrelentingly bucolic air. I imagine the park changes dramatically with the seasons, hence the attractive offer of an annual pass for more local visitors, but even as a one-off, on a fine day Painshill is quite something.
by train: Cobham & Stoke D'Abernon by bus: 515
Somewhere famous: Brooklands
The world's first purpose-built motor racing circuit was built in Surrey in 1907, in nine months flat, on riverside meadows to the south of Weybridge. Local landowner Hugh Locke King was a big fan of the newfangled automobile, and wanted to create somewhere off-road that vehicles could be raced legally. His circuit was almost three miles in length, surfaced in concrete rather than tarmacadam, and with steep banked curves for a more thrilling ride. Think of the opening minutes of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and you'll not go far wrong. Motorsport paused during World War I when the War Office requisitioned Brooklands as a military airfield, building on a brief history as a pioneering civil aeronautical centre. After the war motor racing returned with a vengeance, with the first British Grand Prix taking place here in 1926, and the top drivers battling repeatedly to break the course record. By the 1930s Brooklands was one of the great attractions of the day, with enormous crowds coming to watch the races, and to see and be seen by society. Think of the opening half minute of A-Ha's Take on Me and you won't go far wrong. World War 2 put a stop to the racing programme, with the site turned over to the production of Hurricanes and Wellington bombers (plus the development of the bouncing bomb by local scientist Barnes Wallis). So damaged was the racetrack by wartime operations that it never reopened, the site instead taken over by the Vickers aircraft company who churned out Viscounts, Vanguards and VC10s. Brooklands' history is phenomenal, indeed formative in so many ways, and can't be done justice in a single paragraph.
So thank heavens there's a museum to tell the story properly. It opened around 35 years ago in the northeast corner of the site and has steadily grown in content ever since. The Brooklands Museum is open every day, with admission currently pegged at £11, and I'm trying very had to work out why I've never been before. Many of the original buildings from along the Finishing Straight survive, including the domed Clubhouse where officials oversaw proceedings and the sheds where Malcolm Campbell tweaked his cars. One long workshop tells the Grand Prix story, with example vehicles from Brooklands' era and since, plus a McLaren simulator you can hop inside and pretend to drive. Motorbikes get their own separate section, as do bicycles whose history is well told down one long gallery, despite them never have been manufactured here. One flying car with picnic basket will be very familiar, although whether it's the actual Chitty from the film or a damned good replica I couldn't say. One out-of-the-way feature is Test Hill, a steep track (1:4 in part) down which engineers trialled brake systems and up which drivers attempted to break unofficial speed records. And along the edge of the site a lengthy fraction of the concrete racetrack remains, along which it's possible to wander, although management would rather you didn't hike up to the very top of the bank for health and safety reasons.
A separate section of the Museum covers aviation. One part's in a very large hangar, where you'll find a Wellington dredged up from the bottom of Loch Ness, and various other planes and plane bits, including the full story of the original bouncing bomb development. More obvious however are the large planes scattered across the outfield, including several locally-produced Vickers, one or two of which you might be able to enter. But the queen of the display has to be Concorde, this the initial British production model G-BBDG, with many of its parts having been assembled on site. I didn't take the chance (for a pre-booked fiver) to climb the ramp and go aboard as part of the Concorde Experience, nor fork out considerably more to sit in the original Concorde simulator. But I loved the opportunity to walk right up close and underneath to observe all sides, with free exterior access, because I'm always in awe if I meet her. It's just that nobody else seemed to be especially impressed... because they were all here for the buses.
The London Bus Museum is based at Brooklands, despite not actually being in London. Their collection of three dozen vehicles is housed in a long hangar, artfully displayed to tell the story of the capital's buses from horse-drawn to post-war. What's refreshing is the amount of detailed background, fully illustrated, around the walls, without which this might be a somewhat lightweight tour. It's also good to see a variety of older buses, not just the usual suspects, in context and lovingly preserved. Admission is free along with entry to Brooklands, so you get the cars, bikes, planes and buses all thrown in. And some weekends each year the LBM throws a big additional bus-related shindig to make for a proper special day out, this Sunday's being the 'Spring Gathering'.
A hundred or so vintage vehicles turned up, not just ex-London but from all over the country. Oxford, Ipswich and Huddersfield were represented, amongst others, along with a fair smattering from London Transport's Home Counties services. I remembered some of these London Country stalwarts from passing my front door in the 60s, and of course recognised the so-called New Routemaster that passes it today. The mass assemblage had attracted hordes of Men Who Like Buses, very much their own demographic sub-genre, generally of post-retirement age but occasionally in keen teenage clusters. They thronged the car parks with their cameras, willing malingerers to get out of bloody shot, pausing only to discuss with friends or family all the particular details of each vehicle. Of Concorde, alas, they had little to say.
This being a major bus event a number of hangers-on had turned up to try to flog stuff. They laid out their wares on dozens of stalls, both indoors and out, creating an extensive marketplace of four-wheeled ephemera. Photographs are always good sellers, as are books and die-cast models, while others plump for decades-old timetables now changing hands for pounds rather than pence. It made for a buzzing atmosphere across the site, I'd guess far busier than on a bog-standard Brooklands day, not least because of the number of vehicles on the move. Various buses were commandeered to run special services out into Surrey proper, the most popular being the shuttle link to Weybridge station. I'd arrived on RM2760, the last Routemaster ever built, but my journey back at the end of the day turned out to be more unexpectedly special. I don't think any other passenger clocked the identity of the man behind the wheel of RTW 467 but I did - TfL's Commissioner Sir Peter Hendy CBE. He manoeuvred the juddering vehicle out into the modern commercial park the rest of Brooklands has become, rounded the perimeter of the Mercedes Benz test track, and delivered us adeptly to the station ten minutes later. He may be paid a king's salary, but I for one am reassured to know that the man at the top of TfL still volunteers as a bus driver on special weekends.
by train: Weybridge by bus: 462
Nextdoor: Mercedes-Benz World - for I suspect an entirely different demographic, for whom modern cars and consumption are the thing, this sleek branded attraction with product display and test drive opportunities offers wallet-emptying exhilaration.
My Elmbridge gallery
There are 40 photos altogether (20 from sunny Saturday, and 20 from a Brooklands Sunday) [gallery] [slideshow]
posted 02:00 :
Sunday, April 19, 2015Beyond London (7): Elmbridge (part 1)
Unless you've lived there, or nextdoor, you probably have no idea where Elmbridge is. This rural-sounding Surrey borough was created in 1974, combining Esher with Weybridge and Walton-on-Thames. It lies almost entirely within the M25, indeed much of northern Elmbridge is closer to central London than Hillingdon and Havering. It's a wealthy district, once nicknamed England's Beverly Hills, and divided approximately in half by the meandering River Mole. And it's not especially touristworthy, other than being suburbanly picturesque with some glorious open spaces. I arrived by London bus.
Route K3: Surbiton → Esher
The K3 starts by Wimbledon Common and runs through Kingston, but I boarded at the last stop in London, alongside the marginally anomalous Victoria Recreation Ground. Ahead are the leafy avenues of Elmbridge, budding nicely at present, and ablaze with pink and white blossom. Indeed many of the front gardens and verges along the route appear to have been planted with trees chosen specifically to make mid-April a triumph of verdant colour. At first the suburbs merge into one, the first being Long Ditton, sibling of the more well known Thames. Next up (following the railway viaduct) is Hinchley Wood, whose shopping parade surrounds a gated garden and includes such demographically telltale outlets as a hardware store, an osteopath and a fruiterers. TfL is the only bus provider in this corner of eastern Elmbridge, delivering pensioners home from Waitrose and schoolboys to Saturday morning football. On the approach to Claygate the house type switches briefly from "large semi-detached" to "detached with a plot of land". Volunteers of all ages in community tabards are busy clearing litter from the triangular village green, part of an occasional Clean Up Claygate blitz organised by the parish council. Here the K3 heads off round a residential loop, only a couple of streets from Chessington World of Adventures the other side of the A3 Esher Bypass. In a rare show of electoral intent two (and only two) neighbours have erected posters in their front gardens, antagonistically announcing their support for opposing Coalition parties. The main church is a turrety gothic affair, unusually double-spired, while the shopping parade by the station provides everything a stockbroker and their spouse might locally require. Past more magnolia and cherry, the K3 turns eventually onto Claremont Lane, where finally the homes are large enough to be generally gated. And at the top of the hill we reach Esher town centre, a close-knit triangle of estate agents and civic greenery, round 95% of which the bus circulates before terminating. Almost London, but clearly not.
by train: Surbiton, Hinckley Wood, Claygate by bus: K3
Somewhere sporting: Sandown Park
Surrey's a very horsey county, so it's no surprise to find three top class racecourses across the northern fringe of the county - Epsom Downs, Kempton Park and Sandown Park. The latter is Britain's first purpose-built racecourse, and covers the broad slope above the railway to the west of Esher station. The main entrance is close to the town centre, across an enormous car park that welcomes shoppers on non-race days. Indeed there's a glassy corporate look to the facade, which it turns out is because there's a conference centre behind there, which yesterday was hosting the South East Baby and Toddler Show. Parents and parents-to-be flocked across the car park pushing offspring on wheels and clutching printed-out tickets. Next weekend the racing takes over again with the official end to the National Hunt season (that's 'jumps' to you and me), where £28 will get you inside to watch top jockeys including the retiring AP McCoy. If other sports are your bag then Sandown Park has diversified with you in mind, with a half-mile go-kart track laid out inside the equine circuit, as well as a nine hole golf course and (this time outside) a dry ski slope and fitness centre. Head down the back lane to the rear entrance and you can wander into the site unchallenged, at least when no racing's taking place, and stand between the rails where hooves will (next week) thunder past.
by train: Esher by bus: K3
Somewhere historic: Claremont Landscape Garden
To the south of Esher, about a mile down the Portsmouth Road, is a beautiful 300 year-old garden once graced by royalty. Claremont was kicked off in 1709 by architect Sir John Vanbrugh, and promptly sold to rising star the Duke of Newcastle, a Whig who'd later become Prime Minister. The Duke threw a fortune into redeveloping Claremont, replacing the house with a Palladian mansion, and bringing in landscape gardener Charles Bridgeman to refashion the grounds in formal style and create a serpentine lake. So proud of Claremont was the Duke that he eventually died here, the estate passing on to Robert Clive (of Of India fame) who brought in Capability Brown, because it seems everybody at the time did. In 1816 Claremont became home to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg and his young wife Princess Charlotte, the only child of the future George IV. Alas Charlotte died the following year after a stillbirth, sending the entire country into a prolonged period of mourning, and Leopold built a mausoleum for her overlooking the lake. Queen Victoria used to visit when still a princess herself, enjoying the rare freedom that staying with her Surrey uncle made possible. The mansion now survives as a private school, and most of the estate was sold off for housing, but what remains of the garden has since the 1940s been under the care of the National Trust.
Spring's a fine time to visit the Claremont Landscape Garden, with green budding out all over, although the grounds are currently post-daffodil/pre-bluebell so less colourful than they could be. Paths meander around and above the lake, on whose banks geese strut and milky-white doves coo, with a pavilion hidden in the trees on the central island. This is about as far as most young families get, settling down on the lawns or swarming over the playground allowing toddlers to tire themselves out. Others venture up the tiers of the grassy amphitheatre, perhaps tumbling down the ridges with glee, or even find the kiddie-friendly thatched cottage in the woods. But few yesterday explored the upper extremities and backwoods trails where I enjoyed peace and landscaped contemplation. One of the best panoramas can be seen from the former mausoleum, marked by a simple plaque, or gazing up the long drive towards the castle-like Belvedere, alas a brick mirage (and out of bounds in the school grounds nextdoor). Prince Leopold's glasshouse has long gone, but several of the camellias within have survived, currently bursting and dropping blooms, with some of the specimens on the top terrace amongst the oldest camellias in the country. I spent an hour a-wandering, and another half with tea, my camera fully satisfied. [6 photos]
by bus: 515 (hourly) (or a 25 minute walk from the terminus of the K3)
Nearby: The Homewood - a Modernist home on West End Common, again under the care of the National Trust, accessible only by booked minibus tour from Claremont on alternate Fridays/Saturdays from April to October. Alas it was Friday this week, so I need to come back.
Nearby: Esher Common - a large area of acid soil heathland, part of an extensive network of commons hereabouts, and not quite desecrated by the pylons and the A3 dual carriageway carving through. Ideal for dog walking, hunting down large dammed ponds, and foresty treks.
(part 2 tomorrow)
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