diamond geezer

 Sunday, August 19, 2018


After yesterday's world-famous haul, can the 51½th parallel keep coming up with a series of locations you've properly heard of? Yes, yes it can. [map] [photos]

Belgrave Square   [51.5°N 0.153°W]
The epitome of unaffordable housing, Belgravia was a speculative development on fields to the west of London in the 1820s, and its success is why the Duke of Westminster is now exceedingly rich. Belgrave Square is its focus, and is much larger than your average London square, but even so the architect only managed eleven houses on each side. Each is a mini palace hidden behind standardised white stucco frontage, although an element of difference exists in which particular style of heritage black lantern each resident has chosen to hang inside their porch. Counting flags confirms that least a dozen of the houses are used for diplomatic purposes, including the Turkish Embassy, which is a precise 51.5°N hit. A fleet of black cars and vans with diplomatic plates is parked outside, along with a cluster of visiting motorbikes, and every now and again a sleek black Rolls Royce glides past. I actually saw two in a row... we're not in Thamesmead now.

At the square's northernmost vertex, where the anti-clockwise numbering starts, a statue of Argentine general José de San Martín faces the ambassador's residence on Grosvenor Crescent. The plinth lies within one of the few visible pockets of central garden, the remainder screened behind carefully cultivated shrubbery for the benefit of the few. On the traffic island opposite is the Romanian Centenary Garden, a raised bed planted with native flowers to mark 100 years since unification, although in late summer it has the look of well-cultivated weeds. Nearby I saw several groups of workmen taking a quick break before they returned to upgrading the interiors of their vastly wealthier paymasters, and seemingly in no hurry to get back.



Harrods   [51.5°N 0.163°W]
Strictly speaking, 51.5°N only scrapes the pavement outside the northern tip of Harrods, but anyone standing here would immediately have their eyes drawn towards the adjacent world-famous department store. Door 6 leads into the lipstick room, just before the handbag hall, each offering far more luxurious varieties than anyone might rightly need. A lot of those swanning inside are tourists from the wealthier end of the scale, their numbers boosted by the weak pound, very likely wearing sunglasses, and often designer headscarves or gold-threaded shawls. The next entrance along Hans Crescent has been converted into a fake bullion vault, because that thrills the clientele, and the commissionaire is only too happy to step out and take a grinning family snapshot.

Back on the corner, a young busker with an electric cello is sitting on an amp and wowing the crowds. He starts with a familiar tune I eventually work out is Ed Sheeran, then smiles and segues into Hallelujah - a not-especially Leonard Cohen version. The circling crowd is enthralled, and appreciative, perhaps inspired by the handwritten sign 'Saving Up For Music College'. With admirable frequency audience members step forward and drop notes and coins into his case, not necessarily in the local currency, helping towards his three year overdraft. I suspect this is one of the primest pitches in London, although I wonder quite how long your performance would have to be to save enough for a Christian Louboutin.



Royal Albert Hall   [51.5°N 0.177°W]
My chosen line doesn't cut the concert rotunda itself, but instead the steps to the south connecting down three flights towards the Royal College of Music. Previously these were the South Steps, but at the turn of the century they were ripped out and rebuilt to accommodate dressing rooms, energy equipment and a loading bay underneath. Today they're the Diamond Jubilee Steps, renamed when HM The Queen officially graced them with her presence, and you'd never guess all that infrastructure was hidden beneath your feet.

At the top of the steps is the 1851 Exhibition Memorial, originally intended to be 'Britannia Presiding over the Four Quarters of the Globe', but then Prince Albert died and he got to be the main statue instead. As the key driver behind Albertopolis I guess it's only right. The upper piazza is large enough to cope with scores of Promenaders, including those hanging around for day tickets to the Gallery (£6, first come, strictly 1 each). I decided against hanging around for Prom 43, and also against popping into the Verdi restaurant for tagliatelle al ragù d'anatra or a quattro stagioni. A word of warning if you cycle here, don't leave your bike chained to the railings outside Albert Court because the porter charges £20 to release unwelcome steeds.



High Street Kensington station   [51.5°N 0.192°W]
This is one of zone 1's odder outdoor stations, accessed through a shopping arcade rather than directly from the street. I bet Pret, Nero, Leon and M&S weren't the original vendors immediately outside the ticket hall, but times change. Platforms 1 and 2 are fairly standard, if often thronged, while platform 3 is used by the wilfully downgraded Olympia service. But platform 4 is the true curio, an almost-unused siding accessed down a barely-noticed staircase from the concourse, or via a gloomy crossing behind the buffers of platform 3. I couldn't bring myself to walk down to the far end without appearing astronomically suspicious. Come back on 1st October for the station's 150th birthday party.

Design Museum   [51.5°N 0.200°W]
Formerly the Commonwealth Institute, this is where the Design Museum ended up after fleeing their previous Thamesside home at 51.503°N. The shell of the building survives pretty much intact, notably the copper-covered hyperbolic­ paraboloid roof, but the entire interior was gouged out at the behest of the new owners, and it isn't the same without the central podium and flying staircases. Don't get me wrong, it's a different kind of impressive inside, but walking round again I was struck by how much of the new museum is wasted empty space. Stepping up from the gift shop in the foyer, a set of benches sponsored by Land Rover. Around the central atrium, a string of haute couture photographs as a sop to visitors too poor to pay £16 to see the main exhibition. On several floors, locked doors leading to study zones, education spaces and a dead restaurant. In the basement, a few posters. It could be so much more. It isn't.

At least the free exhibition Designer Maker User is always open on the top floor, and that's extremely good, but again crammed into a much smaller space than the building's footprint could allow. I love the wall which shows a century of gadgets shrinking inexorably towards a tiny smartphone. I always stop to pay homage to Kinneir and Calvert's road signs. But having been round before it didn't take me long to wander through, and I barely stayed in the building for half an hour. I should've been more appreciative because, looking ahead, the Design Museum's the last building of any familiar stature on 51½°N before the suburbs kick in ahead.



 Saturday, August 18, 2018


Halfway across London on the 51½th line of latitude - essentially a random circle drawn around the earth - we cross into Westminster and totally hit the jackpot. How's this for a world famous quartet? [map] [75 photos]

Amazingly, 51½°N passes directly through the Palace of Westminster, at the very heart of British democracy. Perhaps more amazingly it passes through the House of Commons [51.5°N 0.124°W], I believe immediately behind the Speaker's chair. Sadly it's not possible to go inside and find out, because getting your phone out to check the GPS coordinates isn't permitted, so I never got the opportunity to confirm when I took a private tour earlier in the year. So, short of getting elected, I visited the next best thing...

Westminster Hall   [51.5°N 0.125°W]
The oldest building in Parliament, built at the behest of William II in 1097, Westminster Hall was once by far the largest hall in Europe. And if you fancy taking a look inside, it's free to visit. I think you can just walk up on spec, but I pre-booked a ticket to view the latest exhibition tucked away in the corner of the hall... two hours notice was fine. I waved my printout at the visitor entrance and swanned down the ramp, entirely alone other than Oliver Cromwell watching over me. At the bottom I went through all the obligatory airport-style security procedure, relieved that I'd remembered not to bring a bag or wear a belt. And I noted that there were at least 16 people present in this small anteroom, watching over the scanners and conveyors, some with guns, and was almost pleased I'd turned up to give a few of them something to do.

Westminster Hall is an architectural marvel, especially the enormous 14th century hammerbeam roof, a fortunate survivor of blaze and blitz. A lot of it's under sheets and scaffolding at the moment, which is good news for its longevity, but less than great if all you want to do is admire. It has to be said that the general impression isn't helped either by the presence of a large exhibition in one corner, but it is an excellent exhibition so more than deserves its summer residency. It's called Voice & Vote, an archive-rich history of women's place in Parliament, and will be straddling 51.5°N until 6th October. From its opening line ("Women have always participated in politics, but not on equal terms with men") it is perfectly pitched.

I discovered that in the 18th century women were only allowed to view Parliamentary proceedings by peering down through a ventilator in the roof, and that the campaign for the vote started well before the suffragettes. I saw the plaque Tony Benn had placed on a broom cupboard in honour of Census-overnighter Emily Davison, and the actual Acts which sequentially introduced the vote for all. I learned that the first female MP stood for Sinn Fein so never took her seat, and was inspired when Mhairi Black stared me in the face and told me why she's proud to be here. It never hurts to be reminded about the intricacies of the battle for equality, and it's always worth remembering that Westminster Hall is totally open for a visit.

Most of the others thronging Westminster Hall were on official £20 tours, which are daily during the summer recess, or suited staff nipping out through mysterious doors. A lot of milling around was going on, as groups stopped to hear a nugget of original history, or hunted for the plaque showing where Winston Churchill lay in state. The shop was also popular, especially because the cafe is currently closed for renovation so it was the only place to buy refreshment. Parched souls who only wanted a bottle of water were being forced to queue behind folks on coach trips stocking up on House of Lords wine gums, or even House of Commons babygrows. Democracy is a many-faceted and splendid thing.

St Margaret's Church   [51.5°N 0.127°W]
Sorry, not quite Westminster Abbey, but the parish church in its shadow facing out onto Parliament Square. The current building's fast approaching 500 years old and serves a very central clientele, so tips the high end of the scale as parish churches go. Also, whereas getting into the Abbey costs £20, popping inside St Margaret's is free, even though you have to join the same queue to get through security. It took me 15 minutes to inch across the churchyard to the bag check, despite not actually having a bag. During the wait I listened in on an American family planning their week-long London trip based solely on where the sightseeing buses would take them, and advised another traveller that no, this wasn't the line for Big Ben. Maybe the scaffolding confused him.

Eventually I reached the front door - I believe access is a lot easier in the winter - and politely put my camera away. Photography is banned inside St Margaret's, as a well-placed pictogram in the aisle decrees, although this doesn't stop bored tourists wandering in for thirty seconds and taking several photos. Alas that means I'm unable to show you how impressive the interior is, especially the ring of historic memorials around the wall. The recipients are an eclectic bunch, as befits a long-standing Westminster building, and include Olaudah Equiano (baptised 1759), Samuel Pepys (married 1656) and Henry Layard, Discoverer of Nineveh (died 1894). I was hoping to join the "free 20 minute tour with one of our guides" advertised outside the front door, but no guide turned up at the appointed time, nor either side of it, so that was my opportunity to be properly educated royally stuffed. Sung Eucharist is held every Sunday morning at eleven, which is no doubt a better bet.

Methodist Central Hall   [51.5°N 0.130°W]
In readiness for the centenary of John Wesley's death, the Methodist Church asked its followers to each contribute one guinea towards a worldwide mission fund. They raised a million, and Methodist Central Hall was the largest project to be delivered. This grand baroque building (opened in 1911) was deliberately designed not to look like a church, indeed the current chapel was formerly a branch of Midland Bank. Wesley's Cafe in the basement is a useful drop-in for non-chain refreshment, but you can also go inside for a proper look-around. Volunteers run free 20 minute tours, and these actually happen, although the one I went on started late and then lasted 70 minutes. I had no complaints.

The main hall sits beneath the world's second largest self-supporting ferro-concrete dome (narrowly beaten by a Melbourne library, we were told). The organ is also magnificent although these days the congregation doesn't usually fill the upper tiers of cinema-style seating. The first session of the United Nations was held in this room in 1946, and the minutes are now on display in the visitor centre, along with a set of leatherbound volumes containing the names of all those million who gave a guinea. As for the grand staircase, this was based on the Paris Opera House and makes quite an impression, although it can't have been much fun for older members of the congregation to tackle before they put the lifts in.

But the best bit of the tour came when our guide unlocked a side door on the upper landing, and led us outside onto the balcony with a mischievous smile. This is the same door the presenter of the BBC's New Year's Eve concert dashes out of just before midnight so they can stand on the balcony and gesture towards Big Ben, the London Eye and the imminent fireworks. But it's the more immediate view which is most striking, of Westminster Abbey full on, its twin western towers rising in sheer magnificence (and to a lesser extent the QE2 Conference Centre to one side). I think we kept our guide busy talking and answering questions simply so that we could stay out here and gawp a little longer. I can't guarantee you'll manage the same, and in full sunshine, but sometimes the best London sightseeing is free.

Where next? 51.5°N doesn't quite slice TfL HQ at 55 Broadway, but it does pass through the Ministry of Justice in their Brutalist spaceship opposite. It also passes through the Guards Museum, a repository of all things Grenadier, Coldstream, Scots, Irish and Welsh. Next it spans Wellington Barracks, not quite gracing St James's Park. And then, well, who'd have guessed?

Buckingham Palace   [51.5°N 0.143°W]
My chosen line of latitude misses the front, where the Queen waves on special occasions, but hits the tradesmen's entrance round the back of the State Rooms. Look for the wall topped with urns and follow it round. I watched a flow of palace staff returning inside after a break, several in unflattering brown uniforms, and overheard one poor footman claiming that he had no pass and no lunch because his trousers had bust. Here on Buckingham Gate is also the entrance for folk wanting to visit the Queen's Gallery, beneath a portico so outlandish you suspect Prince Charles must have had something to do with it. £12 currently gets you inside to peruse a collection of subcontinental treasures, but I'd recommend spending twice as much to go on the excellent tour of the palace proper instead.

And when that tour is finished you'll be directed across the garden, where the Queen hosts her garden parties, and ushered out of a small back gate on the far side of the lake [51.5°N 0.148°W]. It's fun to stand here on Grosvenor Gate and watch tourists emerge, some dangling gold carrier bags, others wearing a crown they bought in the gift shop, entirely baffled which way to go next. Some turn right for Hyde Park Corner, others turn left for Victoria, and others fall into the hands of the pedicab crew, parked up on the pavement awaiting custom. It's £10 for a lift to Victoria station, which is all of 600m distant, not that I suspect most of those taking advantage of the offer realise this when they climb in.

Wow, tick, tick, tick, tick.

 Friday, August 17, 2018

Darryl's 853 blog had a cracking scoop on Wednesday, featuring leaked details of a massive set of changes to central London bus routes, due to be consulted on next month.

It's part of a high level TfL strategy to reshape London's bus network in readiness for future growth, which likely means a lot more fiddling with bus routes than we've seen for many a year.

One key issue is removing excess capacity where it's deemed not to be needed. Another is reducing over-bussing on crowded roads, where there are currently too many routes in place. And a third is "simplifying the network", a phrase TfL seem keen to use as a bit of uplifting spin, rather than as a negative reaction to budgetary strain.
Matching customer demand – bus demand has fallen by 8-12 per cent in central London and will fall more as a result of the opening of Crossrail and other new or improved rail services.
Reducing buses on crowded roads – this will make our network run more efficiently, help improve journey times and reduce congestion, emissions and road danger.
Modernising the network – we will improve bus services in several town centres to simplify services and reducing the number of buses, while still providing connections and access
Passengers in outer London, where demand for buses remains high, may see more services. Expect major announcements at the start of 2019. But demand in central London is falling for a variety of reasons, slower traffic being just one, hence TfL's urge to kick off here and trim things back.

This first mega-consultation is due to launch in the third week of September, once details have been shared and finalised with borough representatives and other stakeholders. But the list of proposals is already drawn up, and likely won't change much, so I thought I'd share a summary below. Darryl has additional detail here, including some illuminating slides from TfL's high level Powerpoint presentation.

Embarrassingly, because TfL no longer produce their own bus maps, the official presentation had to resort to using an external map produced by charity worker Mike Harris. Even the last official TfL bus map will be three years out of date by the time this tranche of changes is pushed through, and entirely obsolete, so don't expect to ever see an overview of what the evolving reshaped network actually looks like. Muppets.

My table includes other central London routes currently up for consultation, or where outcomes have not yet been announced, but 28 of the routes in the list below are appearing for the first time. Skimming down the list should give you an extra month to mull over what you'd like to say in response, before the six week consultation period actually begins.

RouteCurrent situationProposed changeResult
3Crystal Palace to Trafalgar SquareCrystal Palace to Whitehallsmall cut
4Archway to WaterlooArchway to Blackfriarsmedium cut
9Hammersmith to Aldwychreroute via Piccadilly, not Pall Mallre-route
10Hammersmith to King's Crossmerged with route 23 WITHDRAWN 
11Fulham Broadway to Liverpool StreetVictoria to Liverpool Street (see 311)big cut
14Putney to Warren StreetPutney to Russell Squaresmall cut
15HTrafalgar Square to Tower Hillsummer weekends and bank holidays onlyALMOST
19Finsbury Park to BatterseaFinsbury Park to Holborn (see 311)big cut
22Putney to Oxford Circus (via Mayfair)Putney to Piccadilly Circus (see 311)re-route
23Westbourne Park to AldwychWestbourne Park to Hammersmith (see 10)merged
25Ilford to Oxford CircusIlford to Holborn Circusmedium cut
40Dulwich to AldgateDulwich to Clerkenwell Green (see 45/388)re-route
45Clapham Park to King's CrossClapham Park to Elephant and Castlebig cut
48Walthamstow to London Bridgeroute withdrawn (see 55)WITHDRAWN
53Plumstead to WhitehallPlumstead to County Hallsmall cut
55Leyton to Oxford CircusWalthamstow to Oxford Circus (see 48)extended
59Streatham Hill to King's CrossStreatham Hill to Eustonsmall cut
67Wood Green to AldgateWood Green to Dalston Junctionbig cut
76Tottenham Hale to Waterlooreroute via London Wall (see 4)re-route
88Clapham Common to Camden TownClapham Common to Parliament Hill (see C2) extended
94Acton Green to Piccadilly CircusActon Green to Marble Archmedium cut
100Shadwell to London WallShadwell to St Paul's (see 388) extended 
113Edgware to Oxford CircusEdgware to Marble Archsmall cut
134North Finchley to Tottenham Court Road North Finchley to Warren Streetsmall cut
159Streatham to Marble ArchStreatham to Oxford Circussmall cut
171Bellingham to HolbornBellingham to Elephant & Castlebig cut
172Brockley Rise to FarringdonBrockley Rise to Aldwychmedium cut
205Bow Church to Paddingtonre-route to skip Marylebone stationre-route
242Homerton to St Paul'sHomerton to Aldgatemedium cut
311New route (see 11/19/22)Fulham Broadway to Oxford CircusNEW ROUTE
341Northumberland Park to County HallNorthumberland Park to Waterloo Roadre-route
343New Cross Gate to City Hall[subject to separate review]unknown
388Stratford City to Elephant & CastleStratford City to Finsbury Circusbig cut
476Northumberland Park to EustonNorthumberland Park to King's Crosssmall cut
C2Oxford Circus to Parliament Hillroute withdrawn (see 88)WITHDRAWN
RV1Covent Garden to Tower Hill[subject to separate review]unknown

Many of the proposed changes are to ease traffic flow on specific road corridors:
Euston Road: 59, 476
Oxford Street: 10, 23, 94, 113, 159
Tottenham Court Road: 14, 134
King's Road/Piccadilly/Shaftesbury Avenue: 9, 11, 19, 22 (and new route 311)
Whitehall/Westminster Bridge: 3, 53
Kingsway: 171
Waterloo Bridge/Fleet Street: 4, 76, 172, 341, 15H
London Bridge/Blackfriars Bridge/Farringdon Road: 35, 40, 45, 100, 343, 388, RV1
London Bridge/Hackney Road: 26, 48, 55

The only newly-doomed route is the 48 (joining the 10 and C2 which went to consultation earlier this month). Someone's looked at its route and decided it shadows the 26 and 55 too much, so a kick of the 55 into Walthamstow means the 48 can safely be scrapped. Then there's the almost-demise of the heritage Routemasters on route 15, which currently run daily, but in future will only roll out on bank holidays and summer weekends... which should help potential passengers to entirely forget the route exists, so it can be wholly scrapped later.

A few routes are being chopped to shadows of their former selves, including the 242 which has been sequentially cut back from Tottenham Court Road to St Paul's and now to Aldgate. Savage reductions in length are also proposed for routes 11 and 19, their decapitations mostly covered by new route 311. The 311 will also take over from route 22 through Mayfair, becoming the fourth different bus on the Mayfair route in less than ten years... as if nobody who plans bus routes quite knows where any of this is going.

The 45 and 171 face big cuts which'll see them both terminate at Elephant & Castle, far short of central London. while the 67 gets a similarly big curtailment to Dalston Junction from the north. Then there's the sorry tale of the 388 from Stratford, which fairly recently was extended across the Thames to Elephant & Castle to replace the 100, but is now to be lopped back to Finsbury Circus, close to where the 100 currently terminates, but the new plan is for the 100 to be partially extended... and again it feels like the planners are simply messing about.

Other things to note. The rerouting of routes 9, 40 and 341 appears to mean that Pall Mall, Fenchurch Street and Fetter Lane will no longer have a bus service. Check the consultation when it officially emerges to see if this is genuinely the case. The beleaguered RV1 is to be "subject to separate review", which following the recent halving of its frequency can only suggest that a much more serious fate awaits. And it seems the long-promised beheading of route 25 to Holborn Circus is still on the cards, severing the East End's link to the West End, and without a decent connection to take its place. [Update: Yes, that's been confirmed today, as part of another enormous consultation reveal]

It does make sense not to run buses filled with empty seats, especially now Mayoral fare policies have made this an untenable luxury. It does make sense to reduce traffic congestion by taking out some buses so that others can run more smoothly. But the breaking of long-held connections is a harder pill to swallow, resulting in increased journey times partially mitigated by use of the Hopper fare, which may just be what a "simpler network" is all about.

Watch out for the full consultation in mid-September. And know this... there's more coming.

 Thursday, August 16, 2018


If today's stretch of the 51½th line of latitude were 500 metres further north, it'd run from Tower Bridge to the Royal Festival Hall. Instead it slips through the minor backstreets of Southwark, missing almost everything of interest, for which I apologise in advance. [map] [photos]

Bermondsey Street   [51.5°N 0.081°W]
How hip is Bermondsey Street? Not at its northern end, where it slinks beneath London Bridge station, but down here winding through the becalmed historic heart of Bermondsey proper. Time Out are hyper for the place, evangelising especially about the food and drink options, but also the retained artsy craftsy vibe. 51½°N sweeps in across Tanner Street Park, around half of which is tennis courts, and well-used tennis courts at that. The remainder is mostly grass and path, where creative types come to recharge, students skim through their college notes and well-dressed women follow behind tiny pugs with plastic bags poised. What looks like a cafe in the corner is more of a restaurant, with pre-booked tables and a wine list, so Al's Cafe on the main street is a better bet. A shop called Lovely and British promises Eclectic British Sourced Lifestyle Shopping, and is shelved with stuff nobody genuinely needs, which doesn't stop it being busy. The average age of those hereabouts looks to be below average, while the average income looks to be above average, in sharp contrast to the slice of Southwark we're passing through next.

I'm peeved because the White Cube gallery isn't quite on my invisible line, so I have an existential debate with myself about whether 51.4998°N really counts. It's only ten metres out, and if my smartphone were less accurate it'd be reading 51.500°N anyway. I decide no, it doesn't count, but go in anyway. I enjoy the latest exhibition, Memory Palace, more than I expected. The themes it's hanging off are tenuous, but some of the artwork is challenging and splendid, and I spend far too long looking at Jac Leirners collage of 1980s regional advertising. Best of all there's a new-ish Christian Marclay film to enjoy, a 24 minute decontextualised splicing of movie scenes depicting the destruction of art, and it totally hyped me up for next month at the Tate.

The Borough   [51.5°N]
The next kilometre is the dull stretch I hinted at earlier. I'm expecting a lot of this kind of thing out west, but wasn't expecting to experience it quite so close to the South Bank. It turns out northern Southwark has an entrenched residential/commercial underbelly of housing estates, backstreets and minor office blocks, as if the primeness of the location has been overlooked simply because it's south of the river.

The Leather Market [51.5°N 0.085°W] once housed true craftspeople, but now hosts recruitment consultants, marketing executives and novelty wellness engineers. The stark terraced flats of the Lockyer Estate [51.5°N 0.086°W] have an unavoidably undernourished feel. On the Kipling Estate, Richer Sounds Head Office [51.5°N 0.089°W] is a peculiar bastion of modern infill, opposite an LCC block where a council operative is strimming round the pear trees. The Royal Oak [51.5°N 0.091°W] is a traditional Victorian boozer serving Sussex ales, and a highly recommended watering hole, but I'm too early to get behind the net curtains. Lighthouse-keepers Trinity House own a lot of land alongside Borough High Street, which is why Avon Place [51.5°N 0.094°W] has a bicentennial mural along its length featuring Henry VIII, osteopathy and a fox chewing a brake cable.

Scovell Estate   [51.5°N 0.098°W]
Here's an oddity off Great Suffolk Street, an entirely atypical council estate built by Southwark's architects in the 1970s. Long blocks of totally lowrise housing run along pedestrianised walkways decorated with pot plants and hanging baskets, with a few garages hidden out of sight out of mind. Many residents have little back gardens, with gate access to one of the mini streetlets, and some actually own bungalows. You see this kind of development further out from the city centre, but here we're less than a mile from Westminster Bridge or the Bank of England, so it all feels delightfully parochial. I don't think residents are used to many cut-through visitors, though. A lady out chatting to her neighbour has to break off ("Olly!") to stop her Jack Russell ("Olly! Olly!!") from chasing after me ("Olly! Olly!! Olly!!!"), and my presence leaves both quite perturbed.

Blackfriars Road   [51.5°N 0.105°W]
Nearly, not quite at St George's Circus, the foot of Blackfriars Road is in flux. The old BT offices at Erlang House have been demolished, and in their place has arisen Blackfriars Circus, a large Barratt development whose last penthouse apartments are currently up for sale for between £1m-£2½m. The ground floor retail/restaurant units have yet to be filled, apart from a Tesco Express, whose delivery lorry has decided not to park in the bay provided and is blocking the single southbound carriageway. There used to be two lanes, but one has been sacrificed to a smart whizzy Cycle Superhighway on the other side of the road, the two-way nature of which throws me when I walk out into it without looking. Thankfully no Super Cycles were incoming.

Facing Blackfriars Circus is a completely different approach to housing, in plain London brick rather than some fancy variegated palette. Peabody Square is a Victorian collection of four-storey tenement blocks, each with a central porch, and each of these topped off with a keystone flourish depicting a letter of the alphabet. Blocks A to R run clockwise around the first great courtyard, now filled with a micro-playground, while a second quadrangle juts off from the rear. It's quiet and human in scale, admittedly concierge-free, but I'm sure most residents are happier to pay less rent rather than have a suave clerk to sign off their Amazon packages. A plaque confirms that the Queen Mother visited in 1962 to mark the centenary of the George Peabody Donation Fund. Expect Blackfriars Circus to be demolished long before any royal curtain-tugger drops by.



Lower Marsh   [51.5°N 0.114°W]
Just briefly, let's do Lambeth. Lower Marsh is a beloved market street, technically a conservation area but very much a treasure in transition. Several quirky old businesses survive - the Olympic Cafe has a slew of photos of its Chinese menu across its window, and Top Wind is a flute shop whose retro frontage seemingly hasn't changed since it opened in 1991. But elsewhere are blatant incomers, like Waffle Doodle-Doo and Vaulty Towers, and heaven knows how anyone gained planning permission for the geometric white condo at the western end of the street. All the street vendors serve from identikit stalls in Olympic ring colours, with tables alongside to enable rapid guzzling. Don't expect hot dogs, it's more Taste of Morocco/Falafel Wrap/Newdlez.com kind of line-up. I greatly approve of Barbarellas cafe because one of the things advertised on its shopfront is panini, plural. The beggar sitting crosslegged outside the Co-Op is busy reading a book, obliviously hoping that passers-by drop coins into his empty popcorn tub.

At the far end of Lower Marsh the multiple tracks heading out of Waterloo station cover a large portion of Westminster Bridge Road. It's gloomy under there. Only four of Waterloo's platforms extend far enough to just cross the line of 51.5°N, and they're the former Eurostar platforms so are currently out of commission.

St Thomas' Hospital   [51.5°N 0.118°W]
I've ended up at London's most central hospital, thankfully of my own volition. Entrance to the site is on two levels, a concrete walkway for independent visitors and a canyon below for all kinds of ambulance. One neonatal carrier from the Kent coast has seemingly come a heck of a long way. Inpatients has recently been relocated to Gassiot House, alongside the Pain Management Unit. I watch as a member of staff, downgraded from her receptionist role by automation, politely tells a checker-in that they may have to press harder because the touchscreens "can be a bit temperamental sometimes". Beneath my feet is the Florence Nightingale Museum, which I had been planning to pop inside because it's the first museum I've encountered on the 51½th parallel. Instead I transfer that baton to Ian Visits, because he's just published a review of the place, saving me the need to go round again.

The Hospital Gardens provide a chance to escape the wards for staff and patients alike, for example the nurse who walks past shepherding an old man in pyjamas. Other orderlies are grabbing a bite to eat around the new statue of Mary Seacole, or wandering off site completely for a cigarette. Someone medical-looking is breastfeeding her baby while she takes lunch. Caution, the water in the fountain is impregnated with chemicals. A new plaque reveals that Searle's Boathouse, first home of the Leander Club, was established here in 1818. A siren wails as another arrival pulls in down below. Once again I'm hugely impressed by the NHS's compassionate ambition (and equally despairing of an official poster I spot on a wall by the ambulance park praising the valued contribution of "Siemens Healthineers").

The point on the Albert Embankment where 51.5°N launches off across the Thames is marked, coincidentally, by the memorial plaque to the victims of Human BSE (vCJD). The spot is very popular with tourists, who like to place one or more of the group against or on the river wall and take photos with Westminster's gothic turrets immediately behind. Westminster Bridge is very close by, along the line of 51.501°N, but I've come on the one day passage is sealed off by a strip of blue and white tape, two police cars, several clustered officers and at least one wielded weapon.I will get across the river to continue my latitude quest, but alas a screwball in a Ford Fiesta got there first.



 Wednesday, August 15, 2018


A fifth crossing of the Thames brings the 51½° line of latitude south of the river for the last time. That means Southwark, and a lot of Rotherhithe and Bermondsey, as we close in on central London. [map] [photos]

Surrey Docks City Farm   [51.5°N 0.034°W]
I'm too old to have a favourite city farm, but this delightful farmyard slams in high on my non-existent list. It's been here by the riverside since 1986, before which the site has been a shipyard, timber yard and a receiving station for smallpox patients. It's easy to slip in from the Thames Path, by the herb garden, but most parents and very small children enter via the main gates on Rotherhithe Street. There is an unmistakeable whiff of livestock just before you head inside. It's amazing how much has been crammed in, including a central yard where you pet the goats, a duckpond, a blacksmith's forge and a small orchard (please do not pick the loganberries).

Animals kept along the 51½°N line include Alice and Hermione the donkeys, who give rides to those of small enough stature, and Rupert, Winnie and Marmalade the Oxford Sandy and Black pigs. A path laid with mosaics leads round the back of their pens to the Muck Heap, which might explain that whiff earlier, passing the Youth Allotments where a crew of young locals grow flowers and veg in raised beds. One of these children was proudly telling her Mum about all the good work she'd been doing with the farm animals that morning, and pointing out her sweetcorn of which she was evidently very proud. The sunflowers are coming on particularly nicely. And don't forget to wash your hands before you leave.

We don't quite get to pass Stave Hill, one of London's largest artificial hills, which is a shame because it's the only elevated bit of land for miles with an actual view. But we do cross Russia Dock Woodland, which is one of the original Surrey Docks filled in to create an ecological buffer, with tiny meandering paths amongst the trees, a wider recreational space, some very keen volunteers and a few old wharfside rails thrown in for good measure.

Albion Channel   [51.5°N 0.046°W]
I wanted to stop off somewhere in the old Surrey Docks to take the temperature of the 80s redevelopment, so picked this artificial waterway running across its heart. Originally this was Albion Dock, one of a labyrinth of ten, and the edge of the docks can still be seen as the higher of the two paths along the eastern side. Most of the rest was filled in to create a place the LDDC hoped people would want to live, and they've been proved right. What's striking is the variety of styles, from pointy-topped stacks to sweeping curved crescents, with red brick flourishes and primary-coloured window frames for added interest, and what's also striking is how not-very highrise the development is. These days they'd have crammed far more people in, indeed down at Canada Water they're doing just that, and nobody gets to live alongside a duck-topped iridescent green channel, more's the pity.

Rotherhithe Tunnel   [51.5°N 0.053°W]
I was worried when I saw that the 51½th parallel crossed the Rotherhithe Tunnel, because I've walked through this polluted tube once and once was enough. But it all turned out fine because the relevant slice is out in the open, on the gentle descent from the roundabout, not far from the huge gates that slam shut to read 'Tunnel' 'Closed'. A slew of signs along the glazed tiled wall warn incoming drivers what they should, must and absolutely cannot do for the next zigzag mile. Breaking down is strongly unrecommended. I love that the Edwardians laid a pavement along both sides of the carriageway, but 21st century pedestrians shouldn't expect to be able to cross from one side to the other as the flow of two-way 20mph traffic never stops.

Two church towers rise above the approach ramp, both belonging to Scandinavian places of worship, and originally built for the benefit of seamen. The one with a copper spire atop what looks like a town hall is the Sjømannskirken, a Norwegian Church Abroad, and gives its name to neighbouring St Olav's Square. The one that looks like a firefighters' practice tower is the one we're interested in, because it's on the right line of latitude, and that's the Finlands Sjömanskyrka, or Finnish Church. It looks very much like a small block of flats, but if you ever get inside (say for the annual Christmas Fair) it resembles a modern and rather compact school hall. These days the seamen are long gone, and both the old pubs bookending the shopping parade opposite have closed down, and [insert usual comment about how fast London changes].

King Edward III's Manor House   [51.5°N 0.059°W]
Another direct hit, and our first ancient monument. Edward III built a moated property here around 1350, when this was merely a watermeadow, with a gatehouse facing the Thames to allow him to come and go by boat. Nobody's entirely sure why he picked the hamlet of Rotherhithe, but falconry's the likeliest reason. By the 16th century river access had been lost and the manor house went private, becoming a pottery, then partially warehouses, then was entirely demolished in the 1970s other than a few foundations. These now sit at the centre of a sparse lawn, the indentation of the former moat clearly visible, watched over by an astonishingly mundane terrace of Southwarky housing. Better known is The Angel pub, a much more likely destination for those walking by, which dates back to the 17th century, not the 14th (when this particular bit of land was in the river). Best place on today's walk for a Thames view, this, on the outside of the final bend before the Pool of London.

Dockhead   [51.5°N 0.072°W]
I'm pausing here, on Jamaica Road, because something's changed. For the first 12 miles of my journey I don't think the line of 51.5°N crossed a single house or dwelling place that was more than 50 years old. Partly that's because of the quirkiness of the line travelled, but mainly because estuarine London wasn't particularly development-friendly until relatively recently. But here on the Dickens Estate the five-storey LCC blocks are of 1930s vintage, at the extremity of the SE1 postcode, and are built on the site of the infamous Jacob's Island rookery. Dockhead also has the first shopping parade I've come across since starting out, which boasts an art gallery, an organic cafe and a quality dry cleaners amongst its semi-gentrified line-up. Two of the shopkeepers are out front chatting, because for much of the week nobody's really interested. The doors of Most Holy Trinity RC Church are firmly bolted. Shad Thames isn't far away. It feels like we've finally hit the city.

Maltby Street Market   [51.5°N 0.077°W]
Oh. My. Word. I have somehow never managed to be here at the weekend before, and I am unprepared for the seething crush on the far side of what looks like a quiet railway viaduct. A few of the arches on the Druid Street side provide clues, like the hairnetted lady from the St John's Bakery selling doughnuts and three quid Eccles Cakes fresh from ovens under the railway. But it's on the other side, along the narrow Rope Walk, that the foodie herd squish to enjoy the very best in everything Time Out adores. Some sellers serve out of the arches themselves, perhaps dispensing gin, raclette or beefsteak. The majority serve from little stalls, griddling while you watch or unpacking from coolboxes stashed underneath. It is rammed.

The clientele is mixed, but mainly young, the occasionally gymbod leading his parents into the melee to source something with noodles. At the Cheese Truck a grilled stilton, bacon and pear chutney sandwich costs an amount with the trailing zero missing. Craft beer is big. An acrid smell sparks the alleyway. Only the central section has tables, and they're all taken, so latecomers juggle their way to the council estate car park at the far end holding a plastic trayful in one hand and a cup of tinkered juice in the other. Not everyone's pleased. "I can't believe they charged £6 for this and skimped on the chicken," joshes one lad to his mates, But most have the look of regulars about them, Maltby Street being where they kick off their weekend to ensure it isn't wasted.

 Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Have you seen this?

How absolutely appalling. How mindbogglingly awful. I have no words.

I simply cannot believe how wrong this is. It made me so cross when I saw it. This is not the way things should be.

Sadly we're seeing a lot more of this kind of thing these days. That's why I always share it when I see it, so I can add my voice to how unacceptable it is. Who are the idiots behind the circulation of this outrage?

When I saw this latest abomination I became so angry that I needed to tell everyone how angry I was. Not to express my indignation would make me complicit in the sharing of untruths, indeed to adopt a passive neutral position would be morally unforgivable. Every one of us is honour bound to call out misinformation whenever we see it, and to tell the perpetrators what we think of them, rather than allowing this malicious deception to be circulated unchecked.

I do not understand how anyone else could look at this situation and not come to the same conclusion the rest of us have undoubtedly reached. That's what I think, and I know you think that too.

Does it not strike you as odd that these people are saying one thing, when what they should be saying is another. I literally screamed when I heard it, as their weasel words cut deep into my very soul. My gut reaction was to yell back and tell them how very wrong they were, to put them right, to set the record straight. But I recognised I could only achieve this by replying and sharing that reply with everyone else. A rebuke shared is a judgement settled.

I disagree with these opinions in the strongest possible terms. There is no evidence whatsoever for any counterargument. We must not allow ourselves to be lured into an irrevocably unjust society by the siren voice of popular thought.

I mean, let's look at the facts, which are clear and plain and unequivocal. All these are self-evident truths, based on my interpretation of reality, and no other reading of the evidence is possible. We all know what the facts are, and yet some people still go out of their way to deny them, and it makes me mad.

The manner in which the person in question has reacted is disgraceful. No right-thinking person could ever condone what they said, that much is self-evident. There's only one way to interpret what they said, which is to find it morally repellent. I'm ashamed now that I may once have given this person the benefit of the doubt, when it turns out they held such offensive views all along. Their moral compass is seriously flawed, and I will never take anything they say or do seriously again. With this one single outrageous statement, they are dead to me.

I condemn their position unreservedly. Where is the sense of tolerance our national conversation demands?

Why do so many people continue to believe such indefensible things? We all know that a complete spectrum of opinions exists, but some viewpoints are so incorrect that it makes no sense to hold faith in them. For centuries humanity has been split along ideological lines, but I know the day is coming when the partisan will see the error of their ways and come down on the side of truth, and I'm convinced my pithy comments will help seal the deal.

And you never see any of this reported in the media. People carry on spouting these lies but nobody ever holds them to account, nobody presents the opposing point of view. I know the BBC's rigged agenda refuses to inform the public about what's really going on. Their silence only goes to reconfirm the institutional bias at the rotten heart of our so-called national broadcaster, and I can no longer countenance any of their output I disagree with.

We all know racism when we see it. We all recognise irresponsible opinions on the Israeli-Judeo-Palestinian situation. We all understand the only defensible attitude to Islamophobia. So how has it become so difficult to define the obvious dividing line between right and wrong?

The state of media regulation has become a matter of constant shame. Hateful comments which plainly break disciplinary rules are left upstanding, while colleagues of mine who only want to share the truth are brutally silenced. The ease with which unbridled misinformation and intolerance can now be circulated shames our very existence. As our civilisation slips blindly into vindictive animosity, never let it be said I kept my powder dry.

My inner monologue rages against the injustices of collective communication. How dare people make their contrary opinions known, and twist the truth in full public view. I am distressed by the thoughtless hatred being expressed in our world today, and I thoughtlessly hate those who express it. Why must they always seek to distort reality, rather than reinforce my core beliefs?

I despair at our civilisation's direction of travel. The voices of those who should be silenced are instead being amplified by the mindless over-reactions of others. We must not offer a platform to malevolent rabble-rousers who seek only to corrupt the mainstream.

Nobody wants to see this sort of thing in their timeline.

I mean, just look at the state of this.

 Monday, August 13, 2018


If you've been counting down my longitude as I travel across London, you'll have realised we must be getting darned close to the Greenwich Meridian. Now here we are on the North Greenwich peninsula, approaching the precise point where the eastern hemisphere meets the west. But first, well, 51½°N couldn't have delivered us anywhere better... [map] [photos]

Dangleway South   [51.5°N 0.008°E]
Of all the places to coincidentally end up, the southern terminal of London's best-loved cablecar is surely as good as it gets. Nowhere else in London can you take off and soar over the breakers yards of Silvertown, taking in all the glories of the estuarine Thames as you go. On the day of my visit the service is being well used by out-of-town parents keeping their kids busy with a brief school holiday treat, and ageing rockers who've arrived at the O2 too early for tonight's Iron Maiden gig and need something to fill the time. Despite the fact that Oyster and contactless is the cheapest way to fly, everyone's queueing up to pay extra for the Airline Discovery Experience emblazoned on a sign stuck above the ticket office, which'll bring them straight back here after they've discovered how dull the area around the Royal Docks terminal is. My cynicism for this Mayoral white elephant remains undimmed.

The latest commercial development inside the terminal is a souvenir kiosk, carefully positioned to attract passengers coming down the stairs after southbound flights. One of the Dangleway's many surplus members of staff hangs around in front of shelves of branded goodies, including a fridge magnet for £3, a fudge bag for £4, a thermal cup for £7 and a selfie stick for a tenner. They know their target audience well. If you've ever wanted an Emirates-red baseball cap with the cablecar's logo on the front, and have £9 to spare, you know where to come. None of this is freshly sourced, it's the same tat they've been selling in the gift shop in the cafe opposite for years, and another member of stuff lugs extra boxes of snowglobes over should they run out. Every year, without fail, the cablecar provides additional confirmation that it remains a tourist-milker rather than a useful means of public transport.

North Greenwich Bus Station   [51.5°N 0.003°E]
...and not just the bus station but the centre of the bus station, the midpoint of the arc, immediately opposite the escalators where the Jubilee line disgorges. Here are blue bins stacked with copies of this morning's Metro, and plastic bags into which tonight's Standard will later be flung. Three yellow cones warn that the floor might be wet, two purple footprints point off towards the local animatronic dinosaurs, and arrivals from Charlton dash to grab a Caffe Nero before descending into the depths. This is a space which sometimes seethes with people, but today is quiet as a lamb.

Of course this millennial transport interchange is due to be swept away in a few years's time as the Lords of Greenwich Peninsula replace it with a three-pronged crown of shops and flats, which'll be great if you've ever dreamed of something better than a W H Smith, but likely less convenient if all you want to do is catch a bus. In the meantime, if what you truly desire is a copy of the May 2017 tube map, the Travel Information desk has a handful in its racks and a box of 3000 on the counter (but you'll be lucky to catch it open).

Delta Wharf   [51.5°N 0°W]
Dammit, it's impossible to stand on the precise spot where fifty one and a half degrees north crosses the zero meridian because it lies in an undeveloped zone behind hoardings. The intersection's about halfway between the entrance to the Blackwall Tunnel and the River Thames, on a former aggregate-processing site called Delta Wharf. The godforsaken backwater of Tunnel Avenue is as close as you can currently get, unless you're the lackey who picks up the golf balls at the far end of the Greenwich Peninsula Driving Range. The last vestiges of industrialisation were razed from Delta Wharf in 2009, but the rest of the site remains vacant until developers Knight Dragon finally get round to building Meridian Quays ("boutiques, bars and towering waterfront living at its most glorious").

For the riverside view, take the Thames Path south from Drawdock Road, almost to the jetty [51.5°N 0.002W°], where a semi-overgrown bench has been provided for your comfort. The skyscrapers of Docklands look particularly imposing from over here, I always think. Frosted half-globe lights line the promenade, wild flowers sprout in the gap between footpath and cycle path, and all could be quite pleasant were it not for the fenced-off nomansland behind you. In a city with a housing crisis, it seems insane that a peninsula cleared for residential redevelopment almost twenty years ago still hasn't got its act together (and, affordably at least, probably never will).



Pierhead Lock   [51.5°N 0.008W°]
My line of latitude's arrival on the Isle of Dogs coincides with actual riverfront access at the tip of Stewart Street. The dominant building here is quite something, an apartment block of pure white graduated towers stacked high with circular balconies, dipping backwards in a kind of swirling horseshoe formation around a landscaped terraced garden. It almost looks like some giant 1930s ocean liner has docked beside the Thames. This is Pierhead Lock, completed in the year 2000 before the area became hugely desirable, hence of far lower density than anything Barrett Homes would build today. There's no gym on site, the poor darlings, but residents do have access to a tiny private concrete jetty with two benches and a flagpole. I don't know what you do when you see a sign that says "Strictly No Loitering", but I hung around for an extra few minutes to revel in their glorious meandering panorama.

South Quay DLR   [51.5°N 0.016W°]
If you're familiar with Docklands, 51.5°N sadly misses the main highrise cluster and crosses the peninsula to the south, approximately along the line of Marsh Wall. But it does score a direct hit on the bridge at the entrance to Millwall Inner Dock, where red flashing lights would halt the traffic if only any of the sailing boats moored up alongside wanted to nip through. This is also where South Quay DLR station was relocated in 2009, spanning the waterway and creating a gloomy undercroft beneath its platforms where yesterday's lunch wrappings inexorably accumulate. I particularly liked the street sign at 191-195 Marsh Wall, across the road, which still bears the original 80s logo of the LDDC quango.

The only skyscraper on the 51.5°N line of latitude is the 48-storey Pan Peninsula, which overtook the Barbican's Shakespeare Tower as London's tallest residential building in 2009. Some of the office blocks close by are the same bullet-grey cuboids erected when Docklands was new, others are covered in the telltale multicoloured panels of the late Noughties, and several more are in the process of being demolished to make way for something bankers can live in. I don't know how much longer the geometrical sheds of Skylines Village can hold out against the 48-storey tower described in the planning notice pinned to a lamppost outside, but for the time being they house a useful collection of (very) small businesses which help keep the neighbouring financial empire ticking over.

Millennium Harbour   [51.5°N 0.028W°]
And on the western edge of the Isle of Dogs, another screen of flats. You can probably guess roughly when Millennium Harbour was built, its residents cursed by tiny slanting balconies smaller than the minimum area permissible today. I turn my attention instead to the Thames, a classic section downstream of a serious bend, and watch the river traffic riding the tide. i) a Thames Clipper, zigzagging over to Greenland Dock. ii) three Rigid Inflatable Boats, giving their paying customers the weaving speed-blast they paid £30 for. iii) a bright orange open-topped launch, ferrying a trio of hi-vis guys upstream. iv) three dozen empty waste containers on a chain of barges, heading to the City for refilling. v) a cruiser called Pride of London, its rear deck packed with identikit beery blokes in Crystal Palace jerseys singing "Who are ya?" at the tops of their voices, a huge St George's flag draped from the stern. It's a fabulous spot to pause and watch London drift by.



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