Wednesday, July 30, 2014
In the heart of Bow, right alongside the DLR station, rise three 25-storey residential tower blocks.
This used to be the Crossways Estate, a council estate with a grim reputation, and indeed a Grime reputation. It's where Dizzee Rascal grew up, the roof taken over by pirate radio stations and with a fair amount of crime and ill-will in the stairwells below. Overcrowded, unloved and a bit too 'real', the site became a prime target for major redevelopment.
The scrappy tarmac football pitches around the towers were soon swept away, and streets of new low-rise houses and flats built in their place. By 2011 this had become the Bow Cross estate, a mix of council-let and affordable housing, with two of the towers utterly refurbished and reclad in a more appealing pastel palette. Prices for a one-bedroom flat started at £160,000, a number now so small as to appear quaintly unattainable by 2014 standards. Such is the nature of the housing vortex that's currently swallowing London, and the Olympic fringes in particular.
Early next year the third tower block will finally be ready for tenants, that is once the kitchens have been replaced, the exterior's been fully covered and the scaffolding's come down. What used to be dour unwanted Mallard Point is being reborn as Bellevue Bow, an aspirational lifestyle destination for incoming professionals, and nowhere that former residents could possibly afford. A one bedroom flat now costs £299,000, or rather did because all the cheap options were snapped up when the project launched a couple of weeks back, and the cheapest remaining two-bed is going for £428,000.
And why live here in Bow?
"With fantastic transport links and excellent local facilities, shops and restaurants in this cosmopolitan and vibrant community, this truly is a great place to settle."The development's website paints a picture of a neighbourhood parallel to any that I currently recognise.
"Bellevue Bow apartments are located in the heart of the historic East End. This vibrant multicultural community has a rich and fascinating heritage and has become one of London’s most exciting, dynamic areas with many boutique shops and an eclectic range of retail outlets, cafés and restaurants on your doorstep.That's not Bow, that's East Londonsville, a new amorphous residential zone whose residents are lured in not by what's on the doorstep but by how easy it is to get to somewhere more interesting. For shops, get on the train. For culture, get on the train. For coffee and chi-chi chic, there's a bus to somewhere more aspirational if you can be bothered to take it, but in reality you'll probably end up nipping down to the Tesco Express for a pizza and some lagers. As a post-Olympic price-wave sweeps out across the East End, we risk no longer living in communities but in residential bubbles whose residents spend all their cultural time elsewhere.
Living in Bow, you really are spoilt for choice when it comes to leisure, with many great cafés and bars on your doorstep. Nearby Victoria Park Village houses chic cafés, posh restaurants and cool pubs. Plus, the nearby Olympic Park and Victoria Park host some of the biggest and best events and music festivals in London including Field Day Festival, Holi Festival of Colours and Lovebox. Refurbished in 2012, Victoria Park is one of London’s most important historic parks used by millions of Londoners for nearly 170 years as a place of healthy recreation, sports, play and relaxation.
Canary Wharf, the O2 Arena, Westfield Stratford and Excel London are all a short train journey away and offer a vast array of restaurants, cinemas, entertainment, international events and leisure facilities. Further afield but with quick links to the City and West End, you couldn’t be better placed to take advantage of the best of life cosmopolitan London has to offer.
London is home to 300 theatres, 500 cinema screens and 12,000 restaurants. Three of the top ten museums and galleries in the world are in London and there are 857 art galleries in total. Around 250 festivals take place in London every year including Europe's biggest street festival, the Notting Hill Carnival."
Anyway, if you're moving in, do enjoy the expensive views from your ex council flat, I'm sure they'll be excellent.
posted 07:00 :
Tuesday, July 29, 2014One of the not-so-subtle changes in the marketing of the cablecar is the shift from "there" to "there and back". At the start of its life we were told how useful it'd be to get from A to B, and now we're invited to travel from A to B to A, for the experience rather than the destination. It gets the numbers up.
Or rather it doesn't. Here's a year-on-year comparison between passenger numbers in the last full week of July.
week ending 28 July 2012: 103,665The 58% drop between 2012 and 2013 is of course explained by the Olympics, and by the novelty factor of a thrilling means of transport in its first month. More worrying for TfL is the 17% fall in the last twelve months, which suggests either a decrease in cross-river traffic or a declining number of tourists, or both. And last week wasn't a one-off, the monthly totals for July throw up very similar percentage falls.
week ending 27 July 2013: 44,005 (↓58%)
week ending 26 July 2014: 36,691 (↓17%)
4 weeks ending 28 July 2012: 310,077One of the means of luring in additional punters to the cablecar is of course the TfL website. The Dangleway appears relatively high up on the homepage, often getting the priority splash across the top, in the hope you might be tempted to visit. Click through and you'll reach the cablecar's homepage, and from there likely discover the "The Emirates Air Line experience". This is an interesting webpage in that only a tiny proportion of it, mostly photographs, is devoted to what a cablecar ride is actually like. The rest is devoted to "Things to do nearby"...
4 weeks ending 27 July 2013: 162,069 (↓52%)
4 weeks ending 26 July 2014: 132,046 (↓19%)
"With so much to do in the surrounding area, why not turn your trip on the cable car into an afternoon or day out?"... a candid admission that two ten minute flights won't fill your time, so you'll need to mix in something else. And what a motley collection of recommendations it is too. I thought I'd take a look at the list of Things to do nearby, and query whether the cablecar really is a good way to get there.
Near Emirates Greenwich Peninsula
The Emirates Aviation Experience: The cablecar plus the Emirates Advertainment Experience go together so well that there's a £10 joint ticket. So yes, obviously this should be on the list. [walk: 15 seconds]
The O2: It's only a short walk away, so this is clearly the main thing to visit on the cablecar's south side. And if your family is the kind who likes a chain restaurant meal and then going to the cinema, a joint Dome/Dangleway day out could well be a hit. [walk: 5 minutes]
Thames Barrier: It's an architectural wonder, so you might well enjoy staring at London's flood defences from close up. The tiny visitors centre with its £3.50 exhibition underneath the cafe, perhaps less so. But it's not exactly close to North Greenwich, nor is the walk along the Thames particularly scenic. [walk/bus/walk: 35 minutes] [walk: 37 minutes]
Thames Path: This goes right past the cablecar terminal, so yes, you could set out on a riverside walk from here. TfL's website suggests maybe a walk "from the Thames Barrier to Greenwich" [walk: 4 miles], "on to the London Eye" [walk: 13 miles] "and beyond" [walk: 13+ miles]. I'm not hopeful that many cablecar users will fancy the latter two options.
Find more things to do on the Visit Greenwich website: Ah, yes, Greenwich is ace for a day out, hence you might well want to "discover the Cutty Sark, the Royal Observatory and Greenwich Park." Indeed there's so much to do in Greenwich to fill a day, a lot of it free, that you don't really need to hike downriver to throw in a cablecar flight as well. [river: 16 minutes] [tube & DLR: 24 minutes] [bus: 31 minutes] [walk: 40 minutes]
Near Emirates Royal Docks
The Crystal: I was amazed to discover that this Siemens-sponsored sustainability exhibition now charges £8 admission. It was tough enough getting punters inside when it was free, but apparently charging started in April, and sorry, it's not worth the cash. Stick to the cafe alongside, if indeed you go at all. [walk: 2 minutes]
Thames Barrier Park: Oh yes, we like "the award-winning Thames Barrier Park in Silvertown" with its "great views of the flood barrier". But if you were going there, you'd probably not go via the cablecar, it's on the wrong branch of the DLR. [DLR: 20 minutes] [walk: 22 minutes]
Newham City Farm: Now this sounds like family fun - a combined cablecar plus animals day out. But again the City Farm isn't exactly close to the northern terminal, being rather more Beckton-y than Royal Victoria-ish. [DLR/bus: 19 minutes] [DLR/walk: 24 minutes] [walk: 40 minutes]
Museum of London Docklands: Seriously, someone at TfL thinks that this is "near Emirates Royal Docks"? It's a 2 mile walk away, and not even a nice one, indeed there are a dozen DLR stations closer to the Museum than Royal Victoria. [DLR: 21 minutes] [walk: 40 minutes]
Excel London: At last the list hits the largest attraction adjacent to Dangleway North, the Excel conference centre. But blimey what a tedious place this is unless you've got a ticket to a conference or a show. Plan ahead, or really don't bother coming. [walk: 6 minutes]
WakeUp Docklands: This is a watersports centre based at the western end of the Royal Docks, plus it has a bar on a boat. It's not really a family location, but if you fancy wakeboarding or paddleboarding, and have plenty of cash for booking a session plus kit, this is surely the most thrilling ride in the area. [walk: 3 minutes]
What's not on either list is a Thames Clipper Ride, which you may remember is the latest double-ticket Dangleway offer. Or, surely, combining a trip on the cablecar with a spin round Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park has got to be an attractive school holiday day out, what with Stratford being barely 15 minutes away by train. Just make sure you find something else to combine your cablecar ride with, because the experience may be fun but it's not going to fill much of a day.
posted 07:00 :
Monday, July 28, 2014
Yesterday was the second anniversary of the start of London 2012. To celebrate, a Great British Carnival was held in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Hundreds of colourful characters turned up, in a feathery calypso spectacle pitched somewhere between Notting Hill and Rio. Community groups dressed for the occasion, giant beasts paraded through the park, and the public turned out in droves to watch, to listen, and to sprawl on the lawns in the sunshine. It was, I'd say, everything those who drew up the Olympic legacy vision ten years earlier might have been hoping for. A brownfield zone transformed into attractive open space, a collection of buildings and infrastructure capable of supporting regional growth, and a location embraced by the local population and beyond for the purposes of recreation and enjoyment. Above all the place still manages to feel communal rather than commercial, which is quite something when just across the railway at Westfield is one of the most concentrated hubs of branded retail activity anywhere in London. That purity may not last, especially as the fringes of the QEOP are taken over by flats and offices and yet more flats, hemming in the parklands as a ribbon of green in a canyon of steel and glass. But in 2014, as in 2012, the Lower Lea Valley remains a recreational and redevelopmental success, and a place that can still draw in the crowds.
Yesterday was also two years since Danny Boyle's Opening Ceremony with its steampunk rings, its trampolining nurses and its parachuting Queen. Last year they repeated the whole thing on BBC3, and many of us tuned in to relive the unexpected feeling of pride and satisfaction that we experienced first time round. This year it's Glasgow's turn to showcase itself through sport, so BBC3 were obviously showing that instead and any hopes that a 2012 rerun might be an annual event were quietly put to bed. So I went round to a friend's to watch the Opening Ceremony again on DVD, and it was still unexpectedly great, even if we did fast forward through the athletes section a bit. And by the time I got home there was only time to write a paragraph and a half of platitudes, rather than an in-depth report on the carnival and all the changes wrought recently in the Park, but that's OK because I've written that kind of post umpteen times before so you know what to expect. You'll cope, I'm sure, and I'll be back to drone on about the place again. But blimey, two years, eh?
» Watch the whole Opening Ceremony again, why don't you?
posted 07:00 :
Sunday, July 27, 2014A trio of towers
A concrete icon
A tumbling down
You'll have seen them from the train, or while driving through South Oxfordshire, the cooling towers of Didcot A. This coal-fired power station was commissioned in 1968, and belched out electricity until its switch was flicked in March last year. Now the towers are being demolished, their firing squad assembled at dawn, indeed by the time you read this they'll have crumbled to dust. But yesterday they were still standing, so I headed up the Thames Valley for one last stare. [20 photos]
You can't miss them, not in this flat valley, perched by the Great Western Railway close to where the line to Oxford turns off. The exposed nature of the site led to the CEGB commissioning architect Frederick Gibberd to do something a bit special to blend them into the landscape. He designed a cluster of hyperbolic cooling towers, initially taller but reduced to 375 feet in line with decreed safety requirements. To get the composition right he undertook a visual study, shuffling around different numbers of towers of differing heights, before eventually ending up with two groups of three at opposite corners of the site. As of this morning, just one group remains.
Yes, they're not all going, not yet. Three towers remain, these actually much easier to get close to thanks to a cycleway along the northern perimeter of the site. Take the path from Sutton Courtenay and pass by the landfill gravel pits to reach the edge of the remaining cluster, rising high beyond a line of trees and bushes. There is a mathematical elegance to their structure, the line on a graph writ large, ending at an open circumference in the sky. This close sometimes one of the trio disappears, masked by another, then peeks out from behind the rim as the composition shifts. They'll fall too before long, but for now this quiet byway is your access to close-up concrete contemplation.
It's not so easy, sorry wasn't so easy, to stand in the vicinity of the three Southern Cooling Towers. They stood in the Didcot corner, close to the main entrance and alongside the railway siding that brought in the coal. It's possible to wander a short distance down the access road to see the trio looming beyond the trees, but a sign reading 'Private Property' precludes getting any nearer. The southern perimeter road looks promising on a map but is shielded by an earth bank, so the closest vantage point turns out to be a small trading estate just up the road near the end of the footpath. All three towers can be spied across the car park, but only two from the scrubby meadow round the back. Sorry, could be spied, this new state of towerlessness is taking some getting used to.
A demolition on this scale takes some organising, and the company responsible were already out in force at noon yesterday. Men in orange hi-vis were stationed at regular intervals along the surrounding roads, watching over the 'no waiting' cones, while a minibus of reinforcements emptied out to shift metal barriers across what might have been excessively tempting stretches of pavement. Had I turned up a few hours, or even minutes, later, I'm not sure I could have taken the shots I managed. But they were probably best seen from further away, as Gibberd intended, as three sculptures on the horizon. To that end the car park by the railway station afforded a very good vantage point, or indeed anywhere for miles around with an unobstructed view.
The towers' explosive end was scheduled for between 3am and 5am this morning, which annoyed many local residents because pre-dawn on a Sunday is a fairly anti-social time, and they'd have liked to have watched the destruction with the sun above the horizon. But the demolition company were adamant - the towers are close enough to the Bristol mainline that dust from the collapse needs to be cleared from the rails before the first train runs through at seven, so before sunrise it must be. Perhaps they'll relent when the three northern cooling towers are toppled, which is currently scheduled for sometime next year.
Because climate change and European directives wait for nobody, even gas-powered Didcot B looks likely to fall silent over the next few years. Energy may have made our island's fortune but it's no longer our forte, hence the gradual disappearance of the structures that powered our industrial past. English Heritage considered listing Didcot's towers but decided there were better examples up north, hence down they've come and now some of the land can be reused. Those who live nearby may be pleased to get their valley back, unadorned, but for those who saw these giant hyperbolas as art, a journey through South Oxfordshire will never be the same again.
» (Aerial) video of the demolition, 05:01 27/7/14
» English Heritage listing
My Didcot A gallery
There are 20 photos altogether. [slideshow]
posted 05:01 :
Saturday, July 26, 2014Contactless FAQ
This contactless fares thing is really happening, then?
Yes, it may be a year later than planned, but yesterday TfL announced their firm intention to roll out contactless payments across London this autumn.
When precisely do contactless payments launch on TfL services?
On 16th September 2014, which is a Tuesday. Remember the day of the week, it'll be important later.
Which TfL services will that include?
The Underground, the Overground, the DLR and Trams. That's in addition to all of London's buses, which have been available to contactless users since December 2012.
Which TfL services won't that include?
It doesn't look like you'll be able to use your contactless card on River Buses or on the cablecar, which will upset a small number of people. More importantly, it's possible you won't be able to use your contactless card on all of the rail services in London where Oyster is currently available, not unless TfL negotiations with rail companies are sorted out before September. This has the potential to be a right pain, because you'd have to stop and think which kind of journey you're going on before you set out. West Croydon? Contactless. East Croydon? Oyster. TfL think they can sort this one out in time, fingers crossed they do.
Is this the end of Oyster?
Not at all. TfL have pledged to keep Oyster available for all those who need it, or want it. That includes everyone without a bank account, and everyone without a contactless card, which is still most people (approximately 70% of UK cards aren't contactless). It may be that in the future the chip in your Oyster card is replaced by a chip that works much like a contactless card, operating a new kind of TfL travel account. But there'll always be a non-bank version of London's travel ticket, because society would be scuppered if there wasn't.
Have they solved 'card clash', then?
No, that's still just as much of an issue as it was before, indeed probably more so. Unless you've been involved in the contactless trial, your card won't have been activated so can't currently be used to pay for journeys. From 16th September you may need to be more careful. Touch your Oyster card on the way in but accidentally your contactless card on the way out and you could be stung for two incomplete journeys. Keep more than one contactless card in your handbag or wallet and you may be stung quite regularly. That's why announcements about card clash have been broadcast ad nauseam for several months, because TfL need this new behaviour hardwired before the new system launches.
What are the main benefits of going contactless?
The biggest benefit is that you'll no longer need to top up your Oyster credit because the money comes straight off your credit or debit card. No longer will you need to stand at a machine and add cash or push your plastic into the slot. Now your card will work directly on the barriers, so the queues at ticket machines should get shorter (and will eventually, presumably, need fewer members of staff to supervise them).
How is this better than the existing ability to top-up your Oyster account automatically when it goes below a set total?
Perhaps one of my readers can tell me.
So now it's just turn up and go?
From September 16th, yes. If you're new to London you won't need to send off for an Oyster card in advance or queue up for one when you arrive, your existing bank card is now your permit to travel. But watch out because not all foreign-based contactless cards will work TfL's system, a particular exception at start-up being Mastercards issued in the USA or Canada.
Won't going contactless clog up my bank statement with itty bitty journeys?
No. Only one charge per day will be sent to your bank for payment, and only one daily charge will appear on your statement. The payment reference will mention TfL but won't list everywhere you've been.
So hang on, how do I find out if I've been overcharged?
TfL aren't expecting you to be overcharged. But you'll be able to register for an online account which will allow you to view your journey and updated payment history at the end of each day. There's already a similar service for Oyster users. For example I can see eight weeks worth of my travel history online, and TfL email me every Monday with a pdf listing every journey I've made in the last week and how much it cost. All the information you need is already available.
How is the payment system fundamentally different to Oyster?
Oyster works by charging you as you tap in and out. On a bus or tram the money is deducted at the start of the ride, while on trains a calculation is made at the end of the journey to work out how much you should then be charged. Contactless will work differently. Contactless merely records that you've touched in or out when you swipe, no money changes hands at the time. Then overnight a computer at TfL HQ tots up where you've been and calculates what your fare should be, resulting in one single payment for each day you travel. This is cutting edge technology, using cards to make payments later rather than at the point of contact, and TfL are rightly proud of what they've achieved.
Will I see any difference at ticket barriers?
Yes. At present, your Oyster balance flashes up on the display when you touch in and again when you touch out, allowing you to keep an eye on that balance in case it nears zero. If you use contactless then no amount of money will be shown, not even the fare for the journey you've just made, because officially that's calculated later. You are about to lose visibility of how much your travel costs as you speed around town, which'll make checking your statement later all the more important.
Won't contactless cards be slower to operate ticket barriers?
A bit slower, yes. Oyster cards are quicker at checking you're entitled to travel and opening the gates, helping to prevent congestion on the way through the barriers. But contactless cards can now deliver transaction times in under the crucial 500ms at which longer queues begin to form, so TfL hope you won't spot the difference.
Will prices be the same as Oyster?
They should be. There'll be no special discounts applied for users of one system or the other.
Even daily capping?
Yes. For contactless in the future, just as for Oyster now, if you travel a lot on a particular day there's a prescribed maximum you can be charged depending on time of travel, zones covered and modes of transport used. That cap will simply be applied at the end of the day, rather than cutting in at the point where your fares exceed the limit.
How about weekly price capping?
That'll work too. TfL are introducing 'Monday to Sunday' fare capping which will automatically calculate the best value for contactless travel over one week, that is so long as you use the same contactless card throughout. But note TfL's sudden insistence that a week must now start on Monday, whereas currently with travelcards a seven-day cap can kick off on any day of the week. For example if you visit London for seven days starting on a Thursday and pay by contactless card, your visit will no longer count as one consecutive period. Instead you'll have a Thursday to Sunday period followed by a Monday to Wednesday, neither of which is likely to hit a weekly cap, and you may end up worse off than now. Think of it as a limitation of the new system, which requires a uniform week for all, rather than a genuine conspiracy.
So why are TfL introducing this new system on a Tuesday?
Beats me. They've already started trumpeting the excellence of their 'Monday to Sunday' fare capping system, but then the first contactless week will only have six days in it. Sounds like a sure-fire recipe for complaints to me, that is unless they come up with a first-week exception or a promotional gimmick.
What happens if you don't have any money in your contactless account?
Good question. Presumably if it's a credit card that's not a problem, because credit cards are all about managing debt. But if your debit card goes into the red thanks to a TfL journey... good question.
How are ticket inspectors going to be able to check that you've paid when people start using contactless cards?
Good question. Passengers involved in the contactless trial have been given membership cards to act as proof that they're not freeloading. But that's not going to be possible once Joe Public starts using the system, so when the DLR attendant approaches you with their Oyster reader... good question.
Does 'contactless' only work via cards?
Not at all. EE have a Cash on Tap app which you'll be able to use on the tube by swiping your phone past the ticket barriers... if you're up for that. Contactless-enabled key fobs and wristbands will also work, for those at the cutting edge of technology. Expect other networks and interactive media to follow.
Are TfL hoping that everybody switches to contactless?
Eventually, yes. They expect the move will save them up to £80m in the next five years by reducing payments to the firm providing Oyster, and this saving can only increase as the technology becomes more tempting. "From our perspective and from a consumer perspective the contactless system is better," according to TfL's Director of Customer Experience. "We'll be encouraging them to start using it – Oyster is not broken, the point is we have a better system."
Are TfL recommending that everybody switches to contactless?
No. At present contactless is essentially a replacement for Pay As You Go, and while that's most users of TfL services, it's by no means everyone. In particular the contactless system can't currently cope with periods longer than one week, so anyone with a monthly or annual Travelcard should continue to use that for the foreseeable future. In addition, Freedom Pass users should continue to use their Freedom Passes, and anyone with concessionary travel should continue to use their special Oyster card. Remember this as TfL's publicity machine rolls out in the lead-up to the launch date in September - a lot of people would be worse off switching to contactless, and they'll need to remember NEVER to swipe their contactless card.
And why should I believe you on any of this?
Oh you shouldn't. I haven't been part of the contactless trial, and I wasn't invited one of the TfL press conferences which explained the system in detail. But feel free to chip in and correct anything you think I've got wrong, or add any additional information you think is relevant, because that'd be very helpful.
Do you have a contactless card?
No, I don't have a contactless card. But the rest of you, you have fun out there.
posted 00:10 :
Friday, July 25, 2014The Thames through London is spanned by dozens of bridges, some of which are showcased in a new exhibition at the Museum in Docklands. It's housed in the ground floor gallery where last year they put on Estuary, so it makes perfect sense that this year they've moved on and are doing Bridge.
The exhibition's mostly art and photographs, so don't come along expecting lots of facts and figures you could probably find on Wikipedia. But this allows the museum to dig into its fine collection, and those of others, to showcase rarely-seen images of iconic (and less iconic) structures. The highlight, heritage-wise, is a small collection of magic lantern slides and negatives depicting Victorian riverscape in sepia and black. The picture quality's not great, nor should it be, but the feeling that you're looking back in time is inescapable. These photos are kept in a darkened room to one side of the gallery, and the real gem is so fragile that it's kept behind glass and only lights up, briefly, when you press a button. It's a salted paper print developed by William Henry Fox Talbot, photography's founding father, and dates back to the first few years of his pioneering process. By now it should have faded irretrievably, but good fortune and conservation have preserved it for modern eyes. A bunch of boats on the foreshore is clearly seen, and that's what used to be Brunel's Hungerford Bridge in the background, long since replaced. I'm told that the Fox Talbot print "will be on display for one month only", and given that the exhibition opened precisely four weeks ago, that leaves you just this weekend to see it.
In the main gallery, at the other end of the timescale, one frame contains an illustration of Thomas Heatherwick's Garden Bridge, a vision of London yet to come. Another "under construction" picture shows the skeleton of Blackfriars Bridge as it might have been, raised up on two arches built from intertwined metal girders. Progressing round the exhibition space there are occasional visits to non-central spans at Richmond, Hammersmith and Dartford, and one to the lovely Albert. But the majority of the curated images alas stick to more familiar ground, specifically the bridges along the golden touristy stretch from Westminster to Tower. See London Bridge during its construction, or one of its constructions, and look inside to see the cable-carrying concrete conduits that snake within. Watch out for St Paul's in the background, unchanging, as the riverfront evolves from trading interface to commercial centre. sailing ships become boats become tourist cruisers, lamps become electric lights, horses and carts become red double deckers. What shines through is continuity and change, the river ever present, while how we choose to cross relentlessly updates.
It's not all static images. A slideshow in one booth shows an artist walking on London Bridge, back and forth in the stream of morning commuters, oblivious to their part in her artwork. And then there's "the film", an eleven minuter screened in a darkened cinema area beside the main entrance. Back in 1997 percussionist Paul Burwell was sent on a journey downriver on the back of a boat, his voyage captured in a short entitled Beating the Bridges. The boat set off at 5am up Hammersmith way (drummer-free at this point, so as not to antagonise the waterfront), before slowly working its way through the centre and out to the estuary at Dartford. Paul's semi-manic bashing begins around Westminster, and while he beats and flails in rhythm we watch London's bridges pass by in panorama overhead. I think I spent as long watching William Raban's filmlet as I spent wandering round the remainder of the exhibition.
There is a large folded guide to pick up, or preferably purchase for a quid, although the contents are less about the Bridge exhibition and more about what you can see that's bridge-related in the remainder of the museum, so I wasn't over-excited. You should of course walk around the main museum if you never have, I think it's a fascinating guide to London's maritime history (although a friend considers the Museum in Docklands the most boring museum in London, so be warned). I'll also say that I enjoyed last year's Estuary more, or at least it held my attention for longer, but that was less pictures in frames and more multimedia. But Bridge is well worth a look, not least for the breadth and rarity of what's on display, and you have until November to get here. Perhaps even make the journey to Canary Wharf by Thames Clipper, because that way you get to experience ten of London's bridges for real, and surely that's the best experience of all.
posted 07:00 :
Thursday, July 24, 2014
posted 07:00 :
Wednesday, July 23, 2014I was very surprised last week to receive an email inviting me to a TfL press event. This never happens. I was even more surprised when the subject of the event was to promote the cablecar.
"Good Afternoon,I've never been the cablecar's greatest supporter, so I wondered if I'd been invited for entertainment purposes so they could throw me out halfway across. But I couldn't have gone anyway, the event's while I'm at work, so I sent a polite email turning them down and continued with my life.
To celebrate the introduction of the Emirates Air Line and Thames Clippers exclusive joint packages, we are holding an event to exclusively allow media and press to see what passengers will experience flying and sailing across the Thames."
Anyway the event's today, which means you might start seeing press pieces about combined cablecar and riverboat tickets later on. So I thought I'd get in early and see what the package prices look like, and whether this might be value for money.
There are three joint packages - the Single, the Return and the Roamer - each available until the end of August. You'll only uncover the prices if you dig around on the Thames Clipper website and attempt to buy each one. And these packages can only be booked online, in advance, not as turn up and go, so best hope the weather's nice, otherwise you may find you've paid for a damp splash and a ride in the clouds.
Dangleway & Clipper Single: £13.00 (child £7.90)Let me calculate what it would cost to go on the cablecar and the riverboat separately, and then compare the total with the cost of the supposedly special package. Hold tight, this gets a bit complicated.
Dangleway & Clipper Return: £18.60 (child £10.20)
Dangleway & Clipper Roamer: £21.80 (child £11.80)
For the aerial half of the package, everyone gets a return trip on the cablecar and a visit to the Aviation Experience (which is the advertainment shed adjacent to the southern terminal). Normally the prices are as follows.
Dangleway Adult Oyster Child Return flight plus
I'm not sure why anyone would want to visit the ground floor of the Aviation Experience, indeed it's so Emirates-based that they ought to be paying you. It was empty when I popped by at the weekend, as was the cafe nextdoor and the Emirates giftshop. That's a very peculiar outlet because it sells branded airline souvenirs, not cablecar souvenirs, which may be why I don't think I've ever seen anyone buying anything. One of the two staff was shuffling coffee cups while the other sat bored stupid in the corner waiting for a customer. My appearance, and then almost immediate disappearance, must have been such a disappointment.
For the Thames Clipper half of the package, you can choose between a single riverboat ride, a return trip or unlimited daily travel (anywhere between Westminster and Woolwich). If bought separately, these are the prices.
Thames Clipper Adult Oyster Travelcard Child Single £6.80 £6.12 £4.50 £3.40 Return £12.00 £10.80 £8.00 £6.00 Roamer £16.50 £16.50 £11.00 £8.25
Riding a Thames Clipper boat is surprisingly expensive. I mean, nearly £7 for a single journey is a heck of a lot, as is £12 for a return. But then what you get is a ride down the centre of one of the finest riverscapes on the planet... past Royal Greenwich, under Tower Bridge and past St Paul's. Most of the seats are inside, which diminishes the visual experience somewhat, but there are three benches out the back and here you can really feel at one with the river. I took a ride at the weekend, carefully starting at the North Greenwich end and travelling into the West End against the flow of passengers. That meant I got a prime seat at the rear overlooking the wash as we whizzed at high speed around the Isle of Dogs, which was great, and something most Londoners probably ought to do more often. By the time the majority of tourists got on at Canary Wharf and Tower Hill we were going rather slower, and they merely got to stand in the doorway and eye my prime position somewhat jealously. Ha, and woo.
Add the cablecar experience to the boat fare and you get these totals, i.e. how much these two things would normally cost if you did them together.
Bought separately Adult Oyster Travelcard Child Dangleway + Single £16.80 £13.92 £12.30 £9.40 Dangleway + Return £22.00 £18.60 £15.80 £12.00 Dangleway + Roamer £26.50 £24.30 £18.80 £14.25
One of the treats lined up for the press on the cablecar today is "a guest appearance from BBC presenter, global adventurer and Londoner Simon Reeves, narrator of the new Emirates Air Line in-flight films designed to compliment the great views." I think they mean complement, but I'm not sure, because the in-flight films weren't working when I boarded my cabin at the weekend. Instead the screen alternated between a logo and a message about EU funding, which was less than thrilling, and additional information about the sights was nowhere to be seen. I hope Simon's video mentions the scrapyard below, and the row of cement mixers, and the wasteland gap where the Silvertown Tunnel will eventually go, but I fear not.
Here are the savings you get if you buy the joint package instead.
Joint package savings Adult Oyster Travelcard Child Dangleway + Single £3.80 92p -70p £1.50 Dangleway + Return £3.40 - -£2.80 £1.80 Dangleway + Roamer £4.70 £2.50 -£3.00 £2.45
If you're an adult and you don't have an Oyster card, the joint package saves you about four quid. If you're an adult and you do have an Oyster card, one of the packages saves you nothing, and the other two save you not much. If you're an adult and you have a Travelcard, do not buy the special tickets because you will lose money. And if you're taking a child with you, yes you'll save a bit, but you'd save more by only going on the river or the cablecar, not both.
The idea behind the joint package stuff is, obviously, to upsell the cablecar. Its existence is increasingly justified by the number of leisure visitors who can be enticed aboard and not by any attempt to attract "commuters". This'll explain the cablecar's appearance in the latest Pudsey the Dog film, and the doling out of free cinema ticket goody bags to the first 20 children to ride the cablecar each day this week. You don't get this level of hyper-publicity on the buses, the Victoria line or the tram to Croydon. I think TfL's Head of Aerial Tourism, Danny Price, will be pleased not to have to meet me this morning.
There is one more special joint fare, and this is aimed squarely at families with children. For £50 two adults and up to three children can ride the cablecar and get a Roamer ticket on the river, which is essentially an entire day out. And that's a bargain, at least compared to the price of paying separately. Take three children with you and you'll save as much as £25 on the normal price, indeed the family ticket saves money even if you only have one child. If your brood get bored in the school holidays and you have fifty quid spare, TfL very much hope you'll give it to them.
posted 07:00 :
Tuesday, July 22, 2014From 2016 all the stations in Stratford are to be re-zoned from 3 to 2/3. The plan is to extend the boundary of zone 2 to touch Stratford, Stratford International and Stratford High Street stations, which are currently only in zone 3, but in the future will be in both. You probably read the press release.
"The Mayor has also announced that to maximise the unique potential of the Olympicopolis initiative and wider strategic plans for regeneration and growth at Stratford, he has asked Transport for London to 're-zone' the three Stratford stations (Stratford, Stratford International and Stratford High Street) from zone 3 to zone 2/3 effective from January 2016, at a net cost to TfL of about £7m annually. The move will benefit commuters and visitors travelling to the stations at a lower cost, boosting the commercial attractiveness of the area for which the Mayor is responsible through the London Legacy Development Corporation, for workers, businesses and residents."You probably read a cut and pasted version, because journalists these days tend not to add much of their own analysis when someone spoonfeeds them juicy copy. But I wondered what precisely all this might mean for the travelling public, and how much precisely we might save. Starting with an indicative map.
The yellow area is my representation of how the zones in east London will change, with a bump. At present, pretty much, all stations in Tower Hamlets are in zone 2 and all stations in Newham are in zone 3. There is already a boundary of 2/3 crossover, running approximately down the river Lea, and this includes Pudding Mill Lane, Bromley-by-Bow and East India. 2016's zonal extension will reach out to encompass the three Stratford stations too, increasing the size of the fuzzy zone where one zone merges with the other. Essentially the Olympic Park is being dragged, fares-wise, into inner London, while the rest of Newham remains where it's always been in zone 3. Geographically it's highly suspect. Economically it's an admission that the heart of London is edging further east.
Re-zoning is a rare event, not undertaken lightly, because it generally takes money out of TfL's coffers. In January 2007, for example, six Central line stations between Woodford and Newbury Park were shifted from zone 5 to zone 4. This placed the whole of the Hainault Loop in one zone and was meant to stimulate traffic on an underused part of the line, but also introduced the anomaly that you could catch the tube to Essex more cheaply than to Harrow. The following year Hampstead Heath was moved from zone 3 to zone 2 so as not to penalise passengers on the new London Overground who'd otherwise have been forced to pay a one-station premium for their orbital journey.
Shoreditch High Street's infamous fare problem isn't a re-zoning issue because the station was new. TfL's hands were tied by the Secretary of State for Transport who insisted that Shoreditch High Street be in zone 1 when all the stations to either side were in zone 2, purely for money-raising, funding-reduction reasons. The next fresh zoning decision will be on the Northern line extension, whose new stations at Battersea and Nine Elms will both be placed in zone 1 because that'll make the power station development sound more important. But this outward extension of zone 1 means that Kennington station will have to be re-zoned at the same time, from 2 to 1/2, to give potential apartment owners a clear run into the West End.
There are two reasons why Stratford is gaining admittance into zone 2, one financial but the other purely psychological. When people are making decisions about places, like whether to visit or whether to settle there, which zone it's in can be important. Tourists think twice before going to zone 3, apparently, because it sounds a long way out, whereas when the V&A opens its Stratford outpost in zone 2 they'll come flocking. Estate agents will have a field day too. TfL's fare system creates an unintended desirability hierarchy for housing, with a Zone Four flat capable of commanding a higher price than a mere Zone Five. By upping the whole of the Olympic Park by one transportational notch, the collective property value of the E20 postcode will rise by far more than TfL's annual £7m loss on fares.
As for what the switch to zones 2 and 3 means financially, for those in Outer London it'll make no difference whatsoever. Anyone travelling to Stratford from zones 3, 4, 5 or 6 will see no change in ticket prices because Stratford remains firmly in zone 3. Instead it's those with journeys from zones 1 who'll see the difference, and it works both ways. Travel from your Mayfair hotel to the Olympic Park and your fare will cost less. Commute from Stratford into the West End and your annual travelcard becomes less of a drain. Like so.
By tube from zone 1 (eg Oxford Circus) to Stratford 2014 2016 saving Cash fare £4.70 £4.70 - Oyster single (peak) £3.20 £2.80 40p Oyster single (off-peak) £2.70 £2.20 50p 7 day Travelcard £36.80 £31.40 £5.40 Monthly Travelcard £141.40 £120.60 £20.80 Annual Travelcard £1472 £1256 £216
Of course by January 2016 fares will have gone up twice, so these won't be the actual prices, they're merely indicative of the differential. It's not a bad little saving, though, I think you'll agree. But the next table, showing the intended savings from zone 2 to Stratford, may surprise you.
By tube from zone 2 (eg Canary Wharf) to Stratford 2014 2016 saving Cash fare £4.70 £4.70 - Oyster single (peak) £1.60 £1.60 - Oyster single (off-peak) £1.50 £1.50 - 7 day Travelcard £23.60 £23.60 - Monthly Travelcard £90.70 £90.70 - Annual Travelcard £944 £944 -
Yes, that's right. When Stratford moves into zone 2, passengers starting their journeys in zone 2 will see absolutely no financial benefit whatsoever. And that's because TfL's fare structure is currently set up so that fares for journeys in zone 2 are identical to journeys covering both zones 2 and 3. There are slight differences to price caps and One Day Travelcards, but apart from these the two rows in TfL's fare table are exactly the same. Travellers from Canary Wharf to Stratford, or Mile End to Stratford, or Highbury & Islington to Stratford, will be making no savings at all, they'll just think they are.
Nevertheless, because Stratford is a mega-interchange, a large number of journeys into zone 1 are going to benefit. Taking the Central line into town, cheaper. Taking the DLR to Bank, cheaper. Taking the Jubilee line to the West End, cheaper (even though the line passes through a bit of zone 3 round Canning Town, presumably TfL will have to charge you the cheaper via-zone-2 fare). Taking the above ground Greater Anglia service into Liverpool Street, cheaper. And in five years time, taking Crossrail all the way to Paddington, relatively cheaper. This is good news, not just for passengers to/from Stratford but for businesses who are there already. Indeed one unintended consequence of re-zoning is that it'll bring both Westfields into zone 2... its shareholders must be hugging themselves with delight.
And yet there is one glaring black hole in the re-zoning plan which everyone's been keeping mighty quiet about, and that's at Stratford International. Dragging this station into zone 2 will only affect the DLR, which is an indirect branch line that goes nowhere near zone 1. The real prize ought to be the High Speed station, the concrete chasm where Eurostar trains were supposed to stop but never have. Southeastern's 'Javelin' trains connect Stratford International to St Pancras in seven minutes flat, which is already the futuristic proximal connection that Boris and the Mayor of Newham dream of. Except that Oyster isn't valid on High Speed trains, you have to pay £5.90 on top of any other ticket you might have, and that's enough to put anyone off using it.
If there was truly a desire to connect Stratford more cheaply to the heart of London, Southeastern's High Speed service would be at the heart of it. Instead the smallprint in their franchise maintains artificially high fares on a line which, for most of the week, transfers empty seats at high speed under Hackney. So hurrah for Stratford's re-zoning, which'll bring benefits to millions when it kicks in in 2016. But it's not quite as great as the journalists who cut and pasted the press release suggested it was, and for many it brings no improvements at all.
posted 00:23 :
Monday, July 21, 2014At the end of this week, half the Routemaster bus services in London are being terminated. It's no use complaining. TfL ran a consultation six months ago to explain their reasons and to ask people what they thought. The outcome was that 84% of respondents disagreed, but that didn't matter, so the scrapping takes place this Friday as planned. And it's no use saying "hang on, there are still Routemaster bus services in London?!?" because it's general ignorance of their existence that's contributed to their removal. [5 photos]
After Routemasters were removed from regular service in 2005, two heritage routes were devised to keep the old stalwarts on the road. One ran on part of route 15 between Trafalgar Square and the Tower, while the other ran on route 9 from Aldwych to the Royal Albert Hall. It's the latter which is being stopped this week, leaving the 15 to fly the flag alone for the much-loved 60-year-old bus.
Route 9H, as it's endearingly abbreviated, runs every 20 minutes between about half nine in the morning and seven at night. It runs alongside normal services on Route 9 but only along the central portion, enhancing frequency and offering an attractive means of transport for tourists. The route's endpoints have been tweaked since the early days, at the eastern end from Aldwych to Trafalgar Square, and at the western end as far as Kensington High Street. This extension was at the behest of the local council, who hoped that visitors would alight by the shops and spend some money, rather than getting off alongside the Albert Memorial and merely enjoying the park instead. And even the council's support hasn't been enough to retain the 9H service, so early on Friday evening it stops for good.
The rationale for the withdrawal is twofold - usage on the service is limited, and it's relatively expensive to operate. Why spend a million pounds a year on this, goes the argument, when this money could be better spent on [insert name of pet project here]. As for why few people use the 9H, there are many reasons. It mirrors the normal number 9 route but doesn't go as far, hence anyone wanting a more distant destination isn't going to board. The vehicles aren't wheelchair accessible, which was the main reason for Routemaster removal in the first place. And a lot of potential passengers won't even recognise these as real TfL buses, they look like private hire vehicles, so won't realise that they can hop on board for precisely the same Oyster fare as any other bus.
And then there's the old/new Routemaster issue, which head of TfL Surface Transport Leon Daniels was keen to point out when the latest consultation was announced. With 'New Routemasters' introduced on the remainder of route 9, apparently "nowadays those travelling for leisure purposes tend to choose the new buses." This may be because they like the sleek design of the new bus more than the old, or it may be because they run three times more frequently, it's hard to be sure. Also, according to Leon, withdrawal "eliminates the conflicting arrangement whereby the conductors on traditional Routemasters serve you at your seat and take cash, whereas the second crew member on the New Routemaster does neither." He wrote this in January when cash on buses was still an option, but what he really appears to be admitting is that conductors on proper Routemasters earn their keep, whereas passenger assistants on the New Routemaster are little more than health and safety window dressing.
They're still out there at the moment, the veteran 9Hs, plying their trade through the West End. They muster in Northumberland Avenue, at the same bus stand as the 15H, giving drivers on the two heritage services a chance to chat ("This your last day, then? They keeping you on?"). Number 9 Routemasters then roll round Trafalgar Square to the first stop in Cockspur Street. It's an exceptionally touristy spot, with umbrella-wielding guides leading crocodiles of visitors along the pavement and a bloke from The Big Bus Tour Company handing out leaflets to encourage folk onto the open top service. Rides on his bus cost ten times as much as the humble 9H, although for that you get a commentary, a complimentary River Bus ticket and a poncho for when it rains. I noticed with some disappointment that TfL have already put up the new number 9 timetable, which officially starts next Saturday, hence no evidence now exists at the stop that a special heritage service might come along instead.
The old buses are still looking good for their age, each well scrubbed and mostly ad-free inside. Mine had a musty smell on the top deck, although the New Routemasters aren't exactly known for their fine fragrance either, and at least on the 9H the top windows open. I had the misfortune of riding a New Routemaster home during peak heatwave on Friday, and I can confirm that the air cooling system fails utterly at high temperatures. The thermometer I took with me read six degrees higher on board than off, and alighting after an hour in the upstairs sauna came as blessed relief. Whereas the top deck of a proper Routemaster, with opening windows ensuring circulation, proved a perfectly acceptable proposition. TfL correctly claim that their new vehicle is indeed "one of the most technologically advanced buses in the world", but this week they're scrapping an expensive bus that works in hot weather in favour of an expensive bus that doesn't.
I enjoyed my last-weekend sightseeing ride along the 9H route. The route takes in Pall Mall and Piccadilly, plus a twirl round the memorials at Hyde Park Corner. Most tourists ignored our passing, but several others recognised an icon and paused to take a digital portrait. We sailed through Knightsbridge without many passengers seeking to board, because most folk round these parts aren't the sort to take the bus, then edged along the foot of Hyde Park more as a local service than a tourist draw. I wondered how far up Kensington High Street we'd go, the answer being right to the end past all the shops (and the flats now springing up to hide the Commonwealth Institute). The final stop was outside an Iranian supermarket with bowls of fruit laid out in front, the last place most visitors to London would need, but the ideal place to turn the buses around and park up.
Five days remain to ride the old Routemasters on route 9. The best of the vehicles will then be used to augment the fleet on route 15, ensuring that hard-to-come-by spare parts are available and the old girls soldier on. With continued support, and maintenance, and funding, the 15H Routemasters should then survive for a few more years into the future. They do actually shift useful numbers of tourists to the Tower and back, at least for some of the day, and TfL have no plans to overshadow them by introducing their more modern namesake on the same route. Indeed after Ken erased 99% of Routemasters from our city and with Boris now removing 50% of what's left, it'd be a brave politician who made the entire species extinct.
It'd be nice if TfL gave their one remaining heritage route some publicity. While their press office falls over itself to plug New Routemasters and their beloved cablecar at every available opportunity, these tourist-friendly trips aboard a vintage bus raise barely a tweet. So come on down and ride a proper route 9 Routemaster before the end of the week, and remember to come back again in the years to come to prevent route 15 fading out with a whimper in the same way.
posted 07:00 :
Sunday, July 20, 2014WALK LONDON
The London Loop [section 6]
Coulsdon South to Banstead (4½ miles)
Section 5 is one of the finest sections of the London Loop, while section 7 is so far the dullest. I therefore wondered which category section 6, through the outskirts of Sutton, might fall into. And the answer was neither, though nearer to 7 than 5, and with an especially purple highlight halfway through. [map]
My heart was telling me to leave Coulsdon South station and head for the hills, for a dead-cert lovely stroll up Farthing Downs and into Happy Valley. But my head told me I'd done that walk, and instead I should abandon those sylvan heights for the next unblogged section of the London Loop. That meant dipping beneath the Coulsdon inner relief road, a stilted bypass still less than ten years old and carrying Gatwick-bound traffic safely out of harm's way. Thence past a locked gate to Cane Hill, Coulsdon's very own former mental asylum, mouldering since the 1980s and awaiting rebirth as 675 Barratt homes. And on towards the high street (tagline "Shop Coulsdon"), with the London Loop signage already so inadequate I was glad I'd brought a map with me. It got better.
To escape the town the Loop crosses the railway via a back alley. Here I stumbled upon a gyrating lady, busy dancing to an unseen audience viewing through a phone she'd propped up on a bollard mid-footpath. She seemed a bit embarrassed when one, then two people wandered through, then restarted her performance when she thought we'd passed and were no longer watching. A steady climb followed, starting at the Croydon Girl Guides centenary flowerbed and ending at the Jack and Jill pub. These semi-detached streets are part of Woodmansterne and then Clockhouse, a Sutton suburb named after the farm it replaced, and accessible to the remainder of the borough only by footpath. At long last, after a mile of road, the Loop takes one of those.
It's actually a bridleway, as the occasional mountain of poo attests, and part of the Sutton Countryside Walk. Before long it becomes a proper getaway, with a high hedge to one side and horsey fields to the other. Across the paddocks are the isolated wooden homes of Little Woodcote, a peculiar smallholding community established for troops returning from World War One. And beyond that, one of the joys of elevated outer London, a panoramic view of the centre. You have to look past trees and the occasional lamppost, but there's the BT Tower, and to the right a highly concentrated City cluster with the Shard rising to the fore. Best bit of the walk, this, not for the immediate locality but for peripheral vision.
If you spot the turnoff, the next field is a summer's delight, with flowers abloom while butterflies flap low above the long grass. It beats the next bit of lane, where serious car avoidance is required, but only as far as the edge of London where a stile permits escape. And as for the upcoming field, that's nothing special according to my Loop leaflet, but in reality it's very special indeed. This is the home of Mayfield Lavender, and for three months each summer it's ablaze with purple plants cultivated in dozens of photogenic rows. I may well have told you all about this yesterday. Time your walk right and you can wander off at will, but come out of season and you're restricted to a single path across the centre, and you can put your camera away.
The next highlight is immediately across the road, and that's Oaks Park. It's now a municipal park, and a fine one, but the estate was originally home to the Earl of Derby. He gave his name to the most famous race at Epsom, and his estate gave its name to the second. You'll not find his mansion here now, the Second World War did for that, but its outline is marked by a white line in the grass beyond the bakehouse. Today's visitors can enjoy food or ice creams from the cafe, one of the better ones I'd say, or a stroll through the walled garden. Just be warned that if you follow the Loop's signs you'll miss most of it in favour of a woodland walk along the edge of a golf course, so do make the effort to deviate properly.
Having made a good show of staying just within the London boundary at all times, the Loop now makes a break for Surrey. A narrow path rises from a private road, with the tang of horses never far from your nostrils. However far from built-up area this might feel, keep half an eye over the security fence to spot HM Prison High Down, an adult male category B penitentiary. Rather prettier are Banstead Downs at the end of the lane, another attractive butterfly-infested space, but divided by a railway and the main Brighton Road. Rather a lot of the Downs are golf course, and it's amidst the fairways and greens that Loop section 6 finally peters out. "Are you lost?" asked one particularly Surrey-looking player, seemingly trying to make me feel small for using the public right of way. But no, merely finished, and glad to be retiring to the station rather than continuing to section 7.
» London Loop section 6: official map and directions; map
» Who else has walked it? Stephen, Mark, Oatsy, Tim, Paul, Maureen, Richard
» See also sections 1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, 12, 14, 15, 17, 18, 20, 22, 23, 24
posted 06:00 :
Saturday, July 19, 2014People do the strangest things in a field of lavender. They grin, they amble, they kneel, they gawp, but most particularly they get their cameras out and take photos of one another. Everyone looks good against an indigo background, so get to one sharpish and your image could be liked to high heaven on Facebook within minutes. It's fortunate, then, that London has its very own purple pasture, free to enter, and it's currently ablaze. [10 photos]
Mayfield Lavender is only just in London, indeed that's Surrey immediately beyond the hedge at the bottom of the field. But there it sits, on a lane between Banstead and Purley, beyond where suburbia stops and a floral fantasy begins. You can walk if you're semi-adventurous, or even catch the bus, but most people choose to drive and park up along the top end of the field. Really quite a lot of people at this time of year, even on a weekday, so long as the sun's out.
You could just walk up and down the rows. There are dozens of these running parallel over the slope, most end to end, a few intersected by a sprawling oak. Three different types of lavender are planted in different parts of the field, each flowering at a slightly different time to stagger the harvest. The upper half is currently at peak bloom, and abuzz with bumble bees, while in the lower quarter the occasional employee cuts stalks for sale.
More likely you'll stop somewhere mid-mauve and get your camera out, it's irresistible. Perhaps kneel down so your lower half disappears into a sea of lavender... or if you're only small, toddling has the same effect. Several professional photographers may be present, creating pastel-perfect portraits for loving parents or couples. You might even stumble across the photo-shoot for an album cover, or whatever the digital R&B alternative is these days, so try not to wander into the back of shot.
Expect to see a high proportion of oriental visitors enjoying the spectacle. They love their lavender in China and Japan, so the opportunity to rediscover home on the Croydon Road is irresistible. Bring the whole family why don't you, and pose as a group over and over and over and over. A broad central path easily accommodates a wheelchair, if grandma wants to come too, but the real joy is to be had from stepping through the crop from one purple backdrop to another.
There is a shop in a tent selling locally harvested produce, be that bunches, pillows, or those toiletries you always buy for certain relatives because it saves thinking. At the cafe you can buy a lavender fairy cake or lavender scone to eat with your lavender tea or lavender lemonade (non lavender-based food options are also available). Once an hour, if that delights, you can even take a £2 tractor ride around the field. Mayfield's a wholly commercial enterprise, to be sure, but not in an especially intrusive way.
Come before June or after August and there's nothing much to see. The gates also close at six, restricting access to a single public right of way across the centre. And be warned that whenever the sun dips behind a cloud and the illumination changes, all that vibrant colour magic disappears and you're just left standing in a field. But time it right, as I managed earlier this week, and London's very own lavender farm is an unalloyed delight.
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