diamond geezer

 Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Today's post is about the post-industrial edgelands to the west of the Olympic Park, specifically Hackney Wick and Fish Island, specifically how its buildings are being demolished, relentlessly, and rebuilt into flats, sucking away character to create another identikit district of over-priced boxes, admittedly necessary, but crushingly dull compared to the previous characterful vibe, so if you could just bear that subtext in mind throughout what follows, that'll save me having to mention it in every paragraph.



Numerous cranes loom over the streets of Hackney Wick. Six-storey scaffolding rises on the site of the former Mr Bagel bakery. The former Traveller village has long been buried. The Lord Napier pub still stands, heavily graffitied, one of the buildings being retained as heritage infill so that the future residential district isn't entirely soulless. Hung on the exterior is a banner for a 'boutique fitness studio' offering pilates, kettlebells and core conditioning. Times change. #subtext



Approximately half the old neighbourhood has already gone, destroyed in patchwork. On some street corners are once-cheap warehouses and scrappy timberyards. On others are soon-to-be not-really-affordable flats. The Old Smokehouse development has been shamelessly named after what it replaces, and offers "contemporary industrial apartments". On Rothbury Road men in overalls fix tyres in grimy garages, overlooked by a skeleton of partitioned floors which will soon devour them. Times change. #subtext



This brownbrick block, opposite the current entrance to Hackney Wick station, showcases the new bland aesthetic. Upstairs are residential units for mortgageable incomers, still with a decent view from the upper balconies until someone builds something taller opposite. Downstairs is an estate agent keen to market the area's vibrant potential, plus space for a restaurant. The proprietors of the Wick's former bacon butty 'n' builders' tea hut need not apply. Times change. #subtext



Hackney Wick station is in flux. Everything you remember being here, bar the tracks and platforms, has been stripped away. Last autumn a new subway was shoved underneath, centrally aligned, and a brand new concrete station building is being erected as we speak. Tooled tradesmen in hi-vis are busy pointing surfaces on platform 1. Expect a ground level thoroughfare with space for coffee, and connectivity to blocks of flats as yet on the drawing board. Times change. #subtext



Across the Hertford Canal on Fish Island, much the same is afoot. Some of the grid of streets retains small businesses nowhere else wants, but the remainder has metamorphosed into residential foundations. Waterfront plots have proved most susceptible, but elsewhere The Great Infill has already begun. All the Pentecostal churches have moved on, it seems. Rest assured that the Conservation Area is safe, so by no means all the artists are being ejected, but anything unprotected won't last long. Times change. #subtext



Vittoria Wharf was emptied out late last year. Its crime was simply to be located where the planning authority want to place a footbridge, so 30 angry artists have had to be evicted. Another perfectly good footbridge exists two minutes upstream, but apparently that has to be replaced by a road bridge, else how will all the new residents hail their Ubers? Contractors are already sniffing around outside, in readiness for the start of total dismantlement later this month. Times change. #subtext



The Lea Navigation is increasingly lined by apartment blocks, with more to come wherever feasible. The half of Vittoria Wharf that isn't going to become a footbridge is going to become flats, because of course it is, because no opportunity is missed. Meanwhile on the stadium side the builders have just fenced off a huge section of post-Olympic backlot to become Sweetwater, a neighbourhood of 650 new homes, which should look utterly depressingly anodyne by 2022. Times change. #subtext



Planning concessions hereabouts ensure that light industrial uses are being retained, if somewhat lighter than before. A prefab community centre has recently been thrown up in Hackney Wick as a hub for youth and yoga. But this is really all about realising the Lower Lea Valley's full residential potential, as was always intended post 2012. Developers may claim this is "an evolutionary legacy for the people of East London", but its former creative community would claim otherwise.



Times change. #subtext

 Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The phrase "health and safety gone mad" is often overused. But have a listen to this, which I recorded yesterday at Bow Road station, and see what you think. It plays every 15 minutes.



In case you can't hear, or the speech is somewhat indistinct, here's a transcription.
Welcome to Bow Road Station. In order to stay safe...
• please don't lose concentration when moving around the station
• please take care when using the stairs, and
• please never fail to use the handrail
I fear "gone mad" may be an appropriate description.

Welcome to Bow Road, says the voice, before warning that simply being at this station might actually be dangerous.

Please don't lose concentration when moving around the station is a new one on me. I assume it's aimed at the zombies who walk around with their heads in their phones, except they've probably got their headphones in so will never hear the warning. It could equally refer to people distracted by talking to one another, parents with small children or anyone daydreaming about being somewhere nicer than a tube station. Please don't lose concentration... is also a woefully unspecific request, which could apply to almost any situation where risk is present. Please don't lose concentration when carrying out open heart surgery. Please don't lose concentration when crossing the road. Please don't lose concentration when slicing a carrot. Please don't lose concentration when ironing a shirt. Indeed Please don't lose concentration could be played on endless loop on every public address system in the world everywhere forever, and is so wilfully generic as to be of almost no use.

Please take care when using the stairs is more usual, or at least it is these days. A badly-tackled set of stairs can bruise you, or cause serious injury, or even end your personal mobility for good. TfL know that if they can reduce incidents on stairs they could significantly improve the tube's accident statistics, which is why this message now plays out so often. Equally, the folk who normally run down, or tackle them three steps at a time, probably aren't listening and never will be.

Please never fail to use the handrail is very odd wording. Everywhere else across the network it's "hold the handrail", whereas the announcement at Bow Road uses a negative, as did that first announcement Please don't lose concentration. Don'ts and Nevers certainly make these messages much harder to take in. I also think that Never fail to use the handrail is ridiculously strong, suggesting that walking up or down stairs unaided is always wrong. We're not all staircase angels, nor need we aspire to be. What's more, here at Bow Road it can't be done. If TfL are so keen on us always holding on, perhaps they should add a handrail at the entrance to the station, where the two steps up from street level must have been potential deathtraps since 1902.

What next? A poster urging you to Hold your luggage? Why yes, here's one.



This lunacy has appeared at Bank, on the spiral staircase down from the Central line, on a wall which has been liberally scattered with a wide selection of trip hazard stickers. What alternative is there to holding your luggage? Unless you drop it for a laugh, it's not going to reach the bottom by itself.

It seems someone at Bank/Monument has got themselves a poster-making kit, because there's been an outbreak of laminated yellow screeds around the station of late. Here's another one.



This one appears just before the escalator down to the Northern line from Monument, and warns Be Prepared, You Are Approaching An Escalator. Most of the time this should be damned obvious, but it is just possible that at extremely busy times someone might not notice. What's futile is that the poster doesn't advise how to travel on the escalator, merely notes that you should adjust your mindset appropriately. It's also been stuck over the top of a Hold the Handrail poster, as if that were somehow less important. What the hell is going on here, and who on earth gave the go ahead?

It seems a tipping point has been reached, not just on the tube but on the buses, as TfL scatter health and safety messages willy nilly where they've never been needed before. Please hold on, the bus is about to move is the most infamous, but is merely the latest manifestation of a patronising mentality being rolled out across the capital. The Mayor has given TfL tough targets to reduce accidents on public transport, and their most prominent response has been to tell us all how to behave in situations they'd never have bothered us with previously.

This is why they're now insistent that we hold on every time a bus is about to move, this is why handrail-holding has attained mythical levels of importance, and this is why some disembodied voice at Bow Road now wants everyone to maintain their concentration. A risk-based management culture will always demand that more and more warnings are given, because not to do so would be suboptimal for meeting customer safety targets. But the latest outbreak of ludicrous messages has surely crossed a line, as TfL deliberately pollute our commutes by repeating the bleeding obvious.

On a sliding scale of preposterousness, where will it end?

  0) Mind the gap
  1) Stand clear of the doors
  2) Surfaces may be slippery
  3) Never fail to hold the handrail
  4) Always carry a bottle of water with you
  5) Please hold on, the bus is about to move
  6) Don't lose concentration when moving around the station We are here
  7) Please don hi-vis clothing and a helmet before starting your journey
  8) Always use gloves when holding the handrail in case you catch something contagious
  9) If you think you might be having a heart attack, please leave the station as it looks bad in our statistics
10) Don't forget to breathe

 Monday, January 22, 2018

THE NORTH DOWNS WAY [Day 5]
Westerham to Otford (8 miles)


I walked this particular stretch of the North Downs Way back in August, but never got round to writing it up at the time. I hope my summer reminiscence will be the perfect antidote to a dull, grey, sleety January.

The last time I left you, which was six months back, sorry, I'd reached Westerham Hill. The top of the hill is the highest point in London, and very close by is Betsoms Hill, the highest point in Kent. Plenty of traffic careers down this steep winding lane, plus the number 246 bus, and it'd be several miles before I saw another road even vaguely as busy. The footpath set off up the edge of the adjacent field, on this occasion liberally spread with flung manure, so I was glad it hadn't rained for days. A pheasant sauntered across the harvested furrows, safe from being shotgunned until the season started up again in October.



Before long the path turned right through a wood, emerging briefly to watch a rumbling tractor, then climbing 45 steps and a steep field. There is a lot of up and down on the North Downs Way, which is rarely content to follow the top of the escarpment for long, but thankfully is about to for a while. The view was excellent from up here, all Wealden valley and the roofs of Westerham, though augmented by the incessant hum of the M25 reverberating around the scarp.



The very top of the ridge marks the Greater London boundary, the only half mile of the North Downs Way which brushes the capital. A handful of architecturally unlovely homes lurk in these edgelands, their back fences pinned with warning notices and requests for planning permission. Joelands Wood contains the most southeasterly point in London - look for the concrete sign set into the earth directing the NDW right into Kent. What follows is a rutted farm track, then the top of Hogtrough Hill, then copious cowpats confirming you're sharing a field with cattle (and some inquisitive horses).



Across the farmland ahead I could see a plume of smoke rising into the sky, thin and white. I initially assumed it was nothing untoward, and that the distant sound of sirens was entirely unconnected. But the neenaws grew louder, then ceased just out of sight behind a phone mast, towards which the fastest tractor I've ever seen was storming. When I finally caught up I found a group of helmeted men attending to the seat of a small fire, two engines parked alongside, and farmhands attentively looking on. Thanks to the wonders of the Kent Fire and Rescue website I now know that this was "a fire involving an agricultural baler and some straw alight in a field", cause unknown, and with no reported injuries. Amazingly this turned out to be the only reported fire in Knockholt in 2017, and I just happened to have rambled through during the twenty minutes the incident was live.



The village of Knockholt is a couple of miles long, and the North Downs Way shadows it in parallel across a field or two. It was here that I met my first rambler of the day, or rather dogwalker, because not many people hike long distance paths on Tuesdays. The towers of Docklands occasionally poked up clear as day above the treeline, even though they were 15 miles distant, and from other angles the Gherkin was almost as distinct. But all the best views across the Weald were blocked off by a thick screen of trees, apart from one brief slot deliberately cut through, too deep to be able to funnel anything but leaves.



What's obscured immediately below is Chevening House, a stately home in landscaped grounds, bequeathed to the nation in 1959 and traditionally the Foreign Secretary's country bolthole. Perhaps it's just as well those trees ensure that that Boris isn't sniperable from above. But eventually a footpath or two is allowed down, and then the North Downs Way makes a break for the top of a glorious swooping field. Now I could see for miles back along the ridge of the Downs, and over the Chevening estate with its perfectly managed trees, and across the hump of the Greensand Ridge rising in the distance.



I rested awhile on a convenient bench in twenty-five degree heat. Blackberries ripened on the bushes behind me, not quite yet ready to pluck. A bird of prey hovered beneath a sky of fluffy cumulus, its eye on potential lunch options in the thick grass below. On one bank the wild flowers were liberally scattered with butterflies - I've rarely seen quite so many - dancing from one purple head to the next. I hope my flashbacks aren't making you feel too wistful for the summer, but rest assured what's currently grey and brown and waterlogged will before too long be green again, and and ripe for a pleasurable short-sleeved stroll.



Time to head down, steeply down, past hedgerows and fenceless stiles to the flat valley floor. An abrupt change lay ahead, beyond a mess of farm outbuildings, the footpath ending on a busy pavementless road. The M25 runs immediately behind, the seething orbital I now had to cross for the final time (just before the carriageways split at Junction 5, the intersection with the M26, if you're counting). If felt odd to be back down in an actual village, namely Dunton Green, now more a commuter cluster with a few old cottages at its heart, plus the kind of big pub you drive to for a steak.



Escape came up the side of a hotel with ideas above its station, including a plaster elephant out front and a grinning buddha water feature in the car park. It was good to be back out in rolling fields, even if they'd have looked finer before the crop was harvested and the earth left closely cropped and cracked. I was aiming for the bridge over the railway to Sevenoaks, beyond which the remoter residents of Otford hide away. Telston Lane conceals a peculiar secret just beyond the post office, a pillar representing Uranus, part of the wonderfully-realised scale model Otford Solar System.



This mirrored dome at the edge of Otford Recreation Ground, plagued by tiny flies, represents the Sun, and that's Mercury in the background. I was pretty much at the end of my walk by this time, so had time to deviate and explore the inner planets without all the distractions I endured the last time I was here. Most visitors to Otford prefer the tea shops, pubs and village green, this being a particularly attractive settlement nestled in the historic Darent valley. It's also easy to get home from, there being trains, a luxury rarely repeated on what lies ahead of the North Downs Way. Time to hibernate the project for the winter, five months on.



 Sunday, January 21, 2018

In good news, TfL have made adjustments to London's most infuriating message.

Please hold on, the bus is about to move.

In bad news, they haven't turned it off. Nor have they changed the message, nor have they linked it to the closing of the doors.

Instead all they've done is tweak the timing, and so their misguided four week trial rolls on.

For the first week, the message played approximately 20 seconds after the doors opened, no matter whether the bus was about to leave or not. Most of the time the bus was already moving by the time the message played, hence it was plainly incorrect, which infuriated travellers almost as much as the interminable repetition.

The specific sequence of events was that the doors opened, followed by a gap, followed by an announcement of the route number and destination, followed by another gap, and finally the message to hold on. Like so.



What TfL did yesterday is to remove the second gap.



The message Please hold on, the bus is about to move is now played immediately after the announcement of the route and destination. This has reduced the length of the chain of announcements from 20 seconds after the doors open to more like 14. Technically it's an improvement, because the bus is less likely to have moved off before the message plays. But has it solved the problem? Hell no.

I've been out on the buses again to listen to new system in action, and can confirm that it's just as annoying and inaccurate as before. I rode the 205 from Bow down to Aldgate, and then the 25 back from Aldgate to Bow. At each stop I checked whether the message played before the bus left or vice versa, and by how much. Firstly, here's what happened on the 205.
No message » 10s early » 2s late » Perfect » 18s early » No message » 7s early » 8s late » 3s late » 4s late » No message » No message
On four occasions no message was played, not even 205 to Paddington, which I assume was just a technical glitch. Of the eight times there was an announcement, one was spot on, four were late and three were early. On the occasion when the announcement came 8 seconds too late, this was because only one person got on, without faffing, and the driver pulled off almost immediately. On the occasion when the announcement came 18 seconds too early, this was because the traffic lights ahead of us were at red. One unfortunate passenger did stumble on the stairs, but this was on a separate occasion when we braked at traffic lights, and obviously the message doesn't play then.

Here's what happened on the 25.
1s late » Perfect » 4s late » 4s late » Perfect » 2s early » Perfect » 1s late » 1s late » 2s late » 21s early » 46s early » 4s early » 228s early
This time there were 14 stops, and 14 announcements. On three occasions Please hold on, the bus is about to move was played just as the bus was about to move. On six occasions the message came too late to be of any use - even a one second delay is useless, because it's already wholly obvious that the bus is moving. And on five occasions the message came too early, on one occasion almost four minutes before we actually drove off!

It might be instructive to explain how those last four "earlies" occurred. 21 seconds early took place outside Mile End station, where a long queue of passengers was waiting to board. 46 seconds early took place at Coborn Road, where one passenger got off and then the driver simply hung around, like he really wasn't trying. 4 seconds early took place outside Bow Road station, where nobody was waiting and nobody wanted to get off, but the driver stopped and opened the doors anyway. And 228 seconds early took place outside Bow Church station, where bus drivers on route 25 change over, but the message still plays before the first one leaves the cab. This is why linking the announcement to the doors opening, rather than the doors closing, is insane.

Last week in a statement to the Evening Standard, TfL admitted it had "not quite got the timing right yet". "Clearly there are some adjustments we need to make and we’re working on that now," said their director of bus operations... which is why the interval has now been reduced from 20 to 14 seconds.

Yes, the updated version of the trial means that the bus is more likely to be stationary when Please hold on, the bus is about to move plays, which makes the announcement sound less ridiculous. But the announcement is no more likely to be accurately timed than it was before - all that TfL have done is move the goalposts.

Presumably it's not technically possible to link the announcement to the closing of the doors, at least with the software in its current configuration. Presumably the wording of the message can't be changed without damaging the set-up of the trial, despite only ever being intermittently correct. And presumably the trial is of such importance that nobody's willing to stop it early and turn these unrelenting messages off, despite the amended timings not solving any of the underlying problems.

Please hold on, the bus is about to move is so regularly incorrect that passengers now recognise it as a false alarm. "Oh, there's that stupid announcement again..." they think, "...the idiots, the bus is already moving!" All TfL really seem to be managing with this new trial is to increase distrust, and make us instinctively less likely to listen to more important announcements.

It's no use arguing that partially sighted passengers and the elderly appreciate these messages, because they'd only be of use if they were properly timed. Indeed there's already a more useful noise aboard a bus to warn people of imminent movement, and that's the beep of the doors closing. Instead TfL are simply out to remind us to "hold on" at every opportunity, because once in every two million journeys it might save someone from harm and make their statistics look better.

TfL don't care that you hate the messages. They've been tasked with reducing the number of injuries on public transport, and this relentless nannying announcement is their response. It's also why the phrase "hold the handrail" is being bandied about with smothering regularity on stations and escalators. It's also why we get warned to watch out for slippery surfaces "due to the inclement weather", even if it hasn't actually rained for the last twelve hours. Safety targets mean TfL are determined to continue with their bus trial no matter how flawed it is. Our only hope is that at the end of four weeks somebody has the sense to turn the nagging racket off.

 Saturday, January 20, 2018

Everything you need to know about Night Illumination

Where is it? Bow Road, E3 (also elsewhere across the capital)
When is it? January 1st - December 31st, dusk-dawn
What is it? A glowing assemblage of radiant street furniture
What is it really? A municipally funded project to brighten up our dark evenings
Where's the website? Here



How do you find your way around? On foot is the best way, but you can also enjoy the full display from the top deck of a bus. Google maps of the area are available.
How long to see it all? To see the entire collection would take the best part of a lifetime, but you can enjoy the highlights along Bow Road in approximately fifteen minutes.
Who's it aimed at? Everyone, from the elderly to small children, but especially anyone who wants to avoid being mugged on the streets after sunset.
Is it busy? Pavements in the area are often busy, but never so congested as to diminish enjoyment of the elevated art.
Is it any good? Unmissable.



Tell us about the main display: A spectacular chain of lightpoles has been constructed along the main thoroughfare using a combination of sodium gas and vibrant LEDs. These lanterns blaze down onto the street below, as bright as day, giving the illusion that an eclipsed sun remains high in the sky. Most of the installations are single-lamped, but a special selection have been doubled up for bonus luminosity. In certain locations the main illumination has been augmented by lamps above commercial premises and radiant window displays. As an extra-special bonus the Mayor of London has funded scores of wheeled lightboxes, their interiors blindingly bright, which ride up and down the street pausing occasionally to allow closer inspection of the ever-changing animation silhouetted within.



Tell us about the interactive elements: A massive digital infrastructure project has been installed at all key road junctions. Stacked lights of red, amber and green play out in a balletic sequence, rhythmically choreographed to control the passing flow. No expense has been spared. Those on foot can enjoy pausing the traffic at the touch of a button, waiting with anticipation until the red man changes abruptly to green, then striding across to an electronic beat before a dramatic countdown reaches zero. At certain locations miniature lights have been added at helmet height depicting three colours of bicycle. For a more retro feel, track down the orange flashing balls on their slender poles, then step out with confidence onto the zebra stripes. So long as funding is maintained, these interactive illuminations are expected to form the centrepiece of London's permanent street art network.

 Friday, January 19, 2018

Everything you need to know about Lumiere London
(n.b. not actually everything you need to know, but this never stops clickbait websites claiming similar)

Where is it? Across central London, in six clusters (King's Cross, Fitzrovia, Mayfair, West End, Westminster, South Bank)
When is it? Thursday 18th - Sunday 21st January, 5.30-10.30pm
What is it? An outdoor light festival, bigger and better than two years ago
What is it really? A midwinter promotion to bring people to central London over a drab weekend, based on something Durham originally did
Where's the website? Here



How do you find your way around? You could just turn up in central London and wander, but you'll miss lots. A map exists, but you can't download it unless you donate at least £1 (here's a low-res section). There's also a festival programme, that's £5. Kings Cross is more desperate to draw in the punters, so their map is free. Your best option otherwise is to download the Visit London app, which has an interactive map (and delete the app as soon as you get home).
How long to see it all? Ages. At least two nights, I'd say, and there are only three left. I routemarched round 40 of the 54 exhibits in four hours. Do not try this.
Who's it aimed at? Everyone, from foreign tourists to office workers, but especially people who want to clog up Facebook with videos of bright things.
Is it busy? Thursday night was pretty good actually, lively but not crowded. It'll be much worse on Friday and Saturday. Expect to shuffle.
Is it any good? Obviously.



Tell us about King's Cross: This is a compact cluster, so good for an easy wander, but also the most likely to be rammed. The big wow is Waterlight, a simulated flood making waves above head height in Granary Square. The giant anglepoise lamps along King's Boulevard are impressive, the wheatfield of reflectors in Lewis Cubitt Square and the watering cans by the gasholders somewhat less so. Look out for the big screen hanging from a crane. King's Cross would really like you to hang around, eat noodles and meet mixologists. Best resist.
Tell us about Fitzrovia: Just the four here, and only half worth seeing. The one getting all the attention is the video game displayed across the facade of a building in Store Street - join the queue and you might get to play Pong simply by raising your arm. The couple stood behind me weren't alive in the 1970s, so thought this was amazing.



Tell us about Mayfair: This is worth a wander, though never tips over into astonishing. Installations include half a dozen seesaws in South Molton Street, neon bikes in Brown Hart Gardens and a (mesh) nightingale in Berkeley Square. The rods dangled across Grosvenor Square look best from an oblique angle rather than underneath. Don't fight to sit on the two lightbenches in Duke Street - there are dozens at Canary Wharf, and they'll be empty. I enjoyed bashing the pipes on the Illumaphonium in Mount Street, but some of the local residents were already annoyed by the 'music' - they'll be incandescent by Sunday.
Tell us about the West End: This is the biggie, full of must-sees. The bubble suspended above Oxford Circus was supposed to be amazing, but had to be removed due to high winds so all the traffic had been stopped for nothing. Hopefully it'll be back today. Two buildings further down Regent Street have impressive projections - one's so good it brought Piccadilly Circus to a halt, but was alas outdazzled by the adjacent adverts. Leicester Square is full of countryside creatures, but the flapping flamingoes in Chinatown are a lot more fun, especially if you're a small child they choose to take an interest in.



Tell us about Westminster: These are all crackers. Everybody loves the sea of balloons in Trafalgar Square, but I was even more taken by the pink ladder on top of St Martin-in-the-Fields ascending into heaven. Westminster Abbey has the same front projection as in 2016, which is stunning. Westminster Cathedral has a giant rose window plonked outside, whose concentric rings light up according to how hard the audience pedals. The sheeting on Westminster Town Hall is being used to screen amazing footage of giant people 'climbing the wall' to a height of 19 storeys, including a wedding party and a team of rowers in lycra.
Tell us about the South Bank: This was my biggest disappointment, with the lowest entertainment:slog ratio. I couldn't find the projection on the outside of the Royal Festival Hall. The nearby security stewards apologised. A lot of people had been asking, they said, but they hadn't been trained to know where the art is. The projection on the National Theatre is on the opposite side to where the map says it is, and is dull. The lights on the front of Sea Containers House are best seen from the other side of the river. The only thing truly worth seeing is The Wave, a Toblerone tunnel of 40 interactive triangular frames, overfull of people trying to find the best way to photograph themselves within it.

Everything you need to know about Winter Lights
(n.b. not actually everything you need to know, but SEO requires pathological lying these days)

Where is it? Throughout Canary Wharf
When is it? Tuesday 16th - Saturday 27th January, 5-10pm (so no need to rush)
What is it? A collection of spectacular light installations and interactive art
What is it really? A cunning way to increase footfall near some otherwise under-used shops and restaurants
Where's the website? Here



How do you find your way around? There are wayfinding signs, but better to grab a guide and a map from a volunteer. Or download the map before you arrive. The map's good.
How long to see it all? I walked it all in an hour. You ought to allow two.
Who's it aimed at? Everyone, from financial analysts to small children, but especially people who want to fill their Instagram with dazzling images. There are several rock solid selfie opportunities.
Is it busy? Not especially.
Is it any good? Absolutely.



Tell us about the outdoor stuff: It's all over the place, across squares, piazzas, parks and embankments. Some of it is just illuminated strings tied to trees, but other works are more impressive, and only a handful were here this time last year. The sound bubble outside the main entrance to Canary Wharf is the festival's signature piece - don't forget to actually touch it. The matrix of elevating triangles outside the station's east entrance is a proper pixellated ballet. I got my best photo from the levitating halo reflected in the central fountain in Cabot Square. You might have to queue to step inside the acrylic dodecahedron. Children will enjoy building with the LED cubes outside the Crossrail station. The giant inflatable rabbits aren't as exciting as they sound. Nobody's carbon footprint comes out of this particularly well.



Tell us about the indoor stuff: The biggest collection is on Floor Minus Three of Crossrail Place, accessed via the lifts or escalatoring down past the cinema, inside an arcade that'll be full of shops when trains start in December. Most of the exhibits are small but bright, like the mini 1 Canada Square tower, the graphical clocks and the UV spot paintings. The one gathering all the crowds is called Reflecting Holons, pictured, and consists of what looks like huge pulsating bubbles but is actually transparent foil being jiggled up and down by motors. I failed to get excited by the interactive pixellated dress in the room at the far end. The 'light graffiti' wall upstairs in the roof garden attracts large groups. Installations in the existing shopping malls are fewer and far between, including booths you have to queue for and a digital catwalk. If you like enigmatic phrases made from neon tubes, reception under the central tower has a couple. Try not to go shopping after you've finished, it'll only encourage them.

 Thursday, January 18, 2018

If you make a one-off journey in London, and aren't sure of the best route, the most useful page on the TfL website is undoubtedly the Journey Planner. But if you're a regular traveller, and know where you're going, then the Status updates page is more likely where you look. Is the Hammersmith & City line working, quick check, yes it is, great, let's go.

But I wonder, have you ever checked out all the other tabs on the Status updates page? In what follows, I'm going to suggest that TfL's team of agile webcoders probably haven't recently.



The main Status updates page displays a rainbow board of services, most-disrupted first, plus a zoomable map to show where these disruptions are. If you're on a mobile, or any device with a narrow screen, the map only appears if you click on a special button. The map doesn't always get things right, as that illogical gap in next weekend's Overground disruptions demonstrates. But on the whole it provides a good snapshot of what is or isn't running right now, even if more localised niggles can get hidden.

What I bet almost everyone overlooks is the Stations tab. This kicks off with any stations which are actually closed, which is a big improvement on the early days of the redesign when these were simply buried within the list below. But then follows a list of all the other stations with issues TfL think you might want to know about. Ridiculously, there are over 100 of them, from Acton Central all the way down to Woodside Park.



The issues don't all pop up at once, you have to click on the station you're interested in, assuming you can be bothered to whizz all the way down the list to find it. But I have gone the extra mile to drill down to see what's there (at time of checking, 112 stations), and I can confirm that someone has been inconsistently over-zealous.

15 of the 112 messages concern step-free access or escalators, generally temporary reductions or closures. 4 of the messages concern out of service lifts, which could make or break some travellers' journeys. 3 of the messages point out there's no access to the station at certain times, which might be really important. 2 of the messages are to say that ticket offices are closing permanently (at Stonebridge Park and South Kenton) at the end of this week. So far, so good. But then there are the superfluous messages.

65 (sixty-five!) of the messages state that a ramp is available for boarding trains if you ask staff in the ticket hall. That's damned useful to some, but total information overload for the rest of us, and (because these stations are all over the place) probably better suited for display on a map. 3 of the messages state that certain doors in certain carriages won't open at certain Overground stations, even though dozens of other stations have similar issues which aren't mentioned, and it would be utter overkill if they were. And 21 of the messages are simply to tell you to hold the handrail! It looks like the most accident prone stations are being targeted, but once a list of statuses reaches this level of nannying, the provision of "important" information has clearly gone too far.

The next tab is Buses. I wonder how few people ever click on this before they take a bus journey, on the off chance, given the palaver of checking. To find out what's going on you have to enter a location or give a route number, and if a box appears you then have to click on that to see what the issue is. It probably works better on a mobile than on a laptop. Entering a route number allows you to pick which direction you're interested in, but the list which appears is only ever for one of the directions and not the other. There's also always some text which says "Clear route", which seems to be indicating all is well, but is actually a link to go back and search again. As you can see from the example below, the juxtaposition is somewhat ambiguous.



If you're a regular bus user and want to know if your route has been suddenly affected by something, much better to be following @TfLBusAlerts on Twitter than forever digging into this digital brantub.

The next tab is Traffic, which looks like it works pretty well, although I'm not a driver so I never use it. Disruptions are shown on a map, colour-coded for severity, and also grouped by road corridor. I live near the A12 and the Blackwall Tunnel Approach, so I can check for roadworks, accidents and blockages near me with relative ease. Your experience of the the information's practicality would be interesting to hear, assuming you've ever used it.

The next tab is River Bus. Few Londoners ever need this one, but for those who do it's all here, and the presentation seems a model of simplicity.



The penultimate tab is for the Dangleway. If you're ever planning a swing across the Thames, how great to know that an entire page has been devoted to displaying whether it's open or not. Actually it's not quite that straightforward, because the status update still says Good service long after the close of operations in the evening, and the map continues to report "no major line disruptions" even when the service is closed due to high winds! It's not clear why the map is even necessary, given that there are only two terminals and if one's closed then so must the other be. Still, at least this sponsored trinket isn't clogging up the proper list in the first tab, so mustn't grumble.

The final tab is for National Rail, i.e all the trains in London which aren't TfL's responsibility, and this is where I'd suggest their webcoders have given up entirely.

It would be game-changing to have a digital overview of all the commuter lines in Greater London and be able to see which sections have delays or closures. It would be utterly brilliant to have a map showing where all the planned closures are this weekend, rather than them being hidden away on the individual operators websites, and would help avoid that annoying occurrence where you turn up somewhere in the suburbs only to find that the train you want's not running. Alas creating such a map would also be very difficult, certainly too difficult for whatever resources TfL threw at the problem, hence the webpage simply says "Status maps coming soon". It's been saying that for four years. It's not coming any time soon, they've walked away.



All that this page includes is a list of train companies and whether or not they currently have delays. Brilliantly, or ridiculously, this list includes every rail operator across the country, so even if services are disrupted in Scotland or the Isle of Wight, you'll see that here. But the list won't tell you what the problem actually is, only provide a link to a website where you can find out more. And that won't be the website of the operator concerned, because the TfL's coders couldn't be bothered to include anything so useful, instead it's always a link to the National Rail website. And it's not even the disruptions page on the National Rail website, it's the homepage, because this tab is a forgotten backwater and a total waste of space.

In summary, there is a reason why most people only ever look at the main summary on TfL's Status updates webpage, and that's because the other tabs are either over-complicated, somewhat obscure or entirely undeveloped. TfL know you don't normally look at them, so they're in no hurry to fix things or make them easier to use. Best stick to that app you like instead, I guess.

 Wednesday, January 17, 2018

I'm sure we all keep old rail tickets stashed in a shoebox, as a kind of physical manifestation of our travelling lives. Here are three of mine, and the stories behind them.

Thursday 16th July 1987: Windsor & Eton Central → London  [£1.60]



It's always nice to get a job. This is the day I got my first, at the age of 22, and the ticket for the journey home. I'd had a few interviews by this time, and either not been successful or not wanted to be. This one felt different, and it wasn't too far from home, in the rather lovely town of Windsor. I'd been sent a letter telling me where to go and when, and managed to find the building - it's not there now - without getting too lost. On arrival I was greeted by a secretary and led into an empty room to wait. It was at this point I discovered there were no other candidates, only me, but I was still going to have to go through an interview to get the role. I didn't answer the questions very well, I think I realised I could get away with being honest, but they offered me the job all the same. Cheers, future sorted.

I stayed for the rest of the day, looking around and gradually discovering what I was letting myself in for. At lunch time I went down the pub with the rest of the team - I had tuna sandwiches - and discovered that most of them were refreshingly normal. I agreed to pop back the following week, to firm up the details, and then set off for home in stifling 27° heat. Once out of sight of the main entrance, my suit jacket and tie were swiftly removed. There were no mobiles in those days, so I had to find a phone box (near the castle) to ring my parents and tell them the good news. I think they were both delighted and relieved. Then I walked to the station and crammed into the cattle-truck shuttle to Slough, which was packed with tourists because it was summer and I'd got a job in a world famous town. British Rail still did 2nd Class in those days, and nothing was yet Standard.

My diary reports that the journey to Paddington was improved by what I then thought was a vision sat in the seat opposite. Given how sweaty I was by this time, I doubt they were so impressed. My onward tube connection from Paddington was held up due to a burst water main in the Euston area, which was serious enough to be reported that evening on the local news. And then it was a whizz up the Metropolitan line to Croxley, which was absolutely heaving with commuters, of whom I was now one. Once home I endured a thorough post-mortem, when what I really wanted to do was take off my itchy trousers, and then we celebrated my success with fish and chips. I spent the evening watching Top of the Pops and a repeat of Blackadder II, the fabulous episode with the Bishop of Bath and Wells and entirely incompetent alchemy. Not a bad way for childhood irresponsibility to end, all told.

Tuesday 20th February 1990: Edinburgh → North Queensferry  [£1.60]



This is the very last rail ticket I bought as a Young Person. The upper age for buying a Railcard was 23 in those days, and I'd bought mine just before my 24th, which meant it was due to expire just before my 25th. I thought I'd better get some final mileage out of it, so took the opportunity to grab a trip up to Scotland to see an old friend in Edinburgh. She was training to be a doctor, and preparing for exams, while her fiancé was something in engineering. I got the spare bedroom for four nights, and they opened my eyes to dim sum (which I hated), rollmops (which I loved) and the miraculous things you could do with mince.

By the fourth day they had lives to attend to and I was left to my own devices, so decided to get on the train and explore. First I went to Glasgow, which was a European City of Culture that year, but spent most of my time walking round the shops because it wasn't easy to work out where all the interesting bits were before the internet. Returning to Edinburgh early I realised I had time for a bonus journey, so bought a ticket for a ride across the Forth Railway Bridge so I could say I'd been. The ironwork was misty and it rained. I got out on the other side at North Queensferry and then struggled to find my way over to the Forth Road Bridge, which proved harder to reach than it looked. 20 minutes of wet, windswept walking followed, at height, feeling the vibrations as the traffic roared past, and grinning broadly.

After my bridge hike I boarded a train from Dalmeny, rather than walk back through the maelstrom, and finally returned to base a dripping rat. A jacket potato and a bath warmed me up, and then we unexpectedly spent the evening at the theatre. I wouldn't normally have gone to see a Jeffrey Archer dramatisation, but this was Beyond Reasonable Doubt, and Frank Finlay and Wendy Craig were both excellent. The following day was genuinely the last day my Young Person's Railcard was valid, as the inspector noted when he checked my return ticket on the way back to London. I enjoyed my discounted view, and a Stephen King novel, and survived all the way to King's Cross on just an apple. By Friday I was paying full price for a ticket to Bromley South, because I was suddenly 'old', although that's not quite how I view it now 28 years later.

Saturday 17th January 1998: Bedford → Wickford  [£13.95]



In 1998 going on a blind date wasn't easy. If you wanted to meet somebody interesting you couldn't just swipe right, your paths had to cross... at work, in the street, down the pub, or whilst doing that hobby you enjoyed. But this was the day a digital rendezvous sent me on a blind date, and one that actually worked, or so I believed at the time. We might never have met, because there was this annual event I had to go to for my job, and normally that meant attending on a Saturday. But this particular year my boss had allowed me to attend on the Friday, during work time, which meant I had the weekend unexpectedly free. I'd also recently signed up to this new thing called the internet, and had been discovering new (and somewhat primitive) ways to connect. So on the Friday evening I logged in, and up popped someone who sounded highly intriguing, and they expressed a mutual interest. Go on, I thought, what have I got to lose?

On the Saturday morning we stretched to a phone call, and on the Saturday afternoon I pointed out that trains existed and I could be in Essex within two hours. There was no time to stop and think, and within half an hour I was down at Bedford station buying the ticket you see above. I must have been optimistic because I bought a Network Away Break, rather than a day return. On the journey down to St Pancras I stuck some Depeche Mode on my Walkman and read a Dr Who book - both things which I suspect would have terminated what was about to happen had they ever been revealed. My Underground connection then let me down, so I missed my planned Southend train, and I had to find a phone box to apologise rather than gauchely turning up half an hour late. I can remember sitting at the front of the next train, butterflies rumbling, wondering if I was totally wasting my time.

I finally reached Wickford station at seven o'clock, scanned down the road outside for a navy Audi, and climbed in. How trusting we all were in those days, although my eyes were already screaming "oh hell yes" as we pulled away. Home wasn't far away, and I got a quick tour, from the fishtank in the living room to the riding boots by the back door. And then we headed off for a meal, at The Bell in Horndon on the Hill, where the nouveau cuisine steak with horseradish dumplings was a bit of a disappointment. But the conversation flowed freely, and the body language bode well, which was confirmed when we took off for a promenade on Southend seafront. Oh the glamour.

A blind date never went so well, before or since. That's why my used ticket pile is full of returns to Wickford from that weekend on, right up until the point they stopped because I wasn't living in Bedford any more. Looking back I don't think we once went on a train together, because Audi drivers don't tend to do that kind of thing. Perhaps this should have been a hint that we weren't quite as well matched I thought, although there were far more glaring clues I should have picked up sooner. During the next two years the excellent bits were excellent and the awful bits were awful, and to say it didn't end well would be an understatement. But I absolutely wouldn't be here in London today if I hadn't bought that rail ticket 20 years ago today, and you wouldn't be reading this. On some small cardboard rectangles, entire lives turn.

 Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Please hold on, the bus is about to move.

Except, more often than not, the bus is already moving. Rarely has TfL shot itself in the foot quite so early in the year.

They started out with good intentions, to try to reduce the number of injuries on buses. But somebody created a harebrained message, and somebody programmed it to play at a harebrained time, and more importantly somebody gave the go ahead for this harebrained combination to be played out on every London bus at every bus stop. What were they thinking?

The message is part of a much wider scheme to reduce the number of injuries on public transport in London. In the last year for which figures are available, 4880 passengers were injured on London buses, 62% of them through slips, trips and falls. That's the "3000 people injured each year" TfL have been quoting in the media. But digging deeper, only 36% of these injuries are due to "change of speed", which instead works out at 1095 passengers a year. TfL's new safety message, already repeated millions of times across the capital, is aimed at cutting around three injuries a day.

Safety messages are used all across the TfL network without attracting widespread ridicule. Go anywhere near an escalator these days and you'll likely see a poster urging you to hold the handrail, hear an announcement urging you to hold the handrail, and maybe spot several 'Hold the handrail' stickers on your way up. This coordinated campaign is aimed at preventing escalator tumbles - again running at about three a day - but you won't have seen complaints because nobody's on an escalator for long. On a bus, however, the repeats soon become relentless and social media is aflame.

All sorts of announcements could have been used for this latest bus trial. The first problem is that somebody chose to make the message really specific. Please hold on wouldn't have been so bad. Please hold on while the bus is moving would have been an improvement. Hold very tight please would have had a certain retro flavour. You can reduce your risk of injury by holding onto the bus as it departs would have been stupidly long, but it wouldn't have been incorrect. Instead we got Please hold on, the bus is about to move, a very specific message which only sounds authoritative if played just before a bus is about to move. And that's where the next problem comes in.

You would expect the announcement Please hold on, the bus is about to move to be triggered by a bus being about to move. Perhaps, for example, it'd be linked to the doors closing. Alas not so, the team who did the programming linked it to the doors opening instead, which is why it keeps playing out at the wrong time.

When a bus stops at a bus stop, the driver presses a button which makes the doors open, and this action sets up a chain of announcements. After approximately 10 seconds, the number of the route and the destination are announced. This is specifically to aid visually impaired passengers, and acts as confirmation that the bus they're boarding is the right one. The new message, the one about the bus moving, has been programmed to kick in a set time after that.

Here's a graphic to show approximately what's going on.



The route destination announcement is played 10 seconds after the doors start to open. The Please hold on... announcement is played 10 seconds after that starts, i.e. 20 seconds after the doors open. 20 seconds is apparently the average time a bus stands at a bus stop before pulling off. This would be great in an imaginary world where every bus is average, but the project team have chosen to ignore that real life isn't actually like that, which is why the message usually plays out at the wrong time.

If a bus is busy, with lots of passengers alighting and/or boarding, it often lingers at a bus stop for more than 20 seconds. One awkward passenger, one contactless issue or one deployment of the wheelchair ramp, and the announcement is gong to play out much too early. Buses caught in heavy traffic are particularly prone to spend well over 20 seconds at a bus stop before they finally pull off, long after the announcement has been made. And whilst Please hold on, the bus is about to move is still technically correct in such cases, every second's delay diminishes the authority of the intended message.

More often, it seems, a bus departs its bus stop before the 20 seconds is up. This is usually the case when passenger numbers are low and/or traffic is light, with "one person nipping off and nobody getting on" a particular edge scenario. And every time a bus lingers less than 20 seconds at a bus stop, it will already be moving before the Please hold on, the bus is about to move message kicks in. This is why passengers are laughing, this is why social media's peeved, because it's plainly ludicrous to announce that a bus is about to depart when it already has.

I took a long ride on the number 205 bus at the weekend, a journey with some busy bits and some quieter stretches. At each of the 23 stops I checked whether the message played before the bus left or vice versa, and by how much. What I experienced was a wholly inconsistent mess.
» Perfect » 30s early » 1s late » 2s early » 4s late » Perfect » Perfect » 11s late » 3s late » Perfect » 5s late » 11s early » 4s early » 7s late » 5s late » 6s late » 7s late » 18s early » Perfect » 7s early » 7s late » 8s late » 3s late
Five times out of 23 the message played at exactly the right time. 26% of the time it played too early, and the bus wasn't "about to move". But the majority of the time, in this case 52%, the message only played once the bus was already moving. Most of the "perfect"s came early in the journey when the bus was busy. Most of the "too late"s came later in the journey when the bus was emptier. The longest delay was when the message played out 11 seconds after the bus had set off and we were already some way down the road. The most premature announcement, a full 30 seconds before it was needed, was caused by traffic ahead of us queueing at lights.

You may think this hit rate isn't bad. You may claim that if it works sometimes then that's good enough. You may query whether all the brouhaha surrounding this announcement is deserved. But when an incorrect announcement is being made relentlessly, stop after stop, on every bus you take, all it does is make TfL a laughing stock.

The most incompetent example I've encountered was on a driver changeover at Bow Church. The bus will wait here while the driver changes over was followed immediately by 25 to Ilford and then by Please hold on, the bus is about to move, except it obviously didn't. Instead we sat there for a full four minutes while the drivers faffed and chatted and changed over, before the doors finally closed and eventually the bus pulled off... without any message at all. Nobody, it seems, thought through the consequences of this trial before implementation.

TfL yesterday described the timing problems as a "technical glitch", conveniently ignoring the fact that someone programmed the iBus system to do this, and somebody more important signed it off. They also confirmed it's a four week trial, as if that's supposed to make us feel better for the next three and a half. A TfL spokesperson on the news said they now intend to link the announcement to the closing of the doors instead, which will be "very perfectly timed for a solution", although this'll only reduce the number of issues rather than solve the problem completely.

What's really needed is a system which actually knows when the bus is about to depart, rather than guesses, and isn't stymied by traffic. What's really needed is a less specific announcement, one which doesn't promise something it can't know to be true. Or, in the absence of these, perhaps TfL could just turn the bloody thing off and leaves us in peace. If they really want us to hold on to prevent injuries perhaps they could put some posters up, just inside the bus, for us to read on entry. Or how about generating massive amounts of social media attention through the inept implementation of a health and safety policy? Job done.

 Monday, January 15, 2018

I still like to buy a daily newspaper.

This used to be normal, but has become increasingly unusual.

Twenty years ago, roughly 15 million national newspapers were sold each day. Ten years ago the total was nearer 12 million. Today it's more like six million. That's quite a slump. [circulation figures]

The Sun, Telegraph, Mirror and Express sell half as many copies as they did ten years ago. The Times and the Mail are down by a third. The Independent no longer bothers to print on paper, which leaves the Guardian as the lowest selling of the major national papers. Its daily circulation is down from 384,000 to 157,000 over the last decade, and the paper is losing money hand over fist. So today they're doing something about it.

In the heady days of 2005, before cost-cutting became a national way of life, The Guardian decided to splash out in a new direction. A bold decision was taken to change the size of the newspaper from broadsheet (60×40cm) to Berliner (47×32cm), rather than slimming all the way down to tabloid (43×28cm). This would make the paper distinctive but still serious, and continue to allow for the publication of long stories with large pictures.

One problem. Although various European newspapers published in the Berliner format, no other British daily did the same, which meant there was nowhere in the country to print the newly-shrunken paper. The Guardian therefore had to invest in brand new printing presses, at a cost of £50m, and then spend another £30m building facilities to house them in. Two new print sites were established, one in Trafford Park in Manchester and the other in Stratford, London. I live within a mile of the latter.



The Guardian Print Centre for the south of England is a big grey box on Rick Roberts Way. It's part of an industrial hinterland which survives to the south of Stratford High Street, away from the Olympic Park, along a grim back road not yet lined by flats. Specifically it's part of the laughably-titled International Business Park, a cluster of four large warehouse units watched over by separate security barriers.

Unit 1 belongs to Kesslers, a long-standing company which produces display cases for shops and department stores, because somebody has to. Unit 3 houses St Clements Press, the Financial Times' printing operation, so must be full of rolls of salmon-tinted paper. Unit 4 is a Mercedes Benz service centre, and moved here from what is now West Ham's football pitch in the centre of the Olympic Stadium. The Guardian prints in Unit 2.



From the outside, it's all somewhat featureless. There's one corner with windows which must be office space, there's a fire escape, and there are big doors to reverse lorries up to. There are also a couple of signs announcing the name of the building, written in the 2005 version of the newspaper's typeface, with four stripes in black, cyan, magenta and yellow, because printing in full colour was still a bit of a big deal back then.

Shuffling up one side of the Guardian Print Centre is one of the most miserable footpaths in Stratford. This follows the line of the culverted Channelsea River, now a forlorn track bedecked with lager cans, supermarket trolleys and just enough blind corners to make you nervous. Right outside the Guardian's front gate a makeshift staircase has been constructed out of stacked pallets, allowing workers to take a shortcut rather than walking all the way down to Abbey Lane. They won't be needing that any more.



Today the Guardian relaunches in tabloid form, as financial pressures finally force the abandonment of its Berliner dream. The new size means the Guardian no longer has to print the papers itself, so a cheaper contract has been signed with Trinity Mirror to do it instead. They have five sites nationwide - in Glasgow, Teesside, Oldham, Birmingham and Watford - which means the Guardian will now be rolling off the presses with the Daily Mirror, saving millions of pounds every year.

It also means the Guardian Print Centre is surplus to requirements, this being at the heart of the cost-cutting exercise. The almost-12-year-old presses have run for the final time, and will be sold off or scrapped, leaving the building vacant. There are redundancies too, with around 50 jobs in total being lost across the two sites. It also means the newspaper I've been buying daily will no longer be printed within a mile of my home, and will instead be shipped in from where I used to live instead. [cover Jan 13th] [cover Jan 15th]



We all know why newspapers are in trouble, namely the availability of news online, which means most of us now carry a much more up to date source of what's going on in the world in our pockets. Why shell out money for news, or pay to look behind a paywall, when you can get regular updates from social media with ease, or pick up a freesheet at both ends of your daily commute?

But I still appreciate a proper newspaper, a daily collection of news curated by an editor, rather than some branching tree of online links. I appreciate journalism, rather than press releases rehashed for clicks. I like to be presented with a broad range of stories, home and international, rather than only reading those which fall within my comfort zone. I like a big page I can scan, rather than a tiny screen which reveals stories three sentences at a time. Even filling in the crossword is much easier on paper than tapping away at individual letters with clumsy fingers. I love online media for its immediacy, but the benefits of a printed paper still lead me to shell out.

Alas it seems newspapers are becoming harder to buy of late. Former newsagents have given up stocking them, devoting the shelf space to cans, crisps and chocolate instead. Newly opened corner shops and convenience stores always focus on food and drink rather than the printed word. Even the News Kiosk outside Bow Road station now stocks fewer titles, and fewer copies of what's left, having recognised that Red Bull and chewing gum are what the local demographic really wants. As recently as last week the kiosk's owner replaced his newspaper shelf with a rack of penny sweets, leaving what newspapers remain to squeeze onto the front counter in the Oyster top-up zone.

Just as fewer newspapers being sold leads to fewer places selling newspapers, so fewer places selling newspapers will lead to fewer newspapers being sold. The long-term decline of paid-for print media is inexorable, now digital dominates, meaning it's more a case of when each title succumbs rather than if. But I'll still be out to grab my tabloid Guardian this morning, and again tomorrow, relieved that at least my chosen newspaper hasn't yet sunk beneath the surface. It may no longer have the stature it had yesterday, but at least it'll be easier to open on the train.



Comment-o-matic

To save time, why not pick one of these ten digital codes rather than trying to compose a lengthy argument in the comments box?

[1] Get with the program, grandad, newspapers are dead.
[2] I never buy newspapers, so I don't see why anybody else would.
[3] Morning newspaper? Pah, I'd rather buy a coffee instead.
[4] I used to buy a newspaper, but now I just play Candy Crush.
[5] Get a tablet and a subscription, you don't know what you're missing.
[6] I always knew you'd be a bloody pinko Guardian reader.
[7] Don't knock the freesheets, some of their celebrity gossip is ace.
[8] I prefer YouTube, so I never read or watch any news ever.
[9] The new tabloid Guardian is symbolic of the paper's decline.
[10] I too enjoy a good newspaper, and buy one daily.

 Sunday, January 14, 2018

Gadabout: CALDERDALE

The Calder is one of Yorkshire's great rivers, rising in the Pennines above Todmorden and flowing 45 miles east to join the Aire near Castleford. In its upper reaches it carves a deep valley, providing shelter for a string of picturesque towns, and a key route across the moors for road, rail and canal. The local authority is known as Calderdale, governed from Halifax, and is easily explored with a West Yorkshire Train Day Rover (£7.50, off-peak only), as I shall now demonstrate. [Visit Calderdale]


Todmorden (population 15000)
Todmorden is sited where three steep valleys meet, amid Pennine moors and upland sandstone grit. The setting looks gorgeous when the sun's out, but more oppressive in low-cloud gloom. A railway viaduct swoops across the heart of the town, and trains curve off in three directions - to Halifax, Burnley or Rochdale. Easily the most impressive building is the town hall, built in 1875 in full-on classical style. The boundary between Lancashire and Yorkshire once passed through the centre of the town, following the line of the river, and the Town Hall was deliberately built on top so that half the building was in each county. In 1888 the boundary was shifted west, gifting the town in its entirety to Yorkshire. Everyone who got upset is now dead. A modern memorial beneath the viaduct marks the original line, each side marked by a rose of the appropriate colour.



Daytime activity in Todmorden focuses on the marketplace by the bus station. Outside the market hall a tranche of stalls displays all kinds of bric a brac, rifled through by pensioners in zip-up coats and flat caps. Inside are proudly traditional traders dealing mostly in comestibles, and a superbly retro counter cafe dispensing fifty different varieties of coffee. I stopped by at Ham Corner for a beef pie, wrapped in quality moist pastry, one of numerous takeaway goods at prices to make any London resident curl up and cry. The town is renowned for its sustainability, specifically the Incredible Edible Todmorden project, a series of mini gardens and eco-planters established by community volunteers in 2012. A free map reveals all the key locations across town, including soft fruit at the job centre, beehives by the canal, vegetable beds at the police station and planters on the station platform (where you can pick herbs for your tea). I liked Todmorden. [5 photos]

Hebden Bridge (population 4500)
Four miles downstream lies Hebden Bridge, the best known of the towns hereabouts, no doubt due to its density of lesbians. That's not why the place was once called Trouser Town, this was a nickname earned through clothes manufacturing. But after the mills closed the artists moved in, and many with alternative lifestyles found a safe home here. They chose well. The town is gorgeous, squished into the Calder valley where a tributary joins, with residential streets perched precipitously on the surrounding slopes. Space for housing is at a premium so curious 4-storey terraces have been built, their tenancy split between the lower two floors (front door facing out) and the upper two floors (front door facing in).



The town centre is a web of streets, its shops rarely chains, with an emphasis on conscience and culture rather than blind acquisition. Four days a week a small outdoor market trades, each day differently themed, adding an air of self-sufficiency. I spotted good friends sipping coffees by the old stone bridge, a retired lady pleading for peace in Palestine outside the hiking equipment shop, and numerous couples walking their dogs in the riverside park. Then stepping back a few streets I saw wives watering vegetable tubs in what passes for their front garden, a string of houseboats belching smoke on the canal, and teenagers freewheeling downhill with skateboards tucked into their rucksacks. I liked Hebden Bridge even more than Todmorden. [8 photos]

Heptonstall (population 1500)
I thought I'd walk from Hebden Bridge to the village of Heptonstall - it looked barely half a mile on the map. But what my non-OS map failed to mention is how relentlessly uphill it would be, which is very much par for the course around here. A cobbled track led off innocuously from the edge of the town, rising through woodland to a tiny Methodist cemetery with panoramic views, then zigzagging onwards up irregular flights. I was damned glad of the handrail.



The village, long-established, has steep cobbled streets narrow enough to give drivers problems, lined by irregular cottages built from dark local stone. It reminded me a little of Edale, only without the walking poles and gaiters. In the heart of the village are two St Thomas's churches, one an atmospheric ruin, the other its Victorian replacement. The poet Sylvia Plath is buried here, not amid the sea of flat gravestones but in a newer churchyard extension across Back Lane. A small museum is based in the adjacent grammar school building, should you be here at the weekend in spring or in summer. A ginger cat sleeps on a bench outside the tearoom. Bailiffs took possession of one of the village's two pubs last month. I was captivated by Heptonstall, but I don't think I could live in it. [5 photos]

Mytholmroyd (population 4000)
I also thought I'd walk from Hebden Bridge to Mytholmroyd, but that proved a lot easier. It's only a mile, nigh flat, and the Rochdale Canal links one to the other. Admittedly the towpath was in a bit of a state, still not recovered from the devastating Boxing Day floods a couple of years ago, but then neither has Mytholmroyd. The village is mostly linear rather than spreading up the slopes, hence considerably more at risk from inundation. Crumbled river walls can still be seen, as well as diggers filling in broken gaps, and deep concrete-lined channels hoping to prevent a repeat. The Environment Agency have even gone so far as demolishing the post office, and relocating services across the road, to widen the Calder alongside County Bridge.



Mytholmroyd's most famous son was Ted Hughes, one-time Poet Laureate, and erstwhile lover of the aforementioned Sylvia Plath. He spent his childhood in the end terrace at 1 Aspinall Street, now a holiday let, and marked with a blue plaque beside the door. Just up the road is the UK's largest clog manufacturer, that's Walkley Clogs, whose workshops are open for a nose around if you're a fan of handmade cost-effective footwear. Another rather different sort of attraction is Cragg Vale, otherwise known as the B6138, which a road sign at the foot describes as the "longest continuous gradient in England" rising 970 feet over 5½ miles. Bring a car, or better try a bike. And yes, it's a fabulous name is Mytholmroyd. [3 photos]

Sowerby Bridge (population 11000)
I didn't get this far, because there is a limit to how many Calderdale towns and villages you can visit with an off-peak rail rover. This riverside town is where playwright Sally Wainwright grew up, so has been inspiration for several of her dramas, most notably the BAFTA-winning Happy Valley. That said, I rewatched the start of the first episode yesterday and screamed "that's Todmorden, by the chippy!" at the TV, so successful had my Calderdale safari been.

Halifax (population 90000)
Been there, done that.

My Calderdale gallery
There are 32 photos altogether [slideshow]


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