diamond geezer

 Wednesday, September 30, 2009

1½million: Sometime this morning, probably just after nine o'clock or thereabouts, diamond geezer will receive its million and a halfth visitor. Actually that's not quite true, it'll just be the million and a halfth time that my slightly ropey stats package has registered a unique visit, which isn't the same thing at all. And not in the slightest bit correct. Thanks to the relentless rise of the RSS feed, considerably more people read this blog than visit it. But I can't count my feedreaders accurately, so I'll have to stick to counting visitors instead. And there have been one and a half million of them. Blimey, gosh and wow.

Of course one and a half million is nothing really, not when spread over seven years. It's the equivalent of one in every five Londoners looking at my blog, once and only once, at some point between 2002 and today. It's one visitor every two and a half minutes, which is nothing to be sniffed at, but pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things. It's crap, really. But still wow.

So it's time once again for an update of my regular 'league table' of top linking blogs, ordered by volume of visitors clicking here from there. As usual I've also included details of the 'highest climbers'. I was going to include the highest climbers since my last update (at 1¼ million), but the chart's hardly changed at all since then so I've gone back to 1 million instead. It still hasn't changed much.
  1) girl with a one track mind
  2) random acts of reality (↑1)  
  3) arseblog
  4) scaryduck (↑1)
  5) blue witch (↑1)
  6) casino avenue
  7) london daily photo (↑3)
  8) linkmachinego
  9) my boyfriend is a twat
  10) route 79
11) londonist (↑2)
12) london underground
13) onionbagblog
14) geofftech (↑3)
15) funjunkie
16) d4d
17) anglosaxy (↑2)
18) planarchy
19) twenty major (↑2)
20) rodcorp (↑3)
The next 10: 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30

Nearly a quarter of my Top 30 consists of blogs that are long dead, but nothing's ever come along to demote them. At least two of the remaining blogs delinked me several years ago. Three of the rest don't have a blogroll, they just linked to me in posts (in one case only once). The only new entry since 1 million visitors is at number 26, leaping into the list with the power of a major publishing company behind it. Other than that I'm increasingly convinced that this 'linking chart' is an irrelevance, whereas it used to be a touchstone dynamic summary.

I assembled this list by updating a spreadsheet, and one thing that struck me was how little the number of incomers had changed since last time. Half a million extra visitors may have turned up since April last year, but only a tiny proportion of them have come from these top linking blogs. Links from other people's blogs used to be crucial for gathering an audience, and now they're almost an irrelevance. You have a blogroll? Nobody cares, not like they used to anyway.

In 2009, people are more likely to create brief transient links to a blog in their status updates. Murmurings on Facebook, mutterings on Twitter, that's where bloglinks appear these days. I've totted up the statistics and, if I'd included them in the list, both Facebook and Twitter would now appear just outside the Top 20. Give it a few more months and they'll be considerably higher. Short snappy mentions can bring in the punters, a handful at a time, and they all add up.

But I've still got a blogroll of my own because I believe it's important (even if you RSS-ers can't see it). About half of my 20-strong blogroll are extremely long established, and the remainder are more recent and fresh. About half of these bloggers I've met in real life, which was nice, and the other half are joys yet to come. And about half are in my top 20 linking blogs, and the other half aren't. No matter. I'm more than grateful for my million and a half, so thank you all for linking and clicking. But I'm not convinced it'll be worth cataloging this list again when, or if, two million rolls around.

 Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Sometimes I wonder if I've got my priorities right.

• "There's an interesting event in town tonight, interested?" "Sorry, I'm attempting to code a table of Jubilee line closures."
• "We're all doing drinks in the West End." "I might see you later, but I need to compose 750 words about my local Tesco first."
• "You wanna come out tonight?" "Er, no thanks, I'm uploading geotagged photos of the South Coast."
• "I think we should meet for sex right now." "No can do, there's a new station in West London needs writing about."

Sometimes I'm too busy blogging about life to actually experience it.

So last night I forgot about blogging and did some useful things instead.

Frothed up the sink to do several days worth of washing up.
Recycled last week's newspapers (not all of which I ever got round to reading)
Caught up on far too many emails I should have sent to far too many people (far too long ago)
Recharged my camera battery (because I appear to have used it a lot lately)
Attempted to complete my income tax form online (started with good intentions, gave up)
Sat on the sofa (unheard of!) to watch Flash Forward (yeah yeah)
Glared through the curtains at my new neighbours (who insist on smoking regularly on the balcony outside)
Tried getting a ticket for some arty event in the Kingsway tram tunnel (woo, got a ticket!)
Filed away some paperwork (I really must get better at filing away paperwork)
Actually, replying to emails is a real time-killer, isn't it? (and still three to go)

Next time, I may even go out.

 Monday, September 28, 2009

Imperial Wharf roundelA new station opened in London yesterday. It's close to the Thames in Chelsea, on the West London Line branch of the London Overground. It's in Zone 2. It's called Imperial Wharf. [see 6 photos]

Imperial Wharf station opened yesterday. It's right next to the enormous Imperial Wharf luxury development, and a significant proportion of the station's funding was provided by the developers. It's also right next to the existing Chelsea Harbour luxury development. Geographically speaking, "Chelsea Harbour" would be a much more helpful name for describing the station's location, but they didn't fund it, so the station's not named after them. Before luxury developments came along, pre-sponsorship, this part of town was called Sands End. Not a hope of the station being called Sands End, obviously.

Imperial Wharf station opened yesterday. And about time too. It's been scheduled to open for years, but never quite has. Plans were first mooted in the mid 1990s, but it wasn't until 2001 that estate developers St George agreed to help pay for construction. By 2004 the station was being included on the London Connections rail map, in the expectation that it would be "opening summer 2005". But then it disappeared again, until Hammersmith and Fulham Council managed to wheedle some more cash out of the developers in 2007, and construction finally began last summer. Hey presto, after a protracted 15-year journey, one new station.

Imperial Wharf stationImperial Wharf station opened yesterday. The station plugs one of the gaping holes in inner London's rail network, in riverside Chelsea, by (cheaply) piggybacking a new station onto an existing railway line. Before yesterday the Sands End area was linked to the tube network only by bus, and residents of these shiny riverside towers aren't really the sort who take buses. Taxis are far more their style, and black cabs swarm around the area in large numbers. It's yet to be seen whether the provision of a shiny new station will ever prise the majority of locals away from their preferred four-wheeled alternatives.

Imperial Wharf station opened yesterday. Some might wonder why TfL bothered, because the station has a desperately infrequent level of service (by inner London standards, at least). During the rush hour London Overground are putting on three trains an hour (some of these now to/from Stratford), whereas off peak and at weekends it's only two. Southern Trains generally run one additional train an hour, specifically linking Milton Keynes to East Croydon, but that's your lot. Hardly a turn up and go service, more a turn up and wait.

Imperial Wharf station opened yesterday. I made the mistake of trying to arrive by rail from Clapham Junction, and suffered an even worse than usual weekend service. All that was scheduled was one northbound train at five past and another at ten to, with a gaping train-free desert inbetween. By quarter past there were already 30 bored-looking folk waiting on the platform, and by half past nearly a trainful. My wait, by the time the train finally departed, had been ten times longer than the four minute journey to Imperial Wharf. Remember folks - just because the Overground appears on the tube map doesn't mean that using it will be a speedy experience.

Imperial Wharf stationImperial Wharf station opened yesterday. Several of the passengers embarking and disembarking from the occasional trains looked genuinely local, and only a few looked like the sort of blokes who visit stations on their opening day to take lots of photos. The platforms were gleaming and new, obviously, with streamlined canopies and tangerine roundels. I noted that the cretinous TfL "next train indicator" installers had been busy and had ensured that a same-height security camera precisely blocked information about the next northbound train from the furthest half of the platform. Access to ground level is by lift, or for the more energetic via a bright white staircase winding around the central elevator shaft. This makes Imperial Wharf an official step-free station (from street to platform if not from platform to train), although it's not marked on the latest tube map with a big blue blob (which is nice).

Imperial Wharf station opened yesterday. It's going to act as a driver for a lot more housing in the area, notably on the former gasworks site to the northwest of the station at at the former Lots Road power station to the east. It's going to open up additional transport possibilities, and commuting possibilities, and shopping opportunities (Westfield in 9 minutes flat). It's a great example of how London's rail network continues to infill, increase and improve. And that's why Boris will be along tomorrow to open the station officially, ahead of a bumper crop of station openings next year on the DLR and East London Line. But don't expect to see anything new opening in the first half of the next decade, because the only funding now is for network maintenance, not network expansion. Chelsea's new station may be very late indeed, but it's slipped through just in time.

 Sunday, September 27, 2009

Seaside postcard: SeafordEastbourne

Seven SistersYesterday, because the weather was great, I took myself off to the Sussex coast for a long walk along the chalky clifftops. I started at Seaford (one of the old Cinque Ports, just past Newhaven, 90 minutes from Victoria), then yomped up and over to Cuckmere Haven (unspoilt river valley, requires major inland diversion, home to my very favourite meander), then walked the breathtaking chalky switchback of the Seven Sisters (Haven Brow, Short Brow, Rough Brow, Brass Point, Flat Hill, Baily's Hill, Went Hill Brow), then stopped for an ice cream at Birling Gap, then pushed past the builders at the Belle Tout lighthouse (it'll be opening as a mini-hotel later in the year), then stood on the top of Beachy Head (keeping an eye out for the suicide-prevention vicar), and finally descended into Eastbourne (promenade, bandstand, pier, old people). Altogether, 14 fantastic leg-aching miles.

But I've written about most of this walk before (back in 2007, here), and I have no desire to write up the whole thing again. So instead I'm offering you 30 photographs to give you a flavour of my day out (slideshow here), with plenty of accompanying text should you be interested (one photo at a time, starting here). If you don't mind a tough six hour trek, and aren't worried by walking along potentially crumbling chalky clifftops, I can't recommend it highly enough.

www.flickr.com: my Seven Sisters gallery

There are 30 photos altogether. If you don't fancy looking at them one at a time, you can view the whole lot in two pages flat here.
I've put together a Google map of my walk here, so that you can follow along.
Let's see who else has done this same walk... aha, Andrew has [photos] and Paul has [photos].
Directions for the walk are in the Time Out Book of Country Walks Near London Volume 2 (but it's perfectly possible to walk it without).
If you want to cut the walk short, the number 12 'Coaster' bus runs (very) regularly from Exceat, while the 12B stops (on Sundays, and summer Saturdays) at Birling Gap and Beachy Head.
Just go, one day.

 Saturday, September 26, 2009

Bromley-by-Bow tube stationIf you've never lived around here, you probably don't know Bromley-by-Bow very well. It has speckles of history and loveliness, but on the whole this patch of London is relentlessly poor, characterised by social housing and tenement blocks. It's home to a large Bangladeshi population, many of whom live crowded into unsuitable apartments hemmed in alongside a gridlocked arterial road. Bromley High Street isn't an alluring retail destination, more a tiny huddle of betting shops, laundrettes and Halal-friendly grocers. If any entrepreneur attempted to open a coffee shop or delicatessen around here, their business would fail within weeks. I wouldn't live anywhere else, obviously.

But, oh boy, is all this about to change? A new amenity-rich district centre for Tower Hamlets is about to be parachuted into the existing neighbourhood, with its focus around unloved Bromley-by-Bow tube station. To the southwest the first part of this transformation is already underway, with Barrett Homes busy erecting shiny blocks on the site of demolished St Andrew's Hospital. But on the opposite side of the A12, around where the Tesco superstore now stands, something rather more astonishing is planned. I'm just back from the consultation event, and I wonder if Bromley-by-Bow is really ready for the approaching onslaught of a cosmopolitan lifestyle.

Bromley-by-Bow TescoTesco are the main protagonists here, making the most of the land they own between the dual carriageway and the river. A patch of neighbouring industrial land will be levelled and a brand new twice-the-size megastore constructed, with a 500-ish capacity car park concealed in a subterranean cavern beneath the store. This new Tesco will be an environmental showpiece, so they say, and is scheduled for completion by 2012 (subject to planning permission). In place of the old supermarket will go 460 new homes, which'll be lovely assuming you like living in a glassy green box in the sky. And there'll also be a much needed primary school tucked in beside the river, literally in the shadow of the new Tesco. The usual stuff when regeneration of an area is mooted.

But it's the surrounding extras that've made me gasp, such as a 100-bed hotel close to the station. Even with the Olympics coming up, I find it hard to believe that any visitor would choose to stay in a hotel in darkest E3 (unless it's because the rooms are ridiculously cheap). A new park is proposed beside the bridge over to Three Mills, which it seems can be achieved by replacing the lower extremes of Tesco's existing car park by grass. An extra junction will be added on the A12, and the existing underpass realigned and brightened up. Tesco may also be helping to fund a new library (sorry "Idea Store") to kickstart learning and training for those who can't be bothered to travel the mile to a similar building in Roman Road. And then a whole new shopping mall is planned at "Imperial Square" outside the MegaTesco, featuring 18 outlets considerably more upmarket than any which grace B-by-B today. The aspiration is for high street chains to move in, selling goods that current residents would have to travel miles to buy. But I suspect that current residents aren't the target audience.

What's planned for medieval Bromley-by-Bow is a sharp regenerative tug to lure in Londoners who might never before have considered living here. The Docklands banker; the professional family; the young couple with a hankering for antipasti, weekend cycling and riverside cappucinos - I don't see many of their kind around here at the moment. It'll be quite frankly astonishing if large numbers of folk with disposable incomes begin to colonise my local area within the next few years, but under these new plans also quite possible. I'm a little uncomfortable that a major supermarket chain appears to be the driving force behind one key quadrant of the revitalised neighbourhood, especially given the unqualified architectural atrocity they've recently opened as part of a block of flats along Bow Road. But Tesco were already a major stakeholder in the Bromley-by-Bow development zone, so any future plans were always going to be shareholder-focused and profit-friendly.

On leaving the exhibition, the consultation team were particularly keen that I make my voice heard by filling in a questionnaire, and maybe also a 'support' form. Positive feedback from residents might, they think, significantly increase the scheme's chance of success when it comes up before the Tower Hamlets planning committee. Outside in Bromley High Street some local pushchair-mums wandered by without giving the exhibition a second look. They don't know what's about to hit them.

 Friday, September 25, 2009

How difficult can it be to upgrade the Jubilee line? Very, as it turns out. Contractors Tube Lines had promised to upgrade all the signalling on the Jubilee by the end of the year, enabling all the trains to run quicker. But we now know that they won't hit this New Year target because the work's taken longer than they hoped, and (apparently) because they weren't allowed half as many weekend line closures as they'd have liked.

This will come as a kick in the teeth to those who travel on the the Jubilee and whose weekends have been completely buggered by a seemingly endless succession of line closures over the last umpteen months. Rail replacement buses are no fun at the best of times, but weekend after weekend after weekend after weekend they really begin to grind passengers down. Tube Lines have made some gobsmacking errors too, like having to replace several miles of mislaid cable, and have been rewarded with several additional line closures creeping into January. The good news is that, by missing their end-of-2009 target, Tube Lines will be financially punished. The bad news is that their fine won't be punishing enough (a mere £10m a month), and meanwhile the rail replacement misery goes on and on and on.

To help make sense what this means for customers, I've had a go at collating all the relevant information from TfL's latest list of future line closures. So here's a table showing all the weekend closures on the Jubilee line for the five months from September to January. Each pair of columns represents a weekend, and grey shading means the line's closed. Grim, innit?

SeptOctNovDecJan
 5 121926 3 10172431 7 142128 5 121926 2  9 162330
Stanmore
 
W Hampst'd
 
Waterloo
 
N Gr'nwich
 
Stratford

For example, over the weekend October 3/4 the entire Jubilee line is closed, while over the weekend October 10/11 it's closed between Stanmore and West Hampstead. Saturday closures aren't always the same as Sunday. And there are two days when the closure isn't all day, so they're in slightly lighter grey.

If you live at the Docklands/Greenwich end of the line, then your weekends are about to get a heck of a lot better. After the first week of October the eastern end of the line clears, and then it's plain sailing round to Stratford all the way up to Christmas.

It's the northern end of the line where the relentless closures are hurting the most. In fact I find this list of closures absolutely unbelievable. The Jubilee line will be closed north of Waterloo almost every weekend until December, and closed north of West Hampstead EVERY SINGLE WEEKEND until mid-January. If you live in Stanmore you're going to be bloody sick of rail replacement buses by the time 2010 comes round.
If that's not bad enough, there are also 18 days when the parallel stretch of the Metropolitan line will be shut down (between Harrow-on-the-Hill and Aldgate). I've marked these dates in purple, if you squint carefully enough.

It will all be worth it in the end, obviously, except that the end now seems further away than ever. There's absolutely no guarantee that this list won't change, and extend, and that mid-January onwards will be just as hellish as all that's come before. Given how incompetent Tube Lines' delivery has been so far, I fear they'll be frittering away TfL's cash for some time to come. Lovely Jubbly?

 Thursday, September 24, 2009

Overheard at a museum near you, in the Boris future...

NATIONAL LONDON MUSEUM
Admission £10

(recommended voluntary donation)


"Good morning sir, and welcome to the National London Museum. Would you like to step over here to the cash desk and buy a ticket?"

"No that's right sir, when you visited last month we were free. And now, thanks to the mayor's brave arts vision, we're asking visitors to pay."

"Oh absolutely sir, it's still very much your choice whether you pay or not. But we'll try to make you feel uncomfortable if you don't."

"Now there's no need to be abusive sir. We always used to ask for a suggested donation before, it's just that everybody ignored the collecting boxes. So now we're being a bit more forceful. Will you pay up sir, or are you a cheapskate freeloader?"

"It's perfectly simple sir. We have some of London's finest treasures behind these doors, and we think you'll value them more if you've paid to come in. Times are tough, and they're going to be tough for a while yet."

"What's that sir? You were only planning to pop inside for twenty minutes, because you've been before and you only want to see the new exhibits? That's still ten pounds, sir."

"I'm sorry sir, but we can't accept an income tax form as proof of payment. You may think you've already paid for museum entrance through indirect taxation, but I'm afraid our funding body doesn't view it like that."

"Yes sir, we do have a special temporary exhibition in our upper gallery. That's £8 to get in, and it's a compulsory charge - as before. Oh yes, that's on top of the voluntary ten quid sir. And a bargain at the price."

"No you're right sir, it is a lot quieter inside the museum this month. There aren't as many families, or pensioners, or tourists... indeed, far fewer people overall. So why not pay to enjoy the wonderfully crowd-free galleries?"

"Yes that's right sir, I used to be one of those chuggers blocking the pavement outside, attempting to get passers by to sign up to charitable direct debits. But this is a much better way to put my powers of persuasion to good use. And it's much warmer in here, and the pay's better."

"Please sir, I beg you. You'll enjoy it more if you pay. You'll value the experience more if you pay. And you won't feel horribly shamefully criminally guilty if you pay."

"Look sir, times are tough, and it's only ten pounds. Sorry, I meant times are tough for the museum. The fact that times are also tough for you is quite frankly irrelevant."

"It's the new taxation paradigm sir. Public services need to be cut, because that's what the will of the public demands. What people want these days is more money in their pockets, and less government spending on mere cultural fripperies. And then people can choose to spend that extra money on whatever they like, be it a plasma TV, a nice meal in a restaurant, private health insurance or a ticket to a museum. Because people prefer choice. And that's why our admission charge is still optional."

"I have to print you a ticket sir. We can't let you in any more without a ticket. See here? Your ticket reads £0.00. How does that make you feel sir? Make you feel good does it?"

"Ladies and gentlemen, we've got a man over here who isn't paying. Do shoot him a withering look if you see him on the way round. If we all stare together, maybe he'll pay on the way out."

 Wednesday, September 23, 2009

London 2012  Olympic update
  Missing the boat


I squeezed in one more Open House visit, rather closer to home, at a completed multi-million pound Olympic construction project. Not the Stadium, nor indeed anywhere that'll host a single 2012 sporting activity, but a big concrete barrier on the Bow Back Rivers. This is Three Mills Lock (at Three Mills), which used to be called Prescott Lock (on the Prescott Channel). It's supposed to be a key part of our commitment to a sustainable Games, enabling building materials to be shipped into the heart of the Olympic Park by water instead of by road. Open House provided one of the first opportunities for the public to get up close to discover how £20m has been spent, and to be shown around behind the perimeter fence by a very knowledgeable lockkeeper.

Three Mills LockIt's a bloody massive lock. After my walk along the Lea last month I'm used to much smaller structures with wooden gates and twee waterside cottages, but this is nothing of the sort. It's three channels wide, with each gate wide enough to take a 350 tonne barge. The gates rotate up, not across, a bit like the Thames Barrier. There's a fish ladder along one side to ensure that scaly finny creatures can still pass up and downstream. And operations are overseen from a squat narrow control tower mid-river, complete with home comforts like a shower for the personnel working within. It's the sort of lock you might expect to find on the Manchester Ship Canal, not on an insignificant East End backwater.

The key to the lock's existence is its location. Downstream the Lea is tidal, with water levels dropping to unnavigable levels for long periods each day. Upstream, now that Three Mills Lock has been built, water levels along the eastern side of the Olympic Park will in future remain constant. That sounds like great news for enabling the import of building materials and removal of waste by river, but unfortunately reality's not quite so simple. Tides in Bow Creek still prevent barges from reaching the lock for 16 hours each day, which cuts back the potential time this route can be operational. As an additional setback the Prescott Channel and Bow Back Rivers haven't been used for major freight traffic for several decades and so have long since silted up. Dredging the channels has taken considerably longer than expected, and so the number of Park-bound barges using the new lock has been, to say the least, disappointing. Just six barges since the lock opened in June, we were told, just six.

Three Mills LockNow stop me if I'm wrong, but an average of one big barge per fortnight is a pretty unimpressive strike rate. The whole idea of funding the lock in the first place was to enable the transfer of waterborne cargo during the peak construction window, and that doesn't appear to be happening yet. To give you some idea of the scale of the problem, Three Mills Lock was originally planned to open last summer, four years before the Games themselves. But the body of the stadium's already up, absolutely none of which has arrived by river, and there's a very real risk that few of the building materials for the remaining stadia will arrive via this watery route. The Park's location slap bang beside Stratford station has allowed use of a far more convenient sustainable mode of transport, and that's rail. Who needs slow meandering river traffic when freight can arrive more easily by train (or, to keep costs down, even by road)?

It looks increasingly likely that Three Mills Lock will prove a construction-time white elephant, but a legacy-phase saviour. By stabilising water levels throughout the Olympic Park, the completion of a post-Games residential 'Water City' now becomes possible. Swish riverside apartments, swanky cosmopolitan cafes and bohemian aspirational culture - all suddenly enabled because the Lea no longer drains away every 12 hours to reveal discarded supermarket trolleys and mud. Three Mills Lock adds millions to the potential value of future properties to be erected further upstream, which can only help to pay back the investment our taxes have poured into Olympic funding. But the lock itself looks destined for an underused future, ridiculously large for the few pleasurecraft that might use it post-2012, and never quite the ecological showpiece it set out to be.

Nobody seems quite sure when the footpaths around the lock will reopen, which is annoying for those of us who used to use it regularly.
Here's a collection of photos of Three Mills Lock, taken by Mat over the weekend
Bits of the Euston Arch were dumped in the Prescott Channel, you may remember.
Legacy plans for the Olympic Park are detailed here (and on this interactive map)
Local residents in Bromley-by-Bow may be interested in Tesco's plans to erect a replacement superstore at Three Mills, relocated slightly nearer the railway, forming the heart of a new district centre for Tower Hamlets. Plans will be on display at Tudor Lodge this Friday (noon-7) and Saturday (11-4).

 Tuesday, September 22, 2009

I love sunsets.

I love the way they creep in above lengthening shadows.

I love the way they slowly develop, from a tinge of bright sky to a speckled radiant flash; their gradual evolution from ordinary azure to enchanted glow.

I love their unpredictable splendour, their brief panoramic spectacle, their scarlets and golds and purples and pinks that bloom and burn, then dim and fade, never to reappear.

I love every random cloudbase reflection, each unique dusky spectacle, bewitching the landscape, enhancing the mundane, and heralding night's curtain of darkness.

Sunset over London

I love sunsets. I just wish I saw more of them.

That isn't my photo of a sunset, it's Ian's. He took it yesterday evening from his flat in Docklands, from which there appears to be an excellent view both outward and upward. When atmospheric phenomena fill the sky, be they clouds or sunshine or rainbow or storm, these appear as part of Ian's everyday backdrop. And there have been some breathtaking sunsets over the summer, so Ian's been able to act fast and capture many of them.

I'm far less fortunate. My flat is shielded by its immediate surroundings. I can see only a tiny patch of northern sky, framed above a deep brick canyon. From where I live, the sun is only visible from one corner of one room at the height of summer. My dawn is forever obscured, while at nightfall no more than a hint of pink ever floats into view (during June and July only). Of nature's aerial spectacles, when I'm at home I see nothing.

If the sunset is magnificent, the first I ever know of it is via Twitter. When the skies above London were lit up by a dramatic electrical storm earlier this year, I missed the lot. Should a UFO ever descend upon the capital and hover menacingly in the air, from indoors I'd never even notice.

Next time I move house, I need to live somewhere with sky. Because I love sunsets. And I miss them.

 Monday, September 21, 2009

Open House: Southwark

For the second day of my Open House weekend I devoted my attention to the London borough of Southwark. Three pages of venues to choose from, including City Hall (already been), Dulwich College (fully booked) and the top of the Oxo Tower (damn, Saturday only). But there were still plenty of goodies to view instead, including shiny South Bank towers, elevated millennial libraries and an awful lot of arty people's bedrooms.

Blue Fin Building1) One street back from the Thames, where once stood Europe's largest 1950s office block, rise three Bankside towers. One of these is the Blue Fin Building, named after the aluminium panels randomly-spaced around the outside, and now home to 2000+ employees of IPC Media. If you read Woman's Own, NME or Country Life then your magazine originates here. IPC HQ forms a bold collection of elevated offices anchored around an airy atrium. It's all very glassy, even the vertigo-inducing walkways that span the central void. For Open House, visitors were allowed to use the lifts unsupervised (that's a rarity, I can assure you) to explore four of the building's eleven floors. Half price magazines (and archive leatherbound Look Ins) on 3. The very non-glam offices of various female-oriented lifestyle periodicals on 7 (Ugly Betty this is not). On the very top floor, the main restaurant (which would have served lunches to visitors had anybody wanted any) [photo]. And down one on 10, as well as a ring of transparent meeting rooms, the opportunity to amble out onto the roof terrace and soak in the view. Oh yes, this is why I do Open House, for the chance to view London in an unfamiliar location from above. The London Eye encircling the Shell Building like a halo [photo]. The Dome of St Paul's peeking out from behind the tower of Tate Modern [photo]. And a few nice plants and two circles of astroturf should employees ever tire of the outward panorama. Unlikely, I suspect.

Peckham Library2) When Southwark council sought to revitalise the centre of Peckham in the late 1990s, their eyes turned to the "temporary" post-war library Hut beside the High Street. As a replacement, they commissioned architect Will Alsop to design a landmark public building, and were delightfully surprised by the result. From end-on, Peckham Library looks like a copper-clad inverted 'L' [photo] [photo]. The books and public stuff are all at fourth floor level, with stilts to prop up the suspended edge from below. This makes it rather awkward to change your books if the lifts aren't working, which they weren't on Sunday afternoon, causing several elderly or pregnant visitors to abandon their visit and head home. Our tour group was lucky enough to see some of the behind the scenes areas, including the various 'meeting pods' on the fifth floor. The central pod is shaded by the orange tongue that sticks out over the edge of the roof. Alas the other two aren't quite so well ventilated and can get a bit warm inside, not that readers sitting in the main library underneath would ever realise [photo]. The building's Stirling Prize medal is kept on the top floor in a cabinet, while from the stairwell there's a great orange-shaded view north to the skyline of Central London. On the staff-only 3rd floor we got to peer down below the overhang to watch Peckhamites scuttling across the paved square beneath. And on the 2nd floor we entered Southwark's Local History Library, where the borough archivist greeted us with an eclectic selection of historical documents and shared some Alsop tales. It came as no surprise to discover that the new Peckham Library had boosted visitor numbers sevenfold. If you choose to check in too, keep your fingers crossed that the lifts are working.

Quay House3) 4) 5) 6) 7) If you're one of the nine readers who've actually visited my flat, you'll know that interior design isn't one of my obsessions. Nevertheless I spent a considerable proportion of Sunday taking lessons from the experts by poking around inside their stylish abodes. Bunch of show-offs, the lot of them, but then they had a spectacular amount of good taste to show off. At 15½ Consort Road, Peckham, Monty Ravenscroft has crammed an astonishing house into a narrow scrap of unwanted wasteground. The garage at the front doubles up as his wife's dance studio. A glass roof glides across the hole in the top of the living room when it rains [photo]. The bedroom has a showerhead embedded in the ceiling and also a fully functioning bath stashed underneath the bed. It's no surprise that Channel 4's Grand Designs have been here, and maybe that's what drew Sunday's fascinated queues to the front door. Half a mile away, at Quay House, an art studio and architect's residence have been shoehorned into a converted milk depot. I loved the fire-escape-style landing suspended above the hallway, unnecessarily rising and falling to reach four small upper rooms, and I was also particularly taken by an unexpected recycled artwork in the back yard [photo]. Meanwhile, behind the unassuming facade at 49 Camberwell Grove, widower Nick has built an eco-friendly retirement-proof bolthole. His centrepiece is a cylindrical lift to link the two floors, which would have completely replaced the staircase had not Southwark's "bloody" planning department insisted that he put a flight in. But Nick's a mere eco-amateur compared to the owner of 2 Coleman Road, whose two-up two-down is reputedly carbon-negative. Obsessive adherence to an environmentally-friendly lifestyle enables Donnachadh to export electricity to the National Grid (and, for a fee, he'll audit your home to help you do the same). With bags more character than all the other houses put together, however, was the 300 year old townhouse at 67 Grange Walk, Bermondsey. Sympathetically restored, its imperfect angles and slanted stairs had visitors grinning with "I want to live in a house like this" covetousness. Of all the houses I visited, the owners here had made the least attempt to hide away all their belongings, resulting in an 18th/21st century culture clash of most appealing proportions. I may never aspire to live anywhere even vaguely similar, but Southwark's Open House weekend permitted several opportunities to learn from the experts.

 Sunday, September 20, 2009

Open House: Haringey

Just for a change, I thought I'd spend my Open House weekend scouring two individual London boroughs. And the (unlikely) borough I picked for Saturday was Haringey (think Highgate, Tottenham, and all points inbetween). Haringey merits but a single page in the Open House guide, and few of its attractions will ever draw large crowds from further away. But I did get the chance to do Open House "like a local", in an area I don't know all that well, and there were some real gems along the way.

Hornsey Town Hall - council chamber1) When the London borough of Haringey was created in 1965, one of the urban districts it swallowed up was Hornsey. This left Hornsey Town Hall (on Crouch End Broadway) without a key municipal role, and over the years many parts of the building have fallen into disrepair. Which is a shame, because this flagship 1930s block is one of Britain's first Modernist public buildings. It looks a bit like a mini Tate Modern, with a tall central tower above a stark brick facade. The designer was a New Zealander, not yet 30, and had won a competition against hundreds of more established architects. He blessed the interior with bold light-filled spaces and all-natural finishings (such as marble, limestone and cork). Local people weren't initially taken by their new seat of government, some describing it as a "jam factory", but Uren's radical design has passed the test of time better than many most modern buildings ever will. For Open House we were treated to tours of the interior led by a knowledgeable guide, taking in the old theatre (now used for storage), a basement reception room (EastEnders used it for a wedding aftermath, apparently) and the formal civic wing. The tour was greatly enhanced by a series of understated cameos from a handful of in-character actors, which really added to the 30s atmosphere (round of applause to the organisers, bravo). The entire town hall is about to undergo major renovation and, by the look of the decaying horse-hair-filled leather chairs in the abandoned council chamber, there's a heck of a lot to be done.

Linear House2) 3) One of the joys of Open House in the suburbs is the opportunity to poke around inside other people's houses. Householders may ask you to take your shoes off before venturing within, or to stick blue plastic bags over your shoes to protect the carpet, but that's a small sacrifice compared to allowing the public indoors to scrutinise your hallway clutter, book collection and bedroom arrangements. At Linear House, in leafy Highgate, an award-winning newbuild home has somehow been crammed into a sloping patch of land without intruding too much on the neighbours. This two-winged hillside house has a green roof that links seamlessly to the garden below, and a spacious modern interior to get very jealous about. The centre of the house is based around a glass cube, with the lounge below and a remarkably open bedroom above looking out over the formal swimming pool. Another very different modern family home is to be found across the trees at 30 Cholmeley Crescent, carved out inside a typical 1920s semi. A sympathetic rear extension has created one large lounge at first floor level and a capacious kitchen below, from which stepping stones lead across a koi-filled moat to a ramped (but otherwise fairly ordinary) garden. It could only be the house of two married architects (whose bedroom naturally takes pride of place in the resculpted attic), battling to reach a compromise against council planning regulations. Both of these Highgate homes oozed style and character, and money for once put to excellent use.

Markfield Beam Engine (and cafe)4) On the banks of the Lea over Tottenham way (you may remember), lies Markfield Park, and within stands the Markfield Beam Engine. Built in the 1880s to transfer the sewage out of Tottenham, its 100 horsepower pumping engine is a rare survivor of that post-Bazalgette era. Yesterday marked the long-awaited reopening of the museum after an expensive facelift, and the Victorian workhorse was pumping away to the delight of the volunteers who've put in so much effort to maintain it. The flywheel is enormous - nine metres in diameter and weighing 17 tons. It was extremely therapeutic to watch it spin, accompanied by the clonking of the overhead beam and the wheezing of the steam engine below. It was easy to see why so many retired engineers are drawn to spend their time keeping the old beast purring. But as a museum attraction I'm not quite so convinced. The pump house is a marvellous airy building, but once you've watched the engine whirring for ten minutes there's not really much else to keep visitors occupied. Apart from the brand new cafe around the corner, that is, whose entrance I eventually found beyond a semi-vandalised skatepark. I was one of the first-day customers at Pistachios in the Park - a freshly-franchised operation who seemed more than delighted to serve me. I have my doubts that this out-of-the-way park will sustain their fledgling operation, but were I more local I'd be popping by for a chocolate and marshmallow brownie more often. [inaugural steam weekend continues today]

Triangle Children, Young People and Community Centre5) One of the joys of Open House weekend is being taken around a building by one of the architects who designed it. Try this in the suburbs and you might even get the architect to yourself. So it was at the Triangle Centre - a community space on St Ann's Road in South Tottenham - where Tom was waiting for someone, anyone to pop in for a visit. "Are you an architect?" he asked. Alas not, but I ventured to sound intelligent as I quizzed Tom during our lengthy walk through the building. We discussed the graffiti-proof green-shield cladding below a layer of already-weathered zinc. We investigated the air-conditioning louvres and mused upon the environmental merits of non-opening windows. We admired the beech-lined central hall and its flexible multi-generational functionality. We explored dedicated areas for the nursery and after-school club, seamlessly linked to their surroundings via lightwells and carefully-oriented windows. Even emptied of its toddlers, teenagers and pensioners, the entire building reeked of deliberate yet understated excellence. Places like this are never going to be popular on OH weekend, and yet its here in the underprivileged suburbs that architecture's really making a difference to the lives of so many.

And I also visited...
6) 7) Two very different places of learning: Highgate School, where a blazered sixth former directed me to the 19th century chapel; and Coleridge Primary School, whose vibrant new infant block evolved out of the former Hornsey School of Art.
8) Alexandra Palace Theatre, a desperately-in-need-of-renovation Victorian treasure, recently deemed unsafe and sealed off. I would have re-visited the BBC's original TV studio nextdoor, but alas the queue was an hour long.
9) 10) Two other locations, one at the start of the day and one at the end, neither of which were in Haringey. I may have 'done' Haringey in five hours flat, but its buildings are just as worthy of exploration as the City's historic jewels and shiny towers.

 Saturday, September 19, 2009

Earlier in the year, chatting over beer, blogger M@ from Londonist posed me an intriguing question. "What's the most surprising place in London you haven't actually visited yet?" he asked. I had to think for a bit, because I've had more than four decades to explore the capital and I've covered a heck of a lot of it. But I eventually decided that the most iconic place I'd never actually visited was Buckingham Palace. Everyone's done the outside, but I'd never managed to get myself inside. But now I've been to Buckingham Palace, so I can tick that off my list. Which leaves me thinking where's now the most famous place in London I haven't yet been?

I've done Parliament (Commons and Lords, but not yet the trip up the Clock Tower). I've done the Tower (fortress and Bridge, but not yet the Ceremony of the Keys). I've watched the acrobatic show at the heart of the Dome (but never quite felt the urge to go watch any performance at the O2). I've done all of Visit London's Top 10 London Attractions (although I was only little when I visited Madame Tussauds, and wild horses wouldn't drag me back now). And, thanks to London Open House, I've even done the inside of the Hoover Building, the depths of Churchill's Neasden bunker and the top floor of the Gherkin.

Mid-September, and it's London Open House weekend again! Another excellent opportunity to venture inside buildings I've never been inside before. Except that this is now my eighth London Open House, and I sort of feel I've done most of the really special places already. It didn't help that when booking opened for this year's invite-only buildings, I was sitting on a rain-lashed train somewhere outside Blackpool and therefore missed signing up to any of them.

So this year I thought I'd try something completely different. I thought I'd stick to Open Housing in just two London boroughs - one on Saturday and one on Sunday. One'll be north of the river and one south, one'll be central-ish and one rather further out, and both will (I think) be unexpected. I shall see some of the more ordinary special places for a change, and hopefully enjoy the experience all the more.

In the meantime, if you're out Open Housing this weekend, here are ten suggestions for places you might try:
Freemasons Hall (Sat): ornamental inner temple in Holborn, and HQ of the rolled-up trouser brigade (trowel not essential)
Village Underground (Sat): tube carriages on top of a viaduct in Shoreditch (now used as artists studios)
Royal Courts of Justice (Sat): behind the scenes of this vast Gothic building, including courts and cells (a great couple of hours)
Broadgate Tower (Sat, Sun): the new skyscraper north of Liverpool St station (ooh, that's quite special, innit?)
No 1 Croydon (Sat, Sun): otherwise known as the 50p building (because it looks like a pile of coins)
Barnardo's Village (Sat, Sun): charitable village for poor Victorian urchins (get the tube to Barkingside)
City Hall (Sat, Sun): Boris doesn't allow the public in as often as Ken (but you can do roof and ramp this weekend)
Foreign Office & India Office (Sat, Sun): opulent Whitehall building, paid for by the fruits of empire (queues likely)
Slice of Reality (Sun): that sliced ship moored just north of the Dome (yes, you can go aboard)
Roof Gardens (Sun): unlikely horticultural hideaway above Kensington High Street (arrive very early!)

Oh, and the the most famous place in London I haven't yet been? I'm thinking it might be Wembley Stadium. How hard can that be?

 Friday, September 18, 2009

A week in the life of the River Thames

Friday 11th September
» The Thames flows though London, as normal. Everybody knows where it is.

Saturday 12th September
» As tube services close down for the night, TfL station staff start to replace the previous tube map with the new decluttered tube map. The Thames suddenly vanishes.
» Mayor Boris Johnson prepares to fly to New York on a drum-beating trip to promote London. He is not currently incandescent.
» Hundreds of thousands of Londoners flock to the banks of the Thames to enjoy the Mayor's Thames Festival. All of them know exactly where the Thames is.

Sunday 13th September
» The poster-sized tube map continues to be pasted up at stations, although it's still not commonplace (and card versions remain rare).
» A few geeky tube types have correctly spotted that the river is missing from the new map, and are also busy discussing the implications of zonelessness.
» Hundreds of thousands more Londoners flock to the banks of the Thames to enjoy the second day of the Mayor's Thames Festival. All of them know still exactly where the Thames is.

Monday 14th September
» A few bloggers are running with the "Thames-free tube map" story, but the mainstream media are as yet oblivious.
» The new tube map is not yet available on the TfL website.
» The working week commences. The Thames has vanished, but most Londoners haven't noticed. They still think it's that wet thing between the Victoria Embankment and the South Bank.

Tuesday 15th September
» The Daily Telegraph is the first newspaper to realise that draining the Thames is a newsworthy story. Also noted are the possible negative implications of removing zones from the map.
» TfL reassures Londoners that there are many other ways in which zones can be checked, for example using the maps on trains and on ticket machines. They keep quiet about the Thames, but promise to listen to feedback.
» Old man river, he just keeps rolling.

Wednesday 16th September
» All hell breaks loose as the national and regional press leap on the story.
» The river removal scandal makes it to the Daily Mail, to the front cover of an evening freesheet and to several minutes on the BBC London evening news (amongst many others).
» The sudden loss of this fluvial icon is an abhorrent disaster and a national disgrace. Public groundswell demands reinstatement.
» "Why fix something that's not broken? The tube map was excellent the way it was, and the Thames was an essential part of the design."
» "i often use the position of the rivers as a basis for which station i need to get off at, this is a really daft idea, going to have to start catching busses so I can see where i am going."
» "they'll have employed a firm of consultants to make this decision, then another one to assess the outcry, then another one to reverse the decision...all paid for by you the stupid taxpayers...to all those people who voted Blair into power all those years ago, I hope you feel an ounce of responsibility and remorse at the joke Britain has become..."
» "Further erosion of English History by the Lunatic Left!!"
.
» The new tube map is still not yet available on the TfL website (because it's safest not to let the public actually see it).
» Evil TfL operatives continue to roll out the tainted Thames-free tube map across all stations on the network, the bastards.

Thursday 17th September
» Boris Johnson returns from New York to discover that London has a PR disaster on its hands. He moves fast, via Twitter, to reassure everyone that all will be well again. "Can’t believe that the Thames disappeared off the tube map whilst I was out the country! It will be reinstated... (1:30PM Sep 17th)"
» This is the same Boris who was IN the country when the maps were first installed. [Just landed in New York. Grey skies but special. (7:23PM Sep 12th)]
» This is the same Boris who, back in August, knew enough about the new tube map to offer his Twitter followers a sneak peek at its new cover. [Sneak peek at the new cover of the pocket Tube map by Turner Prize winner Richard Long for #TfL (9:52AM Aug 25th)]
» This is the same Boris who's the Chairman of TfL, and therefore jolly well ought to know what his organisation is doing, especially when they're printing hundreds of thousands of maps to a radical new design which must surely have been discussed at a Board meeting at least once.
» This is the same Boris who's now successfully passed the buck and come up smelling of roses as the People's Champion. "I hope Londoners will imagine the Thames in place until it reappears on the maps, and will not forget their beautiful river."
» So, yes, the upshot of this mega-furore is that the Thames is definitely going back on the tube map in December. The map'll need redoing anyway because the Circle line's being tweaked. No unexpected additional costs will be incurred.
» TfL are also "looking again at the provision of zonal information to ensure that it is widely available to customers". Which could mean that the zones go back on the map, or might just mean that they go back in the index.
» And then TfL said this: "We will also see what more can be done to respond to the feedback that we have been receiving on the map becoming too cluttered to be useful." And this is actually the best news of the day, whatever the rest of the media thinks.
Friday 18th September
» The Thames flows though London, as normal. Everybody knows where it is.

 Thursday, September 17, 2009

A Royal Day Out: Buckingham Palace

the front of Buckingham PalaceDuring the summer, while the Queen's out of town at one of her other official residences, the doors of Buckingham Palace are flung open to the public. Not her Royal Bedchamber and not the Royal Breakfast Room, but the official State Rooms where she entertains foreign dignitaries and other important citizens. This year they're open from 26 July to 30 September, and it only costs a small fortune to get inside. I went the whole hog and spent £29.50 on a "Royal Day Out", for which I was entitled to entrance to Buckingham Palace, the Queen's Gallery and the Royal Mews. It's expensive, but my ticket entitles me to go back to all three as many times as I like over the next year, which is pretty good value. I bought it from the temporary ticket office up the side of the Palace, where they employ a nice lady in a blue jacket to say "Cashier number 3 please" in plummy tones. It took a while to fill in all the Gift Aid details (yes, even the Queen claims back tax so that she can pay her taxes), and then a little longer to negotiate the obligatory security wand-check. Headphones on <check>, press play on audio guide <check>, step into palace through side entrance...

There's nothing overly glamorous to start the tour, just a short walk down an access corridor along the edge of the main quadrangle. An elevated outdoor platform gives a good view of the extensive central space where visitors arrive, surrounded on three sides by private apartments and the offices of the Royal Household. Behind at least one of those windows up there the Queen checks the Racing Post and pats her corgis. But the tour instead follows the ceremonial route into the State Rooms, via the appropriately-named Grand Entrance. It's both cavernous and welcoming, with red carpeted passageways and staircases leading further into the building. In this case ascent is via the Grand Staircase (where again the opulence of pre-Empire is on full display) to explore the entertainment suite on the first floor.

Don't think living space, think somewhere to ply important guests with champagne beneath a series of dramatic Nash ceilings. There's a Green Drawing Room, and a Blue Drawing Room, and a White Drawing Room - each of them significantly bigger than my flat. No monarchs sit around in the Throne Room looking important any more, although I bet they enjoy a stroll along the lengthy Picture Gallery after everybody else has gone home. Keep moving along please, the audio guide hints, because the public need to be kept on the go. My weekday morning visit wasn't too packed out and it was possible to see all the fixtures and fittings with relative ease, but weekends and afternoons are probably rather more crammed.

Every summer there's a different special exhibition halfway round the tour, and this year the theme is the Commonwealth. Yes, I know, don't switch off, especially if you like 20th century dressmaking. Here are several of the Queen's outfits worn on 60-years-worth of tours around the world, along with gifts given to her by the grateful citizens of the lands through which she ventured. A nice touch is that the audio guides continue to give detailed information about the background to these items, even though the exhibition itself will only be open for nine weeks. The crowdedest room on the entire tour, this.

The Ballroom comes as a bit of a shock, but then it ought to be no surprise that the royal dancehall is one of the largest single rooms in London. Once devoted to elegant after-dinner entertainment, it's now the place where the nation's great and good queue up to be invested, dubbed and medalled. Lesser visitors can sit and watch some of the Queen's holiday videos on a small TV, or admire some ethnic art along a nearby corridor. Still to be enjoyed are the State Dining Room, where place settings and porcelain are laid out with military precision, and the airy Music Room whose bow window looks out across the palace's back garden. And that's where the hour-and-a-bit tour ends up.

the back of Buckingham Palace

You'll probably never be invited to one of the Queen's garden parties, not unless you're especially charitable or affluent. But here anyone can enjoy a cup of tea and a cake in a cafe overlooking the lawn, even if they're not allowed on the grass. It's only at this point that the taking of photographs is permitted, either back towards the western facade of the palace or out towards the bottom of the garden. Her Majesty has a marvellously serene enclave here, rolling down to a meandering ornamental lake carved from the remnants of the lost River Tyburn. It's an endearing landscape, a mixture of the formal and the private, where it's almost possible to forget that outer London exists. Guests are permitted a final five minute stroll past the gift shop round the wooded banks of the lake, and then it's back to the non-regal side of the perimeter wall. Come October, the lucky Queen gets the whole lot back to herself again.

Four Buckingham Palace garden photos: palace / view from terrace / lawn / lake


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islington
ID cards
bedtime
freeview
beckton
blogads
eclipses
letraset
arsenal
sitcoms
gherkin
calories
everest
muffins
sudoku
camilla
london
ceefax
robbie
becks
dome
BBC2
paris
lotto
118
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