Saturday, October 31, 2009
1000 days to go
4000 days to go - Tuesday 14th August 2001
London's not planning on bidding for any Olympics, oh no. Instead all eyes are on the 2005 World Athletics Championships, which are scheduled to be held in a new stadium at Picketts Lock. It'll be a triumph, obviously. Planning is well underway, but there are funding worries (the whole project might cost - shock horror - nearly £110m!). Surely the Government wouldn't dream of pulling out...
The workerfolk at Tyrone Ltd, in their big yellow shed up Marshgate Lane, are busy making luxury lace curtains.
I'm just about to move into a flat in unfashionable Bow, less than a mile from a spot that'll be world-famous in eleven years time. Thankfully my letting agents don't yet know this, otherwise my rent could have been considerably higher.
3000 days to go - Monday 10th May 2004
The Picketts Lock fiasco is long forgotten. Instead all eyes are on London's proposed bid for the 2012 Olympic Games. Seb Coe & Co plan to plonk an Olympic Stadium in the Lower Lea Valley, despite less-than-wild enthusiasm from the businesses on top of whom it would be plonked.
Just like any Monday, there are bits of car for sale at JJ Autos on Carpenters Road. Why worry about the future? London might not reach the final shortlist of five cities at the end of the month, and will almost certainly lose out to Paris in the big vote next year. So it's business as usual.
A London Games will never happen, obviously, but I'm still regularly out and about along Stratford's industrial riverbanks, just in case.
2000 days to go - Sunday 4th February 2007
It's coming! The Olympics are really coming to London this time, and the Government can't possibly withdraw (however loudly grumpy budget-blasting taxpayers might complain). The Lower Lea Valley is being bought up, patch by patch, and then hundreds of acres will be sealed off in the summer so that they can be transformed from warehouses into grandstands.
At the Manor Garden allotments, hopes remain high that the ODA might want to preserve a patch of sustainable foodstuffs amongst the corporate burgershacks. But every plotholder secretly realises that this spring's planting will be the last.
I think I might go up onto the Greenway and take a photo of the emerging stadium once a month. While I still can.
1000 days to go - Saturday 31st October 2009
We have a stadium. Its crown of white girders has been dominating the E15 skyline for a while now, reminding local residents that their communities are about to be transformed. The area around the stadium still looks a complete featureless mess, but the skeleton of several other Olympic venues is already ascending.
Bosses at H Forman & Son now look out towards the stadium from the pinkish balcony of their state-of-the-art salmon smokery. Somewhere beyond the Lea, precisely where their not quite state-of-the-art factory used to be, there's a Royal box and a heck of a lot of ramped terracing.
In Greenwich, angry protesters flock to complain about the terrible damage 75 horses will do to their favourite World Heritage park. Other residents aren't quite so paranoid. Quick - the official consultation period ends today, so there's just time to submit your blinkered bigotry (or otherwise) online.
0000 days to go - Friday 27th July 2012
London becomes the first city ever to host the Olympics three times. Yah boo sucks to you Paris.
The eyes of the world are on Parkes Galvanising (or, at least, the spot where Parkes Galvanising used to be). Umpteen thousand people have forked out a lot of money to watch the Olympic Opening Ceremony in the pouring rain (and are hoping it's more exciting than Leona Lewis on a bus).
Several security guards want to give me a rigorous patdown before I'm allowed into the Olympic Park to watch the First Night Fireworks from what will one day be my local park. But for the next fortnight, this park belongs to the world.
1000 days after - Thursday 23rd April 2015
The Olympics are long gone. But there's a nice new swimming pool for the people of Stratford to splash around in, and a shiny Velodrome precisely where the old cycling circuit used to be, and some nice ex-Village flats for rich bankers to spend their bonuses on. That's proper legacy for you.
The Waterside Cafe in the Olympic Park has just opened for its first spring season. Maybe some customers will turn up one day and sit by the river and throw chunks of blueberry flapjack at the swans.
Andrew Gilligan is still complaining that one of the flowerbeds in Greenwich Park looks a bit trampled.
2000 days after - Wednesday 17th January 2018
Everybody's talking about the Olympics... but the buzz is no longer about London. It's the Winter Games opening ceremony in Reykjavik tomorrow. Do you think Brooklyn Beckham has a chance in the Snowboard Freestyle?
West Ham are playing midweek football at their new 25,000 seater stadium in the Olympic Park. Unfortunately, now that they're floundering in the lower reaches of Division Two, the former Royal Box has been renamed the Tumbleweed End.
Just beyond the Westfield shopping centre, beneath the rusting spire of the Boris Johnson Memorial Tower, thousands of relocated Newham residents are living in elevated shoeboxes and cardboard-wall terraces amongst some of the most expensive parkland on the planet. Some of them even go swimming occasionally. £9.3bn well spent. No, really.
posted 10:00 :
Friday, October 30, 2009I'm not sure I ever said thanks properly. I think I did, maybe even several times, but it might not have have come across coherently at the time. So here it is again, with a lot more feeling, better late than never. Thanks!
You didn't have to come round, but I'm very relieved that you did. You cancelled everything you had planned, all your weekend activities, and probably woke up a lot earlier than usual too. It was quite a journey, hardly just around the corner, and I can only imagine what you were chatting about on the way down.
You don't know how glad I was to see you. It had been a long night since I phoned, a very strange and troubling night, and I hadn't slept much. So much to do, and so little actually done. And there you were on the doorstep, like a rock of normality, to give me something sane to hang onto. So very glad.
I'm not normally an emotional person, but I think I made up for it when you arrived. I reckon I should react like that more often, to be honest, although without the need for some sort of crisis to bring it about. I'm usually a lot more at ease, and a lot more in control - and I think I have you to thank for that too.
There was plenty needed to be done, and I couldn't possibly have managed it all by myself. A lot of traipsing around, here and there, in and out, and especially up and down. That bewildered kitten kept getting in the way, didn't she? And we spent far too long in the garage, but then I never did travel light.
Then we all sat down to eat lunch, all of us together somewhere other than your place for once. Ham rolls - always a safe and reliable option in such circumstances. You sat there and discussed what was going on in your lives, and I remember feeling totally disassociated from it all, in a little bubble all of my very own.
Another long journey ahead. That cup of tea at the far end was very welcoming, almost normal. I know I didn't stay long, not on that occasion, because I had a lot more falling apart to do elsewhere. But I felt like I was imposing, taking over part of your lives unexpectedly, even though I know you were only too glad to help.
Thanks for never saying "I told you so", even though I bet you were thinking it. Thanks for helping me to move forward with an absolute minimum of fuss. And thanks for your unfailing support, especially on that day when I needed it the most. For always being there, before and since, I so very thank you.
posted 07:00 :
Thursday, October 29, 2009Bits and pieces (and stuff)
The Croydon Canal was 200 years old last week. It's nigh impossible to spot this waterway today, because most of it was buried beneath the New Cross to West Croydon railway in the 1830s. I would have blogged about it, except I suspect you're heartily sick of me exploring southeast London this month. So here's a very brief history. And here's a very detailed map. And here's what you'll find along its route today (click the links at the foot of the page).
2009 is already a record-breaking year for singles sales, almost all of them downloaded.
Which explains why it's so bloody difficult to buy a CD single any more.
Retail sales of singles by format, UK Year Physical Digital Total Sales 2003 30.8m - 30.8m 2006 13.9m 53.0m 66.9m 2009 (so far) 1.6m 116.0m 117.6m
One of those 1.6 million is mine. And none of the 116 million. I'm so behind the times.
I know how interested all sorts of people are in the River Fleet. Now Camden Council has its own webpage on the borough's very own lost waterway, complete with recently surveyed map. Enjoy the photographs.
Ooh, now this is interesting. Comparemyradio.com. A new website which compares all the songs and artists played by different radio stations over the last 30 days. Capital Radio is obsessed by JLS and the Black Eyed Peas, playing each more than 10 times a day. Heart love Robbie Williams more than any other station. Radio 1 and Smooth Radio have very little in common. Radio 2 has greater music variety than any other station surveyed. Absolute Radio (whose website this is) are still playing Journey's Don't Stop Believin' several times a month. I could play with this tool for longer than I could listen to most of the radio stations under scrutiny.
(sssh, it's the Meridian again) One of the buildings the Greenwich Meridian passes through is Meridian Primary School in Greenwich. And one of the schools' parents is the cartoonist Banx, who's designed some very-Greenwich Christmas cards (available now via a special blog). Yes, obviously there's a meridian-themed card. Set of six, three quid, all proceeds to the school.
Watching the C4 Heston Blumenthal / Little Chef programme last night, I had an irrational urge (along with half the viewing audience) to go and visit his Popham restaurant. Except it's in the middle of nowhere unless you have a car, and I don't. Ditto the new Kettering revamp. So I wondered where the nearest (bog-standard) Little Chef to London actually is. Alas, the company's website collapses every time I try to do any kind of geographical search.
Mid-80s popstars on Twitter: Nik Kershaw, Howard Jones, Stephen 'Tin Tin' Duffy, Bananarama, Annie Lennox, Pet Shop Boys, Holly Johnson, Boy George, Nick Heyward, Nick Beggs (er, enough)
posted 07:00 :
Wednesday, October 28, 2009Do you remember, before Jenson Button became proper famous, his cheesy TV infomercial for the BBC's Red Button service. If so, you may have been tempted to start pressing red to access a whole variety of interactive (and not quite so interactive) televisual features. The digital replacement for Ceefax, for example, which manages to stick even fewer words on your screen than the old Mode 7 Teletext graphics ever did. The News Multiscreen service, perhaps, which loops the latest news headlines and weather forecasts in miniature hard-to-view quadrants. Or one of the additional interactive channels hidden away behind the scenes, probably showing sport or music or background features. Extra content, extra choice.
Until yesterday. Yesterday the BBC's Red Button content slimmed down, or at least it did for those of us watching on Freeview. Less content, less choice. Two of the services were snuffed out, now available only to folk with Sky, cable or Freesat. Taking their place, for the time being, absolutely nothing. This change isn't about saving money, it's about realigning Freeview's services for the far distant future. I count myself amongst the many people who aren't terribly happy about it, not happy at all.
The first casualty of Tuesday's extinguishing is the News Multiscreen service. Want to catch up on the latest news headlines right now without waiting up to 30 minutes for the BBC News Channel to get round to telling you. Sorry, you can't have news "now" any more, you'll have to wait. Want to watch that two-minute catch-up on the latest Afghan situation or the credit crunch? Maybe one of your neighbours with a satellite dish will let you pop round and have a look. Want to check the weather forecast as spoken by a real human being, rather than relying on the BBC website's embarrassingly inaccurate short range graphics? No longer an option. Not good.
And the second casualty is channel 302, the second of the BBC's additional red button channels. Everyone can still get 301, but 302 has gone dark to the entire Freeview audience. This means there's now only one place to view 'extras', not two, so expect to see fewer additional sporting events, fewer interesting Grand Prix camera angles and only half as many alternative stages at Glastonbury. On Monday, for example, Freeviewfolk wanting an Electric Proms catch-up could have chosen between Shirley Bassey on 301 or Robbie Williams on 302. On Tuesday Robbie (and 302) disappeared, leaving only Dame Shirl on looping repeat. Half the options, half the fun.
Freeview's sports fans will probably feel the greatest severance. Let's take next weekend's red button sporting action as an example (it's here, if you're interested). Saturday morning's Grand Prix Third Practice, no problem, but the subsequent "Live coverage of Qualifying, with choice of commentaries" is "Not available on Freeview". Likewise you'll be able to watch Final Score with Gabby but not the simultaneous Rugby League Four Nations Forum. The evening's live coverage of the Cycling Track World Cup will be halted on Freeview an hour earlier than for viewers on other services. On Sunday, the 11-hour rolling repeat of the Football League Show will be invisible on Freeview, as will all the extra Grand Prix commentary options and rolling highlights that BBC viewers have recently come to expect. And if you want to watch Cardiff v Nottingham Forest live, sorry, you'll have to wait until the New York Marathon finishes because that's been deemed more important.
And what's the BBC's excuse for these newly-blank channels? High Definition telly, that's what. HD isn't yet available on Freeview, and they think it ought to be, eventually, when suitable set-top boxes and bandwidth exist. You'll need to buy a new (expensive) DVB-T2 MPEG-4-coded digibox, none of which are yet available, in order to watch HD versions of programmes you're already getting. And HD services will be available in some regions faster than others, depending on digital switchover date, and could take up to three years to reach your local transmitter. In the meantime, Grand Prix on-board camera shots and Robbie Williams have been unnecessarily sacrificed. Given that there are currently millions of Freeview sports fans and no Freeview HD viewers, it'll come as no surprise that a succession of BBC blogposts announcing the withdrawal have been besieged with angriness.
Never fear, say the BBC, because you can always view these lost streams on our website. The news headlines and weather forecast, they're online, as are all the sporting events and post-mortems no longer available on Freeview TV. Which is fine so long as you have a decent broadband connection and a computer and nobody else in the family is using it to check eBay or shoot aliens. For the significant minority of Britons still not connected to the web, many of them poor or elderly, the BBC website option is as blank as their TV screens. This is particularly galling when the rest of Freeview is still clogged up with rubbish like The Diamonique Hour and the 23rd repeat of Dragon's Den on Dave, but that's how it is.
This week's digital slimdown appears to be an ill-conceived strategic error, and a classic example of removing something before its replacement is ready. No doubt one day, when the entire nation is capable of viewing Jenson Button's wrinkles in full eye-watering close-up detail, we'll wonder what all the fuss was about. But in the meantime, the discriminatory message "Press your red button now (not available on Freeview)" is about to become depressingly familiar.
posted 00:10 :
Tuesday, October 27, 2009Another month, another new London station. Don't get too used to this rapid infrastructure rollout, because the run of fresh stations won't last more than another year. But ooh, bright shiny DLR station alert. Have you been yet?
South Quay is a mid-Docklands station used mostly by office workers whose companies can't afford the bigger brasher skyscrapers further up the line. It boasts a turbulent but brief history. Originally constructed in 1987, South Quay was given a major revamp in 1994 when the DLR proved much more popular than expected. Then in 1996 the IRA exploded a ceasefire-breaking bomb close by and the station had to be re-rebuilt. And now it's been completely rebuilt yet again, this time 125 metres further east, as part of the DLR's Three Carriage Capacity Enhancement Project. The previous station was sandwiched inbetween two bends and couldn't be extended to take longer trains, hence the need to start again from scratch alongside a straighter stretch of track. We can only hope that this latest resurrection survives a bit longer.
Aside: TfL are very proud that they've managed to construct the new station immediately adjacent to the railway without disrupting services. Their latest press release boasts that "clever engineering techniques by contractors Taylor Woodrow meant the replacement station was constructed without the line, or the old station, once being closed." This may indeed be true, construction-wise. But the entire arm out to Lewisham was closed last weekend, essentially so that the new South Quay station could be properly 'tested'. And that's why it took me over an hour to get home from Lewisham to Bow by bus on Sunday afternoon, rather than half an hour on the DLR, so I spit in the face of this particular press release.
The new South Quay station opened yesterday with minimal fanfare. Certain local residents managed to get there during daylight hours and take several decent photos. By the time I arrived, however, it was very dark. Very dark, that is, except in the space immediately underneath the station where it was very bright indeed. Somebody's installed lighthouse-strength illumination below the platforms, shining out into the surrounding area like a glaring beacon. Office workers streaming home weren't going to miss their new departure point.
The new station is built above water, spanning the canal between the West India and Millwall Docks. This means it has two entrances - one lesser pair of staircases to the east, and a much flashier main entrance to the west. An occasionally useful byproduct of this will be than when a passing boat causes the swingbridge to be raised, pedestrians will still be able to cross the canal via the platforms above. An annoying byproduct of this is that passengers arriving by train have been given no obvious clue as to which exit is which, nor that one involves a heck of a lot of stairs and the other a nice comfy escalator.
South Quay's main ground-level concourse feels rather unwelcoming, in that it's essentially a gaping chasm beneath a concrete railway track. Good luck working out where to go. I watched one lost commuter walking up to the far end only to discover a useless waterside terrace rather than any useful station access. And then I tried to find the up escalator for myself. I walked up to the obvious one, only to spot that it was barely moving, and downwards. They've installed intelligent energy-saving escalators here which only ramp up to normal speed when approached - and only when approached from the right end. It took me a while to spot the illuminated "no entry" sign on this particular escalator, so then had to wander off in search of the proper 'up' one. Minimal signage meant that it wasn't as obvious as it should have been.
Then a slow glide up to the platform to enjoy the elevated South Quay experience. I bet there's a fine watery view out across the dock during daylight hours, whereas yesterday's rush hour offered only overlookable twinkling lights. Instead I got to stare at the glassy metally walls, and the very bright lights, and the 'next train' indicator. I was pleased that it hadn't been installed by cretins and was therefore fully legible. I was less than impressed by the scrolling message along the bottom which read "Passengers are advised that the new South Quay station is now open". Well, yeah, duhhh, obviously.
These are proper three-carriage-length platforms, although DLR trains are currently still only two. This caused teething difficulties as commuters spread out to enjoy the full length of their new platform, then had to run to catch an arriving train when it arrived shorter than expected. They'll get the hang of it soon. The new South Quay certainly beats the old one, which is already dark and being dismantled a short distance away. Bad news - another line closure will be required to get rid of it.
posted 07:00 :
Monday, October 26, 2009This is the 10th year that the curators at Tate Modern have invited a world-renowned artist to fill their Turbine Hall. It's not an easy space to fill, what with it being huge and that, but several of them have had a good stab. Light, sound and vision have been all invoked, with some artists concentrating on the floor below and others on the air above. And it's getting tougher and tougher to think of something original, something that'll make the visiting public go "Ooh, that's different, I like that". This year, after a bunkbed duffer last, I think we've another winner.
This year the theme is darkness, with the appearance of an all-enveloping giant steel box on stilts. It doesn't look terribly exciting from the second level overbridge, more like an oversized freight container, but then it's not the exterior that's important here. The box's creator is Miroslaw Balka, a Polish architectural artist, and he's the first commissionee to create something the Tate audience can actually walk inside. To find the way in, walk up to the far end of the Turbine Hall and stand at the foot of the ramp rising back into the box. Dark, isn't it?
If the intention is to unnerve, then "How It Is" succeeds admirably. You know there can't be anything too terrible ahead, like a pit of snakes or a rotary machete, because nobody inside the box is screaming. But there could be something unpleasant, or fearsome, or potentially painful lurking in the darkness, couldn't there? And that's precisely what the artist is hoping you'll think, evoking echoes of wartime innocents being herded into concentration camps. Don't worry. Take the installation on trust, and step inside.
If you don't want to know what's inside the box until you visit for yourself, stop reading now. The rotary machete (or whatever) will then come as a complete surprise.
It is very dark indeed inside the box. Even if you've heard reports of how dark it is, the pitchblackness of the interior will still surprise you. That's so long as all the participants are playing by the rules and keeping their cameras in their pockets, as requested by a polite sign at the entrance to the artwork. While your eyes are attempting to adjust to the darkness, the last thing you want to see is the flash of a camera or the glow of a mobile screen. Needless to say, there are plenty. It's clearly not feasible to tell today's youth to put their mobiles away, because they'd be lost without them. That pinpoint of bright light you can see, that's some selfish twat taking a photo so that they can send dimly-lit facial images to their mates. Please resist the temptation to punch them in the face (even though in the darkness they'd never know who hit them).
As you move forward, you may become convinced that you're about to walk into something. Or more likely someone - walking back the other way and accidentally bumping into you. Relax, it doesn't happen. What's more likely is that you'll reach the far end of this cavernous space without noticing. It's very hard to judge distance in the dark, or at least to match how far you've walked with the length you saw so clearly on the outside. The best indicator that the end is nigh is an increased level of chatter immediately ahead, because everybody stops at the far wall to survey their position. And yes, the far wall is soft and velvety, so don't be too surprised when you end up with a face full of fur.
And then turn round, and see the box for the illusion it truly is. With daylight trickling in from the windows in the Turbine Hall wall, everything between you and the ramp is now visible in eerie silhouette. A sea of cautiously bobbing heads is approaching - slowly, steadily, oblivious to the daylight flooding in behind. And that's why nobody bumped into you on the way in, because you were as wholly visible to them as they were invisible to you. Soak in the view for a while longer, at least until some fresh arrival blunders onto the very spot where you're already standing and displaces you. Then tread carefully back to the world outside, now more certain of precisely where you're heading. Illuminating, that's how it is.
The Turbine Hall 10 (in order of interestingness)
1) Olafur Eliasson - The Weather Project: A giant radiating orange sun which Londoners took to their hearts 
2) Carsten Höller - Test Site: Several slippery twisty-turny metal slides (use at own risk, ouch!) 
3) Louise Bourgeois - I Do, I Undo, I Redo: Three thin sculpted towers to climb, with big mirrors on the top 
4) Miroslaw Balka - How It Is: Walk into a very dark box, and try not to bash your nose into the furry wall 
5) Anish Kapoor - Marsyas: Three steel rings sheathed in a one-piece PVC membrane 
6) Juan Muñoz - Double Bind: Stand beneath a low floor as lifts rise and fall through the space above 
7) Doris Salcedo - Shibboleth: A big crack in the floor (the filled-in trench is still very visible) 
8) Rachel Whiteread - Embankment: Thousands and thousands of white boxes to wander between 
9) Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster - TH 2058: Blue and yellow bunkbeds form a futuristic refugee camp 
10) Bruce Nauman - Raw Materials: 22 audio recordings to stop and listen to (if you can be bothered) 
posted 07:00 :
Sunday, October 25, 2009
T LONDON A-Z
An alphabetical journey through the capital's museums
Location: 25 The Embankment, Twickenham TW1 3DU [map]
Open: Tue, Sat 11am-3pm (& Sun, 2pm-4pm)
Brief summary: historical riverside Richmond
Time to set aside: less than half an hour
There are several small local museums sprinkled around the London suburbs, each telling the story of their neighbourhood to anyone who cares to pop in. Southwest London has a fair few, including historical hideaways in Richmond and Kingston-upon-Thames. But I went to Twickenham, purely because it started with the letter T. It was either there or to the tiny Twinings Museum in the Strand. I might have misjudged.
Twickenham Embankment is a very pleasant spot. It's located away from the High Street, down by the river, facing the midstream boathouses of white-gabled Eel Pie Island. This is a great place to feed the swans, or to watch the pleasure cruisers chug by, or to sit outside the Barmy Arms for an alfresco post-rugby ale. There's even a cascade dripping with sculpted naked ladies in the gardens of York House, which isn't something you see every day. As for Twickenham Museum, that's to be found in a Grade 2 listed townhouse up winding Church Lane, with proper Georgian windows and a pale green door. Occasionally a blue sign appears on the door, and another on the wall alongside, bearing a boldly welcoming "OPEN". Ten hours a week, the museum's volunteer curators await someone to chat to.
I earned a cheery hello from the jolly retired lady behind the desk, then walked into the alcove behind her desk to take a look at some photos of old Twickenham. There were a lot of photos of old Twickenham in the museum, and of Whitton, Teddington and the Hamptons. Each panel showed some buildings how they used to look, then how they look now, with some meaningful words inbetween. They're no doubt fascinating if you live hereabouts, but I don't, so I nipped round the alcove a little briefly. A grey-haired bloke walked in through the front door who I thought looked suspiciously like very-local inventor Trevor Baylis. Alas not, I was assured, just another volunteer popping in to say hello. Official visitor numbers for the day remained in single figures.
There was only the one room downstairs, bedecked with more old/new photos and a cabinet of TW1 curiosities. Programmes for Twickenham's Charter Day, old bits of printed paper, that sort of thing. Beneath the stairs a diving costume tableau provided a reminder of underwater stuntman 'Professor Cockles', who entertained riverside crowds here from the 30s to the 70s. Museumfolk reconstructed one of his dives a few years back, managing to retrieve a bunch of keys and an eel from the murky depths of the neighbouring Thames, because they're inventive like that.
And there was only the one room upstairs. More history and more bygone photos - again rather more on the walls than in the cabinets. The whole northern-Thames-side stretch of Richmond borough was covered, including various elegant village-ettes I've never personally visited. Depressingly little on Eel Pie Island, I thought, given that it was a fascinating location and only 100 metres away. While I was investigating upstairs another couple of visitors nipped into the museum, and nipped round, and nipped back outside again. But I still had time to make one further discovery about the house itself, which is that 25 The Embankment had once been owned by Thomas Twining, the legendary 18th century leaf importer. My museum trip had come up trumps, as I bagged an unexpected two for T.
by train: Twickenham
OK, I confess, I was wholly underwhelmed by the Twickenham Museum. I couldn't fault the enthusiasm of the volunteers, and the old house had a bit of character, but the former hadn't really filled the latter with much interesting "stuff". Words and pictures yes, but you don't need to walk through the door to see those, they're just as easily absorbed on the museum's website. And the website's detailed, and fact-packed, and excellent. So go there instead.
T is also for...
» Tower Bridge Museum (I've been)
» Tower of London (I've been)
» Twickenham Rugby Museum
posted 00:20 :
Saturday, October 24, 2009Every time my laptop powers up successfully, I breath a small sigh of relief. I've had it nearly four years now, ever since its predecessor failed to fire up properly one Saturday morning and presented me with the notorious Windows blue screen of death. An expensive failure, as it turned out, but my laptop has more than paid its way by providing thousands of hours of uptime service. I use it rather more than your average laptop user, which helps explain why it now runs rather slower than before and why its memory banks are almost full. A replacement laptop is, I suspect, long overdue.
My switch-on sigh of relief has been louder this week. That's because my laptop is old enough to still run on Windows XP, so I've been holding my breath through every week of Windows Vista rollout in the hope that I could leapfrog its innate rubbishness. Had my laptop died prematurely, I'd have been forced to upgrade to some crappy memory-hungry operating system that nobody likes much. But now we've reached the end of October 2009, Windows 7 is finally an alternative option. I need never sully my mouse fingers with Vista, I can buy into a better-thought-out future. Phew.
(Mac users, please, stop right there. I know you're going to tell me to abandon Microsoft's global empire and get myself a Mac instead. Save your breath, it ain't going to happen. See Charlie Brooker for details)
So, er, right, new laptop. I need one that's got Windows 7 already installed, rather than some week-old Vista machine which requires an upgrade. Are they out yet, or will I get a better choice if I wait a bit? I've pretty much filled my old laptop with stuff (mostly photos), so I suspect "amount of available memory" is going to be very important. But I don't use my laptop to play games, or to fire laser guns at lifelike vector graphics of American soldiers, so multi-media processor power isn't top of my shopping list. I don't take my laptop out and about much, although it might be useful if I could, so maybe increased portability is an important option. But I need a decent sized screen - nothing titchy and squinty - so a netbook probably isn't the answer. I also have an old 20th century printer/scanner/copier I'm very fond of, which I suspect is no longer supported by modern printer drivers. Do I need to fork out for the XP emulator in Windows 7 Professional, or can I keep on printing another way?
I've decided that price doesn't need to be too great a restriction. My current laptop may have cost a fair bit up front, but it's had a heck of a lot of use for the equivalent of well under a pound a day. I'm hoping that this next one will last me past the Olympics, so value for money should be assured. Which just leaves me trying to decide which model to get. There's far too much choice out there, and I'd hate to end up regretting buying a substandard inappropriate machine. I must go hunting now that Windows 7 is here, and pick, and choose, and buy. And fast, because sooner or later my current laptop is bound to give up the ghost and die, and I'd hate not to have jumped ship by then.
<scratches head> <thinks>
posted 08:00 :
Friday, October 23, 2009So look, I've had this idea to save the Royal Mail.
And it's brilliant, and no taxpayers money is wasted.
One of the most annoying things about Royal Mail is that they refuse to deliver your post if it has inadequate postage. Some idiot has sent you a letter with insufficient stamps on the front, perhaps, or else been baffled by complex new pricing instructions involving weight and thickness. Sorry, a few pence under, delivery refused. The postie then slips a card through your letterbox, detailing excess charges required, and your intended mailshot is kept hostage back at the sorting office until you agree to pay up.
And it's not cheap is it? Not only do you have to pay back every penny the sender omitted, this is also dwarfed by a whacking great "handling fee". An extra pound or so on top of the surcharge, notionally to cover the cost of the postman scribbling a few illegible details on a card, and a missed delivery can suddenly become very expensive indeed. But you've got to pay up otherwise you'll never find out what your mystery package is, let alone ever get to open it. It's daylight robbery, obviously. But it could also save the business.
Here's my plan.
Get yourself an envelope, stick a folded sheet of waste paper inside, and make sure you definitely don't stick a stamp on the front. Then write down an address of your choice (and here's the cunning bit), preferably of somebody you know but don't like. Pop the envelope into a postbox, and that's your job well done.
Some days later your selected nemesis will receive an "undelivered" card through their letterbox. It'll tell them they've been sent a letter with insufficient postage, but not what that mystery package might be. Imagine their consternation. It might be a bill, but there again it might be a cheque. It might be junkmail, but there again it might be a premium bond win. It might be a letter from a long-lost auntie, except she's stuck it in too big an envelope and fallen foul of complicated breadth and depth regulations. However much they might want to ignore this unexpected missive, they daren't. So they'll head down to the sorting office and pay their one pound thirty something, just in case. You can probably imagine their anger on discovering that the contents of their expensive envelope really weren't worth the money. But by then your financial good deed is done. Outlay (to you) nil, profit (to the Royal Mail) £1. Kerching.
To truly succeed, my plan needs to be multiplied through the collective efforts of the entire population. If we all chip in and we all send an unstamped envelope to somebody we don't like, the Royal Mail will suddenly be tens of millions of pounds better off. And we don't need to stop at doing this only once. Let's all send another unstamped envelope a few weeks later, to somebody different this time. They might be a bit suspicious, but they'll still not resist paying because it might just be a really important letter they daren't miss. Keep this up over several months and the Royal Mail could soon have collected enough £1 surcharges to yank their business back into the black. Result!
This really is something for nothing. It's a bit naughty, admittedly, but it's not illegal. And it manages to annoy somebody you hate without them ever being able to trace the evildoing back to you. Please, feel no guilt, because the benefits to the country as a whole are huge. Indeed this is, I'm sure you'll agree, the perfect solution for rescuing a beloved national organisation from collapse and eventual bankruptcy. My plan cannot fail to succeed, just so long as postmen continue to make regular daily deliveries.... (ah, bugger).
posted 07:00 :
Thursday, October 22, 2009As anyone who lives outside the capital will have noticed, London's bus service is bloody marvellous. Buses go everywhere, often and cheaply, even late in the evening and on Sundays. And that's because London's bus service is planned and coordinated by a non-profit-making body which aims to serve the resident population, not far-distant shareholders. We're bloody lucky, we are.The TfL bus network has four key performance targets, as follows:In total, London's buses run more than 500 million kilometres each year. That may sound like a heck of a lot, but it's actually less than 200 metres per Londoner per day. If you travel further than that, then you're enjoying more than your fair share. But Boris's latest transport plans are about to cause the London bus network to contract, because a £150m cut to bus service subsidy will result in running 26 million fewer kilometres per year. That's a 5% cut, equivalent to one in every 20 buses scrapped or cancelled. Coming soon, to a bus stop near you.
Comprehensive - routes should be designed to run within 5 minutes (or 400m) of most homes
Frequent - as many routes as possible should run at least every 12 minutes (i.e. a "turn-up-and-go" service)
Simple - the route should be as simple as possible, and operate at the same terminals at weekends
Reliable - journey times along routes are regularly tested
But what to cut? A few rush hour buses, so that we can all pack in more tightly together? That's likely, apparently. How about reducing bus frequencies, so that the gap between services is a bit longer than before. That's also likely, on certain routes, although (to give one very specific promise) nothing quite so drastic as doubling waiting times from 6 to 12 minutes. Or how about shortening routes, especially those bits near to the terminus where buses run almost empty. Curtailment might mean passengers have to change more often, and wait longer, and pay twice, but they'd still be able to reach their desired destination eventually. Not an option, obviously, is the cancellation of Boris's debendification plan, nor the derailing of his Routemaster replacement. Which leaves one final possibility - scrapping routes altogether.
There are a number of buses in London which carry very few passengers. Take the U10 through Ickenham, for example, or the 464 to Biggin Hill, or the 375 to Passingford Bridge. Why not scrap those? Their loss would inconvenience only a tiny minority of Londoners, wouldn't they, and the money saved could then go on preserving services in Inner London instead. Except that such actions wouldn't ensure the running of a socially inclusive bus network. Increase the number of places unreachable by bus, or reachable only irregularly or infrequently, and many more of us will need to buy cars. Surely London doesn't need to move in that direction, sacrificing the welfare of many to the great god Austerity.
So look, I'd like to propose a bus local to me that I think ought to be cut, erased, eradicated. A bus that I believe is burning up taxpayers money with every journey, rumbling around nigh empty, going nowhere special, five times an hour. A bus whose loss nobody would mourn, and whose sacrifice might help to preserve more socially-necessary routes eleswhere. It's the 425. It runs from Stratford to Clapton, past my house, in a big indirect dog-leg via Mile End. Let's scrap it.
The 425 is a new-ish bus, introduced last year as part of a major reorganisation of routes in the Bow area. Its route is almost entirely duplicated by other services. If you want to get from Stratford to Hackney you can catch a 276. If you want to get from Stratford to Mile End you can catch a 25. If you want to get from Bow to Clapton you can catch a 488. If you want to get from Mile End to Hackney you can catch a 277. And if you want to get from my house to Homerton Hospital (because bus routes always go to hospitals) you can catch either the 276 or the 488, there's no need for a 425 option as well. Indeed the hospital loop is a real diversionary blight on the 425's route, crawling round the backstreets of Homerton in a jam-snarling figure of eight, and putting a real dampener on anybody intending to ride the 425 as a rapid through service. Because it isn't.
And all this explains why I rarely see a 425 bus even a quarter full. Believe me, I've looked, I've checked, and I know. Rumbling along Bow Road they go, these brightly lit double-decker boxes on wheels, with 60-odd vacant seats and only a handful occupied. And then again, 12 minutes later, another nigh-empty subsidy-gobbling vehicle rolls by. There's probably one whizzing past my front door even now, taking nobody in particular to nowhere much. At the very least the entire service should be downgraded from double decker to single decker, and soon, because in 15 months I've almost never seen a 425 so full that a single decker couldn't have coped. Utter waste, the top deck is.
I'm reassured that Boris isn't thinking of cutting back London's bus services more severely, slashing the network root and branch in line with market forces. But if 5% has to go, I offer up my local 425 for sacrifice. It'd not be missed, and the savings made might help rescue an outer London lifeline that really matters. So come on TfL, how about a 425% cut?
posted 04:25 :
Wednesday, October 21, 2009Stuff climate change. What London needs, obviously, is a new carbon-guzzling airport. Otherwise international air travellers will go somewhere else and the UK will become less important and that would never do. If you accept this argument, then a new runway or two in the southeast appears inevitable. Heathrow wouldn't be popular, because that would involve bulldozing communities and blighting the lives of vociferous constituents. So Boris is looking east to somewhere where nobody lives and no Londoner votes. To an artificial island in the middle of the Thames Estuary. Yeah right.
Unlike the great majority of Londoners I've actually been to Boris Airport. Or at least I've taken a boat to the watery spot where it's most likely to possibly end up, five or so miles off the North Kent coast. The site's a long way out, nearly halfway to Essex in the middle of the major Thames-bound shipping lanes. I must say I wasn't thinking "airport" when I visited, I was thinking "oh my word blimey, look at these magnificent wartime Maunsell forts, aren't they bloody wonderful (if a bit rusty)". But if the Mayor gets his way then, sorry folks, the atmospheric wartime survivors at Shivering Sands will all have to be demolished. Typical - these iconic anti-aircraft platforms spent most of World War Two trying to shoot down swarms of German bombers, and now in the 21st century some foreigner called "Boris" wants to drop an entire bloody airport on top of them.
And then there's the adjacent wind farm. 30 massive turbines whirring in mid-channel, each towering more than 100 metres above the water, transmitting umpteen megawatts of eco-clean energy via a long cable to the coast. They're an important part of SE England's contribution to sustainable energy, but they'll have to be demolished too. That's according to a feasibility report published this week, which points out numerous impracticalities related to a proposed estuary airport but suggests that none are insurmountable. If politicians really want to plonk an airport at the mouth of the Thames, only insufficient money will stop them. And if they start planning soon, you might all be out here catching flights by 2029.
Obviously airport users wouldn't be catching an inflatable boat out from Herne Bay, they'd be arriving by train. Access would be via a five mile tunnel beneath the estuarine sands - a bit like the Channel Tunnel Rail link only not quite so deep. There'd actually be two tunnels, one per floating runway. Trains would whizz in underground from London, either north via Shoeburyness(ish), or south via Sheppey. The airport terminals would be a long way from the centre of town (the report says 96km), which would be quite a trek even on the high speed trains of the future. They're bound to be expensive trains too, adding a premium to any BorisDrome flight, and rather more costly than the Gatwick or Stansted Express or the Piccadilly line to Zone 6. If the airport ever happens, that is.
The latest feasibility report has been produced by "The Thames Estuary Research and Development Company", a company now well positioned to build on Boris's interest in this airport scheme. One of its founding members is a floating runway engineer who's the former Chairman of Crossrail... and he's come up with a scheme which relies on Crossrail-like railway connections to a floating runway. Funny that. The report also attempts to add credibility to Johnson's pipedream by suggesting how positive the entire project might be. An estuary barrage could help to protect London's World Heritage sites (and 16 hospitals) from North Sea flooding. Tidal lagoons could help to boost renewable energy targets in a post-peak-oil world. The economic centre of London could shift east, bringing prosperity to the Thames Gateway (and jobs, houses and industry to the marshes of Foulness and Sheppey). The airport could run 24 hours a day, because there'd be nobody local to complain about the noise. And if an evil terrorist decided to blow up a plane on takeoff, nobody in London would get killed. So that's alright then.
Except, even if it is technically feasible, does anybody really want to build an airport in the middle of the sea? It'd be inconveniently located, and prone to closure when the weather's bad, and at risk from birds flying into jet engines, and a pain for shipping. Rather than being able to change flights at Heathrow, long-haul passengers would find themselves having to travel umpteen miles across the southeast for their onward connection. The people of north Kent and southeast Essex would have to sacrifice their Thames-edge landscape so that Londoners could breathe in a bit less pollution and sleep with their windows open. And the view from Southend or Whitstable would be permanently tarnished by offshore swooping jumbos and a giant duty-free shed on the horizon. Thank goodness this flight of fancy will surely never be built - and I'll only ever visit once, to some rusting forts, on an insignificant bobbing boat.
If you can't be bothered to read the official report, read the London Reconnections summary.
Media reaction: Sunday Times; BBC; Evening Standard; Guardian; Kent Online
Blogger reaction: Sheppey's MP; Tory Troll; Boris Watch; Musings from Medway
Campaign to stop the Estuary Airport
Map showing where the airport (and associated infrastructure) probably might be
Trips to the sea forts: mine; Hywel's; Sub-Ex
posted 07:00 :
Tuesday, October 20, 2009Random borough (23): Greenwich (part 3)
Somewhere historic: Firepower
Another day, another museum beginning with F. This one's at Woolwich Arsenal, which I blogged about so comprehensively earlier in the year that I wasn't sure there was anything left to see. But there was still this repository of death and killing, so I went there. It's a favourite venue for young children, obviously, one of whom I ended up queueing behind for a ticket. "He's four", said Dad, nodding towards the admissions charge list to the side of the till. "Yes I'm definitely not five, I'm really only four, it's not my birthday for ages," added the small boy, protesting rather too much. But he got in scot-free anyway.
The museum's in two parts, on opposite sides of Number 1 Street, with the main collection housed in a large two-storey hangar. Downstairs are a heck of a lot of guns and wheeled weapons, but don't start there, start upstairs. The entire history of British artillery is laid out before you, including a few missable panels about battles and who beat who. I was more interested to discover how Britain led the world in ballistics, targeting its firepower with increasing accuracy to gain the advantage in campaigns from Napoleon to WW2. And less interested in the minutiae of gunners' uniforms over the ages (was it strictly necessary to provide labels announcing "size 8 trainers" and "women's warm weather slacks", eh?). Quickly, back to the big guns instead, made all the more atmospheric by the sound of rocket fire and shelling thundering away in the background.
A lot of young men in uniform, mostly camos, were wandering around the museum. I think they had an office somewhere, and I guess they were volunteers from the nearby barracks helping out with stewarding and running activities and drinking coffee in the café. The museum seemed very keen to promote their in-house catering facility, which is open to folk off the street as well as to paying visitors and soldiers. But, not being much of a café-frequenter myself, I left the museum thinking I hadn't seen much. Partly my fault for being on a whistlestop schedule. If I'd hung around an extra half hour I could have looked inside the medals gallery upstairs, and if I'd hung around an extra hour I could have watched the 'introductory' film and the special audio-visual smoke-and fire presentation. But I'd have had to wait several months to explore the second half of the museum - the Cold War Gallery across the street, because it's currently closed for storage purposes. So I'd recommend that you save your money and come back in 2010... unless you can persuade the nice lady on the front desk that you're only four.
by DLR, train: Woolwich ArsenalTo get from Woolwich (above) to Thamesmead (below), you could take the bus. But I walked. It only took an hour, and meant that I got to walk a blissfully obscure section of the riverside Thames Path [map]. Blimey, do people actually choose to live on the eastern banks of Gallions Reach? Maybe it's more attractive when the sun's out. Onward past an expanse of bleak undeveloped wasteground where some future Mayor of London might one day build the Thames Gateway Bridge. To the remote extremity of Tripcock Ness, where a navigational light-tower keeps guard over a sharp kink in the Thames (highlight of the walk, in a flat grey way). And on east towards Thamesmead Clock Tower, which was much harder to reach than it first appeared. On the riverbank I discovered an extraordinarily over-optimistic example of urban planning - a raised concrete viewpoint (with a view of, erm, Barking Reach flood barrier, some incinerators and big piles of rusty containers) plus thirty-or-so landscaped benches (some with a view of the aforementioned Dagenham shoreline, others staring straight into a brick wall). And all for a usership of nil, because nobody ever got round to building flats on the strip of wasteland behind. Obviously I loved it. And I'll be back to do this walk properly, in its entirety, in sunshine, one day.Somewhere retail: Thamesmead Town Centre
When you live on a reclaimed munitions testing site in the shadow of a sewage works, a trip to the shops could really brighten your day. But for the fifty thousand residents of Thamesmead, the local town centre leaves much to be desired. Forty years ago things seemed very different. A bold futuristic 'floodproof' town had been constructed on the Erith marshes to rehouse London residents displaced after slum clearance. It must have seemed ideal to locate the shopping centre non-centrally on a lakeside near the Thames, even though this meant that most residents would have to drive or catch a bus to get there. And it must have seemed ideal to build shops on either side of an artificial canal beneath a giant Clock Tower, all to add a bit of character. Alas, the place doesn't feel quite so ideal now.
Most shoppers arrive by car. There's a huge car park (hemmed in between the Argos Extra warehouse and the Post Office) where flocks of unflappable starlings fight to peck the meat off discarded chicken wings. Grocery-seekers have a choice of Aldi, Iceland or a rather large Morrisons, while other more highbrow high street names are notable by their absence. Hell, there's not even a Greggs pastry outlet in the neighbouring arcade, which struck me as something of a wasted opportunity. No Starbucks either, but the atmosphere-free Diana Coffee and Sandwich Bar seemed to keep the local caffeine-slurpers happy.
Joyce Dawson Way is the canalside parade bit, boasting two betting shops, a fried chicken and fish bar, a tanning lounge, a florist and a large runaround space for dropping your kids off in. Somewhere out the back is an enclosed area once home to Thamesmead Market, now stall-free, open to the skies and desolate. There's also a pub called the Cutty Sark, which scared the life out of me even from outside, but which I noted is fully accessible to alcoholics in mobility scooters. Down by the water's edge a young girl called Kelly was running amok frightening the swans with a whistle, which was almost as loud as her screeching Mum yelling down from the overbridge that it was time for her and her sisters to leave and go home. When overhead bongs from the top of the clock tower added to the cacophony, I decided it was time to follow suit.
by train: afraid not by bus: 177, 229, 244, 401, 472, B11
And if you're wondering where the "Clockwork Orange" report is, the eastern half of Thamesmead (with the concrete-edged lake) is in the London borough of Bexley, so rest assured I'll be back to explore Southmere some other jamjar day.
posted 00:23 :
Monday, October 19, 2009Random borough (23): Greenwich (part 2)
Somewhere random: The Fan Museum
London boasts many weird and eclectic museums, but few more unlikely than a museum devoted exclusively to fans. That's right, the small semicircular pleated flappy objects that ladies used to wave before the days of aircon. A whole houseful of the things, open three days a week at the foot of Crooms Hill SE10 (opposite the Greenwich Theatre). I'd been meaning to visit for ages, but thought I'd better hang on until my Greenwich jamjar day arrived. Which it just did. Stuff the meridian, I had a date with my fans.
The museum is based in a restored Georgian terraced house, which ought to have been hint enough to its diminuitive size. I walked into the first small room to pay my £4 to the girl behind the (rather elegant) desk, and accepted her offer of a guidebook consisting of photocopied sheets in a plastic wallet. It was only at this point I realised that the room in which I was standing formed half of the permanent exhibition. Eight or so exquisite fans hung from the walls, each beautifully painted or etched, although I'd have failed to appreciate them properly without the printed notes in front of me. Some were fans proper, while others were semicircular works of art not yet snipped, trimmed and folded. Once I'd grasped the concept that 18th century fans were merely handheld paintings for hot ladies, the rest of the collection made more sense.
A second lower room explained, in appropriate detail, how fans were constructed and about the materials from which they were constructed. That was a lace fan, surely... blimey no, it was intricately carved ivory. Other special fans were assembled from tortoiseshell or mother of pearl or even, in one unusual case, Welsh slate. All the display cases had been mirrored to permit peeking at the underside of each exhibit, which was especially useful when one fan turned out to have an entire emergency sewing kit hidden away inside. All kinds of fans were on show in this minimal yet complete collection, even in the final cabinet a wall-mounted Vent-axia extractor. Explains why you so rarely see ladies fluttering fans today.
Upstairs the museum puts on a thrice-yearly special exhibition, the theme of which (at the moment) is War & Peace. 18th century courtiers loved nothing better than to flap some noble battle scene in front of their face, especially if it featured pert soldiers in uniform or buff heroes from Greek myth. Commemorations of great victories were also de rigueur, even into the early 20th century, sometimes across broad pleated folds and sometimes in elaborate miniature. This was an impressive show of more than 200 fans, allegedly just the tip of the museums' in-storage iceberg, covering a broad perspective of eras and cultures. For greatest enjoyment it was crucial to read each accompanying label carefully, because somebody's gone to a heck of a lot of effort to write them.
But that's the lot. There's a shop, of course, selling unusual fan-related gifts that certain female relatives might love come Christmas, although that didn't detain me for long. There's also an Orangery out the back where tea and cakes are served on Sunday and Tuesday afternoons, but which looked rather lonely on a nippy autumn Saturday. For more information, check out Londonist who are highlighting the Fan Museum as their museum of the month. And if you're ever in Greenwich accompanied by someone debonair and classy (not me, then), do consider taking them here rather than the usual tourist hotspots.
by DLR: Cutty Sark, Greenwich
Somewhere pretty: Well Hall Pleasaunce
Down to Eltham, not to the Palace (been there, blogged that) but to visit E Nesbit's house. She's the prolific turn-of-the-century author who wrote The Railway Children, amongst many other things, and wrote it here in an old house on Well Hall Road. Edith's home no longer stands, having been demolished after a fire in 1926, after which the council set about transforming the surrounding land into an attractive set of gardens. And didn't they do well? An astonishing number of garden types and habitats have been crammed into thirteen urban acres. Part is wooded and part parklike, but other areas include sloping rockeries, ornamental flowerbeds and a bowling green. There are also two formal gardens, one sunken Italian, the other rather larger and laid out around a central fountain. Three holes in the western wall once housed Tudor bee skeps, unique in London, and the rosebushes must look a spectacular sight in the summer.
But not in mid-October. The entire Pleasaunce was extremely quiet at the weekend (apart from the roar of passing Dover-bound traffic), attracting few visitors despite the allure of its assorted autumn colours. One woman pushing a well-wrapped toddler, two girls gossipping on a bench, one youth engaged in an important phone call, and me. Plus lots of squirrels, who know a good nut source when they see one. Rather busier was the moat-side Tudor Barn, a two-storey gabled outbuilding originally owned by Sir Thomas More's daughter. It's been many things in its time, notably a pub, but has relaunched this month as a cafe/brasserie/eventspace. I popped in to try it out (yes, welcoming, cosmopolitan, full) but didn't really have time to sit down for a bite. "Do you do take away?" I asked. That threw her. "Er, we can do," she replied, no doubt wondering why I'd want to take my hot chocolate outside with the squirrels when I could have stayed in with proper crockery. My drink was tepidly so-so, although another customer at the counter assured me that the late-opening Sunday roasts are great. The Tudor Barn's website is as yet unhelpfully information-light, but both Brockley Central and the Greenwich Phantom have eaten here recently and posted reviews. Me, I'd stick with the outdoor garden-wandering experience, which is absolutely more than pleasaunt.
by train: Eltham by bus: 132, 161, 286
posted 00:23 :
Sunday, October 18, 2009Random borough (23): Greenwich (part 1)
Ten to one against, but out of my jamjar came the London borough of Greenwich. Sorry. I know you've just suffered a week of suburban ramblings down the Greenwich meridian, but my latest random safari has taken me straight back again. But don't worry. Greenwich is a large and diverse borough, most of it well to the east of the town of Greenwich, so there was plenty of opportunity to go absolutely nowhere near the meridian at all. I headed instead along the banks of the Thames, and deep into the southeast London hinterland, to explore the lovelier and less lovely parts of this historic borough. It's not all about time.
Somewhere famous: The Greenwich Meridian
Greenwich's fame spread around the world 125 years ago this week when a line of longitude through the Royal Observatory was selected as the starting point of space and...
Stop it, stop right there. Obviously I had to pick the meridian and the Observatory as the most famous things in the borough, but I think I've covered both of those in sufficient depth recently. So, if you don't mind, we'll take that as read, thanks.
Somewhere infamous: The Millennium Dome
It was never meant to be this way. Ten years ago a nation held its breath as Peter Mandelson struggled to build a big tent on the North Greenwich Peninsula before Big Ben struck 2000. The Millennium Dome wasn't quite the spectacle he'd hoped, and once 2001 came round the site faded away into mothballed desolation. Government didn't have a clue, but big business eventually spotted a major opportunity (knockdown price, tube station alongside, kerching) and transformed the DustbinLid into an entertainment supernode. Two years on and the rebranded Oxygenmolecule is a huge commercial success, luring in a succession of musical megastars to perform in a huge arena surrounded by tapas bars. In 2012, the Olympic gymnastics and wheelchair basketball competitions will be played out beneath the MobileNetwork's glass fibre ceiling. And this weekend they've been having a practice.
The World Artistic Gymnastics Championships have come to North Greenwich. I could tell this because there were an awful lot of supple folk in tracksuits hanging around Peninsula Square, rather than the usual spotty youths and tourists in Michael Jackson t-shirts. Some of the gymnasts were pulling suitcases, some babbling away in foreign, others merely looking disturbingly fit. A telltale laminated badge dangled from their clothing, distinguishing them from the mere spectators, friends and family. The latter could be seen hanging around outside the Warm Up tent in London Plaza, or nipping off to one of the multitude of restaurants for a nibble while their proteges prepared.
Outside the arena there were only a few nods to the presence of the world's best pommel-horsers and ring-hangers. Adidas had a stand near the entrance selling stripy lycra merchandise, and souvenir t-shirts were also available from stalls located in front of the void where the luxury casino isn't. Further round, near the bored-looking Herta hotdog sellers, security staff guarded a rare additional back-of-house exit. Outside the building, just out of view, taxis and coaches waited to whisk athletes and press back to wherever in not-Greenwich they were staying. But most excitingly, the barriers beyond the British Music Experience were down, allowing curious visitors a rare opportunity to wander into the Dome's undeveloped southwestern quadrant. No cafes here, nor overpriced exhibitions, just a curved pathway in a gaping void beneath the original tented ceiling. This route was open for access to media accreditation facilities, not that there was anybody around other than a cleaner, so I thoroughly enjoyed looking at the space as it used to be before the pizzerias invaded.
Without a ticket (what? £45!), I wasn't getting inside the main arena to watch the tumbling, flexing and rolling. So I wandered back outside instead for one of my favourite walks, around the circumference of the Dome2000 along the curving banks of the Thames. A lot of demolition's been going on along the western side of the Greenwich Peninsula, with the industrial area around Delta Wharf being rapidly reduced to heaps of unlovely rubble. A variegated trio of new-build office blocks near the QE2 pier gives some hint as to the ugliness of what might be replacing them. Round the back of the Ohtwo, one end of the millennial wetland garden has recently been turfed over to provide a helipad for visiting performers with tight schedules. I much preferred the long grasses and bullrushes, but needs must. And nearby, beyond the locked-away Greenwich Pavilion, somebody has shifted a bench across the paved line that marks the Greenwich Meridian... Stop it, stop right there.
by tube: North Greenwich
Somewhere sporty: The Valley
Somewhat unexpectedly, Greenwich boasts a surprisingly high number of sporty locations. The Royal Blackheath Golf Club is the oldest golf club in the world (caveats and qualifications apply) and Blackheath Rugby Club is similarly the oldest public rugby team (ditto). Arsenal FC were founded in deepest Woolwich (been there, blogged that). And competition for the 2012 Olympics will take place not just in "North Greenwich Arena 1" but also, controversially, in Greenwich Park and at Woolwich Barracks. So much choice. But on a mid-season footballing Saturday there was only one place to go, and that was the home ground of Charlton Athletic.
It's called The Valley for a reason - the surrounding land really does slope down from surrounding heights, so the stadium's fairly well hidden if you don't know where to look. It stands on the site of a levelled chalk quarry, now engulfed by a sea of surrounding terraced and council housing. The pitch is surrounded by a red and grey construction with a web of metal poles perched on top, augmented by a giant club badge slapped onto the front wall of the north stand. The team's not always been based here, in particular exiled for a lengthy spell to Selhurst Park two decades ago while The Valley fell to rack and ruin. But the place has perked up rather since, and yesterday it was the scene of a mighty top-of-the-table Division One clash.
I turned up mid-morning, well before the earliest spectators arrived, but the ground (and street outside) were already a hotbed of crucial pre-match action. Several stocky black-suited blokes were massing by the East Stand turnstiles, preparing to do whatever men in black suits do at football clubs. Security, or stewarding, or selling Courage Best - something like that. Other lesser folk stood around in fluorescent orange tabards, waiting to direct a crowd that wouldn't be arriving for several hours, and waving in the Huddersfield Town team coach through the stadium gates. Charlton's official doughnut van had been wheeled into position beneath the giant club badge, while a gaggle of burger trolleys stood idling off-road waiting to have their spitting grills fired up. A girl in a white trailer looked nearly ready to serve up her first hotdog of the day, but there were no queues as yet for her one-quid cups of steaming Bovril. Over at the Charlton Athletic Superstore, a fresh delivery of krbs-sponsored kit arrived in the back of a UPS van. But this early in the day, apart from myself, the only unpaid passer-by was a black cat darting through the pedestrian arches beneath the nearby railway. It brought good luck for Charlton who, by five in the afternoon, were celebrating being back on the top of Division One. Ah, for a return to the golden days when CAFC being in the First Division really meant something.
by train: Charlton by bus: 380, 486
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