Wednesday, March 31, 2010
THE LOST RIVERS OF LONDON
That's it, that's all ten chunks of Counter's Creek's lost journey down to the Thames. You can read them in reverse below, or in the correct order over here. There are 36 photos from along the route to flick through, and there's also an approximate map to follow.
I was considering assembling the entire series into a pdf which you could print out and top-left-staple, like I did with the Westbourne. But you weren't very impressed last time. Fewer than 100 of you even bothered having a look, let alone printing and stapling, and only another 50 have clicked to view in the two months since. Plus I've noticed that most people are even less interested in Counter's Creek than they were in the Westbourne. Yes, I know you've been reading the last few days with interest, but overall visitor numbers are down this week to their lowest level since last summer. Lost rivers, niche interest, not the publishing mainstream.
Same time next month for another, then?
www.flickr.com: my Counters Creek gallery
36 photos altogether
An approximate map of Counter's Creek course
Read all about Counter's Creek on one page, in the right order
posted 07:00 :
THE LOST RIVERS OF LONDON
10) Chelsea Creek
Counter's Creek used to flow south into the Thames at Battersea Reach, but construction of the Kensington Canal diverted its last few hundred yards eastward along an artificial tidal waterway known as Chelsea Creek. The water here was only deep enough to be navigable at high tide, and this impractical oversight is one of the main reasons why the canal failed to make any money.
As recently as the early 1990s it was still possible to trace the old canal back as far as the King's Road, but a council highways depot now covers this part of the filled-in channel. [photo]
The inland tip of Chelsea Creek now lies in a muddy tree-lined basin [photo], conveniently shielded out of sight from the luxury apartment complex at Chelsea Harbour. A steady stream of taxis crawls across the creek's only bridge, helping the isolated Thames-side residents to escape to somewhere more convenient.
The mouth of Chelsea Creek is best viewed from St Mary's Church on the Battersea shoreline, with the twin chimney stacks of the former Lots Road Power Station standing as an imposing backdrop. [photo] [photo]
Following Counter's Creek: The last few hundred yards of Chelsea Creek are accessible only by boat. Lots Road Power Station flanks one bank, currently with most of its roof off as the interior is rejigged for flats. On the opposite shore a former warehouse [before] has recently been reduced to a pile of rubble [after], opening up the view, and no doubt this site is destined for apartments too. The Chelsea Harbour development looks like it was attempting to be St Katherine's Dock but forgot to include a dash of character. The architecture's dated terribly in 20 years, and I can only assume the flats look somewhat more desirable on the inside. The site boasts a central marina where over-successful people moor their yachts [photo], and also a Design Centre which is the deadest shopping mall I've ever seen on a Saturday. Riverside living isn't all it's cut out to be.
posted 00:10 :
Tuesday, March 30, 2010THE LOST RIVERS OF LONDON
7) Earl's Court
In the early 19th century the site of the future Earl's Court Exhibition Centre was an unremarkable patch of market gardens on the banks of Counter's Creek. A trio of railway lines sealed its fate. One was the West London Railway, built along the line of the river. The other two belonged to the Metropolitan and District Railways, which bifurcated to the west of Earl's Court station hemming in a triangle of unwanted wasteland.
The triangle's potential was recognised by showman John Robinson Whitley who hired the site in 1887 to host an American-themed exhibition. His star turn was the Buffalo Bill Roughriders and Redskin Show, a Wild West spectacle which drew large crowds including Queen Victoria and William Gladstone. Further exhibitions followed and an extended entertainment park was created, but interest slowly waned and all were shut down during WW1 to make way for a Belgian refugee camp.
The present triangular exhibition hall dates back to 1937 [photo] [photo]. It was one of the largest reinforced concrete structures of its day and conceals an Olympic-sized swimming pool at its heart. A second major hall, the barrel-roofed Earl's Court Two, was constructed alongside in 1991. It stands directly above West London Railway tracks and boasts Europe's largest unsupported roof span. [photo]
8) Lillie Bridge
Bridges were plentiful in the lower reaches of Counter's Creek. Lillie Bridge was built to carry the Old Brompton Road across the stream [photo], and still gives its name to the railway depot west of Earl's Court station.
Peer over the edge of platform 4 at West Brompton station and you might still see what looks like Counter's Creek disappearing into a big pipe alongside the railway. It's not the genuine article alas, merely a water feature in a council-run wildlife garden, although it does serve as drainage almost precisely where the old river ran. [photo]
A few yards up the slope is the site of Lillie Bridge Athletic Ground whose sporting star shone briefly but brightly in the late 19th century. The arena's greatest claim to fame, long forgotten except by pub quiz afficionados, is that Lillie Bridge hosted the second ever FA Cup Final. Battersea-based Wanderers retained the trophy here in 1873 by defeating challengers Oxford University two-nil.
On the opposite side of the station, with the railway shielded behind a high brick wall, lie the formal avenues of Brompton Cemetery [photo]. This outstanding Victorian burial ground was laid out on water meadows in the 1830s, shortly after Kensal Green upstream, and is filled with characterful monuments surrounding a central colonnade. [photo] [photo]
9) Stamford Bridge
Chelsea's top flight football ground derives its name from a bridge over one of London's lost rivers. [photo]
This lowly span, now barely noticeable as a mild hump in the Fulham Road over a railway line, has had many names over the years [photo]. In the 15th century it was Samfordesbrigge, meaning the bridge at the sandy ford. 18th century locals knew it briefly as Little Chelsea Bridge, while an 1827 map gives the name as Sandford's Bridge. Further evolution (maybe confusion with Stanley Bridge to the south) nudged Sandford to Stanford, after which there was only one slipped consonant to go.
By the time Chelsea Football Club was established on an adjacent athletics ground in 1905, the locality was most definitely Stamford Bridge. Early supporters cheered from the single East Stand [photo], or else perched themselves atop terraces constructed from earth excavated during construction of the Piccadilly line.
Numerous upgrades have boosted the ground's capacity since, but no amount of Russian roubles can shift the stadium into Chelsea proper. The borough boundary persists along the line of Counter's Creek, ironically leaving Chelsea F.C stranded a few yards into neighbouring Hammersmith and Fulham. [photo]
posted 07:00 :
Monday, March 29, 2010THE LOST RIVERS OF LONDON
4) Holland Park
Holland Park could never have become one of London's most desirable neighbourhoods had Counter's Creek remained visible. Upper classes homeowners would never have tolerated a smelly rubbish-strewn stream as their main form of waste disposal, so the area's transformation from rural estate to residential development rested on the construction of an expensive sewer.
Landowner Lord Holland seized his chance when the West London Railway asked to lay tracks across the west of his estate, granting passage subject to the burial of Counter's Creek. A deal was struck in 1838, and one mile of river duly vanished. Two major housing developments sprang forth – the Norland and Holland Estates.
The new sewer followed St Ann's Road southwards, then carved through a gap in the splendid stuccoed arc of Royal Crescent [photo]. From here it continued downhill via Holland Villas Road – a street still hugely aspirational even by Holland Park standards.
The river may now flow out of sight, but basement inundation remains an ever-present risk. In the sodden summer of 2007, for example, particularly heavy rainfall caused Counter's Creek sewer to overflow and more than 450 local properties were flooded.
Following Counter's Creek: To trace the river south from the Westway, stick to the east side of the dual carriageway. Not the side where the mega Westfield shopping centre is [photo], but the opposite residential flank [photo]. Here highrise council estates cosy up against uber-affluent Notting Hill, with Counter's Creek forming the stark boundary between the two. Once past the Holland Park roundabout, your best bet for following the river's course is to hop on a train. [photo] [photo]
5) Counter's Bridge
At the far end of Kensington High Street, on the main road to Hammersmith and all points west, is the location of the medieval bridge that gave Counter's Creek its name.
It's fortunate that the river wasn't named too early. During the 15th century this crossing was known successively as Contessesbregge, Contassebregge, Cuntassebregge and Countesbregge – at least one of which might have proved terminally embarrassing in later years. The noblewoman to whom the bridge refers is thought to be Matilda, Countess of Oxford, then in residence at Earl's Court.
The view north from the modern bridge is dominated by the iron and glass covered halls of the Olympia exhibition centre [photo]. The first and largest of these was erected in 1886 as the National Agricultural Hall, although the space within was soon taken over by less pastoral exploits such as the Motor Show and Ideal Home Show.
And that's no stream down there, that's the old West London Railway exploiting the creek's former course. The cutting may be considerably wider than the brook here ever was, but the entire line remains an under-served backwater, with sporadic services up and downriver to nowhere terribly exciting. [photo] [photo]
6) Kensington Canal Lock
In the early 18th century, at the height of canal mania, it seemed like a good idea to transform the lower two miles of Counter's Creek into "a Canal for the Navigation of Boats, Barges and other Vessels." The perfect route, so shareholders hoped, for transferring cargo inland from the Thames. Thus was the Kensington Canal created, linking Chelsea to a new dock basin just south of Counter's Bridge.
The canal opened with a flourish in 1828, but it led nowhere useful and traffic soon proved 'very limited'. Eleven locks would have been needed to extend the navigation north to the Grand Junction Canal, but no further investment was forthcoming. It wasn't long before the entire canal was sold off to the West London Railway and most of the waterway disappeared beneath its tracks. Limited trade continued on a short stretch south of the King’s Road, delivering coal to the Imperial Gas Light and Coke Company, with the last barge running in 1967.
The dock basin disappeared beneath a Homebase store in the 1990s, leaving a boarded-up lock-keepers cottage as the last surviving remnant of the Kensington Canal. Alas the arrival of a Tesco hypermarket on the West Cromwell Road sealed its fate and, despite considerable local opposition, the cottage was demolished in 1998 to make way for a particularly unattractive multi-storey car park. [photo]
posted 07:00 :
Sunday, March 28, 2010THE LOST RIVERS OF LONDON
1) Kensal Green Cemetery
Counter’s Creek arose from springs beneath Kensal Green, on gentle slopes just to the south of the Harrow Road. Before the 19th century there was little here but farmland, then in 1801 the Paddington Arm of the Grand Junction Canal carved through from west to east, severing the headwaters of the fledgling brook. [photo]
It was on this unforgiving clay soil, sandwiched between the road and the canal, that London's first garden cemetery was established in the early 1830s. The General Cemetery of All Souls, Kensal Green was created as a peaceful final resting place for well-to-do Londoners, and was inspired by a visit to Père-Lachaise in Paris.
Over a quarter of a million Londoners have been buried here over the years [photo], and the grounds are littered with monuments, mausoleums and semi-toppled gravestones. Notable internees include engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Charles "Mr Computer" Babbage and the novelist Wilkie Collins.
Kensal Green is only the first of London's "Magnificent 7" Victorian cemeteries to lie along the former banks of Counter's Creek. But the ridges and valleys visible here today aren't river-worn, they’re nothing more than funereal landscaping. [photo]
Following Counter's Creek: If it wasn't for the canal, it would be really easy to follow the river's path south from the cemetery. The canal and the railway, that is. It's easy to follow on a map, you simply follow the borough boundary, but in real life the canal and the railway get in the way. Instead you have to hope that the gate out of the cemetery into Scrubs Lane is unlocked, then turn south through light industrial nothingness. A hop across Mitre Bridge, bypassing a railway maintenance depot, then duck back under the viaduct towards Little Wormwood Scrubs. All told it's a one mile detour. The river had it easy.
2) Little Wormwood Scrubs
Wormwood Scrubs, for centuries a single expanse of unfertile upland, was divided into two unequal chunks by the coming of the railways. The larger western section gained notoriety through construction of a Victorian prison, while the severed eastern 10% became the lesser-known Little Wormwood Scrubs.
Counter's Creek once ran in a rivulet along the eastern perimeter of Little Wormwood Scrubs, with the line of the river marking the parish boundary between Kensington and Hammersmith. In the late 19th century several estates sprang up on the Kensington side, and residents soon came to rely on the Scrubs for their recreation.
In 1892 the Metropolitan Board of Works decided that a "portion of the brook on the eastern boundary should be widened and kept full by means of weirs and that a gravel walk should be formed alongside with a plantation for shade". The river became a purely ornamental feature, fenced off behind iron railings, for viewing only.
Persistent drainage issues arose, which led to the channel being concreted in 1924 and ultimately covered over. Little Wormwood Scrubs feels distinctly less ornamental today, and only a meander in the concrete footpath survives as a hint to its secret past. [photo]
Following Counter's Creek: From Little Wormwood Scrubs, unlikely as it sounds, head south towards the North Pole [photo]. That's a pub on the eponymous North Pole Road, where there used to be a station but now there isn't. Counter's Creek ran roughly parallel to Latimer Road, which used to be an important thoroughfare but no longer has the traffic to justify its width. Severed in its prime by a much larger road, it no longer reaches as far as the H&C tube station to which it gives its name.
3) West Cross Route
Not content with burial beneath a canal and then a railway, almost the entire length of Counter's Creek might have disappeared beneath a motorway had post-war planners had their way.
The West Cross Route was to be one small part of a major orbital road system for London called Ringway 1. This western link would have joined Willesden Junction to the Chelsea Embankment via an eight lane motorway. Plans show the intended route hugging the existing West London railway, in places running directly above the tracks on a concrete viaduct.
Unfortunately for motorists, but fortunately for owners of the many properties that would otherwise have been demolished, only one short section of the West Cross Route was ever built. This was the M41 linking the White City and Holland Park roundabouts – much as Counter's Creek once did except more direct and rather faster.
Public outcry following construction of the neighbouring Westway led to the remainder of the Ringway plan being permanently shelved in 1973. Today only two stumpy concrete spurs off the White City roundabout, directly above the river's former course, survive as evidence of the former motorway's elevated northward threat. [photo] [photo]
Following Counter's Creek: The space under the Westway, where the river once ran, is now taken up by the Westway Sports Centre. A marvellous example of communal ingenuity, its sports hall, climbing wall and basketball courts are squeezed within and beneath the centre of a giant roundabout. There's even a 'fives' court, which feels terribly snooty for the children of a hapless housing estate, but has been provided by a long-standing charitable outreach project initiated by Harrow School. As for the Westway stables, who now run riding lessons beneath the A40 [photo], this is where Steptoe and Son used to be filmed. BBC Television Centre is but a brief clip-clop away.
posted 07:00 :
Saturday, March 27, 2010THE LOST RIVERS OF LONDON
Counter's Creek, named after a medieval bridge over Kensington High Street, ran for four miles in an almost straight line from Kensal Green to the Thames at Chelsea. It may have been a relatively insignificant stream in its day, but its course has left a lasting legacy across West London.
View Counter's Creek on a Google map
The river's first transformation was from natural stream to artificial channel. In 1827 the speculative Kensington Canal was built along the alignment of Counter’s Creek between Kensington High Street and Battersea Reach. The canal rapidly proved highly unprofitable and so was sold off to a railway company, who built an equally unprofitable line up the valley to link Kensington Docks with Willesden.
The Kensington Canal (proper historical facts)
The Kensington Canal (modern description with photos)
The river's second transformation was from canal to railway. In 1863 the Kensington Canal was filled in with ballast and then tracks were laid on top, allowing the West London Railway to run connecting services between Willesden and Clapham. This line was a success, and lives on today as part of the London Overground network. Catch any train from Shepherd's Bush to Imperial Wharf and the modern journey mirrors the old river bed.
West London Railway (Wikipedia)
West London line (abandoned stations)
West London line history (at Subterranea Britannica)
London Overground maps (including Willesden Junction → Clapham Junction)
The original line of Counter's Creek still forms much of the boundary between the boroughs of Hammersmith and Fulham to the west and Kensington and Chelsea to the east. Its waters may long have been diverted down an unseen sewer, but the creek's path can still be traced with relative ease.
Map showing border of Hammersmith and Fulham (river formed eastern boundary)
Thames Water plans for Counters Creek Sewer Flood relief
Flooding Alleviation plan (public presentation, with maps) (pdf)
posted 08:00 :
Friday, March 26, 2010
J LONDON A-Z (revisited)
An alphabetical journey through the capital's museums
Location: Albert Street, Camden Town NW1 7NB [map]
Open: daily (10am-5pm) (not Saturdays) (closes early on Fridays)
Brief summary: a celebration of British Judaism
Time to set aside: up to a couple of hours
Last week, up a Camden sidestreet, London's newest museum opened its doors. It's not actually brand new, merely completely revamped, but the building in Albert Street brings together the collections of two rather smaller split-site buildings. After a three year hiatus (and a lot of lottery cash) there's now one major site to tell the story of Judaism as it relates to the UK. And this may not be the tale you're expecting.
The Jewish Museum offers an open door policy, with entrance free so long as you don't want to go upstairs. Try not to make the same mistake as me and try to buy a ticket at the coat check. Instead head through the second set of doors and enter the museum proper. You might be distracted by the forest of video screens relating what it's like to be Jewish in Britain today. You might also be tempted into the shop, especially if you've ever wanted an arty menorah or a recyclable "Schlep" bag. You're free to visit the Kosher cafe (assuming it's open), and you can stare at the excavated mikveh (a medieval ritual bath, recently retrieved from the City [pictured]). But that's your lot until you buy an armband.
There are three more floors up the stairs. The first explores Jewish religious life and features a fine collection of ceremonial objects. Some of these are very beautiful, even exquisite, and testament to the craftsmanship of generations. A holy Torah scroll takes centre stage, though with an electronic twist, surrounded by cabinets exploring the faith's central pillars. I learnt a lot from a series of multimedia presentations, so I think (for example) I can now tell the difference between Hanukah and Purim, but I felt I was only scratching the surface of what being Jewish really means. Nevertheless there's a lot here crammed into a small space, and I can well imagine school RE classes ending up here on a field trip.
Floor two is rather larger, and features an exhibition recounting a millennium of Jewish life in Britain. For many centuries this was a life of persecution, most notably back in 1290 when Edward the First expelled the entire Jewish population from the kingdom. Although there are nods to settlers in Norwich, Portsmouth and elsewhere, this is essentially an account of Judaism in the East End of London. Synagogues, bakeries, tailor's workshops and an entire immigrant community were shoehorned into a nucleus of Whitechapel-ish streets, and their life hereabouts is celebrated in all its rich diversity. Roll up and try your hand at Yiddish theatre karaoke (encouraged via video screen by the irrepressible David Scheneider) or lift the lid on a pre-war kitchen (and smell the chicken soup). Again there's a lot here, a fair amount of it interactive, and wandering round took rather longer than the space might have suggested.
There is, of course, a Holocaust Gallery. Rather than attempt to retell the whole horrific story, the museum concentrates on telling the tale of a single survivor. Leon Greenman was born in the East End but was living in the Netherlands when the Nazis invaded. Separated from his wife and young son at the gates of Auschwitz, Leon's subsequent experiences make for a poignant and sobering account of Hitler's Final Solution. A friend of the museum until his death a couple of years ago, Leon is remembered with much fondness by the staff, and a cabinet of his rescued belongings helps this compact gallery pack a real emotional punch.
And floor three was empty. There'll be temporary exhibitions up here, and several are scheduled over the forthcoming year, but there's nothing yet. All in all, though, the museum's a most welcome reappearance on the London cultural scene. Surely a must-visit for any Jewish folk in the capital, it's even conveniently located on the Northern line for those in Golders Green to reach with ease. But Gentiles should find plenty of interest and enlightenment here too (so long as they remember not to turn up on a Saturday...)
by tube: Camden Town
posted 00:10 :
Thursday, March 25, 2010You're wrong.
I know you think you're right, but you're wrong.
You have firm views on all sorts of things. You believe in this, but never in that. You know what you like, and you know what you don't like. Your opinions are strong, and set, and steadfast. It's obvious to you how other people should think and it's obvious to you how they shouldn't. And you have absolutely no tolerance for the rest of us who might even dare to think something different.
You drone on and on in the pub. Whenever a topic of interest comes up, you're straight in there telling everybody else what's right. You always have an answer, and you're quick to use supposed facts to back up your personal prejudices. If anybody dares disagree with your fixed point of view, you're quick to point out the error of their ways. Everybody knows what you're going to say before you open your mouth, and they wish you wouldn't.
You chip in and insult people because of their beliefs. "How could anybody think that...?" "Only an idiot would say..." "That's clearly rubbish because..." But you never stop to think that your opponents might have a point, because they obviously don't. The tone of your voice makes it clear that your words are somehow more important than everybody else's. You think that you're preaching to the converted, but in fact we all think you're a twat.
You bore the pants off us in the comments box. You make kneejerk points of protest, and your words are invariably negative. You cajole, lambast and provoke. You think nothing of a thinly veiled insult, because you firmly believe it to be the truth. You ride the same hobby horses all the time, and churn out a predictable stream of bile every time a pet topic is mentioned. We'd not miss you if you never posted again, but somehow you never get the hint and bugger off.
You live in an ideological bunker. You're completely set in your opinions, and blinkered to all alternative views. You feed off being angry, and the slightest offence makes your blood boil. You think the world's biased against you, although in your perfect world intolerance is king. You'd never dream of saying sorry, because you believe it's the rest of us who should be saying sorry to you. We're all wrong sometimes, but you never stop to think that this might include you.
I sometimes think I'm right, although at other times I'm willing to accept I might not be. But one thing I know, for certain, without doubt.
posted 07:00 :
Wednesday, March 24, 2010It's all happening in Greenwich at the moment...
Discover Greenwich: After an expensive and lengthy revamp, a new "cultural venue" has opened in the heart of Greenwich at the Old Naval College [photo]. Previously a lacklustre hall full of not much, there's now a proper visitor attraction complete with stuff to see, eat, drink and buy. Step through the Georgian portico and you'll be greeted by a major retrospective of local history, from Henry VIII's palace to the day Elizabeth II came to dinner. Centrepiece is a model map bedecked by projected images, although I'd be surprised if you can maintain interest long enough to watch the entire historical cycle from beginning to end. Far better to mull around the surrounding exhibits, which include a reconstructed Tudor window and several well-designed displays. Nextdoor there's a freshly spruced-up tourist information centre (which manages to contain less tourist information than its predecessor) and a badly set-out shop (which tempted me to buy nothing). A far more impressive feature is the arrival of Greenwich's Old Brewery on the western side of the building. Their section functions as a cafe and a bar and a restaurant, but more importantly they also brews their own beer in full view of the patrons and serve it up to customers [photo]. Staff couldn't serve me a Keller Bier on Day 1 yesterday because that's not fully brewed yet, but I did enjoy a right tasty lunch of Galloway beef and mash dolloped into in a cardboard box. With a ginormous chocolate brownie to follow, I departed smiling and satisfied.
» Darryl's report and photoset will give you a good flavour of the place.
» Other early visitors to Discover Greenwich include Londonist and Visit London.
North Greenwich riverside: If you like your walks to be brutally industrial yet still somehow still charming, then you'd have loved the riverside stroll between the Old Naval College and the Dome. A peculiar mix of heritage wharves, towering silos and maritime berths, this was a last outpost of how London used to be. Alas, not for much longer. Several of the wharves have recently been demolished, and a plain of rubble now awaits the construction of Thames-view apartments. The smelly industrial estate alongside is currently being demolished, ready for the construction of thousands of not-quite-Thames-view apartments. A few millennial leftovers round the back of the Dome are scheduled for removal, this time for a huge hotel. And the landmark concrete silos at Primrose Wharf are also about to be demolished, albeit slowly, allowing the property developers yet another toehold on the peninsula foreshore. This latter demolition has required a recent lengthy diversion of the Thames Path inland, and I'm afraid a stroll along the thundering Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road just isn't the same. I shall miss the opportunity to walk through industrial history - already wrecked in parts, now doomed in others - as North Greenwich's innate character is flattened for flats.
» Urban 75 walked this way a couple of summers ago.
» Ian's been more recently, but also has a gallery of older photos.
» I've taken a few atmospheric photos too. There's a gallery here.
Greenwich Park 2012: Greenwich Council last night held a special planning meeting to confirm whether the equestrian events at the upcoming London Olympics could be held in Greenwich Park. One side of the argument seemed convinced that Satan and his evil pruning shears would descend on SE10, laying waste this World Heritage Site and locking it away from public view for a generation. 2012 bosses, on the other hand, tried to reassure folk that a few horses and specially-selected contractors couldn't do much damage, honest, and that Greenwich would emerge triumphant on a global stage. Councillors overwhelmingly sided with the voices of reason at LOCOG, leaving the pessimist nimbys at NOGOE to scream blue murder from the sidelines for two more years. Come summer 2012, we'll hopefully know how wrong they were.
» Greenwich.co.uk have a (balanced) report from the meeting (although I'd expect Andrew Gilligan to get very angry later)
» Darryl was also at the meeting (and tweeted the whole thing in enormous detail)
And that's just the tip of the Greenwich iceberg.
For more regular updates, check out Greenwich.co.uk, the Greenwich Phantom and 853.
posted 07:00 :
Tuesday, March 23, 2010I was walking through Trafalgar Square yesterday morning, like you do, when I noticed a media kerfuffle. Closer scrutiny revealed the grinning faces of One Show presenters Adrian Chiles and Christine Bleakley behind a row of four white seats. They were accompanied by some tracksuited folk I assumed were a photogenic selection of Olympic and Paralympic athletes. And there was a big sign exhorting people to "Sign Up" for London 2012 tickets. How very exciting, I thought. But, on exploring some of the accompanying press releases more carefully, I'm not convinced it's exciting at all.
"Tickets for the London 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games will go on sale in 2011. You can make a start by registering your interest with us."
Sounds good. But this doesn't mean you can sign up for tickets. Yesterday's announcement merely allows you to sign up for information about tickets.
"Right now, we're asking people to sign up on the ticketing website and make sure they're in the front row for information."
Signing up now doesn't even get you to the head of the ticketing queue. All it does is add your information to London 2012's database, which helps to stop their ticketing website crashing next spring under weight of demand. You'll not get your Olympic tickets any quicker by signing up today - indeed you can still sign up next February and suffer no ill effects.
"Sign up now and you will be among the first to hear about ticketing news and other exciting events and offers."
All that signing up brings, for now, is a series of automated emails from London 2012 about stuff they'd like you to hear. It's not clear at this stage whether this means lots of messages at spam frequency, or else one single email next Spring alerting you to the fact that tickets are about to go on sale. But I defy anyone living in Britain next Spring not to know that Olympic tickets are about to go on sale, with or without a reminder email.
"Let us know your favourite Olympic and Paralympic sports and events so we can email you information about those that interest you."
The 2012 team are very keen to find out which sports are going to be popular and which aren't so that they can adjust their pricing strategy accordingly. In total there are 36 Olympic sports and 22 Paralympic sports on their sign-up list. Select carefully. If you prefer you could just tick "Athletics" or "Wheelchair Rugby", or you could go the whole hog and tick all 58. But remember that ticking more sports doesn't change your chances of getting tickets, it simply increases the number of emails you'll be sent.
"Please provide at least one phone number. Enter numbers only. The country code for the United Kingdom is 44."
The sign up process requests some unusual data which, at this stage, would appear to be of questionable use. This includes a requirement to give London 2012 your phone number (and they'll start sending you SMS messages unless you tick the "please don't" box at the bottom of the form). Ian has a lot more grumbles about the sign up process.
"In recognition of Visa's support of the Games, the London 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games are proud to accept only Visa cards (debit, credit and prepaid), along with cash and cheques."
I know that all Olympic Games have to provide exclusive deals like this. I know that sponsors stump up a considerable proportion of the funding for London 2012. But how could anyone but a PR gimp be "proud" of a restrictive monopoly which makes it damned hard for certain people to buy tickets.
"More tickets will go on sale for the Olympic and Paralympic Games than originally stated – increasing from 9.2m to 10m"
10% more tickets means 10% more spectators, hurrah, but also 10% more ticket revenue. Some of the extra space has been found by moving media and security out of the way, which will give even more people a chance to attend. But other extra tickets have been found by shortening session times, so you won't be seeing as much of the beach volleyball as originally planned.
"75% of tickets will be available directly to the public via a ballot process."
The only pledge so far is that 75% of the combined total of Olympic and Paralympic tickets will be balloted. No such assurance appears to have been given specifically to Olympic tickets, which the "Olympic Family" are bound to find preferable to Paralympic tickets. I'd not be surprised to discover that the percentage of publicly-available Olympic tickets turns out to be lower than 75%.
"With 10 million tickets going on sale next year people will have even more of a chance to get the ticket that makes their dream come true."
75% of 10 million equals approximately one ticket for every man, woman and child in London. But the tickets won't be distributed like that, however loudly Londoners shout that they ought to be given due preference. Looked at another way, 7½ million tickets is sufficient for only one in every eight of the entire British population. But the tickets won't be distributed like that either, however loudly taxpayers shout that they deserve better.
"The ballot in 2011 will, under EU law, be available to everyone across the European Union. The sign-up scheme will only be done in the UK."
Olympic bosses assure us they're not going to spend money marketing 2012 tickets outside the UK, but legally their ballot has to be open to all EU citizens who discover that it exists. This means that folk in Lithuania will have just as much chance of getting a ticket as someone like me living less than a mile from the stadium. Obviously I'm more likely to want a ticket, living so close, but I'm potentially up against 750 million people for 7½ million tickets. I'm now resigned to not seeing many events in 2012, to be honest. Even a back seat for the handball sounds a lofty ambition at present.
"By registering your details, you are permitting London 2012 to email or write to you with ticketing news, information about the sports at London 2012 and details of other exciting sporting events and offers. Tickets will not go on sale until 2011 and will be via an application process. You will be required to submit an application for tickets when sales are launched in 2011 even if you have registered your details with London 2012 and you have a ticketing account."
And that paragraph, in the FAQ smallprint, is why I'm not in any way excited about yesterday's ticketing announcement. Wake me next year when there's actually something worth signing up for.
posted 00:12 :
Monday, March 22, 2010Zebra finches playing guitars.
At the Barbican.
It took me three attempts to get to see Céleste Boursier-Mougenot's installation. I turned up on the first weekend to be faced by a half-hour queue, so decided to try later. I turned up on the second weekend and the queue was twice as long, so I gave up again. Third weekend, though, I turned up as the gallery opened and joined the queue from the off. It still took 40 minutes to get in, but this time I was determined not to be diverted from my goal.
The queue was full of middle class arty-types. There were a lot of parents with tousle-haired primary-aged offspring ("come on Max, stop that") as well as several young couples in designer geekspecs. The exhibition has a capacity of only 25 - and no time limit once within - so we had to queue patiently until those inside chose to emerge. "Oh come on why are they taking so long?" we grumbled while we waited, just as those stood further back in the queue would soon be grumbling about us.
Once through the curtain, a series of steps led down into the long curve of the Barbican's art gallery. It was dark, and there was nothing to see but a bit of sand and some flickering guitars projected onto the walls. Only the final third of the gallery held genuine interest for visitors, because that's the end where the zebra finches were. Scores of them, freely flying, and kept in their place because they won't fly into the dark space towards the exit. Welcome to the artistic aviary.
The finches were quite delightful. Small and tweety, with bright red beaks and black/white facial stripes. There were birds everywhere - on the ground, on perches and in nesting boxes - and they delighted in flying and swooping all around. But what made this artwork special was the nature of those perches. Microphone stands, for example, poked into islands of sand scattered all around the gallery. Upturned cymbals too, used as receptacles for seed and water so that the finches' nibbling and slurping acted as light percussion. But the best perches were the guitars.
In total there were eight guitars, clamped horizontally, with their strings facing upwards to create an inviting musical surface. Each time a finch zoomed in and landed - twang - the sound was amplified and broadcast from a speaker on the edge of the gallery. Move - twang - hop - twang - hoppity hop - twang twang twang. The sounds were less impressive from the three bass guitars because their strings were thicker and therefore harder to tweak. But elsewhere, so long as the birds alighted on the fingerboard or bridge, a series of random sounds created a staccato avian concerto.
It was nothing too overwhelming, to be honest. The birds seemed adept at perching on the mike stands rather than the guitars, so the strumming and plucking tended to be less prevalent than I'd hoped. There were few continuous bars of music, let alone extended melodies, so don't come expecting more than a few notes. But if you're standing beside the right guitar at the right time, expect magic moments. I'm still entranced by the memory of one zebra finch, close-up, launching into a virtuoso performance combining strumming and plucking with tweeting and singing. Like a guitar god showing off in front of a stadium crowd, this finch rocked.
27 February 2010 - 23 May 2010
The Curve, Barbican Arts Centre
Tickets: Free admission
Times: Open daily 11am-8pm (late every Thu until 10pm) (go midweek if you can)
posted 07:00 :
Sunday, March 21, 2010My local NHS Trust sent me a letter. Did I, they wondered, want an NHS Summary Care Record. An electronic record of important information about my health - stuff like allgeries and medicines and not much else honest. It would be accessible to NHS staff so that if, for example, I got knocked over by a bus in Manchester, the clinicians there wouldn't accidentally give me tablets I might have a bad reaction to. In my case, as far as I can tell, my Summary Care Record would refer to one prescribed tablet and nothing else. Nothing to be worried about, surely.
If I say yes, they'll gradually add more information to my SCR. Test results from the hospital, diagnoses from my GP, even how I like to be pushed around in a wheelchair. It'll build up and build up, providing an ever-more rounded electronic record of my medical foibles, and assisting staff in treating me quicker, safer and more efficiently. Really, what's to be concerned about?
They tried to reassure me further. I'd be able to access my SCR via a special dedicated website which would be free of charge and password protected. If I saw anything I didn't like, I could get it removed. Only appropriate NHS staff would be able to access my record, and they'd only see the parts they needed to see. They'd only to be able to peek if they had an NHS smartcard with chip and pin, and their details would be recorded (for security purposes) every time they looked. Perfectly secure throughout, surely.
And yet this is the NHS we're talking about, and the NHS's reputation in IT is dire. New systems cost billions, and overrun, and fail, with depressing regularity. When my local hospital moved over to a computer-operated booking system, for example, their computer wouldn't book me a next outpatients appointment for love nor money. Even these Summary Care Records are being launched before all the national safeguarding controls are in place. Responsibility for protecting my digital health data would lie initially in the hands of Tower Hamlets NHS Trust - an Early Adopter authority - for some indeterminate length of time. Should I be concerned?
I ought to believe that the NHS Care Records Service will operate in line with the strongest security measures, but I don't. I ought to believe that confidentiality is the system's highest priority, but somehow I can't quite bring myself to. And I ought to leap at the opportunity to streamline my personal healthcare and get treated better, but I'm uneasy. All I can see is an unwieldy IT system designed by greedy companies and operated by fallible humans. Paper records may not be efficient, but at least they can't be lost, stolen or compromised electronically.
At least I can opt out of having a Summary Care Record if I so choose. A word with my GP will do it, or a downloadable form, or I can leave details at the (scarily-named) www.nhscarerecords.nhs.uk website. So long as I act within three months no SCR will be created, and everyone can carry on passing round my information via inefficient 20th century channels. I'm sorely tempted.
My local NHS Trust sent me another letter, addressed someone who used to live in my flat 10 years ago. He's not lived in this country for years, but the Tower Hamlets NHS computer still thinks he's here and wants to set up a SCR for him too. If I don't send back his envelope marked "not known at this address", he'll be opted in to this digital system whether he likes it or not. If NHS computers can get that wrong, what hope confidentiality and security for the rest of us?
posted 07:00 :
Saturday, March 20, 2010You know that big observation wheel by the Thames. The tall one near Westminster Bridge. The whirly thing with 32 glass pods that rotates every half an hour or so. Yes, you know the one. So, what's it called?
I'll have to hurry you...
OK, I bet you said The London Eye. And you'd be wrong.
The big observation wheel by the Thames is actually called The Merlin Entertainments London Eye. Catchy name, huh?
It used to be the British Airways London Eye, of course, which somehow didn't seem so bad. But now it's owned by Merlin Entertainments, and they've selfishly insisted on plastering their brand all over the name instead. The Merlin Entertainments London Eye. I'm sure there's a marketing boss somewhere who firmly believes this to be a good thing.
Most of us will naturally go on calling it the London Eye, ignorant of the naming rights battle that's lumbered it with six additional syllables. But pity the organisations and websites forced to use the full extended title, because it's official, and that's what official folk have to do.
Visit London, for example, must proudly invite the world to visit The Merlin Entertainments London Eye. As marketing drivel goes, their opening sentence below is pretty appalling. Throw in the official name of this attraction and their jargon is almost impenetrable:Already offering unrivalled views of London, the bespoke cinematic addition to the Merlin Entertainments London Eye will now provide yet another magical and entertaining way to experience our capital city, further enhancing the value and the experience of a trip to the UK’s top paid for visitor attraction.Perhaps you could be tempted to plan a civil partnership or wedding aboard The Merlin Entertainments London Eye Wedding Venue. Perhaps you fancy a Champagne Flight on the Merlin Entertainments London Eye. Or maybe you'd prefer a trip along the Thames on a The Merlin Entertainments London Eye River Cruise. No? Thought not.
There are no such ridiculous extensions to the names of Merlin Entertainment's other UK attractions. Nobody is forced to visit The Merlin Entertainments Legoland or The Merlin Entertainments Alton Towers Resort. No London tourist spends good money to visit The Merlin Entertainments Chessington World of Adventures or The Merlin Entertainments Madame Tussauds. Neither do queues form at the ticket offices of The Merlin Entertainments Thorpe Park or The Merlin Entertainments Warwick Castle. It's only the poor old The Merlin Entertainments London Eye that suffers.
Thankfully this attraction's shorter, more familiar, name continues to take priority in general use. Even Merlin Entertainments themselves sometimes resist crowing their name when they write about their beloved London Eye. But you have to wonder why this renaming was ever thought necessary (I suspect that no other sponsor was interested) because it patently hasn't worked. After six months rebranded as The Merlin Entertainments London Eye, 99.99% of the population haven't even noticed. Count yourself amongst the enlightened few.
posted 07:00 :
Friday, March 19, 2010On the day that Heathrow Terminal 5 opened, I went along for a look around. Just my luck to wander in as their baggage-handling system malfunctioned, so there were queues of disgruntled passengers everywhere. I took several photographs (without upsetting the security guards). And then I came home and posted them up on Flickr.
Yesterday morning, over breakfast, I thought I noticed a familiar photograph on a political blog - a queue snaking off across Heathrow Terminal 5 with the slogan "Labour Isn't Working" slapped across the top. I checked back to my original and yes, that was my shot, reappropriated as one of those ubiquitous DIY political virals. And underneath the fake poster, where he ought to have mentioned me, Iain Dale had written the message "Sent to me by London Architect". I was rather cross.
All of my Flickr photos have an Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works Creative Commons licence. Bit of a mouthful, but essentially it means you shouldn't reuse any photo without giving me credit, nor use it for commercial purposes, nor alter or transform it. This particular T5 photo has been reused before, for example by Londonist, and they duly gave me credit when they posted it. But this time my airport shot had been amended and reused without attribution, which irrefutably broke the terms of the licence. I was rather cross.
I left a message on Iain's blog telling him that the photo was mine and asking him to remove it. My comment ended up lost somewhere in Iain's moderation queue, which suggested to me that he was still asleep and hadn't noticed yet. His reference "Sent to me by London Architect" also suggested that Iain hadn't tweaked my photo himself, but had instead admired the viral rehash sent in by a reader. Either Iain hadn't checked the source, or London Architect had failed to mention it, but my photo ended up on his blog without permission. And then I posted my disquiet on Twitter, because I was rather cross.
If you've ever wondered what the point of Twitter is, yesterday morning might have convinced you. Within an hour my single tweet had snowballed, and scores of other webfolk were very cross too. Stealing other people's photos is wrong, they agreed, and a whispering campaign was up and running. Thank you, you're all wonderful. Shortly afterwards Iain checked his blog and removed my photo, which was a relief. And he apologised, which made me less cross.In future, if you send me photos which you have photoshopped, it would be nice if you actually had copyright permission to use them. I have no way of checking that out easily, so please do act responsibly. Apologies to the photo's owner - someone called DiamondGeezer on Twitter.Iain then replaced my image with another shot of an airport queue, appropriated via an acceptable Creative Commons licence. The new viral even had a black strip across the bottom confirming that the image had been sourced responsibly. This black strip looked damned ugly, to be honest, and dramatically reduced the sloganeering impact of the new illustration. But at least nobody's going to be spluttering with shock when they see this image over their cereal. Republish responsibly and nobody need get cross.
Alas that wasn't the only reappearance of my photograph. My Twittering spies also spotted it on Guido Fawkes' blog, no less. Again it had been posted without due attribution, first unknowingly and then with the message "nicked from flickr" underneath. Guido had also amended my photo still further, slapping his grinning watermark in the corner to ensure that nobody else could steal it without him knowing. You can take it as read that I was cross. I messaged the UK's foremost snarky polemicist immediately - @guidofawkes "nicked from flickr" isn't good enough. That photo was actually nicked from me. Please remove it immediately. He didn't.
Guido did at least have the courtesy to send me an email - not that I was able to read it at the time. Only later did I discover that he'd offered me two options, one of which was to remove the photo, and the second of which involved requesting my t-shirt size. Thankfully, without the need for any further requests, the photo-removal option won out. Second time success, but really should have been first.
As we enter the period before what will be a digitally-resourced general election, there are going to be a lot more viral political images winging around. Some will be brilliant, others will be lame (I'll leave you to decide what my photo became). But there should be absolutely no excuse for republishing photographs nicked off the internet, at least not without attempting to confirm where they came from. Iain and Guido hopefully won't now misappropriate one of yours. But if anybody does try rehashing your creative portfolio for their own political ends, do please remember how important it is to get cross.
posted 00:01 :
Thursday, March 18, 2010Strange place, Dagenham Dock. One of London's few genuine industrial wastelands, tucked away on the Thames marshes where it can offend the fewest possible number of people, and home to Ford's giant Dagenham works. Tens of thousands once worked here, churning Capris, Cortinas and Fiestas off the assembly line, until 2002 when car production was halted. Now there's a "stamping" plant, and a rump of workers making diesel engines, but the golden days are long gone.
I concentrated my attentions on the area around Dagenham Dock station (originally named after the dockyards a mile down towards the Thames). For years there was nothing here apart from Ford and an insignificant station, but things have changed dramatically over the past decade or so.
The first invasive structure here was the A13. Upgraded in the late 90s, Dagenham marks the point where this trunk road veers off from the old turnpike and glides across the Thames-side marshland on concrete stilts. The viaduct crosses the railway line immediately above Dagenham Dock station, affording the only decent view of the area to lorry drivers speeding on their way to Tilbury and beyond.
Next to arrive were the wind turbines. You've probably seen them in the distance while crossing East London, but here you're right up close to one, a full 120 metres from top to tail. A meteorologist would argue that the UK boasts few places less windy than Dagenham, but this site generates a significant proportion of the energy used by what's left of the Ford engine plant.
Then came High Speed One. Extra-fast tracks were constructed immediately alongside the local c2c railway, and a previous level crossing had to be replaced by a vehicle-proof footbridge. Services to Brussels and Paris now speed through this none-too-photogenic industrial corridor, twelve minutes out from St Pancras (probably best not to look out of the window). International travellers never stop at Dagenham Dock, of course, and locals have to make do with a miserable two trains an hour to Grays (and one an hour on Sundays). [photo]
The latest addition to Dagenham Dock is the bus station. I say bus station, although that probably conjures up in your mind something far grander than actually exists. You're thinking interchange hub, and umpteen bus stops and maybe even a coffee bar for good measure. Not a chance. Only one bus serves this particular bus station, the EL2, and that departs no more than five times an hour [photo]. One bus route also means only one bus stop - a single lonely shelter at the far end of a specially-constructed busway - nothing more complicated is required [photo]. As for coffee, forget it. There is a special circular hideaway where drivers go to refresh and relieve themselves, but lesser mortals won't find refreshment anywhere near.
And that's it. A dead-end bus station beneath an inaccessible viaduct, allowing almost nobody to travel anywhere they'd really want to go. A four-lane transport hub lying dormant beside a poorly used station. A considerable amount of investment to construct far too much infrastructure for not enough demand. And why? Because of a project that Boris's 2008 TfL budget cull scuppered. A new spur of the Docklands Light Railway was due to be extended out this way, branching off from the Beckton line and reaching out into the Thames Gateway. Had it been built, this light rail link could have brought accessibility and potential prosperity to the Barking Riverside development. But no, those DLR plans are in deep freeze until the money can be found to fund them, which may be never.
For now, Dagenham Dock's new bus station lies almost empty, awaiting the traffic which might one day justify its existence. A few car workers - those who don't drive - will use it at the start and finish of their shifts. A few Goresbrook residents - those with friends on the Thames View Estate - will walk down from Dagenham proper over the footbridge for an EL2. But other users will surely be few and far between for several years yet. The East London Transit promised so much, but a pretty red bus can't build a community unaided.
posted 07:00 :
Wednesday, March 17, 2010One of the few TfL transport projects to escape Boris's 2008 budget cull was the East London Transit. Yes, the East London Transit, a project which launched last month to so little fanfare that most Londoners probably aren't even aware that it exists. This lack of publicity is probably down to three important factors. Firstly the ELT is merely a posh name for a new bus route. Secondly the ELT only serves the boroughs of Redbridge and Barking & Dagenham, where few of the capital's movers and shakers deign to live. And thirdly the ELT runs to a destination so spectacularly unwelcoming that you'll almost certainly never feel the need to use it. To Dagenham Dock. How could I resist?
Rather than ride the entire length of the East London Transit, I skipped the busier Ilford end and kicked off my journey in Barking. I wanted to start by tracking down "The Catch" - the fishing net sculpture deemed so important that it stars on B&D's very own Olympic pin badge. It even has its own website, because Barking and Dagenham take their public realm art projects extremely seriously. I eventually found The Catch in the middle of a roundabout, two curved aluminium nets glistening with metal mackerel in memory of the town's Victorian fishing industry. Almost kinetic, and pleasingly intricate, although inaccessible on foot and unlikely ever to become a major tourist draw. [photo]
My bus departed from a stop just up the road outside Barking station. There are two East London Transit routes, unimaginatively numbered EL1 and EL2. Both run along exactly the same route, except that the EL2 runs a handful of stops further at the Dagenham end. Obviously I waited for an EL2, then took my place on the top deck alongside estate residents returning home after shopping. They're absolutely nothing special these buses, just brand spanking new (at the moment) and painted with a rather swish swirly orange-y red design. But they are allowed through the town centre, via a route which the 369 (which they replace) was never permitted to travel. And they do have rather posh bus shelters, sleekly designed in red and white, and with more than your average protection from wind and rain.
It didn't take long for shops and lemonade highrises to give way to parks and houses. Soon we were queueing at the mighty A13, waiting to cross into the netherworld on the lonely road to Creekmouth. One day there'll be an "EL3" heading straight on towards the Thames, serving yet-to-close factories and yet-to-be-built estates. Instead my EL2 turned off into Bastable Avenue, spine road for the Thames View Estate - a mile-long isolated community populated with baseline accommodation. Some have lived here for 50 years and have Union Jacks fluttering in the garden, others have been living here only since their last country kicked them out. Minimal community facilities keep things ticking over, but there's no Thames view here, only a skyline of pylons and post-industrial brownfield.
After a spurious "dedicated busway" across an elongated roundabout, we drew up at a lone bus stop beside a building site. Several highrises have been demolished here, in whose place B&D council is now promising "local houses for local people" in a desperate attempt to keep long-standing residents on-side. This remote outpost is the point where the EL1 gives up, but the EL2 braves four more stops across some of the most desolate landscape in London [photo]. We passed one last chunk of more modern housing before following a long road across hundreds of acres of marshy bleakness. One day, when Britain has more money than sense, people may actually live here. In March 2010, however, the only inhabitants were a herd of windswept horses perched on a fenced-off embankment, and sooner them than me [photo]. An increasing number of pylons drew the bus closer and closer to Barking Power Station, approaching through an auto-related industrial estate, before finally drawing up at our destination. Of which more tomorrow.
East London Transit project page
EL1/EL2 route/timetable leaflet (pdf)
ELT route map
Photos of the East London Transit
Barking Riverside development (& aerial view - pdf)
posted 07:00 :
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
diet update: It's two years since my doctor jabbed me in the arm, crunched some numbers and told me that my cholesterol levels were too high. I embarked upon his puritanical low-fat diet, cutting out excess stodge and living off only permitted foodstuffs. No crisps, no pie, no pizza, no chocolate, but plenty of oily fish and un-sauced chicken. It may have been grim, but blimey it worked. Then after two months I eased off a bit and started reintroducing some of the previously banned foods, and I've been gradually easing off ever since. Now I eat crisps, and I sometimes do pie, and I've even been known to gobble down a Creme Egg because I can. But my weight's still well under control, now almost two stone (and two waist sizes) lower than before, which is a bit of a result.
March 2008 X stone 7 Sept 2008 (X-1) stone 7 March 2009 (X-2) stone 13 Sept 2009 (X-2) stone 11 March 2010 (X-2) stone 9
Fine dining therefore remains an option, which is good when BestMate is intent on taking you out for a special birthday meal. Last year he dragged me, willingly, up the OXO Tower. This year he promised another surprise venue, though slightly cheaper, with the instruction to meet at the top of Brick Lane. I waited at the precise spot where Tower Hamlets council have decided not to build a headscarf-shaped metal arch, and rejoiced at their retreat. I wondered whether our surprise destination was the legendary Beigel Bake, or perhaps the Swedish Grille nextdoor, But no, it turned out that we were starting with cocktails at Verge. Very leather sofa, very Shoreditch.
I think that wearing a pullover was a mistake. It was smart casual enough, but everybody else in the joint had come wearing something pointedly different. A shirt would have worked better, or more likely one of those jackety hoody sleevy top things that Shoreditch Man slips on effortlessly before leaving the flat in the evening. I have no such innate sartorial zeitgeist, let alone a trendy flat cap and facial fuzz, so I felt somewhat ill-dressed. Nobody commented.
We sampled a diverse range of alcoholic beverages deftly assembled by the bar staff. I plumped first for a Daquiri, not out of any prior knowledge but because the ingredients sounded nice, which they were. The Verge's Marguerita proved sharp and zingy, and therefore earned the BestMate ThumbsUp. And then there was something dark and rummy whose name I forget - I think it was Something Treacle - plus a hot Pimms-based drink that slipped down a treat. It struck me that one single cocktail here cost more than four beers had cost at a Wetherspoons the night before, but I guess the Wetherspoons didn't have a hip trendy DJ to support. We moved on.
I'm not a fan of curry, so remained a little uneasy as we walked down Brick Lane. Almost every other doorway contained an earnest bloke with a curry house to flog ("you guys eating?" "two free beers" "best curry in town"), and their chorus grew increasingly wearisome by about the twentieth request. I suspect these men are similarly insistent with folk who've only just walked out of the restaurant nextdoor, and whose bellies are already rammed with tikka and naan.
But our destination wasn't on Brick Lane, it was down at the very bottom on Whitechapel High Street. The recently refurbished Whitechapel Gallery isn't solely a display space for art, oh no, it also houses a highbrow Dining Room. There are only enough tables for about 40 crammed-in covers, but the miniature space is laid out throughout with understated style. Coats off, my ill-advised jumper again exposed, and we were led to the table in the window.
Please imagine that
there's a photograph of
the Whitechapel Gallery
in this space
I always scan menus with apprehension, especially when the number of options per course is a limited four. But the Whitechapel's intriguing "seasonal British" concoctions appealed even to my limited palate, wrenching me happily out of my comfort zone, and I ordered with confidence. I didn't even need my usual fallback of "having the soup". Instead I opted for the quail, which was a first, and learned a little too late that the special crunchy taste was a small bone I shouldn't have eaten.
Our waitress beamed and cajoled us throughout the meal, even managing to get us to change seats so that she could seat a larger party (without jumpers) in our prime window location. Wine flowed, and my main course of duck breast duly arrived. Moist and tender it was, on a bed of tasty creamed lentils (can you believe it, I just used "lentils" in the same sentence as "tasty"). We never saw our chef, although I assume it was the lauded Maria beavering away in the kitchen doing special things with thyme mash and chard.
I could have wolfed down every single item on the dessert menu, but plumped eventually for the hot chocolate pudding over the treacle tart or fruit crumble. Like I said, I've eased up a bit on the diet since 2008. Hence a night out at the Whitechapel Gallery hit the spot perfectly (and hit BestMate's wallet, though it would have been inappropriate to ask by how much). And yes, I have put on weight since dining there at the weekend. But birthday treats only come round once a year, dammit, and I'm sure I'll have worked off my E1 bellyful before too long.
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