diamond geezer

 Saturday, May 31, 2014

This is a warning to any Harry Potter fans, or indeed anyone, thinking of going to the Warner Brothers Studio Tour in Watford. In particular, anyone thinking of going to the Warner Brothers Studio Tour from London. Don't take the bus from Victoria, the price is extortionate, you'll be wasting your money.

Getting into the Warner Brothers Studio Tour isn't cheap. Tickets currently cost £30 for adults and £22.50 for children - more even than for London's most expensive tourist attraction, The View from the Shard. But let's assume that the Harry Potter tour is worth the money and you really want to go. That's fine, but please think twice before you double the price by taking the direct bus.

The Warner Brothers Studio Tour isn't in London, it's in Leavesden in North Watford, which might sound like a particularly difficult place to get to. But don't let that tempt you to take the heavily-plugged "hassle-free" option, which is to get on the official bus at Victoria and let the driver take you there. And that's for two reasons. Firstly it's up to 50% more expensive. And secondly it's at least an hour slower.
"Why not make your journey hassle-free by travelling from central London direct to the Studio Tour by bus? Our preferred partner, Golden Tours, offers a convenient return transfer and ticket package on a special air-conditioned bus. Hourly departures leave from Victoria, central London, throughout the year."
Take away the price of your entrance ticket, and the cost of a Golden Tours bus transfer from Victoria to Warner Brothers Studios and back is £29. That's an outrageous amount of money, no matter what your currency, for a journey between two places less than 20 miles apart. OK, so you get an air-conditioned bus, and you get to sit and do nothing, and you get the opportunity to see what the M1 motorway looks like. But there's also a direct bus from Watford Junction station to the studios, and taking that route costs considerably less.

Here's the cheaper way to do it. Take the bus or tube to Euston station, not Victoria. Get a train to Watford Junction. Use your Oyster card, it'll be cheaper than buying a paper ticket. And then waiting outside Watford Junction will be another official bus service, this time run by Mullany's Buses, and this time the fare is only £2 return.



Here's how the fares add up.

With Golden ToursBy train and Mullany's Buses
Bus from Victoria to
WB Studios (return)
£29Train from Euston to
Watford Junction (return)
£9.40
(off-peak)
Bus from Watford Junction to
WB Studios (return)
£2
TOTAL£29TOTAL£11.40

I'm assuming that it costs the same to get from your home or hotel to either Victoria or Euston in the first place, so those fares cancel out. And if you have to travel before 9.30am or after 4.30pm on a weekday, then your train journey will cost more. But what's clear is that taking the train to Watford and then Mullany's shuttle bus costs up to £17.60 less per person than taking the official Golden Tours bus. That's £17.60 you could be spending later on a Gryffindor keychain and a Chocolate Frog, rather than donating to a coach company.

And what about the time taken?

The Golden Tours bus is slow because it has to make its way through Central London traffic and up the M1 motorway. The bus therefore departs two hours before your tour time, and passengers are asked to check in at Victoria fifteen minutes before it leaves. That's an astonishing 135 minutes in total, meaning you need to be ready at Victoria at 9.45am for a 12 noon tour.

Unsurprisingly, heading to Watford by train is considerably quicker. The train journey takes 15-20 minutes, and then the bus at the other end takes 12 minutes. Even if you time things badly and have to wait 29 minutes for the next half-hourly Mullany's bus, you're still going to complete the whole journey in under an hour. You could even leave Victoria at 10.45am, a whole hour later than the check-in for the official bus, and still attend the 12 noon tour on time.

So, the official Golden Tours bus for £29 in two and a bit hours?
Or the ordinary train and the other bus for £12.20 in one hour.
Harry Potter-going tourists, it's your choice.

See also...
• Don't take the Heathrow Express, take the Piccadilly line (save £16)
• Don't take the Gatwick Express, take the ordinary train (save £10)

 Friday, May 30, 2014

The River Stour at East Bergholt is, in many respects, a very ordinary stretch of river. Meandering waters pass between green meadows before opening out through squidgy marshland on their way to the sea. Cows and sheep graze on the banks, while the valley slopes gently upwards towards low leafy heights. Beside the old lock, a couple of miles from the start of the estuary, stands a hamlet with a handful of cottages and a pretty watermill. And that mill was once owned by the father of one of England's most famous artists, who painted it a lot, hence its landscape has become engrained into the national consciousness. It's Flatford Mill, located on the border between Suffolk and Essex, and it's National Trust nirvana.

A rickety-looking wooden bridge crosses the river at the foot of a steep lane beside a 16th century thatched cottage. It's extremely picturesque, or would be had not a builders van parked up alongside in a photo-wrecking position. Pop inside Bridge Cottage for a small exhibition which places Constable's Stour works in context, and helps you to identify precisely where in the immediate vicinity they were painted. The not-quite-so-old dwelling nextdoor is the NT gift shop, and walk round the back to find the almost sympathetic tea room. Scone of the month is Prunes and Earl Grey, if you're interested, else a crack team lies poised to provide a more normal selection of cakes and beverages. Alongside is the dry dock John painted, currently surrounded by yellow irises, but unless you get a seat by the window you could be anywhere.

Hang around and you could join the hourly tour, or you could instead walk a couple of hundred yards up the lane yourself. Flatford Mill is now a Field Studies Centre, so you won't be getting inside unless you've signed up for a course. Looking through the window I see several grey haired students attempting to identify minibeasts, and something in Latin on the overhead projector, so good luck to them. A little further along is Willy Lott's Cottage, an idyllic irregular homestead, or would be were it not for the stream of daily visitors come to poke around outside. And that's because the adjacent waterside was where Constable set up his easel for The Hay Wain, so the masses descend to take photographic approximations of the scene. By visiting on a wet weekday I managed to grab the view without human intrusion, although none of the trees are originals, and the cottage is a 90-year-old restoration.

Assuming that everyone should visit Flatford Mill once, I'd recommend waiting until after retirement. That's not because the place is anything less than pretty, but because this is a perfect compact cluster you'll still be able to manage at 70. All you need to do is wander along two opposite stretches of river, and the second of these turns out not to be crucial, which you can take as slowly as you like. The car park's not too far away, and there's disabled parking at the foot of the hill if it all gets too much. The RSPB run a rather pretty wildlife garden on the walk down, complete with cameras in the nesting boxes (if you're quick before the last blue tits fledge). Throw in a small tourist information centre and a plant stall, plus of course those unusual scones, and Flatford will do nicely for a half-day out.



Walking from Manningtree: I visited earlier than 70, and I walked in rather than arriving by car or coach. I'd always imagined Flatford as being in the middle of nowhere, which essentially it is, but the mill turns out to be within two miles of Manningtree station so I realised it was eminently doable on foot. I thought I'd walk in along the river, so trudged round to the Cattawade Barrage where the river suddenly becomes a broad estuary. The footpath looked innocuous enough, and not as muddy as I'd anticipated, but the overhanging grasses held a dewy sting. Within a few steps the bottom half of my jeans were sodden wet, and had I not been carrying a pair of waterproof overtrousers with me I'd have got no further. Instead I enjoyed the chance to walk the lower valley and be utterly alone with nature, from the cattle staring across the river to the birds freewheeling above. The path did get a bit muddy later, but half an hour of striding alone through the nettles and reeds felt like experiencing my very own Springwatch.

Dedham: Having ticked off Flatford I though I'd continue up the Dedham Vale, my walking boots tightly tied. A choice of paths leads across the riverside meadows to the next village, or you can hire a rowing boat as some more adventurous families had done. It's wonderfully unspoilt, with the National Trust's land acquisition policy intent on preserving as much of Constable's panorama as possible, but probably even prettier in sunlight with the absence of drizzle. Dedham's a pretty Essex village, with a pastel-tinted centre and a selection of small shops that nod to retired daytrippers as well as residents. The second-oldest church has been taken over as an arts and crafts centre, while a mile to the south is a small museum devoted to horse-painter Sir Alfred Munnings, the postwar president of the Royal Academy.

East Bergholt: And on the opposite side of the valley, a mere mile into Suffolk, is Constable's home village. You'll not find East Bergholt House standing, only an exceptionally ordinary detached house in an acre of garden, but several quaint cottages have survived elsewhere. East Bergholt's other claim to fame is the UK's heaviest peal of five of bells, these housed not up St Mary's tower but in a 15th century wooden cage in the churchyard. I remember these from the first series of Treasure Hunt, pre-Wincey Willis, and Anneka's win with 40 seconds to spare, so it was nice to finally see the reality.

Stour Valley Path: I thought I'd walk back to Manningtree station on the other side of the river, down the last two miles of the medium-distance Stour Valley Path. Mistake. The correct path is poorly and irregularly signed, making some kind of map essential. The first stretch involved walking through a field of rather messy sheep, the river alas always just out of sight. A muddy squeeze between narrow fences followed, before fighting down the edge of a rarely-trodden field of oilseed rape and out onto a road for the last hike to Cattawade. I should've taken the southern path... much damper, but so much Stour-ier.


» For my walking routes marked on a map, see here
» For the official walking routes leaflet, see here
» For the official Dedham Vale tourist website, see here
» For ten Dedham Vale photographs, see here

 Thursday, May 29, 2014

150 years ago, a small drapery shop opened near Cavendish Square on Oxford Street. It's still there, only rather larger, now the flagship store of the John Lewis Partnership. Various anniversary-related events are taking place this year, a couple of which are taking place in the original location. One is a recreation of the first store, complete with haberdashery and accounts, and is to be found at the top of the escalators on the third floor. And this turns out to be the portal to an exhibition, a wiggle through the history of the company from 1864 to the present day. The founder, whose name you can probably guess, first expanded his empire by popping down to Sloane Square to buy up Peter Jones for a few thousand quid. But it was his son, John Spedan Lewis, who in 1920 took the boldest step of selling his shares to the employees to create the partnership that makes this the most equitable of department stores. That's all explained, and illustrated... there's even an old photo of Trewins in Watford which made me smile. Further spaces illustrate the JLP's creative touch, including the best-selling Daisychain teatowel design and of course that TV ad with the hare. The whole thing's a giant advert, obviously, but it is very well done, and an informative insight into a retail brand that respects its 76000 workers rather than exploiting them. [open until June 23]

And there's more. John Lewis have opened up the roof, for the spring and summer only, and plonked a sort-of garden up there for the public to enjoy. Access is via the restaurant on the fifth floor, more specifically past the queue for the toilets and the lifts, and then a rear staircase that's clearly usually staff only. One of the Partners will smile as they usher you out into the Roof Garden, which is some upmarket astroturf and a collection of wooden structures and decking. There's a tented area in case it rains, and also occasional use for "events" (at which times you won't be allowed in). There are some very nice flowerboxes and well-established trellises, for that proper middle class touch. There are some deckchairs and grassy armchairs to sit in, so long as it's not been too wet, and a couple of very bored-looking baristas hoping to sell coffee or juice to an audience generally too old to be excited by either.

And yay, there's also a six-floors-up view across the rooftops of London. The good news is that most of the West End is no more than six or seven storeys tall, so you can see a long way. The bad news is that West End rooftops are generally without architectural merit, so it's an unexpectedly dull view that meets the eye. If nothing else, a couple of raised platforms allow the rare opportunity to look down onto Oxford Street below, where a logjam of red buses shuttle slowly back and forth, and the general public mill around accumulating a variety of carrier bags. Pick your moment. The Roof Garden probably fills up quickly on a sunny weekend, but wasn't especially busy during a midweek rain shower, and I suspect the experience was much the same. And if you don't get up there before the summer season ends, you may have to wait until 2064 for another opportunity.

For as long as Londoners can remember, which in this case is 1906, Foyles have been selling books on the Charing Cross Road. Their first shop was at number 135, now vanished beneath a Crossrail building site, and their next at 121, which would later become the very first branch of Waterstones. Here they stayed until 1929 before hopping across the road into new premises at 113-119, which grew up into a labyrinthine behemoth stuffed with books of every kind. And now Foyles are on the move again, heading a few doors down Charing Cross Road to number 107, which was formerly part of Central St Martins College of Art and Design. A new flagship store is ready to open, or at least will be once they've transferred all the existing stock out of the current shop and into the new one. The big move, which is a mammoth task, is scheduled for the first week and a bit of June. And that means this Saturday, 31st May, is your last chance to poke round the existing building before the doors shut and it becomes something else.

There's a lot to poke around. In the older part of the building a diminutive staircase curls around the liftshaft, connecting all floors. Things have thankfully changed somewhat from the autocratic reign of Christina Foyle when books were ordered by publisher rather than subject, and when paying was an oblique two-stage process. There's some sense in the arrangements now, with departments spread across a variety of oddly shaped rooms or the open-plan structure of the rear extension. The top floor has a diverse musical flavour, and probably some light instrumental in the background, while the historians have established a sturdy bridgehead on the second. Know where you're going and you might find the cafe, or even the temporary 75% off book sale in the basement. If you've only ever pootled about the ground floor, in and out, you've missed a lot.

To commemorate Foyles' imminent departure, a very small exhibition is underway in the third floor gallery - a room which looks like a suspended village hall. The store's archivist has dug out some letterheads, some adverts and a lovely series of photos from eight decades of literary luncheons. Doesn't Ian Fleming look nervous, and what a lovely hat Dame Agatha Christie is wearing. Alongside are "sorry no I cannot attend" letters from refuseniks like Noel Coward and Arnold Wesker, as well as thankyou letters from such eminent speakers as Sir John Betjeman. It's not much to see, but it's a nice touch, and something extra if you're coming for a last farewell. The new building promises more floorspace, which is impressive in a world of declining book sales, and will be opening with a bang with a fortnight-long literary festival. But if you were after one last look round the literary warren, to remember Foyles as it long used to be, you need to get down before the end of the week.

 Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Fancy a tour of Broadcasting House? The BBC runs them daily, allowing access inside the corporation's 1930s HQ and the much more recent extension. Book in advance, stump up £13.50 for the privilege, and you could be looking round tomorrow. I looked round yesterday.

Certain parts of Broadcasting House you can look around for nothing. The curving outside with its embedded artwork, for example. The interior of the Radio Theatre, so long as you've got a ticket for a show. And the Caffe Nero in the courtyard outside, where you might brush shoulders with somebody vaguely famous. Don't mock the latter - yesterday the actual Paul Weller was sitting outside with a cup of coffee, looking a lot more tanned and a little more wizened than I remember. But to get inside properly, within the hallowed sanctum of W1A, you need a ticket.



Tours start at the Media Cafe, which is behind one layer of security so not just anyone can get in. It's shrunk in size since my last visit a few months ago, but still offers a fine view down into the heart of the news machine, and that's before the tour's begun. In fact it offers a better view of the BBC News Channel newsdesk than you'll see later from the official viewing platform, plus a close-up of the spot where Carol & Co present the weather. Try not to stand too near the entrance else you'll hear the full introductory spiel from the guide on the previous tour, and then again with yours fifteen minutes later.

Part one of the circuit takes you through the inner security perimeter to stare down over the newsroom again. This time you'll have it properly explained - the home/foreign divide, the control rooms at the back, the camera that might be broadcasting you live to the nation right now, etc. They may look like just another collection of office workers with mugs of tea tapping into computers, but between them they keep millions across the world informed. And then it's back out to the public bit for the first interactive segment of the tour. There are two of these, where participants are invited to step up and "make programmes", in this case reading the news and weather. If you'd enjoy the opportunity have a go and take selfies, it's ideal. If you were hoping to see a bit of more of the building on the tour, afraid not.



Next stop, Radio 1! Or at least the Radio 1 entrance, which is separate across the piazza, past a legion of BBC staff out smoking. The true target is The One Show, for a look inside the studio where the teatime stalwart is filmed. It's a lot smaller than you'd expect, as you'd expect, and the sofa looks a little tattier too. Only tours departing before 3.30pm get to enter, because after that Matt and Alex and the crew move in. But it's nice to slip inside a TV studio to see the lights, the scenery and the automated cameras, not least because you won't be getting inside a radio studio any time soon.

And finally to Old Broadcasting House, first for admiration of its Art Deco reception, and then to the Radio Theatre. I'd never been upstairs before, so enjoyed the look down across the stalls, and the chance to listen to the tube trains rumbling regularly underneath. I could have done with more detail of the architecture, but I sensed the guides pitch their presentation towards the general composition of each party, so we got iPad shots of Emeli Sandé instead. A final chunk of interaction follows, with several volunteers required to record a brief radio drama complete with sound effects. Again it's fun, but ratchets up the feeling that this is more of an experience than a tour.



The tour of BBC Television Centre was better, to be frank, but you can't do the tour of TVC any more so this will suffice. A lot seems to rest on how good your two guides are, and at least one of ours was excellent. But they're held back by not really being able to give you a tour of the building, just a few semi-public spaces and one tiny studio. I guess I'm fortunate in that I'd seen a lot of this before, hence I'd strongly recommend trying to get free tickets for the Radio Theatre, and probably one of the less popular recordings. But if you'd like an insight into how your licence fee is spent, maybe spend a small fraction of it on a tour of Broadcasting House.

Other BBC tours are available: Salford, Birmingham, Norwich, Bristol, Newcastle, Cardiff, Glasgow, Belfast, Cambridge, Truro, Coventry, Blackburn, Lincoln, Northampton, Nottingham, Stoke-on-Trent, Plymouth, Ipswich, Middlesbrough

 Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Seaside postcard: The Oyster Bay Trail
The Oyster Bay Trail is an eight mile cycle route along the north Kent coast between Whitstable and Reculver. It's ideal cycling territory because the coast is very flat and the promenade is broad and easy to follow. So I walked it... and then walked the second half backwards because there isn't a station anywhere near the far end. [cycle map]



Whitstable: Whitstable is a damned lovely seaside town, the sort of place Margate is aspiring to, and that Southend will never be. It doesn't have a pier or amusement arcades, but it does have oysters and a rather tasteful shopping street. I nipped through to the seafront at the Horsebridge (which is the town's 10 year-old arts centre, currently exhibiting some fine Graham Clarkes, and preparing for the Whitstable Biennale next weekend) to start my coastal hike. The first stretch, from the pile of discarded bivalve molluscs to the harbour, was busy with first-time tourists and umpteenth-time stalwarts. Fish and shellfish are the order of the day, here purchasable and sampleable and takehomeable and most definitely smellable. Throw in a bijou weekend market by the quayside and you can see why people don't leave.

I left, heading out onto the promenade to start the long trek east. The path is long and mostly straight, very straight in places, past a selection of oversized beach huts and a shallow sea wall. The beach hereabouts is piled-up pebbles broken by wooden groynes, indeed will be for several miles beyond. Inland to start with are low vegetated slopes, the first (at Tankerton) home to the exceptionally-rare hogs fennel. The sailing club is busy, it being dead simple to drag one's sailing boat down a short ramp into the water and into the inner bay. Cyclists must retreat inland at the mouth of the Swalecliffe Brook, a extra-sinuous stream that finally enters the sea behind a short shingle bank. And then it's back to relentless concrete boardwalk, past dog walkers and cyclists and a conveniently situated campsite. Ahead, jutting out into the bay on a low headland, is what looks at first like a dappled Mediterranean village. Alas no such luck, as closer inspection reveals a bank of bungalows and semis - the first suburban vanguard of Herne Bay.



Herne Bay: Herne Bay tries hard, but can't quite hit the heights of damned loveliness that Whitstable achieves. It came to prominence in the second half of the 19th century, a resort built up on steamer traffic from London and the obligatory railway connection, still somewhat genteel but with a more common underbelly. The town's main landmark is the world's first free-standing clocktower, donated by a local lady in 1837 when this was just a fishing village. A group of bikers have parked up alongside for the bank holiday, in an entirely unthreatening way, while overfed kids wander by with bags of chips in their hand. Hidden down a sidestreet is Herne Bay Museum and Gallery, a two-storey shop unit packed with reminiscence and memorabilia from the glory days. It's very much a two-pounds-worth kind of attraction, and definitely worth a look, not least for the giant prehistoric elephant's tusks picked off the foreshore at a particularly low tide last year.

Herne Bay's pier has an illustrious, but fast diminishing history. Once the second longest in the country, with an elevated electric tramway along its length, now only a stump remains... plus the pierhead standing alone way out to sea. On my last visit a sports pavilion sat above the water, but now even that's been removed to leave a wooden platform, a mini-market and (at time of writing) a lone helter skelter. A longer-standing attraction is the Telly-Go-Round on the promenade, an automated cart operated by the town's Rotary Club. Stick a coin into the slot and one of a selection of dated children's TV characters appears briefly from behind a screen, or hit the jackpot and every window opens simultaneously. Quite what today's toddlers are supposed to make of Count Duckula, the Teletubbies and a trainful of Magic Roundabout characters chugging by I'm not sure, but they throw their money in all the same.

Another blast from the past is the Famous Faces mural on the wall of Cains Amusements, featuring such well known residents as John Altman from EastEnders, Nicki Chapman from Pop Idol and Bob Holness from Blockbusters. Points will be awarded if you can recognise anyone. Meanwhile families you'd never find in Whitstable can be found propping up the machines inside the arcade, while their older relatives enjoy a tea or cake at one of the cafes inside the rather luxurious bandstand. On a Sunday it's the only place to hear Dream A Little Dream Of Me, as interpreted by some local crooner to a part-attentive audience. Further down the town is the guano-splattered statue of Sir Barnes Wallace, who tested the bouncing bomb just offshore, where now the jetskiers speed and circle. To make sure you don't miss a thing on your visit, be sure to follow the Herne Bay Cultural Trail around the town.

The Oyster Bay Trail runs onward at beach level, arrow straight along a succession of shingly breakwaters, so the next mile is a bit of a slog. But all that changes with a step up to the top of the sandstone cliffs, here so crumbly that a succession of warning notices have had to be erected to warn the curious away from the edge. Watch out for the sand martins which nest below soaring and swooping over your head. The trail rounds a ravine, and passes some tenuous bungalows, before emerging trough a thicket onto a glorious sweep of grassland. Reculver Country Park rolls gently down towards two towers in the distance, the meadow currently a riot of late spring colour. From up here you can look west to Sheppey and east to Margate, as well as north to the Kentish Wind Farm which has been our constant companion along the journey. In good visibility yes, that's Southend on the far shore, and those tiny specks are the turrets of the Maunsell Forts at the mouth of the Thames estuary.



Reculver: Reculver used to be a most important spot, perched on the last clifftop in Kent before the sea and the Isle of Thanet. The Romans built a large fort here, then the Anglo Saxons a church, of which now only two tall towers remain. These were retained in the 19th century when the rest was demolished, or tumbled over the edge, because they provided a failsafe navigational aid for sailors. They're still visible for miles around, for example from way back in Herne Bay, perched somewhat precariously on a protected headland. The village today is essentially a caravan park, plus pub, plus visitor interpretation centre, providing information and a trio of refreshment opportunities. But the real reason you'd walk/cycle this far is to ascend the slight hill and stand within the old church beneath the twin towers. Here you can admire the old stonework, or clamber over what used to be the chancel, or simply sit and have a picnic amid the ruins. And then, deep breath, the nearest stations at Herne Bay or Birchington are four miles distant, so best get going.

» The Oyster Bay Trail maps
» Ruth's round-Britain account of walking this stretch
» Ten photos from along the Oyster Bay Trail

 Monday, May 26, 2014

I don't know what it is about Tower Hamlets and voting. A few years ago everyone else in London had normal MPs and we had George Galloway. Our Mayorship came about because a minor party fancied wresting control of local politics from Labour, and succeeded. Our Mayor isn't from one of the three main parties but a peculiar left-wing offshoot. Votes for certain candidates in certain wards are split on racial lines, or so it often seems. There have long been rumours of electoral fraud, and dodgy electoral registers, never quite substantiated. And we cannot organise a count of ballot papers to save our lives.

The plan was to have Tower Hamlets' local council results counted by Friday evening. There'd be a delay while votes were verified, but that was all part of the plan to make sure everything was above board and transparent and absolutely not in any way fraudulent. The Mayoral ballot was counted first, because he's the one who controls the budget in Tower Hamlets and the election of councillors is mostly for show. And the Mayoral count went on, and on, and on. At ten o'clock the caterers at the venue went home, because nobody had been expecting things would still be going by then. Crowds of supporters of the existing Mayor thronged the streets outside, forcing police to lock the doors of the count and keep everyone inside. Sometime after eleven o'clock came the announcement that the decision would be based on second preferences, so thousands of ballot papers were counted again. And finally at around half past one in the morning came the announcement of Lutfur Rahman's victory.
» election count liveblog from East London Lines
» Analysis from TH politics-watcher Ted Jeory


The plan had been to have all of Tower Hamlets' local council results counted by Friday evening. Instead the Mayoral election took precedence, and little had been sorted by the early hours of Saturday. Counting continued in the morning, with results of certain wards dripping through occasionally. But towards noon came the news that the task had been too huge, and the tellers were too tired, and the remaining six wards would be counted on Sunday. Every other local authority in the country had finished announcing everything by then, bar the occasional spectacular recount, but Tower Hamlets dribbled onwards into a third day.

Sunday was of course the planned day to count the European election results, so the leftover council wards had to be fitted in alongside this. Some of the six managed completion late afternoon, others into the evening, until by eleven o'clock there was only one persistent recount (in Bromley South) to go. And all this of course held up the European election count, which was perhaps not taking place particularly efficiently in itself, meaning that Tower Hamlets was soon the only London borough not to have its Euro votes tallied up. Our apologies to the rest of the capital for keeping you hanging on like this, but we cannot organise a count of ballot papers to save our lives.

Anyway, because the Tower Hamlets website doesn't have one, here's my map of which councillors from which party were elected in which ward .
(Updated as of Tuesday evening, but not yet complete because of the death of one of the candidates in Blackwall & Cubitt Town, to the bottom right of the map, where no election has yet taken place)
(n.b. we have a strange system this year where wards may elect one, two or three councillors depending on their size)




Tower Hamlets First is the Mayor's party, previously a grouping of councillors defected from Labour, now elected on their own personal mandate. You'll see the party has a particular stronghold to the west of the borough, specifically in and around Whitechapel, Spitalfields, Shadwell and Stepney. There's always a nagging feeling that Lutfur cares more for E1 and E2 than for E3 and E14, a feeling reciprocated by the distribution of THF seats, and it is perhaps not a coincidence that Tower Hamlets Town Hall is to move to Whitechapel, specifically the old Royal London Hospital site, in a few years time. Meanwhile Labour's heartlands are to the north of the borough, perhaps more specifically the northeast, where wards in Bow have yet to succumb to the Mayor's charms. And the Conservatives maintain a thin foothold along the Thames, which is where the majority of the borough's most expensive properties are, and of course Docklands and Canary Wharf.

What surprises me the most is how many wards split their vote to elect candidates from more than one party. You'd think it wouldn't happen. You'd think voters would cast their crosses along party lines, for example all three crosses for Tower Hamlets First, or all two crosses for Labour. The two Bow wards went roughly like this, with all the Labour candidates getting roughly the same number of votes, and well ahead of all the other parties. The vote in Whitechapel was even more consistent, with all the candidates from the same party polling very similar numbers of votes. But in about half the wards the honours have been split, with at least one candidate from the second party sneaking through to overtake. Bethnal Green (top centre of map) is a good example of this, with one of the THF candidates nudging out the third Labour candidate by a mere ten votes.

There are a number of cases where candidates on the same ticket scored very differently. The two Conservatives in Island Gardens polled 150 votes apart, allowing Labour to sneak through and claim the second seat. The two Labour candidates in Bromley North polled 400 votes apart, allowing THF to grab the second place. Meanwhile in St Peter's the THF candidate whose surname begins with Z was overtaken by the Labour candidate whose surname begins with H, as if alphabetical order really is a key factor in who gets elected. Indeed maybe some people never realised they were allowed more than one vote, so stopped after one cross, which is why several candidates further down the list never got elected even though their colleagues did.

I don't know what it all means, and there are enough mixed messages that any underlying peculiarities could be the result of suspicious practice or merely random. As I write there's still one more ward's election to go, as well as one more to count, and this could make all the difference to who finally comes out on top. On the bright side, there's so much other stuff going on in Tower Hamlets that UKIP are pretty much nowhere to be seen. But sheesh, it's now four days after election day and we still haven't announced our local election results yet. I don't know what it is about Tower Hamlets and voting, but we cannot organise a count of ballot papers to save our lives.

3am update: Tower Hamlets finally announce the results of their delayed European Election count, five hours after they were supposed to do so, and five hours later than every other London borough. Labour have 54% of the vote.
3am update: "The count for the Bromley South ward will resume on Tuesday at Mulberry Place – time to be confirmed later." (sigh)
Tuesday update: Five days after the election, the final ward has finally been counted. End result Labour 20, Tower Hamlets First 18, Conservatives 4

 Sunday, May 25, 2014

I hope you're having a thrilling bank holiday weekend. I had a thrilling Saturday - I tidied the flat and I walked to the supermarket. So, assuming you don't want to hear about the former, I'm going to write about the latter.

My walk to the supermarket

✉ The new flats beside the police garage are nearly ready to open. They were built on the site of 80s rave pioneer Echoes Nightclub, long since closed and fenced off, now transformed into 23 shared ownership apartments. In a rather nice touch, number 209 Bow Road has been named Peet Court in honour of Bow Church's esteemed vicar who died three years back. if anyone has any idea why number 207 has been named Edmund Court, I'd be much obliged.

✉ The Bow Roundabout now has a sponsor. Yes, I'm as surprised as you are. They're an "executive travel" company called Goldline who hire minicabs, luxury minibuses and leather-seated coaches, and their telephone number is now plonked on a sign in the middle of the roundabout. It's all official too, there's a TfL logo "in partnership with London Streets" underneath, so hopefully their fee will be used to help fund improvements for those of us on two feet or two wheels who have to negotiate this sponsored deathtrap. [photo]



✉ They're busy knocking down Pudding Mill Lane station. That's the old station, not the new one which opened last month (and which yesterday boasted more DLR staff than passengers). The old one's on its way out, with the tracks into the station now ending in a concrete overhang, and two diggers at work smashing up the embankment further along. It's all got to go so that Crossrail can drive through, next stop Whitechapel, and so that this whole area can be utterly transformed into somewhere new to live. And it doesn't look like the DLR's old platforms will be around for long. [photo] [photo]

✉ Drivers have yet to get the hang of the Olympic Park, because not all the roads go anywhere yet. Several drive in past the Aquatic Centre, the turn up the Loop Road because it looks important, and drive in hope around the back of the Olympic Stadium. Here they stop at some wholly unnecessary traffic lights, where the road ahead is blocked so they have turn left beneath the Greenway to enter Marshgate Lane. And this too is closed, so sixty seconds later you see them driving back, a sheepish look on their face as they try to work out how the hell to escape.

✉ Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is not busy. That's probably because it's been raining on and off all morning, but now the sun is out and the grass is empty. Two families have the dancing fountains to themselves, and are well pleased, while a few lucky children enjoy having the run of the adventure playground. The queue for the Orbit is non-existent, neither are any faces apparent peering through the rain-spatted observation platform 80 metres up. I'm not sure who decreed that the main boulevard needed four refreshment kiosks, but the staff in each are staring bored for lack of clientèle, and each looks hopefully towards me as I walk straight by. Down by Carpenters Lock a photographer is taking close-ups of the flowers, again blooming in a most attractive 2012 style, as the daily blue badge guide tour approaches. A jogger diverts through the Great British Garden where two local youths were hoping to canoodle on the swing in private. I have, as you've probably noticed, diverted off any kind of direct route to any supermarket. [photo]

✉ A new exit from the Park has opened up round the back of the stadium, this from the Great British Garden down to the Lea towpath. It's not yet signposted at either end, hence the jogger turns round before she reaches the turn not realising it exists. The Loop Road alongside this stretch of the river is closed, and the perimeter is undergoing slow transformation into the Canal Park. One day it'll be a verdant strip enhancing the property value of the flats behind, but for now it's a far from finished mess. [photo]

✉ At the end of White Post Lane, a lady in an electric wheelchair pauses to take a photo of the lush bank of flowers. Trampled paths mark desire lines where folk have taken a shortcut through the blooms, because the park's designers (in their questionable wisdom) have failed to provide direct access, only polite notices and low barriers. Meanwhile the northern end of QEOP has now been fenced off, with only the occasional gap, each of these with a lockable gate. Presumably that's to keep miscreants out after dark, and to manage flows in and out when there are events on, but it sends a less than upbeat message. [photo]



✉ Over at the East Village, barriers have come down revealing yet more small bits of parkland. A thin strip runs up through what's been called Portlands, a name written in raised letters within one of the bubbling ponds along the way. Take your pick of the high path or the low, the former curving and undulating up and down in a surprisingly agreeable manner. Two workmen from the adjacent building site are swigging beers on one of the high benches, while a dozen of their workmates chat and check their phones nearby, hardhats temporarily removed. I make the mistake of walking back into the centre of Jeppe Hein's Mirror Labyrinth, and am faced by several dozen simultaneous reflections of my middle-aged body. Never again, I vow, never again. [photo]

✉ The nearer I get to the shops, the busier it gets. That'll be because Westfield's dry, hence a better option than risking being outside... not that some of these folk would dream of heading outside at all. They bustle around, through what the shopping mall laughably calls a market, some dangling bags and others merely anticipating. I'm not long in the supermarket, and then I take the train home because I don't fancy the same three and a half mile hike with groceries. I hope you're having a thrilling bank holiday weekend.

 Saturday, May 24, 2014

Outcome of London Borough Elections 2014



Labour: 20 boroughs
Conservative: 9 boroughs
Liberal Democrats: 1 borough
Tower Hamlets First: 1 borough (that's Tower Hamlets, where Lutfur Rahman got his core vote out and beat Labour's John Biggs on second preferences)
No Overall Control: 1 borough (that's Havering, where a large number of independent Residents Association candidates prevent the Conservatives from having a majority)
UKIP: 0 boroughs (apparently because we Londoners are "cultural, educated and young"... or maybe because we're the integrated multi-ethnic community their voters elsewhere fear)

Councillors: Labour 1054 (57%), Conservative 610 (33%), Liberal Democrats 118 (6%), UKIP 12 (0.7%), Green 4 (0.2%), Other 47 (2%)

London wards with UKIP representation (see crosses on map)
Bromley: Cray Valley West (2)
Bexley: Blackfen & Lamorbey, Colyers, St Michael's
Havering: Emerson Park, Gooshays (3), Heaton (2), South Hornchurch

Boroughs with no Conservative councillors: Barking & Dagenham, Haringey, Islington, Lewisham, Newham
Boroughs with no Labour councillors: Richmond, Sutton
Boroughs with no Liberal Democrat councillors: just over half
Boroughs with no Green councillors: 28 out of 32
Boroughs with no UKIP councillors: 29 out of 32

Most knife-edge borough: Barnet (where the Conservatives have 32 out of 63 seats)
Least knife-edge boroughs: Barking & Dagenham, Newham (where Labour have every seat)
Eco boroughs: Camden, Islington, Lambeth, Lewisham (each with one Green councillor)
Diametrically opposite boroughs: Waltham Forest (Lab 44, Con 16) and Westminster (Lab 16, Con 44)

Days to London Mayoral Election: 712
Days to General Election: 348

 Friday, May 23, 2014

Thanks for your 100+ comments about photographs. Let's see what you said.

So I just wondered, do you prefer the larger or the smaller photos, or is there a reason why one of those doesn't work well on your device?

» I prefer them larger (16)
» I prefer them smaller (7)
» I don't mind either size (4)
» I'm not here for the photos (3)

That's a firm win for the larger size of photo, although admittedly on a rather small sample. You like the larger size because you can see more detail, although many of you are happier with the smaller size when the image is merely incidental to the text.
"I also like it if you have also made the thumbnail a link to the photo source, so clicking on it will give the full size version."
Well yes, that's a very useful bit of additional functionality. But I should say, I don't always do that. The size of photo you see on the blog is exactly the size I've uploaded to Blogger - there is no larger version lurking under the bonnet. If the photo's on Flickr then yes, I do generally link through to there, but otherwise clicking on a photo won't make it any bigger. Hmm, I wonder if I could, or should, change that.
"Could you wrap text around the larger version?"
I don't do this because, as the commenter goes on to say, "I appreciate this might bugger up layouts on smaller screens with larger images". Indeed I made the decision many years ago that no element on my blog would be wider than about 400 pixels. Back then it was because people had 800x600 screen resolutions, but today's smartphone screens are even narrower.
"If you're going to not wrap text around larger images, I'd prefer them to be centred."
Oh I'm not sure about that, I've always thought left-aligned looked best. But maybe that comes down to how wide my screen is, and how wide your screen is.

So I just wondered, do you mind the quartered photos, indeed do you actually quite like them, or am I wasting my time posting photos that are much too small?

» I like quartered photos (24)
» I don't like quartered photos (11)
» I don't mind either size (5)

That's a firm win for quartered photos... perhaps not all the time, but as and when appropriate. Many of you see them as a good way to get an overall feel for a place or a journey, which was always the intention. But they're not popular with all of you, indeed some of you detest their complexity, and also the fact you can't click through to four separate photos.
"Great for flavour, need to ensure the pictures aren't too detailed though."
I don't pick my quartered photos for their simplicity, so I'm aware that sometimes the overall picture gets rather busy, sorry.
"You probably could lay a different link upon every quarter by applying an HTML image map with <map> and <area>."
Ah now that's interesting. I should look into that.

So I just wondered, do you look at my photos on Flickr, indeed do you even notice they're there, or is it a site you'd never visit and would you prefer more of those photos here where everyone can see them?

» I look on Flickr (18)
» I sometimes look on Flickr (15)
» I don't look on Flickr (7)

Of those people who answered, the great majority do click through to look at my photos on Flickr. Some deliberately hunt for links, while others much prefer it when I go out of my way to make the complete selection explicit. But the counts on my individual Flickr photos suggest that the great majority of readers don't click through... and why should you?
"It's sometimes disappointing when I mouse over an interesting blog image without a link to Flickr."
I don't put all my blog's photos on Flickr, only the better ones, plus those with geographic or social importance. Equally I don't put all the photos on Flickr on my blog. They're two parallel streams, with a fair bit of overlap, but by no means all.
"What does annoy me though is when I click through only to find it's the same image that is already on the screen! I generally click through expecting something that didn't actually make it into the final cut for the main page."
Some of you like to see a larger version of the photo when you click through, whereas others want to see a fresh different image. I should perhaps make it more obvious which is which.
"Yes I click through sometimes. I also have you as a contact on Flickr so sometimes view direct from there. Sometimes it is a useful preview of a future post!"
Damn, I've been caught out. Yes, I always upload the photos before I publish the post.

So I just wondered, are there any small but functional cameras you might recommend within a reasonable price range, or should I just carry on with my iPhone because it's good enough?

» Keep using your iPhone (13)
» Recommend something else (13)

So that's a fairly even split. Many of you think the iPhone's photo quality is damned good, and it is indeed much sharper than my last ordinary camera. But many of you recognised its limitations, and recommended other cameras I might acquire to fill the gap. Your suggestions included the Canon Ixus, the Samsung Galaxy S5 and the Nikon Coolpix, but especially the Panasonic Lumix TZ series (the latter getting seven positive nods). So maybe that's where I'll look next. And if you keep clicking through, perhaps you'll notice the difference one day soon.

 Thursday, May 22, 2014

You may not have noticed, but Tuesday's Lea Valley post included my most popular photo ever. I hadn't thought my shot of Waltham Abbey exceptional, merely pretty, but it's been favourited on Flickr more times than any other photo I've ever posted there. And the fact it probably passed you by has made me think about how photos are displayed on this blog, and whether perhaps there's a better way to do it.

So yes, this is a post about photos, and I shall be asking for your feedback. Please make sure you post yours in the right comments box.

about size of thumbnails
about quartered photos
about use of Flickr
about cameras

Size of thumbnails: When I post photos to this blog, you normally get a small thumbnail-sized image to one side. These photos are usually just under 300 pixels wide, which isn't big, but I think should be large enough to see pretty much what's going on. Equally the dimensions are small enough to allow text to flow easily around the side, no matter how narrow the device you're using. I usually alternate from side to side, first right then left, partly for aesthetic reasons but also so that two consecutive photos don't collide for those of you with particularly wide screens.

Or at least that's how I used to do it. Now more and more I'm posting larger thumbnails, more the size of proper photos, these precisely 400 pixels wide. That's the widest I'm willing to go, so as not to muck up the viewing pleasure of those in narrow browsers, indeed it's been the upper limit of graphics on my blog since I started. I don't flow text around this larger size of photo, I interrupt the flow and then continue with the next paragraph underneath. And that's the more normal way to do it, I think, plus it means you get the photograph in a decent size where you can actually see some detail.

So I just wondered, do you prefer the larger or the smaller photos, or is there a reason why one of those doesn't work well on your device?


Quartered photos: I regularly present photos in a format that I've not seen on blogs elsewhere. I take four photos I'd like to show you, shrink each one down to 200 pixels wide and present all four in one go. What you get is a quartered image, allowing a flavour of the place I'm writing about rather than one larger photo. This might be good, because of the variety, or it might be bad, because the resulting photos are too tiny to discern too much detail. Indeed, maybe that's why nobody else does quartered photos, just me.

I will tell you why I do it though, and it's because of Blogger's auto-pagination penalty for showing too many images. They've set a limit of approximately 20 photos they're willing to show on your homepage - any more than that and they chop off the bottom of the page. If I publish a post with 12 photos in it, and then another tomorrow, that's all that Blogger will allow homepage visitors to see. But by combining photos into quartets, I get to hit that upper limit four times slower, and that keeps me happy. Sorry if it's sub-optimal for you, but I can't afford to litter my blog with photos else I get penalised for it.

So I just wondered, do you mind the quartered photos, indeed do you actually quite like them, or am I wasting my time posting photos that are much too small?


Use of Flickr: I've been using Flickr as my main repository of online photos for almost a decade now. If I'd like you to see a photo in all its glory I'll usually link to it on Flickr rather than displaying it here, for all of the aforementioned reasons. Sometimes I'll make it explicit that I'm linking to a photo on Flickr, perhaps even a full set of 30, to raise the profile of my external portfolio. Other times I'll add a link that says [photo] in the hope that's obvious enough, and you may or may not choose to take a look. More usually I'll merely link to a photo from a word or phrase in the text, and hope you pick up on the image connection. The statistics suggest you generally don't. Only a fraction of you ever click through, especially when the link isn't flagged, so my intended pictorial accompaniment to the day's blogpost is generally overlooked.

And that's fine. Most people don't click on links whatever they are, and links to photos are no exception. Most people are only here for the text, and then only briefly before surfing on, and I have no expectations otherwise. Plus a lot of people don't get on with Flickr, especially since its programmers 'improved' the site by switching to a new clunky browser-intensive platform. I've no intention of relocating my photos elsewhere unless they wreck the site completely, I've invested too much time and effort on Flickr over the years. But perhaps I should be illustrating my posts with additional relevant photos in situ, rather than hiding them where 95% of readers never go.

So I just wondered, do you look at my photos on Flickr, indeed do you even notice they're there, or is it a site you'd never visit and would you prefer more of those photos here where everyone can see them?
A new camera: I used to walk around with a proper camera, or at least a point and shoot. But I don't think I've made terribly good choices in what I've bought, with 2011's Samsung proving visually defective and 2012's Sony rather too basic. So I've gradually edged over to using my iPhone for every single photo I take, and leaving my 'proper' camera at home. The picture quality's surprisingly good, and enlarges well, plus my smartphone's always in my pocket. But the iPhone's zoom facility is rather basic, indeed it took me over a year to realise it existed. And framing my shots well is surprisingly difficult because the phone lacks a certain precision, hence my repertoire of shots has become more limited.

So what I could really do with is another proper camera, one that's proper decent this time, so that I can diversify my portfolio a little. I want something that slips into a pocket rather than a great big lens round my neck, because I prefer to be ready to snap anything and everything at a moment's notice. I'm up for a budget of a hundred and something pounds, but probably not two, especially anything that might be on special offer at the moment. Because if I'm going to go to all the effort of taking photos and sharing them, they might as well be decent.

So I just wondered, are there any small but functional cameras you might recommend within a reasonable price range, or should I just carry on with my iPhone because it's good enough?

 Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Shall we laugh at another PR email? This one's entitled...
Your personal invite to the <PDC> event
But it's not addressed to me personally, it just leaps in with...
Good Morning, I hope you are well
I was, thank you.
My names is <name> and I work here at <Media Agency>, I’m currently doing blogger outreach for my client <Property Development Company> <(PDC)> for their upcoming event early this June.
She calls it "blogger outreach", by which of course she means recruiting folk to promote her client's project on social media.
<PDC> are looking to fully develop the <Zone 4 suburb> area with architecture, retail and leisure space. See website here
So yes, we're talking flats. And yes, we're talking apartments marketed initially overseas. Indeed if you're in Kuala Lumpur this weekend you can pop along to the Marriott Hotel for the exclusive launch of this particular development's third tranche of flats. Alas I doubt very much that any of the potential buyers read my blog.
It would be amazing if you could attend as your Lifestyle blog is the perfect fit for the <PDC> ethos.
I find it particularly distressing to have been branded a Lifestyle blogger. Has she not read all the tedious posts I write about railways, bus routes and seaside walks? More to the point, has she not read all the posts where I slag off marketing campaigns for greedy get-rich-quick apartment developments shamelessly targeted at foreign investors? I am so not the perfect fit for her so-called ethos.
Really like your recent “Hi how are you” piece, social habits really are bizarre,
They often do this, blogger outreachers. They look back a day or two to find a post they can relate to - preferably one with tons of interactive comments - then tell you how much they like it. I was not taken in.
We would love you to come along to the event to experience how great <Zone 4 suburb> is becoming
You'd laugh if I told you the name of the location. It's no hellhole, but equally it's nowhere any canny Londoner would choose to live for reasons of prestige. For marketing purposes, it's being advertised as "near Hampstead" and "well connected to Central London and the City just 30 minutes away", neither of which is strictly true. And the development is absolutely not, as the blurb in one Hong Kong newspaper reads, "located in the luxury neighborhood of <Zone 4 suburb>", nor as the official description has it, "in fashionable North West London".
We would also like to discuss long-term blogging opportunities and featured articles. Could you tell us what opportunities you currently offer?
She really hasn't read much of my blog, has she? There are no long-term blogging opportunities for commercial interests here, nor featured articles paid for by sponsors. I guess she just assumed all bloggers were that shallow, so I'd lap up the chance to post words I hadn't needed to write myself in return for perks and dosh.
Please see the further event details below:
SAVE THE DATE: Wednesday 11th June 2014, 16:00
<PDC> marketing suite, <road where warehouse used to be>, <Zone 4 suburb>, NW<x>
Some of us work on Wednesday afternoons, you know.
**Transport from Central London will be provided**
And that's priceless. Having spent much of the promotional brochure and obligatory YouTube video going on about how brilliantly located this development is by tube, the PR company want to whisk bloggers there by road instead.
To celebrate the launch, we will showcase the product on offer; provide sushi demonstrations to highlight the close proximity of famous <local attraction closed in 2008> and entertainment will be delivered by special guest, DJ <pun on location name>. <Asset Management Company> will also give you an exclusive preview of the marketing suite and show apartment.
So essentially it'll be like attending a timeshare plug, but with raw fish and cheesy music. Count me out, thanks. And that mention of <local attraction closed in 2008> is particularly poignant, because it would have really appealed to the Far Eastern clientèle this development is trying to attract, but is itself being redeveloped into flats, offices and a Morrisons.
Formal invitations will follow shortly.
They won't, not after the reply I sent.

It was announced yesterday that house prices in London have risen by as much as 17% in the last year. Maintain that rate and prices will be more than double what they are today by 2019, and three times as much by 2021. So how sad to receive a PR email from a project team bent on diverting newbuild property abroad to maximise profits, rather than assisting ordinary local people to gain a much-needed first foothold on the ladder. We're all screwed if London's housing market overheats, and it's people like <Property Development Company> and <Media Agency> who are hastening the conflagration.

 Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Postcards from the Middle Lea
(from Enfield Lock up to Cheshunt via Waltham Abbey)



For the souls who live up the dead end at Enfield Island Village, Sunday's sunshine is a good excuse to stay put. All that's needed is a carrier bag of lagers from the Tesco Express and a grate of charcoal smoking in the back garden, then it's tops off to reveal the winter's new tattoos, and all is set fair. Some are sprawling on a long string of parkland, conveniently aligned beneath the row of pylons striding through the estate. Outside the Royal Small Arms Factory, as it once was, a family collectively wearing too much green have settled by the pond in the shade of a tree. The smallest has a bike, the remainder are going nowhere fast. From beneath the clocktower the sound of earnest grunting can be heard, for this corner of the riflemakers' heritage building is now a gym. [map] [photo]

In the drainage channel marking the border between Enfield and Essex, a heron strides purposefully across the weir. Only a few souls have passed over to Sewardstone Marsh, one led by his dog, another trying frustratedly to fix the puncture on his other half's bike. In the marshy woods, around the landscaped gravel pits, the dominant form of vegetation is the shoulder-high nettle. Locate the non-cul-de-sac path to exit opposite the most northerly carvery in London E4, which is what most Essex pubs appear to be these days. [map]

Gunpowder Park is a glorious expanse of reclaimed recreational land where formerly munitions were tested. The hedgerow along the eastern side of Cob Fields hides a secret - it precisely follows the Greenwich Meridian. The bench at the top of the rise is taken by a middle-aged cyclist who appears to have read embarrassingly few pages of his Bill Bryson. This, allegedly, is a viewpoint, although the diminutive elevation offers little more than a distant panorama of the flat Lea Valley and its tower blocks across the fields. The only busy corner of the vast park is that within 200 metres of the northeastern car park, where bloated dads are tanning between the artificial ridges. "Don't go any further Lauren!" calls one mum to her nine-year-old daughter, lest she ride her scooter fractionally out of sight and into the arms of non-existent terror. An ice cream would be nice but the visitors centre is closed, so a voice at the door announces... there's a course on. [map] [photo]

Waltham Abbey mostly shuts on Sundays, apart from the superstores round the perimeter, and anywhere that sells liquids. The museum by the library is proper closed and will be for another year, until a Heritage lottery grant allows it to reopen twice the size. Around the Abbey there's apricot crumble and custard on offer at Philpott's Tea Rooms, overlooking the flat stone that marks the site where King Harold may possibly maybe have been buried. The church itself is lofty but stunted, boasting medieval arches and a zodiacal Victorian mural, plus a strange shop in the crypt where a quiet couple sell Christian bits and pieces to not many visitors. Rather more folk are slouched outside in the Abbey Gardens, soaking up the rays until the sun dips behind a cloud and Nan reaches for a cardigan. [map] [photo (pretty)]



They hosted the Olympic sploshy sports here in Herts two summers back, at the Lee Valley White Water Centre. For five days of sport several acres of marshland were transformed into a swirling loop of concrete and spray, now open to the public (so long as they can find the narrow gap in the perimeter fence). Those with cash to splash, and a sense of adventure, get togged up in waterproofs and head for a ride round one of the two courses. The main Olympic circuit is not for the faint-hearted, although at least one of the white water rafts in circulation this afternoon contains a screecher who insists on gibbering every time the boat tips. Which is a lot. One kayaker has to be rescued from the water after tumbling badly, while others nip through the gushing foam as if they've been doing this all their lives. Paddles up, everybody, and ride the conveyor belt past the cafe terrace to ride the whole loop again. The 2014 ICF Canoe Slalom World Cup's due here in a fortnight, if you fancy a spectacle, or simply turn up (Mondays and Tuesdays excepted) to watch team-building office workers getting wet. [map] [photo] [photo] [photo]

On Cheshunt Marsh, step off the Waterlily Walk by Bowyer's Water for a dragonfly extravaganza. Initially your eyes may see nothing. But look more carefully and there must be two or three dozen at least, their thin blue bodies zipping around the yellow irises or hovering above the water. One is much longer than the rest, this because it's really two doing what insects do to multiply. Another month and there'd be an angler on the wooden platform - line cast, worms wriggling - blocking the view. But for now the dragonflies dart and shimmer, what a sight. [map] [photo]

In the Pindar car park beyond Cheshunt station, a two-sided battle for hot drinks and ice cream has broken out. I make the very simple mistake of buying the wrong option from each vendor. I ask for ice cream at Papa Palms, the silver trailer by the toilet block, but they only do tiny tubs, and only the Cornish strawberry remains. Too late I spot the ice cream boat moored up at the edge of the Lea, a small motorboat called Ice Dreamz with plastic cornets for decoration. They do soft whippy 99s and snow cones, even proper Wall's lollies from a sort-of freezer, but it's too late now, my spoon is licked. Instead it's time for a cuppa, this because I failed to notice the option for "hot chocolate with squirted cream" on the board by the towpath. The lady aboard calls to her partner, whose name amusingly is Lee, and he returns to the tiny galley to make a brew. My order requires the portable generator to be powered up, and it chugs away for three minutes while the kettle boils, ebbing away any possible profit from my paltry 50p outlay. The tea is adequate, much as the ice cream was, but I wish I'd bought my refreshment treats the opposite way round. [map] [photo]


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