diamond geezer

 Friday, July 31, 2015

82 current* blogs with diamond geezer on their blogroll**
*(at least one post since July 1st)   **(blogroll must appear on blog's main page)

affable-lurking, AngloAddict, Aslef Shrugged, Autolycus, (The Banbury Man), Blogging Up The Works, (Blue Mai), Borrowed Heaven, Blue Witch, Brian Micklethwait, Cabin Essence, Cameron Counts, Cardunculus, CDL Creative, The Charlton Champion, Chertsey, Chicago Addick, Clandestine Critic, (crinklybee), Crying All The Way to the Chip Shop, Days on the Claise, The Deptford Dame, Depthmarker, dig your fins, D4D, East End Trifles, 853, English Buildings, A Fistful of Euros, (F-Life! (Beta)), Flickering Lamps, FolkestoneJack's Tracks, Fresh Eyes on London, fromthemurkydepths, ganching, Gingle lists everything, Goonerholic, grayblog, The Great Wen, The Ham and Egger Files, Inner Diablog, In the Aquarium, Jane's London, John Flood's Random Academic Thoughts, John Nez Illustration, The Knowledge, LinkMachineGo, London Reconnections, The London Review of Breakfasts, Londres Calling, McFilter, Mick Hartley, Micro Pub Bike Ride, The Musings of a Red Dalek, Neil Turner's Blog, (Notes from a Small Field), (Order of the Bath), Ornamental Passions, rashbre central, Pocket Book, theRatandMouse, Razor-blade of Life, Ready Reckoner, rethinking childhood, Round the Island, round the north we go, St Margaret's at Cliffe Photo Diary, Scaryduck, Scoakat's blog, The Silent Hunter, Silent Words Speak Loudest, 6000 miles from civilisation, The South Country, thamesfacingeast, things magazine, Tired of London, Tired of Life, Tom's Britain, Town Mouse, Transportationist, Trial by Jeory, (Wibbo's Words), The Willesden Herald
blogs that weren't on last year's list are underlined (blogs returning to the list appear in brackets)

I'm duly honoured by each and every one of these blogroll links, so many thanks to you all. But I also notice that the list is 5% shorter than last year (which in turn was 10% shorter than last year) (which in turn was 5% shorter than the year before) (which was 15% shorter than the year before that) (which was 20% shorter than the year before that) (which was 20% shorter than the year before that) (which was 20% shorter than the year before that). As declines go, this is relentless.

I compile this list every year, so I started by checking all 85 blogs on last year's list to see how many of them still linked here. More than one in four have fallen by the wayside and don't appear this year. Of the missing 20 or so blogs, one has vanished off the face of the internet, three have removed their blogrolls after updating to a revamped template (which appears to be 'a thing', as the mobile-friendly web gets less cluttered), one is still going strong but has removed me from their blogroll (most years it's more than that, so I must be doing something right) and the rest are now on hiatus (either deliberately after a farewell post, or through month-long neglect). And that's a shame. Over the years that's an incredibly high proportion of blogs that have faded away because, well, it's all a bit passé innit?

A few blogs have returned to my list after a year or more off. They slipped out because nothing was posted when I ran this survey last July, but something's appeared again this month so now they're back in. For some, it seems, their blog has become somewhere to publish thoughts occasionally, when inspiration strikes, without feeling pressured to post something more regularly. Meanwhile I can usually refresh my annual list by adding several new blogs, but this year (although I've hunted) there don't appear to be many to find. My list is ever-shrinking, and is now barely a third the size of the 200+ it held six years ago. Talk about a dying art.

Alas this is evidence of the continued long-term decline of blogging as a means of communication. Fewer people blog these days because alternative platforms exist (and take far less effort to update, and get instant feedback). Self-broadcasting is no clique any more, it's a universal collective, which leaves those of us who still create long-form prose down something of a cul-de-sac. Indeed images have already overtaken text for most, as people spend their days looking at photos of their mates, making conversation by appending snapshots of appropriate scenes from Family Guy, and watching videos of kittens on skateboards falling into swimming pools. Why bother writing anything, quite frankly, when nobody has time for anything more than swiftly digestible nuggets?

Simultaneously blogrolls have become invisible and irrelevant, especially to anyone subscribed via an RSS feed, so only us old-school bloggers maintain them. The majority of fresh 2015 blogs have no blogroll at all, because the modern focus is more about self-promotion than sharing, and because sidebars don't look good on smartphones. Indeed the relentless emphasis on responsive website design militates against awkward lists of tiny text, because only big chunky buttons and drop down menus are acceptable to clumsy tablet thumbs. Most importantly, new readers no longer come clicking via a long-standing blogroll in a sidebar, they arrive via a one-off reference on Twitter/Facebook/whatever. A blog is now only as good as its last post, and long-term reputation counts for almost nothing.

I still have a blogroll, of course, I have done since I started, even if you've never used it. It's over there on the right hand side of the page, assuming you're reading this page as I intended rather than just the stripped-out content elsewhere. I link to 20 blogs I like and admire, partly to showcase them to others, but also so I have a quick means of reading them. Less than half of these blogs have a blogroll, so only a fraction link back, but hey, no problem.

Anyway, I hope that today's list of blogs with diamond geezer on their blogroll is fairly complete, but I bet it isn't. Let me know if I've missed you/anyone off the list, and I'll come back and add you/them later. And maybe you'd like to click on a few of these 82 links to see what you're missing. I can't promise they're all thrilling verbal discourses, but I'm sure you'll discover plenty that are.

 Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Bow Roundabout isn't going to be fixed by seven pedestrian crossings, and the authorities recognise this. And that's why TfL have joined forces with the two local boroughs, one at either end of the flyover, to reconsider the interchange's long term future.

In partnership with the London Boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Newham, we are committed to delivering the Vision for Bow: a place which all road users, passing through, find accessible, safe and connected.

The Vision for Bow anticipates all road users, on however many wheels or on foot, being able to progress through the Bow interchange without undue fear of death, injury or delay. Upgrading the pedestrian crossings is merely the aperitif, part of the Interim Plan, and discussions are already well underway as to what comes next. And what comes next, most likely, is the complete removal of the entire roundabout! Some kind of crossroads would be much safer, and easier for all road users to negotiate, at a stroke removing this key interchange's reputation as a killer junction. There are only two potentially insurmountable problems...
1) money
2) chaos



Before we investigate further, here's a quick bit of background for you. Bow Roundabout was built around 1970 as part of the construction of the A102(M) Hackney Link. An actual motorway, this concrete ribbon carved through the Lea Valley as the first section of what was intended to be a ringway box around Inner London, connecting to the Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road and onwards to North Greenwich. A triple-layer interchange was created at its intersection with the A11, with a north-south underpass for dual carriageway traffic, an east-west flyover for the trunk road, and a giant roundabout sandwiched inbetween. Communities and industry in Bow and Bromley suffered as factories and entire streets were wiped from the map, and even the parish church was removed to make way for progress. The motorway was downgraded in 2000 when it came under the ownership of TfL, and now forms part of the A12 instead. But the Bow Interchange remains a crucial node in the capital's road network, in particular as a key location where inner city traffic can make a break for the suburbs.

It's a fair bet that we wouldn't be discussing the roundabout's future were it not for the death of three cyclists in relatively close succession a few years ago. This highlighted the unavoidable fact that badly designed roads can kill, and created a moral force for transformative change it's become nigh impossible to argue against. Cyclists got their tweak with the introduction of early stop lights and the upgrade to CS2, and the introduction of signalised crossings will greatly improve safety for pedestrians. But in truth these are merely sticking plasters across a dysfunctional junction, impeding the progress of road traffic without truly liberating other road users. Hence the Vision for Bow now somehow has a hold near the top of TfL's long-term pecking order, and the potential exists for my immediate neighbourhood to undergo its second metamorphosis in half a century.



Here are the five main changes intended to be addressed by the Vision for Bow.

a) We will be looking at options that redesign the junction and remove the roundabout in order to provide more direct and straightforward facilities for pedestrians and cyclists

When the Bow Interchange was essentially a motorway junction, a roundabout made perfect sense. But the emergence of cycling as a key means of transport, plus a considerable increase in residential development along Stratford High Street, has made the road layout increasingly unsuitable for its environment. Imagine instead a mega crossroads, where traffic entering or departing the A12 awaited its turn, and genuinely segregated pathways for bikes and pedestrians could be maintained. I'd hope the traffic lights could be sequenced to avoid lengthier waits than on the roundabout at present, else the net result would be even longer queues and that would be unwelcome. But if only a crossroads had been built here in the first place, we'd likely not be having this conversation in the first place.

b) We will be investigating the removal of Bow Flyover in order to provide additional pedestrian crossings on Bow Road and Stratford High Street

The removal of the flyover would be radical stuff, and if I'm honest I have my doubts. The Bow Flyover allows traffic between Bow and Stratford to skip the roundabout altogether, which simultaneously speeds up journey times and reduces the volume of traffic trying to get through the lights. Take out the flyover and you'd force all this traffic through the new crossroads, which means more delays, more idling and more air pollution. Air quality's already abysmal round here as a result of the A12, indeed I'm probably shortening my life every time I breathe in, so the thought of even more slow-moving vehicles belching exhaust fume outside my front door doesn't fill me with joy. The shortcut exists, why remove it?

But TfL's reasons aren't traffic based, they're to reknit communities. One entirely unintentional side-effect of a flyover is that it creates a barrier to movement from one side to the other, at least during the lengthy 'taking off' and 'landing' phases. On the Bow side I don't think that's too much of a problem. I live in the gap between pedestrian crossings at the end of Bow Road, and having to walk up or down the street to reach the other side isn't generally an issue, plus it's the church in the middle of the road rather than the flyover which really creates the blockage. But the descent on the Stratford side is shallower, and the viaduct longer, hence the cross-carriageway disconnect more dramatic. Indeed it's almost a five minute walk from one existing safe crossing to the next, hence flyover removal could make quite a difference.

c) We will be looking at options to improve access from Stratford High Street and the A12 Blackwall Tunnel Northern Approach to new developments, provide signalised crossings for pedestrians and cyclists, and enable us to extend the bus network through new communities

The Bow Interchange once sat on the edge of the built up area, the only significant housing on the Bow side, because Stratford High Street was essentially nowhere. 21st century redevelopment has changed all that, accelerated by the adjacent Olympics, and the road is now lined with tall flats and towers jammed with people. Plus Stratford itself is now hugely more important - there's a Westfield up the road for heaven's sake - hence the need for far better connections hereabouts. A huge new housing estate is at the start of construction to the southeast of the roundabout, namely Strand East, which'll bring swarms more pedestrians to the area. TfL have imminent plans to add a new signalised junction at the top of Sugarhouse Lane, and much longer term plans to add a bus-only bridge across the Lea to the west of the site. Expect the 108 or 488 to be diverted through the new estate, somehow, which'll probably require at least one more additional road junction where there isn't one today.

d) We will be investigating other ways to improve pedestrian and cycle connections across the A12 without any impact on traffic, such as improving existing subways and providing a new bridge for pedestrians and cyclists

Don't expect new subways in Bromley-by-Bow, just upgrades of the old to make them more welcoming, this increasingly necessary as tens of thousands of people start to live down the strip between the A12 and the Lea. As for a new footbridge I'm not sure where in the wider area that might go, though I'd recommend a link across the chasm to the north of the roundabout, perhaps linking to as yet unplanned housing and eventually the Olympic Park. But there is already one utterly obvious candidate for "a new bridge for pedestrians and cyclists", which is the traffic-free Bow Flyover itself, if only there were a safe way to get onto it and off again.

e) We will be exploring ways to improve the urban environment that reflect the characteristics of the local area

Heaven knows what that means, it sounds like a catch-all. But if the authorities genuinely want to improve my local neighbourhood 50 years after slicing it in half, that's fine by me.

All of which brings me back to the two enormous barriers to the removal of the Bow Roundabout, namely Money and Chaos. It'll cost a phenomenal amount to disconnect the concrete flyover from its surrounding infrastructure and remodel the surroundings to create a new kind of junction, so much so that the necessary budget may never be available. It might be possible to get the developers of adjacent land to contribute some Section 106 funding, but I suspect it's a bit late in the day to be thinking about that now. When the intended beneficiaries are 'only' pedestrians and cyclists, is extensive transformative change really worth the money?

But the real killer is the traffic chaos that would be unleashed during the remodelling of the junction. You can't simply shut this junction down for several months, it's too important to the East End's connectivity. In particular as the sole road crossing of the Lea for about a mile in either direction, travel between Bow and Stratford would be essentially crippled for as long as the restructuring takes. Even a careful staggered programme of works would cause major disruption over an unimaginable period, with repercussions rippling out across a far wider area. This is the same junction where until recently TfL refused to consider adding pedestrian crossings because they'd impede the flow of traffic... so imagine what damage an entire fleet of diggers could do.

So I'll believe in the Vision for Bow once it has genuine political momentum behind it, and not a moment before. In the meantime the Bow Vision Stakeholder Group can continue to devise their pipedreams, and perhaps we can continue to suggest what they might do in case they ever pull it off. When a once in a lifetime opportunity comes along to improve the heart of a neighbourhood, it's important to get the details right.

 Wednesday, July 29, 2015

It's official, Bow Roundabout is getting pedestrian crossings! And about time too.

TfL launched a consultation in February, which reported yesterday, and the confirmed result is that everything proposed in the consultation will happen. As such you could consider the 'consultation' to be nothing but a five month hiatus, slowing down a project they had every intention of proceeding with anyway. Or you could see this as a vital public check, and what's more they were never going to make any changes until local Cycle Superhighway upgrade work kicked off in the winter anyway.

I've reported on the plans in some detail before, so for further commentary you should re-read that post rather than me retread old ground here. Plus that post even gets a mention in TfL's consultation response, there's a link to it in Appendix E as an example of "Press release and local media coverage". But the long and the short of it is that seven new pedestrian crossings will be added, linked by a spine walkway across the centre of the roundabout, but with the unfortunate side effect that road traffic should expect to have to wait a bit longer to get through. Construction is planned to begin later this year and finish in summer 2016.

Here's a pretty, but not especially helpful, illustration to show what the scheme might look like. There'll be a 34-storey building to the right of the picture by the time the project is complete.



And here's TfL's summary of what the Bow Vision Interim scheme will achieve (along with a smidgeon of commentary)

• New signalised pedestrian crossings on Bow Road (one of these they could add today, the other is genuinely new and will make life much safer, but has the potential to disrupt traffic coming off the roundabout every time someone presses the button)
• eastbound cycle ‘early-start’ facility lengthened (this is not exciting, trust me)
• New signalised pedestrian and cycle crossings on Stratford High Street (one of these they could add today, another will slow down traffic unless it's directly synchronised to the traffic lights at the roundabout, and the other is genuinely new and will make life much safer, but has the potential to disrupt traffic coming off the roundabout every time someone presses the button)
• and improved access to the River Lea towpath (via two pedestrian/cyclist crossings, and that black tarmac zigzag in the picture above)
• Existing traffic islands on Stratford High Street merged into one large kerbed island (this creates "additional public realm", but it's underneath the flyover, so it's nowhere you'll be keen to hang out)
• eastbound contraflow lane removed (these lanes are a potential killer if you're a pedestrian, because you never think to look both ways, so it'll be good to see this one go)
• Bow Roundabout kerbline cut back to widen carriageway (sheesh, how many times? This'll be at least the fourth attempt TfL have had at shaving the edges of the roundabout, maybe the fifth)

This map might, or might not, makes things rather clearer. The flyover runs from Bow (left) to Stratford (right).



The new scheme is intended to provide a perfectly safe way of crossing the roundabout no matter which side pedestrians start from or want to get to. But what it doesn't necessarily do is to provide a direct route. For some crossings the new safe route will be fairly straight-forward, and I'd expect local residents to follow as directed. For example, when I'm walking from my house (top left) to my doctors (bottom left), it'll be a joy to have two safe and direct crossings to follow once the improvements are complete. And when I'm walking from my house (top left) to Tesco (bottom right), I'll happily switch from four unsignalled crossings (today) to four signalled crossings (next year). But east/west crossings will instead become irrationally indirect, which isn't so good, essentially because the new links form a tree rather than a loop.

For example, suppose I'm walking from my house (top left) to the River Lea towpath (top centre).



At present this takes two road crossings. The first of these (the red arrow) is ridiculously unsafe, as traffic could be swinging off the roundabout onto the A12 dual carriageway at any time, and vehicles are notoriously poor at signalling their intention in advance. But the second of these (the green arrow) is already perfectly safe as it crosses the slip road at traffic lights. TfL plan to remove both the red and green pedestrian crossings as part of the junction upgrade. Instead I'll be directed to use four new signal controlled pedestrian crossings instead (the yellow arrows), linked by walking along the orange arrows, a route which you'll see takes me a long way out of my way. Will I really want to follow the approved route every time, which'll involve pressing four buttons and waiting for the lights to change each time? Or will I be happy to take my chances via the original red/green route, where both crossings will still be technically present, but now with their dropped kerbs removed? I suspect the latter.

TfL can rightly claim that their improvements will create safe paths at every arm of the Bow Roundabout, and were I in a wheelchair I'd use (and be duly grateful for) each one. But the creation of risk-free pathways brings with it a time penalty, as desire lines are ignored in the quest for perfect safety. TfL aren't allowed to build merely better infrastructure, they have to build 100% safety-compliant infrastructure, and if that means everyone takes longer to get where they're going, so be it. TfL's own table of data suggests that some Cycle Superhighway journeys will take one minute longer as a result of the change, and at times motorists and bus passengers may be delayed by two. They don't provide data on how much longer pedestrians will take as a result of this extra-staggered crossing, but seemingly that's not important so long as we're guaranteed safe passage to the other side.
TfL acknowledges the concerns that some organisations and individuals have expressed regarding the potential traffic impact of these proposals. However, we are satisfied that the impact on traffic is reasonable when balanced against the improvements the scheme would provide for pedestrians who currently cross Bow Interchange and the likely growth in walking through the area, including people who would walk more if they felt it to be safer.
Nevertheless, these proposals represent a significant transfer of transport superiority away from wheels and towards feet. In previous announcements TfL had made it perfectly clear that no crossings could be introduced if they affected traffic flow. The A12 is a significant trunk artery, went the argument, so they couldn't possibly add signals that might affect vehicles attempting to enter or depart. So there still won't be traffic lights on the A12 slip roads, but at certain times the seven other crossings will introduce holdups on all arms of the roundabout by creating a domino effect. Indeed in the future I'll be able to stall traffic simply by pressing a button, which might then back up onto the roundabout, which might then block the paths of other vehicles, which might then temporarily mess the whole junction up. And all this is assuming I need to wait for the green man anyway, because you know how it is when a gap in the traffic appears, you dash across, and then the lights change behind you several seconds after you've gone, and all the pointlessly delayed drivers scowl.

It might seem somewhat churlish to be whingeing about the introduction of something I've been campaigning for for the best part of a decade on this blog, namely the introduction of pedestrian crossings at the Bow Roundabout. It might also seem odd to be lambasting the downsides of a solution that significantly resembles something I recommended in 2011. But just because something's being done doesn't mean it's being done optimally, and just because new lights are going in doesn't mean we're all going to use them. Will Bow's pedestrians switch to the new nanny-level crossings, or will we continue take our chances on the existing desire lines and reach our destination significantly faster? Assuming we get to the other side at all, that is, but then I've been nipping across these slip roads since the turn of the century and none of my close shaves have killed me yet.

I find this an interesting, and more widespread dilemma, in that making public infrastructure 'better' often involves making certain aspects of it worse. But that's because there are always various transport interests to balance out, and someone has to judge the needs of one group against the drawbacks to another. Indeed solving the Bow Roundabout issue for everyone for good will take a lot more than just seven sets of traffic lights, it'll need a coordinated plan that essentially starts again from scratch.

 Tuesday, July 28, 2015

I'm not quite sure how I'd never been to The Proms before. Indeed it's been a few decades since I was even inside the Royal Albert Hall, such are my inadequate attempts at full cultural integration. But I'd been meaning to go, and my Dad had been suggesting it for years, so when I spotted the 2015 ticket window opening up I sprang to attention.

You have to be quick. I got home from work on the designated day to find various Proms already fully booked, though thankfully not the one I'd set my eye on. Even so it had only a paltry number of tickets left, all with a Restricted View, the upside of which was that they were particularly cheap. £7.50's not bad for a top notch concert, I thought, so I stumped up and waited for my ticket to arrive in the post.

I plumped for a classical dead cert, The Planets by Holst, which I'm pretty sure I was taken to hear at the RAH when I was small. Musically it's got a bit of everything, from fierce to stirring to ethereal drift, plus I knew the suite really well so I'd not get bored. But the Prom also included a couple of pieces that would be more challenging, one a French avant garde number, the other a BBC original commission, making the overall programme more representative of the season as a whole.

The Royal Albert Hall is really big. I know this is fairly obvious, but it pays to go for a walk once round the outside before you go in. All kinds of people will be pouring in, this being the Proms, not just your usual jacketed hoorays and blonde grandmothers. The longest queue is for the five pound Arena Day Tickets, where summer blouses and yellow plimsolls are more than likely to make an appearance. Who else but the BBC could fill this hall nightly across the summer with such a broad cross section of the public?

I was heading for the very back row of the Circle, perched just below the balcony at almost vertigo-inducing heights. Way down below were the serious Prommers, standing, then the stalls, then a double ring of boxes, mostly full, and then us. They hadn't been kidding about the Restricted View. From my seat I could see the second but not the first violins, the brass rather than the woodwind and, so long as the Chinese dad in front of me leaned back, the female conductor. He didn't lean back much.



As the orchestra readied to begin the seats beside me were taken by a courting couple, he an Albert Hall regular, she seemingly a classical virgin. But when the baton was raised she suddenly realised with some horror that the entire auditorium was about to fall silent while she had a bag of crisps balanced on her lap. Her Tyrells Lightly Sea Salted then sat there temptingly but unavailable for the entire first piece, until eventually she could take no more and reached in... crinkle, crinkle, crunch. I hope he dumped her after the performance, but in truth I blame the RAH for selling the irresistibly noisy snack in the first place.

I think it's fair to say that most of the audience hadn't come for the first half selection. Up first were Pierre Boulez's Notations, a selection of five brisk compositions written intermittently over half a century, from 1945's Fantasque to 1997's Strident. It sounded more like the orchestra was having fun than playing a tune, zipping here and there in turbulent motifs, and showcasing various instruments with a flurry. More traditional in format, if not in style, was the première of Luca Francesconi's violin concerto, Duende. As with any concerto this was essentially an opportunity for the soloist to show off, here quivering around the very highest notes on the fingerboard like a demented humming bird, while the orchestra buzzed underneath. Her virtuoso performance earned considerable applause. And then ice creams and more red wine, anyone?

The Planets is Holst's masterwork, not least because not one of the seven movements hits a duff note. They're each based on astrological persona, not astronomical reality, and were composed over a two year period precisely a century ago. The suite begins with Mars and heads in towards the Sun, then returns to Jupiter and departs the solar system. As a kick-off The Bringer of War hit a relentless note, and made clear the huge advantages of listening to a live reverberating orchestra rather than a tinny laptop stream.

Jupiter was the biggest crowd pleaser, its bucolic jollity ideally suited to Last Night of the Proms sensibilities (where I believe it was indeed played in 1997). The ensemble delivered a blisteringly emotional performance, inspiring the audience to break protocol and applaud loudly at the end. But Uranus might just have been my favourite, twisting and cavorting like an outtake from the Sorcerer's Apprentice, and finally giving the organist something to do with a crashing chord right at the end.

Neptune brought the suite to an atmospheric end, the members of the orchestra gradually putting down their instruments so that the Elysian Singers could sing the final haunting notes... until interrupted by the bawling cry of a small child throughout the crucial fade-out sequence. His father eventually dashed with him for the exit, but not before the ethereal effect had been ruined for all of us in the hall and by the thousands listening live on Radio 3. Don't bring your pre-toddler to a Prom - they won't appreciate it, and neither will we.

But as the final applause lifted the roof, the seven year-old boy in the row in front of me beamed with delight. He'd been banging his little fists to Mars, and drifting off gently to Venus, and bobbing slightly from side to side during Jupiter, and had clearly enjoyed an eye-opening first night at the Proms. I hope he comes back. I'm damned glad I did.

To listen to last night's Prom...
» Part 1: Pierre Boulez, Notations 1–4 & 7; Luca Francesconi, Duende – The Dark Notes
» Part 2: Holst, The Planets
» The whole thing: this Friday, 7.30pm, BBC4
» To listen to offline for 30 days: get the new iPlayer Radio app, and download to your phone or tablet

 Monday, July 27, 2015

Living Walls of Camden Of all the things you could do at the weekend, how about a walking tour of Camden's social housing? The Camden Tour Guides Association ran a two hour tour on Saturday to celebrate the borough's 50th birthday, part of a lengthy celebration that this borough is taking more seriously than most. And Camden has a housing record to be proud of, building tens of thousands of homes over the years, and embracing an astonishing diversity of architecture. Over 85% of Camden's population live in flats, we were told, which is the highest proportion in the country, so it's just as well they tend not to build nasty shoeboxes. You could tell it was going to be a good tour when one of the London Assembly members had booked in to attend, and I for one was wondering where precisely our route was going to go. There are social housing gems all over the borough, as this map indicates, but kicking off outside the Old Town Hall on the Euston Road meant we surely couldn't tick off very many.



The first stop was Flaxman Terrace, a very early example of social housing, indeed only the second block to have been erected by St Pancras Borough Council. That was back in 1908, in an era when a caretaker's house would automatically be included in any development. Spacewise things were rather smaller than we expect today, and the 84 flats have since been remodelled into about half that. We'd be spending most of our time across the road in Somers Town, an underrated community sandwiched between Euston and King's Cross (and under threat of partial demolition from the arrival of HS2). Take Levita House, for example. This Grade II listed building is tucked away beyond the British Library, and was constructed by the London County Council around 1930. Its architect George Topham Forrest wanted to bring something of the continent to inner London, and based this dense seven-storey block on modernist Viennese public housing. We peered in through the gated arch and tried not to disturb the locals.

The LCC was Britain's most successful deliverer of affordable homes, knocking up over 200,000 mostly-flats over its 75-year lifetime. At their peak they employed 350 architects on London-wide projects, with a completion rate that puts today's privately-focused market to shame. One of their last was on Churchway, after which (in 1965) they handed over the reins to Camden who got on with their new more modern design. And blimey, Oakshott Court. This fills one whole block at the heart of Somers Town, and looks more like a stepped Mediterranean terrace than a council house development. Two perpendicular banks of flats meet in the top corner, with apartments stacked so that every tenant has a southerly aspect, and there's even room for brightly planted gardens to be squeezed inbetween. Compared to any 21st century shiny box in the sky it looks like heaven. The site has form as social housing too, dating back to 1784 when a 15-sided block called The Polygon was right built here. In its early years this slum was the birthplace of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, although it's her campaigning mother Mary Wollstonecraft who's commemorated by a brown plaque, as we were shown on the tour.



Further quality council blocks were pointed out ("see that urn up there?"), although Camden's other most startling projects are much further north and we missed those. Instead the walk drifted more into "we know some interesting facts about this area and can twist them into the general theme of housing" territory, which was fine, this being a fascinating part of town, but not quite what I'd been expecting. Then to finish we wandered up Camley Street to a brand new staircase down to the canal, and followed the towpath (in parts floating to avoid building works) past the most recent model for Camden's housing. Tightly packed apartment towers are being erected on the site of a former gasworks, and the moneyed will eventually be able to live in flats inside three restored gasholder frames. The development's not going to make a dent on Camden's thirty thousand strong housing list, that's for sure.

It had been an illuminating tour, both geographically and historically, not least regarding changing attitudes towards rented accommodation. Where the state once propped up those unable to afford market rates, and built homes to be proud of, now the gap between provision and need is becoming unbridgeable. And above all it re-opened my eyes to Somers Town, which I thought I'd explored but in reality anything but. So next time you're half an hour early for a train from St Pancras or Euston, why not forego that coffee and a pastry in favour of a brief wander round the neighbouring backstreets?

And while I'm in the area, have you spotted the Ladybird book exhibition that's currently taking place at The House of Illustration? I visited (and enjoyed) when it was in Bexhill earlier in the year, and now this marvellously retro display has come to London. It'll cost you £7 to get in, whereas on the south coast it was free, but this time no expensive train ticket is required. Peter and Jane await your presence.

It's three years today since the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games.
Here's what's still not open...


the Olympic Stadium (OK, so the Anniversary games are on, and the Rugby World Cup is on its way, but West Ham don't get in for another year)
the surrounding 'island' (and its riverside footpaths)
the loop road round the back of the Olympic Stadium...
...and the associated footpath linking to the Greenway
two footpaths south to Stratford High Street
a chunk of the Greenway (for which we can still blame Crossrail)
the replacement allotments (south) near Marshgate Lane
much of Here East (formerly iCity, formerly the Press and Broadcast Centre)
the Canal Park (the grass'll grow eventually, surely)
the majority of the surrounding offices and flats
Sweetwater, East Wick, Marshgate Wharf, Pudding Mill

 Sunday, July 26, 2015

In Merton, by the River Wandle, there's an arterial road through a retail park. Underneath the arterial road there's a subway. And in the subway is a door that's usually locked, but is occasionally opened to reveal a medieval secret beneath the carriageway. That'll be Merton Abbey Chapter House (1114-1538). And it was open to visitors yesterday, and it's open again today.



The immediate locality has a peerless history. The Romans built Stane Street directly through the site, and then a millennium later Gilbert, sheriff of Surrey, established a priory church. It grew to become terribly important, esteemed by royalty, and a stop-off for King John on his way to sign Magna Carta. Famous pupils at the priory include Thomas a Becket, and also England's only Pope, the almost famous Adrian IV. 500 years ago Henry VIII razed it to the ground, and the riverside site was reappropriated for water-powered industry - William Morris would eventually choose to site his textile mills here. A lightly used railway passed through, including an even less frequented station called Merton Abbey, closed in 1929. The majority of the priory's ruins are now lost beneath a giant Sainsbury's hyperstore, thankfully dug over by archaeologists before the car park and frozen meat aisles went in. Then in the 1990s the council built a new trunk road, Merantun Way, along the line of the railway, except this was precisely where the Chapter House's foundations still lay. So they raised the carriageway slightly, created a concrete-topped chamber underneath, and Dorking-bound traffic now drives obliviously across the top.

The site today is horribly blandly out-of-townly commercial. The Sainsbury's is a giant box above a car park, now coupled up with an M&S to lure the car-driving populace of SW19. Across the road is an architecturally dead Premier Inn, plus a Pizza Hut and a KFC of the kind that uninspired families drive to after work. Admittedly Merton Abbey Mills down by the river is rather lovelier, with William Morris's works now populated by craft stores and restaurants with a splash of character, and a waterwheel that still turns same as it ever did. But there's no joy to crossing Merantun Way through the subway, descending past the foot of an electricity pylon, not unless the door in the wall is open.



It was open yesterday, if only the passing shoppers could be bothered to step inside. Initially they were more fixed on grabbing a trolley than on archaeology, and once they had bulging orange bags it was too late. But several folk had come deliberately, having seen the rare opening was taking place, and I overheard at least one couple say "Oh, I've always wanted to look in here." Spread out beneath the low grey roof is a dimly-lit chamber, perhaps the size of two tennis courts, with a staked out border around a sandy expanse in the centre. This is approximately the shape of the old chapter house, the remains of whose stone walls can be seen raised intermittently along much of the perimeter. One end curves more than the other - this used be the apse - hence the bulge you'll have seen in the subway wall outside. If you're good you'll be allowed to walk out into the centre of the room for a closer look, and if you're a small boy called Rufus your parents may allow you to play in the 'Archaeology For Young Children' sandpit dig, at least until it's time to insist that you stop having fun and leave.

It was in this very room that The Statute of Merton was drawn up in 1236, an agreement between the barons and the king along the lines of Magna Carta, and generally considered to be the very first English parliamentary statute. Various aspects of the site's history are explored around the edge of the room, including that of the priory itself and the dig that rediscovered it. Bits of masonry may, or may not, be from the original abbey, and several of the sheets stuck up on the displays have a slightly faded "we found this in a magazine" feel. A particular focus is the work of William Morris, including catalogues of wallpaper, a few Liberty dresses, and a small Arts and Crafts bedecked sitting room, which manages to create the right atmosphere out of not a great deal. If you're smitten there's a table of heritage related goodies in the far corner, most of them paper-based, and probably a gaggle of volunteers to whom all credit for the attraction's opening should be directed.



There are plans afoot to open up the Chapter House to a wider audience. Almost £200,000 has been set aside by the Lottery and the council to create a proper Visitor Centre, the main effect of which will be to replace the southern wall of the enclosure with a new glazed wall so that anyone can peer in, and to greatly improve illumination. Part of the plans will also provide a toilet, a kitchen and a dedicated storage space, elevating the basic facilities to the level of say a small church hall. Eventually there'll be an education centre, even a cafe, and a thin extension poking out beneath the elevated roadway running parallel to the medieval walls rather than constrained by the road. This may take a while, but in the meantime the Chapter House is open on a handful of weekends a year, including September for Open House, and this weekend as part of the Festival of British Archaeology.

As Ian says, the site is quite small so it's probably only worthy of a diversion if you're in the local area, or if you like this kind of thing, which obviously we do. In particular it'd be nice to think you could tear yourself away from your shop at Sainsbury's and take a peek under the road you just drove in along, to view an amazing survivor of some importance, because who'd ever have thought?

 Saturday, July 25, 2015

Last week I blogged about the areas of London that are more than a mile from a station, and it turned into one of my three most popular posts ever. Most of this irresistible shareability was down to the map, or rather Geo_Rich's map, because that was super accurate and zoomable and everything a modern cartographical experience should be. Several other people thought so too, including four branded digital accumulation services who repackaged and rebroadcast the map along with some condensed commentary. Let's see how they did.

The online arm of Shortlist magazine were first off the mark, 24 hours later, with this condescending masterpiece of geographical ineptitude.

The Ten Worst Places In London To Catch A Train

When temperatures rise above 20 degrees and you’re hurtling underground in a sweat-can staring into an armpit who hasn’t yet made a courtesy apology, it’s easy to be scathing about London’s transport. But walking a mile in someone else’s shoes could change the way you view your struggle. By which we mean, actually having to walk a mile to get to any kind of station.

According to this map, there are around 36 ‘dead zones’ in London in which residents have at least a twenty minute walk to then embark on their journey. The underlying theme is if you want to live somewhere green, you’ll need to adopt a new found patience and really love your job. Or get a car, but this is London.

Here are the ten worst places to live if you don’t want to spend 70 percent of your life commuting to work.

BURGESS PARK (WALWORTH): We hadn’t heard of it either. Probably because there’s no station until you cross the lines into Elephant and Castle.
WOOLWICH COMMON: You’ll have to invest in a decent pair of trainers, but you could stroll down the fittingly mocking Ha-Ha Road.
THAMESMEAD: Waterfront property with amazing views of the Thames and great schools, the estate agents will tell you. Affordable because you’ll live in total isolation.
SHIRLEY: Bus drivers will become your best friends. They’ll take you to Croydon.
HOUNSLOW HEATH: Planes will soon become your most convenient mode of transport.
RICHMOND PARK: Your postcode will do nothing for you if you don’t have a car.
LONDON ROAD (NORTH CHEAM): Despite the name, if you want to get into the city, you’ll need to leave at sparrow’s fart.
LONGBRIDGE ROAD (BECONTREE): See you when you move house.
BROMLEY: Technically you can say you live in London, but you’re basically in Surrey with a commute to match the fact.
COLDFALL WOOD: Living by an ancient wood has its perks, until you get lost in it on the way to work.

If you want to totally eliminate the possibility of ever having to walk a mile to a station, your best bet is the boroughs of Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea, Westminster, Lambeth, Islington, City of London, Tower Hamlets and Lewisham.
I shared this post with Geo_Rich, and we both shuddered at the ill-judged selective interpretation in the top ten list, especially the assumption that Bromley's basically in Surrey. Time Out were up next, and they did something none of the other three publishers did, they asked first. They also checked how we'd like to be referred to in the post, waited over the weekend before publishing, and then gave us a nudge by email when it was up.
This map shows all the places in London that are more than a mile away from a station

While The Proclaimers might have been happy to walk 500 miles (and 500 more), we'd be pretty miffed if we had to walk more than one mile to get to our nearest station. Yes, we know walking is good for you, but sometimes you at least want the option to be lazy. Luckily, this handy map created by London blogger Diamond Geezer and Geo_rich shows all the places in London that are more than a mile from the nearest tube, rail, tramlink or DLR station, which is about a 20 minute walk.

Unsurprisingly, most of central London is pretty well connected but there is one blackspot in Southwark, although it's mostly within Burgess Park so we're guessing that doesn't bother too many people. But if you thought that living in Zones 1 and 2 meant you'd have loads of transport options on your doorstep, spare a thought for the folks living in Aylesbury Estate, which is the only spot in the whole of Zones 1/2 that's almost a mile from any station.

And if you've got a serious aversion to exercise, you'll be pleased to know that there are eight London boroughs where no point is more than a mile from a station - that's in Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea, Westminster, Lambeth, Islington, City of London, Tower Hamlets and Lewisham – if your boots aren't made for walking.
It might be possible to conclude from the penultimate paragraph that Time Out haven't reported on Walworth very often in the past. Nevertheless, their online clout spawned a lot more interest, including this slightly blokey take from Gizmodo. Don't these people love a long headline?
Map Shows London Travel Notspots More Than One Mile From a Train Station

A map of London that shows areas more than one mile away from any sort of rail-based public transport station has been put together, showing that you're unlikely to have to walk very far to catch a train as long as you live in a bit that's on the EastEnders titles and aren't so lazy or wearing such inappropriate footwear that you think nearly one mile is far.

The map, complete with one-mile exclusion zone annotations has been put together by London blogger Diamond Geezer, and can be seen here. The Geezer says he's included all forms of not-a-bus public transport link whether that's tube stations, overground rail lines or the retrofuturist trams of the distant and mythical Croydon outpost, with the resulting map showing that London's really rather well connected indeed.

In fact, the only part of the central area that's not got a station within one mile is a bit of Burgess Park down there in the south-ish bit, with just a handful of houses on Albany Road and Coubourg Road falling inside the mile-away station limit. Woolwich, which non-Londoners might describe as being to the east and down a bit, is one of the lesser connected areas, although the dead zone there also covers much of Woolwich Common and Shrewsbury Park, almost as if planners had some sort of clue.
If there's a theme developing here, it's that the suburbs are places to mock because nobody serious lives there. Would that we all had the money to live in the centre. And finally Lifehacker chipped in, though only briefly.
This Map Shows Londoners Where Not to Live if They Want Good Access to Public Transport

We're used to finding maps created to help us visualise the top places to live in London, but now a new one created by London blogger Diamond Geezer is here to show us where not to buy or rent a place - assuming you want to be close to public transport that is.

Created using Google Maps, the interactive map of London (which you can take a look at here) shows you which places in the capital are more than a mile away from the tube or any other kind of rail-based public transport station. Which is about a 20 minute walk.

The map shows that most of central London is actually really well connected, with only an area of Burgess Park in the south east(ish) area and Woolwich Common being more than a mile away from a station. It gets more interesting as you get further out and could well be a useful tool if you're thinking of moving to the suburbs but still want to be able to get central fairly easily.
And I fear that this makes the key point most clear. Whereas I'd thought the map told a story about trains, in fact it told a story about house prices, and maybe that's why it got rebroadcast so much. Whatever, the Outer London suburbs that certain people had laughed at might actually be the only places in the capital that many Londoners can afford to live. And for goodness sake don't forget the humble bus, because like anybody chooses to walk more than a mile these days, what?

 Friday, July 24, 2015

Overground: The Hackney Footbridge

When the Overground extended up the Lea Valley at the end of May, one of the slightly embarrassing things about the new network was that it didn't interchange anywhere with the existing Overground. And now it does. The long-awaited footbridge between Hackney Downs and Hackney Central opened yesterday, and now you can walk from one to the other without leaving the station. It's a relatively cheap and relatively simple construction, but also an inspired idea and a gamechanger for connectivity. [5 photos]



It works like this. The North London line crosses the West Anglia line about 200m to the west of Hackney Central, and about 200m south of Hackney Downs. What the contractors have done is to build a covered walkway along the edge of one line to the crossing point, then turned through 90 degrees and followed the other line to the other station. The two railways run at different elevations (obviously, else there'd be a crash), so at the halfway point there's a set of steps to lead you either up or down. And because this is the 21st century there's also a lift alongside (and this mechanical complexity is one of the reasons the project's taken so long to open).

There is a catch to such an austere link, which is that it only connects to one of the platforms at each station. At Hackney Downs on the new Overground that's platform 1, which is one of the two southbound platforms, so if you arrive on a train from Chingford good news, you're in the right place. Arrive on any of the other three platforms, however, and it's a bit of a trek, especially if your carriage doesn't stop near the stairs. The next step is to head down deep into the subway, then turn right and come up the other side, past the independent cafe. And even then the entrance to the walkway is right down at the far end of the platform, through a fresh gap in the brickwork on the viaduct above Spurstowe Road. If you're not right at the very front of the train from Chingford, you've a walk on your hands.



The entrance looks like an arch but is essentially an gate, so that TfL can seal off the walkway as and when required. The hole in the wall had two passengers fooled yesterday. As they stepped off the train they saw the opening ahead of them and went to walk through it, perhaps not twigging that the Hackney Something station mentioned wasn't the one they were at. When they saw the long passageway beyond they retreated and laughed off back to the exit, but they won't be the last. And it is a very long first passageway, taking at least a minute to walk down at yomping pace, and duly supervised by CCTV just in case. On Day 1 all was very clean and very white, echoing functional simplicity, although this may not last.

The steps at the dogleg point are broad, which futureproofs them somewhat should the connection become busy. But there's no sign of this as yet, indeed as I stood at the corner yesterday I could see nobody whatsoever in either direction. Signs have been erected all around both stations pointing to the new connection, but there's no wider publicity as yet, so why would any potential interchange user alight? But the lift is a very useful touch, so that for example it's now possible to ride in your wheelchair from Highams Park to Homerton... but alas it's not possible to go back again, thanks to that awkwardly deep subway at Hackney Downs.

Once you've descended to ground level, there's another long latticed walk ahead. This takes at least another minute, plus however long it takes to get down the 40 steps, making a total of I'd say about three minutes for the whole thing. But that's good, because the out-of-station walk used to take more than five minutes, I timed it earlier in the year, and the new link doesn't involve roads or pavements or awkward things like ticket gates.



But you do have to touch in on your way through. There are pink card readers at both ends of the new connection labelled "Please touch in and out", which is a lot more strident than pink card readers usually get. I'm not sure whether TfL expect you to go beep at both ends, given there's no other possible route you could have taken inbetween. But there were two staff standing on guard at the Hackney Central end urging every passer-by to touch in as they passed, presumably because otherwise the software assumes you've travelled via more zones than you actually have. "But I have a Travelcard!" I said (after being challenged for walking straight past), which really didn't satisfy one of the two men, until his colleague pointed out I might know what I'm talking about.

Again it's a bit of a hike at Hackney Central if you want a westbound Overground train, because the footbridge is down near the station entrance, so there's no crossing at what used to be the dead end of the platforms. But it's all still much better than the route you had to take before, and the L-shaped walkway really does link the two lines properly together. Perhaps there are other spots on the network where something similar might be tried, a quick win interchange alongside intersecting railway lines, even if only from one of the platforms to another. But for now simply rejoice that the connection TfL have been showing on the tube map since May is now genuinely a connection, and those who travel through Hackney now have a conveniently simpler option to hand.

 Thursday, July 23, 2015

How much does it cost to travel by train from St Pancras to Stratford?

I ask because
a) it's more than you think
b) it's changing
c) it's complicated
d) it's so complicated I've had to rewrite some of this since breakfast time

If you go by tube it's simple, but it takes a while.

TubeSINGLERETURN
PeakOff peakPeakOff peak
Oyster/contactless£3.30£2.80£6.60£5.60
Cash£4.80£4.80£9.60£9.60

A return costs twice as much as a single, because that's how tube fares work. And the journey, via Liverpool Street, takes about 20 minutes.

If you want to go faster you ride the Highspeed line instead. This runs to Stratford International (which we'll pretend is Stratford proper), and takes only six minutes. Unfortunately it also costs more. This is one of the very few train rides in London you can't do with Oyster or a Travelcard because Southeastern treat it as a premium service. Until next week, that is, when (hurrah!) after more than five years of waiting, Highspeed services will finally accept Oyster/contactless/whatever.

This isn't proper acceptance. Highspeed is still an added extra, not part of your main journey cap, a bit like taking a trip on a riverboat or a ride on the cablecar. But you will at last be able to swipe through the gates without having to stop and buy a paper ticket, which should increase uptake on this express shortcut no end. Except there's a premium cost.

HighspeedSINGLERETURN
PeakOff peakPeakOff peak
Oyster/contactless£5.40£3.80£10.80£7.60
Paper ticket£6.00£6.00£10.80£7.60

Things to notice. If you have Oyster, then travelling by Highspeed always costs more than by tube, especially off-peak. An Oyster return costs twice as much as a single, because the system charges you for one journey at a time. If you don't have Oyster and have to buy a ticket on the day, a return is always cheaper than two singles (an off-peak return is cheaper by almost £5).

Let's throw an added complication into the mix. Southeastern are currently offering a special online discount for buying your ticket via their website. It applies to any off-peak train between now and August 24th, and is potentially a bargain if you know your day of travel in advance. You'll have to stop off at the ticket machine first, which'll slow you down, but it seems you can buy these tickets even an hour before you travel.

HighspeedSINGLERETURN
PeakOff peakPeakOff peak
Online discount-£4.45-£5.65

For a six minute train journey this is all terribly complicated, so let me attempt to summarise with a single table. The cheapest Highspeed fare in each column is highlighted in yellow, and I've added the tube fare in blue on the bottom row for comparison.

St Pancras-StratfordSINGLERETURN
PeakOff peakPeakOff peak
Oyster/contactless£5.40£3.80£10.80£7.60
Paper ticket£6.00£6.00£10.80£7.60
Online discount-£4.45-£5.65
Oyster (tube)£3.30£2.80£6.60£5.60

So, in summary...
a) For a single journey on Highspeed, swiping through with your Oyster or contactless card is always cheaper than buying a paper ticket.
b) For a return journey on Highspeed, swiping through with your Oyster or contactless card costs the same as buying a paper ticket.
c) BUT if you're planning a return trip entirely within the off-peak period before 24th August, the online discount ticket is about £2 cheaper.
d) The tube is always cheaper than a Highspeed train, if you don't mind your journey taking quarter of an hour longer.
e) Off-peak the tube is a pound cheaper than Highspeed, while at peak times it's about TWO pounds cheaper. That's per journey.
f) BUT if you have a travelcard covering Zones 1-3, NEVER waste pounds on the Highspeed because the tube's free.

Yesterday, at the end of my Isle of Wight travelogue, I published my ten thousandth photograph on Flickr.



It's of a tube train at the seaside. This seemed only fitting.

 Wednesday, July 22, 2015

IoW postcard: Ticket to Ryde
There are several ways to get to get to the Isle of Wight from the mainland - there need to be. Five ferry services shuttle back and forth across the Solent to England's largest island, for the benefit of residents trying to get off and tourists trying to get on. Most of these depart from Portsmouth, which is convenient if you're coming from London, and two of them head for Ryde. This is the northeasternmost town on the island, and the only place in the country where you can board a tube train, a hovercraft or a catamaran. What more reason do you need?



The hovercraft is the quickest way across, not surprisingly, assuming you're not totally amazed that a regular hovercraft service exists in this day and age. Unfortunately for inbound rail passengers it departs from the beach at Southsea, so any time benefit is lost in trekking down the seafront, which is why I took the catamaran instead. This leaves from the jetty alongside Portsmouth Harbour, so is a doddle to get to, and the sailings are timed to connect with the trains. On a Saturday morning the top deck is full of Wightventurers, many of them in lycra with their bikes docked down below. More regular travellers sit in the saloon because there are more seats and because they've seen it all before. Towering over the departure point is the Spinnaker Tower, now bedecked in its full Emirates branding, although the red stickering would have gone all the way to top had the airline's original plans been accepted. The sights keep coming, from Victory's masts to Gosport's tower blocks, then recede as the ferry heads out into open water.

Hampshire's maritime folk love their watersports, so you'll likely see several out and about on the water. I spotted a flurry of colourful yachts a-regatting off the harbour at Cowes, and a solo sail tacking past a distant seafort. At one point the hovercraft sped by on a parallel path, as if scheduled to depart later and arrive earlier to make a point. It sped on to land on the shore of the approaching town, skirt billowing, while we (after twenty minutes or so) sidled up to the end of the pier. This is a rusty construction, with seawater sploshing in the gaps between the girders, which is perhaps not surprising on the world's oldest seaside pier. Now over 200 years old (201 this week to be precise) it consists of three parallel structures. The first is a promenade now used by pedestrians (for free) and cars (for a toll of £1), while the second is a disused tramway sealed off and gaping deep. And the third is for tube trains, by golly yes, and this obviously was the way to go.

You board your 1938 stock at an almost normal platform, apart from the fact it's above the sea with water visible beneath the planks. A couple of minutes of potential hovercraft-spotting takes you to the town's main station, ooh how exciting, and then there's an actual tunnel (whose dimensions are the main reason these old trains are still used). Ryde St Johns is the railway's hub with its sidings of stock, some of the carriages in far better shape than others. And then the line heads out across open fields, the landscape of inner Wight being particularly attractive, to reach the resorts of Sandown and Shanklin. Saturday morning's service was quite busy, more with tattooed locals than daytrippers, and only the one obviously agitated trainspotter. But the line through the chalk to Ventnor has been closed for almost 50 years, so at Shanklin those going all the way have to transfer to the bus. Assuming they can bear to alight, that is - I was always going to be the last passenger out. [12 photos]



IoW postcard: Ventnor
The sunniest town in Britain sprawls across a long clay cliff overlooking the English Channel, its houses laid out in south-facing rows like the banked seats in a theatre. I was immediately won over as the bus switchbacked over tumbling sea-view fields, then descended sharply to the main town at almost sea level. With only half an hour between buses there wasn't time to fully explore, so I did the next best thing and popped into the Ventnor Heritage Museum . This is a proper local honeypot which attempts to tell the diverse history of the town rather than simply shoving some fossils in a case. I enjoyed reading the print-based ephemera on a series of display stands, and scoured the list of famous residents to discover that Brian Murphy of George and Mildred fame was born in Pier Street, whereas Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens's soujourns were merely temporary. Special thanks to the volunteers who keep the museum open almost daily, in the face of visitor numbers that rarely reach double figures, and who were more than keen to highlight points of interest and to get the train set working. By the end of my visit I was more than convinced that I absolutely definitely have to come back and visit this amazing little town properly, and rest assured I will. [2 photos]

IoW postcard: Newport
One impressive thing about the Isle of Wight is how good its bus service is. Having planned a ridiculously jam-packed day out, reliant on several connections, not once did the buses let me down. After a series of rides via Shanklin, Godshill, Ventnor and Blackgang, eventually the number 6 deposited me bang on time in the centre of the island at Newport bus station. Newport's not especially lovely, or at least none of the corners I identified during my short stay. The Guildhall broods sub-gothically, and there's a sweet narrow lane curving close by, but the quayside overlooking the River Medina was dominated by a concrete overpass, and the backs of pubs populated by cussing drunkards. Much like any town really, but on Wight it disappoints. [2 photos]

IoW postcard: Isle of Wight Steam Railway
If the island you're visiting is holding a real ale evening on a steam railway the day you visit, obviously you go. It packs even more into the day, offers a meal into the bargain, and delivers a ride through remote countryside (ah bugger, taxi required). The Isle of Wight Steam Railway runs services only along the central miles of the former link from Newport to Ryde, serving a population of almost nil, which is both fabulous and means you don't come to a real ale evening without a designated driver. It's a bargain too, offering two end-to-end services and a first free pint for under a tenner, and after that go buy some plastic tokens from the cheery lady over there.



Just before six the blue engine at Haven Street puffs back and up and back, attaching itself to the carriages before a far smaller crowd than usual because on this occasion beer is more enticing than steam. For reasons of beer and steam I'm also one of the youngest here, although there is a defiantly youthful contingent from abroad soaking up what being British is probably all about. A total of three stations have barrels in place, the idea being to sample a variety of ales and chestnut porters while the train pauses up and down the line. The Men Who Play At Trains wear their smartest uniforms to check the tickets, while paying punters attempt to find a narrow third class compartment whose padded bench seating is as yet unoccupied. Nobody seems to mind that eventually-drunk people are taking plastic cups of liquid aboard heritage rolling stock, nor to have sorted out an efficient queueing system at the first station we reach. Years of practice on the Central line enable me to grab my glass of Scrumdiggity before most have even left the train.

There's bangers and mash back at Haven Street, a tasty platter but served so slowly that the back of the queue has to gulp it down fast before the train proceeds. The fields before Ashey are alive with rabbits, bounding from the undergrowth and disappearing down their burrows as we approach. It's a delight to be out here on a summer's evening, inhaling the occasional sooty speck, although had the sun come out it'd have been even better. Most of the passengers alight at the penultimate station, the 4.3% Wight Squirrel proving too tempting, but I'm intent on reaching teetotal Smallbrook Junction at the end of the line. This unusual station has no exit and exists only to transfer passengers to the Island Line. Alas the timetable doesn't permit connections this evening so I have to watch a tube train speed by - it'll be at Ryde Pier Head an hour before me, from which I'll start my journey home. But when the alternative is beer and steam and more rabbits, extending your Isle of Wight meander is clearly a winner. [6 photos]

» 45 IoW photographs [slideshow]
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