diamond geezer

 Wednesday, September 30, 2015

In a city of over eight million people, why should one voice be more important?

London is full of opinions and opinion-makers, indeed the future of our capital depends on it. But whereas some opinions have proper status, for example because their proponent has been duly elected or appointed to a position of power, others are simply unfounded. Indeed certain people simply pretend to speak for the masses, whereas in truth their ramblings are little more than outspoken anger, based on baseless prejudice and outright negativity. Why should we even bother listening?

As an example of this phenomenon, I'm going to take a look at the London blogger diamond geezer. This east London resident publishes a daily post every morning around 7am, and speaks out on a wide range of topics. Here's today's, for example. The blog is not yet available by email, nor as a Facebook feed, but remains relatively widely read via other means.

London blogs are extremely hard to maintain, because there's not a great deal of financial reward to be had for blathering on about lost rivers and heritage alleyways. Various talented bloggers have fallen by the wayside over the years, worn down by the pressure of writing words hardly anyone will read, as the tumbleweed of social media indifference passes them by. In contrast diamond geezer has made a genuine attempt to generate a proper sequence of original content, and is what a daily blog ought to be. Or was.

At some point, which readers still find hard to pinpoint, diamond geezer became an outpouring of misery. No petty inadequacy was too small to moan about, no minor failing left uncovered, as his blogging switched from celebrating the capital to pulling it apart. There's a fine line between thoroughness and obsession, and many commentators would say the line has now been firmly crossed. So does the stream of bitterness run deep, or is this simply posturing to gain attention? What do you think?

To find out, I dug back into the diamond geezer archives to last September - well before the downward spiral of negativity kicked in. I analysed all the daily posts to see what kinds of things were being talked about, what levels of obsession were apparent, and how biased the general slant of the writing had become.

In total 30 posts were published that month, ranging from a visit to the Isle of Grain to a report on the proposed Cycle Superhighway 2 upgrade. The most popular kinds of post were visits to places, totalling over half of the monthly output, thanks at least in part to the prevalence of Open House. Commentary on capital-wide projects came a clear second, followed by musings on life. The best word to describe the month's output would probably have been 'geographical', with a dash of cultural diversity thrown in.
You probably didn't notice, but a brand new long distance path opened to the east of London earlier this year. The Thames Estuary Path runs for 29 miles through the South Essex Marshes, from Tilbury Town all the way to Leigh-on-Sea, and is a proper waymarked trail.
Let's also consider tone. 17 of the 30 events were intrinsically positive, that's just over a half of the total. Of the remainder only eight took a less than favourable approach to the topic under discussion, which is barely a quarter. One of these was a rant about the Midtown district of central London, and so was wholly justified, while other less convincing arguments were made against the TfL website and Greenwich's Tall Ships. It's interesting to note that over a third of September's posts concerned TfL, which is clearly an organisation of some focus, and only five slipped the bounds of the capital to look elsewhere.

Now let's jump ahead twelve months. This time I've focused on diamond geezer's posts from September 2015, that's this month, the blog's output now firmly under the influence of unbridled gloom. Again I analysed all the daily posts to see what kinds of things were being talked about, what levels of obsession were apparent, and how biased the general slant of the writing had become.

In total 34 posts have been published this month, some of them short piddly things that smacked of no effort whatsoever. Posts ranged from ramblings on a visit to North Kent to an analysis of new plastic bag regulations. The most popular kinds of post were again visits to places, totalling over half of the monthly output, thanks again in part to the prevalence of Open House. Commentary on capital-wide projects came a clear second, although these were generally lazy armchair rants based on limited understanding of the topic in hand. The best word to describe the posts was still 'geographical', but there was nowhere near as much good stuff about trains as before.
I was trying not to write about Bow again so soon, but TfL clearly have it in for us. Our streets are filled with year-long roadworks, our roundabout kills people, and our buses don't run as smoothly as they should. Now TfL bosses have discovered a fix to make the 25 bus run faster, and they're putting out their plan to consultation. It's great news... unless you happen to live here.
Let's again consider tone. Only 14 of the 34 posts had a positive vibe, a drop of 15% on last year. Meanwhile an astonishing 16 posts launched a direct attack on the subject in question, or had some mumbling undertone, which is clearly not a healthy state of affairs and reflects badly on the author's mental state. Three quarters of posts focused specifically on London, but of these six related solely to diamond geezer's immediate neighbourhood and so were of very limited interest. There were even two posts about Slough, which has to be scraping the barrel, and exemplifies the contempt diamond geezer increasingly displays towards his audience.

What's caused this sudden sour shift isn't immediately apparent. Maybe he's having a rough time at work, or perhaps he's been unlucky in love, or maybe we're simply not giving diddums enough attention. Whatever the reason, it's clearly unfair to take out this anger on those who work in our great capital, all of whom are trying the best they can. Let's hear more about how everything's great, rather than petty nitpicking at every opportunity, because there's enough gloom in our lives without adding more. London is a truly great city, and no single voice is so big that it deserves our attention.

 Tuesday, September 29, 2015

What happens when you accept money for blogging, I wondered, does it change what you post?

Don't worry, I'm not intending to do it myself. But I am intrigued by what the effect is, and in particular by how having a commercial partner slants the copy you write.

So as an example, I'm going to take a look at Londonist's daily Things To Do post. This is published every evening (except Saturday) around 7pm, and includes a list of a dozen things you might want to do in London tomorrow. Here's today's, as an example. It's also available as a daily email, if you choose to subscribe, which makes it a particularly powerful piece of information/marketing.

London listings are extremely hard to compile, because there isn't a central go-to place to find all this stuff. The Visit London website has long been a convoluted embarrassment attempting to flog musicals to tourists, and Time Out is increasingly a style bible rather than an events listing, preferring food and gigs over walks and talks. Londonist has instead made a genuine attempt to curate a proper list of one-off things you might actually want to do, and not just big events in the centre of town, and is what a daily listing ought to be. Or was.

Six months ago this week, Londonist's Things To Do post took on a sponsor. That sponsor was YPlan, a smartphone app designed to help you book tickets for popular and hard-to-shift events. "Get the lowdown on cool dates, hidden culture, epic parties and where to hang with friends," they say, "and get your social life sorted in a flash." So did the selection of Things To Do events skew to fit the sponsor, or did editorial independence shine through? What do you think?

To find out, I dug back into the Londonist archives to the last week of March - the last full week of unsponsored listings. I analysed the five weekday posts and the weekend bonanza to see what kinds of event were on offer, how much they cost, and what links were provided.

In total 96 events were listed that week, ranging from nature exhibitions at Camden Arts Centre to an evening of jazz fusion at Rich Mix. The most popular events were talks and lectures, totalling over a quarter of the whole, these being ideal one-off midweek specials. Musical events and concerts came a clear second, followed by art and exhibitions and comedy nights and film. The best word to describe the listings would probably have been 'cultural', and they were always reassuringly diverse.
AUTHOR SHOWCASE: Authors Catherine Chanter and Sara Taylor will talk about their debut novels with Louisa Joyner, editorial director of Canongate at Dulwich Books. Find out more about the books here. £6, prebook, 7.30pm
Let's also consider price. 26 of the 96 events were free of charge, that's just over a quarter of the total. Other events ranged in price from £4 to £38, plus one way-out offering of £175 for an overnight Sherlock Holmes event at the Museum of London. The average price of an event was £9.75 (that's the mean, whereas the more representative median was £7). And on every occasion Londonist linked through to the event's website, so if you chose to book they took a cut of zero.

Now let's jump ahead six months. This time I've focused on Things To Do from the last week of September, that's last week, now well under the influence of YPlan's sponsorship. Again I analysed the five weekday posts and the weekend extravaganza to see what kinds of event were on offer, how much they cost, and what links were provided.

In total 81 events were listed last week, ranging from a silk screen printing workshop in King's Cross to an alternative community film festival in Peckham. This time the most popular events were concerts and special one-offs, for example the tattoo convention at Tobacco Dock or the Lambeth Heritage Festival. Talks and lectures had dropped way down the list (10% rather than 27%), as had exhibitions, while the highest climbers were films and food. The best word to describe the listings is still 'cultural', but with a slightly more central London focus and a nod to a wealthier demographic.
SOHO MUSIC WALKING TOUR: Discover Soho's rock and roll history on this tour which takes in iconic venues and memorable gigs that launched the careers of many successful bands. Meet at Tottenham Court Road station. £15, prebook, Saturday 11am, Sunday 3pm
Now let's consider price. 14 of the 81 events were free of charge, that's about a sixth of the total, down from a quarter six months back. Other events ranged in price from £2 to £49, plus one way-out offering of £78 for a Secret Cinema ticket. The average price of an event was £11.56 (up almost two pounds from before), while the more representative median was £9 (ditto). And on some of these events Londonist still linked directly to the event's website, but on the rest there was no direct connection - YPlan stole you away.

Ah yes, the sponsor's definitely made a difference. Every Things To Do post now contains at least five events promoted by YPlan, each with a chunky mobile-sized button underneath which reads [Get Tickets]. Clicking delivers you either to the app or to a special Londonist tickets page where you can log in by email, with Facebook or even through Google+. All in all there were 38 YPlan-sponsored events last week, that's just under half of the total, and with an average price of £16. Some of these events were of a type which might previously have appeared in the list, but others definitely not.
OYSTERS AND PROSECCO: Have a luxurious Monday at Mayfair's Cartizze with five Colchester oysters with balsamic pearls, tarragon and lemon, plus two glasses of Prosecco. Until 14 October. £25, prebook, 6pm
The biggest change in the listings is the appearance of Things To Do which you could do any week, and therefore aren't true one-offs. YPlan would like you to snap up a restaurant deal, or head to a specific pub in Angel for a Sunday roast for no better reason than that they'll get a cut. Or how about making this the week you sign up to a £25 floristry class, a £10 yoga session or a trip to Shoreditch's Cat Village? The Cat Village has had now had eight mentions since April, while the James Bond car exhibition has had eleven, presumably because the topslice on tickets is financially worthwhile.

I don't want you to think I'm being smug in pointing this out. Londonist is a commercial concern with staff on the payroll, and has to gather its income from somewhere. Indeed on YPlan's first day they reminded us of this, stating "Every click and purchase helps keep Londonist free to read." Somebody has to throw money their way, and if that's readers buying £20 tickets for a night at Brooklyn Bowl, then at least they're keeping a subscription payment model at bay. I should also point out that Londonist publishes a separate weekly digest of Free and Cheap events, as yet untainted by sponsors, which is far more likely to contain Things To Do you'd like to do.

All I've sought to do here is to uncover what happens when a commercial partner has a say in the copy you write. And in the case of Londonist's Things To Do listings it seems YPlan's influence stretches to half of the content, narrowing the focus to profitable events and diminishing diversity. As you skim through tomorrow's selection, remember that any sponsored post will always have some ulterior motive at work beneath the surface.

 Monday, September 28, 2015

One week from today, plastic bags will cost extra. Best be prepared.

From Monday 5th October every plastic carrier bag dished out in shops in England will cost 5p (with a few exceptions, which we'll come to later). Details for consumers are here, and retailers here.

A similar law has been in operation in Wales since 2011, in Northern Ireland since 2013 and in Scotland since this time last year. England is merely catching up. Legislation was announced two years ago, at the behest of the Liberal Democrats, and is perhaps the coalition partner's final bequest to the nation. Whether you think it's great news for the environment or the nanny state gone mad is very much open to opinion.

All shops will be forced to charge for plastic carrier bags except for those with fewer than 250 full time employees. That puts Tesco and Superdrug on the charging list straight away, and even WHSmith kiosks and small branches of Spar, because it's not the size of the store that counts, it's the overall size of the retailer. Independent corner shops will however be wholly exempt, as well as local chains with relatively few outlets, but some of these may choose to opt in anyway.

Rest assured that the 5p isn't a traditional tax so your money won't end up funding the government. Instead retailers will be expected to give proceeds to good causes once 'reasonable costs' have been deducted.

The definition of a chargeable plastic bag is enshrined in law. They must be made of plastic which is 70 microns thick or less (so paper bags can still be dished out free). They must have an opening and not be sealed (so a bag of frozen peas or a wrapped loaf of bread won't count). They must have handles (so those small bags you fill with self-selected fruit or veg won't be charged). And they must be new (so if you bring old bags to the supermarket they'll not be counted... which is of course the point).

There are several exceptions to the 5p charge in cases where it would be inadvisable or unhygienic for items not to be bagged.
• raw fish, meat and poultry (and associated uncooked products)
• unwrapped food (or anything sold in leaky containers)
• unwrapped loose seeds, bulbs and flowers, or goods contaminated by soil (such as potatoes)
• unwrapped blades, including knives and axes (the legislation specifically mentions axes)
• prescription medicine
• live aquatic creatures in water

There are also some less obvious exceptions. Buy goods at an airport, on a ship or on a train and you won't be charged. Bags used to give away free promotional material will be exempt, otherwise you'd have to pay to receive a freebie. Bags used for services rather than sale of goods, for example dry cleaning, won't count. But other than that expect to pay these extra 5ps every you turn up unprepared at Sainsbury's or Debenhams or wherever.

Home delivery of supermarket groceries doesn't escape either. Food brought by delivery van to your door generally comes bagged up, often overly so, and this could cost you dear. In an attempt to avoid excess charges, and because the precise number of plastic bags won't be known at the point where you pay, most supermarkets are introducing a flat fee. For example Tesco, Sainsbury's and Waitrose will be charging an extra 40p (the equivalent of eight bags) no matter how many bags they use.

Alternatively several supermarkets are now offering 'bagless delivery', whereby all your shopping arrives in crates. This cunningly avoids the additional charge, but expect unloading to take longer, and for delivery drivers to be slowed down as a result.

'Click and collect' will also be affected (that's where you order online and then turn up at the supermarket later to receive your goods). Again expect a flat fee - Waitrose are charging 30p, no matter how many bags their acolytes distribute your groceries between. But again the surcharge can be avoided if you pick the 'bagless collection' option. For this you'll have to bring your own bags to the branch, where "a Waitrose partner will then pack your order into your carrier bags"... assuming you can put up with the additional time required and the penny-pinching embarrassment.



I'm intrigued by how the 5p charge might affect different formats of checkout...

Supermarket, till with conveyor belt: You pack your own bags, the operator charges you, no awkwardness.
Supermarket, narrow till: The operator packs your bags and hands them to you. How pissed off will you be if they use 'too many'?
Supermarket, self-scan: The machine'll ask whether you've brought your own bags, but what's to stop you lying and wandering off scot-free?

I'm also intrigued by how the 5p charge will affect different types of shopping...

Planned: Pop a few plastic bags in your pocket, or a reusable bag at the bottom of your handbag, and environmental salvation is assured.
Unplanned: Oh bugger, I wasn't expecting to be here at the supermarket, so I haven't brought anything with me, dammit.

The preferred solution is of course to carry bags with you everywhere you go, just in case. And that's easy for some people, for example if you always drive to the supermarket, because you can stash reusable bags in the back of the car. But for many of us on foot spontaneous shopping is about to get nigglingly more expensive, as dashing into the Co-op on the way home suddenly costs us more. And presumably this also applies to buying underwear from M&S, or a book from Waterstones, or a saucepan from John Lewis, or a bottle of cheap shampoo from the 99p shop. Plan badly, and from October it'll be the £1.04 shop.

And let's not forget that reusable bags aren't the panacea they're often made out to be. A reusable bag is only any use if you remember to reuse it, not if it's sitting at home. I have half a dozen cotton bags hanging up in my kitchen which I've been given over the years, each of which took more environmental effort to produce than a plastic bag, and none of which I've ever taken to a shop. Thankfully I also have over a hundred plastic bags stashed close by, and I shall now revel in taking wrongly branded bags to the wrong supermarket... assuming I don't forget.

The consensus from the rest of the UK is that the world won't end when the new legislation is introduced, and habits will adapt quickly to the new status quo. The number of bags handed out in Wales has fallen by 78% since 2010, and in Scotland by 18% since last year, as consumers adapt their behaviour to recycle more. Meanwhile plastic bag use continues to rise in England, with latest figures suggesting an annual uptake of 7.6bn, that's about 10 bags per person per month. Expect these numbers to tumble, and for several good causes to benefit, and for streets near you to perhaps be a little tidier, after the 5p charge is introduced.

 Sunday, September 27, 2015

Every two years I go on the best walk in southeast England - over the Seven Sisters to Beachy Head.



The ups and downs aren't for the faint-hearted, but the views are spectacular.



Along the way I pass my very favourite meander, on the River Cuckmere.



I'm sad to say the cult of the selfie is rife even immediately above a 500 foot sheer drop.



» 2007 report and photos
» 2009 set of 30 photos
» 2011 photos
» 2013 photos
» 2015 photos

Ten Beachy notes
1) Eastbourne Pier is open and busy, but not entirely recovered from last year's fire.
2) Eastbourne Bandstand's summer series of tribute concerts closed this week with an Abba fireworks finale.
3) Ice creams are £1 cheaper at the Beachy Head Kiosk than at Belle Tout lighthouse.
4) Beachy Head is an increasingly popular spot for drone-flying.
5) Yesterday the pub atop Beachy Head couldn't do food within an hour, and claimed to have run out of beer.
6) Cliff collapse at Birling Gap has led to three metres of retreat since my last visit.
7) Alas, the National Trust's new ice cream parlour at Birling Gap lasted less than a year.
8) The Seven Sisters comprise eight chalky humps, one of which is notably less precipitous than the others.
9) Particularly fit people go running over the Seven Sisters - most of us have enough of a challenge walking.
10) The cost of a ticket on the very-regular number 12 bus from Exceat to Eastbourne is currently £2.40.

 Saturday, September 26, 2015

Remember pre-Olympic Stratford?

 Tuesday, July 03, 2007


Carpenters Lock and footbridgeAt the other end of the Old River Lea, at the very heart of the Olympic Park site, stands Carpenters Lock. 'Crumbles' might be a better word than 'stands', to be honest. There have been no boats through this dilapidated structure for years, and the access footpath was fenced off a few years ago to deter all but the most determined photographer. No point in any last minute restoration. Olympic architects have other plans for this spot, with the central Olympic spine path due to plough across the river right here. Which is a shame, because there's a perfectly decent footbridge close by already. It's a gently humping blue-green bridge with latticed sides, used by long-dead horses to tow barges downstream towards the Thames. Shame that it's a little on the narrow side, and would almost certainly collapse under the weight of spectator footflow when the basketball arena is up and running. But don't worry. This iconic bridge appears to be marked as a thin stripe on legacy plans for the Olympic Park, so I have every hope that it'll survive the oncoming bulldozer onslaught intact. I look forward to standing here again.
It's been eight years, two months and three weeks.

And at long last the old iron footbridge has reopened.



The bridge's location has been its medium-term misfortune but its long-term salvation. Linking stadium to park, it couldn't be opened during the Games themselves because one side was ticketed and the other was full public access. And yes, it's also ridiculously thin and could never have coped with spectator footfall anyway. As Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park has opened up, and that's eighteen months now, it's remained blocked by barriers because Stadium Island isn't yet publicly accessible. But finally this week (probably in relation to Rugby World Cup action) the barriers on the bridge have come down, and look like staying away into the foreseeable future.

It is a lovely old bridge, all grooved and cobbly. The uneven surface was all the the better for keeping a proper foothold in days gone by, but makes for a right bumpy journey on a bike, and probably isn't ideal with a pushchair either. The width also makes it difficult to cross, not quite one person at a time, but you'll think twice about stepping up at the same time as someone else. What's particularly nice is the opportunity to stand low above the water and look down the channel (here a choice of three), and perhaps get rather closer to some of the birds swimming underneath. Plus of course it allows access onto the tip of Stadium Island for the first time in, well yes, eight years, two months and three weeks.



When West Ham move into the 2012 bowl the area surrounding the stadium will be opened to public, extending QEOP onto the western side of the City Mill River. The slopes are already landscaped, with a series of long shallow ramped paths leading down through a forest of trees to reach the towpath. There's planning permission on an upper walkway for West Ham's iconic Champions Statue to be relocated - that's the bronze of Bobby Moore and other 1966 World Cup heroes, rent asunder from the Barking Road and resettled in E20. I don't know how that's going to go down in Upton Park. More popular, I suspect, will be the long-awaited appearance of the Olympic Bell, as rung by Bradley Wiggins at the start of the 2012 Opening Ceremony. It "may occasionally be rung to celebrate special occasions, but will not be in general use", so don't get any ideas about coming along for a bong.

Up top may remain inaccessible, but the footbridge does finally link to (and unlock) the towpath along the Old River Lea. This was always a favourite walk of mine pre-2007, weaving through a woody corridor beneath the Marshgate Lane Trading Estate. Quite a few of those trees have been allowed to survive, as have a couple of bulb-headed iron mooring posts. Where the Pudding Mill River once broke away downstream now only a brief stubby inlet remains, its resident moorhens unaware of how much more water they could have lorded over a decade ago. But the stadium now looms large on the opposite bank, its corporate hospitality backstage area now fully revealed, significantly diminishing any former feelings of isolation.



The towpath along the Old River Lea is a potentially dangerous spot, so inflated orange rings have been hung from posts spaced out along its length. And each has been labelled "LIFEBOUY" in large black letters, because spelling isn't a speciality hereabouts, and quality management doubly so. Huge black gates, and two beady security cameras, lurk beneath one of the spectator access bridges. Not far after there's ramped access to the Park's outer Loop Road, access to which opened up last month, finally completing a pedestrian link to the top of the Greenway. And yay, it's also now possible to walk all the way through to Old Ford Lock, ducking beneath twin pipes to rejoin the Lea towpath proper. That walk I used to enjoy until 2007 is properly open again, and about time too. [6 photos]

 Friday, September 25, 2015

I get far fewer approaches from PR companies and commercial interests than most high-profile bloggers. But I'd rather have none.

Here are three examples that arrived recently. The first is from Sylvia.
Hi,
I stumbled across your blog and I thought it was beautifully written.
Promotional emails often start with a bit of ego massage before the pitch kicks in.
I am working with a friend on a new property tech venture which has neighbourhoods at its heart. For us, finding a home goes well beyond the walls of your flat to your neighbours, local bars and restaurants, parks and all the little places that give identity to a neighbourhood.
It's an estate agent app, isn't it? A greedy start-up attempting to topslice the booming property crisis. I'm already switching off.
We are starting out in East London (Shoreditch, Dalston, Hackney, Angel, Canary Wharf) and are looking for people who know it, love it and can bring it to life for others with words (and photos).
I don't even live in any of those areas, for heaven's sake. Bow's hipster revamp is running slow.
We want to help regular people find a home in a city like London by giving them a feel for a neighbourhood's true character. As content will sit at the heart of the home search, your words (and photos) will be invaluable to anyone looking to find a home in London.
Sylvia's brainwave is to combine house sales with local content, except she doesn't have any local content, which would seem to put a fatal damper on potential profits.
Would you be interested in contributing content for us and we can find a way to reward you for your help?
I tend not to write puff pieces about sipping bespoke cappuccinos in pocket parks. So no, Sylvia, I wouldn't.

Then this arrived from Scott.
To all employees, friends & family of Diamond Geezer,
It's amazing how quickly a promotional email can misfire.
You may have already heard that we’re opening <BBQ restaurant> in <central Lambeth>.
Given that this restaurant is five miles from where I live, no, actually not.
We're inviting locals in for dinner & drinks before we officially open to the rest of London. If you fancy joining us between Thursday 1st & Thursday 15th October, we’ll be offering 50% off your total bill.
Scott's offer is a half-price meal during his soft launch phase, which is no big deal. And only because I'm a potential influencer who might big-up his fledgling restaurant on social media.
We can accommodate tables of 4, 6 and 8. Let me know when you’d like to come down. Look forward to seeing you soon.
Sorry Scott, I'm a 1. Don't expect me down any time soon.

And then there was this unlikely missive.
Hi
I'm Stephanie, and I represent London-based <massage company>, a first of its kind company offering professional massages at the home/hotel/gym/office of the client.
I worried where this might be leading. And rightly so.
We are currently searching for London-based bloggers and vloggers to collaborate with, in an exchange of services.
It's not every day you get the offer of a free massage in your inbox (except in your spam folder, obviously).
We were hoping you might be interested in writing a review of our services or posting a youtube video, following treatment from one of our professional and vetted therapists.
At least Stephanie wasn't proposing a YouTube video during the treatment. Much as you'd love to watch the outcome, I had to let her down gently.
Best look elsewhere, Stephanie.
So very wildly off target…
All the best.
dg
We parted on amicable terms.
Yeah I figured that much.
But at least nobody can say I didn't try!
Best of luck,
Steph
Alas Stephanie is just one of a battalion of 21st century marketing underlings, their job to fire out volleys of outreach emails in the vain hope that somebody somewhere might be interested in prostituting themselves. I am not that somebody. Please send your promotional messages elsewhere.

 Thursday, September 24, 2015

My Open House gallery
There are 67 photos altogether [slideshow]

Sorry, you didn't think I'd finished writing about Open House, did you? Seven down, six more to go...

Open House: Trinity Hospital
The oldest building in Greenwich, Trinity Hospital can be found on the riverside past the Old Royal Naval College and the Trafalgar Tavern, beneath the tall chimneys of Greenwich Power Station. Opened in 1617 as almshouses - a function it still performs - those who've lived in Greenwich for a certain time and are of a certain age might one day be allowed to move in. But you won't be allowed through its locked gate unless you happen to be passing on Open House Saturday, which is the only day of the year that a top-hatted warden stands and positively urges you inside. Do not pass by, take him up on his offer, to view the gorgeous enclave beyond the clocktower and the suite of rooms that surround. A fountain gushes placidly at the centre of the courtyard, florally bedecked and with golden fish wriggling within. To one side is a large gothic chapel, still used by residents every Thursday when the vicar of St Alfege's comes to lead a service. Upstairs is a wood panelled courtroom that's only unlocked twice a year, the other occasion being the Monday after Trinity Sunday when the City's Mercers cloak up and pay a ceremonial visit. The most fortunate residents live in ten refitted apartments surrounding the courtyard, but there are also thirty flats more in a more modern building alongside, surrounding larger gardens. With so much life experience in one place it's no surprise that residents bake a great cake, and you should use this fact as an excuse to stop for tea and linger longer. And then next time you pass the bright castellated frontage on the Thames Path you'll know the secrets of what lies behind, and probably be more than a little jealous. [7 photos]



Open House: The Seager Distillery Tower
It didn't look like the most exciting venue in the Open House brochure. A housing development beside Deptford Bridge DLR, built on the site of something historic, including refurbished 19th century buildings you'd not be able to get inside. But there was one key phrase which piqued my interest, which was the identity of the only part of the development on the tour. "Entry: 27th floor viewing gallery." And I couldn't turn that down. The developers, Galliard Homes, hadn't gone out of their way to advertise their two-day opening to anybody local, so it took a while to find the right way in. But yes, the concierge confirmed that this was the place, and one lengthy lift ride later I was in a glass box in the sky. Not a big box, more like two small chambers linked by a brief passage, but with high glass windows affording a most excellent view. To one side the City, viewed across lowrise Southwark, swinging round to the surprisingly prominent heights of Dulwich. And from the other side Greenwich (and its observatory) up close, and the end of Deptford Creek, and the Docklands skyscraper wall. Various families who'd come to visit were trying to spot their home ("oh my, there's our washing!") and determine which of the verdant lumps to the south was Hilly Fields. I love a lofty panorama, and Open House always delivers what I most crave, but even so I hung around far longer than I'd expected. I was particularly thrilled by the unobstructedness of the view, because normally when you go up something there's another tall building in the way. Instead the Distillery Tower stands alone, which is great for penthouse residents but not for low level local people who hate this lone eyesore for sticking out like a sore thumb. On any other weekend of the year I'd side with them. [7 views]

Open House: Limehouse Town Hall
Local government reorganisation hit this grand civic building hard. Opened in 1881, Limehouse Town Hall lasted as an administrative hub for less than 20 years before the Borough of Stepney absorbed Limehouse Vestry, and since then it's muddled on the best it can. Edwardian East End families came for weddings, bazaars and ‘cinematograph’ showings, after which the building's been an Infant Welfare Centre, a doctor's surgery and even (from 1975 to 1986) the National Museum of Labour History. Harold Wilson turned up specially to open the latter, and I'd like to imagine that Margaret Thatcher turned up to close it down. A deeply communal vibe remains, overseen by the Limehouse Town Hall Consortium Trust who welcome all sorts of hands-on projects and charities to thrive under their roof. On my visit the Tower Hamlets Wheelers were holding their monthly bike surgery in the main hall, tending to spokes and upturned chains while the occasional OH visitor wandered through. I took the opportunity to enjoy the Town Hall's audio tour, which was more atmosphere than fact, but brought the crumbling fabric of this great survivor to life. Long may it thrive, and all those who inspire from within. [2 photos]



Open House: Thames River Police Museum
Where is the world's oldest police force based? On the waterfront at Wapping, of course, where a band of lawmen was assembled at the end of the 18th century to reduce crime on London's lifeblood river. It made sense to merge them into the early Metropolitan Police, eventually becoming the Marine Support Unit, who continue to patrol the Thames in search of wrongdoers. They have a boathouse and private pier, complete with blue lamp, and also a small but excellent museum. This is housed in a former carpenter's workshop, its benches now piled with display cases and its walls hung with pictures and ephemera. There was a time when the Thames Police wielded cutlasses, or cracked pistols, and some of the older handcuffs don't look entirely kind. Here too are old charts and notebooks, and model ships and ensigns, and caps and epaulettes. But the main emphasis is on individual police officers and their deeds, from everyday service to something special, like rescuing passengers from the Princess Alice or the Marchioness. A stalwart group of volunteers oversee the museum and can tell you more, not just on Open House Weekend but (by appointment, in writing) throughout the year. In the absence of a proper Met Police museum, as yet, this packed heritage repository is a proper treasure. [4 photos]

Open House: London Dock - Pennington Street Warehouses
200 years ago much of the land between Wapping and Shadwell was carved out to create the London Docks, a network of deep basins for trading high-value commodities. They survived in business until the 1960s, eventually ending up in the hands of the London Docklands Development Corporation who filled in the huge Western Docks to create a non-council housing estate. Along the northern edge Rupert Murdoch built Fortress Wapping as News International's HQ, but now they've moved out there's a huge demolition site awaiting redevelopment. What's not being removed is a (very) long chain of brick vaults, these once used to store rum and spices (and more recently printer's ink), stretching most of the length of one side of Pennington Street. Site developers St George allowed access at the weekend, allowing the curious a) to stare from one end to the other b) to read lots of information boards about what's planned. And what's planned is stacks of flats, which if you believed the architect's hyped excitement on the video will be nothing short of amazing, but I was wholly unimpressed. The artist's impressions he was enthusing over could have been built anywhere, and all his spiel about how they reflect the site's maritime history seemed little more than empty bluster. Instead this is yet another exercise in cramming in as much luxury housing as possible, while the dock vaults will at least be restored for use as boutiques, bars and creative arts spaces. You'll like those, when they open, but perhaps give the rest of the "world class public realm" a miss. [photo]



Open House: St Georgs Deutsche Lutherische Kirche
It wasn't in the Open House Guide and it wasn't on the website, indeed it's possible they simply stuck a leftover poster outside the door and hoped passers-by would notice. And I'd never have noticed if the Overground was running, but there I was walking up to Aldgate, and there they were, so in I went. St George's is the oldest German church in the UK, opened 250 years ago by a community of expat sugar-boilers, this being a key local industry at the time. A place of worship until 1996, it was subsequently rescued and restored by the Historic Chapels Trust, and is now used mostly for recitals, concerts and lectures. Very few box-pew chapels survive, let alone double-decker pulpits, and its Georgian altar decorations are also a sight to see. Visit on the first Tuesday lunchtime of the month to enjoy an organ recital on the restored Walcker. What shone through here, even more than at other venues over the weekend, was the dedication of a band of volunteers who've striven to keep the place alive, and really wanted you to stay for tea and biscuits so they could tell you more. And if that's the true spirit of Open House, long may it remain.

 Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Open House: Millennium Mills

Most years there are a handful of entries in the Open House listings that make you think "oh my word, are they actually allowing access to that?!" In 2004 it was the Gherkin, in 2010 TfL HQ, and this year the BT Tower. But scanning through the list there was also the opportunity to go inside one of the holy grails of Urban Exploration, Millennium Mills in Silvertown, for a 100% legitimate tour. This crumbling ten-storey flour mill beside the Royal Victoria Dock has lured in many a balaclava-ed trespasser keen to experience the danger of its gaping internal voids and the thrill of standing on its roof. And suddenly they're running public hard hat tours, you say, OMG wow! Oh, but only a tiny handful of tours, and with less than ten people on each, so not a chance of getting a place. Sadface. But I got lucky. Doubly lucky, in fact, because wasn't the weather at the weekend ace? The opportunity to explore a taboo building in perfect sunshine was like winning the lottery, so I bounced along, togged up in hi-vis and boots, and grinned.



So there's this vast area of undeveloped land to the west of City Airport, opposite the ExCel exhibition centre, which used to be part of East London's docks. This section was all about importing food, and specifically flour, and at the start of the 20th century the three largest milling companies established premises here. Millennium Mills was built in massive style by William Vernon & Sons, who named the building after their most successful brand of flour. The current building's not the original, which was badly damaged by the great Silvertown explosion of 1917 and again by bombing during World War Two. But the 1953 building survives, which is quite something given that flour production shifted to Tilbury in the 80s and the concrete monster's been empty ever since. Today it's the sole survivor on a 60 acre site, bar a bit of the Rank Hovis mill nextdoor and a mighty grain silo nearer Pontoon Dock station. And change is imminent.

There have been many attempts to build on this site over the years, including a millennial plan to build a new residential zone around a massive aquarium called Biota. That eventually stalled when the developers went quiet, so the next team on the block are the so-called Silvertown Partnership who got the nod in April. They're planning a creative quarter, which'll be mostly housing but also with a heavy commercial slant, the intention being to attract digital start-ups and boost the knowledge economy. Half of Pontoon Dock will be filled in, and the majority of the site tightly packed with flats and offices and very little open space. More depressingly there are plans to create a 'brand village', where large multinational companies will build consumer temples to enhance their commercial reputation - not so much shops as a showcase designed to enhance online purchase. They never mentioned the brand village on the tour, I think they realised we'd only have ripped the piss.
"Silvertown Quays will provide a unique experience in what will be the first purpose built brand destination in the world; and through a series of brand flagships, pavilions and trading houses, organisations will be able to showcase and engage with their consumers through education, entertainment and customisation."
At the far end of Millennium Mills, nearest the airport, is what remains of the Rank Hovis Premier Mill. This brick edifice isn't as tall, nor as listed, as its iconic neighbour, but it does house the one remaining grain chute still in situ. This spirals down from above like a rusting worm, and should be saved for posterity so long as the building around it is too. Some of the hoppers have been rescued, for which read dumped outside in piles for artists to use creatively in the new development. For now, however, the main residents are pigeons flying in through absent doors and smashed windows, and workers from Up North storing boxes and boxes of air filters for asbestos removal purposes. Jay and his mates expect to have all the evil fibres out soon, vastly increasing the value of the property overnight and kickstarting proper development... there'll be no more public tours after this.



Gaining access to the upper levels of Millennium Mills is currently possible via builders' lift. This jerks up the outside of the building to the seventh floor where a scaffolded platform provides an excellent (but temporary) view to the south and east. That golfball dome is what's left of the notorious London Pleasure Gardens, a 2012 attempt to bring the place to life which crashed and burned financially after demonstrating Herculean levels of organisational incompetence. And yes, the City Airport flightpath is ridiculously close, with planes roaring upwards over the dock pretty much right next to the front of the mill. If you're ever thinking of buying a property here, don't let the estate agent trick you into a site visit on Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning when the runway is conveniently closed.

We merry band of Open Housers were then invited to step inside the building, most probably through what used to be a window. We were at least a year too late to see the building at its worst, with almost all of the grain slides and silos and associated metalwork long removed. Instead we'd entered a concrete shell of roof beams and floors, the latter regularly broken by large (and very large) holes. These voids are the ultimate health and safety nightmare, or trespasser's thrill, but they're also the reason why this building faces a bright commercial future. Most old buildings have no space to thread cables and utilities through the floors, but Millennium Mills has holes everywhere meaning your start-up company can move in with ease. Braver souls on the tour edged along narrow ledges past enormous circular drops to reach the farthest corners, or hung over the edge with their SLRs, because you only live once.

The stairs will have to go. They're old and narrow, and almost as steep as a ladder, and absolutely not what a new business district needs. But they do (eventually) lead to the roof, which is where any decent Open House tour ought to end up, and at Millennium Mills doubly so. Plans suggest that the very top of the redeveloped building will be appropriated by bars and restaurants, these in glass boxes rather the existing concrete bunkers, because in the future it'll be impossible to enjoy a lofty panorama without an expensive cocktail in hand. Hurrah then for the chance to stomp around in safety helmet and boots, and to climb one final wall to the Mill's highest point.



I had insufficient wows for this bit of the visit, first the realisation that I'd actually reached the heights of Urbex inaccessibility, second for being up amongst the chimney vents in blazing sunshine, and thirdly for the view. The main draw was Docklands to the west with the City and Shard poking up behind, not quite so close as the Dangleway gets, but without any of that annoying shiny glass getting in the way. The Royal Victoria Dock shimmered below, temporarily decorated with a warship because of the Arms Fair at ExCel. The Barking and Essex direction was, sorry, a bit dull, which Shooters Hill never is. Meanwhile over by Barrier Park a forest of cranes were busy erecting something blandly cuboid, a fate which'll soon befall the expanse of cleared tarmac and vegetation surrounding Millennium Mills on three sides.

I know that the Silvertown Partnership only allowed us up here for PR reasons, our token presence another box ticked on the Community Engagement list. And I know they kept the numbers down because organising these tours is a complex and expensive thing, and because it only takes a small gesture to inspire acres of coverage in the media. But I'm well chuffed to have been one of the handful to get the nod, and to get the opportunity to report back on your behalf. I suspect the rebirth of Millennium Mills itself is going to be the best thing about this future development - it'll make a great communal office block with true character and elevated accessibility. The rest of the site I'm less sure about - the masterplan looks extremely cramped with an eye on maximising rent, and the less said about the brand village the better. But in September 2015 before the refit kicks in, just OMG wow.

My Millennium Mills gallery
There are 40 photos altogether [or why not sit back and enjoy a slideshow?]

 Tuesday, September 22, 2015

If Modernism were a religion, Berthold Lubetkin would be one of its patron saints. Born in Georgia in 1901, he studied first in post-Revolution Russia, then Warsaw and Berlin before moving on to Paris. Here he set up his first architectural practice, working under the influence of Le Corbusier, and designed a few uncompromising apartment blocks. In 1931 he moved to London and, along with a small group of design graduates, formed the Tecton architectural cooperative. His subsequent work got him noticed, then acclaimed, before a highly promising career trajectory was stalled by World War Two. Tecton was disbanded in 1950, after which Lubetkin switched track entirely and took over a remote Gloucestershire farm, where he lived in relative exile with his family until his death in 1990. Sorry that was a bit whistlestop, but there's more to read here, here and see here. Three of his most well known buildings were Open at the weekend, so I made my pilgrimage.

NOT Open House: Gorilla House, London Zoo (1933)
Lubetkin's first London foray was a circular drum for London Zoo's largest apes - half enclosed and half open - now occupied by lemurs.

NOT Open House: Penguin House, London Zoo (1934)
Elliptical and swooshy, and a masterpiece in every way except that the penguins didn't much like it so are now housed in a former duckpond.

Open House: Highpoint One (1935)


Lutbetkin's second major client was the office equipment magnate Sigmund Gestetner. He wanted modern housing for his workers, originally in Camden, but was drinking in Highgate one day when he spotted a house for sale on North Hill opposite the pub. Convinced that the ridgetop provided a much better location, the site was bought and plans drawn up for a block of commercial apartments. Restricted by a narrow plot and various height regulations, a double cruciform design was settled on and a groundbreaking development took shape. The front's alas shrouded in scaffolding at present, so don't expect much in the way of photos.

Open House tours of Highpoint vanish fast, and rightly so. For your booking you get not just a tour inside the buildings but the opportunity to look round two actual flats and a peer down the garden. You also get a damned good factsheet rammed with facts and floorplans, and a bonus leaflet written by a ten year-old resident which puts other venues' brief Gestetnered pages to shame. You get a fabulous tour guide, who might be a renowned architectural expert, might be the owner of one of the flats or might be that very same ten-year-old girl - because living in this building clearly breeds self confidence. And you get a better class of fellow tour member, with one of my companions casually dropping in the fact that he'd known Lubetkin's daughter, and met the great man, and knew a stash of juicy gossip too.

What a fantastic building Highpoint One is, inasmuch as any 1930s construction can ever be fully adapted for modern living. Its sleek white exterior we had to take as read, but even the entrance passage was something special. This curves in low via a Winter Garden, essentially a lobby with a few cacti, then steps up to a perfectly balanced hall with lift shafts at either end. Residents (who these days tend to be on the wealthier side) wander through with shopping, or out to socialise, perhaps via the asymmetric staircases curling round the each shaft. Glass bricks help illuminate each landing, these once communal space, now sealed off to provide a smidgeon more space in the flats behind. These are of two types, one stretching to a dining room and extra bedroom, and each with the internal beams tucked cunningly away to maximise available space. If you have shelves of architectural hardbacks and an Isokon Penguin Donkey you'll fit right in.

Community was hugely important to Lubetkin so he built a light and airy Tea Room for residents in the basement, the slope of the land meaning this was also the exit to the gardens. These are extensive, and accessed down an elliptical ramp that's instantly reminiscent of Tecton's penguin project. The gardens focus more on lawn than flowerbed, stepping down from a mown terrace and converted bomb shelter to two decently-used tennis courts and an open-air swimming pool... all strictly no photos, so you'll have to imagine.

Open House: Highpoint Two (1938)


Herr Gestetner was soon persuaded to buy the plot nextdoor and so a second meisterwerk arose. But whereas Highpoint One had been built with middle class egalitarianism in mind, Highpoint Two was unashamedly targeted at the luxurious end of the market. Only twelve flats were planned, as opposed to 65 nextdoor, each with a double bathroom (unheard of!) and encompassing more than one floor. This time the building flanked the main road, accessed via a short drive with a Hollywood-style drop-off where your chauffeur could temporarily pause. The entrance is particularly showy, not least the caryatids who look like they're holding up the porch, plus a much more impressive display of cacti than nextdoor.

Servants had their own staircase leading to each flat's kitchen and pantry, whereas residents enjoyed the height of luxury - an exclusive lift. This doubled as the front door, opening on one side of the shaft or the other (with a ding) depending on which of the two apartments had called it. We got to visit a top level maisonette, this one owned by the lady leading the tour, to whom enormous thanks both for allowing us to snoop and for the expert commentary all the way round. We were told that moving in had been a challenge, given that the previous bedridden resident hadn't been able to keep up with maintenance, and even today one of the bathrooms has the original fixtures but no water on tap. We could also see how much time and effort had gone into refurbishing the apartment, a lengthy project completed as recently as 2012. What we weren't expecting was to step out of the hallway into the main duplex living room and, wow.

The view from the top of Highpoint is outstanding. A double-height wall of windows looks out over a landscape that's astonishingly green for London, first the back garden, then an undulating wave of trees that peaks at the top of Hampstead Heath. Most of west London stretches out beyond, the only tall building to stand out, somewhat delightfully, being the Trellick Tower. Meanwhile the view out of the bedrooms on the opposite side of the flat is to the south and east, with the Olympic cluster and Docklands clearly visible, such is the privileged panoramic position of a penthouse on a hilltop. I couldn't help but imagine living here, inside a perfect combination of design and elevation, then snapped back to reality when I considered the probable pricetag. But it cheered me no end to see this Tecton creation as a happy family home, the owners in architectural practice themselves, and securing Lubetkin's legacy for future generations. [5 photos]

Open House: Finsbury Health Centre (1938)


Meanwhile in Finsbury, in a considerably slummier neighbourhood, Lubetkin set about tacking Clerkenwell's wellbeing head on. The chairman of the public health committee proposed a centralised building for hosting clinical services, a totally groundbreaking concept for the time, and Tecton's draughtsmen duly obliged. Their design for the Finsbury Health Centre comprised a central concrete wedge plus two wings, the entrance accessed via a ramp through a squirrel-infested garden. Reception was brightly painted and brightly illuminated, both by Modernist uplighters and a wall of glass bricks, and also featured a series of large murals pushing public health messages. It's still where you wait if this is your local health centre, though now on rows of plastic seats rather than than the intended clustered chairs. [4 photos]

On Open House weekend a guide with a key can lead you through locked doors to either side to view two airy corridors, off which a string of clinics are still located. They can't take you onto the balcony above the entrance because that's unsafe for large groups, but there is access to what was planned as a 70-seater lecture theatre and is now back offices. It's also possible to head down to the boiler room, because public buildings are about more than front of house, and to visit the service yard out the back where years of NHS cutbacks are laid bare. Several of Lubetkin's glass bricks are cracked, others missing, and it's not known if sufficient budget will ever be found to rectify the damage. Which'd be a damned shame, because it's generally accepted that this backstreet pioneer was a model for the advent of the National Health Service ten years later. Thanks Berthold, thanks for everything!

NOT Open House: Spa Green Estate, Finsbury (1949)
Top class social housing estate opposite Sadlers Wells, but no tours this year.

 Monday, September 21, 2015

Open House: St Pancras Chambers and Clock Tower
St Pancras and Kings Cross are chalk and cheese. The former was deliberately designed to compete with its neighbour on the Euston Road, an ostentatious Gothic showpiece to lure passengers onto the Midland Railway. At the front of the station they planned a massive 400-room hotel, later downsized to 300 (by lopping off the upper two storeys) because funding ran out during construction. The height of Victorian luxury, alas it opened just before the era of en-suite plumbing, so was built with no running water to the rooms and only eight shared bathrooms. Impossible to upgrade thanks to two-foot concrete floors, the white elephant closed in 1935 and was then transformed into railway offices. When these subsequently closed the building fell into disrepair, rescued only when Eurostar turned up and major investment followed. Part became a five star hotel, the remainder apartments... you probably know the story.



When the Midland Hotel appeared on the list for Open House in 2002, I came twice. There weren't the queues in those days, before social media, so those of us in the know turned up and enjoyed the special spaces in relative comfort. Anyone could walk in off the street and climb up the amazing twin staircase, immortalised by the Spice Girls five years earlier, all the way to the blue-spangled landing. The upper corridors had seen better days, replete with peeling paint and dusty floors, but visiting the historic shell left a lasting impression. How things change. In 2015 the hotel no longer partakes in Open House, apart from reluctantly allowing tour groups to peer briefly within. Organised tours are allowed as far as the lobby at the foot of the grand staircase but no further, the ascent signed Hotel Guests Only, so I could only peer up at the glories above and remember how great they must now be. Successful private buildings only partake in Open House when under construction, it seems, or freshly completed and in need of publicity.

Halfway along the curving façade of the main building is a small ramped entrance, generally overlooked, providing an entrance to the St Pancras Apartments. The hotel gets the first floor, where it maintains suites starting at £400 a night (and rising past treble that), while everything above is now flats. Residents are provided with lifts, narrow two-person jobs (because carving space for anything bigger proved impossible), while Open Housers must take the stairs. There are 78 stairs to the second floor, these nothing terribly special, but at one point affording a view down across the Booking Office bar. The second floor corridor is rather more swish, as befits former staterooms, with squared-off lanterns above and a handful of understated front doors on each side. Occasionally the carpet narrows to make room for tall wooden cabinets containing electric cables and utilities, these threaded through the former laundry and rubbish chutes. People will put up with a lot in order to live in heritage deluxe.



Service staircases were installed to help an army of chambermaids and butlers keep the original guests well-tended. These now link the various floors of apartments, these either duplex or triplex, hence it's a long hike between floors. On the cantilevered staircase allocated to Open Housers, a particular treat is the chance to look down on the Eurostar terminal below. St Pancras's huge clock gets in the way, seeing the back of which is a bit of a treat in itself, and there might be up to six sleek trains as well. I'd never twigged the hotel lay immediately behind the clock, let alone steps I'd one day be allowed to tread. The fifth floor corridor is somewhat blander than the second, though I suspect the handful of apartments to either side are no less expensive. And at the far end is flat number 5.01, St Pancras's attic flat, and this weekend's extra special destination.

Imagine being the lucky soul who gets to live inside St Pancras Clock Tower. A flight of steps behind the front door leads up to a 10-foot-high room within the pointy turret, the ultimate garret playroom for a lover of architecture with money to spare. Art and photographs of other clocktowers adorn the walls, while a piano sits unobtrusively in one corner... though just imagine how they lugged it up here. Further steps lead up to a large bookcase above head height, from which a projection screen can also be unfurled. Meanwhile a separate chain of four laddered staircases climbs steeply into an unseen void where the clock's machinery can be tweaked. The Midland used to keep it running two minutes fast to encourage passengers to hurry, whereas these days it's far better synchronised. And the view out of the windows is pretty damned good, if a little constrained to the south, with the best panorama being of Kings Cross station nextdoor and the public square out front.



Sometimes ownership of London's best buildings hides them from public view, but the owner of the Clock Tower flat is rather more philanthropic. He's only too keen to share his home at Open House, much to the mild consternation of certain other residents who have to be reassured so that the weekend invasion can take place, and in we troop. More to the point he's actually got the flat on Airbnb, which means anyone can hire it for the night if a very special experience is required. At £150 it's also considerably cheaper than the hotel downstairs, and comes with fully functional kitchen and a decent sized dining table. A set of 30th birthday helium balloons were floating from one pillar yesterday afternoon, while a suitcase sat beneath the stairs awaiting the flat's paid-up overnight resident. Every day is Open House high above St Pancras, who'd have guessed? [10 photos]

Open House, the drama (at an unnamed venue)

20 people are waiting at the designated meeting point for a pre-booked tour.
Guide: I'm sorry, but we can only take 15 people.
General muttering.
Guide: I'm sorry, but the venue only allows us to take 15 people.
Further muttering.
Guide: Could all those of you with actual bookings go and stand over there please.
Only 10 people go and stand over there.
Guide: Yes, I thought so. The rest of you are just trying your luck.
Smug couple: But look, there are plenty of spare places, can we come too?
Guide: That's not really how this works. You're supposed to book in advance.
Smug couple: But there are plenty of spare places, we should be able to come too.
Self-righteous woman: I'll be very cross if I can't go on the tour.
Guide: Erm.
5 more people turn up on spec, including three small children.
Guide: I should warn you there are an awful lot of steps.
All the excess attendees stare at the guide, silently pleading 'pick me'.
Guide: I really can't take all of you. The venue only allows us to take 15 people.
Additional muttering.
5 people slink off. The rest stand firm and look pleadingly.
Self-righteous woman: I'll be very cross if I can't go on the tour.
Guide: Oh go on, I'll take everyone except you three.
Smug couple: Those three are actually with us.
Guide: Sigh, oh go on then.
5 more people turn up, clutching printed-out bookings for the actual tour.
Group leader: Sorry we're late.
Guide: Oh bugger.
25 people set off on the tour.

 Sunday, September 20, 2015

Let's kick off my Open House round-up with a trip to North Greenwich...

Open House: Inter Continental The O2
For the best part of fifteen years, the Millennium Dome has had the tip of the Greenwich Peninsula pretty much to itself. Its dozen yellow spikes have been the only structures piercing the sky, bar a pointy mast and some towers further south. But recently a long-planned mega-hotel arose on the waterfront, facing Canary Wharf, and yesterday they allowed the public inside for a look. [5 photos]

I've had an eye on this beast since 2010 when planning permission went in. Plans were for "a 452-key Hotel in a building of varying heights" including "a 3,000m2 ballroom and a 427m2 health spa", which is pretty much what we've got, except they've managed to squeeze one extra bedroom in somewhere. The style is Early 21st Century Bland, the usual boxy tower sheened with glass, in sharp counterpoint to the striking architecture of the Dome behind. The developers claimed the visual impact would be "beneficial", providing "height and vertical punctuation" and "acting as a point of conclusion at the tip of the Peninsula", which is clearly fiction, but totally in line with the forest of riverside towers queueing to appear nearby. And with a few months still to go before the official opening, a proper hard hat tour was in order.



They wheeled out the big guns to meet and greet us, top members of the hotel staff with goodie bags in hand. but only once properly togged up in all the right PPE would they let us anywhere near their pride and joy, because by golly it isn't yet finished. An army of workers are on site, even on a Saturday, wandering around with tiles and tools and attempting to make the place ready. We had to weave past portakabins, over cables and round puddles to reach the entrance, which at this stage of the project is via the car park, a gloomy ground floor cavern where guests will eventually be charged over £40 a day to stash their motors. As for the main lobby, soon to be a lounge with patisserie, this is currently a noisy unclad void with bare staircase, cables hanging down and scaffolding towers a-plenty. To fully understand how a building works, there's nothing quite like having wandered through while the interior was being put together - it's impressive stuff.

Upstairs (eventually up escalators, but not yet) is the hotel's pride and joy, an enormous pillar-free ballroom. It's one of the largest single event spaces in Europe, so ideal if you have 3000 conference delegates and need somewhere to put them. They'll arrive via a "pre-function area" with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out across the Thames, walking across marble floor tiles some lackey was laying yesterday. Close by is the so-called Clipper Bar, surrounded on three sides by glass affording eye-popping views of the river, and no doubt with cocktail prices to match. Meanwhile members of the public will be welcome to join hotel guests in one of the signature restaurants, or maybe the skybar on the 18th floor, assuming they have appropriate levels of disposable income. Come Christmas you're not going to be able to move in certain parts of the media for fawning reviews of the latest luxury bolthole for the ostentatious consumer.

In a swashbuckling marketing move, the Intercontinental appears to have stolen the Greenwich Meridian. This clips the western side of the peninsula, and was marked on the ground during millennial celebrations by a paved line on the ground. That line has now been bulldozed, but still lies well beyond the hotel's footprint, as was always the intention at the planning stage. But this is the historic meridian through the observatory, which you may remember has been supplanted by a GPS meridian 100 metres to the east. So the hotel has instead chosen to embrace the new meridian because this passes straight through the building, hence they'll be making a big fuss halfway down corridors where the rooms switch from East to West, and naming their lobby the Meridian Lounge. So important is the Greenwich connection that the hotel's main slogan is "About Time", but come December I think you'll find me out in the cold walking the proper line instead.



Open House: NOW Gallery and The Gateway Pavilions
As I've blogged before, the newest buildings in Peninsula Square are two curving pavilions facing the main torrent of footfall approaching the entrance to the Dome. One exists to provide cafe space, because that's important, while the other is notionally an art gallery but really for flogging apartments. Normally the public only gets to see the ground floor, but potential customers are led upstairs for further marketing, except on Open House weekend when anyone can go. The main focus is on designer suites that'll fit out blocks of flats yet to be built, for those who'd like to reserve one well in advance. But unless you're loaded stuff that, and enjoy the view from the balcony that runs around the second floor. From up here you can observe the human swarm flocking from the bus/tube station to the O2, and the wider spread of southeast London beyond, a perspective made more intriguing yesterday by hordes of supporters flocking to hear the Dalai Lama, and scores of protesters campaigning noisily against. Meanwhile the downstairs gallery's single exhibit is a rolled-up pylon, companion piece to a much more striking artwork a few hundred yards to the west. Artist Adam Chinneck has uprooted a 35m-tall pylon and fixed it like a landed dart in the middle of pre-development wasteland. It's extraordinarily striking, designed to be seen by City Airport passengers flying in as well as those of us on the ground, and I loved having it completely to myself for a few minutes yesterday. 'A bullet from a shooting star' runs until next Sunday, and will perk up your Instagram stream no end. [5 rooftop photos] [4 pylon photos]



Open House: Ravensbourne
You know the modern mosaic-covered building opposite the entrance to the O2, the one with the giant porthole windows? That's Ravensbourne, a world class college of Design and Communication with its roots in Chislehurst, but which moved to the peninsula in 2010. I'd admired the outside but never seen inside, so grabbed the opportunity to take an hour long tour, and blimey what an inspiring space to study. Nine floors are staggered across twin atria, joined by staircases and in one case a bridge, creating a deliberately open plan environment for learning. The rash of portholes makes more sense viewed from within, with larger circles illuminating larger spaces and smaller circles lighting up smaller. One end of one level has a graphics studio, another a digital editing suite, while the top layer features a cutting-edge 3D printing laboratory. Most of the facilities are industry standard, or in some cases beyond, such as the TV studio on the ground floor where students practise broadcast skills. The college has a student employment rate of over 97%, boosted by working closely with the creative industries throughout, as was evident from wandering around. Our tour guide was the assistant dean, who's big in architectural circles, and a gregariously larger than life character. He knew the building inside out, and how its layout aided student progress, and was an impressively inspiring speaker. Indeed by the end of the tour I was completely sold - and were I a young creative soul with drive and dedication, I'd be signing up for massive student debt immediately. [10 circly photos]


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