diamond geezer

 Thursday, March 31, 2016

Sometimes you have to leave London to understand it better.

I was walking through Faversham Market on Tuesday when I decided it might be a good idea to stock up on food for the long walk ahead. I walked quickly past the artisan bread stall, but I was swiftly drawn to one particular stall stacked with homemade baked-goods. Here were cakes and pies and rolls and puffs, of a size I'm not used to seeing elsewhere, slotted into the display like an edible mosaic. I plumped for a Ham and Chicken Slice, cold, at the very reasonable price of £1.50. But the true target of my quest was a particularly oversized concoction, a thick glistening Bath Bun, the finest specimen of which the lady behind the table bagged and handed over.



This was truly a behemoth amongst Bath Buns. Twice as wide as your average square bun, hence four times the volume, it lay appreciatively heavily in my hand. The irregular surface was twisted with convincing home-baked browning, liberally scattered with more sugar chunks than my dentist would appreciate. Several juicy sultanas and glacé cherries lurked within the light and flaky dough, and the whole thing tasted just as good as it looked, over a dozen plus bites. I took a photo before I devoured it, the better to share my delight afterwards, although I realise now I forgot to include any comparable object for scale so the magnificence of its dimensions is lost.

And it only cost £1.30. Wow that's damned good value, I thought, as I wandered away from the stall. In London you'd be hard pushed to find something of comparable quality a quarter the size of that, and for double the price. And I sighed, because I live in the place where things that are less good cost more.

Last month BestMate and I ended up at Kenwood House after a hike across Hampstead Heath. We decided to go into the cafe there, the Brew House, for a cup of tea and maybe a nice piece of cake. The tea was fine, and we got a pot of that and put it on our tray, and then we went to look at the cake. The cake was pristine and rich, neatly sliced into thin slivers. Alongside were oaty cuboids and chocolate-topped mini-bricks, and a selection of twisty croissants and moist pastries. All tasty enough, at least until we saw the price. Two or even three pounds something for a four-bite portion isn't my idea of good value, not taking pennies per cubic centimetre into account, so we passed. Others sat around us enjoying a light salad, or the kind of breakfast where the egg is free range and a portion of button mushrooms adds two pound twenty-five. We simply enjoyed our tea, and gave the overpriced 'homemade' cake a miss.



Then earlier this month my dad and I ended up at the Barbican. Again we'd been for a bit of a walk and so a cup of tea and cake was in order. Again we bought the tea, although two pounds fifty for a pot made us wince for what is essentially a bag of leaves in water plus do it yourself milk. And again we looked at the table of cakes, neatly arrayed across several layers, and decided that no, they really weren't worth the asking price. I always find it instructive in these cases to multiply up the cost of a single slice by the apparent number of portions the original was cut into, and gasp at the sheer impudence of the total amount. So we completely skipped the cake, and just took the tea, and the cafe ended up with less of our money as a result. But that's Benugo for you.

Back on Hampstead Heath, the same company are about to make unwelcome inroads at two other cafes currently independently run. The D’Auria family have run the Parliament Hill bandstand cafe for more than thirty years but are about to be kicked out, the City of London having just awarded the new franchise to Benugo instead. Something similar is lined up for the cafe in Golders Hill Park, another characterful and chirpy bolthole now facing a wholesale Benugo remake. The new food line-up will be fresh and locally sourced, but less flexible or diverse than the menu it replaces, and with a commensurate hike in the cost of a visit. Local residents, unsurprisingly, are not happy.

What's happening in London, indeed has been happening for some time, is the gradual snuffing out of originality in the food we sit down to eat with teas and coffees, and its replacement by something with considerably less soul. You can see it in Starbucks, Costa and Pret, a cabinet of overpriced biscuits and stodgy treats that punters snap up without a thought. It's evident in the dry muffins and tiny brownies that now pass for cakes in the majority of dining establishments, along with thin slivers of some mass-produced gateau that the owner whipped out of the freezer a couple of hours ago. It's there in the Searcys at Kenwood House and the Benugo at the Barbican, delivering identikit 'portions' rather than crafted delight.

More to the point, it's the unstoppable advance of duller food at a higher price, because the market in London will always bear it. The City of London know they'll get a higher return for their money on Parliament Hill if a posh chain takes over from a family enterprise, so pan-fried salmon and creme fraiche lemon tarts will oust pasta and homemade cake, and the original clientèle can jolly well eat elsewhere. Small chocolate squares and four quid sponge slices are becoming the default, rather than a luxury treat, as coffeetime becomes a conveyor belt to minimise human input and maximise profit. That's the snack future we're sleepwalking into, or indeed already have, no longer something to delight but an excuse to bleed your wallet in bitesize chunks.



Yes, I know this is nothing new. Yes, I know that the cost of producing baked goods for a market stall isn't directly comparable to a cafe with overheads. And yes, I know there are plenty of high streets in London where fabulous cakes and pastries are still served at reasonable prices, just as there are plenty of rip-off locations in the counties outside. But that chunky Bath bun I devoured in Faversham was so good, and so large, and so cheap, that it made me yearn for a homespun quality that London is increasing throwing away. The Benugo-isation of the capital isn't something to celebrate, but something to mourn.

 Wednesday, March 30, 2016

I like an anniversary, so I was out yesterday investigating one. I like blogging an anniversary, so I was out yesterday even though the actual date isn't until the weekend. And normally I keep quiet about an anniversary until the actual date, but in this case I thought I'd mention it in advance in case any of you lot want to go. I reckon at least three of you might be interested.

Faversham is a lovely town. It's in Kent, if you weren't sure, the last stop before Canterbury on the pilgrimage trail. It's got proper medieval roots, and some gorgeous old buildings. It used to be a port, though it's not quite on the Thames. It's near the Isle of Sheppey, but it isn't the Isle of Sheppey. It's the warmest place in the UK, and also liable to explosions. It's just over an hour from London by High Speed train, and an extremely easy place to get drunk. [12 photos]

Here are ten reasons to consider visiting Faversham, the tenth of which is the specific reason you might want to visit this week.

1) The town centre: Unusually for Kent, the Luftwaffe mostly gave Faversham a miss, so a substantial number of old buildings survive. Many are half-timbered, some overhang the streets, and West Street in particular is a twisty gem. Most of the shops are independent traders, of the useful rather than the snootily antique-ridden kind. For an added bonus I visited on market day, with a pitch-perfect selection of traders gathered around and under the Jacobean Guildhall. Far far more unspoilt than any retail centre has a right to be.

2) Shepherd Neame Brewery: Britain's oldest brewer is based down by the creek, and the smell of hops permeates this corner of town. It's possible to take a tour and see inside, including samples of the liquid goods, but this should probably be be booked before you arrive. Or just drop into a Shepherd Neame pub, of which there are several across the town, indeed I had to look twice when I finally spotted one that wasn't. The Faversham Hop Festival takes over the town on the first weekend in September, and is a joyous celebration of beer, music, beer, morris dancing, beer, street food and beer.



3) Fleur De Lis Heritage Centre: One of England's better town museums, this one threads through a 15th century pub and adjacent buildings. The interior is helped immensely by Faversham having a chequered history, from royalty to gunpowder, plus all the usual local ephemera. Nextdoor is an extremely well-stocked tourist information centre, focusing on places and heritage hereabouts, rather than simply a load of brochures about somewhere else. I wonder where the actual tourists come from, but this is spot on.

4) Maison Dieu: What's now the A2, just to the south of the town, used to be part of Watling Street. Pilgrimages to Canterbury made the small village of Ospringe unduly important as a stopover point, and the equivalent of a medieval service station opened up. Most of that's long gone, alas, but English Heritage will happily welcome you to the flint-and-timber wayside hospital at the top of Water Lane for a two-pound-fifty poke-around. Weekends and bank holidays only, from Easter to October.

5) Brogdale: Immediately to the south of the M2, Brogdale is the home of the National Fruit Collection, a government sponsored project to aid experimentation and preserve diversity. Its sprawling acres are home to 3500 named varieties of fruit, including apples, pears, plums, cherries and quinces - with two of every variety for ecological safety reasons. I thoroughly enjoyed my orchard tour the last time I was here, and the opportunity to ride the (rare) 9 inch gauge Faversham Miniature Railway. Britain's warmest ever temperature was recorded here, slightly controversially, in August 2003.

6) Chart Mills: Faversham first entered the gunpowder trade in the 16th century, the town's main stream ideal for watermill power. Chart Mills is a Napoleonic survivor, decommissioned in the 1930s but since lovingly restored and now the oldest working gunpowder mill in the world. The small building's not easy to find (in the middle of a housing estate, just round the back of the Shrine of St Jude), and it's not often open. But come on a weekend afternoon (like I did last time) and the ever-so friendly volunteers would love to show you round inside, and maybe watch the proper-old waterwheel go round.

7) Oare Gunpowder Park: As the gunpowder industry grew up, it moved incrementally out of town so as not to put the inhabitants in too much danger. Oare Gunpowder Works opened at the top of Oare Creek in the late 17th century and stayed in production until 1934, after which the gates were locked and nature took over. The local council transformed the linear site into a country park about a decade ago, preserving what was left of various key buildings and encouraging wildlife to thrive. There's much to explore, including several twisty paths past all sorts of peculiar once-important structures, and sufficient interpretation boards to guide you round even when the Visitor Centre is shut.



8) Creekside walks: Faversham sits a couple of miles back from where the Thames ought to be, if only the Isle of Sheppey hadn't got in the way. A couple of creeks fork down to the Swale - the channel between the island and the mainland - each hugged on both banks by a footpath on a raised seawall. The central circuit round the rim of the Ham Marshes is a popular local hike, peaking halfway with a pint at The Shipwrights Arms at Hollowshore. I took the western bank of Oare Creek instead, advancing past anchored barges into increasingly open farmland and marsh. Other than the ten minutes of unsheltered horizontal downpour, quite glorious.

9) Oare Marshes: Nudged up against the Swale, the Oare Marshes reserve is a large expanse of reedbed, marsh and brackish dykes, and an important wetland habitat. This Kent Wildlife Trust sanctuary is the place to see countless estuarine birds such as curlews and shovelers, so I was glad I'd brought my binoculars, even if I wasn't always sure quite what I was looking at. A single track through the centre leads to Harty Ferry, once the embarkation point for crossings to Sheppey. These ceased some time back, but I was still entranced to watch a van edging out down the narrow causeway at low tide so that its driver could row out into the channel to check his buoyed nets.

10) The Great Explosion (Sunday 2nd April 1916): And finally, the reason why I was out in the middle of nowhere. One hundred years ago this Saturday a hut full of wartime explosives blew sky high, leaving a crater 150 feet in diameter and 15 feet deep, and killing more than a hundred munitions workers. I'll tell you more about it on the anniversary itself, but special events are afoot in the area should you wish to take part. Faversham's main church is hosting a Great Explosion exhibition in the north transept, which is highly evidence-based. A memorial service is being held at the town's cemetery where a mass grave was established. Most interestingly, a strip of private farmland near the site of the explosion has been opened up, for one week only (Good Friday-Sunday 3rd), allowing visitors to see some of the foundations and waterways not normally accessible. The so-called 'Explosives Walk' starts in the small village of Uplees, near the site of the DLR station, where afternoon teas will be served this Saturday and Sunday afternoon. Like I said, it's the sort of thing that only about three of you are likely to be interested in, but I found it deeply interesting, and rather special, and wonderfully emptily remote.

 Tuesday, March 29, 2016

One of the policies which swept Boris Johnson to power, you'll remember, was his championing of a New Bus For London. By the end of his first term a prototype had been showcased, and a single route rolled out between Hackney and Victoria. Since then his grand project has been renamed the New Routemaster, and its technological specification hasn't always impressed. But what will be the geographical legacy as Boris steps down four years later? Specifically, which parts of London will benefit from the 1000 vehicles bequeathed to us, and which will miss out?

The following 21 London bus routes are now operated by New Routemaster buses.
3 8 9 10 11 12 15 16 24 38 55 68 73 88 137 148 149 159 168 390 453
And the following four routes are scheduled to transfer across to New Routemasters before the end of the summer.
59 (April) 91 (April) 189 (July) 211 (June)
That's 25 routes in total, which you might expect would be enough to cover most of the capital. Not so. Instead some parts of London see lots of New Routemasters and some see none, because they've been concentrated geographically in a very particular way.

To see this more clearly, I've attempted to tot up all the London boroughs each New Routemaster route runs through. It turns out that all but one of the 25 New Routemaster routes run through Westminster (the only exception, if you're counting, being the 149). More than half run through Camden, just under half run through Lambeth, and around a quarter run through Southwark and Kensington and Chelsea. But several boroughs are served by only one such bus route, or more likely none at all. Here, let me do you a list...
How many New Routemaster routes run through each London borough?
24: Westminster
14: Camden
11: Lambeth
7: Southwark, Kensington & Chelsea
6: Islington
5: Hackney, Hammersmith & Fulham
4: City of London
3: Tower Hamlets
2: Brent, Haringey
1: Wandsworth, Lewisham, Bromley, Barnet, Enfield, Waltham Forest
0: The other fifteen boroughs
Shall we take a look at that on a map?



All the action is in the centre of the map, with bugger all out west and nothing doing in the east. And that's because TfL only run new Routemaster buses where routes are busiest, where having three doors for entry and exit is most useful. And so they only run them in Inner London, not Outer London, because what would be the point of wasting them out there?

Admittedly Enfield does get a New Routemaster, the aforementioned 149, but this only nudges into the south of the borough at Edmonton Green. Barnet will be getting a New Routemaster in July, on the 189, but only for half a dozen stops between Cricklewood and Brent Cross. And I know it looks like Bromley gets a New Routemaster, but this is a mere technicality, with the number 3 bus terminating ten metres inside the borough boundary at Crystal Palace bus station. In reality the map of New Routemaster coverage is reverse-doughnut shaped, with all the shiny new buses in the middle and a gaping void around the edge.

To be completely accurate, I should also mention the night bus routes the New Routemaster serves. Most of these follow exactly the same path as the daytime service, but the following six routes extend a little further into the suburbs during the early hours...
N3 N8 N11 N38 N55 N73
Adding these into the mix increases the number of boroughs served by four - specifically Ealing, Hounslow, Newham and Redbridge. These boroughs are served by New Routemasters overnight, but not during the day, which means the majority of residents never see them.

So here's an overall summary map.



The 12 London boroughs served by more than one New Routemaster route are coloured red.
The 6 London boroughs served by only one New Routemaster route are coloured yellow.
The 4 London boroughs served only by New Routemaster night bus routes are coloured grey.
The 11 London boroughs not served by New Routemaster routes are coloured white.

I think the map makes things pretty clear.

Four years ago, you may remember, the Mayor sent his New Bus For London prototype on a tour of London to showcase it in front of potential passengers. It spent a couple of hours in Trafalgar Square, then did the two Westfields, before visiting eight further centres in the outer suburbs. But however much voters in Romford, Bexley, Sutton and Kingston loved the new bus back then, they won't ever get to see it. Boris's legacy is a New Bus for Inner London, and looks like remaining so, whatever its outer suburban fans might hope.

 Monday, March 28, 2016

One of the great things about having an annual ticket for the Shard is that you can choose to go up at entirely inopportune times. This is simultaneously one of the worst things about pre-booking an ordinary ticket for the Shard, because on your chosen date the weather might be really miserable, but you've already paid so you have to go up anyway. What's it like up top when it's grey and raining, I wondered. And the answer... it's grey and wet.



On a bright day the view is amazing and spreads beyond the outskirts of London. But on an overcast rainy day you see rather less, the outer boroughs swallowed up by a damp grey veil. The view isn't so abysmal that it causes the Shard's 'weather guarantee' to kick in - it's easily possible to see "at least three of the following landmarks - London Eye, St Paul’s Cathedral, The Gherkin, Tower Bridge and One Canada Square". But on my visit the Thames beyond Vauxhall faded to grey, and the Olympic Park was a blur, and the experience was significantly diminished. [6 photos]



Then there's the rain. On the side of the building facing the oncoming storm the glass is splattered with raindrops, which makes looking at the sights beyond rather harder than usual, and completely wrecks any hopes you might have had of taking a decent photo. No more than two sides are badly affected, leaving those on the leeward side noticeably clearer. But it only takes a few droplets on the window to mess up the optics - a natural hazard of any lofty observation deck. Throw in all the reflections that the Shard's white girders make in the glass, and it's likely every photograph you attempt to take out of the window will be flawed.

The top observation deck is open to the elements, which is both a masterstroke and a weakness. I much prefer it up here to being downstairs, with the sense of being a true part of the city, as clouds scud overhead and the atmosphere leaches in. But this also means that when it rains the inside of some of the panels can become a small waterfall, and large patches of the decking are covered in water. And that's fine by me, I don't mind zipping up my coat and stepping carefully across the wet floor as appropriate. But the majority of visitors to the Shard clearly think differently, keeping well out of the way, indeed on my visit there were more Shard staff on duty on the upper deck than there were patrons to supervise.



Things were rather different down on floor 69, the less challenging vantage point, its windows sealed to create a completely dry environment. Here were all the dozens of visitors who'd paid before the weather forecast was known, either staring out of the splattered windows or sat on a chair a bit further back attempting to get their money's worth. Those up here to celebrate a special event were obvious, all dressed up with a glass of £10 champagne in hand, staring out wistfully across the grey. And sure, everyone was still getting a unique lofty panorama of central London, but I knew from coming up in better weather how much more they were missing out on.

At £25.95 a pop, pre-booking a ticket to go up the Shard is a genuine risk. You might hit the jackpot with blue sky clarity or the magic of a twinkly dusk, but you might also get a substandard monochrome view with speckled windows and limited visibility. Only in the case of very low cloud or fog are you likely to get your money back, while rain simply diminishes your one-off visit to a not-quite special day out. Only my £20 annual pass (seemingly still available) made the trip up top worthwhile... so if you're ever tempted to go just the once, pre-book with care.

 Sunday, March 27, 2016

Isn't Easter early this year?

Well, yes and no. Easter was the earliest you'll ever know back in 2008, when eggs were unwrapped on Sunday 23rd March. But 27th March is still pretty early for Easter, if you dig back into the data. Here, for example, are all the occasions that Easter has been on 27th March or earlier over the last 100 years.
March 22nd: -
March 23rd: 2008
March 24th: 1940
March 25th: 1951
March 26th: 1967, 1978, 1989
March 27th: 1921, 1932, 2005, 2016
That's just 6% of Easters earlier than March 27th, and only 10% on March 27th or earlier.

Here's how the rest of March pans out over the same period.
March 28th: 1937, 1948,
March 29th: 1959, 1964, 1970
March 30th: 1975, 1986, 1997
March 31st: 1918, 1929, 1991, 2002, 2013
As you can see, approximately speaking, the later the dates get the more Easters there are. And this is because Easter is defined as the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. The first full moon after March 21st isn't normally in March, it's more normally in April, this by a factor of at least 2 to 1. And once you've had that full moon, you then have to wait until the next Sunday ticks round, which could be the next day, or could be a full 7 days later. With all these astronomical aspects nudging the date, it's no wonder Easters in March are on the rarer side.

To show you what I mean, here's a table showing every year in the 21st century, with all the March Easters shaded yellow. The top row is 2001 to 2010, in which you can see there were three March Easters, one on the 31st in 2002, one on the 27th in 2005 and one on the 23rd in 2008. This year's March Easter is in bold.
2001-2010 31  27  23  
2011-2020  31  27    
2021-2030   31  28   
2031-2040 28  25     
2041-2050  29  25    
2051-2060   29    30 
2061-2070 26  29    30
2071-2080  26       
2081-209030  26 31    
2091-2100 30    31   
There's a pleasing diagonal pattern here, this because Easter Sunday is often on the same day 11 years apart. There's an oddity whereby March Easters are much more likely in the first half of a decade than the second, but that's a complete coincidence so read nothing into it. March Easters are also rare in years ending in 8, 9, 0 or 1, but quite common in years ending in 2, but this too is a 21st century coincidence. Note that the longest possible gap between March Easters is eight years, for example between 2016 and 2024, or between 2035 and 2043. The shortest gap is usually three years, but can be just two, as for example between 2084 and 2086. Easter is never in March in two consecutive years.

Counting up the yellow squares, there are 22 March Easters in the 21st century, which is 22% of the total. To get a more accurate percentage you have to consider Easters over a longer period, specifically 5,700,000 years, which is the period over which the Gregorian Easter Cycle repeats. Tot that up to discover (top fact!) that Easter falls in March 23.625% of the time. More relevantly for this year, it falls on March 27th or earlier almost precisely 10% of the time. So yes, it is an early Easter, only one in ten come this early in the year.

And here's something else to consider. World religions are currently consulting on fixing the date of Easter rather than letting it wander around the calendar willy nilly. The Archbishop of Canterbury says he think it might actually happen sometime in the next five to ten years, if the current willingness to act can ever be universally agreed. He says the unified date would be "on the second or third Sunday in April", indeed there's a basis in English law to fix Easter as "the Sunday following the second Saturday in April". That would restrict Easter to a very narrow period, specifically 9th-15th April inclusive, allowing schools and courts and the general workforce to stick to a much more regular holiday calendar every year. And it would also mean that Easter never fell in March ever again.

Here are the next four years that Easter is currently scheduled to fall in March.
2024: 31st March
2027: 28th March
2032: 28th March
2035: 25th March
That's a March Easter in 8 years, 11 years, 16 years and 19 years time. If the Archbishop and the Pope get their way, and Easter really is fixed in the next ten years, then 2024 may see the last March Easter of all time. If things go faster and the change takes less than eight years, then 2024 won't happen, and the very last March Easter will be today. Even if things don't move that quickly, and the change takes nearer 20 years, then Easter in 2035 will be 15th April rather than 25th March, and there'll never again be an earlier Easter than today.

Think on that as you look out of the window at the miserable weather and wish that Easter was in April instead. It might just be, for evermore, after the last March Easter today.

 Saturday, March 26, 2016

If you like
   a) the London Underground
   b) lettering and fonts
   c) craftsmanship
   d) small museums
   e) gorgeous countryside
then you need to get yourself to East Sussex sometime before September 11th.



To Ditchling, a small village at the foot of the South Downs that hits well above its creative weight. And specifically to the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft, a repository of beautifully-made things designed by residents who were expert in their field.

Ditchling's time as creative nirvana began in 1907 when sculptor and calligrapher Eric Gill moved in. Along with friends he founded The Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, an experimental art colony mixing craft, Catholicism and community, whose members practised engraving, carving, weaving, metalwork and other Arts and Crafts skills. It's their work that fills the majority of this small museum. But this year another resident is getting the nod, namely Gill's calligraphy teacher Edward Johnston, best known as the man who invented the London Underground font.

A compact but comprehensive exhibition space celebrates 100 years of Edward Johnston's lettering for London. The exquisite font that all of us in the capital take for granted was commissioned by Frank Pick, commercial manager of the London Underground Railway, and originally conceived as a joint project between Gill and Johnston. But Gill was called away to create stone reliefs for Westminster Cathedral, leaving Johnston to finalise his masterpiece alone. Their initial inspiration had been the simplicity of Roman lettering, in particular in the creation of a typeface at odds to the flowery serif fonts of the day.



Various drafts of the alphabet are on show, with scribbled notes in the margins (as much as any top notch calligrapher ever scribbles). Here are the pencil lines that helped to guide the ascenders, and curves drawn with graph paper precision to aid perfect reproduction. The font needed to be available in light, medium and bold weights - no easy task before the dawn of computer aided design, Subtle nuances evolved daily, tested out on the village printing press, until the 'Block Letter Alphabet' was handed over to Pick in 1916. Initially used only for posters, it wasn't long before it was rolled out across the whole system, including the Hammersmith roundel that looks down over this special collection.

For a complete history, the exhibition includes several examples of Johnston's nigh-flawless calligraphy - in books, in letters, and as examples for his private pupils in the village to copy. A portrait shows him with a 'jaded Monday evening look', the pursuit of perfection never easy to bear. Here too are some of the drafts of Eric's famous font Gill Sans, shamelessly inspired by Johnston's Underground typeface, since used by Penguin books, LNER and the BBC, amongst others. And there's a look at Eiichi Kono's upgrade of the font to New Johnston in 1979, the version that adorns our maps and platforms today.

Elsewhere in the main gallery the craftsmanship of Ditchling's other artists is celebrated, and occasionally craftswomanship, as with the weaver who designed the curtains for the Royal Festival Hall. Eric Gill's work is appropriately showcased, along with lesser known but equally skilful engravers, designers and silversmiths. A separate room contains the village letterpress plus all the ingredients needed to assemble a printed page, along with some of the everyday posters churned out thereof. Continuing the typography theme are a set of railway, inn and other village signs, plus an intriguing selection of painted slogans by Bob and Roberta Smith in the introductory room. He cites the District line as his greatest inspiration, and thanks Johnston for opening his eyes to the possibilities of artistic expression.



The museum spans several linked buildings, old and new, including a large room at the rear where children's events and adult workshops can take place. A small but well-stocked reading room allows you to kick back and read around the guild members and their creative skills. And don't forget to look up at the timbered roof space in the entrance building, originally a farmyard Cart Lodge, rather than simply picking through the gift shop or sitting down with a frothy coffee. Everything about the DMAC is proportioned, pristine and professional, which helps explain why the building and the presentation of its collection has been shortlisted for so many awards since reopening in its current form in 2013.

If you can wait until 30th April, the Village of Type programme will spread its wings further across Ditchling. Expect to find a typographer in residence, a letterpress showcase and the appearance of various spraypainted letters on several walls and buildings around the village. Further afield a tube carriage will be turning up at the Brighton Festival, a printing press trolley will be pushed up the gangways of Southern trains from Victoria, and a steamroller will tour various locations including the next London Transport Museum Open Day.

To get to Ditchling, take the Brighton train and alight at Hassocks, from where it's a half hour walk due east along the main road. The museum's basic entrance fee is £6.50, minus whatever for concessions plus whatever for Gift Aid. Don't come on Sundays or Mondays because it's closed, with the exception of Bank Holiday Mondays, which is good news this Easter. I spent an hour inside, partly by walking round twice, but definitely considered I'd had value for money.



The rest of Ditchling is worth exploring, especially the picturesque but narrow crossroads where you'll find tea rooms and more than one decent pub. And I filled out my day by walking up Ditchling Beacon, the highest point on the South Downs, which is not for the faint hearted but my word it was utterly glorious up there on the ridge. Good Friday? Not half. [12 photos]

 Friday, March 25, 2016



Every Good Friday, a pub not far from me tops London's list of Quirky Things To See At Easter. The pub is The Widow's Son in Bromley-by-Bow, and the reason for widespread interest is dangling buns. Legend has it that in the early 18th century a local sailor, having promised to return home at Easter, drowned at sea. His mother refused to accept the loss of her son and baked a hot cross bun for him, annually, until she died. The Widow's Son pub opened on the site of her cottage in 1848, and the bun-baking tradition has continued ever since. A net full of increasingly stale buns hangs from a beam over the bar, and each Good Friday a serving sailor comes along to drop another inside.

Or that's the story. What's more the bun-hanging part of it is true. A new bun has indeed been added every year, in a packed pub, under the watchful eye of the latest landlord or landlady. But this year the tradition looks likely to fall flat, for the first time in 168 years. And the reason, you'll not be surprised to hear, is housing-related.



If you head down to the Widow's Son today, initially everything looks normal. The pub's bright white frontage faces a mini-roundabout close to Devons Road DLR. The name of the pub is written above the door in authentic gold lettering. A BT Sports banner hangs above the door, where a BT Sports Sticker also appears. The windows are clean and clear, and the alley up the side unobstructed. But look again. The bracket where the inn sign should be hanging is empty. The door is locked, even though it's prime drinking time. And, if you poke your nose up against the glass, the interior is stripped and empty.

Not completely empty. The bar is still intact, with a row of gleaming handpumps on top. A row of red-cushioned chairs is lined up alongside, poised for punters wanting a pint of Carlsberg, John Smith's, Carling, Guinness, Stella or Strongbow, as applicable. But there are no bottles behind the bar, no optics filled with spirits, no sign of anything resembling economic activity. Instead a squirty bottle of cleaning fluid and a single toilet roll stand alone in front of the mirrors, hinting very much that the place is being given the once-over before being mothballed, or handed over to a new leaseholder, whatever. And most importantly, there are no buns.



The Widow's Son was bought out by new owners, Dalco Developments, on 23rd March 2012. Landlady Erica Turner refused to sign a change of contract and vowed to fight plans to convert the upstairs floors into flats. "I have a ‘grandfather’ lease with four years left and am seeking legal advice to keep it," she told the local paper at the time. The problem seems to be that those four years are now up, and Erica's tenure is at an end. Indeed, if you poke around the internet a bit you can find the brochure for potential new tenants to take over.
The unit comprises the ground floor and basement parts of a two storey grade II* listed pub with exposed brick elevations beneath a flat roof. The pub will retain its traditional interior and frontage. It has an open plan ground floor trading area fitted with a single side servery, a set of ladies and gentlemen’s toilets are located to the rear. The basement has good floor to ceiling height and is in use as a cold beer store with ancillary storage areas.

The unit is being offered by way of a new lease for the ground floor and basement parts of the building on a free of tie basis. The term will be for a minimum of 20 years subject to rent reviews to open market value every five years. The permitted use will be as a public house and premises. The successful applicant to take a new lease with effect from April 2016 or sooner.
And then there's this.
The property is currently open and trading and set to cease trading on or before 21st March 2016. Interested parties are encouraged to initially undertake a customer inspection and have reference to the attached plans which illustrate the current layout of the ground floor.

Please do not engage with either staff or customers regarding the future new lease.
From this I think we can assume there's no love lost between the former tenants and the property company, "a specialist, boutique operation offering the highest quality of service, advice and insight across the licensed leisure industry." I'm also highly intrigued by the timing. Trading at the Widow's Son was due to cease by Monday 21st March, indeed I can confirm the place was dead and lifeless the day before. But the new lease isn't due to take effect until April, which leaves the pub empty for a short but crucial gap which includes Good Friday. I can confirm, again, that as of Maundy Thursday afternoon the pub was very much not in operation, nor seemingly close to being so. Which begs the question, what's going to happen to the bun ceremony this year?

There is another important aspect to the story, which is the redevelopment of the land surrounding the pub and immediately to the south. This part of Bromley-by-Bow is rapidly developing into a new residential hinterland, the Docklands Light Railway finally transforming the land along its length into densely-packed housing. The latest project is Merchants Walk, a high profile project with a marketing budget to match, comprising functional but architecturally undistinguished flats in a ubiquitous style I call 'brownblock'. 557 residential units are planned, in new buildings rising up to 20 storeys, across the former light industrial Bow Enterprise Park.

The brochure for prospective buyers oversells the delights of this lacklustre corner of E3, suggesting that Merchants Walk is a lot nearer to the action than is really the case. It claims the Limehouse Cut provides "a beautiful backdrop", that the area is "a fun and vibrant place to live", and that residents will benefit from "a lively urban lifestyle in peaceful surroundings". More to the point it states that "surrounding buildings are being stitched into the development masterplan", the catch being that only two such buildings will survive the overhaul. One of these is merely a chimney, retained for landmark heritage value, and the other is the Widow's Son. The pub's immediate destiny is to be subsumed into a bland "new and vibrant station square", where it will be totally overwhelmed, like this...



According to the brochure, the future of the Widow's Son is as follows.
The neighbouring Grade II listed public house The Widow’s Son is undergoing renovation and will provide a place for refreshment and gatherings such as the traditional East End ritual, the celebration of the Widow's Buns.
Notice it doesn't say pub, it merely says place for refreshment, which could mean gastrobar, cocktail joint or even coffee shop. I'm hopeful that a proper pub might reappear, but it'd be on new terms, and targeted more towards young thrusting types rather than anyone currently local. At least the intention is for the annual bun-hanging ritual to continue, perhaps not quite so rough and ready as before. But not this Good Friday, if the view through the window is anything to go by. Best hope that the widow's son doesn't pick Easter 2016 to finally return, and that this increasingly stale situation finally resolves itself.

Update: The bun-hanging ceremony has moved to the Queen's Head in Limehouse, another threatened pub, from 2pm.

 Thursday, March 24, 2016

I have this briefcase.



It's nothing overly substantial, indeed it's more a delegate bag than a briefcase. But I use it as and when the need arises, especially for important things, and have done for a third of a century.

Its origin is somewhat uncertain. I'd have known for sure back in the 1980s, when I was given it, but the facts are now lost in the mists of time. Not even my Dad remembers, and it was he who gave it to me, acquired from some corporate event he'd attended. He got invited to events and things for work, because his job had occasional perks like that, even though they weren't always directly relevant. In this case he got invited to something with a freebie delegate bag, presumably as a way of distributing the papers, and afterwards he handed it over to me.

Because I've used it so often since, a lot of the lettering on the front has either faded or rubbed off. The three most important words I can read in the design on the front are International, Industrial and Congress, not that any combination of these means anything to me any more. There's also a year, which I think is 1983, although it's now illegible and I'm having to rely on my memory instead. And of course events in 1983 are pretty much ungoogleable, even adding additional key words, so I still have no idea what and where the originating event might have been.

So I have this mystery briefcase. What marks it out from your average freebie is the quality of the design. The fabric is thick, rather than the flimsy cheap material you might expect. The zip at the top is proper metal, properly sewn, with strengtheners at each end to prevent fraying. The interior has two pouches, divided by another sheet of fabric carefully attached on both sides. And the exterior finish isn't leather, but has a classy textured pattern that looks like it might be. It looks smart, rather than the free gift it so obviously was.

And so I carry it around with me whenever there's a need for practicality and unfussy style. It certainly isn't fashionable, that isn't the point, but it is unobtrusively acceptable in a variety of formal and semi-formal situations. In general I'm hoping you won't notice it, this thanks to its understated ordinariness, rather than being too obviously cheap or ridiculously showy. Generally I hate accessories, but this Eighties throwback hits the spot.

It always goes to job interviews. You need something with you on these occasions, something to contain the paperwork you need but nothing so unwieldy that it gets in the way. It's smart enough that it can be opened in front of an audience, and thin enough that it can be placed on the floor out of the way during discussion. It's had presentations inside it, and information packs, and rough notes, and expenses forms, and occasionally a token of success on the way home.

It went to that job interview in Berkeley Square in 1986, the one I completely messed up in the third room, and to an equally unsuccessful pitch in Soho Square that same year. If either of those had worked I'd have lived a very different life, and no doubt bought a better briefcase too, all the better to impress the client with.

It went to that job interview in Windsor the following year, the one that did work, for which a rather more substantial briefcase was required. It went to my next job interview in the Home Counties, probably simply as somewhere to keep my newspaper out of sight lest it lose me the post. It went to a pair of job interviews in East Anglia, where I thought the wrong one won, but it turned out to be right. It went to the job interview that brought me to London in 2001, the contents carefully calculated to impress, which they duly did. And it went to that less successful interview in Victoria a few years ago, the one that should have worked but didn't, and which has left me where I am today.

It's also been to more everyday important events. A few bits of paperwork for a VIP meeting. A report for a trip to Milton Keynes. A hiding place to smuggle a document without suspicion. A work event where I wanted to make sure I had a packet of crisps for the train home. A conference on Merseyside where I didn't want to have to keep lugging round lots of handouts. Not to mention getting my will sorted on the farm where my solicitor hung out... but that's Norfolk for you.

It's been all over, my briefcase, and somehow I've never left it behind. It ought to be really easy to put a thin black object down at a time of stress and then forget it was ever there, but thankfully I never have. I've also somehow never damaged it beyond repair. I've overfilled it on more than one occasion, but always pulled something out before zipping up to avoid wrecking the seams. In fact the worst I've ever done is stick a fountain pen inside and then lug it around all day with the lid off, then discovering a nasty blue patch in one corner in the middle of Piccadilly Circus. Unfortunate, but nothing terminal.

And it's been getting a few more outings of late. Last week I took it to a meeting in preference to a transparent plastic folder so the participants couldn't tell what was inside. Yesterday I had to take it to a meeting room overlooking the Thames full of important documentation, which I pulled out at one point to useful effect. And today I'm taking it out of town again so that an expert can look carefully through a different piece of paper.

I rather like the fact that I'm taking it back to Windsor, which is almost full circle. Even better the Queen's in town today, she's handing out the Royal Maundy, and my freebie briefcase isn't something I'd be ashamed to for her to see me with. I probably won't see her, indeed my meeting today probably won't be as important as it could be. But it comforts me that my briefcase is so often present at turning points in my life, despite being a throwaway item I was never even meant to have.

 Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Museum of Brands, Packaging & Advertising

Location: Lancaster Road, Notting Hill, W11 1QT [map]
Open: 10am - 6pm (11am-5pm Sunday, closed Monday)
Admission: £7.50
5-word summary: old packaging to brands new
Website: www.museumofbrands.com (@MuseumofBrands)
Time to set aside: a couple of hours

What if, rather than throwing your grocery packaging away, you'd kept it? Your family would no doubt be cursing by now, with every spare space in your home clogged by piles of stuff, and several off-site spaces too. But what you'd also have, if you'd started early enough, is a collection of British brands and packaging second to none, and a vast pit of nostalgia in which to wallow. Robert Opie did just that, and retains them all. From a single Munchies chocolate wrapper kept from 1963, he's built up an extraordinary collection of branded products and promotional items which catalogue the evolution of Britain's consumer society. What's more, his collection recently outgrew its former home in Notting Hill, so has moved into larger premises round the corner in Ladbroke Grove. And with the re-launch weekend coming up, and entrance half price, Easter is the ideal time to visit.

When was the last time you saw a packet of Omo washing powder, or a tin of Libby's evaporated milk, or a Pink Panther candy bar? On social media perhaps, where the conversation probably went "Do you remember...?" "Yes, I remember!" "Oh wow...!" "Hey, I used to love...". The museum's collection goes one better because it doesn't have photos, it has the real thing. What's more it has the real thing in abundance, with cabinets stocked like corner shops of the age, from Bovril to Cup-a-Soup and from Vim to Toilet Duck. Less than 5% of Robert's collection is on show, but there's still tons to see when you visit, so you'll likely stay longer than you think. And yes, before you ask, there is a packet of Spangles.

The first, and largest, part of the exhibition guides you through a 'Time Tunnel' of packaging nostalgia from Victoriana to the present day. This wiggles disorientingly around the ground floor of the building, decade by decade, from the first stirrings of commercialism to the commonplace everyday. The early displays include railwayana, a splash of musical theatre and memorabilia from great exhibitions and jubilees. Royalty is a repeating theme throughout the tunnel, because big brands have always jumped on the commemorative bandwagon, be it biscuit tins, ice lolly wrappers or TV Times front covers.

The early displays are a reminder of brands long since eclipsed (Rinso, Lyons Cakes and Peek Freans, for example) as well as products nobody buys any more (liniment, desiccated soup, blancmange and effervescing liver salts). Certain older products, such as Daddies sauce, Twiglets and Wrights Coal Tar soap, have proved far more resilient and are seen here in their earliest incarnation. The collection isn't simply restricted to food and drink, so for example Hungry Hippos makes a first appearance in the 1910s, and who'd not be tempted by a tabletop football game called Wibbly-Wob? Another of Robert's fascinations reveals itself in a diverse display of (very) early wireless sets, which you'll see develop later via bakelite radios to tiny transistors.

Tastes change as the decades speed by (whatever happened to tins of treacle? whatever happened to Hooch?), while packaging design has become bolder and less elaborate. Full size poster adverts help reveal the fashion foibles of the age ("Zambrene Waterproofs - the best rubberless raincoat"), while Sirdar knitting patterns also get the nod, as do cartoon ladies modelling the latest washing frocks. I'd love to show you the two holidaymakers on the front of the 1950s Ramsgate holiday brochure, in their austerity pillbox hats, but photography is banned throughout the museum. That might prove annoying, should you feel the urge to Instagram each fresh discovery you make, but instead you'll have to go "Oh wow, do you remember...?!" to yourself.

Come the 50s and 60s and conspicuous consumption edges up a notch. How many Britons pushed the boat out with that packet of Jacob's Fig Rolls, and how many Saturday nights would have featured the contents of this cabinet of bottled cocktails (Babycham anyone, or a Susie Snowball?). The advent of the affordable fridge freezer brought us bold blue Birds Eye steaklets and whiting fillets, while no summer was complete without a Walls Popular Brick. But there's still space for a selection of medicated toilet rolls, and a Lady Penelope cosmetics set ("Just like Mummy uses"), as well as a wide selection of the popular musical memorabilia of the day.



As you walk around the exhibition you'll eventually reach an era which makes you exclaim "good grief, here's all the stuff I'd forgotten I used to eat!" For me it was the 1970s exhibit which transported me straight back to my childhood. I remember that packet of Chivers Jelly perfectly, and that green box of Clarnico mint creams, and how cupcakes used to be circles of sponge with a thick flat artificial layer on top. And I used to love eating Payne's Poppets, and Chef square soups, and Fry's 5 Centres, and Lucky Bags, and Bird's Eye Supermousse, and I swear we bought that very same can of Heinz New Dairy Custard. Ideally you want to be here with members of your closest family, because anything you bought back then will totally resonate.

It may make you jealous that Robert has one case full of original Star Wars toys, but less so that he also has a still-boxed Jar Jar Binks. On the board game front you'll wonder why you never played Supermarket Sweep or On The Buses, but rejoice that you never manhandled Jim'll Fix It (a game for 2-4 players, age 7-adult). If you're of a certain age you'll smirk at the can of Quatro, and the Top Deck shandy, and the sugary horror that was Still Tango. But eventually the peak nostalgia moment will fade - for me that was when I reached the 1990s - perhaps because anything you bought as an adult means less than anything bought for you as a child.

Robert maintains the collection right up to the present day. That means Pogs and Harvest Crunch, making way for Millennium Dome souvenirs and Golden Jubilee treats. It means an entire case of One Direction merchandise, because one day this will make your daughter bubble over, as well as collections of anything with Minions or those Frozen characters on the front of it. It means Lynx deodorant and Glade air freshener, because even the mundane deserve their place in a complete brand collection. And the timeline ends up with such modern delights as Advanced Whitening Listerine and Gluten-free Corn Flakes, because what we consume today will one day look as out of place as all those washing salts and cordials from way back.

After the chronological displays comes a special section detailing the evolution of individual brands. Subtle changes are evident when you're able to view several decades of development on a single shelf. Windolene and Johnnie Walker Black Label, for example have evolved almost constantly over the past century but still retain elements of their original design. Where else could you play "spot the difference" with a row of HP sauce bottles, or Co-op 99 tea packets, or jars of Hartley's jam? But cans of Heinz beans haven't changed much, and a tin of Lyle's Golden Syrup really does look virtually identical today when compared with its original 19th century incarnation.

And finally there's a big exhibition room, which doubles up as a function space, currently with cabinets arranged chronologically around the perimeter. That'll change as the museum matures, indeed they're still shuffling some of the exhibits round in readiness for this weekend's official launch. I even saw Robert himself walk by, clutching a stack of Aero chocolate bar packaging cartons, as his collection continues to increase. In a nice touch one of the items for sale in the cafe is a pack of Munchies, though I'm sure Robert bought his first pack for less than a quid. If the weather's nice you can take your tray of food and drink out into the memorial garden, this a preserved leftover from when the museum's new building was the London Lighthouse owned by the Terrence Higgins Trust. And let me reiterate, best don't come by yourself, because everyday nostalgia should always be shared.

 Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Gratuitous Woolwich Foot Tunnel perspective shot



Bow Road was closed to traffic overnight last night ('The A11 will be closed in both directions from the Burdett Road and Grove Road junction to the Bow roundabout.'), this will be the case all week, this is because of resurfacing works, so Bus Stop M was closed, but there was no information of any use whatsoever for passengers, neither at the bus stop ('Please use the next available stop', what kind of helpful message is that?) nor on the TfL website ('Buses travelling through the affected area may be diverted or delayed', and nothing more specific than that), even though the road wasn't completely closed, not in both directions, and it seems there were buses, but they didn't all stop when you tried to flag them down, except some did stop anyway, so the lady with the suitcase was very confused.



But you wouldn't be interested.

 Monday, March 21, 2016

As of today, Boris Johnson is no longer Mayor of London. Officially he is, in terms of title, and in case any 'situation' arises in need of response. But practically, politically, his era has passed. The Greater London Authority has just entered purdah, a state of incommunicado, so as not to influence campaigning for the election in May. There'll be no more policy announcements or kite-flying press releases, not until Boris's replacement arrives at City Hall and stamps their authority on the Authority. But there was just time yesterday to sneak out one last 80 page report, on a matter very close to the outgoing Mayor's heart. It's that bloody airport again.

Landing the right airport is the title of the report, in which "the Mayor's team set out the overwhelming case against the expansion of Heathrow." This is proper Heathrow-bashing, with the very idea of adding a third runway pooh-poohed over dozens of pages, the emphasis being on the untold impacts on London's health, transport and economic wellbeing.
Heathrow performs heroically in the circumstances but is prone to delays and ultimately struggles in a cramped urban location not fit to accommodate a world class airport. A third runway at Heathrow fails to give us the access to the world we need. This is borne out by the Airports Commission’s own evidence, which found that an expanded Heathrow would effectively be full shortly after opening.
And that's all well and good, you might think, because last year the Airports Commission merely proposed that either Heathrow or Gatwick should be expanded. If the two Heathrow options are so terrible, surely Boris would now be attempting to nudge the Government's final decision towards the lesser evil of Gatwick? Not so, because his report goes on to outline "the logic behind building a four-runway hub to the east of London". The estuary airport may be a dead horse, but Boris is still flogging it.
We need a long term vision for the right airport that sustains our economy and safeguards our public health. That airport is a new four-runway hub airport at the Thames Estuary or Stansted – one that can support a United Kingdom fully engaged with the world. I would urge Government not to turn its back on our future.
The introductory cartoon is almost sweet.



A 'typical' west London family are suffering the impact of an expanded Heathrow, with particular reference to noise, air quality and surface access. One can't sleep, one can no longer board her train, one has higher blood pressure, one coughs more, and one gets worse results in school tests because he can't hear his teacher, and all because nobody listened to Boris. Indeed the majority of the report is taken up by picking holes in the Airports Commission's data, debunking its conclusions and pleading with the government not to expand Heathrow.

Noise-wise, the first thing the Commission supposedly got wrong was not to model an expanded Heathrow consistent with today’s operations, and the second not to model a future two-runway scenario consistent with its three runway scenarios. It's all a bit technical, to be honest, but essentially Boris commissioned a new 'Alternative Future Baseline', and this proves that life would be a lot noisier under the pattern of flights he deems most likely. 46% more people would lie within the crucial 55dB Lden noise contour, including a significant number of people newly affected.

If you work for a media organisation who don't normally publish a news story until someone feeds it to you, then take a look at the map on page 34 of the report and see if you can wheedle a clickbait headline out of that. A red zone on the map indicates that residents of Wimbledon, Brentford, Acton, Ealing, Shepherd's Bush and Holland Park would suddenly find themselves affected by detrimental aircraft noise, under the new model, if a third runway goes ahead. Even the oligarchs in Kensington Palace Gardens would be affected, apparently, unless HEATHROW EXPANSION THREATENS PROPERTY PRICES AND MUST BE STOPPED... there, I've written it for you.



Long term health impacts would also cost billions. Boris argues that the DfT brought out brand new guidance shortly after the Commission's report was published, introducing factors for increased heart attacks and dementia, which might cost the NHS up to £25bn over 60 years. Equally rock solid predictions are made regarding air quality, which is never helped by belching jet fuel over built-up areas. This time new guidance from DEFRA's draft air quality action plan has caused recalculations to be made, with potentially disastrous consequences (says the man who scrapped the Western Congestion Charge Zone).
There is a real risk that, combined with increased aircraft emissions, locations on the A4 Bath Road near the third runway will witness increases of between 4 and 8μg/m³ NO2 - pushing concentrations above 40μg/m3 and so rendering the Greater London zone non-compliant.
Then there's the impact on transport. Road and rail links are forecast to be increasingly congested, the report says, with airport traffic clogging southwest London's roads and commuter services overflowing with luggage. More damningly it accuses the Commission's report of making inaccurate predictions regarding future mitigation, which would be far more costly than they suggested. Bus corridor enhancements, road maintenance costs and improved rail connections would land London with a massive £18bn bill, where the Commission had suggested merely £4bn.

What you might expect to see in a report of this size is a similarly detailed analysis of the alternatives. Not so. Gatwick gets a few pages of "it's not in a good place" and "it wouldn't be a proper hub", so is dismissed as an irrelevance. Instead the report suggests that an East-of-London hub airport is essential, be that at Stansted or in the Thames estuary, but fails to go into much detail. There is a fascinating map which purports to show a new direct rail link from Canary Wharf to Stansted, but no mention of this in the text, as if someone simply drew a straight-ish line in crayon. Similarly the transport map for an Inner Estuary airport indicates a mythical new connection from Waterloo to Barking Reach (construction of which would be wildly expensive and hugely disruptive), before continuing via High Speed 1 towards an ill-defined destination.



In summary, the report affirms that "the Airports Commission has overstated the economic benefits of Heathrow" and hence a third runway there must never go ahead. All the evidence about the potential alternatives is woolly and vague, but that's not the thrust here, which is a Heathrow hatchet job, pure and simple.
It is clear from the Airports Commission evidence presented that Heathrow expansion is wrong for the economy and wrong for the environment... If we are to secure the connectivity that meets the UK’s long-term economic need, then the only option is a four-runway hub.
And somebody at TfL got paid to write all this. As chair of TfL Boris can ask them to do what he likes, including (if you've noticed) a dedicated Aviation page on the TfL website. This features background information on the need for a London hub airport, assorted pro-Estuary airport propaganda and a survey where you can tell the Mayor how much you agree. This latest TfL report is simply a parting shot, before the next Mayor likely bins the lot.

Indeed, there's only one way an estuary airport might ever get built, and that's if the man with the big idea suddenly becomes the man in charge of it. But for that to happen would require blustering Boris Johnson to somehow become Prime Minister, a scenario so ridiculously unlikely that... oh, hang on. If the Brexit referendum splits the Tory party and David Cameron falls, his successor might just arrive in 10 Downing Street with all the donkey work for an estuary airport already complete. And if that's the case, then Boris's final publication before purdah might just be his most important.

 Sunday, March 20, 2016

A new market has opened on Roman Road, E3. It's called the Yard Market and it will take place every Saturday. They may say 'yard' but what they really mean is car park. You can park in the car park on the corner of St Stephen's Road in the week, but you can no longer park here on Saturdays because there are stalls.



The Yard Market is not like the normal market. The normal market on Roman Road sells clothes and 'fashion' at knock-down prices from stalls all the way along the street. You can buy dresses and cardies and jumpers and shoes and handbags and that sort of thing. It is just possible that some of the clothes with labels are not entirely legit.

The Yard Market is different. It will sell Vintage and Collectables and Mid-Century and Unique Wares and Handmade and Designer and Local. Essentially it sells stuff you don't need, but is quite nice to have. You get a completely different type of stallholder at the Yard Market. And a completely different kind of punter.

Yesterday they held a Launch Party for the Yard Market. I got a leaflet through my letterbox and I live a good mile away. It started at eleven o'clock. A local councillor turned up and cut a ribbon tied across the entrance to the car park. A small crowd cheered and some photographers tried to capture the ideal shot.



Because it was the first day there was street entertainment. Two men with buckets of soapy water made hundreds of bubbles. This kept small children and the photographers very happy. Some buskers stood on a mat and played music. And two costumed superheroes made balloon animals, because obviously that's what superheroes do.

A lot of the things for sale had been made by the people selling them. There were brightly coloured yoga bags and African baskets. There were vinyl albums from the 1980s and old maps. There were eye cushions and handmade quilts. There were queer t-shirt designs and art featuring bicycles. There were no polyester blouses.

Altogether there were nearly a couple of dozen stalls. It only took a few minutes to walk around, just as it would only take a few minutes to walk round a small car park. But it took longer to walk round if you stopped and looked at everything. All in all it was a promising start for the Yard Market.



A decent number of people had turned up for the opening. Some were people who normally came to the market, looking around to see what the new market had. They walked round the stalls, or rode on their mobility scooters. They didn't buy much because they don't need bath bombs or E3 t-shirts or cacti in designer pots.

Other visitors wouldn't have been seen dead on the old market. They were smarter dressed, younger and less ethnically diverse. They came to see the special things, not the everyday things. I spotted the young thrusting project manager from work and his fiancé, who recently moved in round the corner. I was not surprised to see them here.

Three food vans turned up to give the Yard Market some bite. One sold buttermilk chicken burgers with bacon jam. One sold beef rendang and Malaysian noodle salad. The third sold grilled cheese, notably Queso Chihuahua, Chorizo and Rocket for £6.50. They don't normally sell posh grilled cheese down Roman Road. But they sold out by 3pm.



Mary Portas would have been delighted by the Yard Market. She came to Roman Road a few years back to give it an economic kick up the backside, and this is just the sort of project she'd have liked. As it is, the only remnant of her time here appears to be the pop-up streetfood bakery on the corner. They sell three-bite lemon tarts for £3.50.

Because this was the launch party there were also some special events. Several free guided walks were on offer, including one for history, one for indie shops and one for lost boozers. These added genuine cultural depth, emphasising that the Yard Market is a community enterprise at heart. There will not be free walks next Saturday.

There was supposedly an additional Fresh Food Market starting this week. The weekday stallholders insisted that this was housed in their part of the market, so that not all of their trade leached away to the upstart across the road. So far as I could tell the Fresh Food Market contained only two stalls. They needn't have bothered.



And the normal market remained busy. Ladies who want cheap dresses and furry boots or colourful handbags already know where to come. And the traders know their business, keeping prices at rock bottom to shift as much gear as possible. In the normal market you can buy a dress for a quid or leggings for a fiver, indeed an entire outfit for less than a single Yard Market item.

Viewed one way the Yard Market is a great addition to Roman Road's retail offering. A triumph of diversification, it offers quality and originality, augmenting and complementing the original market. Neither market particularly competes with the other - you'll come for one or you'll come for the other.

Viewed another way the Yard Market is a telling sign of the changing post-Olympic East End. A kind of middle class annexe, it offers quirk and character for the trendier incomers, but very little for the poorer long term locals. You're either a polyester blouse person or a grilled chorizo person - so pick your market, and come buy.

» Roman Road Yard Market - official Day 1 write-up
» Roman Road Yard Market - photo report
» 7 photos of the Yard Market; 6 photos of the original market
» Roman Road on Instagram and Twitter
» Roman Road Neighbourhood Plan
» Roman Road Trust

 Saturday, March 19, 2016

Have you been up the Orbit recently? No of course you haven't. It does attract visitors - there were more than a dozen foreign tourists up there on my last visit. But at other times the observation deck is an empty void, indeed I've been up top more than once when the staff were desperately pleased to finally have somebody to talk to.



They're hoping to change the tumbleweed feel when a new slide opens, corkscrewing all the way down from the lower viewing platform, this game-changer currently scheduled for sometime in May. But in the meantime, should you choose to pay a tenner for the privilege of peering down over the Olympic Park (from the upper platform only), what might you see? [15 photos]



West Ham's new stadium, for a start. It doesn't have an official name yet, which still worries me, but it does now have a proper roof to keep the extended seating area dry. Those trademark triangular floodlights now point down rather than up, and the black seats are being swapped for claret replacements (you can see a lot of these stacked up behind Pudding Mill Lane station). A properly-sealed perimeter now surrounds the exterior at ground level, this so that Stadium Island can at last become a public space. And West Ham finally move in in mid-August, not that being up the Orbit will allow you to see anything on the pitch, so don't get any ideas.



The main spine of the Olympic Park stretches out to the north, with the tarmacky bit closest to, and the prettier parkland further beyond. They echo emptily on late winter weekdays, but not terminally so, and they'll be full enough as the weather finally warms up. That replacement bridge they were building in the northern parklands is now complete, and looks surprisingly like what it replaced. More companies have moved into the digital shed at Here East, which cringingly claims to boast "creative businesses growing in scale joining businesses of scale growing in creativity". Hackney Wick beware, you might just be swallowed whole.



Between the Park and Westfield a wall of skyscrapers is going up. This is the International Quarter, a permanent screen of business real estate as Stratford City edges outwards. We'll be allowed to walk between the towers once they're built, but for now the main pedestrian access point has been shifted northwards and you'll have to make do. Between the railway and the water's edge is the site of Olympicopolis, which if no better name turns up we'll be stuck with calling it forever, the eventual destination for the V&A, Sadler's Wells and the Smithsonian. A public consultation on the plans has just completed, not that I bet you noticed, nor that it'll make a blind bit of difference.



Another consultation was also held recently for the UCL East masterplan, which I pointlessly turned up to for an overview of scheduled plans. The featureless lawn to the south of the Orbit is destined to become a suite of campus buildings, just the one to begin with, while the two desolate spaces to the south of the Aquatic Centre will become student digs. They'll be expensive cramped blocks, obviously, but conveniently located for the shops should your massive student debt allow.



Beyond the railway (close to Pudding Mill Lane station) are half the replacement allotments for the pre-Games Manor Gardens site, a small hamlet of Toytown sheds with seemingly empty patches of earth alongside. I've never seen anybody using them, but apparently the first tenants are already tilling the soil to get it ready for vegetable production, with first fruits expected later this year. With Crossrail still faffing about on the adjacent land, two riverside pedestrian exits from the southern end of the park still aren't open to the public, and the Greenway is still very blocked beyond that. But the portal that Crossrail trains will one day emerge from is now very much in place, with twin concrete shells rising rapidly to a letterbox exit almost precisely where the old DLR platforms used to be.



Crossrail are also about to cause significant disruption on the River Lea towpath. A new electricity substation is being built to power future trains, close to the existing railway bridge, and this means shutting off access from Monday 21st March onwards. A floating walkway will be built alongside the disruption, meaning pedestrians and bikes can return from late April, while construction work continues for another year. Meanwhile Thames Water are taking the opportunity to work on some pipes under the towpath nearer the Greenway, which means the entire section from the Bow Roundabout to Old Ford Lock will be out of bounds for about five weeks. You can read all about this on East London's dullest website, puddingmilllanesubstation.com, and there's a Google map of the diversion too.

Meanwhile the Orbit had better get on with building its slide if it wants a flood of visitors to arrive. On my last visit earlier this month a ground level construction paddock was in place but no start on the upper access point had been made, and no twisty tubes were in place. If all goes to plan then by the end of May you'll be able to slide down for a fiver - that's on top of the cost of going up the tower anyway, a price which it was hinted might be increasing, for local resident rates at least. But come on, where else are you going to be able to look down on a park, a construction site, a claret stadium, a construction site, some allotments and several more construction sites? That slide had really better pull the punters, huh?


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