diamond geezer

 Monday, April 24, 2017

Why is London still building flats with empty spaces underneath?

Here are some.



This is Azura Point on Warton Road, adjacent to the Olympic Park. It was built in 2008, before the Games, where a decaying industrial area rubbed up against the Carpenters Estate. Up top there are lots of flats. And underneath is a space for commercial development which, as yet, nobody's wanted to rent.

Three of the units at the far end have been let, one a very minor general store, one a dry cleaners and one an office for a interior design consultancy. But the other units, and there must be at least six, are unoccupied, even after all this time. One of these is to let, for a mere £12500 per annum, should anyone be in need of its 64 square metres. But the rest are inelegantly boarded up, in sharp contrast to the pristine timber slats above, and with a large volume of wasted space behind.

2008 was perhaps not the best year to launch a housing development onto the London market, so maybe that explains the unfounded optimism and subsequent neglect. Another block just round the corner was built with a Tesco Express underneath, so maybe that's sucked out much of the retail potential. But when the capital's in desperate need of new flats, it does seem perverse to have wasted space underneath flats that could be flats but isn't.

Here's a more recent example.



This is Santiago Court on Ben Jonson Road in Stepney. It was built in 2014 as part of the regeneration of the Ocean Estate, one of Tower Hamlets' largest residential lowspots. The affordable flats at the end of the street were flogged off under the brand name So Stepney, and some of these have businesses underneath, but pictured is the social housing, and it has nothing.

Graffiti and part-painted boards welcome those walking along the street, because somebody misjudged how much commercial space would be necessary beneath the new development. There was a parade of shops here previously, but when the new units were made available the businesses didn't come back. There is a parade of shops across the road, of post-war vintage, but this has all the chicken shops and Costcutters that central Stepney needs.

Most of the rejuvenated Ocean Estate has flats at ground floor level, because planners recognised there's no need for commercial underlay across entire residential zones. But in innumerable spots across London, particularly on main roads and around the perimeters of new estates, flats are being propped up above a commercial layer that isn't filling as quickly as investors hoped. Why don't we fill them with people?

I wondered if the answer was in the Mayor's Housing Design Guide, first published in 2009 and repeatedly updated since. It's this document which has brought us the 'New London Vernacular', that boxy brick style of architecture which seems ubiquitous across the capital today. It's also this document which decrees that new flats should have "a minimum of 5 sq m of private outdoor space" with a minimum depth of 1500mm, which explains why every development now features a slew of identikit balconies. Are there any similar rules about shops under flats, perhaps?
"Mixed use development provides a way in which different uses can be accommodated on the same site or neighbourhood, helping to reduce the need to travel; optimise the use of scarce land available for new development; and make the best use of infrastructure capacity."
That makes sense. If we're not careful, a capital packed with flats would have nowhere left for work, so we need to fit in commercial spaces somewhere, as appropriate.
"Long contiguous stretches of inactive frontage facing the public realm reduce perceptions of pedestrian safety and can attract anti-social behaviour, and should therefore be avoided."
Active frontages, the guidance says, include ground floor flats with doors out onto the street and non-residential land uses with windows directly fronting onto the public realm. A row of shops ought to provide an excellent active frontage, unless they're empty, in which case the inactive frontage drags the area down.
"While encouraging mixed use development is an important strategic principle, its application in locations which may be marginal or unviable for commercial activity should be informed by realistic assessments of the viability of the commercial components of a scheme, taking into account location, anticipated footfall and likely demand."
So it turns out no, there is no Mayoral insistence that flats in London be built with commercial units underneath. Instead developers are asked to use economic common sense and only add them in where there's genuine hope of renting them out. Alas it seems many developers may have misjudged.
"Over provision of commercial ground floor units in inappropriate locations can undermine existing town centres and neighbourhood parades and may lead to sub-optimal provision of housing/affordable housing within a scheme."
That's a strong nudge not to stick too many commercial units under flats, particularly when there are other retail premises about, for fear of destabilising the local economy.
"Ground floor residential units can be provided as an alternative to mixed land uses to maximise active frontages within a scheme."
And the clincher. You don't have to built ground floor mixed-use units, you can build ground floor flats. So why don't we do that more?

 Sunday, April 23, 2017

Another General Election, another binary choice.

ElectionLeftRight
2017??

It's not supposed to work this way, and technically it doesn't, but the invariable outcome of any General Election is a win for either left or right.

Whoever you vote for, for as many years as you can remember, the centre never wins. The pendulum of national control simply swings from blue to red and back again, sometimes at glacial pace, and never ever stops in the middle.

ElectionLeftRight
1945  
1950  
1951  
1955  
1959  
1964  
1966  
1970  
1974  
1979  
1983  
1987  
1992  
1997  
2001  
2005  
2010  
2015  

Yes, I know 2010 was a bit different. Electoral arithmetic bequeathed us a coalition government, with the Liberal Democrats holding the balance of power, but the end result wasn't rule by the centre. Instead we got government by the right, tempered by centrist influence but delivering a Conservative agenda, as the Lib Dems subsequent electoral rout made clear. And yes, I know 1974 was rather odd too, but the Liberals didn't really get a look in, because they never properly do. Red rule or blue rule, that's all we ever get.

Many would argue that the UK's 'first past the post' system is excellent at delivering strong government. Any prevailing mood in the nation is amplified to award one side or the other a reasonable majority, and they can then get on and get things done. Other countries with other systems are sometimes hamstrung by indecision, whereas ours generally puts someone in control. But it never puts the centre in control, only left or right, time and time again.

I'm deeply intrigued by the way our political system flips from one side to the other despite, you'd think, most people's beliefs being somewhere in the middle. Our two main parties sit either side of the mainstream, drawing folk one way or the other, and generally constricting the centre. Any third party always gets squeezed, as the majority are drawn towards polarising arguments on one side or the other. And I wondered why this is.

centreground

Are there naturally two approaches to life - one collaborative, one individual - and most of us fall into one camp or the other? Do those on the extremes have stronger beliefs than those in the centre, hence political parties coalesce to either side? Is it easier to state a case for policies on the left or right, so any manifesto from the centre ground sounds wishy-washy. Or is it just that two choices keeps things nice and simple, and the electorate likes things nice and simple when making its decision?

It shouldn't be beyond the realms of possibility for the UK to have a strong centre party. A reasonable leader offering reasonable policies of reasonable stability, neither intent on creating socialist nirvana nor hellbent on privatising everything, might perform strongly. You'd think millions of people would appreciate voting for something average, because overall we are average, by definition. But the average position never dominates, never achieves critical mass, and the country ends up being run by either the Red Tribe or the Blue Tribe once again.

So what we always end up with, by default, is extreme government of one kind or the other. One side picks apart all the policies of the old lot and installs its own, then the other side gets in and does the reverse. And when one side wins several elections on the trot, as has generally been the case over the last 40 years, their successive terms of office entrench their position even deeper, dragging the country further and further from a national consensus. Wouldn't it be nicer to find some moderate long-term policies and stick with them?

Our political system seems set up to ensure that a substantial proportion of the population hates what the government is doing to the country. If the left were in power, millions would be complaining about tax rises and money being spent on undeserving causes. With the right in power, millions are aghast at the dismantling of public services and the rise of nationalism. A centre-based government would annoy both wings of the spectrum, but not to the extent that partisan government totally pisses off the other half.

This two-way choice exists in many other situations where public opinion is a continuum. The American political system is perfectly binary, one behemoth against the other, and damn the consequences. Today's French presidential vote isn't binary, but the final run-off in a fortnight's time will be. Referendums are the perfect binary construct, where the response "Perhaps we should consider this in a more nuanced way" isn't on the ballot paper. You're either with us or against us, so pick your side, and don't sit on the fence.

And yet other countries get by with centre-ist parties and coalitions, and think nothing of it. Then there's the EU itself, which can only function by taking everyone's opinions into account, and not by picking sides. But at a national level the UK's never been like that. We had the chance to opt for PR and threw it away, because we prefer to be ruled by one lot or the other, not a compromise.

If a forcefully charismatic middle of the road politician came along, perhaps things might change. But even now, when the current Labour leader is as unpopular as he is, note how public opinion still skips the middle ground and leaps to regroup on the right-hand side. Not even proportional representation could deliver us from the landslide we're about to face, as a foregone conclusion sweeps Theresa May back into Downing Street.

ElectionLeftRight
2017  

It seems inconceivable that left could beat right in the upcoming election. But not as inconceivable as the centre beating them both, either now or in the future. Why do we never end up in the middle?

 Saturday, April 22, 2017

Richmond Park is gorgeous. But at its heart, especially at this time of year, is an even more gorgeous bit.



The Isabella Plantation.

40 fenced-off acres, initially to keep the deer out, and opened to the public in 1953.

Imagine a glorious woodland garden, with a swirl of paths through the trees, and a fork of ornamental streams to follow. But at this time of year it's even better, because now is when the rhododendrons do their thing.



The Victorians did like their rhododendrons, to the extent that some within the garden are now being removed as an invasive species. But the remainder are much treasured for their blooming display, a riot of pinks and whites and purples and reds.

A crack team of gardeners is employed to keep it pristine, though never formal, and they do a truly excellent job. Come wander between the bushes, across the lawns and through the glades. Best bring a camera too, because there's many a dazzling vista you'll want to share, or stand in front of and share if that's more your thing.



Evergreen azaleas have burst forth all over; Hatsu-giri (crimson-purple), Joe Maddon (speckled pink), Atalanta (soft lilac), Sylvester (rosy red), to mention but a few. The plantation is also home to the National Collection of Wilson 50 Kurume Azaelas, and they've yet to peak, but they'll be splendid too.

Expect to be drawn towards the water features for their reflective properties. To Thomson's Pond for a vivid walkabout. To Main Stream for trickling weirs and unfurling ferns. To Peg's Pond for waterfowl and shrubbery. And most especially to the Still Pond, behind which spreads an astonishing bank of magenta flowers almost crystalline in formation.



The Isabella Plantation is naturally a popular spot, much loved, and many a horticulturalist makes a late April pilgrimage each year. But a lady visiting for the first time offered perhaps the best review when she spoke to me a couple of minutes after her arrival.

"Wow!" said the nun. Just wow.

 Friday, April 21, 2017

Today's the last day that D Stock trains run on the District line in passenger service.



Another class bites the dust.

Farewell to seats that face forwards.
Farewell to that step up from the platform.
Farewell to the hissing clunk as the doors close.
Farewell to green grab poles and blue/green moquette.
Farewell to special solo seats and single leaf doors.
Farewell to a unique look, hello identikit design.
Hello to low-floor access and wheelchair spaces.
Hello to air conditioning and yellowish lighting.
Hello to glaring headlamps and walk-through carriages.
Hello to being able to cram on board in the rush hour.
Hello to cattle class, farewell to all that.



If you'd like to take a last ride, you'll need to be prepared. Only three D Stock trains remain, and only one is out on the line today, shuttling back and forth between Upminster and Richmond. If you simply turn up on spec you're unlikely to catch it, so best take note of the planned timetable... which goes like this, unforeseen circumstances permitting.

» 0624 Upminster → 0704 Whitechapel → 0732 Earl's Court → 0752 Richmond
» 0806 Richmond → 0831 Earl's Court → 0903 Whitechapel → 0945 Upminster
» 0953 Upminster → 1032 Whitechapel → 1102 Earl's Court → 1122 Richmond
» 1134 Richmond → 1155 Earl's Court → 1224 Whitechapel → 1302 Upminster
» 1313 Upminster → 1352 Whitechapel → 1422 Earl's Court → 1442 Richmond
» 1454 Richmond → 1515 Earl's Court → 1544 Whitechapel → 1623 Upminster
» 1635 Upminster → 1715 Whitechapel → 1748 Earl's Court → 1812 Ealing Broadway


Unforeseen circumstances are quite likely. Trains get delayed, diverted, rescheduled and renumbered on an unpredictably regular basis, and all it takes is one signal failure to blow the proposed timetable out of the water. The first train is the most likely to run perfectly as scheduled, and the last train's also a good bet because signallers will try to do some juggling to get the intended rolling stock back on track. That said, absolutely anything could happen, so best keep an eye on District Dave's forum for updates, or follow Jack on Twitter because he'll know where it ought to be.



Then at quarter past six this evening, assuming crowds of excitable men with cameras can be cleared, the last D Stock heads off into Ealing Common depot and will not be seen again in passenger service. It will be popping out again for a final celebratory tour of the District line on Sunday 7th May, but only for passengers who've paid £50 for a ticket and like being cooped up on a train with geeks for hours. One carriage is likely to end up in the London Transport Museum depot, so that future generations will still be able to see what we used to travel in. And the remainder of TfL's spare D Stock stock will be heading up north to be remodelled into trains suitable for National Rail services, courtesy of Vivarail, assuming their business model holds up.

I made sure to take a nostalgic ride on a D Stock earlier in the week, before the enthusiasts descended. I had a good idea what was scheduled, but the appearance of its boxy silhouette in the distance, non-dazzling headlamps blazing, still made me smile. What's more I managed to get a carriage to myself, because the line out to Upminster is like that in the morning. One coffee stain, several discarded newspapers, one broken tip-up seat, some quite-scratched windows, various peeling stickers, and that 80s videogame beep at each station just before the doors close - all were extremely evocative. I made sure to get a seat by the window and watch the scenery go by, because I won't be doing that again. As with all long-standing about-to-be decommissioned trains, everything seemed utterly familiar but doomed, commonplace but never to be seen again.



A lot of people won't be sad to see the D Stocks go. On my return journey a dad got on with his son and was immediately unimpressed. "This train stinks!" he said. "We should have got the newer one. Every time I get on this train I hate it!" I hadn't noticed a reek, but it is true that less love and care has been given to the D Stock in its declining years, enough to keep it clean and ticking over but hardly spruce. Dad didn't discuss the subject further, but when he alighted at Whitechapel I noted he'd left an empty Lucozade bottle on the seat, so immediately disregarded his earlier comments as hypocrisy.

Today's D Stock demise is the final entry in a ten year story, dating back to December 2006 when Ken Livingstone first announced plans to introduce air-conditioned trains on the sub-surface lines. The first mocked-up carriage appeared in September 2008 under Boris Johnson, whose first production line photoshoot was in June 2009. The very first S Stock train entered service on the Metropolitan line in July 2010, and on the Hammersmith & City line in December 2012. The last of the Metropolitan line's old A Stock trains ran in September 2012, and the last of the Hammersmith & City's C Stock in June 2014, since when the trains on the District line have been sequentially replaced. It wasn't supposed to take until April 2017 to get rid of them all, but signalling upgrades delayed things, and so Sadiq Khan gets to wave the flag for final project completion.



One interesting point is that the entire District line fleet was upgraded around ten years ago, so could have had several years potential life ahead. Indeed the entire District line fleet has been replaced despite not being the oldest rolling stock on the Underground.
Bakerloo: 1972 stock (45 years old)
Piccadilly: 1973 Stock (42 years old)
District: D Stock (37 years old) (today only)
Central: 1992 stock (24 years old)
Northern: 1995 Stock (20 years old)
Jubilee: 1996 stock (20 years old)
Victoria: 2009 Stock (8 years old)
Metropolitan: S8 Stock (7 years old)
Hammersmith & City: S7 Stock (5 years old)
Circle: S7 Stock (4 years old)
The Piccadilly line's trains are five years older, but as yet nobody's even got a contract to redesign them, let alone produce one. The first New Tube For London isn't due to enter service before 2023, by which time the existing Piccadilly line trains will be pushing 50, while the Bakerloo is even further down the delivery list so might hit 60. We've just lived through eight years when there's always been at least one Underground line having its rolling stock replaced, and now we're entering a six year period when none will. You could blame a lack of forward planning, or a lack of Mayoral focus, or simply a lack of money thanks to Crossrail taking priority, but the future suddenly looks a lot slower than the recent present.



The next big project isn't rolling stock, it's signalling. Much of the signalling on the sub-surface lines is unbelievably ancient, hence flaky, and replacing it will allow more trains to run, greatly boosting capacity. Unfortunately TfL's resignalling programme is many years behind schedule, thanks to ill-advised contractual decisions and technical difficulties. Only now are enabling works taking place on the Hammersmith branch to tentatively try out the new system, and it'll be years before the full Metropolitan, Circle and District lines feel the full effect. Trains and signalling were supposed to be upgraded in parallel, but instead one is completed before the other has properly begun. Oops.

Nevertheless, it's a major success to have introduced air-conditioned trains on four Underground lines, as the forthcoming summer will prove. It's also been a very successful way to increase capacity, even if that's meant fewer seats and more people standing. Indeed this evening will be the very last time that a D Stock train rolls through central London in the rush hour and commuters mutter "bloody hell, it's one of the old ones, I can't get on". There might also be an issue this evening with overcrowding due to large volumes of enthusiasts on board, so you might prefer to wait for the next train. But do squeeze on if you can, because you never will again, as the District line's workhorse slips into the sidings for the very last time.



» Your last chance to #CatchTheD
» Fourteen final-week Flickr photos

 Thursday, April 20, 2017

Q Edmonton/Tottenham
Last week Q♣, this week Q♠, and that's all four Queens dealt from my pack. The Herbert Commission proposed coupling Tottenham with Edmonton, to the north, but instead ended up linking it to Hornsey and Wood Green to the west. I've been out to visit this Leaside borough-that-never was, specifically to the corner of Edmonton that Enfield council wants to transform into its flagship post-industrial super-residential project. It's been on the drawing board for ages, but is 2017 the year Meridian Water finally takes off?

Meridian Water

Let's start with the name, because half of it is correct. This new residential neighbourhood is destined to grow across 200 brownfield acres adjoining the River Lea, and that ticks off the Water bit. But the zero degree line of longitude actually passes through Chingford, over a mile to the east, indeed the Greenwich meridian doesn't pass through Enfield at all. Still, why let geographical reality get in the way of a prime marketing-friendly property brand?

Here's the area in question.



Meridian Water is planned to grow where the North Circular crosses the River Lea. The river runs in two broad channels - one across the centre of the picture and another bending towards the front, with a large industrial estate sprawled inbetween. If you've ever visited the site of Meridian Water, the most likely place you've been is the big blue shed in the top left hand corner of the picture, because that's the Tottenham IKEA. It stays. Almost everything else on site goes.



Meridian Water is planned to grow where the North Circular crosses the railway to Stansted Airport, which makes it terribly well-connected... or at least potentially so. But currently nobody lives here, which helps explain the awkward reality of the only station on site being the least used station in the whole of London. That's Angel Road, a grim station of the most desolate order, served by half a dozen trains each rush hour, nothing inbetween and nothing at weekends. Access is from a staircase under a concrete overpass via a long alleyway alongside a metal recycling yard to a pair of isolated platforms. I visited last week to the sound of iron girders clanging thunderously nextdoor, and met only a large rat hanging from the fence by its legs, snuffling around in the litter bin below.



Angel Road can't possibly support a site delivering 10000 new homes, indeed its wholesale inadequacy has been one of the project's biggest hold-ups. But plans are set to replace the existing station with a new pair of platforms on the other side of the North Circular, better positioned for the new estate and considerably more convenient for lugging flatpacks home from IKEA nextdoor. More importantly a new rail shuttle from Stratford via Tottenham Hale to Angel Road is scheduled to enter operation at the end of 2018. This so-called STAR service will finally give potential residents a regular means of escape, unlocking development, and dedicated space for an additional track is already being cleared alongside the existing railway all the way from here down to Walthamstow Marshes.

People who'd like to talk about railways can talk about railways here. This post continues after the break.


Stand on the Leeside Road bridge above the railway line and you can see how much of Meridian Water West's land has already been cleared, if not yet fully remediated. What's going up on the left-hand side will be flats and shops and greenspace, but mostly flats, because this is prime land nudged up against the main transport hub. The very first building site is being laid out at the end of Willoughby Lane, a Phase 1 development delivering 725 Barratt homes, even if no foundations will be laid until 2019. Welcome, Creating a new destination for London, say the flags fluttering above the gate. Keep Out, Contaminated land, Danger of death, read a few of the warning signs on the fence.



What's going up on the right-hand side of the railway will be flats. There's also room across the road round the back of IKEA for more flats, what with their vast car park being mostly wasted space, and around the back of the Tesco Extra too. Future residents will have meatballs, self-assembly wardrobes and the week's groceries on their doorstep, which isn't what planners would have wished for given a blank slate, but damned convenient. It also means a stream of families driving in at all hours, flooding the area for a spin round the Furniture Orienteering Centre, as I like to think of Meridian Water's biggest tourist attraction.



Moving east, we reach the land between the Pymmes Brook and the Lea. Some of this is currently the Ravenside Retail Park, an arc of warehouse units barely a decade old, and home to big hitters such as Mothercare, Argos and Wickes. In one version of the masterplan I've seen these stay, fed by voracious streams of North Circular traffic, and in another they're erased to become more flats. More certain is the destruction of the former British Oxygen Company depot, a trio of enormous blue sheds rotting in a nomansland, and they'll definitely become flats. Or maybe offices, because the service sector now trumps manufacturing, but more likely flats, because more flats is what London needs.



It's to the east of the River Lea that the most radical transformation is already underway. A vast triangle of land has long been given over to a trading estate served by a web of service roads, the kind of backwater where a catering company, windscreen fitter, van rental depot, import wholesaler or motor workshop might be based. All gone... or if not all gone under imminent threat of demolition. I was amazed by the level of comprehensive destruction that's been wreaked since I last walked past up the riverside. Entire blocks cleared, acres of rubble-strewn hardstanding, discarded pallets, smashed-up caravans, vacant offices with graffitied doors and broken windows, and former streets sealed off in readiness for more.



One current survivor is the Arriva bus depot, stuck out in a godforsaken corner beneath pylons, and accessed only via an awkward waterside road. But what once looked like an inexpensive spot to park an army of vehicles is suddenly desirable real estate, and everything'll soon need to be rehoused elsewhere. One small brick hut looked like it might still be trading, or at least it had a sign up outside saying Open, and this was the Lea Side Cafe. I've seen it busy with men in overalls dining on meat and tea before, so considered nipping through a clear break in the fence for a closer look. Just in time I noticed that the car parked outside with its boot open said Dog Section on the bonnet, rapidly retreated, and hoped the handler had brought a Thermos.



One familiar aspect of Meridian Water, seen before on Stratford's Olympic site, is how it suddenly stops and rubs up against what's already here. The late Victorian terraces of Upper Edmonton nudge close on the western flank - properties technically far more desirable than the rabbit hutches that'll be erected across the road, but home to a disadvantaged community who could never afford to live in them. Meanwhile the Haringey/Enfield boundary halts development abruptly to the south, with the existing down-at-heel trading estates and builders' merchants destined to outlive the whirlwind. Meridian Water's "corridor of opportunity" will not stretch this far, nor will its "new suburban exemplar" extend. If only 1965 had seen Tottenham paired with Edmonton, total wipeout would have been assured.

 Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Now that we have an updated tube map, I thought it would be interesting to count up the blobs and see how much of the tube map is accessible. And the answer is 45%.

I haven't calculated perfectly accurately, because counting blobs on a map is tricky, and what precisely is a station anyway? But here's how I worked it out.

There are approximately 440 stations on the tube map. About 60% are Underground stations, so I'm going to start with those, and then add on additional bits of the network bit by bit.

If you just consider Underground stations, which is how the tube map started out, then only 28% of the 270 stations are step-free. Approximately speaking, 40 stations have blue blobs, 35 stations have white blobs, and 195 stations have no blob at all. Upgrading a 100+ year-old network is logistically difficult and very expensive.

Next to arrive on the tube map was the DLR. The DLR is 100% accessible throughout, hurrah, because it was planned that way. This adds another 39 stations to the map, all with blue blobs. If you consider tube and DLR stations together, then the proportion of step-free stations on the tube map leaps to 37%.

Next to arrive on the tube map was the Overground. The Overground adds another 80 stations to the map, approximately 50% of which have step-free access. That's a pretty good average for a mishmash of a network, although almost all its blobs are white, not blue. If you consider tube, DLR and Overground stations together, then the proportion of step-free stations on the tube map rises to 40%.

Next to arrive on the tube map was the Dangleway. This adds two accessible terminals, but isn't enough to tweak the overall step-free percentage, which remains at 40%.

Next to arrive on the tube map was TfL Rail. When Crossrail replaces it, 100% of the stations will be accessible, but in the meantime it's less than half. If you consider tube, DLR, Overground and TfL Rail stations together, then the proportion of step-free stations on the tube map remains at 40%.

The most recent arrival on the tube map was Tramlink. Every single tram stop is accessible, hurrah, and this adds an extra 38 blue blob locations. If you consider tube, DLR, Overground and TfL Rail stations and Tram stops together, then the proportion of step-free stations on the tube map rises to 45%. And that's where we are today.

By the end of the decade, another eight tube stations will be at least partly accessible. That'll get us to 47%. Plus Crossrail will be all over the map, adding a further 24 blobs, and this'll finally hit the magic 50% mark. Hang on in there, the half-accessible tube map is on its way.

There's a new tube map out.
But it's only on the TfL website, you can't pick it up in stations.



It's not the map shown on the Maps page on the TfL website, because that's the old one from December. But if you click on the link to Standard Tube Map - PDF you get a new map, dated March, which is new.

There's a new tube map because some stations have reopened. The London Overground reopened in February between Gospel Oak and Barking, after having been closed for several months, and is now shown as open again. Also Lambeth North station reopened in February, after having been closed since July, and is now shown as open again. This is important stuff for passengers to know.

There's also a new tube map because of changes to step-free access. Tottenham Court Road gained full step-free access in February, and is now shown on the map with a white wheelchair blob rather than an empty circle. This means there are now two stations inside the the loop of the Circle line which have step-free access, the other being Green Park, and this is damned excellent news.

Another significant change to step-free access is connected to the withdrawal of the old D-Stock trains from the District line. After the very last D-Stock runs in passenger service on Friday (which you can read more about here and also here), every train on the District line will be properly accessible. A consequence of this is that nine stations which used to have white blobs (step-free from street to platform) have been upgraded to blue blobs (step-free from street to train). The newly blue-blobbed stations are Southfields, Earl's Court, Blackfriars, West Ham, East Ham, Barking, Dagenham Heathway and Elm Park and Upminster. Not all the white blobs have become blue blobs, however, so for example Westminster and Upney haven't changed, and Tower Hill has gone backwards from blue to white, which is strange.

Basically it's all good news. But if you pick up a tube map in a tube station you won't be seeing any of this good news for a while, because TfL only reprint the tube map twice a year, and we're a couple of months off the next one yet. Instead the secret information about reopened stations and step-free access hides on a pdf on the TfL website, which is a heck of a lot cheaper to update, and a lot less obvious to spot.

 Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Kew Gardens has a part 2, and it's nowhere near.

It's at a place called Wakehurst, thirty miles away in the West Sussex countryside. The National Trust own the estate, but leased it out to the Royal Botanic Gardens fifty years ago. It's got a fantastic 500 acre garden, but more importantly it's home to the world's largest wild plant seed bank. No rainforest plant is heading for extinction on its watch.

I'd always considered Wakehurst too far away to easily reach. According to its website the nearest station is Haywards Heath, 6 miles away, and that's a long way to hike there and back. There's a bus service, but no more than five buses a day, and none on Sundays or bank holidays. Stuff that, I thought. And then I looked on a map, and spotted that Balcombe station is only 2 miles away, and suddenly it looked a lot more possible. It only took an hour to ramble down and up valleys, cross fields and streams, pause to admire the view a lot, and arrive at Wakehurst's back gate. Not easy, but not hard, and no need to pay the £4 bus fare or the £10 parking charge.



Let's start with the seedy bit. The Millennium Seed Bank was opened by Prince Charles in in November 2000, its aim to collect and preserve samples of 25% of the world's seeds by 2020. They're up in the high teens already. Seeds arrive from all round the world and are tested, X-rayed, dehydrated and bottled before being frozen in vaults at a temperature of about -20°C.

The vaults form the storey below ground level, while upstairs are laboratories and a central visitor atrium, complete with glass walls so you can peer through and watch work going on. The process is explained in words and moving pictures, including how a zig-zag aspirator works and why certain recalcitrant seeds aren't suitable for storage, while the newest arrival is an arty neon filament sculpture. It's really interesting, though not a visitor attraction that'll detain you for long, certainly not as long as its two billion inmates.



Outside, however, the gardens could fill hours. They used to be the gardens of the chair of the Royal Horticultural Society, and he lived here for a third of a century, which is how the grounds got to be so diverse and glorious. They're about a kilometre across and oval in shape, with a big dull field in the centre which the rest of Wakehurst whirls around. Turn right on leaving the Visitor Centre and you may wonder what all the fuss is about. Turn left and you'll soon know.

A Tudor house, a big lawn and a cafe in the old stable block - that's standard National Trust fare. But beyond that the landscaped borders begin, and the gardens, and the water features, and the ravines. This part of the High Weald is characterised by steep-sided 'gills', which with a bit of judicious planting can look positively ravishing. Wakehurst's former owner Gerald Loder was a huge fan of rhododendrons, and it shows, with multifarious bursts of vibrant colour all over the southern half of the site, and April possibly the pitch perfect month to view. [10 photos]



It's also a perfect time to see the bluebells. They're everywhere in the locality at the moment, covering entire slopes in Horsebridge Wood within the Wakehurst site, as well as woody glades out in the wider countryside. I was quite excited when I saw my first ones, because it's been a while, and thrilled by the shady descent down to the Ardingly Brook when I was making my way into Wakehurst's secret rear entrance. But within a couple of hours I'd grown quite blasé of bluebells, having seen so many, and found myself able to walk past thousands without my camera finger even twitching.

There's nothing formal about the Wakehurst landscape, but instead twisty paths and forested ascents, plus some more wheelchair-friendly flattish bits mixed in. One section is packed with plants from Asia, another from the southern hemisphere, again frequently covered in cloaks of spring flowers. The Iris Dell in the Water Gardens was making visitors gasp yesterday, even though too early in the year for the plants after which it's named, thanks to the vivid magenta bushes covering one entire flank above the waterfall.



Find the right path and you'll walk amid gnarled roots and sandstone boulders on a Rock Walk, or stumble upon a viewpoint across a somehow not-artificial gorge. Expect too to meet several pheasants, which seem to be endemic in the locality, strutting across lawns and whirring out of the undergrowth, here safely out of the way of West Sussex's many shooting parties. I also found the beehives, and several willow sculptures, and the non-Cadbury Easter Egg Trail, and two ladies bemoaning quite how far they had to walk back to the car park.

A large lake at the very far end hints at the much larger Nature Reserve just beyond the gardens, so carefully protected that only 50 visitors are allowed each day to hunt for dormice, saxifrage and kingfishers around the tip of the Ardingly Reservoir. Maybe save that until a second visit, or a third, because there's more than enough to admire within Wakehurst's perimeter, particularly if you're a horticultural person. The next bank holiday's only a fortnight off, and the floral display might be almost as fine then as it is now.



Entrance is £12.50, but free to National Trust members, which I don't think I'd have spotted at the till if I hadn't known in advance. Absolutely nobody will challenge you if you walk in via the public footpath at the western edge, because virtually nobody does this, but obviously it would be wrong to peel off here and enjoy the gardens for free. I chose to walk back to Balcombe a different way, diverting via Ardingly and the rim of the reservoir, which was differently picturesque... and six miles in total, which was the distance I'd previously been so keen to avoid.

 Monday, April 17, 2017

What I did on Easter Monday for the last 40 years

Monday 11th April 1977: My cough still hadn't gone away. Watched Batman on TV. My BCG scab fell off.
Monday 27th March 1978: Dragged into school to an all day orchestra rehearsal. Watched Blakes 7 on TV, the episode where they find Orac.
Monday 16th April 1979: Staying with my German exchange partner in Germany. We didn't go out all day. Had frankfurters for tea and played a board game.

Monday 7th April 1980: Staying with my French exchange partner near Paris. Went for a bike ride in a forest, despite me being absolutely hopeless on a bike.
Monday 20th April 1981: My brother arrived home from French exchange with a suntan and a plastic thing that mooed like a cow. Did some O Level revision.
Monday 12th April 1982: Had leftover turkey with chips and salad for lunch. Disney Time was introduced by Jimmy Tarbuck. Did some maths homework.
Monday 4th April 1983: It snowed before I woke up. Watford beat Luton five two. On Radio 1 Gary Davies broadcast live from the Ideal Home Exhibition.
Monday 23rd April 1984: Nextdoor put up a Vote Conservative sign in the front garden. Tonight's Dave Allen holiday special on BBC1 was a repeat.
Monday 8th April 1985: Mum did the washing because it was Monday. On Brookside Edna Cross just failed to win a six horse accumulator.
Monday 31st March 1986: Last day of the GLC. Spent the day with my uncle and auntie in Epping. Every mouthful of her soup was an agony.
Monday 20th April 1987: Ate a Creme Egg. Did some work in my bedroom listening to Radio 1 in stereo. Mum did the ironing watching Quo Vadis on BBC2.
Monday 4th April 1988: My cough still hadn't gone away. Watched Batman on TV. Also the last ever episode on Crossroads, driving off into the sunset.
Monday 27th March 1989: Three septuagenarian ladies came round to admire the garden, drink tea, look through the family photo albums and play whist.

Monday 16th April 1990: My uncle and cousins came over to spend the day with us. Played with Lego and looked through the family photo albums.
Monday 1st April 1991: Spotted the April Fools joke on Ceefax. My grandmother was taken ill and rushed off to hospital where she eventually stabilised.
Monday 20th April 1992: Read Good Omens. Beef for lunch, but Mum thought it was lamb when she took it out of the freezer.
Monday 12th April 1993: My brother, his fiancée, that uncle and my cousins came round to spend the day, talk about sport and do some tapestry.
Monday 4th April 1994: It rained, which then turned to snow for 45 minutes. Disney Time was introduced by Sarah Greene.
Monday 17th April 1995: A cockroach crept across the bedstead. Rode a camel round a volcanic crater. Rang parents from a phone box in Lanzarote.
Monday 8th April 1996: Woke up at half past eleven. Played peekaboo with 18 month-old nephew. Sister-in-law eight months pregnant and feverish.
Monday 31st March 1997: Honey Nut Loops for breakfast. Sat nephew in front of the first episode of Teletubbies. Went out to look at the Hale-Bopp comet.
Monday 13th April 1998: Visited National Trust properties in Cornwall. In the nursing home, Other Half's grandmother got the photo albums out.
Monday 5th April 1999: It was my turn to drive. Massive argument with Other Half at the car boot sale. Stuck in jam outside the garden centre.

Monday 24th April 2000: Chose not to pay extra for the hotel breakfast. Train home from London to Suffolk. Watched Galaxy Quest at the cinema.
Monday 16th April 2001: Pork chops for dinner. My fingernail was growing back. I'd brought some work home, which I successfully distracted myself from.
Monday 1st April 2002: Egg hunt for the nephews and niece in the garden. At lunch, niece not keen on eating carrots. Christmas pudding to follow.
Monday 21st April 2003: Completed the Easter jumbo prize crossword. Walked to Tesco, but forgot £1 for a trolley so had to get a basket.
Monday 12th April 2004: Climbed Twin Peaks. Visited the San Francisco Cable Car Museum. To the theatre for An Evening with Carol Channing.
Monday 28th March 2005: Helped push a wheelchair round Wroxham Barns. Nephew and niece reticent to feed the animals on the Juniors Farm.
Monday 17th April 2006: Climbed bendy Lombard Street. Saw the seals at Fishermans Wharf. Rode cablecars. Jetlag kicked in after pizza.
Monday 9th April 2007: Egg hunt for the nephews and niece in the B&B garden. Driven from Skegness round the Wolds. Very bad at beach cricket.
Monday 24th March 2008: Day trip to Rutland. Saw the Oakham horseshoes. Chilly boat trip on the reservoir to the half-drowned church.
Monday 13th April 2009: To the Art Show in the village hall. Dad wondered whether to enter next year. The last time Mum baked me a lemon meringue pie.

Monday 5th April 2010: Located General Roy's cannon outside Heathrow. Watched Kickass at the cinema. Salmon out of a can for tea.
Monday 25th April 2011: Walked to Ivinghoe Beacon. Enjoyed the blubells at Ashridge. Extended hike to see the quagga in Tring.
Monday 9th April 2012: Rained all day. Failed to find a Titanic survivor's grave in Chadwell Heath. More success in Golders Green.
Monday 1st April 2013: Temperature barely scraped five degrees. Walked London Loop section 7. Visited Little Holland House. Watched Broadchurch.
Monday 21st April 2014: Unimpressed by The Feast of St George in Trafalgar Square. Trip out to Bekonscot model village to play with trains.
Monday 6th April 2015: Day trip to sunny Bournemouth. Walked the coast from Boscombe Pier to Branksome Chine. First 99 cornet of the year.
Monday 28th March 2016: Storm Katie blew through. Cold turkey and jacket potato for lunch. Nephew gave me a lift back to the station in his new car.

 Sunday, April 16, 2017

100 things to do on Easter Sunday (when the shops are closed)

Go to church, organise an egg hunt, stick CBeebies on and go back to bed, do brunch, do lots of gardening, dive into some well-intentioned DIY, sleep late, open all your Easter cards and Easter presents, decide to stay in because you've watched the weather forecast, decide to go out despite having watched the weather forecast, traffic jam, motorway service station, rail replacement bus, tube replacement bus, desperate hunt for a space in the car park by the beach, drive to IKEA forgetting it's closed, shop online because Amazon is always open, tidy up before the family descends, cook a roast that's almost Christmas sized, ask the in-laws for their wi-fi password, go out burgling because everyone's away, go for a drive to nowhere in particular just so you can say you've been out, live out of a suitcase far from home, go late night clubbing because there's Monday to recover, car boot sale, boxset on the sofa, vegetate in front of Sky Sport, switch to ITV+1 to watch the James Bond, read a good book, follow along and do whatever the forceful one in the family has planned, try to patch up your relationship for another weekend, take the kids to the animal sanctuary, let the kids scream around the back garden, queue outside the Natural History Museum, try to finish off yesterday's newspaper, go for a jog, take the dog for a walk, clean out the cat litter tray, swipe left, swipe right, halt the DIY because the wallpaper ran out and the shops are closed, do more gardening because have you seen the state of the borders, go to work because some jobs never stop, do some work because freelancers don't get holidays, crack off a bit of your Easter egg, succumb and eat the rest of the egg in 10 minutes flat, gorge on chocolate, wish you'd bought more chocolate before the shops shut, art gallery, minor museum, steam train, car rally, some sort of gathering with the word 'Egg' slapped on the front, ice cream, cream tea, a nice walk in the park, a nice walk in the country, a nice walk by the river, full-on mountaineering, bluebell hunting, National Trust house and tea room, wishing you'd brought your umbrella, ill-advised barbecue but you bought all the meat on Saturday when the weather looked better, put the central heating on, pub crawl, pop-up gin festival, micro-brewery, craft market, dodgy-looking stall selling pad thai in a tray, keep out of the rain by going to the cinema, stand morosely in a shuttered High Street shuffling between coffee shops, hospital visit, drive-through McDonalds, check your phone incessantly, panic because it looks like your battery will die before you get home, keep tabs on the Chelsea match, neck a couple of anti-depressants, find another excuse to eat more chocolate, sit listening to your uncle droning on about his aches and pains, sit listening to your auntie droning on about politics, there's probably still time to fit in a bit more gardening, get the Lego out, try not to think about Tuesday, check to see whether your Facebook friends are having a more exciting time than you are, plan how to use the next bank holiday weekend better, open another can of beer, down a Creme Egg in two bites, attend to your baby's every need because she has no idea what day it is, cajole the kids to design an Easter bonnet, wish you had more friends who hadn't dashed off for the weekend, wish you had more friends, tea and a page of sudokus, sit in a comfy chair and look out of the window, fail to remember who you were, keep an eye on the latest insanity on Twitter, keep your fingers crossed that Donald Trump is busy playing golf again, wonder whether there'll be an Easter next year, stockpile canned goods for the fallout shelter, pray, eat more chocolate because what the heck.

This poster is now a permanent fixture on Platform 11 at Stratford station.



But...



But surely the rear two coaches will be empty if nobody uses them, which seems a particularly perverse way to avoid overcrowding.

I mentioned this on Twitter on Friday, and even Chas out of Chas and Dave was sufficiently moved to retweet it.

Platform 11 is where trains start their journeys to Tottenham Hale and Bishops Stortford. Passengers arrive on the platform at the rear of the train, hence the potential overcrowding.

Sometimes the train has four carriages. More usually the train has eight carriages. Walking past the first two and filling up the other six might then make more sense, especially when it's rush hour.

When I turned up on Friday the train had four carriages, so the sign was urging everyone to leave the back two empty and crowd into the front two, which was bonkers.

When I turned up on Saturday the train had eight carriages. Most people casually ignored the sign and sat in the rear two coaches, which weren't even half full because it wasn't rush hour. A few good people walked up to the next two carriages, but these were even less full. Nobody whatsoever sat in the front four carriages, nobody at all, because they were an unnecessary hike up the platform.

During the rush hour I can imagine the back of the train gets really busy, particularly because these services sit in the platform for a good twenty minutes before setting off. What's more, the next two stops up the line both have exits at the rear of the platform, so a lot of people are going to want to sit at the back of the train no matter what.

But asking "Please do not use the rear two coaches of the train" is ridiculous, because the command is based on the paradoxical assumption that too many people do. And chaining the sign to a pole so it's always on display is ridiculous, because most of the time no mitigating action is required.

Ask properly, or don't ask at all. Rabbit rabbit bunny jabber rabbit rabbit rabbit bunny rabbit jabber jabber rabbit rabbit rabbit rabbit bunny bunny jabber rabbit.

 Saturday, April 15, 2017

Q Lambeth
The Metropolitan Borough of Lambeth was a skinny beast, much thinner than its post-1965 equivalent, and almost as long. The Herbert Commission eventually decided to add Clapham and Streatham, but for today's post I've restricted myself to the narrow original. One thing modern Lambeth does damned well is maintaining its parkland... and spring has broken, so I set out to visit all nine Green Flag parks, in order, from north to south. And I had a lovely time. [9 photos]

9 Lambeth Green Flag parks

St. John’s Churchyard, Waterloo (opened 1824)


Oasis around an inner city church; Greek-style columns, a row of laurel garlands atop; ALL MAY HAVE IF THEY TRY A GLORIOUS LIFE OR GRACE; beds of tulips and lilies; a hummock of lawn; a pigeon pecks at a bottletop; mosaic statues, mosaic benches, mosaic fungi, mosaic planters, mosaic thimbles, mysterious mosaic bumpy thing; Southwark Mosaics run public courses; rear archway access; a man sits with Metro and coffee; a woman sits in solo contemplation; a homeless man checks through his worldly possessions; a blind man enters with his guide dog and lets her tug and snuffle, the best he can offer for exercise rather than let her off the leash; Street Food @St John's, four tents, the morning's meat sizzles, lunchtime's lettuce is being chopped, pad thai, falafel, student discount available on coffee, busy soon.

Archbishop’s Park (opened 1901)


Formerly Lambeth Palace Field, cheers to the Archbishop of Canterbury; community orchard of apples and pears; one gate's locked while redevelopment overruns, reopening 31st March 2017, all sporting facilities sealed off, vivid lines across pristine astroturf; rings and ladders and a slide, a crocodile of hi-vis toddlers are let loose across the playground; serpentine benches, a floral corner; astonishing wooden shelter in the shape of a beetle, gnarled legs as seats; toilets, No Loitering; twitchy man with recyclable cup asks "Have you got the time?"; the Lambeth Millennium Pathway, two dozen stepping stone plaques from Hardicanute to Tradescant, from Blake to the Windrush; picnic tables; overflowing planters; a terrier waiting patiently for his owner to stop grinning and stir herself.

Kennington Park (opened 1854)


Lambeth's first dedicated public open space, formerly Kennington Common, where the Chartists assembled; Slade Fountain; Prince Consort's Lodge, a Great Exhibition showcase; topping up the early tan; filling a hayfever handkerchief; Stan spent many happy hours in this park; impromptu church service singing on the lawn; row of assorted bee hives; table tennis, Adidas hoops; 50p to use the cafe toilet for non-customers; a terrier trots by with a spare Tesco poo bag tied to its collar; the walled Flower Garden opened in 1931, major lottery respruce 2015, and it's gorgeous; circular sunken pond, benches encircle the sundial, wisteria drips from the pergola, the whiff of weed; bird feeders in the timberwork, telephoto poised for fledgling action, girl with smartphone snapping butterflies; pure relaxation.

Vauxhall Park (opened 1890)


Created by Act of Parliament, laid out by landscape artist Fanny Rollo Wilkinson; blossom in bunches of pink and white; overlooked by a towering liftshaft with 31 numbered floors... and climbing; a Jack Russell noses a relatively-enormous football across the grass; a portly man cycles through in bowler hat and shorts; the pergola has not yet burst forth, the lavender garden has not yet sprung; St Stephen's Children's Centre; Vauxhall Park Needs You; workmen taking a break for beers; commemorative benches for Rita, Georgie, Father Paul and Queen Elizabeth; April's first bee buzzes my ear; sound of birdsong, sound of helicopters; OMG there is an actual model village here, a dozen gnome-like cottages in the border by the fountain, some of the tulips come up to roof height.

Myatt’s Fields Park (opened 1889)


Former market garden donated by the Minet family, another of Fanny's designs; Grade II listed, 'a strangely beautiful place' wrote Betjeman; iron gates; join the Over 60s gardening club; You Can Book This Tennis Court; summerhouse; colourful chalk games arrayed around the bandstand, a toddler explores within; man with a stringed African instrument crouched on a bench in the dog exercise zone; tentative young cyclist riding the paths and arm-signalling to nobody in particular; The Little Cat Cafe, £1 for a croissant, 30p extra for Marmite or jam; council truck from Lambeth Landscapes, ride-on lawnmower in action, freshly-cut alternating stripes of green; wildlife area with trees and roped-off pond, cowslips and butterflies, all the park's visitors are elsewhere; cones, two hurdles; Bee Urban; new loos.

Ruskin Park (opened 1907)


John Ruskin lived nearby before the park opened; created from six villas and their gardens, the oval fishpond survives; geese preen; the National Pool Company have turned up to sweep down the paddling pool and drain the winter's sludge; a small cafe kiosk with the Overground running behind; tennis courts in football season mode, goalposts standing; giggly girls sitting on the highest platform in the skateboard park; A Booking Is Required To Use This Facility; another bandstand; the south London air ambulance takes off from behind the building site nextdoor; the Portico Shelter is being restored with Historic England money; views across inner London; horse chestnut candles now half-extinguished; bluebell glade; a squirrel in the rhododendrons; one hospital worker per hedged alcove around the walled garden.

Milkwood Community Park (upgraded 2006)


Small square of mixed facilities, the Residents' Association keeps an eye; a 21st century rejuvenation worked wonders, Lambeth's first Green Flag park; lamps lit by large solar panels; this park is oddly silent, nobody on the climbing frame, nobody on the teen-friendly cluster of metal benches, even the aircraft-shaped apparatus is empty; the Seventh Day Adventist church disputes the border where the lavender and rosemary grow; the park's name in individually-cut green letters on the fence; trees and rabbits on the official mural; table tennis tables; a chubby boy on a bike wheels in; a mother jogs in with her young son, "Good running! Come on, round we go!"; a tiny drone buzzes overhead, controlled by a hoodie on the basketball court; daisies, dandelions, the bin from number 59.

Brockwell Park (opened 1892)


First farmland, then a large private estate, now Lambeth's flagship park; 125 diverse hillside acres; Trim Trail; Lido love; a large ring of logs around two dozen trees; man taking six dogs for a walk on leashes intertwined like a maypole; picknicking toddlers assembled round Mummys' tablecloth; tiny buffers on the miniature railway, with planning application for 50% longer tracks; a 7- and a 37-year old scootering downslope; humpy BMX dell; bowling green; four girls running headlong for the playground throng; duckpond, swanpond, Beware Deep Water; a gardener removes his gloves to check his phone, another hoses down the tulips by the clock tower; hide and seek in the walled garden, forget-me-nots, hyacinths, irises, wisteria, watering can action; kickabout, rideabout, loungeabout.

West Norwood Cemetery (opened 1836)


One of the Magnificent Seven, graves a-plenty, the latest Lambeth space to earn its Green Flag; sepulchral monuments, stones at all angles; decorated with bouquets or dandelions, gravel-topped or grass; spinning plastic windmills; In Loving Memory; Uriah, Agatha, Gertrude, Reg, Kieron, Joan Iris Dennis known as Bunny; family vaults, broken slabs, Greek Orthodox necropolis; a helium balloon printed with 'I Love You' bobs from a litter bin, its string tied round a thorny stalk; a man asleep on a bench with his socks off; graves of grandparents who weren't dead the first time I visited; the Rose Garden not yet in bloom; mowing the lawn outside the Columbarium where the crematorium flowers rest, MUM, GRANDMA, KEVY; peace interrupted by birdsong, shoots and flowers bursting forth between the bodies; new life in death.

 Friday, April 14, 2017

On Good Friday each year the spotlight falls on The Widow's Son pub in E3, home of the famous bun-hanging ceremony. 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.

Until last year. New owners Dalco Developments turfed out the landlady a few days before Easter, leaving the old boozer empty on the crucial day, and the bun ceremony had to be hastily rearranged to a pub in Limehouse. Here's my full report from last March.

In 2016 our local heritage stuttered, but this Good Friday the news is rather better. The Widow's Son reopened last November with fresh tenants behind the bar, and they've confirmed that the traditional bun-hanging will be returning today. Well, almost traditional anyway.



If you know the pub of old you won't spot much of a difference from outside on Devons Road, save the ongoing encroachment of an enormous housing estate at the rear - Merchants Walk. Look a little closer and you'll spot chalkboards outside, and they give more of a hint as to what's happened within. The pub now offers "Burger + Pint" for a tenner on Mondays and Tuesdays, and promises "we mince our own beef!", whereas previously pork scratchings would have been the culinary highlight. They also do tapas, and host live music on a Friday evening, and don't open until 5pm (or 4pm at the weekend) because their clientele has changed. This Google review from Will Burns sums up the new vibe succinctly, I think.
Wow, this place has changed a lot. From a shabby old man pub, fruit machines etc, to a cool cocktail bar. I had the beetroot and chilli margarita. I'd also recommend the T Rex. A breath of fresh air for the area.
Peer inside and yes, the interior is now liberally scattered with small circular tables topped with menus and candles, and there might just be tubs of homemade salsa on the bar. A further chalkboard promises "Wakad cocktails" and "Lovley Food", whatever the former is, plus details of the pub's social media presence on "insta" and "faceyb". Unfortunately the pub's website is fresh out of the box and contains no relevant information whatsoever, but there is a poster in the window about Good Friday... except oh, it's half-fallen down.



Thankfully the landlady instagrammed the poster yesterday, so now I know what it said.
BUN DAY IS BACK!

The Widow's Son is proud to have the Hot Cross Bun ceremony 2017, this Good Friday 14th April from 12am.

Complimentary buns, Buffet, the return of DJ Justin Vella the Story Tella. Come & raise a rum with us for the old girl.
The post, but not the poster, confirms that sailors from HMS President are coming down to put the new 2017 bun in the net, which means the old tradition is back on track. The presence of a live DJ might sound odd, but Romford's Justin Vella has played the Widow's Son a number of times before, spinning tracks with a family-friendly vibe rather than hosting any leftfield house party. Nevertheless, any old sea dog returning to The Widow's Son this Easter is in for a culture shock.

Before anyone scoffs at the modern upgrade, remember that this corner of East London is changing fast. New flats are going up at a rate of knots, and their young cosmopolitan tenants are perfectly happy with burgers, cocktails and live music. Bow's grey-haired ale drinkers either died out or moved away, and the replacement Bangladeshi community never drank alcohol anyway. The vast majority of the old pubs around here have closed and been sold off as apartments, so it's genuinely amazing that any drinking establishment from the Victorian era should survive. The Widow's Son was dead, but is born again, which is E3's little Easter miracle.

That said, if you're the kind of pedantic drinker who's already thinking "I see they said 12am, I wonder if perchance they meant noon?", I very much doubt that the updated bun ceremony is for you.

 Thursday, April 13, 2017

On a chalk escarpment above the Thames between Marlow and Maidenhead sits Cliveden, a magnificent Italianate mansion in an astonishing setting, and which once helped bring down the government.



Of the first house, built in 1666 for the Duke of Buckinghamshire, only the arcaded terrace survives. But subsequent upgrades have added more rooms, more romance and more sparkle, not to mention gardens that make even the rich and famous purr. Today it's owned by the National Trust, so you can visit, but also leased to a luxury hotel chain, so you can't quite.

Previous Cliveden owners have included Frederick Prince of Wales, the Duke of Westminster and (from 1906) the American power couple Waldorf and Nancy Astor, who used the house for entertaining and basically showing off. Their innumerable guests included Churchill, Chaplin, Roosevelt and Gandhi, creating an atmosphere George Bernard Shaw described as "like no other country house on earth".



There's still a wow factor today, even with screechy kids kicking footballs on the front lawn, especially if you stand on the main terrace and stare down past intricate geometric beds and yew pyramids towards tumbling trees and the River Thames some 40 metres below. Or walk out to the statue at the far end of the Parterre and look back at the broad symmetrical facade glistening in the sunlight, if you get the right day, which I did.

Cliveden's greatest scandal dates back to the summer of 1961 when government minister John Profumo met showgirl Christine Keeler at a swimming pool party. She was wearing nothing at the time, which certainly attracted his attention, and their brief affair (described as "a screw of convenience") continued back in London. A suspected spy scandal unfurled, the Prime Minister's reputation faltered, and the house gained a notoriety that tarnished its social reputation.



The grounds surrounding Cliveden are enormous, or at least long, and you can walk in elevated shade for well over a mile along the wooded ridgetop. There are also zigzag paths down to the riverbank, where a small lawn is ideal for a picnic or a sprawl, but less fit visitors need to remember that they'll have to climb all the way back up again later, and the main Yew Tree Walk has 177 consecutive steps.

The grounds are also shared with hotel guests, who get to dabble in the spa, make use of the pool and park their cars along the Grand Avenue. For a few hours each week National Trust visitors can pay extra for a brief look inside the house, but tickets sell out fast, and all I managed was to peer in at the moneyed guests in their five-star dining room eating over-priced Sunday lunch.



As well as the sparse formality of the Parterre, a number of other beautifully-tended gardens are open for exploration. The Long Garden currently boasts a picture-perfect sea of yellow blooms enclosed by tightly trimmed hedges, while the Water Gardens have a slightly more Japanese flavour, and are thus awash with cherry blossom.

This being a National Trust property, small children are being entertained this month with a chocolate egg hunt labelled with the word 'Easter', not that the ignorant will have noticed. A more enjoyable entertainment is Cliveden's hedge maze, a full recreation of the 1894 original and covering a third of an acre. It has similarities to Hampton Court's, I thought, but was a trifle tougher, and even the fastest route out took me three minutes.



From the terrace by the tiny chapel, perched on the edge of the ridge, a sharp contrast between the two banks of the Thames can be clearly seen. The opposite side is utterly flat and farmed as meadow, with only a few cows as tenants, plus it takes at least an hour to walk there, thanks to the vagaries of local landowners and a paucity of bridges.

Cliveden's best set up for those who arrive by car, indeed as a rambling visitor I found it hard to find the gate through which I was supposed to gain admission. It might have been easier to walk from Taplow station than from the river, but I enjoyed adding four miles to my nine mile Thames Path ramble, and the long steep hill was a lot easier on the way down.



Cliveden's location above the Thames is the perfect spot for an exclusive residence within spitting distance of the capital, which might well have sealed off the estate forever, but actually ended up saving it for the nation. If looking for a word to describe the place, I think 'glorious' covers it. See if my dozen Flickr photos can help convince you of that fact.


<< click for Newer posts

click for Older Posts >>


click to return to the main page


...or read more in my monthly archives
Jan17  Feb17  Mar17  Apr17
Jan16  Feb16  Mar16  Apr16  May16  Jun16  Jul16  Aug16  Sep16  Oct16  Nov16  Dec16
Jan15  Feb15  Mar15  Apr15  May15  Jun15  Jul15  Aug15  Sep15  Oct15  Nov15  Dec15
Jan14  Feb14  Mar14  Apr14  May14  Jun14  Jul14  Aug14  Sep14  Oct14  Nov14  Dec14
Jan13  Feb13  Mar13  Apr13  May13  Jun13  Jul13  Aug13  Sep13  Oct13  Nov13  Dec13
Jan12  Feb12  Mar12  Apr12  May12  Jun12  Jul12  Aug12  Sep12  Oct12  Nov12  Dec12
Jan11  Feb11  Mar11  Apr11  May11  Jun11  Jul11  Aug11  Sep11  Oct11  Nov11  Dec11
Jan10  Feb10  Mar10  Apr10  May10  Jun10  Jul10  Aug10  Sep10  Oct10  Nov10  Dec10 
Jan09  Feb09  Mar09  Apr09  May09  Jun09  Jul09  Aug09  Sep09  Oct09  Nov09  Dec09
Jan08  Feb08  Mar08  Apr08  May08  Jun08  Jul08  Aug08  Sep08  Oct08  Nov08  Dec08
Jan07  Feb07  Mar07  Apr07  May07  Jun07  Jul07  Aug07  Sep07  Oct07  Nov07  Dec07
Jan06  Feb06  Mar06  Apr06  May06  Jun06  Jul06  Aug06  Sep06  Oct06  Nov06  Dec06
Jan05  Feb05  Mar05  Apr05  May05  Jun05  Jul05  Aug05  Sep05  Oct05  Nov05  Dec05
Jan04  Feb04  Mar04  Apr04  May04  Jun04  Jul04  Aug04  Sep04  Oct04  Nov04  Dec04
Jan03  Feb03  Mar03  Apr03  May03  Jun03  Jul03  Aug03  Sep03  Oct03  Nov03  Dec03
 Jan02  Feb02  Mar02  Apr02  May02  Jun02  Jul02 Aug02  Sep02  Oct02  Nov02  Dec02 

eXTReMe Tracker
jack of diamonds
Life viewed from London E3

» email me
» follow me on twitter
» follow the blog on Twitter
» follow the blog on RSS

my flickr photostream