diamond geezer

 Friday, June 30, 2017

Sint-Veerleplein, a square in Ghent, is lit by three very ordinary-looking sets of lampstands. They're a bit more ornate than your average bulb on a pole, but this is the historic heart of the old city, so you'd likely not give them a second look. Castle Gravensteen across the square is much more impressive, and the bars, chocolate shops and restaurants around the remainder of the perimeter might well draw your gaze instead. But keep your eyes peeled, because if these lamps ever light and flash an important message is being transmitted, in a truly engaging work of public art.



It's called Ai Nati Oggi, or "For Those Born Today", and was devised by Italian artist Alberto Garutti. In 2011 he had a special button installed in every maternity hospital in Ghent, linked here to Sint-Veerleplein, which parents are encouraged to press immediately after the birth of a new baby. If they choose to press, all the lamps in the square brighten slowly, shine, and then fade away, over the course of about thirty seconds. The square thus acts as a population beacon, alerting citizens to each new life, in a tangible but temporary way.

A stone engraved alongside one of the lampstands explains all, in three languages, should passers-by choose to stop and read.
The streetlights on Sint-Veerleplein are connected to the maternity hospitals in the city of Ghent. Every time the light slowly flashes, a child is born. This work is dedicated to the newborn and to all children who are born today in this city.



I stood in the square for a while and nothing happened. I went up on the roof of the adjacent castle and looked down, and nothing happened. Then I went away for a long walk and came back, and spotted with a smile that the lights were now on. They shone brightly, broadcasting the birth of a new Belgian citizen, somewhere in an anonymous hospital room far from public view. Then they faded away, too swiftly for me to catch the event on camera, but gracefully enough until the LEDs were once again inert.

In a conurbation of half a million you'd perhaps expect 15 births a day, or no more than a flash an hour. In London, by contrast, the rate might be one every five minutes. The rarity of the occurrence in Ghent certainly adds to the emotional impact... and perhaps has even greater presence after dark (however precisely the flashing sequence works then).

Who's to say if the birth I experienced was girl or boy, white or black, healthy or physically challenged, potential hero or future criminal? But how heartwarming to have a public work of art that celebrates each newborn child equally, before prejudice sets in, sharing a moment of sheer parental joy with the wider populace.

 Thursday, June 29, 2017

I took a day trip to Belgium yesterday.

Thanks for all your suggestions! But which station did I go to?

One popular choice from your 100+ comments was the Kusttram.
» I've always been fascinated by the Coastal Tram - obviously if you go then I won't have to. [Dan]
...but there were hints it might not be totally scenic throughout...
» I also like the idea of the coastal tram, although be aware that some stretches of De Kust feel like the Belgians built apartment buildings all the way along the coast between the tram and the beach. [Peter]
Waterloo, the 202-year old battlefield, piqued my interest....
» The new(ish) Waterloo battlefield visitor centre is definitely worth a visit, but it is a bit distant from Waterloo station - you may need a bus connection. [Jon]
...and I wasn't really planning on a multi-modal safari...
» There isn't a huge amount to see at Waterloo and the battlefield is a fair trek from the station. [whiff]
A much more appropriate anniversary would have been Ypres...
» I'd go to Ypres. It's 100 years this year since the 3rd WWI battle there, also known as the Battle of Passchendaele. [Ian]
...but it proved too hard to fit a decent tour into a day trip...
» For a rather different experience, there is Ieper (Ypres), especially if you have the means to get to some of the memorials outside the town. [timbo]
Jimmy and Joff each had the same idea...
» I think you'll seek out the least visited station and go there. [Jimmy]
» Is Belgium's least-used railway station within one hop of Brussels? [Joff]
...but I was not entranced at the thought of spending my day in Hourpes.

Bruges was really popular, I suspect because a lot of you have been there...
» Go to Bruges a beautiful mediaeval city, and travel on the canals. Eat lots of chocolates!! [Sara]
...but you offered mixed messages...
» I would say Bruges but I don't think one day would be enough to do it justice [Tim]
» Bruges, without a doubt. It's stunningly pretty and small enough to be seen well in a day. [pkoconnor]
...and Chz sealed it.
» If you've *never* been to Bruges, it sort of has to be done. There's a reason it's crammed with tourists. [Chz]
I have actually been to Bruges, as a stop off on a school trip on the way back from Germany in 1980, so that became a 'no'.

Eventually I narrowed my choice down to these two great cities....
» Antwerp is very cool with a great mix of Dutch / Belgian culture, some super interesting architecture (old and new), an insanely huge port, a massive river, the train station is quite something and hey, there's a huge zoo next door. [Kevin]
» Ghent is often overlooked but it is also really very pretty, full of very old buildings - Grass Quay in particular is lovely. No cars are allowed in the city centre so it's a really nice town to walk around. [Kevin]
I eventually decided in favour of Antwerp...
» Antwerp every time, fantastic city. [Burntweenie]
...plus it's massively into diamonds, which fits perfectly with the name of the blog...
» Nice Flemish architecture, newly renovated railway station, new port museum. Also you are the diamond geezer - you can pick up some serious bling! [kissenme]
... plus who could resist this?
» In Antwerp there's the wooden escalator under the river. [ap]
But at the last minute I changed my mind and went to Ghent, because more of you recommended it.
» Ghent. It's a bigger city than Bruges, and more of a living city and less of an open-air museum. There are a lot of attractive old buildings, but also more other things to do. [Mike]
...and that's where I went yesterday with my Any Belgian Station ticket.

Thanks everyone! And next time I buy one, I have so many great suggestions to follow up.

 Wednesday, June 28, 2017

It hardly seems possible that London's favourite cablecar is five years old today.



The Elizabeth Air Line, as it's officially known, has carried millions of happy travellers above the Thames since it was opened on 28th June 2012 by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.

Shuttling high between terminals at North Greenwich and the Royal Docks, this £60m investment is unquestionably the most direct means of travel between the two locations, and offers views of Silvertown no other mode of transport can match.

During the Olympics the Elizabeth Air Line was ideally placed to carry spectators who happened to have tickets for the gymnastics and the weightlifting on the same day. Since then it has become the vital connector for an astonishing number of regular commuters, said by some to be approaching single figures.

Journeys between Royal Victoria and North Greenwich, previously only possible in 7 minutes via DLR and Underground, can now be made in 10 minutes via a deliberately slowed-down cross-river ride. Anyone with a home amongst the hotels of the Royal Docks and an office on the North Greenwich peninsula will know just how essential the cablecar has become.

The Elizabeth Air Line has added much needed cross-river resilience, ensuring that if the Jubilee line is ever suspended an alternative link is available, so long as there are no high winds or thunderclouds close by. Even better, cyclists can now pay to take their bikes on board, rather than being forced to ride for free through antiquated Victorian foot tunnels two miles downstream.

The cablecar's commitment to its commuters is clear. Every weekday morning the system opens up at 7am to transport Londoners with jobs to go to, rather than cutting overheads by waiting until mid-morning when the tourists drift in. Likewise shift workers are well placed to benefit from the Air Line's extended evening operations, often running as late as 11pm, when crossing times are extended to 12 minutes to prioritise relaxation over speed.

One particular masterstroke, which ensures the capsules never get too busy, is that the Air Line has never been made part of the Travelcard network. Every cablecar flight is charged on top of the daily price cap, along with any added bolt-on extras like a visit to the Elizabeth Air Museum or a ride on a boat. Lists of fares displayed outside the two terminals cunningly list all prices in reverse order, in the hope that tourists will shell out the full £23.10 and help subsidise the crossing for the rest of us.



Another clever plan is that the Elizabeth Air Line still has ticket offices, despite all the ticket offices on the London Underground having been closed. What's more it has three ticket offices for two terminals, including a stall in the station concourse at North Greenwich where a salaried operative stands underneath a redundant gondola and tries to flog boarding passes to lost tourists. Add in the staff clustered by the gateline, the staff upstairs ushering passengers into their pods and all the maintenance crew, and it's clear the cablecar remains an impressive job creation scheme.

It's always exciting to take the DLR to Royal Victoria and see how many more Air Line adverts have been shoehorned into the station, or to take a tour down the Jubilee line and see the cablecar promoted on walls, arches, platforms and former ticket office windows. There may still be several Londoners who don't realise what an invaluable part of their everyday travel this innovative link might be, so it's only right to make sure that every potential user is fully informed.

Only those who've made the effort to visit the quayside of the Royal Docks will know what a vibrant and exciting destination it can be. The hotels are welcoming, the conference centre occasionally puts on non-trade events, and for refreshment there's always the Tesco Express and the halal hot dog stall by the terminal. The cablecar genuinely wouldn't have had the same level of success had it been connected to anywhere else.

Over the last five years the cable car has been used by a total of eight and a half million passengers, which is almost exactly equal to the population of London, so we've probably all been once. What's more, annual ridership is running almost steady at 1.5 million passengers a year, and is absolutely not slipping back as certain unkind commenters have suggested, except perhaps by about 4% year on year.

Stand and watch the queues, as I did yesterday lunchtime, and you'll see just how busy the cablecar can be. I spent 15 minutes tallying the passengers flying into the Royal Docks terminal, and there were almost 15 of them, which is nearly one a minute. Only once did I count nine consecutive empty capsules, even in the height of midsummer, helping to confirm that this multi-million pound transport investment was definitely public money well spent.

It's been an amazing first five years for the Elizabeth Air Line, now firmly established on the tube map and irrefutably the finest cablecar in the capital. Today is surely a good time to stop and ask yourself how Londoners ever got around before this invaluable connection was built. Next time you visit for your regular daily flight, be sure to raise a glass to its unrivalled success.

 Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The furthest north I have ever been
Gulffoss waterfall, Iceland
64°19′34″N 20°07′16″W
(28th June 2011)

Most tourists to Iceland take the Golden Circle tour. It stops off at Þingvellir, the volcanic rift valley where Iceland's parliament first met, which is the third furthest north I've ever been. It stops off at Geysir, the whooshing geothermal fountain from which the word 'geyser' is drawn, which is the second furthest north I've ever been. And it stops off at Gulffoss, the double cataract on the Hvítá river, where a raging torrent drops 10m and then another 20m into a deep gorge. Coachloads of tourists disembark to follow the track to the waterfall's edge, held back by nothing more than a blue rope, or nip up onto the cliff beyond for a spectacular overview. I did that, and that's the furthest north on the planet's surface I have ever been. How about you?

The furthest west I have ever been
Point Reyes Lighthouse, Marin County, California
37°59′44″N, 123°1′24″W
(23rd April 2006)

30 miles up the coast from San Francisco, almost severed from the mainland by the San Andreas Fault, is the talon-shaped Point Reyes peninsula. At its point is Point Reyes itself, a rocky promontory and an excellent whale-watching site, assuming there are any and the fog isn't too thick. And right at the very tip, accessed down a breath-sapping 308-step staircase, is a lighthouse you may know. Built in 1870, and technically sixteen-sided, this is the lighthouse featured in John Carpenter's classic 1980 horror film The Fog (as the location of the remote studio where DJ Stevie Wayne spins her records). As it's still a working lighthouse you can't normally get inside, just stand outside, weather permitting, overlooking the waves. I did that, and that's the furthest west on the planet's surface I have ever been. How about you?

The furthest east I have ever been
Gedenkstätte Berlin-Hohenschönhausen, Berlin, Germany
52°32′30″N 13°30′5″E
(7th June 2015)

During the Cold War, East Germany's main Stasi prison was hidden in plain sight in the East Berlin suburbs. Fresh inmates were led down empty corridors to their cells to endure months of solitary existence, a tactic which encouraged bonding with their interrogator when they finally met. One entire wing of the prison was given over to interrogation, with each room identically decorated with wallpaper, lino and furniture to remind prisoners briefly of home. The guided tour of the prison complex is both illuminating and chastening, especially when you imagine the devastating human cost of all that happened here. I did the tour, and the interrogation room in the photo is the furthest east on the planet's surface I have ever been. How about you?

The furthest south I have ever been
All Star Music Resort, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida
28°21'29"N 81°35'24"W
(6th August 2000)

I was fairly certain the furthest south I'd ever been was Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, but I checked, and Walt Disney World in Florida is quarter of a degree nearer the equator. I had to check again to discover which constituent part of Walt's entertainment complex was furthest south, confirming that it definitely isn't the Magic Kingdom, and that that Hollywood Studios beats Animal Kingdom beats Epcot. But it turns out the garish accommodation of the All Star Music Resort took the crown, specifically the 'Calypso' block emblazoned with giant bongos and maracas, where I learned that pancakes and sausage was a perfectly acceptable breakfast. And round the back was an extensive car park, which is where we left our Chrysler convertible, and that's the furthest south on the planet's surface I have ever been. How about you?

 Monday, June 26, 2017

4 Hayes & Harlington/Southall
Yet another 'borough that never happened', Hayes and Harlington Urban District ended up in Hillingdon whereas the Municipal Borough of Southall found itself in Ealing. The boundary between the two followed the Grand Union Canal, and a fair amount of Southall's southern border did too, so that's where I chose to head for today's journey.... first the towpath along the main canal from Hanwell to Hayes, then doglegging back up the Paddington Arm towards Greenford. This is the section skipped by the Capital Ring, hence six miles of London canalside I'd never walked before, with a couple of proper treats to marvel at along the way.

The Grand Union Canal (Hanwell to Hayes) (3 miles)



Hanwell Locks are something you'd more likely expect to find in the middle of the countryside, not hidden round the back of Ealing Hospital. A flight of six locks raises the height of the canal by 50ft in the space of half a mile, deemed necessary to rise up out of the valley of the river Brent, and remarkably picturesque. The canal curves as it rises, past the retentive brick wall of what was once the Middlesex County Asylum, and a lockkeeper's cottage accessible only by stepping carefully across the gates. Hidden opposite behind a fringe of vegetation are five 'side ponds' dug to prevent the system passing too much water. Recent repairs and restoration make passage through the flight a little easier, but there's a mobile number to ring for assistance from volunteers if the whole winding and shoving malarkey gets too much.

That's one engineering miracle, and very soon comes another... Three Bridges. Isambard Kingdom Brunel's last ever project was the challenge of getting the Great Western and Brentford Railway across the Grand Union Canal. His solution was to dig a deep cutting at precisely the point where Windmill Lane crossed the canal, creating a unique multi-modal triple-decker structure with road above canal above rail. The single span iron bridge provides one vantage point, and the cast iron trough of the central aqueduct another, although the single track railway is only ever used for freight, reserving the lowest perspective for train drivers only. I was struck by the compactness and verticality of Brunel's construction, with each constituent crossing only a few yards wide, and how well it had survived a century and a half of use.



(You can end your walk there if you like, that's the incredible bit over)

The towpath continues past a pocket park and a larger green segment, the water above the canal alive with dancing dragonflies. The final lock hereabouts is at Glade Lane, where an old cottage has been badly echoed in the design of two modern flats to either side. Beyond this lies the Havelock - a council estate undergoing sequential demolition to become 'Southall Village', whose first phase of full-price incomers will get the canalside views so that existing residents can be decanted behind. At this early stage, how malignantly twee the marketing suite looks.

It's cygnet season, so I was immediately cautious when I spotted a large swan preening on the towpath ahead. Thankfully a local resident slipped out in front of me from an alleyway, allowing me to walk a few steps behind to assist in determining levels of jeopardy. The man walked nonchalantly up to the swan, which ignored him, then past... at which point it stopped preening and jabbed out viciously towards the man's dangling fingers with its beak. No contact was made, not quite, but I immediately decided to divert through the neighbouring recreation ground rather than risk avian attack by the waterside.



Wolf Bridge provides a road connection to the heart of Southall, whose golden domes are easily seen from a hump bridge over a dredger-filled inlet at Adelaide Dock. Beyond this are terraced streets built before canalside living got trendy, including one the Victorians called Industrious Cottages, once served by pubs like the Grand Junction Arms (now teetered over the cliff edge of financial viability). But there are still several peacefully green stretches to enjoy, swans permitting, because no London canal walk is ever devoid of character for long.

Eventually Bulls Bridge marks the point where the Grand Union is joined by its Paddington Arm. A string of functional houseboats are moored diagonally at the marina, whose owner offers a boatbuilding and maintenance service, while the space opposite the T-junction is covered by an unwieldy Tesco's. The arched bridge is a popular place to stop and scan the scene, and perhaps to consider where to walk next. Hayes and Harlington station is only a mile ahead, past the former Nestle factory (whose fate is prophesied by the website formernestlefactory.co.uk, which confirms, obviously, 1400 Barratt flats and no factory). Instead I'm turning off.



The Grand Union Canal (Paddington Arm) (Hayes to Northolt) (3 miles)

At the turn of the 18th century a second canal link was opened to join west/central London to the original Midlands superhighway. At its Southall end it follows the route of the Yeading Brook, and initially, sorry, it's not as interesting as the previous three miles. One bank's green and wooded but the other is sealed off - a former gas works later converted to Heathrow overspill parking and currently being levelled for yet more flats. Southall Waterside will have one kilometre of canal frontage and 3750 flats in the usual brick vernacular, the only heritage building being the unmissable pastel-blue gasholder by the side of the Great Western Railway.



More typical Southall terraces briefly intervene before the canal crosses The Broadway (where I spotted a towpath experiment confirming that pigeons much prefer white sliced bread to stacks of chapatis). Things only really perk up beyond Spike's Bridge, where a partially hidden marina heralds a raised grassy bank for canalside recreation and you could almost be back in the country again. Ruislip Road is as far as my whistlestop description extends, just past Grand Union Village, a former brickworks and wharf that's been hundreds of flats for the last ten years. Developers simply adore canalside land, is I think what the last hour and a half of my walk has taught me, even in increasingly well-connected Southall.

» 12 photos (half of which are of the Three Bridges)

 Sunday, June 25, 2017

(In case four days of writing about Tyneside was too much for you, here's a post about bus changes in Stratford.)

Stratford's gyratory system is currently one-way, but Newham council have plans to make it two-way.

They launched a consultation last autumn, which I told you all about at the time, asking the general public what they thought of the proposals. 355 members of the public responded, and 93% were in favour, which means the plans are going ahead. Here's the consultation leaflet, if you want to see a map of the new road layout.

As well as introducing a two-way traffic ​system by spring 2019, Newham also intend to introduce road calming measures, separate cycle tracks, wider pedestrian crossings and improved landscaping. They also said TfL would issue a separate consultation to look at how bus routes through Stratford would be affected, and last week TfL were finally able to do just that. The consultation closes on 21st July.

And here's what they're proposing. Simple, huh?



No?

Here's the same map, but I've removed all the red "routes no longer served" (and all the nightbuses).



That's still complicated enough, but let me see what I can unpick for you.

With regards to bus routes...
• Routes 69 and 308 won't be changing.
• Every other bus route is being partially rerouted to follow the same roads in both directions.
• Every bus route except the 69 and 308 will serve Stratford bus station in both directions.
• TfL have made a set of pdf maps to compare all the old and new routes.

With regards to new bus stops...
• Two new bus stops are being added on the inside of the ring road to serve buses travelling anti-clockwise.
• One of these will be opposite the bus station, and will be served by the 158, 241 and 257.
• The other will be near the Picturehouse, and will only be served by the 257.
• Another new stop is being added along Tramway Avenue, so there'll now be stops on both sides.
• The bus station is going to be reconfigured, with a new central loop and fewer stops at the roadside.

With regards to dead bus stops...
• The bus stop round the back of St John's Church will be removed because that bit of Broadway is being pedestrianised. All eastbound buses will stop further back outside the entrance to the Stratford Centre.
• The bus stop on Broadway outside the Town Hall will be removed. All buses will stop further back instead, either opposite the church or just round the corner on Tramway Avenue.
• The bus stop opposite the Theatre Royal will be removed, and the three remaining bus routes will stop further down Great Eastern Road.

And because it's still not entirely obvious what all that means, let me break it down by destination.

 From...To...
Bow
25, 425, 276, D8
No change - all buses will go first to the bus station.At the moment the best place to catch a bus to Bow is outside the Town Hall, because all four bus routes stop there. In future the best place will be the bus station, for the same reason. Only the 25 and 425 will stop on the Broadway.
Leyton
158
Buses will go straight to the bus station, first dropping off opposite, then in the bus station itself.No change - all buses to Leyton will turn left out of the bus station.
Leytonstone
257
Buses will turn right at Morrisons and no longer loop round to serve Broadway.No change - all buses to Leytonstone will turn left out of the bus station.
Forest Gate
25, 86, 425
Initially the same route, but without a stop outside the Town Hall. All westbound buses will now additionally visit the bus station.No significant change - buses leaving the bus station will follow Broadway (stopping outside the entrance to the Stratford Centre).
Plaistow
104, 238, 262, 473, 241
No change - all buses will stop on Tramway Avenue and then go direct to the bus station.Buses leaving the bus station will no longer loop round the gyratory but will take the quicker anti-clockwise route. Buses won't stop on Broadway, but at a new stop on Tramway Avenue.
West Ham
276
The same route as now, but with a detour to the bus station and back. Apparently buses won't stop anywhere in central Stratford except the bus station, which is either madness or somebody's left a dot off the map.The same route as now, but stopping at a new stop on Tramway Avenue.

The upshot is...
• Routes will generally be simpler and more direct.
• It's going to be easier to catch a bus to/from Stratford station.
• The bus station's going to be busier, and a more important place for catching buses.
• Far fewer buses will be serving the northeast of the town centre, i.e. outside Morrisons and the library.

In conclusion, I think I understand what's going on only because I've spent the last hour trying to unpick the maps and write the above summary. I wonder how many other people are going to bother, and then submit a response? It's all pretty much a done deal anyway... Newham are changing the roads, so TfL have got to change the buses. And sure, it's a big change, but we'll all get used to it eventually.

(In case a post about bus changes in Stratford was too much for you, there's always four days of writing about Tyneside to catch up on.)

 Saturday, June 24, 2017

TYNESIDE - Days out by Metro

The Metro is Tyneside's light rail system, a knot of lines coiled down the Tyne valley, initially opened in 1980. For a two line system it's oddly complicated - not the Green line which links the airport to Sunderland, but the Yellow. This is like the Circle line on steroids, with a giant northern loop out from Newcastle city centre to The Coast, and a long arm which crosses the river to terminate one mile from a station trains were at one hour earlier. It makes more sense when you're on it.



I struggled to buy a ticket from the machines at a station where the staffed Travel Shop had recently been closed. The Day Saver ticket was hidden down an unexpected route on the menu, so I had to ask the bloke by the barriers for help, then the machine couldn't read my banknote and cancelled the transaction, so I had to ask the bloke by the barriers again. "We're not supposed to come over and help," he said, "because management think the machines are self-explanatory. Also, try pushing your banknote along the left hand edge of the slot." We caught our train eventually, despite management's best efforts, and headed out to enjoy some sights downriver.


Wallsend (Segedunum)



Wallsend Metro station is the only public building in Britain with bilingual signs in Latin. Platform 1 is Suggestus 1, potential smokers are warned to Noli Fumare, and even the warning about penalties for ticketless travel has been translated for time-travelling passengers. This unique artwork exists because Hadrian's Wall ended nearby, or at least it did once extended east from Newcastle in 127AD, hence this point marks the edge of the Roman Empire. The site of the former fort of Segedunum is now a tourist attraction, complete with millennial Visitor Centre and airport-style observation tower. Take the lift to the ninth floor to view the footprint of the garrison, and the former site of the Swan Hunter shipyard, and (at present) five giant yellow towers destined to end up supporting an offshore windfarm.

Downstairs is a Roman gallery which explains the history of the fort and the civilisation that built it, and explains it well, then you can head outside and walk around. Only a few bits of excavated foundation remain, perhaps not surprisingly given that the site has in its time been part of a colliery and covered by terraced streets. Crossing the main road allows you to see what remains of the last few metres of Hadrian's Wall, which is basically a wiggly line of stones, plus a full-height reconstruction of what it might have looked like. There's also a reconstructed bathhouse with roof problems, sealed off at present, but the admission charge has been reduced by £1 to make up... and £4.95 is quite frankly a bargain.



The paradox of Segedunum is that it's excellent but empty. Despite being a sunny summer Sunday there were no more than a dozen visitors present, and that includes the three who left when we arrived and the four who arrived two hours later on our way out. My hunch is that everybody local who wants to see it has seen it, or has been round on a school trip, and the attraction lacks the gravity to lure wider tourists in. Whatever, a visit to Segedunum comes highly recommended, if nothing else to keep the lovely ladies in the cafe in gainful employment.

South Shields

There are two 'Shields' at the mouth of the Tyne, one North and one South, the latter being the larger. South Shields also faces the North Sea and has excellent beaches, so is the ideal destination for Tynesiders seeking a coastal retreat in high summer. We joined the crowds on Ocean Road heading to the promenade, passing timewarp guest houses with No Vacancies, a museum proud to be part of Catherine Cookson Country and an indoor pool built for inclement weather. On the other side of the funfair are an enormous stretch of golden sand and some scrappy dunes, liberally scattered with windbreaks, reddened flesh and beach cricket. At the end of one long breakwater is the skeletal Herd Groyne lighthouse, quite the landmark hereabouts, and beyond that another shining strand with rocks for scrambling. London has nothing half as good within easy striking distance.



A few marinas exist but the populace of Tyneside don't generally have the wherewithal to go messing around in boats, so yachts, cruisers and jetskis make only infrequent appearances. Instead the most popular means of water transport is the Shields Ferry, which crosses every half hour from jetties upstream, first operated in 1377 and now with considerably more modern craft. Seasoned commuters sit downstairs, whereas we one-offs can never resist a seat on deck, all the better to compare the modernised shores of South Shields with the historic slopes of North Shields. That and the ruins on the headland at the mouth of the river... which is where we headed next.

Tynemouth

Whatever preconceptions southerners might have of Tyneside, Tynemouth shatters them. Its high class Georgian terraces are somewhere Hampstead's residents would feel at home, and the central shopping street (or 'village') is much more Southwold than Southend. The station too is a cut above, a former terminus with a glistening canopied roof (resembling several greenhouses), plus a chic weekend market filling both concourses. The headland is dominated by what's left of Tynemouth Priory and Castle, in prime defensive position at the entrance to the estuary, and sheltered behind is a sandy cove accessed down a not-inconsequential flight of steps.



We queued in baking heat for fish and chips from Marshalls, the Fryery by the Priory, and were not disappointed... except by the "cheesecake in batter" which (of course) turned out to be more slab-of-Kraft then New York vanilla. Had there been more time we'd have explored the beaches to the north, including the nationally-acclaimed sweep of Longsands, the cove at Cullercoats, and ultimately the resort of Whitley Bay. Alas the Metro had other ideas and hiccuped, introducing an hour-long delay, so they'll have to wait. But blimey, Tynesiders are blessed by coastal treats, so easily accessed (most of the time) by train.

My Tyneside gallery
» There are 66 photos altogether [slideshow]
» [Wallsend 5] [South Shields 7] [Tynemouth 8]


» Young travellers will love Metro's little book of things to see (32 page pdf)

 Friday, June 23, 2017

The first meaningful milestone on the road to Crossrail took place yesterday morning as the very first train ran in operational service. They've been running up and down the line for a few months now to give drivers experience, but yesterday was the first time they've opened their doors to allowing fare-paying passengers inside.



Train 1 had been scheduled to run four weeks ago, then three weeks ago, and was finally bumped into late June due to operational issues. Its precise timing was a secret, with invitations sent out to company employees, media types and the occasional VIP, in the hope that no People Who Like Trains would appear at Liverpool Street and get in the way. What happened instead, which was rather nice, is that a completely random selection of everyday passengers turned up expecting to board the usual service, and got treated to Crossrail's inaugural run instead.



The general impression of the accidental passengers boarding the train seemed to be "ooh, that's nice." They liked the clean bright interiors, they expressed audible appreciation for the aircon, and they appeared to like the stripy purple moquette. I chatted with Pat and Maureen who were off to Romford, and they were genuinely impressed by the upholstery, the extra legroom, and the fact that nobody had yet rested their feet on the clean seats. "My husband really likes trains," said Pat, "so he'll be amazed when I tell him what I've been on today." Meanwhile Maureen was surprised the trains didn't go any faster, so I had to remind her there are just as many stations to stop at as there were before.



A heck of a lot of the passengers on the first train were staff who had been involved in project management, design or construction. Many had purple lanyards dangling round their necks, and rather smarter office attire than would normally be seen midmorning hereabouts, although one less starchy employee did look out of the window with glee at Forest Gate and exclaim "my local station!" Occasionally a familiar face from the BBC2 Crossrail documentary series wandered past, or sat down in an adjacent seat and gave an interview to a journalist. Even Transport Commissioner Mike Brown strode by, looking rightly proud. The ratio of suits and media to ordinary passengers was somewhat lower on the return journey.



These new trains are officially designated Class 345, and are a lot roomier than the 315s which run in service on the Shenfield line at present. Eventually they'll have nine carriages (and be the length of two football pitches) but for the time being they have seven, which ought to be enough to cope with an East London rush hour. A conscious decision was made to incorporate three sets of doors per carriage rather than two, to improve circulation, and the doors open slightly outwards after you've pressed the illuminated button to gain entry.



When transport officials say "more spacious" what they mean of course is "fewer seats". The front and rear carriages, for example, have longitudinal seats in austere banks of ten, plus a lot of standing room inbetween. One other carriage with wheelchair spaces is similarly arranged.

[ ¯¯↓↓↓↓↓↓↓↓↓↓¯¯↓↓↓↓↓↓↓↓↓↓¯¯↓↓↓
[ __↑↑↑↑↑↑↑↑↑↑__↑↑↑↑↑↑↑↑↑↑__↑↑↑


All the other carriages have three longitudinal seats either side of each door, then two banks of paired seats inbetween. Three of the seats at either end of the carriage tip up, providing additional wheelchair or pushchair space as necessary. Only four seats per carriage allow you to sit beside the window facing forwards.

↓↓↓¯¯↓↓↓» «↓↓↓¯¯↓↓↓» «↓↓↓¯¯↓↓↓
↑↑↑__↑↑↑» «↑↑↑__↑↑↑» «↑↑↑__↑↑↑


Each new carriage contains around 50 seats, whereas the stock being replaced had about 80, which might sound like bad news for longer-distance travellers. However this imbalance is mitigated by Crossrail trains being much longer than the old class 315s, so they actually contain more seats altogether, so all is good.

The other very obvious improvement is a step-change in on-board passenger information. The display in the centre of the carriage isn't just a dot matrix of orange lights, it's a screen on which any text or graphics can appear, allowing a greater amount of information to be seen. This means interchange stations can be displayed along with the correct colours for the various lines stopping there... and, most revolutionary, a graphic showing the next three stops can be shown. A little ant-like black train noses in from the left, and anything over and beyond the next three stations is shown by a dotted line.



One oddity - the 'National Rail' box is left-aligned whereas all the other interchange lines are centred (that's not a complaint, just an observation). A more head-scratching quirk is that the Northern line appears on the list of lines serving Liverpool Street, when clearly it doesn't. This is explained by jumping ahead 18 months to when Crossrail proper begins, because the far end of the low level platforms will connect through to Moorgate, and the Northern line does stop there. Before December 2018, however, not so.



And if you wanted reassurance that nothing ever changes, yes, this announcement is still occasionally necessary.



They're long, they're spacious and they're cool, so you'd have to be a curmudgeonly Londoner not to admire the new Class 345s. Just don't expect to find yourself on one soon, as there'll only be a couple of journeys a day to start with, then more as the new trains gradually replace the old over the summer. If your platform indicator ever flashes up the news that "the next train is formed of 7 carriages", that's a telltale sign. But eventually we'll all be riding them... to the West End, to Heathrow, to Bexley, even to Reading, as what's fresh and innovative today becomes the new normal.



It's been a very long time coming, but take your seats for Crossrail, because it'll soon be curtain up.

 Thursday, June 22, 2017

TYNESIDE - Meanwhile in Gateshead...

Gateshead (pop 120,000) sprawls across the south bank of the River Tyne immediately opposite Newcastle (pop 290,000) on the north. The logic of two separate conurbations with centres less than a mile apart seems somewhat odd today, especially with so many bridges to link them, but these easy connections weren't originally present. Instead the Tyne marked a firm historical delineation between Northumberland (to the north) and Durham (to the south), so each city grew up administratively separate. A spirit of cooperation rather than antagonism now exists between the two... although if Newcastle has the best of the old stuff, then Gateshead probably has the best of the new.

BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art
Almost the only old building to survive on the Gateshead bank of the river is the BALTIC, a former flour mill built by Rank Hovis in the 1930s, now poshed up and refitted as an art gallery. Lifts and a metal spiral staircase have been fitted at one end, the latter with a mirror top and bottom to induce infinite dizziness, plus a glass box viewing platform on the fifth floor and a restaurant on the sixth. One of the exhibitions is being changed over at the moment so I had to make do with the other two, each in a single room on a single floor, and each of which made me think "hang on, is that it?". As a Londoner it's easy to be spoilt for art, and easy to forget that most landmark provincial galleries get to thrive on quality rather than quantity. Whatever, after barely five minutes I was in the lift and off up to enjoy the view instead.



It is a great view, mainly of the the river and the Millennium Bridge, full-on, and Newcastle rising behind. On the Gateshead side less so, bar the amazing silver confection bubbling on the grassy plateau above the car park. Indeed it was the enormous car park that most surprised me, again from a Londoner's point of view wondering how so large an area of prime real estate could be left undeveloped. The council have tried - here's a glossy website seeking a funded partner for this "ready to go landmark site with a million possibilities" - but that was two years ago and still the only possibility is parking your car.

Sage Gateshead
The amazing silver confection is Sage Gateshead, in part a concert venue, in part a music school. Essentially it's three separate performance spaces - one huge, one middling and one for rehearsals - enclosed in a jellybaby-like glass and steel shell. Foster and Partners did the architecture, local software group Sage stumped up a lot of cash to be the chief patron, and the Royal Northern Sinfonia call it home.



Getting inside is a bit of an issue at the moment, with the doors at one end exit only because there isn't the money to fund staff to operate a bag search at both. The interior is a public space which doubles up as cafe, 'place to get your laptop out and work' and viewing platform. There's also a really good shop stocked with classy cultural Tyneside artefacts, even a rack of ukuleles and all the sheet music needed to become an expert. You can't always climb the staircases during the day, but signs hint at beginners' recorder lessons and folk workshops taking place somewhere within.

Gateshead Town Centre
Uphill, behind a shield of railway and dual carriageway, central Gateshead is, dare I say, nothing special. The Old Town Hall looks splendid but is empty, and is the subject of another major council regeneration tender (get your bids in by one o'clock on Monday). Above that, until a few years ago, was the iconic brutalist multi-storey car park heavily featured in the Michael Caine film Get Carter. This concrete prominence has alas been demolished to create something more useful if not as memorable - the Trinity Square development. At its base is one of the country's largest Tesco's, on top is a loaf-like layer of student accommodation, and a metal ring has been plonked in the central piazza masquerading as art. I bought some crisps and a bottle of milk, but I'd rather have climbed the car park.



Metrocentre
One reason central Gateshead's shopping offer is somewhat downbeat is the presence of Europe's largest shopping centre three miles upriver. Ten years ago they replaced the indoor funfair with a Pizza Express. I chose not to go.

Angel of the North
Likewise I didn't make it to the foot of Gateshead's iron-winged angel, although the number 21 bus does stop regularly close by, and at least I saw it from the train.

 Wednesday, June 21, 2017

TYNESIDE - Postcards from Newcastle

✉ Grey Street


Back in 2002, listeners to Radio 4's Today programme voted Grey Street the finest street in Britain. Newcastle's marketing department has been living off that claim ever since. Pevsner and Betjeman rated it extremely highly too, so there's clearly something to the claim, as is clear when you first glimpse the "descending subtle curve" of four-storey Georgian buildings. At the top of the road is Grey's Monument, erected to commemorate the Reform Act of 1832 which reached the statute books during the premiership of Earl Grey, local tea guru extraordinaire. Around his feet swirl shoppers and students, plus those emerging from the Metro interchange located underneath, while further down the street are the domed Central Exchange and the pedimented Theatre Royal. The broad sweep and gentle slope are no accident - a stream once ran this way, continuing down the line of Dean Street to...

✉ Side


What a great name for a street. Known locally since medieval times as 'the Side' (because it ran down the side of the hill beneath the castle), the street signs nevertheless call it simply 'Side'. My favourite sign has a '1' added in the corner to denote the postal district, the resulting image surely perfect for the label on an old long player. Side's former inns and shops are now more generally pubs and restaurants, part of the entertainment zone spilling along the historic Quayside, and lie in the shadow of a railway viaduct arching high overhead. And yes, Side is indeed thought to be the shortest street name in the country (tied with Hide in Beckton and Ross in County Durham), unless of course you know different.

✉ Newcastle Civic Centre


"Don't say you actually like that building," said BestMate, as I diverted across the gardens to try to get a better shot. Newcastle city council's HQ is very '60s, from the copper-roofed drum to the line of nine jagged flambeaux out front and the monolithic blocks arrayed behind. I almost persuaded him that the ring of heraldic sea horses round the bell tower was endearing, but as for the idea that this might be one of the finest modernist buildings of the 20th century, we agreed to differ.

✉ The Vampire Rabbit


Round the back of St Nicholas', not on the cathedral itself but on a facing building, is an ornate doorway topped by a vampire rabbit. That at least is its local nickname, nobody's completely sure why the crazed beast was carved here, despite much historical research. It might be to scare off graverobbers, it might be masonic, it might be 'a hare that went wrong', or it might only look demonic since someone painted it black, but it's pretty marvellous all the same.

✉ The Hoppings


Once a year, for reasons entirely disconnected to rabbits, The Hoppings comes to town. That's Europe's biggest funfair, a 135-year-old tradition, which turns up on Newcastle Town Moor for a week in June and wows the local population. The Hoppings stretches half a mile along the edge of the common, packed out with rides and stalls and tents and innumerable whirling seats. At the southern end is a village of gypsy caravans, most of which purport to belong to relatives of the original Gipsy Rosa Lee, while at the northern end the army set up a Military Show in an attempt to entice rudderless athletic souls into joining up. The central track is packed with plodding parents, thrill-seekers, kids downing brightly coloured sweets, teens and pre-teens running amok, and more than the usual number of neck tattoos. I risked a ride on the Wild Mouse, then partway round wished I hadn't, and stumbling off cheered that I had. Runs until Saturday, if you're in the area.

✉ Ouseburn Valley


Along the eastern edge of the city a small river has carved a deep valley, and it's here that Newcastle's earliest industries kicked off. The tidal creek still has a somewhat downbeat vibe, although several derelict buildings along the banks have been requisitioned and renovated to create new creative spaces, including the Biscuit Factory, the Toffee Factory and the Mushroom Works. Britain's National Centre for Children's Books is located here, with a magical steamboat moored out back, plus a city farm crammed into the next meander upstream. Three lofty viaducts carry road, rail and Metro high above this most unusual scene, which both bafflingly and brilliantly survives.

✉ Sniffer Dog


Where the Ouseburn enters the Tyne is a bike-hire-repair-shop-cafe called The Cycle Hub where we decided to stop for lunch. On the way in we spotted several police officers and their vehicles, plus a dog walking back and fro beside a car in the car park, and presumed they'd decided to stop for lunch too. Sat outside with our toasted sandwiches we could see the dog still walking back and fro beside the car... and then a policeman sealing off the exit to the car park with tape. Eventually he wandered over and asked us to take our food inside, calmly and quietly please, and not to leave the cafe! This proved an excellent excuse to order another chunk of the finest, thickest caramel slice either of us had ever tasted, as bike hub business carried on as normal, until we were finally able to escape round the backway through the boatyard. Obviously nothing whatsoever was really amiss, but 'you can't be too careful', and the car's owner returned two hours later unaware of all the commotion her odorous vehicle had caused.

✉ Byker


To Britons of a certain age, the Newcastle suburb of Byker will always be synonymous with a certain children's TV programme. The reality, however, is somewhat different... and not just because 'The Grove' was actually in Benwell, five miles to the west. The Byker Estate is architecturally renowned, built between 1969 and 1982 to house around ten thousand people in peculiarly geometric boxes. The most famous of these is the Byker Wall, an unbroken block of 620 maisonettes designed to shield noise from a motorway that was never built. But behind its multi-coloured facade is a warren of lower-rise homes, again peculiarly branded with bright-hued panelling, intermingled with large public gardens and car-free byways. The local kids are just as vivacious as on the TV, I can confirm, in this startlingly unusual place to live.

✉ Saturday night on the Toon


Friday nights in Newcastle are quite busy, but Saturday is the true Geordie Saturnalia. Groups of revellers replace the daytime drinkers, generally single sex, be they hen parties processing along the pavement in chunky heels or bunches of lads dropped off by a parent and spilling expectantly onto the street. An entire quarter of town appears devoted to insobriety, with a brigade of bouncers at every door to mitigate whatever might kick off later. Parties jockey, jostle and coalesce as the night draws on, mothers of the bride take to the dancefloor with handbags raised, and tanked-up students sing along to 80s anthems released long before they were born. By 2am the overwhelmed slump shattered in doorways, relationships have been made, or broken, and lines of taxis are mopping up the afflicted. Up on the Tyne Bridge the pavements are empty, dawn is already breaking as a glow in the northern sky, and I had a great night, thanks.

» There are now 40 Flickr photos to flick through

 Tuesday, June 20, 2017

TYNESIDE - The seven bridges of Newcastle



The city of Newcastle perches above a gorge on the river Tyne, about nine miles from the North Sea. Facing it on the opposite bank is Gateshead, and linking the two are seven bridges, which between them create the most famous views of the city. Let's start at the downstream end, with the newest of the lot.

Gateshead Millennium Bridge (2001)



If you still have an old pound coin, this bridge might be on it. The architects tackled the issue of crossing a navigable river at a low level in an unusual and original way. A curved counterbalanced deck crosses the Tyne, the inner track for pedestrians only and the outer dual use (including bikes). Normally the span's height is sufficient to allow pleasurecraft underneath, but for anything larger the entire structure is capable of rotating up to 40 degrees, which gives the bridge its nickname, the Winking (or Blinking) Eye.

Most days there'd be no need to raise the bridge at all, but the authorities know a good tourist attraction when they see one, so sometimes it rises two or three times a day. I got lucky on my first day in town, as a siren blared out across the valley and the chirpy controller advised pedestrians to hurry up and cross. Within five minutes the gates at each end were shut and the deck started to semi-perceptibly rise, soon reaching angles more suitable for rock climbers than casual strollers. At maximum elevation a pleasure boat which had been moored up on the bank cast off and chugged underneath, then returned with a satisfied hoot before the deck was lowered again.



I also got lucky on my last day in town, watching the entire scenario from the opposite side alongside a promenade of spectators and contented bar-sippers. What I didn't manage to see was one of its after-sunset tilts, or the bridge illuminated in rainbow colours, but the daytime spectacle was damned impressive enough. I wish I'd saved one of the pound coins as a souvenir.

Tyne Bridge (1928)



This green-painted Geordie icon was designed by Mott, Hay and Anderson, the same company as the similar (but larger) Sydney Harbour Bridge. King George V and Queen Mary were the first to drive across, in their Ascot landau, 26 metres above the river and beneath a grand parabolic arch. Crossing on foot feels somewhat exposed, though not vertiginous, hence there's a sign for the Samaritans in the middle for a very good reason.

Lifts were originally built in the four granite towers to allow access from pavement level to the quayside, but these have since closed and the exterior has been taken over by a colony of 800 black-legged kittiwakes. Nowhere else in the world do these birds nest so far from the sea, although they make a hell of a racket and a heck of a mess so aren't universally welcomed.

Swing Bridge (1876)



In approximately the same spot as the Romans built their Pons Aelius, this Victorian bridge spans the Tyne at the foot of the gorge rather than the top. It was built to replace a static crossing, allowing larger ships to pass upstream and stimulating trade, and at the time was the largest swing bridge in the world. The entire structure pivots 90° around a central axis before coming to rest on a long wooden jetty, and is still powered by the original hydraulics. Unlike the Millennium Bridge it only rotates a handful of times a year, and unlike the Tyne Bridge remains pristine and kittiwake-free.

High Level Bridge (1849)



Arguably the city's finest engineering marvel, the High Level Bridge was designed by Robert Stephenson (son of George) to create a rail link north to Scotland. Trains passed across the top tier of the bridge, supported by tied cast iron arches, while a roadway and footpath ran directly underneath. Amazingly it still functions the same way today, if in somewhat diminished form. Road traffic is now restricted to buses and taxis southbound only, after a major restoration project ten years ago inserted protective barriers which reduced the available width. Meanwhile the majority of trains now use an upstream bridge, leaving only lighter services on the Sunderland line to follow the High Level.

Walking through as a pedestrian is a peculiar experience, as the road past Newcastle Castle suddenly enters a gloomy metal box in the sky. An old plaque confirms Robert Stephenson and Thomas Harrison as the engineers, and a modern sign offers the terminally depressed a telephone number to ring. The pavement then proceeds through a series of girdered arches, resembling some steampunk promenade, though with numerous telltale white splashes underfoot. A lot of gulls or pigeons - I didn't want to look up and check - roost in the metalwork of each compartmentalised section... and while I walked through this guano tombola scot-free, BestMate was not so lucky.

Queen Elizabeth II Bridge (1981)
King Edward VII Bridge (1906)



Beyond a stretch of forlornly undeveloped Gateshead riverside, the next two bridges are for trains. The younger of the two is painted blue and serves the Metro, Tyneside's light rail network, with trains emerging briefly from tunnels on either bank of the river allowing passengers to enjoy the view. The larger of the two is older, built to reduce the High Level bottleneck, and consists of four lattice steel spans on concrete piers. If you've ever ridden the East Coast Line north of Durham this is the path you take, and the bridge-tastic panorama is one of three reasons why you should always try to sit on the right hand side of the train.

Redheugh Bridge (1983)



Furthest west of the seven, this prestressed concrete span is the third road bridge to be built in this location and carries the A189 across the Tyne. Princess Diana turned up to open it, as a plaque in the pavement railings above the loftiest drop confirms, hopefully on a day when the wind wasn't gusting too strong. Barely half a mile from the commercial hubbub of Newcastle Quayside, the landscape out this way is bleak and somewhat post-industrial, with a wall of council flats rising on the Gateshead side. Upstream the valley flattens and winds off into distant hills, whereas downstream the view is of the other six bridges... which is the photograph at the top of the post.

» I've uploaded 28 photos of these bridges to Flickr, or you can watch a slideshow here


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