diamond geezer

 Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Gadabout: BOLTON

Bolton lies ten miles northwest from Manchester, east of Wigan, on the edge of the West Pennine Moors. Once one of the wealthiest cotton mill towns in the world, today it's very much no longer that, more a service-led suburb with a proud heritage. I was in town on Saturday lunchtime, and explored three Bolton icons...
[10 photos]

Victoria Square

The very centre of Bolton is atypically grand, and one of the very first public spaces in England to be pedestrianised. Victoria Square started out as the town's market place, then in the 1860s proved the ideal gap to plonk a neoclassical town hall. Its baroque clocktower is visible across town, and will reappear in today's post in two paragraphs' time. Round the back is Le Mans Crescent, a top-class 1930s civic addition, named after the most famous of Bolton's twin towns. Its sweeping curves house the courts, police station and library, plus the town's museum, which obviously is where I headed.

The town's museum is alas currently closed while an Egyptian gallery is magicked on the upper floors, so all I got to see were some temporary lesser collections in the basement. Those and the famous aquarium, one of a handful in Britain to contain only freshwater fish. It's neither huge nor in any way modern, but it's always great to be able to pop in and see catfish and piranhas while you're out doing your shopping. The remainder of the town centre doesn't really compare, but that said, nowhere else have I been accosted by Muslims Against Terrorism, two Mormon elders and a free bottle of Ribena in the space of a minute. I also stumbled into a statue of this chap...

Fred Dibnah

If you're of an age, you'll remember Fred Dibnah as TV's go-to steeplejack. He got lucky while repairing the clock at the top of Bolton Town Hall when a BBC North West film crew turned up seeking an interview. His enthusiastic delivery led to the commissioning of a full documentary, which won a BAFTA in 1979, then a series of other shows of an industrial heritage bent. This cheery Lancastrian could often be seen riding steamrollers, dodging collapsing chimneys or waxing lyrical about boilers, there being considerably fewer TV channels in those days. Fred lost his battle with cancer in 2004 at the age of 66, but his memory lingered on after a fan bought up his house in Bolton and opened it up as the Fred Dibnah Heritage Centre.

Alas the Fred Dibnah Heritage Centre has recently closed. The owner is seeking to retire, and couldn't find any buyer to pass the collection on to, so last month put the entire contents of the site up for auction. Most of the big stuff went, mostly to fans or museums, but plenty of smaller bits remained and these were returned to sale in a one-off open day the other weekend. And when that failed to shift everything he opened up again last weekend, before the entire property is auctioned off next month, and that's how fortunately I got to go inside.

Fred's home was a converted Victorian gatehouse on Radcliffe Road, unusually quirky from the front, and considerably larger from the rear. Out back are an extensive hotchpotch of sheds and workshops, perched on a bluff above a wooded river, creating quite the most adorable place for tinkering. I can't imagine what it was like with all the engines, ladders and heritage machinery lying everywhere, but at least the pithead gear Fred planned to drill his garden with hadn't yet been packed up and trucked away. Instead the workshop was open with the final leftovers, and boy did it feel strange rifling through a dead celebrity's yard sale.

Fred's spade heads, Fred's whiteboard, Fred's surplus masking tape, Fred's chairs, Fred's chock for steamroller, Fred's vacuum cleaner, several of Fred's grimy clamps, all these (and more) lay strewn about. Many were labelled "Make an offer", with the owner sat outside while a handful of us shuffled round mulling over the possessions. A lot of the Heritage Centre's souvenirs were now surplus to requirements, including DVDs and coasters, even branded bodywarmers, but I carried on scouring the worktops for something properly Dibnah. It took a couple of circuits, but finally in amongst the used tools and innumerable spare parts I found what I wanted, a bit grimy and only 99% functional, but perfect all the same. Which is why I am now the proud owner of Fred Dibnah's pocket calculator, and that was my Saturday made.

Hall i' th' Wood

One stop north of Bolton, astride the A58 bypass, is a railway station with the most evocatively Lancastrian name - Hall i' th' Wood. What's more this twin-apostrophe'd curio is a relatively recent addition to the network, knocked up on the cheap in 1986, and earned its name from an astonishing historical building hidden just up the road. Cross the housing estate, pass through a patch of lowly bungalows and there at the top of the park is a Tudor woollen merchant's house, intricately bedecked with black and white timbering. It shouldn't have survived, but a famous invention and a wealthy soap magnate saved it, and the council now maintain Hall i' th' Wood as a museum.

You don't often get to wander around a 500-year-old middle class home, with all its beams and precipitous staircases, so that's already interesting enough. But the set of rooms above the porch was home in 1779 to a certain Samuel Crompton, whose invention of the spinning mule revolutionised Britain's burgeoning textile industry. It built on the earlier invention of the spinning jenny, a first step towards industrialisation, but which could only produce weaker types of yarn. Samuel's hybrid frame generated finer thread, but he never managed to make a profit from it after manufacturers spied on his design, then ripped it off, and he sadly died a pauper.

Step up Lord Leverhulme, founder of Lever Brothers, who was born in the town a century after Crompton and used his influence to buy the house. Hall i' th' Wood became a museum as early as 1902, which saved it from demolition, and both men are now remembered within. The original spinning mule is long gone, neither can you peer into the attic to see where Samuel hid it when anti-industrialisation riots spread across Lancashire. But even if that is only a replica in the corner, to be able to walk into a room that changed the world is always an evocative opportunity.

 Monday, April 23, 2018

Gadabout: WIGAN

Wigan is located between Liverpool and Manchester, and is in the administrative thrall of the latter. It's perhaps most famous for a tourist attraction that doesn't exist, but music, food and sport also resonate. I was in town on Saturday morning, and explored three Wigan icons...
[7 photos]

Wigan Pier
In 1936 George Orwell made a famous literary quest to seek out the soul of the industrial north, including three weeks amongst the slag heaps and muddy canals of Wigan. The poverty he found shocked him, but no semblance of Wigan Pier was forthcoming, the structure having been originally conjured up as a music hall joke. This of course hasn't stopped numerous tourists following in his wake, attempting to follow The Road To Wigan Pier, and I can now be included in their number.

In the 1980s the local council tidied up the post-industrial area around the canal basin to try to make something of the place. The largest warehouse became a museum called The Way We Were, focusing on the theme of "life in Wigan in Victorian times". Gibson's Warehouse, inside which narrowboats once moored up to unload, became a waterside pub called The Orwell. A demolished coal staithe was reinstated to ensure that there was a pier of sorts on site. Towpaths and boardwalks were spruced up, several heritage statues were scattered around for good measure, and even the Queen was drafted in for the official opening. Initially, at least, the place was a hit.

I turned up on a cracking spring morning to discover that time has not been kind. The museum closed in 2007 due to low visitor numbers. The recession killed off the pub in 2009. Both are still boarded up and nudging dereliction, one propped up by scaffolding with a legal notice on the door debarring squatters. The waterbus service no longer operates. One of the dockers portrayed as a statue has had the top part of his head sliced off and looks like a 'B' movie monster. If you're a local businessperson with a financial deathwish, 1.43 acres of land are currently up for sale as an "iconic development opportunity".

Across the canal the Wigan Pier nightclub was demolished in 2015 to make way for a new leisure nucleus called Wigan Pier Quarter, although none of the promised mixed-use leisure redevelopment has yet taken place. The only immediate success is Trencherfield Mill, now flats and offices, but housing a 2500HP steam engine which fires up for visitors on occasional Sundays. This short stretch of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal may still look impressive, but rings increasingly hollow. Wigan Pier is once again a victim of economic decline, perversely echoing what George Orwell found here eighty years ago.

Wigan pies
'The Road To Wigan Pies' would more likely be a best seller today. The populace of Wigan adore their pies, which are very much the lunchtime snack of choice, in the same way that Cornwall loves pasties and Stoke-on-Trent lusts after oatcakes. I did my research beforehand and observed that family firm Galloways appear to be the purveyor of choice, so popped into one of their many turquoise fronted bakeries (immediately opposite the station) before the main rush started. You're never far from a pie shop in Wigan. I plumped for the classic meat and potato, resisting the temptation to coat it in a bread roll - the legendary pie barm. "That'll be £1.80," said the aproned lady, "and I've put a fork in there for you."

To enact a total Wigan cliche, I took my paper bag down to Wigan Pier and unwrapped it on the site of the former canalside nightclub. I'm not sure what size I was expecting, perhaps something narrower and thicker, but I was pleased enough with a scaled-down version of a full-size family savoury. The pastry was lush, and irregular enough to confirm a hand-finished means of production. As for the filling, well, let's just say there was a lot more potato than meat, but mixed together into a smooth peppery gloop which tasted a lot better than it looked. It was simply delicious, and deliciously simple, and I'm gutted to discover that Galloways have no outlets further south than St Helens. Next time, with gravy.

Wigan Casino
Northern Soul brought Wigan to life, specifically overnight at the Wigan Casino. Crowds came from across the region to this former ballroom to enjoy a wild night dancing to classic tunes rarely spun down south, always ending up with the same three songs by Tobi Legend, Jimmy Radcliffe and Dean Parrish. In the Museum of Wigan Life* I watched a short documentary showed excitable youths queuing to enter the building, insistent in vox pops that none of the rest of the week mattered, while management stashed vast piles of pound notes behind the paydesk. Once inside they packed the dancefloor with their exuberant gyrations, flares flapping, on this occasion to the insistent soundtrack of What by Judy Street. Between 1973 and 1981 there was nowhere like it.

And then the club closed, and the next year it burnt down, and today the town's main shopping centre covers the site. Stepping inside the Grand Arcade is no cathartic experience, the muzak choice is far poorer, and as tributes go the Casino Cafe food court in the upper mall lacks emotional nourishment. What there is downstairs is a statue of George Formby, Wigan's famous cheeky ukulelist, and my guess is that the Queen would far rather have attended its unveiling that that dull pier thing down the road. All the town's current nightclub options are crammed down King Street, from 80's-themed parties to bierkellers, in great enough numbers to suggest that escapism is still an essential part of life in Wigan.

* The Museum of Wigan Life is a one-gallery whistlestop tour of the town's heritage, from Roman encampments to rugby league success, housed in the town's former main library. If I'd been asked to guess I'd have assumed the displays were at least 20 years old, but apparently they only date back to 2010, so goodness knows what they spent the £1.9m restoration grant on.

 Sunday, April 22, 2018

In a week when the dangers of plastic waste have been weighing heavily on the nation's conscience, the London Marathon continues unabated. This annual environmental catastrophe ravages the capital, blocking the streets and littering them with hundreds of thousands of plastic bottles. Yet the authorities continue to turn a blind eye. When will this madness cease?

I undertook surveillance beside one of the many rehydration stations and watched, aghast, as tablefuls of bottled water were thrust in front of weary runners. They grasped them gladly, guzzling down the refreshing liquid, then hurled them to the floor without a second thought. Mountains of discarded bottles at the kerbside told their own scandalous story.

What's more, most of the runners failed to drink the entire contents, thereby wasting the not-inconsiderable resources that had gone into each bottle's production. As I stood there open-mouthed, several water-filled missiles were hurled towards me, spilling out their contents before evaporating on the pavement. Somewhere in the Pacific a porpoise choked on a plastic lid.

The main culprit was a greedy drinks company who had paid a considerable sum to despoil the race. Even the sign which would normally have said "Water station" had been replaced by the name of a market town in Derbyshire, explicitly linking their toxic brand to the death of wildlife worldwide. Council operatives struggled to contain the mountains of discarded rubbish.

The ecological savagery inflicted by an infamous 1920s sugar-based drink was even worse. Competitors seemed less willing to consume an entire bottle of this orangy liquid, casting pallets-worth into the gutter after barely a couple of gulps. Perhaps they were scared of the decay 13.7 grams of sugar would cause before they were next able to brush their teeth.

No other types of liquid, in any kind of sustainable packaging, were available. None of the athletes had had the foresight to bring their own water in reusable non-plastic bottles. Nobody, it seems, had considered the practicality of installing drinking fountains around the course. Where were the ecologically engineered water reclamation and reuse solutions?

Scandalous amounts of waste were conspicuous elsewhere. Unnecessary motivational placards had been made from timber-based sources. Spectators had travelled from all across the country, generating an astronomical carbon footprint. Charities had manufactured thousands of inflatable plastic tubes on the off-chance that families might take them home and set up a direct debit. Beer drinkers stumbled out of pubs clutching superfluous plastic glasses. Appalling levels of skin damage were being inflicted by unseasonable solar radiation. T-shirts bearing inspirational messages had been purchased even though they could only be worn once. Balloons attached to mileposts contained a not insignificant proportion of the world's remaining supply of helium. The chief sponsor was a company which irresponsibly propels metal tubes through the upper atmosphere. Public transport was being hindered, diverted or curtailed. Members of the emergency services stood around wasting valuable resources which would have been better focused on civilians in genuine need. Runners collapsed in front of their applauding parents, then struggled to continue, causing irreparable long-term damage to their mental well-being.

Sure, the London Marathon earns millions of pounds for deserving causes each year, but at what collective cost? We should end this annual charade and all give thirty quid to charity instead, flashing our own plastic to save the planet.

Three Olympic Park bridges

 Saturday, April 21, 2018

Location: Ayot St Lawrence, near Welwyn, Hertfordshire, AL6 9BX [map]
Open: noon-5pm (closed Monday, Tuesday)
Admission: £8.00
Website: nationaltrust.org.uk/shaws-corner
Four word summary: George Bernard's Herts hideaway
Time to allow: about an hour

Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw was one of the celebrities of the first half of the 20th century. He hated it. People loved his scripts, admired his principles and clamoured for his philosophies, but George would rather have been left alone. So in 1906 he and his wife found themselves a former rectory in the deepest wilds of Hertfordshire and hunkered down. After all, in Hertford, Hereford, and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly ever happen.

Shaw was born in Dublin in 1856, the youngest child of an awkward marriage. He hated school but adored education, soaking up ideas from a wide range of books, and left to become an office clerk at the earliest opportunity. At the age of 20 he followed his mother to London, where she hoped to become a music teacher, and established himself as a theatre critic. An increasing interest in politics brought him to greater prominence, sealed in 1902 by his first super-successful play, Man and Superman.

1902 was also the year Shaw's Corner was built, then the rectory for the tiny parish of Ayot St Lawrence, lost amid the fields between Harpenden and Welwyn. The C of E soon decided the property was too large for a vicar, and let it out, and so began GBS's 46-year stay. George and Charlotte took separate bedrooms, and five members of staff kept an eye on housework, cooking and the garden. Trips to London or beyond were undertaken as required, but most of the time the garden gate provided perfect privacy, aided and abetted by the relatively remote location. [8 photos]

Shaw's Corner is a lovely Edwardian villa, decked out in Arts and Crafts styles, opposite what passes for Ayot St Lawrence's busiest road junction. A National Trust guide will greet you out front and deliver a potted biography, while another waits in the hall to point you in the right direction. Each room has been left as it was when George died in 1950, indeed the deal with the National Trust was agreed in advance, and he spent his last years leaving all his accoutrements precisely where he wanted to cultivate the right image for posterity.

You'll see his parlour and his study, his bedroom and his capacious bath. You'll see writings and paintings, plus a shaggy-bearded bust by Rodin (although it's nowhere near as red as the real thing). Charlotte removed all her stuff before she died, so her bedroom has become a museum room. The current exhibition is suffragette-related - George was a huge supporter - but the cabinet beside the window merits closer inspection. George Bernard Shaw is the only person (thus far) to have been awarded an Oscar and a Nobel Prize. Lift the drape to see his statuette and his signed certificate, then covet both.

The garden's charming too, with its stripy lawn and swathe of daffodils. Hidden behind the shrubbery is George's writing shed, a tiny hut which swivelled to face the sun (presumably when the trees opposite were somewhat shorter). You can't go in but you can peer inside to see an ornament-topped desk, a wall-mounted telephone and a comfy looking bed. Eliza Doolittle and Professor Henry Higgins sprang forth right here. George was independent to the end, but at the age of 94 he fell off a ladder while pruning a tree in the adjacent orchard, and the injuries sadly led to his death. For an ardent vegetarian, it's ironic that an apple finished him off.

Don't come for the tea room, there isn't one, although there is an honesty fridge near the back door. Instead you might want to avail yourself of refreshment at The Brocket Arms, the 14th century inn a few steps away at the other end of the village. Opposite are the remains of a 12th century church, part-demolished in 1775 when the new owner of the manor house demanded a prettier view from his garden. The tower and a lot of the walls remain, the end result being possibly more romantic than the original. But not as impressive as its replacement...

Ayot St Lawrence's temple-like 18th century church is all the more amazing for popping up in a field. It's loosely modelled on something the architect saw in the Greek Islands, and unusually has its main door at the eastern end because that way the portico faced the landowner's mansion. Step inside (you probably can) to be further wowed by the lofty interior, the cruciform tiled floor and the altar in the coffered apse. Despite no longer having any parish to speak of, services are still held here on the second Sunday in the month, and I don't know who arranges the flowers but they do a dazzling job.

The rest of the fun comes in getting to Ayot St Lawrence in the first place. Even by car it involves a series of increasingly narrow lanes, so perfectly did George Bernard Shaw select his hideaway. Buses refuse to venture this far, and even the nearest station is five miles distant. I hiked in from Welwyn North and back to Welwyn Garden City, to make a day of it, eyeing up the early bluebells and that luscious shade of green you only see in spring. I can recommend following the disused railway, then bearing off up the boundary track across the Codicote Road. You could follow in my footsteps. Wouldn't it be loverly?

 Friday, April 20, 2018

When planners run out of inspiration for street names, they turn to ordinal numbers. New York's Fifth Avenue is world famous, and Manhattan's grid goes up to 228th Street.

London ascends no such lofty numerical heights. But there is one chain of numbered streets in Newham, specifically Manor Park, which rises sequentially from First to Eighth.

This stretch of the Romford Road was being built up at the end of the 19th century. Long parallel streets were carved off across the fields, linking up with the soon-to-be shattered peace of Church Road. The street you'd think would be number one got called Meanley Road, but then the numbers kicked in, in order, until the existing wiggle of Little Ilford Lane ended the chain. First to Fourth Avenues run uninterrupted, a hundred-and-something terraced houses in each, but Fifth is stunted by the presence of a large primary school and its house numbers barely makes the thirties. Walk the streets near hometime and a stream of headscarved mothers lead their children home, while their older siblings seek out Haribo and/or fried chicken on the main road.

This is Eighth Avenue, a brief dead end, and the last in the chain. It begins between a shuttered shop unit and a tyre dealers - London Tyres, whose interior is a maelstrom of rubber, mechanics in overalls and cars propped overhead for inspection. The next business is motor-driven too, the edge of Newham being part of the blurred zone where Londoners start to prefer cars to public transport. Vehicles are parked all the way down the road, providing manoeuvring challenges for any resident hoping to make a swift departure. Someone has a tropical palm in their tiny front garden, others have bins. Multiple satellite dishes hint at multiple occupancy. The further down the street you go, the less the trees look like trees and more like stunted trunks. And right down at the far end is a locked gate, behind which an Islamic wholesaler and a vintage 1960s clothing company hold court. True believers, mods and skinheads take note.

But we can beat Eight. Simply wait a few months and hop onto Crossrail, straight through the city and out the other side, to the environs of Hayes and Harlington. Hayes can manage Nine.

The Townfield Estate was laid out between the wars on fields north of what we now know as Hayes, but was previously called Botwell. The leaf-shaped layout of the estate bears the firm hand of council planners, its spine road (Central Avenue) reaching out via several narrower streets to either side. Rather than link everything up the planners preferred quiet backwaters - grassy squares where there was room, and brief cul-de-sacs where there was not. The squares got names, but the cul-de-sacs were numbered, generally in pairs, with Ninth somewhat out on a limb. Here's First Avenue.

'Avenue' feels a bit strong for what's essentially a terse dead end. There's never been any attempt at a pavement - back in the 1920s it wouldn't have been required, horses and carts being easier to dodge than those new-fangled cars. I bet that lamppost is an original, a single light source leading towards two sets of facing cottages, each of a size which these days looks impressively spacious. This was a working class neighbourhood back in the day, and the estate still retains that feel, though with considerably more diversity than before.

Second to Fifth Avenues look somewhat similar, while Sixth to Eighth boast larger, slightly more prestigious council homes. Four hundred and something pounds now pays the mortgage, up from five figures at the turn of the century, and probably some paltry monthly rental payment at original completion. Seventh Avenue has been resurfaced this week, so looks the most modern of the lot. One thing which intrigued me was how the street signs teeter on the threshold of what Hillingdon council can cram onto one line.

Third, Fifth, Sixth and other five-letter names merit long thin signs, whereas six letters or more requires a second line and a deeper rectangle. Seventh and Eighth Avenues also feature more up-to-date fonts, designs and layout than the others, for anyone with an interest in street sign evolution.

And finally there's Ninth Avenue. Its entrance has a more secluded ambience than the others, courtesy of two high hedges, and the short walk down to where the houses begin feels fractionally longer. Only the residents of number 1 maintain a front garden, because everyone else gave up and paved over a while back. I counted 18 houses altogether, whilst trying not to look overly suspicious doing so, as any stranger entering a cul-de-sac tends to be.

Ninth Avenue is a three-lamppost one-telegraph-pole backwater. A substantial proportion of its households own vans, generally but not always white. Someone has a motor home. Leaving a broken pallet in the street isn't necessarily frowned upon. At least one of the residents goes to school, and another will once she's outgrown her pushchair. It all feels somewhat inward-looking, a housing cluster designed for a bygone age, but if anyone's ever planning a new post-Brexit suburban soap opera, maybe give Ninth Avenue a spin.

» First to Ninth Avenues, in Hayes UB3, form the longest sequence of ordinal street names in London.
» Eighteenth Road and Nineteenth Road exist near Mitcham Common, built for postwar prefabs on the site of Pollards Hill Golf Course, but First→Fourth Road, Fifth→Thirteenth Close and Fourteenth→Seventeenth Place are long-demolished.

For longer ordinal chains you need to head outside London, where I've discovered the following...

First → Twelfth Avenue in Chester-le-Street, County Durham
First → Twelfth Street in Peterlee, County Durham
First → Thirteenth Avenue in Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire
Road One → Twentieth Street on the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus, Oxfordshire
First → Twenty-Sixth Avenue (excluding Thirteenth) in Blyth, Northumberland
1st → 40th Avenue (excluding 3rd, 13th, 35th, 39th) in Kingston-upon-Hull

 Thursday, April 19, 2018

On the Tuesday morning after Easter I waved goodbye to my brother and nephew at Norwich station and wandered off to catch a train back to London. Last night I walked over to BestMate's in Plaistow and we had dinner and watched telly. Inbetween, I met and spoke to absolutely nobody I know. That's 15 days, 9 hours and 12 minutes of conversational solitude. And I coped fine.

To be clear, I did of course speak to people during my fortnight-plus social hiatus. I conversed with the lady at the till in the supermarket, and the newsagent in the kiosk by the station, and the bloke selling me a train ticket to Welwyn North, and the lady who wanted know the best way to Leicester Square, and half a dozen National Trust stewards, plus I said thanks to several bus drivers as I alighted. I also had four phone conversations during that time, two with my Dad and two with a friend, and engaged in several email chats. But for more than two weeks I didn't have a single face-to-face conversation with anyone whose name I knew. I wonder if you'd have coped.

Those of you with dependents probably can't imagine the opportunity to spend even a few days by yourself. Families, partners and live-in offspring make it nigh impossible for this situation to arise. Anyone with a job probably couldn't manage it either, as office and workplace environments generally enforce some kind of inter-colleague discourse. Ditto hospital patients, students, flat-sharers, gym-goers, team players, nursing home residents, club members, and the vast majority of the population. Only those of us who live alone, and can occupy ourselves independently, ever get to be so solitary for such long periods.

It's not always a situation people want to be in. The end of a relationship or the loss of a partner can leave those used to regular connections bereft of interaction. Widowed pensioners, especially those with mobility issues, can be plunged into miserable isolation after decades of dialogue. But I coped fine with my empty fortnight, getting on and doing my own thing, without ever climbing the wall through a need to outpour. You might call it crippling introversion or antisocial inadequacy, but I call it emotional resilience. I'm not saying it was ideal, but I survived almost without noticing how reclusive I'd become. Some of us can do alone without being lonely. Others are simply glad never to have to.

I still reckon London's most almost-circular bus route is the H13.

Bus: 8 miles, 37 mins. Walk: 0.95 miles, 19 mins.

But the 224 is also a contender.

Bus: 8 miles, 71 mins. Walk: 1.0 miles, 20 mins.

While the 325 is proper horseshoe-y.

Bus: 8 miles, 55 mins. Walk: 1.9 miles, 38 mins.

And the R3 is wilfully contorted.

Bus: 9 miles, 47 mins. Walk: 1.9 miles, 38 mins.

As for the straightest bus route?

That's probably the 32 which follows the Edgware Road.

Bus: 7 miles, 54 mins. Walk: 7 miles, 135 mins.

Unless it's the 116, along the Staines Road.

Bus: 6 miles, 27 mins. Walk: 6 miles, 115 mins.

(London has over 500 different bus routes. You can see a map for each one here)

 Wednesday, April 18, 2018

What, I wondered, if my life (so far) were geological strata.

  SEDIMENTARY London gravel Job 4b 
 London clayJob 4a
 Anglian chalkJob 3
 Essex discontinuity
 Chiltern sandstoneJob 2
         Thames Valley limestone        Job 1
    METAMORPHIC   Yorkshire slateUni 2
 Oxbridge marbleUni 1
 IGNEOUSHerts quartzSch 3
 Herts graniteSch 2
 Herts basaltSch 1

(and if it's real UK geology you want, this is fabulous, and so is this, and so is this)

 Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Route H13: Northwood Hills to Ruislip Lido
Location: London northwest, outer
Length of journey: 8 miles, 40 minutes

Some bus routes head straight for their destination, while others go all round the houses. A handful of 'circular' routes deliberately return to where they started. But no London bus route is quite so almost-circular as the H13, taking a wilfully all-round-the-houses route to almost back where it started. Indeed it's possible to walk from one end of the route (above Northwood Hills) to the other end (alongside Ruislip Lido) in half the time it takes the bus. To prove the point, I cloned myself and made both journeys simultaneously.

St Vincent's Hospital perches on Haste Hill, one of the Northwood Hills, at the top of a dead end climb. The view from the top field is extensive, with Harrow's church on show in gaps between the rooftops. What's odd is seeing a bus up here to serve a nursing home and a few hillside flats, but the avenues below merit a regular service, and the driver has to turn around and park up somewhere. He's chatting on his phone when I arrive, so I sit in the shelter until the timetable ticks round, beneath a poster warning me that New Year's Eve Fireworks tickets have sold out.

0 minutes (bus)
And we're off, impressively with one other passenger on board, the devil peering out of a rosebush beneath his shirtsleeves. We zip down the lane into Norwich Road, where a learner driver on possibly their very first lesson meets us on the wrong side of a parked car. We are their living nightmare - large, important, and going nowhere until they've been taught how reverse gear works. A queue of traffic builds up behind us until eventually an appropriate manoeuvre is performed and the road is unlocked. At the bottom of the road had we turned right we could have got fifteen minutes ahead of ourselves but no, we turn left towards central Northwood Hills (and its gorgeous 65 metre-long silk screen mural).
   0 minutes (walk)
Walk past the nursing home into the trees, through an awkward narrow gate, and a whole different route opens up. This is Park Wood, one of the ancient Ruislip Woods, which tumbles down for quarter of a mile towards the shores of a lake. I take the right-hand fork, disregarding the child sobbing about her scooter at the top, and follow the rutted track downhill. It's muddy in places. OK, it's very muddy in places, and I'm glad to have had the foresight to wear boots instead of anything fashionably pristine. At one point I strike a fresh path through the groundcover to avoid hoof-churned squelch, but most of the time I either step carefully or stride ahead brazenly and hope for the best.
5 minutes (bus)
We are the only bus to serve the avenues north of Pinner Road, where traffic is perennially light. Our driver takes advantage by repeatedly nudging the accelerator, at speeds I might describe as not necessarily faster than the speed limit but zippier than your average bus. Private streets head sharply uphill, while our low road undulates somewhat, crossing the boundary between Hillingdon and Harrow. We pass Pinner Wood School, which closed last March when chalk mine tunnels were discovered underneath, and reopened this January after the voids had been filled with 5000 tons of silt. It still looks like a building site. Elton John is its most famous pupil, and we pass his childhood home shortly afterwards.
  5 minutes (walk)
The mud is worse at the foot of the hill - I guess more horses clop this way. I spot two magpies and a very lost golf ball, and hear a woodpecker somewhere in the trees. The tip of Ruislip Lido lies immediately ahead, but can't be reached at this point because the Ruislip Lido Railway blocks access. The only level crossing is further round to the right, so I tiptoe that way, just above the sign marking Neptune in the local solar system. If anything the segregated footpath beside the bridleway proves muddier still. The platform of Haste Hill station is visible through the fence, with three benches and a tub of blooming flowers, but trains no longer serve this former request stop so it's all for show.
10 minutes (bus)
I love the copper-roofed courts along Elm Park Road, appropriately in Pinner Green. Six passengers board here - two in shorts going all the way and another several times their age wrapped in a thick coat, scarf and woolly hat. We shoot down to Pinner proper, one of the loveliest Metroland outposts by dint of having existed before the railways came. Outside the station a bundle of passengers charge for the double decker behind us, while we gain a student with a guitar on her back and a pushchair containing a toddler in glittery pink wellies. The bus is still proceeding on the nippy side, with an ageing rattle, but despite its speed is sticking relentlessly to timetable.
  10 minutes (walk)
A sign stuck by the side of the level crossing alerts daytrippers to the times of passing trains, not for health and safety reasons but in case they fancy waving or taking photos. I've accidentally timed my passage perfectly, so get to do both, eliciting awkward grins from some of the smaller passengers on board. The central wagon is chock full of pushchairs and strollers, confirming target audience. At last I can cross to the lakeside path, although along the next section the water is entirely screened by trees. The remainder of the walk is thankfully on tarmac, ideal for the procession of families, dogs and joggers performing their single circuits.
15 minutes (bus)
We've reached the farthest easterly point on the H13's journey, now bearing onto the Eastcote Road. The houses are a fraction more modern here, and less Metroland-y, but are putting on a fine front garden display of magnolia, daffodils and blossom. The bus still has more people getting on than getting off, as we cross the River Pinn twice and the boundary back into Hillingdon once. We're now approaching Eastcote Village, where the church and village hall reside, this having been the more important location until the station tugged the centre of gravity south. It's also the site of our first holdup, the two mini roundabouts below Eastcote House Gardens jamming the weekend traffic for a minute or two.
  15 minutes (walk)
Out of the woods and immediately alongside the car park, the terminus of the Ruislip Lido railway comes into view. That's Willow Lawn, although venturing onto that lawn today would be ill-advised as its waterlogged grass is ill-suited to picnicking activity. The crowds are much thicker now, thanks to the allure of The Waters Edge carvery and in particular its alcoholic refreshment options. Mild flooding means the water's edge now encroaches through the fence, lapping two of the picnic tables. Several sprawling tattoos which lads and dads endured over the winter are now on full display in the spring sunshine. The bus stand for route H13 is just the other side of the restaurant, so best sit and wait.

20 minutes (bus)
It takes a while to escape the roundabout, and then we follow the High Road beside the river. I'm saddened to see that Felicity Hat Hire at the end of the parade has closed, and the shop has become an opticians, which itself has folded and is up for let. At least the tennis club is still going. After 20 minutes we're finally back level with the edge of Park Wood, which you may remember is where we started, and I could also have walked to here and beaten the bus. Instead we press on through the shrubby suburbs, past signs to swimming pools and sports clubs, as more of our seats slowly fill.
  20 minutes (walk)
I might go and feed the geese while I'm waiting.
25 minutes (bus)
Windmill Hill no longer boasts a windmill, but remains a certified hill. I was expecting an exodus at Ruislip Manor tube, but only one passenger succumbs. Instead eight get on, including a group of bantzing girlfriends tugging suitcases, each clutching the remains of a fizzy drink. One girl's cup looks like a jamjar wasp trap with a straw through its lid, while another uploads a video of her red plastic cup to Instagram because that way lies social success. Almost every seat is now taken, plus several standing, with Ruislip proper surely the intended destination.
  25 minutes (walk)
Let's queue at Mr Whippy behind the geezer with the staffie.
30 minutes (bus)
I'm more than surprised at Ruislip station when only four people disembark but 18 others pour in. Yes there is room for another pushchair, but only if the girls move their suitcases out of the way and block the door instead. A grandson forced by his Nan to sit next to me keeps asking her how many stops it is to the lido, then spots he can wave at himself on the CCTV video screen and this keeps him occupied for the remainder of the journey. A parking attendant hops on near the Cafe Rouge, resplendent in an unnecessarily green uniform. Saturday afternoon shopping may be in full effect, but forget that, we're all going a few stops further.
  30 minutes (walk)
What a lovely afternoon for lounging by the lakeside.
35 minutes (bus)
Most of the week the H13 rumbles up to Ruislip Lido unbothered by clientele, but this is spring's first decent weekend afternoon, so everyone's going. A temporary electronic sign by the roadside announces Car Park Full to the mugs foolish enough to have come in their own vehicle. We pass a steakhouse, the fire station and the entrance to a crematorium, a perhaps unfortunate juxtaposition. Eventually we reach Reservoir Road, where the driver swings round the turning circle and pulls in behind the carvery, only three minutes late. I've rarely seen such an exodus at the last stop on a bus route, but such is the sunny allure of Ruislip's finest beach/beer/burger combination.
  35 minutes (walk)
There was probably time to have ordered some nachos.
40 minutes (bus)
I wonder if my cloned self has walked here yet?
  40 minutes (walk)
I could have walked all the way back in that time.

Route H13: route map
Route H13: live route map
Route H13: route history
Route H13: timetable
Route H13: The Ladies Who Bus

 Monday, April 16, 2018

No day out in the capital is complete without indulging in afternoon tea, the luxury lifestyle break every Londoner enjoys. The perfect foil to a day's hectic shopping or a full-on night out, afternoon tea is always an absolute must-do experience.

So it's thrilling to be able to announce the launch of four new afternoon teas, each unquestionably London's best, exclusive to readers of this site. The only thing more scrumptious than tucking in will be deciding which of these innovative creations to pick first!

DG's Spring'n'Yang Afternoon Tea

Celebrate the new season with this delectable afternoon tea, full of magic, wonder and mouth-watering deliciousness. Two elegant finger sandwiches form the centrepiece of this vernal masterpiece, the absolute ultimate in fine dining. Each has been individually carved from the same slice of Chorleywood loaf, then separately coated with homespun spreads. One half is ripe with the full fruits of autumn, lightly scraped with pip-dusted strawberry jam, while the other half ripples with the intricate mountains and troughs of pitch-perfect peanut butter. No match of yin with yang has ever been bettered!

And yet the choice of beverage tops the lot. Lift the dainty china cup to your lips and let the intricately blended flavours of thirst-quenching tea soak within to refresh your innermost soul. No glazed macaroon sponges or twirly choc-dusted tarts have been allowed to intrude, maintaining the 100% health focus of this detox-friendly combination. A burst of bold daffodils embrighten the experience, artfully swirled in a perspex vase, a few of the blooms not yet shrivelled to a soggy pulp. Tuck into this piquant platter of authentic rustic charm and you're guaranteed to feel spring has sprung. We'll see you there!

Spring'n'Yang Afternoon Tea is served at Beau Church Rooms, E3. The price is £29.50 per person or £14.50 for children under 10. Carb-lite and wheat-free options are available. Find out more and book online via the website.

The Diamond Geezer Chocotastic Afternoon Tea

Prepare yourself for a mealtime marathon of exquisite glamour inspired by everybody's favourite whimsical fictional character, as diners are transported to a themed world of fictional delight. Everything about this afternoon tea drips quality, from the hand-curated combination of individual nutritional elements to the sustainable hardwood breadboard on which the spread is arrayed. Only the finest leaf tea has been sourced, then delicately pre-milked and individually poured into a ceramic receptacle bearing the unmistakeable face of Purple Ronnie's Diamond Geezer. We're sold!

Key highlight is a genuine part-wrapped Wagon Wheel, attractively nudged from its packet, revealing a lush strawberry confection in a dipped chocolate shell. Truly irresistible! Clever chefs have paired this cocoa-coated disc with a granary-specked crispbread, untarnished by toppings, and rested it artfully on the rim of a ribbed microwaveable plate. But the pièce de résistance is surely the sleek micro-vegetable segment, a disc of pure savoury goodness, imbuing the overall experience with much-needed vitamins and minerals. No need to watch your waistline over your wallet, this treat's guilt-free!

The Diamond Geezer Chocotastic Afternoon Tea is served at M'arrêt de Bus, E3. It needs to be booked in advance and costs £35 per person. Vegetarian and sugar-free options are available. Find out more and book online via the website.

Geezer's Afternoon 'Creme' Tea

How's this for a unique spin on an old favourite? Cadbury's perennial chocolate egg inspires the fundamental rationale behind this gorgeous Easter celebration. Not only is there a genuine Creme Egg to unwrap, but tea is served in an astonishing novelty mug whose appearance single-handedly justifies all expense. The mug's subtly iconic design harks back to the golden age of British-owned chocolate, the tight contours of its cross-section ensuring that only the most delicate amount of sepia-toned liquid can fit inside. At this time of year, with Creme Eggs suddenly almost impossible to source, the luxuriant decadence of this off-ration speciality cannot be understated!

For maximal wellness balance, a sublime triptych of healthy nibbles accompanies the chocolate. At least half a dozen individual sultanas have been expertly stacked into a collapsed pyramid. A sophisticated wedge of processed cheddar has been sliced from the corner of a bespoke cheese slab. A single minty ring of Polo has been included as a palate-cleansing dessert, deliberately selected for its low-calorie centre. And the entire smorgasbord is laid out on a blue plastic chopping board in the shape of a fish, because that's quirky, and Instagrammable idiosyncrasy's where it's at. Count us in!

Geezer's Afternoon 'Creme' Tea is served at Borode, E3. The price is £28 per person, or £48 with a glass of prosecco (optional). Vegan and low-fat options are available. Find out more and book online via the website.

Becks 'N' Posh Afternoon Tea

Here we go again. This time we've sourced an actual scone for you, but don't think we baked it ourselves, we have a go-to oven on a suburban trading estate in Ealing and then we defrosted it overnight. Sure, we've dropped it in a ramekin, but only because every gimmick counts, and a bit of light cocoa dusting would have allowed us to charge double. The tea is basically chopped up leaves in hot water, and costs us pennies, but my God the mark-up is exhilarating. But it's the alcohol which really makes our accountants sing, purchased in bulk at the wholesalers, and yes we are taking the piss.

Please help me. I am an English graduate and qualified journalist reduced to generating puff pieces about overpriced hospitality options for a fickle corporate master. When I signed up I hoped to be writing wry social commentary and investigative exposés, but instead I'm sat here with my thesaurus pumping out a conveyor belt of toadying reviews. I don't get to visit the restaurants, I merely scrape the press releases, then add the pre-provided images before seeking editorial approval. I'd love to earn enough to be able to blow £40 on a couple of tiny sponges and a sandwich, but all the money's in flogging afternoon tea, not reviewing it.

Posh Afternoon Tea is served across the West End. The price is whatever the hotel can get away with. Other forms of online journalism are available. Find out more and book online via the website.

 Sunday, April 15, 2018

Random Station: WEST HARROW
London Borough of Harrow
Metropolitan line, zone 5
Hinterland: 1.6km²

The Metropolitan Railway didn't bother with a station at West Harrow when the Uxbridge branch opened, because it was all fields. Later they realised fields=houses, dropped anchor and kickstarted development. Today West Harrow bleeds into North Harrow and South Harrow, to the west of Harrow town centre, overlooked by Harrow-on-the-Hill. Expect what follows therefore to be somewhat harrowing, if not especially exciting.

10 places of minor interest in West Harrow

1) West Harrow station
Opened in 1913, this station's never quite shaken off the ambience of suburban afterthought. The current building was added in 1991 and looks a bit like a garden centre, admittedly a very small one, and serves only the London-bound platform. Westbound trains are reached via a separate (ungated) staircase on the other side of the bridge, watched over by CCTV to ensure every local resident touches in and out every time, which obviously they all do. The view from the platforms is of the largest collection of allotments in Harrow, hence the gentle curve retains an air of rural halt.
Historical nugget: In 1955 the West Harrow Allotment and Garden Association spent £17 on an old railway carriage to act as an annex to their hut. Its eventual replacement cost £1700.

I arrived at the station at the same time as a group of Conservative canvassers for next month's local council elections. They weren't here to press the flesh but to pose with a copy of their latest election leaflet, because nowhere else says "West Harrow" like the front of the station. They smiled at the photographer from a variety of angles, paused politely to let me pass, then went back to holding up their pieces of paper. Thanks to the appearance of these exciting images on social media, I can confirm that two of the group are currently councillors (in other wards), one heads up Harrow's Conservative opposition, one is studying politics at Portsmouth University and one is an award-winning cacti grower. The area's Labour MP has his HQ just up the road, opposite West Harrow Garage.

2) St Peter's Church
The date on the gable of the first house opposite West Harrow station is 1914, as you might expect. But slightly further back is a small cluster of slightly older streets, predating easy access, surrounding a Grade II listed church. St Peter's was designed by a fellow called Fellowes Prynne, and knocked up from snecked rubble in a style described as Somewhat Italianate Late Decorated Gothic. These days it's bigger than it needs to be, which suits the multimedia style of the worshippers within, who seem very much at the modern end of all-inclusive Anglicanism. Come attend a relaxed informal service of contemporary worship, sign up for a mission-friendly Hub, and maybe relive the curate's Pokemon Go sermon.

3) Vaughan Road
Eighteen minutes into his seminal Metroland documentary, John Betjeman reaches Harrow. He spends some time up with the boatered boys on the hill, but also takes time out to visit a row of unassuming houses which fall just inside the sphere of West Harrow station.
"Here at the foot of Harrow hill, alongside the Metropolitan electric trains, tradesmen from Harrow built in the '80s or '90s I should think, from the look of the buildings, these houses, and a nice little speculation they were, quiet, near the railway station, with their own church and public house, and they're named, reverently, after the great people of Harrow School - Drury, Vaughan, Butler." (Metroland, 1972)
I tracked down pretty much the right spot, compared and contrasted. I'd say the houses look much the same as they did almost 50 years ago, only are perhaps less well scrubbed. Harrow is now a four-bin borough, which doesn't help, and neither do the assortment of satellite dishes bolted onto the front since. Scaffolding and skips suggested a flurry of home improvement behind closed doors, as did the armchair one resident was pushing out into the street. Nobody was drying their clothes out of the front window when Sir John passed by, I'll wager, nor sitting on the doorstep smoking a fag.

4) West Harrow Recreation Ground
Well this is nice. The land for WHRC was bought from Roxeth Estates in 1923, which I know from the helpful information board the council erects at the gateway to all its recreational green spaces. This one has very much a sporting purpose, mostly football and cricket, but also bowls and tennis, plus a special "adventure area" for older children (which looks very much like a playground). The West Harrow Bowls Club Welcome Everyone, according to the sign at the entrance to their rinks, which was locked. They also offer free tuition, and have an Open Day coming up on Sunday 6th May, because new blood would be more than welcome. But mostly I found the Rec full of family strollers, elderly sitters and lads on bikes wearing massive Beats headphones. If only the Park View hut had been open, rather than locked with a banner reading "Cafe Open Now" hung on the front, everyone would have been even happier.

5) Shaftesbury Circle
One of the last infrastructure developments hereabouts, which stalled when World War Two broke out, was this circular intersection linking four swish avenues. Two quadrants formed shopping parades, one had the neighbourhood pub and the other was residential. The shops live on, including Lobsters Fish Bar and the Shaftesbury Pharmacy, the latter allegedly 'Winners of 2 National Awards', but their shop window is silent on the matter. As for the pub, not unexpectedly called The Shaftesbury, that's not unexpectedly transmogrified into a full-blown McDonalds drive-thru. It was packed on Saturday, along with a posse of moped-riding delivery boys out front, all contributing to the traffic jams this scenic roundabout now creates.

6) The Philathletic Ground
Harrow School falls outside my geographical remit, but the playing fields on which its old boys play football creeps in. The Old Harrovians are technically the world's second oldest existing football club, two years younger than Sheffield, knocked together under the new association rules in 1859. Alas they never made the FA Cup Final in its earliest days, but one of their players inspired the competition, basing it on Harrow's inter-house knockout tradition. Also alas, Harrow abandoned soccer for rugby in the 1920s causing the Old Harrovians to vanish for thirty years, which is why they can't be the world's second oldest surviving football club. But they did thrash the Old Cholmeleians three nil last weekend, and are closing in on the Old Brentwoods in the Arthurian League Division 1, so are enjoying a decent season.

7) Whitmore High School
Imagine being a pupil at the comprehensive school which looks out across the playing fields towards Harrow. That school is Whitmore High, an oversubscribed co-ed where actor Dev Patel once studied, before it was completely rebuilt in 2008 during that brief era when the government pumped millions into schools. The new building resembles a crab's claw from above, and a gently swooshing fortress from the front, cleverly denying public access to anything but the car park. Only the headteacher's parking space, immediately outside the door to reception, is labelled.

Switching now to the northern side of the forking Metropolitan railway line...

8) Pinner Road
At the end of the 19th century Pinner Road was the sole meandering lane through acres and acres of fields. Unsurprisingly it got built up first, and now has the longest parade of shops in West Harrow's catchment area, plus a Tesco seeking to put several of them out of business. Largest of the competition is the Nita Cash and Carry, with its sacks of rice and stacks of loo roll and milk for a quid. Elsewhere I spotted a vegetarian caterers, a Yellow Fever jab clinic, a lawnmower shop called The Cutting Edge, a web designers called Aspiring Panda, an antique shop, Harrow's oldest tattooist, an Exclusive Indian "Restro-Bar", and a butchers guaranteeing 100% unstunned meat.

9) Harrow Cemetery
Opened in 1887, this long strip of grassy burial ground off the Pinner Road is now 'full', other than for interment in family graves. It's now the ideal site to watch wildlife, walk the dog or to bring your two year-old to play in his model car, if only he were interested rather than staring at the miniature steering wheel in incomprehension. It's also, I'm excited to announce, the place where Harrow council stores its new litter bins. I found forty of them dropped off behind the old chapel, each wrapped in pristine plastic with a '50kg' sticker stuck to the top. Appearing soon on a street corner perhaps near you.

10) Harrow Recreation Ground
And finally, yet another recreation ground, even bigger and better-loved than the last one. Harrow Rec opened in 1885, part park, but mostly sports pitches, sloping downhill with views across the town centre towards the church on the hill. Prior to 1967 it was locked on Sundays. On the first decent weekend of spring it was busy with dogwalkers and joggers, chatterers and snoggers, and a heck of a lot of kids in football kits having encouragement bellowed at them by bellicose fathers. Birds sang. A red-bound copy of the Complete Short Stories of Somerset Maugham lay abandoned under a bench alongside an empty bottle of Русский Стандарт vodka. Budding Andy Murrays tapped meekly on the tennis courts. Couples posed for selfies stood in front of peak pink blossom. When the sun comes out, even a muddy park is still the place to be.

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