diamond geezer

 Sunday, May 27, 2018

This is a post about new town architecture and 80s synthpop.

The group Depeche Mode was formed in Basildon in 1980.

The lead singer Dave Gahan grew up in this house.

This is 54 Bonnygate.

It's unusual for this corner of Basildon in that it's an actual semi-detached house. What's more normal is several of these pushed together, but these are the last houses on the road so they get to be separate. The house flanks a backroad down to some garages, with shrubbery up the side behind a wooden fence. The front garden currently boasts a bright yellow bush on the gravel, and some splendid lilac above the hedge. The old Gahan house still has a gated garden, although nextdoor's has been fully paved to park the family's Ford Kuga 4×4. Their porch faces the front, whereas Dave would have nipped out the side on his way to school or that first Top Of The Pops. The nearest chip shop is about five minutes away at the sub-centre on Church Road.

Songwriter Vince Clarke grew up in this house.

This is 59 Mynchens.

This is more like it, new-town-wise. Mynchens is a cul-de-sac of mostly three-storey flats, all flat-roofed, dating back to circa 1961. This east-facing block incorporates up and over garages on the ground floor with the main rooms on the first and second floors. A thin strip of grass runs up to the front door on the non-car-dominated side. The dominant feature at number 59 is the balcony on top of the garage, still with what looks like its original wooden surround, ideal for stepping onto from the living room for a smoke or a sun-dappled breakfast. The fledgling band once used to meet here for synth practice... for Vince's neighbours' benefit, thankfully with headphones on. Today one of the neighbouring residents owns a Rossi's ice cream van.

Keyboard player Andy Fletcher grew up in this house.

This is 101 Woolmergreen.

It's about five minutes north of Vince's house, which must have been convenient at the time. Andy's house is sandwiched into a long terrace up a pedestrianised walkway, with all the necessary vehicle access hidden along service roads behind. Three such walkways fan out from a bleak paved piazza, where the corner shop is, and deducing which one contains number 101 isn't especially intuitive. The front garden is unfenced, and verging on communal, with council mowers responsible for keeping the central strip of grass in check. The front of the house is a mix of brick and timber, with a slight bay window to distinguish it from its neighbours.

I did not visit Martin Gore's house.

It didn't crop up in my pre-visit Googling, and only later did I discover Martin lived a few hundred metres away from Vince at 16 Shepeshall. Also, apparently Vince lived at 44 Shepeshall for a while, and Andy started out at 69 Woolmergreen before moving to 101, and Vince may actually have lived at number 55 not number 59. Meanwhile Alison Moyet grew up at 14 Butneys. I have photos of none of these. Always do your research properly before you make a new town synthpop pilgrimage.

Also you may have noticed that Basildon has a thing about one word street names.

Bonnygate, Mynchens, Woolmergreen, Shepeshall and Butneys is only the start of it.

Other streets include Alcotes, Byfletts, Craylands, Dengayne, Edgecotts, Furrowfelde, Gibcracks, Havengore, Jermaynes, Kibcaps, Lynstede, Malyons, Oldwyk, Paprills, Rokells, Sturrocks, Teagles and Wendene, to name but a few.

If you Just Can't Get Enough, look on a map.

 Saturday, May 26, 2018

I arrived home yesterday to find a group of schoolchildren hanging around my doorstep, and had to weave my way through to reach the front door. This happens. Ignoring me, they carried on doing what they were doing, which involved staring at a phone and then bursting into song. They knew the song well, and sang two lines together in perfect unison before bursting into happy laughter. And my first thought was "I don't recognise that song at all".

I used to know every song in the charts, indeed in the 80s and 90s I knew the Top 40 inside out and could have hummed you the lot. Somewhere around the turn of the century I lost that ability, despite still being plugged into Radio 1 as my station of choice. Music was slowly changing, or rather what was popular was changing, and I didn't like the new stuff as much as the old. That trend alas continued, and what currently fills daytime airplay I find crass and empty, despite the fact that schoolgirls still love it enough to sing on my doorstep.

I'm aware this is a well-known stage most people go through, from loving the music of their youth to hating the music of the younger generation. What bemuses me is that I thought I had a pretty general musical taste, capable of wider appreciation, but instead the mainstream has careered off down some dark avenue I no longer appreciate and left me behind. There is still plenty of great new music around, as showcased on Radio 6 Music or on late night Radio 1, but these days it never troubles the charts.

Instead what's become popular are solo singers warbling inconclusively about relationships above a generic plinky plonk backing track. Tunes are out, in the common sense, and instead the done thing is to pick a note and then wander marginally up or down as the song progresses. Songs combine vocal showing-off with mundane instrumentals. The singer usually sounds like they've been mulched through a computer. Harmony is a rarity, and 'bands' simply don't get a look in. It's the worst excesses of Mariah Carey spliced with the X Factor's lowest common denominator. It's the monotony of bad rap bolted to the corpse of European Dance Music. And it's all so bloody samey.

Or at least that's my ingrained prejudice. So I thought I'd test it out.

Friday is chart day, so yesterday I tuned in to the Official Top 40 on Radio 1 and forced myself to listen all the way through. Pretty much every thing Greg James played would be new to me, so it'd be a good test.

Would I be pleasantly surprised, or would I simply sigh at the tuneless inanity of it all?
40 Ramz (new): Straight off, a full-on generic autotune warble, with homeboy la-la-las, from the bloke who brought you 'Barking'.
35 Tom Walker (new): Dull self-penned blokey ballad, with proper piano, streaming courtesy of an ad soundtrack.
30 Marshmello & Anne‐Marie (↓1): The first formulaic female. Repetitive bubblegum for backseat humming, oh so very Rebecca Black.
28 Shakka (↑12): Derivative vocoder wobbles, switching from male to female, and managing to rhyme Kilimanjaro with gonna aim low.
26 M-22 (↑7): Actual dance record with plinky backing, very mid-2000s, but the poorest attempt at a tune so far.
25 Rita Ora, Cardi B, Bebe Rexha & Charli XCX (↓1): Anyone could have written this predictable girlie-foursome meander.
24 Years and Years (↑14): I loved King, but this is pish, as Olly tackles unmemorable Casiotone trills.
22 Keala Settle & The Greatest Showman Ensemble (↑3): Finally something different, but also much more safe, a lot more Disney. Could've been a hit in 1988, and I wouldn't have liked it then either. 22nd week in in the charts, ffs.
21 Liam Payne (↓1): Ex boybander attempts streetcred with overtweaked duet, employing the "repeated syllables" gimmick.
18 Shawn Mendes (↓8): Sheeranesque guitarstrummer pitches for a John Lewis ad.
14 Khalid & Normani (↑2): A lot of vocal swapping, a lot of "mmm-uhuh"s, and the fewest notes yet. Has somehow been in the charts since February.
13 EO (↑2): Smug mindless paean to automobile worship, with even fewer notes still. An almost perfect exemplification of meh.
12 Clean Bandit (new): Jaunty rhythms plus Demi Lovato singing gimmicky farmyard hooks, keyboards bouncing underneath like a Club Med holiday.
11 Sigala (↑1): Paloma Faith guests to create a simple banger for the Top Shop changing room. Nobody's voice sounds like this for real.
(deep breath, now for the top 10)
10 Post Malone (↑1): Every line repeats at the end-end, with nothing much doing underneath-neath, like he was churning it out.
9 Childish Gambino (↓3): The first song to make me sit up and listen, but after the township intro the remainder was drably vacuous, because different isn't always good.
8 George Ezra (-): 18th week for this growly song with a faster beat, the closest so far to a standard tune, but still undeniably warble-influenced.
7 David Guetta & Sia (↑2): Strong slow Euro-stomper, with long-term shopping mall potential, but still within the generic envelope.
6 Jess Glynne (↑7): A pulsing beat and a firm vocal, but still a shallow song-by-numbers. On the Radio 1 and Radio 2 playlists. Will undoubtedly become a talent show audition favourite.
5 Banx & Ranx & Ella Eyre (↑2): Doesn't waste time with an intro, bangs in with a blanket tale of relationship woe, plus na-na-nas and a ringtone-esque hook.
4 Anne‐Marie (↑1): A lot of chirrupy syrupy reminiscence, essentially nostalgia for 20-somethings, yet lacking much emotion.
3 Ariana Grande (-): Very much standard girl-fare, from the one-note queen, which probably wouldn't be up this high were it not for Manchester.
2 Drake (-): I once understood the charts, but I fail to comprehend how this drab grunty rhythmic rap, underscored by tinkly babes, has been high-flying since Easter.
1 Calvin Harris & Dua Lipa (-): Sixth week at the top for the Scot with the magic touch, whose two-note synth refrain somehow sounds different, topped by Dua's you-ou-ou me-e-e which should be awful, but maybe I like it because it could be from 2006.
Having endured the entire countdown I can confirm I didn't especially enjoy the experience. Despite being braced for repetition, I was still surprised quite how formulaic everything got, and how a new over-produced genre dominates. It's still clearly pop, but it's more about the singer than the musicians, more about the delivery than the melody, and I can't get into it at all.

Where popular music and I have diverged is because I do genuinely like a tune, and revel on a bed of harmony. Sure, the 80s and 90s threw up some absolute stinkers, but also songs to make a wedding dancefloor erupt, and I can't see today's tranche managing the same. Almost the entire top 40 came over as riffs on one successful formula, as if someone's found the recipe for mainstream appreciation and resolutely refuses to let go.

Perhaps what's been truly lost is breadth, as quirkier stuff repeatedly fails to cross the streaming threshold, and all this bland burbling electronic stuff wins though.

The girls who sing on my doorstep know what they like. I shall stick with the cracking music the Top 40 no longer plays.

 Friday, May 25, 2018


Leicester is one of England's larger cities, and can be found in the East Midlands a nudge further north than Birmingham. It has a long history but has never been a major player on the tourist trail, indeed I was so underwhelmed on a day trip in 1994 that I've never felt the need to go back. But in 2012 the city unexpectedly hit the dead monarch jackpot, and quickly capitalised on it, so now offers a significant sightseeing draw.
[9 photos]

Richard III's death at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 ended the Wars of the Roses and ushered in the Tudor dynasty. The last English king to be slain in battle, Richard's naked body was carried to Leicester on the back of a horse and there displayed to the public as proof of his demise. Henry VII's court historian reported that Richard was "buryed two days after without any pompe or solemne funerall... in th'abbey of monks Franciscanes", a location understood to be the Grey Friars priory. But this was levelled during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and modern-day Leicester gradually grew up on the site.

Now a set of highly unlikely coincidences take over. In the 1990s Philippa Langley picked up a random book at an airport, which turned out to be about Richard III, beginning her obsession with the much-maligned king. In 2004 her research took her to a social services car park in Leicester, never fully built over, where she had "an overwhelming feeing" this was the place. A crowdfunded dig eventually materialised, ostensibly to stake out the former abbey, but which unintentionally uncovered the royal bones in the first hour and a half. The skeleton's curved spine and battle wounds looked convincing, but only because this is the 21st century were scientists able to prove "beyond reasonable doubt" that Richard III's remains had been found. To have rediscovered a king is all but unbelievable.

The city of Leicester has capitalised on its historical good fortune by building a visitor attraction on the site. They already owned the car park, and swiftly bought up the empty school building nextdoor, transforming it into the King Richard III Visitor Centre. Follow the RIII Dynasty Death and Discovery banners (and blimey, there are enough of them), towards the cathedral square where a swish-looking glass entrance awaits. An adult ticket costs £8.95, which is a mite steep for the provinces, but you'll get good value so long as you go round slowly and take everything in.

First up is a Throne Room, i.e. a room with nothing in it but a throne, and five actors performing virtual monologues on two arched screens at the rear. It is perhaps a nod to the Netflix generation, and the school party who followed me round certainly sat entranced. I was more involved by the utterly comprehensive rundown of the Wars of the Roses nextdoor, essentially a heck of a lot of words on some walls, which might be why the vast majority of visitors seemed to give it a miss. The ground floor concludes with an audiovisual reconstruction of Richard's final battle, a bit generic if all you do is watch the walls, so again reading is essential to make the most.

Upstairs, assuming you don't stray into the cafe, modern day interpretations of Richard III are put under scrutiny. A line up of top Shakespearean actors fills one wall, while changing attitudes to disability are challenged on the other. Things pick up when the exhibits reach the story of the hunt for Richard's body, because numerous primary sources are available, and the day-by-day astonishment of the major players comes across well. There then follows an in-depth examination of the scientific evidence which proved this was indeed the dead king, including DNA matching, carbon dating and bone analysis. The sheer improbability of the ultimate announcement packs an emotional punch.

To finish, you return to the ground floor and walk out into a special 'contemplative' room nudged out into the car park to cover the site of discovery. A glass floor allows visitors to look down into the crucial archaeological trench to see a layer of monastery tiles, and a hologram in the shallow indentation where Richard's body was exhumed. The member of staff keeping watch can tell you all about other bodies unearthed in the dig, and which way the choirstalls ran, so again take your time rather than dashing through. Meanwhile, on the other side of the wall, cars are still parked up in as incongruous a way as they must have been Philippa walked in with her lucky hunch, before the last medieval monarch was uncovered.

Several cities claimed burial rights for Richard's body, notably York because he was of their noble House. but in the end Leicester got the nod. This has proved particularly fortuitous for Leicester Cathedral, a parish church given an ecclesiastical upgrade in 1927, which suddenly gained something inside worth seeing. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Benedict Cumberbatch and some notably low ranking royals turned up for the reinterment in 2015, in scenes which you can relive on a touchscreen in the south nave.

Richard's tomb is undeniably impressive, topped by an angled slab of Swaledale limestone cut through with two deep indentations forming a cross. This sits on a darker-coloured inlaid plinth, namechecking the dead king and listing his dates, screened off behind a similarly-updated altar. A sign by the entrance alerts visitors not to use flash photography and, in a modern twist, also outlaws selfies. But check service times before you turn up, because you won't see any of the conclusion to this amazing story if evensong is underway.

And if all this has dragged you to Leicester, what else is there to see? Quite a lot, as it turns out, from across the centuries.

Jewry Wall Museum: Huge excavated Roman public baths, and masonry wall, alongside a repository of Iron Age, Roman and medieval remains [closed for long-term upgrade] [2nd century]
St Nicholas: The oldest church in the county, now seriously overshadowed by modern dual carriageway [10th century]
St Mary de Castro: Other than this church, which recently lost its spire, not much remains of Leicester Castle other than its grassy motte [11th/12th century]
Leicester Market: Much tweaked trading hub, currently spread across undercover benches, formerly home to the famous Lineker fruit and veg dynasty [founded 13th century]
Leicester Guildhall: Mighty-well-preserved timber-framed hall, once used as the town hall, now with historical exhibits attached [free] [14th century]
Newarke Houses Museum and Gardens: Odd historical hotchpotch of a museum, with industrial remnants, period 1940s shopping street and regimental reminiscence [free] [16th/17th century]
New Walk: Charming Georgian promenade, a kilometre in length, linking the city centre to the university (no bikes) [18th century]
New Walk Museum and Art Gallery: Splendid classical repository of the arts and sciences, mostly the former, but whose exhibits include mummified remains, Britain's largest (observed) meteorite and the free-standing Rutland Dinosaur [free] [19th century]
The Golden Mile: A stretch of Belgrave Road renowned for its Indian restaurants and sari shops, where the city's Diwali celebrations are based [20th century]
National Space Centre: Rockets, astronomy, cosmology and a planetarium... but heavily biased towards a family audience, so I gave it a miss [£14] [21st century]

 Thursday, May 24, 2018


In the wilds of Leicestershire, a horseshoe's throw from Rutland, lies the market town of Melton Mowbray. It's a proper agricultural town, with a long history of fox-slaughtering, but what it's best known for is cheese and pies.

It's the kind of place where you might meet a horsebox or a potato merchant's lorry amongst the usual traffic. I only spotted one man in a Barbour jacket.

It has the third oldest market in England, which is still held twice a week in the Market Square. I came on the wrong day and got four bric-a-brac stalls and a dustcart.

The Butter Cross in the Market Square is the single point where the lands of the Belvoir, Cottesmore and Quorn hunts coincide. If you're ever here on New Year's morning, expect to see numerous horses, hounds and red-jacketed riders ready for the off.

Every Tuesday, in a series of sheds on the edge of the town centre, Melton Mowbray holds England's largest livestock market. I was a day late, so all I got was the belated whiff of manure. There are separate sheds for calves, stores and cull cows. I loved the road markings outside.

This is my favourite ever quote on a blue plaque, courtesy of Monty Python star Graham Chapman. The plaque used to be on the front of his old school, but has since been relocated to a random building in the town centre, which is indeed a bit silly.

The town has an excellent museum housed in the former Carnegie Library. It's particularly good at highlighting issues relating to rural life, rather than simply showing you a lot of old ploughs. The sport of fox-slaughtering gets its own gallery, naturally, but is balanced out by a case of activists and saboteurs. Cheese and pies also make a strong showing.

If it's a proper Stilton you want, as produced relatively locally, the place to go is the Melton Cheeseboard. The shop doesn't look much from outside, but a wide variety of blue-veined stinkers are on offer within.

But really, it's all about the pies. Several butchers in town make their own, because the Melton Mowbray name is EU-protected, and production geographically limited. The most famous sellers, and overall winners of the 2017 British Pie Awards, are Dickinson & Morris of Ye Olde Pork Pie Shoppe.

Just look at this selection of pies, topped off with a) apple, b) cranberry, c) hot gooseberry chutney or d) Stilton cheese. Your arteries might not survive too many of them, but the smell wafting out of the kitchen at the rear was properly alluring.

I plumped for a wrapped individual pie, biting excitedly through the crust to revel in the grey chopped pork within, and regretting it was gone so soon. How the local youth have the gall to pop into Greggs on the Market Square I'll never know.

» Visit Melton Mowbray
» Melton Mowbray Heritage Trail
» Melton Mowbray Food and Drink Guide

 Wednesday, May 23, 2018

One thing you get to hear a lot of when riding on buses is other people's conversations. In particular you get to hear prolonged sections of other people's conversations, without being involved in them yourself, which is a relatively unnatural state of affairs.

I am always amazed by how much people are willing to divulge on public transport. They list what they're having for dinner tonight, they explain their aches and pains in detail, or they slag off Jennifer from Accounts. Of course what I forget is that when I'm on the bus with a friend we're usually having similar conversations, and so engrossed that we never notice those sitting nearby can hear every word.

One particular conversational tranche I've heard a lot on buses is what I like to call the "So I said, so she said..." exchange. Someone, usually female, launches into a full replay of a conversation they had with somebody else, either because it's somehow shocking or because they're very proud of how it went. "So I said I was out with my friend Ella, so she said Oh you're friends with Ella now are you, so I said Yes I'm friends with Ella now, so she said I can't believe you're friends with Ella now, so I said Shut up, so she said That cow, so I said... etc etc". It's as if the speaker has no imagination whatsoever other than to replay her conversational greatest hits, and the listener simply sits there and soaks it up. I hear it a lot.

It's not a very complex form of conversation, "So I said, so she said...". It's more informed than just grunting, but not so illuminating as a verbal disagreement about the state of the planet. So I started wondering precisely how not very complex "So I said, so she said..." is. What if there was some kind of sliding scale for conversations, ranging from not talking to having a considered reasoned argument.

Here's the ten-point scale I've come up with, a draft Conversational Hierarchy.
Zero has to be mute silence, the act of not conversing at all.

One is where you're not really listening, or interested, and simply mutter occasionally as the other person drones on. "Yes... oh yes... hmmm... hmmm, yes... yes". It's not really a conversation at all, merely one-sided oratory of no interest or importance. We've all been there.

Two is where you simply say what you see. "Sunny again isn't it?" "That woman's coat's very red." "Starbucks has an offer on." "Look, a pigeon." This kind of observational conversation makes the world go round, but it's not in any way deep, so doesn't deserve to be any higher up the hierarchy.

Three is where "So I said, so she said..." fits in. It's also the place for any form of conversation that's simply remembering something which once happened and recounting it. When we bathe in the rosy glow of a collective memory, or tell an anecdote, or simply mention the name of that TV programme from the 1980s that makes everyone go "aah", that's the art of recollection.

Four is where you slag something off. A lot of people's conversations are mired in the negative, how they don't like the way something's done, how something political pisses them off, or how awful it is that a certain event has happened. Nothing constructive is ever suggested, only nitpicking and downsides, and such thinking gets us nowhere.

Five is the bread and butter of passing on information. "We got back from holiday on Saturday night". "Turn left at the end of the road." "Have you seen this cute video of a skateboarding puppy?" It's the best description I can come up with for middle of the road, everyday conversation, so 5 out of 10 feels about right.

Six is the opposite of 4. Six is where some good comes out of the conversation, where something positive is said, and the sum of human happiness is increased. Life would be better if more of us managed to talk less about (4) problems, and more about (6) solutions.

Seven is where the conversational gets emotional. It's about feelings, and personal stuff, where at least one person in the conversation opens up about themselves. "I've been nervous about that for some time." "I love it when you do that." A 7 conversation is always going to be more meaningful than a 6.

Eight is where creativity makes an appearance. It's where the act of conversation causes something new to emerge, like an original idea or fresh connection. It's solving a problem, coming up with a witty response rather than relying on a library of polished repartee. The world needs more 8 conversations.

Nine is where an opinion is changed. The power of speech can be such that a good conversation opens your eyes to new possibilities, and alternative ways of thinking, maybe even nudging you along a different path. "I hadn't realised I came across like that". "You're right, the bathroom would look better in pink."

Ten is the ultimate in conversation, which I've deemed to be the classic reasoned argument. When evidence is provided, and conclusions follow on, when structured debate occurs based on rational thought, that's the top of the shop. I suspect the Ancient Greeks would have agreed.

Like I said, it's only a draft, and you'll likely disagree, and I'm sure modern psychology has already come up with a better hierarchical structure. But it's an idea, and it does help to explain why I believe "So I said, so she said..." to be such a vacuous form of everyday conversation. If you have any thoughts, and want to express them in the comments, anything above 4 would be appreciated.

 Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Railway update (1) - Hackney Wick

Where shall we start? Let's start at Hackney Wick, where a brand new station building opened on Sunday. No longer must passengers weave up a set of ramps from Wallis Road. Instead a swish new entrance has opened up on White Post Lane, cutting underneath the centre of the station (but not yet connecting fully on the other side). This is no tedious concrete box, this is an uncompromisingly brutalist structure comprising several separate constituent parts.

Out front is a slab portal, part sheltered, with a non-ticket office embedded within. Echoing staircases wind up to the platforms, one on each side, their surfaces enlivened by an orange handrail and ribbed timber. The fun part is the connecting subway, one wall all zigzagged glass, the other cast concrete etched with chemical hieroglyphics. Both represent complex organic molecules and are a clever nod at parkesine, the world's first plastic, which was manufactured (very) close by.

The new station is an undoubted architectural triumph, given the reaction one of my recent tweets has accumulated, and you can enjoy several more lovely photos over at Ian Visits. But this is also "the central project in the regeneration of central Hackney Wick", its gravitational pull helping to ensure that every unlisted local building gets knocked down to make way for not-quite affordable flats, and the harbinger of destruction for the area's quirky artistic vibe. Going, going, not yet gone.

Railway update (2) - TfL Rail (west)

Sunday was also the day Heathrow Connect services transferred to TfL Rail, which is Crossrail's larval stage. On Day 1 nothing changed except some restickered carriages, but on Day 2 some additional proper purple trains kicked in. They're not yet allowed in the Heathrow tunnels, while outdated signalling is being upgraded, so are restricted to shuttling as far as Hayes & Harlington instead. Geoff caught the very first one, if you'd like to have what's going on explained in a comprehensive video.

I took a ride from Acton Main Line, which is very much the runt of the western TfL Rail stations. Although it's the first stop out of Paddington it currently gets only two trains an hour, and although they're now both purple, you still can't get to Heathrow direct. I just missed one, so that was a 28 minute wait.

The second most common announcement at Acton Main Line is "For your own safety, please stand behind the yellow line." That's because the most common announcement is "The train now approaching platform X does not stop here", which plays out several times an hour, and can make waiting passengers somewhat despondent. I noted that all the trains on platform 4 are going somewhere called "London Padding", because the Next Train Indicators can't cope with 17 characters, and nobody seems willing to cut the "London" off the front.

Now that Acton Main Line is a TfL Rail station it has a permanent member of staff, whose job is to watch over the non-existent barriers and await infrequent trains. They also get to walk down onto the platforms every half hour and urge passengers to move along a bit, because every TfL Rail train stops at the far end. I asked why nobody has put up a sign saying "Trains stop further along the platform" and was told that management prefer the member of staff to do it, as it adds a personal touch. I hope that was a joke.

By the end of next year Acton Main Line will have a spanking new station building, rather than a shuttered hut, and a fully accessible footbridge with lifts. Currently it has no new station building and no footbridge, because upgrades to western Crossrail stations are embarrassingly behind schedule. Unless you enjoy a bit of purple purgatory, don't dash down.

Railway update (3) - Tube map poster, May 2018

A couple of years ago TfL accidentally published a tube map which placed Morden in the wrong fare zone. They noticed just in time, and had to pulp the lot. This week they've made a similar blunder, but not noticed, and their error is all over the network. The paper maps are fine, and the online maps are fine, but the poster maps have an embarrassing omission in the bottom right hand corner. Somehow, with all the designers' juggling and shuffling of edges and labels, New Addington has gone missing.

The tram stop is still there, at the end of the line, but the name of the stop is absent. Once again the pre-publication proofing regime has failed, but this time the error has made it as far as station walls. Will they get 4000 reprints done, at a cost of £2.06 each, or will the outer reaches of Croydon remain embarrassingly invisible until the next update in December?

Railway update (4) - Thameslink 2000

Sunday was also the day a millennial project finally came good. Destinations north and south of the Thames were linked via a proper timetable for the first time, with tightly-scheduled streams of trains fed through the central core from St Pancras to Blackfriars. Only, as you're probably aware, it didn't quite work out like that. Dozens of trains were cancelled, due to bad planning, impossible expectations and inadequate driver training. You can read all about the reasons for the debacle, in admirable detail, over at London Reconnections.

Here are the display boards at Farringdon at the height of Sunday's fiasco, showing four cancellations out of the next eight trains. Services between Kentish Town and Plumstead proved particularly ripe for relentless sacrifice. "We are sorry to announce that the XX:XX to XXXX has been cancelled due to an operational incident" was the most oft-heard announcement of the day.

Yesterday's cancellations weren't so great in number, but were arguably more serious because they impacted on a working day, and because they came on top of a massively restructured timetable forcing thousands to readjust their commute. In the middle of the day I snuck down to try out a couple of services, to see how the central core was holding up.
SuttonElephant & Castle14 minsSt PancrasSt Albans
Perfectly on time throughout. The train paused a couple of times outside Blackfriars, and again outside Farringdon, but still pulled into both stations on schedule thanks to padding in the timetable. When I made the same journey on the Northern line, it was one minute quicker.

BedfordSt Pancras15 minsLondon BridgeBrighton
Three minutes late throughout. The train paused once outside Farringdon, but maintained the same delay thanks to padding in the timetable. When I made the same journey on the Northern line, it was five minutes quicker.
My experience is that if you only want to ride through the core section, Thameslink's probably a good option now it has a turn-up-and go frequency, although the tube may well be quicker. But if you're passing through from one side to the other, or attempting to reach a specific suburban location, delays and cancellations could still seriously impact your journey.

 Monday, May 21, 2018

(This is the 7500th post on diamond geezer)

Since the start of the year, I have ridden on every London bus route.
Not many people have done that.

It seemed like a reasonably sane thing to do. I do have a fair bit of spare time, and a Travelcard, and this has been an excellent time filler, especially on dull, grey days. It's also been a great way to see all over London, from Ruislip to Biggin Hill and from Chingford to Chessington, and to keep my mental picture of the capital up to date.My initial plan was to complete the challenge across a full year. That's approximately 10 buses a week, which seemed very doable. But in the end I managed rather more than that, because once you're in Uxbridge you might as well do everything, which is how I managed to finish the task in 20 weeks flat.Tube and rail challenges are much more common, ticking off all the stations on a network in a set amount of time. Bus challenges are less popular, and less glamorous, plus you can't visit all the bus stops, there are far too many, and even riding every route end to end would take an absolute age.
I'm by no means the first to complete the task. Several Men Who Like Buses have ridden (and photographed) them all. The Ladies Who Bus rode all of every route and blogged about it. The All The Buses crew managed to ride them all in a single 24 hour period, although there were five of them, and they shared the list out.If you really went for it, and had absolutely nothing else to do, I suspect it's possible to ride all the bus routes in London in a week. It definitely isn't possible in a day, because London's simply too enormous, and one or two of the bus routes are wilfully infrequent and/or peripheral. No, I didn't blog about it. Imagine how tedious it would have been if I'd written about every one of my rides. But I did report back on four of the routes, namely the H13 and the 603, plus the last buses I ticked off, the 507 and 521. I left those two until the end because they were easy.

I should clarify what I mean by "every London bus route". My list included all bus routes operated by TfL, with the exception of school and nightbus services. I didn't want to be bundling on with the kids, nor did I want to be traipsing over to Ealing at midnight to grab the N83. I also didn't include buses that cross the London boundary but aren't operated by TfL, mobility buses like the 969, or temporary routes like the 508 which operates only when Crossrail works intrude.

But that still left a heck of a lot of buses to ride. To be precise, it left 543 buses, a number I checked with the All The Buses team to make sure I wasn't missing any out. These 543 buses included 442 numbered routes, from 1 up to 607, and 101 lettered routes, from A10 to X68. I've ridden on every single one of these at some point over the last twenty weeks, swiping in and riding at least one stop.

According to my rules, just one stop was enough to claim I'd ridden a route. I did sometimes feel a bit self-conscious dinging the bell to get off at the next stop, but if another passenger had dinged first I didn't feel so embarrassed. The best buses for riding one stop are the New Routemasters, because you can slip out the back door, and the worst are the small single deckers which only have one door so you have to walk out past the driver who's only just let you on.My Oyster history has been a good way of checking I have indeed ridden the lot. On only two occasions was the Oyster reader on the bus not working, which is a 99.6% success rate, which is pretty good going given how flaky the technology has sometimes been. Checking my Oyster history confirms that I only rode 47 bus routes more than once, mostly those near home, and I rode 496 bus routes once only. Some I may never ride again.

As for tactics, I started out in the first week of January by wiping out every route from 1 to 30, just so I'd know I'd done them all. No, I didn't do them in order, because that would have been unnecessarily awkward. I ticked off central and northeast London first, which took a couple of months, then moved on to the northwest quadrant, then the southwest and finally the southeast. I wasn't absolutely rigid about that, but basically I worked round London anti-clockwise from home, because it helps to be methodical.

I found the printed London bus maps absolutely invaluable. Even though TfL stopped updating them two years ago, they're still a excellent guide to what runs where, and only occasionally was I completely thrown (hang on, where's this 483 suddenly sprung from?) (hmmm, what the hell have they done to the 110?). I don't think I could have managed the challenge if these five bus maps didn't exist. If you are the TfL manager who scrapped them, for reasons of cost or because you think you know best, what a miserable bastard you are.One reason for doing the challenge now is that numerous potential bus changes are due at the end of the year aligned to the introduction of Crossrail. My five printed bus maps won't be as accurate or as useful once those come in, so 2018 seemed like a now or never moment. But I expect I'll still pop out and and ride all the new routes if and when they appear, which should be eminently doable, and then I'll continue to be able to claim I've ridden all the buses.
If you ever decide to do this challenge for yourself, you'll quickly discover you don't have to go absolutely everywhere to complete it. Ticking off every single bus in central London, for example, also ticks off a fair few that stretch out into the suburbs. By doing Heathrow, Hayes and Uxbridge I never bothered with West Drayton, nor did I ever need to go to Sidcup. But there are some places you simply can't avoid, like Barnet, Romford and Kingston, thanks to local routes which don't head anywhere else.The most annoying bus routes to tick off, it turns out, are the far flung and the infrequent. I shake a fist at the hourly 467 from Hook to Epsom, I bemoan the outlying 428 from Erith to Bluewater, and I curse the occasional 375 to Havering-atte-Bower. The hardest to catch are the R5 and R10 in Orpington, which run every two and a half hours in opposite directions, but by riding one into Orpington station and the other straight back out, I managed to grab both with speed and ease.

I won't bore you with all the details.

The most buses I rode in one day was 32, round Merton and Sutton.On my 10 busiest days, I rode over half of London's buses.My first bus was the 1, my second the 488, and my last the 521.Strategically, try to focus on hubs and high streets, not outlying roads.
A typical heavy day involved wiping out one or two boroughs.On my 20 busiest days, I rode 85% of London's buses.Obviously I rode the heritage Routemaster when I did the 15.Thank you Citymapper, thank you, your app saved me hours.

One thing you soon spot, if you ride enough buses, is how excellent the vast majority of London's bus drivers are. They pause to let elderly passengers reach the stop and climb on board, they halt at red lights rather than speeding up and whizzing through, and they drop off Hail and Ride passengers as close to their homes as they can manage. And OK, so the occasional driver on the 33 may decide not to stop in Twickenham because the bus stop's full and they're in a hurry, leaving a man by the roadside waving his crutches in abject fury, but they were very much the exception.

Never underestimate the importance of buses in shifting pushchairs around.Spider maps at bus stops are dead useful. I cursed every time I found one of the new non-geographic diagrams.Don't a lot of London buses go to hospitals? I seem to have gone to loads of them.People in the outer suburbs really appreciate being able to pick up a Metro on the bus.
Never underestimate the importance of buses in keeping the elderly independent.When changing buses, it's not always easy to locate the nearest bus stop on another route. It can be a long hike.Thanking the driver on leaving the bus is still impressively commonplace in the outer suburbs.Filling the front luggage space with a box of Metros isn't great for those with heavy shopping.
Somewhere around 3pm, buses stop being the preserve of mums and the retired, and become full of schoolkids.Sometimes, if you accidentally go one stop too far, it's a heck of a long walk back.The driver of the 399, on his last day, had brought a box of biscuits for all his regular passengers to share.When three buses turn up at the same stop at the same time, it's not always easy to catch the back one.

But I think the main thing I've taken away with me, after my extended safari, is how wonderfully frequent London's buses are. Most of them run five or more times an hour, so the next one's rarely more than ten minutes away, so not much of a wait. Even the every-20-minuters weren't too much of a trial, and only when the gap reached 30 minutes or an hour did I have to start making extra special effort to be in the right place at the right time. We Londoners are blessed with an absolutely wonderful turn-up-and-go bus service, covering the breadth of the capital, and riding all the buses in Manchester or Dorset would have been a much more arduous task.

Since the start of the year, I have ridden on every London bus route.
Not many people have done that.
But I don't necessarily recommend it.

 Sunday, May 20, 2018

Route 521: Waterloo to London Bridge
Location: Central London
Length of journey: 3 miles, 40 minutes

The 521 is London's most frequent bus service. Paradoxically, it doesn't run at weekends. The 521 is a true oddity, the commuters' friend, and exists because it's a lot cheaper than digging a new tube line. It crosses the Thames twice to connect two rail termini to places of work around Holborn and the City. It would be quicker to walk from one end to the other than to take the bus, not that any regular passenger would ever dream of riding all the way. So I did.

Never let it be said that queueing is dead. Visit the bus stops along the flank of Waterloo in the morning peak and you'll find several, two of which are for the 521. One aligns with the front doors and another with the centre, each with its own shelter in case the weather is inclement. As one bus vanishes the queues build up again, ready for double boarding, as the next vehicle lines up round the corner ready to take its place. Between half past seven and half past nine the 521 sets off every two minutes... as it'll do again between half past four and half past six, except then there'll be hardly anybody here waiting.

I've joined the crew who don't need to be at their desks by nine, but maybe nine thirty, so the bus I board isn't quite as rammed as those which left a few minutes earlier. Even better I manage to grab a seat, but the majority behind me in the queue are not so fortunate. They nip on with their free magazines and gym bags, their books and massive headphones, and clutch the handrail. Those packed beside the windows stare out in purgatorial indifference, displaying a fine range of tailored jackets, floral blouses and natty scarves. It's time to head across the river.

The on-board screen suggests we'll reach Holborn in five minutes and St Paul's in 17 (whereas anywhere better reached via the Waterloo & City line is conspicuously absent from the list). Nobody seems interested in hopping off on the south side of Waterloo Bridge, so everyone gets to enjoy the world-class view along the river Thames... unless they've seen it umpteen times before, or are squished somewhere in the middle of the bus from which it is invisible.

Wahey, here comes a unique bit of road no other London bus follows, namely the Strand Underpass. What's more only the northbound 521 uses it, because the former Kingsway tramway subway now only has room for one-way traffic. A serious left-hand bend intrudes part-way through, somewhere near the basement of Bush House, requiring a foot off the accelerator to negotiate. And in case you're wondering whether this tunnel might be an architecturally fascinating treat, no, it's basically a wall of concrete blocks and the occasional safety sign.

I can't help noticing that the lady sat in front of me is answering her office emails to fill the time. She's spotted a pertinent feature in the morning's freebie, so emails Lisa to ask if there are "any other verticals going out we need to know about". She asks Georgina about travel to Amsterdam, and Sarah about the Elite Singles partner proposal. She opens up an enquiry from Mark about his confidential salary review, and invites him to speak to her in the office later. I've changed the recipients' names to protect her PR agenda, but I wonder how much other confidential communication is undertaken in full public view on the 521.

Around half the passengers on the bus alight at Holborn. They could have caught any of seven other bus routes to get here, and I saw a particularly long queue for the 243, but I guess this crowd prefer the frequent express through the tunnel. A couple of people duly climb aboard, and I notice one of them fails to touch in, indeed I've spotted a fair few (on the 507 as well as the 521) treating the middle door as an excuse for a free ride.

On High Holborn a lady steps off the pavement in front of us having failed to spot the traffic lights have changed, because her phone is more interesting, and is blasted by a loud beep on the horn for her trouble. At Chancery Lane the number of passengers aboard halves again, and is now down to more like fifteen. The display screen has started to suggest it'll be 25 minutes before we reach London Bridge, which seems a ridiculously improbable length of time (but turns out to be correct).

At Fetter Lane a button is pressed to announce "The driver has been instructed to wait at this stop for a short time to even out the service". This is ridiculous for three reasons. Firstly, these buses run really (really) frequently. Secondly, it turns out the extra wait is only for a minute. And thirdly, absolutely nobody else is waiting to get on board at any of the remaining stops. Whatever, the majority of the remaining passengers alighted when faced with this announcement, and now there are only 4 of us left.

I note that the 521s going the other way are mostly standing-room only, packed with passengers who clearly don't have to be at their desks terribly early. And there are a lot of 521s, they're everywhere, indeed it takes 27 electric vehicles to keep this brief service on the road. But heading my way, from St Paul's Cathedral onwards, there's only me on board. In terms of time, that's half the journey that the driver would have had nobody else for company if I hadn't made the journey. A heck of a lot of driving hours are being wasted transporting air, just so that dozens of people can cram in for the first bit of the ride.

"This bus is now on diversion and will not be serving Cannon Street station." Oh joy. Gas escape repair works have blocked King William Street since the end of April, one way only, so we're to be sent round the long way. Specifically that's via Bank, and worse than that it's via Threadneedle Street, because impromptu roadworks are a central London curse. Until the start of June the eastbound 521 has become a wholly inefficient experience, which must be infuriating the regular commuters on their homeward journey, but for now is only inconveniencing me for an extra ten minutes.

I spy someone in the heart of financial territory scudding along the pavement on a scooter. I spy a smart woman entering the back door of Lloyds Bank carrying a bag of shareable treats. I spy a queue of buses snaking ahead waiting for the lights to change. I spy workmen legs-deep in a hole manipulating a spaghettisworth of plastic pipes. And I spy the last hordes of the morning commute flooding over London Bridge, because not everybody catches the bus.

We finally roll up the ramp into London Bridge bus station, the driver and me, 40 minutes after starting out. It feels like forever, but actually it's only five minutes longer than mandated in the timetable, so not too bad. He now gets to rest awhile before carrying the day's final stragglers back towards High Holborn, and maybe nobody at all into Waterloo, as the service winds down to a less hectic daytime frequency. The 521 might seem a terrible waste of money, but its contribution (for a few hours a day) is invaluable, and it is a lot cheaper than digging a new tube line.

Route 521: route map
Route 521: live route map
Route 521: timetable
Route 521: route history
Route 521: The Ladies Who Bus

 Saturday, May 19, 2018

Route 507: Victoria to Waterloo
Location: Central London
Length of journey: 2 miles, 25 minutes

A couple of central London buses are not like the others. They have numbers in the 500s, they exist to ferry commuters to and from major rail termini, and they vary wildly in frequency. One of the pair is the 507. It's part of what was once the Red Arrow network, launched in 1966, and rebranded as such in 2016. Only the finest cattle truck conditions for the civil service traveller.

You can tell the 507's important because it's been gifted one of the rare slots in the bus station in front of Victoria. Come during the peace of midday, or in the vacuum of the weekend, and you might wonder why. But at the height of the morning rush hour the buses are three deep, a queue waits politely, and the last step of the commute awaits.

I was expecting worse, but there are 'only' 25 of us standing by the time the bus swings out. Some are on their phones watching the next bit of their latest episode, while others simply stare straight ahead, having run out of Metro to read halfway across Surrey. We kick off down the Vauxhall Bridge Road, then bear off through Westminster's administrative backside. Nobody's especially interested in the first two stops, but Strutton Ground, near Channel 4's whopping deconstructed digit, proves rather more popular.

A dozen police motorcyclists go by, perhaps on their way to outride for a minister. Schoolchildren of all heights walk past bearing bags and rucksacks. Marsham Street is the chief disembarkation point for the Home Office and various other government departments, which leads me to believe I've probably been sharing the bus with a number of administrative assistants and civil service highfliers. One suited gentleman has brought his young daughter with him, their loud conversation culminating with an announcement from Sophie that she has "done a poo".

One joy of these new electric vehicles is the display screen hanging from the ceiling behind the driver, which announces the number of minutes to the next few stops and lists potential departures from Waterloo station. This would be particularly useful if anyone was about to commute home, which at 8.30 in the morning they are not, and if the jams ahead didn't mean that by the time we reach Waterloo all these trains will have left.

As the bus empties at Millbank someone shuffles into the seat behind me and sneezes three times, which doesn't worry me too much because it's hayfever time. I become more concerned when they proceed to sniffle, sneeze again, and generally make known that they have a column of thick catarrh bubbling in their throat. It would be impolite to turn round and complain, plus I might risk a direct hit, but I expect to spend the next few days living in fear of catching whatever my mucus-riddled nemesis might have got.

Our complement now somewhat depleted, we depart Westminster across panoramic Lambeth Bridge, then pick up our last fresh passengers outside Lambeth Palace. A steady stream of cyclists files through on the nearside, initially us overtaking them, but increasingly them overtaking us the closer to St Thomas's we get. The 507's a useful service for nursing staff as well as civil servants, it seems... but less good if you want to hang on to the final stop, because the traffic on York Road is grim.

With roadworks blocking the usual route, our driver pulls up at a unlabelled stop near the London Eye, where all but 4 passengers nip off. One of those fleeing is the phantom sneezer, who turns out to be a glum 11 year-old boy in a grey hoodie stuffing his face from a giant pack of pain aux chocolats. The rest of us should have got off too, because we now get to crawl towards the IMAX roundabout, trapped in our red box in full sight of where we want to be. It takes nigh on five minutes to circle back to the opposite side of the road and escape, a lesson the regular commuters probably learned yonks ago.

Route 507: route map
Route 507: live route map    
Route 507: timetable
Route 507: route history
Route 507: bendy bus report
Route 507: The Ladies Who Bus

SI unit quiz

Here are crossword-style clues to the names of 27 SI units.
That's 7 base units, and 20 derived units.
How many can you name?

  1) rhythm
  2) behind one
  3) morning Dad
  4) Dodd holds 56
  5) friend of Ratty
  6) can delay endlessly
  7) back from what Margo likes

  8) nemesis?
  9) van rental
10) eight kings
11) right Diana?
12) broken slate
13) Unilever soap
14) shake a clasp
15) Carl Maria von
16) distant advert
17) cool bum steer      
18) swirling sluices
19) went on drifting
20) restively restive
21) sounds like a gem
22) interrogative pronoun
23) reverse Cornish cheese
24) in the park at a loose end
25) sounds like toilet attendants
26) Bond, but not Secret Service
27) queer celeb, messed up without E

All answers now in the comments box.

 Friday, May 18, 2018

Everything we weigh, from aircraft to atoms, ultimately depends on a small block of metal stored in a Paris laboratory. The International Prototype Kilogram is a squat cylinder of platinum-iridium alloy, created at the behest of the 1st General Conference on Weights and Measures in 1889. It's approximately 39mm tall, but it's exactly 1kg in mass, because one kilogram is defined to be precisely what this lump of metal weighs. [video]

Six copies were made, and 40 further replicas dished out amongst the countries important at the time. The UK got copy number 18, and every 40 years or so it's taken back to France to be compared against the original. The rest of the time it's kept in a basement at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, the UK's chief arbiters of everything to do with measurement, so is very rarely seen.

Every two years the NPL holds an Open House event to showcase their work to the general public, including research and expertise across the entire spread of SI units. This year's event was held yesterday afternoon, so as a confirmed IPK groupie I made sure to go along.

This is the UK copy, the National Standard Kilogram, which was on display in a laboratory on the ground floor of Module 7. [video]

It's wasn't especially visible, being housed inside a metal casing inside a glass belljar inside a locked storeroom behind a pane of glass, but it was good enough for me. I've been longing to see the National Standard Kilogram ever since I saw it in a television programme at school in the 1970s, and now here I was finally in its presence.

Pictured below is the automatic mass comparator used to compare the UK national standard with its copies. Up to four copies can be compared simultaneously to an accuracy of one microgram, that's 0.0000001%. These copies are then used for calibration elsewhere, and so on, until ultimately the Co-Op knows precisely how many pasta shells should be in a packet.

But there is a catch, a serious one, with worldwide scientific implications. Every time the National Standard Kilograms are compared to the International Prototype, they're found to differ in mass. It's only a very tiny change, due to minor amounts of wear and tear every time the kilograms are cleaned and compared, but a troubling distortion all the same. When the entirety of science depends on measurements underpinned by mass, it's by no means ideal to define the kilogram based on an impermanent block of metal.

A similar problem once existed with the International Prototype Metre, when the set of platinum-iridium bars knocked up in 1889 were found to differ fractionally from the original. Here's the UK's original National Standard Metre, in the wooden case, being watched over by its official Open House guardian. She was only allowed to handle it using thick gloves, and even the later copy (resting on the table in front) was treated with a certain degree of reverence. [video]

The solution was to move away from physical blocks and switch to universal constants. In 1960 the official definition of the metre was changed to correspond to 1650763.73 wavelengths of the radiation from a krypton atom, and in 1983 upgraded to the length of the path travelled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1/299792458 seconds. This switched the problem to accurately defining the duration of one second, which is now determined by using a laser to measure emissions from a caesium atom. Here's the laser the NPL uses.

But finding a more accurate, independent means of measuring a kilogram has proved more difficult. Whatever methods anyone came up with, it transpired that weighing a block of metal was better. But a solution looks to be on the cards, thanks to a machine devised here at the NPL in 1975 by Dr Bryan Kibble. The Kibble Balance uses the force produced by a current-carrying wire in a magnetic field to balance the weight of a mass. The original balance was a messy beast made from large coils and wires, but over the last few decades the design has been refined to something smaller and more accurate.

What the Kibble Balance actually determines is another physical invariant, the Planck constant, to an accuracy of nineteen parts per billion. That's not perfect, but with several Kibble balances in operation around the world an average value can be taken, and that'll do nicely. The kilogram can then be defined using the equivalent energy of a photon via the Planck constant, throwing in the definition of the second and the metre for good measure. And with the kilogram now defined entirely via universal constants, nobody needs to rely on a block of metal in a basement any more.

The International Committee for Weights and Measures are meeting in November and are expected to agree to the fundamental redefinition of the kilogram, as well as the tightening up of the other SI units. If accepted, the entire metric system would become wholly derivable from natural phenomena for the very first time, under conditions reproducible experimentally anywhere on the planet. The anticipated date of the switchover is 20th May 2019, coinciding with World Metrology Day, after which physics will never be quite the same again.

With the next NPL Open House not due until a year after that, yesterday was the last opportunity to see the National Standard Kilogram while it still has inherent meaning. The clock is ticking... and yes, the NPL regulates the nation's timekeeping as well.

Other things I saw, played with and chatted about at NPL Open House included a hydrogen-powered car, a microwave anechoic chamber, the world's most accurate thermometer, a caesium fountain clock, a linear accelerometer, machines for measuring air pollution by nanoparticles, 3D optical microscopes, an underwater acoustic tank, a functioning Computer Aided Design System and Alan Turing's employee record. Here's the full 40 page programme, if you want to see what you missed. It was an entirely brilliant afternoon/evening for anyone of a scientific bent, and as well-frequented by schoolchildren as by adults. Stick a reminder in your calendar to check for tickets in April 2020 (or wait for Ian Visits to remind you).

 Thursday, May 17, 2018

Location: Luxted Road, Downe BR6 7JT [map]
Open: daily from 10am (reduced opening Nov-Mar)
Admission: £12.00
Website: english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/home-of-charles-darwin-down-house (@homeofdarwin)
Four word summary: where Darwin reasoned evolution
Time to allow: a couple of hours

In 1842 Charles Darwin and his young family grew tired of living in London and sought somewhere new to live. They nearly ended up in Chobham, but a house in the Kent village of Down proved cheaper, and the Darwins grudgingly decided it'd do. London was commutable if necessary, but the area was also properly rural and, winningly, surrounded by an impressive network of footpaths. Since then the village has gained an extra 'e', and the London boundary has reached out and swallowed it whole. But Down House remains deep in untarnished countryside, and Darwin's local landscape is secure. [10 photos]

Charles Darwin lived here for 40 years, after a busy early life involving medical school, Cambridge University and a life changing round-the-world voyage. His five-year trip aboard the Beagle allowed him to observe variations in geology and natural history, and to collect innumerable specimens for later study. As a result Darwin became increasingly convinced that various species must have had a common origin, and his theory of natural selection gradually surfaced. Although these ideas were already developing before he reached Down House, it was here he dug deeper and made his arguments watertight before bringing evolution to public attention in 1858. Our world was never quite the same again.

Down House overlooks a single-track lane round the back of Biggin Hill Airport. One of London's least frequent buses runs past the front door, that's the R8, and the driver will let you step off into a hedge if you ding the Hail & Ride at the right time. Then traipse back through the car park, locate the gift shop, and you're inside. I was impressed how many visitors were here on a weekday in the middle of almost nowhere, but that's the pull of a great scientist, a nice house and a splendid garden. Also, no photographs indoors thanks very much, but outside as many as you like.

Visitors are urged to go upstairs first, to see the exhibition, which runs through the life and times of everything Darwin-related and is very good. His family tree is impressive, and includes several Wedgwoods. The rooms detailing the voyage of the Beagle, and the controversy surrounding On The Origin Of Species, are detailed and chock full with actual artefacts. The stuffed birds in the cabinets on the landing aren't as creepy as they might be. One room is set aside for children to do childreny things, and another is a library. The only period room upstairs is the Darwins' bedroom, recently restored so I'd not seen inside before. The bed is lined up to face the window and the meadow beyond, which helps to explain how the great naturalist spent quite so long living here. I watched as a bee buzzed the wisteria just beyond the glass, a fairly everyday observation, but here somehow imbued with a special significance.

Downstairs an audio tour is provided to help guide you round, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, which gives it extra oomph. Make sure you pick it up otherwise you'll be round the four rooms and the hallway in no time, and that's all there is. The parlour was the heart of the house, with doors opening out onto the garden and a backgammon set primed by the fireplace. The study is where books were written, and letters answered, and religion's traditional hegemony challenged. The table in the billiard room was sometimes used for relieving stress, and sometimes for laying out skulls, plants and other specimens. And the dining room was used for eating, obviously, so the recorded commentary does the best it can.

Step out through the tearoom, and the glories of the garden are yours to explore. This is where you want the other half of the audio guide, narrated by Andrew Marr, to make sure you uncover all the garden's nooks and crannies. The flowerbeds by the sundial are all tulippy at the moment, the lawn is lush, and somebody's filming the mulberry in timelapse for a documentary or something. Cross to the orchard to find the beehives, and a last burst of apple blossom, plus the "worm stone" which Darwin experimented on as part of his last published work, because he'd always found earthworms inherently fascinating.

The sole indoor part of Darwin's garden laboratory was his long thin greenhouse, which has been restored (and refilled) by English Heritage. At one end are a crop of carnivorous plants, similar to those he kept for study, along with notices asking you politely not to touch. A separate compartment focuses on orchids, because he was even more obsessed by those as a means of investigating fertilisation and variation. Immediately outside is the kitchen garden, which looks mostly empty at the moment. But don't be put off, because right down at the far end is a gate leading offsite to a public footpath, and the woodland loop where Darwin took his daily constitutionals - the Sandwalk.

The Sandwalk is special because it's where Charles came to think, up to three times a day, along a strip of land specially purchased from his neighbour. One side of the loop runs through dark woodland, mainly hazel and birch, and the other along an open privet hedge with views across the valley. It looks glorious out there at present, although Charles wouldn't have had the joys of seeing a golf course across the fields, or endured the racket of private jets heading into Biggin Hill. I only made one circuit, rather than Charles's more usual five, but out here is where I felt closest to the first homo sapiens to spot the meaning in his surroundings.

English Heritage 2018: Apsley House & Wellington Arch, Eltham Palace, Kenilworth Castle, Dover Castle, Wrest Park

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jack of diamonds
Life viewed from London E3

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