diamond geezer

 Monday, July 23, 2018

In just under two years time, Londoners will elect another Mayor. They'll probably re-elect Sadiq Khan for a second term... unless the Conservatives can pick a candidate with charisma and policies that appeal. They've started looking very early.

Nominations opened last month, attracting a dozen would-be Tory Mayors, but no big names. A number of high profile figures from the right of the political spectrum had been approached, but declined, leading to a longlist of ten lesser known councillors, entrepreneurs, peers and one MP. The selection process has moved fast, and we now have a shortlist of just three, one of whom will be attempting to topple Sadiq in 653 days time.

The three are Shaun Bailey and Andrew Boff, who are currently members of the London Assembly, and Joy Morrissey who's a councillor in Ealing. Between them they tick the ethnic minority box, the LGBT box and the women's box, which helps make the party look more progressive. And they've also each been interviewed by the website Conservative Home, who asked for their views on the Mayorship, crime, housing and transport. You can read their full interviews here - [Shaun] [Andrew] [Joy]

This blog being what it is, I thought I'd focus solely on their thoughts on transport, because that should be illuminating enough. Meanwhile John Bull from London Reconnections ran through the entire longlist on Twitter yesterday, in a long thread you'd no doubt enjoy reading.

Shaun Bailey (born 1971, Assembly member since 2016)
For many London commuters, the journey into work is often delayed or generally unpleasant. Much of this is down to a lack of investment in our transport network.
Nothing to see here. Moving on...
In the last mayoral election campaign, the current Mayor promised that Londoners “won’t pay a penny more” in transport fares. He broke this promise within his first year. Even though fares have been frozen for pay-as-you-go users, for the average commuter using a travelcard, fares have continued to rise. So not only has the Mayor broken a key election pledge, he has ensured that TfL now has a £640m blackhole in its balance sheet from lost fares revenue.
Technically Sadiq only pledged to freeze 'TfL fares', and he has, so his campaign promise was sound. But he was also disingenuous in never explaining clearly what this meant, hence a lot of people were pissed off when they discovered their travelcards and fare caps going up, and Shaun could easily capitalise on that anger. As for TfL's financial black hole, that's a very real consequence of Sadiq's four-year freeze, and whoever's Mayor in 2020 won't have the option of adopting populist policies on fares again.
Because of the poor state of TfL finances, Sadiq Khan has had to cancel an upgrade of three tube lines and has pushed back the renewal of the Tube network’s fleet of trains. If elected as Mayor, I would once again get a grip on TfL finances, as Boris Johnson once did, and increase transport investment in our network to ensure that journeys are on time and more pleasant for everyday commuters.
Project slippage is always an issue for tube projects, with squeezed finances only making several delays worse. But Shaun's assertion that Boris had a grip on TfL finances is astonishing, given his love of wasteful grand projects, and how easily he forgets the bonfire of cancelled transport projects when Boris first came to power.
The Mayor also promised that there would be “zero strikes” in office. So far, Sadiq Khan has, on average, had more strikes than any Mayor since the creation of the GLA. To break the stranglehold of the unions on London’s transport network, I would accelerate the purchasing of driverless trains.
I don't remember the last eighteen months being particularly strike-y, but Shaun will have picked his statistics carefully to ensure they're true. As for the idea that driverless trains might solve the problem, that pipedream plays well with the electorate, but even automated trains aren't staff-free, as strikes on the DLR repeatedly prove. Overall, there's not much meat here.

Andrew Boff (born 1958, Assembly member since 2008)
Khan has decimated the finances of TfL and it will require creative thinking to avoid bankruptcy.
Andrew's not mincing his words here. He's certainly the experienced pair of hands on this shortlist, having been deeply involved on the London Assembly for years, and he puts himself forward as a potential Mayoral candidate on a regular basis.
I will: Boost sponsorship on the tube;
You've lost my vote instantly there, Andrew, although I'm sure many passengers would be only too happy to prostitute the network to the highest bidder to bear down on fares.
I will: Break up TfL into its operational and investment businesses to bear down on costs;
Andrew hopes to make our public services more like private corporations. It's a common Conservative aspiration.
I will: Accelerate the introduction of driverless trains;
No. See earlier.
I will: Seek to ban Tube strikes and replace them with a compulsory mediation process involving an independent judge;
Every Mayoral candidate is always obsessed by cutting tube strikes. But banning them altogether usually proves to be one impractical step too far.
I will: Scrap free travel for partners, friends and lodgers of TfL staff;
It's generally agreed that scrapping this particular perk would save peanuts. But miserable curmudgeons are always happiest when they've stopped the 'undeserving' getting something for free.
I will: Expedite the move towards a 100% diesel-free bus fleet;
The current Mayor's already onto this one. Sounds like Andrew wants to do it rather quicker.
Khan’s battle against motorcycles will be reversed. Motorcyclists will be recognised as part of the solution to London’s congestion and air quality challenges.
The Mayor's latest Transport Strategy wants to see a move away from motorised transport, which Andrew sees as an attack on personal motorbike use, and so far Sadiq's failed to give him any reassurance this isn't the case.
Safety improvements for those who wish to cycle will continue but I believe that TfL will need to be a lot more sensitive to what residents are saying about the impact of the routes on public safety and the viability of town centres.
But Andrew doesn't appear to be siding so strongly with cyclists, the hint being that local concerns should trump cavalier projects, which'd be the death knell for many a segregated lane, quietway and traffic-calming measure.
And finally I want to be very, very clear about Heathrow. The GLA will not assist in any way the implementation of the Government’s second-rate, unambitious and environmentally destructive plans for a third runway. I will contribute however much is needed to to fight against it and present the alternatives.
That's identical to the current Mayor's position. Elsewhere in the interview, however, some significant divergence.

Joy Morrissey (born 1981, Ealing councillor since 2014)
I want to see us speed up electrification of our city both to keep us at the forefront of technological developments as well as cleaning up our terrible air quality. We should set an ambitious target to have the entire fleet of London buses electric or zero emission. We also need to work with councils and private companies to get more charging points installed across London. At the moment they’re often heavily concentrated in the more affluent areas of central London.
Joy's number one priority is electric vehicles, particularly those for Londoners who drive. Meanwhile the Mayor already has a target for an all-electric bus fleet, although Joy clearly thinks 2037 can and should be beaten.
We also need to ensure we have taxis people can trust which are accessible for people with disabilities. We need an open and competitive playing field, welcoming entrants like Uber but ensuring drivers are vetted and properly trained and supported before being licensed, to keep both passengers and drivers safe. It’s also vital that there are always enough accessible cabs on the road and that drivers of licenced cars realise they have a responsibility to transport everyone – able-bodied or not – as part of their obligation to TfL and Londoners.
There's a fascinating disconnect between Joy's responses and those of Shaun and Andrew. They were primarily focused on public transport, whereas Joy comes from a very different car-driving, taxi-riding, Uber-hailing demographic. Is this the kind of person we want in charge at TfL?
Finally, we need to be realistic and honest about the need to invest heavily in our infrastructure. Sadiq Khan’s reckless fares freeze blew a £640 million black hole in the TfL budget that’s seen investment in track maintenance and orders for new underground trains plummet.
I think that's code for "we should put the fares up", which is indeed absolutely what whoever's Mayor in 2020 needs to do. I wonder who'll be brave enough to say so... and whether it'll make a blind bit of difference in the battle between Sadiq and whichever also-ran gets picked to oppose him at the ballot box.

 Sunday, July 22, 2018

Postcards from the Lambeth Country Show

If I were to stick my neck out, I'd say the Lambeth Country Show is probably London's best annual event. It's fun. It's free. It's huge. It's diverse. It has sheep. It has comedy vegetables. It has queues for cider. It retains a focus on all things community-minded. It's held on the glorious slopes of Brockwell Park. And it's been brightening the summer since 1974.

But this year the magic threatened to go badly wrong. On police advice, Lambeth Council erected a giant wall around the showground, rather than allowing free flow onto the site. They insisted on security checks on the way in, and banned unsealed drinks and alcohol... which they were quite happy to flog inside. They specified terms and conditions of entry online, and instructed visitors to check the webpage regularly for any changes made. And they pissed off a lot of the surrounding community in the process, with many saying they'd never visit again. So how was it?

Outside Herne Hill station
To cross from the market by the station to the gates of Brockwell Park required crossing two, maybe three slices of road at a particularly busy junction. No attempt whatsoever had been made to halt the traffic, or even adapt the traffic light sequence in pedestrians' favour. Instead frazzled event staff stood beneath each set of lights with strips of red tape, which they furled or unfurled according to whether the public were allowed through or not. Green man... tape removed... crowd starts to pour across... count up to five... shout... replace tape... oi, wait there please. Worse, the traffic island in the centre had to empty before we could be allowed across, and that light changed less frequently, so we could only make progress every other time our lights turned green. Meanwhile barriers stopped people crossing elsewhere, not that this stopped the persistent, and by the time I finally made it into the park I was feeling somewhat subjugated. I've been in far far worse queuing slaloms, but equally I've never found getting into Brockwell Park more of a chore.

Blue Entrance
They must have been expecting Armageddon-level queueing. Here at the Herne Hill entrance thirty-two separate lanes corralled visitors towards the security line, which was located some considerable distance ahead. Nobody official had attempted to wave us in the most appropriate direction, so I plumped wrongly and ended up in lane 18, whereas 19 had barely a queue at all. A small bored child bawled in frustration as the sun beat down. Eventually we nudged forward under the awning where a yellowshirt checked our bags for contraband, like narcotics, gazebos or Ribena. Most visitors had bags, but I didn't, so it turned out I'd been waiting unnecessarily. Three lanes then funnelled towards a single blueshirt with a baton, which he waved around certain visitors whilst waving others through. I got a cursory groin check, after which the merry man mountain hummed a little fanfare, presumably because I was terrorism-free. Arriving at the very start of the afternoon had been no fun. But before very long the lines dissipated and fresh arrivals sailed up to the bag-check without delay, so the main sticking point remained the wall itself, not passing through it.

The showground
The acreage occupied by the Country Show is smaller than before, but still vast. The area which used to host the main stage is now outside the wall, so that's had to be relocated to where the funfair used to be, so there's no longer a funfair (for adults) on site. The Farm has been shunted much further downhill, the Flower Show feels penned in below the main house, and the Village Green is much more easily overlooked. But there's still a long way to wander, and many a loop to explore, and in the middle of the site you'd never realise anything had changed... except perhaps from the size of the crowds. I'm a regular visitor, and was expecting the park to be busier, and wondered at first if it was just too early in the afternoon. But crowd density never quite picked up later, not to usual strength, and I'm uncertain how much of that was due to the Wall Effect.

The stalls
Avenues of food stalls serve up fare from many a world cuisine, although in weather like this the drinks vendors are doing a more roaring trade. But it's the community stalls which make the event, arrayed all over the site with their messages of hope, heed and heritage. Anything local you might want to join is here, from the Socialist Workers Party to a Spanish-speaking Baptist church, even a selection of proper scientific societies. Volunteers try all sorts of things to make you visit their tent, be that dishing out free condoms, loud music, a large jar of sweets or haranguing you by the bowling green. And you might leave with a fresh interest in cycling, a stem cell donor appointment or a teasmade from the HIV charity tombola, or just sunburn and a heavy stomach.

While you can buy gassy beer and lager in cans on site, the unofficial king of drinks at the LCS is cider. Specifically it's Chucklehead, an apple brew from a farm near Tiverton, shipped up from Devon to Lambeth in copious quantities. The queues start short, but inexorably lengthen during the afternoon until they reach obscene proportions, such is the showgoers' need. Wiser souls buy in bulk, wandering round with a one litre bottle dangling from their hand or even the full earthenware jug for £21. Or perhaps wiser souls leave well alone, because Chucklehead is 7% proof and overquaffing can lead to insensibility. Nothing quite says Country Show like overdosing on scrumpy in an inner city park.

Brockwell Farm
And nothing quite says Country Show like pens of well-groomed animals primed for display. Vauxhall City Farm are amongst those who bring their livestock down, partly for mass petting purposes, but also for the serious business of judging best in breed. Other city farms like Mudchute turn up too, plus more far flung centres for rare breeds, to provide a broader cross section to exhibit and engender better competition. I stood at the ringside to watch the primitives on parade, the judge taking his time to eye up the trio on display, and stroke their coats, and press their haunches, and observe their gait, and step back and ruminate, and eventually advance towards the winning beast bearing a red rosette, while a colleague delivered a droll and informative commentary. Not everyone enjoyed the slow pace, but I'd far rather attend a ram lamb trial than fork out for some bespoke ticketed kebab experience.

The Flower Show tent
But for the quintessential Country Show experience you have to visit the Flower Show tent. Within its sultry confines, on trestle tables laid out with handwritten cards, the good people of Lambeth submit their exhibits in a variety of horticultural and craft classes. One dahlia. Five onions. Group of succulents. Victoria sponge sandwich. It's just like a flower show in any provincial village, apart from Class 68 - a vegetable character - where the local populace goes totally over the top. A queue had built up outside the tent by 2pm, when judging finally finished, so keen were people to discover the plant-based puns on the farthest table. Donald Trump variants proved popular, for example in gourd-haired pumpkin format, and two different contributors had gone about creating Carrot Southgate. But the general consensus, confirmed by the largest concentration of poised smartphones, seemed to be that a very green, very bushy Kale Marx had stolen the show.

They haven't wrecked the Show yet. But it's not quite what it was.

» The Brixton Buzz report from Day 1 (including 117 photos)
» The Brixton Buzz report from Day 2 (to follow)

 Saturday, July 21, 2018

Next year London becomes a National Park City.
Today sees the start of National Park City Week.

But what precisely is a 'National Park City'?
Turns out it's simultaneously a brilliant idea, and totally unfounded hokum.

When I first heard about the concept, a few years ago, I assumed there must be some internationally agreed definition. National Park Cities must exist around the world, I thought, and London was aiming to join them. But no, not that.

In fact a National Park City is meant to be a bit like a National Park, but in a city. Given that all the UK's other National Parks aren't cities, the idea seems somewhat counter-intuitive. But that's because this concept hasn't come from government, nor from any established environmental organisation, but from a former geography teacher from South Oxfordshire.

Daniel Raven-Ellison describes himself as a guerrilla geographer, and left the classroom ten years ago to "educate on a wider scale". His big idea started out five years ago with a petition to make London a National Park. Given how biologically diverse the capital is, he argued, why should urban wildlife have less value than rural wildlife? The petition failed, obviously, because London doesn't meet the criteria to become a National Park. So Daniel tweaked his vision and focused instead on the idea of a National Park City, a concept which which conveniently didn't exist until he invented it.
"A large urban area that is managed and semi-protected through both formal and informal means to enhance the natural capital of its living landscape. A defining feature is the widespread and significant commitment of residents, visitors and decision-makers to allow natural processes to provide a foundation for a better quality of life for wildlife and people."
Rather than being a well-defined framework of things, Daniel sees a National Park City as a movement to improve city life. A greater focus on the ecological would capture the public's imagination, put London's environment to better use, increase opportunities for tackling obesity, develop green space for future generations, encourage wildlife, improve biodiversity and nurture "softer, more empathetic" relationships between people and their surroundings. Call it green skies thinking, rather than administrative red tape.

For his next move Daniel worked with geography students at Queen Mary University to focus on what precisely a National Park City might entail, then held a public event on the South Bank to discuss possibilities with a wider audience. He crowdfunded a proposal in newspaper format which was printed 30000 times, then moved on to create a proper fold-out map showing London's green and blue in gorgeous cartographic detail. He walked in a big spiral round London to publicise his ideas, covering 350 miles and meeting up with local environmental custodians along the way. And then he skewered the politicians.

To validate his project, Daniel decided that he needed the support of councillors from two thirds of the 654 electoral wards that make up Greater London. Dedicated engagement over the course of three years convinced hundreds to vote in favour of National Park City status, but the total stalled short of the two thirds mark. So in March this year Daniel lowered his entirely arbitrary threshold to one half, announced that a majority of London now supported his idea and decreed that this provided legitimacy to move forward. If you can't meet a target, change it and move on.

Crucially he also needed the support of the Mayor. Boris had been unmoved, explaining by letter that while the concept was "an engaging way of sparking debate", he didn't have the power to create a new class of urban park. Sadiq has proved much more amenable, jumping on the idea as a means to add weight to his long term environmental strategy. The key principle is to protect and extend London's green space, which currently covers just under half of the capital, although that's a tough call when another of your priorities is expanding housing.

The Mayor's so convinced that he's now working closely with the National Park City Foundation and other partners towards the aim of declaring London a National Park City in May 2019. That's also why this week has been deemed National Park City Week, kicking off today with the London National Park City Fair at Conway Hall and continuing with over 300 events before the end of next weekend. Perhaps more amazingly, representatives from other countries are now taking an interest, and are over here asking questions, meaning this could turn out to be a global movement after all.

It's damned impressive for an unfounded concept thought up by a geography teacher to be officially embraced by the largest city in western Europe. An utterly meaningless title has somehow been given purpose by working with persistence over several years from the grassroots up. Londoners may or may not embrace Daniel's collective vision, connecting more deeply to nature and the city's outdoor heritage. But his unlikely environmental success story just goes to show what dedication (and a heck of a lot of chutzpah) can achieve.

 Friday, July 20, 2018

Walking round Paris, I was struck by how utterly different the experience of crossing the road is compared to London. We don't tend to do zebra crossings these days, whereas in Paris most road junctions are marked with white stripes, the expectation being that's where you'll cross. The stripes also provide a clear reminder to drivers of your presence although, this being Paris, that doesn't mean they'll stop. They're supposed to, or at least slow down, once you've stepped onto the crossing, but in reality not all of them do. It took a while for me to get used to taking the plunge into a stream of traffic, and I often ended up meekly waiting until the road was clear.

Crossings on anything other than the quietest roads tend to be controlled by lights, a simple green man for walk and red for don't. What's interesting is that green doesn't mean the traffic's stopped, because French lights tend to omit that stage of the proceedings. At junctions either the man is red, when traffic's exiting the road you're crossing, or the man is green, and traffic may be entering after turning left or right. This two-stage system helps keep the traffic flowing faster, but also invites greater interaction between pedestrians and vehicles, with the latter supposed to pause to let those crossing through.

It seems to work well, and there is a sense that as a pedestrian you're flowing more freely across the city. But I'm less convinced it'd work in London, where our junctions aren't usually so rigidly geometric, each subtle deviation making it harder for a uniform solution to apply. Our 'pedestrians only' crossing phase is also much more favourable to the elderly, disabled and those with young children, so perhaps the British way is simply better by default.

But there is one way Paris beats London hands down, and that's the two-stage crossing. The Parisian authorities are perfectly happy to trust you to cross a big road in two steps. They install a red/green man for the first bit, as far as a central space, then install a second immediately on the other side. Pedestrians are respected enough to do things by halves, usually with a 'Traversez en 2 temps' sign to make the division clear.

TfL simply don't allow this kind of thing. Instead they create staggered islands to force pedestrians to cross in two goes, or they use just one red/green man sign to apply to the entire crossing. The first option can be slow, making everyone walk further. But the second option can be slower still, as the red man can't change to green until both directions of traffic have stopped. It's infuriating to be shown a red signal when in fact half the road is perfectly safe to cross, and you could've been partway across by now.

Our slightly nanny-ish system is predicated on perfect behaviour, but instead often encourages people to cross on a red light because it looks safe to do so. The Parisian set-up, by contrast, makes explicit which half is safe and which isn't, making it far less likely you'll misjudge which half of the road is clear. Might we ever be trusted enough to see some 2-stage non-staggered crossings in London? The straight-across solution with two signals is one thing Paris gets absolutely right.

Yesterday the Mayor launched his Walking Action Plan, an ambitious strategy which aims to get Londoners on their feet more often, and to make the capital "the world’s most walkable city". At 112 pages it's a meaty document, often heavier on aspiration than detail, but not something I can imagine his predecessor would have delivered. It's difficult to make walking easier, because everything always remains the same distance away, but it is possible to make getting there more direct, less cluttered or simply more appealing. The latter is the cheapest option, and so appears most heavily.

The report's chief observation is that numerous journeys which could be walked currently aren't, and changing those is the key priority. 84% of all journeys under 1km are made on foot, we're told, but that slumps to 42% for journeys between 1km and 2km. Once it takes more than fifteen minutes to get somewhere, people switch to bus, bike, train or even car, and it's these short-ish journeys it'd be easiest to adjust. We're also told that Inner Londoners are already good at walking, with 41% of journeys made on foot, but in less dense Outer London that percentage drops to 29%, so it's in the suburbs where there's greatest potential for change.

The Plan therefore has two specific targets:
1) Increase the number of walking trips by more than one million per day by 2024 (from 6.4m to 7.5m). That's not quite as tough as it sounds, because the population of London is due to increase by almost a million people over the same period. But could making pavements friendlier and taming traffic persuade reluctant waverers onto the streets?
2) Increase the proportion of trips to primary schools made by walking to 57% by 2024 (from 53%). School-based initiatives must be one of the easiest ways the Mayor can have a positive impact, but even in the face of apathetic parents 4% does sound a somewhat unimpressive increase.

Amongst the definitive projects listed is a headline-grabbing plan to create new 'green by default' pedestrian crossings, which only turn red if a vehicle turns up. They'd be welcome, but only 10 are planned, three of which would be on the interface between the Olympic Park and Westfield where everyone generally just walks across the street on red anyway, so don't expect much of a sea change. Making Countdown crossings the future default, though, that's got to help, and cutting waiting times would be a welcome knockback after Boris's priority of "smoothing the traffic flow".

The Walking Plan's not an exciting read. Much of it's about how to place provision for walking at the centre of future planning, integrating with new developments and public transport, including the establishment of a London Walking Forum to help get the job done. Nor did I get to the end and think wow, this'll change my life, but then I'm not target audience because I walk already. This is really a nudge to those currently too anxious or reticent to walk, reclaiming the streets from traffic to boost health and the environment, because that way we all win.

 Thursday, July 19, 2018

The Thursday puzzle

online clancog chinI lunge in
or maniacgin ratiotight apes
little algaelittle ironmiller vice

What's going on here, then?
Don't tell us in the comments.

(but do tell us how much you've solved)

It last rained in East London at 9pm on 9th June, some 40 days ago.
That's highly unusual, but not unprecedented.

For the avoidance of doubt, I'm using data from a weather station in Wanstead. This has recorded no measurable rainfall since a light shower almost six weeks ago.

It's not the case that the whole of London has been dry over this period. A heavy shower crossed northwest and central London on 4th July, but completely missed the south and east. Then last Friday evening a massive downpour followed much the same path, dumping over half an inch of rain on areas like Harrow, Ealing and Finchley. At my normally-favoured weather station in Hampstead, it was the wettest day of the year so far. But further to the east and south we got nothing, just as before, and so our drought rolls on.

It might rain tomorrow, if a threatened plume of thunderstorms rolls up from the continent, or everything might miss again, and 2018's unusually dry spell continue.

Droughty facts

In the UK, absolute drought is defined as a period of at least 15 consecutive days or more where there is less than 0.2 mm (0.008 inches) of rainfall. By that definition, East London entered drought on 26th June, and is still there. Hampstead didn't meet these conditions until 2nd July, and fell out of absolute drought two days later.
This definition isn't especially hard to meet. Over the last five years, Hampstead has been in absolute drought in July 2013, March 2014, September 2014, August 2016, April 2017, June 2017 and July 2018.

June 2018 was an unusually dry month, one of the five driest since records began in 1910. According to the Met Office, Central Southern England and Southeast England recorded just 3.0mm of rainfall, 6% of the expected total. Essex only had 1.7 mm (4% of average), Dorset 2.0mm (4%) and Middlesex only 0.7 mm (2%)... provisionally the driest June on record.

As for Summer 2018, we're now halfway through - a period which has coincided almost perfectly with the very dry spell. It's the driest start to summer on record for the UK, averaging 47mm across the country, but only 10.8mm for Southern England (a mere 6% of what you'd expect). Of course this could all change, and likely will, if the second half of summer doesn't match up.

The most famous drought of recent times was the summer of 1976, made more intense because it followed a dry summer and autumn in 1975, and an exceptionally dry start to 1976. We've not had that dry backstory this year, so no hosepipe bans have kicked in, nor are standpipes likely. Other recent droughts include July 1983, July 2006 and April 2011, but nothing that's bleached the grass quite like now.

It was dry and sunny on St Swithin's Day this year - of course it was - which might hint at 40 further dry days to come. This nugget of weather lore is based on the truth that the jetstream often brings persistent weather conditions to the UK in the summer months, be that prolonged high pressure or changeable days with bands of rain. It's never once been true, but had St Swithin's Day been June 10th, and if we can hold out until Saturday with no rain, a 40 day dry spell will have been achieved.

The British record for the longest period of drought is held, perhaps surprisingly, by Mile End in east London. An exceptionally dry spring in 1893 led to an amazing 73 consecutive days without rain from Saturday 4th March until Monday 15th May. High pressure was firmly in control across much of northwest Europe, bringing harsh frosts overnight but also some unusually warm days. We'd have to hold out until 22nd August 2018 without a drop of rain to beat Mile End's 1893 record.

 Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Royal Air Force Museum has had an overhaul, with a whole new visitor experience launching a couple of weeks ago.

For the avoidance of doubt, that's the RAF Museum in Hendon, not the RAF Museum at Cosford in the West Midlands (which I visited last summer). If you're a Londoner you've probably been to our museum at least once, probably more. But if you haven't been recently then definitely two and possibly three of the hangars have changed utterly since your last visit.

The first change is how you get in. Previously you'd enter through the gates on Grahame Park Road, then wander over to the building of your choice to start your tour. Today everyone is funnelled towards the new building, Hangar 1, via some not entirely obvious signs. Most of the former grassy frontage is now car park, bordered by a sinuous earthwork installed to prevent anyone entering the museum via an undesignated route. I noticed that the earthwork by the staff gate has already been significantly eroded by visitors squeezing through to avoid a long detour, as what probably looked good on the architect's drawing board has proven annoyingly impractical in real life.

Hangar 1 used to be the gloomy Battle of Britain exhibit, and is now a shiny new shed containing considerably fewer planes. The big draw is an exhibition celebrating this year's big centenary: RAF Stories, The First 100 Years. It starts off with a diversity of hats, then opens up into a medium-sized gallery packed with all aspects of aerial armed forcery. We're shown a helicopter and some bombs and a few engines and a token number of suspended aircraft, along with epaulettes and badges and other smaller tokens.

Prominent here are several full-size cut-outs of historical personnel, from pilots to chefs, carefully chosen to prove that women and minorities do exist. A cockpit simulator for budding pilots, at £6 a time, is likely to have a queue building up at the back. But perhaps most importantly there's lots for younger children to do, from hands-on science displays with flashing buttons to tiny model aircraft to clamber into. With its little bit of everything, the gallery struck me as a useful taster, and perhaps as far as certain parents with toddlers ever need to go.

A long corridor along the back of the gift shop continues the interactive theme. It's entitled 'First to the Future’, and aims to take the RAF's story past 2018 by focusing on challenges to come. It was certainly popular yesterday with older schoolchildren hunting for something to fill the time on their end of term trip. But I somehow managed to find a spare terminal or three, and had a go at fighting off a cyberattack, building a virtual plane in response to an endurance challenge, and searching for terrorist targets by drone. Alas the cyber 'simulation' turned out to be a chain of games with no real-world relevance, my virtual plane glitched before it flew, and everyone seemed to be giving up one minute into the drone sim after completely failing to work out what to do with the controls.

I remember visiting this hall two years ago with my youngest nephew (who, incidentally, has since got a job working on the technical side of aviation, so that worked well). We both enjoyed the twists and turns of the Battle of Britain exhibit, and all the old newsreels, and walking down through the fuselage of a bomber to experience what it was like inside. A huge Sunderland flying boat is all that remains of the former exhibition, now forming the centrepiece of a 60-seat cafe serving hot drinks and light snacks, as well as jellybeans wrapped up as emergency rations. The new space is a lot more experience-friendly for a modern audience, but no longer as relevant, and the old men on the internet forums are livid.

Hangar 6 is the other big change. It used to hold 'Milestones of Flight', a canter through aviation history from biplanes to fighter jets, complete with numerous dangling examples of the real thing. It only opened in 2003, but last autumn it was emptied to make way for a slightly sparser exhibit called ‘The RAF in an ‘Age of Uncertainty’. That's code for campaigns from 1980 to the present day, including the Falklands, Iraq and the Balkans, even including a quick flash of Donald Trump on the big screen. Tellingly the exhibit is 'Supported by the State of Kuwait', presumably because the original Lottery grant only supported its first incarnation (which I preferred).

Meanwhile, if you've not been for a few years, Hangar 2 is the other alteration. This used to hold the biplanes, and was only intermittently open, but 100 years after 1914 was transformed into a full-on exhibit about The First World War In The Air. It's very well done, with what I'd say is the right mix of screens and exhibits, although the swarm of infants from an academy in Acton didn't seem quite so interested.

One other proper new thing is The Airfield, which used to be the car park but has now been turfed over to form a central space. The museum's blurb calls it "a new green heart of the community in Colindale", although currently it's mostly yellow and seemed to be lacking somewhat in purpose (except as somewhere for the secondary school crowd to play British Bulldog). Close by is another new cafe, called Claude's, a replacement for the much larger NAAFI-ish canteen which evidently didn't fit the new ambience. And finally there's the enormous Hangars 3, 4 and 5, mainstay of the museum since 1972, whose somewhat worn but treasured aircraft displays surely don't need describing.

In summary the RAF Museum is still one of London's best free museums, and has taken a well-considered nudge in the direction of modernity with this recent refresh. Those who like stuff will prefer the older hangars, and those who prefer experience will prefer the new, which means they've probably got the balance right. I'm not a fan of the external layout changes, which make arriving and departing more of a chore. But so long as the RAF needs recruits, and the justification for a free military collection remains, a trip to Colindale will always be a good day out.

 Tuesday, July 17, 2018

After England's impressive record in this year's World Cup, TfL have renamed a station at the top end of the Piccadilly line after the team manager. The temporary renaming of Southgate station to 'Gareth Southgate' lasts for 48 hours, and all will be back to normal by Wednesday. But in the meantime a nation smiles, and those lucky enough to live nearby can pop down for a selfie.

Anyone looking at the promotional photos from afar might assume that the whole station has been rebranded, but not so. Nothing's changed on the line diagrams on the concourse, and the blue stripe above the spaceport entrance still says Southgate Station. But in a really nice touch, the chief roundel on a pole outside the bus station has been amended to read Gareth Southgate rather than the usual UndergrounD, and that's really turning heads. Throw in a cardboard roundel propped up by the ticket gates, and there's no need to descend into the depths to get your photo.

But if you do, that's where you'll find the main collateral. Roundels on the platform have been flawlessly updated through the addition a fresh blue plastic strip across the centre, proving just how cheap and easy this renaming business is. But an additional sticker has also been added, so close to the top of the red circle that it's hard to crop out, proclaiming the support of a well-known credit card company. TfL wouldn't have undertaken this popular stunt by themselves, it's only here because a global corporation paid for the privilege.

The station's usual passengers are delighted, whipping out their phones for a smiley pic. Several other fans have made the trek, mostly young and male, nipping out to zone 4 to grab their own digital trophy. The best place to stand to get the roundel full-on is beyond the yellow line on the edge of the platform, so great care needs to be taken not to step back too far (or else take a diagonal shot instead). Watching the reaction of others, it only takes a few minutes to spot that considerable joy has been instigated through the addition of just one word.

What viewers elsewhere won't have noticed is that most of the roundels down here haven't been updated. Only eight on each platform have the new name, while the three at each end remain unadulterated, as do all those on the far wall on the other side of the tracks. It's a pragmatic decision, expending no more effort than is absolutely required. Why cut into all that marketing profit unnecessarily, when the wider populace only sees the images provided, and the overall outcome remains the same?

We don't yet know how much the credit card company paid for their takeover, nor whether they'd have paid more if England won, although the contract should eventually appear here on the TfL website. For comparison, Sky paid £94,000 + VAT for their GoT binge, Amazon paid £394,000 + VAT to hijack Westminster for a day, and the original mineral water abomination at Canada Water cost £110,000 + VAT. In this case the company also paid for the right to a sponsored message on the Next Train Indicator every 10 minutes, and an announcement which I believe goes like this...
"You may have noticed something a little different about the station today. Thanks to [Credit Card Company], Southgate station has become Gareth Southgate station to celebrate the achievements of Gareth and the England team this Sunday. Thanks for the incredible journey Gareth."
Given that England weren't playing on Sunday, because they'd been knocked out, an over-optimistic pre-recorded message appears to have been used. Also, look at how slyly the credit company gets its name slipped in, despite having bugger all to do with Gareth Southgate, other than being an official World Cup sponsor. If you watch the video in TFL's #SouthgateSelfie tweet, it's no coincidence that the last three seconds are a close-up on the sponsor's name, not the roundel.

Meanwhile the Paris Metro has been celebrating France's World Cup victory by temporarily renaming six stations, each without any marketing influence whatsoever, because that's how public transport normally works. But it seems sponsor-free is no longer an option over here, indeed in the official press release London Underground's Managing Director was keen to say "This is another great example of how we, and brands, can work creatively together." The appearance of Gareth Southgate station isn't football coming home, simply further proof that austerity is skewing TfL's commercial priorities.

It hasn't rained in Wanstead for the last five weeks. Wanstead Flats are parched, and tinted an unsettling shade of golden yellow across their entire extent. So it was sad, but no surprise, when a fire broke out on Sunday afternoon and set over 200 acres ablaze. The London Fire Brigade came out in large numbers to tackle the capital's largest ever grass fire, and splashed and stamped it down late into the night.

The following morning I wasn't expecting to be allowed anywhere near. But the policeman at the road block assured me that walking across the Flats was fine, so long as I backed away from fire if I saw any. I saw none to start with, only tinder-dry grass, and long hoses draped up Centre Road towards a group of fire engines. But then I saw distant smoke, and a bunch of red-shirted firefighters with water backpacks and beaters, so diverted away.

Close to the Jubilee Pond a charred area of grass spread beyond the trees, then stopped, like a dry black lake. Smoke continued to erupt from one particular clump of undergrowth, occasionally bursting into flames before subsiding again. A few of us stared at the sheer incongruity of it all, then watched as a fire engine reversed from elsewhere... and drove straight past, en route to somewhere more critical.

The most astonishing sight was further ahead along Lake House Road. On one side were the playing fields, unharmed, while on the other lay a scorched landscape of stripped twigs, singed stalks and ash. A large expanse of scrub had been turned completely black, bar a few golden strips that might have been footpaths, or were where the Fire Brigade's hoses had lain. And all this was just one small corner of the affected area. They'll have it under control soon, and nature should swiftly recover, but we live in unusual meteorological times.

 Monday, July 16, 2018

The biannual Bedford River Festival took place over the weekend.

Dear diamond geezer,

Oh for heaven's sake!

We're not interested. Surely you can tell we're not interested. Nobody wants to hear about what you got up to in Bedford, indeed nobody wants to hear about Bedford full stop. Almost none of your readers live there, and those that do probably went, so who's your audience here?

Like most of us, I started reading your blog because it was about London. Not entirely about London, but mostly, and often embracing the quirkier side of life. But recently you've been edging increasingly out of the capital and travelling elsewhere, and quite frankly it's not as relevant as it used to be.

Everyone loves London, even parts they've never visited, because London is a world class city of international renown. The Tower, the Palace, the South Bank, all these are grist to the London mill, and any post about a Royal Park resonates with us all. But you often went that one step further - a backstreet in Battersea, a station in Ealing, a milepost in Penge - and the idiosyncratic side of town has always appealed.

Admittedly even your London stuff has been getting more irrelevant over the last few months, to the detriment of your core readership. Nobody's especially excited when you reach out as far as Romford, even for a lost river, and only you know why you thought West Harrow would get our juices flowing. But at least they're still inside the capital, which is more than can be said for Hastings, or Basildon, or Milton Bloody Keynes, which for some reason you subjected us to for two long days.

In the last week you haven't even bothered to blog about London at all. We've had a photo from the Chess Valley, five seemingly endless days droning on about Paris, and now here you are wasting your time in Bedford. Please stop all this messing around outside the capital, because it's of no interest to your readers. Please get back to writing about life in Islington, Greenwich and the other boroughs, which is the content you deliver best.

Also, you know we're all here for the public transport posts, don't you? We put up with the country walks and the museum reviews, but they're not why we come back. When we log on at seven in the morning we're hoping for a lesser-known tube peculiarity, or a swipe at TfL, or a bus stop update. You can imagine how our hearts sink if we discover you've been to a castle in Sussex, or spent the weekend in Cornwall, as if you have no interest in what we want to read at all.

We want something we actually understand to get our teeth into, and engage with, rather than a parade of locations we've never seen. Most of us have an opinion on suburban branch lines, tram ridership and bus route anomalies. But if you've gone and written about somewhere obscure that isn't even London, only a handful of readers get the chance to chip in and say "wow, I was born there, let me tell you about a local building", and the rest of us merely roll our eyes and move on.

For example, you've just been to Bedford so you must have travelled on the first day of the emergency Thameslink timetable. I have no doubt that your target audience would have found this a particularly engaging topic, and commented at length. So why couldn't you have written about that, rather than droning on about dragonboat racing, burger van options, tattooed dads and the minutiae of the one-way footbridge operation?

I understand you used to live in Bedford, so may be attached to the place. But thank goodness you left, because the thought of a blog relentlessly focused on a tedious county town doesn't bear thinking about. None of us want to hear about the renovation of the Harpur Centre, the state of the grass in Russell Park and the latest insignificant exhibition in the Higgins Museum. Also, there's already an established blog about the railways in Bedford, so that niche is taken.

From what you've written, it seems the most interesting thing about Bedford is a riverside festival whose highlights are a procession of cabin cruisers, a lot of unexciting street food and a lacklustre 12 minute Carnival Parade, and which only happens every two years. Incidentally, the correct word for "every two years" is biennial, not biannual, but that's exactly the kind of careless factual slip we've come to expect from your increasingly irrelevant blog.

Pull yourself together and spend some time in actual London for a change, rather than heading off on these pointless peripheral safaris. We want to hear more about places we've actually heard of, and sites we might potentially visit, and transport infrastructure we potentially know something about. Stop opening our eyes to this provincial tedium, because we're just not interested.

Kind regards

A Reader

Let's hope the weather's as good the next time the River Festival comes to town in 2020.

 Sunday, July 15, 2018

À PARIS: les moments de regret

After six consecutive posts about my day out in Paris, I'd hate for you to think that everything went entirely to plan. So here's a rundown on some of my less successful moments, in case they're ever of use.

One day ticket: I bought the wrong one. I knew I'd be travelling extensively on public transport in central Paris, going no further out than the area covered by the Metro, so a ticket covering zones 1 and 2 would do. But I bought a Paris Visite (1-3) for €12, whereas I should have bought a Mobilis (1-2) for €7.50. I didn't need the extra zone, and I didn't use any of the attraction discounts a Paris Visite affords. Had I travelled less, a set of ordinary €1.90 single-use t+ tickets would have been sufficient, but a carnet of ten still costs €14.90, and because I ended up making ten journeys I was still well ahead. [more info] [more info]
On the bright side... I remembered to bring a pen to write my name and the date on my one day ticket, without which it would have been invalid. Next time I'll remember to bring one that doesn't smudge.

Musée des égouts: London ought to have a sewer museum. Paris does, on the banks of the Seine near the pont de l'Alma. I was looking forward to discovering the history of the famous sewers, as well as following a 500m underground path, for a ridiculously decent entrance fee. Unfortunately when I turned up I discovered the museum had closed for major renovation works ten days earlier, and that these were planned to last until early 2020. I'm sure it'll be excellent when it finally reopens but, damn, just missed.
On the bright side... Because I skipped the sewer museum I got to le Corbusier's house an hour earlier than I would have done otherwise, and so avoided arriving just as it was closing for lunch.

Gold Ring Scam: While I was looking lost and particularly touristy outside on the pont de l'Alma, a middle-aged man attracted my attention by flashing a gold ring at me. I understood from his broken English that he'd just found it on the ground, or he said he had, and he seemed to be asking me whether I'd dropped it. I said not, and made to walk away, when he suddenly rebrandished the ring and invited me to take it from his hand. I was having none of that, not wishing to get involved in anything that might turn very murky, and gruffly dismissed him. Only when I got home and Googled did I discover quite how uncomplicated his scam was, and that all the bloke wanted to do was sell it to me 'on the cheap', knocking down the price until I said yes. Obviously it's not gold, and obviously nobody's just dropped it, but apparently several tourists do chip in and pay a bargain €50, €20, even €10, and the only person who ever gains is the con artist.
On the bright side... I felt a tiny bit streetwise at being suspicious enough not to get involved.

Le Marais: My guidebook told me that Le Marais was the gentrified corner of central Paris, a once downbeat area turned chic, and included one of the most beautiful squares on Earth. I wandered through its narrow streets and found it charming but commercialised, a bit like an upmarket version of Soho, crossed with Spitalfields, crossed with Chelsea. And Place des Vosges was indeed lovely, but a bit gravelly, and too large to absorb in one go thanks to the topiary screen all the way around, and I didn't linger.
On the bright side... I now know where the gelateria are.

Le football: I turned up on World Cup semifinal day, and shouldn't have headed to the city centre just before the match kicked off. An extra-big screen had been erected in front of the Hôtel de Ville, towards which hordes of fans draped in le bleu, blanc et rouge were amiably flocking. Several riverside roads and bridges had been blocked off by the gendarmerie, making getting around much harder than it should have been. The crowds'll no doubt be back, and considerably more excitable, for this afternoon's final.
On the bright side... I was on my Eurostar home before the match finished.

L'heure de pointe: To dodge the football I decided to escape l'Ile de la Cité via its single Metro station. It's one of my favourites, Cité, its curving platforms lit by clusters of arty globes, and accessed down a huge deep shaft via a semi-spiral staircase. Alas the Parisian rush hour seemed to be running somewhat later than ours. Even though it was after half past six every train arrived packed, and when the doors opened we could only stare at the sardines before they slammed shut again. By the time the sixth train had done this I gave up, relieved I'd bought a day pass rather than wasting a ticket, then cursed that all the lifts were out of order and schlepped up more than 100 steps back to the surface.
On the bright side... I did get that cracking photograph.

Le Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie: Paris's science museum is a huge modern box close to the Peripherique, gifted to the city by President Giscard d'Estaing, built into the shell of a former abbatoir and surrounded by an over-fountained moat. It also closes at 6pm, and I arrived at seven, so was entirely unable to explore the interior. I did get a look inside the small shopping centre, which was pretty much dead because there was a football match on, even the tills at M&S Simply Food. Instead I wandered round the perimeter, passing an adventure playground, a Lego exhibition and a giant submarine, and was particularly taken by the IMAX cinema - La Géode - masquerading as a massive silver globe. The whole place reminded me of Milton Keynes, i.e. what futuristic used to look like, but there is considerably more recreational engineering to track down across the Parc de la Villette if I ever come back.
On the bright side... I think that means the 17th is now the only arrondissement I haven't been to.

Finally, here's a link to my Flickr set of 27 photos from this visit, starting with the ones you haven't seen yet.

And here's a recap of my posts about previous trips to Paris, in case for some reason you haven't had enough.
May 2017: les Catacombes
March 2016: Palace de Versailles
March 2013: Eurostar, la tour Eiffel, le métro, Père-Lachaise, Musee d'Orsay, le flâneur
April 2005: la Défense, Jardin des Tuileries, Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur

 Saturday, July 14, 2018

À PARIS: la Méridienne

The equator may be well-defined, but where to place the line of zero longitude is a subjective, contentious matter. Today the world draws its line through the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, but the (slightly older) Paris Observatory was nearly chosen instead, and the French would have been far happier if it had. The Paris meridian's story began in 1667, on the day of the summer solstice, at noon, when members of the Academy of Sciences assembled to mark a north/south line on a patch of land gifted to them by King Louis XIV. L'Observatoire de Paris was built across this line, which duly became France's prime meridian. [map]

The most formal representation of the Paris meridian can be found on the floor of the observatory's central Cassini Room, but that's private, so staff and guests only. More publicly, the line is marked by a brass strip across the lawn of a small public park immediately to the south of the observatory, which descends briefly from a flowerbed towards the park's iron gates. There's not a lot around to explain precisely what the line is, and on my visit a small shrieking girl was using the strip to roll a ball downhill towards her less enthusiastic brother.

A more prominent monument can be found by continuing the imaginary line a few metres further south, to the other side of the main road. The plinth situated here is a memorial to the scientist, metrologist and astronomer François Arago, one of whose (many) roles was as chair of the Bureau des Longitudes, the French equivalent of the Ordnance Survey. The plinth is empty because Arago's statue was removed by the Germans in 1941 to melt down to make weapons. But at its foot is a more recent commemorative plaque surrounding a small bronze medallion, twelve centimetres in diameter, bearing his name and a pair of compass markings. 135 of these medallions were placed across Paris in 1994 to mark the line of the meridian, a marvellously fitting tribute, although a large number have alas since disappeared.

This blog loves nothing more than a walk along an imaginary line, so I thought I'd try tracking at least one of the remaining medallions down. The meridian's initially easy to follow because it follows the main axis of the Jardin du Luxembourg for over a kilometre to the north of the Observatory, but slices less obviously across the Rive Droite, including a direct hit on the Louvre. I resigned myself to a frustrating walk looking fruitlessly for tiny black circles... then walked round the back of Arago's plinth and saw one stuck to the rear, which saved me from what could have been a very long hike.

Paris lost out to Greenwich at the International Meridian Conference in 1884, following a vote in which only France and Brazil abstained. The French continued to use their own meridian until 1911, after which they reluctantly switched to the international standard, which they described as "Paris mean time, retarded by 9 minutes and 21 seconds". But the British proved equally stubborn, refusing to implement Resolution 6 urging adoption of a metric system of units. And of course the metre was originally defined as one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the north pole along the Earth's meridian through Paris, and so the line lives on.

À PARIS: le Musée Rodin

Although the Louvre is the Paris art museum everybody knows, there are dozens more, including several devoted to a single artist. Monet has one, and Dali, and particularly Picasso. But the most enchanting is probably that devoted to the sculptor Auguste Rodin, established 99 years ago in an hôtel the artist once used as his workshop. The main building's a delight, its gardens are extensive, and of course the sculptures therein are astonishing. Head over towards Invalides, in the VIIe, to make your acquaintance.

The Musée Rodin is self-supporting, which is rare in Paris, so it's impressive its admission fee has been kept down to €10. London may have many more free museums, but where they cost, our price points are generally pitched higher. Once you've paid your euros you're at liberty to wander round either the gardens or the museum. I suspect most visitors gravitate straight away towards one of Rodin's most famous statues, Le Penseur, sitting hand on chin atop a pedestal surrounded by torpedo-shaped topiary.

I also suspect most visitors suspect they're seeing "the real thing", whereas in fact this is one of 28 casts of The Thinker now displayed worldwide, indeed I think the first I ever recognised was in San Francisco. Rodin originally intended this image, at smaller scale, to form the centrepiece of his monumental gateway The Gates of Hell. And this you can find on the other side of the courtyard, a breathtaking bronze commission inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy, which consumed much of Rodin's life. Innumerable twisted figures protrude from the inky blackness, writhing and contorted, as if a nightmare is erupting... but only if you step up close.

The hôtel is arrayed on two floors around a grand central staircase, with many a chandelier and antique mirror to add to the general ambience of Belle Époque. Rodin's works are laid out first chronologically and then thematically, from small maquettes to the full-size real thing. I was particularly taken by how good he was at faces, given how hard they are to paint, let alone sculpt, and the humanity of even his caricatures shines through. He really got to grips with emotion and expression too, as exemplified by the sheer naked fury in The Call To Arms, or the tight embrace of another famous work, The Kiss.

There's a bit of variety, as one room features works by Monet and Van Gogh from Rodin's personal collection, and another showcases the sculptures of his mistress Camille Claudel. But mostly it's Rodin all the way, and all the better for it, as you shuffle reverently through to the exit. The cafe in the gardens is fairly reasonably priced, if you want to loiter after orienteering your way round the collection of outdoor pieces. Or if you don't have time for any of this, enjoy a taster on the platforms at the nearby Metro station, Varenne, where a hulking Balzac looms between the electronic gates, and another replica Thinker muses on the local superstar.

 Friday, July 13, 2018

À PARIS: la Promenade Plantée

But there's a better railway walk in Paris, along a more impressive disused railway, and that's the Coulée Verte, or Promenade Plantée. Formerly the line to Vincennes, it was pedestrianised 25 years ago and has since become a much loved stroll. It starts near the Place de la Bastille and heads out east to the Peripherique, a total distance of almost three miles (which in London would be the equivalent of the Tower of London to Canary Wharf). I didn't manage the whole thing because I was tiring by then, but blimey the first half was impressive.

It doesn't look much to start with, a set of steps rising through a brick wall off the Rue de Lyon. But up top, heavens, it's something else. A linear garden, the width of a railway viaduct, deliberately landscaped as a path between cultivated beds. Normally the path runs along the centre, with plants to either side, but sometimes it splits in two around a raised planter, even a pond, before continuing. Pergolas and the occasional belvedere add to the variety, elevating the experience above your average green corridor.

At times bridges and buildings intrude, but more generally it's easy to forget you're several metres in the air on a brick viaduct above the streets of Paris. I completely missed that this section of the viaduct houses dozens of art studios, shops and boutiques in the arches underneath, as I enjoyed my uncommercial hike up top. Benches are provided at extremely regular intervals, generally south facing, making this a particularly popular place for older Parisians to enjoy. Basically it's a triumph, and all the better for having preceded New York's High Line by a decade and a half.

The approximate halfway point is Jardin de Reuilly (where the fizzy water fountain is), which the Coulée Verte crosses on a vaulting footbridge. Beyond that it returns to ground level, complete with bikes and public buildings, and then for variety's sake throws in a tunnel or two for good measure. The tunnels are a popular haunt for bats at dusk, and include cave-like projections and trickly fountains for added wow. I'd say there are are lessons here in spectacle and diversity that those making plans for a Camden or Peckham Highline would do well to learn from. But for sheer scale, and ambience, the Promenade Plantée is probably unbeatable.

À PARIS: la Petite Ceinture

Paris has the ultimate urban disused railway, a 20km loop abandoned by trains and reclaimed by nature. It's called la Petite Ceinture (or "small belt"), and once circled the city just inside its Napoleonic walls. Over the years it evolved from supplying the military to full passenger service, before reverting to freight only and then losing its trains completely*, creating an overgrown corridor accessed by wildlife and trespassing flâneurs. But recently there's been a move to open up certain sections to the public, for walking or as environmental features, the aim being to release 10km by the end of the decade.
* Technically it's much more complicated than that, and some sections do still have trains, and if you want a full history there's this, this, this and this.

I tracked down the longest section currently open, which is an elevated walkway in the 15th arrondisement. This mile-long public park, which opened in 2014, kicks off near Parc George Brassens, close to the HQ of phone company Orange. If it looks a bit unimpressive to begin with, that's because the railway is actually in tunnel beneath your feet, as the path skirts and then ducks underneath an enormous primary school. But at Rue Olivier de Serres it emerges into a cutting, and hey presto there are fresh steps down, even a lift for disabled access, because Parisians are taking this reclamation seriously.

What we have here is a combination of path and railway. One of the tracks has been removed and become a wide path suitable for walking (not cycling, because no bikes are allowed, and dogwalking is barred too). The other track remains, fractionally overgrown but left as a deliberate reminder of what this used to be. Continuing west the rails occasionally disappear, and the path sometimes becomes wooden decking, but most of the way the two run side by side, even with a set of old points exposed and intact further along.

In hardly any time you're out of cutting and onto the level behind a row of Parisian tenements, then gradually elevated until the remainder of the walk is along a viaduct. And that's rather cracking, as every now and then you get to look down over a residential sidestreet, even a main thoroughfare, and watch life playing out below. You get to eye up plenty of architecture too, from thin 19th century houses and massive offices to blocks of modern flats. There are a lot of flats, Paris being one of Europe's most densely populated cities, and some living behind shuttered windows don't seem entirely comfortable with people wandering by.

I passed benches and tables where young Parisians were out having lunch. I passed older strollers with walking sticks. I passed the remains of Vaugirard Ceinture, one of 17 surviving station buildings, and a few old railway signs on the approach. I passed beds of roses, and other pretty flowers. I passed a bee hotel, and several signs pointing out local wildlife. I passed a trio of musicians who wanted me to take their photograph. I passed kilometre markers, painted onto the path to three decimal places. And at the far end I didn't pass a fence warning of electrified rails beyond, instead retreating down a final set of stairs to Place Balard.

It's a fun walk, of constitutional length rather than any particular challenge. The fact it retains sufficient elements of railwayness only adds to its charm. It's rarely gorgeous, because why would the suburbs of Paris be that, but it's green and atmospheric all the same. If more stretches can practically be made safe and public, that'd be great, although urban adventurers might mourn their gentrification. And no, London has nothing, even potentially, to compare, because we still run trains on most of ours.

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