Sunday, March 24, 2019
I've considered visiting Solihull on previous trips to the West Midlands but baulked, so decided this was finally the time to go. Compare and contrast.
Solihull very much isn't Walsall. It lies eight miles southeast of Birmingham, rather than eight miles northwest. It was never industrial, having ridden out the 19th century as a small market town. It's well-connected and verging on the rural. It retains numerous heritage buildings. It's affluent rather than just coping. And it's not a very interesting town to visit, as the now-scrapped tourism website confirmed.
"There is so much to see and do in Solihull, whether you are on a business trip, a short break for shopping, here for a conference, concert, show, or on a family holiday."
The town centre is very much about shopping, always has been, even if the timbered units in the High Street now belong to Laura Ashley, JoJo Maman Bébé and Cafe Rouge. More unexpected is the huge 60s-style piazza carved out at Mell Square, which could feel like stepping into Harlow or Basildon were it not for the abundance of independent boutiques. The latest mall is called Touchwood, a sassy millennial warren ticking the Nespresso, Tesla and Apple boxes, frequented by the determinedly well-turned-out. John Lewis moved into Solihull a decade and a half before they bothered with Birmingham.
The only municipal cultural offering is The Core, a rebranded arts complex containing a theatre, a small collection-less gallery and the town's library. I understood it also contained a museum, but the Heritage Gallery turned out to be a wall of posters and couple of cabinets relating to an anniversary which passed last year, while the Tourist Information section was a rack of leaflets and several out-of-stock bus timetables. If Solihull were a London borough I reckon it'd be Bromley, with the added frugality of Wandsworth and all the thrills of Sutton. I nearly stayed an hour.
posted 07:00 :
Saturday, March 23, 2019I've planned a day out every Thursday this month, with each trip further than the last. First week Bracknell, last week Ipswich, this week...
Walsall is a large market town swallowed up by the West Midlands conurbation. It lies to the northwest of Birmingham, just beyond the M6, at the heart of its own metropolitan borough. In more optimistic times it used to have a Tourist Information Centre, now obsolete, but that's not to say there's nothing to see. Fans of concrete, art and leather should make tracks. [12 photos, mostly of...]
The New Art Gallery Walsall
Some millennial arts projects, like The Public in West Bromwich and the National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield, folded fast. Walsall's £21m art gallery is still going, and provides a more substantial offering than similar regeneration foci in Margate or Middlesbrough. The building is five storeys tall, clad in terracotta and overlooks the basin at one end of the Walsall Canal. One of those handwritten neon tubes faces the water ("Be There Saturday Sweetheart") because such statements are pretty much obligatory these days. It was opened in February 2000, with the Queen dropping by three months later to do the official honours, and was also nominated for the Sterling Architecture Prize, mainly for its amazing interior.
What architects Caruso St John created was a stack of interlinked galleries surfaced with Douglas fir cladding, wooden floors and walnut plinths, along with a good splash of concrete throughout. The ground floor atrium provides a good indication of what's to come, with a broad staircase zigzagging into the heart of the beast. The first and second floor galleries house the permanent collection, municipally hoarded since 1892, in an enticing space of interconnected rooms. I scanned the line-up of artists along a single wall which read Epstein, Pissaro, Ruskin, Constable, Livens and Turner, which is none too shabby for a town just outside Birmingham.
The core of Walsall's collection is by the sculptor Jacob Epstein, bequeathed by his wife, providing the entire gallery with its raison d'être. His personal archive has also been given an illuminating slant by the artist Bob and Roberta Smith, another strong supporter of this Walsall hub. The third floor galleries are high and airy with overhead concrete ribbing, approached via yet another conifer-clad stairwell, and are used for temporary exhibitions. A final ascent leads to an additional space in what used to be the restaurant, plus the not-yet-open-for-the-summer roof terrace. "More long-distance visitors come for the architecture than the art," the guide told me.
That top floor restaurant proved the Gallery's chief design mis-step, with Walsall's population reluctant to engage in daytime dining out. Replacing the ground floor shop by a branch of Costa Coffee instead has proved far more successful, even if latte-sippers rarely nudge any further into the building. The pedestrianised square outside isn't especially enticing either, faced by a mothballed BHS and the doorless back wall of a Poundland, hence the need for big signs reminding residents that admission to the gallery is free. It must be quite a drain on council coffers, which is why their austerity plans include closing the place down as a last resort, but they'd better not.
Walsall Leather Museum
Every Midlands town has an industrial tale to tell, and Walsall's is based on leather. It started out in Tudor times as a centre for lorinery, that's the manufacture of bits, bridles, spurs and stirrups, later moving into leather saddles in order to be able to provide "everything for the horse". Things got serious in the 19th century thanks to burgeoning demand for equine accoutrements for working horses, across Britain and the wider Empire, then collapsed at the start of the 20th as mechanisation took over. Walsall's factories then diversified into leather goods to survive, notably purses, wallets, belts, gloves and luxury handbags, and the town remains the UK's chief lorinery hub to this day.
This fascinating story is told at the Walsall Leather Museum, which is housed in a former factory on the ring road. It smells fantastic, assuming you enjoy the whiff of treated hide, and that's just the gift shop at the entrance. Don't expect anything all-singing all-dancing beyond, just the chance to wander amid workshops and a series of display cases across two floors, plus more of that special smell. Working in a tannery would have been damned unhealthy, thanks to all the chemicals involved, whereas those engaged in stitchery and production had some of the more pleasant working conditions in the Black Country.
Towards the end of the wander comes a display of designer handbags - Mrs Thatcher swore by her Walsall clutch - and then a workshop where a former leathermaker might be available to give you a demo. For 60p you can stamp your own leather key fob, or pay rather more for some top quality accessories in the shop, whereas true cheapskates may prefer to walk away with a free offcut from the waste bin. You'd be hard-pushed to spend a full hour here, but it is a proper reminder of craftmanship past, and another one to visit before austerity finally bites.
This one's already gone. It used to be housed in the main library, and fingerposts through the town centre still point towards it, but it was closed in 2016. A few bits of the collection still get an occasional outing in a temporary galley at the Leather Museum, but for the most part the heritage of quarter of a million residents remains hidden.
Jerome K Jerome Museum
This one's gone too. Three Men In A Boat's author was born in the big house on the corner of Bradford Street and Caldmore Road, not that he hung around long, but Walsall doesn't have too many famous Freemen of the Borough to boast about. The museum in his birthplace closed in 2007 after the council withdrew its grant, but the firm of solicitors who moved in afterwards were quite good at maintaining a corner with memorabilia and allowing the inquisitive inside. They now appear to have moved on, the two lower floors of the building are boarded up and currently no new planning applications are lodged. As the great man once said, “we must not think of the things we could do with, but only of the things that we can't do without.”
Walsall town centre
Most visitors to the centre of Walsall are of course here for the shops, of which there are many but fewer. The Saddlers shopping mall is doing best, and the Victorian Arcade still has some independent character, but a recent survey suggested that one in four Walsall shops is empty, a total since augmented by M&S who closed down last summer. The bleakest corner is Old Square, its 80s mall anchored by a tired Debenhams, and whose arcades are a succession of mothballed units and posters desperately proclaiming Exciting Retailers Coming Soon. I suspect market day is brighter, but missed that so saw only a series of empty booths down the main streets.
Streetfood offerings were a refreshing change for those of us used to London's inflated prices, including jacket potato plus two toppings for £2, or a jumbo burger with chips from Mr Sizzle for only 50p more. My money obviously went on a £1 baguette from Poundbakery, whose sub-Greggs bargains wouldn't raise enough to pay business rates in the poncey southeast. Footfall in the town centre is kept artificially higher thanks to the presence of several warehouse-sized supermarkets a stone's throw from the main streets, each offering free parking as an enticement to visit. Don't get me wrong, Walsall's retail offering could be a heck of a lot worse, but the fear remains that it soon will be.
To end on a bright note, I risked crossing the traffic on the ring road and headed half a mile out of town. Walsall's green oasis isn't a true arboretum showcasing specimen trees, but is 170 acres of parkland focused around two landscaped gravel pits and dates back to 1870. It's ideal for a stroll round the woods, or a cuppa in the new visitor pavilion, or on certain summer weekends a concert in the lakeside bandstand. I came for the waterfowl, and got especially excited when I thought I spotted the definitive blue flash of a kingfisher, although I fear it was only an oddly illuminated pigeon.
I spent three full hours in Walsall, and despite all its tribulations gave the place the thumbs up for realism, depth and culture. I might not say the same in five years' time.
posted 08:00 :
Friday, March 22, 2019The village of Meriden, in the green belt between between Birmingham and Coventry, is the traditional location of the centre of England, which is marked by a medieval cross on the village green. [map]
Nobody's 100% sure how the designation emerged. It could be because it was in the centre of Warwickshire, England's most central county. It could be because Meriden was the approximate halfway point on the main road between London and Chester, three days travel from each (although this definition ignores a substantial portion of the country). It could simply be because the location of the village 'looks right' when you see it on a map. Or it could be that an 18th century pub landlord invented the fact to drum up passing trade. But a proud national tradition was maintained until 2002 when cartographical pedants at the Ordnance Survey determined that the true geographical centre of the country was in fact 11 miles away on a farm in Leicestershire. The villagers of Meriden choose to ignore this fact. [alternative monument at Fenny Drayton]
The monument on the village green is a stepped octagonal plinth supporting a tapering sandstone shaft - heavily worn and now sadly decapitated. Tellingly it's no longer in the precise location where it was originally erected, further down the road by the village pond, but was moved up the hill to the new village green in the 1820s. It was then shifted again as part of improvements during the Festival of Britain in 1951, and tarted up slightly to create more of a focal point. It's no longer possible to get up close, the structure having been surrounded by a guard rail and a flower bed, but the descriptive plaque placed in front is a welcoming touch. [Pathe news report, 1943]
As is befitting for the centre of England, the closest buildings along the edge of the green are a village shop, a library and a chippie. The Spar has a tea room round the back which does all day breakfasts, the library is tiny and hosts the local defibrillator, and the chippie was closed on my visit so I can't vouch for its cuisine. Tellingly the next few shops along the parade are a closed supermarket, a beauty salon, an interior design boutique and a closed cafe. Across the way is the village Telephone Exchange, named in that lovely 50s lettering everyone likes, plus a variety of quite old and not very old housing. And at the far tip of the green is another monument, much taller, dedicated to a surprising cause.
Meriden's reputation as the centre of England made it the ideal location for a nationwide war memorial to fallen cyclists. The British Army had 14 cycling battalions during the First World War, used mostly for reconnaissance, and the conflict's first casualty is believed to have been a cyclist on a scouting mission. A granite obelisk was erected in Meriden in 1921, paid for by £1100 of public subscription, and became a popular rendezvous for the cycling fraternity. A couple of additional plaques have since updated the obelisk to cover WW2 and all global conflict. An annual memorial service is still held on the village green each year - the 98th will be held this spring - with tea and cakes in the village hall to follow for the lycra-clad attendees. [BBC radio report, 5 mins]
Meriden's now a small commuter village with a population close to three thousand, and no longer on the main road, the A45 having bypassed it in the 1950s. Administratively it's part of Solihull, although Warwickshire begins 100m beyond the last back garden. It's not the prettiest village in the area (Hampton-in-Arden down the road is much quainter) but it is comfortable and cosy, with grey-haired ladies out mowing the front lawn, well-groomed teenagers giggling on the green and a selection of 'pub and dining' opportunities. The post office is a particular throwback, with bags of compost and potted pansies stacked out front, a sign saying "Motor Tax Available" tied to the front gate, mention of National Girobank beside the entrance and a hair salon still perming away in the room above.
Meriden is, absolutely, Middle England. But it's not the middle of England any more, not since geography proved otherwise.
posted 11:00 :
Explanation of why this is no longer the truth people thought it was.
[close-up on inscription]
Description of focal object.
[photograph showing alternative angle]
Description of immediate locality.
[photograph including chip shop]
Description of unusual object close by.
[close-up on unusual object]
Further description of surrounding neighbourhood.
Reference to alternative locations deemed more appropriate.
posted 07:00 :
Thursday, March 21, 2019If you know a bit about Easter, you'll know it's defined as the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox.
In which case...
The spring equinox was yesterday - Wednesday March 20thExcept Easter isn't March 24th, it's still a whole month away on April 21st.
»» The next full moon is today - Thursday March 21st
»»»» The next Sunday is March 24th, which must be Easter
So what's going on, and why is Easter 2019 late when it should be early?
Firstly, we need to look at the date of the spring equinox.
If you thought it was always March 21st, you're out of date. The spring equinox was last on March 21st in 2007 and won't be on March 21st again until next century. It is true that March 21st was the usual date for the spring equinox during the 20th century, but the usual date during the 21st century is March 20th. Here's why.
The spring equinox occurs whe the Sun is overhead at the equator, crossing from the southern to the northern hemisphere, and its precise time varies from year to year. It takes the Earth 365 days, 5 hours and 49 minutes to orbit the Sun, so every year the spring equinox shifts almost 6 hours later than the year before. That's approximately 24 hours later every 4 years, which is then cancelled out by the presence of a February 29th a few weeks before the next spring equinox occurs. But this still leaves the calendar 11 minutes short of reality every year, and this tiny difference shifts the spring equinox approximately three-quarters of an hour earlier every 4 years.
This table shows how both the time and the date of the spring equinox change over a 28-year period. All times are GMT (which is important, because in other time zones the dates might be one day earlier or one day later).
Time of Spring Equinox (GMT) 1996 08:03 1997 13:55 1998 19:55 1999 01:46 2000 07:35 2001 13:14 2002 19:16 2003 01:00 2004 06:49 2005 12:33 2006 18:26 2007 00:07 2008 05:48 2009 11:44 2010 17:32 2011 23:21 2012 05:14 2013 11:02 2014 16:57 2015 22:45 2016 04:30 2017 10:28 2018 16:15 2019 21:58 2020 03:49 2021 09:37 2022 15:33 2023 21:24 March 20th (blue) March 21st (green)
Look across the rows to see how the times jump approximately six hours later each year. Look at the final column in each row to see that the latest equinoxes always occur in years immediately before a leap year. And look down the columns to see how the times nudge about 45 minutes earlier every 4 years. That's why 2007 was the very last occasion this century that the spring equinox occurred on March 21st. It's also why in 2044 the times in the first column of this table will retreat past midnight pushing the spring equinox back one further day onto 19th March (initially for leap years only).
Possible dates of the spring equinox (GMT)
1800-1875: 20th March or 21st March
1876-1899: 20th March only
1900-1911: 21st March only
1912-2007: 20th March or 21st March
2008-2043: 20th March only
2044-2099: 19th March or 20th March
2100-2135: 20th March or 21st March
2136-2175: 20th March only
2176-2199: 19th March or 20th March
[cycle repeats every 400 years, approximately]
The first day of spring therefore always falls on 19th, 20th or 21st March, with the 20th more common than the other two dates. This century there are only two March 21sts, both passed, and we'll only have twenty March 19ths. All the other spring equinoxes are on March 20th, including every year from 2008 to 2043.
But in the year 325 AD, when the rules for fixing the date of Easter were drawn up, March 20th wasn't the date that was picked. The First Council of Nicaea preferred a fixed, constant system independent of equinoctial cycles, so agreed on a constant date of March 21st, because that was more appropriate at the time.
The spring equinox may have been yesterday, but the official rules assume it's today. That's the first part of the reason why Easter 2019 is late rather than early.
Next, the dates of full moons.
These repeat, pretty much exactly, every 19 years. For example in 2000, 2019, 2038 and 2057 the March full moon falls on March 21st - precisely 19 years apart. This pattern was first spotted by a Greek philosopher called Meton 2500 years ago, hence is called the Metonic cycle. We now know he wasn't completely spot on, and that in fact 19 years contain 234.997 full moons, so the dates do move very slightly. But the ecclesiastical body which set the rules for determining Easter decided it was close enough, and came up with a list of 19 Full Moon dates to repeat every 19 years.
These are known as Paschal Full Moons. They don't necessarily match with the dates of actual full moons but are designed to be damned close, and are the full moons used to calculate the date of Easter.
n.b. Technically the date used isn't the date of the full moon but '14 days after the date of the new moon', because this best mimics the Hebrew Calendar, upon which the date of Passover is based. But let's not get bogged down in Quartodecimanism.
n.b. We no longer use the original full moon dates because the Julian calendar in use in 325 AD has been replaced by the Gregorian Calendar, which deleted several days to drag the calendar back in sync with the seasons. To match solar reality three leap days are now removed every four centuries: specifically years ending in 00 are only leap years if divisible by 400. A consequence of this is that a different set of 19 full moon dates is required every time a leap day is deleted, e.g. the list for the 19th century is different to the list for the 20th. But the list for the 20th century is the same as the list for the 21st century because February 29th 2000 actually existed, so the data which follows is correct for the period 1900-2099.
Here's a table showing the current dates of the 19 possible Paschal Full Moons.
Table to find the date of
the Paschal Full Moon
I 1995 2014 2033 April 14 II 1996 2015 2034 April 3 III 1997 2016 2035 March 23 IV 1998 2017 2036 April 11 V 1999 2018 2037 March 31 VI 2000 2019 2038 April 18 VII 2001 2020 2039 April 8 VIII 2002 2021 2040 March 28 IX 2003 2022 2041 April 16 X 2004 2023 2042 April 5 XI 2005 2024 2043 March 25 XII 2006 2025 2044 April 13 XIII 2007 2026 2045 April 2 XIV 2008 2027 2046 March 22 XV 2009 2028 2047 April 10 XVI 2010 2029 2048 March 30 XVII 2011 2030 2049 April 17 XVIII 2012 2031 2050 April 7 XIX 2013 2032 2051 March 27
Every year on the same line has the same full moon date. For example, the Paschal Full Moon in 2014 fell on April 14th, the same as 19 years earlier in 1995 and 19 years later in 2033. These years are described as having a Golden Number of 1 (which is the remainder when dividing the year by 19, plus 1). Don't worry about how it's calculated, just know that the Golden Number repeats every 19 years, and that every year with the same Golden Number has the same Paschal Full Moon.
For example, every year with a Golden Number of 19 has its post-equinox full moon on March 27th. Easter is then the first Sunday after that, which could be March 28th or any day up to April 3rd. In 2013 it was March 31st, in 2032 it'll be March 28th and in 2051 April 2nd.
Scanning down the table you'll see that the earliest possible post-equinox full moon is March 22nd, which occurs in years with a Golden Number of 14. Years with a Golden Number of 14 deliver the earliest Easters of all. Meanwhile the latest possible post-equinox full moon is April 18th, which occurs in years with a Golden Number of 6. Years with a Golden Number of 6 deliver the latest Easters of all.
We're in a year with a Golden Number of 6 right now. Easter is the first Sunday after April 18th, which this year is Sunday April 21st, which is definitely on the late side. But in 19 years time, in 2038, we'll get the ultimate late Easter. The first Sunday after April 18th will be Sunday April 25th, which is the latest it can be, a date last matched in 1943 and not equalled again until 2190.
• Easter on 21st April: last happened 1946 & 1957, next happens 2019 & 2030
• Easter on 22nd April: last happened 1973 & 1984, next happens 2057 & 2068
• Easter on 23rd April: last happened 1916 & 2000, next happens 2079 & 2152
• Easter on 24th April: last happened 1859 & 2011, next happens 2095 & 2163
• Easter on 25th April: last happened 1886 & 1943, next happens 2038 & 2190
So, to finally return to the question I posed right back at the start, why is Easter 2019 late when it should be early?
It's because Easter isn't defined by the actual movement of the sun and moon but by a set of rules which very closely approximate to it.
Easter is not the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox.
The spring equinox was yesterday - Wednesday March 20th (21:58 GMT)Forget the true spring equinox. Focus instead on the first Sunday after the first full moon after 21st March.
»» The next full moon is today - Thursday March 21st (01:43 GMT)
»»»» The next Sunday is March 24th, which would be Easter, but isn't
The 'spring equinox' is today - Thursday 21st MarchAnd to be really precise forget that too, because the true Easter definition is the first Sunday after the Paschal full moon.
» Today's full moon therefore doesn't count
»» The next full moon is four weeks away - Friday April 19th
»»»» The next Sunday is April 21st, which turns out to be Easter
This year's Golden Number is 6If the First Council of Nicaea had set their rules slightly differently, today's full moon would have made Easter really early. But they didn't, making Easter really late.
»» The Paschal Full Moon (from the table) is Thursday April 18th
»»»» The next Sunday is April 21st, which is indeed Easter
And this is why you have a month to wait for your chocolate egg, and why the weather ought to be better when the bank holiday weekend finally comes round.
posted 01:43 :
Wednesday, March 20, 2019English cities, by date of designation
time immemorial: Canterbury, Durham, Exeter, Hereford, Lichfield, London, Wells, Winchester, Worcester, York
11th century: Lincoln, Chichester, Bath, Norwich
12th century: Coventry, Ely, Carlisle
13th century: Salisbury
16th century: Westminster, Chester, Gloucester, Peterborough, Bristol, Oxford
19th century: Ripon, Manchester, St Albans, Truro, Liverpool, Newcastle, Wakefield, Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford, Hull, Nottingham
20th century: Leicester, Stoke, Portsmouth, Salford, Plymouth, Lancaster, Cambridge, Southampton, Derby, Sunderland, Brighton & Hove, Wolverhampton
21st century: Preston, Chelmsford
English towns that used to be cities: Rochester (1998, administrative error)
English cathedral towns that aren't cities: Blackburn, Bury St Edmunds, Guildford, Rochester, Southwell
English cities without cathedrals: Bath, Brighton and Hove, Cambridge, Hull, Lancaster, Leeds, Nottingham, Plymouth, Preston, Salford, Southampton, Stoke, Sunderland, Westminster, Wolverhampton
English cities without universities: Ely, Hereford, Lichfield, Ripon, St Albans, Salisbury, Truro, Wakefield, Wells
English cities, by population
over 1,000,000: Birmingham
500,001-1,000,000: Manchester, Bradford, Sheffield, Leeds
400,001-500,000: Bristol, Liverpool
300,001-400,000: Nottingham, Coventry, Wakefield, Leicester
250,001-300,000: Plymouth, Hull, Brighton & Hove, Sunderland, Newcastle
200,001-250,000: Portsmouth, Westminster, Salford, Southampton, Derby, Stoke, Wolverhampton
150,001-200,000: Canterbury, Oxford, Chelmsford, Peterborough, York
100,001-150,000: Carlisle, Winchester, Exeter, Gloucester, Cambridge, Norwich, Lancaster, Preston, St Albans
50,001-100,000: Hereford, Bath, Chester, Lincoln, Durham, Worcester
20,001-50,000: Ely, Chichester, Lichfield, Salisbury
1-20,000: London, Wells, Ripon, Truro
Large urban areas that aren't cities
300,001-400,000: Middlesbrough, Birkenhead, Reading
250,000-300,000: Luton, Farnham/Aldershot, Medway, Blackpool, Milton Keynes, Northampton
Failed attempts to become cities
1953: Preston, Southampton, Wolverhampton
1966: Derby, Teesside, Wolverhampton
1977: Blackburn, Brighton, Croydon, Dudley, Newport, Sandwell, Sunderland, Wolverhampton
2000: Blackburn, Blackpool, Bolton, Colchester, Croydon, Doncaster, Dover, Guildford, Ipswich, Luton, Maidstone, Medway, Middlesbrough, Milton Keynes, Northampton, Preston, Shrewsbury, Southend, Southwark, Stockport, Telford, Warrington
2002: Blackburn, Blackpool, Bolton, Chelmsford, Colchester, Croydon, Doncaster, Dover, Greenwich, Guildford, Ipswich, Luton, Maidstone, Medway, Middlesbrough, Milton Keynes, Northampton, Reading, Shrewsbury, Southend, Stockport, Swindon, Telford, Warrington, Wirral
2012: Bolton, Bournemouth, Colchester, Corby, Croydon, Doncaster, Dorchester, Dudley, Gateshead, Goole, Luton, Medway, Middlesbrough, Milton Keynes, Reading, Southend, St Austell, Stockport, Tower Hamlets
English counties without a city, in population order
1) Surrey (1,185,000) - Guildford has a cathedral, but no great claim to be a city
2) Berkshire (906,000) - Reading is an obvious candidate
3) Buckinghamshire (803,000) - it's probably too soon for Milton Keynes
4) Dorset (771,000) - Bournemouth is top of the list next time round
5) Suffolk (757,000) Ipswich has the university, Bury St Edmunds has the cathedral
6) Northamptonshire (741,000) - Northampton would be quite keen
7) Bedfordshire (665,000) - Luton will one day be a city
8) Warwickshire (565,000) - no decent candidates
9) Shropshire (493,000) - Telford's big, but unlikely
10) Northumberland (319,000) - no decent candidates
11) Isle of Wight (141,000) - no chance
12) Rutland (39,500) - no chance
Cities close to London (there aren't many)
0-1 miles: Westminster, City of London
11-20 miles: St Albans
21-30 miles: Chelmsford
41-50 miles: Brighton, Cambridge
51-60 miles: Oxford, Chichester, Canterbury
Areas of England a surprisingly long way from a city (map)
30 miles: Wokingham, Berkshire
35 miles: between Northampton and Bedford
40 miles: Suffolk, east of Ipswich
40 miles: Welsh border, near the Shropshire Hills
40 miles: North Yorkshire coast, near Whitby
40 miles: east Cumbria, around Kirkby Stephen
45 miles: Isle of Portland, Dorset
45 miles: northwest Devon, near Clovelly
50 miles: Northumberland, near Holy Island
• Background information
• Further reading
posted 07:00 :
Tuesday, March 19, 2019I am very angry that TfL intend to rename this station 'Tottenham Hotspur'.
How dare they? It's been called White Hart Lane for 147 years ever since the station opened, because it is actually on a street called White Hart Lane, and White Hart Lane it should stay. Tottenham Hotspur weren't even a thing in 1872, indeed that was the year of the very first FA Cup Final, so it would be hugely unfair for football to erase the station's long-standing neighbourhood identity. The whole thing makes me furious.
When Tottenham's home ground was called White Hart Lane nobody minded that the station was called White Hart Lane too, because both were named after the same street. But now that White Hart Lane stadium has been demolished and its replacement is to be called something else, hey presto Tottenham suddenly want to change the station's name to eradicate all mention of the old one. It's nothing less than shameless manipulation.
This particular rebranding exercise is nothing new, of course. The Evening Standard were reporting on Tottenham's evil intentions way back in 2016, along with a potential £12m price tag. What's intriguing is that latest reports suggest the payout's slumped to just £3m, the cost of changing all the signage at the station and along the line, bringing TfL no dividend whatsoever. More sickening is that most people's response has been "but that's not enough!" rather than "should we actually be doing this?"
Initially the new stadium will be called Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, because nobody else is willing to pay for the naming rights. Tottenham had hoped a major sponsor would come on board and pay them squillions, with Nike supposedly closely courted, but as yet nobody has said yes. By renaming the station the football club hopes to smooth the waters for another bidder, a station called Tottenham Hotspur being hugely more saleable than a station called White Hart Lane, but only because we live in a depressingly mercenary world.
"A unique brand partnership between TfL and Tottenham Hotspur would benefit both TfL and Tottenham, supporting significant investment to create a new sport, leisure and entertainment destination as part of the wider regeneration of the area."
We should be grateful that TfL aren't yet so commercially focused that they'd have been agreeable to calling the station Nike Central, William Hill, Easyjet Quarter or whatever. But this has never been a debate about what's best for the community, merely how best to leverage branding opportunities for a commercial development. How have we got to this stage? Why are we even having this discussion?
I am equally angry that TfL's predecessors decided to rename this station in 1932.
How dare they? It had been called Gillespie Road for 26 years ever since the station originally opened, because it is actually on a street called Gillespie Road, and Gillespie Road it should've stayed. Arsenal weren't even playing north of the river in 1906, so it was hugely unfair for chairman Herbert Chapman to have twisted the authorities into accepting a partisan identity for the tube station. If only London Transport had held firm and refused, there wouldn't now be this annoying precedent which makes Tottenham's name change look perfectly fair. The whole thing makes me incandescent.
That said, Arsenal station is on the cosmopolitan Piccadilly line, whereas White Hart Lane is a minor halt on one of the Overground's least exciting suburban branches, so Tottenham aren't exactly getting a good deal here. Also Arsenal station is used by 2.8 million passengers annually and White Hart Lane only 1.6 million, and Arsenal paid nothing for their 87-year headstart, so who's the winner now?
I'm also angry that West Ham managed to get a station on the District line named after their club, and another named after their former football ground, without refunding the taxpayer any money at all. Likewise Crystal Palace already have an Overground station named after their club, AFC Wimbledon are clearly named after the District line station of the same name and anyone who heads to Fulham Broadway station thinking it's near Craven Cottage will find themselves alongside Chelsea's massive stadium instead. Where's the justice in that?
Naming stations after football teams is the thin end of the wedge, which could eventually lead to stations renamed after cricket grounds like Oval or stations renamed after shopping centres like Surrey Quays or stations named after pubs like Swiss Cottage and basically where will it all end? Tottenham Hotspur's grab for naming rights sets an unwelcome precedent that makes me very angry, and I will not stop tutting until this ridiculous decision is reversed.
posted 07:00 :
Monday, March 18, 2019Ken Livingstone was still Mayor when it was announced that the Circle, District, Hammersmith & City and Metropolitan lines would be getting new air-conditioned trains and a new signalling system. The first new train arrived in 2010, and the entire rolling stock overhaul was completed in 2017. But it was only yesterday that the new signalling system finally entered public service, and for the time being only on a very short section of track. Hurrah for SMA 0.5.
Resignalling for the Four Lines Modernisation project has been an ongoing catastrophe ever since TfL awarded a multi million pound contract to a company who couldn't deliver. Bombardier were sent packing in 2013, with an £85m payout, and a fresh contract agreed with Thales instead. New trains had to be recalled to fit the second company's software, an extra five years was added to the project timeline and it was estimated that the entire debacle will cost TfL £886m more than originally planned. Thales haven't been having too much luck either, and what finally happened yesterday was originally scheduled for summer last year.
Some of the existing signalling on the subsurface railway is over 60 years old. Signallers lurk in trackside cabins pulling levers, red and green lamps control progress out of platforms, and best not mention the state of the wiring at the far end of the Metropolitan line. This has obvious repercussions on reliability - roughly half of signal failures on the Underground occur on these four lines - but also crucially on frequency. Introducing electronic signalling will allow trains to run safely closer together, eventually ratcheting up peak core services to better than every two minutes. Just not quite anytime yet.
Rather than introduce the new signalling system all in one go a more cautious migration is underway, with the subsurface network divided up into a dozen or so separate zones. The Hammersmith branch is up first, because that's easily segregated from everywhere else, and even then TfL haven't dared do the whole lot in one go. Instead they've focused on the short stretch from Hammersmith to Latimer Road, nicknamed Signalling Migration Area 0.5 (or SMA 0.5 for short). Initially it was supposed to go live in June 2018, but things went badly and the Hammersmith signal cabin was given an unexpected reprieve.
A second attempt in November was also delayed due to inadequate software - very much the modern railway curse - and final commissioning was eventually pencilled in for mid-March. TfL told the public there was a full weekend closure of the Hammersmith branch while continuing to run a full service, as cover to ensure that everything really was running smoothly. Thankfully it was, so at 2pm yesterday afternoon they quietly opened up all the stations and started operating a 'preview service' as if nothing important had just happened. It very much had.
Trains towards Hammersmith still run absolutely normally until Latimer Road, the driver at the controls keeping a close eye on ageing red or green signals. But from Latimer Road onwards all the signals and associated signage have been wrapped in black plastic, and now all the driver has to do is press a button at each station and the electronics does the rest. This weekend a squad of additional staff stood waiting at the end of this first platform, hopping into the cab all the way to Hammersmith to observe how it's done, then hopping out again on the return journey to cycle round again.
My experience aboard one of the first trains is that most passengers aren't going to notice a lot of difference. That said the trains do accelerate and decelerate a little more smoothly, because computers are better at being optimal. A happy consequence is fractionally faster journeys between stations, but for now also fractionally longer waiting at platforms because trains still have to stick to the current timetable. That'll change later. I also noted the temporary presence of TfL/engineering staff clustered in the front carriage, sporting name badges and rolled-up hi-vis tabards, and broadly smiling.
Inside the train all may seem normal, but outside there's a splendidly geeky thing to spot. Every S Stock carriage has an external light containing a lower strip which glows orange to show that the doors are open, and above that another strip which has always remained dark. That upper strip now lights up white when a train is ready to go, giving a few seconds warning that the automatic system is cleared to depart. Previously 'movement authority' was indicated by a green signal at the end of the platform, but now it's the trains themselves which display the information. This only happens where the computers are in control, so currently only between Latimer Road and Hammersmith, but eventually everyone'll be able to use the white lights as a signal that it's time to jump aboard.
SMA 0.5 is now permanently switched over to the new system, with the remainder of the four lines still manually operated, but as further sections are added drivers will increasingly find themselves with less and less to do. Up next in July is SMA 1, from Latimer Road to Paddington, plus the more challenging SMA 2 from Paddington and Finchley Road to Euston Square which contains two operationally complex junctions. SMA 3, SMA 4 and SMA 5 will run sequentially around the Circle line, the first of these (Euston Square to Monument/Stepney Green) currently scheduled for September. Past evidence might suggest not being excessively optimistic.
SMA 6 and SMA 7 will extend automation to Upminster, probably in 2021, allowing many of the most important frequency benefits to brought into play. More frequent trains with greater capacity was always the ultimate aim when the new rolling stock for the 4LM project was announced way back in 2006. At the end of the upgrade queue will be sections of track shared with other railways, notably the spurs to Richmond (SMA 10) and Wimbledon (SMA 12), the Metropolitan line beyond Moor Park (SMA 13) and finally the Piccadilly jobshare to Uxbridge (SMA 14). If automated operation ever gets this far, it might be in 2023.
If you'd prefer a more detailed or technical version of what's going on, Jack has all the insider information from the decommissioned Hammersmith cabin, and Rog went down yesterday afternoon and actually spoke to drivers and other staff. Alternatively, if all you want to know is whether automation's reached your train yet, just watch out for the white lights.
posted 07:00 :
Sunday, March 17, 2019Here's another historic house for your to-visit list.
Pitzhanger Manor in Ealing reopened yesterday following a lengthy and significant makeover. Plans were first mooted in 2008, the lottery cash arrived in 2012 and doors closed in 2015. It's taken a year longer than expected, but the end result is a smart restoration offering insight into the work of one of London's favourite architects.
Sir John Soane designed the Bank of England, Dulwich Picture Gallery and the previous House of Lords, invariably in neo-classical style. He's perhaps best known for the eclectic museum in his townhouse on Lincoln's Inn Fields, but in 1800 he also fancied a country pad so turned his sights on Ealing. Here amid the fields he built a family home featuring many of his favourite architectural quirks, including curved ceilings and inset mirrors, and named it Pitzhanger Manor House.
The family stayed only six years before moving on, and for most of its life the house has been in the hands of Ealing Council. It spent a long time as a library, then an art gallery was tacked onto one side and more recently it proved ideal for weddings. Visitors were allowed inside for free before the makeover, with less to see, but the added wow now requires an entry fee. That's £4.50 for Ealing residents, except on Tuesday and Sunday mornings when it'll be free, and £7 for everyone else. That's apart from opening weekend when everyone gets in for nothing, or so they said.
Saturday was busy, with ribbon-cutting at ten and a host of family-friendly activities throughout. Free tickets also sold out in advance, not that it was obvious pre-booking was a good idea, so hundreds of mostly-Ealingers turned up and were disappointed. A stash of walk-up slots was available, but they swiftly vanished too, and basically I had to blag my way inside. One member of staff said sorry no, another said there's only one of you I'm sure we could probably, and the inconsistency of it all didn't please everyone. Here's what a BBC news editor tweeted ten minutes later.
Hey @Pitzhanger we wanted to see you today but not very clear on your Twitter or Insta you need a ticket to get in. Given up after watching people being turned away and hearing a member of staff telling someone not to let randoms in. Disappointed. @juliangbell @EalingCouncil— Robert Thompson (@thomprobert) March 16, 2019
The house has, as I remembered, an impressive interior. The hallway is narrow with classical decoration and lit by an elongated skylight. The wood-panelled breakfast room has a gorgeous concave skyscape on its ceiling, peering down like a cloudy eyeball, while the library ceiling nextdoor is more trellisy. The conservatory at the rear is new, or at least newly restored, and brightly verdant. Come on a quieter day and it'll be easier to flick through the large 'books' which provide a text-based explanation of what it is you're seeing.
I was convinced that the Eating Room in the south wing used to be much larger, and indeed it was, a non-Soane extension having been removed during the restoration. What remains looks splendid, especially (again) the ceiling, but the reduced size intriguingly means the house is no longer suitable for weddings. Upstairs the chief draw is the drawing room with its handmade Chinese bird-and-flower wallpaper, although not best seen on opening day when packed out by parents and babies enthralled by a visiting harpist.
Here the house is the star, so there's not a great deal in the way of accoutrements or authentic furniture. To see Sir John's eclectic collection of classical objects, once partially housed here, Holborn's still the place to go. If some of the wooden walls look a bit artificial that's because they're meant to be - in Soane's day it was cheaper to paint on a timber effect than source the real thing. Don't rush through, and make sure you read every brief display panel else you might leave knowing little more than when you went in.
A short external colonnade joins the main house to the art gallery, via the information desk and the obligatory gift shop. The curators have chosen carefully for their opening exhibition and plumped for Anish Kapoor, with a handful of his playful mirrored conceptions arrayed around the walls. That means ingeniously coloured discs, protruding spheres with holes in and of course his trademark concave glass that makes it look like everyone's upside down. On one level it's just a fairground attraction writ large, but in a selfie-obsessed age also utterly contemporary.
I'm not sure I'd have paid seven pounds just for the house, nor for just for the art, but the two together form an entirely worthy proposition. As it is I paid for neither, which you might just sneak tomorrow but I wouldn't recommend travelling far just in case. I was impressed by the crowds on Ealing Green this weekend, but the true test for Pitzhanger comes on Tuesday when an entrance fee is imposed. It's one thing hoping locals take the building to their hearts, but encouraging sufficient daytrippers from further afield may be a tougher proposition.
posted 07:00 :
Saturday, March 16, 2019I've planned a day out every Thursday this month, with each trip further than the last. Last week Bracknell, this week...
Ipswich is Suffolk's county town, of Anglo-Saxon origin, and once a major North Sea port. Some say it's the oldest English town the Romans didn't have a hand in. Its heart contains a mix of historic buildings and less impressive infill, plus a modern waterfront quarter rising on the former docks. There are better places in East Anglia for a day trip, and a weekend mini-break in Ipswich would be unwise. That said there are several treats to see, most of which I entirely failed to visit when I lived here for a couple of years, so more fool me. [10 photos]
Most town museums have either updated for a modern audience or closed. Ipswich museum, I'm pleased to say, has done neither and is all the better for it. Stepping beneath its terracotta portal brings you into a long dark atrium filled with Victorian exhibits overlooked by a separate walkway round the upper perimeter. The museum started out as a repository for a natural history collection, so its core offering is a lot of stuffed animals in glass cases. The giraffe at the back enjoys a particularly large glass case which particularly taxed the local glaziers. If only the rhino had been in a glass case nobody would have stolen its horn in 2011. The woolly mammoth needs no shield.
A separate rear galley contains a nationally significant collection of stuffed birds, courtesy of Fergus Menteith Oglivie 'of Sizewell and Scotland'. A separate classic exhibit represents "a portion of the Bass Rock", complete with dozens of squawking seabirds and fake guano. The museum goes out of its way to explain that such practices are very much disapproved of these days, but this enormous set of tableaux would have been proper educational in its day. Rest assured it's not all dead animals. Further galleries cover history, geology and ethnography, including a detailed walkthrough of world cultures that reminded me of a trip to the former Commonwealth Institute.
Stashed on the back staircase is a sledge Captain Oates tried out before heading to the South Pole, but chose to leave behind. In a side gallery are treasures from the era of King Raedwald, son of Tytila, son of Wuffa. At the foot of an Egyptian statue is a sign thanking you for not touching the goddess Sekhmet. I also learned that the interglacial period before ours is known as the Ipswichian thanks to deposits uncovered at the sewage works at Bobbitshole. But I learned nothing of Ipswich in the 21st century, because the history display round the balcony ends with the 1990s and none of the individual exhibits appear to have been touched since then either. Ipswich Museum thus works brilliantly as a museum showcasing how museums used to be, and long may it stay that way.
Ipswich Art Gallery
The Ipswich Art Gallery was formerly the Ipswich Art School, so feels more converted institution than ideal hanging space. Everything other than the central atrium is tucked upstairs around the balcony or inside a handful of awkwardly shaped rooms, currently displaying a fine collection of 100 works by women artists, with Maggi Hambling the most well known. Free to enter, and just a little odd.
Ipswich's other big museum is a substantial Tudor mansion in a fabulous park almost in the centre of town. Christchurch Mansion was gifted to the people in 1895, and is an absolute warren of nooks and heritage crannies. Some of the interiors are original, others were shoehorned in from elsewhere, and you never quite know which era'll be round the next corner. In amongst these are a significant number of paintings by local lad John Constable, plus a separate 1920s art gallery which is currently hosting (in a big local scoop) The Kiss by Rodin. It's one of three larger-than-life copies created by the French sculptor, this a commission for a Sussex collector who specifically requested that the male genitals be realistic, and which is now under the guardianship of the Tate. See this marble icon for free, plus additional disparate sculptures throughout the building, until 28th April.
Ipswich town centre
Much of Ipswich town centre retains a historical street pattern and heritage buildings, and much does not. In my photos above I've focused on the better bits. Timbered buildings are scattered in impressive numbers - still very much part of the commercial fabric - and the pargeting on the Ancient House (now a Lakeland) is second to none. For characterful shopping a narrow arcade wends down from Tavern Street, while for characterless shopping there's the fortress-like chain-bland Buttermarket and the sheds of Cardinal Park. The council recently spent a few million revamping Cornhill, to no obvious effect, although maybe it looks better with the grid of fountains switched on. Better to hunt down the statue of Giles's Grandma, stood outside the offices where the Daily Express cartoonist penned his glowering harridan.
Lovers of modern architecture should make a pilgrimage to Ipswich's Princes Street roundabout to admire one of Norman Foster's earliest commissions. The Willis Building looks 21st century, such is its influence, but was actually constructed in the early 1970s for an obscure insurance company. The office block is grand-piano-shaped, and pioneeringly open plan, and was very rapidly Grade I listed. The exterior is a curtain of smoked glass, there's not a right angle in sight, and oh how the changing light reflects off it throughout the day. Don't expect to get inside without being an employee, or pop up to the roof garden with your sandwiches, but have this 9 minute documentary by Zaha Hadid as compensation.
Once upon a time urban docksides were for trade, but these days they're prime residential territory. Ipswich council leapt on the bandwagon earlier than most, sequentially replacing both sides of their waterfront with smart flats and adding a marina to attract yachting folk. It was only just kicking off when I lived here, so I was amazed by the transformation (if not entirely won over). The skyline includes Suffolk's tallest building, a tower block whose construction faltered during the 2008 recession and whose interior still isn't finished. Some wharves remain empty, others are only just being transformed... but walk far enough and it all looks closer to being complete.
At promenade level a sequence of eating and drinking opportunities has opened up, because what people want beside water these days are craft beer, boutique hotels and bistros. The vibe along Neptune Quay is impressively trendy, a quality which the architects have ensured by the simple premise of placing the town's university at the far end. Students have their own coffee bar and restaurant with slightly cheaper prices to avoid having to intermingle with the nightlife. The Waterfront's worked well for the town, which now has a quarter worthy of attracting young professionals, but I don't think I'd have wanted to move in.
River Orwell/River Gipping
What I had planned to do on my visit was head down the estuary to walk across the Orwell Bridge. The ultimate town bypass, this stilted concrete creation opened in 1982 and is now so integral to Ipswich that if it ever closes the entire town seizes up. It doesn't close very often, but Storm Gareth closed it for eight hours the day before my visit which kept the local paper in screaming headlines. With gusts of 50mph promised throughout Thursday I wisely decided against an elevated hike beside windblown lorries forty metres above the choppy Orwell, and am saving this treat for a later date. Instead I headed in the opposite direction, upstream of Stoke Bridge, beyond which point the river is known instead as the Gipping.
The River Gipping slices between the railway station and the football ground as a deep-cut channel with a walkway alongside. Don't be easily tempted. It's signposted as an appealing stroll or easy cycle, but this perception will not survive the three miles to the next village. The first stretch includes a modern footbridge, a Sainsbury's car park, the backside of an industrial estate and the reedy edge of a housing estate. As urban riverside goes, it's fairly standard. But things change at the first railway bridge, the descending concrete steps so narrow you'd never get a bike down, beyond which is a minor riverside path that feels almost rural. It's really not, though. Lurking at the top of the slope is a hu-uge brownfield site once occupied by a sugar beet factory, now reduced to rubble, while a chain of pylons plant metal footprints along the valley. The path eventually opens out into squidgy orchard, then ducks below a dual carriageway and skirts a water pumping station. I walked well over a mile without any external footpath connection, which was somewhat unnerving, before eventually emerging onto Sproughton Millennium Green. I do not especially recommend.
Sproughton is a classic Suffolk village, except not quite. Down by the river are a post-medieval watermill (private), a Millennium Green (aforementioned) and a yew-circled church (locked). Climbing the main street are an actual tithe barn (restored), the village lock-up (empty) and a tin-shed community centre (buzzing). At the top of the slope are the village pub (carvery-enabled), a vintage barn (antiques-ridden) and a bus stop (irregularly-served). The village sign is one of the last carved by Harry Carter of Swaffham. Twenty years ago you couldn't buy milk here and the top treat was an exhibition of teatowels. Today the community shop in the tithe barn sells Mediterranean Sundried Tomato Nut Roast and the top attraction in the church hall is a Jigsaw Puzzle Challenge Evening. Residents are currently up in arms at plans to replace a central field with 114 homes, even those living on a similarly-sized estate built across former fields. It's also a bloody awkward walk back to Ipswich, because connectivity isn't really a rural Suffolk thing, which is just one of the reasons I left.
posted 01:00 :
Friday, March 15, 2019The simple guide to Brexit so far
2015 General Election
Any other Labour leader
Referendum quietly forgotten
Boris sees his chance
Numbers on a bus
Article 50 when ready
Article 50 anyway
2017 General Election
Increased Tory majority
Corbyn takes control
DUP take centre stage
Red line - no hard border
Red line - no customs union
Red line - immigration control
Parliament votes for
Parliament votes against
Parliament votes for
Parliament votes against
Parliament prefers no deal
Parliament refuses no deal
Parliament refuses everything
Parliament requests A50 extension
The simple guide to Brexit-to-come
Parliament requests A50 extension
Third meaningful vote
Parliament votes for
Managed Brexit 29 March
Transition period until...
Parliament votes against
Article 50 withdrawn
Half the nation cheers
Half the nation mutinies
Over the cliff edge we go
No deal Brexit 29 March
Ongoing crisis management
EU grants short extension
Third meaningful vote
Parliament votes for
Managed Brexit 30 June
Parliament votes against
Fourth meaningful vote
Parliament votes for
Managed Brexit 30 June
Parliament votes against
Fifth meaningful vote
Parliament votes for
Managed Brexit 30 June
Parliament votes against
No deal Brexit 30 June
EU insists on long extension
Parliament says no
Third meaningful vote
Parliament votes for
Managed Brexit 29 March
Parliament votes against
No deal Brexit 29 March
Parliament says yes
EU elections must be held
No deal Brexit
Article 50 withdrawn
Vote of no confidence
May steps down
May clings on
2019 General Election
No deal Brexit
Free trade free-for-all
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