Sunday, March 31, 2019
It's the day the clocks go forward. It's the last Sunday in March, so this is normal.
What's not normal is that the clocks may only go forward two more times.
In all the Brexit turmoil last week one bit of European news got somewhat drowned out, which is that the EU intends to cancel Summer Time.
For almost 100 years the UK has put its clocks forward an hour in spring and back an hour in autumn to maximise the use of available daylight. There are lots of plusses to an extra hour of daylight in the evening for seven months a year, including less need for indoor lighting and increased recreational opportunity. But there are also minuses, chief amongst these being a behavioural disconnect twice a year, shortening or extending time available for sleep and upsetting circadian rhythms.
The EU has mulled over the issues, reviewing scientific research and consulting millions of citizens.
"Numerous studies looked into the link between the switch to summer time and the risk of heart attacks, disrupted body rhythm, sleep deprivation, lack of concentration and attention, increased risk of accidents, lower life satisfaction and even suicide rates. However, longer daylight, outdoor activities after work or school and exposure to sunlight clearly have some positive long-term effects on general well-being."And their collective opinion is that the benefits of summer time are minor when compared to the downsides, so summer time is being scrapped.
Initially their plan was that the final change would be in 2019, but it was pointed out that IT systems, timetables and the like need time for preparation and so 2021 has been picked instead. In March 2020 and March 2021 time will advance as normal. In autumn 2021 clocks may go back an hour, if that's what countries want. But after 2021 clocks will never change again.
spring autumn 2019 forward back 2020 forward back 2021 forward maybe back 2022 2023 2024 etc
This leaves one key decision to be made by each individual member state - when the music stops, which time zone do they want to end up in?
For example, Germany currently spends 5 months a year in GMT+1, which is its base state, and seven months a year in GMT+2. They could decide to stick with GMT+2 (permanent summer time), in which case the clocks would go forward in March 2021 and never change again. Or they could decide to stick with GMT+1 (permanent winter time), in which case the clocks would go forward in March 2021, back in October 2021 and never change again. It's quite the choice.
You'd expect most mainland European countries to stick together and pick the same zone, to avoid awkward clock changes every time someone crosses a border. That's pretty much what happens now, with GMT+1 the default from Spain across to Poland. But every country gets to make its own separate decision, and has to submit it to the EU by this time next year, so anything could happen.
For example, Spain lies within 7½° of the Greenwich Meridian so should by rights be using GMT/GMT+1 like the UK and Portugal, but instead uses GMT+1/GMT+2 like France and Germany. Which way will they jump? Might Portugal follow?
But for us in Britain, Brexit makes the decision doubly intriguing.
In normal circumstances we'd be about to be forced to pick either permanent winter time (GMT) or permanent summer time (GMT+1) and stick to it. But these are not normal times, and if we leave the EU we get to ignore the directive and go our own way.
If we leave the EU this year, we can carry on switching between GMT and BST forever. I can imagine a populist Prime Minister being extremely keen to maintain the tradition of British Summer Time, a quick and simple means of differentiating ourselves from Europe and 'taking back control'. Business might not like the lack of harmonisation, but for most day-to-day purposes an independent Britain could choose to do whatever the hell it liked.
Alternatively if a long Brexit delay kicks in and we're still in the EU in 2021, summer time will no longer be an option. We'll be forced to pick either GMT or GMT+1 and stick to it, and will only be able to reverse that decision if withdrawal ever takes place. I can hear MPs arguing even now, "pass Meaningful Vote 31 and get your lighter evenings back."
Thanks to Brexit the abolition of summer time is not the pressing question it would otherwise have been. But which would have been the better time zone for Britain to end up in, GMT or GMT+1?
Here's what GMT (permanent winter time) would look like throughout the year. Data is for Leeds, because that's roughly in the centre of the country, and times are approximate (for the middle of the month).
Approximate sunrise and sunset times for Leeds (GMT) Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec sunrise 08:15 07:30 06:15 05:00 04:00 03:30 04:00 04:45 05:45 06:30 07:30 08:15 sunset 16:15 17:15 18:15 19:00 20:00 20:45 20:30 19:30 18:15 17:15 16:00 15:45
November to March would be identical to what we have now, daylightwise, and you know what a UK winter feels like. But April to October would be one hour behind, because summer time wouldn't take place, and that bit of the table is shaded. Sunset would never again be after 9pm, indeed in the London area the latest it would ever get would be twenty past eight. That'd be an unwelcome shock, given that London currently enjoys four months with sunset after 8pm, and that'd be cut to just two.
All that daylight has to go somewhere, and that somewhere is the early hours of the morning. Under permanent GMT the sun would rise well before the majority of the population woke up for most of the year - in midsummer as early as half past three. All this wasted daylight is precisely the reason summer time was introduced in the first place, and we'd be throwing all that away in favour of shorter evenings. So maybe not GMT. How about GMT+1?
Approximate sunrise and sunset times for Leeds (GMT+1) Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec sunrise 09:15 08:30 07:15 06:00 05:00 04:30 05:00 05:45 06:45 07:30 08:30 09:15 sunset 17:15 18:15 19:15 20:00 21:00 21:45 21:30 20:30 19:15 18:15 17:00 16:45
Here the summer is what you're used to, and the (shaded) winter months are the different bit. Evenings look good, with the earliest sunset now close to 5pm rather than the miserable 4pm we get at present. That'd likely mean fewer accidents heading home from work or school.
But there has to be payback somewhere, and that payback is in the morning. In the depths of winter the sun wouldn't rise before 9am, which would mean going to work or school in the dark and probably more accidents too. In the north of Scotland the sun wouldn't rise before 10am, which is why Scotland rarely thinks the same way as London when it comes to changing the clocks, and permanent GMT+1 would only make things worse.
Essentially there are good practical reasons why Britain follows GMT in the winter and GMT+1 in the summer. But the EU has judged that the negative effects around changeover outweigh the benefits in the months inbetween, and so wellbeing has trumped daylight saving. In the EU at least.
An unintended consequence of this decision, post-Brexit, would be a temporal disconnect along the UK's land border. Assuming we leave before the regulations come in and choose to retain British Summer Time, the island of Ireland would find itself in two different time zones at certain times of the year. That'd be awkward.
If the Republic of Ireland decides to plump for permanent winter time, i.e. GMT, then Belfast will be an hour ahead of Dublin for seven months a year (from April to October). If instead the Republic of Ireland decides to plump for permanent summer time, i.e. GMT+1, then Belfast will be an hour behind Dublin for five months a year (from November to March). It has to choose one of these options, and neither would be ideal. Mainland Britain won't care, but as is so often the case with Brexit the full impact will be felt across the Irish Sea.
Cancelling summer time is the most important decision future Britain doesn't have to sign up to, shifting everything the entire population does by an hour and changing the future in as yet impenetrable ways. Just for a change, Brexit looks likely to save the UK from a choice affecting all of us forever.
posted 02:00 :
Saturday, March 30, 2019Here's a report of the last of my Thursday day trips this month. You'll notice my destination's not further away than the rest, as intended, because my planned safari had to be postponed. Instead I've ventured barely five miles from London, to riverside Surrey. Again, hang on in for the last one.
Chertsey is a very old market town, population sixteen thousand, which owes its existence to being almost on the south bank of the Thames. These days you'll find it where the M3 crosses the M25, awkwardly tucked into a slice between the two motorways, providing a new reason why it's not especially easy to access. Even getting here by train isn't entirely straightforward, the station being one of two on a spur between Virginia Water and Weybridge. Chertsey's comfortably off without being too snooty, except along the river where it definitely is. It kept me occupied. [5 photos]
Chertsey Town Centre
Arriving at the station gives the wrong impression, which is that Chertsey is a town brimming with dull late 20th century offices. But cross the bypass and the river and things pick up considerably. At the heart of the town are the parish church, war memorial and marketplace, from which lead off Windsor Street, London Street and Guildford Street. Chain shops do not proliferate, unless you poke through the atypical 1980s mall to uncover the enormous Sainsburys. Traffic signs include one warning of Building Overhang and another citing market regulations from 1599 as a reason why you can't park in the shaded area on Saturday mornings.
Every town has its historical 'thing', and Chertsey's is a bell. The curfew bell in the parish church tower used to ring out after dark to tell townspeople to remain in their homes... and still rings at 8pm every weekday evening (September 29th and March 25th only - staying indoors no longer mandatory). Even the local football club are nicknamed The Curfews, as I spotted on banners hoisted all over the town advertising this afternoon's FA Vase semifinal. It's such a big game, all four turnstiles will be open.
The town's museum is housed in a Georgian townhouse called The Cedars, and extends its remit to cover the entire local borough of Runnymede. You can guess what one of the displays must be about. The museum's free to enter and spread over three floors, as the nice lady will tell you, although the top floor is limited to a couple of maps and a landing with some clocks.
The most interesting gallery showcases the Olive Matthews Collection, a nationally significant assemblage of fashionable evening wear and formal dress from the 1700s onwards, including sparkly brocade, elaborate waistcoats, one of Queen Mary's silk tulle gowns and a roomful of accessories. The local history room doesn't quite compare, and the First World War exhibition is now a year past being obligatory. You really should visit, but half an hour tops.
In the early days of Christianity in England, Chertsey was one of the big hitters. Its abbey dates back to 666 AD, intriguingly the same year as Barking's, and by the 14th century it was one of England's Big Five. Originally Chertsey was an island site, the Abbey River alongside being an artificial channel built to provide power from a watermill. King Henry VI was initially buried here following a dubious death in the Tower of London, although fairly soon reinterred in Windsor instead. In common with many important monasteries Chertsey Abbey was levelled in the 1530s so today almost nothing remains and the site has been either built over or sealed off.
One corner of Abbeyfields park contains a bit of contemporary wall, but not of the abbey itself, plus the remains of what might have been two bread ovens. Of more interest are the three huge long turfed grooves beyond the flower beds, these formerly fishponds dug in 1308. Expect to find out more about the abbey at the museum's next temporary exhibition, which I annoyingly missed by a week.
Chertsey has the only bridge across the Thames between Staines and Walton, motorways excepted. A timber bridge replaced the ferry in the 14th century, but by the 18th was wholly inadequate and the current elegant five-arched structure was built instead. Anything over 18 tonnes has to go a different way round, and the pavements are only comfortably wide enough for one abreast.
The river is to be respected, so the historic town never quite spread this far for fear of flooding. Today a couple of gastropubs intrude, plus a wall of luxury apartments rolling down towards the marina. Beyond that are lush sprawling meadows, marred only by a line of pylons, and increasingly remote. The Thames Path can only be followed on the non-Chertsey side.
St Ann's Hill
In a flat town like Chertsey, a 70m-high knoll stands out. St Ann's Hill lies a mile west of the town centre, dangerously close to the M3 which had to kink slightly to get by. It's heavily wooded, mostly with pine, and proved the ideal spot for an Iron Age hillfort, both defensively and as a lookout. If the summit now looks unexpectedly flat that's not fortifications, that's a buried reservoir dating back to the 1920s.
Trees make it difficult to see much these days, but there is one official viewing slot cut through to offer a very decent view of Heathrow Airport. I only watched for a couple of minutes but during that time, ooh, they swapped runways. Alas I failed to find the Nun's Well, but I suspect most of the popular dog-walking circuits pass by.
Thorpe is a small village to the northwest of Chertsey, again ultimately of 7th century vintage, and with another part-medieval church. It has its moments, including the cottages near the Red Lion and the conservation area by St Mary's, but general ambience isn't helped by the presence of a massive motorway junction at the foot of the main street. Close by is the Frank Muir Memorial Field, a tribute to the great comic and raconteur who moved to the village in the 1950s, though in truth little more than a small-park-slash-recreation ground.
You cannot sit beside Thorpe's war memorial without disrespecting the enormous poppies tied to the benches. The American School in England, a large boarding establishment at the east end of the village, features a pot of tea on the school badge. And if you haven't twigged yet, somewhere much more famous is named after the place.
The gravel pits between Thorpe and Surrey were flooded in the 1970s and a water-based theme resort established on the central island. Thorpe Park will be 40 years old this year, and is quite the place for plummets, whirls and scares. But turning up on the day now costs £55, which is considerably more than I paid last time, so I decided against a proper visit. Instead I noticed an unlikely public footpath called the Monks Walk which crosses the lake to the island, runs along the edge of the theme park and continues off the other side, because that's the route people walked from Thorpe to Chertsey before the land was flooded. And I followed that.
The Monks Walk is a bit creepy, there being no means of escape for a full mile. It kicks off under a dual carriageway at the Chertsey end, entirely unappealingly, curves briefly then heads pretty much straight for the remainder of the route. Before long a red metal bridge crosses to the main island, and suddenly you're behind the scenes at the theme park. Through the fence is another fence, for added security, and beyond that the first of the rides... a decaying trough rising into the treetops and swooshing downwards on lofty stilts. This ghost attraction is Loggers Leap, once the highest log flume in the country, and the site of Princess Diana's famous day out with the royal kids in 1993. It closed at the end of the 2015 season, was announced formally redundant last month, and now makes for a sorry sight.
Continuing along the path I caught sight of the backs of refreshment kiosks, a shanty town spray-painted 'Danger Zombie Outbreak' and several unappealing storage dumps. From inside the compound came the sounds of ratcheting and rattling, matched by the occasional set of carriages visible high above plastic sheeting. The best view came up a service road between Nemesis Inferno and Rumba Rapids, as a handful of punters shot out above a line of wastebins and a rope dangled 62 metres from the top of Stealth's narrow loop. A little further along four rubber-ringed rapid-riding capsules had been dumped, perhaps awaiting repair. The remainder of the footpath, on and off the island, runs mostly between service roads and reveals unexpectedly little. The fence facing towards the lake is occasionally broken. The fence facing Thorpe Park is always secure. I can see why they'd rather punters never saw backstage.
posted 07:00 :
Friday, March 29, 2019Dear Resident,Tickets for tonight's planned gala buffet will be valid on the later date. We do however have a lot of chlorinated chicken drumsticks left over, and sadly these will not keep for a further fortnight. Please drop in at the parish office this evening if you are able to take these off our hands. Residents are also urged to collect any tinned goods they may have contributed, as these may be required for personal supply in the event that rationing is introduced.
It is with regret that I must confirm that tonight's Brexit Revels on the village green have been cancelled.
I know a lot of you have had March 29th in your diary for a very long time, but the withdrawal of festivities is due to circumstances entirely beyond our control.
Do not attempt to turn up this evening, as we do not have a licence and the bowling green will be not be illuminated.
The children's choir are no longer required to attend. We apologise to parents who've been teaching them the words to Land Of Hope and Glory over the past few weeks, and for all the time spent creating red, white and blue costumes. We will also be unable to meet our promise of giving each child their own special commemorative 50p Brexit coin, as it appears the Royal Mint have failed to manufacture any.
It is a particular disappointment not to be able to go ahead with the planned fireworks display, partly because EU health and safety regulations will still be in place but mainly because there will be nothing to celebrate. Frustratingly the weather at 11pm this evening looks uncharacteristically calm and dry, whereas the long term forecast is unsettled and stormy. Rest assured that our Guy will be stored safely in a dry place until Mr Verhofstadt can be ignited properly.
The Organising Committee hopes to reschedule Brexit festivities for a later date - tentatively Friday April 12th - but this is not confirmed. Unfortunately the village hall is pre-booked that evening for a Zumba class and we don't yet have permission to kick the foreigners out.
Proposed schedule - Friday April 12th10.30pm Assemble by the village pond (bring torches)
10.35pm Wetherspoons Pop-Up Bar opens
10.45pm Pose for Daily Express photographer
10.50pm Blessing of the new village stocks (in case of civil unrest)
10.59pm St John's Ambulance on alert (in case of excess euphoria)
11.00pm Firework display to end all firework displays
11.01pm 'Bonfire of Red Tape' ignited
11.03pm Medley of wartime favourites
11.10pm Video message from Sir Nigel Farage
11.15pm Celebratory conga into the early hours
Please note that Saturday's programme of events has also had to be cancelled. The Jam Festival will not take place, the Wonky Vegetable Tombola cannot be stocked, and the vicar will not be judging The Pug That Looks The Most Like Winston Churchill. However the evening screening of The Great Escape in the village hall will proceed as planned. Anyone who looks a bit Eastern European is advised not to attend, for their own personal safety.
On Sunday it will no longer be possible to ring out the church bells in a Peal of Joyous Release, as intended. The Under 10s World Cup 1966 Re-Enactment will not kick off. Our very special mystery guest will be unable to open the Jumble Sale as he may have a leadership bid to contest. The first pack meeting of the British Youth Brigade, formerly the Scouts and Guides, has been deferred. No further tickets for Strictly Come Morris Dancing will be sold.
Be reassured that activities in the village hall will now continue for at least another fortnight, rather than the building being permanently closed due to the withdrawal of European funding. Meanwhile our village greengrocer apologises that she will not be able to sell fruit and veg in pounds and ounces from next Monday as planned. However she urges you to turn up anyway while she still has fresh produce to sell, rather than it all rotting in a temporary lorry park somewhere outside Calais.
Villagers should also be aware that our full programme of Brexit Revels may have to be postponed until May 22nd, or December 2021, or any one of a number of alternative meaningful dates. This distressing delay is the fault of an unrepresentative elite, and your parish council will do everything in their power to expedite your majority vote, whatever the consequences.
The glorious liberation of March 29th 2019, so long prepared for, was not to be. Do not lose heart. They will not stop us celebrating our insularity, no matter how long it takes.
posted 07:00 :
Thursday, March 28, 2019Twenty five years ago today the DLR extension to Beckton entered public service. This brand new branch headed east from Poplar and snaked into the Royal Docks, bringing a light rail service to new estates on the far side of Newham. For many years it was relatively lightly used, but blimey, how prescient the line looks today.
To celebrate the silver anniversary I've been out to all eleven stations which opened on Monday 28th March 1994, several of which still look much like they did a quarter of a century ago. You're getting one photograph of each plus a brief paragraph of waffle.
The first new station east of Poplar sits on concrete pillars beside an even concretier dual carriageway. Pedestrian access is always awkward but rather more so at this time of major local development, and approaching via the subway through the roundabout can feel somewhat dystopian. The Blackwall Tunnel passes invisibly to either side, one bore to the west and the other to the east. Station architecture is quite typical of what's coming up elsewhere - elevated platforms, wedge-top lift towers and steep glass-enclosed staircases.
Named after the dock which used to cover the site, East India's big claim to fame is that the Greenwich Meridian passes across the tracks, and is marked by a line up the side of the adjacent apartment block. At ground level look for the diagonal line embedded in the pavement, which aligns approximately with the final lamppost on the eastbound platform and the second lamppost on the westbound. An additional footbridge leads across Aspen Way towards what is currently Tower Hamlets HQ.
At Canning Town the new-born DLR linked up with the former North London railway line to North Woolwich, but not the Jubilee line because that hadn't yet been built. To facilitate its construction the DLR station had to be closed soon after opening, from June 1996 to March 1998, for total reconfigurement. The end result was a fabulously simple stacked Jubilee/DLR interchange, but requiring a proper slog to leave the station, and what's proved to be an impractically awkward interchange to what's now the Stratford International branch. The busiest station on the Beckton extension, by far.
Here's a rare DLR station at street level, featuring the extension's trademark angled lampstands and ribbed platform canopies. It's also the closest station to London's only cable car, so suffers from promotional Dangleway material slapped across most available surfaces. To celebrate the 25th anniversary the station's footbridge is getting a maintenance once-over, so is entirely inaccessible until next week, necessitating an unexpectedly long diversion to reach the other side of the tracks.
Custom House is to be the fortunate recipient of a Crossrail connection, as twin roundels now exposed on its new lift tower proudly proclaim. The DLR station was closed for most of 2017 while an upgrade allowed fresh connections to be made, before reopening in January 2018 with that work substantially incomplete and blue hoardings everywhere. Those hoardings are still everywhere and passageways still closed, even on the non-purple side of the station, and the resultant mess has been depressing international visitors to ExCel for well over a year. One day, though, wow.
This is the DLR station whose name I have the most difficulty remembering, there being a surfeit of regal titles in the old Royal Docks. Prince Regent could instead be described as ExCel East, being attached to the other end of the gargantuan exhibition centre via a staircase worthy of a football stadium crowd. A separate lift and narrow staircase lead down to a small local bus station for local people, whose services will be diminished when Crossrail finally opens and certain bus routes are diverted to serve Custom House instead.
To reach Royal Albert the line has wiggled, at height, between bland modern hotels and the edge of the Royal Albert Dock. This station's located much further from the nearest houses in West Beckton than would have been ideal, and is no fun to access on foot, but is brilliantly located for Newham's waterside slab of council offices. Stop off here to watch planes vrooming at City Airport, to indulge in a splash of rowing or to cross the Connaught Bridge to the newer DLR branch to Woolwich.
I wrote a whole post about Beckton Park earlier in the year, so I'll be brief. This is the least used station on the DLR, being both remote and buried inside a dual carriageway roundabout. It may not be the least used station after the southern fence is taken down providing access to the Chinese-funded ABP Royal Albert Dock development alongside, transforming the area utterly. The actual park is going to be the last thing visitors consider.
This is another circular station embedded in the heart of an inaccessible roundabout, nigh identical to Beckton Park but a lot busier because people actually live here. Many are students at the University of East London's Docklands campus, which is accessed through the southern subway past a frowning security guard. The station's unusual name comes from housing built in 1881 for local dock workers - the Cyprus Estate - a title which commemorated the island's recent acquisition by the British Empire.
Gallions Reach is the easternmost DLR station, fractionally beating Woolwich Arsenal, once in the middle of pretty much nowhere but increasingly surrounded by speculative housing developments. If you haven't been recently, people actually live here now, and a lot more are coming. The DLR's largest depot is close by, along with the levelled remainder of Beckton Gas Works. One day a fresh branch might break off here for Thamesmead, but they once said that about Dagenham, and Mayors are fickle creatures.
Finally the line curves back on itself to reach Beckton proper, ideally located for the bus station and the giant Asda. The front of the station has recently been brightened by a wall of multi-coloured tiles plus the word 'Beckton' in large blue friendly letters. Beckton's 1980s residential district is very low-rise and extraordinarily low-density by modern standards, hence potentially appealing, but has never been especially well connected. After 1994 there was at least a way out.
posted 00:25 :
Wednesday, March 27, 2019Ten years ago I wrote a post listing the London boroughs who'd started using Twitter. Not many of them had, this being the dawn of democratic social media, the general feeling still being "I don't see what the point of that is".
But I managed to find nine of London's 33 boroughs who'd started tweeting, and with your help at the time I found one more. We missed three others (who'd only just started up), so they appear in this table too, making twelve in total.
The insignificant state of London borough Twitter at the end of March 2009
Borough First tweeted Tweets Followers Barnet @BarnetCouncil May 2008 296 358 Hillingdon @Hillingdon Jun 2008 207 215 Lewisham @LewishamCouncil Oct 2008 95 314 Wandsworth @wandbc Dec 2008 84 209 Southwark @lb_southwark Dec 2008 52 180 Camden @camdentalking Feb 2009 193 178 Redbridge @LB_Redbridge Feb 2009 9 72 Lambeth @lambeth_council Mar 2009 31 99 Brent @Brent_Council Mar 2009 16 51 Haringey @LBHaringey Mar 2009 15 70 Croydon @yourcroydon Mar 2009 50 ? Bexley @LBofBexley Mar 2009 2 ? Sutton @LBsuttonnews Mar 2009 ? ?
Twitter launched in 2006, but didn't really take off until February 2009 when Stephen Fry got stuck in a lift. Five London boroughs had already started tweeting before that happened, with Barnet the most groundbreaking by kicking off in May 2008. Numerous social networks have risen and fallen since, so they were probably just taking a punt, but it is amazing to recall the insignificance of what was going on with the benefit of hindsight.
By the end of March 2009 no London borough had tweeted more than 300 times, and only three boroughs were past double figures. Redbridge hadn't yet reached ten, while Bexley had tweeted twice early in the month and then gone a bit silent. Notice how all-over-the-place these dozen boroughs are, geographically, the chief requisite for action not being size or location but whether or not someone in the media team had decided to have a go.
The numbers of followers looks ludicrously small too, given that these boroughs had over two hundred thousand residents. Two of the longest-tweeting boroughs had managed to accrue over 300 followers, but none of the most recent starters had managed to pass 100. Given the difficulty I remember having trying to discover which boroughs were actually on Twitter and what their handle was, perhaps that's no surprise.
Ten years later, I thought I'd try the same analysis again. All 33 London boroughs are now on Twitter, obviously, and employ staff to announce, promote, educate and respond.
Again my table of boroughs is in chronological order. Large numbers have been rounded to the nearest hundred. To help make sense of the data, the highest numbers in each column are higlighted in green and the lowest numbers in each column are highlighted in red. I've omitted the City of London because it's mostly followed by people who work in it rather than live in it.
The state of London borough Twitter at the end of March 2019
Borough started Tweets per day Followers % of population Barnet @BarnetCouncil May 2008 13200 3 16500 4% Hillingdon @Hillingdon Jun 2008 20200 5 45000 15% Lewisham @LewishamCouncil Oct 2008 16700 4 22000 7% Wandsworth @wandbc Dec 2008 21900 6 24100 7% Southwark @lb_southwark Dec 2008 20500 5 26600 8% Camden @CamdenCouncil Feb 2009 27400 7 26700 11% Redbridge @RedbridgeLive Feb 2009 24700 7 14700 5% Lambeth @lambeth_council Mar 2009 29100 8 27200 8% Brent @Brent_Council Mar 2009 17200 5 19900 6% Haringey @haringeycouncil Mar 2009 21300 6 16700 6% Croydon @yourcroydon Mar 2009 23000 6 17600 5% Bexley @LBofBexley Mar 2009 18900 5 7400 3% Sutton @SuttonCouncil Mar 2009 23500 6 15100 7% Enfield @EnfieldCouncil Apr 2009 19900 5 12600 4% Westminster @CityWestminster Apr 2009 16800 5 24600 10% Ham & Fulham @LBHF May 2009 14600 4 15700 9% Bromley @LBofBromley Jul 2009 7000 2 15500 5% Harrow @harrow_council Jul 2009 13200 4 13200 5% Greenwich @Royal_Greenwich Jul 2009 30900 9 38100 13% Merton @Merton_Council Aug 2009 18000 5 12000 6% Richmond @LBRUT Oct 2009 36200 10 20200 10% Ken & Chelsea @RBKC Dec 2009 9900 3 13400 9% Islington @IslingtonBC Feb 2010 24100 7 22100 9% Tower Hamlets @TowerHamletsNow Mar 2010 17100 5 17800 6% Hounslow @LBofHounslow Sep 2010 25700 8 10700 4% Hackney @hackneycouncil Oct 2010 22800 7 25300 9% Ealing @EalingCouncil Dec 2010 25800 8 17700 5% Havering @LBofHavering Jul 2011 26600 9 12700 5% Newham @NewhamLondon Aug 2011 24100 9 15600 4% Barking & Dag @lbbdcouncil Aug 2011 26600 9 12500 6% Kingston @RBKingston Jan 2012 18300 7 12100 7% Waltham Forest @wfcouncil May 2013 20200 9 10900 4%
Most London boroughs joined Twitter in 2009, but ten held out until the 2010s, and a couple waited beyond 2011. Kingston didn't take the plunge until 2012, while the true refusenik is Waltham Forest who took until May 2013. You can tell they weren't keen even then because the account was originally called @LBWFDemocracy, eventually flipping to the less strident @wfcouncil in 2015. A few other boroughs have changed their Twitter handle since they begun, including Greenwich who weren't initially Royal. Most of these also left their old tweets in place, whereas Sutton deleted their entire 2014 timeline when they switched from @lbsuttonnews to @SuttonCouncil.
The boroughs who've tweeted the least, intriguingly, include the borough which tweeted first. Barnet only tweets three times a day, on average, so has only managed to reach 13200 after eleven years. Kensingston & Chelsea still haven't reached quite 10000 tweets, while Bromley are definitely bringing up the rear with only 7066. At the other end of the scale, Richmond are by far the most prolific, with ten tweets a day mounting up to 36265 altogether. The average borough has tweeted 20000 times, indeed the list's quite bunched around this total, and half the boroughs choose to tweet 5, 6 or 7 times a day. Never annoy your audience by overdoing it.
The number of followers ranges more widely. Hillingdon is the unexpected winner of London's Most Followed Borough, with 45000 punters tagging along. What's more that's equivalent to 15% of Hillingdon's population, making this a particularly cost-effective way of communicating with residents. Greenwich are in second place, followed by the central big-hitters of Lambeth, Camden and Southwark. Greenwich are the only council to be coloured green across the board, suggesting that they've been utilising Twitter to the full.
Meanwhile Twitter hasn't really taken off in Bexley. They have yet to reach 7500 followers - even I've got more than that - and are only on the radar of 3% of residents. Maybe the people of Bexley are happier on Facebook. Northernmost London also has a particularly low take-up rate, with Barnet, Enfield and Waltham Forest all on 4%. Barnet are low despite starting first, while Waltham Forest are low perhaps because they started last. A good example of how similar boroughs have different outcomes is provided by Hillingdon and Hounslow - both have tweeted twenty-something thousand times, but one is followed by 15% of residents and the other by only 4%.
In conclusion, over the last decade social media has moved from experimental borough sideline to prime means of municipal communication. It's cheap, so has survived austerity, and in the best case could be reaching one in six of the population. Some boroughs don't quite get it, or aren't especially keen, but others are reaping impressive rewards. Come back in March 2029 to see if the top tweeters have kept it up.
posted 07:00 :
Tuesday, March 26, 2019The National Portrait Gallery announced last week that they won't be accepting a £1m grant from the Sackler Foundation to help fund an upcoming redevelopment project, because the family's wealth comes from selling an addictive prescription painkiller. So I didn't visit the National Portrait Gallery yesterday. But I did track down a heck of a lot of galleries and museums who have taken the family's money... and now won't be taking any more.
This is the Great Court at the British Museum, sensationally revamped by Foster and Partners at the turn of the century. Numerous benefactors are chiselled into the wall of the Reading Room, including two Sacklers, the Ford Motor Company, the Maurice Wohl Charitable Foundation and "the Weston Family", whose name is bigger than everyone else's so probably donated the most. The Sacklers also sponsored the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Seminar Room in the education centre in the basement. Back in 2000 nobody minded that the Sacklers' cash came from shamelessly flogging addictive painkillers, but times change.
This is the Sackler Library and Archive at the Design Museum in Kensington. An entire wall in the entrance porch is given over to naming the generous souls who helped the trustees reconfigure the former Commonwealth Institute, and it's hard to find a space inside that isn't named after one of them. Around the main atrium, for example, are the Weston Mezzanine, the Swarovski Foundation Centre for Learning, the Kirby Laing Studio, the Chumsri and Luqman Lounge and the Helene and Johannes Huth Gallery. The only unsponsored spaces on the first and second floors are the restaurant and the toilet. This place would not have opened in 2016 without rich people's dosh.
This is the Sackler Hall at the Museum of London, otherwise known as the cafe. It's part of the Galleries of Modern London, which are downstairs, opened in 2010 after a £20m refit. You may have walked through several times without realising this was a Sackler space, but their name is emblazoned on one wall beneath the elliptical data screen, along with a plaque thanking family members for their generosity. During the day this area is simply somewhere to stop and eat, but in the evening it doubles up as a flexible entertainment space to rake in additional money for the museum, so this donation's proved sustainable.
This is the Sackler Room at the National Gallery. It's where you go to see the Hay Wain and the Fighting Temeraire, plus George Stubbs's racehorses, so it's pretty prestigious. The Sackler Family got their name up on the wall here as early as 1994 thanks to what they described as "A Gift To The People Of The United Kingdom". Intriguingly the plaque went to the bother of listing all the relevant Sacklers, namely Dr Mortimer, Theresa, Ilene, Kathe, Samantha, Marissa, Sophia and Michael - exactly the same list as appears on the wall in the Museum of London, but in a different order.
This is how you get between floors at Tate Modern. The Sackler Escalator rises up inside the original building, opened in 2000, and is only named at the very top which may be why you've never noticed the name. Meanwhile the Sackler Lifts ascend inside the 2016 extension, with a plaque on the ground floor listing the same seven members of the family that we've seen elsewhere. Tate Modern is an incredibly benefactor-friendly art gallery, in which the Maria and Peter Kellner Bridge leads from the Eyal Ofer Concourse to the Blavatnik Building... at least partly balanced by the main building having been recently renamed after a Southwark activist who paid nothing.
This is the Sackler Octagon at Tate Britain. It's at the centre of the central space, part of the Millbank Project (2011 – 2013) which "created new spaces for display, education and social activities". It's not somewhere for paintings, more for sculpture or performance art, and can also be used as a dining space for up to 120 corporate guests should the opportunity arise. The Tate's board of trustees announced last week that it would be declining further donations from the Sackler family, in an attempt to take the ethical high ground, but they do already have an Octagon, an Escalator and some Lifts so the horse has definitely bolted.
This is the Sackler Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens. It's a partner of the original Serpentine Gallery but in a completely separate building on the other side of the Serpentine, a converted gunpowder store which opened in 2013. The biggest donation the Galleries have ever received came from Dr Mortimer and Dame Theresa Sackler, which is why the new building has their name slapped across it - a move which once looked benevolent but now associates the space to a toxic bequest. If the Sacklers' intention was to shower London's art scene with cash in an attempt to appear culturally virtuous, that approach now looks morally bereft.
This is the Sackler Courtyard at the V&A. It's the absolute showpiece of the Exhibition Road extension opened in 2017, which includes the world's first all-porcelain public courtyard and a lot of snazzy empty space. All the usual members of the family get a namecheck, but on a mirrored plaque this time for a bit of variety. This'll be one of the last splashes of cash the Sacklers give to the arts in London, now everyone's decided they no longer want tainted money, so this courtyard might be the opioids' farewell.
This is the Sackler Crossing in Kew Gardens. It spans a lake in an intriguingly sinuous manner, and has done since 2006, thanks to the generosity of a family fortune based on painkiller addiction. I didn't visit Kew Gardens yesterday because it costs £18 to get in, but it's probably relevant that every other building I've mentioned so far can be visited for free. Museums and galleries have to get their funding from somewhere, and if it's not coming in entrance fees then the deep pockets of exceptionally rich billionaires will have to do.
I also didn't head inside the Royal Academy to see the Sackler Galleries, dig further into the V&A to find the Sackler Centre for arts education, sneak into the Natural History Museum’s former Sackler Biodiversity Imaging Laboratory, nor pop into Westminster Abbey to see the stained glass window dedicated to (and paid for by) Dr Mortimer Sackler. This dubious family has ingratiated itself deep into London's cultural offering, for better or for worse, and we''ll be wandering round and admiring the things they've paid for for many years to come.
posted 07:00 :
Monday, March 25, 2019Happy New Year!
Brief explanation: March 25th used to be New Year's Day.
Short explanation: New Year's Day used to be March 1st (thanks to some Romans), but in 45 BC was moved to January 1st (thanks to a Roman), and in Anglo Saxon Britain changed to December 25th (thanks to some Roman Catholics), then in 1087 switched to January 1st (thanks to the Normans), then in 1155 moved to March 25th (thanks to some Roman Catholics), until it was finally moved back to January 1st in 1752 (thanks to further Roman Catholics).
Proper explanation: (deep breath, and let's hope not too much of the following is incorrect)
Before there was a calendar, springtime heralded the new year. For the Mesopotamians 4000 years ago, the new year started at the spring equinox.
In the book of Exodus, at the time of the first Passover, God tells Moses "This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year". The Jewish ecclesiastical new year still begins in the month of Nisan, on Nisan 1 (which in our calendar can fall anywhere from late March to early April).
In the earliest version of the Roman calendar there were only ten months, the first of which was March. New Year's Day was thus the calends of March, or March 1st. Later two extra months were added - which we now call January and February - but at the end of the year, not the start.
In 45 BC Julius Caesar introduced the Julian Calendar, switching the first day of the year to January 1st. This was the date on which senators started their annual terms of office, and had been since 153 BC (prior to which it had been March 15th). Julius's change also had the effect of nudging all the months two positions later than they'd originally been.
Evidence: September, October, November and December are named after the Latin words for 7, 8, 9 and 10 but are now the 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th months.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Church started to take control of the calendar, switching the start of the year to match important Christian festivals. In 567 the Council of Tours recommended that the calendar year begin at Easter. By the 7th century several European countries preferred 25th December - Christmas Day. By the 9th century the preferred date across southern Europe was March 25th - the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, or Lady Day.
England gravitated towards December 25th as the first day of the year, but not exclusively... in some places March 25th won out, and in others even September 24th. Then the Normans invaded. They didn't like national inconsistency, so in 1087 decided to standardise the new year by picking January 1st instead. It didn't last.
In 1155, immediately following the accession of Henry II, the Catholic church's preferred date of March 25th was imposed instead. And that stuck. For the next 596 years, right up until 1751, Lady Day would be the official start of the civil year in England. Had you been alive in 1219, 1319, 1419, 1519, 1619 or 1719, today would have been New Year's Day.
The beginning of the end for March 25th came in 1545 when the Roman Catholic church finally decided to tackle the shifting date of Easter. Julius Caesar's leap year calendar had only been out by 11½ minutes per year, but those 11½ minutes now added up to ten days and the seasons were in the wrong place. It took a while for astronomers and papal authority to agree how to proceed, but an early change was the blanket adoption of January 1st as the first day of the year in Catholic European countries.
The new Gregorian Calendar was finally introduced in 1582, ditching ten days from the calendar and introducing a new leap year rule concerning years ending in 00. But England was no longer a Catholic country, Henry VIII having seen to that, so changed nothing and continued using March 25th as the first day of the year.
Scotland, as an independent country, chose to follow Europe and adopted January 1st as the first day of the civil year in 1600. This worked fine until 1603 when the death of Queen Elizabeth united England and Scotland, after which the legal years north and south of the border officially began on different dates.
Great Britain remained stubbornly out of sync with the rest of Europe for the next century and a half, with legal documents, taxation and parliamentary business sticking rigidly to a year commencing March 25th. But in civilian life the idea of January 1st as the first day of the year crept inexorably into common usage, and chronology became increasingly messy.
For example, the execution of King Charles I took place on January 30th in a year we would now call 1649. But the death warrant is dated 'January xxixth Anno Domini 1648', because the year 1649 hadn't yet officially begun and 1648 still had two months to run.
To avoid ambiguity dual dating was introduced, with dates in January, February and March defined as either Old Style or New Style according to whether the British or continental system was being used.
For example, the accession of Queen Anne officially took place on 8th March 1701 (Old Style) which was simultaneously 8th March 1702 (New Style). A simple shorthand way of writing this in everyday life was to use a hyphen, i.e. 8th March 1701-2.
Eventually Parliament bit the bullet and passed the Calendar (New Style) Act 1750. This had two parts, firstly officially adopting January 1st as the first day of the year (instead of March 25th), and secondly adopting the Gregorian calendar (by skipping eleven days).
"Whereas the legal supputation of the year of our Lord in England, according to which the year beginneth on the twenty-fifth day of March, hath been found by experience to be attended with divers inconveniences, not only as it differs from the usage of neighbouring nations, but also from the legal method of computation in Scotland, and from the common usage throughout the whole kingdom, and thereby frequent mistakes are occasioned in the dates of deeds and other writings, and disputes arise therefrom."
The Act was introduced into Parliament during what was officially February 1750, and received Royal Assent three months later in May 1751. America was still a British colony at the time, so the change applied there too, and across the wider Empire.
"In and throughout all his Majesty’s dominions and countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, belonging or subject to the crown of Great Britain, the said supputation, according to which the year of our Lord beginneth on the twenty-fifth day of March, shall not be made use of from and after the last day of December one thousand seven hundred and fifty-one; and that the first day of January next following the said last day of December shall be reckoned, taken, deemed, and accounted to be the first of the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and fifty-two."
As an indication of the awkward consequences of this action, the years 1750, 1751 and 1752 were officially each of very different lengths.
1750: March 25th - March 24th (365 days) [the last normal Old Style year]
1751: March 25th - December 31st (282 days) [the shortest year ever]
1752: January 1st - December 31st (355 days) [a leap year, but eleven days short]
1753: January 1st - December 31st (365 days) [the first normal New Style year]
It would have caused financial chaos if the tax year had shifted to January 1st, with tenants paying too much in the shortened years, so this had to be left alone. However, even this wasn't straightforward. The loss of eleven days in 1752 meant the tax year had to be extended by eleven days to remain the same length, so the start date duly shifted from March 25th to April 5th. In 1800, which was the first century year not to be a leap year, the Exchequer nudged the start date ahead one more day. But they didn't nudge it in 1900, and have never nudged it again, which is why the tax year has begun on April 6th ever since.
Meanwhile Britain's new year has remained on January 1st since 1752, making this the 268th time that March 25th hasn't been New Year's Day. If only we'd held out against Europe a little longer, with their expert science-based ways, today could still have been a day of stubborn drunken celebration.
posted 07:00 :
Sunday, March 24, 2019Yesterday supporters of a People's Vote took to the streets of Westminster - less a march, more a million-strong queue. They brought placards, they brought blue and gold-starred berets, they brought their children, or quite simply they just brought themselves. These weren't your usual angry protestors hyped up by political factions, these were everyday folk driven to make their presence felt as Britain teeters on the edge of heaven-knows-what.
I've read cleverer slogans. Some of the most heartfelt came from the under 16s, who didn't get a vote on their future last time and won't again next. I've heard noisier protests. Most people walked and chatted, and only the occasional chant caught fire. But I've never before experienced quite such a throng moving through the West End, threading off along sidestreets in an attempt to skip the logjam on the main route and make it to the end of the rally on time.
I couldn't tell you where in Parliament Square the main stage was, only that a densely-packed sea of Remainers, Revokers and Revoters stood patiently watching the big screens. Politicians who'd once have been unlikely bedfellows attempted to tell the crowd what they wanted to hear, with varying degrees of success, for slightly too long. And slowly the People slipped away to the pub, the coffee shop, the tube - stickers still proudly sported - having at least Voted with their feet.
Anyone else go?
posted 09:00 :
Spaghetti Jn 2012
11A bus 2015
Jewellery Quarter 2015
Soho House 2016
Coffin Works 2018
Sutton Coldfield 2018
The diamond geezer
Tour of the West Midlands
Galton Bridge 2012
West Bromwich 2016
posted 08:00 :
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.
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