diamond geezer

 Wednesday, February 21, 2018

ENGLISH HERITAGE: Kenilworth Castle
Location: Castle Green, Kenilworth, Warwickshire CV8 1NG [map]
Open: daily from 10am (reduced opening Nov-Mar)
Admission: £10.70
Website: english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/kenilworth-castle
Four word summary: partially-intact historical hub
Time to allow: a couple of hours

Some castles still stand in their entirety. Kenilworth isn't one of those. Some castles are romantic ruins and little more. Kenilworth isn't one of those either. It does have plenty of knocked-down bits, but crucially also several surviving walls and bits of towers, which is great because nothing beats a genuine medieval spiral staircase.

Kenilworth's a Norman castle enlarged by King John, enlarged further by John of Gaunt, and generally poshed-up by the would-be husband of Queen Elizabeth I. It'll have cropped up in your history books more than once at school. But 500 years of importance came to an end when the Roundheads slighted it, and these days the worst altercations it sees involve pint-size knights on a half-term rampage.

The castle's on the edge of town, a good twenty minutes walk from the station, and ten from the Bus Focal Point. The most interesting way to get there on foot is across the Abbey Fields, where a few remains of a 12th century abbey survive (and the town council have plonked an ugly indoor swimming pool). It's also worth taking a look at the old part of Kenilworth on the hill beyond, which is a lot quainter than the main street.

Entrance to the castle is across the Tiltyard, which would have provided passage above the Mere when all the adjacent fields were flooded for extra defence. After that you're into the main grassy courtyard, which is massive, with the main ruins up the slope to the left, and more resilient buildings to the right. The Tudor Stables are one of these, and contain an exhibition and the cafe. The Gatehouse is another, and also has an exhibition (with a more Elizabethan focus), plus your first spiral staircase to boot.

The red sandstone Keep is massive, but is now a shell, and may have pigeons roosting on the upper levels. Step out front and there's an excellent view across the Elizabethan Gardens, or at least there is in summer. I looked at the gorgeous sunny photo on the take-round map, and tried to match that to the twiggy beds and wrapped-up fountain in front of me, but the geometry (and the bejewelled aviary) were impressive all the same.

Behind the Great Hall, steps lead up the curtain wall, then up again. Here are the proper spiral staircases, tight and narrow and very much the original stone. As I climbed the slippery steps, my eyes getting used to the dark and trying not to put my hand down onto anything a bird had left, London's over-protective Hold The Handrail announcements seemed a million miles away. But the view from the very highest rampart was splendid, both across the Warwickshire countryside and looking inwards over the courtyard below.

The other great bit to climb, using more 21st century steps, is the tower added to impress Queen Elizabeth I. In 1575 she spent three weeks here on one of her royal progresses, as part of Sir Robert Dudley's plan to properly impress her. He threw banquets and dances and massed spectacles, and still the Queen wouldn't accept his hand in marriage, and heaven knows how English history would have been different if he'd been successful. But oh to able to stand in mid-air amid her private chambers, and to imagine what the full £1700 extravaganza might have looked like.

Kenilworth has a bit of something for everyone - deep history if you delve into the audio guide, plenty of nooks for the inquisitive to explore, ample running-around space for livelier kids, and gluten-free rolls with your soup. What there isn't are dungeon experiences, interactive towers and Costa coffee, but Warwick's only a four quid bus ride away for anyone so-minded.

Hello Men Who Like Railways. This is Kenilworth station. It will be Britain's 2564th railway station. But it is not open yet.

It closed the week before Winston Churchill died. It was supposed to reopen in December 2016. Then the date was pushed back to August 2017. Then the date was pushed back to December 2017. Then the date was pushed back to 18th February 2018. Then they said there'd be no trains on Sundays. This pushed the date back to 19th February. But it is not open yet.

The car park is sealed off. The bus shelter is empty. The bench is empty. A white Transit van is parked in the taxi rank. Two parking spaces are barriered off. Men in helmets are looking over the barriers. A JCB digger is punching the tarmac. Men with clip boards are walking around. An electrician's van is parked close by. The station is not open yet.

The footbridge over the station is open. You can go up and look down. The railway only has one track. The station only has one platform. It also has seats. The station building looks ready. The automatic doors are operational. Another new footbridge has been built across the track. It has lifts. The electronic displays are operational. But there are no passenger trains yet.

The station might open on 26th February. Or it might not be ready until 5th March. Or it might not even be ready then. Nobody is saying what the problem is. Nobody has admitted what the problem has been. There will be trains at Kenilworth station eventually. But it is not open yet.

 Tuesday, February 20, 2018


Leamington, just east of Warwick, was a tiny town until its local doctor started pushing the local mineral waters as a recuperative cure. It grew rapidly from the 1820s, with a new residential quarter of fine Regency architecture attracting the well-to-do and fashionable. I see it very much as the Harrogate of the Midlands.
[10 photos]

Leamington's game-changer was the Royal Pump Rooms, a pillared classical structure beside the River Leam, opened in 1814 for bathing and the taking of the waters. When spa-going fell out of fashion, a swimming pool and Turkish baths were added, which kept the place going until the 1980s. The local council then took over, repurposing the interior as the town's main library, plus museum and art gallery, cafe and Tourist Information Centre. I'm told the museum is fascinating. The museum is closed on Mondays. A drinking fountain outside allows passers-by to sample the waters, although I didn't see any passers-by ducking down for a salty gulp.

A string of gardens were laid out beside the river for patients to "take the air", with the local population originally only allowed access first thing in the morning. Jephson Gardens are still immaculately maintained, with pristine shrubbery, 72 different types of tree and, currently, carpets of crocuses and snowdrops. If you fancy a drink, the aviary has been repurposed as a cafe. If you want to know the time, the clocktower still bongs out the quarter hours. The most recent intrusion is a giant glasshouse for the display of subtropical plants, paid for with lottery cash, with a big wedding-friendly reception room tucked on at the back. Not only is it free, but also warm, and also open on a Monday.

Royal Leamington Spa has by far the best shops in the area, always has, focused on a grid of streets to the north of the river. The main drag is simply called Parade, a grand thoroughfare rising from the Pump Rooms towards Christchurch Gardens, with a definite (but slightly modified) Regency vibe. Look carefully and a shopping mall is hidden behind the facade, with backstreets of independent boutiques tucked in beyond. At the foot of the hill is the Regent Hotel, where Queen Victoria once stayed as a child, for which ridiculously flimsy reason the town was allowed to add the title 'Royal' to its name. I doubt we'll see the current queen here any time soon, however, as it's now a Travelodge, with the downstairs converted into a Wagamama.

So middle class is RLS that the first modern lawn tennis club was established here, and the bowling greens in Victoria Park are used for tournaments at international level. It's no coincidence that much of Keeping Up Appearances was filmed around here, whenever a town centre scene was required (although the Bucket residence was actually located in a suburb of Coventry). Hyacinths and Richards can still be seen in the streets, but also Onslows and Daisys, and a substantial Eastern European population has moved in since. Be sure to walk beyond the 19th century centre to see the real town, as well as enjoying its bourgeois heart.

Gadabout: WARWICK

Warwick is the county town of Warwickshire, obviously, and can be found about 10 miles south of Coventry. It's an old town with a castle at its heart, hence on the pretty side, and there's plenty to see and do.

The big attraction is Warwick Castle, which covers a lot of land beside the River Avon, but is surprisingly hard to see from the town itself. For a 950-year-old it's in very good shape, and is one of Britain's most-visited castles, but a Monday in half term is probably not the best time to join the throng. Also, it's operated by the same company who run Madame Tussauds and Chessington World of Adventures, so it's all a bit "interactive immersive experience", so I wasn't keen. I did poke my nose in, only to be greeted by a sign saying Be Ready For An Exciting Day! Proud To Serve Costa, so I gave it a miss.

Warwick has a lot of 17th century buildings because a fire in 1694 wiped out most of the medieval ones. The 17th century Market Hall in Market Place is now the town's museum. It's free, but unfortunately it's closed on Mondays. St John's House at the other end of the town centre is another museum, and is open daily... except in the winter, when it closes on Mondays. An impressive medieval survivor is the Lord Leycester Hospital (n.b. not, and has never been, a hospital), whose timbered frontage abuts a dip on the High Street. It's open six days a week, the one off-day being a Monday, so I didn't go there either.

Warwick racecourse nudges up against the western edge of the town centre, at the bottom of a hill, with footpaths across the middle when no racing's scheduled. The next racing is scheduled for February 23rd, which is not a Monday. Overlooking the circuit is Hill Close Gardens, an extensive enclave of hedged terraced beds used by Victorians allotmenters with no outdoor planting space of their own. I'm sure they're gorgeous later in the year, but I wasn't tempted to pay £4.50 to see the snowdrops and a lot of bare earth. Also, although I made it down to the bottom of Mill Street round the back of the castle, the gardens there don't reopen until Easter.

The Court House was open (even if the Warwickshire Yeomanry Museum on its upper floor wasn't). As well as a small display on the building's history, it doubles up as Warwick's Tourist Information Office, where the two ladies on duty were busy doing all the tasks they do to pass the time on quiet winter Mondays. The Warwick Visitor Guide leaflet is jolly useful. Another attraction which was actually open was St Mary's church, the town's tallest building, where if you ask nicely a lady will unlock the door to the tower and let you climb up to the roof. I didn't do that, but I did see a young couple being let in.

I had a nice wander round Warwick instead, through Georgian streets and past half-timbered leftovers. I found a cul-de-sac call Bread & Meat Close, and a pub called the Tilted Wig. I liked the eclectic mix of shops down Smith Street, in the unburned part of town, beyond the imposing Eastgate. I dodged the Mini Golf and Children's Play Area in St Nicholas Park to stroll beside the Avon. And I carried on, following the Riverside Walk, then switching to the towpath of the Grand Union Canal by the aqueduct, because it was only two miles to Royal Leamington Spa...

 Monday, February 19, 2018

It's Monday today.
People don't tend to like Mondays.
There seem to be too many Mondays.
But how many Mondays are there?

i) There's a Monday every seven days

I sometimes think the most powerful person in the history of the world is whoever it was decided there should be a holy day every seven days. They picked one particular day to be the very first day of the very first week, and that seven-day cycle has repeated ever since. Western civilisation operates to a specific weekly rhythm purely because that age-old historical figure started their sequence when they did. If you had a nice day off yesterday, but woke up this morning grumpy at having to go back to work, it's their fault.

ii) There have been a lot of Mondays

If we assume that the seven day week dates back to the ancient Babylonians, around 2350 BC, then there have been over 200000 Mondays altogether.

iii) The Romans were first to call them 'Moon' days

The Romans decided to name the days of the week after heavenly bodies, initially informally, around the first century AD. One such day was diēs Sōlis, the day of the Sun, followed by diēs Lūnae, the day of the Moon. There have been just under 100000 'Moon' days since this reckoning began. The emperor Constantine made the seven-day week official in AD 321, since when there have been approximately 88500 Moon days.

iv) 'Monday' is a more recent name

Around the turn of the first millennium, the Old English word for the "moon's day" was mōnandæg, which evolved to become monedæi. The final transition to Monday was complete sometime before 1200, which means there have been around 44000 Mondays since.

v) There aren't that many Mondays

The 20th century contained only 5217 Mondays. It was a cunning century, starting on a Tuesday and ending on a Sunday, so managed to avoid having 5218. But the 21st century will have 5218 Mondays (assuming we survive to the end).

vi) I've been alive for 2762 Mondays

I too was cunning, and started my life on a Tuesday to avoid an extra Monday. But there have been 2762 of the blighters in my life so far, that's since 1965. I reached 1000 Mondays in 1984 (at the age of 19) and 2000 Mondays in 2003 (at the age of 38). You probably didn't reach those totals in the same year, but you will have reached them at the same age.

vii) The average lifetime contains around 4000 Mondays

That's not many, is it? That almost sounds countable. What a depressing thought, that you'll only see 4000 of the the most depressing day of the week. But to look at things differently, you'll also see 4000 Saturdays and 4000 Sundays, on average, which is twice as many.

viii) I have 1500 Mondays to go

That's according to the government's latest life tables, which predict how many years the average man or woman still has to live, based on their current age. If you're 26 and averagely female you have 3000 Mondays left. If you're 42 and averagely male you have 2000 Mondays left. If you're 67 and female the number of Mondays you have left, on average, is still a four-digit number. I feel I don't want to dig any further into this.

ix) Most years contain 52 Mondays

But not all of them. This year started on a Monday, and ends on a Monday, so manages to squeeze in 53. You'd expect this to happen once every seven years, but leap years can also have 53 Mondays if they start on a Sunday, so that's one extra every 28 years. Overall, 18% of years have 53 Mondays (boo!) and 82% have 52 (hurrah!).

x) Not all Mondays are bad

Some Mondays are bank holidays, and most people enjoy Bank Holiday Mondays a lot more than an ordinary Monday. In the UK there are always at least four Bank Holiday Mondays a year - Easter Monday, two in May and one in August - and sometimes as many as six. The first Monday in January is a bank holiday three years out of seven, thanks to the way we delay the public holiday if New Year falls at a weekend. Plus there's a Bank Holiday Monday at Christmas four years out of seven, so long as 25th, 26th, 27th or 28th December falls on a Monday. This is sounding better already.

xi) Last year there were six Bank Holiday Mondays

2017 was great for Monday-haters, with the Christmas and New Year holidays both swallowing up a Monday. That left only 46 'working' Mondays, which is the least number possible. This happens in 21% of years, and will happen again in 2022 and 2023. However in 2018 New Year's Day hit Monday but Christmas won't, which makes 48 'working' Mondays, which is the greatest number possible. It's the same again next year, I'm afraid, indeed we get 48 'working' Mondays 43% of the time.

xii) The next Bank Holiday Monday isn't too far off

We last had a Bank Holiday Monday seven weeks ago on New Year's Day, and we have another in six weeks time, on Easter Monday. Hang on in there, spring is coming. The shortest possible gap between Bank Holiday Mondays is one week, as often happens between Christmas and New Year, and very occasionally happens between Easter Monday and the May Day holiday (as in 2011).

xiii) Sometimes the next Bank Holiday Monday is a long way off

The longest possible gap between Bank Holiday Mondays is 34 weeks, between the August Bank Holiday and Easter Monday, and happens when Christmas falls on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday and Easter is very late. This will next happen in six years time, between 26th August 2024 and 21st April 2025, so brace yourself. There will be four other bank holidays in that gap, of course, they just won't be on Mondays, so you may well have to go to work.

xiv) You don't always have to go to work on a Monday

As well as skipping work on Bank Holiday Mondays, your annual leave entitlement allows you to take other Mondays off. Take four weeks leave and that's another four Mondays gone, cutting the number of 'working' Mondays to 43 a year, on average. Use your leave entitlement creatively and you could take more Mondays off than any other day of the week, maybe even 28 Mondays off if you were feeling perverse, reducing the number to less than 20. Way to go!

xv) When you were a child, Mondays weren't so bad

Before you started school, you probably had no concept of Mondays being the start of a working week. That's at least 200 Mondays you got through in your early years with no ill effects. Academic years are relatively short, too. A typical three-term year probably only includes 36-or-so Mondays, and fewer than that if your school arranged staff training days for Mondays, and fewer than that if you were educated privately. Throw in the long breaks that universities enjoy, and you may have endured only 600 'working' Mondays by the age of 20.

xvi) After you retire, Mondays are just another day

Once going to work becomes a thing of the past, Mondays lose their downbeat image. Sometimes they're better than weekends because all the working people have disappeared and you can pootle round the shops in peace. Your retirement date may be a long way off, and getting further away rather than closer, but there should come a time when Mondays aren't so blue. Assuming a retirement age of 67, followed by an average lifespan, that's 1000 post-retirement Mondays which'll be no worse than any other day of the week.

xvii) The average lifetime contains around 2600 'working' Mondays

I've calculated this as follows. First, 600 'working' Mondays up to the age of 20 (see above). Then 43 'working' Mondays every year until the age of 67 (see above). And then no 'working' Mondays at all after that (see above), making a total of about 2600. You might be thinking "ah, but I expect to work past the age of 67", which'd nudge the number up. But equally I haven't included any sick days in my calculations (and sick days are usually Mondays), which'd nudge the total down. And 2600 Mondays out of a lifetime's total of 4000, well, that's only two-thirds of them. Perhaps Monday mornings aren't sounding quite so terrible after all.

xviii) Yes, I know, you're not average

I can't make these figures be all about you, sorry. You might work part-time, second half of the week only. You might be long-term disabled, and every day is a struggle. You might be out of work, and the idea of a 'working' Monday might sound like bliss. You might do shift work, or zero-hours contracting, with an ever-changing pattern of employment which bears no relation whatsoever to anything I've been describing above. Monday gloom is meaningless when your life doesn't fit the age-old seven-day pattern.

xix) If we didn't have Mondays, then Tuesdays would be just as bad

The working week has to start somewhere. It starts today, thanks to some anonymous Babylonian who fired the starting pistol a multiple of seven days ago.

xx) There'll be another Monday along in a week's time

 Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Emirates Water Line experience

Take to the water on London's only vehicle ferry and enjoy a truly unique experience in east London.

The Emirates Water Line crosses the River Thames between Woolwich and North Woolwich.

Ferries depart every 5-10 minutes and voyages are approximately four minutes each way.

Take to the water

The Emirates Water Line created a new link across the Thames when it joined the Capital's transport network in 1889. Cruising low over the river between the Greenwich Peninsula and the Royal Docks, it has also become a destination its own right.

Passengers are treated to a captain's eye view of the Tate & Lyle refinery, Royal Victoria Gardens, the Waterfront Leisure Centre and the Royal Arsenal Riverside Residential Cluster.

With a journey time of less than 5 minutes, the ferry provides easy access between London City Airport and the Royal Artillery Barracks, and between local communities on both sides of the river. A single voyage is approximately 50% quicker than dawdling across the river on the Greenwich cable car.

The terminals are close to existing bus connections, and within walking distance of National Rail and Docklands Light Railway services, although not particularly conveniently so. The service is also accessible to cyclists, car drivers and wheelchair users, and is open seven days a week.

The Emirates Maritime Experience

London's most exciting public attraction, the Emirates Maritime Experience, is the first of its kind globally. Using full-size models, interactive deckhands and what was state-of-the-art technology in 1963, this immersive experience has something for people of all ages.

Your transpontine journey begins as soon as you step onto the pier curving out from the shoreline above the glittering waters of the Thames. Pause a while in the authentic Sixties concrete shelter, perhaps taking a seat on the plastic bench, or transcribing some of the mobile numbers scratched into the wall by escorts offering a good time.

When the ferry is ready for embarkation, staff in jaunty uniforms will beckon you towards the gangways. Please allow incoming foot passengers, elated after their crossing, to squeeze by before moving forward. The upper decks are not for you, so take the bespoke staircase into the very heart of the ship. Be sure to hold the handrail and maintain concentration at all times as you descend.

The interior of the craft has been laid out as a dimly-lit classical labyrinth. Explore the bleak gangways to locate the wooden bench of your choice at the stern, or follow the central corridor past the bus maps and the safety messages to discover a matching area at the bow. Passengers should be aware that only a tiny number of seats actually have a view out across the river, so are advised to arrive early.

Regrettably the Smoking and No Smoking saloons are closed until further notice, and their sliding doors are firmly locked. Nevertheless passengers are encouraged to imagine the nicotine fug which would have existed below decks fifty years ago (or, for an extra frisson, that they are trapped in third class steerage on the HMS Titanic). A full range of historical digital simulations is available on the Emirates Water Line app.

On-board audio tour

To add context to the breathtaking views on your voyage we've included a new on-board tour as part of the Maritime Experience. The audio complements the journey by replaying a series of fascinating safety messages about what to do in the event of mid-river disaster. It highlights a selection of our most famous London distress signals, explains the vibrant locations of the muster points, and gives a flavour of the inherent dangers in crossing the river in a heritage craft.


Travel on the Emirates Water Line is free, but those wishing to show their appreciation should throw coins and loose currency into a bucket on disembarkation. Oyster and contactless users enjoy a 26% discount. A loyalty scheme is available for foot passengers making five return journeys in one week.

A private cabin can be hired (subject to availability) for a non-stop trip that can accommodate several passengers. To take advantage of this extra special offer, simply drive your car onto the ferry and enjoy panoramic views from the upper deck, which foot passengers stowed in the hold can only dream of.

Operating hours

Monday to Friday: From 06:10-20:00 (two-boat service)
Saturday and public holidays:From 06:10-20:00 (one-boat service)
Sunday: From 11:30-19:30 (one-boat service)

Although there are no immediate plans to start operating 24 hour services, the introduction of the Night Water Line is being considered for when the current operating contract expires in 2020.

Tides and weather

The Emirates Water Line is not usually affected by tidal conditions, but we sometimes need to suspend the service when there is an extremely high tide. We suspend the service when there is dense fog in the area. We do not stop for high winds or the risk of lightning, unlike certain other less reliable river crossings in the vicinity.

Emirates Water Line upgrade

The Emirates Water Line will be closing temporarily for two months at the end of 2018 to allow a new high-tech mooring system to be installed on each pier. Two new boats will then be brought into service, which will have more space for passengers and vehicles, a separate space for cyclists and be more fuel efficient, but have none of the gloomy down-at-heel character of the current boats, so best get down here before October.

Enjoy a stunning night voyage experience on the Emirates Water Line

Whether you're having a night out with friends or indulging in a romantic evening sunset, the Emirates Water Line is a must do experience. Discover a unique perspective of London's captivating riverscape, including reflections of burnt-out North Woolwich Pier and the awe-inspiring streetlights of Thamesmead. There is no additional charge for night voyages - so what better way to see the city come alive after dark from the lowest observation point on the River Thames?

Why not enjoy a round trip with extra time for sightseeing?

• Attractions close to Emirates Woolwich North Terminal include a closed museum, the Princess nailbar and the Royal Standard gentlemen's entertainment venue. Maybe grab an omelette in Roz's cafe, nip into Ladbrokes for a four-way accumulator or borrow a book from North Woolwich library.
• Attractions close to Emirates Woolwich South Terminal include the Waterfront leisure pool, a multi-suite Travelodge and the less prosperous end of Woolwich's main shopping street. Maybe transform yourself at Cheri's Hair Salon, book an MOT at Furlongs or take your pick from a dozen fried chicken outlets.

Find more things to do in the local area on the Emirates Water Line website.

See also: The Emirates Air Line
See also: The Emirates Earth Line

 Saturday, February 17, 2018

Location: Court Yard, Eltham SE9 5QE [map]
Open: daily from 10am (reduced opening Oct-Mar)
Admission: £14.40
Website: www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/eltham-palace-and-gardens
Four word summary: amazing medieval/Thirties hybrid
Time to allow: half a day

To say Eltham Palace is unexpected would be an understatement. You don't expect to find a royal palace in the Greenwich suburbs. You don't expect to have to cross a moat to reach it. You don't expect the entrance hall to be a glorious Art Deco triumph. You don't expect to walk through what feels like a 1930s hotel. And you definitely don't expect to exit an upstairs corridor into a medieval minstrels gallery... although sorry, you will expect all of that now I've told you.

That the palace exists is down to a succession of medieval monarchs, including Edward IV who gave orders for the Great Hall to be built, making this a favoured spot for royal stopovers. Henry VIII spent part of his childhood here, no less. That the house is stunning is down to two wealthy socialites, Virginia and Stephen Courtauld, who rescued the derelict site and tacked their own idiosyncratic mansion on the side. Alas they only moved in in 1936, leaving just four summers to enjoy their hideaway before the first WW2 bombs fell, and by 1944 they'd sold up and moved on.

English Heritage have owned the place since 1995, and set about opening it up to the public. That used to mean entering via the servants' corridor and slipping on plastic bootees to protect the floors, but the current revamped offering dispenses with footwear protection and invites you straight into the entrance hall. For some visitors, this is their favourite room in London.

Approximately triangular in shape, the walls are curved to give the illusion of something more circular. Alluring Scandi chairs and sofas curl around a central rug (which visitors absolutely must not step upon, embarrassing parents whose excitable offspring are incapable of following a simple instruction). Light floods in through a dome embedded with loops of glass tiles, hovering above like a spotty flying saucer. The walls are panelled blackbean veneer, illustrated with maritime European landscapes. Various stairwells, rooms and corridors lead off in all directions, this hall being the central 'hinge' where the two wings of the building join. And hidden at the rear are a tiny room for flower arranging, and an alcove with a coin-op telephone with those newfangled A and B buttons. The whole thing screams lush Swedish design (or "you must run around on the carpet", depending on your age).

The tour starts upstairs with an introductory film, in period style rather than dryly factual, and then you're let loose with your audio-visual gizmo. The gizmo's good, assuming you don't get your button-pressing in a twist, and allows the house to be disfigured by a minimum of information boards. You may, however, be sick of hearing about the lemur by the end of the tour - the Courtaulds had one as a pet, and it lived in a cage on an upper landing accessed via a bamboo ladder.

Stephen and Ginie had separate bedrooms linked by a 'secret' door. Ginie's is the more glamorous, not least the decadent bathroom with a marble tub and gold leaf tiles. This is where visiting out of season or on a weekday pays off - I had her lustrous splashbacks to myself, whereas at the weekend the smaller rooms can get a bit shuffly. That's also the case downstairs, particularly in Stephen's library and the tiny map room at the back of the boudoir, which is also the place to go if you've ever wanted to see a leather map of the Eltham area with a functional clock embedded in the top right hand corner.

The Great Hall appears with a jolt, like walking from a Poirot whodunnit into some codpiece melodrama. In truth the stained glass and ornate screens are modern additions, but most of the oak hammerbeam roof would have been up there when English kings enjoyed their Christmas dinners underneath. It also made a magnificent setting for pre-war entertaining - a swirl of dancing and cocktails - and is now where the half term entertainer whips out his Sainsbury's bag of tricks to keep your littl'uns occupied.

The other dazzler is the dining room, with a shimmering aluminium ceiling and doors illustrated with zoo animals and Egyptian patterns. But the front-of-house magic vanishes somewhat after you head out down the servants' corridor and stairs into the basement, following the pipes to rooms used for wartime shelter and the playing of billiards. The Courtaulds put their all into the local war effort, but eventually the bombing became too much and they abandoned Eltham for Rhodesia instead.

Which leaves the gardens, which are also excellent, if not at their best in February. A walk around both sides of the moat will cover it, the far flank currently requiring decent shoes, but for this you get to walk underneath one of the (if not the) oldest functional medieval bridges in London. The rock garden is arrayed to look resplendent from upstairs, while the rose garden is supposed to resemble an outdoor room. Some of the farthest reaches are now a car park, plus the welcome centre and gift shop where non-members need to buy their tickets. The earlier in the day you can visit the better, I'd say, if you want to swan around like royalty rather than one of the hoi polloi.

» Twelve photos of Eltham Palace

 Friday, February 16, 2018

In 1890 John Bodger opened a drapers shop in Ilford. Bodgers soon grew to become the largest department store in town. At the end of the month it closes forever.

A massive closing down sale is underway, with bargains on all floors. It's been underway for months, pretty much since the owners announced the closure last summer. But there are still many bargains to be had, across three floors, and Ilford's shoppers are all over the shop.

The ground floor has the soft furnishings, as befits a former drapery. Bed linen is the big leftover, with boxes and boxes of fitted sheets and pillowcases piled up at up to 70% off. Redbridge's homeowners can be found rifling through packs of striped, designer and plain, and queueing up at the tills with classic velvet top curtains.

The first floor is for ladieswear, fine fragrances and crates of purple Christmas baubles at 5p each. Around the walls are brand names long forgotten everywhere else in town, including Precis, Anna Rose and Playtex, but the shoppers checking the hangers remember them well. Only certain sizes of floral blouse remain.

An escalator rumbles up to the second floor, but only for those capable of walking back down. A whole wall of better-than-half-price suitcases faces the crowds, still dearer than you'd get on the market, but here you're paying for quality. Alongside are children's toys reduced in price by red stickers on red stickers on red stickers, and a much diminished china selection.

In 'Small Electrical', where generations once fitted out their kitchens, Elgento toasters are remarkably plentiful. Nobody from the Deliveroo generation wants a pressure cooker, even at 70% off, but nobody from the Deliveroo generation is here. Shame, they'd probably clear that stack of Nutribullets by the stairs.

Nearer the rear of the store a tiny haberdashery lingers, with coloured threads at knockdown prices and a selection of full colour knitting patterns. As for the glassware department, that's closed and the area is zoned off for the storage of shop display units, plus a cluster of nude mannequins with sticky tape across their chests.

Right at the back is Cafe Moda, the sit down cafeteria, where Ilford's pensioners still queue for The Perfect One Pot Meal With Crusty Bread. Nostalgic diners should pick up a tray and run some crockery along the front of the counter, mulling over whether to try the daily chef's special or a jacket potato, while they still can.

It was Westfield did the place in, the owners say. Ilford's commercial pull has ebbed away, and the loyalty of the store's hardiest shoppers hasn't been enough to keep finances afloat. The fact that Bodgers is located on prime land opposite a future Crossrail station might have coloured their thinking too.

The Mayor unveiled a plaque by the main entrance in 2015 to celebrate 125 years of trading. If only the tills had been as busy then as they are now, management must wish, with just two weeks of the closing down sale to go. As fitted sheets and ladieswear continue to fly, this is an old fashioned retail experience in its death throes. East London will not see its like again.

7000000: Earlier this week, around eleven o'clock on Wednesday evening, diamond geezer received its seven millionth visitor. More accurately it was the seven millionth time that a slightly ropey stats package had registered a unique visit, which isn't quite the same thing, but still very much worth celebrating. Seven million visits is an impressive total - the equivalent of everyone in Hong Kong reading my blog once. But viewed another way it's not much - on average one rush hour tube train of readers a day, which is barely 0.01% of the population of London. What I do know is that my audience is coming faster. The first million took just over five years, the last million's taken fourteen months.

0Sept 2002 
      1000000    April 2008    5½ years
2000000Jan 20112¾ years
3000000Oct 20121¾ years
4000000Apr 20141½ years
5000000Aug 20151⅓ years
6000000Dec 20161¼ years
7000000Feb 20181⅙ years

What I like to do, every time one of these millionaire milestones rolls by, is to look back and analyse which sites my readers arrive from. In particular I like to draw up a league table of top linking blogs, ordered by volume of visitors clicking here from there. This used to be important, back in the era when blogs thrived solely because other blogs linked to them, but times change. Blogs no longer have the traction they enjoyed a decade ago, and the ability to drive traffic has wholly shifted, away from those who generate their own content towards those who merely digest the content of others.

So my regular linking league table again includes a range of websites broader than mere blogs, in particular three social media services that didn't exist when I started out, and which now dominate beyond expectation. My apologies if they've shoved your website down the table since my last league table in December 2016. I've also reduced the table from a top 20 to a top 10, sorry, because pretty much nothing is happening in the teens any more.
1) Twitter (↑2)
2) Girl with a one track mind    
3) Reddit
4) Facebook (↑1)
5) Londonist
  6) Random acts of reality
  7) Arseblog
  8) London Reconnections
  9) Scaryduck
10) Blue Witch (↑1)
It says something for the power of the blogosphere in 2006 that Girl With A One Track Mind has only just been dislodged from the summit. Now Twitter takes the crown, the extra nudge being because I started up @diamondgzrblog (which tweets each new blog post), and not because lots of other people are linking. Reddit hasn't been quite so excitable of late, so slips back, while Facebook creeps up into fourth place (I'm not even on Facebook, so don't expect me to explain why).

Londonist is no longer a blog, but still sometimes links here (thanks for yesterday's), and I always get a little ripple every time they retweet that post on factual misconceptions from 2011. Gunner-tastic Arseblog and über-transport site London Reconnections once had blogrolls which brought visitors here, but no longer do, and award-winning Scaryduck barely posts any more (you should be following Alistair on Twitter instead). Which leaves Blue Witch, currently sunning herself in South Africa, nudging back into the list because she still blogs and the previous Number 10 no longer exists.

Yes, some of us carry on writing stuff because we want to, even if it's harder to be heard above the social media buzz than ever before. And you lot keep reading, generally without needing a nudge from elsewhere, which is particularly nice. So I don't mind where my seven million came from, I'm just well chuffed that you still bother turning up. Thanks to all of you, and here's to millions more...

 Thursday, February 15, 2018

Earlier this month the BBC ended its weather forecasting contract with the Met Office and changed over to a new provider - commercial operators Meteo Group. People hate change, and not every aspect of the switchover has been welcomed. But what interested me most were these three 'improvements'...
More locations: The BBC has added thousands of new locations, including many international, to our database
New 14-day forecast: Users can view 14 days of hourly forecast data for UK locations and major international cities
New forecast features: Added data fields like ‘chance of rain’ and ‘feels like’ temperature
So I thought I'd give the new 14-day forecast a proper test drive.

I started 14 days ago, on 1st February.
Every day since then I've checked the online weather forecast for 14th February, and made a note of what was predicted.

I've been using the weather forecast for Bow (which has different figures to Stepney, Poplar, Stratford and the generic London page). I have a lot more data than I'll be showing you here. And I can confirm that the concept of a 14-day forecast is definitely suspect.

It turns out that 14th February was an excellent day to have picked. Yesterday started off sunny and dry. In the middle of the day a band of rain arrived, lingered all afternoon and became heavier in the evening. The day ended cloudy and wet. With all sorts of weather to predict, and a very specific arrival time for the band of rain, there was plenty for the new forecast to get right.

First of all, the overall summary. The summary for the actual weather yesterday was "light rain and breezy", and the temperature for most of the day was 6 or 7 degrees.

Here's what the BBC Weather website predicted for yesterday's weather on each of the preceding days.
  1st Feb: Light rain and breezy (3-8°C)
  2nd Feb: Light rain showers and breezy (3-8°C)
  3rd Feb: Sunny intervals and breezy (4-9°C)
  4th Feb: Light rain showers and breezy (4-9°C)
  5th Feb: Light rain and breezy (4-9°C)
  6th Feb: Light rain and breezy (5-10°C)
  7th Feb: Light rain and breezy (5-9°C)
  8th Feb: Light rain and breezy (5-10°C)
  9th Feb: Light rain and breezy (5-9°C)
10th Feb: Light rain and breezy (7-10°C)
11th Feb: Light rain and breezy (7-9°C)
12th Feb: Light rain and breezy (7-8°C)
13th Feb: Light rain and breezy (6-7°C)
14th Feb: Light rain and breezy (6-7°C)
So that's pretty good. The forecast was right on 1st February, then wrongly optimistic on 3rd February (the only day when a 'sunny' symbol was displayed). But since 5th February the text summary for 14th February has been correct, which may be a coincidence, or is damned good going. The temperatures weren't quite so well targeted, and only in the last few days did the range close in on "cold, and not varying much". But overall, if you were planning an outdoor event, thumbs up.

But the most revolutionary feature is 14-day hourly forecasts, so let's dig into how they performed.

What these tabular graphics should have shown for 14th February was a dry morning and a wet afternoon, with the first rain arriving around noon. Here's what they actually predicted on the previous 13 days.
  1st Feb: sunny intervals, then light rain from 2pm
  2nd Feb: sunny intervals, with showers around 2pm
  3rd Feb: sunny intervals all day
  4th Feb: sunny intervals, with a shower at 1pm
  5th Feb: light rain all day
  6th Feb: light rain all day
  7th Feb: light rain all day
  8th Feb: sunny intervals, then showers from 1pm
  9th Feb: light rain all day
10th Feb: light rain all day
11th Feb: cloudy, then light rain from 2pm
12th Feb: clouding over, then light rain from 2pm
13th Feb: clouding over, then light rain from 2pm
14th Feb: clouding over, then light rain from 12 noon
And that's less good. The general shape of yesterday's weather only became clear on 11th February, having been too pessimistic for the previous six days, and was way off on 3rd February. That 1st February forecast still looks good, but with so many other different predictions floating around, who was to know at the time?

What the forecast never got right was that the rain would arrive at noon. Indeed even at 10am yesterday morning the BBC website was still confidently predicting the first drops would fall at 2pm. If the timing of a band of rain is that hard to predict even two hours ahead, why is anyone bothering a fortnight earlier?

And this is where another innovation, the ‘chance of rain’, is supposed to help. Meteo Group's computers churn away to produce a probability estimate of rain at a particular point in the future, and these are also displayed on the BBC website up to 14 days in advance.
0% = definitely dry
100% = definitely wet
20% = "out of 100 situations with similar weather, it should rain on 20 of those, and not rain on 80" (so, probably dry)
Here's the ‘chance of rain’ for noon on February 14th, as predicted over the previous fortnight.
  1st Feb: 13%
  2nd Feb: 12%
  3rd Feb: 13%
  4th Feb: 14%
  5th Feb: 30%
  6th Feb: 32%
  7th Feb: 27%
  8th Feb: 18%
  9th Feb: 14%
10th Feb: 28%
11th Feb: 11%
12th Feb: 9%
13th Feb: 4%
14th Feb: rain arriving
Being probabilities, it's never possible to say these were definitely wrong. But they're certainly not very good probabilities, with every single prediction suggesting it'd probably be dry at noon, whereas it fact it was just starting to be wet. The really bad forecast is that for 13th Feb, the day before, with a wildly over-optimistic 4%.

What's particularly intriguing is how the percentage for "rainfall at noon" changed over Valentine's Day morning.
14th Feb (9am): 9%
14th Feb (10am): 14%
14th Feb (11am): 81%
14th Feb (noon): 96%
If you'd checked the weather forecast at 10am, you'd have assumed it probably wasn't going to rain at noon. But by 11am a massive recalculation had taken place, and now it very probably was.

BBC Weather's FAQ page says "As MeteoGroup forecasts take advantage of hourly updates, which include real-time information from radar, satellite, and nearby weather station observations, you may notice the probabilities changing in the short-term (next 2-3 hours)." And change they do, indeed I can see it all over yesterday afternoon's figures, with percentages suddenly shooting up above 50% a few hours before the rainfall they're supposed to be predicting.

Another thing I've noticed is that the BBC's former forecasters, the Met Office, appear to calculate these percentages very differently. Here's their rainfall forecast published at 11am yesterday morning, with Meteo Group's forecast lined up underneath.

For a start, the Met Office only give values to the nearest 10%, which seems much more sensible than Meteo Group's spurious accuracy. More importantly, Meteo Group's percentage hits 81% at noon before settling into 30-60% for the afternoon, whereas the Met Office sticks to 10% until 4pm, then shoots up to nigh-certain at 6pm. The weather symbols are wildly different too. Why do these two predictions vary so much?

What seems to be happening is that the two forecasters have different opinions on what counts as rain. Yesterday's rain was only spits and spots from noon until around 4pm, indeed you might not even have counted it as proper precipitation. Then more showery rain continued until 6pm, at which point a much heavier band of rain arrived and continued for most of the evening. Meteo Group counted all of this as "single raindrop", with no hint of how wet it was going to be. But the Met Office differentiates a lot more, with 'spits and spots' not registering at all, and more relentless rain meriting a "double raindrop". I'd far rather have seen the top forecast than the bottom forecast if I'd been heading outside.

It seems the rainfall symbols in the BBC's online weather forecast don't mean the same as they did before, and you're a lot more likely to see a single raindrop when previously you'd have seen two, or none at all. Meteo Group appear to want us to forget intensity and learn to use their percentages instead, but when those percentages are often wildly inaccurate until a few hours beforehand, and most of the population doesn't understand numerical probability anyway, that doesn't seem very likely.

As for hourly weather forecasts 14 days in advance, these appear to be little more than a gimmick. I'm basing this on a single day's analysis, of course, which might be considered scant evidence. But when the BBC website is predicting that the whole of the last week of February will be "sunny intervals (3-9°C)", perhaps take that with an enormous pinch of salt.

 Wednesday, February 14, 2018

London has seven streets named Valentine. I haven't been to Valentine Avenue in Bexley, Valentine Road in Harrow or Valentines Way in Romford. But I have been to the other four.

Valentine Place, Southwark SE1

Initially this brief narrow street doesn't look promising. It peels off from Blackfriars Road between office blocks, a few minutes south of Southwark station. The first office block has been named One Valentine Place, in that numerical way developers have of making somewhere sound much more important than it really is. As yet they've not been fully successful in letting Three Valentine Place, which goes to show. But look to the left of the bored security guard at the front desk, and a lush courtyard behind an iron gate drops hints that something else is going on.

What lies ahead is the Valentine Place conservation area, rapidly knocked up by Southwark council when it looked like the Maltina bakery building was about to be knocked down. Various former industrial buildings line the street, faced in attractive yellow brick, with a bollarded alley bearing off to add additional character. But on the southern side it's only a facade, and what now lies behind is a luxury development of apartments and duplexes focused around a communal garden. "The perfect location" trilled the brochure, hence the £¾m+ pricetag, but residents can walk to Waterloo station in five minutes so that's their commute nullified.

Valentine Row, Southwark SE1

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Valentine Row leads off from Valentine Place. At the end of the 18th century it led diagonally off the main road, but was later nudged back behind a new row of shops and so become an insignificant alley. When the bakery site was reimagined a few years ago the developers thought this would be the ideal spot for five mews houses, very much of the modern vernacular, and stuck each on the market for a fiver less than two million. Residents now enjoy three-storey luxury in spacious Sonos-wired rooms, and a tiny front garden scattered with gravel, although the view across the street is of the back of a car park, which I see the marketing entirely failed to mention.

Valentine Road, Homerton E9

For a very different street, head to Hackney, whose Valentine Road is a single thread of the dense Victorian neighbourhood between Homerton High Street and Victoria Park. Up one end is Well Street, home to the street market where Tesco started, and at the other end a pub once voted the Most Loved in London. Some of the houses are postwar flats, but the majority form uninterrupted flat-roofed terraces, with bay windows downstairs and tiled steps leading up the front door. This is a neighbourhood on the rise, but not yet gentrified beyond repair.

All the commercial life is at the western end, kicking off with a pizzeria with a smartly branded red neon sign. Time Out's readers are less likely to find Step N Toe Shoe Repairs, whose signage promises mundane stuff about heels and keys, but whose window is packed with handbags and leather goods. Valentine Road also has a carpet and wood flooring warehouse, called Carpet & Wood Flooring Warehouse, which helps keep the horizontal surfaces of E9 in trim. Oh, and the number 26 bus passes through, one-way only, picking up passengers from the street's very own Bus Stop M.

Valentines Road, Ilford IG1

The Victorian estate to the north of Ilford High Road, with streets named after Prime Ministers and outposts of empire, is more aspirational than the terraced grid to the south. Valentines Road is the last avenue before the park, about ten minutes from the shops, and far enough away to be ever so quiet. One end starts with a wiggle round what used to be the parish church, but which was knocked down in 1977 and is now flats. As an indication of how things change the former church hall has become the dominant building, and is now a thriving evangelical place of worship, as well as being home to the Redbridge Foodbank.

Because they're all joined together it's not immediately obvious that Valentines Road has large houses, but these are proper doctor's-surgery-sized, each with a central hallway and living rooms to either side. Some still have genteel names (for example Lakeside, The Elms or Watergate), while the remaining plaques are long scrubbed away. The width of the roadway gives a feeling of space, and the sequence of front gardens is never so pristine that you'd ever mistake this for Putney. One of the last buildings before the mini-roundabout is a care home, and then there's a footpath into the park, which obviously is called...

Valentines Park, Ilford

Valentines Park is huge, and the recreational centrepiece of the borough of Redbridge. It's what remains of the estate of a country house called Valentines, which helps explain the ornamental lake and walled garden at the northern end. A lot of the remainder is sports pitches and recreational space, but there's also a boating lake, a bandstand and two economically independent cafes. On a miserable day in February, I reckoned there were more people in the cafes than across the remaining 130 acres.

And Valentines Mansion still stands, a restored 17th century abode reopened to the public on Valentine's Day 2009. It's part museum, part artists' studios and part 'large building the council hope you'd like to hire', which perhaps helps explain why the second series of the Great British Bake Off was filmed on its lawns. Normally it only opens on Tuesdays and Sundays, but in school holidays they do Mondays and Wednesdays too, which is ideal if you fancied a Valentines visit today. Better here than any of the other streets I've been writing about, that's for sure.

 Tuesday, February 13, 2018

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 Monday, February 12, 2018

The least used station in... Gloucestershire
(Annual passenger usage: 230)

Thus far I've visited the least used stations in Berkshire, Hertfordshire, Greater London, Essex, Bedfordshire, Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Kent and Norfolk, each with fewer passengers than the station before. But Pilning is a real bottomscraper, Britain's third least used station... or at least it was until last year when it suddenly shot up to 20th.

Poor Pilning, the only station in Britain with only two trains a week. What's more they're both on Saturday. What's more, because National Rail demolished the footbridge to platform 2 at the end of 2016, both trains run in the same direction. This is not a great way to boost passenger numbers.

 to Bristolfrom Bristol
 Monday - Friday  no trainsno trains
Saturday0834  1534no trains
Sundayno trainsno trains

Pilning is a village of a thousand or so people, with the luck (or ill-fortune) to be located just inland from the lowest crossing point on the River Severn. It's hemmed in to the north by the M4, on its way to the Second Severn Crossing, and to the south by the South Wales Main Line, descending in cutting towards the mouth of the Severn Tunnel. To the west is a motorway junction called the Pilning Interchange, but residents of the village would have to drive for ten miles to reach it. And the station is essentially no use to anyone, save those who enjoy an awkwardly-timetabled Saturday jaunt.

It's not Pilning's first station. That opened a short distance away in 1863 on a new line built to connect with the ferry to Wales. Pilning was the last stop before New Passage, where trains ran out onto a wooden jetty to transfer passengers to the boat, and a large hotel was built close by to cater for those arriving when tides were inappropriate.

This bustling departure point no longer exists, but remnants can be found on the shoreline about half a mile north of the Second Severn Crossing, which is where I left you yesterday. Again there's a Heritage Trail to follow, which is expertly done, so you can track down the remains of the pier, where the tea gardens were, and which cottages in the existing hamlet used to be where the railwaymen lived.

In 1886 the Severn Tunnel opened, and the line to New Passage immediately closed. A new Pilning station was opened on the new alignment, not in the village itself but some distance outside, just before the 1 in 90 downward gradient set in. The tunnel was an engineering marvel, bedevilled by flooding during the construction phase, and is still kept dry only thanks to perpetual pumping. Trains could now carry passengers all the way to Wales without stopping, so few stopped, and the seeds of Pilning's later malaise were sown.

I visited on a weekday, not a Saturday, which made visiting the station something of a challenge. I had two hours between trains at Severn Beach, and my phone told me Pilning station was 1.8 miles away, so I thought it'd be fine to walk. But I didn't take the direct route, the allure of the road bridge was too strong, so eventually I walked inland from New Passage instead, and that was 1.8 miles away too. A steady routemarch was required. The country lane I was following reared up after a while to pass over the M4 motorway, providing an excellent view down to the Pilning Interchange and the towers of the bridge beyond.

The next few houses form the hamlet of Redwick, then there's a dual carriageway to cross, and only after that does Pilning proper begin.

At the heart of the village are the war memorial and the post office, plus a large half-timbered building which used to be a pub and then an Indian restaurant but since last summer has been neither. Just down the road is a garage whose pumps still have Attendant Service, and then St Peter's church, in Gothic style with a very high-pitched roof. What there isn't is a station, or any nudge towards the station, other than a notice in the post office window encouraging residents to make best use of the week's two available trains.

Annoyingly the station is still a mile's walk away, down the country lane on the other side of the churchyard. It's OK so long as the pavement holds out, which it does as far as the old primary school (recently metamorphosed into an Indian Orthodox church). But beyond that there's no choice but to walk in the road, minding the blind bends and occasional dollops of horse manure, acknowledging oncoming vehicles when they graciously slow down. I strode on, aware that time was ticking away, and keeping an eye out for any evidence of the original railway line behind the hedge.

When what I assumed was Pilning station finally came into sight, up on the embankment, there was alas no direct access. Instead I had to continue to the end of the road (noting one house, one pub and one postbox), turn right, then manoeuvre one last blind bend, before finally locating the main entrance. Pilning doesn't merit a proper double-arrow sign, only a GWR sign saying welcome, and bearing a strong hint that there is only one platform. A couple of bus stops lurk somewhere down the road, but they're only served by one school service (on weekdays) which is a fat lot of good when trains run Saturdays only. Basically it seems you need to get here by car or by bike, otherwise it's all a bit ropey.

I was looking forward to exploring the station on one of its days off, but was surprised to find it was a hive of activity. A host of electrification engineers in yellow helmets were busy inside a compound beside the tracks, and the 10-space car park was full of vans and a noisy unattended truck. Damn, I thought, I've not come all this way only to be thwarted, so walked up the long ramp in the hope of looking around anyway. I got as far as the phonebox where the footbridge used to be, behind a big green skip, but alas the entrance to the single platform was temporarily barriered off so my hopes of nosing around within were dashed.

I rationed myself a 15 second look-around. The shelter looked solid, but seatless. The help point was solar-powered, and for most of the week useless. Someone had painted Mind the Step on the edge of the platform for the benefit of passengers arriving from Wales. A sign informed passengers that they'd be expected to use rail replacement taxis last October. What used to be the footprint of the footbridge was clearly visible on the opposite platform, but with no way to reach it. I hoped a fast train to or from Cardiff would rush through, but I wasn't around long enough for that.

A short distance down the tracks one electrification gantry was up and ready, with another to one side constructed but not yet in place. This is the reason for the footbridge's removal - it wasn't tall enough to cope with overhead wires, and Network Rail weren't keen on wasting money on a replacement at such a lightly used station. Stuff it, they thought, we'll run our parliamentary services in one direction only, and save a bit more money by never having to maintain the westbound platform. Given the opportunity I'm sure they'd love to close the station for good, but that'd involve contorted legal approval and expense, so much easier to timetable two pointless trains a week and leave the place be.

Local residents are gallantly fighting back. They've formed the Pilning Station Group to campaign for better services and are actively trying to drum up more passengers. There is a quirky joy to making a rail journey from a certified backwater station, so it's not just residents who've been drawn in. Last year (in the Pilning Grand Slam) they challenged visitors to depart on one train and arrive back on the other via as many other rail companies as possible, and this year's version (the Pilning Scramble) is Scrabble-related instead. If this scratches your itch, or you like following inventive social media feeds, add your support. [video]

My abortive visit complete, I then had to get back to Severn Beach. Only 40 minutes of the two hour gap between trains remained, and I absolutely had to get back for that or face transportmageddon. 1.8 miles should be doable, I thought, then remembered the route wasn't a straight line, and exiting the station involved heading in completely the wrong direction. You would have enjoyed watching me sort-of running up the lane back to Pilning, then stopping out of embarrassment when I reached the throng of parents parked outside the front of the new primary school.

I decided not to wait for the hourly bus, because I'd seen it arrive too late for the previous train. I cursed that there wasn't time to divert 200 metres down the A403 for a good view of the railway line vanishing into the Severn Tunnel. I had to skip the really interesting-looking public footpath passing over the top of the portal because it was even curvier than the road. I lolloped across the bridge over the M49 without even daring to stop for a panoramic photo, so scared was I of missing my connection. I reached the wrong side of Severn Beach with barely any time to spare, and strode through the new housing estate sensing resignation. And joy, the train was four minutes late, and all was well.

If you live somewhere with decent public transport connections, remember those who don't. The villagers of Pilning have a train they can only catch twice a week, an hourly bus that doesn't take them all the way into Bristol and a 'nearby' station with trains every two hours which goes the long way round. A bit of investment could see them have rather more, perhaps even a new parkway station with regular services, but at least they're making the best of the miserly pittance they've still got.

» Pilning Station Group (@pilningstation)
» How to walk (not run) from Pilning to Severn Beach

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