Monday, December 11, 2023
For decades the two mile gap between Hendon and Cricklewood stations didn't need a station. The surrounding area was mostly retail parks and rundown industrial estates, and the site itself was occupied by Cricklewood traction maintenance depot. But 'rundown industrial estate' is code these days for massive regeneration project, hence the upcoming eruption of 6000 flats and the sudden need for Thameslink trains to stop in the middle of nowhere. They started stopping yesterday.
Some new stations are quite dull but Brent Cross West also has to double up as a footbridge and a regeneration beacon so avoids being an identikit package of platforms. It's been knocked up in four years flat, from "could you design us a station?" to "please unveil this plaque", and Barnet council are inordinately proud of it. Stay with me and I'll tell you all about it, or if you prefer looking at photos I've uploaded 25 to Flickr. You are allowed to do both.
Let's start on the 'slow' platforms which is where you're most likely to arrive. Six Thameslink trains an hour are due to stop on their way to and from St Albans and Luton, and for a quick exit you want to be in the middle of the train rather than at either end. These are longer platforms than at the stations to either side because a potential town centre needs to be futureproofed. At the tips you'll find gritbins, clusters of metal benches and warnings that 25000v is passing through cables above your head. Come a bit closer in and there are mysterious locked doors labelled 'roof access', then long thin glass-fronted waiting rooms, and eventually the escalators up to the main concourse.
In a nice touch the 'priority seats' are raised a few inches higher than their standard counterparts. In a nice touch clean toilets, unlocked and free to use, are tucked under the stairs. In a nice touch several signs along the platform have raised text so they can be read by talented fingers. In a nice touch additional Braille signs have been added on the stair-rail, because that's where talented fingers are most likely to be. In a nice touch each waiting room has two wheelchair spaces, and how long has it taken certain architects to realise that filling them with seats was an issue? There are a lot of nice touches.
The 'fast' platforms form a separate island across the tracks. They're very similar platforms, even down to having waiting rooms hardly anyone will use, but are without toilets and escalator access because that would be wasteful. Normally they'll be gated off, but engineering works on Day One conspired to send the first trains this way (to the delight of multiple spoddy first train aficionados). I didn't catch the very first train but I could tell many of my fellow passengers were railnerds, not just from the moquette socks but also from the collective sigh they issued south of Cricklewood as the train unexpectedly passed from the fast tracks to the slow.
The central concourse is huge and naturally lit, with a dash of orange girdering to draw the eye towards the exit. It's so broad there are ten ticket gates, which looks ludicrous now but may be justified one day during some far distant rush hour. Even then it's possible this space will never again be as busy as at the moment yesterday when the Mayor turned up to unveil a plaque, watched over by a crowd of radiant developers, gleeful councillors and phone-waving citizens. No ticket office has been provided, just a brief bank of three ticket machines. The Christmas tree is purely seasonal.
From this point on the station is mostly a footbridge, but arguably that's the most important part. It provides the first public access across what was previously an unbroken mile of railway, and the walkways at Staples Corner are so pedestrian-unfriendly I actually shuddered the last time I used them. Now you can nip across the Midland Mainline with ease, just not (yet) in a location where many people want to be. Turn left for 'Edgware Road' (that's the A5, not the tube station) or right for 'Brent Cross Town' (that's the building site, not the shopping mall). Alternatively, as the illuminable bottletop art has it, left is Towards Brent and right is Towards Barnet.
You won't find a bookmark-making workshop when you visit, because that was a creative sop to young First Day visitors, but the boxy passage eventually drops away towards two ground level exits. They're very different experiences.
The left-hand descent is into a brick and glass cavern, and you'll be walking down because yet again escalators have only been provided for those heading up. The design's more than adequate but architecturally unexciting, as befits the side of the tracks the developers have no interest in. They tried making it interesting yesterday with wood-fired pizza, but normally you'll find yourself deposited on a service road between Argos and Decathlon facing a walk through a car park. The station's a magnificent step-up for hereabouts, but hereabouts isn't really somewhere that needs one.
The right-hand descent, however, is like arriving at the top of a vast timber-framed conservatory. Only a few plants have been draped about the interior but just enough to create a desirable illusion as you gaze down onto the promised land. Here too is the station's major artwork, a tumbling 50 metre frieze of geometrical colour. It's called Time passes & still I think of you and is a tribute by Giles Broad to his mother who once worked at the shopping centre. It works really well, and you'll find additional complementary panels to admire on the landings by the lift.
The landings are odd because there's a seemingly pointless mezzanine halfway down with full lift access. Top to bottom, from the footbridge down to the bike store, is all anyone currently needs to do. But this is in fact further futureproofing, because one day a university campus will be built along this railside strip and it can now have immediate first floor access from the station. Step outside into the nothingness and try to imagine the scale of what's to come. The timber framework may look vast but it's nothing compared to the buildings that'll one day be built to either side, and indeed across the road, and indeed all around.
I'll come back tomorrow and tell you what's beyond the station because that's another entire blogpostsworth. For now let's just go back inside... in this case by following that raised stripe of dotty tactile paving. It continues into the station, branches towards the stairs and the lifts, threads all the way along the footbridge, bends into the concourse towards one of the wide gates and finally bifurcates towards the platforms. Brent Cross West station demonstrates the heights of what's possible for disabled access, having been baked into the design from the start, apart from the fact the platforms aren't level boarding to the trains. All that dosh and it's still only a white blob.
» 25 photos of Brent Cross West (only two of which I've shown you here)
posted 07:00 :
Sunday, December 10, 2023Notes from the SL1
London's sixth Superloop route launched yesterday linking North Finchley with Walthamstow. I won't subject you to an end-to-end travelogue, mainly because a miserable wet morning with steamed-up windows doesn't facilitate it. But I can offer you multiple observations after riding the route end-to-end in both directions, which I can handily summarise thus: "well-introduced, mostly".
Route SL1: North Finchley - Walthamstow Central
Length of journey: 10 miles, 50 minutes
• The SL1 is the second new Superloop route, as opposed to a rebrand. It's also the first, numerically speaking, although nobody has ever satisfactorily explained why the Superloop loop officially starts at North Finchley. Four-sevenths of the Superloop 'loop' is now operational (SL7 → SL9 → SL10 → SL1)
• The SL1 shadows route 221 between North Finchley and New Southgate, then route 34 for the remainder of the journey. A downside of the implementation is that the frequency of route 34 has been reduced from every 8 minutes to every 10 minutes, meaning those who don't live near a Superloop stop now face a longer wait. It also means fewer buses between High Barnet, Whetstone and Arnos Grove, because this is not an entirely ULEZ-friendly panacea.
• The vehicles being used on the route aren't new, they're 2015 vintage but have been refitted and are perfectly decent. Not all are yet wrapped in Superloop branding, I'd say two or three are still bog standard red. They do all have USB-charging ports though - these glow red! - and my first fellow passenger was happily plugged into hers throughout. I also found one bus with a route diagram pasted on the upper deck - alas nowhere I could actually see it - but I suspect more of these will be slapped on as time passes.
• Spider maps along the route have been updated, so that's a thumbs-up. A big thumbs-down is that no SL1 timetables have yet been posted at any bus stop (I assume all bus stops but I only checked eight). The lack of timetables is a significant implementation failure, because if you don't tell customers where a new route does and doesn't go, how do you expect them to risk getting on it?
• The tiles at stops were spot-on, though. Red tiles where they ought to be, extra Superloop tiles and roundel toppers on most of the shelters - tick. In the past I've laughed at the feeble antics of The Men Who Change Tiles but in this case the set-dressing has been done to a T.
• On a practical note, if switching between the SL1 and SL10 in North Finchley a same-stop interchange exists whichever direction you're travelling. Heading east the switchover is outside the bus station, pictured above, whereas heading west it's over by the stand on Woodhouse Road. I stayed on the bus at Woodhouse Road because there's supposed to be one more stop, and was duly driven into the back of the bus station where the surprised driver had to usher me safely across the roadway.
• A big expense on Day One was the provision of stewards at the vast majority of bus stops to explain to passengers what was going on. At least 20 low-paid souls were braving the weather along the route, dishing out advice and information (and occasionally waving to each other across the road). All of them were wearing official Superloop tabards - white with a rainbow roundel on the back - which haven't been in evidence at any previous launch. Not only were these folk being proactive in approaching passengers but they actually knew their stuff, as opposed to being untrained muppets sent out to loiter and grin.
• The stewards had leaflets to distribute, and for the first time in the implementation of the Superloop these were useful leaflets with an actual route diagram. This was a huge improvement, enabling passengers to see where the bus did and didn't stop, and meant the stewards had something useful to point at when answering queries. Some of the stewards also had stocks of generic Superloop maps and were dishing out both to provide context, but thank goodness someone's finally had the sense to print something specific.
• And after all this advice and cajoling, did the waiting passengers board the SL1? Generally no, they did not. For example at Walthamstow Market a 34 arrived just ahead of an SL1 and everyone queued up and piled onto that instead. Not even a "this is the new SL1" speech helped... at least 20 people boarded the familiar bus and I was the only person to risk the new route. Admittedly many of them will have wanted stops not served by the SL1, and admittedly many people will work all this out in their own good time, but as we sailed past them at the next stop it did feel like a lot of good advice had been wasted.
• It was the same at wet and windswept Arnos Grove - much nudging and persuasion but not a single punter tempted aboard the new bus. But elsewhere the SL1 did indeed gain several passengers, and probably would have had a lot more had it not been pissing down, so it wouldn't do to judge loadings based on an atypically grim morning.
• One thing several drivers were doing was making special announcements over the intercom to confirm what the next stop would be well in advance. "Just a reminder that this is a Superloop limited stop service and our next stop is Bell Corner", for example. This was probably just a Week One thing while people get used to the unexpectedly lengthy gaps, but it did mitigate against people being swept way past where they intended to go.
• It didn't prevent it, though. The longest gap between stops is the two miles between Green Lanes and Angel Corner, a dash along the North Circular which completely ignores the significant A10 corridor crossing inbetween. The SL1 thus grasps the opportunity to blast through the underpass at 30mph while the other buses on the route filter off at the Great Cambridge Roundabout to perform the important task of serving passengers. The poor sod who dinged before the turn-off was grossly inconvenienced... but equally the number 34 which filtered off into the maelstrom probably got snarled up in the traffic for several wasted minutes.
• The SL1 is supposed to be an express service but two of the least welcome messages still played out. Eastbound at Palmers Green we got 'this bus will wait for a change of driver to take place', wasting 3 minutes of everyone's time, because operator efficiency insists that shift changes take place near the depot rather than at either end of the route. And westbound at Angel Corner we got the dreaded 'the driver has been told to wait to even out the service' which was another dead 3 minutes of steamed-up sitting-around. I thought we'd been zipping impressively across the Lea Valley, but alas that had taken us off-timetable so the evil scheduling goblins held us back... just in time to run into a massive traffic jam.
• The biggest problem with the SL1 is the unpredictability of the traffic and the worst of the traffic is the Bowes Park Constriction on the North Circular. As three lanes clog into two all hope of rapid progress fades, and although it was bad on Saturday lunchtime it wasn't as numbingly terrible as it sometimes gets. Thankfully for the SL1 the majority of traffic is turning left leaving the right filter clear, whereas the poor old 34 had to remain in the logjam to the bitter end to serve the stop at Warwick Road. It still took us 13 minutes to go just one stop, but sometimes it pays to be on the express bus.
• As for timings, the end-to-end journey took me 50 minutes in one direction and 45 minutes in the other. I can't compare that to the scheduled times because there were no timetables, and the supposed SL1 Timetable page on the TfL website is just a list of departure times and average durations. That suggests 40 minutes end-to-end, which was never going to happen yesterday, and as for the hugely overoptimistic "32 minutes" insisted upon by the steward at Walthamstow I suspect that's early mornings and late nights only.
• Whatever, the SL1 is an excellent option for zipping across outer London and much better than chugging along on the slower 34, assuming zipping across outer London is what you actually want to do. The driver I spoke to in North Finchley was also very proud of his new role, asking "What did you think of it?" with a big grin on his face. Things are definitely improving with every Superloop launch - the provision of those route diagram leaflets being a big step forward. If only The Men Who Change Timetables could get their act together, the launch of the SL2, SL3 and SL5 might go even better in the new year.
posted 07:00 :
Saturday, December 09, 2023Today it's five years since the day Crossrail was supposed to open but didn't.
I still don't believe nobody realised it couldn't possibly open on time until four months beforehand, especially given it took another three and a half years to run the first train. People in high places must have been lying their socks off.
That said, the last five years have been boomtime for the opening of new stations in London.
• Meridian Water (replacing Angel Road)We're also getting a brand new station tomorrow which'll be Brent Cross West.
• Battersea Power Station, Nine Elms and the Northern line extension
• Woolwich, plus the Crossrail parts of Paddington, Bond Street, Tottenham Court Road, Farringdon, Liverpool Street, Whitechapel, Canary Wharf, Custom House and Abbey Wood
• Barking Riverside and the Overground extension
It's another example of a station being built to support a new housing development, and like Barking Riverside is arriving prematurely on the edge of a godforsaken building site not especially close to where people currently live. Inquisitive visitors are going to find a flashy transport hub with access to a fenced off nomansland ruled by security guards and the backside of a retail park, plus on Day One a timetable of special activities because the developers realise they have a job on their hands trying to make the place sound attractive. You can't even get a bus to Brent Cross shopping centre until next year, and the walk is miserable because around here the car is king, and this is all essentially spoilers for the proper review I'll do next week.
But it's still a new station so let's not complain, because over the next five years the number of new stations in London looks like being zero. Blame government pursestrings, blame levelling up, blame economic downturn, blame whatever, but best lower your expectations to floor level throughout the next Mayoral term.
Here then are the stations I think have the best chance of opening during the next five years (and it's very little chance at all).
Where: borderline Havering/Barking & Dagenham (marginally the former)
Inbetween: Dagenham Dock and Rainham
First proposed: 2002
Brief timeline: named 2008, stalled, firmed up 2014, stalled, planning permission given 2019, stalled, still unfunded.
Why it's needed: A huge area alongside the A13, approximately on the site of the old Ford Dagenham plant, is being developed for housing. 4000 homes are planned but as yet only a few hundred are complete. Local transport connections are very poor unless you have a car. Also Havering has fewer stations than any other London borough so they totally deserve another one.
The hold-up: Planning for the new station was well underway in 2021 when the government suddenly announced they didn't support it and never had, and the entire house of cards collapsed.
What's there now: A cluster of newbuild blocks brushing up against an A13 spur road, a giant Tesco distribution centre, anachronistic posters promising fast train times into central London, residential roads that as yet funnel nowhere, fenced-off public realm, multiple lorries, the nasty end of the river Beam, new residents trying to pretend that where they live is somehow normal.
Immediate future: More and more houses without a rail connection. Any hope of a new station rests on a change of government, which is at least probable but even then it'd take a few years to add platforms and a functioning station.
Likelihood of opening before 2029: low (but the best chance of any station on this list)
Where: borderline Lewisham/Southwark (close to Millwall's ground)
Inbetween: Surrey Quays and Queens Road Peckham
Operator: London Overground
First proposed: 2009
Brief timeline: let's call it Surrey Canal Road, no let's call it New Bermondsey, no let's call it Surrey Canal.
Why it's needed: Multiple railways thread through the area but without stopping. Any transition from grubby industrial estate to housing nexus needs a local station.
The hold-up: Passive provision was made for a station when fresh track was added to link the Overground to Clapham Junction, but in 2010 the coalition government refused to pay £7m (£7m!) to build it because they thought it would be wasted money. Subsequent funding has stalled because long-term hopes for a new housing development hereabouts have yet to come to fruition.
What's there now: a grubby industrial estate, a road that was once a canal, mothballed space underneath a bridge, an optimistically premature pedestrian crossing, warehouses, depots, lacklustre commercial units, some scrappy statue that looks like an anorak with wings, bluecollar workers, queues of HGVs, a massive incinerator, extensive graffiti, nowhere you really want to be.
Immediate future: more of the same.
Likelihood of opening before 2029: low (but never say never)
Where: southwest Newham (by the mouth of the river Lea)
Inbetween: Canning Town and West Silvertown
First proposed: 2011 (I have photographic evidence)
Why it's needed: The western end of the Royal Docks is an up-and-coming neighbourhood, hence the recent arrival of City Hall, but if the riverside quarter is to evolve into Manhattan-on-Lea it needs a station. Alas the Dangleway passes overhead without stopping.
The hold-up: This is the back-of-beyond they've left until last to redevelop. It's also precisely where the Silvertown Tunnel emerges on the northern bank of the Thames, which is not a nice place to be at present, certainly nothing you'd get estate agents on side with.
What's there now: A massive construction site (I can't emphasise enough how massive it is), diggers, trenches, piles of spoil, mud, muck, tyre-tracks, skips, fences, girders, scaffolding, a hard-hat army, upcoming road connectors, signs saying Pedestrian Diversion This Way, small red trains weaving through the maelstrom.
Immediate future: Nobody's thinking about stations yet, only roads.
Likelihood of opening before 2029: I can't see it.
Beckton Riverside & Thamesmead Central
Where: Either side of the Thames (near Tripcock Ness)
Beyond: Gallions Reach
First formally proposed: 2019
Why it's needed: Nobody has ever bitten the bullet and provided Thamesmead with a station, so its residents have suffered severance for over 50 years. Crossrail's a huge step-up but it's not close enough to the action.
The hold-up: There have long been plans for a Gallions Reach Crossing (be it bridge, ferry or tunnel) but they've never been realised. More recent thoughts of extending the Overground from Barking Riverside to Thamesmead proved much too expensive. A DLR extension is the cheap alternative (and was properly mooted six months ago).
What's there now (Beckton Riverside): The contaminated remains of an enormous gasworks, fenced off estuarine nomansland, somewhere to park cars, circles that used to support gasholders, a DLR depot, a motorist-focused retail park, a sewage works, depressingly remote brick towers, developers' signs saying that the Beckton Gasworks Community Planning Weekend took place last month.
What's there now (Thamesmead Central): Morrisons, Aldi, McDonald's, tumps, a chunk of Plumstead Marshes never built upon but so large it puts all London's other development sites to shame.
Immediate future: Thus far the DLR extension is only at feasibility stage so there isn't even a route, let alone chosen station locations. The plan is for "an affordable solution by 2025 in order to enable construction to begin as early as 2028". Also that solution might just turn out to be speedy buses south of the river so don't get your hopes up.
Likelihood of opening before 2029: nil (they're currently saying early 2030s, and that'll only slip)
Old Oak Common
Where: between Wormwood Scrubs and the canal
Inbetween: Birmingham and Euston (or Acton Main Line and Paddington)
First proposed: 2010
Why it's needed: HS2 needs to stop somewhere outside central London and this vast rail/industrial desert is the ideal location, plus it could generate thousands and thousands and thousands of flats as the Stratford of the west.
The hold-up: Essentially we're rubbish at building railways, also agreeing to build them, also funding them, also sticking to plans, also keeping politicians away from them, essentially rubbish.
What's there now: silos, cranes, stacks of temporary cabins, mass workforce deployment, 1000 hi-vis jackets, chains of conveyor belts, sci-fi-shaped security devices, trucks, diggers, more silos, more cranes, a massively engineered hole, a scar across west London (just look out of the window of your Crossrail train to feel the scope of it).
Immediate future: more of the same, plus likely additional controversy and delays.
Likelihood of opening before 2029: nil (the current window is 2029-2033, and that'll only slip)
[bookmark this post so you can come back in December 2028 and laugh at the optimism]
posted 07:00 :
Friday, December 08, 2023For one day only I'm offering you the opportunity to write today's post. Ten or so paragraphs of factual musings, hopefully entertaining and illuminating, for the wider readership to enjoy. I'll pick the topic, you provide the words.
Don't worry, I haven't picked a topic of niche interest like fire hydrant numbering or zebra crossing provision in Pinner. Instead I've plumped for something you should all have some experience of, either recently or in the past, and which is also totally topical because it was the focus of a big event yesterday.
Don't worry, I'm not expecting you to write all of the post. A single paragraph would be great, and then I'll put them all together later to demonstrate what the wider readership is capable of. You can email your offering if you like (the address is in the sidebar top right) or just bung it in the comments box and I'll take it from there.
Feel free to add normal comments too if something about today's post piques your interest. But what I'm really after isn't comments, it's actual text I can cut and paste, something cogent and interesting, not just anecdotes. I'll also accept any photos you might have to replace my placeholders, ideally of this year's tree, and obviously taken by your own fair hand and not lifted from social media, other websites or Streetview.
Please contribute. If even ½% of you write something we could easily get the entire piece finished in no time. It's only 1000 words in total, how difficult can it be to come up with something other people will find both interesting and accurate in a few hours flat?
The Christmas Tree in Trafalgar Square
Something brief and pithy to set the scene. Try to mention where we are, what we're looking at, a reference to the fact the lights were switched on yesterday and a tempting nugget hinting at what's to come. The opening is crucial and can take longer to write than a full-sized paragraph later on, but don't let that put you off. Trafalgar Square was not at its best yesterday clothed as it was in a coat of mizzle, interrupted by intermittent heavier showers. The view down Whitehall towards The Palace of Westminster has temporarily been interrupted by the decorated festive gift from the people of Norway, which was lit with great ceremony at dusk. [Frank F].
Everybody knows the tree is a gift from Norway but try to shoehorn deeper information into your paragraph, like when did the tradition start and why, and which specific forest does it come from. Also it's not actually a gift from Norway it's from the City of Oslo, so best get that right else you risk pedants popping up in the comments to tell you you've been disappointingly unspecific. Wikipedia is an obvious starting point but don't just plagiarise that, you need multiple sources to produce a fully rounded opener. If you unearth any good weblinks, please include them as hypertext.
A tree has been sourced from the Nordmarka forests near Oslo, Norway every year since 1947. The tradition started as a thank you from Norwegians for support from the British during the occupation of Norway during the Second World War, and has now continued for over 75 years. [alex f]
Facts and figures
It helps if these are vaguely original rather than just copied from elsewhere. Is it actually London's tallest Christmas tree? (you'll have to do some research to check, you can't just make an unsubstantiated claim). How many days is it from chopping down to lights on? (all the data is there, it's your job to tie it together). Is 7th December the latest possible switching-on date? (yes it is, but crucially why?). Here's a good one - Had this year's tree started growing before WW2 finished? It's over to you.
The 19m (62ft) tree, dubbed 'the queen of the forest' by the foresters who cared for it, was felled on 25th November, and started its four-day journey to Immingham a couple of days later via DFDS Seaways. It's checked over and the journey to London begins, ready to be installed and decorated in time for the lighting ceremony, which always takes place on the first Thursday of December. This tree wasn't even a sapling when the event it represents ended, being around 70 years old, and just pips Covent Garden's tree as the tallest (natural) tree in London. It's not the tallest in the UK, though, which prize goes to Kew Gardens' Wakehurst site in Haywards Heath, with a tree twice the size, at a massive 37 metres (121 ft). [Trevor S]
[photo by Adrian P]
A diamond geezer blogpost should include something readers haven't heard before, so in this case how about delving into all the techniques the Norwegians use to make sure the tree looks better than it might. I don't want to spoonfeed you their tactics but judicious use of a search engine will soon throw up a slew of cunning tactics which you can mould into an informative paragraph. Do it right and everyone will assume you're a journalistic genius, rather than just good at using Google.
While Norway has been known to donate Christmas trees to a number of cities across Europe, and even offered trees to Bethlehem and Washington, the country's tree-shipping activities were scaled back significantly over the years. Blame costs, environmental impact, and dissatisfaction with sparse nordmann firs. Edinburgh, Cardiff, Newcastle, even Tottenham, were once proud recipients of needled Norwegian donations, but source their own trees today. The same for Berlin, Paris, and Rotterdam. Beyond smaller cities such as Aberdeen, only Reykjavik remains as a capital alongside London displaying gifts from Norway every Christmas, but for how much longer? [commonliner]
Criticising its appearance
It's long been the case that the scrappy, asymmetrical nature of a real tree has been a magnet for sour-faced miserablist detractors. Has this become a running joke, something uninspired journalists always fall back on, or do you think it's genuinely true? Scour Twitter and/or Facebook and you should find multiple examples of people being prissy and dismissive. Copy a few, making sure you include the obligatory 'it looked like it was dead', and round off with your own personal opinion.
The tree's status as a Christmas tradition
Next it's time to focus on the tree's heritage and its place in the national psyche. This is the easiest paragraph to write because it's essentially just rambling from personal experience. If you're adept you can pivot from 'everyone has their own memory of the tree' into three sentences of self-indulgent nostalgia as you recount how you went to see it as a child and how you felt about the encounter. Were you thrilled, underwhelmed, frozen or just bored? Reference to feeding the pigeons is probably acceptable but try not to divert into what kind of bus ticket you used for the first leg of the journey.
(Photo taken by my wife's late friend Doris Shipway, we inherited her slide collection, which I still have. The slides only started being date stamped after 1962 so I guess this is from just before) [Chris M]
The sarcastic paragraph
I have an easy target for you. The tree has its own Twitter account which is a cringeworthy onslaught of puns, Elf gifs and overexcitabilities. It's awful and reads like it was written by a marketing intern with anthropomorphic issues and an emoji fixation (✨🎉💅🎄✨🎉💅🎄). Maybe select a few of the worst tweets and rip the piss out of them, it's so simple, indeed in this case it's an open goal.
Despite being well past retirement age, the spirit of the Trafalgar Square tree makes a bold attempt to stay relevant for the insta-twitter generation. Unfortunately its social media presence echoes a loving grandmother’s overuse of inappropriate emojis in her Christmas text message rather than rolling out a smooth Time Out factoid. It’s a short step from proud Facebook posts to sharing alt-right content and complaining about MSM. Oslo should keep a careful watch. [Lux]
Were you there? Did you watch the mayor flick the switch? I didn't go because I looked at the weather forecast but some of you must have been in the vicinity last night during the appointed hour. Paint us a pen portrait of the event, a broad brush description peppered with specific examples and humorous anecdotes. Feel free to go to town - this is the meat at the heart of today's post (and there are bonus points if you can link to this year's poem). But don't forget to mention the pouring rain at some point otherwise people may assume you never actually visited, you just sat at home and watched the event on livestream or YouTube.
[photo from Adrian P]
Christmas in Trafalgar Square
Now look forward to the coming month. The tree will be looking down on a multiplicity of festive experiences including regular carol singing, a Christmas market and defensive fortifications to prevent New Year revellers jumping in the fountains. Mention of goings-on at St Martin-in-the-Fields is encouraged, especially the date of the blessing of the alfresco crib. Broaden the religious scope by mentioning the giant menorah that'll be lit alongside over the coming week. Remember that accuracy is hugely important otherwise readers will tear your words apart, ditto spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, sloppy assumptions and ill-founded opinions.
Another short one this, but you have to cunningly tie the whole piece together while simultaneously referencing something meaningful and tree-related. One suggestion would be to mention the specific date this year's tree gets fed into the chipper and segue into sincere hopes that the tradition continues for another 76 years, but I'll leave it up to you.
I've added your best contributions so far, thanks.
Do please submit further paragraphs otherwise today's post is destined to be incomplete.
posted 07:00 :
Thursday, December 07, 2023It was St Nicholas Day yesterday so I put my Christmas decorations up.
It's not a date-related tradition or anything, certainly not my tradition, but this year the day I spotted the box of decorations was 6th December so out they came and up they went. It would've been more accurate to use the conjunction 'and' rather than 'so', as in "It was St Nicholas Day yesterday and I put my Christmas decorations up", but that would have been a less hooky opening sentence.
You're supposed to store them in a box in the attic, but I don't have an attic.
Also they're not in a box, they're in one of those open-topped plastic storage cartons like you find on the pavement outside poundshops. Mine's blue. I also keep my Hallowe'en decorations in it, and a Happy Birthday banner, and a 40cm-long chunky pencil somebody once gave as a gift (I've never used it but it fits in this box if stored diagonally).
First out of the box is my Christmas tree.
I don't buy a fresh tree because that would be wasteful, not least because I go away over Christmas and it wouldn't be seen. Mine's artificial and only a foot tall. It's made from multiple strips of wire shoved into a wooden base, decorated with 'berries' and 'cones' and with a red ribbon tied on top. The branches all fold upwards for easier storage, although I usually bung it back in the box as is. I don't remember where it came from but it was probably a gift from the family in my early years of living alone, so I didn't feel like I was missing out.
I don't have any tinsel or baubles.
They're still in the family box, which I suspect is in an attic or at least at the back of a dark cupboard in Norfolk. Some of those baubles go back decades, especially the pinecone-shaped ones which I suspect my grandmother hung from her tree when she was only a mother. A highlight of unwrapping them was always reading the scraps of old newspaper they were wrapped in and see what was on TV back then. These days the house where our throwback decorations are stored no longer has a tree, and the main family tree is curated to a different thematic standard where mass-produced baubles and austerity angels simply don't fit in.
My fairy lights are always a trial to untangle and relight.
I always mean to wind them up sensibly, and I usually assume I have, but when I come back and start the unravelling it takes forever. It took over an hour last year, and all to no avail because they never relit, even after I'd given all the lights a nudge. I even changed the fuse bulb, because I had the foresight to keep the spares all those years ago, but that didn't help. I didn't fancy changing the 99 other ordinary bulbs because life's too short so the set's essentially dead. I miss having lights down my hallway, they really help to brighten the winter gloom, but the best time to buy a new set is in January not December so I'll have to wait.
My main decorations are a set of eight soft toy Christmas characters.
They're about 15cm high and have a gold thread sticking out of their heads so you can hang from something, probably a tree. Mine just stand up. They came from Costco, a generic set of eight which I was surprised to discover I actually liked rather than all the other festive tat they had on the shelves. They were bought in October 1999 during the week my last relationship combusted, as part of a last chance burst of retail therapy. The day's purchases included a dustbuster and an entirely unnecessary champagne bucket and totalled £202. I resented paying given we'd be splitting up imminently, but I made sure I walked away with the soft toy characters and this'll be their 25th Christmas.
The penguin has taken up position beside my digital radio.
The reindeer is alongside, above Frazier Chorus.
The snowman is sitting between two dusters.
The toy soldier stands in front of my barometer.
The polar bear is on the shelf beside my dead laptop.
Santa Claus is balanced on my wipeclean whiteboard.
The brown bear sits atop an empty Mini-Cheddars tub.
The gnome is blocking the infrared window on the video recorder.
I move them around every year, there isn't a set position, but the windowsill and the top of the CD rack are the prime positions. The Mini Cheddars were one of last year's Christmas presents and this is the first time the empty tub has been useful. The barometer was also a Christmas present but a long time ago because it was 'made in the GDR'. The snowman is the worst at sitting upright. Don't worry about the gnome getting in the way, I won't be watching any videos over Christmas.
I also blew up my inflatable Santa.
I'm pretty sure this was given to me by a mischievous colleague at work, every workplace has one, thanks Val. It has all sorts of connotations but it's just an innocent inflatable flat-faced gentleman with a big sack and an erect hat. It took me five blows.
I have another Santa on a bike.
Finally I balanced my Mum's last Christmas card on the telly.
The card's hand-stitched and an unusual shape, and I keep it in the original envelope (postmarked 11th December 2009) so I don't mislay it between Christmases. The photo shows it on top of my old telly where it was much easier to get it to stand up. My new telly has no cathode ray tube so it's much harder to balance it, and a light draught or a bit of nearby hoovering can cause it to topple. The top of the telly is the closest my living room comes to having a 'pride of place', or at least it's the direction I'm most likely to be looking. I have alas just noticed I've positioned it slightly off-centre, maybe two centimetres too far to the right, but I'm not moving it because there's no guarantee I could get it to stand up again.
I only have one other card so far, but there's plenty of time.
posted 07:00 :
Wednesday, December 06, 2023A skinflint's guide to visiting London's zoos
London Zoo is an acclaimed repository of globally-sourced animals, as well as a conservation hub and a prestige tourist attraction. But it's a bit pricey with tickets costing £27 on weekdays and £31 at weekends, or even more on the door. So I wondered how many exotic beasts I could see for nothing by walking around the outside. Not only is the zoo located in a public park but a road and a canal pass straight through so there's plenty of freely-available perimeter to be scanned.
I started near the canal basin on the Outer Circle and walked around the triangular menagerie in a clockwise direction. It soon became evident that a lot of shrubbery has been planted around the edge of the zoo to try to prevent precisely what I was trying to do. Lengthy railings don't help either but at least they're visually permeable, plus it's December so the intervening foliage is less of an obstruction than it can be. My first success was a thin gap with sight of a bright blue pool and a tall penguin. That turned out to be a model, but at its feet were black and white blurs and they were the real thing waddling about on the edge of Penguin Beach. It was a rubbish view but my first tick.
The entrance to Land of the Lions is clearly seen but not the beasts themselves, they're far too well wrapped. But the squirrel monkeys are perfectly observable, at least when they're bounding above their enclosure on the highest ropes. The first sign is a gentle wobble on the line, then an agile ape bounds into view switching from one rope to another and then whoosh, they're gone. I saw about one per minute. It was hardly like being 'In With The Monkeys' but I still got to enjoy some of the aerial gymnastics for none of the admission price.
Other ploys to diminish the boundary include locating the behind-the-scenes areas beside the fence and also the toddler-friendly interaction zones. Nobody at ZSL minds if passers-by see the goats, alpacas are ten-a-penny on city farms these days and you've no chance of spotting the porcupines and coatis anyway. The camels, though, were plain as day. They have windows on both sides of their lodgings and on my visit were favouring the Regent's Park side with their chewy stares, not the paying punters. Best view so far.
The gibbons ought to be as good, what with their caged enclosure facing the railings - there's even a 'you are being watched on CCTV' notice to discourage mischief. But they all seemed to have had the sense to stay indoors, given the grizzly weather, which is the main downside of waiting to visit until the leaves fall. The Mappin Terraces shield their secrets behind multiple concrete summits, no longer home to the bears but to wallabies and emus, so were no great loss. I kept following round to reach the Outer Circle and heavens, black and white perfection. Two zebras were out nuzzling hay from a bag on a post, and the view from the pavement was almost as good as families were getting beyond the fence.
I had highest hopes for the giraffes nextdoor because I've seen them on every previous walkpast. Alas in the morning theyre locked inside their lofty shed, the 186 year-old Giraffe House designed by Decimus Burton, so this time they weren't spotted. But I did see the ostriches, an entire neck-stretching flock, which was great because they only arrived this summer after being absent from the zoo since 1987. As for the mongooses though, nothing, ditto the fruitbats in their trunky cage, and the otters were too low down by the foot tunnel to be visible from the road.
For a last throw of the dice I walked canalside, this being where you get the best view of the Snowdon Aviary. But it's not full of birds any more, it's now a walk-through space sparsely populated with colobus monkeys. A few distant black and white tails were visible. The prairie dogs should have been a shoo-in opposite, given that the Cotton Terraces are now at canal level, but they weren't keen on London weather either. I actually got my best sighting of the day from a heron taking off beneath the pheasantry, but you don't need to go to a zoo to see one of those. Penguins, monkeys, camels, zebras and ostriches, though, were not a bad tally for zero outlay.
Another BIAZA-affiliated zoo can be found in Hanwell, west of Ealing.
Hanwell Zoo is no showstopper of a venue, and this is reflected in the lowly £4.50 admission price. But if you're too mean to step behind the cafe and pay up there's another triangular railinged perimeter to circumnavigate. The trouble is they've been even cleverer at keeping animals out of sight of passers-by, partly through cage orientation and partly through having some pretty tiny animals. Lemurs, meercats, clownfish and dormice have not evolved to be viewed from safari park distance.
Neither did I have any luck with the capybara, margay or supposed flamingos. I did spy two donkeys and some peacocks but that was the sum total, and again they're more generally city farm fodder. The only other mammal visible was a zookeeper, not even any punters because a wet Tuesday afternoon in December is not peak zoo-visiting territory. Try milder weather, bring littl'uns, pay to go inside and Hanwell Zoo can bring a dash more cheer. And hurrah that somewhere else in the capital is offering a conservation-based animal experience for the price of two coffees, not a three course meal.
posted 07:00 :
Tuesday, December 05, 2023I have not yet faced the coming of The Limit. It comes to most of us, some sooner than others, a one-way, permanent restriction after which life is never quite so free again.
The Limit is that moment when something bad kicks in, a life-changing realisation that things you used to take for granted may never happen again. A diagnosis, a loss, an incident, a change of state, whatever. It can manifest itself in many ways, but before The Limit you have multiple options and after The Limit the walls start closing in.
I'm not trying to be maudlin here, nor am I building up to the revelation that The Limit has come to me. But it probably will one day, maybe even on multiple fronts, and all I'm saying is that I recognise this fact and I'm sorry if it's happened to you already.
The Limit is about quality of life, not end of life. The Limit is about how you adapt and adjust, or how you don't. The Limit is about changed circumstances and behavioural constraints and can be indiscriminate in its timing and extent.
It's usually medically based, but not always. It's usually unexpected, but not always. It's usually gradual, but not always. And it's usually annoying, indeed exasperating, but not always, and sometimes only if you allow it to be.
Often it's your body crossing a threshold beyond which it'll never quite work properly again. Your mobility, your sight, your circulation, your perception, some organ... all of these can be the target as your cells conspire to reduce your lifestyle options. You used to climb hills, party all night, drive cars, even get out of bed, but various activities suddenly pass beyond your capability.
Sometimes a day comes along, the Limiting Day, after which you'll never attempt a particular activity again. You're too tired, you're too unstable, you're too unwell, all sorts of reasons can conspire to slam the door on your ambition. It's not just that you'll never go abroad again, never ride a bike again or never admire another sunset, it's that you recognise this behaviour is now off limits.
It can be unexpected, a bolt from the blue that knocks you sideways. You thought you had your life on track, you thought you had time on your side, you'd made plans. Then someone gives you bad news, or the diagnosis becomes self-evident, and the future suddenly looks very different indeed.
You might have a hunch The Limit is coming but it hasn't arrived yet. This might be from family history, it might be a nagging doubt, it might even be a devil-may-care attitude you recognise will catch up with you in the end. But this is when you really ought to be going all out to do all the things you enjoy before you can't do them any more, because the last thing you want to be left with is regrets.
Sometimes The Limit is so serious you don't recognise it's happened. Incidents can mask your perception, make you insensible, even knock you unconscious. It must be easier to cope with The Limit if you have no understanding of it, but that doesn't mean it's something you'd ever want to have happened. There's your life proceeding as normal, then suddenly The Limit strikes and the meaningful part of your existence is instantly over.
But sometimes The Limit is sequential, a series of setbacks that repeatedly shrink your boundaries. Initially you can go anywhere do anything, then you discover you're doing less and less, and eventually not really very much at all. A care home is often the ultimate in shrunken boundaries, a building you'll spend almost all your time in, ultimately all of it, with The Limit being the day you moved in.
If you're unfortunate you don't get one Limit, you get several. People often find a way to cope with a single tribulation, to make the most of the circumstances in which they find themselves. But a second or third Limit can be a real trial, like fate dealt you all the bad cards, as the walls close in on multiple sides.
Some Limits look permanent but turn out to be reversible. Just because you're restricted now doesn't mean you always will be, and however terrible your difficulties it doesn't always mean they can't be eased. But The Limit is often a one-way gate to a diminished future, one you have to accept you'll never pass back through, and maybe you have more one-way doors to come.
Sometimes the onset of The Limit brings with it a ticking clock. Not only are things going to be worse from this point onwards but they'll also be getting worse as time progresses. It's not just that you have a Limit, your existence potentially does too and that's quite something to get your head around. By contrast other Limits have no direct effect on your mortality, they're just something you're going to have to endure from this day forward.
Some things aren't a Limit, they're a Niggle. They nag away at our everyday lives but don't physically restrict us, only maybe mentally. We think we've got it bad but in fact we're just uncomfortable, and resolve and stoicism will see us through. Never mistake a Niggle for a Limit.
The Limit isn't always medical. It could be financially-based, a sudden collapse in circumstances you'll never reverse. It could be opportunity-based, a lifestyle or a dream snuffed out. It could be an external imposition, as perhaps the residents of Berlin felt when the wall went up, or would have done if they'd known how long it was going to last. But I suspect I have physiological Limits on my mind because they're the most likely to stop me in my tracks.
Lockdown was a good example of a Limit, an unprecedented curtailment of freedoms for the greater good. For a prolonged period we had to find ways to discover meaning in a much-reduced existence, assuming the experience didn't limit us further in the process. Ultimately it wasn't The Limit because it was reversed, but for many it will have come as shocking confirmation of how swiftly one's boundaries can be restricted.
Some people are lucky and The Limit never comes. They make it through to the end of life and nothing slowed them down, at least significantly. For others it comes early in life, too early to have lived up to their potential, but they find a way to work round it all the same. But a potential accident is always round the corner, or a sudden catastrophic failure of some part of your body, and The Limit can be upon you before you've even had time to react.
I wouldn't have written this post twenty years ago, I'd never have given The Limit a second thought. And I suspect I'd write it very differently in twenty years time, most probably from personal experience, assuming I was around to write it at all.
When you have decades of healthy life left, or think you do, The Limit is not on your agenda. As time passes and your allotted span decreases, not only do Limits loom more closely but you see them more often in those around you, and if others can be cruelly limited then so could you.
I have not yet reached my Limit, but each passing day brings me closer to it. There will one day be a last day before it strikes, a final burst of normality which I may not recognise at the time. But it pays to recognise that The Limit will likely come, and to make the most of my unlimited existence while it persists.
posted 07:00 :
Monday, December 04, 2023Now that December's here the festivity in London is palpable! And as Christmas grows closer our appetite for seasonal treats grows ever stronger. It can mean only one thing: winter is upon us and Christmas has officially arrived.
The great news is that even the suburbs are getting in on the Yuletide sparkle and what's more you can bring all your friends. Get glammed up, grab the bus to Bow and prepare to indulge in the ultimate fairytale moment.
This year's big ticket event is BustopMas, a full-on interactive experience based in and around the mythical bus shelter on the road to the east. Targeted at children of all ages this stunning installation is the quintessential day-out for young and old alike. Londoners literally couldn't be more excited.
BustopMas is a walk-through celebration of the icon that is Bus Stop M but with a festive slant. It's hard to imagine a better way to celebrate the season than by taking shelter in an actual shelter and creating memories to remember. Tickets for this epic event are sure to be snapped up like warm mince pies, so best grab yours soon.
London's newest multi-sensory world comprises multiple immersive zones and photo opportunities, all set within a compact roadside wonderland. The transformation is so unique you won't believe your eyes, and neither will your friends as you share the glitz and glitter on your socials.
Your visit to BustopMas begins as soon as you board the magic red bus, which has been festively numbered 25. Multiple pickup points are available across central London including St Paul's Cathedral and Mansion House. Watch London sparkle through the steamed-up windows as your steed jingles all the way up the Mile End Road, and don't forget to ring the sleighbell before you alight.
When the doors open at BustopMas you'll be amazed and enthralled by the sight that awaits you. It won't just be your jaw that drops, expect to give a little shiver as the chilled atmosphere penetrates your very soul and the reality of what you've paid for hits home.
Time your visit right and you'll be met as you alight by a mischievous elf. If not then wait awhile and one of Bow's trademark urchins will eventually arrive, wrapped warmly in a poundshop anorak, and offer the traditional grunt of welcome. Your BustopMas experience has begun.
The Winter Forest is your first interactive zone, a thicket of pine trees dusted with glittery particulates. Note that the Winter Forest will not be available throughout the full run of BustopMas and is most likely to be enjoyed in the first week of the new year after local residents have discarded their festive centrepieces for council pick-up.
Your next target is the Hall of Mirrors, an evocative semi-enclosed space resembling a Lapland chalet. Line up your camera with the multiplicity of windows and it's easy to capture all kinds of evocative selfies to share with friends not fortunate enough to be here. A truly snowy vibe is provided by the tiny patches of adhesive where multiple posters referencing the Holy Land have been scratched from the glazing.
BustopMas always looks better covered in snow, so keep an eye on the weather forecast and you too might get lucky. No refunds can be offered if the promised frosty glaze is not evident. Instead peruse the words of comfort and joy on the Glad Tidings Wall or perhaps try your luck on Santa's Bench, the thin red perch any 20 stone man is likely to slide straight off.
The highpoint of any visit is the Bubble Cave, a technicolour world of gleeful illusion. Watch as the balloons bump up against the inside of the shelter, wave your hand through the bobbing globes and feel your inner child bubble over. It's a dead cert Insta smash. Please note that the contents of the Bubble Cave were intact at the start of the season but some of the five balloons may since have bobbed away.
Your immersive BustopMas experience climaxes as you come face to face with The Stack of Sacks. Step across the frozen blue river, watching out for passing bikes, and make the final approach with awe and wonder in your heart. Hopefully one of the bulging black bags will contain the gift of your dreams and the pile's not just the result of Santa's gnomes throwing out their rubbish.
If you've brought party food now is the time to open your picnic basket and begin the feast. Canapes and pigs in blankets are just some of the treats available at the Tesco Extra a short bus ride away. Regrettably BustopMas does not have a licence to serve alcohol, but if you've brought a warming tipple in a flask you'll fit right in with the white-haired gentleman making merry from a can nearby.
Before it's finally time to go, be sure to press the blue button and you should see the top of the pole illuminated by a glowing star. This unforgettable vision depends on the contractors being able to stretch an extension cable from a nearby power point so may not be available on all visits. To depart simply wait for a double-decker number 8 and you could be back in civilisation within the hour.
Tickets for this outstanding immersive experience are available only from the exclusive BustopMas e-store. Name your date, pick your timeslot and be sure to pay your £35 before you've had time to stop and think about what you're doing. Please note that visiting at peak times, for example at weekends or in December, may cost double. Use the code STOPM1%OFF for a massive saving.
And don't knock this as shameless profiteering because multiple other festive enterprises are offering not much more for not much less. A hangar full of bubbles in Wembley, a bauble factory in Waterloo, a few lights around Kew Gardens - all that's important is how it looks on your phone and having giggles with your mates. You'll get memories that last forever and all we had to do was knock up a thematic walk-through for next to nothing, because some classic Christmas traditions never fade away.
posted 07:00 :
Sunday, December 03, 2023First and last quiz
I've given you the first and last letters.
How many can you name?
All answers now in the comments box.
posted 16:00 :
The last in alphabetical order
Angel Delight flavour: STRAWBERRY
EU member state: SWEDEN
Platonic solid: TETRAHEDRON
Quality Street: TOFFEE PENNY
Shakespeare play: TWELFTH NIGHT
Olympic host city: VANCOUVER
Zodiac sign: VIRGO
ABBA single: WATERLOO
Tube line: WATERLOO & CITY
SI unit: WEBER
Day of the week: WEDNESDAY
New town: WELWYN GARDEN CITY
London borough: WESTMINSTER
Shipping forecast area: WIGHT
Blue Peter presenter: WILLIAMS
British monarch: WILLIAM IV
Prime Minister: WILSON
US president: WILSON
Armed Forces rank: WING COMMANDER
Tube station: WOODSIDE PARK
Oxbridge college: WORCESTER
Poet Laureate: WORDSWORTH
FTSE 100: WPP PLC
NT property: WRAY CASTLE
Olympic sport: WRESTLING
US State: WYOMING
Freeview channel: YAAAS!
English city: YORK
Football club: YORK CITY
UK county: YORKSHIRE
Best Picture Oscar: YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU
UK Number 1: YOU WON'T FIND ANOTHER FOOL LIKE ME
UK station: YSTRAD RHONDDA
Capital city: ZAGREB
Book of the Bible: ZEPHANIAH
Whole number: ZERO
Eurovision winner: ZITTI E BUONI
Mr Benn episode: ZOOKEEPER
Saint: ZYGMUNT SZCZĘSNY FELIŃSKI
Human bone: ZYGOMATIC BONE
Animal: ZYZOMYS WOODWARDI
posted 09:00 :
I write a lot of posts about longest/shortest/highest/quickest/closest/first/last things so I thought I'd try compiling a clickable list. It took a while because I've written over 10000 posts, and it's bound to be incomplete for the same reason. But here it is and I hope it's interesting/useful/bookmarkworthy. I intend to come back and update it as I write more.
...furthest from a park
...longest/shortest unbroken roads
...most Londony London something
...highest points by borough
...highest lettered house
...most pubby borough
...most central boroughs
...most outlying embassies
...shortest street name
...first and last streets
...first and last postcodes
...first and last post offices
...least used first letter
...least impressive borough museum
...blue plaquiest building
...best afternoon teas
...best secret daffodils
...best hidden secrets
...shortest/longest journeys between stations
...longest dead ends
...most popular journeys
...furthest in zone 1 from a station
...blandest station names
...busiest and least busy stations
...most peripheral station
...longest alphabetical train journey
...most geometrically average
...least frequent stations
...longest rail tunnels
...shortest bus routes
...least frequent routes
...busiest bus stop
...bussiest bus stops
...first and last bus stops ...least Londony bus
...furthest from a bus route
...longest gap between bus stops
...most north/east/south/westerly bus stops
...busiest and least busy bus routes
...most densely-populated gridsquare
...counties with longest coastline
...most expensive streets
...most populous islands
...closest railway stations
...busiest and least busy stations
...or read more in my monthly archives
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