diamond geezer

 Monday, March 18, 2019

Ken Livingstone was still Mayor when it was announced that the Circle, District, Hammersmith & City and Metropolitan lines would be getting new air-conditioned trains and a new signalling system. The first new train arrived in 2010, and the entire rolling stock overhaul was completed in 2017. But it was only yesterday that the new signalling system finally entered public service, and for the time being only on a very short section of track. Hurrah for SMA 0.5.

Resignalling for the Four Lines Modernisation project has been an ongoing catastrophe ever since TfL awarded a multi million pound contract to a company who couldn't deliver. Bombardier were sent packing in 2013, with an £85m payout, and a fresh contract agreed with Thales instead. New trains had to be recalled to fit the second company's software, an extra five years was added to the project timeline and it was estimated that the entire debacle will cost TfL £886m more than originally planned. Thales haven't been having too much luck either, and what finally happened yesterday was originally scheduled for summer last year.

Some of the existing signalling on the subsurface railway is over 60 years old. Signallers lurk in trackside cabins pulling levers, red and green lamps control progress out of platforms, and best not mention the state of the wiring at the far end of the Metropolitan line. This has obvious repercussions on reliability - roughly half of signal failures on the Underground occur on these four lines - but also crucially on frequency. Introducing electronic signalling will allow trains to run safely closer together, eventually ratcheting up peak core services to better than every two minutes. Just not quite anytime yet.

Rather than introduce the new signalling system all in one go a more cautious migration is underway, with the subsurface network divided up into a dozen or so separate zones. The Hammersmith branch is up first, because that's easily segregated from everywhere else, and even then TfL haven't dared do the whole lot in one go. Instead they've focused on the short stretch from Hammersmith to Latimer Road, nicknamed Signalling Migration Area 0.5 (or SMA 0.5 for short). Initially it was supposed to go live in June 2018, but things went badly and the Hammersmith signal cabin was given an unexpected reprieve.

A second attempt in November was also delayed due to inadequate software - very much the modern railway curse - and final commissioning was eventually pencilled in for mid-March. TfL told the public there was a full weekend closure of the Hammersmith branch while continuing to run a full service, as cover to ensure that everything really was running smoothly. Thankfully it was, so at 2pm yesterday afternoon they quietly opened up all the stations and started operating a 'preview service' as if nothing important had just happened. It very much had.

Trains towards Hammersmith still run absolutely normally until Latimer Road, the driver at the controls keeping a close eye on ageing red or green signals. But from Latimer Road onwards all the signals and associated signage have been wrapped in black plastic, and now all the driver has to do is press a button at each station and the electronics does the rest. This weekend a squad of additional staff stood waiting at the end of this first platform, hopping into the cab all the way to Hammersmith to observe how it's done, then hopping out again on the return journey to cycle round again.

My experience aboard one of the first trains is that most passengers aren't going to notice a lot of difference. That said the trains do accelerate and decelerate a little more smoothly, because computers are better at being optimal. A happy consequence is fractionally faster journeys between stations, but for now also fractionally longer waiting at platforms because trains still have to stick to the current timetable. That'll change later. I also noted the temporary presence of TfL/engineering staff clustered in the front carriage, sporting name badges and rolled-up hi-vis tabards, and broadly smiling.

Inside the train all may seem normal, but outside there's a splendidly geeky thing to spot. Every S Stock carriage has an external light containing a lower strip which glows orange to show that the doors are open, and above that another strip which has always remained dark. That upper strip now lights up white when a train is ready to go, giving a few seconds warning that the automatic system is cleared to depart. Previously 'movement authority' was indicated by a green signal at the end of the platform, but now it's the trains themselves which display the information. This only happens where the computers are in control, so currently only between Latimer Road and Hammersmith, but eventually everyone'll be able to use the white lights as a signal that it's time to jump aboard.

SMA 0.5 is now permanently switched over to the new system, with the remainder of the four lines still manually operated, but as further sections are added drivers will increasingly find themselves with less and less to do. Up next in July is SMA 1, from Latimer Road to Paddington, plus the more challenging SMA 2 from Paddington and Finchley Road to Euston Square which contains two operationally complex junctions. SMA 3, SMA 4 and SMA 5 will run sequentially around the Circle line, the first of these (Euston Square to Monument/Stepney Green) currently scheduled for September. Past evidence might suggest not being excessively optimistic.

SMA 6 and SMA 7 will extend automation to Upminster, probably in 2021, allowing many of the most important frequency benefits to brought into play. More frequent trains with greater capacity was always the ultimate aim when the new rolling stock for the 4LM project was announced way back in 2006. At the end of the upgrade queue will be sections of track shared with other railways, notably the spurs to Richmond (SMA 10) and Wimbledon (SMA 12), the Metropolitan line beyond Moor Park (SMA 13) and finally the Piccadilly jobshare to Uxbridge (SMA 14). If automated operation ever gets this far, it might be in 2023.

If you'd prefer a more detailed or technical version of what's going on, Jack has all the insider information from the decommissioned Hammersmith cabin, and Rog went down yesterday afternoon and actually spoke to drivers and other staff. Alternatively, if all you want to know is whether automation's reached your train yet, just watch out for the white lights.

 Sunday, March 17, 2019

Here's another historic house for your to-visit list.

Pitzhanger Manor in Ealing reopened yesterday following a lengthy and significant makeover. Plans were first mooted in 2008, the lottery cash arrived in 2012 and doors closed in 2015. It's taken a year longer than expected, but the end result is a smart restoration offering insight into the work of one of London's favourite architects.

Sir John Soane designed the Bank of England, Dulwich Picture Gallery and the previous House of Lords, invariably in neo-classical style. He's perhaps best known for the eclectic museum in his townhouse on Lincoln's Inn Fields, but in 1800 he also fancied a country pad so turned his sights on Ealing. Here amid the fields he built a family home featuring many of his favourite architectural quirks, including curved ceilings and inset mirrors, and named it Pitzhanger Manor House.

The family stayed only six years before moving on, and for most of its life the house has been in the hands of Ealing Council. It spent a long time as a library, then an art gallery was tacked onto one side and more recently it proved ideal for weddings. Visitors were allowed inside for free before the makeover, with less to see, but the added wow now requires an entry fee. That's £4.50 for Ealing residents, except on Tuesday and Sunday mornings when it'll be free, and £7 for everyone else. That's apart from opening weekend when everyone gets in for nothing, or so they said.

Saturday was busy, with ribbon-cutting at ten and a host of family-friendly activities throughout. Free tickets also sold out in advance, not that it was obvious pre-booking was a good idea, so hundreds of mostly-Ealingers turned up and were disappointed. A stash of walk-up slots was available, but they swiftly vanished too, and basically I had to blag my way inside. One member of staff said sorry no, another said there's only one of you I'm sure we could probably, and the inconsistency of it all didn't please everyone. Here's what a BBC news editor tweeted ten minutes later.

The house has, as I remembered, an impressive interior. The hallway is narrow with classical decoration and lit by an elongated skylight. The wood-panelled breakfast room has a gorgeous concave skyscape on its ceiling, peering down like a cloudy eyeball, while the library ceiling nextdoor is more trellisy. The conservatory at the rear is new, or at least newly restored, and brightly verdant. Come on a quieter day and it'll be easier to flick through the large 'books' which provide a text-based explanation of what it is you're seeing.

I was convinced that the Eating Room in the south wing used to be much larger, and indeed it was, a non-Soane extension having been removed during the restoration. What remains looks splendid, especially (again) the ceiling, but the reduced size intriguingly means the house is no longer suitable for weddings. Upstairs the chief draw is the drawing room with its handmade Chinese bird-and-flower wallpaper, although not best seen on opening day when packed out by parents and babies enthralled by a visiting harpist.

Here the house is the star, so there's not a great deal in the way of accoutrements or authentic furniture. To see Sir John's eclectic collection of classical objects, once partially housed here, Holborn's still the place to go. If some of the wooden walls look a bit artificial that's because they're meant to be - in Soane's day it was cheaper to paint on a timber effect than source the real thing. Don't rush through, and make sure you read every brief display panel else you might leave knowing little more than when you went in.

A short external colonnade joins the main house to the art gallery, via the information desk and the obligatory gift shop. The curators have chosen carefully for their opening exhibition and plumped for Anish Kapoor, with a handful of his playful mirrored conceptions arrayed around the walls. That means ingeniously coloured discs, protruding spheres with holes in and of course his trademark concave glass that makes it look like everyone's upside down. On one level it's just a fairground attraction writ large, but in a selfie-obsessed age also utterly contemporary.

I'm not sure I'd have paid seven pounds just for the house, nor for just for the art, but the two together form an entirely worthy proposition. As it is I paid for neither, which you might just sneak tomorrow but I wouldn't recommend travelling far just in case. I was impressed by the crowds on Ealing Green this weekend, but the true test for Pitzhanger comes on Tuesday when an entrance fee is imposed. It's one thing hoping locals take the building to their hearts, but encouraging sufficient daytrippers from further afield may be a tougher proposition.

 Saturday, March 16, 2019

I've planned a day out every Thursday this month, with each trip further than the last. Last week Bracknell, this week...

Gadabout: IPSWICH

Ipswich is Suffolk's county town, of Anglo-Saxon origin, and once a major North Sea port. Some say it's the oldest English town the Romans didn't have a hand in. Its heart contains a mix of historic buildings and less impressive infill, plus a modern waterfront quarter rising on the former docks. There are better places in East Anglia for a day trip, and a weekend mini-break in Ipswich would be unwise. That said there are several treats to see, most of which I entirely failed to visit when I lived here for a couple of years, so more fool me.
[10 photos]

Ipswich Museum

Most town museums have either updated for a modern audience or closed. Ipswich museum, I'm pleased to say, has done neither and is all the better for it. Stepping beneath its terracotta portal brings you into a long dark atrium filled with Victorian exhibits overlooked by a separate walkway round the upper perimeter. The museum started out as a repository for a natural history collection, so its core offering is a lot of stuffed animals in glass cases. The giraffe at the back enjoys a particularly large glass case which particularly taxed the local glaziers. If only the rhino had been in a glass case nobody would have stolen its horn in 2011. The woolly mammoth needs no shield.

A separate rear galley contains a nationally significant collection of stuffed birds, courtesy of Fergus Menteith Oglivie 'of Sizewell and Scotland'. A separate classic exhibit represents "a portion of the Bass Rock", complete with dozens of squawking seabirds and fake guano. The museum goes out of its way to explain that such practices are very much disapproved of these days, but this enormous set of tableaux would have been proper educational in its day. Rest assured it's not all dead animals. Further galleries cover history, geology and ethnography, including a detailed walkthrough of world cultures that reminded me of a trip to the former Commonwealth Institute.

Stashed on the back staircase is a sledge Captain Oates tried out before heading to the South Pole, but chose to leave behind. In a side gallery are treasures from the era of King Raedwald, son of Tytila, son of Wuffa. At the foot of an Egyptian statue is a sign thanking you for not touching the goddess Sekhmet. I also learned that the interglacial period before ours is known as the Ipswichian thanks to deposits uncovered at the sewage works at Bobbitshole. But I learned nothing of Ipswich in the 21st century, because the history display round the balcony ends with the 1990s and none of the individual exhibits appear to have been touched since then either. Ipswich Museum thus works brilliantly as a museum showcasing how museums used to be, and long may it stay that way.

Ipswich Art Gallery

The Ipswich Art Gallery was formerly the Ipswich Art School, so feels more converted institution than ideal hanging space. Everything other than the central atrium is tucked upstairs around the balcony or inside a handful of awkwardly shaped rooms, currently displaying a fine collection of 100 works by women artists, with Maggi Hambling the most well known. Free to enter, and just a little odd.

Christchurch Mansion

Ipswich's other big museum is a substantial Tudor mansion in a fabulous park almost in the centre of town. Christchurch Mansion was gifted to the people in 1895, and is an absolute warren of nooks and heritage crannies. Some of the interiors are original, others were shoehorned in from elsewhere, and you never quite know which era'll be round the next corner. In amongst these are a significant number of paintings by local lad John Constable, plus a separate 1920s art gallery which is currently hosting (in a big local scoop) The Kiss by Rodin. It's one of three larger-than-life copies created by the French sculptor, this a commission for a Sussex collector who specifically requested that the male genitals be realistic, and which is now under the guardianship of the Tate. See this marble icon for free, plus additional disparate sculptures throughout the building, until 28th April.

Ipswich town centre

Much of Ipswich town centre retains a historical street pattern and heritage buildings, and much does not. In my photos above I've focused on the better bits. Timbered buildings are scattered in impressive numbers - still very much part of the commercial fabric - and the pargeting on the Ancient House (now a Lakeland) is second to none. For characterful shopping a narrow arcade wends down from Tavern Street, while for characterless shopping there's the fortress-like chain-bland Buttermarket and the sheds of Cardinal Park. The council recently spent a few million revamping Cornhill, to no obvious effect, although maybe it looks better with the grid of fountains switched on. Better to hunt down the statue of Giles's Grandma, stood outside the offices where the Daily Express cartoonist penned his glowering harridan.

Willis Building

Lovers of modern architecture should make a pilgrimage to Ipswich's Princes Street roundabout to admire one of Norman Foster's earliest commissions. The Willis Building looks 21st century, such is its influence, but was actually constructed in the early 1970s for an obscure insurance company. The office block is grand-piano-shaped, and pioneeringly open plan, and was very rapidly Grade I listed. The exterior is a curtain of smoked glass, there's not a right angle in sight, and oh how the changing light reflects off it throughout the day. Don't expect to get inside without being an employee, or pop up to the roof garden with your sandwiches, but have this 9 minute documentary by Zaha Hadid as compensation.

Ipswich Waterfront

Once upon a time urban docksides were for trade, but these days they're prime residential territory. Ipswich council leapt on the bandwagon earlier than most, sequentially replacing both sides of their waterfront with smart flats and adding a marina to attract yachting folk. It was only just kicking off when I lived here, so I was amazed by the transformation (if not entirely won over). The skyline includes Suffolk's tallest building, a tower block whose construction faltered during the 2008 recession and whose interior still isn't finished. Some wharves remain empty, others are only just being transformed... but walk far enough and it all looks closer to being complete.

At promenade level a sequence of eating and drinking opportunities has opened up, because what people want beside water these days are craft beer, boutique hotels and bistros. The vibe along Neptune Quay is impressively trendy, a quality which the architects have ensured by the simple premise of placing the town's university at the far end. Students have their own coffee bar and restaurant with slightly cheaper prices to avoid having to intermingle with the nightlife. The Waterfront's worked well for the town, which now has a quarter worthy of attracting young professionals, but I don't think I'd have wanted to move in.

River Orwell/River Gipping

What I had planned to do on my visit was head down the estuary to walk across the Orwell Bridge. The ultimate town bypass, this stilted concrete creation opened in 1982 and is now so integral to Ipswich that if it ever closes the entire town seizes up. It doesn't close very often, but Storm Gareth closed it for eight hours the day before my visit which kept the local paper in screaming headlines. With gusts of 50mph promised throughout Thursday I wisely decided against an elevated hike beside windblown lorries forty metres above the choppy Orwell, and am saving this treat for a later date. Instead I headed in the opposite direction, upstream of Stoke Bridge, beyond which point the river is known instead as the Gipping.

The River Gipping slices between the railway station and the football ground as a deep-cut channel with a walkway alongside. Don't be easily tempted. It's signposted as an appealing stroll or easy cycle, but this perception will not survive the three miles to the next village. The first stretch includes a modern footbridge, a Sainsbury's car park, the backside of an industrial estate and the reedy edge of a housing estate. As urban riverside goes, it's fairly standard. But things change at the first railway bridge, the descending concrete steps so narrow you'd never get a bike down, beyond which is a minor riverside path that feels almost rural. It's really not, though. Lurking at the top of the slope is a hu-uge brownfield site once occupied by a sugar beet factory, now reduced to rubble, while a chain of pylons plant metal footprints along the valley. The path eventually opens out into squidgy orchard, then ducks below a dual carriageway and skirts a water pumping station. I walked well over a mile without any external footpath connection, which was somewhat unnerving, before eventually emerging onto Sproughton Millennium Green. I do not especially recommend.


Sproughton is a classic Suffolk village, except not quite. Down by the river are a post-medieval watermill (private), a Millennium Green (aforementioned) and a yew-circled church (locked). Climbing the main street are an actual tithe barn (restored), the village lock-up (empty) and a tin-shed community centre (buzzing). At the top of the slope are the village pub (carvery-enabled), a vintage barn (antiques-ridden) and a bus stop (irregularly-served). The village sign is one of the last carved by Harry Carter of Swaffham. Twenty years ago you couldn't buy milk here and the top treat was an exhibition of teatowels. Today the community shop in the tithe barn sells Mediterranean Sundried Tomato Nut Roast and the top attraction in the church hall is a Jigsaw Puzzle Challenge Evening. Residents are currently up in arms at plans to replace a central field with 114 homes, even those living on a similarly-sized estate built across former fields. It's also a bloody awkward walk back to Ipswich, because connectivity isn't really a rural Suffolk thing, which is just one of the reasons I left.

 Friday, March 15, 2019

The simple guide to Brexit so far

2015 General Election
    Another coalition
    Conservative government
          Any other Labour leader
          Jeremy Corbyn
             Referendum quietly forgotten
             Referendum announced
                Boris sees his chance
                Numbers on a bus
                2016 Referendum
                      Cameron stays
                      Cameron resigns
                            Article 50 when ready
                            Article 50 anyway
                               2017 General Election
                                  Increased Tory majority
                                  Corbyn takes control
                                  Minority government
                                  DUP take centre stage
                                     Red line - no hard border
                                     Red line - no customs union
                                     Red line - immigration control
                                        Chequers plan
                                        Lengthy negotiations
                                           UK/EU deadlock
                                           Backstop conceded
                                           Withdrawal Agreement
                                              Parliament votes for
                                              Parliament votes against
                                                 Parliament votes for
                                                 Parliament votes against
                                                    Parliament prefers no deal
                                                    Parliament refuses no deal
                                                       Parliament refuses everything
                                                       Parliament requests A50 extension

The simple guide to Brexit-to-come

Parliament requests A50 extension
     EU refuses
         Third meaningful vote
             Parliament votes for
                 Managed Brexit 29 March
                     Transition period until...
             Parliament votes against
                 Nationwide chaos
                    Article 50 withdrawn
                        Half the nation cheers
                        Half the nation mutinies
                    Over the cliff edge we go
                        No deal Brexit 29 March
                            Ongoing crisis management
     EU grants short extension
         Third meaningful vote
             Parliament votes for
                 Managed Brexit 30 June
             Parliament votes against
                 Fourth meaningful vote
                     Parliament votes for
                         Managed Brexit 30 June
                     Parliament votes against
                         Fifth meaningful vote
                            Parliament votes for
                                Managed Brexit 30 June
                            Parliament votes against
                                No deal Brexit 30 June
     EU insists on long extension
         Parliament says no
             Third meaningful vote
                 Parliament votes for
                     Managed Brexit 29 March
                 Parliament votes against
                     No deal Brexit 29 March
         Parliament says yes
             EU elections must be held
                 Acrimonious campaigning
                 Irrelevant outcome
             People's Vote
                     Managed Brexit
                 No Deal
                     No deal Brexit
                     Article 50 withdrawn
             Vote of no confidence
                 May steps down
                         Hell no
                         Hell no
                         Hell no
                         Hell no
                         Hell no
                 May clings on
                     2019 General Election
                         Tory Majority
                             Managed Brexit
                                 Endless recriminations
                             No deal Brexit
                                 Free trade free-for-all
                         Corbyn triumph
                             Renegotiated Brexit
                                 Socialist nirvana
                         No majority
                                 And on
                                     And on
                                         And on
                                             And on

 Thursday, March 14, 2019

Let's visit... Charles Dickens Museum
Location: 48-49 Doughty Street, WC1N 2LX [map]
Open: 10am-5pm (closed Mondays)
Admission: £9.50 (free with a National Art Pass)
Website: dickensmuseum.com
Five word summary: home to an emerging novelist
Time to allow: about an hour

Charles Dickens lived in more than a dozen houses during his life, many of them in London, only one of which still stands. That's his newlywed home in Bloomsbury, a Georgian terrace which the great man described as "a pleasant twelve-room dwelling of pink brick, with three stories and an attic, a white arched entrance door on the street level, and a small private garden in the rear." Dickens lived here from early 1837 until late 1839, just as his career was taking off thanks to the Pickwick Papers. The house has been a museum since 1925, and was updated in 2012 by tacking on the nextdoor neighbour's house, allowing for a gift shop, cafe and exhibition space.

Don't feel pressured into buying a guidebook or audio guide before you enter, because a volunteer will hand you a free printed guide just beyond the cashdesk. The tour begins in Dickens' former entrance hall, where some of his everyday pocketfodder has been arranged on a table beneath the clock. The "as lived in" vibe continues in the dining room, which is laid out for a lively meal with friends. Food also provides the theme for the museum's current temporary exhibition, a mix of apposite quotes from the literature and relevant tales from the author's life, intelligently scattered throughout the building. This includes the Victorian basement kitchen, where Charles would have been a regular presence because he enjoyed planning meals and shopping for food rather more than the average Victorian gentleman.

Follow the shadow of Dickens up the stairs to the finest room in the house - the Drawing Room. The armchairs and tables here, like much of the furniture in the house, aren't from Doughty Street but from Charles' final home at Gad's Hill - the only one he bought rather than rented. Expect the voice of Simon Callow to boom out while you look around, narrating a favourite passage from The Pickwick Papers or Oliver Twist, both of which were completed while Dickens was living here. All twenty parts of Nicholas Nickleby were serialised in the adjacent study, which now contains the writing desk from Gad's Hill at which The Mystery of Edwin Drood was never finished.

Up again to the bedrooms, one the marital suite, the other occupied by Charles's 17-year-old sister-in-law Mary. She tragically died six weeks after the family moved in, an event which affected Charles deeply and which he often referenced in his work. The two attic rooms were the preserve of Dickens' servants so have been used as exhibition spaces rather than recreations. One's all text, while the other includes a metal grille from the Marshalsea Prison where Charles's father was imprisoned, a window lifted from Charles's teenage attic room and the Chertsey window through which proto-burglar Oliver Twist is supposed to have been shoved by Bill Sikes.

Nextdoor at 49, rather than 48, are several food-related exhibits, mostly text-based, plus a reading area where you can flick through some of the great man's many published works, but probably won't. Dickens was always a top-notch observer of everyday life, and his comment that shops "were not for the poor" rings true even today. I don't know what he'd say to the special 'soup, cake and tea' deal in the cafe for £10, but I suspect he'd have enjoyed the quiche. The cafe and giftshop are open to all, if you're interested, but don't expect to pass through into the up-and-coming novelist's home without forking out.

n.b. A short distance away is another intriguing historical museum. If visiting both without an Art Pass, make sure you visit the Charles Dickens Museum first. Here you can pick up a "50% off admission" voucher for the Foundling Museum, whereas the corresponding voucher there merely offers a paltry reduction in the Charles Dickens cafe.

Let's visit... Foundling Museum
Location: 40 Brunswick Square, WC1N 1AZ [map]
Open: 10am-5pm (closed Mondays)
Admission: £10 (free with a National Art Pass)
Website: foundlingmuseum.org.uk
Five word summary: second chance for abandoned babies
Time to allow: about an hour

Let's nip back a century. In 1739 the merchant Thomas Coram finally succeeded in opening a charitable institution devoted to the long-term care of abandoned children. Poverty in the capital was rife, and illegitimate offspring were often cast aside by destitute mothers. Thomas's new Foundling Hospital was built in open country to the north of Great Ormond Street, then the edge of the built-up city. A grand affair, one wing was for boys and the other for girls, the two sides only coming into distant contact at Sunday chapel. Children were given new names on arrival, then bed, board and an education, before being sent out to make their living in the world.

Coram's Fields remains a green oasis in the heart of Bloomsbury, including a modern educational campus and a playing field no adult may enter without an accompanying child. The Hospital itself is long demolished, after children and staff decamped to Berkhampstead in the 1920s, so the building you're about to enter is actually the 1937 HQ of the Thomas Coram Foundation. Downstairs history, first floor art, top floor music.

The history chunk is well done, balancing the need for welfare against the rigours of institutional living. Hospital uniforms reflected the employment children were expected to enter on departure - military for boys and domestic service for girls. Mothers preparing to hand over their babies would be ushered into the Committee Room, leaving behind a personal token which was added to their child's records in case they ever became prosperous enough to take them back. Officially only Anglicans were accepted, but rules were usually bent. You'll know much of the background if you've read Jacqueline Wilson's Hetty Feather, or the excellent CBBC series of the same name. One unexpected section features testimony from foundlings like Phyllis and Matthew who are still alive today - the last adoptions took place as recently as 1954.

The Court Room upstairs was rescued from the original hospital and has a magnificent Rococo interior... all the better for impressing potential patrons. One of Coram's most important benefactors was the painter William Hogarth, so he's well represented among the paintings and portraits on show today. One of his larger works - The March of the Guards to Finchley - was raffled off in 1750 and serendipitously/suspiciously/conveniently won by the hospital itself. Another generous benefactor was George Frideric Handel, who gave benefit performances in the hospital's chapel, including the newly-written Messiah, and bequeathed a manuscript of his masterwork to the hospital. On the top floor you can see a small selection of memorabilia including his will, amended at the last minute in the hospital's favour, and sit in red leather armchairs to listen to the great man's music.

Which leaves the basement, where the latest temporary exhibition is housed. At present it's Bedrooms of London, which sounds cosy but turns out to be anything but. A researcher from the Childhood Trust visited the overcrowded bedrooms of several children living in poverty and took photos, displayed here accompanied by a short commentary on each family's situation. Jason uses the toilet seat as a desk. Peter's mum is worried he'll join a gang so she doesn't let him have friends. Sanjit's family lost all their cash in a fire and now live in one room. Four year old Rachel says she sleeps in her dad's bed. It's shocking stuff, and a jolting reminder that the poverty Thomas Coram devoted his life to never really went away.

 Wednesday, March 13, 2019

15 badges from the 1970s

1) This is my I-SPY badge. Big Chief I-Spy sent it to me from Wigwam-on-the-Water, EC4. I received it because I filled in an I-SPY book, I forget which one, it might have been At The Seaside, On A Train Journey or The Sky. The Sky was the easiest book to fill in because I could just stand in our back garden after dark, whereas we didn't go to the seaside or on a train very often. Along with my badge I was sent the special code which allowed me to decode messages in the I-SPY column in the Daily Mail, but only when I went to my grandmother's house, and usually after reading the Peanuts cartoon first.

2) This is my Barnardo Helpers' League badge. The lady up the road with the big back garden gave it to me. I received it because I had a cottage-shaped collecting box and very occasionally I put some money in it. Once a year the lady up the road held a big party for all the cottage-fillers in the village, at which our boxes were opened, emptied and re-sealed. I remember there was squash for everyone, and platefuls of dubious sandwiches, and plenty of party games to play. My contribution was so minimal that it probably didn't pay for the squash, let alone the sandwiches, or indeed the badge, but it did help instil a feeling of philanthropy at an early age.

3) This is my Watch badge. Watch was the junior environmental campaign run by an organisation whose name I don't specifically remember. I do remember they used to send a newsletter a few times a year banging on about pollution, which was big in the Seventies, and what we as children could do about it. One of their suggestions was to count the wires in your street, which always seemed a strange thing to do but the idea's stayed with me ever since. The other big campaign featured at the time was National Tree Planting Year, with its catchy slogan "Plant a tree in ’73, plant some more in ’74", because planting trees was something children could actually achieve.

4) This is my Guide Dogs For The Blind Association badge. There weren't as many charities in the 1970s as there are now so the same ones took prominence all the time. I can't remember why I received this badge, but there was a boy in my class at school whose mother was blind so it might have been because we raised some money for her. People of a certain age are particularly fond of remembering that there used to be collecting boxes in the street in the shape of guide dogs, and sometimes they got stolen before they were emptied, and I try not to be the dullard who brings up this subject in pubs.

5) This is my Transport Museums badge. I bought it at The Museum of British Transport in Clapham (not Swindon or York, which are the other locations mentioned on the badge). The London museum was based in an old bus garage so focused more on road transport than rail transport. I must have gone while I was at infant school because the museum closed in 1973 and its collection shifted to Syon Park (before shifting to Covent Garden in 1980). The other thing I bought in the shop was a platform ticket for Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, which had pride of place on my bedroom wall for many years.

6) This is my Royal Air Force Museum Hendon badge. I got it from the aforementioned museum, probably not very long after it opened in November 1972. I'm pretty sure I went there with the cubs, it being an extremely cub-pack-friendly museum to visit. On my visit there would have been not quite as many old planes to see as there are today, but rather more woggles, green caps and sandwiches wrapped in tin foil.

7) This is my Cadbury's Freddo badge. I must have received it as part of a promotional deal relating to this iconic frog-shaped chocolate bar, possibly when it was newly launched on the UK market in 1973. Freddos were only sold until 1979, but were quite the treat when a penny chew or threepenny lolly didn't satisfy. Obviously Freddos came back again in the mid-90s and are still around, but they're smaller now and you don't get badges any more so I count myself very lucky.

8) This is my Double Agents badge. Double Agents were a boiled sweet produced by Trebor, named because they had a hard flavour outside and a soft flavour inside. My absolute favourites were strawberries and cream Double Agents, numbered 004, closely followed by lime and chocolate (003). The sweet wrappers had coded messages on them, which could be unravelled if you found the packet with the right Spy Information printed on the inside. Trebor often ran special offers - they sent me a Fingerprint Kit in 1978 in return for four wrappers and a 10p coin- and I think that's also how I got the badge.

9) This is my Astro Smurf badge. It must be from 1978 because Smurfs were only big in the UK in 1978. Smurf figurines were given away at National petrol stations, so I probably forced my parents to drive out of their way and fill up at one purely to get a blue-faced freebie. The badge likely came from there too, or maybe I swapped it with a friend at school, my memories of smurfmania are not strong.

10) 11) These are the two badges I bought when my family went for a day out in Maritime Greenwich. The first comes from Gipsy Moth IV, the yacht sailed solo by Sir Francis Chichester around the world. She was exhibited in dry dock at Greenwich from 1968, which is how I got to walk on deck, although all those feet damaged her so much that eventually you could only look, and then she decayed so much they took her away. Don't worry, she's since been repaired and often goes for a spin on the The Solent. The other badge is for the Cutty Sark tea clipper, before it caught fire and got encased in glass, back when admission was a lot less than £13.50.

12) This is my Save It badge. Save It was an energy-saving campaign run by the government in 1976, including posters, helpful booklets and a TV commercial featuring Delia Smith. I had the posters on my bedroom wall too, reminding me to keep doors closed and turn lights off when not in use. The whole thing seems way ahead of its time today, environmentally-speaking, but in reality was more about helping the country out of recession than saving the planet.

13) This is my Buzby Junior Club badge. Buzby was a cartoon character launched in 1976 by Post Office Telecommunications to encourage Britons to use the telephone. The campaign's main target audience was adults, but children adored him so a junior fan club was established. I signed up, which is how I got the badge, plus a regular newsletter full of telephone-related content. It did not encourage me to make excess phone calls. Bernard Cribbins's bird was replaced by Maureen Lipman in the 1980s, but her fondly-remembered campaign never quite reached newsletter status.

14) This is my Dig For British Gold badge. It was earned as part of an appeal launched in primary and secondary schools in 1975 to raise money to help train British athletes for the Olympics. The British Amateur Athletics Board invited schoolchildren to compete in sponsored activities walks, swims and silences, and those raising £5, £10 and £20 respectively were awarded bronze, silver and gold certificates signed by Mary Peters. The overall target was only £50,000, which'd barely kit out a snowboarding squad today but UK athletics was a more aspirational phenomenon back then. I think my school sponsored-walked. I did not get a certificate.

15) This is my Tardis Commander badge. I got it from the Science Museum at a special BBC Special Effects exhibition which ran for six months from December 1972 to May 1973. A wide range of BBC programmes were included but the main focus was Doctor Who, then celebrating its tenth anniversary. I met two Daleks, a Cyberman and a Sea Devil, and got to walk through a police box into a mock-up Tardis console. Sadly I remember none of this, and have pieced together what I must have seen from a page on the internet, but I have the badge as proof and that's good enough for me.

 Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Geography Field Trip: Pollards Hill

Location: Straddling the London boroughs of Merton and Croydon (east of Mitcham, south of Streatham, northwest of Croydon) [OS Map]

Physical Geography: Pollards Hill is a proper hill, 65m in height, rising out of the London Clay. It has a trig point on top, plus a litter bin and a pedestal installed by the Pollards Hill Residents' Association. This gives distances to local and international landmarks, including Croydon Clocktower, Motspur Park Gasometers and the North Pole, inexplicably using the abbreviation 'mls' to represent miles. Views are excellent to the south and west, spanning just over 180°. An ancient earthwork depression exists just below the summit. The hillside slopes particularly sharply to the west, before mostly levelling out. Ena Road, which descends the northwest flank, is one of the steepest streets in Greater London.

Administrative Geography: A longstanding administrative boundary is aligned along the foot of the slope. From 1894 it was the dividing line between Surrey and the County Borough of Croydon, and from 1965 between the boroughs of Merton and Croydon. Merton has the low land, while Croydon has the hill. Despite this, only the Merton side is officially called Pollards Hill - the Croydon side is technically part of Norbury. Because the two councils never worked together no roads link the housing on either side of the boundary, which is marked by a long fence. Instead a single footpath climbs the hill, crossing grassy scrub that used to be allotments - unlit, unpaved and entirely unsuitable for the infirm. As a result of this disconnect the two sides of the boundary have developed in very different ways, which is excellent news when on a geography field trip for 'compare and contrast' reasons.

Human Geography (Croydon): The Croydon side was developed first at the end of the nineteenth century. A couple of grand tree-lined avenues broke off from London Road, initially servicing only a handful of homes below and around the summit. The hilltop was left undeveloped, and gifted to the council in 1913 by Sir Frederick Edridge, five times Mayor of Croydon. Later homes are generally on the large side, with Pollards Hill East slightly outranking Pollards Hill North in terms of aspirational status. A key neighbourhood characteristic is that most of the roadside trees are pollarded, which may not be how the hill got its name in the first place but is a nice coincidence.

Human Geography (Merton): The housing at the foot of the hill could hardly be more different. This is the Pollards Hill Estate, a 1970s attempt to create high density low-rise council housing. The estate consists of 3-storey houses and flats, laid out in zigzagging blocks that weave compactly around the edge of a generous open space. From above it looks like the architects got a potato print of a rectilinear snake and repeated it to squeeze in as many homes as possible. On one side the blocks enclose collective parking spaces and on the other side small garden squares, perfectly dividing the two flanks of the building by function.

The estate's not badly designed but has seen better days, so the local housing association have a £35m regeneration plan. Their workforce is currently renewing kitchens, adding insulation, fixing flat roofs and replacing windows, with plenty of scaffolding as visual evidence. But later phases intend to lose the overall coherence of the existing site by building additional blocks in gaps around the perimeter, because this is what a 21st century housing crisis does to a 1970s estate. Three acres of green space will be lost to make room for the developments, adding 200 extra parking spaces but only 75 new homes. As Moat Homes say, 'exciting things are happening', but more for their bank balance than architectural clarity.

The focal point of the estate is the library, a variegated geometric building refurbished in 2009. It's reassuringly busy. Alongside are a community centre and a nursery, each by modern standards inefficiently single-storey. Across the road is what once passed as a bus station, in recognition that the only nearby railway stations are some distance away, because nobody lives in Pollards Hill for an easy commute. As for shops, the sole parade forks towards a five-way roundabout, with Londis at one end and the Co-Op at the other, plus a halal frozen food bazaar in the centre. It's no ghetto but equally nothing very special, and no well-known coffee chains will be turning up any time soon.

Roads leading westward from the roundabout form a more traditional suburban landscape of interwar semis and part-terraced pebbledash, stretching down to the edge of Mitcham Common. More intriguing is the southeastern wedge, added in the 1950s across what was once Pollards Hill Golf Course. Simple terrace-block council housing was introduced, plus an outer ring of temporary prefabs on cul-de-sacs numbered from First to Seventeenth. They've since been overbuilt with more modern stock, but Eighteenth Road and Nineteenth Road somehow survive. The latter looks nothing special - a narrow backalley painted with double yellow lines along which nobody lives and boasting no street sign - but it is the highest ordinal-numbered street anywhere in Greater London.

Conclusion: The split personality of Pollards Hill exemplifies many geographical principles. The higher land was developed first and contains higher value properties. The valley floor was developed second and much more densely. It's generally the case that the newer the house, the smaller the plot. Council-built housing reflects the era in which it was built, with the 1970s more adventurous than decades before or since. All the pressure to add modern housing is focused on increasing infill on publicly-owned land. Councils rarely work together, creating artificial barriers to connectivity. London's suburbs are the bedrock of the capital.

 Monday, March 11, 2019

What happens to the balance on an Oyster card when you make a journey?

It's not this...
Touch in
Touch out
    [get charged for journey]
...because anyone who failed to touch out would travel for free.

It's this...
Touch in
    [maximum fare deducted]
Touch out
    [maximum fare refunded]
    [get charged for journey]
This way anyone who fails to touch out pays the maximum fare, and law-abiding folk pay the correct amount.

The maximum fare is £8.20 (equivalent to the peak fare between zone 1 and zone 6 if using a combination of TfL and non-TfL services). Almost all journeys within London are cheaper than this, but the system punishes miscreants by assuming they made the most expensive one.

n.b. The maximum fare is not always £8.20.
» If your Oyster has a discount applied, the maximum fare is £5.60
» If you have a season ticket and use it outside its zonal availability, the maximum fare is either £5.90 or £4.60 (because your season ticket covers some of the full £8.20 journey)
» If you travel on TfL Rail to/from Heathrow without touching in/out the maximum fare is £10.10 off-peak or £10.50 peak
» If you travel on Heathrow Express without touching in/out the maximum fare is £22 off-peak or £25 peak
» If using Oyster at a National Rail station outside Greater London the maximum fare may be more, for example at peak times £8.30 (Broxbourne, Hertford East, Ware, St Margarets, Rye House), £8.40 (Chafford Hundred, Grays, Ockenden, Purfleet), £9.00 (Epsom), £9.60 (Shenfield, Watford Junction) or £15.10 (Gatwick Airport)
But let's pretend it's always £8.20, because that'll make what follows easier.

After you touch in, your Oyster card contains £8.20 less than it did beforehand. It continues to contain £8.20 less throughout your journey. Only when you touch out do TfL reimburse you the difference between the actual fare and the maximum fare, ensuring everything balances out.
Touch in
    [maximum fare deducted]
Touch out
    [difference between maximum fare and actual fare refunded]
For example, if travelling from Leicester Square to Covent Garden in Zone 1, suppose you start with £3 on your Oyster card. On touching in £8.20 is deducted, leaving a negative balance of -£5.20 during travel. On touching out that £8.20 is refunded and the actual fare of £2.40 is taken, leaving you with 60p on your card.

This is not new.

What's new is whether the ticket barriers open or not.
Touch in
    [check PAYG balance]
    [open ticket barriers]
    [maximum fare deducted]
Touch out
    [difference between maximum fare and actual fare refunded]
    [check PAYG balance]
    [open ticket barriers]
If you don't have enough Pay As You Go on your Oyster at the start of your journey, the gates won't open. This is the dreaded error 36 ("Insufficient PAYG").

You don't need to have £8.20 on your Oyster for the gates to open. Instead your balance only needs to exceed the Entry Threshold, which is the minimum PAYG fare from that station.

The minimum PAYG fare at a Zone 1 station is £2.40, which means the gates will open so long as you have at least £2.40 on your card. At stations in zones 2-6 the minimum PAYG fare depends on time of day - £1.70 peak or £1.50 off-peak. TfL always assume you're about to make the cheapest possible journey, and if you have enough PAYG for that then the gates will open.
Touch in
    [if Entry Threshold exceeded, open ticket barriers]
    [Entry Charge deducted]
Touch out
    [Exit Charge refunded]
    [if Exit Threshold exceeded, open ticket barriers]
For example, if travelling from Leicester Square to Covent Garden in Zone 1, suppose you start with only £2 on your Oyster card. That's too low to qualify as a cheapest possible journey so the gates won't open and you'll have to top-up before travelling.

This is not new either. What's new is how the Exit Threshold is applied.

Assuming you touched in, the gates will always open when you touch out.

For example, if travelling in the rush hour from Uxbridge in zone 6 to Covent Garden in Zone 1, suppose you start with only £2 on your Oyster card. That's enough to qualify as a cheapest possible journey from Uxbridge, so the gates there let you in. It's not enough to pay the fare to Covent Garden, which is £5.10, but the gates still let you out with a negative balance of -£3.10.

But if you didn't touch in, then the Exit Threshold comes into play. This is TfL's way of deciding whether or not there's enough money on your card to open the gates and let you out.

If your balance exceeds the Exit Threshold then a maximum fare is applied and you pass through. If not then Error 36 flashes up and a member of staff is supposed to come over and guide you towards the ticket machine to pay manually.

Previously the Exit Threshold was the same as the Entry Threshold - the fare for the cheapest possible journey to that station. That's at least £1.50, and in zone 1 as much as £2.40.

For example, if heading to Covent Garden suppose you thought you'd touched in but you hadn't, and there was only £2 on your card because you hadn't topped up lately. It happens. Covent Garden's Exit Threshold is £2.40, so Error 36 would have trapped you on the wrong side of the gates, still with £2 on your card, requiring a member of staff to let you out.

Error 36 causes hassle, particularly at busy stations. First the blocked gate slows down passenger flow, then the subsequent rigmarole occupies staff. In an age of automation it's not ideal.

So what TfL did last month is tweak the Exit Threshold so that it's no longer identical to the Entry Threshold. It used to be positive and now it's negative. It's now -£2.00.

In other words, for those who fail to touch in, ticket gates at TfL stations will now let you exit so long as you're not in deficit by more than £2. That's real money at the end of the trip, not all this faffing around with maximum fares mid-journey. Even if your Oyster balance started out low, the gates will likely open.

For example, if travelling from Uxbridge to Covent Garden, suppose you start with £2 on your card but somehow fail to touch in. The cheapest possible journey to Covent Garden would have cost £2.40, leaving a balance of -40p. Previously this would have triggered Error 36, but -40p is above the new -£2 threshold, so now the gates let you out. Importantly the system doesn't charge you £2.40 but the maximum fare of £8.20, so your final balance is -£6.20.

Nobody's getting away with anything here. If Error 36 doesn't get you then a maximum fare will, and any card ending up with a negative PAYG balance always needs to be topped up before it can be used again.
Touch in
    [if card balance exceeds fare for minimum possible journey, open ticket barriers]
Touch out
    [if customer touched in, open ticket barriers]
    [if card balance exceeds -£2, open ticket barriers]
    [if neither of the above, Error 36]
Since the change to the Exit Threshold was introduced TfL's ticketing team have noted that Error 36 is being seen at barriers 70% less often than before. That means smoother passenger flow and less need for staff to interfere when gates fail to open. They also haven't seen a significant increase in fraudulent usage. So all's good.

n.b. Customers using contactless payment cards are not charged an entry fare when they touch in to start a journey. All fares are charged at the end of the traffic day. However, they can still be charged a maximum fare if they don’t touch in at the start of their journey or out at the end.

But how complicated all this is, and that's just for an individual journey. When it comes to combinations and capping even fewer customers understand why they're being charged what they're being charged, they simply swipe and go. Fares for train travel in London have become increasingly opaque, calculated within a 'magic box' and paid on trust.

You can read the official explanation of this gate reader change on pages 12 and 13 of the latest edition of Ticketing & Revenue Update, the bimonthly publication for all Station and Revenue Control staff. TfL would rather not publish these, but Freedom of Information requests force their hand and redacted versions are regularly released. In edition #115 you can also read about what went wrong with the POMs at Moorgate, what happened yesterday regarding platform tickets and an explanation for the Epsom Freedom Pass debacle.

I wouldn't be surprised if I've got certain bits of today's post wrong, or made incorrect assumptions, so do let me know if anything's amiss. You usually do anyway.

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