diamond geezer

 Tuesday, October 03, 2023

There are six points around the Greater London boundary where three counties meet.

Let's visit a few.

Specifically: Biggin Hill/Westerham/Tatsfield
Location: Rag Hill

This is the most rural of the six triple points and the only one not related to a river or motorway. It's also marked by a rather splendid boundary stone.

To get here take a walk along the quiet twisty country lane that wends between Tatsfield Green and the six-way junction at Hawley's Corner. There's no pavement and only occasional room to overtake but don't worry, when I visited at the weekend it was so quiet that cyclists outnumbered cars by a factor of three. Tatsfield Lane is also the boundary between Kent and London, so what we're looking out for is the point where the lane suddenly flips into Surrey. On the Kent side there are only fields and one gated private road leading off to a cluster of isolated residential palaces. On the London side are many more fields and a fiercely barricaded farm comprised mostly of horses and sheds. This entire area is equine-dominated, awash with paddocks, livery stables and more paddocks, these very occasionally glimpsed behind fences and high hedges.

The triple point occurs at the top of Rag Hill immediately outside a lonely-looking chunky white cottage. Its crazy paved parking area spans two counties whereas in the lane outside the precise dividing line is depicted by differential standards in road maintenance. Kent has put in noticeably more surfacing effort than Surrey. According to the boundary stone this is where Godstone meets Sevenoaks, a combination of districts which dates it no later than 1974, but probably much earlier before Bromley muscled in and muddied the waters. Greater London officially starts on the other side of the hedge but the only way to reach it at this point is to poke your arm through the foliage.

Rag Hill is a proper descent - something to tax passing cyclists for half a minute or so - and is duly blessed with a Surrey County Council grit bin at its foot. Here a private cul-de-sac bears off into the woods, its residents presumably peeved that their hideaway doubles up as a public footpath. On one side a Shetland pony quietly grazes while on the other side a sign warns that their dog has big teeth and can run faster than you. The only inhabitants along the opposite track appear to be horses, some free to trot up to the London boundary on the wooded ridgetop, others corralled closer to an amateur dressage ring. Keep walking and you'll soon end up in the village of Tatsfield, a Surrey salient I should blog about separately at another time, but for now at least you know where the triple point is.

Specifically: Heathrow/Stanwell Moor/Poyle
Location: M25 J14

This grim outpost on the edge of the roundabout above M25 junction 14 is simultaneously the westernmost point in London and the northernmost point in Surrey, near enough. Before the motorway was built there was no triple point here, but never underestimate the power of an orbital motorway to shift administrative boundaries. Also between 1965 and 1995 the triple point involved Bucks rather than Berks because Slough hadn't yet reached out and gobbled up Poyle. I've not been here recently because it's not very welcoming on foot, so my photo is from 2009 when I wrote a proper post about 'West London'.

Specifically: West Drayton/Colnbrook/Thorney
Location: M25 J15

This one's also a 1995 construct created when Berkshire nudged out to touch Greater London for the first time. Alas it's in a location impossible to reach on foot, amid the sprawling four-level stack interchange where the M25 crosses the M4, and not even in the centre of that junction but nudged out along the M4's eastbound carriageway. The Hillingdon boundary still wiggles up the Colne Valley along the line of the former Bigley Ditch, a minor waterway since by shifted by civil engineering on a grand scale. I managed to get within a quarter of a kilometre yesterday by traipsing to the remotest side of Harmondsworth Moor.

These former gravel workings were converted to a public park in 2000 by British Airways no less, their HQ being close by. The landscape undulates considerably across 300 acres and might be idyllic during wildflower season were it not for the roar of constant traffic and periodic jet engines. The motorway junction is raised up on wooded ramparts, forever out of reach. One moorland path takes you close to the shifted Bigley Ditch but for onward progress you instead need to follow the Wraysbury River along a path that abruptly reaches a wall of graffitied concrete. The first subway ducks under the M4's off-ramp, the longest burrows beneath the main motorway through a jagged grey vault and the third negotiates the on-ramp before escaping into an industrial estate.

If Heathrow's third runway is ever built the M25 is due to be remodelled and the southern half of Harmondsworth Moor will be sacrificed to tarmac, but the junction with the triple point is due to escape the bulldozers. More realistically, in the absence of a government keen to commit to any kind of major transport infrastructure project, expect this extraordinary liminal nomansland to linger on.

Specifically: Harefield/Denham/West Hyde
Location: Broadwater Lake

This triple point is on the River Colne below Harefield, not far from Black Jacks Cottage, at the southernmost tip of Hertfordshire. It sits adrift amid a chain of lakes which used to be gravel workings on a strip of nature reserve surrounding Broadwater Lake, which might be idyllic except that HS2 has sealed it all off. This is almost precisely where the uncancelled section of the megarailway crosses a London lake on a ridiculously long bridge before diving into a tunnel amid an enormous scar on a Home Counties hillside, and having to deal with three different planning authorities can't have helped.

Specifically: Enfield Lock/Waltham Cross/Waltham Abbey
Location: Rammey Marsh

The M25 is back but this time it's between junctions, namely J25 for the A10 and J26 for Epping Forest. The precise spot is where the motorway crosses the River Lea, technically the Lee Navigation, which because of its towpath makes it easy to access. As you pass under this noisy viaduct Greater London suddenly bifurcates into Herts on one bank and Essex on the other, and I think a boundary post exists in the undergrowth just to the north of the hard shoulder. By chance the triple point was in almost precisely the same spot before the motorway arrived, but a few metres further north and on the opposite side of the river.

Specifically: Erith/Purfleet/Dartford
Location: River Thames

And finally, perhaps unsurprisingly, it's a triple point in the middle of the River Thames. The estuary is half a mile wide at this point, bang opposite the mouth of the River Darent, so you'll only get to the right spot if you're in a boat. The first and last sections of the London Loop get close, but this is the least satisfying triple point of London's half dozen. Best not try collecting the full set.

 Monday, October 02, 2023

30 unblogged things I did in September
(contains nine additional clickable photos)

Fri 1: "Hi," said the email. "I hope this doesn't come across as too strange but here goes. I was recently browsing eBay for a few things and came across something that I think you might like. So I bought it. See it as a small token of appreciation from a Londoner who only really learnt about London from reading your blog. The item is available now to pick up at this (I think local) address." Blimey, thanks! So I went round to the shop wielding my QR code, which scanned successfully, but the man behind the counter went through all his piles and told me he couldn't find it, it wasn't there. So, thanks, but also damn, no package.
Sat 2: I walked for an hour along the Grand Union Canal from the house where my auntie grew up to the house where she lives now, past Fanny Cradock's house, and my reward was a lovely long-overdue family reunion with cronuts and good conversation. [photo]
Sun 3: At the front of the eastbound platform at West Ealing, where you could very easily miss it, is a brightly planted community garden. I loved the display but the backdrop of 33 positive buzzwords (Empowered! Unity! Faith!) was a bit OTT. [photo]
Mon 4: I went back to try to pick up my mystery package but no, the shopkeeper still claimed he didn't have it. I went back again ten minutes later armed with the extra information that the package was square and grey and this time he found it, hurrah, but still grumbled about handing it over because my name didn't match the name on the package. Here's a photo of the excellent gift I unwrapped. It's circular, it's made of metal and the chocolate digestive is for scale.

Tue 5: They give away some strange freebies at Waterloo but I wasn't expecting a table stacked high with copies of "Liam Loves Escalators", a children's story book published in 2017 by the Lift and Escalator Industry Association. I don't think it was as popular as they hoped it'd be. If you'd like to read the full story of Liam and Escalatosaurus, the e-book is available online here. [photo]
Wed 6: I thought it was apocryphal but at Whitechapel station they are genuinely announcing "Customers using the escalators are advised to carry pets at all times." Now, in 2023.
Thu 7: I walked past the jet blast fence at London City Airport while one of the planes was powering up, and forget ULEZ, those engines will have damaged my lungs far more than Barry's ten year-old diesel.
Fri 8: I bumped into Ian Visits in exactly the place you'd expect to bump into Ian Visits (and did exactly the same thing elsewhere four days later).
Sat 9: A young couple brought their newborn to an Open House tour, only for it to scream its head off so they left, and I think that's when it struck them that their former gadabout cultural life had come to a sudden end.
Sun 10: At the Beefeater restaurant in Woolwich they're still advertising limited edition Creme Egg ice cream sundaes and urging you to book now for Easter. It's almost as bad as still wearing a poppy in April. [photo]
Mon 11: TfL have put up posters at Bakerloo line stations alerting passengers that a new timetable is being introduced today and average peak waiting times will be eight seconds longer. Imagine if they put up posters every time they made a service fractionally worse.

Tue 12: It seems remarkably early in the term for multiple classes to be on school trips to the museums in South Kensington - I was hoping to have at least one week's respite.
Wed 13: "We can only give you half your prescription," said my dispensing chemist yesterday, "come back tomorrow". So I came back, but when I opened my bag they'd given me the whole thing, not just the other half. When prescriptions cost £9.65 it's good to be 50% up.
Thu 14: I bought some trainers in Primark at the start of July. I'm not sure what I was expecting for £18 but I wasn't expecting to see wear on the heel after just one day. Pretty soon I worked out they weren't waterproof, and by mid-August a crack in the sole meant they leaked upwards too. Today, not entirely unexpectedly, a chunk of the sole fell out on the way home and they are now in the bin. Never again.
Fri 15: The Christmas puddings and mince pies have reappeared at my local supermarket, and 20 years ago this would have been the subject of an entire day's post. [photo]
Sat 16: During my Open House ramblings I managed to fit in a ride on a vintage Routemaster as part of the London Bus Museum's Route 38 Heritage Event, and blimey when those buses were full they were really cramped. [photo]
Sun 17: My immediate neighbour called to me across the balcony and offered me a potted plant because he was moving out and I'm pleased to say it's since flowered. I have totally lost count of the number of new neighbours I've had since I moved here in 2001, it's well into double figures.

Mon 18: A large chunk of the East Bank has opened up in the Olympic Park along a stepped waterfront. This is because it's the start of a new term, a new UAL building has opened and their fashion students need to be able to get to lectures.
Tue 19: An old friend from university suddenly got in touch today - I haven't seen him since the morning Princess Diana died. He's had a pretty tumultuous year so I commiserated. I then Googled him and discovered he's had a glittering academic career doing great things, and I felt very unworthy in that I never really maximised my full potential and he very much did. We may meet up.
Wed 20: The minor celebrity I walked past today: Jon Snow, the former newsreader, fleeing Granary Square in King's Cross.
Thu 21: I got Wordle right in 1 today, because if you stick with the same familiar opening choice it eventually happens.
Fri 22: A bin strike has just started across Tower Hamlets and this is the pile of rubbish beside Bus Stop M. I got chatting to a neighbour who said the strike was disgraceful and he'd seen rats and the council really should send some binmen round to clear it up. I rolled my eyes and walked on. The pile was finally cleared a week later.

Sat 23: On Cuckoo Avenue I was unnerved by a sign for the Ealing Half Marathon which said "Welcome to our runners from England". I presumed it was deliberate racism, but it turned out later to be one of dozens and the full set included Hungary, Latvia, Iceland and Nepal. [photo]
Sun 24: Walking between National Trust properties in Surrey I passed a peeling road sign on a downgraded A road that instantly made me think "Beware aliens!". It was pointing towards the villages of Send and Ripley. [photo]
Mon 25: My brother and his wife are celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary today, which also means it's 30 years since I got to be best man and give a speech, and I still reckon my brother showed great foresight in getting someone else to organise the stag do.
Tue 26: I spent fifteen minutes on the phone to go through the rigmarole of opening a new savings account just to get an extra ½% interest. It's never this convoluted when they want to lower the rates instead.
Wed 27: If you're the first person round Crystal Palace Park maze in the morning, it turns out you get absolutely plastered by spiders' webs.
Thu 28: In the highest loo in London, which is on the upper observation deck at Horizon 22, the idiots have positioned the paper towel dispenser immediately above the toilet roll holder, which really isn't where you want dripping wet hands to be. [photo]
Fri 29: Back in April I pointed out that Harrow bus station didn't have a bus spider map, either online or at the bus station, describing it as a "lamentable omission". I'm pleased to say that there are now two up-to-date spider maps at the bus station, hurrah, and I even used them to negotiate my onward travel.

Sat 30: The new cycle lanes in the centre of Leytonstone are ridiculously convoluted in their attempts to keep bikes separate from both traffic and pedestrians, and horribly inefficient in their use of space, the worst bit probably being the bus stop bypass where pedestrians are funnelled into a litter bin.

 Sunday, October 01, 2023

30 blogged things I did in September

Fri 1: I've now been publishing my 'unblogged' posts for 5 years, i.e. I've done 60 of them, so to still be getting 50 comments on the latest one is quite something, thanks.
Sat 2: I broke the news that tube platform tickets were being withdrawn tonight, except at Southwark, and people were unexpectedly very interested indeed. My tweet on @diamondgzrblog got 369,000 views making it my 4th most successful tweet ever. Thanks Geoff, thanks Tim.
Sun 3: When I launch a quiz at 7pm it really shows up the fact that most of you only read the blog first thing in the morning. Quizzes are normally completed in a few hours at most, but my body parts quiz took thirteen and a half.
Mon 4: This was September's "well I totally wasted my time going there and writing about it" day. People generally aren't interested in reports of events that have now finished (and yes I know you were interested, but you are not 'people generally').
Tue 5: I wrote about a place in London I hoped nobody had been to, it being an obscure wood on the very edge of Havering. But of course one of you thought you'd been, one of you said you'd been (but left scant evidence), one of you waxed lyrical about childhood memories of this precise area before the woodland was planted, and three days later one of you said it was on one of your running routes, and basically I hoped in vain.

Wed 6: I wrote about a place in London I hoped everybody had been to, it being world-famous Trafalgar Square, but of course eventually one of you chirped up and said you'd never been. Specifically you said "I’ve spent a fair amount of time visiting London but have never been to Trafalgar Square", whatever a fair amount of time actually is, and sorry David the rest of us just think that's a bit weird.
Thu 7: I carried on updating my table of "Dates on which the temperature somewhere in the UK exceeded 30°C" as the heatwave progressed, and the September column got so wide that on Day 5 Google emailed me to say my blog was no longer mobile-compliant.
Fri 8: I got 21 comments on my post about 21 London 21s, and 21×2 comments on my 21st birthday post, so thanks everyone, I love it when that happens.
Sat 9: I have a stats package which keeps track of how many visitors turn up on the blog each day, and today was by far the lowest total of the month, for which I blame a) it being a Saturday b) sunny weather luring people outdoors c) writing about Open House.
Sun 10: I don't usually publish an unfinished post but my Open House schedule was tiring so I abandoned several write-ups partway through, and it was quite liberating coming back later when I was less busy and adding the missing paragraphs. I suspect people generally didn't go back and read them (and yes I know you read them, but you are not 'people generally')
Mon 11: So I did it again.
Tue 12: My photograph of Prince Henry's Room, the hardly-ever-open pre-Great-Fire throwback on Fleet Street, inexplicably ended up in Flickr Explore as the day's 471st best photo which meant a global audience turned up to look at it, and it's subsequently got over 100 likes and come on guys, I take much better photos than that.

Wed 13: I thought I'd burst the Open House logjam with a post about changed bus routes, and it was my favourite kind of post because I tried hard to get the initial list right but you then collectively chipped in and pointed out where it was wrong so hopefully the end result was 100% correct.
Thu 14: Sometimes I rush writing my post because I'm going out for the evening and I always hope you won't notice. Then I worry that nobody ever notices so I should go out more often.
Fri 15: I have since been back to Brookside Close, the Harrow version, and I can report that construction has now begun on the site of the demolished garages (see photo number six) and that concrete mixers have to reverse out of the cul-de-sac causing minor traffic chaos.
Sat 16: I didn't write a post about the nominal takeover of Bond Street station by a major fashion brand because that's what they want you to do. All publicity is good publicity, even when the general consensus is "sheesh, what were you thinking prioritising corporate greed over customer confusion?"
Sun 17: Readers should be reassured that you don't need to leave me a comment saying "I enjoyed reading it even if I didn't comment" because I'm going to write it anyway.
Mon 18: I apologise for creating another of those images that flicks between different photos every five seconds, I know some of you hate them, but otherwise you'd have seen half a dozen fewer photos.

Tue 19: I've started using different typefaces on the blog more often, indeed there was one day this month when (if your device was suitably equipped) the entire post was written in Comic Sans.
Wed 20: This year I got away with eight posts about Open House visits, and I'll try just to do no more than seven next year.
Thu 21: I have no plans to donate my 9TC 2100 TV/clock/radio/cassette to a museum, thanks. I haven't kept it for 40 years just to get rid of it (plus, as I said, the tape deck no longer works).
Fri 22: I remain amazed that the wider media still hasn't picked up on the fact that the tube map now contains air-conditioning snowflakes because it's precisely the sort of easily-written-up trifle that normally makes waves online.
Sat 23: I have no plans to run 20 questions hide and seek again, sorry, partly because some of you took it much too seriously, partly because some of you didn't take it seriously enough, partly because you didn't get close to narrowing me down, but mainly because collectively you didn't manage to ask me 20 questions.
Sun 24: You thought it was a post about crisp packet colours but it was in fact about BBC local radio dumbing down, and alas all we proved that the masses can indeed be entertained by something dumbed down, mainstream and predictable.
Mon 25: My Dad asked, and yes, the strange winged object in my photo of Hatchlands Park was a kite, not a giant killer insect.

Tue 26: I'm always intrigued when someone chooses to ask a question they could have Googled, but then I remember there are two kinds of people, those who use search engines and those who don't. Members of the latter group often look at the former in awe like they have some kind of information superpower.
Wed 27: My thanks to the reader who noticed I'd muddled a Road and an Avenue and emailed me about it, and it was all sorted within three minutes.
Thu 28: In future, rather than going for an annotated bus journey, I might just pick a random route number and ask if anyone remembers it.
Fri 29: Well spotted Ashley. My report from 22 Bishopsgate was almost identical in parts to my report from 8 Bishopsgate because the view from two neighbouring superskyscrapers was always going to be very similar.
Sat 30: This month's 'surely' total is four. Please don't risk a surely, especially a "Surely...?" because the answer is invariably No and you just look like a smug twat.
Sun 1: Today is the 5th anniversary of my first Unblogged post, and yet for some reason I've decided to celebrate it with this self-indulgent self-referential meta post about the blogged rather than the usual eclectic smorgasbord of the unblogged. It will not happen again.

 Saturday, September 30, 2023

The London borough of Merton is updating its logo.

It's currently this waterwheel, and has been since 1992.

But it has to die, slowly and gradually from the end of November, and I'll let the council's branding team explain why.
We have been using the same logo as the foundation stone of our corporate identity for the past 30 years. The waterwheel was introduced on 14 January 1992, replacing the Mayor of Merton’s crest, which was developed in 1965 when the council was formed.
30 years is good going for a municipal logo - some London boroughs have had three different versions this century.
The current waterwheel image and accompanying horizontal wavy line that represents the River Wandle, reflects the borough's name 'Merton', meaning 'Farmstead by the pool' and makes use of green and purple as its core colours, representing the green spaces and historic lavender fields of the borough.
But water and lavender aren't exactly go-ahead cutting-edge stuff, hence the perceived need for a rebrand.
If we are to fulfil our ambitions for our place and communities, we not only need to modernise as an organisation, but must also change the way we present ourselves to residents, visitors, and the world outside of Merton.
Buckle down, the rebranding team consider themselves to be an essential agent of change.
The current identity, which was created in a non-digital age, is outdated, tired and disjointed, and needs to be replaced with a corporate identity that is vibrant, simplistic, versatile and that will last for years to come.
Ah, you can't beat an organisation slagging itself off for being tired and outdated. It's arguable whether being vibrant, simplistic and versatile is necessarily better.
The corporate identity is an important aspect of our brand. Our identity is crucial in promoting services locally, but also strengthening the London Borough of Merton’s identity regionally and nationally as we continue our work to be London’s borough of sport.
I fear Merton is over-reaching itself on the 'borough of sport' front. Yes it has Wimbledon for the tennis, but otherwise it peaks with AFC Wimbledon, the world’s oldest continuously used cricket pitch and free swimming for under-16s.
We have developed a new unified approach to the use of our logo, typography, icons, illustration, photography and imagery, videography, layouts and graphics.
OK, here we go with the new one...

The new corporate identity has kept the historical green and purple colours but has refreshed them using deeper and more resonant shades, which reproduce better.
These are also suspiciously similar colours to the All England Lawn Tennis Championships, but I'm not going to suggest that the branding team took the easy way out.
An updated logo includes the words ‘London Borough of Merton’, strengthening our identity as a London borough.
By my calculations 10 other London borough logos include the word 'London', all of them in outer London, so Merton is merely following the herd.
A graphical icon in the shape of an ‘M’ brings together the borough’s places and communities...
Resorting to a capital letter is the laziest of all rebranding concepts (although to be fair Merton is the only London borough to start with an M... this would never have worked in Hackney, Harrow, Havering, Hillingdon or Hounslow).
...whilst reflecting its 20th century heritage and its association with Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements.
I doubt that many people, if shown this logo, would correctly identify it as having Art Nouveau/Deco vibes. It's also brave to try to appropriate William Morris for Merton when Waltham Forest, Bexley and Hammersmith and Fulham also have a valid claim.

As logos go it's neither great nor memorable, it's just two quadrilaterals with some words next to them.

"How much did this rubbish cost?" is the kind of thing I can imagine some predictably boring moaners saying.
The new corporate identity has been managed in a cost-conscious manner, within existing budgets, to ensure there is no additional cost to the people of Merton.
Online switchover first, then physical assets as and when they need replacing, that's the sustainable philosophy.
The design work was undertaken by another local authority with an established specialism in branding, rather than a commercial agency with higher costs. We estimate that this is around 25% of the cost of using a commercial supplier.
I'm surprised to discover there's a local authority out there somewhere which specialises in branding. "Shouldn't they be emptying the bins?" etc etc.
Merton is London’s best kept secret, but it has a huge amount to offer – with a growing economy that is generating new jobs and breathing life back into our town centres and high streets.
Whoever this branding team is they need to calm down a bit. Merton is not London’s best kept secret, it's covered 15 square miles of the capital since 1965.
A new identity will unlock the potential of our great borough by attracting investment and increasing awareness that Merton is a London Borough - sending a clear message to corporate organisations and the wider sector that we are open and ready to do business.
No it's two coloured tiles instead of a waterwheel, it's not going to attract anybody here specially. Get over yourselves.
The phased introduction of a new corporate identity for Merton Council will begin at the end of November 2023.
Coming to a Civic Centre near you soon.

 Friday, September 29, 2023

These are great times for going up very tall buildings. Last month 8 Bishopsgate opened its rooftop viewing platform to the public, free of charge, and on Wednesday 22 Bishopsgate followed suit. Its viewing platform is called Horizon 22, and at 254m above ground level it's two double decker buses loftier than the upper platform at the Shard. Why pay £32 south of the river when you can stand even higher above the City for nothing?

Tickets are being made available in monthly bursts and were first launched two weeks ago. It only took two minutes for opening day to sell out, and within five minutes all the weekend slots had been snapped up too. I plumped for a visit on Day Two, i.e. yesterday, and kept my fingers crossed that the weather would play ball. It sort of did.

The entrances to 8 Bishopsgate and 22 Bishopsgate are immediately adjacent, because City towers have much larger footprints than the addresses they ultimately replaced. Horizon 22 has the flashier way in, indeed everything about it is a bit snazzier than The Lookout nextdoor, perhaps because it'll also serve customers to a rooftop restaurant. There are far more staff, they're far more cheerful and they also have a few more passageways to direct you along to reach the lift, which is far larger and whooshes upwards much quicker. Indeed it only takes 42 seconds to whisk you from the first floor to the 58th floor mezzanine, and the ascent is almost imperceptible apart from your ears going pop partway up.

Not only is this the pinnacle of the City's skyscraper cluster it's also a surprisingly large space split over two levels. The initial landing is set back slightly from the main windows, which might seem disappointing, but all the main action is on the floor below in a giant glass-walled gallery. It does feel slightly ridiculous to have ascended all this way and then to have to walk down the loftiest staircase in London, 34 steps in total, but the needs of restaurant-goers have been prioritised (and yes there is a separate lift).

It's very wow. An extraordinary panorama is laid out beneath you, including the tops of buildings you might previously have thought were tall. Shakespeare Tower at the Barbican - peanuts. The Skygarden at the Walkie Talkie - plainly second best. One of the closest is Tower 42, for many years the City's highest building but only from up here is its bank-logo cross-section self-evident. I had a bit of a moment when I realised what I was looking at was the top of the Cheesegrater, the narrow tip of the wedge, at an almost-jumpable distance just beneath me.

The tower's location means that what you'll see most clearly is the western half of the City of London, which is generally quite lowrise, or feels like it from up here. Enjoy the geometrical burst of roads that radiates out from Bank Junction, plus a perfectly unobscured view of St Paul's Cathedral, plus all the little boats sailing on the grey ribbon of the Thames (whose meandering path is somehow visible all the way from Westminster to Barking). It's so high that people on the ground don't really register, nor the vehicles, while the trains threading through London Bridge station form what looks like a charming micro model railway.

You don't get a 360° view, only 300°, with the east of London almost entirely obscured. You can just about see Whitechapel out of one window and the Lea Valley out of another but not the sector inbetween (which annoyingly is where I live). But everything else is up for grabs, dependent on the weather and the angle of the sun. I went up on an overcast day with low grey cloud so the promised horizon was more of a dissolved blur, but it was still perfectly possible to see Hampstead Heath, the tower at North Acton and the upthrust of Croydon. I also played a quick game of 'Spot the football stadium' (Arsenal yes, Tottenham yes, Wembley yes, West Ham no), indeed if you don't spend most of your visit standing by the window trying to identify stuff you're probably doing this wrong.

Your chief enemy is glare, so I reckon I got a better view of grey South London than when I went up neighbouring 8 Bishopsgate in bright sunshine. Your panoramic photos are also likely to be thwarted by reflections, particularly of the people walking behind you or standing at the next window along, although visitors repeatedly taking selfies are unlikely to be bothered by this. My top tip is that there's a separate small mezzanine up the steps on the way out which is often people-free, plus it's also several metres higher than the main gallery. It's also the best place to look down on the paying punters in the Shard - they won't see you but you can feel smug about it all the same.

The attendant told me they're only releasing 60 tickets for each half-hour session, increasing later to 80 once things have bedded in, so it should never get too busy to have a really good view without jostling. Also if you want to hang around you can, nobody's going to chuck you out until closing time (which is 6pm weekdays, 5pm Saturday and 4pm Sunday). Refreshments are available, although nothing more than a counter with a bogstandard frothy coffee machine and a very small selection of snacks (KitKats and popcorn yes, cakes pastries no). There are also toilets, and if you use the ones upstairs you can shut yourself away and enjoy the highest wee in London.

At time of writing Horizon 22's second tranche of tickets is now up for grabs, with availability on most of the weekdays in November. It's entirely free and all you have to do is wave the QR code in the confirmation email to gain access. By contrast the 50th floor Lookout nextdoor is fully booked until January and it isn't even as good an experience. If you're interested in seeing London from above then I urge you to apply now, and if you don't manage to pick a time that's rain-free, fog-free and glare-free then you can always go up again later.

The UK's 10 tallest buildings (all of which are in London)
  1) 310m The Shard 72 floors, mixed use (Southwark) [I've been to the top 9 times]
  2) 278m 22 Bishopsgate 62 floors, office (City) [I went to the top yesterday]
  3) 235m One Canada Square 50 floors, office (Docklands) [I've been to the 39th floor]
  4) 233m Landmark Pinnacle 77 floors, residential (Docklands)
  5) 230m Heron Tower 47 floors, office (City)
  6) 225m The Cheesegrater 48 floors, office (City) [I've been to the 14th floor]
  7) 218m Newfoundland 59 floors, residential (Docklands)
  8) 215m South Quay Plaza 68 floors, residential (Docklands)
  9) 205m One Park Drive 57 floors, residential (Docklands)
10) 204m 8 Bishopsgate 54 floors, office (City) [I went to the top two weeks ago]

 Thursday, September 28, 2023

London's next dead bus
168: Old Kent Road Tesco to Hampstead Heath

Location: inner London
Length of journey: 7 miles, 65 minutes

The 168 has been chugging up to Hampstead Heath since 1986, initially from Waterloo, then from Elephant & Castle and most recently from the Old Kent Road. But it's been deemed superfluous in an era when central London has too much capacity and so tomorrow it runs for the final time. For a lot of its length it's tracked precisely by route 1, so from Saturday the plan is to create a hybrid of the two routes and assign it the lower number. The first three stops on route 168 are covered by loads of other routes, and the last two stops on route 1 are to be covered by switching the end of route 188, so technically nobody should be inconvenienced. The consultation took place two years ago, should you be interested in the background or want to see a map. I've been for a final ride.

The 168 starts its journey outside the giant Tesco on the Old Kent Road, at what was to be the site of the first stop on the Bakerloo line extension, very close to Burgess Park. Don't worry, six other routes connect this rail-remote location to Elephant & Castle so even next week you won't be waiting long. Nevertheless my 168 is busy almost as soon as it arrives, mainly with passengers who have no interest going upstairs because they're not going far. The Old Kent Road is blessed by world food outlets, affordable salons and flats with rents that, despite being well over £2, remain at the bottom of the Monopoly ladder. We don't soar over the Bricklayers Arms flyover because that only operates in the opposite direction, plus we'd miss out on a couple of bus stops if we did, one of which is where route 1 joins us.

Route 1 left Canada Water bus station 2½ miles ago whereas we've been going less than a mile, so there are some who worry the new 1/168 hybrid will be too long to be reliable. Never fear, said TfL in their consultation report, this has been accounted for and "extra time has been added to recovery time to help mitigate this risk." It's also the case that no passenger from this point onwards should have to worry about breaking their journey, they just need to board a 1 and it'll take them everywhere the current 168 would.

The New Kent Road is next, bordered by sprawling plane trees we repeatedly bash into. The first flats are older and intermingled with lowlier businesses, then abruptly the gentrified shoeboxes of Elephant Park rear up, perched atop bike hubs, subscription gyms and artisan dim sum restaurants. The whole of Elephant and Castle is in flux, as it has been for years, with the former shopping centre rapidly going the same way as the Heygate and arising as something blandly profitable. The scaffolding by the main bus stop is already much higher than a double decker. Then it's time to weave round what remains of the double-gyratory, look down on its infestation of pigeons and thankfully escape into something a tad older.

Unusually The Men Who Change Tiles haven't been out removing the 168s yet, or they hadn't yesterday, but all affected bus stops do now have a yellow information poster. There are two types, one explaining how routes 1, 168 and 188 are being reformulated and the other headlined "Route 168 will not stop here". Unfortunately the latter has been posted up outside the Bakerloo line station, pointlessly explaining how to catch a bus back the other way, whereas all that's needed northbound is "just get on the 1 instead". Best keep it simple.

A contraflow bus lane speeds us onwards to St George's Circus, past the Golden Sun takeaway, a hidden tube depot and a group of lecturers protesting outside London South Bank University. By the obelisk there are faffy filter lanes and cycleways to negotiate, then we're on more solidly traditional ground up Waterloo Road. The local BID has hung backslapping banners from the lampposts, including the godawful slogan "where fringe meets falafel" and the obligatory ABBA reference. You can't miss Masters Superfish, an old-school chippie which claims to be home to "Britain's finest fish and chips", but despite numerous positive online reviews I doubt their over-reaching claim holds water.

We sidle up the eastern side of Waterloo station, pausing awhile at the busy zebra crossing, before pulling up at the cluster of stops where thousands of commuters still pour onto onward buses every morning. A ridiculous number of routes still connect to the streets around Holborn, so ridiculous that TfL culled one last year and are culling another tomorrow, safe in the knowledge that the remaining six will still support the post-pandemic rush hour. The view from Waterloo Bridge remains magnificent, all bobbing boats and historic skyline, although progress remains hindered by the amateur conversion of one lane of traffic into a cycleway. And that was our 20 minutes in south London... now for 45 minutes in the north.

Holborn is where the 1/168 overlap currently ends with the 1 turning left to terminate at Tottenham Court Road. Tomorrow that 30-year association ends and it'll head onwards to Hampstead Heath, a significant extension more worthy of London's primary route number. Route 188 will simultaneously be diverted to Centre Point instead of Russell Square, and again hardly anyone will be inconvenienced because the 188 has also been tracking us since the Bricklayers Arms roundabout. Admittedly it'll be a longer average wait with the 168 gone, but TfL rarely worry about making your wait longer.

The top of Kingsway is where our speedy progress starts to falter, with more time spent queueing in traffic than moving forward. Around us London's office workers are scurrying back to their desks with tubs of protein, and somewhere behind me a quartet from Kent are discussing their favourite pub lunches (the chilli prawns at The Oak Tree are out of this world, apparently). The road ahead is lined by a phenomenal number of hotels, most of them very large. The oldest are imposing edifices in brick, the newest are glass boxes with burrito bars underneath and a few are postwar concrete bulwarks which look like they were designed by Gerry Anderson. This paragraph has taken 15 minutes, that's how slow we're going.

At Euston we follow the non-HS2 side of the station, although currently that's both of them. Only one other route goes this way, serving a Royal Mail depot, long Georgian terraces and some drab flats. Residents of Eversholt Street are going to have to get used to a new number come Saturday. One of the chatty foursome behind me is now regaling his friends with tales of how he used to love driving round central London back in the days when you had to use an A-Z but it's too expensive now, not to mention too slow, not to mention too hard to park, and I think "ha, in your case all those nudges to get motorists onto public transport have certainly worked".

Normally when TfL intends to significantly tweak a bus route, or indeed kill it off, onboard announcements are made at regular intervals alerting passengers to upcoming changes. But on the 168 there's nothing, not even a scrolling message, despite the upheaval being only a couple of days away. There's nothing like consistency and this is nothing like.

Mornington Crescent station heralds the start of our passage up the full length of Camden High Street, which is not a privilege afforded to buses heading south. The shops start off a bit bogstandard (Top Cuts is genuinely still offering a £6 haircut), then increasingly include familiar stalwarts like Argos and M&S Food. Eventually the retail rulebook is ripped up and things go all-out tourist, with cluttered shops offering purple DMs, anime t-shirts and nasal jewellery, not to mention spicy wraps and noodly trays. It's fun to observe from the top deck, but the swirling throng obviously aren't interested in leaving by bus and so on we plod.

For part of the climb up Haverstock Hill we are the sole bus route, just as our immediate surroundings finally go upmarket. Steeles Village is the kind of neighbourhood Time Out used to go nuts for, although the name's barely 10 years old and only took off when TfL agreed to rename the bus stop. Further up the hill, heralded by subdivided villas and mansion blocks, we pierce the super-middle-class bubble of Belsize Park. Here the cinema is boutique, the petrol station has its own florist, the Budgens supermarket has gone premium and a haircut will cost you sixty quid not six. We're nearly there.

Our final destination is close to the Royal Free so many of our passengers are heading there, not to a local patisserie, including the man in the shabby jacket with a repeating cough. Outside the hospital's side entrance the ward staff are enjoying a cheeky fag in the early autumn sunshine. But round the corner on South End Green it's pavement culture a-go-go as Hampstead's idler residents enjoy coffee at small tables while perfectly-groomed dogs lie at their feet. Having reached the terminus our driver nips across the road to the mess room by the underground public conveniences and prepares for the 168's return to the Old Kent Road. It'll be an even longer ride to Canada Water on Saturday, but remember you'll only get ahead if you're looking out for number 1.

 Wednesday, September 27, 2023

A Nice Walk: Old Oak Common to Euston (6 miles)

The future of High Speed 2 is seemingly forever under threat, the latest proposal being that it should run only between not-quite-central Birmingham and not-quite-central London. But would it really be so terrible to terminate the line at Old Oak Common rather than Euston, saving billions, especially when there's a perfectly adequate walking route between the two? Let me show you how simple a connection it would be. Long-term decisions for a brighter future!

Old Oak Common is the perfect terminus for a high speed rail link, especially if you live in Harlesden. It's a vast obsolete rail depot ripe with development potential and also crisscrossed by numerous other railway lines, none of which yet have a station here. But that lack of connectivity won't be a problem when HS2 arrives because taxpayers will be better off and car drivers won't be inconvenienced, plus it's only a short walk from Euston. All you have to do is follow an approximate straight line eastwards on foot, as any business traveller would, taking just two more hours to reach your ultimate destination and maintaining all the timely benefits of the high speed line.

We start on Old Oak Common Lane, a name which still evokes a peaceful rural ambience rather than clustered hardhats and lorries stuck in contraflow. We could choose to cross the outer wastes of Wormwood Scrubs in sight of its Victorian prison but by far the most efficient route is to follow the towpath of the Grand Union Canal instead. This speedy pedestrian-friendly walkway could almost have been purpose-built, avoiding as it does all major roads and built-up areas. At present the verge is alive with Michaelmas daisies, brambles and dandelions, and the water of the canal is adorned with empty lager cans bobbing in vibrant green pondweed. Look, you can already see the BT Tower in the distance so Euston can't be that far away.

Just over the wall is the main Crossrail depot where all the out-of-service trains go to recuperate. It would be dead easy to add a platform to shuttle passengers into central London, but also much too expensive in these austere times so best watch them sail past empty as they head off to form the next train to Shenfield. Landmarks to enjoy along the towpath include used car empires, the backside of a cemetery and an electricity substation which marginally resembles the Snowdon Aviary. The path is entirely unlit, so perhaps not ideal after dark, and also includes several long stretches lacking any escape route should ne'erdowells intrude. But anyone who arrives on HS2 from Birmingham will no doubt be familiar with desolate canals through semi-derelict hinterlands so should thoroughly enjoy the vibe.

The towpath gets quite steep near Kensal Green Sainsbury's as it crosses a couple of former wharves, but remains step-free so anyone lugging suitcases ought to be able to cope. Things get a little more built-up as we enter Kensington & Chelsea so expect a greater chance of sniffing weed or stepping in dogmess. The Lucky Bean cafe offers canalside passers-by a special 'breakfast bun and filter coffee' deal for just £5.50, but best not rest yet. It'll have taken you about 42 minutes to walk this far which by coincidence is also how long the HS2 journey from Birmingham to Old Oak Common is scheduled to take, so we really are zipping along here.

You could continue along the canal and the Euston Road but that's merely the most straight-forward route, not the most direct, so instead we'll be bearing off here via the spiral footbridge. This delivers you to a bus stop served by route 18, a double decker providing a direct connection to Euston station. You could take that all the way to your destination but won't you look at the queue to board, and the traffic looks to be seriously backed up ahead, and given we've started out on foot it would be an abdication of responsibility to bow out now. Harrow Road is also the liveliest shopping street on our walk, the ideal place to buy a hookah, vinyl flooring, wet fish, a bowl of pomegranates or a fridge, so certainly shouldn't be missed.

The direct route east requires diverting up Elgin Avenue, a broad thoroughfare with easy-to manage pavements. Its villas are all divided into somewhat faded flats, although they get less faded the more we pass from Maida Hill to Maida Vale. At the walk's halfway point we bear right onto Lauderdale Road, a smarter proposition lined by mansion blocks, each of which boasts its own Porter's Flat on the ground floor. Sir Alec Guinness was born in one of these, as a blue plaque attests, and you'd never have seen this miraculous spot had the government wimped out and constructed a direct train connection. Sir Alec's local shopping parade is rightly quite posh and is anchored by a florist offering a £25 weekly subscription service because people round here have disposable income, we're not in Balsall Heath any more.

It's time to mosey down to St John's Wood Road, either past the Esso garage or the Tesco Express, it doesn't matter so long as you end up by Lord's Cricket ground. You won't see much of it from the outside, only the Lord's Tavern, a lot of railings and a snatch of the pitch through the slats of a fire escape. But it remains a global icon so expect to encounter groups of grinning tourists posing in front of the gates just to say they've been here, and now so have you, solely because nobody could be bothered to complete a high speed link. As an HS2 user embracing the walking option, that Chiltern train passing under the Nursery Pavilion likely left central Birmingham half an hour after you did.

Welcome to the splendours of Regent's Park, entering via the Hanover Gate and heading quickly over to the boating lake. This looks lovely and inviting but is in fact really annoying because we'd be able to follow a much more direct walking route if the water wasn't there. Instead we trace the northern edge past a gushing fountain and the boat house before dodging a game of women's football on an outer pitch. It'd be nice to pass through the rose garden, which hasn't quite tipped over into autumn yet, but the optimum route is to follow the Inner Circle and turn left at the allotments. In good news if you came down from the West Midlands to enjoy the Frieze Art Fair you're already here without ever needing to go to Euston.

They say London thrives on rich and poor living side by side and it doesn't get much clearer than on the far side of the park. Chester Terrace is a stunning neo-classical terrace bookended by Corinthian arches, whose 42 luxurious residences were shaped by John Nash and Decimus Burton. The average property price here is 12 million pounds. But immediately behind this cream edifice is the Regent's Park estate, a complex complex of 2000 postwar council homes, the odd tower block and some windblown grass. Weaving your way through this social labyrinth will lower your aspirations considerably. But oh my word, what's that devastation ahead?... a huge swathe of land on either side of Hampstead Road demolished and laid bare.

It's like an inner city void that's been erased and abandoned, an empty depression where construction work has halted leaving the future of an entire neighbourhood in limbo. And so this walking route from Old Oak Common is forced to funnel between gaudy hoardings across a mothballed abyss, dodging hi-vis security and uniformed staff nipping out for a smoke, before entering the backside of Euston station through a grim door labelled Fire Escape. Whatever they're building here they should hurry up and finish because it really lowers the tone, plus it totally slows down the end of the journey, plus the whole thing's just ridiculous with this part missing. Perhaps HS2 with a six mile walk at the end is a really dumb idea after all.

 Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Yesterday was one of this blog's 20 busiest days, not because everyone's really interested in National Trust properties but because an old post hit an international news aggregator. My post about Crossrail timewasting ended up on hckr news under the headline "25% of the 13 minute journey from Whitechapel to Paddington is spent not moving", and an extra 3000 people turned up to read it.

They also left comments, the first of which was "It's hard not to think Londoners are entitled and ungrateful", so the conversation immediately spun off into a tangential debate about regional entitlement. But some people said relevant things, timings-wise, including...
» The percentage alone doesn't tell much, without knowing what's the value for regular routes.
» Travelling by scooter in London, about half the time is spent waiting for traffic lights.
» Although the tube sounds really fast, even with the lengthy dwell times, a bicycle is a far better option.
Which got me thinking, what percentage of a journey is spent not moving when using other travel modes?
Thankfully Whitechapel to Paddington is a good route to test this out.

I took my stopwatch on the Hammersmith and City line on a journey from Paddington to Whitechapel. I timed the overall journey and also how much time the train spent waiting at each station. I then compared this to my previous Crossrail data.

 Hammersmith & CityCrossrail
Length of journey26m 13s13m 10s
Number of intermediate stations104
Time spent at intermediate stations25s 55s 21s 26s 27s 20s 20s 20s 23s 54s56s 54s 57s 45s
Time spent waiting outside Aldgate East1m 30s-
Total time spent not moving6m 21s3m 32s
% of time spent not moving24%26%

These are incredibly similar percentages overall. Even though a tube journey takes twice as long, the time spent not moving is still about 25%. But a typical dwell time at a tube station is 20-30 seconds whereas on Crossrail it's 50-60 seconds, twice as much, which is why Crossrail feels so dawdly.

And then I took my stopwatch on the bus. Route 205 goes from Whitechapel to Paddington so I rode that all the way and timed every wait at a bus stop, every wait at traffic lights and every wait at a pedestrian crossing. And my word, buses stop a lot.

 205 bus
Length of journey1h 4m
Number of stops36
Time spent at bus stops8s 22s 18s 13s 7s 38s 20s 23s 80s 20s 15s 17s 28s 22s 20s 20s 25s 25s 30s 12s 10s 18s 13s 20s 17s 15s 15s 20s = 9m 52s
Time spent at traffic lights40s 13s 20s 13s 16s 13s 5s 45s 2s 38s 36s 10s 17s 10s 28s 28s 30s 180s 40s 52s 53s 45s 110s 30s 115s 10s 25s 15s 40s 28s 30s 25s 10s 25s = 19m 57s
Time spent regulating the service2m 50s
Total time spent not moving32m 39s
% of time spent not moving51%

Traffic was fairly light, except around King's Cross, so these shouldn't be extreme figures. Altogether the bus stopped 62 times! That said we also passed through 40 sets of lights on green, so maybe we got lucky.

This time about 50% of the journey was spent not moving, hugely higher than travelling by train. It's kind of amazing that buses in central London get anywhere at all but they do, just not very fast.

I'd also timed the 205 bus on its speedier journey from Bow to Whitechapel - a more typical inner suburban bus journey - and that spent 26% of its time not moving. Roughly 25% again... it's a popular percentage.

I don't have a bike so I didn't try cycling from Whitechapel to Paddington, plus it's a really bad idea to use a stopwatch repeatedly while negotiating a red route. But I can now do you a quick summary of rail, tube and bus, roughly speaking.
Whitechapel to Paddington
Crossrail: 25% of the 13 minute journey is spent not moving
H&C tube: 25% of the 26 minute journey is spent not moving
205 bus: 50% of the 64 minute journey is spent not moving
Perhaps focus on how long your journey takes, not how much it dawdles on the way.

After I boarded my train home from Surrey on Sunday I noticed that a beetle had hitched a ride on my rucksack. It could have jumped from a bush I'd brushed against, it could have worked its way up from my boots or it could have crawled on when I put my rucksack down on the platform - I suspect the latter. But my intervention meant it was now on a train heading into London, moving rapidly away from its familiar habitat and setting its future on an entirely new course.

It was a fine-looking beetle, all flat and angular and about a couple of centimetres long. I had no beef with it so I set my rucksack down on the empty seat opposite and let it roam, although initially it was only interested in exploring the outside of my bag. It followed the rim around the front and up the side and over the top and down and round without ever trying to leave the black fabric. "I'm not carrying you home," I thought, "you need to consider exploring elsewhere".

Eventually it tried venturing off onto the seat so I whisked my rucksack away and let it explore the red moquette instead. Again it focused on the rims and edges, never the centre, attempting to determine the boundaries of its new environment. After about five minutes it got bold and risked traversing the metal connector to the adjacent seat which it explored in a remarkably similar way... round, back, up, along and down. Nobody interrupted it because nobody else had yet boarded the carriage, until a single female passenger claimed the seat on the other side.

I wondered what the beetle's new destiny would be. Would it make it all the way to London and alight there, would it escape at some intermediate station or would it shuttle back and forth forever in its new artificial environment? Alternatively, given it was a beetle on a train, would a single passenger take offence and end its life with a single squish? I had, simply by taking a day trip to Surrey, changed its life irrevocably.

The beetle clambered repeatedly to the top of the seat, clever thing, until a particularly jolty section of track caused it to lose grip and disappear over the back. I tried looking under the seat but I couldn't see it anywhere. I also watched my fellow passengers, whose numbers were now increasing, but none of them made any beetle-related grimaces or flicks. It was only a four carriage train - it had been longer on the way out - and as we crossed the zone 6 boundary all the seats inexorably filled up. By the time we hit Raynes Park it was standing room only, which isn't something I thought a roaming beetle would appreciate, so I hoped it had fallen into that first lady's open handbag and she'd carried it off to a new life in Wimbledon.

I made sure I was the last one out of the carriage at Waterloo and scanned the seats for signs of insect movement. Then I spotted an ominous looking splat in the centre of the floor, precisely where a succession of feet had been standing, and peered down at the brown mark in the laminate pattern. My companion the beetle had come to an irrefutable end, squashed by sole or heel, and would be returning to Surrey only as a flattened husk. I hadn't killed it directly but without my intervention it would be 20 miles away and still alive. This sat uncomfortably, but what can you do?

When I got home I inspected my photos of the beetle and tried to match it to a species, which isn't easy when beetles are the most diverse insect on the planet. But I reckon I've identified it and I think it's... oh, a brown marmorated stink bug, an undesirable invasive species from east Asia. They arrived in the US in the mid 1990s, most likely arriving on imported timber, and have since spread unwelcomely to 44 states. Here in the UK they were first spotted in 2020 and one of the first reports was from Wisley in Surrey, not far from where I caught my train.

It might just have been a more common shieldbug, but if it was a brown marmorated stink bug then I did the nation a service by luring one onto a train so it could be comprehensively slaughtered. Watch your gardens, watch your bags, and if you're travelling through Surrey watch your train seat too.

 Monday, September 25, 2023

Yesterday I took the train to Surrey to tick off two more National Trust properties.
I was a bit late visiting the first one.

Cost of off-peak return from Waterloo to Clandon: £14.50
Cost of off-peak return from Wimbledon to Clandon: £8.00 (so maybe do that)

You alight the train a couple of stops before Guildford and walk a mile down the road past two pubs, the village hall and a lot of houses you can't afford. If you find West Clandon Village Pound you've gone the wrong way.

Location: West Clandon, Guildford, Surrey, GU4 7RQ [map]
Garden open: 11-4pm Wed (daily, Apr-Oct)
Admission: free
House open: not since 2015
Tours: not again until 2024
Website: nationaltrust.org.uk/london/surrey/clandon-park
Four word summary: burned to a shell
Time to allow: maybe half an hour

Clandon Park House was commissioned in the 1730s as the country seat of Thomas Onslow, a rich baron whose father was the longest-serving speaker of the House of Commons. Thomas had previously been MP for the whole of Surrey, back when that included Lambeth as well as Leatherhead, so had the means to commission a glitzy Palladian mansion bedecked with marble and Flemish sculpture. The National Trust acquired the building in 1956, though not the surrounding 500 acre park, and pledged to look after it. But on the afternoon of 29th April 2015 a fire broke out in the basement and spread so quickly that the entire building burnt to a shell, bar the Speakers Parlour which remains essentially intact. Staff tried rescuing as many of the contents as they could but most were lost, and Clandon is easily the National Trust's biggest disaster of the 21st century. So, come and see a cuboid shell under sheets of scaffolding surrounded by a bit of grass.

It's free to look. I stood beside the shuttered ticket office for fifteen minutes before I worked this out, then headed into what they call the Garden and wandered around the site. The house is massive but invisible, bar a couple of gaps in the sheeting where the doors used to be, and is being supported by a serious lattice of metal poles. It's an eerie sight and a tragic one, with colourful hoardings around the base offering some insight into what was lost. The tone is oddly upbeat, more 'look at the craftsmanship on this not-quite charred table leg' than 'oops, what an irreplaceable loss'). Across the lawn is a wharenui, a rare Maori meeting house shipped here from New Zealand by the 4th Earl of Onslow, although not much of it is original any more and the sacred carvings are due to be shipped back. Up top is a short cypress avenue overshadowed by towering redwoods and at the far end of the lawn a formal Dutch Garden (alas currently closed for stonework conservation). And that's pretty much all the public has access to, or at least I assume it is because I didn't see a map of any kind anywhere and it looked like the surrounding woodland became rapidly out of bounds.

The National Trust's headache is what to do with what's left of the building. Their original plan after the fire was to restore the ground floor using the insurance money and to add a less showy first floor for events and exhibitions. But last year they changed their minds and the current intention is to leave the building as a shell, perhaps with walkways and a roof terrace, and to simply celebrate its form and structure. They claim this would be "a unique way to understand and enjoy a country house", but many more traditional members think this is a travesty and have put a forward a resolution at the upcoming AGM demanding the restoration and recreation of at least the Marble Hall. Expect smoke, if not fire. In the meantime pre-booked tours through the site and its basement are sometimes offered in the summer months, but they seem to have ended early this year and to be honest there's very little to draw you here.

The second National Trust property is only a mile and a half away but to get there, in the absence of a decent public footpath network, requires a walk along an unkempt tarmac ribbon beside a dual carriageway. I wouldn't risk it with children in tow and you'd never manage it in a wheelchair. Eventually you reach the village of East Clandon, which comes as sweet relief, and just beyond that is the entrance to the next car park. Pedestrian visitors are not anticipated.

NATIONAL TRUST: Hatchlands Park
Location: East Clandon, Guildford, Surrey, GU4 7RT [map]
Open: 10am-5pm
House open: noon-4pm (Apr-Oct)
Admission: £11.00
Website: nationaltrust.org.uk/surrey/hatchlands-park
Four word summary: parkland and plentiful pianos
Time to allow: a couple of hours

Fanny Boscawen used her husband's Admiralty salary to pay for her dream home in the Surrey countryside, only for him to die soon after its completion so she moved back to London and sold the place on. The Sumners stayed longer and later Lord Rendel bought it for his family until inevitably one of his descendants was forced to hand the place over to the National Trust. Along the way Hatchlands gained Robert Nash interiors, Humphry Repton re-landscaping and a Gertrude Jekyll parterre, all of which somehow survived a spell as a girls' finishing school. Today it's a bit of a mix but essentially a lot of lovely pastoral grounds, a choice of traditional cafes and a house that contains a quite frankly astonishing collection of art and music.

Only six ground floor rooms are open to the public and one of these is essentially the bottom of a staircase. Also no photography is allowed because this is still a family home, but that's fine because it just helps everyone to focus on the contents. The walls are covered with hundreds of old masters from the Cobbe Collection, originally purchased to decorate a grand villa in Dublin - yeah that's a Titian, that's a Gainsborough and that's thought to be the only surviving contemporary portrait of William Shakespeare. But it's the keyboard instruments that dazzle, with pianos, harpsichords and spinets squeezed into every last space, many of which had a really famous owner. "You're standing beside Chopin's grand piano", said the room guide, "and that one was Marie Antoinette's, and later you'll see Bizet's, Lizst's, Mahler's and Elgar's, and did you see Charles II's virginals?" I hope the fire policy is stronger here than at Clandon because this lot are truly irreplaceable.

Other than the house what you're really getting for your entrance fee is the chance to roam a 400 acre estate. It has that look of manicured farmland, all rippling pasture and strategically located oak trees, with a few patches of woodland added later to provide diversity and to hide the adventure playground. A lot of well-scrubbed Surrey families were heading out along the waymarked trails yesterday, as far as their children or joints would permit, and don't forget you have to walk all the way back again. At one point a hilltop vista opened up towards Woking, so an ideal spot for watching a Martian invasion, but generally the trees screen everything, even the main house. There are many National Trust properties with more to see, but only one has Chopin's grand.

Getting home was another slog, Hatchlands being an hour's walk from either of the nearest stations. I plodded on to Horsley rather than returning to Clandon, following another narrow main-road-side path and then cutting through another commuter village. The bus service is pretty terrible too so all this is best done by car, sorry.

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ten sets of lovely photos
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