diamond geezer

 Monday, November 19, 2018

I was walking down a street in central London the other day, one I know well, and started wondering what had happened to it.

In the past, in the not entirely distant past, there would have been shops along here I might actually have wanted to go inside. And now there weren't, because they'd closed and moved on. More to the point they'd been replaced by businesses I wasn't particularly interested in, but which were obviously doing well.

And I wondered - what's disappearing, and what's taking its place?

What's disappearing are shops that sell stuff people could have delivered instead. Why trek out to a shopping centre with a wide choice of things to buy when there's an online retailer with a much wider choice of things to buy online?
» Shops never have the clothes you want in your size.
» Books fit through your letterbox really easily.
» Your grocery order might as well be bagged by somebody else.
» Why buy one film when you can stream thousands?
» Those shoes you fancy could be here tomorrow.
» Music isn't physical any more, grandad.
» Why go down the takeaway when they can come to you?
» You don't need to touch it to know what gadget you want.
» etc.
Of course there are downsides to online purchases. You can't see the actual thing before you buy it. You have to wait, maybe days, for your thing to arrive. You have to waste your life waiting in for the delivery (or you have to make your way to a collection point which might take as long as going shopping would have taken in the first place). Delivery often costs extra. If it doesn't fit, or isn't what you wanted, sending it back is a proper hassle. When things go wrong, website communication and automated phone lines are never fun. But enough people prefer online purchase to physical shopping that high streets are now in serious trouble.

If you feel the need to tell us about your own personal high street/online shopping habits, here's a comments box for that.   comments
All other comments - the more generalised kind - in the box below, thanks.

So, looking ahead, which high street businesses are most likely to survive the online onslaught?

I'd say two types - the time-dependent, and the physical experience.
» You can't afford to wait for a delivery slot for milk.
» Meet your mates over coffee and a pastry for a nice cosy natter.
» What you need right now is a can of Red Bull and a pack of chewing gum.
» Your hair needs to be cut, and/or your nails painted, by an expert.
» That gym down the road has an excellent set of equipment.
» Wahey, gin-based pop-up Insta-opportunity!
Which may be why that central London street was now mostly food and drink opportunities. A cafe, a restaurant, an exotic takeaway, a coffee shop, a bar, another takeaway, another restaurant. These are things lots of people enjoy, great places to eat and drink and socialise, creating environments they just don't get at home. But they're not selling 'stuff', they're selling an excuse to meet up in pleasant circumstances, and maybe that's the future.

To put a bit of factual background into this, here are the types of shop along the parade in an ordinary London suburb. This is Bromley Road in Downham, an interwar overspill estate at the southern tip of Lewisham.

car wash
car showroom
beauty salon
vape shop
car parts
dry cleaners
salon & spa
van hire
charity shop

charity shop
ethnic foods
nail bar
fishing tackle
cash and carry
mobile phones
beauty salon
ethnic foods




post office/
off licence

pound shop

off licence
dry cleaners
pet shop
charity shop
card shop
ethnic foods

How many of this lot are going to survive the next ten or twenty years?

 Sunday, November 18, 2018

Location: Tilbury, Essex, RM18 7NR [map]
Open: from 10am (closed Mon, Tue) (weekends only Nov-Mar)
Admission: £6.20
Website: english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/tilbury-fort
Four word summary: bastioned estuarine artillery fortress
Time to allow: an hour and a bit

These days the greatest threat coming up the Thames is floodwater, but for centuries it was invasion. In 1539 Henry VIII ordered the construction of a blockhouse at Tilbury as part of a string of Device Forts around the coast of southeast England, fearful that French or Spanish ships might attack. They never did, but Elizabeth I was grateful for the headstart when the Spanish Armada turned up fifty years later, and popped down to Tilbury to make a particularly famous speech to her troops. By the 17th century the threat was the Dutch, so the defences at Tilbury were bumped up as part of a cluster of forts on either side of the estuary, and that's when the spiky pentagon took form.

It's still a mighty sight... more through extent than height. A thick bastion wall zigzags inland from the riverside, surrounded by a jagged moat surrounded by another moat. The fort's location amid the Thames marshes made it easy to defend, not that it ever had to prove its worth, its chief purpose being offence rather than defence. A shot fired from here could hit any enemy fleet sailing up the Thames to attack the dockyards at Woolwich and Deptford, protecting the capital from waterborne assault. And as technology changed so the fort's defences adapted to meet the challenge, until by the 1900s its guns could fire a shell over four miles downstream.

The easiest way to access Tilbury Fort is to live in Gravesend and take the ferry across the river. This drops you on the jetty beside the London Cruise Terminal, from which it's only a short walk along the seawall past The World's End pub. Getting here from Tilbury is less fun, involving a mile's yomp down an access road around the edge of the docks past streams of thundering lorries. There is a bus from the station, which you can ride for nothing if you bought a rail ticket to 'Tilbury Stations', but I managed to miss that and it proved quicker to do the yomp rather than wait another half an hour. Essex visitors tend to drive.

The entrance to the fort is through the ornate Water Gate, which once opened out onto the river but is now set back behind a high concrete wall. Even if you have no intention of stumping up six quid for full access you can still walk through the arch and stare out across the parade ground towards the magazines - no hassle, free of charge. Alternatively step into the guard room and pay up, being sure to take advantage of the free audio trail otherwise you may not have a full idea of what you're about to see.

You're now free to follow the numbered stops or simply wander willy-nilly, indeed the audio tour won't take you to every last corner. The central cobbles are relatively dull, and all the good stuff is around the perimeter. Above the gatehouse is a chapel, plus another empty garret accessed via separate stairs. The Georgian terrace to your right was the officers' quarters and is now a 'street' of seven homes, as is revealed if you walk round the back to spot several gardens with washing lines flapping. The barracks where ordinary soldiers lived are long demolished, and survive only as a rectangular grid of brick foundations. But it's the magazines on the far side you really want to explore.

Tilbury started to be used as a gunpowder depot in 1716, as a health and safety move to end the practice of storing explosives close to built-up London. Thousands of barrels could be stored here, exceptionally carefully, which explains why the magazines have spark-proof copper doors. Close by are the magazine tunnels, lit solely by lanterns shielded behind glass, and whose passages bend near the entrance to help contain any blast. These particular structures are covered with grass roofs and embedded into the fabric of the fort, giving this northeast corner a sinister Tellytubby vibe.

Which leaves the jagged perimeter of the bastion to walk around. Find the right viewpoints and you can stare inland where horses graze, or toward Tilbury Docks where huge wind turbines whirl, or towards the shell of neighbouring Tilbury Power Station whose chimneys were toppled just last year. But the best views are from the chain of clamberable gun emplacements adjacent to the river, looking out towards Gravesend past any large ships chugging intermittently through. The Thames would have been considerably busier back in the fort's lengthy heyday, but was always impressively protected.

If you like this kind of thing, be aware that Coalhouse Fort at East Tilbury is open next Sunday, free of charge, for its Memorial Day Open Day.

English Heritage winter openings
daily: Wellington Arch, Stonehenge
4 days a week: Osborne House
weekends only: Apsley House, Jewel Tower, Down House, Tilbury Fort, Richborough Roman Fort, Walmer Castle & Deal Castle, Dover Castle, Battle Abbey, Pevensey Castle, Carisbrooke Castle, Wrest Park, Audley End, Kenilworth Castle
Sundays only: Eltham Palace
closed: Chiswick House, Marble Hill House, Ranger's House

 Saturday, November 17, 2018

Here are three of this week's developments in the East London transportsphere...

1) A new Woolwich Ferry arrived

Woolwich's previous ferries had been in operation since 1963 - three gloomy leviathans named John Burns, Ernest Bevin and James Newman. But there comes a time when modern replacements are required, even in the midst of a budget squeeze, and in 2016 TfL put in an order for two new ferries. One's to be named the Dame Vera Lynn, after East Ham's Forces sweetheart, and the other's already called Ben Woollacott. Deckhand Ben was only 19 when he died in a tragic accident after falling overboard during mooring, seven years ago, so his boat has a bittersweet title. And it's already here, having sailed across the North Sea from Poland where it was built, arriving just after ten on Thursday morning. Darryl was there to see it in.

The Woolwich Ferry is due to restart after Christmas, once Dame Vera Lynn arrives and tests and trials are complete. Meanwhile Ben is moored up at one pier or the other, and staff are on board familiarising themselves with the new set-up. Expect a lot more capacity onboard, with an increase in deck space for vehicles, a separate section for cyclists and room for 150 foot passengers, should 150 foot passengers ever turn up. Hurrah, the new vessel has step-free pedestrian access rather than steep stairs down below deck, and a diesel-electric hybrid propulsion to ensure lower emissions. And yes it's still going to be free to use, tolls having been outlawed by an Act of Parliament in 1885 that's never been revoked.

I popped down to North Woolwich yesterday and saw several folk aboard, and a much sparkier vessel than I'm used to. There are more straight lines, and several big blue river roundels, and an orange panel on the side which screams FERRY for the benefit of boats plying the Thames in a longitudinal direction. I don't recommend rushing down for a look. The riverside footpath beyond the flood defences is a grim place at the best of times, let along in misty November drizzle, and the team of workers using the lull to dig up the approach road don't make for an especially welcoming atmosphere. But come back in the New Year and you'll be able to cross the river in style, months before Crossrail manages to make the link.

2) Newbury Park station went step-free

TfL are on a very slow quest to make as many tube stations as possible step-free. It's hard to do underground, but suburban stations often provide better opportunities to add lift shafts without exorbitant cost. Newbury Park had been on the step-free list before, but Boris Johnson dropped plans in 2009 because of “funding constraints”, at which point £4.6 million had already been spent. The latest specification is slightly different, so needed fresh planning permission, and uses the same replicable technology that's also been used at Bromley-by-Bow and elsewhere. Bromley-by-Bow was number 73, Buckhurst Hill 74, Victoria 75... and Newbury Park is 76. Here's the press release.

They've done what you'd expect, which is to add lifts on either side on the footbridge, opposite the top of each staircase. The lifts are quite obvious from up top, with towers far enough from the famous bus station not to upset its heritage silhouette, but less obvious on the platforms unless you spot the new signs pointing towards an alcove in each wall. A few locals have noticed, and I saw an old lady with two shopping bags who looked more than grateful to be heading for a lift rather than shuffling up busy stairs. But the lifts were still empty enough during the Friday evening peak for me to get the 17-person-capacity metal boxes, both up and down, all to myself. Excellent stuff.

A curious thing I've not seen before is that both lift alcoves double up as emergency exits. Should it ever be necessary, two metal doors with push bars (opposite the lift doors) can be used to exit the station. A Help Point has been added to the far wall specifically for passengers unable to use the emergency stairs, because this has been deemed a "Platform Place of Relative Safety". There's even a caution notice on the wall advising refugees to "apply brakes to pushchairs and wheelchairs to avoid possibility of rolling onto the track". It is an amazing level of functionality for (hopefully) an incredibly rare occurrence, I think confirming that Health and Safety is being taken hugely more seriously these days.

3) The Goblin got hobbled

The Overground between Gospel Oak and Barking has been having a rough time of late. First it was the track. Electrification forced the closure of the line for several months in 2016, extending longer than expected into 2017 due to bodged design and inadequate logistics, and wasn't finally completed until earlier this year. The relentless use of rail replacement buses has been utterly miserable for those affected. And now there's a problem with the trains. The line was supposed to be getting new trains in May, with new Class 710 units arriving to replace the existing Class 172s, a deadline since put back to this month. The problem is that the new trains aren't now expected to be in service before January, but the old trains are already promised elsewhere.

West Midlands Trains are expecting the Goblin's diesel rolling stock to be running on their lines out of Coventry and Birmingham. The leasing of trains being what it is, one the Overground's eight units vanished up to the West Midlands in June, followed by a second unit at the start of November. This leaves exactly the six units needed to run the Goblin's basic timetable, but not enough if any of the units breaks down or needs maintenance or even regular servicing. There have already been days when the published timetable proved impossible to deliver, and this weekend a reduced service is being imposed to provide a breathing space. It's being advertised as running "every 15 to 30 minutes", rather than the usual 15, suggesting several deletions throughout the day.

Here's how bad it is eastbound on Saturday....
The following trains will not run: 0705 0735 0835 0905 1005 1035 1135 1205 1305 1335 1435 1505 1605 1635 1735 1805 1905 1938 2035 2105 2205 2325
...and on Sunday...
The following trains will not run: 0940 1010 1119 1140 1240 1310 1410 1440 1540 1610 1710 1740 1840 1910 2010 2040 2140 2210 2310

No paper or electronic timetables have been published to show what trains are left, because that would require effort. Instead passengers have to check the marginal notes on the TfL status updates webpage, or plan a journey on the TfL website and see what gaps crop up. It's all wildly unimpressive, and wholly inconvenient, and the misery is likely to increase dramatically after New Year's Eve when TfL's lease on the existing trains expires. As ever, the Barking-Gospel Oak Rail User Group have all the latest news. Alas, as new trains become more technically complicated, disruption caused by delayed implementation is becoming ever more common.

 Friday, November 16, 2018

Let's have a totally unscientific poll.

What's your preferred Brexit?
Pick one of these.


The government's deal should be accepted by Parliament

comments (8)

The government's deal should be rejected in favour of no deal

comments (5)

We should remain in the EU, ignoring the referendum result

comments (151)

And which one do you think will happen?
Pick one of these.


The government's deal will be accepted by Parliament

comments (31)

The government's deal will be rejected in favour of no deal

comments (67)

We will remain in the EU, ignoring the referendum result

comments (16)

a) One vote per grid.
b) UK residents only, please.
c) You could just write DEAL, NO DEAL or REMAIN as your comment.
d) Whatever you write, no more than 30 words, thanks.

If you feel the need to leave a longer comment, please do so in the comments box below.
Feel free not to read the comments box below.

Midnight update: Comments remain open, but the numbers are now frozen.

Biscuit quiz
Here are picture clues to the names of 25 types of biscuit.
How many can you name?
Just one guess each, thanks.

 Thursday, November 15, 2018

Secret Hidden London no 847: Flash Lane Viaduct

You haven't been everywhere London has to offer until you've seen Flash Lane Viaduct. This early 19th century engineering triumph hides less than a mile from the edge of London, in Whitewebbs Park in the borough of Enfield, and is an official Scheduled Ancient Monument.

Score yourself ten London Points if you know where Whitewebbs Park is. Give yourself eight points if you can pinpoint the village of Clay Hill, and know which bus takes you there. Award five points if I have to tell you we're inbetween Crews Hill and Forty Hall, and that helps. And make do with a bonus point if you had to look up Enfield on a map.

The New River is an early 17th century engineering triumph, a 40 mile canal carrying drinking water all the way from springs in Hertfordshire to fields near Clerkenwell. But because it had to work by gravity alone it followed a contour, and that made it exceptionally twisty, and the biggest twist was at Whitewebbs. To cross the Cuffley Brook required a hairpin bend well three miles in length, with Flash Lane near the tip.

Lengthy wiggles are inefficient, so in 1820 the New River Company decided to build a viaduct to chop the tip off. They came to Bow and paid £252 2s to Hunter and English to build a cast iron aqueduct wide enough to cross the Cuffley Brook. The aqueduct would be 18 feet wide, comprising four parallel sections bolted together, sealed with lead and lined with puddled clay. It was to be supported on two brick piers, allowing the stream to flow unhindered underneath while the New River was diverted across the top. Hey presto, one shortcut.

But the aqueduct barely lasted 30 years. In the 1850s the New River Company invested in pumping stations, allowing them to build a longer more complex viaduct the other side of Forty Hall and so chop off the entire Whitewebbs Loop. Shorter journey, less leakage, higher profits. And so the former waterway became redundant, the Flash Lane Viaduct fell into disrepair, and adjacent tree roots were left alone to do their worst.

The first improvement came in 1968 when the Enfield Archaeological Society excavated the trough, and two subsequent English Heritage grants (in 1998 and 2010) have effected full restoration. In the latest round the aqueduct was cleaned, a protective coating was applied, the brickwork repaired, some graffiti removed and the railings fixed. It looks a little more overgrown now at either end, and the former route of the New River isn't especially clear, but it is a proper quirky structure to stumble upon in the middle of the woods.

A splendid information board reveals more about the viaduct then we normally deserve, including an aerial photo, cross-sectional diagrams, before-and-after photographs, a map and a full history. A gate leads through into the aqueduct area proper, although walking down the bank and onto the ironwork isn't encouraged. A fresh footpath crosses the bridge beside the trough, then follows the Cuffley Brook downstream, affording sylvan views back towards the brickwork. How strange that the capital's drinking water once flowed through this remote woodland glade.

To find the aqueduct, take the rare-as-hen's-teeth W10 bus from Enfield and alight in the hamlet of Clay Hill, close to St John's church. Flash Lane begins opposite the recently-closed Fallow Buck pub, passing a string of secluded homes before continuing downhill as a muddy bridleway between paddocks and private woodland. The owner of the aforementioned woodland loses no opportunity to remind passers-by that the land across the barbed wire is Private Property Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted No Fly Tipping No Fly Grazing. Ten minutes gets you to the aqueduct.

On the far side this ancient track rises up through Whitewebbs Woods, a glorious sprawl of hornbeam and oak, ideal for a crunchy autumn stroll. I met absolutely nobody, and it was splendid. Head off piste through the trees and you'll stumble upon London's remotest Toby Carvery. Continue ahead to Whitewebbs Lane to reach The King and Tinker, a Jacobean pub with a set of stocks in its beer garden. Or go find the Whitewebbs Museum of Transport, if it's a Tuesday, based inside a former New River pumping station. Secret Hidden London is always worth exploring.

 Wednesday, November 14, 2018

A 70th birthday tribute

God save our King-to-be,
Long live the OAP,
God save our Charles.
    Waiting for mum's demise,
    Won't rule until she dies,
    Ne'er to reign over us?
    God help the Prince.

Bold foe of architects,
Carbuncles make him vexed,
Charles speaks his mind.
    Dabbler in politics,
    Champion of organics,
    There's nothing he can't fix,
    Charles saves us all.

Thanks to a drunk chauffeur,
Now wed to Camilla;
His youthful flame.
    Di produced strapping heirs,
    That's all the nation cares
    So sing with hearts and prayers
    Long live the Queen!

How many consecutive London bus routes can you ride?

For example, if you could ride the 3, then the 4, then the 5, then the 6, that'd be four consecutive bus routes. But you can't, because route 3 and route 4 never quite meet, and route 5 gets no closer to central London than Canning Town station. So not that.

For the avoidance of doubt, I'm allowing interchange if two routes cross or overlap - they don't have to share the same bus stop. No long walks are allowed. Oh, and numbered buses only, no letters. If I'd allowed letters then the best run would be in Orpington where all eleven 'R' buses (from R1 to R11) stop in the High Street. So not that.

With over 400 numbered London bus routes, you'd think there'd be a decently long chain of consecutive bus routes somewhere. But I couldn't find one. London's bus routes aren't laid out sequentially in convenient geographical sectors (or if they ever were, enough tweaks have been made since to wreck the pattern).

For example, out in Dagenham the 173, 174 and 175 all run down the Heathway, which looks promising. But the 172 goes to Brockley and the 176 goes to Penge, so that doesn't help. Meanwhile at Elephant & Castle the 343 links to the 344, which links to the 345 in Battersea, which looks promising. But the 346 only serves Upminster, and the 342 doesn't exist, so that's no help either.

The longest chain I've managed to find is just five buses long, and starts with the 22.
22       → Oxford Circus station
23 Oxford Circus station → Trafalgar Square
24 Trafalgar Square → Tottenham Court Road station
25 Tottenham Court Road station → Bank station
26 Bank station →
There are some very familiar changeover points there. Oxford Circus, specifically the top of Regent Street, is the only place where the two buses serve the same stop - at the other interchanges you have to take a short walk. Obviously I'm not suggesting you do this for real, it's just a thought experiment. But if you did ride these five consecutive buses it'd take about an hour, just saying.

I don't think there's a chain of 6 routes. I don't think there's another chain of 5. Unless you know better.

If you're planning to check for the longest chain, obviously what you need is a bus map. Unfortunately TfL stopped producing London bus maps in March 2016, and took them off their website last year. This saves them money, but leaves us in the dark, because why should passengers know where all the buses go? If you'd like a digital copy of the final TfL bus maps, they're all here as pdfs: [Central] [NW] [NE] [SW] [SE]. Even better, if you'd like digital copies of all the final TfL bus maps as printed, including covers and indexes and all the inserts, they're in these zip files. Alas the maps are already long out of date, especially in central London. But hurrah for Freedom of Information requests (and boo to busmapkillers).

Here's an intriguing thing.

Ten years ago, the longest chain I can find was 6 buses. 11 12 13 14 15 16
Forty years ago, it was seven. 10 11 12 13 14 15 16
Seventy years ago it was ten. 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19

The further back you go, the longer the chains get because bus routes were longer and better connected. Inexorably over time they've got shorter, or been changed, and so become harder to connect. For example, the 11 no longer quite meets the 10 (which is about to be scrapped), the 13 was sneakily renumbered (so no longer overlaps the 12) and the 15 no longer passes through Piccadilly Circus (so now just misses the 14).

As we enter the Hopper Era, expect bus routes to get shorter still. Indeed my 22 → 26 journey is about to be wrecked in 10 days time when route 23 is diverted away from central London and merged with route 10. Moreover, route 25 is about to be cut back from Oxford Circus to Holborn Circus, maybe imminently, breaking the link with the 24.

In the near future, the longest chain of consecutive bus routes is going to be only 4 buses long, down from 5, down from 7, down from 10. That's our direction of travel. I mean, I assume there must be a chain of 4 consecutive bus routes somewhere in London. Help me out, I'm still looking...

 Tuesday, November 13, 2018

London's Christmas lights are particularly disappointing this year.

The Oxford Street Christmas Lights

Well these are rubbish. They're exactly the same globes we've seen several years in a row, going all the way back to 2013, showing no imagination whatsoever. What's more they've already been up for a month, because Oxford Street loves premature decoration, indeed they're due to be in place for over 25% of the year. Worse, look, they're not even lit up. In the middle of the day the sun never reaches this east/west street so the globes are basically wasted. I understand that some limited overnight illumination started with a grand switch-on last Tuesday, but what use is that for daytime shopping?

"The nation’s favourite high street has been lit up for the festive season, celebrating the start of Christmas with the BIGGEST ever shopping party!"

The Bond Street Christmas Lights

Well these are rubbish. They're exactly the same peacock feathers we've seen several years in a row, going all the way back to 2014, showing no imagination whatsoever. You'd expect the poshest shopping street in London to have the cash for something new, surely. Worse, look, they're not even lit up. The display's really sparse, so the feathers are basically wasted. I understand that some limited overnight illumination started with a grand switch-on last Thursday, but what use is that for daytime shopping?

"Home to some of the world’s most prestigious retailers, Bond Street remains a much-loved destination for celebrities, socialites and the international jet set."

The Covent Garden Christmas Lights

Well these are rubbish. They're exactly the same baubles with mistletoe we've seen several years in a row, going all the way back to 2015, showing no imagination whatsoever. Surely everyone who was ever intending to snap these on Instagram has already done so, several times over. Worse, look, they're not even lit up. It's all ridiculously over the top, so the baubles and mistletoe are basically wasted. I understand that some limited overnight illumination will be starting with a grand switch-on tonight, but what use is that for daytime shopping?

"The area boasts a unique blend of global and independent brands curated to satisfy every shopping need in London."

The Regent Street Christmas Lights

Well these are rubbish. They're exactly the same angels we've seen three years in a row, going all the way back to 2016, showing no imagination whatsoever. Does nobody have any money for annual replacements any more? Worse, look, they're not even lit up. They look like badly-hung fishing nets, and are pretty much invisible in bright sunshine, so the angels are basically wasted. I understand that some limited overnight illumination will be starting with a grand switch-on on Thursday, but what use is that for daytime shopping?

"Experience Regent Street, London's distinctive home of fashion, dining, wellness and lifestyle."

The Northbank Christmas Lights

Well these are rubbish. Nobody wants to see Christmas lights with a Business Improvement District's brand plastered all over them, let alone a BID pretending that the Strand is in fact the non-existent Northbank. On the plus side these are fresh lights this year, replacing last year's tired bowler hats and dangly lightstrings, but the new design shows even less imagination than the old. Worse, look, they're not even lit up... it only looks that way because the sun is glinting off them. I understand that some limited overnight illumination will be starting with a grand switch-on tomorrow, but what use is that for daytime shopping?

"The Northbank is increasingly a hub of opportunities with an ambitious programme of initiatives to complement the Northbank’s cultural, entertainment and corporate assets."

The Seven Dials Christmas Lights

Well these are rubbish. I mean, look, they're not even all in place yet. Nobody wants to go Christmas shopping and find trucks and barriers and men on elevated platforms in the middle of a snowflake display. On the plus side these are fresh lights this year, replacing last year's lacklustre ribbons and presents, but the new design shows even less imagination than the old. The flapping silver strips that make up the snowflakes look better suited to a primary school assembly hall. Worse, look, they're not even lit up. I understand that some limited overnight illumination will be starting with a grand switch-on on Thursday, but what use is that for daytime shopping?

"Bringing you seven streets of independent boutiques, heritage brands, indulgent beauty and grooming salons alongside luxury hotels and more."

The Carnaby Street Christmas Lights

Well these are rubbish. Stringing the lyrics of Bohemian Rhapsody across the street isn't even festive, for heaven's sake, and shows no imagination whatsoever. Admittedly Bohemian Rhapsody was the Christmas number 1 in 1975 and 1991, but nobody ever thinks 'Christmas' when they hear the opening chords. Oddly, these were officially launched last month because it was deemed more important to plug a new film than to celebrate Christmas at the right time. Worse, look, they're not even lit up. I understand that some limited overnight illumination started two weeks ago, but what use is that for daytime shopping?

"Welcome to Carnaby, one of the most unique shopping and dining areas in London - your go-to destination."

Christmas lights? I don't know why they bothered.

 Monday, November 12, 2018

3 miles from central London

Where, precisely, are three miles north, east, south and west from the statue of Charles I in Trafalgar Square?
[1 mile], [2 miles] [map]

THREE MILES NORTH: Hilldrop Lane, Holloway
(behind St Mungo's on Camden Road, N7)

This isn't pretty. I had hoped it might have been. Walking towards my target destination I passed through several streets of solid four-storey Victorian villas, but also crossed several undistinguished modern estates, and this road felt closer than most to the bottom of the heap. A back lane, divided by a barrier, once home to greenhouses and a garage, now a row of mundane flats and lock-ups. No front gardens, just an iron grille facing onto tarmac. Some homes have floor-to-ceiling grilles behind their ground floor windows, just in case. In the shared garden, someone's discarded three broken office chairs. Humps ahead, maximum speed 5mph.

Lined up on one windowsill, a collection of commemorative beer glasses. Pinned up on one door, Beware of the dog. Attached to the foot of several up-and-overs, a mechanical 'Garage Defender'. Last time the lockups saw fresh blue paint, heaven knows. Private parking only, with permit, penalty £100. Just two streetlamps, and good luck after dark on the stretch inbetween. No access to Belmont Lane. A row of bollards. The Tansley Close Community Garden, leaf-strewn and locked. The sound of drumming from the Baptist church at the end of the lane. A trio in trapper hats walk past drinking from cut-price cans. The shadow of Moelwyn Hughes Court. For several Londoners, home. One mile from New King's Cross, three from Trafalgar Square.

THREE MILES EAST: Park Vista Tower, Wapping
(Cobblestone Square, opposite Tobacco Dock, E1W)

Go back forty years and this spot was off-limits within the London Docks, midway between the Western and Eastern Docks, bookended by two swing bridges. Then the basins were filled in for extensive housing, none of it especially highrise because this was the 1980s, leaving a single ornamental canal to snake through the development. But what I've managed to hit here, quite by chance, is Wapping's sole multi-storey tower, squeezed in where Ballymore spotted a slim gap. It's long and thin and stacked and silver, with an Italian restaurant at the bow, rising increasingly steeply to a penthouse pair. It's very 2014, so glass not brick, which is probably in its favour.

Whoever called this Cobblestone Square was having a laugh, or a liar hoping the name'd put prices up. A long slabbed walkway leads to a locked gate which keeps the riffraff of Wapping Woods out, but also the joggers of Park Vista Tower in. A fake canal runs along one side, pumped to ensure movement. An empty chamber of muscle-flexing machines props up the ground floor, because residents have paid extra for gym and concierge. Somebody's moving out today, their worldly goods being trolleyed in taped-up boxes into the back of a van. At the end of the road London's hippest musical youth are milling by, making their way into BBC Introducing Live at Tobacco Dock. Early arrivals are taking advantage of a break between masterclasses by smoking alongside the pirate ships. I feel hideously off-trend.

THREE MILES SOUTH: Cottage Grove, Clapham
(Fenwick Estate, nr Clapham North station, SW9)

The Falcon, with its mustard frontage and beer terrace, is certainly trendy enough for Clapham. But Cottage Grove alongside is the gateway to a dead end council estate, knocked up in the 1960s and hidden away beside the railway embankment. The Fenwick Estate, a loop of courtyard and linear blocks, has seen better days. The Vehicle Testing Station on the way in is a big clue, with its blue MOT triangles and the offer to fix CARS, MOTOR CYCLES, THREE WHEELERS. Shabby wooden doors face the pavement, or can be accessed up backstairs along balcony walkways. A tabby cat looks down from a concrete ledge. Children kick about in a high-fenced football corral. A mural commemorates Billy Cox, 1991-2007. Someone's rice takeaway fills a puddle. The Residents Association Winter Party is pencilled in for mid-December.

A few runs of flats are boarded up, their windows firmly pinned shut. Squibb Group Limited started demolition last month within a zig-zagged sliver alongside the railway. The site's being developed by TfL as part of their new role as the Mayor's housing provider, and will shoehorn 55 all-affordable flats into this awkward space. If I say bricky and balconied, you already know exactly what they'll look like. The remainder of the Fenwick Estate is on Lambeth council's regeneration list, hopelessly delayed, but already pumping out newsletter after newsletter to keep existing residents informed. Everyone'll be sequentially decanted, rather than kicked out in favour of rich incomers, but not for a while yet. Don't expect open staircases in the replacement.

THREE MILES WEST: Kensington Place, Notting Hill
(at the junction with Hillgate Street, W8)

Here's your sharp contrast. Kensington Place runs a couple of streets back from Notting Hill Gate, sloping down towards Kensington Church Street, and is nowhere the hoi polloi would normally go. One side is perfect pastel terraces with sash windows, basement steps and prices approaching three million apiece - ideal for purchasers who want reconfigurable internal space with hardly any garden to fuss over. The other side is a school playground, colourfully marked, and a block of brown flats built on the site of a garage on the site of a disused reservoir. The street could have traffic both ways, but folks need to be able to park their Mini Coupés out front so it has to be one way only.

A kid from the flats speeds down the pavement on his silver scooter, and thanks me ever so politely for stepping to one side. Two floppy haired blonds with brogues and Barbours walk down the middle of the road, confident of not being run over. Some terribly nice vases are on show on parlour tables, unless the shutters are down because there's nothing, or too much, worth ogling. Someone in the unpainted stretch has got the scaffolders in. The primary school offers weekend classes in Family Yoga. A copper-spired church on Campden Hill dominates the top of the street. The display of autumn colours at number 30 is currently stunning. What a difference a compass point makes.

 Sunday, November 11, 2018

100 years after the guns fell silent at the end of the First World War, many will stand and remember this morning in front of one of Britain's thousands of war memorials. I've been out tracking down the war memorials in Bow (specifically the E3 postcode, specifically outdoors, specifically WW1-related) from a time when Tower Hamlets was very different to how it is today.

Bryant & May War Memorial Grove Hall Park, E3

Bow's famous match-making factory was at the height of its success when WW1 broke out, employing over 2000 women and girls. The company's war memorial is a slender affair, a white stone shaft topped by a cross, and unmarked other than by a Bryant and May monogram on one side. Five names were once visible at the base, representing a handful of male employees to be sent to the Western Front, but these have long since eroded. Since the factory closed in 1979 the cross has stood in the centre of the Memorial Garden in Grove Hall Park, and a few years ago was fenced off in an attempt to prevent vandalism.

Bromley Recreation Ground St Leonards Street, E3

When it was erected in 1921 this granite obelisk had pride of place at the entrance to Bromley Recreation Ground, at the head of the walkway from the main entrance to the bandstand. It's not been moved, but the Victorian gardens have been altered beyond measure to accommodate the Bromley-by-Bow Centre in one corner, and this millennial building now dominates. These days it's all too easy to miss the significance of a 6m-high cenotaph hidden away behind a brick wall, and the words LEST WE FORGET in the wreath at the top feel somewhat prophetic.


All Hallows Church Blackthorn Street, E3
St Barnabas Church Roman Road, E3

Although several Bow churches have WW1 memorials inside, these are the only two I could find outside. The stone plaque outside All Hallows is seriously weathered, and almost impossible to read, and includes a long quote from Luke's gospel. St Barnabas has a much better maintained Portland Stone panel with a carving featuring St George and a slain dragon, with the background picked out in blue mosaic. Both are dedicated to the war dead of the parish, 260 from one and 130 from the other, and both make very clear that the Great War was seen at the time as a quest for freedom.


1914 – 1919

Gas Light & Coke Company Twelvetrees Crescent, E3

The E3 postcode has a slight bulge across the River Lea into Newham, which allows me to include this extremely unusual war memorial which burns day and night. Between 1873 and 1976 Bromley Gasworks was one of the largest in London, and its unique group of seven gasholders still stands. To the south is a memorial garden, lightly wooded, where the war dead of the Gas Light & Coke Company are remembered. Of the 950 names inscribed, well over half are from WW1, giving some impression of the scale of the workforce at the time. The gasworks chose to remember its dead with an 'eternal flame', an iron-framed octagonal gas lamp set on a stone column, whose cluster of tiny flames can still be seen burning orange should anyone ever think to walk off the main road and look up. The original bronze plaques around the base were stolen in 2007, for scrap, but the replacements thankfully look just as good.

Tower Hamlets Cemetery Southern Grove E3

E3's most significant war memorial can be found in Tower Hamlets Cemetery. It used to be in the centre, but five hits on the cemetery during the Blitz led to significant damage, and the replacement memorial is much closer to the main entrance. It's nothing showy. Sixteen bronze plaques across a granite wall list all 280 servicemen and women interred here, considerably more from the First World War than the Second. A local history website aims to tell the story of each and every one of them, listed here, although the project's not yet complete.

1914 - 1918   1939 – 1945

I was intrigued by the years in which each of the servicemen had died, because something looked odd, so I scanned through each plaque in turn and made a note. I was not expecting this.


More deaths in 1918 than any other year, by far, and 1919 somehow the second most common year, despite the war having officially finished. 100 years on, the magnitude and duration of this conflict are almost too great for us to fully comprehend.

A pdf detailing war memorials across Tower Hamlets can be downloaded here, and you can explore the Imperial War Museum's war memorial register for sites near you here.

 Saturday, November 10, 2018

As the centenary of the Armistice ticks closer, I thought I'd look back into my own family's First World War story, based on genealogical research and the occasional treasured artefact. Don't expect anything unduly horrific or outstanding.

My grandparents were born between 1900 and 1905, so were children during the Great War and thankfully missed out on active service. But my great-grandparents were born in the 1870s, part of the generation most directly affected, so they're the group I've been investigating.

My Mum's grandfather, Harry, signed up six years early. The British government launched the Territorial Force in April 1908 as a volunteer back-up contingent for the British Army, a bit like today's Territorial Army but with a higher chance of seeing active service. Harry signed up within the first fortnight, putting his signature to an official document agreeing to a four year term and to payment of a £5 fine if he failed to attend the necessary number of drills. Question 15(c) asked 'Do you understand that when a proclamation has been issued in case of imminent national danger or great emergency calling out the first class Army Reserve you will become liable to be embodied?', to which he answered Yes. He can't have imagined quite what he was letting himself in for.

Harry was part of the Hertfordshire Regiment, one of a small number of Territorial units who were called up alongside the regular army in August 1914 to form the British Expeditionary Force. The regiment were ordered to assemble at Romford the day after war broke out, then moved north to Bury St Edmunds for two months of training. On 5th November the regiment took the train to Southampton, sailed at midnight for Le Havre, swiftly moving onto Saint-Omer. Their march to the front took them through Ypres, and their first trench action came on 14th November, relieving troops after the Battle of Nonne Bosschen. That's from Suffolk to front line fighting in nine days flat.

Thanks to the internet, and a transcribed war diary, I know exactly what Harry's regiment got up to for the next four years. I even have a map. As well as Ypres they were involved at Loos, the Somme and Passchendale, last seeing service in Picardy on 5th November 1918. What I don't know is how much of those four years my great-grandfather spent in the thick of things. He wasn't killed, nor seriously injured, nor outstandingly valiant, so he doesn't crop up in dispatches. All I have is his digitised medal record, which shows he earned all the usual ones, and that he made it through to the end of the war intact. It would have been amazing to hear first hand of his experiences on the Western Front, however terrible, but he died in 1952 so I never will.

My Dad's grandfather, Edward, was 44 when World War One kicked off. He didn't enlist straight away but waited until January 1915 before throwing in his lot with the Royal Army Flying Corps. One of the things he did that day was fill in an official postcard, which we still have, to confirm to the rest of the family the major step he'd just taken. It's addressed to his wife in Maida Vale, with a tuppence ha'penny stamp and a South Farnborough postmark, and reveals the crucial regimental number she'd need to quote at the Soldiers' and Sailors' Families Association. Imagine entrusting yourself to a brand new technology as international warfare took to the air.

I know Edward was an Air Mechanic 2nd Class, a rank which included acetylene welders, blacksmiths, engine fitters, gear mechanics, aircraft riggers and electricians, but I don't know which of those he did. His first 'Theatre of War' was in France on 24th July 1915, because it says so on his medal record, and I think he was assigned to No 3 Squadron if that's what the Roman numerals mean. But I'm not certain precisely where he was based, whether he flew or stayed on the ground, or anything much about his time in service. All I do know is that his military career was cut short at some time in November 1917.

Edward's record gives the reason for his discharge as "sickness", in common with most of the other men in the register at the time. I understand this was a euphemism for mustard-gassed, 1917 being the peak of that appalling chemical weapon's use. He was discharged through South Farnborough on 5th December, and intriguingly the official War Office register lists his age as 36 when he was actually ten years older. Alas Edward's health never really recovered and he died of lung complications in 1921 aged just 50. Just because the Armistice was signed in 1918 doesn't mean casualties suddenly ceased, and the war continued to take its toll for many years.

My Dad's other grandfather, Thomas, was 35 when war broke out but I don't know what he did. If he'd signed up surely there'd be records, or maybe he had a more important job to do back home. As for my Mum's other grandfather, James, he died on New Year's Day 1914 and missed the whole thing. And my great-grandmothers of course never enlisted because times were very different, and so remained at home for the duration looking after the children. Those are four more stories I'll never hear told. Maybe they were nothing special, but the story of mass conflict is the accumulation of millions of individual narratives, and everyone's enduring experience counts. Lest we forget.

 Friday, November 09, 2018

Crossrail launches one month from today!

It doesn't, obviously. Potentially there's still another year to wait. But it never hurts to be reminded of what a massive project scheduling cock-up this has been.

But even if you can't yet ride Crossrail, you can already buy a ticket.

Pop down to your nearest TfL station, find a TfL ticket machine and request a ticket to Woolwich. This shouldn't be possible, because the station doesn't yet exist. But the machine will happily sell you a ticket anyway.

Don't rush out and try to bag yourself a souvenir. Tickets from TfL ticket machines don't include a destination, only the station you bought it from, a fare and a date. Your ticket will be perfectly valid to wherever, but it won't mention Woolwich.

I checked at several different stations, and all the machines were willing to take my money. The price is £4.90 for a single ticket from Stratford, Whitechapel or North Greenwich, for example, rising to £5.90 from stations in Zone 1. Return tickets cost twice as much.

Don't worry about how expensive this is. The price of cash tickets is artificially inflated to encourage people to Pay As You Go instead. This isn't a Crossrail-specific issue.

Although selling premature tickets sounds insane, there is a good reason. The software which runs TfL ticket machines is very complex, so is only updated a handful of times each year. The next update is in January, when fares rise, but this would have been too late for Crossrail's December launch, so the change had to be implemented as part of the previous update in September. The precise date was September 2nd, just two days after TfL announced Crossrail's launch was being delayed, by which time it was too late to stop the planned fares rollout going through.

Other Crossrail-specific tickets are available, for example to Abbey Wood, even though you can't yet follow the cheaper Crossrail routing.

In reality Woolwich station is nowhere near complete, just another unfitted box behind a hoarding. Indeed there was every chance its opening would have been delayed even if the rest of Crossrail had launched on time.

But you can already buy a Crossrail ticket to Woolwich, because life is strange.

The Shrouds of the Somme installation opened to the public in the Olympic Park yesterday morning.

All 72,396 wrapped figures are now laid out in rows across the South Lawn.

They represent all the British and Commonwealth servicemen who died in the Battle of the Somme but have no known grave.

Admission is free, but plenty of bucket-carrying stewards are available to take charitable donations.

Visitors are invited to walk around the perimeter, which includes an observation deck at one end.

Coachloads of schoolchildren are amongst those arriving to take a look.

Some of the figures are already damp and muddy, which only adds to the overall effect.

The artist, Rob Heard, was present and receiving plaudits from an appreciative audience.

A separate section, Lost Lives, includes one wrapped figure for each day of WW1 along with a daily casualty total.

For example, 14 soldiers were killed on the first day of the war in 1914, and 861 on the last day in 1918.

The total is almost more shocking when visualised this way, as relentless slaughter over such a long period of time.

The final tent includes a shop where figures can be purchased for delivery next year, as well as an individual roll call.

Shrouds of the Somme continues until Sunday 18th November. [8 photos]

 Thursday, November 08, 2018

This week's American midterm elections have shone a spotlight on the very different way the US organises its national politics. We have an elected House of Commons, an unelected House of Lords and a hereditary monarch, which is clearly unfair. They have an elected Senate, an elected House and an elected president, which is clearly fairer. Could we learn from the American way of doing things? What if UK politics were to be remodelled along American lines?

First of all, an elected second chamber has got to be an improvement, right? The Senate is simplicity itself, two senators per state, as defined in the US constitution. The USA has 50 states, so that's 100 senators, which is a nice round practical number. What's more every state is represented equally, be that California (population 40 million) or Rhode Island (population 1 million), so that's very fair.

If we were to mirror this with a UK Senate, we'd need two senators per county. Alas local government reorganisation since 1974 has messed up our county structures, chopping some into unitary authorities while leaving others whole. For example, it wouldn't be fair to give former Berkshire six times the representation of Oxfordshire nextdoor, simply because it's been broken up into half a dozen bits. The only fair thing would be to adopt ceremonial counties, as defined by the Lieutenancies Act 1997, bringing back traditional subdivisions we can all unite behind. What's more England has 48 ceremonial counties, which would mean 96 senators, which is an almost perfect total.

Although English counties have very different sized populations, the US experience confirms that such disparities are incontrovertibly fair. Indeed counties like Somerset, Derbyshire and Cheshire have very similar populations, as do the much smaller Cornwall, Warwickshire and Worcestershire, which would be very fair indeed. Rutland arguably gets an over-generous deal, with two senators for only 40000 residents, but they've suffered enough under local government reorganisation so we must leave them be. Meanwhile 8 million Londoners might be unhappy at being grossly under-represented, but in fact the City of London and Greater London are each defined as ceremonial counties, so that'd be twice as good, hence much fairer than expected.

As for the Home Nations, their plurality of administrative divisions is ridiculous, and we must not permit over-representation. Scotland's 32 unitary councils almost outnumber England's, adopting Northern Ireland six traditional counties would be inflammatory, and recognition for all of Wales's 22 counties and county boroughs would be excessive. Instead the only practical measure is to consider each nation as a single unit, contributing two senators apiece, making a grand total of 102. That's ideal.

UK Senate - number of senators
EnglandScotlandWalesN IrelandTOTAL

By reviewing the last set of General Election results county by county, it's easy to translate a potential UK Senate into each party's seats. For example, County Durham's voters preferred Labour, while Essex's voters preferred the Conservatives, thus balancing out at two senators each. Wales would send two Labour senators to Westminster, and Scotland two SNP senators, because winner takes all. What's more Northern Ireland now would be represented solely by the DUP, because Sinn Fein are in the minority across the province, so that'd solve the peace process at a stroke.

UK Senate 2017 (notional result based on county boundaries)
Conservative72Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, City of London, Cornwall, Cumbria, Derbyshire, Devon, Dorset, East Riding of Yorkshire, East Sussex, Essex, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Herefordshire, Hertfordshire, Isle of Wight, Kent, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, North Yorkshire, Northamptonshire, Northumberland, Oxfordshire, Rutland, Shropshire, Somerset, Staffordshire, Suffolk, Surrey, Warwickshire, West Sussex, Wiltshire, Worcestershire
Labour26Bristol, Cheshire, County Durham, Greater London, Greater Manchester, Lancashire, Merseyside, Nottinghamshire, South Yorkshire, Tyne and Wear, West Midlands, West Yorkshire, Wales
DUP2N Ireland

It may look from this table as if the Conservative party would have a built-in advantage, with shire counties dominant at the expense of larger metropolitan areas. On day to day matters of political business, yes, this would be the case. But residents of Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Lancashire would suddenly find themselves in "swing counties" where their vote genuinely mattered, and where the vast majority of campaigning would take place, leaving the rest of us in peace.

In conclusion, the map below shows that the area of blue is easily outnumbered by the rest of the country, especially when the vastness of Scotland is taken into account, proving that a UK Senate would be much fairer than it looks.

As for elections to the US House of Representatives, these are structured along very different lines, utilising arbitrarily defined areas better balanced for population. This is a lot closer to the UK model of Parliamentary constituencies, except that ours are defined by an independent body operating to nationally-defined rules. Americans adopt a more practical system whereby each state legislature is able to redraw its congressional districts as it sees fit, a process sometimes called gerrymandering. Local boundaries lead to local results which better prioritise local priorities, creating a fairer outcome for all.

Gerrymandering allows parties to claim the greatest number of seats even when the overall public vote is against them, by grouping together their opponents so that as many as possible of their votes are 'wasted'. The state of Michigan is particularly adept at this, constructing wild sinuous boundaries to corral as many unwanted voters as possible, whilst spreading out the minority vote to give it the best possible chance of taking seats. Such creativity can keep parties in power for years, creating certainty and stability, which are qualities to be applauded.

Adopting the American approach in Britain would allow the full process of ingenuity and resourcefulness to be embedded in our electoral process. For example, the county of Leicestershire could redraw its parliamentary boundaries so that each of its constituencies included a slice of Leicester, ensuring that urban characteristics were dominated by the rural vote, thereby removing three Labour MPs at a stroke. For balance, some extremely careful subdivision on Merseyside could ensure that Southport is never again able to elect a Conservative MP, guaranteeing a red clean sweep.

Or take Croydon. This London borough currently has three constituencies - North, Central and South - most recently returning two Labour MPs and one Conservative. But a little cunning and forethought could tip the balance, American-style, simply by redrawing constituency boundaries elsewhere. Let's start by giving Croydon one extra MP, making a total of four, which cannot be anything other than positively advantageous. Next let's draw fresh boundaries in wholly natural locations, linking areas of undoubted similarity, to create four much fairer constituencies, thus:

Each dot on the map represents approximately 1000 voters at this year's council elections - red for Labour and blue for Conservative. As you can see, each new constituency contains exactly 20 dots, representing an equal number of voters, and must therefore be perfectly fair. The constituency of Croydon North would be a red stronghold, providing much greater confidence for Labour going forward. Meanwhile the three other new constituencies, through deliberate design, would lean convincingly to the Conservatives. Never mind that there are six more red dots than blue, the overall blue majority would be a much fairer reflection of the intended outcome.

The triumphant results of the US midterms have clearly shown the benefits of a seemingly perverse electoral model, which could easily be adopted in Britain. A UK Senate based on UK counties would be transparently fair, certainly more so than a room full of hereditary peers, bishops and obscenely political appointments. As for a UK House of Representatives with suitably gerrymandered districts, the advantages to the incumbent party are undoubtedly clear. Throw in an onslaught of voter suppression, coupled with deliberate disenfranchisement, and the superior US electoral model could be ours.

Then all we'd need to do is vote for a president to replace the Queen, and nothing could possibly go wrong there.

 Wednesday, November 07, 2018

As the centenary of the Armistice approaches, here are three very different commemorations - the one you've heard a lot about, the one you're about to hear a lot about, and the skippable one.

Beyond the Deepening Shadow (4th-11th November, 5pm–9pm)
Tower of London

Four years ago poppies filled the Tower's moat, but this year it's candles. Ten thousand are scattered around the grassy dip surrounding the battlements, and every evening this week the Yeomen Warders process out after sunset to light the first flame. As the evening progresses the entire moat lights up, accompanied by a haunting choral soundscape, until eventually the candles fade away. Those who paid a fiver in advance can walk around the moat on a walkway amid the flames, and everyone else is allowed to wander around the pathways on the rim, assuming they can get through to take a peek. It's a fabulous idea, and creatively very well thought through.

To avoid the crowds I turned up later in the evening, by which time some of the lights were already blinking out. I expected the way in to be obvious, but it wasn't, and no prominent signage was evident in or outside Tower Hill station. Instead a maze of barriers and one-way systems has been set up, entirely unexplained, and even though I've now walked round it I still couldn't convincingly explain where you're supposed to enter the system. The volunteer at one of the exit gates mumbled something and pointed towards Tower Bridge, the tortuous chicanes on Tower Hill looked somewhat more official, but hard to reach... and I eventually wandered into the melee down a set of unguarded back stairs.

The crowd was more Havering & the Home Counties than you'd normally see in central London, perhaps tipped off by their midmarket tabloid of choice. They lined one side of the narrow path, looking down into the moat with cameras poised, then shuffling on to the next gap to record the installation from a different angle. It was astonishing how few people were simply experiencing the lights and sound, and how many were filming it for shared consumption, either in stills or as an extended video. Even the retired crowd had their phones out. Their loss. The music was the truly bewitching part, drifting in and out of harmony, while I suspect the flames looked more impressive on the ground rather than as separate pinpoints from above. I shall long remember the scene, but never quite felt part of it, and only realised afterwards that it had not inspired me to reflect or remember. [website]

Shrouds of the Somme (8th-18th November, 10am–7pm)
Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, South Lawn

Over one million soldiers were killed at the Battle of The Somme in 1916, of whom 72,396 British and Commonwealth servicemen have no known grave. Shrouds of the Somme is a unique installation designed to bring the magnitude of that number into sharp focus, and is the brainchild of Somerset artist Rob Heard. He's spent the last four years wrapping tiny plastic figures in cloth, his first target number the 19,240 body count from the first day of the battle. These were displayed in Exeter in 2016, and Rob's since upped production to create the full complement of 72,396 for 2018. That is an amazing personal commitment, and the outcome is every bit as striking as you'd expect.

A large area of lawn to the south of the Orbit has been fenced off, and a team of soldiers from 1st Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment has been laying out the models since the start of the week. Each row of 200 shrouds has to have precisely the right spacing, so this requires painstaking care, including the use of theodolites and guide wires. The top end of the lawn is already complete, though not yet perfect, hence a volunteer occasionally tiptoes out into the fray to ensure everything's optimally aligned. Meanwhile bags and bags of additional shrouds are scattered further down the lawn, ready to become part of the commemorative array, and beyond that scaffolders are constructing what looks to be a platform for an elevated view.

Shrouds of the Somme opens to the public tomorrow morning, and access will be free, although you will have to walk through a security tent and bag check first. It's hard to know what the public's reaction will be, but the people of Exeter were quite overwhelmed by their display, and the pink signs are already up at Stratford station in readiness for potential crowds. It already looks impressive, and that's from outside the barriers. Like the Tower of London's ceramic poppies it succeeds by creating a graphic representation of loss, bringing home the magnitude of war... although you'd need over 200 such lawns to match WW1's full casualty list. [website]

Remembrance Art Trail (8th-18th November)
Canary Wharf

Another location, another artist. This time it's Mark Humphrey, who first exhibited commemorative works at Canary Wharf two years ago, returning with a partially-fresh selection. Eleven artworks have been scattered all around the estate, so disparately that you'll need a map to find them all. A paper copy of the map is easily collected from one of the ubiquitous stewards, but even then you'll have to look carefully to see which level the artwork's on. There were at least three I didn't find, uncertain precisely what I was supposed to be looking for, even though I think I was in the right place. Still, at least this one was obvious.

This giant Airfix-kit soldier is located at one end of the roof gardens above Crossrail Place. It made me think of dismemberment, and the mass-availability of cannon fodder, although the apparent intention was to "demonstrate human sacrifice, comradeship and remembrance". I also appreciated the simplicity of Fallen Soldier in Cabot Square, where a series of poppy-filled tubes gently topple around the edge of the fountain, and the diverse ring of helmets on poles positioned outside Clifford Chance. Less so the soldier in the perspex pyramid facing the main entrance to Canary Wharf tube station, which occasionally blows poppies around like it's the end of the Crystal Maze, which draws the crowds.

Embedding meaningful art across the Canary Wharf estate is a fine idea, maximising the number of workers who'll see it and get their conscience jogged, and providing the Royal British Legion with a very visible presence. But I'm less convinced it works well as an Art Trail, indeed as I traipsed across yet another shopping mall it felt like some kind of Remembrance Orienteering, and there are better ways to be thoughtful. [website]

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