diamond geezer

 Monday, June 25, 2018

I'm extending midsummer by one day to complete my walk along MIDSUMMER BOULEVARD, the solstice-aligned spine road at the heart of Milton Keynes. Yesterday I walked from the station up to the shopping centre at the city's highest point, and today I'm continuing towards Campbell Park. [map] [aerial shots]

Milton Keynes Shopping Centre

The largest building in town, and undoubtedly the longest, the Shopping Centre opened for business in 1979. Officially it's now called thecentre:mk, but let's pretend it isn't. It comprises two half-mile-long parallel arcades, intermittently linked, with M&S as the anchor tenant at one end and John Lewis at the other. House of Fraser will be moving out early next year. The centre's big strength is that everything's at ground floor level, larger department stores notwithstanding, with delivery access hidden away on the first floor. I used to come here in the 1990s to do my Christmas shopping - two circuits and I'd hopefully be done. The light and airy arcades still look much the same, although some of the tropical planting and bench seating has been whipped out to be replaced by stalls selling mobile phone cases and churros.

My favourite spot was Queen's Court, the outdoor enclave officially opened by Her Majesty, as an inscribed plaque near the sliding doors attests. It also shows the direction of sunrise and sunset at the two solstices, confirming the solar backstory of the fledgling city, as well as aspects of public realm since deleted to create a food court in the space instead. The original pergola, podium and lawn are now empty space, the enormous fountain pool has been reduced to a thin water feature, and the Vox Pop statue has been shunted into a corner where Carluccio's and Cafe Rouge don't need seating. The whole place smells of bratwurst. But the centre's still a popular destination, kept fresh by incremental reinvention, and I did a full circuit for old times' sake.

The Point

Before 1985 the UK had no multiplex cinemas, this being the first, the brainchild of US entertainment magnate Stanley Durwood. It looked amazing too, a red steel ziggurat in a prime location mid-Midsummer Boulevard, and it thrived. But then the Xscape entertainment complex opened up a block behind, with a wider choice of films (as well as the country's largest ski slope). The Point attempted to reinvent itself, including a brief period as the UK's only Easycinema, but the final curtain fell in 2015. A developer has long had plans for demolition, but coming up with a replacement scheme the council approves of is proving tricky, their last attempt being described as "garish retail shed". In the meantime a few stalwarts still disappear underneath for bingo, and the shiny pinnacle slowly decays.

Milton Keynes Market

Some councils like their markets, whereas Milton Keynes shoves its into a grubby space beneath a concrete overpass. A cluster of brightly spangled stalls clings on, selling the usual fruit and veg, foam cushions and rolls of binbags. You won't get your phone unlocked in the main shopping centre, nor is there a wool trader selling Wendy, Robin and Sirdar, but it's hard to avoid the feeling you're walking round an afterthought undercroft and the unwanted corner of a car park.

The Food Centre

It seemed like a good idea at the time, to place Central Milton Keynes supermarket offering into a separate building on the opposite side of Midsummer Boulevard. I remember how sparkling it was when it opened, and how vastly amazing the Waitrose was, and my word how things change. Sainsbury's vacated in 2010, with Waitrose shifting in 2013 to a much bigger site in the suburbs, where it was easier to drive and park. Both units are still empty, the Food Centre now little more than a cheap multi-storey flanked by two overblown arcades, whose few occupied units are 'specialist stores' catering for immigrant communities. 25 years from boom to bust, that's all it takes.

MK Gallery and Theatre

It was 1999 before large-scale culture arrived in Milton Keynes, on the final block before Midsummer Boulevard's roadway gives out. The theatre's big enough to cope with West End transfers, whereas the art gallery dumped out front was always on the small side, and looked more like a box dropped underneath a monorail. That'll be why it's currently closed for a doubling in size, and the addition of "a welcoming new café bar", which means full-on building site ambience at present.

Campbell Park

Midsummer Boulevard ends very differently for vehicles and pedestrians. Cars and buses get to drive up to a roundabout on Marlborough Gate, then weave off to join the main city network, whereas the pavement dips down between the carriageways to duck underneath. This, if it needs restating, is another reason why coming to watch the solstice sunrise from anywhere along Midsummer Boulevard is intrinsically pointless. But pass beyond the concrete pillars, and the sheltered row of tents for the homeless, and the path suddenly filters out across the dual carriageway via a long footbridge and whoosh, you're in Campbell Park.

Campbell Park is brilliant, as if the city's founding fathers picked a block on the map and said we will never build here, we'll plant trees and wild flowers and create an undulating landscape to be proud of. The park's now under the control of The Parks Trust, an independent body spun out of the original corporation when it was wound down, and they have over 5000 verdant acres elsewhere to keep an eye on too. Campbell Park's probably the centrepiece, and the 'ley line' of Midsummer Boulevard continues straight on as a central path, first hitting this impressive circular bowl.

This is the Milton Keynes Rose, a cluster of 106 granite pillars of varying heights, positioned at intersections on a grid of overlapping circles. Created just three years ago, the pillars feature inscriptions marking an eclectic selection of locally important dates. One is 21 June, the Summer Solstice, obviously, but the others include 7 March (World Maths Day), 23 April 1969 (the day the Open University gained its Royal Charter) and 3 September 1978 (the day the concrete cows were unveiled). My personal favourite is 5 July 1953 (First Tea Bag Day), a manufacturing claim to fame from Bletchley, closely followed by an unnamed date in June (Knit In Public Day). You can see the full list here, and 42 pillars remain blank awaiting future dedications.

If you continue past the cattle grid, the path eventually peters out on an artificial peak called The Belvedere. This used to be empty, with only the panoramic view to sustain interest, but in 2012 a 'Light Pyramid' was added, comprising five white triangles rising to a central peak. It's occasionally illuminated at times of special celebration, and its pure colour allows local art critics to graffiti the flanks with expletive reviews. This, officially, is where Midsummer Boulevard terminates, but a desire line path slips down the mound for those who wish to continue through the meadow.

Tree Cathedral

I continued. It's hard to follow the alignment from this point onwards, as it crosses a stream, a fenced-off cricket pitch, the Grand Union Canal and the mini-roundabout at the heart of the David Lloyd Health Club car park. But there is one last symbolic spot, the Milton Keynes Tree Cathedral, whose nave follows precisely the same line we've been traversing since the station. It was planted in 1986, using hornbeam and lime for the nave, cherry for the side chapels and evergreens for the central tower, and is laid out as an exact copy of Norwich Cathedral. You can have your ashes scattered here, if mystic symbolism is your thing, in the peace and quiet of a highly imaginative city.

My Midsummer Boulevard gallery
There are 40 photos   [slideshow]

 Sunday, June 24, 2018

When Milton Keynes was on the drawing board, its planners famously nudged the city grid so that its main street aligned with the summer solstice sunrise. They called it MIDSUMMER BOULEVARD, and compounded the prehistoric illusion by naming the parallel boulevards Avebury and Silbury. I didn't visit at quarter to five on Thursday morning, because there'd have been nothing to see, but I did take a walk down the full length of Midsummer Boulevard in broad daylight. All in all about a mile, starting at the station. [map] [aerial photo]

Milton Keynes Central station

Wedged between the A5 and the city centre, this busy station was only added to the West Coast Main Line in 1982. More functional than inspirational, it only springs to life as you step out from the ticket hall into Station Square, which is where the low-density skyline of Milton Keynes first hits. Three sides are bounded by a huge C-shaped office block, and the other is wide open, with Midsummer Boulevard stretching off beyond. The office blocks appear to be fully constructed from oblongs of glass, so reflect the clouds dazzlingly on a fluffy cumulus day.

The Canal and River Trust are ensconced on one side of the entrance, with Santander a little further down, while other doors around the perimeter lead to echoing foyers below acres of empty desk space. Look more closely and all the usual little shops are here, from a Greggs to a bookies, while the homeless appear to have moved in beneath one convenient overhang. Station Square itself is vast, its piazza sliced by drop-off zones, bike racks and taxi ranks. It once doubled up as the front of the UN in the film Superman IV, and a certain sense of spectacle still pervades.

The Old Bus Station

The town's original bus station was built on the far side of Station Square, a distance which proved a little too far to be practical. Buses now pull into generic stands either side of the main station entrance, and the old freestanding concrete pavilion stands empty. It still looks amazing, with its deep-slung canopy and exposed steel girders, hence the Grade II listing, but that's made the interior hard to let. They've tried using it as a nightclub and cultural centre, but today only the skateboarders cavorting outside bring the place to life, and the surrounding tarmac (ironically) has become just another MK car park.


Milton's Keynes' famous network of segregated shared-use paths covers the city. One dips beneath the start of Midsummer Boulevard, just past Elder Gate, accessed via the briefest of subways. The idea is that you can walk or cycle anywhere in consummate safety, although the distances involved make cycling the more sensible option. Santander Cycles are in town, with a less chunky bike than that used in London, and docking stations somewhat irregularly scattered. That said, the prime rule of Redway etiquette is that users must always give way to road users, because in Milton Keynes the car remains very much king.

Midsummer Boulevard

You can tell cars rule because pedestrians aren't supposed to walk up Midsummer Boulevard, only to follow the pavements some distance to each side. The dual carriageway does have a central reservation, shielded between two lines of lush identikit trees, but it's not for walking up, only across. The official crossing points are marked by large black canopies - officially porte-cochères - with just enough low metal barriers elsewhere to prevent joyriders driving up onto the grass. I walked up the middle, obviously.

To either side is MK's CBD - a motley assortment of office blocks, some rebuilt taller than was originally permitted. Staff pop out for a smoke, or to collect their lunch from the M&S sandwich van, then wave their lanyards before disappearing back inside. And parking is easy, indeed a lot of central Milton Keynes looks like a car park, because that's how the place was designed. Parking costs 50p an hour (or £2 an hour if you slip into one of the premium zones to keep the walk to the shops down).

Midsummer Walk

Beneath one of the newer blocks, looking more Minecraft than most, lies a shopping arcade called Midsummer Walk. It's in the heart of the hotel zone, so was established with a leisure and lifestyle vibe in mind. The odd posh nailbar survives, and the Chinese restaurant out front looks like it still pulls them in. But the interior mall is essentially dead, like some ghostly walkway on the wrong side of a Middle Eastern airport, fronted by shops to let, a lonely dentist, and one of those studios waiting for anybody to pop in for a Group Photo Experience.

MK Menhir

Milton Keynes isn't averse to a bit of public art, and here's a piece making a particularly relevant nod to Midsummer. Sam Jacob has created a full-size foam replica of a sarsen stone from Avebury, painted it in iridescent purple and plonked it on top of one of the porte-cochères. "Both ancient in its references and modern in its appearance", he says, before waffling on about sculpture as a fragment of the landscape and losing it somewhat. Millennial MK-ers probably prefer the selfie-friendly hall of mirrors in the subway under Saxon Gate instead.

Church of Christ the Cornerstone

Modern housing developments don't usually bother with churches any more. Milton Keynes waited until 1991 before completing this, the UK's first city centre ecumenical church. Christ the Cornerstone is shared between Church of England, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Methodist and United Reformed, which helps avoid redundant usage. I turned up during Prayers for Peace, so went and sat in Fred Roche Gardens instead, and mused over quite what the spiky red sculpture was intended to represent.

Midsummer Place

And then Midsummer Boulevard suddenly stops. It used to carry on, across the city's highest point, but in 2000 the famous shopping centre was extended to the south, blocking the street with a lofty enclosed plaza, part-filled with inconsequential kiosks. All the extra shops are off to one side round a bland loop, and the open circus where the concrete cows used to graze around an ancient oak tree has become depressingly wildlifeless. These days they call the place intu Milton Keynes, which is just as out of character as the building itself.

And this intrusive shopping centre is just one of the reasons why standing on Midsummer Boulevard to watch the solstice sunrise would have been entirely pointless. That and the multitude of trees down the central reservation, not to mention the porte-cochères, and the fact that a road pointing uphill affords no view whatsoever of the key point on the horizon. Perhaps there'll be more luck on the other side of intu Milton Keynes, as Midsummer Boulevard continues... in what'll be Part Two tomorrow.

 Saturday, June 23, 2018

Two years ago today, the British public voted to leave the European Union.

Two years on, we still have no idea what'll happen when we do.

There will, at some point, come a day when the final outcome becomes clear. But we don't yet know when that day will be, nor is it easy to even guess.

A lot of companies would like to know. Some aren't even hanging around to find out. An unpredictable outcome confirmed on an unscheduled date isn't good for business, making Britain an increasingly unattractive place to invest.

Had David Cameron triggered Article 50 before he resigned, we'd be leaving the EU tomorrow. Nothing so certain happened. Instead Theresa May hung on until the end of March 2017, when she had to press the button to get us out of the European elections next May. And that means we'll be leaving the EU in 40 weeks time, further unexpectedness notwithstanding.

But how far before 29th March 2019 will our final trading state be determined? At one point it was hoped a deal would be on the table in time for the EU Summit later this month. Fat chance. The government might get its act together and find a mutually acceptable solution in the autumn, but I wouldn't hold my breath. The EU say they need a proposition by the end of the year for their constituent nations to vote on, but they might not get it. The day we find out how Brexit ends probably won't be this year.

Parliament will still want a final say, and in January the Speaker might, or might not, let them have it. Or maybe February, the way things are going, given how intractable everything is. Could Tory Remainer rebels swing a final vote, or might Labour's Brexiteer outliers swing it back?

As for international trade, will any final offer coalesce around EEA rules, or Norway Plus, or some other off the shelf economic model. Or might the UK manage to come up with a bespoke compromise which suits both sides? How can anyone square the circle of the Irish border, which mustn't be Hard between north and south, but mustn't be Hard between NI and the mainland either? If we can't even agree a backstop protocol without crossing red lines, what hope is there?

Our Ministerial negotiation team don't always seem the sharpest tools in the box. I wouldn't put it past them to leave the whole thing hanging until the very last minute, either through hotheadeness or as an act of brinksmanship. Imagine getting to the last week of March with nothing yet agreed. It could still happen, indeed pretty much anything could.

We could slip into the so-called transition period with no confirmation of what the end state will be. Transition's currently scheduled to drag on until the end of December 2020, but even that's a moveable feast, and probably just prolongs the indecision even longer. How many businesses might have taken flight by then if, as some claim, even twenty extra months won't be long enough to get all their preparations together?

But the outcome which hangs most heavily over these deliberations is crashing out with no deal whatsoever. All this political game-playing could still end with nobody being willing to compromise, or back down, and every postulated solution coming to naught. That would bring into play the notorious cliff-edge scenario, as we crash out of the EU on WTO terms, and innumerable frictionless agreements abruptly unravel.

I've been nervous about the 'no deal' option ever since Cabinet members started spouting the line that "no deal is better than a bad deal". The definition of a bad deal is wilfully subjective, and could be attached to any marginally imperfect negotiation where the degree of subsidy, or nuance of immigration, or extent of legal jurisdiction, wasn't deemed quite right. It's almost as if we're being softened up for the idea that crashing out of the EU in an unplanned manner would be just fine.

Only two groups of people would be happy after a no deal outcome. One would be the Evangelical Brexiteers, for whom the only thing that matters is that we leave the EU and its constitutional shackles, and absolutely nothing else matters. And the other would be those intent on smashing our current economic structures and remaking society to their own advantage. If the left were in power they'd have plans for unfettered Corbynism on a grand scale, but they're not. Instead we're on track for a super-capitalist state focused on anything-goes trade, in which existing systems would be forced to adapt or break, solely for the benefit of a few opportunists mopping up the wreckage. I genuinely fear a no deal outcome, and it remains very much at the back of the table.

Two years on from the referendum, we continue to exist in a vortex of political and economic uncertainty, our nation's future direction yet to be set.

It seems two years ago we weren't voting for an outcome, we were voting for a headline. Only when the dust finally settles, one unknown day, will we learn what that outcome actually is.

 Friday, June 22, 2018

Yesterday the Mayor of London launched "a new online property portal that offers Londoners a one-stop shop where they can search for an affordable home to buy in the capital."
n.b. It actually went live in April, but it launched yesterday.
n.b. Further phases of the portal will launch later this year.

"The portal aims to help Londoners who can’t afford to buy a home on the open market, with all homes funded through City Hall affordable housing programmes being advertised on the site and new properties being continually added."
n.b. This isn't for people who read the Evening Standard's Wednesday supplement. This is for people who can't get onto the housing ladder without a leg-up. That's a lot of people.

"The Homes for Londoners portal already lists over 1,400 shared ownership and 230 Help to Buy properties."
n.b. Yes, this is a drop in the ocean. No, it's not even a significant fraction of the 12,526 genuinely affordable homes started last year. But it's better than no portal.

So I thought I'd interrogate the portal to see what it could tell me. Here's a haphazard list of findings.

How many housing developments are included?
About 350. The number increased from below 350 to above 350 yesterday. Several of the developments include more than one property. Others are merely a single pre-owned flat.

Where are they?
Here's a map.

As you can see, they're not all in London. I've cropped out the pins in Tunbridge Wells, Maidstone, Hatfield and a small village near Stansted Airport. I'm not sure why developers outside the capital are being allowed to jump on the Mayor's bandwagon.

As you can see, some parts of London have more properties than others. The London boroughs of Richmond, Kingston, Redbridge and Havering only have 2 apiece, Bexley has 3, Sutton 4, Hillingdon 5, Bromley and Enfield and Barking & Dagenham 6, and Barnet 8. Outer London appears to be appallingly represented.

What's the cheapest?
Annoyingly, if you search for the cheapest property, the list includes all those with "price TBC", some of which look really expensive. I can only find three properties in London for less than £200,000. One's a 30 year-old flat in Thornton Heath for £195,000. One's for over-55s only in Mitcham. And the cheapest is a 1-bedroom flat in Bedfont, two miles from the nearest station, for £170,000. Don't all fight for it.

What's the most expensive?
The website says it's a 1-bedroom flat in North Harrow, for £2,502,222, but that's because there's an incorrect value in the database. As for the £895,000 house in Cricklewood, that's already reserved. As for the £850,000 property "in the old iconic St Ann's police station" near Seven Sisters station, I believe that's been sold. Which leaves this £817,000 2-bed apartment at West View Battersea at the top of the pile. Seriously, how much?

How is any of this affordable?
Shared ownership, that's how. You don't have to buy that West View Battersea home outright, you can buy 25% for £204,375. That sounds almost doable. The catch is that you'd need a "guidance household income between £72,869 - £90,000 per annum... plus savings of £40,875", and hey presto the whole thing's wilfully unaffordable again.

No really, how is any of this affordable?
Shared ownership, but you don't buy the most expensive property, obviously. How about a 2-bedroom flat at Weavers Quarter in Barking? It'd be £255,000 to buy outright, but a 30% share could be yours for just £76,500. Or a 2-bedroom flat back out in Bedfont, where 35% of £260,000 works out at just £91,000. They're a lot more promising. But because you have to pay a share of the mortgage and a chunk of rent, not to mention a monthly service charge, they still require "a guidance income of £37,000", which is well above the average wage.

Any good properties anywhere?
Blimey, a ground floor studio flat at the iconic Isokon Flats? A 50% share for only £200,000? That's many people's dream home. This isn't quite what I was expecting on here.

What about somewhere a bit more ordinary?
I thought I'd search my home postcode of E3. What's available on my doorstep? Nine properties.
» £108,750 for a 25% share of a 1-bed flat on St Paul's Way.
» £112,500 for a 25% share of a 3-bed flat at Bow River Village (or £165,000 for a 30% share) (or £200,750 for a 50% share of a 1-bed flat)
» £120,000 for a 25% share of a 2 bed apartment for the over 55's, overlooking Bromley by Bow station.
» £137,500 for a 25% share of a 2-bed flat on Fish Island.
» £201,250 for a 35% share of a 2-bed apartment not quite overlooking Victoria Park.
» £272,250 for a 55% share of a 2-bed flat down Devons Road way.
» Something not yet launched on St Paul's Way, all prices TBC.

What else can you find on the portal?
Have a dig. Take a look for yourself.

But it's not a lot, is it?
London has 2.4 million renters. This portal doesn't yet have 1500 properties. And most of the renters couldn't afford most of the properties anyway. The portal's a start. But unless you have the good fortune to be able to grab one of the handful of so-called bargains, the concept of affordability remains an unattainable dream.

 Thursday, June 21, 2018

A new section of the Thames Path has opened between Woolwich and the Thames Barrier. Previously, because of an industrial estate, the path had to track inland to the busy Woolwich Road. The industrial estate is still there, but a public right of way now passes through, with a couple of ramps to make the necessary connections at either end. It's good news.

Heading west along the Thames from Woolwich, there's always been a point where you had to divert into a housing estate. It wasn't quite at the end of the housing estate either, so missing the turn meant doubling back, then meandering awkwardly to escape. The new ramp is a godsend, launching off from the end of the promenade, then nudging out above the river to negotiate its way round the back of a large industrial unit. Most of the £1.5m spent on the new connection will have been splashed here, I'll bet.

The connection has two groups of users in mind - those on bikes, and those on foot. The ramp's fairly gentle, so easily negotiable even by a bicycling child of primary school age. A motorised wheelchair'd cope adequately too. For those not speeding through, the ramp doubles up as a novel viewing platform, both across the river towards the Tate & Lyle sugar refinery and upstream towards the Thames Barrier. Looking down into the backyard of Evolution Car Spares and Brokk Specialist Hire is somewhat less enthralling.

After a quick bend inland the ramp descends at the far end of Warspite Road. It's only a brief intervention, 100 metres tops, but it dramatically improves access and shows the power of imagination combined with hard cash. The 'Missing Link' was being well used on its first afternoon too, not just by the cycling fraternity keen to unwrap their latest present, but also by local families with pushchairs, and quite possibly folk with the good luck to turn up on Day One who never realised there was a gap here before.

As you may have spotted, the new link is part of Q14, or Quietway 14. This is one of a network of backroad routes sketched out across the capital, aimed at directing cyclists away from busy traffic. As such, I have to say the signage for cyclists is better than that for pedestrians, as it often involves keeping an eye out for the next big arrow painted in the road. A case in point is the sharp right turn partway down Warspite Road, which I saw at least two people cycle past, having missed the small arrowed sign on a lamppost above some shrubbery.

I'd also like to note, with horror, that Q14 westbound is signed towards somewhere called "Greenwich Peninsular". There is no such place, not even in the fevered imaginations of the apartment floggers overlooking the O2. A peninsula is a tongue of land mostly surrounded by water, whereas peninsular is the related adjective and has no place here. Either whoever commissioned the signs can't spell, which is a possibility, or they genuinely believe that's what the area is called, which is perhaps worse. Whatever the reason, it's not a good look.

The next stretch is longer, and follows what used to be a dead end gated road on the Mellish Industrial Estate. A run of old brick warehouses runs down either side, the kind of workaday environment which keeps many a southeast Londoner in employment, in a variety of mostly manual or creative tasks... metalwork, ceramics, conservation, stained glass, a climbing wall, even a circus academy and Chinese Arts Centre. Until yesterday the workforce had this backwater to themselves, and now they have the public freely walking or wheeling through.

There's no pavement as such, only a painted strip of tarmac, in places made safer by the plonking of poles. If you like past-its-sell-by-date architecture it's a bit of a privilege to be here. The long decrepit building at the western end of Bowater Road is a particular treat, though now vacant and barriered off, so it should come as no surprise that a developer has big plans for the area. "A new creative-style urban quarter for South-East London" is on the cards, "delivering 400 residential units and creative workspace units, complemented by new public area and landscaped grounds." Come visit before they do that.

At the western end, a curving ramp provides the new access point, thereby opening up the estate. The entrance will be locked between 9pm and 6am, with anyone travelling at other times being directed via the previous circuitous detour. I spotted bunting above the gateway, so I suspect this is the point where The Mayor of London's Walking and Cycling Commissioner and Greenwich Council's Cabinet Member for Air Quality, Public Realm and Transport performed the official opening ceremony yesterday afternoon.

I'm not a cyclist, so I can't confirm the excellence or otherwise of the new missing link. I can, however, tell you what I heard cyclists saying as they rode past. "Bad gate!" said one, at the foot of Bowater Road. "Saucy!" said another, riding along the raised Thamesside platform for the first time. Meanwhile, in the largest cluster of Day One cyclists gathered to pick over everything they'd seen, the most animated gentleman was pointing at the ground and bemoaning "but there won't be any lines to show whose priority it is!" He had a look of the unsatisfiable about him.

And all of this joins up to the existing Thames Path round the back of the Thames Barrier. Not along the actual waterfront, but pushed further back inland, and linking upstream of the barrier via a freshly-scrubbed curving track. You can still see the chalk lines where the stencil application team aligned their lettering. From here it's 180 miles to the source of the Thames, if the fancy takes you. But if all you want is a walk or ride along the industrial estuarine river, the journey just got a fraction shorter, and a whole lot more interesting.

 Wednesday, June 20, 2018

I take a book and find a bench in my local park. Several are already occupied, one by a dozing pensioner, another by a man clutching a lager can. I'm sure he's the same man who asked me for 50p outside the supermarket yesterday. I find a clear space at the far end, on a bench that doesn't look like too many birds have flown over it. An overhanging branch will shield me partially from the blazing sunshine, during the intermittent periods when there is any.

The ground around the bench is scattered with fag ends and discarded plastic. Were I carrying out a survey, Boost Energy drinks would be the most popular throwaway, followed by bottles of smartwater and Lucozade Sport, accompanied by a broad selection of empty cups. In the shrubbery, an empty carrier bag hints that much of the litter comes from the local minimarket, with the drinks on special offer selling best.

A small brown bird hops into the flowerbed in front of me. The roses are evidently past their prime, or perhaps the council haven't been coming round to water them often enough during this dry spell. A magpie screeches, hidden somewhere within the branches of the central lime tree, then flies away. The lavender bushes are thick with bright flowers, and bobbing with bees. Turns out I had no need to go all the way to the edge of Sutton for perfect purple.

On nearby grass, a woman sits crosslegged squinting into her smartphone, then whips out a cigarette and focuses on that instead. She doesn't stay long. Another younger woman arrives and rests briefly on the adjacent bench, addressing her invisible courtiers by phone. To my right a red-faced man turns up with a Lakeland bag, takes out a crinkled magazine and flicks through. He places a newspaper beside him, then un-Velcros his sandals. He's here for the long haul.

Planes taking off from City Airport whine overhead, heard before they are seen. At times they pass over every three minutes, at other times the intermission is considerably longer. A more intrusive noise comes from the building site behind me where a further set of infill apartments is under construction. Something is being repeatedly sawn, something is being occasionally lifted, and the voices of men up a ladder on the second floor periodically intrude.

Butterflies dart around the flower beds. I spy ants on the tarmac beneath my bench, and crawling up it too. Someone yells "come on darling" shrilly behind the brick perimeter wall, and I toss up whether they're addressing a child or a pet. Eventually three very small dogs emerge through the archway, followed by a pair of women entirely dissimilar in height, width and hair colour. The sun comes out. The sun goes in.

An old man shuffles out onto his ground floor patio, resident in a flat which didn't exist a few years ago. He moves towards the railings and starts scraping mossy gunk out from underneath, then flicking it into the corner of the park. An upturned clothes horse rests on the balcony above, and above that a smart bicycle, propped against the handrail. At the other end of the development, as yet incomplete, every window is concealed behind unpeeled blue sheeting.

The latest arrival on the overshadowed bench to my left is a young lad with a lanyard round his neck. He whips out a cigarette paper and something to fill it with, then spends some considerable time inserting one into the other. The remainder of his break he spends smoking, and checking his phone, before heading back to work the way he came. Sammy the golden retriever enters soon after, ahead of a lady out exercising more dogs than she could surely own herself.

On the other side of the floral beds a podgy man in a grey hoodie and a dirty t-shirt is stood in a corner where he thinks he can't be seen, relieving himself into the shrubbery. The sound of sawing from the building site increases. A child rides by on the back of their mum's pushchair. The red-faced man on the bench to my right reaches deep into his bag for a can of Coke, then makes a start on his newspaper. A breeze whips up, and the pages flick by.

As World Cup kickoff time approaches, a young man in a baseball cap walks by clutching two bottles of beer in each fist. I can tell the match has begun when some overanimated exclamations, in what's likely to be Polish, start to emerge from a flat down the far end. Only one balcony owner has made an effort with hanging baskets and window boxes. A fly lands on my sleeve. Birdsong is briefly audible. Two pigeons promenade round the flower beds, then soar away.

Another young man arrives on the most popular bench, and sets down a bottle of Boost Energy drink by his feet. He checks his phone. He twiddles lovingly with his cigarette papers. He flicks his lighter several times. Then his friend turns up, similarly equipped, and they kickstart an extended ritual of filling, rolling, tapping and (eventually) igniting their leafy stash. Every step of the process is laboured, as if auditioning for the Great British Spliff Off.

A light shower of fluff and leafy bits is falling from the tree above me. A blackbird hops through a carpet of shrivelled rose petals. The red-faced man has moved onto his giant crossword. It sounds like Senegal have scored again. On the lawn, a dad lifts his small daughter up so her mother can take photos. Something on the building site drops with a clunk. Two particularly hard-looking lads in hoodies appear to be sitting where the fat-bellied man relieved himself.

The twin tokers are now onto their second roll-up, and eventually their third. Great care is being taken to share ingredients, and pat down the contents, and keep the paper tubes burning. It looks like these guys' lighters are getting a hell of a workout. Occasionally one has a video clip he wants to share with the other, but mainly they're here for a prolonged chat and a smoke - very much the old fashioned way of keeping entertained.

I fear I'm now lingering in the park solely to check whether these two will abandon their plastic bottles when they depart. They look like regulars, and they've brought the precise two brands which form most of the park's litter, and definitive evidence would confirm my unspoken narrative. But neither of them budge. Not to worry. I've been making the most of my two hours sitting here, in mostly-peace and almost-quiet, which has allowed me to read from chapter 29 to chapter 77.

Finally the two stoners stop smoking, and simply sit there, yabbering on. The more studious of the pair then whips out an aerosol and sprays himself on the neck, on his hands, and across his jacket. He evidently doesn't want any of the noses back at home to uncover his dirty little afternoon secret. Suitably camouflaged, the two wander off... taking their bottles with them. I suspect other users of the bench are not so careful. The park ticks over. The park welcomes all.

 Tuesday, June 19, 2018

London Borough of Croydon
Southern, zone 6
Hinterland: 3.6km²

The village of Woodmansterne is in Surrey, but its station lies quarter of a mile inside London, which is how I've managed to randomly select it. Its hinterland covers a slice of the Chipstead Valley west of Coulsdon, and spreads uphill into the borough of Sutton. On the right day it's delightful, and yesterday was the right day. Here are 12 local delights peaking, I think you'll agree, with number nine.

Four from the London borough of Croydon

Woodmansterne station

Nobody would consider building the Tattenham Corner line today, linking leafy estates and green belt, but the commuters of the Surrey fringe (and local estate agents) greatly value its presence. Woodmansterne station sits in the notch of the dry valley between Coulsdon Town and Chipstead, a single island platform accessed via a key community-linking footbridge. It also retains a ticket office opposite the entrance, despite seeing fewer passengers than every single Underground station (although I don't believe it stays open until midnight any more, as the notice outside claims).

Coulsdon West

The suburbs flanking the hills overlooking the station are more Coulsdon than Woodmansterne. Avenues of half-timbered semis climb steeply to rows of Dulux white detacheds, a bit like Metroland but with proper contours. Ocado and Asda vans ply the slopes. Brightly-blazered children caper home after school. The local nailbar is sandwiched between a bike shop and The Smugglers Inn Free House. The newspaper of choice outside the Londis on Chipstead Valley Road, always a good social indicator, is The Times.

Mother Kitty's

If a website ever claims to have a definitive list of London's Most Hidden Secret Cafes, and doesn't include Mother Kitty's, they are wrong. Potential diners first have to find Rickman Hill Recreation Ground, the last greenspace in Croydon before the road goes private, then think to walk round the blind corner to where the changing rooms used to be. Lara's done up the interior as a vintage cafe and soft play space, named after the adjacent woodland, where parents can soak marshmallows in coffee while their littl'uns romp. As for the "sandwitches" offered on the chalkboard outside, I'm just about willing to believe they were a Hallowe'en treat, never erased.

Cane Hill

The Third Surrey Pauper Lunatic Asylum opened on a hill above Coulsdon in 1883, and soon had 2000 patients. As Cane Hill Hospital it survived until the 1990s, after which the buildings were emptied, left to fall into dereliction and then either demolished or lost to arson. Today it's being reborn as Cane Hall Park, a collection of three, four and five bedroom Barratt homes, an ideal stockholder bolthole sweeping down towards Coulsdon South station. The Woodmansterne side is part of the final phase, as yet utility-free, barriered off and covered with piles of sand.

Four from the Surrey borough of Reigate and Banstead

The Midday Sun

Just beyond the rail bridge, this longstanding pub is now a lacklustre eatery from the Hungry Horse chain. Expect white van drinkers, chip-shovelling families, two-for-one burger Fridays and, if you come on the first Monday in July, a full-on Psychic Experience. The 166 bus used to terminate outside, and still circles round to pull in beside the little wooden shelter, like it's 1970, before continuing on its way.


What a lovely little village Woodmansterne is. Set round a crossroads on a hill, it manages to support a parish church, a primary school and, somehow, a fish and chip shop called the Codfather. It even merits two convenience stores, although the second hand golf club shop is a bit niche, and the wellness clinic has folded. I'm also willing to bet that The Woodman pub is the best local in the catchment area, especially if you're a dog. All this and three Oyster-enabled buses an hour to the proper shops, it's a true Surrey sanctuary.

Woodmansterne village sign

I particularly love the village sign, not your usual heraldic rectangle, but gouged from the wood of a felled tree trunk on the green. The villagers love their open spaces, this being a tiny corner of the much larger Woodmansterne Recreation Ground, opposite a pristine cricket ground, round the corner from the Walcountian Blues Lacrosse Club, the Old Walcountians Rugby Club and the Purley Walcountians Hockey Club. "New members of any standard are afforded a very warm welcome."

Woodmansterne Community Garden

Just past the scout hut, a little wooden gate leads into the haven of a community garden. The Residents' Association, the Women's Institute and a local aggregates company helped put it together. The shrubbery in the formal garden is currently peaking, while the pond looks like it's disgorged its frogs and the orchard awaits autumn. And I mention this not because you ought to visit, but because there are always little treasures to discover when you're out exploring.

Four from the London borough of Sutton

Mayfield Lavender Farm

Hell yes. For nine months a year this is just a big field, but in mid-June it bursts into gorgeous purple, and the cameraphones of the world descend. Only the lavender planted in the central section is on the turn at the moment, but for those who have come to walk, kneel and nestle that's sufficient for a whole gallery of carefully composed selfies. I can't top this post I wrote about the place three years ago, except to say maybe wait a couple more weeks (and if you enter via the public footpath you won't be asked to pay the £2 entrance fee). [12 photos]

The Oaks

Immediately across the road was The Oaks estate, now a municipal park, but originally home to the Earl of Derby. He gave his name to the most famous race at Epsom, and his estate gave its name to the second. You'll not find his mansion here now, the Second World War did for that, but its outline is marked by a white line in the grass beyond the bakehouse. Today's visitors can enjoy a stroll through the walled garden or a cooked breakfast from the Tea Rooms, although the walls of the latter are adorned with pugs in tiaras, so maybe best eat outside.

Little Woodcote

North of Woodmansterne, 79 semi-detached weatherboarded cottages were built on former lavender fields in 1920 to provide smallholdings and employment for soldiers returned from the war. Somehow they've survived, if mostly no longer used for their original purpose, although some are still occupied by families scraping a living off the land by selling logs, hiring out horses or flogging cuttings from polytunnels. Anyone who's walked London Loop section 6 will have passed by (although for the full-on oppressive Little Woodcote experience you need to take the Telegraph Track to Carshalton).


Sutton's most isolated estate is bolted onto Coulsdon, and named after the farm it replaced. Economically it's going downhill, with the Jack and Jill pub closed unexpectedly last month, and the sole shop left trading in the parade an unbranded convenience store. I headed for Big Wood in the far corner, Sutton's largest wooded area, tempted by the promise of fine views over London. But poor signposting by the entrance almost led me up the drive of a shack with dogs running free, then I met an unaccompanied staffie by the non-exit into a private sports ground, and basically I couldn't get out of Big Wood quickly enough. Mercifully Woodmansterne station was a brief stroll downhill, for a quick getaway.

 Monday, June 18, 2018

During excavations for the construction of Bucklersbury House in 1954, an ancient Roman temple was uncovered. Initially archaeologists weren't quite sure what it was, but on the last day of the dig they uncovered a marble head wearing a conical cap, confirmimg that this was a temple to the god Mithras. This being the austere fifties, people queued round the block to see the remains, which were later shifted to the roadside off Queen Victoria Street. And here the temple remained, increasingly unloved, until financial company Bloomberg decided to return it to its original location, several metres beneath their new office block.

The London Mithraeum is the result, a very 21st century take on some 3rd century brickwork, tucked away in a corporate basement in the heart of the City. It opened last November, to another onslaught of visitors, but the initial rush has now died down sufficiently to allow me to walk in off the street rather than having to book ahead. The street you have to walk in off is Walbrook, between Bank and Cannon Street stations, immediately alongside the still-not-yet-finished Waterloo & City line entrance. Entry is free, which is one advantage of the landowner being a rich American corporation.

The reception desk is a tiny lectern - very much like walking into a posh restaurant - where a frothily exuberant guide was waiting to greet me. He didn't even ask if I'd pre-booked, just bubbled about the space and the museum and the art gallery, then offered me a printed guide and a Samsung tablet. He was particularly animated about the art exhibit which currently fills the ground floor space, a bunch of vinyl-plastered walls portraying portmanteau historical facades, which the blurb describes as a "uniquely immersive installation". He led me through it in fifteen seconds flat, which felt sufficient.

The chief ground floor attraction is a Roman Artefact display, incorporating 600 items uncovered during the latest rebuild. The site is particularly rich in Roman remains because it lies beside the lost river Walbrook, which kept the soil moister than most, preserving stuff better. The objects are arranged inside a single glass case, in precise correspondence to the graphic on the tablet handed over earlier. To identify each item just touch what you're interested in, then swipe to read a description of what it is. Coins, brooches, comb, pots, nails, a wooden oar, crucible and tongs, writing tablet, etc, etc. It's very clever, but time consumingly manipulative, so scanning through everything isn't really an option.

In good news, non-visitors can explore exactly the same display at case.londonmithraeum.com. In bad news, the site is optimised for users of tablets and smartphones, so laptop users may end up wishing to throttle the too-clever-by-half website designers.

When you're done, head downstairs (or there's a lift, if you prefer). The lower level is a waiting area to keep visitors semi-occupied before venturing into the Mithraeum proper. A new 'temple experience' begins every 20 minutes, so you might be waiting here for a while. Thankfully there are seats, plus a rolling archaeological commentary delivered by the ubiquitous Joanna Lumley. Three visitors at a time can use a trio of touchscreen terminals to explore more about the history of the dig, and the temple, and the religion behind it. We don't know for certain what rituals were enacted here, but we do know they were for men only, and that initiation into the cult probably involved wine, tattoos and chicken. Little changes.

At the appropriate time, expect to be ushered down some more steps and into a dark rectangular room. A walkway leads all round the perimeter, while a glass-edged platform juts over the centre of the temple at one end. Word of advice, the end of the platform is the best vantage point after the wall of eerie mist descends. Expect a lot of chanting, in Latin, rather than any attempt at explaining what it is you're looking at... and the experience is all the better for it.

Eventually, incrementally, the lights go up, and you can take a walk round the outside. Most of what you're seeing is what was actually dug up back in 1954, then relocated, then returned to whence it came. The main points of interest are a square well in one corner, and a couple of steps leading up to a raised platform where the altar used to be. I've seen more interesting Roman remains in London, to be fair, hence the necessary focus on a theatrical presentation. Indeed the majority of the group I went in with departed the temple space long before the allotted twenty minutes were up.

And the reason the London Mithraeum is a mostly virtual experience is that all the best finds were carted off to the Museum of London. Its director led the original dig, so to see the bust of Mithras in his Phrygian cap you need to visit the museum over near Barbican and head to the back of the Roman gallery. Here too are Minerva and Mercury, and a stunning marble frieze depicting Mithras slaying a bull, which would have formed a focus of worship in the temple. Two heavenly twins stand to either side, the signs of the zodiac spin round the rim, and a scorpion is making a grab for the bull's testicles. What a cult.

But closed on Mondays, sorry.

 Saturday, June 16, 2018

Purple is happening.

Yesterday was the Farringdon station Open Day, an opportunity for a few fast-fingered members of the public to descend into the actual station where actual Crossrail trains will be actually running in less than six actual months time. We had to enter down the fire escape. By the time you get here, the escalators should be finished.

This is the western ticket hall. Those escalators lead down from the Thameslink ticket hall, at ground level, while behind the stairs will be a direct connection to platform 4. The diamond pattern on the sloping concrete roof is a nod to the station's close proximity to Hatton Garden. Simon Periton's diamante artwork continues around the walls.

Arriving passengers will be funnelled to the rear of the ticket hall where they'll have to double back to join the escalators down to the platform. The back wall doesn't have diamonds on it, so I fear will be the ideal location for an enormous advertising screen, which nobody heading on or off the escalators would be able to miss.

These three escalators will be the transition between the bespoke Farringdon up top, and the generic Crossrail platforms down below. All the lower levels at the central stations will be looking very much like this, so best get used to it.

This is the central concourse between the platforms. At some stations it'll go all the way along, but here at Farringdon it stops after a couple of side tunnels. Something similar happens up the far end, linking to Barbican tube station, but we weren't allowed that far along.

The central concourse is broad and clear with panelled concrete walls, including a layer above head height with spotty indentations. There are no sharp corners here, only softly contoured curves. Here at Farringdon the signage urges departing passengers to walk down to the second entrance, so that arrivals can pour out through the first.

The totem pole signage is unusual, or at least it is to us now, but expect to see it at every central Crossrail station. The elegant symmetry is perhaps an architectural nod towards classic tube stations like Gants Hill. Directions for incoming passengers are on the pole, and directions for outgoing passengers are on the arms.

And yes, the two Crossrail platforms at Farringdon won't be numbered, they'll be labelled A and B. I've seen exactly the same labelling at Custom House, again with A for eastbound and B for westbound, so I suspect this lettering of platforms may be a cross-Crossrail thing.

All the signs are up, including the roundels on the platform, a Legible London map to guide you towards the correct exit, and the "Way Out" arrows pointing to either Farringdon or Barbican. Even the line diagrams are in place, despite the fact the routes they show won't be fully operational until the end of 2019.

What really struck me was the vivid purple colour, apparently tweaked to match the precise colour of the Queen's outfit when she came to open the line. We've not seen this shade on the tube before, so it really stands out. Look at all these interchange connections that'll be possible for the first time. Look very specifically at Tottenham Court Road. Spotted it?

Intriguingly the line diagrams installed at Farringdon have failed to include the Central line connection at Tottenham Court Road. Have the designers messed up? Or is this a deliberate concealment to discourage passengers from changing trains at Tottenham Court Road and nudge them on to Bond Street instead. I suspect the latter. But be it error or white lie, it's not a good look.

And then there are the platforms. The tracks are hidden behind long glass walls, a bit like the Jubilee line on steroids. Doors will open when the trains arrive, and adverts may or may not appear on the panels inbetween. I think the Next Train Indicators are going along the top.

The platforms are very long, but we were restricted to one end. The fitting out didn't look particularly finished elsewhere, almost as if they'd got our end ready first so it would look good on Open Day. But six months should be long enough to get the remaining walls ready, and all the other stations finished, and the trains tested, and everything, probably. Just don't expect to be getting down Bond Street for an Open Day any time soon. [13 photos]

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