diamond geezer

 Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Were this a normal year, London's tourist season would be about to hit its stride. The weather's improved, Easter weekend is approaching and then it's full tilt towards a busy spring and summer. But this is not a normal year.

A good way to remind yourself what April 2020 might have been like is to read the latest edition of London Planner, the capital's free official monthly tourist guide. Normally it's easy to pick one up from a tourist information office, hotel, airport or major station, given the magazine has a nationwide circulation of 100,000. April's edition has a dazzling pink blossom cover, and lists the tourist experiences we might have been enjoying right now had they not all been cancelled since it went to print.

Those printed copies never materialised, alas, but the digital version was uploaded as normal on Thursday 19th March... and is still there. You can download it for free here, as a wistful reminder of how things might have been, although be warned it's a big file because London Planner is a glossy 108 page magazine. Alternatively a digital swipe-through version is available, should that be less of a resource hog.

Each edition of London Planner includes a fair chunk of editorial - this month chocolate, gaming and kimonos. But the majority of the content is listings, be that of galleries to visit, plays to see or tourist-friendly dining. First up is always the Top 10 Free Attractions, followed by numerous pages of sightseeing possibilities, most of which stay the same each month.

So I wondered how many of London Planner's official tourist list I'd been to, and when I last visited. You could wonder the same.

Top 10 Free Attractions (by visitor numbers)
 2019  British Museum
 2019  Tate Modern
 2019  National Gallery
 2019  Natural History Museum
 2020  Southbank Centre
 2019  V&A
 2019  Science Museum
 2019  Somerset House
 2019  National Maritime Museum
 2019  Royal Academy of Arts

Unsurprisingly I've been to all of these, and if you're a culturally-engaged Londoner you probably have too. Most I've been to loads of times, the exception being the Royal Academy of Arts on Piccadilly because most of its exhibitions aren't free. I'm not quite sure why it's on the list. As it happens I visited the entire top 10 last year, but the Southbank Centre is the only one I also managed to fit in earlier this year before everything closed down.

 2019  British Library   2007  London Zoo
 2010  Buckingham Palace   1981  Madame Tussauds
 2020  Changing The Guard   2016  The Monument
 never  Chelsea Physic Garden   2020  The O2
 2018  Cutty Sark   2019  Old Royal Naval College
 2015  Dr Johnson's House   2009  18 Stafford Terrace
 2018  Ham House and Gardens   2009  Royal Mews
 2008  HMS Belfast   2011  Royal Observatory
 2019  Houses of Parliament   never  Sea Life London
 2019  Jewel Tower   never  Spencer House
 2019  Kensington Palace   2018  St Martin In The Fields
 never  Kew Palace   2018  St Paul's Cathedral
 2019  Kew Gardens   2019  Tower Bridge
 never  Kidzania London   2015  Tower of London
 never  London Bridge Experience   never  Up At The O2
 1980  London Dungeon   2016  View From The Shard
 2015  London Eye   never  Warner Bros Studio Tour
 2018  London Mithraeum   2008  Westminster Abbey

These are the other 36 London sights worth seeing, according to the editorial team at London Planner. I've been to half of them in the last five years, which isn't bad. I used to go to the Royal Observatory a lot before they introduced an admission price. Amongst those I haven't been to for a while are London Zoo and Westminster Abbey because they're quite pricey. Two of the real tourist big hitters - Madame Tussauds and the London Dungeon - I haven't been to since I was a child (and have absolutely no urge to revisit).

The intriguing ones are the eight I've never visited. I should have gone to the Chelsea Physic Garden by now, sorry. Ditto Kew Palace, except that's inside Kew Gardens and always seems to be closed for the winter when I go. Kidzania is for kids and the London Bridge Experience for big kids, or at least that's the prejudice that's kept me away. Sea Life London costs £37 for tanks of fish, for heavens sake. Up At The O2 is almost as expensive, and offers worse views than the Dangleway. Spencer House has never really registered on my radar (it offers guided tours Sundays only). And the Warner Brothers Studio Tour isn't even in London, so should instead be in this next list...

Out of Town
 2015  Hampton Court
 1990  Holyrood House
 2018  Stonehenge
 never  Warwick Castle
 1991  Windsor Castle

Here's confirmation that the London Planner is aimed at tourists - a short selection of long distance trips to tempt the wallet. Hampton Court is of course the odd one out, being inside London, so should be on the previous list (instead of Harry Potter). Of the other four I've only been to Stonehenge recently, and Warwick Castle never.

 2016  Bank of England Museum   2011  Museum of Freemasonry
 2002  Body Worlds   2020  Museum of London
 2005  Churchill War Rooms   2019  Museum of London Docklands
 2019  Design Museum   2017  National Army Museum
 2020  Household Cavalry Museum   2009  Old Operating Theatre
 2020  Imperial War Museum   2020  Postal Museum
 2019  Leighton House Museum   2018  RAF Museum
 2019  London Transport Museum   never  The Vault
 2018  Museum of Childhood    

London Planner boasts a slim list of museums likely to appeal to a tourist audience. Four I went to last year and four this, which is pretty good for a lockdown year. For Body Worlds I'm counting a trip to the exhibition at the Truman Brewery in 2002, because I have no intention of going to the latest Trocadero version. It's probably about time I went back to the Churchill War Rooms. The only one I haven't been to is The Vault, which it turns out is a collection of rock memorabilia at the Hard Rock Cafe which totally explains the omission.

I doubt we'll be seeing a May edition of London Planner, either online or in print. I wouldn't like to bet on when it'll next return. But it's never too early to be planning your next London day out, preferably somewhere you've never been before.

 Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Like you, perhaps, I've been doing some tidying up and clearing out while I've been stuck at home.

It's given me the chance to reconnect with my London 2012 souvenir gift selection, and to reflect on how much it's undoubtedly worth.

No home should be without a London 2012 tea cosy, featuring the iconic logo and a Union Jack design in blue. It was manufactured in County Down, Northern Ireland, by Ulster Weavers. It's well padded, so at a pinch could double up as a cosy hat. I've upturned mine and keep my smaller Olympic souvenirs inside.

The Union Flag Map Tea Towel (022UNM) is probably my favourite London 2012 souvenir. The design is gorgeous, again courtesy of Ulster Weavers, and it's practical too. I own two, one for regular use and one for keeps. I actually bought a third to give as a gift to our landlady in Reykjavik when we holidayed in Iceland in 2011 - she loved it too.

These gymbags were commonplace in 2012, an ideal lightweight backpack for carrying supplies around the Park between events, or for everyday use out on the street. They were manufactured in China, but under licence to adidas in the Netherlands. The red Paralympic bag is rarer than the blue standard version, and I'm not sure how many were ever used for gymming. Usefully they're only printed on one side, so I've successfully used them several times in public since by facing the logo towards my back.

These London 2012 socks (size 6-11) are quite the dapper choice.
For that lockdown game of patience, London 2012 playing cards can't be beaten.
My glass London 2012 paperweight is an object of rare beauty.
Top right, yes, those are Police Officer Mandeville Assorted Magic Face Towels.
My 1:64 scale die-cast black cab is #23 in the Destination London series.
This shiny black silicone card wallet remains in tip-top pristine condition.

I should point out that most of these were bought at knockdown prices after the Games from the London 2012 shop at Stratford's John Lewis. Their clearance sale went on and on, there being a lot of unsold souvenirs to shift, and if you waited long enough you could always snap up a bargain. Those socks were only £1.50, for example, and they were almost giving the Police Officer Mandeville Assorted Magic Face Towels away. As for the playing cards I found them in WHSmith in Brent Cross last summer, and couldn't resist shelling out 99p as an unexpected last hurrah.

Handheld Inflatable Union Flag Mascot Wenlock and Handheld Inflatable Union Flag Mascot Mandeville were some of the last souvenirs left on the shelves in John Lewis, because somebody in purchasing had vastly overestimated how popular they would be. I bought them for 50p each. Yesterday I finally took Mandeville out of the box to take this photo, but I didn't dare inflate in case I couldn't get him back in the box afterwards.

I didn't buy everything in my collection. These are the flags waved on the Torch Relay for Athens 2004, London leg, and the Torch Relay for Beijing 2008. The London 2012 Candidate City flag is probably even rarer, part of the 'Back The Bid' campaign in 2004 when everyone assumed Paris was going to win instead.

From that same 'Back The Bid' campaign I also have a hexagonal pin badge and a promotional biro, and if they're not worth masses on eBay I don't know what is. For comparison the postcard in the background features the funky typeface devised later for the London 2012 brand, and was posted direct from the 23rd floor at Canary Wharf.

Who can forget the notorious London 2012 logo? The organisers only managed to make it less toxic by plastering a Union Jack across it, as seen here in this dangly keyring and this intimate pin badge. Each comes with a silver holographic sticker on the back of the packet to prove authenticity. These London 2012 fish and chips forks might just be the strangest souvenir in the entire collection (sorry, the packet's empty because my stabby metallic prongs are elsewhere).

As for the three objects at the bottom of my photo, these are properly special despite never actually being for sale. They're cartridges from the London 2012 Opening Ceremony, part of the firework display that lit up the sky on the very first night. I found them the morning after, lying in the grass on one of the sloping lawns in the northern half of the Olympic Park, just before we headed to the basketball. It's just as well security didn't do a patdown for explosives on the way out.

And finally, here are two I picked up afterwards. En route is the One Team Transport insider guide, 272 spiral-bound pages of maps, schedules and travel advice covering every venue from Weymouth to Hampden Park, which I found later in a bargain bin at a transport event. As for the magenta sign - Discreet search area - I found this discarded on the Greenway the day after it finally was reopened to the public. Whoever cleared away the Victoria Gate left it behind, and it now has pride of place in my hallway above the doorway to my bedroom.

I am of course very proud of my London 2012 souvenir collection, most of it acquired at bargain basement prices. If you have any good swaps, please let me know.

 Monday, April 06, 2020

This is a post about a road in the Olympic Park that's always quiet, not just during lockdown.

Northwall Road runs for 1km across the northern end of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, parallel to the A12 dual carriageway. It's one of only four roads in the park which cross the river Lea, the others being Waterden Road, Carpenters Road and the southern loop road round the Olympic Stadium. During the Games Northwall Road was used as a service road to help athletes, officials and contractors whizz around behind the scenes. It was also supposed to be part of the proposed road network after the Games, as this map from 2008 confirms. Northwall Road is the purple connection across the top.

And yet it has no traffic. Despite being a hi-spec highway built at great expense, both ends of Northwall Road are sealed off by concrete blocks.

This is the east end of the road at the junction with Temple Mills Lane. Someone seemingly thought it worthwhile to include filter lanes for traffic turning left and right, and dropped kerbs for pedestrians struggling to cross and a sizeable traffic island in the centre. None of these are used. I do love the road sign which directs traffic towards Stratford International because it was installed at a time when people thought this station would be an important Eurostar staging post, rather the commuter staging post it's become. And yes, that is the Eurostar depot at Temple Mills you can see in the background.

Northwall Road starts off in the London borough of Waltham Forest, but within a few metres slips into borderline Newham. The boundary used to be Temple Mills Lane, but switched to the A12 when the East Cross Route was driven through in the 1990s. The narrow wooden bridge which crosses Northwall Lane is a peculiarity of the mountain bike course squeezed into these borderlands after the Games. A rough track weaves back and forth across scrubby hillocks on both sides of the A12, officially pay-before-you-ride, but invariably empty through total lack of demand. At this time of minimal supervision it ought be easy to trespass, but I've never quite had the nerve to hike up onto the white elephant bridge and enjoy the view.

Beyond the bridge Northwall Road opens out, and the speed limit pointlessly drops from 30mph to 20. You can see what a well-constructed road it is, broad and straight with cycle lanes along each side, built for a future life that never came. To the left is the BMX track built for the Games, and still occasionally populated with chunky-tyred riders. Initial plans included a roundabout at this point, linking down to what's now Chobham Manor in the East Village, but a desire to preserve residential harmony meant this was never built. As a result Northwall Road remains entirely junctionless, which may be one reason why closing it has had minimal repercussions.

And down we go. Northwall Road has a massive dip in it, a long descent to duck beneath the footbridge connecting Eton Manor to the Velopark. There being no cars, needless to say the road is often popular with cyclists. Several sped past me yesterday, enjoying the opportunity to ride an exemplary 1km tarmac course without having to fork out the usual £5 to ride the official road circuit. Given that Northwall Road cuts across what used to be the Eastway Cycle Circuit, closed in 2006 to make way for Olympic facilities, the irony is not lost.

This is the view from the footbridge (which is not easily accessed from below). To the right you can see the complex viaducts of the Lea Interchange, with the A12 rising up to span the river while spur roads trail to either side. Only Northwall Road offers local connections, or ought to, its closure forcing local traffic to deviate via Ruckholt Road instead. Conveniently there isn't much local traffic, the northern end of the Olympic Park thus far mostly undeveloped, but greater residential density will come. And once across the Lea we enters our third borough, which is Hackney.

A zebra crossing must have seemed like a good idea when Northwall Road was planned, allowing pedestrians to slip out of the park and down steps to the traffic lights. In reality the exit gate beside the zebra crossing is locked, and has been for some time, so the black and white stripes would have been superfluous even in the absence of traffic. Look closely at the road surface, here and elsewhere, and you can see the original road markings used during the Games before legacy painters came along to add cycle lanes and speed bumps.

Here Northwall Road finally diverges from a straight line and bends to its imminent conclusion - a junction with Waterden Road (opposite Here East and its multi-storey car park). So broad is this interchange that eight concrete blocks are required to obstruct the roadway, with gaps allowing through only those on foot or on bikes. These blocks can always be removed should Northwall Road ever be needed for event parking, or even occasional film shoots, but invariably the traffic lights continue to change from red to green for entirely non-existent vehicles.

Social distancing is always easy on Northwall Road. Bring your bike. Just don't all come at once.

 Sunday, April 05, 2020

How do you persuade a nation to stay at home?

This is especially important when temperatures are poised to top 20°C for the first time since September, making this precisely the kind of sunny spring day which in normal times would have had us all dashing outdoors. In particularly poor timing it's also a Sunday, when most of those now working from home don't have to work, and the start of what would have been the school holidays. How do you persuade a population that's been cooped up for ages to remain at home?

Staying home matters because the only defence we have against the virus at present is not to pass it on. Now is not the time to meet up in the park for football or drive to the countryside for a picnic or go round to your relatives for a barbecue, because this could undo all the good you've been doing by staying indoors previously. It shouldn't be hard to drive the message home.

But this depends on what the message actually is, which might not be what you think.

Here's the current advice on the gov.uk/coronavirus homepage.
Stay at home
  • Only go outside for food, health reasons or work (but only if you cannot work from home)
  • If you go out, stay 2 metres (6ft) away from other people at all times
  • Wash your hands as soon as you get home
Do not meet others, even friends or family. You can spread the virus even if you don’t have symptoms.
'Health reasons' is a wonderfully vague catch-all phrase, which could mean anything from a medical necessity to popping outside for a dose of vitamin D.

Clicking through to explore the FAQs confirms that 'exercise' is one of the four reasons you're allowed to leave your house.
one form of exercise a day, for example a run, walk, or cycle - alone or with members of your household
Once a day may be pretty clear, but duration is not mentioned. Anything you might have heard about a one hour maximum is merely a recommendation suggested by certain ministers, not a definitive limit.

The only official guidance on duration is hidden further down the page under the question Can I walk my dog / look after my horse? The answer is yes, unsurprisingly. But it goes on to say this about general exercise...
You can also still go outside once a day for a walk, run, cycle. When doing this you must minimise the time you are out of your home...
So we should all be keeping our daily exercise to a minimum, apparently, although I doubt that most people have registered this guidance and 'minimise' is such a wilfully vague term as to be almost meaningless.

Legally, according to the regulations rushed through Parliament a few weeks ago, it's even vaguer.
During the emergency period, no person may leave the place where they are living without reasonable excuse.
A reasonable excuse includes the need...to take exercise either alone or with other members of their household.
In particular there's nothing in law or in any of the online guidance - main list or subpages - about driving. You might have been led to believe that a daily walk or cycle ride must start from home, but this supposed restriction isn't backed up by anything official. Driving somewhere remote to go for a walk is not banned, however frowned upon it may have become. What's not allowed is meeting up with other people when you get there.

Other countries are being far more stringent, for example France has put 1km limits on daily exercise and is forcing people to carry signed papers when outside. But Britain's lockdown is somewhat woollier, so far, relying on good sense rather than enforcement. A libertarian Prime Minister was never likely to enforce prescribed restrictions on freedom unless absolutely necessary.

But a lack of definitive protocols has led to a broad range of 'acceptable' behaviours. Some are happy to pop round to a friend's house for drinks because "there's no law against it" and they don't see why they shouldn't. Others see nothing wrong with meeting mates in the park having judged themselves unlikely to catch the virus, or at least young enough not to be significantly affected by it. By focusing on self rather than community, these idiots are entirely disregarding their role in passing the disease on to others.

At the other end of the scale are the rabid curtain-twitchers counting how many times their neighbours leave the house and tutting at photos of peloton traffic jams in their newspaper. They're convinced the law sets a limit on daily exercise, despite the fact it doesn't, and can't imagine why anyone needs to go the park because surely they have a garden. In particular these are the muppets who think their viewpoint is obvious when in fact, as we've seen, nothing is obvious at all.

Just because you've seen the news doesn't mean everyone has. Just because something's in your newspaper doesn't mean everyone else has read it, or should read it. Just because you watch the daily press conference religiously doesn't mean others even know it exists. Just because all the guidance is up on a website doesn't mean everybody's checked it, let alone gone back to check for updates. I'm still waiting to receive a single piece of official coronavirus collateral through my letterbox... which would be the only way to get definitive information to (almost) everyone.

Interestingly the scientific models referenced by the government three weeks ago never assumed 100% compliance with social distancing protocols. They only assumed that 70% of those with symptoms would self-isolate for 7 days, that 50% of households would quarantine themselves for 14 days if someone was ill and that 75% of those aged over 70 would significantly reduce social contact for the duration. The study's message was that stemming the spread of coronavirus in the wider population could be achieved with general modification of behaviours, rather than total compliance, because bulk action is all it takes to reduce the average number of transmissions to below 1.

Not every unnecessary kickabout or misguided barbecue has consequences. But, crucially, every avoidable social contact has potential consequences given that the disease can still be passed on by those with no symptoms.

What most important isn't whether you go to the park today, it's what you don't do when you get there.

 Saturday, April 04, 2020

20 things that happened this week #coronavirus

• strict measures could last 'a significant period'
• all parts of UK 'on emergency footing'
• Italy and Spain have most global deaths
• Dominic Cummings tests positive
• £75m fund to fly home Britons abroad
• Forces policing lockdown inconsistently
• UK testing regime criticised
• contactless payment limit rises to £45
• Glasgow climate summit postponed
• Wimbledon cancelled
• Government sets target of 100000 tests per day
• known cases worldwide top 1 million
• World Bank sets up $1.9bn emergency fund
• weekly round of applause for NHS
• New York tells citizens to wear masks
• NHS Nightingale Hospital opens
• Spain now has more cases than Italy
• PM remains in self-isolation
• 'Stay at home' campaign as temperatures rise
"There will be a lot of death, unfortunately" (Trump)

Worldwide deaths: 30,000 → 60,000
Worldwide cases: 650,000 → 1,150,000
UK deaths: 1019 → 4313
UK cases: 17089 → 41903
FTSE: down 2% (5499 → 5415)

As I did for tube services, I thought I'd start a week-by-week record to show the cumulative effects of viral lockdown on London's bus network.

w/b 23 MarchModified Saturday service introduced on weekdays.
No service on route X68.
Go Sutton and Slide Ealing suspended.
w/b 30 MarchModified Sunday service introduced on routes 1 2 3 5 6 7 8 11 12 13 14 15 16 18 19 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 34 36 37 38 43 49 52 55 56 57 58 59 60 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78 81 85 86 87 88 92 93 94 96 97 98 100 101 102 105 106 107 109 111 113 114 115 119 120 122 131 133 134 137 139 140 141 144 145 147 148 149 155 156 157 158 159 163 168 170 171 176 177 182 183 185 188 189 195 199 200 205 207 208 209 211 213 214 219 220 221 222 236 237 242 243 249 250 253 254 257 259 260 261 262 263 264 266 269 270 271 272 274 276 277 279 280 281 282 285 295 297 309 316 319 321 322 323 328 329 332 333 337 340 341 343 344 345 349 350 360 363 381 386 388 390 396 414 422 425 427 430 432 436 452 453 460 466 469 472 473 474 476 483 488 D7 E1 E2 E3 E6 E8 H25 U7 W3 W7 W8 X26 and X140.
w/b 6 AprilModified Sunday service introduced on routes 33 47 69 70 89 110 116 124 125 128 130 136 150 165 169 174 216 228 238 241 248 252 267 353 362 366 365 380 391 394 398 412 415 423 468 482 490 C3 D3 E9 H9 H13 H26 H28 H32 H91 P5 and U5.

On a normal weekday in London over 6 million bus journeys are made.
That's currently down to 1 million, and still falling.


Most of the buses I've seen over the last few days are carrying 0, 1 or 2 passengers, with only route 25 approaching double figures. So the message is getting through. Stay home. Don't travel. Save lives.

I've now managed to eke three posts out of my trip to Gladstone Park, which isn't bad given I was only there for half an hour. This was nineteen days ago, just before 'non-essential travel' was outlawed, and I kind of wish I'd been somewhere more exciting than Neasden.

Since then I've been no further than walking distance from my front door, which means my backlog of non-local excursions has now dried up.

I won't be crossing to the other side of the Thames, or revisiting Neasden, any time soon. I'd quite like to see central London under lockdown, but I'm having to experience that through the tweets of others. I wouldn't mind a trip to Richmond, but that's a treat for later. Anywhere outside London is so now far away as to be unimaginable. I've even thought of a really good reason to go to Hornchurch, but that'll have to wait.

So this is going to make blogging more challenging. Not only am I unable to go anywhere to research new stuff, but there aren't any new projects or developments to report on, only relentless mothballing and awkward societal changes. But I'll find a way.

I can still get to the Olympic Park, and have been heading there a lot (n.b. no more than once daily) for regular constitutionals. The Olympic Park is conveniently huge and varied, so there's always something to report on even when nothing much is happening. I reckon I could knock up at least 20 posts about the Olympic Park, or at least inspired by the Olympic Park, without running out of ideas. I've also taken enough photos of the Olympic Park over the last fortnight to keep me stocked up even if sunbathing hordes invade and get the whole place locked down for weeks.

But that would be dull, so I won't just do that. Indeed you'll have noticed over the last couple of weeks how I've been managing to blog without going anywhere much at all. There's always historical research to undertake, or speculative safaris to pretend to go on, or musings on the strange state of limbo we find ourselves in, or reruns of past excursions 'on this day', or interactive features to devise, or thought experiments on how the trains might be running, or oddities from the suburbs to list, or all of the above as and when necessary.

Best of all I have thousands and thousands of photos of London (and the wider world) I've never previously shown you, usually because they weren't relevant or weren't very good, so I ought to be able to put together all sorts of illustrated posts about places I haven't visited recently. My Neasden posts were padded out with vintage shots from 2006, 2012 and 2017, for example, so I'm sure I can always do something similar again.

So I'll be blogging on... health, computer and wi-fi permitting. Let's see how much of lockdown I can pad out. After all, what else is there to do?

 Friday, April 03, 2020

...and while I'm in the area...

The Dudding Hill Line

One of the oddest things about Gladstone Park is that a railway line runs through it. It cuts across the park at the foot of the slope, separating the scenic uplands from the flat section with the sports pitches, and can only be crossed by means of two bridges. No passenger services use these double tracks, but a dozen or so freight movements pass through each day on their way to Cricklewood Aggregates, Churchyard Sidings or wherever. This is the Dudding Hill line, a historic link which might one day have an Overground future.

The Dudding Hill Line opened in 1868 as the Midland and South Western Junction Railway, a goods line connecting North Acton to the Midland Main Line. It ran for four miles, breaking off from what's now the North London Line (near Old Oak Common) before crossing the West Coast Mainline (near Harlesden) and the Chiltern Mainline (near Neasden). At its northern end it split in two, allowing transfer north towards Hendon or south towards Cricklewood. The signal box which controlled this junction still exists and easily visible from the bridge at the east end of Gladstone Park.

Two stations were added in 1875, one at Harlesden and one at Dudding Hill. The former started out as Harrow Road for Stonebridge Park and West Willesden, later Stonebridge Park for West Willesden and Harlesden and was located on Craven Park. The latter should have been called Dudden Hill, which is the proper name of the immediate locality, but the station and the line itself became Dudding Hill instead.

All sorts of passenger services ran along the Dudding Hill Line in a vain attempt to find one that was actually profitable...
August 1875: Moorgate → Richmond (enormous suburban arc)
February 1876: Cricklewood → Harlesden (shuttle service)
May 1878: St Pancras → Earl's Court (part of the Midland Railway's Super Outer Circle)
September 1880: Cricklewood → Harlesden (shuttle service)
July 1888: Passenger service withdrawn
March 1893: Cricklewood → Harlesden (shuttle service)
January 1894: Cricklewood → Gunnersbury (extension via North Acton)
October 1902: Passenger service withdrawn
...but customer numbers were never high. Only 6145 tickets were issued at Dudding Hill in 1876, and receipts in 1887 totalled a pitiful £7. The line has seen no regular passenger services since 1902, and all that remains of the two stations is an overgrown up platform at Harlesden. The original site of Dudding Hill station has been covered by a row of flats on Cornmow Drive near Gladstone Park. You can read a full history of the old line here, including timetables and vintage photos, on the excellent Disused Stations website.

Building a new railway these days can be prohibitively expensive, so the best connectivity options involve upgrading existing track. That's why there have been several plans over recent years to electrify the Dudding Hill line, replace its semaphore signalling and introduce a new passenger service. Crossrail might have come this way but didn't. A light railway connecting Finchley to Ealing was proposed, but never funded. But hurrah, proposals for a West London Orbital remain on the table in the Mayor's latest Transport Strategy, breathing fresh life with a new Overground connection.

The West London Orbital would connect Hounslow to Hendon via Old Oak Common, Neasden and Brent Cross. The two places in this list which make developers' eyes light up are Old Oak Common and Brent Cross, both the foci of major regeneration schemes which could help provide necessary funding. In particular if HS2 is going to stop at Old Oak Common, additional connectivity is desperately needed to enhance orbital accessibility.

Overground services might look like this...
HounslowIsleworthSyon LaneBrentford
This is part of the existing Hounslow Loop with services to Waterloo. A maximum of four trains per hour could be slotted in. Additional trains might be added later starting from Kew Bridge.
South ActonActon Central
This is part of the existing Overground line between Richmond and Willesden Junction. Trains would connect via an existing freight line and pass beneath the M4. The level crossings on Bollo Lane would get busier.
Old Oak Common (Victoria Road)
This would be a new station close to, but not connected to, the HS2/Crossrail interchange at Old Oak Common. A separate consultation is considering extra stations on existing Overground lines nearby.
Here's the Dudding Hill line proper. The new station at Harlesden would be built south of its previous location, closer to the existing Bakerloo line station. The new station at Neasden would be built west of its previous location, closer to the existing Jubilee line station. In each case interchange would be a short walk at street level.
Brent Cross WestHendon
The line divides just beyond the Dudding Hill signal box. In the basic version of the West London Orbital plan, four trains an hour join the Thameslink line and terminate at Hendon. If eight trains per hour can be provided, half will instead head for Cricklewood. Brent Cross West is an already-planned station to the south of Staples Corner due for completion in 2022.

You can find out more about the West London Orbital on its dedicated TfL webpage, specifically in a 111-page business case. There's also a 38-page Outline Case should you want to dig back further, and a West London Alliance website with a more accessible summary. For a far more detailed blogpost than mine, the Anonymous Widower has done the project proud. A consultation exercise was due to take place later this year, with the first services running in 2026.

But don't get your hopes up. The West London Orbital is a half billion pound project with a benefit:cost ratio no greater than 2:1. It nudged into the Mayor's Transport Strategy a couple of years ago on a wave of economic optimism, but it is not going to survive the tsunami that lies ahead. Any transport funding post-2020 is going to go towards critical infrastructure, not nice-to-haves like a minor west London orbital, indeed it's probably best to stop writing about speculative transport projects for the foreseeable future and put our planning crayons back in their box. The Dudding Hill Line will not be taking passengers, sorry, and only freight will continue to make its way across the foot of Gladstone Park.

 Thursday, April 02, 2020

...and while I'm in the area...

Dollis Hill is a proper hill lying between Neasden and Cricklewood. Gladstone Park covers much of its southern slopes, but the hilltop is historically important in its own right for three unexpected reasons.

1. Dollis Hill House

Dollis Hill House started out as a farmhouse in 1825 when everything hereabouts was fields, but its prime hilltop location soon attracted the well-to-do. In 1861 MP Sir Dudley Coutts Marjoribanks moved in, followed in 1881 by his son-in-law Lord Aberdeen. He and his wife enjoyed entertaining the great and good, and house guests at Dollis Hill included Prime Minister William Gladstone, Joseph Chamberlain and Lord Randolph Churchill. The house's next owner was newspaper proprietor Hugh Gilzean-Reid, who in 1900 invited a famous American novelist to stay for the summer.

Mark Twain was seriously impressed. "I have never seen any place that was so satisfactorily situated, with its noble trees and stretch of country, and everything that went to make life delightful, and all within a biscuit's throw of the metropolis of the world." Later he added "Dollis Hill comes nearer to being a paradise than any other home I ever occupied." For the environs of Neasden, that's high praise.

The following year Willesden Borough Council bought up 96 acres of surrounding hillside and opened it to the public as Gladstone Park, named after the recently-deceased PM. The house became a wartime hospital, and later a catering college, but after this closed down in 1989 the property was left to decay. Two bouts of arson in the mid 1990s reduced Dollis Hill House to a shell propped up by increasingly-important scaffolding, and a third fire in 2011 proved the last straw.

Several rescue packages were proposed, the largest a £1.2m Lottery grant, but this was never match-funded and the government duly approved demolition. I went along in January 2012 just before the diggers did their worst, and mourned the needless loss of a listed building. Today all that's left is a single window surround, with the remainder of the house's ground floor footprint picked out in unremarkable brick. Anyone can wander through the site, a bit like when you explore the ruins of an abbey, but most parkgoers appear to give the hallway, parlour and dining room a miss. It's a sad end for this favoured spot of Gladstone and Twain, irrevocably lost to vandalism and austerity.

2. Post Office Research Station

Back in the days when the GPO ran all of Britain's telecommunications, an experimental facility was required to keep on top of the latest developments. By 1921 this Research Department had grown large enough to require separate facilities so took over an eight acre site on the hilltop at Dollis Hill, housed in old army huts. A campus of permanent buildings was opened in 1933 by PM Ramsay MacDonald, its laboratories used to investigate new technologies for telephone, telegraph and teleprinter. Dollis Hill is where the Speaking Clock originated and where the science behind trans-Atlantic telephone cables was developed.

In wartime the Research Station's focus changed to projects with immediate military application, which is where Tommy Flowers comes in. Here at Dollis Hill he designed the world's first programmable electronic digital computer, called Colossus, to support the work of codebreakers at Bletchley Park. Colossus was programmed by plugs and switches, and used 1500 electronic valves and gas-filled thyratrons to perform logical operations. A prototype was ready by December 1943, and by the end of the war ten Colossi were in use cracking German communications.

After WW2 Dollis Hill's engineers returned to civilian operations, conjuring up ERNIE the Premium Bond generator, pulse-code modulation and Prestel, the Post Office's Viewdata service. A separate facility on Dollis Hill Lane manufactured the nation's supply of coin-operated telephones. Then in 1975 the Research Station was relocated to fresh futuristic premises at Martlesham Heath in Suffolk, and most of the Dollis Hill site was turned over to social housing. The main building became 62 luxury flats, now known as Chartwell Court, a gated community accessed via Flowers Close. Its residents now own computers vastly more powerful than Colossus, appropriately enough inside their telephones.

3. 'Paddock'

A hilltop on GPO premises seven miles from Westminster proved the ideal spot for construction of a top secret WW2 government bunker. Preparations began in 1938 to build a deep level Emergency War Headquarters, initially codenamed CWR2 and later 'Paddock' (after the former Willesden Paddocks stud at Upper Oxgate Farm). If Whitehall were ever compromised then ministers would use this bombproof bunker, shielded deep underground beneath a thick slab of concrete, to coordinate the fightback. In fact ministers only ever visited Paddock twice, once for a Cabinet meeting and "a vivacious luncheon" on 3rd October 1940, then again on 10th March 1941 for further familiarisation.

Accommodation at Paddock would have been cramped, with the flats at neighbouring Neville's Court intended to be used to house members of the War Cabinet when bombing was not anticipated. Churchill recognised the site's considerable limitations, so was relieved when the Germans switched their attention to the eastern front and the threat of invasion faded. In 1943 the best of Paddock's furniture was relocated to the basement of the North Rotunda in Westminster, thought better able to cope with a V1 attack, and the following year Paddock was locked up and abandoned. This is the full back history you need, courtesy of Subterranea Britannica.

The existence of Paddock took decades to leak out, by which time the surface building had been demolished and ownership turned over to the local housing trust. They used to run two open days a year, one in spring and one for Open House, and I was fortunate enough to don a helmet and explore in 2004. These tours no longer operate, alas, so anyone who missed out can now only stare at an anonymous door in Brook Road or make do with the experience of others. Here's what I wrote at the time.

Our tour guide clearly relished his role as entertainer-in-chief. He led our group down to the first level where it was cool and most definitely damp, ushering us into a couple of dingy rooms filled with rusting machinery. We headed on down a corroded spiral staircase to the lowest level, 40 feet beneath the surface. Here another long corridor stretched off into the distance, tens of small rooms lying dark and forlorn to either side. We stood in the Map Room where Wrens would have pushed little model battleships around on a big chart, and we also stood in the War Cabinet Room where Churchill held that one cabinet meeting back in in 1940. Thin stalactites hung from the roof, dry rot covered the ceiling and the mulchy remains of rotten lino squelched underfoot. Back upstairs we saw the remains of a telephone exchange and the tiny kitchen where food was prepared, although apparently there was a planning oversight and the architects forgot to include toilets anywhere in the complex. We tried very hard not to imagine Winston straining over a small tin bucket.

Never underestimate the importance of Dollis Hill.

 Wednesday, April 01, 2020

One of the highlights of John Betjeman's 1973 Metro-Land documentary is his visit to Neasden.

Over the points by electrical traction,
out of the chimneypots, into the openness,
till we come to the suburb that's thought to be commonplace,
home of the gnome and the average citizen,
Sketchley and Unigate, Dolcis and Walpamur.

Willie Rushton sings a few lines in tribute to the humdrum suburb, and then the camera whisks us away to Gladstone Park.

... a steep slope ascending to a wide and well-prospected view with grassy banks and cunningly planted clumps of trees.

And here Mr Eric Simms in Gladstone Park keeps a sharp eye on what is going on. For this is the start of the well-known Neasden Nature Trail.

Alas, despite years of searching I have never been able to find any physical evidence of the Neasden Nature Trail, nor any publication containing it. So a fortnight ago I visited Gladstone Park and attempted to cobble together how the trail might fit together.

The Neasden Nature Trail

Gladstone Park covers 90 acres on the grassy slopes of Dollis Hill. It was opened by the Earl of Aberdeen in 1901. Today it offers excellent views over London and incorporates a wide variety of wildlife.

Eric Simms says: "Living in a suburban situation, this park is a tremendous asset for anyone interested in wildlife. And it's a marvellous place for coming to watch young birds at this time of year, which roam over the grass swards looking for food."

(1) We start at the summit of the hill by the gate to the walled garden. Here we find Magnolia grandiflora in full bloom, and bushy shrubbery bristling with bright white flowers.

(2) The Friends of Gladstone Park have recently replanted these beds with 89 rose bushes from the nursery at Peter Beales. Varieties include New Dawn, Comte de Chambord, Macmillan Nurse, City of York and Leah Tutu.

(3) Look carefully in the grass beside the ruins of Dollis Hill House and you should find the common lawn daisy (Bellis perennis) with its rosettes of small rounded leaves growing flat to the ground.

(4) The lake is home to waterfowl including several mallards (Anas platyrhynchos). This is a lovely spot to pause and enjoy their antics, but do not throw bread.

(5) Across the lawn the humble daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) provides an excellent display. A cluster of tropical palms reflects the hardiness of Neasden's temperate climate.

(6) Regular cutting by Gladstone Park's gardening crew provides a habitat for birds that forage on short grass like the starling (Sturnus vulgaris).

(7) The first spring growth from the weeping willow (Salix babylonica) brings a spark of green to the brow of the hill above the tennis courts.

(8) That's a cock blackbird looking for worms. That's a hen blackbird which has just come out from the shrubberies.

(9) A magnificent avenues of plane trees (Platanus acerifolia) crosses the flank of the hill, intersecting with another avenue heading down from Dollis Hill Lane.

(10) One of the very common birds round here is the London or feral pigeon (Columba livia domestica).

(11) The generosity of the Japan-British Society means that the path down to the railway line will soon be brightened by 100 Sakura cherry trees (Prunus serrulata), due to be planted in autumn 2020.

(12) While crossing the bridge over the railway, don't miss the dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) bursting forth from the ridged borders of the wooden treads.

(13) Residents of Kendal Road are treated daily to the blackbird's dawn chorus - very impassioned, very brilliant, and maintained for perhaps say half an hour to forty minutes.

(14) Now a common visitor to the park, the rose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula krameri) squawks across the sky then pauses politely on a branch to pose for photos.

(15) Ornithologists are uncertain quite what species of bird this might be, perched atop a stepped pyramid beside the children's playground.

(16) Back again at the top of the hill, the flower beds in the walled garden are at their horticultural finest in the summer. So best come back then, if you can.

Eric Simms says: "The second most interesting part of my nature trail at Neasden are the allotments in Brook Road. There's such a good view that I can identify birds at a great distance. Altogether I've seen 92 different species of bird within half a mile of my home here, and that's not a bad total."

Alas the allotments in Brook Road are now fenced off, so I'm unable to recreate the second part of the Neasden Nature Trail. But if you'd like to hear more from its creator, naturalist and broadcaster Eric Simms, his appearance on Desert Island Discs in June 1976 is well worth a listen. Or just watch him again stealing the show in Betjeman's Metro-Land, enthusing about the joys of ornithology in everyday Neasden.

 Tuesday, March 31, 2020

31 unblogged things I did in March

Sun 1: The weather's not great, but nothing's stopping me going out for a walk. Round the first bend on the Lea towpath I pass a boatful of dazed revellers, several smoking, some pissing into the hedge. A couple of minutes later a moped and a quad bike approach very suddenly from behind and speed to either side of me. I hope that's as scary as March gets.
Mon 2: Stayed in for the day, not realising that within a few weeks I'd be itching to do anything but.
Tue 3: Went to Walthamstow to ride my birthday bus, judging that the sooner the better. Then a lovely night out at a quiet pub in the City with a former work colleague, discussing upcoming travel plans, office gossip and wedding preparations. May have overdone the peanuts.
Wed 4: Weekly shopping trip to Tesco. Could have bought pasta. Didn't buy pasta. Haven't seen any since.
Thu 5: Went round to BestMate's for our weekly dinner and catch-up. Haven't been round since.

Fri 6: On my day trip to Bedford, I noticed 'Store Closing' signs in the windows of Beales department store so went inside for a last poke around its warren of departments. Ladieswear was busier than men's. The homewares department was stacked high with all kinds of gadgets I don't currently need, plus far too many sets of bedlinen. Staff served a steady stream at the tills, polite as ever in spite of imminent redundancy. Closure'll leave one big hole in the town centre.
Sat 7: Rode the DLR to Greenwich (without touching anything, by letting other people press the door button ahead of me). Then walked along the river to Tower Bridge, dodging numerous joggers. I wish I'd taken more photos because then I could have written an emergency post about it in the weeks to come.
Sun 8: While walking along the Hertford Canal I was narrowly missed by a chunk of bread flying past my left ear. Looked up to see an oblivious resident lobbing food down from his second floor balcony to feed the ducks.
Mon 9: It being my 55th birthday, I made a last minute decision to go and see my Dad in Norfolk. The train was late. We started off with a walk round Eye following the Town Trail, then went to the White Horse on the Ipswich Road for lunch. I had pie, he had liver, we both had apple and sultana crumble with custard. Then we drove back home where I helped sort out a few IT issues and we chatted about village life. Whatever separates us over the next few weeks and months, I will always have March 9th.
Tue 10: Picked up a free copy of Time Out. I may keep it as a souvenir.
Wed 11: Went out for a belated birthday lunch with BestMate. It took us far far too long to decide where to go, and when we did finally pick somewhere it was unnervingly empty. Staff who'd normally have been dealing with gourmet bankers sat idly in one corner fiddling on phones and eating street food from the market outside. Decided against dessert. I haven't see BestMate since.

Thu 12: Yay, day trip to Plymouth. The train down was mostly empty but otherwise normal. The gentleman sitting behind me coughed twice but thankfully got off at Taunton. I was one of a handful of tourists in the city, it being a tempestuously showery day, but the rewards were great. Life in the South West was continuing pretty much as normal. Nobody coughed on the train home. I have no idea when I'm ever going to get the opportunity to undertake anything similar again.
Fri 13: Tesco was still out of pasta and toilet rolls, but also tuna fish, porridge oats and toothpaste. Many of the sizes/varieties I'd normally buy weren't there. Bought an extra pack of cod fillets for the freezer and quite a lot of Wagon Wheels.
Sat 14: The last time I rode on a bus.
Sun 15: This weekend brings the first feelings that we are barrelling towards the unknown, with the government primed to take what could be severe measures to control viral spread. As it turns out, today will be the last 'normal' day for weeks.

Mon 16: The builders should've turned up today to make good some of the mess they left when fitting my new boiler in November, but they've cancelled. Instead I went to the library, because it might be useful to have a stash of unread books at home. And then I went to Brent, because I'd not been there for a while, and enjoyed a walk in the park. I was careful to stick to quiet trains between the rush hours. Shortly after getting home Boris popped up to give an unexpected press conference and suddenly 'non-essential travel' was toast. And that's the last time I rode on the tube.
Tue 17: Walked the length of Roman Road trying to find toilet roll, because who knows how long my dwindling stocks might have to last. Found some in shop number eight. Hurrah for local hardware stores.
Wed 18: One little luxury I thought might help me through the coming months was a new pair of slippers. Walked to M&S in Westfield, where the food section was busy but the upper floors deathly quiet. "It's been like this all day," said the cashier. When two more shoppers approached clutching socks and trousers she joked that rush hour had started. And still the share price tumbled.
Thu 19: The lady in front of me at the supermarket was trying to buy eleven dozen eggs. The cashier told her to put eight back.
Fri 20: I've started listening to Radio 6 Music a lot more. I think Radio 6 Music is going to help get me through.
Sat 21: Even venturing out for a newspaper feels fraught with risk and danger. I haven't bought one since.
Sun 22: I've lost almost half a stone in the last week. This is despite walking half as far as usual. It seems the key to dieting isn't exercise but "rationing your food supplies very carefully in case at some point they run out."

Mon 23: And in the midst of all this madness I had a routine doctor's appointment. I kept expecting them to cancel, but when they rang a few days beforehand it was only to check I hadn't been travelling abroad and didn't have any symptoms, and I hadn't, so in I went.

The garden at the entrance to the surgery was empty, its fountain bubbling quietly. A few years ago automatic doors had been installed at both entrances and I could see now what an excellent idea this had been. Sanitiser was provided in a dispenser on the wall to be squirted on the way in and on the way out. Normally you sign in for an appointment using a touchscreen, but this had been removed. A strip of black and yellow tape at chest level ensured nobody could approach the receptionist too closely.

An elderly resident hobbled in hoping to collect a prescription for her husband, and struggled with the unfamiliar conditions. We self-isolated in separate parts of the waiting room while staff went the extra mile to print her prescription ahead of time. Then I sat alone in reception for several minutes, taking in the surroundings. Several posters advertised a mental health service promoting positive thinking. A banner left over from the winter displayed the slogan Don't underestimate the risks of flu on one pennant and Book your jab today on another. If only it were that simple.

Eventually my doctor led me through to his consulting room where an entirely normal face-to-face chat and check-up took place. We went over my history, discussed options and confirmed no need for action (or concern). The ordinariness of the situation was palpable, perhaps the quiet before the storm. After ten minutes I wished him well and set off for home, taking the scenic route to avoid risk. And then at 8.30pm Boris made his ratings-busting prime ministerial broadcast and UK lockdown officially began.

Tue 24: Having walked through ExCel several times, the scale of NHS Nightingale Hospital unnerves me.
Wed 25: If you enjoyed Cabin Pressure on Radio 4, you'll enjoy John Finnemore's ongoing series of short Cabin Fever videos in which Arthur Shappey vlogs from self-isolation.
Thu 26: These collective Doctor Who re-watchings, to uplift the spirits of the nation, are splendid occasions. Tonight it was 'Rose', the first episode of the reboot first shown fifteen years ago, accompanied by a stream of eye-opening tweets from @russelldavies63. Next please.
Fri 27: I've not been sleeping very well. Normally if I wake in the small hours I can drop back off easily, but now my mind churns off down paths of its own devising and unconsciousness rarely follows. In good news it'll get better tomorrow, but I don't know that yet.
Sat 28: Took the rubbish out. Also threw away two bagfuls of recycling, because we're supposed to leave that on the pavement at awkward times and it feels like Tower Hamlets council has more important things to worry about.

Sun 29: Went out for my daily exercise before the hailstorm hit. The Olympic Park was full of joggers. The switch to British Summer Time is proving harder to cope with this year.
Mon 30: If I divide up spring-cleaning my flat into tiny but tenacious stages, perhaps I can make it last until summer.
Tue 31: Today is my nephew's 21st birthday, all plans cancelled. It's hard to believe that I celebrated my birthday perfectly normally just three weeks ago.

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