diamond geezer

 Monday, November 30, 2009

plaque on Festing RoadFor those of us who grew up in the early 1970s, one man in a bowler hat became a firm childhood friend. He never seemed to have a job, he often hung around small children in the street and he had a penchant for dressing up. His name was Mr Benn, and we loved him.

Mr Benn first appeared on our TV screens at 1:30pm on Thursday 25th February 1971. I didn't see the very first episode because I was at school, but the BBC gave me every opportunity to catch up during umpteen repeat showings over the coming years. In that first show Mr Benn had been invited to a fancy dress party, which is how he found himself lured into a mysterious back lane establishment owned by an "as if by magic" shopkeeper. Off came his hat, on went a suit of bright red armour, and a legend was born. Only 13 BBC episodes were ever made, and at the end of each Mr Benn took a souvenir back to reality to remind him of his adventures. Here's the full list:

The Red Knight (box of matches)
The Big Game Hunter (photograph)    
The Clown (red nose)
The Balloonist (medal)
The Wizard (a jar)
The Spaceman (lump of rock)
The Caveman (stone hammer)
The Cook (wooden spoon)
The Zoo-Keeper (parrot's feather)
The Diver (a shell)
The Cowboy (Sheriff's badge)
The Magic Carpet (bottle stopper)
The Pirate (Jolly Roger flag)

One of the stars of the show was the street in which Mr Benn lived - Festive Road. Every episode kicked off with some everyday activity taking place on the pavement, be it the selling of a carpet or some kids playing with bows and arrows. This was a blatant hint to the escapades Mr Benn would be having later, but as mere six year olds we often failed to notice this connection until later. Our hero's scribbled house at 52 Festive Road was a very ordinary two-up two-down Victorian terrace, and a world away from Mary, Mungo and Midge's anonymous highrise. But it turns out that his house actually exists, not just as a wiggly line drawing but in real life. In Putney.

52 and 54 Festing Road, PutneyThis is the front door to number 52 Festing Road, a residential street half a mile to the west of Putney Bridge. And nextdoor is number 54, formerly the home of David McKee who was Mr Benn's creator. He liked the idea of living beside his cartoon creation, never imagining that the bowler-hatted bloke might eventually take on a life of his own. And so Festing Road became Festive Road, and Putney became the gateway to our imagination.

David McKee now lives in France, but he flew back over the weekend to unveil a special 'Mr Benn' plaque paid for by local residents. It's not outside the correct house, it's up at the far end of the street, and it's not terribly impressive either. There's no cartoon character smiling up from the pavement, just a short phrase with rather too many capital letters for my liking. Maybe it's been placed here to try to distract attention away from number 52 and to allow the current resident to continue to live there in peace. Didn't work, I'm afraid.

Festing Road SW15If Mr Benn lived in Festing Road today he'd notice a considerable number of differences. The houses didn't need burglar alarms in the 1970s, neither were there loft extensions tucked away in the roofspace. More particularly there are absolutely no parked cars in the cartoon series, whereas they're thickly packed along both sides of the street today. Mr Benn and the Traffic Warden wouldn't have been a classic episode, I fear. Also fresh is the local Neighbourhood Watch scheme. A single gentleman with an eye for the childish wouldn't escape their scrutiny today, and I was certainly eyed up and down by more than one householder as I attempted to take photographs of numbers 52 and 54.

Good news. Everybody in Festing Road can now walk properly, and doesn't flap their legs in a medically impossible manner as they shuffle to and fro.

At the plaque end of the street is the Lower Richmond Road, a thoroughfare lined by very familiar looking little shops. I looked in vain for a fancy dress shop, but alas no shopkeeper appeared. There's an outfitters with clothes hanging in the window, but this is a ladies boutique entitled Glamour and Mr Benn wouldn't have been seen dead trying anything on in there. There's a Tandoori restaurant, and an estate agents, and even a sparkling white shop that appears to specialise in fluffy icing and cupcakes. Not really the stuff of which cartoon dreams are made.

Festing Road SW15What surprises me, having visited Festing Road, is that Mr Benn always turned right on leaving his house and never left. Number 52 is only six houses down from the river Thames, and yet the riverside appears briefly in just one of the 13 original episodes. There are a heck of a lot of boathouses along Putney Embankment, probably the greatest concentration to be found anywhere within London, so if Mr Benn had turned left he could have ended up an expert rower or a prize-winning cox instead. It's our gain that he turned right to the parade and found the shopkeeper's magic door, the door that could lead to an adventure.

Photo: full frontal of numbers 52 and 54 Festing Road
Photo: Festing Road (no wibbly wobbly cartoon children in evidence)
Photo: the new plaque in situ

 Sunday, November 29, 2009

  the DG monthly guided walk
  Northala Fields

  South Ruislip to Greenford (6 miles)

Yesterday being the fourth Saturday of the month, it was time once again for the regular DG guided walk. I arrived at the designated rendezvous point (South Ruislip station) just after midday, and waited to greet the band of blog readers who'd made the effort to attend. Once everyone had arrived, and friendly introductions had been swapped, this latest social excursion kicked off. And a very pleasant time was had by all.
[Map of the route here]

Polish War MemorialIt wasn't the most interesting start to the route, I have to confess. The roads of suburban Ruislip are designed for drivers first and pedestrians second, so I was relieved when none of my fellow walkers suffered a nasty accident attempting to cross Station Approach. Best not to attempt to cross again to view the Polish War Memorial, I thought. But we had a better view of the eagle-topped pillar, even from the opposite side of the road, than drivers rushing beneath the A40 roundabout ever see. Onward along the Ruislip Road until a fingerpost indicated the "Dog Rose Ramble" footpath heading off to the left. It sounded delightful, if unlikely, but the reality proved rather less than attractive. A smelly worksite for starters, then a trackless yomp along the edge of a very muddy golf course. Every bunker and water feature appeared to have been abandoned, but a lumpy landscape of artificial grassy hillocks reminded us all of Tellytubbyland.

St Mary's NortholtBack across Western Avenue via a rarely-traversed footbridge, then a less than inspiring trudge along the avenues of Islip Manor. I was, at this point, apologising to all my fellow ramblers that the early part of the walk had looked more interesting on the map than it proved to be in real life. But from here onward our route followed a succession of attractive greenspaces, and I'd didn't hear another word of complaint from anyone. After Islip Manor Park we reached the suburbanised heart of medieval Northolt, located in a culverted valley below centuries-old St Mary's church. One especially aspirational house on Mandeville Green boasted no fewer than three personalised numberplates out front - including the desperately expensive T33 (on a Citroen) and 33TT (on a smart car). Apparently it's de rigeur on guided walks to pause for an hour to drink beer and nibble sandwiches, but I resisted all calls to stop off for a liquid lunch at The Crown because I wanted to reach our destination before sundown.

Beyond the underpass came the highlight of the walk - a visit to Northala Fields. This is a brand new park beside the A40, constructed by Ealing Council on the site of a former recreation ground. And it looks like nothing else in London. Four large piles of earth have been shaped into squat cone-shaped hillocks [photo], a bit like a chain of grass-flanked volcanoes [photo], or maybe better resembling two of Madonna's bras. One of our party was reminded of Silbury Hill, although the earth here isn't prehistoric - it's half a million cubic metres of waste dug up during the construction of Wembley Stadium and the Westfield shopping centre. A most ingenious recycling project, this, providing both viewpoint and recreational focus for the surrounding neighbourhood.

Northala Fields

All four hills could be climbed, but only the tallest had a proper footpath to the summit [photo]. One side of this path was edged by crushed concrete encased in steel wire cages, thereby preventing unofficial shortcuts up or (more particularly) down the steep slopes [photo]. The ascent was irresistible, of course, and I was well behaved enough to take the spiral route rather than cutting up the muddy flank using various benches as mini step-ladders. Everyone agreed that the view from the top was well worth the climb. A huge swathe of west-ish London was visible, including Harrow church and Horsenden Hill, plus (appropriately enough) the Wembley Arch glinting in the afternoon sunshine. In the far distance a series of planes dropped steadily to land at Heathrow, and that was definitely the Crystal Palace transmitter, and to the east the miniature skyscrapers of central London. A steady stream of cyclists and joggers joined us in the upper circle, less interested in the view than in the exercise opportunity provided.

Grand Union Canal, Marnham FieldsEach windswept peak duly conquered, I took the lead in walking east along the southern edge of the A40. Whilst this could have been grim, a lengthy strip of meadow and scrubland helped shield the rushing arterial traffic from view. Not a soul was to be seen through Smiths Farm, beyond which snaked the Grand Union Canal, unrippled by passing narrowboats. We passed close by the Aladdin Building, its factory tower a familiar sight to Western Avenue drivers, but now lying empty and at risk of dereliction. There was one final opportunity for chat and cameradie as we negotiated Greenford Lagoons - which promised much but delivered only an impenetrable roadside marsh. And at last we reached Greenford station, where everyone took their leave, but only after considerable interest had been shown in the Underground's last remaining flight of wooden escalators.

My thanks go out to all those of you who gave up your Saturday to join me, and I hope that you enjoyed the walk. Next month's "fourth Saturday" falls on Boxing Day, so the DG guided walk will be taking place in deepest Norfolk for a change. But I hope that London-based readers will pencil January 24th into their diaries (full details of time and venue in the usual place), because it would be great to see some fresh faces in attendance.

 Saturday, November 28, 2009

Re-installed by un-cretins

Mile End stationEarlier this month I reported on the installation of a new suspended ceiling at Mile End station and its unintended impact on the travelling public. The top line of the 'next train' indicator at one end of the westbound Central line platform had been obscured by freshly-decreasing roof level, making it suddenly impossible to read the time and destination of the next train. Freshly arrived on the platform and want to know where you're going? No can do. New ceiling, installed by cretins.

The diagram below shows the affected areas on Mile End's two island platforms. The six dark blue rectangles are the station's 'next train' indicators, and the red bits are parts of the station from which they've always been obscured. As for the pink bits, these are the areas most recently hidden by the ever-lowering ceiling, including the key passenger hotspot on the aforementioned Central line platform (at the foot of the stairs down from the ticket hall).

Mile End station

Well, good news. Some un-cretins have been along to Mile End station this week and they've moved the previously offending 'next train' indicator. It used to be between the stairs, facing west, and now it's been shifted to the front end of the platform, facing east. Net result, far (far) more people can see it. Like this.

Mile End station

Mile End stationThe two green chunks are the new areas of platform from which the relocated 'next train' indicator board is now visible. One of these is the key arrival space at the bottom of the stairs. Walk down from the ticket hall, step out onto the Central line platform and the destination of the next train is now perfectly visible to all and sundry. Win 1! And the second green area is the one I'm most pleased about - the previous total blind spot inbetween the stairs. Sight of the indicator to the east is still blocked by an annoyingly-positioned "Way Out" sign. But turn to look in the opposite direction and you can now tell whether the next train's heading to West Ruislip, Ealing Broadway or White City, and how long it's going to be until it arrives. Win 2! I can't tell you how much of an improvement this is, especially for folk exiting from a District line carriage and crossing the platform to change trains. OK, so you need decent eyesight, else the far-distant blur is as useless as the previous blank. But the entire westbound platform is now next-train-enabled. Win win.

I'm not going to claim that this repositioning has anything to do with the post I wrote on this blog. TfL can't simply knock up plans to shift an entire electrical system overnight (even if that's exactly what they appear to have managed). But, at long last, the cretins who insist on siting 'next train' indicators behind unnecessary obstructions have been given the day off. Long live the un-cretins. I hope that this isn't merely a fortunate one-off, and that a London-wide campaign of decretinisation is underway. If so, I have a shortlist of other navigational abominations in need of rectification. But, little steps, little steps. Three cheers for the un-cretins, and may they ultimately prevail.

 Friday, November 27, 2009

An alphabetical journey through the capital's museums
Crofton Roman Villa

Location: Crofton Road, Orpington, BR6 8AF [map]
Open: Wed & Fri 10-1 & 2-5, Sun 2-5 (Apr-Oct only)
Admission: £1
Brief summary: mid-suburban Roman remains
Website: http://cka.moon-demon.co.uk/villa.htm
Time to set aside: half an hour

[In a brilliant piece of planning, I visited today's museum in October before it closed down for the winter. In a none-too-brilliant bit of timing, you won't be able to visit today's museum until Easter. So don't get too excited by what follows]

Crofton Roman VillaLondon was once a Roman stronghold, but the centre of the City has been so wholly and utterly developed over the centuries that barely any trace remains. Modern London boasts just one Roman villa open to the public, and that only because the boundaries of the capital have been stretched out to encompass chunks of Kent. Originally a remote rural farmstead, it's now conveniently located immediately adjacent to Orpington station. Ideal for commuting, if only the former residents had hung around for long enough.

The first modern Britons to uncover Crofton Roman Villa were Victorian navvies working on a railway cutting. There were no preservation orders in those days, nor was there any knowledge of what was being churned up, so a large part of the foundations were irrevocably lost. Wiser workmen laying driveways for new council offices in 1926 quickly realised that they were carving through Roman remains, but archaeological interest was lacklustre and yet more damage was done. Only in 1988, when the council planned to raze the area for a car park, did the Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit step in. They excavated what was left, then built a protective shed around the site, and the public are now invited inside to view what they managed to save.

Crofton Roman VillaFrom Crofton Road, the bland municipal exterior looks like it might hold a youth club, swimming pool or church hall. Indeed no expense has been wasted outside - this is simply a big shed containing Roman leftovers. No permanent staff are employed, just a group of kindly volunteers who give up their time in case any members of the public might open the door and step inside. I would have had the entire place to myself, but a well-intentioned local parent had hired the villa for their child's birthday party and so a crowd of well-behaved under-10s were quietly assembling mosaics on a trestle table.

My volunteer guide, having swapped one pound coin for a quaint old admission ticket, gave me a quick rundown of the history of the place. The villa was owned by well-to-do farmers in around the 2nd-4th centuries AD, and stood on a ridge above the fertile banks of the River Cray (now culverted beneath Orpington's main shopping street). Of the 20 rooms thought once to exist, remnants of at least 10 survive - all at foundation level. Don't come expecting grand walls and tessellating pavements, although there is plenty of ancient brick infrastructure and also some illustrative reconstructed tiling. Here context is key, with labels and plans aplenty to explain what everything in front of you used to be. But best to hear it all from the guide ("that bit used to be the hypocaust - you know what a hypocaust was don't you?"). Mine confessed to being a retired teacher, in common with many of the other volunteers here, and her enthusiasm and expertise were put to good use.

Crofton Roman VillaI managed to explore the fenced-off perimeter of the Roman remains whilst carefully avoiding getting too close to the assembled birthday crowd. They were still busy mosaicing while I perused the "touch table" of genuine ancient stuff and the sandtray in which children pretend to be archaeologists. Then we swapped places, and I went to stand on the raised platform at the rear while they went to sit in the dressing-up corner. I earned a different perspective on the old villa, including a close up of where the underfloor central heating used to be, while the kids were held distantly spellbound by a selection of animal bones.

This is a defiantly low-key attraction, with the emphasis very much on archaeology rather than entertainment. The admission charge is merely tokenistic and couldn't possibly support the building's upkeep. The bookshop contains dense volumes solely of local interest rather than popular sciency tomes. And the Roman remains themselves require not inconsiderable amounts of visualisation, far exceeding the passive spoonfeeding most tourists seem to desire. Oh that there were more London museums like this, ploughing their own specialist furrow with love, care and conviction.
by train: Orpington

V is also for...
» Valence House Museum (closed for refurbishment until May 2010)
» Vestry House Museum (in Walthamstow Village)
» Victoria & Albert Museum (I've been) (who hasn't?)
» Vinopolis (expensive swilling joint)

 Thursday, November 26, 2009

London 2012  Olympic update
  The white elephant in the room

In three years time, when the Olympics and Paralympics are but an afterglow, work will already be underway cementing 2012's permanent legacy. We know that the Aquatic Centre will be downsized to a local swimming pool, that the Velodrome will be tweaked into a cycle park and that various temporary arenas will be either relocated elsewhere or dismantled. But we're not yet certain what's going to happen to the centrepiece of the Games - the Olympic Stadium. Neither, it seems, do we care.

Olympic StadiumLondon's Olympic Stadium has been designed to a special "sustainable" brief, and has particular features which ensure that an athletics legacy could continue after the world has moved on. Very few sporting organisations (other than a top-flight football club) could have sustained an 80000-seater bowl in perpetuity. The entire top tier of seating is therefore a temporary structure, and can be removed after the Games to leave a 25000-capacity arena. The stadium's in-built slimmability means that rugby, athletics or even cricket might be interested in taking over after 2012. But this initial design, coupled with a desire to maintain an athletics track at all costs, is making certain alternative legacy options very awkward indeed. So London's pretending it doesn't matter.

The 2012 Olympic Stadium is being built, indeed has already been built, assuming that all of the important facilities will be on the outside. Catering and toilets will be located in exterior pods, with absolutely no such facilities on the grandstand decks. There'll be no executive boxes, always an essential moneyspinner where corporate entertainment is concerned. And there'll be no segregating barriers between home and away fans, because Olympic stadia definitely don't need those. All of which makes the in-progress structure a desperately unattractive future proposition for any potentially profitable use.

Arsenal already have a new stadium, Tottenham are planning their own, and Chelsea are too far away to ever be interested. That's football's big guys dealt with, which leaves West Ham and maybe Leyton Orient as potentially interested parties. But eight-lane running tracks around football pitches don't make for good visibility, which'll probably also scupper the likes of rugby hopefuls Saracens or Wasps. Cricket might be interested, apparently, as the Twenty20 game takes off and may require an additional London venue. But at this stage, quite frankly, nobody's genuinely interested and no plans are in motion.

Olympic Stadium, upper tierToday there's another iron in the fire, as the London stadia to be considered for our 2018 World Cup bid are announced. Wembley's one, Arsenal's another, and the not-yet-rebuilt White Hart Lane is a third. And what do you know, London's number four is to be the Olympic Stadium, preserved with its upper tier at a size appropriate to hosting a top notch soccer international. Legacy bosses are no longer quite so tied to the promise of an athletics facility, it seems, even if that means breaking a pledge made when London won the games back in 2005. "Nothing is ruled in or out at this stage," they now say, as pragmatism replaces principle.

It's madness, pure and simple. Even if the 2018 World Cup bid is successful (and we'll only find out next year), our East End cupcake will be used a mere handful of times for a few qualifiers and quarter finals. And for this, just for this, we'd be keeping open an 80000-seater stadium for six whole years after the Olympics have gone away. If ever misplaced pride risked clouding an important legacy decision, this is it.

More to the point, our 2018 World Cup bid is clearly doomed. It's being assembled by a bickering committee of sporting bureaucrats who seem more interested in point-scoring than assembling a coherent and convincing argument. At this rate England's World Cup bid, which ought to be one of the firm favourites to win, looks a dead cert to fall by the wayside. "If they can't organise a bid campaign", FIFA delegates will judge, "what hope have they of organising a tournament?"

I'd suggest, therefore, that the inclusion of the Olympic Stadium in our 2018 World Cup bid is merely a cunning way of postponing any decision on its future for another 13 months. Nobody has a clue how its legacy should be funded, and nobody now needs to think about this again until next Christmas at the earliest. But by December 2010 there'll only be a year and a half before the Olympics take place, which really doesn't bode well for attracting an alternative post-Games tenant. My local community risks inheriting a pointless bowl that nobody wants, rather than a carefully planned and costed sporting facility. It is the white elephant in the room. Sssh, nobody look at it, and maybe it'll go away.

 Wednesday, November 25, 2009

With only one month to go until Christmas, the thoughts of many Londoners have already turned to the vexing question of "where can I buy a Bratwurst, some Lebkuchen and a wooden puppet theatre?" Time was when you'd have to travel abroad to a European Christmas market to acquire these seasonal treats. But now they come to us. I've been to three of the capital's faux-German festive fairs to investigate.

Cologne Christmas Market
Cologne Christmas MarketAlong the South Bank, roughly from Coin Street to the Eye, a fresh wooden shanty town has sprung up. Scores of shed-type booths masquerading as chalets, most with fairy lights and plastic evergreens draped across the front, now line the river's edge. Approaching from the east the first hut advertises the sale of "fake snow", which sort of sums the whole thing up. But there was a willing crowd thronging the Cologne Christmas Market at the weekend, not just for the chemical white stuff but also for the wide variety of gifts and food on offer. There's a lot of food. Think of it as Borough Market West, but with substantially less locally-sourced food. Much of this food is meat-based, because stereotypical Germans like meat, and lot of it is sausage. Those aren't extended hot dogs, those are megawurst, and at a price which would look high in euros let alone pounds. Beer is also freely available, carefully branded as "bier" to distinguish it from any import you might be able to buy in a nearby pub. You could, quite frankly, do a lot worse for lunch. A damp November day was far too early in the season for Santa's Secret Village to be doing a roaring trade - no queues of wide-eyed kids yet hoping for a delve in the old man's toysack. And the red-robed carol singers beneath Hungerford Bridge were having to struggle hard to be heard, their fa-la-las drowned by each and every twelve carriage monster passing overhead. But you might well find a stocking filler or two here if you're desperate for gift ideas, and there's plenty of time left before Christmas for a South Bank stroll.

The O2 Christmas Fair
The O2 Christmas FairFor punters at North Greenwich's favourite upturned lid, a stroll along Entertainment Avenue usually ends with nothing. There's a huge void at the far end of the internal walkway, beyond the Michael Jackson exhibition, in the space where the supercasino was meant to go. This Christmas they've finally got round to filling it, and the inspired choice of content is an undercover funfair. With hundreds of thousands of Londoners based nearby, and inclement weather held at bay outside, this would seem an ideal spot for festive merriment. It certainly looks impressive at first glance, especially the green-lit rollercoaster which whips punters almost up to the teflon roof. The fair's official website certainly wants you to come visit, and ideally to shell out for an all-inclusive fair and restaurant package ('only' £150 for a family of 4). The reality, however, isn't yet so worthwhile. I counted only 7 rides within the fairground space, one of which was being shunned by all and sundry, and one of which was a £4-a-time hall of mirrors. There'll be a few more 'Vintage' rides in early December, but I'd still expect visiting families to spend longer in the restaurant than at the fair. As further distraction there's a Traditional German Market outside in Peninsula Square - so 'traditional' that the traders include a Dutch mini-pancake booth and a Charcoal BBQ. Alas, not the most attractive place to be on a wet November afternoon. The poor soul manning the isolated glühwein bar, for example, could do little but stand alone in his illuminated shack waiting for the rain to subside. A Dome-estic Christmas is better than nothing, but could do better.

Winter Wonderland
Winter WonderlandWhen I visited this Hyde Park funfair the first year it opened, I was woefully underimpressed. A handful of booths and fairground rides tacked along a single concrete path - most definitely nothing to write home about. Things have moved on, and this year's Winter Wonderland event is considerably larger. The main entrance from Hyde Park Corner is via a temporary wooden arch, alongside which on Saturday various parties of visitors were busy snapping souvenir photos. Immediately beyond is a carol-singing reindeer, a clear favourite with those passing by, but revealed from behind to be powered by an Einhell KCK 210/8 Kompressor. There are streets of Black Forest-style booths across these 20 acres - a whole Hansel & Gretel forestful - rather like the Cologne Christmas Fair on steroids. Too much food, I'd wager, unless the intention is to ensure that whenever your appetite wavers there's a icing-dusted hot waffle nearby. At one particular multi-storey dining establishment I watched as five red-coated servers stood poised to dish up XXL-Bratwurst, Pommes Frites and Maiskolben, but alas their "please queue here" sign was proving wholly unnecessary. One of London's temporary winter ice rinks is located nextdoor, swirling with talented amateur skaters and a few terrified klutzes hanging on to the perimeter barrier for dear life. And, unlike at the Dome, there are fairground rides a-plenty. Big wheels and funhouses and twirly things and a whopping great Christmas Coaster - which appears to be a normal rollercoaster but with a few silver baubles attached. In a profiteering twist, even the smallest sleigh ride comes with a "souvenir photo" booth so that you can take away a hastily-printed image of your grinning toddler. A cup of "Warming soup" (Heinz tomato) will set you back £3, or £3.50 if you splash out with a bread roll. These are almost Mayfair prices, which is appropriate given that Mayfair is very close by and was itself named after a seasonal showground. The organisers have thought of everything, financially, and signposts will direct you towards the nearest cashpoint should your wallet starts to flag. But I suspect that London's latest funfair is going to prove rather popular this winter, whatever the cost, especially with families, after-hours workmates and bunches of pleasure-seeking teen- and twenty- somethings.

Conclusion: If you want a traditional German Christmas Market, go to Germany. If you want an expensive funfair, a few trinkets and a lot of sausage, stay in town.

 Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Oysterisation Q & A

Q: Can you provide a one line summary of what's going to happen?
"The Mayor, the Secretary of State and Train Operating Companies have announced that, from 2 January 2010, passengers will be able to use Oyster pay as you go on all National Rail services (that currently accept Travelcards) in London."

Q: Where can I see the official press releases, and some maps, and a few bloggers' reactions?
A: Press releases:
The Mayor; TfL; National Rail; sample fares.
Maps: pdf; jpg; National Rail summary map
Reactions: London Reconnections; Greenwich.co.uk, 853; Bexcentric.

Q: Ooh look, the new map has the river Thames on it!
The London Connections map has always had the River Thames on it. This is not the new tube map. This is not news.

Q: Isn't there a mistake in the key on TfL's new "Oyster rail services in London" map?
I think so. The key says that "station names in black are served by at least four trains per hour from 0930 to 1600, Mondays to Fridays". The problem is that all the station names in zones 1-6 are in black, even the ones that have fewer than four trains per hour off-peak. I do hope that TfL haven't printed hundreds of copies of this map in advance.
[10pm update: The key on the official map has now been changed. Glad to be of service]

Q: Does this map offer any hints as to what'll be on the new tube map?
Yes. It's the first official map to show the extended Circle line. Edgware Road is two stations again, not a mega-interchange. There's a new bus service shown to link Stratford station to new High Speed services at Stratford International. And there are no wheelchair blobs! (I know, wishful thinking)

Q: Enough about the map. Tell us which rail lines in London won't be accepting Oyster.
Heathrow Express (Paddington → Heathrow), Heathrow Connect (Hayes & Harlington → Heathrow); Southeastern High Speed Services (St Pancras → Stratford International)

Q: And which National Rail stations outside London will be accepting Oyster?
Zone 6: Elstree & Borehamwood; Hampton Court, Thames Ditton; Stoneleigh, Ewell West; Ewell East; Banstead, Epsom Downs; Chipstead, Kingswood, Tadworth, Tattenham Corner; Whyteleafe, Whyteleafe South, Caterham; Upper Warlingham.
Zones 7/8/9: Rickmansworth, Chorleywood, Chalfont & Latimer, Amersham; Bushey
Zone W: Watford Junction
Zone G: Purfleet, Ockendon, Chafford Hundred, Grays

Q: What about journeys further out of London than that?
Oyster will not be accepted for National Rail journeys that start or finish outside the Oysterised zones.

Q: Can you reassure me that fares won't rise as a result of this change?
I'll try. Take a peak return from Surbiton to Waterloo, for example. At the moment this costs £9.80 return. In the future, on PAYG, it'll cost £4.90 into town and £4.90 out again. Exactly the same. And off-peak the return fare is currently £6.50, and will change to two £3.20 singles. That's 10p less. Sounds good so far.

Q: When are peak fares charged on National Rail?
This currently varies by train company, all of whom have a morning peak but only some of whom have an evening peak. From January they're all going to have two weekday peaks, one in the morning (0630-0930) and one in the evening (1600-1900). Many late-starting commuters will face unexpected fare increases as a result.

Q: OK, so now do that Surbiton → Waterloo return journey again, but leaving at 11am and returning at 5pm.
At the moment this is a purely off-peak journey, costing £6.50 return. In the future, on PAYG, it'll cost £3.20 into town (off-peak) but £4.90 back again (new peak). Bugger, that's £8.10 in total, which is £1.60 more than now. Looks like many passengers who travel in the new afternoon peak will be big losers.

Q: Will Oyster always offer the cheapest fares?
Almost always, yes. But not if you have a Family Railcard, Network Card or Gold Card. These offer off-peak discounts that Oyster won't recognise, so you may end up being overcharged.

Q: You've got a Gold Card, haven't you? Tell us how pissed off you feel.
Yes, I have an annual Z1-3 Travelcard, which means I also get sent a Gold Card. This permits me one-third off off-peak fares in London and the southeast, which is lovely. For example, an off-peak return ticket to Cheam currently costs me £2.05, which is 1/3 off the usual price of £3.10. But Oyster PAYG will charge me £3 for the same journey (two £1.50 singles). So either I'll have to queue up and buy a paper ticket before I travel, as before, or I won't get my one-third discount. And yet the Oyster system knows I have an annual travelcard, so it ought to know I have a Gold Card, so it really ought to be able to calculate the correct discount. Apparently not. For me, Oysterisation brings no rewards.

Q: How do TfL cover their backs on this one?
They say "We would always advise customers to check which ticket or travel product is best for them – depending on the route, time of day and mode of transport taken – before they start their journey." You'll be able to check fares here, from 2nd January. But not yet.

Q: Which National Rail journeys will still be charged at (cheaper) TfL rates?
Marylebone → Amersham; Marylebone/Paddington → West Ruislip; King's Cross/Moorgate → Finsbury Park; Liverpool Street → Stratford; Stratford → Tottenham Hale/Seven Sisters; Liverpool Street → Walthamstow Central/Tottenham Hale/Seven Sisters; Fenchurch Street → Upminster/Rainham; Watford Junction → Euston/Clapham Junction; West Hampstead → Moorgate/Elephant & Castle/London Bridge; Paddington → West Drayton/Greenford; Victoria → Balham [see map here]

Q: Oyster PAYG is also now available on the river, isn't it?
Yes, on Thames Clippers, with immediate effect. A single PAYG journey, say from Greenwich to Embankment, will cost £4.80. Ouch. That's almost as expensive as a peak time rail fare from Zone 6 to Central London.

Q: Did anybody important mention OEPs yesterday?
No, they thought it was best only to announce one big thing at a time. Apparently only 0.04% of passengers will be affected anyway. Or 0.04% of journeys. Whatever, OEPs are being saved as a special surprise for later.

 Monday, November 23, 2009

OystersConvenient though an Oyster card may be, there's one large swathe of London transport on which it's not valid. Fine on the tube, perfect on the buses, OK on the Overground, even usable on trams and along the river. But try using your Oyster on National Rail services and you're likely to be guilty of fare evasion. Certain rail routes are permitted, if you know which they are, but most South London trains remain an Oyster-free no-go zone.

Hurrah, not for much longer! Pay-as-you-go is coming to National Rail as of 2nd January next year, which means it'll be possible to travel by train from Zone 1 to Zone 6 merely by swiping your plastic. It's been a long time coming, but negotiations by both Ken and Boris have finally softened up the Train Operating Companies to the point where they're willing to accept non-paper tickets aboard their services. Boris should be be down at Balham station this morning to celebrate, presumably so that he can point out how the Southern station is attaining the same ticketing status as its Northern line cousin nextdoor. Major cheers all round, and rightly so.

However, just to keep travellers on their toes, the fares for National Rail Oyster are going to be different to those for TfL Oyster. There's a different set of fares for peak and off-peak travel, and yet another set of fares if your journey starts on NR and ends on TfL (or vice versa). A PAYG tube journey from Balham to Waterloo, for example, will cost £2.70 at peak times and £2.40 off-peak. A National Rail version of the same journey (via Clapham Junction) will cost £2.60 at peak times and £2.00 off-peak. Meanwhile off-peak return fares are to be scrapped, forcing Londoners to pay the equivalent of two single Oyster PAYG fares instead. Most travellers won't notice these differences, however, because the system will simply deduct the appropriate amount from their PAYG balance as they pass. [Darryl has the full list of new fares, in all their opacity]

But there's one group of people who are going to find the new system especially complicated, and I count myself amongst them. Folk with season tickets and Travelcards that don't cover the whole of Zones 1 to 6, they're going to have to learn a new way to travel. And if they get it wrong, it's going to cost. Welcome, London travellers, to the OEP.

OEP stands for Oyster Extension Permit, and come January it'll be required by any Travelcard owner using National Rail to travel out of their usual zones. At the moment, should my tube journey take me across the zone 3/4 boundary, I merely touch in at the start and finish and the correct fare is deducted. On National Rail, it won't be that simple. I'll need to add an electronic OEP to my Oyster card before I travel, before I pass through the first ticket barrier, else when I reach the end of my journey I'll be a guilty man.

OEPs are being required because most far-flung NR stations are ungated, and the Train Operating Companies don't trust Travelcard holders to touch out. Say, for example, I take a train from from Lewisham (zone 3) to Hayes (zone 5). When I touch in at the start, my Oyster has no idea where I'm heading. It could be to another station within zone 3, in which case there'd be no extra cost, or it could be to a station further out, in which case I need to be charged. The size of this charge can only be calculated when I touch out. But what if I decide to save money by not touching out at the far end? The system only knows that I touched in at Lewisham, and there are plenty of legal zone 1-3 journeys starting there which would cost me nothing. An OEP loaded on my card ensures that I pay, either the correct amount if I touch out or the maximum cash fare if I don't.
Here's the message that TfL has to get across to its PAYG users.
From 2nd January, you can use your Oyster on National Rail services in London.
b) Other than that, same as normal.

But here's the message that TfL has to get across to its Travelcard users.
From 2nd January, you can use your Oyster on National Rail services in London.
b) If your journey includes National Rail, you might need to add an electronic 'OEP' to your Oyster before you travel.
c) You can obtain an OEP from anywhere that sells Oyster top ups (i.e tube stations and certain shops) but not from National Rail stations.
d) You'll only be able to use an OEP if there's a certain minimum PAYG balance on your card.
e) You'll need an OEP if your journey ends outside the zones covered by your Travelcard.
f) You won't need an OEP if your journey ends inside the zones covered by your Travelcard.
g) If you don't add an OEP before you travel, and a ticket inspector catches you outside your zones, you'll be charged a penalty fare.
h) If you have an OEP on your card and choose to touch in and touch out inside your zones, then the OEP will be stored away until the next time it's needed (even if that's six months away).
i) If you make a journey within your zones, normally you don't have to touch in and touch out. But if there's a surplus OEP on your card and you touch in, then it's essential that you touch out. If you don't touch out, we'll assume you've skedaddled to zone 6 and will charge you the maximum cash fare.
Confused? I believe the public will be. They're not all train nerds who know the difference between a tube station, an Overground station and a National Rail station (OEPs will only be required for travel to the latter). They may not be able to work out what happens in special cases (for example if they take a train, a tube and then another train out the other side of London, or if they travel on a National Rail train to a TfL-owned station). They won't appreciate having to queue for an OEP before they travel, maybe even at the newsagent round the corner, which is no improvement on queueing for a paper extension ticket today. They may feel forced to stick an OEP on their Oyster just in case, to avoid being stung by an unexpected penalty fare later on. And they may discover too late that their OEP has cost them money because they failed to touch out properly at stations where they currently don't have to. Thank goodness this confusion 'only' affects Travelcard users. [London Reconnections has more - lots more]

An excessively complex Oyster rollout solution is being imposed in order to try to shore up fare revenue. I wish Boris, TfL and the various Train Operating Companies well in attempting to explain this one. I think they may find it difficult. And I think we will too.

 Sunday, November 22, 2009

You wouldn't believe how much effort goes into flogging cans of lager. One particular brand of lager in this case, the one that prides itself on being "reassuringly expensive". I won't mention it by name, but a link to the squandering parasites should suffice.

Last Tuesday an intriguing lager-related email popped up in my inbox. It didn't originate from the brewery, nor even from their advertising agency, but from an online marketing agency called goviral. Here, in their own words, is what they do.
"goviral distributes branded content in digital environments in order to create a unique online presence for brands. The idea is to take advantage of the inherent power of the internet and user's networks to launch branded content campaigns in the right surroundings where users are interested in engaging with the brand."
Or, in other words, it's their job to try to coerce as many people as possible to talk online about what goviral want them to talk about, and then to try to encourage as many of their net-mates as possible to do the same. Do bear this in mind as you flit around the internet. Not everybody saying nice things about products, brands and services is doing it unprompted. They may be doing it because they've been asked to... or, more sneakily, been influenced to.

So, this email. It came from a lady I'll call Stella, and she had an invite which seemed too good to be true. She was promoting a campaign regarding the recyclableness of the packaging surrounding a certain brand of lager. There was a video she really wanted me to see, and to share, which would premiere online on Sunday. And to persuade me to watch she wanted to bike round a haute cuisine three course meal which I could eat at the same time.
Vous êtes invités to the exclusive launch of <insert campaign name> Show, premiering on le cyberspace on 22nd of November 2009. And to make votre expérience plus chic, <insert brand name> would like to offer you a haute-cuisine three-course TV dinner to enjoy while watching the show."
As blogger freebies go, this was undoubtedly one of the more luxurious. My gourmet takeaway would commence with Pork Rillettes, continue with Coq au Vin and be wrapped up with Chocolate Profiteroles (plus, of course, a bottle of the sponsor's lager). A vegetarian option was also offered in case I wasn't partial to meat-munching, and I was asked to send a list of all my allergies so that their chefs couldn't accidentally kill me and get sued.

Terms and conditions, of course, applied. I had to be "aged 18 or over" and resident in "London or the Greater London area of the UK". Bad news there for underage alcoholics in Watford. My TV Dinner would be delivered "on 22nd November 2009 between 6pm and 8pm", so I had to ensure I'd be home otherwise the courier would have to chuck my meal away. And I had to RSVP by 16th November which, given they'd sent me the email on 17th November, meant my chances were surely scuppered.

I emailed Stella to tell her I wouldn't be taking her up on the offer, firstly because I have principles, but also because she'd invited me to take part after the deadline had passed. I refrained from calling her incompetent, because I always attempt to appear civil when telling marketeers to bugger off. Stella replied quickly saying "haha, yes we sent the email out yesterday and another reminder today as we have been given one days extension! Are you still keen to get involved?" Three things I've noticed that online social media PR folk do - they always assume you're receptive to their brand, they always use exclamation marks willy nilly, and they never apologise. I declined, obviously.

I declined in particular because the campaign was so atrociously ill-conceived. The theme of the campaign was "recycling", emphasising the carbon-friendly credentials of the lager in question. And yet the promoters were intending to haemorrhage food miles by cooking a wholly unnecessary multi-course meal and biking it to the four corners of the capital. And then they intended to leave us all with a whole pile of packaging to get rid of, thereby increasing recycling rather than decreasing it. Now there's a rubbish message to be sending out. And people actually get paid to think this sort of thing up.

So watch out for any London-based bloggers praising a certain brand of lager to the skies this evening. They're not genuinely impressed that the six-pack is wrapped in compostable cardboard, they're just easily bought by a freebie meal. Me, I thought I'd have beans on toast tonight instead. And a nice cup of tea.

7pm update: Here's the meal, freshly delivered elsewhere in London, in all its packaging-tastic glory. Looks more airline meal than gourmet treat, and a true bin-filler.

 Saturday, November 21, 2009

I went to see 2012 last night. Not the Olympic Park, for a change, but the blockbuster disaster movie of the same name. The world's going to end on 21st December 2012 because that's the day the Mayan Calendar runs out of numbers. You remember, I blogged about this whole doomsday scenario in 2002, so there's obviously no point in repeating the whole saga again. But that's the scenario this new film is based on.

2012 is a very long film - longer indeed than an entire Olympic marathon. During the course of its two and a half hours, I don't think it's revealing too much to say that civilisation is wiped out and nearly everybody dies. It's mostly Americans that get killed, on screen at least, although there are a few token massacres on the other continents for good measure. I think I died just over halfway through, but it was hard to tell because the film gave the UK a wide berth. Damn those pesky mutating sunspot neutrinos (or whatever plot device the film used to attempt to justify the onset of tectonic armageddon).

The special effects in the film were very impressive, if scientifically highly suspect. Buildings don't topple like that, do they, they tend to collapse. Earthquakes don't cause the earth's crust to subside leaving only an airport runway standing amid a general hellhole inferno. And raging volcanic clouds don't pause briefly to allow all-American heroes the chance to leap aboard departing planes before continuing their awesome destructive billow.

2012's plot was a string of cliches, as might be expected. The nutter who nobody believes until its too late. The American president with a scrupulous sense of dignity in the face of destruction. Two cute kids and a dog (who may, or may not, survive until the end of the film) (but you can probably guess). The rekindled love interest, brought together by the slaughter of six billion surrounding souls. And the statistically impossible car chase through a metropolis of collapsing buildings, at least one of which ought to have taken out our hero within the first two minutes thereby shortening the film considerably.

Much as I sort of enjoyed the film, I couldn't help sitting there for 150 minutes picking holes in the plot. How come the mobile phone network still worked after half of the nearby continent had been destroyed? How could a camper van travel several miles across the Yellowstone National Park in a couple of minutes? When the fate of the world is hanging imminently in the balance, why would you stop to snog your ex-wife? And when almost every human on the planet is dead, shouldn't the survivors be even a teensy bit grief-stricken?

So I have a proposition to make. If the director had shown me the film before releasing it to general the public, I could have pointed out several of these plot holes well in advance. Dear Mr Emmerich, you need to explain the mobile phone thing, maybe by mentioning it's all done by satellite. Dear Mr Emmerich, when depicting a digital countdown to some imminent catastrophe, try to make sure it's running simultaneously to the action. Dear Mr Emmerich, a wave 1500m high isn't going to lap the flanks of Mount Everest. Dear Mr Emmerich, the London Olympics won't be underway in December, and the Queen can't walk that fast, and not every computer in the world is a Sony. That sort of thing.

I wouldn't have charged much, a mere fraction of the $200m the film took to produce, but my input at an early stage might have helped 2012 to be less of a logical turkey. Additionally I'd be more than willing to bring rigour to the rest of Hollywood by validating their plotlines for a very reasonable fee. I'm also available should Russell T Davies or his successors need help in plugging script inadequacies in Doctor Who (so many time paradoxes to clear up). Indeed, I could even have advised God that his "I created the world in six days" story was scientifically bankrupt. A pre-screening service for screenwriters, that's what's the world needs. I bet you could do it too.

 Friday, November 20, 2009

You're new here, aren't you?
No, not you, I know you've been reading this blog for a while. But you, you've not been around for long, and it's good to see you.

Usually when people arrive on this blog for the first time, they don't come back. They were searching for something unlikely on Google, and I didn't really have what they wanted. Or they came looking for a photograph, and then went away. Or they clicked on some link on some other webpage with the promise of reading something interesting, and weren't impressed. Or they simply skimmed the post at the top of the blog and thought "sheesh, what sort of tedious rubbish is this?" and scarpered. For the great majority of visitors, once is enough.

But some people stay. Some people come back, maybe once, maybe weekly, maybe even every day. If you're reading this, you're probably one of those people who come back. And suddenly there are a few more people coming back. For which I thank you.

Visitor numbers have been sort of static on this blog for the last couple of years. Healthy-ish, but steady. Until mid-September that is, when there was a sudden influx of people, maybe including you, round about the week I wrote about de-rivering the tube map. Usually these temporary peaks die down, especially when I then go on to write about something considerably less mainstream. But this wave continues to ripple, which is nice.

Here's a graphic to show you what I mean. It shows visitor numbers to this blog for a typical week in mid-November. As you can see, there's been a minor step change of late.

Nov 2006
Nov 2007
Nov 2008
Nov 2009

So, if you're new-ish around here, I wanted to warn you that this blog isn't especially normal. Often it's about London, but often it's not. Sometimes it's about a place, sometimes it's about no place at all. Occasionally it'll be about somewhere or some topic you know well, but frequently I'll write in detail about something you simply can't relate to. Might be an anniversary on Monday, an Ealing suburb on Tuesday, some snarky Mayor-bashing on Wednesday, lots of geeky stats on Thursday and a load of personal waffle on Friday. Sometimes you can predict what I'm going to write about next, but usually you have no idea at all. Whatever this blog may be, it is not niche.

My chief raison d'être is that I write what I want to write, not what you want to read. If you want cosy gossip, go somewhere else. If you want a reliable stream of single-issue blogging, go somewhere else. If you want cut-and-pasted news items, exciting competitions and thinly disguised marketing, go somewhere else. But I hope you'll stay and hold the faith, even through the dull irrelevant bits. There's something new on this blog every day so, even if you don't like the tedious garbage I'm churning out today, hopefully you'll enjoy one of the posts that follows. You're very welcome here, and something half decent should be along shortly.

 Thursday, November 19, 2009

London 2012  Olympic update
  Parkland consultation

It must be the week for planning consultations.
"There's no point in acting all surprised about it. All the planning charts and demolition orders have been on display in your local planning department in Alpha Centauri for fifty of your Earth years, so you've had plenty of time to lodge any formal complaint and it's far too late to start making a fuss about it now."
The back streets of Fish Island may be less than four light years away, but I was reminded of Douglas Adams' wise words when attempting last night to find an Olympic exhibition hidden inside an industrial unit at the back of a gloomy trading estate in a windswept corner of E3. A non-illuminated sheet of A4 stuck to the front door pointed to an unstaffed side entrance, then up some twisty back stairs overlooking a knifing chamber and finally into the exhibition proper. Unsurprisingly, the room was not packed.

H Forman & SonThe location was H Forman & Son, former salmon smokers of Marshgate Lane, and now the proud owners of a state-funded state-of-the-art pink factory. They inhabit an attractive fish-slice-shaped building with an upstairs function room overlooking the Olympic Stadium. Ideal for conferences, parties and exhibitions, I don't doubt, so long as the participants can actually find their way there. No delicate fishy nibbles for yesterday's visitors, but there was a nigh-untouched table laid out with juice and coffee.

This was day 2 of the consultation events for the London 2012 parklands [pdf]. Once the £9.3bn month-long Olympic jamboree has passed, this is what remains. Get it wrong, and there'll be a bleak unvisited desert between Stratford and Hackney Wick (much like things were before 2007, to be honest). But get it right and East London's legacy is a top notch greenspace increasing leisure amenities and transport infrastructure for all.

Here are a few things I discovered:
» It's planned to have most of the Olympic Park open in Spring 2013. That's only about six months after the Paralympic closing ceremony. That's impressive.
» Some of the trees that'll be planted immediately after the Olympics are already paid for and growing somewhere else. So expect some deceptively mature-ish woodland.
» The allotments will be back. There'll be more than there were before, and in two chunks (one up to the north and one down to the south).
» The new Velopark will boast a cross country circuit that crosses the River Lea, twice.
» Yes, there will be roads (and bus services) through the Park, including the re-opening of White Post Lane and Carpenters Road. A long-blocked fortress will finally open up.
» The post-Olympic Olympic Park will have 17 entrances. Planners hope that members of the local community will occasionally choose to use at least one of them.
» The last bits of the Park to open will be the swimming pool and the Olympic Stadium. It's proving nigh impossible to plan for the stadium in legacy because no politician can make up their mind what it ought to become.
» In amongst the park will be fifteen large "development platforms", upon which will be built homes and offices and flats and stuff. But only when a developer is ready to develop them, which may take a while (particularly if the recession drags on).
» The Olympic Park Legacy Company will be responsible for shaping the future until 2037. You just missed the opportunity to apply for one of their six top jobs.

I had the opportunity to have a long chat with one of the ODA workers at the heart of making this transformation happen. I had the opportunity to have a very long chat, because there was nobody else queueing behind me to have their say. A handful of other visitors came by, but there were more than enough Olympic people on hand to chat to them too. We asked questions, and looked at the display boards, and even found time to inspect an additional 'Wick Lane' project piggybacked onto the parkland consultation. But although all the staff listened, and answered, there seemed to be no urge for anybody to actually write anything down. There were "Have your say" cards to fill in, but I wasn't asked to, and I didn't. I only saw one card get popped into the box by the door, and I can't believe there were many more inside.

So I've learned a few important lessons from my week of attending local planning consultations.
i) Most public consultations are merely a box-ticking exercise. They have to be seen to be carried out, but merely slow down the inevitable.
ii) Only a minuscule proportion of the local community are ever consulted, because most people never notice there's a consultation on, and 99.9% of the rest aren't interested enough to take part.
iii) Only a minuscule proportion of the local community are ever consulted, yet their responses are deemed to be representative of the majority.
iv) The outcomes of any privately-funded consultation should always be treated with a huge pinch of salt (but probably won't be).
v) If you visit a consultation event and your opinions aren't written down, your opinions are probably going to be ignored.
vi) I go along to public consultations to find out what's going on, whereas I ought to go along to public consultations to have my say about what's going on. I'm doing it wrong.
vii) As a concerned resident who actually gives a damn, I have undue influence over the local planning process. And yet I completely fail to use it.

 Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Bromley-by-Bow TescoEvery time a planning decision is made that you disagree with, it's likely that you missed the public consultation which would have enabled you to disagree in advance. Equally, even the very best planning applications contain minor niggles that make them less than perfect, but which you could easily have pointed out if only anyone had asked. So it's been good of Tesco to ask my local community what they think of proposals to double the size of their superstore in Bromley-by-Bow, and of plans to stick a library, hotel and housing nextdoor. Sadly only a handful of the local community have so far taken up the opportunity.

There was a "Community Forum" event at Kingsley Hall last night, hosted by the Tower Hamlets planning team, at which a suited Tesco threesome were given a public opportunity to put forward their proposals. Slightly revised from those they presented in September, and which I outlined here, but this time a teensy-bit more firmed up. And another chance to screen their very impressive computer generated "fly-through", so that we could all gulp and go "blimey, really, gosh" and "oh look, they can't spell pedestrain crossing". The area facing redevelopment is to the eastern side of the A12 close to Bromley-by-Bow tube station, including the current Tesco and the industrial land between that and the railway. Everything here could look very different before the Olympics, and even more different a couple of years later.

It was illuminating to hear Tesco's representatives belittling the current Bromley-by-Bow store as badly-stocked and underperforming. Serves us all right for doing our shopping there for several years, I guess. But the new Tesco Extra, if built, will be a whopper. Almost Beckton-sized, we were told, with all the increased traffic that might bring. It'll have a "bespoke sustainable roof design" which'll let in plenty of light, and an underground car park with 480 spaces. That's only 30 spaces more than exist outside the store today, so let's hope that a larger proportion of the new shoppers arrive by public transport.

Plans are afoot for much more than just a megastore. 18 adjacent retail units for a start, hopefully selling goods that can't be undercut by Tesco nextdoor, and perfect for residents who can't be bothered to go to the new Stratford Westfield up the road. There'll be a 10 storey hotel, probably of the Travelodge/Premier Inn style, with another 10 storeys of apartments piled high on top. I can't imagine wanting to stay here myself, not unless it's a particular few weeks in mid-2012, but a cut-price room beside a Zone 2 tube station should have potent backpacker appeal. There'll be a medium-sized Idea Store, for which all credit to Tower Hamlets council for squeezing a souped-up library out of a multinational. And a gym! I cannot imagine a £500-a-year gym being popular in Bromley-by-Bow today... but the proposed future is, I suspect, rather yuppier.

Bromley-by-Bow tube stationMany attendees were interested in transport-related issues. Would there be any new bus services? No, and they were sorry TfL couldn't be persuaded to reinstate the S2. Would the subway under the A12 from the tube station be upgraded and enlarged and better lit? Yes, and about time too. How would cars approach the new district centre? Via a new "all movements junction" on the dual carriageway, which when installed would become the only traffic lights between Poplar and the Redbridge roundabout. Last night's attendees were split between delight at a non-subterranean pedestrian crossing of the A12, and concern that speeding Blackwall-bound traffic might not really want to stop.

And what of timing? If all goes to plan and the appropriate land is snapped up, construction will begin around this time next year. The new MegaTesco will then be ready to open in March 2012, just in time to sell to grab-and-go sandwiches to visiting Olympic tourists. The Idea Store would also open at this time, and the 18 neighbourhood shops, and hopefully the renovated subway. But as for the 25%-affordable housing on the old Tesco site, plus the new hotel and the new park and the new school, expect these no earlier than 2014. Drivers on the A12 need fear no new pedestrian crossing until 2014 either, because there are rules in place banning any kind of major road upgrade before the Olympics.

None of this is yet a fait accompli. Tesco are putting in their planning application at the end of the month and then Tower Hamlets will go through all the appropriate official consultation stages into the New Year. There'll then be full opportunity for local residents to inspect and interact with the proposals, including via an as-yet-unregistered website called tescoinbromleybybow.co.uk (dangerous things, as-yet-unregistered websites). Up until now the consultation has been Tesco's own, farmed out to a private liaison company who've been busy gathering feedback. I was impressed to hear that "1000 expressions of support" had been received, but less than reassured when the consultants admitted that a huge proportion of these had been obtained by approaching shoppers in the existing store. I trust that the E3 community will give Tesco's plans rather more diligent scrutiny in the months ahead, but I bet that 99% of them won't even notice until the whole megaplex is eventually underway.

 Tuesday, November 17, 2009

London 2012  Olympic update
  The View Tube

East London's latest cafe opened last week. It's in the middle of nowhere, inside a building site, up a dead end, with minimal signage and almost zero publicity. I suspect it'll do very well.

View TubeThis is the View Tube - the latest attempt to try to make the pre-Olympic Olympic Park a tourist draw. It's based inside recycled shipping containers, painted lime green, one of which has been tipped up on end to provide a far-visible tower. It's been constructed on the Greenway close to Pudding Mill Lane DLR. It's two storeys tall, with a cafe and toilets downstairs and a classroom and viewing platform upstairs. It's been designed as a community centre, despite the fact there isn't a community living anywhere nearby. And when I visited over the weekend it was unexpectedly busy. Serve coffee, it seems, and they will come. [photo]

The only publicity visible from the main drag of the Greenway was a single sign at the top of a nearby ramp reading "Cafe Open". There wasn't a single mention anywhere further away - nothing at all to lure in footfall from the surrounding area. And there was only mention of the "cafe" function - nothing about there being a viewing platform or cycle hire facilities or even some highly convenient conveniences. Whoever's in charge of this new facility needs to sort out some promotional presence sharpish, else folk will wander by without realising quite what's on offer inside.

Approach from the Greenway is past what look like 16 lock-up garages, except they're lime green and no vehicles are concealed inside. On the other side of the path there's a fine view of the Olympic Stadium unencumbered by whopping great security fences. The view is clear enough to make me think that a special cappucino-enabled viewing platform wasn't entirely necessary, but does at least mean that coffee-sippers sat outside at patio tables have something decent to gawp at.

View Tube cafeThere are two entrances, neither of them yet clearly labelled. You want the one through the patio windows (unless you've got a burning desire to go to the toilet, in which case veer right). Welcome to the cafe [photo]. I think it'll also double up as an arts space, but at the moment the emphasis is very much on snacks and drinks. The menu choice is slim but well targeted - nothing too deli-bistro and nothing too greasy-spoon. A bacon baguette with relish or a plate of Eggs Benedict, that sort of thing, plus a fresh selection of Olympic-priced cakes and pastries on the counter. The oven wasn't working properly at the weekend, so maybe the menu will ramp up once it's been fixed. A previous customer had recommended the tea ("good and strong"), but I plumped instead for a two quid hot chocolate. I should have had the tea.

A bloke in a cycle helmet wandered in to have a chat to the person in charge. He was concerned (well, more than concerned) that the extensive expanse of wooden decking around the View Tube was especially dangerous for cyclists in wet weather, and why weren't there warning signs? The three lovelyfolk in the kitchen explained that they weren't in charge, they just ran the cafe, and there was currently nobody about who could answer questions like that. Apparently it's possible to hire a bike here, or hereabouts, although there was absolutely zero information inside the building about how to do that either. But the cycle racks out the back were already being well used, so there's every chance that the VT will prove a popular two-wheeled stop-off [photo].

Upstairs I was expecting to find a viewing platform, but instead I found a classroom. A brilliant idea this, to bring in local schoolchildren to do fieldwork and make the most of this unique location. Secondary pupils get to do proper geography with a dedicated teacher, whereas primary kids are to be lumbered with investigating wildlife. This surprises me, given that the Olympic Park has been systematically stripped of almost all its wildlife over the last two years, and now even the vegetation on the nearby Greenway has been utterly and completely eradicated. Surely few locations in London are less suitable for ecological fieldwork than the middle of Europe's biggest building site. It did seem particularly pointless having posters on the classroom wall identifying several different types of UK ladybird when no UK ladybird with any sense would ever alight here.

View Tube viewing platformAssuming the classroom's not being used (don't visit midweek), you can then walk out onto the viewing platform proper. There are a few window-sized metal holes to stare through [photo], and even a roof in case it's raining. And there is indeed a fine view of the Olympic Stadium from here, unencumbered by any ludicrously high security fence, although there was a whopping big crane in the way when I visited which ruined the symmetry somewhat [photo]. There ought also to be a fine view of the Aquatic Centre with its newly completed waveform roof, except there's a massive pile of earth in the way at the moment (really, it couldn't be in a more intrusive location) so you'll see bugger all of interest there. At least the general sweeping Olympic panorama more than makes up for it - still very much a building site at present, but in 1000 days time home to a grandiose Gamestide finale.

So, one week on from opening, is the View Tube worth a visit? If you're in the area or cycling by, then yes, do pop in for a smoked salmon bagel and/or a good long stare from the upper platform. But there's nothing in the building (yet) that merits a lengthy trek from afar. I'll let you know if that changes.

The View Tube - official (but not yet terribly informative) website, plus map
Official 2012 blog videopost about the opening of the View Tube
Pretty map of the Olympic Park (on the View Tube classroom wall)
Steve's View Tube photos from last week
Londonist also visited over the weekend (with more photos)

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