diamond geezer

 Monday, May 31, 2010

Hackney Brook

www.flickr.com: my Hackney Brook gallery (30 photos altogether)

An approximate map of the Hackney Brook's course
Read all my Hackney Brook posts on one page, in the right order

Hackney Brook
4) Hackney Wick

Wick Road, which lies on the path of the former Hackney Brook, isn't a lovely street. Its one-way racetrack is bounded by a variety of apartment blocks - some tall, others merely squat - with only the occasional glimpse of anything vaguely pre-war lurking in the near distance. Partway down are several traditional pubs (plus a bookmakers) to cater for local residents' most urgent needs, although if they fancy Pukka Pies or Mighty Chicken they have to walk a little further. At the fiveway junction by the Tiger pub there used to be a brook-fed silk mill employing more then 600 local women [photo]. Brookfield Road rises here, its name and gradient the only reminders that this is a former river valley. Meanwhile Wick Road continues gently downhill, past the entrance to Victoria Park, to a mammoth flyover on the A12 [photo] [photo]. This should have been the point where a motorway from Camden joined the melee, but public protest prevented an entire swathe of residential north London from vanishing beneath concrete.

Hackney Wick village, as this once was, marks the edge of the floodplain of the River Lea [photo]. The Hackney Brook used to meander on through marshland, taking the long route down to the major river, until more direct drainage channels were dug to keep the Lea's waters under greater control (1820s map) (1830s map). The original route's hard to trace, long since obliterated by modern housing development to the north, and light industry to the south. But, as far as I can tell, the Brook first flowed northeast (through an area of pleasant council bungalows) before turning south (around Gainsborough Primary School) parallel to the Lea (past the factory on Wallis Road where the world's first plastic was manufactured). White Post Lane is the only surviving road from two centuries ago [photo], formerly crossed by a ford close to the Lord Napier pub outside Hackney Wick station [photo]. After the Hertford Canal was dug, the Brook's drainage channels passed no further south. But back in the day they'd have continued across what is now Fish Island to enter the Lea at the basin between Old Ford Lock and The Ironworks [photo]. On the opposite bank, a mere javelin's throw away, the Olympic Stadium now looms down on this once pastoral scene. From the Emirates to 2012, that's the Hackney Brook for you.

Hackney Brook
3) Hackney

The Hackney Brook ran along the western edge of Hackney Downs - a grassy recreational plateau ideal for jogging, kickabouts and general horizontal laziness. That western edge was swallowed up by the Stoke Newington Railway in the 1870s, leaving the river well-buried beneath a leafy embankment [photo]. The river/railway continued southward through an area of market gardens, where now stands Mossbourne Academy - a striking flagship academy designed by Richard Rogers. And then across Dalston Lane, where a peaceful countryside bend has evolved into a busy road junction. Two adjacent roads were formerly waterways. The lower half of Amhurst Road follows the meandering Hackney Brook, while Graham Road was originally its tributary - the Pigwell Brook. This trickled down from Kingsland Green in Dalston and passed roundabout Fassett Square - the inspiration for BBC1's EastEnders [photo]. Let's hope there's a similar lost river under Albert Square, and that someday it carries a few of the most annoying characters away.

Even the hurly burly of central Hackney was once a bucolic riverside scene (1820s map). Mare Street was then Church Street, a wigglier affair named after 13th century St Augustine's. The old tower survives*, but the scenic footbridge over the stream has been swept away by railways, progress and shopping [photo]. The river's passing indentation remains evident alongside Hackney Central station, with a definite dip in the road between Iceland and the pawnbrokers opposite [photo]. See Tesco's car park? [photo] That used to be a watercress bed - and quite frankly it'd be lovelier if it still was. The Hackney Brook then flowed north of Morning Lane (formerly Water Lane), roughly along the route of the North London Line. An army of dubious greasemonkeys populate the arches under the viaduct, while to the north lies a curious mix of council blocks, Victorian terraces and Tudor homestead [photo]. It's the council blocks that proliferate, alas, as the valley rolls on.

* St Augustine's Tower is open (for free) on the last Sunday of the month, courtesy of the Hackney Historic Buildings Trust. So that's where I went yesterday afternoon, and climbed the diddy spiral staircase to the top. There are three rooms on the way up - one to hold the pendulum, one supporting the clock mechanism and the third with the bell. But it's the view from the roof that's the most impressive. A 360° panorama around Hackney and beyond, plus the opportunity to peer down into Mare Street below and watch the little ants doing their shopping. Highly recommended. [photo] [photo] [photo] [photo]

 Sunday, May 30, 2010

Hackney Brook
2) Stoke Newington

The only visible surviving remnant of the Hackney Brook is to be found in Clissold Park. Not the curved stream segment in the southern half of the park because that's part of the New River (an artificial channel which used to bring drinking water from Hertford to Finsbury). Instead head to the northern half where you'll find two eye-shaped ornamental lakes inhabited by pondweed and waterfowl [photo] [photo]. These pools have names - the larger one's Becksmere and the smaller Runtzmere, in honour of the two civic dignitaries who presided over the park's opening in 1889. Both are currently fenced off for major drainage works and are less than scenic, but they remain the only water features any pre-19th century Londoner might recognise as part of the stream's original course.

East of Runtzmere comes Grazebrook Road - a well-named echo of the past - and on to the delights of Abney Park Cemetery. This is one of London's 'magnificent seven' garden cemeteries, with a towering chapel at its centre and countless memorials scattered between the trees all around [photo]. It's very easy to get very lost inside, although tracing the route of the Hackney Brook is rather simpler. This flowed along the northern perimeter of the cemetery, just beyond the ivybrick walls, and can be seen marked on Stanford's 1862 map as "former course of Hackney Brook - now obliterated". It emerged by the cemetery gates at the foot of Stamford Hill (another London placename explained by a lost river) [photo], crossing beneath the main road to flow through the grounds of a cluster of almshouses. Those no longer exist, nor the Weavers Arms Inn alongside, but you can always buy some white goods from Sellfridges, N16's legendary deliberately-misspelt appliance outlet. [photo]

Stoke Newington's triangular common was originally known as Cockhanger Green, for some apocryphal reason which might have involved a local brothel. The Hackney Brook flowed along the northern edge of the triangle, which later became Northwold Road, before turning south close to the ordinary suburban terrace where Marc Bolan spent his childhood years [photo]. There are plenty of ordinary suburban terraces on the slopes of Shacklewell below, with rather less famous residents, although it's quite a desirable patch all the same. The ex-river won't be heading anywhere quite so classy down its lower course.

Hackney Brook
1) Holloway/Highbury

Did I ever mention how hard it is to track down a river that isn't there? Take the headwaters of the Hackney Brook as a case in point. They're not in Hackney, they're in Islington, but precisely where is a bit of mystery. I Googled for maps, and visited the local library, and scrawled a line on an A-Z which I thought best fitted the information I'd found. Then I headed up to Holloway to wander the modern landscape with my camera, and confirmed that the contours below Mercers Road sloped in an appropriate direction. But since then I've Googled again and found a map which suggests the top of the river was to the west of Finsbury Park station, somewhere around Tollington Place. Might be, might not, but no amount of field trips to the area will ever confirm one way or the other. So all I can say is that there used to be a tiny stream parallel to the Holloway and Hornsey Roads, on one side or the other, probably, near enough. And there most definitely isn't any more. [photo]

The river's path becomes a little clearer somewhere rather famous, around Arsenal's Highbury stadia. If you've ever streamed out of the front of the Emirates and seen a railway bridge off to your left, know that the Hackney Brook used to flow on the other side of that. Then to the north of the stadium proper [photo], approximately underneath the northern tip of the Ashburton Triangle flats [photo]. More railways to cross [photo], and then round the back of Arsenal tube station [photo] through the nature reserve at Gillespie Park. This is a delightful green backwater, lorded over by an ecology centre, created on the site of former railway sidings. The larger pond is artificial, not brook-filled, and a very peaceful place to sit and watch the reed-loving wildlife. [photo]

Go back a few centuries and the land to the south of the stream was pasture known as Long Mead. Today it's better known as the site of Highbury Stadium. Arsenal's North Stand was the closest to the old riverbanks, although that's now been replaced by characterless newbuild flats (and the only local water feature is a series of bubble tanks on the shared lawn where the pitch used to be). The rest of Long Mead disappeared under Victorian housing, with the Hackney Brook culverted and Gillespie Road laid in its place. The stream crossed the Blackstock Road at the dogleg where the Arsenal Tavern stands [photo] - a location still obviously at the foot of a valley slope. And then along Mountgrove Road (home to all your Sylvanian Family needs), where the Hackney Brook finally passed from Islington into the borough after which it was named.

 Saturday, May 29, 2010

Hackney Brook

All of the other lost rivers I'm writing about in this series flow into the Thames. This one's different - it flows into the Lea. Also atypically, it flows eastwards. Utterly typically, it's completely vanished. OK, so there are a couple of telltale fluvial remnants along the way, but not many, and very few that'd make you go "oh blimey, there really did used to be a river here". Things were very different back when Queen Victoria came to the throne, with a considerable stream wending its way round Stoke Newington and through the centre of rural Hackney. But pressure to build housing saw the river rapidly buried, some of it diverted into Bazalgette's Northern Outfall Sewer, and within a generation all brookside vistas had vanished.

An acknowledged expert on the Hackney Brook is Iain Sinclair, London's very own semi-impenetrable narrator. Should you own a copy of his Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire you'll know that the penultimate chapter is devoted to the borough's lost river. The text meanders rather, as is Sinclair's way, generating atmosphere rather than revealing anything of substance. But look more carefully at the map on the book's cover and you'll spot a pale blue line threading down from top left to bottom right. That's the Hackney Brook, that is - apart the bottom right section which heads in completely the wrong direction. It definitely flowed via Hackney Wick, not Well Street Common, for which geographical inaccuracy I blame the good man's illustrator.

Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire (Penguin) (Amazon)
The book's cover as a poster (but not in quite good-enough resolution)

Water - a Sony Award-winning Hackney Podcast featuring Iain following the route of the Hackney Brook (oh this is good)
Iain's talk - The Hackney Brook and Other North West Passages (listen, or read the transcript)
Podcast from Resonance FM - includes Iain tracing the Brook's route with a dowser

That's the problem with Lost Rivers - you can't even trust what you read about them in books, because so much remains hearsay and supposition. But I'm going to give it a try here. From Holloway to Hackney, via two football stadia, several parks, a cemetery and a Tesco car park. Some of the river's route remains admittedly woolly, particularly in the upper reaches on the slopes of north Islington and through the shifting marshland of Hackney Wick. But its path through most the London borough of Hackney is rather better documented, and the dips across Stoke Newington High Street and Mare Street are pretty obvious once you think to look. Plus there is one spot where you can still say "oh blimey, there really did used to be a river here". A Brook in Hackney. Who'd have thought?

An approximate map of the Hackney Brook's course (my best Google map attempt)

The Hackney Brook on Wikipedia (it's not much, but it'll have to do)
Map of the Hackney Brook (and the Lea Valley) (from 1611)
Cary's London map of 1837 (Hackney) (Hackney Wick)
Sketch Plan of the Hackney Brook, Compiled by E. Bolus (a zoomable art-print)
North London drainage basins (the Hackney Brook's is in blue) (pdf map)

» Previous rivers in this series: Westbourne, Falcon Brook, Counters Creek, Neckinger

 Friday, May 28, 2010

Number of comments on this blog in May
May 2003 233
May 2004 356
May 2005 510
May 2006 484
May 2007 702
May 2008 595
May 2009 507
May 2010 289

Or, to put it another way...

Number of visitors per comment
May 200318
May 200420
May 2005 24
May 2006 49
May 2007 43
May 2008 52
May 2009 54
May 2010 108

Not complaining.
Just saying.
Things change.

 Thursday, May 27, 2010

Dear ,

I'm the new Minister In Charge Of Scissors, and I'm writing to thank you for all the hard work that you do. The service which you provide for the community is of the highest quality, and I want to say how much we all value this. Social cohesion and community wellbeing are greatly increased through your unsung endeavours. Well done.

Regrettably, I'm also writing with news of your imminent redundancy. I'm sorry, but there simply isn't enough money left to keep your open. I'm closing it, as soon as is humanly possible, thereby making you surplus to requirements. In these troubled times your service is a luxury, not a necessity, and it must go. But don't worry. You'll be paying the ultimate price for the sake of the greater good of the country. Chin up.

I'd like to point out that the current economic disaster is not my fault. It's totally the fault of the previous administration, who plunged the country deep into debt by bailing out the banks with billions of pounds of public money. In addition, it appears that they were also wasting money funding your , money which we can now ill afford. I cannot squeeze money out of our banks, as these are crucial to the recovery of our nation. But I must sacrifice your , because every little cut to the bloated public sector adds up. Your financial, vocational and emotional loss will help to save jobs for the rest of us.

Don't expect to enjoy a new life of leisure in the dole queue. I've alerted the staff in your local job centre to your plight, and they'll be expecting you to check in on the first day after your leaving party. Be prepared to join a long queue, because a lot of other people from the , the and the will be turning up at the same time. And don't think of sleeping in late, or skiving off, because Coalition Britain hates unemployment scroungers and we don't pay them any benefits.

I apologise that there are unlikely to be any suitable jobs available for you in the near future. It's your own fault for doing an arts degree, obviously, whereas if you'd studied economics you could have a directorship and a nice car by now. Alas the country can't afford to have you sitting around doing nothing, so I'll be enrolling you in our new Community Volunteer Programme with immediate effect. Expect to be out litter-picking, or painting over graffiti, or mowing old people's lawns, in payback for the pittance we'll be paying you as dole-scum.

Alternatively, I note that there may be a vacancy in your local area for a . There's going to be a big empty building in the town centre which used to be a , and it'll need some volunteers to run it. Your skillset has a perfect overlap with the selection criteria required, so you'd be an ideal candidate for this role.

Please note that this would be a non wealth-creating post, so there'd be no salary attached. Voluntary work is its own reward, I'm sure you'll agree, so we'd be paying you nothing. But the community gets its back and no taxpayer money is wasted, so it's the ideal plan. Except for you, sorry.

Thank you, goodbye, and see you again later.

Yours cuttingly,

Edward S Hands
Minister In Charge Of Scissors

 Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Postcards from Overground South

Penge - High Street
Penge TriangleI had, somehow, never been to Penge before. I'd got as far as Crystal Palace Park at the top of the town, but never ducked below the railway viaduct to explore the main drag. Many a preconception of Penge is conjured up by its unattractive name, Celtic in origin, even though nothing round here older than Victorian. Homebase is rather more recent than that. It took a quarter of a mile before I bumped into anything remotely photogenic, in this case the elegant Tudor-style almshouses in Waterman's Square. Alongside is the Penge Triangle - nothing paranormal but a three sided road junction with an perspex-winged clocktower in the centre. Sorry, I've made that sound far more interesting than it actually is (think more bleak bus-stand in the middle of a cobbled roundabout). Ditto the Crooked Billet nextdoor, allegedly Penge's oldest pub but rebuilt postwar with no redeeming heritage features whatsoever. And then a lot of shops, making this the kind of High Street where there used to be an Art Deco cinema but now there's a McDonalds. I could have continued as far as Beckenham, but I didn't feel I'd uncover anything any more exciting. I wonder what I missed.
Penge photo: Sorry, I cheated and went back to the Penge end of Crystal Palace Park to snap some fake geology instead.
Penge by Brendan: yesterday's location report from Londonist

Anerley - South Norwood Lake
Yes, I know, South Norwood Lake is really in South Norwood. But the water's edge is closer to Anerley station than to South Norwood, as the crow flies if not on foot, so I'm referencing it here.
The Croydon Canal needed two reservoirs to keep its waters topped up, and one of these was dug on Norwood Common. When the canal closed, and most of the rest disappeared under the railway, this reservoir survived as a place for angling and picknicking. 160 years later, not much has changed. There's even a heritage sign by the Woodvale entrance reminding fishermen that a season ticket costs thirty shillings, and that bronze bream shorter than twelve inches must be returned to the water. The latest leisure opportunity at the lake is sailing, even if only smaller yachts can be accommodated. The Croydon Sailing Club meet here - a friendly-looking amateur bunch who on Sunday could be found lounging outside their hut-like HQ because the waters were becalmed. Further round the reservoir I watched as a Dad and his two small kids trampled across the shrubbery to get a closer view of some waterfowl. And throughout my visit, it being Pentecost, the sound of joyful singing echoed across the lake from the evangelists holed up in the Clubhouse. A charming spot and, I suspect, a bit of a local secret.
Anerley photo: Yachts reflecting on the lake
Anerley fact: Anerley allegedly got its name because, when the railways came, there was 'anerley' one house here.

South Norwood - Clock Tower
Whilst South Norwood was once home to such luminaries as DH Lawrence and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the town chooses instead to bring to prominence a rather less well-known former resident. Walk out of the railway station and a plaque welcomes you to "South Norwood, home of inventor, engineer and philanthropist William Stanley (1829-1909)". No, me neither. A few hundred yards further on is the town's ornate iron clocktower, topped off with a gleaming weather vane, which was erected to commemorate Mr Stanley's Golden Wedding. I had to look him up when I got home to find out why he's so much loved around these parts. It turns out that William was very big in the world of technical drawing, back in the days when you couldn't get a computer to design your buildings and artefacts in milliseconds. He made his fortune as an engineer creating mathematical instruments such as beam compasses and proportional dividers, later diversifying into pantographs and surveying instruments. Pinpoint accuracy in a wooden box, essentially, and all churned out from a factory in Belgrave Road. William was generous with his money, back in the days when even a five-figure sum made you look magnanimous, and the community looked upon him with gratitude. Alas history's not been kind to his legacy over the last few years. His company went bust in 1999. His self-built house was knocked down in 2006 before English Heritage could list it. And his Stanley Technical School was rebranded as an academy in 2007 and renamed after a completely different local philanthropist. Thank goodness his cast-iron clocktower survives, no doubt lovingly constructed using the great man's finest precision instruments.
South Norwood photo: The clocktower (obviously)
South Norwood website: Virtual Norwood

West Croydon
Both of Croydon's tourist information centres close on Sundays.
And if they can't be bothered, then neither can I.

 Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Postcards from Overground South

Brockley - Hilly Fields
When summer strikes, head to the hills. In Brockley - the only London suburb which sounds like a vegetable - that means Hilly Fields. A grassy bulge, reaching the giddy height of 50 metres above sea level, to which the local population are irresistibly drawn on a sunny day. There's a new playground for a start, where the kids can let off steam climbing on the timberframe or spinning in the sand. For those too young to even toddle, a parental pram-push round the perimeter has great appeal. Ice cream from the van, a kickabout on the slopes, or simply flop on the grass with the weekend papers until your skin burns red. It could be any London park, were it not for the panorama across town and the Millennial stone circle on the southeastern flank. When Brockley comes out to sizzle, somehow a hump with a view will always have the edge.
Brockley photo: Prams on the Hill
Brockley blog: the essential Brockley Central
Brockley Max: Arts festival starting next weekend. Features 'Hacienda on the Hill' on 5th June, and the delightfully bonkers 'Boxwalks on Roads in Brockley Beginning with B'.
Brockley psychedelia: Hilly Fields, by Nick Nicely (luvvit)

Honor Oak Park - The Oak of Honor
There is, or rather was, a famous tree in Honor Oak. Not just your normal tree, but a tree by royal appointment. Queen Elizabeth I came by this way with her courtiers on May Day 1602, and stopped for a picnic beneath the majestic oak on top of One Tree Hill. Presumably there was only the one tree at the time, but there are hundreds up and roundabout today. A delightful woodland walk ascends from Brenchley Gardens, up which you're more likely to see a squirrel than another human being. It's a tiring ascent - always a climb round one more corner than you're expecting - which makes it all the more impressive that a 67-year-old monarch ever got up to the top. Liz would have had an excellent view across Tudor London, including the pre-dome St Paul's Cathedral, although she'd not have recognised the City skyscraper cluster that treats modern visitors.
view from One Tree Hill
Her shady hilltop tree became known as the Oak of Honor, thereby giving its name to the locality. But the current oak is a 1905 replacement, planted by the Chairman of the Roads and Public Gardens Committee of the Camberwell Borough Council, and no royalty's been back for a picnic since.
Honor Oak photo: The Oak of Honor, May 2010
Honor Oak other stuff: ...or you could just go shopping.

Forest Hill - David's Road mural
Forest Hill photo: Here's that towpath mural I mentioned in Sunday's post about the Croydon Canal
Forest Hill blog: The Forest Hill Society

Sydenham - Lawrie Park Road
One of Sydenham's finer avenues, off the main drag but still close to the station, is Lawrie Park Road. It served the more prestigious suburbanites when the railways came, and its villas were just the sort of place where a celebrity cricketer might hang out. At number 7 lived Victorian beardy batsman William Gilbert Grace, better known by his initials W G. He was practising as a doctor at the time, welcoming the sick of the parish to feel the end of his stethoscope, although taking part in local sport interested him far more. Grace was a founder member of the London County Cricket Club who played first class cricket at Crystal Palace for five seasons at the turn of the century. He was also rather partial to lawn green bowls, which he practised more on retirement up the road in Mottingham. His Sydenham residence has been replaced by a bland residential block, enlivened only by a plaque and the streetname "Cricketer's Walk" alongside. The rest of the street retains its charm, but not its Grace.
Sydenham photo: Cricketers Walk, and its small WG Grace plaque
Sydenham art: Lawrie Park Avenue, as painted by Pissaro in 1871, now hangs in the National Gallery.
Sydenham website: Sydenham Town, for all things SE26

Crystal Palace - Dinosaur Court
Crystal Palace photo: Two non-scary Jurassic crocodiles
Crystal Palace Park: map / dinosaurs / official site

 Monday, May 24, 2010

On Saturday I travelled from Whitechapel to Forest Hill. I had to change trains.
On Sunday I travelled from Whitechapel to Forest Hill. I didn't have to change trains.
And Saturday's journey was quicker. Hurrah for the new London Overground.

Forest Hill welcomes London OvergroundYesterday was the first day of through traffic on the extended East London Line (yes yes yes, I know you know this). Communities on either side of the Thames were suddenly joined together via one train rather than two. From Dalston to Croydon, the entrances to Overground stations were bedecked by orange and white balloons. And there were a few freebies for passengers to celebrate.

Ten thousand complimentary tickets were being given out, in commemorative plastic wallets, so long as you got to a station before its allocation ran out. I had no luck at Whitechapel, I was apparently too early, but eventually collected one from a smiling member of staff at Forest Hill. Ooh lovely, there was a Zone 1-6 travelcard inside, which mean I could have whizzed off to Upminster or Uxbridge if I'd felt the urge. But oh no, not when there were corners of Penge and South Norwood I had yet to explore.

The Overground had been working perfectly well on Saturday, as far as it went, but Sunday morning at Whitechapel was another matter. The next train indicator1 on the southbound platform was blank, then showed three completely different next trains over the space of two minutes. The member of staff charged with overseeing the platform sighed2, and attempted to consult her timetable3, and failed.
1: At least the next train indicator on the southbound platform is visible. No such luck on the northbound platform. Here the next train indicator has been placed midway between the two staircases coming down from the District line, and had been perfectly visible for weeks. Alas two newly-placed exit signs now sandwich the information board on either side, so step away and the electronic indicator completely disappears. When's the next train due? 90% of the platform has no idea. Not even the uniformed member of staff, who's reduced to listening to the audio announcements like the rest of us. TfL's obstructive cretins have been out again, and I continue to despair at their non-joined-up thinking.

2: Why are there so many staff on London Overground stations. What exactly do they all do? In particular, why does each platform appear to have its own uniformed attendant, armed with a megaphone, at all times? I mean, there's no need to announce the next train because a disembodied female voice does that anyway. And there's usually no need to engage in customer control because the platforms at most stations are generally quite empty. Instead these folk tend to stand around looking a bit lost, or maybe chatting to their opposite number on the other side of the tracks. Don't get me wrong, it's lovely for us passengers to have a human being to engage with in case of need, and it's great to see so many people with new jobs they clearly care about. But, in this age of austerity, the ELL has a definite whiff of unnecessary over-staffing.

3: The new timetable booklet's a bit dumbed down, isn't it? Between Dalston and Surrey Quays only first and last trains are given, because an 'every five minutes' service is deemed to need nothing more. Only the branches south of Surrey Quays get a full printed timetable. That's great if you're travelling north from New Cross or Croydon, because you can avoid a fifteen minute wait between trains. But it's useless if you're travelling the other way, say from Hoxton to Crystal Palace, because you have no idea when to turn up. A thinner timetable may cost less to print, but for southbound travel it's a false economy.
Two different tribes of people were out on the Overground yesterday. The first were residents of southeast London come to experience the new trains on their network. How new they looked, compared to the 20th century carriages they were used to. And what strange destinations they linked to. Four screeching girls stared at the contorted wiggly route map and opened their eyes to far distant possibilities. A bloke in a pink shirt used his mobile to ring a friend and explain how exciting the new service was "...except the line seems to go nowhere you'd actually want to go." These people are used to going straight into London Bridge, so Whitechapel and Shoreditch must be a bit of a let down.

And the second tribe were residents of north and east London travelling in the opposite direction. What were these fabled southern lands to which they were suddenly connected? They brought their three-quarter length shorts, and their bikes, and set off in search of exciting things to do. It being a gorgeous day, many decided to head to the only place they'd heard of which wasn't Croydon, and took the branchline into Crystal Palace. Crowds of merrymakers poured off the train into the cavernous Victorian building - which was particularly impressive for a service that didn't even run on Sundays last week. [photo]

From what I saw yesterday, the new southern Overground is a hit already. Maybe some of that was down to the free tickets, but if you can fill trains on a Sunday afternoon then your railway line has a future. All things considered this hasn't been an expensive project for TfL, generally making better use of infrastructure that was there already, and rebranding with a vengeance. But it just goes to show, stick nine stations on the tube map and suddenly everybody wants to go there. We north Londoners should have realised sooner.

 Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Croydon Canal / London Overground South

The southern extension of the East London Line, which reopens today, has an unexpected ancestor. Two centuries before yellow-fronted Class 378s made their way from West Croydon to New Cross Gate, a completely different form of transport followed almost exactly the same route. Narrowboats pulled by horses passed this way, weaving through long-gone fields to the southeast of London. This was the Croydon Canal, opened in 1809, and whose nine miles are now mostly railtrack and housing. People of Brockley, Sydenham and Penge, your suburban dreams owe everything to the failure of this rural waterway. Now conveniently marked on the tube map in orange for all to see.

New Cross Gate stationThe Croydon Canal branched off from the Grand Surrey Canal roughly where the East London line crosses Surrey Canal Road today. Let's hope money is finally found to erect a station here, as it would be only right and proper for the canal to earn a namecheck on the railway's destination boards. From here it headed through the new ELL depot towards New Cross Gate station (platforms 4 and 5), back in the days when this area was known as the village of Hatcham [map]. An astonishing flight of locks kicked off here, 26 of them in total, gradually raising the level of the channel as it passed south beyond the New Cross road. The greatest concentration of locks was between Brockley and Honor Oak Park - sixteen of them in the short distance now travelled from one station to the next. They weren't big locks either, which rather restricted the size of the boats which could pass this way, and ultimately led to the canal's unprofitability.

Once elevated to the 161 foot contour, the Croydon Canal became a leisurely meander with impressive views across the surrounding countryside. One surviving patch of canalside woodland is the Garthorne Road Nature Reserve (alas firmly locked by Lewisham Council to keep out pestilent homo sapiens). The canal wiggled rather more than the current railway, so in Forest Hill for example it passed to the west of the station. David's Road has an elevated pavement, said to be the height of the original towpath, on the wall of which is a modern tiled mural depicting a barge beneath a hump-backed bridge [photo]. Halfway between Forest Hill and Sydenham a tiny scrap of the Croydon Canal survives. It's in Dacres Wood, on the bend of Dacres Road, and is again locked away in a nature reserve where only schoolkids with clipboards get to pond-dip in the marshy waters.

Further south, past Sydenham Bridge, boats used to tie up at Penge Wharf. Don't go looking for either today. Rather more glamorous were the Anerley Tea Gardens, to which middle class Londoners once came for a Sunday cuppa. The railway had overtaken the canal by this point, but an old section remained allowing visitors to go pleasure boating. The tearooms were replaced by a rather-too-big pub called the Anerley Arms, and middle-class Londoners no longer have to be trained in, they live here.

Croydon Canal in Betts ParkAnd it's in Anerley that the Croydon Canal absolutely definitely still exists. Alongside Betts Park are a couple of hundred metres of artificial water which have somehow never quite been swallowed up. But they were, alas, 'modernised' in the 1930s from a characterful reedy stretch to a bland concrete channel. A blocky housing development on the western bank merely drags the tone down further. At least the flats can be obscured by looking down from the Anerley Road, where there's also a plaque with a map which reveals how the canal carved its way through the area. Squint carefully, and ignore the ducks waddling in stagnant sludge below, and you could almost be back in the 19th century. [view SW] [view NE]

Onward. South Norwood Lake, now an anglers' haunt, used to be a reservoir to keep the Croydon Canal topped up. Towpath Way, east of the Selhurst railway depot, is a very modern row of houses along the line of the old canal. And West Croydon station was built on the site of the goods basin where the canal terminated. Because, like I said, it wasn't a very good canal. Within three decades of opening it had sold out to the fledgling London & Croydon Railway Company, who filled and chopped and straightened the old waterway to create commuter-friendly tracks from New Cross to Croydon. Tracks which are, as of this morning, rebranded under the London Overground banner. Take the train, and follow the canal.

If you'd like to find out lots more about the Croydon Canal, look here...
20 pages of then and now, from London Canals (really, everything you could possibly need to know) (plus maps)
A 34-slide presentation from a talk you'll wish you'd heard (isn't the internet great?)
The Forest Hill Society have written a brief history
Lots of pictures and illustrations on the Sydenham Town Forum
Will Greenwood's put together an annotated Google map which tracks the canal's precise route (what more could you need?)

 Saturday, May 22, 2010

Whoever came up with this idea deserves a round of applause. And also a simultaneous slap in the face.
CultureLine is a group of 10 museums and galleries which can be found along the length of the London Overground East London extension, which opens officially on Sunday 23 May 2010. The CultureLine has created a corridor of exciting destinations that will be a real draw for visitors, and which offers huge scope for many diverse itineraries that will appeal to a wide range of people.
What a great way to brand together some of east and south London's lesser known museums and galleries to bring them to the attention of the wider public and boost visitor numbers. But what a shameless attempt to promote certain institutions which are actually nowhere near the East London line at all.

Here's my report on the ten - almost all of which I've visited. Are they worth going to? Or are the curators pushing their luck?

Hackney Museum (Dalston Junction station??): CultureLine kicks off with an impostor. It's a full mile from Dalston Junction to Hackney Museum, which is actually located hugely closer to Hackney Central (obviously). A room under the main library houses various displays about the London Borough of Hackney - with a slight nod towards tales of immigration, but also a walk-in pie and mash shop tucked away at the back. A bit council, a bit worthy, but not bad. [I've been]

Geffrye Museum (Hoxton station): Probably the London museum I visit most often, with its delightful collection of historical interiors. A string of almshouses containing period rooms, plus an ever-changing domestic exhibition in the modern extension at the end. It's so close to Hoxton station that you can peer down into the ornamental garden from the northbound platform. Alas, no entrance from the station side yet. [I've been]

Wesley's Chapel (Shoreditch High Street station??): No no no, the nearest station to Wesley's Chapel is most definitely Old Street. Take the Overground and it's a none-too obvious backstreet trek to this City-side place of worship, which houses the UK's Museum of Methodism in the crypt. A bit niche, a bit low-key, but endearingly different. [I've been]

The Royal London Museum (Whitechapel station): My local hospital's museum tells a stirring story stretching back more than 250 years. It's very small, so don't expect to linger long. And it's only open Tuesday to Friday, 10am-4:30pm. But at least it's near the station. [I've been]

Whitechapel Gallery (Whitechapel station??): Absolutely not. The Whitechapel gallery is very firmly attached to Aldgate East station. It's a fine and cutting edge gallery though... most of the time, apart from last time I went, which must have been between exhibitions because almost everything was closed except the cafe. But people of South London, do come. [I've been]

The Women's Library (Whitechapel station??): Whoever compiled this list clearly failed in Geography. The Women's Library is actually closer to Shoreditch High Street than to Whitechapel station (which isn't that close at all). This is the only one of the listed ten that I haven't visited. How depressingly male of me.

Brunel Museum (Rotherhithe station): The East London line runs through the oldest under-river tunnel in the world - an engineering first celebrated in Brunel's old engine house. Without their bravery and foresight, the people of Penge would never be able to ride to Hoxton as from tomorrow. Marc and Isambard, we salute you. [I've been]

[There then follow five consecutive stations with no nearby museums at all, so don't get off]

Horniman Museum (Forest Hill station): Ah, the eclectic Horniman, home to preserved beasties, musical instruments and ethnic treasures. Home too to a rather dinky new aquarium, and a very badly stuffed walrus. The surrounding gardens are lovely, and there are fine views from the hilltop across London. And all this less than half a mile from the station. Citizens of North London, you're in for a real treat. [I've been]

Crystal Palace Museum (Crystal Palace station): It took me three attempts before I found this place open. But I enjoyed my brisk look round a room of Palatial mementoes, and learnt plenty about all the entertainments this site used to support. Come visit at a weekend and lend the willing volunteers your support, then hang around and enjoy the park afterwards. [I've been]

Museum of Croydon (West Croydon station): This remains the only London museum I've ever been kicked out of. There weren't enough staff to keep the rest of the Clocktower complex running, apparently, which suggests this modern backroom isn't the council's top priority. Don't come all the way down to Zone 5 specially. [I've been]

 Friday, May 21, 2010

The East London Line opens properly on Sunday - not just the northern bit up to Dalston but also all the way south past New Cross Gate. Which means yet another new tube map. Available to pick up in stations from today, should you be lucky enough to find a copy. What gives?

A new Overground-enabled tube map is on the loose, and you'll find a copy on the TfL website [gif] [pdf].

tube map May 2010Suddenly, southeast London sort-of exists. This is the first time that the tube map has ever ventured into Bromley or Croydon, and the first time it's ever nudged further south than Morden. That's got to be a good thing. There are nine fresh stations altogether, from Brockley all the way down to Crystal Palace and West Croydon. None of these stations is actually new, of course, they've merely been swallowed up by a different rail line. But the Overground, like the DLR, is given special dispensation to appear on the "tube map" even though it's not part of the tube network. Maybe one day Croydon's trams will be afforded the same honour, and south London will gain an even more visible presence on the tube map. Or maybe that would look unacceptably messy.

The newly-added line has been tweaked and squished to fit appropriately onto the map. In real life it's not a perfect straight line down from Dalston to New Cross, nor from New Cross Gate to West Croydon, whatever the route looks like on the diagram. The gaps between the stations are wildly unrealistic too. New Cross Gate to Brockley may look like it's a far longer journey than Anerley to Norwood Junction, whereas in fact the reverse is geographically true. Meanwhile Crystal Palace station actually lies about halfway between Penge West and Anerley, rather than stuck out quite as far as the tube map shows. This unnecessary ugliness is due to the need to depict travelcard zones, and an unwritten rule that their boundaries shouldn't bend too much. There are a heck of a lot of Zone 2 stations on the southern DLR, so the new Overground extension has to be squashed down right to the bottom of the map to compensate. Shoukd you want to see a better-proportioned version, check out TfL's black and white large print tube map instead [pdf]. Here are echoes of last September's revolutionary (and therefore unacceptable) tube map, showing what an aesthetic difference zonelessness can make. The new southern Overground isn't unique in being irregularly spaced, of course. There are plenty of similar examples elsewhere on the diagram. But given that it crosses an otherwise empty part of the map, with no interchanges whatsoever, it's only blinkered design rules that are creating this deformation.

Elsewhere on the May 2010 map, as I mentioned last month, little has changed. But there are six additional wheelchair blobs and also several extra red daggers - whose overuse continues to disfigure the map in an entirely impractical way. TfL's map designers have decreed that no text other than station names may appear on the map, which is great. But they've also continued to ban "rush hour only" services from being shown by a broken line, which is why the central Northern line remains a blade-splattered mess. The design team could have added a short section of dashed line at Kennington to show that off-peak services on the Charing Cross branch terminate here, just like they do on the strip maps in tube carriages. But no, instead we're lumbered with a total of seven ill-aligned daggers through the heart of central London, which readers are supposed to cross-reference to a long list of tiny writing down the side of the map, to discover a line break that's of trivially little consequence. Why? Of course dashed lines wouldn't look good everywhere on the map. They'd be fine at Mill Hill East and Chesham, but they'd turn Rayners Lane to Uxbridge and the Chigwell Loop into nasty visual distractions. See, that's what happens when you pick one rule for "tube service irregularities" and stick to it slavishly - it doesn't look good everywhere.

Expect one more tube map before the year is out, showing the new DLR extension from Canning Town up to Stratford International. One more next year when the two Overground lines at Dalston are joined together, and one more in 2012 when the orbital railway is finally completed round to Clapham Junction. But expect publication to slow down after that, because there's no more money in the kitty for fresh tube-mappable stations until probably-Crossrail in maybe-2017. In the meantime just rejoice that, from Sunday, you'll be able to get from Penge to Haggerston without changing trains. It's what London has been crying out for. On the map at last.

There's also a new tube map cover, by Barbara Kruger. I could have done that, and so could you, if they'd asked.
Ten thousand free tickets are up for grabs along the line on Sunday, if you're quick.
Ian reminds us that the rest of the Overground network is seriously decimated on Sunday.
If you want to view the complete East London line timetable, it's a bit complicated but it's here [pdf]

 Thursday, May 20, 2010

Out of a Rainbow [based on a not-true story]

A great rainbow arcs over Stratford.

And down onto a giant steel fence where they're attaching the last razorwire surrounding the Olympic Stadium.

It's George's last day working on the 2012 site. Just enough time to steal two of the security cameras before he goes. They'll not be missed, because nobody'll notice two less cameras out of ten thousand. He slips them into his rucksack, hidden under a hi-vis jacket, and heads home. Should get a nice little earner for these two on the scrap metal market.

George dumps the two cameras in his garage. They can go on eBay later, he thinks, along with the lead he nicked off the church roof last week. And then he opens ten cans of lager and falls comatose onto the sofa.

A sprinkling of rainbow fairydust brings the two cameras to life, because this is a children's story innit. Arms and legs grow from the silver casing, plus a mysterious pointy helmet each and some coloured splodges. These look like the sort of cartoon creatures a focus group might create, assuming they believed a boggle-eyed cyclops was somehow endearing.

George's children take the camera monsters up to their bedroom and switch them on. See the big eyes swivel. See the red lights flash. Playtime is about to begin.
Hello, I'm Wembley, the official mascot for the London 2012 Olympic Games! My name is inspired by a north London suburb where the Games were held in 1948. Now it's got a really awful pitch, and is surrounded by a trading estate where you can buy carpets. The shape of the front of my head is based on the shape of a TV screen. My eye is a camera lens, capturing everything I see as I go. There's almost nothing I like more than making new friends, and then recording everything they do to use in evidence against them. I can't wait to meet as many people as possible in 2012, and then to check them all off against a visual database of known terrorists. I hope I'll not be ticking you off, and that you'll be my friend too?

Hi, I'm Westfield, the official mascot for the London 2012 Paralympic Games! My name is inspired by a west London shopping mall close to where the Games were held in 1908. Today the One Show is filmed on the actual site, but I'm named after the shops because the BBC couldn't offer as much money in sponsorship. My eye is a camera lens, capturing everything I see as I go. In my hands there are four carrier bags - recyclable of course. I'm on a mission to be the best I can possibly be. In fact I'm completely obsessed by trying to beat my personal best, and I get really depressed if I don't come top in everything. Because there's a moral to be learnt from the Olympics, which is that only three people get prizes and the other seven billion of us are all failures.
And then suddenly the rainbow is back (even though it's night-time and that's physically impossible). Wembley and Westfield's journey is just beginning. So many adventures to have. So many fat primary-age schoolchildren to inspire. So many plush cuddly toys and souvenir baseball caps to sell. And we'll meet them again and again in the run-up to London 2012. They'll be there. You'll be there. The whole collection of mascot-related souvenirs will be there. Please buy a one-eyed snake alien. And don't laugh.

 Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Dear Taxpayer,

Since taking our seats at the heart of Government, the full scale of Labour's financial deception has become clear. Scandalous budgetary practice has been rampant, leaving a minefield of ticking economic timebombs across Whitehall. New ministers have been shocked to discover that our country's precious reserves have been mishandled by the former guardians of the public purse. This scandalous extravagance cannot be allowed to continue. We must cut unnecessary government waste, and we must cut it now.

One particularly shameless example has tumbled out of the closet in East London - a little known redevelopment project called "The Olympics". This is a major construction programme project - signed, sealed and part-delivered under the previous regime - whose breadth and scale is quite shocking. A blatant attempt to curry electoral favour across a cluster of Labour-leaning constituencies. A brief sporting meet-up that's essentially little more than a glorified TV talent show. And all kicking off in only 800 days time.

We were shocked to discover that nearly ten billion pounds of taxpayers money has been committed to these shenanigans by the previous administration. Your hard-earned money has been locked-up, in secret, by deceitful ministers colluding with evil civil servants. We must act with force to derail this squandering partisan gravy train.

Olympic Stadium May 2010

A giant stadium is being built, hidden away in the crime-ridden wastelands of Stratford. Who knew? Apparently it'll only be used for a fortnight, mostly by foreigners, and then mothballed. A more scandalous waste of Treasury funds it is hard to imagine. How many full time nursing posts could this money pay for? What use is this facility to hard-working families in Middle England? How does this help our Heroes in Afghanistan?

And there's more. Rummaging around in our predecessor's filing cabinet has revealed further London locations where profligate building projects are underway. A fancy swimming pool constructed nowhere near where anybody lives. The desecration of a World Heritage lawn in Greenwich. A shooting gallery in Woolwich glorifying big guns in front of impressionable teenagers. It's political correctness gone mad.

Promoting ancient Greek idealism during an era of budgetary squeeze makes no sense whatsoever. And yet that's the shameful financial situation which the New Coalition has inherited. Labour has handcuffed the country to irreversible spending commitments, and signed us all up to a prolonged spell of televised recreational socialism. Quite frankly we're not surprised to discover that the BBC is involved.

So steel yourself for immediate Olympic cuts. We're already in negotiations with the organising committee, and we're going to force them to slash their budgets wherever possible. We're cancelling the handball, and any other pointless sports dominated by Europe. We're going to ask athletes to pay market rates for bed and breakfast, because it's only fair. We're trimming half a kilometre off the 1500m to save on wear and tear. We're shifting all broadcasting to Sky HD to bring in extra subscription money. We're getting a refund on the official 2012 logo and replacing it by a Union Jack with a bulldog in the middle. That disabled fortnight, we're cancelling it. And all that parkland legacy rubbish, no way, because the rest of the country shouldn't have to pay to make East Londoners' leisure time a bit prettier.

Let the austerity Games of 1948 be our new funding model. We must look to the future with fresh hope and far fewer lunatic spending commitments. And I promise we'll never successfully bid for anything like this ever again.

Yours responsibly,
The Sports Minister

 Tuesday, May 18, 2010

New Bus for BowA New Bus For London

+ It's lovely, isn't it?
- It's expensive, isn't it?

+ I mean, look at that lovely glass swoop up the staircase. Tell me it doesn't stir the heart.
- I mean, what was so wrong with the old buses anyway, at least they got you from A to B.

+ It's a proper heritage-evoking Routemaster with a rear platform.
- It's not a Routemaster at all, merely a souped-up double-decker with a trip hazard on the back.

+ Hey, it'll cut emissions, which has got to be good for the environment.
- But there'll need to be three new buses for every two bendies, which is actually more emissions.

+ It's got three doors and two staircases, which'll definitely speed up boarding time.
- Except a bendy bus has three doors and no staircases, which is much quicker.

+ The first few vehicles will be on the road in time for the Mayoral election in 2012
- The first five vehicles will cost £8m between them in development costs. Ouch.

+ After the initial development phase is over, these stylish buses will only cost £300000 each.
- But a bog-standard double decker only costs £150000, so how is this value for money?

+ By the end of 2012 there could be be more than 100 New Buses on the road,
- A fleet of 100 buses is nothing, and will service no more than three or four bus routes.

+ Good old Boris, he said he'd scrap the bendies and that's exactly what he's doing
- It'd be much quicker to replace all the bendies with ordinary double deckers. And much cheaper not to replace them at all.

+ An old Routemaster had room for only 77 passengers, but this has a capacity of 87.
- An old Routemaster had 72 seats, but this has only 62 (and lots more people standing).

+ There'll be a conductor on the bus, which'll stop crime, it'll be just like the old days.
- There'll be a 'uniformed presence' on the bus, sometimes, which'll stop nothing.

+ Oh, the freedom to be able to hop on and off whenever and wherever we choose!
- Except the rear platform will only be open when there's a uniformed presence on board, which'll be at busy times only. If the staff budget gets squeezed, which would seem likely, then expect to be trapped on board at lunchtime or mid-evening or in the middle of the night, and bloody angry that you can't get off because that was the whole point of the new bus wasn't it? Most of the time the door will be shut, which is an utterly wasted opportunity.

+ Just wait until you actually get to sit in one, and then see how much you love it.
- It's going to be a long wait, and you're quite likely to have to stand.

+ It's ground-breaking British engineering - a new London icon.
- It's a misguided vanity product, ill-timed for recession.

+ It's lovely, isn't it?
- It's expensive, isn't it?

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