diamond geezer

 Saturday, July 31, 2010

The River Walbrook
3) Bank - Cannon Street

The Ward of WalbrookThe Walbrook lives on, in name only, in the heart of London. One of the City's 25 electoral wards is named after the river, which once ran precisely along the ward's historic western border. There's a street called Walbrook [photo], and has been for centuries, which may be short but boasts the Mayor's Mansion House at its head. Nextdoor is a church named St Stephen Walbrook - one of Sir Christopher Wren's finest post-conflagration rebuilds, and also the institution responsible for founding the Samaritans helpline in 1953 [photo]. In sharp contrast alongside is a ribbed black office block in an upturned-jelly style, nearing completion and to be known by its new tenants as the Walbrook Building [photo]. But the river didn't quite flow past all this lot, down the street that bears its name, but instead about 50 yards or so to the west.

Temple of MithrasThis is a right ugly chunk of London, unless you're into near-demolished Modernist office blocks [photo]. Bucklersbury House and its neighbour Temple Court were knocked up in the 1950s, and will be knocked down very shortly. While the wrecking balls wait and a locked fence keeps Londoners at bay, Legal & General's flapping windows now let in the rain. One ancient relic survives on view - the Roman Temple of Mithras. its stonework was discovered by workmen while Bucklersbury House was being laid out in the 1950s, and archaeologists subsequently recovered several marble sculptures of gods and goddesses from the dig. The finest relics were put on display in the Museum of London, while the temple was rudely shifted to its current position on a gloomy raised platform beside Victoria Street [photo]. If sufficient money is ever forthcoming, a new development called Walbrook Square will be constructed on the site, with the re-relocated Temple of Mithras at its heart. Judging by the plans, there'll be few mourners when the demolition balls swing for Walbrook Square in 50 years time.

The Walbrook crossed Cannon Street precisely where today's contours suggest it did, beneath Horseshoe Bridge to the west of the current station. The next street down is Cloak Lane, formerly Cloaca Lane (after the Latin name for sewer, which tells you all you need to know about the medieval smell locally). Here could be found the church of St John the Baptist upon Walbrook, one of the unlucky City churches not chosen to be rebuilt after 1666. It suffered a further blow when the District line ploughed through the churchyard in the 1880s, and all human remains were disinterred into a small barred vault (which, unexpectedly, can still be seen). And then comes Upper Thames Street, which marked the line of the quayside in Roman times but is now an unpleasantly busy arterial road. One of the main gates in London's defensive wall was here, named Dowgate. The Walbrook here was 14 feet wide as it flowed out into the Thames - an improbable fact which you can ponder while sitting in Whittington Garden watching the pigeons in the fountain. [photo]

Walbrook WharfAs Londinium expanded inexorably to become London, the mouth of the Walbrook gradually migrated south. The river flowed between dockside wharves to join the Thames about 120 feet to the west of Cannon Street station, where it's still possible to see a concrete trough at low tide marking the end of the London Bridge Sewer [photo]. This is also the spot from which the City chooses to despatch its rubbish. Containers of reeking refuse are piled up at Walbrook Wharf until high tide when they're taken away by barge to some unfortunate part of Essex. The barges have lost-river-related names (Walbrook, Holebourne, Turnmill etc) and they're huge, especially when viewed from the pebbly beach [photo]. Access is along the edge of the station, past the chlorine-pumping gym and down a set of slippery steps beside The Banker pub, should you fancy a spot of mudlarking. The beach is littered with fragments of brick, tile and china, as well as rounded glass fragments and considerably more seashells than you might expect. A row of damp squidgy wooden posts marks the line of some old jetty [photo], and the smell of rotting vegetables and vinegar hangs in the air. That'll be the Walbrook - long vanished on the ground, but impossible to disguise.

An approximate map of the Walbrook's course (my best Google map attempt)
Read all my Walbrook posts on one page, in the right order

www.flickr.com: my Walbrook gallery
[22 photos altogether - some fascinating, some tedious] [map]

 Friday, July 30, 2010

The River Walbrook
2) Liverpool Street - Bank

London WallThe Walbrook entered Roman Londinium through a culvert under the city walls about halfway between Moor Gate and Bishop's Gate. It brought fresh water for drinking and cooking, so it was allowed to pass unhindered beneath the ragstone bulkhead. And as the brook beneath the wall, that's how the Walbrook got its name. Probably. Very little about this river is certain, you should know that by now.

The entrance point today is marked by an unlikely dual carriageway sloping down past the church of All Hallows On The Wall. This building is a rare survivor in a sea of modern architectural tedium, although at the top of the hill the new spire-topped Heron Tower injects a striking contrast into the skyline [photo]. And then on into the city proper, and an area you way not know too well. There are a lot of gates and walls and narrow alleyways, as if those round here would rather not too many of the outside world wandered by. If Throgmorton Avenue's locked off then slip down the nearby passage and enter the mysterious enclave around Austin Friars [photo]. Wiggly lanes lined by obscure financial institutions, plus De Nederlandse Kerk (which has been serving the capital's Dutch community since 1550). Alas the Walbrook ran slightly further west, past Drapers Hall, through what's now the chunky brown lump of Angel Court. Over the last fifty years, it seems, architects have infilled umpteen corners of our great City with stacked-office ugliness.

Tokenhouse YardTo Tokenhouse Yard. This is a neat yet non-descript EC2 cul-de-sac, with a narrow alley at one end leading to a snack shop and gentleman's barbers. Along one side is an elegant façade with classical columns, and along the other a building site [photo]. Really quite typical. But this is apparently the spot where two tributaries of the Walbrook met. Above this point marshy uncertainty, below this point a fairly definite river course. There's even a map of the Walbrook stuck to the building site wall, because construction projects in the City have to take archaeology very seriously. Roman remains (including a timber-lined drain) have been found beneath basement level, the poster informs, as well as telltale lost-river alluvium. London's original watery dividing line passed straight through here, then south to Lothbury.
"Now for the North side of this Lothbury, beginning at the East end thereof: Upon the Water-course of Walbrooke, have ye a proper Parish Church, called St. Margaret. Which seemeth to be newly re-edified and builded, about the Year 1440. For Robert Large gave to the Quire of that Church one hundred and 20 Pounds for Ornaments. More to the Vaulting over the Water-course of Walbrook, by the said Church, for the enlarging thereof, Two Hundred Marks."
Not many medieval churches had to be specially constructed so that a stream could pass underneath! By the time Wren rebuilt St Margaret's after the Great Fire there was no need for special vaulting as there was no longer a river [photo]. But there were genuine underground issues at the next building across the street - the mighty Bank of England [photo]. Sir John Soane had to deal with the buried Walbrook when he designed and constructed the City's financial fortress - its waters were seen trickling beneath the foundations. A similar, though unexpected, archaeological revelation occurred in the late 1950s when the "Travelator" at Bank station was being installed. Next time you're walking down to the Waterloo & City line on Europe's first moving pavement, be aware that you're also wading through the channel of the deep-buried Walbrook. [photo]

 Thursday, July 29, 2010

The River Walbrook
1) Shoreditch - Liverpool Street

Trying to locate the source of the Walbrook is fraught with difficulty. It's said by some to have arisen in Moorfields - once a large area of marshy fenland outside the City walls, broadly where Moorgate station and Finsbury Circus stand today. If so, expect the stream to have 'emerged' and 'coalesced', rather than bubbling forth from one distinct spring. Others think there were lots of tiny brooks draining a wider area to the north of the City. If so, then as one modern hydrologist has it, "Walbrook is merely a generic term for a network of convergent southbound streams". A third group are convinced that the river had slightly longer tributaries, probably two, one of which flowed down from Islington and the other from Shoreditch. If so, they'd probably have been pretty piddly streams, possibly only much in evidence after a decent amount of rainfall. I've decided to run with this third option, because I've seen it in print most often. Starting in Shoreditch.

St Leonard's ShoreditchYou'd think "Shore Ditch" was a sure fire reference to something lost river-y, but apparently this isn't the case. There was a wellspring here once, allegedly, close to the Roman road junction outside St Leonard's Church [photo], and this could have been the Walbrook's most northerly source. Don't go looking for any evidence on the ground, but the blogger at Spitalfields Life has had a long chat with the vicar and he assures us the river once flowed from here. The fledgling Walbrook would have dribbled south through the heart of trendy Shoreditch [photo], quenching the bar-ghetto between Curtain Road and Shoreditch High Street [photo]. Precisely here could be found Shakespeare's first two London theatres - The Theatre and The Curtain - so it's a pretty good bet that young Will relieved himself into the Walbrook on a number of occasions.

The river would have followed the line of the old Broad Street Railway, which may or may not be a lucky coincidence. It entered the modern City of London beneath the Broadgate Tower [photo], the ancient valley now marked by a chasm of glass and steel between lofty heights [photo]. And then south across the extensive financial wastes of the Broadgate development. You'll find no medieval street patterns here, just a warren of mighty office blocks dumped down where Broad Street station and its sidings once stood. Seething with suits from Monday to Friday, at weekends its solitary piazzas echo with workmen, cleaners and the occasional lost tourist [photo]. Running parallel to the rail terminus at Liverpool Street [photo], it's here at ye olde Moorfields that the Walbrook proper began.

An approximate map of the Walbrook's course (my best Google map attempt)
Read all my Walbrook posts on one page, in the right order

The River Walbrook

The Walbrook is one of the most important rivers in the world, which is pretty impressive for a river that no longer exists. It's not as important as the Thames, obviously, but the spot where these two rivers met defined the nucleus of a great global city. The City of London emerged along the line of this shallow river valley rolling down to the Thames, then spread across the contours of two low hills rising to either side. Drinking water, defensive position, strategic location, perfect. Those two hills still exist, with St Paul's Cathedral marking Ludgate Hill to the west and the Royal Exchange atop Cornhill to the east. But the Romans wouldn't recognise the valley which once divided their walled city into two halves, because the sparkling river has irreversibly vanished.

The Walbrook is therefore incredibly difficult to follow. You'd think it would be easy, passing as it did through one of the most well-documented square miles on the entire planet. But this means it disappeared early, several centuries before any other London lost river bit the dust. What had once been a "fair brook of sweet water" had by the 13th century become an ugly sewer that was "neither fair nor sweet". The middle and lower reaches of the Walbrook were paved over in 1463 thanks to a hygiene-minded Royal Act, and the original watercourse hasn't been seen since. Few accurate maps of the area were drawn up in medieval times, and the landscape has been built upon and built upon and built upon over the intervening years. So the account I'm publishing over the next few days is based on historical scraps I found in books, some approximate published maps and a bit of guesswork.

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

A history of the Walbrook (from a group campaigning for its restoration)
In search of the Walbrook (with Spitalfields Life)
Amy Sharrocks walks the Walbrook (with ribbons) (pdf)
Exploring the London Bridge Sewer (which the Walbrook has become)

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

 Wednesday, July 28, 2010

PR Masterclass

Lesson 2: How to lie with with statistics
- an apology

I'd like to apologise wholeheartedly and unreservedly for my post on Sunday in which I accused arts collective CultureLine of telling lies in a press release. I have since engaged in email conversation with the good folk at Colman Getty, the PR Agency responsible, and they've made me aware that one of my underlying assumptions about the survey was incorrect. By jumping to conclusions without seeking the facts, I have entirely misrepresented how the headline in the press release was obtained. Sorry, that's unforgivable. So on their behalf I feel it's only right to set the record straight. Because it turns out that the truth is much worse than I previously thought.

Let me go back to the opening of CultureLine's press missive and start again.
Half of north Londoners never cross the river for work or play
54% of Londoners living north of the River Thames never venture south for either work or cultural pursuits and south Londoners are twice as likely to cross the river for culture.
I wondered where that 54% came from, because it sounded unlikely. But I made a wrong assumption by using inappropriate data appearing later in the press release. I thought the 54% came from here:
48% of north Londoners visit the south of the capital for culture less than once a month and 7% never do this.
I thought the 54% must have come from adding together the 48% of North Londoners who sometimes cross the river to the 7% who never do. There were no other figures in the press release which could possibly have matched the 54% total, even after rounding, so I assumed these figures were what had been used. But this would have been a wholly unjustifiable use of statistics. Indeed, as a nice lady from Colman Getty kindly pointed out to me...
"Had we added the % of those North Londoners who never cross the river for culture to the % of those North Londoners who cross the river less than once a month for culture, you’re right, that would have been inaccurate and misleading."
Because that's not what they did. Instead I'm told they used a statistic from the survey which didn't appear anywhere in the press release. A statistic I couldn't have known about until it was revealed in their email.
"The ‘half of Londoners never cross the river for work or play’ statistic was calculated as follows. We asked respondents how often they crossed the river for work and how often they crossed the river for play. Of those North Londoners who responded, half either never crossed the river for work (47.7%) or never for play (7%)."
So the 'half' was obtained by adding the 47.7% for "work" to the 7% for "play". This made a supposed total of 54% for "work or play". Sounds convincing, doesn't it? But in fact this is an even bigger massive lie than the one I thought I'd seen before.

They've added this and this
48% of north Londoners never cross the river for work
7% of north Londoners never cross the river for play
to make this
Half of north Londoners never cross the river for work or play
And I'm sorry, but that's statistical drivel.

To help see why, here are those first two statements written the other way around.
52% of north Londoners sometimes cross the river for work
93% of north Londoners sometimes cross the river for play
Or, in other words, when it comes to play, almost all north Londoners sometimes cross the river. North Londoners are river-crossing kinds of people. They don't shun south London, they go there. Almost all of them. It is absolutely definitely not the case that "Half of north Londoners never cross the river for work or play", because almost all of them cross the river for just one of those activities. An even greater number (at least 93%, probably higher) cross the river for either one or the other. A more accurate headline would therefore have been
Half of north Londoners never cross the river for work
but that wouldn't have been news. Or maybe
Less than 7% of north Londoners never cross the river for work or play
but that wouldn't have been news either. Instead the good folk at Colman Getty have jumped to a fallacial conclusion based on underlying survey data which wasn't revealed to the public. More precisely, they combined two probabilities incorrectly using mathematical rules which should apply only to mutually exclusive events, which these are not. They invented a plausible-sounding statistic which had absolutely no grounding in reality, then launched their tainted conclusion headlong into the national media. They have lied with statistics, presumably because someone was too innumerate to know better.

I look forward to reading their apology.

 Tuesday, July 27, 2010

London 2012  Olympic update   Two years to go

You'd have been hard pushed to drag a TV camera to Marshgate Lane a decade ago, not unless it was for Crimewatch, or if the Big Breakfast were doing a slightly-outside broadcast. But in precisely two years' time the eyes of the world will alight on this former trading estate, since magically transformed, to view the greatest sporting event on the planet. To a local resident like me, it still scarcely seems credible. A few votes in a hotel conference room in Singapore made the difference, diverting billions of pounds into the regeneration of the forgotten end of London. They'll be breaking world records on the shopfloor of the net curtain warehouse come 2012, and living in shoeboxes on the Fed Ex depot by the end of the decade. (Prepare to read lots of opening paragraphs like this all around the media before today is out)

Olympic Stadium - July 2010

Look, the Olympic Stadium's already complete. Structurally, that is - the fixtures and fittings still have another twelve months to go. Those spiky floodlights will be illuminated for the first time before Christmas, which'll be a sight to see for those of us who spend our winters milling around the Bow Flyover. Then once the environmentally-friendly toilets and running track are in place, the arena will be hosting test events to check that everything works properly. It wouldn't surprise me if the first test event was in one year's time, a year before the opening ceremony, when some lucky folk will get to sit on the plastic seats and watch some matchstick sized athletes running around the circuit below. Say what you like about the 2012 Olympics, but there's surely no danger of any of the venues being delivered late.

Olympic Park skyline - July 2010

There's a lot more to these building works than just the stadium. The Velodrome's cable-net roof is strung and ready, and the Siberian pine track is on its way. The Basketball Arena sprung up over a few weeks earlier in the spring, and its white rocklike exterior is already a intriguing landmark on the skyline. The Aquatic Centre's already been filled to check it doesn't leak, although there'll be fresh chlorinated water in there before the world's swimmers (and later Stratford's families) turn up. So many structures, all of whose progress is outlined in a milestone document just published by the Olympic Delivery Authority. A school, the park, a wheelchair tennis centre... everything's on target and (probably) under budget.

And best seen, at present, from the air. London 2012 have just released a series of aerial views of various Olympic buildings, tediously well-protected, but also amazingly detailed. Or maybe you'd prefer some homemade photos from quite high but not as far as a up helicopter. Did you spot that both of my previous two photos were taken from well above ground level? This one is too, obviously.

Olympic Park skyline - July 2010

Because the best view of the Olympic Park is from one of the many apartment blocks around the perimeter. You're on-site all the time, watching the new global playground slowly emerging from the earth. You can stare out over the stadium every morning while you're nibbling your corn flakes. You're on first name terms with the entire Olympic cluster of venues before the rest of the world has even noticed. And one day, maybe, the world's TV companies will enter a bidding war to present a fortnight's TV coverage live from your living room. I got the chance to visit such an apartment earlier this month, so I took a few photographs for your delectation and delight. You may never get quite this close yourself, but in two years' time this will all look terribly familiar.

Basketball Arena/Olympic Village/Stadium/Big Breakfast House
Olympic Stadium, fronted by wooded nature reserve remnant
Olympic Stadium, shortly before dusk, from a balcony
The Greenway, straight up (and closer to, at an angle)
View down the Lower Lea Valley (i.e. the large photo above)

 Monday, July 26, 2010

The longer you leave something, the more it falls apart. I've had this blog for eight years, and it's quietly falling apart behind the scenes. Not the content, but the presentation, courtesy of Blogger's ever-changing rules, code and settings. In particular, internal links that worked perfectly well back in 2002 are now permanently broken, which leaves me with an archive that's increasingly inaccessible.

It's Blogger's Auto-Pagination feature that's mostly to blame (yes, sorry, I am going to go on about this again), truncating pages to save users time, but also concealing several hundred posts in the process. I spent seven years optimising my blog for display in monthly archives, and then Blogger changed its mind in the eighth and snapped them all in two.

Take my visit to Dungeness back in 2007, for example. This used to be visible at the bottom of the June 2007 archive page, and I could link to it at http://diamondgeezer.blogspot.com/2007_06_01_archive.html#3472633985014608338. Not any more. Thanks to Auto Pagination only a fortnight of June officially exists. Everything prior to June 18th exists only on a dynamically-created page, which search engines can't find, and this old link can't link to. You can click through to June page 2 from June page 1 if you know to do so, but unless you know where to find my Dungeness post you'd never think to look. This angers me.

So I've had to do something I really didn't want to do, but which Blogger thinks is a jolly good idea. I've "enabled post pages". This means that every one of my 4000+ posts now has its own individual page which you can read separately from everything else. My Dungeness post now exists at http://diamondgeezer.blogspot.com/2007/06/dungeness.html, for example, and you can read it whenever you like. But only if you know what the special individual link is, which for 4000 other posts you don't. So I'm still unhappy.

There are two places that do know what these special individual links are. One is my RSS feed. If you're reading my RSS feed and decide to click through to read the blog proper, you'll click through to the individual post page and nothing else. And the other is Google. It's the only search engine which knows what all my individual pages are called, because it's owned by the same people who own Blogger. Search Google and you might possibly find my Dungeness page, maybe (although it's probably so completely buried you almost certainly won't).

The true reason I hate individual post pages is because arriving readers no longer notice what's written in the posts on either side. Sure they could click through and have a look, but few people ever do. In the case of my Dungeness post, they'd never spot there's a related post about the Romney Hythe & Dymchurch Railway nextdoor, plus a whole load of other hopefully interesting posts throughout the rest of June 2007. Blogger's changes have atomised my blog, one snippet at a time, whereas previously it used to run in a series of interconnected chapters. Precise targeting has destroyed adjacent serendipity. Sad face.

So why am I telling you all this? It's because I've finally got round to updating the search engine in my sidebar so you can actually find things again. I've had to use a Google search engine, obviously, and the end results come out with adverts all over them, but it means my entire blog is discoverable once more. It's not perfect, and it still directs you to monthly archives that don't exist, but Dungeness is in there, and so's everything else if you look hard enough. Actually that's a big if, because sometimes you have to look very hard indeed. My archives are still buggered, and semi-undiscoverable, thanks to thoughtless technicians at Blogger HQ.

Anyway, here's the search engine if you want to have a play.
And it'll be in the sidebar forever as well, at least until Blogger breaks that too.

 Sunday, July 25, 2010

PR Masterclass

Lesson 2: How to lie with with statistics

Are you trying to break into the nu-media world of PR, but worried that you might be innumerate? Never fear, because an understanding of elementary mathematics isn't actually necessary. So long as you can cobble together a few shocking conclusions, it isn't important that your statistics have any basis whatsoever in factual reality. Simply publish a few headline-grabbing untruths, then bask in the reflected glory of mega-publicity. I'd like to illustrate this with the aid of a masterpiece published last Friday by the folks at CultureLine - an umbrella body promoting museums along the new East London Line. You might want to have their complete press missive to hand before proceeding further.
Half of north Londoners never cross the river for work or play
Oh that's good. Nothing stirs up London media interest like the good old north/south divide. In particular, anything which makes north Londoners sound like parochial snobbish stay-at-homes, that's perfect. Light the blue touchpaper, and retire.
54% of Londoners living north of the River Thames never venture south for either work or cultural pursuits and south Londoners are twice as likely to cross the river for culture.
See, it's even worse than a half, the figure's actually 54%. Miserable blinkered northerners, the majority of you think so little of the south you never ever visit it. Well done CultureLine for proving this appalling xenophobia beyond any reasonable shadow of a doubt.
That's according to a survey of 300 Londoners from both sides of the river published today (23 July) by CultureLine, a partnership of 10 museums and galleries along the new London Overground East London route.
Excellent. First we skip over the survey's self-selecting unrepresentative sample, which includes only people who could be bothered to do a well-hidden online survey. And then we plug the organisation, big time, because if you haven't done that by the end of sentence number two, you've failed. So far so good. Now let's jump ahead a couple of paragraphs to the proper statistical bit...
80% of south Londoners cross the river at least once a month for cultural pursuits compared to just 41% of Northerners. 48% of north Londoners visit the south of the capital for culture less than once a month and 7% never do this.
Here we can see precisely how CultureLine obtained the 54% percentage (or 'half') which they used in their press release's main headline. They added together the 48% and 7% (and presumably rounded to fit the underlying data). Except, hang on, the 48% refers to north Londoners who sometimes cross the river. And yet the headline blatantly refers to those who never do. I think we'd better look at these figures a bit more carefully. Let me knock up a simple table.

How often do North Londoners cross the river for culture?
At least once a month41%
Less than once a month48%

First, please ignore the fact that these percentages don't add up to 100%. Nobody who reads the press release will notice, don't let that put you off. Instead, please concentrate on the percentage of North Londoners who never venture south of the river. It's 7%, not half. So the press release's main headline really ought to have read:
Only 7% of north Londoners never cross the river for work or play
or even
93% of north Londoners sometimes cross the river for work or play
See, there is no blatant north/south divide after all! The survey's findings go completely against the accepted stereotype, producing an outcome which is both heart-warmingly inclusive and geographically life-affirming. Well, that's no good when there's a press release to be written. So (and this is the crucial PR lesson to learn) THE TRUTH MUST BE COMPLETELY IGNORED. Instead, bung an incorrect figure in the headline, and make up a conclusion where there isn't one. Trust me, nobody'll notice.

Finally, all this story needs is a killer quote, and then no media outlet will be able to resist it.
The Mayor of London Boris Johnson said: “North or south, I urge Londoners to cross the great divide and discover the rich cultural treasures, cuisines and dialects to be found on the other side of the river. London Overground is opening up the capital like never before, making it even easier to get to know our trans-Thames neighbours and discover the gems of the city.”
Perfect. Which is how CultureLine's non-story came to be picked up by both the BBC and the Evening Standard and paraded as gospel. They didn't check the facts, they simply skimread the press release and parroted its headlines like sheep. Next time, try a little scepticism first, folks.

So congratulations to Colman Getty, the PR Agency whose masterful work of fiction this is. Their initial survey didn't gather the headline-grabbing results they wanted, so it seems someone misinterpreted the statistics to provide an alternative attention-seeking conclusion instead. North Londoners aren't river-shy at all, but CultureLine have earned shedloads of unwarranted publicity anyway. Watch and learn.

July 28th update: The underlying assumptions in this post are incorrect. Please read Wednesday's post for an apology

 Saturday, July 24, 2010

Day out: Fishbourne Roman Palace

Two miles west of Chichester there's a fairly ordinary village suburb - a few small housing estates, some ribbon development and the A27 scything through on a big viaduct. A couple of houses look out over the northeast tip of Chichester Harbour but, other than that, Fishbourne's nothing special. Apart from the enormous Roman Palace, that is. It was discovered by accident 50 years ago while workmen were laying a new water pipe, and subsequent digs revealed the presence of something very special beneath the soil. Not just a villa, but a palace so large it was equal in size to the emperor's gaff back in Rome. In English terms, Fishbourne's unique.

Fishbourne Roman PalaceNobody's 100% sure who the owner of the palace was, but the smart money's on the Wessex chieftain who ruled these parts around the time of the Roman invasion. We know very little about him except that his name was probably Togidubnus (and not Cogidubnus, as my Latin textbook repeatedly insisted). But a lot more is known about his place of residence, despite the fact that only a fraction of its hundred rooms still sort-of exist.

My first thought on visiting Fishbourne Roman Palace was that it looked a lot like a small secondary school. A scattering of low-rise 1960s buildings arranged round a car park, what else could it be? One's a classroom, another's a canteen, another's got toilets, but the largest (and longest) is where the main action is. At the nearest end is a small museum which explains the history of the palace and its eventual rediscovery. The displays date back to 1967 when the site opened to the public, and don't look like they've been updated since. There's nothing interactive, no buttons to press, just a presentation of the facts accompanied by a few models and some recovered artefacts. I loved it. Everything's smart, clear and concise, laid out in line with the finest graphic design of its day. In fact the entire building has a timeless simplicity, which I thought perfectly complemented the skills of those who created the palace below almost two millennia ago.

There's a video presentation to watch, which you won't be surprised to hear is narrated by Tony Robinson. I would have watched it, but at the crucial moment a coachful of foreign schoolkids turned up and swarmed the auditorium so I gave it a miss. But the main attraction is the palace itself, or at least what remains of the North Wing [photo]. A series of long-collapsed rooms, through which a wooden walkway weaves providing views of the finest surviving mosaic fragments. Some mosaics are barely there at all, the odd patch merely hinting at past splendours. Others reveal geometric simplicity, not especially amazing apart from the fact they're still here. Some have sunk into the earth, dipping down sharply where postholes and pits have caused long term subsidence. And one in particular is amazing, the large mosaic of Cupid on a Dolphin (although its intricate perfection is solely because it's been completely restored to demonstrate how fantastic this place used to look) [photo]. Elsewhere there are the remains of walls, and doors, and even a Roman central heating system. But mostly it's all floors, because the whole of the palace burnt to the ground in suspicious circumstances somewhere around 270AD.

Fishbourne Roman Palace

Head out of the main building and the palace's central garden has been recreated. Nothing formal, just a few hedges to mark where the edges of the colonnade would have been. As for the other wings, what's left of those is still buried beneath the ground. East and West to each side where the grass is, but the South Wing is somewhere beyond the fence beneath the houses and gardens on Fishbourne Road. What secrets lurk under the vegetable plots and living rooms we may never know. But the North Wing's impressive enough, and a very civilised reminder of the creative talents of our ancestors.

 Friday, July 23, 2010

Day out: Chichester
Close-ish to the English Channel, about as west as West Sussex gets, lies the cathedral city of Chichester. The Romans were first to set up camp here, the Church arrived about a millennium later, and today the place is home to a cultured outgoing crowd. Chichester Harbour is close by, thought not actually adjacent to the town, which means there are more yacht owners per square mile than most other parts of Britain. And this is where I went yesterday, for a midweek value day out, which turned out to be very pleasant. Highlights follow.

Chichester Cathedral
Chichester CathedralSome English Cathedrals are stuffy and off-putting, with a ticket barrier at the entrance and a lot of vergers scuttling around making sure visitors behave. Chichester's not like that. It's welcoming and friendly, and nobody forces you to pay anything. They even open their doors before half past seven in the morning, because their cathedral is a place of community and worship. "Here, have a free leaflet," said the nice lady by the west door, "and yes of course you can take photographs, and maybe you'd like to join that free tour over there." Cheers, don't mind if I do. The building's impressive, and unusually broad inside, although not quite as amazing as certain larger UK cathedrals. There's the usual nave, transepts and chapels, plus some rather lovely stained glass of a late 20th century vintage. As for the spire [photo], that's a Victorian replacement, because the original collapsed one Thursday lunchtime (creak, bulge, crack, tumble) while the townspeople gathered round and watched. Act of God, no doubt. On my visit there was no such peril, just the cathedral's organists practising for some imminent event. The sound of mighty pipes echoing around the medieval vaults was heart-stirring, and all the better for being a two-instrument duet. And they played "Oh I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside" too, because they're fun like that here.

Chichester Old Town
Much of the medieval city wall survives, providing an elevated stone walkway for anyone who fancies walking round the inner edge of town. Most residents don't. The view's sometimes excellent (ooh, 13th century Guildhall in the middle of a park) and sometimes not (ah, 1970s apartments). The four main roads within the walls are named after the four compass points, and meet at the old market cross in the centre of town [photo]. Nice place for a bit of pedestrianised shopping, this, with ugly concrete malls thankfully nowhere in evidence. One retail outlet in East Street is (or ought to be) famous, because it's the place where a potted meat empire began. Charles Shippam had a butcher's shop at number 48, behind which he branched out into factory production. Fishpaste in glass jars with a special lid, it caught on big time, and WWI soldiers lived off the stuff. Expansion continued until 1995 when the business was sold off - it's now owned by Mitsubishi Industries, no less! Shippams now trade out of a giant shed on a trading estate on the edge of town, and the old butcher's shop sells shoes. At least the company's old clock survives, hanging out over the street with a trademark wishbone dangling down below. [photo]

Pallant House Gallery
Pallant House GalleryThe Pallant's not like most provincial art galleries. It's two buildings in one, the first a Queen Anne townhouse, the second a very recent extension. Its focus is modern art, of which has one of the finest collections outside London, but still with a bit of the old scattered throughout for good measure. Hence you might find an old Georgian portrait next to a Picasso, or a cabinet full of of Bow Porcelain (ooh, local) close to a framed Henry Moore. I liked the 20th century emphasis, including a long gallery of Pop Art and a special current exhibition showcasing Surrealism. Several rooms of Mexican art proved slightly less gripping, but they're temporary too, and there'll be something completely different along in September. One of the gallery volunteers engaged me in excitable conversation about the various works, both what she loved and what she hated, which was unusually refreshing and much appreciated. Admission's not cheap, but I was much taken by the buzz of imagination running through the place.

Chichester Festival Theatre: This concrete mushroom can be found to the north of the town, and hosts a famous spring/summer festival every year. Thursday lunchtimes there's not so much going on. [photo]
Chichester District Museum: Next year, this motley collection of local stuff is moving to a spanking new building on a former car park. About time too, because the old place looks like it's in desperate need of a refresh.
Chichester Ship Canal: Yes, Chichester has a Ship Canal, who knew? Its six mile length was part of an ambitious plan to link the upper Thames to Portsmouth Harbour, but proved woefully unsuccessful and hasn't seen a ship since the 1840s. The canal preservation trust run daily sightseeing trips from the city basin down as far as Chichester Harbour, although I suspect a proper harbour tour is far more interesting.

 Thursday, July 22, 2010

I've got today off work. It seemed like a good idea before I saw the weather forecast. Sneak out into the real world before the schools break up. And use the special "very cheap days out from London" Oyster offer before it runs out on Sunday. Today's weather forecast suggests I may not have chosen my day wisely, but if I choose my destination wisely I may only get a bit damp rather than drenched.

I also thought it was about time I did another one of my blogging Mystery Tours. Those trips where I go somewhere without telling you where it is, and then send you clues from my mobile so you can try and guess where I am. I usually do those on Saturdays, so I thought a weekday excursion might stir a bit more audience reaction. Simple, I just send an email from my mobile to Blogger, and it appears magically on the blog. I've had the capability since 2005, and I don't make nearly enough use of it.

Except my mobile isn't playing ball. It sent emails perfectly six months ago, and I haven't changed any of the internal settings, but today it refuses. 'Server not found', it says, despite the fact I'm pretty certain the server exists. If I try tweaking the settings, using some different combination of what I think my email details are, I can get a completely different error message. But I can't connect successfully, and I can't send a message out. Which is rubbish.

I don't understand why sending an email from a mobile is so complicated. There always seem to so many bits of information to get right - usernames and server names and passwords and the like - then absolutely no clues as to which bit it might be that's stopping the service from working. It's like the mobile company don't want me to spend any money sending things, they just want to trap my messages in an outbox and leave me incommunicado.

There again, I'm still using a mobile phone that's more than three years old. You remember 2007, life was simpler then. No big screen smartphones with multifunction interactive ability. No iPhones with plug and play email apps. No foolproof communications that today's mobiles take for granted. I may be spending less than £100 a year for pay-as-you-go simplicity, but I'm paying the price for lack of functionality.

So I'm still going to go on my cut-price out-of-London trip today, but I'm not going to be able to blog any updates from along the way. That's a proper mystery tour for you. What I'll probably do is send some clues via Twitter instead, except that 140 characters is so much less interesting than 140 words, for which I apologise. I should warn you that my mobile can't read anything on Twitter, it can only send, so there's no chance of an interesting two-way conversation building up. And because my phone is from the Dark Ages, I'll have to wait until I get home before I can read any of the guesses you've written in the comments box.

Maybe after three years it's finally time to upgrade my phone again. I've only had four mobiles since 1998, each cutting edge at the time but oh so rapidly overtaken by technological advances. Maybe when I get to wherever I'm going today, I should head to the shopping centre and investigate a little further. But do I really want to spend a small fortune on some modern device (and its annual contract) merely so that I can send cryptic clues from Margate or Coventry or Milton Keynes or Winchester or wherever? I think maybe I'll resist total interactivity in my pocket for a little longer.

 Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Is your Council on Twitter?

Twitter boroughsLast time I checked, in March last year, your council probably wasn't. And now it probably is. A total of twenty London boroughs have taken the plunge and are attempting to interact online with their residents, with varying degrees of success. Some are merely promoting council services, consultations or events. Some tediously regurgitate press releases and chop them off after the first 140 characters. Most only broadcast, while others sometimes respond. And a few are occasionally interesting, or useful, or even both. Here's a clickable summary of how those 20 councils are doing, along with a recent sample tweet.

» Barnet [892 followers, 528 updates] (first tweet May 2008)
http://twitpic.com/26tz78 - Council Leader Lynne Hillan and Police Borough Commander Neil Basu look at plans for the refurb of Friary House.
» Brent [901 followers, 497 updates] (first tweet March 2009)
Electric slide rehearsal http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HT7TZvTFFqs #brentdancerecord #electricslide
» Bromley [216 followers, 59 updates] (first tweet Sept 2009)
Safer teenage drivers http://www.bromley.gov.uk/News/newsarchive2010/Jul2010/safer_teenage_drivers.htm
» Camden [1243 followers, 1267 updates] (first tweet Feb 2009)
Hindsites - cultural walks in Camden http://bit.ly/9cPNPN
» Enfield [199 followers, 147 updates] (first tweet Sep 2009)
NEWS: Enfield opens for business as new centre hits town: Enfield’s first Tourist Information Centre made it... http://tinyurl.com/36ywye9
» Greenwich [742 followers, 659 updates] (first tweet July 2009)
The Big Screen in Woolwich will show Cool Runnings on Sat 24 July @ 5pm to mark the 2 year countdown to London 2012 http://tiny.cc/9ur8e
» Hillingdon [1186 followers, 756 updates] (first tweet June 2008)
Our crematorium manager scooped Lifetime Service award at national Council Worker of the Year Awards last night. http://tinyurl.com/36nlg6h
» Hammersmith & Fulham [611 followers, 186 updates] (first tweet May 2009)
Burst water main on Uxbridge Road - allow extra time for your journeys today. http://bit.ly/aWjzQO
» Islington [231 followers, 140 updates] (first tweet Feb 2010)
Vote now for Islington's Market Trader of the Year 2010 http://bit.ly/8Y8nkA
» Kensington & Chelsea [203 followers, 252 updates] (first tweet Dec 2009)
Congestion Charge consultation – reminder to make your views on the western extension known by 2 August 2010 http://bit.ly/cmc7DX
» Lambeth [2428 followers, 403 updates] (first tweet March 2009)
#lambethcoop we have posted some new discussion topics on our Facebook group, please share you views at http://bit.ly/autxTG
» Lewisham [1768 followers, 775 updates] (first tweet Oct 2008)
Free composting workshop this Wednesday at Devonshire Road Nature Reserve. Call 020 8314 2145 to book.
» Merton: [180 followers, 152 updates] (first tweet Aug 2009)
@philpurkiss Sorry about your recycling box. For another please contact our waste helpline on 020 8274 4902. Thank you for recycling.
» Redbridge [686 followers, 112 updates] (first tweet Feb 2009)
#Redbridgei New dog control orders and parks byelaws come into force http://ow.ly/28cdr #Redbridge
» Richmond [156 followers, 312 updates] (first tweet Nov 2009)
NEWS: New sensory garden opens at Norman Jackson Children's Service: A groundbreaking sensory garden will be unvei... http://bit.ly/au0hGB
» Southwark [1364 followers, 326 updates] (first tweet Dec 2008)
PRESS Southwark Council publishes online fire risk register: Residents in Southwark now have access to an online r... http://bit.ly/db5URd
» Sutton [672 followers, 321 updates] (first tweet Mar 2009)
Government makes Sutton 1 of 4 'Big Society Communities' 19.07.10: Today the government has announced that the Lon... http://bit.ly/9XES5Q
» Tower Hamlets [341 followers, 95 updates] (first tweet Mar 2010)
Next Thursday 9pm you can see our Chief Exec, Kevan Collins, on the Channel 4 show Under Cover Boss: http://bit.ly/UnderCoverBoss
» Wandsworth [1160 followers, 480 updates] (first tweet Dec 2008)
Safer cycling mirror: London’s first on-street cycle safety mirror has been installed at the junction of Mitcham R... http://bit.ly/9Vri0K
» Westminster [1032 followers, 76 updates] (first tweet Apr 2009)
Westminster City Council ticks off Madonna over noisy party at her Marylebone home. http://bit.ly/9pbqok

Most prolific council: Camden
Longest tweeting council: Barnet
Council with most followers: Lambeth
Most tedious Twitterfeeds: Bromley, Enfield
Appear to have given up on tweeting: Haringey, Harrow
Twitterfeed most obviously written by a human being: Greenwich

Not being social: Barking & Dagenham, Bexley, City of London, Croydon, Ealing, Hackney, Havering, Hounslow, Kingston, Newham, Waltham Forest (unless you know better)

 Tuesday, July 20, 2010

I still buy a newspaper every morning. I've been doing it since the 1980s, and I haven't stopped yet.
I also read my newspaper's website every day. I've been doing that since the 1990s, and I haven't stopped yet.

I still buy a newspaper every morning. I like to read a daily digest of what's going on in the world. I like the mix of articles, from headline political news to obscure quirky features. I like the idea that somebody independent has sifted through the day's events and decided what I do and don't need to know. I know that news happens all the time, not just once a day, but I value my daily snapshot.
I also read my newspaper's website every day. I like to read about things that have only just happened, rather than having to wait until tomorrow. I like the chance to drill down into areas of interest, and not to have to waste time on topics that bore me. I know I'm only skimming the river of news when I read online, but I value the immediacy.

I still buy a newspaper every morning. I value the linearity. I like to start at the front and work through to the end. I may not want to read everything on the way, and I may skip over a lot, but equally I know I won't miss out on something unexpected.
I also read my newspaper's website every day. I scan the front page for interesting additions, then read only the latest articles that interest me. I read more narrowly than in print, rarely dipping outside my comfort zone.

I still buy a newspaper every morning. I buy one from the kiosk outside the tube station. I give the owner my small change and I help to keep him in business. And he gives some of my small change to the publishers, and this helps to keep them in business. Because printed news costs, and I'm happy to pay.
I also read my newspaper's website every day. I read it for free, and give absolutely nothing back. I never click on any of the adverts, and I'm not sure I'd subscribe to the paper if it ever disappeared behind a paywall. Because news on the web should always be free, shouldn't it?

I still buy a newspaper every morning. I like the physical nature of printed sheets. I like to be able to see a lot of news all at the same time, rather than a thin column of one-story text. I appreciate double page spreads, and seeing photographs large, and being able to write on the crossword with a pencil. My newspaper doesn't lose coverage when the signal drops in a train tunnel, and the previous page is always there when I want to flick quickly back. If there's a particularly special day I can even keep the newspaper and store it somewhere, then read it again on some far distant day in the future to remember what life used to be like.
I also read my newspaper's website every day. I may have to click through to read the individual stories, but I can focus on individual articles with ease. I can flick through picture galleries, I can read reader comments written by bigoted idiots, and I can even give instant feedback myself should I so wish. If there's a story I want to bring to someone else's attention, social media makes that easy. And if I want to find a story from six years ago, it's easily unearthed from the archive.

I still buy a newspaper every morning. I have to leave the house to buy it, and I'm fortunate there are still several paper-selling outlets within a few minutes walk. Sometimes I get home at the end of the day and I haven't managed to open it, but that's OK because I can read it later. Or just chuck it into the recycling because its moment has passed.
I also read my newspaper's website every day. I can even read it in my dressing gown at the weekend if I can't be bothered to go out. Or from the other side of the world if I'm on holiday. Or from anywhere I liked if only I had a smartphone. News on demand, wherever, whenever. That's the future.

I still buy a newspaper every morning. I know how out-of-touch that makes me look in the eyes of the younger generation. They never will. "Pay for news, on paper? Get with the programme, Grandad."
I also read my newspaper's website every day. I appreciate the all-day every-day convenience it brings. But I won't take the plunge and abandon print altogether, not until I have absolutely no choice.

I still buy a newspaper every morning. I fear I'm an endangered species.

 Monday, July 19, 2010

London's first two Cycle Superhighways open today. There'll eventually be twelve, but for now there's only CS3 from Barking to the Tower and CS7 from Merton to the City. Millions have been spent rejigging junctions and laying down lane markings in a particularly penetrating shade of light blue. Will they transform cycling in the capital and make bike-commuting a genuine pleasure? Or will they lure novice cyclists out of their comfort zone and under the wheels of some passing vehicle? I followed one of them (on foot) to try to find out.

CS3: Tower Gateway - Barking

Royal Mint Street: Unlike busy CS7, Cycle Superhighway number 3 follows quiet backroads for the majority of its length. It all kicks off behind the Royal Mint, on the gyratory system close to Tower Gateway station. If you can reach this point from work without being run over, then a smooth commute home should await. It's definitely a smooth start, with dedicated blue lanes for cyclists between the pavement and the street.

CS3 near WestferryCable Street: The super Superhighway continues. You couldn't really ask for much more, with twin blue lanes firmly segregated from the narrow roadway alongside. Much of Cable Street is one way, for four-wheeled traffic at least, whereas cyclists can nip along in both directions to their heart's content [photo]. And there's two full kilometres of this to enjoy, whisking riders all the way out to Limehouse with barely a care in the world. Now you might see this as a victory for the Cycle Superhighway, except it turns out that almost all of this cycleway existed before and has been available for years. Even the bizarre switchback by Stepney Causeway, which I was all ready to slag off as a ludicrous route which no sane cyclist would ever follow, turns out to be a hangover from the pre-CS era [photo]. There have been a few 2010 tweaks along Cable Street, however. The lanes used to be green rather than bright blue, for example, and now extend across most road junctions rather than briefly terminating. There's also a new electronic sign near Shadwell station which lights up saying "Think Bike" if you're driving too fast (although I noticed that approaching bikes also set it off, which seemed a bit unnecessary). But most of the perfection here is old school, not Boris-induced.

Limehouse: CS3's first busy road crossing is negotiated via a newly-installed toucan crossing, then it's up and over the Rotherhithe Tunnel exit ramp (with a slightly-too steep angle of ascent for any weary cyclist biking westward). In Horseferry Road the Superhighway brings a true bonus - a new cyclepath against the grain of the one-way flow, cutting at least a minute off any inbound commute. And then we're in Narrow Street, where the slapping down of bright blue road markings has proved controversial. The street's not been thought suitable for separate cycle lanes, probably because there are too many parking bays, so an alternative means of marking has been used. Big rectangular blue transfers have been ironed onto the road, each labelled with a picture of a bike and the designation "CS3". They're not pretty, especially when they appear to have been slapped down at irregular (and too frequent) intervals, so local residents aren't best pleased. Whilst they do their job of reminding drivers to watch out for cyclists on this quiet backstreet, one could easily argue they're an intrusive form of visual pollution which permanently scars this conservation area. [photo]

Westferry: Every now and then, the Superhighway planners have stuck in an impractical blue-lane slalom purely to meet health and safety requirements. So it is on a quiet street outside Westferry DLR station, where eastbound cyclists are expected to zigzag up onto the pavement and then make an immediate right turn around a lamppost. Westbound riders have it worse, invited to veer off the pavement, pass between two traffic bollards, then turn instantly right along the edge of a bus lane for five metres, then left back up onto the kerb. I'm sorry, but surely no practical cyclist is ever going to do this. They're going to cut diagonally across the corner following the line of least resistance, ignoring the blue lanes completely, however briefly 'risky' that might be. [photo]

Cycle Superhighway 3 at BlackwallPoplar High Street: Here, as in Narrow Street, the presence of the Superhighway is marked by big blue rectangles scattered irregularly along the roadway. This shouldn't be a problem for cyclists - the traffic here is invariably light - but it means there's a full mile without the security of a dedicated blue lane. Well almost. Occasionally the lane-painters have sneaked in a ten metre blue strip between parking bays, but never ever long enough to be worth diverting into. And there's another jobsworth-style up-on-the-pavement diversion, merely to avoid a traffic-calmed pinchpoint, which only the most risk averse cyclist would ever use. [photo]

East India: Out past Docklands already, avoiding all Blackwall Tunnel congestion by following narrow Naval Row. And then the Cycle Superhighway goes very wrong. The estate round Tower Hamlets Council HQ must be private, because they've refused to allow blue lanes to carve across the lakeside piazza. Instead a few tiny blue squares have been laid down to indicate the route, sort of, should anybody notice them [photo]. Along Saffron Avenue the entire Superhighway is blocked by a security barrier(!) which a guard has to raise for you (unless you nip up naughtily onto the pavement) [photo]. The impractical lane markings at the junction of Coriander Avenue and Sorrel Lane must be the product of a delusional mind. And nobody's yet bothered to paint anything along/across the busy Leamouth dual carriageway, so here's where I'd expect pioneering cyclists to get incredibly lost this morning. Really, this whole stretch is poor, as if bicycles are still a mere afterthought rather than any sort of priority.

Canning Town: In contrast, the twin lane blue highway along the East India Dock Road bridge is lovely [photo]. Again it's nothing new, just the original cycle lane painted blue, but if the entire Superhighway were like this then far more people might use it. Unfortunately not. At the Canning Town flyover cyclists are expected to dismount and cross one... two... three... four separate light-controlled crossings, rather than risk a spin round the roundabout. No thanks.

That's as far as I walked, because I couldn't face trudging the same distance again all the way out to Barking. It might have been different on a bike, of course. But the I'm afraid this hotchpotch of a route wouldn't tempt me onto two wheels even if I lived nearby. Certain lengthy stretches are reassuringly safe, but they're linked by non-segregated streets and awkward risky junctions. Cycle Superhighways may be better than nothing, but I fear they're super only in name.

 Sunday, July 18, 2010

East London's not averse to an arts festival or two. The LIFT Festival has been beaming out of a temporary hub in Canning Town for the past few weeks, bringing a series of creative events to a part of the capital that doesn't normally get many. Last night a quirky charade played out on the housing estates of E16, as seven technologically-modified ice cream vans drove round the area playing specially-synchronised tunes. Because artists are wacky like that. And you missed it.

Music for Seven Ice Cream VansMusic for Seven Ice Cream Vans is the brainchild of composer Dan Jones, who wanted to create a wandering aural symphony which would evoke warm summery feelings in those who inadvertently heard it. He took seven very ordinary ice cream vans and kitted them out with synchronised GPS technology, then linked them together so that he could control which one played what when. They don't play Greensleeves, they play Dan's own composition - a rather more soothing melody all told. Mf7ICV was originally devised as part of this year's Norfolk and Norwich Festival, and trundled off round Norwich's inner suburbs at the end of May. It got a lot of press, including this feature on Radio 4's PM (complete with 2½ minute audio snippet) and this Look East report. They may not be Britain's first City of Culture, but there's always been a thriving arts tradition up Norwich way.

Eight o'clock in Canning Town Recreation Ground, and there was absolutely no evidence that any local resident was aware of what was about to happen. Kids were playing merrily on the swings (or beating each other up, depending). A few tired dogs were being taken for a walk, and the bench by the shrubbery was occupied by folk downing copious amounts of cheap alcohol. Right on cue, as the tinkling of the vans grew ever closer, a masked youth revved his enormous motorbike straight across the middle of the grass before disappearing off into the surrounding streets. So far, so normal.

Four of the seven musical ice cream vans

The vans processed slowly around the perimeter of the park before spacing out and parking up and letting rip. The composition grew steadily, first with only a few brief musical phrases playing out, then gradually lengthening and layering until all seven vans were playing together. The overall effect was charming, if not overwhelming, with chimes echoing gently around the recreation ground for a full twenty minutes.

And yet many of the locals who'd been in the park seemed not to notice. The youngest continued playing, various teenagers carried on bickering and the lager drinkers didn't stir from their seat. Not even when the vans started issuing free ice cream did the majority of children attempt to obtain one. Maybe they thought they'd have to pay, or perhaps they'd never seen an ice cream van before and didn't associate their presence with the distribution of swirly cornets. It's very rash to assume that East London estate dwellers might have the same childhood memories as you. But I had no such qualms and wolfed down my free 99 with glee.

Standing in the centre of the recreation ground were a group of middle class adults paying rather more attention. A tiny handful of had read about the event elsewhere and made a special Saturday evening visit to Canning Town. But most appeared to be the organisers, the LIFT people, and associated media-type hangers on. They smiled, they listened, and they captured the sounds on iPhones and other audio-visual devices. How wonderful to be bringing an arts event of such calibre to the people of Canning Town. It's just a pity that so few of the genuine target audience noticed.

Eventually the vans revved up for one final circuit before heading off into the surrounding estate. They were due to tour three specially-zoned areas over the following hour, bringing brief musical delight to those living along the randomly selected streets. I doubt that many of those Canning Townspeople realised they were listening to a piece of art either. But back in the park one local lady rushed up to the bunch of organisers before leaving and announced that the evening had been "absolutely amazing!" It's inspiring like that, is art. Even when it's seven ice cream vans playing a mobile melodic symphony.

Music For Seven Ice Cream Vans (including eight minute You Tube interview with Dan Jones)
Music For One Ice Cream Van (a twelve second snippet I captured last night and uploaded to Flickr)
Ice Cream Orchestra (Something similar-ish put on by the Whitechapel Gallery last year)

Music For Seven Ice Cream Vans is being performed one more time this afternoon in Rainham. Yes, Rainham. I only hope that the publicity in Rainham is better than it was in Canning Town so that a decent sized audience turns up and enjoys their brief spell in the artistic spotlight. Alas, I doubt there'll be hundreds and thousands here either.

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the diamond geezer index
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my special London features
a-z of london museums
E3 - local history month
greenwich meridian (N)
greenwich meridian (S)
the real eastenders
london's lost rivers
olympic park 2007
great british roads
oranges & lemons
random boroughs
bow road station
high street 2012
river westbourne
trafalgar square
capital numbers
east london line
lea valley walk
olympics 2005
regent's canal
square routes
silver jubilee
unlost rivers
cube routes
Herbert Dip
capital ring
river fleet

ten of my favourite posts
the seven ages of blog
my new Z470xi mobile
five equations of blog
the dome of doom
chemical attraction
quality & risk
london 2102
single life
april fool

ten sets of lovely photos
my "most interesting" photos
london 2012 olympic zone
harris and the hebrides
betjeman's metro-land
marking the meridian
tracing the river fleet
london's lost rivers
inside the gherkin
seven sisters

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diamond geezers
flash mob #1  #2  #3  #4
ben schott's miscellany
london underground
watch with mother
cigarette warnings
digital time delay
wheelie suitcases
war of the worlds
transit of venus
top of the pops
old buckenham
ladybird books
acorn antiques
digital watches
outer hebrides
olympics 2012
school dinners
pet shop boys
west wycombe
bletchley park
george orwell
big breakfast
clapton pond
san francisco
children's tv
east enders
trunk roads
little britain
credit cards
jury service
big brother
jubilee line
number 1s
titan arum
doctor who
blue peter
peter pan
feng shui
leap year
bbc three
vision on
ID cards