diamond geezer

 Thursday, September 30, 2010

Stamford Brook
lower course: Ravenscourt Park → Hammersmith Creek

At the northern end of Ravenscourt Park there's a pond. It's a rather attractive asymmetrical pond with a central island, and a stone footbridge up one end beneath which the watery channel disappears. It's a waterfowl magnet, and the parkkeepers have kindly provided an identification board in case you can't tell your moorhens from your mallards. What most visitors don't realise is that in a previous incarnation it used to be part of a moat fed by the Stamford Brook. The moat surrounded Paddenswick House - a mansion of great standing dating back to the 12th century, and once owned by Edward III's mistress. Paddenswick House was upgraded several times over the years, and the gardens were duly landscaped (hence the park), but incendiary bombing in 1941 left the structure in need of total demolition so there's no trace now. Apart from the moat, that is. [photo]

Within the grounds of Ravenscourt Park the Stamford Brook's trio of headwaters finally merged, then headed south. We know that their combined flow was still visible 100 years ago in a culvert running beneath 180 King Street (now an estate agents) [photo]. From King Street onwards the river was once wide enough to be navigable, and the wharf-lined inlet so formed was known as Hammersmith Creek. It's anything but picturesque today. Hammersmith and Fulham Town Hall has been erected either on top of or right beside the old waterway, and you won't be seeing this building appearing on local postcards. Having said that, one bunch of architects have ambitious plans to restore the Stamford Brook to the surface here, including a potentially very expensive crossing of the A4 at aqueduct or surface level. The full scheme will never happen, not in this financial climate, but something more symbolically fluvial could easily reappear beside the town hall as part of a smaller scale redevelopment.

And finally, Furnival Gardens. This Thames-side park lies on the northern rim of the Hammersmith meander, and was created for the Festival of Britain out of an area of bombed wasteground. It's a very pleasant spot, with manicured flowerbeds and a small walled garden. Pleasant enough to be the location of choice for toddling families, keen joggers and Woodpecker-swilling inebriates. A semi-private pier juts out into the Thames, from which it's possible to look back towards the riverbank. If the tide's low enough, revealed before you is the outlet of the sewer which replaced Hammersmith Creek [photo]. One flap, which raises if it rains too much [photo], and a grey sludgy channel guiding whatever emerges into London's largest river [photo]. It's no wonder that Thames Water are keen to construct a mega-expensive replacement, starting very nearby indeed and heading down to Beckton. Those who live nearby will raise a cheer that former plans to sink the new tunnel from Furnival Gardens have been withdrawn. And come 2020 even the old Stamford Brook dribble-pipe will have been realigned, redirected and reborn.

Stamford Brook
tributary 3
- The Stamford Brook

The easternmost branch of the Stamford Brook was the straightest, and the longest. It rose on Old Oak Common, which might sound quaint and rural but these days is anything but. The source now lies within an industrial estate to the south of Willesden Junction station, whose sole redeeming feature is the Grand Union Canal snaking by. Just don't look beyond the shrubbery, not unless you like ash-scattered clearings full of abandoned supermarket trolleys and rotting mattresses. And rail depots. The depot at Old Oak Common is an absolute whopper, with sheds and sidings everywhere, and weedy plants growing up between the tracks and sleepers. It must have been unutterably lovelier when a stream trickled through.

You'd imagine Wormwood Scrubs to be even uglier, but that's not the case. It remains a broad expanse of open heathland, ideal for rambling or brambling, and you'd never notice the prison so long as you hang around the western end [photo]. My OS map told me there was a boundary stone part way along the rail embankment, which undoubtedly would have marked the passage of the Stamford Brook as well as the dividing line between London and Middlesex, but I couldn't find it. Nor the boundary stone beside the canal, for that matter. But the borough/ex-river is extremely obvious for the next mile because it precisely follows the route of Old Oak Common Lane, then Old Oak Road, through East Acton. The East Acton Estate is certainly more characterful than its South Acton counterpart, filled with brick cottagey terraces of a very distinct interwar municipal style.

Any hint of peace is shattered by the not-yet-elevated Westway, which sweeps across the former riverbed with four-lane disdain. Alongside is Claydon Gardens, a miserable patch of greenspace decked out with cider-swilling benches, followed by a series of 1970s council blocks that only a talentless architect could love [photo]. Don't worry, that's the lowpoint. It's swiftly back to sturdy family piles and faux-timbered semis on the journey down to Acton Vale. And look, there on the corner with the Uxbridge Road it's the holy grail of lost-river-searchers - the stinkpipe. A rusty green tube rises up from the pavement to release sewer-vent whiff well above top floor window level [photo]. Somewhere below ground the waters of the Stamford Brook continue to flow, although it's probably best not to imagine quite how.

Next up, Askew Road (which is indeed a skew road, suggesting a sinuous rivery past). There's a proper parade-of-shops feel here, all laundrettes and bistrocaffs, plus a Victorian tavern which has yet to realise that Setanta Sports have gone bust. Watch out if you own a cat round here, I've never seen quite so many Lost Pet notices attached to lampposts. And I'm embarrassed to say that this part of London has a name I'd never ever heard of before - Starch Green. It must be true, it says so on the maps in the bus shelters. Used to be a small open space on the Goldhawk Road, apparently, and was originally called Gaggle Goose Green courtesy of a former pond, now long filled-in. But one water feature has survived close by, in the park where the Stamford Brook's three tributaries finally come together. Half a mile to go.

» An approximate map of the Stamford Brook's course (my best Google map attempt)
» 20 photos altogether in my Stamford Brook gallery (of varying degrees of thrillingness)
» Read all my Stamford Brook posts on one page, in the right order

 Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Stamford Brook
tributary 2
- The Warple

If the Bollo Brook was obscure, then the Warple is surely more so. It's the local name for the middle one of the Stamford Brook's three main tributaries, and it used to drain much of Acton. Most surprisingly, a tiny stretch of the Warple apparently still exists. The local Ordnance Survey map shows approximately 100m of streamlet running through the back gardens of houses on Rosemont Road, which must make for a nice water feature, although nothing's visible from the street nor indeed from above. This is one of the Warple's sources, and there's another in nearby Springfield Gardens. Spring, field... all the clues are there! Council-erected signs spell out the park's rivery backstory as confirmation for those who care to read it.

There are some fairly steep slopes round and about, including Acton Hill. This was once home to the very first branch of Waitrose, but now leads down towards a rather less aspirational Morrisons in the High Street [photo]. The Warple flowed in the dip between these two retail outlets, crossing what's now a major traffic junction before continuing down through the redbrick end of the South Acton Estate. There are nicer places to go tracking lost rivers than traipsing round the back of garages beneath slabby tower blocks, it has to be said. The contours flatten out a little towards Acton Lane, where the only watery landmark today is the Victorian glass-roofed Acton Swimming Baths. [photo]

Next up it's the Southfields Recreation Ground, through which the river ran when this was Acton's South Field. And then, beyond the Scout hut, a peculiar curved lane fenced off at both ends. This is the location of the Acton Storm Tanks - a 1905 pumping station built for the important purpose of preventing the local area from flooding now that the river had been removed. The Warple is still sorely missed. Thames Water are currently consulting on plans to build a 21st century sewer - the multi-million pound Acton Storm Relief - to connect to their Tideway Tunnel running beneath the Thames. Locals fear several years of lorries disrupting life down Warple Way (there had to be one, didn't there?).

It's not far to the area where tributaries 1 and 2 joined. The Bollo Brook came in from the west, the Warple from the north, and the resulting conglomeration was the Stamford Brook. The stream's gone now, but it's not been forgotten. There's a Stamford Brook Road, which leads to the Brook gastropub (a chicken kiev and tempura prawn kind of place). There's a triangle of grass, called Stamford Brook Common, ideal for exercising less energetic dogs. The river once ran along the southern side, I believe. And of course there's Stamford Brook tube station, the most widely-known reminder of all. This was the very first station on the underground network to have automatic ticket barriers, way back in 1964. The staff have had less to do ever since, which must be why the bloke on the gate took more than a passing interest in the fact I was taking photographs of the exterior of his station [photo]. "Those for a magazine?" he asked, as I Oystered through. "Yeah, like any magazine would be interested in shots of Stamford Brook station, you suspicious jobsworth," I wanted to reply, but thought better of it. I wonder how many dyslexic Chelsea fans he has to deal with on Saturday afternoons.

Stamford Brook
Chiswick House

It's a recently reopened jewel in West London. It's a classical villa built in grand style lying just off the A4. It's surrounded by a garden that's both ground-breaking and gorgeous. And in that garden's there's a landscaped canal which might or might not be the remnant of a lost river. Could be.

Chiswick House was built in the 1720s by Lord Burlington, a bright young thing who'd been inspired by the Palladian villas of northern Italy. He wanted a house to show off, but not to live in, and so commissioned a building the like of which London had never seen before. Porticos and Venetian windows, symmetrical steps and Roman pillars, all topped off with an octagonal dome [photo]. At Chiswick he would entertain the nobility, usually as part of his unofficial role as chief patron to the Arts, and they would be duly inspired by the dazzling walls and ceilings within. You, on the other hand, can get inside for a fiver (open Sunday to Wednesday until the end of October). An audio guide helps explain the historical nuances of what you're seeing, from the more ordinary spaces on the ground floor to the "wow look at that" rooms upstairs. There's a Green Velvet Room, a Blue Velvet Room and a Red Velvet Room (you'll know which is which), plus a central chamber lined by giant portraits beneath a coffered skylight. It's easy to see how 18th century visitors would have been awestruck.

The gardens are almost as impressive. Chiswick House boasts the earliest example of an 'English Landscape Garden' - bravely informal in its time, and littered with classically inspired features [photo]. Avenues lead off into manicured undergrowth, terminating at some chunk of stonework or lofty obelisk. Paths wind through woodland to reach a hidden cricket pitch or sprawling glass conservatory. There's even an Ionic Temple at the garden's heart, although it was swathed in scaffolding when I visited so I can't tell you how impressive it looks.

And then there's the river. It's almost straight, but tweaked so it isn't quite. It dips beneath an unexpectedly humpy bridge [photo]. It's fed by a grotto-like cascade of rippling water. It has ducks, and waterfowl that aren't ducks. It borders a semi-formal lawn where local Chiswick-ites like to picnic (when the weather's better) [photo]. And it runs on an alignment that almost perfectly matches the direction the Bollo Brook would have flowed if only it hadn't turned unexpectedly east halfway down. Some say the brook did indeed once pass this way, and now runs in a pipe along the bottom of the channel. If that's the case then the waters must once have flowed straight on, across Duke's Meadows to the Thames, although there's no sign there today [photo]. Hell, who cares? The possibility of a lost river brought me to Chiswick House, but the certainty of beauty should be enough to tempt you instead.

 Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Stamford Brook
tributary 1
- Bollo Brook

Yes, there's a lost river in London called the Bollo Brook. If that comes as a surprise, you clearly don't live or work in South Acton, because the name's everywhere. There are roads named after the Bollo, and workplaces, and a gastropub, even a youth centre. It's one of those words that works well as a geographical brand name, because how would you ever mistake it for something else.

The Bollo Brook is the westernmost of Stamford Brook's three headwaters. It kicked off roughly where Birch Grove meets the Uxbridge Road, a few doors down from Carpet Right and suspiciously close to the "Brookford" launderette. The nearest station is Ealing Common, which is highly relevant because this old river hugs the railway for almost the entirety of its length. Or rather the other way round. The District line from Ealing Common round to Turnham Green, laid in the late 1870s, followed fairly closely the line of the old Bollo Brook. I can't locate any evidence to suggest the railway precisely replaced the river, but presumably its undeveloped 'valley' provided the line of least resistance.

So there's a distinctly Underground flavour to the now-underground river. The Bollo Brook once ran across what's now Ealing Common Depot. It ran beside, or maybe through, the London Transport Museum Depot at Acton (next open in two weeks time) [photo]. It passed Acton Town station [photo], more precisely through the very obvious dip where the Acton Town Hotel now sits. And then it followed Bollo Lane for about half a mile - lost rivers don't get much more blatant than this. There's even a Bollo Bridge Road stretching off into Acton Proper, although no sign of any bridge beneath the apartment blocks. Across the railway is Bollo House, from which the western end of the Piccadilly line is managed. Then at Bollo Lane Junction a pair of level crossings - a rare sight in central London - but only one of which is still in regular (Overground) use [photo]. And finally the gastropub - The Bollo - which for some reason is represented on its sign by a pineapple. A complete load of Bollos, the lot of them.

At Chiswick Park (the tube station, not the park), the river's supposed to have swung east [photo]. It divided Acton Green Common from Chiswick Common, just as the railway does now, before edging away from the District/Piccadilly at Turnham Green. We'll rejoin the river here tomorrow. And we'll visit Chiswick House too, because that's both relevant and exquisite.

Stamford Brook

Only one of London's lost rivers has a tube station named after it. The Fleet nearly managed an entire line, but the Queen's Silver Jubilee saw to that. Stamford Brook station is named after a waterway which used to flow nearby (but, to the best of my knowledge, not directly through). It's a peculiar waterway, Stamford Brook, in that it had three very distinct and separate sources. Two of those headed defiantly towards the Thames only to stop suddenly, turn east and join up with the third. All three flowed through that broad geographical entity we know today as "Acton". And some were alternatively known by different, and somewhat amusing, names. The western tributary, that's the Bollo Brook, and the middle one is the Warple. Honest.

Please be patient with me - this isn't a part of London I know well. It's also been especially difficult to determine where precisely each branch ran, or indeed if they even linked up like this at all. We're quite a way west of the West End here, well outside the scope of most historical maps of London, so there's not a lot of cartographical evidence to pinpoint the Stamford Brook's original course. But this was the very last of London's lost rivers to go underground, open in its upper reaches until the early 20th century, so some maps do exist. Meanwhile all of the rivers further to the west have survived on the surface - the Brent, the Crane and the Colne still flow.

One thing I've been surprised to discover while researching London's lost rivers this year is how incredibly important they are in defining boundaries. This is especially true in West London, where the existence of two long thin boroughs is entirely due to rivers that no longer exist. The boundary between Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea... a chunk of that follows the Westbourne. The boundary between Kensington and Chelsea and Hammersmith and Fulham... is almost precisely defined by Counter's Creek. The western boundary of Hammersmith and Fulham... follows very closely the line of Stamford Brook (bar a few modern tweaks to match administrative areas to reality). And as for the northeastern boundary of Hounslow, where the borough rubs up against Ealing... step forward the Bollo Brook. If you live out this way, then the public body to whom you pay your council tax is most likely determined by on which bank of an ancient unseen river you live. Lost these rivers may be, but their influence remains current.

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

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

 Monday, September 27, 2010

One of the latest phrases in blogging and the media is "hyperlocal". That's keeping in touch with what's going down in the neighbourhood, and reporting back on events from round about. National and regional news is all very well and good, but what people also need is to know what's happening round the corner. Communal content, that's where it's at.

TV can never drill down far enough to be hyperlocal. Watching a regional news broadcast means sitting through lots of things of no hyperlocal relevance whatsoever. Londoners have it good in that several stories usually relate to citywide issues, but this still leaves folk in Watford or Sevenoaks or Chelmsford thinking "oh for goodness sake, what has this to do with me?" Equally any TV news service aimed solely at Watford, or West Watford, or even the Cassiobury Park end of Gade Avenue, would lose money hand over fist.

So web-based hyperlocal services are surely the way to go. Citizens can supplement their media diet with a feed of stories from very-nearby, like when the next jumble sale is, and who's got a planning application in, and what's wrong with the lamppost on the corner by the postbox. Hyperlocal blogging is a model that can take off anywhere, so long as those behind the project have sufficient enthusiasm (and so long as the community notices and joins in). It works brilliantly in the Derbyshire village of Parwich, for example, and in Ventnor on the Isle of Wight and in Swanage. But it's patchy is hyperlocality, very patchy.

There was a conference over the weekend on the South Bank where various hyperlocal players in London came together to discuss issues and cooperation going forward. I didn't go, but Jason's written a report, Sarah has some thoughts and Hugh even has some photos. It seems London is a perfect arena for all things hyperlocal, because tens of thousands of people live within a mile of someone else. And yet some parts of town (notably the southeast) have blog after blog after blog based a few streets apart, while other neighbourhoods have virtually no voice at all.

Some hyperlocal London blogs: Beckenham, Blackheath, Brixton, Brixton, Brockley, Creekside, Deptford, Greenwich, Greenwich, Hackney, Harringay, Kensal Rise, Kidbrooke, King's Cross, Leabank Square, New Cross, Newham, Shepherd's Bush, Spitalfields, Stockwell, SE1, SE11, West Hampstead, Willesden
[This is a very subjective list. It's also almost certainly incomplete, so I'm more than willing to add to it if you let me know. But I'm not including blatantly commercial platforms, nor sporadic posters, nor the geographically diffuse, so I reserve the right not to include all suggestions]

My blog isn't hyperlocal. I write about various bits of London, but not one specific area. I may live in Bow, but I don't write about it very often. If I want to find out what's going on round here I have to check the local paper, or council news, or look around for myself. I've uncovered one recent local blog (hello!), but other than that London E3 goes mostly unreported.

So I thought I'd start a hyperlocal blog of my own. I mean, why not? I've called it eethree (because ethree and e-three were already taken), and it's already up and running. Don't get excited, there's nothing on there you haven't read already. I've uploaded all my E3-related posts from the last couple of years to create a brief backstory, and now all that's missing is the new stuff. Maybe you'd help me write it.

I don't have time to maintain two blogs, not properly, so I'd be delighted if certain local folk could help me out with the new one. Let me know, and I'll add friendly literate authors to my eethree permissions list. Only news and comment from the E3 postcode will be permitted. That includes Mile End, Bow and Bromley-by-Bow, even Three Mills and Fish Island, but not Victoria Park or the Olympic Park. Please let's have nothing extreme, nor rampantly advertorial, nor anything applicable to Tower Hamlets as a whole. I reserve the right to moderate what gets churned out, or even to delete the entire project if it doesn't work. But let's hope eethree takes off. HyperEastEndlocality, it's the future you know.

 Sunday, September 26, 2010

  Green Chain Walk
[section 11]
  Crystal Palace to Nunhead Cemetery (5 miles)

The Green Chain is a network of footpaths threading through southeast London linking woods and open spaces. It's one of the capital's key strategic walking routes. And, up until yesterday, it came in ten parts. Today an 11th section is being opened, extending the chain along the borders of Southwark and Lewisham. If you like the sound of the route you can attend its opening ceremony in Nunhead at 2pm this afternoon, then join a guided walk south to Dulwich and/or Crystal Palace. But I sneaked in and did the walk yesterday because the weather was better.

Green Chain 11Crystal Palace Park used to be as far as the Green Chain went. But now there's a new fingerpost round the back of the station, near that cute mural of the dinosaurs on a train, and it points the way five miles further. Sorry, there are no concrete iguanadons on this section, which heads off instead past the site of the old palace beneath London's mightiest TV mast [photo]. But not up the steps to enjoy the view. Oh no, this is a walk optimised for those with pushchairs or wheelchairs, so the official path sticks to the lower level beneath the terrace. I ignored that, obviously, and nipped up for a stroll along the top. One thing you quickly learn on this walk is that the occasional deviation is advantageous.

Walk London haven't yet got round to uploading a route map for this walk, so I had to rely on signposts every step of the way. That's OK, because this new walk has been waymarked with Stalinist zeal and getting lost is almost impossible. But not quite. Just north of Crystal Palace Park the walk splits, with one route for those who need to avoid steps and one for more able adventurers. Only the former has been signposted, so I only discovered the more interesting bifurcation using intelligent guesswork. On my way through a well-hidden Lewisham council estate I came face to face with a snarling Staffie called Bones, thankfully tethered to his teenage master else he might well have lived up to his name. And then, where the two routes rejoined, a far more serious error. Two of the signposts have been accidentally swapped, so that Nunhead points to Crystal Palace and vice versa. I treated the whole thing as a logic problem and deduced my correct exit, but had I arrived via the "step-free" route I'd have blindly continued the wrong way (which is straight down a flight of steps). Get it fixed, Greenchainers.

Crescent Wood TunnelAfter a brief (but elegant) road trek, the path heads down into a cutting to follow a dismantled railway. This was the Crystal Palace and South London Junction Railway, which opened in 1865 and somehow struggled on until 1954 despite minimal passenger traffic. The Crescent Wood tunnel survives, and the Green Chain passes both ends and crosses the northern portal. You won't get inside, not unless you're a member of the London Wildlife Trust, but you can go right up close and sort-of peer in. Further down the line an original railway footbridge survives (the one from which Pissaro painted Lordship Lane station) (now in the Courtauld Gallery), although this now spans nothing more than some fenced off undergrowth [photo]. And inbetween lies Sydenham Hill Wood, a rare tract of ancient woodland, which is another of those places where it's well worth diverting off the signposted track (ooh pond, ahh Victorian folly).

If you feel like a diversion, a Green Chain spur to Dulwich links to the main route here. It starts with a pleasant descent down tree-lined Cox's Walk, then heads west for a meandering stroll through Dulwich Park [photo]. The park was a middle class haven yesterday, with mummies working out on the open air gym equipment while their kids whizzed round the park in a swarm of recumbent pedal cycles. Hordes of under-10s were being drilled in the art of football ("come on Noah pass to Hugo"), whereas it seems nobody fancied a spin on the boating lake now that autumn's here. Green Chain signposts terminate outside Dulwich Art Gallery, which is a marvellous building to visit if you haven't been before - otherwise it's probably worth giving this 1½ mile extension a miss.

One Tree HillBack on the main walk (after several unavoidable steps) there's another south London treasure - the Horniman Museum. Again the official route misses the view from the top of the hill, skirting instead through the landscaped gardens, although it's an easy diversion to the galleries and café if you so choose. There follows a brief slog through the streets to Camberwell Old Cemetery's rear entrance. This will eventually have brand new ornamental gates to accommodate the Green Chain route, but for now it's accessed through a flimsy timber construction which any well-meaning vandal could kick down in a trice. Next up, for those able-bodied enough to manage 72 steps, is One Tree Hill. There's a great view across central London from the summit (blimey, the Shard's going to be huge, isn't it?), as well as a chance to see the oak tree under which Queen Elizabeth I picknicked on May Day 1602 (or its 20th century replacement). Here too is the Green Chain's other major waymarking malfunction. There's a green post at the top of the hill but it's armless, so walkers have to guess which of the many paths down they need to take. I got that right too, but only by luck.

Nearly there, but still two more cemeteries to go. Camberwell New Cemetery is very much a going concern, complete with crematorium and copious floral tributes everywhere. I passed three 'mourners' (with helium balloons) holding a sort-of party beside one particular grave. They'd left the doors of their car open and were pumping Smooth Radio across the entire hillside, which was very sweet if you like George Michael and Billy Joel, and a bloody selfish imposition if you don't. And finally to Nunhead Cemetery, one of London's finest Victorian burial grounds. Imagine a woody hill littered with urns on pillars and toppling gravestones, it's very much like that. Plus a mighty Gothic chapel, its interior alas destroyed by arson in the 1970s, but still the dominant feature at the top of the main carriage drive. Expect a ceremonial "cutting of the ribbon" here around two o'clock this afternoon. Or if you don't fancy joining the Chain gang, turn up and walk the whole thing at a time of your choosing, like what I did.

Launch of section 11, today at 2pm (and map) (and maptrace)

 Saturday, September 25, 2010

There are still 586 days to go until the next London Mayoral election.
But the two main protagonists are already known.

Ken v Boris

One useless charlatan and one dynamic saviour.
You get to decide which is which, and vote accordingly.

Boris v Ken

Unusually, both contenders have a past record on which to be judged.
Which of these two gets to take another crack at running the capital?

Ken v Ken v Boris

But do we really need the battlefield to be set up 20 months early?
Even an American Presidential election doesn't drag on this long.

Ken v Boris v Ken v Boris v Ken v Boris v Ken v Boris v Ken v Boris v ...

Expect repeated slanging matches on TV news and in the media, oh joy.
Only a charismatic third force could prevent a rerun of the 2008 stand-off.

Boris v Ken v Lembit

Er, sorry Lembit, that's not you, you'd sink without trace.
There's only one centreground hope could tear this battle apart.

Ken v Boris v Floella

Ms Benjamin would suck up second preference votes like a Hoover, surely?
And who wouldn't like to see a Play School presenter opening the 2012 Olympics?

Aldwyching: London Underground are running commemorative Blitz trips down Aldwych station this weekend. Ooh, Aldwych station. It's been shut since 1994, and the lower levels are almost impossible to visit unless you make films or are a TfL employee. But 3000 members of the public will be taking a trip downstairs, led by an actor dressed as an air raid warden, to discover what life might have been like sheltering from the Luftwaffe 70 years ago. Bad luck, all the tickets have already been snapped up, but you'll no doubt be interested to hear what the tour's like...
     Ian visited. And took some photos.
     Darryl went down. And took some photos.
     Dean from Londonist descended.
     Ian's written about his visit.
     Peter took a preview tour.
     Chris took 71 photographs.
     Steve took 42 photographs.
     James recorded an audio review.
     The BBC filmed on the platform.
     Various newspapers filed reports.

 Friday, September 24, 2010

London's unique in the history of the Olympics. It's the only city in the world to have been awarded the Games three times. And that means three marathons. Every one of them has followed a different route. None of those different routes have overlapped in any way. And all of the routes have been controversial in some way or other. Or will be controversial, very shortly, alas.

London Olympic Marathon Route 1908

1908 Marathon plaque, EtonThe 1908 Olympic stadium was located at White City, to the west of London, which was hosting the Franco-British Exhibition at the time. Marathons were usually 25 miles long back then, so the organisers planned to start the race outside Eton College which was an appropriate distance away. There's still a metal plaque bolted to a wall above Barnespool Bridge in Eton announcing that the race has 25 miles (or 40.2 kilos) to go. It was royalty who added the route controversy in 1908, first moving the start back to Windsor Castle (26 miles) and then adding 385 yards onto the end so that the race could finish in front of the Royal Box. 26 miles and 385 yards has been the official length of marathon races ever since, and the extra 5% is solely thanks to King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. [Full story here]
What was the route? Windsor Castle, Eton, Slough, Iver Heath, Uxbridge, Ickenham, Ruislip, Eastcote, Pinner, Harrow, Sudbury, Wembley, Harlesden, East Acton, Wormwood Scrubs, White City
Seriously... Slough, Pinner, Harlesden and Wormwood Scrubs?!? Yes, there were no TV bosses to keep happy in those days.
Can I see the precise route on a map? Certainly.
What's the route like today? I travelled the entire 26 miles on the marathon's 100th anniversary back in 2008. I didn't run it, obviously, and I took the bus for half, but I still walked 13 miles and blogged from various points along the way. I don't think I'd recommend it.
Did you take any photos? Yes, 35 of them.
What happened to the White City Stadium? It got knocked down, and the BBC Media Village now stands on the site. You can still see the finishing line marked in the piazza outside the One Show studio.

London Olympic Marathon Route 1948
The 1948 Olympic stadium was located at Wembley, to the northwest of London. Britain had taken on the Games in the aftermath of World War 2 because nobody else was willing (or able) to have a go, so these were very much an Austerity Olympics. Wartime damage was still widespread in the West End and City, so organisers decided to send the marathon in the opposite direction. That meant less depressing views, but absolutely no famous landmarks whatsoever. Nobody complained (obviously, because they were simply happy to take part), but it wasn't the most uplifting of routes.
What was the route? Wembley Stadium, Kingsbury, Queensbury, Stanmore, Edgware, Mill Hill, Borehamwood, Radlett, Watling Street, Elstree, Stanmore, Queensbury, Kingsbury, Wembley Stadium
Seriously... Stanmore, Edgware, Borehamwood and Radlett?!? Yes, there were no TV bosses to keep happy in those days.
Can I see the precise route on a map? I've not managed to track down the precise roads followed, but I can let you see a map of where I think the route might have gone. I'm almost certainly wrong, sorry, especially on the big loop through Edgware, Mill Hill and Borehamwood. But you'll get the out-of-town flavour of it all.
Can anyone bear witness to the race? Alan Lawrence, now the curator of Elstree and Boreham Wood Museum, was present at the start and finish. There might be more information at the Museum, but it has such a sparse website that I couldn't possibly tell.

London Olympic Marathon Route 2012 (current)
The 2012 Olympic stadium is located at Stratford, to the east of London. It's located a few hundred yards from the point where London's three poorest boroughs meet, in the hope that legacy development will help to raise the economic profile of the surrounding area. The 2012 marathon is still scheduled to end up here (until bosses decree otherwise) after running three times round a central London loop.
What is the route? Tower Bridge, [Tower, Monument, Cannon Street, Embankment, Westminster, Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, Strand, Fleet Street, St Paul's, Bank, Aldgate]×3 Whitechapel, Stepney, Mile End, Bow, my house, Stratford
Seriously... Whitechapel, Stepney, Mile End and Bow?!? Absolutely, these are places with true atmosphere and history. There's even a plan called High Street 2012 to freshen up the East End stretch before the Olympic crowds arrive. As part of HS2012, English Heritage are pumping millions into a special Historic Building Conservation Scheme, and unveiled the first fruits of their labours in Whitechapel only last week. Several other architectural clusters along the road will get their spruce up later, with brickwork repaired and period features restored. My road should look a lot nicer by the time the marathon passes this way. Or not.
Are the three miles through the East End really so tedious and ugly? I took 90 photos of High Street 2012 a couple of summers ago. I think it's fascinating and historic, but you be the judge.
Can I see the precise route on a map? The London 2012 website used to have a map, but it's long disappeared. This badly-spelt Wikipedia sketch will have to do instead.
What are the chances that this route will survive another few weeks? Don't hold your breath.

London Olympic Marathon Route 2012 (actual)

 Thursday, September 23, 2010

WARNING: This post contains rude words and swearing. And justifiably so, I think.

The route of the 2012 Olympic marathon runs straight past my front door! How exciting is that?

But maybe not for much longer. There are mutterings, and rumours, and posturings which suggest that the marathon won't be coming my way after all. It won't pass through the East End, and it won't finish at the Olympic Stadium. Instead the Tower Hamlets arm will be amputated to allow the race to finish on the Mall instead. Which would be a bloody disgrace.

This decision isn't yet certain. Indeed Olympic chiefs haven't yet made any official announcement whatsoever. So I'll hold back from describing the organising committee as "a bunch of brand-obsessed fuckwits who don't give a toss about local communities", at least until the news is confirmed.

The new route, allegedly, runs three times round a circuit of Central London, both starting and finishing on the Mall. It'll pass such renowned London landmarks as Tower Bridge, St Paul's, Big Ben and Buckingham Palace, which should look lovely on TV and attract millions of extra tourists to visit our fair city. But it'll no longer pass Whitechapel Market, Mile End and the Bow Flyover because, by implication, they're shitholes unworthy of prime global airtime.

I am, to say the least, pissed off by this.

I've been very excited about the east-facing route of the London marathon ever since it was first announced. And I'm not the only one.
London 2012 Chairman, Sebastian Coe, said London's famous sights and settings will help to make the London 2012 Marathon a unique and unforgettable Olympic experience for all involved. "We wanted to design a course that will create lasting memories and moments for the runners, spectators, television audiences and the Olympic Movement; a course that will inspire a new generation of athletes and runners," said Coe, a double Olympic Gold medallist. (15 April 2005)
The previous route, which made Seb all weak at the knees, wasn't much different to the revised route being touted around today. It started at Tower Bridge, then ran three identical loops down to Westminster and back, passing almost every iconic London landmark an international TV broadcaster could have desired [map]. Apart from the precise starting point, this concept of "three times round central London" hasn't changed. What has changed is that in the old version when the runners reached Aldgate for the third time they carried on, and ran up the A11 (aka HS2012, aka BCS2) to reach the Olympic Stadium. Because Olympic marathons always end at the Olympic Stadium. Even if that means, as in Athens in 2004, running along 'boring' peripheral roads lined with flats, shops and garages. London 2012 want to break the mould by ending in front of the Queen's house instead, and bollocks to tradition and to the East End.

One especially feeble excuse being wheeled out is that this more compact course "enables spectators lining the route to watch the runners pass by several times." Pah, you devious fact-twisting bastards, the old route did that too. In fact the new route allows fewer people to watch the marathon than was previously planned, because the triple-loop still exists but nobody in East London gets to see the race at all. The Nu-Marathon looks like being a sanitised circuit race designed to minimise road closures, and all to avoid the Olympic Route Network clogging up. We can't have sponsors' limousines getting stuck in traffic, can we, because they're the priority.

And let's get this in perspective. A marathon is 26.2 miles long. The road from Aldgate to the Olympic Park in Stratford is 3.3 miles long. This means that TV broadcasters have kicked up a fuss about a mere 12½% of the marathon route. World class athletes should be able to run this distance in about 15 minutes. A couple of strategically placed commercial breaks should cover that, if TV bosses are really so paranoid about showing what they perceive to be uninterrupted kebab shops and council estates. To be honest, I think audiences might appreciate a few miles of something different after 1¾ hours of thrice-repeated landmarks.

All is not yet lost. A London 2012 spokeswoman said: "We have not yet confirmed all the details of the marathon route, we are in the process of finalising all the details and we hope to announce an approved route shortly." But if the final route castrates the East End, then half a million nearby residents are going to feel wholly cheated when marathon day comes round. And "a bunch of brand-obsessed fuckwits who don't give a toss about local communities" is going to be the mildest of my thoughts.

If London is really so ashamed of its East End, perhaps it shouldn't have built the Olympic Stadium there.

 Wednesday, September 22, 2010

My road is turning blue.
We've all been sent a leaflet.
Barclays Cycle Superhighway 2 (Bow to Aldgate) will be passing close to your door from Summer 2011. We want to let you know what will be happening, and tell you how you can find out more.
The leaflet explains what these Cycle Superhighway thingies are, in case I haven't noticed yet, which I guess most local Bow residents haven't. Exactly the same as was opened last July along a pair of routes from Barking and Merton, but now Boris has two more lined up on the starting grid. Yes, there'll be a garish bank-sponsored blue stripe outside my front door within the next 12 months. Oh joy.
Where will BCS2 go?
From Bow Roundabout to Aldgate via: Bow Road, Mile End Road, Whitechapel Road and Whitechapel High Street.
To see a map of BCS2, visit tfl.gov.uk/barclayscyclesuperhighways
There's no map anywhere in the leaflet, not even a very simple one. And the map on the TfL website is useless (even assuming anyone manages to work out on which page they've hidden it). It features only a a vaguely sketched line, with absolutely no clues about approximately where the lanes might go and which junctions might be upgraded. For example, I might want to know whether the big blue bikelane is going to cross the Bow Flyover, or whether instead it'll stop dead at a roundabout which intersects with a bike-unfriendly ex-motorway. Presumably this level of basic information will come later.

And I'm sure the original plan was for Cycle Superhighway 2 to run from Ilford to the City, Instead it seems that, for now, only the western half is being laid. The easy half. The A11 from Bow to Aldgate has always been a wide road (there were trams running down it a century ago) so squeezing in a couple of 1.5m cycle carriageways shouldn't be difficult. Indeed much of my local street has a cycle lane already, so presumably the imminent roadworks will concentrate on cheap things like lane markings and redesigned kerb lines. Again, the leaflet has no specifics.
When will this happen?
BCS2 will be launched in Summer 2011, from Bow Road to Aldgate High Street. Implementation will start in Autumn 2010.
Hang on a minute. The two previous Cycle Superhighways were definitely called CS3 and CS7. How come this new one has an extra B? Are Barclays even muscling in on the abbreviation now? Is some signwriter is going to come along and write "BCS2" on a bright blue strip of tarmac where previously CS2 would have sufficed? Do we really have to suffer an even more blatant advert for an unloved bank repeated every few yards along three miles of roadway? I don't normally condone spitting, but if I ever see a well-aimed gobbet of phlegm land on a wholly unnecessary additional 'B', I'll probably cheer.
How can I find out more?
From Autumn 2010 a section on our webpage will be showing further details of what will be implemented, and where. We will also show details of the timing of any works which may affect local residents and businesses.
But the website has bugger all information at the moment. Absolutely nothing at all. There might be scary things planned outside my front door, but no details are yet available. This is a premature leaflet which encourages residents to seek out clarification which isn't there. It warns them that something will happen, but not what. People will undoubtedly chuck the leaflet away, and then when all the actual Cycle Superhighway stuff goes up on the internet in a month or two's time, none of them will notice.

Are TfL planning to shrink my pavement to make way for a dedicated cycle lane? Are traffic lights going to be rebuilt and rephased to meet the demands of the East End peloton? Will anyone (please) take this opportunity to shrink our giant bendy-sized bus stops to coincide with the doubledeckerisation of route 25 next summer? Most importantly, will there be any public consultations on this project (other than its effect on parking spaces), or is everything going to happen no matter what?
The Mayor of London is committed to securing the health, environmental and congestion benefits of a cycle revolution.
I'm sure he is. I'm sure that more bikes and less cars is the way to go. But he's not yet telling me anything useful about the transformation of the road that I live on. I fear that we EastEnders have been promised HS2012, but all we'll get is BCS2.

 Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Open House: London's Town Halls
London is awash with Town Halls. 32 are current, but there are umpteen redundant town halls because most modern boroughs are amalgamations of three pre-1965 boroughs. Over Open House weekend several of these town halls, old and new, were open, so I tried visiting lots of them. Call it civic pride. Or call it an attempt to avoid queueing, because it seems very few Londoners shared my desire to look inside these municipal temples. Here's a brief report on six of them, progressing chronologically so you can see how architectural styles change.

Stratford Old Town HallStratford Old Town Hall
(Opened: 1869) (Style: Italian Gothic) (Current use: conference & wedding venue) [factsheet]

Despite living nearby, I hadn't realised that the old West Ham Town Hall on Stratford Broadway was usually open to the public. A ground floor corridor hosts exhibitions, of a sort, and the rear courtyard houses a cafe which runs with minimal publicity [photo]. But we got to see rather more than that, behind the scenes of what is now a venue hired out by the council to all and sundry. On Sunday that meant sharing the building with several evangelical churches, some of them extremely loud as they chanted and screeched and sang for the Lord. We saw the main hall, its chandeliers crafted on what is now the Olympic Stadium site, and its plasterwork restored to former glories after a vicious fire in 1982. We went down into the basement to see a row of 24 cells where they now store all the spare tables and chairs. And, best of all, we went up the belltower to look out across the length of Stratford Broadway [photo] [photo]. If the new (ambitious) centre manager gets her way, climbing up here might not remain a once-a-year treat in the future. Here's hoping.
(Tour guide: member of staff) (Tour size: 15) (Worth seeing? Yes)

Finsbury Town HallFinsbury Town Hall
(Opened: 1899) (Style: Free Renaissance) (Current use: dance school) [factsheet]

One of the early London town halls this, initially a Vestry Hall from the years when church boards ran public infrastructure, but upgraded with an overstated exterior flourish. It's also a very early example of Art Nouveau, as you may have seen from the rather gorgeous stained glass nameplates on the wrought iron canopy in Rosebery Avenue. The Great Hall is most impressive, as it had to be in those days to encourage bookings. The ceiling is covered by elaborate plasterwork throughout, while the light fittings comprise ethereal winged figures carrying sprays of illuminated bulbs [photo]. This lovely town hall's been underused since 1965 when Islington displaced Finsbury, and redundant since 2003 when the registrar's office moved out. The new tenant is a dance school, whose students cavort and sing and get generally artistic within ornate Victorian walls. Looks like the transformation's working well.
(Tour guide: volunteer) (Tour size: 9) (Worth seeing? Yes)

Lambeth Town HallLambeth Town Hall
(Opened: 1908) (Style: Edwardian Baroque) (Current use: Town Hall) [factsheet]

You'll have seen this one - it dominates Brixton town centre on the corner opposite KFC. I walked in through the automatic doors behind a very drunk man, who hurled some unintelligible verbal abuse, waved a can of lager and then stumbled out. Other than that, this was my most civilised and informative tour, led by one of Lambeth's esteemed councillors no less. He had a deep knowledge of everything he was showing us, from the type of marble on the grand staircase to identifying the seat John Major used to sit on in the council chamber [photo]. Best of all, this was the only tour of an existing town hall where we were allowed into the Mayor's Parlour. Our councillor had never held the role, but knew all about the Doulton on the sideboard and the origin of the two spades on the wall. All the rest of the tour was of public spaces open to all, but brought to life with verve even for a non borough resident like me.
(Tour guide: councillor) (Tour size: 3) (Worth seeing? Yes, for locals)

Walthamstow Town HallWalthamstow Town Hall
(Opened: 1938) (Style: Swedish inter-war) (Current use: town hall) [factsheet]

It looks most impressive from the road outside, viewed across lawns with municipal flowerbeds and a whopping great fountain [photo]. A little less so inside, especially when the Open House volunteer hasn't turned up. So I got taken round by the bloke who's whatever the official title for a caretaker is, and he was wonderful. If you want to know how a building really works, ask the bloke who keeps it ticking over. This is where they split one of the meeting rooms in two, sorry this door's locked, and here are the Chesterfields where the councillors mingle before a big meeting. He didn't know that pre-war spending cuts had led to terrazo being used in the foyer instead of marble, but he could recount where the queue for social services used to sit, and where the awards cabinet was, and what it's like to have to hand a note to the chairman during an important council meeting [photo]. Not what the man was expecting to do on his morning shift, but oh so very much appreciated.
(Tour guide: caretaker) (Tour size: 1) (Worth seeing? Ish)

Brent Town HallBrent Town Hall
(Opened: 1940) (Style: Dutch modernist) (Current use: town hall) [factsheet]

According to the Open House Guide, Pevsner believed this to be 'The best of the pre-war modern Town Halls around London'. He can't have gone inside. I've rarely been more underwhelmed by a building, but with a charming caretakery bloke showing us around I was far too polite to say so. He took us first into a large committee room with ugly brown furniture, which could easily have been transported from a mothballed failed secondary school. And then into the council chamber which, apart from its wood veneer walls, failed to inspire any architectural enthusiasm in me at all. Even viewing it from the public gallery didn't add anything, except for wasted time. The main hall might have looked better but there was a Hindu wedding kicking off in there, and they'd tarted up the space by covering the entire ceiling and all four walls with drapes. Sorry Brent, it may function well but yours was by far the most tedious town hall I saw over my Open House weekend. [no photo]
(Tour guide: member of staff) (Tour size: 2) (Worth seeing? No, really not)

Westminster City HallWestminster City Hall
(Opened: 1966) (Style: Sixties UglyTower) (Current use: city hall)

There are few architectural reasons for visiting Westminster's local seat of government. It's a hideous tower block on Victoria Street, whose only redeeming feature is that it's very tall. This means there's an excellent view from the 18th floor, where the Mayoral suite is located, and to which the public was admitted throughout Saturday. If you didn't get up to the top of 55 Broadway, this was the next best (or maybe better) thing [photo] [photo]. There was also rare access to the top floor vault where the borough's plate collection is stored. This being Westminster some of that was pretty special, most notably a series of silver Tobacco Boxes whose exteriors are covered by metal plates commemorating 'notable events'. Over two and half centuries these events range from the battle of Culloden to the imposition of the Congestion Charge, plus a suitably eclectic bunch inbetween. As for the rest of the building, and how the council HQ actually functions, not a clue.
(Venue guide: member of staff) (Tour size: n/a) (Worth seeing? Yes, for the view)

Merton Civic Centre
(Opened: 1962/1985) (Style: curved monolithic) (Former use: office block) [factsheet]
Hang on, I covered this one on Saturday. Enough already.

 Monday, September 20, 2010

Most of my Open House visits on Sunday had a common theme, which I'll bore you with tomorrow. But today I'll tell you about the odd one out, the one I've walked past scores of times without ever guessing what was inside. The temporary millennial project that survived, against the odds. Destination North Greenwich.

Slice of RealityWhen the Millennium Dome was built, one of the less rubbish ideas the organisers had was to litter the perimeter of the site with sculpture. Nothing normal, but zeitgeisty pieces created in response to the environment. With the environment being a reclaimed gasworks on a sweeping meander in the Thames, this led to more bonkers ideas than usual. There was a sound sculpture emitting the blare of ships' horns, and an Anish Kapoor parabolic mirror, and some argon-filled tubes creating aerial blue text. There was even a "vending machine displaying LED 'prayers' inspired by the names of chocolate bars", called It Pays To Pray. No, I don't remember that last one either. And then there was Slice of Reality, which my Millennium Experience Guide describes thus...
An ingenious response to the Dome's riverside location and to the 'slicing' of the Meridian Line through the site; this sculpture sits in the Thames itself. This vertical cross-section of a ship from bridge to hull is a celebration of merchant shipping on the Thames.
Richard Wilson is well known for cutting and slicing architectural forms; he was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1988.
So that's a medium-sized ship with its bow and stern sawn off, and only 15% remaining in the middle [photo]. Slice of Reality sat in the river throughout the year 2000 for visitors to stare at, maybe while they were wolfing down a coffee and a slice of pizza in the Greenwich Pavilion. And then when 2001 struck, the organisers asked the various sculptors to take their work back. No thanks, said Richard, my ship's in the river so I think you'll find it lies outside your jurisdiction. And he was right. So he sought the necessary paperwork, and earned his mooring certificate, and hey presto the bit-of-ship became legally his.

Every Open House weekend Richard throws open his doors to the public. What's fun is that his door is quite challenging to reach. The North Greenwich riverside isn't easily accessible, even for somewhere notionally on the Jubilee line. The Dome has no rear exit any more, so you have to find your own way to the Thames Path and then walk round a bit [photo]. Normally the gangplank's up, but yesterday it was down with a welcoming set of steps dangling from the end. Once across and aboard there's no obvious door at the front [photo], so you have to pass under the rusty deck above, along a narrow gangway to the other side of the ship and hunt for thin hatch on the far side.

Blimey, there's far more in here than you'd ever have guessed. A rudimentary kitchen ("do not drink this tap water"), a no-frills toilet, and a drum-kit stacked up in the corner surrounded by files. It's almost as if somebody actually lives here. Surely not? The clues are a little more blatant downstairs (or rather, downladders). First a dark storeroom containing goodness knows what, then a metal mesh bridge over the tidal Thames leading to... a snooker room! There's a green baize table in the centre of the cabin, and a rack of cues below a row of portholes, what else could this be? The perfect blokey hideaway, it seems, aboard a remote rusting hulk round the back of the O2.

A couple of decks higher, on the bridge, the ship's true purpose is revealed. This isn't Richard's home, it's his studio. A wooden worktop faces out downriver, perfect for use as drawing board or workbench. The passing river traffic acts as inspiration, or perhaps as a reassuring background blur while some creative project pans out. There are few physical distractions out here in the Thames, and no neighbours who might ever pop round, leaving the artist alone with his thoughts. That's the plan, anyway, although the gas stove and drumkit and snooker room might suggest otherwise.

There's one more deck above, accessed by vertical metal-runged ladder and therefore not to be rushed. It's a little rusty up here beneath the mast, although the view is excellent because you're well above the O2's paranoid security fence [photo]. Across the water lurks Canary Wharf [photo]. Closer upstream there's Ordnance Jetty sticking out into the river, and the remains of the line which used to mark the path of the meridian through the Millennium Experience site [photo]. The Greenwich Pavilion still stands, although it's not clear for how much longer because a hotel is due to be plonked here in due course [photo]. As for the wetlands that were planned to colonise the riverside after 2000, they're now 'back of house' and are never going to reach their full potential. Indeed one patch has been returfed and reappropriated as a heliport, allowing big stars to chopper in for their arena gigs.

I passed Richard after renegotiating the gangplank and returning to the riverside. He'd popped out for a coffee and sandwiches from North Greenwich bus station (it's a good 20 minute round trip) and was hurrying back to keep an eye on his guests. He looked every inch the inventive artist, a sort of Caractacus Potts for the new millennium, and exactly the sort of bloke who'd slice up a big boat and then inhabit it. I wish him good luck in maintaining his workspace rust-free into the new decade in continued productive solitude.

Open House photos (30 of 'em)

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