diamond geezer

 Monday, January 31, 2011

High on the list of London museums you've probably never visited is Church Farmhouse Museum in Hendon. You'd better hurry, because if Barnet Council get their way it may not be open much longer.

Church Farmhouse MuseumYou wouldn't know the museum was there, even from just round the corner. There are no signs whatsoever pointing towards the place, which is a first clue that the council don't care much for their heritage. Only when you turn into ye olde Church End, beyond medieval St Mary's and the Greyhound inn, does the museum's existence become apparent. Look for the 16th century brick farmhouse at the top of Greyhound Hill, set back behind a hedge in its own leafy garden. Maybe try the maze before you head inside - it's round the back beside the pond with the wishing well. And you'll know the front door's unlocked if the toy badger in the window is clutching a card saying "OPEN" in his claws. Admit it, you've fallen for the place's charms already. [photo] [photo] [photo] [photo]

The building celebrated its 350th birthday last year, so the interior's crooked and timber-y like an old farmhouse should be. There's a kitchen with an open fireplace, a dining room with fine oak panelling and a scullery with a cold stone floor. The kitchen's decked out as it would have been circa 1820 when the house was owned by Mark Lemon, the first editor of Punch. There are no magazines lying around as in a dentist's waiting room, don't worry, but there are plenty of period utensils laid out beside the bread oven. As a nod to the more recent past, there's also a glass cabinet containing some very 1970s kitchen implements, such as a Stork margarine sponge-bakers cookbook and a plastic Multi-Mouligrater. Kids of today must be baffled, but this felt like home to me.

And upstairs even more so. The museum specialises in toys, with two gender-biased rooms devoted to them. The boys' room contained the very essence of my childhood, or so it seemed. A box of Lott's Tudor Blocks (made in Watford, price 2/6), which my grandmother always used to get out to keep me and my brother busy. A plastic Thunderbird 5 - we had one of those, until we gave it away. And a display case laid out with tiny wooden houses and miniature farmyard figures, all identical to those which kept the two of us busy through many a 1970s afternoon. We'd construct these layouts across the bedroom floor, running Matchbox cars and plastic trains through the middle, and leave everything there for the best part of a week for my mum to tiptoe around. I think all the bits of our pretend 'village' are still in a box in my dad's loft... it's good to know they're potential museum fodder. It was also reassuring to see the museum's collection being enjoyed by a new generation of local children. An impromptu puppet show broke out in the girls' room, much to the delight of the children's mother, and even the Lott's Blocks kept one four-year-old as occupied as they once had me.

Harry Beck exhibition, Church Farmhouse MuseumNextdoor, in two upper rooms, is the reason you'll probably want to visit soon. The museum is hosting a special exhibition devoted to Harry Beck, designer of the world-famous tube map, who was born down the road in Finchley. It's not so much "This Is Your Life" as a series of displays tracing the map's development from the early 20th century to the present day. Lots and lots of paper maps from a local, private collection are arranged neatly in glass cases, alongside larger posters and a variety of tube ephemera. There are leftovers from the never-quite-built section of the nearby Northern line (destination Bushey Heath) and probably some other stuff too. Unfortunately I can't be sure because on Saturday the exhibition wasn't quite ready so hadn't opened yet. All I could do was peer through the open doorway at a table covered with backing paper, scissors and sticky tape, wishing I'd turned up 24 hours later then scheduled. It opened yesterday, honest, although the museum's website is a bit behind the times and waited until today to announce full details.

Harry Beck and the London Tube Map was due to run until May, but will probably now be the last exhibition the museum ever hosts. Barnet Council have budget cuts to make, and their eyes are very much on Church Farmhouse Museum. It costs £130,000 a year to run but attracts only 8000 visitors, which isn't seen as cost-effective by Brian Coleman and his slashing councillors. They argue that scarce funds needs to go to frontline services rather than optional heritage, and will be proposing closure at an Executive meeting on February 14th. Unless some Big Society miracle takes place soon, Church Farmhouse is expected to close at the end of March with the building taken over by commercial interests. No risk of a residential future, I'm told, because the farmhouse is Grade 2 listed and has an internal preservation order. But expect the collection to be split up, the premises vacated, and years of careful conservation reversed.

Most of Barnet's residents probably don't care - they never visit the museum anyway so won't notice it's gone. They'd rather have lower taxes and more money to spend on DVDs and Sky subscriptions, because that's what culture means to them nowadays. But two thousand borough residents care enough to have attended a rally yesterday at the artsdepot, protesting against the senselessness of Barnet's Easyjet-level cuts. Over a thousand people have also added their names to a petition attempting to save the museum from closure, which is here if you'd like to add your name too. It's a damned shame when the public purse can no longer support cultural facilities that can't support themselves, but I guess that's the way our political landscape is heading. We're entering an era of one-way heritage vandalism, and this delightful old cottage is one of the first into the firing line.

Having missed the Harry Beck exhibition by a day, I'll definitely be back to visit Church Farmhouse Museum again. I'm hoping that'll be in April, but I fear it'll have to be March. Do come along soon, and make your voice heard before it's too late.

 Sunday, January 30, 2011

Fancy cheaper tube fares? They're yours if you have a Gold Card. That's the special bonus bit of cardboard given to everyone in London and the southeast who buys an annual travelcard for their train journeys. A Gold Card saves one-third off all off-peak fares on National Rail (mine saves me a packet every time I head out of town to the seaside or somewhere). And now, as of this month, it saves one-third off all off-peak fares on London Underground too. Who knew?
(Tom Edwards knew. He's BBC London’s Transport correspondent, and he pointed out these extended savings last week both on local news and on his blog. Thanks Tom)

The extension of Gold Card discounts hasn't been widely advertised. It's not mentioned on the flimsy 2-page fare leaflet available in stations, nor in the 20-page Getting around with Oyster booklet. It's not signposted on the incredibly complex fares page on the TfL website, nor is it listed as one of the Discounts for adults alongside. You'll only find mention of Railcard discounts if you check out the Fare changes for 2011 page, down at the bottom, like so.
If you have a you can get:
• 34 per cent off off-peak pay as you go single fares on Tube, DLR, London Overground and National Rail (previously was just National Rail and London Overground)
• 34 per cent off off-peak Daily price caps on the Tube, DLR, London Overground and National Rail
This is excellent. It means one-third off the normal fares whenever you travel outside the zones on your travelcard - daytimes, evenings and weekends. Travel a lot and the one-day price cap kicks in one-third quicker. Even if your annual travelcard doesn't include any underground at all, the one-third discount will still apply whenever you use Oyster pay as you go off-peak. Brilliant. But only so long as your Gold Card is registered on your Oyster account. And it almost certainly isn't.

I buy an annual travelcard every year, and it's automatically uploaded onto my Oyster Card. Unfortunately nothing tells my Oyster Card that I also have a Gold Card, despite the fact that the season ticket and Gold Card are inextricably linked. Nobody's set up the software to do this automatically, because that would be too sensible. Instead the connection has to be made physically, by going along to a ticket office and getting them to change the "Discount" flag on your card's profile. So I thought I'd give it a try. And sheesh, it was like pulling teeth.
At station 1, the bloke in the ticket office refused to believe me. He told me point blank that my annual season ticket was already registered, and that maybe I should go away and buy a cut-price One Day Travelcard instead. I tried to explain about the Gold Card discount, and how he needed to tweak my Oyster to set it up, but he wasn't listening. Over the course of our conversation he became increasingly patronising and sent me on my way feeling like a idiot. [Customer service - truculent]

At station 2, the bloke in the ticket office didn't believe me either. He'd never heard of a Gold Card discount, but was at least willing to listen to me trying to explain my case. To prove his point he printed out an Oyster card receipt (they're about half a metre long) and underlined the bit that said "Registered - Yes". Look, he said, it's already on there. He was talking rubbish, because the line underneath said "Discount - None", but at least he was politely incompetent. [Customer service - ineffective]

At station 3, the bloke in the ticket office was equally baffled. He'd never heard of a Gold Card discount, and neither had his colleague at the window alongside. Nevertheless he duly swiped my card and tapped in my season ticket's expiry date, before handing it back apologetically. I assumed that nothing useful had happened, but requested an Oyster Card receipt anyway. And this half-metre printout was different. It now said "Discount - NR Railcard" where previously I'd had nothing. The ticket clerk didn't seem to think he'd added my Gold Card, but maybe he had. [Customer service - perhaps]
So I went on a tube journey to find out if I was now Gold-Card-enabled. I went one stop outside the zones loaded on my travelcard, which is just far enough for Oyster pay as you go to kick in. The journey usually costs me £1.30, so I waited to see what would flash up on the exit gate as I swiped through. Ooh, 85p! A grand saving of 35% off the usual fare, which is even better than the promised third. Result! And this should apply on every single out-of-zone off-peak tube journey I make, be that a hop to Barking or all the way out to Chesham. Right up until my annual season ticket expires, that is, after which I'll have to go back to a ticket office and get the new one registered from scratch. I hope that won't be hellishy difficult again, but I bet it will be.

If you have a Gold Card you want to attach to your Oyster, there's useful independent advice and instructions here. And get down to your local ticket office quick. TfL are slashing opening hours across the network from next Sunday (there should be a poster in every affected ticket hall listing the new restricted hours). It's ironic that ticket office hours are being cut because of the success of automated ticketing, but the Gold Card discount can't be added to your Oyster unless a ticket office is open. Ironic, and bloody stupid. I hope you have more luck than I did.

 Saturday, January 29, 2011

Here are a couple more PR-desperate emails that have winged my way recently.
Hi Diamond Geezer,
My name is Elizabeth and I work as part of the Community Outreach Team for <short-break travel company>.
Community Outreach Team? That's the slimiest rebranding of a Marketing Department I've heard in ages.
I am writing to you today because we really enjoyed the post on ‘Random borough (28): Camden (part 1)’.
It's amazing how many PR types think you'll be desperately impressed if they claim to have read one of your posts. I'd be more impressed if Elizabeth had picked something relevant.
We would like to give you the opportunity to write a post about one of our products.
I'm sure you would, Elizabeth, I'm sure you would.
Here is what we propose – as with any journalist, we’d love to build a relationship with you and let you experience an award winning stage show just as any other customer would. Then we would like you to tell us the good, the bad and we hope not so much the ugly about it!
What you'd like, Elizabeth, is for me to become a drum-banging mouthpiece for your organisation in return for a free night out.
We currently have 5 pairs of tickets to see Wizard of Oz on February 9th 2011 and 3 pairs of tickets to The Lion King on March 9th 2011 . These will be distributed on a first come first served basis. If you are happy to accept our offer and see the show, all we would ask is that you write a post about your experience that includes a link to our Wizard of Oz or The Lion King page.
If you spot any London bloggers writing about their free trip to see a musical over the next few weeks, remember how their editorial independence was bought.
Thank you for your time and please get in touch. If you would like to speak to us please leave us your phone number.
I don't give contact details to spammers, Elizabeth, so I think not.

OK, who's next into my inbox?
Dear Diamond Geezer
May I take the liberty of introducing <sex shop for women> as we may be able to help with any blog posts you’re writing for Valentine’s Day?
Renee thinks I'm the sort of blogger who'll be writing about pink spanking paddles and kissable lubricant come February 14th. Renee is incorrect.
<Sex shop for women> is a fabulous place for toys, games and classy lingerie with shops in both <trendy East London> and <trendy West London>. I would be delighted to invite you down for a tour of the <trendy West London> shop to show why <sex shop for women> is so different from our competitors.
It's not every day a lady in the sex trade invites me for an intimate tour of her erotic emporium. Perhaps that's just as well.
I have attached a press release and information on our events for Valentine’s Day.
No you haven't, Renee, you've forgotten to attach it. I hope some bloggers remember to turn up for your "glass of bubbly, cup cakes and a giggle".

Anybody else want to risk sending me an inept, badly-targeted marketing email? Because I'd rather you thought again.

 Friday, January 28, 2011

  Walk London
[section 2]
  Falconwood to Grove Park (3½ miles)

One of the shortest sections of the Capital Ring, this, with a palatial treat in the middle if you want to lengthen things. It starts somewhere long-lost, which used to be the centre of Eltham Park but is now the Falconwood footbridge. You won't see the railway and A2 dual carriageway beneath the concrete span - they're well screened, and that's just as well [photo]. The southern half of the park is an above-average collection of greenspace and trees [photo], with a view of Severndroog on Shooters Hill in the distance. Less upliftingly, I got stuck behind the Greenwich Council truck emptying the litter bins, and watched as its wheels churned up mud all along the edge of the main footpath.

Next up is the delightfully-named Butterfly Lane (no evidence of flying insects mid-January). This leads to a brief spell of woodland on the edge of a sports ground, and then a most unusual brick structure round the back of some houses [photo]. It's Conduit Head, where springs that fed the fledgling River Shuttle were once diverted to supply water to Eltham Palace. The moat's now filled via the mains, but this half-buried chamber somehow survives. It's also the last interesting spot for a mile. The Capital Ring takes a nanny-ish detour round a mini-roundabout purely to hit a pelican crossing, then climbs to follow North Park which is a lengthy residential street. It'd be a much more direct route to cross the Royal Blackheath Golf Course, which is the oldest golf club in the world, but they don't permit mere ramblers anywhere near their vintage greens.

At the foot of Tilt Yard Approach is southeast London's Tudor jewel - Eltham Palace. The Ring passes right alongside, but not quite over the arched bridge and across the moat [photo]. That was just as well, because the palace is closed in January so the gate was barred shut. I'd have liked to go back inside, because I was completely wowed by this medieval/Art Deco hybrid last time I was here. My muddy boots wouldn't have been a problem either, because English Heritage make you wear protective blue plastic slippers before stepping onto the Courtauld's floors. Doors reopen next week, if you're tempted (and you really should be).

The old path from the palace to the royal hunting grounds still exists, as King John's Walk. All of a sudden it's like being out in the country, ascending a hedge-lined lane past the entrance to some stables. Ignore the horsey folk manoeuvring their 4×4s, and look out instead across the paddocks to your right. There's an unexpectedly view down towards central London, with the skyscrapers of Docklands taking centre stage [photo]. Further back are the City's clustered towers, plus the ascending Shard a standalone figure to the left. Should a huge alien spaceship ever descend and hang over the capital, like they always do in sci-fi films, I reckon these slopes would be the perfect spot for a TV news camera long shot.

King John's Walk is slightly less impressive lower down, evolving first into a housing estate and then a railway footbridge [photo]. The Sidcup Road slices it in two, where walkers can really annoy speeding traffic on the dual carriageway by pressing the pelican and waiting for the screech. Into Mottingham, up one of its nicer avenues where W. G. Grace once lived. His big house has become the Fairmount Retirement home, within which (unless there's a 162-year-old man tucked away in an upper room) no top class cricketers now reside. A confined path alongside Eltham College's sports ground follows, still with crunchy brown leaves underfoot [photo]. And on, and on, until you emerge alongside a sparkling stream. No, I'm lying. It's the River Quaggy in its early stages, scuttling along a deeply kinked concrete channel [photo]. You wouldn't picnic here, but you might chuck a trolley. Admittedly the river looks a little nicer further up but we're not going that way. Ring 2 halts here.

» Capital Ring section 2: official map and directions (see also Green Chain section 6)
» Who else has walked it? Darryl, Tim, Paul, Stephen, Charlotte, Mark, John.
» On to section 3 (or back to section 1)

(and a reminder that Walk London's Winter Wanders Weekend starts tomorrow, with more than 50 free guided walks taking place across the capital. Most are wussy walks around the touristy centre of town, but there are also some challenging muddy treks further out should you desire a challenge. Highly recommended)

 Thursday, January 27, 2011

The home of the future is empty.

There are no books in the home of the future. Books aren't needed any more, they're simply clutter. If you're after celebrity memoirs, upload an e-book. If you want Dickens, get the app. If you need an atlas, check an online map. Encyclopaedias are like, so dead already. Who needs books when you've got screens? Who wants rows of dusty spines clogging valuable wall space when a Kindle swallows the lot? Empty the shelves and join the on-demand library instead. Books are for grandads, grandad.

There are no printed words in the home of the future. Newspapers aren't needed any more, nor magazines. Catch up on the latest political scandal on your tablet. Try the crossword on touchscreen. Read the sauciest celeb gossip in your kitchen on wi-fi. Who needs once a week when you can get regular updates? Who needs once a day when you can get rolling headlines? Clear the coffee table and fire up your iPad instead. Words are instant, two-way, temporary.

There are no compact discs in the home of the future. Physical music formats aren't needed any more, everything's digital now. Dubstep samplers and Dvorák's third, always available. Everything the Rolling Stones ever wrote, at the touch of a button. Lord Cowell's latest protégé, streamed to any room in the house for a one-off fee. A vast music library hidden behind the scenes, whenever you want it. But nothing that's actually yours. Nobody owns music any more, they only borrow it.

There are no DVDs in the home of the future. Disc-based audio-visual formats aren't needed any more, because everything streams. Fancy a film, just click, it's here. Lazy box-set on the sofa, premium Disney movie, 3D porn flick, your choice. It's just how Blockbuster video used to be, except withdrawal and return are instantaneous. Cherrypick your favourite bits from thousands of disassembled TV channels, anytime. Lie back and fill your big screen, all for a very reasonable subscription.

Bin your printed photographs and upgrade to projected images. Switch to electronic mail and seal up your letterbox. Scan your archived paperwork and shred all the evidence. Paper has no point and ink has no place. Everything's going digital, pixellated, virtual. Empty that corner where the television once sat and get used to watching the wall. Turf out your clutter, clear your surfaces, and throw out the physical. The living room of the future is nothing but screens and furniture.

Nobody owns stuff in the home of the future. Everything exists only in The Cloud, at the whim of your online service provider. That film's only yours for two hours, that album's transfer-protected. Your record collection's nothing but a list of bookmarks, your photos all vanish once the subscription ends. Your books all need updating once a new format comes out, and your emails won't survive a change of provider. Data's no longer close at hand, but far away. There's nothing concrete left to own, and nothing personal to pass onto your kids. The price of choice is the abdication of control.

The home of the future is empty.

 Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Rail Replacement Safari - epilogue
(and then I'll shut up, honest)

After posting about my weekend adventures I've received an email from somebody very high up in one of the companies that run rail replacement buses. One of the people contracted by London Underground to do the Hammersmith run, or the Barking run or whatever, and whose buses we ride around town in lieu of trains. Blimey. "Interesting read this morning about your experiences over the weekend," he begins. "I could perhaps pick up on a couple of points;"
"Destination Boards: For long running jobs such as the Jubilee line we try to fit buses with destination blinds. Unfortunately with the numerous variations the railway require, its pretty difficult to second guess potential displays when ordering blinds. Nonetheless we do have most Northern, Jubilee & Metropolitan line displays, plus the Hammersmith – Paddington Blinds. For a large operator like Metroline or First to do this, it would invariably lead to the potential loss of display space for their own routes."
So there you go. If the replacement bus's blind doesn't already include "Canning Town" then, sorry, "Canning Town" can't be displayed. Which brings me onto the so-called solution, my bête noire...
"So the window cards – there is currently a review underway to look at alternative ways of displaying this information. I agree in part with your point about the route lettering. Although it might seem a bit academic, but it does help drivers with route directions as this information is then repeated along the route in various places. The window cards are designed for special holders. Unfortunately to do this effectively every bus in London (around 7,000) would need to be fitted so as to eliminate the problem. Sadly supplies have now run out and the ones we have are slowly detaching themselves from the screen. With the limitations of supply on the window holders, this might well be the time to consider the actual shape and design to eliminate the hidden text as you describe."
Those window cards were being flagrantly abused by many of the drivers I saw over the weekend, from all companies. Some shoved them on the left, some on the right, some straight, some at an angle. One attached it to his fare stage box, one unintentionally hid it behind a map, another had thrown what looked like a used tissue in front of it down the gap behind the windscreen. Several drivers didn't seem to have checked it was legible, others weren't displaying it at all. After dark it didn't matter where the card was, the destination was unclear. My photo shows a typical example from Sunday afternoon, taken outside Mile End station. The card is so badly designed that the final destination has disappeared out of sight off the bottom of the list. That's one stop short of Barking. These cards are surely no longer fit for purpose.
"Routeing: a major issue. LUL require buses to serve designated stops, in part due to safety or disability reasons, but mostly because passengers might not be able to find their way between the station and the stop. In addition passengers travelling to an intermediate stop might not recognise the locality and thereby miss their stop."
It seems that rail replacement bus routes are a case of contractual 'join the dots', requested from on high, and if that means taking a convoluted twisty route from one station to the next then so be it.

Elsewhere on the net, inspired by my lunatic safari, a post has appeared from mysterious insider 'Another London Blog'. Here he/she details the reasons we need these rail replacement buses in the first place, and explains why the public doesn't like any of the possible options.
"Every weekend for months, and in some cases years, part of the line is closed. With the line closed for 50 hours, the engineers and labourers move in. Two hours are wasted setting everything up at the beginning. Two hours are wasted dismantling everything at the end. For working overnight, some of them are paid extra. For working at the weekend, some of them are paid extra. For working overnight at the weekend, some of them are paid extra. Although some ordering in bulk is possible, it’s not possible to buy everything the work will require over the whole year because warehouse space for that much stuff for that length of time is just too expensive. Economies of scale are lost. With the line closed for 50 hours, people who have been working all week now can’t leave the house to go and play. Gigs are missed. Pub gatherings are postponed to a weekend when the Tube’s working. Those who do venture out end up spending ages trying to work out which bus to get, and even longer on the damned thing. Businesses along the line are hard hit on every weekend of the year."
Sounds familiar. Those of you who are members of the London Underground Railway Society might be interested in their next meeting but one, which will be on this very subject. Bus Replacement Services: Theory and Practice is the title, and it takes place on 8th March. The talk will be led by Dean Sullivan of Sullivan Buses (I rode a few of his at the weekend) and Phil Thornton of London Buses. How are routes determined? Who provides the buses? What does it all cost? Messrs Sullivan and Thornton will explain all (members only, but send a cheque or postal order and you too can be). And the good news - that's a Tuesday, so you won't have to arrive by rail replacement bus.

» My entire rail replacement safari on one page (for sadists)

 Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Rail Replacement Safari (part 3)

Overground replacement bus service: Hampstead Heath → Stratford
And finally, the granddaddy of TfL rail replacement buses. This one's been running so often over the last few years that local residents must think it's a permanent service. Rest assured it won't be around forever - the engineering works on the old Silverlink line are scheduled to end in May, heralding an improved, more frequent Overground service. But in the meantime, sorry, orbital rail passengers face four-wheeled double deckers for several more weekends yet. They really ought to have arrangements perfectly sorted by now, you'd think. You'd think.

I arrived at Hampstead Heath by Overground - the driver having urged everyone to get off one stop early for the rail replacement bus. Now all I had to do was find one. A poster in the ticket hall told me to go to Bus Stop A in Constantine Street, which was no help, and included a map, which sort of was. I attempted to match the map to my mental image of the surrounding area, and rushed off down the hill. I'd probably have spotted the blue directional signs attached to lampposts quicker if it hadn't been dark. I then had to run the last bit because the bus was about to leave. Some idiot had scheduled the replacement bus to depart almost immediately after the train arrived. Only by being the first person off the platform, and the first person out of the station, and the first person round the correct corner, had I managed to board it on time. Some further research later revealed the reason for this lunacy. Eastbound Overground trains arrive at Hampstead Heath every 15 minutes, but eastbound rail replacement buses depart Hampstead Heath every 20 minutes. There is bugger all attempt to synchronise the two services to assist through-travellers, just two disparate systems existing in mis-timed silos.

I wasn't looking forward to this particular journey because I've made it before. My enduring memory is of battling through the treacly backstreets of Islington trying to get close to a station nobody really wanted to get off at. Good news, TfL have streamlined the route. No jobsworth regulations here insist that buses must stop outside stations. Instead we missed Gospel Oak by seven streets, Kentish Town West by 300 metres and Caledonian Road & Barnsbury by a full mile. Brilliant for those of us passing through, it speeded up the journey no end - but not quite so good for those at bypassed stations attempting to work out where the scheduled bus stop was.

It being dark, and with windows steamed up, it was often quite difficult to work out where the bus was. To assist passengers our driver yelled out the name of each station as we reached it, and the sound just about carried up the stairs. He yelled in a language resembling English, but I was eventually able to decipher "Keshdownwet" and "Durlstenking" after a few seconds thought. Meanwhile the electronic iBus display at the front of the top deck was firmly switched off. Over the last few years we Londoners have got used to being spoilt by instant scrolling displays announcing the name of the next stop, and here it would have been exceptionally useful. I know that not all rail replacement buses have this system fitted but, for those that do, would it really be so difficult to program the route and turn it on?

One thing that struck me was the number of people on their mobiles uttering the immortal phrase "I'm on the bus". They were apologising to friends, mostly, because when they'd set out on their journey they were expecting to be "on the train". But no, they'd completely missed the fact the Overground was suspended until it was too late, so found themselves rumbling slowly towards social events they were going to arrive late for. TfL do try hard to invite travellers to check for service disruptions, especially at weekends, but most people obviously don't. These days there are far too many planned engineering works for even the hardiest geek to remember, so what hope for the general public? They still wander round clutching paper maps of the weekday network, so lengthy bus detours always come as a surprise.

I wish the girl who sat behind me at Dalston Kingsland had been using her mobile for a late apology. Instead she seemed to be having some sort of emotional breakdown, by phone, in public, with someone who was no longer her beloved. By Hackney Central she'd told the top deck how her plans for motherhood were wrecked, by Homerton she was considering pissing off abroad for six months unable to cope, and by Hackney Wick she was blaming it all on her au pair. You don't get this kind of comedy soap opera on trains. I was semi-delusional by this point, so was more than pleased when we finally reached Stratford station. And then, alas, drove straight past it to the official alighting point, so that everyone had a two minute walk back again. Even at the end of ten and a half hours of rail replacement purgatory, there's always one last unpleasant extra.
Hampstead Heath → Stratford: normally 32 min, rail replacement bus 76 min (+140%)

Lessons learned
13) On railway lines with a less frequent service, it shouldn't be rocket science to synchronise the replacement buses with the trains.
14) After dark, if the bus's destination is only written on a small piece of cardboard in the front window, that's not very useful is it?
15) If there's a 'next stop' display system aboard a rail replacement bus (and I know there isn't always), please switch it on.
16) Many of the problems here aren't the fault of the bus companies providing the service, they're the fault of whoever it is at TfL that writes their contracts.
17) Those "planned engineering works for the week ahead" posters on display at tube stations are misleading. They show an amalgam of Saturday's and Sunday's closures, not the closures in effect today, which makes them less than practical for instant use. One day in the far future these maps will be on an electronic screen, not a sheet of paper, and that'll help no end.
18) However much TfL tell people there's rail replacement work coming up, people still aren't listening.
19) People of London - if you're travelling at the weekend, always check for planned engineering works first. There's probably a quicker way to get around them if you plan ahead. And, really, you don't want to get stuck on the bus.
20) If anyone ever suggests riding every rail replacement bus in London to see what it's like, query their sanity.

 Monday, January 24, 2011

Rail Replacement Safari (part 2)

For the second part of my quest to ride every rail replacement bus in London, I headed west. That meant getting from Liverpool Street to Hammersmith - a journey normally possible on one train, but not on Saturday. There was no service of any kind round the eastern half of the Circle line - that's between Edgware Road and Embankment - and no rail replacement buses either. TfL no longer believe in running RRBs through Central London, so leave passengers to find their own way via whatever other tubes (or buses) are running. From Liverpool Street the only escape was via the Central line, hence the platforms were absolutely packed when I came to use them. Carriages too, as if it were the height of the weekday rush hour - the mismatch caused by running only a weekend-level service. Sometimes, TfL, what we need are extra rail replacement trains.

Hammersmith & City line replacement service D: Hammersmith → Paddington
"Today this station close" read the scribbled message on the board outside Hammersmith station on Saturday. Not a phrase to raise hopes of high-level communicative ability in either of the two members of staff standing alongside. "Buses all stations to Paddington" said the printed text underneath, before explaining in small type "Not stopping at Wood Lane. Calling additionally at Shepherd's Bush." You had to get up pretty close to read that, which suggests that whoever designs these posters is using an undersized font.
Mini-rant: There were two posters, and from a distance the only obvious wording said "BUS STOP →" on one and "BUS STOP W" on the other. The arrow was very definitely pointing around the corner so that's where I went, but instead found Bus Stop Q which didn't have any rail replacement branding at all. Bus Stop W turned out to have been immediately outside the station, back where I'd started, which was frustrating. I pointed out this signage confusion to a nearby member of staff, but he was from the bus company not TfL and quite frankly didn't care. Then when the bus finally arrived it stopped at both bus stops, W and Q, which seemed bafflingly unnecessary.
Mini-rant 2: Just after the bus pulled up, the TfL employee standing by the bus stop loudly announced "All stations to Paddington". But it's not is it, I said to him, we're missing out Wood Lane. "All stations to Paddington!" he confirmed, in that smug way people do when they're wrong.
The journey to Paddington suffered from a simple problem - one I experienced several times over the weekend. Just because there's a railway line linking a set of stations doesn't mean there's a road. There was no direct road from Latimer Road to Ladbroke Grove, for example, so we had to drive up, across and back down to get from one to the other. There was no direct road from Ladbroke Grove to Westbourne Park either so we had to drive down, across and back up, this time along streets barely suitable for two-way traffic. And there was no direct road from Westbourne Park to Royal Oak (apart from the A40 Westway, which was out of the question) so we had to drive way up, across and back down yet again. These tortuous detours stretched out the journey so much that the bus took more three times as long as the tube journey would have done.
Mini-rant 3: And then at the end, one final bit of customer neglect. The bus ejected us halfway down one side of Paddington station, not at the front. We could clearly see a side entrance to the station, but on the other side of very long iron railings and one level below. We were left to our own devices to decide how best to get down there, several minutes walk away, which especially annoyed the elderly passenger and the lady with a suitcase. If you want to feel like a second-class citizen, ride the rail replacement bus.
Hammersmith → Paddington: normally 14 min, rail replacement bus 47 min (+240%)

Jubilee line replacement service C: Stonebridge Park → Stanmore
You have to feel sorry for the people of Stanmore. They've suffered more than most with the incompetent installation of signalling on the Jubilee line, facing rail replacement bus services at weekends for years. And again this weekend. Not that you'd have known when the bus rolled up at Stonebridge Park, because the destination wasn't visible. If you're not familiar, most rail replacement buses don't have the destination up on the front blind where the destination usually is. That would be too useful. Instead they convey information via a small card plonked behind the windscreen wherever the driver thinks fit. In large font is written the 'letter' of the service (in this case 'C') and alongside that a list of the stations the bus will be stopping at. And the last station on the list invariably disappears, because it slots behind something, so it's impossible to read. In this case 'Canons Park' was the last station name visible, because the word 'Stanmore' had disappeared below the fascia horizon. And this was no one-off. All the buses we passed in the opposite direction had "Stonebridge Park" concealed, leaving "Wembley Park" as the final visible destination. Somebody needs to tell drivers to display these cards properly, consistently, clearly. A serious rethink on front-of-bus signage is long overdue.
Wembley Park → Stanmore: normally 11 min, rail replacement bus 24 min (+120%)

Metropolitan line replacement service A: Harrow-on-the-Hill → Wembley Park
I had to get one eventually - a not-very-nice double decker rolled out of retirement for the use of weekend engineering nomads. Some lucky folk in the opposite direction got Routemasters, but we got some bog standard 20th century workhorse. If I sat carefully enough, I could just about keep my shoes out of the pool of phlegm on the floor. Throughout the journey, even with headphones plugged in, I was forced to listen to the well-urban conversation of the trainee footballer sitting behind me. "You know what club was interested in me, bruv, Yeovil." "I can't sign anything with Barnet until I get an agent, innit." "Watford was an even worse shithole than Barnet, know what I mean." If only the bus hadn't detoured round the backstreets to Northwick Park I might have been spared the full details of his long-term injury woes. The Road to Wembley is never easy.
Harrow-on-the-Hill → Wembley Park: normally 5 min, rail replacement bus 20 min (+300%)

Jubilee line replacement service D: Wembley Park → Finchley Road
Four possible rail replacement destinations from Wembley Park, and three empty buses lined up. But which one was which? Not a bloody clue. The crowd mustering impatiently on the pavement wanted to know, waiting for one of the many customer service agents to finally point at one and say yes, get on that. As a prime example of rail replacement directional incoherence, this was hard to beat. When the pack finally swarmed aboard bus number two I ended up on the top deck beside a flapping copy of the Sun and an empty packet of onion garlic potato snacks. There then followed a depressingly slow meander through the streets of northwest London. Beyond Neasden most of the streets along the railway were residential, and deemed too narrow for double decker buses. We therefore took some ridiculous detours merely to ensure that we passed all the same stations that the train would have done [map]. Neasden to Dollis Hill was particularly convoluted, three times longer than it could have been, and delivered us into the hands of some annoyingly bouncy speed humps. Willesden Green to Kilburn was a right pain too, and we ended up stuck in nasty traffic on the Kilburn High Road because our driver wasn't allowed to turn off sooner. What would've really helped would have been an additional Metropolitan replacement express - Wembley to Finchley Road without deviation, repetition, or hesitation. But no, every city-bound passenger got to take the slow route through Jubilee purgatory. I hated this one, never again.
Wembley Park → West Hampstead: normally 11 min, rail replacement bus 45 min (+310%)
Harrow-on the Hill → Finchley Road: normally 12 min, rail replacement buses 77 min (+540%)

Lessons learned
7) When several lines in Central London are closed, a more frequent service on any parallel lines would help to absorb increased passenger numbers.
8) Simply displaying "Rail Replacement Service" on the front of a rail replacement bus isn't good enough. If the correct destination's on the roller blind, show us that. Please.
9) Tiny cardboard rectangles on the driver's dashboard are not the solution to rail replacement bus signage. They're surprisingly illegible from a distance, inconsistently placed, and the bottom line often disappears from view. Design something bigger and clearer, and use that.
10) Rail replacement buses can be told apart by a single letter code, but members of the public rarely notice this. They're looking for a destination, not a letter.
11) Certain rail replacement bus routes would be much quicker if they passed 'close' to a station, rather than all round the houses to stop right outside. Excessively tortuous routes are a curse, not a blessing.
12) The London borough of Brent was pretty much tube-free yesterday. Do try to coordinate your line closures more carefully, TfL, otherwise residents will think you've got it in for them.

 Sunday, January 23, 2011

Rail Replacement Safari (part 1)

Every weekend, rail travel in the capital is blighted by "planned engineering works". We all know it's essential, but that doesn't make it any less bloody annoying. This weekend three entire Underground lines are closed, four others curtailed, and the DLR and Overground substantially buggered. TfL ran as many as ten rail replacement bus services yesterday, from Harrow in the west to Dagenham in the east. I thought I'd entirely waste my Saturday by travelling on every single one of them, from end to end, to see how dreadful the experience was. My rail replacement safari took me ten and a half hours, so I think you can guess how much fun it wasn't. But hopefully I've learned some useful lessons along the way, which you (or maybe TfL) should take to heart.

District line replacement service B: Mile End → Barking
No trains were running, so buses up the Mile End Road were busier than normal. This seemed odd, because most people were crammed aboard buses that cost money, rather than hopping aboard the freebie rail replacements. Fancy travelling to Stratford for nothing, hop on. They don't have Oyster readers on rail replacement buses because it would be too much additional hassle, which is brilliant, because at weekends you can ride all over London for free. OK, so you're supposed to have a valid ticket before boarding, but I rode ten different freebie buses yesterday and wasn't challenged once. Even better, rail replacement buses are express buses. They don't stop everywhere, so you get to sail past normal buses halting every few hundred yards and get to your destination even faster. I hate to think how slow this bus would have been if we'd stopped everywhere. Our driver seemed afraid of exceeding 20mph, occasionally ambling up to green traffic lights just in time for them to turn red. But we still saved time by not going to West Ham, which was a shame because we could have caught a faster c2c train there. And we saved even more time by not going to Plaistow, which TfL cruelly deemed unworthy of any replacement service whatsoever. Free buses aren't for everyone, it seems.
Mile End → Barking: normally 17 min, rail replacement bus 38 min (+120%)

District line replacement service C: Barking → Dagenham East
Once, when a long strip of tube line was closed down, TfL used to run just one rail replacement bus service. Not any more. Now they split the closure into sections and make you change from one to the other partway. Here the main split was outside Barking station and, I have to say, was appallingly handled. The driver dumped us off the bus from Mile End with no clue as to where to go next. Nothing on the bus stop, no staff waiting helpfully, bugger all. Erm. Eventually I spotted three blue tabards huddled in the station entrance across the road, and managed to attract their owners' attention. I was duly directed down the street to a home-made bus stop with a tiny "rail replacement" sticker on it, where the next bus to Dagenham had just left without me. Another bus soon turned up, but with its destination blinds blank and no helpful route card in the window. "And you're going to...?" No, back to Mile End. Rest assured I made it to Dagenham eventually (at roughly the same speed as the 70 year-old cyclist we got stuck behind). But come on TfL. If you're going to force us to change buses mid-replacement, at least tell us clearly how to do it.
Barking → Dagenham East: normally 9 min, rail replacement bus 22 min (+140%)
Mile End → Dagenham East: normally 26 min, rail replacement buses 1hr 10 min (+170%)

Catching the rail replacement bus isn't usually the quickest way to get to your destination. At Dagenham East, for example, some whiteboard scribble strongly recommended catching the tube all the way out to Upminster and then the fast c2c train back the other way. So I tried that, and it took just as long to get to Barking as it had done on the slowcoach bus. Getting beyond Barking, however, proved much much faster, which was good. I was even able to confirm that planned engineering work was indeed taking place at several places up and down the line. Track maintenance at Upney, a trainful of ballast further along, and early construction of the Olympic passenger footbridge at West Ham. Londoners, your weekend travel pain is not in vain.

DLR replacement service C: Canary Wharf → North Woolwich
They don't want you to catch a DLR replacement bus from Canary Wharf. A sign at the station suggests you hop on the Jubilee line to Canning Town instead and catch the buses there. That's great if you're going further, but no help if you want to head to a station inbetween. I had to guess which Dockland stop the replacement buses were leaving from, five minutes walk away, because directions were non-existent. Thankfully I guessed correctly. The bus took the most ridiculous detour at East India simply to get as close as possible to the station, which involved driving through two security barriers and round a deserted private estate. At Canning Town I was surprised to see as many as ten members of weekend-only support staff hanging around the bus station, although most of them were chatting to each other rather than helping the public. I also spotted a one-carriage test train running on the new bit of DLR they haven't opened yet, which is why half the network was closed to passengers. The remaining two miles of replacement bus after Canning Town seemed unnecessary because there's a perfectly decent scheduled bus, the 474, running along precisely the same route. But it appears that real buses confuse the train-using public, who'd feel lost and cheated if they didn't have a special dedicated parallel service of their own. Is it important to run a "474 Express", or is it a waste of money?
Blackwall → King George V: normally 12 min, rail replacement bus 28 min (+130%)

DLR replacement service B: Beckton → Canary Wharf
At Beckton bus station, more hopelessness. The replacement bus stood empty, door invitingly open, but with absolutely no members of staff around to help. Several of them were sat across the road in a cosy blue bus having tea, or reading the paper or whatever, while a confused huddle of would-be passengers gathered by the bus stop. One lady asked me where the bus was going, because the information on the front wasn't at all clear. One bloke was waiting to swipe his Oyster because he thought he'd get fined otherwise, and there was nobody there to tell him not to. Only by going over to enquire of a driver on his fag break did one enterprising traveller finally confirm the bus's destination and departure time. No brownie points for customer service here, none whatsoever. At least the journey, when it finally began, was mercifully swift.
Beckton → Canning Town: normally 14 min, rail replacement bus 17 min! (+20%)

District line replacement service A: Canning Town → Liverpool Street
The District line doesn't go to Canning Town, so who in their right mind would think of catching a replacement bus here? Nobody, which is why I was the only passenger on board for the first bit of the journey. From Canning Town to Bromley-by-Bow in six minutes flat was a fantastic service for an E3 local, if alas only temporary. We sped on, unhindered by the traffic that often blights the Mile End Road. There were hiccups in Whitechapel, however. A lady in a woolly hat had made the mistake of waiting at the bus stop nearest to the station, which is precisely where you might expect a rail replacement bus to stop, but no. Next stop, by the hospital... where our driver was harangued by a posh lady with a suitcase. How dare this bus go to Liverpool Street not Tower Hill, I mean, what sort of District line replacement bus service does that? Point taken, except there were no trains at Tower Hill to connect to, and this was technically a Hammersmith & City replacement bus. By the time the argument had finished the lady in the woolly hat had caught up and clambered aboard, which made me smile. And we still reached Liverpool Street almost as fast as the train would have done, which was damned impressive.
Bromley-by-Bow → Liverpool Street: normally 15 min, rail replacement bus 20 min! (+30%)

Lessons learned
1) Every weekend, TfL and local bus companies throw hundreds of staff out onto the streets to assist passengers using rail replacement buses. Some are wonderful, but far too many just stand around passing the time without being of any help whatsoever. Cull them, it'd save money.
2) The weakest link when travelling by rail replacement bus can be trying to find the correct bus stop in the first place. A generic "rail replacement bus service stops here" sign is often inadequately non-specific. Which bus, in which direction, to where? Don't always leave us to ask a member of staff.
3) If TfL want to force people to change replacement buses halfway through their journey, they need to explain how to do it. Don't just dump people somewhere unfamiliar and leave them to work it out for themselves.
4) Just because TfL's laid on a rail replacement bus service, don't act like a sheep and assume it'll be the fastest way of reaching your destination.
5) Some replacement buses are distressingly snail-like, others are expressly speedy. Learn to use the latter and avoid the former.
6) People of London - stop thinking of rail replacement buses as annoying hassle, and start thinking of them as a free way to travel around town.

 Saturday, January 22, 2011

2011A decision is made: the Olympic Stadium will be sold to West Ham after the GamesA decision is made: the Olympic Stadium will be sold to Tottenham Hotspur after the Games
2012The London Olympics are a great success. Many world records are broken in the iconic stadium.
2013West Ham kick off their tenantship of the Olympic Stadium with a Division 1 home match against Accrington Stanley. Fans bring binoculars.The Olympic Park reopens to the public, but with an unattractive stadium-sized demolition site at its heart.
2014 West Ham kick off their second season at the Westfield Olympic Stadium with a Division 2 home match against Rushden & Diamonds.A completely different stadium is emerging. Few tourists want to go up the Orbit tower to view a non-Olympic building site.
2015Even half full feels half empty. Fans nickname the ground Tumbleweed Stadium.Olympic Hotspur kick off their tenantship of the McFlurry Stadium with a Premiership clash against Chelsea.
2016West Ham host the national athletics championships. Some spectators turn up. Crystal Palace stadium closes down.Britain loses out on its bid to host the 2018 World Tiddlywinks Championships, because our international athletics reputation is zero.
2017West Ham host the Rugby World Cup - the most exciting thing to happen here for five years. The stadium is packed three times.The cheapest Spurs season ticket costs £3000. Increased funds bring in star international players and a cupboard of silverware.
2018Prime Minister Boris Johnson is forced to resign over the West Ham Toxic Legacy debacle.Teenage football fans in N17 have all switched allegiance to Arsenal, the traitorous bastards.
2019West Ham enter into a ground-sharing agreement with Leyton Orient and Essex County Cricket Club. Profits start to rise.Pink Floyd's Reunion Tour includes 33 consecutive nights at the Filet-o-Fish Stadium, much to the displeasure of local residents.
2020After Wembley closes for urgent pitch renewal, the FA confims that the Cup Final is to be switched to Stratford.Spurs' owners sell off the club and stadium, because they can, and rake in an absolute fortune. Taxpayers fume impotently.
2021House prices in the Olympic Park Village continue to rise, as community sports facilities prove attractive.Spurs' new owners suddenly go bankrupt, due to carbon-trading irregularities, and the club's proud history ends.
2022Under David Beckham's managerial leadership, West Ham claw their way back to the top flight.The Westfield Car Boot Sale takes place in the Old Hotspur Arena every Sunday morning.

 Friday, January 21, 2011

Seaside postcard: Shoreham-by-Sea
Ignoring Hove (which many do), Shoreham's the first major town to the west of Brighton. I don't think I picked the best way to arrive. You can arrive by car along the A27, the South Coast's inland tarmac artery. You can arrive by train, just an hour and ten minutes on the fastest trains from Victoria. You can sail in through the mouth of the River Adur, into the long T-shaped semi-artificial harbour. You can fly in to the centennial airport, of which more later. But I walked in from Hove, up a desolate strip of industrialised beachfront. I'll learn.

Shoreham Port: Shoreham-by-Sea's most important feature isn't the sea, it's the river. The Adur flows down from West Sussex and very nearly reaches the sea, then thinks better of it. A shingle spit has grown up over the years, diverting the mouth of the river about a mile to the east, and creating a haven behind in the process. The old town's not so much Shoreham-by-Sea as Shoreham-by-Harbour, with the English Channel completely blocked from sight by two long flaps of land. On one arm people live, on the other nobody with any sense would even set up a tent. Shoreham's a freight port, for the unloading of timber, steel, aggregates and lots of other dull but necessary things. It's not a place of beauty, not unless you happen to like power stations. There's one here because 100 years ago the people of Brighton didn't want it on their doorstep, but the current incumbent has a huge belching chimney easily visible from afar. It's totally unavoidable from underneath, which made it all the more surprising to find numerous people gathered here on a Wednesday. They'd come for Carats Café Bar, which is a squat concrete hut serving coffee and fry-ups, a mile and a half by road from the nearest civilisation. But not so far for bacon-munchers on foot. A twisting path runs through the docks across two lock gates, which makes for easy access so long as the red lights aren't flashing. They flashed for me, and I had to hang around while some piddly pilot boat rose up through a lock large enough for a far bigger craft.

Shoreham Beach: Residential Shoreham's in two halves - those who live on the mainland proper, and those who live on the spit named Shoreham Beach. This isolated tongue of land used to be home to a haphazard collection of shacks named Bungalow Town, and was also where the UK film industry had its earliest home. Postwar the area was cleared for proper housing (for which read characterless flats and bungalows) assisted by a concrete footbridge across the Adur. It's ridiculously narrow, by modern standards, so if two pushchairs meet in the middle the entire community seizes up (I caused significant problems merely by stopping to take a photograph). A replacement cyclebridge is currently at the planning stage, but there's no news yet as to whether it'll have the same claustrophobic character as its predecessor. I'm told that Chris Evans lives somewhere on Shoreham Beach, so there must be an upmarket nice bit I didn't find. But I did, accidentally, stumble up a footpath to one of the most unusual streets in Britain. All 40 of the dwellings along Riverbank are houseboats. And not minor tedious houseboats, but a motley collection of large bohemian craft. There's a massive grey minesweeper at number 23, for example, with its prow sticking out into the footpath. A few doors up is an astonishing hybrid of passenger ferry and passenger coach dressed up as psychedelic artwork. The windows at the front look like yellow teardrops, and are definitely large enough for the owners to see out at annoying Londoners with cameras lingering slightly too long on the towpath. If you come for a peek, try to make it look as if you're desperately impressed, but just passing.

Shoreham Airport: The oldest licensed airfield in the UK celebrates its 100th anniversary this summer. And it's in Shoreham. It started out in 1911 as a few monoplanes on a meadow, and grew through military and eventually commercial success. Shoreham's location by the Channel was both a blessing and a curse - ideally placed for European flights, but also highly vulnerable to wartime attack. A symbol of its prosperity was the Art Deco terminal building, opened in 1936, and which still stands out across the surrounding countryside. Bold lines and smooth curves, painted creamy off-white, as an echo of the Golden Age of air travel. It's the sort of place ITV would film an episode of Poirot, and indeed have, no doubt keeping the surrounding industrial estate well out of shot. Heathrow Terminal 5 this most definitely is not. There are no commercial flights here any more, for a start. Scheduled services to Alderney ended three years ago, and to northern France more recently than that. The lifeblood of Shoreham (Brighton City) Airport today are the private flyers in small planes, nipping in from wherever then heading home again. The airfield was alive during my visit, quite possibly with millionaire pilots enjoying the good weather. There's also a helicopter school on site (with their very own "Danger low flying helicopter" roadsign, seemingly justified). Suddenly it's easy to understand why Chris Evans might live nearby - it's not the sea that attracted him to Shoreham but the air. For us mere tourists, the Airport boasts a visitor centre and museum, alas only open at weekends. The old terminal building's open for a poke around daily, as is the restaurant, but I didn't realise this at the time so failed to go inside. I'm preprogrammed to think of airport terminal buildings as threatening security-conscious places, and nothing outside gave any indication that mere spectators or gastronomes might be welcome within. You need not be so air-brained.

Shoreham Tollbridge: A short walk upriver of the airport is a gorgeous timber bridge spanning the Adur. The original's from 1782, and carried the main east/west road for a couple of centuries. A modern replacement took the traffic away, and the bridge was sympathetically refurbished for pedestrians and cyclists a few summers ago.
Shoreham town centre: 11th century church; the delightfully named Marlipins Museum (open May to October only); a cobblers called "Heel Your Soles"; totally-out-of-place arts centre; much nicer than Shoeburyness.

 Thursday, January 20, 2011

Yesterday I took the day off work, because the weather was great, and because I could.

Beach huts, Hove

I took the first cheap train to Brighton, wandered down to the seafront (via North Laine and the Pavilion), then walked to the deserted end of the pier and back. I would have bought chips, except they were charging £2.50 per tray, and that's criminal. Then I turned to the west and walked for six miles to Shoreham-on-Sea. The first four miles were along the main promenade, which was surprisingly busy given that it was midweek midwinter. Past the Grand Hotel, past the skeletal remains of the West Pier (it's doomed, isn't it?), past shelters being used as somewhere to sleep. I slipped imperceptibly into Hove, Brighton's symbiotic neighbour, and admired its nearly-500 beach huts. They're none too fancy, but most are painted a bright jaunty colour from the Dulux swatchbook, and the combined effect was relentlessly cheery. After Hove Lagoon, and the private terrace where Zoe and Norman live, the beachfront suddenly became hugely less desirable. A canal runs parallel to the coast for two miles, leaving a thin strip of land that's only wide enough for a road and umpteen port-related units. Lorries thundered up a private road, the air reeked of decay, and one single lonely dog was being taken for a walk on the pebbly foreshore. I'll tell you more about the Shoreham end of the walk, and Shoreham-by-Sea itself, tomorrow. In the meantime, sorry, I'm knackered, so you'll have to make do with 21 photographs to illustrate the day's walk instead. Ahh, beats work.

www.flickr.com: my Brighton → Shoreham gallery
(There are 21 photos altogether)

 Wednesday, January 19, 2011

I wish they'd put interest rates up. They've been at 0.5% for ages, almost two years now. I know the general consensus is that rock-bottom interest rates are good for the economy, good for hard-working families and for good for Britain, but they're not good for me.

If you borrow money, low interest rates are great. You can borrow lots (assuming your bank will let you), then smile because borrowing costs you very little. If you have a mortgage you're on a winner, because the amount you have to pay back is at a record low. There are no scary financial outgoings when your mortgage payment's peanuts, month after month, year after year. You might even be able to pay off more than the minimum, with ease, so that your debt comes down even faster.

I'm not a borrower. I never racked up large debts through reckless credit card spending. I never stare greedily at some consumer durable I can't afford, then splash out for it anyway. I don't live beyond my means, and if that means not having the latest everything then fine, I'll cope. I see debt as something to avoid, not embrace. I realise that not everybody is like me.

I used to be a borrower. I took out a mortgage on a flat 20 years ago, back when interest rates were in double figures. It was at the limit of what the building society would allow back then, even though today it wouldn't buy a hovel. I paid back over the odds over the years, certainly relative to today's interest rate pittance. And eventually I paid the whole lot off, several years early, thanks to slowly-increasing salary and careful budgeting. I'm not a borrower any more.

I'm a saver now. I add money into the banking system rather than taking it away. At the end of the month I have cash left over, not a gaping financial chasm. It helps obviously not having kids, or a car, or a major drug habit, or an insatiable desire for Bang & Olufsen luxury appliances. I recognise I'm damned fortunate, and I may not be able to live like this forever, but long may it last. I'm a careful, thrifty, responsible member of our economic society. And I'm being shafted.

0.5% is a bloody awful interest rate for savers. Stick £10 in a savings account at 0.5% and by the end of the year you'll have fivepence extra. Even after eighteen years at that rate, your nestegg still won't have reached £11. Meanwhile inflation's currently running at 3.7%. On average that means a £10 kettle would cost £10.40 after one year, and more than £20 after eighteen. The current entrenched disparity between savings and prices means that savers are losing ground, fast.

I'm not earning as little as 0.5%, I'm not stupid. I've got my savings in accounts that pay cosy introductory bonuses, and I've set up reminders to nudge me when they're due to expire. But even these special offers aren't special compared to rates routinely offered in the past. Having money is no longer a licence to print money. The current economic climate favours those with large financial obligations, perverse as it may seem, because the price of debt has never been lower.

I wish they'd put interest rates up. I'm sorry if that would increase your mortgage, force you to default and leave you homeless. I'm sorry if consumer spending would plummet, manufacturing decline and the retail sector collapse. I'm sorry if skyrocketing debt would kick our teetering economy over the brink with dire repercussions for us all. But those of us with savings are already being exploited, eroded, relentlessly, big time. We've been prudent too long, why can't we be greedy for a change?

 Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Random borough (28): Camden (part 3)

Somewhere pretty: The Pergola
One thing I love about these random jaunts around London is that there's always somewhere I haven't been before, often that I wasn't even aware of until the random borough's name appeared. A locations that's somehow always been off my radar, or that I've seen mentioned but never really engaged with. The Pergola at Inverforth House is one such place. It's a beautiful spot, as it turns out, yet so incredibly easy to have overlooked. And it's all thanks to soap flakes and detergent.

William Lever, the 1st Viscount Leverhulme, was responsible for starting the grocery business that eventually became Unilever. His industrial base was around Port Sunlight in Merseyside, but he also wanted his own house in London. In 1904 he bought up a large family residence on the northern flank of Hampstead Heath, naming it Hill House. And then he set about remodelling the back garden, courtesy of Thomas Mawson the celebrated landscape gardener. Several extensive terraces were laid (using surplus earth from the tunnelling of the Northern line extension to Golders Green, no less). A new ornamental Hill Garden was constructed a short distance from the house. But there was a pesky public footpath inbetween, whose closure Leverhulme couldn't force, so instead he extended a small pergola across it. And extended, and extended, until the mammoth twisted walkway was the dominant feature hereabouts. It still is.

I approached the Hill Garden from the Golders Hill Park Café, which looked a delightful eaterie (but was in the London borough of Barnet so I'm not allowed to tell you about it). Footpaths led up onto the gated heath, where a series of wooded ascents felt somehow more like mid-Wales than north London. Apart from a few preoccupied dog walkers somewhere in the distance, I had the slopes pretty much to myself. And at the top of the hill, with only minor fanfare, was the entrance to the formerly secret garden. This was lovely enough even in January, with twisting contoured paths and a green lawn leading down to an ornamental pool. The latter had a cement mixer and orange cones at one end, which I'm guessing weren't part of the original plans, but added a little midwinter colour. My apologies to the snogging couple on an upper bench whose amorous activities I disturbed.

Then came steps up to the western end of the pergola (that's a shady pillared passageway entwined with woody plants, for non-horticulturalists). This one's elevated, apart from a single hilltop gate where a path heads out onto the Heath, and it's unexpectedly long. A series of classical columns led off along a red-tiled pavement, topped off by a lattice of timber beams. The structure's now old enough that the wisteria looks properly gnarled, if currently leafless. It all made for a charming Romanesque setting - and this was just the first section. A right-angled turn lay ahead, across the footbridge, where there was the clearest view of the house's formal gardens. It's all luxury flats now of course, but with the top of the raised walkway and outer garden still somehow open to full public access. The pergola meandered on and on to a final spiral staircase, interrupted occasionally by a dome or trellis in the roof overhead. I can confirm that the entire structure's Cassiopeia-shaped (now that I've seen it on Google maps) and that, if straightened out, the pergola would be as long as Canary Wharf tower is tall. A shame that Lord Leverhulme died shortly after it was completed - complications from pneumonia prematurely curtailed his pleasure.

I need to come back in the summer to see the pergola and its West Heath surrounds in full green glory. I fear it'll be busier, because folk who live nearby surely know this delightful backwater exists. If its existence has been news to you, pick a random weekend later this year and promise yourself a visit. Prepare yourself by viewing another of Camden's excellent historical walk videos. And bring a camera.
by tube: North End   by bus: 210, 268

Somewhere historic: Keats House
A small house in Hampstead is responsible for one of Britain's most prolific outbursts of romantic poetry. John Keats moved in when Wentworth Place was almost new, in 1818, to lodge with his friend Charles Armitage Brown. They shared the semi-detached two-up two-down, relatively uneventfully, until the Brawne family moved in nextdoor the following year. John became increasingly smitten by eldest daughter Fanny, and she inspired a more amorous undertone to his output. Her and the nightingale which used to sing in the garden "...in some melodious plot of beechen green, and shadows numberless". Tuberculosis cut John's life short. He fell sick in 1820, setting up a bed in the downstairs parlour so that he could still view the house's garden. Doctors eventually suggested recuperation in warmer climes, so he sailed to Rome, thereby prematurely ending his burgeoning relationship with Fanny. Keats was only 25 when he died, in a villa on the Spanish Steps, but left behind a lyrical canon acclaimed to this day.

The two houses passed to actress Eliza Jane Chester in 1839, and she knocked down the intervening wall and added a conservatory alongside. It's this enlarged house that visitors get to see today, ninety years after it was first opened to the public. You can't miss it, it's in Keats Grove, appropriately right next to the local library. And it's owned not by Camden Council but the City of London, who own most of the adjacent Heath too. Five pounds paid to the nice ladies round the back will gain you entrance, and for as many subsequent visits as you fancy over the next year.

The gift shop and first rooms are in Fanny's house, and contain period furnishings as well as a glass case of Keatsobilia. Crossing the hallway then brings you to the poet's lodgings. One really nice touch is a portrait of Keats hung in the room where it was painted, with two replica chairs set out on the carpet in precisely the spot they appear in the painting. Very little of the original furniture survives - John was only here for 18 months, and few back then would have thought to conserve his landlord's fixtures and fittings. But you'll certainly absorb the atmosphere of the place, from the upper bedrooms to the cellar kitchen, brought to life by several laminated letters and poems left waiting for visitors to read. Take a look here for a virtual tour around the house, which hopefully will encourage you to see the place for real. And be aware that your annual ticket also allows you to attend a surprisingly varied selection of cultural events. Next Saturday they're reading Keats' epic "The Eve of St Agnes" (two days early), and the following weekend it's card games, dice and dominoes with tea and crumpets. Sounds charming. "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
by tube: Hampstead   by bus: 46, 268

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