diamond geezer

 Tuesday, May 31, 2011

London 2012  Olympic update
  Marathon test event

Yesterday morning, while you were still tucked up in Bank Holiday bed, 50 athletes tested out the course of London's Olympic marathon.
Dear club official,
As part of the testing procedures for the 2012 London Olympic Marathon we are organising a test Marathon event on Monday 30th May 2011 before the Bupa London 10,000. The event will start at 6am and will cover the whole of the 2012 Olympic Marathon route. To be able to test the event effectively we need 50 runners who can cover the Marathon distance in 3 hours, therefore we are looking for runners who have achieved a Marathon time of between 2:30 and 2:45 in the last two years to help us test the technical aspects of the Marathon event. This will not be a race and runners will stay together as a group running at 3:00 pace.
In an ideal world I'd have stumbled out of bed at 8:30am, had a cup of tea and wandered out onto my front doorstep with a camera. But we no longer live in an ideal world, so instead I took a ridiculously early train into the City to watch the marathon there. I think I was one of the only spectators there, apart from a few business types who don't believe in bank holidays and the odd bleary clubber stumbling home. Dozens of security guards stood spaced out along the route, presumably to keep traffic out of the way and discourage public disorder, but they weren't having to do very much. Time ticked by (sponsored by Omega, official timekeepers of the Olympic Games), and the bells of St Paul's rang out half past six. Some runners would surely be along soon.

Ah, here they came. First the Bupa truck full of officials and cameras - because, remember, this pre-Olympic event had piggybacked onto an existing race event. Then a police outrider on a motorbike, then two less-imposing policemen on pushbikes. And then the runners, all bunched together in accordance with the race instructions. They pumped and puffed and gritted their teeth, as marathon runners do, no doubt enjoying the camaraderie because this wasn't a genuine competition. Each had an A4 sheet of yellow pinned to their chest bearing their race number and nothing else - uneducated spectators would never have realised that the very first Olympic test event was jogging by. And finally the support team bringing up the rear, including a small blue van and a rather larger green lorry. [photo]

If I stayed standing where I was everyone would be round again in about three quarters of an hour. London's Olympic marathon route isn't point to point, it's a circuit race, with four laps from the Mall to the Tower and back to complete. Even better, from a wandering spectator's point of view, is the incredibly wiggly route followed from the City of London. I had time to stroll from St Paul's to Cheapside and watch the race pass by again, then nip up to Bank for yet another close encounter. You'll never manage such manoeuvres on 2012 marathon day - the streets will be far too full of barriers and people - but before 7am on a bank holiday morning there were no such restrictions, no restrictions at all. [photo]

To Leadenhall Market, which is one of the additional landmarks added to the marathon route when it was whisked screaming away from the Whitechapel Road. The market's wrought iron and glass canopy certainly made for a picturesque backdrop as the runners swept through [photo]. TV cameras are going to love this event, so long as they're well-positioned. Some of the intermediate City streets are pig ugly, courtesy of the office block architects of the 80s and 90s, so round here it'll be visually important to focus on aerial shots and such heritage gems as Leadenhall. Possibly too heritage, as it turned out. After the runners had passed by I was intrigued to see the large green support lorry attempting to follow through the market and round into Lime Street. It'll never get round that corner, I thought, and it didn't. The truck became almost-jammed between a bollard, a barrier and a concrete block, forcing the driver to stop and remanoeuvre slowly backwards and forwards. When that didn't work two passengers nipped out and ran around the vehicle to see if there was anything they could move. The concrete block wasn't budging, nor the bollard, but one bloke (eventually) yanked the metal barrier out of the way allowing the lorry to (eventually) move on. That's why they do these test events, you know, to try to iron out embarrassing wrinkles which would look damned embarrassing in front of a TV audience of millions. But whoever designed this updated marathon route has unintentionally selected a bend that large vehicles can't drive round. Wouldn't have had that problem on Bow Road, guys.
I didn't see them wheeling through, but the three wheelchair athletes testing out the Paralympic course also had problems with the Leadenhall stage. It's cobbled all the way through, you see, which proved much too bumpy for a smooth ride. Organisers have already pledged to tweak the Paralympic marathon route to run elsewhere as a result, but the Olympic route will not be changed.

The marathon route turned back outside the Tower of London. Rather appropriately it ran right up to the remains of the Roman city walls, opposite the White Tower, then turned turtle round the central reservation and headed back into town again [photo]. And the final 150m of this route did something the Olympic publicity machine has never dared mention. It ran through Tower Hamlets. Not much of the borough, admittedly, just the tiny historic corner where none of us live, but Tower Hamlets all the same. The athletes passed out of the City at Trinity Square Gardens, passing the big "Welcome to Tower Hamlets" sign as they did so [photo]. Thirty seconds in, thirty seconds back, that's all the time they spent in my home borough. But they came back one lap later, and again, and again - a total of four times over the course of the race. That's four minutes in Tower Hamlets, which is infinitely better than the zero minutes everybody in politics and the media seems to be assuming. Assuming the Olympic men and women come back and run this fast in the summer of 2012, then I reckon Tower Hamlets might end up with ten minutes as an official Host Borough. Woo.
It's all coming up roses for Tower Hamlets now, innit? We've been given preferential treatment in the Torch Relay, over and above every other local authority in London, and we've been granted a special Olympic tourist campaign to promote curry restaurants in our borough only. And then it turns out we've not been quite so hard done by as everyone thinks and we do have a strip of marathon anyway. OK, so a mere 150 metres of racetrack is scant reward for a marathon that was supposed to run straight across the borough through the heart of the community. But yes, the Olympic marathon will visit Tower Hamlets. I wonder why neither the council nor London 2012 has ever previously mentioned this geographical truth.

Athletes won't be running London's Olympic Marathon route again until Sunday 5th August 2012. It's going to be a tight squeeze filling the pavements along the route, and a tighter squeeze down some backstreets than others. But take the opportunity over the next 14 months to stake out such thoroughfares as Puddle Dock, Lothbury, Birdcage Walk and Byward Street to see where you think might be the best place to spectate. And next time perhaps you'll be out on the streets for the marathon too, watching the world's elite jog by over and over and over and over.

 Monday, May 30, 2011

Croxley Green station never merited a good service. Peak hours on weekdays only, at least since 1959, which reflected the tiny number of passengers wishing to use it. I used the line regularly one teenage summer, nipping down Baldwins Lane to the roundabout, then climbing the staircase to the wooden platform. A short slamdoor train would roll in and whisk me down to Watford High Street where I could change for where I really wanted to go. I was lucky I got in when I did. In 1990 the rail company gave up and reduced services to a single train each day, at 6am, merely as a ruse to keep the line "officially" open. In 1996 they scrapped that and ran a taxi service instead (should any passenger have been interested), because the new link road to the Croxley Business Park demanded that the railway line be severed. And in 2002 even this pretence was abandoned, with the Secretary of State officially closing the line for good. Fifteen years of neglect have created a unique disused corridor snaking around the bottom of West Watford. Come join me on an overgrown journey.

Croxley Green [old station]: From the roundabout it still looks like Croxley Green station is open [photo]. There's a sign, and a noticeboard, and a gate leading through to the embankment [photo]. But closer inspection reveals that the sign still says "Network South East", that the noticeboard is blank, and that the gates are locked. There is a notice apologising that the station is unstaffed and suggesting that you buy your ticket on the train [photo], but that isn't going to happen, not any time soon, not ever. Even if the Croxley Rail Link is ever built this station will remain permanently cut off, forever amputated, and left to decay. Through the gate it's still possible to see the steps ascending the embankment, leading up to where the platform used to be but now isn't. But you can't get through to have a look, not from a busy roundabout with cars driving by, not without attracting attention. You might have more luck in the Sea Cadets car park, behind the children's playground, where local youth have kindly engineered a breach in the security fence. It's very overgrown in there, but there's a straight run up the embankment to the edge of the tracks for anyone with decent grip on their shoes. I thought about it, even dallied with the slope for a minute or two, but eventually decided against. I wouldn't have got far. After a gawp at where the terminating platform used to be, somewhere beneath a carpet of green, the only way to go would have been across the iron trellis bridge over the Grand Union Canal. Even that has trees and bushes growing on it now, or attempting to, such is the level of neglect around here [photo]. And the bridge no longer leads anywhere, not since the road breached the railway. Two hundred metres of overgrown artificial elevation, that's all Croxley Green station means today.

Ascot Road [new station]: There wasn't a station here before, but there will be if the Croxley Rail Link is ever built [photo]. Go back 20 years and the building nextdoor belonged to Sun Printers, one of the two major printworks which earned Watford a national reputation. It churned out Picture Post, back when this was the largest printing company in the world, and later the ground-breaking Sunday Times colour magazine. Robert Maxwell proved its nemesis, taking over the business and 'consolidating' the workforce, until the entire outfit dwindled to nothing in 2004. The factory has since been replaced by housing and a hotel, and all that remains is a sad-looking clocktower lost in the middle of the road [photo]. I hope they repair it if the new station is built, else the first passengers will emerge into a bleak wasteland where 21st century blandness has conquered all.

Watford West [old station]: On Tolpits Lane, another station which looks like it might still be open but definitely isn't [photo]. The BR sign on a pole outside screams "station", but only because no rail employee has ever come along to take it down [photo]. Network SouthEast doesn't own any infrastructure any more, and I guess the line never properly belonged to any rail company with an existing franchise. As for the blue gate marking the entrance to the station, that's very locked and has been for years. The steps down to the platform are overgrown, but nowhere near as overgrown as the platform itself. When I came by in 2005, both platform and railway track were clearly visible looking down from the road bridge [photo]. Today, however, the entire cutting has vanished beneath a thick green canopy [photo]. How quickly nature reclaims what man no longer needs... and how quickly man will chop the whole lot down when trains are scheduled to run this way again.

Watford Hospital [new station]: I don't quite understand why planners want to build a new station here, beside a narrow humpbridge on Vicarage Road [photo]. Watford West was much more in the thick of things, whereas the new station would appear to have lower footfall all round. On one side a recreation ground and a primary school, on the other a major electricity substation and some allotments. They'll not squeeze many newbuild flats in here, not without despoiling what's left of the natural environment. But they crammed hundreds in just down the road when the Scammell lorry factory closed, so I'm sure planners will find a way. And of course there'll be the new Watford Health Campus spreading out towards the new station to boost traffic - this will a major redevelopment area whether the Metropolitan line comes here or not.

Watford Stadium [old station]: When Watford Football Club were at their Division One peak, someone thought it would be a good idea to open a station alongside the stadium for the benefit of travelling supporters. I say station, I mean halt - a mere wooden platform at the end of a footpath for use on Saturday afternoons only. Watford FC's high flying years didn't last, and neither did the station, but the rotting platform's still there. I went in search down the far end of Cardiff Road, along a scarily remote footpath past half a mile of industrial units, and was chuffed to spot an obvious gap in the fence. Up onto the embankment I tripped, and was soon standing on the actual rails and the actual sleepers of the actual railway [photo]. Here was a short stretch that wasn't massively overgrown, probably because it was crossing a bridge over the footpath, so I got to walk up and down for a bit [photo]. There were a few severed chunks of electrical cable lying around, no doubt stripped for anything of worth, but little else visible from the old days. The halt wasn't far to the west but the way looked fairly impassable, and ditto the curve east round to the Rickmansworth branch line and Watford High Street. That's the problem with turning up in late spring - for any hope of striding along more of the line you really need to be here in the winter. Just don't leave it too long, because every year the trees and bushes grow thicker and the urban exploration gets more difficult. And one year there may be real trains here, you never know, as my old local branch line suddenly finds itself on the tube map. Here's hoping.

Here are five reports from people who've walked more of the line than me:
» Abandoned Stations (4 pages) [2001]
» Underground History [2005]
» the delta force [2008]
» Simon Cornwell (this is what I wish I'd managed) [2009]
» Monkeyboy69 (21 photos) [2010]

www.flickr.com: my Croxley Rail Link gallery
There are 18 photographs altogether

 Sunday, May 29, 2011

When I was little and living in Croxley Green, vague plans were mooted to link our local arm of the Metropolitan line to Watford Junction. Build a viaduct across the Gade Valley at Cassio Bridge, and then tube trains could run along a little-used branch line into the heart of Watford. Nice idea, never happened. That branch line closed in 1996, but the planned viaduct never quite went away and is now closer to fruition than it's ever been before. The Croxley Rail Link has widespread support from TfL and all relevant local authorities, and has somehow made its way into the Department of Transport's development pool. A public consultation is currently underway and, should £120m of funding ever be forthcoming, the entire project might get completed by 2016.

The Metropolitan line was always supposed to terminate in Watford town centre, but never did. When the line reached the edge of Cassiobury Park it stopped, short, because landowners weren't willing to allow the railway tracks to encroach any further. A building had been purchased in the High Street, tentatively named Watford Central, but never saw a single train. Later this became the Grange Furniture Store, and today it's a Wetherspoons (which is kind of appropriate, because so is the former Chiltern "Court restaurant at Baker Street at the other end of the line). Watford's premature Metropolitan truncation has left the spur somewhat underused. Residents of the Cassiobury Estate are well pleased with their suburban station, and hundreds of schoolchildren use the line to ride in to the neighbouring Boys' Grammar School. But for most of the population of Watford the line is an irrelevance, with inadequate parking, too far out of the way to be useful.

So the plan, should the Croxley Rail Link ever come to fruition, is to sever the existing line to Watford Met station and run trains round to Watford Junction instead. That would leave a listed building, a kilometre of railway track and two water-crossing viaducts surplus to requirements [photo]. Nobody's quite sure what TfL would do with the available land, but there are already an awful lot of newbuild houses and flats in the vicinity, so there's got to be scope to make a tidy residential profit. Oh, except that most of those newbuild houses and flats only sprung up because of their proximity to a commuter-friendly link to London, and once Watford station closes that'll vanish overnight.

To the east of Croxley station, the new viaduct will branch off from the existing Metropolitan line at the bottom of Baldwins Lane [photo]. This'll be bad news for the used car dealership beside the embankment because the first part of the bridge will slice straight across their forecourt. Then it's straight through the marshalling yard of Cinnamond House, HQ to a local company who specialise in "earthwork services" and therefore might be best placed to pick up part of the Link's construction contract. The gently-curving viaduct will cross the A412 just past the roundabout (precisely over the pelican crossing), then run across what's currently a children's playground (past the local Sea Cadets HQ) [photo]. Here it'll be very close to the old Croxley Green to Watford Junction line, but can't take advantage of the old bridge on that alignment because too sharp a bend would be created [photo]. Instead there'll be a new crossing of the Grand Union Canal, dislodging a couple of permanently-moored narrowboats [photo], then the River Gade, then the Ascot Road dual carriageway.

Ascot Road would be one of two new stations on the Link route, serving the east of Croxley Green, the very western tip of Watford and the enormous Croxley Business Park. It's envisaged as a DLR-style station, no ticket office, with potential capability as a park-and-ride hub. From here Metropolitan trains would be able to follow the existing disused Croxley branch line, newly double-tracked, passing straight through the old Watford West station because (I'm told) the gradient here's too steep. Instead there'd be a new station one road further east, seemingly rather remote, but much better placed for the hospital and Vicarage Road football stadium. A major new health campus is planned here, opening about the same time as the new railway might, so the name Watford Hospital station has been proposed. Next stop would be Watford High Street, formerly on the Bakerloo line, currently Overground only. And then on into Watford Junction, where there's already sufficient terminating platform availability.

It's not unduly expensive, this Croxley Rail Link, making much use as it does of existing infrastructure. The benefit-cost ratio (at 4.3:1) is also "very high", and construction would apparently only take eighteen months. Once open, should it ever open, trains could then run regularly from Watford Junction to Baker Street via Harrow and Wembley. There's also the possibility of Chiltern Railways running a new service between Watford and Aylesbury via the rarely-used Croxley north curve, which would open up a new east-west rail corridor and boost connectivity. Everything rests on a successful public consultation, and getting the nod from the Secretary of State later in the year. The Croxley Rail Link is the only rail project in the pool, everything else is road-based, which may or may not boost its chances. As a former ultra-local resident, my fingers are very firmly crossed. And even if its time isn't now I'm sure it'll get built one day - this is after all the project which refuses to go away.

» Croxley Rail Link project website (and map)
» There's been a public exhibition in Charter Place, Watford, for the last three days, staffed by knowledgeable folk intent on gathering feedback. It's on for one more day, this Wednesday, this time in St Oswald's Church Hall, Croxley Green.
» Part of the exhibition was a 3-D fly-through of the entire route. Here's 90 seconds-worth, starting at Croxley station, then heading out over the new viaduct to Ascot Road station.
» If you have an interest, go fill in the online survey.
» Here's the official DfT funding paperwork
» For a walk along the disused Croxley Green to Watford Junction branch line, join me tomorrow.

 Saturday, May 28, 2011

"The towpath passes beneath the Great West Road - the interesting stretch with all the Art Deco offices, but we're not going there."

Oh go on then, if you insist.

Gillette Cornerthe Pyrene Building
West Cross House, and the Firestone Gates
  • The Gillette factory (top left): Driving into London along the A4 Great West Road, this is the first big factory after the residential belt through Osterley. It was built for the Gillette company in 1936 by the wonderfully-named architect Sir Banister Flight Fletcher, serving as as both factory and European HQ. Atop the high brick tower is a four-faced neon-illuminated clock, visible for miles. Razor-blade production transferred to Poland five years ago, and the building is now a Grade II-listed shell awaiting transformation, maybe, into a hotel.
  • Coty Cosmetics: The big white building at 941 Great West Road, designed by Wallis, Gilbert and Partners, opened in 1932, and now a "state-of-the-art private outpatient clinic".
  • Pyrene Building (top right): UK home of the Pyrene Manufacturing Company of Delaware, who specialised in the manufacture of carbon tetrachloride fire extinguishers. Again designed by Wallis, Gilbert & Partners, it opened in the early 1930s. Currently vacant, if you fancy renting 59,371 sq ft of "landmark Art Deco office building".
  • Curry's Building: Back in 1936, when this electrical retailer was fast expanding, they built this grand white building at 991 Great West Road to act as both headquarters and factory. Rather more recently, Foster & Partners restored the vacant front office building for French outdoor advertising company JCDecaux.
  • Firestone tyre factory (bottom): Another Wallis, Gilbert and Partners design, built 1928, for the Firestone company of America. Tyre production ceased in February 1980, making 1500 locals redundant, and the Art Deco building was sold to the Trafalgar Group. In one of London's most shameful architectural desecrations, the new bosses promptly demolished the building over the August bank holiday weekend, shortly before a preservation order was due to be served. In its place today is a long low office block with glass façade, with the only remaining fragments of the old factory being the front gates and a few railings. Shame.
(for more about these buildings, and several others along Brentford's Great West Road, see this Wikipedia page, or this set of photos)

 Friday, May 27, 2011

  Walk London
[section 7]
  Richmond Bridge to Osterley Lock (4½ miles)

After the very-green section 6 comes a very-blue 7. The first half's along the Thames, the second's along the Grand Union Canal. It's another winner.

Time to leave the pubs and shops and boatyards of Richmond behind. The towpath heads north, a bit parched at the moment, but there's plenty of water in the Thames alongside. There are a couple of bridges to duck under, the first (Richmond Railway Bridge) for trains, the second (Twickenham Bridge) for an arterial road. And then, as the Old Deer Park spreads out to the right, a mysterious line crosses the path [photo]. If this were Greenwich you'd know precisely was it was, but that's fifteen miles east so how could it be? Ah but it sort-of is, it's the Kew Meridian, which was the line of longitude preferred by King George III. He built an observatory in the park (it's still there), specifically to observe the Transit of Venus in June 1769. There are also three obelisky meridian markers, one very close to the Thames if you fancy nipping into the neighbouring recreation ground for a look.

That's South London finished with. Here's where the Ring crosses to the north bank of the Thames, which hasn't been in sight since the very beginning of the walk three dozen miles back. It's a memorable crossing too, up and over Richmond Lock which is a magnificent Victorian structure built to maintain river flow upstream [photo]. At high tide the sluice gates are opened and boats can sail through unimpeded, but at other times they have to use the lock (charge £5). Pedestrians get to walk along the top, between the globe lamps and swirly metalwork, with a chance to scrutinise the machinery or peer down at passing river traffic [photo]. You may also be distracted by the roar of aeroplanes flying low overhead. The next bend north is directly underneath the Heathrow flightpath, so a steady succession of Jumbos and Airbuses shatter the calm every 90 seconds or so.

A detour inland is required to negotiate the mouth of the River Crane, which is a shame because walking round Isleworth isn't quite as pleasant as walking by the water. But Old Isleworth is picturesque, ably assisted by its Thamesside location and what looks like an old church on the riverbank. On closer inspection, however, the tower is the only part of All Saints to have survived an arson attempt in 1943, and the rest is a strikingly modern rebuild. And that's not really the river either, it's a semi-drained channel round the back of Isleworth Ait (one of the Thames's longest islands) [photo]. When the tide's low it's possible to walk out on the mud and across a ramp of stepping stones to reach the tied-up boats and nature reserve on the other side [photo]. Possible, but perhaps not advised. Safer to take a seat on the terrace at the London Apprentice pub, so named because wannabe City tradesmen used to sail here to celebrate the end of their apprenticeships. A long way from the City, but a fine place to celebrate.

One last glimpse of the Thames, then the Ring turns unashamedly into Syon Park. I must admit I was expecting prettier, but the offical route hugs a wall between the public park and the private gardens so never quite feels special. There's one point where the vista opens out across the front lawn to reveal the facade of Syon House - a bit like a rather bland castle [photo]. But then it's swiftly back to an extensive car park, and lots of metal railings, and a very big garden centre. The Duke of Northumberland opened Britain's first horticultural supermarket here in 1968, and just one Spring Sunday's takings must provide a tidy sum towards the upkeep of the estate.

Here's the edge of Brentford, but more importantly here's the Grand Union Canal. The Capital Ring will be following that for a fair few miles (though not all 93 to Braunston), joining the waterway at seriously-modernised Brentford Lock. Don't think ramshackle gates, think spruced-up canal basin surrounded by shiny apartments and cosmopolitan dining opportunities [photo]. But this imported affluence doesn't last long. The towpath suddenly snakes through a large gloomy warehouse, whose girders and corrugated iron walls creak and rattle menacingly when the wind's up [photo]. I can't imagine why this ramshackle structure has somehow been allowed to survive here, but I fear it won't be long before it becomes "high quality public realm".

The next building's in complete contrast - the global headquarters of pharmaceutical giants GlaxoSmithKline. Employees work in and around a 16-storey curved glass tower block, with a small waterfall and a weird sculpture plonked outside by the canal for good measure. The towpath passes beneath the Great West Road - the interesting stretch with all the Art Deco offices, but we're not going there. Instead there's all the twists and turns of an urban canal, which means trees and bushes shielding a succession of industrial units, railway lines and secluded meadows. At one point, by a weir blessed with swans, the M4 scythes shamelessly past atop a low viaduct on concrete stilts. It's not as ugly a stretch as you're thinking, at least not in leafy spring. But the next wiggles of canal will have to wait for section 8 - Osterley Lock's as far as this walk goes.

» Capital Ring section 7: official map and directions
» Who else has walked it? Mark, Stephen, Darryl, Paul, Tim, Tetramesh, Richard
» On to section 8 (or back to section 6)

(and a reminder that Walk London's Spring into Summer 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 more challenging treks further out. Highly recommended... for those who can be bothered to plough through 58 separate pages on the website, sigh)

 Thursday, May 26, 2011

When I heard that Bow Road was getting a Cycle Superhighway, I didn't ever guess quite how disruptive that would be. The roadworks began seven months ago and they still haven't finished. They're particularly bad at the moment, with the entire road leading up the the Flyover sealed off every evening for a week so that lots of big noisy machines can lay down a new road surface. That's fine, because a busy trunk road like the A11 needs resurfacing every now and then, plus we should get some safer cycle lanes out of it. I'll post more about the Cycle Superhighway and its associated joys/disasters when it's finally complete later in the summer. But there is one thing I want to get off my chest first. Because, as a mere pedestrian, one particular cycleway 'improvement' is trying to kill me.

Let me take you to the traffic lights at the foot of Fairfield Road. If you're driving out of town towards Stratford, it's the last turning left before the Bow roundabout. Above is a photo looking up Fairfield Road, showing the pedestrian crossing in its previous form. It's not a pelican or puffin or anything - it doesn't need to be. Crossing the left-hand-side pedestrians have to watch for traffic pulling in from Bow Road, which involves looking around a lot but isn't usually dangerous. Over on the right-hand-side the queueing traffic spends a long time at red, waiting patiently to pull out. Crossing this bit on foot can be a little more awkward, in case the lights turn green while you're mid-road. But that's OK, you just cast a look up at the single traffic light at the front and check it hasn't changed colour so you know it's OK to cross. That's how it was. And then the Cycle Superhighway came.
Construction Package 11a - Bow Road (Campbell Road to Bow Roundabout)
• New blue cycle surfacing and route logos
• Resurfacing work on the carriageway and bus stops
• New road markings
• Kerb realignments
• Footway improvements
• Relocation of signposts, traffic lights and other street furniture
Works are still underway, so the final blue stripe hasn't appeared yet, but workers have spent months rejigging the road in readiness for its arrival. They've dug up bits of pavement, moved lampposts and realigned kerbs. They've dug up some of the same bits of pavement again, and again, then again for good measure. And they've shifted around the traffic lights at the bottom of Fairfield Road too, presumably to make more room for some as-yet-unseen cycle feature. There's only one major change here, and that's the disappearance of the front traffic light. Drivers can still see two, but the third that we pedestrians used to rely on has disappeared and not been replaced. The crossing now passes in front of the traffic lights, not between them, rendering the red/green colour change invisible. Presumably that's an oversight, or whoever was redesigning the junction thought it wasn't important. But as a result I've nearly been run over twice in the last 24 hours. And I'm not best pleased.

I tried to cross Fairfield Road on my way home from work, and I thought the coast was clear. I got halfway across without incident, then reached the side where queueing traffic was waiting at red. It was still red wasn't it? I sort of assumed it was still red, although it was impossible to see any traffic light in any direction from where I was standing so this could only be a guess. I strode boldly into the road, only for the front car to suddenly start accelerating in my general direction. Red had flipped to green without me knowing, and only by speeding up my walk did I avoid a nasty close shave.

I tried to cross Fairfield Road later in the evening, after taking this photo, and I thought the coast was clear. I got halfway across without incident, then reached the side where no traffic was queueing at all. Must be safe, I thought. And then I noticed a car in the near distance driving steadily towards the junction. If the lights were at red, as I believed, then the car would slow to a halt and I'd be safe. But if the lights were green, as I feared, then the car would speed ahead to drive past and turn into Bow Road. I guessed wrong. The car carried on driving towards me, fairly fast, then slowed a little so as not to mow me down. The driver was no doubt wondering why some idiot pedestrian was crossing the road while the lights were at green. And I was wondering why some idiot traffic planner had ensured I could no longer tell whether the lights were green or not.

I don't expect you to be interested - this isn't your road, this isn't your life in greater danger. But in adapting my local streetscape for the benefit of cyclists, an unexpected consequence has been to make things less safe for pedestrians. I wonder how long it'll be before the first unnecessary accident occurs.

15th June update: Oh joy. The stalks for the permanent traffic lights have just gone in, and there's one up front where pedestrians should be able to see it. Looks like the attempt to kill us was only temporary. Once the lamps are finally installed, I'll be delighted to have called this one wrong.

 Wednesday, May 25, 2011

London 2012  Olympic update
  Another false start
  [completely rewritten post]

No money for Olympic tickets was taken today.
But it'll start tomorrow, honest.

So that's...
"If you are successful, expect payment to be taken between 26 May 2011 and 31 May 2011."
It still feels like LOCOG are making up their procedures as they go along, or that somebody in the ticketing office is intent on misdirecting the public at every opportunity. Oh, it could all have been handled so much better. But, watch those accounts now...

London 2012  Olympic update
  Ready. Steady. Go?

Did you order some 2012 Olympic tickets? Because the money could start disappearing from your bank account today. No really.

It seems that when they said this...
"If you are successful, payment will be taken between 10 May 2011 and 10 June 2011."
...they were telling the truth, but what they really meant was this...
"If you are successful, payment will probably be taken between 25 May 2011 and 31 May 2011."
So the official account-emptying window is finally upon us. Best be prepared.

Here's how we got to where we are...

» Monday March 22nd 2010: Public invited to sign up and create a ticketing account.
» Friday October 15th 2010: Announcement of draft Olympic timetable, and that tickets will go on sale on March 15th.
» Tuesday February 15th 2011: Announcement of full Olympic timetable and ticket prices, session by session.
» Tuesday March 15th (midnight): Ticket purchasing window opened.
» Wednesday April 27th (1am): Ticket purchasing window closed.
» April 28th - May 9th: Checks for duplicate applications. Ballots for hundreds of oversubscribed sessions.
» Tuesday May 10th: "I know we said we'd start taking money from today but sorry, we're still running those ballots, so bear with us."
» Wednesday May 11th: Announcement of draft Paralympic timetable and ticket prices.
» Monday May 16th: Rescheduled first date for money to start leaving people's accounts (cheque and postal orders first), honest.
» Monday May 23rd: It's strange, but nobody seems to knows anybody who's had their ticket money taken yet.
» Tuesday May 24th: "I know we said we'd start taking money two weeks ago. I know we then said we'd start taking money last week. Well, we'll definitely start taking money from tomorrow. We are not making this up as we go along."

...and where we're probably going next...

» Wednesday May 25th - Tuesday May 31st: For those lucky enough to be allocated tickets, payment will (at last) be taken from Visa credit and debit cards. Remaining cheques and postal orders will be banked. All your money will go in one hit. With a long bank holiday weekend in the middle, that's a brief four-day slot for withdrawing funds (rather than a six week window).
» Thursday May 26th: London Prepares - Tickets go on sale for the first four Olympic test events taking place this summer (Mountain Bike, Beach Volleyball, Basketball, BMX). First come, first served, from 10am.

» Wednesday June 1st - Friday 10th June: Any ticket-buyers who had "issues with collection of payment" (like stolen or lost cards, or insufficient funds) will be contacted "to arrange an alternative Visa payment". If that doesn't work, they'll get no tickets at all.
» Friday 10th June: Final day for collection of money from successful ticket applicants.
» early June: Those who paid by cheque but didn't get all their tickets will receive refunds. Those who paid by postal order but didn't get all their tickets will get a letter explaining how to arrange a refund.
» Monday June 13th - Friday 24th June: Somebody somewhere prepares 1.8 million emails telling applicants which tickets they've got. Apparently they couldn't do this any earlier. At some point, somebody presses a big button and sends those emails. Across the nation, applicants then go either "ooh!" or "oh".

» from late June: Second chance sales - "an opportunity for applicants who applied for tickets between 15 March and 26 April to apply for remaining tickets". Those who applied but won nothing will get first priority. Those who won some or all of their tickets will be able to join in later. Those who didn't apply at all won't be allowed to apply in this phase. Tickets will only be available online, using Visa (no cheques, no postal orders). Tickets will be available on a first come, first served basis. Sports that haven't yet sold out include Basketball, Beach Volleyball, Boxing, Canoe Sprint, Women's Mountain Biking, Football, Handball, Hockey, Taekwondo, Volleyball, Weightlifting and Wrestling.
» later this year: All the remaining tickets go on sale, online, using Visa, to anyone.
» Friday 9th September: Tickets for the Paralympics go on sale. They're mostly quite cheap. If you don't get any Olympic tickets, this might be your best option.

» early next year: The official ticket resale programme begins. This will give existing ticket holders the opportunity to sell their unwanted tickets, for no greater than face value, to prospective buyers in a secure online environment. eBay is not an option.
» about this time next year: Your tickets arrive in the post (by secure delivery, hence the £6 delivery charge).
» Friday 27th July - Sunday 12th August 2012: Some Games happen. You may be there.

 Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Sorry if this feels a bit soon, but PR/marketing requests continue to fire limply into my inbox. For fear of repeating myself, can I please say this again? No, I do not promote stuff on this blog, so don't waste my time asking.
Dear Dogdy Geezer,
Hope you are having a lovely day so far!
Well I was, Julie, until you called me Dodgy Geezer (and misspelled it).
I was browsing online and came across your website, and was wondering if you would be interested in writing about a first time in the world event happening in London this summer? The event is called <animal-related event>.
Asking me a question like "would you be interested...?" is very dangerous, Julie, because it begs the answer "I couldn't give a ..."
It would be fantastic if you could write about it as we believe this will be an extremely exciting and attention grabbing topic for your readers. The event has already featured in several magazines, websites and newspapers and will also soon be featuring on Groupon.
Sorry Julie, but my readers aren't the sort to whore themselves on Groupon, let alone buy cut-price vouchers for crocodile-petting.
Hi there,
You may have heard that <major London store> is hosting <Maritime Event>, a month long celebration of our oceans to highlight the issue of over-fishing. We’d love to get Diamond Geezer involved, would you be interested in supporting the cause on your blog? We can provide you with content and images to structure a post around, or a press release if you’d prefer?
Hi Annaliese, do I look like the sort of uninspired blogger who cuts-and-pastes promotional guff?
NEWS RELEASE: 23.05.2011 - North West business leaders supporting Todmorden Curve
North West business leaders are coming out in support of the vital Todmorden Curve rail link that could see faster trains running on a direct connection between Burnley and Manchester by 2014.
I know I write too much about tedious railway stuff, Julian, but your geographical targeting is about 150 miles out.
North London <Street Art> Walk
Hi there just a quick note to invite you to this event. Feel free to pop along and bring anybody along. Maybe even list it in your events for other to join us. See you there, if not take care and thank you for your time.
Oh Reuben, each sentence there is more hopelessly optimistic than the one before.
I am contacting you because your blog is within the top 100, most popular London blogs, and I am convinced that our startup could be interesting and useful for you. We have recently launched <advertising "supermarket">, which is an advertising "supermarket", which provides a complimentary way for web publishers, bloggers or forum users to monetize almost any content they create on the Internet.
Sorry Jordan, but your email is within my top 10 least popular marketing requests. There is no monetization here, as you really ought to have noticed.
Excuse the email out of the blue, we have a project coming up that might be of interest to you & your blog, here comes the PR bit...
You know Sam, if ever there was a perfect opening sentence that guaranteed your email ending up into my Deleted Items, that would be it.

It's clear that none of the marketing folk above actually bothered to read my blog before sending their wholly-mistargeted emails. For fear of repeating myself, can I please say this again? No, I do not promote stuff on this blog, so don't waste my time asking.

 Monday, May 23, 2011

Five years ago, TfL announced funding for something they called the "London Overground". They'd take some Silverlink services and the existing East London line and combine them, and build some linking bits, to create most of an orbital railway about the capital. The plans were bold, and expensive, and would take years of engineering work to complete. Well, those years of engineering work are finally complete, and yesterday TfL proudly launched the timetable they've been working up to all this time. A better service and more frequent trains - hopefully making all those ever-so-many extended line closures worthwhile.

But how much more worthwhile? Rather than wait for TfL's press release that's bound to slip out later today, I thought I'd check for myself. I've gone back to 2005, before the Overground was conceived, and compared services then with services now, in the first week of completion. Here's how much better (or in a couple of cases worse*) the Overground is than what came before.

Clapham Junction to
Willesden Junction
Trains per hour2424
Last train2235233022182315

This is a huge improvement. Until last week trains ran between Clapham and Willesden only twice an hour, at irregular intervals, which encouraged nobody. Now they run every fifteen minutes, until later in the evening, and two trains each hour continue to Stratford. This, folks, is why long-term investment in railways works.

Richmond to
Trains per hour44 (Rich-WillJn)
6 (WillJn-Strat)
24 (Rich-WillJn)
6 (WillJn-Strat)
Last train2257230022082129*

This too is a huge improvement, especially on the eastern half of the line and on Sundays. One train every ten minutes between Willesden Junction and Stratford is particularly impressive, especially given the number of freight trains that still have to fit into the gaps in the timetable. But the last through train on a Sunday now leaves ridiculously early, which is a poor show. And it's not good that end-to-end journeys are now scheduled to take 4 minutes longer than before (58 minutes in 2005 but 62 minutes in 2011).

Gospel Oak to
Trains per hour2424
Last train2225233521202310

Round of applause. The GOBLIN was always the Cinderella of north London railways, running an infrequent service in clapped-out trains until not very late in the evening. Now it's a train every fifteen minutes, a proper 'walk up and go' service, and in decent rolling stock. And Cinderella need no longer hurry home - from this week the last train now rolls in after midnight.

Watford Junction to
Trains per hour3323
Last train2305232123222321

Weekdays, no change. But on Sundays, a 30 minute gap cut to 20 - that's more like it.

East London lineTrains per hour
Highbury & Islington to Dalston Junction08
Dalston Junction to Whitechapel012
Whitechapel to Surrey Quays1012
Surrey Quays to New Cross54*
New Cross Gate to Sydenham68
Sydenham to West Croydon44
Sydenham to Crystal Palace(M-Sat)

No fresh changes in this week's timetable, but that's because all the magic's already happened. A new connection north of Shoreditch, another south of New Cross Gate, and a five minute frequency along the majority of the line. Just shows how much can be achieved in five years with a bit of imagination (and hard cash).

Surrey Quays to Clapham Junction: Wasn't part of the original Overground announcement because funding hadn't been approved. So isn't ready yet, and won't be until the end of next year.

 Sunday, May 22, 2011

Seaside(ish) postcard: Burnham-on-Crouch
I don't know how good your Essex geography is, but the eastern edge of the county is mostly low-lying marsh intersected by rivers. Two of the larger rivers are the Blackwater and the Crouch, one well south of Colchester, the other just north of Southend. And between these two rivers lies the Dengie peninsula, a tongue of agricultural flatness on the way to nowhere. So that's where I went yesterday. End of geography lesson.

Burnham-on-Crouch: The most important thing about Burnham is the on-Crouch. The town wouldn't be here without the river, which flows out into the North Sea a few miles downstream. I say river but what I really mean is whopping great estuary - long, broad and straight, and therefore ideal for yachting. If you have a maritime plaything with sails, this is an ideal spot for messing about. The town boasts no fewer than four sailing clubs, the most prestigious of which is the Royal Corinthian Yacht Club. Their HQ is a white Modernist block, with stepped viewing terraces on three levels where members can watch the action in civilised comfort. Right at the top is a small observation room from which races on the estuary are coordinated via a system of flags, hooters and bangs. Whoever the lad is with the ear-protectors who sets off the match-starting explosions, he has one of the best Saturday jobs in Essex. [photo]

One local bargain is the town museum, housed in what looks like a large boathouse on the quayside. It's only a pound to get in, for two floors of local history and heritage, plus the attention of two dear old ladies sat waiting to welcome the not-many visitors. As with many small museums, much of the content is aimed squarely at those who've ever lived nearby, which isn't you or I. But I was drawn in by details of the great flood of 1953, and enchanted by an oh-so-simple display of wedding reports clipped from old local newspapers, and intrigued by the adverts on the cinema's original safety curtain [photo]. Oh yes, despite its lowly population Burnham still boasts a quirky two-screen independent cinema, and they were queuing out the door for Pirates of the Caribbean on Saturday.

Several pubs and a ye olde hotel overlook the river, which were ideal spots yesterday for sitting outside in the sun with a beer or fish and chips. The social mix can be quite diverse, from well-heeled couples off to the chandlery for supplies to oversized families and leathered-up bikers enjoying a day out. Most of the jetties are private, but from one a ferry service takes twitchers across the Crouch to the RSPB reserve on Wallasea Island. I stayed north-side, walking up as far as the huge marina where the moneyed of Essex moor their mighty pleasurecraft [photo]. But nothing quite beat watching the hubbub on the estuary, as convoys of white and orange-sailed yachts sailed up and around and out of sight and back again. Class.

Mangapps: Its name sounds like a dodgy porn website, but absolutely not. Mangapps is a railway museum [photo], based on a farm north of Burnham (beyond the 30mph limit, where the pavement gives out). A couple of large sheds are given over to railway ephemera, much but not all from the East Anglia region. The walls are covered with signs, particularly old station nameplates from all over (King's Cross, Dover Marine, Ais Gill Summit, etc etc) [photo]. There are signal levers to pull, there are umpteen lamps in cabinets and there are disused carriages filled with more 'stuff' to clamber inside. One of these is from a Northern line train, decommissioned 1999, complete with mothballed ads and a fully accessible driver's cabin. I especially appreciated all the old maps and timetables scattered throughout, but then I would, and you might be bored silly by the sheer railwayness of it all.

Good news, there's also a railway [photo]. It only heads down to the bottom of the farm and back, not even a mile, but that's long enough for a decent ride. Heritage diesels most days, but there's an in-steam event coming up for the bank holiday next week. I took a ride with an incredibly excitable seven year-old whose parents had clearly brought him along for train-based weekend therapy. Almost as thrilled were a bunch of middle-aged train spotters, one with a thick black notebook stuffed down the rear of his trousers for ease of access, ticking off the vintage units that we passed down the line. They have lots of old engines and carriages here, many restored, others still in need of a fair amount of volunteer-led tinkering. All this plus a scattering of railway buildings shipped in from elsewhere, including (blimey) the original Berney Arms signal box [photo]. I can't believe Mangapps is ever packed out, not this far from the heart of things, but avoiding railway overcrowding is fine by me.

Southminster: The furthest you can travel on the real railway, via the branch line from Wickford, is Southminster [photo]. The town doesn't deserve a station, not by Beeching's standards, but kept its connection thanks to the nuclear power station up the road (since decommissioned). Clustered around a medieval church, this is an odd spot for a thriving commuter suburb, but its streets are considerably more attractive than South Woodham Ferrers further up the line. There's evidence of Essex affluence, such as a shop in the high street selling "simply stoves", but also a strong sense of community throughout. I was once taken house-hunting in the village up the road, and departed insistent that I absolutely definitely couldn't live this far out and could we please go home now? But looking yesterday in a Burnham estate agent's window I discovered that I could now rent a four bedroom apartment with a river view for less than I'm currently paying in London for somewhere smaller with no view. I'm still absolutely definitely not moving, but maybe they've got the right idea out here after all.

 Saturday, May 21, 2011

I hope you had nothing important planned this evening, because the end of the world is nigh. Praise be, for the Rapture is upon us and the faithful shall be uplifted yea even this very day.
1 Thessalonians 4:16,17 For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.
For God has decreed that all People shall be judged henceforth, and that those whose souls are unblemished shall be spirited away to sit with Him at His right hand among His heavenly host.
Matthew 24:21 For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.
Fear not, for the truth is hidden in clear sight within God's Bible in plain words for all to see.
Revelation 5:23,24 And I say unto you the trump shall sound in the year of Grace numbered eleven and twenty hundred, when Africa shall rise and the east shall be smitten by waves of terror: for man abideth not: he is like the beasts that perish.
And the Lord has set in place the time of His salvation, when those whose eyes are open shall be saved and those whose hearts are closed shall be Left Behind.
Hebrews 2:7 Yea upon the twenty-first day of May shall the righteous ascend, at six of the clock precisely, measured by solar time at Greenwich as is God's will, so there'll just be time to watch Doctor Who first.
At His Moment of Glory the chosen few will vanish suddenly from sight, leaving behind all worldly goods in the blink of an eye. Henceforth those who observe this phenomenon must come to terms with God's will: that they are unclean, that they are unchosen, and that their lives may be in mortal danger.
2 Corinthians 6:19 Please take care not to be aboard a giant flying bird at the appointed time of Ascension lest any pilot who has led a blameless life disappears from the controls and the fuselage crashes flaming into the ground.
Five months of terror remain for those unclaimed by the Spirit, as conflict and plagues and earthquakes torment the world, culminating in fiery torment and ultimate Armageddon. Honestly, the Rest Of Time is not something you want to live though, and you should do all you can to repent of your sins before six o'clock this evening.
Matthew 12:8 And I say unto you, no man shall be saved unless he sell off all his worldly goods and convert the proceeds to cash and place the money in this online Paypal account but hurry because funds must clear before 6pm today thankyou.
This is God's incontrovertible truth, and not in any way a delusional con-trick.
Blondie 19:81 And you get in your car and drive real far, and you drive all night and then you see a light, and it comes right down and it lands on the ground, and out comes the man from Mars, and you try to run but he's got a gun, and he shoots you dead and he eats your head, and then you're in the man from Mars, you go out at night eating cars: He's gonna eat 'em all. Rapture.
Act now. Tomorrow will be too late.

 Friday, May 20, 2011

Yesterday saw the publication of the McNulty report on railway "value for money". The report was commissioned by the previous government, and is likely to be implemented by the present government. It recommends making rail fares fairer by balancing them out a bit, which'll be great if yours come down, but dreadful if yours go up. One particularly unsettling section recommends "reducing the coverage of Off-Peak/Saver fare regulation", which would give train operators greater opportunity to increase fares during the middle of the day and at weekends. Damn, that's when I use them.

So I thought I'd do some research to find out how much off-peak tickets cost now, for posterity, to compare with whatever future fare system we might end up with in several years time. I've investigated the price of off-peak return tickets from London to various stations across the southeast. I've started from the most appropriate mainline rail terminus. I've assumed I'm buying my ticket on the day, not in advance, because I hate being tied down to particular trains. I've chosen to travel out on Friday at noon, and return later the same evening. And I've worked out how far out of London I can go for £10 (yellow), how far for £20 (green), how far for £30 (light blue), how far for £40 (blue) and how far for £50 (purple).

Here's something I've never tried on the blog before - an embedded map...

View Rail prices from London in a larger map

£10: See the yellow ring around Greater London? That's fairly consistent pricing, that is, although with an uneven ripple to the northwest of the capital. Maidenhead scores the prize for the furthest station you can travel to (and back) for a tenner.
£20: Again the £20 ring is roughly circular, allowing Londoners to travel approximately 40 miles out of the capital. Brighton's good value, that's fifty miles, and you can travel similarly far to the north (Milton Keynes, Bedford, Sandy, Cambridge) and to the southwest (notably Basingstoke).
£30: It's at £30 that the differences between train operators really start to become visible. £30 gets you almost to Birmingham and all the way up to Peterborough. It gives you free run of southeast England, anywhere from Portsmouth to Dover. But try heading into East Anglia with National Express and you won't even leave Essex.
£40: There are relative bargains here, right the way up to Grantham and all the way out to Worcester. But the extra tenner doesn't nudge you far along the M4, nor far along the mainline into Suffolk. And pity the residents of Wellingborough in Northants. They're only one station north of Bedford (£19.50 return), but that extra station costs them an extra £19.
£50: Fifty quid will take you to Bristol or even all the way out to Somerset, past Yeovil. A similar distance from London are the north Norfolk coast and Newark, Notts. But £50 isn't enough to make Leicester, on the long-distance line that's the worst value of all for bought-on-the-day tickets. East Midlands trains, hang your head in extortionate shame.

I wonder how this week's rail report will affect these off-peak turn-up-and-go fares and their spatial distribution. I fear not well. Come back in a few years time and maybe I'll plot this map again.

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