diamond geezer

 Thursday, June 30, 2011

Spot The Whale

Use your skill and judgement to pinpoint the enormous marine mammal hidden in this photograph. Try to ignore the freezing wind, the rocking motion of the boat, and the queasy feeling of seasickness. Do not use a sharp hooked implement to mark your target. No refunds given.

Faxaflói Bay, Atlantic Ocean

You can't walk far in central Reykjavik without spotting an advert for whale watching. It's something every tourist does once, pretty much, so there are a number of companies with boats competing for your custom. They're all based down by the harbour, ironically right alongside the whaling ships that Iceland still permits to go a-slaughtering on the high seas. Look away, turn a blind eye, and climb aboard the sightseeing boat for your three hour observation trip.

This time of year, there's puffins first. They nest on one of the islands in Faxaflói Bay at this time of year, so the boat heads out to stare at the low cliffs for a few minutes. You'll need sharp eyes or binoculars, because these small birds look no bigger than a paperback logo from this distance. Colourful beaks and soaring flight, sure, but I can promise you a hugely better puffin experience much nearer home off the coast of Northumberland.

Then out into the Atlantic on a whale quest. The bay is prime whale-feeding territory during the summer, as your guide will explain on the journey out. There's a lot of time to fill, at least an hour of outward chugging, so no aspect of the giant mammal's behaviour is left uncovered. Best make sure you're wrapped up warm, because you're likely to be out on deck for a while and it can be damned cold bobbing about on the ocean. My voyage was blessed with bright sun but also a strong north wind, and that cut straight through.

Once out in open waters, it's all eyes to the horizon. The entire crew of the boat will be watching, but you might still be the lucky passenger to make the first sighting. A telltale blow, maybe the swish of a dorsal fin, that's the clue you so desperately want to see. Somewhere out there in the crashing waves, surely there's a whale or three ready to perform. It would be truly awful to come all this way and see nothing, having paid so much up front, especially if the ocean's rough.

I can only speak of my experience, which was a churning but empty sea. We stared, we scrutinised, but all we saw was a carpet of undulating blue and the horizon tipping this way and that. The was one brief moment of success as a black shape leapt low out of the water - a minke whale apparently, one of the smallest to be found here, merely the size of a double decker. But one second later it crashed straight back in, entirely missed by half the viewing audience, and resolutely refused to reappear. Not the triumphant whale-watching session we'd been primed for, just a disappointingly brief blur in a turbulent sea.

Slowly the spectators drifted below deck, off to console themselves with a warming drink, or maybe to hurl up the contents of their stomach into a sickbag. A few stayed up top to watch nothing much happen, stoically enduring the choppy voyage back to the relative calm of Reykjavik harbour. Our guide nipped round with the free tickets - no sighting means you can come back again on any future sailing for nothing. I'm not convinced it's an offer I'd ever take up, and certainly never in similar weather, but it seems we were damned unlucky to see virtually nothing.

 Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Southwest Iceland is where you'll find the erupting hot water spring after which all the world's geysers are named. It's called Geysir, and it's located within a geothermally active area (just down the road from the spectacular Gullfoss waterfall). The name derives from the Old Norse verb "geysa", to gush. Geysir has been known to gush over 100 metres into the air, most recently in 2000 and 2009, but it's a temperamental soul and these days only splurts heavenward following bouts of local earthquake activity. As a dormant feature, now little more than a bubbling pool [photo], the coachloads of tourists who flock to the region each day barely give old Geysir a second glance. Instead they gather around its smaller cousin Strokkur, which may not be quite so violent but gives a far more regular performance.

Strokkur, step 1 [photo]: At the centre of a geothermal pool is the head of a tube burrowing down into the earth. Magma heats the water within which gently oscillates and periodically sploshes out into the surrounding rocky basin. Around the perimeter, an expectant crowd waits with cameras poised. Will this splosh be the signal of imminent eruption? Has it been the requisite at-least-five minutes since Strokkur last burst forth? Everyone's ready with their cameras, some for the entire up-to-ten minutes, keen to catch that perfect snap. It's the ultimate point-and-click game, trying to read the signs and press the shutter perfectly, rather than being fooled by a rogue burst of steam or a turbulent wave.

Strokkur, step 2 [photo]: It only takes a fraction of a second, but the water in the tube suddenly rises up to form a hemispherical blue bubble. There's great upward pressure, caused by boiling water within the earth being explosively released.

Strokkur, Iceland's old faithful geysir, at the start of its eruption

Strokkur, step 3 [photo]: The geysir fires into the sky. If it's windy the spray will be diffuse, sending a cloud of sulphurous steam directly into the crowd of onlookers. In less breezy weather Strokkur shoots upwards, sometimes reaching 30 metres, usually less. Kerwhoosh!

Strokkur, step 4 [photo]: After the eruption the central tube is empty, so water starts to flow back in from the surrounding pool of scalding liquid. Sometimes this is enough to set off a rapid chain reaction, and Strokkur erupts again within sixty seconds or so. More usually one whoosh is all you get. Some of the crowd hang on, waiting eight-or-so minutes for the entire cycle to repeat and another fine photo/video opportunity to present itself. The rest of the crowd shuffle off, having experienced the natural phenomenon they came to see. There's a cafe, restaurant and gift shop of the foot of the slope, and there's still time to buy a sandwich, cuddly puffin or t-shirt before the coach departs. Poor old Geysir, meanwhile, bubbles unloved and unwatched a few dozen metres to the east. Until the next earthquake unblocks its tubes, that is, and then Geysir'll show its upstart neighbour Strokkur who's the daddy.

Go on, waste your day at work and watch Strokkur on webcam. Ten minutes max, guaranteed.

 Tuesday, June 28, 2011

It's not easy to go up things in Reykjavik. There aren't any handy volcanoes, and most buildings are fairly lowrise. But there are a few tall things to go up, from which to look down, and I've been up three.

Harpa (Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Centre)
It sounded like a good idea at the time. Build a massive concert hall complex on the harbourside, fund it with bottomless bank funds, and give the cultural elite somewhere to socialise. It didn't seem such a good idea when Landsbanki went belly-up in 2008 and a half-finished eyesore was left by the harbour. But the government reluctantly picked up the bill, and last month the huge glass building on the foreshore finally opened. The facade does look stunning in the sunlight, with glittering windows arranged in pseudo-crystalline formation, but also terribly out of scale with the rest of downtown Reykjavik. Workmen are still finishing bits off inside, but the cafe and gift shop are ready, as are the main halls and the restaurant on the fourth floor. Jamie Cullum played last week, but mostly it's proper classical stuff as played by the Sinfóníuhljómsveit Íslands. Even if you haven't got a ticket, nip inside out of the biting wind and enjoy the architecture from within. The view out back across the harbour's nice, but better still is the low-slanting staircase suspended across the front window, climbing which is like entering a glittering cave full of shining treasure. From the terrace at the top, look out through the geometric panes for a half-decent panorama of downtown Reykjavik.

Reykjavik's tallest church is a landmark across the town, standing 75m high on a hill overlooking the main town. From the front it looks like a rocket, with two low wings spread out across the grass like basalt columns. The tower shoots up to a serrated spire, containing bells which ring out across the capital every quarter hour. After investigating the church's lofty interior, visitors can take the lift up to an observation deck at clock level, then one staircase higher to peer out across the city. Rolling down to the shorefront are brightly painted roofs - mostly red, blue or white - a mixture between a border town and a model village.

Perlan (The Pearl)
On a hill surrounded by grassland to the south of the city, a collection of five water tanks has been converted into a landmark structure and visitor centre. It's easily spotted from a distance thanks to the silvery dome erected on top, which contains a fine restaurant for those with several thousand kronur to spare. Non-diners can rise as far as the storey below, where there's a 360° observation deck, a much-less-cordon-bleu cafe and a Christmas gift shop. That splattering noise you can hear every five minutes isn't rain on the roof, it's an artificial geyser firing up the side of the central staircase. A more impressive (but equally fake) geyser springs forth from the parkland below, mainly for the benefit of tourists who can't be bothered to take a coach ride to see the real thing.

 Monday, June 27, 2011

Walkabout on the lava-filled lakebed beneath the Eyjafjallajokull glacier, then a jeep ride down the valley fording meltwater streams.

Eyjafjallajökull, Iceland (one year on)
Eyjafjallajökull's main outlet glacier, Gígjökull

Remember all that flight disruption last year? This is the culprit, this is Eyjafjallajökull. When the volcano erupted in 2010 it sent a plume of fine ash high into the atmosphere, threatening an entire continent's jet engines. It also heated the glacier which covers the volcano, 200 metres deep, sending torrents of meltwater down the Markarfljot valley. This photo shows the snout of Eyjafjallajökull's main main outlet glacier, Gígjökull. The glacier used to be sparkling and white, but is now dirty and impregnated with ash. In the foreground there used to be a large meltwater lake, but that's been completely filled in by several metres of ash, creating an eerie grey volcanic landscape topped with an unstable layer of grey. Here and there the ground has subsided, creating a deep pit in the ash, and these holes are likely to grow and coalesce until the rocky surface where I was standing to take this photo no longer exists. [five photos] [nearby waterfall]

 Sunday, June 26, 2011

Reykjavík, 11pm ...still daylight...
Reykjavík, 11pm
(sunset today... 00:03 GMT)

The people of Reykjavik don't go out drinking often, but when they do, they really do. Friday and Saturday nights are the time, and not as early as you or I might go out back home. Come 10pm on my first night in Iceland, the main drinking street was surprisingly empty, with only a few well-wrapped earlybirds making their way bar-ward. Most of the partygoers were still at home, kicking off the night with drinks indoors before heading out part-primed. By midnight, however, Laugavegar looked quite different. The bars were full, or at least getting that way, some with well-tanked patrons hovering by the doorway. Live music burst from several interiors, generally covers of familiar inoffensive songs, including at least two separate interpretations of "Rolling Down The River". For those feeling homesick there was an English pub called The English Pub, although perhaps most similar to a London drinking establishment aimed at tourists. Beers here cost over a fiver, although it was possible to win a freebie, maybe even a "metre of beer", by spinning the Wheel of Fortune above the bar. There were more women here than men, many with a yellow flower in their hair, and they weren't averse to coming forward. One thrust herself over for a lively chat, and turned out to be a minor celebrity (not that Iceland often does major). She'd managed to persuade the Icelandic Committee on Human Names to call her son Elvis - no mean feat when officialdom jealously guards its shortlist of acceptable nomenclature - and earned a goodie bag from Graceland into the bargain. It turned out that Olga had an ulterior motive for being so friendly, which was to wheedle a free drink out of a naive visitor, but conveniently the Wheel of Fortune provided a timely freebie without another kronur being spent. I rolled on to another bar to complete the evening, where beer was thankfully a little cheaper and the clientèle more openly welcoming. And when I stumbled off to bed after three in the morning, the rest of Laugavegar carried on partying into the morning light.

 Saturday, June 25, 2011

I don't do it very often, but I'm off on holiday today. More to the point, I'm off abroad on holiday. It's about time. I haven't been abroad in five years, and I ought to get a bit more use out of my passport before it expires. Given that we're due a heatwave in London, I thought I'd head off somewhere cloudy and damp instead, just to maintain the illusion of an English summer. But should the sun decide to come out, which I hope it does, the good news is that it doesn't set tonight. Yes, I've packed a pullover. Yes, I've also packed my swimming trunks. Yes, obviously I'm looking forward to it.

I might nip in and tell you what I'm up to, show you a holiday snap, give you a bit of local flavour. I might tweet, if local technology permits. Or I could go quiet for a week. They might impound my laptop at the airport, or there might not be wifi at the other end, or I might be having far too good a time to have time to tell you anything. You'll cope. Go read a random page out of the archives or something, there are more than a hundred to choose from. Rest assured that I'll be having a great time without you, and that I'll come back next month and tell you what you missed. Volcanoes permitting.

double decker 25 at Bow Church, 25 June 2011
Non-bendy 25, Bow Church, 25 June 2011

 Friday, June 24, 2011

Today's the last day that bendy buses will run on route 25. They've been running two days short of seven years, these articulated people carriers, but they won't be running tomorrow. Boris has got his way, and they're all to be replaced by bog standard double deckers. This is a political, not practical, decision because the bendies have a lot more life in them yet. But the entire fleet is to be pensioned off early and sent to the big red bus park in the sky, allowing 'normality' to return to the streets of the East End.

Debendification costs, not just in terms of new vehicles purchased but also number of vehicles required. Until today a fleet of 44 bendy buses have been shuttling between Oxford Circus and Ilford, but from tomorrow there are going to be 59 double deckers in an attempt to match passenger capacity. Good news, that's more seats. Good news, that's a bus every 3-4 minutes rather than every 5-6. Bad news, that's actually less capacity overall because there'll be far fewer places to stand. And that's another nail in the coffin of Ken's articulated revolution, which is either good or bad news depending on your point of view. By the end of the year there'll be no more bendy buses left on London's streets - one mayoral pledge achieved and with four months to spare.

I thought I'd take one final ride on a bendy 25, commuting home from the West End to Bow in the rush hour, to soak up the experience one last time. And what do you know, the journey was perfectly pleasant. But only because I hit the jackpot - I got a seat.

Get on the bendy 25 early enough and there are plenty of seats. It's only the poor buggers later on, in the middle 80% of the route, who are going to have to stand. Today I don't have to wait too long, although that won't be the case next week when the daytime frequency west of Holborn Circus will be reduced. Every alternate 25 will turn back early rather than running ahead to clog up Oxford Street, which means a less frequent service for anyone hoping to travel all the way.

Ah, that familiar hydraulic hiss as the vehicle's primed to leave. Mind your jacket in those slamming doors, mate, but don't worry, they're soft-edged enough to pull your arm safely out. It's cavernous on board, like a train carriage on wheels only longer. But it doesn't take long for the interior to fill up. A mum with a pushchair enters and shoves her daughter wheels-first into the space opposite the door. She's blocking clear passage down the centre of the bus, but who cares - she continues chatting oblivious. Everybody wants a front-facing seat, it seems, so much so that a bloke nips out of his back-facer when the lady beside me alights prematurely. I shuffle up.

It's standing room only as we negotiate through the City. An elderly Bangladeshi man boards, very obviously doddery and slow, but chooses to stand in the pushchair zone rather than negotiate his way further back to a potential seat. Out of the window I see high finance and wealth, but when I turn my eyes inwards the demographic shifts. There are no obvious bankers on board this 25, nor even anybody wearing a tie, but plenty are heading home from a job or appointment elsewhere. Almost everybody's non-white, an assembly of typical East End residents, sailing beneath the skyscrapers in an out-of-place bubble.

I count more than 30 standing by now, although it's hard to be sure, with both central doorways now scrummages on entry and exit. Slam - the doors shut in another would-be passenger's face, because it's not especially easy for the driver to see precisely what's going on back here. Leadenhall Street permits a rare chance to speed up, and the two halves of the bus rock together and back in a wavelike motion. Hang, jolt, swing... it's good exercise holding tight, if not especially fun. A second pushchair boards, then a third, which nobody'll manage to squeeze next week into a mere double decker. The fourth pushchair proves more challenging, because the assembled straphangers really don't want to move, but when they see it contains a cute-looking cat they relent and make space.

You might have assumed that the bendy 25 is a bastion of fare-dodging youthscum, but today you'd be wrong. There are schoolkids and gabbling teens and a couple of girls who say "innit", but there's no evidence of mass evasion here. Whatever will the swoop squads of ticket inspectors and Met Police do next week when there are no unswiped Oysters to check? Up Whitechapel High Street our 25 pulls in beside a crowded bus stop only for everyone to rush to catch the double decker 205 behind. Why squeeze aboard the meatwagon when there are plenty of seats on the proper bus instead? Next week that choice won't be there, there'll be seats all round, but only so long as the double deckers aren't crammed to capacity and impossible to enter.

Traffic's slow, so we end up blocking first one Stepney pelican crossing, then another. Shorter buses are going to keep the pedestrians happier around here, and one suspects the cyclists too. I wonder how many bus passengers have noticed the imminent change. A message scrolls past on the in-vehicle display - "double deck buses will replace the current bendy buses on r" - but the information's not especially useful curtailed. It's still chock-full busy on board, even through Bow, even after the push-cat lady finally vacates her space. Me, I've had it easy, watching the everyday chaos from the comfort of my corner seat, until I finally ding, and rise, and stumble to disembark.

Will I be glad to see the bendy 25's go? Sure, they've been a most depressing way to travel for the last seven years. Their standing-room-only-ness reminds me of a packed tube carriage, and there's nothing civilised about strap-hanging round a bend. But I can still remember the downside to double decker 25s, which was the number of times they arrived packed full and so sailed straight past without stopping. Let's see if one of London's busiest bus routes can cope with a less mass-transit solution. Boris's latest experiment begins tomorrow. And Ken's old experiment ends today.

Instructions on how to use a double decker bus, for confused bendy users

 Thursday, June 23, 2011

(nb - this is a companion post to "It's exactly twenty-five years today since I went to university")

It's exactly twenty-five years since I finished university. Twenty-five years since I discovered that I didn't know as much as I thought I did. Twenty-five years since I stopped drinking coffee at three in the morning and wondering who'd nicked my milk from the fridge. Twenty-five years since I packed away my books and waved goodbye to certainty. All in all twenty-five years since I've been out here making a go of things on my own. And I was lucky, I got through the system back when it pretty much guaranteed you a job, not a long-term five figure debt.

My last term at university passed in a blur. Most students get stuck into a decent social life at the beginning of their course, then tone things down at the end for revision purposes. I went the other way, slowly upping my number of friends until my college room was the heart of our social circle. Making friends with the second years, who didn't have big exams to prepare for, helped keep the visitors flowing, as did a never-empty jar of Nescafé and one of the few television sets in college. I'd never before managed to hold down quite so many close acquaintances as I had I that final term, and my social life's never been as busy since.

The examination dates for my subject were right at the end of term. My college was keen to throw everybody else out of their accommodation to make way for a far more profitable conference of grown-ups, but those of us with late exams were permitted to stay on within the dwindling community of remaining students. The weather during exam week was ridiculously hot so I was literally sweating over every question, and the World Cup was on too, so Maradona's Hand of God was a most unwelcome interruption during my last night of revision. I'm not convinced that doing any additional revision that evening would have made a difference, but it's convenient to be able to blame Argentina for my subsequent performance.

It's exactly twenty-five years ago today since my very last university exam. I had a good stab at question 25, and a fair attempt at 61, but ground to an unconvincing halt partway through 62. When time finally ran out it was evident that my degree wasn't going to be a stunning one, so the alcoholic celebrations at the end of those last three hours were more in relief than exuberance. Someone had brought spray string, which took forever to remove, and which I understand is banned these days on pain of death. We partied, we went out for a late night pizza, and then we attempted to stay up until dawn to make the most of every last second. I was at least sober enough to be pissed off by my fellow examinees spraying fizzy lager all over my room, and thankfully managed to keep the lunatic in the corridor wielding a fire extinguisher from gaining entrance.

My last 24 hours at university were a bit of a rollercoaster. I was trying to lap up the last few hours of the university experience, only to realise that normality had already departed. I retrieved one last camera film from the chemist but discovered that it hadn't wound on properly, so the memories contained in my last college photographs were all superimposed and therefore useless. And in my pigeonhole I received yet another rejection letter from yet another company who didn't want me - more my loss than theirs, I suspect. When Dad finally arrived to cart away all my belongings I had absolutely no idea where any future career might be heading, just that life would never be quite so easy ever again. Nor quite so much fun.

I rarely communicate now with the university friends I used to know so well. I exchange Christmas cards with a few of them, in which we often scribble how nice it would be to see each other again but never do. I've forgotten virtually everything I was ever taught as part of my three year course, although I still keep folders of now-incomprehensible lecture notes in my spare room. And nobody comes round for coffee until three in the morning any more, which is probably just as well because I realise now that we could never put the world to rights anyway. Few moments in my life were quite so much of a jolt as that sunny June day twenty-five years ago when, with a tear in my eye, I walked out of the known into the unknown.

We students had it so much easier in those days. We took on courses because they interested us, not because of their future market worth. The government paid us to be there, rather than the other way round. And we didn't have to worry that we might be damning ourselves to a lifetime held back by debt, because back then we weren't. It's easy now, as a semi-successful forty-something, to see that investment in my higher education paid off several times over. But not for today's would-be graduates. Too many excellent students won't be getting what I got, they won't risk it, not now that a place at university brings fear of potential long-term financial burden. Blame my generation, who got everything scot free, because we're the ones making the big political decisions twenty-five years later.

 Wednesday, June 22, 2011

  Walk London
[section 8]
  Osterley Lock to Greenford (5 miles)

Section 8 of 15, that's halfway round. Slightly more than halfway round already, if you total up all the mileages. Far across the capital from Woolwich, and still half a loop to get back.

Canalside again, with a fair chunk of Grand Union still to go. Osterley Lock is reassuringly remote, at least on foot, so long as you can ignore the thundering M4 crossing the Brent Valley alongside. It's also the only place in London where I've ever seen a dog on wheels - two legs at the front, two wheels at the back - with a joint scampering/rolling motion when lunging forward across the towpath. You may not be so fortunate. A twisted green stretch of canal lies ahead, with only the occasional warehouse as intermission. On one bend, incongruously dumped, is a most peculiar British Waterways remnant from 50 years ago. "Kerr Cup Pile Driving Competition Prize Length Of Piling 1959" it says. A Google search for further information alas reveals nothing more than a litany of other passing canal users who've been equally baffled.

Hanwell Locks are up next. That's the over-optimistic name given to a new residential development cramming 30 houses and some flats onto a canalside meadow. There'll be water at the bottom of the garden, for some, but the locks themselves are a fair trek round a couple of bends. They're an impressive sight, London's longest flight of locks (OK, so there's only six, but in the capital you take what you can get). Alas the Capital Ring only permits close-up sight of one [photo] before veering off right through the trees to follow the River Brent instead. I'd recommend a brief diversion to the top, far faster than any narrowboat could negotiate the same, because it would be a shame to come so close and miss out.

The River Brent is shallowly pleasant, which is just as well because you'll be following it for a couple of miles. What you won't see in this early stage is Ealing Hospital towering behind a wall, nor the Uxbridge Road careering up ahead. If it's dry you might be able to follow the arched brick underpass beneath Hanwell Bridge [photo], but until the apologetic council get round to replacing their burst water pump it's far more likely you'll be forced up top to cross via busy traffic lights. A far more impressive arched brick structure is the Wharncliffe Viaduct, built by a young Isambard Kingdom Brunel to carry his Great Western Railway across the valley. One of the first structures ever to be Grade I listed, the path across Brent Meadow enjoys an excellent longitudinal view [photo]. That's the Wharncliffe coat of arms on the side, flanked by some talentless graffiti sprayed by misguided aerial daredevils. [photo]

Wharncliffe Viaduct

Nip underneath, and you're in Brent Lodge Park. Locals know it as Bunny Park, because of the long-term children's zoo at its centre, although the current residents are a little more exotic. There's also the Millennium Maze, probably second only to Hampton Court as London's best labyrinth, but which I've never yet managed to try out for myself because it's always full of young children and I'd simply attract withering stares from their parents. The Capital Ring avoids both maze and zoo, preferring to follow the river's edge slavishly round at least two meanders too many. Go on, take the shortcut, you'll not be missing out.

It takes a golf course to divert the footpath away from the water, steering safely between the greens and the fairways and the businessmen discussing motor insurance. And then, slipped back across a footbridge, my favourite part of the entire walk. Ealing Council have erected a sign - red ink, laminated - warning that due to natural erosion the riverbanks ahead have become unstable. They want you to divert into Bittern's Field, and so too does the Ring, because "this section of the River Brent is impassable". Obviously I had to test that claim out. The path continued for some distance, narrowing slightly, then slightly more, until the aforementioned obstruction appeared. One crumbly riverbank, one footpath much narrower and closer to the edge than usual, but all perfectly passable on foot with a smidgeon of care [photo]. You wouldn't think twice if you stumbled on this supposed obstacle up a Welsh mountain, but you certainly would stumble with a bike or pushchair. I enjoyed the sheer inconspicuousness of it all - the rippling shallows, the lush undergrowth, even the rear view of a council waste dump. It hit home that the Capital Ring has to be an all-purpose accessible pathway throughout, so must never venture into characterful on-foot-only sections such as this. Well go on, you stick to the official route through the meadow, it's pleasant enough [photo], but I was much happier down with the dustcarts and ducklings.

After almost ten miles of watery walking, time to move on. The Ring leaves the Brent behind at Greenford Bridge - almost civilisation again, and the ideal spot to catch an E-numbered bus. The last bit of decent greenery on the walk is Perivale Park, one of those municipal sports grounds you'd never visit unless you were local. The path crosses a concrete tributary, then zigzags around the edge of a few football/cricket pitches (season depending). In the far corner, between the tennis courts and the athletics track, lurks a cluster of dirty-streaked cream containers. The exterior says Portaloo, but closer inspection reveals several numbered doors labelled Male and Female Changing Rooms. It might be luxurious inside, who knows, but everything about the exterior suggests rank fetid gloom and the stench of damp footie socks.
Bonus interlude: It won't happen to you, but as I was passing through Perivale Park there was a sudden hum in the sky, then a rumble, then a roar. Four black shapes zoomed precisely overhead, which I swiftly deduced to be pairs of Typhoons and Tornados exiting the Queen's Birthday flypast. Next up were two HS-125s heading home to RAF Northolt, directly up the road. And finally, whoosh, the Red Arrows giving a private show for the inhabitants of UB6! The Capital Ring's always full of random surprises but rarely quite so right place, right time as this.

If you're getting tired you can break your walk here at South Greenford station. You'd most likely be alone - this is the second least used station in the whole of London, meriting a couple of raised platforms and nothing much else [photo]. (Note to self: come back and do a proper write-up one day.) More likely you'll continue via a lofty footbridge over the rushing A40, a six-lane superhighway lined by Metroland semis [photo]. It is at least a view. The backstreets of Greenford aren't overly photogenic at street level - Cayton Road Sports Ground trebly so. Follow the railway embankment round and you'll reach the end of the line, and the end of section 8, at a grim Greenford crossroads. Back soon.

» Capital Ring section 8: official map and directions
» Who else has walked it? Mark, Stephen, Darryl, Paul, Tim, Jo, Tetramesh, Richard
» On to section 9 (or back to section 7)

 Tuesday, June 21, 2011

One of the following is correct (but which one?)

The next station is Tottenham Hale.

This is a Victoria line train to Brixton.
The next station is Tottenham Hale.

This is a Victoria line train to Brixton.
The next station is Tottenham Hale.
Change for National Rail services.

This is a Victoria line train to Brixton.
Please stand clear of the closing doors.
The next station is Tottenham Hale.
Change for National Rail services.

This is a Victoria line train to Brixton.
Please stand clear of the closing doors.
The next station is Tottenham Hale.
Change for National Rail services.
This station has step-free access.

This is a Victoria line train to Brixton.

← It's this one

Please stand clear of the closing doors.
The next station is Tottenham Hale.
Doors will open on the right hand side.
Change for National Rail services.
This station has step-free access.

This is a Victoria line train to Brixton.
Please stand clear of the closing doors.
The next station is Tottenham Hale.
Doors will open on the right hand side.
Change for National Rail services.
This station has step-free access.
Please remember to take all your belongings with you.

This is a Victoria line train to Brixton.
Please stand clear of the closing doors.
The next station is Tottenham Hale.
Doors will open on the right hand side.
Change for National Rail services.
This station has step-free access.
Please remember to take all your belongings with you.
Thank you for travelling on the Victoria line.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is a Victoria line train to Brixton.
Ladies and gentlemen, please stand clear of the closing doors.
Ladies and gentlemen, the next station is Tottenham Hale.
Ladies and gentlemen, doors will open on the right hand side.
Ladies and gentlemen, change for National Rail services.
Ladies and gentlemen, this station has step-free access.
Ladies and gentlemen, please remember to take all your belongings with you.
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for travelling on the Victoria line.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is a Victoria line train to Brixton, please move down inside the carriage making use of all available space, this train is being held here for a short while to even out the gaps in the service, please stand clear of the closing doors this train is ready to leave, for your safety and security closed circuit television and video recording is in use on this train, the next station is Tottenham Hale, doors will open on the right hand side, change here for National Rail services, would customers please note that due to a short platform the front doors of the first carriage will not open, customers in the first carriage should move towards the rear doors to exit the train, this station has step-free access, please mind the gap between train and the platform, this train is being held at a red signal and we should be moving shortly, in the interests of security please keep your luggage and personal belongings with you at all times, if you see anything suspicious please tell a member of staff or a police officer, there is a good service operating on all London Underground lines, thank you for travelling on the Victoria line.


 Monday, June 20, 2011

Three parts of London, three very different summer Sunday fairs...

Upminster Windmill Craft Fair and Pageant, RM14
One technologically-advanced pensioner stops in sight of the windmill and digs around in her handbag. "I must get my phone out and take a video of the sails turning," she says. It's a sight local residents haven't seen for decades - rotation above rooftops - with the mill's cap mechanism very recently returned to working order. For the Craft Fair somebody's gone to the extra effort of linking bunting to the end of each sail [photo], which sounds hair-raising until you stop and think how it must have been achieved. Later in the afternoon volunteers will be offering tours inside the windmill, but nobody's allowed inside just yet because the mayor's being shown round first. It's only fair, I guess, given that the council still owns the place. But the Friends of Upminster Windmill are hoping to buy it outright, if only they can raise enough cash, and then go full out for a lottery grant. Anyone want to buy a bag of milled flour, or a set of blank-inside greetings cards, or a plastic ruler? On the grassy lawn a loopway of stalls has been laid out, featuring a wide and eclectic variety of local organisations. A man from the parks service has brought his collection of skulls and stuffed animals, and is explaining all about them to an absorbed audience. Don Woods is here, from the International Guild of Knot Tyers, as are a pair of boatered souls making corn dollys the traditional Essex way [photo]. When the crowds pick up later in the day, maybe somebody will finally wander over and sample their rustic wares. Two gentlemen from the Thames Chase Community Forest try hard to convince me that the café in their visitors centre serves up toast to die for, and nearly succeed. There's also amateur dramatics, on the hour every hour, courtesy of the Oglethorpe Players and their wartime revue. Have a cheese and ham baguette while you wait for the performance to begin, or look over the vintage vehicles lined up at the edge of the car park. It could almost be a village fair, this Upminster gathering, and many of the residents of almost-Essex probably wish it was.

Charlton Horn Fayre, SE7
They banned it in Victorian times for being too rowdy. An age-old celebration of pagan ritual, kicking off with a procession from Bermondsey to Charlton, where everyone cavorted and wore horns, or something. Nobody's quite sure how it began, and the recent revival is a pale shadow of such ancient revelry. But they're celebrating again on the lawn round the back of Charlton House, and a certain amount of lowbrow rowdiness remains. Up front a DJ MC hosts amateur live music to a resilient showerproof audience. Down the back there's a bouncy castle beside a rather damp (and very empty) roundabout. And inbetween are spread a veritable mishmash of stalls, mostly community-based, but with the occasional dash of something aspirational. One lady's baked posh cupcakes, but is facing stiff competition from a table piled high with iced sponges the size of loaves of bread. A minibusful of pentecostal churchgoers huddle for comfort beneath a dripping awning - they'll be out a-praising later. Opposite the toy library tombola, a display hoping to inform people that Woolwich Library is moving has been irreversibly streaked by the rain. In this weather you really don't want to be the Japanese woman demonstrating calligraphy - only a makeshift plastic screen shields her work from ruin. When the rain finally eases the Dog Show begins, and an appreciative boisterous crowd gathers around the central arena [photo]. The waggiest tail belongs to an English Bull Terrier, with a Staffie as runner up, to the obvious delight of the assembled demographic. A drag queen totters by, plus entourage, completely out of place amongst the tattoos and kagoules. The mayor of Greenwich is also here, having parked his shield-topped car by the portaloos. He stops to chat to the nice ladies from the church and the war veterans, but gives the populist canine shenanigans a miss [photo]. A most peculiar event, the Horn Fair, but oh how it brings the neighbourhood together.

Marylebone Summer Fayre, W1
Once a year the streets of Marylebone are sealed off and the public invade. So many roads are closed you'd think they'd be hard to fill, but the place is rammed with cosmopolitan souls out for a jolly good time [photo]. Most appear to be here for the food, which is convenient because there are more food stalls than any human could comfortably sample in a month. Think brioche, paella and churros, rather than hot dog, burger and chips. Everywhere you look there's someone guzzling pulses out of a cardboard tray, or downing a Pimms, or both. The most appealing foodstuffs are to be found in the car park, where the weekly farmer's market is taking place, and seemingly everything (salad, cider, cheese, etc) is organic. Nextdoor is a funfair, with witheringly long queues for the most popular rides, so long as little Tilly and Marcus can wait that long. Various estate agents are competing to give away branded balloons, in the hope they'll bob around the streets all afternoon, although there's also an official helium giveaway in aid of the Teenage Cancer Trust. Tickets for the event's charity tombola cost an eyewatering two pounds each, but with potential prizes to match. A passing father buys five for his family, and wins nothing. Paddington Gardens is full of picnickers watching semi-professional music acts, while elsewhere there are two separate dance areas for couples to salsa, jive or whatever the default ballroom steps are when you're making it up as you go along [photo]. In the 'Spa Area' I'm asked if I'd like a free Indian head massage for charity, which is certainly a new twist on the word free. I decline. There's certainly less of a community involvement here, although the local library and churches all have stalls if you look carefully enough. A greater contrast to the events in Upminster and Charlton, both in scale and in attitude, it might be hard to find. But all three fairs targeted their home audiences well, and I suspect you know which of the trio you'd have preferred.

 Sunday, June 19, 2011

London 2012  Olympic update
  Second chance sales

So, if you applied for Olympic tickets but got none, and you're at your keyboard at 6am on Friday morning, what leftovers can you buy? London 2012 have kindly provided a 45 page pdf with lots of boxes crossed off, plus an overview dividing the sports into good, low and no availability. I thought you might prefer some alternative categorisation, in case it helps.

Ordered by availability

» Sports with absolutely no tickets at all, so don't bother looking: Badminton, BMX, Canoe Slalom, Diving, Equestrian (Eventing), Equestrian (Jumping), Gymnastics, Modern Pentathlon, Shooting, Swimming, Tennis, Track Cycling, Triathlon, Water Polo, Opening and Closing Ceremonies
If these are the only events you applied for, now perhaps you can see why you came away empty-handed. When even the ridiculously overpriced top tier tickets sold out, for every single session, what hope did you have of getting your £20 ticket? It's no surprise that the cycling and pool events sold out, thanks to Chris and Rebecca and Tom. Many of the rest sold out because there were hardly any sessions, which concentrated demand. Canoe Slalom takes place only five times, Modern Pentathlon four, BMX three and the ceremonies once each. Some sports sold out because the venues are so small. Gymnastics at Wembley has an audience of only 6000, and the Water Polo only 5000. But some of these sell-outs reveal unexpectedly high levels public interest, across a very large number of sessions. Olympic tennis never normally sells out, but has. Ditto twenty-four badminton sessions and fifteen rounds of shooting. Seb'll be chuffed, even if you're not.

» Sports with a handful of expensive tickets and nothing else: Archery, Athletics, Fencing, Judo, Rowing, Sailing, Table Tennis, Taekwondo, Weightlifting
Yes Cinderella, you can still go to the ball. But only if you get in quick, and only if you're willing to pay top whack. Those leftovers for Fencing, Judo and Taekwondo start at around £50, for example, but only while limited stocks last. As for Athletics, a few morning sessions remain at under £100, but you probably weren't planning to spend that much. It's time to decide what's more important - your bank balance or saying "yes, the Olympic Stadium, I was there."

» Sports with a fair number of expensive seats, but no cheap ones: Equestrian (Dressage), Mountain Biking (women's), Synchronised Swimming
Here's your last chance to get inside the Aquatic Centre. All the swimming and diving sessions have gone, but stump up £50 and you can still watch svelte ladies in bathing caps waving their legs artistically in the air.

» Sports with some cheap seats, but most mostly expensive ones: Basketball, Beach Volleyball, Boxing, Handball, Hockey, Wrestling
These multi-session sports mostly sold out, but you'll have no problem finding a preliminary round to spectate. In most cases your chances increase if you're willing to watch women instead of men, because the first round of balloteers appear to have been remarkably sexist in their choices. You don't have to get up at 6am to grab these tickets, they'll still be on sale long after breakfast.

» Sports with loads of tickets for almost all sessions: Canoe Sprint, Volleyball, Football
It's time to say to yourself, "I don't care what I see, I just want a ticket." Canoe Sprint should be interesting, out at Dorney Lake near Windsor, but was presumably overlooked in the early stages by people who thought rowing sounded better. Volleyball is the big hope for anyone who hasn't got a ticket yet - a proper sport across 40 remaining sessions in a 15000 capacity arena at Earl's Court. Tell yourself it'll be fun, go, enjoy yourself. And then there's the Football, which has almost three times as many unsold tickets as all the other events combined. Come December, when ticket sales are finally opened up to the wider British public, expect these still to be hanging around like a pile of stinking fish.

Ordered by price of cheapest remaining ticket

£60+: Athletics (£65, 1 session), Dressage (£65, 2 sessions)
£50-£55: Rowing (£50, 2 early rounds), Synchronised Swimming (£50, 4 sessions), Judo (£55, 7 quarter-finals), Sailing (£55, 4 sessions)
£40-£45: Beach Volleyball (£40, evening session 29th July), Mountain Biking (£45, women's), Fencing (£45, 4 sessions), Taekwondo (£45, 4 preliminary rounds), Weightlifting (£45, 4 sessions)
£30-£35: Archery (£30, 3 sessions), Boxing (£30, 4 sessions), Table Tennis (£35, 2 sessions)
£20: Basketball (2 women's preliminaries), Canoe Sprint (2 heats/semis), Handball (3 matches), Wrestling (6 sessions), Hockey (9 matches), Volleyball (18 matches), Football (33 matches)

Gold medal sessions ordered by price of cheapest remaining ticket

£295: Athletics (men's shot put, women's 10000m)
£185: Beach Volleyball (men), Boxing (women)
£95: Basketball (women)
£80: Synchronised Swimming (duets)
£65: Fencing (epée)
£55: Sailing (4 sessions)
£45: Mountain Biking (women), Weightlifting (4 sessions)
£35: Canoe Sprint
£30: Football (women)
£20: Wrestling (2 sessions, women)

Five top tips for desirable leftover sessions

1) Athletics (10:00–12:20, 6th August, £65): It's by no means cheap. But it is the holy grail event, in the stadium proper, and you'll get to see early rounds of the 800m, discus, 100m hurdles, 1500m and shot put.
2) Basketball (9th August, from £35): Later rounds of the Basketball are being held at the Dome, with greater capacity, so neither of the two women's semi-finals has sold out at all.
3) Canoe Sprint (mornings of 6th & 7th August, from £20): If you can get to Windsor for 9:30am, you can watch the heats and semi-finals on the cheap.
4) Handball (evenings of 8th & 9th August, from £20): Although most of the Handball has sold out, one men's quarter final and one women's semi-final totally haven't.
5) Paralympics (29 Aug - 9 Sep 2012): World class athletics, dead cheap tickets, massive availability... ideal, so long as you're not a sporting snob and don't mind waiting a few months.

 Saturday, June 18, 2011

London 2012  Olympic update
  The numbers game

At last, the emails have gone out to tell Olympic applicants whether they got any tickets or not. Not the emails which tell successful applicants which tickets they won - that particular agony is being prolonged a little longer. But you should know by now whether you got "some or all" of your allocation, or nothing. And if you got nothing, you might find some of the following figures illuminating...

Number of Olympic tickets: 8.8 million
Number of Olympic tickets on sale to the public: 6.6 million
Number of tickets given to sponsors, hospitality, international sales, media and IOC officials: 2.2 million
You can moan, you can whinge, you can complain how terribly unfair it is that 25% of the tickets weren't available to the public. And yes, in some high-profile events you'd be right to complain, because far more than 25% of the tickets were withheld for this reason. But remember that without sponsors we'd be spending far more of our taxes to pay for the Games, whereas this way big business keeps our share down. And you might still be lucky enough to win one of the sponsors' tickets through a product-related competition, they're not all for employees. Bet you don't though.

Number of Olympic tickets we thought were included in the ballot: 6.6 million
Number of Olympic tickets actually included in the ballot: 5.5 million
Number of tickets 'held back' for contingency reasons: about a million
Now this is naughty. One reason so many people haven't got any tickets is because the pool of tickets turns out to be 16% smaller than we thought it was. They've kept back some tickets to release later, for all events, "once the final seating plans for the venues are finalised." Not that they felt the need to warn us of this earlier. I find it astonishing how frequently LOCOG have dripfed selective information about the ticketing process, only to announce something later that isn't quite what we thought we believed. If Britain currently has zero faith in the fairness of the ticket allocation process, that'll be because the system has treated us like fools throughout.

Number of Olympic tickets up for grabs: 5.5 million
Number of Olympic tickets sold in the ballot: 3.2 million
Number of tickets left over for Second Chance Sales: 2.3 million
Hurrah, there are millions of tickets left. Admittedly many of these are in unpopular sports at inflated prices, but there are millions of tickets all the same. Who'd have guessed there'd be this many leftovers, given how many people appear to have ended up with nothing? But those who were unlucky enough to get no tickets in the first round now have first go in the second. Be at your keyboard at 6am next Friday and you can nip in and snap up whatever you like. It'll be first come first served, six tickets max, in no more than three events. There are even athletics tickets available, you lucky people. I don't know anyone who got athletics tickets, but you still might.

Number of Second Chance tickets: 2.3 million
Number of those tickets which are for football: 1.7 million
Number of Second Chance tickets for 'real' Olympic sports: 0.6 million
It's funny how nobody treats football as a proper Olympic sport. It's barely on the TV when Olympic fortnight comes round, nobody really cares who wins the gold, and buyers haven't exactly rushed to buy the tickets. The only match that's sold out is the men's final, and 90% of games still have tickets available in the lowest price range. Given this level of national indifference, I suspect those 1.7 million leftover soccer tickets might yet prove incredibly hard to shift.

Number of ticket applicants: 1.9 million
Number of successful ticket applicants: 0.7 million
Number of applicants who won bugger all: 1.2 million
How on earth can anyone justify an allocation system with far more tickets than people but which leaves two-thirds of applicants empty-handed? OK, so it's hard to prejudge demand, and demand turned out to be huge. But why whip up a frenzy of Olympic expectations, only to dash the hopes of the majority by giving them nothing? It's partly the public's own fault for piling into the showpiece events like athletics, swimming and cycling - events which were always likely to be massively oversubscribed - and not applying for anything less popular. But why did they do that? Because LOCOG deliberately failed to tell anyone how many tickets were available in any given price category. Only 4000 tickets were available at £20.12 for the Opening Ceremony, so it now turns out, yet there were 1.5 million requests. For the 100m final only a quarter of the seats were balloted, that's 21000 out of a stadium of 80000, leaving 1.2 million applicants disappointed. The Velodrome has seating for only 6000, in a country of 60 million, so the chances of winning a ticket at any given price range were always going to be tiny. If this process had been properly marketed as a ballot rather than a fairytale, there wouldn't now be quite so many people feeling 'cheated out of their rightful allocation'. Misguided optimism based on unrealistic expectations has left more than a million people unhappy, even furious, and it's going to be mighty hard to earn their goodwill back.

Number of applicants in the first round of Second Chance Sales: 1.2 million
Number of Second Chance tickets for 'real' Olympic sports: 0.6 million
Half a ticket each. It's not going to end well, is it?

 Friday, June 17, 2011

Tracey Emin - Love Is What You Want
Hayward Gallery: 18 May - 29 August

Well yes, as a first room, that's exactly what I was expecting. Apart from the shed. The shed is unusual. A shed on stilts at the end of a pier. Which end is the sea and which end is the beach? I like the shed.

And up on the wall, that's exactly what I was expecting, Tracey's blankets are well famous. So dense with text and meaning. And so rude. Blimey, it's not every you day you see that word in bright bold capitals in an art gallery, or that one, and especially that one. But she really can't spell, can she? To go to all that effort to create an appliqué tapestry, and then to enshrine umpteen spelling mistakes in fabric permanence. Look she's even got some of the N's in IиDEPENDEиT round one way and some the other. Don't let dyslexia put you off. This is deep, heartfelt stuff, exposing a turbulent life.

Ah, here's the neon. She loves her neon, our Trace. Sweet slogans, short truths, sweary shouting - any lettering looks better in neon. A whole wallful in primary colours - pinks, blues, greens... but with red reserved for the most forceful words. Naff off and die you slag. Except she doesn't say naff, does she? Never one to shy away from blunt. But the craftsmanship is impressively intricate, isn't it? I wonder if she bends the tubes herself. I doubt it - there are no spelling mistakes here (the glassblowers must also be proofreaders). But so pithy. I'd buy that one on a postcard, hell even on a t-shirt. I bet they haven't printed that one on a postcard.

She does film too? Awww, under the stairs is a cute short film with a talking dog. Oh, blimey, absolutely not cute, that's quite a twist. Uncomfortable, even. Shot at Chiswick House, I recognise the bridge.

Family's important here. I feel like I know Dad now, or at least the love a daughter had. I bet the family never imagined, way back when they filmed that old cine camera stuff on the beach, that this home movie would end up on endless loop in a South Bank gallery. Me, I love the way she kickstarted her career with an East End shop selling scribbled arty crap. And the Tracey Emin Museum, that's inspired, way before there was anything major to preserve but memories. But there's no tent here. And there's no bed. Burnt, charred, lost. This retrospective has infamous holes.

Being Tracey's been hard. No trauma greater than her abortion, explored and reflected in deepest seriousness. That documentary in the backroom, 22 minutes of talking to camera about the experience and the loss, that's really affecting. Great squirrel action too. In this corner the art's more physical, more pained, more revelatory. You don't see this overtly feminine angle in galleries much, because too many celebrated artists are men.

Upstairs, flailing legs. They're cartoon legs, sprawled open, leaving you the viewer to fill in the gaps. Some are dashed-off scribbles, others painstakingly sewn to create a more refined impact. All unashamedly sexual. All brazenly intimate. All verging on pornography, except somehow they're not. In Emin's hands, three inky lines can suggest far more than a sticky centrefold. Look, she stole that bedsheet canvas from a hotel. Shameless, perverse, always has been. Don't bring your parents, not unless they're liberal as you, and definitely don't bring your kids.

As for her more modern work, something's changed. It's more symbolic, more abstract, more bespoke furniture catalogue. Like she's now learnt how to represent rather than display, how to add meaning without being explicit. Those plinths and tiny chairs on the outside balcony, she's symbolising her family now rather than reproducing it. Maybe that's greater maturity, maybe it's a phase, or maybe she'll go back to writing slag in burning neon next week.

That was more varied than I was expecting. And more complex. And far more revelatory. A first retrospective well deserved, so long as you can cope with grief, fury and genitalia thrust in your face. Exit via the gift shop. Alas no, they haven't printed that one on a postcard.

 Thursday, June 16, 2011

The transformation of my local street into cycling nirvana continues. An intermittent blue stripe along Bow Road is nearing completion, so the official launch of Cycle Superhighway 2 can't be too many months away. And now there's a first public nudge towards the eastward extension into Tower Hamlets of Boris's Cycle Hire scheme. A full planning application has been published for a docking station outside Bow Road station. Watch the pavement, there's a bright blue bikerack on its way.

It's going to be one of the larger docking stations, this, with 42 spaces for BorisBikes lined up along the pavement. On the left of the tube station entrance as you emerge, it'll be, running down past the cash machine towards Wellington Way. Nip off the train, shove your token in the slot, and you can ride the great white bicycle all the way home.

It takes a 40 page document to support the planning application for a single Cycle Hire docking station. Most of that's generic ("docking points outnumber bicycles by 70-80%" blah blah "sites must retain a minimum clear footway of at least 2m in width" blah blah "docking points are constructed from cast aluminium with a powder coated finish and a clear graffiti resistant coating"). Much of it is reassuring ("Each docking station is inspected by maintenance staff a minimum of every 14 days... The noise generated by these activities not anticipated to cause any disturbance"). And only on page 33 do we get down to any location-based specifics ("The footway on which the site is located is approximately between 6.0 and 13 metres wide. Adjacent to the site are two lamp columns, one bollard, a free standing ATM unit, six cycle stands and several service covers"). It's all terribly thorough, with due reference to Conservation Areas, vehicular sight lines, visual permeability and "cohesive streetscape character".

Somebody gets paid to write this stuff, you know, purely so that the general public can ignore it and the entire project can get built anyway. I only noticed yesterday, when I spotted a laminated notice stuck to the roundel outside the tube station. Want to complain? Too late, the consultation period ended last night. Really E3, all these documents are in the public domain, we're simply not paying enough attention. But don't worry, it'll all be good here, won't it?

Just up the road, Bow Church station is scheduled to get a much bigger docking station. It'll be almost twice the size, with space for 77 bikes, and will stretch out along a full 60 metres of existing footway (starting beyond the Bow Bells pub). We're lucky along Bow Road that some of our pavements are massive, so planners have taken advantage of this and nicked some of it for bikes. Two metres width has been taken for a brief elevated cycle path - painted blue this very week, and starting to be used by curious westbound cyclists. Now it seems another two metres is to be taken for the storage of dozens and dozens of BorisBikes. The residents of St Mary's Court used to step out onto a spacious pavement, but they're all going to have to learn to share with speeding and static bicycles. Want to complain? Too early, the official documents haven't been released yet.

This Bow Church docking station is due to be the second biggest Cycle Hire facility in the whole of Tower Hamlets. A larger one is planned for the very bottom of the Isle of Dogs, presumably for the benefit of those wandering in/out the borough through the Greenwich Foot Tunnel. I can only guess that the Bow Church facility is huge for a similar reason - it's the last docking station on the A11 before you reach Stratford and the Olympic Park. But quite how many bike spaces do we need in the immediate vicinity? 42 at Bow Road station, 77 at Bow Church, and another 37 inbetween up Kitcat Terrace. That's space for more than 150 Boris Bikes, which is a greater capacity than the megadock at Waterloo station, even though Bow's nothing more than a suburban outpost.

Like I say, the transformation of my local street into cycling nirvana continues. My apologies if your London neighbourhood appears to have been simultaneously wholly overlooked. But it'll be interesting to see whether or not my local community chooses to take full advantage.

» Cycle Hire extension into Tower Hamlets - council document (map page 10) (docking station locations pages 11-27)
» Ollie's docking station map including TH extension (approximately)
» Ollie's realtime map of the existing Bike Hire zone

» The Tower Hamlets Wheelers (our local cycle campaign group)
» Tower Hamlets Bike Week (Sat 18 - Sun 26 June)
» Tower Hamlets Cycle Map

A full report on the Bow end of Cycle Superhighway 2 will follow later in the summer (alas, I'm not convinced it's going to be super)

 Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Your name here

Brands of Britain, nay brands of the world! How would you like to wriggle your way onto London's famous tube map?

We're building a brand new cable car across the Thames, opening sometime next year, and we'd love your company to be a big part of it. Hell why not? We painted the streets of London blue for Barclays, so now we'd like your slap your name and branding all over Docklands' latest tourist attraction. Give us the cash up front, and we promise to call it the Your Name Here Cable Car, running from North Greenwich Your Name Here to Royal Victoria Your Name Here.

A commercial partner would receive a range of unique high-visibility opportunities for their brand including:
  • Branding the stations and gondolas with company name, colours and logo
  • Associating their company name with the cable car
  • Associating their company name with the name of the stations
  • Inclusion of the scheme and station names on the Tube map
It's one step further than TfL has ever dared to go before, marketing-wise. But these are difficult economic times. We couldn't afford to hang cables across the Thames with public money, not on a commercially unviable route, so your cash will be absolutely essential in bringing this amazing project to fruition.

In future, when Londoners talk of the new cross-river connection, your name will spring to their lips. When tourists come to Docklands for a breathtaking ride, your branding will smother all their photos. And every time anyone picks up a tube map, your chosen buzzwords will burrow into their subconscious out of the corner of their eye. No matter that your company has bugger all to do with aerial sightseeing - we'll forge that link and make it stick.

A formal tender document setting out the full range of rights on offer is now available to interested parties, with the deadline for submissions in mid-July. We'll be announcing the name of the winning company later this year, so you need to send in your expressions of interest fast. To inspire you, here are a few suggestions we've received already.
McDonalds: They've got the hard cash, so surely nothing can stop this becoming the McCableCar from North McGreenwich to Royal McVictoria
Vodafone: Because it would be fantastic, brand-wise, to rename North Greenwich station Vodafone, for the O2
The Liberal Democrats: In an attempt to detoxify their party's image, they'd like to inaugurate the Vince Cable Car
Wonga: With so much of East London's population in serious need of extortionate loansharkery, let's rebrand this The Wonga Dangleway
Some faceless insurance company you've never heard of: Odds-on favourite
Tesco: In a brainstorming chamber somewhere in Cheshunt, a young copywriter has already tagged this the Tesco Express
Groupon: Come ride Groupon's Gondolas (on selected dates, all subscribers enjoy 90% off the £3.50 single fare)
David Beckham: In a rather presumptuous lickspittle gesture, David wants to rename the northern station Royal Victoria Beckham
Barclays: Because it's always bloody Barclays, isn't it?
Boris Johnson: If he can get it open before the Mayoral Elections, he'd pay to get this known as Boris Crossing
BP: In a desperate attempt to boost their eco-credentials, welcome to the BP GreenLink
Microsoft: Would like to rename the northern station Microsoft Office, and the DLR station nextdoor Microsoft ExCel
Sky Television: It'll be the London SkyLine, I bet you
White Elephant: If enough of the public gang up together, they can surely find enough donations to designate this the White Elephant cable car, from Tumbleweed to Nowhere
If you can do better, don't hang around.

 Tuesday, June 14, 2011

"You'll be able to walk home along the Greenway, I guess," says BestMate. He has a way of hinting when it's time to go home. Normally it's dark by nine so I take the tube, but not in mid June. In mid-June it's perfectly safe to take the elevated shortcut.

Earlier in the evening I'd walked the Greenway in the opposite direction. Back then it was busy with cyclists and walkers, as well as the devout making their way to prayers at the Canning Road mosque. Plus several dogs. I'm much better than I used to be around dogs, and can now usually walk straight past without inwardly quivering. Tuesday night's were all on leash, thankfully, being that growly-squat-ugly breed that several owners wield as trophies. The Greenway holds no fear for me, not in daylight.

There's always a great view from up here on the sewertop, especially on the stretch past West Ham. The towers of Canary Wharf loom in the middle distance, with the City cluster and Shard spread out across the western horizon. Further round is the Olympic Stadium, poking up behind rows of Plaistow rooftops, then a ruby skeleton that'll one day be the Orbit. Much closer by, at the foot of the embankment, is a recreation ground where evening teens slouch and kick about. All of east London is here, if you look around.

Where the railway passes beneath the pipework, a street-art gallery holds sway. The walls of the bridge are cyclically spray-painted - sometimes bright and talented, other times derivative and taggy. Often you'll see the latest artist erasing the previous masterpiece by waving his aerosols deftly across the concrete canvas. On this particular evening none of that, just a photographer and his model taking advantage of the edgy urban backdrop in the evening sun.

Greenway graffiti

But that was earlier, on the walk down. The sun's much lower for my return, now a fiery red behind the rooftops. And the Greenway's much emptier too. One late-strolling couple approaching and a gang of kids playing in the distance, nobody more. Another quarter of an hour and I'd think twice about walking this way - too dark, and the escape-route exits too widely spaced. But midsummer dusk is not yet upon us, so there's still a comfort blanket of natural illumination to reassure me.

Those kids look busy - gesturing, interacting, cavorting. I hope they'll have moved on by the time I reach their benchside arena, I'd feel more secure that way, but something about their actions suggests they're intent on staying put. As I get closer I sense they're up to something much more physical, but their blurry shapes run off into the nearby estate long before it's possible to deduce precisely what. I smile, relieved at this sudden departure, and continue into the newly freed-up space.

A limping couple have been left behind. At first I assume they're elderly but no, they're two boys, late teens max. One is holding the other, an arm around the waist, plus a second arm to the forehead. He's holding that forehead very tight, as if there might be a fountain waiting to spring forth should grip ever be released. As I finally draw level I'm shocked to see that this is precisely the case. Blood masks one entire side of the second boy's face, from forehead downwards, plastering his dazed look with glistening red. Whatever those kids were doing, it wasn't playing.

Three keypresses on a concerned bystander's mobile will help to stem the flow. In the background, low to the horizon, the sun flames crimson.

 Monday, June 13, 2011

What is there to do on a wet Sunday in East London when it's chucking it down. Plenty, as it turns out.

Chatsworth Road Sunday Market, E5
If you want to move up in the world, grow yourself a market. Chatsworth Road in Clapton could certainly do with moving up, because being "that road to the north of Homerton Hospital" doesn't make any estate agent salivate. It's mostly shops, plus characterful Victorian terraces of the kind that this part of Hackney's done so well to keep. The street boasts about six dozen shops, all of them independent bar a couple of well-known bakery chains and a betting shop. But it takes more than coffee and toys and books to gentrify a neighbourhood, so the local traders have ganged up together to start a regular street market selling nice things. It's running fortnightly at the moment, with a selection of stalls offering mostly food, crafts, food, clothes and food. I managed to resist a slice of proper gooey cheesecake, because it would probably have dissolved in the rain, but I couldn't resist forking out for a "gormet" smoked ham, leek, pea and mint pie. Mini-size only, which contained fewer bites than ingredients, but the taste was delightfully non-factory. High drama ensued across the street when one shopper, of a non-market demographic, returned to her car to find it dangling in mid-air. She'd accidentally parked it in an empty bay allocated to the Sunday market, so Hackney's enforcement team had seized their chance to nip in and winch her vehicle onto the back of their removal truck. The officers' ill-chosen parking spot then created a lengthy traffic jam, the irony of which was entirely lost on them, but at least they swiftly relented and returned the hatchback to ground level. I'm not convinced that Chatsworth Road Market's worth crossing London for, not yet awhile. But for lovers of Broadway Market (closed Sundays) and its ilk, it's probably worth crossing Hackney for.

Free Range Art & Design Show, The Old Truman Brewery
When you're a design student, even if you're a very good design student, it's not easy to get the wider world to take notice of your work. So there's an annual showcase event which attempts to take the best graduate projects from across the country, stick them all in an old brewery up Brick Lane, and invite the wider world inside. You'd have to know it was on, or to have visited the venue before, to find the main entrance up a back staircase labelled only with two flags. But step inside, and up to the first floor, and there's much to enjoy. The exhibition runs for two months, with a completely different set of students showing their wares each week. The University of East London semi-filled their room with semi-interesting stuff, although I was particularly struck by Peter Stevens' t-shirt portraits ("How much are they paying you to wear that?"). Barking and Dagenham College presented a more coherent display, under the straplines 'Nine' and 'Elevation', with many graphic design projects (like these anonymous killer sandwiches) raising a smile. But top marks to Maidstone University of Creative Arts, whose roomful of graphic media wiped the floor with the presentations nextdoor. Everything was linked under the title 'treat yourself', complete with branded paper bags to take round and fill with the students' sweet-themed business cards. Intelligent design, professionally delivered and even a proper website to showcase everyone's work outside the event. It was all enough to make me jealous I was born too early to have dabbled with this sort of thing at school. Back then cutting-edge graphic design peaked with Letraset, but today's students have so many more tools at their fingertips, and so many more ways to shine. Come back next weekend (Fri-Mon) to see the next batch, and again, and again, until the end of July.

LED Festival, Victoria Park
They do like their summer festivals in Vicky Park. A patch of grass in the centre of the park is fenced off, good and proper, so that only those who've forked out money can see anything. A whopping great sound system is wheeled in, so that half the neighbourhood can hear every note. Add some artistes, some bars and several portaloos, and you have a cosy tent-free festival for confirmed urbanites. This weekend was the LED Festival, headlined by Deadmau5, backed up by Calvin Harris and a lot of downdirty grimestep (or whatever the official term is). Day 1 was loud enough that I could hear the muffled finale from home, a mile away, through double glazing. But I went on Day 2, after everyone had gone home, bar the poor folk whose job it was to pack away and tidy up. The main public pathway past the festival's main gate was still blocked by metal fencing, not that this stopped one determined lady out walking her greyhounds who forced apart two panels and slipped through. A few flags fluttered limply, in rain which thankfully hadn't turned Saturday's event into a mudbath. Round the far side I had to take extra care walking along the tarmac lest I was squashed flat by a passing megatruck, or empty catering van, slowly edging its way out of the park. Occasionally one of the giant gates would open, revealing the mass clean-up inside, before whatever vehicle was due to emerge emerged and the security guard slammed the gate back shut. By noon all the discarded water bottles and noodle trays had been swept away, so far as I could tell, although it might be some time before we locals get our parkland back.

Whitechapel Gallery, Aldgate East
Seriously, they've given over one of the largest galleries to a man who stretches not-very-much coloured elastic into geometric shapes? And called it "a major retrospective"? So unimpressive. At least the main exhibition of Paul Graham's photographs is more interestingly talented. But it's the room filled with selections from the Government Art Collection that's drawing the crowds. Samantha Cameron's chosen a post-war Lowry, the Chief of the Intelligence Service has selected a stripy Riley, and Nick Clegg's picked a flask of tea.

Dalston Curve Garden, E8
There used to be two railway tracks curving north out of Dalston Junction. One's now a railway again, but the other's entered long-term temporary use as a community garden. A great idea, with its seed in the 'Dalston Mill' outreach project two summers ago. There are raised beds for vegetables, birdboxes made from fruit juice cartons, and some proper wilderness down the far end on the way to Matalan. Dripping wet on Sunday, of course, so not a hands-on gardener in sight. But if you're local, with green fingers you're itching to put to sustainable good, you'd be more than welcome.

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