diamond geezer

 Monday, October 31, 2011

South Mimms has several claims to fame. It used to be the northernmost village in Middlesex - notionally part of London - until transferred to Hertfordshire in 1965. It used to be more important than neighbouring Potters Bar, until Potters Bar got a station and enlarged beyond expectation. It's also the village where Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands had a home in exile during World War Two, and narrowly missed death during a German air attack. But everyone knows it best now as the site of an M25 service station. Bit of a comedown, that.

Being on a major coaching route north, South Mimms has always had a service station of sorts. Back in Dick Turpin's day there were a dozen or more inns up the main street, with beds for overnight and stabling for horses, conveniently located two hours from central London. The White Hart doesn't really fulfil that role these days, although the village is still full of horseboxes and budding Thelwells of a more local nature. When the A1 became the A1(M) in the mid 1960s a truckstop grew up on the periphery of the village, safely distant so residents thought, but not distant enough. The very first section of the M25 connected here in 1975, to be joined by the final section precisely 25 years ago. And the truckstop grew, and the vehicle recovery centre mushroomed, and hey presto the South Mimms services were born.

There are clues in the landscape to how things used to be when all this was fields. The St Albans Road runs diagonally past the village, crossing first the A1(M) then down to the entrance of the Welcome Break car park. At Bignell's Corner, past a giant petrol station and a backyard packed with red buses, all through traffic is diverted off to use the three-level junction nearby. And then the St Albans Road stops dead, at an entirely unnecessary roundabout, used only as an exit from the car park and for access to a Herts council depot. The upstart M25 has severed the ancient roadway, which continues in a straight line on the opposite side of the cutting as if nothing untoward had happened.

The area around South Mimms Services is no pedestrian-friendly playground. Pavement provision is minimal, so getting around on foot involves a lot of road crossing and negotiating some fairly narrow grass verges. Even if you want to get from the Premier Inn to Waitrose in the main building, a distance of no more than a quarter of a mile, everything about the layout urges you to drive. And yet, unlike say Scratchwood, the complex is actually quite easy to walk to. You can stroll in from South Mimms village, no problem, with its regular bus service down to Barnet. Or else there are a series of public footpaths, dating back to when all this was farmland and not six-lane superhighways. I wandered in from Potters Bar - down an autumnal lane, then along the edge of a winter-salad field, then over an old stone bridge across a forded stream, before emerging into the rumbling articulated heart of South Mimms services. As contrasts go, this was less than welcome.

The last time I went to South Mimms, I drove. I pulled off the M25 to use the service station, but after a couple of circuits - always in the wrong lane at the crucial turning - I gave up. That's an excellent example to explain why I sold my car and took to public transport instead. So imagine my surprise to discover that there is a dead easy way to circumnavigate the South Mimms roundabout, and it's on foot. For some inexplicable, yet brilliant, reason, Hertfordshire County Council have laid a proper pavement all the way round the kilometre-long circumference. I think it's because this isn't a proper motorway junction (south of the M25 the A1(M) is merely the A1), and also because ramblers on those public footpaths need some route round from one side to the other. Whatever, I took my life in my hands and began the circumnavigation.

It was a scary walk, even though there are traffic lights at every entrance to the roundabout, because this is a place where the driver expects to be king. Vehicles waited impatiently on red, lined up three lanes across, waiting to be permitted access to the swirling gyratory ahead. What the hell is that idiot pedestrian doing, they must have thought, while the idiot pedestrian kept his fingers crossed that the lights didn't suddenly switch back while he was halfway across. As for the exit lanes, there are no traffic signals there, so all I could do was nip across when the torrent of approaching vehicles ebbed away. On Saturday afternoon it was quite doable, whereas in Monday's evening rush hour I'd have been dicing with death. For my daring I got to see the roundabout up very-close, including a fine view from the A1 bridge into the cutting below [photo] and some fiery autumn foliage [photo]. Ticked off my list, beaten, conquered - but it's a circuit I'm not rushing to repeat.

And, on leaving, I had cause to use the number 84 bus for the first time in my life. It's the London bus that reaches out as far as St Albans, and one of those exceptionally rare buses where Oyster is only acceptable partway. I boarded in South Mimms village, four stops from the TfL border in Potters Bar, so had to pay the driver £1.60 and then swipe my card to complete the journey. That mile-long prelude cost me more than any Pay As You Go bus trip within the Greater London area, which just goes to show what good value TfL fares are compared to how Home Counties travellers get fleeced.

 Sunday, October 30, 2011

Lunch: South Mimms Services
The M25, London's orbital motorway, is 25 years old. It was back on 29th October 1986 that Margaret Thatcher stood on the tarmac between Junctions 22 and 23, snipped some tape and declared the circuitous carriageways open. Some thought the M25 too small, some thought it too environmentally damaging, but Maggie was having none of it. "I must say I can't stand those who carp and criticise," she said, "when they ought to be congratulating Britain on a magnificent achievement and beating the drum for Britain all over the world." She came back to South Mimms again eight months later, on the weekend before polling day, to open the M25's first service station. This time she stood safely away from the tarmac and purred her love for the caterer Lord Forte, who in turn called her "this wonderful woman that God sent from heaven". History doesn't recall whether she stayed for one of his all day breakfasts and a mug of tea, although I suspect not.

Safe in the knowledge that no politician would be present (because one visited the day before), I visited South Mimms Services yesterday for a 25th anniversary lunch. Remember, when you're a partner-less footloose blogger with minimal weekend commitments, making reckless dining arrangements such as this is perfectly acceptable.

The big blue direction sign on the approach to Junction 23 announces "Starbucks Coffee" "Waitrose" "South Mimms" - a combination of which I'm sure Mrs Thatcher would approve. Long gone are the days when Lord Forte or some other uber-caterer had a motorway dining monopoly, now there are franchised units up for grabs, and the chance to stick your advert on the motorway sign for all to see. The service station is tucked into the northeastern quadrant of the outer roundabout, surrounded by three car parks for cars, coaches and lorries respectively. There are even two eco-friendly electric car charging points out front, painted green with a solar panel above, although I suspect 99.9% of the time they're only for show. To get through the entrance requires walking past a gamut of smokers, keen for a fag break during a long journey but unable to puff inside. Then there's the AA man trying to flog annual subscriptions (he seemed surprised when I said I didn't have a car), and then you're in.

I was expecting worse, but then this isn't the original South Mimms Service Station. That burnt to the ground in 1998 after a frying pan fire at Julie's Pantry, and the replacement building is rather nicer. Bright and airy, almost like an airport terminal, with a long wall of windows and a gently curving roof. Somewhere off to the left, past the obligatory darkroom of fruit machines, the oh-so important toilets. To either side, more than a hundred tables where you can bring your meal or drink once you're ready, plus the odd tree for decoration. And straight ahead, your choice of dining experience.

If you're only after a drink there's that Starbucks the sign promised. If it's fast food you're after there's a Burger King and a KFC, the latter with self-service tills because that's the way retail is going. But the main attraction is the "EAT IN" Welcome Break concession, luring you in with the promise of £5 soup (with a toastie). If that's not to your taste it's also £5 for a baguette, crisps and a muffin (hot drink extra, and the hot drinks are expensive). One couple perusing the sandwich shelf picked one up, then put it down swiftly announcing they'd get something cheaper from Waitrose. I popped into Waitrose later, and I wasn't convinced they would. In fact South Mimms' hot meal counter looked perfectly respectable, with a decent array of meat and fish and salady stuff, and not the congealed trays of slop that motorway dining might once have brought to mind. A steak and kidney pie for £7.25, could be worse, or for £5.99 that well-known British staple pizza with chips. Don't expect award-winning catering, but I was genuinely almost tempted.

Except no, I had a big meal lined up for the evening, so I settled for a £2.15 teabag dunked in hot water and an associated half price bakery product. And then I retired to my chosen table to sip and graze and watch the world go by. At the neighbouring table a family gorged on sandwiches unpacked from plastic lunchboxes they'd brought themselves. A young mother fed her baby daughter on milk warmed in the nearby microwave while dad went off to buy Top Gear magazine. A probable trucker (Caterpillar boots, infeasible quiff) dined alone on a plateful of pastry and gravy. A pair of lowpaid ladies in green tabards hovered around with a damp cloth, clearing away empty crockery and shuffling the highchairs. And Lady Gaga dripped from the loudspeakers, in a low-key and inoffensive way, as we all took a break before continuing our journeys. Hardly silver service, but happy silver anniversary.

Dinner: Assemblage
In complete contrast, I ate out last night at a new fine dining establishment in Shoreditch. I say Shoreditch, I mean the less lovely end of Commercial Street E1, in a building which used to be a club called Gramaphone (and still sort of looks it). In the kitchen is chef James Knight Pacheco, who you may remember from the second series of BBC2's The Restaurant (where he and Ali came second), or more likely you may not. Assemblage is in soft launch at the moment, which usually means a few rough edges, but none proved obvious. We plumped for the taster menu, which delivered eight wallet-emptying courses, but each of which was absolutely gorgeous. The restaurant prides itself on combining ingredients, hence its name, and in sourcing as much as possible from the South West of England, particularly Devon. A particular favourite of mine was the roasted venison loin on a triangle of layered potato, drizzled with a chocolate sauce (brought to the table so that we could douse it with more if we wanted, and we did). Also the Brixham-sourced scallops (I love scallops, who knew?) and a delicious pair of apple/pear desserts based on mulled wine and crumble. From the opening slipped-down-in-one wild mushroom tart to the final chef-introduced cheeseboard, a delight. Service was excellent too, which isn't hard when there are more staff than diners, but I'd expect weekdays-by-the-City to be rather busier. Assemblage is no everyday eaterie, that's for sure, but we all deserve a treat sometimes, and by golly that was.

 Saturday, October 29, 2011


• London map websites are ten a penny these days, but CityMapper is a bit more multi-tasking than most. You click a start and end point, anywhere around London, and the site shows you the way from one to the other. Cleverer than that, it also tells you how long the journey would take by bus, tube, taxi, car or walking. Cleverer than that, it gives precise timings and a choice of routes if you choose to go by bus or tube, leaving now. Cleverer than that, it gives you a price for public transport journeys, and a calorie burn for biking or walking. Cleverer than that it translates that calorie burn into an grand latte equivalent. [I think you'll find that clever enough to be getting on with]

• The latest High Street 2012 venture is a highly unlikely urinal-inspired artwork, to be based at the old gents toilet outside Bow Church. It's to be called (and I am not making this up) Listed Loo, and will take the form of a "performance installation" organised by a theatre company. We're promised a "live promenade", following a series of historic characters to sites "in the actual environment" which have significant links to their stories. But be patient, residents of E3, because it'll be next spring before Listed Loo springs to life. [In the meantime, if nothing else, enjoy a lovely old photo of what Bow Road's Victorian Gents-in-the-middle-of-the-road used to look like]

• Fancy a trip to Aldwych tube station? That's a trip to Aldwych, the closed-fifteen-years-ago tube station. A proper down-to-the-disused-platforms trip, an official down-under visit, courtesy of TfL. Thought you might (unless you've been recently, in which case you'll likely pass). The London Transport Museum is organising this very-rare event, over the weekends of 25-27 November and 2-4 December. It'll cost an eye-watering £20 to gain entrance, but for that you'll get approximately 40 minutes underground, which sounds like something interesting is planned. The Aldwych Underground Station Open Days booking page accidentally became visible earlier this week, but has since been hidden away again until whenever the official launch is. Keep an eye on the LTM events page, and don't worry, because with 420 tickets a day up for grabs they're unlikely to sell out before you've noticed.
[The entrance is located on the Stand at the junction with Surrey Street WC2R 2NE Access to the platform is by staircase only and there is no working lift in operation. 160 stairs connect the ticket hall level to the platform level - there is no step-free access. It is advisable therefore that you should have a moderate to high level of fitness. Toilets are available at ticket hall level only. You will be underground for approximately 40 minutes. You must arrive at Aldwych 15 minutes before the tour you are booked on takes place. If you do not arrive on time, your place on the tour may be sold to another visitor, due to very high demand for this event. Please read more information for terms and condirtions.
Monday update: Open for booking again, on the quiet, sssh (click on "All events")
Tuesday update: Official booking page now live

• If you're of a vaguely academic bent, or have History GCSE, or like testing websites, then maybe you could help Bruce out. He's Project Manager for the fabulous British History Online, based at the Institute of Historical Research (part of the University of London). They're running a test on the next generation of historical research interface, which basically means you clicking eight times on eight screens to help gauge online search usability. Bruce says it should take no more than a minute, and one of the example texts used is from a memoranda book of late 16th century London. [I say please do it properly, so the results mean something, and get in before Thursday 3rd November when the test expires.]

• While we're with university stuff, what's the weather like in Central London right now? A graphical display from University College London tells all, second by second, including what the wind's up to, how much it's raining, how high the cloudbase is and what the sun did yesterday. Dig deeper to discover that this year's highest temperature was on July 27th at six minutes past three in the afternoon, and that this month's wettest day was last Tuesday. [Beats the intermittent data the Met Office churns out, or the simplicity of the BBC's new beta weather page]

This week I also enjoyed
Ian's delve into the Northern line's lost Embankment loop
• The BBC's 7 billion people and you interactive population widget
Annie Nightingale's Hallowe'en Special
Andrew's bus deregulation week (25 years on)
Fresh Meat

 Friday, October 28, 2011

Do you read your local paper? Do you even have one? Living in East London it's easy to forget that we do. And I'm not talking about the Evening Standard, which (notionally at least) covers the entire capital. I mean the hyperlocal neighbourhood papers with news about what's happening within a few miles of your door. Where I live there are two. There's East End Life, which is the sunny optimistic council freesheet that Eric Pickles can't ban, and which for some reason nobody ever posts through my letterbox. And then there's the proper paid-for local paper, the East London Advertiser. Just not for much longer.

The East London Advertiser is a long established title, published regularly since 1866. It's reported on Jack The Ripper, brought news of the Siege of Sidney Street and kept the East End updated on the Blitz. It's an award-winning title, even if now subsumed into the Archant publishing empire (and based in Ilford). You'll find the East London Advertiser in local newsagents and supermarkets for the princely sum of 60p, and it sells about 7000 copies a week. The latest edition leads with the death of a cyclist on the Bow Flyover Cycle Superhighway, and continues with news of the bloke who proposed to his girlfriend at Canary Wharf DLR. Stabbings, male rape and laptop theft, they're all in there, as well as reaction by stallholders to changes at Whitechapel Market and a campaign to save Wilton's Music Hall. Classifieds, sport, sudoku... all the usual, with the emphasis on what's going on across a broad swathe of Tower Hamlets. I've got my copy here - 48 packed pages of local stuff I could live without knowing, but stuff my life is richer for having read.

Alas the East London Advertiser is doomed. The last copy rolls off the presses next Thursday, and the following week morphs into something new. Roll on the Docklands & East London Advertiser, a new paper for Tower Hamlets formed by merging Canary Wharf freesheet The Docklands with the Victorian ELA. Why publish two newspapers when you can publish one? We're promised that the new paper will have increased pagination, which presumably means combining most of the stories which would have appeared in the old papers. It almost certainly means office workers at Canary Wharf reading tales of criminal woe in Bethnal Green, and residents in Bethnal Green reading reviews of the Thai bistros at Canary Wharf, whether that's of interest or not. Less focus, reduced targeting, broader geographical spread. Archant London editorial director Bob Crawley seems convinced it's a change for the better...
“The new Docklands & East London Advertiser will build on the tradition of the Advertiser and the innovation of The Docklands to provide an insightful read for the residents of Tower Hamlets. From an employment and shopping destination perspective Canary Wharf has become a key part of the every day life for Tower Hamlets’ residents. Research conducted by the Canary Wharf group shows the estate is now the largest centre of employment for local residents as well as having close to 1m visitors a week to the shopping centre. This indicates one title serving the borough is the most effective way to serve the community.”
There's some perverse twisted logic there, which I don't quite believe, given that I bet most Tower Hamlets residents in the northern half of the borough visit Canary Wharf rarely if at all. And that makes me wonder about another peculiar aspect of the new hybrid paper. Apparently it'll be "distributed on a part paid-for and part-free model." That could mean a thin version given away for nothing and a full version available in newsagents. Or, more likely, it means the exactly the same newspaper will be available for free in some parts of the borough and at cost price in others. Indeed it wouldn't surprise me if bankers and office workers at Canary Wharf continue to pick up their freebie from bins in the shopping centre, as now, while hard-up pensioners in Bow and Stepney continue to pay 60p at their local newsagent for precisely the same document. That'd be ironic. We'll see.

Whatever, there's one more solo edition of the East London Advertiser to come, bringing to an end almost 150 years of history. The paper's done well, given the interminable decline of print media in recent years, and the fact that most of you lot now expect news online for free rather than paying for the privilege. Indeed there's been no need to shell out 60p for the ELA for some time, because the whole thing's available to flick through online should you care to look. But once 10th November comes round, and the title doubles up with Docklands, I suspect it may be a long time before a story from Bow makes the front cover again.

Archant local newspapers in London
Paid forPaid for/freeFree
Paddington & Westminster Times
Hampstead & Highgate Express
Islington Gazette
Hornsey & Crouch End Journal
Tottenham, Wood Green & Edmonton Journal
Stoke Newington Gazette
Hackney Gazette
East London Advertiser
Newham Recorder
Woodford Recorder
Loughton and Buckhurst Hill Recorder
Ilford Recorder
Barking & Dagenham Recorder
Barking and Dagenham Post
Romford Recorder
Wembley & Kingsbury Times
Kilburn Times
Willesden & Brent Times
Wood & Vale Express
Docklands & East London Advertiser
Bexley Times
Bromley Times
The Docklands
Stratford & Newham Express
Romford and Havering Weekly Post
Beckenham Times
Biggin Hill Times
Chislehurst Times
» Full list of local London newspapers, from the Advertiser Midweek to the Wimbledon Guardian

 Thursday, October 27, 2011

London 2012Londoners urged to refrain from sex
to keep important Games Lanes flowing

27 Oct 2011

A campaign is to be launched today to persuade Londoners to stop having sex for the next two weeks. Entitled No Effing Fortnight, the campaign is part of a long-term strategy to smooth London's traffic flow during the Olympic Games. With the Opening Ceremony now precisely nine months away, every unplanned pregnancy is a congestion-related disaster waiting to happen.

Transport planners have identified that speeding ambulances are likely to be a prime cause of traffic disruption during the Games. One single emergency vehicle in a segregated Games Lane could block official vehicles attempting to reach the Olympic Park, damaging overall response time targets for Tier One Partner throughflow. It is therefore essential to prevent the unnecessary emergence of new-born babies during a 17 day period at the height of summer 2012. To meet this important requirement, a corresponding hiatus in all forms of fornication is required across London for the next 17 days.

Couples of child-bearing age are to be encouraged to rediscover simpler pleasures, such as watching television, going for a walk or reading books in bed. A series of iPhone apps featuring non-sexual celebrities such as Stephen Fry and Ann Widdecombe has been launched, and would-be lovers will be encouraged to view these rather than rushing off to the bedroom with biological intent. Special Facebook profiles and Twitter feeds have also been set up to promote pure thinking, erectile dysfunction and abstinence. By embedding key messages in digital content, new lives need not be created during a temporary moment of weakness.

The sex-free campaign, with its slogan "Seb Says No", will stress the importance of an ambulance-free Games to London's global image. Adverts will be placed in the national media and on the sides of buses between now and 12th November reminding Londoners that the ban remains in force, and will feature pairs of famous sportsmen and women in a variety of athletic poses. A follow-up campaign will launch on Remembrance Sunday, announcing that restrictions have been lifted and urging parents to "Stick It Back In For Britain".

Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, said "I like a bit of rumpy-pumpy as much as the next man, but I also know when to hold back. The last thing the capital needs at flame-lighting-time is a flashing blue light zipping down Stratford High Street holding up limousines and luxury coaches. Whilst it may be impossible to stop Londoners from having heart attacks and serious accidents next summer, I know we can all pull together now to prevent a series of unnecessary births in nine months time."

LOCOG Director of International Relations, Pratesh Kupal, said "We cannot allow an excess of emergency vehicles to clog up lanes meant for use by important sponsors and the Olympic Family. Imagine the bad press if a senior employee of some official sponsor was prevented from attending the champagne reception prior to an athletics final because the road was blocked by some selfish woman rushing to give birth. Thankfully, every unnecessary delivery in summer 2012 can be avoided if Londoners take steps right now to avoid penetrative sex."

ODA Head of Sustainability Relations, Magenta Penfold, said "Positive discrimination is the key. As a deterrent to randy parents, we promise that every Londoner born between Friday 27th July and Sunday 12th August 2012 will become a second class citizen. Their NHS file will be marked for life, and we'll double the levels of student debt they'll have to pay when they're older. Unlike that thing we did where we promised every Briton born on 20th December 2004 that they'd be a major part of the Games celebrations, then relegated them to the Torch Relay instead, this promise is for real."

Notes to Editors:
- For the next fortnight, the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) is to rebrand as the Olympic No-Delivery Authority (ONDA).
- LOCOG is proud to announce that Durex are to become a Tier Four Partner, as the Official Condom Supplier to the Surrounding Neighbourhoods of the Olympic Games.
- To save money, London's midwife service will close down in July and August next year.
- Mothers caught in possession of a developing foetus may be transferred to secure facilities on the Isle of Wight during the 36th week of their pregnancy so as not to impact on London's road network at this crucial time.
- Please note that no similar restrictions will apply during the period nine months before the Paralympic Games, because they're only the Paralympics and our sponsors aren't so bothered really.
– Ends –

For further information please contact the Olympic Non-Delivery Authority Press Office on +44 (0)203 2012 700.

 Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Cartoon Museum

Location: 35 Little Russell Street WC1A 2HH [map]
Open: daily (10:30am - 5:30pm) (not Mondays) (from 12 on Sundays)
Admission: £5.50 (kids go free)
Brief summary: comic sketches & animated displays
Website: www.cartoonmuseum.org (facebook) (twitter)
Time to set aside: maybe an hour

It's five years old now, this repository of the visual arts down Bloomsbury way. The Cartoon Museum lives in the shadow of its much greater neighbour, the British Museum, and survives by attracting visitors who wander into the wrong sideroad one street back. Quite what foreign tourists make of the Cartoon Museum I'm not sure - this is a distinctly British attraction, so most of the displays would mean little to someone brought up abroad. But if you're a fan of sketches, caricatures, graphic art or general pictorial humour, then your five pounds fifty may be better spent.

The front of the museum looks like a small shopfront, which is precisely what the front of the front of the museum is. Wander inside to find a mini giftshop of books, cards and artful gifts (tastefully done, I thought, so I reckon I've already got one Christmas purchase idea sorted). Only if you pay up do you gain entrance to the rooms beyond - a rather more spacious interior of three rooms down and two rooms up. On the way you'll pass a handful of witty black and white rectangles, the better sort of newspaper cartoon, pinned up in frames for your brief delectation. More of the same coming up.

The main permanent gallery skips through a history of British cartoonery, from Hogarth to Scarfe and all points inbetween. Biting social satire like The Rake's Progress, that's where it all kicked off, with the realisation that many a political point is best made pictorially with humour. Especially important when your audience can't read, or when they'd not got time to read some lengthy polemic - Gillray and Cruikshank slipped the message home anyhow. Noblemen and politicians were often a figure of fun, facial features emphasised, hidden agendas revealed. Punch magazine made all of this more mainstream, long before dentists' waiting rooms were ever invented, and were responsible for appropriating the word "cartoon" in the 1840s. It wasn't all serious - there are Heath Robinsons here and a Thelwell, for example - although the final burst of almost-modern artwork does have a more Westminster tinge.

At the heart of the building is the temporary exhibition gallery, which at the moment features a retrospective of Doctor Who In Comics. That's a good excuse to take pages from old copies of TV Comic, and other fan fiction, and display them with annotations around the wall. You don't get much chance to deduce the story from a single sheet, merely to soak up the atmosphere of the pen and ink drawings and relive an entire sci-fi era in black and white. There's plenty to see here, the exhibition's been meticulously curated, including a specially commissioned illustration of all eleven Doctors lined up in an imaginary identity parade. Might leave you cold, or might be a fascinating Hartnell to Smith geek-out, you'll know which. If the latter, get here before the end of the month before they take the whole lot down.

Upstairs, comics! The display runs the gamut of ages from pre-Dandy to post-Viz, this time with the opportunity to enjoy full one-page stories. An entire Beryl the Peril, a complete Dan Dare, even the scary saccharine world that was (and thankfully no longer is) Bunty. Look past the words to admire the talents of the cartoonist, be that the anarchic panache of Leo Baxendale, or the skill with which an entire tale can be told in only four panels. Did Jane really take off quite so many clothes to keep the War effort burning, and how has Dennis The Menace's spiky hair updated over the last sixty years? Should you fancy a sit down there's a table covered with back issues of the Beano and the Dandy to flick through, but watch out because they're all fairly recent so don't expect a bout of armchair nostalgia.

Children are well catered for, with an artists' gallery on the upper floor encouraging them to create, sketch and draw some mini-masterpiece of their own. Downstairs is a tiny room devoted to animation, more specifically to Peppa Pig animation - a fine example of the genre. And kids get into the museum free, remember, so there's a half-term idea for you. Admission was also free at the weekend to any soul clutching a Bloomsbury Festival programme, for which I deeply apologise. The Cartoon Museum isn't funded by government so relies on entrance fees to stay afloat, and I contributed precisely nothing to their upkeep on my lookaround. The least I can do is nudge a few of you towards their compact two-dimensional showcase, hopefully with a smile.
by tube: Tottenham Court Road

 Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Is this the most dangerous roundabout in London?
Bow Flyover roundabout

Technically no - the Elephant & Castle northern roundabout has a far worse record. But the Bow Flyover roundabout is a bloody disgrace, both for pedestrians and cyclists, as was tragically proven yesterday morning.
Cyclist killed on superhighway in Bow
A man has died after a collision with a tipper lorry on a cycle superhighway in east London. The cyclist, aged in his 50s, was involved in the accident on the roundabout at the Bow flyover during the morning rush hour.
It's not clear precisely what happened, indeed I wouldn't want to speculate. But this is a roundabout on which millions of pounds have been spent in the last year, and yet it's still a death trap. Why is that?

Bow Flyover roundaboutTake Cycle Superhighway 2, for example, of which the Bow Flyover roundabout is the eastern terminus. Weeks were spent earlier this summer remodelling the centre of the roundabout, then adding two segregated cycle lanes above the A12 underpass. These few metres are wonderfully safe. But then there's a simple blue line painted in a broad curve across the carriageways, and that's evidently not very safe at all. Watching cyclists whizzing up and down CS2, it often looks as if they think the blue strip permits them some sort of priority. But where that blue strip cuts across the entrance and then exit of a very major roundabout, a few pots of paint award no protection whatsoever to those cycling through. On the Bow side, eastbound, there's a travesty of a cycle lane that I've reported on before, where CS2 lies beneath half a lane of queueing traffic which cyclists have no chance of passing through. And on the Stratford side the lane suddenly veers up onto the pavement and peters out, because TfL and Newham Council can't agree on how it should continue. CS2 should be a major improvement to local infrastructure, but here provides a woefully inadequate cycling solution.

Then there's Bow's new floating towpath, constructed at a cost of £2.4m, which enables cyclists and pedestrians to pass underneath the roundabout in perfect safety. Genuinely fantastic, but only of benefit if you're cycling north-south along the River Lea and no use at all for any other crossing. Local resident trying to cross from Bow to Stratford? No use whatsoever. Cyclist trying to ride from the A12 onto the A11? No use whatsoever. Rambling party striding down the Lea Valley Walk from Walthamstow Marshes to the Limehouse Cut? Absolutely perfect, step right this way please.

Bow Flyover roundaboutAs a very local pedestrian, I remain amazed by how incredibly life-threatening the Bow Flyover roundabout is. Here two dual carriageways meet, which means four entry roads and four exits, of which only the former are traffic-light controlled. Nothing pelican or puffin, nothing push button, just a red light stopping the traffic that turns to red/amber and green with no prior warning whatsoever. But that's heaven compared to the four exit roads, where a steady stream of traffic could be on its way at any time, often without signalling, and pedestrians take their life in their hands every time they cross. Nearly got me last night, in fact, until I burst into a brief jog to avoid an oncoming car. I give thanks that I'm not elderly, because I probably wouldn't dare risk it, and were I in a wheelchair I'd have absolutely no hope whatsoever. Millions of pounds recently spent, no doubt because this is the nearest major road junction to the Olympic Stadium, and yet this is still a scarily-dangerous accessibility-deficient roundabout.
Question by John Biggs (18th May 2011): What progress has been made to provide safe pedestrian crossings at the Bow Flyover/roundabout on the A12?
Answer by Boris Johnson: TfL has spent substantial effort looking at options for pedestrians crossings in this location and modelling various possible solutions. TfL have been unable so far to find an immediate solution for providing controlled at-grade pedestrian crossings at Bow Roundabout that does not push the junction over capacity and introduce significant delays to traffic. The feasibility of providing pedestrian crossings at the roundabout will continue to be investigated for the future.
TfL's overriding priority at the Bow Flyover roundabout is clearly vehicular traffic. Cars and lorries and buses would be held up if pedestrian crossings were introduced, and that's why no such crossings have yet been installed. This is a key London road junction, and the queues that could be caused by a succession of button-pressing pedestrians might have gridlock repercussions. I can fully understand why TfL are quite so reticent, because a significant number of travellers would be disadvantaged by a Bow Flyover slowdown. But the priority surely ought to be safety, rather than piecemeal interventions that deliver merely partial solutions. Yesterday's tragic death highlights the dangers we all face, whether on wheels or on foot, when journeying on London's roads. At the Bow Flyover, alas, that danger remains far greater than it needs to be.

 Monday, October 24, 2011

They claim to be the 99%, the protesters at the Occupy London camp outside the front of St Paul's Cathedral. They're possibly the 50%, representing the views of mainstream Britons uneasy at the influence of business and banking in our recession-hit society. They're really the 0.001%, based on the proportion of the UK population who can actually be bothered to set up tents in central London and live in them forthwith. I've been down, because I wanted to see what could possibly be so awful that this esteemed place of worship has closed its doors. And you know, I'm 99% sure I can't tell what the cathedral's problem is.

They've been here a week now, the protesters, part of a global campaign to rally society against the iniquities of corporate greed. Initially the Cathedral welcomed them, at least cautiously, as they set up camp in the piazza out front round the Queen Anne statue. A sea of tents, mostly the small cheap type you get from Argos or Milletts, to create the ultimate pop-up protest in the heart of the City [photo]. A good choice of location too, because there aren't many public-ish open spaces in the Square Mile, let alone with a ready-made stream of passing tourists to impact upon (and some convenient shops and cafés for refreshment purposes).

Capitalism Is Crisis, says a large green banner strung out between lampposts, with People Are Not Profit added alongside for good measure [photo]. An entire community has evolved, with first aid tent, canteen and information point. Recycling bins and portaloos are in place, the former with a stern sign not to dispose of urine bottles within. There's even a Tent City University, whose aim is "to create a non-hierarchical, open and inclusive space in which people can come together to share, teach and learn", because it's that sort of place. Most, but by no means all of those sitting around are young, and are busily engaged with one another (and with visitors) in earnest conversation. The atmosphere is entirely totally 100% non-threatening. Unless you're a banker with a conscience, that is, in which case it may give you the willies.
Dear General Public.
Our democracy is broken, and we are staying here until it is fixed.
We are angry at the bankers' bailout, the corrupt politicians, the cuts, the privatisation of the NHS, the undemocratic power of the IMF, the untrustworthy media, the wars waged without consent and the Corporatisation of Everything.
We are angry that this country, like so many others, is being run by a few people for their own profit instead of for the benefit of all.
We are not some special interest group. We are you.
If you have any ideas about how we can do this better, please tell us. Better yet, join us. Come down for a day, or stay for weeks. Come to an assembly and voice your views.
We are not going away. This is not a protest. This is the resistance.
We are the 99%. Expect us.
The protesters would prefer to be closer to the London Stock Exchange, their primary target, but the LSE is based in Paternoster Square nextdoor to the cathedral and that's private land. A sign at each entrance announces "any licence to the public to enter or cross this land is revoked forthwith" and "any such entry will constitute a trespass". Official tenants are allowed in, on production of proof of identity, but otherwise the Square is a no-go-zone. That's bad news for the bars, restaurants and businesses within who suddenly have no footfall, but the protesters unsurprisingly aren't bothered by that. It also gives the City Police somewhere convenient to park a fleet of riot vans, in case the protest suddenly turns nasty, and somewhere to stand around while that turning nasty continues not to happen.

And what of the religious life of the cathedral? That would appear to be seriously compromised, as the tall wooden doors remained firmly shut on Sunday morning for the first time since the Blitz. The Dean put out a statement on Friday, announcing that the cathedral would be closed until further notice "because of the legal requirements placed upon us by fire, health and safety issues." This came as a surprise to the protesters who'd taken the advice of the Fire Brigade earlier in the week and rearranged their tents to ensure emergency access. The side entrance, the one with the wheelchair ramp, remains entirely unobstructed. Even round the front, approaching from Ludgate Hill, a broad protester-free path is freely available. Indeed, I have to say it was damned simple to walk through the camp, or indeed not through the camp, and climb the steps with ease to the cathedral's closed doors [photo]. Bad news for tourists - no admittance, not even an apologetic pinned-up message explaining to disappointed visitors what was going on. The only advice for worshippers was to go and celebrate Eucharist at St Vedast's Church in Foster Lane instead... but no further clues as to where that might be, which seemed more than a little unhelpful.

I think we can assume that capitalism is unlikely to crumble in consequence to a tented village round the corner from Merrill Lynch, however noble its intentions. I fear that the Dean of St Paul's is unlikely to reconsider his risk register, however seemingly unnecessary his safety shutdown appears. And I suspect that this communal occupation is entrenched for the long haul, at least until the portaloo system collapses or until forcibly evicted by the powers that be. So expect stalemate at the Cathedral for the foreseeable future. The 1% will not be changed, and the 99% will not be moved.

 Sunday, October 23, 2011

Norfolk postcard: Grime's Graves
Grime's Graves
Norfolk's not normally a county associated with mining. There's no coal, no tin, no precious metal lurking conveniently beneath the surface. But there is flint, which Neolithic Britons used for weapons, tools and building, and before the Bronze Age flint was as good as it got. They mined a site in Thetford Forest between four and five thousand years ago, digging hundreds of shafts in the ground for the extraction of this precious mineral. It's called Grime's Graves, and is now to be found in a remote forest clearing near an army firing range under the protection of English Heritage. There's no tearoom, just a hutlike visitors centre with a shop and a small but informative exhibition. Outside is a lumpy field pocked with 400 bunker-sized circular dips, each the filled-in remains of a flint mine pit. And the thing which makes the site worth visiting? One of these pits has been fully excavated and is open to the public. You wait your turn at a green hut on the surface, then don the regulation safety helmet and descend into the darkness. Some people crumble at the thought - I met a lady here who'd chickened out on a school trip forty years ago and had come back yesterday to prove a point. Hold tight to the ladder, it's 30 feet down to the mineshaft floor. As your eyes grow accustomed to the dark you see several low tunnels leading off in all directions, painstakingly dug out using picks made from deer's antlers. Some tunnels are short and stunted, others extend rather further, linking up with neighbouring shafts somewhere in the labyrinthine distance. You can't crouch far, only shuffle and peek, then it's back up the ladder to escape the ancient pit. It's the Norfolk underground, a subterranean survivor, from an era most history books forgot.

Norfolk postcard: Butterfly Brain (Norwich Playhouse 21/10/11)
Colin Sell is playing the piano. The Colin Sell, of I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue fame, is improvising and extemporising like a master on the Norwich Playhouse stage. Colin's an unexpected treat, because this evening we're here for Barry Cryer and "a stream of unconsciousness and sit down comedy". The great man enters, banters with the audience and even proves he can almost sing. The concept of Butterfly Brain is a simple one - using the alphabet from A to Z as a hook to hang an otherwise unconnected stream of jokes, puns and anecdotes. From Arthur Askey to the Zimmer Frame Blues, this is a laid-back genial show with regular laughs (plus the occasional musical interlude). Some letters merit several references, as Barry checks his notes for another "ah yes", while other letters get short shrift. Indeed M and N vanish altogether, failing to appear on either side of the interval, which by my calculations means I'm due a £1.35 refund. But where else (outside ISIHAC) could you whip up an audience to sing the words of one song to the tune of another, or lampoon American preachers with a sermon about Cheeses? Colin has the shinier shoes, and a rather funny ditty about flirty parrots, but the evening belongs to the endearing Mr Cryer. He's 76 now, is Barry, but still a consummate comedy legend. And you can catch him on his national tour... ah, sorry, it ended last night, so by now he's probably back home in Hatch End penning a few more class wisecracks for some future project.

 Saturday, October 22, 2011

Norfolk postcard: Horsey Windpump
Horsey Windpump
It looks like a windmill, but this 100 year-old building is actually a windpump. It sits at the end of Horsey Mere, the easternmost of the Norfolk Broads, only a mile from the North Sea. The land round here is very low and very flat, and drainage is essential for keeping the area dry for housing and grazing. In February 1938 a particularly high tide breached the dunes and salt water swept in, flooding the village and leaving the land temporarily unsuitable for agriculture. If one pressure group get their way, this corner of Norfolk would be permanently surrendered to the sea, drowning six villages and 25 square miles of land in the face of global warming. For now, however, coastal defences are maintained and life goes on as normal behind a barrier of sand. Horsey's obsolete windpump is now owned by the National Trust, and opened to the public allowing interior access to five floors of creaking wood and rusting machinery. Climb the steep topmost ladder and you can step out onto a balcony beneath the fantail (no more than four persons at a time, please) for fine views of the mere, several drainage ditches and a nearby cluster of wind turbines. Or stay at ground level to enjoy the tiny (but well-stocked) gift shop, quick, before the place closes at the end of October until next spring. [photo]

Norfolk postcard: Horsey seals
Seals at Winterton Ness
Head from the windpump to the sea, past swans and horses and fields of cattle, and you'll eventually reach a long line of dunes along the coast. Beyond is a broad curving sandy beach, wholly cut off from all human activity, where waves crash onto the shore in low rolling curls. A series of rocky fingers stretch out into the water - artificial boulder-strewn breakwaters designed to minimise the erosive power of the sea. But one particular breakwater isn't quite what it seems from a distance, because those grey rocks are actually a colony of seals basking on the beach [wide shot]. The dunes provide a close-up yet private view, ideal for watching these delightful creatures whiling away a lazy afternoon. Some splash out into the sea for a swim, others wait in the breakers for the next incoming wave, but most rest in line on the foreshore for a yawn, a stretch and a flap. Occasionally some boisterous play results in general commotion, but most of the time the colony indulges in nothing more strenuous than the occasional flollop. I was expecting the noise from forty seals to be loud and raucous, but instead enjoyed a low chorus of muted yelps and contented barks. A treat to watch, and a privilege at such close quarters. [close-up]

 Friday, October 21, 2011

London bus routes
outside London

(Oyster accepted) (or not)
84, 298, 313 → Potters Bar
107 → Borehamwood →
142, 258 → Watford Junction
217, 279, N279, 317, 327, 491 → Waltham Cross 
292 → Borehamwood
331 → Denham → Mount Vernon →
20, 167, 397 → Debden
150 → Chigwell Row
215 → Lee Valley Campsite
275 → Woodford Bridge →
347 → Ockendon
370, 372 → Lakeside
375 → Passingford Bridge
462 → Grange Hill
498 → Brentwood
549 → Loughton
81 → Slough
Surrey (West)
116 → Ashford
117, 203, 216, 290 → Staines
166, 293, 406, 418, 467, 470 → Epsom 
235 → Sunbury Village
411 → West Molesey
K3 → Esher
R68 → Hampton Court Station
Surrey (East)
80 → Belmont
403 → Warlingham
404, 407, 434, 466 → Caterham
405 → Redhill
464 → Tatsfield
465 → Dorking
S1 → Banstead
96, 428, 492 → Bluewater
233 → Swanley
246 → Westerham/Chartwell
402, R5, R10 → Knockholt Pound
477 → Crockenhill
B12 → Joydens Wood

It's amazing how far your Oyster card can take you. Beyond the boundaries of the capital, into the neighbouring counties, on a red London bus. As far as Watford, as far as Staines, even as far as Lakeside or Bluewater for a bit of shopping. So I've attempted to make a list of all the buses that go beyond, semi-geographically arranged. It's quite easy, because TfL have a list of all these buses on their website. All I've done is rejig it a bit, and strip out the schoolbuses.

Oyster goes all the way... apart from the three buses in red, where Oyster doesn't. The 84 goes north as far as St Albans, for example, but you can't use your Oyster any further than Potters Bar. Similarly, down Bromley way, the 402 and 477 allow cheaper passage only partway into Kent. A handful of buses edge out of London and then nip back in, like the 107 to Borehamwood and the 275 to Woodford Bridge. The 331 edges out twice. Meanwhile the three buses I've emboldened are the three buses whose routes stretch the furthest out of town. All the way to Slough on the 81, right out to Redhill on the 405, even way down to Box Hill and Dorking on the 465. I must ride that last one some day.

How few Bucks there are. And what a lot of Surreys. Indeed there's a hint here as to which bits of the Home Counties are very connected to London, and might one day be swallowed up by it. The district of Epsom and Ewell to the southwest, that was very nearly amalgamated into London in 1965, and it's very connected to Sutton by bus. Ditto Waltham Cross in Hertfordshire, so very nearly part of the capital, and the "The Only Way Is Essex" bit of Essex, near Chigwell. They don't pay London council tax, Boris isn't their Mayor, but they still get to ride our buses. Unfair? Well no, because suburban travel would be stunted if there was no network overlap at all. Across the border by Oyster, on the red bus to not-London.

 Thursday, October 20, 2011

Long term readers may enjoy this, my latest PR-related email.
Dear Diamond Geezer,
I just got done reading your "my new Z470xi mobile" and I found it really informative! Do you do advertising? I'm marketing out a few sites and can pay you $50 via PayPal to add a text link into one of your older posts. The link would go to an education site and I'd make sure the site relates to your post's content.
Thanks and let me know if we can work something out!
Certainly made me smile. But alas, Marilyn, no.

From reading the comments you wrote, it seems that yesterday's post was one of the most misunderstood I've written for ages.

• "Not sure what todays post is meant to say, but if it is to spark a discussion of old childrens programmes..." (no)
• "If this post is about kids shows in general then... (no, it isn't)
• "Great post. Hector's House? Alistair and Crystal Tips?" (no, they don't fit)
• "Oh, by the way, how could you have forgotten Rainbow?" (because it doesn't fit)

No, my list was a list of the children's programmes which appeared in the lunchtime BBC slot Watch With Mother. There was a clue in the title at the top of the list, "Watch With Mother", and in the link behind it. As for Hector's House and Crystal Tipps and Alistair, they were indeed BBC shows but appeared in the slot before the evening news. And as for Rainbow, that was indeed a lunchtime show but on ITV (see also Hickory House, Inigo Pipkin, Mr Trimble, all from 1972). The connection was Watch With Mother (and See Saw, which Watch With Mother evolved into in 1980). Simple. Victoria Coren would be so very disappointed.

• "What was on Watch with Mother in the late fifties? " (all of the above)
My list showed the year in which each Watch With Mother programme was first broadcast. They were then repeated, frequently, into forthcoming years. For example, Andy Pandy, The Flowerpot Men and The Woodentops continued ad nauseam throughout the late fifties, over and over and over again. Is it any wonder that many people of a certain age remember them so well?

• "eh? The person who loaded the first clip you link to says:"Andy Pandy..watch with mother..first aired on the 16th sept 1952"." (and I said 1950, didn't I?)
Everyone on the internet makes mistakes. I make plenty of mistakes, and get lots of appropriately probing comments telling me so (please, keep 'em coming). But in this case the person who uploaded the Andy Pandy video made the mistake, because Andy Pandy was definitely first broadcast in July 1950, not September 1952. On the internet, it's always a good idea to check more than one source.

• "Just had a thought could todays post be a test to see how many people comment on todays post that isn't saying much compared to yesterdays post that obviously a lot of work went into it. I seem to recall DG did this once before with a very short post about doughnuts ..." (no, it wasn't doughnut-related)
It is true that Monday's post took longer to write than Tuesday's. But Tuesday's actually took quite a while, what with all the researching and the formatting and the tracking down of YouTube clips. Not tough, but by no means trivial. If you want a genuinely good example of a post that not much effort went into, today's is much better.

 Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Watch With Mother
1950: Andy Pandy (26 episodes)
1952: The Flowerpot Men (26)
1953: Rag, Tag and Bobtail (26)
1955: Picture Book, The Woodentops (26)
During this time...
Monday: Picture Book
Tuesday: Andy Pandy
Wednesday: The Flowerpot Men
Thursday: Rag, Tag & Bobtail
Friday: The Woodentops
1963: Tales Of The Riverbank (26)
1965: The Pogles (6)
1966: Camberwick Green (13), Joe (13), Pogles Wood (26)
1967: Bizzy Lizzy (13), Trumpton (13)
1968: The Herbs (13)
1969: Chigley (13), Mary Mungo and Midge (13)
1970: Along The River (5), Along The Seashore (2), Andy Pandy (13), On The Farm (6)
1971: Mr Benn (13)
1972: Along The Trail (6), Fingerbobs (13)

1973: Barnaby (13), In The Town (7), Ragtime (13), Ring-A-Ding (13), Teddy Edward (13)
1974: Bagpuss (13), The Mr Men (28), Ragtime (13)
1975: Bod (13), Thomas (7)
1976: Playboard (13), Rubovia (6)
1977: The Flumps (13), Heads and Tails (13), How Do You Do! (13)
1978: Over The Moon (13)

1980: Bric-a-Brac (12), King Rollo (13)
1981: Chock-A-Block (13), Pigeon Street (13), Postman Pat (13), Stop-Go! (13)
1983: Gran (13), Hokey-Cokey (26), Little Misses (13)
1985: Bertha (13), Fingermouse (13), Mop and Smiff (13)
1986: Animal Fair (13), Pie In The Sky (13), Pinny's House (13)
1987: The Adventures of Spot (13), Fireman Sam (26)

 Tuesday, October 18, 2011

When's your next bus due? It's not an official secret any more. Because yesterday, after several weeks of beta testing, TfL finally launched their full Countdown service offering Londoners oodles of live bus arrival information.

That's great news if...
» ...you're sat at a computer, because every London bus stop has its own webpage. Search for it, bookmark it, and you can instantly check all the buses due over the next half hour. Even better, the pages automatically update, so you don't have to keep pressing refresh. Fantastic.
» ...you have a web-enabled phone, because you can check next buses while you're out and about. Surf onto the TfL website and its free, or nab yourself a bus checker app and keep tabs the simple way. Marvellous.
» ...you're at a bus stop with a Countdown board attached, because TfL are adding 500 more of these. The original boards have been around for years, ticking over with details of upcoming buses, and no smartphone has ever been required. Don't underestimate the number of less well-off or older Londoners who'll only be able to access Countdown this way.

But, and there is a but, also just launched is an SMS version of the new Countdown service. Every bus stop has its own five-digit code, now displayed on a small board above the timetable. Text that five-digit number to 87287, and TfL will send you back a list of the next buses due. Indeed, if you're standing at a bus stop, there's no evidence of any other way to access the Countdown service. In particular there's no mention of m.countdown.tfl.gov.uk, where you can get this information for free, only the 87287 service with smallprint saying "Services and network charges apply, see tfl.gov.uk/terms for details." No matter that your phone may not be able to access these terms and conditions, just send your text and hope for the best. And it'll cost you, one text plus twelvepence.
3.1 We will provide the SMS Service to you at a charge of 12 pence over your standard network rate. This charge may change in the future, but any change will be noted here and publicised by TfL. The overall cost of sending a text may vary depending on the contract you have with your mobile network operator.
3.2 You will not be charged by us if:
3.2.1 you do not receive a text from us using the SMS Service;
3.2.2 we send you an error message.
So I've had a go at testing the SMS service, to see how it works and how it eats your money. Here are five local attempts...

1) The bus stop: Bow Flyover, eastbound (text "55457" to 87287)
The reply: 25 Ilford due, 25 Ilford 3 min, 25 Ilford 6 min, 425 Stratford 7 min, 488 Bromley-by-Bow 7 min, 25 Ilford 8 min, 276 Newham Hospital 11 min, 25 Ilford 12 min
The cost: 10p (text) + 12p (TfL service charge) = 22p
The verdict: Lots and lots of lovely information, which is great, although with such a regular bus service here it probably isn't worth 22p to discover how short the wait will be.

2) The bus stop: Bow Flyover, westbound (text "74025" to 87287)
The reply: Sorry we are experiencing problems with the service. Please try again later.
The cost: 10p (text) = 10p
The verdict: The Countdown system collapsed briefly last night, so I got this error message instead. True to their word in the terms and conditions, TfL didn't charge me 12p extra. So that's good.

3a) The bus stop: Hancock Road, outside Bromley-by-Bow Tesco (????)
The problem: Hang on, there isn't a Countdown code on this bus stop. If there's no sign, I can't text. But there is a five-digit number stuck to a label on the underside of the roundel, maybe it's that? (text "36763" to 87287)
The reply: Sorry no stop matches this query. To find your bus stop code check information at the stop or visit tfl.gov.uk.
The cost: 10p (text) + 12p (TfL service charge) = 22p
The verdict: If TfL make an error, I don't pay an extra 12p. But in this case I made an error, so I do pay an extra 12p. That's 22p utterly wasted because I entered a wrong number. Watch out for this, and make sure you type carefully. Looks like I'd better check the code online...

3b) The bus stop: Hancock Road, outside Bromley-by-Bow Tesco (text "76073" to 87287)
The reply: 108 Lewisham Stn 1 min, Thank you for using 87287
The cost: 10p (text) + 12p (TfL service charge) = 22p
The verdict: Just the one bus due in the next half hour, apparently. It won't be a long wait, hurrah. But I wonder what'll happen if I try again 2 minutes later...

3c) The bus stop: Hancock Road, outside Bromley-by-Bow Tesco (text "76073" to 87287)
The reply: Sorry no bus information is available for this stop. Please consult the bus timetable or visit tfl.gov.uk
Cost: 10p (text) + 12p (TfL service charge) = 22p
Verdict: Blimey, I've just spent 22p to be told nothing. Nothing, that is, apart from the fact that no bus is due in the next half hour. I wish the text message had expressed this more clearly, rather than some general apologetic waffle. Now I could try again in a few minutes, in case a bus is finally on its way, but there again that might be another 22p down the drain. Not ideal.

4) The bus stop: Hancock Road, bus stand (text "72227" to 87287)
The problem: Now this is strange. This is the last stop on route 488, so passengers never board here, they only alight. It shouldn't have a visible code. And yet TfL have still stuck a plate on the bus stop inviting passengers to SMS for next bus information. So I did, even though I knew it was pointless.
The reply: Sorry no bus information is available for this stop. Please consult the bus timetable or visit tfl.gov.uk
Cost: 10p (text) + 12p (TfL service charge) = 22p
Verdict: Anyone texting "72227" to 87287 will be charged 22p for an information-free message, because no buses ever depart from this stop. You could argue I was stupid for even trying. I could argue that TfL are stupid for putting a code on a bus stop that will only ever return a null result.

5) The bus stop: Hancock Road, the other bus stand (text "76073" to 87287)
The problem: Hang on, this is the other 488 bus stand, so no bus picks up passengers here either. And, hmmm, haven't I seen that number 76073 somewhere else? Yes, this is the code which should be on the bus stop outside Tesco, but instead some TfL contractor has attached it to the wrong bus stop, on the wrong side of Three Mills Lane, where it's no bloody use.
The reply: 108 Greenwich 6 min, 488 Dalston Junct 8 min, 108 Greenwich 21 min
Cost: 10p (text) + 12p (TfL service charge) = 22p
Verdict: Right information, but it's for a bus stop 109 metres away. Expensively hopeless.

And my conclusion? Countdown is brilliant, but try not to use the SMS service unless there's no alternative. Rest assured you probably won't experience the chain of woes I suffered above. But you will be charged one text plus twelvepence, even if you type a number wrong, even if the code on the bus stop is wrong, even if there's no bus due in the next 30 minutes, indeed even if there's no bus due until tomorrow morning. Countdown may be a game-changer on a smartphone, but text-wise it's a money-grabber.

[website] [mobile site] [info] [press release] [terms and conditions] [list of bus stop codes]
[unofficial app] [full London map & app] [lovely simple app] [times via Twitter]

 Monday, October 17, 2011

On Sunday I went somewhere obscure, somewhere you'll probably never go, and today I'm going to tell you all about it. Sorry, I know you find this sort of thing irrelevant and tedious. So I'm going to attempt to write about my visit to Thames Chase Forest Centre in four completely different ways, in the hope that I can make the edge of London (nr Upminster) sound slightly more interesting.

A) Apple Day at Thames Chase Visitor Centre
It's been a great year for fruit. Heavily laden boughs, baskets of bounty, and more apples than your average supermarket knows what to do with. So it's great that independent producers get together every October and hold Apple Days across the country to celebrate nature's harvest. There are several across London (Time Out's managed to find four), and one of these was at Thames Chase Visitor Centre near Upminster. An entire car-park-ful of visitors turned up, making the most of the glorious sunny weather, and piled into the triangular-shaped building for treats and goodies. All the apple-y merchandisers were in the 17th century barn nextdoor, a lofty wood-beamed space, selling juice and pies and (obviously) apples. Trays of the things, in proper historic varieties like Tyderman's Late Orange and Eregmont Russet, with samples available before you buy. Some of the sellers looked a little glum, probably because they'd much rather have been outside, but bags of the stuff were being taken away to make crumbles and fill lunchboxes elsewhere. Further Apple Days are scheduled next weekend in Camden, Bexley and Borough Market, should you want to partake. And not an iPhone-buying queue in sight.

B) Beyond the M25
Very little of London falls outside the M25, but the far end of Havering is an exception. Thames Chase Forest Centre straddles the motorway, with most of its land within but a thin sliver without. The Forestry Commission moved in 20 years ago, charged with turning 140 acres of roadside land into community woodland, and they've almost succeeded in screening out the passing traffic. Not the noise, admittedly, but a million extra trees certainly help with the view. Access to the outer reserve is via a low concrete underpass beneath the traffic, shared by a dribbling brook, where if you're taller than six foot you'll have to crouch. A long path then runs back alongside the motorway, climbing slowly to ascend twenty metres up Clay Tye Hill. The trees are still young, and it shows, but large enough for early autumn colours to create an appealing display. Nobody other than me, not a single one of the Centre's hundreds of visitors, had bothered to made the effort to cross so I had the entire dead-end triangle of land to myself. And so I stood alone on the grassy slopes, looking down over the easternmost curve of the M25 as it swept out from the neighbouring cutting and snaked off across the fen [photo]. A desecrating imposition on the landscape, for sure, yet still somehow artificially attractive. There is a London beyond the M25, and I bet you've never visited it.

C) Thames Chase Community Market
On the third Sunday of every month, people with talent make their way to Pike Lane, Cranham, to share their skills and sell their wares. Sometimes they get the barn, but when that's full of apples they get the compact annexe round the back, and make do. A man who paints Essex scenes is here, even though this isn't Essex, with greetings cards and calendars at damned reasonable prices. Two straw workers encourage visitors to make their own Essex corn dolly, even though this isn't Essex, and do a marvellous job of keeping youngsters busy and entertained. The Essex Beekeepers are here, even though this isn't Essex, on the never-ending hunt for honey-buyers and any pre-retired soul they might entice into hive ownership. Most visitors have taken root outside, however, where there's food and somewhere to sit down. The Giggly Pig are selling saddleback sausages, but I ignore them to buy lunch from exactly the same artisan bread stall I frequented in Letchworth the day before. All this plus Hornchurch's very own morris dancers at their final event of 2011 - experts of all ages smashing sticks together with merry abandon. Next month it's the Christmas Fair, presumably with more craft-friendly gifts and fewer jangly gaiters, and then every third Sunday forthwith.

D) The Chase
I'm not good with dogs. That's especially when I'm out walking and they're off-leash, even though most have no interest in me whatsoever. I'm learning, slowly, that if I walk straight past a dog it'll probably ignore me, but a small proportion seem to want to get to know me better. Most are only intent on being friendly, which I wish they wouldn't, but directing a look of despair into the owner's eyes usually sees any errant hound brought under control. It's only very occasional that a dog takes an avid dislike to me, and my bones turn to jelly, and all my "coping with dogs" strategy falls apart. So I was feeling fairly confident as I strode down a quiet wooded path at Thames Chase that surely the approaching dog would be no problem. But then it stopped and stared at me, before advancing somewhat faster with a barking growl. This might have been a show of strength, but was possibly something nastier... jellybones. I walked bravely on, then past, while the lady owner shouted "Dexter! Dexter!" in vain at her angry beast. But still Dexter followed, and followed, and no amount of Dextering would change its mind. And then the owner ran away, which scared me rigid for a split second until I realised the dog was now intent on chasing after her. No harm done, just a fairly stupid-feeling bloke left behind, and my not-very-goodness with dogs still firmly intact. Until next time.

How to get to Thames Chase Forest Centre
» Drive. Almost everybody drives. Stick RM14 3NS in your satnav.
» Walk. I walked the mile and a half from Upminster Station, via the church at Cranham Chase, across the fields. Most pleasant.
» Get the bus. Either the terribly rare 347 (four buses a day, not Sunday) to Winchester Avenue, or the 370 to Bridge Cottages (then take the footpath up the side of the M25).

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