diamond geezer

 Saturday, March 31, 2012

Thames Path: Windsor → Staines (8 miles)
(directions) (directions) (book)

You could, if you fancied, spend all day in Windsor alone. There's the Castle, and the town museum, and boat trips on the river, and far more shops than any town of this size truly deserves. I arrived just in time to see the Changing of the Guard, or at least to watch a phalanx of bandsmen in bearskins marching off into the distance pursued by tourists. But instead I slipped off to the river, to descend the steps beside the bridge across to Eton. It only takes a minute to pass the last bar and restaurant, and then there's a peaceful stroll ahead hemmed in between the Thames and the railway. The turrets of Eton College are sporadically visible, as the first meander curves round to enter Home Park. Queen Victoria donated this parcel of land to the people of Windsor in 1851 for their recreation, and until recently it was the location of the Royal Windsor Horse Show. Midweek in March it's rather quieter, blessed with pink-blossomed trees along the edge of the road, and the castle rising proud from the rock behind. [photo]

The majority of Home Park, however, remains very much under royal control. These walled-off acres form the Queen's back garden, and a mighty whopping back garden she has too. The Thames Path is forced to cross the river to avoid this Crown Estate, but the walk along Sumptermead Ait does provide an extremely clear view across to the exclusive fields and farmland beyond. Various buildings can be seen dotted around, from cute Thamesside cottages to taller brick lodges, each seemingly preserved for the few afternoons a year when the monarch and her family fancy playing at being farmers. A forced deviation through Datchet village follows. You don't live here unless you've got a cool million to spare, although there is a major catch. The flight path into Heathrow passes directly overhead, especially along Southlea Road, which must be hell when there's a garden party to attend. Onward over Albert Bridge...
DiversionWindsor Farm Shop: It's not just any farm shop, this, it's the Queen's farm shop. Produce from the royal vegetable patch, along with various Fortnum-type comestibles, are sold here in a mini-supermarket just outside the castle grounds in Old Windsor. There are plenty of biscuits and jams and sauces, but also organic fruit and veg to pick, plus some rather tasty-looking local loaves. Carnivores will enjoy the meat-based products, from a full (and probably overstaffed) butchers at the rear of the shop, to paper-packaged pies culled from the Sandringham herd. I succumbed to a "small pork pie", which was considerably larger and cheaper than the designer pastries you get at certain trendy London street markets, and a non-manufactured chocolate brownie. I resisted the shelves of Diamond Jubilee souvenirs, tacked on near the till, but did walk away with two crown-branded condiments which'll save up nicely as Christmas presents. Alas HM doesn't serve behind the counter, and alas, I doubt I'll ever be in the area again.
The path avoids Old Windsor proper, and the meander at Ham Island which now hides a sewage works. Instead, welcome to the world of very rich people who like messing around on boats. The shorelines of Sunnymeads and Wraysbury are lined with hundreds and hundreds of "houses that back down to the water", where residents can nip down their lawn into a cruiser moored up by the banks. By the looks of the midweek crowd, and the sight of much bronzed wrinkled flesh, this is a favoured retirement spot. It's very nearly in Surrey, which is reached round a wooded corner at Runnymede House...

DiversionRunnymede: The Thames Path hogs the riverside of this most famous meadow, but it would be a shame not to wander off towards the hillside and enjoy some of the history of the place. Somewhere here, 797 years ago, King John was forced to add his seal to Magna Carta [note to self: come back in 2015 and write about Runnymede properly]. There's no major English commemoration of the event, unless you count a National Trust teashop, but there is a UFO-style memorial on the slopes of Coopers Hill paid for by the American Bar Association. More intriguing is the acre of American soil to the east, donated to the US by the Queen following the assassination of John F Kennedy. His memorial is a sculpted cuboid of Portland Stone, reached by climbing 50 granite steps from the valley below [photo]. I had the full acre all to myself for a few glorious minutes, and sat on the Seats of Contemplation gazing out across the Thames towards, ah, Heathrow Terminal 5. [note to self: come back in 2015 and write about Runnymede properly]
The eastern edge of Runnymede has a larger car park, and (from what I saw) considerable appeal to the "drive to the river, walk ten feet out of your car and sprawl on the grass" crowd. Here the smart houses begin again, no two the same, and no one eminently affordable. Look closely and you'll see most are on stilts, or at least with back door raised up above towpath level, for fear of the flooding which besets this residential idyll during occasional wet winters. At Hythe End a large weir crosses the river so boats are funnelled through a deep lock, which is charming at one end and a bit hotel-corporate at the other [photo]. And then the M25 intrudes, roaring overhead on a twin bridge - one half of which was here before and the other half of which was added to allow passage for motorway and non-motorway traffic.

The final mile is along increasingly ordinary riverside, because this stretch got the light industry and the water treatment works. One bunch of fortunate locals get to live on a tiny triangular island, linked to the northern bank by a tiny bridge. And the bigger bridge ahead. That's your welcome to Staines, or as the town now wishes to be known, Staines-on-Thames. The new name immediately makes me think of oil slicks, which can't be ideal, whereas the only things I saw on the water were a few kayaks and some rather charming swans. Following the Thames means avoiding the centre of town, all the shops and the bus station, which is probably for the best. But unless you fancy a long walk to the next sniff of civilisation at Weybridge, best break here and head for a train out.

dg walks the Thames: Kemble, Oxford, Henley, Bray, Eton Dorney, Runnymede, Hampton Court, Isleworth, Hammersmith, Chelsea, Southwark, North Greenwich, North Woolwich, Thamesmead, Crayford Marsh, Purfleet, Tilbury, Shoeburyness

 Friday, March 30, 2012

Here goes...
Improvement works to begin at Bow roundabout
It was back in January that TfL announced they'd be redesigning the Bow Roundabout, in response to two tragic deaths caused by left-turning lorries last summer. They proposed two possible options for improvement, which I discussed in some detail here and here. And now they've announced their decision.
Transport for London (TfL) has confirmed that work will begin in April on making further cycle safety improvements at Bow roundabout, including the Capital's first ever 'early start for cyclists' system, which will give cyclists their own separate green light phase.

Ooh, traffic signal innovation, at the bottom of my road, in lowly E3. This is option 1, providing an advanced stop line for cyclists, then holding drivers back with a separate red light of their own. It's suddenly popular, this 'early-start' idea, not just with TfL but also as part of Ken's transport manifesto launched this week. Cyclists will nip ahead of the main body of traffic into a special 12m-long waiting area, and be let out onto the roundabout a few seconds early. That's a huge additional space, the right hand side of which will be almost completely wasted, but it all helps put some distance between them and the killer lorry wheels behind. [video]
Cycling groups and local authorities have been consulted on design proposals for the roundabout and Transport for London will now begin work on improvements including a green light phase, which will allow cyclists to move onto the junction ahead of other traffic.
That's what'll happen while the main body of traffic is stopped on red. But when cars, trucks and buses start moving onto the roundabout from Bow Road, cyclists will be asked to stop and wait and watch as everyone else goes by. Yeah right. I'd hazard a guess that several cyclists will jump their new red light, or deviate down the main road instead, nullifying any positive effects that these new early-start lights might bring.
This will significantly reduce the potential for conflict between cyclists travelling straight across the roundabout and vehicles turning left.
Indeed it should, if cyclists play by the rules. They'll have ridden past the deadly first yards of the roundabout by the time any large vehicles attempt to turn left into precisely the same space, which should avoid serious injury or death. It's going to slow the traffic down though, extending every red light phase by a couple of seconds or so, which can only lengthen traffic delays at busy times.
Work will also be carried out to widen the road space and provide a cycle lane that will be separated from traffic on the approach to the early start.
This is work which should have been carried out a year ago, but the cheapskates who installed Cycle Superhighway 2 deemed it unnecessary. They painted half a lane blue, leaving eastbound cyclists to fight their way through queueing traffic to reach the existing advanced stop zone. Now, finally, there'll be a proper segregated bike lane, just like there ought to have been in the first place. It'll gouge a metre and a bit out of the pavement, but we pedestrians will barely notice the difference.

Unfortunately, as I've mentioned before, this shiny new cycle lane starts in a very dangerous place. Less than ten metres from the entrance to the new cycle lane is a bus stop, serving 50 buses an hour, through which Cycle Superhighway 2 disappears. When the bus stop's full, cyclists have to swing out into the traffic to avoid the big red obstruction, then nip back in again to join the new cycle lane. That's cyclists moving to the left while the bus will be pulling out to the right across precisely the same piece of road, which surely means a greatly increased risk, not an improvement.
New signals will be installed and conditions will also be improved for pedestrians and cyclists using the junction as unnecessary signs and street clutter will be removed.
That's a very cleverly worded sentence. Yes, new signals will be installed, but they'll only be for cyclists. Yes street clutter will be removed, but that won't help pedestrians cross the road. They'll see no safety improvements whatsoever, despite the millions spent on their two-wheeled brethren, despite this being a scandalously dangerous junction for those on foot to negotiate. Indeed, I'd expect an additional cycle lane and additional unsynchronised lights to make the roundabout even harder to cross, not easier.
As part of their considerations, TfL looked again into the possibility of installing signalised pedestrian crossings on Bow Roundabout. Initial traffic modelling showed that the knock-on disruption to all road users, including cyclists, would lead to significant additional road queues on the east and westbound approaches, as well as additional bus delays to the six bus routes that travel through the area and a significant increase in pollution due to vehicle idling.
Typical. Two months of intensive thought, and TfL still have no proposed solution to improve the Bow roundabout for those of us on foot. I'm not entirely surprised. This is a key East London road junction, and very hard for road traffic to avoid, so eight new push-button crossings might well make the entire local area seize up. But although it's now perfectly acceptable to give cyclists their own additional seconds at the traffic lights, it seems we pedestrians don't merit the same priority.
TfL will keep the junction under review following these cycling improvements and will continue to investigate potential designs to allow pedestrian crossings to be installed in the future.
So there is hope for a proper pedestrian upgrade one day. It'll take a radical idea, and a shedload of money, to come up with an acceptable solution. But I fear that the best opportunity in a generation has just slipped by, and pedestrian safety at the Bow Roundabout will slip off the radar again until one of us gets killed. Fingers crossed that this latest announcement means nobody on two wheels ever will again.

 Thursday, March 29, 2012

The end is nigh. Within a week, analogue televisions in the London area will start to lose channels, and within three weeks they'll have lost the lot. This is the long-awaited digital switchover, timed for 4th April and 18th April, as services are jiggled around allowing more of the electromagnetic spectrum to be flogged off. All of which is the perfect excuse for an analogue Armageddon artwork, in an unlikely spot opposite Madame Tussauds.

1001 TV Sets (End Piece) by David Hall
Ambika P3: 35 Marylebone Road, NW1 5LS
Open: Wed-Fri (11-7); Sat-Sun (12-6)
16 March - 22 April 2012

It's a very simple idea. Find just over a thousand television sets of the old cathode ray tube variety. Stick them in a dark basement behind an underground car park beneath the University of Westminster. Place them higgledy-piggledy across the concrete floor, all facing upwards. Dangle the power cables up to a single point on the ceiling. And switch them all on, approximately 20% on each of the major terrestrial channels. Work of art created, simple.

The scale of the installation is quite something. This is a large gallery space, precisely where you wouldn't expect one, with a glare of light erupting from the floor. The displays create an ever-changing mosaic of colour, according to what happens to be on the telly at the time. Adverts, idents, grinning quiz show hosts, the latest newsflash... could be anything. It's all a bit sci-fi, maybe a bit Frankenstein's laboratory, except that Bargain Hunt or Come Dine With Me could pop up at any time.

But the outstanding feature is the noise. A thousand TV sets, each with their volume turned up, create a considerable cacophony. In truth it's five separate soundstreams, one for each channel, and only occasionally is it possible to distinguish between them. The theme from Pointless, the four notes of the Intel jingle, sometimes something shines through. But most of the time this is an analogue Tower of Babel, broadcasting noise not meaning, for as long as it lasts. [video]

Next Wednesday, one fifth of the screens will go blank. All the TV sets tuned to BBC2 will lose their signal, as a hint to technologically incompetent households that they need to act soon or lose everything. And a fortnight later the entire room will go dark. Analogue signals from the Crystal Palace transmitter will be no more, and these unmodified sets will be incapable of broadcasting anything. Come back at the end of the installation's run and you'll face a gallery full of post-digital hiss and white noise.

I liked End Piece. It's a really clever physical embodiment of an unseen upgrade that will change broadcasting forever. David doesn't need to do anything now his screens are in place, he just sits tight and the authorities transform his artwork for him. I'm rather tempted to come back again, twice, to view the room at each stage of its terminal decline. All, most, none. These old sets aren't destined for a retune, they're heading for the scrap heap.

David's been making cathode-ray-related artworks since the 1970s, and some of these have been displayed in other rooms within the gallery complex. In one, seven screens show short films first shown on Scottish TV inbetween programmes, unannounced, because that's art. What folk in Arbroath made of a gushing tap, or a burning television, or a snatch of Princes Street, it's hard to judge. A much more fun work fills another room, where nine live cameras sit on top of nine screens, but linked in the "wrong" order like a disjoint hall of mirrors.

But these are mere sideshows, and it's End Piece you'll remember. A one-time one-off spectacle, best viewed three times.

Further reviews: Urban 75, Londonist, Telegraph

 Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Bow Roundabout update

Good news. Highway works at the Bow Roundabout are now substantially complete. The workmen have finished most of their digging and relaid all the paving stones across the centre of the roundabout, so hopefully they'll be off soon, job done. Bad news, the job they've been doing has nothing to do with cycle safety. They're from the gas company, and all they've been doing for the last month or so is digging up pipes and replacing them. In the process they've fenced off all the pedestrian spaces beneath the flyover, making it officially impossible to cross from one side to the other without a long detour. Lanes of traffic have been closed, creating queues of traffic... all sorts of hassle over and above the ordinary. But there's been absolutely no progress whatsoever towards making the junction safer for cyclists. Instead the gas board will leave the roundabout renewed and pristine, just in time for TfL to announce the cycling improvements they intend to make before the Olympics and dig it up again. Bike safety nirvana remains some months, and yet more roadworks, away.

When Cycle Superhighway 2 was introduced, one of the safety improvements at the Bow roundabout was the installation of some special mirrors. Two red Trixi mirrors affixed to the traffic lights, to give greater blindspot visibility of any cyclists waiting alongside. They weren't enough to stop two cycling deaths last autumn, one on each entry slip, but they did provide some element of additional protection. A couple of weeks ago a rogue vehicle mounted the pavement and knocked over the traffic signal outside McDonalds. Thankfully it missed Brian Dorling's ghost bike chained to the no entry sign alongside, but the jolt did cause all the glass in the Trixi mirror to fall out. The traffic signal's since been uprighted but the mirror's now useless, just a red ring on a post. You'd hope someone from TfL might have noticed and arranged a replacement, but there's no sign as yet. Cycle safety at the Bow Roundabout a priority? Doesn't feel like it.

Something else changed at the Bow Roundabout last summer, not just the appearance of a blue stripe on the road. The traffic lights were re-phased, utterly and completely, altering the ordering and the amount of time each slip road was on green. Now, for much of the day, traffic entering the roundabout from Bow Road gets only eight seconds to pass through before red reappears, which is causing noticeably longer tailbacks than before. Smoothing the traffic flow, I believe it's called, which is an improvement coming in from the A12 but much less good from the A11. I'm fearing more for the summer as a result. Once the Olympic Route Network embraces this roundabout, I can't see cars and buses along Bow Road going anywhere fast.

Someone's erected another billboard by the Bow Flyover. We've already got a row along the river and two elevated towers broadcasting sponsors' messages to the surrounding area. Now there's another erupting from the carwash on the Newham side, making a double decker advertorial barrier where previously there was sky. And it can't be a coincidence, but the two posters here are both for Olympic sponsors - BP up top and Visa down below. Four months to go, and there's already a block booking of corporate advertising around the perimeter of the Olympic Park. Expect this creative desert to extend until September.

On the eastern tip of the Bow Roundabout lies a yard full of Calor Gas. It's at one end of an industrial zone leading down to the District line, complete with warehouses, low rent businesses and a lonely nightclub. The lower end is destined to become Britain's first Tesco Town - originally due to open this month, but they're years behind schedule. And the upper end will become Bromley-by-Bow North - a new mixed-use zone of mostly flats, with a handful of commercial premises thrown in for good measure - and is already semi-demolished. A one-off exhibition was held yesterday to explain the new B-by-BN development to the local population. Those who turned up at the Miller's House viewed a cluster of information boards, chatted to various staff and discovered what improvements had been made to the masterplan since a similar exhibition last year. Fewer storeys in the flats for a start, plus a larger gated greenspace and a huge car showroom where the Calor Gas yard now stands. The apartment block architecture has been "simplified", a word used repeatedly, which I took to suggest it would be cheaper and less interesting. Meanwhile the existing towpath along the river thankfully survives, but the walk will now be past an endless succession of front doors. I expect the contractors would describe their event as a "consultation", but they weren't going overboard to seek any feedback. View the latest plans here, and expect them to get built no matter what anyone local thinks.

On the opposite side of the river, again rolling right up to the roundabout, an even bigger development is planned [photo]. This is Strand East, sponsored by no lesser company than IKEA, which is due to cover a former industrial zone with 1200 new homes. There'll be shops, but not, I understand, a Swedish furniture warehouse. There'll be 15-storey blocks, as well as a significant proportion of family-sized houses. There'll be a 40 foot wooden sculpture resembling a power station chimney, which workmen are midway through installing and should be up soon once they've put the two halves together [photo]. There'll be a proper restaurant (a Graysons, whoever the hell they are), in a neighbourhood where there's been nothing more exciting than egg and chips for years. And we should even expect a 350 bedroom Marriott hotel, which is the surest sign yet that the rundown area in which I live is being yanked headlong by the Olympics into yuppified gentrification. If you want to live in a characterless box, come to the Bow Roundabout in a few years time, and we'll have plenty for you to choose from.

 Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Will there be a third runway at Heathrow, and if so where will it go? The village of Sipson has long feared it might be up for heavy tarmacking, but murmurs about RAF Northolt are now resurfacing. This former WWI aerodrome near Ruislip is still used for military flying operations, but also a handful of private civil flights. Expand those, bring in the more executive side of Heathrow's traffic, and the issue of southeast capacity might possibly be solved. It'd be a bit cheeky, rebranding Northolt as Heathrow North when it's six miles distant via an as yet unbuilt train service. But this particular kite's suddenly being flown again, just in case it might be a solution, just in case London's residents and politicians could ever stomach it.

To understand the scenario a little better, I've paid my own visit to RAF Northolt. Not inside the site, obviously, because I'm not a serving serviceman or an oligarch with a private jet. But it's quite easy to walk around the perimeter, to get some idea of what's inside and how the airport interacts with its neighbours. Should this pie-in-the-sky idea ever go ahead, I don't think they're going to like it.

Ruislip Gardens is one of London's quietest, and ugliest tube stations. But this scrawny box on the outer reaches of the Central line could one day be rebranded Heathrow Terminal 6, if plans to redevelop RAF Northolt ever get off the ground. Rail connections are potentially excellent. Chiltern Railways could easily choose to stop here rather than passing straight through, and HS2 will one day pass directly beneath in a newly-proposed tunnel. Links to Heathrow may be poor, but links to central London could hardly be better.

The main entrance to RAF Northolt is across the road. It's not as scary as you might expect from an RAF base, with a small checkpoint beyond the gate and range of dull-looking buildings scattered beyond. The Armed Forces don't waste money on adornment, unless you count the wartime Hurricane installed as a gate guardian a couple of years back. The fence is considerably less substantial than that around the Olympic Park, but does its job, and there's a corrugated board at eye height to stop you gazing within too closely. I spotted a bunch of what looked like RAF cadets socialising inside, with one of their number walking alongside a soldier with a whopping great gun. You wouldn't mess.

Further down West End Road, the fence makes way for a hedge. A sign on the verge warns of low flying planes ahead, and "stop when lights show". That's because the road is extremely close to the end of the runway, so close that the red navigation lights are in the hedge on one side and in the adjacent field on the other. Pedestrians can see almost nothing through the thicket of hawthorn, but there's one short fence above which the runway can easily be seen across some barbed wire, perfectly aligned. If the Queen were flying out you could very easily stand underneath and watch, if only that were ever deemed acceptable.

Where the hedge ends there's a petrol station, which might have a starring role in some future Heathrow North disaster movie. There have been no serious crashes lately, but the local area has seen a number of planes land unexpectedly over the years. The most infamous of these was a Dakota struggling to take off just before Christmas 1946, weighed down by a fall of snow. It came to rest in the roof of a semi-detached house in South Ruislip, where it's said passengers escaped down the loft ladder and out through the front door. The house still stands, and couldn't look more ordinary if it tried, but at least the skies are mostly quiet... for now.

The southeastern corner of the airfield's at the Polish War Memorial on the busy A40. Walking along the southern perimeter's not encouraged, but I spotted a very definite pavement stretching off along the dual carriageway and decided to follow it. That was OK for the first ten minutes, past a small farm, a few private jets and the first of a line of hangars. But then the pavement abruptly stopped, switching to a narrower line of paving alongside the speeding eastbound traffic, and I had to follow that instead. Not the safest of places to walk, and not especially interesting either once another row of eye-level panels blocked the fence. It took a total of thirty minutes to reach the very far end of the runway, marked by the dinkiest line of low-level lampposts and another set of red landing lights. Were this the new Heathrow it would be easy enough to add a new off-slip for traffic here, and that'd be your road connection sorted.

The western edge of the airfield is very different. A patchwork of meadows rolls down to the Yeading Brook, the space filled by galloping horses and a few sparse sheep. At its heart is the Ickenham Marsh nature reserve, a reclusive woodland hideaway where the gnarled trees are a squirrel's playground. Should the runway at Northolt ever need to be extended and reoriented east to west, as would seem likely if the Heathrow pipedream wins through, this unassuming farmland would be ripe for compulsory purchase. I walked the Hillingdon Trail through the shallow valley, picturing the panorama once as verdant riverside, then again as tarmac and duty-free. It'll probably never come to the latter, but fear the transformation if plans ever take off.

 Monday, March 26, 2012

East Grinstead is a railway town. It wasn't always so, indeed it should no longer be, but the railways have left an indelible mark. The first came from the west, then the east, then the south, then the north, like iron crosshairs centred on the town, creating a railway hub at the heart of the High Weald. And then suddenly three of the lines faded away, sort of, so the only way in is now from London to the north. I won't drone on in detail about the history of these various lines. If you're interested you'll find copious detail here, here and here. But here's a bit about the four lines today, plus a lot more about the famous resident who killed them.

To the west: East Grinstead Railway (East Grinstead → Three Bridges)
Summary: The line that first connected East Grinstead to the rest of the rail network.
Opened: Monday 9 July 1855 (so pleased were the townspeople that they awarded themselves a public holiday)
Closed: Monday 2 January 1967 (making East Grinstead High Level station redundant, since demolished)
Today: The Worth Way, a 7-mile footpath/cycle track linking Crawley to East Grinstead (leaflet)

To the east: Groombridge and Tunbridge Wells Railway (East Grinstead → Tunbridge Wells)
Summary: An extension of the previous line.
Opened: Monday 1 October 1866 (but wasn't as popular as the company had hoped)
Closed: Monday 2 January 1967 (yes, it was all his fault)
Today: The Forest Way, a 10-mile footpath/cycle track linking East Grinstead to Groombridge (leaflet)

This eastern railway's particularly fascinating because of its links to Dr Beeching. His was the infamous report in 1963 which earmarked the line for closure. But this was also the railway he lived alongside, on the outskirts of East Grinstead, so he must have known precisely what he was doing when he culled it. Of the four lines into town, only one survived his axe, and that was the line to the north towards Croydon and London Victoria. Coincidentally, or not, this was also the line on which he was a first class season ticket holder, travelling up to the city each day in his role as the chairman of the British Railways Board. His decision left East Grinstead as the insignificant terminus of a single branch line. And it also left the tracks at the bottom of his garden strangely silent.

You can't see Richard Beeching's house from the Lewes Road, because the treeline is too thick. But Brockhurst is a magnificent nine-bedroomed dwelling, set in six landscaped acres with its very own lake. It was last up for sale in March last year, for a mere £3½m, should you fancy a covetous flick through the estate agent's brochure. It's precisely the sort of luxurious hideaway you'd expect to be owned by a man who also became deputy chairman of ICI, a director of Lloyds Bank and ended up as Baron Beeching of East Grinstead in the Lords. He lived at the bottom of his own private drive, the top of which is currently a blaze of blooming blossoming pink [photo]. The nearest former station was well over a mile away, so it's not like he had ever great cause to use this doomed branch line. But it must have nagged away at him, watching steam billowing from trains in the cutting at the bottom of the hill, carrying empty seats at great expense to nowhere special.

The line today has been given over to less expensive forms of transport such as cycling and walking. The Forest Way is a delightful path, and well frequented by those seeking recreation in the countryside of the High Weald. I passed joggers and ramblers and dog-walkers, and that was just in the first section as far as a stone bridge carrying a minor lane across the no-longer railway [different photo]. It could never have supported economic levels of traffic in the modern age, so perhaps it's for the best that the line at the bottom of Dr Beeching's garden has fallen silent.

But where this line passes through the centre of East Grinstead, it's anything but silent. This wasn't the centre of town when a cutting was driven through in the 1860s, but suburbia now spreads out relentlessly on either side. This half mile's no cycle path, it's been completely transformed by the council into a major road which allows traffic to cross East Grinstead without ever bothering the historic High Street. The council named it Beeching Way, in honour of the resident who delivered them the perfect by-pass (and apparently nearly called it Beeching Cut). Look down from one of the bridges and you'll see the cutting transformed by tarmac, and overwhelmed by the modern age's dominant form of four-wheeled transport [photo]. This is one railway line they'll never reopen, because the town's economy could never survive the hit.

To the south: Lewes and East Grinstead Railway (East Grinstead → Lewes)
Summary: An economically flawed attempt to create a new link to the south coast
Opened: Tuesday 1 August 1882 (rather later than the east-west railway)
Closed: Monday 17 March 1958 (this one disappeared early)
Today: The Bluebell Railway (part-reopened 1960)

It's now one of the finest preserved steam railways in the country, but I never made it as far as the Bluebell Railway on my visit because the line still stops at Kingscote, two miles from the edge of town. It's been like this for twenty years, but plans are well underway to restore the final miles of track to East Grinstead. This might have been straightforward had not the Imberhorne cutting been completely filled by a rubbish tip in the intervening years since closure, and it's costing them millions to remove it. You can read more here, watch a video here and donate some cash here. If all goes to plan the extension will open next March, and the Bluebell will finally be linked to the main rail network. That should do wonders for tourist numbers, and I suspect I'll be back then.

To the north: Croydon, Oxted & East Grinstead Railway (East Grinstead → Croydon)
Opened: Tuesday 10 March 1884 (the last to open, and the only line still operational)
Today: half-hourly trains to London Victoria

 Sunday, March 25, 2012

10 Things to do in East Grinstead
(like you'd ever bother, but if you did, these are ten things you could do there)

1) Get off the train: It's easy to get to, it's only in the top corner of West Sussex. It's less than an hour from London, and not overly expensive.
2) Admire the High Street: East Grinstead's High Street has "one of the longest continuous runs of 14th-century timber-framed buildings in England", which places it head and shoulders above, say, Milton Keynes. They form a wonderfully ragtag façade, all off-vertical and half-timbered, with a variety of mostly-independent shops and businesses still trading inside. At its widest point a separate parade of buildings runs along the centre - this is Middle Row. And at the eastern end is Sackville College, a former row of sandstone almshouses, and the very place where Good King Wenceslas was written in 1609.
3) Buy a book at the East Grinstead Bookshop: There are two bookshops in town, which isn't bad for somewhere with a population of 24000. One's a standard Waterstones, but the other is the independent East Grinstead Bookshop, and it's lovely. Located in Tudor House, a Tudor house on the historic High Street, it's a warren of rooms and galleries stuffed with (obviously) books. Downstairs the new stock, including one so fresh that it had only been on the shelf for 30 minutes when I bought it. Upstairs the second hand stock, in the "Mind your head" space, plus a timbered reading room with leather sofas. And a cafe by the door, because bookshops have cafes by the door these days rather than racks of bestsellers. Don't let the circa 2002 website put you off, every town should have an East Grinstead Bookshop.
4) Straddle the Greenwich Meridian: Ah yes, the zero line of longitude scores a direct hit on East Grinstead. Most of the town's in the western hemisphere, with the dividing line slicing down through the hospital, through a park and through the eastern housing estates. Every street the meridian crosses is marked with a special stone, installed in Millennium year, buried in the verge or on the edge of the footpath [photo]. Being a confirmed Meridian Marker Spotter, I couldn't rest until I'd found at least three of them, hidden down residential streets both ordinary and extremely desirable. The focal point (if a straight line can have such a thing) is the Council HQ at East Court. This 18th century Grade II listed building looks like it ought to have a coach and horses outside, but you're more likely to find a bride stepping out of a limo. The meridian just misses the building by a matter of feet, ditto the almost-well-named Meridian Hall alongside, grazing the rear terrace. There are two markers here - one a fairly standard plaque embedded in the ground [photo], the other a much more original lump of ironstone, all local and knobbly and begging to be touched [photo]. My "been there, straddled that" collection is suddenly a whole lot bigger.
5) Visit the East Grinstead Museum: The museum used to be at East Court, but the council recently funded a purpose-built blue shed nearer the town centre and transferred the collection there. It's not huge, but it is very well done, far better than most municipal attempts at curated display. There's old newsreel to watch, and old-ish artefacts to ponder, and a local history research room for those who want to take the whole thing seriously. Children are guided round by cartoon character Iggy the Iguanadon, who seems a perverse choice until you realise that this herbivore was first unearthed in a quarry nearby. The staff are ever so pleasant and helpful too. A shame then that the museum's odd location in a car park up a side road does nothing to lure passing trade inside.
6) Wave at Sir Patrick Moore's front window: Too late. He lived in the town for years, and took over the running of an observatory here at the tender age of fourteen. Somewhere up Lingfield Road, if you're interested. But he's in Selsey now.
7) Pop into St Swithun's Church: They do a bacon sandwich on a Saturday morning for £1.20. Beat that, London.
8) Walk the High Weald Landscape Trail: But probably only part of it, unless you've got a week to spare. Or walk a bit of the Sussex Border Path. I did a bit of each yesterday, to the south of the town, and had the footpaths mostly all to myself. I bet they'd have been very muddy earlier in the year, but the recent dry weather helped make progress easy. Brooks and fields, cows and catkins, hedgerows and tweeting birds. There were plenty of daffodils along the way, and even bluebells (in March!) in a couple of especially shaded spots. A great excuse to get out onto the Weald and enjoy the budding spring.
9) Praise L Ron Hubbard: The Lord High Chief of the Church of Scientologists, or whatever his official title was, used to live at Saint Hill to the south of the town. This 18th century country house has been through many owners in its time, including American socialite Drexel Biddle and the Maharajah of Jaipur. L Ron was here in the 1960s, opening up the house as an international training venue, or as some would have it brainwashing centre. Saint Hill Manor is still the HQ for the UK branch of the Church of Scientology, and they were holding a "birthday event" there yesterday for their blessed (and very dead) leader. I saw a heck of a lot of security cameras at the top of the drive, but the front gate was open and welcoming with a sign out front inviting the public inside for "on the hour" tours. I resisted.

10) Visit Standen: This Arts and Crafts mansion lies a couple of miles south of the town (hence my long walk). It's one of the National Trust's less ancient properties, all gables and chimneystacks, blessed with a beautiful Arts & Crafts interior courtesy of architect Philip Webb and his good friend William Morris. There's more Morris wallpaper here than I've ever seen elsewhere, mostly original, and a fine selection of period furniture circa 1925. Upstairs is a small exhibition devoted to Morris, Webb and De Morgan, in the Croxley Room no less (for which reason alone, I love the place). The house is located amid hillside gardens, not at their best at this time of year, but the flowerbeds are about to burst into bloom and the magnolia's magnificent. I was particularly taken by the woodland glade cut into the rock behind the house, with slippery steps ascending several metres to a bridge above the fishpond. Lovely stuff, if you're ever in the area, which of course you probably won't be.

 Saturday, March 24, 2012

Has it really been three months since I last revealed a selection of pleading emails that PR folk send me? Sorry, yes it has.
How are you? I hope you don't mind me getting in touch, my name is Lucinda and I work for <well known chocolate bar>. We have an exciting and unique event happening in London on <date> which I thought you might be interested in. You will receive VIP treatment and there will be lots of chocolatey goodies for you to enjoy.
Lucinda got no brand-love from me, despite her blatant freebie-dangling.
<Free London newspaper> are searching for writers and bloggers that have got something to say about the Olympics to contribute to our 2012 coverage. With the biggest sporting event to be held in London on the horizon we want to share your opinions and insights with <free London newspaper>’s large audience. Having looked high and low, reviewing blogs and searching out sport professionals, we found your website and would love it if you would like to get involved. Whilst you will not be paid for your posts...
And that's where you lost me, Emma. Me and almost everyone else you emailed. Try employing journalists to write your newspaper.
Good morning, Hope you're well.
I thought you would be interested for Diamond Geezer in how the streets of London have been transformed into a colourful fashion runway, with eight Twiggy-lookalike models, sporting on trend 60s inspired matching outfits in vibrant colours. Accompanying them were 8 '<paint company> dogs' marking a celebration of the brand being named a top 10 Superbrand in the annual release of the rankings, revealed today. Some lovely images attached and some further information below. Hope it's of interest!
Yours was probably the most vacuous non-event press release I've ever been sent, Laura, and that's saying something.
Dear Diamond Geezer,
I’m writing about the possibility of a review of a new book that we at <publishing company> are going to be publishing in March 2012.
Sorry Elizabeth, but I only ever review books that I've bought unprompted using my own money. And the same goes to the author who hoped that, after reviewing his first and second books, I might like a free copy of his third. Not a chance.
Hi there, I was wondering how much you charge for advertising on The Diamond Geezer? I’m looking for a sponsored text link to our client <pest control company> who get rid of pigeons!
My charge is infinite, Liam. I very much doubt you can afford that.
Dear <blank space>,
<Lager brand> here! The <European country> beer brand that has attitude (but doesn’t take itself too seriously - except when it comes to the quality of our beer, of course). We’re really excited about the launch of a new project we’re calling <Lager brand brand>: a new platform for promoting cool projects, inspiring ideas, awesome blogs, creative people, original art... almost anything...
Anyway, while scavenging around and ‘cool – hunting’, we came across your project and we liked it a lot! It fits within the scope of the <Lager brand brand> perfectly. If you feel your Geek Cakes could use some additional promotion, and you’d like people in the coolest spots and bars around the country to discover it, let us know and we’ll put you in the selection.
Because I'm well known for my Geek Cakes aren't I, Mieke? Please take note of PR Communication Rule 1: always check that your mass email spam is correctly personalised before pressing "Send".
Howdy there,
I'm just getting in touch to ask if you're in need of any freelance writers at Diamond Geezer - if so, it'd be an honor to help out and I would love to get involved with any plans should there be space for me... The good news is that I'd be able to offer my services at no charge; the only thing I would ask in return is that I'm able to include a link to a site within the article...
I wonder when you last read one of Izzy's link-laden blogposts without realising it? Not here you didn't.

Alex sent me a generic email request about a competition involving <TV company>, <major exhibition> and <famous gardener>. I declined, politely, which seemed to perplex her somewhat...
Many apologies – but you are listed on Gorkana, the media resource and contacts database. I will remove you from our internal list.
Gorkana, it turns out, are a kind of dating company for time-poor PR account managers, offering specialist contact details for a price. Allegedly their "blog and blogger profiles are rigorously researched" and include "top tips including specific PR opportunities and how they prefer to be approached". Alas, they haven't spotted I prefer not to be approached at all. I wouldn't waste your money on a Gorkana subscription if I were you.

So this message repeats. If you're a press officer or marketing guru with an advertorial email ready to send, do me a favour and don't bother. Because I DO NOT PROMOTE ANY STUFF YOU SEND TO ME. Please, stop wasting your time, and bin your promotional message before I do.

 Friday, March 23, 2012

(...yes, it's been open for several weeks, but have you been...)

Exhibition Road's changed, hasn't it? The road past the museums in South Kensington. London's first single-level shared space repartitioned streetscape. It's changed, almost out of all recognition. And X marks the spot. [photo]

There have been plans to change Exhibition Road for years. It's been on Kensington and Chelsea's "things to do" list since 2003, but only when the council's deputy leader switched jobs to TfL did the project get started. A grand exercise in debollardification and kerblessness, the repaving of Exhibition Road would make the street more welcoming to millions of non-drivers each year. Strip out the pavement and the tarmac, replace the entire surface with interlocking granite tiles, and trust road users to share the space without running each other over. Many said it wouldn't work, while others feared that disabled access would be compromised. But the newly-flat half-mile has been up and running for three months now, and would appear to be a success.

The top end of the re-paving begins opposite Hyde Park's Alexandra Gate, close to the Royal Albert Hall, where the characteristic X-pattern is clearly seen stretching off downhill [photo]. The change to traffic isn't too dramatic here - still one clearly defined lane in each direction and a very definite pavement on each side. A broad line of ribbed stone divides the two, in a contrasting colour so it stands out, and wide enough to ensure that no walking stick should miss it in passing. Emerging side roads are delimited instead by metal studs, again tactile and distinguishable, but no barrier to prams and wheelchairs as the old kerbstones were.

To remove clutter all the lampposts have been removed from their usual position on the pavement and realigned in a single line down the centre of the road. I say lampposts, but the replacements are more like IKEA spotlights on very tall spikes. Each rises from a cobbled circle, a bit like a tiny roundabout, and together they create a central line of traffic islands to dodge. There is an actual mini roundabout further down, at the junction with Prince Consort Road, although this is little more than a broad ring of contrasting tiles which traffic seems more than happy to drive straight across rather than officially round.

So far it's been pretty obvious where to walk and where to drive, even though the road surface is otherwise entirely level. But from the roundabout down to the V&A, two-way traffic has been shifted to the eastern half of the road only. This leaves plenty of space for parking, and also for wandering pedestrians on the institutionalised side of the street. It's good news for students emerging from Imperial College, or anyone wanting a seat on a bench in a location that would previously have got them run over. It also means that a bus stop has had to be repositioned between the lampposts, and a tiny stretch of kerb added so that passengers don't have to step up too far when a number 360 arrives.

There's more of the same past the Science and Natural History Museums. It makes perfect sense to provide additional circulation space for visitors entering and exiting these marvellous buildings, plus the repaving means you don't have to venture down into the lengthy subterranean passageway that eventually leads to the tube station. Traffic runs a bit slower than before, partly due to the new 20mph speed limit, but also because it's a bit disconcerting driving along a road marked with giant Xs rather than a central intermittent stripe [photo]. And it's good for bikes too, which isn't a bad thing when there are a couple of cycle hire docking stations neatly dovetailed into the shared space.

Cromwell Road used to be unpleasant for pedestrians to cross, corralled between guiderail into a two-stage switchback while Heathrow-bound traffic thundered past. Now it's a single span - more pleasant and more open, and much more likely to entice museum visitors across to the shops rather than down into the depths.

And it's the southernmost stretch of Exhibition Road which feels most different. A mix of traffic and pedestrians in two short bursts, incorporating part of the local one-way system, and yet still with some of the ambience of a French piazza. It helps to have restaurants and creperies alongside, with tables spilling out onto the pavement, and local residents wandering through trailing designer carrier bags. Ventilation shafts from the subway below double up as convenient platforms for sitting in the middle of the road, which takes many a tourist's fancy on a weekend afternoon. And somehow everybody seems to cope with sharing the space, as the bikes nip past the pedestrians while the cars crawl patiently behind [photo]. It wouldn't work in every street, nor would there be £29m to make it happen, but Exhibition Road's transformation appears to have brought about an effective and efficient co-existence.

 Thursday, March 22, 2012

An electoral communication from Boris Johnson arrived via the Royal Mail yesterday. The letter has my name and address on it, and Boris's smiling face, and he's signed it too. He kicks off by asking me to help him keep investing in Greater London's future. And, in his same opening sentence, he urges me to apply for a postal vote today.

There's plenty in Boris's letter about what he claims to have done for Londoners over the last four years, and what he hopes to do in the next four. And he's really very keen that I apply for a postal vote. He mentions it again in paragraph three, in bold type, asking me directly to consider applying to vote by post. And then he asks me again in paragraph six, and again in paragraphs nine and ten. He doesn't want me to miss my chance to vote, so he's enclosed a postal vote application form for me to complete, and a Freepost envelope for its return.

The application form has already been pre-printed with my name, address and postcode. I can also add my daytime and mobile numbers plus an email address, if I choose, but these are optional. Next I have to decide whether or not to switch over to postal voting permanently and whether I'd like my voting form to be sent to a different address. Finally I sign and date my application, and the job is done. Apart from branding, Boris's application form is identical to the official postal vote form available online at aboutmyvote.co.uk. Identical in every way except for the smallprint. The tiny smallprint, in grey text only one millimetre high, right down at the very bottom of the form.
How we use your data The data you provide will be retained by the Conservative Party and BackBoris2012 ("the data holders") in accordance with the provisions of the Data Provision Act 1998 and related legislation. By providing your data to us, you are consenting to the data holders making contact with you in the future by telephone, text or other means, even though you may be registered with the Telephone Preference Service. Your data will not be sold or given to anyone not connected to the Conservative Party. If you do not want the information you give to us to be used in this way, or for us to contact you, please indicate by ticking the relevant boxes: Post ¤ Email ¤ SMS ¤ Phone ¤
I had to squint hard to read this very small print, and my eyesight's fine. But I fear that a significant number of electors will either fail to read this part of the form or, more likely, fail to notice it exists. Which would be a shame, because this is the part of the form that stops Boris spamming you. The ticky boxes at the end are grey squares less than a millimetre in width, which makes them very hard to see, let alone fill in. But overlook this smallprint and you'll be receiving marketing material from the Conservative Party for life, via up to four different communication media.

I was also surprised by the address on the return envelope. I was expecting it to be Electoral Registration Officer, London Borough of Tower Hamlets, 6th Floor, Mulberry Place, Clove Crescent, London E14 2BG, because that's where any request for my postal vote should go. But no, instead I'd be returning my form to Boris Johnson, CCHQ, 30 Millbank, London SW1P 4DP. Some member of staff at Conservative Party HQ would then transcribe all my contact details, unless I've ticked those tiny boxes, before forwarding my form to the Electoral Registration Officer before the mid-April deadline. Adding a middleman like this isn't illegal, but it does feel somewhat dishonest.

My letter from Boris appears to be a nothing but a devious data-harvesting exercise masquerading as a helpful offer to facilitate my postal vote. No chance - I'll be attending my local polling station in person, as usual, on May 3rd. So my best response to this campaign, I reckon, is to seal the empty Freepost envelope and drop it into a postbox. Should you receive a similar invitation from Boris, I'd advise you to do the same.

 Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Famous places within 5 minutes walk of my house
Number 16 - Bow Porcelain Works

The most famous place within five minutes walk of my house today is the Bow Flyover, closely followed by the church in the middle of the road that many people mistakenly believe contains London's Bow Bells. But 250 years ago my corner of Bow was nationally famous for something completely different - the manufacture of porcelain. Nothing as high quality as Japanese or German porcelain, alas, this was rather more mass market material. But the processes developed here proved ground-breaking, with Bow reputedly the first location where soft-paste English porcelain was successfully manufactured. And still famous enough for Bow-sourced wares to be found in museums around the world, including shelves of the stuff at the V&A.

That'll be the sixth floor at the V&A, which is higher than most visitors ever know to ascend. Climb the stairs from Architecture or Glass and you'll discover the Ceramics galleries - 10 rooms linked across the entire front of the building that contain a world-beating collection of finely glazed art. And here, amongst beautiful Chinese vases and Middle Eastern plates, sit hundreds of figurines and items of crockery from the East End of London. The figurines were the Bow Porcelain factory's finest work, even if to modern eyes they resemble the sort of gaudy china advertised at the back of Sunday tabloid newspaper magazines. Petite statuettes in floral dresses, garish harlequins, twee babes draped in leafy garlands - the kind of porcelain that you might offer to dust for an elderly relative and then "accidentally" smash. But in the late 18th century these were some of the first must-have knick-knacks for Britain's emergent middle classes, and one of these on your mantlepiece signified fashion and good taste.

In a separate cabinet are some of the Bow Works' less upmarket pieces. Dishes, plates, a teapot, the god Neptune, a sauceboat, even a couple of parrots. The majority are hand-painted with bright enamels or an underglaze blue, the latter being the characteristic colour of much of the factory's output. Some look like the sort of tat you might find laid out on a table at a car boot sale, but you'd be extremely fortunate if you did. We take mass produced pottery and painted figurines for granted today, but the manufacture of such material was a heck of a lot more difficult back then. Shelf 4 of case A in Room 139 contains the most ordinary-looking wares of all (some cups, a cream jug, a saucer, etc), but these are also the most ground-breaking. Known as "A-marked" after the code letter on the base, these are the first recorded items created from Edward Heylyn and Thomas Frye's pioneering patent - the first in Britain to use china clay for making china.

In 1744, the year their patent for porcelain was taken out, Heylyn and Frye bought a property on the Bow side of the River Lea. Its precise location is unknown, but has been identified as "a substantial house with a stable and large garden near St Mary's church." The magic new ingredient was unaker, a form of kaolin imported from North America, then mixed with glass. A rare snuff box made to the "First Bow Patent" is up for auction at Bonhams next month with an estimated sale price of £30000-£50000, which seems amazing for a tiny object once manufactured on my doorstep.

By 1749 the porcelain manufacturing process had been much improved and the company acquired fresh premises on the Stratford side of the river. These were the Bow Porcelain Works, whose main factory was called New Canton as a nod to the Chinese imports against which the company was competing. The riverside location provided water, and by being located to the east of London no noxious fumes were blown across the capital by the prevailing winds. By 1760 more than 300 people were employed here, at least a quarter of them painters, making this one of the largest industrial premises of its day. The Bow Porcelain Works had competition from a similar company in Chelsea - slower to issue its patent but quicker to enter production, and with a much better reputation for quality. Both churned out figurines, vases and painted crockery to a voracious audience, but both fell into terminal decline in the early 1770s following the loss of key staff through ill health.

Quarter of a millennium later, no physical trace of the Bow Porcelain Works remains. The precise site lay along Stratford High Street, backing onto the Bow Back Rivers (and the Olympic Park) between Cooks Road and Marshgate Lane. A selection of 21st century apartment blocks have risen in their place, as appears to be the depressing destiny of so much land on the borders of the Olympic Park. On Bow's eastern works now stands Central House, a massive ugly Barratts development whose residents live snugly behind gated railings. And on Bow's western works are four interlinked blocks, part-gated, three named with a pleasing nod to the history they replace. Thomas Frye Court faces the river, John Wetherby Court (named after one of the company's original investors) faces Stratford High Street, and Edward Heylin Court runs perpendicular to them both. The inhabitants of these shoeboxes are unlikely to be the sort to decorate their surfaces with gaudy figurines. But they do at least represent the consumer mass market to which Bow Porcelain Works appealed, and which in some ways it helped to create.

Read more:
» Bow Porcelain in the V&A collection (195 items, individually described)
» Bow Porcelain in the Newham Heritage Collection (three pages)
» Bow Porcelain in the Museum of London's collection (179 items)
» London's role in the history of English Porcelain
» Bow Porcelain at British History Online
» Bow Porcelain Works today

 Tuesday, March 20, 2012

MEMO: To all diamond geezer shareholders


EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The government's NHS reforms will divert billions of pounds of public money into the private sector. This creates a unique window of opportunity, enabling newly-established companies to make a tidy profit by undertaking functions formerly commissioned using taxpayers' money. We, the shareholders of diamond geezer, must therefore seize this opportunity to set up our own medical services company. Privatised fund-siphoning is The New Way Forward for healthcare management, and as entrepreneurs we deserve our fair share of the spoils.

RATIONALE: In the new NHS, actual medical experience isn't important. What's required are project management skills, outsourcing experience, and a business head that can sniff out a fresh opportunity. In the new NHS, full patient recovery is no longer the desired outcome. Instead customers should embrace the new stakeholder paradigm, working towards a positive wellness differential enabled by target-driven consultancy. We can do that.

TARGET AUDIENCE: Rather than devote our new service company to something complex and surgical, we should instead aim for the NHS's low-hanging fruit. That's why we've chosen to make our money by treating fat people. There are millions of obese adults in Britain, and everything about them is getting bigger. Better still, it's incredibly difficult to accidentally kill overweight patients by offering them inadequate dietary advice, so there's minimal danger of ending up on the receiving end of major litigation. We must use the obesity timebomb to our own advantage, and squeeze our profits from patient expansion.

BRAND IDENTITY: Our new company is to be called Diamond Obesity Services Healthcare. I'm delighted to announce that we've persuaded Shirley Williams to join the Board, for credibility's sake.

BUSINESS CASE: Profit maximisation is assured, because fat patients are incredibly easy to treat. For our initial consultation all we do is email them a diet sheet and tell them to read it. This saves on hiring premises. Then we insist they go for a walk around their local park three times a week. This saves on holding clinics. Then we invite them to weigh themselves weekly and send us their data by text message. This saves on employing medical professionals. Should any patient accidentally become thinner, we fire off a "target achieved" email to the Healthcare Commissioning Board to claim our financial bonus. Otherwise we'll blame the patient for being obese in the first place, because this is accepted NHS policy. And this particular operational charade can be continued for months or even years, allowing us to accrue additional profit with every passing budgetary period.

RISK MITIGATION: Occasionally obese patients develop expensive complications, such as cardiac failure or diabetes. That won't be a problem for us, because we're only a low-level healthcare service operation with low-level contractual requirements. As soon as anything costly and awkward crops up we simply transfer the patient to another NHS-designated holding company, and their insurers take the financial hit instead of us. Rest assured, this is a genuine copper-bottomed no-risk investment opportunity.

SERVICE LEVEL AGREEMENT: Our company will offer discounted treatment to Liberal Democrats, just to say thankyou.

BOTTOM LINE: Legally it doesn't matter that we're a bunch of charlatans. All that's important is persuading GPs and hospitals to commission our services, because then we get their funding. So long as we're the cheaper option, why would any doctor managing their own budget send anyone to an expensive college-trained medical professional? Patient choice should be seen purely as a business opportunity, and a chance to redirect money away from overpaid public servants and into the coffers of opportunism.

NOTICE TO SHAREHOLDERS: On this momentous day for the NHS, please help us to bleed it dry by investing your money with us. Because private health insurance doesn't come cheap, and we think you might be needing some much sooner than you think.

 Monday, March 19, 2012

Network Rail have been announcing the big news for weeks. The new entrance to King's Cross station opens today. Except it actually opened yesterday. Never open in the rush hour when you can soft launch at the weekend.

www.flickr.com: my King's Cross gallery
There are 40 photographs altogether

A brand new semicircular atrium has been bolted onto the western side of the existing station building. It's vast, and tall, with a swirling lattice of white metal rising up from a central point and spreading out to form a roof. Actually 'roof' is underselling it, it's a fantastic structure. The eye of every traveller, and the camera lens of a substantial proportion, is drawn to look up at the ceiling and to capture the scene. And the funnel's not simply decoration. The concourse has been built directly over the tube station's northern ticket hall, so the lofty roof has to be supported solely from one side where the floor's less weak.

You'll see this redevelopment soon enough, the next time you board a train to Edinburgh, Leeds or Potters Bar. But the comment that most struck home when I wandered around yesterday came from an angry mother as she struggled to work out where on earth to go to catch her train. "It's like a bloody airport," she said. And I think she's right.

The new King's Cross station separates departures from arrivals, just like an airport. You arrive in one part, which happens to be the new western concourse, and you depart through another, which is the existing southern concourse. Network Rail's intended aim is to minimise contact between the two streams of passenger traffic as much as possible, and thus to keep throughflow separated. It'll take some getting used to, which is why several grinning youths were standing around yesterday with giant slip-on hands pointing the correct way into the station. They'll be out again today, at all the former entrances that are now exit only, until everybody's got the hang of things and adapted their behaviour appropriately. Stop thinking of King's Cross as a station and start thinking airport and it'll make a lot more sense.

Departures: Here they come, the people with luggage. Lumbering along the passageways from the tube platforms, following the signs like sheep until eventually they reach the northern ticket hall. One single escalator rises up in the far corner, which'll be switched to run downwards only when rush hour flow requires it. The main escalators are to the left, and these emerge in the centre of the ground floor shops because that's what commercial sensibility demands these days. Unless you plan your route carefully you're going to have to walk past the newsagent, the greetings card shop, the sandwich dispensary and the coffee merchant, rather than walking directly and swiftly to board your train. Just as passengers are forced to endure lengthy wandering at airports, sorry, King's Cross is much the same both below and above ground.

The way that rail pricing is going, increasing numbers of long-haul travellers are forced to buy timed tickets to keep costs down. This means arriving at the station well in advance of the scheduled departure time, because it's never worth the expense of being unintentionally late. King's Cross is therefore full of people hanging around for half an hour, an hour, maybe more, until their designated scheduled service is ready to board. The new western concourse is well equipped to keep these premature arrivals occupied in a way that the old concourse wasn't. As well as all those shops at the top of the escalators, there's also a pub squeezed into the gap between platforms 8 and 9. Close by is the wall with an embedded trolley where Harry Potter fans can pretend they're at Platform 9¾, next to an independent bookshop where JK Rowling's novels can be purchased. If you're quick you might grab one of the less-than-50 seats near the entrance to the ticket office. If not, and you need a sit down, you'll have to go upstairs.

The mezzanine level is accessed by escalators at either end of the concourse. Up here are the toilets (30p, since you ask) as well as a curve of restaurants ready to fill your waiting time. Lovers of Japanese, Mexican, Italian or world cuisine will find plenty of choice and a selection of tables to munch at. If it's British cuisine you want then there are pasties and M&S sandwiches downstairs, but only those spending more upstairs get the seats. A cunning design feature is the upper passageway which funnels mezzanine diners directly into the station once their train is ready. They don't need to head down through the main ticket barriers at the end of the platforms, they can emerge halfway along the platforms via a dedicated one-way footbridge and a series of descending escalators. Whether short-haul commuters will be tempted this way I doubt, but the gateline downstairs should cope well enough with rush hour traffic.

Arrivals: As at most airports, it's quicker to arrive than depart. Passengers on local trains arriving at platforms 9 to 11 have it easiest, which is a turnaround from how things used to be, as they can reach the escalators down to the tube fairly quickly. But all inter-city arrivals pull into the main train shed at platforms 0-8, and they've got a very set path to follow. There's no access to the footbridge, remember, so it's the usual long walk down the platform and then through the broad line of automatic ticket gates across the far end. Welcome to the arrivals concourse, which is what used to be the entire station, and which is destined to be completely demolished next year. It's really quiet here when no trains have arrived, and then suddenly the rush begins and everyone pours in and suddenly the cashier at WH Smith has something to do.

There are, for now, three ways out. Straight ahead takes you out onto the Euston Road where there are buses and an entrance to the tube. Gullible first-timers, however, are likely to be lured in by the roundel above the entrance to the right. This is the 2010 portal designed by sadists, with signs urging you to deviate several minutes out of your way via the northern ticket hall. No change there, alas. And thirdly there's a single exit out onto York Way, which from today becomes one-way only, which is bad news for locals living on the Islington side of King's Cross who now face a longer walk to get anywhere, their direct passage blocked. There will be, as of next year, just one way out, into the open air, onto the new public piazza. No shops, no protection from the rain, just ejected into Greater London and left to get on with it.

No doubt you'll be catching a flight from King's Cross Airport soon. Admire the new terminal building, it's rather special. But do be aware of all the ins and outs, and try not to spend too much time and money in duty-free on the way through.

Much better write-ups of the new station: London Reconnections, Ian Visits
Much better photos of the new station: plcd, Tom, RedArkady, Andrea, Adam

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