diamond geezer

 Friday, August 31, 2012

The Docklands Light Railway is 25 years old today. The Queen went for a ride back in July 1987, but it wasn't until 31st August that the general public came aboard. The London Docklands Development Corporation wasn't expecting their fledgling railway to be quite such a big hit. The first trains had only one carriage, the platforms were little more than elevated shelters, and there were only two short lines. Both ran to Island Gardens, the green line from Tower Gateway and the red line from Stratford, with both following former or existing railway lines for much of their length. Trains ran every seven and a half minutes during the day, which on the Stratford stretch is better than we sometimes get today. There was no Canary Wharf development at the time, except on the drawing board, so the tracks curved like a monorail across docks that still echoed East London's maritime trading past.

A series of three leaflets were produced at the time, which for 20p allowed DLR riders to look out of the window and enjoy "A Journey Through History". They're brief but lovely, and just a bit rail-geek-tastic. Head over to Harry's's website and you can print them out for a journey today, as well as explore several other leaflets from 1987, beyond and before. There are lots of photos of the original stations too - so modern, yet so dated. A few related websites you might enjoy include thetrams.co.uk, London Reconnection's pictorial celebration of the DLR at 25, Clive's Underground line guide and the original passenger timetable.

A heck of a lot's changed on the DLR since those early days. Six new extensions have been built, tracks have been realigned, stations moved and trains extended. So much change indeed that it's hard to find much evidence of 1987 out there at all. I've been out trying to uncover some, probably inexpertly, and I'm sure you'll tell me what I've got wrong or missed out. But I do know that the three stations which most resemble their original selves are on the Stratford branch, including my local station Bow Church. Let's have a look around the network for evidence...

Red line
Stratford: Terminus of the 25-year-old railway, but the too-small single platform was completely replaced by a grander structure in the summer of 2007.
Pudding Mill Lane: Not an original station. Was added, in a safeguarded loop, in January 1996. Scheduled for Crossrail-related rebirth next year.
Bow Church: A true original, although dressed up and extended since. The giant grey shelter above the entrance is 21st century, but the brick kiosk between the lift entrances is original. One of the large white globe lights remains, the other recently disappeared presumed smashed. It's the platforms that would feel most familiar to 25-year-old passengers, even though they've been extended to two carriages and then three since [photo]. The curved blue roof covering used to be commonplace at all DLR stations, now it's rare, although only the section nearest Bow Road is original [photo]. But for the best example of ye olde 1987, check at the bottom of the stairs at the entrance to the southbound platform. One staff telephone remains, securely locked inside a metal casing, with "For Docklands Light Railway employees only" on a red and blue background in the original font.
Devons Road: A short distance down the line, somewhere you'd never go unless you were local, another original. Designwise it's the twin of Bow Church, although the street level entrance is narrower and split level, and as yet unaugmented by an overarching shelter. Again the platform has blue curving shelters, which have survived because the station abuts the road so can only be extended southward [photo]. And yay, there's another original staff telephone, in an identical position, in case you have a key and want to ring in to some long unstaffed HQ.
Langdon Park: A recent addition, again in a safeguarded location, opened as recently as December 2007.
All Saints: The third of the 25-year-old survivors, and similar in style to the other two - brick kiosk, narrow stairs, curved blue shelters, ancient staff telephone. And one huge change since 1987 visible from the asymmetric platforms - the towers of Canary Wharf poking above the local housing estates. [photo]
Poplar: The hub of the DLR network, then as now, although the "Delta Junction" close by has since been replaced by a spaghetti junction of flyovers. Wholly restructured in 1994 to accommodate the Beckton extension.
West India Quay: An early rebuild, extended in 1993 from two short to four longer platforms.
Canary Wharf: Was due to open in 1987, but emerging plans for Docklands meant it was already being redesigned when the rest of the line opened, and the six platform trainshed didn't see service until 1991. Check the two fire escape staircases at each end of the station, because they're still labelled with 21-year-old signs reading "Push Bar To Open" and "Warning Automatic Railway Electrified Tracks". Not quite original, but a lovely echo of the past. [photo]
Heron Quays: Entirely rebuilt as part of the Lehman Brothers building between September 2001 and December 2002.
South Quay: Entirely rebuilt alongside a less bendy section of track in 2009, to accommodate three-carriage trains.
Crossharbour: Almost original, but not - it's been revamped.
Mudchute and Island Gardens: Nothing remains of the original DLR stations, built atop the viaduct of the old Millwall Extension Railway, although the viaduct remains through Millwall Park. Reopened at ground level/underground in 1999 when the DLR extension to Lewisham was completed.

Green line
Tower Gateway: The platforms suffered a complete rebuild recently to accommodate one long train rather than two shorter trains. But the domed entrance up via the escalators from Tower Hill, that's pretty much original, and still very of its time. [photo]
Bank: No no no, this was the first DLR extension in 1991 (which famously cost millions more than the entire original network four years earlier).
Shadwell, Limehouse and Westferry: Sort-of original, but each relentlessly extended and upgraded (including new canopies) so that 1980s features are very hard to find.
West India Quay to Island Gardens: as above

Some might argue that the DLR's 25th birthday, at the height of the Paralympics, is its finest hour. A 100%-accessible railway linking almost every important Paralympic venue... if it hadn't existed LOCOG might have needed to build it from scratch. The DLR recorded its highest ever ridership earlier this month - more than half a million passengers in one day - and made travelling to the Games an absolute breeze. Those of us who live round here sometimes take its simplicity and reliability for granted, whereas we should instead realise how lucky we are to have this child of the 80s on our doorstep.

As the DLR's silver jubilee passes, the only sad thing is that there are currently no serious plans to extend the network any further. With political and economic considerations stifling growth I guess we'll have to make do with excellence over aspiration... on the 25-year-old train that Londoners still can't resist sitting up front and pretending to drive.

 Thursday, August 30, 2012

I went to the Paralympics yesterday.
I went to the Opening Ceremony, no less.
You probably watched it on Channel 4.
But I saw all the bits you missed during the ad breaks.

Did an aerobatic plane really fly over the stadium at the start of the Opening Ceremony last night? I didn't see a thing from where I was sitting because of the roof, and because the entire show was optimised to be watched from the opposite direction where the Royal box was. Before the show started the warm-up man and an associate tried to teach us the sign language for "I am who I am", ready for the finale. That fell flat because half the audience wasn't really watching, and because one of the signs involves flinging your arms out to the side which wasn't possible without hitting someone.

The opening section was visually stunning as brollies twirled, choirs sang and Stephen Hawking narrated. From my seat the legendary Professor was a very long way away, and could have been anybody, so my best chance of seeing him was on an elevated screen part blocked by a large speaker. It's a similar view to that West Ham fans may one day have of their far distant goalkeeper, although the centre of the "pitch" was very clear. Others in the audience seemed to have been given a programme sheet on the way in, but for some reason I hadn't, so with no C4 commentary to guide me some of the underlying themes passed me by.

The parade was brilliantly organised, with volunteers opening and closing human gates to siphon athletes into their correct area of seating. But it went on a bit, didn't it? You lot at home could switch to another channel, or go the fridge for a beer, whereas we were stuck in our seats without a commentary (or going to the food stalls out the back for an expensive beer). I could see the Royal Box from where I was sitting, and someone brought them drinks halfway through. They all watched with a professional interest throughout, especially the Queen, although Prince Edward was the only one who'd thought to bring binoculars.

Eventually, after some final Z's, our British athletes entered the stadium and the crowd erupted in partisan salute. At long last the main section of the ceremony could commence. An inspired choice to focus on books and astronomy, I thought, even if the simultaneous "apple crunch" for Isaac Newton went audibly unnoticed. One particular spotlight appeared to be aimed directly at the seats around where I was sitting, which made squinting to see what was happening on stage unpleasantly awkward. But a most impressive display of imagination and inspiration, even if I suspect it'll make more sense when I watch back the TV recording later.

Even though we all knew what the cauldron would do, it was still a magical moment to watch the flames spread and the arms rise to a blazing crescendo. Then alas, during the firework finale, half the audience were on their feet attempting to leave the stadium before their last train. Extremely disrespectful, given that the entire show was coming to a celebratory peak, and we were about to have to put our sign language "skills" into practice. But I guess that's what happens when a late-starting show runs late, and when nobody's bothered to inform the audience that the last trains are running well after 1am.

Here are 14 photos taken from the cheap seats.

 Wednesday, August 29, 2012

London 2012  Paralympics 2012
  And now for part two

Here we go again. The second largest sporting event in the world starts today, a few weeks after the first, just down the bottom of my road. Anyone can stage a World Cup, but the Paralympics are even bigger and only London can sell them out.

Having said that, there's not the same buzz, is there? Maybe that's because the Olympics are a tough act to follow. Maybe that's because these Games don't come with a familiar back story. Maybe that's because I'm not watching Channel 4 in the same way as I watch BBC1. Maybe that's because Sainsbury's can't bombard the media with adverts the same way that all those Olympic sponsors could. Maybe that's because there's no sense of danger that these Games might fail horribly, because the last lot so patently succeeded. Whatever the reason, the Paralympics are destined to be a glorious but subsidiary peak in Britain's golden sporting summer.

You'd barely spot the difference round my way unless you were looking carefully. Most of the banners that used to have five rings on them now have three agitos, be that on station platforms or hanging by the roadside. The extra staff who used to shepherd everyone onto public transport haven't yet materialised. The stream of double decker buses that clogged the streets have been replaced by single deckers, which makes perfect sense if you think about it, just rather fewer of them. The gated housing at Bow Quarter no longer has banks of missiles perched on the roof. And all the Samsung adverts draped from every lamppost along Bow Road have now been taken down. So it's not all bad.

And then there's the Torch Relay. This is currently slinking through Metroland under cover of darkness, before a brief under-publicised swirl through central and East London before nightfall [live video]. It'll be great out there today, and inspirational, but again not quite the same.
24 hour Torch Relay: 20:00 Stoke Mandeville, then Bucks, then Herts; 03.30 Harrow, 05.52 Brent/Barnet, 08.18 Westminster/Camden, 11.44 South Bank, 12.22 Westminster/City, 13.19 Southwark, 15.22 Lewisham/Greenwich, 16.15 Tower Hamlets, 18.09 Hackney/Waltham Forest, 20.18 B&D/Newham, 22.00ish That Cauldron Again

I had my own experience of Paralympic underwhelmingness at the weekend. I went to the Havering Show in Hornchurch, which is an annual two-day borough shindig over the August Bank Holiday. One highlight of Sunday's events on the main stage was supposed to be the appearance of the Paralympic Flame. It was written into the programme as "Havering's Flame Celebration", and an expectant crowd had gathered on the hay bales as three o'clock rolled round. Bouncy songstress Lydia White finished her laptop karaoke and left the stage, to be replaced by the day's MC who resembled Mike Read, Runaround era. He read out some Paralympic facts off a sheet before introducing the Revellers, a group of local children with learning difficulties and disabilities. They danced for us, in a charmingly semi-choreographed way, both collectively and individually. We applauded lots. And they were the only good bit.

The MC returned and introduced Michael White, the leader of Havering Council, who looked simultaneously relaxed and embarrassed to be here. The pair bantered, limply, before inviting onto the stage Peter Bruce, the President of Havering Sports Council. He was carrying a "splinter" of the Paralympic Flame, in a tiny lantern, which he waved briefly to muted applause. Some bland chat followed, and the trio exhorted the crowd to have their photo taken with the flame down at the tent by the classic cars. The MC then plugged the remainder of the afternoon's entertainment (woo, the Merseybeats!) before launching into a Beatles song and failing to get the leader of the council to join in, as the lantern vanished swiftly out the back of the stage. And that was it - less a Flame Celebration, more an underwhelming interlude between musical tribute acts. There was no sense of pride, no sense of occasion, nothing like the emotion that would have been felt for the 'proper' Olympic flame.

They're going to be great, the Paralympics. They may even be transformative of the way the UK views the abilities of those with disabilities. They'll have an impossible job following the euphoria of what came before, indeed there's a risk they'll look like some sort of anti-climax. But when the cauldron's lit at the Opening Ceremony tonight, and the spotlight shines on East London once more, prepare for something refreshingly wonderfully different.

 Tuesday, August 28, 2012

It being a bank holiday yesterday, I went to the Sussex seaside.
I went to as much of it as possible, nine different resorts in all.
I took the train, and walked from each station to the seafront and back.
It was all a bit knackering, and a bit bonkers, but a grand day out.

Here's a tweet, and a link to a photograph, from each resort.
(but four extra photos from Bexhill, because, woo, dangly bus!)

Hastings: red flag flying, blue sky now clouded over, beach mostly empty, pier bereft #sussexseaside [photo]

St Leonards: mostly closed, one metal detector on the pebbles, one party of French teens, brief patch of sun, red flag flying #sussexseaside [photo]

Bexhill: sunshine, strolling, coffeetime for the retired, a bus dangles precipitously off the roof of the De La Warr #sussexseaside [photo] [photo] [photo] [photo] [photo]

Eastbourne: short sleeves, bags of town centre shopping, grey rinse, seagulls on the Grand Parade, art at the Towner #sussexseaside [photo]

Newhaven: ferry-free docks, silence at the ghost station, tidal silt, industrial hum, kites aloft on the shingle #sussexseaside [photo]

Brighton: the town's buzzing, stripey deckchairs and gelato on the beach, slots on the pier, preening teens, dads in sandals #sussexseaside [photo]

Shoreham: a first shower of rain, the smell of seaweed, kitesurfers eye the waves, shops shut, houseboats beached at low tide #sussexseaside [photo]

Worthing: an expanse of damp pebbles, afternoon tea on the pier, extra vinegar on whelks, nan & mum & the kids, no tan today #sussexseaside [photo]

Littlehampton: a heavy shower, yachts and cruisers, Look & Sea, dipping lines in the harbour and storing crabs in a bucket #sussexseaside [photo]

Bognor Regis: postponed due to inclement weather, poor rail connections and tired feet. But next time... #sussexseaside

I would tell you more, but I only spent about 40 minutes in each location, which is long enough to get a flavour but not long enough to enjoy in depth. Plus I've been to most of these places before, and told you about them then. What was different this time was how I got there, which was using a rail rover ticket.

All of these resorts, and several more besides, are served by the Southern railway network. And they do a special one day e-ticket called the All Network Downlander, which allows you to use any Southern train for the princely cost of £12.50. You have to buy it at least two days in advance, and it's only valid off-peak (that's after 10am on weekdays, or any time weekends and bank holidays). You have to print it out yourself, and you have to carry round some ID like a driving licence or utility bill to prove you're not a fraud. I had to wave my print-out a lot yesterday, especially to get through ticket gates, but then I did travel on 12 different trains to get about from one end of Sussex to the other. My journey would have cost a fortune on umpteen separate tickets, so the rail rover is an absolute bargain. For those of you who live along or near the Sussex coast there's an even cheaper version, the South Coast Downlander, which costs only £10 so long as you stray no further north than Haywards Heath. You don't have to do the madcap 12 hour bank holiday marathon, but if you fancy a varied day out, bear this bargain in mind.

 Monday, August 27, 2012

The London Loop
[section 23]
Upminster Bridge to Rainham (4 miles)

Almost a fifth of the London Loop falls within the London borough of Havering, to the northeast of the capital. Much of this follows the River Ingrebourne, a relatively unknown 27 mile tributary of the Thames that runs in a dogleg down from Brentwood. Section 23 shadows the river from Upminster down to Rainham, along dead easy paths that even a family with a pushchair could manage. A pleasant stroll.

Upminster Bridge is one of the quietest stations on the Underground network, which helps the swastika on the floor of the ticket hall to go relatively unnoticed [photo]. A splendid station, locally listed, with a hint of Holden and a proper K6 phone box by the entrance [photo]. The "Bridge" in question is a brief span across the Ingrebourne, here nothing but a concrete channel, situated a few hundred yards downhill from the Upminster Windmill. The mill and the single row of cottages by the bridge are almost the only nod to a history before the onslaught of suburbia. Turn right and you'll find the home of Hornchurch FC, otherwise known as the Urchins, who are playing a local-ish derby against Billericay Town this afternoon [photo]. I'm not sure who writes their signs, but "Look Out For Pedestrains Crossing Infront Of Gates" suggests a little more Learning and Development is required.

Past the turnstiles and the car park, the Loop meets up with the Ingrebourne proper - still semi-artificially compared with what's yet to come. It's quiet along here, or would be if the occasional pair of local youth weren't standing around watching tinny R&B videos on their smartphones. At Hacton Bridge the valley opens out a little, or rather the houses draw back. This is the last road to cross the Ingrebourne for the next 2½ miles, such is the power of a river in impeding development and traffic flow. Here be teasels, and lads fishing, and a variety of free-to-use exercise equipment, and a snaking channel winding south between overgrown banks. [photo]

The path beside the Ingrebourne is tarmacked throughout, even when the river's otherwise well out in the open, giving the feeling that the council's never very far away. Only once was there any mud to tiptoe around, this despite a torrential downpour or two the day before. St George's Hospital makes a brief intrusion above the trees, or at least its chimney does, while acres of rolling fields are almost visible to the east. A bit of a birding hotspot, so I'm told. All is safely green and pleasant, although only rarely does the river flow up close to the footpath, and only twice is there a footbridge allowing a proper look down.

Almost imperceptibly, the Loop enters Hornchurch Country Park. This is an area of former gravel pits, relandscaped and recultivated to create a lovely afternoon out. Before that it was RAF Hornchurch, an important wartime airfield, as the Spitfire-shaped climbing frame in the adventure playground gives hint. Both Max Bygraves and Ronnie Corbett were stationed here, as well as (thankfully) hundreds more talented pilots who helped save the skies during the Battle of Britain. The only other reminder is the occasional concrete pillbox nestled off the path, otherwise you might imagine these grassy meadows have been here forever. Ideal for cycling, I thought, as did a family attempting to teach their daughter to ride a bike by encouraging her to freewheel down a brief slope.

At a flooded gravel pit (bring bread for the ducks) the path veers away from the river and stays away. The big Essex hideaway is Albyns, its asymmetric farmhouse formerly a medieval manor. The building's been lovingly maintained, although I'm sure the giant WW2-style searchlight in the front garden isn't a period feature. Then just past the farmhouse turn left through a gap beside the gate. It's not signed - indeed this entire section of the Loop has several waymarking gaps, which I'd humbly suggest someone needs to sort out soon.

It wasn't possible to walk across this meadow until a couple of years ago, with the Loop forced to make a tedious detour through South Hornchurch estates. Since then another former landfill site has been transformed, this one on behalf of the Forestry Commission, to create a brand new not-yet-forested open space. It's glorious at the moment, a riot of late summer wild flowers across extensive untrodden slopes. If you own a mountain bike, bring it here. A one-way circuit of rocky paths has been laid to suit a variety of abilities, with a choice of straighter or wigglier on the steady descent. Most impressive, and free, and thus far only lightly used.

This artificial mound is Ingrebourne Hill. It's barely a hillock - the summit's only 22 metres high, but round here 22 metres is still significantly higher than almost anywhere else so there's a fantastic view. Stand on the stone pyramid where three paths meet and enjoy the 300° panorama from far beyond the QE2 Bridge round through Bexley and Dagenham to Romford and Brentwood. In particular, at least ten miles off to the west, the skyline of central London is clearer than you'd ever expect [photo]. Docklands, the Shard, the Gherkin, behind a foreground of pylons, wind turbines and Bexley the incinerator. I could have stood up here soaking in the view for ages - probably did to be honest - attempting to identify City sights and suburban spires [photo]. But be warned that the Loop doesn't go up the hill, which is a lost opportunity, you'll need to divert appropriately.

Exiting past a lake and an artwork that looks like landing lights [photo], brings the Loop sharply back to reality. The edge of an estate... a tropical fish showroom... a builders merchant... an orange-fronted pub hosting a Psychic Night... a stilted arterial road... a mega Tesco. It's all very Essex, even though geographically it isn't quite. But walk a little further and Rainham dramatically improves. The heart of the town is proper old, from the 12th century church to the NT-owned merchant's house, so long as you don't walk too far away from the clocktower war memorial and destroy the illusion [photo]. And the station's just round the corner, beyond which the marshes spread all the way down to the Thames. But that's Section 24, the utterly atypical end of the Loop, and a completely different experience.

» London Loop section 23: official map and directions; map
» Who else has walked it? Stephen, Oatsy, Tim, Mark, Tetramesh, Richard
» See also section 3, section 4, section 5, section 9, section 15, section 17, section 20, section 24

 Sunday, August 26, 2012

Mudchute sounds like it ought to be the ugliest part of Tower Hamlets. Go back to the end of the 19th century and it was. A 30 acre spoil heap used for dumping silt dredged from the nearby Millwall Docks. The mud was fed through a pipe running under East Ferry Road and slid into ponds contained within a rim of earthen banks. Few lived on the Isle of Dogs back then, so nobody minded, and the pollution continued until just before the first World War. Inadvertently an area of fertile, hilly land was created, which in 1915 was turned over to allotments. Eyeing up the area in the mid 1970s, the GLC earmarked the Mudchute for a high rise housing estate, which it would be today had not the locals kicked up merry hell. A heartfelt campaign led to the creation of a public park, which survives to this day as the biggest inner-city farm in Europe.

Mudchute City Farm is terribly easy to miss if you don't know it's there. The bottom end of the Isle of Dogs isn't somewhere that many Londoners go, unless it's nipping by on the DLR, and you can't see it from that. Mudchute's the nearest station, obviously, or you can wander in from the back of the car park at the Asda supermarket. It's like stepping from the town to the countryside, quite unnervingly so, as a large undulating meadow stretches out before you. Sometimes there are livestock roaming free within, although currently not, with a herd of sheep penned up one end into a sloping corral. What's most weird is the combination of farmyard animals in the foreground and Canary Wharf rising to the rear, which allows for the taking of entirely contradictory photos.

It's a proper farm too, specialising in minor mammals and rare breeds. Sure there are rabbits and chickens and geese, like a normal city farm. But follow your nose to the central ring and you'll find pygmy goats, Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs and ooh, blimey, llamas and alpacas. If you're lucky and the latter wander up to the fence you can have a proper close encounter, but read the safety notice first and mind they don't spit. There are lots of such notices scattered all about, most of which boil down to "oi, you, now wash your hands". That's because this is a very hands-on farm, although they'd prefer children fed the animals with appropriately sourced feed and not something from their lunchbox.

Head to one corner of the site to find the heart of the farm. The stables, where horses named Poppy and Nokia peer out over two rows of half-doors. A small arena where local children take proper riding lessons ("come on, hold yourself upright Sarah"). Pets Corner, which takes the view that ferrets and chipmunks are fair game too. The farm shop, stocked with child-sized treats rather than the usual agricultural produce. The Mudchute Kitchen, whose cuisine is several steps above your normal jacket potato and paninis, and which was very well frequented yesterday. And of course the hand-washing facilities, because you have to.

But it's the extent of the site that most impresses (if you're visiting without children, that is). A "nature trail" runs round the edge of a water meadow (although if you head to the very end you'll have to clamber over a fence to escape). An ack-ack gun has been restored for clambering as a reminder of the area's important wartime role. And a network of paths encircle the perimeter, some following the original banks used to keep the original mud in place. I spent five minutes following one semi-overgrown path overlooking Millwall Park, brushing through snails and butterflies and very damp grass, trying very hard not to slip down the slope into a patch of nettles. It beggared belief that this was Tower Hamlets... more Hamlets really. But then Mudchute City Farm's not your normal city farm, it's a level up.

 Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Paralympic Flame came to London yesterday.

But London 2012's second sports festival is doing things differently. The flame was lit not at Olympia but atop four national peaks. The torch is of a different design to that from the Olympics. The Torch Relay is shorter, and bittier, and less well publicised. The flame didn't appear at Tower Bridge, nor at City Hall, but in Trafalgar Square. And the cauldron got lit not at 8pm when people might have been around, but at eight o'clock in the morning.

No, I wasn't there either. I see Boris and the Prime Minister made it, and Seb, and an inspirational marathon walker, and that Mandeville too, of course. There was a lot going on in front of the National Gallery, from what I've since seen, with a variety of Paralympic athletes showcasing their sport. But the best view was very much for the media, with those members of the public who'd turned up relegated behind two rows of barriers at the very bottom of the steps. Never mind, I thought, I'll pop down and see the cauldron after work.

As anticipated, the five giant rings on the front of the National Gallery have been replaced by three curved crescents. They've switched to agitos on Tower Bridge too, and inside the Olympic Park, and even the volunteers working at Paralympic venues now have freshly-branded jackets. Trafalgar Square was certainly busy, it being late afternoon, as I looked around the piazza for sight of flame. Perhaps on the steps up to the gallery, but not there. Perhaps beneath the golden rocking horse statue, but that was only the usual crowd. Perhaps down in the square proper near the Paralympic countdown clock, but no, they were just people taking photos of five days to go. I worked it out eventually... no cauldron, no flame. Ah well.

Like I said, the Paralympic Torch Relay's a very different beast. Yesterday it made a visit to the Royal Opera House, paraded briefly through to Notting Hill, nipped into Parliament and took a two-stop trip on the DLR. A series of unrelated photo opportunities, not quite the public show of affection afforded for the Olympics earlier in the summer, and nothing permanently visible. Having said that, there was an evening celebration last night at Northala Fields, an artificially-conical park near Northolt. An inspired choice of location I thought, with level access and ramps throughout, and far more in the spirit of true inclusivity. Watch out for the 24 hour Torch Relay from Stoke Mandeville next Wednesday, unless you're asleep when it passes (Berkhamsted midnight, Watford 1am, Stanmore 4am, Neasden 6:30am).

Meanwhile back in Trafalgar Square, where nothing special was happening, I couldn't help noticing that the place was overstaffed. A team of London Ambassadors were based in a pop-up visitor centre near the lifts, and several purple- and pink-jacketed volunteers were standing around hoping to assist passers-by with information. Some were doing this successfully, others were standing round waiting and having a natter. That's a lot of Ambassadors, I thought, and then I spotted more (and more) milling around down in the square proper. I counted at least thirty in total, and that was almost certainly an underestimate, smiling and chatting and handing out maps. And this in a London square at non-peak time on a weekday, a quite excessive over-population of assistance. No great money was wasted - they're all volunteers, remember - but someone has vastly over-estimated how large a tourist hit squad is required.
» Jane was a London Ambassador in Trafalgar Square during the Olympics. She has praise for the camaraderie of the team, but also strong feelings regarding the number of volunteers in the Square and how some behaved. She also makes the excellent point that London needs Ambassadors in key locations all year round, just not so many, and that she'd be up for volunteering. How about you?

Anyway, watch out for the Paralympic flame in London and around the country, should you be fortunate enough to be in the same place as its next media opportunity. And watch out too for the last batch of Paralympic tickets to be up for grabs, now that you know it's something you want to be part of. I did urge you to get some fifteen months, twelve months, eleven months, eight months, three months ago. If you didn't, best hurry.

 Friday, August 24, 2012

Visit England recently released their annual list of England's most visited tourist attractions, which is always a fascinating barrel-load of data. Where's popular, who's getting busier, who's losing out? A few caveats. It's too early to have statistics for 2012, this data is for 2011. The figures come from a questionnaire, and the numbers aren't checked. The survey these numbers come from has a response rate of only 27%. The list is unverified and incomplete. There's no London Eye, for example, no Madame Tussaud's, no Buckingham Palace. And several attractions took part last year but not this - for example the Whitechapel Gallery and London Transport Museum no longer appear. But it's still very interesting to see roughly who's getting how many visitors, so I've rejigged all the statistics into the grouped list below.
The list is complete down to 50,000, but I've omitted some attractions below that. In each category, the attractions appear in descending order. I've used arrows for attractions switching category or with a greater than 10% change. I've used two arrows where the change is 30% or more.
Visitor attractions, London - number of visitors, 2011

Over 5 million visitors: British Museum, ↑National Gallery
2-5 million: Natural History Museum, ↓Tate Modern, Science Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum, Tower of London
1-2 million: ↑Westminster Abbey, National Portrait Gallery, St Paul's Cathedral, ↑Old Royal Naval College, ↓Tate Britain, British Library, Kew Gardens, London Zoo, ↑Houses of Parliament

500,000-1 million: ↓Imperial War Museum, ↓↓Royal Observatory Greenwich, National Maritime Museum, Hampton Court, ↓Horniman Museum and Gardens
200,000-500,000: Tower Bridge Exhibition, Museum of London, ↑Museum of Childhood, Cabinet War Rooms, RAF Museum, Army Museum, HMS Belfast, Monument, ↓Kensington Palace
100,000-200,000: ↑Museum in Docklands, Southwark Cathedral, ↑Stamford Bridge Tour, Kenwood House, ↑Ham House, Geffrye Museum

50,000-100,000: Fusiliers Museum, Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum, Household Cavalry Museum, Lauderdale House, Eltham Palace
20,000-50,000: Osterley Park House, Chislehurst Caves, ↓Down House, Apsley House, Wellington Arch, Cuming Museum, Old Operating Theatre, ↑Jewel Tower, Cartoon Museum, ↑Red House, Twickenham Stadium, Spitalfields City Farm, ↑Fenton House
10,000-20,000: ↓↓Handel House, Burgh House, ↓Chiswick House, ↑Kew Bridge Steam Museum, ↑Wesley's Chapel, Sutton House, ↑2 Willow Road

5000-10000: Richmond Museum, ↑↑Kelmscott House, Carlyle's House
1000-5000: ↑Barnet Museum, St Bartholomew's Museum, Twickenham Museum, ↓↓Marble Hill House, ↑College of Arms, Wimbledon Museum
less than 1000: ↑Roman Bath, Little Holland House, ↓↓Rainham Hall, ↑↑Kneller Hall, ↓Carew Manor, ↓Carshalton House
The British Museum retains its place at the top of the pile, while the Tate Modern is replaced at number two by the National Gallery. The Tower of London is the most popular paid-for attraction on the list. Westminster Abbey's popularity was no doubt boosted by 2011's Royal Wedding. The Royal Observatory in Greenwich lost 44% of its visitors by choosing to charge an entrance fee, whereas the Museum of Docklands gained 22% by going free.

But yes, surely it's the bottom of the list that's most fascinating. Six London attractions attracted less than a thousand visitors last year, with one not even managing to hit a hundred. Only 32 souls visited Carshalton House, but then it did only open once (over the late May bank holiday). Two of the others are also in the London borough of Sutton, that's Little Holland House (open this weekend) and Carew Manor (opens four times a year). The Roman Bath is a tiny room round the back of Aldwych station, open only by appointment. Kneller Hall is home to the museum of the Royal Military School of Music, but only opens before concerts and you've missed all those this year. And Rainham Hall in Havering is the National Trust's least visited London property, although I'm one of the 724 who went along last year and I thought it was lovely.

If you fancy digging around in the data there's a spreadsheet to download, and then you can explore figures across the whole of England. The top attraction outside London is Flamingo Land Theme Park and Zoo, honest, which nips in at number 14. Merseyside Maritime Museum turns out to be more popular than the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Cadbury World is more popular than Hampton Court Palace. Ye Olde Pork Pie Shoppe in Melton Mowbray is more popular than the Museum in Docklands. And at the very bottom of the heap is Stokescroft, supposedly a historic house in Gloucestershire, which managed only five visitors in 2011. Given that I can find no evidence on the internet that this building even exists, perhaps that's not surprising. But go on, why not visit one of England's other fine attractions this weekend and help bump them up the 2012 rankings?

 Thursday, August 23, 2012

I am a terrible hoarder of emails.

Or rather, I'm much too good at it.

I keep emails far longer than I should. I pile them up. I file them away. Spam emails, obviously, I delete. But the rest sit around, accumulate, fill folders. Because I am in fact a bloody marvellous hoarder of emails, far beyond the point of normality.

It's not my inbox that's the problem. When emails arrive requiring action, I'm usually pretty good at dealing with them. A reply dashed off, an attachment saved, a conversation continued... and then I file the email away. I've got my work inbox down to 76 emails, mostly live issues requiring further action, or important emails containing project information I daren't hide away elsewhere. [You know how awful it is when you urgently need some crucial fact three months after you were sent it but can't remember where you filed it. So I leave this important stuff in my inbox so it's always there, until eventually I decide its time has come and add it to the archive.] You may not be very impressed by an inbox containing 76 emails, but believe me, that's the good bit.

When you stay in the same job for a decade, it's very easy to accumulate electronic mail. I still have a copy of the first email our team manager sent me, on my first day, explaining how some important work-based process worked. That email's now as redundant as the system it referenced, but I've kept it all the same because I'm a completist like that. Likewise I've still got the nine-year-old client complaint email, the four-year-old office relocation email, and thousands of replies to a reply to a reply about nothing much. They all get stashed away, in the appropriate folder for whatever project, because you never know when an old email is going to be useful.

I have 60 archive folders in total, because I believe in having everything in its place. And you may laugh, but I'm usually the one people come to at work if they need some long-forgotten scrap of information or important attachment. While others delete emails on a whim, not only do I keep them all but I can find them again too. You need evidence of a key decision from 2007, I'll locate it in under a minute. Want embarrassing photos from the 2002 office party, I'll forward them forthwith. Seeking legal action, I've got the email from 2004 with the crucial admission of guilt. OK, so 99.9% of ancient emails are worthless apart from the nostalgic glow gained from reading them again. But if you never know quite which email will turn out to be utterly crucial, why not keep them all?

I counted them yesterday, and I have 42862 emails in storage. I realise that's quite a lot, and considerably greater than the tiny number in my inbox. It's probably excessive, indeed a psychologist might say it's indicative of someone who can't bring himself to let go of his past, or some such babble. And that's just emails I've received. Look inside my "sent items" folders and there's 13612 additional emails there too. I'd argue it's important to have proof of what you've said, and also dead useful to be able to go back and see what you wrote the next time an issue comes around. Yes, it's madness to have fifty thousand emails stashed away. But I'd rather that then have to completely cull them back.

I don't know about your place of work, but we have a limit on the size that our email folders are permitted to contain. Some workplaces have a ridiculously tiny limit to encourage staff to be concise, but thankfully we're not quite that bad. I think our cap is 450MB, or something, which is fairly generous by comparison. Except a decade of email takes up rather more space than that, and my archive totals a massive 2.3GB. I've not got it all in one place, else the email police would shut me down, I've siphoned the majority off into a separate mailbox file on a separate drive, in a way I don't fully understand. I'm not quite sure how I've got away with it, even through three different email migration programmes, but my complete stash remains.

If you work in IT I am your worst nightmare. I hoard gigabytes. I store unnecessary 7MB attachments. I don't play ball with your requests to auto-archive. I'm the reason you have to splash out on additional server space. Or at least I used to be your problem, but now I'm not. Now you're promising to store all my emails in The Cloud, somewhere offsite, because there's no longer the premium on memory space there used to be. Soon I'll be able to store as many work emails as I like, be that sixty thousand or more, as remote-hosting technology finally allows my obsession to thrive.

Now we can all be terrible hoarders of emails. I look forward to the rest of you catching up.

 Wednesday, August 22, 2012

London 2012  Paralympic update
  Be slightly afraid

TfL just launched their campaign to frighten Londoners into changing their travel plans during the Paralympics.

Two problems...
• At the Olympics, everyone knows that transport flowed brilliantly
• The Paralympics are smaller than the Olympics

Which means, whatever contingencies Londoners took last time, it's going to be much harder to persuade them to do the same this time. But with only a week to go, perhaps we should be a little more worried. Here's why.

1) The Paralympics are the second largest sporting event in the world
London's just hosted the number one, now here comes number two. For what's usually the Cinderella partner of the main Games, Britain's certainly taken these Paralympics to heart. More than 2½ million spectators will be turning up, about a third the size of the Olympics, but crammed into two-thirds the number of days. Expect far fewer from abroad, and far more from the UK. They might at least know where they're going, but they're still going to clog up the tubes.

2) Partway through the Paralympics, schools go back and the working crush returns
The Olympics had it easy. School holidays, lots of Londoners off sunning themselves abroad, a deliberately low-key time of year. But there'll be nothing so straight-forward this time. The August Bank Holiday will be over and everyone'll be back to normal, back to routine, and back to filling up the same trains the spectators want to use. Could get tricky.

3) The Paralympics are a lot more focused, geographically
Whereas the Olympics were spread out across town, the Paralympics are more compact, with East London bearing the brunt. Nothing in Herts, nothing in Essex. Nothing at Wembley, nothing in football stadia around the country. Nothing at Earl's Court, nothing at Wimbledon, and only one single event in central London (on the last day of the Games). People in these locations do have justification in deciding not to make special arrangements for the Paralympics. Those around Stratford, ExCel and Greenwich should probably steel themselves, as before.
Olympic Park: Athletics, Football, Goalball, Swimming, Track Cycling, Wheelchair Basketball, Wheelchair Rugby, Wheelchair Tennis
ExCel: Boccia, Judo, Powerlifting, Sitting Volleyball, Table Tennis, Wheelchair Fencing
Greenwich/Woolwich: Archery, Equestrian, Shooting, Wheelchair Basketball
The Mall: Marathon
Brands Hatch: Road Cycling
Eton Dorney: Rowing
Weymouth: Sailing
4) A lot of the events take place almost every day
Swimming, every day. Events at the ExCel, every day. Wheelchair Basketball every day, sometimes in two different locations. Football and athletics, every day but one. This isn't some minor patronising sporting festival, this is big time. Below is a table summarising roughly when all the Paralympic events take place. Events in the Olympic Park are underlined.

  week 1 
29-31 Aug
weekend 1
1-2 Sep
 week 2 
3-7 Sep
 weekend 2 
8-9 Sep
Opening ceremony     
Track cycling, Judo, Rowing     
Equestrian, Wheelchair Basketball     
Archery, Goalball, Powerlifting, Shooting     
AthleticsFootball, Table Tennis, Swimming, Sitting Volleyball, Wheelchair Basketball     
Boccia, Wheelchair Tennis     
Wheelchair Fencing     
Road Cycling, Wheelchair Rugby     
Marathon, Closing ceremony     

5) The Olympic Park is going to be full almost every day
In the first week of the Olympics the Park ran below full capacity, only stepping up in the second. During the Paralympics the Park is likely to be as full as that second week, not the first. Take Athletics, for example. At the Olympics there were fifteen sessions in nine days, whereas at the Paralympics there are eighteen sessions in the same time. That's even more stadiumfuls of spectators this time than last. Ditto the Swimming has been scaled up from fifteen sessions to twenty. That's great, because it means hundreds of thousands more people will be able to enjoy all the special attractions that the Olympic Park offers. Just hope not to meet them all at Stratford station afterwards.

6) Yes, there's a Paralympic Route Network
There'll still be Games Lanes on our roads, but there won't be so many of them, because the PRN is smaller than the ORN. East London's segregated lanes will return, but Central London retains only a single lifeline along the Embankment out to the Cromwell Road. World leaders and the Olympic Family don't come in numbers to these Games, so Park Lane escapes and Russell Square stays media-free. And nothing kicks in on the roads until the morning of Wednesday 29th August, and it's all cleared away after the Victory Parade on Monday 10th September.

7) Keep off the Jubilee line, Central line and DLR if you can
These three lines will be extra busy, as workaday commuters and shoppers mix with spectators and tourists. They won't be stupidly busy all the time, and they may be busy only in the opposite direction to the way you're going, but if you have a sensible alternative route then it's probably a good idea to take it.

8) The Get Ahead of the Games website is still relevant
I know last time round we panicked and maybe it wasn't justified, but perhaps this time you should dig a little deeper on the website. Rather than just looking at the shiny tube map and going "ooh, that station's red", click on the station and scroll down for a lot more information. Congestion forecasts are available in half-hourly slots, and this time the transport planners have made different predictions. London Bridge will allegedly be over-busy every weekday morning between eight and nine-thirty, and every weekday evening between six and about eight. St Pancras International may be rammed on the Javelin for the hour before 9am and the hour after 5pm. Getting on a Central line train at Chancery Lane in the evening rush hour might be hell, although Holborn nowhere near so bad. And as for Stratford itself? Probably not advisable after 10:30 in the evening but other than that, flowing fairly well. So when you see all those magenta signs urging you to go to West Ham instead, stuff those, because the official predictions say you're wasting your time.

9) And which entrance to the Olympic Park should I use again?
Eton Manor Gate: No queues, but expect a long walk
Victoria Gate: No queues, but it's in the middle of nowhere
Greenway Gate: A breeze to get in, but an unnecessary hike from West Ham
Stratford Gate: Yeah, almost certainly fine (expect for late night exits)

10) Brace for business unusual
Who knows how bad, or otherwise, travel will be during the Paralympics? Best be prepared for whatever happens, just in case.

 Tuesday, August 21, 2012

In the battle to smooth London's traffic flow, one person keeps getting in the way - the pedestrian. If only we didn't want to cross roads quite so often, quite so widely, quite so slowly, cars could get round town rather faster. That's why TfL have established the Performance Led Innovation at Traffic Signals Programme - or PLIaTS for short - to improve the efficiency and performance of our traffic lights. Those countdown timers at road junctions, they were a PLIaTS initiative, and the success of trials will see them rolled out more widely across London. So what's next?

Reprogramming push-button pedestrian crossings, that's what. They're great for traffic so long as no pedestrian wants to cross the road. But once someone's pushed the button, there's no avoiding it, the red light will come. And that's fine, so long as the pedestrian's still waiting when the lights finally change. But you know what often happens. A gap appears between the cars and they dodge through. No gap materialises, but the pedestrian dashes across anyway. The road goes clear and the traffic signal fails to notice. By the time the lights turn red there's nobody waiting to cross, they've already gone, but traffic still has to wait even though there's nobody there. It's an undoubted (and widespread) waste of time. That's the problem PLIaTS is tackling next.

So this summer TfL is trialling technology which will allow the traffic signal controller (the grey box at the side of the road) to cancel the "WAIT" request if nobody is waiting to cross the road. Presumably there's some camera or sensor training its eye on the pavement, both sides of the road, which notices when pedestrians wander away - TfL aren't quite admitting how it works. If so, then I'm not quite sure why this is news. I thought puffin crossings had this capability anyway, with sensors watching to see when pedestrians are, or aren't trying to cross. Here's everything you ever wanted to know about puffin crossings, for example, which suggests that "Cancelling Pedestrian Demands" is nothing new. Whatever, the implementation of such cancelling technology has now been deemed worthy of a London trial, so presumably it's not been implemented properly in the capital before.

One of London's newest pedestrian crossings has been selected for the trial, at the end of St Margaret Street almost immediately outside the Palace of Westminster. It didn't used to be possible to nip over to the centre of Parliament Square, not safely, but a couple of crossings finally went in earlier this year. Much cheaper than part-pedestrianising the square, which had been the original plan, but which Boris cancelled two summers back. If you want to see Churchill, Mandela or the Peace Camp up close, the new crossings now make it safe to do so. And if you want to dash back across the road afterwards, the traffic doesn't need to stop.

Now I'm a bit late telling you this. TfL's consultation on this project lasted only a month, and ended just over a month ago. If you don't keep an eye on TfL's consultation website, these ideas skate by without noticing. I don't know about you, but I heard no advance warning of this at all, nor have I been able to trawl back online for any external mention. As for the trial in Parliament Square, that was scheduled to run for only one week in early August, so it's probably already complete. You can't dash along and try to mess up the data by pressing the button and then playing hide and seek on the pavement. But if you did try walking this way recently and the lights didn't change, this might be why.

I'd expect the trial to be a success. Not stopping traffic when nobody wants to cross is a no-brainer, surely. And many's the time I've felt almost guilty about crossing in a gap before the lights change, my conscience silently apologising to all the cars and trucks and buses suddenly grinding to a halt behind me for no reason. Equally there must be a potential downside, else no field trial of the system would be necessary. What if you stand somewhere the sensor can't see you, and the signal cancels, and you end up waiting forever? What if the sensor fails? What if... that other really awful potential downside, whatever it is?

You may not have noticed the Pedestrian Crossings Signal Trial, but you might well notice its outcome. Smoother traffic flow without disadvantaging the pedestrian, for a change. And, joy, a reduction in the number of cyclists speeding through red lights, because there won't be so many pointless red lights to ignore. Bring it on?

 Monday, August 20, 2012

The Marquis Of Lansdowne should be just another dead London pub. On Cremer Street, a narrow thoroughfare linking the Kingsland Road to Hackney Road, round the back of the Geffrye Museum. It last served a pint in 2000, having been opened way back in 1839 by Charrington's Brewery. The new Overground station at Hoxton disgorges passengers no more than a hundred yards away, but even that footfall wouldn't have been enough to save the place. The cornerhouse stands empty, boarded-up, decaying... one of the few surviving unbombed buildings round these parts, but unwanted and derelict.

Except for this weekend. An art project named Traces moved in, with wares to display, and transformed the old pub into a place of wonder. They weren't letting on much to start with. All they were willing to divulge regarding their exhibition's location was a sequence of clues, be that a video, some images or an out-of-date map. This was to be one of those cryptic events which not every Tom, Dick nor Harry could find, and those who finally turned up could feel slightly special at having cracked the code. Actually it wasn't too difficult to find, but when you're selling stuff you don't want too high a proportion of your potential audience staying away.

Inside - the old pub recreated - the bar up one end, a speckled mirror behind. With candles burning at every table and windows draped, the atmosphere is dark but alluring... and also purchasable. The catalogue for the exhibition has been dressed up as a local Victorian newspaper (excellently so). Details of the furniture and decoration are illustrated across the centre pages - tiles, coasters, oil paintings, the lot. Everything down to the bottles behind the bar are up for sale, that's after the weekend display is over, via their creators' websites.

The pub's patrons wouldn't normally have stepped upstairs, but the staircase leads to a landing beneath a charming glass skylight. Three curtains shield a rather different tale, a recreation of the brothel that's assumed to have been located here in the late 19th century. In the boudoir, wow, what could best be described as a "flower bed" with a stuffed dog sleeping at the foot. A silk screen, a mirror-seated chair etched with lace, and Victorian erotica wallpaper. Nextdoor in the madam's office, a shopping list of girls in gilt frames and a cardboard stag's head. And in the "stolen goods" room, all sorts of hand-crafted ephemera, from porcelain jewellery to tiny dolls. The overall effect is most impressive, the whiff of immorality never far away.

You've missed Traces now, but the project hopes to be back next year. A different theme, probably a different location, a fresh brief for all the designers to work to. I can't imagine any of this stuff in my flat, it's more for those with money to spare, and those whose personal taste is measured by the number of unique objets d'art they have on display. And as for the Marquis Of Lansdowne, this faces simultaneously a brighter and a darker future. The pub is now under the protection of the Geffrye, sited as it is on the corner of the museum's site. They plan to add it as an annexe, sometime in 2014, accessed across the garden beyond the extension. The Victorian façade will stay, but the rooms will be gutted and the interior replaced to create a suitable accessible display space (or maybe relocate the restaurant). Good, then, to have seen traces of the old pub before it's almost completely swept away.

To put the achievements of the Ladies Who Bus into perspective, I thought I'd go back and see how many London bus routes I've managed to write about in the last ten years. That's end-to-end reportage, rather than mere intermediate journeying. Turns out it's quite a few. I spent three Decembers riding prime, square and cube numbered buses, which helped, and of course there's my annual birthday bus ride in March. But that's still only 47 different bus routes all told, whereas Linda, Mary and Jo have managed 381. Whatever, I hope it's useful to bring all mine together in one place, if nothing else as a hint to which gaps to fill in next...

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