diamond geezer

 Monday, December 31, 2012

The first time I went to Kew Gardens it cost a penny to get in. Yesterday it cost less. Entrance to the gardens is free for twelve days over Christmas, but only if you booked in advance, and if you didn't you're too late. A fine day out at any time, but finer still for nothing.

The trick to visiting Kew Gardens is to come early. I arrived shortly after half past nine, and the parkland was almost entirely empty. Even better the sky was almost completely cloudless, which wasn't going to last, so I had a short time to enjoy the gardens at their best. I headed for somewhere that hadn't been built the last time I was here, the Treetop Walkway - an elevated circuit eighteen metres above the ground. It's not for those without a head for heights, as a few of the day's first visitors discovered. As they slunk down in the lift, nerves aquiver, I strode off round the upper level unhindered. Being winter the view stretched to the horizon, beyond the tower blocks of Brentford to the distant Wembley arch, but in spring the surrounding branches will burst into obstructive leaf... which is entirely the point.

Close by is the Lake, recently crossed by an S-shaped span called the Sackler Crossing. This low granite walkway hugs close to the water, and is edged by a series of vertical bronze posts forming a semi-transparent barrier. It's also very pretty, especially when nobody's standing on it (which is another good reason to arrive at Kew early). Various waterfowl waddle along the banks, and glide like limbo dancers beneath the bridge, so best mind where you stand. Indeed boots are recommended over trainers at this time of year, especially if you want to explore the muddier, squishier paths towards the riverside.

The predominant colours at Kew, at present, are green and brown. That's grass and branches, mostly, which is great if you like trees and shrubs but not much cop if you prefer flowers. Blooms are in short supply, obviously, apart from a few formal transplanted beds of winter pansies and some resilient blue irises in the Japanese garden. Various magnolia trees appear to be budding, which is impressive given it's not even next year yet, but apart from that the glories of spring remain some distance off.

Even indoors, inside the famous glasshouses, proper flowers are in short supply. The leaves may be grand, and the tallest fronds reach to the roof, but not many of the plants can be tricked into thinking it's summer. The Temperate House is full to bursting, as you can see if you step up the spiral staircase to walk around the inside of the glass roof. The Palm House is warmer, which is ideal if your visit comes on a cold or rainswept day, and don't forget to shut the door on your way in. So many plants from around the tropics are here, scientifically labelled for the experts and educationally described for the rest of us. Expect mostly algae in the marine gallery underneath, but I'm sure most visitors are looking only at the fish.

Pride of Kew is the Princess of Wales Conservatory, home to ten different climatic zones optimised for various exotic species. It's a masterpiece of botanic display, with paths and staircases weaving all over, and the opportunity to get up close to orchids, cacti and the ever-popular carnivorous plants. In the wet tropics zone a Titan Arum waits to burst into stinky life, maybe some time in the next decade, but for now it's just an underwhelming leaf.

For Christmas the team at Kew have got a carousel in, a proper one, except the pipe organ plays Sir Duke by Stevie Wonder and a selection of other semi-modern tunes. There's also a 12 Days of Christmas scratchcard quiz for younger members of the family, with clues hidden around the gardens, for a 20% discount at the shop on your way out. There were plenty of children in attendance on Sunday, some being led around the gardens by enthusiastic parents, others dropped off at the adventure playground after staring at plants got all too much.

One of the treats at Kew at the moment is a series of artworks by David Nash. He specialises in wooden sculpture, naturalistic rather than figurative, and has carved a number of pieces in situ over the summer. Pillars and globes of charred black timber, towers of bark, all scattered around the gardens for you to enjoy. There's also a Nash exhibition in Kew's new art gallery, where I was absorbed by the 25-year downstream tale of 'Wooden Boulder'. Nextdoor is the amazing Marianne North gallery, its walls hung deep with 800 oil paintings bequeathed by a Victorian world traveller, recently restored to awesome effect.

To be frank, this isn't the best time of year to enjoy Kew Gardens. Nature's in hibernation, there's minimal colour and it gets dark by far too early in the afternoon. But I still managed to spend six hours wandering and exploring, and even then I got home and looked at the map properly and realised I'd missed things. The normal entrance price is steep (£16, sheesh), but you almost certainly know a member of the family who'd adore a trip here, to one of the jewels of London.

14 photos: Treetop Walkway, Sackler Crossing, Syon Vista, Temperate House, Palm House (& lake), Princess of Wales Conservatory, Kew Palace

 Sunday, December 30, 2012

dg 2012 index

Ten memorable London jaunts in 2012
entering the Olympic Park, 9am, day 11) The Olympics: Obviously this is top of my list for 2012. A one-off fortnight, seven years in the making, which flew higher than any of us could have imagined. And I was there.
a) the week before [photos]
b) the first week [photos] [photos] [photos]
c) the second week [photos]

2) The Paralympics: Another world-class Games on my doorstep, so I took full advantage and attended even more events than earlier. Inspirational. [photos]
3) Barking and Dagenham: My final Random Borough jaunt deserved a week-long write-up, and B&D came up with the goods [photos]
4) Diamond Jubilee Pageant: I don't think I've ever been quite so wet, or as cold, in the middle of June. But a truly once-in-a-lifetime spectacle [photos]
5) Walking Overground South: Tracing the tangerine orbital through inner south London [photos]
6) Titanic 100: I tracked down the graves of those passengers whose final resting place was London, not the bottom of the Atlantic.
7) Crossing London by bus: From Bluewater to Uxbridge, via only four buses [starts here]
8) Trellick Tower: Thanks to Open House, I finally got to ascend Goldfinger's finest [photos]
9) Parliamentary train: Riding the parliamentary train from Kensington Olympia to Wandsworth Road (while I still could).
10) Diamond Streets: For the Jubilee, I visited every road in London called Diamond something. Been meaning to do that for ages [photos]
Runners up: Barnet, Bus-tops, Dollis Hill House, Belgravia, King's Army Parade, Valentine's Mansion, A Bigger Picture, Crane Park, cycle hire extension, Bow porcelain, Exhibition Road, RAF Northolt, Abbey Creek, Twelvetrees, Trent Park, Honeywood, Granary Square, Listed Loo, Geotrail, London Pleasure Gardens, 2 Willow Road, William Morris Gallery, Mudchute City Farm, DLR 25, Around The Square Mile, Open House, 'A' stock farewell, Chrisp Street clocktower, The Crystal, London Cupcake Tours, Dagenham Sunday Market, Fruit and Wool Exchange, Regent's Canal 200, London Canal Museum, Woolwich Foot Tunnel, Marmite Christmas lights, Natural History Museum, tube week, Roman Road Market, First Tesco, Boring 2012, Overground orbital, Charles Dickens Museum.

Olympics: branding 2012, year begins, carbon neutral, diving test event, risk register, April update, website update, Greenway test, Paralympic athletics test event, Water Chariots (don't), Greenway closure, magenta, Torch Relay, towpath diversion, Pudding Mill Lane closes, HMS Ocean, up the Orbit, we will remember them, aftermath, Water Chariots (bust), Greenway reopening.
Around the Olympic Park: 4 weeks to go [photos], 10 days to go [photos], 1 month after [photos], 10 weeks after [photos].
Stations: Birkbeck, Angel Road, New Blackfriars, New King's Cross, Canary Wharf Crossrail.
Buses: route 47, New Bus for London, route 60, 38 centenary, 24 centenary.
Cablecar: February, May, pre-launch announcement, first flight, regular users, business case, passenger numbers.
Bow Roundabout: proposals, March update, more proposals, flowers, the cycle early-start opens, Cyclists Stop On Red, westbound proposals.
London Loop: section 9, section 12, section 17, section 20, section 23.

Ten favourite Out-of-London destinations
Hang On A Minute Lads, I've Got A Great Idea... by Richard Wilson, at the De La Warr Pavilion1) South Coast Downlander: One rail ticket, one bank holiday, ten south coast resorts. Madness, but a lot of fun. [photos]
2) Ongar: Hurrah for the newly-opened Epping Ongar steam railway [photos]
3) Hastings: I went for the Jerwood, but really enjoyed the rest of the resort too [photos]
4) Spaghetti Junction: An unexpected world of canals and towpaths lurks beneath the concrete pillars
5) Tilbury Centenary Day: Celebrations at the cruise terminal, a look inside the old station and a busride round the docks - ace.
6) The Croxley Curve: Despite growing up less than a mile away, I'd never seen trains on this Metropolitan spur before
7) Devil's Dyke: A gorgeous (if windswept) walk along the South Downs to Ditchling Beacon [photos]
8) East Grinstead: Exploring the Sussex commuter town, the former home of Dr Beeching.
9) The Labworth: Lunch at this Art Deco Canvey Island caff was unexpectedly wonderful.
10) Portsmouth: A visit to Charles Dickens' birthplace [part of Dickens bicentenary week]
Runners up: Brighton Pavilion, Gosport, Windsor to Staines, Harry Potter Studios, Sudbury, Long Melford, Fairhaven, Ramsgate, Ebury Way, Ely, Galton Bridge, Shireoaks to Worksop, Cromer.

Ten other favourite posts from 2012:
Dosh, next train indicators, the tube map tube map, stairs, complaints and refunds, Plaistow Airport, stapler graveyard, Regent's Canal 200, independent bookshop map, hello boss.

Half of my ten favourite photos of the year:
(or all ten here)

 Saturday, December 29, 2012

New Year Honours 2012

Sir Sideburned Cyclist: For whopping the French at their own game. In any normal year, the only sportsman to get a knighthood... but 2012 is no normal year.
Sir Consistent Sailor: For grabbing lots of medals over the years, in a sport the public's only interested in every four years, and then only vaguely.
Sir Werewolf Parawheels: For doing really well in the Games that isn't the proper one, but which we now love more.
Dame Longslog Paralympian: She's been doing wonderful bike-y things at these Games for years, but only this year do we care enough to give her the biggie.
Sir Skyteam Coach: For being quite involved in cycling, which is so flavour of the month that anyone who's big in the saddle can have a big award this year.
Dame Golden Postbox: Another cyclist yadda yadda. Seriously kids, get on your bike now, otherwise you're wasting your life.
Mo Mobot CBE: For running very fast on that Saturday when we all cried, and doing that hand gesture everyone likes.
County Down Golfer MBE: He's barely started shaving for heavens sake, but we need to get our Northern Irish quota in.
Betty The Lollipop Lady No-BE: Not this year love, it's only the sportsmen and women who deserve our praise.
Equestrian Dressagelady MBE: Because we're dishing out gongs to everyone who won a gold medal this summer - think of it as a 2-for-1 offer.
Strictly Lewis MBE: For doing good in gymnastics, but especially for looking good in spandex.
Sandra Gamesmaker McBE: For your selfless volunteering that made the summer, have a five pound McDonalds gift token.
Dunblane Racketeer OBE: After years of not winning, and therefore being innately disappointing, actually winning in the one year when sport matters.
Heather Small OBE: For services to winning the Olympics in the first place.
Lord Civilservant of Cheam: It's business as usual in the main body of the honours list.
Baron Torydonor: Sssh, while you're looking at all the Olympi-winners, we're giving dukedoms to our friends.
Paralympic Silver Medallist: Nothing for you, dear. You let some foreigner beat you, so all your years of training and selfless dedication are utterly wasted.
Dame Clare Balding: Not for a few more years, if that's OK with you.
Sir Opening Ceremony: What do you mean, you don't want a knighthood? Do you have principles or something?
Dave Former DJ: No, we're not risking any male BBC employees this year, just in case the skeleton in their closet escapes.
Lord Coe: He's already a Baron so we can't really give him much else, but the Queen will be sending him a nice monogrammed canteen of cutlery to say thanks ever so.

If you know any Olympians who didn't get an honour this year, tip us the wink and we'll fit them in next summer.

 Friday, December 28, 2012

Keep driving north across East Anglia and you'll eventually reach (any one of a number of Norfolk coastal settlements, but for the purposes of today's post let's assume) Cromer. A clifftop town, and a long-standing seaside resort, you'd more than likely prefer to visit Cromer in the summer. I visited in the off-season between Christmas and New Year, for four hours before my Dad's car park ticket ran out, and the place was busier than you might have expected. [photo]

The Esplanade: Author A C Swinburne described Cromer as "an esplanady sort of place" which, if nothing else, gives you a new word to use when playing Scrabble. The Esplanade runs for about a mile beneath the cliffs, accessible from the main town via zigzag ramps, vertiginous staircases or a steep slipway. At this time of year the ice cream shop is very closed, but you can buy burgers and candy floss from Starvin Marvin's trailer or nip into an illuminated shed that acts as an amusement arcade. Swinburne's words are etched into the paving beneath the clifftop, along with a rather less positive quote from a young Winston Churchill - "I am not enjoying myself very much". Perhaps he visited in December. [photo]

The beach: Cromer's beach is rather good - mostly sand but with a wide assortment of variegated pebbles dumped above the high tide mark. Dogs, and their owners, make the most of this damp playground during the off-season, splashing through the wavelets and leaping over the wooden groynes. The fishing industry lives on, although there's no harbour so the few small boats have to be pulled down to the sea by decrepit vintage tractors [photo]. No crabs emerged yesterday, but two fishermen laid their haul of open-mouthed fish on the quayside before returning to throw any small fry back into the water. A row of 60-or-so primary-coloured beach huts stretches off beneath the eastern cliffs, not a single one of them occupied, more likely sealed by a weatherproof padlock until Easter comes round again.

Cromer Pier: An abnormal pier, this, and relatively short, but much loved. At the landward end is Tides restaurant, which aims above the usual fish and chips but isn't quite cordon bleu. Opposite is the Footprints gift shop, the sort of place where you can buy gift mugs featuring your favourite breed of dog or a pink pinboard in the shape of a cupcake. The middle section of the pier is fairly empty, though an ideal place to dangle a line if the tide's in and the sun's out. And then the legendary Pavilion Theatre, one of Britain's very few offshore places of entertainment, which still reels in thousands of punters to its variety shows. The Christmas Seaside Special has been running all month, twice daily, to what I suspect is an audience of mostly coachloaded pensioners. There's still time to catch Olly Day and Jo Little (and the children from Cromer's own Marlene's School of Dancing) in their sparkly medley of wit and music before the curtain falls on Sunday. [nothing to see here] [photo]

The Lifeboat Station: The RNLI raises more money in Cromer than anywhere else in Britain, which may be because they have two separate lifeboats and a museum. The offshore lifeboat is based at the end of the pier, beyond the theatre, while the inshore lifeboat runs from a boathouse on the beach. Alongside this is a tapering building erected six years ago to house the Henry Blogg Museum, a tribute to Cromer's George-Cross-winning coxswain. Obviously I was raring to visit, but opening hours are limited in December so I had to make do with a hot chocolate from the excellent Rocket House Cafe upstairs instead. The place was packed, as befits a contemporary locally-sourced venue, and my Dad recommends the curried parsnip soup (if it's ever on the menu again).

Xmas decorations: The few lights draped across the main shopping streets are nothing special. But outside the parish church stands an impressive-looking Christmas tree made of piled-up lobster pots and decorated with orange buoys. Only in Cromer.

Cromer Museum: It was shut.

 Thursday, December 27, 2012

I crept silently into his life without leaving a trace.

I thought it'd be more fun if I left him guessing. Could have been from the stair-rail on the bus. Could have been on the handle to open the door of the train. Could have been via a member of the family or a total stranger. Whatever, I tagged him somewhere, just before Christmas, then hung around over the festive period like an uninvited aunt.

I first revealed myself on Christmas Eve. I thought I'd keep it simple, and light, and wholly unexpected. I engineered a sniffle, just the one, just enough to make him reach for his handkerchief. Enough to leave him with a lingering feeling of mild doom, but not backed up by any further action. He went to bed with fingers crossed, and sinuses open, and slept til Christmas.

In the morning, when the nephews and nieces summoned him to the grand opening of the presents, he awoke with a snort. That's when the slippery downward slope began, increasingly slippery as the morning went on, and that's when I knew I had him.

I thought I'd take him over gradually, because I enjoy prolonging the suffering that way. Slight stuffiness on Day One, not total blockage, that's my favourite plan. I made him sniffle a lot over the Christmas dinner table, and appear weak during the pulling of the crackers. I made him sneeze during the Queen's speech, then add further sound effects during the evening's TV. And I dribbled at random during the game of Monopoly, then smiled as I watched him pass the dice on to unsuspecting rivals.

I hoped I'd caught him unprepared. Most people of his age don't get handkerchiefs for Christmas, so he'd have to rely on any minimal stock he'd brought from home. But it turns out he'd packed several pairs of trousers, each with emergency linen stuffed in the pockets, so no emergency tissue stash was required.

On Boxing Day I hyped things up a notch. I halved his number of functioning nostrils. I dampened his handkerchiefs a little faster, almost at a rate of one per feature film. I dulled his head a bit, just enough, to remind him I was there. And I started work on the sore patch above his lip, the one distinguishing feature that lingers after all my other work has gone away.

He tried his best to contain me. He kept well away from any mistletoe, he left the stripping of the turkey to others, he even disappeared into the hallway to sneeze. But he couldn't wash his hands of me, not completely. At some point during the playing of the board games, or the sharing of the Quality Street, or the dabbing of a smeary finger on an iPad, he'll have passed me on.

I don't think I wrecked his Christmas, merely added a layer of inescapable uncomfortableness. And I'll leave him once his time with the family is over, and send him back to London tomorrow as if nothing bad had happened. But I'll be back to have my fun again, at some other time of year, when he least expects it.

And I'm coming for you too, the next time you stand in the updraught of a cough, or shake hands with the possessed, or grasp a doorhandle where I'm patiently waiting. God bless you, bless you, every one.

 Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Christmas 1965, at the Geffrye Museum

 Tuesday, December 25, 2012

 Monday, December 24, 2012

Scott's finished writing about our Northern Rail day out last week.
He's written a lot more than me.
He's written a lot more about me.
Perhaps he's written too much...

The top selling Christmas record in the Christmas chart
[and the runner-up]

1970: nothing
1971: nothing
1972: No 4 Happy Christmas (War Is Over) - John and Yoko [No 13 Little Drummer Boy - Royal Scots Dragoon Guards]
1973: No 1 Merry Xmas Everybody - Slade [No 4 I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday - Wizzard]
1974: No 1 Lonely This Christmas - Mud [No 5 Wombling Merry Christmas - The Wombles]
1975: No 2 I Believe In Father Christmas - Greg Lake [No 4 It's Gonna Be A Cold Cold Christmas - Dana]
1976: No 1 When A Child Is Born - Johnny Mathis [No 10 Bionic Santa - Chris Hill]
1977: No 5 White Christmas - Bing Crosby [nothing else]
1978: No 4 Mary's Boy Child - Boney M [No 19 Christmas In Smurfland - Father Abraham and the Smurfs]
1979: No 7 Wonderful Christmas Time - Paul McCartney [No 25 It Won't Seem Like Christmas Without You - Elvis Presley]
1980: No 1 There's No One Quite Like Grandma - St Winifred's School Choir [No 3 Stop The Cavalry - Jona Lewie]
1981: No 18 Hokey Cokey - The Snowmen [No 28 Happy Christmas (War Is Over) - John and Yoko]
1982: No 2 Blue Christmas - Shakin Stevens [No 7 A Winter's Tale - David Essex]
1983: No 15 2000 Miles - The Pretenders [No 20 Merry Xmas Everybody - Slade]
1984: No 1 Do They Know It's Christmas - Band Aid [No 2 Last Christmas - Wham!]
1985: No 1 Merry Christmas Everyone - Shakin Stevens [No 3 Do They Know It's Christmas - Band Aid]
1986: No 22 Santa Claus Is On The Dole - Spitting Image [nothing else]
1987: No 2 Fairytale Of New York - The Pogues & Kirsty MacColl [No 3 Rocking Around The Christmas Tree - Mel and Kim]
1988: No 1 Mistletoe And Wine - Cliff Richard [No 6 Silent Night - Bros]
1989: No 1 Do They Know It's Christmas - Band Aid 2 [No 2 Let's Party - Jive Bunny And The Mastermixers]
1990: No 1 Saviour's Day - Cliff Richard [No 19 The Best Christmas Of Them All - Shakin Stevens]
1991: No 38 Fairytale Of New York - The Pogues & Kirsty MacColl [nothing else]
1992: No 34 All Alone On Christmas - Darlene Love [nothing else]
1993: No 13 The Power Of Love - Frankie Goes To Hollywood [No 37 I Was Born On Christmas Day - St Etienne]
1994: No 1 Stay Another Day - East 17 [No 2 All I Want For Christmas Is You - Mariah Carey]
1995: No 11 The Gift Of Christmas - Childliners [No 31 Last Christmas - Whigfield]
1996: No 13 Your Christmas Wish - The Smurfs [nothing else]
1997: No 36 I Want An Alien For Christmas - Fountains Of Wayne [nothing else]
1998: No 10 Cruise Into Christmas - Jane McDonald [No 30 Merry Xmas Everybody - Slade]
1999: No 8 Mr Hankey The Christmas Poo - Mr Hankey [No 31 Baby, It's Cold Outside - Tom Jones and Cerys Matthews]

 Sunday, December 23, 2012

Charles Dickens Museum
Location: 48 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LX [map]
Lived here: 1837-1839
Open: 10:00-17:00 (except Mondays)
Admission: £8 (£4 children)
Website: www.dickensmuseum.com (& on Twitter)

Charles Dickens lived in more than a dozen houses during his life, many of them in London, only one of which still stands. That's his newlywed home in Bloomsbury, a Georgian terrace, which the great man described as follows:
"It was a pleasant twelve-room dwelling of pink brick, with three stories and an attic, a white arched entrance door on the street level, and a small private garden in the rear. It was located just north of Gray's Inn ... a genteel private street with a lodge at each end and gates that were closed at night by a porter in a gold-laced hat and a mulberry-coloured coat with the Doughty arms on its buttons."
Doughty Street's no longer gated but still well-to-do, and currently blessed by a fine selection of Christmas wreaths tied to various front doors. Charles lived in one of the houses with a blue plaque - this one of the London County Council's originals - but you won't be entering through his front door. The house nextdoor has been acquired as part of a major redevelopment this year, and this now contains all the visitor facilities so that number 48 can be displayed as was. It seemed strange for London's only museum of Dickensiana to have closed during the year of his bicentenary, but the house reopened a couple of weeks before Christmas, and the end result is a visible improvement.

Each visitor receives a printed guide, designed in the format of one of Dickens' "monthly parts", which sets the scene for each of the dozen rooms. Ground floor first, via the entrance hall, where some of Charles' everyday pocketfodder has been arranged on a table beneath the clock. The "as lived in" vibe continues in the dining room, which is laid out for a meal with friends. Be aware that a lot of the furniture in the house isn't from Doughty Street, it's from Dickens' final home at Gad's Hill, but the sideboard and samovar here are originals. Downstairs, by contrast, is a little more ordinary. The kitchen looks like any Victorian basement kitchen, with no real Dickensiana of note, and the wine cellar is locked round the side of the scullery where you can't really see it.

Follow the shadow of Dickens up the stairs, to the finest room in the house - the Drawing Room. The voice of Simon Callow booms out as you enter, not to tell you biographical facts but to narrate a couple of favourite passages. One is from Pickwick Papers, a 20-parter completed while Dickens was living here, along with the end of Oliver Twist and all of Nicholas Nickleby. In this room is the reading desk that Charles took around the country when giving performances to his fans, while nextdoor in the study is his writing desk from Gad's Hill on which The Mystery of Edwin Drood was never finished.

Up again to the bedrooms, one the marital suite, the other occupied by Charles's 17-year-old sister-in-law Mary. She tragically died six weeks after the family moved in, an event which affected Charles deeply and which he often referenced in his work. There are several artworks on the walls, but it's very difficult to read the captions underneath because the museum has chosen to etch them on matt metal - elegant, but entirely impractical. The two attic rooms were the preserve of Dickens' servants so they've been used as exhibition spaces rather than recreations. One's all text, while the other includes a metal grille from the Marshalsea Prison where Charles's father was imprisoned. Neither room is especially exhibit-dense, but I guess this allows room for future expansion.

The tour then steps through to number 49 Doughty Street, where there's a timeline of Charles's life (and a lift to allow less healthy visitors the opportunity to visit the upper floors). A reading area is provided where you can flick through some of the great man's many published works, although you almost certainly won't, while another room contains a handful of costumes from the just-released Hollywood version of Great Expectations. And yes, of course there's a cafe, located in a ground floor annexe, which you might use to push your visit over the 60-minute mark.

A fine restoration, all told, evoking the presence of Dickens rather than being a mere storehouse of his stuff. The place is done up with period Christmas decorations at the moment, as an added treat, and for very good reason. The museum will be opening every day over the Christmas period, including the big day itself, with live readings, mulled wine and mince pies for visitors. Don't rush, the £18 tickets have already sold out, but it's business as usual from Thursday onwards (and today).

see also...
» Charles Dickens Birthplace Museum, Portsmouth
» my week of bicentenary posts from February

 Saturday, December 22, 2012

Stratford bus update: When Westfield opened, TfL tweaked four bus routes to terminate outside. Now the Olympics are over they're planning to tweak those four routes again, and three more, to improve connectivity hereabouts. Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is about to open up, with increasing amounts of housing, leisure facilities and other infrastructure, so best be prepared to meet the extra demand.

A consultation is underway, with a webpage here, a summary map here, and a full 22 page document here. Here's the map.

Below is a summary of the proposed changes, which are scheduled to be introduced from next spring onwards. Every bus will serve Stratford City, and five of them will stop at Stratford International, which is far more than this empty station deserves. Three buses will run through the heart of the Olympic Park - two along a restored Waterden Road and one along Carpenters Road. And three will stop outside the Aquatic Centre, should you fancy a swim in Newham's latest pool or a trip up the Orbit.

BusCurrent routeFuture route S City S IntOl PkAq C
97Chingford - Stratford Cityvia East Village  
241Canning Town - Stratford CityCanning Town - East Wick  
308Clapton Park - WansteadClapton - Wanstead  
339Shadwell - Stratford CityShadwell - Whipps Cross
388Blackfriars - Hackney WickBlackfriars - Stratford City  
D8Crossharbour - Stratford CityCrossharbour - Stratford Int 
N205Paddington - Bow ChurchPaddington - Leyton 

The 97 continues much as before, but with a diversion through the East Village to save its new residents a walk. The 241 won't be extended until the Olympic Media Centre is reopened, so that's merely an aspirational change at this stage. The 308 returns to its original route down Temple Mills Lane, then nudges away from Leyton to serve the East Village. The 339 cuts through the heart of the park and is then extended an extra three miles to Whipps Cross, becoming a much more important route than it is now. The 388 becomes Hackney's link to the Westfield shopping centre, a long awaited change. The D8 abandons Warton Road for Carpenters Road, with a wiggle back to serve the Aquatic Centre. And the N205 is a night-time-only extension of the 205, from Bow through Stratford City to Leyton.

I'm surprised not to see the 276 revert to its original route along Carpenters Road - presumably somebody thinks it's best to maintain its connection through Bow. Indeed quite a number of TfL's original plans for this area (blogged here) no longer appear on the drawing board. It had been mooted that the 8, 30, 145, 262 and W14 might extend to Stratford City, but they'll be staying put for now. One other peculiarity is that only two services will be terminating at Stratford City bus station, down from four today, which means its vast windswept parking facilities will be increasingly wasted.

The consultation runs until Friday 22nd February, so there's plenty of time to make your views heard. Residents along Leyton Road might not appreciate losing two-thirds of their buses to an upstart development, but there'll still be plenty of other untweaked buses nearby. Other than this it's hard to see too much dissent, given that these are additional services along extra route miles employing more drivers.

If all goes to plan then services on the 97 and 308 will change from May, the D8 and 205 from the autumn, the 388 next December, the 339 by 2014 and the 241 on some unconfirmed date. And one day you might be riding one of these buses to the former Olympic Park for a picnic... just not any time soon.

 Friday, December 21, 2012

It is of course untrue that the world ends today, especially if you're reading this tomorrow.

But it is true that the 13th b'ak'tun of the Mayan Long Count calendar terminates this morning, after 5125 years, at the precise moment of the winter solstice. That's...

11:12 21/12/12

...which is such an unlikely collection of ones and twos that it looks apocalyptic all by itself. Of course, once you add "and 43 seconds" to the time, it's not quite so digitally perfect. And the Mayans didn't count months in twelves, nor have 60 minutes in an hour, so any perceived magic is merely coincidence. But today's winter solstice does have a rare astronomical meaning, in their calendar at least, which echoes back through several millennia.

As such, today's is a date I've had my eye on for a very long time. I can't remember when I first heard about the Mayan Doomsday prophecies, but it'll have been a few decades back, probably as I was rifling through a book from my local library. "The world might end in 2012" was mere apocalyptic rumour, but enough to place a bookmark on the Friday before an unimaginably distant Christmas.

2012's also been in my long-term calendar for a completely different reason - the Olympics. Not quite so long-term in this case, but the Games were confirmed for 27th July 2012 at least seven years in advance. I'd had something specific to look forward to, at a particular time, unbelievably close to my house, ever since that unlikely lunchtime in Trafalgar Square in 2005. All gone now.

I like having something to look forward to. A future markpoint, a fixed point in time, something to aim myself towards. Something properly in the future, not just next year or the year after. A birthday won't do, not even a biggie, it needs to be a global milestone.

2008 and 2011 I'd been looking forward to since I was ten. I found a list with the dates of Easter in it, from the 1970s forward into the 21st century, and two extreme dates instantly stuck out. In 2008 an extremely early Easter, and in 2011 an extremely late Easter. This probably wouldn't have excited you, but it roused something in me, and I had thirty-plus years of patiently waiting.

And especially 1999. I was given a Guinness Book of Answers as a child, which on the inside front cover had full details of Britain's only upcoming total eclipse of the sun. I pored over the map, and memorised the time, and prayed that I could somehow contrive to be in Cornwall on the morning of August 11th. I managed it too, thanks to circumstances I could never have predicted, even if the moment was entirely clouded out and my long-term dream cruelly snuffed.

Once today's non-Armageddon passes, suddenly there won't be much that's long-term-definite to look forward to in my life. No more UK total eclipses, no more local Olympics, and I'll quite possibly be dead before Easter's ever so extreme again. Lots of amazing things will surely happen on days I can't yet predict, but monumental certainties seem rather harder to come by.

The world won't end today, even though I've long known today it might. What will end for me is having something rock-solid, distant and definite to hold on to, as I've had for many a year before. Once 2012 passes I don't have a clue what the far flung future might hold, and that's more than a little unnerving. I guess I just need to embrace the uncertainty and make the most of it, before I find that 2012 was indeed the year where my life peaked, then slipped away, and the Mayans were right after all.

 Thursday, December 20, 2012

A lot of people try to visit all of the stations on the London Underground in as short a time as possible. They don't get out at every station, they just pass through, and the whole thing can be done in a day. For a rather different sort of challenge, more appropriate to the northwest of England, Scott decided to visit all of the 100+ stations on the Merseyrail map. This would be proper visiting, not passing through, and with a photo of himself taken in front of every single station sign. To add to the challenge he'd walk between some of the stations and ride between others, and then he'd blog about it all after he got home. It took him five years.

Another challenge was required, so Scott stepped up a gear and decided to visit every station on the Northern Rail map instead. This is huge, from Carlisle and Newcastle in the north to Stoke-on-Trent and Nottingham in the south, and it's going to take him a lot longer. Yesterday he struck out to visit five stations on the far-flung eastern side of the map, and I headed up to join him. An ideal Christmas shopping avoidance task, I thought.

We journeyed from Sheffield to Lincoln on a branch line plied by Pacers (more a bus on rails than a proper train). The service runs only hourly, which made getting off and back on again a slow business, and that's why we only visited five stations. Scott's train from Liverpool was (very) late, so we missed the first train we intended to catch, and that had repercussions. We had lunch in Retford, which isn't something you do every day. We skipped Gainsborough, because he's been there already. We stopped for a pint in Saxilby, which previously I couldn't even have located on a map. And we arrived in Lincoln long after dark, alas with no time to admire the floodlit-cathedral before we had to catch our respective trains home.

Scott'll be writing up his account of the day in more detail, which is a bit unnerving, because people don't normally blog about a day spent out and about with me. But he'll be writing about it a bit later, not today, so don't expect to see his report immediately. So I thought I'd tell you about an hour of our day, from Shireoaks station to Worksop station and the three mile walk inbetween. I think I can guarantee it's not a walk you'll ever do, nor want to do. But that's how it is when there's a mega-challenge to complete, the journey is what you make of it.

Shireoaks to Worksop
(3 miles) [map]

The thing about an hourly train, if you're walking from one station to the next, is that you have one hour to complete the walk. An hour and three minutes in this case, but that's still a challenge when there's three miles to be covered. Shireoaks station isn't much, not since its Victorian buildings were demolished recently, leaving a couple of shelters and an old signal box. Scott needed his self-portrait photo taken in front of the station sign (and a paltry sign at that), and then it was time for a swift exit. To the Chesterfield Canal, a few yards along the road, which would take us down the valley to Worksop.

There are a lot of locks on this stretch, all of them narrow gauge for narrow boats. Quite scenic in the spring, no doubt, but a little more washed out in mid-December. The marina on the left bank looks like any other, but was originally built to serve a colliery on the land behind. Shireoaks is in the Nottinghamshire coalfield, exploited here from the 1860s until 1991, so it's now a former pit village getting by as best it can.

The towpath squashes between a road and the canal, past a verdant hillock that looks suspiciously like it used to be a slag heap. Past the railway bridge is another pit village with the unlikely name of Rhodesia. It's nothing African, far from it, having been named after Mr Rhodes the chairman of the colliery company. As for Haggonfields Lock, that could the scenic highlight of the walk were it not for a concrete viaduct carrying the A57 overhead. [photo]

The canal is closed at Stret Lock, where workmen are using the winter months to drain, widen and rebuild. Recent measurements revealed that the lock is an inch narrower than it's supposed to be, following centuries of ground pressure, and boats were regularly getting stuck on the way through. Progress can be observed from The Lock Keeper pub alongside, whose "Carvery from £3.99" looks wonderfully cheap to my southern eyes.

Another mile of meadowside towpath follows, with the steeple of Worksop's parish church increasingly visible across the rooftops [photo]. The flood plain's useful only for sports pitches and a fishing lake, and a big shopping centre which has brought Costa coffee and M&S sandwiches to the town for the first time. It's important to leave the towpath here rather than continue to the lock hidden beneath the bridge on the high street. A sign on the brick wall warns "Danger Bathing Prohibited", but you'd have to be pretty stupid to dive into the deep narrow chasm between the lock gates.

And finally up the high street to the station, past a fine building that used to be the Council Offices but now houses an electrical contractors and a bathroom showroom. We thought we had five minutes to spare, so were aghast to see the level crossing lights flashing and barriers descending, blocking off our access to the other side. Thankfully that was for the hourly train going the other way, but we only discovered this after we'd yomped at speed over the station footbridge.

Worksop station's characterfully wooden, with a dance studio on one platform and The Railway Cafe on the other. We could have stopped here for Yorkshire tea and cake, or even a Monster Challenge breakfast (seriously, three eggs?) but our Retford-bound train called us away. And I'll let Scott tell you about the rest of the day, in his own time, no pressure. He still has so much further to go, but that's a tiny fraction more ticked off.

 Wednesday, December 19, 2012


Lincoln (alas, after dark)



St Pancras

I'm off for a day out today.
I might be able to report back on the way round.
Or it might be very quiet on here.

 Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Now showing at the ICA on The Mall, an exhibition of all the works of art appearing on, or short listed for, the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square.

From Ecce Homo in 1999, to the big blue cockerel due to appear next, they're all here. That's the models used for the judging process, not the real things because they'd be huge. A series of newspaper clippings accompany the display, chronicling the praise and vilification each commission attracted. Alison Lapper Pregnant seems to have got the most mixed press, so maybe it's just as well the guano-splattered car alongside was never selected. Pity about the brick Battenburg, the sky mirrors and the anti-war protestors, though. My favourite remains One And Other, where members of the public took their turn atop the plinth, and a video replays some joyous highlights at the far end of the gallery. Open until January 20th.

Sent from a bench in St James's Park watching the pelicans

I've just finished writing all my Christmas cards, narrowly in time for the second class posting deadline. I used to send 70 cards, now it's less than 30. Shamefacedly, I've met up with less than ten of the recipients in the last year.

Sent from my oohitcandothatPhone

Struggling with the tiny tappy-tappy menu, and the predictive text that doesn't work the way I'm used to and keeps auto-completing wrongly. And I can't find things that ought to be obvious, so I'm Googling for "how to" instructions on my laptop all the time. And I don't want the bloody Yahoo Stocks app popping up every time I try to access the browser, but it's always lurking somewhere. And I really must learn how to turn the sound off before it embarrasses me in public, and how to take photos, and where Twitter is, and how to send a text message, and how you do that clever countdown thing to find out when the next bus is due, and a million and one other secret things. I'm so behind the curve, but everyone else I know seems to have got the hang of it so I'm sure I'll be assimilated into the In Crowd sooner or later.

Sent from my sleek thin cutting-edge hipsterMobile

I stuck with my old mobile phone for five and a half years. I wonder if that's some kind of record?

Sent from my infuriatingly-non-intuitive over-sensitive fruit-relatedPhone

 Monday, December 17, 2012

What's going on with Walk London?

That's the ten-year-old organisation charged with developing, improving and promoting London’s top seven walking routes. From the Capital Ring to the Jubilee Walkway, someone has to keep the paths waymarked, diversions logged and ensure that the public knows where each route goes. There are signposts to check, downloadable leaflets to update and promotional activities to undertake. Just, it seems, not so much lately.

The Walk London website was revamped last year, from a fairly bespoke site to something that wouldn't need updating so often. All the pages for all sections of all walks were set out identically, with generic links banished to a left and right margin. Printable maps were hidden behind a link that said "leaflets", and route directions became available as a separate pdf. Where proper (glossy) section-by-section leaflets had once been sent out by post, these were discontinued and a series of bland overview leaflets made available instead. Now even these have faded away, partly because paper's a thing of the past, but also to save a large chunk of money.

The website used to have a news section, but that completely disappeared in the revamp. Walk London used to run weekend rambles, about fifty different walks three times a year, but those haven't restarted since January. Lots of fresh information was posted when the Jubilee Greenway was launched in the summer, including a full set of innovative video descriptions. There was a flurry of Olympic walking activity, indeed the Walk London website had all the most accurate information about which parts of the Greenway and adjacent footpaths would be closed when. But nobody's been back and updated the information since, and the lengthy spiel on "Temporary diversions" is now weeks and months out of date.

Walk London's Twitter feed last tweeted over a month ago. There were just two tweets in September and three in October, compared with, say, 28 in March. It's as if whoever was responsible for the account has lost interest, or isn't even there any more. More of the action switched over to Facebook, which is the new default option for public organisations who can't be bothered to maintain their own web presence any more. But even that stuttered to a halt in the middle of last month, with not a single promotional message since.

Walk London used to employ a number of staff. I met a few at the Thames Festival several years ago, back in the days when public bodies made an effort at this Mayoral event. They had people to spare, and leaflets-a-go-go, and a positive perambulation message to impart. I wonder where all those people went. There again, the campaign's always officially been an offshoot of Walk England, a group of professional nationwide encouragers, and they're still going strong. And TfL still contribute a non-zero part of their budget to support the campaign, so all should be well.
"Outcome monitoring on the Walk London network is undertaken annually to assess the effectiveness of TfL's investment and to confirm progress against the 2012 delivery deadline."
But where are they now? I'm not complaining, merely asking. Did they make everyone at Walk London redundant? Did whoever's in charge of marketing lose interest? Is there no more money left? Did everything peak for the Olympics? Or have we just entered a long seasonal void where it's assumed nobody goes walking any more?

Most importantly, is anybody still out there, paid or otherwise, keeping an eye on London's 390-mile long network of strategic walks? I had a lovely stroll along one of them at the weekend, and I probably wouldn't have thought to go, nor followed the right route, without Walk London's extended input. The capital's best walking project could easily fade away without due care and attention. It would be such an easy thing to lose. Fingers crossed that won't be happening any time soon.

12 noon update: Hurrah.

Indeed, double hurrah.

3pm update: Not so hurrah. In the comments, Rob says, "Poor old Walk London has had its budget and staff slashed. I think they are doing the best that they can on the resources available. I used to be a volunteer Route Ranger on the London LOOP but last year we were all told that they could no longer afford the public liability insurance to keep us on. A great shame, but it seems walking for leisure has dropped way down TfL's priority list."

Tuesday update: A response from Amanda Searle at Walk England
Thanks for raising the question 'What's going on with Walk London ?'! We're delighted to say that last week Walk England and TFL agreed the 2012/13 contract. From March 2012 until this point Walk England have been managing the website, social media channels and email enquiries as a gesture of goodwill. The budget to March 2013 has now been confirmed. It is reduced from previous years but happily we are able to put on a free walking weekend in January. We are also delighted to say that meetings have been arranged with TFL in January to discuss next year's budget. We are optimistic. Covering another of your points: The Boroughs are now responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of the routes. We pass any problem reported to Walk London on to them. I hope this goes some way to shedding light on the situation. Thanks.

Friday update: The list of 33 Winter Wanders guided walks is now available. There'll be several short strolls in town, some meatier suburban hikes, plus a special booking-required look inside Crossness Pumping Station. Stick the 26th and 27th of January in your diary.

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