diamond geezer

 Sunday, March 31, 2013

GRAVESEND: Bang opposite Tilbury, on the southern banks of the Thames, that's where Gravesend lurks [photo]. It's the last settlement before the estuary opens out and the marshes take over, for mile upon mile upon mile. Gravesend's been around for centuries, where the tip of the North Downs nudges down to the river, the ideal spot for maritime embarkation. More recently it's had a tougher time, and it's not the first place you'd think of for a day out. But its mood suited a grey cold day, and there was plenty to see, and hell, it's only two stops from Stratford.

Pocahontas: She's the one trump card Gravesend possesses, and they play her well. Not the Disney Princess, but the actual daughter of the tribal chief who met Captain John Smith on his first voyage to America. The girl from Tsenacommacah befriended the Jamestown colonists, then sailed back to England with one of them as a symbol of the "tamed" New World. Pocahontas lived in Brentford for a bit, was paraded in front of high society, met the king, that sort of thing. And then after a year she sailed home, or at least started to, but fell gravely ill as her ship reached Gravesend. Her immune system wasn't ready for smallpox, pneumonia, tuberculosis or whatever it was, and she died shortly after coming ashore. Her funeral took place in March 1617 at St George's Church, close to the foreshore, and her body was laid to rest in a vault beneath the chancel.

St George's burnt down in 1727 - these things happen - but Pocahontas is still buried beneath the Georgian replacement. The church is usually locked, but it was open yesterday so the good ladies of the parish could arrange the Easter flowers. They have a splendid space to fill, watched over by classical candelabras and several stained glass windows. Two of the latter are gifts from the Society of Colonial Dames of America, a Virginian group, and feature their beloved princess being baptised and looking angelic and stuff. In 1958 the Governor of Virginia came over to unveil a bronze statue, and that stands outside where anyone can see it. Arms splayed back, one foot behind the other, she stares out across a car park towards the inner ring road. [photo]

Gravesham council know they're onto a good thing, so the town's tourist information office is located immediately opposite. You'd probably not find it otherwise, hidden round the back of a modern shopping centre, past the multi-storey, beneath a coffee shop, doubled back down a ramp. It's a good place to start your explorations of the area, not least because they've done a fine job of highlighting all the other sites of interest the borough has to offer, and this borough explains its heritage rather well. Try not to gawp too long at the Charles and Diana memorial clock near Mothercare, none of the locals do, and in 1983 it would have seemed perfectly respectful. Instead consider the unlikely chain of events that plucked a native American girl from obscurity and led her to die in a town she never knew, but which now claims her as its own.

General Gordon: He's Gravesend's other claim to fame, the General of Khartoum, though again he wasn't born here. After honourable service in the Crimea and China General Gordon came to the town in 1865 to oversee the building of river defences, and to be a philanthropic citizen. Several forts were built to guard the mouth of the Thames, including Shornemead and Coalhouse Forts downriver and New Tavern Fort in the town. That's now part of a modern riverside park, with adjacent swings and a bandstand in the middle. But you can still climb the ramparts and look out across the Thames, maybe even pretend to fire one of the heavy guns at Tilbury Power Station [photo]. Part of the underground magazine is open to the public at weekends, but only from April to September so alas I missed out.

Town Pier: Gravesend boasts the world's oldest-surviving cast iron pier, built in 1834. It's not especially outstanding, except in longevity, but by rights it shouldn't be here at all. Passenger traffic boomed on the Thames in the 19th century, with millions sailing up from London to enjoy the river air and the formal gardens. But then the railways came, and the pleasure steamers ceased, and even the Tilbury ferry switched to alternative moorings in the 1960s. It took a council buyback and a lottery grant to rescue the place, since reopened with a rather swanky restaurant along its length. Perhaps too swanky for the average Gravesend resident - the covers didn't look at all busy yesterday lunchtime - but at least the clock tower and bell tower are still standing. [photo]

The Tilbury Ferry: It's the lowest public crossing point on the Thames, from the heart of Gravesend to a vague extremity of Tilbury, and somehow I've never ridden it before. Even better, just this month the service has switched back to use the Town Pier for the first time in half a century, departing from a brand new pontoon snaking out into the grey. Nobody's yet thought to advertise this on the southern side - the signs on the pier entrance Pier are all Restaurant Restaurant Restaurant with not a single mention of Ferry. The boat's not big, because these days the service is merely for foot passengers not vehicles [photo]. Inside is a bleak cabin with a few chairs and boxes laid out to sit on, plus a central desk where a deckhand waits to sell tickets (very cheap, only £3 return, for this is no fancy cablecar) [photo]. And every half hour he casts off, and the crew shuttle their no-frills human cargo across the estuary. A five minute voyage is all it takes to cross the shipping lane, maybe longer if you get caught in the wake of a passing container monster. They send a connecting shuttle bus to save you a long trek on the northern side, or you can walk to Tilbury Fort, or (if you don't mind a querulous stare from the deckhand) you can ride straight back again.

Gravesend town centre: Step out of the station and you're greeted by a battered pub, the backside of a Tesco Metro and a UKIP anti-immigration advert. For Gravesend is no tourist hub, more a maritime town on the slide with its fair share of social problems. One of the nicest bits of town, if you're on a whistlestop tour, is to walk up the 'Heritage Quarter' High Street [photo]. Start in Town Pier Square, by the Three Daws smugglers' haunt, and climb past the market hall to the old Library [photo]. Don't walk much further, things get rapidly worse, although the view from the top of Windmill Hill is worth the ascent. Elsewhere the 1887 Clock Tower has Victorian whimsy, and some of the riverside buildings have tales to tell, but head too far along the Thames - either west or east - and you'll regret it.

The Ship and Lobster: Depending on how you're counting, this is either the first or the last pub on the Thames. Dickens mentions it in Great Expectations, much of which was based on the marshes to the east. I thought I'd walk from downtown Gravesend following the Saxon Shore Way, a long-distance footpath hugging the coast of Kent from here all the way round to Hastings. Sheesh. The walk started out OK, past the Port of London's pierside HQ and a large marina (formerly the end of the Thames and Medway Canal). And then the road crossed a swingbridge to pass down an alley of tumbledown sheds, formerly hotbeds of marine engineering, now deserted. Ulp, I thought, what with there being no obvious means of escape should anything nefarious be lurking. At the far end the path opened out to a backroad lined by vehicle depots, truck exhausts chugging, and at the next junction another road led off into nothingness. I turned left where the canal restarts, this entirely overgrown, to track down the pub within a small industrial estate. A dead end surely, except past the redundant lighthouse there it was, The Ship And Lobster. Poor thing. It used to face the Thames but the front door now opens out in front of a concrete sea wall, attracting no passing trade except walkers intent on striding into the empty marshes [photo]. And yet the pub was open, and vaguely welcoming, although with only the publican's children crawling over the furniture inside. I'd guess it's busier Monday to Friday, when workers from hereabouts pop into their only local for a well-earned pint. But my vote's with "the last pub on the Thames" - so out of the way that I'm impressed it survives.

» Visit Gravesham (no, really, it's not such a stupid idea)
» nine photos

 Saturday, March 30, 2013

CENTRAL - March 2013
» Ten line facts
» Down the line: West Ruislip → Epping
» Stairway to Heaven: Bethnal Green
» End of the line: West Ruislip
» Out of place: Holland Park, Lancaster Gate, Oxford Circus, Tottenham Court Road, Liverpool Street, Newbury Park
» Line up: Greenford, Chancery Lane, Stratford
» Walking the Hainault Loop: Wanstead Roding Valley
» Skipping down the line: 10 non-stations
» First in line: Theydon Bois
» One last photo: Loughton
» All of the above on one page

CENTRAL: Theydon Bois
Head far out of town, to almost Epping, and the Central line halts in the middle of the countryside. Only rarely does the Underground serve a genuine village - Chalfont and Latimer are the only other examples I can think of. But Theydon Bois is proper rural, albeit reborn as an Essex dormitory suburb, with a village pond and ducks and everything. The green is part of Epping Forest, which starts officially just up the hill behind St Mary's church. No littering, no model aircraft, no picking the flowers. A few of the houses facing the green are old and classy, with thatched roofs and perfectly striped lawns. Many of the others are terraced cottages, dating back to an era after the railway came and the village opened to incomers. But head away from the main roads and the houses are newer, more mixed, occasionally Towie aspirational. The local butcher is a "Purveyor of Quality Meats", while bread is still served from a "High Class Bakers And Confectioners". But on Good Friday the parade of shops is closed and only the Tesco Express is serving, with queues way back past the chocolate eggs.

The village boasts three pubs, the most remote named Sixteen String Jack after a notorious 18th century highwayman. You'd have thought twice about taking the road up Jack's Hill back then, with Epping Forest a notorious haunt of bandits. You'd have thought twice about walking into the forest yesterday too, with muddy tracks and marshy puddles where soon a meadow of buttercups will bloom. As for The Railway Arms down by the station, that pub closed in 2011 and is now a forlorn sight. The car park is fenced off, there are legal notices in the windows, and the only sign of commercial life is a remaindered chalkboard advertising the final Neil Diamond Tribute Evening.

The station itself will be 150 years old in a couple of years time, originally opened by the Great Eastern Railway before London Transport snapped the line up. It's the least used station in Zone 6, as you might expect serving a village of a few thousand (and the complete absence of street lights in Theydon Bois can't help commuter numbers either). The platforms are peaceful places, watched over by horses in fields to the east, although the M25 rumbles not too far behind. They're joined by a lattice footbridge, open and narrow, currently littered with salt to prevent unseasonable frost taking hold. None of the daffodils in the flower beds have opened yet, although one looks like it might do soon if temperatures lift. And the name of the village, to save you asking, rhymes with Noise. Although there isn't much of that.

 Friday, March 29, 2013

Every Good Friday, a pub not far from me tops London's list of Quirky Things To See At Easter. The pub is The Widow's Son in Bromley-by-Bow, and the reason for widespread interest is dangling buns. Legend has it that in the early 18th century a local sailor, having promised to return home at Easter, drowned at sea. His mother refused to accept the loss of her son and baked a hot cross bun for him, annually, until she died. The Widow's Son pub opened on the site of her cottage in 1848, and the bun-baking tradition has continued ever since. A net full of increasingly stale buns hangs from a beam over the bar, and each Good Friday a serving sailor comes along to drop another inside. It's a touching tale, although I doubt that any of the existing buns are widow-baked.

Here's the Widow's Son pub today, near the mini-roundabout on Devon's Road. It's nearly 3pm, which is the official bun-chucking time, and I've come along to experience this peculiar ceremony for myself. The pub is full, indeed very full. There are people crammed into every seat, there are people jammed up against the bar, and there are people milling around at all points inbetween. They're happy, smiling, expectant, beers in hand. Some look like they've travelled miles to see the spectacle, a few are clearly sailors in uniform, but most appear to be resolutely local. Somewhere in the melee is a table of sandwiches, sausage rolls and nibbles, because they're having a party here once the deed is done. "We're shutting the bar for a few minutes," cries the landlord, because adding this year's bun to the net involves somebody clambering up on top of it. A few of the smokers out the back stop puffing and move to the door, while those inside try not to finish off their existing pints too swiftly.

What spectacle awaits? I don't stay to find out. I'm not good at entering alcohol-serving locations I've never visited before, especially those that are jammed full of strangers. I've gathered all of the information above simply by walking past the front of the pub, which has conveniently large windows, and peering briefly inside. I don't feel able to push my way over the threshold, and hanging round on the pavement for several minutes would appear awkward and socially gauche. So I walk on, listening to the cheery hubbub within, and leave the celebrants to their annual tradition. Events probably turned out much as in 2011 when The Gentle Author visited, and recounted the whole tale much better than I. You might try visiting next year, assuming the pub's not been closed by then, but if you do, maybe I could tag along?

It's the Easter Bank Holiday weekend.
It's an unseasonably cold Easter Bank Holiday weekend.
Here are ten places around London where you might go to escape the weather.

  • Chislehurst Caves London's other underground network - Chislehurst BR3 5TY (£6) [I've been]
  • William Morris Gallery The craftsman's house, recently restored - Walthamstow E17 4PP (free) [I've been]
  • RAF Museum A shedload of planes, and then some - Colindale NW9 5LL (free) [I've been]
  • Royal Gunpowder Mills Explosive heritage site with Easter activities - Waltham Abbey EN9 1JY (£9) [I've been]
  • Down House Charles Darwin's thought laboratory - Biggin Hill BR6 7JT (£9.90) [I've been]
  • National Army Museum Telling the story of the British Army - Chelsea SW3 4HT (free) [I've been]
  • Battle of Britain Bunker Open at weekends for a three month period - Uxbridge, UB10 0RN (£3) [Ian's been]
  • The Wallace Collection Proper 18th century art, plus an armoury - Marylebone W1U 3BN (free) [I've been]
  • Kew Bridge Steam Museum Steam, water, grease and pumping wheels - Brentford TW8 0EN (£10) [I've been]
  • Leighton House Museum Wildly ornate pad for flamboyant artist - Kensington W14 8LZ (£5) [I've been]
  •  Thursday, March 28, 2013

    One of the papers presented at yesterday's TfL Board meeting was entitled Cycle Superhighways. Over 14 pages it outlined the latest proposals to deliver CS5 (between New Cross Gate and Victoria) and an extension to CS2 (between Bow Roundabout and Stratford).

    Both CS2x and CS5 are being used as testbeds of fresh ideas, such as early-start facilities for cyclists and Dutch-style bus stop bypasses. These are to be costed and assessed, and if successful will (where possible) be rolled out to future Cycle Superhighways. It could be a long wait. There hasn't been a new Cycle Superhighway since the summer of 2011, with these next two appearing two years later. Stratford High Street's extension will be completed first, with construction taking place between May and August. Here are a few facts and figures about CS2x taken from the report, which may help you to make your mind up whether it's worth it or not.

    CS2x is scheduled to cost about four million pounds, most of that on construction. To put that into perspective TfL have then looked ahead to estimate what value of benefits will accrue over the next 30 years. They reckon cyclists will save a total of £38m over that period thanks to decreased journey times. A similar amount will be saved through health benefits, perhaps through Londoners keeping fitter or breathing in fewer exhaust fumes. £12m might be saved through improved safety benefits, thanks to segregated lanes and less awkward left turns. Throw in £9m of improved ambience, and that's almost £100m of positive impact.

    But it won't all be good. There'll also be disbenefits, potentially significant, because the Cycle Superhighway extension will slow down non-cycling traffic. Freight vehicles will lose £5m over the next 30 years, and taxis will lose £4m. Buses and their passengers will lose more - that's £10m through slower journey times, plus £11m from increased operational costs. But it's general road traffic that suffers most. General road traffic is destined to lose £103m over the next 30 years - that's greater than the gains earned through cycling, and a greater disbenefit still if you throw in everything else on the road. Overall, it's anticipated, CS2x will lose money... but it'll also make London a better place in other ways.

    TfL have drilled down and investigated these traffic disbenefits in some detail. They've used "robust TRANSYT and VISSIM modelling", whatever that is, to determine how journey times will be decreased, or more likely increased, once CS2x is built. They've done this for the morning and evening rush hours, because they're different, and for the two different directions, and for different kinds of traffic. Eastbound there's not much change. Travelling from the Bow Roundabout to Stratford usually takes about two and a half to four minutes, no matter what form of traffic you are. The Cycle Superhighway extension won't slow things down much, not by any more than thirty seconds, so travellers may barely notice. But westbound, ouch, they probably will.

    Average westbound travel times - CS2x
     Morning peakchangeEvening peakchange
    Cyclists5m 45s → 4m 46s-1m 01s5m 55s → 5m 04s-51s
    Buses8m 30s → 9m 38s+1m 08s6m 53s → 8m 09s+1m 16s
    Freight5m 35s → 6m 39s+1m 05s5m 18s → 6m 12s+54s
    Taxis4m 56s → 6m 02s+1m 05s5m 58s → 6m 29s+31s
    General traffic5m 04s → 6m 25s+1m 21s5m 49s → 6m 45s+55s

    It's very good news for cyclists travelling from Stratford to Bow. At the moment they're the slowest form of non-public transport (rattling through in approximately six minutes), but after CS2x is built they'll be the fastest. Cyclists will gain about a minute, whizzing along dedicated lanes and round the back of bus stops much faster than they do now. But everyone else will be slowed down by a minute, on average, after the roadway is narrowed and various junctions tweaked. It'll be particularly bad for buses, already the slowest way to travel because they stop frequently, but now destined to be slower still. I already think twice about taking the bus home from Stratford to Bow because they take so long queueing at the Bow Roundabout, so I'm not looking forward to the average travel time increasing to almost ten minutes.

    This isn't the usual policy of "smoothing the traffic flow", it's putting the brakes on. What's especially interesting here is to see cyclists elevated in importance above other road users, which is precisely what so many campaigners demand but isn't usually delivered. In this case a transport improvement has been agreed which'll make life worse for the average driver, and nobody in authority seems to mind. Compare this to TfL's refusal to add pedestrian crossings at the Bow Roundabout "because it'd slow down the traffic", and CS2x really is a step change in terms of attitude. Will it be maintained at other sites? That's yet to be seen. But if you regularly ride your bike down Stratford High Street, expect to get home quicker, and more likely in one piece, later this year.

     Wednesday, March 27, 2013

    Yesterday morning I picked up a free copy of Time Out at my local tube station. A bloke thrust it into my hand, and tried to thrust it into other people's hands too but didn't seem to be having much luck. I looked at the front cover, which featured a big fierce animal now appearing in a new enclosure at a major London-based tourist attraction. And then I opened up the magazine and discovered the proper cover was inside. I could tell it was the proper cover because it had dates on, and the fact that this was Time Out number 2221, plus the magazine's web address. It also featured a big fierce animal now appearing at a major London-based tourist attraction, but a different animal at a different attraction, and long dead. Two covers, one entirely enclosing the other - one genuine, and one only pretending to be.
    This is nothing new. Time Out has embraced sponsored covers with a vengeance, including a lengthy series sponsored by a credit card company. A month or two ago Time Out ran a competition giving readers an opportunity to have their own London photograph printed on Time Out's front cover. A great prize, except that when the prizewinning photos were published they weren't on the front front cover, they were wrapped inside another front cover paid for by advertisers. Well done, congratulations, but your photos won't be seen by millions on the streets, only by those flicking rapidly to the proper content inside.
    Yesterday morning I picked up a free copy of the Metro at my local tube station. I had to remember they're now hidden in a rack behind the door, which may explain why there always seem to be hundreds of copies left at the end of the day. I looked at the front cover, which featured a Star Wars character sat on a tube train to advertise a mobile phone company. The cover contained no obvious news, but there was a box in the corner which said "Your regular Metro packed with news, sport and features INSIDE". And this was true. Only when I opened up the newspaper did I discover the proper cover inside, including sad news about a dead girl and a teaser for page 11. Meanwhile the fake cover went on and on, a full four pager entirely enclosing the genuine article.
    This is nothing new. The Metro has embraced sponsored covers with a vengeance, often featuring the national launch of something big like a satellite TV channel, a sports brand or a new car. This is called a "cover wrap", and it brings in thousands in advertising revenue daily. You could rip the wrap off at the staples and read the paper as normal but people don't. They wander into their tube carriage clutching a whopping colour advert and wave it around for several minutes and it's all excellent publicity. We're good like that, us free paper readers, wafting the latest brand launch in front of dozens of ABC1s every morning, come what may.
    Yesterday morning I bought a newspaper at the kiosk outside my local tube station. I'm one of those old school commuters who likes a proper newspaper, even though I can't usually open it on the train because the carriage is too rammed. I prefer a paper which makes some attempt at depth and analysis, not news-lite titbits peppered with PR advertorial masquerading as truth. And I'd rather not buy a paper where Sky Atlantic's latest purchase is splashed across the front, the inside and the back where the proper news should be. I'm subsidising the old school offline model, with cash, so long as it lasts.
    It may not last long. The other week a partial cover wrap appeared around my daily paper - full page on the back but only the left-hand half across on the front. They couldn't cover the whole front page, obviously, because it was important any would-be purchasers could still see news underneath. The wrap was advertising some mobile phone launch, with big red pictures and a minimum of text. Thankfully it was really easy to remove, then fold up and discard. And thankfully it's helping to keep my newspaper's finances afloat, or at least to stop them haemorrhaging quite so fast. But I fear it may not be long before a full four-pager appears... a last gasp echo of the early years when broadsheets filled their front pages with small ads.
    Yesterday evening I picked up a free copy of the Evening Standard on my way home. Some poorly paid bloke was dishing them out in front of the tube station, and we were picking them up almost as fast as he could fold them in half. And no surprise, the entire pile of newspapers had a cover wrap, front and back. What's more it featured exactly the same Star Wars character sat on a tube train to advertise a mobile phone company which had been wrapped around the Metro earlier. In case we hadn't lusted after their wi-fi sufficiently in the morning we got an identical second chance in the afternoon. And as for late breaking news, we only found out about that later when we opened to the actual cover and started to read.
    This is nothing new. The Evening Standard has embraced sponsored covers with a vengeance, often featuring the national launch of something big. And they're no respecter of a big occasion. When the Pope unexpectedly resigned, the Evening Standard went to press with its screaming headline hidden behind a financial advert, or a coffee promotion or something, I forget. It's money in the bank for them, and we oblige because we've been programmed to pick up the freesheet even when it doesn't look like a newspaper. It's the future, I tell you, so long as giveaway periodicals survive.
    Yesterday evening I picked up a free copy of Stylist magazine on my way home. I don't normally. Normally I stare at the distributor with disdain because he's offered me a magazine aimed at women, and I'm not one. I assume he's desperate to dispose of his pile of newsprint and he's hoping I'll speed up the end of his shift, not that I'm actually interesting in handbags and nail polish. But on this occasion I took one to see if it had a cover wrap or not, because it wasn't obvious. And hey presto it did. This week's proper model was kicking her legs on the inside version of the front cover, while a purple and orange training shoe hogged the four-page cover wrap. Thrusting rubber footwear in London's face most have cost the company a tidy sum, but that's the modern way. If your product doesn't make the headlines, buy them.

     Tuesday, March 26, 2013

    London's tube map is generally agreed to be one of the finest design icons in the known universe. Yesterday was the map's 80th anniversary, or at least yesterday was 80 years since the first non-geographical version was first released to an unsuspecting public. The man behind the new map was Harry Beck, a draughtsman whose unconventional ideas were taken on board by London Transport on a trial basis and proved unexpectedly successful. From a rough sketch to a best selling range of tea towels, Beck's ideas have imprinted themselves so deeply that for millions of us his tube map is London.

    Yesterday was therefore a very good day to unveil a blue plaque to Harry Beck, and here it is. English Heritage are still installing their last tranche of blue plaques before they run out of money, and Harry got in before the hammer fell. It's a very special blue plaque because the font used is New Johnston, the official TfL font... and doesn't the effect work well? A handful of other blue plaques are similarly adorned, these for more elevated London Transport types, including Edward Johnston who designed the font in the first place. And look, Beck's plaque even has a mini tube map at the bottom! Some may argue that the stations are too close together, others that this is in fact English Heritage's logo, but I like to imagine it's a topological Hainault loop, and all the more appropriate for it.

    It is perhaps no surprise that the man who designed London's tube map grew up in a house with a station at the bottom of the road. Walk out of the front of number 14 Wesley Road, Leyton, and Leyton Midland Road station is less than ten doors down on the left. This is a very ordinary street, indeed I'd say it's the sort of street you'd never normally walk down... except that there's a station at the bottom of the road so you actually might. Wesley Road is a double terrace of variegated brick, with bay windows intruding into minor front gardens. One house is stoneclad, another is pebbledashed, but otherwise there's a pleasing almost-uniformity about the angular frontage. This is relatively affordable London (though a step too far up the ladder for some), where folk can buy a house of their own not just the top floor plus kitchenette. Indeed the street looks like much of the rest of the Leyton/Leytonstone area, respectable but not upmarket, afloat in a sea of residential Victoriana.

    The new blue plaque sends a strong message that Harry came from very ordinary surroundings, propelled by talent rather than wealth, and it's good to see that celebrated. You get further evidence of his humble-ish beginnings by trotting up the steps at Leyton Midland Road station and looking down from the southbound platform, then staring down into his back garden. It's not wide, and it's not long, but there is room for a non-PVC conservatory leaning out from the back wall, probably where the outside toilet used to be. Perhaps Harry stood in this garden to watch the trains, perhaps this inspired him as a child to nip up to his bedroom and draw coloured lines...

    ...except stop right there, absolutely not. Because our mapmaker-to-be lived at 14 Wesley Road for only the first two years of his life, before his parents upped sticks and moved to Highgate. The family left Leyton 40 years before Harry drew an orange line to mark the nearby passage of the Central line, and a century before the station at the bottom of the street made it onto the tube map as part of the Overground. However excellent today's new plaque might be, the house it's attached to had absolutely no influence on his grand design whatsoever.

    English Heritage have erected a plaque here because they can, because nobody else has snuck in to slap a plaque on Beck's birthplace before. The Finchley Society got in much earlier with one of Harry's other London homes at 60 Court House Gardens, West Finchley. That pristine semi was his home for 24 years, and therefore we can assume that proper design work went on within, rather than just a lot of night-time teething and bawling. Up until today Finchley has always been Beck's Tube Map Heritage Hotspot, with yet another plaque and an informative poster bolted to the wall at Finchley Central station. Leyton has come late to the game, earning E10's very first blue plaque to honour a man who could never have remembered living here.

    TfL held their unveiling ceremony yesterday morning, attended by the great and the good and a phalanx of photographers. Ian was there, and has some splendid photos of the event, so you should obviously go and read his report now. By the time I arrived the officials were long gone, English Heritage had taken their red curtains away, and the street was dead ordinary again. It was a delight to see recognition of Harry's work placed in a location that was otherwise entirely incidental. But to save you the bother of visiting, rest assured, the finest memorial to Harry Beck is the little paper map dished out in hundreds of thousands each year with his name in the corner. That and the tea towels, still going strong 80 years on.

     Monday, March 25, 2013

    CENTRAL: skipping down the line

    The Bakerloo line is well spaced, with stations pretty much everywhere a station should be. Not so the Central. There are several gaps and missed connections, including at least one entirely skipped community. That's no conspiracy, it's just how the line was built, and there hasn't been either the will or the money to make significant changes since. Here are ten places the Central line could stop but doesn't.

    East Ickenham: We've discussed this one already. There'll never be a station where the Central crosses the Metropolitan, because the intersection is too close to West Ruislip. There might be a linking curve one day, but not until the signalling on both lines is compatible, and that's nowhere near. [map]

    Park Royal: Here's the next missed interchange with the Piccadilly line. The Central line ducks beneath near Park Royal station, so close that if the platforms had run north rather than south they'd almost have joined up. But although a new connection would be ideally placed for Diageo HQ, it wouldn't be great for anyone who lives round here, and the more convenient station on the Hanger Lane roundabout would probably have to close. [map]

    North Ealing: And yet another Piccadilly miss, this time on the Central's brief Ealing spur. Changing to the District line is easy, a brief wander to adjacent platforms at Ealing Broadway. But changing to the Piccadilly involves a three-line shuffle for anyone relying on a tube map, or a walk from West Acton for those with a better grounding in local reality. That makes three non-connections with the same line across West London, all doable on foot, but it seems remiss that 1930s planners failed to realise how useful a Piccadilly/Central liaison would be. [map]

    Wood Lane: Here's a lost opportunity that could have been planned better, not that anyone would have known at the time. In 1908 the Central line was extended from Shepherd's Bush to Wood Lane to serve the Franco-British Exhibition and the Olympic Games. The new station was an awkward single-track affair on a sharp curve, improved with straighter platforms in 1920 when the line pushed on to Ealing. Wood Lane (Central line) closed in 1947 when neighbouring White City was opened instead, although the station buildings weren't demolished until 2003 when Westfield was at the planning stage. Then in 2008 a new Wood Lane station appeared on the Hammersmith & City line, on the opposite side of the road to where a previous Wood Lane station had closed in 1959. If you're not following this, sorry, there's a detailed history here, here and here. But the upshot is a mega Wood Lane interchange never happened, just a "walk along the street" link, which is easy but definitely sub-optimal. [map]

    British Museum: How useful it would be to have a Central line station very close to London's most popular tourist attraction. And when the line opened in 1900 there was one, a station called British Museum on the corner of High Holborn and Bloomsbury Court. Again the Piccadilly line caused the problem here, because six years later they opened a different non-interchange station on Kingsway. That was much better placed for road and tram connections, so in 1933 the Central line admitted defeat and opened new platforms at Holborn station instead. Up until 1989 the surface buildings at 'British Museum' remained, and you could buy photographic equipment and horseriding gear from the former ticket hall. No longer. Everything above ground has been demolished, and a Nationwide Building Society office (next to My Old Dutch) now covers the site. Below ground the platforms have been bricked up and provide little more than a useful space to store sleepers, but they're sort-of glimpsable if you know when to look. [map]

    City Thameslink: A slightly longer than usual gap exists between Chancery Lane and St Paul's where the Central line ducks beneath the valley of the Fleet. Partway along is City Thameslink, the only station inside the Circle line not to get a mention on the tube map. It's almost a ghost station outside peak hours, but is about to get much more important from 2018 when Thameslink is upgraded. Blackfriars is already an important interchange, and Farringdon will become a mega-hub once Crossrail opens, whereas City Thameslink looks doomed to become an annoying halt in the middle because the Central line doesn't stop. [map]

    Shoreditch High Street: This is possibly the biggest missed opportunity of all. The Central line runs directly underneath the Overground station which opened three years ago, and yet nobody's made any attempt at all to join the two. No convenient connection exists between Overground above and Central below, none at all... and that's deliberate. The Central line is plenty busy enough at peak times without linking it to other lines and making the overcrowding worse. Crossrail should make a big difference in 2019, relieving the Central of its worst cattle-truck conditions, after which a Shoreditch interchange could safely be built. But don't count on it, London's skint, so network perfection will have to wait. [map]

    Roman Road: This one hurts. If the Central line ran straight from Bethnal Green to Stratford it'd pass under Roman Road, through the heart of Bow. But it doesn't, it diverts significantly south to meet the District line at Mile End. Strategically that's the right decision, providing an invaluable connection that improves millions of journeys each year. But for those living in the northern half of E3 the Central line's non-appearance makes the area that bit less accessible, that bit less desirable, that bit less prosperous. In a parallel universe Roman Road Market is popular and Victoria Park is a convenient day out, but instead the Central line runs parallel and Bow misses out. [map]

    Pudding Mill Lane: When the Central line punched east from Liverpool Street the planners decided it should be an express railway, so it skips through Tower Hamlets pausing only twice. The longest gap of almost two miles is between Mile End and Stratford - great for those who live in Essex but less good for those of us (raises hand) who live inbetween. In particular the Central line scores a direct hit on Pudding Mill Lane station but doesn't stop, because PML came second, and because nobody could have predicted the Olympics would take place alongside. Instead Stratford has become the megahub, and if you want to visit Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park or go to West Ham's first home match in 2016 then you'll need to divert via there. [map]

    Leytonstone High Road: The final railway that could interchange with the Central line but doesn't is the Overground. That's the Gospel Oak to Barking line, the poor relation of the orange network, which somehow manages to miss almost every single possible connection from end to end. Here in Leytonstone a half mile walk is required, which isn't endearing to the casual traveller, but that's what happens when a rail network evolves rather than being planned. Central maybe, but not always convenient. [map]

     Sunday, March 24, 2013

    BBC TV Centre quiz

    Here are clues to the names of 30 TV programmes filmed at BBC Television Centre.
    Sixteen are picture clues, and the rest are cryptic.
    How many can you name?
    (Answers in the comments box)

        17) JB
        18) nekidsed
        19) Cushing
        20) Fraurie
        21) Hamlet Eton
        22) Scott Reagan
        23) 10 1000 0  
    24) p p
    25) worste
    26) Freecycle
    27) MJJASOND
    28) Major agreement
    29) anyone for tennis?
    30) Livingstone, I presume?

     Saturday, March 23, 2013

    It's taken a while, but West Ham are finally confirmed as the long term tenants of the Olympic Stadium.

    It's taken a very long while. In 2004 London's Olympic bid made it clear that the stadium would absolutely definitely be used for athletics, but by 2006 the Sports Minister was in talks with West Ham (and others) about bringing in a football tenant. The stadium design unveiled in 2007, with removable upper tier and no internal infrastructure, appeared to rule out football completely. But as the years go by that "sustainable" decision has been seen as increasingly unsustainable, with a football team the only sensible legacy option. West Ham and Spurs then fought for the right to move in, the latter somewhat cynically, with Leyton Orient shouting "unfair" from the sidelines. Legal issues then stopped West Ham being named the legacy tenant, until economic pragmatism finally won out and the prize was theirs. At long last.

    Many have complained that West Ham are being handed this asset almost for nothing, and that a private company is effectively hoovering money out of public funds. Why did the Treasury blink first and throw another £25m into the pot? How did Karren off the Apprentice get away with only a £2m downpayment? How can the local council afford to give West Ham £40m when they can't find money for basic local services? And no it's not a great deal, but it's better than the alternative which is a white elephant decaying at the heart of a new East London neighbourhood that needs to thrive. Things went irretrievably wrong when the go-ahead was given for a downsizeable stadium, not that this was obvious at the time, when the inevitable football option suddenly became much more expensive.

    Years of indecision have also created considerable delay in reopening the stadium for its new purpose. Not so long back it was hoped that football might kick off in the Olympic Stadium in 2014, but now that won't be happening until summer 2016. That's four whole years after the Olympic Closing Ceremony, indeed it's beyond the next election for Mayor of London. It's so far away that West Ham could be playing in the Blue Square Bet Conference Premier by then, although Davids Gold and Sullivan very much hope not.

    Retractable seats are going in, that's finally been agreed. They'll give a much closer view of the pitch than is currently possible from behind an athletics track, as those of us who've sat back there will attest. There'll also be a bigger roof, because a stadium designed for summertime might not be ideal for a home match in January. The roof gets rebuilt first, ready for the Rugby World Cup in 2015. Then the World Athletics Championships come calling in 2017, which mean West Ham get kicked out at the start of their second season here. Sharing with national and international events is going to be tough, but that's the price you pay for not paying a very high price.

    Geographically speaking, this move finally brings West Ham into the County Borough of West Ham - half of the current borough of Newham. A further bonus is that any West Ham fans accidentally getting off the tube at West Ham won't have too far to walk. But with Stratford due to become the main station for stadium access, expect Saturday afternoons at Westfield to become a little less attractive for shopping. One consequence of all this is that I'm suddenly going to have a local football club. The Olympic Stadium's less than a mile from my front door, so I'm very much in West Ham's catchment area when they try to fill 20000 additional seats. But I doubt I'll be taking them up on their offer - the atmosphere at a football match couldn't possibly be the same as last summer's Olympic buzz.

    And what of Upton Park? E20's gain is E13's loss, and the foot of Green Street is going to be a quieter place at weekends when the football departs. Claret and blue fans will no longer pour out of the Boleyn pub, nor jostle for a burger and ketchup from a stall on the pavement. No more will star players drive up beneath the castle turrets and sign autographs for kids through the railings, nor a roar go up across the surrounding streets when the home side scores. In May 2016 the site will close, and the stands will be transformed into flats and a retail centre, and this'll become yet another corner of the suburbs where history no longer happens.

    Yesterday's tenancy decision sets in motion one further unfortunate change. When West Ham move in it won't be possible to call this the Olympic Stadium any more, because the naming rights are being sold off. Instead some multinational will stump up millions for West Ham's coffers and stamp their own identity on the scene of 2012's golden triumphs. Will it be the McDonalds Arena, or the China Telecom Stadium, or the Westfield Annexe, or some other ghastly combination of marketingspeak? Enjoy the last few summers before the football starts and life returns, but the Olympic flame finally extinguishes.

     Friday, March 22, 2013

    Around the end of March every year, TfL publish their budget for the forthcoming 12 months. This provides numbing detail on how much things cost, but also copious background information on what's planned to happen in the year ahead. All this is to be discussed at a Board Meeting next Wednesday, and the papers are freely available on the TfL website. I've skimmed through and picked out a dozen milestones that are scheduled to happen during the financial year 2013-2014 (purely subjectively and not necessarily because they're important).
    Apr 2013 Northern Line Extension: Complete Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) stage “C” design
    Apr 2013 DLR Double Tracking: Issue Invitation To Tender (ITT) Pudding Mill Lane Station to Waterworks River
    May 2013 Croxley Rail Link: LU formal submission of Development Agreement to Hertfordshire County Council for sign off
    May and Sep 2013 Crossrail Tunnelling: South-East TBM breakthrough Woolwich box station
    Jun 2013 Tottenham Hale Gyratory: High Road (A10 Corridor) switched to two-way traffic
    Jul 2013 TfL Website: Launch of new TfL website
    Aug 2013 Victoria Station Upgrade: Commence South Ticket Hall Demolition
    Aug 2013 Operational Upgrade: All operational readiness requirements complete and accepted to commence Circle Line S stock train operations
    Aug 2013 Cycle Superhighways: Cycle Superhighway Route 2 extension - route open
    Sep 2013 Working Timetables: Central Working Time Table 67 introduced into Service, improving off peak and weekend service levels
    Jan 2014 Future ticketing project (FTP) phase 2: Delivery into service of FTP Phase 2 - Contactless bankcard payments across all modes for PAYG (Pay As You Go) travel
    Mar 2014 Pedestrian Countdown at Traffic Signals: Implementation completed for full scheme (200 sites)
    Searching through the Board papers also reveals some fresh data about East London's favourite cablecar.
    The Emirates Air Line launched ahead of the 2012 Games as the UK's first urban cable car and saw exceptional usage. The forecast total for 2012/13 is 2.0 million passengers. It is anticipated that ridership levels in 2013/14 will return to a more expected level (1.5 million passengers a year).
    That's interesting. By my calculations just over half a million people rode the cablecar last year during the Olympic and Paralympic Games. That leaves 1.5 million 'normal' passengers in 2012/13, spread over eight months of 'normal' operation, which is an average of 175000 passengers per month. TfL's target for next year is also 1.5 million passengers, but this time spread across twelve months. That's an average of only 125000 passengers per month, which is a predicted 30% slowdown in passenger traffic. Even excluding the Games, cablecar ridership in is decline.
    EAL carried 73,000 passengers in Period 11 (6 Jan - 2 Feb 2013) and availability was 89.1 per cent. Passenger numbers remain in line with the forecast, which projects lower passenger numbers during the autumn and winter than during spring and summer. Weather has a significant impact on the day to day demand, similar to an observation attraction such as the London Eye or a river service such as Thames Clippers. High winds on seven separate occasions accounted for almost all service downtime. Excluding wind, availability would have been 99.8 per cent for the period.
    January was never going to be a good time for the cablecar. Indeed this four week total of 73000 passengers is only half the hoped-for average of 125000. But as TfL rightly point out, other tourist-oriented options such as river services also see fewer users when the weather's grim, so midwinter tumbleweed on the cablecar shouldn't be too surprising. The weather's effect on availability is interesting too. High winds closed the cablecar for just over 10% of January, whereas operational and mechanical failures were almost insignificant. No doubt about it, a transport option that shuts unpredictably 10% of the time isn't an especially reliable commuting option.
    Passenger demand is at its busiest at weekends and during school holiday periods. February school half term week was the second busiest week since the Games with over 51,000 passengers.
    As we all suspected, it's sightseeing, not commuting, driving passenger numbers on the cablecar. When more people live on the North Greenwich peninsula, maybe (maybe) those commuting figures will rise. In the meantime expect a shift to promoting the cablecar for tourist reasons, perhaps like this crass attempt, or this one. The dangleway needs 4000 tourists daily to hit its target... what a shame it's closed this week for maintenance.

     Thursday, March 21, 2013

    CENTRAL: Walking the Hainault Loop

    I'm walking the Hainault Loop, northeast London's very own orbital railway. Previously I've walked east from Wanstead and north from Newbury Park, now finally I'm heading back west. This section of the walk links the three least busy stations on the entire Underground network, because it's semi-rural out here and because everyone owns a car. Technically this is Essex, although never very far from the border with London. Let's see if I can get to the end before it gets dark. [map] [42 photos]

    Yes, there really is a station called Grange Hill, adjacent to the suburban estate of the same name. Apologies, it doesn't have a 70s comprehensive school stocked by lovable reprobates, however much you'd like it to. Instead there's a single primary, and some tennis courts, and a mix of housing from flats to "never lived in a flat in their life". The station building would be lovelier had not a doodlebug scored a direct hit in 1944, but Grange Hill's platforms still have a long-ago feel. Part of the neighbouring shopping parade is proper mock Tudor, for your wine and hairdressing needs, whereas the extensions to either side are decidedly less reverent. I watched as two youngsters on horseback emerged from a sideroad between the shops and waited for the traffic to pause. A motorbike roared by, to the obvious horror of the riders' matronly chaperone, until a gentleman in a vanity-plated Merc restored her faith.

    There are many ways to walk to the next station. What I'd planned to do was walk up the footpath adjacent to Chigwell cemetery, out into proper rolling fields, but then I looked at the mud and thought again. What I could have done was walk up Mount Pleasant Road and over the top of the Central line where it runs through a tunnel. What I actually did was stumble up a narrow alleyway between the backs of umpteen back gardens, which was almost as squidgy underfoot, to a footbridge across the railway. This affords a clear view straight through the aforementioned Grange Hill Tunnel, which is a very short one, barely 200m long. What I should have done was continue my walk on the other side of the railway, through woodland along a farmyard track, but a local resident with an over-bouncy dog persuaded me otherwise. It's easy to see now that I missed all the potentially good bits, partly through inadequate map reading, but also by visiting in dour grey winter. Mark walked this way as part of his Tubewalker project and found it glorious, but that's high summer for you.

    The 'village' of Chigwell creeps up on you. First you think "Lesley Joseph would never have stooped to this", then "OK, maybe Tracey and Darryl might have lived here" and finally "bloody hell, that's beyond even Dorien". Charles Dickens adored the place, immortalising the local pub in Barnaby Rudge. A few cottages from his time survive, notably up the High Road, but Chigwell's streets are now widely infilled by New-Money New-build. Here are all the gastropubs and nail salons a footballer's wife could desire, plus the legendary Debra clothing store for aspiring Towies. Security gate installers must do a roaring trade, but Chigwell's not entirely exclusive, nor indeed unfriendly, and seven-car households remain the exception.

    Chigwell station has character, both above and below. The frontage boasts twin pedimented gables, giving the building an appropriately semi-rural stature, although it's very hard to take a photo without finding a 4×4 parked in front. The platforms run in a cutting and are longer than they need to be, so the far end now features dismantled roundels, bulbless lamps and mossy asphalt. There's no way, geographically speaking, that this Essex outpost should be in fare zone 4, but operationally I guess it makes sense. The next station is only two minutes away by tube, over the valley across the viaduct, but I was going to attempt the crossing on foot and that isn't easy direct. First I had to walk some distance down the High Road, past more residential fortresses and a golf course, before turning off down a narrow lane lined by trees. One last push.

    Luxborough Lane looks like it's going nowhere, and ultimately it is. But hidden round the first bend, well, here's a collection you might not be expecting. First there's the M11, snaking down the Roding valley on its way to join the North Circular. I enjoyed the view from the bridge, not looking down at the traffic but across to the heights of Buckhurst Hill. Secondly there's a hockey club, that's Old Loughtonians, who have two telltale bright pink and blue pitches. The club was selected as the official training venue for Olympic hockey, so they're now the lucky custodians of true London 2012 sporting legacy. And thirdly, yes, that white igloo-type building really does say Tottenham Hotspur on it. This is Spurs Lodge, where the first team used to do all their indoor training, except they pushed off to new state-of-the-art facilities in Enfield last September. Poor Chigwell, no longer the Premiership hobnobbing location of choice, although I suspect few of the footballers wives have deserted.

    A barrier stops cars progressing further, on a brief but lonely stretch of lane down to the river. This is the Roding, which I last encountered eight miles ago near Redbridge. A single angler lurked by the waterside, blatantly fishing during the start of the close season, although who was going to notice him out here? The Central line passed above on brick arches, rather more impressive than crossing via a small metal footbridge with BNP graffiti daubed on the side. Here be mud, which squelched deeper across the rugby pitches ahead. It's a simple lesson in geography - never build houses this close to a river, but it's perfectly OK for grown men to ruck and maul instead. The railway embankment here marks the edge of the capital, to which I was returning. The last pub in Essex looked pleasant, or would have done were it not for a suspicious number of bouquets stacked up round the bus shelter outside.

    And here it was, the end of my walk at Roding Valley station. This is the least used station on the Underground, with less than half the number of passengers of second-placed Chigwell up the line. That lack of footfall is reflected on Cherry Tree Rise at Station Parade, which is the only parade I've ever seen constructed with only two shops. But what an intriguing station, for those who bother to visit. There are no ticket barriers, because what's the point? You can enter step-free from either side, thanks to a low ramp installed a few years ago as an easy win. The station manager makes regular announcements "from the control room at Roding Valley", should anybody be listening. And when nobody's around he pops out front and spruces up his topiary locomotive, which has to be one of the most unexpectedly quirky features on the network. The sky was dimming now, with lamplight illuminating the station, as an Essex stereotype in a onesie arrived to purchase a ticket. He rode one stop to Chigwell, obviously, and I rode home.

    » map of my walk (not necessarily the optimum route)
    » 42 photographs (12 of them fresh today) [slideshow]

     Wednesday, March 20, 2013

    CENTRAL: Walking the Hainault Loop

    I'm walking the Hainault Loop, a safari through outer northeast London. Yesterday I trudged three miles along the southern edge, along the arterial A12. Today I'm following the Central line north as it swings north out of deep tunnel and into the countryside. There will be horses. There will be muddy puddles. There will be further relentless housing estates. And at the end there will be Essex. [map] [30 photos]

    Enough of Eastern Avenue. The dual carriageway slogs on towards Romford after Newbury Park, but I needed to follow the Central line suddenly north. Oaks Lane sounded promising, a reminder of when everything round here was fields, although in reality rows of semis leading to an unexciting stack of flats. And then the houses on one side stopped, and the vista opened out to reveal fields. Not exciting fields, more flat green expanses of partly grass, but a welcome change of scenery all the same. To the left a footpath crossed the railway heading for an unseen Sainsburys, but I pressed on towards proper rural, up a pitted track (notionally a bridleway) to a clump of buildings surrounded by agricultural detritus. This is Aldborough Hatch Farm, an outpost of the village of Aldborough Hatch across the fields, part-swallowed by suburbia. I would have taken a photo but the owners were standing around outside, and nothing screams "Neighbourhood Watch" louder than a stranger unexpectedly snapping your outbuildings. They drove off in their 4×4 along the lane, dirt splashing as they rolled, past a couple of very damp looking horses.

    It's not far, not far at all, to the edge of Fairlop Waters Country Park. This is the dull corner of the park, unless you like golf. A wooden signpost pointed past the lake to Fairlop station, but I followed the shorter finger along the lane towards Barkingside - the briefer non-muddy option. Redbridge council hides a youth offending centre at the tip of Station Road where most won't see it, and here too is Oakside Stadium, home to Barkingside FC. They play in the Essex Senior League and are only eight promotions away from the Premiership, although judging by current form that's looking unlikely. For a decent view of any action try the footbridge at Barkingside station, which is alongside. The station building is Grade II listed, this time not for modern reasons but because it's 1903 classical. Cream stone quoins. Granite plinth. Small domed cupola. That sort of lovely.

    Just down the road is Doctor Barnardo's Village, this for girls to make up for the fact that before 1876 everything had been for boys. It has 14 cottages set around a rural green, and a children's church, and a Tesco on a patch of land since sold off. But to follow the railway I didn't walk that way, I followed Craven Gardens - suburbanly nondescript to the end and then wow. At Fullwell Cross is my favourite London library, from the outside at least. "A low, circular concrete drum with simple yet varied fenestration, rising above the centre of which is a lantern with arched roof lights and conical - almost tent-like - shell roof with a green copper finish." It could be a crown, or some symmetrical type of hat, but truly it's just circular genius. The architect was Frederick Gibberd, famed for Harlow New Town and for Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, and ah yes, there's the similarity. The council have even used a sympathetic sixties font for the big yellow letters facing the high street... they're clearly well read.

    Fairlop station is one of the least used on the Underground, because the Central line passes just too far east to be convenient. Back in the 1940s the station was surrounded on all sides by Green Belt, bar a thin strip of housing running down to Fulwell Cross, a not insignificant walk away. The boating lake will never bring major passenger traffic, nor the golf course and garden centre, but the local High School packs them in daily. Look, it has an Amstrad Technology Wing, courtesy of Barkingside's cheery local millionaire Sir Alan Sugar.
    Journey to the centre of the Hainault Loop: I thought I'd take a brief diversion at this point to explore the bit in the middle. Where, I wondered, is the unfortunate settlement in the middle of the Hainault Loop, with a dozen stations all around but none close by. And that'd be Clayhall, an expanse of interwar housing estate merging into several more expanses of interwar housing estate, but this one invisible on the tube map. I took the 169 bus up Fullwell Avenue to its terminus at The Glade, which I think is about as far from the Central line as you can get. All ever so residential and not much more, I thought. But a footpath led off between two blocks of flats to an appealing-looking green space, rising beyond on wooded slopes, and topped off by a distant water tower. It looked intriguingly explorable, were it not for the muddy grass and the flooded path, so I thought better of it. Somewhere to revisit in the summer, I think, but for now, the next bus back.
    I alighted back at the roundabout by the New Fairlop Oak - which is both a pub and a famous tree. The East End used to decamp to Fairlop on the first Friday in July for a drunken revel beneath the oak's broad branches. 250 years later many of the East End have moved here permanently, as the jolly mannequin outside the halal butchers suggests. St Francis Church up Fencepiece Road has a green pyramidal spire and a very 30s design, as if it were somehow a church hall that grew too far. Alas it's the last vaguely interesting building for a while, because Hainault is more somewhere to live than a location to revel in. Here the residential avenues swamped both sides of the Central line before the Green Belt set solid, so the entire area is now houses and schools and intermittent shopping parades.

    Only on the platforms is Hainault station impressive. Down at ground level there's little but a pair of unprepossessing entrances, watched over by a low bridge and a billboard advertising Sky Movies. Meanwhile on the other side of the road is the entrance to Hainault Train Maintenance Depot - a key Central line stopover. It's reached up an avenue of silver birches, plastered with enough 10mph speed limit signs to remind even the most amnesiac driver. And the sidings block the way somewhat for walkers, not that there are many of us attempting to travel up the line on foot, to be honest. Time for a cut-through up a cul-de-sac, past bungalows and well-tended front gardens, in an entirely this-is-nothing-special kind of way. Only a set of allotments hints at the undeveloped green space beyond, its gate with a passive aggressive message to careless plot owners. But keep going, because at the top of the slope there's a hedge and then a field, and that's the edge of London, that's Essex. Next stop, Grange Hill.

     Tuesday, March 19, 2013

    CENTRAL: Walking the Hainault Loop

    Once you ride past Leytonstone, the Central line links with no other railway line except itself. The Hainault loop is a peripheral peculiarity, poking out into the heart of the borough of Redbridge, and traversed by few other than the borough's residents. The north and east sides of the loop used to be part of the Great Eastern Railway, joined southwards from Newbury Park to Ilford. Then London Transport tunnelled a fresh connection from Leytonstone, opening in 1947, and the Central line's loop was born. It has ten stations altogether, many of them architecturally intriguing, and trains take just over twenty minutes to travel from one end to the next. I thought I'd walk it. I do this so that you don't have to, remember - indeed on this occasion I'd strongly recommend that you don't. From urban sprawl to inner Essex, there are finer strolls. But hang on in there, especially if this corner of London is unknown to you. [map] [16 photos]

    I thought I'd start from Wanstead. I couldn't face the trek along the A12 from Leytonstone, plus I'd walked that way before as part of the amazing Linked project. Wanstead is an oasis of pleasantness, but only because the dual carriageway has been hidden in a cut and cover tunnel beneath the village green. The station stands in contrast as an outpost of modernity, a clump of rectilinear boxes topped off by a plain concrete tower. Charles Holden designed it, his plans diluted by wartime austerity, but striking all the same. Those seeking class and culture should head north along the High Street, past the George pub and its plaque "In Memory of Ye Cherry Pey". Alas the Central line follows the A12 east, from here all the way to Newbury Park, and that's the weary road I had to tread.

    Cars splashed downhill, past sidestreets abruptly chopped mid-terrace when the new road was driven through in the 1990s. I'd picked a rotten day for it. The rain should have been clearing but instead chucked down even heavier, which is not what you want when striding alongside an arterial. I could have hidden beneath the footbridge, one of the few ways across this tarmac divide, but thought I'd better press on because there were still more than ten miles to go. At the foot of the slope the houses ceased, because this is the floodplain of the Roding valley and much better suited to allotments and sports pitches. Ahead the North Circular crosses the Redbridge roundabout on stilts, only a short distance from the foot of the M11. It's not an easy environment for the pedestrian, funnelled through the middle via a twisting footpath, just remote enough that "what if..." thoughts of solitary crime begin to surface. But nah, absolutely fine.

    Here's Redbridge station, another Holden classic. Again there's a tower, but this one's Buckinghamshire brick, while lower down's mostly curves rather than straight lines. The exterior is roundeltastic, not just circles on poles but a whole series wrought in iron as part of a fence around the top of the stairwell. It's all a bit Piccadilly line, but differently quirky and not quite so grand. The station was sited on a traffic island beside the roundabout so it could best be served by local buses, augmented these days by long distance coaches pausing to disgorge motorway folk onto the tube.

    You can tell that the main road came first because the next stretch is arrow-straight, with acres of semi-style housing off to each side. This is proper interwar ribbon development, with front gardens shamelessly backing onto the A12 rather than curling away in disgust. Almost all are paved, with hardstanding for a couple of cars and very few attempts at horticulture. A word of advice to the householder who's planted a row of artificial flowers and surrounded them by rings of white pebbles - it's not classy, and a blatant fake when spring's late. If you think London's ugliest building is in Archway or Colliers Wood, perhaps you've not seen Wentworth House. Imagine a shoebox balanced on a coffee table, and now strip away everything lovely about your mental image. The ninth floor office suite is currently up for grabs for an annual rent of £34K, but only a visually dysfunctional boss would move their workforce here.

    There's very little to Gants Hill station above ground, just what looks like a redbrick scout hut in the middle of a major roundabout. Dip into the subway, signposted by some lovely solid roundels, and the tiling's bright and sunny. But only if you descend the escalator do the true glories of Gants Hill reveal themselves, notably the arched space between the platforms with uplighters reminiscent of the Moscow Underground. If you like worshipping bits of the Underground, make sure you venture out to this Holden temple to pay homage. But alas I wasn't going to the platforms, I had more of Eastern Avenue to walk. Oh joy, more dual carriageway and exhaust fumes, and more terraced semis facing onto the road. Most of those living out here have wheels, and automotive businesses thrive, be that tyremen, repairguys or in-car wi-fi hi-fi fitters. There's also a sizeable Asian population around here, which again you might not be aware of because you've never visited, reflected in the occasional houseproud façade and pillared balcony.

    A major road junction ahead looks like it ought to have the next tube station, but that's only a giant JD Sports on the corner. This is Grays Corner, a retail crossroads where the pub is now a McDonalds drivethru, and where the local newsagent is Fags & Mags. Ilford War Memorial Gardens are the only evident heritage hereabouts, a 1922 survivor watched over by the bronze figure of a soldier, overshadowed on both sides by millennial redevelopment that used to be hospitals. Nobody built a Holiday Inn here because there's something to see, more because cheap beds on the edge of town near the tube are always desirable. And Newbury Park is just down the road - the station nothing special, but the bus station, whoa! Oliver Hill's semi-cylindrical copper roof is breathtaking, especially alongside suburban mundanity, and the worthy winner of a Festival of Britain award. A fine place to pause awhile... maybe even the rain'll stop.

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