diamond geezer

 Saturday, August 31, 2013

Victim 1: Mary Ann Nichols

Buck's Row, Whitechapel
Friday, August 31, 1888

In the early hours of the morning, 125 years ago today, London's autumn of terror began. The man we know as Jack The Ripper claimed the first of his victims, in the backstreets of Whitechapel, and the East End barely noticed. Nobody realised at the time that a serial killer was on the loose, one who'd inspire endless media speculation and a series of £9 nightly tours. But his notoriety grew with each passing murder, spread irregularly over the next ten weeks, as tales spread of blood, guts and butchery. So my plan is to visit the five confirmed murder sites as the anniversaries pass, comparing what happened then to what's there now. And you may be surprised by the location of number one.

The first Whitechapel murder took place on Buck's Row, a backstreet running parallel to the Whitechapel Road. This had once been Ducking Pond Row, a wedge-shaped expanse complete with watery pool for the dunking of potential witches. In the early 19th century one end was filled in with back-to-back terraces, the slums of the future, while a wool merchant's warehouse was set up along the northern side. The East London Railway (now the Overground) cut through in 1876, with an arched brick bridge carrying Buck's Row across the platforms at Whitechapel station*. And immediately alongside, at the entrance to a stableyard between the first house and the railway, that's where Jack The Ripper's first victim was found.

It had been a dark and particularly stormy night. Cart-driver Charles Cross was on his way to work, walking down Buck's Row at twenty to four in the morning, when he noticed a prone woman in front of a gate. He may have assumed this was a drunkard sleeping off the gin, there being scant illumination hereabouts, but closer inspection revealed she was dying or dead. Charles and a fellow passer-by rearranged her skirts to give her some decency but failed to spot the terrible injuries inflicted upon her. That fell to a local doctor, summoned shortly afterwards by the police, who noted bruises, missing teeth and a double incision across the neck deep enough to reach the vertebrae. There was more to discover:
"There were no injuries about the body until just about the lower part of the abdomen. Two or three inches from the left side was a wound running in a jagged manner. The wound was a very deep one, and the tissues were cut through. There were several incisions running across the abdomen. There were three or four similar cuts running downwards, on the right side, all of which had been caused by a knife which had been used violently and downwards. the injuries were form left to right and might have been done by a left handed person. All the injuries had been caused by the same instrument."
Mary Ann Nichols, better known as Polly, had ended up in the workhouse after an unsuccessful marriage. Like so many in the East End at the time she relied on prostitution to pay her way, not as a positive choice but through lack of other options. The previous day she'd bought a new bonnet, black straw trimmed with black velvet, in an attempt to make herself more alluring to potential clientèle. As a shabby 43-year-old she didn't earn much per trick, but we know she pulled three times that night and spent her takings on gin. She was therefore in no fit state when client number four turned up, whoever he may have been, and so became easy prey for the Ripper-to-be.

So infamous were Jack's murders that Buck's Row got a name change, becoming Durward Street in 1892. That's still its name, although the street itself is vastly altered. Its cottages survived until the 1970s but were then demolished, and have since been replaced by long blocks of unremarkable flats. The warehouse on the opposite site of the street is now part of the playground of Swanlea School, a modern secondary, while the only surviving building from Victorian times is the four-storey Board School overlooking the station. Opposite is the Whitechapel Sports Centre, while at the far end is a massive Sainsburys, which ensures considerable footfall. And then there's the latest demolition agent, currently barring all through traffic, which is Crossrail.

To say Crossrail have taken over Durward Street would be an understatement. No cars can pass through until at least 2017, cyclists must dismount, and there are hi-vis hard-hatted personnel everywhere. We seem to be in the "wandering around with a theodolite" stage of construction at the moment, so intensely that engineers must be checking the street level daily for signs of movement. A large expanse of land immediately opposite the murder site has been razed and a mighty mobile crane erected while work proceeds on digging a 35m deep shaft. Meanwhile a brand new station concourse is being created above the Overground platforms. So far it's only gone in at the northern end, but soon they'll be adding a floor all the way along to join up with a restored entrance on Whitechapel Road. Indeed if you use Whitechapel station you're shortly going to have to get used to entering round the back in Durward Street, for up to three years, which I don't think is going to go down well.

And what of the murder site itself? It survived as an open space for many years, an off-road indentation used for parking, on the site of a former garage. This summer, however, Crossrail have (almost certainly unintentionally) sealed it off. Two flimsy looking blue-ish walls have been erected against the station parapet, decorated with a list of site regulations and a red reflector, removing all public access. A little imagination and you could well believe there's still a dead body behind, or at least a chalkline on the tarmac, precisely screened off from prying eyes. I fear that the original Victorian wall won't survive Crossrail's latest intrusion. A new public walkway is due to be opened up linking this very point to Whitechapel Road, and a glass or steel replacement looks likely. But if you wander down Durward Street soon, or glance up to the brick wall above Overground platform 6, Polly Nichols' final resting place lingers still.

All about the Polly Nichols murder
Map of Buck's Row 1888
Historical photos of Buck's Row (and yet more photos)
Whitechapel post-Crossrail 2018 (with murder site marked)

Jack The Ripper Casebook (an extremely detailed website, recommended)
@WhitechapelRealTime - a bunch of historians tweeting the events of 1888 (and well worth following)
125 years on, the East London Advertiser remembers

* In 1888 Whitechapel station was the eastern terminus of the District line. Tracks stopped short of what are now the Overground platforms, and were extended to Bow and Barking in 1902.

 Friday, August 30, 2013

DISTRICT - August 2013
» Down the line: Upminster → Richmond
» Next generation: Bromley-by-Bow
» Gunnersbury Triangle: Chiswick Park
» London Loop 22: Upminster Bridge
» The South Acton Shuttle: Acton Town → South Acton
» Kensington (Olympia): Kensington (Olympia)
» Southend Pier: → Southend
» Roundels: Ealing Broadway, St James's Park, West Brompton
» Fulham Railway Bridge: Putney Bridge → East Putney
» Jack The Ripper 125: Whitechapel
» All of the above on one page

No, seriously, they're doing tours? Apparently they've been running them for a few years now, summer months only, but I'd not noticed before. This year's season runs from 1st August to 1st September, so to visit you need to get a move on and book by Sunday. And it's only nine quid to go round, I thought it'd be more, and your ticket allows you to come back again within 12 months. Oh and the name of the building, sorry, it's Clarence House.

Prince Charles's official residence has a chequered royal history. It was built on The Mall in the 1820s, designed by John Nash in trademark pale stucco. The house's first owner was the Duke of Clarence, soon to be William IV, and he stayed here whilst king in preference to Buckingham Palace. Later it passed to Queen Victoria's second and third sons, the latter until 1942, followed by a brief wartime intermission before our present queen moved in. She lived here as the recently-married Princess Elizabeth, hence Prince Charles spent his toddler years at Clarence House. But its most famous resident must be Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, who spent almost half a century in this bolt-on mansion beside St James's Palace. Ten years ago the Prince of Wales moved in, joined more recently by the Duchess of Cornwall (but no longer Wills and Harry, for whom Clarence House is now no more than a forwarding address).

So long as you've pre-booked online (presumably so the secret services can check you out), all you do is turn up. Don't go to what looks like the main entrance, where tour-goers line up to take photos of guardsmen, but head instead to the back gate. Here you pass through the usual airport-style security protocols in a marquee in the garden, and then you wait on benches alongside your fellow tour attendees. Eighteen at a time, by the looks of it, and collectively on the mature side. All of my fellow visitors were over 60, and all were female apart from one dutiful husband who looked like he'd taken time out from the croquet club. I can also reassure you that the entire tour is wheelchair friendly, which is perhaps not surprising given that a 101-year-old once resided here.

Nice garden. A couple of huge plane trees dominate the centre of the lawn, providing an ideal space for sheltered entertaining. Outside the front door is a formal memorial garden for the Queen Mother, with low hedged beds surrounding a sundial. Nearby is a magnolia tree planted by the Dalai Lama, and a smaller specimen courtesy of Aung San Suu Kyi. On the far side is the vegetable garden, used for in-house catering, currently ripe with carrots, potatoes, runner beans and marrows. And beyond that are two beehives, obviously, given Prince Charles' 100%-organic green credentials. I'd bring you photos, but there are no photos thank you, either inside or out.

The tour takes you round the ground floor only, five rooms in total, and nowhere near the more private personal rooms upstairs. Four lead off a long central corridor leading to the main staircase, the other is up the 'Horse Corridor' which reflects the Queen Mum's equine obsession. First to visit is a small reception room, where it can be a struggle to stay on the beige protective carpet. Artworks and memorabilia cover every surface, plus there's a bookcase containing royal biographies (including more than one of the Prince of Wales). The Morning Room opposite is still laid out much as the Queen Mother left it, because surely someone would have repainted it by now otherwise. Receptions are hosted here, watched over by unfinished portraits and a selection of posed family photos.

On to the library, a small square room which used to be the main entrance hall. There are only a couple of bookcases, but the Queen Mother's love of Dick Francis is all too plain, as is a penchant for PG Wodehouse and signed first editions. Next up is the dining room, laid out for a posh silver service meal rather than a cosy supper, with two dozen John Pipers hung around the wall. The telephone on the sidetable can be dialled on extension 5508, which I note is 'BOSS' upsidedown, but I doubt that's entirely relevant. And finally into the Garden Room, which boasts a bold tapestry of a historic slaughter across one wall, but "with all the massacre bits hidden behind a sofa and a lamp". Again it's a busy room full of artwork and objects, plus the impressive stringed instrument the royal harpist gets to play.

That's it, you're back out into the garden again in little over half an hour. But it is fascinating to peek inside the royal enclave, to see the sofas that press announcements are made from and view the personal taste of a dowager centenarian. There is a shop of sorts to visit afterwards, in a backroom at St James's Palace nextdoor. It's late in the season so I think much has sold out, but royal baby merchandise is still much in evidence and the Lily of the Valley handcream is half price. Three more days remain to check out Prince Charles' gaff before he returns home and claims Clarence House for another year.

 Thursday, August 29, 2013

DISTRICT: Fulham Railway Bridge

Before my District line month ends, I thought I'd go for a walk down the Wimbleware. Not all of it, just two neighbouring stations, because I didn't have that long. I tried Southfields to Wimbledon Park, but that was really boring (apart from the walk through the eponymous park). So then I tried Putney Bridge to East Putney, and that was much more interesting. And unique.

The Underground crosses the River Thames a total of eleven times. Most of these crossings run beneath the river, but two in the west of London run above. Both are on the District line, and both allow brief panoramic views of the tidal Thames. But only one of these allows pedestrians to walk alongside the trains and enjoy the same view, but better. And that's the crossing at Putney Bridge, which isn't Putney Bridge, it's Fulham Railway Bridge.

It is a slightly confusing station, Putney Bridge, because it's not in Putney, it's on the other side of the river in Fulham. It's also rather a pretty station, at platform level, with ridge-and-furrow canopies and white serrated valancing. I like the heritage roundels with their bloodshot rim, and yes that really is a pill box at the southern end, built to protect the bridge beyond in case of invasion. The forked wooden staircase down to the ticket hall is much as it would have been in 1880 when the station opened, only now with safer treads. And the entrance itself is lofty and arched, making a bold external statement, though slightly diminished by addition of a row of modern bus shelters.

Ignore the waiting hubbub in the street outside and head for the cafe on Ranelagh Gardens. There on the side of the bridge is a plaque to Frederick Richard Simms, pioneer of the English motor industry, born 150 years ago this month. Simms is credited with coining the words 'petrol' and 'motorcar', and built the world's first armoured car, and invented the rubber bumper, and founded the RAC. It's amazing really that Frederick isn't more widely known. His very first commercial workshop was under the arch of this bridge, a space for fitting Daimler engines to motor launches, in what was probably Britain's first motor company. It's most appropriate therefore that the space is currently occupied by a car hire company.

Pass on, down the alleyway, towards the river. There's a sign that says 'Footbridge to Putney' if you're not entirely sure. A set of steps, initially hidden, leads up from ground to railway level. They're quite steep steps, the sort you might struggle to use with luggage or a pushchair. But the effort's worthwhile as the pathway flattens out beside the District line tracks. They're over a barrier, through a mesh, beyond an iron lattice. A series of lamp fittings curl over from the metalwork at regular intervals, like drooping flowers, for after-dark illumination. And where the bridge proper begins, the pillar is topped off by a most ornate pediment, with swirls and scallop painted in delicate green. Welcome to Fulham Railway Bridge. It's not usually busy up here.

There's no view to the northwest, towards Putney Bridge and the boat race course, because the railway obscures all. But you can look east towards the apartment towers of Wandsworth, and three cranes building more. That stretch of greenery on the north bank is Hurlingham Park, a private recreational enclave where the Thames Path retreats half a kilometre inland. The matching treeline on the south bank is Wandsworth Park, more public but less interesting. And if you have one of the houses backing down to the river between the park and the bridge, lucky lucky you.

Before descending on the far side, take a moment to look ahead at the railway arches curving off to the left. A motley assortment of businesses occupy the set, most motor-related, and two painted boldly with the Cross of St George. You can't walk that way, you have to take the sidestreet through a fairly well-to-do part of Putney. Oxford Road is nicer still, with its gabled brick villas and a Victorian art school. This is the sort of area where I imagine residents read the Evening Standard and find all those property details and society reports relevant to their way of life. Indeed the shops on Upper Richmond Road are a world away from what you might find in Stepney or East Ham, not least The Beer Boutique and Mister Buttercup's hand-painted furniture emporium.

East Putney station has a peculiar piazza, with pillars to each side topped by signs in an atypical stencilled font. It's hard to see the ticket hall entrance from the road because a florists squats in front, with passengers diverted to either side (past the estate agents or phone shop). Until 20 years ago this was a British-Rail-owned station, even though Waterloo-bound services ended several decades before. That's why up top there's an entirely disused platform, and an over-large island platform in the centre for southbound services. Most of those starting their journey here crowd onto the separate northbound platform, again nothing special architecturally, but the only way to ride back across Fulham Railway Bridge... and complete the loop.

 Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Shh, don't mention it, but it won't be August forever. Never fear, London always puts on a last flurry of events and activities and happenings before the nights draw in, and we're all invited. Here's my weekend by weekend guide to free September delights.

Weekend 1: August 30/September 1
» Brentford Festival (Sun, from 12): Funfair, stalls and a dog show, in Blondin Park W5. Harry will be slacklining. And you can arrive by free Routemaster bus from Brentford or Hanwell.
» London Mela (Sun, 1-9): A celebration of South Asian culture, especially live music and food, in Gunnersbury Park.
» Angel Canal Festival (Sun, 11-5): Waterside gaiety beside City Road Lock.

Weekend 2: September 7/8
» National Paralympic Day (Sat, 12-8): Or 'National Paralympic Day featuring Liberty Festival' to give the event its excessively full name. A celebration of disability sport and arts, this year relocated to Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. (Damn, all the sports in the Copper Box are already sold out)
» Thames Festival (starts Fri 6 Sep): Rather than the usual one-weekend extravaganza, this year's Thames Festival spreads itself over ten days. There isn't a riverside mega-fair this year, which is an austerity touch, but there is a much smaller samba/soca festival by the Oxo Tower this weekend. Many events are free, but several you'll need to buy tickets for.
» The Great River Race (Sat, 12.10-15.10): 300 craft engage in a spectacular paddle up the Thames from Docklands to Richmond. (This year's the 25th anniversary)
» The Cally Festival (Sun, 12-6): Community event on the Caledonian Road, featuring music, art and creative workshops.

Weekend 3: September 14/15
» Heritage Open Days (Thu-Sun): 100s of buildings that aren't usually open, are open. Most of them are outside London, but there are plenty open in Kingston (which is spending the weekend pretending it's in Surrey). (See also Berks, Bucks, Essex, Herts, Kent)
» Thames Festival (ends Sunday): It's the final weekend of the Mayor's annual riverside extravaganza. Highlights include the Blue Ribbon Village by Potters Fields, and the amazing-looking 1513: A Ship's Opera in the Pool of London on Saturday evening. (But no fireworks finale this year, sorry)
» London Design Festival (continues until next weekend): Hundreds of design-er events will be taking place across the capital. Watch out for Endless Stair beside Tate Modern.
» Kings Place Festival (Thu-Sun): Head to King's Cross for 100+ performances of spoken word, comedy, dance, jazz and classical music (Here's a list of the free events)

Weekend 4: September 21/22
» Open House London (Sat, Sun): The grand-daddy of architectural festivals, with hundreds of weird and wonderful buildings throwing open their doors across the capital. Most of the really special events are fully booked, but you're not too late to sign up for the this four-property raffle. There'll be tons to see over the weekend, in fact far too much to choose from. Be there, or regret it for the next 52 weeks. (the app rises in price from 69p to £2.99 this Saturday)
» Great Gorilla Run (Sat, from 10.30): Dress up as a gorilla and run 7km to raise money for charity (or just come along and watch sweaty knackered apes)
» Bermondsey Street Festival (Sat, 11-7): Dance, Designers and a Dog Show, plus food and stalls (will Zandra be there again this year?)
» Hidden River Festival (Sun, 12-5): Celebrating the 400th anniversary of the New River (one week early), this one-off fete pops up beside the waterway in Finsbury Park.
» Tour of Britain (Sun, 3.30-5.30): The final stage of this cross-country bike race is a ten-lap lycra-tastic sprinty circuit starting and finishing on Whitehall.

Weekend 5: September 28/29
» Autumn Ambles (Sat, Sun): 30 free guided walks around London's strategic footpath network. Most are in the centre of town, but a handful will take you out to the periphery for a proper ramble. Smaller than previous events, but praise be that Walk London's budget survives. Recommended. (See the full list of events here)
» Abbey Gardens Harvest Festival (Sat, 2-5): Calling all would-be gardeners, chutneymakers, tea drinkers and veggie chefs. (alongside Abbey Road DLR)

 Tuesday, August 27, 2013

If you want to ride on a London tram, you can always go to Croydon. But if you want to ride on a proper old London tram, a sleek double decker on rails, you need to head to Lowestoft.

The East Anglia Transport Museum is located on the outskirts of town in Carlton Colville, just past the mini-roundabout and a new housing estate. The site is long and narrow, wide enough for two 'streets' leading down to a field at the far end. The museum kicked off in 1966 when a group of enthusiasts got hold of an old tram and wanted to restore it, gradually accumulating more stock and building more sheds to store them in. Not just trams, they also acquired trolleybuses, buses, road vehicles and a railway. This transport hotchpotch opened to the public in 1972, and they've been cramming in more and more ever since.

A selection of trams and trolleybuses run from the turning circle area near the museum entrance. They'll be different depending on the day you turn up, but might hail from Newcastle, Derby, Bournemouth, Blackpool, Amsterdam, wherever. Or London. The London tram dates back to 1930 and operated out of New Cross depot, with brakes resilient enough to run up Dog Kennel Hill in Dulwich. After two decades' service it was kept on public display at Chessington Zoo, then rescued by the team in Lowestoft when its space was needed for a new attraction. Car 1858 is the last functioning tram of its type, and looks rather splendid today. The vehicle is tall with two identical rounded ends, there being no need for a separate driver's cab thanks to tracks embedded in the road below. And then there are the cables draped out above the tramway, here mixed with those necessary for the trolleybuses to create a spiders web suspended in the sky. Take a seat - the best are in the comfy bays at the top of the stairs, and set off on a journey back in time. You don't go far. Trams head down to the end of the site, then left a short distance into the trees where the conductor hops off and tugs the electric connector round to face the other way. Meanwhile trolleybuses follow a brief looping route, three times, with the driver tugging hard on the wheel to round each corner.

All the rides are staffed by volunteers, indeed the entire museum only functions because of their dedication. Some are here for the opportunity to drive, some only want to punch your ticket, while others are tucked away in the sheds repairing and restoring. Many, you suspect, are here for the chance to wear a beige and maroon trim uniform plus peaked cap. Others are here, you suspect, because their husbands are transportaholics so working in the cafe or shop is one way to share some time together. And most are either old or young, the former filling their post retirement years with something that's a lot of fun, the latter filling in time between school, college or university. Where else in Suffolk can you get the opportunity to drive a train several times an hour for the delight of passengers? Ah yes, a miniature railway also runs down the edge of the site, but don't come expecting a lengthy ride. Trains on the East Suffolk Light Railway take less than 90 seconds to chug from one terminus to the other, where the loco changes ends, then less than 90 seconds to head straight back. All the rides at the EATM may be short, but you can go on them over and over again at no extra cost.

I was surprised to see how many chunks of London have been transported to this East Anglian outpost. One of the shorter roads has an original Islington street sign. The kerbs and trolleybus wires down one street were rescued from the Silvertown bypass. Three red London trolleybuses are preserved here, with route numbers in the 600s and destination boards including Stratford and Winchmore Hill. One of these never moves, but you can walk around inside and enjoy the designs of some original London Transport posters. Even one of the central exhibition huts contains the unexpected sight of a century-old Mornington Crescent roundel (which I showed you yesterday) and a Central line platform diagram showing the line extending to Denham. If anything there's more in this museum from London than there is from East Anglia, probably because trams and trolleybuses were urban creations and only a few local towns boasted them.

Non-public transport also gets a look in, with vintage vehicles from an Austin saloon to a Trabant. Heritage lottery money has paid for a roadmaking exhibition based around a 100-year-old preserved steamroller. Elsewhere there's a K1 telephone box (that's rare), the obligatory Anderson shelter and some heritage shopfronts that even I found nostalgic. And the cafe's called the Terminus Tearooms, which proved more attractive its name suggested it would be. If you like this sort of thing - a collection of transport ephemera and perfectly preserved vehicles - be warned that this not-enormous site may be a long way to come. Also check the calendar before you set out, and never come on a Friday or a Monday unless it's a bank holiday. But maybe consider the End of Season Gala Weekend in a fortnight's time, where the volunteers pull out all the stops and run everything, even out into the surrounding town. It is, I can assure you, much more fun than merely going to Croydon.

 Monday, August 26, 2013

I'm still in Norfolk.

So here's another roundel to enjoy instead.

 Sunday, August 25, 2013

I'm reading a good book at the moment. It's a good book for three reasons. Firstly, it's an in-depth look at the history of an overlooked part of central London. Secondly, it's all about diamonds, and this blog approves of books with the word Diamond in the title. And thirdly, blimey, I get a mention.

The book is Diamond Street by Rachel Lichtenstein. She's written two fine books before, the first being Rodinsky's Room and the second On Brick Lane, both about the Spitalfields/Whitechapel end of London. This time she moves west, to the street of Hatton Garden on the fringes of the City. This is the heart of London's diamond industry, the place to come for a hand-crafted engagement ring or sparkly jewel. But it wasn't so, and Rachel's book mixes the backstory of the location with tales from the street's more recent past.

What Rachel's done is pinpoint a sliver of the capital, roughly from Leather Lane to Farringdon Road, and dig down into as much of the history as she can find. That's from fields outside the Roman city walls to the splendours of Ely Palace, and from the emergence of a well-to-do estate to the growth of metallurgical workshops. It's an area rich in interest, including streets once under the control of the Cambridgeshire police, and the slums where Fagin plied his trade in Oliver Twist. And then there's the River Fleet, London's greatest lost waterway, which once flowed down the edge of the site.

The Fleet is where I come in, I think. I wrote a heck of a lot about the Fleet in 2005, and that particular archive page gets a namecheck in the acknowledgements. My main blog gets a listing too, on page 343, sandwiched between www.debeers.com and www.dickensmuseum.com. There's nothing specific in the main body of text, but it's sort of exciting to think that Rachel stopped by here when doing her research. And she did several years of research, which you can tell by the dense (but very readable) sequence of historical references throughout.

A lot of the chapters are about the characters of Hatton Garden, the craftsmen and merchants who made diamond dealing possible. A strong Italian community grew up here, but it's Jews escaping from occupied Europe who really helped the diamond trade to thrive. Rachel paints a picture of honest men in attic workshops working extended hours to craft stones and jewellery of great beauty. The trade once ran on trust, with diamonds swapped at Mrs Cohen's Kosher Cafe, but has since developed to become a multi-billion pound industry.

Interviews are a staple part of Rachel's reportage, where possible with those around long enough to remember. Even much of the history in the book is told by the experts she meets - a tour guide here, an archaeologist there, even a day out with Iain Sinclair. I'd say Rachel's often prone to adding unnecessary adjectives to describe a place or setting, but then so am I, so I can't complain. It all makes for a very readable volume, nicely segmented, and peaks with a crowd-pleasing (official) trip down the Fleet sewer.

As a bonus, or more accurately as publicity, Rachel's publishers have put together an app to help you explore Hatton Garden more deeply. It's free to download, and features extra text, images and sound to accompany a walking tour of the area. You wander the streets, and at the appropriate points a commentary plays or a video pops up. At this point I should tell you how well it works, but I'm in Norfolk at the moments and the GPS only works if you're in EC1. I can only flick through the app's timeline, being 100 miles from the intended location, so I have no idea precisely what happens if you stand on Saffron Hill and listen.

Other than my Fleet posts I've never really blogged about Hatton Garden, which is ridiculous on a blog entitled Diamond Geezer. Rachel's psychogeographic tome has persuaded me I really should get down there soon, and write about it one day. But Diamond Street would be a hard act to follow.

 Saturday, August 24, 2013

When I woke up yesterday, my broadband wasn't working. There was some London-wide problem with my provider, and no news on when the problem might be fixed. It was ghastly.

So I went out for the day. I went to Beachy Head and did my favourite six mile walk along the clifftops. The chalk was sparkling white, there were butterflies across the downland, and the views were spectacular. It was excellent.

I was going to tell you about it. Not much about it, because I've told you about this particular walk before. But when I finally got home, my broadband still wasn't working. There was now some national problem with some hardware somewhere, and no news when things might be fixed. It was ghastly.

With my laptop entirely impotent, I can only access the Internet via my smartphone. And it's horrible. How do so many of the rest of you live like this?

It's not just the keyboard. Little tippy tappy letters, so easy to mistype, when I'm used to big chunky plastic keys. It's the size of the screen. It's the awkwardness of multi-tasking. It's the lack of utilities I can properly control. It's the inability to dig down under the surface. It's like living in a dumbed-down world. A damned clever world, but not somewhere I can fully thrive.

I'd like to show you some photos from my coastal walk, but I can't control how they'll appear. I'd like to add some links to interesting pages, but that's beyond the capability of Blogger's app. I'd like to show you my previous trips to Beachy Head, but locating the URLs has proven too problematic. I can write you this string of text, but sorry, it's not the multimedia experience you're used to.

Hurrah for smartphones, because if this Internet outage had happened last year I wouldn't have been able to bring you anything at all. But I worry that as mobile becomes the new default, we're heading into a walled garden where our creative options are considerably fewer.

Update: When I woke up this morning, my broadband was working again. That's a blessed relief. It feels like 1996 has gone away and 2013 has returned. It also means I can upload some photographs of Beachy Head to Flickr (there are nine here, and a previous set here). But I'm again struck by how much more I can do on my laptop in ten minutes flat than I could do on my smartphone in an entire evening. I truly hope the future isn't dumbed-down smartphone-tiny.

 Friday, August 23, 2013

Yesterday morning, you may remember, was wet. It rained during the rush hour, and the temperature struggled. Not the perfect moment, then, for TfL to launch a special heatwave-related bottled water promotion. It's a interesting idea to give out bottled water on the Underground, indeed some of us might have suggested the same thing recently. But dishing it out on a cool day when there's plenty of free water falling from the sky, that's not so clever.

You may have seen the press release.
As the hot weather returns to the Capital this week, Transport for London (TfL) has teamed up with the UK's most ethical water brand B*** to give out bottles of water to customers, helping to emphasise the advice to carry water while travelling on the Tube during this particularly hot spell.
You've got to feel sorry for whoever put this campaign together. Someone had the great idea to run a campaign promoting safe travel advice and free water, and then the August weather failed to rise to the occasion. It's not been especially hot for the last three weeks, with the chances of a late summer heatwave rapidly declining. So someone must've spotted a heat spike this week and decided to go for it, pencilling in Thursday as the day to commit resources and launch. And then Thursday refused to play ball, turning out to be the coolest day of the working week, overcast and proper wet to boot. Never mind, TfL's press office circulated the press release with the phrase "this particularly hot spell" anyway.
B*** has provided London Underground with 43,500 bottles of water, which will be given out at some of the busiest stations on the network.
Well I didn't see any. The tube sees up to 4 million journeys a day, so yesterday's escapade will have touched less than 1% of the travellers on the network. A mere drop in the ocean, you could say.
The company is the exclusive bottled water partner of WaterAid, the international charity that transforms lives by providing access to clean water and sanitation to some of the world's poorest communities. B*** give all of their profits to WaterAid, and have committed to giving £1m by 2020
That a nice idea, to link a bottled water with an international sanitation charity. But I'm not sure where the idea came from that B*** is "the UK's most ethical water brand". I don't see how any bottled water brand can be ethical, what with all that pointless transportation of liquid from one place to another when you could just turn on a tap, and the unnecessary production of one-off plastic containers. More to the point, whilst I trust TfL to give opinions on transport-related matters, I don't think they're in any position to decree one bottled water brand more ethical than another.
B*** give all of their profits to WaterAid, and have committed to giving £1m by 2020
That's not true, that first part, it's a blatant lie. If you read further down the press release to the "Additional information", you'll see that B*** donate only 10% of their profits to WaterAid. The other 90% they pocket, as indeed any good business would. But by making out B*** to be 100% altruistic in the main body of the text, TfL are badly misleading their ethically-minded customers.
WaterAid will be holding bucket collections over the coming weeks at stations across the Tube network.
This is to be applauded. It just seems strange that the bucket collections didn't take place on the same day as the bottle giveaway. All that free water being given away, but no takings collected, so nobody benefits.
Phil Hufton, LU's Chief Operating Officer, said: 'We know travelling around London during the summer months can be uncomfortable, we are making real headway towards cooling the Tube and providing station cooling, with new air-conditioned trains being introduced on 40 per cent of the network by the end of 2016, but we know there is still work to do and cooling the deeper lines of the Tube remains a considerable engineering challenge.
There's an understatement. Cooling the deeper tube lines is verging on an impossibility, given the enforced narrowness of the trains. New surface level trains are a real boost, and are making conditions much more bearable without the need for bottled water. But the main factor keeping the Underground cool is the British weather. It just doesn't get especially hot in Britain very often. Like it didn't get hot on Thursday, for example.
'We are very grateful to B*** for supplying our customers with bottles of water. I'm sure it will be welcomed by customers as temperatures are set to rise, and I hope that it gets across the advice that we are giving to customers to carry water while travelling on the Tube. If this proves popular, we will look to develop similar partnerships for the benefit of our customers in the future.'
Customers always welcome a freebie, but I'm not convinced that many will have saved their bottle of water for today when it might actually be useful. And what's this about the possibility of future giveaways? Is this TfL edging closer to a more commercial-friendly outlook? And there was me thinking my Underground Water post was satire.
Karen Lynch of B*** said: 'It's essential to keep hydrated when commuting in the heat.'
Now stop right there Karen. Obviously it's important for the human body to contain water when travelling, otherwise we'd drop dead. But it is not essential to imbibe liquid on trains - millions of people manage non-drinking commutes every day without dying. Karen's product is a bottle of water, not an underground essential.
'We're excited to be working with London Underground and to be able to show Londoners that by buying B*** you can demonstrate you care about people and the planet whilst on the move.'
See how Karen slips in her brand message there. And again, she's talking b*****ks. Waving this particular bottle of water in a train carriage doesn't make you an eco-warrior, it just means you've paid over the odds for a natural resource.
Anissa Msallem from WaterAid said: 'The heat wave conditions we've been experiencing really bring home the importance of safe, clean water.'
Poor Anissa. She submitted her quote some time ago, expecting it to be released at London's sweaty peak. Instead her words limped out during a tepid rush hour, and her desperate non-sequitur has hit the deck.
'Together with B*** we want to raise awareness of the millions of people who still live without access to this essential resource. Hopefully from today, Londoners will think of choosing B*** as their bottled water choice, and help some of the world's poorest people to access clean drinking water.'
You have to be a true PR dunderhead to use a phrase like "choosing B*** as their bottled water choice" in a press release. As it is, I suspect 45000 people said thanks yesterday for a free bottle of water, and they won't be back, and most probably threw the bottle into landfill.
TfL gives the following advice to customers travelling on the Tube in the summer months:
• Carry water with you
I still have problems with this advice. If it's a very hot day, and you're on a long trip, and there's a risk your train might linger underground, then maybe. But I refuse to believe that London is populated by dehydrated wusses who can't survive fifteen minutes underground without gulping down half a litre of water. In particular TfL's recommendation to "always carry a bottle of water with you" smacks of official endorsement for pre-packaged H2O, so perhaps their latest press release should come as no surprise.

If it gets a bit warm on the tube today, as the last minor heatwave of summer kicks in, for heaven's sake don't waste your money on a bottle of B***. Fill a recyclable container from the tap instead, and send your donations to WaterAid direct.

 Thursday, August 22, 2013

Great roundels of the DISTRICT line

Roundels don't usually look like this. They used to. The first roundels consisted of a solid red enamel disc with a horizontal blue bar, and were introduced on station platforms in 1908. They were meant as station nameplates, with the red disc acting as a highlight for the darker board across the middle. These roundels weren't flat - that's timber moulding round the blue strip - and that's not the usual TfL font either which had yet to be invented. But this design used to be the default, except on the Metropolitan who introduced a red diamond instead because they were contrary like that. Now I believe only three stations still boast solid roundels. One's at Covent Garden and another's at Caledonian Road on the Piccadilly, while there are several here at Ealing Broadway. You'll find them inside the old train shed on the platforms furthest away from mainline trains. Three are on platform 9, accessible only via footbridge, where the fewest District line trains ever stop. You're much more likely to walk past the roundel on platform 8, beneath the restored short canopy, in what is a particularly pleasant end-of-the-line space. The effect is a bit like stepping back in time, though only a bit because modern adverts and illuminated signs and bogstandard roundels lurk close by. And before you get too carried away, I believe these ancient roundels are actually replicas, because it's a bit too risky to have your 1910s originals on full display in a busy public place. But they remain great roundels of the District line.

Roundels don't usually look like this. They used to. That raised blue border around the nameplate was the done thing, not replicated since. And that small superscript 'T' for Saint, that's quaint, and totally against modern design guidelines. But it's the apostrophe that's of interest here. Every other roundel on the station says St James's Park, which is the current name of the station. But this one's missing its final S, because St James' Park was the name at the time. I'm not sure precisely when that time was, but I've found a tube map from 1921 which calls the station St James' Park, so sometime around then. By the time of Beck's first tube map in 1933 the name on the map is St James Park, with all trace of apostrophe eradicated, which can't possibly be grammatically correct. The current name of St James's Park crops up in 1951, so has been around a while, and matches the Royal Park above ground character for character. To spot the interloping roundel you'll need to be on the eastbound platform, at the far eastern end beneath the stairs. Trust TfL to keep some proper heritage on the station beneath London Underground HQ. One of the great roundels of the District line.
St. James' Park: plural apostrophe with singular noun (no)
St. James Park: no possessive apostrophe whatsoever (no)
St. James's Park: singular apostrophe with singular noun (yes!)
St. Jame's Park: ghastly error at London Transport Museum 2007

Roundels don't usually look like this. They used to. The font used for Underground lettering wasn't always so rigidly applied as it is today. It developed over time, and these roundels at West Brompton show an earlier incarnation. It's the W that really stands out, here created from two overlapping Vs in an unfamiliar (but not unique) typographic style. And that's not the only difference. The E is asymmetric, with its central bar shortened somewhat and slightly raised, and that B doesn't look quite right either. The letters aren't perfectly spaced, because they'll have been painted by a signwriter rather than a machine, and they're also thinner than we're used to now. But the O is still circular, which is one of the defining features of the Johnston font, and the overall effect remains endearingly attractive. You'll find these roundels at the northern end of both District line platforms, attached to the stairs. But there are rather a lot of stairs at West Brompton, so you could easily use the station without realising these beauties are here. They're both labelled "Reg No 659:814", should anyone ever need to order a replacement. Two more of the great roundels of the District line.

 Wednesday, August 21, 2013

London has a true love affair with food.

High-end restaurants, pop-up kitchens, street food festivals... we'll spare no expense to give our taste buds a treat. We love our sushi, and our ramen, and our cronuts, or whatever this year's food sensation is. If Time Out announces a Portuguese saltfish bake-off, or the opening of an organic cinnamon cupcakery, we're there. We queue for bespoke burgers, order cocktails from a mixologist and snap photos of our cordon bleu platters to circulate to friends. We think nothing of splashing out on unusual ingredients, pulled pork takeaways and seven-course tasting menus. Dining out has become a pleasure, even an essential, as Londoners' lives are increasingly defined by their pampered palates.

So this is the right time to bring news of an event which celebrates the way we eat today. A reflection of the very best of innovative cuisine. An epicurean fiesta to bring the population of the capital together. It's the London Foodbank Festival. And it's coming to a street near you soon.

In recent years more and more Londoners have been discovering the joys of cooking on a shoestring. Rising rents and falling income mean smaller budgets and shorter shopping lists. And that means sourcing food more creatively... or going without.

Innovation is the key. With hungry mouths to feed, and nothing much in your basket, it becomes essential to spread what you do have further and further. This may mean swallowing your pride, or outsourcing additional supplies, perhaps even requesting a hamper of timely comestibles from your local philanthropic outlet. Pulses, pasta and potatoes are some of the daily staples of Foodbank cuisine, perhaps garnished with tinned tomatoes or tuna to keep rumbling tummies at bay. The message is "Eat well, spend less".

And now the proponents of austerity culture are seeking to share their recipes with the rest of us. That's both as a taste of what we're missing, and as a timely reminder of how the other half live. Here are some of the dishes you could be enjoying if you sign up for the experience of the London Foodbank Festival.

Beans sur toast: Moist haricot pulses in a light tomato jus, layered on stale loaf rejuvenated by a spell in the toaster.
Canned surprise: That cheap tin with the missing label, lifted from the cut-price shelf in the local supermarket.
Nouvelle cuisine: A few dainty slices of carrot and frankfurter scattered around a large plate dappled with pools of ketchup.
Food parcel: Wrapped in recycled cardboard, this box of basic ingredients could see your family through the next week.
Bedroom Tax omelette: Made from just the one egg, watered down a bit, with a dash of pepper and some KFC scrapings.
Flakes of corn: Crisp golden maize (definitely non-Kelloggs), drenched in UHT milk, as a stopgap meal at any time of the day.
Iceland cuisine: Why not bake an own-brand pizza and open a pack of £1 party nibbles to celebrate a loved-one's birthday?
Granny's wartime cookbook: Gran knew what she was doing, making do and digging for victory, and adding grated swede to everything.
Carrot, Cumin & Kidney Bean Burger (9p): The recipe makes four patties (so freeze the other three). Serve with salad, rice or potato wedges.
Roasted courgette and feta Greek-inspired potato salad (13p): This sauce, dip, whatever, is immensely versatile, either as a potato salad or as sauce to use for tomorrow's lunch.
Mushroom, Bacon & Ale Casserole (28p): Trusty cheap bacon and some of a £1 veg pack, plus a dash from a four pack of very cheap bitter, makes this hearty winter warming dinner.

Next time you're poncing round some Michelin-starred restaurant, or slapping down a £20 tip, or picking up a bottle of vintage wine to go with your premium ready meal, or slipping out at lunch to buy a ribmeat hot dog, spare a thought for those less fortunate than yourself. While the rest of the capital is splashing out, others are hunkering down to try to make ends meet. And those who are forced to live this way would rather like it if the rest of the capital would stand up and notice, maybe even contribute, rather than turn an increasingly blind eye.

Rather than buy a posh coffee this morning, why not spend £3 on basics and drop them off at your local Foodbank venue. Or nip round to a neighbour in need with more than a cup of sugar. Or try surviving on pound a day for food for a week and see how well you cope. That's the key message of the London Foodbank Festival. While you may never have had it so good, many have never had it worse.

 Tuesday, August 20, 2013

DISTRICT: Southend Pier

The District line used to run to Southend-on-Sea. No really. From 1910 to 1939 there were seaside specials pulled by steam locomotives, fast from Barking to Leigh-on-Sea, maybe three times a day. Some of them even went to Shoeburyness, but I didn't fancy going there again. Instead I stopped off in Southend to take a ride on a completely different railway, down the longest pleasure pier in the world.

Sir John Betjeman once said that "the Pier is Southend, Southend is the Pier", which is convenient, because almost every tourist article written since has started with these words. The pier owes its existence to something the Southend Tourist Board would rather not mention, which is mud. The Thames is wide and tidal (and sand-free) at this point down the estuary, and the mudflats go out a very long way. Arrive at high tide and you might not guess, but at low tide the sea goes out at least a mile, so a very long pier was required to allow pleasureboats to dock. The first wooden pier opened in 1830, was extended in 1848 and was replaced by iron in 1889. It proved extremely popular with tourists, and with the navy during World War II. More recent years have not been so kind. The pavilion at the far end burnt down in 1959, and another fire destroyed much of the pierhead in 1976. Ten years later a tanker smashed into the pier creating a 70 foot gap, and another fire in 1995 destroyed the bowling alley. Most recently in 2005 the station at the estuary end burnt down, leaving charred wood and twisted rails. Thankfully the pier's structure has been rebuilt each time, not least because access is required for the lifeboat station on the tip, and a new Cultural Centre opened at the far end last summer.

Before venturing onto Southend Pier you need to decide how much you're going to pay. To ride to the end and back on the railway costs £4, to walk £2, whereas walking down and getting the train back (or vice versa) costs £3.50. I did what most visitors do and took the train from the Information Centre on the riverside. The station is a gloomy space beneath the boardwalk, with too few places to sit and a glass screen in front of the platform. There's no sign of a timetable, not unless you asked the lady who sold your ticket, you just hang around for up to 30 minutes (or 15 minutes at peak times) for the next service to leave. And then you bundle aboard, in a polite and dignified way (unless there's a family wanting a carriage to themselves, in which case it's every Essex holidaymaker for themselves). The carriages aren't lovely, to be honest, a bit like two seaside shelters bolted together, but comfortable enough, and suitably weatherproof. I shared mine with two dear ladies who didn't seem too chuffed to have last-minute accompaniment, but then I guess I'd have preferred my trip if they'd not been there either. And the train's called the Sir John Betjeman, delightfully, for obvious reasons, unless you get the other train which is named after Billy Butlin.

The journey out into the estuary takes longer than you'd think, almost ten minutes. There you are in a train heading offshore, at not unreasonable speed, and you keep thinking surely there can't be much further to go. The windows face out so you can't see the end of the pier, only the sea. Or maybe the mud, depending on whether the tide's in or out. I visited sometime inbetween, creating the splendid effect of shallow ripples lapping over swirly seaweed. About halfway out, near the passing loop, is an extensive mudbank that survives the rising of the waves longer than most. I was surprised to see two people wading out into the water, far from the shore, aiming for this 'high ground'. They were thigh deep, and my first thoughts were of wilful negligence, but it swiftly became apparent they were local enough to know precisely what they were doing. Onward the train rolled, and not there yet, and surely soon, and eventually yes.

The end of the pier comes in several stages. First the station platform, with a pleasantly modern glass shelter beneath a segmented canopy - a recent addition. Then a homely cafe, because Southend isn't your typical candy floss and donuts seaside pier. Then some toilets, which are more souped-up portakabins, but needs must. And then there's a larger expanse at the far end, where the grand glass pavilion would once have stood. Its 2012 replacement is The Royal Pavilion, a large steel box with jaunty slopes - part cafe, part performance space. The plan must have been for food and drink to rule by day, then for audiences of up to 200 to enjoy something arty in the evening. And the cafe's doing fine, but the list of confirmed events in the pavilion looks rather sparse (as any economist would have warned had you said you were building an arts centre more than a mile out to sea). At the very end of the pier, dog-legged left, is the two-storey lifeboat station with its rather taller lookout tower. The RNLI are more than pleased to welcome visitors, especially to their shop (Christmas cards now available) which doubles up as a minor museum. Or head upstairs to the final boardwalk, where benches, masts and a medium-sized bell mark the last outpost before Kent.

That's the Isle of Grain over there, where Boris wants to build an airport, and the coast past Sheerness stretching off towards Whitstable. A steady stream of container ships floats inbetween, if the tide's right, keeping to carefully charted channels as they pass. There are better views to be had at the British seaside, to be frank, but I love the openness and expansive skies of this midriver panorama. I walked back, partly for variety, partly for the sense of achievement, but mostly because the queues for the train were quite long. I passed grizzled anglers, and determined mums with pushchairs, and Sir John rattled past me at least twice. Again it's further than you think, a full one and a third miles to reach the seafront, which gradually enlarges from thin strip to full-on rollercoaster & chips as you approach. The pier may be less alluring in February, but in high summer Southend's finest attraction is undoubtedly offshore.

 Monday, August 19, 2013

I felt quite old this weekend.

I went to the Shuffle Festival on Friday evening to watch Trainspotting, and I think Danny Boyle and I were the only over-40s in the audience. I met a reader of the blog on Saturday, and realised with discomfort that when I left university they hadn't even been born. I went to the Hackney Wicked Festival yesterday afternoon, which was populated by hordes of bright young things and lads with beards. And I went to birthday drinks last night where the subject of children's television came up, and one of the attendees had never heard of Brian Cant. Oh I felt quite old.

If you measure things one way, I'm not old. I could live to be over a hundred, but I'm only 48, so I'm not even halfway there yet. Viewed another way, the average UK male lives to be about 78, so I'm still thirty years short. But I still have that nagging feeling that 48 is old, based on what I see around me in London. And it turns out I may be correct.

Amongst the statistics churned out by the UK census every 10 years are several tables of Neighbourhood Statistics. These can tell you almost everything you want to know about the ward, borough, county or country in which you live. You can explore here if you like. I investigated the borough of Tower Hamlets, and then selected Age by Single Year. This table tells me how many people there are at each age from zero up to 100+, not just for Tower Hamlets but for also for the whole of London and the whole of England.

The census figures are for 27th March 2011, two years ago, back when I was 46. I was intrigued to see that 46 was then the most popular age in England - there were 795338 of us, the peak of the baby boom. But the most popular age in London wasn't 46, it was 30. People move to London in their 20s and 30s, so the peak is lower than the country as a whole. And the most popular age in Tower Hamlets was even lower, it was 27. There are more than three times as many 27 year-olds in Tower Hamlets as 46 year-olds, because the population here peaks early. I'm really not imagining it, I really am quite old for the place where I live.

Let's investigate this in a bit more depth. I'm going to split the quarter-million population of Tower Hamlets up into ten equal groups, with approximately 25000 in each. What ages make up each 10% of the population? That's the ages of the youngest 10% of residents, the next 10%, and so on up to the oldest 10%. Here's a table. The figures are for 2011 but should still be pretty much true today. And as a 48 year old, I find the data a bit scary.

Tower Hamlets Age range 
 Youngest 10% 0-6
Oldest 10%58-100+

To clarify, as a 48 year old I'm in the yellowish box, in the penultimate group. That means I'm in the oldest 20% of the population, with more than 80% of local residents younger than me. Tower Hamlets is very light on pensioners, they form less than 10% of the population. But Tower Hamlets has a lot of young people. If you want to be in the youngest half of the population you have to be aged 29 or below. Hit 30 (which is the median age) and suddenly you're one of the oldies. No wonder I felt old this weekend, I'm way over the hill... for Tower Hamlets.

Here's the split for the population of London. Where are you in this one?

London Age range 
 Youngest 10% 0-6
Oldest 10%67-100+

London is also a young place to live. The average age for Londoners is only 33, and once you pass that you're in the oldest half of the population. As a 48 year-old I'm in the third group from the top this time, which puts me in the youngest 80% (or the oldest 30%, depending on how you look at it). If you lined up the entire population of London in order of age, I'd be almost three-quarters of the way along the line. And that is relatively old, which again explains why I felt somewhat outnumbered at the weekend.

Finally here's the split for the population of England. This is rather different.

England Age range 
 Youngest 10% 0-7
Oldest 10%72-100+

England, as a whole, is rather older than London. The average age for people in England is 39 (or to be more precise 39½). In England you only enter the oldest half of the population at 40, a whole ten years after the same dividing line in Tower Hamlets. And that's because England has more older people than its capital, with almost 20% of the population of pensionable age. In England I'm in the youngest 70% of the population, indeed somewhere around two-thirds, which doesn't sound quite so old at all.

And before you start thinking "it's all these immigrants having kids innit?", it's not. The youngest quarter of the population is all those under the age of 20, whether you're in Tower Hamlets, London or the whole of England. Children and teenagers are pretty evenly spread, wherever. It's only during the 20s that the real differences begin, when internal migration kicks in, hence those median ages of Tower Hamlets 29, London 33 and England 39.

As for the point at which you enter the oldest quarter of the population, this varies considerably according to where you are. In Tower Hamlets the "oldest quarter" borderline is 40, in London it's 49 and in England it's 57. The young tend to gravitate to London for jobs, from wherever, while older Londoners head in the opposite direction and escape. I just haven't left yet... or else I may be one of the stick-in-the-muds who never do.

So there you go, at 48 I'm not old by national standards, and I shall cling to that thought for a few more years. But I am quite old for where I live, and I shall have to get used to that. Maybe someone'll even offer me a seat on the tube this morning.

 Sunday, August 18, 2013

DISTRICT: (Olympia)

Are TfL trying to kill off the District line service to Kensington (Olympia)? That's either deliberately, or by default through a policy of passenger neglect. Here's some evidence for the prosecution.

1) On weekdays, only seven District line trains run from Kensington (Olympia) station. Five of these trains depart before 7am, so are essentially useless. Then there's a massive gap until 7.58pm, and the seventh and final train departs at 8.38pm. That's an incredibly passenger-unfriendly service.
2) On weekdays, only two District line trains run to Kensington (Olympia) station. The first of these is at 7.45pm, and the last is at 8.25pm. There are absolutely no trains to Kensington (Olympia) outside this single 40 minute period. That's a beyond-incredibly passenger-unfriendly service. (And OK, there is a reason for this. Earl's Court is such a complex junction that in 2011 TfL chose to withdraw most weekday services to Kensington (Olympia) to improve reliability and services on the other branches, the branches 99% of passengers actually use)
3) At weekends and on bank holidays, trains run to and from Kensington (Olympia) every 20 minutes. That's not a great service, but it's not a bad service all told, if only passengers were advised to use it.

4) An Olympia service also runs (every 30 minutes) for "some Olympia events only". But which Olympia events are these? Nobody's ever willing to tell. If you've been to the Great British Beer Festival this week, yes, there was an Olympia service. If you went to the 50+ Show last month, no there wasn't. There are never any posters to announce that a weekday Olympia service is running, nor any signs at any stations. And there's no information on the TfL website either, not unless you fire up the Journey Planner for your chosen day and see if an Olympia train comes up or not. It would be very very easy to have a webpage announcing which days the service was running, or to stick up a sign in a station somewhere, but TfL choose not to. Any weekday Olympia service is a secret service, discovered by accident, as if TfL would really rather you didn't use it.

5) If you go to the Olympia exhibition centre's website, they don't know whether the District line is running either. You'd think it would be important to them, but no, either they don't know or they're not going to tell you. Indeed, they go out of their way to discourage you from using the District line by placing it sixth on a list of rail lines you might use. Top of the list is the Overground, because that has the station's most frequent service. Second, unbelievably, is the Central line, which gets you to Olympia if you change at Shepherd's Bush for the Overground. Their third suggestion is the Piccadilly line, a 9 minute walk away, followed by the Circle and Hammersmith & City lines, "a 5 minute bus ride or 15 minute walk away". The District line limps in in last place, and even then the website recommends arriving via West Brompton or making an 8 minute walk from West Kensington. The dedicated shuttle appears only as an apologetic afterthought. "There is also an occasional service from Earls Court on weekends, and for some major events. Please check before you travel". Most Olympia exhibitions span the weekend, and at weekends the District line shuttle is one of the very best ways to get here. But nobody says that, nobody admits this is the case, because it seems nobody wants you to arrive this way.

6) If you turn up at Kensington (Olympia) to see if the District line is running there's only one clue - is there a District line train in platform 1 or not. If there is, great, go and sit on it. But if there isn't, is that because the train has departed or because there aren't any trains today? There are no clues on the platform, and the District line service never appears on the station's next train indicators even when it's running.

7) If you turn up at Earl's Court to see if the Kensington (Olympia) service is running there are a few clues. If the next train's going there, an arrow flashes up next to Olympia on the heritage Next Train Indicator board, bingo. If a train's heading there in the next 10 minutes or so, it appears on the smaller modern Next Train Indicator on the platform, hurrah. But if the next train's further away then there's silence. Does that silence mean no train soon, or no trains at all?

8) There is a Kensington (Olympia) timetable poster upstairs at Earl's Court, which you might see on your way in (but you won't see if you're changing trains). This features the normal weekly timetable (ie two trains on weekdays and trains every 20 minutes at weekends). But it doesn't say whether or not the Kensington (Olympia) service is running today if today is a weekday. The only message (in small print) is "Services also run to Kensington (Olympia) during some Olympia weekday events. For details visit tfl.gov.uk/journeyplanner or speak to a member of staff". I'm told that members of staff are often pretty clueless, offering vague, incorrect or conflicting advice. So good luck with that.

9) But there are big signs at Earl's Court to tell you how to get to Kensington (Olympia), hung high above the platforms between the Next Train Indicator arrows. These signs urge you get to Olympia in two steps, first taking a Wimbledon train to West Brompton, then changing there for the Overground. That works on any day of the week, no question. But it also takes at least three times longer, and that's only if you make a perfect connection. It also requires you to trek up and over a footbridge (and another footbridge) and down again at West Brompton, a very step-unfriendly journey. And it may mean cramming aboard an Overground service that's very busy, rather than a simple journey with a definite seat on the District. The big sign at Earl's Court does mention, in small print, that services to Kensington (Olympia) run at weekends and certain other times. But it doesn't recommend you to travel by District line at weekends, indeed it doesn't even mention the District line specifically. Instead a very deliberate choice has been made to promote the two-step Overground option, whatever the day of the week, even on days when the direct route may be better.

10) TfL have never said they want to close the District line spur to Kensington (Olympia). Indeed, closing a station is very difficult and generally requires government approval. But management of the District line would be much easier if the spur to Olympia didn't exist, reducing Earl's Court to a crossroads rather than a five-pointed junction. And TfL are certainly running the service down, with a woefully infrequent timetable and deliberately inadequate information. How long before the gods cast down a final thunderbolt and close the Olympia branch for good?

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jack of diamonds
Life viewed from London E3

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my special London features
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ten of my favourite posts
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quality & risk
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ten sets of lovely photos
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war of the worlds
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