diamond geezer

 Friday, February 28, 2014

During February 2003 on diamond geezer I kept myself busy by counting things. Ten different counts, to be precise, in a none-too thrilling daily feature called The Count. My 28-day tally chart may have been deathly dull to the rest of you, but I've continued to count those categories again, every February since, purely to keep tabs on how my life is changing. Eleven years later, I think we can agree it's changed quite a bit, and yet not changed too. Below are my counts for February 2014 (also available in graphical form via Daytum), accompanied by the previous statistics and some deep, meaningful pondering.
(Part one yesterday, part two today)

Count 5 (Nights out): That's an increase to six nights out, which is a 50% increase on last year. Or it's twenty-two nights in, depending on how you look at it. Five of those six nights were courtesy of BestMate, because he's good like that, and the remaining night was the Tridentscan AGM (we meet annually to discuss the blog's bespoke commenting system, and this year coupled the event with a trip to the BBC Radio Theatre). Most of the six nights out were right at the start of the month, including a couple of nights away to see the Severn Bore, but it's been a bit of a social desert since. If your evenings are equally devoid of other people in a communal situation, you are not alone, hello.
The number of nights in February 2014 I went out and was vaguely sociable: 6
2003-2014 review: In February 2003 I was a social whirlwind, but Best Mate emigrated three days later and a long term decline set in. You can see how things picked up a bit in 2008 when he returned, settling at a fairly consistent lower level of "once or twice a week". A special thanks to the rest of you who've dragged me out of my comfort zone and shared an evening (or ten) over the years. But nobody comes to this blog to read about London's sparkling nightlife, that's for sure.
(2003: 21) (2004: 7) (2005: 2) (2006: 2) (2007: 3) (2008: 7) (2009: 7) (2010: 4) (2011: 9) (2012: 6) (2013: 4)

Count 6 (Alcohol intake): I know my favourite gassy lager is hardly an erudite choice, but I cling to familiarity and ease of ordering, plus it doesn't give me hiccups. I've only downed four bottles of Becks this year, and all of those were in the same pub on the same night on the first day of the month. Thank goodness the pub in Gloucester served my default beer, otherwise I'd be reporting a big fat zero this month. I did source Becks on draught elsewhere in other pubs, but sadly my count is for bottles, so a pint in a glass doesn't count towards my measure of monthly alcohol consumption. And I haven't been back to any pub since coming home, so I guess my disappointingly low February total is a fairly good reflection of my general abstinence.
Total number of bottles of Becks I drank in February 2014: 4
2003-2014 review: Again 2003 is the outlier, with a couple of further uptick years in 2008 and 2011. But overall my Becks consumption is falling because considerably fewer pubs are stocking the stuff. How my heart sinks when I scan the selection behind the bar and realise I'll have to order something else. A sure sign of Becklessness is the presence of "Becks Blue", the non-alcoholic cop-out option, because if that's present the real thing is invariably absent. If current trends continue, I fear another zero year can't be too far off.
(2003: 58) (2004: 17) (2005: 0) (2006: 7) (2007: 1) (2008: 28) (2009: 4) (2010: 3) (2011: 20) (2012: 14) (2013: 2)

Count 7 (Tea intake): Apart from one dodgy year when workplace kettle usage was banned, my tea consumption remains astonishingly consistent. Every February other than 2005 has fallen within a very narrow range of 127-137 teas, despite very different behaviour on weekdays and weekends. My office days are always brimming, brown-liquid-wise, whereas days off tend to find me rushing around without pausing for refreshment. But I am on average, it seems, a four-and-a-half cups a day man. Milk, no sugar, thanks.
Total number of cups of tea I drank in February 2014: 129
(2003: 135) (2004: 135) (2005: 81) (2006: 128) (2007: 137) (2008:134) (2009: 129) (2010: 136) (2011: 135) (2012: 133) (2013: 127)

Count 8 (Trains used): This count's normally remarkably consistent too... always just over a hundred a month. That's apart from the year when I had a "one train" commute rather than two, when the total dipped a bit. And apart from last year, when I upped the total by blogging relentlessly about the Bakerloo line and travelling on it a lot. A month spent on the buses has dragged the total down a bit, but still averages about four train journeys a day. We Londoners do swan around in carriages a lot, don't we?
Total number of trains I travelled on in February 2014: 101
(2003: 103) (2004: 109) (2005: 117) (2006: 107) (2007:100) (2008: 117) (2009: 103) (2010: 83) (2011: 109) (2012: 118) (2013: 139)

Count 9 (Exercise taken): Rather than fork out good money to use a gym, I get my step action by walking up escalators, usually at tube stations. I always attempt to walk up every escalator I ascend, which usually works so long as there's not some tourist, suitcase or buggy blocking the left hand side. I'm not thrilled with my total this year, but my commute doesn't afford the multiple climbs it once used to, so I could do better.
Total number of escalators I walked up in February 2014: 29
(2003: 73) (2004: 72) (2005: 38) (2006: 35) (2007: 31) (2008: 33) (2009: 28) (2010: 13) (2011: 32) (2012: 43) (2013: 40)

Count 9a (Steps walked): Here's a recent innovation to The Count, introduced last year when I got myself a smartphone. By uploading the Moves app I've been able to keep track of my daily step count without the need for a pedometer attached to my waist. It's a brilliant app, if no longer free to new users, and a bit of a battery hog. It's also potentially stalky because it records everywhere I go (both when and where), plus how I travelled inbetween. I've learned that a typical working day requires me to walk only 4500 steps, whereas my weekends and days off are considerably more variable. Last weekend contributed almost a quarter of my entire monthly total, thanks mostly to a lengthy yomp along the cliffs at Dover and a quest for coffee around the streets of Bow. During February I've walked more than ten thousand steps in a day on eight separate occasions, and more than twenty thousand steps three times. I'm chuffed to have scraped together more than a quarter of a million steps in four weeks, but disappointed not (quite) to have reached the magic daily average of 10000 steps.
Total number of steps I walked in February 2014: 254579
(2013: 273300)

Count 10 (Mystery count): Sorry to disappoint you all, again, but the legendary diamond geezer Mystery Count continues to be nil. I can confirm that had The Count been for January, March, April, May, June, July, August, September or October, then there'd have been at least one occurrence over the last ten years. But February seemingly not so, as 2014 has thrown up yet another big fat mystery zero. Ah well, maybe next year...
Total number of times that the mystery event happened in February 2014: 0
(2003: 0) (2004: 0) (2005: 0) (2006: 0) (2007: 0) (2008: 0) (2009: 0) (2010: 0) (2011: 0) (2012: 0) (2013: 0)

» The Count 2014

 Thursday, February 27, 2014

During February 2003 on diamond geezer I kept myself busy by counting things. Ten different counts, to be precise, in a none-too thrilling daily feature called The Count. My 28-day tally chart may have been deathly dull to the rest of you, but I've continued to count those categories again, every February since, purely to keep tabs on how my life is changing. Eleven years later, I think we can agree it's changed quite a bit, and yet not changed too. Below are my counts for February 2014 (also available in graphical form via Daytum), accompanied by the previous statistics and some deep, meaningful pondering.
Yes, I know February's not over yet, so all the figures below are based on best estimates for the final 48 hours. But don't worry, I'll come back and update the 2014 data as the next couple of days play out, before settling on the finalised figures at the end of the month.

Count 1 (Blog visitors): It's not quite enough to top my post-Olympic high from last year, but that's almost the highest number of visitors I've ever had in a February. Indeed I've been averaging fifty thousand and something visitors a month pretty consistently since the middle of 2012, which is just under two thousand visitors a day, which is nice. February 2014's total is particularly surprising given that I've spent a significant portion of the month writing about bus routes around the edge of London, which is hardly "must read" subject material for the average man in the street. It does sometimes feel like this blog is evolving into a travelogue about increasingly obscure parts of London and southeast England, but maybe that's what needs to happen after a decade of daily posts, otherwise I'd just end up repeating myself. I do try to intersperse the transport and travel stuff with other stuff, but I don't really know which topics you like best, so I assume you keep coming back for the variety. I also assume that London's other 8.172 million inhabitants aren't interested.
Total number of visits to this webpage in February 2014: 51727
2003-2014 review: Eleven years ago, when this blog was mere months old, I attracted one double-decker busful of readers a day. That leapt up a bit in the following years, with an atypical peaks in February 2006 and 2008 skewed by external linkage. Numbers have bobbed around a bit since, but almost always upwards, and this February's total is the equivalent of three crowded tube trains of readers daily. That's still insignificant in the grand scheme of things, and peanuts compared to what some blogs get, but most gratifying all the same. Accurate visitor numbers remain incredibly difficult to ascertain, given the number of folk reading via RSS feeds or whatever. But it's quality of readership rather than quantity which most makes me smile, so thank you!
(2003: 2141) (2004: 6917) (2005: 9636) (2006: 42277) (2007: 23082) (2008: 32006) (2009: 26048) (2010: 30264) (2011: 37200) (2012:40018) (2013: 55369)

Count 2 (Blog comments): There's nothing quite so unpredictable as comments. Some days this blog attracts almost none, while other days the discussion catches fire and you add dozens. Yesterday would be a good example of that, where I hit the nerve (or missed the point) with a post about contactless cards and received twice as many comments as on any other day this month. Altogether this February you've fired more than 400 comments my way, and we've still got two more days of the month to go. This represents approximately 20 comments per day, on average, which is a fantastic level of engagement. Most blogs have commenting zones resembling tumbleweed, but somehow you lot always seem to carry on talking. Often you're taking me to task or telling me something's wrong, usually politely, but that's good because I'd rather my posts were correct than riddled with errors. Sometimes you only join in when I discuss something generic (like coffee) and not when I get too place-specific (because you've never been). Sometimes you veer off-topic, occasionally wildly so, but sometimes that discussion is more interesting than my post. Somehow a community has evolved here, where regular and occasional commenters co-exist, and that's not an easy thing to create. Thanks everyone, because it's you that helps to bring this page to life.
Total number of comments on this webpage in February 2014: 477
2003-2014 review: What's most surprised me about a decade of diamond geezer comments is how similar the monthly totals are. They bob up and down a bit, and the first year was understandably low, but since then the average has been unexpectedly consistent - between 400 and 600 comments a month. I might have expected numbers to fall, because commenting's a very old-school blogging thing, peaking in the "Golden Age" of 2005-2008. People don't have time to comment any more, not now there's a wealth of online content to distract them. Or else they're busy commenting on Twitter or Facebook, where debate is entirely transitory and rapidly ebbs away. To still have readers commenting in 2014 is a bit of a triumph, and against all the odds. Alternatively I might have expected numbers to rise, because I have far more readers now and they ought to talk more than they do. Ten years ago I received one comment per 20 readers, whereas now it's more like one comment per 120, and that's a far less impressive engagement rate. But at least what comment remains is intelligent, relevant, insightful and (mostly) non-stalky. I'm delighted, obviously.
(2003: 166) (2004: 332) (2005: 463) (2006: 648) (2007: 566) (2008: 504) (2009: 472) (2010: 396) (2011: 558) (2012: 440) (2013: 546)

Count 3 (Blog content): I continue to write too much. 2014 has been my most prolific February yet, with blog output now averaging over 1100 words a day. I always mean to keep things succinct, but rarely manage. There's usually something extra I want to add, another fact to include, another sentence to squeeze in, and before I know where I am I've written another daily essay. Eleven hundred words a day is not to be sniffed at - it's the equivalent of writing a novel every two months, except I never end up with a book at the end of it. And I write fairly slowly too, the words don't usually pour out, not least because there are facts to check and links to add even after I'm done. I know you'd still read this blog if I wrote less, but something keeps driving me to write a bit more, and then a bit more again. I need to learn to ease off a little, and to edit my verbiage down a bit more. Tl;dr.
Total number of words in diamond geezer in February 2014: 32283
2003-2014 review: I kept my output pretty much in check until 2008, writing approximately 500-600 words each day. That was manageable, even allowed me a social life as necessary, and you probably didn't think any the worse of me. But then the slow climb began. A few more words each day, a lot more words each month, it all eventually added up. I have now doubled the number of words I write compared to a decade ago, approaching a 25% increase in the last two years alone. Compare for example a typical report on a bus journey from 2004 (600-800 words) with one of my outer London orbitals from 2014 (1000-1400 words). You might be loving the outcome, because you get more to read. But I'm spending more of my time writing, and less of my time "having a life", and that's not really how things should be. Don't worry, I haven't broken yet.
(2003: 14392) (2004: 16214) (2005: 16016) (2006: 15817) (2007: 17102) (2008: 17606) (2009: 20602) (2010: 21595) (2011: 23120) (2012: 25698) (2013: 29410)

Work/life balance, February 2014Count 4 (Work/life balance): Daytum provides a fascinating way to visualise my February as a purplish pie chart (reproduced here), and 2014's graph is no exception. What's especially reassuring is to see how my life isn't dominated by work. I put in more than my contractual hours, but the total still comes to less than a quarter of my time. I suspect your graph might be similar, or close-ish, if you ever stopped and calculated the percentage. This year I'm having an atypical February because I'm sticking pretty much to my contractual hours, but equally I haven't taken a week off like last year which skewed the figures somewhat. As for sleep totals, I doze for an average of six hours a day. That's only borderline normal, I suspect, although I'm edging slowly down towards five and a half, which is probably not a good thing. Only 7% of my time is spent on the move, less than half of which is my daily commute and the rest is time spent gallivanting round the capital. And that leaves nearly half my life for everything else - eating, blogging, socialising, visiting, tellying, slobbing, that sort of thing. Thankfully I'm extremely good at dragging things out to fill the time available, because there's a lot of it, but that's the joy of being footloose and offspring-free. What I really should do one year is count how much of this 'play' time is spent blogging, because I fear it's rather a lot, even rather too much...
Total number of hours spent doing stuff in February 2014: 672 (=24×28, obviously)
2014 - (work: 157) (rest: 165) (play: 298) (travel: 53)
2013 - (work: 138) (rest: 163) (play: 313) (travel: 58)
2012 - (work: 169) (rest: 167) (play: 287) (travel: 49)
2011 - (work: 158) (rest: 172) (play: 290) (travel: 53)

Full figures for February 2014

(to be continued tomorrow)

 Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Dear TfL,


I know this may come as a surprise, given that you think they're the bee's knees, but not all of us have one yet.

When my bank sent me a new debit card last year I was expecting something contactless. They're a big bank and contactless is the future, as I remember hearing a lot during the Olympics. But instead they just sent me a traditional Chip and Pin, nothing Wave and Pay, which it seems I'm doomed to keep until it expires. This means I'm expecting to have no contactless card for the rest of this year, and no contactless card for the whole of next year, then perhaps a contactless replacement in 2016. But until then, no matter what you might think, I DO NOT HAVE A CONTACTLESS CARD.

I've seen your adverts encouraging us to use our contactless cards on the bus. You've enabled payment by microchip because buses are simple touch-in, not touch-out, means of transport. All we do is board and swipe with our bank cards, not our Oysters, and this makes you very happy. That's because you intend to kill off paying with cash on the buses, indeed kill it off this summer, and you see contactless cards as the ideal alternative. Got no metal money to board a bus? No problem, use plastic money instead. It's a beguiling argument, with one big fatal flaw. LOTS OF US DO NOT HAVE A CONTACTLESS CARD.

For those who do, there are unintentional technical problems. They now have two practical means of paying for a bus journey - an Oyster card and a contactless card - and it's proving too easy to swipe both. TfL assure us that in this situation it's not possible to end up paying twice. At best the reader will get confused and you'll have to wave again. But more likely one of the two cards will be selected for payment, which might not be the card you were expecting to use. And although that's not the end of the world on a bus, it could cause considerably more hassle on the tube.

TfL have named this problem 'card clash', and they're really worried by it. You can tell they're worried because they've just put up prominent posters warning about card clash at tube stations across the entire network. And you can tell they're really worried because they've started this campaign several months before contactless cards go live.

Card clash will be much more of a problem on the tube than on the buses because you need to touch in and touch out. All's fine so long as you use the same card each time, you'll pay for one journey as normal. But if you accidentally touch out with a different card to the card you touched in, you could end up paying not just one penalty fare but two, and that could be expensive.

Suppose you keep both your Oyster and your contactless card in your wallet or handbag, which you then wave across the card reader. Lots of people do this because it's easy, and because it doesn't involve having to hunt around in the depths of some pocket or bag to dig out the appropriate card. But with simplicity comes great danger. You don't know which card triggered the barrier when you touched in, so you can't guarantee the same card will trigger the barrier when you touch out. And that could mean a maxiumum fare of £8.50 on the card that failed to touch in, plus a maximum fare of £8.50 on the card that failed to touch out. People aren't going to be happy to discover it's happened to them.

Obviously what you need to do is keep your Oyster card and contactless card separate. Stick your Oyster in a plastic wallet, like the wallet they gave you when you bought the thing, and only wave the plastic wallet across the card reader. But for many Londoners that's going to mean unlearning some fairly hardwired habits. Over the last ten years they've learned that Oyster works perfectly well from inside a purse or bag, so they're going to carry on doing that unless TfL jump up and down and shout very loudly that bag-waving is bad idea. Hence the card clash campaign, which can only ramp up as the 'go live' date in 'early summer' approaches.

Further problems will emerge when passengers get forgetful. Will they always remember at the end of a journey which of their two cards they used to touch in, or will they sometimes instinctively swipe the wrong one? And expect further problems when passengers are inattentive. What if they wave their wallet at a reader on the DLR and card clash means that neither card is triggered? Will card clash victims notice the wrong beep, or will they stride in and then get blasted for £8.50 at the other end of their journey? Imagine trying to explain that to the ticket inspector, if there is one. Anyone caught travelling without touching in, including as a result of card clash, is liable for a penalty fare of up to £80.

There is a simple solution, of course, which is to stop using your Oyster card altogether. TfL would be very happy if this was your chosen outcome because they have a vested interest in getting as many people off Oyster as possible. They save 2p in every pound on fare collection when passengers use contactless rather than Oyster, because all the hassle of maintaining the card is borne by the bank. TfL have pledged that Oyster won't be withdrawn as a consequence of the rollout of contactless technology, but ultimately you'd suspect that's where this is heading.

But I DO NOT HAVE A CONTACTLESS CARD. So I'm not worried about card clash because it simply can't happen. My bank's failure to upgrade my debit card means I'm perfectly safe from simultaneous microchip activation for one or two years hence. But TfL are worried, really worried, hence this tube campaign they're ramping up several months early. A a contactless pilot involving five thousand volunteers is currently underway, so maybe that's one reason for TfL's current caution. Or more likely they're attempting to change your behaviour so that keeping your two cards separate is second nature by the time the true launch begins. I suspect they're are on a loser with that plan, there are far too many instinctive wallet-wavers out there, but that won't stop management from rolling out a new system with several inbuilt impracticalities in the summer.

So beware the perils of card clash, coming later this year to a handbag near you. Or just sit smugly on the sidelines and watch everyone else buggering up. Because WE DO NOT ALL HAVE A CONTACTLESS CARD. And some of us are currently rather happy about that.

 Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Over the past few years, even the past few months, good coffee has been invading London E3. That's proper barista-style coffee - flat whites not granules in water - and to see it in Bow is quite a surprise. There's even now a Costa on Roman Road, recently opened, as well as a handful of more independent specialists sprinkled here and there. Perhaps it's a sign of gentrification, but Bow suddenly has facilities many other parts of London have long taken for granted. Whatever, I thought I'd track down all of E3's coffee outlets and assemble a comprehensive list of offerings on one map. The E3 coffee map.

View E3 coffee map in a larger map

Disclaimer: I don't like coffee. I therefore haven't sampled caffeinated beverages from any of the following, merely wandered past to confirm that they exist. I traipsed all over E3 to collect this information (which was an eight mile hike, because my local postcode covers pretty much everywhere between the Regent's Canal to the west, Victoria Park to the north, the River Lea to the east and the Limehouse Cut to the south). I've then categorised the three dozen coffee vendors into various categories, with the more impressive at the top and the push-button merchants at the bottom. If you're seeking top coffee I'd say the list's top fifteen (marked by cups on the map) offer the best chance of a gourmet brew. But then what do I know? If you're local and have any direct experience, any better categorisation or any further updates, please let me know.

Craft Coffee
Zealand Road Coffee Shop As independent as it gets [391 Roman Rd, E3 5QS]
Carmelite Cafe Beanbeard's Nude Espresso, by the Nunnery Gallery [181 Bow Rd, E3 2SJ]
Muxima Recently shifted from Fairfield Road [618 Roman Rd, E3 2RW]
The Counter Cafe The original Fish Island hub-of-cool [7 Roach Rd, E3 2PA]
Bean About Town Freshly-appeared coffee cart, commuter hours only [outside Bow Rd station, E3 4DH]

Chain Coffee
Costa E3's first, beneath the Green Bridge [556 Mile End Rd, E3 4PL]
Costa Bringing chainbrew to Roman Road for the first time [554-556 Roman Road, E3 5ES]

Cafe Coffee
Muff Formerly the Carlton, now a cafe attached to a motorbike shop [4c Roach Rd, E3 2PA]
Cafe Greenway Occasional small hideaway at the top end of the Greenway [41 Dace Rd, E3 2NG]
Roman Road Art Cafe With steaming cup painted on the window [357 Roman Rd, E3 5QR]
Boulangerie de Moulin French cakes and coffee, looks very artisan [494-496 Roman Rd, E3 5LU]
Chicchi Established Italian cafe, with coffees under £2 [516 Roman Rd, E3 5ES]
Barone Trim little cafe between Iceland and Poundland [576 Roman Rd, E3 5ES]
The Coffee Rooms(?) So utterly new it doesn't have any signs yet [10 Grove Road, E3 5AX]
Paper and Cup Books, treats and coffee, church-side [83 St Paul's Way, E3 4AJ]

Caff Coffee
Semz Cafe: When money's tight, but not otherwise [483 Roman Rd, E3]
Fiesta: Fully Licensed 'Restaurant', a market favourite [546 Roman Rd, E3 5ES]
Cafe Creme: Brown-clad cafe, "established 2011" [566 Roman Rd, E3 5ES]
The Unique Cafe: I'm unconvinced it lives up to its name [585 Roman Rd, E3 5EL]
Wimpy: Alas no, this 50s stalwart has just closed down [609 Roman Rd, E3 2RN]
Del. Boy: Sandwiches and Bagels, honest [137 Tredegar Rd, E3 2EU]
The Orange Room: Lebanese restaurant, also does coffee [63 Burdett Rd E3 4TN]
Chez Pepi: Opposite Costa, by the Green Bridge [389 Mile End Rd, E3 4QS]
Cafe Meeshee: Bright-orange-fronted, by Mile End station [562 Mile End Rd, E3 4PH]
Gardiner's: Sandwichy cafe near St Clement's [630 Mile End Rd, E3 4PH]
Mighty Bite Cafe: Small greasy spoon, open 6.30am-2pm [123 Bow Rd, E3 2AN]
McDonalds: Drive-thru by the Bow Flyover [4 Payne Road, E3 2SP]
Devons Cafe: With a potplant in tinfoil in the window [113 Devons Rd, E3 3QX]

Curious Coffee
Pie In The Sky Cafe: Associated with the Bromley by Bow Centre [St Leonards Street, E3 3BT]
The Mayor's Parlour: First floor of old Poplar Town Hall [Bow House 153–159 Bow Road E3 2SE]
Miller's Cafe: Occasional eaterie at the House Mill [Three Mill Lane, E3 E3 3DU]
Towpath Cafe: Occasional cafe at the Ragged School Museum [46-50 Copperfield Rd, E3 4RR]
Out of the Box: Tiny cupcake outlet at Bow Wharf [221 Grove Rd, E3 5SN]

Clockwork Coffee
The News Kiosk: Outside Bow Road station [50A Bow Road, Bow E3 4DH]
Tesco (Bromley-by-Bow): Costa Express machine [Hancock Rd, E3 3DA]
Shell garage: Costa Express machine [445-453 Wick Lane, E3 2TB]
Texaco garage (Co-op): Costa Express machine [127-131 Bow Road, E3 2AN]
Texaco garage: A quid from a machine [51-53 Grove Road, E3 4PE]

Even if I didn't sample any of the coffee, one thing I did spot was a greater density of trendyfolk and coffee culture to the north of my postcode, and far less to the south. If Time Out were reviewing coffee in E3 they might describe this as a 'gradient of cool', whereas I'd prefer to point the finger at lingering poverty. Posh coffee hasn't yet gained a foothold in Bow Common and Bromley-by-Bow because it's an unnecessary luxury, and there are far more important things to blow your cash on than frothy beany milk. Its time will come, indeed there are already emerging pockets of relative affluence and they'll be demanding contemporary high-end barista-crafted drip-blend soon enough. But for now much of E3 is a coffee desert, and the espresso wave has yet to percolate through.

 Monday, February 24, 2014

Postcards from Dover

In 1909 a lowly meadow behind Dover Castle won Louis Blériot a grand. The Daily Mail had offered the prize to the first man to fly across the English Channel, not thinking anyone would win, in a pioneering aviation contest. Louis had practised over land in France, increasing his flight time to almost an hour, before making his first attempt just after dawn one July morning. A ship guided him towards the invisible English coast, and to Northfall Meadow where the journalist Charles Fontaine stood waving a Tricolor. Gusty winds forced a heavy landing, snapping the blade of the propeller and damaging the undercarriage, but Blériot was unhurt. His 36½ minute flight brought fame and big success for his fledgling aviation company, and a long career in the aeronautical industry followed. Blériot's landing place is marked by a granite aeroplane inset in the grass opposite Dover Castle. Most visitors to the car park up the hill don't realise it's there, hidden a short distance away in the woods down an unsigned path. On Saturday afternoon I was the only person present, approaching the outline across muddy grass for a closer look. The field sloped more steeply than I was expecting, making steps around the top a necessity, although I guess a belly-flop landing didn't require a horizontal surface.

White cliffs rise on both sides of Dover town, but the most famous are those to the east behind the main harbour. The National Trust own the land above for the benefit of the nation, and have recently opened a Visitors' Centre below Fox Hill Down. The walk up from Dover is knackering so most drive, and a National Trust volunteer collects easy money at the entrance to the car park. Some pull up facing the Channel and merely stare through the windscreen, never feeling the need to step outside. Others wander a few yards down the grassy slope to watch the bustling port below, but never venture further along the clifftop to enjoy a more private view. Most do thankfully go for a proper walk - two are signposted, a shorter stroll or a longer hike along the coast to South Foreland Lighthouse. Off they pile from the tearoom-stroke-giftshop, kids bouncing and dogs buzzing, for what looks like being an easy amble. And then a descent is required at Langdon Hole, which should be simple because there are steps, but they're a cascade of mud at the moment so alternative routes must be sourced. Tracking the pink signs soon leads to a coastal viewpoint, not that many pause for the view, after which a gently sloping track cuts up the cliff face back to tea and perhaps cake. You should choose the To The Lighthouse walk, obviously, if you've more hours to spare.

The main privilege of visiting Dover is to watch the ferries shuttling to and fro. They're best seen from the eastern clifftop, a regular procession of great ships on a line from Calais or somewhere continental. As each nears the harbour wall they slow to pass through the gap in the breakwater, then manoeuvre into place alongside one of seven adjustable piers. It's not long before the gates are opened and hundreds of vehicles pour out, a cascade of lorries and coaches spiralling round a series of raised roads. The scale of cross Channel traffic is perhaps higher than you'd imagine, at least in terms of volume of stock and numbers of tour parties. As they arrive another batch of travellers prepares to depart, queueing in rows to drive up the ramp and escape the country. Listen carefully from the clifftop and you can just about make out the booming instructions broadcast to passengers as they prepare for embarkation. It's a clockwork operation with turnaround time kept to a minimum, every day writing another small chapter in our island story.

At the big roundabout below Dover Castle, traffic from the port disgorges. It's precisely here that both the A2 and the A20 end, the former swooping down from above and the latter heading along the seafront. Lorries belonging to logistics companies you've never heard of thunder by, as do 53-seaters laden with t-shirted tour parties and school trips. Nudged up beneath the cliff face is a narrow terraced street, East Cliff, whose back gardens you might think would need protective netting. Partway along is a pub called First and Last, a title it gained when the previous pub of this name further up the street closed down. Alas the new First and Last has now followed suit, despite a string of landlords who've recently taken it on. The ideal spot, you'd have thought, for a final pint on leaving the country or an initial beer on returning, but no. Parking's non-existent and most simply drive down the main road in front without ever noticing the place. Part-conversion to a hostel didn't help the economics, nor please the locals, hence the boarding-up of both. And I guess that means the new 'First and Last' is the bar at the Premier Inn on Marine Parade, a soulless building that better sums up the grim heart of seafront Dover. Cheers.

Across the Western Heights the sun is beginning to set. I'm sitting in a spiky shelter on the promenade, devouring my first seaside fish and chips of the year. Cost less than a fiver too, which I wasn't expecting, but no complaints. I shovel up another mouthful of cod with my plastic fork as a young family approaches. "I'll catch you up," says the son, then sits down on the wooden slats nearby and opens his rucksack. Out come the rollerblades, three fluorescent wheels in parallel under each, and he tries to slip them on. This takes some time. You can't whip off a pair of trainers and then strap yourself into rollerblades with any haste, and his velcro fastenings are proving slow and troublesome. By the time son has his blades on, near enough, his family are already some way distant. He stands, somewhat shakily, and feels his way to the end of the shelter to launch off. It's not going well. He stares down the promenade, wobbling unsteadily, considering his immediate options. And yes, it's probably for the best to retreat to the bench and change his footwear back to trainers. This doesn't take quite so long because he's expert in tying laces, and then he's off, running headlong across the promenade to catch up with the rest of his clan. I can only guess what cutting remark his sister will offer when he gets there. A seagull swoops in and stares at my fish, then eyeballs me and thinks better of it.

My Dover gallery
» There are 24 photographs altogether

I travelled High Speed down to Dover for £10 using Southeastern's 'Kent Coast' special offer. Available off-peak from London to either Deal, Folkestone, Dover or Margate from 17 February to 16 March.

» Further postcards from Dover from my trip in 2006
» Postcards from Deal
» Postcards from Margate
» ...but best hang on until the autumn to visit Folkestone for the Triennial

 Sunday, February 23, 2014

Yesterday I went for a walk in the English Channel. Or somewhere that used to be the English Channel until one of Britain's biggest engineering projects turned up and created dry land out of the sea. That'll be the digging of the Channel Tunnel, whose construction created millions of tons of spoil, all of which had to go somewhere. Five million ended up being dumped just offshore near Dover, close to the point where the Tunnel finally dips beneath the Channel. Steel piles were used to enclose a long thin rectangle in the sea which was slowly filled, then used as an additional worksite, and eventually seeded with grass after the Tunnel was complete. That was in 1994, and the site was opened to the public as a nature reserve a few years later. It's called Samphire Hoe, and it's a pretty unique place to visit.

You'll see the Hoe if you travel by train between Folkestone and Dover. The railway passes beneath the white cliffs through two tunnels, but emerges inbetween at a mile-long gap blown up by gunpowder in the 1840s. In 1881 an attempt was made to dig a Channel Tunnel from approximately this point, but it barely made half a mile before the money ran out. Nip ahead to 1895 and a colliery was opened here, accessible only by train or via a precipitous zigzag down the cliff face. Another attempt at a Channel Tunnel was made in 1974, with an access road bored down through the chalk to reach the water's edge, but that was cancelled after only 300m. The access road looked useful though and got reused by EuroTunnel, and it's still the only way down to Samphire Hoe today.

Most people drive. The tunnel entrance is just off the A20, a mile outside Dover, rather than in the centre of town. But it's perfectly possible to walk, and it's a mighty splendid walk if you choose to follow the start of the North Downs Way. This ascends to the Napoleonic fort at Western Heights, a fascinating place to explore in its own right, then descends a cowpat-strewn hillside to the estate at Aycliffe. Follow the subway and climb the path on the other side to rise to the top of Shakespeare Cliff. This is one of the bands of white you can see when approaching Dover by ferry, though up top the chalkface is almost entirely hidden. Instead a grassy slope slants down at a geologically-important angle, a quite stunning place to stand, and one of my favourite places along the south coast. Continue along the clifftop, attempting to stay away from the edge, until a squat brick tower appears by the path. This is a Victorian ventilation tower for the railway below - there are a few more across the field alongside. Turn right here, keeping to the right of the barbed wire fence, to walk down to the cycleway and the very-obvious entrance to Samphire Hoe's entrance tunnel close by.

It's a single track tunnel, thanks to a pavement/cycleway all the way down, so it may take a few minutes for the traffic lights to turn green before you join the next convoy heading down. Headlights on, it's dark in here, or a three minute walk for those on foot. The tunnel comes out near one end of the rail tunnel, and also next to a securely protected EuroTunnel building. This is a ventilation unit for the tunnels below, and features approximately forty giant fans spinning in harmony. That's best seen from above, so hurry by, because the main chunk of nature reserve lies ahead.

There are two car parks, both circular, alongside a small visitors centre. Don't expect much in the way of facilities, only some toilets and a place for leaflets, plus a small kiosk from which minor refreshments are dispensed. I considered getting a tea, except the man behind the glass was too busy checking the racing form in his newspaper to notice, so my 90p went unspent. Instead I wandered off to investigate what looked like a peculiar lighthouse, but was in fact art - the Samphire Tower. Step inside to hear sounds from the locality such as waves and birds and trains, the trick to kick things off being to fiddle with the telescope.

A lot of people come to Samphire Hoe to walk along the sea wall. This is about 2km long and flat, which is ideal for leading a dog or perhaps a small child from one end to the other. Dogs have to be kept on leads, because there are a few sheep around, whereas toddlers can be allowed to run free because a large concrete barrier protects them from the waves. One direction's a dead end, just to warn you, stopping at a warning sign immediately beneath the cliff face. What this means is lots of bits of chalk lying around, which provides the perfect opportunity for certain visitors to scrawl graffiti on the concrete walls, mostly of the [insert name] woz here kind.

But you don't want to walk along the entire sea wall, you want to explore the centre of Samphire Hoe instead because that's rather more interesting. This is where the grassland is, still a fairly harsh environment even after 20 years, but a few plants have clung on and started to colonise. Sea buckthorn for one, and apparently coltsfoot except it's too early in the year to spot that flowering. The land's not flat but undulates, allowing pools of water to collect in various locations. A couple of paths meander up and down and round, with signs helpfully warning those in wheelchairs when the gradient's likely to be fractionally too much for them.

And all the time the White Cliffs of Dover loom down from the northern flank. They don't erode so much here, protected by the railway and the Hoe, so vegetation is slowly turning parts of the sheer slopes green. The North Downs Way heads across the top, from which the very best view of Samphire Hoe can be seen, but you won't get up there quickly or easily. Instead enjoy the imposing setting down below and the opportunity to wander to and fro before heading back to the car, or trooping back up the tunnel to rejoin the real world...

...or, when you get to the far end of Samphire Hoe, step down onto the beach and keep going. It's a bit pebbly, as you might expect, and a reminder of what the foreshore would have looked like before the Hoe was built. I kept going for about half a mile, drawn by the sight of a mammoth rockfall ahead. Part of Abbot's Cliff collapsed last weekend, undercut by waves from recent storms, and depositing a huge amount of rock across the beach. It's spread far further than you might expect from gravity, poured out in a fan to create an elevated platform above the waves. A separate fall alongside has started to yellow, but the fresh fall is still a gleaming white, almost untainted by the elements. The chunks vary in size from suitcase down to pebble, and can be clambered over like some sort of lunar landscape. The chalk's much softer than I was expecting, very easily dented by another rock, but still leaves that familiar white residue on your hands and feet. It was great to have arrived so soon after a major collapse, if only to be reminded first hand of the endless cycle of destruction wreaked by waves upon the land. And also a strong reminder not to walk too close to the edge of a chalk cliff, be that down the bottom or across the top, while the legacy of 2014's wild wet winter continues.

» Fifteen photos from yesterday, from west of Dover
» Lots of people's photos of Samphire Hoe

 Saturday, February 22, 2014

Here's another long one. I'll be riding almost all of the 313, which sweeps across the top of London from Potters Bar to Chingford. That's the equivalent of Paddington to Stratford, were this a few miles further south, only through rather greener scenery. The 313 journeys so far that I'll be missing out on a potential borderline deviation near Waltham Cross, but that's probably for the best because I ought to get to the end of my orbit sooner rather than later.

 Route 313: Potters Bar - Chingford

 Length of journey: 9 miles, 50 minutes

I have a long time to wait, outside what used to be the Potters Bar Lion, for my 313. The view's not great, with a tall office block blighting the crossroads and an abandoned business HQ behind. I'm sharing the shelter with two local wideboys, they far more geezer than I. At one point they spot a mate they know driving by and yell "Sweet!" as he winds down his window. Neither has Oyster so they pay by cash, the driver at first not noticing that one of the pair has already boarded. I take up my favourite seat on a single decker, above the rear left-hand wheel arch, affording views all around including through the front window. To begin with all I see are houses, but before very long we're out of Potters Bar, more precisely at junction 24 on the M25. From the roundabout I can look down over roadworks on the motorway - the cones are out and traffic's passing through in contraflow. Just a couple of hundred metres more and I'll be back inside London again.

The Ridgeway is an amazing road, for London at least, because it truly lives up to its name. It runs along the top of a ridge between two streams, the larger of which - the Salmon's Brook - flows unspoilt along the groove below. I enjoy what's an entirely atypical view from a London bus, all hedges and sky, as we speed onward through Enfield Chase. The landscape is astonishingly agricultural, just field after field after field, with the only buildings for the next mile a quartet of farms. Those and two independent schools, built so far from anywhere that it's fortunate Mummy can probably drive. Those and a single cottage called Windrush, an Art Deco home so remote that the adjacent bus stop has been named after it. Where the road starts to dip is the hamlet of Botany Bay, allegedly named to mirror the remoteness of Captain Cook's first Australian anchorage. The cricket club doubles up as a jazz venue, while the Robin Hood pub boasts 'great food', and judging by the busy state of their car park they might well be right.

I recognise the end of the ridge from London Loop section 17, but not the tractor we're suddenly stuck behind. Beyond the fields is Chase Farm Hospital, whose casualty department was itself a recent casualty of NHS restructuring. A big sign out front alerts parents-to-be that the Maternity unit closed in November 2013, but it was undoubtedly a PR error to illustrate this with a photo of a smiling mother. Hospitals bring custom to buses, and as a result of the influx my forward view is suddenly part-blocked by a rather large Afro. Further passengers board along the built-up end of The Ridgeway, but this lot look like they're off shopping, as we descend down Windmill Hill into Enfield proper. Meanwhile my two fellow geezers are busy bantering in the back seat about an upcoming 21st birthday and how Smithy's not been invited. There will be proper hassle later.

Because we're heading east we get to follow the one-way system up the main drag, that's Church Street. A mass changeover occurs outside McDonalds, as most of those aboard pour off and a brand new contingent pours on. The two rows behind me are now filled by a clutch of smartly-dressed teenage girls, who continue their outside gossip in this more confined space. "Pizzas are changing at school to thin," says one, to an immediate response of "Nooooo!" Another is struck by the slogan above Enfield Market - "How is that vibrant?!" she mocks. Nobody points out the site of Britain's first cashpoint on the front of Barclays, nor the New River in its artificial channel opposite the station.

Ahead is Southbury Road, a long Victorian terrace which leads gently downhill to Southbury. This suburb'll become more well-known capital-wide when its station appears on the Overground next year, but North London folk are already familiar and are queuing to visit in large numbers. A truly massive retail park has grown up alongside the Great Cambridge Road, easy to reach by car, and my God don't they? First up are all the mid-range chain restaurants a community could need - a TGI Fridays, a Harvester and a Pizza Hut - the latter the destination of choice for the six schoolgirls sat behind me. Beyond the A10 come the megasheds, including an orange B&Q and various furniture warehouses, where several more passengers alight. I'm impressed by the genuine choice of a Morrisons or a Sainsburys, both enormous, plus a huge Tesco on the other side of the railway.

We pause awhile outside Ponders End bus garage for a driver changeover - a delay I've experienced only rarely on my round London journey. An inspector can be seen hanging around outside, keeping tabs, while the sweet smell of a carwash, or maybe a launderette, wafts aboard. It's good to return at last to a street with actual houses, though not so good for the 313 stuck in a very long queue of traffic (not) heading the other way. Only seven of us remain aboard the bus, though one of the departees has left behind a crushed coke can and a Subway wrapper on the floor. Two chatty old ladies then alight at consecutive stops ("Bye Maria, bye") after what may have been a grand day out, or may just have been tea somewhere.

We're approaching the Lea, close to where Ponders End's four tower blocks rise in pastel harmony. The 313 is the only London bus to cross this far north, taking advantage of a gap between the two King George reservoirs which otherwise form a three mile barrier between east and west. The viaduct crosses four threads of the river in close succession, plus another Harvester in case somehow the Southbury branch is too far away. Beyond the sailing club is Kings Head Hill, the king in question being Henry VIII, at least according to the pub sign. It's a steady climb into Chingford, quite relentlessly so to reach the old village centre at Chingford Green. The wind is whipping the trees in the churchyard, which is annoying because I'm getting off here a smidgeon before the shelter of the bus station. Nine miles nearer my goal, and definitely getting there. 179>>

» route 313 - timetable
» route 313 - live bus map
» route 313 - route history
» route 313 - The Ladies Who Bus
» map of my journey so far

 Friday, February 21, 2014

The 84 is a most peculiar service, an ex-London bus sequentially surrendered to the suburbs. It runs all the way to St Albans, some considerable distance north of London, but was once operated by London Central Buses all the same. They ran the bus station in Potters Bar, a town formerly part of Middlesex not Hertfordshire, hence the 84 fell under non-Country jurisdiction. Go back even further and the 84 was an excursion service running from Cricklewood, even Walthamstow, running weekends and bank holidays only to take the masses on a cathedral city day out. The southern end was later chopped back to Golders Green, then fifty years ago to New Barnet, but the northern terminus has always been St Albans.

As for fares, they've become increasingly parochial over time. Normal London Transport fares used to be permitted along the entire length of the route, but the 84's no longer run under TfL contract so they've been cut back too. Travelcards used to get you as far as South Mimms, then in 2002 the limit was curtailed to Cranborne Road in Potters Bar. Oyster users wanting to travel further had to flash their card and then pay a cash top-up for the extra bit. Then in 2012 operators Metroline removed all pretence of being a London bus, and Oyster is no longer accepted. They do offer a £16 weekly pass for travel between Potters Bar and Barnet, but for anyone wanting a one-off journey the normal Hertfordshire fare is paid.

Another peculiarity of the route is the wide variety of vehicles used to operate the service. Sometimes a double decker is used, at others a single decker, it feels like pot luck. A separate raffle seems to be held to decide whether the bus has a static blind on the front or an electronic display. TfL insist on blinds for reasons of accessibility, so any bus an operator sometimes uses on a London route will have a roll of scrolling destinations. Digital displays are much more popular outside the capital, not least for their flexibility, and because many think pixels make for easier-to-read displays. Who can say which is really better - I guess it's all a matter of opinion.

 Route 84: Barnet - Potters Bar

 Length of journey: 3 miles, 8 minutes

I got a double decker with the black and yellow blinds. It pulled up on Barnet High Street where a handful of us were waiting, pinned up against the chemists. I wondered how much I'd be charged for my trip, which only a couple of years ago I could have made for nothing. "I don't suppose this is any use," I said, waving my Oyster (plus Travelcard) at the driver. "Afraid not," he said, and charged me £2.40 for the short run up from Barnet to Potters Bar. I baulked slightly, then remembered that this was less than I'd been charged earlier in my journey on the 8 and 441. I also spotted that it's exactly the same as the cash single fare on any London bus, which maybe is deliberate, so decided not to grumble after all.

The two pinnacles to the left used to be part of Barnet Methodist Church, and now guard the entrance to The Spires shopping centre. Developers would quite like to knock them down to improve and enlarge the mall beyond, and are currently consulting on proposals for an upgrade. They claim their replacement would have "an exciting contemporary facade clad in brass shingles with elegantly proportioned simple opening", whereas in fact they're wrong about the "elegant", and local residents have them rumbled. The rest of the High Street has a bit of class, especially as it nudges north along Hadley Green. The common's lovely, if a little waterlogged at present, with some highly desirable houses lined up along either flank. We're passing through the delightful village of Monken Hadley, site of the Battle of Barnet in 1471, which is commemorated by an obelisk at Hadley Highstone.

Where the houses stop, London turns back into Hertfordshire. Ahead is the Great North Road, originally the main turnpike plied by stagecoaches to York and Edinburgh, since downgraded from A1 to A1000. Barely anybody lives along the next section so the bus isn't stopping... past the entrance to the grand mansion at Wrotham Park, along the edge of fields and more fields, looking down over Hadley Wood across long ploughed slopes, a bit of woodland, careering on ever faster, a lane shooting in from the right, The Duke Of York, and that's a lonely garden centre, suddenly ducking darkly beneath the M25, then there are bouquets and Saracens shirts by the side of the road where a cyclist was knocked down three years ago, they don't forget, we're at the edge of Potters Bar already, past the Community Hospital, oh this is much more ordinary, a chip shop, a reptile den... and all without stopping. Eight minutes flat, the entire journey.

I'm not heading into the centre of town, so I ding the bell as we approach the first crossroads. The bus stop's called Potters Bar Lion, so I look around for the pub to check I'm in the right place. Of the old coaching inn there is alas no sign, but there is a suspicious looking restaurant called Potty Pancakes, which I later discover replaced The Lion last summer. Who needs alcohol when you can stuff your beer belly with PP's sugary batter and ice cream instead? Thankfully there is as yet no sign of anyone renaming the bus stop in their favour. 313>>

» route 84 - timetable
» route 84 - route history
» route 84 - The Ladies Who Bus
» map of my journey so far

 Thursday, February 20, 2014

I'm returning to my round London bus journey at a point on the border between Harrow and Barnet. The next bus heads out of the capital to serve the Home Counties, then heads back in again, which is unusual. Along the way I'll pass Albert Square and the Big Brother house, an unbuilt tube station, a synagogue in a pub and a windmill...

 Route 107: Stanmore - Barnet

 Length of journey: 9 miles, 50 minutes

They call it Canons Corner, the roundabout on Watling Street where I'm waiting for the next 107 north. It was named after the old manor house at Little Stanmore, though were it named today it'd probably be called Tesco Metro McDonalds Drive-Thru Corner. I'm not overkeen to hang around. When my double decker arrives there is plenty of room upstairs, but I can only sit up front if I remove an empty box of three Superdrug perfumes from the seat. The hill ahead is part of Watling Street, now the A5, and swiftly exits suburbia for more open country. We pass fields and a farm atop Brockley Hill, along with the umpteenth hospital along my journey, the Royal National Orthopaedic.

The next roundabout marks a major road junction, it's where the A5 meets the A41 meets the M1, except there's no access to the motorway at this point. We've just passed into Hertfordshire, or 'County of Opportunity' as the boundary sign has it, and right on cue a massive post-industrial trading estate appears to our left. This used to be London Transport's main bus repair depot, the Aldenham Works, built on a site safeguarded but never used for the extension of the Northern line. Had all gone to plan a tube station would have been built in the field opposite, called Elstree South, but the usual WW2/GreenBelt combination stifled development and so we were denied a rather swish Charles Holden design. As it is, rather than a serving an important rail hub, our 107 zooms through without stopping.

Ahead is the village of Elstree, which I'd always imagined was larger than it really is. The name 'Elstree' has had a good press, with its own film studios and prime position in the name of the local Thameslink station. But both of those are actually in Borehamwood, today by far the bigger partner, while Elstree is little more than a crossroads on a hill with a few residential avenues tacked on. It's very nice, though. I have plenty of time to admire Elstree, almost ten minutes, thanks to the temporary traffic lights at the main road junction. A 3-way filter means we have to wait our turn, denied forward progress even on green every time one of the cars in the stream ahead wanted to turn right. The delay allows a few bonus passengers to leap aboard, before we we're finally off down Elstree Hill past parish church and Shtiebel, the latter until recently the village pub.

Allum Lane starts off green and horsey, ideal if you need livery facilities or a swimming pool in your back garden. But Borehamwood rears up soon enough, kicking off with a brief loop to pull in at the station. Opposite is The Crown, an institutional pub, or rather was because it closed down last year and is now lined up to become lots of flats. The west end of Borehamwood's high street has more than its fair share of boarded up shops, but things pick up a little as the lengthy parade continues. At its heart is the 3-month-old "state of the art" library at number 96, an imposing blocky construction that incorporates the town's invigorated museum. I've made a note to visit. And at the far end of the street is the behemoth that's sucking trade from the smaller traders elsewhere, a very big Tesco, and it's telling that many of the passengers on board wait until here to alight.

Raiders of the Lost Ark was filmed in the supermarket car park, close to where the 107 pulls up. This used to be half of Elstree Studios, which lives on and thrives nextdoor, and where the Big Brother House now resides. You can't see that from the bus, neither is Albert Square visible, but that's across the other side of the street beyond Malden Road. They have pink and purple buses out here, and the borrowed vehicle heading to Watford has "Thorpe Park Express" emblazoned across the front. Our eastern exit from the town isn't going to be pretty, with a considerable number of bland commercial buildings lining the main drag of Elstree Way. I'm joined upstairs by three well-wrapped Eastern Europeans, they've been to Wickes, and the one in the biggest hat insists on sitting next to me at the front. I don't see much as we rattle from trading estate to ex-council estate because it's suddenly pissing down. Rain splatters across the upper window, obscuring all but a blur, but that may be for the best.

Outer London is regained at Stirling Corner, a huge roundabout on the Great North Road. Morrisons have swallowed up one quadrant, while a garage, a Harvester and a tightly-packed housing estate have claimed the others. My apologies but there are going to be a lot of Harvesters along the route of the next few buses - for some reason North London is riddled with them. We ignore the dual carriageway and head on up Barnet Road, a steady climb with fenced-off scrub to one side. Arkley is one of the highest points in North London, which is probably why there's an actual windmill here, briefly visible through the trees, now resident in someone's back garden. Only the rather rich have houses along this retirement ridge. Norman Wisdom and Humphrey Lyttleton used to live here in Arkley, Tony Blackburn still does, but alas there's no sign of anyone famous waving a Freedom Pass as we pass through.

Past Barnet Gate the run of big houses opens up to reveal a brief but broad panorama towards the centre of the City. I'm hoping for a better look, but at this precise point Fur Hat Lady leans across to take a photo of her two fellow travellers, focussing on their grinning faces rather than the vista behind. Her loss, and alas mine. Off to the right is Quinta Drive, one of the more oddly named destinations on any London bus, but we pass by. I spot geese and chickens close to Whalebone Park - there is a lot of green amid these suburbs - as we start the run-in to the centre of Barnet. I need to alight outside St John The Baptist, so prominent locally that it's simply known as Barnet Church, after what's been an especially interesting ride. 84>>

» route 107 - timetable
» route 107 - live bus map
» route 107 - route history
» route 107 - The Ladies Who Bus
» map of my journey so far

 Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Today sees the public launch of Proximatech, a new mobile phone app which promises to revolutionise the way we travel.

Utilising new advances in geospatial technology, Proximatech takes a fresh approach to personal transport planning. Directional sensors in your smartphone are used to detect the presence of physical obstacles in the immediate vicinity as you move around within streets and buildings. A sophisticated GPS database then cross-references these signal patterns with known obstructions, determining whether or not evasive action might be required. Text alerts are posted directly to the screen display, seamlessly embedded into existing content, allowing the user to anticipate and avoid potential collision activity.

In short, Proximatech allows mobile users to avoid bumping into things without ever needing to look up. It is an innovation whose time has come.

Designer Paul Collins came up with the idea for Proximatech in London last year. "I noticed while walking along the pavement that many of the people heading towards me were staring intently at their phones. Some were merely reading, others busy watching a video, but all were completely oblivious to their immediate environment. [In 3 paces, step left] One was so transfixed by her screen that she stepped off the pavement without looking and narrowly missed a passing bike. Proceeding across the road she nearly stumbled in the gutter, then headed straight towards me on a direct collision course. As I stepped swiftly to one side to avoid sudden impact, I knew I could utilise my coding skills to engineer a solution to this 21st century problem." And so Proximatech was born.

Proximatech uses satellite technology to pinpoint the location of potential threats to a user's immediate forward progress. [In 3 paces, step right] As Paul explains, recent innovations in electronic data capture mean that every item of street furniture is already stored as digital cloud-based information. Be it kerbstone, wall or lamppost, Proximatech already knows your local high street better than you, helping to protect you and those around you as you pass. [Warning, litter bin ahead] Meanwhile the ubiquity of 3G-enabled devices ensures that even moving targets can be narrowed down with precision, enabling Proximatech to triangulate adjacency coefficients and provide user alerts in real-time.

But where Proximatech really triumphs is in its ability to insert instant messaging directly into existing smartphone content. Proximity alerts may appear as highlighted text within online articles, or as individual updates in social media timelines. Paul has forged an agreement with Twitter whereby cautions are dropped directly into the livestream, appearing as priority tweets with a red highlighted background. [Bicycle approaching from right] Similar negotiations with Facebook allow for personalised alerts to be embedded with the newsflow, enabling the user to take priority evasive action as circumstances require without ever breaking off from downward scrolling.

"What's really exciting," says Paul, "is the groundbreaking technology which enables our warning messages to be included seamlessly within dynamic video output. [Pushchair approaching] Say you're watching a feature film whilst walking obliviously towards a pillar box, one of our animated characters will pop up from offscreen and offer cautionary advice as part of the ongoing drama. [Pushchair collision imminent!] We also have a deal with YouTube whereby dangerous manoeuvres switch presentation to one of our suite of two-second redirectional videos, perhaps Step Right, Sharp Left! or Halt!!! [Abort! Abort!]"

It's been a real gamechanger, according to Shoreditch resident Miriam Delfuego. "It's like having a third eye," she says. "Before Proximatech I used to bump into people all the time because I was too busy playing Candy Crush rather than looking where I was going. [Crossing lights are at red] Once I even caused a major pile-up outside Dalston Junction by stepping in front of a bus which was forced to take immediate evasive action. Now I can wander the streets as self-absorbed as I like, in total safety, thanks to timely onscreen prompts from Proximatech.

Since going live, Proximatech has already won several awards including the Manchester Allcomers Health and Safety App Award 2013. [Nearly at bottom of staircase, slow down] The app has been benchmarked by the Metropolitan Police as part of its Safer Streets initiative, with community rollout planned across inner London youth clubs throughout the remainder of the year. Now even Transport for London are interested, particularly given the possibility of nudging visitors to the capital onto the right-hand side of escalators in several different languages.

By piggybacking Apple and Samsung chip capability, Proximatech may already be enabled on your phone or tablet. A preview service has been made available today across the London area in order to familiarise potential users with the service's capability. [Beware taxi turning right] If red messages are appearing in your livestream then your device is part of the pilot and you may already have been saved from accident or injury thanks to opportune digital intervention. [Sidestep left around puddle] However from midnight Proximatech becomes subscription only and new users will have to pay to continue to receive Ambulatory Alerts™.

If you're a member of London's heads-down army, be sure to sign up to Proximatech today. You'll get to enjoy all the benefits that a safer self-aware journey brings. And the rest of us would love you to look where you're going occasionally. [ffs]

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